NOTE: It's been a long while since I've updated. Thank you for being willing to continue reading. You might not remember the pertinent information from the last chapter, so I wanted to summarize a bit here, up front. If you read the summary from the last update, along with this, you should be in good shape to make sense of this chapter.
After leaving Kazan and Sori's farm, Katara and Zuko happened upon a caravan of refugees on their way to Ba Sing Se. In exchange for her help with a muddy route, the travelers agreed to give Katara and Zuko, going by the name Lu Ten, room and board. Also traveling among the refugees were Jet and his band of Freedom Fighters. After some tense moments, Katara, to dig at Jet, introduced "Lu Ten" as her husband, much to everyone's surprise. After Jet apologized to Katara for his actions the last time they met, she and Zuko discussed his motives, with Zuko insisting that people don't change. Katara, obviously hoping that Zuko would give up on his quest to capture Aang, was both hopeful and disappointed. Later, Katara tells Zuko of Jets crimes and tells him that she's never been as angry with him because he's never lied to her. Even with the tentative understanding, things remain tense between them, especially now that they share a tiny wagon to sleep in.
Chapter Twenty — Aggression
The next few days were a monotony of striking camp, traveling the seemingly endless road, and making camp again. In that time, I actually had learned to harness and unharness an ostrich horse, and I had almost adjusted to sleeping in the same space as Katara, again. We encountered other travelers on our route and stopped to trade in smaller villages, but whenever I threatened to break away from the convoy and strike out on a more direct path, she talked me down. At least with the caravan, we could work for our board. And the food was much better than what we had managed for ourselves in the wild.
The caravan continued to welcome us without reservation, but that was no surprise. Even if the roads had dried out, Katara could still find water easier than most, not to mention fill a barrel from a stream in half a minute. I had even decided I didn't hate all of Jet's crew. Longshot, in particular, was an easy companion when I needed a rest from Katara's chatter. Only Jet and Smellerbee remained churlish.
On the fourth night, I huddled next to one of the campfires, waiting for dinner and surreptitiously sniffing my armpits. It had been a couple of days since we had camped somewhere I could bathe, and I smelled like an ostrich horse. Katara, on the other hand, so often drawn to the cook fires, routinely carried the scent of smoke in her hair. It smelled natural on her—or maybe I just wanted to think it did.
Jarun sat across from me, the shadows of his angular features dancing over his face in the flickering firelight. He was one of the three most important people in camp, given unofficial command because his family owned four of the merchant wagons. A rotund woman, Kaila, who seemed equal parts charlatan and wise woman, kept the nomads in more or less orderly fashion. Jet, of course, led his band of Freedom Fighters, and the others looked to him for security during their journey. I couldn't really begrudge them that; they were ill equipped to handle danger on their own. But the caravan leadership gathered in the evenings to discuss plans for the following day's travel, and that had begun to present a problem for me.
I always sat at the least populated fire, the one I assumed no one would pick. But the other two wanted to be where Jet was, and Jet unfailingly ended up wherever Katara was, and Katara always found me. To save time, everyone just started looking for me. So there I sat—avoiding eye-contact with Jarun, ignoring Kaila, and dreading the arrival of the Freedom Fighters any minute.
I leaned forward to rest my elbows on my knees and watched the fire. When a log cracked and settled into the coals, a wave of sparks burst upward and then drifted on the slight breeze. Kaila rearranged her plush skirts around her thick legs, whipping the hem out of the way as sparks floated close and then winked out. I stared at the fire again, barely registering the sound of her voice.
"What does Katara think about the weather? Will rain again?"
I shrugged. "She isn't a weather witch or a fortune teller. How should she know?" They started grumbling, and I felt our value sinking, so I barked, "No. It won't rain… at least not tomorrow." She hadn't said one way or the other, but my time at sea had made me competent at cloud watching… and it couldn't start raining again; it just couldn't. I wouldn't let it even if I had to set fire to the entire sky.
I was barely holding it together as it was. Katara was still constantly on my mind—actually on my arm if Jet were anywhere nearby—and the stress of putting on a convincing show in public, but remembering to drop all pretenses the moment we crossed the threshold of our tiny wagon, had my resolve twisting into something I couldn't quite identify. Her hand in mine had never felt more familiar, and yet, never had closing my fingers around hers felt more wrong. I constantly had to center myself in the least obvious ways I knew—feel the sun on my skin, brush the life of the campfires, make the air around me slightly more arid. More rain would break me.
The log I was sitting on rocked, and I turned to find Jet straddling the other end. I hoped my scowl would hide my surprise. He moved with a loping sort of grace and the kind of silence I prided myself on.
Jarun nodded a greeting and began updating him with the latest news. "Lu Ten says it won't rain," which really meant 'Katara, by proxy of her useless husband whom we still haven't figured out why she married, says it won't rain.'
Jet nodded. "Good. There's a lot of low-lying area between here and the ferries. I don't want to get bogged down, again."
Katara and I wouldn't be going to the ferries or to Ba Sing Se with the others. She would be livid when I ripped her away from the stability of the caravan. We'd be at each other's throats, again, but at least we could end this charade and go back to public contempt for each other. Jarun turned to Kaila to discuss how we were fairing on rations. Since I knew I wouldn't be asked for Katara's opinion on potatoes and turnips, I started watching the fire again until I felt Jet's gaze on me, pulling me back into the discomfort of conversation.
When I glanced at him, he stared at me a long minute before the grass twitched between his teeth. "So you and Katara," he said.
"Just ran into each other in the Earth Kingdom and fell in love, huh?"
He made a bemused sound and tossed his straw into the flames. "And here, I always figured she was into brunettes."
The log lurched again as he moved to stretch out on the ground in front of it, leaning back to rest his elbows on the bark. I watched him from the corner of my eye as he twirled a small knife between his fingers. "She tell you we spent some time together when we met last year? While Sokka and Aang were off patrolling?"
I suddenly wanted to start something with him just so I could test him on those hook swords he carried like second hands, but I had promised Katara I wouldn't upset the peace. I took a slow, deep breath. "She said you were a real class act."
He snorted. "Katara's a saint. Everything's pass or fail with her, right or wrong, black or white, her way or—" He stabbed at a knot in the log, dug out a loose chunk of wood, and tossed it into the fire. "She doesn't know anything about war."
I opened my mouth to defend her, but bile rose up in the back of my throat. I hated agreeing with him. "You're lucky she forgave you."
"That's just part of being Saint Katara."
"Trust me. It's not."
Jet took a breath but cut off his next comment when Katara entered the light of the campfire. She carried a pot with one hand, a ladle in the other, and balanced a bowl of vegetables in the crook of her arm.
"What are you two gossiping about?" She wielded the ladle at us, jabbing it in Jet's direction and then at me. I felt skewered to my spot, as though conversing with Jet were some kind of grand betrayal.
"We were discussing the finer points of war," Jet said.
"Great." She tilted her head at me. "If only Sokka were here, I'd have the three greatest strategic minds in the Four Nations to cook for."
"I—" I shut my mouth as I realized I couldn't exactly rattle off the long list of credentials—the renown tutors who'd lectured me, the legendary battles I'd studied, the long sessions of pouring over imagined maps with Uncle—that named me a fine strategist. Instead, I crossed my arms and slouched down in my robe. "I can plot things."
"Sure," Jet countered. "Wait until you've fended off a Fire Nation raid. Then you can talk." He stretched back, fingers laced behind his head like a seasoned veteran schooling a novice, and my back teeth ached as I bit down on my affront.
Katara's brow furrowed. "Lu Ten has fended off Fire Nation soldiers."
I cringed when Jet leaned forward.
"And he helped me save a village from a mudslide."
Jet turned, craning his head backward to inspect me, probably wondering how I'd accomplished that feat; blades weren't exactly effective against a ton of crushing mud.
My neck flushed with heat, and I muttered to Katara, "Stop defending me. I can handle it myself."
"You're not handling it," she said, waving her ladle, "You're just sitting there."
As she gave me an exasperated look, a younger girl crossed in front of her, passing out bowls. With another grunt for me, Katara stepped in behind her to dole out rice and vegetables. Even though she more slopped Jet's portion into his bowl than ladled it, he still looked up at her with a crooked but winsome grin. She rolled her eyes.
What was it Kazan had said at lunch to make Sori smile the way she had?
"Thank you for dinner, Katara. It..." As she lifted out another blob of rice, I groped for the exact words he had used. "…It looks wonderful."
Katara jarred to a stop in front of me, frozen in mid drop, her wide-eyed expression nearly lost in the flickering firelight.
Jet raised up on one elbow to look over at my feet. "Not so much, now."
I followed Jet's gaze to the lump of rice Katara had dumped on my boot. I tilted my foot and the blob rolled sideways and dropped into the grass. Her eyes swiftly narrowing, she clumped another blob of rice into my bowl with practiced efficiency, followed by a clump of vegetables, and abruptly turned away.
"Thank you," I called after her.
She stopped and glanced over her shoulder. "What's that supposed to mean?"
I blinked. "It means… I appreciate it, I guess."
"Yeah?" She looked me up and down, as though she could somehow spot an ulterior motive peeking out of the folds in my robe or the edge of my sleeve. "Well… fine. Eat it, then."
I pushed myself up off the log. Why wasn't she responding the way she was supposed to? "I'm trying to thank you."
She turned suddenly, jabbing the end of the ladle back at me, flinging bits of rice onto the front of my robe. "I don't have time for… whatever you're up to, here. My hands are full."
I stood there, dumbly staring after her, until Jet cleared his throat. "Yeah. Madly. I can see that, now."
I gritted my teeth and ran a hand through my hair, clenching it at the roots to keep from yelling, and then I took a deep breath and followed Katara down the row of peasants holding bowls up to her like little baby birds. "Here. I'll help." I reached for the vegetable bowl in the crook of her arm, but she clamped her elbow tightly toward her ribs. We wrestled over the bowl for a few moments, and she only surrendered it when it became evident I'd rather turn it over than let it go.
She shook her head, freeing a tendril of hair, which slipped down over her eye. A huffed breath blew it out of her vision as she dumped a wad of rice into The Duke's bowl. She turned back to me to dig her ladle into the vegetables.
"Why can't I just thank you for dinner?" I asked, following along behind her, lifting the dish in her direction whenever she turned for it. As we moved from The Duke to Smellerbee, she spoke over her shoulder in a hushed hiss.
"I don't know… why can't you? You've never had the ability before now." A clump of rice; a clump of vegetables; a shuffle step. "Don't pretend for Jet's benefit."
My nostrils flared. "You mean like every single thing you pretend for Jet's benefit?"
She smiled as we neared Jarun. "It's beets and cabbage, tonight," she said sweetly and then as we edged past him, bitterly added, "normal people don't have to pretend to be polite."
I quickly stepped close so I could whisper, "And we're so normal."
She gave a low chuckle. "Don't forget happy. Normal and happy."
A cleared throat reminded us we had an audience, and I looked down to see Kaila lifting both her bowl and her eyebrows. Katara rolled her shoulders back, served the rest of the circle, and then chucked her ladle into her empty bowl so she could jerk her robes straight, as if just those motions could smooth out the entire situation.
All that was left in my bowl were a few wilted bits of cabbage floating in magenta goo, so I shoved it back into her arms. "Thank you."
I still had my dinner in my other hand, and I carried it with me away from the circle and back toward our coach. I took the shortcut through the middle of camp, and Katara caught up with me as I passed through the cooking area.
She grabbed my sleeve and pulled me around. "What's wrong with you?"
I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. What wasn't wrong with me?
"I can't be at odds with everyone." Even now, I could have pointed to every fire in camp. I could feel my frustration fueling their heat, and if she pushed me any further, we risked having to explain away a series of small infernos.
She frowned at me. "How can you be at odds with everyone when you've barely said two words since we joined the caravan?"
"It's not what I'm saying—it's what he's saying." As I pointed back in the direction of the campfire, she lifted her eyebrows, her expression demanding elaboration. I shifted… "Well, he said… Did you two have a… I mean, were you..." I vented a noisy breath. "How much time did you spend together?"
She rolled her eyes and pushed past me, but I grabbed the edge of her sleeve. She sighed. "He's just trying to bait you. Ignore him."
I stared at her. "That wasn't an answer."
"What does it matter, anyway? Why do you care?"
My anger surged, fanning the flames of the cook fire behind Katara. Short columns of flame shot up, burning whiter, and she lurched forward, grabbing onto my robe.
"Pull it together," she said, shaking me like she could just rattle the anger out of me. She flicked a wrist and a mist began to roll in behind her, settling around the fire, popping and hissing as it connected with the heat.
My stomach dropped, and I wrapped my hands around hers, pulling them away her bending. "Don't throw a fog at it! The steam will just draw more attention."
"Then stop feeding it!"
The flame shot up again, and just when I thought I might have to bend half of it away, diffusing some of the heat before it exploded and set the nearby wagons ablaze, Katara shoved herself against me, knocking my breath away. She clung to my torso, her arms wrapped tightly around me. Hyperaware in my agitation, I could feel every curve of her body pressing against me.
I inhaled deeply through my nose and blinked. "What are you doing?"
"Shut up. When Aang's bending was out of control, this is what calmed him down."
How in Agni's fury could this have calmed anyone down? While it was true I wasn't focused on the fire, anymore, and I wasn't fighting my bending or freaking out about whether anyone would notice the flames, a new heat, equally wild, was stirring.
"You're not claiming me down."
All I could focus on now was how close Katara was; it was all I could do to fight the urge to hold her back… and I was completely freaking out about how any second now, she was going to notice how much I wasn't thinking about the fire. "You're not calming me down, at all."
"Oh." She sounded offended, and she stepped back demurely. "I guess I should have known it wouldn't work on you. Aang felt better knowing that he had people who loved him."
I narrowed my gaze. "And is that what you were saying just now?"
Her eyes widened briefly and she leaned away. "No."
I pushed past her and continued on my way to the wagon. I was already halfway onto the roof when I felt a tug on my robe.
"What are you doing up there?" Katara let go of my hem and stood below me with her hands planted on her hips.
I clung to the side of the coach. "I'm not sleeping inside."
"You're being ridiculous."
I tilted my head and twisted up my expression, mimicking her complaints our first night in the camp. "I don't want you on me tonight."
"Wha—?" Her fists balled at her sides. "Come down, here. Right now."
"No." I turned back around and started climbing again. While she fretted below, I hoisted myself up and then rolled onto my stomach to glare down at her. "I'm not in the mood to be your pillow tonight."
She stared at me for a while, nostrils flared, teeth clenched, before finally saying, "What will everyone think if they see you sleeping up there?"
"Normal, happy couples fight." I pulled out of her view and rolled onto my back. The stars were just a swirl of red and black. I still had my rice bowl, but I didn't feel like eating anymore. It would taste like ash in my mouth anyway. Below, Katara made angry, growling noises. She sounded just like a badger hog. As she fumed, someone else approached, billowing hem brushing through the dried grass.
"Ha. I've made my husband sleep on the roof many a night," Kaila said, passing the coach.
"Well..." Katara's answering voice was flustered. "He was definitely asking for it." She waited until Kaila was out of earshot, and then hissed up at me again. "Fine. Plan to stay up there all night."
"Don't try crawling back into the wagon when it gets cold."
"Great. I hope you enjoy your night not being a pillow, all alone with your tantrum."
With one last growl, she stalked away, muttering under her breath. I caught the words 'spoiled' and 'impossible.'
I stretched out, one hand loosely cradling the bowl at my side, the other beneath the back of my head. The breeze ruffled my hair, lifting it away from my scar, which was throbbing, as though it held in my buildup of heat all by itself. I closed my eyes and let it spread through me, warming me against the chill. At least it would be good for something tonight.
Beyond my perch, the evening continued unabated. If they had noticed our leaving, I couldn't tell by the sounds. Laughter, a little music. Katara was probably talking to Jet… or griping at Jet. He was likely taking the brunt of her anger over my 'tantrum.' I didn't feel guilty. This was all his fault to begin with.
And her fault.
Morning came too soon. It washed over the camp, soaking wagon after wagon in its warm glow. The golden tarps stretched out before me like a valley of enormous sunstones. I folded my legs, sitting up where I had crawled onto the roof, moving gingerly so I wouldn't wake Katara. The various other wagons, circled from one end of the meadow to the other, stood still. All that moved were the ostrich horses, grazing lazily, and the occasional whirl of ash, lifted from a dead campfire by the slight morning breeze. I gazed mournfully at the ring of soot closest to the coach, wishing I could give it a spark to coax it back to familial warmth. I wished I could practice my kata or even meditate in the early light. But such obvious adoration of the sun would surely give me away.
A muffled clatter rose beneath me, and I imagined an avalanche of chopsticks, pots, and old fireworks chasing Katara from disheveled carpets. I thought she would have learned to navigate the terrain by now, but she slept like the dead and woke up with as little coordination. A thump, a groaning stretch, and a beleaguered sigh later, she tumbled out of the back of the coach, and I glanced down. She scanned the circle of wagons, narrowed eyes scrutinizing every nook and cranny. Finally she looked up.
Her gaze caught the edge of burnished sun pouring over the horizon and then she just shook her head and walked off toward the center of camp. I watched as one by one the other women climbed out of their wagons, hurried children off to play, and gathered to light the kindling beneath the breakfast pots. It was tempting to join them, but I couldn't imagine anything more awkward than being stuck in the makeshift kitchen, surrounded by women while I tried to appear indifferent to the flames.
As I sat there, two hushed voices drifted up to me. I carefully flattened myself against the roof of the wagon and peeked over its edge.
"What's the report?" Jarun asked.
"If we press on this morning, we'll cross paths with a Fire Nation patrol." A grim line tightened around Jet's grass stalk. "We should rest here and let them get farther away before we head out."
"Do you think they're looking for us?"
Jet shook his head. "It looks like they came in from the coast. They're heading east."
Sonhai, Azula's port of call, was almost due west of here.
"Well." Jarun stroked his beard. "It wouldn't hurt to stay a while, gather some food, maybe send out a hunting party, as long as they stay clear of our new neighbors."
Jet nodded. "I'll have Longshot give the order."
Order. Report. I'd have liked to see Jet play soldier on a Fire Nation ship. He wouldn't have lasted five minutes under Lieutenant Jee.
While Jarun talked about dividing the tasks of gathering nuts, roots, and firewood among the remaining caravaners, I silently slid down off the wagon and hid behind it out of their line of sight. Soft footsteps announced the end of their conversation, and I waited for Jet to come around the corner of the wagon.
"Are you sure they were Fire Nation?" I asked as he passed me.
He jerked to a stop, posture stiff, but then his shoulders fell back into his signature slouch and he turned his head, smirking in profile. "I'm sure. I saw the remains of their fire."
"A lot of travelers start fires when they pass through a place."
He rounded on me with wide eyes, his brow tightened into a furrow. "I know what it looks like when the Fire Nation passes through." He took another step toward me, possessed by a new tension that seemed to go beyond the subtle tug-of-war we'd been playing with Katara. The skin around his eyes tightened. "I remember how I found my family."
And just like that, he was suddenly more than a former acquaintance of Katara's, more than an overzealous youth fighting a war. He was dangerous—a force of vengeance, of desperation. I knew all about desperation.
He stepped away again, relaxed and cocky. "You're up early. Enjoying the dawn, Lu Ten?"
There was mockery in my assumed name, but I simply pushed myself away from the wagon to head in the opposite direction. "I can't sleep in. Katara grinds her teeth in bed."
I might have thought they were Firebenders with the way the camp came to life. Inspired by a day far warmer than those we'd endured so far in our southerly trek, they reveled in the idea of a break from the grueling travel schedule. Children ran amuck, ostrich horses lazed, and without the need to quickly breakdown the makeshift kitchen, breakfast became a much more elaborate affair. I was almost miserably full when we turned to work mid-morning.
With Longshot and Jet leading the hunting party, I elected to stay in camp. I didn't have Katara's skill in foraging, so I volunteered to cut firewood. I was pleased to learn that training in both Firebending and swordsmanship had given me the strength and endurance to competently wield an axe. What surprised me most, though, was that my mind recalled the motion of chopping. Palace life had never required me to submit to manual labor, but in another time and place—in another reality, altogether, where I had frequently found myself a bit farther south—a particular Water Tribe chief had refused to let me rest on my royal emblem.
Unlike my father, whose servants and advisors took care of the more mundane tasks he had neither the time nor interest to ponder, everyone pulled his weight in the South. Hakoda had insisted that I work when I was partaking of his hospitality, regardless of my station. In fact, I was fairly sure he was harsher on me because of my heritage, as well as my blatant interest in Katara. He countered my complaints with the assertion that I was pampered, and he endured at working me to exhaustion. I suspected that was to ensure his daughter wouldn't marry a spoiled man as much as to keep me from roaming his halls during the night. It was strange to be thankful for lessons taught me by a man I had never actually met. And those weren't the only lessons I had learned.
A sudden wash of guilt flushed through me, and I broke out into a sweat, despite the comparatively mild day, far cooler than a standard Fire Nation summer. The leader of our wood gathering effort, apparently using me as the litmus for when we'd had enough, decided I had worked myself to lather and announced that we should head back to the camp for a break.
We were driving a team ahead of a wagonload of logs and kindling when I saw Katara for the first time since breakfast. She caught up to us, falling into step alongside the wagon as I climbed into the back to stack a pile of logs that had shifted over the bumpy terrain. Children still ran behind us, carrying thin bundles of sticks.
She moved a basket of leechee nuts from one hip to the other and looked up at me. "I thought you'd have gone hunting." She tripped, the basket slipping slightly.
I leaned over the side of the wagon and tugged the basket out of her hands. "Why would I have gone hunting?" I pictured myself chasing down a rabbit, madly waving my dao swords around.
"Whenever the men went hunting back home," she said, "my brother started frothing at the mouth."
I tucked the basket between the ricks, shaking my head. "I'm not Sokka." And even his enthusiasm had never really inspired me, either.
When Katara's silence extended past the point I generally deemed her capable of, I looked up to see her tilting her head and staring at me in that calculating way she had. "I think that's the first time you've ever said his name."
I froze with my hands still curled around the sides of the basket.
When she'd mentioned hunting back home, it had just popped into my head—the blinding white of the snow, the blue parkas, the light of a southern sun glinting off sharpened spearheads… and Sokka, crazy-eyed and babbling about polar sea lion stew.
"Well, I should probably know the name of my own brother-in-law." Maybe it was because I hadn't let myself dwell on it before or maybe the week of play acting was getting to me, but my chest suddenly tightened, and I realized a part of me did think of Sokka as family. The other parts knew he'd try to bash my head in with his bone club given half a chance. It was both comforting in a way, and painful in others, to know Sokka was an idiot in any world because it also meant he could have been other things.
Her expression twisted up, and I knew she was thinking about how that introduction would go. Jet was one thing, but if she ever had to introduce me to her family... "Let's not talk about Sokka anymore."
That was fine by me. The less I let myself think about the South Pole, the better. "I didn't go hunting because I didn't feel like killing anything, today."
"Oh." Her look of fear mixed with hilarity suddenly fell into concern and she glanced back down the road the caravan had been traveling down. It was the same look she'd given me on the bridge at Hanoki.
I went back to the side of the wagon and braced my hands on the edge to lean over her. "Stop thinking about it so hard. I'm just bad at hunting. You know that."
She knew that really well, in fact. During the week we'd traveled alone after leaving Kazan and Sori's farm, I'd proved ridiculously useless at snaring. I could find a game trail and track it through the underbrush easily enough, but when it came time to strike a blow, I hesitated. Some provider I was turning out to be. Unless it could be bought, threatened, or ordered, Katara was on her own. Frankly, I was living on her charity and the months she'd spent learning how to make a vegetarian diet work in the wild. I guess I could thank the Avatar for something.
She sighed with beleaguered affirmation and leaned against the wagon while I shored up the rest of the wood. Finished, I hopped over the side of the wagon, coming down to face her. It wasn't quite time for lunch, so we grew restless in the grace of our idle moment. I was suddenly reminded of a thousand conversations that started with a full minute of asking the other what we wanted to do, followed by a lot of staring and hand holding. As if she had read my mind, her hands suddenly wrapped around my arms and smoothed down to my hands, drawing them to her sides. When I turned to ask her what she was doing, she threaded her fingers through mine, and my mouth went dry. I looked down into her eyes, but hers had narrowed at something over my shoulder.
"Right." I sighed quietly. "Time for the midday performance."
Katara drew back to give me a pinched expression I couldn't decipher. I was tired of not knowing what things meant. On my best days, I didn't understand girls. Katara was a girl I didn't understand posing as a wife I couldn't even begin to fathom, and I had to pretend to be indifferent to her affection, while simultaneously pretending to be pleased. Navigating the layers of our subterfuge was like trying to figuring out an enigma, wrapped in a riddle, wrapped in a dragon moose... And all I really knew was that acting honestly about how I felt would get my bathwater frozen.
I slipped an arm around her shoulders, carefully keeping space between her clothes and my sweaty torso, as I turned to greet Jet. "I thought you went hunting." He definitely hadn't been with the wood cutters.
"I did." His nostrils flared, his shoulders hunched a little, and his fingers twitched at his sides. There was something almost gleeful, maybe a touch rabid about the way his teeth clenched into a grin. I imagined this was how he had looked as the river had wiped away that village, presumably drowning all those people he hadn't shied away from killing. In that moment, he reminded me of another man who had no qualms about making those kinds of sacrifices to destroy his enemy.
"The others aren't back yet," Katara said.
He shrugged. "They'll catch up." He ambled past us, his spirits much lighter than they'd been this morning. As we watched him walk by, I caught the faint but unmistakable scent of smoke, and I knew then, exactly what he'd been hunting.
As soon as he was out of hearing range, I pulled on Katara's hand to draw her in closer. Lowering my head close to hers, I whispered, "We need to leave the camp."
She jerked back. "Why would we leave camp? And I swear if you say 'Uncle's waiting' one more time, I'll drown you where you stand."
I hooked my fingers around her upper arm and dragged her to the other side of the wagon where our conspiring would be less noticeable. "We didn't stop to gather supplies. That was just an excuse. Jet found a Fire Nation patrol in our path. He didn't go hunting, Katara. He ran off and picked a fight. It's only a matter of time before they track him back here."
"Well, that settles it, then. We have to stay."
"What kind if insane logic is that?"
"I'm not going to leave refugees to the mercy of the Fire Nation."
"It's Jet's fault they're coming. Let him take care of it."
"Maybe he did take care of it."
I shook my head. "If they were small enough for Jet to handle on his own, they were just a scouting party. And that means Azula. She'll have more soldiers with her."
"Azula? Well, that pretty much makes it your fault they're coming, then, doesn't it?"
"No. If you're scared of your little sister, go hide somewhere, but I'm not leaving these people to fend for themselves—Jet or no Jet."
I stared after her as she threw her braid over her shoulder and stalked away from me, and then I wrapped my hands around the rough-hewn wood of the wagon side. She was going to get me captured.
Afternoon chores went smoothly. Water gathering was especially easy with Katara on hand. We spent a couple of hours ferrying rain barrels back and forth to the river, where she filled them in under a minute. It enabled a lazy evening. By the time we got back to camp, the ring leaders were settled around their fire. Because it was only Jarun, Kaila, and Jet's Crew, the conversation had turned to the threat north. I sat down to listen to their plans.
"It's still too dangerous," Jet said. "We need to give them a wider berth."
"That's too much of a delay," Kaila objected. "We'll start to run low on provisions, again."
I hung my head but lifted my eyes and stared at Jet through the mess of my long hair. "Why would they be interested in your little caravan?"
Jet glared at me and then looked away as Jarun spoke.
"We'll just stay clear of them. You said they were headed east. We'll give them no reason to be interested in us."
Jet sunk into himself, like a guilty goat dog. "They don't need a reason. Fire Nation soldiers attack refugees without provocation."
"Not completely without provocation," I countered.
"They've done it before."
"Maybe they thought you were transporting weapons."
"They're cowards who attack women and children." He stared at me. "You should know that better than anyone." My spine stiffened. So Jet had noticed my eyes.
"Enough of this," Kaila said. "Squabbling isn't going to help."
"Yes," Jarun added, "We'll get some sleep tonight, and tomorrow, we'll take one of the smaller trails through the southern valley. There'll be some hunting, surely, to add to the supplies we gathered today. If we're careful, we'll manage. Better to tighten our sashes, there, than face the Fire Nation, here."
Jet seemed placated, but I knew the real reason for his nervousness. He turned away from the fire, looking off into the black distance of the western night. "They're probably too busy," he said in a tone that sounded like he might have been trying to convince himself. "To busy hunting that prince."
Pipsqueak plodded into the circle. "What prince?" he asked as he settled another large log onto the flaring coals.
"You remember those traders Katara helped yesterday? While Longshot was bartering for bowstring, the driver mentioned a rumor coming up from the coast. The Firelord's son has run away to the Earth Kingdom. Every merchant and soldier within a hundred miles has one eye out for him."
"What's he doing here? Spying?" Jarun asked.
"Don't know. Don't really care. They say there's a reward, but if there is, anyone who takes it is a filthy traitor as far as I'm concerned."
Jet's pronouncement effectively severed anyone's desire to daydream about the money, and the conversation turned to jokes and familial stories. The fire suddenly felt exceptionally warm, and I left the circle. I'd have had nothing to add. I milled around the camp, soaking in the smoke, drifting from the edges of one circle to the next, never lingering longer than it took to hear that the rumors of the patrol—and my bounty—had filtered down to the bedraggled farmers and laborers that made up the bulk of the caravan.
Jet boasted about protecting these people, but his stupidity was going to bring the Fire Nation right down on them. And Katara's stubbornness would ensure I was here when it happened.
I found myself back at the wood-filled wagon. The product of my labor was a jagged blot against a starlit sky. As I rubbed my shoulder, I heard light footsteps behind me. Katara paused, I heard the scrape of dirt under her heels as she turned around, but then she sighed and walked toward me again.
"They don't know it's you."
"They'll figure it out. Someone will. We can't stay here."
She obviously didn't want to start this argument again, so she changed the topic. "What was Jet talking about when he said you knew better than anyone?"
Heat crawled up my neck and I turned, taking a few steps away. The wagon blocked my escape, and my fingers curled over the edge of the side board. I swallowed and looked up at the moon she loved so much.
"Soldiers take things."
"Yeah, land, homes, lives."
I turned around. In the faint light, I could see the inquisitive tilt of her head and I shook mine. "He thinks a Firebender forced himself on my mother, that I'm some kind of war hybrid."
Her eyes grew wide and she opened her mouth, but I cut her off before she could say something blasphemous.
"Obviously he didn't. My parents' union was ordained by Agni."
Katara took a few steps forward, her brow furrowed. "But I saw your face. In the second after Jet said that…"
I turned so my profile was in shadow.
"Your father might not have been a soldier… but something happened." She touched my sleeve. "He did do something to your mother, didn't he?" When I didn't turn around, she invaded my space, too close for me to resist leaning toward her.
"The night my mother disappeared," I turned around to face her, "was the same night my grandfather died."
I cut off his name with fingers on her lips. "Yes."
She reached up and peeled my hand away, but she didn't let go when she lowered it. "What happened?"
I shrugged. "I told you. My grandfather died. My mother disappeared."
"But how… why?"
"All I know is that my father said she was a traitor. I think … maybe she killed my grandfather and my father executed her for it."
"Why would your mother do that?"
"I don't know that she did. But my sister said he had ordered Father to kill me."
She had been leaning close, but now, she dropped my hand and took a wide step back. "Do you even listen to yourself? Your grandfather told your father to kill you, and to stop it, you think your mother might have assassinated him. That's your world. That's what you're fighting so hard to get back to." The look on her face was pure disgust. "That's what you want to sacrifice Aang for."
As she turned away from me, I grabbed her hand. "I don't know what happened. My sister is a liar, and my father is—" I couldn't bring myself to name it. "But they're all I have left." I shook my head "You don't understand what it's like to be alone."
She laughed bitterly. "No, how could I? I only lost my mom in the war."
I must have looked surprised because Katara leaned back and nodded.
"That's right. Didn't you know?"
"How could I?"
"I just figured when a Fire Nation soldier murders someone, he might file a report."
I could tell she was spoiling for a fight. I clenched my fist but didn't fall for her bait this time. "What happened?" Her shoulders sagged. She looked smaller as she began to tell her story.
"When I was a little, a Fire Nation Lieutenant came to our village. He had my mother cornered in our hut when I found them. I ran to get Dad, but by the time he got there…." Her eyes narrowed, her teeth clenched, pulsing the hinge of her jaw. "Then, he just left. Like that was all he'd come for—just to kill my mom."
When I looked up, Katara was staring at her hands. I slid mine back into them. I didn't know what to say. She looked like she needed answers, and I didn't have any. No good ones anyway.
"He must have been looking for the Avatar. In case the sages were wrong, in case he'd already been reborn into the Water Tribe. And even if he hadn't been, we—the Fire Lord—couldn't leave Waterbenders loose on his back porch."
"I was that Waterbender. So… so what? She died for me, then… she died because of me?"
"No, Katara. It wasn't your fault," I said gently. "It…" I sighed. "It was policy."
Her grip tightened, cutting off the circulation in my fingers. "That's supposed to make it better?"
I thought of my mother. "No. Nothing makes it better."
Her anger slipped, furrowed eyebrows taking on a pained slant. Her lower lashes held back a rim of tears until she blinked. I had my arms around her before the drop had even fully rounded her cheekbone, and in her moment of grief, she didn't push me away. I held her tightly—more tightly even than in my dream where it would have been allowed. It seemed appropriate, somehow. She had never been in this much pain, there.
"I'm sorry about your mother. She was a good woman."
She hiccupped into my robe. "How would you know?"
Because I'd known her most of my life. Because she would have been my mother-in-law. And just like that, I was back in the dream, comforting my Katara. I stroked her hair. "Because I know you."
She looked up at me, and I could see my name—my real name—forming on her lips.
I pulled her back to me and cursed myself, burying my words in her thick hair as I tucked her under my chin. I hated myself for being a part of something that could hurt her so carelessly, and yet, my greatest sin was still yet to come.
When she had cried herself out and pushed away from me, wiping her eyes and acting embarrassed, I suggested we go back to the circle. I wanted to find out from Jarun just where this southern route was going to take us. I was already aligned for the rendezvous point, and I couldn't risk delaying even longer. Even if Azula was skulking around, we still had to part ways with the caravan soon.
In the center of camp, the lazy evening had devolved into a raucous night. Several people had produced worn instruments and were now putting together an ensemble that did not remotely belong in the same performance. But the lively music had infected the crowd, and while some people were stamping their feet from their seats on their logs or even standing up and clapping, others had formed a long, sinuous line, linked hand-to-hand, that wound its way through the camp like a frenzied dragon.
As the line of dancers passed us, the woman at the end snagged my sleeve, tearing me from the darkness and into the circle of firelight. I dug my feet into the ground and my robe slipped from her grasp. She smiled back at us with a shrug as the music carried her away. I turned to Katara and stretched out my hand.
She stared at it for a moment and then shoved it away. "I'm never dancing with you again."
Glancing sideways as she rolled her shoulders back, she said, "You know why."
"I've kissed you since then, and you made your position clear, so what does it matter?"
She crossed her arms in final verdict. "I'm not dancing with you."
Just as I was about to resort to blackmail, Jet dove in from out of nowhere.
"Dance with me, then." Before Katara could protest—I like to think she'd have protested—he grabbed her hands and jerked her out into the center of the madness.
I stood on my toes, craning my head back and forth, looking for his moppish head and hoping to catch a flash of auburn glinting coppery in the firelight, but there were too many bodies in the way, now. A girl on a nearby log giggled as I hopped from foot to foot.
Her own feet tapped out the rhythm of the drums and she bounced lightly in her seat. "You look like you really want to get out there." I did really want to get out there.
"Come on," I grabbed her hand and hauled her up off the log, snaking my hand around her waist and cinching her hand in mine. I held her closer than I would have liked, but I wanted to move quickly and didn't need an untrained peasant tripping over her own feet and slowing me down. Her eyes widened as I fell into a Flame Step.
"I don't know this one," she mumbled, searching for our feet in the darkness.
"Don't look down," I snapped, "just follow my lead. It's a 1-2-3, 1-2, 1-2-3..." I stopped counting and dragged the girl from one dancing quadrant to the next as I looked for the girl I'd rather dance with, a girl I knew wouldn't step on my toes—not accidentally, at least. I twirled the peasant out to the length of my arm, and then she was ripped out of my hand and replaced by a new girl.
"What in Ag—"
The chaos had erupted into order. I was conscripted into some sort of folk dance where the dancers held their hands up while other couples passed beneath and then separated, swinging their partners into a four-square pattern to dance a half spin with someone else and change partners again. I blinked as faces flew by me, none of them with blue eyes. I released my current partner, and she was taken up by someone else. Girl after girl landed in my arms, each twirled and then cast off, again. All the while, I searched the crowd.
I finally spotted Katara at the opposite end. She was completely wild, like a cyclone spinning off a shallow coast, her heady laughter rising over the music. Her steps matched the rhythm of the drums, a tattoo that ordered me forward, and I began to dance my way through the mob. Her turns kept bringing her almost within reach, but never quite close enough. The music pounded, laughter rang, faces rushed toward me, and just when I was sure I'd go mad, she was there. She crashed into me, shoving her hands against my chest to catch herself and looked up, startled, as I grabbed her swaying hips and planted my feet against the hard-packed dirt.
A thousand sounds bled into the moment, a hundred twirling figures and clapping hands, but I focused on Katara until everything else dried up and faded, muted beyond the curve of her face and the light in her eyes.
"I need to talk to you."
She smiled but shook her head. "What?"
The world stilled around us. The music dwindled, instrument by instrument, to a chorus of my own pulse throbbing in my head and Katara's feverish breathing. It was so easy, in this golden, halcyon moment, to forget who she was… to forget who I was. She blinked softly, her gaze flicking back and forth across my face, but when she opened her mouth… someone else screamed. Her eyes widened and the soft halo of her hair glowed, backlit by flames from the edge of the wagons too strong to be a campfire.
The dancing had stopped around us, and everyone stood still. Shadows leaped across the camp. A woman to my left sucked in a gasp and put her hand to her mouth. Somewhere behind me, a baby cried. We waited, like loon-crabs immobilized before a rushing wave. In the distance, the night echoed with a shrill whistle and then everything exploded.
"We're under attack!"
Everyone moved at once. Some rushed toward the crash; some made a crisscross through the mob, screaming out the names of loved ones; and some headed for the wagons. I clenched down on Katara's hand. A crush of bodies bore down on us from every direction, and above the yelling, panicked crowd, the sky glowed a sickly orange. A man careened into my shoulder, another into the tether of our hands, and Katara was yanked from my grip. Her face hovered in the crowd for a split second, and I could see the indecision gathering in her brow. With a slight shake of her head, she turned and pushed toward the fire. A flash of her green sleeve was quickly gobbled up by the smoke filling the clearing.
"Katara!" I could barely hear my own voice over the screaming all around me and a gruff voice just over my shoulder. As I turned, the squirming mass of nomads parted, and Jet stumbled out, shouting for his crew.
"Smellerbee! Pipsqueak!" When he noticed me, he glanced to my sides. "Where's Katara?"
"Where do you think?" I gestured toward the fighting and started to push my way forward. Smoke rolled in from every direction, and disembodied shouts and shrieks floated on the thick plumes. Shadows jerked all around us, illuminated by the burning wagons. A flash of green burst out of the swirling wall, and I grabbed it. I didn't even have to see her face to know the whimpering woman wasn't Katara. I pushed her in the direction of safety.
"I don't see her," Jet shouted.
"Head for the worst of it. That's where she'll be." I shoved another body out of my way and growled under my breath. I could find Katara alone. I didn't need him… She didn't need him, either.
As I moved, the commands of soldiers broke through the smoke. The shadows of horned helmets swirled back and forth, and it was impossible to tell if they were being projected from the fires in front of us or those behind. I felt surrounded.
Next to me, Jet grunted and raised a bracer to shield his face. My eyes stung and a trickle of sweat coursed down between my shoulder blades, but I would last longer in this than he would. "Get out of here. Go help whoever you still can."
"Not without Katara."
His stubbornness lit a fury in me, and I rounded on him. "She's not yours to save."
Even through the smoke, I could see his irritating half smile. "Do you really think I bought that story about you being married?" He hacked out a laugh but then choked on the air, now thick with heat and soot. Leaning over with his hands propped above his knees, he coughed and wheezed. "She's not yours, either."
"Whatever. Find her yourself."
Ahead, the specter of helmets had taken a more definite shape, and several Fire Nation soldiers cautiously emerged into the clearing. I swept my Dao swords from their scabbard and launched myself at the nearest man. My blades crashed down onto the shaft of his spear, obliterating it, and I kicked my boot up into his chest as he shuffled backward. Without waiting for him to fall, I twisted, arcing my blades toward the next threat.
The two soldiers who squared off against me wasted no time with wood and metal. They pivoted, made large circles overhead with their arms and then shoved their cupped palms toward me. Twin jets of flame surged forward, and I threw myself to the dirt. Air rushed from my lungs and the heat from the inferno ruffled my hair. I couldn't fight them on my belly, so I pushed myself up with my fists, still wrapped around the hilts of my swords, and swung my legs around me, casting a circle of flame to buy myself the time to stand. Jet leaped backward to avoid the edge of my fiery shield.
The soldiers paused, still but wary in their stances. From their midst, another soldier strode forward, bearing the open-faced helmet of a ranking officer. He barked out a single order. "Take him alive."
They reacted quickly enough that I had to assume Katara was right. They were here for me. They advanced, crowding us together toward the tree line. Jet glanced toward the foliage overhead, but I shook my head. "Do whatever you have to." But I wasn't going to leave Katara behind. Jet edged toward me, backing closer to cover our flank. I turned toward him slightly when I heard his low, rueful chuckle.
"I knew there was something I didn't like about you." His grass stalk singed, and he spit it out and ground the tiny flame at the end of it of the heel of his boot. "You're him, aren't you? That prince everyone's looking for." He bent over again, shaking his shaggy head, and when he looked back up at me, that crazed light was back in his eyes. "Katara can be a real bleeding heart, but I never took her for this much of a traitor."
"Katara didn't betray anyone."
I lashed out with a stream of fire, then, pushing back the soldiers. I didn't want to hurt any of them—they were still my countrymen, still loyal to the throne that would one day be mine—but if they were also loyal to Azula, they wouldn't hesitate to subdue me. I tightened my grip on my swords, and Jet twirled the handles of his around his thumbs and caught them again.
"Well," he said, thrusting a blade toward the enemy, "what are you waiting for?"
With a cry, they charged, already building the momentum for their flame strikes. I kicked up and whirled, drawing a curtain of fire between us. When the first uniform burst through, Jet leaped into the tree behind us. I set my feet, ready to take the strike, but Jet dove back out of the greenery, latched onto the soldier, and then rolled forward, using his momentum and his feet to pitch the man back into the fire. While he scrambled up, my blades met a fireball aimed at his head.
Another hulking shape burst out the smoke, cannonballing into the formation surrounding us. Pipsqueak grabbed the pike of another soldier and yanked him off his feet, tossing him aside.
And then I heard a beautiful swoosh and snap, and I finally took the deep breath my tight chest hadn't let me since the battle started. The crisp air felt good in my lungs, even if the smoke seared my throat. Several small skirmishes away, Katara's water whip knocked another soldier off his feet.
I fought a path to her—with my swords and boots, with spurts of fire and slashing flames. I also had to deflect several well-aimed pitch forks and sickles; a Firebender was a Firebender, and the frightened peasants struck out at anything that so much as simmered. They weren't making any distinctions. I reached Katara just in time to kick the helmet of a soldier writhing in a cocoon of water on the ground before her, and he stopped struggling.
The flames were dying down, the screaming had dwindled to a few moans and desperate wails. Firebenders and other soldiers lay in heaps or were dragging their fallen comrades away in defeat. The travelers who hadn't escaped had circled the wagons, but a number of the wagons that weren't missing were blackened, gutted out carcasses, now.
I searched the line around us for more enemies, not quite ready to let down my guard. "Are there any left?"
Katara shook her head. Most of her braid had come loose, and sweat mixed with soot made a messy smear across her forehead. She breathed hard, coughing on the dirty air. "I don't think they're coming back."
"They wouldn't have come here at all if not for you," Jet muttered behind me.
Too late, I heard the crunch of him pivoting on the baked grass, and I turned just as a hook sword swept down. Before I could even swing my blade forward to counter, Jet's torso folded over a thick stream of water. It threw him to the side, like one of Azula's porcelain dolls, and he collapsed in a heap of muck.
Behind where he had been about to kill me, stood Katara. She stared at Jet with wide eyes and hands clutched over her mouth, only blinking when he finally groaned and moved his arms to try to push himself up. But he collapsed again and rolled over onto his back. Smellerbee screamed out his name and rushed through the dying din of battle to kneel at his side.
I rushed to Katara, grabbing her wrist as I passed and jerking her hands away from her face. She spun but then dug her heels into the ground, wrenching me backward. I stumbled, regained my footing, and turned to face her.
"What are you doing? We have to get out of here."
She was still looking over her shoulder, watching the others help Jet to his feet. Her arm was shaking in my grip. When she finally looked up at me, she seemed lost in her own shock. "I…" Her gaze lurched from side to side, as if she were searching her own mind rather than the front of my bloody robe. It hadn't occurred to me in the moment to be surprised, but now I could see the conflict clearly etching worry lines into her forehead.
She had picked me. In the heat of battle, she had chosen to save me.
I pulled her forward, locking her forearm against my chest. "You don't belong here." She looked up sharply, and I added, "Not anymore."
Her legs more buckled than moved, but as soon as I felt the surrender, I yanked her forward again, keeping her upright through shear momentum as I bullied my way through the smoke. I used one hand to kill back the flames in our path and to disarm the wayward soldiers lost in the haze, and I kept the other tightly cinched around Katara's arm. She stumbled along with me, heedless of anything around us, and I didn't dare let her go.
When we finally emerged well away from the edge of the battlefield, where the choking smoke had cleared and we could breathe again, I released her. She sank down into the grass and I braced myself against my thighs, coughing and trying to calm my racing heart. Katara stared at her hands for a long time, and then she curled her knees to her chest and let her hair fall forward to cover her face. She didn't make a sound, but with every breath, her back shook a little. And I knew what she was thinking.
She'd made the wrong choice.
NOTE: I didn't have time before I left for the holidays to do my response to reviews. I'm gambling that you guys would want the chapter as soon as I had it finished rather than wait another week for the responses to accompany this. I'm still going to write them up and post them to my livejournal next week, though, after I'm back from visiting family. Happy Holidays, everyone!