AN: Thanks, reviewers! You make it happen!
The carving banged his knuckles as Zuko bounded down the stairs three at a time. Probably, it was the panic in the fisher nomad's voice that put his heart in his throat and his stomach on the deck. Probably, nothing had happened to Katara at all. But chance tended to work against the banished prince an awful lot.
For instance, presently Lieutenant Jee and his men watched, bewildered, as another fisher nomad and a skinny kid in a yellow turban came staggering up from the hold of the sinking ship. Between them they carried an enormous, hideous fish that thrashed around and wriggled eight short, fleshy leg-like protrusions beneath it. Had Zuko been on deck when this happened, he would have recognized the boy in the turban right off. Jee and his men, on the other hand, had not burned the Avatar's face into the backs of their eyelids and, with the tattoo out of sight and that weird fish splaying its whiskers and croaking, they would not have noticed if Aang had been the Fire Lord himself.
For his part, Aang was equally unaware of just whose ship they had collided with. He and Koa strained to keep their grips on the slippery, twisting poya while the deck tilted under their feet and Hato shouted something high-pitched in the background. But Aang had only one purpose now, one truly just thing he had to do, and nothing would distract him from that.
Help me, Koa had said in the dark as she sawed through the net. And Aang would help if it killed him. His skinny arms and legs were too weak to hold up the poya's enormous weight, but Koa was much stronger. Grunting and sliding against the planks, she led him toward the prow where it nosed deeper into the bay. The ship began to wallow onto its side and they staggered, falling against the rail hard enough to knock the wind from them both. But waves spilled up over the rail at the prow and suddenly they were there, falling to their knees and easing the poya into the bright water of the bay.
The big fish-like creature was still, its gills flapping like gentle wings. The club-like legs opened up at their ends into round fins in purple and orange and a dorsal crest rose slowly along its back and Aang could see now in the sun how the scales glittered, iridescent and olive green. And in the pattern of those scales there were dark designs. Aang had to look at Koa to be sure, but yes, they were the same designs tattooed on the faces of the two cousins.
"Why is she still here?" Koa's face was wet and hard. She sniffed and blinked forcefully as if to shove the tears on their way but made no move to wipe them. "She's free now. Why won't she swim away?"
Above them, some men were calling down questions, orders. Behind them, Hato was shouting something about the ship and Uncle Moambo and 'who's a gulpy-gill now?' but Aang hardly heard any of it. He looked back down as if in slow motion and saw the poya's ancient eyes blink. He saw how Koa's hand lowered so gently toward the poya's head, the smooth space between those knowing eyes. Her fingers broke the surface of the water.
And then the poya's upturned mouth opened and it sucked in Koa's hand and she shouted and an instant later was jerked under the water, over the rail, down into the depths of the bay. But not before Aang grabbed hold of her ankle and went rushing down with her.
Zuko skidded through the open door to the brig and pulled up short, horrified. The row of cells was twisted beyond recognition. What had seemed like a small dent from the outside was much larger here. The impact had jammed the walls of bars into wild shapes. Three cells were crushed completely. A pair of soldiers was inspecting the damage from the now much-narrower walkway. Private Nu tugged his mustache and shook his head. Private Tokai was trying to open a cell door so badly bent that Zuko could see from where he stood that it was hopeless.
And in one of the crushed cells was his uncle's painted screen, wood smashed and splintered and silk torn to shreds. Something red lay pooled just outside the distorted bars of the door.
Both soldiers turned to look at him, startled, but Zuko paid no attention to them. Where was Katara? Had they taken her away already? He rushed for the cell, the broken screen, the red spill of… silk. It was his shirt. Not blood. Just his shirt.
Zuko stared down at the shirt, then looked sharply up at Private Nu. "Where is she?"
Private Nu's mustache seemed to shorten as his face grew longer in an apprehensive frown.
"Oof! Well, it is a lucky thing I was on my way to the brig when I was," Iroh said as he pulled back the blanket and helped Katara settle into the bed. It was soft. And nice-smelling. She turned her face against the pillow so the big swelling knot on the other side of her head was clear. Iroh was still talking. "I had only intended to apologize for my abrupt departure on the stairs this afternoon but I'm glad I could be there in time to help. Otherwise, you might still be down in the brig while the men try to make the necessary repairs. It's truly shocking just how uncomfortable it can be down there."
Katara was pretty sure that she could have survived being uncomfortable – though she certainly was glad that Iroh had come so quickly. None the less, the true luck had been the way the cells had twisted, bars jamming, latches unlatching. She'd hit the door of her cell and for half an instant been pinned between bars and the smashed-in side of the ship. Squeezed like a milled sea-prune, that was the saying. Private Nu had hurried over with the keys but he would have been too late to save her being crushed had the door not fallen open on its own. One second, there was enormous pressure on her head and chest and the next she'd been free. Free to breathe and move and… fall and bang her head against the floor.
It was a passing thought, though, and a breath later Katara's mind had skipped somewhere else. "What did we hit?" she asked, her voice a bit wobbly.
Iroh tugged his beard and opened his mouth to answer but the door banged open behind him and he jumped in surprise. Katara winced at the loud sound. There in the doorway stood Zuko, panting and irate. He stalked into the room, raising a finger to shake in Iroh's face.
"Uncle, this is going too far. There are a dozen rooms between here and the brig. How can you justify making Katara climb all those stairs?"
Katara squinted at a Fire Nation banner hanging from the wall. There hadn't been that many stairs… had there? Now that she thought about it, it seemed to her that Iroh had carried her up them. But that couldn't be right… Iroh was just a chubby old man.
Though he was a bit breathless, now that she thought about it. He was saying something, something about her, she realized. "…should probably not be allowed to sleep for some hours, all the same. Head injuries can be very dangerous."
Zuko glanced at her. One of his hands was fisted at his side, apparently clutching something Katara couldn't see. He almost looked… worried. That couldn't be right, either. Or it shouldn't be. "I suppose it wouldn't hurt to stay here and keep an eye on her," Zuko said.
"Ah! I am so lucky to have such an understanding nephew!" Iroh was grinning and settled a hand on Zuko's shoulder, walking with him toward the door. "I have already made all the preparations to take on supplies but we will probably need even more materials to make the necessary repairs." They reached the door and he stopped, turning to smile up at his nephew. "I am sure that Private Tokai will be able to tell you exactly what is needed, though. All you must do is approve his requests."
Zuko stiffened, and did that thing where stood even straighter than seemed possible. "But, Uncle, I should be the one to—"
"Of course the commanding officer should oversee the ship in such an emergency, Prince Zuko. I certainly wouldn't presume to suggest that you waste time with an injured captive! Why, that would be very irresponsible of me!" Iroh peered humbly down at the floor, but his smile seemed a hint sly from Katara's angle.
Zuko's fisted fingers shifted around whatever was in his hand. He shot her a sideways glance and spoke more quietly. "Uncle, I don't care about that. If there's danger, I want to be here to—"
"Not to worry, Prince Zuko!" Iroh said, grinning now. He began very slowly pushing his nephew out the door. "The prisoner is in no condition to escape and I will not take my eyes off her." He waggled his eyebrows and finally managed to shove Zuko out into the corridor, though the Fire Prince quickly regained a grip on the doorframe before Iroh could shut the door.
"What's that look supposed to mean?" Zuko demanded. Katara could only see a few inches of his angry face through the cracked door.
"What look? A mote of dust fell into my eye. But don't worry – my vision is sure to recover in time." Iroh patted Zuko's hand and then began peeling it away from the doorframe. "But your ship on the other hand will need more than just time to make a full recovery. Hurry, Prince Zuko! Your duty is waiting for you below!"
Katara caught one last glimpse of Zuko's scowl before he finally withdrew, snarling to the corridor. Smiling pleasantly, Iroh latched the door and came to sit at the bedside. Katara watched him over the blankets, blinking.
"My nephew has a strong grip! Now, as I was saying, we were accidentally rammed by a fisher nomad vessel. Are you familiar with fisher nomads, Lady Katara?"
It all happened so fast. The water swept in through Aang's clothes, a cool hug against his skin that only grew colder as they surged deeper and deeper toward the bottom of the bay. The water at the surface was aqua, blue glass shot with light, but the lower they went, the darker it got. Finally, Aang couldn't see the poya's body surging side-to-side below, rippling like an eel the way it did, and shortly after that he lost sight of Koa's wild hair and flailing arm. Then, her bare foot and Aang's own arm disappeared and there was only darkness.
So deep. How was it possible for the bay to be this deep? Aang's ears popped from the pressure and his lungs burned. Only then did he think to bend a bubble around his head, but even as he lifted a hand to do it, the poya slowed down. Aang's hand brushed rock and he was suddenly aware of it all around, though how he could feel it he wasn't entirely sure. The poya pulled them through the tunnel and then began to rise toward a distant glow.
The ascent was so much faster, though they moved at the same steady rate. It was only when they breached the surface and Aang and Koa floated side-by-side, both gasping the wet salty air, that he realized they had not returned to the surface.
The cavern was vast and lit by blue luminescent mushrooms that blossomed in clustered shelves on the trunks of thick, twisted trees. There was no ground or soil for the trees to grow in. Rather, they seemed to be floating on their own root mass, forming their own island with their interwoven tendrils. Aang and Koa had surfaced in a small hole in that mass, a break that formed a pool amongst the floating forest. A glowing scum of algae grew amongst the roots beneath the water, and the entire system was a wild tangle of light and tiny wriggling creatures Aang had never seen before. Overhead, branches twisted together too until the roof of the cavern couldn't be seen even though the leaves sprouting from those branches were clear as glass. Little creatures floated and fluttered everywhere, many winking lights of their own.
"Aang," Koa whispered. She floated with her chin below the surface, eyes huge in her tattooed face. In the light of the mushrooms, the whites of her eyes looked blue. "Where are we?"
Aang had to think about it, but only for a second. "The spirit world," he said. "Sort of. I didn't know companion animals could take people into the spirit world." A pang of doubt shot through him, followed closely by fear. He didn't see the poya anywhere.
Koa was the one who put it into words. Her voice was tiny, her breath casting ripples against the surface of the water. "Are you really sure that poya is a companion animal?"
But at that moment, the creature rose up several feet away, its ancient eyes glittering in the thousand pale lights. Its spiny dorsal crest pierced the surface and its long whiskers waved in the water before it. Its mouth opened and shut slowly, a deep darkness all that could be seen within.
Aang leaned a little closer to Koa but didn't take his eyes off the poya. "Koa, I think we should probably run now."
"No. Move slowly. Don't look away."
Aang didn't ask how she knew this, but it felt right to him, too. Very slowly, as if they were not moving at all, they backpedaled away from the poya toward the nearest root-bank. Everything was slick with algae, but Koa boosted Aang up and he hurriedly turned back to help haul her from the water. The footing was awkward on the twists of roots and everything was damp and slippery, but Aang felt safe enough to look back.
The poya had not moved. It floated just where they had left it, watching them with those knowing eyes.
"What does she want?" Koa asked softly, crossing her arms over her chest.
"I don't know," Aang said. He rubbed the back of his neck and found that the turban had been lost on their decent. The poya began to slowly move toward them. Aang gave a tiny, nervous laugh. "At least she can't get to us up here, though."
Koa didn't say anything, just stood watching the poya and flexing her arms against her chest.
The poya glided closer, casting a sharp V in the water behind it. The ripples made the faint light from below waver dizzyingly.
Then, the poya swam out of the water and into the air. Its long body kept the same slow slithering motion and its eight legs each swiped at the air as they breached from the water. And then it hung there at Koa's eye level, its mouth opening and closing and its eyes locked unblinkingly on them.
Zuko wasn't sure whether his uncle was genuinely trying to help him or, more likely, had shoved him out of his own room as some kind of punishment for not going along with Iroh's scheme. Really, why would the crazy old man take Katara all the way to Zuko's quarters if he did not intend to persist in his matchmaking game? Why would he emphasize that Katara was still in danger if he did not want Zuko to worry about her? What was Iroh up to? Had he finally lost his grip?
The swarm of questions was enough to make Zuko grind his teeth as he mounted the stairs to the control room to receive reports from the navigator and the helmsman. When they stood before him, they shared nervous glances, but Zuko hardly noticed. He barely even managed to listen to their excuses.
The fisher ship changed direction without the tiller being adjusted, they said. It gained speed even though the sails were furled and tied, they said. As if a current suddenly rose up. Freak accident. No helping it. They said.
Zuko looked the helmsman right in his watery eye and wondered how things might have gone if he had just tossed this one overboard after the lightning strike. All he said was, "Steer us in. And try not to crash into the pier."
By the time he got back to the main deck, the fisher nomad vessel was just a mast jutting from the water in their wake. The little banner at its peak, the blue fish leaping across the gold coin, seemed to cling to its rope, drooping like an exhausted catch. Jee and his men were dragging something up in the net. The nomad, Zuko realized. The guy was still shouting, his voice splitting and hoarse. He just shouted that same name over and over.
It was a hard sound to listen to and, in his mood, it pricked brutally at Zuko's temper. He marched across the deck to his men. "Lieutenant, what's the meaning of this?"
Jee cleared his throat and stood at attention but he kept glancing down and off to one side. "It's for his own good, sir. The kid was trying to drown himself."
Zuko gritted his teeth. "Why did you stop him?" he growled.
"That nomad rammed my ship, Lieutenant. Why are you hauling him aboard when he could easily be a rebel saboteur?"
Jee's furrowed brow twisted slightly with momentary doubt. "He's lost his mind with grief, sir. His sister and little friend were just eaten by a fish. We all saw it happen." Behind him, the men holding the rope nodded vigorously. They had stopped hauling and stood braced against the flopping weight in the net. Over the rail below, the nomad called out that name again and again, obnoxious as a rat-gull.
Zuko scowled all the harder but he wasn't blind to the looks on his men's faces. A big part of him wanted to order the net dropped and the nomad left to his own ship. That part of Zuko resented giving a ride to the fool who had damaged his steamer – especially since any chance he had of being reimbursed was presently sinking into the harbor. Not to mention Katara's injury…
But Lieutenant Jee was watching him with that measuring look he sometimes got and the men behind him kept stealing sideways glances at their prince. Zuko wasn't sure what those looks meant exactly, but his awareness of them made him conscious to the ethics of abandoning a fellow seaman to sink with his ship. Oddly, it was Katara's voice that came back to him.
At least my people love me.
"Fine," he snapped. "We'll escort him to land. After that he's on his own." Zuko locked his glare on Jee and jabbed two fingers into the older man's chest. "I'll hold you personally responsible for his good behavior until then, Lieutenant."
"Very well, sir." Jee's frown deepened a degree at the prod, but something shifted in his eyes.
Zuko understood that he'd just confirmed some notion the Lieutenant had, but he really didn't want to think about what that might be. He backed up a step and swiped a hand through the air. "Carry on." Then Zuko turned on his heel and stalked below to see to Private Tokai's observations. The fisher nomad's piteous cries followed him and he tightened his fist around the carving.
He didn't even see the way the soldiers went back to heaving the rope with renewed force, or the way that Jee watched his stiff back as he marched off. One corner of the Lieutenant's mouth dragging upward, as if working hard and yet irresistably against a great weight.
The word came out of Aang's mouth after he had spun and grabbed Koa's wrist and begun bounding from root to root, heaving her clumsy weight behind him. On his own, he would have gone so much faster. Even without his airbending – more evidence that this was the spirit world… or something like it – he was light on his feet and could jump farther than most people. But he couldn't leave Koa behind. She staggered behind him and might have said something but Aang didn't hear. All he heard was the buzzing panic in the back of his head, the bone-deep knowledge that the creature, the poya was following.
He looked back over his shoulder and found, to his horror, that it was easily keeping pace. With a cry of panic, he changed direction, dodging around a wide trunk and ducking under a massive bridge of roots. Koa's foot splashed into a deep puddle and her hand jerked hard against his grip, slipping through his damp fingers.
Aang skidded to a stop and turned back to find her yanking her leg from the too-deep puddle. Koa managed it, but then staggered to one side. The ankle that had been caught failed, and she fell hard against the base of a tree. She turned, sat; her tattooed face was twisted up in pain, teeth bright against the inked skin.
"Koa," Aang said as he took a step back toward her.
But just at that moment, the poya came slithering under the root-bridge, its skin glistening sickly in the blue light. Koa seemed not to notice. Her eyes were shut and she clutched her ankle, grimacing. The poya glided closer, angling toward her face, reaching with its long, tapered whiskers.
"No!" Aang hurried, but he seemed suddenly to be moving in slow motion. His momentum had carried him too far after he lost his hold on Koa and there was no way he could close the distance before the poya reached her. He bared his teeth and leapt even though he knew he would fall short.
He was too late. The poya's whiskers came up around Koa's face and touched her, touched her at temples and throat and brow and the tender scoop in front of her ears. And each of those points lit up with a yellow glow that showed a pallid green in the blue mushroom light. Koa's face went blank as a doll's and her eyes rolled open to reveal only the whites, whites that were a little blue and a little yellow. She held perfectly still for an instant, and then the poya drew her slowly up until she was standing, until her feet floated several inches off the twisted roots. Her wild hair swayed and her slack lips parted. She looked like a drowned body floating that way.
"No." On his knees, Aang stared up at Koa and the poya. He raised his hands to his head. How could he have let this happen?
And then Koa's mouth moved and a voice that was not quite hers came out. It was a croaking voice, throaty and clicking.
"Fish-people forget their fishes and sell the flesh of friends," she said. The poya said. "O La! O Qún! What sorry days are these!"
Katara's head cleared a lot as Iroh told her about fisher nomads, how they migrated with the bison-tuna and lived on fish, sea-flora, and trade. It wasn't really a subject that fascinated her and she certainly didn't absorb everything he said, but it was nice to lay there and listen. Lu Chi came with a poultice for her head and an herb sachet to add to her tea, but he quickly went on his way. When Iroh asked about the urgency, the medic kindly recited the Statute of Naval Medical Protocol regarding confidentiality.
"…but," he said at the end, shifting his leather bag from one hand to the other, "it is within my ability to inform you, General, that we have taken on a survivor from the wreck. Now, if you will excuse me…"
Lu Chi bustled off and Iroh chuckled mildly. "So much fretting only for the contents of a sickbay," he said. When Katara only stared at him, he folded his hands over his belly. "Fisher nomads are known to be light-fingered. And I hear they enjoy a good practical joke!"
"That doesn't seem fair," Katara said, frowning. She hadn't said much up to this point, and had to swallow some of the tea Iroh had given her to wet her throat. "You can't just assume that an entire people are thieves based on the actions of a few."
Iroh ducked his chin, slightly abashed. "Wise words, Lady Katara. Perhaps you will tell me, now that you're feeling better, what do you know about fisher nomads?"
So Katara told him. All she really knew about fisher nomads was that the Southern Water Tribe had traded with them a lot back when Gran-gran was young. She still had a few green-stone beads that Katara's grandfather had given her as a courting gift. Gran-gran always said though that the real trade, the reason Water Tribe ships made the journey all the way to Whale Tail Island, was the bison-tuna. Barrels of it, she said, all dried or pickled and spiced with flavors from around the world. And her face always got this distant fondness to it, and Katara knew she missed those flavors the way the village missed the sun during the dark months.
"But I wouldn't know," Katara told Iroh. "The fisher nomads stopped trading bison-tuna before I was born."
Iroh only nodded. "That is because they disappeared. The fisher nomads lost all their wealth in a few short years and were reduced in many cases to thievery and scavenging." He gazed sadly at the wall over the bed. "No one really knows where the bison-tuna went. Some say Fire Nation ships disrupted their migration path, and perhaps that is true, but not every problem in this world is the Fire Nation's doing."
Katara was not so sure of this… but then she thought of Jet. True, the Fire Nation had been his excuse for the terrible things he did, but that didn't make his actions the fault of an entire people. Even if those people were mostly jerks. Not that everyone from the Fire Nation was a jerk… Not all the time, anyway. Katara frowned at Iroh. It was safer not to speak.
The old man's thick shoulders hitched upward slightly and he peered back at Katara. "You may not believe me, but steam-powered Fire Nation ships have never been able to catch bison-tuna. They are wily fish – or were – and prefer to swim deep below the surface when they hear our engines. Too deep for our nets, or for anyone's nets, really."
"But doesn't that just mean they're afraid of the noise? Couldn't that drive them away as easily as fishing?"
"That is true – but it is also true that the bison-tuna vanished around forty years ago."
Katara narrowed her eyes, thinking. "What does that have to do with it? The Fire Nation had steamers then, too, didn't they?"
Iroh smiled faintly. "The Fire Nation has used steam-powered ships for well over one hundred years, Lady Katara. The bison-tuna vanished all at once. Whatever changed, it was not the Fire Navy."
"But how can you know that? How can you be so sure?"
"Ah, you forget." Iroh held up a single finger, grinning. "I may be an old man now, but forty years ago I was a strapping young officer intent on becoming a general. I paid a lot of attention to our technology and I can remember, even to this day—" He stared at the far wall and held out his hands to either side in supplication. "—no new ships! For years we were using the same old rattling tubs of bolts. We had the resources and the science to improve them but did we? Oh no! I must have written hundreds of letters…"
Aang leapt to his feet. He had to keep some distance from the poya if he didn't want to get caught like Koa – and there was no telling what else those whiskers could do. She still floated there like a corpse, mouth a grimacing open maw not so unlike the poya's own mouth. Helpless. Aang had to save her.
"Poya!" he called out in his best commanding voice. "Let her go, by command of the Avatar!" The words rang hollow and stupid as they echoed back off the high twisted branches.
"The Avatar," Koa said, as if the word had a foul taste. But it wasn't Koa talking at all in that strange croaking voice. The poya's mouth opened and shut, opened and shut. "The Avatar has abandoned my people. The Avatar thinks the sea-belly swimmers are not important. He thinks he can come back to us now and fix a ship that has already sunk and been picked apart by crablings? Is that what he thinks?"
Aang clenched his fists and set his feet. "I don't know what you're talking about. I just want to save my friend."
"The Avatar just wants to save his friend. His fish-people friend." Simultaneously, the poya let out a long peal of clicks and Koa bared her teeth and snarled. "The Avatar befriends slayers and breakers of oaths! He blinds himself to the people who need him most."
"What are you talking about? What oaths?"
The poya shifted then, and its dark eye settled on Aang. He shuddered. Seeming not to notice, the poya raised a whisker toward him. It was not long enough to reach. "Come. I will show you."
Aang did not want to go. The whisker was fleshy and gleamed with slime in the cold light. But just as the creature's piteous clicking had reminded him of Appa in the bilge, this gesture reminded him of Roku's dragon. He took a stiff step closer, then another. Two more and the tip of the whisker touched his brow.
The impact was like an icy hammer. It was like diving face-first into freezing water and then finding oneself beneath the surface, numb and weightless in perfect quiet. That is, until the voice spoke. A woman's voice, though not Koa's. Nothing like Koa's. This voice was old and sad and so very, very angry.
"I will show you, Avatar. I will show you what horrors your friends have done under your nose these many years and when I have shown you all of it, you will return to the surface-world and you will destroy every last one of the fish-people."
"Where do you think you're going with that tsungi horn, Private?"
Zuko had had a difficult afternoon followed by a frustrating evening. Katara, the crash, Uncle, Katara's injury, that gibbering fisher nomad, Lieutenant Jee's measuring looks, Katara in his bed again, the bumbling docking crew, the smooth-talking merchants and officials… and now, here was Private Nu marching up from the hold with the tsungi horn.
It was just past sunset, the usual time for his Uncle's notion of fun, and Zuko had only just sent the loading crew down to the galley for a late supper. Boxes of supplies were still piled on the deck. Normally, he would have insisted that they finish the job, but he knew they hadn't had a decent meal in days. It could wait an hour, he figured. Lights had come up along the pier and the fishers and traders were starting to disperse and the air smelled like frying fish. The boardwalk was almost quiet – or the part of it not riddled with flophouses and rot-gut wine houses was, anyway.
Nu stopped, still on the stairs leading up onto the deck, and stood at attention as best he could with his arms wrapped around the big, awkward instrument. He cleared his throat but looked decidedly unabashed. "General Iroh insisted, sir."
"Music Night is cancelled. There's too much work to do around here without wasting time and energy on something as stupid as Music Night." Zuko hadn't let any of his men go ashore tonight, either – and that had won another of Jee's looks.
Not that that actually preyed on Zuko's thoughts. He had more important things to worry about than his surly lieutenant. If the Avatar came, he wanted his ship ready to embark at once. Music Night would crowd the deck and get in the way of the crew when they returned for the last of the crates.
Zuko stabbed a finger down the stairs to the interior of the ship. "Take that thing back to the hold."
"Yes, sir," Nu said, and turned ponderously.
He hadn't gone two steps before Iroh's voice came across the deck from the door to the observation tower. "Wait!"
Zuko looked up, scowling and searching for the words that would send his uncle scurrying back to whatever teapot he'd crawled out of. He pulled up short before saying anything, though. Iroh was coming, yes, but he was not alone. Katara was with him, wobbling on her feet and holding tight to his hand. Her eyes were much clearer, but she was wearing a bandage around her head and moving so stiffly that Zuko imagined every step hurt.
Seeing her that way sent a barb punching through his chest. He wanted to lift her up in his arms and carry her back to his bed. Stairs be damned. His was possibly the most comfortable bed on board. Katara could stay there as long as she wanted. Zuko would sleep on the floor… unless, of course, she got cold or something… in which case…
But her eyes were very clear and she was watching him very closely. Her scrutiny broke whatever spell Zuko had slipped under. That's right, they were enemies. She should be in the sickbay. And he should not care any more than was appropriate given their respective social standings.
Zuko's scowl had faded as he stared at her so he had to forge it anew when he looked back at Iroh. Not that that was a challenge. The old man looked entirely too jolly. A few other crew members had appeared on deck, as well, all bearing instruments. Zuko's hands tightened into fists at his sides.
"Prince Zuko, what a surprise! Does this mean you will be joining us for Music Night? And Private Nu, thank you for bringing my tsungi horn! Prince Zuko, would you mind helping poor Lady Katara along?"
Zuko didn't even get to answer before Iroh had deposited Katara in his arms and turned to accept the tsungi horn. He didn't mean to look down into her brilliant blue eyes. He didn't mean to notice how cool her hand was in his or how her fingers curled tight around his forearm as she steadied herself.
She looked nonplussed, though, and that helped Zuko put some starch back in his posture. He peered down his nose at her. She lowered her chin and frowned up at him.
In the background, he heard his uncle nattering about setting up some crates to sit on and someone going to find Fuyun to let him know it was time and perhaps stopping by the sickbay to see if Lu Chi would like to bring up his patient and…
Zuko snapped a glare on the old man at that. "You can't be serious, Uncle."
"Constant seriousness can cause irritability in the stomach." Iroh held the horn under one arm and patted his voluminous gut, smiling. Behind him, a crescent of boxes was being shoved together. "And in my case, it can be dangerous to make something so large unhappy."
Zuko, whose own irritability was more vocal than that of the common stomach, snapped, "The nomad is gone. I had Lieutenant Jee remove him from the ship immediately after docking."
The Lieutenant, who had only just shoved a box into place and settled down on it with a pipe-flute in both hands, only nodded.
"Oh," Iroh said. His smile was gone and he peered off down the lamp-lit pier. "Well, I do hope he finds his way." A gull-rat gave a lonely cry. Iroh turned back and his smile had returned. "Come have a seat! The loading crew can't eat forever, much as they might wish they could."
A few of the men chuckled, and the sound put Zuko in an even darker humor. He guided Katara to a crate and helped her ease down on it. She let out a little groan – not even that, a squeak, as if she was surprised that she would be so sore.
Zuko wasn't sure how the next part happened. He had intended to storm off to the galley, partly to get something to eat but mostly for the satisfaction of storming away from this cozy scene. Music night had never appealed to him. He didn't care much for levity, and never had especially. He wanted to do something useful. And he most certainly did not want to play that stupid tsungi horn.
So it was a shock to everyone, and most of all to Zuko, when he sat down beside Katara.
Shock is perhaps not the word that Katara would have used to describe her feelings as Zuko settled on the long crate beside her. Frustration, attraction, pleasure, hopelessness. Doom.
Doom was a good one, implying an ill-fatedness that Katara felt very appropriate to that moment. She had played up the crash as much as she could, limping and even saying some odd things that might make Iroh believe she was still a little off from the head-injury. She had even clung to Zuko as he walked her over, hoping he might figure her helpless and go about his own business.
But he hadn't. He had sat down right next to her and now if Katara tried to make a run for it she would have to fly to get out of grabbing range. And Katara did not feel up to flying. She wasn't even sure she felt up to a lot of bending. For all that she was faking the severity of her injuries, she was still hurt – and that, on top of everything else, was going to make escaping that much harder.
Iroh launched the company into a song she didn't know and Katara only clenched her teeth. Beside her, Zuko heaved a silent sigh. There were set-backs, it was true, but she wasn't about to give up. One way or another, she would get off this ship tonight.
Hato had not gone ten steps from where the Fire Nation soldiers had left him on the pier. He had leaned up against a piling and slid down to sit on the splintery boardwalk. He saw no reason to go on.
What was the point, without Koa? Without his cousin, Hato was half the trader, half the sailor, half the human being. They had been together since infancy, since their mothers gave birth on the same day and bundled them up in the same hanging basket strung to the same boom.
And now, she was gone. Eaten by that stupid fish while he looked on and tried to pick a fight about some stupid thing. What had it even been? The sinking ship? That meant nothing, nothing at all. Without Koa, Hato couldn't sail anything bigger than a dinghy. Worse, he had no one to argue with. Sowachi was the most silent place in the world.
Which was probably why he heard the name 'Katara' come from up on the deck of the Fire Nation ship. At first, it didn't register. But then some music started and, after a while, Hato remembered. Katara, that was the name of one of Aang's Water Tribe friends. Aang had gone down with Koa. It had been brave, but he was probably dead as well by now. Even the Avatar couldn't breathe under water indefinitely.
But Aang's friend Katara had only been captured by the Fire Navy, and she was there, right there, on the deck up above. Hato wiped his eyes with his stained sleeve and peered up.
AN: For those of you who read books that aren't about Avatar (:D) you should all read Game of Thrones. It's excellent fantasy writing! (And my favorite characters at the end of book 2, since somebody asked, are Arya, Jon Snow, Tyrion, and the Hound - because how can you resist a bitter man with serious family problems and a burned face?)