The weather was ferocious as they rode above the ocean on Appa. Aang struggled at the reins as the wind tore at them and the rain was coming down in cold stinging sheets, blinding everyone. Aang tried to divert some of the wind that pulled at them as Katara worked at diverging the driving rain while Toph and Sokka clung to the saddle. A particularly strong gust blew Appa, sending him tottering wildly. Katara lost her footing and slid heavily into Toph.
"Ow, watch it." She grumbled.
"Sorry." Katara quickly climbed off the blind earth bender and clung tightly to the saddle next to her.
"Aang!" Sokka shouted over the scream of the wind. "We need to land soon! This is getting out of control!"
"I know! There's nowhere to land though, we're over the middle of the ocean!" Aang shouted, turning back. Just as his attention was turned elsewhere, a lightning bolt streaked through the sky coming dangerously close as an earsplitting peal of thunder released instantaneously. Appa let out a startled cry and barrel rolled mid air. Katara's grip loosened for she had been holding on one handed trying to bend the rain with her other hand. A strong gust of wind plucked her from the saddle and sent her screaming down to the hungry, churning black waves far below.
"Katara!" Sokka yelled after her, but there was nothing that could be done. Aang watched her plummet wide eyed and almost dived in after her but the vicious storm continued to bat them around mercilessly. He had no choice but to hold on and help guide the rest of them to safety.
The winds twisted and turned her body as she fell. She couldn't tell which way was up and the driving rain stung her eyes. The impact as she crashed below the surface drove the air from her lungs. The water was so cold, it left her disoriented, freezing her in place and prevented her from clawing her way to the surface. Instinctually, she froze a block of ice and let that carry her to the surface. Once she as above the water, she sucked air in deeply; the salt burned her eyes, nose and lungs.
It was so cold she couldn't feel her lungs expand fully with each desperate breath. A wave came crashing down on top of her. Her fingers slid off the buoyant chunk of ice as the water forced her down into its chilled black maw. She bent another ice block to help transport her to the surface once more. She sputtered for air again and just as her eyes weren't blurring as bad, she saw another white capped wave headed straight for her. Katara inhaled deeply as she was plunged below.
She was too tired and cold to swim. Another chunk of ice brought her up again and this time she created a large surface for her to perch upon and she bended herself into it a little ways to prevent being pried off her safety floatation device. More and more waves washed over her, but her platform seemed to be working. She was no longer pushed below the water and she stayed connected and afloat.
The storm looked to have no end as the biting cold wind and water tore at her. She braced herself as another wave crashed down on top of her, but this one was different. This one bore something heavy, one of her previous ice blocks, and was sent careening into her head, instantly leaving her unconsciously drifting in the ocean on a sheet of ice.
Slowly her thoughts came back to her. Everything hurt was the first thing she realized. It took her a good ten minutes just to open her eyes. Her vision was blurry, but in time it came into focus. Where was she? From her position on the bed, a bed? Where did that come from?, she could see a small desk with lit candles on it, a table with some chairs, a screen for changing and two doors. She tried to sit up and her head spun.
She gripped it trying to ease the pain and dizzy feeling and noticed a bandage beneath her fingers. It took a while to regain her composure and even longer to stand and stumble around the large room. The walls were metal, the room sparse. One door, the one near the changing screen was a bathroom complete with a tub. The other door was locked.
She sat down stiffly on the bed. Her whole body ached and her clothes itchy and rigid from salt. She tried to remember what happened and only got flashes of a storm and a massive headache. She lay back down and watched the flame of the candles flicker. It seemed an eternity until she heard movement outside the locked door. A key scraped in the lock and the door swung open gingerly. An old man poked his head in and smiled at her.
"Oh good, you're awake." He shuffled into the room, closing the door behind him. "My name is Iroh."
She racked her brain for a minute. "I'm Katara. Excuse me Iroh, but where am I? What happened?"
"Well my dear," he said pulling out a chair at the table as Katara sat on the edge of the bed. "We found you. You were floating in the ocean and we pulled you aboard our ship. You've been asleep for three days now."
"Three days…?" Katara clutched her head as if this were too much to take in.
"What were you doing in the middle of the ocean?"
Katara stopped, just froze as she thought, trying to coax anything out of her memory. Nothing. "I… I don't remember."
Iroh eyed her a moment thoughtfully. "I see." He said with a smile. "Well, you must be famished and I expect you'd want a bath and some clean clothes. Why don't you go ahead and clean up. If you leave your clothes out I'll see to it that they get washed and then I'll bring you some dinner."
Katara nodded numbly. "Thank you Iroh."
"Of course." He left her with a smile. Slowly she trudged over to the changing screen and stripped down, leaving her salty clothes folded on the table before going to the bathroom and drawing a warm bath. She sunk down letting the warm water ease the ached of her muscles and she became lost in her thoughts.
'Why can't I remember? I know my name is Katara and I'm a water bender… But what else? Did she have any siblings, someone who loved her, someone she loved? What had she been doing in the middle of the ocean? What was going on?'
It hurt and was too frustrating trying to remember so she gave up. She crawled out of the tub and peeked out the door. The room was empty but on the table laid some fresh clothes. She tucked them under her arm and hid behind the screen just in case Iroh came back. The first article of clothing she unfolded was a pair of dark red pants. They were a little long so she had to roll up the ends. Then she unfolded a red shirt. It fit loosely and hung low. She picked at it gingerly.
'Whoever's these are sure likes red.' She brought the collar of the shirt to her nose and sniffed. 'And whoever wore this last smells like wood smoke and rain.' She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply again. She was interrupted by a know at the door.
"Come in." She said sidling out from behind the screen. Iroh appeared in the doorway carrying a tray full of dishes which he set down on the table.
"Ah good. I was hoping my nephew's clothes would fit you."
"I'm sure he'll introduce himself sooner or later, he's very busy. Now Katara, come eat dinner with me."
They sat at the table, Iroh made idle chat slowly eating as Katara shoveled food into her famished stomach. Her ravenous hunger slowed and she started talking with Iroh. She mostly asked him about himself, that way she could avoid the chilling fact that she couldn't remember anything herself. They had gotten to the topic of family. Katara asked Iroh about his and his smile grow to be a sad one.
"That is a very sad topic."
"What happened?" She almost felt bad asking him to recount his loses but Iroh didn't seem to mind too much. He had cleared the dirty dishes from the table and nursed a steaming cup of jasmine tea. He took a long sip before spinning his sad tale.
"My son was in the war. He was a grand soldier, but he never came back. He… died."
"Oh Iroh, I'm so sorry." Katara sympathized, gripping her tea cup tightly.
"Such is life. I was terribly saddened by the loss of one son, but life has been generous and blessed me with another. My nephew has been shunned by his father and sent on a treacherous mission to restore his honor. I'm sad to report that his path has become clouded with hatred and anger. I have accompanied him on his voyage to watch over him and try to guide him back to love and happiness, something his kind heart was once very familiar with."
"You're very brave to smile despite the tragedy life has dealt you."
"Fate is something you cannot control, but there are many paths to reach your destiny."
Katara's hand wandered to the choker around her neck. She fingered the pendant a moment before a very vivid memory returned. "I remember." She said with a gasp. Iroh watched her with a friendly smile and an invitingly curious expression. "I remember my mother." She felt tears well in her eyes and she blinked furiously trying to get them to clear. "I'm scared, I can't remember anything and yet this one memory has managed to surface. All I can remember is my name, that I'm a water bender and that my mother died during a fire nation raid trying to protect me. Tears slowly leaked down her cheeks. "Why is that all I remember?" She demanded angrily, wiping away the tears.
"It would seem that you remember the things that truly define you. The things that have remained with you are all things that identify who you are. There's no need to be afraid, you're memories will return to you in due time."
Katara nodded slowly. "Thank you Iroh, for everything."
"Of course dear. Well, it's getting late and I suspect you're tired. I'll leave you be and bring you some breakfast in the morning."
Katara managed a smile. "That would be great."
"Good night Katara."
"Good night Iroh."
"Uncle! Where have you been?" Zuko demanded.
"Ah Prince Zuko, I thought you would have been in bed by now. I was seeing to our guest."
The young banished prince huffed an angry sigh. "She's not our guest Uncle! She's our ticket to the Avatar!"
"Nephew, that does not mean she is not our guest."
"No, it means she's our prisoner.
"It's been a long day. Why don't you get some sleep?" Iroh suggested calmly to his fuming nephew as he motioned to the extra bed that had been brought into Iroh's room to accommodate Zuko while his room was being occupied by the Avatar's water bending friend.
"I'll make her talk."
"That would probably be a wasted effort Prince Zuko. She doesn't remember anything."
"She's lying!" The flames on the candles lighting the room flared tall and hot.
"I'm sorry. Maybe if you befriended her…"
"You've gone senile." Zuko hissed as he flung the covers over himself.
Iroh just smiled at his nephew who had his back to him. "Good night Prince Zuko."
The rest of the week followed much the same. Iroh brought Katara three meals a day and they would talk about his son, her mother, his nephew, the parallels in all bending and life in general. Katara enjoyed the time she spent with Iroh, but the times in between she was incredibly lonely. She was not allowed out of the room for Iroh told her it wasn't safe. The crew was all male and a fairly rough bunch at that. She was cooped up in the small room with no window day in and day out. Her exotic tan had paled and she felt sluggish. Her only entertainment aside from Iroh was bending the water in the bathroom or reading the books Iroh would so graciously bring her.
That afternoon Iroh had brought his pai sho game. He set it on the table after they had eaten. "Have you ever played this game Katara?"
"A few times I think. I'm a bit rusty on the rules, but I remember the just of it."
"Excellent! I love pai sho. It is much more than a game."
"How so?" Katara asked as she examined her tiles and the board.
"Pai sho is a game of harmony in life. Much like how you must align similar tiles in this game to form harmonies for points, life also works on the ability to harmonize."
Katara fixed him with a strange look. "Isn't that a bit of a stretch?" She asked as she laid a tile down on the board.
"Not at all. This game is about strategy, planning, working with what is dealt to you and making it work to your advantage." He placed a tile on the board as he spoke.
"But couldn't you just relate that to just about anything?" Katara played a white lotus tile.
Iroh smiled wisely. "I suppose you could. Ah, the white lotus. My favorite tile you know? It is considered the yang to the yin of the white dragon tile. A lotus may take any tile off the board, but it can also be removed by any other tile. Lotus' are considered 'blooming', which means they may form a harmony with any other flower tile."
"You sure do know a lot about pai sho and its pieces."
"As I've said before, I like to consider pai sho like a life lesson."
Katara pondered his words in silence as they continued the game. A lotus had such great power to remove any other piece, yet it was just as vulnerable, being able to be removed by any piece as well. And yet, if played correctly, could be united with any other flower. What did that mean? Was he trying to tell her something? Did the tiles represent people or was it a general philosophy lesson? That was the thing about Iroh. He was hard to predict. He was very wise and cryptic so it was hard to tell whether he was doing something as simple as teaching the rules of a game or instilling deep wisdom and lessons.
The game continued in silence, Iroh studying the board and Katara examining her thoughts, until Iroh won. He sipped his tea in quiet victory. "That," he put his teacup down "was a very close game. You played well Ms. Katara."
"Thank you Iroh."
"Well, I suppose I had better get going. Enjoy your afternoon and I'll be back soon enough with dinner."
"Looking forward to it." Katara said with a warm smile as Iroh excused himself, taking with him the tray of dirty dishes and the pai sho game tucked under his arm. Katara settled onto the bed, her back resting against the wall as she cracked open the most recent book Iroh had lent her. It was all about the earth kingdom society, beliefs and values. She had to admit it was a fairly interesting read. Soon she was lost in the book.
Iroh made his way on deck where Zuko was busy pouring over maps, measuring things with a compass. Iroh set the game up on a small table and called out to his nephew. "Zuko, come play me a game of pai sho."
"Not now Uncle."
"Please Zuko, you've been working hard. Take a break and come play an old man."
Zuko made an irritated grunting sound. "Alright, alright, fine Uncle!" He threw the compass down on the stack of papers and slumped down on the chair across from him. "One game Uncle."
Iroh smiled slightly as his attention was drawn to the game board. "That's all I need."
Zuko didn't seem to notice when Iroh's smile faded. Touching the slender small clay pieces carefully Zuko eyed his uncle. "What is it now?" Zuko asked in a low grumble. Iroh's expression saddened quickly, his eyes filled with distress. Shifting his weight uncomfortably Zuko glanced at him from the corner of his eyes.
"Oh it's horrible nephew!"
"What? What's horrible?" Almost teary eyed Iroh pointed to an empty spot on the board. Leaning forward Zuko looked at the empty space with a confused look. "So?"
"So? I'm missing my lotus tile! I cannot play without a complete set!"
"You don't even need that tile Uncle. Let's just get this game over with so I can get back to work."
Iroh looked horrified. "How can you say such a horrible thing? Now game of pai sho should be played with an incomplete set." Iroh exclaimed as he threw his arms into the air. "IT is like drinking cold tea! Blasphemy I tell you!"
"You don't even need that tile to play!"
"Yes you do. Every piece has its own part to play. No matter how small it may be. Let me tell you how even one person can shift the tide of war. Back when I was your age, every man was just as important as the next. In fact-"
"Uncle!" Zuko exclaimed. "I don't have to listen to your stories. I have work to do, so if we're going let's just get it over with."
Iroh threw his arms up in the air in a fit. Pointing to Zuko he waged a finger at him. "You know, most nephews would be more concerned with things like this, especially when their uncle's distressed."
"Ugh!" Zuko slammed his head into the table with a thud. He lifted his head as he ran his fingers through his hair. "Fine! Where was the last place you saw your lotus tile?"
Stroking his beard Iroh glanced at his nephew in thought. "I think I saw it in your room…"