A/N: Another long wait for a new chapter. Sorry about that. At least I'm on Christmas break now, right? :D Enjoy!
Chapter 20 - The Tournament
I don't get to talk to Bowen about where he stands or the orders from the Grand Master of the White Lotus. I barely get to talk to anyone who isn't a sponsor at all. Joo Dee and I spend all our time trying to convince them of why they should choose our team during the tribute's training hours. Sen even helps, but I find out very quickly that most of sponsors do not think highly of her. She claims they are jealous of her money, but I wonder if there's more to it than that.
Today is the last day of group training. Tomorrow, the tributes will be scored by the Elites and placed into the tournament bracket. After the scores are read, the sponsors must make their final decision on who they wish to sponsor. Which means Pakku and Hama will be out of luck if I don't find any more sponsors.
"Who have we not asked?" Joo Dee says to me quietly, scanning the crowd of sponsors. The tributes continue to train down below, most of them showing off for the sponsors.
"The Fire Lord," I say. "Think he'll sponsor us?"
"That isn't funny," she scolds. "We only have until tomorrow."
I sigh. Now that there are no secrets between us, I found out last night that Pakku and Hama plan on carrying out the Grand Master's orders too—protecting Zuko and securing his throne. They see no real need for sponsors, but I will not throw away their lives. There has to be a way for all of them to live.
"And you do not believe the prince will sponsor us?" Joo Dee asks.
My eyes find Lu Ten amongst the sea of faces. He's standing with Iroh, their heads pressed together as they whisper quietly. "No. I know sponsors can sponsor up to two tributes, but I don't think he'll sponsor anyone who is Zuko's opponent."
"Well, with that kind of thinking we are getting nowhere!" She makes an irritated sound and then vanishes into the crowd, waving her hand in frustration.
I know I should chase after her, but instead I find myself drifting toward the railing. My fingers curl around the cool metal. Sometimes I think it might be easier being down there. This mentor stuff is harder than I thought, especially when sponsors are not interested in my tributes.
Quickly I'm sucked into the training down below.
The man from Four puts Longshot to shame when he shoots, shooting two arrows at once and nailing all the targets. The Airbender from Ten is surprising light on her feet as she moves through the obstacle course. And then there's the man from One. I have never seen him move from in front of the door. He just stands there, staring at it, waiting for it to open. When the Guards release the tributes at the end of the day, the man from One is the first to bolt out. I'd say he is afraid to be here, but his stance and the power that radiates in his body says otherwise. He's caused quite a bit of commotion amongst the sponsors. They are calling him the Silence.
"Katara, how is your sponsorship's going?" someone asks, breaking my thoughts apart.
"Terrible. I don't know." I run a hand through my hair in frustration, glancing at the General. "We only have one. She has a lot of money, and I have no idea why she's even sponsoring us, but one can't be enough."
Iroh pauses. "You know, it only takes one to make a difference. Sometimes I have found that one is exactly enough."
"I hope so." I grip the railing tighter as I watch Dock scamper around the training center. He seems to be talking to himself and no one pays him any attention. My heart breaks for him.
Bowen, on the other hand, is receiving a pat on the head by the old woman from his province. I think they must know each other, because Bo wraps an arm around her shoulders and guides her to the knotting station. They sit on the ground, huddling together. After a few minutes, she lifts up her rope and knots it around her throat like a necklace. Bowen shakes his head at her, laughing.
My hand reaches up and grazes my throat, across the scar that feels rough against my fingers. Not for the first time, I think of my mother's necklace. When will I see it again? I almost ask Iroh, and then stop myself. I'm not sure how I can ask without sounding insensitive and stupid.
Hey Iroh, I know you're busy trying to keep Zuko alive, but if you ever have a chance, mind asking him about my necklace? Thanks.
I'll just have to ask Zuko. The last week before the Duels begin, mentors are allowed in the tribute's corridor as often as they like to plan strategy. I'll just have to suck up my pride and confront him. Part of me—the part buried deep where I keep all my unwanted thoughts—knows I was going to see him before he fights anyway.
"You, girl," a voice calls from behind. I turn to see a hooded man in black robes, his expression hidden within the shadows of his hood.
"Ah, my old friend!" Iroh says happily, clapping a hand on the shadowed man's back. "I am pleased you have joined us."
"Katara, may I introduce you to Master Jeong Jeong," says Iroh.
Jeong Jeong? Is this the same one from the Order? Hama and Pakku say he keeps to himself and hasn't been active within the Order for years.
I hold out my hand, but Jeong Jeong just grunts in response. My smile turns into a frown as I lower my hand. I also notice the stares we receive. I'm used to being stared at, but many of the sponsors are looking at us with disgust. No, they are looking at Jeong Jeong with disgust. How strange.
"I did not know you were sponsoring again," says Iroh, remaining cheerful. If he notices the staring, he does not show it.
"Better than mentoring those weak and insolent children they call tributes." Jeong Jeong makes a disgusted sound. "They are fools, all of them."
"Were you a tribute, once?" I ask before I can stop myself. "Are you a victor?"
His gaze slides over to me. The hood keeps his face hidden, but the gold of his eyes shine brightly. "No. I was an Elite."
Was? How does one…stop? He sounds younger than Iroh and he certainly doesn't look injured or like he's suffered a permanent injury.
He seems to read my mind because he adds, "That was before I said enough. I left and did not look back."
"You're allowed to do that?" I whisper. "Without consequences?"
Jeong Jeong gives a rough, bitter laugh. "Nothing in this life comes without consequences, girl. But it was worth it."
He walks away then. Sponsors and mentors a like jump out of his way, as though being near him will somehow catch them on fire. Before he gets too far he looks over his shoulder and says, "I will provide armor for Pakku and Hama. Do not expect more."
Joo Dee is conflicted when I tell her what I consider good news.
"Jeong Jeong? But he is a deserter! A disgrace amongst the Capital." She brings her voice low and whispers, "He lives like a hermit. Never leaves his home—if you can call it that—to see the light of day."
"Well he saw it today, didn't he? And he said he'd provide Hama and Pakku with armor." I wonder if his ties to them have to do with the Order, if that's why he's offering to sponsor them. "And why is he a deserter? Because he decided to leave the Elites like a normal person would?"
"Yes!" she snaps. "You don't…you don't just leave your obligations to the Capital." She tries to hide it, but I still hear the fear in her voice. "Not without punishment. And he certainly got it."
"What happened?" I ask quietly.
"He spent ten years in prison."
On the day of the training session, I get to finally see June and my artists. They look terribly out of place in my dank and cold prison cell.
"The ranks will be announced tonight dinner," says Nina, brushing through my tangled hair. She tugs hard, making me wince. "You must look perfect."
"Do they ever get sick of these dinners?" I say through gritted teeth.
"It's more for the sponsors to introduce themselves to their chosen tributes," says June.
"I didn't get to meet any of my sponsors."
"The Games and the Duels have different customs. At least there's no stupid parade."
I laugh. She's made a shimmery blue and silver dress for me. I'm not sure how I feel about the cuts. There is a long train in the back, but the front stops at the top of my thighs. My entire legs are showing, a long piece of fabric flowing down the middle of my legs. The fabric also crisscrosses across my stomach. My arms nearly bear. We better be having this dinner outside, otherwise I'm going to freeze.
Cho steps back from doing my make-up. "You look like an ice princess!"
She holds up a small mirror and I glance into it. She's kind of right, I realize with some surprise. My eyes are shadows of blue and a touch of silver; my lashes inked in white, like snowflakes have caught on them. A tiny crystal shines from each of corner of my eyes.
The scar on my cheek is barely noticeable with all the powder, but it's a reminder of how out of place I am. Even as beautiful as this gown is, even as remarkably as they've done my make-up, it doesn't change anything.
"I don't think there's a place for ice at the Capital," I say, and hand her back the mirror.
In the assembly hall, which has been impressively decorated in shades of gold and crimson, mentors and sponsors await for the tributes. This hall must be used for large gatherings of some sort. Despite being surrounded by stone walls, it's surprisingly warm in here. At the front where a head table would normally be sits a giant screen, like the one in Province Nine. There are no windows, no stage, just small high tables and velvet chairs scattered around the room.
Déjà vu washes over me. How many dinners have I attended since I volunteered as tribute? How much food has gone wasted, that could feed the starving children I saw in Five or the ones back at home? My winnings won't last them forever. All this stupid luxury when the world is burning away. It makes me sick.
A servant walks by with a silver tray and I swoop a glass off. I down the liquid in an instant, even though it burns the back of my throat.
"How vary unladylike of you to drink like a man," says Sen, coming up behind me. She's wearing a dark burgundy gown with fur around the collar, her dark hair piled in a high bun on her head. Jewels gleam on her fingers and neck.
"I can drink however I like," I say, fighting a grimace. What was that drink, anyway?
"Your outfit sure stands out," she says. "You look like one of those dancers at the brothels."
"That's my night job. How did you know?"
She waves a hand at me. "I grow tired of your tongue. Where is the other sponsor you managed to snag?"
"Probably not here." Not that I've bothered to look much. I've tried to remain hidden in the shadows of the hall for the past hour. "I don't think he likes me very much."
"Well, that's because you aren't very likeable," she says factually.
"Now that's just not true," says a voice from behind. "I find her very likeable." Bowen flings an arm around my shoulders. Sen grumbles and mutters something under her breath before drifting away.
"Did you mean that?" I ask, twisting out of his embrace.
His lips twitch into a slow grin. "You don't think you're likeable?"
I shrug. "Sokka was always the people person. I didn't have as many friends as he did. He said I nagged too much and was too bossy."
"He was your brother. He's obligated to say those things."
I laugh, but I feel a crack in my chest at the past tense, the use of the word was. Bowen seems to catch himself because his grin fades. "I didn't—" he starts.
"Don't worry about it."
He looks away then and I take a moment to survey his outfit. He's dressed in solid black armor, like some sort of dark knight. The studs in his ears twinkle at me. If he's here, that must mean Pakku and Hama will be shortly, if they aren't already.
"I should probably find Pakku and Hama," I say.
"They won't be here yet." He glances around, wrinkling his nose. "Why are you standing alone in the corner, anyway? Stop being a wall flower. Let's go mingle." He starts to pull me along, but I dig my heels into the ground.
"I don't want to mingle," I snap at him. "I'd rather brood in my corner, thank you."
"That can't be good for your health," he says. "Besides, we need to work on your people skills, as you admitted." His fingers dig into my shoulder and my feet give way to his demand.
With his arm still around my shoulders, he steers me into the bulk of the crowd, where most of the mentors, sponsors and some of the tributes who have arrived are, as he puts it, mingling. I start to feel myself withdraw as the faces turn to look at me, their eyes widening with surprise. My own eyes search out a familiar face nervously.
Bowen leans down and speaks quietly so only I can hear, "He's not here yet either."
I decide to ignore that. "How can you stand to talk to these people like you're friends when you have to fight each other in two weeks?" I whisper to him heatedly.
"They are my friends, Kat. Well, some of them. I don't think that guy likes me," he says, gesturing toward a giant figure looming in the shadows. Chit Sang. He's surrounded by about five sponsors speaking animatedly to him, but he looks utterly bored and disinterested.
"I don't think he likes anyone," I mutter. A pause. "Can I ask you something?"
"You just did."
I ignore that, my heart hammering nervously. Will he tell me the truth?
"Why did you volunteer?" I ask quietly.
He hesitates. "You have to play all the odds if you want to win, Kat."
"I don't know what you mean by that."
Bowen slides a strong arm around my waist and leans down so his lips brush my ear. My heart thumps annoyingly loud in my ears and suddenly I'm very conscious of all the people around us. "It means I am adaptable," he murmurs.
I don't know why, but I look up and away, glancing around me as though I have done something I shouldn't have. But most of them are hardly paying attention. Only a few, mainly snooty female sponsors, are staring at us.
Bowen doesn't miss my discomfort. He chuckles gently. "They have seen me with many women, Kat. You are hardly an exception. And please try not to look like I've robbed your virginity."
I punch him in the arm and pull myself out of his embrace. "Many women, hah! I'm sure."
"Jealous?" His lips quirk up into a half smile. "It's not an attractive quality for you."
I shake my head and look around at the sea of unfamiliar faces. It's dark and eerie in here, unwelcome but expected for a prison. An Airbender keeps looking over at me, a soft curiosity to his expression. He's older, possibly around Pakku's age, wearing long orange robes and a heavy beaded necklace. He smiles at me when he catches me staring, and then turns away to talk to—Hama and Pakku? When did they get here?
"Who is that?" I ask Bowen, gesturing toward the old man. When I get no response, I turn to see him staring off with such a stony face that I blink several times to make sure I'm not imagining it. I've never seen him look so serious. I try to follow his line of vision, to see who he's staring at, but everyone is too cramped together for me to tell. "Hey, you okay?" I ask, touching his arm.
"Yeah." He blinks and looks back at me. "What were you saying?"
I look back into the crowd, but the Airbender is gone, and so are Hama and Pakku. "Never mind," I say with a sigh.
When Bowen introduces me around, I do my best to be friendly, but it feels fake, even to me. His presence is welcome to everyone it seems, and the mood shifts into something more pleasant. I meet the female tribute from Seven, Lily, and she seems about as dangerous as a baby moose lion. She has to be a daughter of a previous victor or she won on a fluke. The girl who I saw Bowen kiss when we first arrived is named Midori. She's a petite thing, but size is not always an accurate reader. Vachir is a previous victor from Four. No children. He's tall and scarred all over and frightening. He doesn't say a word to me, but Bowen tells me he's the best shooter there is. I believe him. I remember watching him in the training center.
"The Capital wanted him to join the Guards," says Bowen, "but he wouldn't do it."
"Good to know there are still some sensible people in this world, unlike you." Bitterness seeps out of my voice. I lean closer and say in an angry whisper, "When were you going to tell me you train Elites and Guards?"
"My apologies," he says, half playfully and half serious. "I didn't realize our relationship progressed that far."
To my annoyance, I feel my face flush. I look away from him, focusing on the flickering candles along the walls. "Part of me hates you, you know, as irrational as it might be," I say quietly. "For mentoring Jet. But then you helped me save Zuko and for that…I can't hate you. Then I find out you train Elites and Guards, and yet you're also a member of…" I let the sentence drop, not feeling safe enough to use the words out loud. I look back at him and he's watching me, expressionless, the dim gold light sharpening the lines of his face. "I can't figure you out and I can't decide if it's worth the struggle to try."
He glances down, his eyes narrowing in thought. He reaches toward my waist and tugs on the bison whistle I had June integrate into my dress. I also have Zuko's dagger hidden beneath the layers and folds. I hardly go anywhere without it now.
"This is interesting," he says, his thumb stroking the ivory carving. The buzzing around us might as well not exist and he's standing close enough that I can almost feel his breath. After a beat of silence, he asks quietly, "What do you want to know?"
Distracted by the movement of his hand, I hesitate. It's long enough for me to look up and lock gazes with Zuko across the hall. Even though there are two sponsors talking to him, he's utterly still, his hand cupped stiff at the back of his neck. Lips parted slightly, as though he was in conversation and froze, his expression is completely blank.
But then he drops his hand and turns away from me.
"He hides it well," says Bowen, amused. "Better than you do."
"What?" My voice cracks a little and I cough to clear it.
But Bowen doesn't say anything else. Our "dinner" is nothing more than mini bites of dishes. Sokka would not approve. Like the victor's celebration dinner a few weeks ago, we are supposed to stand and eat so we can talk. Mingle, like Bowen says. It's so silly to me. Why can't I just huddle around a warm pot over the fire and enjoy a nice, normal meal?
Pakku and Hama pretty much neglect me. They spend more time talking to their "friends" but I don't have the heart to say anything to them. They may never see some of these people again. I stay close to Bowen, since he seems to know everyone.
My first real uncomfortable moment is with Sage. She has black jagged hair, chin length, and several studs pierced through her ears. Not quite as scrawny as when I watched her compete, but she's still a whole head shorter than me. Her grey eyes are bleak and glassy, like she's seen far more than what her age indicates. Her interest in me is alarming, but I feel strange talking to someone who can't talk back.
Bowen surprises me by knowing a language with his hands, and they communicate that way. I just stand here awkwardly, desperate to go find Pakku and Hama, but they are now talking to the strangest looking man I've ever seen. He's wearing the most elaborate purple and green robes, his grey hair sticking out in all directions. The way everyone else is eyeing him carefully makes me stay where I am. I'll have to ask Pakku who he is later.
Bowen laughs suddenly and I turn to see Sage saunter off with what must be her mentor. "What did she say? I mean, what did she…sign?"
"She said a lot of things," he says carefully, trying to hide his amusement.
"No, what did she say just now," I say sharply. "She said something about me, didn't she?"
He just laughs, infuriating me further. I don't get the chance to question him further because the giant screen flashes bright and silence fills the hall. The candles dim so the hall is nearly dark, the screen glowing brighter. It flickers a little and then Zhao's face comes into focus. Without a word, I leave Bowen to find Pakku and Hama as Zhao begins to speak.
Moving through the crowded hall proves to be difficult as I can barely see. I bump and push my way through, apologizing over and over and keeping my face down. I finally catch sight of their blue robes, but when I move toward them, I bump into someone else who actually grabs my elbow and spins me around.
"What are you doing?" Zuko hisses at me, low enough so only I will hear.
I try to yank my arm free, but his grip is too tight. "Um, going to my team. What are you doing?" I whisper.
"You know that's not what I meant."
I stare at him blankly, but in the darkness all I can really see is the gold of his eyes. "No, I really don't."
"My father thinks highly of him and his...talents." There is bitterness and anger in his voice, and maybe a little jealousy. "But I don't trust him." Zuko's eyes flick in my direction briefly before flickering away. "He'll just hurt you in the end," he says.
You don't even get it, do you? For the first time in a very long time, I let myself feel. I acknowledge it. Embrace it.
"Like you haven't?" I say in a cracking voice. "Like he could possibly hurt me the way you can? Like you have?"
Zuko doesn't look back at me, but he goes so still I swear he stops breathing. He remains that way, the only movement his fists clenching at his side. Then his chin drops slightly. Shame. He tilts his head away, but not before I see the guilt and pain that's there. But he won't say anything. I know he won't.
I wanted to hurt him with words as much as he has me, but I don't feel any relief. I just feel numb.
I catch sight of Pakku watching me. Zuko doesn't stop me when I walk away. If his gaze follows me, I don't know. I don't look back, even with every step that feels so resistant it's like I'm wading through snow.
Pakku doesn't say anything to me. He just sighs and looks back at the screen. Hama smiles at me, her eyes twinkling with the pretty blue shadow our artists must have applied. I catch the end of what Zhao is saying.
"…the tributes have been ranked based on their scores." The screen flickers, and a list of names and numbers flashes across it. Zhao begins reading down the list, but I tune him out, reading it for myself:
1. Chong Li
4. Chit Sang
11. Xin Fu
There is cheering and hollering from the hall. I stare at the list with a little confusion. Zuko is ranked ninth? That seems lower than what I expect. Bin is ranked above him? The scared young boy who was practically crying when his name was called? I can hardly believe it. Maybe Zuko and Iroh have a strategy for him to coast somewhere in the middle. That was our strategy with Hama. Seeing Pakku at number two makes me proud though.
"Nice job, old man," I say to him with a grin. He doesn't say anything, but I swear the corners of his lips twitch, like he wants to smile.
The screen flashes again, and this time there is a new list. The bracket for the Duels. It shows the list of dueling groups, as well as how the winners will advance. Zhao's voice is barely audible over the commotion around the room. I focus on just the list of groups:
Duel 1 – Vachir, Hama, Bin, Lola
Duel 2 – Pakku, Iona, Gyatso, Midori
Duel 3 – Bowen, Akita, Zuko, Iko
Duel 4 – Chit Sang, Meeko, Sage, Sanyu
Duel 5 – Chong Li, Xin Fu, Yuko, Dock
Duel 6 – Lia, Mina, Tyro, Lily
I feel my stomach twist, my heart nearly stopping. Hama has to face Vachir and his shooting. Poor Dock is in the same bracket as the number one ranked tribute, easily the scariest man here. Zuko and Bowen are in the same duel. One of them could die. Both of them could. They will have to fight together, and then fight each other.
And all I can do is watch.
A/N: Thanks for reading! So this is really ironic. What I did first was list all the tributes. Then I ranked them in order from how I thought they would perform in the training session, who would perform badly on purpose, etc. Then I made one of those basketball brackets. You always even the numbers out, so like in the first bracket you have numbers 5, 13, 7, and 19 fighting against each other. The irony is that I didn't even realize Zuko and Bowen would be fighting each other. It just came out that way. :P
MHZutaraFanGirl: "Long story short, my brother got diagnosed with cancer so we're staying with him for Christmas, and his internet access is terrible" - I am so sorry to hear about your brother. My grandma was diagnosed a few years ago and thankfully was able to get rid of it. I wish him all the best!
"I personally put it on high standards in the fanfiction world, and it's not even complete yet." - Thank you so much! I wasn't sure how it would go over since TBG was so action packed. But I'm pleased you are enjoying it so. :D
"Random theory time: I think that maybemaybeif Katara dies in all of this (please don't do such an evil thing), Zuko may battle his father like Aang did in the series finale. Either that, or Katara will battle Ozai." - I have to say one of my biggest challenges has been trying to figure out who will be fighting Ozai. (Because we all know there has to be a battle there, lol.) I think I know the direction I want to go, but that could always change. :P
rayningnight: "I totally agree with my friend that you should publish this for REAL. This is not total plagiarizing ATLA or THG since you've managed to weave almost completely different things into it! You'd get money! And fame!" - Haha! Well, it really WOULD be plagiarizing. :P But I appreciate the thought! Hopefully I will be able to write my own book someday. That's the plan at least. Then bring on the money and fame! lmao
"Okay, now about this Q/A for the characters... what's that about?" - Basically every so many reviews (usually 300) I let the readers ask a single quesstion to a character of their choosing. :) The next session is when we reach 1,400 so that means readers will be able to ask next update! :) And yes, you would just ask the question in your review. ;)
"Will the Avatar exist in this story?" - Not in this story, no. Everything that the Avatar represents is already present in these characters. Just in a different way. Power, leadership, hope, etc.
meli101: "Writers who are smutty and use smut as a way to 'show' love really bother me. I think you can show love or affection through the little things." - Yeah, I prefer the little things too. I'm not a huge smut fan..especially if they haven't developed a relationship yet.
"My only concern is that the children who were chosen, why didn't their parent volunteer, or did the people who actually volunteered, volunteer for the districts where the children were chosen?" - Only those who had names into the reaping could volunteer. Since Zuko's name was in there (because he's the child of a previous victor) he was able to volunteer. Remember, those who could be chosen were the children of previous victors, or victors who had no children. Chong Li, for example, had no children to "sacrifice" so to say, so his name went in. Ozai is a previous victor, so he did not have to put his name in, but he had to put his child in. Hope that makes sense. :P
Sabby: "are elements of Korra going to be presented in the story?" - Not so much in this one (a little toward the end) but definitely in the third and final story in this trilogy. :D
emms: "am I the only one who thinks BOWEN HAS A CRUSH ON KATARA?" - Haha I don't think you are the only one.