Chapter 21 - Visitor
The first round of the tournament finally arrives. Jeong Jeong sticks to his word and only provides money for armor and protective boots. Joo Dee and I use a portion of Sen's donation to purchase water, bandages, and a healing token of each rank. I think the healing tokens are a waste of money, but Joo Dee says they may not allow Hama and Pakku to heal themselves. The store will be open throughout the entire tournament, but items become more expensive as the rounds progress. If we're going to buy healing tokens, I guess it's a good thing we are buying them now rather than later.
On the morning of the first round, the cafeteria is uncomfortably tense during breakfast. Somehow the stone benches feel colder than before, and the dreariness has nothing to do with the windowless walls and lack of sunshine. Even though I'm not competing, I feel that same sense of dread. I don't want to lose anyone I care about. A quick scan of the cafeteria lets me know no one else does either.
Guests have been pooling in all morning, escorted by Guards to the main arena underground. I haven't seen any of them, but it's hard not to hear the footsteps of hundreds of people in the stone corridors whispering animatedly in excitement. Zhao said the arena holds forty-thousand. I can't even imagine fighting in front of that many people. It also puts into perspective just how many Fire citizens there are, since no one from other provinces—except for the tributes' families—are allowed to be a spectator.
I try to calm by nerves by taking a sip of tea, but it's tasteless and discomforting. Sugar and honey doesn't help either. The cafeteria is nearly silent with just us mentors. The tributes had to go straight to their holding cells underground. I found out this morning that from now on, all food they receive throughout the tournament has to be paid for by our sponsors. I purchased bread, water and soup this morning for Pakku and Hama and had it sent to their cell. I don't think they'll want anything heavy and it was inexpensive.
They'll be waiting in a temporary holding cell before everyone is taken to the arena. The final hour before midday—when the tournament actually begins—the tributes are allowed visitors. Just like with the Black Games. When I read this bit in the scroll, my mind immediately drifted into the direction I've been trying to avoid.
Should I visit Zuko? Or should I just stick with my team and spend the final hour with them? There is never enough time for strategy, right? What if they have questions I need to answer? Our Elites will be there, too. Maybe they need to talk to me. Suddenly I feel like all our hours of preparation aren't good enough.
The White Lotus has been ordered to ensure that Zuko makes it out alive. But that doesn't mean Pakku, Hama, Bowen, or even Sage has to die in the process. I have to try everything I can to make sure everyone comes back. But what if our plan fails? What if I never see Zuko again? Even worse, what if Zuko and my tributes die? Or Bowen, what about him? Don't I owe him something for everything he's done?
As much as I try to ignore it, the thoughts continue to bug me as I finish up breakfast.
Part of me is a little afraid, afraid of what to say to any of them. My heart constricts when I think about how my dad must have felt. How do you prepare for this? How do you decide what to say to someone when you might never have the chance again? Is there even a right way to say a potential goodbye?
Suddenly I remember Iroh this morning. Seeing him barely sit down for tea before leaving the cafeteria. He didn't even look at me. I don't think he noticed anything at all. His thoughts were on Zuko, and only him. Iroh will spend as much time as he can with his nephew. Zuko will not be alone.
Hama and Pakku will be though. They don't have anyone but me. And no one should spend their final hour alone.
I finish the rest of my cold porridge quickly, and then make my way to the holding cells. Visitors are starting to arrive, escorted by the Guards. A woman is sobbing in the cell on my right, but I can't make out what tribute is in there and who she is sobbing for. More Guards are posted along the corridors, so I just keep walking, pretending not to hear.
I pass more cells, feeling a sense of wrongness that I'm hearing such personal and private conversations. But the cells have iron bars for doors, so it's impossible to avoid. I try to tune all the voices out and keep moving—why must my tributes be so far away?—but it's hard to ignore the desperation and crying. But as hard as I concentrate on ignoring it all, I still catch a familiar voice saying, "You don't look well. Have you been eating? You know how…"
I step up to the cell and peer through the bars, ignoring the two Guards stationed outside the door. Inside I see the back of a woman dressed in a tattered ivory gown. Her hair is a dull black, wispily long and dead looking. Her body is frail and small, almost like a sick child. The lighting is dim, but I can still make out who is sitting in front of her on the bed and clasping her hands—Bowen.
"Keep moving, Victor," says one of the Guards.
The voice makes the woman jump. She turns around sharply and squints at me; Bowen cranes his neck around her thin body to look, too. It's hard to tell, but the color seems to drain from his face.
"Who is there?" the woman calls out anxiously. "Who are you? Why are you in my house?"
Bowen gets to his feet and very gently moves the woman to the side. The Guard grips my arm tightly and starts to shove me away, but Bowen is there in a flash. "She's visiting me, too," he says. "Let her in."
"You know the rules. Only one visitor at a time," says the Guard.
"Do we really need to talk about rules, Wong? Or should I remind you of the incident a few months back? Let her in." There Guard shifts uncomfortably and then opens the door; the sound of it dragging against the stone floor makes me cringe. The other Guard pretends not to notice anything.
Once the Guards turn away Bowen throws me an anxious, almost fearful sort of look before going back to the woman. He speaks soothingly to her, and it's like I'm not here at all. I barely manage a step inside, wanting more than anything to be anywhere else. The door clicks shut behind me, locking me in.
With my back pressed to the cold door, I peer around and see a tall, thick looking man in ivory robes. He's standing in the corner, like a spectator. He hasn't moved an inch, but his body is very tense. The woman is whispering in Bowen's ear, speaking so quickly I can't catch even a word of it. Her fingers knot into her robes anxiously.
"She's a friend of mine," Bowen reassures the woman. "Her name is Katara."
The woman looks at me suddenly, blinking. Closer to the light of the flame, I can see her a little more. I can't tell if her withered face is strictly from age, or if fatigue and sickness is also a factor. Either way, she is a sad thing to look at. She isn't well. That much I know.
"Why are you in my house?" she asks me quietly. Her green eyes are intense and probing, demanding. I swallow uncomfortably and look at Bowen expectantly.
"I invited her," he tells her. There is a certain care in the way that he's looking at the woman, like she's going to break any moment. When he looks back at me, there's that hesitancy and fear again. He almost looks afraid of me, which doesn't make any sense. All I know is that I don't belong here.
I clear my throat. "I should probably leave. I was just…I'm sorry."
Before I can, however, the woman quickly asks, "Are you one of those people?"
She lets go of Bowen and moves toward me, her bare feet padding across the floor. I wonder how she stands the cold and why she isn't wearing any shoes. Bowen follows closely behind, wary. The man in the corner shifts from foot to foot.
"Do you fight?" she whispers. I don't know what she means, exactly, or what I should say. Her gaze drifts to my throat. "I don't like them," she says. "They took him from me." Her eyes well up with tears. I look at Bowen in alarm, but he looks so anguished all of the sudden that I don't know what to do. "They killed my son!" the woman screams. "They took him from me! You are the same! MURDERER!"
Then she lunges at me. She's surprisingly quick, but Bowen moves faster. His arms encircle her body as she continues to wail and scream. The Guards wrench open the door and the man in the ivory robes moves out of his corner. I catch the flash of silver in his hand—a needle.
"She'll calm down," Bowen tells him, pulling the woman closer. She just continues sobbing and screaming, struggling in his arms.
"They killed him!" she keeps yelling. "He is dead, dead, dead!"
"Just give her a minute," says Bowen. I've never seen him look or sound so desperate.
"She has been here too long, Master Bowen," says the other man. "It is too much. Give her to me."
"Just wait," Bowen implores, but at the sight of the warning from the Guards, fire whips in hand, he lets her go. The woman practically runs into the arms of the robed man, pounding at his chest. Bowen watches helplessly, his expression broken. The man raises the needle and, before I can do so much as take a step, plunges it into her arm. It's a few seconds before the woman calms down, but eventually her breathing relaxes and her body shakes with quiet sobs.
The man puts an arm around the woman's shoulders. "Let's take a walk, Miss Mica. How about I read you some of The Dragon Lady?"
The woman presses her palms to her eyes. "I…I don't know that story," she says helplessly.
"Of course you do. It's one of your favorites," says the man. He guides the woman to the door. The Guards have smartly removed the fire, but are still standing close. The man distracts the woman from the Guards by keeping her face tilted toward his as he whispers to her.
"Five minutes," a Guard says to me, before shutting the door and resuming his post.
What just happened?
"How did her son die?" I ask quietly, staring at the iron bars of the door.
There is a long stretch of silence. "He didn't," Bowen says finally.
At his tone I look at him. And that's all I need. His posture, the sadness in his eyes, the carefully hidden agony on his face, the way he's staring at the door like he just watched it burn to ash.
"You," I whisper. "You're her son."
He looks over at me and the corner of his lips turn up in response, only it's a very sad, very tired sort of smile.
"Why doesn't she know who you are? I mean…I'm sorry," I say quickly, flushing. "That's none of my business. I didn't even mean to come in here, I just—"
"She forgets," he cuts in, plunking down on the bed. I find myself taking a seat next to him without even realizing it. "Some days she doesn't even know her name. The healers don't know what's wrong with her, but they haven't been able to heal her. We've tried everything." A hand rakes through his hair. "Her illness is in the mind, and Waterbender's haven't found ways to heal the mind yet. At least not hers."
What a heartbreaking thing, to have a life you don't even remember. To have a son you don't remember. I find myself conflicted between wanting to know more and wanting to run from the cell.
"How long has she been this way?" I ask despite myself.
"She'd always forget things, but they were small things, like forgetting to dry the clothes, or forgetting what ingredients we needed to buy from the market. I didn't think anything of it, you know?" Bowen gives a small, stiff shrug. "It got a little worse when I was about ten. She forgot the way home. But I didn't think she was sick—just forgetful."
"That's understandable," I say. "It's not your fault, you know."
He shakes his head. "If I had known, I could have done something sooner."
"You were just a kid. How could you know?"
"I don't know," he says quietly, shaking his head again. We sit in silence a moment. "It got bad after I won the Games," he says finally. "About a year after I won, she forgot everything. Thought I died in the Games. Her mind mixed up reality and fantasy. She functions somewhere in between. She knows my face, knows it's familiar, but she doesn't know who I am. Whenever I try to tell her, she just gets worked up again. So I stopped trying to force her to remember. Maybe she just needs to remember on her own, I don't know."
My heart breaks for him. I want to tell him I know how he feels, but I don't. I have no idea. Suddenly, though, pieces of Bowen's life start making a little more sense. Our conversation in the ally of Province One comes back to me:
"Maybe I just believe in what you're doing."
"And what's that?"
"Saving someone you love." He looks away then, the muscles in his jaw working. "Not everyone can."
"Maybe she will remember with time," I offer him gently.
"It's been six years," he says, defeated.
I try another angle. "What about your father?"
"What father?" Bowen laughs, but it sounds hollow and bitter. "He stayed around long enough to knock my mother up. And then he left."
I cringe at his choice of words. "Then you're all she has. Don't give up on her yet."
"I haven't," he says with a sigh. "That's why we're still here."
"What do you mean?"
He looks at me then, his eyes softening. "The less you know, the better off you'll be. Trust me on that."
The door bangs open. "One minute," says one of the Guards in warning. He slams the door shut.
"There is no better off for me," I say, getting to my feet. I hesitate a moment, my fingers playing with the bison whistle. My voice lowers. "Don't think I haven't considered the fact that you could betray all of us and kill Zuko in the first round if the Fire Lord wants you to."
"You have that little faith in his fighting ability?" says Bowen, amused.
"I have plenty of faith in his fighting ability, but you don't fight fair," I say. "Your dagger throwing is practically cheating."
"It's not, actually," says Bowen. His voice drops slightly. "And besides, the Fire Lord wouldn't order me to do that. I'm too valuable to him to paint a target on my back."
"We both know you could make it an accident."
"Probably," he agrees. He leans back on his hands, grinning. "You are determined to make me a villain and I haven't done a single thing to betray you. Or hurt you."
"I know." I sigh, frustrated. "I just..."
"It's hard for you to trust people with people you care about," he says. "You think I don't understand that?"
I immediately feel bad, thinking of his mother. I wonder who cares for her now. Is she all alone in Province 6, while Bowen lives here? I'm about to ask, but he says, "Look, Kat. Not many people know about my mom and I want to keep it that way. Alright?"
"I wasn't going to tell anyone." I grin at him slightly. "Your fangirls would be heartbroken."
"They don't hold a candle to the woman my mother once was," he says. The protective tone in his voice makes me proud, of all things, and even a little sad. I wish I could have known my mom enough to feel that way.
The Guard opens the door again. "Time's up."
I find Pakku's cell first. We waste no time and immediately talk strategy. He seems certain the first round will be easy to survive.
"Just send in the water once the round begins," he says. "Save everything else for later rounds."
I look at the armor sitting on the floor. "You need to wear that," I say, pointing to it. "I didn't go through all that trouble with Jeong Jeong so it could be wasted."
"I'm not wearing that," snaps Pakku. "It's too heavy and I can hardly move in it."
"It's resistant to fire," I point out. "You'll be thanking me when you encounter a dragon or a Master Firebender."
He mutters something under his breath that I don't quite catch it. We go over last minute details before I leave. I need to get going so I can visit with Hama. My throat suddenly feels a little thick. I know everything I should say, but none of it comes out.
I find myself hugging Pakku so tightly it surprises even me. He's a little stunned, a little stiff, but eventually he relaxes just long enough to hug me back briefly.
"Alright," he says gruffly. "Alright. I'm not dead yet."
I laugh and quickly wipe under my eyes. "I know. I want you to know I'm going to do everything I can to help."
"Try not to do anything stupid, then."
"Try not to get yourself killed in the first round."
He waves his hand dismissively and moves to the bed. Pulling back a thin layer of covers, he picks up a small, pain wooden box.
"What's that? Did you get me a present?" I ask playfully.
"He sent this for you. Thought you'd be here." Pakku hands me the box. "Guess he was right."
My smile vanishes and my breath stills. I flip off the lid. A note covers what is hidden inside. Pushing the note aside, I reach into the box and pull out a very familiar blue pendent. My thumb brushes the grooves that have been shaped to resemble water. The stone feels smoother than usual, like it's been polished. But most impressively, the blue fabric is no longer torn. The stitching is barely noticeable.
I swallow a lump in my throat and reach for the note, wishing that I had read it first. Now I just feel dread and sadness. Predictably, the note is short and to the point:
I'm sorry it took me so long.
My fingers curl around the pendant as I clutch it to my heart.
"He's in the last cell on the right," says Pakku, a little reluctantly.
I nod and take a deep breath, making my way toward the cell door. I turn around and smile at my mentor. "Good luck, old man," I say. It isn't until I'm outside the iron barred door do I hear him.
"And you, foolish girl."
I pass more and more visitors in the corridor. Many are crying. One man is being detained by two Guards. Making all the tributes say goodbye in the same corridor has to be emotionally draining on them. Maybe that's what the Elites are going for. Destroying their emotions before they even start.
"A visitor, Prince Zuko," says one of the Guards stationed at the prince's cell.
Zuko looks up. Two healers are wrapping his hands and wrists with a familiar material I've seen Sokka wear on his forearms. Sokka swears warriors need them to fight, but I always thought he was trying to make a fashion statement.
"Katara?" Zuko sounds as surprised as I feel. "Let her in."
I step inside, suddenly nervous. To stay distracted, I play with the pendant in my hands. It barely helps. Just say thank you, and leave. Don't be stupid.
Zuko whispers something to the healers. They bow in response and exit the room. The door slams loudly, making me jump. Just like that, we're alone.
I don't even know where to start. When I look up, I'm relieved that Zuko isn't staring at me. Actually he's trying to finish wrapping his hands—unsuccessfully.
I slip the pendant into my front pocket. "Let me do that," I say to him. As expected, he ignores me, and as he should expect, I bat his hands away and do it myself. "You're not very good at this sort of thing."
"I've always had other people do it for me."
A snort of laughter escapes me. "Well, of course you have." I stay focused on the wrapping. It provides for a good distraction on top of the nosy corridor. The noise outside fuels my nerves though. It's not long until I have to go to the arena. "Have you had many visitors?"
"Not many I care about."
I want to ask if his father has visited, but somehow that seems rude. Or maybe I just don't want to know the answer.
"Are you ready?" I ask him, tugging the wrapping tight on his left hand. I move to the right one. "Have you and Iroh prepared for the other tributes? What about the dragons and other creatures they might send in?"
"Did you come here just to interrogate me?" he asks, somehow managing to sound irritated and amused at the same time.
"No." I tug the wrapping extra tight. "I came here because…" I look up and words die in my throat. Not because we're standing so close I can practically feel his breath. Not because he's shirtless—which I just now notice. The hesitation is because I don't know why I'm here, exactly. At least I find it hard to say in words.
"What token are you taking into the arena?" I blurt out suddenly.
He blinks at me. "What?"
"Are you taking your crown again?"
He makes a face and I immediately regret asking, knowing we're thinking the same thing. The last time that crown saw the arena it was stabbed into the princess by me.
"No," he says. He pulls free from me then and walks over to grab his tunic off the bed. He slips it over his head. "I'm not taking anything in. Why?"
"Will you wear something for me then?" I ask, my heart suddenly racing. The idea seems to come from nowhere, and yet I feel like it's been there the whole time.
He raises a brow in question. "Like what?"
I reach into my robes and hold out my pendant. I can already see the hesitation forming on his face so I reach out and grab his hand. Carefully, I tie the pendant around his right wrist like a bracelet. I can't bear to see his reaction, so without looking at him I say quietly, "I know this might sound stupid, but I feel like I should be out there with you. At least this way, part of me will be."
I step back once I finish tying it. Zuko looks at the pendant and then back at me. I force myself to meet his gaze.
"I can't wear this," he says quietly. "Not when I know what it means to you."
"That's exactly why I want you to wear it." My voice is just as quiet. My heart is beating so fast I can't believe he doesn't hear it. I thought you should know how much you mean to me, I want to say, but I can't.
He opens his mouth to speak, possibly to protest, but I cut him off, "Promise you'll bring it back to me."
He sighs, resigned. "I promise you will get it back."
"That's not the same thing."
His eyes flicker to my face. "I know."
Before I can overthink it, I fling my arms around his neck. The hug takes Zuko by surprise, but after a moment his arms slide around my waste and hold me tight. The top of his head rests on top of mine. "Don't die, okay?"
I expect some sort of sarcastic remark, or some comment about bossing him around, but he just says "Okay."
"I know you don't trust him, but Bowen is your ally out there," I say. "Trust me on that."
He doesn't say anything, but I know his silence is more of a defeated agreement than a protest.
"I have to go," I say, but I make no move to do so.
We stand like that for what feels like forever, but in reality is probably only a few minutes. Finally he releases me. I have this feeling like I need to remind him of everything he might need to know for the Duels, but I clamp down on my tongue lightly to stop myself. He's prepared. He's ready. Just let him go.
"You're going to do fine," I say, a little more panicky than I'd like. "You and Bowen will win this round."
"I won't." He smiles slightly. "You're on watch."
I smile back, but it hurts my chest to do it. The panic I'm feeling is so bad I almost start shaking. "Nothing gets past my watch," I manage to say with some effort.
Zuko pulls me back to his chest. "Do you still have the dagger I gave you?" he asks against my hair.
"Yes," I say, confused.
"Good. Keep it with you."
"I can't protect you when the Duels start."
I pull back and give him a look. "I don't need you to protect me, you know."
"Sometimes you do." He leans down and presses his lips to my forehead. Then he pulls something from his robes and places it in my hands. Cold, smooth, sharp and familiar. His crown. "And sometimes I need you to protect me."
My fingers curl around the crown. I lean forward so our foreheads touch. "Always," I say.
"Always," he says back.
A/N: Thanks for reading! I apologize for the terribly long wait. I was battling sickness this whole month. Sinus infection and the flu. Boo! I appreciate you guys waiting and hope you liked it. :D Time for a character Q&A, yes? Remember you get only one question, so choose wisely! Oh and don't forget I can't answer spoilery stuff. :P
Next chapter..the action begins!