"That's the one!" Yon Rha shouted, pointing at a small girl as he and his men ran towards her, shooting fire from their hands and feet as they went, cutting down any in their path. One of the men snatched the screaming child from her mother's grasp. The warriors of the Southern Water Tribe fought back harder, reaching for the young girl as the Fire Nation soldiers started back to their ship, struggling to repel the warriors and the hold on to the writhing child.
Many such raids had weakened the tribe over the years, and though they put up an admirable fight, their last Waterbender was ripped from them, taken by the elite task force created just for that purpose: The Southern Raiders. Though they sent their boats after Yon Rha's ship, it was in vain. Fueled by superior technology, the Fire Nation soldiers carried off the child, where she lived in isolation for the next ten years under the care of another prisoner.
"Again, Katara," the hag commanded. "Unless you want to spend the rest of your life a prisoner in this metal can, I suggest you perfect that move."
The fourteen-year-old blew her long chestnut hair off her forehead in frustration. Ten years had been long enough to acclimate her to the warmth of Fire Nation summers, but a small part of her mind remembered the tundra of her home, remembered the fresh, crisp wind as it blew through her childhood village. The faces of her family had grown dim in her mind with the passage of time; the only familiar faces she saw now were those of the hag who was escorted to her tower for her Waterbending lessons, and the kind, loving face of the woman who had cared for her in the early years of her imprisonment. That lady had been taken from her two years before, when the two ancient women in charge of her instruction had deemed her capable of taking care of herself.
"Yes, Sifu," Katara said meekly, mastering her frustration, if not her Waterbending. She attempted the motion again, a simple, sweeping movement of the hand designed to pull the moisture from the air, a last resort for a Waterbender in a desperate situation. The ancient instructresses were coming that week to examine her progress, and if she mastered this form, she would be allowed out of the grounds for the first time in ten years. Granted, it would be for more training, but the thought of being among other people again was intoxicating. She looked at her hand, dismayed to see nothing forming on her hand.
"You're not focusing, Katara," Hama chided, taking a sip of her tea. "Feel the water, call it to you, and then pull it from the air."
Katara closed her eyes, reaching out with her qi to feel the water in the air, sensing the droplets that she couldn't see with her eyes. She focused her energy on pulling them to her and reached out her hand, sweeping it around as though knocking items off a counter top. As she felt the moisture condense on her finger tips she froze it, opening them as she heard the hag speak.
"Now throw them."
Without thinking, she directed the daggers on her fingers towards the target on wall, a slightly shredded picture of a wizened man with a blue arrow on his forehead. Two impaled his eyes, one his nose, a fourth his mouth and the final hit the tip of the arrow in the center of his head.
"Well done, Katara," she said, her voice full of pride. "The masters will be pleased." A knock echoed from below, and the older woman shifted to her feet. "It seems our lesson is over. Continue practicing. Next month we begin work on our final lesson. After that, you will be a Master Waterbender, and our time will come to an end."
"What will become of me then?" the teenager asked.
"That is a question for the masters, girl, not for me," she answered. "I was to train you until you reached your apex and then I would be set free. Perhaps you, too, will be given a task to complete to gain your freedom. I cannot say. I must go now. I will see you tomorrow." She offered a traditional Fire Nation bow to her student and then ambled down the stairs of the tower, where the female guards allowed her to leave before bolting the door behind her.
Alone again, Katara sighed and continued to practice the motions she had just learned, watching as the old airbender's face shredded under her assault. Practice, practice, practice. It was all that her life was. Clean the tower, read her history books (given her imperfect memory of the few years she'd spent at home, she couldn't be sure, but she didn't think their information of the Water Tribe was entirely accurate), practice her Waterbending, and sometimes go out into the courtyard of the tower, with its high walls, to practice with the hag.
She called her that in her thoughts more often than not, though her name was Hama. They were from the same tribe, as it turned out, and in her youth, Hama had even been friends with Katara's grandmother. She often told Katara that she had the look of Kanna, her grandmother. Hama was forbidden, so she said, to speak much of how she came to be in the Fire Nation, but she said that she had not been there when Katara's father and mother had married, so she didn't know if she looked like her mother.
The one thing that Katara still had of home, that only her caretaker from her early years in the tower knew of, was the necklace her mother had given her on her last birthday in the tribe. That lady, and somehow, Katara knew she had been a lady, not just a woman, as surely as she knew that there was a distinction in the two, had been called Kula, though she had admitted, when she knew that soon she would be leaving, that it was not her real name. She had hidden a letter, she said, to Katara, for her to read on her fifteenth birthday, with Katara's necklace, that would explain many things, including why Katara was in this tower. All Katara wanted to know was when she would see Kula and her family again.
Her birthday was approaching. Soon she would read the letter. Though she had often been tempted to do so before the appointed time, her respect and affection for Kula had made her uphold the lady's wishes. After the drawing was completely shredded, and she'd exhausted her memories of Kula's kind smile, she decided to do her chores, sweeping and mopping the tower until it shone. She made a fire with spark rocks and created a savory stew from her stock of meat and vegetables that was brought to her by the guards. Not for the first time, she wondered why all her guards and teachers had been female, as if her captors (she refused to think of them as caretakers, though she had been told to do so), did not want her to interact with any males, ever. In her memory stood only two male faces with clarity, one fully grown, whose real name, if he had one, had long been forgotten; her father. The other was that of a boy not much older than herself, and she could hear his name in her mind, though whenever she tried to speak it, it always came out sounding wrong, as though a child were saying it.
Why shouldn't she see the village, at least, she wondered for what must have been the thousandth time. She'd been brought a new book by the Masters the last time they'd come to inspect her progress, and she supposed she'd read it. As far as she could tell, it was an account of the royal family of the Fire Nation, up to and including the children of the current Firelord, which confused her for the rest of the evening. Insofar as she had read in all of her Fire Nation histories, it was always the first born child who had become Firelord, unless he or she had died before being able to ascend the throne, but the current Firelord, Ozai, had been given the throne while his older brother, a high-ranked military officer with years of battlefield training, was still living. Something didn't add up, and she was determined to ask the Masters, those ancient women had surely been around when the Firelord had been coronated. They would know what had happened.
She looked out at the sky, feeling the waning moon and realizing the night was still young, and that even if she went to bed, it would be the early morning, long before sunrise when she woke. She sighed in boredom and walked over to the one window her tower had. It was seventy feet from the ground – far too high to jump, even if she were a Master Waterbender. She had been taught healing; it was one of the first skills she'd learned, but even healing couldn't fix shattered bones, which she would surely have if she attempted to leap down the tower from the window. Unlike the princesses in the stories that Kula used to tell her, Katara did not have hair that she could let down and climb to reach the ground – perhaps for that very reason, hers only reached her waist. The only times she was allowed out into the courtyard was to practice her Waterbending and then only with Hama in attendance. There was no way out.
Boredom and frustration combined in Katara and she stalked to the center of the room, gathering all the water in the many large barrels scattered through the room to her to take her frustrations out on the impregnable steel walls of her tower. After nearly twenty minutes of exhausting herself, the solution to her boredom and her temporary freedom forming the octopus form around her and when she realized it, she wanted to hit herself in the head with a waterwhip. She gauged the amount of water she held in her hands versus the distance the ground. Too thin and the ice would break, but too thick and the distance between the end of the ice slide and the ground would be too great, and she wouldn't make it. She checked the window – she couldn't remember the guards ever coming that way, because no one suspected she'd be stupid enough to jump, and she'd never exhibited any resistance to her captivity before. I'm not really resisting my captivity now, she admitted to herself. Hama's word's earlier had given her hope that whenever she'd completed her task, she'd be set free, too, and be reunited with Kula, who was more family to her than those left behind in the South Pole. I'm resisting boredom and looking for a little bit of adventure in my hum-drum life.
There was no one down there. Now or never. She called the water to her and formed a slide that ended about ten feet above the ground. Any longer than that and she was afraid it would be too thin to hold her weight. She hadn't counted on the momentum of the ride down forcing her to the ground with so much speed, and she landed much harder than she'd expected, stifling a sharp cry of pain as she twisted her ankle at the bottom. As she looked up at her makeshift escape route, she also realized she hadn't really planned her return very well, for she couldn't slide up the ice, either, nor could she just leave all her bending water hovering in midair while she walked around in a cloak in the tiny village on festival night. She pulled it down and gently settled it just below the surface of the earth. It would take another Waterbender to know that there was a considerable amount of water waiting below the topsoil to be called into action, and she could spend the next hour or so (all the time she was allotting herself for exploration) to figure out her return.
"Festival Masks!" a voice called from the nearest stall as she made her way to the village, which she could see clearly from her tower. She hadn't known it was a masked festival. Kula had left many beautiful masks for her, but Katara didn't think to bring any with them. She would certainly stand out without one.
"Pretty mask for a pretty girl?" a man said, holding out a daintily painted china mask designed to look like the famous Painted Lady of Fire Nation mythology. Katara looked at it longingly. It was strikingly similar to one that Kula had in her collection. "I modeled it on one that Princess Ursa wore several years ago, though we're not supposed to speak of her," he continued.
"It's very lovely," she said, "but I'm afraid I can't." She started to back away, but a hand dropped some coins onto the wooden board the man used for his stall.
"She'll take it," a rough voice said. "It reminds me of a mask my mother once owned, and your hair is very much like hers, did you know that?" he asked, tying the silken cords behind her head to secure the mask in place before she could protest. She smiled beneath the mask.
"So," he said, his voice suddenly awkward, "do you – uh – live around here?"
"Yes," she said. She stifled her laughter. The smooth boy of moments ago was gone, replaced by an awkward teen in a fierce blue mask. "So if I'm the Painted Lady, who are you?"
"Oh, the Blue Spirit," he mumbled.
"I remember that story!" Katara exclaimed. "He rescued her from a tower, where she was being held by a witch who wanted to use her for her powers! In the end, they both died and she became the guardian spirit of a river somewhere not too far from here, didn't she?"
"Yeah," he said. "Her tower is just over there," he pointed towards Katara's home. "It's supposed to be a prison for a top-secret prisoner now. I wonder who they're keeping in there…"
"No one knows?" she asked, truly curious.
"Not really," he muttered. "I've tried to find out, but no one will tell me. Not even Uncle. It's always 'Practice your Firebending, and don't worry about matters of State,' with him, and even worse with my father."
"So, you worry about matters of State?" she asked, wondering just who her companion really was. If he was someone's son, even the son of a low-ranking official, his father might have enough pull to find out what her purpose in the Fire Nation was. But her question seemed to put the boy on his guard.
"NO! Er – not really. Peasants shouldn't worry about matters of State, should they?" he stammered. "They – er – we're just supposed to do whatever it is that we do and leave that to the Firelord, right?"
Katara tried not to laugh. He was completely failing at pretending to be a peasant, but then, she wasn't really sure what a peasant was supposed to do either, so how would she even know, she wondered. "I guess so. I don't really think about it," she admitted. "For me, it's always, 'The Masters will be coming to inspect your progress, so keep practicing and maybe soon you'll be a master, too.' All I ever do is practice my bending and my chores. It's boring. That's why I snuck out tonight," she admitted.
"I know exactly what you mean," he said with feeling. They meandered the stalls for a little while, not saying much, and Katara wondered what he looked like under his mask. She had, of course, seen pictures of the Firelord and his family, and wondered if this boy would look anything like the royal family. He had given himself away with his earlier speech, and she knew that no matter what he pretended, he was no mere peasant.
After about an hour, she began to notice an increase in the number of guards around the festival, but she said nothing to her companion; she didn't want him to realize she was the top secret prisoner he hadn't been able to discover information about. Part of her wondered if he knew already, for she couldn't help but notice that his eyes kept darting about, lingering on the additional guards as well, but she dismissed the idea, for he seemed to lead them away from them. It occurred to her that if his father was in government, and he was caught with her, he could be in a lot of trouble and his father could lose his position – or worse.
"It's been a very pleasant evening, but I really think I should go home now," she said, pulling her arm out from his, where it had seemed to find itself a warm and comforting home.
"I'll escort you," he said, putting his hand on hers and looping her arm back through his.
"It's really quite unnecessary," she argued, yanking her arm forcefully out of his grasp, her eyes on the approaching guards who were drawn by the appearance of a scene. Please just let me go, she thought. I'm trying to save you.
"I insist," he growled, grabbing her arm and tugging her along. As he did so, he bumped into the guards she'd been trying to escape, and both their masks slipped down.
"There you are!" the guard said.
"They're after me!" Katara and her companion said in unison. She turned and faced him, recognizing in an instant the face she'd seen in the paintings of the Firelord's family. She saw realization dawn in the golden eyes that met her blue ones.
"They're after you!" They asked each other.
"Do you trust me?" he asked.
"What?" she said, confused, clutching her mask in her hand.
"Do you trust me?" he repeated, his eyes intent as he looked down at her, guards coming to circle them. She was still uncertain if her escape had been the cause of their coming capture or if it was the presence of the Prince that was the reason.
"Yes," she answered, realizing it didn't matter. Discovery was inevitable. She would face it with him at her side, and that was a comforting thought.
"Then duck!" he shouted, and she did as he said, realizing that he was breathing fire at the guards as he spun in a quick circle, pulling a broadsword from a sheath she hadn't realized was on his back and grabbing her by the hand an instant later as the soldiers struggled to recover. "Run!"
"The tower!" she gasped. "I have water there! Lots of it!" They took off, ducking into side streets, Prince Zuko pulling her along by the hand. Luckily, the tower wasn't far, but rather than let her reach her water, he strolled to the gates of the courtyard and addressed the guards.
"I am Zuko, son of Ursa and Firelord Ozai, Crown Prince of the Fire Nation. You will let me pass," he said boldly, and in his voice was a note of steel. The female guard trembled for a moment and looked curiously down at Katara. "I'm going to escort the prisoner back to her tower and no one will hear of this. Is that understood?" From under his cloak, he withdrew a small bag, and Katara realized he was bribing her guard. The woman nodded and unlocked the gate.
Once they were inside, he looked at her oddly. "You're a Waterbender." There was no question in it, no inflection at all, but she nodded anyway. "Who is your Master?"
"Hama teaches me bending, but Lo and Li come to supervise and monitor my progress, my Lord," she answered meekly. All traces of the awkward masked peasant boy were gone, and in his place was a Prince, and she felt the difference.
"You really are the Painted Lady," he whispered. "My mother told me that story. But I'm no Blue Spirit."
"I understand," she said softly. "I don't want to be rescued, really. What I said before was true – I wasn't trying to escape. I was just bored and wanted to get outside for a little while. I can't even come out here to the courtyard unless I'm training with Hama."
"The guards," he stammered, stepping back, his awkwardness returning. "There might be some talk. If your Masters question you, deny everything. The guard at the gate will be reassigned tomorrow and a new one put in her place – I'll have my Uncle see to it. He's very good at these sort of things. Any soldier who saw you outside of the tower will be on the next boat to the Earth Kingdom, I promise. It's the best I can do."
"I told you, I don't want to be rescued," she repeated. "Hama told me that her job was to train me, and once I'm a Master, she'll be set free. She thinks that the same will be true for me. I'll have a job to do, and once I'm finished, I'll be set free, too. So, you see, a rescue or an escape is really unnecessary. Soon enough, I'll be a Master – Hama said I really have only one lesson left. And then I can earn my own freedom."
"Then you're both fools," he said, almost too softly for her to hear it. "Are you always alone at night?" he asked, still softly, but louder than before.
"Yes, except on the full moon, when I have training," she said.
"I'll write you," he said. "But I need to go now, and start cleaning up the mess we left out there." She nodded and watched him disappear into the darkness outside her gate. The guard at the door said nothing as she unbolted it and allowed her up. Katara climbed the stairs, her feet feeling like lead as she reached the top. She crossed to her window and reached out, faintly feeling the water she'd left below the surface. Wearily she pulled it to her and replaced it in her training barrels, and dragged herself to bed.
When Hama came the next morning, full of rumors of a brawl during the festival the night before, asking if Katara had seen anything from her window, Katara claimed to have been training and seen nothing. Hama looked at her shrewdly, but didn't comment. When the guards were replaced the next day by new women, Hama commented that it was strange that both the door and gate guards had gotten the same illness, but again, Katara knew nothing about it, and Hama just looked at her. But when the townspeople began to whisper that once again the Painted Lady lived in the tower and the Blue Spirit was among them, trying to rescue his lover, Hama said nothing to Katara. Lo and Li came, professed themselves satisfied with Katara's progress, and Hama called Katara to the sitting room of the tower.
"There are four days until the next full moon, and we cannot begin your final lessons until then," she said softly. "I wanted to wait until after the Masters had left before speaking to you, but it seems you've acquired a new item recently. You would do well to keep it hidden."
Katara's glance guiltily went to the Painted Lady mask that Prince Zuko had purchased for her. Hama's eyes followed hers.
"I see you know of what I speak. I am not angry with you – far from it. If you had not tried to escape, at least once, if only to alleviate the boredom of captivity, I would have been disappointed in you as a pupil. We are Waterbenders, Katara. We are meant to be on the ice of our homeland, not here in the heat of the volcanic rock, trapped in tin cans like this. It's not natural. I can declare you a Master Waterbender after our next lesson, but until you've held the ocean in the grasp of your hands, until you've felt the tundra shudder at your command, you will not truly be a Master Waterbender. Lo and Li do not understand this, because they are not Waterbenders. Once you are free of the Fire Nation, you will understand what I mean, my dear. I am very proud of you. And should your Blue Spirit wish to visit, I shall not be around until the full moon. No need for lessons when there's nothing left to teach that can be taught until then," the old hag said with rough cackle and a broad wink. She heaved herself out of her chair and left the tower, leaving Katara with a scarlet face and bowed head.
For a moment, she allowed herself to imagine how she could let Prince Zuko know she would be free to have visitors. First, she'd have to find a messenger hawk. She was so sure the guards would give her one. Then there was the matter of addressing the letter. Prince Zuko, Royal Palace, Fire Nation. Because all his mail probably didn't go straight to a secretary or someone anyway. She snorted. Then she imagined what she'd say – and realized half-way through composing the letter that she'd never told him her real name.
"Idiot!" she said aloud.
Well there goes that idea.
His Uncle had done everything just as he'd ordered, but his looks had warned him that retribution for this would be swift, and sure. He was right. He knew better than to think he'd actually gotten away with it. No matter what he'd told the girl – whose name he'd never learned, he remembered with a groan – things never worked out that smoothly for him. Lucky to be born, he reminded himself. As the rumors reached the capitol, he reminded himself of that. When the rumors reached his father, and it became clear to him, finally, just who, and what, he'd stumbled upon the night he'd drunk too much renshin and snuck out to a local festival, he started amending that statement. I'll be lucky if I stay alive.
"Bloodbending," Hama said, the full moon highlighting the deep hollows and wrinkles of her face, "is the ultimate form of Waterbending. Just as there is water in all living plants, so is there water in all living creatures. Most animals, including people, are made of mostly water. The key to Bloodbending is to find the water inside the body and manipulate it as you would any other water. I have only been able to do this under a full moon, which is why I must teach it to you tonight, but you are more powerful than I, Katara, and I believe you can accomplish this without the power of the moon behind you."
Hag, she thought. It sounds horrible. "I understand. What shall I practice with first?"
"I began on rats, and this tower, as you know, has many. Try to find one, and call it to you, manipulate its blood and bring it under your control."
Katara breathed out and tried to sense the water in a rat. She could feel the water in the grass and the trees, but the rats escaped her. Curious, she reached out towards Hama. Rats, she couldn't see, and didn't even know if any were nearby, but Hama had said that humans were mostly water as well. If she could understand the mechanics by sensing the water in a human, then she thought perhaps she could try to sense the water in a rat in a similar fashion.
After a deep, cleansing breath, she reached out and prodded with her qi, ignoring the trees and grass and air and focusing instead on her Master – and felt a rhythm. Faint, but steady, a constant whump, whump, whump of water rushing through the woman's body. There was so much of it. She tested the rhythm first, and found that with intense concentration, she could speed or slow it slightly. Thoughts of the lesson forgotten, she was lost in the discovery before her, curious to see what she could do. She raised her right hand, feeling the rhythm and the water with it flow in that direction, and then she raised her left, delighted when it did the same. Her eyes were closed, all she could see was the rhythm. She tried to speed it up again, but her body locked in place. Her eyes flew open, and she remembered where she was, and what she was supposed to be doing.
"Am I a rat, Katara!" Hama sneered at her. "Am I your plaything?" Her arms moved at the will of her Master, and Katara understood the horror of Bloodbending. "Since you seem to be content to skip to human manipulation, let me properly show you how it is done." With those words, Hama contorted her into a twisted dance routine, and Katara cried as she writhed at the command of the hag in front of her, who wore a satisfied smile.
It was the smile that broke her. Find the rhythm, she thought. She closed her eyes again, ignoring the pain of her contortions and focused instead on finding the rhythm she now understood was Hama's own heartbeat. Once she found it, she used it to break her Master's hold over her, pulling herself free of the Bloodbending and standing straight with the moon at her back, her arms raised above her head, pulling Hama's hands in a twisted mimicry.
"Well done, Katara," she said proudly. Katara released her. "You have mastered the basics and already moved on to the advanced movements it took me years to master. I have no doubts that you'll be able to Bloodbend without the full moon. Dismissed."
Katara nodded weakly and went to her room, laying on her bed and looking up at her ceiling in horror. What had she done? What had she become? After an hour of fitful tossing, she drifted off into dreams of orange fire, red scars, white light, and blue tattoos.
Hama came the next day, and they attempted to practice Katara's Bloodbending during the daylight, but she was unable to produce any results. "Do not worry, child," Hama soothed her before she left. "It will come with practice."
Katara wondered if this was what her job was to be – Bloodbending in daylight. It made sense. If the Fire Nation needed a Waterbender for a specific task, they would just use Hama – unless they needed her for something she couldn't do. She wondered who she would have to use it on. She wondered if she could even do it.
When the new moon came, Hama suspended lessons for three days to allow her to rest before the Masters came to inspect her progress. Katara knew she was supposed to be practicing while her lessons were suspended, but the question of when she would have to Bloodbend in daylight and the person she would have to do it to became a torture. When that wasn't keeping her awake at night, she allowed herself to take out the Painted Lady mask that Prince Zuko had purchased for her and look at it. She hadn't really expected him to write, so it became of little consequence that he hadn't. She shouldn't be at all hurt, but she still was.
When the messenger hawk came, she thought it must be mistaken.
Tonight at midnight. I know I said I wasn't a rescuer, but things have changed, and there's no time to explain. If there's anything you want to take with you, pack it and have it ready.
It was a joke, and she knew it was. She didn't even bother to pack. When the door opened at midnight, she knew it was the guards, coming to catch her as she tried to escape, so she made it a point to look casual, no bags in sight, reading a book in her favorite chair.
The bandage over his eye threw her off balance. "I thought I said to be ready?" he growled.
"I thought it was a joke!" she said, tossing the book down.
"You wanna stay in the tower!" he demanded.
"No!" she said, realizing as she did that it was true. The more she worked on her Bloodbending, the less she wanted to use it. Escape was exactly what she wanted.
"Then come with me," he said. "Now."
"No, I have to grab a few things," she said, insistently. "It'll only take a minute, and please?" He relented, but sulkily.
She rushed to her room and grabbed the only bag she could find. It was small, but the only things she wanted would fit into it easily. She reached into her hiding spot and took out the necklace from her home and the letter from Kula, which she knew she'd read as soon as she could, now. She also grabbed the mask that Zuko had bought her, as well as the one of Kula's, noting how similar the two looked. She wrapped both masks in spare clothing and put all of it in the bag. The last thing she picked up was a small portrait she'd painted from memory of her family from the Water Tribe. It was crude and probably inaccurate, but it might be a starting point.
They hurried out of the tower and towards the docks, slinking in the shadows and slipping aboard an older Fire Navy ship.
"Ah, Prince Zuko, you've brought a lady friend," a jovial voice said. Katara took a step backwards. A large, round face was smiling down at her, but she recognized it immediately. It seemed he recognized her, too, for his smile fell.
"Prince Zuko, please tell me you didn't," the older man said.
"She was Ozai's plan for the Eclipse, and you know that," Zuko said stubbornly, pointing at Katara.
"Exactly!" General Iroh shouted as the ship cast off. "Instead of banishment, you'll be labeled a traitor!"
"Once she'd served her purpose, what do you think he would have done to her?" Zuko asked. Iroh's face fell. Katara froze.
"He wasn't going to set me free?" she asked, her voice sounding much younger than it had in many years.
"Do you know how your master came to be where she was?" General Iroh asked her instead. She shook her head. "Hama was once a member of the Southern Water Tribe, and a powerful Waterbender. My father, believing the Avatar to be reborn into the Water Tribe, began to attack the South Pole, imprisoning every Waterbender and keeping them alive, just in case one was the Avatar. But Hama developed a curious ability she called Bloodbending and used it to escape. When she was captured, a few days later, she was given a choice – train a young Waterbender to use the ability FOR the Fire Nation, or every Waterbender, including herself, would die."
"She chose to train the next Waterbender captured, but my father killed all the other Waterbenders anyway. To this day, Hama still thinks he let them all go. She has lived for the day a Waterbender would be brought to her for training, so she could teach her skills, and earn her freedom, not realizing that all she would earn was her own demise – and yours, eventually," he finished. Iroh let loose a heavy sigh. "My nephew is right. We will be labeled traitors, but we could not leave you in that tower to die. It would not be honorable. I must go speak to the Captain. We are going to the Southern Water Tribe. I just hope that we can get there before they set up a blockade."
Katara and Zuko sat awkwardly at the small table in his quarters. They hadn't spoken in at least twenty minutes, when Katara had commented on the clouds. Zuko's response that they were fluffy had been the extent of his contribution to the conversation. She groaned, before remembering that she had a letter she still needed to read. She stood and reached for her bag, pulling out the two masks and the necklace, along with the letter. She settled herself comfortably on the mattress and read, unprepared for the revelations within. When she finished the letter, she put it down and stood up, picking up the masks and walking carefully back to the table while keeping them relatively hidden in the folds of her dress.
She pulled out the one that he purchased the day they met. "When you bought this, you said it reminded you of one your mother once owned," she said, wishing there was some way to ease into this conversation.
"I don't like to talk about it," he said.
"I understand," she said quickly. "It's just – when I first came to the Fire Nation, Hama didn't live with me. I was given to a woman named Kula, who lived in the tower with me until just about two years ago. The reason I was looking at the mask when we met is because it reminded me of one she left for me." Katara pulled out the other mask and laid it on the table.
"That's my mother's mask," he said, reaching for it. His hand stopped about an inch shy of it, as though he were afraid that if he touched it, it would disappear.
"I know," she said. "The mask wasn't the only thing she left. She left me a letter, for my fifteenth birthday, and in it she explained who she really was. Zuko, the woman who took care of me for almost eight years was your mother – and it says in her letter that she hoped to make her way to the South Pole and give her personal apologies to my family on my kidnapping, and to stay there in the hopes that I'll escape and join her. She mentions her own 'beloved children' who she fears are lost to her now."
"Can I – can I read the letter?" he asked. She nodded and handed the slip of paper to him, watching as his eyes hungrily devoured the words on the page. "I need to talk to my Uncle," was all he said before leaving the room.
She put the necklace on, wondering at the unfamiliar feel of it, and bundled herself more tightly. They must be getting close. She wandered out to the deck, familiar now with the layout of the ship, and saw with no little dismay that a line of impressive ships was blocking their path.
"A blockade," Zuko said from her side.
"Master Waterbender, Dragon of the West, and the Fire Prince," she returned with a smirk. "They're idiots."
Ten minutes later, as she pulled what felt like an ocean of water to her hand, she recalled Hama's words, and realized that now she was a true Master. "Hold on to something," she called out. "I'm not sure what this will do!"
"What do you mean, you're not sure what this will do!" Zuko shouted at her as he grasped a railing.
She stood on the bow of the ship and placed her palms together at her chest, recalling the motion from her lessons. With her fingertips pressed together, she raised her palms skyward, pulling water as she did so, and a wave followed. The ships nearest them rode the dangerously high wave as it soared above them. She breathed in, and pushed her palms outward on the exhale, forcing the water to do her bidding. The giant wave split, pushing the two ships down and into others below them, capsizing upon each other and creating a sense of panic among the line of ships in the blockade.
"NOW!" cried General Iroh, and the smaller vessel steamed forward into the breach. Katara's action had not left a ship near enough to follow them and she heaved a sigh of relief. From his position on the railing, Zuko looked over at her darkly and muttered to himself.
"Girls are crazy."
Three hours later had a white flag flying over their ship as they drew ever closer to the small village that was the home of the Southern Water Tribe. Five wooden boats drew alongside them, and a deep male voice rang out, "Surrender and prepare to be boarded!"
"We come in peace, to return the daughter of Hakoda!" General Iroh called out, his arms raised.
"Nice try," the voice said, "but your raiding party last week tried that one already. Don't you guys have messenger hawks to communicate these things? Last time I checked, my daughter didn't have gold eyes and the ability to shoot lightning. Too bad she got away. I bet the Firelord would have paid well to get his daughter back. Now what do you really want?"
Katara realized then that the speaker must be Hakoda. She stepped forward, putting herself between Iroh and this man. "My name is Katara. This is General Iroh, and Prince Zuko," she pointed at her companions. "They rescued me. My caretaker until two years ago was Kula, whom I've since found out is Zuko's mother, Ursa. In her letter to me, she told me that she chose the name Kula because it reminded her of her children – the "K" in Zuko's name, and the rest is a part of Azula's." She paused for breath, watching as the man who claimed to be her father took in what she was saying.
His weapon was still at the ready. "My mother gave me this," she said, taking off her necklace and offering it to him. "It was a birthday present. Hama told me it belonged to Kanna, who is my grandmother, before it belonged to my mother, and that it's a betrothal necklace and a family heirloom at this point. It's all I have to prove my identity."
Hakoda reached out his hand and took the necklace, looking at the carving he'd known from childhood to the face that blended his mother's and his wife's. "Katara." It was enough. "Stand down, men, and escort the Fire Nation ship to the village. It appears we will have guests."
He handed Katara the necklace, looking at her as though he wanted to hug her, but understanding that she might not feel the same way. "General Iroh, Prince Zuko, for returning my daughter to me, there is nothing I can do to repay you. However, I believe you are also missing a member of your family, and she would be very disappointed if I let you get away without at least a hello."
"My mother's still there?" Zuko said, his voice weak.
"Indeed, young man," he said, looking at the boy – for that's all he really was, he realized – more kindly. "She has been since she was dismissed from Katara's service. She's hoped to be reunited with Katara, but I think she'll be delighted to have you both."
Ten years, and he would finally see his mother again. The thought made him sick. Katara had done her best, but he was still horribly scarred. What would she think? Would she be proud of him for rescuing the Painted Lady, like the fairy tale she'd told him when he was a child and Ozai had been telling him war stories instead? Or would she be ashamed of how ugly he was? It didn't matter, there was Katara, pulling his hand, dragging him along. For her, it had only been two years since she'd last seen her – she'd gotten to know his mother's love for much longer than he had, and he fought back a surge of jealousy. His family had kidnapped Katara, and his father had planned to kill her. She'd needed his mother, as much as he had.
There she was. "So here are my pretty little Painted Lady and brave Blue Spirit," she said merrily, tears in her eyes, her arms opening wide to encompass them both in a warm hug. "How I have missed you so."
He was surprised to find himself crying, too.
There was so much to do, and see, and learn in the South Pole. They spent most of every morning deep in conversation with Hakoda and Ursa and Iroh. Katara and her brother were reunited, and she found to her delight that she was finally able to pronounce his name, Sokka. After nearly a week, Sokka decided it was time to teach Zuko to fish properly, since it was clear he didn't know how, and Katara could come along if she'd be quiet. It lasted ten minutes.
It seemed that she and her brother had ten years of sibling arguments to catch up on, and this one was a real doozy. Katara's Waterbending was always powerful, but when she was angry, it was a sight to behold. The iceburg she raised let off an unearthly glow, and both Sokka and Zuko stepped back.
"I think there's someone trapped inside!" she shouted, and she rushed forward, despite both their attempts to stop her. Within seconds, she'd opened it, and pulled from inside a small boy, around twelve, with pale blue tattoos. The glow faded as he woke, and he looked up at Katara with the distinct signs of puppy love. Zuko groaned.
"Would you take me penguin-sledding?" the boy asked.
THIS is the Avatar? He asked himself. Iroh confirmed it, however, when they reached the village, and as he watched the boy jump from rooftop to pole, he heard his Uncle's voice calling him back to reality.
"Well, Prince Zuko, it seems a choice is before you," he said. "You can take the Avatar to Ozai, and return home, the terms of your banishment met. You would be lauded as a hero of the Fire Nation, having accomplished what neither Sozin, Azulon nor Ozai himself could do. Or you could stay here, and see what Destiny has in store for you. But you know, Destiny is a funny thing," the older man mused, looking over at Kanna.
"There is no choice at all for me, Uncle," he said gravely. "I go where Katara goes. It's that simple. She's the Painted Lady, and I'm the Blue Spirit. I thought you knew that."
"Oh, I did. I just wanted to make sure you did, that's all," Iroh said with a grin. "The Avatar intends to give you some competition for her, you know," he added. Zuko nodded.
"I never back down from a challenge," he said. "It's the same adventure, no matter how it starts, isn't it?" he asked.
"That it is," Iroh said. "I think my old bones will enjoy staying here in the South Pole with the Lady Kanna and her excellent sea prune tea. Have fun storming the castle!"
A/N: Oh, but I had fun with this! I really enjoyed weaving together the story of the magical girl in the tower with the hero who rescues her. For a small fee - you know, lots of praise ;) - I might even be convinced to write more adventures in this 'verse! LOL! Yes, I borrowed lines from Disney and from the Princess Bride in this story. I couldn't resist. All borrowed lines, characters, and stories belong to their original creators and I do not own them, more's the pity. Have fun stormin' the castle!