“Well, little water girl, what are you doing here in the backwash?” The young man holding her wrists was in his late teens, greasy and dressed in rags. Two other young thugs emerged from the shadows, grinning at her menacingly.
“I hate tourists,” one spat. “This ain’t their island. What she doin’ here anyway?”
The other picked his fingernails with a short blade, sneering. “Don’ like Water Tribe neither. They ain’t don’ nuthin’ for us.”
The greasy goon held up Katara wrists and inspected her. “Awful pretty though, ain’tcha?” Katara winced as the metal bracelet cut into her wrist. “And one of Pipi’s special ones! Well, little girl, that bracelet could get me and my boys a lot of fun for a while. But first, how ‘bout we have some fun with—Oof!”
Katara jammed her knee as hard as she could into the teen’s stomach and wrenched her hands away. She turned to run, but sprawled to the ground as the boy tackled her knees. If she could only open her water skein, she’d be able to water-whip the three hoodlums off her. As it was, there wasn’t a useful puddle in sight.
“Let go of me!” Katara kicked at the boy’s head, but he held firm. The other goons loomed menacingly.
It occurred to her to scream for help.
She let out an ear-piercing shriek that reverberated off the alley’s walls, making even her ears ring. She struggled wildly, and was about to let out another cry, but the smaller of the two thugs sat on her back, pressing all the air out of her lungs. The other wrenched her arm out at an unnatural angle, trying the lever the gold-beaded bracelet off her wrist.
Katara cried out as her arm twisted around. She thought she heard a pop as her shoulder dislocated. Her lungs ached and she was gasping for air, but she kept struggling, kicking out with the little strength she had left.
Aang… Sokka… Help! She pleaded as her vision blurred.
Suddenly, the weight was lifted off her back and the other thug let go of her arm. A sharp pain shot through her shoulder as she tried to lever herself up and see what was happening.
A pair of soft black suede boots stood inches from her face. She craned her neck up. The man in black who had been following Katara was now standing over her. He didn’t say anything. He wasn’t looking down at her so she couldn’t see his face.
“Well, well, another tourist,” drawled the head goon’s voice. “And what nation are you from? The Mud Tribe?” The two other thugs snorted.
The figure in black didn’t say anything when he leapt at them. Katara scrambled onto her knees, wincing at the strangely flopping muscles in her left arm, and she sat down hard, her back against the wall, gasping for air. She watched the dreamlike sequence before her through the shapes and light dancing in her eyes.
The man in black kicked, one foot swinging and hitting the biggest goon squarely in the jaw, knocking him out cold. The smaller goon with the short blade jabbed at him, but the man in black easily deflected the poorly aimed stabs with a graceful swoop of his arm. He grabbed the kid by the collar and dashed him against the wall face first. The little goon slid to the ground, unconscious.
Instead of fleeing, the head goon took up an offensive stance and made to strike. The man in black stood still, waiting to receive the blow. In the goon’s withdrawn arm, a wicked knife glinted.
Katara cried out. Not distracted for a second, the man in black sidestepped, dodging the goon’s lunge, and took him down with a swift chop to the back of his skull. The knife clattered away harmlessly. He nudged the moaning pile of bodies with his toe and turned to face Katara.
Katara nearly swooned. The man in black was only almost a man: a teenager, maybe only a few years older than herself. And he was very cute. He’d be quite handsome in his later years. I’ve just been rescued by a knight in shining armour, she thought in a daze.
“You shouldn’t be walking these streets alone.” He chastened her. Then a little more softly, “Are you alright?”
Katara snapped back to the reality of pain. Her shoulder screamed. “I think my shoulder’s dislocated.” She uttered between clenched teeth.
The teen bent down and touched her shoulder, his handsome face studying her arm tentatively. The muscles and joints felt all wrong under his fingertips. He probed her arm gently and said, “Nothing’s broken. But I’m going to have to set your shoulder. Brace yourself.”
And before she could object and ask for a real doctor, the teen pushed her back against the wall and firmly shoved the shoulder back into place with a pop snap! The pain blinded Katara momentarily, but she didn’t cry out, too stunned at what he’d just done. The sharp pain was gone, replaced by a dull ache. She tested the arm, rotating the shoulder. It seemed to be working like normal.
“Um, thanks.” She stood awkwardly, brushing herself off and inspecting her scrapes and bruises. The teen was already turning away. She shook herself and followed him out of the alley. “I mean, thank you… for helping me. I don’t know what those goons would have done if you hadn’t come along.”
“Uh, sure,” the teen was looking everywhere but directly into her face, as if he were searching for the source of the voice that was thanking him. “Are you… with anyone?”
Katara blushed. A rather forward question for someone she’d just met but—
She realized he’d meant to ask if she was with anyone at the carnival – not romantically – and sheepishly replied. “No… well, yes, but I lost them almost as soon as I got in here.”
“Oh.” The teen looked down at her finally. “Are you going to find them?”
“Well, eventually, I hope, but this place is so big.…” She felt the heat of a blush rising up her neck as she found herself studying the teen’s features. The long pointed chin, the golden eyes, the defined cheekbones, all set in a heroically tragic clench. His hair was tied in a loose ponytail, knotted at the top of his head. The rest of his scalp was shaved bald, a style popular with many teens. She looked away, afraid that she’d go blind staring into that beautiful face for too long. “Are you here alone?” she asked.
“No,” the teen replied, looking around again. “I’m with… my father. But I’ve lost him too.”
“Oh! Well, maybe we can help each other out. I can help you track down your father, and you can help me look for my friends.” She offered.
The boy smiled to himself. “Yes. That would be helpful.”
“My name’s Katara,” she offered brightly.
“Call me Kimji.” The teen replied mildly, flashing a smile that altogether blinded Katara.
Zuko walked next to the water girl, feeling as happy as a cat with a canary in its clutches. She didn’t recognize him! He gave her several sidelong glances, making sure she wasn’t faking her open liking of him. But she continued to watch the road, a slight blush in her cheeks.
He nearly cackled at the deliciousness of his plot. This naive girl would lead him straight to the Avatar. His troops would rally together, capture the boy monk, and set sail for Fire Nation territory on the double. This was going to be too easy.
“What are you smiling about?” The girl asked him. “What’s so funny?”
“Huh? Oh, I was, ah…” Zuko wavered. “I was thinking about… how I decked that guy back there.”
“Oh,” Katara looked bemused. “I just hope they’re okay. You really walloped them.”
“They deserved it,” Zuko spat fiercely. “Attacking a girl in broad daylight, using hidden weapons – disgraceful! I’d have taught them a real lesson if…if…”
If she hadn’t been standing there as a witness? If he wasn’t more concerned about finding the Avatar? If he’d been just a little angrier? Zuko trailed off. He was suddenly at a loss for words. None of them sounded right just now.
“You stopped them. That was enough.” Katara looked down, smiling. “I owe you big time.”
Awkward silence hung between them, and Zuko looked at the girl, feeling a little foolish and just a bit pleased with himself. Of course he would have saved the girl from those thugs. How else would she lead him to the Avatar? On crutches? It helped his pride that he didn’t like bullies who picked on defenseless girls. And it didn’t hurt at all that she was rather cute.
“Hey!” she pointed at his wrist. “You have one too!”
“Oh, the bracelet?” He was thankful for the change of subject. “Yeah, that Papa Pipi character gave this to me.”
“I got one too. Those goons tried to take it from me.” She showed him hers. “What’s yours for?”
Zuko instantly thought about Madam Façade and the spell.
“He said it was a VIP pass. It’s supposed to get me into any of the attractions I want.” He replied.
“Really? Mine is for free food and rides. Hey, you want something to eat?” She asked.
Zuko suddenly realized he was famished. He hadn’t even had breakfast with Uncle Iroh, being too distracted by tracking the Avatar.
Tracking the Avatar, that’s why he was here…
“Yeah, actually, I am kind of hungry.” Zuko heard himself say. He stopped himself from slapping his palm over his gaping mouth as if he’d said something profane.
It was as though he’d lost control of his tongue. Why had he just agreed to share a meal with this peasant? He was a prince, for Agni’s sake!
He suffered himself to be led towards the carnival food tents, all the while screaming silently, You’re here to find the Avatar and reclaim your honour! What are you doing consorting with the enemy?
The water girl spoke pleasantly to a vendor, who smilingly handed over two sticks of barbecued meat. She handed Zuko one and ate hers with relish. The prince inspected the meat dubiously. It was either some kind of fowl, or a rat.
“It’s really good,” Katara said chewing. “Try it.”
He nibbled at it dubiously. It was edible, even tasty. Soon he was gobbling it down as messily as the water girl, who had crumbs of carbon-burn bits stuck to her lips. He felt the corners of his mouth twitch, seeing her messy face. She was really quite pretty, when he thought about it. With some nice silk robes and a good hair washing…
What do you think you’re doing? Get a grip on yourself and snap out of it! Zuko’s brain screamed.
“So, where to next?” Katara asked, wiping her mouth with the back of her hand. “Where do you think your father’s gone to?”
“Huh? Oh,” Zuko was momentarily startled by this question. “He, uh, he could be anywhere.”
He pictured Uncle Iroh and his walking stick, and tried to piece together a cover story, where his uncle was the “I like walking” kind of father – that would place him beyond finding distance.
“He’s quite… er… athletic.”
Yeah right, athletic. That described Uncle Iroh about as much as the word “untroubled” described Zuko.
“So what’s he look like?” She asked. “I just realized I can’t help you find him if I don’t know what to look for!” She laughed at this sudden insight.
Zuko paused before giving a generic description of just about any man from the Fire Nation. He couldn’t describe Iroh, in case she actually did spot him. So the dimensions and details were vague: about this tall, dark hair tied up like his, around middle age, not fat, not thin, neatly dressed, and so on.
“How about your friends? What do they look like?” He asked, knowing exactly what the answer was. Better play the part, he reminded himself firmly.
Katara blew out a breath. “Well, that’s the thing, you’d be able to find them in any other crowd, but there are just so many people here…” and she described them blandly: a 12-year-old bald monk boy with arrows tattooed all over him, and her brother, who wore the same colours as herself, but frowned a lot more.
“Twins?” Asked Zuko, feigning interest.
“Thank god, no.” She laughed. Zuko chuckled too, mortified at himself.
Consorting with the enemy, consorting with the enemy… his brain taunted in singsong.
“Let’s keep walking,” she said.
“Lead on, milady,” Zuko swept a treacherously goofy bow. He cringed at himself. Where had that come from?
But the gallant gesture won a musical laugh from the pretty water girl. Which for some reason, made Zuko feel even goofier.
After walking a while, Katara began to notice the looks other girls were giving her and Kimji as they passed. She realized with a shock that the narrow-eyed look had a name: envy.
They were jealous of her! Katara! What was wrong with them anyhow? She was only a simple Water Tribe girl keeping company with a handsome young man…
She wasn’t sure whether to be pleased or embarrassed.
“So where are you from?” Katara asked. Kimji took a moment before he replied, scanning the crowd with those narrowed gold eyes that seemed oh-so distantly familiar to her.
“Uh, it’s a tiny village. You won’t have heard of it. It’s on the edge of the
“Oh. I see.” Starting a conversation with him was like pulling teeth. She’d have to try a different tactic. The opportunity presented itself as they rounded the next bend.
“Ooh, look at that! Isn’t it beautiful?”
Kimji stopped to look where she was pointing. A miniature garden flourished in this main intersection. Katara headed toward it, marveling at the multitude of flowers blossoming in their planters. She went to each blossom, drinking in their flowery scent. Kimji stood at the edge of the garden, watching her impassively.
“C’mon, Kimji, come into the garden,” She took his hand and lead him in. He came willingly as she drew him to the centre attraction. The warmth of his hand clasped loosely around hers sent a little thrill pulsing up her arm and into the rest of her body.
At the heart of the garden, a shallow marble basin held a plain conical fountain of polished rock. Spring water noisily gushed and burbled from the cone’s apex. A hot, blue-orange flame danced on the water’s glassy surface. Other garden visitors were tossing coppers into the fountain, aiming for the hole at the apex.
“Fountains like this are supposed to signify eternity,” she said thoughtfully. “This plaque here says the four benders who built Ho’Wan erected this garden to remind everyone of how people can put aside their differences and build something beautiful and lasting.”
They stood there for what seemed like forever, watching the flame dance on the water’s surface, their fingertips still touching. It was a moment in time Katara would never forget, even into her old age.
“Oil,” Kimji said distantly. “The spring water has a bit of oil in it. I can smell it. It’s probably in the ground and is leaking into the water supply. That’s why the flame can burn on the water.”
“Oh.” Katara let go of his hand, frowning at the teen’s bland matter-of-factness. The moment was gone. “Well, it’s still a nice fountain.” She read the rest of the plaque. “The other thing it says here is that if you throw a coin into the apex, it means your love will burn for eternity.”
Kimji stared at the fountain of eternity, lost in thought. Katara watched him silently, seeing the shifting moods in his eyes. He turned away abruptly.
“We should move on,” he said shortly.
Katara harrumphed. She was wrong. Starting a conversation with him wasn’t like pulling teeth; it was like trying to pull Appa’s teeth.
Zuko was deeply disturbed. He had followed the water girl into the garden, watching her flit from flower to flower like a blue butterfly, and he’d found himself compelled to reach out and touch her. Only years of training had stayed his hand. Control, that’s what fire was about. Zuko could shoot cascades of fire from his hands and raise walls of flame that could consume a forest in minutes. Surely the Prince of Firebenders could keep his hands to himself?
And without warning, she had gently taken his hand and led him to the natural marvel that was the fountain of eternity, her delicate fingertips resting coolly in his warm paw. Then he remembered uttering some dull fact about how geology would allow the fountain to exist, and the soothing coolness in his hand was instantly gone. So focused was he on the sensation of her skin on his that he’d barely heard her say anything until she said the word “love.”
That had shocked him out of his daze. What was he doing, standing here while the Avatar was so close? While his honour was just within his reach?
A voice deep in the back of his mind told him not to worry, to enjoy the day while it lasted, and to count himself lucky for the chance to be young for once: to be the teenage boy he had never gotten to know.
But that wasn’t going to be easy, not by a long shot. This simple water peasant girl was making it very difficult to be a teenage boy. He found he didn’t want to say anything stupid to her, so he kept quiet, but instantly regretted his silence as he sensed her trying very hard to draw him out. When he did say anything, it sounded awkward and clumsy, and that made him feel even stupider, so he’d clamp down again.
So on he plodded, pretending to look around for his lost “father” and answering as shortly as he could so he would not have to meet those liquid blue eyes. He knew deep down inside that he’d forget himself entirely if he let himself drown in those eyes.
Avatar, Avatar, Avatar… His brain reminded him.
Hush, I’m thinking, he quelled the voice. Damn! His thoughts were completely absorbed by this fake personality. Kimji had taken over his thoughts and actions. Damn his uncle for giving his thoughts and feelings a name! Damn that glamour enchantress for giving Kimji a face!
Maybe he could reassert himself. Kidnap the girl. Take her back to the ship and use her as bait for the Avatar. That would surely be better than playing this charade, no? Of course, he didn’t have a single soldier to back him up, and he was standing in a crowded carnival in broad daylight. How far could he possibly get with an unconscious girl slung over his shoulder?
Katara wandered up to a window stocked with trinkets and made some blithe comments about the craftsmanship of the jewelry on display. She indicated her mother’s necklace around her neck and said something about it, and Zuko carefully pretended to be interested, though he hadn’t listened to a word she’d said.
He knew about the necklace, of course – he had carried it in his pocket for weeks until his last encounter with the Avatar at the abbey some time ago. He hadn’t known it, but while it had been in his possession, he had made a habit of rubbing the pendant’s etchings in his pocket with his thumb and forefinger whenever he was plotting against the Avatar. Something about touching the cool metal had calmed him, made his mind clear.
Zuko’s brain screamed and slapped him as he found himself reaching out to touch the pendant around her delicate neck. He snatched his hand back as though he’d been burned. Luckily for the Fire Prince, Katara hadn’t seen him do it. She was too focused on looking in the shop window.
As the water girl admired the window display, Zuko caught sight of his reflection in the glass and was momentarily shocked by the scarred face looking back at him. Only, it didn’t seem as bad as usual.
Usual? He’d woken up to that hideous deformity every morning for the past two years. How was today any different?
Another part of him panicked. Could Katara see his burn? No wait, if she had she would have run away by now, screaming. The thought of her abandoning him so abruptly brought a lump to his throat. Don’t be ridiculous, he told himself. But the forlorn feeling remained.
“Hey, look, a shadow puppet show!” She exclaimed. “We used to do those in my tribe all the time when I was a kid.”
We should really try to find your friends, don’t you think? His brain prompted him with mental flashcards.
“Would you like to go see it?” Kimji asked, holding up his red-beaded bracelet.
Aww, forget this, I’m outta here. Zuko’s brain fizzled out, giving up hope of turning him back to the task of finding the Avatar. A crushing weight seemed to lift from his mind. Zuko found himself smiling openly down at the pretty water girl.
Katara’s cerulean eyes lit up. Zuko’s fatal mistake was looking into those two deep pools. He was lost forever.
The Avatar could wait. Anyhow, the enchantment would last several more hours. It wasn’t as if Katara would leave without her friends, nor her friends without her. And Uncle Iroh probably wasn’t ready to receive him anyhow – he was probably having a cup of tea somewhere right at that very moment.
He was just having some fun. That was normal for a teen, right?
Iroh normally loved this kind of place – the food, the shopping, the colourfully-dressed people. But just now, looking for the troop commander or any of the 25 members of the advance scout in this place was like trying to find Pai-sho tile in a rice silo. He sat down heavily on a stone bench, fanning himself with his straw hat.
“You look tired, esteemed elder,” a moon-faced girl appeared at his elbow. Iroh smiled. He liked that she had addressed him as ‘esteemed elder’, unlike his nephew, who sometimes called him ‘old man’.
“I’m exhausted,” he rumbled. “Not as young as I used to be, you know.”
The moon-faced girl smiled pleasantly at him. “Please, come with me to the teahouse. I’ll bring you some refreshments and ginseng tea, and you can rest. I can give you a massage as well, if it would please you.”
Iroh smiled and accepted the young girl’s invitation, taking her arm and following her to a large ornate building. She clamped down on his upper arm with a vice-like grip. Healthy girl, he thought, wincing as one of her fingernails dug in. Being too gentlemanly, he did not fight to loosen her grip.
She led him up the short flight of stairs, and walked him into the cool building. They made their way down a long corridor, passing a number of occupied private compartments where pretty girls entertained and fed guests. They did not enter any of the empty rooms – she seemed to be leading him to the back of the building. She laughed when he inquired where they were headed.
“Oh, esteemed elder, I would not put you in those rooms with the other clients,” she said simply. “I have a special room for you.” And with that, she slid back a panel and waved him in.
It was rather dark. It took a while for his eyes to adjust, but then he realized the room was full of other people. Men. About 25 men.
A bright light flashed and Iroh shielded his eyes. In that moment before blindness, Iroh realized his mistake. The other occupants of the room were the members of the advance scout, hog-tied and gagged. They all wore the glittering red-beaded bracelets.
Before Iroh could react, something hit his skull with a dull thud. Blackness engulfed him as he fell to the ground.