They were somewhere in the woods deep within the Earth Nation. They had been traveling on foot for days after leaving the swamp behind, and finally had settled down for a rest. There was little hunting to do, but nuts were plentiful and there were many tasty fish in the river beside their camp. Aang was fairly cheerful as always, and Sokka was content to fish for a while. Katara seemed to be the only one truly out of sorts, and she couldn't even begin to explain why she felt that way. It's like the tide doesn't pull me properly. I can still feel the tidewater, but my sense is different now, she thought. It was more than simply becoming a waterbending master. This was something different. It was almost as if her very bones were different.
Katara wandered a ways away from camp to think. Gran had told her most of what she could expect to feel as a girl growing up. This strange feeling hadn't been covered. She could cry from the frustration of it if she was that kind of girl. Instead, she pulled a glob of water from the river and shaped it within her hands. She let the shapes be random, a free association with her mood. This will pass, she told herself fiercely. It has to!
"Katara!" Aang called. "Sokka caught something!"
The water in her hands immediate froze into sharp, jagged pieces of icicle. She blinked, bringing her concentration back to what she was doing. The pieces of ice melted back into free flowing water. Sighing, Katara bent the water back into the river. The odd discontent would pass. Aang would find an earthbender teacher. They would defeat the Fire Nation before the comet arrived at the end of summer.
Katara believed in that much.
Aware of a crawling sensation along her spine, she helped to clean the fish. Sokka used his stones to strike fire for cooking, and Aang helped to blow it into a cheerful little flame. Katara smiled along with them and laughed at all the right places to their silly jokes. They didn't seem to notice her distraction, and she didn't know whether she wanted to be upset about that or not. Don't you notice me anymore? she wanted to ask. Doesn't anyone see me?
Katara couldn't shake the feeling that they were being watched. The feeling had followed her ever since they left the swamp. Maybe that was where the discontented, hollow feeling in her chest came from. Maybe it was knowing that her mother was still dead, and the ache inside would never be filled. Maybe it was something that would never go away, and she only had to learn how to deal with it. But Katara didn't want to contemplate that, and didn't want to accept that she was a shell of herself. Things will change, she told herself.
That night, Katara had difficulty falling asleep. Between Sokka's snores and the soft sound of Aang's breathing, there were too many sounds to keep track of. At least Appa and Momo were relatively quiet. She closed her eyes and touched her necklace for comfort as she rolled to her side. The sounds of the forest were different here, more solid and reverberating. It was almost as if Earth Nation soils were pure rock, and the trees were dense stones. Katara missed the soil of the South Pole, where the soil was loose and moist wherever it wasn't frozen over.
Somehow, Katara must have fallen asleep. The next thing she knew, she was being carried. She must have made a sound, because she was then shoved up against a tree. Her attacker pushed his body against hers to pin her in place, and his hands pinned hers to the trees. Katara opened her eyes and saw a blue mask. "What?"
"You're one of the Avatar's companions," he replied, avoiding her question.
"Who are you?"
The eyes behind the mask blinked in surprise. "I am the Blue Spirit," he said after a moment, his voice soft. Katara couldn't tell where she had heard that voice before, but it seemed familiar. "I'm surprised you haven't heard of me."
"Why? Should I have?"
The hands over hers tightened. "What do you hope to gain by staying here with him? Why are you so loyal to him?"
"Why shouldn't I be?" Katara snapped. "You should, too. He's the Avatar. He's the one that will bring balance to the four nations. He will stop this war and save us all!"
"You really believe that?" the Blue Spirit asked, voice hushed.
"Of course I do! He's mastered two elements and I'm sure he'll master the others. He's that good at what he does. I know he can stop this war. I know it."
"How can you be so sure? It's raged on for one hundred years."
Katara rolled her eyes. "You're from one of the water tribes, aren't you?"
The Blue Spirit seemed taken aback. "What?"
"Your mask is blue. Blue is for water, and that's the source of life. You have to remember the tales of origin don't you?"
Katara pulled a hand away from his grip. She tapped the forehead of the mask. "Think. The Fire Nation is about power and violence. Their tempers are as wild as their fire. But water is a calming influence. It's life itself. Air is the very breath we take. Earth is the foundation beneath our feet. Only the Avatar can balance the four elements and the four influences, and he is the one that can bring justice and peace."
"I don't even know what peace is," the Blue Spirit mused.
Katara's hand dropped to his shoulder, and her voice dropped as well. "Once he does that, we can go home again. Whatever's left of our homes... we'll find peace there. We'll know safety for the first time, and we'll be home."
"This war will end with the Fire Nation victorious," the Blue Spirit replied, voice harsh.
"There's no honor in this war, you know. How is it honorable to burn down villages full of women and children? How honorable is it to take mothers away from their children and force their fathers to go to war!" Katara's voice rose and grew shrill with her pent-up frustration. Realizing that she was yelling at a stranger, she looked away and let her voice drop back to normal. "There is no honor in war. There's nothing but death and hate."
"The war will end soon enough, one way or another," the Blue Spirit said, turning her head to face him. "You know it will."
"Aang will save us," Katara said, voice confident.
"And then what? What happens next?"
"We go home," Katara replied almost stubbornly. "We have to rebuild our village. You must have to rebuild yours."
The Blue Spirit shook his head. "How can you be so sure?"
"I trust him," she said simply. "I have faith in him, and I know he can do it. He will end this war, and it'll be safe to go home again. I can't have my mother back, but maybe my father survived this long. Maybe he'll return safely."
The Blue Spirit leaned against her heavily at her words. "But when a mother's gone..."
"No one can replace her. Gran tried, but... it's not the same. It's never the same." Katara patted his back awkwardly. "How did your mother die, Blue Spirit?"
He reacted as if struck. "What?"
"Don't you know?" Katara asked, confused. In the blink of an eye, he pressed a thick cloth to her eyes and tied it behind her head. "What are you doing?"
There was the sound of something shifting. He caught her hands before they could move the blindfold. "Please don't. I don't want you to see who I am."
He leaned against her, his head pressed right against hers. He had removed his mask, and his breaths were heavy against the skin of her neck. "I don't know who I am anymore. I don't know why I'm doing this anymore. I thought I did. I thought... I thought things would get better for me if I had my honor back. And I'm not sure if I can ever earn it back."
Katara wound her arms around his frame. The plaintive tone to his voice tugged at her heartstrings. "It can't be that bad..."
"I've been disowned. I have no family, no country, no heritage. I'm not from any water tribe. I'm nothing and nobody. I have no future. If the war ends, I have no place in this world."
"If you helped us, maybe... Come with us, then. Help us find an earthbender teacher. Help us fight off the Fire Nation."
He pressed a kiss to her throat. "I can't."
His body was pressed tightly to hers, and Katara thought her breath would stop. She could feel every muscle in his body pressed against her soft curves, and she could feel his hands along her hips. She shut her eyes tightly, pushing away the unfamiliar feelings along her skin. She was fourteen; she wasn't a child that could be easily intimidated.
"If you're as alone as you say, then you can do whatever you want. You aren't indebted to anyone, and you can do as you want."
The Blue Spirit sighed, his breath a ghost across her skin. She shivered slightly. "It's not as easy as you think. It never is." He pressed a chaste kiss to her forehead. "You don't know what it's really like, you know. You just think you do."
There was the sound of something shifting again; he must have been sliding the mask back over his face. He pulled the blindfold from her eyes and then spun her away from him. "Go back to your camp," he said, voice low and somewhat muffled now. "You shouldn't stay here with me. I live where hope dies. You belong with them."
"Go!" he shouted, pointing the way back to camp. "Leave!"
Katara blinked in surprise, then ran back toward the campsite. Shaken more than she wanted to admit, Katara huddled within her sleeping bag with her eyes shut tightly. Someday this will all make sense, she told herself firmly. He's just a boy with a mask, and you're just a girl with a hole in her heart. Someday broken people will get fixed, and it'll all go away.
Somehow, she drifted off to sleep.
In the morning, she woke to the sound of Sokka practicing in the forest clearing. Groggy, Katara rubbed at her eyes and looked around. The campsite looked the same as it had the night before, and nothing around them seemed disturbed.
She had a crawling feeling along her spine, though.
Katara rolled out of her bedroll and approached Aang. He was playing with Momo, a huge grin on his face. "Aang?"
The boy looked up, that grin still on his face. "Morning! Sleep well?"
"I guess... I did get woken up once." Katara bit her lip for a moment in indecision, then sat down next to Aang. "Have you ever heard of the Blue Spirit?"
The grin slipped from Aang's face. "Why?"
"He was here last night, and talked to me. I don't really know what he wanted..."
"Did he scare you?" Aang asked, voice suddenly hard. The playful side of him was gone now, and Katara stared at him with wide eyes. "What did he say?"
Baffled, Katara tried to think. "Something about honor. He doesn't have a home, and he said... Something about not knowing what he was doing anymore. I think," she added, uncertain. She looked at Aang's expression carefully. "Why? What's happened?"
"Were you scared?"
"No. Confused, mostly. Aang, what's going on?"
"We have to move. It was a warning. This isn't a good place for us," Aang replied, bending a gust of air to help him to his feet. The air ruffled Momo's fur, and the lemur squeaked in protest. "I'm sorry, Momo. I'll go get Sokka. Just get everything packed up, and we'll look somewhere else for an earthbender teacher."
Katara watched Aang walk toward Sokka, his gait more determined than she had seen in him in ages. She shook her head after a moment. Yesterday's indecision and emptiness was gone, leached out of her. It was almost like an ebb tide, leaving behind the bare shores of her soul. She was sure the confusion would be back, covering her completely again. I don't know how to fix it all, she thought to herself, rising to her feet. My mother couldn't show me the way. I have to try and figure it all out for myself, and I'm so lost...
She packed her bedroll last. Her hands froze when they came across the maroon cloth that had been used to bind her eyes the night before. I don't want you to see who I am.
No... It couldn't be.
Katara rolled the cloth in with her belongings and packed up everything that she could. She popped a few nuts into her mouth. That would have to do for breakfast. Life on the run wasn't as glamorous as all of Gran's bedtime stories led her to believe.
The prickling feeling along her spine didn't leave her until they were all up above the clouds, and Appa was far from the forest clearing. The boys were chattering on about what treats they might find in the next village. Katara didn't pay much attention. She couldn't help but feel somewhat sad for the Blue Spirit. I don't know who I am anymore.
For all of her self-doubt the day before, Katara had never once doubted in herself. That was one of the few things she trusted with all of her being. She was a waterbender master. Sokka was a warrior and a competitive eater. Aang was the Avatar, and he would save the world.
It was too bad everyone didn't have the same kind of conviction.
Zuko had been watching them from the treetops, hands balled into fists. He didn't know what had possessed him the night before. He had seen the three of them when they landed, but hadn't pounced to capture the Avatar. Instead, he had been drawn to the miserable look on the girl's face. She had been all alone and separate, drawing in the flood of her thoughts. He knew how that felt, but had never thought any of those three would feel it. They had always been so solid in their friendship, a massive obstacle in his path to redeeming himself.
Instead of using her to bait the others, as he thought he was planning to do, he had talked to her. He had pressed himself against her as if he were a commoner. But his body had reacted violently to her presence, to the feel of her arms around him. His uncle occasionally gave him physical displays of affection, but the last person to really touch him out of love had been his mother. He didn't know what had happened to her, but it didn't matter anymore. He couldn't think of her without feeling as though he should rip his heart out. He couldn't think of the way he had always been second best in Ozai's eyes. Azula was a stronger leader than he ever was, and a prodigy to boot. There was nothing she couldn't do if she set her mind to it, and she always pleased Ozai. Zuko couldn't bear to think of how much he was a failure, of how deeply he must have disappointed his ancestors. Last night's behavior only served to confirm that. He wasn't as ruthless as the future Fire Lord should have been.
You can do as you want, the peasant girl had said the night before. As if it was that easy, that uncomplicated to simply do as he wished. He was a banished prince with a single route to restoring his honor. She would never had said such a thing if she knew who she was really talking to. If she had known who had taken her...
Zuko closed his eyes and leaned against the tree. He saw the direction they had flown in. It wouldn't be hard to track them. He could go back to Uncle Iroh, or he could follow them to whatever village they stayed in. He could mount an attack force to capture the Avatar. He could do something other than simply sit there, confused and disaffected.
I live where hope dies, he had said. He hadn't realized what he had been saying the night before. He had been too dazed by her, too affected by the closeness of her. She had said that water was life and hope, that fire was nothing but rage. He hadn't raged at her, he hadn't struck her, he hadn't corrected her. There was nothing to correct. He had known nothing but anger, fear and machinations. He couldn't remember anyone other than his mother or uncle ever having a shred of kindness within them. Despite what had happened to the girl, she had freely offered him comfort and a sliver of hope. Come with us, she had offered the night before. Her face had been so earnest, her heart so pure. You can do what you want.
Zuko banged his head against the tree, relishing the pain that blossomed there. "It's not so easy," he told himself, voice soft and barely above a whisper. "It's not."
He closed his eyes and stayed where he was. There was time enough to figure out what to do, time enough to listen to his uncle's proverbs and talk about tea.
Water is life, he thought suddenly.
The fight seemed to be drained out of him, and he didn't know what had happened to him. Honor used to be the only thing that mattered. The Fire Nation needed an honorable leader, and needed him back to take care of things. He was needed, even if the people didn't realize it yet.
He opened his eyes and looked at the Blue Spirit mask in his hands. It wasn't supposed to make people think he was from the weak Water Tribes. He wanted to break it. He wanted to throw it away. He wanted to watch it be consumed by flames.
Ultimately, he put the mask back on his head, covering his face completely. He slowly rose from the tree limb. Uncle Iroh was waiting for him, and would be worried. They lived in a cave now, a far cry from the battleship and last few trappings of Fire Nation finery. They were no better than beggars now. There was no money and no food, and the army was gone. There was nothing left but darkness and want.
I live where hope dies, he had said. He had meant it.
The Blue Spirit leapt from the trees. He would be the answer to Zuko's questions. He would help Zuko find his way again.
And maybe he would find the waterbender girl. Maybe he would find the secret to her happiness and her surety. Maybe she could teach him to master the ebbs and flows within himself. Maybe she knew how to fill the empty spaces gaping within him.
Until that day, he would have to figure it out for himself.