Katara didn't know how long she had been walking. It had been night when she had first woken, bruised and covered in cuts from her fall, but now she could see the golden glow of the sun making its way into the horizon. Unfortunately, there was still no sign of Appa and her friends.
She sighed and continued to follow the dusty road, trying not to think about how tired, sore and thirsty she was. Her water skin was half full and the weight of the encased liquid brushing against her thigh was far too tempting for its own good, but she couldn't risk drinking anymore. That water was her only source of bending right now. Until she found a stream or well to refill her depleting stock, she would just have to resign herself to being thirsty.
"Just keep walking," she told herself. "If there's a road, there's bound to be a village somewhere around here."
In her heart, however, she knew that her need to keep moving was just a means to distract her from the truth: that she was completely lost and had no idea when or even how her brother and friends were going to find her when so many hours had passed. It was a depressing thought, and one she tried to banish from her mind as much as possible. Better to focus on the positives. Better to focus on the fact that she was alive and hadn't broken any bones from her fall. Better to—
Suddenly, her vision was blocked by a wall of brownish green. No, not a wall. A man's chest. She took a step back, raising her gaze to his face, which was pockmarked and looked as if someone had taken a shovel to his features. He bared his teeth in a smile, but there was nothing friendly in the expression.
"Well, well, well," the man said, resting his broadsword on his left shoulder, "seems we've caught ourselves a stray."
Low chuckles echoed around her, and it was with sickening dread that she realised her tormentor was not alone. Two men had appeared from the rocks, flashing their weapons in a silent threat as they came to stand on either side of the squashed-face man. Her heart thudded against her ribs and she instinctively reached for her water skin, taking hold of the swirling element inside but not letting it escape just yet.
"Let me pass," she said in a voice that was far calmer than she felt.
Squashed Face stepped forward. "Sorry, sweetheart, but this is our territory. You pay the fee or you don't pass."
Katara swallowed. "I don't have any money."
Squashed Face looked her up and down through his beady eyes, lingering on her chest and hips. "Oh, don't worry," he said in an oily voice. "I'm sure we can come to a different arrangement."
She took another step back, resisting the urge to wrap her arms around her body to protect herself from his defiling gaze. It didn't matter that she was only fourteen and still growing into her curves; these men, like the pirates that had first introduced her to that sickening glint of lust, only cared that she was female. They would use her body without a second thought if given the chance. Just the thought made her skin crawl, and she was all too conscious of the fact that, this time, there was no Fire Nation prince to keep guard. This time, she was all alone.
"I don't want any trouble," she said, still backing away.
"There doesn't have to be any trouble if you just cooperate," he responded, following her with that same ugly little smile playing on his lips.
Fear pumped through her veins like ice, turning her blood cold, but she held her chin high as she met his gaze. "Sorry, but I'm afraid I can't do that."
Without giving him a chance to respond, she summoned the water from her flask and sent it crashing into the three men's faces, blinding them from the force and sending all three tumbling to the ground in a tangle of limbs. She didn't hesitate and quickly gathered the water back to her hands and made a run for it, not knowing where she was heading but just knowing that she needed to get away. Those men would not stay down for long. She had no delusions about what would happen if she got caught.
Her heart pounded in her chest as she sprinted along the dusty track, but then she heard a shout from somewhere up ahead, followed by another and another. She inhaled sharply, realising there were more of the outlaws. There was no way she could outrun them all.
Katara frowned, slowing down in her surprise. Wait a minute. Get him? A second later she saw a glint of blue flash out of the corner of her eye and then something warm and solid crashed into her. A yelp escaped her lips, and she reached out instinctively even as strong hands found her shoulders. Then they were both gripping each other as they dug their feet into the ground like seasoned sailors to regain their balance. It was only a heartbeat that they stood a hairsbreadth from each other, but it was enough for Katara to realise that the newcomer was a male warrior wearing a blue mask. He released her and turned to face his pursuers, unsheathing the twin blades strapped to his back as he did so. With no alternative, Katara also turned to face the outlaws who had chased her, only now there were more than just three.
"I see you managed to corner the little bastard," Squashed Face observed with a chuckle, glancing at the masked warrior. "We can have a bit of sport with him."
"Who's the girl?" one of the others called.
"No idea, but who cares? We can have a bit of fun with her too."
More laughter greeted this statement, echoing like an unholy throng in Katara's ears. Sweat dripped down her forehead as she watched the men have their joke at her expense, even as her stomach twisted in disgust and fear. Every instinct told her that this was a bad, bad situation. She and the masked stranger were completely surrounded, she had no water source to boost the measly drops left in her flask, and he seemed to be a non-bender who relied on swords. The odds were not looking good for either of them.
Instinctively, she pressed closer to his back, one hand holding a ball of water over her palm in case she needed to defend. She could feel the tension in the warrior's muscles through his tunic and the way he was barely restraining himself from lashing out with his dao swords, as if he were a coiled spring waiting to be unleashed. Somehow, that was comforting. At least one of them wasn't afraid.
"Think you can handle the five on your side?" she muttered, turning her head slightly to look at him.
He didn't respond; instead, he rushed forward in a blur of blue and black, dao blades glinting like silver lightning as he sliced a path through his opponents. Katara didn't have time to be amazed at his speed and grace. A rock flashed past her face, just grazing her cheek, and she quickly turned to retaliate with a water whip. Great, they had an earthbender.
Heart pounding against her ribs like a wild drum, she ducked and weaved, countering and defending against the rest of the outlaws' attacks the best that she could while trying not to let herself get flanked. She didn't have enough water to form either the pentapus or octopus forms—the only bending moves that would allow her to defend from so many men at once—but she was still a waterbending master, and she would not be defeated so easily. Not when she knew the price of defeat.
Her eyes snapped towards the man with the spear. He was already preparing to strike, but she used her water whip to snatch the weapon from his hands and then countered with her breath of ice, freezing his feet in place. A smug smile curled her lips as she watched him flounder, trying to keep his balance and, at the same time, break free of his icy shackles. He wasn't going to be attacking her anytime soon. Two roars of anger echoed in her ears. Then Squashed Face and the other non-bender were upon her, weapons slicing and hacking, but never quite making contact with her skin. Being chased all over the world by an angry Fire Nation prince did have its benefits now and then. Learning how to dodge faster was just one of them.
More sweat rolled down her forehead as the battle dragged on, and she could feel the back of her neck getting steadily damper, making her hair stick to her skin. She was on the defensive now despite her speed, for waterbending was not designed for close-combat fighting. Not unless one had access to a large source of water. To make things worse, the earthbender seemed determined to smash her into a pulp, though he was clearly untrained. If he were as skilled as Toph, he would have just locked her up in a cage of rock by now.
"What's the matter, girlie?" the earthbender taunted. "Running out of water?"
"Why don't you come over here and find out!" Katara retorted, gathering her element around her like a shield and letting it fly forward at all three of her opponents in daggers of ice.
The earthbender blocked her attack with his bending, but one of the non-benders was not so lucky and was soon pinned and bleeding on the ground. A sword lunged for her face before she could catch her breath, making her step back and just miss having the tip of the blade slice through her chin. Her heart gave a funny lurch in her chest, but there was no time for a respite. Squashed Face was already counterattacking, and the rocks kept coming, and she was just getting so tired. It felt like days since she'd had a proper meal or full night's sleep. She didn't know how much longer she could keep this up.
Another rock soared towards her with bone-crushing force. Katara gritted her teeth and caught it with her water, guiding it around her like a tornado before sending it back towards the earthbender. She didn't wait to see if it connected. Instead, she swung around to defend against Squashed Face, but he was nowhere to be seen. Heart thumping, she licked her cracked lips and was about to turn again when hands suddenly clamped down on her wrists, dragging her arms up behind her back and making her drop her precious water.
"What are you going to do now, sweetheart?" a voice taunted in her ear. "You can't bend if you can't move your hands."
Katara inhaled sharply, hearing the mocking laughter of her tormentors ring in her ears. The earthbender was already walking forward, leering in a way that made goose-chicken bumps prickle all over her skin. She wondered if she would be able to freeze him with her breath if he came close enough, but then something flashed past her and the earthbender halted, almost pushed backwards. His green eyes widened and he looked down at his chest where she could see a dagger protruding from his ribs. Suddenly, Squashed Face let out a yelp and the fingers digging into her wrist slackened and then were wrenched free. She turned to see the masked warrior knock the man out with the hilt of his blades.
"Thanks," she gasped, rubbing her bruised skin.
He raised his head to look at her through the slits of his mask, and his body tensed for a second before he tackled her around the middle, pulling them both to the ground and shielding her with his warm weight. Something heavy glided past their heads. A rock. It seemed the earthbender had not been incapacitated like she had presumed.
Rolling off her, the swordsman leapt back to his feet and then charged after the earthbender, dodging and deflecting the rocky projectiles fired his way. She thought he might even make it, but then one of the jagged bits of earth slipped past his guard, hitting him in the stomach and making him stumble back to the ground. Katara immediately took up a bending stance, summoning the spilt water to her hands and using water whips to distract the other bender so she could give the masked warrior some cover.
"You alright?" she called.
For answer, he got back to his feet and then made another dash for the earthbender, swords already poised to strike. This time Katara helped to stop the rocks from getting in his way. She weaved threads of water that snatched and deflected, giving him a clear path to his target. There was a flash of steel as the two males came into contact, and then it was over. The earthbender fell to his knees, blood gurgling from his mouth, and slumped face-first into the ground.
Katara took the moment to catch her breath, watching as the swordsman knelt down to retrieve his dagger, which he wiped clean on the earthbender's tunic and then sheathed. "Did you kill him?" she couldn't help but ask.
The swordsman said nothing, which she guessed might have been an affirmation. The earthbender certainly wasn't moving. A conflicting rush of feelings arose within her, but she pushed those emotions aside and instead examined the rest of the clearing, taking in the damage. The other outlaws had fled, taking their fallen comrades with them, including the unconscious Squashed Face. They must have seized the opportunity while she and the swordsman had been busy with the earthbender. Even the outlaw whose feet she had frozen had managed to escape.
Katara glanced at her masked ally, only to realise that he was leaving. "Hey!" she called, running to catch up to him. "Wait up!"
He swung back to face her, making a sharp gesture with his hand. Was he trying to tell her to go away?
"What, I'm not good enough company for you now that there is no one trying to kill you?" Katara demanded, planting her hands on her hips. "Nice way to show your gratitude to the person who just helped you take down those outlaws."
He made a frustrated sound from behind his mask and then carried on walking, ignoring her completely. She was having none of that, however, and quickened her pace to match his stride. If he noticed her following him, he didn't say or do anything. Maybe he hoped that she would just give up and leave him alone if he pretended that she didn't exist long enough. Fat chance. She had finally got a good look at his mask, and it occurred to her that it looked exactly like the one she had seen on those wanted posters all over the Earth Kingdom.
"You're the Blue Spirit, right?" she asked, peering up at him as they walked.
He nodded, if a little reluctantly.
"So how come the Fire Nation wants to capture you so badly? What did you do?"
His whole body tensed, and she noticed the way his shoulders hunched forward as if her questions were little darts that he was trying to shield against. Instead of responding, however, he just clenched his hands into fists and carried on walking, though now at a much faster pace. Katara frowned and followed in his footsteps.
"Alright, don't tell me," she said to his back. "It's not like I'm going to force it out of you."
When he still didn't slow down, her eyes narrowed and she couldn't stop the small huff of annoyance that escaped her lips.
"Great, just keep ignoring me then." She sighed and stretched the muscles in her arms, trying to relieve the aches and stiffness. "I can see that you're going to be a really fun travelling companion."
That did get a response out of him, but all he did was make another choked noise and then kneel down on the ground to scratch something into the dirt with his finger. It occurred to her that he probably couldn't talk. She stopped beside him to get a better look at what he had written.
"I never asked you to follow me," she read aloud. "Well, that's too bad, because I have no idea where I am and you're the only person around here who I can trust not to try to kill me."
More characters appeared in the gritty dirt.
"What happened to my friends?" She met the shadowed eye slits, wondering how he had even known that she had been travelling with others. Had they met before? "We got separated," she answered finally, staring down at her hands. "Something was chasing us, and I ..." A blush stained her cheeks. "Never mind. All you need to know is that I'm here, and they're"—she waved her hand airily off into the distance—"somewhere out there."
Scratch, scratch, scratch.
"I'm sure they are looking for me," she said a little tartly. "It's not like they'd just abandon me out here."
Or so she kept reminding herself. Everyone had been so caught up in escaping the crazy tank thing that they hadn't even noticed that she had fallen out of the saddle. Even now, she didn't know how it had happened. Maybe she had just dozed off for a moment, but suddenly she had opened her eyes to discover that she was falling and Appa and the others were flying away into the distance. She had shouted out to them, but they hadn't heard her cries and then it was too late. The bison was gone, taking her brother and friends with him, and she had continued to fall, plummeting past rock-faces and branches that snagged at her clothes, until she had hit her head on something hard and the world had gone black.
She supposed she should be glad that the people manning the crazy tank had not found her when she was unconscious, but waking up to find herself stranded in the middle of nowhere had not exactly been a bundle of joy either. Her luck had just got worse from there, and now the only person who seemed to be able to help her was this silent stranger—and he had made it clear that he wanted nothing to do with her.
A light tug on her wrist had her looking back down at the swordsman. He pointed to the dirt, where new words had been written.
"I don't know who was chasing us," she said, shaking her head. "All I saw was a crazy tank that somehow managed to keep pace with our flying bison."
His grip tightened on her wrist, but he wasn't looking at her and was instead staring out to where she had pointed. She could practically feel the tension rolling off him in waves, but his expression was hidden behind the cover of his mask. There was no way for her to tell what he was thinking.
"What?" Katara prompted when he didn't move. "What's wrong?"
The Blue Spirit released her and then wrote something on the dirt. The characters were uneven and blurring into one another from his haste, but she could still make out the words. It seemed that they had a common enemy. He had been tracking the tank's progress yesterday, but then his ostrich-horse had got stolen by those outlaws and he'd no choice but to make a detour. If she helped him retrieve Scratch, he would help her find her friends. Katara didn't even have to consider the matter. Much as she never wanted to see any of those outlaws again, the thought of travelling alone after everything that had happened was not appealing. She would feel much happier with a skilled swordsman on her side, especially if he was willing to help her find her brother and friends.
She held out her hand. "It's a deal."
The Blue Spirit stood up and cautiously took her hand, not once breaking eye contact as they shook on the matter. Her lips curved into a grin and then she pushed the dusty hair out of her face and turned towards the opposite direction.
"Right, let's go find Scratch!" She paused, glancing back at him. "Uh … how do we do that exactly?"
The Blue Spirit sighed and walked past her, shaking his head. Katara frowned as he once again didn't bother to wait for her. It seemed that her first instinct had been right: he was going to be a really fun travelling companion.