Recognizable quotes from Jet and The Serpent's Pass
Out on the street, people went about their days as usual, even if they seemed a little more wary than typical. Gradually, she felt the tension drain from her and she rested her elbows on the sill, her thoughts drifting more toward watching dust make unusual shapes as it was kicked up than keeping an eye out for potential threats. Zuko was probably awake by now and she hoped he wasn't too worried about their absence. With a sigh, she slumped further onto the windows sill and absently tapped out a rhythm.
Iroh emerged from the back room nearly an hour and a half later, startling Katara from the daydream she'd drifted into. She leapt to her feet, tripping over her chair in an effort to be ready for an attack. When she managed to catch her balance and hastily straightened, she was met by Iroh's amused smile. Embarrassed, she scowled back which merely prompted a chuckle but at least he didn't make any quips at her expense. Iroh turned back to their host and Katara took the opportunity examine the room they'd locked themselves in for most of the day. She could see just beyond him into the room, catching a glimpse of a Pai Sho table and a teapot with several cups, before the door swung shut and Iroh was bowing courteously to the man who brought them here. "Thank you for the tea and the game. Perhaps we can play again."
The man returned the courtesy. "It is always a pleasure to play against such a talented opponent."
Shortly after that, Katara found herself being ushered out the door and into the late afternoon sun. The heat from the streets and the afternoon sun felt like she'd stepped into a blast furnace. Iroh followed her, tucking her hand in the crook of his arm and giving it a fatherly pat as he steered her down the dusty road. "There, I'd say that was a successful bit of bargaining, my dear! An impressive bride price!"
At her askant look, he laughed. "Don't look so anxious. The bridge groom is a fine young man. He'll take care of you and any children you may have."
She hoped the color that rose in her cheeks would be attributed to the heat and nothing more. Iroh didn't seem to mind her speechlessness as he continued to smile benignly. He turned them onto another street before saying, "Unfortunately you will have to wait until after the funeral to meet your future husband. I'm sure you understand."
He turned to look at her, eyebrows rising in question. A faint squeeze to her hand prompted her to murmur, "Yes; of course."
Katara was surprised to find herself standing in front of Yun's house. The door opened and Cam stopped short, surprise clear on her face. "Oh, Master Katara. Mushu."
Iroh smiled brightly, ignoring the girl's wary expression. "Good afternoon, Miss Cam."
Cam mumbled a good morning, slipping past them and hurrying down the street. Iroh watched her go with a hint of sadness but anything he might have said was interrupted by laughter coming from within the house. Katara hurried into the house, greeting Yun with a grateful smile when the older woman handed her a cool cup of water. Iroh followed at a more sedate pace, glancing back toward the bedrooms. "Do you have company, Ms. Yun?"
Yun's expression tightened fractionally. "No one new."
"Oh, I thought I heard…"
He trailed off as another laugh sounded and a young boy's voice rose, demanding another story. Yun sighed, turning to tend to dinner. "Your nephew is entertaining Akamu with childhood stories."
"He is?" Iroh asked with some surprise at the same time Katara asked, "He's awake?"
Yun gave Katara a surreptitious look and a fraction of a nod as she addressed Iroh, "He hasn't told how he received his scar, though Akamu has been asking."
Katara slipped away as Iroh hummed delightedly. She was still surprised when she entered the bedroom and found Zuko propped against the headboard grinning foolishly at Akamu. Neither boy noticed her arrival and Akamu was frowning, his chin resting on the pillow he clutched to his chest. "Did you really swim the ice channels in the North Pole?"
Zuko looked bemused. "Of course. I wouldn't lie."
Akamu snorted his disbelief and Katara took the opportunity to interject, "You could have died."
Both boys startled, turning toward the door. Zuko grinned widely when he saw her, making moves to clamber out of bed. "Katara! You're back!"
Her eyebrows shot up at his uncharacteristically cheerful greeting and she hurried forward to push him back into the bed, clicking her tongue in disapproval. "Yes; we're back. How are you feeling?"
She directed the question to Akamu who grinned and chirped, "Fine!"
Katara looked him over with a gimlet eye. "You should be in bed."
Both boys spoke at the same time, exchanging startled looks before dissolving into laughter. Nonplussed, Katara raised an eyebrow and looked curiously at the cheerful firebender. She had a feeling she was missing something and neither boy appeared to want to explain. Folding her arms across her chest, she frowned at them for a moment before sighing. "Well, I'm glad you're both feeling better."
Iroh appeared in the door with Yun, beaming at the laughing boys. "As am I, but we don't want to overstay our welcome so we must make plans to leave."
"Come along, Akamu."
The boy whined, but rolled off the bed to follow his mother out of the room. Iroh closed the door after them, tucking his hands into his wide sleeves as he approached the bed and took the empty chair. Katara fussed with Zuko's covers, peering closely at the recovered firebender before settling down on the edge of the bed and leveling Iroh with a flat look. "There's a plan?"
"Of course there's a plan!" Iroh insisted, looking affronted before he looked more seriously at Zuko. "Are you sure you're recovered?"
Katara shifted uncomfortably, glancing warily at Zuko. "Uncle, I'm not sure…"
She trailed off, at a loss of what to say in the face of Zuko's cheerfulness. She was relieved when Iroh seemed to completely understand her concern. "I did say it was a spiritual illness, Miss Katara. I'm sure things will sort themselves out soon. In the meantime we must leave. The Rough Rhinos have heard rumors that we are here and are keeping a close watch. The funeral for Hieu is tomorrow and we will join the mourning party. I'm afraid we will have to leave the ostrich horse with Tuan."
The plan was simple, really, and Katara wondered if it really would work the way Iroh insisted it would. Sokka's plans were always elaborate and commonly involved several steps and contingency plans. The plan went as follows: They would dress in mourning attire, join the mourning party, accompany them out to the tombs, and then slip away. Ba Sing Se was only a day and a half away Iroh's contact had given them papers and passports to get them into the city where, supposedly, they would be safe.
The evening meal passed in tense silence. Katara attempted a conversation with Cam and Yun, but gave up after getting nothing more than short sentences and wary glances. Zuko seemed to sense that all was not as it had been and sunk into the silence she was accustomed to seeing. The only one at the table to appeared unaffected by the atmosphere was Akamu, but any question he asked was met by a quiet admonishment from his mother to eat his food. Eventually he, too, gave up and turned his attention to shoveling food into his mouth.
Zuko finished quickly, mumbling a thank you under Iroh's watchful eye and escaped back to the bedroom claiming fatigue. Shortly after Zuko's departure, Iroh excused himself and followed after his nephew. Katara watched him go with feelings of dismay, preparing to follow when a quiet sigh of relief drew her attention. Yun flushed under Katara's penetrating stare, starting, "Master Katara—"
Katara's chair screeched across the floor as she stood, cutting off Yun's words. "What did they ever do to you?"
"Really, Master Katara, I would think you would understand."
Katara made an angry motion, stopping Yun from saying anything further. "I do not understand. They are no different now than when you thought they were refugees."
"But," Cam stumbled over her words when Katara leveled her with an icy look, but continued on, "they're the ones who…"
She trailed off uneasily, motioning to the nearly forgotten ring on Katara's thumb. The waterbender twisted the ring around her thumb before letting her hands drop with a tired sigh. "Good and evil is not so clearly defined by your nation of origin. I—" she cut herself off with a shake of her head. "We will be leaving tomorrow with the funeral party. Thank you for your hospitality."
She bowed to each of them in turn and headed toward the bedroom. She paused at the door, glancing back at the silent table before offering a pleasant, "Good night."
Once in the bedroom with the door closed behind her, she found Iroh seated on his bed gazing sadly at the huddled form of Zuko. He met her scowl with a smile of understanding, merely stating, "The funeral begins at sunrise."
She nodded her understanding and crawled onto the bed next to Zuko. With one last thoughtful look, Iroh lay down and turned his back to them. She waited until the soft sound of his snores reached her before scooting closer to Zuko's back. At first, the tense muscles in his back remained so and then he relaxed with a put upon sigh, turning onto his back and grudgingly allowing Katara to press against his side. His arm curled naturally around her shoulders and she smoothed a wrinkle out of his tunic before settling down. She relaxed listening to his steady heartbeat and gentle breathing.
"I'm glad you're better," she whispered.
If he replied, she didn't hear.
Katara woke the next morning to find herself alone in bed. Zuko was already gone from the room, but Iroh leaned over her, speaking quietly, "We don't have long until the funeral procession begins. I've left your robes at the end of the bed. We'll go when you're ready."
She nodded, her head still fogged with sleep, and Iroh retreated from the room. A quick glance out the window showed the horizon tinged a pale gray-blue testament that dawn was still a ways off. The temptation to roll over and go back to sleep was great, but she managed to drag herself out of bed to blink mussily at the pile of undyed lenin at the foot of the bed. She picked it up, letting the cloth unfold. Her throat tightened and she swallowed. Mourning clothes. She put them on mechanically, tying the brown sash around her waist and picking up her waterskin.
Iroh and Zuko were in the kitchen when she arrived, Iroh standing at the door and Zuko slumped in a chair. He straightened a little when she appeared though she could see the lines of exhaustion still on his face. If they had time she would've insisted they stay another few days but with the Rough Rhinos in town it was only a matter of days before they started searching the houses. Iroh smiled, holding out a conical hat for her to take. "Good. They're about ready. The sun will be up shortly. Can you take the ostrich horse? I fear my nephew will need more assistance than you are able to give."
Katara frowned. "Your shoulder—"
"Is well healed, my dear." He patted her gently on the shoulder. "Don't fuss. Come along, my boy! We've got a few miles to walk and then you can rest again."
Zuko grumbled something Katara couldn't hear, but by the tone he was clearly disgruntled. She felt the muscles in her back relax with relief. Things were back to normal. Iroh laughed, taking the younger man by his arm and pulling him to his feet. Zuko swayed on his feet for a moment before leaning against his uncle. They left the house, moving slowly up the street to join the swelling crowd outside Tuan's house. Tuan met them in front of the crowd, his face haggard and drawn. "Master Katara, thank you for coming."
He paused when he saw Iroh and Zuko behind her, his jaw tightening. Katara held her breath, only releasing it when he looked away and motioned to the gathering. "You'll be in the middle."
Katara reached out, touching his arm. "I am sorry."
He gave a tight nod and then he was gone. Iroh sighed, releasing Zuko long enough to give her a gentle pat on the shoulder. "It's not your fault."
The sun crested the horizon, turning the desert sands a brilliant red-gold. A wordless mourning song rose from the gathered crowd and they moved forward. At the edge of town, several of the Rough Rhinos sat astride their mounts, suspiciously eying the mourners as they shuffled past. Katara ducked her head, letting her shawl swing forward to hide her face. She felt their eyes pass over her and she breathed a quiet sigh of relief. The song swelled and words joined. A prayer of guidance for the departed spirit. A mile and a half outside of the village they stopped before steep, jagged cliffs. The mourners parted and the stretcher carrying Hieu was solemnly brought forward. Two eathbenders stood on either side of the stone coffin. One laid a hand on top, sweeping it slowly from head to foot. Carvings etched across the surface, words and pictures telling the life story of a young boy. Tuan and his wife approached the coffin and Katara dropped her eyes. A few efficient earthbending moves later and the cliff face opened and the coffin slid into place. Iroh touched her arm, muttering, "We should go."
No one paid any attention when they slipped away. Katara cast one last look at the cliffside tombs before she turned away. They walked another mile before deciding to find shelter to avoid the heat of the day. Katara managed to find a shallow indention in the cliff that would allow all three of them to rest until sunset. Zuko slumped against the back, his head lulling and his breathing harsh. Katara passed around her spare waterskin and turned her attention to assessing the damage Iroh had inflicted on his shoulder. He submitted to her attentions with good grace despite his insistence that he was completely healed and that it was merely stiff.
Zuko sprawled across the floor of the cave, his eyes closed and his chest rising steadily. Katara knelt at his side, watching quietly. "I really wish we could have stayed another day or so at Yun's."
"We made them uneasy," Iroh stated as if that explained everything.
Katara scowled at him but didn't refute his statement and instead turned her attention to further travel. "How far?"
"If Zuko is strong enough, two days."
Katara took a deep breath as they made their way through the winding caves that constituted the port for the ferry across to Ba Sing Se. After all those days in the desert, the cool, slightly damp feeling of being underground was a welcome relief. Clusters of men, women, and children in various stages of wear grouped around vendors or lounged against the dark walls. Iroh led them to a bored looking woman, greeting her with a wide smile. "Good evening."
The woman sniffed, drawling, "Papers?"
Iroh pulled some rumpled parchment from his sleeve, passing them over, commenting, "We had quite the journey here. Such beautiful, wind-swept rock formations—"
She scrutinized the papers with an intensity that made Katara nervous. With a last suspicious glance at them, she stamped them and handed them back. "Ferry leaves in ten minutes."
Iroh tucked the papers away, smiling genially. "Thank you. I'd be happy be buy you a cup of tea if you would like to give a lonely old man the pleasure of your company."
Zuko groaned, turning away with a grimace. The ticket lady gave Iroh a flat look before ignoring him completely. "Next!"
Zuko dropped onto an empty bench. "Why do you always have to do that?"
Iroh tucked his hands into his sleeves, watching people as they passed. "It's always a good idea to be kind to people in service."
He grunted, following the progress of a tray of steaming dumplings. "I'm hungry."
Iroh turned to see money exchange hands and a bowl passed back and sighed. "Yes. Dumplings would be wonderful."
Katara dropped to the seat next to Zuko and he moved over to make room for her, grumbling to Iroh, "It's your fault we don't have any money. Going off and buying stupid gold monkeys from pirates."
Katara looked curiously at them, catching the faint reddening of Iroh's cheeks. "Pirates."
Iroh cleared his throat, saying loftily, "Yes, Zuko made them angry. Besides," he shot Zuko a sardonic look, "I believe most of our funds are at the bottom of the arctic ocean."
She looked curiously at Zuko. "Why would they be there?"
Zuko grumbled irritably, crossing his arms and looking away. When he offered no further explanation, Iroh spoke up, "Admiral Zhao tried to assassinate Zuko. He blew up Zuko's ship."
Zuko grunted. "So it's Zhao's fault."
Katara frowned in thought. "Isn't Zhao the one who tried to kill the moon spirit?"
"He is and he did."
Katara let a moment pass in surprise before sighing, and propping her chin in the palm of her hand. "One of these days you're going to have to tell me what you did while I was in prison."
Zuko shrugged dismissively. "It's a long story."
"And a fascinating one!" Iroh added cheerfully.
A gong echoed through the cavern announcing boarding time. They joined the rush to board the ferry. Zuko's hand closed over her wrist, pulling along behind him so she wouldn't get lost in the press of humanity. They spilled onto the wide deck of the ferry, spreading out to claim a spot for the trip across the large lake. Zuko and Katara had settled down between two large coils of rope that would block the wind before Iroh appeared with a steaming cup and a large smile. "I was able to find some tea."
He took a deep, satisfying sip only to end up coughing and sputtering, looking appalled. "This is an affront to tea! It has no ambrosia. It's not even hot."
Zuko trailed off when a shadow fell over them. A tall young man grinned down at them, running a hand through wild, brown hair. He passed a piece of straw to the side of his mouth, his grin turning lopsided when he looked at Katara. "Hey, my name's Jet," he paused, giving a careless wave to two people standing behind him, "and these are my Freedom Fighters, Smellerbee and Longshot."
"Hello," Zuko deadpanned.
Jet ignored him, leaning against the coiled rope near Katara. "So, what's your name?"
"Katara," he repeated, causing her to blush. He gave her a wink. "A pretty name for a pretty girl."
Zuko scoffed, earning a disapproving frown from Katara. Iroh settled down next to his nephew, pushing away the tea. "We'll be in Ba Sing Se by tomorrow morning. I am looking forward to some decent tea."
Smellerbee spoke up then, "Longshot and I are going to scout the area."
Jet waved them off and then dropped down to sit next to Katara, leaning in and speaking in a confiding tone, "I can't wait to see that giant wall."
"It is a magnificent sight."
Something tired and worn underneath Iroh's words drew a concerned frown from Katara, but Jet leaned past her to look at the older man. "You've been there before?"
Iroh nodded solemnly. "Once. When I was a…different man."
He offered nothing more and a quick look at Zuko proved he was going to offer no further explanation as he was avoiding her eyes. Iroh seemed to sink into his thoughts as he gazed across the crowded deck so Katara turned to Jet, asking, "Why are you going to Ba Sing Se?"
Jet gave a careless shrug and a knowing wink. "I guess you could say I've been causing the Fire Nation a little trouble. See, they took over a nearby Earth Kingdom town a few years ago. My Freedom Fighters were ambushing their troops and supply lines."
Interested, she leaned forward. "What happened?"
Jet gave a tragic sigh, looping an arm around Katara's shoulders. "We were betrayed."
Katara gasped and he nodded sagely. "I could've been a hero."
Zuko snorted, rising to his feet. "Come on, Katara."
He waited a moment and, when she didn't move to follow, he stalked off toward the opposite end of the ferry. Katara watched him go, torn between following him and staying with Jet. Iroh sent her a kind smile and rose to follow his nephew. Jet gave her shoulder a squeeze, drawing her attention back to him. "So, is the angry guy your boyfriend?"
"That's good. Pretty girls deserve better."
He winked again and Katara blushed, shifting uneasily. "He's had a hard time. He's not so bad."
Jet must have sensed her unease because he leaned back and put some space between them. "I can tell. He's an outcast, like me. We have to watch each other's backs. Because no one else will."
His head tilted back and he gazed at the setting sun for a long moment. "The Fire Nation killed my parents. I was only eight years old. That day changed me forever."
Katara touched the pendant of her necklace, relieved to feel the smooth stone beneath her fingers. She'd thought the last token she had of her mother was gone forever until Zuko returned it. "I lost my mother to the Fire Nation."
A warm hand slipped into her and squeezed gently. She looked up to meet dark, sympathetic eyes. "I'm so sorry."
They lapsed into silence and Katara wrapped her fingers around the stone, drawing comfort and happy memories of her mother. Jet's arm slid around her shoulders again, drawing her against his side. Her heart leapt and heat spread across her cheeks. She was thankful the deepening shadows hid her blush. Jet sighed, his voice soft, "I've done some things in my past that I'm not proud of, but that's why I'm going to Ba Sing Se: for a new beginning. A second chance."
Zuko returned shortly after sunset holding two bowls and grumbling irritably. He drew up short when he saw Jet. "You're still here."
Smellerbee appeared soundlessly at Zuko's elbow, sneering at the two bowls before saying, "Jet, we've found something of interest."
Jet grinned, lifting Katara's hand and pressing a quick kiss to the back. "I hate to leave you, but duty calls."
He met Zuko's glare with a smirk and a casual wave farewell before he followed Smellerbee. Zuko handed Katara one of the bowls as he took a seat next to her. "Looks like someone zapped him with lightning."
"Really? I think he's kind of dashing." She missed his incredulous stare as she examined the contents of the bowl. "What is this?"
Zuko looked at his own bowl with a grimace. "I don't know, but I have a feeling I'd rather eat one of those giant bugs in the swamp instead of this."
Katara laughed then took a cautious sniff, her nose wrinkling. "I think many things would be preferable to whatever this is. It smells like Sokka's socks."
"Ugh, I think I'll starve."
They exchange looks before they both tossed their bowls over the side of the ferry.