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|A Distant Hope|
Chapter 16: A Distant Hope
Words of Avatar Aang:
In our darkest moments...
When life flashes before us, caressing us with beautiful memories of our loved ones...
When our hearts tremble and break at the terror of never laying eyes upon them again...
We cling to hope, a desperate lifeline, our last connection to them.
Hope that they are alive and safe.
Hope that they will find and release us from this terror.
And the hope that we are still breathing when they do.
A Touch of Concern.
Ba Sing Se, The Food Palace...
Aang frowned, twirling the savory noodles about his heavy chopsticks. His cheek rested against his closed fist, giving him a rather distressed appearance.
"What's up, Aang?" Zuko asked, accidentally spraying bits of komodo chicken across the table.
His clumsiness drew a sigh from Mai, who wiped her section of the table with a napkin in disgust.
"It's been ten minutes," Aang muttered, "she's not back yet." He returned to his brooding, quietly inserting the steaming noodles to his mouth.
"Don't worry," Mai reassured him, "she has two broken limbs. Of course she's going to take a while."
Aang's frown deepened. "I don't know..." he sighed, "something just doesn't feel right." He violently speared an eggplant mushroom, swirling it in soy sauce before stuffing it into his mouth moodily.
As another five minutes came and left, Aang thought he would die of anxiety. Ignoring the consoling words that his friends offered, he soon shoved his chair from the table and took off for the bathrooms.
His rising sense of panic was doing nothing to help his nerves.
His progress was hindered when he encountered a wild group of admirers who were giggling and squirming just outside of the private door. His eyebrow ticked in annoyance, but he restrained his anger and called out to the crowd instead.
"I would love to stay and talk with you, but I apologize. I'm looking for my wife, Master Katara. Have any of you seen her?"
His hope rapidly declined as the people exchanged confused expressions and negative exclamations.
Softly pushing through the group, he muttered, "thanks anyways..." Breaking free, he dodged another group and broke into a jog, heart threatening to burst from his chest as he searched for the bathroom. Baring his teeth in frustration, he seized an employee and pulled him aside.
"Where is Shen?" he asked, eyes blazing.
"I don't know," the man stammered, slightly alarmed by Aang's abrupt appearance. "I think that he went to the dumpsters to toss something..."
Aang turned and continued his search before the man finished.
The Grip of Desperation.
Anyone else might have thought that Aang was overreacting, but he felt that his actions were very much necessary after what he and Katara had just been through.
"Is everything all right, Avatar?" a passerby asked him, noticing his frantic eyes.
"No," Aang said, "My wife left to find the bathroom almost twenty minutes ago...she's not back yet, and now I can't find her."
"She's the Waterbending Master, right?" the elderly woman asked, eyebrows scrunching in curiosity.
"Yes," Aang answered, nodding vigorously, "have you seen her, by chance?"
The woman nodded. "Yes. She came out of there—" she pointed to the bathroom door—"about ten minutes ago."
"Was she alone?" Aang asked sharply.
"No, someone was with her."
The kind woman shrugged her drooping shoulders. "I don't know...she was sickly looking, quite pale and thin."
"Did you catch what she looked like?"
"Well," she said thoughtfully, "she was wearing red and black robes, quite tattered. She had a loose bun in her hair, and her face was flanked with two long locks of hair. She was a firebender, I know that."
"Azula," Aang hissed, eyes turning to ice. "Thank you," he said stiffly, brushing past the woman.
He was trembling, his whole body quivering with anxiety. He finally arrived at the bathroom and snapped the door open, searching for anything to hint of Katara's current condition.
His casting gaze fell upon a sight that almost made him sick. Katara's crutch was lying on the ground, pitifully snapped and broken. It was in two pieces, suggesting that violence was indeed involved in her capture.
Dread rose in Aang's throat as he bent down to one knee, hesitantly stroking a finger down the splintered wood. He hissed and drew his hand back when a rogue sliver pierced his flesh. Pulling it from his fingertip, he gently picked up the two halves, face heating with fury.
Suddenly, a faint gleam caught his attention. Following the sparkle, his mouth twisted in pain when he saw the engagement necklace he had carved so carefully lying haphazardly on the floor.
His eyes stung as he reached for it. "I thought I told you to be careful," he murmured, fingers brushing the leather strap like a feather. He grasped it firmly as it slid into his broad palm. He was drawing it closer to his chest when suddenly...
The floor opened beneath him and he fell into darkness.
The Loneliness of Despair.
Never in the entire history of their relationship had Katara longed for Aang's protective arms this badly.
His warm embrace seemed a distant thing in this black dungeon, this rotten hole.
Her nose wrinkled in disgust as the putrid fumes of decay assaulted her nostrils. Shuddering amidst the freezing temperature, she opened her eyes as wide as they would go, hoping against all odds that she would somehow be able to see through the thick curtain of black obstructing her view.
Her current predicament was due to Azula's cunning.
The bathroom had had a distinct feeling of ill will; Katara had sensed it as soon as she entered. The princess had loomed in the shadows, teeth gleaming, eyes burning. She had thrown Katara's crutch to the ground, grinding it under her heel as the startled Waterbender stumbled. Quickly gagging her hostage, Azula had ripped off the engagement necklace, throwing it beside the broken crutch before hauling Katara to her feet, threatening death if the captive girl didn't act normal.
How they had gotten down to the dungeon was beyond Katara's comprehension, seeing as Azula had blindfolded her before entrance. When they arrived at this particular spot, Azula chained her against the wall.
With a sadistic goal to inflict pain, the princess secured Katara's broken arm high above her head, forcing it to twist in a direction that brought forth pain so severe it was nauseating. In addition, Azula had tangled Katara's hair around a restraining bar behind her skull, forcing her to hold her head up.
Which brought her to the present.
The dark, painful, sickening present.
Katara whimpered, itching to rest her neck. However, every time she allowed her head to droop even a few inches forward, pain seared across her scalp.
Her eyes were completely exhausted, dried of tears.
She did not cry.
She would if she could.
She wanted a distraction, a way to avert her brain from this torturous hell. Naturally, a certain monk flashed through her head, wearing his usual goofy grin, eyes twinkling.
"Aang," she whispered hoarsely, smiling weakly at the sound of his name.
It's so soft...so...simple...
She sighed and set her mind adrift, floating back to happy memories with Aang...memories that made the pain disappear, if only for mere moments.
So many memories...
Ba Sing Se, Team Avatar's home, the day after Sozin's Comet...
Katara sat on the couch with her legs curled under her, examining a scroll that had just arrived with the morning messenger.
Her eyes skimmed the headline gleefully, absorbing the cheerful heading;
"WAR IS OVER; THANK YOU, AVATAR!
As the world knows, the century-long war has finally met its end, thanks to our Avatar, 13-year-old Aang. There was a tumultuous cry of victory around the war-torn world as the Fire Nation flag fell from Ba Sing Se's great walls and palaces. With happiness and relief flowing through the air, it's no surprise that love has spread among our citizens as well.
According to a few witnesses, our Avatar was not exempt from this infectious spread! Suspicions were confirmed yesterday when several citizens saw Avatar Aang outside of the esteemed tea shop 'The Jasmine Dragon' with young Waterbending Master Katara of the Southern Water Tribe. Now, as a city, we wish this popular young couple luck.
In other news, Firelord Zuko has pledged his full support to...
Katara stared at the page blankly, blushing. A small smile played about her lips. Shaking her head with a laugh on her tongue, she rolled up the scroll with nimble fingers and set it aside before letting her feet out. She relaxed against the cushions, enjoying the new-found luxury of Ba Sing Se's upper class houses.
She was just closing her eyes when she heard a door open and close from down the hall.
Immediately recognizing the delicate footsteps, her heart did a small traipse as Aang lumbered in, rubbing his sleep-ridden eyes.
Katara blushed furiously.
It had only been a day since they had gotten together. She was still humorously nervous and jittery whenever she set eyes on him.
He yawned, stretching his arms above his head. Scratching his arrow, he jumped when he suddenly noticed Katara. Instantly turning scarlet, he grinned and said, "Morning, Katara."
She smiled at him, wiggling her fingers in greeting. "Hey, Aang."
He turned an even darker shade of red.
Shifting to turn, he tripped over one of his feet, stumbling.
He was extremely flustered.
Katara averted her eyes, holding back a small giggle. He's actually pretty cute when he's nervous.
An awkward gap of silence followed them, leaving a hint of embarrassment in its wake.
Aang was rummaging in the cupboards when he cleared his throat. "So, Katara..." he paused. "Do you want to do something today?"
Katara's lips twitched. "What do you mean by that?"
He accidentally bumped his head on the cabinet door. "Well," he stammered, massaging that spot, "you know...we could go to dinner tonight or something."
Katara grinned. "Aang," she said, slightly teasing, "Are you asking me on a date?"
Aang hesitated. "Yeah...I guess I am," he grinned and shrugged.
"Well," Katara said, "I would love to."
Aang smiled with relief. "Great." Leaning over, he grabbed his breakfast from the lower counter before walking to where Katara was sitting, just a bit hesitant and nervous.
"Mind if I sit next to you?" He asked, flushing just a bit.
Katara shook her head. "Of course not" she sat up and patted the empty cushion next to her.
He settled down, placing the plate on his lap. "Sorry for making that awkward," he apologized. "I'm just getting used to actually being with you now."
"You're fine," she chuckled, brushing some hair behind her ear. "I'm trying to get used to it, too..." grinning, she handed him the news scroll. "But check this out...all of Ba Sing Se knows that we're a thing now."
A slight frown fluttered across his face. "Really?"
She nodded, pointing to the article she had stumbled upon. She examined his face as his eyes scanned the page, waiting for his reaction. When he finished, he turned and met her eyes. "At least their reaction was better than Sokka's!"
Katara flashed him a smile. "I know. He just doesn't know how to respect people's privacy."
Sighing, she swallowed her nerves and placed her head on his shoulder. "Eat your breakfast," she nagged, "It's the most important meal of the day."
Aang nodded, mind suddenly scrambled. He tried to clear his thoughts, but the smell of her hair was intoxicating. The almost irresistible urge to put his arms around her was making his arms itch, but he was at loss of what to do.
This is all so new...I just wonder if she feels the same.
Coughing lightly, he plucked his toast from the plate and took a large bite, munching slowly and warily.
Katara smiled softly, sensing his hesitancy.
The nervous-beyond-belief airbender finished his toast in silence, hyper aware of Katara's head on his shoulder the entire time. Clearing his throat, he set the plate to the side and settled back.
They didn't have to talk; it was unnecessary.
The feelings flowing between them were tangible.
Aang noticed her hand. It was lightly placed on her lap, relaxed and still. Steeling himself, he reached for it, slipping his hand into hers, intertwining their fingers for the first time. A warm feeling rushed up his arm, making him smile. That wasn't so hard...
Katara folded her fingers over his hand, the warm feeling running up her arm as well.
This was...meant to be she thought, basking in the content of the moment.
The Warmth of Hope.
Ba Sing Se, below the Food Palace...
Katara smiled, flexing the hand that Aang had held that day. She laughed when she remembered how nervous he had been.
She was drifting off again when a loud splash suddenly shattered the chilly silence. Instantly, she went stock-still, holding her breath in terror.
If that's Azula, then that means that Shen is...
The unknown being was sloshing around in the water, slowly but surely getting closer and closer to Katara. Every step it took sent a jolt of fear through her heart.
She was trying with all of her might to stay absolutely silent, but her efforts were ruined when her arm shifted against the wall. Try as she might, she could not hold back the cry of pain that escaped her dry lips when she felt the bone fragments scrape against one another.
The mysterious thing froze.
After a brief pause, the thing whispered, "Katara?"
She could not have felt a greater surge of relief as Aang's voice called her name.
"Aang!" she cried hoarsely, a smile spreading over her lips. "You...you found me..."
Immediately, a fire blazed to life about fifteen feet away from her. There stood Aang, appearing pale and hallowed under the flame he was producing.
His eyes found Katara. "Great spirits..." he whispered, fury raging through him again. He bent forward and kicked his legs out, closing the distance between them in less than a heartbeat and nearly stumbling in his haste to reach her.
He brought his hands together gently and spread the fire between his fingers as he cradled her face. The flames licked and kissed her cheeks soothingly and she slowly opened her exhausted eyes, warmth flowing through her once again.
"You're freezing," he whispered, leaning forward to kiss her forehead. "What happened?"
Katara's bottom lip trembled. "Azula got me. I'm sorry, Aang..."
"I thought we agreed not to be sorry for things Azula caused," Aang said sternly. "I'm going to get you out of here. Hold on."
Stroking the back of his hand down her face, he grabbed the chain that was lassoed around her waist. Easily snapping the chains with Metalbending (and silently thanking Toph along the way), he moved on and broke the restraints on her ankles as well.
He shuddered when he saw her arm. "Katara..." he murmured, "you seriously need to repel trouble, not attract it."
Being extremely careful, he took the chains from her broken arm. He lowered it even more carefully, trying his best not to hurt it.
Katara gritted her teeth to keep from screaming as the bones shifted and scraped.
"I don't think you'll be able to untangle my hair," she moaned, grasping her throbbing arm.
"I'm not going to ruin your hair," Aang said firmly. "I'll get it off." He shifted to her side, setting to work with his agile fingers. Her hair seemed to be impossibly tangled around the bar, but he picked at it tirelessly, intent on getting it free.
"Aang, it's useless," Katara sighed, still wincing in pain. "Just cut it."
"Katara, I can get it. I—"
"Aang. I'm not asking you, I'm telling you...please...just cut it."
Aang grimaced. "Are you sure?"
"All right..." He muttered, pulling a hidden knife from his belt. Gently gathering her hair at the base of her neck, he hesitated. "This is probably going to hurt," he warned, touching her cheek.
She nodded, biting her lip. Reaching back, she took a hold of his forearm and squeezed her eyes shut.
Aang pulled her hair taught against the bar, placing the blade as close to the bar as he could to preserve as much of her hair as possible. Clenching his jaw, he began to saw through it as softly as he could, trying not to tug against her head.
Katara resorted to grinding her teeth once again, trying to block out the pain.
Aang let out the breath he was holding when he finished, allowing the rest of her hair to tumble over her shoulders. As soon as he released it, Katara began to fall forward.
He caught her, protectively drawing her limp body to his chest.
She leaned on him heavily, nestling into his warm chest and pressing her head into his shoulder.
A warm feeling flooded her body as his strong arms wrapped around her, remembering how she had longed for them not a few minutes ago. She began to cry anew, tears returning in rivers.
He held her tighter.
"We're leaving, Katara," he said, a steely edge to his voice.
"Leaving, are you?"
Aang and Katara jumped simultaneously, moving to protective stances. Aang pushed his wife behind his back.
Azula stood in the entrance, about ten yards away, silhouetted against the light behind her.
"You!" Aang snapped.
"Me," she said, mocking him.
"Get out of here" Aang snarled. "Now!"
"Don't get all hissy," Azula sighed nonchalantly, flicking her hair from her face, "I know when I've lost, so I'm not staying. I'm just letting that peasant," her eyes flickered to Katara, "know that her fat friend is the only reason she is alive, and that he did not defeat me." Sighing once more, the sickly girl turned her back on the pair. "Till we meet again!"
Aang wouldn't have it.
Acting out in pure aggression, he threw his hands forward, freezing the wretched water into spears as it flew. They struck violently, causing a miniature explosion of water and unknown filth.
Katara held her breath, hoping beyond all reason that the princess was down.
No such luck was available.
She had disappeared, along with the light from the Aang's flame.
Panic seized her, and she reached out to clutch the distressed Avatar's arm.
"Aang," she said, "I can't see..."
Through the veil of darkness, she heard him sigh. Seconds later, a small flame appeared on the palm of his hand. He stood up slowly and ran his hand over his face in defeat.
Exhaling loudly, he turned and embraced Katara, pressing his face into her hair.
"I'm sorry," he muttered.
"From now on, our only concern is finding and ending Azula," he stated coldly, "I don't want her getting to you or any of us ever again." He leaned back, looking into her eyes. "Are you all right?"
She nodded. "My arm is killing me, that's all..."
"You probably re-broke it..."
Aang sighed again. "What did Azula mean when she said 'you're lucky that your fat friend saved you'?"
Katara placed a hand over her mouth. "Oh!" she gasped. "I completely forgot!" she placed her broken arm on Aang's chest. "Aang...it was Shen who saved me...I don't know where he is now, but he was the one who stopped Azula."
Aang frowned. "What happened? Give me every detail."
Katara leaned forward, resting against his sturdy frame. "Well, as soon as I walked into the bathroom, I knew something was up. Of course, right when I felt it, she got me. She grabbed me from behind and threw my crutch down, breaking it. Then, she told me to do what she wanted or she would kill us. I was helpless...I hate being helpless, Aang."
"I know..." he consoled her.
"Then," Katara continued, "I had to stand and watch while she set the trap for you. She took my necklace..."
As she spoke, Aang brought his hands up and swept her hair over her shoulders, securing the pendant around her neck, his fingers lingering on her skin. She grinned slightly, taking his hand and kissing the back of it.
"Thanks," she mumbled. "Anyways, after she set that up, she dragged me into a different room, where she blindfolded me. She took me down here and chained me up. She was threatening to kill me when Shen burst in. He took one look at her and sent a fireball across the room."
Katara shook her head and a low sob escaped her.
"It hit her in the back and she rounded him. He disappeared again... and she ran out after him, locking the door. I think a few minutes passed...and that's when you dropped in." She smiled up at him, allowing his small grin to wash away all of her pain.
"You know," she murmured, leaning against him again, "that was...strange. Azula doesn't just give up like that."
"Let's not worry about it now," Aang demanded, pressing his lips against her hair. "I'm just overwhelmed...I don't wanna hear any more."
Katara's eyes fluttered shut as she inhaled his unique smell. He worried so much...
Overcome with a sudden wave of gratitude and love, she secured her uninjured arm around his neck and locked her mouth against his, not willing to let go. She gripped his collar in her fist, pulling him even closer.
Aang was surprised by her sudden move, but he responded gently and compassionately. His fingers trailed over her hair, past her cheekbones, and down her neck.
They parted for a moment, lips only centimeters apart.
"Katara..." He sighed as he extinguished the flame in his free hand, wrapping his arm around her waist.
Katara exhaled and pressed their lips together again, relishing the warmth and losing herself in his embrace.
If you've read the chapters up to this point, I sincerely thank you. However, I have also made several key changes to the storyline in the past few chapters. Just a note, in case you start wondering why the next few chapters don't make sense with the old storyline. =)
As always, be sure to check out the rest of the series, more chapters coming soon!
For the collective works of the author, go here.