Chapter 1: Gift
When he left for Egypt with his cousin, he knew that the deserts past the ports and towns were so dangerous that even the local nomads took precaution when crossing them. There was the ghastly heat to take into consideration, the wind that sent sand everywhere, and the lack of resources. Then, there was the sheer vastness of the deserts.
It was not for the faint of heart.
But, both he and Lu Ten were veterans of the Great War. They survived, though not unscathed; Lu Ten barely able to walk and him with a significant burn scar across one eye, nearly blinding him. Regardless, their transition back was as smooth as one could hope for. Zuko would be remiss not to credit his comfortable return to civilian life to his family’s affluent background.
He was able to return to his graduate studies as if he had left for a mere break.
Lu Ten, the heir to their family, had a bit of a more difficult time, though it had nothing to do with the estate.
Lu Ten’s father and his uncle, a gentleman scholar of Egypt’s ancient civilization was no stranger to conducting research out there. He invited them both for different reasons: Lu Ten for a change of pace and Zuko for his love of the ancient world and own interest in Egyptology.
Zuko jumped at the chance, even though he was relegated to a museum in Cairo to aide his uncle’s friend in translation work. It would be Lu Ten and Iroh who would be wading into the desert.
Iroh was already experienced in Thebes and Luxor, so Zuko had no issue with Lord Iroh’s latest expedition to whatever necropolis he suspected lay in the Sahara.
In fact, Zuko was the one reassuring Lu Ten that he would be fine. That the new surroundings of the desert and Egypt would be a breath of fresh air from the gloom of their family’s ancestral estate and the neglectful company that had greeted Lu Ten when he returned from war.
When they left, Zuko had waved from the port with a smile on his face. He would’ve loved to join them, but his own expertise was more indoors than out. That was where he found himself, in slacks and a dress shirt, his tweed jacket hanging off the back of his chair as he sat in a stuffy, windowless back office of the museum.
His hands were covered in clean white gloves as he turned a fragment of a jar to read and translate its inscription. The museum had received a donation of Mesopotamian pieces from a wealthy industrialist with an interest in ancient civilizations, but there were few in the world who could even remotely translate Cuneiform.
It was lucky of the museum that he could.
“Zuko.” There was a knock on the open door frame and Zuko lifted his eyes from the magnifying glass hovering over the jar to the door. Lee, one of the young local assistants, peered inside. “Professor Zei wants to see you.”
Zuko looked down at the jar and tried not to frown at the disruption. “I’ll be right there,” he said. Lee gave him a nod and left, presumably to let the museum head know he was coming.
As carefully as he could, Zuko placed the jar back into the little wood box lined with straw. He removed his gloves and adjusted his glasses before pushing his creaking chair back.
He reached into his pocket for the key to lock the room. The small, narrow room which contained his desk, chair, and a table lamp was lined and fills with piles of boxes he had yet to open and identify. He was sure he’d still have some left by the time his uncle returned.
He closed his door and locked it, the words painted on to the frosted glass window made him sigh. ‘Janitor’.
Zuko shook his head and continued down the corridor. Yes, his translation skills were needed, but it didn’t seem needed enough to warrant a proper work area.
“At least you’re here,” he said to himself under his breath. Being in the actual place where actual ancient Egyptians once walked was more exciting to him than the wood paneled halls of the family estate.
He crossed the well swept halls of the museum, walking down the length, past the atrium to the museum head director’s office. Professor Zei’s name was neatly painted on the frosted glass panel and before Zuko entered, he stopped and knocked on the wooden door frame.
“Zuko, come in.” He opened the door and peered inside. The old man dressed in a pale linen suit looked distressed as he sat behind his desk, piled with books and papers, with his hands clasped in front of him. He was staring down at a piece of paper on his desk before he glanced up and looked at Zuko. “I received a telegram today from an associate near Luxor.” He slid the tan piece of paper forward as Zuko stopped in front of his desk.
Zuko looked down at the paper, curling his lips inward as he reached down and lifted the card up. He squinted through his glasses.
Without a word, his hand tightening on the paper as he re-read the type words again, unable to believe what he was reading the first time. His brows knit together as he looked at the dire professor.
“When did you get this?”
“It was just brought to me,” Zei said in a low voice, shaking his head. “I keep a close eye on Iroh and have someone check on them every other day. They haven’t moved locations, let alone notified us of moving. You can’t simply pick up a camp and move over night. There is too much to move at once with that many people with him.”
“It says that they can’t be located. Are you sure they’re looking in the right place?” Zuko asked, his heart quickening as he tried to rationalize the message to assure himself that his uncle and cousin were fine. “What if the associate checking in on them went to the wrong area?”
Professor Zei shook his head and Zuko felt sick. “That’s impossible. Uncle is well prepared - he’s been out there before! He had guards with him--”
“If there was a struggle, they would’ve reported evidence of it that pointed to an altercation,” Zei said. “The local garrison dispatched a team to search for them, Zuko. It says so right there.”
“Then they’re all blind! How can an entire team miss a camp!”
“I don’t know, Zuko. Even knowing it’s the desert, I still have my doubts. I don’t believe Iroh would suddenly disappear like this, either, but they’ve searched the vicinity for two days and two days out.”
“So what are you saying?” Zuko said. “My uncle and cousin disappeared into thin air?”
Professor Zei shook his head. “I don’t know, Zuko.”
“You don’t....” The telegram crinkled as Zuko crushed it in his hand. “Then there must be a way to find out. I could contact the consulate or notify the local garrisons-”
“And what, Zuko? They’re not going to drop everything in search of a man in the desert, even if it is Lord Iroh!” Professor Zei said. “I’ve already appealed to them and they rejected my request. They’re spread too thin here.”
Zuko ran a hand through his hair as he began to pace the front of the director’s desk. “I can’t sit around and accept this! This is my uncle and cousin! I refuse to believe that they’ve just disappeared.”
“Zuko,” Professor’s Zei’s voice was low. “It’s dangerous out there. We don’t know what exactly happened.”
“Then I’ll find out!”
“I...I....” He trailed off, his eyes crinkling up as a look of pain and confusion filled his face. How was he going to find out? Since he arrived, he hadn’t gone outside of the city. Zuko wasn’t familiar with Cairo in the slightest. At the most, he’d been to some government buildings, a post office, the museum and places around it and his uncle’s flat, where he was staying, but past the familiar neighborhoods?
He might as well have been dropped in the middle of a jungle blindfolded.
Professor Zei’s pained eyes squinted. “You can’t go out there alone, Zuko.
He closed his eyes tight and took a deep breath. A sharp pain reached the bridge of his nose. “I know.”
“And getting there isn’t cheap either. You’d need to get guards, horses, equipment.”
“I can get the money together.”
“And a guide.”
“A guide?” Of course. It made sense and was necessary, but where would he get a guide?
“A good one. You can’t just hire anyone to guide you, Zuko. You need someone you can trust who really knows the desert.”
“Then can you recommend anyone?”
“My top choice was with your uncle,” Professor Zei said, at a loss. “There aren’t many I’d trust.”
It wasn’t something he was comfortable doing, but Zuko could leverage his family’s wealth. What he needed was a good, competent guide to find his uncle.
“Where can I find a guide?” Zuko said. “There must be someone out there. I’ll pay them, I just need a good guide.”
Professor Zei looked hesitant. “Zuko, you need to find a guide you can trust.”
“I’ll find one! I just need to know where to look!” He slammed his hands on the director’s desk and looked at him with desperation. “Professor Zei, please....My uncle and cousin are out there.” He motioned his hand out the door. “And I need to find them.”
The old man swallowed. He looked down and shut his eyes tight, as if considering whether or not he should assist him. After a few moments of tense silence, where Zuko held his breath, Professor Zei looked up.
“Past Bub al-Futuh, go into the Old City. There is an establishment where one can get a less...official guide and perhaps some men to escort one into the desert,” Professor Zei said. He had a pen in one hand and scribbled the name of the place on a piece of paper. He tore it off a corner of a bound notebook and handed it to him.
Zuko stared at the scrap of paper before taking it from Professor’s Zei’s outstretched hands. “I can find someone there?”
“It’s a bit of a lawless group, Zuko. They can charge whatever they want if they know how desperate you are. Even then, there is no guarantee that you can trust them. It’s risky.”
Zuko looked down at the scrap and took a deep breath. “I’ll take my chances. Thank you, Professor Zei.”
He turned around and headed out the door.
“Zuko!” He turned around before he closed it. The museum director was standing. “There is a man named Jet I’ve heard of. Former French Foreign Legion. He may be a good place to start.”
Zuko gave the professor a small nod and closed the door.
The further he wandered away from his familiar parts of Cairo, the more he wished he changed. There were plenty of ex-pats and foreigners all over the city, but the locals still stared at him and he couldn’t blame them for sticking out. His pressed suit, though cleaned just the day before, felt heavy and dirty from the sweat and dust accumulated just getting there from the museum. His hat was slightly bent and his shoes were coated with dust, appearing a light brown instead of black.
He’d nearly been run over by a drunkard in a car and gotten lost in the maze of alleys. He clutched his briefcase with maps and information on his uncle, as well as some money to grease the hand of whoever he could hire.
It would take another week to get all the money he felt he needed for such an expedition, but he had no time to lose. Iroh and Lu Ten had already been missing for two...now three days. Zuko couldn’t afford to waste any more time.
He knew his urgency could be read all over his face, but he didn’t care. He’d make a man rich if they could help him find his family.
He stumbled through a narrow alley in the shadows of the old brick buildings, looking from the scrap of paper in his hand to various signs. His own Arabic was poor and there was a chance the seedy bar was unmarked.
Twice he tried to ask a male passer-by if they knew where a “Mesektet” was. Twice they looked at him confused. Either they didn’t know about the place or did and didn’t trust to tell him where it was.
He was not deterred. It was there. He just had to find it.
He glanced around again, looking for something that resembled a suspicious looking bar; an eatery, or somewhere that had some questionable fellows who could tip him off on who to go to for a private job.
He saw small group huddled in the shadow of a building. They looked no more than his age, but had clearly experienced a life vastly different from his. He took a deep breath to prepare himself and walked over. He stood up straight, putting on a serious look and hoped his urgency didn’t spill out all at once.
“Is this Mesektet?” Several pairs of eyes turned towards him. A few of them looked up and down, assessing whether or not he was worth their time.
Finally, the smallest of the bunch snorted. “That’s Mesektet.” She was a young, petite woman in men’s clothing. Zuko wouldn’t have figured it out if it weren’t for her voice. She was pointing past him, to a building across the street. It’s small, square windows were high up on the outside wall and barred with dilapidated wood shutters.
The corner of his lip curled up. He imagined the place to look broken down and mostly empty, but not that old. He gave the group a small nod and crossed the alley to get to the open doorway of the building. He peered inside the dimly lit bar. A few patrons in stained, unkempt clothes huddled around mismatched tables and chair that looked retrieved from a dump.
Along the narrow bar, a mismatch of wood and metal stools lined the counter with a large, sweaty fellow behind it. Three men were seated at the bar, with one appearing to be passed out drunk. It was only midday.
Zuko swallowed once more and stepped inside. He looked anywhere else, but at the men lingering around the tables. He could fight, but didn’t want to get into one. Not to mention he’d be outnumbered and a few wouldn’t hesitate to break every bone in his body.
He approached the counter and leaned over, trying to catch the bartender’s eye.
“I’m looking for Jet,” he said. He kept the stoic look on his face almost like a shield. “Where can I find him?”
The bartender’s dark eyes flickered to the bar in front of him. He motioned his head toward the far end of the bar, where a figure in a worn leather jacket was hunched over a murky glass of amber liquid.
Zuko took the hint.
He walked over and took the stool next to the dark haired man. “You Jet?”
“That depends.” His voice was low, but curious. “Why’re you lookin’?”
“I have a job.”
The man shifted. He turned his head and Zuko was almost surprised to find him to be as young as he was. Without a hat, the man’s unruly dark hair seemed to go all over the place as sharp eyes almost looked through him.
“What kind of a job?”
“First, are you Jet?”
The corner’s of the man’s thin lips curled upwards. He leaned against the bar and extended on hand. “Jet.”
Zuko looked down at the calloused hand and reluctantly shook it. “Zuko.”
Jet smirked again and lifted his chin up. “So, what’s the job, Zuko?” he drawled.
“I’m looking for some relatives and need a guide to help me search.”
“All right...they get lost or something?”
He didn’t want to alarm Jet, though part of him didn’t think Jet could be alarmed. “They were doing some field research up river.”
“Valley of the Kings?”
“No. West of Luxor in the Sahara.”
He could’ve sworn he saw Jet’s eyes widen for just a bit. “The desert.” Jet drew his head back. “You have any idea what’s out there?”
“My uncle and cousin,” Zuko said, narrowing his eyes. “You will take the job?”
“Heh...no one’s going to take that job.”
“What?” He sat up straight. “What do you mean? I can pay-”
“Do you have the supplies? Armed guards? There are raiders out there, you know. They don’t take to kindly to foreigners in their territory.”
“I can pay for all of that!” Zuko said, nearly jumping out of his seat. He noticed some men turn his way and he returned, looking away. “I just need to get a guide willing to lead me there and help me look.”
“Listen, I hate to break it to you, but if they got lost in the desert, chances are...they’re already goners.”
Zuko shot up once more, grabbing Jet by the collar and bringing him close. Jet remained smirking, his body languid as Zuko jerked him forward. “They’re not dead.”
Jet lifted a hand and pried one of Zuko’s pale, shaking hands off him. “And so will you if you go out there.” He pulled away and adjusted his messy collar. “I’m just giving you some advice. Ain’t no one here going to risk their ass out there unless they get paid up front. 100,000.”
Zuko nearly choked. “A...a hundred...thou...thousand?” Jet nodded, grinning.
“You’re talking a man’s knowledge and life. What? You think it’s cheap?”
It wasn’t so much that Zuko thought it was cheap. Only that he didn’t expect it to be so expensive. The most he wired for was 20,000. He still needed to buy supplies, animals, and hire guards and now, he didn’t think the 5,000 he currently had would be nearly enough.
His mind raced with another option. His uncle was supposed to be at a necropolis. Necropolis meant tombs and tombs meant treasure. It pained him to use artifacts as treasure, but he was desperate. He didn’t know where else to go.
“What if I told you could have whatever we find in the tombs?” he said, lowering his voice as he leaned forward.
Jet let out a little scoff and finished off his glass. “You never know what you’ll fine and for all I know, all that’s there are dried bodies and jars. 100,000 or you move along.”
Zuko ground his teeth together. “I don’t have that much money.”
“Then so long, Zuko.”
“There has to be another way.”
“If you want to use that tomb, good luck.” Jet turned towards the bartender and lifted his hand. “Another.” The bartender moved to fill his empty cup and Jet looked back at Zuko. “How much you got?”
Jet looked interested. “I won’t take you out there, but I can recommend someone who will.”
“It’s what makes the world go round,” Jet said, stretching his arms out to his sides as a cavalier grin filled his face. “So what do you say?”
Zuko bore his eyes on to the other man’s face. Was this a scam? How did he know that Jet wouldn’t take the money and disappear or worse, give him some fake connection? Before he could ask, he saw Jet look past him.
His smirk fell from his face and before Zuko could turn around to see why, Jet was suddenly pulled off stool and a crack was heard. He stumbled backwards, his head flopping to the side as he grabbed on to the bar to keep from falling to the floor.
“Well, speak of the devil....” Zuko heard him mutter.
Jet lifted a hand to the corner of his mouth and wiped away a small trickle of blood.
“Jet!” Zuko felt a chill course through him at the woman’s voice. He turned around just as a woman grabbed Jet by the shoulder and shoved him against the bar. “Where’s my money!”
She looked ferocious. Zuko couldn't think of another word to describe her. She probably only reached his shoulder, but her small frame packed some strength. Her khaki pants were tucked into well worn, dust covered boots and she looked to be wearing a man’s oversized button up, also caked with dirt. Her hair was tangled and held in a messy bun with long, brown hair falling around her face.
Her dark skin was covered, save for her arms and infuriated face. Zuko could make out blue eyes beneath her hair. He wasn’t sure if she was a jilted lover or gang leader Jet owed.
To his surprise, Jet let out a little laugh and turned to give the woman a charming smile. “I’d know that punch anywhere. Hey, Beautiful. Miss me?”
The woman let out a hiss as she recoiled with disgust. Jet sat up once more, only to be punched against, this time by a tall, slender brown man with blue eyes. The man, dressed in similar fashion to the woman, took a seat on the other side of Jet and lifted his hand.
“Omar, the usual, if you please.” The bartender gave him a nod and the man looked at Jet with disappointment. “You should know better than to piss off my sister by now.”
“He’s done more than piss me off,” the woman said in almost a growl. She pinned Jet’s head to the table, leaning over him. “Where’s my money, Jet? You said you’d have it by last week and - surprise, surprise - I’ve gone nothing.”
“Katara, love of my life - ow, ow, ow!” Jet grimaced as she pushed him further into the counter. “I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I came up short-”
“Again, Jet?” Katara said. “And don’t you dare call me the love of your life.”
“So,” her brother said, taking a sip of his drink. “What’s your excuse this time? Fire? Orphans? Surprise flood?”
“I had to pay for the kids’ classes, I swear!” Jet said, his hands gripping the edge of the bar and turning white. “If I didn’t pay, they’d be kicked out of the school! C’mon, Katara, you’re the one who kept saying their education is important!”
“Ugh....” Katara shoved him once more and stepped back. Zuko wasn’t sure if she bought that excuse or not. “I’ve been more than lenient with you.”
“I know, I know,” Jet said, rubbing the side of his head. “And I’ll get you the money.”
“Oh yeah? How?” Katara asked. “Grifting? Can’t you get a decent job?”
“A job....” Jet perked his head up and looked at Zuko. Zuko felt his stomach drop. He didn’t like where this was going. “How about a job, eh, Katara?” He looked at her with a smile and reached over, placing his hand on Zuko’s shoulder. “Let me introduce you to my friend, Zuko.”
“We’re not friends,” Zuko said, trying to shrug Jet’s hand off.
“Acquaintances.” Jet corrected himself, as if assured. “Zuko here has a job for a guide in the desert.”
“The Sahara?” Katara drew her head back and frowned, looking towards Zuko.
“Yes,” Jet said. “And who better to take it on than you?” Before she could answer, Jet turned back to Zuko. “This little lady can handle herself out there. She can guide a blind camel across the desert. She’s more than familiar with the route down and has connections to the local nomads up river.”
“Is that true?” Zuko asked. Katara was scrutinizing him with her eyes. She didn’t reply, so Jet continued on.
“He’ll pay twenty, K. Twenty.”
Zuko shot him a glare.
“What’s a guy like you want out there in the desert?” Katara asked. It was a fair question and Zuko released a low breath.
“I’m looking for my uncle and my cousin. They were heading a research project west of Luxor, about a day or two out into the desert. I...I have, all the notes he left with me that can help us locate their camp,” he said, patting the bag still crushed against him.
“See, he already has clues for you!” Jet said. “What do you say, Katara? Isn’t that how much I owe you? I’ll give up this guide job to you if you call us even. It’s worth at least that much.”
Zuko felt his jaw drop. At least 20,000? The man just tried to hustle a good 100,000 from him earlier! Katara kept her eyes on him and Zuko shifted in his seat. He averted his eyes as she took a step forward.
“Twenty thousand. You pay half regardless of the outcome. If we can’t find out what happened to your uncle and cousin, then Jet here’s going to get another visit from me.”
“Fine by me!” Zuko said, unwilling to pass on the opportunity. He glanced at Jet, who frowned.
“That’s your payment to us. You’re still in charge of preparing the supplies and the animals. That’s separate from what you’re paying us,” Katara said.
“What about the guards?” Zuko asked.
“You’ve got one,” she said, nodding her head to her brother. The man at the counter, lifted his drink, as if to toast that. Zuko was beginning to have reservations. “Do we have a deal?”
He turned towards her, his mind racing. He needed a guide and he needed one soon. He looked at the woman with the wild brown hair and oversized shirt, looking as if she were just in a fight. He nodded and extended his hand.
“We have a deal, Miss Katara.”
“Katara is fine,” she said, shaking his hand. “Zuko, is it?” He nodded and she pulled her hand away. “Where are you staying?”
“Rawdah, near the southern tip.”
She nodded. “I’ll send you a list of things to prepare.” She extended her hand and Zuko looked at her open palm, confused. “The papers about your uncle’s work. I’ll need them.” He was hesitant, but once more, he ignored his suspicion and handed them to her. “Sokka,” she said, looking over her shoulder at her brother. “Let’s go. We have work to do before we leave tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?” Zuko spoke before he could stop myself. She looked back at him and he tried to gather his thoughts. “We’re leaving tomorrow?” He still had to wait for a list of things to collect.
Katara nodded and lifted up the folio he handed her. “Your family’s missing, right?” He nodded. “Then we don’t have any time to lose.”
She turned around and walked out of the bar. Sokka stopped in front of him, grasping his hand and giving it a quick shake on his way out. “I hope you know what you’re getting into.”
Zuko pursed his lips, unsure what just transpired. He sank on his stool and looked at Jet, who’s eyes were fixed on the door where Katara walked through. “I hope you’re right about her.”
“Trust me,” Jet said, returning to his drink. “She’s the only thing I’ve ever been right about.”
That wasn’t them, either. Zuko craned his neck, trying to catch sight of his would-be guides. He arrived at the designated spot, his ticket for the ship to take them up river was nestled in his shirt pocket beneath his just laundered coat. He adjusted his beige brimmed hat over his parted and neatly slicked back hair to keep the bright sun out of his eyes as he peered through his glasses. His bag hung on the crook of his arm and tucked underneath the other was a bundle of flowers with a thank you note for accepting his job.
He arrived earlier; his anticipation getting the best of him. He spent the entire afternoon purchasing supplies and some pack animals for the journey in accordance to the list he arrived home to. Katara even listed places where he was to buy the horses and pay for saddles, bags, food, water, and camping supplies. Katara seemed to have already arranged that everything be brought to the dock in the morning in preparation.
When he trudged home after securing everything, he was left with less than 100 pounds and an empty stomach. He picked up some falafel on the way home and found another envelope awaiting him. It contained a ticket and a small note - meet us at 3:45PM .
It was now closer to four and he still didn’t see them. All he saw under the blazing sun were yelling men loading ships, crates of cargo, and boats in all shapes and sizes; his in particular was a large steam vessel. It almost towered above the smaller fishing vessels with two tiers above a wooden deck and smoke pipe. He’d already seen several passengers board; tourists with guides of their own to take them down to Luxor and the Valley of the Kings.
“Hey!” A hand clamped down on his shoulder and Zuko let out a yell as he whirled around. Sokka stepped back, lifting his hands in the air. “Calm down, calm down, it’s just me.”
“Oh...sorry. You’re Katara’s brother, aren’t you?”
The brown haired man nodded. “We weren’t properly introduced. I’m Sokka, Katara’s older brother. I was waiting for you on board, but you didn’t seem to be moving from the dock.”
“Sorry, I thought the note meant to wait here,” Zuko said. He looked around. “Where is your sister?”
“She’s asleep in her room.”
“What?” Zuko dropped his shoulders and Sokka gave him an understanding look.
“On the ship,” he said, with a slight chuckle. “She was up all night doing follow up research on your uncle and cousin, as well as contacting some of her associates should something come up. I don’t know if she even got any sleep before she took off this morning to oversee the loading of the horses and supplies.”
“Oh....” He felt somewhat guilty now. “I didn’t know she was doing all that.”
“She likes to be as well informed and prepared as possible,” Sokka said. He glanced down and grinned. “Who are those flowers for?”
Zuko tried to suppress his flush as he shrugged off the question. “Oh, just something to bring some life into my room.” He couldn’t very well tell the man the flowers were for his sister. How would that look?
Sokka gave him and nod and turned around. “Come on board. I’ll show you to your room. Ours aren’t too far from yours. Five and six. If you have questions, just knock.”
Zuko nodded and slung a rucksack over one shoulder. He followed Sokka up the walkway, on to the bobbing ship. While Sokka’s hair was long and tied up, giving him a carefree almost rebellious look, he wore neat khakis suitable for travel, a proper wide brim hat, and his white button up was tucked in. The sleeves were rolled up to his elbows, but he looked like he knew his way in the environment.
“If you don’t mind me asking, what are you and your sister doing here in Egypt? Are you professional adventurers?” Zuko tried to make it sound like a casual joke, but instead sounded forced. Still Sokka, chuckled.
“I didn’t feel like going back after the war and my sister wanted to see the world, so here we are.”
“She looks like she’s done this before.”
Sokka held back a laugh. “You have no idea. My sister is stubborn and headstrong, but she’s good at what she does.” He sighed. “And she can’t say no to helping others.” He led Zuko down a set of stairs and down a narrow corridor. They passed rooms five and six and Zuko found themselves standing in front of room two. “Here you go.” Sokka handed him the key. “And for the record, we can’t promise anything, but we’ll sincerely try to find your uncle and cousin.”
“Thank you, Sokka.”
“We haven’t done anything yet,” Sokka said, patting his shoulder. “Get some rest. Dinner is at seven.”
Zuko nodded and turned the key, pushing his door open and looking inside the modest room. He nodded; a small bed, a desk, a wardrobe bolted to the boat to keep his things in. It would suffice for the trip up river. He glanced back up the hall and saw Sokka disappearing up to the main deck.
He stepped into his room and put his bag on the bed, tossing the flowers onto the desk before falling beside his bag. The bed was hard and creaked. Of course it did. He turned his head to the side and eyed the flowers.
Before he realized it, he was standing in front of room six, knocking. If it was Sokka’s room, no one would answer. Chances were the young man was still upstairs on deck. If it was Katara’s....
He waited, his stomach knotting. He looked down at the flowers in his hands and began to second guess the gesture. What possessed him to buy flowers in the first place? Was it because she was a woman? That was a bit stereotypical. He should’ve just stuck with the thank you card.
He took a step back and plucked the thank you card from the blossoms and knelt down to slide it under her door.
It creaked open just as he tried to flick it in and found that it instead hit someone bare foot.
“Zuko?” Oh no. That was her voice. How did he look kneeling in front of her door like some sort of lecher? He lifted his head and found loose linen pants, good for the heat he noted, and then the thin strapped camisole of a woman who was sleeping after hours of work...and he just disturbed her.
His wide, horrified eyes met hers and he opened his mouth. “I...uh...um...thank you....”
She furrowed her brows and remained standing at her door, seemingly unaware of her disheveled appearance. “What are you talking about? And why are you on the floor?”
It was too late for him to jump ship, wasn’t it?
He pushed himself up, averting his eyes. “I wanted to drop off a thank you card.”
He looked down and willed himself not to groan. There they were, being held out to her with an arm that was betraying him. He swallowed and collected himself. This was ridiculous, it was just a gesture of thanks. No need to be self-conscious. Just look her in the eyes and thank her.
“I wanted to thank you....oh....” From the floor, her hadn’t gotten a good look at her head, but now he could see that her hair was down and falling around her face and shoulders in soft, natural waves. The blue eyes he noticed the day before were quite lovely and why didn’t her soft, heart-shaped face register when she punched Jet yesterday? And speaking of punched, her bare arms were a testament to being able to do so.
She raised a brow as she put a hand on her hip. “You wanted to thank me?”
“Yes,” he said. Focus, Zuko. “I just wanted to thank you for taking this job.” He extended the flowers closer to her and she let out a heavy breath.
“I’m not doing it for the flowers.”
“I know, I know. I’m paying you, of course. This is just a...token of my appreciation,” he said. He silently pleaded with her to take the flowers and spare him. “I didn’t know where to go and was at a loss trying to find someone to help me search for my family. You accepted and are putting in effort to help someone completely out of their element and I’m grateful.”
The flowers were taken out of his hand and he looked back at her. She brought them to her nose and smelled them before her eyes met his.
“You are completely out of your element,” she said, stepping back into her room. “But thanks for the flowers.”
The wooden door closed on his face.
“There you are.” The canvas wrapped deck hair squeaked as Katara sat down beside her brother. Sokka looked up from the pistol he was diligently cleaning. “Your room too stuffy? I keep telling you to just open the window.”
“And let in all the bugs? I don’t think so,” Sokka said. “Besides, what if snake slinks in or some man eating fish?”
“Piranha are strictly South American, Sokka. None are going to swim into your room.”
“And the snakes?” he asked, deadpan.
Katara casually flipped through a small, hand sized notebook. “Not all of them swim....”
“I’ll take my chances in a stuffy room, thank you.” Katara laughed to herself as she leaned back against the deck chair and looked out towards the setting sun in the distance. As Sokka began to reassemble the pistol he spoke up. “Hey...do you really think that guy’s uncle is still alive?”
“You don’t think he is?” she asked.
Sokka gave her a look. “You know what I mean. You’ve been out there before. You know what it’s like.”
Katara took a deep breath. “After reading through those notes and doing my own quick research....I think he is.”
“Think or hope?”
“Huh....” Sokka examined his piece once more before tucking it into its holster at his side. “Why didn’t you ask to get paid first? Why after? You usually at least ask for the first half.”
“I don’t think he had the money on him,” Katara said. “He’s not from here. He’d have to get that amount wired over and that could take days. If we want to find his uncle and cousin alive, we needed to leave as soon as possible. We don’t have time to waste.”
She could feel her brother’s knowing eyes on her. “You really can’t say no when someone really needs it, huh?”
She gave him a wry smile and snapped her notebook closed. She pushed herself up and walked back around him, patting his head with her notebook. “Don’t worry, I’ve done my research. I’ll see you at dinner.”
She rounded him and headed back to the stairs to the lower level. She gave a smile and a nod at another passenger as she squeezed by. She stopped in front of her room and looked further down. Katara looked at her notebook. She consolidated all his uncle’s papers and made a detailed plan. It also contained some notes on what to be prepared for.
She turned and marched to room two, lifting her hand to knock on the wooden door and waited. She couldn’t hear what was happening inside from the sound of the ship’s motor, but craned her head closer just in case.
She heard someone unlocking it on the other side and prepared her notebook.
A groggy voice greeted her and Katara blinked, taking a second to will her eyes away from a surprisingly toned chest and lean arms.
Zuko narrowed his eyes beneath unruly dark hair and looked at the dimly lit corridor. “Oh no,” he said, turning back to his room. “Did I miss dinner?” He stumbled back inside and Katara watched the half dressed man nearly stumble over his own shoes before getting to his desk and checking his pocket watch. “It’s not seven yet....”
She snapped her head out of the clouds. “Sorry, Zuko, I didn’t know you were sleeping.”
“No, no, it’s fine. I just closed my eyes for a moment and....” He looked down, as if noticing his lack of shirt for the first time and turned back around to search for his white undershirt. “I’m sorry! I didn’t realize...the room was just so stuffy!”
Katara nodded, watching his smooth, pale skin flush as he tugged on the shirt. For a man who was in museums all day, he was quite impressive. She licked her lips. “Unexpected, but not unwelcomed....”
“What?” Zuko turned around. “Did you say something?”
“I said why don’t you just open your window,” she said, louder.
He shook his head, frowning at the thought. “I heard there are venomous snakes that swim.”
She bit her lips to keep from laughing. “Okay...sure,” she said. She remained outside his door and held out the notebook.
“What’s this?” he asked as he walked forward and accepted it.
“A thank you for the flowers,” Katara said, giving him a small nod. “I’ll see you at dinner.” She didn’t wait for his thanks in return. She turned around and marched back towards the stairs to get some fresh air from the deck. She let out a low breath, tugging at the collar of her shirt as she felt warmer than usual. He looked so much better when his hair wasn’t slicked back and parted. “Oh, boy....”
Chapter 2: Speak
He poured over his uncle’s papers: lists of equipment, itineraries, legal paperwork giving him permission to excavate sites. His uncle was supposed to be excavating another tomb. That’s what Zuko was told and that was what he believed.
Why did Katara’s notebook mention something else? Something he, Iroh’s nephew, wasn’t privy to?
His knocked on her door with rapid taps, unable to wait until the sun rose to confront her about these ridiculous details. A secret dig site? By a spring? He lifted his hand and knocked again, harder this time. Part of him wanted to call out to her, but he’d wake all the other passengers at the same time.
The clicks and shuffling of the lock on the other side of the door were heard. The door opened and Katara peeked out of a two inch crack with squinted, tired eyes.
“Zuko, it’s still-”
“I need to speak with you.” He wedged the notebook gripped in his hand between the door and the frame and pushed against the door, all manners lost in his urgency.
Katara didn’t push back and stepped aside, scratching the side of her head. “This couldn’t wait until morning?”
Zuko paced around her room, opening and closing his mouth as he tried to articulate his questions now that he was with her. He found her room a bit larger than his and illuminated by a small oil lamp on the desk. He turned around to face her as the door closed. “Where did you get...the...um....”
Katara stood in front of the closed door, bare arms crossed and braided hair a mess around her head. Her thin, blush chimese reached her bare feet as she raised a brow.
“Where did I get what?” she asked, almost in challenge.
Zuko took a step back, running against the side of her bed and jumping as he realized where he was. He looked away, tucking the notebook behind him as he swallowed hard.
“The um...the information,” he said. He tentatively raised the notebook as he fixed his eyes on her corner desk, beside the bed. “This is more than the information I gave you.”
“Why are you talking to my desk?”
“You can’t expect me to look at you right now!”
He heard her give an affronted scoff. “You’re the one who barged into my room. Now you won’t even face me to talk to me?”
She was right. If anyone was being rude it was him. In his rush, the inappropriateness of the situation was ignored and now that he was there, in front of a woman dressed in her nightwear, he couldn’t ignore the awkwardness any longer.
Zuko pursed his lips and turned his body to face her, his eyes still looking anywhere but at her. His face was red and he held the small notebook in a death grip.
He heard her sigh. “Would it help if I changed?”
His shoulders slumped down as relief washed over him. “Oh, God, thank you, yes.” He looked up and found her shaking her head with a dull look on her face. Was that irritation? She had reason to be irritated.
“Have a seat and give me a moment,” she said as she turned towards the wall opposite the bed. He offered her a weak smile and glanced around for a place to sit. The unmade bed was off limits, but he could sit on the desk chair, as nothing was on it.
He pulled it out from beneath the desk and turned it to face the room so he could speak to her. There was a small click and another lamp flickered on behind a narrow, two paneled changing screen. Zuko tilted his head to the side. He didn’t have one of those in his room. Then again, Katara’s room was a bit larger, even with a pile of bags and supplies pushed up against the wall.
“Katara, I’m sorry for barging in here this early,” he said. Best to apologize first. He looked up and crinkled his eyes. He could still see the silhouette of Katara lifting the chimise off her and tossing it to the side before reaching for the cotton button up hanging over the top of the screen.
“There must be a good reason for you to do so,” she said. “What’s wrong?”
Zuko blinked and looked away, turning his chair to the side. “I was going over this notebook you gave me and, as I said, there is more here than what I gave you.”
“I know. I did compile it.”
“But how? Where did you get this information? You can’t possibly be serious about what you think my uncle set out to find.”
“I think you should be questioning what he told you.”
Zuko bristled. He narrowed his eyes and turned around. “My uncle wouldn’t lie to me.”
“No, he just didn’t go into detail about the expedition.” Katara walked out from behind the changing screen, running a hand through her hair. Her blue, cotton shirt was untucked into her khaki pants and her feet were still bare, but it was enough to speak to him in. “You know he needed to get approval from the authorities for the dig, right?”
“Right, of course. Both for the protection of what he finds and for himself.”
“Depending on what it is he’s looking for, the government and figures connected to it may want to be more involved. Academics who are doing archeology on already uncovered ancient cities that have already been stripped of anything of value are approved without much fanfare. However, the newer the tomb, the greater promise of wealth, the more people want to be involved.”
“That’s understandable. Tombs have been ransacked for personal wealth; it’s not difficult to imagine that there are those who don’t have the country’s history’s best interest in mind.”
“Then wouldn’t it make sense to apply for the permits with as little cause of interest as possible?” Katara asked as she stopped in front of him.
Zuko furrowed his brows. “Yes, but what else could be looking for? The papers I gave you included copies of his application and permit. My uncle was looking for a necropolis out in the desert.”
“The only burial sites out there would be predynastic,” Katara said. “They aren’t tombs known for reflecting the wealth of Ancient Egypt, though from an academic and historical standpoint, they’d be rich in information. It doesn’t seem at all out of the ordinary that Lord Iroh would seek something of archeological value over monetary.”
“My uncle has no interest in discovering a tomb of gold,” Zuko said. He placed the notebook on the table. “We both seem to know that.”
Katara let out a low breath and walked to the desk. “I’ve heard of your uncle, but didn’t know much about him. My contacts spoke highly of him.”
He narrowed his eyes. “Your contacts?”
“University researchers, museum personnel, a few friends in various antiquities related branches of government.” Katara leaned back against the desk. “It’s not that I find you untrustworthy, Zuko, but I needed to make sure this was a legitimate guide job. I’m sure that idiot Jet told you it was dangerous out there. My brother and I are essentially not just giving you our time and experience, but putting our lives on the line for you.”
He lowered his eyes. He couldn’t fault her. He hadn’t even paid her; she had every right to investigate for herself and make sure she wasn’t putting herself or Sokka in any more danger or being pulled into a scam.
“Wait.” He sat up straight and looked up at her. “Does this mean you looked into me, too?”
He could see the corners of her lips tug upwards just a bit. “Maybe.” He groaned into his hands. “Why would that bother you? There was nothing wrong with your records. Professor Zei even spoke highly of you.”
“You spoke to Professor Zei?” How did she find out where he worked?
“The adventuring world is smaller than you think,” Katara said, turning to the desk and looking at the notebook. “So, what is it about the information that I collected that made you storm a woman’s room?”
“Please don’t put it like that.” Zuko turned back to the notebook and flipped through the pages, trying to ignore his flush. “Here...what’s this about my uncle not really looking for a burial site?”
“Ah, about that. I got my hands on a topographical map of the region where your uncle was going. You said he was supposed to go to a region near existing dig sites. The permits I found for him don’t show any existing dig sites near where he wanted to go. It was strange; there aren’t any known necropolis sites, let alone tombs or burial sites, in that area.” Katara walked to the pile of bags against the wall and knelt down. She began to rummage through a leather bag and took out a map. She walked back to the desk and unfolded it, laying it out the table and flattening it out with her hands. “Here is the Valley of the Kings and the rest of the Theban necropolis. They’re not that far from the nile and Luxor. However, your uncle said he was going here....” She traced her finger further west. “In the Sahara.”
“He mentioned that. I assumed that there were dig sites near-bye. Are there any?”
He flipped through the notebook and Katara shook her head. “The nearest one is back here, near the valley. He’s out in the actual desert.”
Zuko slowed his movements. “All right...so he went there instead.”
“What do you mean why?” Zuko drew his head back and shot her an annoyed look. “My uncle suspects there is a necropolis, or at the very least, some burial sites there.”
“And if there was, it would have to have been built before the dynastic periods. At best, we’d be looking for a burial site as opposed to a necropolis of the same standing as the valley.”
“But you yourself said that it would still be rich in historical value.”
“And it would, but before the dynastic periods, the Sahara wasn’t a desert. It was grassland and cultures of the time buried their dead in low desert, not grassland.” Katara gave him a knowing look. “Your uncle knew what he was doing and he wasn’t searching for a burial site.”
Zuko narrowed his eyes. “Then what was he looking for?”
A wide smile filled her face. “The Badarian culture is predynastic and buried their dead facing west.”
He drew his head back. “Does this have any relation to the land of the dead?”
He could see a small glint in her eye as she nodded. “I was told you’re versed in Ancient Egypt. I shouldn’t be surprised knowing who your uncle is.”
“It’s something of interest,” Zuko said. “So does it?”
“It does,” Katara said. “When we reach Luxor, we’ll head west.”
He narrowed his eyes. “How far west?”
“Until we reach Duat.”
He recognized the place immediately, but it made no sense. Duat was a fictional place; a legend to a lost religion. “And what could possibly be in Duat?”
Katara opened the notebook to a page near the back and laid it out in front of him. “A spring of immortality.”
The Ancient Egyptian land of the dead - Duat.
Of course he was familiar with it, though he was more interested in day to day lives than funeral and death rituals and beliefs. Still, to think that his uncle went in search of Duat was surprising. Iroh never had any want in life; what would we do if he found it?
Perhaps he was searching for a temple that was considered a gateway to it? Or a site dedicated to a god of death?
“There is a legend of a spring of eternal life.” Katara said before sleep got the better of her. She sat across with Zuko on her bed and went over her findings related to a spring of legends. It was an old myth, but as she said “myths don’t come out of thin air. There must be a reason.”
According to oral traditions, there was a spring in the west that was said to heal bodily wounds and illnesses, in some cases, bring a person back to perfect health when they were on the verge of death. That was probably where the name of ‘spring of eternal life’ came from. However, the Sahara was a desert. It had been for thousands of years and any source of water would’ve been well known to nomads traveling through as a source of water for themselves and their animals.
It made a secret spring highly unlikely.
If it was accessible now .
“Up until 3400 BC, during Egypt’s pre-dynastic period, the Sahara wasn’t a desert,” Katara said as she sat on her bed. “It was grassland. A spring wouldn’t be out of place in the grasslands and there are stories of a spring valley west of the river that exist even today. Since it’s in the west, the spring was believed to be in the land of the dead. Something akin to a paradise in Duat. Later dynasties would say that the Ba, or the soul, travels west and over the Nile.”
“Yes, to have the heart measured,” Zuko said. It was a well known process: the dead person’s heart would be measured on a scale, against a feather, and before Anubis, Thoth, and Ammut in the Hall of Maat. If the heart was lighter, the dead was allowed to proceed into the afterlife. If it was heavier, Ammut would eat it.
“The spring could be seen as a way to purify and heal the body before the afterlife. As in returning a body back to its peak state, before a fatal wound or a withering illness.”
Zuko wasn’t completely convinced. “Where did you hear of this legend? I spent years studying the ancient civilizations of this area and I’ve never heard of a spring of eternal life.”
Katara raised a brow. “From the people descended from those ancient civilizations.” She sighed, tired. “Civilizations don’t just vanish and take everything they know with them. The past can still be accessible if you know where to go and who to ask. Everything you’ve read in those books at museums and libraries and universities only tell part of the story. In all honesty, they will only take you so far.”
He narrowed his eyes. “If hearing about the past from some unchecked source is the reason my uncle caught wind of the spring and disappeared into the desert, then I’d rather have university books.”
Katara leaned back on her arms and stretched out her legs. “This isn’t the place to play it safe with second hand research.”
“Second hand....” Zuko shot up from the chair. “I’ll have you know that men put their lives on the line in search of the truth!”
“But how much of it did they write down?” Katara asked in a calm voice. “Where is the line between believable truth and unbelievable truth? If something, no matter how real and tangible it was, is unbelievable, the one who reports it will have their credibility questioned. They only way to find out is to go find it yourself.”
Zuko frowned. He closed the notebook and left it on her desk. “I won’t be drawn in by your theories. I don’t even know where you got this information. It’s ludacris! A spring of eternal life...that’s a thing of fools and madmen.”
“Believe what you want,” Katara said as he marched to her door. He had a hand on the doorknob and turned around. Katara laid back on her bed and yawned. “After all, I’m just your guide. Why should you trust me?”
He shot her a glare and pulled the door open. He nearly slammed into someone as he turned into the hall, closing the door behind him.
Sokka looked surprised to see him and Zuko bit his lips. “Everything okay?” Sokka asked, glancing from him to his sister’s door and back.
“We were talking,” Zuko said in a low voice.
“Yeah, I figured.” A slight grin reached Sokka’s face as he crossed his arms. “I never saw bookish as her type.”
A low grumble reached Zuko’s throat. “Your sister is crazy.”
“Oh, I’ve known that for years,” Sokka said, unperturbed. He patted Zuko’s shoulder as he stepped around him to get to the stairs. “But just to be clear, crazy doesn’t always mean wrong.”
“Well, I’m not wrong,” Katara said as she leaned back against a deck chair on the corner of the ship’s bow. “But I can’t make him believe me.”
“I don’t believe you either, you know,” Sokka said, smoking a pipe as they watched the banks of the Nile course by. “You have to admit, it sounds farfetched. I can see why he thought you were messing with him.”
“I know, I get it.” Katara let out a heavy sigh.
“Then you get that he has to keep a certain level of trust in you?” Sokka gave her a knowing look. “Lack of trust could be a liability out in the desert.”
She was the one who told him that and she didn’t know how to feel with it being thrown back in her face. Still, she knew what he was saying: get on the same page as the clueless man who hired us so he doesn’t think we’re leading him on a goosechase and fire us.
She took a deep breath and put her hands on the chair’s armrest. She pushed herself up and trudged around the deck in search of their employer. Katara found him seated by himself, drinking tea with a simple porcelain kettle and matching cup and saucer as he read a book, glasses perched on the bridge of his nose.
“So, I heard you’ve been telling everyone I’m crazy.” She reached his table and Zuko didn’t look up.
“Not everyone,” he said in between a sip. “Just your brother. He says he already knew that.”
Katara looked down at the chair across from him and without asking, she pulled it out and took a seat. “The world is far too big to throw crazy out the window. There are people who would do crazy things for immortality.”
He lowered his cup on to his saucer and frowned. “Are you now implying that my uncle was after immortality?”
“From what I’ve read and heard of Iroh Souzin, no.”
He narrowed his eyes and bore them into her. “Then why do you think he’d risk his life in the desert to find such a thing?”
Katara shrugged. “Maybe it’s not immortality he’s after. The spring isn’t known just for eternal life, but for healing. Have you stopped to consider its medicinal purposes.”
He tensed in his seat and Katara could see she hit a cord. A man like Iroh was considered rather philanthropic. He supported not only the arts and academia, but after the war, he also supported efforts to help soldiers return home and get assistance, especially if they were badly injured.
After all, Iroh’s nephew carried a scar that marred his handsome face and she heard that Iroh’s son was nearly crippled out in the trenches. And those were only the physical wounds; there was nothing to say about the emotional and mental ones.
Katara leaned forward and met Zuko’s eyes. “What if he sought out the spring for medicinal purposes? What if the waters really did heal wounds and cure diseases? That is not a terrible thing to seek. To devote one’s life to finding something to help save lives is honorable and that is a reputation your uncle has.”
She watched Zuko’s eyes sadden. He swallowed and looked down at his now empty tea cup. “My uncle is an honorable man. He would do whatever he could to help others..”
Katara nodded. “Your uncle is an honorable man, but we can’t say the same for everyone who might have been privy to his search. A miracle water can attract shady fellows as well as those who wish to use it for good.”
Zuko put down his book. “You think that someone went after my uncle?”
“It’s a possibility,” Katara said. She looked out, past the water. “Do you know how to use a gun?”
“Pardon?” He was taken aback and blinked. “I mean...yes, of course I do. I was drafted during the war and was assigned a pistol. I do know how to use it.”
“Good. We need to be prepared for the possibility that someone was after your uncle, as well as keep ourselves guarded.”
“You think I’ll need it?”
Katara took a deep breath and released it slowly. She turned back to the table and poured him another cup of tea. As she finished, she placed the kettle back on the table. “I know you will.”
She all but promised him that there would be some action on their journey, particularly when they were off the boat and in the dry, sandy embrace of the Sahara, and though he’d seen war first hand, Zuko found himself unsettled.
He’d never been out in the desert. He only heard rumors of what to expect, but knew he was somehow unprepared. Perhaps he should’ve hired actual guards to go with them, regardless of how much time and expenses it cost. All he had was Katara as a guide and her brother as a would-be guard.
From his brief moments joining the siblings for meals, Katara seemed to spend most of her time in her room doing what he assumed to be research. She was thoughtful, but passionate about getting valuable information. Sokka seemed a bit more frivolous with his time. He was far more relaxed and casual than his sister.
Zuko often saw him chatting with various people on the ship, from tourists and passengers, their guides, to the staff. Everyone seemed to like him and Zuko questioned whether or not Sokka would be a suitable guard. Yes, Sokka was once a soldier, as he was, and from what he gathered, saw war in the trenches, like his cousin.
However, the amiable man wasn’t all that intimidating and felt far too at ease than Zuko liked. At this point, Zuko couldn’t do much to change his situation. He’d have to depend on the two, whether he liked crazy and frivolous or not.
It was something he was forcing himself to accept, even as they reached the port at Luxor. They’d disembark in the morning, but as he rolled around in his uncomfortable bed with the scratchy blanket and flat pillow, Zuko prayed he’d made the right decision.
A pounding on his door broke through his sleep and he opened his eyes. The room was still dark with just a hint of moonlight coming from his closed window. The pounding continued and he looked towards the door. Were they kicking them off the ship? They were supposed to have until morning.
Still groggy, Zuko slid his legs over the side of the bed and made his way across his small room. He unlocked his door and opened it.
A hand shot to his mouth and pushed him back into the room. His eyes went wide as a warm body moved against him.
“Sorry to wake you, but we have a problem,” Katara said in a low voice. He stepped back into his room, his eyes still wide as Katara closed the door behind him.
“What are you doing?” he said, turning his head away to free his mouth. He stepped back, careful not to trip over his feet as Katara looked back at the door.
“Our horses are gone.” He froze. He looked at her with wide eyes and could make out the scowl on her lips and her narrowed eyes.
“What do you mean our horses are gone?” His voice began to raise and Katara’s hand shot up and covered his mouth once more.
“Keep it down!” Her own voice was a low hiss. “We docked late last night and the horses were supposed to stay on board, but they were let out.”
“Let out to where?” Zuko pushed her hand away.
“I don’t know-”
Another rapid knock came from his door and they both turned towards it. “Katara?” Sokka said from the other side.
She moved to the door and opened it, letting her brother in. Sokka was loosely dressed in khakis and an untucked white shirt. “I found them,” he said. “The eastern market. The deck hand saw one of the men at the stables let some traders in. It seems they paid him for the horses.”
Katara swore and walked across the room, climbing over Zuko’s bed to look out the small window, towards the dock. Zuko looked back at Sokka. “How do you know they went to the eastern market?”
“The stable hand talked.” Zuko couldn’t remember seeing him with such a serious look on his face.
“Did you make sure he won’t talk afterwards?” Katara asked.
Sokka cracked his knuckles in front of him and Zuko widened his eyes. “He won’t talk for a long while afterwards.”
Katara walked towards them. “Sokka, have them keep our things and wait for us. Zuko, get changed and grab your gun. We’re going to get the horses back.”
Zuko nodded. There was just a small problem. “I don’t have a gun.”
Katara looked at Sokka, who signed. He reached behind him and pulled out a pistol from what was probably the back of his belt. “Meet us outside as soon as you can. We need to get to the market before dawn and the sales begin.”
They siblings walked out of the room and Zuko leaned back against his closed door. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes. He could feel the heavy weight of the pistol in his hand and looked down at it. It looked like he would be using it sooner than later.
He changed faster than he ever had, knowing that Katara and Sokka would be waiting for him. He was right.
As he scrambled down the walkway and on to the dock, the two siblings were waiting. Katara’s hair was in a neat braid and she wore a tan, linen coat over her usual cotton button up. He could make out the outline of a holster and found he wasn’t surprised. If anyone was prepared for what lay ahead, it was her.
“Let’s go,” she said, leading the way. Zuko said nothing and followed behind the. The dry air was still reasonably cool before the sun rose, but he could see the light coming from the horizon.
They reached the market place and could see the stalls already being prepared by merchants and farmers. Past them, he could see the crude wooden fence that kept various animals penned. Somewhere in there were their horses; a total of six. One for each of them to ride and another three as pack animals and to carry his cousin and uncle, should they be found.
Katara led them through some narrow back alleys between mud brick buildings, progressively getting closer to the pen.
“How do you know which horses are ours?” Zuko asked as he knelt down in an alley just a few paces away from the livestock.
“The bridles have some blue on them,” Sokka said. “I can tell which ones they are from here. It’s a good thing they haven’t noticed the bridles or removed them.”
Zuko nodded. “Now what?”
“Now, we need a plan.” He sounded serious, but it wasn’t as much of a surprise as Zuko thought it would be. Sokka knelt down and drew a circle in the dirt. “We need to get into the pen and the only ones who get in are traders. We need to get disguises, otherwise they’ll know we’re looking for our horses since they came from a ship. We need to sneak and single out our horses-”
“Your sister is gone.”
Sokka’s head shot up and looked at Zuko. Zuko whirled around. Katara was right next to them just a moment ago.
“Oh no....” Sokka shot to his feet and turned around, rushing out of the alley. Zuko followed behind him and turned to see Katara marching towards a well dressed trader with a defiant look on her face.
“Hey!” She looked ready to fight a man and Sokka took off. “That’s my horse!”
She was pointing to a spotted brown mare and the trader glanced over and laughed. “She can be for 150!”
He might as well have insulted her. Katara was seething. “I’m not going to pay a damn thing! You stole my horses!”
This time, the trader looked affronted. He straightened up and scowled. “How dare you accuse me of theft!”
“You know what, I don’t have time for this.”
“If you’re not going to buy, then leave-”
His mouth clamped shut as Katara reached beneath her coat, revealing the pistol beneath.. “You will give me back the horses you stole or-”
“Excuse us!” He didn’t wait for instruction. Zuko clamped his hand around Katara’s mouth and grabbed her waist. He didn’t waste a second fighting her and simply turned around and ran back into the alley, almost dragging her alongside him as she squirmed in protest.
“Sorry about that! You know these foreigners,” Sokka said, putting on a wide smile and laughing as he reached into his pocket and took out a few coins. “Completely unused to the heat! It drives them crazy.” He placed the coins in the man’s hand and walked backwards. “My apologies, my good sirs! We’ll take care of her! She must be dehydrated!”
He ran back to the alley and Zuko released Katara’s mouth, but still kept an arm around her to keep her from running back.
“What are you doing!?” She whirled around and yelled, her hair now out of place. “I was going to get the horses!”
“You were out numbered!” Zuko said. “The trader’s friends weren’t too far. They would’ve stopped you!”
“They stole our horses and we have every right to get them back!”
“Well, we can’t buy them back,” Sokka said, looking over his shoulder as he ushered them further away. “They’re over charging us.”
“Then what do you suggest?” Zuko asked. “I highly doubt they’re willing to negotiate after Katara nearly pulled a gun on one of them!”
“We’ll need to steal them back.”
Katara rolled her eyes. “We don’t have time for some elaborate plan to steal them back, Sokka.”
Her brother held his ground. “And we can’t afford to get arrested because you shot a guy. Again.”
Zuko jerked his head back. “ Again ?”
“He deserved it!” Katara said. He felt her hands clamp on his and pull. “And you can let me go now.”
His arms flew up and he stepped back. “Sorry!”
“Nevermind that.” Katara turned back to Sokka. “So now what?”
He took back what he thought about Sokka being frivolous. What seemed to be casual chatting on the ship made it easy to ask for information, like with the deckhand who reported the stolen horses to Sokka, or favors, like the passenger whose robes they were borrowing to conceal their clothes.
Zuko followed behind Sokka, trying not to look over his shoulder with the paranoia he felt. They were back at the market, now bustling with bodies and filled with noise.
“Are you sure it was safe to leave Katara alone?” Zuko asked. He wasn’t sure if he was asking a general question or if he meant safe for them. Katara refused to stay behind; only accepting it when Sokka pointed out that because of her earlier confrontation, she was sure to be recognized and they’d never get close enough to get the horses.
Begrudingly, she agreed to stay behind and arrange their travel to a nomad camp, where a contact awaited her.
“She’ll be fine,” Sokka said. “Just stick to the plan.”
He wasn’t sure he could call it a legitimate plan, but they were all out of ideas.
They reached the pen just as the livestock were separated. Men were looking at the animals, examining their heads and ears and bodies for any issues while traders looked on, reassuring them the animals were fine and worth the money they were charging.
“Are you sure this is going to work?” Zuko asked under his breath as they slipped unnoticed into the pen and began to randomly check animals to blend in.
“We just need to get out of this area once we have them,” Sokka said, his eyes flickering around the area. “There they are. Let’s go.”
Zuko could feel his heart pounding in his chest as he approached several horses. He followed Sokka’s lead and began gathering together the horses with some blue on their bridles.
“Hello! Hello! Are you interested?” someone asked behind them.
“These are strong horses,” Sokka said. Zuko let him talk and looked up at the horses. They needed to wait until there was a clear enough path in the pen to get the horses out. Sokka needed to keep the guy talking. “They come with the saddles?” Sokka asked, glancing around.
“Saddles are extra,” they were told.
“I want to ride one,” Sokka said. “Get me a saddle.”
A few shouts were heard and Zuko saw a boy rush out of the pen to fetch a saddle. One merchant just sold some animals and they were in the process of being led out to an awaiting cart.
“It’s almost clear....” he heard Sokka say in a low voice. “Wait until the saddle is on.”
Zuko nodded. As they waited, the pen cleared out some more. By the time the boy returned holding a saddle that looked about his size, there was enough room to get the horses out without something getting in the way.
Zuko stepped to the side as someone else began to put the saddle on one of the horses. Zuko kept his hands on three of the reins while Sokka enthusiastically began to negotiate for a price for the three he was holding.
“That’s too much!” Sokka said. He handed the reins to Zuko. “I won’t buy!”
“It’s not too much!” the trader he was negotiating with countered with another price and Sokka continued to shake his head.
“The saddle’s on,” Zuko said as the man putting it on the horse stepped back.
“Great!” Sokka said. “On to phase two.”
Zuko really wished it was a better phase two. He turned to the man closest to him. “Sorry about this.”
Sokka turned to the merchant . “I’m not.” They drew their arms back and punched the men in front of them. “Let’s go!”
Zuko clamoured on to the saddle, still grasping the reins of the other horses as Sokka hopped the pen and rushed to the tent where many of the livestock merchants were. He reached into his boot and took out a knife.
Zuko heard the snapping of rope and the surprised and angry yelling of men as the tent began to come down around them. It was his queue to race out as the diversion was mad. With a firm kick, he was off, trying to lead the horses with him as they stampeded out of the pen with confused and helpless men jumping out of their way.
“Go towards the river!” He heard Sokka yell as he rounded the area and grabbed on to one of the passing horses. He struggled to pull himself up without a saddle and managed to take hold of some of the reins. “I’ll herd them from behind!”
“Got it!” Zuko said. He leaned forward and kicked his horse once more. He bobbed up and down as they zipped past the market and into one of the dirt roads. “Out of the way!” He yelled. “Look out!”
Men and women screamed as they scrambled to get out of the way of several horses. Behind him, Sokka was apologizing.
A gun shot ran out and he looked over his shoulder. Sokka’s face looked surprised as he also turned around. Several man were on horseback chasing after them.
“Ohh....” Sokka winced. “That was not part of the plan.”
“What we do we do?” Zuko called back. “We can’t lead them back to Katara!”
“We don’t have much of a choice!” Sokka pointed forward. “Look who couldn’t wait!”
Zuko turned forward and groaned. “Are you kidding me!?” With no horse to rampage on, Katara was storming forward on the back of a camel. “Your sister really is crazy!”
Sokka laughed. “Sometimes you need a little crazy!”
“There they are!” Katara was yelling. She pointed ahead and Zuko noticed several other camels beside her. The riders were draped in dark fabric, their faces nearly covered as they quickened their speed.
Someone was telling her something that Zuko could hear. All he could tell was Katara was nodding, agreeing to whatever it was they were saying.
The camel riders swept past them, shooting into the air and yelling as they intercepted the angry horse traders.
“Since when did you have a cavalry?” Sokka asked as Katara’s camel turned and waited for them to reach her.
“Since an hour ago. You two were taking forever!”
“It was a long process,” Sokka said.
Zuko kept glancing over his shoulder, back at the ensuing argument that was happening behind them. “Who are they?”
“My contacts,” Katara said. “C’mon, they’re waiting for us at camp.”
“Your contacts are nomads?” Zuko asked. She looked over her shoulder and grinned at him from atop her camel.
“You don’t have to believe it,” she said as they continued to gallop out of town. “But it’s true!”
He stared at her back as she rode off into the desert, completely in the element he was lost in. Beside himself, Zuko let out a small laugh and shook his head.
That woman was unbelievable, but by God, did he trust her.
Chapter 3: Shattered
His first night on dry land and he went from an uncomfortable bed bolted to the floor of a swaying ship to a sleeping mat in a tent, beside a snoring Sokka. His exhaustion was enough to get him to sleep, but Sokka’s snoring was still able to draw him out of it before the sun could.
Zuko rolled over, turning his back to Sokka and frowned. He always was an early riser and, while later than when he got up yesterday to go find the stolen horses, he normally never got up that earlier.
The entire horse theft debacle was sure to have taken years off his life. Zuko slipped out of the blankets and mat he was given to sleep in and made his way out of the nomad’s tent.
He slipped through the flaps, shuddering at the unexpected chill of the dawn. It wasn’t a frosty chill, but rather a coolness that felt out of place in the landscape. His bare feet touched still cool sand and earth and he made a face. He jumped back and looked for the boots he left by the door. He found it in a neat row with others against the side of the men’s tent, on a worn, woven rug.
He quietly tapped the shoes against each other to get rid of the sand and dust that accumulated the night before pulling them on to his feet. He walked away from the modest sized nomad camp, towards a small outcropping of rocks and thin shrubs to use as a makeshift toilet.
It was the best time to go: it seemed nearly everyone was still asleep and it was just him and the desert.
He stopped partway to the outcropping and looked out into the desert. The faint purple-orange peeking from the horizon slowly ate away at the dark indigo sky and it was a beautiful sight. The fabric of the tents provided a canvas to the morning of colors and somewhere, he could hear the rustle of camels and horses.
It was a gentle stillness that was opposite yesterday’s hectic adventures.
They didn’t slow their animals down until they were well outside the town and from there, a young man and woman on camels awaited them.
“My father’s men will take care of the horse thieves,” the woman said. Zuko could only see her pale green eyes from beneath the loose head and face coverings she wore. It looked too hot to be dressed in all black, but she laughed and assured him it would be hotter without her robes. “The robes provide shielding from the sun. Out here, the sun will cook you if you’re not careful.”
He had immediately rolled down his shirt sleeves.
The young woman and her new husband, who married in from a sister group, led them out into the desert, until they disappeared behind some rolling hills and lost the river. From there, Zuko saw the smattering of tents and a make-shift pen to keep camels. He was informed that they would be moving soon.
After they were able to get the horses settled and fed, Zuko sat around a large tent, on cushions and rugs, drinking tea as he listened to various members of the group talk about what needed to be done for the move, as well as gossip about passing information in the desert, such as where there was trouble and needed to be avoided.
Katara went off with the women and the young woman who met with them. She was blind, but didn’t seem to have any problem walking. As Sokka drank tea beside him, Zuko asked how long they were going to stay there.
“Not long,” Sokka said. “We’ll probably spend the night and then head out into the desert. You need to listen to what they’re saying. News of the desert is important to know where to go and where not to.”
Zuko nodded, but even as the men discussed routes, he was too unfamiliar to follow. After a delicious meal, which stuffed him, he retired to a shared tent and promptly went to sleep. He didn’t even hear Sokka come in and figured that Katara must’ve slept in an all women’s tent.
“She should be in Cairo by now.” His ears perked up as he heard the familiar voice coming from around one of the tents. He took a few steps back and peered around, into the still shadowed areas of the camp and saw Katara wrapped in a blanket and handing what appeared to be an envelope to the young husband.
Beside him, his blind wife in black made a thoughtful noise. “Are you sure?”
“She’s prompt,” Katara said. “Just take this to the usual guild hall and make sure it gets to her. She’ll know what to do.”
“All right,” the younger woman said. “What about you? Are you going to be all right out there?”
“We’ll pace ourselves. I don’t think it’s too far from here and we should have more than enough supplies to make it to where my research expects the disappearance to have happened,” Katara said.
“I think she means if you’ll be all right out there ,” the young man said, this time moving his hand towards the dunes in the distance. “The heat and raiders aside, unexplainable things happen out there.”
Katara sighed. “Honestly, Aang, you make it sound as if it’s cursed to go out there. As my brother says, everything is explainable; it just depends whether or not you believe the explanation.”
“So, you’re down to quoting Sokka now?” Zuko could almost see the other woman roll her eyes.
“Toph,” Katara said. “We’ll be fine.”
The other woman released a heavy sigh. “You’ve always been a stubborn one. Come on, Aang. Let’s get the vanguard going. No use in trying to talk some sense into her.”
“Well, Katara’s not one to listen when she’s focused,” Aang said. He tucked the letter into his robes. “Just be careful out there.”
“I always am,” Katara said. She gave Toph a hug and gave Aang a nod.
Zuko stepped back around the tent and furrowed his brows. Just how dangerous was that desert beyond what he already knew?
He shuddered and quickened his pace to the out cropping. He turned his back to the camp and undid his pants.
“Be sure to wash your hands afterwards.”
“I will - Katara!” She walking by with a basket of grasses in her arms. He tried to keep his back to her and give himself privacy. He looked over his shoulder, red face and mortified as she continued to walk past. “What are you doing here?”
“The animal feed is just over there. I’m getting food for the horses,” she said. “We leave after breakfast.”
He scowled and looked forward. That was all well and good for her to tell him, but did it have to be now? “You couldn’t have waited to tell me later?”
“Though you’d like to know,” Katara said. “Don’t worry, I didn’t peek.” He groaned. “Much.”
She continued to laugh to herself as she rounded the tents to get to the horses. He finished up and went to wash his hands at one of the buckets of water before running after her. When he caught up, he found her standing by the horses and emptying the basket of grass on the ground. She turned around as he reached her.
“Do you need some help?”
“No, it’s fine. I just need to put the basket back.”
“Oh....” He furrowed his brows. “Katara, about where we’re going....”
“We’re going to go by the last known location of your uncle’s dig site,” she said. “I was able to get the coordinates from the garrison and Professor Zei’s associate. From there, we’ll follow the same notes Lord Iroh left coupled with my own research to take us further into the desert, to where I suspect they likely disappeared.”
“Likely disappeared....” Zuko muttered to himself. He narrowed his eyes. “You make it sound like they vanished without a trace.”
“They did.” Katara kept walking. “The nomads confirm what the garrison investigators said; there are no traces of a camp where there was supposed to be one. Even with the amount of raiders out there, there aren’t any signs of an attack, nor have there been rumors of such that would’ve reached the nomads’ ears by now. Your uncle and his team went out into the desert and they disappeared.”
Zuko slowed behind her. “Katara,” he said in a low voice. She looked over his shoulder and he gave her a confused look. “What is out there?”
She stopped a few paces ahead of him and seemed to hesitate. “Do you really want to know?”
“You said the only way to find out for sure is to see for myself,” he said. “Of course I want to know.”
“No matter how farfetched - how crazy is sounds?”
He took a step forward. “I trust you.”
She lowered her eyes, as if trying to decide whether or not she should speak further. Without a word, she motioned her head to the side as a queue to get him to follow her. Zuko did so, walking with her past the camp and the pile of feed, where she left the basket. They walked further out, on to the dunes just beyond the camp.
“Unlike famous tombs, the springs aren’t a relic that can be exchanged for money immediately, but it can be utilized. We talked about suspicious fellows exploiting medicinal use of the springs, but in order to do so, they need to find the springs first. Even if it’s just a legend, that doesn’t stop people for searching for it and the more they want it, the more dangerous it gets. We don’t know who they are or how far their connections reached.
“The amount of raiders in this region has increased recently and while they don’t seem to bother the nomads, there has been plenty of reports of them harassing various dig sites and tourist spots. It’s almost as if they’re trying to scare people away. It was bad enough that we have the environment itself against it, now we have to worry about an increase in raiders.”
“So we have to be careful about them,” Zuko said. “What are the chances that we’d run into them?”
“From what I heard? It’s almost a certainty.” Katara crossed her arms over her chest as she watched the sunrise over the dunes. “As if finding Duat wasn’t difficult already.”
Zuko sighed. “Do you really believe in the Land of the Dead?”
“Whether it’s the real deal or not, yes,” Katara said. “It’s rare, but every so often, you will hear about it.”
Katara hesitated. “Those who already found it.”
Zuko stared at her for just a bit longer. “Is it really the Land of the Dead?”
“It might as well be,” Katara said. “Because there is so little information, it’s likely that the ancients were hiding it. Or protecting it. Either way, that’s another thing we have to worry about.”
Zuko followed her gaze out into the desert. “We should worry about finding it first. You said the layout of the land wasn’t the same as it was five and a half thousand years ago. How will we even know where we’re going?”
Katara tilted her head upwards. “The stars.”
Zuko unrolled his bed mats and collapsed on top of them. He’d never spent that long on a horse. Ever. From morning to dusk, with only a few brief breaks during the peak heat of the day to eat and rest, they were horseback, trekking across an inhospitable desert in a direction only Katara knew.
Somehow, they found another rocky outcropping with a few thin, thistled trees, and a good enough natural windbreak to be able to set up camp and a fire. Katara commented that it must’ve been used before, as there was a telltale sign of where there was a fire previously. Sokka built on top of that and began rummaging through their things for some bread and dried meats.
Zuko looked up and glanced around. The horses weren’t far, eating some of the food packed specifically for them. Sokka was placing some bread over a large rock to warm it.
“Where’s your sister?” Zuko asked. She wasn’t anywhere near and Sokka pointed past him, over the rocks. Zuko followed his hand and sat up, craning his neck. He could see the top of her head peeking over the rocks. “What’s she doing?”
“She can’t see the stars during the day,” Sokka said, munching on some jerky. “So she’s mapping out the direction we’re supposed to go to now. She has to make adjustments since the ancient clues to the spring don’t match up with modern coordinates.”
“You mean as in aligning them with landmarks now?”
Sokka laughed. “No, I mean adjusting them. Do you know why the Sahara dried up?” He shook his head. “The earth’s axis shifted. What were the right directions then no longer match up, so Katara has to adjust them.”
He looked up, dumbstruck. “That’s incredible.”
“Of course it is. I taught her.”
“Did you?” Zuko glanced back. “Who taught you?” The light hearted look on Sokka’s face briefly faltered. He lowered his eyes and looked back into the fire.
“Our father and grandfather.”
Zuko felt his head nod. He pushed himself up and began to climb up the rocks to where she was seated. Katara sat with her legs crossed and a notebook on her knees as she looked up and adjusted a sextant. He watched her scribble something down as she lowered the instrument and close the book. She began to shift in her seat and Zuko darted back down, landing beside their camp and extending his arms into the air as if he was just stretching instead of intently watching her.
Sokka shook his head, but didn’t say a word as Katara reached them.
“Check my calculations,” she said, extending her notebook to Sokka. He swallowed the last of his jerky and extended his hand to get the book.
“How much further to you think it is?” he asked.
Katara knelt by the fire and reached for a piece of bread. “If my calculations are right, we should be nearing the area where your uncle’s camp was soon. I wouldn’t be surprised if we reached it before lunch. The difficult part will be finding the actual camp if no traces were found from previous searches.”
Zuko sank into his sleeping mats. On one hand, they were close, but on the other, it was perhaps closer to finding nothing. Not a trace of his uncle or cousin and the thought of arriving and finding nothing filled him with dread.
He had held hope that the investigators sent to find his uncle simply didn’t find the right location, but now he was starting to see that as less and less likely.
He ate in silence, not wanting to burden the other two with his concerns. His heart was aching as dread at the inevitable filled his stomach. No one disappeared into thin air, he told himself, but he was unprepared if they had.
Zuko faded off into sleep with Katara and Sokka still seated across from him, talking in low voices.
It didn’t feel like more than a second when Katara’s voice breached his sleep. It wasn’t distant any longer and in full, nearly indistinguishable sentences; she was calling his name.
He could feel a weight beside him as he woke up. His heavy eyes opened and it was still dark.
“Zuko.” Katara’s warm breath was against his neck and he tensed up. “Shhh...stay quiet.”
Why? What reason did he have to be quiet? His face began to heat up. Was it so they didn’t wake Sokka? She moved against him and that was when he felt her arm across his chest. His eyes went wide as his heart began to race.
This was too soon. They hardly knew each other. And her brother was right there!
He opened his mouth and realized her hand was clamped over it. He squirmed to loosen her hold and Katara released him.
“What are you doing?” he said, trying to keep his voice down. “You can’t seriously be thinking of doing it right now, are you?”
She gave him a confused look. “What are you talking about?”
He heated up. Ah, he was wrong. “Why...why are you on top of me?”
“I’m not on top of you, I’m next to you to keep you from jumping up,” she said.
“You’re a little too close to just be next to me,” Zuko said. He shifted awkwardly beneath his blanket. “Do you mind? This is awkward.”
Katara rolled her eyes. “I know,” she said, without moving. “I can feel it.”
His sucked in a sharp breath and resisted the urge to draw his legs together as Katara looked past him and frowned. She tilted her head to the side, listening. Zuko squirmed once more and opened his mouth. “Shh!” she said, her voice still a whisper as she clamped her hand over his mouth again. “Sokka heard something out there.”
Every muscle in his body froze. He couldn’t even bring himself to breathe as the chilling words cut him. His gold eyes darted around, trying to get a sense of what was going on. They settled on the spot where he was sure the fire was when he fell asleep. His eyes crinkled up. Did they kill the fire?
As if sure he wasn’t going to scream, Katara moved her hand from his mouth, but remained next to him. Her gaze was fixed to the small incline that led over the rocks where they were camping and out into the dunes. Crouched by the wide opening, Zuko could make out Sokka’s crouched figure looking out.
He held up his hand at his side and motioned forward.
He heard Katara let out a low grumble as she slid away from him. “Pack your things. I'll get the horses,” she said. They were tied at the far end of the rocky shelter for the night.
“Why? What’s wrong?”
“Raiders,” Katara said. His stomach dropped as Katara continued to look past him, at her brother. “We’re outnumbered. We’ll have to make a run for it.”
He wanted to ask: make a run to where ? There was nothing but a sea of sand around them and the raiders were sure to know the area better than they did.
Yet, his body still followed her orders. He ran a hand down his face, putting on his glasses that were by his pillow, and sat up. Zuko was quick to roll up his mat and and gather his things. He reached his horse and strapped the things on and Sokka scurried back to them. He ripped open one of the saddle bags rolls and Zuko watched as it unraveled down the side of the beast. Since when did Sokka have those weapons on him?
“That’s...a lot.” Bullets, guns, even a knife. Two pairs of hands were plucking the weapons from the bag and Zuko jerked his head back as he realized he was expected to get some, as well.
“The pistol we gave you should be loaded,” Sokka said, stringing a vest of ammo around his body.
“There are extra bullets,” Katara said, shoving a small box into his hands. “Keep them with you.”
“Where are we going?”
“West,” Katara said. “We’ll go the direction I charted. Keep going and don’t stop until I tell you to.”
Zuko frowned. “What about my uncle’s camp?”
“We need to get away from them first,” Sokka said as he slung the strap of a machine gun around his back. Zuko wondered how that was even packed. “We can always go back, but we can’t if we’re dead.”
“I’ll lead,” Katara said as she mounted. “Sokka.
“I know, I’ll get the back.”
Zuko scrambled up on his saddle. His hands were shaking as he grasped the reins. He tried to expect a gun fight, but not that soon. They’d been in the desert for two days. Two days! How could they already -
Katara kicked her horse and it snorted as she jumped forward. The pack horses followed with Sokka pushing them from behind.
“Zuko, go!” Sokka said. He shook himself out of his stupor and gave his horse a quick kick. It jerked forward and suddenly, Zuko could see the passage way out into the desert. The rapid bouncing flopped him around in the saddle and as they climbed out, something flew from his face.
“Are you blind without them?” Sokka yelled.
“Well, no. I just need them for reading small text-”
“Then forget about them!”
He yelped as he struggled to get in the rhythm of the gallop as ahead of him, Katara was leaning forward, reins in one hand and gun in the other.
“Get ready!” she shouted behind her.
“Get ready for what!?” She flew out into the dunes and at once, gunshots filled the night air. Katara lay low on her horse, aiming into the darkness. Several more shots were heard and he was sure they weren’t from them. “We’re being shot at!”
“That’s why I told you to get ready!” Katara turned and aimed her gun, shooting behind them.
Zuko dared to look back. He paled as he saw the half dozen men racing after them.
“Zuko, shoot back!” Katara shouted ahead of him.
“I can barely hold on with two hands!”
“Just keep going!” Sokka alternated between shooting behind him and flanking the pack horses. “Ah!” He ducked as he was shot at. “That was close!”
“Zuko, you need to cover for Sokka so he can get the horses forward!” Katara said.
Why didn’t she just order him to backflip off the saddle? Zuko wrapped the leather reins around one hand. When he was certain it wasn’t going to fly away any time soon, he reached for the gun tucked into his belt.
His arm was shaking as he held it out and turned.
He pulled the trigger and Sokka yelled. “Watch it!”
“I said cover Sokka, not shoot him!”
“Sorry!” Zuko grimaced as he turned further and aimed at the shadows of raiders following them. “One more try....”
He squinted, doing his best to aim at a moving target as he himself moved along. Three shot rang out and behind them, someone fell off his horse. Zuko’s eyes widened as he whirled back around.
“I got one! Katara, I got one!”
“Looks like you’re better than you thought,” Katara said, grinning. Zuko smiled back, swelling with pleasure at her compliment. She looked over his shoulder. “I think you got him in the arm.”
Zuko let out a breath of relief. He didn’t want to actually kill a man, but he was fine with a minor injury that would keep them at bay.
“They’re splitting up!” Sokka’s voice cut through his excitement. “They may be going to get more people.”
Katara frowned. “No choice then,” she said. She leaned forward once more. “Follow me!” She turned her horse to the side and Sokka and Zuko followed. Sand kicked up behind her as she seemed to head towards God only knew where.
Sokka reached his side with the pack horses still in front of him. Zuko did his best to help keep the pack horses between them. As he watched them, he noticed the sand beneath their hooves was getting shallower. Soon, it was more a coating of sand over hard packed earth.
“Katara! The sun!” He turned to the side and could see the familiar glow on the horizon.
“Faster!” Katara yelled. “Hurry!”
“Katara, where are we going?” Zuko asked, trying to keep up. “There isn’t anything here!”
“Yes, there is!” Katara said. “Look where the sky meets the sand ahead of us!” Zuko squinted.
“The dunes are fading away?” Sokka asked. He was looking down and Zuko tilted his head. They were on hard packed dirt with jutting rocks now. Where did the sand go? “What is that?”
He heard Sokka cry out and lifted his head. He looked up ahead of them; the dark shadow in the earth seemed as if it were just cast there by a dune, but there were no dunes around to create such a shape. His eyes went wide as he saw a well worn dirt path in front of them leading down into the dark shadow. What was that? Was that always close?
“Hurry!” Katara said once more as she kicked the side of her horse once more. “It can’t be seen in the day!”
He didn’t have long to consider her words. Without question, they followed Katara into the canyon. Zuko couldn’t help but look up and stare at the banded walls of the canyon around them. The sky above was dark, as if it were still night. He couldn’t even tell that the sun was rising.
“Stay close to the walls.” Katara brought her horse closer to one side. “Stay in the shadows.”
“Zuko, hurry it up! The other horses have to get down,” Sokka said. Zuko looked over his shoulder as he reached the canyon floor. He turned his horse around just as Sokka herded the last of the pack horses into the canyon.
Above them, the opening to the desert began to brighten up. He could see the remaining raiders chasing them slow to a stop as the sun’s light swept over the desert. They stopped and were looking around.
Zuko narrowed his eyes. “Why aren’t they following us down here?”
“Because they can’t see the entrance,” Katara said. They watched the raiders’ figures begin to waver, as if mirages on a hot day. Zuko felt his mouth open as the break between the canyons disappeared and melted into a wall.
It was as if the way they came in never existed at all.
“Where the hell are we?” Sokka said exactly what he was thinking. Zuko turned around and narrowed his eyes. The canyon hadn’t changed otherwise. The shadows from the walls remained the same, but the most startling part was that the sky was still dark and speckled with stars.
“But the sun rose,” Zuko said. He’d just watched the sunrise the day before; the night sky should’ve dimmed and been in transition to day by now. An unnatural calm seemed to fill the narrow corridor and Zuko grew tense. “Katara.” He turned to find her continuing forward, deeper into the canyon. He scowled and moved forward. “Katara!” He called after her, with Sokka coming after them. She rounded the canyon. “Katara, wait! Where are you....”
She was stopped in front of them, looking up at the towering walls of the canyon around them. Zuko felt his breath leave him as he followed her gaze. Carved into the wall, jutting out and facing each other, were two massive snakes on either side of the canyon.
“What the hell is that?” Sokka said.
Katara took a deep breath. “The Gates to Duat.” She exhaled and inhaled once more before looking back at them. “Get what you can and follow me. From here we go on by foot.”
“What?” Sokka asked. “You can’t be serious. With all of this?”
“The animals won’t go further in,” Katara said. “Go ahead. Try.” She dismounted and Sokka gave his horse a gentle kick. It stepped another foot or two forward, but then turned away. Zuko repeated the action, only to have his horse back up, snort, and shake its head.
“Katara,” Sokka said in a measured voice. “What is in there?”
“As unbelievable as it sounds: the Land of the Dead,” Katara said. She narrowed her eyes and walked around her horse, opposite the gates. She was staring hard at something behind them. “Are you seeing what I’m seeing?”
Sokka dismounted beside her and turned around. “Are those camels?”
Katara was already halfway to another corner of the canyon. There seemed to be plenty of desert vegetation sticking out of the rocks and coming from between the cracks of the canyon. In the shade of its wall, Zuko could see three camels sitting and another two lazily eating.
“They have bridles!” Katara said. She climbed over some low rocks. “I found saddles!”
“But no people,” Sokka said, looking around. He turned to face the gates. “Unless they’re in there.”
“At any rate, it looks like we can leave the horses here. They can find something to eat and rest.”
“Huh...” Sokka said as they began to unpack the horses. “Looks like they’re smarter than people if they refuse to go through those creepy gates.”
“Just get our camping gear, Sokka,” Katara said, slinging a worn rucksack over her shoulder. “Zuko, get what you need. We’ll camp further in.”
He grimaced at the thought, but took his sleeping mat and a bag with some notes and excavation tools. As he rummaged through his bag, he heard the crunch of footsteps. Katara knelt down beside him and was tugging something out from under her shirt.
“Put this on.” She was holding something in her hand attached to a long, leather chord. Zuko cocked his head to the side.
“What is that?”
“We’re about to enter Duat. We should be prepared as the ancients were.” Katara took his hand and placed the metal object in his palm. He looked down and knit his brows.
“The Eye of Horus,” he said as the gold colored amulet rested in his hand.
“They were always buried with amulets for protection,” Katara said. “We’re not dead, but we can’t be too careful.” Her hands wrapped around his and curled his fingers over the amulet. She brought his hand to her lips and kissed his knuckles, her eyes meeting his. “Stay safe, Zuko.”
He watched her with wide eyes and heated cheeks as she stood up and returned to her bag. His heart quickened in his chest as he looked at the amulet once more. “Tha...than-”
“Relax,” Sokka said as he passed. He smirked. “She gave me one, too.”
Zuko’s shoulders fell, somewhat disappointed. He shook his head and put the amulet on. At least she thought of him. With his things gathered, he put his backpack on and headed to the gate.
He stood with Sokka, waiting for Katara to walk through the gates. She stepped over some rocks and walked in as if there was nothing strange about massive snake columns carved into a canyon wall. He and Sokka paused, waiting for something to happen.
“Why are you two just standing there?” Katara said, turning around and frowning. “Come on!”
They exchanged looks with each other and followed behind her, steeling themselves as they walked through the gate. Nothing happened. Nothing was different on the other side.
“Well, that’s anticlimactic,” Sokka said. He adjusted his pack behind him and continued forward.
Zuko looked around. Aside from the still night sky, he noticed that he could see clearly. It wasn’t as dark as it should’ve been at night. In fact, it was almost as if he could see as clear as it was if it were day, but the sky was dark.
“You and Gramps used to talk about weird places, Katara, and I never believed you, but now I’m starting to think there was something to what you two said. It’s night time, but it’s not. It’s supposed to be difficult to see, but it’s not. Though, if this really is the Land of the Dead, I was hoping it would be...you know....”
“What?” Katara asked, not looking back as she climbed over rocks.
“Nicer,” Sokka said. “Maybe some fields. A calm river. Food growing from trees.”
“Like fruit?” Zuko asked.
Katara sighed, tired, ahead of them. She walked towards the side of the canyon and peered into one of the shallow caves.
“Sokka, I think I found charcoal.” At once, her brother was climbing up to meet her. Sokka knelt down inside the cave opening and moved his fingers along the ground. He looked up.
“This is pretty recent,” he said. “Someone was camping here recently.”
Katara began to shrug off her backpack. “Go ahead and start breakfast. We can’t keep looking on an empty stomach,” she said. Her bag kicked up some dust as it landed just outside the cave entrance. She looked down the path. “Zuko! Put your bag down and rest. I’m going to look around a bit.”
Zuko scrambled up. “Wait! I’ll go with you!” He dropped his bag off with Sokka and followed Katara further into the canyon. He nearly tripped going down and caught Sokka shaking his head and mouthing “wow”.
He ignored the other man as he slid down an embankment to reach Katara. She was crouching down, looking over worn areas, but for what, he wasn’t sure.
“Look for anything that could be a sign that there was a dig site here,” she said as her eyes scanned the canyon floor. “Tools, markers, cleared areas.”
Zuko nodded and paused. “Wait...a dig site? Do you think my uncle was here?” How did his uncle find it? According to Katara, it disappeared when the sun rose.
She lifted something up as she kept crouched down and Zuko bent forward to take what appeared to be a folded letter. He opened it up and took in a sharp breath. He recognized his cousin’s handwriting.
His voice was shallow and almost unheard. “Where did you get this?”
“On the camel,” Katara said. She looked over her shoulder and up at him. “Those were your uncle’s team’s camels, Zuko. One of those packs had that letter.”
His chest as pounding, only half registering what she said as he scanned the letter. It started off as most of Lu Ten’s letters to him did: Dearest Cousin, I hope you are well.
He grit his teeth. He could almost hear Lu Ten’s voice in his head as he read the letter.
Father has led us to a strange canyon late at night. It is the oddest thing and I know you won’t believe me, but you must. The sky never brightens, though I’m certain it’s day. Several of the guards are combing the canyon, even past those impressive snake columns. Columns as tall as buildings and carved from the canyon itself! We certainly must be somewhere spectacular. After we rest, we’ll go in further to have a look around.
I know something magnificent awaits us within.
Speaking of magnificent, I wanted to tell you about
“It’s incomplete,” Zuko said, breathless. He turned the piece of paper around, hoping to find more, but found nothing. He looked at Katara, who rose to her feet. “Was there more?”
She shook her head. “I don’t think it was finished. He must’ve been in the midst of writing it.”
“But he wanted to tell me about something? About what?” he asked, desperation laced his voice and Katara gave him a sad look. She lifted a hand and placed it on his shoulder.
“Zuko, I don’t know,” she said. “If has something to do with what they were looking for, we may be able to find out. At the very least, this seems to be where Lord Iroh’s expedition ended up.”
He closed his eyes and crunched the letter in his hand. “Then there has to be something around here,” he said. “They could be here !” He gave her a beseeching look and grabbed on her arms. “Katara, you have to help me find them!”
“I know, Zuko, I know.” Katara kept calm as she put her hands on his shoulders and led him to the side. “This is a new discovery for you, but at least we know we’re in the right place. Sit here. Rest a moment.”
Zuko shook his head from side to side, stepping backwards and holding out his arms. “I can’t rest! I need to-”
“You need to have a clear head,” she said, firm. She softened her voice. “We are still in the desert, Zuko. It’s still dangerous out here and we don’t know what happened to your uncle and cousin. We can’t afford to put ourselves in further danger by growing erratic and losing our focus.” She sat him down on a rock beneath the shadow of the canyon. Vines and desert plants grew around him as she cupped his face, forcing him to meet her eyes. “Look at me. Breathe.”
His eyes crinkled up. He knew he needed to stay calm, but he’d just come across another clue as to his family’s whereabouts. This was better than the missing camp; this was confirmation that they were in the right place.
“Breathe....” Katara lowered her head and put her forehead against his, closing her eyes. “Breathe.”
Zuko shut his eyes tight. He took a deep breath, trying to calm the wave of anxiousness that swept through him.
“I’m just...I’m worried,” he said, his voice strained. “Lu Ten...Lu Ten isn’t a researcher. Uncle brought him along because he was depressed. He was badly injured during the war and could barely walk. Reading his letter...I nearly forgot how worried I was for him.”
“I’m sure your uncle took care of him while they were out here,” she said. “He knew what was doing if he got this far.”
Zuko could still feel his heart pounding in his chest as he tried to calm down. “My cousin...he was crushed when he came back from the war. His fiancee thought he died. They thought she’d be ecstatic to know he survived and was just recuperating on the mainland, but when she found out he was crippled....” He bit his lips. “She broke off the engagement. Uncle hoped the desert would take his mind off of things back home.”
“Did the letter sound like it did?” Katara asked. He felt her head lift from his and he opened his eyes. He saw blue the same color as what the sky was supposed to be.
His heart calmed and his shoulders relaxed. “It did....”
“Good.” Her cool hand swept his hair back from his face. A tired smile reached her face as she remained kneeling beside him. “Maybe you should sit here a bit longer.”
He shook his head. “No...I should go with you. They’re my uncle and cousin.”
“Don’t push yourself,” she said, standing up. “We don’t know how far the canyon goes or how dangerous it will get. We should pace ourselves or we’ll be in more trouble.”
Zuko gave her a small nod of agreement. She was right. He remained on the rock as he watched her continue to look around the area. He closed his eyes once more and leaned back, expecting to fall back against the canyon wall.
He felt the brush of the vines that were behind him, but not the solid stone of the wall. Zuko’s eyes widened. He was falling back.
“Zuko!” He heard Katara’s voice above him as he looked up. The night sky and bright canyon walls disappeared. Darkness filled his vision as he found himself sliding down, on his back. Before he could stop himself, he skidded to a stop on a sandy cave floor. “Zuko! Are you all right? Zuko! Answer me!”
He was looking up, past his feet, to where Katara was pulling vines out from around the hole he had fallen through. “Katara?”
“Oh, thank God!” He could hear the relief in her voice. “Are you hurt? Don’t move!”
Too late. He was shifting himself into a seated position. The hole he had fallen through was enough to let in one man, but was out of reach. It was up was up, at least twice his height, and it looked like he had fallen down a dry waterway. It was smooth and steep. He felt it with his hand. Steep enough to slide down safely, but steep enough to have difficulty climbing up without a rope.
“Katara, it’s too steep to climb back up!” He shouted, looking up at the opening. He could make out her head peering.
“Then stay put! I’ll get a Sokka and a rope!”
“All right!” She disappeared from the entrance and Zuko turned back to the cave he found. He closed one eye, hoping to adjust to the dim light quicker. With his back to the waterway he slid down on, he began to make out the size of the cavern. It had a high ceiling and was a good size, perhaps ten paces around. The ground was covered with sand, no - sedentary material probably swept in and settled after rains.
In the darkness, he made out something pale on the ground a few steps from him.
Zuko narrowed his eyes and took a tentative step forward. Was that a rag? Something that washed in? His vision adjusted and his heart began to speed up.
It was a sleeve. A pale, khaki sleeve still on an arm.
Zuko’s head flew to his mouth. He felt all the hope he carried in finding his uncle shattering as made out the sight.
A pale khaki sleeve still on an arm...on a stiff, dead body.
Chapter 4: Mentor
It wasn’t the first time he’d seen a corpse. It wasn’t even the first time he’d seen one laying out on the ground with a face twisted in a mixture of fear and confusion. But, he wasn’t numb to it.
He wished he was.
His breathing began to grow shallow. He could hear his short, even breaths in his ears as his chest shook. His arms, his hands, his legs were trembling - no, almost convulsing as the space around him seemed to constrict.
Zuko could only see the arm and the body. And then another body. And then another.
His mouth was open and he was panting, or rather, struggling to breathe.
Wobbling legs took a step back and couldn’t hold his weight any longer. He fell to the sandy floor, wheezing as he looked at the tan, khaki clothes darkened with blood.
It was them, wasn’t it? He was too late.
Fear and pain filled him as he could only see the image of his dead family that he had rushed to save strewn before him.
He was too late.
Wide eyes looked towards the back of the cavern, but his vision blurred. He couldn’t see how many bodies there were, but part of him knew. He knew.
“Zuko!” His heart was slamming against his chest and something was telling him to either run - something was wrong; or focus - confirm the dead. Whatever his mind was willing, his body wasn’t obeying. “Zuko!”
The hazy sight of bloodied clothes and drying limbs changed as someone turned him around. He could see a white spot of light above him. The cave entrance?
“Is he all right?” Someone’s voice seemed to echo, though muffled.
“Stay up there, Sokka! I’ve got it!”
He felt the cool of her hands against the sides of his face as he saw her lips in front of him, opening and closing. His eyes narrowed; she was talking, but he couldn’t hear?
“Zuko!” His head was tilted and the blue eyes that were still clear in his mind were looking at him, filled with worry. “Zuko, it’s me. It’s me - Katara.”
Somewhere in the back of his mind he knew that, but his body and his words didn’t respond. His breathing remained even as his shaking hands rose and grasped her arms.
“Yes, yes,” she said, giving him reassuring nods as she grabbed one of his hands and placed it on her cheek. “It’s Katara.”
His voice trembled as he sucked in a shallow breath. “They’re dead.” It was the only thing he could say. He watched her brows knit together as she glanced past him for just a moment before returning all her attention to him.
“Take a deep breath,” she said in a calm voice. He tilted his head and looked at her. Why was she so calm? There were bodies not two steps away!
“Katara.” He pulled away and shook his head. “Katara, they’re dead. They’re dead!” His voice rose as he grabbed her upper arms and cried out. “I’m too late, Katara. I’m too late!”
“Do you want me to come down?” Sokka asked from the mouth of the cave, sounding worried.
“No, Sokka, I’ve got it!” Katara replied in an unwavering voice. She kept her eyes on Zuko’s and her hands grasping his head as his chest heaved. “Zuko, look at me. Look at me .” It was an order and even if his body didn’t respond to his mind, it responded to her words. He faced her, his breathing now choked sobs. Katara moved a step closer and pulled him towards her.
“I’m too late,” he said behind broken sobs as she wrapped her arms around him and crushed him against her chest as she knelt down beside him. “They’re gone!”
His arms tightened around her and his fingers curled into the back of her cotton button up. He could feel one hand stroking his back while the other pressed his head against her shoulder and chest. She combed her fingers through his hair and he could hear her whispering in his ear.
“Breathe. Breathe....” It was a hypnotic command and soon, his broken breathing grew even, though still ragged. She pulled away, still stroking him as she met his eyes. “Did you see them?”
He nodded, but then stopped. He turned his head towards the bodies and squinted. “I think so....”
She frowned. “You think so?” She slid her arms out from around him and began to stand. “Stay here.” He couldn’t follow even if he wanted to. Katara looked up towards the entrance. “Sokka! Toss me the torch and grab us another one!”
“All right.” Her brother placed something on the edge of the dry waterfall and let it slide down. Katara caught it before it hit the floor. “I’ll be right back!”
Katara reached into her back pocket and took out a small metal lighter. The top of the torch ignited and as she slipped her lighter back into her pocket, a small orange glow illuminated the space in front of her. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to see in front of them.
The crunch of her boots sounded as she stepped around him and kept the torch low to get a better look at the bodies.
“Katara,” Zuko said. “I-”
“Just stay there,” Katara said as she took careful steps around the first corpse. “I’ll check.” She glanced up. “It’s okay, Zuko. I know how they look like. I did research, you know.”
He swallowed a hard lump in his throat and nodded, remaining where he sat as she swept her torch over a head. He could make out her expression in the dim light. Her eyes were narrowed and her lips were in a tight line.
She stepped over the first body and examined the next. Then the next. He watched her get further and further away. The cave was deeper than he thought.
He heard her let out a breath and then watched the torch go up as she walked back. A wry smile was on her face as she knelt down in front of him.
“They’re not here,” she said.
His eyes widened as his chest tightened. Was she serious? “Are you sure?”
Katara nodded, her eyes crinkling up as she smiled. “They’re not here, Zuko. They could still be alive.”
A wave of relief swept through him as his body went languid. He lifted his hands to his face. “Thank God....”
“We’re not out of the woods yet,” Katara said, she moved the torch back. “Your uncle had guards, didn’t he?”
“Yes, to protect against the raiders.”
She nodded, her eyes squinted. “I think that’s them.”
He looked up and then followed her gaze. “How are you sure?”
“They’re wearing uniforms and their bodies haven’t had a lot of time to mummify in the desert. Then there are the rifles.”
Katara looked at him. “Are you up to look?”
He nodded, though a bit shaky. “I’m better now. I can do this.” She nodded and stood up, offering him her arm. He took it and rose to his feet before following her closer to the bodies.
“There are five of them,” Katara said. “All wearing the same same than uniforms. Each one has a rifle next to them.” She tapped one with her boot and handed Zuko the torch. He took it and held it over head as she picked up a rifle and opened the chamber. “As I thought. Empty.”
“Empty? What were they shooting at?”
Katara took a deep breath and exhaled. “If I were to guess. Each other.” Using the tip of the rifle she pointed to the bloody patches on the tan informs. “But why are they up here and why did this happen....” He almost didn’t hear her voice as she muttered to herself. “Anyway, their bags have holes, too.”
She moved to the side and turned over a fallen rucksack. Zuko heard the clinking of glass as Katara opened it. Her eyes narrowed and Zuko caught his breath.
“Are those bottles?”
“Shattered...all of them,” Katara said as she picked through. “Nothing is in them.” She ran her hand on the ground, avoiding the dark spots of brown from spilled blood. “Nothing damp...just sand and a few crushed flowers.” She ran a finger against a small white, trumpet of still vibrant petals. “Never seen this species before.”
“Does this mean they were looking for the spring, but can’t find it?” Zuko asked. Katara was eyeing the broken bottles.
“I think they did.”
“It’s still the desert; the hot air will evaporate liquid rather quickly,” she said. “All the bottles are capped.”
Zuko looked from the bodies to the cave entrance. “They were so close....”
“Zuko,” Katara said as she took the torch from him. “That’s not all.” She stepped over the other corpses, all with similar expressions as the first one that stunned Zuko. He tried to look away, but a morbid part of him made sure to face each and every twisted face to reassure himself that none were his uncle and cousin. As they reached the last one, he let out another breath of relief. Katara was right; they weren’t amongst the dead. “Look here.”
She held up the torch and Zuko felt a chill. A large hole, enough for one person to go through, had been chiseled into the back wall. Katara stuck the torch through and Zuko could make out another chamber within.
“Katara!” Sokka called out from the opening behind them. “Here’s another torch. And some more rope!”
“Slide it down! We found another chamber and we’re going in.” Katara looked at Zuko, as if asking if he was going to join her. He nodded and held the torch as Katara went to fetch the others. “This may take a while.”
“How long do you plan to stay down there?” Sokka asked.
“Give us a few hours. I can climb up later. This sort of grade is pretty easy,” she said, putting her hand on the wall. “If we’re not back by tonight....”
“I’ll come get you.”
She hesitated and Zuko realized why she was. “Sokka....”
“ I’ll come get you ,” Sokka repeated, firmer and leaving no room for argument. “I’m not going to leave my sister to die down there.”
She slung the rope around her arm and looked up. “Then I’ll hold you to that.”
“Be careful, Katara.”
She turned around and walked back to Zuko. “We’ll save this torch for later. Let’s go.”
He nodded and handed her the torch before stepping aside to let her go first. He squeezed into the narrow opening and could see Katara ahead of him, holding the torch forward.
“Oh my God....” The other end began to glow orange from the flame as Katara emerged into another room. Zuko kept his head ducked as he stepped over the fallen rocks. He felt a small breeze of warm air hit his face as he reached the other end and found Katara standing a few steps from him, holding up the torch as she took in the sight. “It’s a corridor....”
“It’s built into the canyon...but where’s the entrance?” Zuko stood in place and looked around. It was a decently wide corridor, big enough for three people to walk shoulder to shoulder. The ceiling wasn’t too high; he could touch if it he jumped, but it was flat and smooth. It was part of the cave, where as the walls had a base of large stone bricks that grew smaller as they reached the ceiling and the same color as the stone of the canyon.
“Do you feel that?” Katara asked as she held an arm out and narrowed her eyes. “It’s humid.”
“There’s water nearby....” He agreed with a nod and looked at her. “Do you think it’s the spring?”
She turned from one direction to the other and looked down at her feet. “It’s sloped down just a bit.”
He took a deep breath. “Then down we go.”
Katara held the torch out in front of them as she went first. She was careful, moving the torch up and down and from side to side a bit in front of her to get an idea of what lay ahead. She checked the ground and Zuko noticed a thin layer of sediment on large bricks. The floor was lined, though it surprised him that the bricks weren’t uneven. It was if they were laid just a few days prior; still in pristine condition.
“I don’t think it’s a tomb,” Katara said. “There isn’t anything on the walls. No inscriptions for prayers, no carvings, no images of the gods or even a single cartouche.”
“Then it’s just a hall?”
“Here? After we walked through those snake gates and past those bodies of guards that were shooting at each other?” Katara let out a snort. “We’d only be so lucky.”
Zuko grinned. She had a point. “It keeps curving to the left....”
“I think it’s a downward spiral,” Katara said. She kept her right hand over the wall. “There are wells like this where you have to walk all the way down to get water.”
“I see...Is it just me or does seem like it’s getting steep - ah!” Zuko’s feet slipped out from underneath him and suddenly, he was rolling down the hall.
“Zuko!” Katara began to run after him. “Try to grab on to something!”
“Grab on to what!?” His feet hit the side of the corridor, breaking some of his speed, but he couldn’t seem to get control of his body. His arms were flailing overhead, his torch smacking the wall.
He could see the torch somewhere above him and tried to press the soles of his boots against the dusty, smooth floor. It was slowing him down, but he might as well have been going down another slide. His right hand ran against the wall, hoping to grab on to a brick or something. Anything.
He hooked his arm as he slid down and felt a sharp pain as it slammed into something, stopping him from sliding any further. “Oof!”
“I got something! I stopped!” He coughed as he clung on to whatever he grabbed. It was cold and sticking out from the wall. He pulled himself into a seated position in the dark, waiting for Katara to catch up. He saw the glow of the torch and Katara slid down on her feet at an angle, making her descent smooth and steady. He made a face. “Are you kidding me?”
“Zuko, are you all right?” She skidded to a stop beside him, using her hand to slow her against the wall. Her voice trailed off as she looked up. She lifted the torch. “Looks like you found something....”
“Huh?” Zuko, still breathless and trying to steady himself turned to the wall and whatever he grabbed. “Ah!” He threw his arms up, barely stopping himself from sliding down further as he scrambled backwards. A gold head of a snake stared at him with carved eyes, a gaping mouth, and fangs. He lifted his head, following the light of the torch as Katara lifted it.
One head was about a foot from the bottom. At waist height, another head. At his shoulders, yet another. The last one was near the top of the corridor.
“There’s some on the other side, too,” Katara said as she moved her torch to the other side. She took a step closer and examined the gold serpent heads. The bodies of the snakes seemed to braid together and then lead lower, as if they were creating another gateway. She pushed against one. “I think this is a good place to tie the rope. You know...in case you slip again.”
He remained seated and narrowed his eyes. “The floor is smooth.”
“Sure, sure,” Katara said as she handed him the torch and began to unravel the rope on her shoulder. She carefully tied it twice around one of the waist high snake heads and tugged.
“Will it hold?”
“I hope so. It feels secure.” She said. She tossed the rope further down, into the darkness and handed him part of it. “Let’s go.”
“Wait,” Zuko said. “Nothing’s going to happen, is there?”
Katara raised a brow. She looked back at the snake heads and gave one another push. She looked up and then glanced around. “Doesn’t seem to trigger anything.”
He let out a breath of relief. “Good....”
Zuko nodded and was helped up. With careful steps, he held on to the rope and continued the descent. They made it two steps when Katara stopped him again. “Now what?”
“I hear water,” Katara said. She narrowed her eyes and looked upwards, then around. “Is there an underground river behind these walls?”
Zuko leaned forward, trying to hear. He could make out a low gurgling. “I hear it too.” A loud crack was heard and he felt the rope slack in his hands. He looked down and followed it back up to the snake heads. His eyes went wide. “Katara!”
She let out a low, annoyed breath. “It can never just be a hallway can it...?”
The snake heads had all turned towards them, their gaping mouths letting out a low hiss. Zuko could hear the water now, stronger than before. Water spurt out of the snake’s mouths, gushing out and hitting them head on. Zuko immediately lost his grip and fell back on his butt.
“Katara!” He held the torch up, trying to keep it from landing in the water as he was pushed down.
“I told you to hold on to the rope!” He heard her voice yelling above him as water roared all around. He sputtered, trying to keep his head up from the new river that filled the corridor.
This was how he would die. He was sure of it. The water slide of death would drag him down, into some pit of water where there were probably water vipers because why else would there be snake gateways? He’d drown if he wasn’t bitten first and Katara....
“Gotcha!” He choked on his collar as Katara grabbed the back of it. He felt his slide slow before being jerked to a stop in the pitch darkness. The torch was utterly soaked.
“Katara!” He managed to squeak out as the water around him lowered, growing weaker until it was just a trickle compared to earlier. He was no longer being pushed down and looked up. He couldn’t see her, but knew she was above him. “How’d you stop?”
He heard her snicker. “ I held on to the rope.” He groaned and she pulled against him. “I looped it through one of my belt loops so it’s easy to find,” she said. “Can you pull yourself up?”
“Yes, but I’m sure I’ll just fall again.”
“You’re right.” He grumbled. He could almost see her grinning. “The rope is by my feet. Grab onto it and use it to control your descent.”
“What if we run out of rope?”
“I don’t think so...if it was any deeper, we’d hear the water still making it’s way down. I hear rushing water, but not any echoes, as if it’s still going down the corridor.”
“Let’s hope you’re right.” He ran his hand along the ground and felt Katara’s leg. He brushed against her and he found himself thankful for the darkness so he couldn’t see her awkwardly searching around her legs. He found the rope hanging by her pant leg and grabbed onto it.
“Sorry! The rope-”
“I meant holding on to it,” Katara said.
“Right. Right. Of course.” He should’ve just drowned. He held onto the rope with one hand and tucked his torch under an arm to grab it with the other. Carefully, he began to lower himself down.
Katara remained a step above him, also using the rope to control her speed. “Are you okay?”
“Yeah...a bit waterlogged, but fine. Thanks,” he said. “Who knows where I’d be if you didn’t catch me.”
She chuckled. “I’ll add it on to your bill.”
“Thanks....” His hands were starting to hurt from grabbing the rope when his feet hit something. He slid down a bit faster and found a flat surface. “Katara...it’s flat here..”
“A break in the ramp, like a stair or the ground?” she said. Her voice echoed. “Zuko, don’t move.”
He felt the rope move as Katara maneuvered above him. He saw a small flame from her lighter float in the darkness before the whoosh of fire on her torch. She lifted it up and leaned forward, moving it over his feet.
“It’s a threshold,” she said. She lifted the torch around them, noting the end of the corridor and the darkness beyond. “That’s another chamber.”
“Give me the torch,” he said. He reached for it and she handed it to him. He slid further until he was seated on the flat step. He moved the torch around. “Katara, it’s a floor.”
She skidded down, stopping next to him and taking the torch back. She moved around, examining the floor they were one. She made it several steps forward and stopped. “Found the water that’s probably the source of the humidity,” she said. She moved the torch along the side. “It’s a river, Zuko. This must’ve been what we heard.”
“Great.” He pulled himself up to his feet, looking down at his soaked clothes. “How big?”
“It’s too dark,” she said. “I can’t see, but I think it’s water.” She knelt down and lowered her head. “No scent....”
“Does it taste like water?”
“I’m not going to taste anything until we know what it is,” she said. “We don’t know where it came from.”
“Do you think it comes from the spring?”
“If it did, that’s even more dangerous. I’m not dying or injured. There could be adverse affects....” She walked back to him and stopped. She looked past him and moved towards the wall, next to the way they came in. “It’s carved.”
“What?” He turned around and squinted. She held the torch over the wall and he could see the unpainted carvings of images on the wall. Neat rows were chiseled into the stone walls of the cavern.
Katara’s hand moved over the carvings and shook her head. “I can’t read it well. I recognize some images, but it’s not making sense.”
Zuko moved forward and squinted. “It looks like a Rebus system....” He looked further down the wall. “I can’t really make it out, but down here....”
“Those aren’t images,” Katara said, kneeling. “It looks like Cuneiform.”
Zuko’s eyes widened and he scrambled to the foor. He leaned forward and ran his fingers along the wall, feeling the marks as Katara lowered the torch so he could see. A small laugh left him as stared at the familiar markings.
“It is Cuneiform!”
“Can you read it?”
“I can,” he said, looking for a place to start. “I didn’t think I’d see it here. There’s a disconnect between Mesopotamian writing and the early Rebus Egyptian systems. Cuneiform pre-dates Ancient Egyptian so maybe whoever carved this though to use an older writing style as reference.”
“This is the first set of writing we’ve come across. It must be important.”
Zuko was going over the markers, mumbling to himself. He crawled along the wall, following the long string of letters as it went from one side of the wall to the other side of the entrance.
As he reached the end, he sat and furrowed his brows. “At night...how will we know it’s night?”
“Zuko, could you figure it out?”
He looked up at her with a confused expression. “ When the sun sets, the bridge will appear. Cross the river of death. Descend into judgment. Answer correctly and you may enter the land of the dead .”
Katara looked back at the water. “River of death...I’m glad Sokka isn’t here. He would’ve been drinking before we could stop him.”
“But what about the sun set part? What bridge is supposed to appear when it gets dark?”
Katara let out a heavy breath. “I don’t know,” she said. “We won’t know until it gets dark.”
“Night is hours away,” Zuko said. “Do we just wait?”
Katara looked back up the way we came. “We’ll have to wait.” She sat down beside him and leaned against the wall. “I’m going to put out the torch. Save it for when we may need it.”
“Sounds good.” A moment later, darkness surrounded them one more. Zuko leaned back against the wall, facing the river they could hear in front of them. He closed his eyes and tried to relax.
“I have some jerky in my pocket. If you’re hungry, let me know.”
“Where did you learn Cuneiform?” He chuckled.
“It was an interest. I wanted to study hieroglyphs, but the class was full. I ended up taking Cuneiform from a new professor who also taught Greek.”
“Did you think it would ever be useful?”
“To be honest, I was starting to think I’d never be useful. I wanted to go with my uncle and Lu Ten, but I was relegated to the museum. I knew the purpose was for my cousin’s sake, but I wanted to go, too. It’s a dream, you know? To go out into the field?”
“Get covered in dust and dirt. Burn under the hot sun, drenched in your own sweat,” Katara said in a droll voice. “Don’t get me wrong, getting out of the library is necessary, but it’s dangerous. The more remote, the more dangerous.”
“You’re speaking from experience?”
“Does it sound like I am?”
It did. “What about you,” he said. “What are you doing out here in the desert? Risking your life for some museum translator who’d never done field work in his life? Something must be drawing you out here. What?”
He heard her tired sigh next to him and then felt her arm brush against him. “My step-grandfather was an explorer with no taste for the family...business,” she said. “I never had an interest either and as soon as I was old enough to run, I’d join him on adventures around the world. I’ve been all over and when I was twelve, I began to live with him and Gran-Gran. I had private tutors as we traveled.”
That was not the answer he was expecting. Did that mean that Katara had an affluent background, as well? “And he taught you a thing or two himself, right?”
“Right,” she said. “More than I could ever learn in books; he wasn’t just my grandfather, but my mentor. He even pressed me to go to a proper university. Then, just after I graduated...Gran-Gran passed away. Gramps...Gramps loved her so much. He crossed an ocean to be with her and he was devastated. I was so worried, I took it upon myself to drag him across jungles to keep him occupied and get his mind off of Gran-Gran’s death. She wouldn’t want him to waste away at home, far from the adventure he loved.”
“They both sound amazing.”
“They were.” Katara’s voice lowered. “Gramps was a soldier in his youth and volunteered during the war. He didn’t make it. If I were in your position, Zuko, and I had a chance to find Gramps, I would.”
His heart settled for just a moment. He bit his lips as his hand searched for hers in the dark. Cool fingers slid against his and gave him a squeeze. “Everyone thought I was crazy to even try, but I had to. Thank you, Katara.”
“Well, now we’re both crazy,” she said. “Sokka will probably attest to that.” She released a low breath. “Sokka...Sokka was in his unit and couldn’t get to him in time. He blames himself for not being able to save Gramps. That’s why Sokka’s here. He follows me around and thinks I don’t know why. He wants to support me in place of Gramps.”
“Do you think he should stop?”
“I know he should stop. Sokka is brilliant, but not in this field. This isn’t his thing. This is my t hing. It’s like I’m wasting his time when he could be off, developing machines or building planes! If I could make him, I’d send him home.”
“You should take it over with him. Maybe he doesn’t want to go home.”
“There’s a beautiful woman waiting for him back home, Zuko. If you knew her, you’d want to go home, too.”
“Do you ever want to go home?” Zuko asked. Katara must’ve moved around much in her youth. Did she have a place she considered home? Or even miss?
“If we’re talking about my parents’ house, I do like to visit, but it’s not home, Zuko. I’ve been away for so long, home has just become where I’m most comfortable at any point and time.”
“Like now?” he asked, chuckling. “When we’re soaking wet and can’t see anything?”
He heard her laugh beside him and felt her move as she did. “There are worst places to be than sitting here with you, Zuko. Blind and wet, notwithstanding.” He felt her nudge his side and he smiled to himself.
“I still can’t thank you enough.”
“We haven’t found your uncle and cousin, yet.”
“I would already be dead if it weren’t for you. Don’t think I forgot that,” he said. “I’d still be lost in Cairo.”
“You’re smarter than that, Zuko,” Katara said. “You’re inexperienced, but you adapt. I don’t think your uncle would’ve left you behind if he didn’t think you could handle being by yourself.”
“But he didn’t trust me enough to bring me with him.”
“Maybe he did,” Katara said. “Have you ever considered that he left you behind in case something did happen to him?”
Zuko shook his head. “No, that can’t be right. I don’t have any hands on experience here. I was completely at a loss outside familiar places in Cairo that he took me to.”
“You said you were drafted during the war...what did you do?”
“I was in the Royal Navy. I was doing translation work and decoding messages. I suppose it makes sense considering learning heiroglyphs and Cuneiform are like decoding a secret language.”
“And why did you learn them?”
“Well, Uncle got me interested. You’ve researched him and must know. I got interested in archeology because of him. My entire family are patrons to various museums and libraries and universities. In fact, aside from field work, I wanted to share my love of the ancient world with younger generations. My father is a literature professor and my mother comes from an academic family, as well. I had hoped to secure a position as a lecturer when I returned. I do still want to after this, of course, but....”
Zuko released a low breath. “There is a shortage of men after the war. My parents wanted me to marry one of their friends’ daughters. Two had lost their partners in the war....”
“And you didn’t want to get married?”
“First, it would be nice if the woman I married was actually someone I was in love with,” he said, making her chuckle. “Second, how could I get married when my cousin’s fiance left him? It didn’t feel right to do so suddenly and when Uncle said he wanted Lu Ten and myself to come to Cairo, I jumped at the chance. I thought I’d be joining him out in the field, but it turns out he had a job at the museum for me...then he went missing.”
He went quiet shook his head. Iroh was still missing.
They had gotten that far, but whether they’d find his uncle and cousin alive was still uncertain.
“He’s alive.” It was as if she heard his doubts. He turned towards her, though he couldn’t see her, and felt her hand squeezed his once more. “I can just know it.”
She had no way of guaranteeing that, but for a moment, the pressing anxiety and worry left him. He lifted his hand, bringing hers with it and brought it to his lips. He kissed her knuckles; once above each of her thingers.
“I’m so lucky to have met you.” The soft words left his mouth before he could stop himself and as soon as he spoke he jerked his head back. He dropped her hand and pulled his hand back against him. “I mean, to think! I could’ve been stuck with Jet!” He grimaced. His voice was much louder than expected, too. God, what was he doing?
Katara sighed once more. “Be lucky that Jet owed me money.”
He was both disappointed and relieved the didn’t question his words, but couldn’t read her expression. He tried to steer the conversation towards Jet. “Why does he owe you money?”
“He crashed my car.” He smiled a bit at the sheer annoyance and irritation in her voice. “He’s a good adventurer for hire, but honestly, that’s all he’s good for. You can’t count on him outside of that. That’s why we broke up.”
“Pardon?” Did he hear right? That couldn’t be. “Did...did you say...were you...were you involved with Jet at one point?”
“A long time ago.”
“A year or so. I forget.”
She grumbled. “Everyone told me he was a mistake, but no...I didn’t listen. I was so charmed and taken in by that arrogant bastard. He was the first man who’s shown an interest and I absolutely fell for it.”
“That’s impossible,” Zuko said, still trying to imagine them together after that scene at the bar. He tried to reassure her. “I’m sure many people were interested in you, but were...uh....” He stopped. This was not how he planned to console and flatter.
“I’m intimidating and stubborn.” She filled in the blanks and he winced.
He remembered his own first assessment of her when she stormed into the bar and punched that smug Jet in the face. She was ‘ferocious’. Then when their horses were stolen, she was going to shoot a man. And when they fled that night, she flew out of their rock formation, literal gun blazing.
And she took his breath away.
“I wouldn’t use those exact words,” he said. “You’re brave. Daring. Focused. Kind and passionate. Jet really is an idiot if he couldn’t see that.”
“Zuko.....” He felt her hand against his face moving it towards her. “Thanks.”
How she found his lips in the dark, he had no idea nor did he care. His eyes flew open as he froze, unsure what to do as she kissed him. Katara moved back and he felt her warm breath against the side of his face.
He could’ve reached forward for her and leaned in to return the kiss with one of his own. He could’ve asked her why she did that. He hadn’t done anything but trouble her since they met. Instead, a dumbstruck “Wow....” escaped his lips and he died a little inside.
Katara barely held back her muffled laugh and he was sure she turned her head away as he heard her move. “Wow, huh? I never got that reaction before.”
He groaned into his hands. “I’m sorry.”
“I was the one who kissed you. I should be apologizing.” Her voice saddened. “Sorry, Zuko. It was unprofessional. I am still your guide.”
It hurt him to hear her say that. He wasn’t sure what else they could be, but he hoped ‘guide’ wasn’t the extent of it. He clenched his hands at his side.
“Well, what about after all this? When you’re no longer my guide?” He thanked God that it was dark so she couldn’t see his red face or his mortified expression.
“When this is over?”
She was quiet and Zuko strained to hear even her quietest breath in hopes of learning her reaction. “What do you want to do after this is over?”
Why did she want him to say it? His embarrassment compounded, but he forced himself to answer. “Maybe go out to dinner?”
“Yes! Yes, I’m sure after we find my uncle and cousin, we’ll spend some time in Cairo before we go back.”
She was quiet once more. “Sure,” she said. “That just means you have to survive.”
He smiled and tilted his head back against the wall. “That goes for you, too.”
She chuckled. “Why don’t we get some sleep. We woke you up rather early and if we stay awake, we’re only going to get hungrier.”
“I suppose you’re right.” He yawned. “I am a bit sleepy....”
That was the last thing he remembered saying. He must’ve fallen asleep as hazy visions of a grassy field and large, old estate house on the rolling grounds filled his head. There was laughter and it was peaceful. Did he miss home? He didn’t think he did, but after everything so far, he would welcome the familiarity of his old room and his old bed.
“Zuko....” He heard his name again. “Zuko, wake up.”
He moaned and tried to open his heavy eyes. “Is it night yet?”
“I think so,” Katara said, kneeling beside him. “Can you check your pocketwatch?”
He nodded and reached into his pants pocket. “It’s a little past nine....” He sat up straight. “How can I see the watch face?” When he went to sleep, there was nothing but darkness.
He looked up and saw Katara holding back a laugh. Beside them were two now dry torches, but they weren’t lit. She pointed up and he tilted his head.
Large, protruding crystals were glowing from the cave ceiling, illuminating a large cavern that was cut in two by a river. Or rather a wide stream. Around them, imbedded in the walls were pieces of crystal, all glowing a light, eerie yellow-green.
He could see clear across the river, where an embankment was littered with pebbles and the white trumpet flowers he’d seen by the guards above. A small rectangular doorway was across from them, on the other side.
“Our bridge has appeared, too,” Katara said. He looked down towards the river and could see a faint glowing beneath the water. “We couldn’t see it when it was dark, but when it glows....”
“The bridge appears.” Zuko stood up, only somewhat aware that his clothes were dry. He looked across the stream. “Cross to the other side.”
“And descend for judgment,” Katara concluded. She stood beside him and lit one of the torches. “Are you ready?”
In all honesty, he wasn’t. The tension and unsettled feeling gripped him once more, but Zuko nodded. “Yes.” He grit his teeth. “Let’s go.”
Chapter 5: Youth
“It’s possible that the crystals only light up when it’s dark outside,” Katara said. “That is, even beyond the night sky we saw out in the canyon.” She smothered the torch once more. Across the little bridge over the river, which was submerged about an inch beneath the surface, they went through the rectangular stone gate.
When they got close enough, they could see a snake motif carved into the stone, to which Zuko grumbled ‘of course there are snakes....’
It prompted them to be extra vigilant as they crossed the threshold. They paused with every step, waiting for something - they didn’t know what - to happen. About halfway through, they saw a glowing speck of an exit, but maintained their caution until they emerged on the other side of the tunnel.
“But then that means we only have so many hours to keep going before the crystal gets dim and we’re in darkness again,” Zuko said as he looked around. It was another chamber, lined with bricks like the corridor above, but carved with reliefs. Zuko took a step closer to make out the images. “The carvings are rough. They look like pictograms?”
“Perhaps it’s an unfinished antichamber,” Katara said, studying the wall next to him. “Then again, I doubt anything here is unfinished.”
Zuko stepped back. “Water...fields...flowers.” He shook his head. “I’m not sure what it means.”
“Maybe they liked gardening,” Katara grinned. “Or maybe the afterlife is filled with a field of flowers.”
Zuko tried to burn the images into his mind, in case they would need it as reference later. He looked back at Katara, who was examining the doorway across from the one where they had entered. The glow of light crystals was much dimmer than they were in the chamber.
“Stairs this time,” Katara said, looking down.
“How deep does this place go?”
They began down the steps and Zuko counted. They were up to sixty when Katara stopped him. “Do you hear that?” she asked. “It’s the river. I think we’re going under the river.”
“Do you think we’ll go down further?”
“I don’t know, but it’s a good thing we didn’t try to swim across,” she said. “There could’ve been an undercurrent and we would’ve been swept under.”
He shuddered at the thought. A more impatient person would’ve tried to do just that, not knowing how deep the river actually went.
“It’s amazing how they were able to calculate that. The ancients were incredible.”
“And mysterious,” Katara said. “Another snake gate.”
“What is it with snakes?” Zuko muttered. “I understand that they were symbols of protection, particularly for royalty, but this isn’t a tomb.”
“Snakes are a symbol for medicine and death all over the place,” Katara said. “Ascelpilus, the ancient Greek god of medicine had a staff with a snake head. The Incas saw the serpent as representative of the underworld. In India, they represent death and rebirth. While medicine is about life, life and death have always been intertwined. I think the symbolism here is spot on.”
Zuko let out a low breath. “I think you’d get along well with my uncle.”
“Well, I look forward to meeting him.” They reached another well lit chamber and Katara lifted her head up. The sound of water overhead was clear. “We’re definitely under the river.”
“All the more reason to be terrified if this cave comes crashing down on us.”
“It’s not going to crash down on us.” Katara clicked her tongue and looked around the chamber and seemed to frown. “The walls have images again, but they’re complete. Think you can translate?”
“No, no writing is here,” Zuko said. It was like a mural carved into the wall and with vibrant colored paints, as if it was just completed the day before. There were figures of women and women, children, and various animals, but not livestock. There were antelope and crocodile jumping over the pattern of fields or crawling from between them. All were facing towards opposite of where they had come from, as if they were marching forward. He looked from one side to the other. They were all facing the same way, but there were slight variations to the figures.
Some had white hair. Some had red patches in odd areas. A few had green patches, there were three that were missing some sort of limb.
“Leading up to that.” He turned around and saw Katara standing a few steps from the entry way across the room. He could see a set of stairs within, but what Katara was looking at was a spot above the threshold. It was a relief carved into the stonework and paint of a blue dot surrounded by water symbols. “It’s the spring.”
“Then all these figures are going towards the spring,” Zuko said. “Duat is said to have a field of reeds.”
Katara touched one of the walls, drawing her finger against the carving of the field. “These individual markings could be seen as early glyphs for reeds,” she said. They covered most of the lower half of the wall. “We’re standing in it.”
“What?” Zuko looked around. They were clearly in a stone chamber.
“Look down,” Katara said. He did so and understood. The stone below them had been carved to resemble the fields in the wall murals. There were three crocodiles also carved on the floor, along with images of trumpeted flowers. They must’ve grown near the spring as the closer he got to the symbol of the spring above the threshold, the more flowers there were. “Zuko, look at this.”
He moved across the chamber to get closer to where she was standing at one corner. A man was kneeling by a blue line, most likely run off from the spring. A small patch of blue was in his uplifted palm.
“Is he drinking?”
“Yes, but look at the detail. This one has white hair...graying hair. He’s old.” She moved her hand to the next panel. “Here, he’s laying down, eyes closed, but still with white hair. Then in the next, sitting up with black hair.”
“Meaning, he’s young again.”
“And healed. Everyone on on his wall is healed. No white hair, no injuries or disease, no missing arms or legs.” Katara pursed her lips. “It looks like drinking the water puts you to sleep and while you’re sleeping, your body heals. You wake up healed and younger than when you were when you slept.”
“So the spring has medicinal purposes,” Zuko said, narrowing his eyes. He looked around the chamber once more. “But nothing here implies immortality.”
Katara drew in a low breath. “No...no, it’s not about making you immortal as you are.” She took a step back, looking up at the walls of images. “It’s about restoring your body. Zuko, the water doesn’t just heal you, it makes you young again.”
“Then it’s possible that if you grow old, you can continue to drink the water, and you’d revert back to your youth,” Zuko said slowly. He looked at Katara with fearful eyes at the very idea. “And prolong your life...essentially forever.”
“So that’s the key!”
A low, amused voice filled the chamber and Katara and Zuko whirled around to face the threshold they entered from. A tall man with narrowed dark eyes and a neat khaki uniform stood on the bottom step, his arms clasped behind his back. A smug look filled his face as he looked down at them, flanked on either side by a similarly dressed guard with a rifle pointed at them.
He narrowed his eyes. “I wouldn’t reach for that gun, young miss.” His men kept their aim at each of them. “Unless you’re going to relinquish it to me.”
Zuko was frozen in his spot. He glanced at Katara, who had a murderous look on her face, but held her arms out. “Who are you? What are you doing here?”
The stranger didn’t falter. “First, give us your guns.”
He stepped to the side and another guard behind him shoved a familiar, gagged figure into the room. That made for three armed guards with rifles and unknown weapons in the rucksacks on their backs. Zuko felt as if the was dealt a blow. Katara screamed. “Sokka!”
Her brother fell to his knees and he looked up, his arms bound behind him. The guard tugged down his gag. “Katara, I’m sorry. They caught me off guard when I was waiting by the cave for you and Zuko.”
“Then the rumors really are true!” the strange cut him off and stepped into the room. The guards moved forward, still pointing their rifles at Katara and Zuko.. “They talked back in Cairo, but I thought...what are the chances that he’d be so lucky!”
“What are you talking about?” Katara said in a low voice. “Who are you?”
“I am Long Feng,” the man said, taking another step closer.
“Long Feng?” Zuko’s eyes went wide. He recognized the name. He’d seen it typed on packing list after packing list. “You’re the man who donated the Mesopotamian pieces to the museum!”
“Indeed I am. I heard that Lord Iroh’s nephew was well versed in the written language, so what better way to have a talented young archeologist on stand-by should something go wrong.”
“How did you even know about my uncle’s expedition?” Zuko glared at the man.
Long Feng smirked. “How do you think I have enough wealth to get my hands on those artifacts. I’m the owner of the Dai Li Security Forces. Perhaps you’ve seen my men before? We’re often contracted to escort tourists in more...remote locations of the world. Lord Iroh was one of our customers.”
Zuko drew his head back as his eyes widened. Now he recognized those khaki uniforms. It was the same as the ones on the guards shot in the cave above. That meant that this man.... He narrowed his eyes. “What did you do to my uncle!”
“Calm down, my boy,” Long Feng said. He was so calm, it made Zuko’s blood boil. “I didn’t do anything to your uncle. The plan was for my men to escort him until he found the spring of eternal life and then get rid of him, but no one returned.” A brief scowl graced his face. “Iroh disappeared along with my men. I knew he left you behind and that sooner or later, you’d try to go after him and could possibly lead us here. We’ve been waiting in the desert for days when we heard sighting of a scarred foreigner with the granddaughter of the great Pakku North.”
Zuko looked at Katara. “The great Pakku North?”
She didn’t reply and kept her glare on Long Feng.
“Oh, you’ve never heard of him?” Long Feng asked, feigning surprise. “Pakku North is famous in the exploration world. He’s been present at nearly all of the great archeological finds of the last fifty years. I thought you would know that since you contracted his granddaughter, said to be just as good as him.” Long Feng looked at her with a predatory gaze. “If not better.”
“Don’t you every speak his name again,” Katara said, shaking. “My grandfather didn’t adventure for profit. He was in search of the past!”
“And he was good at it,” Long Feng said. “After all, he was the one who found Duat before you, wasn’t he?”
Zuko looked at Katara with wide eyes. “He found Duat?”
Katara’s chest rose and fell with low breaths. “Years ago, before I was born. He told me stories of it and how he found the gate, but he never found the spring itself.”
“And yet, you are closer than he ever was,” Long Feng said. “Very impressive. Perhaps we should be calling you the great Katara Kuruk.”
Zuko snapped his head back at her. He knew that last name. It was attached to some of the most advanced technology the Royal Navy used. “You’re a Kuruk ?”
“Good God, did you not research your guides at all?” Long Feng looked at him with disgust. “You really are lucky. Your guides are the heir and heiress of Kuruk Industries.”
Her upbringing of traveling and private tutorage began to make sense. Of course an heiress would have access to such things. A formidable education. Financial freedom to travel. An illustrious grandfather.
“If you know that much, then you know what will happen if you touch me or my brother,” Katara said in a clipped voice.
“I’m well aware,” Long Feng said. He looked at Zuko and moved his hand in front of him. He gripped a pistol and aimed at at Zuko’s head. Gold eyes fixed on to the barrell as he felt his heart stop. “Surprisingly, of the three of you, getting rid of Lord Iroh’s grandson is the least troublesome.”
“Stop!” Katara yelled, her eyes wide. Long Feng never took his eyes off of Zuko.
“Drop your guns.” Long Feng sounded serious. “Or I’ll shoot.”
“If you hurt him or my brother, all the bullets on your men won’t stop me from slitting your throat,” Katara said. Despite the gun in his face, Zuko couldn’t help but look over at her. God, that woman was ferocious....
“Do it, Miss Kuruk. I am only so patient.”
“Katara-” Sokka was gagged once more and Katara slowly reached for her gun. She balanced it carefully, her finger as far off the trigger as it could be. She gently tossed it on the floor, allowing it to slide to one of the guards. The one who had aimed for her reached down and snatched it up.
“Now his,” Long Feng said, motioning his head towards Zuko. Katara took slow steps towards him.
“Don’t worry,” she whispered as she reached around him. “I won’t let anything happen to you.”
He only remained frozen as she took his gun and repeated the motion, tossing it towards the other guard.
“Well, then, Miss Kuruk. Your brother and client are safe for now. They’ll be safe for a bit longer if you can take us to the spring,” he said, smirking. He stepped back and withdrew his gun. He pointed it towards the other threshold with the stairs leading up. “Ladies first.”
Zuko watched Katara ground her teeth together, but made her way to the stairs. Long Feng followed behind her, then one of the guards. Zuko felt his shoulder shoved from behind, a sign for him to follow.
“Try anything and I’ll shoot.” One of the guards said as he poked Zuko’s shoulder with the tip of his rifle.
“You shoot and she’ll kill you,” Zuko said in a low voice. He followed behind her, their pace quicker than it was when they were coming downstairs. If Katara was right, they were going underneath an underground river.
“I hate to rush you, but we only have a few hours until the sun raises,” Long Feng said. “So if you can hasten your speed....”
Katara let out a low growl. “We don’t know what awaits us; it could be dangerous.”
“I advise you to weigh what is more dangerous; this cave or my men.”
Zuko saw Katara’s hands clench into fists at her sides. She trudged up the stairs in silence.
Zuko played with the idea of grabbing on to the guard in front of him, but the stairway was narrow enough that an ensuing gunfight could injure Katara. That was even if he could attack before being shot and restrained himself.
“You’re already wealthy,” Zuko said. “Do you want to live forever, too?”
“While an interesting idea, perhaps not forever,” Long Feng said in a smooth voice. “Another few lifetimes, perhaps. However, my main goal is to package and sell the spring water. It would be one thing if drinking it just made you immortal. Who’d want to be immortal if they were missing an arm or unable to see? However, the spring water heals. Do you know how many people were injured in the war?” He said it in such a way that Zuko could’ve sworn he was salivating just thinking it. “You’re from an aristocratic lineage. Surely, you know how many men in your position would pay good money to grow back a limp, fix a limp, or even...remove a scar.” He glanced back at Zuko, the disgusting smirk still on his face as he ran a hand down the side of his face, around the area where Zuko himself had his scar. Long Feng laughed. “And for those who wish to pay their weight in gold, immortality.”
“Don’t you already have enough owning your security forces?” Katara snapped.
“Well, I need something to fund the rest of my multitude of lifetimes, don’t I? It’s best to invest across the board. Unfortunately, I don’t have the background to search for the mythical spring. However, when I mentioned the medicinal properties of the water to Lord Iroh, whose son was crippled during the war....”
“My uncle wouldn’t have allowed you to bottle it up and sell it to the highest bidder,” Zuko said with venom in his voice.
“Indeed. Lord Iroh is just as fair and righteous as they say. That’s why I instructed my men to be rid of him before he could share his findings to the world. A shame he disappeared before anything could be secured.”
They couldn’t let that man reach the surface with the spring water. They just couldn’t.
As Zuko’s mind raced with ill planned ideas to overtake their captors, they reached the top of the stairs and chamber mirroring the on they were in previously. Murals graced the wall, but they were different. Zuko narrowed his eyes and kept his mouth shut, refusing to let Long Feng and his men on any valuable information.
Katara was quiet, as well, also looking over the walls. There were figures of men and women in various scenes, no longer in a field, but against an empty background. There were people fighting, wounding each other, and those injured and crying. Zuko couldn’t make sense of them, especially compared to the previous chamber.
There was no symbol of the spring, either.
Across from them, where another threshold carved with snakes was supposed to be, was a massive block of stone blocking their exit. Starting at the waist, there was a full panel of protruding metal discs the size of his palm. They were in neat rows, as if crude buttons on the stone.
“What is this?” Long Feng spat out. “Where’s the entrance?”
“I think that is the entrance,” Katara said. She was standing by the block and looking at the panels on the side. “Zuko, take a look at this.”
He felt a shove behind him and he gave the guard a glare before he stumbled towards her. “Do you really think we should open it?” he asked in a quiet voice.
“We don’t have a choice,” Katara said. She moved her hands over the painted carvings. “The figures are pressing the metal pieces into the wall. Like a code to unlock it.”
“All right, but what’s the code?”
Katara stepped back to get a look at the wall. She squinted and pointed up. At the spot where the icon of the spring had been, there was a gold plate and a white feather on top. She looked at Zuko. “Descend for judgment.”
“What’s taking you so long?” Long Feng almost barked behind them. “We don’t have al night!”
“We’re trying! Just give us time!” Katara yelled back, looking over her shoulder. “We need to push in the right buttons or the door won’t open.”
“Then figure it out soon,” Long Feng said as he stepped back to where Sokka was. Long Feng held his pistol up, next to Sokka’s temple. “Or say good-bye to your brother.” Sokka’s eyes were wide and sweat streamed down his face.
The hate and anger on Katara’s face made Zuko shudder. She ground her teeth together. “Help me look for clues,” she said, her voice shaking. She turned back to the door. “The feather...that must be the heart feather of Ma’at. It has something to do with the judgment scale.”
“Judgment scale...before Thoth and Anubis....” Zuko muttered. They had talked about that before, but there weren’t any scales in the room.
Katara looked over the metal buttons. She squinted and reached into her pocket.
“Watch your hands!” someone yelled.
“It’s my lighter,” Katara said with a clipped voice.. “Even with the crystal, I can’t make out the engraving on the metal.”
“It’s fine,” Long Feng said, holding out his arm in front of the guard. His dark eyes settled on them. “Let the granddaughter of the great Pakku North show us how capable she is.”
With a glare still fixed on her face, Katara took out her lighter and held it over the metal discs. “Can you make it out?” Zuko asked next to her.
“I can,” Katara said. “Early Egyptian, but I can make out most the general meaning. This one is...grain...theft?”
Zuko narrowed his eyes. He looked over at another one. “Eat meat...Blasphemy....water well....”
Katara’s eyes widened. She stepped back and began counting in a low voice. “A hundred discs,” she said. “But only forty-two.”
“Zuko, the forty-two confessions!” Katara said, grabbing his shoulder. “Of the discs, we need to push in the forty-two negative confessions that were used to weight against the feather of Ma’at.”
His heart shot to his throat. “If they were telling the truth, the scale would be balanced and they could proceed.”
“Yes!” Katara began looking over them. “I have not stolen....” Katara put her hand on one of the discs and pushed. The metal rod it was attached to sank into the stone and a grinding could be heard before a loud, hollow click. “That’s one.”
“I have not...,” Zuko said reading over the discs. “Taken life...man...I have not slain men and women!” He pushed the disc. “That’s two!”
“You take that side, I’ll take this side. Count off as you find one,” Katara said.
Zuko nodded and began to read from his corner. “Three!”
Katara pushed into two. “Five!”
They went through discs, row by row. A few times they stumbled over translations, calling the other to assist and try to decipher the meaning. As they reached the bottom row, Zuko frowned. “Forty-one...we need one more.”
“Did we miss one?”
“Will you two hurry it up!” Long Feng yelled.
Zuko looked over his shoulder. In his excitement decoding the discs, he forgot that they were in a life or death situation and the man who was the cause of this entire debacle was behind them, guns drawn.
Katara was going over the discs once more, ignoring Long Feng. Zuko turned back and began looking through his side.
“What about this one?” Katara asked. “I translated it as sight, but these markings....”
“Tears?” Zuko asked. “Cry? Weep?” He looked at Katara and saw the acknowledgement flicker in her eyes. “I have never caused anyone to weep!”
They slammed their hands on to disc and pushed it into the wall. “That’s forty-two!” Katara said as they took a step back.
The grinding was heard, then a click. Instead of ending there, the sound of gears grinding continued and Katara and Zuko stepped back, watching as the discs all began to be drawn into the stone.
The guards who had their rifles on them were fixated on the stone in front of them. Zuko looked around, trying to ready himself for anything. He glanced to the side and saw Katara beside her brother, slipping something into his bound hands while shielding the action with her body from Long Feng.
His eyes grew large. The knife she has taken before they fled their camping spot the night before. Long Feng and his men never patted them down, so they didn’t know she still had it. Zuko forced himself to look forward and not out the siblings. He didn’t know if a free Sokka could guarantee their safety, but it gave them far better odds.
The sound of grinding gears stopped and they felt the room move as a thud was heard. Long Feng held out his arm towards the stone door as it began to rumble upwards. The chamber seemed to hold its collective breath as the stone disappeared in a space above the threshold.
Zuko squinted. Unlike the chamber with the glowing crystal ceiling, it was dark on the other side. However, he could see a source of light high, off to the left.
“Miss Kuruk,” Long Feng said. He looked at Katara and motioned towards the entryway. “If you please.”
Zuko clenched his jaw. They didn’t know what was beyond those doors. “I’ll go,” he said.
“No.” Katara looked back and gave him a stern look as she clutched her torch. “Let me do the initial check and make sure it’s safe.”
“What if it isn’t?”
Her words were cold and beside him, Sokka moved forward, appearing to want to join his sister. He was jerked back by a guard.
“She’ll be fine,” Zuko said, more to convince himself than reassure Sokka. They kept their eyes on Katara as she climbed over the jutting stone separating the chamber from the next cavern.
Each step was measured and she seemed to take two steps down into the cavern before turning around.
“Well?” Long Feng asked. “Is it safe?”
“There’s off center oculus that’s letting in the moonlight, but my eyes are still adjusting,” Katara said. She held her arms out and she seemed to be touching something around her. “The ground is solid...it’s a field.”
“A field of what?” Long Feng said, narrowing his eyes.
Zuko’s eyes went wide as he felt his heart quicken. A field of reeds, like the previous chamber. Once the dead were deemed pure enough, they would be allowed to enter the Land of the Dead and one its iconic symbols was a field of reeds.
That meant that beyond the field, if the murals were telling the truth, was the spring.
“Follow her.” Long Feng instructed his guards in a low voice. He looked at Zuko and Sokka. “Go.”
The guards held their rifles up as Zuko and Sokka made their way through. If they found the spring, they had no reason to keep them alive any longer and he was afraid. Would they shoot him in the back? Would they shoot him in the head?
A low crunch came from his boots and he looked down. The reeds were packed together and though some were crushed beneath him, it was easier to part the reeds and walk through.
The ground itself was solid, but wet, like a shoreline.
He looked up. Ahead of him, Katara was wading through the reeds at waist height. His eyes adjusted to the meager light coming from a hole high above the cavern. The massive cave could easily fit the entirety of the Souzin Manor, with plenty of room left above it.
From what he could make out, the walls were part of the cave with no bricks or carvings of any sort.
“Do you hear the water?” He heard Long Feng behind him and turned around. The sly man climbed into the cave, craning his neck to identify the source. “I hear-”
Creaking began to sound and and everyone turned back. The rumble of grinding stone filled the area.
“Sokka! The door!”
Zuko didn’t see Katara running back. He could only make out the blur of her body as she rammed herself against the guard aimed at her brother. The rifle tilted upwards and Sokka dove through the doorway as it came down.
Gun shots rang out as the other two guards shot at him, but hit the stone instead. Zuko watched the massive stone door fall back into place, sealing them in the cavern as Long Feng yelled for them to stop shooting.
“You!” He turned his attention to Katara as she stood up and found more rifles aimed at her.
“What? Were you going to dive in there?” Katara asked with a knowing look.
“Why did the door close?” Long Feng demanded as he stormed forward.
“If I were to guess, the floor is weighed. If it doesn’t sense anyone on it, then the door closes.”
“Why didn’t you say anything about it earlier?” He snarled above her.
“I didn’t know it would do that,” she said. “None of the panels warned about it.”
Zuko narrowed his eyes. She seemed to know how to react too quickly for not knowing about it.
Long Feng seethed. “Can your brother unlock the door?”
“He can’t decipher glyphs,” Katara said. “At best, he can get out and try to find another way in.”
“We can’t wait for that,” Long Feng said. He looked at the two guards. “You two, take her and find the water source. When you find it, begin bottling it.”
“C’mon,” one guard said as he motioned his head further out.
“You, prepare the explosives. We’ll get out of here one way or another.” Long Feng settled his eyes on Zuko and Zuko scowled. “And you, young master of the Souzin family. Why don’t you make yourself useful and help them gather the water.”
Zuko walked backwards, never taking his eyes off of Long Feng, who smirked with amusement. The guards waited a few paces behind them as Katara and him moved through the reeds.
“The ground is wetter here,” Katara said. Their boots were sinking in. “We’re close....”
“You knew the door would close wouldn’t it?” Zuko said. “That’s why you yelled at Sokka.”
“I had a feeling. The room itself was the scale and when judgement is over, wouldn’t you reset it?” Katara asked, still looking. “We just need to buy time. If Sokka can get to the surface, he can get to the weapons and take care of them as they exit the cave.”
“What if Long Feng doesn’t let us leave with them?” Zuko asked. It was a morbid question: what if Long Feng killed them there?
He heard Katara let out a low breath. “That’s the tricky part.”
The ground began to make squishing sounds beneath them and the reeds grew higher. Katara moved forward and narrowed her eyes. “There’s water here! I think the river is close.”
“Or are already in it?” Zuko asked, looking down at his wet boots.
Katara squinted her eyes. She lifted up the torch and pushed her way through the thick foliage. Her brows furrowed as she reached out her free hand. “We’ve reached the other....” She trailed off and brought her hand back. She held it under the fire and Zuko could see it glisten. “It’s coming from the cave wall.... Zuko, help me clear this.”
He got to work and began tugging away at the reeds. “It’s thick. We need something to cut them.”
“Long Feng!” Katara shouted, turning around. “We need a knife! We need to cut the reeds to check for water!”
“Give her a knife,” Long Feng said. Katara handed Zuko her torch and began to wade back, to the guard still lingering by the door and looking through the red explosives he had piled against it. Long Feng looked back at the guard closest to Zuko. “You, get over there and start preparing the bottles.”
The guard shoved Zuko out of the way and removed the bag from his back. He placed his rifle on the ground, opposite Zuko and sent him a glare before opening the bag. The same glass bottles that were in the first cave were piled neatly within.
“I wouldn’t just begin bottling from there,” Katara said as she was handed a knife. “It could be contaminated with dirt. You should wait until the spring is clearly visible and source the water from there. Even then you need to test it.”
“Test it?” Long Feng snorted. “Is there even such a need? Whatever properties that water has will heal you.”
“You don’t know if it has any negative affects!” Katara said, frowning. “If one of your buyers drinks it and nothing happens or worse, something does - something that isn’t healing him, do you think anyone’s going to buy your magic water?”
Zuko could see Long Feng consider Katara’s warning and frowned. She was right.
“Very well,” Long Feng said. He reached into his holster and pulled out his pistol. He aimed at Zuko. “Take a drink.”
His heart felt as if it had stopped. Zuko stared at Long Feng. Was he serious? He looked at Katara, who stared back. He slowly shook his head.
Long Feng sighed. “I said take a drink, boy.”
“I won’t,” Zuko said, ignoring the bottle of water one of the guards was holding.
Long Feng gave a nod to the guards. “Make him.”
Arms grabbed his and he was pulled back. Someone grabbed his hair and pulled his head back.
He could hear Katara screaming. “Let him go!” He clamped his mouth shut, refusing to even let him turn his head towards the bottle. He could see Katara start running. She turned the knife in her hand, adjusting the handle in her grip as she raced towards Long Feng. “I said let him go!”
Long Feng turned, his eyes wide as he saw Katara coming forward. He turned his body. He readjusted his aim. Zuko felt the world come to a stop as another gunshot rang out.
Chapter 6: Found
The loud bang filled the enormous cavern, echoing all around him as it vibrated through his bones. He stopped struggling. His entire body tensed as he watched Katara run towards Long Feng. If they were in opposite positions, he would’ve run to her and tried to pry her out of the guards grip, but Katara was smart.
While trying to get him to drink, the guards didn’t have their weapons. The one by the door was busy unpacking explosives. The most imminent danger was Long Feng and Katara knew that, so she went for him.
He wished she didn’t.
Her words in the chamber were still fresh in his mind: if you hurt him or my brother, all the bullets on your men won’t stop me from slitting your throat.
So a gun rang out and Zuko felt his entire world come to a crashing halt. Katara’s eyes were wide with shock as her run slowed and he pulled against the guards to get to her. They could shoot him in the back for all he cared; he just needed to get to Katara. But he was no match for two guards holding him back.
A pained yell came from Long Feng and Zuko could see him stumbling back from the corner of his eye. His arm flew to the side with his pistol slipping out of his grip. The area just above the right side of his chest began to turn a dark color.
Blood was seeping through the pale khaki and Zuko sucked in a sharp gasp. He didn’t have a gun. Neither did Katara and none of the three guards had their weapons in their hands.
Katara whirled around, looking up as if knowing where the shot had come from. Zuko followed her gaze and saw someone kneeling on a ledge perhaps fifteen feet up, to the left of the entrance’s threshold. A series of jagged rocks had kept her hidden and even now, a good portion of her was hidden behind some stones as she held her rifle in her hand, still aimed Long Feng.
“Let him go or I’ll put another hole in him, this time through his head,” a low, calm voice came from the woman behind the rifle.
Zuko was shoved forward as the guards stepped back, squinting in the faint moonlight to make out the woman. She had dark hair and pale skin and was wearing a dark colored button up.
“June?” he asked.
“Zuko.” Katara grabbed his face and turned him towards her. Her eyes were studying his face, looking for any sign of liquid. “Did you drink anything?”
He shook his head and took her hands in his. “No, no. They didn’t get any in my mouth.” His lips trembled as he cupped her face and gave her a pleading look. “You’re all right...?”
“I’m all right,” she said, giving him a weak smile. “I’m glad you didn’t drink.”
“I’m glad you didn’t get shot.”
“Put your guns down!” June shouted from her perch. “And get away from them.”
Long Feng was grasping his chest. “You’re one of the researchers, aren’t you?” he asked. He narrowed his eyes. “How long have you be trapped here?”
“I said put your guns down,” June said, not budging from her stance. “Don’t make me repeat myself.”
“Perhaps we can come to an arrangement?” Long Feng said. “We can get you out. We have enough explosives to blow a hole right through that blasted door and get us out. Join us and a share of the profits, as well as eternal youth, are yours.”
It was a tempting offer, Zuko didn’t even try to delude himself. He looked up at June, waiting to see if she’d agree.
“I don’t you I wasn’t going to say it again.” She pulled the trigger and Long Feng let out a cry as he fell to a knee. She’d gotten him in the leg. “Zuko.” The woman on the ledge called out to him. “You and your girlfriend get over here, I’ll keep an eye on them. There’s a set of steps to my right.”
His face flooded with color. “Um, actually, she’s not....”
“Just walk to the steps, Zuko,” Katara said as she took his arm and moved him forward, towards the steps they were instructed. “We can clear anything up later.”
“Are you sure? I don’t want her to misunderstand.”
“Who is she, anyway?” Katara asked. She kept him in front of her, so he would reach the stairs before her.
“June Nassar, she’s my uncle’s head research assistant. She’s the one who taught me Cuneiform,” Zuko said.
“Then if she’s here...that means your uncle must be here, too.”
His heart tightened and he held his breath. “God, I hope so....”
He felt Katara’s hand on his back. “I’m sure he is,” she said in a comforting voice. “If not, then at the very least - get down!”
Another gun shot rang out and Zuko whirled around. Katara fell forward, grabbing on to his body and shielding as much of him as she could with hers.
He could almost hear June swearing above them as she fired off in retaliation. He didn’t pay any attention to what was happening overhead.
“Katara!” Zuko grabbed on her as he fell backwards, into the tall reeds. He caught her in his arms and held on. “Katara, what....” A cold sweat broke over him as he felt something warm and sticky on her back. He lifted his pale hand and saw the red stain covering his palm and fingers. His eyes grew large and panic swept through. “Katara!”
“It’s just my shoulder,” she said with a pained hiss. “It’s fine. Just stay low and keep going.” She moved his arm off her and pointed ahead of them. “She only has so many bullets before she has to reload, hurry!”
“But your shoulder-”
“My shoulder’s fine, Zuko! Just move!” He was shaking, but tried to turn around and crawl through the reeds to get away. As he reached the first of a set of steps carved into the wall, he turned around. “No....”
Katara wasn’t behind him. He pulled himself up, looking over the reeds. Katara was by the blocked door, punching the third soldier in the face before letting him fall to the ground unconscious. Across from them, towards the wall where Katara found water leaking from, he saw Long Feng stumbling.
“Give me a bottle!’ He yelled. The side of his head was bleeding and Zuko could see a glistening, fresh scrape against the side of his face; the source of the bleeding. He was limping badly.
One guard handed Long Feng an open bottle.
“I won’t drink that if I were you,” June said. Zuko heard a click and looked up. She seemed to have reloaded.
Long Feng shot her a glare. He looked at the glass bottle and frowned. It was muddy, as Katara said it would be. He looked down at his guard. He shoved the bottle in the hand of the one who gave it to him.
“Drink it,” he ordered in a grave voice.
Zuko could see the guard look afraid. He seemed to look to Zuko. Surely, he must’ve figured out there was a reason Zuko refused to drink. Long Feng let out a tired sigh.
“Shoot him,” he said to the other guard. The guard looked take aback by the order and hesitated. Long Feng shot him a glare. “I said shoot him!”
A second later, another gunshot filled the cavern and the first guard was on his knees grabbing his stomach while the one who shot him looked on with horror. Long Feng shoved the glass bottle in front of him once more. “Now drink.”
With shaking, bloody hands, the guard reached up and took the bottle. He brought it to his lips, his face streaked with tears as he drank the cloudy mud-water.
He began choking and dropped the empty glass. He wiped at his face as a few streams trickled down the corner of his mouth as he coughed. Whether it was because it was muddy water or because of whatever effect it had, no one was sure.
The guard hunched over, grabbing his stomach as he tried to breathe. Slowly, his coughing faded and he removed his arms from the wound in his stomach. He stared down at it and moved his hand over the bloody, red spot over his shirt. His shoulders were raising and falling evenly before he grabbed his shirt and began to unbutton it. He pulled it open and wiped the blood still caked on to his stomach.
“Oh my God....” Zuko whispered, his eyes never leaving the guard as the guard shot up and showed Long Feng and the other guard that his wound head healed.
Despite everything they had been through to get to that point, Zuko found he still had his doubts about the spring. It was such a fantastical idea, though there was evidence at his fingertips of its existence.
Long Feng laughed, threw out his arms and looked towards June. “Looks like it works as expected!” The guard handed him a bottle. “Drink up, men!” He said as he lifted the glass. The two guards, beaming from ear to ear that one had somehow cheated death, lifted up additional glasses with murky water and brought it to their mouths in a toast.
Zuko looked towards Katara, who stood in the middle of the field of reeds with a horrified expression. A movement from the corner of his eye caught his attention. The guard that Katara had punched earlier was raising to his feet and in his hands, his rifle. June was right above him, but couldn’t shoot him at her angle. She couldn’t defend Katara.
Zuko stumbled forward, ignoring his shaking legs and his terrified heart slamming against his chest. He reached out to her, screaming her name. “Katara, behind you!”
She turned around and ducked. She disappeared in the waist deep reeds. As the guard lowered his rifle to try to find her, Zuko saw the glimmer of a blade. The guard screamed as the knife Katara had been given for cutting the reeds cut through the air instead and embedded itself in his right eye.
He dropped his rifle, screaming as he grabbed hold of the knife and tore it from his eye. Zuko turned his head away, almost gagging at the sight of the eye mutilated and bleeding down his face.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake,” Long Feng said. Zuko turned back to him and watched as the cut along the side of his head began to heal. Long Feng grabbed another bottle and threw it over at the guard. “Drink up! We have work to do.” He looked at June with a smug look as the guard barely caught the bottle and struggled to open it with one hand. “As you can see, as long as we have the water, your bullets can do nothing but offer us a meager annoyance! You should’ve taken our offer.”
He told his men to continue bottling as the guard who had his eye wounded held a bloody hand over it and shook as it healed.
“Zuko.” He felt a tug on his arm and turned, seeing Katara beside him and holding on to his arm. “Let’s go,” she said.
He gave her a shaking nod and allowed her to push him forward. He couldn’t see the extent of her wound on her shoulder, but the blood had now spread down her sleeve and side of her shirt.
“What are we going to do?” he said, unable to take his eyes off the guard as he removed his hand and revealed a completely regenerated eye. “Impossible....If they leave with that water-”
“They’re not going to leave,” Katara said in a low voice. She kept her eyes on the guards, her back to Zuko as she walked backwards.
He furrowed his brows. “What are you talking about? They’re going to use the explosives to open a hole-”
“Hey!” He heard someone shout and turned around. The two guards who were filling up the bottles were beside each other. The one with the blood still on his shirt was heaving for air. He lifted his hand, clutched his chest and looked to Long Feng in panic.
“What’s going on?” Long Feng said. He narrowed his eyes and suddenly, the second guard began to gasp for air. He lifted his hand to his chest, as well, and fell to his knees. He fell across the glass bottles, eyes wide open with confusion as with one hand still reaching for Long Feng.
The first guard fell on top of him, unmoving.
“There are bodies in the reeds,” Katara said in a low voice. “When I ducked, I felt something and it was a leg of a guard like the one upstairs. Still in his khakis with no wounds. I think he drank the spring water.”
“What’s happening?” Long Feng began to fan himself. He wiped the sweat of fhis brow as he lifted is hand to his chest. “My heart....” His breathing grew shallow and he stumbled back. He looked to the last remaining guard, who was already on his knees choking for air.
“The water heals wounds, but it also adds stress on your body, which your body can’t take,” June said from above. “First you can’t breathe. Then your heart starts beating erratically...just before it stops.”
A moment later, Long Feng’s body lay atop his guards and the cavern was quiet save for the rush of water.
“But what about the one who wasn’t injured?” Katara asked. Above them, June lowered her rifle and let out a heavy, tired breath.
“The water just becomes faster acting with nothing to heal. It’ll immediately start to attack the healthy body from what we’ve seen.”
“But the murals in the earlier chambers,” Zuko said, looking up as June began down the steps, her rifle resting on her shoulder.
“They weren’t sleeping, they were dead.” Katara took a seat on the steps and tilted her head back to rest it against the wall. She hissed as her shoulder touched the wall. “The image of the person getting up wasn’t a mortal; it was their soul. It was probably believed that the water reinstated the body to a youthful, healthy form, which reflected on the soul.”
“And it was the soul that became eternal in the after life....” Zuko said as he knelt down beside Katara to look at her wound.
“I knew you could figure it out, my nephew,” a chuckling voice said from the far end of the cavern. Zuko snapped his head up. He looked at June, who reached Katara’s side, with a look of fear. What if he was hearing things?
June’s stern face cracked a small smile. She nodded and Zuko stood up. He turned and saw a lantern moving closer. Just beneath it was his uncle’s rotund, smiling face.
His voice caught in his throat. “Uncle...?”
“I’m sorry you had to come all this way, Zuko.” Iroh said. He was dressed as he was when they parted; still in his well worn khaki pants and a somewhat stained white shirt. His hat was still on his head, having looked like it survived the ordeal better than his shirt.
“Uncle....” Zuko took a few steps forward as his eyes began to rim with tears. He had hoped and prayed that his uncle was alive. He wanted to believe it so badly and now that Iroh was there, making his way through the field of reeds to get to him, he wasn’t sure if it was a hallucination.
He didn’t care.
Zuko began to run, jumping to through the thick reeds to reach the old man. Iroh held his arms open as Zuko rammed into him, tears streaming down his face. “I’m so sorry, Zuko,” Iroh said as his arms wrapped around his back and squeezed him tight. “You must’ve been so worried.”
“I thought I lost you.” Zuko choked out his words as he curled his fingers into Iroh’s shirt. “No one could find you. Not a trace of your or your camp. I was worried.”
“We were on the move the night we got into the canyon,” another voice said. “All our things were already packed up, so we didn’t leave anything behind.”
Holding the lantern above them was a man with dark hair and a playful smile. Zuko felt his chest burst with relief as Iroh slowly released him. “Lu Ten....”
“Ah, so you do remember I was with Father-” His words were cut off as Zuko grabbed him and pulled him into a strong embrace. Lu Ten’s face softened as he raised his free and and hugged his cousin back. “It’s all right now, Zuzu,” he said, his voice gentle as he closed his eyes and rested his head against Zuko’s the way he used to do when the later was a child, crying to him after his sister pushed him down a hill. “We’re okay....”
Tearfully, Zuko pulled back and wiped at his eyes. “I knew you’d be alive.”
“Yes, you were really convinced of that, I can tell,” Lu Ten said with a chuckle. He looked over Zuko’s shoulder. “And who is your...girlfriend, I believe June said?”
Zuko forgot about that. His face flushed once more and he looked back at Katara, who wasn’t paying attention. June was kneeling behind her, ripping through the back part of her shirt to get a look at the wound.
“Lu Ten and I were in an adjacent cave,” Iroh said. “You can’t see them from here, but down that way, where we came from, there are some tunnels that lead to burial chambers.” He looked saddened. “We had to bury two of our own.”
“Aside from June and ourselves, the rest of the research party didn’t make it,” Lu Ten said in a low voice as his eyes looked downward. “Two were shot when Long Feng’s men turned on us. We couldn’t save them in time.”
“Several of Long Feng’s men managed to get out before the door closed,” Iroh said, leading them towards Katara and June. “They must’ve alerted Long Feng.”
“They didn’t,” Zuko said. “We found the bodies of several guards upstairs, shot to death by each other, it looks like. And Long Feng said that he was waiting for me to appear and lead him straight here. He caught up with us when were in one of the chambers.”
Iroh was frowning. “I shouldn’t have trusted him. He was far too encouraging, insisting on sending his men along with me. I should’ve known.”
“You were desperate to find it, Father,” Lu Ten said. “It’s not your fault. You only wanted to help me.”
Zuko stopped. He turned around and looked at his cousin, realizing that Lu Ten wasn’t limping. In fact, he didn’t even have his crutches. “You’re walking.”
A wide smile crossed his cousin’s face. “You noticed.”
“When...how...?” Zuko looked back towards the wall where water was coming from. “You didn’t drink the water, did you?”
Lu Ten chuckled and shook his head. “I didn’t.”
“We found the cave that led here because of him,” June said. “He fell through a cave and landed on some flowers.”
Katara looked up, sweat at her temples as she grimaced. “He fell through a hole? The one behind some vines that you slide into?”
Zuko closed his eyes and lifted his hand to the bridge of his nose. He had fallen through the same hole as his cousin.
“Then you came through the same way,” Lu Ten said.
“He landed on these white flowers,” Iroh said as he lifted one up. It seemed to have been pressed and he was carrying it in one of his pockets. He knelt beside Katara and looked at her wound. “June, get the mortar and pestle along with my roll of tools. Collect some flowers from the spring. We need to remove the bullet from her shoulder.”
“I’ll go with her,” Lu Ten said, still holding the lantern. “So she can see.” Zuko watched his cousin look at June fondly as she passed him. He raised a brow.
“Is there something special about those flowers?” Katara asked.
“There is,” Iroh said. He showed Katara the small trumpet and twisted off the sepal. “My son fell on top of these and had ripped his pants on the way down. He landed on his injured leg and crushed the flowers. Something in them contains the same healing properties as the water, but doesn’t have the side effect of subsequent death. Lu Ten said his leg felt a bit better and by the second night, he could walk fine. Just rubbing the petals against his skin made for a slower recover than what we saw with Long Feng and his guards, but the nectar...far more potent. It seems the flower regulates the water’s medicinal properties and makes it safe for use.”
Katara grinned. “Poison can be turned into medicine if processed correctly and medicine can be poisonous if taken in excess.”
“Exactly,” Iroh said, looking pleased. “I have not introduced myself, young lady. I am Zuko’s uncle, Iroh Souzin.”
Through her pain, Katara smiled and extended her hand, opposite her wounded shoulder. “I’ve heard many good things about you, Lord Iroh. It’s a pleasure to meet you. My name is Katara.”
“I heard,” Iroh chuckled. He glanced up at Zuko and grinned. “My nephew seems to have yelled it quite a bit.” He looked back at Katara. “I apologize for not coming sooner. Lu Ten and I heard the gun shots and the yelling, but we were unarmed. June seemed to have things under control, however....”
He looked at Katara’s wound and she shook her head. “I’d rather it be my shoulder than Zuko’s back.”
“Don’t say that!” He was kneeling before her, grabbing her hand and squeezing it against his chest. “Why did you jump in front of me?”
“I saw the guard aiming at you,” Katara said. “And didn’t I tell you that part of my job was risking my life for you?”
He looked at he, beseeching. “Please, don’t ever do that again.”
She smirked and looked away. “No promises.”
“By the way,” Iroh said. “You wouldn’t happen to be Katara Kuruk, would you? Pakku’s granddaughter?”
She gave Iroh a weak smile. “That’s me.”
“Ah....” Iroh smiled widely, but Zuko could see some sadness in his eyes. “Your grandfather was a great man and an old friend.”
“Uncle, I wouldn’t have made it here without Katara,” Zuko said. “If anything, you owe her your thanks.”
“I do, I do,” Iroh said. “I always knew you’d get a brilliant girlfriend. Although, I have to say, I am still impressed you managed to get Pakku’s granddaughter.”
“Uncle!” Zuko flushed once more. “We’re not...she’s not....”
“We’re just friends, Lord Iroh,” Katara said, giving Zuko a slight smile. “Right?”
He couldn’t help the look of disappointment and nodded. “Yes...right....”
“All right, I’ve crushed some flowers into a bumpy paste, but it should be enough.” June reached them, still holding a stone mortar in one arm as she crushed whatever was inside. She had a piece of cloth over her shoulder. “Let me see, Katara.”
Katara adjusted herself a bit to give June more area to work. Lu Ten held the lantern above them. Zuko felt Katara squeeze his hand back as she grit her teeth. June wiped off what she could of the blood. Iroh handed her a pair of long, metal tweezers from his unrolled tool kit. Zuko could smell a hint of alcohol, meaning his uncle must’ve wiped them clean for her.
“This is going to hurt, Katara. Please bare with us,” Iroh said.
Katara shut her eyes and nodded. Zuko felt her hands squeeze his once more and this time, he let out a low hiss. “Stay strong, Katara, I can feel the bullet,” June said. Her eyes were narrowed and fixed on the hole. “I’ve almost got it...almost....” Her hand tensed and she pulled out. “Got it!”
A small, round, offending object was dropped on the bloodied towel and June reached into the mortar beside her. She scooped up some pale, green paste from the mortar with her finger tips.
Katara sucked in a sharp breath as June smeared the paste around her wound and patted a little inside.
“How is it?” Zuko asked Katara as he studied her face, twisted in pain.
“It hurts,” she said behind gritted teeth. “How do you think it is?”
He heard Lu Ten muffle a laugh above him and shot him a glare.
“All right,” June said. “The paste will take a bit to work, but you should be fine in an hour or two.”
“That quick?” Katara asked.
“The paste was mainly the lower part of the flower, so we could get as much nectar as possible,” June said. She folded the bloodied towel and wiped away more of Katara’s blood. “Now we just have to figure out how we’re going to get out of here.”
“What about the explosives that they brought?” Lu Ten asked.
“No.” Four other voices gave him a firm answer and he drew his head back.
“We can’t risk an explosion,” Katara said. “The entire cave could come down around us. If not here, than further up the tunnels or in one of the chambers.”
“What about Sokka?” Zuko asked. “Your brother is on the other side.”
“Sokka doesn’t know how to read the glyphs, remember? He won’t know which of the confessions to press to unlock the door,” Katara said. She looked at Iroh. “Have you explored all the connected tunnels and chambers?”
“We have, Iroh said. He frowned as he shook his head. “I’m afraid none of them lead outside.”
“They all lead to burial chambers,” Lu Ten said with a heavy sigh. “On the upside, there is ancient wine and honey in those chambers. On the downside, we’re still trapped.”
Katara took a deep breath. She looked past them and tilted her head towards the off center oculus above them. “I suppose that’s our only way out.”
“That?” Lu Ten turned and looked at the hole high above them. “There’s no way to climb up there.”
Katara began to stand up. “I’d like to take a look for myself, if you don’t mind.”
“Miss Katara,” Lu Ten said. “We’ve been stuck here for...days. We’ve combed this entire cavern and can’t find any way for us to climb up.”
“Mr. Souzin,” Katara said in response. She lifted her chin and gave him a defiant look. “I don’t want to look for a way for you to climb up. I want to find a way for me to do so.”
Iroh laughed. “I see you take after your mother, as well?”
“Since I was a child,” Katara said.
“I’ll take her up there,” June said, motioning towards the ledge where she had been hiding. “Perhaps she can find a pathway.”
“Shouldn’t you rest?” Zuko asked, refusing to let go of her hand. “The paste takes time to work.”
“And we don’t have time to waste,” Katara said. “I suggest if you want to bring home any of those flowers, you start collecting them.”
“Uncle?” Zuko looked at Iroh, who looked around.
“There isn’t much here. We should take what we can of the flowers before we leave,” Iroh said. “We cannot ever return here.”
“What do you mean?” Zuko asked. “We know where it is now and where to find it.”
Iroh shook his head. “The living only go to Duat once, Zuko.”
“My grandfather only came once,” Katara said as she followed behind June. She stopped and looked down at him. “When my grandmother was sick, he tried to find it again and get whatever it was to heal her. He couldn’t return, no matter how much he wanted to and was unable to save Gran-Gran. Duat knows , Zuko. You only die once.”
He watched her climb up the stairs and Lu Ten put a hand on his shoulder. “Zuzu, let’s get as much as we can. At the very least, we can help some people.”
“Can we try to grow the flowers back home?” Zuko asked.
“Even if we could, we don’t have the spring water needed replicate their medicinal properties,” Lu Ten said. “We’ve thought about trying to bring some water with us, but I don’t think it’ll be enough. It could also be the soil or minerals in the rock the water is coming from. There is a good chance the flowers won’t be medicinal at all.”
Zuko looked down. “When I fell into the cave, I saw some of those flowers. They had been plucked out of the ground and were scattered around the bodies of the guards.”
Iroh stopped. He turned to look at Zuko. “Those guards...you said they shot themselves?” Zuko nodded.
“It looked like it. Their rifles were right next to them, some even still had their hands on them. Their bodies were riddled with bullets. The flowers were spread around them.”
Iroh closed his eyes and turned his head away. “Don’t take the flowers.”
“What?” Both Zuko and Lu Ten gave him confused looks.
“Father, what are you talking about? We can still help others-”
“All the flowers we’ve used were ground into a paste or rubbed on as soon as they were plucked. There is a chance that once the flowers dry out enough, they could produce a negative affect, specifically a hallucinogen. It wouldn’t be the first time,” Iroh sahd. “Perhaps it is a way for Duat to keep it’s healing here and a secret from the living. Whatever the reason, I won’t risk bringing it out of here.”
“Then we’re just going to leave all of this?” Zuko asked. “Uncle, what about your research?”
“I was looking for tombs ,” Iroh said. His eyes saddened. “And I have found them. Besides, it is enough that you are both safe.”
“She found a pathway!” June shouted from the ledge. They turned their attention towards the two women. Katara was kneeling past the area where June had been perched, looking at something along the walls.
“And we have a chance of plan,” Iroh said. As Katara and June climbed back down, Iroh informed them of his theory.
Katara nodded. “I understand.”
“You understand?” Zuko asked, drawing his head back. “You’re okay with leaving the flowers behind?”
“Zuko.” Katara cupped his face in her hands and made him look at her. “The living do not belong in the Land of the Dead and the Land of the Dead doesn’t belong with the living.” She spoke slow, as if trying to get him to understand.
He lowered his eyes and crinkled them. “So many people have died for this place.”
“And many more will if we reveal it exists,” Iroh said.
“Remember what we talked about on the boat?” Katara asked. “On the truth and how it sometimes isn’t believable? This is one of those truths.”
He conceded. If he hadn’t lived through it, he wouldn’t believe it, either. Even now, in the field of reeds, just steps from the spring itself, it seemed unreal. No one rational would believe him and for those that did....
He looked at the pile of bodies with Long Feng on top. More really would die.
Zuko nodded and looked up. “So...how are you going to climb up? We don’t have rope or ladder.”
“I have my hands,” Katara said, following his gaze. “And as soon as shoulder is ready, that’ll be enough.”
She was hanging, by only her hands, dangling forty feet in the air. Zuko was torn between covering his eyes, afraid to see her fall to her death, and watch her in morbid fascination as she swung her body and grabbed on to another piece of rock.
“Her mother is Kya Kuruk,” Iroh said. “She was the first woman to summit several mountains and is well known for her ability to ‘free climb’, as she called it. That is, climb without the use of ropes or other tools.”
“I read that her climbing a cliff face in the Rockies were what caught the attention of her husband, the Kuruk scion,” June said. She reached over and patted Zuko on the shoulder. “Good for you, Zuko. You met such an amazing woman.”
“We’re not...ugh...nevermind.” Zuko didn’t feel like arguing about it.
“We Souzin men always luck out with women,” Lu Ten said, as if bragging. June grinned and pinched his chin in her hands.
“Do you now?”
“Yes, we do.” He leaned forward to kiss her and Zuko made a face, turning back to Katara.
She was pulling herself up on to a ledge just below the oculus. As she remained on her stomach and crawled upwards, loose rocks and gravel were moved and kicked down.
“Watch out down there!” she called down.
“She should watch herself....” Zuko grumbled. He was against her climbing up. It was too dangerous. She didn’t have tools in case she fell. She was just shot in the shoulder.
Katara wouldn’t take no for an answer. It had to be done and they all knew it. Zuko only wished he could do more than just stand and watch as the woman who risked her life for him did so again by climbing up a cave wall.
“It’s steep, but not vertical. And there are plenty of footholds,” Katara said. He didn’t care.
“But what if you fall?”
She smiled, cheeky. “Then you just have to catch me, don’t you.”
He lost and she climbed. He’d never seen anyone climb the way she did and wondered how she was going to get them out. A rope? Was she going to toss a rope down to them and pull them out? Did they even have enough rope to do that?
“I’m going to get Sokka and some rope!” Oh, God, she was serious. “I’ll be back soon!”
She waved from the oculus and rushed out.
Iroh wiped his brow and let out a relieved sigh. “I’m glad she made it.”
“I know, now I can breathe,” Lu Ten said. “Did you see her climb? I thought I was going to have a heart attack every time she let go to grab another rock.”
‘Were you scared, Zuko?” June asked. He looked at them as if they’d lost their minds.
“Yes!” Zuko said. “Of course I was! She was hanging by her fingers!” He threw his hands in the air. “I need to sit down....”
They chuckled as he wandered off to crouch against the wall . He didn’t know how long he was there, but was awoken by Lu Ten. He opened his eyes and saw June being lifted over the edge of the oculus, a rope carefully sung around her.
“You’re up next,” Lu Ten said.
Zuko sighed and Katara shouted down the directions on how he was to tie the rope on. Lu Ten helped him and then, he was pulled upwards.
“Watch out for falling rocks,” Katara said. He tried. As he reached the oculus, Katara leaned over the edge and grabbed on to him. June grabbed her waist and helped pull while Sokka continued to use his weight to hold the rope taunt. “Two more!”
Iroh was hoisted upwards next, with all four of them helping pull him up. Both Katara and Zuko grabbed on to him. Lu Ten was dragged out last and he hugged both Katara and Zuko as soon as he was safe on the ground.
“How’d you make it out?” he asked Sokka as they were introduced.
“Katara gave me a knife, so I as able to cut my bindings. Back tracking was easily. The hard part was climbing up that spiral corridor. It was still wet. Katara, where you the one who tied the rope on the snake head?”
“Yes, did you use it?”
“I wouldn’t have been able to get up without it.”
Katara elbowed Zuko, as if to say ‘I told you’. He rolled his eyes and they walked back to where Sokka had left their things by the long gone fire they left him to.
“How long until the sun rises?” Katara asked.
Zuko reached in his pocket to look at his watch. “Maybe another hour before dawn breaks?”
Katara and Sokka looked at each other and nodded. Sokka began to collect their things. “Let's get to the front of the canyon. We left our horses there with your camels. If we don’t get out before sunrise, the way out will disappear.”
“This place keeps getting stranger and stranger,” Lu Ten said as he and June helped Sokka with the things.
They walked, as quickly as they could, towards the snake gates. As they prepared the horses and camels, Iroh stood before the gates to take in the sight one last time.
“Uncle,” Zuko said. “Your camel is ready. Let’s go.”
Iroh took a deep breath and then slowly nodded. He stepped back and turned away from the Gates of Duat.
“You know, Zuko, I think I may have reached my limit for such expeditions.”
“There is only so much excitement that an old man can take,” Iroh said. “Perhaps it’s time to retire. Perhaps get a nice position at a university or museum.”
Zuko smiled a bit. “Don’t you think that will be too boring for you after all this?”
“Boring, perhaps, but relaxing...much more so.” Iroh beamed a smile. He climbed on to the saddle of a camel and took the reins from Zuko. He gave a command and the camel began to rise to its feet.
Zuko mounted his own horse and looked ahead of him. Sokka was leading Lu Ten and June, as well as the pack animals up the canyon, to the break in a canyon wall that would lead them back on to the dunes.
“Lord Iroh, are you ready?” Katara asked as she trotted beside them on her horse.
“I can’t thank you enough, Miss Kuruk.”
“No thanks are necessary, sir. Let’s just get you home safe.” He gave her a warm smile and nudged his camel forward. Katara motioned her head for Zuko to follow and then came up behind him.
“Another two days to to the town or so, right?” he asked.
“Yes, but if my letter got to Cairo, we should have a train waiting for us when we get to Luxor,” Katara said.
“Is that what you sent for with the nomads?”
“The tickets for the train to go upriver were sold out when we were leaving, so we had to make due with the boat. Besides, this time, we don’t have to bring the animals.”
“Don’t you think we should give them to the nomads who helped us get back our horses?” Katara asked. Zuko sighed .
“I suppose we didn’t do enough to thank them the first time.”
“What would you do with them in Cairo, anyway?” she said. “You won’t be there for long. You need to go back with your uncle.”
Zuko shifted in his seat. “What about you?” he asked. “Where are you going to go when we get back to Cairo?”
He and Katara emerged from the canyon and the cool breeze of the desert, something he didn’t realize was missing in the still canyon, swept over him. He looked at Katara as her hair flew around her with the breeze.
She was looking straight ahead. “I have some business to attend to.”
“And after that?”
She shrugged. “I’m sure I have some work waiting for me. It’s the life of an adventurer, you know.”
Zuko nodded. He swallowed the lump in his throat and wrapped the reins in his hands as he tried to quell the nervousness in the pit of his stomach. He looked back at her as she stared out into the horizon; the faint lines of dawn starting to appear.
“Katara,” he said. It was no or never. “Would you like to come with me?”
With Luxor in the distance, Zuko could almost feel the end of the journey at hand.
Everyone was tired and Lu Ten was proclaiming his need for a property wash tub with hot water and soap. Katara said she’d arrange for them to stay at a hotel when they arrived and just hoped they could find one that wasn’t fully booked.
They didn’t have to worry.
Just as they reached the edge of town, an energetic young woman in the quintessential adventure costume rushed out to meet them from beneath an awning of a run down cafe..
“Miss Kuruk!” the woman said. Zuko looked surprised; they had a similar accent.
“Yes, are you from the society?” Katara asked. He looked over at her. What society? Was that another contact she was talking about.
The gray-eyed young woman nodded, enthusiastic. “Yes, I was told that if you entered through this point to have you go to the Grand Luxor. Rooms have been prepared for you there, just to let them know who you are.”
Katara let out a low breath and nodded, relieved. “That’s perfect. It saves us the trouble. Thank you.”
“If you don’t mind waiting in the lobby, the Vice President will come as soon as I fetch her.”
“The Vice President?” Katara tilted her head to the side. Several valets seemed to appear from the cafe where the perky woman had been waiting to lead them into town. “I thought she’d meet us in Cairo.”
“She came down as soon as she received the message,” the woman said. She gave Katara a small bow of her head. “If you’ll excuse me, I must send word that you’ve arrived.”
“All right....” They watched her rush around the street and Zuko came up behind Katara.
“Everything okay?” he asked, noticing her tight lipped frown. She gave him one slow nod and turned her head away from the street.
“I just didn’t expect to be met here,” she said in a low voice. She reached over and patted Zuko’s shoulder. “Never mind that. Let’s just get to the hotel. I’m sure there is actual food there, too.”
He cracked a small smile and allowed the local valets to lead them deeper into the town. They arrived at one of the largest buildings in the city: the Grand Luxor. It was a multi-storied building built by a wealthy Frenchmen with an interest in the nearby Valley of the Kings. It took up nearly half a block and was the most luxurious, and expensive, hotel in the surrounding area.
“Finally,” Sokka said as they walked through the ornate double doors and into the marble floor of a lobby. “Something I’m used to.”
“Sokka, can you help everyone check in?” Katara said as she stopped just past the doors. “I need to wait for the vice.”
“Sure thing.” He gave his sister a little salute and ushered everyone to the check in counter. Zuko kept glancing back at Katara, wondering who she was waiting for. She seemed to look out the glass doors and fidget in place. He’d never seen her unsettled in such a way before, even after he asked her if she’d like to return with him.
Although, it didn’t seem to be understood that way.
“Sure, where do you want to go?” Katara had replied casually, as if he were asking for a favor.
That was not the answer he was hoping for or even considered getting. He stared at her as they brought up the end of their little caravan. Katara reached back to tie her hair and he let his jaw drop. Wait...did she not understand what he was asking?
“You need to go somewhere when we reach Cairo, right?” she said as she braided her hair. Zuko blinked. She didn’t understand at all, but he was too surprised to be disappointed. “If you need a hand, I can go with you. There is still a matter of payment, after all.”
He forgot about that. In between the decoding ancient texts and the gun fight, he forgot that he had hired Katara and her brother as guides. He hadn’t paid them at single pound yet they led him into the desert, fed him, and saved his life more than once. Sokka said they would do all they can to help him and they did.
Even knowing that, he couldn’t rid himself of the unnerving feeling in the pit of his stomach as the question echoed in his mind: was she only acting out as his guide? Nothing more? How could he believe that after everything?
Still, he couldn’t bring himself to ask. He’d be humiliated if he were the only one feeling such a thing even though there were moments, back in the cave, that he thought it was mutual. Perhaps it was just the tension of the moment that influenced their words and her kiss.
Zuko had nodded and turned his head away.
“Right. By now the funds I’ve requested should’ve arrived. I’ll absolutely pay you in full of course.”
Katara grinned. “I wouldn’t expect anything less,” she said. “Despite Long Feng and the raiders, I think it was a success.”
“Of course it was; we got my uncle and cousin back,” Zuko said. He was trying hard to focus on something other than the dull pain in his chest. “If I had more to pay you, I would.”
She laughed and shook her head. “Just the agreed amount is enough, Zuko. After all, I did get to meet Lord Iroh and I’m hoping for a chance to talk to him about his previous excavations before we reach Luxor.”
He forced a smile on his face. “He’ll talk your ear off, just a warning.”
Katara laughed once more and gently kicked the side of her horse to get her to quicken her speed. “Lord Iroh!” she said as she trotted up to his uncle’s camel. “A moment of your time?”
Camp the last two nights had been filled with conversations on various dig sites, funny excavation stories, and various theories on aspects of a variety of civilizations. Sokka and Lu Ten had kept more to themselves, not really as interested in archeology as Katara, Iroh, and June.
Zuko wandered from conversation to conversation. Sometimes, he, Sokka, and Lu Ten exchanged stories about the war: where they were stationed, where they saw battle, even discussing the equipment and technology available to either side.
When Sokka spoke of the engines, machinery, and tools, he was in his element. Zuko could see that was what Katara meant by ‘he should be building planes’. The man knew what he was talking about and while he didn’t understand all of it, it was fascinating to hear about. Surely, Sokka belonged at Kuruk Industries developing new things.
When Lu Ten said so, Sokka merely laughed and lifted a hand to rub the back of his neck. “But then who’d stay with Katara?”
“From what I can see, Katara can take care of herself,” Lu Ten said. “She has quite an illustrious background for this sort of thing.”
“I know,” Sokka said, his smile faltering just a bit. “But she’s my little sister, you know.”
“Well, does she plan to live the rest of her life this way?” Lu Ten asked. “It’s quite dangerous from what I’ve seen. Even without the rock climbing and manipulative security officers, the terrain is often difficult and one wrong move and you could be falling through a hole onto an ancient city. It’s stressful enough just getting the funding and permits together.”
“I don’t know.” Sokka looked thoughtful and he leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “This is the life she’s always known, since she was little. She didn’t do tea parties and dances. She’s an adventurer. An explorer. She wouldn’t give that life up and as long as she wants it, I wouldn’t want her to.”
Zuko doubted she would give it up for him and he was glad that she misinterpreted his question when they left the canyon. How could he ask her to leave the life she knew and enjoyed for him? He was in no place to do so.
“Zuko.” Iroh’s voice broke through his thoughts and he turned around. His uncle was standing by the counter, smiling. “It’s your turn.”
“Right, sorry!” He rushed forward to give his name as beside him, June and Lu Ten were getting their keys.
Lu Ten turned around, telling June that as soon as they drop off their bags, they should eat, when he stopped. His eyes went wide as he looked past the lobby. “Impossible....”
The man behind the counter was arranging paperwork and fetching his key. Zuko turned around to see what caught his cousin’s attention and froze. A car had pulled up to front of the hotel and the doormen opened the door for a tall, slender woman in shining black boots and a signature red blouse.
“Azula!” Lu Ten called from where he was and Zuko watched his sister lift her hand and remove her sunglasses. Behind her, the woman who had met them at the edge of town carried a briefcase and went to stand beside Katara.
“Hello, cousin! I heard you had quite a time in the desert.” Azula Souzin smirked, looking both pleased and smug at the same time. She looked over at Katara and gave her a nod, to which Katara returned. Azula turned her attention back to Lu Ten as she approached him. Their cousin was grinning from ear to ear and held out his arms to embrace her. Azula tried not to look too disgusted, but still wrinkled her nose as she hugged him. “It seems your clothes had quite a time, as well.”
“Oh, Azula,” Lu Ten said, giving her an affectionate kiss on the side of her head. He stepped back and motioned to the woman next to him. “This is Dr. June Nassar. Father’s assistant head researcher.”
“Dr. Nassar, a pleasure to meet you,” Azula said, shaking the woman’s hand. “I’ve read your recent article in the Journal of Anthropology. Absolutely fascinating.”
“Thank you, Miss Souzin.”
“Is that Azula?” Iroh got his keep and beamed as he saw her. “What are you doing all the way out here?”
“I received word of your disappearance from a friend and immediately came,” Azula said. “I just arrived this morning.”
“Then have you had a chance to rest?” Iroh asked, giving her an embrace of his own.
“I had enough rest waiting for you to arrive.” Azula crossed her arms over her chest. “Honestly, Uncle, Lu Ten...you gave me quite a fright. I was only at ease when I heard Zuzu managed to hire Katara. I knew she’d get you back safely.”
“You know who Katara is?” Zuko held the hotel room keep in his hand as he walked towards his sister. They didn’t embrace; it wasn’t something they did. Instead, they locked eyes and gave each other subtle nods to acknowledge the other’s presence.
“Of course I know Katara,” Azula said, as if it were obvious. “She’s the President of the Women’s Exploration Society, of which I’m the Vice President.”
June looked surprised. “That’s quite an impressive feat to get into the society.”
Azula looked proud. “I know.”
“Wait a second, Azula. Since when were you an explorer?” Zuko said, frowning.
“Since I roomed with Katara at university, Zuzu. Honestly, keep up. It’s because you never listen to me when I’m telling you things.” She sounded irritated “All those summers I didn’t return, I was able to join Katara and Dr. North in South America and Asia.”
“She sent all those postcards,” Lu Ten said. He sighed and looked at her with a tired expression. “Azula, did you not send any to Zuko?”
“It may have slipped my mind.”
“Of course it did,” Lu Ten said. He put an arm around June’s shoulder. “We’ve been traveling all day and I think you’ll agree, we are all in need of a bath. Can we catch up at dinner?”
“I’ve made reservations at the restaurant across the street for eight,” Azula said. “Don’t fall asleep and forget.”
“I won’t, I won’t,” Lu Ten gave her a dismissing wave of his hand and Iroh told her to send someone to his room in case he fell asleep.
Zuko remained standing across from her and Azula raised a brow. “Well? Aren’t you going to go up and rest, too?”
“I still can’t believe that you know Katara,” Zuko said.
Azula took a deep breath. “You can pretend I don’t all you want, but it’s true.”
“Why didn’t you ever tell me you were an explorer?”
“There are many things I don’t tell you, Zuzu. However, if you must know, Father doesn’t exactly approve of me galavanting all over the world, even if I do mainly funding and just visit particular sites and places to see the results of such funding. I don’t want to worry him or Mother,” Azula said. She looked past him and lifted her chin. “Are you done?”
“I’m all checked in.” He turned around and saw Katara walking towards him, key in hand. She gave him a nod. “Zuko, if you don’t mind. I have some business with your sister.”
He looked from her to Azula and back and gave her a small nod. “I’ll see you at dinner then.”
She nodded and he turned around and headed to the stairs.
Someone was knocking on his door and he looked up from his bed. The room was dark and at once, Zuko sat up. His eyes went wide and he reached for his pocket watch on the nightstand next to his bed.
“Zuko.” Azula sounded more annoyed than usual. “I need to speak to you.”
He turned on the light and saw the time. Wonderful. He missed dinner. He groaned and pushed himself up. He trudged to the door and opened it. “I’m sorry, I didn’t realize I was this tired-”
Azula pushed her way into his room and shoved a large envelope in his hands. “The twenty thousand you asked for.”
“Already?” Zuko asked. “I was supposed to get it in Cairo.”
“Well, now you have it,” Azula said. “Katara needs to leave, so I’ve arranged for her to meet you downstairs to pay her.”
Zuko lifted one hand and scratched the back of his head. He yawned. “Can’t I give it to her in the morning?”
“She won’t be here in the morning,” Azula said, opening up his bag. “God, have you nothing decent to wear?”
“Azula, what are you doing?” He crossed the room and tried to swat her away from his bag. “And what do you mean Katara won’t be here in the morning? Aren’t we all taking the train tomorrow afternoon?”
HIs sister turned to face him with a frown across her red lips. “Katara is leaving tonight.”
He drew his head back. “What? Why?”
“Don’t ask me that,” Azula said. She looked him up and down and sneered at his wrinkled dress shirt and slacks. “Ugh...that’ll have to do. Not a moment to lose.” She opened his door and motioned for him to leave.
Zuko was still confused. “I don’t understand. Wasn’t she going with us back to Cairo?”
“Katara is a busy woman,” Azula said. “Put on your shoes and go meet her before she’s gone, dum-dum!”
He’d figure it out later, he told himself. Still half asleep, he put on the still dust covered boots he had worn in and walked out the door. He held the envelope against him as he climbed down the stairs, wondering why Katara was leaving. As the thought settled in, his footsteps grew faster and faster, until he was flying down the stairs to get to her.
He reached the second floor and headed to the set of stairs leading down and overlooking the lobby. He wasn’t halfway down when he saw her standing near the door. His mouth was agape as he slowed to a stop.
In the desert, he thought she was captivating: her bright eyes, her wild hair, and her smile. It seemed that she was captivating, too, in a blue dress and dark hat, with her hair tamed and in a neat bun at the base of her neck. Her dust covered boots were gone in favor of shiny black ones that laced up, just below her knees.
She was talking to Sokka, who looked refreshed and wore neatly pressed clothes. His tan, wide-brim hat matched the color of his belt and shoes as he carried out a bag for Katara to an awaiting car outside.
She turned her head to the side, looking over the lobby before following the stairs and finding him standing there. She lifted her hand to let him know that she was there - as if he wasn’t staring at her as if she were some otherworldly creature he was seeing for the first time.
He shook himself out of his stupor and quickly came down the rest of the stairs.
“Zuko.” Katara was crossing the lobby to meet him. “I’m sorry to have to bother you. I know you were sleeping.”
“No, no, it’s fine....” He looked at her with admiration. “Did you have dinner?”
“Yes, with the others. We were worried you didn’t show up, but Azula said you were probably sleeping.”
He told himself it was only for a few minutes, but of course, it wasn’t. “I’m kicking myself for not joining you,” he said. “You look...amazing, by the way. Is that a new hat?” He screamed internally. Is that a new hat?
She looked surprised ad lifted her hand to touch the brim. “Yes, do you like it?”
“It looks great on you,” he said. He shook his head and tried to refocus. “Azula came to get me. You’re leaving?”
“It’s urgent, from the society,” Katara said. She almost looked disappointed. “I’m needed back at a site in South America.”
So she really wouldn’t be joining them in Cairo. His heart sank. “Oh...of course. You’re a busy woman....” Just as Azula told him. He looked down at his hands and presented her with the envelope. He forced another smile on his face. Katara was going off to do something she loved; this was a good thing, even if this would be the last time they’d meet. “Twenty thousand.”
Katara looked down at the envelope for a moment. She put a hand on it and gently pushed it back against him. “Garden House School.” She gave him a smile. “When you get to Cairo, donate the money there. It teaches poor and orphaned children to read, as well as provides meals.”
Zuko drew his head back. “But this is your payment.”
“And Sokka and I don’t need it,” Katara said, keeping her hand on the envelope to stop him from pushing it back to her. She chuckled a bit. “We’re heirs, remember?”
Zuko pursed his lips. “Then, I’ll donate it.”
“No, thank you.” He extended a hand and Katara took it. Instead of shaking it, he brought it up to his lips and kissed the back of her hand. He kept his eyes down as he held it. “I owe you my life, as well as those of my cousin and uncle.”
He released her hand and stepped back. He gave her a small nod and turned around.
“I’m sorry I can’t come with you.” He stopped before taking a step forward.
He lifted a hand to shrug off her concern. “It’s fine, Katara.” He hoped his voice was light. “I don’t need help getting around in Cairo.”
“I wasn’t talking about Cairo.” His heart began to quicken. Without a word, he turned around to face her. Katara shifted in place, her eyes crinkled up as the earlier smile on her face vanished. “You’re kind,” she said, meeting his eyes. “And loyal and intelligent and passionate. Anyone would be lucky to go with you...and I’m sorry I can’t.”
Zuko lowered his eyes and drew his lips inwards. He could feel the sharp pain on the bridge of his nose as he tried to keep himself from tears. “I won’t keep you,” he said after taking a long, deep breath. He lifted his head and tried to give her an encouraging smile. “I won’t try to, that wouldn’t be fair. I know you love your work. I know you’re needed elsewhere. I wouldn’t dare take that away from you. I’m not so stupid as to not realize that.”
Her eyes clouded over. “Even if I love something else?”
He grit his teeth. This was hard enough. “Please don’t say it....”
Katara moved forward and raised her arms, wrapping them around his shoulders to bring him down to kiss her. Zuko grabbed on to her, his arms tight around her waist as he kissed her back, fervent and desperate. He could hear a muffled cry against his lips as her hands clung into him, refusing to let go.
He would later wonder how one kiss could hurt so much.
Katara drew her head back and met his eyes with her wet ones.
“I told you to survive and you did,” she said as she drew her tear streaked face away. “But I can’t keep my end of the bargain.”
“It was a maybe, if I remember correctly.” His thumbs wiped the corners of her eyes as he looked down at her. “I’m just lucky to have met you.”
Katara nodded, sniffling back her tears as she let her arms drop from his sides and took a step back. “I need to go,” she said. “The train....”
“Yeah,” Zuko said. He remained in place as she took another step away. “Have a safe journey.”
Katara nodded and turned away. Sokka was waiting for her by the door and handed her a small, folded up handkerchief. “Are you all right?”
“I will be.” Zuko heard Katara say as Sokka held the door open for her. Sokka looked back at him and gave him a small nod. Zuko returned it.
“It’s never easier than you hope,” Sokka told his sister. He put a hand on her back. “Let’s go.”
Six Years Later
“Those are your final grades, class. Over all, I think you did marvelously.” Zuko closed his book and looked out at his small lecture hall of students. He adjusted the glasses on the bridge of his nose and smiled. “You’re free to go.”
All at once, the rustling and chatter of students gathering their things and preparing to leave class for the final time that school year filled the room. Zuko gathered his things. Like his students, he had to leave as well. His summer was booked.
“See you next year, Professor Souzin.” Some of his students bid him good-bye as he walked past them, leather case under an arm as he headed to his modest little office at the very back of the department’s building.
He greeted a few more students on his way, wishing them a good summer, before he reached the wooden door with his name written out in gold and black. He paused as he put his hand on the worn brass handle and chuckled to himself.
‘Dr. Zuko Souzin, Archeology’ had a much better look to it than ‘Janitor’.
He opened his door and looked around his narrow office. Although, the size was about the same as that fateful back room back in Cairo. He squeezed himself around his desk to gather a few more belongings before he vacated for the next few months.
A few more books in his bag, a picture of his family, his good fountain pen that his father gave him when he got the position at the university. Ozai was pleased and tried to tell him that teaching was just as exciting as trudging through the jungles or exploring ancient tunnels. It had it’s moments, but Zuko could hardly consider them the same.
He began to open the drawers of his old wooden desk to make sure he didn’t leave anything important. He pulled out the top drawer and stopped. There was a worn wooden cigar box within, though it never once held cigars. Rather, it was a souvenir sent from the Caribbean and he was using it to hold even more precious treasures.
Zuko sat down on a creaking leather chair and brought the box on to the desk. He lifted the lid and looked down at the collection of worn, yellowed papers and cards.
Katara wrote to him often.
Sometimes, she would send long letters that were multiple pages long that included portions that read like a report on some excavation. Other times, she sent postcards she deemed ‘interesting’. At the end, it was always the same.
“Wish you were here - K”
He wished he was, even when the letters were stained with mud and water spots, months old, and retelling of a recent hurricane. Wherever they came from, he wished he was there, if only to be with her.
He tried to write, of course, but unlike him, she wasn’t stationary for long. By the time he’d received word from her, she would often already be elsewhere. It made it difficult to tell her that he missed her, too. He also tried to keep her up to date on his life, not wanting to seem boring compared to her amazing adventures.
The letter writing went on for some time, with each letter bringing weeks of joy.
Then, they stopped four years ago.
Zuko closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He released it slowly and closed the lid of the cigar box before slipping it into his bag.
He had a train to catch and was meeting his parents at the station.
With his bag now slung over his shoulder, he scurried out of the department hall and to the adjacent street. He saw a car waiting for him.
“Professor, your bags are already here. Master Souzin awaits you at the station,” the black-clad driver said as he held the door open.
“Thank you. Take us there at once.” Zuko slipped into the back seat, clutching his bag against him as the car started and drove away from the bustling university. He looked out the window, watching the familiar scenery of his day to day life while school was in session pass.
It wasn’t exciting...not the way he thought of excitement, anyway. But, this was the path he chose.
His father and mother would be going back to the family’s country estate for the season. There, they’d spend time with his uncle and Lu Ten’s family. June just had their second child a few weeks earlier. The first born was a boy who was starting to act out for attention.
Azula was visiting from London and had said “reminds me of my older brother, too”.
He was glad he didn’t take that job in London, knowing she lived there. He lived in a nice town house not far from the university, making his commute an easy one. It was filled with books, maps, and more. He had built a wonderful life and home for himself and his family.....
Though it did have it’s boring moments. He longed for that adventure that Katara brought more often than he thought he would.
“Professor, we’ve arrived.” The driver pulled up to the station. He parked and rushed to get the door and Zuko’s things.
“Thank you,” Zuko said as the door shut behind him. He looked down and fixed the cuffs of his jacket as the driver fetched his bags. He place them beside Zuko.
“Have a good trip, sir.”
“Thank you, again.” Zuko gave him a nod and reached down to pick up his bags.
A pair of brown hands with a gold band on one finger snatched the leather handles before he could touch them. “Allow me, Professor .”
He snapped his head up and saw a brilliant smile and sparkling blue eyes looking at him playfully. He sucked in a sharp breath and let his mouth drop. Katara brought his bag to her side.
“What are you doing here?”
“What do you think I’m doing here?” she asked. “I’m here to get you.” She raised a brow and motioned her head towards the train.
“I thought you were going to meet me in London.”
Katara tilted her head back and sighed. “I leave you one time and you hold it against me the rest of our lives.”
He held back a laugh and moved alongside her, placing his arm around his wife’s waist. “You’re the one who left me in tears in a hotel lobby. It was traumatic.”
He leaned down, catching her eyes. She smiled and leaned upwards to meet his lips.
Four years ago, the letters and postcards from exotic locales came to a halt because she came to him instead. Katara attended Lu Ten and June’s wedding and told him that she had accepted work not too far away.
“I see you survived,” she said, looking almost smug in her pastel blue dress at the wedding. Zuko nearly choked on his wine upon the sight of her. His cousins had kept it a secret that she was coming and Azula didn’t tell him because she thought it would be funny.
Katara then spent a few months working at a dig site in Scotland, allowing them time to see each other. Scotland was a great deal closer than the rainforests of Peru. When she was called away for assistance at another site, he ended up tagging along until he got his position at the university.
Her previous accomplice, her brother, returned home after several weeks of arguing. Zuko was glad, though the initial animosity between the siblings regarding the split wore at Katara. Eventually, things were settled and Sokka begrudgingly accepted that she didn’t need him to go with her because of his own guilt.
Zuko wondered if he’d ever fully accept that their grandfather’s death was something he couldn’t have stopped. Katara did make a habit of letting her brother know where she was, as if to ease his mind. Usually, it was somewhere on the islands, but during the summers, they would go off to wherever she was called. They only didn’t go one year because traveling to remote regions was difficult for some conditions.
“Mamma!” A small, squirming little girl was trying to escape the arms of her stern-faced grandfather. “Daddy!”
“Ah...there’s my little princess.” Zuko held out his arms as he knelt down and welcomed his toddler daughter into his arms.
“And here she was, so excited to go see her cousin,” Ursa sighed as she watched them. Zuko stood up, carrying his daughter in his arms as he reached his awaiting parents.
“She’s still excited,” Katara said. “She’s just going to miss us.”
“Next time, Kanna goes, too!” their daughter said, pouting just a bit.
“We’ll see,” Katara said, reaching forward to stroke her hair back. Zuko rocked his daughter in his arms.
“Where were you going again?” Ozai asked, eyeing his granddaughter. He was a surprisingly doting grandfather and had to be restrained from showering Kanna with anything she asked for.
“It’s a small island off the coast of Greece,” Katara said. “I left all our information with Uncle Iroh and Azula. Don’t hesitate to contact us if you need anything.”
“All right, Kanna,” Zuko said. He gave her one more squeeze and kissed the side of her head. “Your train’s about to leave. Go on with Grandpa and Grandma.”
“Be good, yes?” Katara said, meeting their daughter’s eyes. “And be nice to your new cousin.”
Kanna nodded and held her arms out for one of her grandparents to take her. Before Ursa could take her, despite being closer, Ozai stepped in and plucked his dark-haired, blue eyed granddaughter from Zuko’s arms.
The train whistle sounded once more. “We need to go. Be safe, darlings.” Ursa gave Zuko a tight hug before moving on to Katara. “Don’t overwork yourselves.”
“We won’t.” Zuko put his arm back around Katara’s waist as they watched his parents and their daughter board the train. Another whistle sounded and steam flooded the platform. The train began to lumber along and the two parents stood on the platform, watching it until it disappeared.
“No matter how many times we leave, it never gets easier to stay good-bye to her,” Katara said, wistful.
Zuko gave her a gentle squeeze and kissed the top of her head. “I doubt it ever will. Come on. We have a train to catch and then a boat.” Katara handed him his bag and took his hand. “By the way, you never did give me the details for the excavation. What did they need? Translation? Artifact recovery?”
“A little bit of both,” Katara said. She glanced over at him and smirked. “Tell me...what do you know about labyrinths?”
I'm cutting it close...mainly because I spent today slacking off and not writing, as well as momentarily forgetting that Zutara Week had a Day 7 while I was off Pokemon hunting, like the responsible adult I am. The point is, I finished within the designated amount of time.
Sure, the story doesn't make sense, but whatever, I had fun writing it and imaging them in some of my favorite action/adventure scenes. :)
Happy Zutara Week!