CAUSE SOME TROUBLE
AN AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER FANFICTION
ADVENTURE/ROMANCE, EARTH KING KUEI/OC
A slender woman with hawk-like features stepped forward. She looked to be in her forties or fifties, perhaps, and moved with an unmistakable air of strength and authority. She had a smooth, stalking gait like a tigerdillo. But when she spoke, her voice was surprisingly soft and lilting.
"Zafirah and Basam of the Janan Tribe," she remarked. "It certainly has been a while, hasn't it?" She then lifted her hands to them and proclaimed, "We welcome you, friends born of our sister tribe. May you find peace and shelter within our caravan."
Kuei recognized the intonation of ritual speech. He'd heard it often enough in the Royal Court. Bosco huddled behind him as he watched the scene unfolding before him; the bear whined quietly and Kuei anxiously thought of the gash on his pet's shoulder. Zafirah and Basam echoed the movement and bowed their heads as they lifted their own hands.
"We thank you, chieftain of our sister tribe," said Basam. "May the Spirits bless our reunion."
With the ritual greeting done, Zafirah sighed heavily, her shoulders slumping. "Qamar, we got some bad news. Really bad," she said grimly.
"The Fire Nation attacked the Misty Palms Oasis a few days ago. Every last one of our kin at the Oasis got rounded up and hauled off. The Fire Nation's got these flying machines now, we were completely outmatched," Basam explained.
"And it gets worse, too. They're comin' back for more," Zafirah added. "The commander in charge of the attack, he said they'll be returning soon to capture the rest of us."
"Spirits and ancestors," Qamar breathed, paling in horror. "If they have the power to travel through the skies now, then none of us are safe anymore."
"Exactly," Zafirah agreed bitterly. "They can go as far into the desert as they want, and they're in the market for more slaves. Sounds like they mean to take as many as they can."
Qamar nodded slowly as she processed this, and then she noticed Kuei and turned to him with a scrutinizing stare. "And who is the outsider you've brought here?" she asked, wariness etched into her weathered face.
"This is Kuei of Ba Sing Se," Zafirah told her. "He's not a threat to us, he's on our side. He did what he could to help us fight off the Fire Nation that night, and he helped us cross the Spirits' Furnace." Here she hesitated, and Kuei saw her eyes dart sideways towards him. "I owe him my life."
This got another reaction from the crowd. Several of the Sandbenders murmured amongst themselves as they eyed Kuei. They weren't the only ones surprised—surely Zafirah was referring to the Fire Nation soldier that'd tried to ambush her at the Oasis. She had mentioned that she hadn't seen the attack coming. Did she really see herself as being indebted to him? That certainly hadn't been his intention!
Still, she'd referred to him as being on their side— did that mean she was coming to trust him now? Of course, their agreement had been that he would leave the desert once they'd found another Sandbender tribe to warn; they'd accomplished that goal, so he would surely be parting ways with them soon. If she was having a change of heart, it would only matter in hindsight now. He felt a slight pang at the realization.
Qamar nodded, apparently satisfied with this explanation. "All right, then. We welcome you, Kuei of Ba Sing Se, ally of the Janan Tribe."
"I thank you, Qamar of the Aqila Tribe," Kuei replied, bowing deeply. If there was one thing Kuei understood, it was courtly rituals. Qamar nodded in satisfaction, then motioned for Zafirah and Basam to join her a few paces away. As they walked past Kuei to go to her, Zafirah lightly rapped his shoulder with her knuckles. He jumped slightly at the unexpected contact.
"We can probably salvage some of the supplies from our sailer. Mind doing a little digging while we talk to Qamar?" she asked.
"Oh— that's a good idea!" Kuei remarked. "Of course."
"You can probably round up some of these guys to help," she added, jerking her thumb towards the Aqila tribespeople. Kuei nodded and she left, patting him once on the shoulder as she went.
As the two siblings went to talk with Qamar, Kuei hoped that they'd be on their way soon. The cut on Bosco's shoulder wasn't too terribly deep, but it was still worrisome. He wanted to get some medicine on it sooner rather than later. He bent down and scratched behind Bosco's ear reassuringly. Then he turned to the rest of the Sandbenders, about twenty in total, and found all of them staring right at him. He froze and stared back, suddenly at a loss for words. They were all watching him expectantly and he flushed slightly under their focused attention.
"Uh… if I might ask a favor of you," he ventured. "We had quite a lot of supplies on our sailer, and some of them might still be salvageable…" He turned hastily to look for the sailer, or whatever was left of it. A few of the Sandbenders edged closer while he searched for it, as if he were a wild animal to be approached with utmost caution.
Oh… there it is, he realized. The upended wreck sat half-buried in sand some distance away— it was, in fact, well beyond where they'd hidden. The entire wreck had tumbled several yards past Si Wong Rock. Kuei gaped at the tangled wreckage, stunned, and extremely grateful that none of them had ended up over there with it.
"W-well, um… if any of you would care to accompany me…" he asked, laughing half-heartedly. He turned and started to make his way across the sand, and five of the Sandbenders filed after him. One of them, a young man, hurried to catch up to him.
"You're really from Ba Sing Se?" he asked.
"Yes, that's right," Kuei said, mustering a smile in spite of his sudden nerves.
"I heard the Fire Nation took over the whole place, did that actually happen?" the Sandbender asked, sounding more curious than worried.
"I'm afraid it's true," Kuei told him, swallowing down a stab of guilt.
"How did you get out of there?" the boy asked again.
"Luck?" Kuei tried, sweating uncomfortably.
"I heard that the Earth King fled the city, did that happen too?" the boy pushed. Kuei's step faltered, his mouth suddenly going dry. His stomach churned; had word really spread so fast? But before Kuei could even try to respond, a young woman grabbed the boy's arm and pushed him aside.
"C'mon, knock it off! Don't be rude," she chided. She whirled around, tugged down the cloth covering her nose and mouth, and beamed up at Kuei; she was quite short, the top of her head not even reaching his shoulder. "Sorry about that! I bet you probably don't wanna talk about that stuff."
"It is a rather sore subject," Kuei agreed, clearing his throat uncomfortably. She was right, but for all the wrong reasons. Still beaming sweetly, she sidled closer.
"So, your name is Kuei, right?" she asked. "I'm Amaris!"
"It's nice to meet you," he said, smiling back at her.
"What's that beastie you got over there? He's so fluffy!" Amaris said, peeking at Bosco over her shoulder.
"Oh, that's Bosco! He's a bear. He came with me from Ba Sing Se," Kuei told her.
"A bear, huh? I've never heard of any animal like that before," she commented.
"Bosco is quite uncommon," he said proudly. But his smile faltered as he remembered the wound on Bosco's shoulder. "Actually, I'd like to find some medicine from our supplies as soon as possible. I'm afraid Bosco got injured when the sailer crashed, he needs to be tended to right away," he told Amaris urgently.
"Don't worry, we'll take care of it," Amaris reassured him. "We can get that wreckage dug up and raided in no time, just you wait and see! Let's hurry!" She grabbed his arm and pulled him along. He stumbled after her, startled by the sudden contact. But as they ran along, all he could think of was that boy's last question, echoing in his head.
The wreckage of the glider creaked and groaned from the pressure of the sand piled against it. Kuei approached it cautiously, but the Sandbenders walked right up and got to work. They pushed the sand away with great sweeps of their arms, and it wasn't long before the wreck began to shift and lean, its shattered planks screeching. The Sandbenders jumped back as it toppled over and crashed down in a cloud of sand. Kuei stared in amazement, then ran over to it and started searching for usable supplies. The Sandbenders join in, dismantling the wreckage as they went.
Soon enough, they'd excavated everything they could take from the sailer. Once Kuei found the pack with medicine in it, he seized it and sprinted back to Bosco, who hadn't budged from their hiding spot. As he did, he saw Zafirah and Basam still in deep conversation with Qamar. They were far enough away that he couldn't hear their words, but he could see the twins' solemn expressions. He wondered briefly what they were discussing. Bosco spotted him and sat up, favoring his right leg.
"It's all right, Bosco! I found plenty of medicine, you'll be healed up in no time at all!" Kuei assured him. He crouched down beside the bear and tugged at the ties holding the pack shut. In his haste, he fumbled with them for a moment before the pack finally opened. As he rummaged through the pack for bottles that might be disinfectant, hoping they would be labeled, someone appeared in his peripheral vision.
"Need any help with that?" she asked. He looked up to see Amaris standing there, leaning forward with her hands on her knees.
"Oh… well…" He examined the supplies in the pack, and immediately saw a problem: he'd done plenty of reading on the subject of medicine, but he really didn't know how to put it into practice. Turning to Amaris, he asked, "I don't suppose you have much experience with treating wounds…?"
"As a matter of fact, I do!" she proclaimed, smiling widely. Crouching down next to Kuei, she took the supply pack from his hands and made a shooing gesture. "You keep him calm, I'll get this little problem all taken care of."
Kuei nodded and moved to sit on front of Bosco, stroking the top of his head while Amaris cleaned and treated the wound on his shoulder. It was over and done with sooner than he'd expected— Amaris sat back on her heels and nodded in satisfaction.
"There, see? He's all patched up," she told him, smiling sweetly. Sure enough, the wound had been bandaged neatly and Bosco was hardly favoring the leg; he sat with his right forepaw almost flat on the ground. The bear gurgled happily and licked Amaris's cheek. She giggled and patted Bosco's head.
Kuei couldn't help but smile himself as he studied her handiwork. "Thank you, Amaris, that was some swift work!" he remarked.
"Yeah, well, we all kinda know basic healing stuff like that out here," she replied with a casual shrug— downplaying the praise, but her proud little grin said otherwise.
With Bosco patched up, Kuei went to see what the rest of the group was doing. The other Sandbenders were busily taking apart the wrecked sailer, organizing parts of it into different piles. Amaris hurried over to help them and Kuei followed, figuring he could at least offer his assistance. Given the wary glances they'd shown him before, he wasn't sure that they'd accept it. Bosco trundled along behind him, only limping slightly now.
As he'd suspected, the Sandbenders waved away his offer of help; they clearly had their own system for this and he imagined that they wouldn't want an outsider getting in the way. So instead he lugged the cargo away from the wreck as they pulled it out, helping them to pile it all up. It was all he could do for the moment.
Eventually, the Sandbenders finished dismantling the sailer and they bundled all of the useful bits onto the Aqila tribe's own sailers. Amaris went off to assist them, waving goodbye with a wiggle of her fingers as she left. Zafirah and Basam rejoined him, and Qamar strode off to the sailer at the head of the group.
"Time to go," Zafirah announced. "We're heading back with these guys to the rest of the Aqila tribe."
"Oh— of course," Kuei said, taken off-guard. He couldn't help but feel a slight flash of disappointment. He'd known that he would have to say goodbye to these two soon, but this was so abrupt! "I suppose this is where we part ways, then?"
"Huh? What're you talking about?" Zafirah remarked, raising her eyebrows. "I said 'we', didn't I? You're coming too, at least for a little bit."
"Turns out that this was a supply run— they just came back from the desert's edge, they gotta get back to their encampment to switch out their crews before they can make another run out there," Basam explained.
Smiling wryly, Zafirah added, "Sorry, you're stuck with us for a couple more days."
"Ah, I see!" Kuei exclaimed, and he was actually somewhat relieved. Not to mention, he was curious to see the Aqila tribe encampment. Zafirah didn't look relieved, though, as they walked towards the Aqila sailers— she frowned contemplatively at him from the corner of her eye. "Is something wrong?" he asked.
"Remember when I said some tribes aren't terribly friendly to outsiders? I can't say for sure what kind of a welcome you're about to get," she cautioned him. Perhaps he was imagining it, but he thought she sounded a little apologetic.
Ah, yes— he did recall her mentioning that. He nodded solemnly, his enthusiasm tempered by sudden self-consciousness as they waited to be told which sailer to board. This wasn't a social visit, after all, and these Aqila Sandbenders certainly hadn't sailed out expecting to find a random outsider from Ba Sing Se that day. Well, he'd just have to rein in his curiosity, difficult though that might be, and do his best to be mindful during his stay with the tribe.
The Aqila tribe's sailers were larger than the one that they had arrived on; two people stood on each of the platforms to power the sailer, and three stood at the navigator's post— one stood at the compass while another unrolled a map, and the third seemed to be taking up a position as a lookout. The Sandbenders who weren't crewing the sailers piled into the hulls, or sat on the platforms behind the crew. Kuei and his companions ended up in one of the hulls, virtually by themselves— several of the other Sandbenders had switched to the opposite hull to counterbalance Bosco's weight.
It wasn't a long journey to the Aqila encampment, but Kuei had more time alone with his thoughts than he would have liked. That boy's question wouldn't leave him alone. He'd known that word of the coup was spreading quickly; as he'd traveled down the coast, the news had been one step ahead of him. He'd heard people discussing the Fire Nation princess's infiltration, which made sense— naturally, the Fire Nation would want to brag about their princess's victory. And he'd even heard fleeting whispers of a traitor who'd aided the coup; of course, Kuei knew that traitor to be Long Feng, but none of the gossip he'd overheard had involved that man's name.
But he'd had no idea that word of his own escape had spread as well— and to think it had reached as far as the desert by now… Were people blaming him for the coup? He couldn't blame them if they were. Although… now that he thought of it, would he face anger if the truth of his identity came out? He'd worried briefly about bounty hunters sent by the Fire Nation, but it didn't seem likely that they'd consider him a threat… but perhaps the wrath of his kingdom was a greater danger. And yet, if the people of the Earth Kingdom hated him for his failure to protect Ba Sing Se… were they even wrong? He slumped down, arms folded on the edge of the hull, and rested his chin on his arms. That boy's words kept rattling around in his head.
They sailed through the morning, with the crews switching out to avoid weariness. The sun rose as they traveled, and the sun beat down harshly on their backs. By mid-afternoon, their caravan sailed in between two towering sand dunes and slowed down. Kuei stood up to see where they'd arrived to, and his eyes went wide at the sight.
He counted forty sand sailers, even bigger than the ones in the caravan, and each one had a tent set up behind it. They stood arrayed in a massive circle, hulls facing outward to protect the tents. The camp was quiet; Kuei assumed that everyone must be sleeping. Only a few people bustled about, but they quickly took notice of the sand sailers as they glided up to the circle and came to a halt. As the caravan's crews began disembarking, someone within the camp shouted out.
"The foraging party's back!" a man yelled. Just like that, the camp swarmed to life! People emerged from their tents and hurried over to greet the returning party, chattering excitedly. Kuei was still staring in amazement; this camp was larger by far than the Oasis! He'd had no idea that there were Sandbender settlements of this size. All of the texts he'd ever read on the desert had made the Sandbender tribes sound small and disorganized, and this was neither.
"This is incredible!" Kuei marveled. Bosco clambered out of the hull and toppled to the sand with a heavy thump beside him, and Kuei chuckled, reaching down to pat the bear's head. "Look at this, Bosco! What a sight this is!"
"Never seen anyone get so excited over a bunch of sand sailers before," Basam chortled, clapping Kuei on the shoulder as he passed by.
"I never imagined that the Aqila camp would be this big!" Kuei remarked.
"Yeah, there's a lot more of us out here than most folks seem to think," Basam conceded, then he grinned and added dryly, "Scared yet?"
"It's marvelous," Kuei said. He was starting to realize just how wrong the tomes in the royal library had been. There's still so much I don't know, he thought in awe, and a bit of dismay. How had he been so ignorant his whole life? Well, he knew why— it was Long Feng's manipulation, at least in part. He'd grown up hidden away from the world by virtue of his station in life, and by design thanks to Long Feng's ambitious greed. But now he had a chance to change that, and to open his own eyes. The Avatar and his friends had started the process, and now it was his task to continue his own awakening. There was no reason for him to remain the "king fool" any longer.
As soon as they disembarked from the sailers, the young man named Shai was at Zafirah's side in an instant, leading her aside and gently lifting her chin with one hand. Kuei recognized him as one of the three Sandbenders that had unearthed them after the storm.
"You okay?" he asked.
"Yeah," Zafirah muttered.
"You sure?" Shai asked with a frown.
"Just a little shaken up. I'm fine." She gave him a thin-lipped smile and lifted one of her hands to grasp his, squeezing softly. Although, even as she said it, Kuei wondered how true it was; she'd been silent on the Aqila sand sailer, staring absently out into the desert as they'd traveled. He didn't have time to wonder about it, though; Amaris darted through the milling crowd and bumped her shoulder up against his arm, smiling widely.
"Ah, he-hello," he said, flushing slightly at her sudden and unexpected proximity.
"Hi again! C'mon, let's go help unload the sailers," she chimed. "Once that's done I'll show you around the camp!" Linking her arm through his, she led him back to the sand sailer. He felt his face get redder at how close his arm was to her chest; this was definitely something that had never happened before.
As they waited to have cargo from the sailer handed down to them, Kuei glanced back at Zafirah, who was still talking with Shai. Her gaze flicked up and their eyes met for a moment; her face was blank, inscrutable. She looked back to Shai and Kuei was left to wonder what was really going on.
Loaded down with crates and burlap sacks, Kuei trudged after Amaris as she made her way across the camp. His arms were already straining and he was focusing very, very hard on not tripping. Amaris, on the other hand, carried her own cargo as if it were a sack of feathers.
"This way!" she called over her shoulder. He followed her to the middle of the circle, where the rest of the foraging party had already laid out the newly-acquired cargo. As he watched, more and more of the tribespeople started to gather around the growing collection of goods.
"What's happening now?" Kuei asked as they set their loads down. Amaris straightened up and pushed back her headscarves slightly, wiping her forehead.
"It's loot time!" she said cheerfully. "Everyone's gonna line up to get their share of the cargo. We got a real good haul on this run, these supplies should last us all for a while."
"So then, everyone gets their portions now? And that's it until more supplies arrive?" Kuei asked, astounded. "What if someone doesn't have enough?"
"Ahh, that hardly ever happens," Amaris assured him, waving her hand dismissively. "And even if it did, somebody else would just share theirs!"
"So everyone takes care of each other, then," Kuei remarked.
"Yeah! That way everybody is, uh, you know, taken care of," Amaris said, nodding. Kuei smiled as he watched the Sandbenders flock to the cargo pile.
As the line moved along, Kuei noticed a small crowd beginning to form around himself and Bosco. The bear reveled in it, contentedly licking the faces of the children who jostled forward to get a better look at the unfamiliar animal. Their parents were less enthused, ushering the young ones away from the bear while stealing guarded glances at Kuei.
"Everyone keeps looking at me so cautiously," he observed.
"It's not that weird, is it? You're an outsider! There's some people here who've never been to the Oasis or the desert's edge, they've never seen anybody from Ba Sing Se before," Amaris explained.
"I had no idea I was so exciting," Kuei said, mystified. Amaris giggled at that, although Kuei hadn't thought his remark had been quite that funny.
"Besides, word's probably spreading by now of why you're here, what it was that you did," she added.
"What I did?" he echoed worriedly.
"Well, sure! You're the brave hero who saved our Zafi from getting scorched," she said sweetly.
"B-brave?" Kuei echoed again, going red. He self-consciously reached to adjust his glasses, then winced as his knuckles accidentally brushed the bruise from his black eye. The salve that he'd brought from the Oasis was working well, though— the swelling was almost entirely gone already and only the bruising remained.
"Amaris, are you pestering the tourist?" Zafirah jibed as she walked by.
"No!" Amaris said swiftly, then she shot an anxious look at Kuei. "I'm not, right?"
"Oh— no, not at all," he assured her. Zafirah snorted, then turned and headed off.
"Have fun, kids. Lunchtime soon," she said as she strode away.
"She's… rather abrupt," Kuei remarked.
"Aww, don't mind her," Amaris told him. "She wouldn't have brought you along if she actually hated you that much!"
Kuei glanced at her, surprised. "You really think so?" he asked, astonished.
"Yeah! That's our Zafirah for ya, she doesn't tolerate fools even one bit," Amaris said proudly.
Kuei smiled, relieved. "You must know her quite well, then," he commented.
"We're from the Janan tribe too, me and Shai and a few others here. We came out here a few years ago to live with our sister tribe," Amaris explained. "See, here's how it is. You know how I said some people here have never really seen an outsider? Well, at the Oasis, some folks have met too many outsiders."
"What do you mean?" Kuei asked, although he had an idea or two.
"There's a whole lot of rotten people that come to the Oasis, and most outsiders have some real weird ideas about Sandbenders… makes it hard to trust anyone who isn't one of your own," Amaris said softly.
Kuei had already assumed as much, but hearing Amaris say it… well, that did confirm it. He couldn't quite bring himself to ask what sorts of unpleasant people these were— naive as he was, he could still make a few guesses. Glancing after Zafirah, he couldn't help but wonder what exactly she thought he was after.
The afternoon passed in a blur of activity as Zafirah and her traveling companions settled into the camp. As dinnertime passed and night fell, though, she found her mind wandering and her mood souring. Before, she'd just been dazed, overwhelmed by the relief of finding their kin and the Aqila Tribe. But now, with time to get lost in her thoughts of everything that had happened…
She'd excused herself and wandered off from Basam and the others, heading off to take a walk. Hiking to the top of the curved dune surrounding the camp, she sat down on the cool sand and leaned back on her hands, eyes shut. It was getting chilly now, as the day's heat faded from the desert. Heaving a sigh, Zafirah flopped backwards and stared up at the bright, cold stars overhead.
It wasn't too long before she heard the crunch of footsteps coming up the side of the dune. Zafirah tilted her head back, expecting to see Basam or Shai appearing at the crest, but it turned out to be neither of them.
"Oh— my apologies, I didn't know anyone was here," Kuei said. "I could, um, find a different sand dune to sit on if you'd like to be alone."
Zafirah considered for a moment, then sat up and shrugged. "Nah," she said, patting the sand next to her. Being alone with her thoughts wasn't helping much, anyway, and she still had a score to settle with their traveling companion. She figured she wasn't likely to get a better chance than this.
Kuei sat down cross-legged beside her, resting his hands on his knees, and looked out over the desert. Neither of them spoke for a while.
Eventually, Kuei drew a breath like he was about to say something— but he didn't. Zafirah glanced sideways at him, frowning.
"What?" she asked.
"Oh, it wasn't anything important," Kuei said hastily. "Merely a stray thought… silly, really."
She cocked an eyebrow at him. "You just get weirder and weirder, fancy-pants. Whatever it is, just say it."
"I was just going to say that the desert looks quite beautiful in the moonlight," he said, taken aback.
Zafirah smirked thinly. "Yeah, it's real pretty when it's not tryin' to kill you."
"Fair point," Kuei agreed, then leaned back on his hands and tilted his face up to study the stars. She snuck a glance at him from the corner of her eye; he was just calmly relaxing and admiring the night sky, as if it was even remotely normal for him to be there in the desert. As if he wasn't the strangest person that had ever crossed her path.
"Why did you attack that Firebender?" The question was out before she was even aware she'd started to ask it and she clenched her jaw, quickly refocusing her attention on her toes in sudden apprehension.
"Firebender?" Kuei asked, looking over at her. "You mean, the one at the Oasis?"
She inhaled, then scooted around to face him fully. "I want to know why you charged in like that. You didn't have to risk your own neck, so why did you? Look me in the eye and tell me the truth," she challenged. The one nagging question that had been gnawing at her for days… it was time for answers. His eyes widened slightly, then he swallowed heavily and sat upright, turning towards her.
"W-well…" he started, rubbing the back of his neck and eying the sand at his feet. Her shoulders dropped slightly, bracing herself to have her suspicions confirmed, but then he sighed and lifted his head, looking her right in the eye. "Truthfully, you had opened your home to me and shown me generosity and warmth. You… you were, um, a bit harsh at the beginning, but you treated me as an equal. You laughed and talked with me and gave me shelter. It seemed cruel to stand by and watch you be slaughtered by a cowardly sneak attack." He shrugged self-consciously, breaking eye contact. "I suppose that's really the heart of it."
Zafirah gaped at him, utterly at a loss. "You're actually being serious right now," she stated.
"Have I said something wrong?" he asked, shrinking back under her astonished stare. She barked out a laugh, raking her hands through her hair and pulling strands loose from her braid. Had he? She wasn't even sure anymore.
"You're not one of us!" she snapped. "Why in the Spirit World do you care so much?!"
He leaned away, eyebrows shooting up, mouth opening in shock. "Why do I— I could very well ask the same of you!" he retorted. "Why did you shelter me? You said yourself that you dislike tourists!"
She sputtered, taken aback. "I don't know, I… guess I felt sorry for you or something," she muttered. And that was more or less the truth; as much as outsiders irritated her, she'd felt bad for the clumsy, awkward tourist who'd very narrowly avoided an ass-kicking at the hands of Ghashiun and his cronies.
"You're right, I'm not one of you. I'm no Sandbender. But you're not— not one of me either! I mean, that is to say, you're not from Ba Sing Se. If I wasn't supposed to care, then… I suppose you shouldn't have, either!" Kuei insisted, clasping his hands in his lap.
"Th-that's different," she grumbled, digging her toes into the sand. She pulled her knees to her chest and locked her arms around them, the wind gone out of her sails slightly. Huffing out a frustrated breath, she said, "Every outsider that's ever set foot in that Oasis, you wanna know how many of 'em would've done what you did? Not a damned one. Not without expecting something in return anyway. So what makes you so different, huh?"
"To be honest… in a way, I suppose I did get what I wanted," Kuei said softly.
"How's that?" she asked, confused.
Kuei was silent for a long moment, gazing up at the stars again. "I didn't have friends in Ba Sing Se. As a boy, my guardian was… strict, to say the least. I never realized it until later, but he shut me away from the world. Bosco was my only companion. But that night, when you took me into your home, when I sat by the fire with you and Basam— well, it's what I've always imagined it might feel like to sit amongst friends," he murmured.
Zafirah let out a stunned breath. "Oh… uh. I guess that explains a few things," she mumbled. There were all kinds of selfish motives she could've suspected him of harboring— she'd certainly seen her share of them over the years. It hadn't ever occurred to her that Kuei sincerely wanted to be their friend.
"I know we'll be parting ways before too long," Kuei added, "In the end, I guess it really won't make a difference. But even so, I hope you'll believe me when I say that I never expected anything from you. It was my own foolish and poorly-strategized idea to charge at that Firebender," he added with a faint smile.
She chuckled dryly. "I'm not gonna disagree with you on that part," she jibed. Then, ducking her head, she sighed deeply and added sheepishly, "Sorry. I've, uh, kinda been questioning your motives all along."
"It's all right, I don't blame you," Kuei assured her. "Amaris explained it to me earlier. You had your reasons."
Zafirah smiled, and it was the first time in days that she'd been able to do that without it feeling forced.
"Hey, speaking of Amaris, she's been hanging onto you an awful lot today. You gonna get cozy with her before you go?" she teased, pinching his arm lightly.
"Wh-what?! Why, no, I— I hardly know her!" Kuei exclaimed, waving his hands protestingly and going red as a beet-turnip.
Zafirah threw her head back and laughed. "Spirits, you really are an easy mark!" she chortled. She paused, then smiled again and added, "Y'know, you're really not too bad, for a tourist. I guess, maybe… it might be nice to have a friend like you."
Kuei beamed at her, recovering from his embarrassment. As her tension subsided, Zafirah noticed the sounds of drums and cheering drifting up from the camp below. Glancing over her shoulder, she could see what looked like the start of a pretty good party brewing in the middle of the circle. She heaved a sigh and stood up, dusting herself off.
"I'm gonna go see what all the fuss is down there. You gonna come with me?" she asked.
"You go on ahead," Kuei told her. "It's quite nice up here, I'd like to enjoy it a moment longer."
"Suit yourself! Don't mope too long, fancy-pants, you'll miss out," she chided lightly, then waved and headed off down the sand dune, feeling far more light-hearted than she had since before the attack. Even though she'd had her reasons for mistrusting Kuei, she had to admit that she was relieved to be proven wrong for once. She'd been conflicted over how to feel about a genuinely kind outsider, but in the midst of so much that had gone wrong, it was nice to have another ally. As messed up as everything else was, at least she had one less thing to worry about— and one more person she could trust.
Kuei gazed up at the glittering stars, brimming with happiness. Zafirah had said she'd like to be his friend; he had one person who counted him as a friend, for the first time. Kuei didn't know for sure that Basam would say the same, but he liked to think that he would— so, perhaps that number would increase to two soon.
Of course, he'd have to say goodbye to them before too long; that definitely was a sobering thought. It couldn't be helped though, he knew that. If nothing else, he'd simply have to appreciate his time with the two of them even more, before he ran out of it. Rising to his feet, his resolve set, he took one last look at the moonlit desert and turned to descend the slope of the dune.
In the center of the camp, he found that a loose circle had formed, bustling with cheering and laughter. He couldn't see them but he could hear several people playing drums. But as he drew closer, he saw two men fighting in the middle of the circle— there was no Sandbending, just fists pummeling and sharp kicks striking out. They grappled with each other, one pushing the other steadily back— until the tide turned and he found himself flipped onto his back! The man lay there and groaned, and the victor laughed, offering his hand to pull the defeated one up.
Kuei spotted Zafirah and Basam and hurried over to them. Bosco was sprawled behind them, grunting happily as a gaggle of children patted his fur and played with his ears and paws. Kuei smiled at the sight.
"What's all this about?" he asked as he sat down beside the twins. "Is it a brawl?"
"It's a sparring match!" Basam explained cheerfully. As he spoke, Shai jumped up from the crowd and strode into the ring, jeering a challenge at the winner.
"I'm… not sure I see the difference," Kuei admitted as Shai took a swing at the other man's face.
Zafirah chuckled and said, "Well for one thing, it's not like they're fighting for real. This here's just for fun. It's good practice for the real thing."
"I'd think that the injuries would be no less real," Kuei remarked, wincing when Shai delivered what looked like a blistering kick to his opponent's flank.
"Ah, it's not as bad as it looks.," Basam assured him. "They're both holdin' back, neither of 'em actually wants to hurt the other guy."
"See, you city people are spoiled with your fancy Bending schools," Zafirah said, gesturing dismissively. "All you really need is a few lessons on the forms, a few rounds in the sparring ring every now and then, maybe some scuffles to sharpen your edge. Learning as you go is the best way to do it."
"Ah, I see!" Kuei said, smiling. "Will either of you be entering the ring, then?"
"Tempting, but probably not tonight. I'm pretty tired," Basam admitted with a slight laugh.
"We did have a pretty rough time, what with the giant sandstorm and all," Zafirah agreed, the corner of her mouth quirking upward slightly. But there was something strained in that half-smile, and a certain tension in her voice when she mentioned the storm. It hadn't been there a moment ago. Kuei suddenly recalled how out of sorts she'd been earlier in the day, when they'd first arrived. Was there something more on her mind, aside from her now-alleviated suspicions about him?
Whatever it was, the renewed tension broke when Shai went flying out of the ring and rolled to a halt at their feet. He pushed himself up on his elbows and groaned. Zafirah chuckled, resting her elbows on her knees and leaning over him.
"I guess ya lost, huh?" she teased. He whined in response, rubbing the back of his head.
"C'mon, who else wants to try?!" yelled the now two-time victor, spreading his arms wide. A wiry young woman sprang up and strutted into the ring, cracking her knuckles. She toppled him with surprising ease, and managed to stay in the ring for an impressive three rounds before a stocky man took her down. And so it went, on and on, until finally…
"Well now, have you brats had your fun?" jeered Qamar. She rose up and entered the ring, drawing ooh's from the crowd. "Who will challenge me, hmm?"
"No one that wants to keep on getting fed if they should happen to win!" shouted someone in the circle, to the hoots and raucous laughter of the onlookers.
Qamar chuckled and said, "All right… I think I'll find a fresh target, then. Zafirah Janan, I challenge you!"
Zafirah sat bolt upright, then slouched and sighed ruefully. "Qamar, come on, I'm worn out! You're gonna pick on someone who just crossed the Spirits' Furnace?"
"So they don't teach fortitude at the Oasis, do they?" Qamar taunted, arms crossed.
Zafirah stared at her, blinked once, then smirked and rose to her feet. "I guess I can muster up the energy for a quick beat-down," she shot back with an almost feral grin. She rolled her neck side to side, then laced her fingers together and stretched her arms above her head, her shoulders popping.
Leaning over to Basam, Kuei whispered anxiously, "Should she be doing that? She did just say that she's tired."
"Don't worry about it, she'll be fine! That's us Sandbenders for ya, we always got energy in a pinch," Basam said proudly as she walked into the ring, then he hollered, "Show 'er how it's done, Zafi!"
Zafirah wasted no time, but she didn't run towards Qamar. She sauntered into the ring at an almost leisurely pace— and then she went right in for the attack, sprinting the last couple of steps and striking with a blazingly fast kick. Qamar blocked it and the fight was on! They broke apart, circling each other cautiously, but the lull didn't last long. For all that she'd claimed to be exhausted, Zafirah barely let up even for a moment. She kept Qamar in constant motion, driving her back and then luring her forward. Zafirah darted and twisted, keeping just out of reach, blocking and feinting.
"She's amazing!" Kuei remarked, watching in open-mouthed awe.
Basam chuckled, saying, "Yeah, she's pretty good! But Qamar is toying with her. You'll see."
Sure enough, there was a sudden and unmistakable shift as Qamar started to drive Zafirah backwards! Kuei caught the look of alarm on Zafirah's face as she nearly stumbled, but then she rallied and pushed back! He was sitting forward now, hardly even aware of it, hands clasped tensely in his lap and scarcely blinking. The pace was picking up, the blows becoming sharper and sharper, and Kuei could see the sweat glistening on Zafirah's face. Her brow was furrowed, her eyes locked intensely onto Qamar, her teeth all but bared. She nearly missed blocking Qamar's punch, and then—
She missed the next block and Qamar struck her hard. Zafirah flew back and hit the ground on her back with a thud, sliding to a stop. Qamar dropped down above her, poised with her hand at Zafirah's throat. There was a dreadfully long silence, and then the onlookers broke into mixed cheers and shouts. Qamar stood and pulled Zafirah to her feet. Kuei looked to Zafirah, wondering if she'd be upset at the defeat, but she was beaming from ear to ear. The two women clasped one another's forearms and then let go and bowed to each other.
Two more combatants were already squaring off in the ring when Zafirah came back to Basam and Kuei. She plopped down between them, panting and laughing breathlessly.
"Not bad, Zafi! Not half bad!" Basam crowed, clapping her soundly on the back.
"Guess I wasn't that tired after all, huh?" she said cheerily.
"You fought magnificently!" Kuei exclaimed. Zafirah scoffed and waved him off, but she was still grinning.
"Yeah, yeah, but I could've done better. I messed up pretty bad at the end," she commented, clucking her tongue in reprimand at herself.
"Did you? It seemed to me that Qamar simply got the upper hand," Kuei said, confused.
"Exactly. See, the winner of a fight is always the one that makes the second-to-last mistake," Zafirah explained, then ruefully added, "And the loser is whoever makes the last mistake. Guess that was me this time."
"I suppose that does make sense. I'd never thought of it like that before," Kuei remarked, rubbing his chin in consideration.
"Oh, and you've done a whole lotta thinking on the subject, huh?" Basam jibed, elbowing him lightly.
"No, I guess not," Kuei agreed, chuckling sheepishly. He'd read a few texts on the so-called art of war, and they'd all described fighting in much more grandiose tones. Zafirah's explanation made quite a bit of intuitive sense, though. What was a missed block, if not a mistake? What was an attack that didn't find its mark, if not an error?
"Well, I sure won't make that same mistake again, next time," Zafirah said, shaking her head. Then she flashed him a wide smile and added, "Hey, at least I learned a thing or two, right?"
He started to reply but found suddenly that he couldn't get the words out. This smile she wore now was a far cry from the smirks and sardonic grins he'd seen from her thus far. It lit up her whole face, making her brown eyes blaze. His breath caught for a moment, and he hastily smiled back before turning his attention to the next pair of duelists, tapping his fingertip on his knee as he waited for the unprompted surge of his heartbeat to subside. That smile… he wondered if he'd see it again before his time in the desert ran out.