the crossroads of destiny
“I’m sorry,” he started after a moment, his voice still low but lacking the harshness in a way that made him seem vulnerable like Tatiana had never heard him before, “But that’s something we have in common.”
Green crystals shed an eerie glow over the cave, and the young brunette wrapped her arms around her knees as she pulled them closer to herself, shivering. She’d already been around the crystal cave five times since she’d been tossed in there by Lilia and her gang, but she’d found no way to get out. Tatiana was a water bender, after all, not an earth bender, and even when she’d sliced in arcs toward the walls, she remained stubbornly trapped.
Her panic wouldn’t so palpable if she hadn’t felt so helpless and on her own. Daniel and Benjamin were at the Eastern Air Temple, learning how to unlock and control the Avatar state at will, and Seren was meant to be visiting her mother.
(Tatiana wasn’t yet aware that Daniel and Benjamin were riding back to Ba Sing Se as fast as they could, or that Seren had been captured but had discovered her skill at metal bending and fled her captors.)
The only thing she was aware of now was the scraping sound of the rock at the door being moved aside, and she leaped up, ready to spring out and attack.
It wasn’t Lilia or one of the girl’s two sidekicks – instead, it was another prisoner, who was roughly pushed in. For a moment, his head hung forward, his shaggy dark hair shielding his face – and then he glanced up and Tatiana recognized his features immediately; prominent cheekbones, downturned lips, the scar of a burn over his left eye. Will Shimizuno, the exiled fire nation prince, and the man who’d been hunting her and her friends down for months now.
Her next motions were instinctive; in a moment, she’d whipped out the water from her canteen and held it in place like a whip beside her, arms up defensively. “What are you doing in here?” Tatiana hissed at him.
He barely glanced up, instead taking a heavy seat on the ground and turning away from her. She paused for a moment, and reluctantly returned the water to her canteen with a fluid twist of her arms before stepping across the cavern toward him.
“Why did they throw you in here?” There was no answer, and then the brunette laughed, shortly and harshly. “Oh, let me guess, it’s a trap, and I’m the bait. So when Benj shows up to help me, you’ll finally have him captured. That’s what you want, of course.”
The brunette had been hoping to goad a reaction from him, but she was sorely disappointed. Will turned his chin slightly in her direction and then thought better of it, facing forward and to the opposite wall again.
Tatiana sighed and then turned sharply kicking at a crystal. “You’re a terrible person, you know that?” she replied, her tone edged with hate. “You’ve been hunting us for months, and we’re the ones trying to spread hope. Not that you’d care, though. You’re the prince of the fire nation; spreading war and death and destruction is basically a hobby of yours.”
It was then that she was vaguely aware of him turning slightly toward her, his low voice coming out in a growl. “You don’t know what you’re talking about,” he snarled.
Her hazel eyes flashed as she turned back suddenly, fingers curling into a fist on pure instinct and anger. “I don’t? How dare you! You have absolutely no idea what this war has put me through – what your lot have taken from me.”
For a moment, she was all fire, and then Tatiana cooled down again as if reminding herself that she was a water bender. She turned and sunk to her knees, lowering her face to the fabric of her dress as tears began trickling from her eyes steadily. She thought quickly of warm eyes, a sunny smile, a soft embrace that she’d never feel again. “The fire nation took my mother from me,” she managed out breathlessly, trying to wipe away at her tears hastily.
Will turned toward her so that they were no longer back to back, and regarded her shaking figure solemnly for a moment. “I’m sorry,” he started after a moment, his voice still low but lacking the harshness in a way that made him seem vulnerable like Tatiana had never heard him before, “But that’s something we have in common.”
Tatiana lifted her tear-stained face from her knees, rubbing at her eyes as she turned back in shock. “Your father took away your mother?”
Will nodded, not meeting her gaze. “I was ten,” he offered shortly.
“Seven,” Tatiana replied, moving to rest an arm on a green crystal that had poked out from a rock near her. She traced her finger over the smooth stone and felt a sudden impulse to say something else. “I’m sorry,” she added after a moment. “I didn’t know. It’s just that when I thought of the enemy – of the fire nation who was always trying to hunt us down and hurt us – it’s just that I always pictured, well, your face.”
The words seemed to sting more than intended. Will seemed to flinch back for a moment, and then his fingers lifted to his left eye, at the red scar that he had been marked with several years earlier. “My face,” he returned shortly. “Of course.”
The water bender instantly felt guilty. “No, that’s not what I meant –“ she rushed to assuage him, but he shook his head at her.
“It’s alright.” His fingers were still on the area of burned skin around his eye, and he slowly lowered them to his side once more. “I used to think that it defined me, that it was my punishment along with hunting the avatar for the rest of my life. But lately,” he paused, biting his lip, thinking of the tea shop his Uncle Zion had set up, the Quincy girl who’d asked him out a few weeks ago, how he didn’t feel the rage and the need to bend fire as acutely as he once had, “I know that I’m free to live my own life on the path that I choose, even if I’m never free of this mark.”
A thought occurred to the young bender, and she glanced down at the small vial she had on a chain around her neck, a gift from the master who’d taught her. She paused, biting her lip, and glanced back at Will. “What if there was a way you could be free of your mark?” she asked suddenly.
He turned sharply, properly looking at her for the first time since they’d met, his dark eyes wide. “What?” he asked softly.
“I have healing abilities,” she replied, and then he shook his head, disappointed, and sighed.
“It’s a scar. It can’t be healed.”
“No, but,” Tatiana loosened the collar of her dress and slipped the necklace over her head, holding out the vial to show him as it swung daintily from the sudden motion. “This is spirit water from the oasis at the North pole. It’s supposed to have special properties.” She pulled it closer and studied it, frowning thoughtfully before stepping hesitantly toward the boy. “I’m not sure that it would work, and I’ve been saving it for a special occasion, but –“ she glanced over at him and took another step closer.
Will did not flee, instead leveling his onyx gaze on her hazel as she stepped closer. She tentatively reached out, fingers brushing against the scarred skin. He closed his eyes, and Tatiana took another step closer, her thumb brushing his cheekbone lightly. His lips were still turned down, but there was a softness to the set of his jaw now that Tatiana thought made him look far less threatening – and she preferred this Will to the one that had hunted them down. Her own expression softened as she leaned a bit closer.
And then there was a crash from her right, and the rock that had kept the prisoners inside was suddenly shoved forward, freeing a small hole. Two figures emerged from the dust, and Tatiana dropped her hand and stepped away quickly. “Benj!” She ran toward him, wrapping her arms around her friend, who shot Will a glare over her shoulder.
Will’s uncle was there too, and he ran forward to do the same to his nephew, who’d shot Benj back a glare in return over the older man’s shoulder.
Tatiana felt the loss of warmth under her fingertips acutely, and glanced back at Will as she left the cave, holding onto Benjamin’s arm now.
Hours later, Tatiana and Benjamin ran back down a path in the crystal catacombs again gasping for breath. “We have to find Daniel and Seren!” she called back at the boy, but suddenly there was a burst of lightning behind them and they both ducked as Lilia emerged.
Tatiana was the first to react, sending a wave of water in the fire bender’s direction, but she was too quick and leaped to the side as the water splashed over the rocks on the other side of the cavern. Benj sliced with air at her as well, but she was just as fast this time and landed between them, hands out and pointing to each side of her where Tatiana and Benjamin stood, their arms up, ready for her strike when it happened.
What they didn’t expect was a burst of fire from behind them, and all three turned in alarm as they noticed Will enter the room, narrowing his eyes in their direction. For a short, naive moment, Tatiana hoped that her attempt to find his humanity in the cave earlier had worked – and then her narrowed his eyes at the air bender and fired a quick shot of fire at Benj, who leaped back in a burst of air.
Lilia took this time to strike in Tatiana’s direction, and she didn’t have enough time to deal with how her heart dropped to see him switch back into that Will, the one who’d chased their team around the world instead of the vulnerable one she’d seen only hours earlier.
The fight continued in a blur of the elements, for between the four of them, they had mastered all of them. Will dodged the rocks that were sent his way, and Benj leaped away in bursts of air, while Tatiana sliced out with razor-sharp shards of ice that Lilia quickly melted in the air before they hit her.
And then Lilia was suddenly free from Tatiana’s assault of ice and running at Benj, and the brunette would have followed had Will not stepped forward to take his sister’s face. Her rage was icy in her honey-colored eyes, and she created a whip of water and sliced it toward him.
“I thought that you’d changed!” she called at him, her tone almost pleading even in her anger. Water flowed suddenly around her arms like tentacles as she struck again, but his fire stopped the impact.
“I have changed,” Will declared, eyes narrowed, and then shot out another wave of fire at her.
For a few minutes, Tatiana dared to think that they might have the upper hand, but then Benj fell into the rocks at the edge of the cavern and both Will and Lilia had turned on her, and then suddenly there were Dai Li agents arriving around her. She summoned another wave of water, but shot a desperate glance at her friend.
Perhaps he hadn’t mastered the avatar state, but thankfully, he was able to enter it now. His tattoos glowed, he rose above everyone on a blast of air, his eyes blazed with fury – but then suddenly he was falling after a strike of blue lightning, Lilia’s smirk curving up her lips.
“No!” Tatiana managed, sweeping toward her friend on a wave of water and managing to catch Benj in her arms, and with a glance at Will and Lilia who were descending on her again, she fled the cavern on another burst of water.
The bison seemed to sense the urgency of the teenagers and set off at once as soon as Seren and Daniel had joined the two already in the saddle. Tatiana didn’t spare her brother or friend a look, taking the spirit water from the vial and trying to heal Benj with it. Her heart nearly stopped as she pressed her hands to his chest and couldn’t find a heartbeat.
And then he was suddenly stirring, blinking open his eyes for a moment before closing them again, and she could feel the steady drum of his heart beneath her fingertips and just about sobbed in relief.
“What happened?” Daniel asked, gaping at them as he quickly moved by the avatar’s side to take in how his friend was doing. “What happened to Benj?”
“Lilia happened,” Tatiana replied grimly. Seren, from beside her, steadied her hands, and the brunette looked down and realized that they were shaking.
“I nearly used my water up on him,” she breathed, and suddenly through the empty vial over the ground that they were passing, trying to stop a sob that forced its way into her throat.
Seren wasn’t the most touchy-feely of people, but sensing her friend’s anxiety and discomfort, she turned her sightless eyes to the other and quickly wrapped her arms around Tatiana as she choked out, “I can’t believe I was stupid enough to trust him for a bit, to think that he’d changed.”
“Who?” Daniel asked after a moment, glancing over at his upset sister.
Tatiana was already drying her eyes now, gaze hard again. “Will,” she replied after a moment, and before her brother could chastise her for even having thought that for a moment, she shook her head. “It’s alright, though. I won’t make the mistake to trust him ever again. I promise.”
Daniel regarded her sadly beside Benj’s figure as they continued fleeing, the city of Ba Sing Se burning under them.