After a while, we stopped moving. My heart was pounding as I heard the flowers above us start to rustle.
Light flooded in, and I squinted at the sudden brightness. “You guys should be good from here, I took you quite a ways away from the village.” I heard the young mans voice and breathed a sigh of relief. Zuko and I squeezed out of the pot as the young man was helping Iroh out of his. “If you head north, you should reach Full Moon Bay and you’ll be able to get to Ba Sing Se from there with these tickets.” He handed passports and tickets to Iroh, three of them.
“Thank you so much. How can we ever repay your kindness?” I asked, walking over to them.
“That will not be necessary. The White Lotus helps our members that are in need,” he bowed to Iroh and started heading back in the direction of the village.
“Well, I guess we’re walking from here,” Zuko sighed.
“It shouldn’t be too long, maybe a day or two,” Iroh responded with a smile, “That’ll give me time to get to know Mara.” He wrapped his arm around Zuko’s shoulders, and we started walking north.
I adjusted the bag on my shoulder and smiled at the pair, who knows what I’d be doing right now without them.
We decided to wait until after we got out of the desert to stop for the night, so by the time we stopped and made camp, the moon was high in the sky. We managed to find a place that had a few trees, and a stream not too far away. Zuko and I went to the stream to gather some water and to get the sand off of us while Iroh set up the fire.
“Would you like me to heat up the water for you?” Zuko asked after we had filled our flasks with water.
I smiled at him, remembering our first night together, “No, that’s alright. The heat of the desert has been enough for today, the cool water will feel nice.”
He nodded and stepped up to me, inches away.
I held my breath, what was he doing? He reached his arms up around my neck to the back, grabbing the necklace he got me.
“I don’t want this to get wet, we don’t know how it would react to water,” he said softly in my ear as he released the clasp and stepped back. We both blushed, and he added, “I’ll hold on to it while you go in. Then when you’re done I can help you put it back on.”
I nodded, feeling the heat on my cheeks. A small smile crept across his face as he turned around and sat down to give me space. I turned away from him and undressed. I glanced back at him to make sure he was still turned around and then slipped into the water. I decided to take off my undergarments this time, they were sticking to me uncomfortably. I breathed deeply, feeling the cool water rush over my skin, soothing it from the sun. I took a moment to relax, going under the water and swimming a little ways away from where Zuko was.
I popped my head out of the water to take a breath, from where I was I could see the side of Zuko’s face. He must have seen me out of the corner of his eye, because he turned his head to look. The water came up to just below my collar bones so I wasn’t worried. I watched his eyes trail down to them and then back up to mine. I smiled at him and then went back under the water, watching him. He smiled and bit the side of his lip, then turned his head back forward. When I came back up this time, I noticed something rustling in the trees in front of me. I squinted at the area, trying to see what it was. It was pretty dark, so I couldn’t make out the shape as it emerged until it was coming towards me. My eyes widened at the figure of a man, heading straight for me at a rapid pace.
“Z-Zuko!!” I screamed, stuttering to get words out.
His head snapped toward me and he jumped up, running as fast as he could to get in between me and the very large man that was almost right in front of me now. I swam backwards to the other side of the stream, trying to get as far away from him as possible.
A brightness filled my vision as Zuko threw multiple fire blasts at the man, “Get away from her!” He yelled, anger laced his words, giving them more power.
The man fell forward – I don’t know if this was on purpose or not – heading straight into the stream. The stream that I was in. The stream that I was naked in. I screamed again and threw up a bubble of water around myself, which hit the man, making him fly backwards back onto land. From inside my bubble I could make out the figures of Zuko and the man, fighting. Zuko threw more fire blasts, sweeping one of his feet on the ground, spreading fire and making the man lose his balance.
“Zuko! Mara!” I heard, and Iroh came running through the trees.
Instantly, Iroh sent a wave of fire towards the man. He fell backwards to avoid being burned, landing on his back. Zuko was on him in less than a second. He stood over him with his fist raised, ready to strike.
“Who are you!?” Zuko growled loudly.
The man whimpered, but I didn’t understand what he said through my water bubble. Iroh came up behind Zuko and placed a hand on his shoulder. Zuko glared at him in response to something he said, and then stepped back from the man, who took off running in the opposite direction.
My heart was pounding, thumping in my ears making it difficult to hear what they were saying. Iroh glanced over at my bubble, and then turned and walked back in the direction of our camp.
Zuko grabbed my clothes and sat down on the opposite side of the stream from me. “Mara?” his muffled voice barely made it through the water and my pounding heart. “Mara?” he called again, this time it was clearer. I snapped back to reality and let the water go, splashing back into the stream.
He looked at me concerned, “Are you alright?”
I nodded, folding my arms over my chest even though I knew he couldn’t see anything. He formed a small fireball in his hand that pierced the darkness. The fire made the side of his face glow but keeping the other in shadow.
“Okay,” he responded, not sounding convinced, “I brought your clothes over. I’m gonna turn around so that you can get out and get dressed.”
Once he turned around, I sighed and went over to his side. I got out and collected the water droplets from my skin and hair, and placed them back into the stream. I pulled my clothes back on and lightly touched Zuko on the shoulder. He had been staring into the trees, searching them for any potential leftover
0 danger. He turned his head first, and then his body followed when he saw that I was dressed.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” he asked, spinning me around to put my necklace back on. “You’re not hurt or anything?”
“No,” I could feel the heat radiating from his chest as he placed the necklace down on my neck, “I’m not hurt.”
“Why didn’t you fight back?” He asked, turning me back around to face him.
I looked down at the ground, embarrassed, “I don’t know. I’ve never had to fight someone while in such a vulnerable position. I didn’t want him to see my body and I didn’t want you to– ”
“Hey,” he lifted my chin up to look me in the eyes, “It’s alright. You don’t have to worry about it anymore,” he said softly. My chin tingled at his touch, gradually getting warmer the longer he made contact. I nodded, and he dropped his hand down to mine, and led me back to the campsite.
Once we got back, my head was clearer, and I realized I never actually heard who that guy was or what he was doing. Zuko grabbed our blanket out of my bag and placed it near the fire.
“Who was that guy?” I asked, walking over and sitting next to him.
“Just some thief who saw you and not me,” he growled quietly, I could tell he was still upset about it.
I nodded and glanced at Iroh, who nodded at me.
“Thank you, Zuko.”
He quickly looked over at me with a surprised expression on his face. I smiled at him, and watched him relax into a smile as well.
He laid down on his back, right next to me. I laid down as well, making sure not to increase the distance between us. The warmth of his body washed away my chills. A slight breeze drifted by, giving me a dose of his sandalwood and amber.
“I will always protect you, Mara.”