Katara was distracted.
She couldn’t stop thinking about the previous night, about the masked man in the Siagyo household. It wasn’t even because he’d grabbed her and nearly held a blade to her throat, or that she felt his heart pounding against her back as hard as hers. If she were being honest, it wasn’t even completely because someone else had even been in the house before her. The moment he helped her—that’s what her thoughts all snagged on. That, and his mask. Though her glance of it had been brief, she’d clearly seen that it was blue and white. Despite it being the visage of a grinning demon, the colors alone struck a homesick chord in her.
Would she see him again, if she visited another house with an ill family member? Was he trying to do the same as she? It seemed unlikely, armed with that sword like he was. Yet, it was obvious that he’d distracted the mother of the household so that Katara could get upstairs to help the coughing child. So why was he there?
“Hello? Anybody home, Katara?” Toph’s voice brought her out of her reverie.
She shook her head to clear it and smiled vaguely. “Yes, hi. Of course. What is it?”
“Nothing. You just seemed out of it.” Toph hesitated a moment, then leaned in, her voice dropped to a near whisper. “Are you okay? You’re heart’s pounding like crazy.”
Embarrassed, Katara waved her hand a bit, dismissing the notion. “Nope, I’m fine.”
“You know that I can tell when—“
“I’m just fine,” Katara interrupted, standing up from her place at the table and going into the kitchen.
They were staying in a tiny abandoned house beyond the outskirts of the Fire Nation town of Ha It Yai. When they first arrived, Aang thought to find an inn to stay within the town itself to resupply and sleep indoors for a few nights, but not only was that a dangerous idea if they were to be found out, but they quickly learned that a sickness had spread to many people. It hadn’t been quite enough for the town’s officials to call a quarantine, but it was enough for their small group to not want to risk it.
“What if you catch some weird Fire Nation cold?” Sokka had exclaimed to Aang. “You have to be in top shape when you face the Fire Lord.”
“Yeah.” It’d been clear Aang was disappointed. “Wouldn’t want to face him with a runny nose.”
Toph had come to the rescue, though, and sensed the empty house just outside of town, so that was where they set up camp. It wasn’t much, and more than a little ramshackle, but it was a roof over their heads and a safer spot to sleep than in the middle of the jungle. Of course, it’d fallen to Katara to resupply their food stores while the boys investigated for any interesting information or non-essentials they might need (or, in Sokka’s case, want), and Toph relaxed back at their temporary home. It was a far cry from their luxurious house in Ba Sing Se, but Katara suspected Toph actually liked this better.
It was while she was in town that Katara learned more about the sickness that was plaguing the town. People talked, and she was genuinely interested to learn more about it. Many people were worried—though it didn’t seem to spread from person to person very quickly, it took a heavy, rapid toll on the people who did catch it and fell ill. Consumed them from the inside out, one person described in a hushed tone. It’d been an easy decision for her to pick up her Painted Lady persona again and visit as many houses as she could. She’d been more careful this time than at Jang Hui, and she was sure that neither Aang nor Sokka were the wiser about her nightly goings. Toph, she could never be sure of, so she just assumed the other girl knew. But, after their reconciliation, she thought Toph would keep her secret. For at least two nights, she hadn’t been proven wrong.
Last night, the Siagyo house was the third she visited, and finding another disguised person there had been quite the surprise. In the market, she’d heard a few people mention a mysterious woman appearing to heal the sick, but nothing about a masked man. Would it be too suspicious to ask around about him?
“You’re thinking about whatever it is again,” Toph said from behind her.
Katara looked back to see the earthbender leaning against the doorframe. Crossing her arms over her chest, she leveled a glare at Toph, though it had no effect. “So? What does it matter?”
She received a shrug in reply. “I don’t know, but you’re really preoccupied with it today. Must’a been really something to keep distracting you.”
Katara didn’t quite know what to say to that, casting her gaze down at the floor and feeling her cheeks warm. Toph tilted her head. “The boys aren’t back from town yet, so…” A sudden grin split her face. “Is it a boy?”
If Katara’s cheeks had been warm before, they flared like a blaze now. “What? No!”
“I can tell you lying,” Toph sang.
She buried her face in her hands and spoke through her fingers. “Okay, yes. But, not like that!”
Toph’s grin only widened. “I knew it. You’ve been sneaking out every night since we’ve been here, so I knew something was up.” Well, that confirmed Katara’s suspicion, at least. “Is he cute?”
“I actually don’t—I said it wasn’t like that!”
The earthbender chortled. “You don’t know what he looks like? How come? Do you just admire from afar?”
There was no way Katara could see getting out of this, but at least it didn’t seem like Toph knew what she was doing at night, even if she did know she was sneaking out. Then again, she wasn’t sure it’d really matter if Toph knew. It couldn’t hurt, Katara figured, to talk about it a bit more. She lowered her hands and resigned herself to the conversation.
“He was… wearing a mask.”
Toph’s eyes widened beneath her heavy bangs. “A mask?” she echoed. “Why the heck would he be wearing a mask?”
A quiet exhale escaped her. “Probably because he didn’t want people seeing his face.”
Toph rolled her eyes. “You don’t say. Listen, you don’t have to tell me what you’ve been doing at night. I don’t really care, to be honest; it’s your business, and you can take care of yourself. But, something about this guy’s got to you.” Her voice softened a bit. “So, if you want to talk about that… well, I’m here, I guess.”
Katara smiled, touched. “Thanks, Toph. I… really appreciate that.” She drew in a breath and released it. “I don’t know why I can’t stop thinking about him,” she began. Toph’s eyebrows lifted, but she didn’t say anything, so Katara continued. “I didn’t expect to meet him, it was a surprise. And—and it wasn’t an ideal situation, so I didn’t know if I could trust him right away. I thought he was going to attack me.” She remembered his arm tight around her, holding her trapped against him, his blade raised close to her neck. Had she absolutely needed to get away, she could have used her bending, but she hadn’t waned to resort to that if she didn’t need to.
“But,” she said, her voice growing subdued, “he didn’t. He actually ended up helping me. It all happened so quick, it was just… surprising.”
“So… you really just want to find him to thank him for helping you?” Toph guessed.
Did she? Katara wondered. She’d said it then, though she wasn’t certain he’d heard her. He moved so quickly and so silently, and his black clothes made him seem more shadow than human. For all that she’d been dressed as a spirit, she might have thought he really was one, had she not felt his solidness firsthand. Her face warmed again at the thought.
“I… guess,” she said finally. “Yeah.”
She moved to lean against a small table in the kitchen. “I don’t know what I would say even if I could find out who he was. It just… it’d be kind of nice to know, you know?”
Toph nodded, and joined Katara at the table, sliding into one of the two chair at it. “It’s not like you can head into town and ask every good-looking guy if they helped you while wearing a mask last night.”
“Hey! Why would it matter if he was good-looking?”
Toph shrugged. “Because it’d make for a better story?” She made a wide sweeping arc with her hand, fingers spread. “Waterbending master helped by handsome young mystery man in a mask,” she declared. “I can hear the crowd oohing and aahing already.”
That made Katara laugh. “It’s hardly anything to make a story out of.” Still, she allowed herself a moment of fantasy, gaze drifting up toward the cobwebbed ceiling. With all of Toph’s talk, now she was wondering if he was handsome or not. He was certainly in excellent shape, that much she’d been able to tell when they were standing flush together in the dark. He also seemed skilled with a blade, perhaps as much as moving unseen and unheard. She wondered if she’d run into him again when she went out again tonight.
“You know what else?” Toph asked after a moment, breaking her wandering thoughts and resting her elbows on the rough wooden table.
“It’s all terribly romantic. I hope you meet him again tonight and tell me all the juicy details.”
Katara reddened and buried her face in her hands again.