Chapter 1: Village
Zuko arrives on the first day of winter.
His rowboat appears silently in the grey-blue twilight, rising out of the mist like a ghost. At first, Katara doesn't hear the commotion – the excited voices of children crowding at the edge of the ice – but when she does, she finds herself inexplicably panicked, her pulse racing uncomfortably in her throat and the same thought racing through her head over and over again: please, not now.
She honestly can't help it.
Every visitor to the Southern Water Tribe has brought earth-shattering changes to her life, and Katara is not quite ready for another adventure. Once, Sokka asked her – and he was trying to be sensitive about it, but of course it came out bluntly – why she was becoming so attached to her post-war routine. He subtly suggested that maybe she was just afraid of the future.
'It isn't fear,' she had told him, 'just a healthy dose of caution.'
And he had looked at her for a moment before announcing:
'You're starting to sound like dad.'
This conversation is echoing in her mind when she pulls open the drapes that cover her doorway. She tells herself that she is just going to investigate out of curiosity, and she slowly sets down the awl that she has been using for the better part of the past half hour to pierce tiger-seal hides. She proceeds out into the snow and semi-darkness with the self-assured calm befitting a master waterbender during peacetime.
But her heart is still racing.
The waves of relief that wash over her are almost painful when she reaches the gathering crowd and finds that there is only one visitor standing there at the edge of the ice. His hands are stuffed awkwardly into the pockets of his parka, and his breath rises in a cloud of steam through the icy air. And then he pulls off his hood.
Katara is running before she can stop herself.
'Zuko!' she cries, and she is sliding over the last patch of ice – she is still wearing her indoor mukluks – and is suddenly pressed against his chest, inhaling the smell of coal fires and melted snow.
'Easy,' he says, just quiet enough that only she can hear him. The words whisper over her ear and she shivers involuntarily, and his arms are a warm circle around her waist, and then she steps back.
'How did you get here?' she asks, scanning the horizon and placing a restraining hand on the shoulder of a young boy who is peering up, trying to get a better look at the strange man who only has half a face.
'I rowed. For part of the way.' He gestures vaguely over his shoulder. 'I told them to anchor the ship behind one of those icebergs.'
'Zuko, you didn't need to do that.'
'I thought that pulling up in an icebreaker might have been in bad taste.'
For a second, she cannot meet his eyes. She is still stubborn and it bothers her in some implacable way to know that he knew she would assume the worst if he arrived like he had three years earlier, impersonally and at the head of a naval ship.
'Thank you,' she finally says. 'For not—'
'Don't worry about it.'
The children have slowly lost interest in the exchange, and drift slowly back to their mothers and grandmothers, who stand huddled in a group by the fire.
'Where is everyone?' Zuko asks, when Sokka hasn't materialised even after all the fuss, and the village remains largely deserted, empty hide tents silhouetted darkly against the slate sky.
'A hunting expedition,' Katara says. 'The ice is solid and they left a few days ago.'
'Then I came at the wrong time.'
'You came to see Sokka?'
'No, I—Katara, can we take this conversation inside?'
She hesitates for a moment before taking his hand – burning hot, like the flint Bato uses when he shapes the skeleton of a canoe – and ignoring the curious stares of half the tribe as she guides Zuko through the darkness.
. . .
'I've never seen the inside of your home before.'
He says this as they sit cross-legged on the hides that lie spread out over the ground. The smell of jasmine is strong in the air, and it mingles with the smoke and brings to mind memories of nights spent crouched around the fire of a hidden temple.
'I didn't know that you could gather jasmine this far south,' Zuko says.
'It was a gift from Iroh,' she replies. 'Who visits, by the way.'
'Every four months, with the cargo ship that brings the imports from Ba Sing Se.'
Katara pours out two cups and hands one to Zuko, who runs his fingers absentmindedly over the design that has been carved into the handle. It is a subtle, crude outline of a snow bear, partially submerged in the tea, as if the animal were returning to the ocean after a breath of cold air.
'I didn't know,' he says. And then: 'would you rather I hadn't come here?'
He is looking down and does not meet her eyes, but he asks the question as if he couldn't care less how she answered, one way or another.
'Zuko, it's not— Just, why are you here?'
'I've been meaning to come for a while.'
'Oh, that means so much—'
'Well I've been kind of busy governing a nation, Katara.'
'You're not the only one who has had to deal with the fallout from the war, you know.'
'I know that.'
'I'm sorry. But you understand why it's disconcerting to see you here so suddenly.'
'Whatever happened to the fabled hospitality of the Water Tribe?'
'Maybe you'd rather talk to my gran-gran?'
From where she sits across the fire, Katara smiles into her tea, and the two fall into a comfortable silence.
'Why did you really come, Zuko?' she says after a moment, and her voice is softer than she meant it to be. Their eyes meet briefly before he looks away.
'I found a letter from my mother,' he says. 'In the palace archives.'
He says it plainly, like it is the beginning of a longer explanation, but he says nothing else.
'What kind of letter was it?' she finally asks.
'The kind that was written three years ago and never made it into my hands.'
'What did it—What did she say?'
He is tracing the stones that surround the hearth, heating each one until it glows white and slowly fades back to a dull grey.
'She heard that I joined the Avatar, and said she would be waiting for me in Ba Sing Se.'
'So you think that she's still waiting there.'
'Maybe. No. I don't know, Katara.'
There is something tight in her throat, in her chest. Some nameless feeling, something like sadness/nervousness/excitement for which she has no words, and it feels like things are moving too fast because she does not want an adventure right now and she speaks without thinking.
'Why are you telling me this?'
'You know why.'
'Because you want me to come to Ba Sing Se with you? I wish you hadn't told me any of this, Zuko. I honestly wish— My life has gone back to normal, close to normal or whatever and now you come here and ask me to go with you knowing that I could never say no.'
'I know that this is selfish of me. And you know it, too, but I needed to ask you anyway.'
'Katara, you are the only person who understands why I need to do this.'
He is talking before she can interrupt, and she is clenching the edge of a tiger-seal hide in her fist, her eyes tracing the outline of every block of ice that makes up the bones of her home.
'If you say no, then the ship is ready to leave tonight and I won't bother you anymore,' he says.
You're starting to sound like dad.
Katara closes her eyes, breathes deeply. The last time she left the south, she was gone for almost a year, and she does not know when she will taste this air again; she wants to paint her lips with the taste of ice and saltwater so that she does not forget.
'Zuko, you know I'm not going to say no,' she says.
Chapter 2: Southern Sea
The first few days are slow going, and the landscape glides by the ship unchanging, miles upon miles of pack ice lit up in pinks and oranges when the sun rises for a few hours every day. Katara finds herself drifting in and out of sleep, now that she does not have the numbing repetition of physical labour to keep her up during the long hours of darkness. She is warmer than she remembers having been in months, surrounded by a cocoon of silk blankets.
She has grown used to the cold again, she realises, and wonders whether she is capable of blending into the teashops and transit trains of Ba Sing Se like she used to. Her skin is still raw from scraping pelts, and she clings to this, the memory of the unfinished work that she left behind. She does not want to get caught up in these feelings, the excitement of an adventure, only to have to learn to adjust to normalcy all over again.
She awakes to a dull thudding sound on the steel of her door, and she pokes her head out of the blankets to see Zuko opening it by an inch, so that his shadow is cast long over the floor.
'Were you sleeping?' he says, a hint of amusement in his voice.
'Maybe.' She sits up, running the back of her hand over her eyes. 'How early is it?'
'Very early. But I'm pretty sure you'll want to come out and see this.'
When they emerge onto the deck, the wind stings her face and wakes her up fully. Her hair is still unbound from sleeping, and it whips into her face and into her mouth when she tries to speak.
'It's still so dark out. I can't see anything,' she says, squinting into the blackness.
'No,' Zuko says. 'Listen.'
So she closes her eyes and focuses on sounds: the currents of cold air, the hull of the ship cutting through the water. And there, so faint that she almost cannot hear it at all, a deep and resonant sound that travels through her body like a vibration.
'Whale-sharks!' she cries, and beside her Zuko fills his palm with fire, so that she can see into the darkness, the white caps of the waves and there, moving under the ice, the glistening shapes of whale-sharks gliding through the water.
'Have we been following them long?' Katara asks, leaning over the rail of the ship so that she can see better. Her skin is immediately covered in salty ocean spray.
'We've been travelling along the shoreline. They seem to have the same plan.'
'I just hope the hunting team can find them. It takes almost all the men of the tribe to bring down even one animal, but it lasts us through the winter.'
Later, Katara thinks that maybe the spirit of the whale-shark was guiding them, because when the sun rises, the ice on the shoreline is brilliant white and blue, and in the distance, she can make out the dark shapes of canoes huddled together against the shore.
'We should stop for a while,' Zuko says. 'Pay them a visit.'
Katara nods into the fur lining of her hood.
'Let's invite everyone on board,' she says, and when Zuko laughs, like he is surprised, like it has been pulled from him involuntarily, she realises that she missed the sound.
. . .
Sokka takes the news of her departure rather well, considering.
'You're taking her where to do what?'
He waves his spear through the air for emphasis, and Katara finds herself ducking every time he uses it to punctuate his sentences. Beside him, Hakoda pulls back his wolf-headed hood to reveal black and grey war paint, and places a calm hand on his son's shoulder.
'Katara, I fully approve,' he says. 'You haven't had any adventure in a while.'
'It's not an—' Katara starts.
'So Lord Jerkbender decided to start an adventure without telling me?'
'Exactly why would I tell you?'
The group is gathered on the deck of the ship, their faces lit by fire as they share an unusual meal, a mix of Fire Nation spices and the smoked fish brought aboard by the hunting team. There had been an awkward moment when Katara realised that she was the only woman present, but her sudden worry quickly vanished when everyone pushed her to the head of the table.
'Women are served first in the Fire Nation,' Zuko explained as he spooned herb-seasoned rice into her bowl.
'Well that's one custom I can agree with,' Katara replied.
For now, she decides to hear out the rest of Sokka's rant without protest, and to enjoy what might be her last taste of Water Tribe cuisine for a while. Part of her mind can hear Zuko talking, going over the fact that this is a diplomatic mission to work out the details of an international trade agreement, absolutely no fun will be had without Sokka, etc. Right now Katara doesn't have the heart to argue, because for some reason, hearing Sokka's voice raised in indignation has always reminded her of home, and she feels strangely at peace.
'Fine,' Sokka finally says. 'But I don't have to like it.'
'No one said you had to like it,' Katara says, and she thinks she hears Sokka growl.
She knows that he is just being stubborn.
By the time someone begins to pass a flask around – 'Let's get this thing started!' Sokka had said – Katara has drifted into a state of calm acceptance. She leans against the rail of the ship, listening to the waves lap against the hull, and the sound of someone playing the tsuungi horn, a folk song that sounds vaguely familiar.
'This is mei wine,' says a voice to her left, and she turns to see Zuko standing there, holding up two wooden cups. 'And it's really strong, so just—'
He pours a little from his cup into hers, and then hands it to her. When she drinks, it tastes fruity and warm on her lips, and the two stand in silence.
'You've really been at the South Pole for the past two years?' he finally says.
'It's not a bad thing,' she replies, too quickly.
'I didn't say that it was.'
'I know, it's just that— There's been a lot to do at home. And after gran-gran left for the North Pole with master Pakku, I just took her place without really noticing.'
'You've done a really good job,' he says. 'With the tribe, I mean. The village has grown since the last time I saw it.'
'Three years ago?'
'Yes, but— Your people seem stronger. Not so afraid.'
'A lot has changed since then,' she says, and closes her eyes, breathing in the cool air and listening to the tsuungi horn. The song has changed, and the melody brings back a flood of memories; she has heard Iroh play the long, lamenting notes before, as he sat amid the children of the Water Tribe on his last visit.
'It's called Solh,' Zuko says. 'The word for peace in the old language of the Fire Nation, before the islands unified.'
He is looking down into the water as he speaks, his arms crossed over the railing and his shoulders bent. From this angle, she can see only the scarred side of his face, the violent colours that bloom like a bruise under his skin. Looking at him, Katara suddenly remembers a different time, a different conversation.
It's just that for so long now, whenever I would imagine the face of the enemy, it was your face.
My face. I see.
She swallows hard, pushing back the tightness that burns in her throat and behind her eyes as the song of the tsuungi horn drifts into silence.
'Fire Nation songs are so sad,' she says, quietly, as she leans back so that the stars are spread out above her, a thousand tiny lights, and she feels like she might fall into the sky.
The next morning, Sokka turns around as the hunting expedition prepares to disembark from the ship, and he puts his hand on Zuko's shoulder.
'The next time you visit the Water Tribe, remind me that I owe you a party,' he says.
'I'll hold you to it,' Zuko answers, before Sokka suddenly pulls him into a tight embrace.
'And you,' he mutters, looking at Katara, 'be careful. Always.'
And then he is hugging her too, crushing her against his chest.
'You're starting to sound like dad,' she whispers, and he laughs quietly.
'Maybe I am,' he says.
When the ship begins to pull further and further into the open ocean, Katara stands at the bow of the ship and waves, until the figures of her brother and father, and the men of her tribe, fade out of view on the horizon.
Chapter 3: Ba Sing Se
The city is different than she remembers.
The first thing that Katara notices, when they pass through the stone gates of the outer wall, is that the city seems bigger somehow, and that she never remembers the streets having been this crowded.
'The walls,' Zuko says. 'They're taking the walls down.'
And he is right. When Katara looks closer, she can see that the inner walls of the city are slowly being disassembled, so that jagged peaks of cracked stone rise out of the rubble like mountains, and the air is thick with dust.
'About time,' she mutters, pulling a cloth from her pocket and tying it across her mouth to keep out the worst of the debris.
'You look like a grandmother,' he says.
'At least I can breathe,' she replies.
After a few minutes, he grudgingly pulls out a cloth of his own, and struggles with the knot behind his head for a second before they can keep walking.
'Look, all the locals are wearing one.' Katara gestures at the people who pass by them on the street: some boys kicking a ball down the winding alleyway, two women haggling over the price of cabbages from a harried vendor. 'We'll blend in more this way.'
They stop in front of a nondescript doorway in what used to be the Lower Ring. There are flowers growing around the door, and lace curtains hanging in the window, and Zuko looks at the paper in his hand one more time before folding it perfectly down the centre.
'Is this the place?' Katara says, because Zuko suddenly seems to have lost the ability to speak.
He nods, and without waiting for another word, Katara marches up to the doorway and knocks precisely, three times.
'Wait—' Zuko says, but it's no use because the door is swinging open.
To reveal an old man.
'What do you want?' he yells, although his smile is pleasant and he seems genuinely curious. Katara wonders if he is going deaf.
'Is there a woman who lives here?' she asks. She has to repeat herself again before an expression of understanding dawns on his face.
'The young Miss Bei Fong?' he shouts.
'The who?' Zuko chokes.
'You are looking for my landlord?' the man yells, smiling and pointing at a building that rises out of the rubble of the Upper Ring. 'Miss Bei Fong lives there.'
'Oh,' Zuko says, and Katara grabs his arm and begins pulling him away from the house.
'Thank you so much!' she calls behind her, and the man gives a deep bow before closing the door.
'What just happened?' Zuko says, as Katara drags him up the streets toward the looming tower.
'Your mom used to live in a building that Toph owns?' Katara says.
'Oh, this is too much,' Zuko mumbles under his breath.
When they ring at the door of the mansion that is – apparently – Toph's new residence, they are greeted by a familiar face.
This is literally the last person that Katara was expecting to see, but then she is leaning down to embrace him, and Zuko is giving him a curt nod, and they are being ushered inside.
'What are you two doing in the city?' Teo says, wheeling along the corridor to a small room set into the wall. In his lap are what seem to be dozens of scrolls, a wooden ruler and various drawing implements.
'We're on a bit of a mission,' Katara says, 'and we need to see Toph urgently.'
'Well you definitely came at the right time,' he says, pausing outside the door. 'She's going to be back any minute. I'll show you upstairs.'
They walk into the room, and Katara expects him to open another door, but instead the door to the hall closes behind them, and then Teo pulls a lever in the floor, and it starts to move.
'What—' Katara starts, but Teo is laughing at her expression.
'It's a lift. So much more space-efficient than stairs,' he explains, and gestures down to his chair. 'Not to mention more convenient.'
'So do you work with Toph?' Zuko says, as the lift slowly ascends. Teo nods.
'She's spearheading the project to tear down the walls between the Rings,' he says. 'And they needed a qualified architect. She figured that I was the best person for the job.'
'Congratulations!' Katara says. 'You're enjoying it?'
He pushes open the door and guides them into another hallway, and they head towards a large, gilded door.
'I love it,' he says, and Zuko coughs into his fist, and Teo looks away and Katara thinks that maybe he is blushing, but she can't tell.
They proceed down the hall quickly, and Teo pushes open the door to reveal a lushly upholstered sitting room, with large windows that look out to expansive gardens. The only time that Katara has seen wealth like this is when they were living in the Upper Ring themselves, and her breath catches in her throat.
'This is all very... unlike Toph,' Zuko says.
'Yup,' comes a voice from behind them. 'Pops decorated everything himself.'
Katara spins around to see Toph standing in the doorway, her feet planted firmly apart and her hands on her hips.
'Can't give a girl a little advance notice?' Toph says, marching into the room. 'I would have messed the place up a bit.'
But then Zuko is hugging her tightly, and Katara gets her on the other side, and says 'Toph sandwich!' and she is smiling, wide-eyed.
'So what is so important that you rushed here from the South Pole?' Toph says.
Teo has left to supervise the destruction of a wall near the palace – probably to also give them some privacy; Katara is glad that their friend is so perceptive – and they are sitting around a low table, eating a lunch that Toph insisted on providing.
'We visited a building earlier today, and the man who lives there said that you were the landlord,' Katara explains.
'Oh, yeah. The real estate game,' Toph says. 'Very profitable.'
'That's not why we're here,' Zuko says. 'The tenant who used to live in that building, do you know where she is now?'
'Oma left a few days ago. She was such a good tenant, and she made the best baozi...'
Beside her, Katara feels Zuko inhale sharply.
'Okay!' Toph suddenly yells. 'What is going on with you two? Zuko, you're so tense that I can feel it from here!'
Zuko sighs, and looks over at Katara.
'Toph...' she starts, but then Zuko's hand is over hers, and he interrupts her.
'That woman. The one who was calling herself Oma?' His fingers are pressing hers so tightly that it hurts, but she squeezes back and then he is speaking again. 'She's my mother,' he says.
Toph suddenly goes so still, and she remains that way for a moment before she calmly sets down her cup of tea.
'Oh, Sparky...' she says, and she sighs. 'Of course she is.'
. . .
The streets are dark by the time they leave the Bei Fong estate, and the street-side vendors are lighting their lanterns and putting candles in their windows, so that the alley where they are walking seems to glow with warm light.
'We can stay with Uncle tonight,' Zuko says. 'And if Toph is right about where my mother is heading, we can catch up with the refugee ship at Kyoshi Island.'
He speaks slowly, like he is laying out the plan for an invasion, or a tiger-seal hunt, but Katara can tell that he is anything but calm. She doesn't say anything. She knows the feeling.
When they reach the Jasmine Dragon, Iroh is waiting in front of the shop like he was expecting them.
'My nephew!' he cries, rushing forward to embrace Zuko. 'And young miss Katara, as well! A great surprise.'
'Uncle...' Zuko says, suddenly transformed into a young boy. 'Toph told you, didn't she?'
Iroh's face is suddenly stern, and he steps back and pulls aside the screen door to the shop.
'Please come inside,' he says. 'The customers will forgive this old man for closing early tonight.'
Iroh is understanding, but Katara expected no less. He pours them tea and listens to Zuko's story, about how he found the letter and is trying to track down Ursa, how they have travelled halfway across the world. When he finishes speaking, Iroh merely nods, and stands.
'I knew this day would come,' he says. And then, smiling: 'I keep an extra room upstairs just for occasions such as these.'
When Katara finally pulls the covers up over her shoulders – Zuko is sleeping on a mat, on the floor beside the bed, despite her objections – she realises that she isn't at all tired.
'Zuko,' she whispers. 'Are you awake?'
She leans over, and he lights a candle with a flick of his hand. For a few moments, they lie in silence, and the flame plays over the unscarred skin of his face.
'Why did you come to me first?' Katara finally says.
'Why are you asking?'
'Because Iroh didn't even know about this. I just assumed he did, but before we showed up, he didn't even know that you were looking for your mother. So why did you tell me?'
'Would you rather I hadn't?' he says.
'No, Zuko— It's just that we went through so much together but it's been over a year since I've seen you.'
'Like it's been over a year since you've seen Aang?' he says.
'That's different,' she snaps.
'Because it's Aang?'
'You know that's not what I meant.'
She sits up, and soon he is sitting up too.
'Well why don't you tell me what you mean?' he says.
'I mean why does it take something monumental for you to want to see me?'
'It doesn't— For the same reason that you didn't leave the South Pole for two years!'
'Oh and why was that—'
'Because it's too hard!'
'That's not at all—'
'Yes it is! You want to know why I never see you? Because it's difficult. Because I'm— I am still guilty!'
'No, you don't— I know that you've suffered so much and I can't think about it because I know that it was my people, and I am going to carry it every day—'
He stops suddenly, and breathes like he's coming up from underwater, or suffocating, and she can't look at him, so she looks over at the flame of the candle and blinks back the tears that she will not let fall.
'Is that how you feel when you're with me?' she says, and she had planned it to be a question, but it comes out as barely more than a whisper.
'No,' she says. 'No. I'm not your conscience and I won't make you martyr yourself.'
'Katara, I'm sorry—'
'What are you apologising for? It's not your fault. None of it was your fault. So is that what you needed to hear?'
'It's done, Zuko. The war is over.' She turns away. 'Just go to bed.'
And she waits for him to put out the candle, but darkness never comes, and she lies awake for a long time.
Chapter 4: Kyoshi Island
It is raining when they reach Kyoshi Island, a torrential downpour that soaks Katara's clothes. Zuko explains that this is the monsoon season, and Katara wrings her hair out wryly. He seems determined to act like their conversation on the last night in Ba Sing Se never happened, and she is more than happy to oblige.
After they find his mother, she plans to return to the Water Tribe and never speak to him again.
There are no other ships in the bay when they disembark onto the shoreline, the sand painted red by the sunset. Slowly, Kyoshi villagers appear at the tree line, coming out onto the beach in small groups. Katara wonders whether they are remembering the destruction of their village, whether they – like herself – still treat every visitor with caution.
'Katara?' comes a voice from off to her left, and she scans the approaching group to see a familiar face.
Then they are embracing, and for some reason Katara can barely stop herself from crying, and she is breathing in gasps, and Suki is patting her on the back and taking it all in stride.
'Come on,' she says. 'Everything's okay.'
'I know,' Katara says. 'I've just been travelling for so long.'
Suki guides them up to the training longhouse of the Kyoshi Warriors, where the walls are strung with paper lanterns and scrolls painted in black ink.
'A royal visit?'
The voice is unmistakably sarcastic, and when Katara turns around, she cannot recognise the figure standing behind them, a tall girl with long, dark hair, dressed in full warrior regalia, but Zuko does.
'Mai?' he says.
'Don't be so shocked,' she replies. 'It's not a good look for you.'
And then Katara remembers, and she laughs into her hand, trying to be surreptitious about it.
'Oh, awkward,' Suki says.
'Not really,' Mai says, and then she laughs.
Katara is pretty sure that she has never seen Mai laugh before, and because she is doing it, it becomes contagious.
'Look at us!' Suki says. 'Our love lives are like a bad kabuki, I can't even keep track.'
When everyone has breathed enough to sit and talk calmly, Suki brings in a tray of tea and Katara explains the situation.
'If I had known...' Suki says. 'The refugee ship was just stopping over here; it left this morning.'
'Do you know where it was heading?' Zuko says.
'No—' Suki starts, but Mai interrupts her.
'The captain didn't say, but I was talking to someone who said they were heading to Shu Jing.'
'Shu Jing in the Fire Nation?' Katara suddenly says.
'You know where it is?'
'Of course,' Katara answers. 'During the war— We went there for Sokka to train under the master swordsman, Piandao.'
'Then that's where Ursa will be,' Mai says.
Zuko is silent, and Katara feels like she has to ask, so she speaks quickly.
'Do you want to leave right away?'
'I don't...' Zuko starts, and Suki looks quickly between him and Katara before she interrupts.
'Please stay for just tonight!' she says. 'We're having a festival to celebrate Avatar Kyoshi—'
'We are?' Mai says, but Suki shoots her a look and continues.
'Yes, we are,' she says, 'and we'd love for you to stay.'
. . .
Katara turns around to see Mai standing behind her, arms crossed across her chest.
'No,' Katara says. 'It's not like that.'
'Could've fooled me.'
Mai hands her a cup of something that smells like Fire Nation wine, and leans beside her against the longhouse.
The village has gathered together for what Katara is sure was a last-minute festival, but they are enjoying themselves and the mood is contagious, even though her argument with Zuko is still hanging over her head like a dark cloud. Because she didn't have anything nice to wear – she packed for stealth and practicality – Suki leant her a silk kimono, and for now Katara is afraid to move in case she trips and damages it.
'What does the Avatar think about all of this?' Mai says.
'Aang? He doesn't know. I haven't seen him in over a year.'
'Really? I thought you two were—'
'No,' Katara says. 'Things change. But you know that.'
Mai takes a long drink before looking up, and pointing to a constellation that Katara vaguely recognises.
'You know, in the Fire Nation we call that constellation Jauza. It's the name of a warrior, and whenever I saw those stars I thought of Zuko.'
Katara listens quietly, tracing the pattern of Mai's fingers over the sky.
'If someone had told me back then that I would end up a Kyoshi Warrior, I wouldn't have believed them.'
'I barely believe it now,' Katara says.
'You've got a point, there. But what I'm trying to say is that things change. Whatever's going on with you and Zuko, you two are friends, and we've all been through a lot to get to a point where a friendship like yours could even happen.'
'I'm worried about him,' Katara says. 'And I'm mad at him. But mostly worried. He is carrying all of this guilt, and I don't think that anyone ever taught him to forgive himself.'
She looks at Mai for a second, but she is nodding and Katara continues.
'I mean, after the war, Aang went through a lot before he could forgive himself for all of those— for all the people that we killed, all of us. But he had us there to help him.'
'But you and Aang aren't friends anymore?'
'No, we're still friends. It's just that none of us were old enough to understand that going through a lot of bad things together doesn't necessarily mean that you have to be together. You know?'
'I know,' Mai says. And then: 'Zuko isn't Aang.'
'He's not,' Katara says. 'Because Zuko tried to get through it all alone.'
Mai pushes herself off the wall and turns to look Katara in the eyes.
'You should be having this conversation with him,' she says, before walking away.
'Mai, wait—' Katara yells, and Mai stops walking but doesn't turn around. 'I don't know if anyone has ever told you this, but you're a really good listener.'
She thinks she hears Mai laughing, and then there is the sound of footsteps retreating over the earth, and then silence.
Chapter 5: Shu Jing
They leave Kyoshi Island early the next morning, while it is still dark, and by the light of the lanterns, Katara embraces Suki and Mai and promises to visit.
'We got up this early for you, so you'd better,' Mai says, and Suki turns and smiles at her with so much happiness that the small action makes Katara think that maybe, if these two have found peace, then so can she.
And so can Zuko, if she has anything to say about it.
When they reach Shu Jing, the waterfalls and the forest of the small island are alight with the rising sun, and even though she has seen this place before, Katara finds her breath caught in her throat, struck by the almost painfully hopeful feeling that everything is new: the trees, the steel of the ship, the birds flying overhead. Everything has led up to this moment and she is exactly where she is supposed to be.
They don't speak to one another until they set foot on the island, and the trees and the mountains tower over them until Katara feels like the smallest person on earth.
'There are no roads up to Piandao's estate, so we have to walk,' she explains.
'Then we'd better get started,' Zuko says.
And so they do.
They've been walking for hours, and Katara's legs are burning and she can barely see through the hair that is plastered to her forehead by this stupid humidity when Zuko suddenly speaks.
'I'm... sorry...' he says, speaking between breaths. 'About our... fight... in Ba Sing Se.'
She almost wants to laugh, because they are both so out of shape and because this is the worst possible time to be having this conversation, but mostly out of relief that she didn't have to speak first.
'Zuko—' she says. 'Zuko... stop.'
He stops, and they stand there panting for what seems an endless amount of time, before Katara has finally caught her breath.
'I don't want to fight with you,' she says.
'I didn't mean to say those things,' he starts, but she interrupts him.
'It's okay. Zuko, we went through so much in the war, and it's unfair to expect you to just forget about all of it.'
'But it's not fair to you, either.'
'Life isn't fair,' she says, quoting her gran-gran. 'But we're friends. We can't keep on blaming each other.'
'I don't blame you—'
'I know you don't blame me. But I want you to know that I don't blame you. I never have.'
'But back then, under Ba Sing Se, you said—'
'I know what I said. And it was horrible and I shouldn't have said it. But I said it out of anger.'
'I don't think of you as my conscience,' he says suddenly. 'You said— You said you're not my conscience and I want you to know that I don't see you like that. I see you as my friend, and you're kind, and caring, and you don't let me get away with anything—'
'And I'm sorry. You understand me better than anyone, and that's why I came to you when I found the letter. You wanted to know and I'm telling you: that's why I went to you first.'
'No, Zuko,' she says. 'Look.'
And she is pointing over the crest of the hill, because there, through the trees, is the most beautiful thing she has ever seen.
'Piandao's estate,' Zuko says, and then they are both laughing and Katara is crying and suddenly her knees can't hold her up, and they are both half-kneeling on the ground.
'Oh, we're finally here. Zuko, we're finally— I don't think I could have walked another step!'
. . .
Piandao opens the door like he has been expecting them.
'You've come to see Ursa?' he says, and for a second Zuko looks lost, and then suddenly, impulsively, she is taking his hand and answering for him.
'We've been looking for her for almost a month,' Katara says. 'So yes, we'd like to see her, please.'
Piandao laughs, and puts his hand on Zuko's shoulder.
'She's waiting in the garden,' he says, and begins to guide them through the pagoda.
The whole time they are walking, Zuko is pressing her fingers between his own, and she finally finds herself talking.
'It's going to be okay,' she is saying. 'She's your mother, and you can finally see her—'
'I'm not the same person that I was when she left,' he says.
'Neither is she.'
'But I've done— I've been waiting for so long and then, if she doesn't even want to see me—'
'She's your mother, Zuko, and she loves you.'
Then they are in the sunlight, and Zuko's hand slips out from her own, and Katara hears a voice saying:
'This young lady said it better than I ever could.'
And Ursa is standing there. There is a horrible moment where everyone is still, and then suddenly she is sweeping forward and holding Zuko so tightly, like she will never let go, and he is speaking in gasps.
'Mom, I looked, I never stopped looking. I just didn't— I never stopped...'
'Oh, Zuko,' she says. 'I know. You don't need to say anything. I know.'
Katara feels a hand on her shoulder, and looks over to see Piandao smiling at her. It reminds her of her father so much that suddenly everything blurs in watery sunshine and she can't help it; she is laughing, and crying, all at the same time.
Later, Zuko and Ursa sit together for a long time, behind the closed screens of the pagoda, and their voices are quiet. Katara can guess that they are telling each other everything, that maybe, just maybe, Zuko is finally learning to forgive himself. She and Piandao wait in the garden, and after a while she begins to show him her bending forms, just to pass the time, and he asks how Sokka is doing and then suddenly Zuko is standing in the archway. His eyes are red and his face is pale, but he's smiling.
'Is everything—' Katara says, her voice trailing off on a question.
'Yes,' Zuko says. 'Everything is fine.'
They walk through the gardens for a long time, and Katara runs her fingers over the leaves that they pass, bending the water in the ponds into animal shapes, and feeling like she can breathe for the first time in a long time.
'Thank you,' Zuko says, breaking their long silence.
'You don't have to thank me,' she says.
'I know. I know I don't, but I want to.'
They keep walking, until they are in a smaller pagoda, lit with lanterns that reflect coloured light on the water. Katara leans on the railing and looks down into the pond, where the koi are swimming circles around each other and painting bright patterns with their movements.
'Like the Spirit Oasis,' Katara says.
'You rise with the moon—'
'And you rise with the sun.'
He reaches over, brushing her hair away from her face, and she is suddenly conscious of how tangled it is, how they are both still dirty from the hike, and he has the darkest shadows under his eyes, but it's okay, because the world is at peace and the night is warm and they are here together.
'Zuko—' she says.
'Hold still,' he say. He is still holding the lock of her hair, weaving it through his fingers like a dark, silk ribbon, and he is tilting his head down until she could just move forward—
They are still for a moment, until she finds herself smiling, and then he is smiling too.
'Is this alright?' he says.
She presses his fingers between her own, and he says: 'I'm going to kiss you now.'
And she says: 'Okay—' and she is smiling. 'Zuko, okay.'
And so he does.