“Katara’s necklace!” cried Aang. “Give that back!”
“Come and take it!” shouted Zuko as he kicked a wave of flame toward the Avatar. The younger boy dodged nimbly out of the way but the prince pressed his attack and released more blasts, all of which missed.
While the two boys fought – or rather, while Zuko chased Aang, who hopped around while staying out of the Firebender’s reach – Katara and Sokka fought Zuko’s bounty hunter, June, and her monstrous shirshu. For some reason the old Firebender who always accompanied Zuko did nothing but watch the fight. Perhaps he was too old to fight or perhaps he was waiting for an opportune moment to intervene. Whatever the case, Katara didn’t have the time to ponder the situation. June and her pet were already hard enough to fight on their own. Please don’t let the old man join the fight, thought Katara as she dodged the shirshu’s poison tongue.
Luckily, Sokka was quite good at thinking on his feet and had quickly grasped the potential of the jars of perfume that the nuns had stored in the courtyard. “Katara, splash this stuff on that giant sniffer animal thing!” said Sokka as he tipped over the jars. Without hesitation, Katara grabbed the perfume and waterbent it at the shirshu. The smell overpowered the creature, causing it to lash out wildly at its surroundings. June was quickly paralyzed by her own shirshu while a surprised Zuko found himself unable to move after the shirshu tagged him on the way into running into a wall and knocking itself out.
“Prince Zuko!” shouted Iroh in concern. “Are you all right?”
“Get – them,” gasped Zuko as he tried to get his body to move. Aang stared at Iroh for a second before he flung a blast of wind at the old Firebender, knocking him down. “Let’s get out of here!” shouted Aang as he jumped aboard Appa, who had by then recovered from the shirshu poison. Katara and Sokka followed Aang and scrambled aboard the sky bison and in less than two minutes they were in the sky and flying away to safety.
“Whew, that was a close one,” said Sokka as he laid back in relief on Appa’s saddle. They’d only been fighting just a few minutes ago but Aang decided there was no time like the present when it came to apologizing. “Guys, I’m sorry,” he said. “I shouldn’t have hid that message from you and I shouldn’t have lied to you. It’s just that I was scared you’d leave and – well, that’s not an excuse. I’m just sorry.”
Sokka had forgotten Aang’s trick in the excitement of the fight but the monk’s apology returned Sokka’s sense of betrayal. “Aang,” began Sokka irately as he sprang up to scold the younger boy before he saw the Aang’s abject misery. He sighed and let his anger go. Aang was just a kid, and besides, at the end of the day it had been nothing but a tiff between friends. “Look, just don’t do that again, all right? Whatever happens, we have to trust each other.”
“I promise not to lie to the two of you ever again,” said Aang.
“Why Sokka, since when have you been so forgiving?” teased Katara. “I do believe you’re stealing my lines.”
“Whatever, sis, you know as the oldest it falls upon me to be the mature one.”
“Excuse me? You’re the mature one?”
Aang interrupted Katara before she could get any momentum behind her rant. “I’m sorry too, Katara. I couldn’t get your mother’s necklace back from Zuko.”
Katara gave him a sad smile in reply. “It’s okay, Aang,” said Katara. “The necklace was always just a reminder of my mother. I’ll always have her with me, necklace or no necklace.”
“Well,” said Sokka, “let’s not give up hope yet (and I’m not stealing your lines, Katara). We might still be able to get your necklace back from Zuko eventually.”
Katara smiled at her brother’s attempt to cheer her up. “Here’s hoping.”
“Give up now, girl,” said Pakku as he approached Katara’s frozen prison. He had shot icicles around her, trapping her in an impromptu cage.
“I’ll never give up,” promised Katara as she tried to free herself from the ice.
“Look, it’s not your fault you lost,” said Pakku generously, for he was not at heart a cruel man. “You did your best, but there’s only so much a girl can do.”
“What! I can’t believe you said that! Let me go and I’ll show you what this girl can do!”
“You already did,” pointed out Pakku. “Men are stronger than women. That’s simply how the world works.”
“I can’t believe you Northern Tribe actually believe that! No wonder my grandmother left this place!”
“Oh? Who’s your grandmother?” asked Pakku. He didn’t actually care, he just wanted Katara to calm down before he released her.
“Her name is Kanna,” said Katara.
“What!” shouted Pakku. He hadn’t expected to hear that name again. “Kanna?”
Katara stared at Pakku, who looked rooted to the ground in shock. “That’s right,” she said slowly while her mind raced in thought. “She was born here in the north, but she said she left because she couldn’t stand the way women were treated by the Northern Water Tribe.” She continued to watch Pakku, who looked even more likely to faint in shock. Okay, looks like I’m going in the right direction, thought Katara. “In fact, my grandmother said she left because of a specific man, a man who wouldn’t let her live her life the way she wanted to. A man who actually sounds a lot like you.”
Pakku said nothing as he fell to his knees. “That was why?” he asked. Whew, it worked, thought Katara as the icy cage around her disappeared into the snow. “That’s right,” she said. “Please, I’m not asking you for any special treatment. I’m just asking you to treat me like any other student.”
The Waterbending Master stayed frozen for a moment more before pulling himself together and standing up. “I’ll have to think about your request,” he said.
“All right,” agreed Katara. “I’ll come to the practice grounds tomorrow morning and I’ll hear whatever you’ve decided.” Which had better be to teach me, Katara wisely did not add.
“Right, tomorrow morning,” said Pakku, still stunned. “Be there.”
“Don’t worry, Yue,” said Katara in reassurance. “I can watch over all of us. I’ve learned a lot from Master Pakku.”
“Congratulations,” said Zuko as he stepped into the cave, startling the two girls. “You found a Master. But it doesn’t matter. I won’t let anything stand between me and the Avatar.”
“Prince Zuko,” hissed Katara. “I was wondering what had happened to you. Well,” she said as she drew water from the pools around her, “you won’t find me quite so easy to beat this time.”
“Does that mean you don’t want this?” he asked as he pulled something out of his coat.
Katara’s eyes widened in surprise. “That’s—“
“Yes, it is,” agreed the boy as he calmly entered further into the Spirit Oasis. “I’m offering you the same deal as before. Stand aside and I’ll give this necklace to you.”
“Hah!” scoffed Katara. “Or maybe I’ll just take it from you after I beat you.”
“You can try,” he said as he stuffed the necklace back into his coat. It had been worth a try. Oh well. Zuko cleared all distractions from his mind, and with that done, he attacked.
What was going on? Some strange boy had suddenly appeared at the Spirit Oasis and attacked Katara, even though the Oasis was supposed to be the most impregnable place in the entire North Pole. Even stranger, the intruder had turned out to be the Crown Prince of the Fire Nation, the one who had disappeared years earlier under a cloud of mystery. Well, whoever he was, he was also a threat to the Avatar. She’d think about the rest of the strange goings on later. For now, she’d get Sokka to help his sister.
Speaking of whom, where was Sokka? Yue desperately ran down the streets of her city as she looked for him. Oh, thank goodness, there he was! Good thing he was on Appa, he was pretty easy to spot. “Sokka!” yelled Yue as she jumped and waved her arms. “Come quick! A Firebender showed up out of nowhere and started fighting Katara. Your sister said his name was Zuko.”
“He’s here?” asked Sokka as Appa landed. “That’s just great. Come on, get on Appa and let’s get to Katara as fast as possible.” Yue was already climbing aboard while he was finishing his sentence. “It’s that way,” she said as she pointed.
“Okay Appa, yip-yip! Katara’s in trouble and it’s up to us to rescue her again!” Appa bellowed as he took off and sped toward the Oasis.
It took bare minutes for them to arrive at the Spirit Oasis, just in time to catch Zuko halfway up the ice cliffs with Aang tied to his back. Yue wanted to land and check on Katara, who was apparently unconscious (she hoped), but she knew Aang was more important right now. Sokka made Appa hover behind Zuko as he tried to convince the boy to surrender. “Give it up, Zuko! You’ve got nowhere to go.”
Zuko stopped climbing as he paused in apparent indecision. Long moments passed before the prince sighed and detached himself from his climbing rope. Suddenly, he pushed himself backwards and twisted in midair as he leapt at Appa. However, Sokka had been ready and quickly clubbed Zuko on the head as the boy landed on the sky bison, knocking the prince unconscious.
“Okay Yue, untie Aang and keep an eye on Zuko while I take us down.” Yue agreed and released Aang as Appa landed. She carefully slid Aang down Appa’s tail while Sokka threw Zuko over the side. “Aang’s okay? Good, you can leave him there while you check on Katara. I’ll join you as soon as I tie up Zuko.”
She really hoped Katara was okay. This Zuko wouldn’t have hurt her badly, right? As she approached, she saw Katara’s chest moving as she breathed. Thank you, spirits! She began to check Katara for serious injuries but froze when she spied the necklace Katara was wearing. The same necklace that the prince had tried to bribe her with. The necklace that had clearly been carved as a betrothal gift.
“Holy. Fucking. Shit.” Yue fainted dead away.
“No really, Sokka, I’m fine,” Katara heard as she woke up. Oh, what had happened? Right, Zuko had knocked her out. Wait, what about Aang? She tried to shout her question but only managed to groan a bit.
“Katara!” said Sokka as he sprang to her side and helped her sit up. “How are you feeling? And you too, Yue?”
“I’m really okay, Sokka, I guess all this running around just got to me,” said Yue.
“I’m okay too,” said Katara.
“Well, okay,” said Sokka as he watched them both carefully. “Wait, do you hear that? Someone’s coming.”
Katara shook off the cobwebs in her mind and prepared herself to defend Aang again (and wouldn’t you know it, he was lying nice and comfy on Aapa’s tail). She turned around to tell Yue to find somewhere safe to hide but was taken aback when she caught the Northern princess hurriedly turning away and pretending that she hadn’t been staring at Katara. “What is it?” asked the young waterbender.
“Uh, it’s nothing!” said Yue, who was trying not to stare at Katara’s neck.
“Huh?” said Katara as she looked down and discovered her mother’s necklace around her neck. “Oh! Zuko must have put the necklace on me while I was out cold. That was . . . surprisingly nice of him. I guess I should thank him or something.”
“Right, nice,” agreed Yue as she smiled nervously at Katara.
“Is something wrong, Yue?” asked Katara.
Before Yue could answer, the doors to the Spirit Oasis burst open and revealed a small group of Firebenders. “Well, isn’t this convenient,” said their leader, Zhao. The invaders quickly fanned out to face Katara and the other defenders. “The Avatar and his cronies at the exact spot of my glorious – oww!”
Someone had interrupted Zhao with a snowball to the face, which seemed like a good signal to attack. “Get them!” shouted Katara as she flung a wave of water at the Firebenders. She saw Sokka to her left throwing his boomerang and yelling wildly, while to her right she saw Yue standing protectively before Aang, and in front of her she saw Zuko charging straight at Zhao. Wait, Zuko?
Of all the stupid – had he been playing possum? Well, no time for that, she and Zuko could go for round two as soon as Zhao’s group was taken care of. Katara finished off the last of the soldiers by drenching him and freezing him to the ground, then turned to attack Zuko and Zhao. The two had somehow fallen into the koi pond and were trading punches and kicks enhanced by the odd fire blast.
“Zhao, even if you defeat my nephew, don’t think I’ll let you harm the Moon and Ocean Spirits,” shouted Iroh as he stepped forward. What the heck? Where did these Firebenders keep coming from?
Zhao knocked Zuko down with a shoulder tackle before quickly glancing around and seeing that all of his men had been defeated. His eyes widened in surprise, then he thrust his arms into the koi pond, which rapidly began to bubble and steam.
“No!” Iroh punched a ball of fire at Zhao, who ducked underwater to escape. However, the pool began to glow, as well as the unconscious Avatar, who floated through the air and levitated over the centre of the pool. Katara’s eyes widened in awe as she saw Aang taking on the combined aspect of the Moon and Ocean Spirits. Aang hung suspended in the middle of a giant koi made of water as he (they?) flowed over the ice cliffs and headed into the city of the Northern Water Tribe.
“What just happened?” asked Sokka.
“I believe Admiral Zhao angered the Moon and Ocean Spirits by attacking them,” answered Iroh. “Zhao’s plan was to kill the Moon Spirit and remove the power of the Waterbenders, which as you can see has failed spectacularly.”
“Uh, for sure,” agreed Sokka, who was eyeing the old Firebender with suspicion. “Wait, where’s Zhao? And Zuko?”
Katara gave a guilty start. “Oops, I forgot to keep an eye on them. We’ll have to chase after – hey, where are you going?” she asked of Iroh.
“I’m going to find my nephew, of course.”
“You can’t just –“ Iroh raised his arms and called a wall of flame to separate himself from Katara, Sokka, and Yue. By the time she had put out the fire he was long gone. “That’s just great. This whole night’s been crazy. What else is going to happen?”
“Well, there’s only one way to find out,” said Sokka as he walked toward the doorway. “You two coming?”
Things had definitely gone crazy that night, Yue mused to herself. The Moon and Ocean Spirits, walking down the streets of the city and obliterating the Fire Nation! The Avatar destroying an entire fleet with their power! And not quite as crazy, but still pretty out there, the Crown Prince of the Fire Nation had asked a Waterbender from the Southern Water Tribe to marry him – and she had accepted! What was a princess supposed to do?
For the thousandth time, Yue ran over the situation in her mind. For the thousandth time, she came to no decision on what to do, and for the thousandth time, Yue kept her mouth shut about Katara’s secret.
There were all kinds of things to take into account with Katara’s illicit romance. For one thing, could it actually lead to an end to the war? And how would the Fire Nation react to the engagement? How would the Water Tribe? For that matter, how would the Earth Kingdom? To the Earth Kingdom, the engagement might look like an alliance set up to exclude them. Wait, what if that was exactly what it was supposed to be?
Yue shook her head in frustration. This was ridiculous, the battle had been a month ago and she was still going round in circles. She should at least tell her father. No wait, she should at least talk to Katara. Well, she really should talk to the both of them. But which one should she approach first?
She looked out her window and watched Katara running over some techniques with Master Pakku and his other students while behind them the Avatar was making a snowman. Now Pakku was yelling at the Avatar and dumping a load of snow all over him. Yue smiled at the sight before her mind once again returned to her dilemma. If there was one good thing about the situation, it was the fact that worrying about Katara’s love life kept her from worrying about her own. And wouldn’t you know, here was Sokka marching through the courtyard with the other warriors.
Well, at least the thing with Sokka wasn’t as big of a problem as Katara’s politically incorrect relationship, though “problem” wasn’t really the right word for whatever Yue and Sokka had going on between them. Yue’s fiancé Hahn had died in the battle, drowned in the freezing waters along with the rest of his team, leaving her free to be with someone else. She hadn’t been that close to Hahn and the both of them had known their marriage was mostly to be a political union. But would her father approve of a penniless hunter from their backwards sister tribe? Her eyes left Sokka and returned to Katara. How wonderful it would be to marry the one you loved.
And so her thoughts had again returned to Katara and Prince Zuko. She couldn’t escape thinking about it, could she? But how had such a thing happened? Two enemies, coming together in secret? Though Katara had been rather open about the whole thing when she’d confronted Prince Zuko at the Spirit Oasis. Maybe she’d forgotten Yue was there? She probably hadn’t seen the prince in weeks, if not months. Yue didn’t know how Katara had looked past the prince’s more worrisome characteristics but she couldn’t help but admire the other girl for being true to herself. What would it be like to have the freedom to choose and the strength to stand by that choice?
Wouldn’t you know, she’d managed to distract herself from deciding on anything yet again. Okay, she’d decide on something in the next five minutes. Yue sighed and ran over the issues one more time. Well, the Sokka situation wasn’t an urgent international political issue, but the Katara situation sure was. As Katara’s friend, she should talk the whole thing over with the other girl. But Katara was busy right now, right? It wouldn’t be nice to interrupt her practice. Which left Yue’s father as the only other person she should talk to.
Right, making decisions wasn’t really that difficult. What had she been agonizing over? Maybe she just needed more practice. Yue decided to see her father before she found another excuse to delay.
“I’m sorry, could you repeat that?”
“Katara is engaged to Prince Zuko.”
“That’s, that’s – oh, I need to sit down.”
“Umm, we’re both sitting down.”
“Then I need to sit here in stunned silence for the next two minutes.”
“. . . How was that, was that long enough?”
“That was barely five seconds! At least let your father recover from hearing mind-blowing news. Wait, is that how Katara got that necklace of hers? I asked her about it and she said that it was an heirloom from her mother. She said she’d lost it and only recently managed to get it back again.”
“Well, she was lying her ass off.”
“Yue! A princess does not use such language!”
“Sorry, dad, but I’ve been keeping this bottled up for a while and I’ve kind of been going crazy trying to think about all the complications.”
“Right, right, there are all kinds of things to take into account. Huh, so that’s what happened in the Spirit Oasis? No, never mind that for now. Alright, Yue, for now just keep this news to yourself. Katara apparently wants to keep this a secret and that seems like a good idea. Don’t let her know that you know.”
“Really? Because I really want to talk to her about it. I’ve got all kinds of questions.”
“No, you should respect her wishes. If she wants you to know then she’ll tell you.”
“Well, I guess that’s true. So what now?”
“Now you go meet your tutor like you’re scheduled to and I’ll stay here and continue absorbing your news.”
“Oh, I almost forgot. Well, thanks dad, it felt good to get this off my chest.”
“All I did was listen to my daughter like any father should. I’m glad you felt like you could come to me with this.”
“Come on, dad, you were the first person I thought of talking to. Okay, I guess I’ll see you this evening.”
“Have a good afternoon, daughter.”
“You too. Anyway, bye for now!”
“. . . Yue? Okay, good, she’s gone. Holy fucking shit, I need a drink. Hmm, I wonder if I could do anything with this?”
Katara wondered what was up with Yue. She’d been acting odd for a while now. Was it just the illicit romance with Sokka? Not that it was really improper or anything, Chief Arnook even seemed to like Sokka. Katara supposed the princess was just anxious about saying goodbye.
Yue finished giving Aang his parting gift, a box of Waterbending scolls, and she moved on to Sokka, who got a length of expensive rope (they laughed over that for some reason). He also got an invitation to write to her as often as he could, which he gladly accepted. Finally, Yue reached Katara’s place in the line.
“Katara, , please accept from the Northern Water Tribe this water from the Spirit Oasis. It has special healing properties, so use it well.” Wow, that was an incredible gift!
“Thank you, Yue, I’m honoured,” said Katara warmly.
But Yue wasn’t finished. “And from me, please accept this modest token of my friendship.” A set of whalebone earrings? And they matched her mother’s necklace, too. “It’s something nice to wear for when you meet that special someone,” whispered Yue as she leaned in to hand Katara her gift.
Katara gave what she hoped was a genuine smile and thanked Yue again. What the heck? Since when did Yue think she was boy crazy? Or maybe Yue was being pushy and telling her to get a boyfriend. Her Gran-gran had told her couples sometimes tried to set up their friends too. Well, it was still a nice gift. Katara tried very hard not to think about the dried silverleaf that Yugoda the healer had given her last night. The herb helped regulate her cycle, but it also had a well-known alternate use.
After a few more goodbyes, Katara got on Appa’s back along with Sokka and Aang. Momo was already napping in the saddle. She turned around and waved goodbye as Appa took off.
Unbeknownst to Katara, at that very same moment messenger birds were leaving the North Pole headed for the major cities of the Fire Nation and the Earth Kingdom. One was even on its way to the Southern Water Tribe. The birds were part of an ancient royal custom, one that was meant to spread joy throughout the Four Nations. Properly speaking, the family of the royalty involved should have sent the birds, but exceptions happened. After all, it wasn’t everyday that you got to share the news that Crown Prince of the Fire Nation was engaged to a Master Waterbender from the South Pole.
Happily ignorant of her engagement, Katara settled herself in Appa’s saddle and idly wondered what the Earth Kingdom would be like.
“Princess Azula, I think you’ll be interested in this message,” said the governor of Omashu. Azula took the scroll from him and quickly scanned through it, then slowed down to read the message again more thoroughly when she realized what it was saying. “Well, girls,” she said to her friends, “it seems my brother has finally shown his true colours.”
“What do you mean, Azula?” asked Ty Lee. Behind her, the governor had silently retreated out of the room. Azula’s only answer was to turn the scroll around so that Mai and Ty Lee could read it. The tassel was in the gold and red pattern that meant an official message involving a royal wedding. Had the Earth King finally gotten engaged? Then Mai and Ty Lee took a closer look.
“Zuko’s engaged to Katara, ‘Master Waterbender and daughter of Chief Hakoda of the Southern Water Tribe’?” quoted Mai. “That’s –“
So boring, Azula finished for her mentally. Just so dull, guessed Ty Lee.
“—that’s the last straw! I swear I’ll find them and cut off their eyelids!”
“What do you mean ‘last straw’?” asked Azula, ignoring the threats of mutilation. “You haven’t seen dear Zuzu in three years.”
“I was waiting for him,” said Mai, somehow sounding even more depressed. “I waited and waited and he threw it back in my face by chasing after a piece of strange.”
“Mai, I never knew you could be so crude,” said Azula admiringly. “But I’m not sure my brother ever even noticed you.”
Mai glared daggers at Azula, but the princess returned Mai’s look with nothing but cool consideration. “You know, Mai,” said Azula, “I’m not sure if you’re in the right frame of mind for this hostage exchange we’ve got scheduled.”
“Oh come on, Azula, Mai just needs something to cheer her up, “said Ty Lee. “I mean, her lost love gave his heart to someone else, isn’t that just so tragic? I hope they make it into a play.”
Mai grabbed the engagement notice from Azula and tore it to tiny shreds of expensive paper. “It’s okay, Mai, Azula and I still love you,” said Ty Lee cheerfully.
“Whoopee,” said Mai. “I hope those Omashu rebels double cross us; I really need to eviscerate something.”
“You’ll get your chance since we’ll double cross them first anyway,” said Azula. “Really, Mai, how could you think otherwise? I think you might have to sit this one out after all, getting heaved over the side by my brother has interfered with your rationality.”
Mai glared at Azula again, to which the princess did nothing but roll her eyes and assent half-heartedly. “Oh, fine, you can come if it means that much to you,” said Azula.
“Yay! The three of us together again!” celebrated Ty Lee. “We’ll give those rebels what for!”
“Well, if it isn’t the infamous Avatar,” drawled Azula as she lazily looked over the group standing before her. “And company,” she added as she spotted a girl dressed in blue. Evidently, Mai had also recognized the Water Tribe girl, since she had immediately run forward screaming and thrown what seemed like the entire monthly output of a moderately successful knife factory.
The battle quickly broke up into smaller fights as Azula chased after the Avatar and Ty Lee toyed around with the Water Tribe boy while Mai flung even more knives at the Waterbender. Mai was reminded that she didn’t actually have an endless supply of knives when she discovered the bandoliers under her clothes were all empty. Not taking a moment to slow down, Mai tackled Katara to the ground, where they wrestled with each other in amateurish fashion.
“Yeesh, what’s with knifey girl?” asked Sokka rhetorically as he saw his sister rolling around on the ground with the Fire Nation fighter. He quickly returned his attention to his opponent as he threw his boomerang at Ty Lee.
“She’s feeling upset, silly!” said Ty Lee as she ducked under his boomerang and then straightened up again. “Poor Mai just had her heart broken.”
“Really? By who?”
“Oh, it’s just the worst! But it’s a long story, so I’ll have to bring you in first –“
The rest of her sentence was cut off as she was knocked unconsciousness by the return flight of Sokka’s boomerang.
“Yeah, that’s really interesting,” said Sokka as he retrieved his boomerang from where it lay beside her. He ran over to Katara and clubbed his sister’s opponent on the back of the head.
“Get her off me,” grumbled Katara as she tried to disentangle herself from her wrestling partner. “What got her into such a bad mood, anyway?”
“Hey, don’t be so quick to judge, she just got her heart broken,” said Sokka as he shoved the girl off his sister.
“And that makes it okay for her to go crazy on me? Oww, I can’t believe she bit me on the neck.”
“Never underestimate the pain of a broken heart.” Katara glared at him for saying something so cheesy, to which Sokka rolled his eyes. “Look, we’ve got an Avatar and a king to rescue so let’s just get out there, okay?” Sokka pointed in the distance to where a high-speed chase was taking place on Omashu’s mail chutes.
“Yeah, okay,” said Katara as she stumbled toward Appa. Sokka helped her get on and they flew off to help Aang while leaving Mai and Ty Lee lying insensible in the dirt.
Half a minute later, Ty Lee groaned and slowly lifted her head. She saw Mai lying a short distance away and crawled toward her. “Mai, are you okay?” she asked as she checked Mai over. Mai woke up thanks to Ty Lee’s efforts, though she cursed Ty Lee for not letting her lie unconscious longer.
“Did they get away?” asked Mai.
“Sorry,” said Ty Lee. “Look, Mai, maybe Azula was right. If you’d just let me help with the Waterbender—“
“I know,” said Mai. “If I’d let you fight her you could have taken away her bending.” Mai sighed and released the tension that she hadn’t realized had been suffusing her body. “We’ll be smarter next time.”
“Great, because I think they’re escaping,” said Ty Lee as she watched the sky bison fly off into the sky.
“Next time we’ll do it right,” promised Mai.
“Next time,” agreed Ty Lee.
Azula didn’t show it but she was rather puzzled b y her brother’s behaviour. What had been the point of attacking her and the Avatar at the same time? Dear Zuzu had obviously thrown in his lot with the Avatar, so why attack the little Airbender?
Then again, the royal banns had only announced his engagement to the Waterbender, there was no mention of an alliance between him and any other faction, not even his fiancée’s own Southern Water Tribe. Could it be that the idiot was still trying to forge his own path by himself, maybe by setting up a third side to the war?
Trust Zuko to make things harder for himself. Sure, Azula herself was surrounded and outnumbered, but she always had a trick up her sleeve. “What’s wrong, Zuzu, no tearful reunion with your loved one? It’s okay, we can call a timeout while you cry your eyes out.”
Zuko shot an involuntary glance toward Uncle Iroh before hiding the puzzled look on his face. “I’m not letting you distract me, Azula.”
“You already have,” said Azula as she shot a bolt of lightning at the Waterbender. The group retaliated, of course, but Azula had called forth a giant ball of fire to hide her as she escaped. If she wasn’t mistaken, dear old Uncle had thrown himself in front of the Waterbender and had taken the blast meant for the girl. Looking after her uncle would either slow everyone down or make them split up, with at least one left behind to look after Uncle. Either way, they’d end up weaker than before. In the space of a moment, Azula had hobbled the Avatar’s little gang. Honestly, it was so good to be the bad guy!
She’d never imagined that she would ever see so many books in her life. To be honest, she’d never imagined so many books existed in the first place. How much knowledge was stored within these walls? Katara tried to imagine how long it would take to read all these books and for a moment was daunted by the sheer size of the task. How could Professor Zei ever hope to read even a fraction of all of these books?
Katara was glad that she had a specific goal in coming to this library; otherwise she would have been frozen in indecision while she tried to pick a book to read. But their mission was important, therefore she could pass over dozens of books without feeling guilty about ignoring the bounty that surrounded her. Then Katara spotted a book that she could have sworn was calling to her. It was filed in the fiction section, which almost certainly meant it didn’t contain any secrets for defeating the Fire Nation, but she was still consumed with an inexplicable urge to open the book and read it. Well, maybe she could make one exception.
Katara took the book and glanced at the front cover. It was a newly published book that was apparently about an illicit romance between a Firebender and a Waterbender. It must have been an old story, probably from before the war, but she didn’t know why anyone would be republishing it now. She opened the book at random and read a short passage.
The boy took out a necklace, lovely as the sunrise in winter and more precious to the both of them than all the jewels in Ba Sing Se.
“Ha!” she scoffed as she tried not to stare at his gift. “I- I will never love a man who cannot defeat me in single combat!”
He ignored her ridiculous lie and instead watched her for what felt like an infinitely long moment.
“Marry me,” said the boy. His voice didn’t quaver and his eyes never turned away from hers. “Please.”
The girl turned away from the blazing look in his eyes. If it hadn’t been impossible, she would have sworn that he had discovered how to burn people from the inside out or to turn them to lead with a single look, for her mouth tasted like ashes and her stomach felt heavy as a mountain.
“I can’t,” she whispered, unable to speak up while she cut out her own heart.
“I love you,” he said. The sun is hot. Water is wet. I love you. It was a fact, as inescapable as any other. “Please, Katara—“
What! She scanned rapidly through a few more pages. The plucky heroine was supposed to be her? And her star-crossed lover was Zuko? Who had written this drivel? She glanced at the stamp inside the book’s front cover:
Thunderstorm: The True Story of the Firebender Who Loved His Enemy and the Waterbender Who Loved a Prince. Read this tale of forbidden love by the celebrated young writer, Princess Yue of the Northern Water Tribe! This month only, Hot Sellers are 15% off!
Yue! That evil bitch! She’d take Appa and fly to the North Pole so she could break all of Yue’s fingers. And what was that bit about only giving away her love in single combat? When had she ever given Yue the impression that her love life was some kind of arm wrestling contest? Despite herself, Katara took another look at the story.
“We’re enemies. Don’t you know that?”
“We don’t have to be,” he pleaded.
“Oh, so you tie all your friends to trees?” she countered.
“This war is bigger than either of us, Katara,” he said. “And whatever else I might want, I still have to serve my country.”
“Even when your country is fighting mine?” she asked. “Even when you know the war is wrong?”
“It is right and proper to die for one’s country,” he quoted.
“Good, because only the dead have seen the end of war,” she answered back.
Wow, suddenly the book got ten times more boring. The next two pages were nothing but philosophical debate about the nature of patriotism and warfare. She’d been tied to that stupid tree for less than half an hour, when was this colloquium supposed to have happened? She half-expected a moderator to interject that time was running out and that the participants should wrap up their arguments with closing remarks.
“Katara, why do you look so ticked off?” asked Sokka as he interrupted her reading.
“It’s nothing,” she snapped. Then she sighed and let go of her peevishness. “Look, I’ll tell you later, all right? For now, let’s find those Fire Nation secrets that we came here for.”
“Okay, sure. I think this one fox is trying to get me to follow him or her or whatever. How do you tell if it’s a boy fox or a girl fox?”
“I really don’t know. Where’s the fox?”
“This way,” he said as he turned around. Behind her brother’s back, Katara carefully slipped Yue’s book under her shirt.
They were taking a brief stop for lunch and against her better judgement Katara had once again pulled out the book. It was like gawking at an arrow that was coming straight at your face, she just couldn’t help herself from her own curiosity.
“So, what have you been hiding under your shirt all this time?” asked Toph as Katara hurriedly tried to stuff the book back under her clothes. “Is it a book of dirty stories? It’s dirty stories, right?”
“Dirty what?” interrupted Suki, who’d overheard everything. “Katara, I thought we were friends. How could you not share your pervert picture book?”
“It’s not a book of dirty stories! Or, or whatever that other thing is.”
“Sure it isn’t,” said Suki as she held her hand out. “Well? Let’s see it, then.”
From the mulish expression on her face, Katara was clearly considering denying everything.
“Come on, if you try to hide it I’ll just steal it from your pack when you go to sleep,” said Suki, rolling her eyes in exasperation.
“Fine,” said Katara, “here it is.” She took out the book and threw it at Suki’s face, who deftly caught the incriminating evidence.
“Sheesh, Katara, there’s no need to get so huffy, I—oh, I’ve already read this.”
“What is it? What is it! Come on, blind girl here, I’m dying of suspense.”
“Sorry, Toph,” said Suki. “This book is about Katara’s passionate and secret affair with Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation.”
Katara’s face twitched involuntarily.
“What? No way! Quick, read it to me.”
“Okay, I’ll read to you the part where he ties her to a tree. Ooh, or the part where she freezes him to an iceberg!”
“It didn’t happen like that, there was nothing romantic about it!”
“Wait, that really happened?” asked Suki in surprise. “I figured it was all made up. Did Prince Zuko also ask you to marry him at the North Pole?”
“No, he didn’t! Don’t ask me where Yue got that idea. And how did you read this book in the first place?”
“What do you mean ‘how’? You can buy it at like every street corner, they’re selling like half-price moon cakes.”
Suki was too busy reading choice passages for Toph’s benefit to notice Katara falling to her knees in horror.
“Suki, I’m kind of involved with someone,” said Sokka in embarrassment. He hadn’t meant to lead her on, he’d just thought she hadn’t been that serious when she’d kissed him at Kyoshi Island. But here under the moonlight she’d tried to kiss him again.
“Oh,” she said. At the stricken look on his face, she rolled her eyes and gave him a friendly punch on the shoulder. “Sokka, you shouldn’t look so guilty about being with someone. It’s not like we were engaged or anything.”
Sokka gave her a relieved smile. “I’m sure you’d like Yue. She’s the princess of the Northern Water Tribe, you know.”
“I’m sure I’d like her too. But speaking of engagements . . .”
Suki smiled wider on seeing Sokka’s blank look of incomprehension.
“I can’t believe you told Sokka! You promised me that you wouldn’t tell him about the book!”
“I didn’t tell him about the book, I told him about your engagement to Prince Zuko.”
“I’m not engaged to Zuko!”
“You’re engaged to Zuko?”
“No I’m – Aang, how long have you been standing there?”
“I only heard the last part. What exactly were you and Suki talking about?”
Katara crossed her arms and turned away from Suki and Aang in annoyance. How many people were going to find out about this?
“Sokka’s girlfriend wrote a book about the forbidden love between Katara and Prince Zuko,” said Suki.
“Ha, that’s pretty good. Nice one, Suki,” said Aang. On seeing Suki’s look of dry amusement, Aang’s eyes practically bulged out of his face. “You mean she really did write a book about, about—“
“Yup,” said Suki.
“But that part about the engagement isn’t true, right?” asked Aang.
“I’m going to pretend that you didn’t ask that,” said Katara through clenched teeth.
At this point Sokka and Toph walked in with the infamous book.
“My favourite part is where they fight at the Spirit Oasis,” said Sokka.
“I’ll bet,” said Toph.
“What does that mean?”
“I mean you’re such a girl. Your favourite part is where the two lovers promise their undying devotion to each other?”
“I didn’t say that, I’m just saying that there was a pretty cool fight.”
Toph snorted and quoted the book from memory:
They threw themselves anew into their fight, his fire against her ice. But even then, with the life of the Avatar and the fate of the world in the balance, even then they couldn’t bear to hurt the other. How could he strike at her dear face? How could she cut his sweet lips? He couldn’t, and she couldn’t either.
But fights are won not by the compassionate, but by the hard-hearted, and Zuko was far more familiar with such things. Despite himself, a blast of fire flew from his hands and threw Katara through the air, slamming her against the single tree in the Oasis.
“You’ve beaten me,” she whispered as she slowly lost consciousness, “my beloved.”
“Is that from the book?” asked Aang. “Let me see.”
“You said that you didn’t tell him about the book!” said Katara to Suki.
“I didn’t,” she replied, “he must have found out about it from Toph.”
Katara could do nothing but splutter ineffectually in rage.
“Come on, sis, at least it’s well-written,” said Sokka. “I’m actually kind of proud of Yue for writing this. I wonder why she didn’t tell me about it?”
“Yue!” shouted Katara. “That’s right, she wrote this! You’d better tell that, that traitorous—“ She paused to take a breath and calm herself down. “Tell Yue to explain herself.”
“Okay, I’ll ask her about the book in my next letter. I’ll finish it tomorrow and send it off—”
“You’ll finish it now!”
“Yeesh, fine. I don’t see what’s got you so worked up, it’s not like any of it is real. I’d kill to be the hero in a popular adventure series.”
Sokka immediately scurried away at the fierce look Katara threw at him.
“I’m telling you, they’re Firebenders! Firebenders in Ba Sing Se! They’re here to kill you!”
No one said anything as the Dai Li took away the raving young man. Most of the crowd of gawkers had dispersed, leaving only the most hardcore of gossipers at the scene of the fight.
“Honestly, what was that boy thinking?” asked Old Yao from the bakery once the authorities had left. “Doesn’t he know not to talk about that?”
“Still, he might have been on to something,” said Sister Ming.
“What are you talking about?” asked Little Knife.
“A fugitive Firebender with a prominent burn scar on his face? Remind you of anyone in particular?”
“You mean—“and here Little Knife lowered his voice to a whisper, “—him?”
“Him who? What are you talking about?” demanded Old Yao.
“Don’t you have any appreciation for modern literature?” asked Sister Ming in exasperation. “You know, as in Thunderstorm?”
“I don’t really keep up with the newfangled stuff. Wait, do you mean the main character, Prince whatsisname? That’s impossible, there’s no way any celebrity would be caught dead in this neighbourhood. And there’s no evidence it’s even him in the first place.”
“You’re probably right,” conceded Sister Ming. She said nothing more, but she continued to look thoughtfully at the entrance to the tea shop where the fight had started.
Who knew Uncle’s tea would catch on so fast? Tea was tea, and quite frankly Zuko was mystified at how anyone could tell the difference between mediocre and excellent tea.
He hurriedly put together the order of yet another group of giggling girls. Zuko also hadn’t realized that teenage girls really liked their tea. Was it some kind of Ba Sing Se thing or did all girls go for the high quality stuff? He would ask Uncle if he could, but the old coot would probably just take it as more evidence of the superior nature of tea.
Zuko gave the girls their tea and quickly retreated behind the counter. He could almost swear that the customers were always staring at him. They probably weren’t but that didn’t stop him from feeling paranoid. And wouldn’t you know it, another customer was approaching him now. Was it too much to ask for a single moment to himself so he could catch his breath?
“Hi,” said the girl as she smiled enigmatically. “I’m Jin.”
All told, the night had been a pleasant one: after the dinner and their walk to the deserted square, Zuko now stood with Jin in front of a fountain illuminated by numerous lanterns. It was a perfectly romantic moment, which unfortunately meant Zuko had to think of a way to let the girl down easy. “It’s complicated,” he said, his voice thick with unspoken explanations that he couldn’t give her.
“You’ve already got someone, right?”
“What?” asked Zuko in surprise. “Why would you even think –?”
“It’s okay, I understand,” said Jin. “But just for tonight . . .” She leaned in and gave him a quick kiss. While he was still recovering from his surprise, Jin covered her mouth and began giggling cutely. “Oh wow oh wow, I can’t believe I kissed you! Wait until I tell my sister!” Jin ran out of the square squealing loudly in delight.
“Uh, what?” said Zuko. He stared at Jin’s back before spotting a small book lying on the ground. “Wait, you dropped something!” It was no use, she’d already gone around the corner and was out of sight. Well, maybe he could give it back to her the next time she visited the restaurant. Zuko stared down the street where Jin had made her exit for a moment longer before he shook his head and started back for the apartment he shared with his uncle.
Zuko wondered why Jin had brought a book to a date. Was it in case he turned out to be boring? Because if so he was kind of annoyed Jin had been planning ahead for him to be a potential bad date. Did he really come across as such a loser?
What was this book that Jin had brought, anyway? He took a look at the title and froze in shock. He stared at the book for what felt like hours before he carefully opened the book to a random page, his mood sinking like a bag of rocks dropped into a river. What in the boiling green crap was this Thunderstorm? He was right, Jin had known who he was! Worse, she had a crush on him anyway! No, worse than that, she supported his non-existent relationship with Katara! Sweet crap, did everyone at the tea shop know about this book?
His head swimming with a multitude of questions, Zuko stumbled forward on his way home.
“Hey Katara, Yue finally answered,” said Sokka as he waved his letter at her.
“Good, what did she say about this Thunderstorm nonsense?”
“Give me a second while I read, sheesh.” He quickly scanned through Yue’s letter. “Well, first she talks about stuff that you don’t really need to hear about. Dear Sokka, I miss you, I wish you were here—”
“We don’t care!” snapped Toph.
“Fine, fine. Okay: Sokka, I swear I didn’t write that novel,” read Sokka out loud. “Father hired the cheapest writers he could find to write it as fast as possible. I think one of them was actually working for a sandwich. But I’ve got good news, Father’s set aside forty percent of the book’s earnings for Katara’s wedding, the rest goes to the Southern Water Tribe.”
“Her father set aside the proceeds for my what?”
“You heard me. She doesn’t say anything else about the book. I guess that’s that.”
“She doesn’t say why her father made me the laughingstock of the entire world?”
“What do you mean ‘laughingstock’? You keep getting celebrity discounts from all the shopkeepers. And you won’t share them with your own brother!”
“Those discounts help us stretch our money further, Sokka!”
Sokka made a rude noise in dismissal. “Sure they do.”
Katara stalked out of the room in annoyance and went to her private chambers to calm down among her collection of porcelain dolls.
“Is it really her?” whispered the spa attendant from the next room.
“Yeah, it’s her,” said her co-worker.
Katara grit her teeth and tried to tune out their conversation. Couldn’t she have a single day without autograph hunters recognizing her? She just wanted to spend some girl time with Toph.
“Can you believe they’re both here in Ba Sing Se? Do you think they have secret get-togethers?”
On hearing that, Katara suddenly strained to catch every word.
“Please, there’s no evidence that the prince is even here. Besides, if he was, do you think he wouldn’t tear the city apart looking for her?”
“Maybe he doesn’t know. Or her either?”
“You’re really reaching, you know.” The voices of the spa attendants slowly faded away as they left to do whatever spa attendants did at work.
“Well, now I’m glad I went to this spa with you,” said Toph from the other mud bath.
Still nothing. She and Toph had been searching for days but they still couldn’t find any specific information on Zuko’s possible location. Or Aapa’s, either. Toph had had to be the one to ask after Zuko rumours since Katara sure wasn’t going to take the chance of being recognized asking about that kind of thing. They hadn’t told Sokka or Aang about the Zuko thing because there was no cause to worry everyone about what were probably just wild stories. But she still had to check just in case.
However, she’d been rather naive in her planning. There was no way two people could check the entire Lower Ring. If she didn’t find any more leads by the end of the day then she’d call off the search. The one for Zuko, anyway, not the one for Appa. In the meantime, she could use a break. Katara spotted a teahouse full of customers, which was a good sign of the quality of their product. Not spotting any other restaurants, she entered the teahouse—
And found the object of her hunt serving tea. “Please sit anywhere and I’ll take your order in a minute,” said Zuko as he finished distributing cups of tea to a table full of customers. Katara could do nothing but gape at him in surprise. “Miss,” he said as he turned to her, “please come in out of the doorway and—“
It was at that point that he saw her face. His eyes widened in recognition. Neither of them said anything as they gaped at each other from across the crowded teahouse. Katara finally broke the staring match when she turned around and walked out of the restaurant.
“Wait!” said Zuko. He set aside his serving tray and quickly took off his apron before he rushed after Katara, managing to catch up with her a short distance down the street. He grabbed her by the arm, stopping her in her tracks. She turned to look at him while his mind raced with what to tell her.
“Please, Uncle and I are just here trying to start over!” he begged. “It would kill Uncle to have to give up the tea shop. I swear we’re not here for him. I’m different now.”
Katara stared silently at him for a single long second. “Fine,” she said. Then she kicked him in the testicles. Zuko wasn’t sure but he was almost certain he was writhing in agony in the dirt. It was hard to tell because of the crippling pain.
When he finally regained his senses, Zuko realized someone was patting him comfortingly on the shoulder. It was probably a guard, judging from the sword that the man was wearing.
“There, there, son,” said the guard. “Let your girlfriend cool off for a day or two and then go see her, she’ll be more forgiving after some time to cool off.”
“Not – my – girlfriend,” gasped Zuko.
“Oh, she’s your ex-girlfriend? Yeah, that makes more sense.” Zuko decided not to correct the guard as the man helped him get up and return to the teahouse.
“My goodness, what happened?” asked one of the customers on seeing Zuko stagger in while clutching the guard’s arm.
“His ex-girlfriend kicked him in the nuts,” answered the guard. On hearing that, murmurs of commiseration spread among the tea shop’s male customers. Zuko gingerly made his way to the kitchen, groin aching too much for him to care about the gossip being spread by his audience.
“His ‘ex-girlfriend’, eh?” asked Old Yao.
“What is it?” asked the guard suspiciously.
“Nothing, I just, uh, get the feeling that there’s an interesting story behind the whole thing.”
“There usually isn’t,” said the guard. “Trust me, I’ve seen lots of ugly fights between couples. I’m usually called in once a month to break up a really loud lover’s quarrel. He probably cheated on her or something.”
“Absolutely not!” shouted Little Knife. “I mean, I’m sure he’s not that type of person. I can just tell.”
“Well, you’re one up on me then,” said the guard as he left to continue with the rest of his duties.
“You idiots!” said Sister Ming to her fellow gossips once the guard was safely away. “You almost gave the whole thing away! Do you want to get them arrested? It’s still illegal for them to be here.”
“Okay, okay,” said Little Knife. “But what a day, huh? Do you think this is going to show up in the inevitable novelization?”
“I hope so,” said Yao. “Otherwise the poor kid got kicked in the nuts for nothing.”
“Hey, there’s a note tied to Appa’s horn,” said Sokka. “’I hope this meets with your approval’? What’s that supposed to mean?”
Katara said nothing and let Sokka stew in his own curiosity.
Uncle was busy clearing up some last minute issues with a supplier, so it was up to Zuko to ready the Jasmine Dragon on the morning of its first day of operation. As Zuko wiped down a table, the ground suddenly shot up and encased him completely except for a small breathing hole for his nose.
Four men in the uniforms of Ba Sing Se’s feared Dai Li walked into the teashop and considered their prisoner. “Should we take him to the princess?” asked one of the capture team.
“No, she said just to throw him straight into prison and she’d get around to him later,” replied a second Dai Li agent.
“Well, whatever, I guess it’s the Catacombs for princey. Kind of stupid of him to get so famous when he’s a fugitive, though.”
“He’s obviously an egomaniac. Just be glad to have a dumbass like him for an enemy. Listen, princey, you are under arrest by the authority of the Dai Li for disturbing Ba Sing Se’s blablabla, okay it’s official now, haul him away.”
Zuko’s earthen bonds covered his mouth which was fortunate for him since he would have been smiling fiercely otherwise. Uncle was out there and these Dai Li would have no idea what was coming. And then he’d kick their asses for arresting him so half-assedly.
“Oh, it’s you,” said Katara, scowling at her new cellmate.
Zuko returned Katara’s foul expression, then decided doing so accomplished nothing and turned his back to her instead.
“Don’t you turn your back on me!” she said.
Zuko sighed and faced her again. “Katara,” he asked, “do we have to do this?”
“Do what?” she asked.
“Do we have to snipe at each other? You kicked me in the groin, I returned Appa, can we just call it even now?”
“You attacked my village, threatened my grandmother, and you’ve been hounding us from here to the South Pole! I’ll bet this is just another scheme to catch Aang when he shows up to break me out. I should have known better than to give you a chance to prove yourself.”
“You—!” Zuko caught himself before he shouted back at her. “You have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“I know that the Fire Nation is behind this war. I know that you’ve spent years trying to catch the one person who could stop the fighting. I know that every day, more people are losing people that they love. And I know that this war took my mother from me.”
Zuko turned away once more from Katara. “The war took my mother too,” he said quietly. After that, neither of the two said anything, and the silence in the prison cell began to feel suffocating. Katara found herself reaching out to Zuko before she caught herself, and for several moments she was frozen in uncertainty at what to do. Before she could decide whether to pull her hand back or to move it forward, the wall disappeared.
The unmistakable forms of General Iroh and the Avatar stood where the crystal wall had been. “Aang!” cried Katara in relief as she ran to hug him. Zuko said nothing, but he did step forward with a noticeable expression of relief on his face as he reunited with his uncle.
“Let’s talk,” said Iroh.
Nephew and uncle hugged briefly while Katara and Aang made their way out of the prison cell. As he hugged his uncle, Zuko exchanged a wordless look with Katara over Iroh’s shoulder. It seemed almost as if she wanted to say something as the Avatar closed off the tunnel, but it seemed he would never find out.
“Is there something you wanted to tell me, Zuko?” asked Iroh.
“About what, Uncle?” asked Zuko.
“About Thunderstorm, of course.”
“Uncle! How could you believe that trash? How did you even find out about it?”
“Calm down, Zuko,” said Iroh as he chuckled at his nephew’s annoyance. “I found the book in your room and found it nothing but an amusing fantasy. But now I wonder, is there something—?”
“Absolutely not,” said Zuko. “It’s nothing but the imaginings of that empty-headed Northern princess. They raise their girls to be stupid up there.”
“Oh? Then why did you free the Avatar’s bison?”
“I didn’t do it for her!” snapped Zuko. Then his tone softened and he continued, “I had some half-baked plan about using the bison to catch the Avatar. But mostly I did it because, because . . .”
Because it was the right thing to do, finished Iroh for him silently. The former general imagined that he could hear the unspoken words echoing in the chamber around them.
Zuko sighed and continued. “You were right, I did it because I wanted to prove myself to her.” Zuko kept talking before Iroh could blurt out anything in surprise. “But not in that way. She just wouldn’t believe me and I was just so angry about the whole thing, not just at her, but at how everything was, and I just wanted to feel like I’d actually accomplished something, but what with this entire city being so messed up –“
“Zuko,” interrupted Iroh gently, “I know that you’re the Blue Spirit and I know that you risked your own life to free the Avatar’s bison when doing so gained you absolutely nothing. I didn’t say anything at the time because I thought you’d already decided on the path that you were going to take. But now I see that you still question your decisions and yourself.”
Zuko could do nothing but shuffle his feet in embarrassment. “Uncle . . .”
“Zuko, ask yourself this: What kind of man do you wish to be?”
Before Zuko could say anything, the sound of a loud explosion echoed down through the Crystal Catacombs. The young prince turned to the tunnel where the sound had come from before remembering his uncle. “Go, Zuko,” said Iroh, interrupting his nephew, who had been about to say something. “It’s up to you now.”
Zuko nodded and ran silently to the sounds of battle.
It was pretty obvious to Zuko what was going on. Azula and her army of Dai Li had clearly caught up to Katara and the Avatar, who were barely fighting off their attackers. In fact, it looked like they would be overwhelmed very quickly. But why was the Avatar encasing himself in rock? The Airbender was no coward and he definitely wouldn’t leave Katara to fight on her own.
Oh, of course, it was that damnable Avatar State. Well, it seemed like there was nothing for Zuko to do, then. He hadn’t really been keen on helping Azula or the Avatar anyway, and the Avatar could handle things well enough with the power of the Avatar State. The only thing left to do was to sit back and watch Azula lose spectacularly. Although it seemed like Azula wasn’t going to take things lying down since she was going through the opening movements of the Lightning Dance.
Zuko idly wondered if even an awakened Avatar could survive a lightning bolt but immediately stopped his speculation when he saw the look on Katara’s face. It seemed that she recognized the Lightning Dance as well and was preparing to throw herself in front of the Avatar. “Idiot,” he said as he ran forward, not sure if he meant Katara or himself.
As Katara threw herself in front of the Avatar, Zuko threw himself in front of her. He stretched out his hand to catch the lightning but he hadn’t accounted for its power; he could feel that he hadn’t properly routed the lightning through his body. He gasped and fell to the ground in shock. His arm had apparently been replaced with a mountain range, for he could barely move it, but he managed to lift his limb and point it somewhere above him before releasing the lightning along with what felt like every scrap of power inside his body.
As blackness began to creep into his vision, he saw Katara run forward to look down at him in concern. Damn it, he thought, that stupid princess had better give me an awesome death scene.
“Zuko!” shouted Katara as she saw the prince fall before her. She drew back in surprise as the Firebender lifted his arm and shot a bolt of lightning at the roof of the immense cavern they were fighting in. Through some accident of luck he caused a cave-in, dropping tons of rock from the ceiling to separate Azula and her minions from him, Katara, and Aang.
“Oh no,” said Katara as she leaned over Zuko to check on him. “This looks bad. Aang, can you keep an eye out as I try to heal him?” Upon not hearing an answer from Aang, Katara turned to him and found him sitting dazed on the ground.
“Huh, wha’ is it?” asked Aang woozily. From his bleeding scalp wound it was obvious that he’d been hit with a falling rock, knocking him out of the Avatar State. It was probably too much to hope that the same thing had happened to Azula.
Zuko was in much worse shape than Aang, so she used the water she had at hand to stabilize him. She had to use the water she’d been using to fight because she was afraid that even the few seconds it would take her to open her flask of water from the Spirit Oasis would spell the difference between life and death for Zuko. After making sure that Zuko wouldn’t die in the next few minutes, she turned to Aang and ran a quick once-over on his head with her water. Head wounds were always potentially dangerous but it seemed that he would be fine in a little while. The same couldn’t be said of Zuko, though.
Katara turned back to Zuko to work on him a little bit more when she realized that his uncle was standing over her and watching. “You can’t stay here,” said General Iroh. “Take my nephew and the Avatar and get out of here. I’ll cover your escape.”
She wanted to argue with the old man but she knew that he was right. A cave-in couldn’t keep out Earthbenders and they’d be extra angry at being successfully attacked with their own element – in fact, it was a very humiliating thing to do to any bender.
Katara gathered water around her and her two charges as she prepared to escape. “Good luck, sir,” she said in farewell. She used her water to move her group up a handy waterfall. Behind them, Iroh waited for the first of the Dai Li to emerge.
The group that rode on Appa that night was larger than normal. In addition to the Avatar and his regular companions, the Earth King and his pet bear was also there as well as the heavily wounded Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation. While Sokka steered Appa, everyone else watched Katara desperately use her Spirit Water on Zuko. The water seemed like such a small amount, barely enough for a mouthful, but it glowed strangely as it entered the prince through his chest.
Finally, Katara stopped her efforts and sat back to wipe sweat off her forehead. “There. I’ve done everything I could but I still don’t know if, if . . .” She trailed off and didn’t finish her sentence.
“It’s not like the rest of us are in much better shape,” said Sokka over his shoulder. He turned around and looked at the defeated looks on the faces of his companions. “So,” he said, “Now what do we do?”
“Father, are you really sure this book is a good idea?” asked Yue for probably the hundredth time.
“Yue, you know this story was going to get out eventually,” said Chief Arnook. “We might as well use it to help us win the war. The entire Fire Nation can’t be in support of the war, there must be people there who want peace too. They might see this engagement as a good sign. And even if there aren’t any peaceful factions in the Fire Nation, the story will help boost morale for our side too. The Crown Prince who renounced his throne for the love of his enemy? Everyone will love it.”
“I know that, but I can’t help wondering if writing this book will put Katara and Prince Zuko in danger.”
“My daughter, they’re already in danger, they’re fighting in a war that’s lasted for a hundred years.”
“I suppose that’s true. It’s not like either of them are the type to hide somewhere safe.”
“Exactly. Now then, why don’t you go to the writing room and tell your writers about the latest twist in your story? We’ll need to put out the next chapter fairly soon, it’s been almost a month since the last one.”
“The readers are probably anxious for the next instalment, I guess. Okay, I’ll see you at lunch, then.”
“I hope you have a productive morning, Yue,” said her father as he left to deal with affairs of state. As he exited, he could hear Yue entering her writing studio and greeting her team of ghostwriters.
“Hello, everyone,” said Yue as she sat down in her chair in the centre of the room. “Now, in his last letter, Sokka said they’d just arrived at Ba Sing Se after driving off Princess Azula, who was using a huge war machine to penetrate the wall . . .”