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The Prologue

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It is a well-established tradition among the upper echelons of society that, after a child’s sixteenth birthday, that child is eligible for talks of marriage. While some prefer to keep betrothals within their own borders, others see the advantages of marriages between nations. It fosters trade relations, encourages a thriving political sphere, and provides diverse experiences and cultural exchanges. These relationships, over time, promote friendship over personal gain. And friendships, over time, promote peace.

But though these lofty political leaders and cultural emissaries wouldn’t openly discuss it, there is another tradition, entrenched within this sixteenth birthday. At sixteen, the child is no longer a child. At sixteen, they can be dangerous if left to their own devices.

And so somewhere before the records of living memory, some brilliant parent had a brilliant idea. Tired of the fear of illegitimate births and hidden love affairs, they contacted others of their sphere and arranged an event. Officially, they named it the International Affairs Formal Dinner and Ball, but now, everyone calls it The Prologue.

The Prologue started as an evening, but has since turned into a weeklong event, hosted on the beautiful (and neutral) Ember Island. Young men and women from all nations are encouraged to attend, and while it is not required, no one has ever refused an invitation.

The Prologue puts the future leaders of the world in the same place at the same pinnacle moment in their lives. The stated purpose? To foster positive working relationships when they come into their own. The true purpose? To let them blow off steam with each other instead of with those at home.

It was only practical, really. There is no way to calm the tempestuous rage of hormones, not in young people of this age. They’re going to experiment. They want to learn about their bodies; it’s only natural. So instead of fighting it, why not let them? In this way it can be controlled. Precautions can be taken. Young romance can blossom, thrive, and wither with the speed that always accompanies trysts at that age, and if a child should be born of a union of this kind? Well, at least it will be of good birth.

There is only one rule, explained carefully to each and every attendee. When you leave, you leave it all behind you. Do not fall in love at The Prologue. Remember what it is. Remember who you are. Remember that while your heart is your own, your marriage is not.

Remember that the allegiance you now owe is only a part of what you’ll spend the rest of your life believing. Anyone in that room could be your ally. Anyone in that room could be your enemy. So tread lightly with your heart. Explore, but not too much. Enjoy, but just for a moment. Your future is not your own. It belongs to your people.

It was not unheard of for those in positions of power related to industry or trade to linger in these relationships longer than their royal peers, but society viewed these as matches made in poor taste. Some would gossip about the missed opportunities for the parents of those poor children, while others would say the parents needed a firmer hand. Who would want to be trapped in their adolescent relationship for the rest of their life? People change. Affections change. Better to have a reason for the union outside of the emotional. Safer that way.

The tradition began somewhere in the Earth Kingdom, attempting to unite lands that now carry the green banner of the Earth King, and eventually it spread to the Fire Nation. The Air temples were invited, but due to their transient nature and various beliefs, their attendance was inconstant at best. The Northern Water tribe was next. For many years it carried on like this, until finally the Southern Water tribe was deemed politically important enough to participate. Though the Southern tribe was invited to attend many generations ago, old families have long memories. Many still considered them the “newcomers”, especially with their strange traditions. Living on the ice? No grand buildings or sculptures? No centers of commerce? How very vulgar.

A special eye watched those from the Southern tribe, the word “peasant” still a common jibe murmured behind intricate fans and cupped, well-manicured hands. Attendees of the Southern Water tribe had an extra responsibility: to prove that their culture had something to offer these grand, if antiquated, families.

So when a young Southern Waterbender overheard her parents call her brother inside to talk, just for a second, she decided to investigate on her own. Their home, while not as grandiose as their sister tribe in the North, was large enough to have a dark corner or two where a curious young girl might eavesdrop.

“Mom? Dad? What’s going on?” She recognized her brother’s voice and listened.

“Nothing, son. Just wanted to have a little chat with you. You know, Sokka, you’re going to be sixteen soon. Your mother and I are very proud of you.”

While she couldn’t see very well from the upstairs corner that hid her from view, in her mind’s eye she saw Sokka straighten up at the recognition from his father. “Thanks, Dad. I’ve been working really hard on my boomerang skills with the other warriors. And I’ve been practicing with a real sword!”

“We know you have, Sokka. And it shows,” this praise was in her mother’s softer tones, and it had the same effect on the boy in front of them. His smile was evident in his voice.

“Thanks, Mom.”

“Well, we know you are working very hard, and we appreciate it. But we wanted to talk to you about certain…expectations that others might have of you,” her father said.

“And the responsibilities that come with those expectations,” her mother continued.

Sokka’s tone was surprisingly unchanged. “You guys talking about The Prologue?”

“Exactly, son. I’m sure you and your friends must have…discussed it at some length, but we wanted to make sure you didn’t have any…,” her father paused, sounding a bit uncomfortable, “…questions for us.”

Sokka devolved into a coughing fit, and her mother laughed, but the girl in the shadows didn’t understand. What’s a prologue? And why do Sokka and Dad sound so weird?

“Uh…no? I mean…I just…this is kinda weird to talk about in front of Mom.”

“Why? How do you think you got here, Sokka?”

MOOOOM!!!

Both her parents let out long, hearty laughs, and it seemed to ease the tension. “Why don’t we talk somewhere privately, Sokka? We can go ice fishing. How does that sound?”

“Yeah. Yeah let’s do that.”

The sounds of her father and brother grabbing their fishing gear echoed down the hall, and hard though the young Waterbender listened, she could not hear any conversation through it. Why are they going fishing without me? I catch more fish with my bending than they do with their spears. And why are they being so secretive—

“I thought you might be hiding up here, Katara.”

The young girl froze. In her determination to hear the last snatches of conversation, she didn’t realize the sounds below would mask the soft steps of her mother climbing the stairs. Cheeks flaming with embarrassment, Katara shrugged, averting her eyes. “I didn’t mean to hide, I just…”

“You were curious. I know, love. Come on, let’s chat.”

Katara stood from the hidden corner and followed her mother to her parents’ bedroom. Once inside, her mother closed the door and reached for an ornate box, filled with cloth strips and Katara’s favorite comb. Kya smiled at her daughter. “I haven’t done this for you since you were a girl.”

“I’m still a girl, Mom,” Katara laughed, happily sitting cross legged on the bed. She swung her long braid over her shoulder, untying the cloth at the end as her mother sat behind her.

Kya combed until the braid was gone and Katara’s hair was shining in the lamplight. “Not for much longer. Sokka turns sixteen next month. And in a little over a year, you’ll be sixteen too.”

“Uh huh.”

“And we would have had a similar conversation with you about your sixteenth birthday.”

“I know.”

“But if you want, we can talk now. Do you have any questions about what you heard?”

The words rushed out of Katara’s mouth with excited speed. “What’s a prologue? And why was Sokka coughing, is he sick?”

Kya smiled, pausing before plaiting her daughter’s hair into its usual braid. “I think it’s time for a new style. You’re not so little anymore if we’re having this conversation.”

“Moooom, you’re stalling.”

Kya sighed, a small smirk on her face. “I suppose I am.”

So as her mother had to her those many years ago, Kya explained what it meant to be the daughter of a Chief. What it meant to have things expected of you. The extra responsibilities levied on those from their nation. And finally, she explained the most important rule of all, rolling Katara’s hair into a low bun at the back of her neck, securing it with pins, leaving two tendrils of hair flowing free in the front.

Katara pondered what she’d been told as her mother secured these tendrils to the bun in back, a style favored by many women of the Southern Tribe. She turned to face her mother on the bed, and Kya looked down with pride, smiling as every mother eventually smiles at her daughter. The smile when you no longer see a child in front of you. The smile that means she’s old enough to do things on her own.

“So…everyone goes to this dinner thing?”

“Not everyone, but many. Mostly children from royal families or families in government and industry. These families have large responsibilities; they care for millions of people around the world. They want to ensure that their children are able to do as they have done. And so it’s helpful if you’ve met before you need anything, or before you’re stuck in trade negotiations.”

“I guess so. I’ve always wanted to meet people from the other nations. Especially the Northern Tribe, I just know they’ve got some great Waterbending forms that I could try.”

Kya collected the remnant hair accessories and placed them back in the box, avoiding her daughter’s gaze. Kya knew the Northern tribe’s stance on female Waterbenders, but she didn’t have the heart to tell Katara. She’s not sixteen yet. Let her dream a little longer. “I’m sure they do.”

“I guess I just don’t understand the rest of it. I mean, I’ve known since I was little that Dad is the Chief…and I know that means I’ll eventually marry someone that you and Dad pick for me…but I’m fine with that. I trust you both. You wouldn’t make me a match with someone I hated.”

“Of course not. Arranged marriages don’t have to mean you have no choice. When I came of age, I met many young people from many nations. I attended The Prologue for a few years, meeting everyone I could. I still have many friends from those times, and when we travel to other nations, I still stay with them. But when it came time for betrothal offers, I said I liked your father best. And here we are, years later, and I love your father with my whole heart.”

Katara smiled, glad to have her mother confirm what she had always known. “But…it can’t be like that for everyone, right?”

“I won’t lie to you, Katara. Your father and I were both lucky to have parents that valued our opinions. But can I tell you a secret?”

“Sure.”

Kya smoothed a hand over Katara’s newly bunned hair, finally resting on her daughter’s cheek. She leaned closer, a mischievous glint in her eye as she whispered, “You’re one of the lucky ones, too.”

Katara smiled wide, a small giggle escaping. “Yeah. That’s nice to know.”

“It is indeed.”

“And…I hope you don’t take this the wrong way or anything, Mom. Because I’m really glad you told me and everything. I just…I don’t really know if I want to go to this thing. I like the idea of meeting people, and I like to dance, but…the rest of it seems…kinda intimidating. I don’t think I want to…you know…at least not yet…”

Kya nodded, though she wondered how much longer Katara’s will would last. She remembered feeling much the same before she attended her first Prologue. “Well there’s absolutely no rush, Katara. But if in a year’s time you find your opinion changing, just know that it’s alright. It’s a natural thing to desire someone. It can be a beautiful thing, even if just for a little while. I quite enjoyed my trips to Ember Island as a young girl.”

The faintest curiosity crossed Katara’s face. “You did?”

“Remember when we had an ambassador from the Earth Kingdom stay with us? She and her husband were friends of mine from those days. And while they are now married…let’s just say I knew them long before.”

Kya could see the curiosity growing on her daughter’s face. “Really?”

Kya’s smile was small, but it had the look of a personal secret, of something just for her. She gave her daughter a quick shrug and a wink. “We were young. And it was a long time ago. But when they visited, it was a very pleasant trip, and we were able to make many agreements that improved the quality of life for people in both the Earth Kingdom and here. Who knows what might have happened if that was the first time we’d met? It can be rather beneficial to have...fond memories with someone in a place of political power.”

Katara’s ignorance in all things physical rendered this comment beyond her comprehension. Curiosity gone, she shivered, as though trying to shake the thought from her body. “I don’t know, Mom. Seems weird to me. Boys are kinda...gross.”

“Who said anything about boys?” Kya chided.

“MOM!”


 

Two months later, Sokka returned from Ember Island.

“How was your trip?” Katara called to her brother, causing other passengers from the ship to stare. A few laughed behind gloved hands, trying to turn it to coughs.

Sokka turned redder than the rising sun behind him, adjusting his pack higher on his shoulder. “It uh…it…uh…itwasgood.”

Katara watched her brother disembark from the ship and begin the march home, with a little more speed than usual. She called after him. “Did you make any new friends?”

Sokka stumbled into the snow. Katara laughed. And as she began to trudge through the snowbanks behind her brother, she thought to herself, I wonder what I’ll have to say when it’s my turn.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Katara never did get a straight answer out of Sokka about what happened at his first Prologue, but then she didn’t really need to know. He did talk about the various sporting events, and in true Sokka fashion, the food. What he did say fed Katara’s dreams for the next year, filling her head with hopes that this strange custom would be everything she wanted.

The Prologue became a magical place in Katara’s mind. A place where she could learn new bending techniques. A place where she might even compete. A place to meet other, likeminded people such as herself, that might one day rule the world together as friends.

And if in the dark nights of the South, curled under her furs, her mind sometimes wandered to the other purpose of this gathering, if her fingers sometimes crept below her bindings and tried to stoke her own fires, well…she was curious, that’s all. And yet for all her trials, she didn’t quite seem to understand all the fuss associated with sex. Sure, it felt good. Really good. But in the grand scheme of things, it was a moment, maybe two. And then what? Convinced she must be doing something wrong, her occasional experiments actually decreased in frequency the closer it got to her sixteenth birthday.

Two months before the day, she got a letter inviting her to attend, as Sokka also did. Katara asked her mother at breakfast about the letters. “So Sokka and I both get to go this year?”

Kya smiled, serving her children a healthy portion of porridge and fish. “Indeed. You can both attend until you get too old, are married, or take up an office, whichever comes first. It wouldn’t be proper for adults to attend.”

“Oh. Right.”

Sokka tried to block out the conversation, throwing himself into his breakfast with gusto. “This is really good, Mom. What did you put in the porridge? It tastes different than normal.”

Kya saw straight through Sokka’s obvious attempts to derail the conversation, rolling her eyes at her son. She moved to the fire and pulled out a steaming tea pot, serving only one small cup. “Here, Katara. You should start drinking this.”

“What is it?” she asked, standing from the table to meet her mother by the fire.

Sokka, apparently old enough to know, continued on about the meal before him. “I could swear this porridge is different. Did you use a different type of egg on top? What do you think Dad?”

Hakoda laughed into his breakfast, mouth half full. “It’s the same as it always is, son.”

“Are you sure? You don’t taste something…different-y?”

Katara shot her mother a bewildered look. “Is this one of those times where Sokka is just going to be weird?”

“Yes, this is one of those times.”

Sokka yelled over his shoulder. “I’m not weird. There’s something in this breakfast that’s weird, I’ll tell you what…”

Kya extended the cup to Katara as Sokka blathered on in the background. “Here, drink this. You should have one cup every morning and night. Before you leave, I’ll show you how to brew it.”

Katara sipped her cup, surprised at the taste. It was a little bitter, but mostly floral and fragrant. She sipped again. “What is it?”

“It’s moon tea.”

Katara was old enough to know what moon tea was for, and she coughed a little into the cup. “It’s ah…oh. Thanks?”

“Don’t mention it,” Kya winked, filling her own cup with tea from another pot.

Sokka’s voice had a near desperate quality to it as he continued, regardless of his lack of a conversation partner. “Maybe it’s the fish! Maybe it’s the combination of the fish with the porridge that—”

Kya patted her son on the back. “Yes, Sokka. Must be the fish.”

 


 

Katara wasn’t sure what to bring, but she brought as many options as she could fit in her small pack. Kya had made her two different formal dresses, for dinners and dances, but Katara couldn’t help but wonder if it would be enough. The other nations lived very differently from how they did in the South. Doubtless all the other girls would have countless options of fine attire, but as best she could, she tried not to let that worry her. If what I wear is a problem for them, then it’s their problem, not mine.

The day finally arrived when she and Sokka boarded the ship and set sail for Ember Island. It was a lengthy trip, but Katara didn’t mind. This was the first time she’d ever been away from home, and, even if he was still a bit weird about it, it was good to have Sokka there. It made leaving home less difficult knowing she’d have at least one familiar face the whole time.

The last night before they arrived, Sokka knocked on the door to Katara’s quarters, much later than they would usually talk. Katara had to find a robe to wrap around herself, but she did so and answered the door. “Sokka?”

“Yeah, it’s me. Let me in for a sec?”

“Alright.”

Katara made room and let Sokka in, finding a match to light the lanterns. “You want some tea?”

“Sure.”

When they were situated on the floor, quietly sipping their tea, Sokka took a deep breath. “Okay. Here’s the thing about The Prologue—“

“You don’t have to tell me, Sokka. Mom already told me—“

“Mom hasn’t gone in years, so trust me, she has no idea what it’s like anymore.”

A small trickle of fear went down Katara’s spine. “She doesn’t?”

“No. Now don’t get me wrong, it’s mostly a good time. Mostly nice people, some fun outings, and the food is just ridiculous. But everyone there is playing their own game.”

“What do you mean?”

“Not everyone there is like us, Katara. Some of those people…they’ll hold the fact that we’re from the South against you. Especially the Fire Nation kids. There’s something going on with them; they barely talked to anyone outside their own nation. And the Northern Water Tribe aren’t much better…bunch of pretentious idiots. They’ll do everything they can to try not to associate themselves with you. You’re gonna need to develop thick skin.”

“So there’s a few bullies there, what’s the big deal? There are bullies everywhere, I’m sure I can handle myself.”

Sokka smiled. “I’m sure you can. I just…wanted you to know that if you need anything…I’ll be there for you.”

“Thanks, Sokka, but I don’t think you need to worry—“

“Katara. I mean it. If you need anything. Even if it’s…a little hard to talk about. If you get scared or feel unsafe or whatever…at any time…” he gulped, “with anyone, I’ll be there. I’m not gonna let anything happen to you, okay?”

Even saying this much on a topic that baffled him so showed how much he really cared. His well-intentioned warning warmed Katara’s heart. “Thanks, Sokka. But I really don’t think I’m going to be there for…that part of the tradition, if you know what I mean.”

“Mom was making you moon tea.”

“Yeah, and it’s a good thing just in case, but I really don’t know anybody there. And I can’t imagine…doing that, with just anyone, you know?”

Sokka nodded his head. “I know. But in case, okay? You promise you’ll tell me if there’s anything wrong?”

Katara smiled, curling into her big brother’s side. “I promise.”

 


 

When they arrived, Sokka and Katara followed the welcoming committee to the house. It was more beautiful than anything Katara had ever seen. The estate was set into the rock, up a winding path of smoothed stone, a foreign feeling to Katara’s feet. As she approached, she tried not to stare in awe. The house had a patio area that wrapped around the whole front of the house, shaded by the upper floors, all supported by intricate columns. Everything was gilded in gold, and the red shingles on the roof and wooden panels on the walls gave the place the look of a flame. Many people their age seemed to have already arrived. As she entered the large double doors, she saw Sokka go off to the right. He whispered to her as they approached the split in the great hall.

“Guys are on the right, girls on the left. There’s this big dinner tonight, so wear one of those fancy things Mom made ya. I’ll see you later.”

“Thanks Sokka,” Katara whispered through nervous lips. I had no idea that people could live like this.

A servant from the welcoming team took Katara’s pack from her shoulder, handing her a key in trade. “It’s two to a room, young lady. Your key will have the room number, and I’ll place your things in your room so you can get acquainted with the others. If you have any questions, just ask someone in this uniform.”

“Oh, okay. Thank you.”

The servant backed away, leaving Katara on her own. Her eyes wandered around the great hall, lighting on artwork and chandeliers, finely upholstered couches and lounges, expensive rugs and crystal vases…it was sumptuous. Katara had never seen such a place in her entire life. And it was all hers for the next week. Tentatively, Katara smiled. I could get used to this.

She saw a group of girls and a few boys around her age gathered in a seating area. She saw the blues of the Northern Water Tribe and set her shoulders. Better to make friends right away than wait awkwardly for someone else to talk to her.

Katara heard the girls laughing, but as she approached, the giggles were shushed or hidden behind hands. Semi-ashamed looks bounced around the group as Katara smiled, oblivious to her surroundings. “What’s so funny? I just got here.”

A girl in the center of the couch sat back against the cushions, unperturbed in her mirth. “We know. We can tell.”

As a fresh burst of giggles trickled out from forced expressions, Katara’s brow creased. “What do you mean? I just wanted to say hi, see if any of you are Waterbenders—”

“Yeah. A couple of us are Waterbenders. But more importantly, we don’t all look like our mommy and daddy set us out a pretty little party dress.”

Another girl on the couch joined in, addressing the group. “At least her hair matches. They’re both so dated.”

Katara was shocked by their immediate cruelty. It didn’t make sense; no one at home had ever been that mean for no good reason. Sure, they would get into fights, but not before any words had been exchanged. Katara crossed her arms across her chest, popping a hip and tapping her foot. “Look. I didn’t ask for your opinion on anything. I was just trying to be nice. But if politeness isn’t something you understand, then do me a favor and stay out of my way this week. I don’t need your attitude ruining my good time.”

Her message seemed to sink in just enough, as she judged from the subtle changes in the body language. The girls turned away, just slightly. Curled in on themselves, just a little. But Katara wasn’t even happy with her small victory. She could feel the burn of tears starting in her throat, spreading to her eyes. She would not show how their words had hurt her. She turned towards the hall to the girls’ rooms and walked steadily out of the great hall. As soon as she was out of view, she felt her feet pick up the pace, until she was running full force up the stairs to the third floor, searching for the room that would fit her key as she ran. Finding it, she put the key in the lock, praying to any spirit that would listen that her roommate had not yet arrived.

It was a small mercy, but the room was empty as she slammed the door behind her. Now that she was alone, the hot tears scalded down her cheeks, flamed with embarrassment. She tugged at her dress, which had been her favorite, and fumbled with the tie until it swung open, revealing her underdress and tights. She pulled at the bun at her neck, sending pins sprawling onto the floor. I don’t care what they say. Really. I don’t. They’re just jealous that I don’t need them. That I’m not like them and they’re all the same.

She flopped back on the bed, curling away from the door and into herself, trying to take deep breaths. Logically, she knew she was right, but it did little to salve the sting in her heart. On a deeper level, deeper than her intellect could reach, she just wanted to have a friend. A friend that was her own, that liked her on her own. Without Sokka’s help, or her mother’s help, or even Gran-Gran’s. No one knew her family here. She didn’t have their reputation to build on. Here, she was just Katara. And so far, “just Katara” is a loser.

Katara heard the door behind her unlock and she steadied her breath, already enraged at the thoughts of accusations her roommate might make. She didn’t wait for the door to fully open before she started hurling accusations. “What? Did you want to make fun of me too? Laugh at my clothes? Tell jokes about my hair?”

A disinterest, but thoroughly unfamiliar voice answered her. “I mean…I could, princess. But I don’t care what you’re wearing. Or what your hair looks like.”

This softened Katara a bit, and she sat up on the bed, head straining towards the door. “Really? Everyone else seems to.”

“Well, everyone else can probably see.”

Katara turned to see a young woman around her age, though much shorter in height. She was dressed in a formal Earth Kingdom gown, a flying boar embroidered in light green silk on a forest green bodice. Servants walked in behind her, carrying trunks of her things. Katara tried to meet the girl’s gaze, but in doing so she saw the gray tinge and lack of movement. None of this dampened the shorter girl’s smile, which stretched from ear to ear as she waved. “Hi. I’m Toph.”

Katara tried not to stare, though she supposed Toph wouldn’t know if she had. She crossed the room, raising her hand to shake, unsure if Toph would understand the gesture. “I’m Katara. It’s—”

Toph stepped forward and raised her hand, meeting Katara’s with precision, and Katara was amazed at her awareness. “Good to meet ya, Sweetness. Looks like this is gonna work out just fine.”

Katara laughed. “I suppose it is.”

 


 

By the time dinner rolled around, Katara and Toph were fast friends, talking about everything from Toph’s pro-bending obsession and life in the Earth Kingdom to Katara’s penchant for ice fishing and how she could bend hundreds of fish from the sea in one wave. As they got ready for dinner, Katara helped Toph make sure her dress was tied correctly, and Toph helped Katara not care one bit about what anyone might have to say about her dress.

Kya had taken special care in creating this dress for her daughter. Stitched out of mottled blue silk, the dress skimmed Katara’s shoulders and wound around her arms, small cutouts showing her muscular stature. The neckline plunged a modest amount, the rest of the silk skimming her budding curves before flaring out at the skirt. When she turned in a circle, the dress flared out, giving her the effect of a geyser. She was the picture of feminine strength, and Katara had never felt more beautiful in her life. She’d braided her hair into a high bun, ringlets falling out to the side, her hair intentionally looped into the same style as before, just a bit fancier. At her neck she wore a necklace of pearly shells, one large in the center, then smaller around the neck. She would not be made to feel ashamed of her people, or her culture. This necklace was her mother’s, and her mother’s before hers, worn by every woman in their family until replaced by a betrothal necklace. She would wear it with pride.

Katara took a deep breath in the mirror, arming herself against whatever might happen. “All right. Let’s do this,” she said to Toph.

Toph smiled. “Hey, to me you look great!”

They descended the stairs, walking out into the great hall to find it changed. Where couches and overstuffed chairs had once lined the walls, there were now large circular tables with chairs at each. Silver, china, and crystal lined the freshly pressed table cloths, and the candles lit the chandeliers with a hundred sparkling rainbows. Katara gasped. “Wow. It’s beautiful.”

“Meh. Haven’t seen one, you haven’t seen ‘em all.”

Katara winced at her mistake. “Oh right. I’m sorry, that wasn’t very nice of me.”

“It doesn’t bother me. I use Earth Bending to see with my feet, so I’m getting most of the important stuff. You know, tables, chairs, people. Anything I could trip over. See?” Toph lifted her expensive shoe, showing Katara how the sole was ripped out. She wiggled her toes, and Katara laughed.

“That’s amazing.”

“Yeah. It’s been really handy for me. My parents are a little too rich and important to have a helpless daughter.” Toph moved toward the drink table, leading Katara there as if she’d done it thousands of times before. “Can you hand me a water? I don’t like punch. The alcohol makes me wobbly, and when I’m wobbly, I can’t really see.”

“Sure thing.” Katara considered the punch for herself, but decided it would be better to wait. Apparently, she didn’t need help making a fool of herself here.

She scouted the room, looking for Sokka, finding him at a table with a girl from the Earth Kingdom. Toph and Katara sat with them, filling half of their table. “Sokka, who’s your friend?”

“Katara, this is Suki. We…we met last year.”

The smile the two shared surprised Katara, but it answered lots of questions too. “It’s nice to meet you, Suki.”

“And you, Katara. Sokka told me a lot about you.”

“Hopefully he was nice about it.”

While Suki and Katara laughed, Sokka defended himself, not seeing the jibe for what it was. “Hey, I’ll have you know that I told her all about how excellent your bending is and nothing about how awful your cooking is.”

Katara crossed her arms, levelling her gaze at Sokka. “You still eat it.”

“Yeah, but, it’s me. I’ll eat anything.”

Katara rolled her eyes, turning to engage Suki in conversation. “So, are you an Earth Bender?”

“No, I don’t bend. I’m the leader of a group of warriors back on my island.”

Toph’s face brightened, her voice full of excitement. “You’re the leader of the Kyoshi Warriors?!”

Suki straightened in her seat, proud of her group’s reputation. “Have you heard of us?”

“Absolutely! Could you show me some stuff while we’re here? I’d love to incorporate some of your moves into my bending.”

“Sure!”

A man at the front gently tapped a utensil against his glass, and the tinkling sound drew a hush from the hall. He was standing behind the only rectangular table in the room, and Katara noticed that it was the only table with adults, facing the other circular tables at an angle where all could be watched. Katara leaned over to Sokka. “What’s happening?”

“Our hosts are introducing themselves. Just listen, they’ll explain.”

The man with the glass sat down, and a woman in a deep blue gown stood. “Thank you. My name is Arknaya, and I am your Head Host from the Northern Water Tribe.”

Sokka and Katara exchanged a glance, rolling their eyes. Katara thought back on her encounter with some girls of the North earlier and decided she agreed with her brother: the Northern Water Tribe was full of pretentious idiots.

While the siblings laughed quietly, Arknaya continued. “For those of you returning, welcome back. For those of you here for the first time, we welcome you to this great tradition. Every year, a different nation hosts this event, ensuring the safety of all attendees. So if you have any questions or feel unsafe at any time, please let me or someone else at this table know.”

“Lot of good that’s likely to do us,” Sokka muttered. Katara narrowed her eyes at him, but couldn’t help but agree.

 “While we are here to assist you, you should also know that we are not your keepers,” Arknaya clarified. “We have scheduled many different types of competitions and excursions should you wish to participate, but you do not need our permission to do as you see fit. You are all the future leaders of our world, and the time has come for you to make your own decisions. We are here to see you do so safely, but that is all. Tonight we will have dinner, then the floor will be made available for dancing, should you choose to participate. All meals will take place here, in this room, at the times included in your invitations. And now, if there are no objections from my fellow hosts, I would like to officially begin this year’s festivities with a toast—”

The doors behind Arknaya swung open, a contingent of servants dressed in red and gold barreling through with trunks of luggage. Behind them stalked two figures, dressed in similar shades, though of obviously higher quality fabrics. Both had their hair wrapped in a top knot, a golden flame standing proudly from each head. The young woman stepped forward, all bravado and confidence. “I’m sorry…are we late?”

Her tone was anything but apologetic, and yet Arknaya and the other hosts immediately stood. Arknaya addressed the girl in front of her, deference clear in her voice. “Fire Princess Azula, so glad you could join us.”

Azula sighed, hands on her hips. “Yes, well. Couldn’t really refuse, could we? Where should the servants place our bags? It’s our first time, you know.”

Arknaya crossed to Azula and the young man that Katara could only assume was her brother, amazed at the respect these two apparently warranted. “Of course. Lady Azula, if you please. I will show you to your quarters. Chief Arnook, please escort Lord Zuko to his room as well.”

What kind of important do you have to be to have a Chief as your personal escort? Katara wondered at the scene before her, unable to keep her eyes from it. “Who’s that?” Katara pointed at the young man who, still in the shadow of the door, bowed in turn with Chief Arnook in a mutual exchange of greeting.

Suki whispered across Sokka in answer to Katara’s question. “That’s Azula and Zuko, children of Ozai. Ozai is Fire Lord Iroh’s younger brother.”

“So they’re what…royalty twice removed? Big whoop.” Sokka seemed unfazed.

“No, they’re royalty in their own right, even if they never rule. That’s just how the Fire Nation works. I’m surprised they showed up this year,” Suki added.

“What do you mean, ‘showed up’? I thought everyone attended The Prologue,” Katara mused.

“Everyone but him. Zuko should have been here last year. He was invited, but he didn’t show. It’s the first time anyone has ever turned down an invitation. My roommate last year was from the Fire Nation; it was all she could talk about.”

“Did she say why he didn’t come?”

“That’s the thing. No one knows.”

Katara turned her focus back to the double doors, where this strange young man from a strange land followed the Chief of the Northern Tribe like an equal, a peer. Everything about him had the quiet refinement of power. His back was a little too straight, his steps a little too even. The comfort with which he wore such costly attire all but screamed his status. And, as Katara couldn’t help but notice, the fine linens weren’t the finest thing about his physique. He clearly did not lead the life of indolent royalty. He was well muscled, with the lean sort of strength born of bending. She recognized it in him immediately; the same fine lines were carved into her arms and legs from hours of practice.

As her gaze assessed him, she caught his eyes, just for a moment. They were the color of molten gold, and though they showed surprise, they gave no heat. His eyes were cold, and a little lopsided. He turned to go, and Katara noticed the scar that ran the length of his left cheek. She was glad he did not see her shock. “What happened to him?”

“Nasty business with his father, or so the story goes. Again, no one really knows.”

Toph shrugged. “Yeah well, whatever. They’re holding up dinner and I need to eat.”

“I’m with Toph. That was just rude. You’d think royalty would get here on time,” Sokka agreed. They took their plates and lined up at the buffet tables. Suki followed, and eventually Katara was alone, watching after the boy with the golden eyes, unsure why she couldn’t shake his gaze. There was something about his eyes, a sadness that Katara couldn’t place. It didn’t suit him. She wondered what it would be like to see him smile. Shaking the thought from her head, she gathered her plate and joined her friends.

 


 

Later in the evening, when the dancing had started, Azula appeared. She sat with two other girls in Fire Nation attire, though it seemed the other ladies had arrived on time.

Zuko did not return.

It left her puzzled, and as she ascended the many stairs to her room, she couldn’t help but wonder what he was doing all alone in a place designed for company.

 

 

Chapter Text

Zuko always had nightmares the first night in a new place. It was an expected discomfort, but his dreams did not require surprise to be a burden. They were hideous enough on their own, expected though they may be.

In his dreams, his father burned him.

He could still feel the crackle of his skin, blisters popping under the force of the heat.

He could still feel his screams, tearing out of his throat.

He could still hear his mother’s desperate cries from across the stadium.

And worst of all, he could hear his father’s satisfaction. The labored breathing and lofty tone of a man pleased by his actions. “You will not dishonor me again, boy. Never again.”

Zuko woke with a start, fine beads of sweat clammy on his brow. There were two beds in the room, but he had no roommate. It was his one request, and while the Hosts had originally told him it wasn’t possible, arriving late had ensured his solitude.

Zuko didn’t like showing weakness in front of anyone, nightmares or otherwise. A Fire Prince screaming in his sleep was bad for the family image. And Agni forbid anything that’s bad for the family image.

He stood slowly, reorienting himself to his surroundings. It was a comfortable room, though small by his standards. The linens were soft and clean. He had a mirror and basin against the wall, propped on top of a large chest of drawers, and a window overlooking the beach. A private water closet was through another door, with a bathtub large enough to sprawl in.

Awake now, he bent a small flame to the lantern and began to unpack. He tossed his garments into various drawers, not really caring what wound up where. He tilted his dual broadswords against the edge of the dresser, close enough for easy access in a pinch. The only item he left unpacked was a small portrait, wrapped in old cloth. Glancing over his shoulder, he removed it from his trunk, unwrapping it just enough to see the face of the woman inside.

He had long ago memorized the lines of ink that formed his mother’s face, but it was a practiced habit with him. It had been ever since he was a boy.

Ten years earlier…

Zuko woke in a cold sweat, fear clutching his young heart. He sat upright in bed, though the curtains remained closed. He didn’t want to do it again. He knew what would happen if he did. He could do this himself. He was a Fire Prince. He could banish the nightmares alone.

He sat in silence, desperately trying to still his own breathing, but to no avail. The more he focused on being calm, the less he could slow his heartbeat. He was alone. No one was coming. He was alone and no one cared…alone…always alone…he heard it drumming in his ears, felt his lungs gasping for air, the darkness closing in on him like fingers clawing at his skin—

“Mom!” he called into the night, and his room was immediately filled with light, the servants who slept outside his room well accustomed to the young prince’s nightmares. He shot out of the bed curtains and barely remembered to grab a robe before darting out of his room and down the hall, desperately searching for his mother.

He reached the door of his parents’ chambers and banged his small fists against heavy doors, half wild with the fear of the night. “Mom? Mom! Are you there?”

He heard a shuffling of bedclothes, a waking snarl, and the harsh crack of skin on skin. Something fell to the ground. He heard a muffled grunt, but nothing substantial after that. He hated himself for this. Hated himself for causing her pain, and all because he couldn’t shake his stupid, childish nightmares.

A moment later his mother appeared, hair tied back, perfectly in order, robe tied fast around her waist. The only clue that anything was out of place trickled from her bruising lips, a shiny stream of blood winking at him from his mother’s face. It broke the floodgates of tears he’d tried to hide as he clung to his mother’s legs.

“I’m sorry, Mother. I just…I couldn’t sleep…”

Ursa bent down and held her son, muffling his cries.

Even then, he could feel the desperation in his mother’s embrace. “I know, my love. It’s all right, it’s all okay now. Let’s get you some tea.”

He shook the memory from his mind, angered by the beginnings of tears that always accompanied it. His heart was racing, thrumming through him until he tasted ash in his mouth. He needed to do something with his anger. Needed something to channel the pain.

A warmer memory flicked into his mind, one of a bending lesson with his uncle. Fire Lord though Iroh may be, he took the education of his family seriously, and saw to the children’s lessons himself.

Five years earlier…

Zuko finished the kata as instructed, fire pouring from his hands in thrilling bursts. He poured the memories of the nightmares into it, poured his frustration and his pain into it, turning it all to fuel as he felt the fire burn hotter. This made the anger feel good…better than the pain. Better than all of it.

Iroh nodded in approval, but his expression remained grim. Lu Ten and Azula had packed up long ago, not needing as much practice on this form as Zuko. Truth be told, Zuko merely felt the need to train longer to face exhaustion. He had more to channel through his fire than his sister or cousin.

Iroh circled Zuko as he began his next form, speaking to him as he worked through the remembered steps. “Good, Zuko. Your bursts are becoming stronger, harder to escape. But do not forget your basics. They are the foundation upon which you build success.”

Zuko moved in rhythm, nodding as he spoke. “Yes, Uncle.”

“What do you do when you face an opponent?”

“Break his root.”

“And why?”

“Because without a foundation, even the strongest fall.”

Now a smile lit Iroh’s face. “Good. Good, nephew. Let us take a break for a moment.”

Zuko shook his head with fervor. “I can keep going.”

“I know you can. But there is no need.”

Zuko spoke in time with his punches, speed and flame in every syllable. “There is need, Uncle. I feel it building inside of me until it burns so hot I can barely control it and…I need to keep going.”

Iroh nodded slowly, but placed a hand on his nephew’s young shoulder. The boy knew too much for his thirteen years. And yet, Iroh was no fool. He knew what his brother was, how he raised his children. Or how he failed to raise them, he supposed was more accurate. But even as Fire Lord, there was only so much he could do. And as Ozai’s brother…he could do even less. He couldn’t abandon the hope that eventually the sting of the Avatar’s set down would fade, that he might find peace with Ursa as he once had—

“Uncle?” Zuko stilled, furrowed brows meeting his uncle’s sad eyes. “Did you need something?”

Iroh came back to himself, sighing. “No, nephew. Train as you must. Let it out here, in safety. But when you are done, remember that destruction is merely a symptom of fire. It is not its original purpose. Meditate on the life in your flame. It may do you some good.”

Zuko nodded once, then returned to his kata. There were many things his Uncle understood, and anger was one of them. Much of that anger had burned away in the fight he never spoke of, the one that earned him his crown. Some memories were still too painful to discuss. He had, however, long ago confided in Zuko about his time with the original Fire Benders. He explained their beliefs about the purpose of fire. Zuko had learned to find a measure of peace in the ancient meditations.

But he was not yet ready for peace. He breathed deeply, smoke furling from his nostrils, and began the kata again.

Zuko knew what he needed now, more than sleep or food. He needed to fight. And once he was done, he needed to meditate, to spend some time with his fire. On their way in, he’d noticed the training arena, where he assumed the bending matches were scheduled for the rest of the week. At this time of night, no one would be using it. He could have the solitude he needed.

 


 

Katara and Toph had left the great hall early, not much in the mood for dancing after such a rich dinner. They were content to talk, though when the conversation inevitably turned toward “the royal interruption” as Toph called it, Katara was distracted. She couldn’t get the prince’s expression out of her head. How could someone so powerful and so important be that sad? And why does no one seem to know anything important about him?

It seemed strange to her that she felt such an immediate connection with him, especially as they’d never spoken, but there was enough in that brief shared glance to make her wonder. Why hadn’t he attended last year? What caused the scar on his face? Why didn’t he come down to dinner? And worst of all, why do you care so much about some prince you’ve never met?

Toph fell asleep long before Katara had put her thoughts to bed, and she wrestled with them. She opened the window and heard traces of music and laughter; the party downstairs was still in full swing. She hadn’t changed out of her dinner gown yet, loathe to remove the elegant garment before she absolutely had to. Maybe she’d have some punch, try a dance or two. And maybe someone else will be there, too.

Katara quietly replaced her shoes on her feet and slipped from the room, key in a small leather purse that looped around her wrist. She descended the stairs with excitement, the happy noises of partygoers increasing in volume as she neared the great hall. She walked the long hallway in silence, so when she heard another door open, the noise so much closer than the others, it caught her off guard. Out of instinct she hid around the corner, peering around to watch for the cause of the noise.

She saw Zuko, dressed exactly as he’d come, except the golden flame denoting his status was gone. His messy, dark hair now hung into his eyes, not bound in a wolftail or any type of bun. He seemed disinterested in the party and snuck out a door at the end of the hall, the opposite end from where she stood. The door was firmly on the “boys’ side” of the estate, but in that moment, Katara didn’t care. He obviously felt out of place. Maybe he just needed a friend.

She waited for Zuko to leave, the door closing firmly behind him, before she made her way down the hall again. She lingered at the party for a moment or two, filling a cup with punch and sipping as she mingled. She eventually discarded it, half full though it was, and walked determinedly towards the boys’ hallway.

No one batted an eye.

She reached the door easily, but once she was outside, she didn’t know where to turn. It was dark, and she hadn’t thought to bring a candle or lantern.

Out of her peripheral vision, she saw a blast of light. It allowed her to see enough to find a small, winding path, similar to the one leading up to the estate. She began walking, slowly when the light faded, faster when it brightened again. The inconsistent light made it difficult, but eventually she made her way to what appeared to be a bending arena.

Having only heard second hand descriptions from Toph, Katara wasn’t entirely sure what she was looking at, but it seemed like all four elements were on an equal playing field here. There were discs of earth settled into the ground, a large waterfall cascaded off the side of the rock, and air gliders hung nearby other types of equipment. There were even targets for weapons practice. It was an impressive place, that was certain, but nothing caught her attention as completely as the boy in the center of the floor.

He was obviously well trained, moving through the kata with fluidity and strength. With each punch, a blast of flame lit the night. With every movement of his feet, sparks shot out that would make an opponent dance away. It was an impressive form. She was still in enough shadow that she was hidden from view, and while she could obviously see he didn’t need the company, she found it difficult to stop watching. She watched in the way you watch an artist with his brush, a musician with his lute. It’s a particular experience to watch a Master at work.

Zuko paused, feet squared, one fist extended, tendrils of smoke still wafting from his knuckles. He stood slowly, releasing the tight coils of energy from his crouched legs and tensed arms. He placed one fist against an open palm and bowed to the night. He casually walked to the table off the edge of the training floor, grabbing a small towel from the pile. He lit a nearby lantern as he toweled off, which finally revealed his full form to Katara’s eyes.

It was in that moment she realized he was shirtless.

It wasn’t that she’d never seen a shirtless man before, just not one that seemed so…lithe. The stature she’d merely glimpsed earlier was now before her in all its athletic glory, lean cords of muscle evident in his shoulders, his back.

Though he was turned away from her, she saw the moment he realized he wasn’t alone, the subtle tension in his back as he pulled the towel over his head. “You here for a reason? Or just to watch?”

His voice retained the deep breaths of fatigue, but his words were no less impactful. Katara strolled into the light of the lantern, shrugging. “I was just taking a walk. Parties aren’t really my thing, at least when I don’t know anyone.”

“I know the feeling. What’s your name?”

“Katara. And you?”

“Don’t pretend like you don’t know it. Everyone already knows me here.”

In another voice, it would’ve sounded like a brag, but something about his raspy tone made her sad. She took another step into the lamplight, angling so she could see him in profile. “Zuko, right?”

“Yeah. Look, I don’t mean to be rude but—” he turned to face her, and his words flew away. His excuses about needing to be alone didn’t seem so important when he saw her.

Still in her fitted blue silk, she looked for all the world a princess, with a quiet confidence not usually found in youth. Or perhaps a spirit, a water nymph, luring unsuspecting young sailors into dangerous waters with her youthful beauty and strength. The crystal blue of her eyes against her dark skin was a contrast Zuko had never admired before. Her hair shone in the firelight, and her full lips were particularly…distracting.

He’d seen plenty of Northern Tribe girls, ambassador’s daughters and such accompanying parents to the palace, but there was something about this girl that surpassed the physical. She stood proud, arms crossed. She wasn’t shy, nor did she hide the physical vestiges of her power, her strong arms framed by the light silk. Nor did she shy away from the traditions of her people, as evidenced by the shells around her neck. The shells were luminous in the firelight. He wondered what it might be like to press a kiss to the soft skin at her neck, to untie her necklace and delve lower towards her chest--

He cut off that train of thought before it became a more…prominent issue. Aware of his unfinished sentence lingering in the air, he tried to end it with some semblance of sense. “I uh…I don’t think you’re supposed to be out here unless you’re bending.”

She lifted an eyebrow to show him what she thought of that excuse. “And what if I am here to work on some bending?”

Zuko crossed his arms. “In that dress? I don’t think so.”

“I could be.”

“Alright then, fine. You wanna spar?”

He’d called her bluff, but there wasn’t much she could do about it now. She walked to stand in front of the table, mere inches between them, sliding the shoes off her feet and the purse from her wrist. He smelled of sweat and smoke, a combination that did funny things to her insides, but she held his gaze all the while, eyebrow raised. She moved to the center of the training floor, facing across from Zuko, a red dotted line splitting center between them. He took a ready stance and she called water from the nearby falls, coating her hands.

Zuko tensed, waiting to spring. “Ever spar with a Firebender?”

“No. You ever spar with a Waterbender?”

“Once or twice. Not often.”

They began to circle each other, looking for a weakness in the other’s defenses. She tried a quick jab, but he countered with flame, hot steam rising between them where their elements met. Katara smiled. “Seems like visibility will be on my side, then.”

“How do you mean?”

With speed that frightened him, she brought her arms together with incredible force, a fine mist rising that hid her from sight. Zuko pulled in close, trying not to move, listening for footsteps or breathing, anything to give away her location. He waited, ever patient, until he heard a muted sound of satisfaction. Nice move. But I’ve got you now.

Focusing on his target, he sent a wall of flame forward. It was a draining move, but also very difficult to dodge. He was only somewhat surprised to watch her dance around it, though the edges of her dress were now singed.

“Oh, damn it,” he heard her say, though when he tried another blast she disappeared into more fog.

“What?”

“Nothing. Just got the edge of my dress on that last one.”

“Almost like you don’t normally wear gowns when you’re bending.”

She rolled her eyes, but a smile crept in as well. “Fine. Point taken.”

“You gonna quit on me?” He asked, unable to keep himself from goading her.

She lashed a water whip at him, unsurprised when he danced away unscathed. “Not at all. Just wish I’d changed first. You’ve definitely got the advantage in range of movement.”

He shrugged, still peering through the fog to aim up his shot. “Just take it off.”

“What?”

“Your dress. Take it off.”

“Uh, no!

“Can’t burn it if you’re not wearing it.”

Can’t fault him for logic, I suppose. She skated around another attack and saw him save a slip on the thin ice. “I don’t think so. I’m not wearing a whole lot under this.”

“Well it’s your fancy dress,” he chided, sending another blast of flame in the direction of her voice. He was rewarded with a glimpse of her dodging and rolling, hair tumbling out of the bun at the back of her neck.

Katara tried to rise as usual from her roll, but the tight fabric around her legs kept her from doing so. Instead of crouching with feet spread wide, she had to adapt, springing upward to land on one foot, then the other, her skirt dictating the width of her stance. She huffed in frustration. This is just ridiculous.

“If you think you’re the first girl I’ve seen in her bindings, you’re mistaken. It’s not a big deal. Just take it off.”

Now his voice had an edge of cockiness that fueled Katara’s temper more than it should. She knew exactly what he was doing, trying to goad her into it by pricking at her pride, or distracting her enough so that she made a mistake. Yeah, well I’m gonna be the first girl you see in her bindings that kicks your royal ass.

She called out in frustration, raising an overwhelming tide far into the sky above the arena. To buy herself time to change, she brought the water down in icy shards, effectively distracting Zuko long enough to let the silk pool at her feet. She tugged on her bindings, ensuring that the knots would hold tight. This is as naked as I intend to be tonight, thank you very much.

Flinging her dress to the side, she reveled in her newfound range of motion, calling up more mist to keep Zuko unaware of her position. He’d dodged the ice with considerable skill, but now he was hot on her trail. They’d been sparring long enough that he had a feel for her style now; he was starting to anticipate her dodges and rolls, countering enough to make her work for it. But it was a double edged sword, for the longer they traded blows, the better she could anticipate him as well.

They danced around the arena for some time, neither gaining significant ground for long. Katara felt the burn in her muscles as she called more water from the falls, the satisfying strain in her legs and shoulders as she hurled a wave at him. It drenched his fire bursts, and she saw her opening. With a battle cry worthy of the fiercest warrior, she jumped through the fog, brandishing ice to force him to dodge. When his back reached the wall, she kicked, sending a geyser blast at his gut that pinned him in place. She closed in for the finishing move, grabbing hold of one of his wrists and pinning it to the wall in ice. She caught the other in her waiting fist, pinning it back with muscle alone, her exhausted pants punctuating her victory. “I win, Firebender.”

Zuko was breathing just as heavily, but his surprise at being bested was quickly replaced with an acute, near painful awareness of her state of undress. During the fight he’d caught glimpses, sure; the outline of a shoulder, the curve of a calf. But now, with the lamplight behind her, the waterfall raging behind him, all he could see was her. She smelled like a fresh, cool spring, something vaguely floral, but also clean and sharp. He was very aware of her strong grip on his wrist, of how the fabric of her upper bindings grazed his bare chest.

His voice was huskier than before, his breath hitching. “Yeah. You’ve got great…technique.”

Katara found it difficult to keep her eyes trained on his; the heat in the golden orbs before her was palpable. She loosened her grip on his wrist, but didn’t move, enjoying the feeling of his skin beneath hers more than she thought she would. More than she should. “Thanks…you too.”

His eyes darted up, and he smirked. “You’ve got a little ice in your hair.”

An instinctual reaction, she let go of his wrist, patting her head. “I don’t feel anything—hey!”

With speed faster than she could track, Zuko wrapped his now free arm around her waist, pivoting and twisting until he had her pinned against the wall with his body, one arm still frozen above them. It must have made an amusing picture, but neither one was laughing.

“Gotcha,” Zuko breathed in victory.

Katara struggled against his hold, but even with one arm, he was strong. “That’s not…very fair of you.”

“I’m not too good at playing fair.”

She kept struggling, because it was the only thing she had to distract her from the feel of his arm around her waist, the heat of his breath on her face. The scent of ash that made her yearn for a different kind of contact. “Really? Then what are you good at, besides cheating?”

“Are you asking?”

“Obviously, why do you--”

As in answer, he pressed a quick kiss to her lips, testing her reaction. Her cheeks flushed red as he pulled back, but he felt her shiver, her chest instinctively pressing against his. “Oh.”

He waited, not sure what to do next. It wasn’t every day he was tangled up with a half-naked Waterbender, unable to free his arm from a block of ice, after all.

Katara spoke first. “Why’d you do that?”

All he could think to say was the truth. “Seemed like the thing to do.”

“And now?” She looked up at him from hooded lids, her voice huskier than he remembered it being.

He moved his arm from her waist, brushing stray hairs from her face. “Now…I think I’d like to do it again.”

She leaned into him, just slightly, before taking advantage of her newfound freedom, spinning away from his reach. He tried to follow after, but when he reached the length of his arm he snapped back, knocking his head against the wall with a grunt.

Her eyes sparkled in the lamplight, and she couldn’t hold back a victorious chuckle. “You’re not the only one who doesn’t play fair.”

She stood defiantly in front of him, hands on her hips. She didn’t account for the fact that while one of his hands was still encased in ice, the other was not. Zuko reached up with his free hand, easily melting it free. He watched her confidence fall, but it was replaced by an expression he couldn’t name. Between her heated cheeks and questing eyes, it Iooked suspiciously like lust. It spoke to the same in him, a fire rising inside him that had nothing to do with bending.

Their eyes met.

He shoved off the wall.

Her arms fell to her sides.

And they fell together in a searing kiss.

They clung together in a tangle of limbs, unable to get enough of each other. He smelled of smoke; she tasted like berries, the punch from earlier lingering sweet on her lips. She curled her arms around his head, opening her mouth for his questing tongue. He tasted her deeply, reveling in her sweet sighs. She seemed unfamiliar with the intimacy, but it didn’t stop her from participating. She caught his lower lip between her teeth, more unintentionally than anything, but the moan it elicited from him gave her courage. She walked him back to the wall, pinning him with her body this time, pressing her soft curves into the hard planes of his chest.

Zuko’s hands smoothed down her bare back, resting at the top of her hips. He toyed with the fabric of her bindings. She giggled.

“What?” he asked.

“Your hand is cold,” she whispered against his lips.

“Your fault. Deal with it.”

“I’m not complaining,” she broke away for a moment, resting her forehead against his. They were both breathing heavily, but Zuko wasn’t inclined to stop. He kissed down her neck, sending shivers that had nothing to do with cold down Katara’s spine. She curled a hand in his hair as she confessed, “I don’t really…know why I’m doing this…”

“Me either,” he admitted against her shoulder.

“I feel like I’m on fire.”

“Me too.”

Zuko was surprised at himself, at his admissions. He may have said he was on fire, but the truth was, he was drowning, drowning in her half hidden sighs and shivers, drowning in the feel of her pebbling breasts against him. Zuko remembered his initial assessment of her as he kissed his way to her chest, taking a nipple into his mouth through the fabric. Her keening cry egged him on as he gripped her thigh to curl it around his waist. She pulled him so close he nearly toppled, his growing erection now firmly planted against the apex of her thighs. She ground against him experimentally, and he almost came right there. Yeah. Definitely a siren.

He kissed back up to her lips and found her ready and waiting. The subtle teasing of her hips was driving him wild, making him yearn for more, too much to ask from a girl he’d met a mere hour before. But he couldn’t help himself. The fog from their earlier exertions still hung heavy in the air, and the waterfall masked their ready sighs. But more than that, Zuko didn’t think he’d ever wanted someone so damn much.

He reached between their bodies and curled his hand against her stomach, sliding down until he was toying with the edge of her lower bindings. He cupped her through the damp fabric, and while it sent a jolt of sensation through her, it was immediately followed by panic.

“Stop…wait…just stop for a second.”

It took him a moment to form coherent thoughts, but when he recognized the sounds she was making as words, he stopped, catching her lips for a quick kiss before speaking. “Something wrong?”

Katara was overwhelmed, panting for too many reasons. It wasn’t that it didn’t feel amazing, because it did. She silently admitted to herself that yes, Zuko did in fact know what he was doing. But it was too much sensation, too much too quickly. When he touched her there, it just reminded her of her inexperience, of her ignorance of this mysterious, albeit talented boy in front of her.

She shrugged through her blush, hands tangled in her own hair, and Zuko begrudgingly admitted it was an adorable look for her. “It’s just…we just met. I don’t know anything about you.”

“Do you really need to? Here?”

It was a fair question, one Katara had been warring with since she’d ever heard of The Prologue. “I don’t know. Maybe.”

“Alright,” he nodded, loosening his hold on her. He took her lips with his, just once more, reveling in the feel of her full mouth against his for just one moment longer, then he pulled away. She smiled, obviously embarrassed, yet obviously aroused. With her hair mused and reddened lips, he knew this memory would haunt his dreams in a way the nightmares never did.

They disentangled themselves, and she walked over to where she’d left her dress. She slipped it over her head, and he watched as she gathered her purse, slipping her shoes back on. When she turned back to him, he was also fully dressed. She licked her lips, toying with her purse, not sure what to say. “So…I’ll see you tomorrow?”

“Where are you going?”

She shot a glance back to the side door, listening as the laughter and chatter inside grew louder, loud enough to hear from the arena. “Sounds like the party is finally over. Probably back to my room.”

“I’ll walk you in.”

“You don’t…you don’t have to do that. If you don’t want.”

“You afraid to be seen with me?”

“No, no it’s not that, I just—”

“Then I’ll walk you back in. I’m the one with the light, remember?”

She smirked, following him and the flame in his hand as he took her back to the small stone path, following its curves away from the side door and towards the front entry. They walked in silence, and though there was an edge of tension to it, neither was it entirely awkward. It felt like a deep breath before jumping from a ledge. In some ways, Katara supposed it was.

They reached the front entrance within minutes. Katara was surprised to see there were still some guests lingering near the front doors, looking at the stars or finishing last glasses of punch. She snuck a look at Zuko, unsure how he’d react to walking in with her, some “peasant” from the Southern Tribe. She waited for him to stop, to stick to the shadows.

He kept walking.

He seemed unaware of the stares as he held one of the heavy doors open for her. She walked in. “Thank you,” she murmured.

“You’re welcome. See you around. You know…if you want.”

“I do want,” she said. His eyes met hers, and she felt the same fire rekindle. “I want very much.”

“Then sleep well.”

“You too.”

He finally seemed to notice the stares they were drawing, and in a pique of rebellion, he drew close to Katara, just for a second, and placed a soft kiss to her cheek.

He walked away quickly, and to avoid explanations, so did she.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Katara quickly slipped into bed, glad that Toph seemed to be a deep and quiet sleeper. She didn’t want any questions about where she’d been. She wasn’t entirely sure how to answer. Oh what was I doing, Toph? Nothing much. Just being kissed senseless by one of the most talented benders I’ve ever met. No big deal. And oh yeah, everyone will probably know about it come morning, including Sokka.

Katara knew she should probably think of a plan, think of what she would say when she saw her brother and her friends, but she couldn’t find the energy to be worried. Her heart was beating a rapid tattoo against her chest, as it had been from the moment Zuko pressed his lips to hers. She kept playing the night over and over in her head, from their well matched sparring to the way his hands felt on her skin, the way his mouth felt on her breast…she shivered. Maybe Mom was right about the moon tea after all.

And yet with that thought, she remembered how it ended. He’d been kind, not pressuring her in any way, and she’d still shied away from it. From him. Katara couldn’t explain it, but as much as she wanted to throw caution to the wind, she couldn’t. Katara knew she’d always been cautious in nature, a necessary trait when growing up with the likes of Sokka. But though her body felt ready, her spirit needed time. She needed to know more about this Fire Prince, about the sadness that lurked behind his eyes, before she would feel comfortable sharing any more with him, Prologue or no.

And with that thought finally quelling the heat inside, Katara settled into a deep sleep.

 


  

Unsurprisingly, Katara woke late the next morning, unused to staying up so late. By the time she finished changing and throwing her hair into a simple braid, she was rushing to the main hall for breakfast. Instead, she found an empty room. Where is everyone? And why didn’t Toph wake me when she got up this morning?

Katara looked around, but the hall was empty. And worse, she didn’t remember what the invitation had said was happening today. She looked for clues, finding nothing but a table with parchment and ink. Upon inspection, Katara noticed they were lists for five different sparring competitions: one for each element, and even one for nonbenders. Katara grinned, immediately taking the pen and dipping it in ink. One of the main reasons she’d been excited for the Prologue was to learn new bending forms from her sister tribe. She was quickly approaching Master Waterbender status at home and was eager to try her hand at competition.

As Katara started to sign her name, she heard the beginnings of a conversation, one that got louder by the second. She turned to see a group of four boys about her age coming from the other side of the house, jogging towards the table. Towards her. She greeted them with a smile, but when they saw her, they stopped short. One of the older boys came forward, a smug expression on his face. “You lost or something?”

Katara folded her arms across her chest, clearly unhappy with his tone. “No. I was signing up for the Waterbending competition.”

Katara wasn’t sure what she expected as a reaction, but harsh laughter was not it. The self-appointed leader of the group strode confidently forward, his dark hair shaggy in his face. “And why would you do that? It’s not a healing competition.”

“I know. I’m studying to Master all forms of Waterbending.”

All traces of amusement vanished from his face, anger shining in his eyes. “So it’s true. Our sister tribe has stooped so low that their women must fight for the men?”

A new voice countered him. “No. Their men are smart enough to know that the skill of women benders goes beyond the healing tent.”

Katara turned to see Sokka striding angrily towards the group, though he seemed to be in control of himself. “Careful, Kote,” her brother continued, “I’ve seen Katara fight. She could kick your ass, competition or not. Unless you’re scared.”

Katara cast a grateful glance to her brother, returning to the list to sign her name, knowing Kote was watching her every move. She extended the pen and met his gaze in challenge. He walked to her, taking the pen as he met Sokka’s eyes. “Not scared,” Kote scoffed as he turned to Katara. Genuine loathing filled his eyes, “Just disgusted. I thought this place had standards.”

With that, Kote let the pen fall to the tile floor, letting it clatter and stain Katara’s dress with ink, brushing past with his cronies snickering.

Behind him, Katara fumed. Her mind was immediately filled with what she should have said, what she should have done…but she’d been too stunned by his arrogance. By his cruelty. One glance was all it had taken to size her up, to hate her. What have I gotten myself into?

“Who was that?” Katara asked.

“Kote. Just a jerk from the Northern Tribe. Ignore him.”

“Ignore him? How can I? He’s…awful,” Katara took a deep breath, trying to process. “Is it true that Northern girls can only be Healers?”

Sokka shrugged. “Sounds like.”

“Why?”

“Lots of places do things different than home, Katara. It may not be right, but it’s just the way the world is.”

“It shouldn’t be,” She stared daggers after the boys as they rounded the corner, down a hall she hadn’t noticed.

“I know. But getting into a stupid fight with that idiot won’t help. Besides, you’re gonna be late for the breakfast. It’s down the hall, you just go to the right. Guys are on the left.”

“I thought the introduction was last night?”

“Part one of two, I’m afraid. But there’s tons of food for breakfast. And don’t worry, after this they pretty much leave us alone. That’s when the fun starts.”

It’d be more fun if Kote signed up for the bending competition, Katara thought to herself, but instead she nodded, turning to follow her brother. They walked in silence until they reached the hall; Sokka reached for Katara’s arm as she turned towards the room on the right.

“Katara?”

“Yeah?”

“You okay with…everything?”

After dealing with Kote and his crew, the last thing Katara wanted was to have this conversation, especially when her brother was feeling protective. Her silence caused Sokka to continue, filling the space between them with words. “It’s just I wanted to check, because I know you said before you weren’t really gonna…or whatever, and I’m not saying you did, or that it’s bad or something, I just wanted to check and—”

“Stop. Just stop. Everything is fine. I can handle myself, Sokka.” Katara took a calming breath, turning a kinder gaze on her brother. He’s just trying to help, even if he has no idea how. She hit his shoulder playfully, like they did when they were kids. “And if I need you, I’ll find you. You don’t have to worry…and we don’t have to talk about this again. Like…ever.”

The relief in his face was instant. “Thank goodness. Because this is awkward.”

 


 

As Katara entered the room, she saw a series of smaller tables, each seating about five or six. Suki and Toph sat with two girls Katara didn’t know, but they’d saved her a seat at least.

“There she is. How’s it going, Sugar Queen?” Toph’s grin was ear to ear.

Suki rolled her eyes at Toph, laughing. “Oh hush, Toph. Katara. I’m just glad you made it. I wanted to introduce you to friends of mine from last year. Katara, this is Mai and Ty Lee. They’re from the Fire Nation.”

Katara said hello to the two girls, exchanging a smile with the pig tailed acrobat, and nothing with the dark haired girl who seemed perfectly content to ignore her. Katara briefly remembered them as the girls who’d sat with Zuko’s sister last night, but the Fire Princess didn’t seem to be around this morning.

Katara turned back to Toph, who kept a curious eye trained on her. She could feel the beginnings of a blush rise in her cheeks, but she tried to keep her voice even. After her interaction with Kote, and her thoroughly awkward conversation with Sokka, she was in no mood to deal with more questions. So when it became clear Toph wouldn’t let it go, Katara sighed. No one is going to let this go, are they?  “So what’s with the nickname, Toph?”

“Nothin’. Just seemed appropriate. Word is you and that sulky Fire Prince were out late last night.”

Katara fought her natural urge to hide as all eyes at the table slid to her. Even Mai seemed interested in her response. She wanted nothing more than to sink into the embarrassment and let it pass without comment. But then she thought back to last night, to the moment when Zuko realized others were watching. To the swift kiss on her cheek that had been unexpectedly…sweet. He hadn’t seemed to care about what people thought. So why should I? It’s no one’s business but mine. “And what if we were?”

Toph nodded approvingly. She hadn’t expected Katara to fess up to it. “And nothing. Good for you, sweetness.”

Katara felt emboldened by her newfound confidence, taking a seat as she added, “And if you knew I’d been up late, least you could do is wake me up before you left. Some roommate.”

“What makes you think I was in the room at all last night?”

Katara did a double take. “I thought you were asleep when I came in.”

Toph laughed, feet kicked up on the table, arms casually bent behind her head. “Trust me, you’d know if I was sleeping. I snore pretty bad. Besides, I’m a Bei Fong. My dad owns basically everything in the Earth Kingdom. Technically you’re supposed to be 16 and all, but I’ve been coming to the Prologue since I was 12 just for the bending competitions. I was catching up with friends.”

“They have a nonbending competition too. That’s where Mai, Ty Lee and I met,” Suki added.

Katara nodded, wanting to clarify one point with the other girls, “And it’s open to anyone—?”

“Welcome again, ladies,” the Northern Tribe woman from last night stood from her seat at the head table, and Katara shifted her gaze along to the front of the room. Arknaya was again in blue today, though less formally dressed. A few other women around her age were also at the head table, more Northern Tribe Hosts, representatives from wealthy Earth Kingdom cities, emissaries from the Fire Nation, and even an Air Nomad with long grey hair falling down her back, arrows winding over her skin. Katara noticed that there was no representative from the Southern Tribe. Apparently “Water Tribe” is close enough for these people. Still, she resolved to listen with as little judgment as possible.

Arknaya continued now that she had the room’s full attention. “I, on behalf of this year’s Chaperones, hope you found your first night at the Formal enjoyable. As always, we would like to briefly go over the schedule for the week and discuss the purpose of this important event.”

“Just call it the Prologue, no one is ever gonna call it the Formal, lady,” Toph snickered under her breath. Katara bit back a laugh as she kept listening.

“First of all, the Northern Water Tribe is the Host for this year’s Formal, meaning we have arranged the meals, transportation, and entertainment for the entire week. However, all nations are represented here through the Chaperones. If at any point you wish to discuss a matter with someone from your home, with someone who understands your cultures and traditions, you may seek us out at any point. We are also available to speak with anyone who wishes to learn more about our homes and various peoples. Remember, you never know what customs you may need to know in the future.”

After the morning she’d had, Katara fairly seethed that there was no one from the Southern Tribe here. No wonder people here considered her a peasant. With no representation in the Chaperones, people couldn’t learn about her tribe even if they wanted to. And from the brief interaction she’d had with Kote, Katara suspected that her sister tribe’s view on bending wasn't the only difference. And only one Air Nomad? There are four temples. She took a deep breath to steady herself and caught Mai's eye. She arched an eyebrow at Katara. “Something the matter?”

“Nothing. I’m just starting to realize that this isn’t what I thought it was going to be. They think they’re being fair to everyone, but they’re not.”

This seemed to surprise Mai, but she nodded in agreement. “I understand. Better than you think.”

It was then that Katara noticed Mai’s arm around the back of the other girl’s chair, the girl Suki had introduced as Ty Lee. Katara wasn’t so much shocked that they were a couple as she was to see them so open about it…so open about it here.

Katara knew a few married couples back home that were women, and one or two men as well, but none in her circle. None of her “status”, whatever that meant. Katara knew her responsibility to the tribe would require marriage, and that marriages like hers had to result in children. Biological children. The only nation that didn’t follow the Bloodline Tradition were the Air Nomads, but they didn’t adhere to bloodlines in any facet of society, marriage contracts or otherwise. Nomadic Law dictated that rulers were appointed by spiritual guides. Families were created, not born into, as one explored their spiritual selves. In fact, it was only after this most recent Air Cycle of the Avatar that other nations began to accept Nomadic Law’s views on marriage contracts at all.

Katara understood now what Mai meant. Her tribe was ignored in much the same way they ignored Mai and Ty Lee.

Arms crossed, Katara continued to listen. Arknaya detailed the schedule: the theatre was within walking distance and would run two shows in repertoire this week, meals would take place in the main hall from now on, should anyone require moon tea it could be requested at breakfast, there would be a formal dinner with dancing at the end of the week, and sign ups for the bending competitions were available today, though Katara already knew the last one. Finally Arknaya finished the schedule and launched into the history of the marriage contract.

Katara had heard this before from her mother, but she shrugged and listened anyway. Maybe other cultures didn’t tell their children as much as her parents had. Everyone should come to the contract table aware of the process, though personally Katara found the tradition flawed at best.

Arknaya’s voice was full of pride as she explained. “Before the Formal, marriage contracts were agreed to in haste, with little to no discussion between the families of those involved. Marriages that crossed borders were difficult to navigate due to the differing customs. Many were taken advantage of, or kept from better alliances due to lack of information. But now, when the time comes for you to take on new roles, you will not disappear into a new home with no friends of your own. The more time you spend here, the stronger foundations you can build to lead to greater success for your nation, and therefore all nations. As you know, you are eligible to attend the Formal from ages 16-20, before you inherit if you are in a line of succession, or until you are betrothed. While it is sometimes impossible, we encourage you to attend as many years as you can before entering into negotiations so as to fully understand your options and meet as many people as you can.

"Now, when it comes time to write your half of the Contract, I urge you to be sensible. Protect what is yours, but do not be overly defensive. Be gracious and open to revision, as it will aid you in negotiations should you want to change anything in your betrothed’s half. Include important context on your culture’s traditions. Remember that these are the guidelines that will rule your marriage, and all possible outcomes should be considered. We have sample Contracts available if you wish to further educate yourselves this week.

“Finally, when it comes to the issue of…relations…it is perfectly natural to want affection in a relationship. It is in fact necessary. Do not be surprised if you are urged to include language about this in your Contract, or if you see it in your betrothed’s. Reality can sometimes be more difficult in practice than what is written. Sometimes affection comes easily in marriage; sometimes it does not. But the rules are simply different for young people such as yourselves. You may not be able to marry for love, as common folk do, but that is not a privilege of your station.

“But there are many other privileges, including the responsibility to always act in the best interests of your people. Remember that for many of you, your duties are tied to the Bloodline Tradition, and bloodlines require naturally born children.” Almost as an afterthought, Arknaya added quickly, “And there are always secondary relationships that can fill the need for...friendship. It is not uncommon to include language around that as well."

"Yeah. That's what we have,” Mai muttered under her breath, “Just a real close friendship."

Ty Lee sighed, obviously having had this conversation with Mai before. "You know it's nothing personal. Half the female Chaperones have secondary relationships, some even with women. No one’s saying we can’t be together.”

“Just not primary.”

Ty Lee stroked the back of Mai’s hand. “It's not like it was before the Air Cycle. The Nomads have accepted marriage contracts regardless of gender for centuries. It used to be forbidden."

"Goody for them. Someone should let the Fire Nation know about all this wonderful progress. They seem to have missed the message.”

"It’s varied in the Earth Kingdom,” Suki added. “Some cities have accepted Nomadic Law for decades, but many smaller villages still keep to the Blood. My friend's family put forward offers for female contracts this year. She’s a more junior member of the Warriors, but still. Things are changing, even out on Kyoshi Island." Suki added.

Ty Lee's sympathetic eyes met Suki's. "You'll have to excuse Mai. Her father is a General back home, in charge of weaponry. One of the few craftsmen to reach such an honored position without significant military service. He should be training Mai as his protege--"

"Except according to him, I've got the wrong parts. He wants to use the position to entice a marriage offer for me. If I had that position, Ty Lee and I could be open. Live our lives how we want, with who we want. Instead of always sneaking around."

"Sneaking can be fun, sometimes," Ty Lee chided, though her voice was tinged with sadness. 

Mai laced her hands with Ty Lee's under the tablecloth. Unable to keep her steely demeanor under the warmth of the acrobat's smile, Mai conceded. "Sometimes.”

It seemed Arknaya had finished her spiel during their conversation, as she ended with thanks and indicated that breakfast would now be served. As Katara’s friends launched into plans for the day, she found herself unexpectedly sad. Nothing about this trip was turning out how she’d imagined; all the plans she’d made dreaming of this very moment seemed so naïve.

There would be no new Waterbending forms to learn, not if Kote was any indication. While she’d started to find friends, many others avoided her, eyeing her shell necklace and traditional dresses with confusion. And as far as the unstated purpose of the Prologue, Katara didn’t know what to think. She’d hoped to find Zuko at breakfast, but the closest she’d come is gossip. Where did they stand? Would he find her later today? Should she wait patiently? Or should she look for him and demand answers?

And once she found him, just what was she supposed to do with him?

 


 

After breakfast, Katara decided she was not going to wait around for Zuko. It was a small island. There were a finite number of places she could be. If he really wanted to find her, he’d find her.

She tried to ignore how some part of her thrilled at the idea of seeing him again. It was the same part of her that longed for nothing more than his strong arms around her, the part of her who didn’t care who he was so long as he pressed his body against hers, his kisses warm in the spray of the waterfall—

Stop it. This place has been nothing but a disappointment so far. He might be the same.

So when Suki suggested they go shopping in town, Katara readily agreed. It had only taken Katara one step outside for her to realize that everything she’d brought from home was far too warm for the sunny climate. She’d packed only her lightest dresses, but even those were too heavy. Most everyone else was dressed in light cottons that flowed in the breeze, nothing thick or furred. And if she was going to compete in the bending competition, she’d need proper attire for that, too. Not to mention her favorite dress was now stained with ink.

And it had absolutely nothing to do with wanting to look nice in case Zuko did find her.

Nothing at all.

 


 

Zuko sighed as the Chaperones blathered on about Contracts. It may be his first Prologue, but he’d heard it all before. Before Prologue? Bad. After Prologue? Good. Civilized, they called it. Everyone is protected.

And all it took was complete disregard for how a person felt. No big deal.

Maybe no one else recognized the need for more than “affection” in a marriage, but he surely did. He’d learned his mother’s lessons well. His parents had “affection” at the start, too. They had model contracts. And his bastard father still beat her bloody, still forced her into exile he didn’t know where…

No. Affection wasn’t enough. And marriage was not for everyone, social status be damned. Zuko may not know what he thought about “love” or some such, but that much he knew for sure.

Which is why his inability to get that Waterbender out of his head was particularly disconcerting. Zuko hadn’t come to the Prologue for anything other than escape. She was…a complication. A beautiful, tantalizing complication, but a complication all the same.

As the Chaperones continued up front, Zuko reflected on this time last year, when he missed what should have been his first Prologue for the same reason he missed everything, the same reason he bore his scar: because he was a disappointment to his father. 

Last year, after daring to have asked about his mother, Ozai sent Zuko on a pointless chase for information through the Colonies. In the process, Ozai got to use Zuko as a snub against the Prologue, against all the people he may one day need to know, while getting himself time alone with Azula and his loyal guard. It was a calculated move on Ozai’s part. Still, Zuko had tried to make the most of the forced voyage, to track down answers Ozai had missed, but all Zuko learned was what he’d known for years. His mother had been there for a few months or so after her exile, but beyond that no one knows.

And when he’d returned emptyhanded, he was punished.

Not physically, like when he was a child. No, once Ozai burned him, Iroh kept too close an eye for him to dare. But sometimes, when a dark mood struck him, Zuko found he almost would have preferred a beating. Not knowing how or when Ozai would strike…sometimes, the waiting was worse.

I should be old enough to stop him. I shouldn’t need Uncle to keep him away. But he couldn’t. Zuko knew he’d only have one shot at taking his father down. It wasn’t a question of if. It was a question of when. No one outside the Royal City had any idea how bad things still were. Five years after Iroh’s intervention, the duel that had earned him his crown, and Ozai still seethed at his brother’s birthright. Ozai played the obedient second son when it suited him, but Zuko knew his father too well. Nothing would stop his quest for power. The situation was not resolved, merely stewing, building up heat until it one day exploded. And when that day came, however it happened, Zuko would need to be stronger than Ozai, have tricks up his sleeve that Ozai didn’t.

Pity he couldn’t conjure lightning like Azula. In this as well, she proved a better heir than Zuko. His redirection was progressing, but it wasn’t enough. He was never enough. From the moment Azula’s talent was known, she had their father’s favor. Even now, Azula was privy to meetings Zuko was not, meetings that were mysteriously rescheduled if Uncle Iroh or Lu Ten somehow found out about them. The tension was palpable every time he walked through the palace gates. Discontent was brewing, phrases like “civil war” and “rebellion” whispered in the dark.

Zuko wanted nothing else from the Prologue than to focus on his training and help Lu Ten keep up appearances. If there was ever a chance at finding his mother, ever a chance at a life beyond his father’s shadow, this was how. This and his carefully formed alliance with Iroh and Lu Ten.

As though he could hear his thoughts, Lu Ten took a seat at Zuko’s table. “Cousin.”

“How are things?”

Lu Ten shrugged, casually sipping water to hide his mouth in case anyone tried to read his lips. Such subterfuge was common in the Palace, and the habit died hard. “As expected. No one here has any knowledge of our situation at home. None but us and that sister of yours.”

“Not even her friends?”

“Azula doesn’t trust them with secrets. Which is probably a good thing for us.”

Zuko grunted in acknowledgment. He didn’t relish the idea of fighting Mai or Ty Lee. Bad enough they’d have to deal with Azula and Ozai; if he could skip the knives and Chi Blocking, he would.

“Anything else?” Zuko inquired.

Lu Ten shook his head, reclining in his chair. His hair was back in a low bun rather than his formal top knot, and though his robes were of fine quality in the usual reds and burnt oranges, Lu Ten appeared…almost relaxed. Zuko knew this would be Lu Ten’s last Prologue, as he was about to enter into negotiations with a woman back home, so he was glad to see his cousin getting some kind of break.

“So who is she?”

The question caught Zuko off guard. It wasn’t that he was surprised Lu Ten had heard about last night. Zuko was used to whispers following him wherever he went; whether it was his scar, his lack of a mother, or whatever new sin his father committed, the gossips worked overtime everywhere he went. But whatever power had possessed him to be so public with Katara had surprised him nearly as much as her.

Perhaps that had something to do with it. Maybe he wanted to give the gossips something to talk about on his own for once.

Or maybe you just wanted to kiss her.

Shaking that thought away, Zuko shrugged. “A Waterbender from the Southern Tribe. We sparred. She’s good.”

Lu Ten didn’t say anything, but pinned his cousin with a look. Zuko met his gaze, his answer barely above a whisper. “She’s…different.”

“Well good. Different is good. I’m glad you decided to try to enjoy yourself. We’re not at war yet.”

As the Chaperones finally finished to the sounds of polite applause, Zuko’s brow furrowed. Yet.

 


 

Zuko spent the rest of the day training with Lu Ten and a few other Firebenders, happy to find a few at his level. And if the near-constant string of sparring partners helped keep his mind off a certain Waterbender, kept him from getting lost in the roar of the waterfall and the memory of her earnest kisses, so much the better.

Zuko and Lu Ten sat out a few rounds to eat and catch their breath. As Zuko watched, he observed his opponents with something nearly resembling contentment. An Earthbender joined their group, demonstrating moves and discussing the difference between the elements when he felt a presence behind him.

Zuko sighed. “You can never just say hello, can you?”

Azula stepped forward, arms crossed. Though she kept her distance, she was close enough for Zuko to hear her sardonic response. “Hello, brother. Cousin.”

Lu Ten nodded, but nothing else. Zuko continued the conversation. “Where’ve you been?”

“Sleeping. Reading. Doing whatever I want.”

“You weren’t at breakfast. Mai was looking for you.”

“No point. All they did is blather on about contracts. Ours have been written since before we were born. Not like I expected to learn anything from these people anyways,” Azula gestured to the arena. “Want to spar? I doubt anyone here is a match for me, but you’re at least close.”

“Fine.”

Zuko knew better than to protest. It was easier to just give Azula what she wanted, a fact that the other benders in the arena did not seem to understand. They protested as she commanded them away, but her confidence never wavered. A stern look and the crackle of lightning in her agile fingers was all the encouragement they needed.

One girl complained to the group as they walked away. “We said no lightning. It’s not fair—”

“Not fair?” Azula questioned, one eyebrow quirked and a savage gleam in her eye. “Tell me why.”

The girl looked shaken, but stood her ground. “Lightning is a rare gift. It’s not fair because there’s no counter.”

“So it’s not fair that I’m better than you?”

“That’s not what I’m saying—”

“Sure it is. Train harder or stop complaining. Besides, there are plenty of counters to lightning. Right, Zuko?”

When Azula’s eyes met his, he knew that she knew. He could feel Lu Ten tense behind him. Uncle Iroh had only shared his redirection technique with Lu Ten and himself…so how did she know? Maybe she’s bluffing. You can dodge lightning the same as any attack--just don’t let it hit you.

With that, they began to fight, a practice as familiar to the siblings as breathing. They’d been fighting for as long as Zuko could remember. Azula had outclassed Zuko for years, but he still knew how to make her work for it. He was surprisingly agile for his height, though his speed couldn’t last forever. When the lightning came, he dodged as best he could, ignoring the sounds of shock and awe from the crowd that had gathered.

Inevitably, Azula got the best of him. As always, it was only a matter of time. With precision she turned in profile, a blue static charge rippling over her shoulders and through the tips of her fingers. Zuko didn’t want to give away the counter, the real counter, but she’d caught him out of form. The bolt was racing towards him, and in an act of self-preservation, he caught the lightning, trying to channel the energy down into his core as Iroh has instructed. He felt the crackles of energy kick inside his skin, using breath and sheer force of will to force the lightning out.

It exploded in a ball around him, and Zuko was thrown back. The lightning didn’t streak across the sky like when Lu Ten redirected, but he was mostly unscathed. It had been a near thing, and worse, Azula’s feline grin confirmed Zuko’s suspicions. She knew. Or if she didn’t, she does now.

Azula stalked towards him, offering an arm to help him up. It was ritual, but necessary with so many prying eyes. She pulled him close as they grasped forearms, whispering low. “Train harder, Zuko.”

There was something strange in her tone that caught Zuko off guard. She sounded almost…concerned for him? “Why do you care? You know as well as I do that this game Father’s playing…it only ends one way.”

She pushed away from Zuko, keeping her voice low so only he could hear, making a show of dusting off her robes. “I do. But when that time comes, brother, I’d rather not have to kill you.”

Azula turned to face the crowd, and the glimpse of conscience was gone, her regularly snide and hoity tone returning, though she continued to keep her voice low. “Though it’s up to you, I suppose. I don’t hate you, Zuko. I just want what I deserve. I want what’s mine.”

Zuko shook his head, his expression grave. That’s the problem. Father’s convinced you that you’re owed something you’re not. He’s just using you for your power. You’re smarter than this…you just don’t want to see what he’s doing. There was no convincing her otherwise. There was no convincing Azula of anything. But still…

“You have what’s yours, Azula.”

Her eyes were ice. “Not yet.”

Azula walked by Lu Ten and bent a cursory bow in his direction. She called casually over her shoulder. “Theatre tonight, Zuko? Mai, Ty Lee, and I are going.”

Zuko nodded, curious at the invitation. There was something up Azula’s sleeve, something she wasn’t saying. She threw that lightning intentionally to force him to redirect. So she could what…warn him? Could it be that Azula wanted to talk?

“I’ll be there.”