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Say Anything

Chapter Text

And no one was gonna come and get me
There wasn't anybody gonna know
Even though I leave a trail of burned things in my wake
Every single place I go

-In Corolla, The Mountain Goats

 

Zuko thought if his heart were to beat any faster, it would shatter his ribcage and tear through his skin and his tunic and splatter them all with blood. And then what if some got in Aang’s mouth and he choked and died? Zuko couldn’t afford to kill The Avatar. Not anymore, at least. That would be bad.

He cleared his throat.

All he wanted was for them to give him a chance. Part of him knew it was highly improbable and a very bad decision- his father had reinforced that idea when he'd confronted him at the palace- but the stronger, louder voice in his head told him it was all he had left. It was what his Uncle would have wanted.

Zuko shook his head. He had practiced what to say. He had memorised the perfect speech and he knew if they would hear him out then they’d have to accept his help. If he was lucky, they might even grow to like him and welcome him into their group. He envied it, when he chased them. The way they cared for and protected each other. Zuko had never had a group of friends before- he didn’t really count Mai and Ty Lee because they were Azula’s friends and only played with him when Azula had particular games in mind like name-calling or torture.

The Gaang were staring at him. He was staring back. He should probably say something.

Zuko lifted his left hand in a wave of sorts, and the group in front of him took defensive positions. Quickly, he smiled his most convincing grin to signify peace.

“Hello!” He tried to be cheerful but his voice shook. “Zuko here.”

They made no move to attack, but no move to retreat either. His rehearsed speech forgotten, Zuko began to explain why he was there, invading their home. Words fell out of his mouth, all eloquence gone, and he noticed the desperation in his own voice.

The girl- Katara- pointed out that they’d be stupid to trust him and his heart sank. Naturally, Zuko then became defensive. It used to happen with Mai a lot. When they should have been talking about the real issues of their relationship, when Zuko brought up something Mai said or Mai brought up something Zuko did, their walls would shoot back up again and they would snap at each other until one was too wounded to continue. Old habits die hard, he supposed.

“I can understand why you wouldn’t trust me. And I know I’ve made some mistakes in the past-”

“Like when you attacked our village?” Sokka intertuped.

“Or when you stole my mother’s necklace and used it to track us down and capture us?” Katara added and Zuko felt like he was drowning.

He wanted- no needed- these people to take him in but they hated him. He felt the wave of sickness wash over him as shame tightened his throat. The back of his eyes began to prickle and he blinked quickly, turning his face away from them. As desperate as he was, he didn’t want them to see him like this.

“Look… I admit I’ve done some awful things. I was wrong to try and capture you and I’m sorry I attacked the Water Tribe.” He took a deep breath. Out of habit, these words were heavy and sour on his tongue but they seemed to come out of their own accord. He meant it though, so fully that it weighed down his chest and shoulders. “And I never should have sent that Fire Nation assassin after you-”

“Wait- you sent Combustion Man after us?!”

Zuko looked at Sokka and his heart stopped. He realized very quickly that he had just dug his own grave and tried his best to backpedal. The group began to advance on him, their different testimonies to the assassin's damage flying through the air like knives.

Zuko turned to the Avatar.

“Why aren’t you saying anything? You once said you thought we could be friends.” Zuko tried to mask the hope in his voice but it still came out as a beg. “You know I have good in me.”

He waited for what felt like forever. Eyes locked, unblinking, with the Avatar’s as he waited with baited breath.

His hope vanished as soon as it had appeared.

They said no.

They told him to leave.

He'd played out the scenario in his head many times before coming here and not once had it ended like this. It hadn't occurred to him that they would actually say no so harshly.

Images flashed through Zuko’s mind of all the kids in the gardens in the city centre and at the palace who wouldn’t play with him and told him to go away, all because Azula told them to. He couldn’t help but blame her for being excluded this time, too. In a desperate attempt, Zuko threw himself to his knees and fired his last resort plan that he didn’t even know he had.

“If you won’t accept me as a friend, then maybe you’ll take me as a prisoner.”

He offered his wrists to the silence. Zuko was positive that they could all hear his blood pounding through his veins. If they turned this offer down too- if they said he wasn’t worth their captivity- he thought he might die. Just when he thought all his remaining shreds of dignity were gone, Katara sent a wave of icy water over him, knocking him backwards.

He was cold and soaked to the bone and a tiny child-like voice in the back of his mind whimpered that he wanted to go home and he suddenly realized that home didn’t exist for him anymore.

It wasn’t like last time he was on the road- then, he’d had his Uncle. But now with nowhere and no one to call home, he had lost the battle for good.


 

Zuko lay on the hard ground of his campsite, too angry with himself to even bother lighting a fire. He’d steamed the water out of his clothes and that was enough for now.

He couldn’t believe he’d told them about the assassin! Maybe if he hadn’t…

No. He couldn’t afford to think that way. There was no more time for what if’s or maybes. He had to accept that he was destined for a life of dirt-dwelling and listening to the badgerfrog that wouldn't stop croaking or get out of the clearing.

He was confused and hurt and he hated being either of those things, let alone both at the same time. Zuko sighed and pressed the palms of his hands into his eye sockets, warming them a little. It could have been worse, he supposed. At least he hadn’t exploded and killed the Avatar with his blood. He groaned and rolled onto his stomach.

“Stupid, stupid, stupid,” he mumbled into the dirt, kicking his feet.

He’d been laying for a while in that position. It wasn’t worth moving and he thought that if he stayed there long enough the grass might grow over him and he’d become part of the scenery.

In the dark, thick edge of the clearing he heard a noise and froze. Listening hard, he heard it again. He recognized the sound- it was someone who didn’t want to be caught.

“Who’s there?” he called.

The only response was more shuffling. Beating the attacker to it, flames spewed from Zuko’s palm.

The earth shifted slightly. “It’s me!”

The blind girl.

Zuko thought that for sure this time he would throw up his heart and lungs and maybe even his spine. There was actually nothing worse for his case that he could have done.

She was on the floor, the soles of her feet already blistering.

“Get away from me!” she shrieked.

“I’m sorry!” Zuko cried, panic in his voice. He reached for her shoulder. “It was a mistake, let me help you!”

“Get off me!”

Before he could do anything, a column of stone pounded into his torso, knocking the wind out of his lungs and most likely cracking a rib.

The girl crawled away as fast as she could and Zuko knew it best not to follow her. He’d really done it this time. There was absolutely no way they’d accept him now.

He pressed the heels of his palms into his eyes again, this time a little too hard in an attempt to push away the tears that were gathering there. He relished in the painful pressure. Throwing himself backwards onto the ground, his throat tightened and his chest compressed the sobs that tried to escape.

A wordless, pained cry ripped from his throat that had nothing to do with his aching rib.

“Why am I so bad at being good?!”

This was the end, for good. No one would come back for him. The Gaang might pack up and leave in the middle of the night without a trace- though it’s never truly without a trace, but Zuko would choose to let them go this time. He wouldn’t follow them. He wouldn’t hurt them anymore.

With aching bones and protesting muscles, he pushed himself up into a seated position and lit a fire in the pit behind him. The sun was beginning to rise and Zuko had only drifted in and out of shallow sleep. There was no way he’d be as highly functioning as he’d like to be.

Suddenly something moved in the distance, catching his attention. Zuko didn’t shoot, having learned his lesson from the previous night with Toph, however he did extinguish the fire behind him and press his body flat to the ground to remain as invisible as he could.

The accompanying noise was bad news. Whatever he’d seen was walking with frantic, heavy steps that echoed throughout the trees. He crossed his fingers and hoped it was just an angry saber-tooth moose lion on the hunt for breakfast.

Zuko’s eyes widened as the source of the noise passed by his clearing without a glance his way. If only it had been a saber-tooth moose lion.

This was by far much, much worse.

 

Chapter Text

Like mice in the forgotten grain,
Way up on the top shelf.
Like someone who’s found a small town to escape to,
Keeps one eye on his abandoned, former self.

-Spent Gladiator 2, The Mountain Goats


 

Scaling a mountain side is fucking hard. No matter how many times he’s done it, the thought of yanking himself up the jagged rock-face makes Zuko grit his teeth. But now he had no choice. The assassin had shown up here with his metal leg and third eye, ready to explode the Gaang, and it was all Zuko’s fault. He had to set this right.

As silently as he could, he hauled himself over the ledge and onto the dirt path. The wind was harsh and cold so far off the ground, and it whipped his hair against is face and eyes. Quietly, he approached where the assassin stood. Following his gaze, he could see the Avatar by the water fountain, seated next to the girl with her burned feet in the water and a wave of guilt rolled over him again. Katara and Sokka were arguing over something and he half smiled. He and Azula never bickered- their fights were always fiery and dangerous.

The sudden whoosh and crash of the assassin’s laser jet (coming straight from his forehead) broke Zuko out of his own memories and it only now occurred to him why Sokka had referred to him as Combustion Man.

The Gaang all jumped for cover, Sokka pulling Toph out of the fountain. Aang lifted his head just enough to lock eyes with Zuko, anger and disappointment filling them. Zuko couldn’t let Aang think he was still a part of this. He may have just found a way to redeem himself.

As soon as the first shot was fired, Zuko grabbed the nearest vine- which happened to look much too unsturdy for Zuko’s liking- and swung down to the ledge below him where Combustion Man stood. He aimed his feet at the assassin’s face, knocking his shot off aim.

“Stop!” Zuko shouted, trying to channel all his authority into his voice to still it’s shaking. “I don’t want you hunting the Avatar anymore!”

A meaty hand gripped the side of Zuko’s neck and he cringed at the close proximity to his scar. Combustion Man shoved him to the side as easily as you would slide a scroll down a bookshelf and Zuko knew this would not be easy.

More explosions shook the temple.

“If you keep attacking, I won’t pay you!”

Combustion Man held Zuko at bay by the shoulder and Zuko’s cheeks heated up. He felt like a stupid, helpless kid.

“Fine! I’ll pay you double to stop!” With (what h thought was) a well-aimed kick to the ribs, Zuko did absolutely nothing. Before he was able to make contact, the force of the explosion catapulted him backwards.

Zuko rolled onto his hands and knees, cursing under his breath. There were bound to be more broken bones.

Combustion Man had a new target. Zuko’s heart was hammering but he refused to run. He did this, he has to face the consequences.

The assassin inhaled deeply, his eyes trained on Zuko. Swiping a ring of fire around his body, Zuko couldn’t help but think that Combustion Man was  like one of those animals that had been raised in a farm and trained to fight to the death.

The force of the explosive jet from Combustion Man’s third eye was strong. Zuko felt himself begin to slide backwards on the ledge. He dug his heels into the ground, but the loose dirt and gravel betrayed him. He tried to push back against the jet to no avail.

Zuko’s breath came in short, fast bursts when he realized that there was not much ledge left for him to push against. The ground was disappearing beneath him but Zuko refused to accept this.

The Prince of the Fire Nation would not die from falling off a cliff.

As soon as the ground disappeared completely, Zuko tried to shift his burst of fire to his feet to fly like he’d seen Azula do all those time’s she’d tried to kill him. He thought he’d done it, but his weight fell through the flames as though he’d tried to stand on clouds.

His heart slammed itself into his throat and he was sure he was going to die. Upon reflex, he flailed his limbs ungracefully in hopes of finding anything to save him. His hand came into contact with a long tree root that had grown through the thin cliff ledge, and he caught himself just in time.

A breath of laughter escaped Zuko’s throat. He was alive. He was actually alive. He pulled himself high enough up the tree root so he could keep watch on the courtyard again.

Aang was sending hurricanes and wild winds at Combustion Man to no avail. He dodged them easily and continued to try and blow them up. Zuko’s old instincts kicked in and he had to suppress the urge to conjure up a flame in his hand when Katara sent a fleet of ice knives at the assassin.

A large portion of the courtyard went up in flames, black smoke clouding his view. When the dust and debris settled, the area was empty and too still. Either they were hiding or they had escaped.

Zuko felt a lump rising in his throat at the concept of them having left him, but he swallowed it away as quickly as it had appeared. To them, he was still the enemy. Why would they wait for him? It dawned then on Zuko that they probably assumed him dead when he fell off the cliff ledge. They must have felt so relieved, been so glad to see the end of him.

A slow, uncomfortable burn made itself known in his chest and a sour taste twisted his lips into a scowl.

Stupid kids, glad I’m dead,” he mumbled bitterly. If he wasn’t clinging to the tree root for dear life, he would have crossed his arms and hunched his shoulders.

A small, shiny object flitted out from around the corner. Zuko thought it looked like some sort of knife, but he knew better because a knife can’t fly like that. It collided sharply with Combustion Man’s third eye, knocking him backwards.

Zuko resisted the urge to cheer. Though, he did pump his fist into the air in silence.

The shiny, metal object flew swiftly back into Sokka’s hand, and Zuko realized it must have been that weird Water Tribe weapon Sokka carried with him.

The Gaang jumped and cheered in celebration and Aang visibly breathed a sigh of relief. Zuko did too. It was over. They were safe and Zuko hadn’t managed to get them killed (completely unintentionally this time) and finally-

Combustion Man stood up again and everyone froze.

No one ran, no one hid. They just stood and watched. Sokka said something quietly enough that Zuko didn’t hear, but loudly enough the shake some sense into them. As Combustion Man stumbled forward, the heel of his palm pressed into his third eye, they all turned and ran.

With a deep inhale, Combustion Man prepared another jet of fire.

Zuko had no idea what happened. It was like the explosion was fired internally and… happened inside Combustion Man’s skull. Zuko shuddered at the thought, as blood and limbs rained over the cliff ledge. With all his remaining strength, Zuko pulled himself up the tree root and back onto the cliff. He approached hesitantly as the Gaang appeared from where they’d been hiding, accompanied by three other boys dressed in Earth Kingdom clothing.

The Avatar stood in front of Zuko.

“I can’t believe I’m saying this,” Aang began, lowering his head in a bow. “But thanks, Zuko.”

Sokka’s jaw plummeted, and he planted his hands on his hips. “What about me? I did the boomerang thing.”

He struck a pose with his boomerang, and everyone ignored him.

Zuko seized his opportunity while the Avatar was being kind and Katara wasn’t shooting water his way.

“Listen, I know I didn’t explain myself very well yesterday- I’ve been through a lot in the past few years and it’s been hard.”

His mouth went dry and he felt weak, admitting this to them. He continued, however, as he knew this was his last chance.

“But I’m realizing that I had to go through all those things to learn the truth. I thought I had lost my honour, and somehow my father could return it to me. But I know now that no-one can give you your honour. It’s something you earn for yourself by choosing to do what’s right.”

As he said it, he was realizing the truth in everything. He should have known it all along. If he’d only listened to his uncle, then he would have probably realized it sooner. He felt a pang of guilt in his stomach that he suppressed at the thought of his uncle. There was nothing he could do about that. Now wasn’t the time.

“All I want now is to play my part in ending this war. And I know my destiny is to help you restore balance to the world.”

He looked at all of them in turn. First, Toph, seated on a rock with her burned feet off the dirty floor. Her eyes were milky but Zuko felt like she was looking right into his brain and picking out all of his secrets.

He pressed his fist against his palm and bowed to her.

“I’m sorry for what I did to you,” he said. “It was an accident. Fire can be dangerous and wild, so as a Firebender I need to be more careful and control my bending, so I don’t hurt people unintentionally.”

Toph said nothing and he wondered if she’d heard him.

He turned to look at Katara but said nothing. Her face was stony and her eyes were full of hatred. Every awful thing he’d done to her flashed through his mind but he pushed it away. Her hair was flowing behind her in the breeze, and her Water Tribe attire was dirty. But looking at her now, he could see she was a warrior. She looked just like the older women of the Southern Water Tribe and before he could stop himself, he wondered how powerful the tribe would have been if the women had been allowed to fight too. She only looked about 14 or 15, but like him, she had been robbed of her childhood and forced to grow up in a matter of weeks on a war field.

He turned to Sokka, who was staring incredulously at everyone- mainly Aang- waiting for someone to speak. He looked much older than when Zuko fought them last. His hair was longer and pulled back into a ponytail. His Water Tribe tunic was worn and thin, and he was taller. He stood at least a head above everyone else, almost as tall as Zuko. He had a kind face and trusting eyes, but Zuko recognized him to be like the other Southern Water Tribe Warriors. He was a defender and a protector. He would do anything for his family. Zuko admired that.

Lastly, he turned to Aang. For the first time, Zuko really looked at him. His heart sank when he realized how young Aang actually was. He’d only ever seen the monk as a flying target, but looking at him now, Zuko realized he’d been hunting a child and his stomach turned. The Avatar, was looking back at him with indecision and pain in his eyes, an internal battle raging in his mind. Zuko wondered if he was about to cry. He hoped he wasn’t Zuko wouldn’t know how to deal with that. But the bald monk raised his chin and met Zuko’s eyes with determination.

“I think you are supposed to be my firebending teacher.”

Sokka and Katara turned to stare at Aang, jaws agape. Toph, however, continued to bore holes into Zuko with her eyes.

“When I first tried to learn firebending, I burned Katara,” Aang confessed. “And after that, I never wanted to firebend again. But now I know you understand how easy it is to hurt the people you love. I’d like you to teach me.”

Aang pressed his fist to the bottom of his palm in the traditional Airbending way, and bowed to Zuko.

For a brief moment, Zuko thought he might have died right there in the destroyed courtyard. He had never thought he’d be welcomed by the Avatar with this sort of respect.

Zuko mirrored Aang’s position and bowed back.

“Thank you. I’m so happy you’ve accepted me into your group.”

Aang blinked. “Not so fast, I still have to ask my friends if it’s okay with them.”

Zuko cast one glance over Aang’s shoulder and his heart sank.

Aang turned to the blind girl. “Toph? You’re the one that Zuko burned, what do you think?”

Toph paused and Zuko tried to control his breathing. She shrugged and he audibly exhaled in relief.

“Go ahead and let him join.” A cheeky smile twisted the girl’s mouth. “It’ll give me plenty of time to get back at him for burning my feet.”

“Sokka?” Aang continued.

Sokka stared at Zuko, debating with himself. Zuko wished at that exact moment that he could read minds, if only to prepare himself for rejection. He’d come this far, it might kill him to be turned away now.

Sokka sighed and ducked his head. “All I want is to defeat the firelord. If you think this is the way to do it, then I’m all for it,” Sokka said in a tone that Implied he wasn’t, but Zuko would take what he could get.

“Katara?”

Aang approached her and looked at her, hope evident on his face. Zuko thought that his expression was reminiscent that a hungry Deer Dog would make at it’s owner.

Katara’s face remained hardened and Zuko began to sweat. When she answered, her voice was acidic.

“I’ll go along with whatever you think is right.”

Aang smiled and relief flooded Zuko’s entire body. He thought he might float away if he wasn’t careful.

“I won’t let you down, I promise.”

And he meant it. Zuko was not the sort of person to throw away an opportunity- he’d proved that by hunting Aang the better part of his banishment. Half of the promise was to the Avatar and his friends, and the other half was to himself. There was nothing he wouldn’t do to make things right with these people, no matter how difficult.

Zuko stood alone in the courtyard. He knew they would not call him a friend just yet, but they would eventually.

He gazed at the long stretch of grey sky and wondered why the Spirits let him have this one. They must  have had as much faith in Zuko to change as he’d had in himself. He just hoped now that he could prove he’d changed to the Gaang.

Aang was going to defeat the Fatherlord and Zuko was going to help him.

Zuko was going to get his honour back.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

Leave me in the rain
Wait until my clothes cling to my frame
Wipe away your tear stains
Thought you said you didn’t feel pain

-Landfill, Daughter

 


 

It had been hours since Sokka had shown Zuko to his new room in the Air Temple. He’d called it “Home Sweet Home” and Zuko had to make a conscious effort to not screw his nose up. The room was small, about the size of the servants’ rooms back in the Fire Nation, but it was better than nothing. There was a thin, moth-eaten rug down the centre of the room and a small stone bed against the wall. Apart from a tiny window high up in the wall, there was no light source. Zuko would have to venture out to find some sticks to build makeshift torches.

He kept a framed picture of Uncle Iroh on a small table in the corner as a reminder of why he was here.

He stretched onto his back in his bedroll and sighed at the ceiling. Sokka had offered him an extra blanket to use with the one Zuko had brought with him, but he turned it down- he’d accepted a pillow and that was all, he didn’t want to take more than he needed to, especially not until he could start contributing back to them.

Nights here would be long, he quickly realized. Every small sounds echoed through the halls-particularly the eerie whisper of the wind reminding him of everything he’d done. He groaned and shoved his pillow down over his face.

Someone cleared their throat in his doorway.

He sat bolt upright- he hadn’t even heard it open.

“Take off your shirt.”

He was surprised enough by the site alone of Katara, but her words completely threw him. She had a torch in her hand and she was pressed into the doorframe, as though hoping it would absorb her. She wasn’t looking at him.

He raised an eyebrow and pinched his wrist with his the nails of his opposite hand. It stung, ruling out the possibility that he was experiencing a weird, stress-induced dream.

He answered her hesitantly.

“…No?”

Her head snapped up and she looked at him. For a brief moment her eyes widened before her entire face twisted into a sharper scowl.

“Oh, ew. Aang asked me to check if you needed healing after dinner.”

“That was hours ago,” Zuko said before he could stop himself. He would have just stayed quiet and been grateful that she had come at all but the twinge in his ribs had gotten really bad.

“Well I’m here now. Would you prefer if I left? Not that I care about your preferences,” she tacked on as an afterthought as she came closer, mounting the torch on the wall.

Zuko paused before pushing his blanket off of himself. He was only in the shorts he wore under his pants, and his tunic. He hoped that she wouldn’t be angry at him for his lack of decent clothing, but he wasn’t expecting anyone- let alone Katara- to come visit him in his room.

“Can you close the door? Please?” he asked, his voice too high for his liking.

“Absolutely not,” Katara snapped and Zuko sighed, expecting as much. “I’m here as a favour for Aang. You don’t get anything.”

“I just wanted some privacy.”

“Too bad.”

Zuko sighed again, and shrugged off his tunic. For the briefest of moments, Katara’s face softened but it was harsh again before Zuko could even register it. He looked down at his torso and cringed at the garish blue-black splotches all down the left side of his ribs. His skin was also littered with cuts and scrapes.

“Lay back,” Katara ordered.

Zuko did as he was told, keeping his eyes on her the whole time. Although he had been accepted into the group to teach Aang to Firebend, he wasn’t certain that Katara wouldn’t attack him with her water and make it look like it was an accident or self-defence.

He flinched at her hand on his side, her fingers prodding. It was much gentler than her face and eyes. He hadn’t been expecting her to touch him.

“Two broken, one fractured, and a lot of bruising,” she mumbled, barely moving her lips. He wasn’t sure if she’d been speaking to herself or to him.

She took some water from the pouch on her hip and made a glove around her hand with it. It glowed brightly and Zuko looked around the now-illuminated room in awe. Everything was covered in a light blue hue.

When Katara touched her water-gloved hand back to Zuko’s ribs, heat rushed immediately to his side, subconsciously ready to defend himself from the foreign sensation. It felt almost as though the fibres of his muscles were tugging and stitching themselves together and his bones were forming a new shell over the cracks.

“Were you actually going to heal me?” Zuko blurted out.

Katara looked at him as though he were stupid. “What do you think I’m doing?”

Zuko should have used that as his escape, but he decided to keep going. It had been on his mind all this time and he had to know for sure. He had to know just how badly he’d screwed up.

“No. I meant… in the Catacombs.”

Katara’s face was unreadable. It remained that way for a long time, and Zuko looked at her with (what he didn’t want to admit was) hope in his eyes. Eventually Katara pressed her lips together tightly and blew them apart with a heavy sigh that definitely contained more than this conversation.

“Yes,” she admitted. Zuko could barely hear her, she was talking so quietly.

“Why?”

“Because I’m an idiot.”

“You’re not,” Zuko began but Katara cut him off, pulling her hand away and whipping the water back into the pouch.

“Yes,” she snapped, her voice higher and younger than he’d heard it before. It was full of pain and he felt guilty for his part in it. “I am. I trusted you then and I cared and I would have used the stupid water from the Spirit Oasis on you just so your sister could have shot Aang full of lightening and you would have returned to your rightful place on your throne on top of the bones of everyone your family had killed without a second thought!”

Zuko felt like he’d been slapped. He pushed himself up to a sitting position, wincing as he did. She was standing beside his bed, face red and eyes wild.

“Is that actually what you think?” he asked quietly.

“It’s what I know.”

Zuko swallowed. “I wasn’t trying to trick you into helping me.”

Katara scoffed. “How am I supposed to believe that?”

They looked at each other for a while. Zuko didn’t know what to say to her. He didn’t want to tell her because he knew she wouldn’t believe him and that it’d make things worse. But he did.

“You’re the only person I’ve ever let touch… it.”

Katara’s eyebrows furrowed and she looked disgusted as her eyes flicked down to his crotch, before back up to his face in realization.

“Ew, I never- oh.”

She played with her hands in front of her, clearly uncomfortable, looking everywhere but at his scar. Zuko didn’t say anything. After a moment, her face hardened again.

“I don’t believe you. You’re trying to trick me again.”

Zuko let out an exasperated sigh. “Honestly why would I be trying to trick you?”

“Because that’s what you do!” Katara snapped. “You lie and you trick and you hurt people. That’s all you know! It’s in your nature.”

This time he didn’t say anything. He wasn’t going to just let her kick him over and over but he knew he couldn’t fight back though.

Instead of fighting, he tugged his tunic back on roughly and threw himself back down, ignoring the burning in his broken ribs. He pulled his blanket back over himself, extinguished the torch on the wall, and rolled onto his side so his back was to her. Moonlight flooded in through the window, barely illuminating them, and Katara gasped at the sudden darkness, pulling her water back into her hand again.

“Tell Aang to be ready for training at sunrise,” Zuko told her, his tone empty as though he were adressing one of the servants at the Palace.

After a moment, he heard Katara turn and walk away. She was almost out of the room when she stopped again.

When she spoke, her voice was quiet and more venomous than he’d ever heard it.

“You might have everyone else here buying your transformation, but you and I both know that you’ve struggled with doing the right thing in the past. So let me tell you something right now: you make one step backward, one slip up, give me one reason to think you might hurt Aang, and you won’t have to worry about your destiny anymore because I’ll make sure your destiny ends right then and there. Permanently.”


 

The sun was hot in the morning. Zuko was supposed to be meeting Aang for training but Aang was nowhere to be seen. There wasn't anyone around. The courtyard was still and the sky had a purple tinge, like the clouds were filled with poisonous gas, and Zuko was sure that there was someone watching him.

“Aang?” he called, but was answered with silence.

Fear was beginning to settle over him. Something was wrong.

Columns rose out of the valley around the courtyard, Earthbending-style. On top of the columns, were stone seating-tiers, like that of the old amphitheatres of Ba Sing Se. Spectators flooded into the seats and began booing loudly at him, flinging pebbles into the courtyard.

Katara emerged from one of the corridors and the crowd was silent.

“Katara, thank Spirits there’s someone else here, I was beginning to think-”

Katara pulled a large water whip out of her pouch and flung it at him. Zuko jumped out of its way and ran to hide behind a pillar. The audience roared with laughter. He poked his head out from behind the large stone pole.

“Wait, what are you-”

He ducked away again, just in time to avoid the rain of icy daggers that shattered around him.

“Leave Aang alone!” Katara shouted, preparing herself for another attack.

Zuko jumped and ducked behind the next pillar, narrowly avoiding being sliced in half with his previous hiding place.

“I’m on your side, remember?!” he called, desperately. “Aang said so himself.”

Katara brought this pillar down, too, pinning Zuko to the floor with it.

“Stop hunting us, or I will stop you,” Katara spat, approaching him.

“Please,” Zuko begged, unable to lift the pillar off of himself. He tried to bend- maybe he’d be able to blast it away- but he couldn’t produce any fire. “I’m trying to help you. I’m good now!”

The crowd laughed again and this time, Katara joined in with them.

It was unnerving, seeing her this way. A soft, tinkling giggle escaped her lips and she clapped her hands together, like a snotty princess enjoying the Nation Fool’s performance.

“That’s the best joke I’ve heard all day.”

“I’m not joking!” Zuko grunted as he tried to free himself.

Katara smiled gently and crouched down beside him. She caressed his scar as she spoke, and her voice was as gentle as her movement. He flinched away from her.

“Of course you are Zuko. You couldn’t be good if you tried. Everyone here knows you’re pure evil, isn’t that right?”

The crowd cheered in confirmation and she smiled sweetly at the spectators before returning her soft gaze to Zuko.

“Why do you think it was so easy for everyone to leave you, Zuko? Because you are bad and you are worthless and no one will ever love you.”

Zuko’s eyes prickled and he tried to no avail to fight the tears. He couldn’t believe he was crying in front of her.

“That’s a lie,” he hissed at her and she laughed again.

“Oh, no, you’re the liar, Zuko!  And you know it deep down, too. You know everything I’m saying deep down. You know that your father would rather have an elbow leech for a son than you, and you know that your sister and her friends will kill you for fun at any given opportunity, and you know it was so easy for your mother to leave you with your monster of a father because she never loved you. She never even liked you.”

“Don’t!” Zuko shouted at her, tears staining his cheeks.

“Don't what, Zuko?” Katara cooed. “I’m just telling you what your fat Uncle never had the heart to stay. Even he was glad to see you go.”

“Please.”

“It’s okay, Zuko. Accept it, it’s who you are. You will never be worth anything to anyone. You will never be good. You are unlovable. That will never change.”

“Stop!” Zuko cried out, his voice a wild sob. He was sitting in his bed, covered in sweat. His cheeks were lined with tears and his eyes ached. He was sure they were puffy and red.

He was panting heavily as he looked around the room, still not trusting his environment. He lit a fire in his palm and watched it for a few moments.

“It was only a dream,” he mumbled to himself. “It wasn’t real.”

He extinguished the flames and layed down again. He pressed his pillow into his face and tried to smother the tears that were still streaming down his cheeks. He wasn’t even sure why he was crying anymore, but he knew he couldn’t stop.

He could feel it in his blood and he could see in his window- the sun was rising. Instead of trying to get back to sleep, he pushed himself up and folded his bedroll to keep any bugs out.

Stupidly, he was nervous for this morning’s training session after the way it had gone down in his dream. He knew he was being absolutely ridiculous- the sky wasn’t purple, and no matter what the Waterbender said or did, she had no power over him.

Zuko admitted to himself that was a lie, but there was nothing he could do about it. He also doubted she would actually say those things to him. All he could do now was splash his face with cold water and pray to the Spirits that the swelling in his eyes would go down before he saw anyone.

This was going to be a long day.

Chapter Text

Time and space are at my back
Performing disappearing acts
And now I can escape the smell of smoke

-Smell, Sleeping at Last

 


 

“Have you been crying?”

Zuko inhaled deeply through his nose, breaking out of his meditation and blinking his eyes open. He fought the urge to swear at the tiny monk.

“No.”

Aang sat down opposite Zuko, mimicking his meditation pose.

“It’s okay if you were,” Aang continued, his voice much too loud for Zuko’s liking. “I cry all the time.”

“I wasn’t- I wasn’t crying,” Zuko hissed, lowering his voice and Sokka and Katara emerged from one of the hallways.

Katara looked as though she’d had as much sleep as Zuko, and she seemed to be twice as frustrated as he was. Sokka, however, looked much brighter than yesterday. He twirled his boomerang between his fingers and plopped down next to Aang.

“What were you crying about?” Sokka asked, catching Katara’s attention.

“I wasn’t crying!” Zuko snapped, his cheeks reddening.

“He’s lying,” Toph called from inside the hallway and Zuko gritted his teeth.

Good to know her feet are working again, he thought.

“If you all wouldn’t mind,” Zuko began, trying to keep his voice even, “I’m trying to teach Aang.”

“You’re just sitting on the floor,” Sokka pointed out and Zuko exhaled slowly, pinching the bridge of his nose.

“We need to start off with meditation,” he explained.

Aang closed his eyes and was quiet for about a minute. Sokka was watching them both intently.

It was peaceful in the courtyard. There was a subtle breeze and there were various birds singing in the distance. Zuko could hear the water Katara was bending and he could feel the sun on the back of his neck.

“Are we going to firebend now?” Aang asked, peeking at Zuko through one eye.

Zuko could also feel his blood pressure rising.

“You need to meditate for an hour,” Zuko told him and Aang’s face fell. “At least an hour.”

With a frown, Aang closed his eyes again and Zuko tried to breathe in the remaining peace in the air. Sokka deemed this kind of training boring and left to go and see why Toph was shouting at Haru, for the fourth time already that morning. For a group of people in hiding, they weren’t able to keep very quiet.

“Focus on your chakras,” Zuko instructed in the most soothing voice he could muster. “Start at the crown and imagine the tiniest sparks flickering into a solid flame. Let that flame travel down your skin and to the next one.”

After a few moments, Aang cleared his throat and Zuko opened his eyes.

Aang took a deep breath. “I can’t do it.”

“Can’t do what?”

“Meditate,” Aang answered, as though it were the most obvious thing in the world.

“What do you mean you can’t do it? I thought meditation was your thing, you’re the Avatar.”

“It’s not that simple!”

Zuko sighed and leaned back onto his palms. “How about we take a break and come back to this a bit later?”

“Breakfast!” Aang cried, conjuring up an air-scooter and zooming towards Katara.

“No air-scooter in the house!” she scolded, but Zuko could tell by her smile that she wasn’t really upset with him.

Suddenly, Zuko was by the turtle-duck pond with his mother, and she was scolding him for throwing the bread at the animals rather than to them.

He shook the image out of his head. He can’t be so ridiculous, letting memories like that in. Things were different now and there was no point in dwelling on the past.

The food on the table was scarce and Zuko felt guilty to eat any, despite the place that had been set for him. Katara had prepared some rice and berries, and diced a variety of melons, but that was all. Normally, a meal this size would suffice for two, perhaps three people, but definitely not the eight people sat around the table.

Once everyone was seated, Katara cleared her throat.

“We have a problem,” she began hesitantly. “This is all the food we have left.”

“That’s not a problem,” Sokka scoffed, waving her off. “You can head to the markets this morning and I can go hunting with Haru when you get back.”

Katara sighed. “What do you think you’re going to catch, a lemur?”

She gestured out the window at the expanse of the empty valley, and Momo ducked behind Aang, his ears poking out from behind Aang’s head.

“There aren’t any markets around here either, Sokka, and even if there were it wouldn’t matter. We have no more money.”

“What about all the money I swindled?” Toph asked. “I can swindle some more if you’d like?”

Sokka bounced in his seat. “Oh, oh, ooooh- please? I’ll go with her and make sure she wins! It’ll be like old times!”

“No,” Katara snapped. “No swindling.”

Both of them folded their arms and pouted. Toph mumbled something about Katara being no fun, and Katara rolled her eyes.

“I think our only option,” Katara continued, “is to gather as many fruits and berries as possible, maybe Teo and Haru- you two could try and build some sort of picking device with some rocks and I think we have some rope around here.”

“What about me?” The Duke piped up, pulling his hat up where it had slipped over his eyes.

“Of course you can help us, buddy!” Teo said and The Duke’s face lit up.

Zuko knew that they wouldn’t find enough berries and fruit to have sufficient for more than a few days, and he definitely needed them all alive if the Avatar was going to take down the Firelord. He had an even better plan. Zuko was excited by the concept that he would finally have something to contribute back to them aside from teaching Aang to firebend.

“I know how to get into the Fire Nation storage units,” he announced.

“Congratulations,” Katara deadpanned, before turning back to Teo and Haru. “So if we can find you enough-”

“No,” Zuko interrupted, “I can get in there and take enough gold to last you a year and they won’t even notice it missing. I can stop at one of the Fire Nation markets on the way back and then we won’t have to survive on just fruit.”

“We don’t need your help,” Katara snarled at him. “We’ve managed this long without you.”

Sokka gulped. “Actually, we’ve managed this long with money. I think we should let him help us.”

“Sokka’s right,” Toph added, “and you know that, Katara.”

“Fine!” Katara cried, throwing her hands up. “But someone else goes, not Zuko.”

“I’m the only one who knows where it is, let alone how to get in.”

“How do I know you’re not going to make a break for it and leave us here to starve?” Katara planted her hands on her hips and smiled as though she’d managed to outsmart him.

“I offered myself up as your prisoner, why would I try and escape now? Sozin’s Comet is getting closer and the Fatherlord isn’t going anywhere.”

Everyone stared at him.

“The F-” Toph began with a smirk growing on her lips, but Sokka shushed her.

“Later,” he whispered in her ear. “Save it for later.”

“I can go with him,” Toph suggested, pounding her fist against her palm. “I’ll keep him in line!”

“So he can burn your feet again? I don’t think so,” Katara countered.

“What about me?” Sokka raised his hand and Katara slapped it down. Sokka frowned, rubbing his stinging fingers.

“You can’t bend,” she reasoned.

“Wow, discrimination,” he mumbled under his breath.

“It makes sense for me to go,” Aang told her and Katara made a wordless sound of disbelief.

“So he can just snatch you up and ship you to his father?!”

Zuko was concerned that she might bust a vein in her forehead.

“What about Haru?” he suggested.

Katara narrowed her eyes and looked at him with suspicion. “Why? What do you want to do to hurt Haru?”

Zuko leaned back in his chair and pressed his hands over his face, a muffled groan pressed into his palms. She was being ridiculous! He couldn’t help but wonder how they ever managed to get anything done around here.

“I guess it has to be me,” Katara sighed, dropping into her chair and leaning her chin in her hands.

“You don’t have to come if you don’t want t-”

“Shut up,” she snapped at him. “I can fly Appa and I can take care of myself. This way I can keep an eye on you in case you try to run away or hurt anyone.”

“Katara,” Haru began, resting his hand on her shoulder, “you don’t have to. One of us can go instead.”

Zuko folded his arms. He was beginning to feel like a disgusting stray animal that no-one wanted to take for a walk.

“I’m going,” she grunted with finality and Haru retracted his hand slowly.

Sokka raised an eyebrow at his sister. His voice was shaky when he spoke. “Katara?”

“What?” she shouted at him, and he snatched Momo from Aang and cowered behind him, much to Momo’s disapproval.

“Please don’t kill Zuko while you’re gone… we kind of need him still.”


 

As soon as the sun began to set, they prepared to leave. This was Katara’s idea, as they would have less chance of being seen flying a giant Bison through the sky, and Katara would be the one in power with the moon out.

“If you’re not back by the day after tomorrow, we’ll come looking for you,” Aang promised.

Katara tossed the final bag up to Zuko, who was already waiting in Appa’s saddle, and turned back to Aang.

“We’ll definitely be back before then, don’t worry,” she told him.

The young monk threw his arms around Katara’s shoulders and Zuko shifted to the other side of the saddle so he didn’t have to watch anymore. He didn’t notice Aang being so physically affectionate with anyone else in the group and it scratched at the back of his mind. Perhaps it was the remnants of his former Avatar-hating self.

“Be careful, Katara. I’ll… I’ll miss you,” Aang mumbled and Zuko rolled his eyes.

After hugging the rest of the group, Katara climbed up Appa’s fur and fell into the saddle. Without a word to Zuko, she took the reins.

“Yip yip!”

The giant Bison rocked forward, then backward, and then forward again before launching himself up into the air. Zuko was thrown flat on his back and Katara smirked.

They climber higher and higher into the sky until they were sitting just above the clouds. It was much colder up here, so Zuko channeled all his energy into radiating as much heat from his skin as he could. He noticed Katara shiver in the wind and moved closer to her. He wasn’t surprised she was cold- her Fire Nation clothing was much better suited for a warm summer’s day and a cool flight in the night sky.

“What are you doing?” she asked as he approached her.

“Trying to keep you warm,” he told her, already noticing the goosebumps on her arms decreasing with his proximity. “Do you want my coat?”

“No.”

“Do you actually want my coat but are too proud to accept or admit you need my help?”

Katara pulled the reins to make the bison take a sharp turn towards the general direction of the Fire Nation and Zuko fell, catching himself on the edge of the saddle. Katara smiled, satisfied with herself.

“I don’t want your stupid coat.”

“Alright.”

Zuko sat in silence next to her. He wondered if she’d always been so insistent on not having help from anyone. From what he’d noticed in the day and a half he’d spent at the Avatar’s camp, she didn’t seem to receive much help with anything, whether she needed it or not. He decided when they return back to the Air Temple, he would try and take over some of the cooking duties. He was actually a surprisingly good cook for someone who had spent so much time either homeless or in a palace full of staff specifically there to ensure you never need to even look at a kitchen in your life.

“Where to now?” Katara asked. From her tone of voice, it seemed like she’d been debating whether or not to ask him for directions or just to trust her own instinct.

“Just continue South and we’ll be there in about an hour.”

Katara scowled. “I knew that.”

Zuko pursed his lips, biting back commentary on her attitude. Instead, he stared ahead in silence for a while, squinting a little as the cool wind bit at his eyes and nose. Looking over the edge of the giant creature, Zuko was in awe. This was nothing like flying in an airship or a war balloon. The ocean was not the ocean anymore, but an endless smudge of black ink that refused to tell its secrets. Appa dipped closer to it as though he read Zuko’s mind, leaving the sky and almost skimming the surface. He felt the strangest pull in his limbs, urging him to dive into the depths of the ocean. The smell of salt and brine filled the air and Zuko was back on the warships with a crew, and his Uncle, and a patch over his bad eye.

“I don’t think I could ever get used to this,” he mumbled.

“Good,” Katara replied instantly. “Don’t.”

“You know, I don’t want to fight you,” Zuko told her. She didn’t take her eyes off their path, but they did narrow in response.

“Then don’t.”

“Why do you want to fight me?” he asked, genuinely.

She opened and closed her mouth a couple of times, unsure what to say. She finally spat out a “because I don’t like you,” before lifting Appa back up into the sky. Zuko decided not to push that topic of conversation any further. Instead, he leaned forward and folded his arms on the edge of the saddle. His chin rested on top of his forearms and his hair blew off his forehead in the wind. He was surprisingly relaxed, considering the girl beside him was probably considering tossing him off the Bison and telling the others that he fell.

“Back when I was first hun… chasing the Avatar and I would see you all fly over the top of me on Appa, I would make a wish. The Bison was my sort of shooting star.”

Katara didn’t say anything, so Zuko took that as a good sign and continued.

“I used to wish that I would catch the Avatar or that my father would change his mind and welcome me home or that we’d win the war and everything would be over but I see now that even if any of those wishes came true, nothing would have changed. My father would still be the same person who banished his son and raised Azula and made me into this and convinced me that cruelty was normal and told Uncle he was weak because he actually felt something in his life. Then I stopped wishing that we’d win the war or that I’d catch Aang and I started wishing that my father wasn’t my father or that I’d wake up as anyone other than me or that I’d never end up like him.”

“Why are you telling me this?” Katara asked quietly. She still hadn’t looked at him but her face was softer, almost sad.

“Sorry,” Zuko said. He wasn’t entirely sure he had an answer to her question.

They were silent for a long time as they floated over the top of the clouds. There was a weight to the silence, and Zuko could sense Katara wanted to say something. He was afraid he’d made her uncomfortable and said too much. What was he thinking? She doesn’t know him or seem to care to know him, she doesn’t even like him. What would she care about his stupid wishes that would never come true? He should have just shut his mouth or jumped into the ocean when the impulse took hold.

Ahead of them, the clouds parted to reveal the edge of the Fire Nation, and Zuko gulped. He was nervous and he didn’t know precisely why. He’d been in the Fire Nation a thousand times, why was it different now that he wasn’t on anyone’s trail?

“Are you ready?” Katara asked.

Zuko was about to ask what he needed to prepare himself for, when his heart shot into his throat and he was unable to speak. Appa was in a near-vertical nosedive, heading straight for the water. Zuko braced himself against the edge of the saddle, squeezing his eyes closed and preparing for the impact that never came. His shoulders were tight and pressed up by his ears and his breath we frozen in his throat. He blinked his eyes open and they grew wide. As he’d suspected, they were completely submerged in the sea but a force field of sorts kept the water around them at bay.

“Is this you?” Zuko wondered quietly.

“No,” Katara whispered with an eye roll, “the ocean just does this sometimes.”

Zuko pressed his lips together and moved to the back of the saddle, taking in everything he could see. He lit a small fire in his palm to get a better look into the dark ocean. The entire water surface above them glowed, casting a green glow into their bubble. A school of small fish swam above them and Zuko gasped.

“Put that out,” Katara told him, but her voice wasn’t as harsh as it had been earlier. “We’re down here to hide and your flame will signal any Fire Nation coastguards who are actually doing their job properly.”

Immediately he closed his fingers into a fist, extinguishing the flame in his palm. The lack of fire made their bubble seem much darker than before.

Appa slowed as he approached the shallows.

“Hold onto something, and take a deep breath,” Katara instructed.

“What?” Zuko asked, turning to look at her.

The bubble disappeared and the water crashed down on top of them. In a panic, Zuko scrambled to grab hold of something, his entire body lifting away from the saddle. He turned around to shoot Katara as “what the fuck is wrong with you,” look, but she was nowhere to be seen. He would have been concerned, if he wasn’t the unsuspecting one.

She reappeared after a second and gestured to him that everything was okay. She swam in front of Appa’s face, touched the Bison’s nose, and then turned to swim away. Appa followed her, eventually crawling up onto the empty shore.

Zuko gasped for air as soon as his head broke the surface. His lungs were burning and his eyes we wide.

“What the fuck,” he panted, crawling off the saddle with great effort. “You told your brother you wouldn’t try to kill me.”

Katara shot him a look as she wrung her hair out. “Technically, I never said I wouldn’t- he just asked me not to. And I wasn’t trying to kill you. I had to check the coast was clear.”

Zuko rolled his eyes before closing them and channeling all his body warmth into his skin. With a hiss, the water evaporated into steam, leaving him dry and comfortable once again. He licked his lips and then screwed up his nose.

“What is it,” Katara asked. She was bending the water off her skin and tossing it back into the waves that rolled into the sand.

“I still taste salty,” he told her.

Katara lciked her own lips and turned her attention away from him.

“Quit your complaining,” she mumbled.

Zuko watched as she led Appa away, attempting to conceal him beneath some particularly low-hanging vines. She pulled some seaweed from the waves and lined it along his feet.

“Stay here, boy.” She patted his fur and swept most of the water out of it. “Get some rest, we’ll be back soon.”

The Bison growled affectionately in response and Zuko wondered just how much it could understand. Katara turned to him and gestured towards the expanse of beach.

“Lead the way.”

He led her to the tall sand dunes behind Appa’s hiding place and began to move through the shrubbery, keeping his body low as possible. He was impressed but unsurprised by the agility with which Katara kept up with him. The dune was steep and the loose sand made it much harder to find stable footing. When they reached the top, the moon was directly above them. It illuminated the path below and Zuko could see their target.

With heavy, tired arms, he lifted himself up, crouching on the peak.

“There.”

Katara’s gaze flicked through the trees in the direction he indicated. She nodded once. There were a flock of guards pacing by the gates. From what Zuko could see, they were unarmed. Naturally, that meant they were Benders.

“It’ll be difficult,” Zuko warned her. “I can almost guarantee they’re elite, but if we stick together…”

He stood, mostly concealed by the low branches, and she copied him. They watched in silence as the guards moved about, the sound from the gates barely cutting through the silence on the dunes.

“You won’t, you know,” Katara said after a few moments. Zuko turned to her and raised his good eyebrow.

Katara turned her face down and away from Zuko.

“End up like him,” she clarified.

Zuko swallowed thickly. “How can you be so sure?”

“Because you’re here, now.”

Katara began to stealthily make her way down the dune and Zuko watched her for a moment, pressing his lips together to suppress a smile, before ducking low and following her.

Chapter Text

 

And I’ll run the risk
Of being intimate with brokenness
Through this magnifying glass I see a thousand fingerprints
On the surfaces of who I am

-Son, Sleeping at Last


 

Katara was positive she was going to die. This would be it, they’d finally done it. In the next thirty or so seconds the Fire Nation will have completed their task of slaughtering every last Southern Waterbender.

All thanks to Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation.

Folding her arms and grumbling, she cursed Zuko’s general existence and kicked him hard in the shin. He screwed his mouth and eyes shut in a vain attempt to keep quiet. Steam flowed from his flared nostrils.

“We’re going to die and it’ll be because of you.”

“No,” Zuko hissed back at her, “we’re going to die and it’ll be because of you and your inability to keep quiet and leave me alone.”

She kicked him again for good measure.

Ow.”

There was a shuffling sound on the other side of the bush.

“Did you hear that?” one of the guards asked. His voice was muffled by his helmet.

Katara shot Zuko a look that could have only said ‘I told you so’. They were shoved between the stone fence and a large, thorny bush (Zuko’s back on the receiving end of all the thorns), and the guard was very close to discovering their hiding place.

“Just leave it,” another guard called from further away. “It’s probably just a couple of Elephant Rats going at it, let them have their fun.”

The leaves of the bush rustled and Katara’s breath caught in her throat. Her gaze locked with Zuko’s and she scowled, making sure he knew just how responsible she held him for this. They were almost discovered when-

“Get away from there, man! They get vicious when they’re in heat. And if the boss gets in at sunrise and comes past to check on us to find you not doing your job…”

“We’ve still got at least an hour still, don’t be so dramatic,” the guard outside the bush replied. Katara could practically hear him roll his eyes.

The rustling leaves stilled and Katara and Zuko simultaneously let out their trapped breath.

“We need to distract them,” Katara whispered, as soon as she was sure the guards were out of earshot.

“How do you suggest we do that?” Zuko quipped. “We only have an hour until sunrise, didn’t you hear?”

Katara shrugged. “Can’t you- I don’t know- blow something up?”

“Why does it have to be me? You blow something up!”

“No, you blow something up!”

“No, you-” Zuko sighed, catching himself. Katara rolled her eyes at him- who did he think he was, pretending to be the mature one when they both knew Katara was definitely the more mature of the two people hiding behind the bush.

“Don’t you have anything else?” he asked her.

She gaped at him. “I’m not the one who breaks and enters! You should have brought Sokka or Toph for that sort of thing!”

Zuko rolled his eyes and her scowl depend. “If you recall, I did try to bring them. Both of them! You insisted on coming yourself.”

“Yeah, well…” she trailed off, folding her arms.

She decided to take action, because the sooner she could get out behind this bush with Zuko, the better. They had almost no space- Zuko was almost being absorbed into the bush as it was, and her spine was pressed flat against the stone wall. Katara found her face to be at a much closer proximity to Zuko’s neck than she would have liked. He smelt like musk, and salt, and boy and Katara’s mind was suddenly back in the treehouse with Jet and her scowl deepened.

“Did you just sniff me?” Zuko whispered, looking down at her.

“Ew, no, why would I ever- I would never do that.”

Zuko smirked. “Okay.”

That was the last straw for her. She peeked out of the bushes and saw one guard drawing in the dirt with a thin stick and the other lazily leaning on the gate, shuffling his feet every now and then. She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply through her nose- this time not to smell the boy in front of her- and furrowed her brow in concentration. Her fingertips tingled as she registered a water source big enough for her to work with.

With a flick of her wrist, she screwed her fingers into a tight fist and smiled in satisfaction when she heard the guard’s waterskin burst where it rested by the gate.

“What the-”

“Seriously?” Zuko hissed at her and she narrowed her eyes.

“Shut up or I’ll make you pee your pants,” she threatened. She wasn’t sure if she could even do that, but she supposed she could fill a bladder like anything else.

Katara peeked out from behind the bush once more and Zuko leaned over her shoulder. The guard was kneeling next to his waterskin, seemingly wracking his brains for an explanation and the other was hunched over, scratching his cheek in confusion. They had both removed their helmets to examine the waterskin better, and they both had their backs to Katara.

She took the opportunity to lift the water from the pouch on her hip, slowly hovering it towards the unsuspecting guards.

“What are you-”

Shh!

With a sweep of her arms, Katara quickly wrapped the stream of water around the guards and pulled them close, their heads knocking together in an audible konk that would have been comical in any other situation. Both of the guards fell to the floor and Katara emerged from behind the bush, Zuko following closely behind her.

“I don’t know how long they’ll be out,” she mumbled, rolling one of the guards over with the toe of her shoe. “We’ll have to be quick.”

Zuko looked at her skeptically.

“What?” she asked, folding her arms defensively.

“That was your answer; to concuss them?”

She threw her arms up in indignation. “It’s not like you were doing anything!”

Zuko just ignored her and she could not believe his nerve. She had been nothing but kind to him (okay, maybe civil was more appropriate than kind) this trip, and he just walks away from her like he’s already Firelord!

She watched him pace backwards before taking a running jump, only just managing to catch himself on the top of the wall with his fingertips. Katara raised her eyebrows as she pulled himself up and on to the ledge. She rubbed the back of her neck, slightly embarrassed.

“You know what… I’ll ah, I’ll just wait for you here.”

She frowned as face transitioned from furrowed confusion into a sympathetic understanding. He leaned forward and gripped the wall with his left hand, extending his right hand towards her.

“Grab on.”

“What? No!” Katara snapped. “I don’t need your help.”

Zuko raised his eyebrows and retracted his hand. “If you insist.”

Katara wanted nothing more the to freeze the expression of amusement off his face as he watched her dismal attempts to scale the wall.

“I can just-”

Shut up.”

Katara stopped jumping up and down, hopelessly reaching for the ledge of the wall where Zuko was perched. She could have slapped herself! Was she absolutely stupid? Why was she trying to climb the wall like a Firebender, when she had her own resources all along?

Pulling the water from her pouch for the second time, she froze a tall column in the dirt and climbed up onto it. From here, she was easily able to lift herself on top of the wall opposite Zuko. She smiled at him smugly, and gathered her water back into her pouch before jumping down the other side.

She ran through the grounds, one hand on her water pouch and always on the lookout. Zuko was hot on her heels. They passed rows after rows of small metal sheds, all uniform and precise. Katara frowned as she ran. The igloos back home were larger than these tiny rooms, and they supposedly stored gold and jewellery. As they approached the centre of the base, the tiny sheds began to have perches protruding out of the right hand sides that held large birds. It made Katara uncomfortable and she felt like they were watching her.

“Take the next left,” Zuko instructed, and Katara turned down the lane, slowing her steps as they were completely out of view of any watch-guards on the fence.

“Why is this place so heavily guarded?” Katara asked as they walked, catching her breath.

“The richest families from all over the Fire Nation use these cabins to store all the valuables they don’t feel like keeping in their mansions.”

She raised her eyebrows. She could practically hear the sourness on his tongue.

“I would have thought you’d be into that sort of thing,” she muttered, joking.

“What gives you that idea?” he spat. “All my time on the road?”

Katara pursed her lips and rubbed her palm awkwardly. She’d clearly hit a sensitive spot there. She made a mental note to find out more about that when they didn’t have time constraints.

“Why are they so small?”

If Zuko noticed her intentional change of subject, he didn’t say anything about it.

“They’re not,” he told her. “They lead down into long, narrow cellars that extend underneath us. They’re small and plain from the outside to deter thieves.”

It would have worked, Katara thought. Each shed looked like it had about enough room to house a bookshelf and not much else. They didn't look like the property of the most important families in the Fire Nation.

“How are we meant to get in?” Katara asked when Zuko stopped in front of the shed right in the centre of the path.

He dug around in the pocket on the inside of his tunic and pulled out a key, holding it up to her.

“Uncle gave me his spare,” Zuko announced.

Just as Zuko reached to unlock the handle of the shed, Katara stopped him with a hand on his shoulder.

“Wait,” she warned. “This is too easy.”

Zuko shook her hand off. “It's not. It’s about time something came easy to us, anyway.”

Katara wasn’t so sure and she stopped him again. “What are those?”

He followed her gesture up and looked at the large, white bird that was watching them both very closely.

“Oh, they’re nothing to worry about. They’re just Screeching Birds. They’re trained to cry out if someone is breaking in.”

Katara stared at him with wide, panicked eyes. "They're alarmed?!"

“Don’t worry, we have a key!” He lifted it high to show the bird, who leaned forward and sniffed the key before settling back down on the perch.

Katara had only enough time to release the tension from her shoulders while Zuko unlocked the shed. As soon as the door swung open, the bird stretched its beak wide and a shrill, piercing siren emanated from it’s throat.

“You said-!”

“I know what I fucking said!” Zuko hissed, pulling her by the arm into the shed and slamming the door shut behind them. "I was wrong, apparently."

The bird call ceased as soon as the door was shut again.

“The guards will be here any second,” Katara whispered, hugging her arms around herself. Her heart was throwing itself against her ribcage like it was trying to break out of captivity.

“They won’t know which bird’s call it was,” Zuko told her, lighting a small flame in his palm. It cast shadows on his face and Katara was reminded of Sokka telling Aang and Toph ridiculous ghost stories by the campfires he’d set up. “And even if they bother to check the sheds, they won’t think it was this one because the door is shut and the lock is intact.”

Katara turned to gape at him. “You locked us in here?!”

 Zuko rolled his eyes at her and nodded his head in the direction of the dark stairwell. “After you?”

“No fucking way.”

“Fine,” Zuko mumbled, brushing past her and heading down the steps.

It was colder than she’d expected underneath the earth. She’d just assumed everywhere in the Fire Nation was as hot as the fiery gates of hell. Katara pulled her arms tightly around herself to ward off the goosebumps rising on her skin.

There was another door at the bottom of the stairwell that was easily pushed open, revealing the Royal Family’s fortune.

Katara’s breath left her lungs in a whoosh. She’d never been one to have an eye for gold and jewels, but seeing it in such large quantities could convert anyone. Zuko lit the torch on the wall and lifted it out of its holdings, passing it to Katara. Once she had her own light source, she skipped ahead of him to explore the narrow cellar.

The entire expanse of the back wall was paved with gold bars. Fancy chandeliers and candelabras hung from the ceiling, which Zuko lit upon Katara’s request. The entire cellar was bathed in warm candlelight and the gold and gemstones everywhere sparkled. Framed paintings were stacked atop one another and shoved into a corner near the gold bars and Katara couldn't understand how so many items of such high value could be kept underground.

She ran her finger along the hilt of one sword of a pair. It was bright, almost white, and crusted with rubies at the end.  

“I made those.” Zuko spoke quietly but it still made her jump. She snatched her hand away from the sword like she’d been caught touching something she wasn’t supposed to be.

“Really? Sokka made a sword once, too.”

Zuko slid past her, moving towards the swords. She became aware of his scent again and had to remind herself not to be stupid. She could accept that it wasn’t everyday that she was locked in a candlelit cellar full of precious stones and metals with a teenage boy, but he was still the enemy. Even if he was teaching Aang and trying to help them win the war, she had to remind herself that he would always be the enemy.

“How’d he do that?”

Katara blinked at Zuko. “…How did who do what?”

The corners of Zuko’s lips curled upwards in barely-concealed amusement.

“How did Sokka manage to build a sword?” Zuko prompted.

Oh! Master Piandao- this really great Sword Master- taught him to make it. Piandao said he’d earned it, and Sokka was really proud, and now he shows us his sword moves sometimes and he is actually really good at it.”

Zuko’s jaw was hanging open. Katara began to worry that he was having a stroke of some sort before he kicked back into motion.

“No way! No way! Master Piandao taught me Dual Dao swordsmanship! This is excellent! What did Sokka learn?”

This was the most excited about anything Katara had ever seen Zuko. He had a new bounce about his movement and his eyes were wide and lit up. He reminded her of a little kid.

“He learned Jian-fencing and built a Straight-Sword. It’s made of-” Katara caught herself and decided to do Zuko a favour. “Actually, you know what? I’ll let him tell you. You should ask him about it sometime.”

“I will,” Zuko mumbled, not shifting his attention from the dusty swords.

Katara moved deeper into the cellar, still with the torch despite the candelabras. Against a wall on the other side of the stairwell, she found a tall cupboard. Never one to turn down the opportunity to snoop, she checked Zuko was still occupied by his swords- he was- before ducking back behind the wall and reaching for the knobs on the doors. She stopped, hand poised mid-air.

The top surface and door faces were thick with dust but the handles were completely clean. Someone must have been inside the last time anyone was down here. She suddenly felt uneasy about going in the cupboard, unsure what she’d find.

“Zuko,” she called, hesitantly. “Come here a second.”

She wasn’t sure what sort of help he’d be if there was something scary or dangerous or possibly incriminating beyond the cupboard doors, but she felt less anxious to have someone alongside her.

“What is it?” he asked over her shoulder.

“I don’t know, but the handles were clean. Someone’s been in here recently.”

She gingerly gripped the ornate doorknobs and, with caution, pulled the doors open. Much to her relief and disappointment (it would have made a great story, Toph would have gotten a kick out of it) there were no skeletons or Flutter Bats or evil spirits lurking inside the cupboard. The entire thing was actually empty, save for the white, rectangular box sitting at the base, pushed up against the back.

“Can I open it?” Katara asked, more so seeking permission from the Spirits than from Zuko. There seemed to be something sacred about it. It was not at all ornate- it was plain and simple with no decorations, images, or texts. Zuko’s earlier words about the sheds echoed in Katara’s mind.

They’re small and plain from the outside to deter thieves.

She crouched down and picked it up. Katara passed it to Zuko, who carefully lifted the lid off the box.

He gasped when he saw the contents.

Katara lifted out the most gorgeous robe she’d seen in her life. The material was softer than anything she’d ever touched and probably worth half the value of this entire cellar. It was the colour of the purest snow back in the South, and it was embellished with dark, blood-coloured lace and the Fire Nation emblem. Thin strands of what seemed to be real gold were woven into ropes around the cuffs of the large, droopy sleeves, and on the seams of the lace.

“It’s beautiful,” Katara breathed.

“It’s my mother’s wedding gown.”

Katara’s arms lowered and she could see Zuko past the garment again. He hadn’t taken his eyes off it.

“Sorry, I-”

“Don’t be. I’ve never seen it before. Only in pictures,” he whispered, reaching out to touch it but dropping his hand before he made contact.

“She would have looked incredible.”

“Yeah. She would have.”

Katara began to fold the robe as carefully as she could back to the way it had been laying. Zuko dug around the box, and pulled out a Fire Nation hairpin. It was gold, but in the candlelight it sparkled like it was covered in the dust of a thousand diamonds.

“This was hers, too,” Zuko told Katara, before slipping it into his pocket.

Katara placed the gown back in the simple box, returning the cupboard to the state in which they had found it, careful not to disturb any of the surrounding dust.

Zuko shuddered.

“The sun is almost up, I can feel it. We need to get out of here.”

Katara followed Zuko to a pile of gold and silver pieces that were right by the stairwell. She had no idea how that had escaped her notice on their way in.

Together, they piled two medium-sized rice sacks full of gold pieces, ignoring the silvers.

“We should probably take some of those so no-one asks questions in the market,” Katara pointed out but Zuko just shrugged at her.

She rolled her eyes and tossed a few handfuls into her sack, the silver dull against the gold, and pulled the drawstring tight. Flinging it over her shoulder, her eyes bulged when she felt the true weight of the coins knocking her spine.

“This had better last us forever,” Katara grunted, her voice strained with effort.

“Trust me, it will.”

Something on the floor near the pile caught Katara’s eye. She bent to pick it up, dropping her bag of coins at her feet.

“Is this you?” she asked, her voice barely audible.

Zuko leaned over her shoulder and she heard him suck in a sharp breath.

In her hands she held a small but ornate picture frame. It, like everything else down here, was dusty and forgotten. The glass covering the image was cracked, missing some pieces, and smudged with fingerprints. The image beneath it, however, was what held Katara’s attention. It was the face of a boy, no older than 13. His hair was dark, almost black, and pulled back into a ponytail with one stubborn whisp falling forwards across his forehead. His eyes were bright and hopeful. His lips were not a scowl but rather a bright, wide grin that was sure to be full of trouble. His cheeks were softer and flushed with excitement. Katara couldn’t help but think of the potential this boy had to grow up into someone quite handsome, with a face like that.

“Is this you?” she repeated.

“No.”

Katara turned to look at Zuko. He wasn’t looking at her.

“Are you lying to me?”

He hesitated. “Yes.”

She looked back at the photo and saw Zuko's scar over the young boy's eye.

“Why did you lie?"

Zuko swallowed. "Because I'm not that person anymore. I don't know who I am anymore."

Katara opened and closed her mouth to say something, but for the first time in a while, she didn’t know what to say.

“Put it back. Let’s go.”

Without any argument, she did as she was asked and followed him out of the cellar. It felt wrong, leaving it there. It seemed to be calling out to her and nagging at the back of her mind. But whether or not it left the cellar with them was not her call to make.


 

The escape was- as always- much simpler than the break in. The guards were still out cold by the time they arrived back, and part of Katara hoped that they woke up before the Boss came to check on them.

She no longer had the energy to fight Zuko about accepting his help, and she hated to admit it, but tossing the money bags up to him and letting him pull her up over the wall sped up their process by almost half the time it took to break in.

The sand dune, however, appeared in Katara’s tired mind to be the largest mountain she’d ever had to climb.

“It’s too far,” she whined, blowing her hair out of her eyes. They’d agreed to slow down now that they were back out of sight.

“Do you ever stop complaining?”

“Do you ever stop being annoying?’

Zuko sighed. “I was going to offer to carry your bag, but you know what? You seem to be doing fine.”

“I don’t need your help,” Katara snapped.

“And we’re back at square one,” Zuko mumbled, powering ahead and almost disappearing in the shrubbery.

Katara pushed her legs as fast as they would go because there was absolutely no way she would swallow her pride and call out for him to wait for her.

Climbing onto Appa just as the sun began to rise was one of the sweetest feelings Katara had ever experienced. She threw herself down and let all her weight rest; she thought her back might sink through the saddle.

“Appa, when did you get so comfortable?” she sighed, stretching her arms above her head and rolling her tired muscles out.

“I hate to interrupt, ah… whatever this is,” Zuko said from where he stood over her, “but we should probably make a move in case they have extra security patrolling nearby areas because of the stupid bird.”

Katara frowned. “Fine, but as soon as we’re not on the mainland, we need to make a pitstop.”

“Deal. I know just the place.”

Katara commanded Appa back into the ocean with barely enough energy to produce a large enough and strong enough bubble to keep them all from drowning.

“Head for the Earth Kingdom,” Zuko instructed and Katara instantly shook her head.

“No way. I am not going back to Ba Sing Se.”

“Not Ba Sing Se,” Zuko told her. “We’re going to the Colonies.”

Chapter Text

From the entrance to the exit
Is longer than it looks from where we stand
I want to say I’m sorry for stuff I haven’t done yet
Things will shortly get completely out of hand

-Old College Try, The Mountain Goats


 

Katara was hesitant once they arrived on land again and had left Appa safely tucked behind a hill to rest. What if someone from the colonies recognised them? After all, it’s not like she was travelling with just an average citizen from the Fire Nation. She was accompanied by the banished son of the Monarch, who had a very distinct face.

They entered the main part of the town and Katara was quick to realise that she didn’t quite blend in either.

“Where are we?” she asked under her breath.

“Yu Dao,” Zuko told her, ducking into a small shop tent. “It was the first of all the Fire Nation colonies.”

He pulled a long, sleeveless, Fire Nation robe down from a hanger, and took it to the old woman behind the counter. She was dressed in Earth Kingdom greens and wore thick spectacles over her eyes. Zuko handed her a gold piece and she held it up to examine it in the light before biting down on it hard and nearly snapping a tooth.

“Keep the change,” Zuko told her and her eyes widened to twice their original size.

He slid the robe on and pulled the hood up over his head. It hung around his face, casting shadow over most of his scar. The robe was dark burgundy, with black trimmings and a black sash that held it closed around his waist, and Katara could only imagine the look on the Firelord’s face if he knew his son was wearing a commoner’s robe.

Though, on second thought, Katara realised the Firelord would probably laugh.

“Do you want anything else while we’re here?” Zuko asked, his eyes flicking down to her exposed stomach.

Self-consciously she pulled her arms across her midsection and scowled at him. “No. I’m perfectly fine in this.”

Zuko shrugged. “Suit yourself.”

The old woman leaned across her counter, her false teeth sliding forward slowly out of her mouth. Katara grimaced.

“I think you look wonderful, dear,” she announced and Katara turned to Zuko with her hands on her hips.

See!

“I never said-” Zuko began but Katara was already back in the main street.

After a few seconds, he caught up with her and fell into pace beside her.

The stores lining the cobblestone street were boxy and small, with second-levels that had balconies. It looked to Katara as though the shop-owners lived above their shops, in equally boxy apartments. Red, white, and gold lanterns were strung between balconies, hanging across the top of the street. It would have looked beautiful at night.

A wagon full of jewelry stood next to a cart covered in ornate fans. Both were manned by people in Earth Kingdom greens. The more Katara looked around, the more shopkeepers she saw in Earth Kingdom colours, whereas all the shoppers and people in the street were dressed proudly in Fire Nation red. Something about it made her stomach turn.

“Why aren’t there any Fire Nation shop owners?” she asked.

“Yu Dao used to be a poor, backwater village- actually, to call it a village is a bit of a stretch. Everyone was sick and starving and then a few Fire Nation families settled and began a metalworking industry further in from the shore and now it’s a thriving town. The Fire Nation gave the Earth Kingdom people a ticket out of poverty by providing them material to build some stores and sell their goods and now Yu Dao is actually one of the wealthiest cities. It was a good move on Sozin’s behalf, I think, to colonise this place and give the people an opportunity to work and live a better life.”

Katara had stopped walking and stared at him, her jaw slack. He blinked at her.

“What?” he asked. “What did I say?”

Katara shook her head slightly. “You don’t actually believe any of that, do you?”

Zuko looked at her, unsure. “It’s what we learned in school, and-”

“You’ve been brainwashed! Do you actually think these people have better lives? Look at them!”

Zuko followed her gesture, taking in all the shopkeepers. They all looked physically and emotionally tired. Some stalls had very little items for sale, and everything was priced so low that it would take a week of decent business to afford to feed a small family.

“They’ve just gone from one shitty situation to another; all because the Fire Nation thought it was a good idea to invade and steal land from the locals and then push them into labor and call it a favour. What would happen if one day the Fire Nation couldn’t bully anyone into making their clothes or weapons or food? Your nation would fall apart.”

Zuko folded his arms defensively. “That is not true. And it’s not as bad as you’re making it out to be. I’m sure there are Fire Nation shopkeepers around here somewhere and you can’t group us all into one giant, evil nation! As hard as it may be for you to believe, there are actually some good people in the Fire Nation.”

Katara scoffed. “Name one who never tried to hurt anyone! I bet you can’t do it.”

“My mother,” Zuko spat.

Katara instantly felt guilty, but was too proud to apologise. She turned on her heel and began walking through the street again, her arms still tight across her chest with Zuko by her side. Neither of them spoke and Katara watched her feet as she walked.

It was hot. Katara couldn’t help but cringe at the thin film of sweat that coated her skin. It ran down her temples every now and then and little beads had gathered on her collarbones and chest. She hated that she couldn’t just fling it away with a flick of her wrist. Instead, she tilted her head back and gathered it from her chest onto her fingertips. From the corner of her eye she could see Zuko watching her, and her blood flowed quickly to her cheeks. She rolled her eyes at herself.

“I think I need one of these,” Katara said, stopping by a larger cart that was also selling fans, much more ornate than the fancy ones she’d seen before.

Zuko leaned against a pole to the right of the cart and let Katara take her time. She picked a fan up, turning it over in her hands. It was navy blue and embellished with light blue, swirly embroidery. A few white pearls (which Katara recognized to be fake) were stitched into the designs. Behind her, she heard tittering.

Katara turned over her shoulder to see two Fire Nation girls who looked to be about Zuko’s age.

“Can I help you?” Katara asked, folding her arms and they giggled again.

Both of the girls were tall and incredibly thin, their bones almost protruding through their pale skin. Their faces were sharp and their smiles were cruel. The girl on the left had long, black hair that was pulled back so tightly that Katara wasn’t sure how it wasn’t being torn out of her head, and she wore a red sarong with a white vest. The other girl’s dark hair was cut into a dark bob. Her clothes were as dark as her hair, but she had long, sharp fingernails that made her fingers look more like talons than hands that belonged to a human.

“Can I just say,” Ponytail began, her voice as sharp as her cheekbones, “you are so brave to wear that something like that.”

Katara half-smiled, unsure if the girl was joking. She looked down at her clothing. It was a perfectly regular upper-middle class Fire Nation outfit, but she was suddenly self-conscious. “I don’t understand…”

“It’s just that your skin is so dark,” Talons said, screwing up her nose in disgust. “If mine was that colour, I’d be covered head-to-toe in clothing and you wouldn’t catch me in the sun for at least a year.”

Katara felt her cheeks heat up and a burning feeling rose in her chest. Talons grabbed Katara’s arm and lined her own up next to it.

“See! Look how dark you are!”

Katara snatched her arm away.

“And your eyes!” Talons continued, not taking the hint from Katara’s harsh movement. “They’re so big. Like Cabbage Slug eyes!”

“And you’re also, like, so-muscular for a girl,” Ponytail added. She reached out and poked Katara’s stomach muscles. “I would never let anyone see my body if I looked like you. You are like, so brave.”

“What the hell is wrong with you both?”

Katara turned around. Zuko stood behind her, his arms folded and his eyes blazing. The two girls gasped, looking at his face.

“Look at that scar,” Talons whispered to her friend, loud enough to cancel out the point of whispering.

“I would, like, never show my face if I had a scar like that,” Ponytail hissed back, not shifting her wide eyes away from Zuko’s face.

“Let’s go,” Katara mumbled, grabbing Zuko by the wrist and pulling him away, her eyes stinging.

“Aw!” Ponytail’s voice echoed behind them. “That’s so sweet; they're a couple! Thank the Spirits because I know if I looked-”

As soon as they were out of earshot of their girls’ conversation, Katara slowed down again. Everywhere she looked, the Fire Nation women prowling the street were all angular and light-skinned, and there Katara stood, dark and muscular. She frowned and tried to pull her top down over her stomach, getting frustrated when it did not budge.

“Hey,” Zuko said, catching Katara’s arm. “Don’t pay any mind to them. They’re snotty. And you're perfect the way you are.” Zuko's eyes widened and he coughed. "As in... you're from the Water Tribe and you all have dark skin... like you're meant to. And you're muscly because you're strong and that's good and uh... healthy-"

Katara ripped her arm out of his grip. “I don’t care what they say,” she lied, not meeting his eyes.

“It’s okay if you do. You’re allowed to be upset.”

“Yeah well I’m not,” Katara snapped. "And I don't care. So stop going on about it."

Hoping he wouldn’t follow her, Katara ducked into the clothing vendor to her left. She checked over her shoulder once she was inside. Zuko had decided to give her some space and for that, she was glad.

She hated how much the words of the two girls stung. Katara supposed she’d never really had many prompts to feel self conscious, as she had grown up in the South Pole where everyone wore thick furs and coats most of the time and darker skin and large eyes were a sign of beauty. Katara had never thought she was particularly ugly; in fact she had always been pretty confident in her appearance. Even now that she was older she didn’t feel the need to care about her looks because she’d mostly been travelling with her brother, a blind girl, and a twelve-year old Monk. Who was around for her to try and impress?

Although, the thought of catering her appearance to impress anyone made her sick to her stomach. That was why she hadn’t bothered to change anything when Haru, Teo, and now Zuko- all teenage boys and potential partners (except for Zuko because she would never be into someone like him) had joined their crew. Her job wasn’t to look pretty- her job was to win the war.

Katara hated that she’d even considered buying new clothes to cover her ‘muscular stomach’, all because some pointy girls that she didn’t know felt the need to comment on her appearance.

She looked around the dress store, taking in the racks full of dresses, all varying shades of red. There were some sarong and vest sets in one corner in a shade of pink that Katara could never see herself in, next to them a particularly ornate, short skirt. It was a deep red- almost purple- with gold swirls along the seam. Next to it, Katara saw a dress that she loved. It was long and flowing, and a beautiful dark red. The skirt of the dress looked like it would give the illusion of dancing flames. The ornate gold design on the chest that morphed up over the hanger into sheer golden sleeves reminded her of a candle flickering in the breeze. She wanted to try it on but she knew there was no point in wasting her time. She’d never have anything to wear it to. It’s not like the Fire Lord was going to invite them to a ball before they dethroned him.

With a longing sigh, she turned to leave the store.

The only thing she envied about those girls from the street was the way they seemed to have a normal childhood, growing up into normal teenagers. They hadn’t been running from the Fire Nation, they hadn’t been preparing to fight in a war, and they hadn’t been the surrogate mother for their older brother and father because their family was torn apart.

She pushed the thought from her mind and scanned the street to find Zuko. She spotted him seated beneath a tree across from the dress shop. He made eye contact, raised his hand in an awkward wave, and stood to meet her.

“Didn’t get anything?” he asked, noticing her lack of shopping bags.

“Nah.” Katara kicked a loose pebble. “Changed my mind.”

They began to head towards the fruit and vegetable markets in the next lane over. Together, they walked in what Katara registered to be comfortable silence. This was odd. She had been so set on hating him that she refused to admit to herself that Zuko was winning her over.

“I got you something,” he announced as though he only just remembered.

She looked at him and he brandished the blue fan that had completely slipped Katara’s mind.

Katara made a noise of excitement and took it from him. She flicked it open and hid half of her face behind it, only her blue eyes peeking over the edge.

“How does it look?” she asked, fluttering it.

“Very Water Tribe. It suits you,” Zuko said with a soft laugh and Katara grinned, dropping the fan back to her side.

Okay, she thought. He’s winning me over just a little.

Katara’s throat tightened. She felt something weird in the pit of her stomach, something out of place. She felt scared. There was a reason she had decided to keep him at an arm’s-length away from her. He wasn’t Sokka or Aang or Toph. He was Zuko. She couldn’t afford to let someone like him in the way she had everyone else.

“Thanks, Zuko,” she said, pressing her lips together and suddenly feeling awkward. The vibe seemed to reach Zuko too, as he nodded once and shoved his hands in his pocket as his only response.

The smell of the food markets reached them before they’d even turned the corner. Katara’s eyes widened as she took in the sight. There was a stall for every kind of food she could have imagined.

They stopped in front of a small food stand called The Flaming Sandcastles.

 “Now that’s just ridiculous,” Katara stated, gesturing to the sign. “You can’t light a sandcastle on fire.”

Zuko rolled his eyes at her, but he was smiling. “Where’s that imagination of yours?”

She turned her nose up. “You don’t need an imagination when you can have logic.”

Katara kept walking, taking in all the different sights and smells.

“Hungry?” Zuko asked.

As if on cue, her stomach grumbled loudly. Katara placed her hand on it, realizing she hadn’t eaten anything since the fruit and rice the morning before.

“Starving,” she confirmed.

Zuko led her to a small shop with a dark green door and a black, tiled roof. Smoke was floating out of the chimney, and the scent of the food wafting out the window was incredible. Katara’s mouth watered.

They dropped into a small booth by the back of the shop, picking up menus.

“Do you think they have Sea Prunes?” Katara wondered out loud, her eyes scanning up and down.

“Probably not,” Zuko told her and she pouted. “ Sorry. Have you tried Komodo Chicken?”

Katara screwed up her nose and shook her head. “It’s spicy, isn’t it?”

“Everything here is spicy,” Zuko said as though she should have known that already, the 'well duh' implied in his voice.

Her shoulders slumped. “I think I’ll just get the clams, then.”


 

“This is fantastic,” Katara breathed, glancing at the cart full of fresh food that Zuko was pushing. “Do you know how long we had to make the last sack of rice stretch?”

The cart was overflowing with bags containing different grains, loaves of bread, pomegranates, more types of melon than Katara knew existed, and enough lychees, mangoes and apples to last the group at least until the comet. They had also bought a handful of different steaks and whole fishes that were wrapped in special paper to keep the heat out. Katara was skeptical, though, so she blasted the meat with water and froze them into ice blocks under the cover of a back alley. She had then carefully arranged the bags or fruit on top to conceal them.

“So it was just cabbages, tomatoes, lettuce, carrots and ash bananas from this stand?” Zuko asked, nearly dropping the bags that were balanced in his arms.

“Don’t forget the eggplant!”

Zuko scowled at her and slumped the bags into the cart before going back for the eggplant.

Attached to the next cart over, Katara saw a flyer. She left the cart next to Zuko and went to investigate. As soon as her eyes focused, she gasped and snatched the flyer off the wood while the vendor wasn’t looking, and stuffed it inside her skirt. Her eyes flicked around the street, and she could see at least five copies of it within her immediate vicinity.

“Zuko,” she whispered, her eyes darting around in paranoia. “We need to go.”

He tossed the eggplants into the cart, lifted its handles and began to push it back out the way they came.

“Why? What’s going on?” he asked, keeping his volume low.

“Just keep moving, I’ll show you back on Appa.”

Katara’s heart was pounding and her hands were numb with adrenaline the entire way back through the streets. She was thankful that Zuko knew the directions out because in her panic the stalls began to morph into one another and she was sure they had passed the same fountain five times. Sweat had built up on the back of her neck and was pouring down her back. She made to swipe at it, but decided not to in case such a large movement drew unwanted attention. Instead, she flicked her fingers by her side and the droplets of sweat flung off her skin.

They were almost at the harbour. Katara could see the hill that Appa was asleep behind and her panic lifted slightly. She wasn’t sure she would have had the energy to fight for her life.

By the time they’d made it over the hill and to Appa, Katara’s lungs and thighs were burning. She hadn’t even considered how difficult it must have been for Zuko having to push the large cart of groceries the whole way. She glanced over at him and scowled. He wasn’t anywhere near as sweaty and out of breath as she was.

They worked together to unload the cart of groceries into Appa’s saddle. It was harder than she had expected it to be, to try and climb Appa’s fur with a giant bag of vegetables in one arm. Once it was only the closed-packages like the meat and rice left, they settled for the process of Zuko tossing everything up to Katara, and then climbing up himself.

“Oh shit, the cart! Should I take it back?”

Katara slapped Zuko’s shoulder. “Are you crazy? We can’t go back there! Yip yip, Appa! Yip yip!”

The bison frantically leapt into the air and Katara cringed as all the grocery bags tipped over, fruit and vegetables rolling around their legs.

“Will you tell me why we had to leave so fast? Did you steal something?” Zuko asked, raising his good eyebrow.

She slapped him again.

“We had to leave because somehow neither of us noticed these everywhere! Thank Tui and La and everyone else in the Spirit World that those two girls didn’t recognise you!”

Katara was still catching her breath as she dug around in her skirt and pulled out a scrunched up piece of parchment. She moved next to Zuko and smoothed it out, flat against Appa’s saddle.

Her throat tightened as she looked at it again.

In the middle of the scroll was a painted image of Zuko. She had to admit that it was a very good painting, and the accuracy made her hate it all the more.

His hair was long and shaggy, untied. It must have been a recent painting because it looked just like the Zuko beside her now rather than the Zuko from the framed picture in the cellar. His face was angular and he wasn’t smiling. His eyes were narrowed and his scar was prominent.

He looked dangerous.

Above his image in thick, black paint the flyer said BY RULE OF THE FIRE LORD- WANTED: PRINCE ZUKO OF THE FIRE NATION.

Zuko swallowed thickly and Katara’s eyes scanned down. She pressed her lips together and inhaled sharply through her nose.

“I’m so sorry, Zuko,” she whispered, for underneath the painting of his face was an even larger print:

DEAD OR ALIVE.

 

Chapter Text

 

 

Pitch black, pale blue
These wild oceans
Shake what’s left of me loose
Just to hear me cry “Mercy!”

-Neptune, Sleeping at Last


 

All Zuko really wanted when they landed back at camp was to sleep for the next week, but that option was off the table as Aang still knew nothing about Firebending and the comet was not slowing down.

Katara was making a celebratory feast for dinner as the sun began to set. Zuko had offered to help her cook multiple times but she turned his offers down, each time snappier than the last. He raised his eyebrows at her change of attitude towards him. He’d thought they’d made progress, so Zuko had put her different behavior down to exhaustion- after all, it’s not like he’d even had the opportunity to screw up because it started as soon as they landed and everyone rushed over to see them.

It had bitten at Zuko’s stomach and chest, watching Haru and Aang jump all over Katara like Deer Dogs when they’d arrived back. It’s not like they were gone a whole week or anything. They were only away for just short of two days, and Zuko thought the boys were being ridiculous.

He had jumped down from Appa’s saddle to begin unpacking the groceries, when he felt a hand clap down on his shoulder. He turned, and saw Sokka behind him.

“You’re back,” Sokka said with an awkward nod. “Uh… welcome.”

Zuko nodded awkwardly back, averting his eyes. “Thanks.”

He appreciated that someone acknowledged his return, too.

Katara called everyone to the table, pulling Zuko out of his thoughts and his mouth immediately watered when he caught sight of the packed table. There were platters of stir-fried veggies, and sautéed mushrooms with onion, and roasted potatoes, more salads than they needed, and a loaf of ash-banana bread. In the centre of the table, there was a giant, charred fish resting on a bed of rice.

Everyone quickly filled their plates and the sound of eating was overtaken by conversation.

“This is incredible, Katara!” Teo sighed, shoveling the fish into his mouth.

You’re incredible, Katara!” Haru corrected. Katara laughed and Zuko scowled.

“You have to tell us everything!” Aang demanded with excitement in his eyes as he almost climbed from his seat and into Katara’s lap.

She laughed and gently pushed him back into his chair. Toph flicked a rock at Aang’s head and Sokka snorted into his cup.

Katara shrugged. “It was pretty uneventful, really,” she said. “Boring even.”

Zuko swallowed. It didn’t seem like she was bored while they were away.

“Surely something exciting happened,” Sokka prompted and Katara shrugged again.”Did you have a good time though? You guys didn’t spend the whole time fighting, did you?”

“I wouldn’t say I had a good time,” Katara answered, screwing her nose up and Zuko shrunk into his seat. "And we didn’t fight but that’s because I barely spoke to him. Like I said, I didn’t even want to go in the first place.”

If Zuko remembered correctly, she actually insisted that she come instead of all the other people who offered to go instead. 

What are you doing?” Toph muttered to Katara, raising an eyebrow. Zuko wanted to know the answer to that, too.

“We broke into the Fire Nation vaults, which was kind of underwhelming if I’m being honest,” Katara continued, ignoring Toph. “And then we ended up in Yu Dao, one of the colonies, where there were these two really awful, mean girls. I mean, who just comes up to a stranger and starts insulting them straight to their face? Although, they were from the Fire Nation after all- I should know better than to expect people from the Fire Nation to have even one kind bone in their body.”

Zuko’s face flushed and his stomach clenched.

“And Zuko is wanted all throughout the colonies and I’m assuming the Fire Nation as well. So if his following us here wasn’t enough of an inconvenience, there’s that too.” Katara directed her attention to Zuko, and he could see a glint in her eyes that he didn’t recognise. “Now you’ll know what it’s like to be hunted by someone who wants you dead!”

Zuko put his chopsticks down and stood up abruptly. Katara turned back to her food.

“Thanks for dinner, I’m turning in early,” he announced through clenched teeth before turning and storming to his room.

Behind him, he heard Katara mumble, “What’s his problem?” and his throat tightened even further. He had no idea why she was being like this.


 

Zuko stood in front of Aang. He was tired but he could feel the morning sun in his veins, charging him and energizing him, pushing last night’s dinner out of his mind.

Despite locking himself in his room mid-way through dinner and pretending he was asleep when Sokka called out and asked if he was in there and wanted any 'midnight leftovers', Zuko hadn’t slept much at all. He’d been replaying over and over the things Katara said at the dinner table and the things that she had said and done while they were breaking into the Fire Nation.

He couldn’t work out why Katara had been so… mean. Honestly, Zuko had thought they had made progress while they’d been away, and he was positive that he wasn’t imagining it. He hadn’t done anything to upset her since they’d arrived home, but her recount of their trip did not at all match up to the actual events. He wasn’t expecting them to be the best of friends (he still wasn’t even sure if she would consider him an ally, let alone a friend) but he hadn’t expected her to freeze him out.

Zuko took a deep breath in through his nose and closed his eyes, feeling the sun warm his face.

“I know you’re nervous, but remember- fire bending in and of itself is not something to fear,” Zuko told Aang, and a distant voice in the back of his mind reminded him that he wished someone had told him that when he was Aang’s age.

“But if you don’t respect it,” he continued, “it’ll chew you up and spit you out like an angry Komodo Rhino!”

Aang flinched away from Zuko with a yelp.

Zuko realised that, like when dealing with an Emu Horse, loud and sudden noises are not the best methods to use to evoke a positive response.

“Now show me what you’ve got,” Zuko instructed, softening his tone slightly. “Any amount of fire you can make.”

Aang straightened his spine and relaxed his shoulders. Closing his eyes, he took two deep breaths and lifted his arms above his head. In a fluid movement, he struck a defensive position and pushed his right hand forward, producing a puff of smoke from the centre of his palm.

Zuko raised his eyebrows.

Aang’s shoulders slouched and sweat dripped off his forehead. He looked defeated, already.

“Maybe I need a little more instruction. Perhaps a demonstration?”

“Good idea.”

Zuko recognised the look in Aang’s eyes- after all, he’d been in this position when he was young. Well, not quite this position- he hadn’t had to learn to firebend in only a few weeks because he was the world’s only hope of winning the war against the Fire Nation, but he had had to try and keep up with Azula.

“You might want to take a few steps back,” Zuko warned.

He took a deep breath and punched the air with a loud grunt, a tiny fireball erupting from his fist. Aang applauded enthusiastically.

“What was that?” Zuko asked, panic and frustration fighting each other all the way up his throat. “That was the worst Firebending I’ve ever seen!”

“I thought it was… nice,” Aang told him, clasping his hands in front of him and rocking on the balls of his feet.

Zuko fought the urge to tell him what else would be nice. Instead, like an adult, he swung his limbs rapidly through the air with the aim of producing as much fire as possible.

His fire hadn’t been this weak since he was banished.

“Why is this happening?” he shouted at his hands. He knew it looked very similar to a tantrum, but he didn’t care.

“Maybe it’s the altitude?” Aang suggested and Zuko’s eyes narrowed.

“Yeah,” he muttered. “Could be.”

Very shortly, the focus of the session had moved from teaching Aang to working out what the hell was wrong with Zuko.

Anger and panic should have fuelled his fire. He swung and kicked and slashed but the flames remained the same feeble size. His grunts grew louder and he began to sweat profusely. Zuko was scared. If he lost his bending… no, he couldn’t even bare to consider what would happen if he lost his bending.

“That one kind of felt hot,” Aang offered and Zuko threw his fists down.

“Don’t patronize me! You know what it’s supposed to look like!”

On a good day, flames would have swallowed his words and spewed from his mouth.

Aang shrunk back towards the rock he was leaning against. “Sorry, Sifu Hotman.”

“Stop calling me that!”

Both Aang and Zuko turned at the sound of footfalls scuffing against the stone path leading up to their training area.

“Hey jerks,” Sokka said, before biting into an apple and plopping down onto one of the larger stones. “Mind if I watch you two jerks do your jerkbending?”

The smirk on his face told Zuko that he’d spent a long time coming up with that one and was very proud of himself.

“Get out of here!” Zuko shouted. Sokka stood up and threw his apple core at him.

“Okay, take it easy,” he said, holding his hands up defensively. “I was just kidding around.”

As he turned the corner of the path heading towards the Air Temple, Sokka laughed to himself. “Jerkbending. I’ve still got it!”

Zuko dropped down onto the hard stone ground and buried his face in his hands. He pulled his knees up to his chest and curled up into a tight ball. Maybe I he made himself as small as he could, he would disappear forever.

Aang patted him awkwardly on his back, a sort of ‘there, there,’ gesture you would do to a drunken stranger who was crying at a party.

“I cannot catch a break,” Zuko mumbled into his palms.

Perhaps he could stay like this forever.


 

Zuko had made Aang promise not to mention his problem to anyone. He needed time to work out what had been going on and he wasn’t ready to sit and listen to Sokka or Toph or Katara ridicule him about it. He also had considered the idea that if he couldn’t teach Aang to Firebend anymore, they might kick him out of their group.

He watched them from one of the shadowed archways as they sat around the fire in the courtyard, laughing and talking. Zuko wasn’t sure that he was ready to give this up just yet. He could tell that these were the sort of people you want to go into battle with and not against, but if they kicked him out, he wasn’t sure where he stood. He definitely wasn’t with the Fire Nation, but if he wasn’t with the Avatar either… he supposed he would technically still be on the Avatar’s side, he’d just be watching them creepily from the distance. Much like he was right now.

They needed to know.

“Listen, everybody,” he called, emerging from the shadows and startling a few of them. “I’ve got some pretty bad news.”

He took a deep breath.

“I’ve lost my stuff.”

His head hung low, ashamed at his confession.

Toph’s milky eyes darted around and she shrugged. “Don’t look at me, I didn’t touch your stuf,” she announced, too defensively.

“I’m talking about my Firebending. It’s gone.”

Katara burst into a fit of mocking laughter and Zuko felt his face fall. His stomach clenched and he balled his hands up.

“I’m sorry, I’m just laughing at the irony,” she told him, her voice eerily similar to the girl with the talons from Yu Dao. “You know, how it would have been nice for us if you’d lost your bending a long time ago?”

Zuko decided to ignore her tone.

“Well, it’s not lost. Just… weaker for some reason.”

Katara scowled. “Maybe you’re just not as good as you think you are.”

Every duel they’d fought against each other washed over Zuko’s mind’s eye and he bit his tongue to refrain from reminding her of them. He knew that she was well aware of exactly how good he was.

If he could fight her right now to prove it… he would probably decide against it because the Avatar might kick him out.

A thought sparked in Zuko’s eyes and he had no idea how he hadn’t thought of it sooner.

“I bet it’s because I changed sides.”

“That’s ridiculous,” Katara scoffed.

“I don’t know,” Aang mumbled, bowing his head. “Maybe it isn’t. Maybe your Firebending comes from rage. And you just don’t have enough anger to fuel it the way you used to.”

Sokka jumped up. “So all we need to do is make Zuko angry? Easy enough!”

He began whacking and poking Zuko with his stick, making sure to be extra precise when jabbing him between the ribs. He tried to shove the stick into Zuko’s ear for good measure.

“Okay, cut it out!” Zuko shouted, his anger bubbling. Sokka flinched and dropped the stick.

Zuko turned back to the Avatar and pinched the bridge of his nose. Trying to regain his bending was wearing him out.

“Look, even if you are right, I don’t want to have to rely on hatred and anger anymore. There has to be another way.”

Toph sat up straighter and lifted a teacup to her lips. “You’re going to need to draw your Firebending from a different source,” she told him, as though this were the most obvious thing in the world. “I’d recommend the original source.”

“How’s he supposed to do that?” Sokka asked, his eyes lighting up. “By jumping into a volcano?”

Katara smirked and mumbled, “What a shame that would be.”

Both Zuko and Toph chose to ignore her. “No. Zuko needs to go back to whatever the original source of Firebending is.”

Sokka blinked. “So… is it jumping into a volcano?”

Toph shrugged. “I don’t know. For Earthbending, the original benders were Badgermoles.”

Zuko sat in front of her, cross-legged on the stone floor, as she told them how the Badgermoles taught her to bend the earth.

She was incredibly lucky to learn directly from the original source. It makes sense, however. When he’d first come into the group, Zuko was quietly impressed with how efficient Toph’s bending ability was. He had trouble believing at first that she could see with her feet, using her Earthbending, but he quickly learned that it was practically impossible to startle her or to tell a lie without her announcing to everyone that he was keeping a secret.

“I learned from the monks, but the original Airbenders were the Sky Bison.” Aang leaned over and turned to Appa enthusiastically. “Maybe you could give me a lesson sometime, buddy!”

The Bison growled affectionately and Zuko wondered again just how much it could understand.

“Well, this doesn’t help me,” Zuko told them, gravely. “The original Firebenders were the dragons and they’re extinct.”

“What do you mean?” Aang asked. “Roku had a dragon! And there were plenty of dragons when I was a kid!”

As the words came out of the Monk’s mouth, Zuko’s hatred towards his own nation grew stronger.

“Well they aren’t around anymore, okay?” he snapped.

Aang threw his hands up defensively. “Okay, okay. I’m sorry.”

“But maybe there’s another way,” Zuko mused. He stood and moved away from the group again to gaze over the valley. Aang followed, but Zuko barely noticed him. “The first people to learn from the dragons were Ancient Sun Warriors.”

“Sun Warriors? I know they weren’t around when I was a kid.”

“No. They died off thousands of years ago but their civilization wasn’t too far from where we are now. Maybe we can learn something by poking around their ruins?”

“It’s like the monks used to tell me,” Aang began, bowing his head. “Sometimes the shadows of the past can be felt by the present.”

“So, what? Maybe you’ll pick up some super old Sun Warrior energy just by standing where they stood a thousand years ago?” Sokka called from by the fire.

“More or less,” Zuko shrugged. “Either I find a new was to Firebend or the Avatar has to find a new teacher.

A silence hung over them all. It was suffocating. Everyone was thinking the same thing but nobody wanted to be the one to say it. If Aang had to find a new Firebending teacher, he wouldn’t learn in time to defeat the Firelord and the Fire Nation would destroy all the other lands and everyone would die.

The light from the camp fire flickered against the archways and Zuko focused on the dancing shadows to distract him from the bleak, awful image of the future that was forming in his brain.

“I’m coming with you,” Aang said, finally.

Everyone seemed to relax with the broken silence.

“No, you’re not,” Zuko and Katara said at the same time.

Aang folded his arms and stood his ground.

“Yes, I am! If you can learn how to bring your bending back just from being there, then maybe I can learn how to start it! You have absolutely no reason to say no to this! Best case scenario, we come back and we both can Firebend. Worst case scenario, we don’t find anything and come back and start looking for answers in different places.”

“Okay,” Zuko said.

“Please? I promise it’ll be-” Aang stared at Zuko. “Wait, what?”

“I said okay. If you want to come because you think you will learn something, then of course you can.”

Aang shot his fist into the air before throwing his arms around Zuko’s middle. Zuko cringed and pushed the tiny monk away to an arm’s length, by the top of his head.

“No hugging,” Zuko declared.

“Done! Any more rules, Sifu Hotman?” Aang asked, swirling the air into a scooter beneath himself.

“No singing, no whistling, and no more than 3 pee breaks. It’s not that long of a trip,” Zuko told him, folding his arms. “And no more calling me Sifu Hotman.”

“Done, done, done, and I make no promises.”

Zuko rolled his eyes as Aang zoomed away. Katara reach out a hand and stopped the Avatar in his tracks.

“Are you kidding? You are absolutely not going with him.”

Aangs air scooter deflated and he looked at her with wide eyes.

“What? Why?! Please, Katara!”

Zuko raised his eyebrows at Aang. He had never thought the Avatar would beg for anything other than world peace and harmony.

“You don’t have to have her permission,” Zuko reminded him. “She’s not your mother.”

Katara stood as she folded her arms and scowled. “And who do you think you are to tell him what to do?”

I’m not telling him what to do, I’m just reminding him that he has a brain and a life and can make his own decisions.”

“Zuko’s right, Katara,” Aang admitted, but Katara didn’t seem to hear him.

“You just want him to go with you to the ‘Sun Warriors’ that you probably just made up as a ruse so you can snatch him! Well I see right through your ruse!”

He rolled his eyes. Zuko didn’t have the energy to point out to her how ridiculous she was being.

“Give it a rest, Katara.” He turned to Aang. “If we leave at sunrise we will be there with plenty of sunlight hours left. Get some sleep tonight; you're going to need your strength tomorrow if we’re going to start bending. Meet me back here at dawn.”

Aang nodded eagerly and Zuko began to walk away, Katara’s protests all blending into an incomprehensible string.

He was almost out of the yard when Katara let out a frustrated grunt.

“You know what? Don’t even bother saying goodbye to me tomorrow! Aang can, but I don’t want you to!” she shouted in a dignified tone, as though this would somehow take Zuko down a notch.

He didn’t break his stride or bother looking back at her as he called his response before heading to bed.

I won’t!

Chapter Text

I hope the fences we mended
Fall down beneath their own weight
And I hope we hang on past the last exit
I hope it’s already too late

-No Children, The Mountain Goats


 

Katara smiled as she stretched in her bedroll, taking in the pleasant sound of a Zuko-free morning.

Suddenly she sat bolt upright, eyes wide open.

If Zuko hadn’t returned yet, that meant Aang hadn’t either. She grabbed her waterskin from beside her and jumped out of bed, fisting the sleep from her eyes as she ran out the door.

“He’s taken him!” she cried, running through the hallways, bashing her hand on each door that she passed. “Zuko has taken Aang!”

One at a time, the doors opened to respectively reveal Toph, Haru, Teo, Sokka, and the Duke, all in various stages of disarray.

“What the hell, Katara?” Sokka asked after a steady beat of silence.

She took a deep breath. “I don’t mean to alarm anyone,” (she very much did,) “but Zuko has taken Aang.”

“No shit,” Toph quipped, folding her arms. “They went to the Sun Warriors, remember? You were there when the decision was made.”

“Well, why aren’t they back yet?” Katara asked, thrusting her chin forward as though she’d won an argument. “They’re probably halfway to the Firelord by now.”

Haru approached her slowly and carefully before resting a comforting hand on her shoulder.

“They only left about two hours ago,” he told her gently. “Aang didn't want to wake you before they left. And Zuko’s not that bad. I really think he has changed.”

Katara raised her eyebrows at him. “Then you should probably get your brains checked,” she huffed, turning and heading to the kitchen to prepare breakfast.


 

Katara had managed to get through most of her chores with the help of Haru, who hadn’t seemed to want to leave her side all morning. She had told him that she was fine and she wasn’t worried about Aang anymore (although she was very much lying- she wouldn’t trust Zuko with the life of a Spiderfly, let alone the Avatar). He’d helped her prepare the majority of the food and sat beside her at the table.

“Isn’t it so pleasant without Zuko around?” Katara had asked over a plate of berries and melon.

Haru raised an eyebrow beside her and Toph rolled her eyes.

“It would be more pleasant if you wouldn’t keep bringing him up all morning,” Toph mumbled, stabbing raspberries onto the ends of all her fingertips.

Katara scoffed and placed a hand on her chest. “What? Me?”

Sokka raised his eyebrows at her. “Yes, you. This is the fifth time you’ve brought him up and you’ve only been awake for an hour. You'd better be careful, someone might get the idea that you’re obsessed with him or something.”

Katara’s face flushed and she opened her mouth to spit her response but Haru stepped in first.

“Come on, you guys, you know she’s not obsessed with him. They definitely do not like each other, at all.”

“Thank you,” Katara sniffed, patting him on the head and his face fell a little.

After breakfast, he offered to help her with the dishes, an offer which she gratefully accepted. Her gratefulness quickly evaporated, though.

Haru had what Katara secretly referred to as ‘giant idiot hands’. Whilst chattering away and handing her the dishes to be washed, he had dropped three plates and four cups, all of which shattered on the floor, scattering thin rock and food all over their shoes.

“I can fix it!” Haru cried after each one, gathering the shards into a pile and bending them back together to form a wonky ghost of what the object used to look like.

An idea sparked in Katara’s head.

“You should go talk to Toph!” Katara suggested. “There’s not much left here to do now and I know Toph has been itching to Earthbend with someone now that Aang’s main focus is on Firebending. I bet she could teach you a couple of cool tricks.”

Haru’s eyes lit up and Katara was thankful he hadn’t realised she had just been trying to get rid of him.

“Fantastic! I will!”

She smiled to herself at the newfound peace and quiet by the sink. She knew Haru meant well, but he could sometimes be a bit overbearing. Through the window she could see he had already found Toph and was trying to coax her into the yard.

He was incredibly sweet and (she had to admit) he was kind of cute. He was as tall as Zuko- she shuddered and pushed the thought of Zuko from her mind- and he was strong. His hair was long and soft and he kept it pulled back at the top and he had this sort of moustache-beard combination that reminded her strongly of her one of her father’s friends before they all left for the war. He looked the oldest out of everyone, besides Zuko, who seemed to appear much older than everyone else despite his smooth skin and lack of hair on his face and chest. Perhaps it was all the scars that were sprinkled over his torso.

She could clearly see the light skin of his stomach pulled taught over his muscles and she wondered what the scars would feel like beneath her fingertips. She wondered what his muscles would feel like beneath her fingertips. In her mind’s eye, she could see a trail of goosebumps rising along his chest in wake of her fingertips, the pale white contrasting against her brown skin as-

Katara widened her eyes and shook her head, trying to remove the image of a shirtless Zuko from behind her eyelids. What the hell was she doing?

“And why was he so sweaty?” she asked herself, screwing her nose up.

“Why was who so sweaty?” Sokka asked from behind her and Katara gasped as she turned.

“You nearly gave me a heart attack! You should know better than to sneak up on people when they’re talking to themselves, it’s rude.”

“Who was sweaty?” Sokka asked again, leaning against the sink and swirling his boomerang around his finger. It slipped off and flew upwards, taking a small chunk out of the ceiling. His eyes dragged down from the spot he had hit to Katara, and he grinned sheepishly. She scowled.

“Haru,” she blurted out. It would be much easier to blame Haru than try and explain why she was thinking about a sweaty, smooth, half-naked Zuko.

“Oh, that’s just because you make him nervous.”

Katara’s brow furrowed. “What? Why do I make him nervous? I’m only ever nice to him.”

She hated the idea of scaring him. She didn’t want anyone to be afraid of her. Well, maybe Zuko could be afraid of her- he had good reason to be.

“I know you’re nice to him- that’s why he’s so nervous.”

“Huh?”

Sokka rolled his eyes. “He likes you, dummy.”

Katara’s eyes narrowed. “He does not!”

“You are so blind,” Sokka laughed, shaking his head.

Hey!” Toph called indignantly from outside.

“Haru does not like me,” Katara continued, lowering her voice in case Haru- who was in the yard with Toph and a giant boulder- could hear their conversation.

“Yes, he does. And that is probably why he was sweaty. He’s always sweaty when you’re around.”

Katara raised her eyebrows. Now that she thought about it, he did always have a particular sheen across his forehead when she saw him.

“You never notice it when boys are into you,” Sokka told her, matter of factly.

Katara scoffed and shoved his shoulder. “No boys like me. Except maybe Haru.”

“Oh please, we all know you know about Aang.”

“I know he thinks he does, but I don't know-”

“And there’s obviously Haru, like we have discussed, and then there was Jet-”

“Okay, you know that I knew about Jet.” Katara huffed, folding her arms.

“And there was Talrok from back home, and Zuko-”

Kataras eyes bulged and she choked a little bit. “Zuko?!

Sokka bent over in laughter, slapping his knee just to convey to her exactly how funny he found this situation.

“I’m just kidding about Zuko, he hates you as much as you hate him,” Sokka crowed, wiping a tear from his eye. “You should’ve seen your face though!”

“It wasn’t that funny,” Katara mumbled, splashing water at her brother.

“My point is,” Sokka continued, straitening up, “that boys do like you- unfortunately for me, because it makes my job as a protective older brother that much more difficult- and you don’t even see it. You only ever like the ones who aren’t good for you. Like Jet.”

Katara threw her hands up in frustration. “That was one time! You make it sound like I have a bad habit of dating scoundrels.”

“All I’m saying is that you should give Haru a chance,” Sokka told her, backing out of the kitchen.

Katara scowled and returned her focus to the sink. Once Sokka was gone, she stomped her foot.

“I don’t want to give Haru a chance.”

She couldn’t quite put her finger on why that was.

Appa’s roar was like an alarm, signalling the return of Aang and Zuko, and everyone at the camp ran to meet them in the courtyard.

Catching sight of the giant Bison, Katara felt her heart swell with relief and excitement. It must have been because Aang was home safe, because she knows there is absolutely no other reason why she would be so excited.

Aang immediately jumped off Appa and ran to Katara, throwing his arms around her waist. She grinned and hugged him back, but a little voice in the back of her mind pointed out how uncomfortable she was, after her conversation with Sokka this morning.

He was right, she did know how Aang felt about her and she kind of hoped that if she just pretended that he didn’t like her like that, it would just go away over time. Now she was concerned that she was leading him on, and that’s the absolute last thing she wanted to do. But it’s not like she was pulling him off the Bison to make out with him against the wall- she was just giving him a ‘welcome home’ hug, and he came to her first. Friends hug each other, right?

“With this technique that the dragons showed us, Zuko and I are unstoppable!” Aang announced after he eventually let go of Katara.

Katara turned to Zuko and gave him a ‘welcome home’ scowl, folding her arms.

“Come on, Zuko!” Aang tugged Zuko into the middle of the courtyard. “We have to show everyone!”

Katara’s eyebrows crept higher and higher on her forehead until they almost disappeared into her hairline. The sequence they performed looked nothing like the Firebending she had seen before. This was graceful and precise and beautiful and it didn’t look at all uncontrolled or dangerous. It would probably look more dangerous if Zuko wasn’t wearing his shirt.

Katara screwed her face up. What was she doing? Why was it so difficult for her to not think of Zuko without a shirt today? She blamed her travels. Gallivanting the earth with only her brother and a twelve year old was bound to make her a little bit lonely. Particularly after her run in with Jet, when Katara learned a thing or two about what can happen when there’s a cute boy (who knows how to kiss in ways that do not include pressing puckered lips against hers and pulling them away with a loud smack) around to help when you get lonely at night.

Of course that can be a difficult thing too, though. Because Jet wanted to do things that Katara knew he had done before and we not special to him but were special to her and she was confused and scared and excited. She wonders now what would have happened if she had done everything that Jet had suggested. Perhaps she wouldn’t be so afraid of losing every encounter with the Fire Nation, whether it had been Combustion Man or Azula or the soldiers, because the list of things she would never get to do would be that little bit shorter than it was now.

She sighed. Who was she kidding? Sokka had just been joking with her. Boys don’t like her. The only ones who do were ones who had depended on their mother almost all their lives and then spent some time captured by the Fire Nation, like Haru; the boys who wanted to have sex with her and then use her abilities to bust a dam and take out a small village, like Jet; and the boys who only just reaching puberty but were technically one hundred and twelve years old and had never seen a girl before they met her, like Aang.

Katara knew that she would have to accept that she would be alone forever.

She was snapped out of her daydream by the sound of applause. Acting on reflex, she lifted her hands and began to clap. Aang met her eyes, visibly proud of himself, grinning. She smiled back and felt a pang of guilt in her chest.

“Yeah… that’s a great dance you two learned there,” Sokka said.

Zuko scowled, and Katara wondered why Sokka would ever even joke that he liked her. That was an awful thought and the pit at the bottom of her stomach tightened as the image of Zuko leaning in to kiss her popped into her brain.

Disgusting, she thought, shaking the image away.

“It’s not a dance,” he huffed, defensively. “It’s a Firebending form.”

Sokka laughed. “We’ll just tap dance our way to victory over the Fire Lord.”

Toph joined his laughter and gave him a thumbs up while Aang wasn’t looking.

“It’s a sacred form that happens to be thousands of years old!” Zuko snapped.

“Oh yeah?” Katara blurted out, her voice mocking. “What’s your little form called?”

Zuko’s scowl deepened and he folded his arms tightly across his chest. “The Dancing Dragon,” he mumbled.

Katara hid a giggle behind her hand, and everyone laughed with her. Zuko’s cheeks flushed.

Aang bounded past Zuko to sit beside Katara. He poked her knee as he spoke and she wished he would move out of her personal space.

“When’s dinner? And what are we having? I’m so hungry after all of the stuff with the dragons. We have to tell you guys about it at dinner! Don’t we, Zuko?!”

Katara fought to keep her face level.

“I’ll get started on dinner now,” she told him, standing up from her spot on the courtyard steps. “And I’d love to hear all about it.”

She had to admit, it sounded like a really cool adventure they had at the Ancient Sun Warrior temple, and Katara was a bit jealous that she didn’t get to meet the dragons. But that would have meant having to go on another trip with Zuko and she couldn’t think of anything worse.

Obviously, she knew that the last trip hadn’t been so bad but she had told everyone how awful and boring it was (she wasn’t entirely sure what had possessed her to lie like that) and she had started to believe it, too.

The more she thought about Zuko, the tighter her stomach and chest would get. She hadn’t ever felt this particular type of loathing towards anyone before, so strongly that she could feel it in her lungs and that she thought about him all the time. She had also noticed at dinner, while Aang animatedly told the story using Toph and Haru and Sokka to act out roles of the Sun Warriors and the dragons, she was hyper aware of Zuko. She watched him in her peripheries and sensed every move he made and she was particularly conscious of how she looked from where he was sat and what she was doing every time he glanced her way. How was he supposed to know that she was superior to him if she had something on her face or she was slouched in her chair? Occasionally, when she knew his eyes had drifted to her she would bite her lip to seem deep in thought and unaware of him, or she would flick her hair and laugh at something that Aang had said, just so Zuko knew how little his presence effected her.


 

As the laws of fate would have it, Zuko was lurking in the exact spot Katara wanted to hide away once dinner was over. She had found a nook in one of the temple corridors on the floor above all the bedrooms, just big enough to comfortably sit and read a scroll, which is exactly what Zuko was doing.

“How did you find this place?” Katara blurted out, staring down at him.

Zuko glanced up from his scroll, blinked at her, and then returned to his reading.

“It’s not that hard to miss.”

This angered her greatly.

Who does he think he is to just keep reading and not look at her when he speaks? She isn’t just some Water Tribe peasant that he can treat like a pet.

“Yeah, well… you’re not that hard to miss.”

That got his attention. He rolled up the scroll and rested it in his lap.

“What is that supposed to mean?” he asked her, a defensive sharpness to his voice.

He was tired, if the dark bag underneath his good eye was any indication. Katara couldn’t tell if he was just physically exhausted or tired of her picking on him or both, but she didn’t care.

She bit her tongue from mentioning his scar. She was going to, but then she realised just how low a blow something like that would be and she couldn’t bring herself to do it. She did want to hurt him, but not that much.

“The way you stomp around this place,” she said, instead, folding her arms. “You always have that same, stupid scowl on your face and you act like you’re doing us such a favour by teaching Aang to firebend and you don’t even want to be here-”

“I am doing you a favour by teaching Aang and no shit I don’t want to be here! How would you feel if you had to be somewhere surrounded by people who didn’t want you around? I know how you all feel about me being here and I wouldn’t stay if I didn’t have to.”

“What does it matter, you’re used to not being wanted, aren’t you?”

She didn’t know why she said it. As soon as the words were out of her mouth she knew she had pushed this conversation past the point of no return and then all the way around the rest of the track.

Ouch,” Zuko responded, and his eyebrows rose slightly as though he, too, could not believe she went there.

 “Your father, your sister,” Katara listed, unsure why she kept going. “Your uncle.”

Zuko’s eyes narrowed. “Don’t.”

“Don’t what? I’m just telling you the truth. Why do you think it was so easy for everyone to leave you?

His eyes widened at her question, and flooded with something that looked vaguely like a memory.

Without a word, he shoved past her and walked down the corridor, moving as fast as he could without breaking into a run.

Katara curled her fingers and drew a stream of water at him, turning it into spiky shards of ice mid-way in the air.

At the sound, Zuko threw himself flat to the ground and the ice shards shattered against the wall he had been facing at the end of the path.

“What the fuck is wrong with you?” he shouted, pushing himself onto his feet and advancing on her. “Only a coward would fire at someone's back,” he hissed, a flame jumping to life in his hand.

Katara’s chest filled with rage.

Before he could move, she pulled her stream of water into a whip, striking him directly across his scar.

His eyes were angrier than she had ever seen them and her survival instinct told her to run. She turned on her heel and sprinted further down the hallway, tossing arrows of ice over her shoulder at Zuko.

He ducked and jumped and dodged them all, and he was gaining on her quickly.

At the end of the corridor were two large doors. They looked heavy. Katara sent a heavy jet of water at the centre line where the doors met, and they flung open to reveal a large, dark room. She wasted no time in ducking into a corner to hide.

Zuko appeared in the doorway, a small flame in his palm casting an eerie shadow on his face. His eyes darted around the room, and Katara held her breath.

“Where are you, Katara,” he mumbled. “I’m not going to hurt you.”

She didn’t believe him, so the only reasonable thing for her to do was to send a wave of water at him, extinguishing his flame. As soon as the light was out, she jumped from her hiding place and ran to a new one further into the room. Her foot caught on something made of stone and she flew forward with a cry. She had probably just scraped her palms and knees open, but because she’d made a noise she had to keep moving otherwise he would find her.

“Come out, Katara,” he called, this time keeping his flame extinguished. If she couldn’t see him, she couldn’t attack.

He thought he could outsmart her- well, Katara would show him.

She sent a long water whip swirling in a circle around the room, close to the floor. There was a loud crack of stone that echoed around them, almost concealing Zuko’s yelp as he tumbled to the ground. He sent a fireball directly at the water whip, evaporating it into steam.

In the flash of light from the fireball, they caught each other’s eyes and began to run again.

They charged for each other, sending attack after attack, now with no regard for the safety of the other. Katara was aiming for Zuko and she was aiming to annihilate.

She whipped his fireballs out of the way and jumped over streams of flame that he kicked at her. She let ice shards rain down over him and then she bound him to the wall, ice coating his wrists and ankles, pinning him in place.

Neither of them had noticed the room flood with light, or the crowd of people now gathered in the doorway.

Katara stood in front of Zuko, her chest heaving.

She knew it was wrong and that they shouldn’t be fighting like this- with the intention of hurting each other- but something about it felt… good.

Her eyes raked over him, pinned to the wall and squirming and she couldn’t help but remember when he’d tied her to the tree and taunted her with her mother’s necklace.

“What is wrong with you both?” Aang’s voice boomed, more full of rage than Katara has ever heard it. Especially not full of rage that was directed at her.

She turned around and her heart almost stopped in her chest.

Aang, Sokka, Toph, and Momo had crowded the doorway of the large hall, bringing with them enough light to illuminate the whole room.

There was water, scorch marks, and rubble covering the floor and Katara realised where they were. This morning, this hall had been filled with statues of the Airbending monks.

“Aang, I’m-” Katara began but Aang raised his palm and she snapped her mouth closed.

Don’t.” He looked around the room, taking in the destroyed statues of his ancestors and Katara knew that he had been transported right back to the Southern Air Temple where he had come across all the shattered bones of the monks he grew up with.

“I cannot believe you would do this,” Aang told her. His eyes were glassy and his voice was thick with anger and hurt. "I am so beyond disappointed in you. I thought you knew better than this, Katara. I thought you were better than this."

Katara wished that the ground would have opened up and swallowed her whole. She wished that Aang had yelled at her and chastised her but the pain and disappointment in his voice made her feel worse than anything else he could have said or done.

Aang turned to face Zuko.

“I thought you had changed. I thought that you would only use your Firebending for good but you are just as destructive as you have always been. You helped destroy the Hall of Statues and you could have burned Katara.”

Katara let out the breath that she had been holding. Maybe Aang would leave it at that and they would all go to bed and in the morning she could apologise to him and he would be back to zooming around the temple on his air scooter and bugging her about what they were having for dinner and if she could make her signature sauce for his vegetables. Maybe everything would be okay.

“I think you should leave,” Aang told Zuko.

Katara’s heart sank.

“Aang-“ she began, and he turned to her.

“You too, Katara.”

Her mouth immediately dried out and her throat tightened.

Her voice was barely audible. “What?”

Aang did not meet her eyes. “I want you both out of the temple.”

“Aang, don’t you think that’s a bit… much?” Sokka asked, his voice saturated with hesitation.

“No, I don’t,” Aang said, his voice full of finality. He turned to Zuko and Katara. "This place is sacred and you have crossed a line. You have an hour to pack your things and leave."

He dropped his chin to his chest and turned to walk away from them.

“Aang, wait!” Katara called, her voice catching in her throat.

He did not turn back.

A thick, heavy silence fell on the room once Aang was gone. Katara looked from Zuko to Toph to her brother, waiting for someone to tell her that this was all just a big joke that had been taken too far, but no one said anything. For once, she was the one who had taken things too far and this is where it got her.

Banished by the Avatar.

“Katara,” Sokka said softly, as he approached her and placed a gentle hand on her shoulder.

She collapsed into him and loud sobs raked through her chest.

For the first time in a long time, Katara had no idea how- or even if- she could fix the terrible thing she had done.

Chapter Text

Just a little change
Small to say the least
Both a little scared
Neither one prepared

-Beauty and the Beast, Disney


 

A flickering flame in a small pit illuminated the clearing. Zuko had led Katara to the same place he’d spent the nights he’d waited to approach them with the suggestion of becoming Aang’s Firebending Master. That felt like an entire lifetime ago, now.

Sokka and Toph had accompanied them to the clearing despite Zuko’s refusals. Sokka carried some bags and kept an arm wrapped around Katara the entire way there, pitching his new plan.

“What we’ll do,” he’d begun, his voice full of energy to lighten the mood, “is distract Aang by flooding the baths- Teo and The Duke are already on that. Then while he’s trying to fix them (we’ll get him to Waterbend everything back into the pipes), Haru will try and teach him to Metalbend.”

“Which Haru won’t be able to do,” Toph had chimed in, her face smug. “He could make my bracelet quiver and that was about it.”

“That’s great, but what about us?” Katara muttered. She sniffed and Zuko cringed at the sound of all the snot in her nose.

“I’m getting to that!” Sokka said. “We destroy the pipes again while Aang is with Haru, and then we tell Aang to fix it again. And then in the middle of the night, we destroy them for one last time and we tell him that since he’s not strong enough to fix the pipes we have to bring you back to fix it, and hopefully by the morning he’ll be fine.”

Zuko was skeptical but he didn’t say anything. Katara, however, did not hold her tongue.

“I don’t mean to rain all over your plan,” she began, and Sokka’s face fell. “But is it really a good idea to convince Aang that his Waterbending is too weak to fix a pipeline just weeks before he has to defeat the Firelord? He already has enough to worry about with his fire.”

Sokka looked from Katara to Toph to Zuko, and raised his eyebrows.

“She’s right,” Zuko admitted and Sokka scowled.

He dropped Katara’s bag and bedroll and Zuko unloaded his own next to hers. Sokka planted his hands on his hips and looked away from them both.

“You two just sit tight, we’ll be back by morning after our foolproof plan works perfectly.”


 

Shortly after Sokka and Toph had returned to the temple, Zuko had built a fire. Katara remained on the ground, her legs pulled up close to her chest. Neither of them spoke for a long time.

He wondered if she felt guilty. They both knew that if she hadn’t attacked him, they wouldn’t have been banished from the temple and needing to make camp for the night. Judging by her constant string on sniffles, he was sure she did.

“Are you doing okay?” Zuko asked, after a moment of hesitation.

Katara was sitting with her knees hugged to her chest and her back to him, so Zuko decided it was best to give her some physical space at the moment.

“No,” Katara mumbled. “You had to go and get us banished.”

Zuko’s eyebrows shot up and some anger crept into his voice. “I got us banished?”

Katara nodded sharply and turned around to face him where she sat. Her eyes and nose were red and the bags under her eyes looked more extreme in the firelight.

“Actually,” Zuko countered, “if you hadn’t attacked me and then crumbled the statues with your water whips, we wouldn’t be here! I’m only exiled as collateral!”

Katara’s face crumpled, and she buried it behind her knees. “I know!

Zuko felt guilty for letting his anger get the better of him and blaming her. Of course she knew it was her fault they had been banished, he didn't need to remind her of that.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean-” Zuko began, edging closer to her. He hesitated next to her. “Can I touch you or would you prefer that I don’t while you’re upset?”

Katara’s voice came, muffled by her knees, as she peeked up at him with watery eyes.

“You can.”

Zuko carefully wrapped his arm around her hunched shoulders, kind of spooked by how foreign this sort of physical intimacy was to him. He’d never had to comfort his Uncle on the road- Iroh had always been his rock, and Mai had never let him see her in such a state that would require comfort- Ty Lee had been the one for that.

He pulled her body into him and she shifted her head to let it rest on his chest. She was a ball and he could have surrounded her if he’d wanted to. Zuko rocked gently from side to side, his gaze locked on the fire a few feet away from them. Katara’s sniffling stopped and they just sat, locked together.

Zuko felt his heartbeat begin to double and he prayed to the spirits that Katara couldn’t feel it. It was strange, having any sort of intimacy with Katara let alone any sort of peace with her. He wanted to let go and sulk in a corner, concerned about what story she’d tell everyone back at camp (if they ever were welcomed back), but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. He didn’t want to see her cry like before and he thought that maybe if he held her enough all the little bits that were shaking around her chest and making her sad might stick back together and everything would be okay.

Zuko shook his head slightly. Why was he being so sappy and ridiculous? He would have to tie it down to the flashbacks of his mother holding him this way and making him feel better as a child.

He felt colour rush to his unscarred cheek.

Yes, this was definitely like that. He was holding her and comforting her the same way Sokka had been on the way over here. It was nothing more than that.

Not like the way Haru would be holding her if their positions were switched.

Zuko felt a twinge of anger and… something else he couldn’t quite put his finger on, at the thought of Haru being alone out here at night with Katara. He would probably hold her while he slept and brush her hair out of her eyes and they might have kissed under the stars.

Zuko tightened his grip on Katara a little.

And of course Katara would want Haru to do hold her and kiss her. He was tall and strong and had not hunted her for the last few months.

Zuko caught himself and pulled away.

What was he doing?

“What are you doing?” Katara asked, blinking her eyes open and uncurling herself.

“What am I doing with what?” Zuko asked quickly, trying to keep all traces of guilt from his voice. Had she been reading his mind? He didn’t know she could do that.

“You let go of me,” she mumbled, sounding almost ashamed of herself. She wrung her hands in her lap and looked down.

Oh. Oh.

Zuko leaned his back against the tree behind him and motioned for Katara to join him. She settled herself between his legs and leaned back against his torso, curling up on herself again.

He wasn’t quite sure why she was being this way with him after everything these past few months. It didn’t seem at all like Katara to want to be physically near him like this, let alone be vulnerable around him.

He hoped he hadn’t accidentally addled her brains during their battle in the Hall of Statues.

Aang would never forgive him for that.

“Why were you so nervous?” Katara asked.

Zuko glanced down at the top of her head. He watched her pull some water from her waterskin and coat her hand like a glove.

“When was I nervous?” Zuko asked.

“Just before. Your heart was going crazy. I could hear it.”

Katara pressed the her water-gloved hand to her face gently and Zuko swallowed thickly.

“Oh… I was thinking about if Aang doesn’t let us come back,” he lied.

Katara turned slightly and the redness from her eyes and nose had disappeared.

“I’m worried about that, too,” she admitted.

Zuko’s mouth tasted sour. “Yeah well… he loves you, so you don’t have anything to worry about.”

Katara’s face fell slightly. “How do you know about that?”

“He told me. When we went to the Sun Warriors.”

Katara leaned back against Zuko again, smaller than before. “It not like I asked him to love me.”

Zuko didn’t know what to say to that. It was like an itch had been scratched, though, to find out that Katara didn’t seem to love Aang the way Aang loved her. He’d been curious ever since Aang had mentioned it (Aang had spoken more like they were already planning the wedding, not like it was unreciprocated) and he wasn’t exactly in the position to bring it up to Katara to ask over dinner.

Katara lifted Zuko’s left hand from the ground behind her and guided it around if front of her. Zuko held his breath, unsure what she was doing. She examined his arm and then rested her water-gloved fingers over the faint pink cuff-mark around his wrist where her ice had burned him.

The water soothed his wrist and he closed his eyes. He’d never particularly enjoyed the sensation of water on his skin, but right now it felt perfect.

Once done with his wrist, Katara guided his left arm to wrap around the front of her waist, and she reached for his other arm, healing it too and placing it in the same position.

Zuko was too afraid to move. He didn’t want to pull her closer and startle her but he didn’t want to loosen his grip and upset her, so he just held her and enjoyed the sensation of the girl in his arms.

“I’m sorry I was mean,” Katara began.

“Why?” Zuko asked before he could help himself.

“Why am I sorry?”

“Why were you mean,” he clarified.

“Oh.” Katara swallowed and looked down. “I don’t know. I thought I had to be.”

“Why would you have to be mean to me?”

“I thought if I was really nice to you everyone would get the wrong idea.”

“What idea did you think they would get?” Zuko asked. He wasn’t following the logic that seemed to be piecing her thoughts together.

“That I was… into you.”

Of course that would be the wrong idea, Zuko reminded himself with a thick swallow.

“Why would anyone think that? No one thinks that when you go berry-picking or flying with Aang or anything and you’re never mean to him when you get back.”

“Yeah but you’re not… twelve years old.”

“I definitely am not,” Zuko mumbled, trying hopelessly to edge further back into the tree trunk as she scooted a bit closer to him, pressing herself against every inch of his front.

“What do you-” Katara began, and gasped loudly as she realised what she was doing and what Zuko meant. She scooted herself forward, creating a large, cold gap between them.

“Sorry!” she squeaked awkwardly.

“It’s fine,” Zuko told her, looking at the trees, the fire, the stars- anywhere but at her.

She was silent for a second as though she was unsure what to do.

She turned over her shoulder and glanced at him.

“Can I come back?” she asked and Zuko raised an eyebrow. Words began to fall from Katara’s mouth. “Because it’s getting late and I’m awfully tired and should try and get some sleep, but it’s cold and you seem to radiate body heat- I think that’s a Firebender thing, right? And I think-”

“You don’t need to ask,” Zuko told her, opening his arms slightly. She moved almost too quickly, and settled herself back to where she’d previously been, this time leaving him with a bit of extra… personal space.

He was nervous. This was unusual and he was concerned that she wouldn’t be this friendly to him if she wasn’t so upset, and he was afraid that he was taking advantage of that. Because deep down he knew that if she was in her right mind, she would rather sleep in the snow than have him hold her for warmth. But she had seemed so sad that he didn’t want to contribute to that sadness by rejecting her. And maybe this would be the shift they needed to have a more civil relationship.

Zuko rested his chin on the top of her head and let his eyes drift closed. He tried to calm his breathing to match the pace of Katara’s to lull himself to sleep.

Complete peace and calm was beginning to cloud his mind for the first time in a few days and he knew he was on the cusp of sleep.

“Zuko?” Katara whispered.

He half opened his eyes and glanced down at her. She turned her face up towards his, and gently lifted her hand, stopping it an inch from his scar.

“May I?” she asked and he nodded.

Katara moved slower than anything Zuko had ever experienced. She gently rested her palm to his cheek, fingers extending out to softly brush his scar. Their faces were less than an inch apart and Zuko couldn’t breathe.

All of a sudden, he and Katara were both ripped from their sleep-hazed state by the sound of a loud gasp, followed by an aggressive whoosh of air.

Chapter Text

For several hours we lay there, last ones of our kind
Harder days coming, maybe I don’t mind
Sounds kind of dumb when I say it, but it’s true
I would do anything for you.

-Genesis 30:3, The Mountain Goats


 

Katara and Zuko sprang apart like startled cats. They turned on the ground to face the scene of the sound but there was no one there.

“Was that-?” Zuko began and Katara pressed her face in her hands and nodded sullenly.

“Uh-huh.”

“Shit.”

Yeah.”

Katara sighed, rocked onto her side and curled up into a ball. Zuko sat facing the fire.

“Maybe it wasn’t him? Perhaps it was just a strong gust of wind. Or something.”

Katara groaned. “Don’t be ridiculous.” She rolled onto her back and glanced up at the starts speckled throughout the night sky.

She had always loved the stars. They used to be so clear and bright back home but she’d almost forgotten they existed since she’d been on the road. A cloud parted, revealing the bright moon and Katara closed her eyes and begged Yue to try and fix this for her.

“Who knows what he thought he saw,” Katara mumbled. She was pretty sure she had a good idea what Aang would have thought he had seen. And she was sure he’d be telling everyone all about it right now.

“Was there anything to see?” Zuko asked after a moment’s hesitation. Katara pursed her lips.

“No,” she told him. “I was cold and upset and you were warm and comforting me. That’s all.”

“Of course,” Zuko agreed, turning away from her again.

Katara wondered how much truth was in her words. She had been particularly comfortable and she felt safe and calm but she also knew that she had been seeking comfort and hadn’t really cared who was there for her. In fact, if she hadn’t been so upset she probably wouldn’t have dropped her “I Hate Zuko” façade quite so easily. But that was the thing- she had dropped it now, it felt particularly awful to try and put it back up again.

“Are we friends?” Katara asked him.

“I don’t know. Do you want to be?”

“I don’t know,” she admitted.

Zuko swallowed. He turned around to face her again, and the fire illuminated his un-scarred side. Katara imagined his face the way it would have been and her heart sank a little.

“We don’t have to be friends,” he told her.

“I know.”

She was quiet for a moment. She wished that she could curl up on Appa or ask Gran Gran what to do. Obviously, the easiest choice would be to decide that they were friends. After all, they’d be working together against the Fire Lord eventually, so the better their terms, the better chance they’d have of a cohesive battle. But also, that would make things weird. Wouldn’t it? He’d chased the Avatar, her brother, a blind girl, and herself across the nations. She hated him. She had for a long time and it scared her that one day she seemed to stop hating him but she hadn’t noticed. Katara could admit to herself that her meanness towards him when they had returned from the Fire Nation vaults had been manufactured but it had also been easy. She was concerned that if she let herself like him as a person, she may begin to like him as something more. After all, he was older than her and sort of cute in a moody way and he wasn’t her brother, which is always a positive thing.

Who was she kidding, she’d not hated Haru but hadn’t fallen in love with him.

Katara was definitely stronger than that.

“Friends,” she announced, turning over to look at Zuko.

He was hunched and his face was tired. His eyes lit up, though, at her offer.

“Friends?” he repeated.

“Yeah,” she confirmed, letting her eyes drift shut. “Let’s try and sleep. We should probably try and contact Sokka in the morning to see if we come back.”

“There’ll be a mess waiting for us,” Zuko warned her.

“There always is.”


 

Katara’s suggestion of contacting Sokka was redundant by morning, when they were woken in the early hours by the loud squawking of a bird. Katara blinked her eyes open and sat up straight.

“Hawky!” she cried in excitement when her gaze fell on the large Messenger Hawk grooming itself on a nearby tree branch.

He had a large scroll harnessed to his back, and Katara summoned him. As the bird approached, she nudged Zuko’s shoulder with her foot and he stirred.

“Wake up, idiot. We have a letter from Sokka! I think he’s going to say we can come back home!”

Zuko rolled over and buried his face in his arms. He lifted his hand and extinguished the remaining embers of the camp fire, groaning when it did nothing about the light.

“I thought you rose with the sun,” Katara asked, her voice mocking, as she unrolled the scroll.

“I normally try to get to sleep earlier than sunrise,” he pointed out, scowling.

He sat up and brushed a stick from his hair.

Katara held the scroll in front of her, the smile melting off her face as she read its contents. She pressed it into her lap and looked at Zuko with wide eyes.

“Can I read it?”

She paused. “No.”

“Come on! Let me read it!” He reached for it and Katara yanked it away.

“No!”

She went to hide it behind her back. Zuko’s eyes widened and he pointed over Katara’s shoulder at the sky.

Shit!

“What?!” As soon as she turned, Zuko snatched the scroll from behind her back. She scowled at him.

“That was cheap,” she scolded and Zuko un-crumpled the scroll.

“I do not care.” 

Dear Katara,

Please return home immediately before I come and find you and carry you back home myself.

Aang told us everything and I am furious and I would be there right now if Toph hadn’t bent the kitchen stool around my legs. But if you’re not home by the time I get out then I will come and find you.

I am disappointed and angry and digusted.

Your brother,
Sokka.

 

Dear Zuko,

You’d better stop having sex with my sister.

Also, I challenge you to an Agni Kai.

Your enemy,
Sokka.

“He can’t be serious.” Zuko’s face was whiter than usual and his eyes were saucepans.

“I can’t believe Aang told everyone we were… I just can’t believe Aang!”

Katara threw her arms up in frustration at the monk. He’d always jumped to conclusions but how could he possibly have landed there?

“It’s not like we even kissed,” Zuko said, screwing up his nose.

“I know, I was there,” Katara snapped. “And you don’t have to look so grossed out at the concept of kissing me. But since we’re expressing our feelings, I wouldn’t want to kiss you either!”

“I never said I didn’t want to kiss you!” Zuko cried, throwing his arms just like Katara had done a moment before.

“So you do want to kiss me?” she asked, her volume matching his.

“No!”

“Good!”

Good! Glad that’s settled.”

“Me too,” Katara stood up and kicked the dirt, planting her hands on her hips. “And you’re not battling Sokka in an Agni Kai. He’s not a Fire Bender.”

“No shit,” Zuko mumbled, but retreated under Katara’s harsh glare. “I wasn’t going to fight him.”

“Good.”

“I might fight Aang, though,” Zuko muttered as he folded his bedroll and slung it over his shoulder.

Katara slapped his chest and began to lead them out of the clearing and back towards camp. “You will not!”


 

“I am going to kill you!”

Sokka’s voice was shrill and loud as Zuko and Katara crept into the Air Temple. He was exactly where they’d expected him to be- hunched at the kitchen table with the stool moulded around his thighs like a harness.

“Shut up, Sokka,” Katara cried, dropping her bags on the ground.

“You go to your room!” he shouted at her, pointing wildly in the direction of the girl’s quarters. “I’ll deal with Zuko.”

“You won’t be dealing with anyone,” Katara told him.

“Toph!” Sokka called, throwing his head back. “Get me out of here and bring me my space sword!”

The wall between the courtyard and the kitchen parted and Toph strolled through. Katara wondered why she didn’t just use the door.

“If you want your sword, go get it yourself!” Her eyes slipped down to the prison seat, and she grinned at her own handiwork. “Oh wait, you can’t.”

“I’ll bring the sword.”

Zuko and Katara turned to see Aang standing in the opposite archway that led to the corridor. He was half cast in shadow and his face was turned away. He looked more betrayed than Katara had ever seen him. Her initial instinct was to move to him and offer comfort and care, but instead she folded her arms.

“I can’t believe you!” Katara told him, her voice angry and hurt.

“You can’t believe me?” Aang’s face snapped toward her and she could have sworn he was fighting off the Avatar state. “I can’t believe you!”

“Me! What did I do?”

Aang stormed out of the shadows. Katara stood straighter and tightened her arms across her chest.

“You had sex with Zuko!” Aang cried, his voice thick with tears. “You’re my girl and you're meant to end up with me, not with him! And you know that! We were going to rebuild the Air Nomads together but you’re not doing that anymore, instead you chose him!”

Katara gaped at Aang. Her mind was reeling and she had no idea what to say. Part of her was furious with him for claiming her like the last bread roll at dinner, another part of her was furious with herself because she must have done something to imply to Aang that they would be together and now she has betrayed that, and a large portion of her was confused because she didn’t know whether or not she wanted to be with Aang, because she hadn’t thought that she wanted to but standing in front of him she felt it was her duty. Some of the confusion also came from the fact that Aang seemed to wholeheartedly believe she had sex with Zuko. Which she hadn’t. She hadn’t even thought about it a little bit.

(Okay, she had but only for a second and it was only because he was warm and she was delirious from her lack of decent sleep.)

After opening and closing her mouth like an Eaglefish, she straightened her spine and took a deep breath, deciding it best to speak in a calm, level tone.

“First of all, Aang, you can’t map out my life for me and expect me to abide by it. I’m not your property. I don’t know what I want to do with my life yet, so I’d like to try and live now and get through the war before deciding if I want to rebuild an entire nation with you or with anyone, because that’s a massive decision that I would at least like to sleep on before committing to. And second of all, I don’t know where you’ve got this idea that we had sex because we definitely didn’t. We didn’t even kiss! You know I don’t even like Zuko and I would never kiss him, let alone anything else.”

Toph shuffled awkwardly. “She’s telling the truth.”

Aang sniffed and his eyebrows furrowed. He seemed sadly confused, and his youth shone out through his voice. “But I saw you! You were about to have sex.”

“That’s so weird.”

Everyone looked to Toph.

“He’s telling the truth, too,” she elaborated.

“Well, what did you see?” Sokka asked. Katara was relieved that he seemed to have come down from his protection-fueled rage.

Aang wrung his hands. “I’m not sure now.”

Katara clenched her jaw. “What did you think you had seen?”

“You were laying on him. And you were touching each other and you had his hands and you were going to kiss him and I was scared because it made me hate you.”

Aang looked ashamed and Katara felt a painful pang in her heart. The thought of Aang genuinely hating her for even a second made her want to shrivel up and disappear. The backs of her eyes began to prickle and Katara felt her face crumpling.

“I was cold and he was keeping me warm. Nothing happened. Nothing would ever happen, Aang. I promise.”

She met Aang’s gaze and felt a tear spill over and run down her cheek. Aang was crying too and Katara felt awful for putting him in this state. She also felt awful that she was still angry with him.

“But you can’t just make assumptions and run back here and tell everyone what you think you saw. How would you like it if I thought I saw you feasting on meat or something equally as gross and shameful and came back here and told everyone? You would be so hurt and so embarrassed that I’d even believe you capable of something like that.”

“I’m sorry, Katara.”

Katara lowered her face. “Me, too.”


 

Feeling the pull of the moon and a strong desire to bend, Katara headed towards the baths. Whenever she’d been at a height of emotion- good or bad- she found that it often lingered until she could bend the rest of it away. It was cleansing to whip and float and shatter the water through the air, and since the closest natural body of water was a hot spring in a cave that was too long and dangerous a walk away at this time of night, she’d have to settle for the baths.

Despite knowing most of the temple by now, she carried a candle. It’s flame was beautiful as it illuminated the halls in a soft glow and she felt compelled to touch the fire but she knew it would be a mistake so she made an effort to keep her distance and resist the temptation.

Katara paused. There was already a light emanating through the cracks between the door to the baths and the doorframe. Her initial instinct was to return to her room but her desire to bend was too strong. After all, someone may have just forgotten a candle burning.

She knocked twice, and when there was no response, pushed the door open slowly.

Peeking in, she saw Zuko seated with his back against the wall, small flames flickering in each of his palms, which were rested facing upwards on his knees. She felt the impulse to extinguish her own candle and let the glow of his fire wash over her skin.

His eyes were shut and he didn’t so much as flinch at the sounds of a guest. He was shirtless and Katara could see his diaphragm inflate with each breath, so she could rule out the possibility that he was so still because he’d died.

He must have been bending, too.

Katara cleared her throat to announce herself. His eyes didn’t open. Hesitantly, she moved closer and sat down, cross-legged on the floor a few feet in front of him.

“Zuko?” Her voice came out as a whisper.

“What?”

Katara nearly flinched at how loud and stark his voice sounded in contrast to her own.

“I didn’t mean to interrupt whatever you’re doing,” she began. She waited for some sort of response and decided to continue when none came. “I was just going to practice my bending a little bit.”

Slowly, he blinked his eyes open. As he made a move to stand up, she felt like his eyes were looking right through her. She reached out and caught his wrist.

“No, wait... You can stay.”

He searched her face. “Can I?

The bite in his voice made her feel small. Slowly she retracted her hand.

“Yes.” Her voice sounded young and weak and she didn’t know why.

“I don’t believe you.”

Zuko extinguished the fire in his palms, and now the only light came from Katara’s candle. She placed it on the edge of a bath.

“What’s wrong? What’s gotten into you?”

Zuko looked taken aback. “Do you honestly not know?”

She bit her lip and shook her head slowly. Her stomach sank with the feeling of dread that Zuko was upset at her for something. She hadn’t intended to hurt him or anger him, so whatever she did must have been misread by Zuko somehow. Or perhaps he wasn’t even upset at her, at all.

“Is it because Aang only apologised to me and not to you?”

Zuko laughed but it wasn’t his regular laugh and Katara didn’t like it. It was a gush of breath blown out through a smile as though someone had knocked the air from his lungs and he enjoyed it happening.

“Not quite but you’re getting warmer.”

Katara’s brows stitched together and she pulled her arms around herself and hugged her torso.

“Please don’t make me guess. I don’t want to stand here and list all the things I possibly could have done to upset you.”

“I’m a fucking idiot,” he muttered, dropping down and dangling his legs inside the empty bath. Katara immediately moved to sit at his side.

“You’re not,” she told him. “Don’t say that.”

He turned to look at her. “No, I am. Because for some reason I keep hanging onto this stitch of hope that you might actually change. I keep believing that each time we make some sort of progress, it’ll be different. That we will return back to all of your friends and you won’t say something cruel about me or our time spent together in front of them all. And the worst part of it all is that you don’t even seem to realise you’re doing it. It’s like… we take one step forward and then you drag as two steps right back because you seem to forget that I am a human with feelings, but the only feelings you care about are Aang’s.”

Katara’s throat was tight. She was ashamed and she knew he was right but words fell out of her mouth without her permission.

“That’s not true,” she told him. Her voice was barely audible.

“No? As soon as you saw Aang it was like the fact that he banished you and spread lies to everyone completely fell out of your head! And then you went on this whole spiel about how awful it would be to kiss me and you told him- you actually said it- that you still don’t like me! I don’t know what I have to do to change where we stand with each other and that’s what makes me an idiot! That I keep trying and expecting some sort of result that doesn’t include you slandering me to all of your friends.”

“I didn’t… I would never slander-”

Zuko cut her off. His voice was hushed but it was full of accusation and hurt and built-up frustration and it pained Katara to know it was because of her.

“I believe your choice of words was ‘gross and shameful’ when referring to what Aang told everyone, and you compared kissing me to the idea of Aang- a strict vegetarian- secretly eating and enjoying meat! I’m not saying that I want you to want to kiss me or anything but shit, is the idea that unappealing to you? Why do you so desperately feel the need to make everyone believe that we’re not friends! I see what it is that you’re doing because I’ve done it before, Katara! It’s so much easier to lie to yourself if everyone else believes your lies first!”

Katara hesitated. She didn’t know how to explain what was tumbling through her head.

“It was just that Aang was there and he was hurting and I needed to fix it.”

“By shooting someone else to the ground in the process? That’s not how you heal people, Katara! You of all people should know that.”

“I’m sorry!” she whispered, her eyes filling with tears for the second time that day. “I don’t know what to say to you but I’m sorry for putting Aang’s feelings above yours and choosing to hurt you instead of him but it’s easier for me to hurt you because I know you can take it and Aang-”

“Is that all I am to you? A punching bag?”

“I don’t know what you are to me!”

“Do you actually want to be with Aang?”

Katara paused. Her gaze slipped away from Zuko’s and she looked at everything in the room but him.

“I… You heard what Aang said. I’m the one who needs to help him rebuild the Air Nomads and we’re supposed to be together and Aunt Wu said I was going to end up with a powerful bender and he gets along with Sokka and we’ve kissed and he’s the Avatar and it’s my duty-”

“That’s not what I asked you.”

“I know, it’s just-”

Do you want to be with him?

“Zuko, don’t.”

“Are you hearing what you are saying, Katara? Stop lying to yourself for just a second and admit that maybe you don’t want to be a concubine for the Avatar trying to repopulate a whole nation because that’s not actually your duty! Your duty is to help the Avatar defeat the Fire Lord and then to do whatever the hell you want to with your life, because this entire fucking war has already consumed so much of your childhood that you’re not going to get back and I’m not going to stand by and watch you let it take the rest of your life because you think you owe it to the world to forfeit your own happiness.”

Zuko was panting with the effort of controlling his emotions and tears were streaming down Katara’s cheeks. How was she meant to respond to that? Her thoughts were scattered and she was ashamed and scared and she had no words to offer him. She wanted to tell him that he was wrong and didn’t know what he was talking about but she didn’t have the mental energy to pretend.

For a few moments they sat in silence, shadows dancing across their faces with the movement of the candlelight. She knew he was waiting for her to say something and they both knew he was waiting in vain.

When he spoke again, his voice was much softer and more vulnerable than before. Katara couldn’t quite put her finger on it, but the closest she could come was that he sounded defeated.

“Do you want me to kiss you?”

She blinked at him.

“If you say yes, then I won’t tell anyone. If you say no, then I’ll believe what you said this afternoon and I’ll stop trying to win you over and that’s okay, too.”

“Zuko-”

“Let yourself want what you want, Katara. Whether that’s Aang or me or someone else or no-one at all! Stop trying to tell yourself what you want and just listen for a change. Forget about the war and about your ‘duty’ and about the feelings of everyone else involved for a second, and listen to what you really want.”

She didn’t look away from his desperate, searching eyes, as though the answer would present itself there. She knew that he was right- she knew what she wanted but she couldn’t be selfish enough to choose her own desire over the greater good.

Gently, Zuko repeated his question and Katara knew that he was telling the truth that no matter what she said, her answer would be fine.

“Do you want me to kiss you?”

She closed her eyes and gathered enough of her strength to muster one final lie.

“No.”

There was a heavy silence.

“Okay.”

When Katara opened her eyes again, he had gone.

Chapter Text

I gave you all my energy and I took away your pain
Cause human beings are destined to radiate or drain
What line do we stand upon cause from here it looks the same
And only scars remain

-Save Myself, Ed Sheeran


 

Zuko dragged his feet and muttered to himself through the corridors back to his room, not bothering to illuminate his path. He couldn’t focus on anything other than the uncomfortable gnawing of regret in his stomach. He had no idea why he’d asked Katara if she’d wanted him to kiss her. Of course she wouldn’t! Why would that be something she wanted? Was it even something Zuko wanted?

He couldn’t work out if he was trying to prove a point or if he actually wanted to kiss her or if the idea of being alone during wartime was scarier than the idea of being with the enemy.

Katara is not the enemy anymore, Zuko reminded himself.

As soon as he’d let the thought in, it overwhelmed him. Zuko knew that, at this particular moment in time, survival was not a certainty. Particularly with the size of the target on his back, he knew his days could be numbered.

His breath came in shorter bursts and he felt no relief from the oxygen swirling around his lungs. He felt like the walls were beginning to close in on him, trapping and crushing him with the air that was becoming thicker and warmer. His hands and feet were tingling and numb and his blood was pulsing in his ears, competing against the sound of his father’s voice reminding him that Zuko was lucky to be born.

“I’m not, I’m not!

Zuko clamped his hands down over his ears but the voice seemed to bounce off his palms and rip itself through his brain.

He let go of his head and pushed himself forward, stumbling through the dark towards his room, his fingertips dragging against the rough wall as his only guidance. The hallways were blurring and he was becoming disoriented but as soon as his hand found his door, he threw it open and shut it behind him.

Leaning his back against it, he took three slow breaths in and out to calm himself down. He wasn’t going to die. At least not right now.

With his eyes still shut, Zuko removed his now-sweaty pants and crawled into bed, pressing his face hard into his pillow.


 

A hand stroked softly along Zuko’s shoulder. He nuzzled his face further into the pillow and made a small sound of contentment. As the hand moved away, he caught it by the wrist and pulled it back into contact with his skin again. After a moment, he blinked his eyes open to see-

Sokka?!

Zuko sat bolt upright and shoved himself away from the other boy. They blinked at each other for a brief few seconds, and then Zuko shrieked, pulling his blanket up over himself.

“Why are you in my room?”

“I wouldn’t have picked you to be the type to sleep au naturel. You never know who might come in here over night. Or what if we are attacked and you have to fight everyone with your-”

“Sokka, what are you doing here? And why were you touching me?” Zuko glanced at the dark sky outside his window. “It’s not even dawn.”

Sokka slapped his hands over his eyes as Zuko got up to put on some pants and light a candle.

“I actually wanted to talk to you about something.”

Zuko froze. Could Sokka know about the conversation he’d had with Katara last night? Was he here to give a big “don’t hurt my sister!” speech?

It briefly crossed Zuko’s mind that that was probably never a conversation he would ever have to have.

Sokka cleared his throat and continued without waiting for any sort of prompting from Zuko. When the mattress shifted under Zuko’s weight, Sokka uncovered his eyes again.

He took a deep breath.

“If someone was captured by the Fire Nation, where would they be taken?”

Zuko didn’t answer. He searched Sokka’s face for some sign of where this had come from but Sokka wouldn’t meet his eyes. Zuko swallowed, both relieved that this was not about Katara, and concerned because it seemed to be about something much heavier.

“What do you mean?” Zuko asked, trying to keep his voice gentle. “Who was captured?”

Sokka turned his torso away from Zuko, and Zuko recognised the shame on Sokka’s face that he was trying to hide.

“When the invasion plan failed, some of our troops were taken. I just want to know where they might be.”

Zuko was suddenly back in his childhood bedroom, sitting on his bed and wondering who he could ask to help him find his mother. He’d told himself she was safe and happy, despite the biting feeling that told him otherwise.

He recognised the tone of Sokka’s voice all too well.

“I can’t tell you,” he answered, guilt weighing his chest down.

Sokka frowned.

“Why not?”

“Trust me,” Zuko said, bowing his head. “Knowing would just make you feel worse.”

Zuko began to stand, prepared to leave the room and end the conversation. He knew he was only going to make Sokka feel bad by reminding him how powerless they all were.

Sokka caught Zuko by the forearm and stood to block his path.

“It’s my Dad.”

Zuko stared at him.

“He was captured, too. I need to know what I’ve put him through.”

“It’s not good, Sokka.”

He didn’t want to tell him. He wished Sokka would take his answer and forget about it because it wouldn’t benefit anyone to dwell on the unchangeable.

Sokka bowed his head and his voice was small.

“Please.”

Zuko took a deep breath. He couldn’t keep fighting and if Sokka really wanted to know, then he would have to deal with what that knowledge would do to him. Zuko knew it was a terrible idea, but the desperation in Sokka’s voice might drive the Water Tribe boy just as insane as the knowledge of his father’s whereabouts.

“My guess is he’s been taken to the Boiling Rock.”

“What’s that?”

“The highest security prison in the Fire Nation.”

Sokka’s face dropped and Zuko wished he hadn’t told him anything, but he couldn’t stop himself from telling him more.

“It’s on an island in the middle of a burning lake and it’s inescapable.”

Sokka hesitated, but when he spoke again his voice was different.

“So where is this place?”

Zuko narrowed his eyes.

“Why do you need to know? What are you planning?”

“Nothing,” Sokka insisted, his voice strained and higher than usual.

Zuko stared at him and Sokka stared back. Zuko knew he was lying and he knew Sokka would break at some point.

Sokka stepped away from him and laughed nervously, his eyes flitting to different corners of the room.

“Boy, you’re so paranoid!”

Zuko folded his arms and frowned.

“It’s in the middle of a volcano between here and the Fire Nation,” Zuko told him, putting special effort into emphasizing just how difficult it would be to get in (or worse, back out), in case Sokka was getting any ideas. “You guys actually flew right past it on your way here.”

“Thanks, Zuko,” Sokka said casually, before stretching and fake-yawning obnoxiously. “Just knowing makes me feel better.”

Zuko narrowed his eyes as Sokka brushed past him, heading for the door.

“Yeah. Sure it does.”

Zuko followed Sokka out the door and watched him stroll too-casually down the corridor. Preempting Sokka’s next move, he waited until he heard the other bedroom door shut before sneaking out of his own room with a new plan in mind.


 

Almost on cue, Sokka’s face peaked over the edge of Appa’s saddle, almost an hour after their conversation.

Zuko had been waiting for him, arms folded and an “I’m-Not-Happy-Or-Surprised” look plastered across his pale features.

He’d spent the time in the saddle thinking. He’d thought about how he probably should have packed something in case Sokka was persistent with his rescue mission. He’d thought about his Uncle, and how he would have handled this. And, of course, he replayed the previous night with Katara over and over in his brain.

Had he been too harsh? He didn’t think so- it was important that she was reminded from time to time that she can make her own decisions and didn’t have to do things because she felt obliged to, but maybe that had made things worse for her. He definitely didn’t want to confuse or upset her and he was afraid he had done just that.

He was hoping that he’d easily be able to talk Sokka out of the quest, because he didn’t want to disappear (and possibly get captured or killed) without getting the opportunity to talk to Katara about their discussion.

The thought of dying while she was potentially upset with him was heavy and uncomfortable, but it reminded him a little bit of their early days together. She probably would have been very pleased if he’d died while he was hunting them. Hopefully her opinion would be different now.

It also occurred to Zuko that Katara was probably very strongly under the impression that he wanted to kiss her. Which he didn’t.

Sort of.

Maybe he did a little bit, but he wasn’t going to be telling anyone that any time soon. At least not until he’d sorted out for himself what was going on inside his head.

He hated feeling so conflicted. How was he supposed to know if it was because it was Katara or because she was the only girl close to his age in their group? He also supposed he’d never felt any sort of attraction to Toph, not only because she was twelve years old, but because she often felt he was a good booger-flicking target. Maybe if there were some other girls around, he’d know for sure.

He decided to inventory the things he liked about Katara. Maybe this would give him the answer he was looking for.

Firstly, she was pretty- he liked the way her hair looked when she took it out of the braid she would usually wear it in. He also liked the was the water made her clothes cling to her skin but he often tried to suppress that thought because he didn’t want to be creepy. He liked the way she would tip her head back when she laughed- the same way Ty Lee used to when she was genuinely happy.

Zuko let relief wash over him. These were all just general girl things, not Katara things.

Without his permission, more thoughts barged through the wall of denial he was steadily trying to build in his brain.

She was feisty (but then again, so was everyone when he first joined their group and nobody wanted him there). She was passionate about important things and a fire would light in her eyes and voice whenever she spoke about them. When she’d practice her bending in the moonlight, she moved her hips in a certain way that made Zuko see the craft in a very different light than he used to. Her lips were full and the bottom one would push forward when she was trying not to cry. She almost had more compassion than anyone he’d ever met, second only to his mother. She was the type of person his mother would like.

Zuko swallowed. These were Katara things, not just general girl things.

The thought of that scared him.

He cleared his throat and looked around, trying to distract himself with the sound of Appa’s low snores, the stars slowly fading in the morning sky, and the breeze that caused his hair to tickle the back of his neck.

Just as he began to wonder if Sokka was actually making a good decision and staying at the Air Temple, he was proven wrong.

“Not up to anything, huh?” Zuko deadpanned, his arms folded.

Sokka shrieked and fell backwards.

Zuko leaned over the edge of the saddle, more amused than he should have been at the sight of Sokka sprawled indignantly on the ground.

Sokka sat up with a huff.

“Fine, you caught me. I’m gonna rescue my dad. Are you happy now?”

Zuko frowned.

“I’m never happy.”

Sokka rolled his eyes and began re-packing the items that had spilled from his bag. Zuko folded his arms again and Sokka noticed his disapproval.

“Look, I have to do this. The invasion plan was my idea, it was my decision to stay when things were going wrong.”

Zuko jumped out of the saddle to meet Sokka on the ground.

“It’s my mistake and it’s my job to fix it,” Sokka reasoned. “I have to regain my honour. You can’t stop me, Zuko.”

Sokka pushed past him and began to climb Appa again. Zuko stood for a moment, debating with himself.

He sighed and threw his hands down by his sides.

“You need to regain your honour? Believe me, I get it.” He hesitated. “I’m going with you.”

“No,” was Sokka’s automatic reply. “I have to do this alone.”

Zuko snorted. “How are you going to get there? On Appa? Last time I checked, prisons don’t have Bison Day-Cares.”

Sokka paused for a second and then sighed in defeat, dropping from the side of the Bison.

Zuko thought he had changed his mind and was momentarily relieved, until he saw this disappointment on Sokka’s face.

Zuko sighed and knew he would probably regret his next move.

“We’ll take my war balloon.”

Chapter Text

And it was cool and it was quiet
In the humid marsh down there
I let my head sink down beneath the brackish water
Felt it gumming up my hair

-In Corolla, The Mountain Goats


 

Katara woke with a start. She blinked her eyes open and pinched the bridge of her nose with her fingertips.

“No,” she muttered to herself, swinging her legs over the edge of her bed. “No, no, no!”

Pushing herself of her bed in a rush, she was out the door before she paused and returned to her room. She thought it best to put some decent clothes on- she only really wore her sarashi when she was in the water or sleeping. Once she was covered, however, her pace returned and she bolted down the hallway.

“Zuko,” she called through the thick wood, pounding her fist against his door.

She waited but there was no response.

“Zuko, please! I need to talk to you!” She tried the door handle. “Look- I’ve changed my mind!”

“About what?”

Katara whipped around and pressed her back flat against Zuko’s door, trying to wipe the expression off her face that implied she’d been caught doing something wrong.

“Hmm?”

Aang furrowed his eyebrows, more confused than suspicious, much to Katara’s relief.

“I said,” Aang replied, “About what? What did you change your mind about? You said just now, ‘Zuko please, I’ve changed my mind’. Remember? You said it just now.”

“Oh!” Katara said with a false laugh, her voice too high. “That. That was about… breakfast.”

She pushed away from the door and began heading to the kitchen. Aang fell into step by her side.

“What about breakfast?” Aang asked. He clutched his stomach as it grumbled loudly, glancing sheepishly at Katara. “I’m absolutely starving!”

“Me, too,” Katara lied.

They walked in silence for a few seconds and Katara’s mind began to wonder.

Why hadn’t Zuko opened the door? Maybe he was upset with her for rejecting him. Or worse- maybe he never wanted to kiss her in the first place and now she’s gone ahead and embarrassed herself. She should have forgotten about it instead of tossing and turning all night and having stupid dreams about kissing stupid Zuko. Technically, her dreams weren’t about kissing him, because she always woke up just before there was any contact at all. Maybe that’s why she was so hasty this morning. Her mind must have been muddled by all the loose ends in her dreams, confusing them with reality, making her think she wanted to kiss him. That was definitely it, Katara realised with relief. She didn’t actually want to kiss him at all. Or… not much. Sort of.

“What did Zuko say about breakfast? Remember how you changed your mind?”

“Oh,” Katara mumbled, blinking into reality. “He asked if I could make rice. With lychee. And vanilla.”

“And?”

“And I said no,” Katara lied, wishing Aang hadn’t asked for further details. “Because I thought it sounded gross. But I changed my mind because it might actually be nice, who knows.”

“Why was it so important that Zuko knew you changed your mind?” Aang asked, jumping up to sit on the bench top next to where Katara was beginning to unpack some bowls. “Wouldn’t it have been nicer to surprise him?”

“He said he wouldn’t come to breakfast if I didn’t make it.”

Katara cringed a little. She wished Aang would stop asking her questions- she hated lying to him and she’d already told more than enough lies within the past ten minutes.

“He said that?” Aang asked, screwing up his nose and frowning. “I’m going to have a word with him at practice this morning. He can’t order you around like you’re some sort of slave, making demands and-”

“You don’t have to do that!” Katara interrupted, quickly. The last thing she wanted was for Aang to approach Zuko and lecture him about ordering her around. “It’ll have more of an impact if it comes from me.”

Aang was quiet. He kicked his feet, knocking them against the counter he was sitting on. Katara pressed her lips together, trying to refrain from berating him.

“We don’t spend much time together anymore,” Aang pointed out, his voice quieter than usual. Katara could sense there was something deeper behind what he was saying.

“Sure we do!” she told him, keeping her voice light. “I teach you bending all the time.”

“That’s it, though. You teach me bending and then we don’t see each other again until we’re having dinner or we’re bending again. I miss you.”

Katara put her spoon down.

“Oh, Aang.”

She wrapped her arms around him and he nuzzled his face into her neck.

“I’m so sorry,” she said. “I had no idea! I’m not trying to not be around you or anything, I’ve just been so caught up in the war and the Fire Lord-”

“And the Fire Prince,” Aang muttered.

Katara retracted her arms immediately.

“What?”

She gaped at him, hands on her hips, and Aang looked sad.

“It’s just that you’re always going on trips with Zuko and hanging out with him and stuff and you don’t have time for me anymore.”

Katara sighed. “Aang, the only ‘trips’ I’ve gone on with Zuko were that time we went to the colonies, and that time you banished the two of us.”

Aang looked guilty.

“And I barely ever spend time with him,” Katara said. She realised that ‘barely ever’ was a bit of an exaggeration but it’s not like she was with him all the time. “I am allowed to have more than one person in my life. Just because I spend time around Zuko, or Toph, or even Haru- it doesn’t mean the time I spend with them is in place of the time I spend with you.”

Aang reached out to hug her again and she held him for a while.

When he pulled away, he smiled sheepishly at her.

“I might go look for Zuko,” Aang said. “He’s late for practice.”

Katara smiled at him.

“I love you, Katara,” Aang said with a grin.

Katara’s stomach did a tiny flip that made her uncomfortable. Her smiled became forced.

“You too, Aang.”

Once alone, Katara released a large gush of breath. She relished in the silence.

When had she become so uncomfortable with Aang’s declarations of his feelings? She shook her head. She was being ridiculous- he probably didn’t even mean it in a romantic, feeling-y way. He probably just meant it the way she meant it, or the way she means it when she says it to Sokka or her Dad.

“Katara!” Aang shouted, and she dropped her spoon and followed the sound of his voice to the courtyard.

Aang was standing with Toph, holding a note.

“That explains why Zuko wasn’t here for practice this morning,” Aang told her, as he held it out.

Katara took the note and frowned.

Since when did Sokka want any help hunting for meat? And why did Zuko just leave without telling Katara where he was going?

She shook her head, trying to physically remove her irrational response to the fact that he didn’t say goodbye. Why would he? She wouldn’t say goodbye to him if she were to disappear in the middle of the night, she told herself.

Katara couldn’t ignore the saddened, sinking feeling in her chest.


The moon was at its highest for the night and Katara did what she could to calm the chatter in her brain- bending. She’d ventured further from the temple than usual. She felt restless and wanted to take risks.

She didn’t usually feel like this. More often than not she would chose to be safe and sensible but the idea of something going wrong excited her a bit. For a change, she wanted to be the one everyone worried about. She was sick of worrying about Aang, or Sokka, or now Zuko for going missing.

Sokka was particularly bothering her. She didn’t believe at all that they had gone hunting and she wanted to know why he didn’t tell her he was going. They told each other most things. Especially these types of things.

The grass on the top of the valley smelt dewy and the night air clung to Katara’s skin, cool and thick. Katara thought she could sense a storm in the air, but on a second reflection she connected the thought to the tightness of her chest, her shortness of breath, the constant tension in her brow line.

She shook her head and continued into the night. Aang didn’t like anyone leaving the inside of the valley. He said it was dangerous if they weren’t flying on Appa or with him. Katara folded her arms, slightly offended at the memory. She may not be the Avatar but that didn’t mean she needed to be protected everywhere she went.

Finally, she came across what she’d been searching for. The moon reflected seemingly on the ground as Katara approached a small spring. She clenched her fists and some drops suspended themselves just above the surface of the water. With a grunt and a slash of her arms, she flung them- now tiny bullets of ice- into a nearby tree. More water was pulled from the spring and Katara could feel the surge in her veins.

She could do anything she wanted with this water. She didn’t need to be protected out here. She didn’t need anyone. She didn’t need Sokka or Zuko and she didn’t care that they left without telling her. She didn’t care that she didn’t cross their minds as they lied about where they were going and what they were going to do. She didn’t care that she had to lie to Aang this morning. She didn’t care that nobody knew she was out here.

She didn’t care about anything at all.

Katara tossed her arms up and let thick drops of the spring rain over her, running down her cheeks and through her hair.

Capturing more water, she hardened it and threw it, relishing in the sound of the shatter. She let it swirl around her like a long, razor sharp ribbon that could take down anything in its way. She clenched her fists as tight as she could and let the water glide up her arms, coating them like magnificent gloves. Ready to strike, she opened her eyes.

With a gasp, her gloves disintegrated and crashed to the floor. She blinked at her environment. There was a large circle of brown, dead grass that she stood in the centre of, and a withered and dehydrated tree, curled in front of her.

Full of regret, she pulled the water from the spring and tried to feed it back to the grass to no avail. Her breath caught in her throat and she tried harder to force the grass to take back the water it once had before she’d arrived.

“Come on,” she mumbled, dropping to her knees, flexing and clenching her hands.

The water pooled on the dirt around her and she gave up, hugging her knees to her chest.

How had she been so careless? Who knows who might have been around. She could have done some serious damage if there was anyone else up here.

She pressed the heels of her hands against her eyes, taking a moment to breathe.

Katara had no idea what was going on with her at the moment. Perhaps it was that everything was weird. They were in a new place with more people than she was used to travelling with, and Zuko had gone from being the enemy to being her friend to… no, just being her friend, in a short space of time. That type of thing was sure to throw a person.

With a sigh, Katara stood up and decided it best to try and forget about all of her troubles for the time being. She shrugged of her dress and kicked off her boots. Only in her sarashi, she stood and let her skin absorb the glow from the moon.

She stepped forward and slowly submerged herself in the spring, the water instantly relaxing her muscles. The heat melted all the chill out of her skin, and she tipped her head back to let it soak her hair. Katara’s eyes fluttered closed for a brief second before she was startled by the sound of footfalls.

“Katara?”

Her eyes snapped open and she gasped, pulling her arms across her chest and sinking lower into the water to remain modest.

Her voice was barely more than a whisper.

"Hi."

Chapter Text

A feather is a ton of bricks
Or maybe I'm too sensitive
I don't know
All I can say is this
From now on
I'll try to listen to intuition.

-Body, Sleeping at Last


 

The water pooling at her shoulders seemed to move with her heartbeat. It was hammering uncomfortably against her ribs and she couldn’t equate it to a positive or negative thing.

“Hi,” he responded, eyes wide and feet rooted to the ground. He wrung his hands nervously.

They both opened their mouths and started to speak at the same time before pausing awkwardly and letting the night air hang thick between them.

Katara couldn’t work out why she felt so jittery. He’d seen her in her sarashi before whenever she would practice her Bending. That wasn’t it, though. There was something about the tension in the air and the clearness of the sky that stirred her with anticipation and guilt. It was as though she could sense she was about to do something she shouldn’t be doing, something fuelled by her frustration and loneliness while the night air clouded her better judgement.

“Can I come closer?” he asked.

Katara swallowed.

“Yes.”

He moved to her painfully slowly and sat on the edge of the spring, pulling at the fabric covering his shins and letting his feet dangle in the water.

“It’s warm,” he observed.

“It is.” Katara relaxed into the water’s hold a little. “I didn’t expect to see you out here.”

“Sorry,” he mumbled, looking away. "I can-" He gestured over his shoulder towards the direction he'd come from.

“No, it's okay. I just didn’t expect to see anyone out here, is all. Not you, specifically.”

“Oh. Right. So you don’t mind that I’m here?”

Katara gently nudged his leg with her shoulder and rolled her eyes jokingly.

“I guess it's okay,” she told him, her voice coloured by a mock-sigh.

After a moment of hesitation, he slipped his robe off his shoulders leaving it in a crumpled pile and slid into the spring. Katara smiled.

She wasn’t sure what had come over her. It was as though the reckless, impulsive part of her conscience had locked the rational, forward thinking voice up in a tiny box so it couldn’t be heard. Perhaps the moon was to blame, too. Day-Time Katara was definitely not this brash.

She glided her fingertips along his forearm under the water, relishing in the texture of saturated skin.

“I love how the water makes everything so silky,” she said, her voice soft and low. “See?” She took his hand and guided his fingertips to graze a horizontal line across her stomach.

He could only muster a nod.

Katara turned her back to him, smiling to herself and relishing her own power over the boy.

He’s not a toy, the tiny voice cried, breaking through. You can’t use him like one! And think about-

Shut it, the louder, impulsive voice interrupted. You know he likes you, so really he’s the one using you.

Katara decided she liked that voice better.

She slowly extended her arms above her head and then interlaced her fingers to further the pleasure of the stretch.

“I love the way water tastes straight off skin,” she continued.

His eye widened. “What does it taste like?”

She turned back to face him. “Try it.”

He swallowed. Painfully slowly, he reached forward and took her hand. On an extended fingertip, he gathered a single drop from the back of her hand and brought it to his lips.

Katara smiled at the endearing nature of his timidity.

“Not like that,” she told him.

She let her eyelids float down and she tipped her head back and pulled her hair behind her shoulder, exposing her neck. Focusing her attention on the water gathered by her hairline and temples, she guided it in a small trickle down her jugular.

“Like this,” she whispered, taking his hand and guiding him closer.

Their torsos were touching and he leaned in closer, slower than before. Katara’s heart pulsed faster when his eyes met hers before he dropped his gaze to her neck again.

She sighed in contempt and let her eyes flutter shut again as his warm tongue pressed against her skin, dragging slowly over the trickle of water and continuing up towards the sensitive place at the end of her jaw line.

“Like that?” he whispered into her skin, his hand trembling slightly.

“Like that,” she confirmed her voice no louder than his.

He nuzzled his nose into her hair before returning the journey back down her neck, stopping at her collarbone, this time.

He looked up at her again and her heart sank slightly, the guilt gripping stronger in her throat.

“Are you okay?” Aang asked her, pulling back in concern.

She nodded quickly and let a smile stretch her lips. She took his hands and placed them on her hips, shifting closer to him in the water.

Katara felt her chest twist and tighten with anger and frustration. She realised very soon that she was mad at Zuko. He left her. He left without saying a word. He had all these big things to say about how she can’t let her own happiness fall to shit for the greater good and then he acted like he cared and asked to kiss her but he couldn’t even say goodbye before running off in the middle of the night.

Her eyes stung and she squeezed them closed.

Sliding her hand out of the water, she let the skin of her knuckles glide along Aang’s cheekbone before uncurling her hand and resting it on the side of his face. He pressed his cheek against her palm and she leaned her forehead against his.

“I’ve missed you,” Aang whispered and Katara wanted to lock herself in her room and never leave.

Guilt and anger and midnight delirium twisted her mind and she swallowed thickly.

“Yeah,” she whispered.

Slowly, Aang closed the space between their lips.

It was sweet, like usual. Reserved and gentle. 

Frustration pulsed through Katara again as she fought the urge to tell Aang to stop holding back. Whenever he'd kissed her before, it had been shy, soft pecks full of childish excitement and nervousness. Katara didn't want to be kissed like she was a China doll that would smash if he pressed too hard. If Aang was going to kiss her, he needed to kiss her like he needed to kiss her.

Almost as though he was reading her mind as each moment passed, he lifted his hand to cup the back of her neck and pushed his lips harder, rougher against hers.

His lips parted slightly and she could taste his breath. It was different than she’d imagined, although, she had never really imagined kissing Aang like this before.

She’d never imagined the warmth of his tongue as it traced along her bottom lip. She’d never imagined the hair at the nape of her neck twisted, almost painfully- right on the cusp of feeling great and feeling awful- in his fist. She’d never imagined the way his skin would taste, or the low sound he’d make when she bit his lip, or the heat beginning to pool in the deepest pit of her stomach.

Aang pulled away to look at her, eyes bright, brushing her hair back off her face and lacing the fingers of his other hand with hers.

“Katara, I need to tell you something.”

Her stomach dropped. She knew where this was going and she couldn’t afford to deal with that right now. Her mind flooded with images that told her why.

She saw the war. She saw herself alongside her friends on the battlefield. She saw them all slain, surrounded by pools of ambiguous blood. She saw Zuko.

“Aang, don’t.”

“Katara-”

“Please. Don’t say it. I don’t want you to say it.”

“Why not?”

Aang’s voice was pleading and Katara hated herself for letting her brash, reckless little voice encourage her to let things get out of hand.

“Aang, I-”

She stopped mid-sentence, her gaze travelling upward and her heart plummeting in her chest.

“We have to go,” she told him sternly. “Now.”

He turned over his shoulder to follow her gaze to the Fire Nation Zeppelin floating towards the Air Temple.

Aang lifted himself swiftly out of the spring, all thoughts of his confession seemingly vanished. Katara followed suit, flinging her blue robes on haphazardly as they ran towards the temple.

Katara was grateful for the interruption- she had no idea how she was supposed to backpedal what she’d just done- but she frantically and silently prayed to every spirit she could think of that it was a false alarm and that the balloon was just passing by or hijacked.

“Follow me!” Aang shouted over his shoulder. With a loud grunt, he parted a narrow passage through the cliff ground and into the temple below them.

Without hesitation, Katara jumped in after him and instantly regretted it as she landed in a heap on the stone floor due to her lack of Airbending abilities. She wasted no time, however, in complaining about it, and instead followed Aang out to where Toph already stood in front of the docked Zeppelin.

They waited with bated breath, ready to strike at any possible moment.

The door rattled and Katara was tense. She was scared and angry and she couldn’t help but let the thought into her mind that if they were attacked, maybe she deserved it.

Relief and even more anger and excitement flooded her system when the door slid open to reveal Sokka and Zuko. She sighed and dropped her defensive stance.

“What are you doing in this thing?” she asked. “What happened to the war balloon?”

Zuko wrung his hands together. Katara could see in her peripheries that he was looking directly at her and had been since he opened the door to the Airship, but she couldn’t bring herself to look at him.

“It kind of got destroyed,” he told her, but Katara kept her gaze fixed on her brother.

Aang relaxed beside her. “Sounds like a crazy fishing trip.”

Katara couldn’t find it in herself to laugh with Toph. She was uncomfortable. She was sure that Zuko knew what she’d done, and she wasn’t sure why that bothered her so much. She felt like she’d betrayed him, which was ridiculous because she absolutely hadn’t done anything of the sort, but she couldn’t work out why she was so bothered at the thought of him knowing that she’d kissed Aang, or why she was even more bothered at the thought of hiding it from him.

Toph’s voice snapped Katara out of her brooding and she moved away from Aang and towards the other girl.

“Did you at least get some good meat?” she asked and Katara smiled. She could always count on Toph to relieve her tension. Most of the time.

“I did,” Sokka announced proudly. “The best meat of all: the meat of friendship and fatherhood.”

Katara was about to make some sort of joke about Sokka getting someone pregnant but her voice caught in her throat when her father stepped off the Zeppelin.

“Dad!” she cried, flinging herself at him.

She could barely see through the tears that blurred her vision but she didn’t care. Her father was here, and he was holding her just like he used to and nothing could ruin this moment for her.

“Hi, Katara,” Hakoda whispered, resting his hands on the back of Katara’s head.

“How are you here? What’s going on?” She pulled back and turned to Sokka. “Where did you go?”

Sokka shrugged and glanced at Zuko across the group.

“We kind of went to a Fire Nation prison,” he told her as though it were no big deal.

Katara laughed through her tears and pulled Sokka by the arm into their father’s grip, too. This moment was perfect and she wished it could last forever. She relished the feeling of her family safe and together, once again.

Hakoda released his grip on his children and leaned back.

“Why are you wet?” he asked Katara, his brow furrowing.

“Swimming,” she said quickly. She was bothered by her own response but technically she wasn't lying.

Sokka nudged Katara’s arm to get her attention.

“Look who else I found!”

He waved his arms in a presentational fashion, redirecting Katara’s attention to the space next to Zuko that was being filled by-

Suki!” Katara cried, flinging her arms around the Kyioshi Warrior’s shoulders.

Suki laughed and held Katara, before Katara pulled back to examine her at arm’s length.

“It’s so good to see you again!” Suki told her and Katara swallowed thickly.

“You have no idea,” Katara agreed.

Not only was she glad that Suki and her father were safe, she was incredibly grateful to have another girl around to talk things over with, because the Spirits know she’s going to need some advice very, very soon.

Chapter Text

No, I don’t have a script for this
But I know the right words exist
Somewhere
And I just need more time.

-Body, Sleeping at Last


 

There was a soft knock on Katara’s door that stirred her out of her weak excuse for a disturbed sleep. She propped herself up on her elbow and rubbed her grainy eyes with a fist.

“Suki?” she asked, in the general direction of her door as she lit a candle on the table beside her.

The person on the other side of the door cleared their throat.

“Actually, it’s Zuko here,” he responded, his voice muffled by the thick wood. “Can I come in?”

Katara sat up straight, all traces of lingering sleep gone. She threw her Watertribe robe loosely over her shoulders leaving it open at the front, and nearly fell against the door in her haste to open it.

She hesitated as her hand reached for the handle. If she let him in, she would either have to tell him about Aang or actively keep it from him- two things she absolutely did not want to do.

With a deep breath, she twisted the handle and pulled the door open a crack and paused, then opened it all the way.

“Hi,” Zuko whispered in the inky shadows that filled the corridor.

“Hi,” Katara whispered back, her face half hidden behind the door.

Zuko lifted his hand to the back of his neck and rubbed it awkwardly, avoiding Katara’s eyes. “Can I…?” He gestured to the room.

“Oh!” Katara gasped, her eyes widening. “Yeah, sorry. Of course. Come in.”

She stepped aside and opened the door wider. As Zuko passed her, she felt her heart pound with nervousness. Silently, she closed her door. She had no intention whatsoever of waking anyone and getting caught with Zuko in her room in the middle of the night. She could imagine too clearly the kind of stir that would cause.

Zuko was standing awkwardly, his hands shoved in his robe pockets. Katara sat cross-legged on top of her bed, patting the spot next to her.

“Do you want to sit?”

Zuko immediately dropped into the spot beside her, his cheeks flushing.

They sat in silence for what felt like forever, until Katara cleared her throat.

“So…What’s up?”

“They sky,” Zuko responded and immediately cringed at himself.

“Get out,” Katara told him with a small smile.

Zuko stood, flustered, and Katara caught his hand and pulled him back to seating.

“I was joking,” she explained. “You know when someone makes a terrible joke and you say “shut up” or “get out” or “you’re the worst” or something because it was so bad that it’s kind of funny?”

“You think I’m funny?” Zuko asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Of course I do,” Katara told him. “You’re funny in the bad-joke and shitty delivery kind of way. I like it- it’s sweet.”

Zuko folded his arms. “I’m not sweet.”

“Yes, you are.”

“No, I’m not! I chased you all around the world and tried to kill you.”

Katara paused for a moment.

“Yeah, but you brought my dad back,” she countered in a small voice.

Zuko watched as Katara played with her hands in her lap. She started to pick at one of her fingers, and Zuko caught both of her hands in his.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

Images of Zuko risking his life to bust Hakoda out of jail flashed through her mind, alongside images of herself and Aang in the water. She knew there was no reason to feel guilty about it, that technically there was nothing at all going on between her and Zuko to suggest that she should not have kissed Aang, and she was definitely not feeling things towards Zuko to make her think she’d betrayed him or herself. She was about 20% sure of that last thing.

“I just… Never mind, it sounds kind of dumb.”

Zuko squeezed her hands, still in his.

“If it’s bothering you then it’s not dumb,” Zuko told her and Katara raised her eyebrows.

“It would do you well to remember that, you know.”

Zuko scowled and Katara laughed. They both knew she was right.

“It’s just that…” she began, her voice smaller again. “It was weird not having you here. Like all of a sudden you were around and then you just weren’t and you said you were hunting with Sokka which I knew was a lie straight away because Sokka doesn’t need any help hunting and you didn’t even say goodbye to me, especially after the conversation we’d had the night before.”

The corners of Zuko’s mouth curved downwards.

“Katara, I missed you while I was gone.”

“Well, good. I missed you, too.”

“Good.”

Good.”

Zuko rolled his eyes.

“It wasn’t part of an agenda to leave without telling you or saying goodbye. I had to stop Sokka because he was going to go all the way to the Boiling Rock by himself and he would probably still be there now if I hadn’t gone with him.”

Katara suddenly felt guilty for assuming it was more than accidental that Zuko didn’t tell her he was going. And after all, she wasn’t his keeper or his anything so he didn’t need to tell her what he was doing.

“What was it like? The Boiling Rock?”

Zuko frowned. “It was hot.”

Katara went to raise a hand to shove him, but his grip on her fingers tightened, and she squeezed his hand back.

“It was scary,” Zuko continued. “Dangerous. There was a literal pool of lava surrounding the place and all you had to do was breathe near a guard to get punished. Sometimes not even that. There were too many prisoners for the amount of space they had and you could see in everyone’s skin exactly when they’d given up hope. A few of the prisoners actually looked like zombies, just going through the motions so the guards wouldn’t suspect anything and throw them in a freezer. Spirits, the freezers. They had these metal cells jutting out from the wall that… well, they froze the prisoners so they couldn’t Firebend. I had to get thrown in one as part of our first escape plan that didn’t actually work because a new gondola of “war criminals” were arriving and Sokka didn’t want to go. And then Chit Sang- the big guy we brought back with Suki and your dad- blew it anyway. The Warden was insane, too. We kidnapped him and took him hostage but then Azula showed up and tried to kill us. We probably wouldn’t have made it out if Mai hadn’t been there.”

“Mai?” Katara asked, suddenly. “What did she do?”

“She fought Azula and saved us. It was pretty cool, actually. I didn’t expect her to defend me like that, I thought she hated me because I locked her in a prison cell.”

Katara swallowed. “As in, Mai: your bitter ex-girlfriend who tried to kill me all those times?”

“Katara, we all tried to kill you. Not just Mai.”

She pulled her hands from his, and he let her.

“You didn’t tell me she was going to be there.”

Zuko gaped at her. “I didn’t know! I didn't even tell you I was going to be there, Katara. I didn’t plan for her to show up! I’m sorry that she saved us- us including your father and brother. Why do you even care that she was there?”

“I don’t care,” Katara lied, folding her arms.

“Yes, you do!”

“I don’t!”

“You do! What- are you jealous or something that she was there with us?”

Katara scoffed much louder than she needed to.

“Absolutely not. Why would I be jealous of that? It’s not like I was sitting around here, pining after you. I had plenty of intimate company while you were gone; I barely even noticed you weren’t here.”

Zuko stilled.

“What are you talking about?”

Katara shrugged and examined her nails.

“Oh you know… nothing important.”

“Katara, you can’t just say that and then refuse to tell me.”

She shrugged again. “You know how things get in hot springs.”

Zuko’s brow furrowed and he just stared at her.

Katara rolled her eyes and smiled at him like he was a child that didn’t understand a very simple math equation.

“I was… hot, and Aang was there.”

Zuko’s jaw was tense. “What did you do?” he asked, through gritted teeth.

Katara smiled again. She could see the fire in his eyes and a little voice in the back of her mind told her to stop, but she couldn’t.

“Things.”

“Things?”

“Yeah. Things.”

“What things?”

“Why do I need to tell you?”

Zuko covered his face with his hands. “You… you don’t need to tell me anything. I just don’t understand what you’re doing.”

“I’m not doing anything.”

“Did you kiss him?”

“Yes.”

Zuko stared at her, his face eerily neutral and revealing nothing.

“Did you have sex with him?”

Katara’s mouth dropped open and she folded her arms.

No, I did not! He’s twelve.”

“Well that doesn’t seem to stop you!”

“Why do you care what happened? You weren’t here and it has nothing to do with you.”

“Katara, I… you know what, it doesn’t even matter.”

“Doesn’t it?”

Zuko hesitated, folding his arms, too.

“I just can’t believe you would do that,” Zuko told her, genuine disappointment in his eyes.

“Why not?”

“Because you know how he feels about you, and I know how you feel about him.”

Katara felt the back of her eyes prickle.

“So what?”

Zuko looked away from her.

“So I thought you were better than that.”

Katara raised her eyebrows, suddenly feeling very small.

Ouch,” she said, quietly.

Zuko met her eyes. They both looked at each other, silent in the candlelight, for a long time.

Katara mulled over all the things she wanted to say. She wanted to call him out on being jealous, she wanted to tell him to go back to Mai, she wanted to tell him that he didn’t matter to her and that she cared about Aang, she wanted to tell him that she had made a mistake, she wanted to tell him that he was right, she wanted to tell him she was sorry.

Zuko’s face was unreadable. Katara wished she could invade his mind to know exactly what thoughts were racing through it because she could see there were plenty there but she had no idea what they were. Was he angry at her? Did he think she was terrible? Was he actually jealous or just disappointed in her behavior? Maybe he didn’t actually care about what she did with Aang.

Katara couldn’t hold on to that idea without in crushing her chest, rib by rib.

Zuko swallowed. “I think I’m gonna go.”

“Wait, please-”

She reached for his hand but he shook his head and stood up.

“Zuko,” Katara said, as he headed towards the door.

His hand closed around the door handle and he turned his face to look over his shoulder, but never met her eyes. Instead, he stared at the ground.

“Goodnight, Katara.”

The door shut behind him without a sound, and Katara hugged her knees to her chest, tears finally falling from the pools in her eyes.

Chapter Text

Slowly, then all at once.
A single loose thread,
And it all comes undone.

-Sorrow, Sleeping at Last


 

Katara tossed for what felt like the rest of the early hours. Each time she closed her eyes, she could see the silhouette of Zuko at her door, his hand tight around the handle and his eyes never meeting hers.

She thought about following him. She wanted to go find him, to burst into his room and apologise and explain to him why she did it, but in truth she didn’t even know how to explain to herself why she did it. What Katara needed was for Zuko to look at her without the distaste in his eyes. What she needed was for him to look at her at all.

As soon as the sun began to bleed through the window and stain the floor, Katara kicked her blankets off her body and threw her clothes on. She may as well start her day, since there would be no point trying to get to sleep now.

Quietly, she padded through the halls, careful not to wake anyone. Once in the kitchen, she let loose the breath she didn’t realize she’d been holding.

“Morning, Katara!”

She jumped, startled by the voice from behind her. She turned around to see Aang and Zuko, one smiling brightly at her and the other looking through her.

“Morning,” she replied, with a forced smile.

“Why are you up so early? The sun’s barely even up! No-one ever gets up this early but me and Zuko and that’s only because we have to train. Even Appa’s still asleep! How come you’re awake?”

“I just couldn’t sleep,” Katara told him truthfully, fully aware that she had the bags under her eyes to prove it. For a second, she thought she saw something flick across Zuko’s face, but it was gone before she could be sure. “I thought I’d get up and make some breakfast!”

“Can you make sticky rice?!” Aang asked, jumping in his enthusiasm.

Zuko rested a hand on Aang’s shoulder to settle him. “We need to begin, Aang. You can worry about breakfast when we’re done.”

Aang frowned and Katara wanted to offer a smile of thanks to Zuko but he’d already gone. Her heart sank slightly as she watched him go.


 

“This is fantastic, Katara!” Hakoda announced, gathering a second serve of his breakfast. “You’ve really outdone yourself!”

Katara laughed, more genuinely than she had in a long time.

“Dad, you’ve only had the melon. I didn’t do anything but cut it,” she told him, and he shrugged, taking a large bite of the fruit.

“Didn’t get breakfast while being held captive,” Toph explained, and Hakoda shot a finger-gun in her direction.

“Dad, she’s blind. She can’t see what you’re doing.”

“Sokka!” Suki gasped, slapping her boyfriend’s arm.

Toph cackled. “I saw that, though.”

Sokka and Suki grinned at each other and Katara shifted her gaze to her bowl of sticky rice.

Seeing how happy Suki and Sokka made each other, she couldn’t help but think of how she wanted someone to look at her that way.

Glancing up, she was met with Aang across the table from her, chin in his hand, watching her with doe eyes. Katara swallowed and quickly looked away.

Perhaps she didn’t want just anyone to look at her that way.

Her eyes flickered to Zuko, who was sitting next to Aang with his hands folded on the tabletop and his eyes trained on his empty glass. Her first instinct was to nudge his shin with her foot and tell him to cheer up but she abstained, fully aware that it would have the exact opposite effect.

“Hey Katara,” Aang began, bouncing in his seat. “Zuko, Toph and I are going to play Elemental Tag, do you wanna play to?”

“I wanna play!” Sokka volunteered, excitedly.

“You can’t,” Aang told him. “Katara?”

Katara folded her arms as Sokka looked dejectedly down at his empty bowl. “Why can’t Sokka play?”

“Because he’s not a Bender,” Aang explained, as though it was the most obvious thing in the world.

“That doesn’t mean he can’t play,” Zuko told Aang. “And it’s not a game. It’s an exercise-”

“How could he possibly play if he’s not a Bender? If Sokka plays, we may as well let Momo play.”

Katara’s jaw dropped open at Aang’s complete oblivion to his blatant prejudiced exclusion.

“Are you joking?” Zuko asked, gaping at him. Aang just blinked back at him. “You can’t compare a non-bender to a monkey-”

“Momo isn’t a monkey, he’s a lemur!”

“I don’t care!” Zuko snapped. “Comments like that start wars. You- being the Avatar, the keeper of peace and balance and all that crap- should know that.”

Aang wrung his hands. “I didn’t mean it in a bad way- I just meant that he can’t bend anything at me, so I’d have nothing to dodge.”

Zuko frowned. “Then you need to think before you speak. Sokka can play and will play,” he announced, turning to face Sokka, who was looking much less crestfallen. “Go get your space sword.”

“Really?” Sokka asked, jumping up.

Zuko nodded, then turned to Aang. “Outside. We’re doing Fire Squats until whoever is joining in is ready. The rest of you, take your time.”

Without another word, Zuko lead Aang outside. Sokka raced to his room before zipping past in a blur to meet them in the courtyard.

Hakoda’s eyes followed Zuko through the window, and he smiled.

“I like that boy.”


 

The peaceful sound of crashing water lulled Katara into a meditative state as she stretched out beside the river. Suki, beside her, was pulling blades of grass from the ground and setting them in a pile on Katara’s exposed stomach. Every now and then, a particularly loud cheer from the Elemental Tag spectators would reach them, and Katara was glad she’d opted out of playing. The soft ground beneath her back and the sun warming her face was much more pleasant than dodging a space sword that was being wielded by her particularly excited brother.

“What’s been going on with you?” Suki asked, and Katara blinked her eyes open, lifting her hand to shield her face from the sun.

“What do you mean?”

“I mean what’s been going on! I mean, I know the war and stuff and you just got your Dad back, but I mean what’s going on with you personally. You seem different.”

Katara smiled bitterly. “Of course I seem different. Wars have a way of doing that to people.”

Suki laid on her side, propping her head up on her hand.

“As in you seem distracted. And older.”

“Older?” Katara asked, pointedly ignoring the distracted comment because she was unsure how to breach the topic of what (or who) exactly was distracting her.

“Yeah. Like you’ve seen a lot.”

Images of Azula, of the eclipse, of the terrifying Wan Shi Tong, of Jet, of Zuko all flashed through Katara’s brain.

“Yeah, I guess I have,” she admitted, her voice nearly lost in the woosh of breath escaping her lungs.

She sat up and felt a giggle bubbling in her throat. She lifted her hand to her mouth to stifle it but it slipped around her fingers anyway. Her diaphragm spasmed in bouts of laughter that Katara had no control over. They shot up her throat and into her hand, uncomfortable and terrifying. As she laughed, her throat tightened and gravity tugged her heart towards the ground and her laughs were sobs and tears flowed against Katara’s will.

“Oh,” Suki gasped, sitting up quickly and pulling Katara against her in the tightest hug she’d felt in a long time.

Suki rocked her and Katara shook with the force of her sobs, ricocheting from rib to rib and tearing their way out of her body.

After a long while, without realizing how or when, Katara’s crying stopped and they just sat, Katara pulled tightly to Suki’s chest. Katara closed her eyes and let herself be comforted. She had spent most of this time being everyone’s comforter, everyone’s rock, everyone’s mother, that she herself had had no one to hold her as she cried, so she simply hadn’t cried about the war. How was anyone supposed to lean on her if she, too, had needed crutches.

“I’m just a kid,” Katara whispered to Suki. “We’re all just kids.”

“I know,” Suki told her, finding no words of comfort or reassurance.

The sounds of Elemental Tag had completely disappeared now, and they we left with only the rushing water of the river beside them. Katara sat up and pulled a single stream of water towards them both, letting it rain down over her face in tiny, glittery particles.

“What did you want to do?” Suki asked her.

Katara massaged some water into the puffy skin around her eyes, letting it soothe and refresh her. “What do you mean?”

“Did you want to talk? Or did you want to go back to the Temple? Or if you’d like we can just sit here for as long as you want to.”

“Talking might be nice,” Katara said. “I don’t know what about. I guess just everything. It’s been hard to find someone to talk to around here, lately. Toph is cool but she’s still young and she doesn’t get some stuff and Sokka is Sokka, like I can talk to him about most things but sometimes I need to talk about things with someone who’s not my brother, and I don’t really know what to do with Aang at the moment.”

“Why? What’s going on with Aang? And what about Zuko? I know he tried to kill you, but he seems like he’s changed. I actually think he’s kind of nice now, when he’s not being grumpy. Plus, he’s older and not your brother.”

“I’m incredibly aware of that,” Katara mumbled, and Suki raised an eyebrow.

Oh?

A blush flooded to Katara’s cheeks and she realised now was as good a time as any to tell Suki what had been troubling her for a while now.

With a deep breath, she launched into her story. She explained to Suki about how Zuko had just shown up one day, and burned Toph but then he saved them from Combustion Man which sort of cancelled out the things he’d done (according to Aang, anyway). She told her about their trip to the Fire Nation vaults and to the colonies and how she hadn’t been able to stop herself from being bitter to him as soon as they’d returned.

“But it sounds like you had a good time,” Suki told her, raising an eyebrow.

“Yeah, well I didn’t,” Katara snapped and Suki snickered.

Katara continued, telling her about how she’d been so conflicted when Zuko asked her if she wanted him to kiss her (“I wasn’t confused because I wanted to kiss him; I was just confused, okay?”) and how betrayed she’d felt when he just left the night after without any further conversation. Finally, she reached the whole Aang/hot springs/Mai debacle.

“And I just couldn’t believe he wasn’t even angry to see her there!”

Suki blinked at her.

“Katara, he had bigger things to worry about. Such as escaping with your dad and Sokka.”

Katara dropped her balled fists against the grass. “Yeah, well…”

“Well what?”

“She saved him,” Katara mumbled, barely audibly.

“Would you have preferred it were you who saved him?”

“What? No.”

“Do you care about him?”

“I guess so, but only as Aang’s Firebending teacher. Otherwise, he doesn’t matter.”

“Are you sure about that?”

“Of course I am.”

“So you don’t have feelings for him?”

Katara scoffed much louder than she needed to.

“Uh, no. Absolutely not. No feelings from me at all.”

Suki smiled and leaned back on her hands.

“So what’s the problem, then?”

Katara pressed her palms flat over her face.

“The problem is I’m lying to you,” she admitted, her voice muffled by her hands.

“I knew it,” Suki told her, jabbing her shoulder affectionately. “If it’s any comfort, Sokka was an idiot when I first met him, too.”

“Sokka didn’t try to kill you and your family,” Katara pointed out.

Suki pursed her lips. “You raise a good point.”

Stretching her arms out in front of herself, Suki reached forward into a long stretch before pushing herself up to standing and pulling Katara up by her hands.

“Let’s go find Zuko,” Suki said. “I think the two of you need to work some things out.”


 

Katara and Suki found everyone back in the courtyard of the Air Temple. Katara tried to catch Zuko’s eye, but he seemed to be actively paying attention to Toph and Sokka only.

“How was Eleme-”

Katara’s voice was drowned out by the loud crash of a bomb exploding in the sky. The force of the blast threw everyone to the ground, and a shard of shrapnel sliced through Katara’s cheek, narrowly missing her eye.

A war ship ascended into view and another bomb exploded the footbridge connecting the valley. Katara’s heart thudded against her ribs. Throwing herself up off the ground, she instinctively ran towards Sokka and the fountain, coating her hands in the gloves of water.

With a gust of wind, Aang threw the metal shutters Toph had installed closed to protect them all. For a moment, everything was still. A bomb exploded in the distance and everyone flinched simultaneously. The ceiling began to shudder and Katara glanced upwards, her feet glued to the floor like she was suddenly in a nightmare.

“Watch out!” Zuko cried.

Katara felt his body collide with hers. He held her tight to his chest as his back skidded across the concrete. She winced, imaging the sort of graze that would have produced, and marveled at the fact she was completely scratch free because of his maneuver. She wondered if he often saved people from falling buildings and that’s why his technique was so decent.

Katara, not the time, she scolded herself.

Her breath caught in her throat as he rolled them over, so she was pressed between his chest and the ground. He didn’t seem to be making any move to get up, and Katara was paranoid that everyone would see and assume they were together.

“What are you doing?” she whispered.

“Stopping rocks from crushing you,” Zuko told her, his mouth much closer to her neck than she’d originally thought it was. Katara blushed bright red.

“Well I’m not crushed, you can get off me now.”

Zuko gasped, as though he didn’t realise he was still laying against her back, and rolled himself away instantly.

“I’ll take that as a thank you,” he mumbled, helping her up and pulling her towards the tunnel that Toph and Haru were currently carving into the cliffside. Explosions still shook the courtyard ceiling and Katara knew there was definitely a time limit before they’d all be crushed.

“We can get out through here!” Toph cried.

Zuko let go of Katara’s hand and she ran ahead, catching up to Sokka and Suki, both respectively armed with a boomerang and fans.

Aang’s voice echoed through the courtyard, causing Katara to stop in her tracks.

What are you doing?

She turned to see Zuko standing by a gaping hole in the metal shutters.

“Go ahead,” he told them. “I’ll hold them off. I think this is a family visit.”

“Zuko, no!” Aang shouted, and Sokka caught him by the shoulder before he could go join Zuko.

“Come on,” Sokka told him, handing Katara the rope attached to Appa. “We’ve got to get out of here!”

Her heart pounding, Katara pulled Appa in the opposite direction and resisted the urge to look back over her shoulder. She couldn’t help but wish she’d spoken to Zuko earlier. If he were to get killed before they got an opportunity to talk things over, Katara would be so mad at the Spirits for letting him die, at Azula for killing him, and at Zuko for letting himself get killed before she had a chance to tell him what was going on with her.

“Everyone grab a bag and get on!” Aang instructed, tossing whatever supplies he managed to get his hands on onto Appa’s saddle.

Katara hauled a sack of rice over her shoulder and climbed up Appa’s fur.

She flinched at every explosion, every shout, every crack of flames colliding. In her mind’s eye, Zuko was losing. She couldn’t shake a very specific image of his entire body engulfed in flames, flesh melting from bone as he screamed, from the back of her eyelids. She took a deep breath and told herself that she was being ridiculous. There is no way Zuko would be losing. And even if he was, surely Azula wasn’t crazy enough to kill her own brother.

“I can’t get him to go in there,” Aang called from the ground, where he was trying to lead Appa into the tunnel. “Appa hates tunnels!”

Katara gaped at him. “Aang, there is no way we can fly out of here!”

“We’ll have to find another way,” Aang told her.

“We need to split up,” Sokka announced, jumping down from Appa’s saddle. Katara followed him swiftly. “Take the tunnel and get to the stolen airship.”

“No!” Katara cried once she reached his side. “The Fire Nation can’t separate our family again.”

Her eyes welled as her father reached out to grip her shoulders tightly and pull her into a hug. “It’s okay,” he told her. “It’s not forever.”

Sokka grabbed both Suki and Katara by the hands and led them towards Appa, Aang and Toph following, as everyone else disappeared into the tunnel.

“I’ll clear that wall and we can fly out through there!” Toph called, pressing her hands flat against the courtyard wall.

Suki cleared her throat. “Uh, there’s an awful lot of fire in that general direction.”

“We’ll get through,” Aang decided. “Let’s go. Yip yip!”

The wall crumbled and Katara was thrown back against Appa’s saddle. Suddenly cold wind and the smell of smoke hit her in the face. Her hair whipped behind her as she desperately searched the valley for a glimpse of Zuko.  

A bright blue fireball sped past them, narrowly missing Appa’s face. Peaking over the edge of the saddle, Katara saw Zuko standing on the roof of an opposite air ship and her heart jumped.

“He’s okay!” she whispered, not-so-subtly to Suki.

“What’s going on?” Toph asked. “Who’s okay?”

Katara glanced at Toph, who was balled up in the corner of the saddle, her feet in her hands.

“Zuko!” Sokka told her. “He’s fighting Azula and I think he’s going to win this time!”

They all watched in silence as Zuko took a flying jump and landed on Azula’s ship. They both disappeared in bursts of red and blue flame, and rising smoke. Frustration and panic rose in Katara’s throat as she couldn’t see anything. She could feel the pull of the liquid in her waterskins but she knew she’d be of no help.

The twisting and turning of Aang steering Appa to dodge the fire blasts coming their way was definitely not helping ease her panic either.

A giant explosion atop the ship caught Katara’s attention and a strangled cry caught in her throat as both Zuko and Azula were thrown from the roof. Immediately, Aang looped Appa back around, right underneath the ship and Katara could see Zuko clearer than she had through the entire attack.

She couldn’t help but notice how calm he looked for someone who was falling to his death.

Katara stood up and reached out, catching Zuko by the arm and pulling him back into the saddle. He landed on top of her as they were both thrown flat against Appa’s back. Katara’s fingers remained wrapped tightly around his wrist.

Collectively, everyone turned to watch Azula plummet through the air. It was the least graceful Katara had ever seen her. Her robes were flapping in the air and her limbs were flailing wildly. Her mouth was stretched in a silent scream. It was unnerving, to say the least.

“She’s not gonna make it,” Zuko marvled, his voice barely audible.

As if on cue, blue flames shot from the soles of Azula’s shoes and she caught herself against the cliff face. Fully aware that she had an audience, Azula shot a twisted smile in the direction of the Gaang, bowing her head slightly the way a humble actor would upon a stage.

“Of course she did,” Zuko sighed, leaning back in the saddle.

Katara tightened her grip on his wrist, and his eyes met hers. They were riddled with confusion and exhaustion and thanks. He reached his hand up to gently rest on her cheek, his thumb catching a drop of blood that trickled from the cut beneath her eye.

She offered him a tiny smile that he then returned.

“Thanks for catching me,” he said to her quietly, as Aang steered them out of the valley.

Sokka held Suki close, and Toph held the saddle tight, as close to Aang as she could possibly be, chattering away to distract herself from the fact that she was truly blind and probably air-sick.

Katara felt her eyes begin to well, and Zuko briefly slipped his hand into the one that had been previously around his wrist before pulling it away and clasping his own hands together.

She smiled at him, at ease now.

“Thanks for not dying.”