In the swamp, you see visions of those you’ve lost, those you love, those you think are gone. Her mother appears however briefly, however heartbreaking; she knows Kya will never trudge through the murk and the coiling humidity of this place. It lands like a lash from a whip: another reminder of a mother long since burned to ash far, far away from here.
She turns away from the stump that isn’t her mother while tears fall unchecked with that wearily familiar absence, that burden she’s not quite sure she’ll ever shake even as she steels herself to continue searching for Aang and Sokka. She’s eerily, unfailingly alone but for the creak of old vines or the chitter of creatures she can never quite catch a glimpse of.
The swamp is a bitterly unfriendly place, the disembodied voice— the rasp of someone half a world away in a land of nightmares and dreams— is unfriendlier still, no matter its gentle tone.
‘What are you doing?’
The Fire Prince is older. You can see it in the calm confidence of his expression, the relaxed carriage of his shoulders. A loose maroon robe hangs from his shoulders and his hair is tousled and free around his face. It’s longer than she remembers, much longer, worse still: he is smiling at her.
She’s never seen the Fire Lord’s son smile.
The boy— young man?— looks directly at her and there is something in his gaze that unnerves her. ‘How did you find us here?’ she demands, splashing several steps away from him. Her heart is beating out a military tattoo. How had he snuck up on her so silently in a place where her every footstep squelched and sloshed?
Beside her, the water rises at her command; she watches the scarred face for a hint of fire. But he’s barely moved. He’s… smiling. It’s carefree and gentle and so out of place worn on this face.
‘Answer me!’ she demands.
Zuko raises his hand, palm open, his bare chest unprotected, exposed, reaching for her. Inviting. The same gesture she might extend to Aang when her encouragement is all that keeps him going or Sokka when their supplies run low and his stomach complains louder than his mouth.
In the swamp, the humid fog swirls sluggishly around the prince of fire. ‘Katara,’ his voice rasps, intimate and low. ‘Come back to bed.’
She recoils more violently than she ever has from his attacks. With a shout, she swings her arms overhead in a rolling gesture and the murky swamp water rushes to her defence. It rampages towards the prince with all the speed and deadliness of a striking snake.
When the tide recedes, he’s gone. All that remains is the fear beating heavily in the Water Tribe girl’s chest.
Katara never told anyone about the visions of the Fire Prince that haunted her through the swamp. Not Aang, not Sokka; she couldn’t bear the bewilderment, let alone the teasing. She suffered enough in the secret confines of her own mind— where fury turned to compassion to betrayal and hatred wasn’t as clear-cut as she’d always thought it was. He’d returned to her, again and again, this happy, laughing spectre of the snarling prince. As she bent vines out of her way and called for her brother and friend, his words whispered through the dense fog. She couldn’t tell the boys, couldn’t explain to them the things her vision had said. She could barely recall it in the privacy of her mind, let alone make sense of it or worse: speak it aloud. To put words to her vision made them real. And they weren’t. Wouldn’t be. Besides, she refused to put herself at the mercy of Sokka’s emotional delicacy.
And the more she pushed the memories back, the more she rejected the terrifying confusion they grew likes weeds within her, the stronger they became. They found ways around her stubbornness and blossomed in her dreams. Eventually, they even crowded her waking hours. ‘The Fire Sages met with the Cultural Ministry, but the Acting-Minister is new. He’s still learning the ropes but so far they think it shouldn’t be as bad as the Advisory Board seems to think. There’s precedent at least. Centuries ago, the Fire Lord almost always married outside of the Fire Nation; it’s how strong political alliances were maintained.’
She found a habit of bouncing her leg in time to her breathing, just one of many attempts to shut him out. Now, on the run from those Fire Nation girls, exhaustion heavy as her fur-lined parka, Katara shut her eyes against the swirling memory, bouncing her knees together. Stubbornly, she curled deeper into her sleeping bag.
‘Shut up, I told you,’ she whispered into her pillow. ‘Leave me alone.’
But he hadn’t. The memories didn’t.
‘I never thought your father would agree,’ the phantom laments from the log he’s perched upon. ‘I thought he was going to punch me.’ He pauses, and the break in his chatter is almost worse, it allows the meaning of his words to penetrate her shock and sink through the barrier of her skin, deep into her flesh. ‘I’m not exactly sure,’ he continues. ‘I panicked! I said a lot of things! Well, I might have mentioned the swords…’ He cocks his head, listening— to what, she has no clue. ‘The swords. My dao swords. You don’t remember?’
His face falls and it’s the return to some semblance of surliness, the relief of a Zuko she’s finally familiar with, that halts Katara in her tracks.
She meets his guarded stare, her own icy. ‘I don’t care about your stupid swords! Get out of here!’
‘It was just before the eclipse,’ he says softly, that spark of quiet contentedness returning to his demeanour. ‘We were training, just the two of us. You asked about my broad swords, the dual swords. Two halves of a single weapon. Not separate. Two halves of the same whole. And you said…’ He stands and comes towards her, his face lighting up at whatever words he can hear that she cannot. ‘Just like us…’
Katara growled low, under her breath, her hands clenched tightly into fists. Whatever message the spirits thought they were sending her had been lost in translation. The vision-Zuko— that kind, patient, happy man— was as different to the real prince as water to fire.
A shuddering crunch, the tell-tale sign of earth bending, preceded Toph’s alarm. It wrenched Katara from her musings. ‘That thing is back!’
Sokka groaned and rolled over. ‘Well, how far away is it? Maybe we can close our eyes, just for a few minutes…’
Aang was already on his feet, the dust-trail of their pursuers blotting the skyline behind them. ‘I don’t think so, Sokka.’
The sun spilled heavily over the horizon as Appa flew laboriously on. The sky bison was truly on his last leg and Sokka and Katara were not far behind. The night of pursuit had put a stiffness in the bison’s movements, curtailed his usual grace. Having to fight the two Fire Nation girls by the river hadn’t helped either.
‘Hold on, pal,’ Sokka told the beast as Appa grunted beneath them.
The bare, rocky landscape was empty of signs of Aang. Katara had been scanning anxiously for an hour now; at least she had her brother to watch her back, and Appa, too. The young monk was on his own, exhausted, and too gentle for his own good.
A dim gleam down below and Katara’s heart was in her throat. ‘There!’ she shouted, yanking Appa’s reins. The bison gratefully descended with a low grunt, landing heavily beside a trail of pale hair.
‘Stay here, buddy,’ Sokka told him, sliding from the saddle and starting off down the trail.
‘Don’t worry,’ Katara told the fretful beast, sparing a moment to lay a calming hand against his forehead as she dismounted. ‘We’ll find him, boy.’
She caught up to Sokka, keeping pace despite her weary limbs; the adrenaline of their fight with the two girls by the river sped them along Aang’s path.
‘It looks like we found him,’ Sokka said darkly, gesturing to the huge plumes of blue and orange fire ahead of them. They were on the outskirts of a small, seemingly deserted town. The earthen buildings were fracturing under the baking heat of the fire, new cracks appearing before their eyes.
‘They’ve caught up with him,’ she fretted, fear burning through her. ‘Hurry!’
‘Katara, wait!’ Her brother grabbed her arm as another pillar of flame blared through the dusty street. They were close enough that the heat from the flames beat at them like a furnace.
‘What are you waiting for?’ she hissed in outrage, trying to wrench herself free.
He shook her roughly. ‘There’s someone in there bending blue fire. Blue, Katara! We need to be smart about this. We don’t know what we’re up against.’
‘What are you talking about?! We need to help Aang!’
His expression hardened into the brother-look. ‘Dad left me in charge of keeping you safe. I’m not about to let you get burned to a crisp!’
With her free hand, she popped the cap on her water canteen. ‘If I’d known you be such a pain, I would never had healed you from that circus-freak’s chi block!’ And with a sharp gesture, she sent the contents of the canteen surging into his chest, knocking him back half a dozen feet.
With a hurried gesture, Katara gathered the water back into the pouch, and sprinted into the town, her brother hot on her heels, cursing.
‘Split up!’ she called over her shoulder, turning down an alley towards the main street. ‘You keep on that way!’
She didn’t wait to see if he’d listened, distracted by a commotion in one of the shop fronts up ahead.
The room was on fire.
Katara darted through the door and water whipped the Fire Nation girl as she advanced, smirking, towards Aang. The second water whip freed the air bender from the beam holding him down like a wasp-fly pinned to a board.
‘Katara!’ Aang called with joy, but she didn’t have time to check he was okay.
The scowling girl spun in a deadly bending stance; Katara didn’t wait around to see flames. Sprinting from the room, she very narrowly avoided the searing heat that shot over her shoulder.
Just as the fire bender caught up to her, Katara desperately dodged right, and Sokka jumped from the doorway to intercept her pursuer.
Aang emerged from the burning building and together the three of them advanced towards the deadly girl. But she’d underestimated the girl. The fire bender spun and burned through Katara’s defensive water, retaliating with a frightening display of fire and precision. This was nothing like fighting Zuko or the countless other fire benders they’d encountered since leaving the South Pole. This girl was smart, dangerously so. And skilled, her forms didn’t falter once, until…
The girl went sprawling to the right and Katara’s heart leapt at the green clad figure behind her.
‘I thought you guys could use a little help,’ Toph practically sang.
The fire bender didn’t leave them much time for reunions. In moments she was up, snarling and darting through the town.
Leading the charge down the alleyway as she was, Katara was the first to spy the prince and the general beyond the mouth of the alley. The two figures— one tall and imperious, the other squat and silent— were approaching the retreating Fire Nation girl, arms raised defensively before them. Suspicious, Katara positioned herself between Aang and the two newcomers, but in that moment, the fire bending girl was the much greater threat.
The six of them advanced in a semi-circle towards the maroon-clad girl. Her expression sent a thrill of fear up Katara’s spine; there was something about this girl cornered that made her seem more dangerous than ever. Despite the direness of her situation, she did not appear flustered at all.
Not a hair out of place.
She lifted an eyebrow as though amused, as though she wasn’t surrounded and trapped. ‘Well, look at this. Enemies and traitors all working together,’ she said in a low, dangerous tone. ‘I’m done. I know when I’m beaten. You’ve got me. A princess surrenders with honour.’
Princess? Katara glanced at the Fire Prince out of the corner of her eye. Surely not…
In a move too quick for Katara to block, the princess spun and shot a blast with deadly precision at the old general.
She heard someone shout in horror but she was already shooting a stream of water towards the princess. Her water bending was joined by Aang, Toph and Zuko’s own attacks and some part of her marvelled at all four elements working together for once; there was a suspended moment of deadly beauty in the attack.
Then the explosion knocked her to the ground. A raised arm shielded her face from the heat and debris, but the smoke was choking; thick and hot, it burned her lungs. Slow, she tried to calm herself, just breath shallow and slow.
Sluggishly, the smoke cleared, and she looked around fearfully for Aang and her brother. Both were unharmed, Toph, too, though the young earthbender was distracted, turned towards the narrow figure bowed over the old man.
The Fire Prince snarled and pressed his fists against his face. Even from this distance, Katara could see him shaking. It shocked her. Not his anger, she’d seen that plenty of times. No, it was his distress over the old general’s well-being. Perhaps that’s what moved her to compassion over suspicion, sympathy over distrust.
She approached slowly, the others at her flank.
He spun, glaring at them all. ‘Get away from us!’
She ignored his anger, focusing on the unmarred eye gleaming fearfully up at her. ‘Zuko, I can help,’ she said firmly, reaching for him.
The fire that sailed over their heads sizzled and snapped; out of control. Dangerous.
Scowling, she surged forward.
‘Katara!’ Someone— her brother perhaps— hissed in warning.
The look the firebender turned on her, so full of fury and distrust, comforted her in a strange way; at least they knew where they stood, hating and distrusting one another equally. Turning to the shallowly breathing old man, she summoned the remaining water in her pouch.
She gloved her fingers in the cool liquid and reached for the burnt flesh on the general’s shoulder.
The prince’s grip was like iron. ‘Don’t touch him!’
She took a deep breath and schooled the glower from her face. ‘I’m a healer. Let me do this for him.’
‘Let her go!’ Sokka shouted from behind them.
After a moment’s hesitation, he threw her hand back at her as though she’d burned him, rather than the other way around. ‘If you hurt him,’ he snarled, crowding closer in his temper. ‘I’ll end you!’
She chose to ignore him and turned back to the wounded man before her, the familiar tightness in her throat at the sight of his injury. This was why she could keep her cool despite the rudeness of the prince. This was what was important. She would never turn away from people who needed her.
Breathing deeply, she pulled aside the tattered hole in the old man’s shirt and pressed her hand to the wound. Immediately, the water around it began to glow icy blue as the soothing rush of energy through her body began. It was similar to the feeling she got if she stood up too quickly, that rush of blood. Though instead of dizziness, there was a sense of relief, of something torn and broken made whole.
But the man was old and he’d clearly been living rough recently. She felt with some fear the stutter of his heart and opened her eyes with a gasp.
‘Water!’ she shouted, the sharpness of her own voice shocking her. ‘Quickly! I need more water!’
Wordlessly, a pale hand thrust a worn, brown water skin into her lap, and she barely took the time to uncap it. Both hands sheathed in water this time, she pressed her right to his wounded shoulder and her left over his heart.
Using both hands to heal two different parts of the body was incredibly challenging; it took all her concentration. Like patting your head and rubbing your stomach, some stupid trick Sokka used to agonise over learning. Breathing deeply, she regulated the fire bender’s heartbeat before it seized and killed him while also attempting to ease the pain in his shoulder.
‘Take the water pouch and prop up his head,’ she said tightly focusing on smoothing the stuttering beat under her left hand. ‘Pour a little into his mouth. Try to get him to drink.’
Zuko took the pouch from her and immediately followed her instruction. ‘What are you doing to his chest?’
She supposed he couldn’t help the accusatory tone. ‘Trying to stop him from having a heart attack,’ she snapped, flinching as the general’s heart lurched under her flare of indignation. ‘Shut up! I need to concentrate.’
Slowing her breathing and closing her eyes, she followed the flow of energy from her body, through his and back into hers. The circuit was somewhat meditative; her healing had always been most powerful when she was able to immerse herself in that mindful state between controlling the chi and letting it run wild. It took the lightest touch, a mere guide to the energy pathways in the body.
It took twelve horribly long, drawn-out minutes for the heartbeat to settle and regulate itself in a slow, steady rhythm. The old man’s breathing was still ragged, but he was no longer gasping for breath.
She sighed and slumped back almost to the ground. Too much, she realised as her ears started ringing. I put too much of myself in that.
‘Is it done?’ The indignant rasp of the prince’s voice rubbed at Katara like a rash.
‘It’s all I can do just now,’ she replied testily, closing her eyes against the dizziness.
‘But the burn is still there!’
She opened her eyes enough to glare at him but Sokka beat her to it. ‘Hey! Angry Jerk! Listen to your uncle’s breathing. He was gasping for breath five minutes ago. Be thankful for that and stop harassing my sister.’
Toph stepped up behind her. ‘Your heart’s going a million miles a minute.’
‘I’ll be fine,’ she sighed, pushing herself upright to feel the general’s forehead. No sign of a fever yet, good. ‘I just need a minute.’
‘We should get going,’ Aang said determinedly from beyond the earth bender.
With an irritated huff, Katara shook her head. ‘I can’t,’ she said, leaning back on her hands to hide their shaking.
Sokka crouched beside her. ‘Sure, you can. Let’s go. Before Captain Jerk Face over there burns us all for breathing.’
Zuko glared at the Water Tribe boy. ‘My name is Prince Zuko,’ he snarled.
‘Why can’t you leave, Katara?’ Aang asked worriedly, crouching by her other side.
She gestured to the general. ‘He’s… not in a good way,’ she said delicately, glancing at the firebender by the old man’s head. ‘It took everything I had just to get his heart working properly. I still need to work on his burn. Someone his age, with a wound like that and his heart so fragile… I can’t leave him like this. If that wound festers and gets infected, he’s done for.’
The prince stiffened in her peripheries, but Sokka wasn’t having any of it. ‘Well, we’ll have to take that chance. If General Fire-Pants here gets sick, then so be it…’ He glanced at Zuko and had the good grace to look uncomfortable. ‘Sorry, but you two haven’t exactly been friends of ours.’
The Fire Prince had never looked icier. ‘We don’t need your help,’ he said in a deadly tone, flames flickering at the edges of his fingers.
Katara snatched his hand away from the old man’s shoulder where it’d nearly singed the General’s robe. ‘Sure, you don’t,’ she said tightly, letting him yank his arm back. ‘Look, Sokka, I’m not leaving until I know he’s going to survive. You really want to leave? Then get me more water and make some soup. Something not too chunky that’ll go down easy.’
Sokka gave her a sly look. ‘Like a meat soup?’
She sighed. ‘Yes, meat soup is fine. Just make sure you cut up the meat into little pieces, okay?
He was already up, boomerang in hand, and glancing up and down the street as though a haunch of meat would wander up and offer itself to him. ‘Aang! Keep an eye on the angry jerk! Papa’s goin’ hunting!’
The dust cloud he left in his wake only highlighted the awkward silence that fell over the rest of them.
Katara cleared her throat and stood shakily. ‘Aang, I need you to find some more water.’ She handed him her canteen and took Zuko’s from the ground. ‘As much as you can. And you might want to go get Appa. Just follow the trail you left with his hair. He’s not far out of town.’
The monk’s grey eyes widened, he glanced at the scarred prince. ‘Katara…’
‘I’ll have Toph with me. I’ll be fine.’
‘Don’t worry, Aang. If this guy gives us any trouble, I’ll bury him,’ the little earthbender said with a wicked grin. ‘Literally.’
‘I won’t hurt the waterbender,’ Zuko said curtly, standing. ‘Not while she’s tending my uncle. You have my word.’
‘Mighty big of you, Sparky.’
Aang watched the fire prince distrustfully, searchingly. ‘I won’t be long,’ he said finally, slinging the two water pouches over his shoulder and opening his glider.
Katara turned back to the prince. ‘Your uncle should be made as comfortable as possible. You should go look for any blankets or pillows, anything we can use to cushion him while he’s resting.’
‘You think I’ll leave him alone with you?’
Katara eyed him impatiently. ‘I nearly knocked myself out keeping him alive just then,’ she said in disbelief. ‘Don’t you think that if I wanted him dead, I could have just left him?’
His scarred eye turned ugly when he scowled like that. It wrinkled and creased with his fury, and Katara wondered how such anger could be contained in one person. The glower only deepened when he reluctantly acquiesced. ‘I’ll check the houses nearby, but I want you both to stand back from him, understand? You don’t touch him until I return!’
It wasn’t a request.
Toph rolled her eyes. ‘Sure thing, oh paranoid one.’
‘Don’t touch him while I’m gone.’
‘We heard you the first time,’ Katara replied testily, backing up a few steps. ‘Happy?’
He glanced back at them half a dozen times while stalking across the street to the nearest dilapidated house.
‘Sweet dude,’ Toph drawled, kicking her heel against the ground to form a rock chair for herself.
‘Yeah,’ Katara muttered, catching the prince watching them from the first story window. ‘Just the sweetest.’