‘As Crown Prince to the Fire Nation, I know you know how to handle responsibility.’ Sokka paced before the resigned firebender, casting him what was clearly meant to be a formidable look every other step. ‘I, Sokka of the Southern Water Tribe, do solemnly grant you the great responsibility of looking after my sister.’
‘I’m right here,’ Katara pointed out for the third time, leaning against the jittery mongoose lizard. ‘And I’m more than capable of looking after myself.’
Zuko looked as though he wanted to acknowledge her, but Sokka snapped his fingers under the prince’s nose. ‘Hey! Pay attention! Part of your new responsibility is saving her from herself.’
‘That’s offensive.’ She would have been more annoyed by him if their imminent separation hadn’t softened her to her brother’s stupid, lovable antics.
He turned to Katara. ‘And if he tries any funny business, you freeze it off, understand?’
She blanched and flushed almost as red as Zuko, or what little of the prince she could see. ‘Sokka!’
‘I’m just saying—’
‘We know what you’re saying!’
Zuko didn’t shy away from the Water Tribe boy’s fearsome posturing. ‘I thought you trusted me now,’ the firebender pointed out, rightly bemused.
‘Oh sure, in the war against the Fire Nation. But every man is the enemy in the war for my sister.’
Said sister had had enough. She stepped forward and shoved him backwards. ‘If you don’t shut up right now, I’m going to tell Suki about Yue!’
The warrior turned a shade of puce rarely seen in nature. ‘You wouldn’t,’ Sokka stuttered. His sister eyed him sternly; Sokka gave her a dirty look but slunk out from under her glower.
He clapped Zuko on the shoulder. ‘Good luck.’
The prince was a graceless mixture of surprised and sheepish. ‘I’ll look out for her,’ he burst out suddenly. ‘And we’ll gather as many as we can for the invasion.’
The other boy grinned broadly. ‘That’s what I like to hear!’
‘Look out for Azula’s soldiers,’ the firebender added. Embarrassed, he looked anywhere but his Water Tribe companions. ‘I, err, sent some back to the village.’
‘Oh, I forgot about them.’ Sokka frowned. ‘Man, I hope they don’t come back to bite us in the blubber.’
‘Us? What about the people they’ve probably terrorised, thanks to us?’ Katara eyed the two boys fiercely, but neither of them met her gaze. She knew what they were thinking: it was too late to help. Any damage done to those poor people and their village would already be smouldering ashes by the time they arrived.
She turned back to the mongoose lizard, the thought sour on her tongue.
It wasn’t till much later that Katara realised Sokka had woken before both she and Zuko. The warrior had greeted the early hours with an uncharacteristic enthusiasm and positivity. She would look back after the challenges of the next few days and draw strength from her brother’s example: there are unexpected facets to everyone’s character.
‘You won’t really tell Suki, will you?’ Sokka had sidled up to her with an air of diffidence.
‘Of course not.’ She pulled the lanky boy into a tight embrace, squeezing him so he’d know how much she’d miss him. ‘Say hi to Dad for me.’
He wriggled in her stranglehold. ‘Look after yourself, little sister.’
She nodded and cleared her throat to hide the small sob lurking there. Her wet cheeks couldn’t be concealed, but each tear spoke of her love for her father and the brother leaving her to find him. She would be strong, fulfil her part of the invasion plan, and see them both in a matter of weeks.
Sokka clumsily mounted the mongoose lizard and pointed its head towards the flat emptiness of the Si Wong Desert. ‘Don’t drink cactus juice,’ Katara said quickly, clutching her dress in both hands. ‘And watch how much water you drink! It has to last two days.’
He grinned at her. ‘I’m the survival expert, remember?’
And with that he was gone.
She stood silently in the new dawn light, squinting after the dwindling figure. ‘Be safe,’ she whispered as more tears spilled, unbidden, from her eyes.
‘Are you sure we’ll be able to find a boat heading south from here?’ Katara asked again.
The town was small, but that wasn’t her concern. They were dusty after a day’s walk, and she wanted nothing more than to find a place to spend the night and get off her feet. But her surly travel companion had assured her that the grimy tavern by the water was where they would find passage south. There were a handful of sandbenders loitering by the door to the pub, each of them had a snarl twisting their patchily wrapped faces. Sitting back against his sand-sailer, the tallest of the men sneered at the two travellers. Katara hefted her pack and returned his glare, scowling fiercely— much fiercer than she truly felt.
Zuko gestured to the dockside tavern. ‘Trust me. I spent the last three years living with sailors.’
He pushed open the weather-beaten pub door, and the two of them entered The Drowning Mermaid Tavern. It was grimy to say the least. The place looked as though the tide regularly washed through, dragging all manner of ocean detritus with it. The floor was as stained as the walls, and the low hum of the flies was louder than the swaying drunk in the corner plucking an off-key lute.
‘Hey!’ The barman had a cotton patch over one eye, but the other eye worked well enough to glare at them meanly. ‘You kids, get out of here.’
Zuko raised his chin defiantly. ‘We’re looking for a boat south. Know where we can find one?’
The man’s patch creased as his scowl deepened. ‘Our captains are good Earth Kingdom folk, not criminals who get tangled up with runaways who’ve run afoul of the Fire Nation.’ His good eye zeroed in on Zuko’s scar.
The prince’s fists clenched in an all-too-familiar frustration. Katara stepped quickly in front of him and turned to face the cantankerous bartender. ‘Please, we need to get to Kyoshi.’
The man dismissively waved a hand at her. ‘Do I look like a sailor to you? Go talk to the blokes at the dock.’
She smiled at him coyly and nodded. ‘Thank you, sir.’
Zuko kept pace with her as she made for the door, shoving it open, and savouring the reappearance of daylight. ‘Katara,’ he hissed under his breath. His grip around her elbow chafed. ‘What are you doing?’
‘What does it look like?’ She wrenched her arm out of his grip and started forward to the docks.
‘Just stop for a moment, okay!’ Suddenly he was looming before her. The sun caught his scar and made the puckered skin glow cherry red. ‘We need to go back inside.’
She dragged her gaze up to his face. ‘Why? We should have gone to the docks first, but you had to be the big man who knows how sailors work.’
‘Which is why,’ he snarled through gritted teeth, ‘I’m telling you we need to go back into the pub.’
‘Sailors don’t crew taverns! They crew boats!’
He sighed, repressing with difficulty what she suspected was an eye roll. ‘The kind of passage we need south— quiet, no questions asked— is the kind you buy from equally quiet, questionless men in pubs. Not by skipping along the pier shouting our plans for the whole dock to hear. Do you have any idea how good a tracker my sister is?’
Katara remembered the long night of fear, argument, and pursuit. ‘I could guess.’
He gripped his hair in frustration. ‘Well, we can’t go back in now, anyway.’ He glanced over her head and his frustrated expression changed— became meaner, more threatening. Katara glanced backwards at the source of his shift in demeanour; the sandbenders from earlier had circled closer. The one that had sneered at her swaggered forward with all the appearance of nonchalance.
‘Come on.’ Zuko tugged Katara forward and started off along the harbour, threading his arm over her shoulders.
Her stomach fluttered. ‘What are you—?’
His grip tightened as she made to push him away. ‘Don’t struggle, just act normal.’
The tight control in his voice, not enough to entirely mask the apprehension, made her hesitate ‘Are they following us?’
‘I don’t exactly have eyes in the back of my head, waterbender,’ he growled. But the thunk of footsteps on the boardwalk, not twenty paces behind them, was all the answer they needed. ‘Whatever you do, don’t let them know who we are.’
She shot him a scathing look. ‘I know that!’
‘Is he bothering you, miss?’
They turned to face the group of sandbenders. There were only four of them. Their other friends must have stayed behind with their sand-sailers. The one who’d spoken pulled his face scarf down to reveal three missing teeth and a scar twisting his lip into a permanent grimace.
Katara blinked and felt for the water in the harbour beside her. Just in case…
She smiled curtly. ‘Not at all.’
Toothless sauntered closer. His friends’ slow edging around them didn’t escape her notice. ‘He didn’t look none too friendly back by Ping’s place, did he, boys?’
Zuko’s arm against her back tensed. ‘My friendliness is none of your business,’ he retorted hotly.
‘Weren’t talking to you,’ Toothless said with a humourless grin. ‘We’re talking to your pretty friend.’
‘Yeah, get lost, ugly,’ another sandbender piped in.
The intent gleam in their eyes did it; she’d had enough. ‘Let’s go,’ she whispered, tugging at his tunic.
‘Aww, where you goin, darlin?’ Toothless’s friend, Crooked Nose, laughed, darting forward. Zuko moved fast, disappearing from Katara’s side in the space between blinking. He swept his foot out in an arc and Crooked Nose fell heavily against the old planks of the boardwalk.
He straightened and glared down at the stunned man. ‘Leave her alone.’
Toothless bared his teeth. ‘I told you,’ he snarled, bearing down on the angry prince. ‘We wasn’t talking to you.’
Katara placed a hand on the firebender’s back, over his left shoulder blade. ‘Just leave them, they’re not worth it.’
‘Oh, I could be worth it, darlin,’ the man leered.
Zuko snarled under his breath. One more word, she thought to herself, the quiet fury white hot under her skin. If he says one more word… She focused on pulling the tense firebender along with her as she turned away. Easier said than done. Zuko was practically exhaling flames.
‘We’re not done here,’ Toothless warned, pulling something sharp and gleaming from the belt at his waist. The man’s scarred face had twisted into a decidedly unfriendly scowl. Katara only saw the knife, the evil intent in the sandbender’s eyes, and Zuko’s ready stance. It was all she needed to see.
Twisting on the spot, she shoved Toothless back with the force of the water’s momentum. He stumbled into one of his friends and lost his footing. The remaining upright sandbenders sent a torrent of sand whipping towards Katara. They were quick, she wouldn’t be able to draw more water from the harbour in time—
Flames plumed in front of her, blocking the whirlwind of sand. Zuko leapt forward and forced the two benders back, conjuring flames with practiced ease.
It was only because of the sunlight shining on the pale blade that she saw the attack in time. Toothless had regained his feet and edged around Zuko, raising his arm to strike at the firebender’s unprotected back.
But Zuko wasn’t as defenceless as Toothless thought.
With a shout, Katara spun, whipping her arms overhead in a crashing movement with all the power of the sea swell. Water rose from the bay and spilled over the dock, slamming the knife-wielding sandbender back against the salt-encrusted wall. He clattered against the dilapidated brick like so many matchsticks in a box.
A bright burst of red stained the receding water.
Katara straightened, her anger draining away with the water as Toothless slumped against the wall, unmoving. Crooked Nose, knocked off his feet by the wave, crawled over to his friend, shaking his limp shoulder.
Katara couldn’t look away from the smudged and dribbling stain behind the man’s head.
Someone tugged her numb arm backwards. ‘Come on.’
She stumbled forward; the two nearest sandbenders flinched away from her. Crooked Nose blanched when she knelt beside his wounded friend. The fear in his eyes made her feel sick.
‘Leave him alone!’
Zuko hovered over her shoulder. ‘We’ve got to go!’
She shook her head, holding her hands up peaceably. ‘I can help.’
Crooked Nose battered her hands away. ‘Get out of here!’
‘Please! I have healing abilities!’
The sandbender put himself between her and his friend. ‘You’ve done enough, witch.’
Zuko dragged her to her feet; there were people crowding around the mouth of the ocean-side street. ‘We need to leave now.’ He held her shaking arms by her side, forcing her to fall in step alongside him. ‘Quick, down this way!’
‘N—No.’ She tried to turn around, to go back. The angle of the injured man’s head, so uneven on his neck, could be fixed if she could just—
‘They went this way!’
Zuko’s grip tightened in panic. ‘Come on! Run!’
She wouldn’t have moved if it wasn’t for his insistent tugging at her hand. He wove along the narrow streets, leaping canals like a predator, barely slowing his stride enough to allow her to keep up. The fading, weathered buildings blurred past in a seamless stretch of browns. Brown walls. Brown doors. Brown, lifeless plants. Red, red blood… Her guide was relentless. He didn’t let her slow. Perhaps the townspeople didn’t want to get too close, or Zuko’s pace was enough to shake their pursuit. Either way, the two of them made it to the edge of town and into the coastal scrub.
‘Don’t stop,’ the firebender gasped, pulling her forward again. Her hand that he’d commandeered ached dully; she wondered dimly why he seemed incapable of clutching people with any softness. That time he’d woken her back in the abandoned Earth Kingdom village, when they’d left the tavern, just now; there was little about him that invited vulnerability.
She stumbled after him, even as night began to fall in earnest. The dull roar of waves signalled the approach of the coast on their left, but for once the slosh of her element sent discordant horror through her. She had always thought of water as defensive, calm, tranquil. What had Avatar Yangchen said? Yin is feminine, water, passive, moon, poor, soft… and black, dark, cold.
Her stomach churned as the swirl of crimson curled through her thoughts. ‘Zuko, stop.’
‘Not yet; we’ll find a place in the dunes soon, but—’
‘Let go of me… Stop!’
He let her go, holding his hands up peaceably. She read the shadowed fear in his eyes. Don’t hurt me, they said.
The Fire Lord’s son, afraid of her.
She hunched over as the sick crawled up her throat and finally admitted to herself that she had done more than merely injure the sandbender.
Warm hands slid the straps of her bag down her arms, pushed her braid back over her shoulder, and hovered above her; fireflies drawn inexorably towards the flame that would burn the life from them. Eyes closed, the sway of the man’s head, dangling— skewed— from his neck… She heaved again, a whimper licking at the back of her throat. Her very sense of self perched precariously as the repulsion bleached the shadows and numbness away, leaving her stark.
‘I wouldn’t… I didn’t mean…’ The sounds didn’t fit her mouth.
His words were soft things, rounded and yielding. ‘Come on.’ Gently. Easy does it, Katara. ‘Let’s get you on your feet.’ Her knees were uncooperative, cumbersome things. Her bag was slung over his shoulder. There was sand sprinkled along it. Sand…
He offered her his hand. ‘Let’s find somewhere to stop for the night.’
The moon was very nearly full, perhaps that’s what gave her the strength to take that first step. Then the second. It was on the third that she threaded her fingers with his and followed him between the loose ground of the dunes.
Zuko dug out an alcove at the base of one of the sturdier dunes. It was low enough to shelter them from the wind and meant they’d be out of sight should anyone come searching the darkness for them. The firebender had found part of a ship’s wooden hull, or else a broken crate. The splintered wood was large enough to sit over the mouth of their cubby, keeping the cool night air from falling directly on them.
Katara sat huddled around the small oil lamp her companion had lit. It let off no smoke, and she felt each judder like the falling of a whip across her face.
A warm bowl, steam curling from its contents, was pushed into her cold hands. ‘Eat.’
She glanced down at the boiled vegetables and rice. Eat? ‘I’m not hungry.’ Her voice was as whispery as the wind and just as easily carried away.
‘You’re in shock,’ her persistent companion told her matter-of-factly. ‘You’ll feel better if you eat.’
Shock? She mouthed the word, a pretty thing for such a gaping chasm. ‘How would you know?’
The lantern flame swayed and battered at its glass prison; the prince settled beside her with a sigh. ‘I know what you’re going through.’
She looked at him, askance. ‘I bet you do,’ she whispered shakily; the rage was sudden, but welcome. Anything other than this edgeless blade on bone. ‘Hurting people is what your kind do best. Bet you’d kill people for sport back in the palace. Your father’s good at it, your sister loves it. You probably think this is right!’
His expression was unchanged. ‘I don’t think it’s right, what you did, but I think it was necessary.’
The righteous fury didn’t want to hear his justifications. ‘You can’t make this okay by—by making excuses!’
The look he gave her was so alien on his face. Pity. ‘I know the Avatar is all about doing the right thing and making sure everyone’s all peaches and rainbows. But life’s not always split neatly into good and bad.’ He looked much older than his sixteen years. His eyes held an age most people rarely reach. ‘Those men wanted to hurt you. If we’d done nothing, they would have. You’ve been fighting in this war for months now; surely you had to know this could happen.’
She hadn’t been aware of the tears until his gaze traced their path over her cheeks. ‘You can’t sit there and tell me what it’s like to—to…’ She swallowed, her lip trembling.
‘I’ve killed a man before,’ he said softly, staring at the flame. ‘One of my own men. And it wasn’t an accident, either.’
She gripped her knees tightly, waiting.
‘I was trying to do the right thing.’ His voice had lowered to the same whisper as hers. ‘My reasons were all wrong, but I knew I was doing the right thing. Zhao’s men, they were trying to hurt… this person. I was breaking him out of prison, and my countrymen, they tried to stop me. I cut them down, dozens of them. But I knew I’d killed this one.’ His gaze flickered to her and away. ‘My sword flew wide. I got his neck instead of his armour. I cut so deep his blood splattered my face… but the prisoner went free.’
If Katara hadn’t been focusing so hard on his story, if she hadn’t latched onto his words with all the desperation of a castaway drowning at sea, she might have pieced together the identity of the prisoner. ‘How do you live with yourself?’
Zuko’s hard-eyed distance faded as he turned back to her. ‘You don’t have a choice. The world needs you, Katara. Your actions mean we survived, and we need to survive to take down my father and restore balance to the Four Nations.’
She didn’t respond. She barely noticed the empty horror inside her had dulled somewhat; the abyssal mouth of guilt had shrunk just enough to allow her to breathe. Zuko sighed and dropped his face into his hands. ‘You shouldn’t have needed to get involved though. I should have done something sooner.’
Her scowl was fierce. ‘I can take care of myself,’ she hissed, dropping the bowl he’d given her to the ground. ‘I think I proved that today!’
He shook his head, rubbing his eyes. ‘I’m the bad guy.’ The words were so quiet, she wondered if he meant her to hear them at all. ‘You’re the Avatar’s girlfriend. You’re meant to be like him: clean hands, someone for people to look up to, admire… I should have intervened.’
Something in what he said spoke to some dormant part of her. Someone for the people to admire… She admired Aang. The Avatar, the great bridge between the spirit world and the physical world. Since she was a child, she’d dreamed of the Avatar coming to save her village, to end the war. Gran Gran had told her and the other children tales of Avatar Kuruk, Avatar Kyoshi, Avatar Roku… great heroes of the people. Souls of true goodness. When she and Sokka had discovered Aang, when she’d met an Avatar, Aang had roused the best in her. She was her noblest self around him. He inspired thoughtfulness, kindness, compassion, love, gentleness… traits her people expected of their women.
But for months now some shameful part of her had known the truth: though there was lightness and compassion within her, those were not the only facets of Katara. Selfishness, anger, bitterness were threads in the tapestry of her innermost self. And there was a very real shame within her at this discovery. The people she most admired— her father, her mother, Aang, Yue— all were good through and through. Not a nasty thought flitted through their wildest daydreams. None that she knew of.
But stealing the waterbending scroll, liking someone as callous as Jet, fighting with Toph, the sandbender crumpling lifelessly against the brick wall— these were not the acts of her heroes. The thought that she could never live up to the standards of those most important to her grated against her idea of herself.
‘I’m not like them,’ she breathed, her stomach churning at her misery.
She glanced up at the firebender and his confused expression gave her pause. The Banyan Spirit had known it all along, their equal and opposite disposition. Zuko struggled with his inner nature just as she did. Just as he wrestled with doing what was right and good despite the expectations of his family, she must come to terms with the darker side of her nature. Avatar Yangchen had said it: an increase in one brings a corresponding decrease in the other. As Katara circled this yawning chasm of anger, guilt, shame, Zuko’s own darkness receded. Instead he’d comforted her, trading roles, correcting their balance.
‘I’m not like them,’ she said more clearly. ‘Like Aang, I mean.’ It wasn’t happiness, or contentedness, it was barely a good feeling at all. But something like understanding lulled the seething waters of Katara’s mind; she held to it like the life raft it was.
Zuko examined her closely, his brow furrowed anxiously. ‘Of course you are. You’re just feeling a little raw from what happened, believe me—’
She shook her head and the tense muscles in her shoulders relaxed. ‘That’s not me.’ She thought of the moon and its cycle, fading in, fading out each month. She thought of the shadowy, dark side of the crescent moon; just because you couldn’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not there.
The Misty Palms Oasis had long been the final stop for travellers to rest and trade before venturing into the desert. It was little more than a couple dozen earthen huts, the cantina, a florist, and of course, the declining natural ice spring. The Traveller arrived not long after nightfall. He had business with his contacts in the dilapidated town.
He bowed to the sandbenders lounging outside the cantina, entered the dimly lit pub, and removed his straw hat.
The Traveller strolled to the bar, his aching feet begging for a seat. ‘One pot of jasmine, please.’ The barman merely grunted in acknowledgement. The Traveller caught the eye of the old man at the low Pai Sho table in the corner.
He pointed it out to the barman. ‘I’ll be over there.’
The old man was as crooked at the stool he sat upon. His scalp gleamed in the low light of the cantina, as did his eyes, though far more mysteriously.
The Traveller stopped before him. ‘May I have this game?’
The old man eyed him speculatively. ‘The guest has the first move.’
The Traveller nodded politely and sat with no small amount of relief. He plucked his tile from his side of the board and carefully placed it in the very centre of the board.
The white lotus tile glowed orange in the torchlight.
‘I see you favour the white lotus gambit,’ the old man observed, hands tucked in his sleeves. ‘Not many still cling to the ancient ways.’ He bowed, as the Traveller knew he would.
‘Those who do can always find a friend.’
The old man’s bright eyes appraised him with interest. ‘Then let us play.’
The game proceeded just as the Traveller knew it would. He and his opponent rained tiles upon the board in a well-rehearsed dance. The barman eyed them oddly when he delivered the Traveller’s tea, but neither man noticed nor cared.
When the last tile completed the pattern they’d both been working on, and the flower was revealed, Iroh leaned back with a grin.
‘Welcome, brother.’ The old man bowed low from his seat. ‘The White Lotus opens wide to those who know her secrets.’