The attack came from behind. Only cowards attack their opponent from the back; there’s no honour in a victory born of deceit. As the projectile shattered against the back of Zuko’s head, he spun, body reaching for the familiar salamander stance—
The assailants giggled and raised a second bruised tomato.
The hand on his shoulder did little to calm him.
‘It’s just a couple of kids.’ The smile in the waterbender’s voice drained some of the irritation from his limbs.
He straightened and shook the slurry of tomato from his hair. ‘It’s dripping down my back!’
Katara’s fingers threaded through the hair at the back of his head, combing the rotting vegetable from his hair. ‘You got most of it out.’
Another tomato missed his head by inches. ‘Stop that!’ he yelled at the cackling children.
The two boys stained the street with their laughter, tearing down the dusty road despite the lack of pursuit. Zuko considered sending a fire ball after them, just enough heat to teach them a lesson…
But the waterbender was fussing at him.
It wasn’t entirely unpleasant.
‘If you hold still, I’d be able to get the last of it,’ she scolded him with all the storming anger of a cloudless sky.
The boys disappeared around the next corner, toothy grins flashing at him. Zuko and Katara had stopped for the afternoon in a little riverside town to the north of Gaoling. The river had been diverted to create a series of canals that ran like streets around houses and through the marketplace. So close to the prosperity of Gaoling, the townspeople kept tidy, well cared for, terraced houses. The architecture was alien and not nearly as grandiose as the palace Zuko had grown up in, but something in the arch of the tiled roofs the pillars that framed the bank in the market plaza, reminded the firebender of humid summers in the city of his birth.
The waterbender’s fingers still plucked at his hair. ‘It’s fine!’ he snapped, pulling away from her.
He tried to ignore her knowing grin. ‘If you’re done worrying over your hair—’ Was that a smirk? Was she laughing at him?! ‘—can you help me with these groceries?’
Katara hefted the two bigger parcels, leaving the smaller one on the counter for him. He stared at the bundle of bread, dried chicken-pork, and noodles, his mother’s voice coming to him through the years: A truly honourable man always shoulders his fair share.
He snatched the parcel from the counter and hurried after the girl in the blue dress. ‘Hey, stop.’ He circled around in front of her so she’d be forced to listen to him. ‘Let me take one of those.’
She glanced down at the box under her arm. ‘I’ve got it.’
The tone in her voice would annoy him if it wasn’t so frustratingly innocent. ‘I want to help you,’ he said clearly; perhaps she misunderstood him. She raised a quizzical brow. ‘With the groceries.’ Was he not speaking the same language? Did they have a special peasant song and dance for communicating offers of assistance in the Southern Water Tribe?
‘I’m fine, Zuko.’
He couldn’t help the warmth that blossomed up his neck at his name on her tongue. ‘I want to help you, waterbender.’
Her smile was uncomplicated, genuine, not a trace of malice or manipulation. ‘I know you do.’ Even her words were threaded with sweetness. ‘But I’m fine. I’m perfectly capable of carrying a few potatoes.’
Of course, she could carry vegetables, he knew that. ‘Fine.’
He turned and led the way back down the street, back towards the inn on the edge of town. She caught up to him easily, despite her load— did she laugh under her breath?— and they turned down the street that ran parallel to a canal.
‘Are you still cranky?’ Amused.
Zuko cast her a disparaging look. ‘I’m not cranky.’
‘My mistake.’ Smile.
It was infectious; he felt his lips twitch. ‘I wasn’t cranky with you,’ he clarified.
‘They’re just kids.’ She shrugged. ‘Your hair could use a wash anyway.’
Her expression turned wry. ‘The longer it gets, the more time and maintenance it will need.’ Her eyes gleamed as she peeked at him coyly. ‘I like it like this, it suits you better than your bald ponytail look.’
She was joking, only teasing him, right? Katara wasn’t Azula, nowhere near as cruel as his sister. No one was cruel quite like Azula.
‘The shaved head and wrapped ponytail was symbolic,’ he said stiffly, hunching his shoulders. ‘It marked me as disgraced nobility. I wasn’t allowed to grow my hair out until I had captured the Avatar and regained my honour. But now…’ He paused outside the inn door, holding it open for his companion. ‘It doesn’t matter anymore, I guess.’
Katara’s brow furrowed as she passed before him. ‘Your father has a lot to answer for on the Day of Black Sun.’
Zuko didn’t respond. The darkest day in Fire Nation history might be the day of the solar eclipse, but the darkest day for Zuko would always be that fateful Agni Kai— a day of fire and pain. Dirt coats his neck and his face when he kowtows low against the ground. Banishment and shame. If he can just make his father understand, he only cares for his country! Only spoke out of love for his Fire Lord. He lost more than smooth skin in that arena of tears and flames. Ozai’s thin lipped smile. It was only recently that he realised he’d gained more than a scar.
The waterbender had memories of fire and pain, too. She’d lost her mother to the flames of his family’s ambition. ‘My father will pay for what he’s done, but I don’t know if I can defeat him alone.’
Katara closed the door of their room behind him. ‘Who said anything about facing the Fire Lord alone?’
‘The Avatar might be able to bring him down, but not both Azula and my father.’
Her parcels bounced once when she dropped them on her bed. ‘Aang will do his part, whatever that ends up being. But I didn’t mean him.’
He frowned at her. ‘You?’
‘Of course. The Banyan Spirit told me as much.’
He thought of her deadliness in battle, of sandbenders crumbling against sea walls and water as sharp as knives. Then he thought of his father’s malice directed at the confidently smiling girl before him. Fear coiled and plumed.
‘If you’re captured, if Aang and I don’t succeed, my father won’t care that you’re young. He’ll be merciless.’ The fear choked him; it turned his voice hard. Accusatory. Cold.
She eyed him oddly. ‘I know that.’
Ozai’s thin-lipped smile. ‘He’d publicly torture you if he thought it would lure the Avatar to him.’
‘I know what “merciless” means.’
Something gleeful shone in his father’s eyes.
No, you don’t, he thought.
‘You don’t think I’m staying on the sidelines, do you?’
And suffering will be your teacher…
Zuko swallowed the tide of vivid, edged memories, looking at the waterbender rather than the uncertainty of the future or the nightmares of the past. ‘You’re a brave warrior and a master bender. Of course, I don’t think you’ll sit idly by while others fight.’
Her triumphant smile was more than a little smug. ‘You’re not wrong!’
He couldn’t quite muster the same levity that buoyed her spirits. Not when ashes and death circled his throat and made even breathing a chore.
‘Are you okay?’
Her hands were quickly becoming familiar. The way her callouses caught, the narrow fit of her fingers between his, how sensitive his skin became when she idly sketched patterns on it with her thumb.
She peered at him, concerned. Only his uncle and his mother had ever been concerned about him. ‘You can talk to me, you know. It might help. Tell me what’s on your mind.’
I’m frightened of what my father can do. ‘I’m just thinking about the invasion.’
She stroked a figure eight over his knuckles. ‘It must be hard.’ He didn’t deserve the compassion in her tone. ‘It’s easy for me to forget that, as bad as they are, the Fire Lord and Azula are still your father and sister. It’s okay to feel conflicted.’
He glanced at her sharply. ‘I don’t feel conflicted. Not anymore.’
There was that look again! Searchingly, she probed at him. Looking for what? ‘You’re okay with the possibility that you might need to kill your father?’
He couldn’t hold her gaze. ‘No, no, I’m not okay with it. Killing anyone is… complicated.’ As you well know. ‘But between doing what’s right and what’s comfortable and easy, my uncle has raised me to do what’s right. I know it’s my destiny to defeat my father and restore balance to the world.’
Her grip on his hand tightened. ‘You and me, both.’ Her voice was almost breathless, as though she held some great insight or knew something he didn’t. ‘The Banyan Spirit! This is why it showed me those visions of you. We’re meant to offset one another, help Aang, and restore balance to the Four Nations!’
Visions and prophecies were discouraged in the Fire Nation. They were considered primitive, barbaric. But the waterbender… Katara had known about his mother. About his scar. The burning curiosity licked at him again: What more of his future had she been shown?
Despite his misgivings, Zuko liked the idea of fighting alongside the girl clutching his hand with fire in her eyes.
‘I don’t know what I was concerned about,’ he said in an attempt at humour. ‘My father doesn’t stand a chance against the Avatar, the spirits, and your rag-tag group of rebels.’
Another squeeze. ‘Our rag-tag group,’ she grinned, her nose wrinkling prettily. ‘You’re one of us now, Zuko!’
As she turned to unpack their purchases, Prince Zuko clenched his hand against the ghost of her fingers between his.
Their journey to the Foggy Swamp had taken a somewhat meandering tone. Each morning, he awoke to the waterbender’s fingers curled into a loose fist by his. Once she’d shaken off the fog of sleep (usually at least half an hour after they’d packed up camp and started out on the road), she continued to side-track their travels with whimsical pit stops. First the Zen gardens to the east, then the town built around the canal system. Or the lake catchment of the Feng Cho River they were headed for currently. The damn waterbender couldn’t go one day without splashing around in a puddle or lake.
Though he complained about the delays, Zuko was slyly invigorated by the girl’s excitement for the humble sights of the southwestern Earth Kingdom. She had a way of distracting his goal-oriented drive to get to their next destination and help him enjoy the fields of wildflowers in hidden valleys or the isolated beauty of the dry desert ridges and plains.
The land didn’t have the same lush, green vibrancy of the Fire Nation, but Zuko began to appreciate the Earth Kingdom in a way he never had before. He noticed the clear green of the rivers as the waterbender threaded streams of it around her arms and shoulders. He caught glimpses of creatures he’d never suspected the existence of— tiny winged pigeon snakes in the scrub and turtle voles in the reeds by the riverbank. The waterbender revelled in it all— from the smallest seed to the largest buffalo deer.
They came across the Lin family several days later when crossing the northern road to reach the river on one of Katara’s fanciful detours. They had time, she claimed as she waved away his concerns, they were ahead of schedule. There were still almost two months until the rendezvous at the Black Cliffs.
Today they made to cross a part of the road that followed the keyline of a gently sloping valley, down towards the water. The ancient river oaks that lined it whispered faintly as the wind shuffled their needles. The road was slippery with damp, shaded as it was under that dense covering of foliage. That was how Pak and Ru had slid into the shallow ravine at the edge of the road, overturning their cart.
‘We should go around,’ he whispered as they peered down at the group blocking their path. ‘If we stay low and quiet, we can get clear of them and cross without them seeing us.’
Katara glanced at him as though he was speaking a different language. ‘Sneak away? We should help them.’
He gave her a pained look; couldn’t she make anything easy? ‘Do I need to remind you who’s looking for us?’
‘Azula won’t suddenly find us because we helped a few locals.’ She had the nerve to sound impatient, as though he were the unreasonable one.
She didn’t know his sister like he did. ‘It’s a bad idea.’
‘It’s the right thing to do.’ She stood from their hiding spot and called down to the man and woman on the road. ‘Hello!’
The man— seated on a rock smoking a pipe— returned her wave. ‘Good morning.’
Zuko swore under his breath but followed the Water Tribe girl as she scrambled down to the road. He couldn’t rightly leave her to get ambushed.
‘Not so great a morning for you, by the looks of it,’ Katara commented in an apologetic tone. Trust her to feel sorry over something she hadn’t done. ‘Can we help at all?’
The man on the rock stood laboriously. His right leg was oddly stiff and seemed to pain him when he walked. ‘I don’t know how much help you can be, to be honest.’ His hair was dusty, knotted with leaves. ‘Name’s Pak, this here is my wife Ru.’
The woman beside him nodded pleasantly. ‘Nice to meet you.’
The waterbender couldn’t help herself. ‘My name is Katara. This is my friend, Zuko.’ He scowled at the use of his true name. ‘We might be able to help pull that cart back up onto the road at least.’
But Ru was shaking her head. ‘I’ve been trying for hours,’ she explained, wiping a trickle of sweat from her temple. ‘My husband was injured fighting in the war, but we’ve both been trying all morning. It’s just so damp under these oaks, the wheels keep slipping further down the ravine.’
Zuko knew what was coming, and knew he was powerless to stop it.
‘I can certainly help with that.’
Ru eyed Katara curiously. ‘Are you an earthbender, then?’
The waterbender flexed her hands as she followed the other woman to the edge of the ravine. ‘Something like that.’
Zuko followed her closely, taking the opportunity to hiss in her ear: ‘What are you planning?’
She barely spared him a glance. ‘There’s enough water in the soil here for me to bend the wagon back onto the road if I freeze it and use the ice to drag it up the hill.’
Zuko glanced down at the little hand cart below. Ignoring her flagrant use of her easily identifiable bending (he knew he’d never talk her out of it), he saw one glaring problem with her plan. Even if she could draw enough water from the boggy forest floor, the wagon was wedged under the lip of a long rotten log. Someone would have to prop it up enough for Katara’s icy plan to work.
Someone would have to get down there.
‘Wait,’ he advised, dropping his pack and shedding his shirt.
The waterbender watched him with an almost pained expression on her face. ‘What are you doing?’
He nodded to the offending log as he began carefully sidling down the slope. ‘I’m going to get the cart out from under that rotting tree so you can bend it up here.’
‘Don’t slip!’ The note of panic in her voice warmed him.
He did. Ru was right; the ground was treacherously slippery. Mud coated his shoes before he’d even reached the bottom of the slope. It had a thick, cloying scent, like fruit left too long in the sun. Knowing his luck, the mud splattered up to his thighs would soak the stomach-turning scent into his pants.
Damn overly-helpful waterbender!
‘Zuko! Are you okay?’
The worry in her voice did not make him square his shoulders and scramble quickly to his feet. ‘I’m fine!’
He navigated his way under the log, crouching beside the cart and bracing his shoulders against it. ‘Are you ready?’ he called, his voice muffled by the dank humidity in the air.
Zuko silently thanked his uncle for every early morning firebending drill the old man had put him through. Even so, his arms and legs trembled against the groaning cart. It was heavily laden and— thanks to a series of tightly knotted ropes— everything was still very much in place. It only made the wagon that much weightier.
Ice crept like a vine from the sludge of the ground. Four stalks of it, growing like great frozen plants, gripped the cart and hefted it, creaking, into the air. It teetered as it climbed, Zuko slowly withdrawing his steadying grip until the whole thing settled in a slowly melting icy shell back up on the road.
Zuko was just eyeing the muddy climb— wondering why in the hell he got himself into this situation in the first place!— when water pooled before him, hardening into a disk of ice.
Katara winked at him from the road above. ‘Hop on.’
Pak and Ru made the waterbender inexplicably nostalgic.
‘… used to play a game when we would travel for long stretches on Appa. Aang loved it. We’d look up at the clouds and find shapes in them! Aang once spotted a rabbit-fox shaped one, and Sokka, well, Sokka’s always looked like food.’
His sister used to play a game too: how many burns could she give her handmaids before their mother noticed and scolded her. ‘Sounds great,’ he said without any enthusiasm.
‘Aang was great at coming up with games,’ she went on, a slow smile spreading across her face at some memory.
Zuko practiced the breathing exercises his uncle had taught him to moderate his inner flame. If he had to listen to Katara prattle obliviously on about the Avatar’s stupid games for one more minute, he’d burn down a tree.
Luckily for Zuko, they rounded a corner and the Feng Cho Lake spread out before them as far as the eye could see. It was practically untouched, the forest sprawling right up to the bank.
‘Wow!’ At a glance, Zuko could see the waterbender’s awe. She gazed, open-mouthed, at the vast lake with a softness that belied her strength. He glanced back at the lake, searching for what she saw that stuck her so forcefully. The water shimmering in the midday sun was a little pretty, he supposed. The majesty of the lake surrounded by forested hills was quite striking if you took the time to look at it.
But by far, the best view was the girl undressing by the water’s edge.
‘When we were travelling from the South Pole to the Northern Water Tribe, we would stop to rest Appa a couple of times a day.’ She shook her hair loose, dropping the hair ribbon on the pile of clothes by the water’s edge. ‘We always chose a spot by the water so Aang and I could practice our bending and Sokka could manscape— his word, not mine.’
Zuko thought he heard her say something about bending and landscape, but he couldn’t be sure. Most of his attention was focused on not watching the waterbender pick her way gracefully across the pebbles and into the lake— or more accurately, watching her while trying not to be caught watching.
He wouldn’t have been so successful if Katara hadn’t been distracted by the warm shallows.
‘Aang barely needed my help, though,’ she continued, sinking down until only her head and shoulders showed above the water. ‘He took to waterbending really quickly, maybe because water is quite similar to air in a lot of ways. Though he did get distracted a lot when we practiced.’
Zuko’s thoughts, pleasantly filled with the image of the Water Tribe girl in her bindings, darkened. Of course, the boy would get distracted by his semi-naked waterbending teacher! His pathetic crush on the girl wouldn’t have helped either.
Katara lifted a dripping foot from the water, eyeing him curiously. ‘What are you doing?’
Zuko flushed. He hadn’t moved since Katara had shed her dress. Most likely his jaw was touching the ground. He closed his mouth and ground his teeth.
Her lip twitched. ‘Are you coming in?’
He wanted to. Badly. ‘No.’
It was as though a cloud had passed in front of the sun; her smile dimmed. ‘Oh. Sokka and Aang used to swim with me all the time.’
‘I’m not Sokka or Aang.’
She dropped her leg back under the water, sinking lower until her chin brushed the gently rippling surface. ‘You get grumpy when I talk about Aang,’ she observed, her eyes narrowing in speculation. ‘Why?’
Zuko’s brain was working a little slower than usual, recovering from the waterbender’s display. ‘Huh?’
‘I don’t understand what it is about Aang that makes you so upset.’
Upset? ‘I’m not upset!’
Her smile turned smug. ‘My mistake.’
She was teasing him. She did that a lot. ‘Are you going to be long?’ He pointed to the sun, brushing against the distant hilltops. ‘We can make it another couple of miles before night.’
She turned in the water, staring up at the sky above. ‘Let’s camp here tonight.’ The contented note in her voice drew his gaze. ‘This place is so nice.’
Zuko thought about the invasion— about those they still had to find in time for it, about having to turn flames and blades against his father in a couple of months— and how many more rough miles stretched between them and the Foggy Swamp. But then he caught the blissful smile sprawled across the waterbender’s face.
‘I guess we could camp in that clearing back by the road.’ His early officer’s training frowned at his acquiescence. ‘But we should probably spend the time practicing our bending.’
She glanced across at him, her slick hair sticking to the side of her neck. ‘We can train later.’ She beckoned him as she swam a little further away. ‘Come on! I bet I can beat you to the other side even without waterbending!’
Zuko dropped his pack before his sense caught up with him. ‘I should really—’
‘Zuko! If you don’t relax and come for a swim, I’m going to summon a tsunami and make you!’
He couldn’t very well say no to that.
‘I am Long Feng, Grand Secretariat of Ba Sing Se and head of the Dai Li.’
Aang glanced at Toph. The little earthbender crossed her arms over her chest. ‘I thought you were the Earth King’s Cultural Minister?’
Long Feng blinked, his expression unchanged. ‘I assist His Majesty in many ways, Miss Beifong.’
‘Perhaps you could assist us by letting us speak to the Earth King,’ Aang suggested with a grin. ‘We have information about an invasion of the Fire Nation that’s absolutely crucial for him to hear.’
‘Yeah, and don’t even start with the “six-to-eight-week waiting list crap” that Joo Dee tried on us.’ Toph pointed at the thin man before them with no small amount of menace. ‘This could be the most important report His Earthiness hears all year.’
The Grand Secretariat eyed them shrewdly, reclining in the throne-like chair of his private study. ‘His Majesty has no time to get involved with the day to day minutia of military activities,’ he said incredulously, shaking his head. ‘While I applaud you children and your penchant for melodrama, His Majesty’s main concern is the city of Ba Sing Se and its cultural heritage. All his duties relate to issuing decrees on such matters. It's my job to oversee the rest of the city's resources, including the military.’
Aang frowned; that didn’t sound like the Earth King he’d known a hundred years ago.
Toph was downright disdainful. ‘He’s your puppet,’ she said, sounding gravely disappointed. ‘Just a figurehead for you and your Dai Li agents.’
‘Oh, no, no.’ The false shock in Long Feng’s voice turned even Aang’s smile sour. ‘His Majesty is an icon, a god to his people. He can't sully his hands with the hourly changes of an endless war.’
‘But we found out about a solar eclipse that will leave the Fire Nation defenceless,’ Aang protested, taking a step forward. ‘You could lead an invasion! We’ve already begun gathering our allies—’
‘Enough!’ The distant, polite façade slipped as Long Feng stood. ‘I don't want to hear your ridiculous plan. It is the strict policy of Ba Sing Se that the war not be mentioned within the walls. Constant news of an escalating war will throw the citizens of Ba Sing Se into a state of panic. It is the Earth King’s decree that we focus our efforts on promoting the rich cultural heritage of the city.’
Anger— sharp and unfamiliar— bit at Aang. ‘But that’s just wrong! You can’t hide it, there are refugees everywhere! I’ll tell everyone! I’ll tell them all what you’re doing!’
From the shadowy corners of the room, four Dai Li agents materialised. ‘Until now, you've been treated as our honoured guests.’ Long Feng’s voice dropped low; silky smooth. ‘But from now on, you will be watched every moment by Dai Li agents. If you mention the war to anyone, you will be expelled from the city.’
Toph clenched her fists so tightly, they could almost be heard creaking with frustration. ‘Thank you for your time, Grand Secretariat,’ she snapped, grabbing Aang’s arm. ‘It has been most enlightening. Come on, Aang.’
The Avatar turned away from the thin man in disgust, following his earthbending teacher from the room.
Despite the waterbender’s proclivity to get side-tracked by every noteworthy body of water, they made it to the fringes of the Foggy Swamp still remarkably ahead of schedule.
‘We’ll have to veer west from here,’ the waterbender informed him as they paused for lunch at the swamp’s border. ‘The swampbenders’ village is on the other side of the swamp. We can just follow the tree line until we find it.’
Zuko swallowed his mouthful of tea. ‘Why don’t we just cut through the middle?’
Her eyes tightened. ‘The Swamp’s really treacherous travelling. I told you about what happened to me, Aang, and Sokka last time. No, it’s safer if we just go around it.’
Safer? Did she think he was frightened by a few old trees? ‘I’m not walking a week out of our way just because you saw a couple of ghosts in there.’
She glared at him. ‘They weren’t ghosts! And it’s not just the visions! The swamp itself attacked the three of us and separated us last time! It’s dangerous in there.’
He met her glower with a look of cool unconcern. ‘I’m not scared of some wet plants, waterbender.’
She was moments away from putting her hands on her hips and giving him the lecture of a lifetime when the wind picked up. It had been dead still all day, the sun beating down at them while the ripe scent of stagnant water rose. Not a puff of wind to be found. The sudden gale whipped at their clothes and tore the fruits from their fingers. Zuko slung his pack over his shoulders and crouched beside the grimacing girl beside him.
‘I told you!’ Katara cursed, saving the small tea sachet from tearing away with the wind.
Zuko decided now was not the time to concede the point. ‘Stay low! Follow me!’
But her hand shot out, holding him in place. ‘No! We have to go in!’ she shouted, squinting against the howling wind.
‘What?! But I thought you wanted to go around?’ He flinched as the wind intensified. ‘Can’t say I blame you!’
She pulled him closer to yell over the whipping winds. ‘This storm is the Banyan Spirit pulling us in! We have to go, or it’ll get worse. I’ve seen it before!’ She tugged at his arm. ‘Quick!’
Cursing under his breath, Zuko stood and fled after the Water Tribe girl towards the inexplicably breezeless canopy of the Foggy Swamp.