The swamp was overwhelmingly, sickeningly green. And dark. The trees far overhead crowded together, branch to branch, leaf to leaf until nothing but a speckle of light pierced the density of canopy. The water was stained tannin brown, interrupted only by the layer of floating moss on the surface and the protruding stilted roots.
The low haze over the stagnant water made the scuttling of the pigmy-mongooses and egret-monkeys appear sinister. Other.
‘I understand why you didn’t want to come in here.’ The prince’s voice was oddly hushed, as though the swamp was listening into their conversation. ‘It’s… alive. Really alive.’
The familiar prickle at the back of her neck— the one that had haunted her steps during her last visit— itched. ‘It’s part of the Banyan Spirit. It makes all living things, well, more living, I guess.’
The firebender cast a distrustful look around at the silent trees.
Katara halted their sloshing through the thigh-high water, frowning at the twitching arrow in her palm. ‘I think there’s something wrong with your compass.’
Water lapped at Katara’s hip as the Fire Prince fought his way to her side. ‘What? Are you sure?’
She nodded to a break in the canopy above. ‘It’s not pointing north.’ She twisted the device on her palm. ‘Look at the angle the sun is breaking through the trees; the compass is pointing east.’
Zuko frowned, his brows furrowing. ‘Impossible, it was working when we stopped for lunch by the Swamp’s border. You don’t think—’
Zuko swung his fist up, sending a fire ball streaming over her shoulder. She felt the hair by her shoulder sizzle with the heat of his attack but didn’t spare anytime worrying about it. With a complex wrist movement, Katara summoned a mighty torrent of water and spun around to meet—
Breathing hard, she scanned the haze of black water, strangler figs, palms, and mangroves for the threat. Nothing but gently smoking scorch marks.
She glanced at Zuko. ‘What did you see?’
The alarm hadn’t left the firebender’s eyes. His chest rose and fell rapidly, the muscles in his neck tight. ‘You didn’t see him?’ he asked stiffly, his voice barely above a whisper.
His panic frightened Katara, kept her guard up. ‘No, nobody. Who did you see?’
The prince swallowed and straightened out of his defensive position. ‘No one.’
Katara released her hold on the swamp water, turning to her companion. ‘Zuko! Tell me! You really freaked me out.’
He was the colour of off milk. ‘I thought I saw my father.’
Avatar Yangchen’s words sounded distantly in Katara’s mind: The hidden evil within our souls, and the brightest best of us, the Banyan Spirit is the great mender of wounds, balancing the scales of fate…
A shiver traced her spine at the thought of Ozai in the swamp. ‘It wasn’t really him. You know that.’
The wide-eyed anxiety hadn’t quite left the Fire Prince yet. His reaction stirred compassion in her chest for the burnt and scarred boy, banished at thirteen. He must have truly suffered at the hands of his father for the sight of the man to shake him so strongly. ‘Your Banyan Spirit friend?’
Katara laughed in relief at the attempted levity. ‘Somehow I don’t think that spirit is a friend to you or me.’
Her sour tone drew Zuko from his fear. ‘Why?’
Spirits care very little for the individual lives of mortals. ‘Just something Avatar Yangchen wrote.’
Some of his usual surliness returned. ‘Are you ever going to tell me what you saw?’
‘I promised you, didn’t I?’
Before he could probe any further, before she lost her nerve, Katara found their heading, the trickle of sunlight overhead blinding in the gloom beneath the canopy. Gathering her skirt before her, she pressed onwards, leading the way deeper into the Swamp.
She could feel Zuko’s disapproving gaze at her back.
A flicker of scarlet ahead made her stumble.
Zuko steadied her. ‘Watch out.’
Katara turned away from the red-robed figure before them, praying her companion couldn’t see him too. ‘This way,’ she hissed, giving the figure a wide berth.
A familiar, gut-wrenching, slithering sound slipped across the water’s surface.
Katara spun, too late.
The vine circled both her ankles beneath the water, twisting upwards, past her knees. Before she could so much as begin her bending forms, her arms were pinned against her side.
The plume of fire to her right hissed and fizzled and went out. The firebender was wrapped even tighter, his eyes bulging above the slimy vines crisscrossing over his mouth. Katara snarled, wrenching at the restraints with all her strength. In response, the vines yanked at her, knocking her off her feet into the water.
It was much quieter in the tea-coloured world beneath the swamp waters. Bubbles were the loudest creatures in the turbulence of that murky water. Her legs and hips were so tightly bound, she could feel her blood struggle to pulse through her strangled veins. But her face and head were still free. Desperately, she bent the water away from her mouth.
Rotating her neck at a painful angle, Katara found she could bend the water around her— at least in a rudimentary fashion. Her neck movements wouldn’t bring her daggers of ice, but she was able to buoy herself up and shuffle her bound legs beneath her.
Just as she breached the surface, as she gasped what may well be her last breath, the vines lost their stranglehold and fell eerily limp.
Katara yanked her legs free, stumbling clumsily in the churned water. The only sound around her was the frantic splashing of her panicked escape from the slippery grip of the vines and the rasp of her breath.
All else was silent as the grave. She spun around, searching for the red of his scar. The no-doubt furious prince. The swamp birds chirruped their warbling calls. A tapir-leopard yawned lazily from a high branch. Around the waterbender, the swamp waters settled and stilled.
The Fire Prince was nowhere to be found.
Katara swallowed thickly, trying to calm her racing heart. ‘Huu!’ she shouted, wading towards a burflower tree’s prominent roots to escape the water. ‘Huu, it’s Katara! A friend of the Avatar!’
The tapir-leopard above her blinked languidly.
The hairs on the back of Katara’s neck stood up.
Summoning her courage, she gripped the burflower tree tightly. ‘Zuko!’ she called, hating how the mist seemed to absorb her voice.
The feeling of being watched intensified.
The voice was recognisable in the strangest way. Like a dream, half-remembered, brought to life.
She turned to face him, her companion’s doppelgänger.
Zuko’s spectre tilted his head, the crown in his top knot sparkling in the low light. ‘Only for the afternoon, the council expects me back before the opening dinner. This peace summit couldn’t be over quick enough.’
Katara swallowed compulsively. She could hear the drip of water from the hem of her dress. Feel her heart against her chest. What more could the Banyan Spirit possibly ask of her?
The Fire Lord sat across from her on the buttressed root of a fig. ‘The United Nations Dance Troupe are performing after dinner now, rather than before. Lin said there was some issue with Aang, that he wanted the dancers to incorporate a tribute to the Air Nomads.’
The wry smile did a lot to soften the firebender’s left side— that angry scar.
Katara gripped her dress in both fists. ‘What are you doing here?’
She wasn’t prepared for the smile. ‘I wanted to make sure you weren’t worrying about your presentation.’ He winked at her. ‘I can’t wait to see Sokka’s reaction to your Arms-to-Arts program. Or King Kuei’s response to the Returned Veterans Menagerie.’
‘To open the peace summit.’
Drip, went her Water Tribe skirt. Drip.
‘As a representative of the Southern Water Tribe?’
A faint crease lined this older Zuko’s forehead. ‘Well, I suppose you could incorporate the Southern Ambassador, also but it’s tradition for the Fire Lady alone to welcome the foreign delegations.’
She’d known he would say that. She’d fished for it. But it was still unsettling. Though her response lacked the sharp edge of horror those words had once roused in her.
She licked her dry lips. ‘I don’t have time for this right now. I really need your help.’
The crease deepened. ‘What’s wrong?’
Her water-logged pack nearly threw her off balance as she navigated the arching roots of her burflower tree. ‘You’re Zuko,’ she began, hoping against hope her vision would take pity on her. ‘But you’re not my Zuko. He was here with me, but we were separated.’ She took the spectre’s hand, holding his severe gaze. ‘I need you to help me find him. Please.’
The Fire Lord’s grin was sunny days and well-lit rooms. ‘You’ll find him. Eventually.’
Her grip on him tightened. ‘Where is he?’
‘Fair’s fair, Katara. You’ve left him in the dark. There are things he needs to know.’
Trepidation burned low in her belly even as the hand in hers faded to nothingness. ‘Don’t go! Wait!’
But she was alone on the roots of the ancient strangler fig.
‘Great!’ she yelled, throwing her hands into the air. ‘I can’t get rid of you last time and now, just when I need you, you disappear!’
The swamp seemed almost smug. A water fowl-rat chittered somewhere in the shrubbery.
‘I hate this swamp,’ she muttered as she fished Avatar Yangchen’s battered volume from her bag.
Zuko’s spectre, her once relentlessly unwelcome companion, saw fit to visit her only fleetingly as she searched for the lost prince. Through stands of hanging vines and towering alleys of trees, cool courtyards of still, mossy water and the droning of cicada frogs, Katara spent the afternoon chasing the visions she had once fled.
That is, until the swamp grew tired of her pursuit.
Her heart leapt at the familiar voice.
‘Want to see me ride a catgator?’ The airbender’s voice floated down to her from the thick tangle of vines around the surrounding young banyan trees.
‘Aang? Where are you?’ Less certain, now.
The young monk’s ringing laughter echoed several yards away.
The figure appeared as though born of fog. Katara yelped in fright, back peddling away from the ghostly pale face with scarlet stains and black eyes. The figure didn’t pursue her as she scrambled backwards. Only its eyes moved, watching her unblinkingly.
Katara found her feet with difficulty. ‘Who are you?’ she shouted, summoning hesitant tendrils from the water.
Aang’s echoing laughter grew more and more distant. ‘Katara.’ The figure spoke in a feminine voice, all whispery water rushing over rocks. It— she— had long snares of dark hair under her broad brimmed straw hat.
Katara clenched her fists to still their shaking. ‘Yes?’
The curls of crimson across that startlingly pale face seemed to writhe like flames. ‘The Avatar needs to find balance within himself.’
The waterbender swallowed thickly. ‘Who are you?’
The dark eyes bored into her like open cuts deep in the earth. ‘The Avatar’s duty is to the world before any fear or treasure.’ Eyes cold as a river bottom. ‘Before any hate or love.’
‘Aang knows his duty! He’s mastering the elements as quickly as he can!’
‘You distract him from his duty, young waterbender.’
The figure disappeared and Katara fell into nothingness.
There was no swamp.
There was no her.
All the sound had been sucked from the world, like water down a drain. In the time between heartbeats, the world had returned. Not the gloom of the swamp, but an altogether different, disconcertingly familiar scene. The figures were distant and entirely silent despite their moving mouths. Aang turned bashfully away from Sokka towards a sweetly smiling Katara, hand outstretched, offering. The necklace was woven from Sokka’s fishing line, a pink flower knotted into the middle. A giddy look accompanied the monk’s pink cheeks when this smiling Katara turned around, necklace snugly tied at her throat.
‘The Avatar must master the four elements…’
With the whispery voice, a trickle of sound returned to the world. Sloshing. Running water. A yawning lemur. Sokka floated alongside Momo; the babbling river systems outside Omashu. Aang was crouched in the shallows, an octopus form building sloppily around him.
‘Your arms are too far apart.’ The memory of Katara circled around behind him, correcting his stance with a guiding hand on each elbow. ‘See, if you move them closer together, you protect your centre.’
Aang’s grey eyes widened and he leaned back against the oblivious waterbender.
‘He must find peace within himself.’
The exposed dirt of the Earth Kingdom is often bleached pale, but the rocky passage outside Oma and Shu’s labyrinth of tunnels was dark and mossy. The nomad plucked at his sitar when Aang turned to him. ‘So all you need is to trust in love to get through these caves?’ the airbender asked thoughtfully.
‘That is correct, master arrowhead.’
The Avatar barely noticed the nomad’s words beyond their affirmation. He had found Katara among the group, his expression softening at the sight of her.
‘His duty to the world must come before the urgings of his heart.’
It was her defiance and sense of injustice that gave Katara some sense of herself again. She rediscovered her feet, sloshing in wet boots; her hands, grasping her dress so tightly her dusky knuckles turned white as the moon.
‘He’s my friend,’ she croaked, her throat strangely dry in the humid swamp air. ‘Aang’s my family! He and Sokka!’
The pale woman was beside her, a white hand outstretched. ‘He must learn to let go of his earthly attachments.’ The fingers caught fire first, blackening and melting away. ‘Or fire will reign.’
A sob escaped Katara. She turned away from the painted woman so quickly that a tear flung free, splashing silently to the murky waters.
The burning hand bubbled in her mind’s eye.
The Avatar— a child bearing the weight of a responsibility that most old men would never know— was flighty. She knew that. His nomad spirit flitted with all the unpredictability of the wind. But he needed her and he needed Sokka. They had been there from the start. Always. As brother and sister to one another, and often as caregivers to Aang. Her nature lent itself to compassion and caring— all traits of a good mother. She loved Aang not just for what he represented, but for his joyful nature.
But despite what the Banyan Spirit might think, she wasn’t in love with the boy.
It was only when she heard the husky voice that she realised she’d spoken aloud.
‘You might not be. But what kind of a distraction do you provide to an Avatar who might think more amorously of you?’
Conflicted anger and confusion stormed like lightning and thunder within her. ‘How is that my fault or responsibility?’ she demanded, narrowing her eyes at the scarred figure before her. ‘I’ve been calling you all afternoon, and only now you decide to talk to me?! And that thing…’
Zuko’s spectre offered her his hand. ‘That thing is a Fire Nation river spirit.’
Katara wiped at her eyes but let the Fire Lord help her up beside him. ‘She seemed more like a ghoul than a river spirit.’
He hid a smile behind his hand. ‘Remember that,’ he advised her, his eyes bright. ‘You’ll appreciate the irony one day.’
His mirth distracted her disquiet. ‘What does that mean?’
Spectre-Zuko just shook his head, backing away towards a tangle of wetland brambles. ‘Go easy on the boggy cider.’
‘Boggy cider? Zuko!’ Frustration stretched thick and hot as the figure dissolved; she stamped her foot furiously. ‘Where are you going!?’
A flash of white darted from the brambles.
Katara flinched but the white blur settled on a nearby branch and cocked its head at her.
‘A bird,’ she sighed with relief. ‘Thank goodness, I’m not sure my nerves can take much more of this.’
The bird hopped a few inches closer, staring at the waterbender before—
‘AHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!’ Such a hoarse scream from such a small creature.
Katara swore with words her brother would have been proud of. ‘I hate this swamp,’ she panted, resting a hand over her racing heart.
The sight of the swampbenders aboard their skiffs was the sweetest relief. The two canoe-like vessels slowed as they approached, but Katara still rushed into the water towards them. She wouldn’t take any chances of being overlooked and left to wander the vastness of the swamp by herself.
‘Well lookie here, Tho! It’s that there cousin from the south!’
Tho bent at the waist, scratching his head under his leaf hat. ‘I think you’re right, Due.’ The man crouched as the skiff slowed by Katara. ‘How you doin’, Katara?’
‘Better now,’ she said breathlessly, grinning at Tho as he pulled her onto the skiff. ‘I can’t tell you how good it is to see you!’
Due wandered forward, a fly buzzing around his armpit. ‘Gosh golly, I never thought we’d find you here again.’
Katara shed her heavy, dripping pack. ‘I came looking for you! I was with a friend but we got separated. Do you think you can help me find him?’
Due blinked slowly. ‘That fella with the scar? He’s over on Quin’s ride.’ The lanky swampbender gestured to the second canoe. ‘He’s the one that sent us off lookin’ for you. We picked him up about two miles west of here. Was is two miles, Tho?’
Tho paused his bending to scratch his head. ‘It was some miles, sure, Due.’
Katara peered around the two swampbenders. Zuko was sitting stiffly at the rear of the second canoe, his legs crossed before him. Her heart fell at the sight of him. He was as wet as she, his shirt torn at the shoulder, but more alarming was the look on his face. Eyes bugged wide, flicking towards her flintily. When she caught his gaze, he gripped his knees tightly.
Katara’s stomach dropped.
‘H—Hey, Due,’ she croaked, turning away from the haunted expression on the prince’s face. ‘How far until we reach your village?’
The fly at the swampbender’s armpit had gathered a few companions. ‘Not far, as the screaming hamster-bird flies,’ he replied, unhelpfully.
‘And, err, how far is that for us?’
‘Not long,’ Tho supplied, swinging his arms in the stiff Foggy Swamp style. ‘We’ll get home before dark.’
Katara glanced back at Zuko. The firebender’s gaze near scorched her. ‘Great,’ she said with a weak smile. ‘Can’t wait.’
For Katara, the village appeared sooner than she would have liked. Due’s unhurried recount of the last few months in the Foggy Swamp Tribe had just been lulling her into a slumber when the skiffs began to slow. The series of huts on the bank of the estuary were bathed in rich golden sunset. One of the few cleared areas of the swamp, the return of daylight did more to raise Katara’s spirits than she’d thought possible. Even the tension in Zuko’s shoulders seemed to ease somewhat.
The little huts on wooden poles were the backdrop for the village. Before them, men and women sat around a communal bonfire. They mended nets, shelled freshwater clams, braided rope— all things painfully familiar to Katara. Her own people would often come together for company as they saw to the daily chores.
Excited squeals met the arrival of their skiffs. A dozen children, half or entirely naked, ran down to the shore where the catfish-gators dozed in the shallows.
‘Hey, Slim!’ Due called with his slow, drawling enthusiasm.
‘Which one is Slim again?’ Katara asked, scanning the twenty scaled backs in the water.
‘The pretty one.’
They eased the swamp skiffs up onto the bank, bending the murky estuary waters so they lapped up high enough to beach the skiffs. Katara dragged her waterlogged bag to the lip of the canoe before bending every drop of moisture from it. It seemed to barely weigh anything at all after that.
‘C’mon, cousin,’ Due called, waving an arm. ‘We ain’t got a spare hut, but you can share with Mammie Ji and her sisters.’
Katara slung her bag over her shoulder, jogging to catch up. ‘Er, that’s really kind, Due, but Zuko and I have a tent. We wouldn’t want to inconvenience anyone. We’ll just set up our tent on the edge of the village.’
The lanky swampbender just shrugged. ‘Awlright, suit yourself.’
Zuko was a few steps ahead of her, walking beside the dark-haired swampbenders from his skiff. But there wasn’t time to talk. The children had reached them, and their high-pitched squeals and questions drowned out the adults.
Due seemed to be a favourite; at least four children hung from him. ‘Dang it, Ann Mi, get your scrawny butt off my shoulders!’
Katara grinned at their exuberance.
The reunion with the Foggy Swamp Tribe was surprisingly warm and heartfelt. The few friends Katara had made on their last trip embraced her without hesitation, as though it had been only a day she’d been gone rather than months. There was Keela, a young woman who had taught Katara some Foggy Swamp style bending; Gin, a young non-bender who’d taken a great interest in showing her around; Pu, whose constant preening and chest-puffing reminded her uncannily of her brother; and Yun, the village chief and a very wise woman.
Perhaps it was homesickness, perhaps she just felt at home among other waterbenders, but Katara couldn’t help the wetness in her eyes after a hug from each of her friends.
‘Welcome back, Katara,’ Yun drawled with a lazy smile as the villagers gathered around.
Katara gripped her arm. ‘It’s good to be back,’ she said genuinely. ‘I didn’t realise how much I’d missed you guys.’
Yun clutched her shoulder. ‘We’re gonna have ourselves a whole buffet of critters tonight to celebrate!’
Katara laughed, imagining Zuko’s face when he saw what the swampbenders ate. ‘Sounds good to me!’ She caught Zuko’s eye and beckoned him over. ‘Yun, this is my friend Zuko. Zuko, this is Yun, the Chieftess of the Foggy Swamp Tribe.’
Yun appraised the firebender lazily. ‘Nice to meet you, friend.’
Zuko bowed stiffly from the waist. ‘Thank you for your help, Chieftess, I am in your debt.’
Yun cocked an eyebrow. ‘Well then, why don’t you and cousin Katara take a seat by the fire? We’ll rustle up some dinner. You ever tried possum-chicken, Zuko?’
He shook his head, his mouth turning down. ‘No, ma’am.’
Yun laughed. ‘D’you hear that, y’all? He just called me ma’am!’ The chorus of laughter sent a flush of crimson across the prince’s face. ‘Just call me Yun, cousin. Now have a seat, you two. I’ll go find a barrel of boggy cider.’
‘Boggy cider?’ Zuko whispered as they sat on one of the logs surrounding the fire pit.
Katara snickered. ‘It’s much nicer than it sounds, trust me.’
A shadow fell across the firebender’s face. ‘Trust you,’ he repeated in a strange tone.
A sickening cocktail of worry and fear mixed uneasily in her stomach. ‘Zuko, I—’
Due whistled as he sprawled across from them. ‘Golly, cousin, you’re still as wet as an eel-snake.’
Zuko’s shoulders jerked up sharply in a tense shrug. ‘I’m fine.’
Katara didn’t bother asking, just tapped and twisted her fingers until the excess water slithered from the prince’s clothes.
‘Nicely done, cousin,’ Due praised, sliding a wad of chewing tobacco under his tongue. ‘So, where you been then?’
Yun returned and handed them each a mug of boggy cider. ‘Well.’ Katara pushed her discord aside, collecting her thoughts. ‘Once we left you guys, we headed south.’
Her story continued well after the sun finally set. The Foggy Swamp Tribespeople loved storytelling and were fascinated by the world outside of their swamp. Not one of them had travelled abroad and so found stories of the sprawling city of Gaoling almost impossible to comprehend. Not to mention the Si Wong Desert— ‘No water at all? Whooee! Ain’t no way you’d find me walkin’ those dunes!’— or the vastness of the ocean.
There was a simple comfort in the sheltered world of the swampbenders. They knew about the war, but it existed for them only distantly. On the peripheries of their world in the same way the Northern Water Tribe functioned to its Southern sister. These people didn’t hold any animosity for the Fire Nation. In fact, when Katara revealed Zuko’s title, not one of the gathered tribespeople batted an eye.
‘Prince? Like one of them there king’s kids from those stories?’ Tho asked, munching on a giant wasp-beetle.
‘Yeah, the Fire Lord is the king and the Fire Prince is his son. The next in line for the throne.’ Katara took the opportunity to gulp down a mouthful of possum-chicken.
‘How do you select your new chieftain after the old one dies?’ Zuko asked, true curiosity slipping passed his surly mask.
Yun swigged from her cider. ‘Ain’t nothin’ complicated like that,’ she told him. ‘No one’s gonna want to overthrow me like your big bad daddy. I’ve been chief for four years now. I’ve got one more to go. If I want to stay on, it goes to a vote. Not many want to be chief, it’s hard work.’ She belched and picked at a sliver of food between her teeth.
‘In the Southern Water Tribe, our leaders are hereditary like in the Fire Nation,’ Katara explained. ‘My father is Chieftain and Sokka will be after him. But we’re smaller than the Fire Nation. The Chief visits every family and instead of them kowtowing to him, he’s the one who has to ensure he’s doing everything he can to serve their needs.’
‘Your leader bows to the common people?’ The shock in Zuko’s voice was palpable.
‘Of course,’ she replied, watching the firelight flicker over his face. ‘The Chief’s priority is serving his or her people. It’s not the same position as a Fire Lord or an Earth King. The people aren’t considered lower than the Chief. They are his responsibility, his people. It’s a great honour to serve as Chief, but it requires total dedicated to the tribe.’
The prince watched her carefully. ‘That was what the Fire Lord used to be, what the position should be. Ever since my great-grandfather, the office of the Fire Lord has been more about wealth and power and luxury rather than serving the people of the Fire Nation.’
Perhaps it was the muddling effects of the boggy cider, or the humid night air and lull of conversation around them, but Katara could see flecks of the Fire Lord from her visions in the boy prince beside her.
‘Perhaps one day you could return it to the old ways,’ she suggested, her gaze lingering on the corner of his mouth. ‘Your people would love you for it.’
He didn’t respond.
Ulla, Due’s wife, reclined across Due’s lap and the swampbender fiddled idly with her hair. ‘Do them Fire Kings have a name for their missus?’
The fire felt very hot all of a sudden. ‘Fire Lady,’ Zuko said quietly, nibbling at the possum-chicken skewer.
‘Maybe you should call me Swamp Lady,’ Ulla teased her husband, leaning up to kiss his cheek. ‘Lady Swamp!’
Due chuckled. ‘You’re already bossy enough, darlin’, I ain’t givin’ you a title to go with it.’
Tho passed Katara the jug of boggy cider. ‘Reckon you could tell us about that sea of sand again, cousin?’
A yawn tugged at Katara’s lips. ‘Maybe tomorrow, Tho. I think I’ll go to bed. I forgot how exhausting the swamp can be.’
‘You’re lucky you folks didn’t have Huu after you this time.’
The memory of strangling vines and submerged thrashing hovered uneasily in her mind. ‘Yeah… well, thanks for dinner and for rescuing us. We’d probably still be wandering around lost without you.’
Katara found her pack at the edge of the firelight, her legs clumsy with the relaxing effects of the boggy cider.
‘Tent,’ she reminded herself, fumbling the knots that secured the bag. ‘Tent, tent, tent…’
Luckily it was near the top of her pack. Even luckier still that it was her familiar Water Tribe tent. No matter how sore she was from the vine’s attack, or how tired or muddled by swamp cider, she would always know how to set up the tent her father had made for her and Sokka.
Though the ropes were giving her some trouble…
‘Need a hand?’
The Fire Prince crouched beside her, tying the arctic fox-seal knot she’d taught him.
She unbound the flap and crawled inside, dragging her bag after her. To her surprise, Zuko followed with his own pack, bedroll underarm. He fished the lantern out of his bag, hanging it from the central beam above them and sparking it to life.
The dark blue walls of the tent made the space feel smaller than it was.
Katara busied herself setting up her own bed. Her camp cot had a faint, lingering scent of the brown swamp water, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as the stench off the water itself. She certainly wouldn’t need her furs, and likely not even the cotton Earth Kingdom blanket… in fact, it was hot enough to sleep in her sarashi.
She glanced at her silent companion. He had laid out his bedroll beside hers, though a telling sliver of space separated the two of them. She caught his eye in the moment before she lifted her Water Tribe dress over her head.
Zuko cleared his throat, discarding his own shirt as he laid back and stared determinedly at the flickering lantern overhead.
Katara reclined against her bedroll and licked her lips. ‘The vision I saw of you last time I was here told me we were married,’ she whispered, her heart galloping like a runaway ostrich horse. ‘I’m sorry I didn’t tell you. I was frightened.’
He was silent for a long time. Each passing second was counted by a trickle of anxiety in her stomach; sand in an hourglass.
‘What frightened you?’
She could feel him watching her, so she closed her eyes. It was easier in the dark. ‘I was frightened because we were enemies, and I hadn’t thought about you that way. I was frightened of what my family would think. And I was frightened because I didn’t know how you would react if I told you.’ Deep breath in. Hold it… ‘More recently I’ve been frightened because that future no longer frightens me.’
She didn’t give him time to respond. Opening her eyes, she turned to him and fixed him with a stubborn stare. ‘What did you see?’
If before she had seen flecks of the spectre in the Zuko before her, now there were clear splotches of him. It was the guarded knowing in his eye, she decided. Yes, they knew one another much better now. Gone was the mutual distrust as they crouched over Iroh in the dust of an abandoned Earth Kingdom town.
Zuko pointed to the lantern; Katara nodded. ‘In the dark.’
The light extinguished before she could see the hint of the smile at the corner of his mouth.
‘I saw you as Fire Lady. You told me about the things we had… or will accomplish together after the war.’ He let the words fill the tent, allowed them to reach her through the darkness. ‘I saw us create something called the United Nations and appoint Toph as its overseer. I saw us allocate the Fire Sages and royal historians to Aang’s Air Nomad Cultural Restoration Project. We halved the military budget and introduced a hundred programs to help traumatised soldiers return home and learn a new trade. I saw us restore the Fire Nation’s honour over a lifetime.’
She bit her lip, curling her hands into fists. ‘Did you believe it?’
‘I saw your mother,’ he whispered, his voice dropping low, ‘on an ice shelf. She was brushing your hair with an ivory comb. You were only a child.’
A thickness welled in her throat. ‘She used to do that. Everyday.’
‘Sokka hated when she made him have a bath. What does your brother have against hygiene?’
A watery chuckle escaped Katara. ‘You try bathing at the South Pole; it’s freezing.’
‘It was. I could feel the cold, like I was back there again…’ His voice changed, became rougher. Tighter. Angrier. ‘I saw the day they came, the men that attacked your village and killed her.’
All the ice of the tundra couldn’t have been colder than Katara in that moment. ‘Zuko. Don’t.’
He breathed in sharply. ‘She was brave. So brave. You’re lucky to have such a courageous mother.’
‘You… You saw it?’
He exhaled thickly. ‘All of it.’
The tears broke like stormy waves over a foreshore. She remembered the fear all too clearly— the powerlessness of her child hands against the strength and fury of that hateful man. That invader of her home. The firebender’s hand found hers, but his left her feeling bereft. Chilled. She pulled herself towards him, burying her face against the smooth skin of his shoulder. Her tears ran hot as fire, dropping onto his skin, and trickling along the lines of his collar bone.
She would never forget how he shivered under the weight of her tears.
‘I’m sorry,’ he whispered, clutching her close. ‘Katara, I shouldn’t have…’
‘No.’ Her voice was little more than a plume of smoke on the wind. ‘No, it’s okay.’
He handed her his shirt. ‘I just wanted you to know how—how…’
She took the shirt, daubing at her eyes. ‘I know. It’s okay. I’m—I’m proud of her, I really am. It’s just hard, sometimes, to think about.’ Another tear squeezed itself out and bled down her cheek. ‘But thank you. For telling me, I mean.’
The hand at her waist stroked circular patterns across her bare skin. ‘Your father’s a strong man. I didn’t realise until tonight what a Water Tribe Chieftain’s role entails. He wasn’t just father to you and Sokka, he was father to the whole tribe. And he had to fill the hole your mother left behind.’
Her two Zuko’s were blurring together; where was the angry, awkward boy she’d travelled with? ‘You’ve… changed,’ she said slowly, leaning up on her elbows. She dropped his shirt and reached out a shaking hand. He started slightly when her fingers made contact with his chest, trailing over his collarbone— slick with her tears— and up his neck. She couldn’t see his face, but it didn’t feel any different to her touch. The ridge where flesh-meets-scar seemed to burn under hand. ‘You’re… older somehow.’
She could feel the movement of his lips tug at the skin under her fingers. ‘I feel different.’
He considered his words carefully before continuing. ‘Surer. More certain, I guess.’ Katara’s heart skipped a beat when he leaned into the hand she held against his cheek. ‘What about you? Did you see anything?’
Memories of boiling flesh and Aang and ghostly figures in white dresses flittered through her mind. ‘I saw you again. And I saw Aang. The Banyan Spirit sent me a warning: Aang needs to master the four elements to restore balance to the world. But his feelings for me cause an imbalance within him.’ She felt tears threaten again. ‘I don’t think I can be friends with him anymore.’
Zuko’s fingers found her cheek in the dark. He wiped the lone tear away, cupping her cheek. ‘I don’t think that’s what the Banyan Spirit meant,’ he said thoughtfully, his low, rasping tone or his touch sending her pulse racing. ‘You’re his waterbending teacher. He needs you. You just have to make it clear to him that there can’t be anything more between you. He’s a smart kid, he’ll understand.’
Her fingers trailed across his ruined temple and traced the edge of his hair. ‘It would be pretty inappropriate for the Avatar to pursue the future Fire Lady…’
The prince’s fingers stilled against her cheek. ‘We don’t have to talk about it, not if you don’t want to.’
Katara took a deep breath. ‘It’s all I’ve been able to think about since I first saw that vision of you. But more and more lately, I’ve realised that talking about it and thinking about it is dangerous. With so much of our future planned by the Banyan Spirit, I want to just live it without worrying about things out of my control.’
He was silent as he digested her words. ‘And Aang? What will you do about him?’
Perhaps the Banyan Spirit had invisible vines it used to pull the strings of fate. Maybe that’s how it kept the world in balance. Maybe that’s what made Katara realise one sure-fire way to dissuade Aang’s affection and make him concentrate on saving the world.
Her thumb brushed his lips first, locating them in the gloom. Zuko’s gasp was deafening in that small, private space.
His lips against hers set her blood on fire.
The darkness of the tent ceased to matter. The canvas walls might as well have been lit up like a carnival for all the awareness Katara had of her surroundings. All she knew in that moment was the sear of the kiss. It scalded uncertainty and doubt from her nerves, leaving little room for anything else.
Yin and yang, balance, the Banyan Spirit’s subtle plans— all faded to insignificance.
She drew back for air and their breath mingled in the short space between them.
His heart hammered against her.
His hands clutched at her waist.
A child of the snows of the South… Katara had never felt so warm.
‘That’s one way to make it clear to Aang,’ the Fire Prince muttered. She was close enough to feel the rumble of his words in his chest.
‘I blame the Swamp.’
A low chuckle escaped the firebender, his fingers burning against her lower back. ‘I like the Swamp.’
‘The humidity reminds me of home.’
Katara felt the beads of sweat across her brow and back. ‘It’s this hot in the Fire Nation?’
‘Only in summer.’
She wrinkled her nose. ‘At least in the South Pole you can light a fire to keep warm or put on a parka. How are you meant to keep cool here?’ He made to shift out from under her, but she tightened her grip. ‘Don’t move away, it’s not that hot.’
He laughed again, the uncomplicated sound drawing a smile from Katara. ‘Maybe it’s the boggy cider. Did it make your head feel weird?’
‘More dizzy than anything else.’
Zuko began tracing up and down her spine, winding between each vertebra. The sensation soothed her overexcited nerves and peace crept into her bones. Nothing was resolved, everything still rested between then, but as she rested her head back down against his shoulder, cuddling into his side, stillness granted her peace. Her arm stuck to his chest, and everywhere their legs touched ended up equally as sticky, but neither felt inclined to move away.
His voice was soft as the dim glow of the firelight outside. ‘Katara?’
Some of boyish-Zuko remained in his awkward hesitation. ‘Does this come under the list of things we won’t talk about?’
She knew the this he referred to. ‘No, this was can talk about, we’ll have to talk about.’
‘But not tonight.’
There was something to be said for conversations in the dark. There was a lot more to be said for kisses in the dark. With daylight would come decisions and reality; the invasion and rendezvous would have its own set of challenges.
But tonight, Zuko and Katara slept peacefully wrapped in dark canvas and each other.