No one blank-faces quite like a group of two dozen swampbenders.
‘Solar eclipse?’ Due asked mildly, scratching his elbow.
‘What in tarnation is a solar eclipse?’
Zuko stepped towards the semicircle of waterbenders. ‘It’s when the moon passes in front of the sun, completely blocking it.’
Due was still scratching his elbow, his mouth slightly ajar like a pet fox-dog enjoying a belly rub. ‘What’s one of them solar eclipses got to do with invadin’ the Fire Nation? Ain’t we just gonna get burned?’
‘Not during the eclipse,’ Katara responded quickly, glancing at Zuko. ‘During the eight minutes of the full solar eclipse, the firebenders lose their fire. They’ll be defenceless.’
The swampbenders muttered quietly. The older tribespeople at the back of the group pressed their lips into a flat line, eyes hooded. Five young men crouched before them and whispered eagerly to one another, their faces flushed with excitement. Yun appeared to be somewhere between the reserve of the elderly and the eagerness of the young; Yun was responsible to her people. Her decision to offer the Foggy Swamp Tribe’s help could endanger her kin. It was a grave decision, made all the harder by the obligation she felt she owed Katara since the Southern waterbender began filling in the gaps of the young Clever Woman’s knowledge. The Foggy Swamp Tribe would heed her decision, but their people just didn’t get involved in the wars of the Four Nations outside of the swamp.
‘I don’t know, cousin,’ Yun began heavily, her face pulled into an uncharacteristically severe frown. ‘Our people have kept outta the Fire Lord’s war so far and we ain’t done too badly. Your folks’ve been rounded up and stolen from their lands for risin’ up against the Fire Nation. I don’t wanna be bringin’ down hellfire on me and mine.’
Katara swallowed. ‘It’s true, my people have suffered for being involved in the war. Everyone has. War causes an imbalance in the world; the Banyan Spirit knows it, that’s why I’m here. We need to help Zuko and Aang end this war, to establish peace. The eclipse is our best chance of doing that.’ The older waterbender watched Katara steadily, silently. ‘You called me “cousin” before. Your people do whatever they can to help their families. If we’re really cousins, you’ll stand with us to right this wrong.’
Huu, standing apart from the group, nodded slowly, a serene smile lighting each crease on his face. ‘Death,’ he said crisply, ‘is an illusion. And so is separateness. We’re all the same tribe, the same tree.’
Zuko frowned at him. ‘Err, yeah.’
The vine bending hermit had arrived unannounced earlier in the day after what he claimed was a vision of Katara’s return. He had a distinct, herbal smell that Katara couldn’t remember lingering around him last time they’d met and his eyes seemed to be almost unfocused.
Due blinked slowly at the squat figure beyond Katara. ‘Huu!’ he called joyfully. ‘Well I’ll be. How you been?’
Huu shrugged, his tranquil smile still in place. ‘Oh, you know. Movin’ vines, smokin’ banyan root.’
‘You doin’ you, Huu. You doin’ you.’
A gecko-wasp scurried over the leaves of Huu’s skirt. ‘Did you say the Banyan Spirit has told you about its mission for balance, Katara?’
‘It gave me a vision when we were last here,’ she admitted, glancing at the firebender by her side. ‘Quite a few visions, actually.’
Huu nodded decisively and turned to Yun. ‘It’s your call, Chief. You know our laws.’
‘Laws?’ Zuko asked, turning to the frowning Chieftess.
Yun’s lips puckered as they twisted into a grimace. ‘Swamp law. The movements of the Banyan Spirit— and the words of its chosen prophets— are to be upheld by the tribe.’
‘We’re all just agents of balance,’ Huu affirmed, wiping his nose against his forearm.
Yun dropped her hand from her face and eyed Katara and Zuko sternly. ‘We’ll fight,’ she said at last, scrutinising the two teenagers closely. ‘If the Banyan Spirit chose you, we’re behind you.’
Katara grinned and embraced the older woman tightly. ‘Thank you, Yun!’ she whispered into the Chieftess’s ear. ‘I knew we could count on you.’
The tall woman drew back, gripping Katara’s face between her palms. ‘Our people have a duty to the Banyan Spirit,’ she replied, pressing her forehead to the younger woman’s. ‘And we owe you for helping Clever Mino.’
Katara’s grin widened. ‘I was going to go see her after this meeting. Do you want to come?’
Yun pulled back and patted the young waterbender twice on the shoulder. ‘Maybe another time.’ She gestured to Zuko, several paces away. ‘Take your man with you. I need to talk to my people.’
The heat in Katara’s cheeks plumed with her pulse. Zuko’s face didn’t fare any better; if anything, he was redder.
Yun eyed them both curiously. ‘What?’
‘We, um.’ Katara glanced at the firebender helplessly; he merely shrugged. ‘Um… nothing.’
‘Nothin’, huh?’ the older woman said with a smirk, winking at them. ‘Guess you’ll have to let Gin down easy, cousin?’
‘What?’ both Katara and Zuko chorused.
But Yun was already leading the swampbenders away. ‘See y’all for dinner.’
The two benders glanced at one another; Katara bewildered, Zuko an uncomfortable mix of jealousy, anger, and suspicion.
Katara cleared her throat. ‘So, uh, I was going to meet Mino on the edge of the village.’ She gestured to the east, wavering.
An awkward silence festered, sneezed, and reclined.
‘Um, I didn’t, you know, do anything slippery— I mean shady!’ Zuko’s frown deepened. ‘That didn’t come out right. I just meant nothing happened. Between me and Gin.’
The exiled prince cleared his throat. ‘How far to the east are you meeting Mino?’ he asked, starting out for the edge of the village.
Katara followed with a sigh. ‘Zuko.’
His shoulders tensing was all the reply she received.
‘I don’t know what Yun was talking about,’ she explained, her throat tight with apprehension; where was the shouting, that tell-tale reaction bubbling under the surface?
‘I believe you.’
She almost rolled her eyes at the tone in his voice. ‘Right.’
‘But if he touches you, I’ll burn all his stupid hair off and put another fishhook through his eye!’
There it was.
‘Zuko, stop.’ She tugged at his tunic until he slowed and turned to face her. ‘You can’t go around burning people’s hair off.’
The thunderous fury in his eyes snapped and sizzled like a sail in stormy winds. ‘Do you want him to touch you?’ he hissed, glaring at her.
Katara’s own temper rose; no one spoke to her like that. ‘If you stopped being such a jerk for five seconds and listened to me, you wouldn’t need to get so worked up!’ She narrowed her eyes at him. ‘I don’t like Gin that way. I’m not the sort of person to kiss one boy and have another waiting for me! You should know that!’
The look on the firebender’s face could only be described as a sulk. He crossed his arms over his chest and scuffed his boot against the boggy ground, for all the world looking childishly indignant.
Katara sighed to herself and pushed past him.
He caught her wrist in a surprisingly soft grip. ‘Wait.’
Her back straightened in shock at the suddenness and fervour of the kiss. It made parts of her dazed and weak, while other parts howled and gripped the Fire Prince’s arm tightly. Before she could press closer, he withdrew, backing away several steps.
Katara could feel her mouth hanging open; she didn’t care. ‘What…?’
Zuko no longer glared at her. He watched her, not with anger, more with…
‘Let’s go,’ he growled, stalking towards the far side of the village.
It took Katara another few moments to collect her wits, but her heart continued to thunder against her breast well into her lesson with the young Clever Woman.
It was a threat.
Sokka had been patient with it, made allowances for it, even refrained from the full array of it-related humour. But today Teo had compared it to Sokka and had called his manliness into question in the process. Sokka didn’t care that the boy was in a wheelchair; he would cripple him properly if he dared question his Water Tribe pride.
Enough was enough.
‘Haru,’ Sokka called nonchalantly as he polished his boomerang on the deck of his father’s ship.
The earthbender glanced up from his breakfast bowl. ‘Yeah, Sokka?’
‘How’s your breakfast?’ Swish went his polishing rag.
Haru shrugged; it gleamed in the morning light, fat and insultingly present. ‘Good, I guess. Did you want some?’
Sokka’s stomach rumbled its assent— it most decidedly would like some. ‘No, noooooo, I’m busy with warrior’s work, you see.’ He held up the shimmering boomerang. ‘Not all of us spend half the morning oiling our patchy facial hair.’
Haru looked confused. ‘Katara told me you get a little cranky when you’re hungry,’ the older boy recalled, offering his bowl. ‘Are you sure you don’t want some breakfast?’
Yes. ‘No! And don’t bring my sister into this!’
Sokka stood suddenly, pointing at the earthbender with his boomerang. ‘You come here, onto my father’s ship, en route to my invasion rendezvous, with your long, stupid hair and your stupid patchy moustache! I won’t have it!’
Teo was laughing silently into his dumpling bun; Haru just looked bewildered. ‘I don’t get why you have a problem with my moustache.’
‘Me? Problem with that greasy worm-slug you call a moustache?’ Sokka laughed. ‘Don’t make me laugh!’
Haru frowned uncertainly. ‘Okay?’
Sokka glowered at him. Okay? Oh, he was good. ‘I’m onto you, ‘stache-boy.’ He whispered, leaning intimidatingly towards Haru. ‘I’ve got both eyes on you.’
The earthbender sighed and ran a finger over his upper lip. ‘Whatever you say, Sokka.’
The humidity of the swamp was unrelenting. It made the air as thick and pungent as the water, granting no quarter to those of the southern tundra. Katara couldn’t understand how the swampbenders could sit crowded around a campfire each night, when the air felt like soup over a low flame.
After a long day instructing Mino and helping Zuko teach the swampbenders how best to combat fire, Katara had had enough of heat and flames. She made her excuses and fled to the barely cooler inside of her tent.
It wasn’t long after that a figure silhouetted against the canvas. ‘Isn’t it a little early for bed?’
Katara rolled onto her side, clenching her toes. ‘Not for me,’ she lied, following his movements closely.
Zuko sat atop his bedroll cross-legged. ‘It’s nearly full moon. Don’t you waterbenders get all jittery when the moon waxes?’
‘Something like that,’ she smiled, kicking her boots off. The firebender considered her quietly before sliding down onto his back. His hand rested by hers.
‘You didn’t have to follow me,’ she began, watching him from the corner of her eye. ‘If you wanted to stay up with the others.’
Zuko’s eyes were the darkest shade of gold. ‘I didn’t,’ he said clearly.
Somewhere beyond the blue canvas, cicada frogs droned and catgators lazed in the lukewarm shadows.
‘Yun agreed,’ Katara commented, shifted restlessly. ‘Half the tribe to fight.’
Zuko raised a brow but didn’t comment; he’d been beside her when the Chieftess had clasped Katara’s arm and committed her kin to the invasion.
Katara continued, unperturbed. ‘Do you think we’ll be okay?’ Her voice rose barely above a whisper. ‘Invading your dad’s palace?’
His face hardened. ‘Honestly, I think the hardest part will be what comes after.’
Zuko nodded, his throat bobbing. ‘If we can defeat Azula and my father and a city full of loyalists, if we can get through the blockade, past the Gates of Azulon, if we can end the war, we have to start the hard work: rebuilding and repairing a divided world.’
Katara heard what he didn’t say, heard the anxiety behind his words. I’ll have to lead my people. Teach them to trust the other nations, undo a century of hate and bigotry. She walked her fingers towards his, linking their smallest digits.
‘Aang will help you,’ she said softly, smiling when he turned to look at her. ‘He’s the Avatar; peace is kind of his thing. And you’ll have your uncle. General Iroh would never leave you alone when you need him. I know my father will be the first to the trade talks after the war, King Bumi of Omashu, too.’ Some of the tension in the Fire Prince’s face eased. ‘We’re your friends now.’
Zuko rolled onto his side to face her, lifting their joined hands to hover between her chin and his. ‘Friends, are we?’
Heat bloomed in Katara’s cheeks. ‘Yes, we’re friends.’
Her heart leapt when he brushed his lips along the back of her hand. ‘Do you kiss all your friends? Or just former enemies?’
A droplet of sweat tickled her ear, forcing a shiver down her spine. ‘Zuko…’
The playfulness in the prince’s eyes made her stomach flutter; where was the awkward boy of yesterday? Perhaps it was the effect of the Banyan Spirit. The Spirit’s visions did have a way of making a person re-evaluate themselves; illuminate a new perspective, call into question things once unquestionable.
When she didn’t draw away, he lowered their clasped hands and slowly trailed his free hand up over her thigh.
Once, Katara had dreamed of her frigid homeland turning to plains of skin-tingling heat. Ice became fields of warm grass and snow drifts, wide lakes. The presence of giant sea prunes non-withstanding, the entire dream had held her in a heart-pounding, disarming state of suspense. Even days after waking, the vividness of the sun-drenched ground and the shiver of the humid winds had lingered on her tongue— more real even in daydream than any fantasy about tiger seals or waterbending.
That tense, all-consuming heat couldn’t compare to the wildfire Zuko ignited within her.
He pushed aside the slit of her dress— his gaze flicking towards her parted lips when she gasped— and sketched aimlessly on the exposed skin over her hip. Katara couldn’t yet fathom what all those who had come before her had: how the barest touch of another could so wholly alter her equilibrium.
With a shiver, she shifted closer to the boy who played her blood like a tsungi horn. Again, she whispered his name though she was unsure precisely what it was she wanted to say. She needed something and being closer to him seemed to be a step in the right direction.
Zuko’s thumb pressed firmly against her hip bone. ‘I don’t touch my friends like this,’ he murmured, fingers flexing to pull her closer. ‘Do you?’
Katara inhaled sharply. ‘N—No.’
He audibly swallowed. ‘Your eyes are beautiful,’ he said quickly, stroking her damp hair back behind her ear.
The awkwardness of the comment barely registered in the Water Tribe girl’s mind. She slid her fingers into the soft hair at the base of his skull and pulled his lips to hers.
There’s something almost meditative about kissing someone you’re attracted to, Katara decided. Something in both of them— something far more knowledgeable about kisses and caresses— came alive and began to speak through stolen breaths and ever more confident touches. Katara, accustomed to and confident in her control over her limbs, found her body’s instinctive response to Zuko’s disconcerting. Or would have if she’d been able to think beyond her leg hitched up over his thigh, the heat of his breath on her tongue and the dark giddiness tingling in her nerve endings.
Their kiss became bruising. Part of Zuko would live in her now, in the exchange of breath she couldn’t seem to get enough of. The kiss raised compulsions in her that would not be ignored; urges that consumed her. To rung her fingers over each inch of skin she could reach; to dance, her tongue against his; to press her hips closer to him. The sweet friction the action elicited was like being in the desert with only a mouthful of water when Katara was thirsty enough for an entire ocean.
With a groan, Zuko slid his hand over her waist to her shoulder and eased her back as he pulled away.
They laid still but for the rapid rise and fall of their chests.
‘Wait,’ the Fire Prince croaked, his mouth gleaming. Katara watched his lips part and shape the word; just one more taste… ‘Katara, just— wait.’
She caught herself straining forward and blinked, shaking her head. ‘What’s wrong?’
Zuko laughed weakly. ‘Nothing,’ he said breathlessly. ‘Nothing at all. I just think we should, you know, breathe.’
Impatience tickled like an ant mite on bare skin. ‘Breathe?’ She flexed her hips forward, seeking that teasing friction, and pressed against whatever it was that had become lodged between them. His knife perhaps.
Air hissed between the firebender’s teeth; he grabbed her hips roughly. ‘Don’t do that!’
Katara frowned; had she jabbed him with the knife by mistake? ‘Sorry, did I hurt you?’
Zuko closed his eyes for a heartbeat, jaw clenching. His grip on her waist was painful in the strangest way, like the cold ache of ice on a fresh burn. ‘You didn’t hurt me,’ he growled, his breath coming short and fast. ‘I just think we should calm down. Breathe.’ He looked almost frantic. ‘Consider our place in the universe.’
Suddenly, Katara recalled the intimacy of their position. Her front was pressed right up against him, from collar bone to pelvis. Her right leg was bare and thrown over his hip to better pull him nearer.
A blush stained her cheeks. ‘Oh. Yes, that’s, err, probably a good idea.’
Neither made any move to separate, in fact Zuko’s hand at her waist tightened.
‘Do you want me to get off you?’ she asked quietly, stubbornly holding his gaze.
The Fire Prince’s throat bobbed. ‘Um…’ No.
A smirk pulled at Katara’s lips. ‘Hold still,’ she whispered, tasting the skin in the hollow at the edge of his jaw.
Zuko held as still as he could, but before long, all self-control escaped him for the waterbender’s kisses.