‘The thought chakra is located at the crown of the head. It deals with pure cosmic energy and is blocked by earthly attachments. Meditate on what attaches you to this world. Now, let all of those attachments go. Let them flow down the river, forgotten.’
Aang felt his cosmic energy jar the same way onion and banana juice blocked his digestion. ‘What? Why would I let go of Katara? I—I love her.’
Guru Pathik blinks slowly. ‘Learn to let her go, or you cannot let the pure cosmic energy flow in from the universe.’
‘Why would I choose cosmic energy over Katara?’ Was the old man crazy? Maybe he’d really overdone it on the onion and bananas. ‘How can it be a bad thing that I feel an attachment to her? Three chakras ago that was a good thing!’
But the guru knew the inevitability of such a refusal. ‘You must learn to let go.’
Aang dropped his head into his hands, groaning. His responsibility to the world continued to butt up against the urgings of his heart. He didn’t want to use his bending for violence, but the Fire Nation was intent on burning the world to the ground. He didn’t want to shoulder the enormity of the Avatar’s role, but without him people would continue to suffer. He didn’t want to let go of Katara, but if he didn’t he wouldn’t be able to harness the Avatar State.
‘I’m sorry, but I can’t let go of Katara.’
Pathik was supremely unconcerned. ‘Aang, to master the Avatar State you must open all the chakras. Surrender yourself.’
He’d never been made more uncomfortable by an idea. But he was the Avatar and the world needed the Avatar. ‘Okay. I’ll try.’
Like a call and response, pitchy sighs and low groans.
At first, they appear to be wrestling. But the affectionate nature of his hand on her stomach and hers on his cheek can’t be mistaken for anything other than what it is. Zuko breaks their kiss to look at her, a dopey smile stretching his lips. He whispers something that makes her flush as red as the Fire Nation flag.
Katara responds only by kissing a wayward bead of sweat from his temple.
There is fire in the prince’s eyes.
‘Now think of your attachments and let them go.’
They still wear all their clothes, but the intimacy of the moment is painfully, achingly clear.
There’s conversation passing between them though they speak no words. He rises as though on strings when she draws her fingers down his side.
‘Let the pure cosmic energy flow.’
He tells her he won’t let a lick of flame come within arm’s reach of her. He tells her she’s the most powerful bender he knows but that doesn’t stop him worrying for her. He promises her the safest passage through the invasion.
She kisses his lips to quiet him and whispers, ‘Maybe you should concentrate on taking care of yourself.’
Aang flew high. So high the stars shimmered around him. So high he couldn’t see the firebender touch Katara’s cheek and guide her lips towards his. A place beyond the world was what he sought— somewhere he didn’t have to watch the girl of his dreams whisper her dedication to another boy.
Up there, amongst a million constellations, the Avatar Spirit was a warm, tropical ocean. It invited him in. It promised clarity and decisiveness. But Katara pulled at him, weighed on him. He was stuck, stranded on the beach while the water called to him.
Let her go.
He turned back to her anxiously and caught the gleam of her smile as she laughed at something the firebender said. Their bodies bent now in mirth, Katara’s cheeks pleasantly flushed. She looked happy, deliriously so.
But something gnawed at the Avatar’s heart: That’s supposed to be me. She’s supposed to be mine.
The jealous, clouded anger stirred and stank. It made it hard to see anything other than Zuko’s pale hand on Katara’s cheek.
Behind him, the ocean lapped at his heels.
Let her go.
Aang twisted back around, Katara’s laugh ringing through the starry sky and emptying into the vastness of the cosmos. The notes of her laughter vibrated in his hand; a fine strand of silver tangled around his pointer finger, echoing the waterbender’s giggle. It glowed strongly, white as his tattoo’s when the Avatar State slipped under his skin. Unease stirred in Aang; the silver line didn’t belong here. Its light was too bright, too brilliant; it outcompeted his own, kept it locked away somewhere beneath his seventh chakra.
I’m sorry, Katara.
Slowly, with a heaviness seldom seen in the Spirit World, he released the strand of fine silver.
In another place, Guru Pathik smiled as the young airbender’s tattoos glowed.
To say Clever Mino had taken a shine to Katara was like saying Sokka had only a passing fancy for meat. The younger waterbender visited Katara at all times of the day and night, with a hero-worship usually reserved for the Avatar. Ever since hearing of Katara’s mission that would take the best benders from the village, the girl had taken every opportunity to beg to accompany Yun and the others.
Mino’s feet were light, and her constant attentions were starting to wear on Zuko’s patience. She had a never-ending ream of questions for the older waterbender. What was snow like underfoot? Did she hope to return from the invasion before long? Would Zuko stay away this time (in Mino’s opinion, the firebender took up far too much of Katara’s time)?
When told she would remain with the old folk and other children, Mino’s intensity had only increased.
One morning, a week after their arrival in the swamp, Katara awoke curled into Zuko’s side, his arm cushioned under her head. He was breathing softly against her forehead.
She shifted an inch closer, pressing her nose against his neck. The prince’s scent was intoxicating…
‘Tickles,’ he grunted sleepily, shifting away as a frown puckered his brow.
Katara grinned and shuffled after him, holding him in place with her head on his shoulder. ‘You’re meant to be a morning person,’ she whispered, trailing her fingers up his arm with a smirk.
He just grunted, turning his head into her hair.
A rustle outside the tent caught their attention.
Zuko groaned. ‘Send her away,’ he muttered as the Clever Woman whispered through the canvas tent wall for Katara.
Katara shushed him, detangling herself. ‘You try sending her away.’
Mino’s eye appeared in the seam between the tent entrance. ‘Katara?’
The Water Tribe girl smiled patiently. ‘What is it, Mino?’
‘I just wondered if maybe…’
Zuko lifted his head just enough to glower at the girl. ‘Can it wait? It’s barely morning.’
Mino lifted her chin boldly. ‘Master Katara, I just wanted to ask you if you had thought about how I could help the invasion. You might need me!’
Katara sighed and rubbed her eyes. ‘Mino.’
‘We’ll talk later today, Mino. There are good reasons why you have to stay.’
The girl cast her eyes to the ground. ‘Okay...’
Guilt stirred in the older girl’s chest. ‘I promise. And we can learn a new bending form. I’ll even show you the Octopus Stance.’
Excitement lit Mino as bright as the moon. ‘Really?’
‘On my Water Tribe pride.’
The Clever Woman nodded eagerly, withdrawing. ‘Okay then!’
She skipped away, her dress trailing heavily behind. Katara watched her with a distant discomfort.
‘Thank you,’ Zuko sighed from their bed. ‘She needs to learn boundaries.’
Katara rolled her eyes as she crawled back in beside him. ‘No one in the Swamp understands “boundaries,” Zuko.’
He pulled her into his side and pulled the light cotton blanket over them. The morning was uncharacteristically brisk. ‘I could teach them. If there’s one thing the Fire Nation is good at, it’s boundaries.’
Katara couldn’t disagree. ‘I kind of like that she comes to me,’ she admitted, tracing a faded scar over the firebender’s collarbone. ‘Maybe not how often she does, but I remember how it was for me after my mother died. My Gran Gran filled that role for me, but Mino hasn’t had anyone since her adopted mother died.’
Zuko glanced down at her searchingly. ‘You think she looks up to you like a mother,’ he muttered, blearily blinking the sleep from his eyes. ‘I guess she does. She’s lucky to have you.’
She rolled over to hide the pleased smile that spread like a blush, but Zuko just curled around her. ‘Stop it,’ she warned playfully.
‘You're just trying to make me blush again, aren't you?’
She felt him smile against the back of her neck. ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’
‘Sure, you don’t.’
‘Okay, I won’t say anything.’
Katara bit her lip to keep from laughing. ‘Good.’
He was grinning into her hair; she could feel it. ‘You’re as bad as Aang and Sokka sometimes!’
Zuko snorted in amusement and pulled her back against him. ‘Not possible.’
Katara rolled her eyes but turned around to face him. ‘You’d be surprised,’ she chuckled, bumping his chin with her nose. She leaned away when he started kissing the ticklish spot by her ear. ‘We have to get up.’
‘Get up then,’ he offered even as he lightly traced the goose bumps he’d raised on her arms. ‘I won’t stop you.’ She shivered when he sighed into her hair. ‘You smell like sunshine,’ he muttered almost inaudibly.
The waterbender couldn’t help the grin that cracked her cheeks. ‘Nobody would believe me if I told them the sort of sweet things you say to me when we’re alone.’ She paused, thoughtfully. ‘Except your uncle.’
Zuko toyed with the cotton of her sarashi. ‘Was I that bad?’
Katara gave a short laugh. ‘My mother probably would have liked you. She would have seen a lot about you that it took me much longer to understand.’
‘Your mother sounds like a very intelligent woman.’
Despite his attempt at levity, the melancholy was as familiar as an old friend. ‘She was; she was amazing. She held our tribe together. More impressively, she held me and Sokka together when we just wanted to kill each other.’
‘She seemed to have a way with you both,’ he agreed, the tiniest hint of amusement in his voice. ‘In my vision, she seemed to know how to read you both and find the compromise in each situation.’
‘Describe your vision to me,’ she asked hungrily, turning to watch him. ‘What else did you see about her?’
Zuko’s grip softened and he traced soothing patterns over her shoulder. ‘What I told you. I saw her with you and Sokka as children, then a dozen other places in the South Pole that she had touched. But mostly, I saw you, your mother, and a Fire Nation captain in this house made of ice. And after you leave…’ His voice faded to silence at the hard expression on Katara’s face.
‘Did you, did you see her die?’ The words battered against her clenched teeth to hiss into the air.
Zuko leant up on his forearm at the tension in her body. ‘Katara.’
‘Did you see the man who did it?’ she pressed, sitting up straight as a board.
‘Katara, do you really want to know?’
‘Do you know him? Could you find him?’ She stared intently from his right eye to his left. ‘Tell me!’
He watched her steadily for the space of a sigh before running a hand distractedly through his hair. ‘I saw him,’ he said slowly. ‘I saw… the whole thing.’
‘How—How did he…’
He frowned uncertainly. ‘It… look, it wasn’t painful. She… she didn’t suffer.’
Katara nodded jerkily, wiping angrily at her eyes. ‘The man. Could you find out who he is?’
Zuko leaned back, watching her ambivalently. ‘I know who he is. Not personally, but I recognised his captain’s uniform and sea raven sigil. He’s a Southern Raider.’
‘A Southern Raider.’ The words tasted like a missed step in the dark, light shed onto a creature long since dormant. ‘Zuko—’
‘You want to find him,’ the firebender guessed, breathing out heavily.
She sat back, hurt. ‘I thought you’d understand.’
‘I do,’ he said quietly, watching her carefully. ‘You want closure. Justice.’
A thrill went through Katara, like a new sword— burning cherry red— plunged into cold water. ‘Now I know he’s out there, now I know we can find him… Will you help me?’
He covered her balled fists with his hands. ‘Of course, I will. I’ll come with you.’
She nodded, her mind already flicking through the preparations they would need to make in order to leave. ‘Tomorrow morning.’
Still he didn’t cast any misgivings on her plan. Katara found herself gripping his hand, unable to voice how much she appreciated the quiet support. Sokka would have raised a hundred issues with her idea by now, practicalities she had overlooked, priorities and their order. Even Aang would have struggled with the plan. Toph might have understood— busting heads was sort of her thing— but it was Zuko sitting beside her with the information to bring the murderer to justice.
In whatever form she decided justice would take.
‘You’ll have to tell Yun.’ He seemed to be just thinking aloud, his brow furrowed in thought. ‘I should be able to get some food from Tho, enough for a few days at least.’
Katara didn’t reply. Instead she was consumed by the thought of laying her mother’s spirit to rest in the blood of her killer.
Tho had given them much more than just food. Once Zuko mentioned their need for such a sudden departure— considering the main force of swampbenders would be leaving just two days later— the squat tribesman offered them all the supplies they’d need as well as a “big water swamp skiff.” The boat was rounder than the flat canoes the swampbenders used in the shallow estuaries of their home. The tall sides would make ocean travel far more comfortable, not to mention much safer.
Zuko eyed the sail distrustfully. ‘That’s going to get us to the Fire Nation communications tower?’
The flimsy swamp-weed sail fluttered in a stagnant breeze. ‘It’ll do,’ Katara replied shortly.
She waded out into the shallows, hefting a canvas bag over her shoulder. Zuko watched her clearly impatient movements closely, somewhat disconcerted by the change in the waterbender. Gone was the girl who spent patience on the young Clever Woman like a rich man on treasures, the girl who had been stretching their time with the Foggy Swamp Tribe to avoid another separation. She had backed out of her promises to Mino without a second thought as she held instead to this cold determination that buzzed in her limbs like a hive of furious buzzard-wasps.
‘This is wrong, fireboy,’ Yun told him in a low voice. The village Chieftess leaned against the swamp cypress between them, casting him searching looks and worrying her lower lip. ‘What happened between you two?’
Zuko frowned at her. ‘Nothing.’
‘You say somethin’ stupid?’
His frown deepened into a scowl. ‘Why would you just assume that?’
Yun’s anxious expression lightened for a brief moment. ‘Jus’ a hunch.’
The Fire Prince narrowed his eyes but turned away from the Chief as Katara waved aside Mino’s small hands, hesitantly raised to help. The younger girl nearly fell in the swamp’s shallows when the older waterbender pushed past her.
‘Can you help me finish packing the ship instead of just standing around?’
Zuko met the hard stare she threw his way. Just yesterday he’d woken to the bright, summer blue of her eyes; now they were closer to the hard, icy plains he’d seen in his vision of the southern tundra.
‘We need to get going.’
‘I’m ready when you are,’ he said through his teeth. Patience, a voice counselled him with the cadence of his uncle. Drawing poison from a wound is never an easy process.
‘Are you sure you can’t wait another few days, cousin?’ Yun commented mildly, fingering the hunting knife hilt at her hip. ‘Come with us to these Black Cliffs.’
Katara’s sigh of impatience was barely disguised. ‘I can’t, there’s something I have to do before I go to the rendezvous.’
‘More unsuspectin’ recruits for your invasion?’
‘Something like that,’ the waterbender replied. Zuko crossed his arms over his chest, tapping his foot against the ground; Katara shot him a warning look. ‘We’ll see you in a few weeks, Yun.’
The Chieftess shook her head, eyeing the younger woman with something approaching regret as she pulled her into a tight embrace. ‘I hope I do, girl.’
Katara drew back, looking over her shoulder at the small vessel. ‘You will.’
‘Ain't you gonna say goodbye to the others?’ Yun asked sharply as the Water Tribe girl turned away.
‘I’ll see them in a few weeks!’ Her friend’s expression, usually so open and friendly, darkened. Katara’s hands curled into fists. ‘I have to go, Yun! I’ve waited… I just need to do this. Say goodbye to them for me.’
Yun’s lips were a thin line. ‘An’ your shadow there?’ she asked tightly, nodding over Katara’s shoulder.
Zuko wished he could see Katara’s face as she turned to the welling in Mino’s eyes. The Clever Woman drew herself up with a strength that belied her age, her small throat bobbing as she swallowed her tears and ran back towards the village.
‘Real nice, girl,’ Yun commented dryly. Shaking her head, she turned to follow Mino. ‘Take care of yourself, fireboy,' she called over her shoulder.
The Chieftess disappeared into the low fog that clung to the water’s edge.
Zuko sidled up to the waterbender. Her hands were still balled into fists, her shoulders tense. ‘Katara—’
‘Let’s go,’ she said in a voice of iron mountains and arctic seas.