They were mercifully smooth, the seas between the Swamp and the Fire Nation communications tower. The swell rolled and threw the small ship around like a sparrow in a breeze, but Zuko had spent three years at sea. He knew rough sailing and he thanked every spirit he could think of for their safe passage north to the Fire Nation’s eastern-most isle.
It was the nearest navy communications base he knew of, even if it was at least a two-week journey on the tiny sailboat against the south-bound current. During his exile, Zuko’s uncle often diverted their course away from their search for the Avatar to the rocky island beyond the blockade.
‘Uncle! Why is the ship pulling into port? I ordered us south! To the Southern Air Temple!’ The gleam in the old man’s eye often preluded his nephew yelling.
‘We will, my nephew, we will. But first, Captain Hong owes me a very rare second century ballad by Mika, a most talented Water Tribe poet. I thought we could use it to really liven up Music Night!’
The old man’s laugh echoed hollowly through Zuko’s head— ‘Never turn your nose up at a beautiful song by a beautiful woman, my prince!’— and with a grimace he loosened the groaning railing from his agitated grip.
The source of his agitation he could feel at his back like the heaviness in the air that preceded a summer storm. She sat bowed over the rudder, squinting ahead into the salt spray and noon sun. Accustomed to the fluid movement lent to her by her bending, Katara’s stiff posture and the crease between her brows had Zuko on edge, cracking his knuckles. She leaned into the rolling of the small boat, casting a cursory glance at the Earth Kingdom shoreline off the starboard side every mile or so.
And then she would pace.
It was a wonder she hadn’t worn the deck away with her wanderings. One, two, a dozen, twenty, fifty… Zuko stopped counting at a hundred. He made the mistake of asking her to stop. Once.
Now they sailed in stony silence.
The Fire Prince turned around and under the pretence of searching his bag, he cast an anxious eye over the water bender. She was in the still scene of her two-act play; the pacing was yet to start up again. The furrow of her brow was as severe as his sister’s, albeit without the malice in Azula’s every movement. Zuko again ran through everything he’d ever learned in countless hours at the Fire Nation Academy for Boys; tellingly, there had been nothing in his lessons about how to deal with angry, vengeful women. Considering his current companion, ex-girlfriend, and sister, he considered this a very lacking aspect of his education.
Her voice nearly startled him into jumping. ‘Tell me again.’ It was all things clipped, icy, cut off. ‘Tell me about the navy communications tower.’
Zuko abandoned his bag and considered himself forgiven enough to join her by the captain’s seat. ‘There’s not much to tell. I’ve only been inside once, the other times we visited were during my banishment so I was forced to stay on my ship.’
‘Well, what do you know about it?’ Translation: well, what use are you going to be to me, Zuko?
‘It’s well-guarded, we’ll have to sneak in covertly. Night would be best.’
‘Covertly?’ He didn’t flinch under the full force of her anger. ‘Afraid we’ll hurt some of your old buddies?’
Patience when drawing poison from a wound, he reminded himself as anger at the injustice of her words rode through his veins.
‘Covertly because if anyone spots us they’ll warn the Southern Raiders long before we get to them.’
Zuko sighed into the shirt he’d wrapped around his throat to keep the sea spray from chilling him to the bone. His breath misted around his mouth, warming his chapped lips.
Again, his uncle’s voice cut through his jagged irritation.
Zuko sighed again and lifted his head. ‘Do you… are you hungry? It’s getting late, I can get some possum-chicken jerky if you want.’
Katara barely spared him a glance. ‘I’m fine.’
His forehead was sunburnt, he could feel the sun’s touch like the water bender’s anger. He could feel the skin, hot despite the day’s nearing end and despite his companion’s coldness, something in him dreaded the approaching communications tower.
He ate alone that night, as he had most nights since the swamp skiff had left the milky estuaries of the Earth Kingdom for the sheltered seas of the coast. The possum-chicken was surprisingly nice, dried and salted with a handful of rice. It couldn’t compare to the banquets of his childhood, or even the humble fare aboard his vessel in exile, but it was a significant improvement to the simple meals he had shared with the water bender on their way from Gaoling to the Swamp.
There was no cabin on the swamp bender’s skiff, no crew quarters, so Zuko had appropriated the empty cargo hold for some escape from the wind’s gusts and chapping. Empty crates he’d pushed to one side, borrowing their flat topped-lids as a bed base. The hull was free of water now but if any sloshed in from the deck up top, he wanted their beds elevated and dry.
He’d strung their lantern from the low-hanging beams above his head, some light for Katara should she venture down from her vigil on deck— not that she had yet. He’d caught her dozing at the back of the boat, slumped against the tiller on more than one evening. The light faintly illuminated the cargo hold overhead. Not much larger than a crawl space, it would have been cosy had she decided to join him, though Zuko would not have minded. It would be a relief to see her curled up, the scowl washed from her face as she dreamed of pleasanter things than her mother’s killer.
What would he do, how would he be, if he had a chance to find the man that took his mother from him? The fire bender punched his pillow into a more comfortable shape and unlaced his boots.
It would be another night, swaying alone with the ocean’s roll.
Sokka planted his feet firmly, staring down the length of his boomerang. ‘Fire Lord Ozai, your time is nigh!’
‘Nigh? What’s nigh?’
The Water Tribe warrior, arm still held aloft, sent his companion a withering stare. ‘Nigh. You know, nigh.’
‘I don’t know nigh.’
‘Wellll, you can’t have it all, Moustache Boy.’
Haru sighed and silently thanked the forest spirits of his home town that he no longer had to share a boat with Sokka of the Water Tribe. ‘Shouldn’t we be down with the other warriors? Helping them set up camp?’
Sokka flapped his boomerang at the earth bender. ‘All in good time, young Haru—’
‘I’m two years older than you.’
‘—All in good time. First, a good leader must scout out the best location for his army.’
‘But your dad said to set up in the sheltered valley behind the cliffs—’
‘Dammit, Haru! Why do you ruin everything? Fine! Why don’t you take your moustache and go follow orders like a good little boy!’
It was incredible how far his father’s baritone could carry in the winds around the Black Cliffs. ‘Sokka! Get down here and help Bato organise our supplies!’
Sokka sighed and glared at Haru; the earth bender did ruin everything! ‘Coming, Dad!’
‘How much longer?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘What do you mean you don’t know?’
‘I don’t know, okay! Three days? Maybe two.’
‘I thought you knew where this place was.’
‘Argh—Katara—I do! I know it’s half a day from the Crescent Isle, but we haven’t got to the Crescent Isle yet!’
Stony silence. Zuko would go mad if all he got from her were sharp questions and stony silences.
‘You know, I think it would be good for you to go below and get some sleep.’
‘Sure you are, but you need rest if you’re going to break into a Fire Navy communications tower and hunt down the Southern Raiders flag ship. You’ll need your strength.’
‘Oh, don’t you worry about my strength.’ Zuko’s heart sunk at the brick and mortar that shaped the curve of the girl’s cheeks and brow. ‘I have plenty. I'm not the helpless little girl I was when they came.’
He nearly did it then. Nearly reached out for her, reached for the softness of her hair, to soothe away the sadness there. The brittle anger.
But he didn’t.
He retreated to the far side of the skiff. Afraid of what her rejection would do the fragile hope she’d planted in him beneath the dark canvas of their tent in a swamp he wished they’d never left.
For a group of old people, the Order of the White Lotus moved like ghosts. The two men on duty by the mouth of the cove didn’t see the ships with blue-and-white sails coming. Perhaps because Bumi snuck ashore and trapped them in rock candy, much to his and Pakku’s amusement.
A voiced drifted on sharp coastal winds. ‘Gramp Gramp!’
Pakku turned to his wizened friend. ‘I don’t suppose you’ve any of that creeping crystal left, Bumi?’
But unencumbered by rock candy, Sokka flung himself at the old water bender. ‘When did you get here?!’
‘You can still call me Master Pakku,’ he reminded the boy, disentangling himself.
Hakoda, shoulders squared, gripped the Northern man’s arm tightly. ‘It’s good to see you, Master Pakku. Thank you for coming.’
‘Not at all, Hakoda.’
The snort from Pakku’s elbow interrupted the reunion. ‘Momo!’ Bumi cried reaching gleefully for the lemur on Aang’s shoulder, but Momo had seen the two candy-encased guards and leapt from the monk’s shoulder to escape the old king.
‘Sorry, Bumi! Looks like Momo’s leaving the greetings to me,’ Aang chirped and with a grin he instigated a complex handshake with the earth bender that was a hundred years old and took over a minute to complete.
‘Good to see you, Aang!’
Sokka pushed the Avatar aside, peering around the group of old men on the beach. ‘Where’s General Iroh? My dad and I are finalising the invasion plans and could use his intel.’
‘Oh, he’ll be along,’ Bumi replied, craning his neck to search for Momo. ‘In the meantime, send some of you young folk down to unpack my cabin. And set up my tent. And feed my kitten. We did bring the kitten, didn’t we, Piando?’
A younger, more dignified man sighed and shook his head. ‘Yes, Bumi, we brought the kitten.’
‘Fantastic!’ The old king declared, setting off for the distant Water Tribe camp. ‘Unpack my kitten!’
The next day seemed to last a lifetime.
Zuko was sick of the boat and infuriated by its tiny edges that had started to feel less like a vessel and more like a cage. He’d taken up Katara’s pastime of marking out their time with turns about the deck. Once, twice, a dozen times, twenty, fifty… At a hundred he lost count.
Katara snapped at him to stop, to sit still, and he barely contained the sudden flash of fury.
In fact, he didn’t contain it at all.
‘I’m thinking!’ he shouted, turning to her with flames flaring from his clenched fist. ‘Can I think? Or do we have to sit like panda-sloths all day and stare at the horizon?!’
The astonishment on her face did little to curb his anxious fury. ‘I am not a panda-sloth! What’s wrong with you?’
‘What’s wrong?’ He gave a bark of laughter, devoid of all humour. ‘What’s wrong is I feel like the bad guy again. Like even though I’m helping you, I’m somehow guilty of chasing the Avatar again!’
What was wrong was the girl at her post beside the tiller was so far from the grown up Katara, the woman who’d come to him in the swamp. The soft part of him, a part filled with memories of her kisses and her laughter, had shrunk to no more than a wisp. He couldn’t get away from her on this damn boat! And now he couldn’t even walk to exercise his frustration.
‘Forget it!’ he snapped, turning away from her and yanking the cargo hold door open. ‘I’m going to bed.’
‘But it’s not even sunset!’
He took savage pleasure in slamming the hold door closed on her words. But it pierced him, those blue eyes wide in shock.
He couldn’t sleep. But he pretended to when she cracked the cargo hold door around sunset. He turned his back to the square of dying daylight and closed his eyes to the water bender whispering his name.
Even though he believed that part of him, the part that was the exact size and shape of the water bender, to be dead or dying, he couldn’t ignore her a second time. Not when he’d been craving her attention for over a week now.
She slipped into the cramped hold, unsteady and stiff with her sullen hours at the tiller. She smelled of salt and the sea and something he couldn’t quite name but remembered all to clearly from waking up with his nose pressed into the dark tangle of her hair.
He couldn’t help himself when she laid a hand on his arm.
‘I’m sorry for yelling,’ he grunted, shifting to make room for her on the platform of crate lids.
‘No, no I…’
Her fingers were cold and he pushed his body temperature a little higher to warm them. ‘Are you hungry?’ She didn’t protest when he sat up and found her a bowl of rice, dried mushrooms, and jerky. ‘Here.’
She blinked distractedly, and he felt the powerlessness threaten to overwhelm him. ‘Please, Katara.’ He pressed the bamboo into her hands. ‘Eat.’
She sighed and chewed slowly on a strip of possum-chicken. ‘It’s good.’
‘I know. It’s good.’
He didn’t realise he was holding his breath until he coughed. Clearing his throat, he looked for something other than her lips to focus on.
‘You set out my bed.’
He glanced down at the tangle of blankets around his waist, cheeks reddening. ‘Oh, yeah, sorry, I must have dozed off and rolled over.’
‘It’s okay.’ She settled down beside him, on his bedroll, a grain of rice on her chin. ‘I, uh, thought maybe I might get a proper night’s sleep.’ She swayed with more than the ocean’s roll. ‘The wind and the spray wake you up a dozen times a night up there.’
Zuko rubbed his eyes and lit the lantern with a click of his fingers. ‘No kidding.’
She appeared gaunter in the lantern light than she should have, sitting in his bed, staring into her dinner bowl. ‘I wanted to apologise. For earlier. And for how I’ve… for how I’ve been. I shouldn’t take it out on you. It’s not fair and I’m sorry.’
He took the empty bowl from her loose grip and set it down beside his own. ‘You don’t have to apologise.’
‘Yes, I do.’ Her hands were so soft on his, softer than he remembered. His felt overlarge and coarse in her firm grip. ‘I really do. You’ve done nothing but help me since, well, for a long time now. And I shouldn’t have said those things about you and the navy tower and—’
‘It’s fine, Katara, really.’ But the soft part of him that held memories of just how soft she felt pressed up against him, lit up like Dragon Day fireworks. ‘I get it.’
And he did. Now with her hurt and confusion softening the brittle, stony shell of the past two weeks, he saw her anger for what it was.
Her answering smile was brighter than the midday sun. ‘I don’t know how you do, but I know you do. And I’m so grateful for it. And for you not questioning this trip. I know you might not agree, that you probably think we should be headed to the rendezvous…’
He couldn’t help himself. He slid his fingers over hers until their enemies would have to take them prisoner together he gripped her so tightly. ‘What was that passage you read to me in the swamp? The one about balance being about both the light and the dark?’
Katara’s weary grin grew as she recited, ‘The Banyan Spirit works with more than the forces of light and purity. It builds a union between light and dark, for one cannot live always in the sunlight without stepping under the darkness of the moon.’
‘You need to confront this man. Or at least begin the journey to finding him.’
She watched him closely then, her eyes narrowing in their examination. After nearly two weeks of wishing for it, Zuko found himself unable to meet her gaze. Afraid, he realised. Afraid of what she might find.
‘You’re really amazing, do you know that, Zuko?’ He swallowed, doing his best to act casual when every joint and bone felt awkward and out of place. ‘Thank you, for being so patient with me.’
She kissed him, chastely on the cheek, but it was enough to send fire through every nerve. He watched her lift her blue dress overhead, pull the blanket out from under her and slip between the covers. Eyes already drooping, she pulled the blanket to her chin with a yawn. ‘Can you get the light?’ she muttered.
Laying back beside her, the cargo hold going dark with his exhale, Zuko didn’t sleep for a long, long time.