Tears stung the cut on Katara’s cheek.
Tears and the ocean’s cold spray, salty and unforgiving at the swamp skiff’s prow.
Behind her, the Fire Navy communications tower shrunk into the distance and with it, all possibility of avenging her mother’s murder. For now, she swore to herself, trying to dry the bitter tears.
Zuko bowed low over the encoded map, his finger trailing the dots and dashes of the Raiders’ journey. Excitement, dark and terrible, welled in Katara’s chest. Now she would hunt him, she would hunt him the way he’d hunted her people. She would find him and he would know she was much more than the frightened little girl of six years ago.
‘Okay, Southern Raiders...’ Zuko’s finger seemed to pierce the parchment down south, very far south. ‘On patrol near Whaletail Island…’
‘Whaletail Island?’ The map was small for so vast a distance, just a tiny scrap of paper telling her she would miss the invasion if she followed the Southern Raiders’ trail.
‘Katara, this is farther than from here to the swamp.’
‘I know that!’ She cursed under her breath, a word learned from Sokka, and studied the map desperately. ‘Surely there’s a current? Or—or a ship we could steal, a faster one, a Fire Navy one?’
‘Even the smaller navy vessels require a crew.’
And there are none fast enough; the words he didn’t say.
She glanced up at him, and to his credit he didn’t avoid her glare as the hard reality slammed home. He knew. He was just waiting for her to make the choice.
The choice between her family, her Avatar, her invasion.
And finding her mother’s killer.
‘This isn’t the end,’ she hissed to the night, to the waves that roared and cajoled. I will find him. After the invasion, after the war…
But the ocean didn’t answer, it rarely did. These weren’t the familiar seas of the south, seas of salty ice and bone-chilling but predictable cold. Oceans she could read, oceans that would comfort. No, she was in Fire Nation seas now. And Katara couldn’t bear the sight of open water for another day.
‘Where’s the nearest island?’ She spun to her companion at the tiller, his black clothes still damp to the waist after their quick departure from the communications tower. ‘Let’s get off the boat for a while. I’m sick of the sea.’
Zuko didn’t comment on the way she disparaged her beloved water. ‘There are hundreds of tiny, uninhabited islands between here and the Black Cliffs.’
‘Good.’ She turned back to the gloomy night winds that carried her tears out to sea. ‘Take your pick.’
Zuko hadn’t lied, some of the islands were no bigger than Katara’s village. One of them was little more than a rocky outcrop that would be swallowed by the ocean at high tide. Another they passed had two dozen scraggly trees and nothing else.
Zuko moored the skiff at the shore of an island the size of Omashu. Katara tried to find something to hate about the place, but she had to hand it to the Fire Nation: it was a beautiful place. The forests were rich greens with bright bursts of red, yellow, and purple flowers and huge parrot-hawks the colour of flames. The sand wasn’t stony or coarse like the Earth Kingdom, but fine, pale grains that squeaked underfoot and left crisp footprints in her wake.
Even Zuko, retrieving their tent and bags in the early morning light, seemed somehow brighter, less severe. Although that might have been his relief to be free of the tiny swamp skiff.
They went about setting up the tent in the tree line without much conversation, too tired to talk, too relieved to do much more than shake out their bedding and fall gratefully into its softness.
Monsters that wielded flames like knives may well have robbed her of her bending, her happiness, and perhaps at times her sanity, but Jima could protect herself well enough with daggers and fists and a bitterness so sharp it could cut. And she was by the sea; bending intact or not, she would always have an advantage with salty air in her lungs.
So The Boulder— ridiculous name, by the way, she refused to use it— better get the hell out of her pavilion or he’d be in for a real fight, not one of those dramatic displays he played at in the Earth Rumble arena.
‘The Hippo has asked The Boulder—’
‘The Boulder wonders—’
‘What did we talk about?’
‘…Not talking in third person around Jima—you.’
‘Ah! He knows pronouns, who could’ve guessed?’
The Boulder’s hurt look barely registered; surely she wasn’t the first person to take issue with the showman persona he persisted in maintaining despite the lack of an audience. He crouched lower and pushed into her tent, ignoring her grunt of irritation.
‘The Boulder wonders—The Boulder wonders what evil happened to you to make you so angry.’ His words knocked the fisherwoman harder than if he’d crushed her in a tomb of earth. But she was Water Tribe and harsh as the deep seas of the South, she knew better than to cave to an earth bender. ‘The Boulder would listen, if you wanted to talk.’
‘I won’t talk to a man who calls himself The—’
Even Earth Kingdom summer days aren’t as sunny and uncomplicated at the earth bender’s smile. ‘You can call me Mo Chou, my parents do.’ He held back the canvas over the entrance. ‘The chief of your old tribe is here. He’s Katara’s father.’
She picked at a thread she’d already fixed earlier that morning; stupid thing for him to bring up. What does she care about the girl’s stupid father? ‘Enjoy meeting him. Hakoda’s father was chief in my day; I’ve got no interest in him and his.’
The Boulder was unfazed. ‘A walk by the cliffs, then? They’re as sharp and unforgiving as your attitude.’
It wasn’t funny. Then why was she smiling—smirking! She was smirking, laughing at him. ‘Who’s to say I won’t push you off?’
‘You can try,’ he told her wickedly, following her from the tent. ‘The Boulder knows how to take care of himself!’
Katara slept through most of the day, longer than Zuko by hours as she caught up on two weeks of uneasy nights swaying against the tiller. By the time she stirred, the sun had peaked and begun its descent, pleasantly warm against her skin. Zuko had rolled the tent flaps wide open, allowing the cool breeze to sweep through the canvas and cool her skin against the hot day.
Katara could do little more than yawn, shed her Water Tribe dress and curl back into her pillow as the warm weather lulled her back to sleep. She dreamt of sand underfoot and the stillness of sitting on the beach and watching the ocean’s distant tumbling rather than rolling along the top of it. There were hands pressed into the curve at the base of her spine and the feeling of flames under her skin…
When she came to, there was a small campfire burning nearby and the sun told her the day was wearing into the later side of the afternoon.
Under a palm tree nearby, Zuko sat with a small book in his lap, watching her. ‘Good morning.’
‘Morning?’ she croaked, one hand smoothing her tangled hair and the other stretching high above her head.
‘Afternoon—nearly evening. You slept all day.’
Katara yawned and stood, rolling her shoulders. ‘I feel like I could sleep for a week.’ She frowned at his wet hair. ‘You went swimming? Without me?’
‘You were out cold. Azula could have attacked us and you would have slept through the whole thing.’
Katara sniffed and turned to the beach. ‘Did you swim there?’
‘There’s a freshwater pool, just over that hill.’
‘Are you going to make me swim alone?’
He watched her cautiously. ‘Do you want me to come with you?’
She smiled against the confusion and the disappointment. Not now, she told it. ‘Only if you want to.’
He stood hurriedly, dusting off his pants. ‘This way.’
She followed him through the dense forest, up its sandy slope until they reached the top. Though not the highest point of the island, the hilltop certainly provided a spectacular view of their camp, the beach beyond and the forest between. The Fire Nation forests were so lush, so varied and wild, a mad assortment of colours and textures, strange smells and bird calls.
‘This place is incredible.’ The forest seemed to steal her voice, soaking it into the dense undergrowth. ‘Is all the Fire Nation like this?’
‘Some of it.’ Zuko gestured to the small pool below and they started down the hill. ‘The forests around the capital are, but further inland on the big islands it’s more arid.’
She stretched her arms high above her head, groaning with another yawn. ‘The heat is lovely. Not oppressive like the swamp, or dry like the Earth Kingdom. It’s just right.’
‘I suppose there are some good things about the Fire Nation after all,’ said the prince.
Katara chuckled because he was right. ‘There sure are.’
The pool was little more than twenty feet across, edged by moss-covered rocks, sheltered by broad-leafed palms. It was eerily still but for the dragonfly-wasps skittering across its surface. Katara’s toe sent ripples out across its surface.
‘It’s so warm!’
Beside her Zuko shed his shirt and trousers. ‘Only on the surface. It’s deep, and the deeper you go, the colder it gets.’
She glanced from his discarded clothes to the softness in his expression. ‘You like it here, too?’
He glanced at her, surprised. ‘This is the closest I’ve been to home since my banishment.’
Katara crouched by a lichen-covered rock and stroked the water’s surface. ‘You haven’t been back to the Fire Nation since your father banished you?’
‘That’s kind of what banishment means,’ the prince said in a hard voice.
‘Then we better enjoy this,’ she replied gravely, and before he could divine her intention— before he could prepare any sort of defence— she leapt into the pool, flicking her wrists to send the water from her dive out wide at the fire bender. His protest was muffled by the rush and bubble of the water.
Sweet, the water was sweet. Fresh water was an indescribable treat after so many days at sea. Smooth and soft, it ran and danced over her skin, washing away the weeks of salt and anger and the rot of vengeance. It sung to her like an old friend, welcoming her home. She allowed herself to still and float slowly to the gift of warm sunlight and sweet tropical air at the surface.
The water beside her pushed and swayed at the disturbance of another body, hot skin and quick movements.
Katara grinned at the look Zuko shot her, somewhere between unwilling amusement and impatience. ‘Aren’t you glad you came with me and not Aang or Sokka?’ she teased, turning and swimming over to where he trod water under the largest palm frond.
The Fire Prince tried to scoff but a threatening smile turned his derision into something far softer. ‘I am.’
‘Does this island have a name?’
Zuko’s hand brushed her shoulder as he turned to stare up at the mountain towering above them. ‘Maybe. There are hundreds of these small, uninhabited islands though. Most of them aren’t considered worthy of a name.’
‘Not worthy?’ Katara looked out at the calm peace of the surrounding forest, the high bird calls, the low humming of dragonfly-wasps. ‘This place is incredible. It even has fresh water.’
‘It’s too steep to support a population, so my family wouldn’t have considered it important.’ The weary distaste in his tone, the melancholy of his family’s past, sunk the smile from his face.
‘We should name it then.’
Zuko glanced at her and away. ‘Be my guest.’
‘No, we have to come up with it together,’ she insisted, reaching for the rocky edge of the pool beside her. ‘It’s our island after all.’
The Fire Prince humoured her with a sigh. ‘Katara and Zuko’s Island?’
She sniggered. ‘No! Come on, we can do better than that!’
He glowered at her, steadying himself against a rock. ‘Fresh Water Isle.’
‘I don’t see you suggesting anything!’
‘Okay, okay, jeez. What about King Parrot-Hawk Island?’
‘All the islands have king parrot-hawks on them.’
‘How was I supposed to know that?’
‘It’s an island archipelago, birdlife is the most common fauna.’
‘So? I didn’t attend His Royal Fieriness’s Fancy School of Fire Nation Birds! I grew up in the South Pole!’
‘It’s basic geography.’
Katara rolled her eyes. ‘You’re so stubborn!’
‘And you’re not?!’
She ignored him. ‘The Caribbean,’ she suggested suddenly.
‘Caribbean? What’s a Caribbean?’
‘I don’t know, I just came up with it. It sounds nice.’
‘It doesn’t mean anything.’
Fed up, Katara splashed water in his face. She couldn’t help herself. Nor could she help the laughter bubbling up her throat as droplets dripped slowly from his outraged expression.
‘What was that for?!’
She did it again, diving away from him and sending brilliant arcs of water high into the air. ‘Fun!’
Momentarily stunned, Zuko took a beat before he launched himself from the rock wall and tackled her around the waist. Katara squealed, wiggling in his grip as she tried to free her pinned arms, but Zuko kept them afloat, smirking at her attempts to free herself.
‘What’s the matter, water bender? Can’t bend without your arms?’
She grinned wickedly and spat the mouthful of water she’d been holding at his chin. Zuko yelled, ‘Gross!’ and his grip loosened as he tried to wash her attack away. It was all the distraction Katara needed to squirm free and strike out for the bank where her clothes sat.
She beat him there, by two body lengths at least, and scurried up the rock wall before the Fire Prince could pull her back.
‘Ha!’ she shouted in glee, planting one fist on her hip, the other pointing at him. ‘I won!’
But it didn’t look as though Zuko was thinking about victory or defeat. The fire bender had the most peculiar smirk curling up his cheeks. She dropped her victorious pose, turning away to bend the water from her sarashi. A shiver traced her spine at the rasp of the cool, dry fabric against her skin.
‘You cheated,’ the Fire Prince told her, pulling himself out of the water onto the rocks.
Katara scoffed; the nerve. ‘You’re a sore loser.’
‘I don’t lose, water bender.’
‘Well you just did, fire bender.’
Zuko’s laugh seemed to startle him more than Katara. It wasn’t loud or hearty, but whispery as his voice and it shook his shoulders till they hung loose as though he hadn’t a care in the world. As though he wasn’t the banished prince of an imperialist nation, the boy cast away by an uncaring and cruel father. Zuko’s surprise at his outburst caught Katara and she joined him with a giggle, pointing at the shock scrawled across his face.
‘Oh, you should have seen your face!’ She wiped at her eyes. ‘You looked like you’d never heard yourself laugh before!’
The laughter danced like firelight in his eyes. ‘Glad it amuses you, water bender.’
‘It does,’ she assured him, cheeks aching.
Zuko shrugged on his shirt and pants, shaking his head. ‘Are you hungry?’
Katara nodded and, like water travelling well-worn valleys, slipped her fingers between his, tugging him back the way they’d come. ‘Starving,’
Iroh was late because the Fire Nation was rebelling.
‘Rebellion might be too strong a word,’ he amended humbly, joining Bumi, Bumi’s kitten, Piando, Jeong Jeong, and Pakku late the next day.
‘Resisting,’ Piando supplied, his best hopes confirmed.
‘Willful.’ Jeong Jeong said it like a prayer.
‘Sick of Ozai’s shit,’ Bumi chortled with undisguised glee.
‘A century of war will do that to a people,’ Pakku observed, welcoming the old general with a low bow. ‘Will any more of your countrymen be joining us?’
Iroh, son of Fire Lord Azulon, glowed with his inner fire. ‘A wise general does not count upon the number of men under his command, but upon their worth.’ But the old man’s electrified grin outlasted his composure. ‘The people tired of my brother’s war have heard whispers of our destiny come the eclipse. We must trust to hope that they find the courage to finish this war.’
They never did agree on a name for the island— ‘What about Cinder Cove?’ ‘Urg, Zuko.’ ‘How about The Island of Water Benders Who Drive Me Crazy, then?!’— but they did spend two days recouping their strength (and Katara’s spirits). It went without saying that what they should have done was continue on directly to the rendezvous. After all, it had been weeks since Katara had seen her friends and years since she’d seen her father, and Zuko was scarcely less eager to sit and drink fine jasmine tea with his uncle.
But after the weeks caught up in old wounds there was a reluctance, unspoken between them, to hurry from the sanctuary of the island. And a renewed preoccupation with the pleasure of kisses under deep navy canvas or the joy of laughter, unchecked and shared.
It started with a bending battle on the beach.
Late afternoon and orange screamed across a sky that had spent the day preoccupied with blue. The fire bender was teaching a girl of water how to dampen the flames of his people’s element. This part of the stomach holds the breath of fire, a blow here will weaken a Salamander Strike to nothing more than sparks. He’d dreamed of his sister’s lightning while aboard the swamp skiff and feared for the warmth in the Water Tribe girl’s eyes; she took to the redirection form like a turtle-duck to water, his uncle’s study of her people’s bending lending itself to her movements.
‘You won’t be able to bend lightning.’ He wasn’t happy about it; she wondered if he’d coerce the very elements themselves to give her the ability if he could. ‘But at least you can direct the flow of the strike away from your heart.’
At first he guided her, his body like a cloak as showed her the steps that might one day save her life. But before long, they were dancing. He bent, his arms traced invisible pathways down his chest, marking his stomach, and up. She moved lithely; these were the dance moves of her people after all. She pushed and pulled and held hands full of imaginary lightning while electricity of another kind brewed like a storm.
Katara liked to think that the flames of Zuko’s making met hers in perfect equilibrium, but really their balance meant where her form faltered he pushed forward strongly. Where his root was broken by the ocean at his ankles, she rushed in like the tide. He never lessened the strength or the intensity of his attacks— he wouldn’t do her the dishonour. He fought just as viciously as he had dozens of times before, more so perhaps. There was an edge to the banished prince that gave his strikes a viciousness that made her heart beat like a drum. There, in the smirk as he dodged ice sharp as knives. And there again in the way he twisted around her lunge. She grew sore from the heat of his attack, and he limped with the force of hers. The evening had well and truly worn into night by the time their ice and heat became little more than a mess of limbs.
‘Too slow,’ he panted, grinning wickedly down at the girl pinned beneath him. Sand smudged along his chest and neck, rising and falling with the heaving of his breath. ‘I win.’
Katara twisted in a bending form and the sweat on his skin helped her tip him back into the upturned beach beside her. She scrambled after him, catching his foot when he tried to lunge out of her reach. She fought her way atop him with difficulty, gasping for breath, but the fire bender was doing all he could to unseat her.
She did the only thing she could think to distract him.
She held him with her lips. He immediately forgot about escape. The hands she’d pinned under her knees struggled faintly, yet upon release they strove not for freedom but for the curve of her spine. They gasped for air to soothe their exertions but unwilling or unable to detangle, they were left with little choice but to steal the lost breath of the other.
He said her name, and then again when she shivered at its harsh sound in his throat. There was space between them once, but now Aang’s birth element made way for the slick of skin on skin.
When she drew still enough to open her eyes— night now well and truly fallen— Katara learned something of the Fire Prince’s disposition. There were whole tomes in Wan Shi Tong’s library to describe the simple heat in the fire bender’s eyes. His fist tangled in her hair, refusing her retreat.
The words came from somewhere impatient, somewhere hollow and greedy. ‘I like fighting you like this.’
He was bruised and something more intense than his temper bubbled beneath her. ‘I’ll fight you like this any day. I’ll rejoin my father just to fight you like this when you invade the Fire Nation.’
It’s funny, she should laugh, but there was no joke in the stormy air between them. Could he feel it too? This thread of electricity that wove between them with all the force of a cascading waterfall? The spark he was surely bending in the minute space between her skin and his?
She leaned forward, caught in his fire but burning against him just as brightly. ‘Zuko?’
Where were the words for this? Why had she never learned them? How did the first woman tell the first man that she wanted the very marrow in his bones? How did she tell him she wanted to crawl inside his rib cage and dance to the joint percussion of their heartbeats?
Untangling itself from her hair, his hand trailed across her collarbone with all the confidence in the world. Did he have the words, the explanation, for molten blood in her veins? Perhaps he didn’t need them, she decided. He spoke loudly enough in the fire he drew with just the pad of his thumb down her body’s curve. He never blinked, and his breathing barely settled; she should know, she felt it against the fingers lightly tracing his lips.
Technically she started it, but it was the heat in the banished prince’s lips that finished it. They were the softest thing about the boy, aside from the hair running between her fingers, or maybe the skin usually hidden beneath his shirt, silky and smooth and pale in the moonlight. She wouldn’t remember dropping low over him and pressing their bodies close enough to hurt. She was blind to the ship passing a kilometre out to sea. But Zuko’s hands tracing the shape of her spine? His teeth taking her bottom lip for keeps? These things caught her in haze of slow-burning embers.
It wasn’t until the groan— hoarse, unchecked, and from her own throat— that she drew away from the tantalising stupor of the kiss.
‘Don’t,’ he pleaded in a voice of smoke and whispers, following her retreat.
She wavered at the tickle of his lips against hers— light, teasing; come get me, they said.
‘Zuko,’ she whispered where she meant to assert. ‘It’s… I’m…’
He dropped his hands to her waist. ‘Are you okay?’ he asked huskily.
Yes, she thought impatiently. She was more than okay; she was on fire and the flames felt fantastic.
‘It’s just, I want…’
With a wisdom deeper than that of classrooms and old scrolls, he asked, ‘What do you want?’
With the answer in her bones, in the singing of her skin, she answered, ‘I want you to show me…’
The Fire Prince left unwillingly, gone only to fetch a blanket while Katara washed the sand from her skin and the wobble from her knees. There was nothing she could do for the smile across her face— it felt permanent. Because she’d finally caught the secret of the swamp’s spectre, caught it for herself. She understood the coals burning in his eyes now, the reality of his memories.
‘I wish I could travel with you like we did after the library. Just the two of us, the beach…’
She laughed aloud and hugged herself as the surf lapped at her belly. How could she have known the fate she was sealing then? That frightened girl in the swamp, haunted by an enemy? How was she to know the magic of the salt at her back, the kiss of a boy who breathed fire as he whispered to her promises of pleasure and safety and loyalty?
She felt as though she was hovering three feet above the waves when Zuko emerged from the tree line, bedding under arm, and waving to her. Katara marvelled at the brightness of the moon on the pale sand, and the milky skin over Zuko’s back when he bent to spread the blanket under the spill of dune willow leaves.
She didn’t announce her arrival with words, she doubted even now that she’d be able to find the right ones for what had awoken down deep in the mysterious places beneath her flesh. Instead she traced the band of his trousers and allowed him to pull her down to the makeshift bed with a breathless giggle.
‘You’re cold,’ he mumbled into her damp hair, pulling the thick woven blanket up over their heads.
‘Not for long.’
He hissed at her cold feet. ‘Do you want me to light another fire?’
‘On the beach? But you said a passing patrol might see it.’
‘I’d rather fight a patrol ship than have you freeze to death.’
She practically purred. ‘I’ll be fine,’ she assured him.
Zuko clutched her tightly. ‘And you’re… you’re okay?’
She snorted. ‘Are you kidding?’
‘I thought maybe, the blood—’
‘I’m fine, trust me.’
A smirk crept into his voice. ‘You sounded more than fine.’
He pressed his nose into her hair. ‘I liked it.’
It was liquid now, her skin and everything beneath it. He’d reached in somehow and invited her element to reside where bones should be. ‘Me too.’
‘I didn’t think you’d be so... after last night, I didn’t expect…’ He waved at her vaguely. ‘This.’
She laughed breathlessly. ‘Nor did I. Well, not really.’
Her cheeks burned. ‘I think I knew this would happen. One of my visions of you in the swamp hinted.’
He eyed her sternly but there was no meat to the reproval. ‘You never told me that.’
‘I thought you’d told me everything your vision said!’
‘I didn’t really understand what he meant— I mean, you meant— at the time. It feels like a lifetime ago, you know?’ She wanted him to understand, this hunger for more than food, for the sustenance being close to him provided. This wasn’t something her Gran Gran’s stories had prepared her for, this wasn’t even close. All the songs and folktales and whispers overheard between women at their weaving. ‘I’ve never, I’ve never— you know— like this with anyone before.’
She pressed her cheeks against his chest, sure the liquid magma under her skin glowed through the night. Shyness teased at her now her pulse had settled and the ache in every nerve ending was nothing but an exhilarating memory.
She heard the smirk in the prince’s silence. ‘That’s not a bad thing.’
He laughed and pulled her closer. ‘Tell me,’ he encouraged softly, stooping to trace his lips along her hairline. ‘What did you see?’
Katara wriggled at the distraction. ‘That tickles.’
He pressed his chin against her temple. ‘Are you hiding, water bender?’
The smile unfurled like a sparrow-hawk’s wings. ‘No.’
‘Seems like you are.’
His hand wandered the curve of her waist, tracing the edge of her breast. ‘If you won’t talk to me…’
She caught his hand, entwining her fingers through his. ‘In the swamp,’ she began, peeking up at him, ‘when I was trying to get away from you, the vision-you said something about a beach. It sounded… he sounded like it was something big. Something momentous. I guess this is what he meant.’
The Fire Lord’s son stole one of her feet between his. ‘But you didn’t know it would be this.’
She ducked her head again. ‘No!’
His laugh was full and warm and uncomplicated. ‘You’re beautiful when you’re flustered.’
She shook her head but could barely help the giddiness; her new molten body was composed of it entirely. ‘Have you… with anyone… like this?’
He stilled and she peered up in consternation, a dull jealousy wringing her insides. ‘Once. Almost.’
‘Almost?’ The steely tone surprised them both; the fire bender rubbed soothing circles against her shoulder.
‘A colonial girl. She worked on my ship. My uncle took a shine to her pipa playing and offered her a season’s work. We didn’t—we just kissed. Mostly.’
Katara smacked his arm indignantly. ‘Mostly!’
‘I—she was nice and all but I was preoccupied with catching the Avatar. It didn’t mean anything, not like…’ His faced coloured. ‘We weren’t friends like you and I are, I mean.’
She glowered like dying embers, but the softness bruising his expression wore her disquiet away with the wind outside their blanket cocoon. Her fingers, warm now, smoothed back the rumpled hair over his brow, lingering there like firefly-ants to a lantern.
‘The Swamp didn’t show me visions of Sen as Fire Lady,’ he reminded her quietly, eyes fixated on the freckle below her ear.
She tucked her head under his chin, shifting closer. ‘I know.’
‘The Banyan Spirit,’ he tried to justify. ‘Something about balance.’
‘I knew I’d regret letting you read Avatar Yangchen’s book.’
The Fire Prince was silent for a time, silent in the way people are when considering something deeply. The silence before they share the privacy of their thoughts. ‘Do you remember what I told you about my visions in the swamp?’
‘That an older me showed up and told you about restoring the Fire Nation’s honour?’
‘Well yes, but it wasn’t just me making the amends. You were travelling somewhere, working with refugees and orphans and veterans. But I was in the palace, working on policy, post-war policy for the whole country. Balance.’ She glanced up in time to catch the glint of uncertainty before he shook it loose. ‘It’s like the Fire Nation needs the balance of a water bender to soothe the burns of the last century.’
‘The Fire Nation needs more than one person to help it heal. It needs the balance of the other nations.’
The panic hadn’t quite left his eyes. ‘Does that mean I can’t do it, can’t restore my nation’s honour myself?’
Katara leant up on one elbow, worrying her lips between her teeth. ‘Zuko, it’s not a good idea to live in the future, even if you do know some of it. Trust me. It drove me half-mad when I was lost in the swamp and for weeks afterwards.’
His furrowed brow refused her attempt to smooth it. ‘Will you be there?’ he asked quietly, drawing patterns only he could see over the bare skin on her hip. ‘In that future?’
In the Fire Nation?
He understood, of course he understood. ‘They’ll need stubborn water benders to help them rebuild,’ he said like an executioner reading a charge sheet.
No, it was all wrong. He was supposed to yell and rage and undermine her peasant people, and she would stoically defend them. Not this acceptance and support that made her want to swear herself to these islands of sunshine and flames.
‘It’s okay.’ He smiled— would she ever get used to that smile?— to hide the sadness curling at its edges. ‘If anyone could understand your duty to your nation, I do. My country has created disharmony and unbalance in the other nations. I will do anything I can to help not only the Southern Water Tribe but the North too, and the Earth Kingdom. Even the Air Nomads, if Aang wants to revive them.’
She couldn’t respond, so she didn’t. She just pressed her cheek into the hand wiping tears from her face.
‘Don’t cry,’ he mumbled, pulling her close again. ‘I shouldn’t have brought it up. You said in the swamp that you didn’t want to talk about it.’
She shook her head against his chest, angry at herself for her weakness. It didn’t feel like weakness, this warm glow of strength, but what else could it be? What else could have her consider leaving her homeland for the nation that destroyed it?
‘What is this?’ she rasped, gripping the fire bender tightly. But he didn’t have an answer for her.
She wiped at her eyes and held the Fire Nation boy close. ‘I promise you,’ she began, feeling his lips brush hers, ‘that I’ll come back. I have to go home, I have to spend a year or two or even three working with my people. They’re my people!’ He nodded slowly, soothing her agitation with a hand combing through her hair. ‘It’s my duty, my honour. But I’ll come back. I swear.’
‘Because the Banyan Spirit told you that you would?’ His hands became harder, rougher. ‘Or because you want to?’
She wondered how he could possibly doubt her answer. Didn’t the lava beneath her skin glow for him? ‘Because I really, really want to.’
He searched for something in her left eye and her right, back and forth. ‘Do you ever wish you’d never seen what you saw?’
She sighed and turned to kiss the hand at her cheek. ‘Yes,’ she admitted in a voice robbed of sound. ‘Sometimes.’
‘Am I only here with you because some spirit told us we would be?’ The words were less than a whisper, as though pardoning themselves for what they said. ‘Or would we have, would it be like this without the swamp?’
Unease flickered faintly in Katara’s chest. ‘I told you it’s not a good idea to think about it too much,’ she muttered, smoothing a finger over the crease in his brow. ‘Don’t ruin it,’ she begged. ‘Please. Let’s get through the invasion. If we beat your father— spirits, if we even survive— we can spend our time wondering “what if?” But right now… just be here.’
He blinked slowly when she took his hand and laid it flat against her breast bone. ‘I don’t think it’s possible,’ he muttered, searching her face like a puzzle for the missing piece. ‘Not after you healed Uncle, and taught me to make tea, and trusted me in the library, and kissed my scar like it’s not even there.’
‘What’s not possible?’
‘Not loving you,’ he muttered, curling a stand of her hair around his finger but holding her shocked gaze with more fire than she’d ever seen in his fists.
Hakoda bent over the map, tracing the westernmost point of Chameleon Bay with a stiff finger. ‘They received your message here, and that’s where they parted ways with Sokka. They then made their way to one of the coastal towns where they bought passage down to Kyoshi and Gaoling. After that they travelled over land to the Foggy Swamp.’
Former General Iroh stroked his beard thoughtfully, scrutinising the route marked by the chieftain. ‘And they have not arrived yet but our friends from Gaoling have?’
Hakoda sighed and drunk deeply from his glass. ‘Yes, several days ago. Thirty earth benders led by a colourful character called The Boulder and a fisherwoman by the name of Jima.’ Here, Chief Hakoda eyed the older man sternly. ‘This fisherwoman spent some time with Katara and your nephew, and she did not seem to hold high opinions of the boy.’
Iroh laughed good naturedly, setting his tea cup down. ‘Acquaintanceship with my nephew is like a good wine, Chief Hakoda, better with age.’
This didn’t seem to reassure the Southern Water Tribe chief. ‘Just this morning, the swamp benders arrived led by Chieftess Yun. She reported that Katara and Zuko had planned to sail for the Black Cliffs with the tribe but had a last-minute change of plans, plans they would not confide to Yun and her people.’
‘Can you shed any light on what might have caused them to change their plans? Or where they might have gone? Yun seems to think they had an argument.’
Iroh had a hunch. ‘Yes, I do remember they seemed to have a great many things to argue about.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘My nephew is a complicated young man with a good heart. But sometimes his hot head gets the best of him.’
Hakoda of the Water Tribe did not like the sound of that. He did not like it at all. ‘I’m not happy about it, General Iroh, I won’t lie to you. If your nephew has treated my daughter unkindly...’
‘Honestly, Chief Hakoda, after the pleasure of meeting your fine daughter, I believe she is more than capable of taking care of herself. It is my nephew I’m worried about.’