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Mending Wounds

Chapter Text

 

 

yin yang fish

 

 

In the swamp, you see visions of those you’ve lost, those you love, those you think are gone. Her mother appears however briefly, however heartbreaking; she knows Kya will never trudge through the murk and the coiling humidity of this place. It lands like a lash from a whip: another reminder of a mother long since burned to ash far, far away from here.

She turns away from the stump that isn’t her mother while tears fall unchecked with that wearily familiar absence, that burden she’s not quite sure she’ll ever shake even as she steels herself to continue searching for Aang and Sokka. She’s eerily, unfailingly alone but for the creak of old vines or the chitter of creatures she can never quite catch a glimpse of.

The swamp is a bitterly unfriendly place, the disembodied voice— the rasp of someone half a world away in a land of nightmares and dreams— is unfriendlier still, no matter its gentle tone.

‘What are you doing?’

The Fire Prince is older. You can see it in the calm confidence of his expression, the relaxed carriage of his shoulders. A loose maroon robe hangs from his shoulders and his hair is tousled and free around his face. It’s longer than she remembers, much longer, worse still: he is smiling at her.

She’s never seen the Fire Lord’s son smile.

The boy— young man?— looks directly at her and there is something in his gaze that unnerves her. ‘How did you find us here?’ she demands, splashing several steps away from him. Her heart is beating out a military tattoo. How had he snuck up on her so silently in a place where her every footstep squelched and sloshed?

Beside her, the water rises at her command; she watches the scarred face for a hint of fire. But he’s barely moved. He’s… smiling. It’s carefree and gentle and so out of place worn on this face.

 ‘Answer me!’ she demands.

Zuko raises his hand, palm open, his bare chest unprotected, exposed, reaching for her. Inviting. The same gesture she might extend to Aang when her encouragement is all that keeps him going or Sokka when their supplies run low and his stomach complains louder than his mouth.

In the swamp, the humid fog swirls sluggishly around the prince of fire. ‘Katara,’ his voice rasps, intimate and low. ‘Come back to bed.’

She recoils more violently than she ever has from his attacks. With a shout, she swings her arms overhead in a rolling gesture and the murky swamp water rushes to her defence. It rampages towards the prince with all the speed and deadliness of a striking snake.

When the tide recedes, he’s gone. All that remains is the fear beating heavily in the Water Tribe girl’s chest.

 

 

Katara never told anyone about the visions of the Fire Prince that haunted her through the swamp. Not Aang, not Sokka; she couldn’t bear the bewilderment, let alone the teasing. She suffered enough in the secret confines of her own mind— where fury turned to compassion to betrayal and hatred wasn’t as clear-cut as she’d always thought it was. He’d returned to her, again and again, this happy, laughing spectre of the snarling prince. As she bent vines out of her way and called for her brother and friend, his words whispered through the dense fog. She couldn’t tell the boys, couldn’t explain to them the things her vision had said. She could barely recall it in the privacy of her mind, let alone make sense of it or worse: speak it aloud. To put words to her vision made them real. And they weren’t. Wouldn’t be. Besides, she refused to put herself at the mercy of Sokka’s emotional delicacy.

And the more she pushed the memories back, the more she rejected the terrifying confusion they grew likes weeds within her, the stronger they became. They found ways around her stubbornness and blossomed in her dreams. Eventually, they even crowded her waking hours. ‘The Fire Sages met with the Cultural Ministry, but the Acting-Minister is new. He’s still learning the ropes but so far they think it shouldn’t be as bad as the Advisory Board seems to think. There’s precedent at least. Centuries ago, the Fire Lord almost always married outside of the Fire Nation; it’s how strong political alliances were maintained.’

She found a habit of bouncing her leg in time to her breathing, just one of many attempts to shut him out. Now, on the run from those Fire Nation girls, exhaustion heavy as her fur-lined parka, Katara shut her eyes against the swirling memory, bouncing her knees together. Stubbornly, she curled deeper into her sleeping bag.

‘Shut up, I told you,’ she whispered into her pillow. ‘Leave me alone.’

But he hadn’t. The memories didn’t.

 ‘I never thought your father would agree,’ the phantom laments from the log he’s perched upon. ‘I thought he was going to punch me.’ He pauses, and the break in his chatter is almost worse, it allows the meaning of his words to penetrate her shock and sink through the barrier of her skin, deep into her flesh. ‘I’m not exactly sure,’ he continues. ‘I panicked! I said a lot of things! Well, I might have mentioned the swords…’ He cocks his head, listening— to what, she has no clue. ‘The swords. My dao swords. You don’t remember?’

His face falls and it’s the return to some semblance of surliness, the relief of a Zuko she’s finally familiar with, that halts Katara in her tracks.

She meets his guarded stare, her own icy. ‘I don’t care about your stupid swords! Get out of here!’

‘It was just before the eclipse,’ he says softly, that spark of quiet contentedness returning to his demeanour. ‘We were training, just the two of us. You asked about my broad swords, the dual swords. Two halves of a single weapon. Not separate. Two halves of the same whole. And you said…’ He stands and comes towards her, his face lighting up at whatever words he can hear that she cannot. ‘Just like us…’

Katara growled low, under her breath, her hands clenched tightly into fists. Whatever message the spirits thought they were sending her had been lost in translation. The vision-Zuko— that kind, patient, happy man— was as different to the real prince as water to fire.

A shuddering crunch, the tell-tale sign of earth bending, preceded Toph’s alarm. It wrenched Katara from her musings. ‘That thing is back!’

Sokka groaned and rolled over. ‘Well, how far away is it? Maybe we can close our eyes, just for a few minutes…’

Aang was already on his feet, the dust-trail of their pursuers blotting the skyline behind them. ‘I don’t think so, Sokka.’

 

 

The sun spilled heavily over the horizon as Appa flew laboriously on. The sky bison was truly on his last leg and Sokka and Katara were not far behind. The night of pursuit had put a stiffness in the bison’s movements, curtailed his usual grace. Having to fight the two Fire Nation girls by the river hadn’t helped either.

 ‘Hold on, pal,’ Sokka told the beast as Appa grunted beneath them.

The bare, rocky landscape was empty of signs of Aang. Katara had been scanning anxiously for an hour now; at least she had her brother to watch her back, and Appa, too. The young monk was on his own, exhausted, and too gentle for his own good.

A dim gleam down below and Katara’s heart was in her throat. ‘There!’ she shouted, yanking Appa’s reins. The bison gratefully descended with a low grunt, landing heavily beside a trail of pale hair.

‘Stay here, buddy,’ Sokka told him, sliding from the saddle and starting off down the trail.

 ‘Don’t worry,’ Katara told the fretful beast, sparing a moment to lay a calming hand against his forehead as she dismounted. ‘We’ll find him, boy.’

She caught up to Sokka, keeping pace despite her weary limbs; the adrenaline of their fight with the two girls by the river sped them along Aang’s path.

 ‘It looks like we found him,’ Sokka said darkly, gesturing to the huge plumes of blue and orange fire ahead of them. They were on the outskirts of a small, seemingly deserted town. The earthen buildings were fracturing under the baking heat of the fire, new cracks appearing before their eyes.

 ‘They’ve caught up with him,’ she fretted, fear burning through her. ‘Hurry!’

 ‘Katara, wait!’ Her brother grabbed her arm as another pillar of flame blared through the dusty street. They were close enough that the heat from the flames beat at them like a furnace.

 ‘What are you waiting for?’ she hissed in outrage, trying to wrench herself free.

He shook her roughly. ‘There’s someone in there bending blue fire. Blue, Katara! We need to be smart about this. We don’t know what we’re up against.’

 ‘What are you talking about?! We need to help Aang!’

His expression hardened into the brother-look. ‘Dad left me in charge of keeping you safe. I’m not about to let you get burned to a crisp!’

With her free hand, she popped the cap on her water canteen. ‘If I’d known you be such a pain, I would never had healed you from that circus-freak’s chi block!’ And with a sharp gesture, she sent the contents of the canteen surging into his chest, knocking him back half a dozen feet.

With a hurried gesture, Katara gathered the water back into the pouch, and sprinted into the town, her brother hot on her heels, cursing.

 ‘Split up!’ she called over her shoulder, turning down an alley towards the main street. ‘You keep on that way!’

She didn’t wait to see if he’d listened, distracted by a commotion in one of the shop fronts up ahead.

The room was on fire.

Katara darted through the door and water whipped the Fire Nation girl as she advanced, smirking, towards Aang. The second water whip freed the air bender from the beam holding him down like a wasp-fly pinned to a board.

 ‘Katara!’ Aang called with joy, but she didn’t have time to check he was okay.

The scowling girl spun in a deadly bending stance; Katara didn’t wait around to see flames. Sprinting from the room, she very narrowly avoided the searing heat that shot over her shoulder.

Just as the fire bender caught up to her, Katara desperately dodged right, and Sokka jumped from the doorway to intercept her pursuer.

Aang emerged from the burning building and together the three of them advanced towards the deadly girl. But she’d underestimated the girl. The fire bender spun and burned through Katara’s defensive water, retaliating with a frightening display of fire and precision. This was nothing like fighting Zuko or the countless other fire benders they’d encountered since leaving the South Pole. This girl was smart, dangerously so. And skilled, her forms didn’t falter once, until…

The girl went sprawling to the right and Katara’s heart leapt at the green clad figure behind her.

‘I thought you guys could use a little help,’ Toph practically sang.

The fire bender didn’t leave them much time for reunions. In moments she was up, snarling and darting through the town.

Leading the charge down the alleyway as she was, Katara was the first to spy the prince and the general beyond the mouth of the alley. The two figures— one tall and imperious, the other squat and silent— were approaching the retreating Fire Nation girl, arms raised defensively before them. Suspicious, Katara positioned herself between Aang and the two newcomers, but in that moment, the fire bending girl was the much greater threat.

The six of them advanced in a semi-circle towards the maroon-clad girl. Her expression sent a thrill of fear up Katara’s spine; there was something about this girl cornered that made her seem more dangerous than ever. Despite the direness of her situation, she did not appear flustered at all.

Not a hair out of place.

She lifted an eyebrow as though amused, as though she wasn’t surrounded and trapped. ‘Well, look at this. Enemies and traitors all working together,’ she said in a low, dangerous tone. ‘I’m done. I know when I’m beaten. You’ve got me. A princess surrenders with honour.’

Princess? Katara glanced at the Fire Prince out of the corner of her eye. Surely not

In a move too quick for Katara to block, the princess spun and shot a blast with deadly precision at the old general.

She heard someone shout in horror but she was already shooting a stream of water towards the princess. Her water bending was joined by Aang, Toph and Zuko’s own attacks and some part of her marvelled at all four elements working together for once; there was a suspended moment of deadly beauty in the attack.

Then the explosion knocked her to the ground. A raised arm shielded her face from the heat and debris, but the smoke was choking; thick and hot, it burned her lungs. Slow, she tried to calm herself, just breath shallow and slow.

Sluggishly, the smoke cleared, and she looked around fearfully for Aang and her brother. Both were unharmed, Toph, too, though the young earthbender was distracted, turned towards the narrow figure bowed over the old man.

The Fire Prince snarled and pressed his fists against his face. Even from this distance, Katara could see him shaking. It shocked her. Not his anger, she’d seen that plenty of times. No, it was his distress over the old general’s well-being. Perhaps that’s what moved her to compassion over suspicion, sympathy over distrust.

She approached slowly, the others at her flank.

He spun, glaring at them all. ‘Get away from us!’

She ignored his anger, focusing on the unmarred eye gleaming fearfully up at her. ‘Zuko, I can help,’ she said firmly, reaching for him.

The fire that sailed over their heads sizzled and snapped; out of control. Dangerous.

‘Leave!’

Scowling, she surged forward.

‘Katara!’ Someone— her brother perhaps— hissed in warning.

The look the firebender turned on her, so full of fury and distrust, comforted her in a strange way; at least they knew where they stood, hating and distrusting one another equally. Turning to the shallowly breathing old man, she summoned the remaining water in her pouch.

She gloved her fingers in the cool liquid and reached for the burnt flesh on the general’s shoulder.

The prince’s grip was like iron. ‘Don’t touch him!’

She took a deep breath and schooled the glower from her face. ‘I’m a healer. Let me do this for him.’

‘Let her go!’ Sokka shouted from behind them.

After a moment’s hesitation, he threw her hand back at her as though she’d burned him, rather than the other way around. ‘If you hurt him,’ he snarled, crowding closer in his temper. ‘I’ll end you!’

She chose to ignore him and turned back to the wounded man before her, the familiar tightness in her throat at the sight of his injury. This was why she could keep her cool despite the rudeness of the prince. This was what was important. She would never turn away from people who needed her.

Breathing deeply, she pulled aside the tattered hole in the old man’s shirt and pressed her hand to the wound. Immediately, the water around it began to glow icy blue as the soothing rush of energy through her body began. It was similar to the feeling she got if she stood up too quickly, that rush of blood. Though instead of dizziness, there was a sense of relief, of something torn and broken made whole.

But the man was old and he’d clearly been living rough recently. She felt with some fear the stutter of his heart and opened her eyes with a gasp.

 ‘Water!’ she shouted, the sharpness of her own voice shocking her. ‘Quickly! I need more water!’

Wordlessly, a pale hand thrust a worn, brown water skin into her lap, and she barely took the time to uncap it. Both hands sheathed in water this time, she pressed her right to his wounded shoulder and her left over his heart.

Using both hands to heal two different parts of the body was incredibly challenging; it took all her concentration. Like patting your head and rubbing your stomach, some stupid trick Sokka used to agonise over learning. Breathing deeply, she regulated the fire bender’s heartbeat before it seized and killed him while also attempting to ease the pain in his shoulder.

 ‘Take the water pouch and prop up his head,’ she said tightly focusing on smoothing the stuttering beat under her left hand. ‘Pour a little into his mouth. Try to get him to drink.’

Zuko took the pouch from her and immediately followed her instruction. ‘What are you doing to his chest?’

She supposed he couldn’t help the accusatory tone. ‘Trying to stop him from having a heart attack,’ she snapped, flinching as the general’s heart lurched under her flare of indignation. ‘Shut up! I need to concentrate.’

Slowing her breathing and closing her eyes, she followed the flow of energy from her body, through his and back into hers. The circuit was somewhat meditative; her healing had always been most powerful when she was able to immerse herself in that mindful state between controlling the chi and letting it run wild. It took the lightest touch, a mere guide to the energy pathways in the body.

It took twelve horribly long, drawn-out minutes for the heartbeat to settle and regulate itself in a slow, steady rhythm. The old man’s breathing was still ragged, but he was no longer gasping for breath.

She sighed and slumped back almost to the ground. Too much, she realised as her ears started ringing. I put too much of myself in that.

 ‘Is it done?’ The indignant rasp of the prince’s voice rubbed at Katara like a rash.

 ‘It’s all I can do just now,’ she replied testily, closing her eyes against the dizziness.

 ‘But the burn is still there!’

She opened her eyes enough to glare at him but Sokka beat her to it. ‘Hey! Angry Jerk! Listen to your uncle’s breathing. He was gasping for breath five minutes ago. Be thankful for that and stop harassing my sister.’

Toph stepped up behind her. ‘Your heart’s going a million miles a minute.’

 ‘I’ll be fine,’ she sighed, pushing herself upright to feel the general’s forehead. No sign of a fever yet, good. ‘I just need a minute.’

 ‘We should get going,’ Aang said determinedly from beyond the earth bender.

With an irritated huff, Katara shook her head. ‘I can’t,’ she said, leaning back on her hands to hide their shaking.

Sokka crouched beside her. ‘Sure, you can. Let’s go. Before Captain Jerk Face over there burns us all for breathing.’

Zuko glared at the Water Tribe boy. ‘My name is Prince Zuko,’ he snarled.

‘Same difference.’

 ‘Why can’t you leave, Katara?’ Aang asked worriedly, crouching by her other side.

She gestured to the general. ‘He’s… not in a good way,’ she said delicately, glancing at the firebender by the old man’s head. ‘It took everything I had just to get his heart working properly. I still need to work on his burn. Someone his age, with a wound like that and his heart so fragile… I can’t leave him like this. If that wound festers and gets infected, he’s done for.’

The prince stiffened in her peripheries, but Sokka wasn’t having any of it. ‘Well, we’ll have to take that chance. If General Fire-Pants here gets sick, then so be it…’ He glanced at Zuko and had the good grace to look uncomfortable. ‘Sorry, but you two haven’t exactly been friends of ours.’

The Fire Prince had never looked icier. ‘We don’t need your help,’ he said in a deadly tone, flames flickering at the edges of his fingers.

Katara snatched his hand away from the old man’s shoulder where it’d nearly singed the General’s robe. ‘Sure, you don’t,’ she said tightly, letting him yank his arm back. ‘Look, Sokka, I’m not leaving until I know he’s going to survive. You really want to leave? Then get me more water and make some soup. Something not too chunky that’ll go down easy.’

Sokka gave her a sly look. ‘Like a meat soup?’

She sighed. ‘Yes, meat soup is fine. Just make sure you cut up the meat into little pieces, okay?

He was already up, boomerang in hand, and glancing up and down the street as though a haunch of meat would wander up and offer itself to him. ‘Aang! Keep an eye on the angry jerk! Papa’s goin’ hunting!’

The dust cloud he left in his wake only highlighted the awkward silence that fell over the rest of them.

Katara cleared her throat and stood shakily. ‘Aang, I need you to find some more water.’ She handed him her canteen and took Zuko’s from the ground. ‘As much as you can. And you might want to go get Appa. Just follow the trail you left with his hair. He’s not far out of town.’

The monk’s grey eyes widened, he glanced at the scarred prince. ‘Katara…’

 ‘I’ll have Toph with me. I’ll be fine.’

 ‘Don’t worry, Aang. If this guy gives us any trouble, I’ll bury him,’ the little earthbender said with a wicked grin. ‘Literally.’

 ‘I won’t hurt the waterbender,’ Zuko said curtly, standing. ‘Not while she’s tending my uncle. You have my word.’

 ‘Mighty big of you, Sparky.’

Aang watched the fire prince distrustfully, searchingly. ‘I won’t be long,’ he said finally, slinging the two water pouches over his shoulder and opening his glider.

Katara turned back to the prince. ‘Your uncle should be made as comfortable as possible. You should go look for any blankets or pillows, anything we can use to cushion him while he’s resting.’

 ‘You think I’ll leave him alone with you?’

Katara eyed him impatiently. ‘I nearly knocked myself out keeping him alive just then,’ she said in disbelief. ‘Don’t you think that if I wanted him dead, I could have just left him?’

His scarred eye turned ugly when he scowled like that. It wrinkled and creased with his fury, and Katara wondered how such anger could be contained in one person. The glower only deepened when he reluctantly acquiesced. ‘I’ll check the houses nearby, but I want you both to stand back from him, understand? You don’t touch him until I return!’

It wasn’t a request.

Toph rolled her eyes. ‘Sure thing, oh paranoid one.’

 ‘Don’t touch him while I’m gone.’

 ‘We heard you the first time,’ Katara replied testily, backing up a few steps. ‘Happy?’

He glanced back at them half a dozen times while stalking across the street to the nearest dilapidated house.

 ‘Sweet dude,’ Toph drawled, kicking her heel against the ground to form a rock chair for herself.

 ‘Yeah,’ Katara muttered, catching the prince watching them from the first story window. ‘Just the sweetest.’

Chapter Text

The town must have been recently deserted if the contents of the general store were anything to go by. There were fire flakes, knives, ceramic bowls created by a local earthbender, several tattered baby toys, more knives, bandages, a set of scrolls detailing the history of the local Shu Province, some knives, shoes, dried meat… the list went on.

‘Wow… these people really like their knives,’ Katara muttered, taking one of the dusty hilts from its bracket on the wall. The blade, she saw, was ceramic. Earth.

‘Sweet! Now that’s a knife I can get behind,’ Toph replied gleefully, twitching her toes so the knife flew from Katara’s hand to her side. ‘I call dibs on the earth knives!’

The waterbender smiled at the younger girl’s enthusiasm and took the bandages from the shelf below. ‘Come on, let’s go check on Zuko. I don’t trust him alone. You can come back for your knives later.’

They exited through the busted-down door to find the Fire Prince standing out in the street, his back to them. He was breathing slowly, his shoulders rising and falling with each breath, arms outstretched before him. The flames from the princess’s attack one street over flickered sleepily, dimming with each exhale. Katara watched him carefully, maneuvering in front of Toph.

 ‘What’re you doing?’ she asked abruptly, searching the street for bending water should she need it.

The tension returned to his shoulders at her words. ‘Where were you?’ he barked, turning to glower at them suspiciously. ‘You were meant to be watching over my uncle!’

Toph pushed past Katara, heedless of the haughty figure before her. ‘Cool it, hot pants, we went looking for something to bandage your uncle’s shoulder with.’

Zuko followed the earth bender’s movements with narrowed eyes. ‘Don’t call me that!’

‘Sheesh.’ She turned back to Katara. ‘Is he always this cranky?’

The waterbender couldn’t help but laugh. ‘Every time I’ve met him.’

Zuko let loose a growl of frustration. ‘There,’ he snapped moodily, pointing to a pile of old blankets and pillows heaped by his uncle’s side. ‘Now what?’

Katara walked past him, uncomfortable with her back to him. ‘Toph, do you think you could earthbend him inside one of these buildings?’ She glanced down the street… not that one, they needed one with a roof. There. ‘That one down there… Can your feet see three houses down?’

 ‘No problem.’ She cracked her neck and bumped her heel against the ground, gesturing jerkily until the earth beneath the unconscious man floated a couple of meters off the ground. He still hadn’t stirred, though he seemed to be breathing easier; Katara couldn’t quite tell. She would have to give him a more thorough inspection when Aang returned with the water.

Rubbing her eyes, she grabbed Zuko’s scavenged heap of bedding. What she wouldn’t give to curl up in this pile and just let her eyes drift closed…

 ‘Sugar Queen, hurry it up.’

She shook her head and hefted the blankets into her arms. ‘Right. Coming.’ Between the fighting and healing, she’d almost forgotten that none of them had slept at all throughout the night. It weighed heavily on her, the lack of sleep and the exertion of healing the old man.

 ‘Give me that.’ Zuko interrupted her scattered thoughts and snatched the blankets from her before she could protest. In the same movement, he bent down, collecting the pillows she’d been unable fit in her arms.

She frowned at him. ‘I had it.’

‘Don’t you have some healing to do?’ he asked impatiently, pushing past her to follow Toph into the house.

She sighed in irritation; the sooner Aang and Sokka got back, the better. Toph she liked, though spirits knew they had their differences. But Zuko… the very thought of him irked her. Had he even thought to thank her for nearly knocking herself silly keeping his uncle alive? Of course not. What else should she expect from a spoilt prince.

She refused to acknowledge that she found comfort in the reliably unpleasant nature of this Zuko, this flesh-and-blood, familiarly-scowling firebender who was a far cry from the kind man who’d haunted her in the Foggy Swamp.

 

 

The three of them got Iroh into the house and onto the makeshift bed with about as much grace as a badgermole tap dancing. He was heavy. Zuko gripped him under his arms, careful to jostle his wound as little as possible, while Katara and Toph, with one leg each, wriggled him off the earth platform and onto the blankets.

‘Sweet badgermoles, he’s as heavy as The Boulder!’ was Toph’s eloquent take on the situation.

Even Zuko couldn’t fault her that; the old man weighed a ton. ‘Uncle drinks a lot of tea, and tea cakes with it. I guess the cakes stack up.’

‘Eugh! And his feet stink.’

‘They do not!’

‘Sparky, his big toe touched my chin on the way down, I copped a noseful of that stank. Believe me.’

Zuko crossed his arms over his chest, teeth clenched. Fearing a fight, Katara crouched by the old man’s side and arranged his injured arm comfortably by his side. ‘Zuko, your uncle—’

‘Iroh,’ he snapped, still glaring at Toph. ‘General Iroh.’

‘Right,’ she replied disdainfully, as though a firebender’s title meant a thing to her. ‘Iroh’s heart. Has he had problems with it before?’

That got his attention. ‘His heart?’

She nodded, glancing up at his change in tone. The distrust was still there, the rage too, but there was a sorrow and a vulnerability in his expression that surprised her. She’d never thought of the Fire Prince as someone vulnerable or sad; he was always so angry. She supposed that might be something like Sokka’s being a warrior and a huge idiot. She loved her brother, but his light-hearted personality just wasn’t typical warrior material. Yet when it came down to it, her brother was a brave fighter.

She looked away, uncomfortable at seeing her enemy in any way than his usual bluster. ‘I just wondered if he had a history of heart problems or if this is something new.’

He crouched beside her, staring at the old man grimly. ‘None that I know of,’ he muttered, closing his eyes. ‘Uncle’s very… He doesn’t really complain. But the past few years have been tough… for him. I guess.’

Toph yawned loudly. ‘Twinkle Toes should be back soon and I’m bushed.’ She dropped down against the far wall, leaning back against it, her arms crossed over her chest. ‘I’m gonna nap. Wake me if they try to get the jump on you, Sweetness.’

Katara studied the burnt edges of the general’s tunic. ‘Get some sleep, Toph, I’ll be fine.’

‘But it’s morning,’ Zuko protested loudly, as though the girl’s nap was out of the question.

‘Well spotted,’ the earthbender mumbled, but her heart wasn’t in it. She was halfway asleep already.

‘We were up all night,’ Katara explained, cocking her head at the burnt fabric; she’d have to cut it away. ‘That girl and her friends were chasing us.’ She glanced at Zuko. ‘Do you have a knife?’

He narrowed his eyes at her. ‘Why?’

‘Oh, for the love of—’ She took a deep calming breath. ‘I need to cut away his tunic so I can clean the burn properly. Unless you want your uncle to get blood poisoning from infection?’

She matched his glower, loathing for loathing, until he dropped his gaze and reached over. ‘What are you—’ she squeaked in surprise when he seared the tattered fabric so it fell open over the old man’s chest.

She twisted her lip, eyeing him contemplatively. ‘Do you know that girl? The firebender from earlier?’

His face darkened as he stood. ‘Yes,’ he said tightly, turning, and making for the door.

‘Where are you going?’ she called, turning to keep him in sight. ‘Zuko!’

‘To get something to burn.’ And he was gone.

‘Firebenders,’ she muttered to herself, brushing ash away from the weeping burn. She was gentle, but the heat of the old man’s skin alarmed her. ‘Oh no,’ she breathed, rubbing her tired eyes, and inspecting the wound closely. It wasn’t good. Some of his skin had been burnt away and the irritated flesh underneath was blistering and swelling. It would certainly become infected and scar if Aang didn’t get back with water soon.

‘Katara! Toph!’

She stood quickly, as though a bolt had gone through her. Aang

 ‘In here,’ she called, rushing to the door to wave him over. Appa groaned his exhaustion and collapsed into a doze as the airbender leapt from his head with the two water canteens over his shoulder and a large orb of water floating above his head. With a rolling wave-like gesture, the water sloshed into a trough a few doors down.

He glanced up and down the street suspiciously. ‘Where’s Zuko?’ he asked guardedly, handing her the canteens.

She didn’t waste any time. Hurrying back to Iroh’s side, she opened her water pouch and guided the water to the general’s shoulder, covering the damage with both her hands. She leeched the heat out of the wound first, soothing it and washing out any potential infection. Discarding the sullied water out the doorway, she summoned clean water to her hands and pressed them once more to the burn.

‘Woah,’ Aang breathed, eyes widening at the damage. ‘That does not look good.’

‘It’s not,’ she replied grimly, gritting her teeth as she pushed and pulled at the wound. ‘I don’t think I’ve avoided the fever—  there’s too much damage for that— but I think I’ve reduced the severity at least.’ She let the rush of the healing tug at her as her energy flowed into the old man. ‘Poor guy, it’s going to be a rough couple of days for him.’

There was a clatter behind them as Zuko entered the room and dropped his armful of firewood to the ground, glaring at Aang. The airbender returned Zuko’s hostility, narrowing his grey eyes at the older boy.

‘Good, you’re back,’ Katara said to break the tension, a bead of sweat trickling down her temple. ‘Get a fire going and boil this bandage; it needs to be clean before we bind this.’

She didn’t bother to finish watching the rest of their posturing. Boys, she thought drily.

‘What can I do?’ Aang broke the surly silence, crouching by her side. She glanced at the dark circles under his eyes and smiled; he’d done so much last night, taken so much onto himself.

‘You can get some sleep,’ she said softly, turning back to Iroh as his breathing suddenly rasped and became shallow. ‘Go on, take Toph’s lead and catch up on a couple of hours.’ She nodded towards the lightly snoring earthbender.

He glanced over her shoulder. ‘I can’t leave you alone with him,’ he whispered, eyes wide.

She frowned at the stutter of the older man’s heart. ‘Not again,’ she muttered, kneeling upright and moving her hands over his heart. ‘I’ll be fine, Aang, I just need quiet to do this.’ She smiled to soften the blow. ‘Go on, you could use the sleep.’

He mumbled something in reply before leaving but she didn’t catch it; she was riding the rush of blood in her veins, the surge of energy that forced the old man’s heart beat back to a regular rhythm. It stuttered under her fingers, but she merely breathed deeply and brought his pulse down in time with her own.

As Katara exhaled a breath she didn’t realise she’d been holding, the water fell from her fingers. Exhaustion threatened to topple her onto the old man’s chest. Her ears rung dully as though she’d been clobbered over the head… Were there hands around her forearms?

‘Hey, waterbender! Snap out of it.’

Oh

‘Huh?’ She blinked and looked up into a slitted eye embedded in a red scar.

Zuko eyed her strangely. ‘What’s wrong with you?’ he growled, pulling her upright and kneeling beside her.

‘N-Nothing,’ she stuttered, shaking off his grip. ‘I’m fine. Did you boil that water?’

He nodded, surly once more, turning the scarred side of his face away from her.

‘Sorry,’ she said quickly, glancing down at the once again peacefully sleeping old man. ‘I didn’t mean to stare.’

He shrugged, offering her a steaming bowl of water. ‘How is he?’

She bit her lip, taking one of the bandages she’d pilfered from the general store and dipping it in the gently bubbling bowl. ‘Not… Not good.’

The Fire Prince stiffened. ‘I’m going to kill Azula,’ he hissed through clenched teeth; the hand holding the water bowl shook. He turned to her with wild eyes. ‘You will heal him!’

‘What do you think I’ve been trying to do all morning?’ she snapped, bending the excess water from the bandage and cooling it until frost dusted the fabric. Quickly, she folded the wrapping and set it against the worst part of the burn. ‘Who’s Azula?’

‘Shouldn’t you wrap it with the bandage?’ Zuko asked in that blunt way of his.

She glowered at him. ‘Is Azula the girl who did this?’

He matched her angry look; if there was one thing Zuko did well, it was anger. She thought for a moment he was going to say something nasty, something hurtful. She braced for it. ‘Yes,’ he said shortly, turning away from her. ‘She’s my sister.’

Katara couldn’t help it the horrified gasp. ‘Your sister? Your sister did this to your uncle?’ He gritted his teeth and didn’t respond; what was wrong with his family? ‘Is your dad cool with his daughter trying to kill his brother?’

‘Don’t you dare talk about my father!’

She shushed him, glancing over at Toph and Aang by the far wall. ‘Keep your voice down,’ she scolded, taking a second bandage and dipping it in the furiously boiling water. ‘I’d ask you to keep your temper down, too, but I think we both know that wouldn’t happen.’

He shot her a filthy look. ‘I should be doing this,’ he said abruptly, eyeing the bandage as she pulled the hot water from it. ‘Obviously they don’t reach you how to use medical supplies in whatever hut you were raised in, but bandages are used to bind wounds, not to just sit on top of them.’

‘Hut?’ she asked icily. ‘I guess any building looks like a hut when you’re raised in a palace. For your information, I was using the first bandage to keep discharge from the burn from soiling this second one which I’ll now use to bind the wound, oh wise healer!

He made a scoffing noise under his breath but didn’t reply. Instead he slumped away from her, against the wall by his uncle’s head. Satisfied that he wouldn’t interrupt her again, Katara deftly wrapped the old general’s chest and made to pull a blanket up over him.

‘Don’t.’ Zuko said suddenly, his arms crossed over his chest. She glanced at him in time to see a flicker of pain cross his face. ‘Don’t put anything else over the burn or the skin around it.’

‘What? Why? He’s going to start shivering with fever soon, he needs to be warm.’

He twitched; a curiously defensive movement. His fingers flicked over the scar on his face as though shooing away a persistent wasp-fly. ‘Just don’t do it,’ he said in a softer tone, his gaze lingering on his uncle. ‘He’ll be burning enough when he wakes up.’

Chapter Text

Sokka returned, proudly, not long before sunset with a sizable hog monkey slung over his shoulder.

‘The hunter has returned,’ he proclaimed, drawn to their camp by the small fire Zuko had left smouldering outside. ‘And I come bearing sweet, delicious meat!’

Katara startled out of her cat nap, rubbing her eyes irritably; trust Sokka to be distracted from his sleep deprivation by the prospect of food. He was painfully chipper. ‘Took you long enough,’ she muttered, turning to him. ‘If you do the dirty work, I’ll start the soup.’

‘No.’

She glanced over at Zuko tetchily. ‘Excuse me?’

He stood and pulled a saucepan from his bag. ‘You’re the healer, right?’ was all the explanation she received before he walked away, presumably to get dinner started.

Sokka sat down outside, wielding a boning knife. ‘Great,’ he lamented— Sokka did love lamenting. ‘Not only do we have to spend time with Angry Jerk, now we have to watch him so he doesn’t poison our meat.’

He shot Katara a simmering look, as though it were her fault.

‘Just butcher the hog-monkey, Sokka,’ she said tiredly, listing to the left as she rubbed her eyes again.

‘Woah, you don’t look so good,’ he said suddenly, his eyes creasing in concern. ‘Wait, have you been awake healing the old guy all day?’

She nodded blearily. ‘There’s something up with his heart; I’ve had to regulate it a few times. Nothing major.’

‘Katara,’ he muttered under his breath. He stood from the partially gutted hog-monkey and tried to pull her to her feet. ‘Come on, little sister, you need some sleep.’ She tugged her hand free. She couldn’t leave Iroh’s side now, not after all the effort she’d put into keeping him going all day. ‘Katara!’

‘Look!’ she started, rounding on him. ‘The guy’s old, he needs me! I’ll doze here, but I’m not going to go sleep when it could mean all of this has been for nothing!’ She tried to keep up the stern look, but his hurt expression got the best of her. ‘I’m sorry, Sokka, I’m just…’ She dug deep and found a faint smile. ‘I’ll be fine. I’ll have a cat nap while you make sure Zuko doesn’t poison the meat, okay?’

He returned her grin before glancing surreptitiously from side to side. ‘No Fire Nation assassination attempts! Not on my watch.’

She shook her head as he went back to work butchering, her heavy eyelids drooping closed.

 

 

In her dreams, she’s lost in the coiling, humid mists of the Foggy Swamp.

To her dismay, the older, happier spectre of the Fire Prince is there also. He looks at her and talks to her and follows her but never responds to her, in fact he seems to hear something other than her curt responses. He replies to invisible voices with words that serve only to confuse her.

‘Even Uncle thought you did well, considering it was your first public address as Fire Lady,’ he tells her, that horribly intimate smile stretching his lips. It frightens her more than any fire blast he’s ever shot at her, that smile. No one but her family has ever looked at her like that, like they know the shape and lines of each bone in her body.

‘Go away,’ she tells him again, changing directions suddenly and lurching into a thicket of vines. Surely, he won’t be able to follow her in here, not with that stupid golden crown, in his stupid little top knot.

‘My love, the Council only ever criticise my speeches and I’ve been doing them since I was nine,’ he replies to some unheard voice with a carefree laugh. Tenderly, he strokes a vine away from her cheek. ‘Trust me, you did great.’

She flails desperately, putting hurried space between them. ‘I’m not your wife!’ she shouts, ignoring the knocks and scratches as she flees the prince through the mist.

 

 

‘I’m not eating a bite until you choke down at least one mouthful.’

Katara jerked awake, heart hammering much harder than it should be. Sokka didn’t even glance at her, so busy was he glaring at the brooding prince. Zuko stood awkwardly by the door, steaming bowl in hand and red faced with fury.

‘I wasn’t offering you any,’ he snapped, pushing past Sokka and shoving the bowl into Katara’s hands. ‘Here.’

She grabbed the bowl, mostly to stop him from spilling any more soup over her than he already had. ‘Err…’

He gestured at his sleeping uncle. ‘Don’t take it the wrong way. You need your strength to heal Uncle.’

Her brows snapped together. ‘Gee, thanks.’

He waved his hand vaguely, gesturing to spirits know what, before sitting back down in his spot by his uncle’s head and picking up his own bowl.

She already knew Sokka’s complaint before it came tumbling out of his mouth. ‘That’s my meat!’ he declared, standing and marching outside to the saucepan beside the fire. ‘I’ll have as much as I like!’

Katara bit back a snort of laughter at the Fire Prince’s enraged look. ‘I’d let him,’ she advised, glancing over at Aang and Toph as they stirred groggily at the commotion. ‘He’d fight you over food.’ She cocked her head at him, smirking. ‘Who are we kidding? It’s you. He’d fight you for being here.’

‘Mmm mmm, something smells a lot like dinner!’ Toph stood with a stretch and nudged Aang with her toe. ‘Wakey wakey, Twinkle Toes, grub’s on.’

Katara felt a pinprick of guilt and glanced up at Zuko. ‘You didn’t, by any chance, make a vegetarian…?’ She sighed at the look of disbelief on his face. ‘Yeah, I didn’t think so.’

With a sigh, she set her bowl down and got laboriously to her feet. ‘There’s soup outside, Toph,’ she told the girl before turning to the bleary-eyed monk. ‘Sorry, Aang, there’s meat in it. But I think I have some lentils left over in Appa’s saddle, hang on.’

She greeted Appa cheerfully, refreshed enough to find her way back to good humour. ‘Thanks for everything earlier, boy,’ she told the bison, rubbing his side as she climbed up to rummage in their food crate. Some jerky, a few extra bowls, some rice… there. Lentils. She took them, as well as a few mushrooms and sweet potatoes, and slid back down the freshly cleaned sky-bison. If there was a positive to take out of this whole thing, at least Appa was sparklingly clean now. And not shedding all over them anymore.

She made to sit by the fire and chop the vegetables for Aang’s dinner, but the Fire Prince’s shout had her rushing back into the stone building. If he’d so much as singed anyone…

He was crouched over his uncle, his eyes wide as the old man wheezed and tried to clutch his chest. ‘Uncle! Lay back, you’ve been hurt!’ He turned, eyes wild. ‘Waterbender! Come here!’

She huffed at his tone but drew water through the open door as the others crowded around. Zuko growled, ‘Back off!’ but Katara shushed him, unwinding the bandage while the General’s face paled.

His brows rose as he recognised her. ‘It’s Katara, isn’t it?’ he asked in a gentle tone as she peeled back the damp compress under the bandage.

She nodded, wincing in sympathy as the compress tugged at the burn. ‘Sorry,’ she muttered, sheathing her hand in water. ‘You should lay back. You’re in no condition to be sitting up right now.’

He reclined obligingly, a sly grin tugging at the edge of his mouth. ‘How could I resist such a kind and talented healer?’ he wondered and Katara worried that the pain and fever were messing with his head.

To her left, Zuko loomed over her like a cloud over the sun. ‘Uncle.’ He said the word with unguarded relief that had Katara blinking uneasily; it sounded eerily like the vision that had haunted her time in the swamp.

The sheen of sweat over the old man’s face glistened in the flame Zuko held aloft. Night had certainly settled in but that didn’t mean that Katara, Sokka, and Aang eyed the prince’s fire with any less distrust.

‘Aang, I think I saw some candles in the general store across the road,’ she said warily, as Sokka twirled his boomerang in what was clearly meant to be a threatening fashion.

She heard his disapproval of their unspoken truce with the prince in the young air bender’s quiet agreement. She, too, was uncomfortable at the prospect of spending the night in such close quarters with their enemy. She somehow doubted the general would be much of a threat in the state he was in, but still: The Fire Lord’s son and brother.

She twisted her lip but drew water from the pouch beside her. ‘How does it feel, General?’ she asked stiffly, letting the water flow over the burn before freezing it in place. The cold would provide some relief, at least.

The tightness around his eyes eased as her makeshift ice pack took the edge off the burn. ‘Much better now for your soothing hands. Kind Katara, I thank you.’

‘I’ve cleaned and dressed the wound, but there’s not much even waterbending can do for a burn like this. You’ll live, but it will scar.’ She glanced at the left side of Zuko’s face; so intent was he on the old man, he didn’t notice. ‘You’ll have a nasty few days at least. I’ve never seen such a vicious…’ Her words faded into an uneasy silence; it was probably best not to insult the princess to her brother and uncle.

Iroh nodded sagely, as though she’d merely commented on the weather. ‘Azula is deadly,’ he agreed, closing his eyes briefly. ‘In her aim, and her ferocity.’ His gaze wandered beyond Katara and a wide grin creased his face. ‘Fascinating stranger, indeed,’ he laughed.

Toph too gave an amused snort. ‘Glad to see you’re still with us, Gramps.’

Katara glanced over her shoulder at the younger girl. ‘You know General Iroh?’

‘Please,’ the old man said amicably. ‘Call me Iroh.’

‘We met earlier today, and shared tea and some wise words.’ Toph grinned broadly and bumped Zuko with her shoulder. ‘So, this is the nephew giving you so much trouble?’ The Fire Prince turned to her with a withering glower. ‘Wow, I may be blind but I can feel the stink eye you’re giving me, Sparky.’

‘Watch it, peasant!’

‘Zuko, please,’ Iroh admonished him gently, turning back to Toph. ‘I am glad to see you have found your friends again.’

‘Me too.’

Aang returned with the candles but Katara only had eyes for the blind girl; something in her warmed at that, that Toph was glad to be back with them. It eased the guilt gnawing at her, for words shouted in the midst of temper and the fear of the hunted. However, the relief was short-lived. As she turned back to her patient, she caught Iroh glancing between Zuko and Aang with a sudden shrewdness that belied just how clear-minded he truly was.

‘Young Avatar,’ he greeted the monk in a grave tone. ‘Thank you for your kindness towards an old man, both you and your friends.’

Aang couldn’t help it; the old man’s words pulled a smile onto his face as he handed Katara the candles. ‘It’s our pleasure.’

She set the candles upright in a row beside the old man’s makeshift bed and looked at Zuko expectantly. His already furrowed brow deepened. ‘The candles,’ she pointed out. ‘You’re the human match.’

He passed his hand over the wicks without comment and extinguished the flame over his hand, settling back to slump against the wall.

‘Are you hungry?’ Katara asked, turning back to the general with a kind smile. ‘Zuko made hog-monkey soup for you.’

Iroh’s eyes widened and he gave his nephew a searching look. ‘Did he indeed? In that case, I would be honoured to try my nephew’s soup.’

‘I only did it so the water bender would stay with you,’ Zuko exclaimed hotly, leaning forward again. ‘She’s hopeless, Uncle, always has to be at someone’s beck and call.’ He turned to glare at the four sets of unfriendly eyes beside him. ‘It’s true! It’s like you three can’t do anything for yourselves.’ His gaze rested on Aang. ‘And you call yourself the Avatar?’

‘Zuko…’

‘What? It’s true! None of them do anything unless she tells them to.’

‘I’m going to get Iroh his dinner,’ Katara said loudly, standing from her place by her patient’s side and pushing past Sokka. ‘Toph? Aang? Sokka?’ She looked at them expectantly. ‘Come on!’

She turned on her heel and stormed out of the room, muttering angrily under her breath. Spying Aang’s abandoned dinner, she picked up the knife and began roughly chopping the vegetables. The other three trailed behind gingerly.

‘Um, Katara…’

‘What?’ she snapped, glancing up at Aang’s sheepish expression.

‘I was just thinking that maybe I could do that.’ He gestured to the vegetables she was brutalising.

‘You don’t like my cooking?’ she demanded, scowling at him.

He held up his hands as though surrendering. ‘No! No, I love your cooking, but I just thought since you haven’t eaten yet and um, being, well, having healed General Iroh all day…’ He smiled pacifyingly as she put the knife down and whirled on Sokka.

‘Where are our bed rolls?’ she asked, her temper stoked by her lack of sleep.

He shrunk before her. ‘Uh, on Appa, aren’t they?’ He gave her an appeasing smile to rival Aang’s and rushed off to unload the sky-bison.

Katara turned to Toph, but the earthbender merely blew her bangs out of her face and drawled, ‘Don’t even try it, Sweetness,’ before bending herself an earth tent just outside their house. Huffing angrily, she contented herself by instructing Aang on how best to cook the lentils before Sokka returned with her bag.

Taking it, she returned inside to claim her dinner from where she’d left it by Iroh’s side. Shooting the Fire Prince a dirty look, she took her bowl and retreated to the General’s other side to eat alone in the dark.

‘You should apologise, nephew. That was not a kind thing to say.’ The old man’s voice was low, not meant for her ears.

‘Eat your soup, Uncle, we’re leaving tomorrow.’

‘Leaving?’ Iroh replied with a chuckle. ‘Zuko, I can talk and eat this… err… delightful meal you have made. But if I tried to stand, let alone travel, I fear I’d fall flat on my face.’

The younger man growled under his breath. ‘How long till we can get away from them? That damn waterbender is on some crusade to mend all your wounds, Uncle! She won’t leave you alone.’

‘You know, Zuko, as iron is eaten away by rust, so too are the envious consumed by their own passion.’ There was something approaching a smirk in the old man’s voice.

‘What are you talking about?’

A sigh. ‘I fear we will not be able to travel tomorrow, nephew. I am bushed. Though I wouldn’t mind a warm cup of jasmine tea before bed…’

A bigger sigh. ‘I’ll get you your tea… Waterbender!’

Katara swallowed the mouthful of hog-monkey and beans, turning to glare at the prince. ‘Get your own tea.’

He didn’t deign to acknowledge her words. ‘The ice you left on my uncle is melting.’

She glanced at it, watching the droplet trickle away. ‘It’s no bother, really,’ Iroh said kindly, shivering as the water tickled the inflamed skin around the burn.

‘Freeze it again.’

‘Zuko…’

But the boy had left the room. Katara half wanted to ignore his request, just to watch how riled up he’d get upon returning, but she knew she couldn’t let Iroh suffer for pettiness. She set her mostly-empty bowl aside and shuffled closer to the old man.

With a brush of her fingers, the ice froze solid again. She added more water, another layer of ice for good measure. ‘Thank you, Katara,’ he said with a note of relief in his voice. ‘And may I again apologise for—’

‘You don’t have to apologise for him,’ she said brusquely, pressing a rag to his side to catch any dribbling water from the ice pack. ‘If the pain gets too much once this melts, wake me up, okay?’ she said softly, waving her hand for more water to cool the red skin around the burn. ‘I don’t mind.’

His eyes widened somewhat in incredulity at her words. ‘You’ve already done so much,’ he protested softly. ‘And for the old uncle of your enemy.’

She shrugged and settled back to her side of the room, by the wall, and spread her bed roll out. ‘I’m just here, a few feet away. I can only imagine how much pain you’re in…’

The old man watched on silently as she laid down, her head spinning giddily with exhaustion.

It wasn’t until she was in that place between dreams and lucidity that she realised why she was so upset. How could it be that her enemy had voiced how much she did for the group in a way her friends never had?

Chapter Text

Katara decided there was something distinctly unsettling about being woken by the Fire Lord’s son. He was not a gentle person. His fingers on her shoulder were almost painful; he gripped her as though she were trying to get away instead of laying bonelessly in the grips of a dreamless sleep. He dug into her, crushing the ribbon of her necklace until it ground against her throat.

‘Wake up, waterbender.’ At least he had the good sense to sound embarrassed, bent over her in the middle of the night like the villain he was.

 ‘I’m awake,’ she hissed, shoving him back and rubbing the sore spot between her neck and shoulders. ‘Don’t touch me.’

He held her glower for a moment before dropping his gaze, and she wondered if he’d recognised the silkiness of her mother’s necklace. He cleared his throat quietly and shifted to the side, revealing Iroh’s glistening face. The Fire Nation general was trembling, great shudders that shook his entire body. The ice over his burn had long ago melted to a puddle; the wound gleamed dully in the faint light from the candles.

She shuffled closer, ignoring the fire prince. ‘How long has he been like this?’ she asked, reaching for the water in the trough outside with a practiced rolling gesture.

 ‘It just started,’ was all the reply she received as the water flowed around her fingers.

The general’s shivering eased some as she placed her hands over his wound, pushing and pulling to his internal tide. She sensed some small part of his pain, and flinched; how the old man wasn’t rolling about shouting…

 ‘He’s strong,’ she commented, pushing his suffering aside so she could focus on relieving the inflammation. ‘Really strong.’

 ‘He is.’

She glanced sideways at him as he shuffled to his uncle’s side. The unscarred side of his face was facing her, and some of her irritation at his roughness earlier dissipated at the anxiety so obvious in his expression. It was in the tight grip he had on his knees, the tension in the skin around his good eye, the worry emanating from him like heat from a fire.

An ambivalent, confused compassion gripped Katara and she wondered, not for the last time, how someone who cared, someone so obviously filled with emotion, could do the awful things he’d done.

 

 

‘Who knew hog-monkey would taste even better the next day?’ Sokka sighed as he slurped giddily at the soup. The sun had risen not long ago, but a good night’s sleep with the promise of another now Azula and her crazy friends weren’t chasing them had the whole group in high spirits. Even Sokka hadn’t complained about getting up with the sun. Well, not much.

 ‘Not the hog-monkey,’ Toph laughed, reclining against a rough pillar of earth.

 ‘Guys,’ Katara said exasperatedly, glancing over her shoulder at the two Fire Nation figures through the doorway behind her. ‘Focus.’

 ‘Right! I say we leave them.’ Silence met his statement; schedule Sokka had arrived. He pointed his spoon at Aang, who was crouched, his glider across his lap, brow furrowed in thought. ‘What? Katara’s patched him up well enough by now. We need to get a wriggle on, we have so many more elements to master!’

Katara’s eye twitched. ‘We?

Aang ignored them both. ‘We really should move on today, this morning, otherwise we risk those girls catching up with us again.’ He finally looked up from the ground, with whatever wisdom he’d discovered there. ‘Will he be okay if we leave them?’

‘I’m not sure,’ she replied quietly, dropping her gaze to her lap. ‘He can’t walk very far the way he is. If we leave them, they’ll have to stay here for another few days at least. Plenty of time for that Fire Nation princess to come back for them.’

 ‘So what?’ Sokka asked, untroubled. ‘Fire Nation comes for Fire Nation. I’m not seeing a problem.’

Aang sighed. ‘As reluctant as I am to help Zuko, he and his uncle did side with us yesterday. And they paid the price, Sokka. I can’t ignore that.’

The Water Tribe boy drank the rest of the soup in his bowl with relish. ‘He’s also not sided with us a bunch of times. Remember the South Pole? And the North Pole? He’s sided against us every time we’ve met him in the snow!’

 ‘Maybe he just doesn’t like the cold.’ Toph shrugged, her lips twitching in amusement.

 ‘He is a firebender…’

Aang gave an uncharacteristic sound of frustration. ‘This isn’t helping!’

 ‘It’s obvious, isn’t it, Twinkle Toes?’ Toph picked at the place between her big and second toe. ‘We load Gramps and Cranky Pants onto Appa and bring them with us until they can travel themselves.’

The three of them looked at the blind girl, aghast. ‘You’ve got to be joking,’ Katara said at last, her own food forgotten at Toph’s outrageous suggestion.

Sokka was scandalised. ‘They’ve chased us halfway across the world trying to capture Aang! We’re not about to take a day trip with them!’

Momo chose that moment to climb Aang’s shoulder and chitter something incomprehensible in his ear. The young monk glanced uneasily between Sokka and Katara. ‘It would only be for a couple of days, right?’

Katara’s lip curled. ‘Two, maybe three,’ she said at last.

He nodded and turned to Sokka. ‘I won’t agree to it, unless you’re all okay with it,’ he told them diplomatically. ‘But there’s something I should tell you… Do you remember when you two got sick and I had to go find you medicine?’

‘And you made us suck on frozen frogs?’ Sokka answered quickly, his brow twitching at the memory.

Aang smiled sheepishly. ‘Well, when Zhao captured me… it was Zuko who helped me escape. He saved me.’ He met their incredulous stare. ‘I owe him.’

An uncomfortable silence followed the Avatar’s revelation.

‘Look, I had a really good chat with the general yesterday. I like to think I got to know him pretty well, and no one that kind could be so caught up in the jerk you guys talk about.’ Toph tucked her hands behind her head and slumped back again. ‘There’s more to Sparky than you guys have seen, you watch.’

Sokka scratched his chin, waving his hand at Toph dismissively. ‘I’m cool with it, so long as you get started learning earthbending,’ he said to Aang, smiling at the younger boy. ‘As long as we’re working on taking down the Fire Lord, I’m happy.’

Katara felt two pairs of eyes and one pair of feet turn to her expectantly. It’s like you three can’t do anything for yourselves… None of them do anything unless she tells them to.

‘Fine,’ she said, turning and walking away. She could barely admit to herself that she wanted the Fire Prince around, if only to satisfy her curiosity. She’d die if her friends saw the truth in her eyes.

 

 

‘You make an excellent jasmine tea, Katara,’ Iroh exalted, sipping from his simple wooden cup with relief. ‘My nephew has yet to master the skill of proper brewing…’

She couldn’t help it, she smiled. ‘I’d make green tea for my Gran Gran back home growing up,’ she explained, handing him the bowl of soup also. ‘Eat while you can. We’ll have to leave soon.’

The General raised a brow at that, but merely nodded. ‘My niece is very determined. We would be best to leave this place before she can recover her companions and return for us.’

Katara agreed; she’d little desire to have to fight the frighteningly deadly girl again. Stepping around him, she began to fold her camp bed. ‘I’m sorry your niece did this to you,’ she said quietly, without looking up. ‘You didn’t seem to expect her attack. I’m sure it must be difficult, having someone you trust turn on you.’

Iroh surprised her with a full-bellied laugh. ‘Oh, I’ve never trusted Azula,’ he said cheerfully, setting the empty teacup down beside him. ‘She takes far too much pleasure in the misery of others. But I thank you for your kindness to myself and my nephew, though I know he has done little to earn it.’

Katara tied the straps around her bedroll, knotting them tightly as her brother had shown her. Before she could reply, however, Aang entered the room and stopped before the old man.

 ‘General Iroh,’ he began, bowing formally.

 ‘Avatar Aang,’ the old man replied, sitting stiffly to return the gesture.

Aang watched the general steadily. ‘My friends and I have spoken, and Katara tells us you’ll be unable to travel for the next couples of days. We’ve agreed that you and your nephew are welcome to travel with us on Appa until you’re recovered enough to head off on your own.’ Aang regarded the man steadily, suddenly much older than he usually appeared. ‘It’s in all our best interests to get out of here before Azula returns.’

Iroh stroked his beard, nodding slowly. ‘I agree. None of us are served by staying here much longer…’ His gaze slid over the Avatar’s shoulder to smile at the stiff profile in the doorway. ‘Nephew! The Avatar has invited us to travel on his magnificent sky-bison. Isn’t that wonderful?’

Zuko scowled when Aang turned to appraise him. His arms, crossed over his chest as they were, clenched. ‘Travel with the Avatar?’ he said tightly, glaring at the grinning general.

 ‘Zuko,’ Iroh said mildly, though there was a steely tone in his voice that Katara hadn’t heard before. ‘The Avatar and his friends show us great honour with their offer. You should show them your respect.’

A reluctant blush tinged the Fire Prince’s cheeks. Katara thought he looked better for it, less severe perhaps. ‘Thank you.’ He bit out the words as though they’d tried to choke him. ‘Uncle, might I have a word?’

The General sighed but turned to Katara with wide-eyed innocence. ‘We shall join you shortly,’ he said, smiling widely.

Katara shouldered her bags as she stood and followed Aang from the room. ‘He’ll never go along with it,’ she said, unsure if she was relieved or disappointed.

 ‘I don’t know,’ her friend mused, picking up his own bag and air bending it up onto Appa. ‘I didn’t realise how much he cares for his uncle until seeing them together like this…’

Katara’s hands curled to fists. ‘Cares for him?’ She shook her head. ‘Aang, this is Zuko we’re talking about here.’

The monk smiled bashfully and winked. With a gust of air, he spun upwards, landing gracefully on Appa’s head.

 

 

Zuko was not a willing participant in their continued proximity. He made that painfully clear.

Oh, it wasn’t anything he’d said (though he’d said plenty). It was in how he distanced himself from the group. Even within the confines of Appa’s saddle. With Aang seated up between the bison’s horns with Momo, Iroh reclining against the front of the saddle, a blanket over his shoulders, Katara beside him, Sokka and Toph on his other side, Zuko had retreated to the rear of the saddle to sulk.

And sulking truly was what he was doing.

Toph and Sokka, delighted by the situation, were playing a game Sokka had called “Stoke the Fire.” It boiled down to the two of them trying to get under Zuko’s skin as much as possible by insulting the Fire Nation.

‘You seem too nice to be a jerk bender,’ Katara’s brother pointed out loudly, eyeing Iroh suspiciously. ‘Or to be related to the Fire Lord.’

Katara could have been mistaken, but she was sure the Fire Prince exhaled flames.

The General laughed heartily, wincing a little as the movement jostled his chest. ‘I have always believed more in those things that transcend the divisions of the Four Nations: the art of tea, philosophy, beauty, truth…’ He grinned at their bewildered expressions. ‘And Pai Sho, of course.’

‘But you’re the Fire Lord’s brother,’ Sokka exclaimed, as though that explained something significant.

‘Yes,’ Iroh said breezily. ‘But I am not my brother.’ He looked over at his nephew, sitting stiffly as far from them as he could. ‘We all choose our own path, our own destiny.’

‘So, tell me,’ Sokka continued conversationally, leaning forward. ‘How does the Fire Nation celebrate the new year?’ He glanced slyly towards the hooded figure. ‘Sacrifice a couple of babies? Colonise a new nation?’

Iroh seemed oblivious to Sokka’s barbs. ‘When I was a much younger man, I would welcome the new year at the capital’s New Year Festival. The Fire Sages create the most exemplary fireworks displays, a whole year’s worth of training for the new initiates.’ A sly grin broke over his face. ‘I have read about the Water Tribe tradition too, the New Year’s Fertility Festival. Though perhaps you are a little too young to have participated in such a thing.’

Toph laughed at Sokka’s splutter. ‘Non-Earth Kingdom traditions are weird,’ she decided, her discomfit in the air momentarily forgotten.

‘Hey! I’ll have you know the Southern Water Tribe Fertility Festival is an ancient tradition that celebrates the coming of age of the young men in the tribe!’

And the women,’ Katara added loudly, narrowing her eyes at her brother. ‘And what would you know about it? We left home before you were old enough to be part of it.’

A wicked grin crossed Toph’s face. ‘What do they do, Sokka? Dress you up all manly and parade you around town?’

‘Actually, yes,’ the warrior replied.

‘I don’t see it,’ the earthbender replied, twisting her head contemplatively.

‘Well you wouldn’t have, you’ve never been to—’ His face fell suddenly. ‘Stop doing that!’

Katara laughed along with Toph, Aang, and Iroh. Even Zuko turned towards them, a strange expression on his face. Katara’s laughter died on her lips as she recognised that same unguarded amusement…

‘You need to tell your brother to stop threatening me with his boomerang in front of the ministers,’ the lingering vision of Zuko laments, easily keeping pace with her as she ducks the low-hanging branch of a dead tree. ‘Seriously, Minister Ping asked me if relations with the Southern Water Tribe were suffering because of our betrothal.’

Laughing nastily, Katara turns to the spectre, hands on hips. ‘Of course my tribe would be hostile to you!’ she shouts, raising her hands above her head in frustration. How many hours has he been following her now?

The reckless joy in his eyes takes her off guard. ‘I know he doesn’t mean it— well, not really— but doesn’t he know you can take care of yourself?’ He blinks at the thought. ‘Spirits, if I did wrong by you, I’d be way more concerned with what you’d do than what he’d do.’

Katara purses her lips. ‘You just wait,’ she hisses, glaring at him. ‘When I see you again, I’m going to water whip that smile right off your face!’

A soft look crosses the vision-Zuko’s face and she has to look away; too personal, that look can’t be for her. ‘It’s part of why I love you.’

Chapter Text

‘Ohhhh.’ Uncle was wasted in the military; he’d missed his calling as an actor. ‘Ack, ohhhh.’

The waterbender bowed over him, her brow creased in worry. She was a glutton for people’s pain, that one. ‘Iroh? Do you need more ice?’

Eyes impossibly round, hi uncle nodded feebly and leaned back in his bedding beneath the wizened tree. The Avatar’s flying rug had taken them an admittedly impressive distance that day; Zuko reasoned it would be impossible for him to capture the boy now that he was without his ship to keep pace with the bison. He frowned, brooding; not that capturing the Avatar would do him much good anymore.

Enemies and traitors all working together, Azula had said. A princess surrenders with honour. He ground his teeth together at the barb; it rubbed at him like the coarse bandages had itched against his face in the days and weeks after that fateful Agni Kai.

‘I can’t feel anything.’ The waterbender was frowning anxiously, her hand glowing. Zuko shook his head at his uncle. ‘Would you like some tea? That seemed to help last time.’

‘I could not impose any further on your kindness,’ the old man said smoothly, winking at his nephew when the girl bent the water back into her pouch. Zuko glared at Uncle; how stupid were these people? How had they evaded him for so long?

‘Not at all.’ He watched the waterbender’s mouth as she smiled so amenably at his uncle. The Avatar would have such a ridiculously naïve girlfriend. He crossed his arms tightly against his chest and slumped against the tree behind him. The girl stood and retrieved the tea and pot from the ground beside Uncle. He glanced away quickly, he was a Son of Fire and would not be caught looking at some peasant healer.

She stopped just out of reach, watching him, he could feel it. It would be ludicrous for him to ignore her much longer.

‘What?’ he asked, glancing up at her ambivalent expression. How could she laugh with his uncle, then come to him with that look on her face? Maybe if he had a stupid arrow on his head, or a burn over his chest…

‘I wanted to make some tea for your uncle,’ she explained, ignoring his tone. He didn’t like when people did that. ‘Can you make a fire?’ When he didn’t reply immediately, she dropped her free hand to her hip. ‘You know, when we stop to make camp, usually everyone helps out. In one way or another. A fire would be a start.’

He exhaled in a controlled rush and a thick plume of flame rose over his palm; she eyed it distrustfully. ‘Where do you want it?’

The waterbender pointed to the firewood the earthbender had gathered earlier. Despite himself, he couldn’t help but find the blind girl’s attitude amusing; she wasn’t as much of a bleeding heart as the Avatar, or as much of a blithering idiot as the Water Tribe boy.

Zuko stood and pushed passed the waterbender, snatching the teapot from her as he went. He was more than capable of making his own uncle tea.

‘Uh, nephew?’ Uncle’s voice was almost alarmed; Zuko looked over suspiciously in case one of the Avatar’s little friends was about to try something. But no. He was laying comfortably, unthreatened under the tree, his eyes following the teapot in Zuko’s hands worriedly. ‘Perhaps you could help Katara make the tea? She is very accomplished at my favourite jasmine brew.’

He glanced back at the waterbender. She hadn’t moved except to clench her fists and glare at him; Agni help him… these people. Shrugging, he turned back to the kindling and quickly had a small fire burning happily, the battered teapot warming above it.

He made to add the tea leaves.

‘What are you doing?’ the waterbender asked sharply, grabbing his sleeve to stop him.

He pulled his arm from her grasp. ‘Making tea,’ he said as insultingly as possible.

She rolled her eyes at him. ‘Obviously. But you can’t add the leaves yet, the water hasn’t boiled. They won’t steep right.’

Must be some peasant trick. He had noticed his uncle didn’t wince when he drank her tea. ‘You do it then!’

He nearly stormed off at the smirk that slid across her face. ‘Your uncle was right,’ she said, forcing him to drop his glower to the teapot. ‘You don’t have the patience to make tea.’ He could feel her smug grin. ‘Guess you don’t have servants anymore to make it for you. You’ll just have to learn like the rest of us.’

He bit back his irritation; he’d made tea plenty of times the waterbender didn’t know about. She didn’t know anything about him!

But his uncle didn’t flinch when he drank her tea.

 ‘Will you show me?’ He didn’t like how unsure he sounded. ‘Show me now.’ Much better.

She looked at him in surprise and burst out laughing. ‘Sure thing, oh fiery one,’ she snickered, taking the canister of tea leaves and kneeling more comfortably beside him. He watched her shake her head, still smiling. She had laughed like that earlier with Uncle, the Water Tribe boy, and the earthbender.

 ‘The water has to boil,’ she explained, putting the tea canister down for the time being, ‘to remove any impurities. Then you have to wait for the temperature to drop a few degrees or you’ll scald the tea leaves. That’s what makes a cup of tea bitter.’ She gestured to the bubbling teapot. ‘Let’s take it off the boil.’

He did as she indicated, oddly reminded of his uncle’s instruction on the deck of his ship. ‘I could just cool it to the right temperature,’ he pointed out. Just so she knew.

‘So could I,’ she countered, tucking her hair behind her ear as she leant forward. ‘But that’s not how you make tea.’ He huffed and set the teapot on the grass. ‘If you take the lid off, it will let out heat more quickly.’

He rolled his eyes but did as she indicated. ‘Some tea making tradition you peasants practice in your hovels,’ he muttered under his breath, following the coils of steam with his gaze.

‘One your royal uncle appreciates,’ she snapped, and he glanced up at her. Had she been insulted?

‘Is it cool enough yet?’ he asked to smooth the awkwardness away; why did she have to go and get all offended?

‘Count to fifty, Prince Zuko,’ she said coolly, retrieving three cups from her bag.

He glowered at her; he wasn’t a child. One irritating waterbender, two irritating waterbenders, three irritating waterbenders…

She set the three cups down and uncapped her water canteen, bending a handful of water out to rinse each cup. Did she put that soiled water back? Did she drink that stuff?

 ‘Okay,’ she said finally despite the fact he’d only got up to forty-two irritating waterbenders. ‘Now you can add the tea leaves, then put the lid back on the pot so they can steep in the humidity.’

 ‘Are you sure?’ he asked quietly, arching his eyebrow at her. ‘You don’t want to say a little peasant prayer over it first?’

She gave him the strangest look, as though he had spouted a second head. ‘Was that a joke?’ she asked in disbelief.

 ‘Forget it!’ he snapped, clenching his teeth against the heat that crept up his neck. Snatching the tea canister, he dumped enough of the stupid leaves in the pot for the three of them. He slammed the lid back on the teapot and glared off over her head.

Waterbenders!

‘Fire is the element of power…’ The familiar words drew his attention. ‘The power for firebending comes from the breath, a concept I’m sure is familiar to you from what I’ve seen of your airbending, young Avatar,’ his uncle was saying, watching the boy closely.

The boy nodded seriously. ‘The monks used to say the breath is how we connect to the part of ourselves where our bending comes from.’

Uncle nodded his agreement. ‘This is true, and most important with firebending, where control is paramount.’ He glanced at the bald boy thoughtfully. ‘Can you think of any firebenders you have met who lost connection to their breath and their root, and so lost control?’

The Avatar’s face darkened. ‘Zhao.’

Uncle nodded sadly. ‘Yes, the admiral was always ruled by his temper. But you need not fear the same fate, Aang. With a strong stance and controlled breath, you will find a peace with your inner fire. I’ve always taught my nephew that the basics are where true control, and thus power, come from in firebending.’

‘Uncle!’ Every eye in the clearing turned to Zuko.

His uncle watched him steadily, even as the waterbender walked over and handed him a steaming cup of tea. But Zuko could barely see around his shocked indignation; his uncle, his uncle, was giving their enemy a firebending lesson.

He’d never believed their slander— his father, Azula, Zhao— not once when they looked at his uncle and uttered the word traitor had he believed them. The retired general was quirky, yes, perhaps a little foolish at times, but he was a loyal son of the Fire Nation. Anyone who said otherwise was simply wrong.

He couldn’t look away from the calm defiance in his uncle’s eyes. ‘What are you doing?’ he asked tightly, standing from the fireside.

The Avatar stood and gave him that look. The keep the peace one. ‘Your uncle and I were just—’

‘I was talking to my uncle,’ he snapped, glaring at the little monk.

The old man sipped slowly at his tea, his face lighting up in delight. ‘Did you make this?’ he asked the Water Tribe peasant.

She shook her head, looking away from Zuko for a moment. ‘Not really. Zuko did most of it.’

Iroh turned back to his nephew with an expression of such pride Zuko nearly forgot his anger.

Almost.

‘Uncle. A word,’ he said thickly, holding onto his fraying temper with great difficulty.

To his surprise, it was the waterbender who first broke the tension. ‘Aang, come on,’ she said quietly, avoiding his furious gaze. ‘Sokka. Toph.’

The earthbender made a big deal about having to get up, but the four of them retreated from the hollow. From the Water Tribe boy’s loud boasting, Zuko presumed they’d return with something to eat at least.

Zuko couldn’t meet his uncle’s eye. ‘Why?’ was all he said.

Iroh observed the tension in his nephew’s arms as he clenched and unclenched his fists. ‘The Avatar asked me about control in firebending,’ he replied, sipping his tea. ‘Simply delicious.’

 ‘You gave the Fire Nation’s greatest enemy advice on his firebending,’ Zuko said sharply, narrowing his eyes at the old man. ‘I don’t understand, Uncle, why would you do such a thing?’

The grey brows over the general’s stern eyes pulled together sharply. ‘The Avatar is no enemy of the Fire Nation, nephew. He is the balance between light and dark, order and chaos. It is the Fire Nation’s thirst for war that is its own enemy.

 ‘You are not the same man who left the Fire Nation, Prince Zuko. You are stronger, and wiser, and freer than you have ever been. But we have come now to a crossroads.’ The old man sipped his tea, eyeing the ambivalence in Zuko’s expression. ‘The person you were three years ago would never have had the humility and wisdom to take advice on how to prepare such an excellent cup of tea from the Avatar’s companion. There is great good in you, nephew. It is time you considered your own destiny. Not the one forced upon you.’

He turned his face aside. ‘I know my destiny, Uncle.’

The old general’s face clouded like a sudden storm on a sunny day. ‘You follow a boy’s dream, one that will never be,’ he said emphatically, leaning forward, all pain forgotten. ‘You seek to trade a life for something your father cannot give you. Your honour is yours, Zuko! It always has been! It is time for you to look within yourself and decide what kind of man you truly are.’

A strained silence fell between them, during which Iroh (unbeknownst to Zuko) worried that he might have pushed the boy too far. Perhaps he wasn’t ready.

Zuko turned away from his uncle. ‘I’ll think about it.’ A strange buzzing filled Zuko’s ears as he heard those words that had haunted him down the years echo through his memory with new meaning. Rise and fight, Prince Zuko… You will learn respect, and suffering will be your teacher

Chapter Text

Zuko made them all tea.

Sokka wanted to wait for him to drink it first. Katara had half a mind to do just that, but Iroh thanked the Fire Prince and sipped the steaming cup before any of them could say otherwise. The old man, in preparation for travel, was sitting upright against a tree, his bandages covering the weeping mess that was his burn. His expression showed nothing of the agony Katara knew was festering behind the cotton.

‘Excellent tea,’ he sighed, shivering slightly in the chill of dawn.

Katara recalled the old man’s words from the night before, when she and her friends had returned after Zuko’s argument with his uncle. ‘You must be a very good teacher,’ the retired general had told her thoughtfully, a knowing light in his eyes. ‘To teach my nephew so well. Thank you for your patience.’

She considered the drink cupped between her hands now; steam curled delicately from the water’s surface. It’s just tea

‘Wow,’ Aang said in clear surprise. ‘It is good, Zuko.’

The fire bender had his back to them, packing up the teapot and the pan he’d used to heat their breakfast. He’d been up earlier than any of them and hadn’t even claimed his generosity was for his injured uncle. His shoulders stiffened at Aang’s words, but Katara noticed he relaxed once the others went back to talking. Once he could blend into the background. Once he didn’t have to meet their—

Golden eyes caught her, they held her and accused her. She swallowed and glanced back at Sokka, who was now claiming there was a suspicious aftertaste to the tea.

‘I don’t know… it’s sweet… like too sweet, you know?’

Katara smiled, a beat behind her friend’s laughter; her heart was pounding as though she’d teetered precariously on a high cliff edge.

 

 

It wasn’t until the five teens, the old general, the chittering lemur, and the groaning sky-bison had been airborne for over an hour that Katara got up the courage to go sit by the lone figure at the rear of the saddle.

He’d drawn his hood low over his brow, hiding his scar and the long stubble that was his slowly regrowing hair. She clutched the rim of the saddle as she lowered herself beside him, clearing her throat uncomfortably. He glanced at her and away, his mouth twisting as though he’d tasted something unpleasant.

‘What do you want?’ After so many days in such close quarters with the banished prince, she had come to recognise his “gentle” tone. She wondered at what kind of life he must have lived to harden him so bitterly against the world.

‘Nothing, really,’ she replied kindly, hugging her knees to her chest and smiling placatingly at her brother’s incredulous look. ‘I just thought you could use the company.’

She felt, rather than saw, his brow furrow. ‘I don’t need your pity.’

‘I know you don’t.’

A pause. ‘Then why are you sitting with me?’

Some part of her did pity him; what had happened to make him so suspicious of friendly gestures? ‘I’ve been feeling too cheerful,’ she said with a straight face. ‘Thought I’d temper it with some surliness.’ He glowered at her. ‘Oh, cheer up, Zuko, I’m only joking.’

He harrumphed, turning his head away, but didn’t fly into a rage. She took this as a good sign and peered at him inquisitively. Perhaps Iroh had been right, perhaps there was more to the Fire Prince than the scowling figure astride the metal ship.

‘You’re staring at me, waterbender.’

Perhaps not. ‘I was thinking.’

He turned back to her. ‘Thinking what?’

She shrugged and crossed her knees beneath her. ‘Just about something your uncle told me,’ she replied, squinting as the wind buffered her. ‘He really cares for you, you know?’

The exiled prince eyed her strangely, as though she were speaking some foreign language. ‘I know he does,’ he said tersely.

‘I just mean, it must be a comfort for you. To have your uncle with you while you’re away from home. I imagine it would be pretty lonely otherwise.’ She rested her chin against her knuckles, wistfully. ‘I would be so homesick if I didn’t have Sokka, and Aang and Toph are almost like family too.’

The hardness around his mouth had relaxed somewhat when he turned back to her. ‘You’re lucky to have people around you like that.’ His words were so quiet, she wasn’t sure she’d even heard him correctly.

‘I am,’ she agreed, smiling encouragingly. ‘Just like you are to have your uncle. He’s wonderful!’

A rueful smile teased at the corner of the prince’s mouth. ‘You let him get away with too much,’ he muttered, his gaze resting on his uncle, deep in conversation with Aang, Toph, and Sokka. ‘He’s well enough to make himself tea. I’ve never seen him sick enough that he can’t make tea.’

‘I don’t mind. He’s suffered a lot these last few days.’

Zuko turned to her, his guarded expression somewhat eased. ‘Thank you,’ he said with a formal bow, or as formal as he could whilst seated on a sky-bison. ‘Thank you for helping us when you had no cause to.’

Katara could feel the shock etched across her face. ‘You don’t have to thank me,’ she muttered, unable to hold his stare.

‘I do,’ he insisted, leaning back against the saddle’s lip. ‘You had no reason to help us, so thank you. For my uncle.’

Silence followed his words, and Katara wondered if he knew how that sounded. To admit his dogged pursuit had been in any way erroneous was something she’d never thought to hear from the prince. What was he saying? Did he acknowledge his actions against them were wrong? Was he, in some small way, seeking forgiveness?

‘You know,’ she began, trying to gauge his reaction from the corner of her eye. ‘I’ve been teaching Aang waterbending, and Toph’s just started teaching him earthbending… Pretty soon he’s going to need a firebending teacher. I know your uncle would be a great teacher, and who better to train with the Avatar than the Fire Lord’s son?’ He looked at her as though she’d said the ocean was pink and Momo was the Earth King. ‘Really! Think about it! This war has thrown the world out of balance. You’re going to be the next Fire Lord, right? So what better way for the Fire Nation to work with the world than for you to help bring balance by helping Aang?’

He frowned incredulously. ‘You have no idea what you’re asking me to do,’ he said finally, rubbing his brow. ‘Do even you hear yourself?’

She knelt up and clutched his arm. ‘You could do it,’ she said brightly, carried away by the idea. ‘You’d be making right a hundred years of war and suffering.’

‘And betraying my father,’ he said sharply, wrenching his arm from her grasp. ‘Did you forget that?’

Her brow crinkled in confusion as his hand hovered over his scar. ‘He did that to you, didn’t he?’

The look he shot her was boiling with discord. ‘It’s none of your business!’ he hissed, pulling at his hood and angling his head away. Katara considered critically; disappointed. Disappointment stung.

Preparing to leave him be, she was startled by his sudden closeness, glowering right into her face. ‘Did my uncle tell you?’ he demanded in a low growl.

She shrunk from his proximity. ‘No…’

‘Liar.’

‘I’m not lying!’ She shoved him back, hoping he didn’t notice her hands’ shaking.

‘You don’t know anything about my father,’ he snapped sitting back and crossing his arms over his chest. ‘You don’t know anything about my life.’

She swallowed her anger and turned away from him, suddenly cold. She made to stand, wanting to be as far from him as she could get. ‘I know more than you think.’

 

 

‘Why won’t you leave me alone?’ She’s desperate now. She knows too much, feels too confused. He’s given her small parcels of himself and it’s impossible to go back. She knows about his mother’s love for the theatre, she knows the woman’s favourite theatre troupe, she knows he bought tickets for his mother every time the troupe visits the Fire Nation capitol.

She is about to know about his scar.

Zuko squares his shoulders and passes before her through a canopy of vines. ‘It was you who made understand the difference between loyalty to my nation and loyalty to my father.’ The words stop her in her tracks; he turns to peer at her, eyes playful and light. ‘You didn’t know?’

She clenches her fists. ‘I’ve barely spoken to you.’

He shrugs and Katara’s heart leaps into her throat; her apparition hasn’t answered her before. ‘This might have healed and scarred over, but when you started working on the pain behind how I got this… that’s when I started to realise what my father had done…’ His eyes tighten somewhat. ‘That what he’d done to me was wrong, and that I was wrong to believe capturing Aang would somehow make him love me again.’

She barely understands what he’s saying. ‘Your father was the reason you got that?’

His hand drifts over the old scar almost absentmindedly. ‘There was a plan, a battle strategy, to send new recruits up against one of the strongest earthbending battalions in the Earth Kingdom. I spoke out against the general who suggested it.’ His lip curls, and the shadow of the angry boy Katara is familiar with hovers over this older spectre. ‘The old man proposed we use the untrained men as bait, all so we could swoop in from the sides and finish them while they’re distracted.

‘I was outraged at the general’s plan and spoke out against it. I couldn’t believe this man would exploit our soldier’s love for their country so cruelly. But my idealism wasn’t taken in the patriotic way it was intended. I was to fight an Agni Kai to defend my position against those I had wronged.’ Katara could see it. The bright-eyed boy, striving to do right by his nation, to make his father proud.

‘And he burned you for it,’ she whispered, her eyes welling in disgust for the Fire Lord and compassion for his son.

‘I never fought back,’ Zuko whispers, his eyes glazing as he watches the scene unfold. ‘Not once I saw who it was who had come to fight me. I was on my knees, begging for forgiveness, and he held his burning hand to my face and set me on fire…’

Katara shakes her head violently, too repulsed to listen to anymore. ‘Stop,’ she gasps, turning from the apparition, and stumbling away. ‘Aang!’ she calls hoarsely, yelping as a branch rakes across her face. ‘Sokka!’

But he keeps pace, of course he keeps pace. ‘It was terrible, and the following years were just one hardship after another. It was you, Katara. You made me realise I hadn’t lost my honour by betraying my nation. I wanted to save my nation from itself, even if that meant facing my father in battle again.’

 

 

She felt cold, but not from the wind. The memory of the swamp curled and rolled through her thoughts like smoke, impossible to dispel until she faced the true cause of her discomfit.

After all, where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

The truly terrifying part of the whole situation was not the monstrous cruelty of the Fire Lord, nor the severely scarred (in more ways than one) son he had banished to chase at phantoms. The most frightening part about Zuko’s confirmation of what his spectre had said in the swamp was that it proved the vision had told her something true. Something she didn’t know.

And if the vision of Zuko had been telling the truth about how he got his scar… what did that mean for the hundred other things he’d told her in the dank humidity of the Foggy Swamp?

Chapter Text

 ‘I remember when I began to feel ashamed of my country.’

He is more casual now, his Fire Lord regalia replaced by pants and a simple tunic tied at the front. He doesn’t see her though. He’s seeing somewhere far into the past, this Zuko from the future.

‘I believed them, all of them,’ he mutters; the tightness of the skin around his eyes is the only sign of distress. ‘They told us we were blessed with wealth; technology, money, our way of life and the war was how we were going to share it with the world. The other nations didn’t understand yet, my teachers told me, but once the simple folk of the Earth Kingdom and Water Tribes understood the greatness of the Fire Nation, we would all share in our bounty.’ He grins bleakly. ‘What a magnificent lie that was.’

She sighs from the boulder, a dozen yards away, where she’s trying to ignore him. ‘You have to have known,’ she says tartly, smoothing her hair back in distraction. He’s fraying her nerves, forcing her to see him as something more than the angry boy with the ponytail. ‘How could you not know how frightened and angry we all are with the war?’

He drops his head into his hands and rubs his eyes tiredly. ‘It wasn’t till my father sent Azula after Uncle and I, not until we were marked as traitors, that I saw truly saw— the tyrants we were to the rest of the world. And for a long time, I couldn’t accept it.’ He looks up at her now, almost pleading for her to understand. She wonders who this person his father sent after him is— an assassin? ‘I was only a child when he banished me, and I held onto the idea of my honour like a child. When you and Aang and the others showed me another way, I fought against it like a child.

‘Until I couldn’t anymore.’

She frowns at him, her heart stuttering at the light in his eye. ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ she reminds him. Is she going mad? Indulging this persistent hallucination? Why couldn’t her vision of her mother have stayed to talk, instead of this complicated version of the Fire Lord’s son?

‘I couldn’t have it both ways.’ He’s not even talking to her anymore, his eyes wander over the clearing as she gets up to leave. She’s terrified of what he might say, she doesn’t know why, but she wants to get away from him now more than ever. ‘I couldn’t chase my father’s love and yours at the same time.’

She doesn’t look back to see if he’s following. She pretends she can’t hear the words.

 

 

When Katara was a child, before the Fire Nation had scorched her mother in the desolate tundra of the south, she’d been a fish in a bowl. Her entire life was ice, snow, and several dozen villagers, and that was all her life would ever have been. The simple comfort of her family, her community, and their way of life— everything was provided for her. She never wanted more from life than that. The furs and ice of her home were all she’d ever need.

But then her mother died.

That wholeness, the snug edges of her world, splintered and cracked until the cold of her home crept further and further into her blood and made her wonder at warmer places. There had to be places in the world where every blizzard didn’t remind her of huddling in her mother’s arms, where every long dark winter didn’t set restlessness festering in her bones. As much as she loved her home, she was more than the desert of ice and snow now. So much more. As her bending improved, and she learned more and more about the world, Katara began to realise how much more it had to offer.

In his own way, her brother was learning a similar lesson.

‘Can you two splash around in the water later?’ the Water Tribe boy exclaimed, digging vaguely through his bag. ‘We need to be making a plan!’

Katara directed the stream of water she and Aang had been passing back and forth towards her brother threateningly. ‘We are working on the plan!’ she reminded him, the note of sarcasm something the two of them had in common. ‘Aang’s been focusing on learning earthbending recently. Waterbending practice is part of your plan, Sokka, for Aang to master the four elements in time for the comet.’

Sokka waved away her rationale as though it were inconsequential. ‘And then what?’ He gestured to the increasingly hot, dry landscape around them. ‘Are we supposed to just fly west until we stumble upon the Fire Lord’s house? We need a map of the Fire Nation, we need intelligence. Can your magic water tell us how to get into the Fire Nation before we’re all burned to a crisp when the comet returns?!’

Katara’s brow twitched and she spun her wrist, twirling the water around her brother before dropping it over his head. ‘No, but it can cool your bad attitude!’

Toph laughed from her seat by the narrow stream. ‘You never learn, do you!’

The warrior eyed them all flatly. ‘Somehow when I envisaged fighting the Fire Lord, I didn’t foresee so much water.’

They laughed aloud at him, Aang’s full bellied chortle echoing around the small oasis in the increasingly desertifying landscape. Even Appa, crouched by the shallow stream, gave a rumble of mirth. Which, of course, Sokka took issue with.

‘Oh, you think something’s funny, fluff-ball?’

Ignoring her brother’s argument with the sky-bison, Katara turned back to Aang. ‘Your flow was good.’ She continued their lesson, raising a stream of water with practiced ease. ‘But you have to let your movements… slosh a little more.’ She focused on the water hovering before her and breathed out slowly, letting her body fall through the movements. With barely a water drop spilled, she funnelled it around the young airbender’s body, tickling his side in the process. ‘See?’

Aang laughed again, watching her with bright eyes. ‘Right! Let me try!’

Toph stood with a rumbling concussion of earth. ‘Maybe later, Twinkle Toes. Right now, I’m gonna chuck boulders at you. Sweetness has had you long enough, come on.’

He glanced at Katara longingly, but she waved him off. ‘Go on, your waterbending’s great, Aang. It’s better you spend some time on your earthbending.’

He rolled his eyes, but with a beleaguered sigh he leapt lightly from the water, snatched his clothes from the boulder by the stream and jogged after Toph. Katara winced as Sokka’s argument with Appa provoked the bison to pounce on her brother, licking him with obvious relish; she refused to wash the bison’s spit from his clothes again! If he’d just stop antagonising Appa…

‘Done playing in the water with your boyfriend?’ a prickly voice drawled from behind her.

Katara narrowed her eyes at the prince leaning moodily against the boulder on the other side of the stream. ‘He’s not my boyfriend,’ she told him testily, bending the water from her sarashi wraps. ‘What do you care if he’s done training?’

He looked away, crossing his arms over his chest as she bent to pick up her drying dress. ‘I found some mushrooms for dinner,’ was all he said by way of reply. He raised a brow at Sokka’s attempts to wrestle his way out of Appa’s mouth. ‘Does he need help?’

Katara looked up, her brother’s cries pitiful but definitely melodramatic. ‘Sokka! I thought you said you wanted to plan! Get out of Appa’s mouth.’

The Water Tribe boy gave his sister a frosty look but slithered away from the sky-bison. ‘I want to find a map,’ he corrected her, shaking the drizzle of Appa’s affection from his tunic. Droplets flew outwards in a wide arc, slapping noisily against his drenched face. ‘Eugh!’

‘We have a map,’ Katara reminded him, pulling her dress over her head, and braiding her damp hair over her shoulder. ‘You spent half our money on it in that town with the pirates.’ She shot Zuko a nasty look at the memory. ‘Friends of yours, remember?’

‘A map of the Fire Nation, Katara,’ Sokka clarified, glancing at Zuko slyly out of the corner of his eye. ‘Preferably one with secret tunnels on it, you know how I love secret tunnels.’

The Fire Prince eyed them coldly. ‘You won’t find a map of the Fire Nation in the Earth Kingdom,’ he told them flatly, crouching by the stream to fill his water skin. ‘My father and grandfather made sure of that. They have a standing order that any maps of the homeland found in foreign nations are to be destroyed.’

‘Outstanding guys, the men in your family,’ Sokka said wryly, watching Zuko’s movements closely. ‘I don’t suppose you have a map of your dad’s palace you’d care to share with us?’

The banished prince watched them surreptitiously as he stood. ‘My uncle and I are fugitives from the Fire Nation, and enemies of the Earth Kingdom. Do you really think we would be able to smuggle around a series of forbidden maps?’ His gaze flinty, high colour in his cheeks, he cleared his throat. ‘I… I might be able to draw one though. I studied so much Fire Nation geography at school that I could draw one in my sleep.’ He shrugged, fiddling with the cap of his canteen.

Sokka was the first to break the uneasy silence. ‘You’d what?’

Zuko’s face heated even more. ‘If you don’t want it, fine!’

Katara shushed her brother before he could reply. ‘I’ve got an old water bending scroll you could use,’ she told him with a hesitant smile. The prince seemed to relax somewhat, turning his gaze to her instead. ‘You could draw on the back, it’s blank.’

‘Why not?’ Sokka said loudly, breaking the tentative olive branch between his sister and the firebender. ‘We only fought this guy and pirates to get that stupid scroll! Why not let any old jerk scribble all over it?’

Katara spun on him faster than Zuko could. ‘Do you want your map?!

The Water Tribe warrior pouted petulantly, examining his nails. ‘I do.’

‘Then shut up!’ She turned back to Zuko and nodded across the rise where their camp nestled against the rock walls. ‘Come on, I’ll show you. Your uncle could probably use a healing session, too.’

He fell into step beside her, slinging the water canteen over his shoulder. ‘He doesn’t need it. I caught him stretching this morning. He just likes you fussing over him.’

She ignored Sokka’s sulky muttering behind them and scurried up the rise. ‘He was up by himself?’

‘Agile as ever.’

She narrowed her eyes at that— she truly liked the old general. She felt a little hurt by his dishonesty.

‘Don’t be offended,’ the Fire Prince said suddenly, cresting the hill just behind her. He regarded her earnestly before dropping his gaze and glancing away. ‘Uncle thinks highly of you. He likes you all, your group…’ He trailed off, his face suddenly cold, but Katara heard the unspoken words. He wants to stay, to stretch out his time with you all as long as he can.

‘Well,’ she continued, brushing over the awkward silence as she started down the trail to the campsite. ‘We’ll have to make sure he doesn’t overextend himself. Stretching and firebending forms aren’t good for his recovery.’

 

 

They pretended the map was a game. A distraction. A passing curiosity. No one mentioned its purpose. No one commented on Sokka’s tentative, leading questions about insider information. Katara was seated beside her brother at Iroh’s bedside, Zuko across from them; the water bending scroll stretched over the old man’s lap. The map of Capital City, the palace, and the Fire Nation itself was marked on the scroll.

Only Iroh tested how far their tenuous relationship could be pushed.

‘You know,’ he mentioned lightly, to break the sullen tension after Zuko had snapped at Sokka’s leading questions about secret tunnels. ‘One does not learn a dragon by only studying his fire.’

‘We’re not studying dragons, Uncle,’ Zuko pointed out testily, glowering at the Water Tribe boy. Katara sensed, as she suspected Iroh did too, that the banished prince was precariously close to his limit with the tenuous alliance over the sketched map.

Iroh nodded patiently at his nephew. ‘No we are not. But I feel destiny has led us to this moment of shared knowledge for a reason.’ They all stared at the old general, equally confused. ‘Admiral Zhao served under General Shu, a Fire Nation general stationed not far from here,’ he commented, glancing out at the sun setting over the barren landscape. ‘When Zhao revealed his plans to kill the Moon Spirit, he told me of a great library hidden under the sands of this very desert.’ He gestured west, to the great flatness that ran straight to the horizon.

‘The Si Wong Desert.’

Katara met the old man’s gleaming gaze and she swore he winked at her; a smile curved her lips as an inkling of his meaning trickled through her thoughts. ‘Did Zhao also tell you how he found this library?’

‘Ah.’ Iroh drew his hand over his chest in a very convincing affectation of tragedy. ‘The Admiral, as highly as he thought of himself, did not see fit to confide in me this information. But I am certain, if a lone lieutenant in enemy lands can stumble across such a thing, we would certainly stand a fair chance of finding it from the air, wouldn’t you agree?’

Sokka’s face brightened, a wicked smile spreading across his face. ‘Any place that could tell you how to kill a spirit would have maps of the physical world with all sorts of secret tunnels on them!’ He glanced at Zuko and away quickly. ‘Err, or any number of great tourist destinations, right? I hear Ember Island’s a blast this time of year!’ He laughed weakly.

The Fire Prince glared daggers at the Water Tribe boy, but otherwise ignored his comment. ‘How large is this desert, Uncle? It could take years to search it for a hidden library. If it’s hidden, we might not even be able to see it from the air.’

‘Trust in destiny, Prince Zuko,’ Iroh advised, stroking his beard thoughtfully. ‘Our destiny with the desert can start tomorrow, with the dawn.’ A devious grin crossed the old man’s face. ‘But this evening, our destiny is far more festive!’ He nodded in greeting to the dusty figures of Toph, Aang, and Momo as they trudged into camp. ‘Young Avatar! You wouldn’t happen to know any traditional songs of your people, by chance? The spirited music of the Air Nomads hasn’t been heard in a hundred years.’

Aang’s face lit up and he pressed his fist into his palm, a sudden gust of wind dispelling the lingering dirt from his clothes. ‘Do I ever!’

 

 

As it turned out, Iroh was intent on far more than one song. By the third Air Nomad dance song, he had Sokka, Toph, Aang, and Katara all laughing and dancing around the campfire in the growing darkness. The old man was good with a tune, and clapped them merrily along, a childlike glee in his eyes.

Sokka next offered an old Southern Water Tribe hunting song, drumming out the quick beat against his thighs as he remembered lyrics he’d not heard since before their father left for the war. Katara led the dance, Toph’s hand in hers, and Aang clinging to the earth bender’s other side as they stomped and leapt to the bassy tune.

None of them tried to coax Zuko into joining them. Even Sokka seemed to realise the prince had reached his limit for group activities that his father would disapprove of for the day.

Though they were all surprised when the surly young man called on his uncle to sing one of the Fire Nation ballads that the old man had often played on the tsungi horn aboard their ship in the early years of their exile. Iroh, of course, complied with very little encouragement, gesturing so emphatically from his seat against a boulder than Katara had to scold him for overstretching his wounded arm.

The old man smiled sheepishly under the waterbender’s bemused stare. ‘I seem to have gotten somewhat carried away,’ he admitted, his wide grin coaxing a similar one onto the girl’s face. ‘My apologies, Katara.’

She shook her head slowly, all trace of scolding melted away. ‘Play that one about the seasons again,’ she encouraged, glancing at the Fire Prince at the fringes of the group. Sokka and Aang clamoured their agreement, even Toph nodded, a smirk parting her lips.

Iroh nodded good-naturedly and gestured to Aang. ‘Show them the dance moves, the Bowing Crane, and the Dancing Dragon.’

Katara laughed at the monk’s enthusiasm, as she turned and sat by the edge of the fire’s light. A light sheen of sweat gleamed on her forehead despite the chill of the night air. Behind her, Appa slumbered peacefully, his warm bulk blocking the worst of the wind from the open plains of the Si Wong Desert to the west. Beside her, the Fire Prince slouched against the sleeping sky-bison.

‘Katara! Come on! You have to try this!’

She grinned at the airbender but shook her head. ‘I’ll watch, you go ahead!’

The quiet snort from her left drew her attention; she raised a brow. ‘Oh, come on… you don’t see it?’ he said just loud enough for her to hear.

Iroh’s voice rose like the tide, a slow rhythm beat out against his thigh; Katara frowned. ‘See what?’

Zuko studied her confused expression for a moment, a disbelieving smirk creeping over his face. ‘Never mind.’

She turned back to the group as Toph chortled; Sokka and Aang had danced a little too enthusiastically and ended up tangled in a mess of limbs on the ground.

‘Don’t they allow dancing in the Fire Nation?’ she asked once the two dancers were back on their feet, bowing, ducking, swaying. ‘I thought the Crown Prince would have been taught to dance.’

The prince in question grunted. ‘I was.’

She turned to him in surprise. ‘Really?’ She tried to imagine the awkward figure he’d cut in a dance hall and laughed. ‘You’ll have to show us sometime.’

Rather than harrumph and turn away as she expected, he just shrugged. ‘I’m not very good. My sister was always better than me at… well, most things.’

Katara longed to disagree, to say that, despite her firebending skills, the cruel girl with the cold stare seemed incapable of warmth in the way she was only just starting to realise he was. Somehow, she didn’t think he would view the comparison as the accolade it was. ‘I think your uncle would say otherwise,’ she said instead, without meeting the curious stare she could feel like the sun on a hot day.

‘Where did you learn to dance?’ he asked after a beat, his tone quieter than usual. ‘Your Water Tribe songs are so different to ours.’

‘My mother,’ she replied softly, drawing her knees to her chest. She followed her brother’s movements around the camp, his eyes and smile so much like her mother’s it made her heart ache. ‘Before the men left our village to fight in the war, we learned traditional Water Tribe dances and songs. Our tribe isn’t very big, so our traditions are very important to us. After losing so much, everyone holds on so much tighter to what they know.’

Zuko seemed to mull her words over before responding. ‘Your bending is a lot like dancing,’ he observed. ‘Anyone would think you’d found a dancing teacher, waterbender.’

She turned to him, frowning. ‘I have a name,’ she said carefully, pinning him with her stare. ‘If we’re going to talk to one another, you should use it, Zuko.’

His mouth opened in surprise, and she was tickled by the flush of colour in his cheeks. He wouldn’t meet her eyes, but he nodded jerkily. ‘Fine.’

Silence lapsed between them as Iroh finished the seasons song and began another, faster-paced one. It had a rolling three-time beat that lashed on the crescendo, like a firebender in action. Katara wondered whether she dared push conversation with the prince any further that evening. To her surprise, he took the decision from her.

‘Um…’ She glanced back at him, curiously. He cleared his throat but scowled and crossed his arms over his chest, slumping lower against Appa’s side.

Stifling a smile, she slid her legs back down to recline beside him. ‘Um?’

He didn’t respond.

Perhaps it was her compassionate nature, perhaps she had bought into the words of her visions in the Foggy Swamp, but Katara thought she had a fair idea of the crossroads the prince was wrestling with behind the surliness in his eyes.

Chapter Text

 ‘What do you think?’

The six of them, Appa and Momo at loggerheads some ways off, clustered around the clay protrusion. The merciless heat of the midday sun, beat at them as though it were mere metres away rather than far up, high in the sky. Sokka had long ago stripped his shirt to wear it over his head as protection from the heat. Zuko and Iroh seem least affected by the baking heat of the Si Wong Desert. Katara had worried that the heat and exposure might hurt the old man’s recovery, but her fears seem unfounded.

Aang and Toph’s cheeks were flushed with sunburn, and even Katara— no stranger to the harshness of the sun’s reflection on the ice of her homeland— was struggling.

Tempers were running high. Namely…

‘It looks nothing like a library!’ The Fire Prince wiped sand irritably from his eyes, glowering at the grains as though he’d like to burn them away to nothing.

Katara ignored his outburst and turned to Toph. ‘Can your feet see anything?’

The little earth bender blew her bangs out of her face. ‘I can barely see you,’ she said shortly, a note of wistfulness threaded around the snarky remark. Katara thought that perhaps the girl’s reduced vision was beginning to wear on her confidence. She sighed, pushing back her own temper to lead the girl forward until her fingers brushed the turret before them.

‘What about now?’

Toph frowned and licked her chapped lips before gripping the structure roughly. ‘Holy badgermoles,’ she muttered, her milky eyes widening in surprise. ‘That’s your library, all right. It’s buried underground. And it’s huge.’

Finally!’ Sokka exclaimed, fanning himself as he craned his neck to scope out the tower. He’d done nothing but bemoan the heat, his wind beaten skin, how sweaty he was, his sandy… areas. If it weren’t for their need to conserve water, Katara would have water whipped him out of sheer irritation long ago. ‘How do we get in?’

‘There’s an opening— windows, I think— way up at the top.’ Toph narrowed her eyes. ‘There’re things… moving inside.’ She clutched the structure tighter, the earth buckling under her grip. ‘I can’t tell what they are though.’

‘Comforting,’ Katara muttered under her breath.

Sokka shed his makeshift headwear and pulled the shirt over his head, freeing his boomerang. ‘Does anyone have rope?’ Only Zuko fished around in his bag before thrusting a neat coil into the Water Tribe boy’s hands. ‘Of course you have rope.’

Zuko merely glared. ‘Give it back if you don’t want it.’

Sokka flapped a hand at the firebender and secured the rope to his boomerang. ‘I’m going to try and get this to wedge around one of those columns near the windows, then we can climb up.’

Aang tapped his glider against the ground. ‘Why don’t you give it to me, Sokka? I can fly up on my glider and tie it for you.’

‘I can do it!’ He raised his arm, tongue out in concentration, and whipped the blue weapon forward. It arced high, towards the openings far above their heads… before swinging wide— really wide— and plunging halfway into the sand between Sokka’s feet.

No one said a word.

‘Aang, can you fly this up for me?’ he asked despondently, hanging his head, and slinking away.

Iroh stepped into the small pool of shade cast by the library’s turret. ‘I have heard stories of the great spirit library,’ he mused, his gaze on the high windows, unwavering. ‘When you get inside you may meet the ancient knowledge spirit Wan Shi Tong. They say he is a wise and powerful spirit who collects information from each of the nations for his library.’

Zuko stepped forward as Aang took off with Sokka’s boomerang and the rope. ‘What are you saying, Uncle?’ he said sharply, leaning towards the old man. ‘You’re not coming in?’

Iroh settled himself in the shade, clutching at his wound mournfully. ‘I am not so young as I used to be, my nephew,’ he lamented, leaning back stiffly against the turret. ‘Sometimes you must be like the boulder and let the river run around you, rather than get caught up in the current.’

Katara eyed the gleam on the old man’s brow and revaluated how he was dealing with his wound in the heat. She turned to climb Appa and searched her pack for her shoulder bag with her medical supplies.

‘Here,’ she leapt from the bison, summoning water from her pouch and dousing a bandage with it. With a grasping motion, she froze it solid and offered it to Iroh. ‘We shouldn’t be too long, use this to numb the pain until I get back.’

He smiled gratefully. ‘Thank you, Katara, you are very kind.’

‘Would you like your tea set?’ she asked as Aang landed beside them, the rope dangling from the high windows.

‘Don’t sweat it,’ Toph said suddenly, dropping Iroh’s tea box next to him as she sat. ‘I’ll keep Gramps company. I’d ask you to bring me back a souvenir but since it’s a library, don’t bother.’

Katara raised a brow at the other girl. ‘Guess you’ve had enough of books for one lifetime, Lady Beifong?’

Toph’s expression hardened, but her tell-tale smirk preceded her snarky reply. ‘I’ve held books before. They don’t really do it for me.’

Mortified, Katara blushed and stood. ‘Oh. Right. Sorry.’

Iroh looked up from his tea set. ‘If perhaps you found a tome on advanced Pai Sho strategy, I would gladly receive such a souvenir.’

Zuko rolled his eyes, tugging on the rope experimentally. ‘I’ll do that,’ he said sarcastically. ‘How about I bring you every book on the tsungi horn too?’

‘That would be wonderful!’

The young firebender turned to the vertical climb, his hood falling back. ‘I’ll go first,’ he muttered, grasping the rope to begin the vertical walk.

 

 

It was Sokka who first heard the knowledge spirit’s approach. The library was almost pitch black after the brightness of the desert outside, but mercifully cooler. Katara had just released her grip on the rope, dropping to the long walkway below, when they heard it.

The sound of feathers whispering over stone.

Sokka beckoned wildly for them to follow him as he made a dash to hide behind the nearest pillar. Pressed against Aang and the stone they hid behind, Katara shuddered as the drag of long tail feathers slowed to silence.

‘Humans are no longer welcome here.’ The wry, ancient voice spoke dryly, but something about it sent a shiver of fear down Katara’s spine. She peeked out at the dark spirit; his wings tucked tightly against his side with all the promise of swift merciless flight should they choose to run. His pale face, skull like, contrasted his shadowy, unblinking eyes.

He was watching their hiding spot.

Zuko, of all people, emerged to face the spirit first. He bowed deeply, his right fist pressed against his open palm. ‘You must be the great knowledge spirit Wan Shi Tong.’

His eyes, entirely black, bored into the scarred prince. ‘I am he who knows ten thousand things,’ he agreed once Aang, Sokka, and Katara joined Zuko on the walkway. ‘And you are obviously humans, and so not permitted in my study. Humans only bother learning things to get the edge on other humans. Like that firebender who came to this place a few years ago looking to destroy his enemy. So, who are you trying to destroy?’

The owl switched his shrewd stare to Sokka. ‘W–What?’ he said shakily, smiling too hard. ‘D–Destroying enemies? Us? No!’

Katara dropped her head into her hands. ‘Sokka…’

‘If you’re going to lie to an all-knowing spirit being, you should at least put some effort into it.’

Aang stepped forward then, a hesitant grin on his face. ‘Great Spirit,’ he began, bowing as Zuko had. ‘I’m the Avatar, the bridge between your world and mine. Please, we only want to learn. We won’t abuse the knowledge in your library, you have my word.’

Katara glanced at Aang in surprise; the monk was outright lying. ‘Hmm.’ Wan Shi Tong was obviously unconvinced. ‘Very well, I’ll let you peruse my vast collection. On one condition. To prove your worth as scholars, you have to contribute some worthwhile knowledge.’

She fished in her shoulder bag, glad she hadn’t thought to take it off. ‘Here,’ she stepped forward and bowed to the imposing owl spirit. ‘This is an authentic water bending scroll, with err first edition maps of the Fire Nation drawn on the back.’ They’d find more accurate maps in the library, she was sure.

If the knowledge spirit thought it strange, he didn’t comment. ‘Oh, those illustrations…’ The inky wing passed over her offering and it disappeared.

‘Ah ha!’ Aang yanked a wanted poster of himself from the pockets inside his robes.

Katara could have sworn the spirit sighed. ‘I suppose that counts.’

Zuko bowed again; something gleamed brightly in his hand. ‘This is an Earth Kingdom dagger, with a local proverb etched into the blade.’

The owl cocked his head at the offering. ‘Made in Earth Kingdom,’ he read dryly.

The Fire Prince’s face flushed. ‘The other side!’

‘Hmm.’ The great dark wing slunk forward and brushed over the dagger. ‘Never give up without a fight. Interesting.’

The dagger went the same way as the scroll and Wan Shi Tong turned to the Water Tribe warrior. Sokka was picking at a piece of rope he’d sliced off the end of the hanging tail beside him, unpicking the weave and knotting it, his tongue poking out between his teeth in concentration.

‘Aha! Here!’ None of them said anything. Katara wasn’t alone in trying to figure out what exactly he was offering the knowledge spirit. ‘It’s a special knot! That counts as knowledge.’

‘You’re not very bright, are you?’ the owl finally commented, taking the knotted rope as Sokka’s face fell in dismay. Before the disgruntled warrior could retort, the spirit had swept up his wings and plunged down into the dark depths of the library.

‘A knot?’ she asked flatly, shaking her head as she started down the long, dark corridor before them.

‘It’s better than some waterbending scroll!’

Aang scratched the back of his head. ‘Actually, Sokka, that scroll was what helped Katara and I start to learn waterbending.’

She glanced back when she realised Zuko wasn’t with them. The firebender was studying a large plaque, his hand cradling a small flame. She wandered back, her footsteps strangely muted; it was as though the shelves and walls simply ate any sound.

‘What are you looking at?’ she asked, peering around the side of the plaque.

‘The directory,’ he answered shortly, without glancing up. ‘Your brother wants a map, right? Do you think you’re going to luck onto one? This building is enormous.’

Katara coloured slightly; she hadn’t thought about that. ‘Right, good point.’

Zuko pointed at a sub-heading under the guide for the floor below them. ‘We need to find a staircase. The geography section is directly below us.’

‘Good thinking, Zuko,’ she said excitedly, turning, and calling for her brother. She didn’t see the flush of startled surprise on his face, his fingers pluck distractedly at his shirt. ‘Sokka, Aang, come back! We need to find stairs!’

‘Over there,’ the Fire Prince said quietly, heading towards the spiral staircase, shoulders hunched.

Sokka took the stairs three at a time, hitting the lower level at a run and searching the shelves with a lack of care for creased parchment she suspected their host would disapprove of. Every other scroll he scanned through, those that seemed to hold some interest for him, he stuffed gleefully in his green shoulder bag. Aang was almost as excited; the monk had found a section on the travels of Air Nomads and the unique climactic conditions found in their high-altitude temples.

Katara wandered the long, dim aisles, running her fingers along the ancient tomes. Some of the books and rolls of parchment were so old, the leather bindings crumbled at her touch. Author’s names, titles, topics bled into one another: The Ancient Water Tribe Civilisations of the Serpent’s Pass by Han Mi Kow, Dragons on Ice by an unknown Fire Sage, An Atlas of the Four Nations by General Xi Beifong, The Spiritual Awakening of the Foggy Swamp by Avatar Yangchen. Katara froze, the thin blue leather-bound book seemed almost warm under her touch. A book on the mysteries of the Foggy Swamp; could the answers to her strange visions be hidden between these sheets of aging parchment, within her reach?

The book slid from the shelf without a whisper of sound. The fading ink painted over the etching on the front cover could barely be read in the gloom of the library. Hands shaking, she opened the tome; The Spiritual Awakening of the Foggy Swamp began with two curious lines.

A leaf falls in the city of Ba Sing Se.

The Spirit of the Banyan-grove tree breathes the tide.

‘The banyan-grove tree…’ She thought of Huu, the kind eyed swamp bender who’d reached enlightenment under the vast canopy of the swamp’s banyan-grove tree; a nervous excitement gripped her and she eagerly turned the page.

The banyan-grove tree is to the Avatar what a brother is to his twin sister. There is a sameness between my Avatar spirit and the spirit that inhabits the mysterious tree that makes up the Foggy Swamp in the Earth Kingdom’s south-west. I spent some time living at the base of the banyan-grove tree, meditating on my duty and where I would next best serve the world. After some days my own spirit, sitting in that silent space between the Spirit World and the physical one, discovered the Banyan Spirit.

‘Katara?’

She looked up from the book in fright, her heart leaping to her throat as she glanced around guiltily. Muted footsteps sounded from around the shelf she was sitting against.

‘I’m back here!’ she called, shoving the book into her shoulder bag and jumping to her feet. Avatar Yangchen’s story would have to wait.

Aang rounded the corner, grinning widely when he saw her. ‘Come check this out! Sokka found something!’

She returned his grin with a trembling one of her own; something about her experience in the swamp was deeply personal, she didn’t want the others to ask her why she was reading into it. Aang led her back down the long aisle, excitedly chattering about a scroll he’d found on Air Nomad philosophy.

‘But what did Sokka find?’ she interrupted, her hand hovering by her hip where the book bumped against her thigh with each step.

Aang turned another corner. ‘A burned parchment that mentions “the darkest day in Fire Nation history.” Sounds ominous!’

Ominous, but promising. ‘So, what did happen on the darkest day in Fire Nation history?’

Aang shrugged as they turned one last corner and came across Sokka and Zuko. ‘That’s what Sokka wants to find out.’

Sokka looked up excitedly at their approach. ‘Katara!’ He rushed to her side, his bag almost overflowing with stolen scrolls. He spoke, then, in a secretive hush. ‘I need you to distract Zuko while Aang and I try to find out about the Fire Nation’s dark day!’

She peered over her brother’s shoulder at the Fire Price; he was engrossed in a tome with a dull orange cover. ‘Distract him? Sokka, don’t you think it might be a bad idea to treat him like the enemy?’

The two of them eyed her oddly. ‘He is the enemy,’ Sokka said slowly and clearly, watching her searchingly.

She scowled at him. ‘People act according to how you treat them! If you treat him like he can’t be trusted, then he’ll be untrustworthy.’

‘I know you like to think of the world as all rosy and hopeful and lovely,’ the Water Tribe boy replied somewhat sarcastically. ‘But in case you’ve forgotten, we’re at war with his people.’

Aang’s understanding, wide-eyed look siphoned some of her indignance at her brother’s words. ‘I get where you’re coming from, Katara. The monks always taught me to look for the best in people and they’ll show it to you… but I gave Zuko a chance to join us when he helped me escape Zhao and he attacked me. We can’t trust him.’

‘Look! Just give me and Aang some time, distract the angry jerk and we can debate how much of him is a jerk later, okay?’

She looked between Sokka’s irate expression and Aang’s patient understanding. ‘Fine,’ she said shortly.

Thank you,’ Sokka said with relief. ‘We’ll try to be quick.’

Aang turned to follow the older boy deeper into the library. ‘Thanks, Katara.’

Chapter Text

‘They shouldn’t have gone off by themselves,’ Zuko said for the third time, peering up and down the aisle; it was starting to look like a tick. ‘Are you sure they’ll come back this way?’

Katara, leaning against the shelves on her side of the aisle, legs crossed as she poured over Avatar Yangchen’s book, looked up at her companion with undisguised impatience. ‘Do you really think I’ll have a different answer to when you asked five minutes ago?’

He favoured her with an irate scowl, leaning against the shelves opposite. ‘Why did they have to go off by themselves to find a map?’ The note of suspicion in his voice was plain.

She sighed, closing her book with a snap. ‘They just did,’ she replied lamely. She was still unsure about lying to their erstwhile enemy. She’d meant what she’d said to Sokka and Aang; there was obviously some part of the Fire Prince that was keeping him from them, at arm’s length. Lying to him would only strengthen that part of him, make him feel more resentful towards them. The whole matter of defending Zuko of all people to her friends didn’t sit well with her. She shifted uncomfortably, her right hand by the base of the shelf when she felt it.

Something cool to the touch. Small. ‘What…’ She held it up to one of the ghostly lanterns to better see. It was a tile of some sort, no larger than two knuckle lengths with a white flower etched into the bamboo.

‘It’s a Pai Sho tile,’ Zuko said without interest. ‘Which one?’ He held his hand out for it and she dropped it into his palm. ‘The lotus tile.’ Something that might have been a smile lightened his expression.

‘Do you like Pai Sho’ Katara asked, curious as to his reaction.

‘My uncle does,’ he replied, his voice softer than usual. ‘He once had the helmsman change our heading to find a market because he’d lost this exact tile.’ He met her curious expression and his lip twisted. ‘You’ll remember the occasion. I encountered you soon after and… err, tied you to a tree.’

Katara’s face heated at the memory. ‘Mm,’ she said in a tone of ice. ‘I remember something about you wanting to trade my best friend for your honour.’

Zuko’s eyes darted to the necklace at her throat and away. ‘You wouldn’t understand.’

‘You’re right,’ she said harshly. ‘I don’t.’

He studied the ground, his brow furrowed. ‘You got it back, at least.’ He waved at her neck. ‘Your mother’s necklace. You’re lucky to have a mother to give you pretty things.’

Hurt and rage leapt to her defence, straightening her spine as she leaned towards the boy opposite her. ‘How dare you!’ she thundered, eyes blazing. ‘I only got this back because Aang was thoughtful enough to take it from you after you captured us again! This is the last link I have to my mother! The last thing she gave me before the Fire Nation took her from me.’ She would not cry in front of the son of the man whose war had wrought untold suffering on her people.

Zuko’s face had paled, all but the skin around his scarred eye. It was redder than ever. ‘I’m–I’m sorry.’ It was barely a whisper; he cleared his throat. ‘Maybe we have more in common than I thought.’

She brushed at her watering eyes. ‘In common?’

He nodded stiffly, avoiding her gaze. ‘I don’t want to talk about it,’ he said tightly and Katara’s chest clenched at the misery in his voice.

She knew him well enough now not to push the point, not now anyhow.

‘Did your uncle ever find a lotus tile?’ she asked after a tense pause. Her voice was husky with unshed tears.

Zuko closed the book he’d been reading sharply. ‘Yes. But I… I threw it away.’ He passed his hand over his eyes. ‘I was angry. Sometimes when I’m angry… I lose control.’

She nodded. She’d seem him. ‘You should give him that tile,’ she said, smiling hesitantly when he looked up at her. ‘As a get well present.’

‘I don’t even know if he has a Pai Sho set anymore. Between fleeing the navy in the north and my sister branding us traitors to the Fire Nation, we had to leave a lot behind.’ Katara tried not to show her surprise at his candid revelations.

‘Well, I’m sure he’ll appreciate the gesture,’ she reassured him, casting around for a way to lighten the conversation.

He nodded, still studying the lotus tile.

Katara dropped her gaze back to the open book in her lap. Avatar Yangchen had been detailing the history of the Foggy Swamp and the little known about the spirit she had discovered in the banyan-grove tree. The spirit was like no other Katara had heard of, though elements of its reach reminded her of the more legendary spirits: Tui, the Moon Spirit and La, the Ocean Spirit. Spirits who had extensive reach in the physical world. However, with the motivation for her research sitting directly across from her, she closed the book and returned it, stealthily, to her shoulder bag.

Not stealthily enough, it seemed. He was watching her, his expression questioning, but Katara beat him to it. ‘Your uncle’s doing much better,’ she said brightly, swallowing nervously. The Fire Prince frowned at her but didn’t deign to reply; he didn’t really do small talk. ‘Well enough to travel soon, do you think?’

She wondered at the sense of talking about something they’d all worked so hard to ignore. ‘I guess,’ he replied flatly.

She ignored her better judgement and poked the vulture-wasp nest. ‘Where will you go?’

He eyed her strangely. ‘I’ll borrow your brother’s map and let you know,’ he said sardonically as he pocketed the Pai Sho tile.

‘Sure,’ she said lightly, picking up a scroll and pretending to scan its contents. ‘Because you’re only staying with us until your uncle gets better, right?’

His alarmed expression, and the retort she could feel sizzling in the air between them, was interrupted by a high wailing screech. Alarmed, Katara leapt to her feet, hand at her water canteen by her hip. Beside her, Zuko bent in a defensive position, both of them waiting for a hint of the commotion.

A slim-limbed fox, with bright, intelligent eyes scurried around the corner, a stone’s throw away. It ran full pelt towards them, and past them with barely an acknowledgement of their presence. They turned to watch it disappear down the staircase at the end of the aisle.

The menacing scream sounded again from the depths of the library.

Sokka and Aang came pelting around the end of the aisle, Sokka’s knowledge-laden bag trailing sheets of paper.

‘What’s wrong!’ Katara called, running up to meet them, her heart pounding.

‘Quick! This way!’ Sokka hissed, pulled the three of them down a shadowy walkway between shelves. She gasped as Sokka shoved her, Aang, and Zuko into a dark alcove, following them a second behind. The two boys muffled their laboured breathing as best they could, but Katara’s blood ran cold as she heard a trailing rasp from the other of the shelf. Right where she and Zuko had been waiting for the others.

Aang and Sokka’s wide-eyed fear focused her panic and she crouched low and peered silently around the corner. The knowledge spirit no longer looked much like an owl. His predatory stalk was distinctly reptilian as he wound his way down the corridor with all the slithering characteristic of a snake.

Wan Shi Tong was hunting them.

She pulled back once he’d passed and relaxed somewhat when she heard him clatter up the staircase. ‘What happened?’ she whispered, turning to her brother expectantly. ‘Sokka?’

‘The owl doesn’t like me,’ he hissed, cramming a handful of scrolls back into his bag. ‘He caught Aang and I… well, let’s just say he didn’t like our plans for his precious knowledge!’

‘What plans?’ Zuko demanded in a hush.

‘None of your business, firebender—’ Sokka started to say, but Katara had had enough

‘Sokka and Aang found mention of “the darkest day in Fire Nation history” and went to find out what happened on the Fire Nation’s darkest day,’ she explained hurriedly, turning back to her brother in time to see him glare at her in shock.

‘Katara!’

‘Can it, Sokka!’ she hissed, returning his disapproving stare. ‘I’ve told you already! You need to stop treating him like an enemy and start treating him like a friend! That’s how you build trust!’

She glanced at the enemy in question while her brother spluttered quietly in outrage. ‘She might have a point,’ Aang conceded quietly, glancing between the waterbender and the frozen prince.

Zuko was looking at her as though she’d declared she planned to crown herself queen of the desert with Momo her king. Close as they all were in the hidden alcove, she thought the discussion could wait until they’d escaped the library and its angry keeper.

The floor shuddered and a trickle of sand pattered quietly from the roof. ‘What’s happening?’

Aang clenched his teeth in determination. ‘He’s burying the library,’ he said grimly. ‘We need to get back upstairs and get out of here!’

‘Right.’ Sokka gripped his Water Tribe club tightly and peered around the corner. ‘Let’s go!’

The four of them darted back out into the aisle, stumbling as the building shuddered and groaned under the knowledge spirit’s rage. Katara was the first to the stairs, but Aang leapt the staircase in one bound, racing ahead to clear their way. She kept pace with Zuko just while Sokka, gasping, brought up the rear.

The top level was much darker than when they’d arrived. Many of the eerie green lights spaced between the shelves had been shaken loose and laid in dark, sharp pieces on the floor. Katara barely had time to notice them before a black shadow whipped through the air and a sharp pain lanced through her shoulder.

She went flying, a sickening weightlessness gripping her with a thousand tiny fingers until she crumpled against one of the columns lining the dark drop to the depths of the library below.

‘Urg,’ she wheezed, completely winded. She sucked at her breath, trying desperately to inflate her gasping lungs.

The ghostly face of Wan Shi Tong swam through the gloom towards her. Even as she struggled for breath, she fumbled her canteen open and sent every drop careering towards the creepily elongated spirit. She knocked him off his trajectory enough that he missed his second lunge for her and nearly slipped off the walkway into the darkness below.

As he turned, rasping a terrible cry, for a third attack, a vicious plume of flames scorched the feathers on the right side of his face.

Sokka appeared beside her, forcing her to her feet. ‘Move!’

She stumbled blindly after him, looking around for Aang and Zuko. The airbender was on his glider, darting in at the angry spirit and knocking him off balance pulses of air. Zuko was shooting high waves of flame over Wan Shi Tong’s head to keep him from following them.

‘Come on,’ she wheezed, wincing at the pain in her shoulder. There was no way the two of them would have been able to hear her gasped command.

‘Aang!’ Sokka had pulled her to the faintly swaying rope, beckoning the airbender over. ‘She’s hurt! Can you fly her out?’

The young monk glanced back at Zuko who was slowly being forced back towards them. ‘I’ll be quick! Hold him off and I’ll come back for you!’

Katara made to protest but Aang had already snapped his glider open and pulled her to him. She yelped as he leapt from the parapet, falling half a floor into the growing darkness before shooting upwards in tight, terrifying spirals towards the warm light of day outside.

As they shot through the window, Katara felt her weakening grip around the airbender’s neck slacken and she fell with a cry. Just moments before she hit the ground, a plume of air buffeted her fall enough that she didn’t break anything. However, the jostle of her wounded shoulder was agony.

‘Katara!’

She struggled to sit up, clutching at her limp left arm; a frightening chill had crept down it. Above her, a wide figure blocked the beating sun. She squinted up into Iroh’s severe expression.

‘You’re hurt,’ he observed, crouching beside her. ‘Do you have water to heal yourself?’

‘In Appa’s saddle,’ she gasped tightly, feeling rivulets of blood running between her fingers. ‘Spare water skin.’

He was gone long enough that her head began to spin and she had to pretend that the warm dampness trickling down the neckline of her dress was merely sweat. The numbness in her arm worried her; was the knowledge spirit venomous? Had its sharp beak severed a major nerve?

Looking around to distract herself, she spied Toph pressing both her fists against the shaking turret. The little earthbender was shuddering under what appeared to be a great force, her whole body tight with the effort.

Iroh had uncapped the water and held it out to her, concern clear on his face. ‘Here.’

She withdrew her now bloodied right hand and summoned the water. It wobbled and sloshed, messy and turbulent, but she forced her breathing to deepen until it coated her hand. She pressed it to the slash at the juncture between her shoulder and throat, feeling how close the spirit’s attack had come to the major energy pathways that ran up and down her neck.

The wound was not poisoned; Shi Tong’s attack had damaged a large nerve that ran into her arm. She sighed with relief; a large part of her had dreaded finding something her healing touch would not have been able to fix.

Aang, Sokka, and Zuko landed heavily beside her and Toph gave a shout and released the straining building. It shuddered and sunk with a creaking concussion, sending sand spraying out from all sides.

‘Katara!’ Sokka was at her side immediately, his face pale with fear.

‘I’m okay,’ she croaked, wincing as her voice pulled at her very bruised lungs. ‘I just need a moment.’

The nerve damage was already coming close to being repaired and she’d found the large vein over her collarbone that had been the main source of the bleeding and patched that in a heartbeat. She closed her eyes woozily, as much to concentrate on her healing as to block out the four aghast faces.

‘Are you sure?’ Sokka’s voice sounded strained. ‘There’s so much blood…’

‘I’ve fixed it, just let me finish.’

‘Trust you lot to destroy a building that huge,’ Toph puffed from beyond Iroh. ‘What the hell happened?’

‘The Avatar picked a fight with Wan Shi Tong,’ Zuko’s voice was bristling; she opened her eyes to watch the prince glower at Aang. ‘Some bridge between the worlds you are.’

‘Hey, we didn’t pick a fight!’ Sokka turned his head to narrow his eyes at the Fire Prince. ‘We simply lied about not using his library to find a weakness in the Fire Nation.’

Zuko rolled his eyes. ‘Oh yeah.’ His voice dripped in sarcasm. ‘I’m sure that’s not what angered him at all!’

‘Careful now,’ Iroh said mildly, stepping casually between his nephew and the Water Tribe boy. ‘We should all calm down. I’m sure after we make sure Katara is all right, and a soothing cup of ginseng tea, everything will be okay.’

Aang joined Sokka at her side. ‘Do you think you can move?’ he asked her, his eyes wide with worry. ‘If we can all get back on Appa, we can get out of the desert to set up camp.’

She sighed as the water at her neck finished knitting her skin back together. The wound was closed now, most of it healed so that it ached dully when she moved her neck but nothing more. ‘I can fly,’ she assured him with a tight smile although she barely had the energy to do more than that. ‘Let’s go.’

 

 

She tried to sleep. She really did. But between the ache in her shoulder, the constant jostling of Appa’s flight and Sokka’s loud boasting of how he outsmarted Wan Shi Tong, she did little more than doze as the few desert clouds whisked past them.

The upside of having been injured meant that she and Iroh were seated as comfortably as they could manage while the others went about setting up camp and cooking dinner. The doubly bright side was that no one brewed a cup of tea like the retired general.

‘This ginseng comes from the eastern most isles of the Fire Nation,’ he told her happily, swirling his cup animatedly as he passed her the second. ‘Jang Hui and Shu Jing each have a number of award winning tea plantations that would melt the heart of even the coldest man.’

Katara grinned at his enthusiasm and sipped at her tea; delicious. ‘I’m surprised you haven’t moved there.’

Iroh nodded, hovering his cup under his nose. ‘A good friend of mine moved to Shu Jing some years ago and built a castle by a tea maker’s town. I admire his decisiveness and enthusiasm for a good life.’

Sokka and Zuko were a stone’s throw away, bickering over how best of start a fire. ‘Do you get to see your friend very often?’

‘Not as often as I would like,’ the old man replied, his eyes dancing at the theatrics of the two boys before them. ‘But when you get to my age, years pass like months to the youthful. I know it is my destiny to see him again in this life.’

She appraised the old man while he was distracted by Sokka now miming firebending at Zuko and telling him how silly it looked. ‘Your nephew is very lucky to have you to guide him,’ she said quietly, glancing away. ‘I know he appreciates you and how you’ve helped him.’

She could feel the general’s eyes on her. ‘He has had a hard life,’ he replied in just as soft a tone. ‘But after my son was killed fighting in the war, he has been like a son to me.’

Katara looked up sharply. ‘I had no idea,’ she said, the old man’s pain cutting her like a knife. ‘I’m so sorry.’

He smiled through the ghost of sorrow in his eyes, waving away her condolences. ‘I am very blessed to have a nephew like him, even if he can be a little difficult at times.’

Aang had intervened in the bickering match and told Sokka to leave Zuko alone. The Water Tribe boy was sulking by the inconveniently large fire, while the Fire Prince was heading their way.

Katara swallowed and gripped her cup tighter. ‘Uncle.’ He knelt by Iroh’s side and drew something from his pocket. ‘When we were in the spirit library, we found this. I thought you should have it.’

He held out the lotus tile.

The old general’s smile froze. He looked between the boy and the tile; his expression unreadable. ‘A lotus tile.’

Zuko shrugged and looked away. ‘I don’t know if you still have your Pai Sho set, but if you do perhaps this can replace the tile I threw away. I know it’s a favourite of yours.’

Iroh took the tile, scrutinising it seriously as though there were some invisible message etched into the bamboo. Katara wasn’t sure what to make of the old man’s closed countenance; she’d never seen him so devoid of his light heartedness. He considered the tile with all the gravity of a man being confronted with a truth he was unprepared to hear like a father who lost his son before his time.

‘Destiny,’ he muttered, his eyes flashing in wicked determination, ‘is a funny thing.’

Chapter Text

‘You’re leaving?’ Katara tried not to let the bewildered disappointment, so sour on her tongue, flavour her tone. She’s not sure she was successful. She would miss the old man.

After Zuko had given him the game tile, Iroh had abandoned the charade of his injury. Now, he crouched over his bag, setting aside those things he would not be able to carry himself. Among them, he set a battered scroll on medicinal herbs of the Earth Kingdom, an empty tea canister, and a heavy, fur trimmed cloak. Katara eyed the hidden breast pocket of the robe he wore, where he’d slipped Zuko’s gift.

‘I must,’ he replied seriously, knotting the top of the pack. They were due east of the crater where Wan Shi Tong’s Library had once stood, on the rocky fringes of the desert. A steely determination had gripped the old man, one none of them could quite understand. And he’d been as slippery as ever with his explanations.

Zuko said nothing, but Katara noted he’d also fetched his bag from Appa’s saddle. ‘When will you leave?’ she asked, shaking off the maudlin heaviness pulling at her. She hadn’t realised just how much she’d begun to value the kinship she’d discovered with the old Fire Nation general.

‘I’m afraid it must be first thing in the morning,’ he replied levelly, eyeing the darkening skyline. ‘Destiny is impatient.’

‘Where will we go, uncle?’ the Fire Prince interrupted, his arms crossed over his chest. He stood between Toph and Sokka, his expression guarded; if Katara didn’t know better, she’d say he looked less than pleased with the turn of events.

‘No, Zuko,’ the old man said in a sharp tone. ‘This is a journey I must undertake alone.’

The firebender’s eyes widened. ‘What?’

Iroh stood swiftly and gestured to the fire. ‘Come, it is time we talked.’ He sat cross-legged before the flames, reaching forward to stir the simmering stew thoughtfully. ‘All of us.’

Aang blinked, gesturing to himself, Sokka, Katara, and Toph. ‘All of us?’

Iroh nodded. ‘Yes, Aang, there are things that need to be said.’

The four of them exchanged apprehensive glances, but complied, joining this serious version of the old man around the fire. The Fire Prince glowered at the ground, kicking a stone, before following suit. He sat directly across the circle, as far from his uncle as he could get.

‘Why, Uncle?’ he demanded, but Katara heard a lonely note in his voice, just as when he’d mentioned his mother in the library.

Iroh shook his head and turned to Sokka. ‘First you must tell me what weakness of the Fire Nation you discovered.’

It was a mark of how highly he respected the old man that Sokka didn’t even make a quip about fraternising with the enemy. ‘The Day of Black Sun,’ he explained, glancing between the two firebenders. ‘It’s literally the darkest day in Fire Nation history, the day that the moon blocks the sun in an eclipse. During the eclipse, all fire benders lose their bending. It’s our best chance at coordinating an attack against the Fire Lord and ending this war.’ A sly grin crept over his face. ‘And I know when the next one is.’

A gleam of triumph shone in Iroh’s eyes for a moment before he closed them, stroking his beard thoughtfully. ‘It is as I thought,’ he muttered, breathing deeply. ‘Destiny had brought us to this moment as allies.’ He opened his eyes and regarded them all seriously. ‘When my nephew handed me the lotus tile, I knew it was time. I will help you invade the Fire Nation.’

Each of them looked aghast, none more so than Zuko. ‘Uncle! What are you saying?!’

‘I’ve always tried to tell you, Prince Zuko,’ he said with something approaching his knowing grin. ‘Pai Sho is more than just a game.’ He looked around at their bewildered expressions and grinned. ‘There are individuals throughout the world who believe in those things that transcend the divisions of the four nations. We are a secretive people with an appreciation for the cryptic arts. And Pai Sho, of course.’ He opened his fist to reveal the broad petalled flower tile. ‘The Order of the White Lotus has long valued balance, truth, and harmony.’

‘The Order of the White Lotus?’ Katara asked, frowning at him. ‘I’ve never heard of it.’

Iroh winked at her. ‘No, but you’ve met many of us,’ he said slipping the tile between his fingers. ‘One of our Grand Masters taught you waterbending.’

Something in her stomach clenched. ‘Master Pakku?’

Iroh nodded, the flames giving the old man a youthful visage. ‘It is time now for us to come out from the shadows. The board is set and the pieces are moving.’ He looked at Aang. ‘You must take the information about the Day of Black Sun to the Earth King in Ba Sing Se and plan the invasion. You will need the Earth Kingdom’s armies, as well as those of the Water Tribes if we are to succeed. Only together can we hope to restore balance and the honour of the Fire Nation.’

Here his gaze drifted over the stiff figure across from him.  ‘I know you must feel conflicted about this, my nephew,’ he said quietly, his eyes shining. ‘No one can force you to join us. You must look inside yourself and ask yourself who you are and what it is you truly want.’ Katara felt her eyes prickle at the sincerity and depth of concern in the old general’s expression. ‘Think on this and decide. For now is the time for choices… It is time for you to choose good.’

Katara started when Zuko stood suddenly and stalked away from them. His movements were stiff and jerky, and smoke trailed from his clenched fists.

‘Let him go,’ Toph said from Katara’s right.

The general nodded, watching the young man disappear around a rocky protrusion. ‘You must excuse him,’ he told them in a far softer tone. ‘His father has been very hard on him. He’s been through much.’

A strained silence fell over the group. “What happened to him?’ Aang asked and Katara saw the conflicted sympathy in the airbender’s eyes.

She wondered whether Iroh was about to tell the group what her vision in the Swamp had told her of burning flesh, fathers, and Agni Kais that would haunt Zuko for years to come. Privately, she thought he would be furious if his uncle told the group of his banishment.

Iroh closed his eyes, his expression solemn. ‘It is not for me to say,’ he said at last, to Katara’s relief. ‘But know that he has had very little happiness for several years now. When he speaks sharply, or reacts with sudden fury, he is closest to the man his father tried to make him. And furthest from the person he truly is.’

‘If he chooses to stay with us…’ Sokka looked as though he was restraining himself from using the words “angry jerk” with difficulty. ‘Are you sure we’ll be able to trust him?’

Iroh glanced at Katara and back to the Water Tribe boy. ‘I have little doubt that once he makes up his mind, he’ll be doggedly loyal to whichever side he chooses.’

‘What about the invasion?’ Sokka pressed, pulling his bag of stolen scrolls towards him. ‘There’s so much to do in a couple of months! How can we possibly find and recruit all our friends in the Earth Kingdom, as well as convince the Earth King and plan an attack with his whole army?’

‘Do you know how the wolf-badger hunts?’ the old general asked, looking around the group with a sly smile. ‘They divide their group in half. One half herds their target into the ambush set by the second half. You would be wise to learn from them.

‘Aang should go to Ba Sing Se as the Earth King will have to heed the word of the Avatar.’ He stroked his beard frowning. ‘I’ve heard troubling stories about the state of affairs within the inner ring of Ba Sing Se, but nothing more than rumours. I will talk with my associates when I meet with them and send word when I can.’

Toph sighed. ‘I should go with you, Twinkle Toes,’ she said glumly, warming her bare feet by the fire. ‘As much as I hate the city, your earthbending could use some work before you even try to kick the Fire Lord’s butt.’

‘I’ll go too,’ Katara said quickly, loathe to split the group.

‘I do not think that would be advisable,’ Iroh said lightly, watching her carefully. ‘You and Sokka are known companions of the Avatar, people will trust you because of that. You would be best to travel around and find as many allies as possible before the Day of Black Sun.’ She didn’t miss the meaningful look in the old man’s eye; cheeks heating, she hoped the others did. ‘My nephew would be best accompanying you. You’ve more in common that you might realise.’

‘It’s true,’ Sokka said suddenly, looking up from the mess of maps spread over his lap. ‘I’ve seen you throw a tantrum. The likeness is uncanny!’

‘Thanks, Sokka,’ she said icily, avoiding Iroh’s probing gaze.

‘No problem,’ he replied, already returning to his map. ‘I’ve just been looking over these maps of the mainland Fire Nation.’ He looked up at Iroh. ‘Do you know the Black Cliffs?’

The general nodded. ‘They’re mostly uninhabited due to the precarious tides around the cliffsides.’

Sokka gave him a devious grin. ‘Then that’s the perfect spot to meet up for the invasion! It looks like there’s a hidden cove on the north side of the headland.’ He pointed it out to Iroh. ‘We should agree to meet there, at least a week or two prior to the eclipse so everyone has time to regroup and finalise the invasion plan.’

‘You have a strategist’s mind,’ Iroh told him with a grin. ‘When we meet at the Black Cliffs, I’ll bring my Pai Sho set and we can put your cunning to the test!’

Sokka did a terrible job at looking modest. ‘Welllll, I do what I can.’

Katara rolled her eyes but couldn’t help joining the others in excitedly marvelling the possibility of the war being over in a matter of months.

 

 

The next morning, the sun dawned to an empty sky as the group packed up camp and prepared to part ways. Appa was saddled, the campfire put out, and Iroh looked a younger man with a straw hat shading his head and his bag riding high on his shoulders.

Aang, Toph, Sokka, and Katara bid him farewell.

The Air Nomad bowed. ‘Thank you, Sifu Iroh, for your wisdom and your help.’ He smiled as he straightened from his bow. ‘Are you sure we can’t give you a lift?’

The old man shook his head. ‘Your path lies to the north, while mine lies to the west. Besides, there’s still some life in these old legs yet.’

Toph punched him lightly on the arm. ‘See you in a few months, Gramps.’

‘Make sure you get all the best warriors from your Order of the White whatever,’ Sokka told him with a wide grin.

Katara couldn’t help herself; she stepped forward and hugged the old man tightly. ‘Take care of yourself,’ she whispered, shifting her weight so she wouldn’t press against the mending wound.

He returned the embrace. ‘And you,’ he whispered back; then even quieter, ‘and my nephew.’

She drew back with a watery smile. ‘I’ll do my best.’

The general smiled kindly, patting her on the shoulder. ‘You are a very talented healer, Master Katara. Thank you for your dedication to an old man.’

A deliberate cough caught everyone’s attention and startled Momo into leaping up onto Aang’s shoulder. Zuko was scowling at the ground, his arms crossed over his chest. The beginnings of a shaggy fringe fell just above his golden eyes, casting them into shadows.

‘Uncle.’

Iroh turned to the young man and, without warning, pulled him into a hug. ‘You came back.’ The joy in his voice was clear.

The prince met Katara’s eye over his uncle’s shoulder. ‘I came back for you. To say goodbye.’ His voice was quiet, barely audible. ‘I thought about what you said, Uncle…’

Katara tore her gaze from the prince. ‘Come on,’ she said to the others. ‘Let’s give them some privacy.’

They retreated to Appa, the sky-bison still curled up, enjoying the early warmth of the rising sun. Aang smiled and scratched the bison’s soft head.

‘I’m not buying it,’ Sokka was muttering to Toph.

‘He’s telling the truth,’ the little earthbender told him flatly, crossing her arms. ‘Whatever he’s saying, he’s being honest.’

Sokka grumbled and turned to Katara suspiciously. ‘And what was with you telling him about the eclipse yesterday in the library?!’

She brushed impatiently at the dampness beneath her eyes before she frowned at him. ‘I told you already. Gran Gran always taught us to treat people how we’d like to be treated. If we keep treating Zuko like he’s going to turn on us, then he will! But in case you haven’t noticed, he’s been trying to make amends!’

The Water Tribe boy scoffed. ‘He made us some tea. Big whoop.’

‘Katara’s right,’ Toph said. ‘Sparky might be surly, but he offered to draw you a map. And believe me, you all might have been going to pains to not talk about what you were going to use it for, but he’s not stupid.’

‘So, what are you saying?’ Sokka continued, prickly. ‘That one good deed should make up for the time he attacked our village? Or what about the time he hunted us down with that bounty hunter? Or any one of the other dozen times he’s come after us!’

Katara’s eyes flashed. ‘If anyone’s got a reason to be mad at Zuko, it’s me and Aang,’ she said sharply. ‘He kidnapped me and tied me to a tree and taunted me with mum’s necklace. And it’s Aang he’s been trying to capture!’ She stared her brother down. ‘We’re losing this war, Sokka! We need all the help we can get.’

‘And you’re missing the obvious, Snoozles,’ Toph interjected, sitting on a small earth stool. ‘Aang needs a firebending teacher.’

Sokka shrugged and avoided their gaze. ‘He doesn’t need firebending during the eclipse,’ he muttered, but he’d obviously heeded their words.

Aang leapt lightly onto Appa’s head. ‘Besides, Sokka!’ he said happily. ‘Think of all the invasion schemes you’ll be able to dream up with insider information!’

‘Well,’ the Water Tribe boy stroked his non-existent moustache, ‘I do like schemes…’

Katara tried not to roll her eyes. ‘Just try not to make a big deal out of it,’ she advised him, pulling a strip of jerky from her bag. ‘You’ll put him in a bad mood.’

Toph snorted. ‘All you need to do is breathe around the guy to put him in a bad mood.’ She laughed at her own joke, but her cloudy eyes slid towards Katara slyly. ‘Most of us, anyway.’

Thankfully, Sokka had pulled out his map of the Four Nations and spread it on the ground before him. ‘We’re not far from Chameleon Bay. We should head north, following the edge of the desert until we get to the coastal inlet to the west of the bay. From there we can… split up, I guess.’

Katara crouched beside him. ‘I know,’ she said, her eyes tracing the route he’d planned. ‘I don’t like it either.’

‘Knowing our luck, Zuko will scare off our allies and friends,’ he said glumly.

‘No, he won’t,’ Katara disagreed softly, bumping the gloomy boy with her elbow. ‘No one could refuse a leader like you.’

Sokka’s face split wide in a grin.

Chapter Text

Katara had never been bison-sick, not once in all their journeying on Appa. She was born and bred on the rough seas of the south; she was not one for whom motion sickness posed a problem. However, Avatar Yangchen’s explanations about the workings of the Banyan Spirit of the Foggy Swamp were making her feel decidedly queasy seated, as she was, at the back of Appa’s saddle.

Around her, the others— well, most of them— were talking excitedly about their separate adventures. Aang was regaling Toph with everything he’d ever heard about the great walls of Ba Sing Se and how they might be able to find the time to explore them.

Sokka was, of course, gesturing to his map as it fluttered dangerously in the wind. She wished he’d put it away while they were flying; they’d already had to rescue it twice, as it was torn from the warrior’s hands and sent streaming out into the sky behind them.

Zuko, meanwhile, was sitting up on Appa’s head. Aang had insisted on showing him how to steer the sky-bison, then become distracted chattering to Toph. The Fire Prince had relaxed somewhat when he realised the bison wasn’t going to throw him to a painful death against the rocky landscape below.

Katara turned her attention back to the small volume in her hand…

The Banyan Spirit of the Foggy Swamp embodies all things equal and opposite. Its true nature is the essence of balance. Like most spirits, it understands the true illusory nature of time and distance; it can sense imbalance in the furthest city from its Southern Earth Kingdom home. It has even lured to it those it knows will bring about the balance it embodies. Often it communicates the information these individuals require in the form of visions, giving the Swamp its mystical legacy.

To truly understand the Banyan Spirit and any message it may seek to convey, one must first comprehend its philosophy: that of yin and yang. The principle that all things exist as inseparable and contradictory opposites. Female-male, dark-light, life-death. The Banyan Spirit is the force that attracts these two opposites, completing their complement of each other. Above all, the Spirit seeks to reach that core of each side, the core that contains elements of its opposite. Neither is superior to the other and an increase in one brings a corresponding decrease in the other. An equal and opposite reaction. A correct balance between the two must be reached in order to achieve harmony.

Yin is feminine, black, dark, north, water, passive, moon, earth, cold, old, even numbers, valleys, and soft. It provides spirit to all things. Yin reaches its height of influence with the winter solstice. Yang is masculine, white, light, south, fire, active, sun, air, warm, young, odd numbers, mountains, and hard. It provides form to all things. Yang reaches its height of influence with the summer solstice.

To understand the spirit of the banyan-grove tree, one must locate the yin and yang found in their visions.

She swallowed the increasing discord and closed the book, her hands clammy; her tongue felt too big for her mouth. There was a dull peal in her ears, the toll of some distant bell, that she refused to acknowledge.

But her thoughts were traitorous things. They reminded her of the vision— Zuko’s comparison of his dual dao swords… two halves of the same whole

She shoved the book back into her bag, passing her hand over her eyes. She wished she’d never set foot in that awful, humid swamp.

‘There! Zuko, take him down to that clearing on the edge of town!’ Aang balanced precariously on the lip of the saddle, a grin stretching his lips. Katara wondered why the Banyan Spirit couldn’t have shown her visions of the monk instead…

‘I don’t speak hairy monster,’ Zuko snapped, turning to glare at Aang.

Aang laughed as Appa gave a low grunt. ‘Don’t worry, buddy! He’s just jealous of your luscious locks!’ Aang leapt lightly to the Fire Prince’s side. ‘Here, you have to kind of flap the reins like this.’

It occurred to Katara, as Appa slowly began to descend, that Aang and even Toph had wholeheartedly accepted the banished prince. She wasn’t sure how to feel about that.

 

 

Thanks to what Katara suspected was some light-handed dishonesty, Zuko announced they had enough money to purchase two rooms in the local inn for the night.

It was mid-afternoon when they walked into the little trade town on the north-western bank of Chameleon Bay. Katara took Toph aside for what she called “girl-time,” but what was really little more than an excuse to be away from the others. Aang accepted her desire for a solo afternoon with his earthbending teacher, cheerfully telling her they’d get Appa settled at the Water-Side Inn’s stables and meet her and Toph there before sunset for dinner.

So Katara dragged the blind girl to the market, praying to Yue she wouldn’t pick up on her anxious heartbeat.

The markets were doing a roaring trade. Many of the merchants sold fresh fruit, herbs, and vegetables grown in the fields surrounding the town. These were clearly poor farmers, come to town for the markets; from their easy smiles and relaxed selling, she surmised they’d already sold enough to feel good as the sunlight hours bled away.

Traders, too, were present. One man was clearly Water Tribe, from the north. He sold cured sea prunes, seal jerky, dried sheets of seaweed, wolf-bear pelts. Katara felt such an upswell of home sickness, she had to move away from the tribesman’s stall.

‘What’s with you?’ Toph asked in annoyance as Katara dragged the girl from the now-tainted market.

‘Nothing,’ she replied firmly, turning down a lane at random.

‘Oh right,’ the younger girls said flatly. ‘I guess I’m imagining your heart beating like a galloping rabaroo. Think you could loosen your stranglehold, crazy?’

Katara released Toph as though she’d burned her. ‘Sorry! I… I saw a Water Tribe trader at the market and it just got me thinking of home.’

 ‘Yeah, I just get all teary over the Earth Kingdom flag.’ Katara wondered how so young a person could be so sarcastic. ‘You’re not a very good liar, Sweetness.’

The waterbender didn’t bother glaring at the girl. ‘Come on,’ she ground out instead, starting down the lane way. ‘The others will be expecting us.’

 

 

The noodle bar next to the inn tasted like luxury after hog-monkey soup and roadside stew. The five of them ate quickly before retreating to the larger of the two rooms Sokka had requested for the night; they had plans to make.

Momo slept on his back by the windowsill, his belly bulging with everyone’s leftovers. Well, everyone’s leftovers except Sokka’s. Sokka never had leftovers.

Toph, Aang, and Sokka were sitting around the table pouring over maps. Aang wanted to know where he could meet up with them after he and Toph secured the Earth King’s support in Ba Sing Se and Sokka had a lot to say on the matter. Zuko, meanwhile, moved around the room with a tray laden with steaming cups of tea. He set it on the table and to Katara’s surprise, took one in each hand and came to sit between her and Momo by the window.

He held out one of the cups. ‘I made it like you showed me,’ he assured her, misreading her hesitation.

She accepted it silently, avoiding touching his fingers as she took it. She turned back to the conversation going around the table a few feet away, hoping to avoid having to talk.

‘We’ll start at Kyoshi Island,’ her brother was saying, pointing to the southern island. ‘Suki and the Kyoshi Warriors will want to be part of the invasion, for sure. Then we’ll take a boat to the mainland, to Gaoling.’ He glanced at Toph. ‘I bet your Earth Rumble friends would be more excited to see you than us.’ Katara was glad he had tact enough to refrain from mentioning the earthbender’s parents.

Toph, reclining in her chair with her feet on the table, picked at her nails. ‘Here’s to hoping The Boulder doesn’t squish you or Sugar Queen over there.’

Sokka eyed her suspiciously. ‘You don’t think he would, do you?’

Aang drew his attention back to the map. ‘You should go to the Swamp next. Though without Appa, you’ll have to skirt it to make sure you don’t get lost like last time.’

Zuko leaned forward in his chair. ‘Did you have a good time at the market?’ he asked in a strained tone. She glanced at him uncertainly; what was he doing? He didn’t do small talk.

‘It was okay, I guess,’ she replied evenly, refusing to meet the gaze she could feel against the side of her face. ‘Loud. Busy. Usual market stuff.’

His confused disappointment was clear. ‘What were you reading today?’ he asked after an uncomfortable silence, while Sokka tried to argue Aang out of inviting Haru to the invasion.

She turned to him sharply, her face heating. ‘What?’

‘Your book,’ he said slowly as though she were as slow-witted as Momo. ‘The one you were reading today on the bison? You seemed really engrossed… I thought it must be good.’

She couldn’t help but narrow her eyes in suspicion. ‘Just a waterbending book I found in the library,’ she lied stiffly, ignoring the bewildered way he was watching her. ‘You know, for err, bending water.’ She flushed again and dropped her gaze. Smoothly handled. She sipped her tea, nearly scalding her mouth in the process.

‘How’s your tea?’ He wasn’t still trying to talk to her, was he? Oh, spirits, couldn’t he leave her be?

‘Good, but did you leave the water to cool for a few minutes after it boiled?’

‘Of course.’ He glanced at her cup, frowning. ‘Is it too hot?’

Something about how concerned he was over something as simple as tea made her lips twitch, despite herself. ‘What’s “too hot” to a firebender?’ she countered, sticking out her tongue. ‘Can you see a scald? I thought I’d never be able to taste anything again.’

His frown deepened until he realised she was joking. His smile was worse somehow. ‘It looks fine to me.’

She quickly withdrew her tongue and stood. ‘Thanks for the tea,’ she muttered lamely and joined the others at the table.

‘Fine!’ Sokka was saying, his head in his arms. ‘Haru, his dad, and whatever earthbenders they can rally that want to come. But I draw the line at the nomads we met on our way to Omashu!’

‘They could be anywhere,’ Aang agreed, missing the point as he turned to study the map seriously. ‘What about Jet’s Freedom Fighters? I know Jet was crazy, but some of the others could be really useful. They know how to fight the Fire Nation.’

Sokka considered the map carefully, tapping his boomerang against his chin thoughtfully. ‘Jet’s forest is on the way up to the Northern Air Temple…’ He met their raised brows. ‘What? The Mechanist is a genius! As if you don’t want him on our side.’

Toph yawned loudly. ‘You wanna know what I’m hearing?’ she said, getting to her feet and stretching. ‘Blah blah, random people, blah blah. I’m going to bed.’

‘I’ll be in in a minute,’ Katara told her, glancing over at the quiet firebender unwillingly.

‘Night Toph.’

‘See you in the morning, Twinkle Toes.’

Aang grinned at Katara, a softness to his expression. ‘I’m sure going to miss you while I’m in Ba Sing Se,’ he said, moving onto Toph’s vacated chair beside her.

She cupped the tea in both hands and returned his smile. ‘Me too, Aang,’ she said, loath to be parted from him or Toph. ‘Make sure you practice your waterbending forms while you’re away.’

He bowed from his waist, as best he could while seated. ‘Yes, Sifu Katara.’

She grinned. ‘Hey, Aang… How much do you know about your past lives?’ She tried to sound as casual as she could, rotating the teacup between her hands.

‘Not much… I’ve only ever spoken to Roku. Why?’

‘So you’ve not heard of Avatar Yangchen?’ She tried to ignore the few octaves her voice rose by.

His eyes widened in joy. ‘The Air Nomad Avatar before me? Of course I know about her! She’s got statues in almost every temple! The monks say she saved the physical world from dozens of clashes with angry spirits.’

‘So, she was… experienced with spirits? She understood them?’

‘Better than most Avatars from what the monks said.’

Katara’s hope that the Avatar had been a fraud or maybe a little loony was dashed. She stood, setting down her empty teacup.

‘Well, I’ll let you guys get to bed,’ she said heading for the door to hers and Toph’s room. ‘Night.’

Aang beamed at her. ‘Night, Katara!’

Sokka just waved his hand distractedly, not looking up from his maps.

‘Goodnight, Katara.’ Her traitor eyes met Zuko’s as she fled to her room. She wondered what yang to her yin lied behind them.

 

 

That night Katara dreamed of a figure in the mist she’d tried hard to forget.

There’s something more than his light-heartedness that’s different from the boy she knows. It’s there in his easy movement, the lingering looks, the way he’s almost always closer to her than her brother and Aang ever are. It takes her a while to figure out he’s not trying to hide his scarred side from her.

She’s so confused at this point— so unable to hate this Zuko— that she discovers madness is not so far a fall as she once thought.

She is smiling at him.

‘When do you become Fire Lord?’ She is sitting above the water, on the buttressed root of a swamp fig. She cannot possibly walk anymore just now, not when the Swamp fights her on every step.

He is close. A hair’s breadth between his hip and hers, but no heat plumes from the firebender’s spectre the way she knows it would were he truly there. ‘I am Fire Lord,’ he seems puzzled by her question, but brushes it off in favour of a grin. ‘And you were wonderful today.’

Her smile slips somewhat as she becomes more forcibly aware of her madness. ‘I was?’

That look, the one that says I know you. ‘Never in all my studies, did I find a Fire Lady as loved by the people as you are,’ he says simply, a quiet joy settling behind the gold of his eyes. ‘Your work with the refugees, your amendment providing clean water for the people of Dockside, your campaign to normalise the dual nation children of the war…’ He shakes his head in disbelief. ‘You’re one person! I’m part of a delegation and I can’t get two ambassadors to agree on reparations.’

She likes to think that after the war she would have the political sway to achieve the kinds of things he spoke about. A Fire Lady would certainly have sway. She’d have the kind of sway an ocean could command.

‘I wish I could travel with you.’ He is wistful now and his fingers brush against her thigh, so near his own. ‘Like we did after the library. Just the two of us.’ His nostalgia quickly darkens to something that burns in his gaze like hot embers. ‘The beach…’

She is supposed to know what he’s talking about, she can tell from his tone. This is a familiar topic between them, except she isn’t yet cracked enough to share these memories of his. Memories or delusions? Is this something she will one day recall with the same heat he does?

The words come to her, but they are not her own. ‘We keep the balance. You, here in Capitol City; me, in the villages and islands.’

The episode so disturbs her, these words so alien and yet familiar, that she leaps from the buttressed root and calls hoarsely for her brother, her friend.

She pretends she cannot feel the ghost of his fingers trailing against her thigh.

 

 

Katara couldn’t help the gleam of tears in her eyes when they parted ways the next morning.

She, Sokka, and Zuko had streamlined their supplies into three bags; light enough to carry, but heavy enough to promise them aching shoulders and sore feet in the near future. Toph confided in Katara her wish that it was they who would travel on Appa so she and Aang could walk to Ba Sing Se. The earthbender hated travelling when she couldn’t see where she was going. But Ba Sing Se was too far to walk. Besides, Appa was all Aang had left of his people; where Aang went, Appa went too.

‘Take care of each other,’ Katara told her, breaking Toph’s no hugging rule. ‘Go easy on Aang.’

‘Yeah yeah,’ the blind girl pulled back, embarrassed. ‘Sure thing, mum.’

Katara laughed and turned to the airbender, her smile falling. ‘I’ll see you soon,’ she said in a falsely bright voice; his forlorn look pulled at her. ‘It’s only a couple of months. Think about how good your earthbending will be when we see you again. You might even be able to start your firebending properly.’

He tried for a smile. ‘Thanks, Katara.’ He stepped forward to embrace her, and she bent to grip him back tightly. ‘Take care of yourself.’

‘You too,’ she said, wiping at her eyes over his shoulder. ‘Both of you.’

Sokka clapped the airbender on the shoulder. ‘Good luck, buddy,’ he said warmly, grinning at the boy. ‘Go get that Earth Kingdom army!’

Aang returned the smile, nodding, before turning to the fifth member of their group. He stood apart from their circle, arms crossed over his chest, glaring down the road they would soon take. ‘Bye, Zuko!’

The banished prince glanced over, his expression unchanged. ‘Bye.’

‘See ya, Sparky! C’mon, Twinkle Toes, let’s get this show on the road before Katara cries all over us.’

Katara glowered at the earthbender. ‘I’m not crying!’

The two of them atop Appa were a mere smudge on the horizon when she and Sokka finally turned and picked up their bags. She shouldered hers without complaint but Sokka sighed. ‘This is going to be like when we had to walk through Jet’s forest,’ he lamented, kicking a stone by the roadside. Katara refrained from reminding him just whose idea that had been. ‘Knowing our luck, some nut job with a revenge dream will try to capture us again.’ He shot Zuko a suspicious look. ‘You’re not feeling nostalgic for the good old days, are you?’

The Fire Prince glowered at the Water Tribe boy. ‘If you’re done sobbing over your friends, can we get going? In case you’ve forgotten, we still need to get to the wharf and find a boat heading southwest.’

The road was warming, now, in the early morning rays gleaming over the horizon. It was hard underfoot, unyielding. Silent. No birds sung to the sunrise. Katara should have known.

The universe loved proving Sokka wrong.

The attack came from all sides. It was precise and deadly, just like her. Katara didn’t have time to draw water from her pouch before her hands had been pulled up behind her and bound tightly as she was forced to her knees. Beside her, Sokka and Zuko were equally as incapacitated.

Azula stepped forward and eyed them like the cat that got the cream. ‘Well well well,’ she said in a silky tone, her calculating eyes dancing. ‘Water Tribe peasants and my brother. So good to see you again, Zuzu.’

Chapter Text

Zuko’s sister reads the fine print of a person’s life and blisters their softest parts. Katara was grimly amazed at her razor-sharp perception and absolute disregard for the destruction she could leave in her wake.

Katara, Sokka, and Zuko were all kneeling before the coolly collected firebender. She towered before them and Katara sensed the princess got a special sort of thrill from this by the way she watched her brother with amused disdain. A loose circle of Fire Nation soldiers closed in any real hope of a quick escape. Beyond the red-and-black clad men was one of the lizard creatures that Azula and her friends had ridden when they’d last pursued Katara and the Avatar. Beyond that, a cluster of metal tanks and a dozen reptilian rhinos blocked the road to the west. The beasts look hardy enough for the rough terrain of the southern Earth Kingdom, but nowhere near as dangerous as the Fire Nation princess herself.

‘The Water Tribe peasants,’ she said in a falsely-sweet tone. ‘Enemies of the Fire Nation and friends to the Avatar. Father will be so pleased to meet you.’

Katara glared at her. ‘Let us go!’

‘But you seem so waylaid by your heavy loads.’ She gestured to the men behind them. ‘Relieve my brother and his friends of their things. Let’s see what they can tell us.’

They all struggled of course, Sokka more than anyone. He had the maps and the scroll on the Day of Black Sun in his bag, as well as their plans for the invasion. But their manacled struggles were far from effective. Without their arms, and surrounded as they were, Katara and Zuko couldn’t bend anything powerful enough to help them and Sokka had no weapon to hand.

Azula’s eyes bulged as one of the soldiers handed her the papers from Sokka’s bag. ‘My, my,’ she said dryly, a note of satisfaction creeping into her voice. ‘We have been busy, haven’t we? The Day of Black Sun, is it? And what precisely did you plan to do with eight minutes of temporarily fireless firebenders?’

‘There are battle plans and strategies here, too, Princess,’ one of the soldiers called from where he crouched by Sokka’s bag. Katara’s heart sunk, No…

Azula handed the scrolls back to the soldier. ‘Put them back. I’ll peruse them once we leave to join Mai and Ty Lee.’

‘Yes, Princess.’

She turned back to the three angry figures kneeling in the dirt. ‘I’m surprised to see you here, Zuzu,’ she said in a tone that belied her words. ‘I would never have thought this of you. You’re many things, brother, but you’re no traitor.’

‘What are you doing here?’ demanded the boy kneeling next to Katara. How like royalty he still managed to sound even with his hands bound and a knife to his back.

Azula flipped her hair out of her face, unfazed. ‘I came north after our last meeting,’ she said in a bored tone, her gaze flinty. ‘We received word of Water Tribe peasant canoes in Chameleon Bay and came to show them the true meaning of power.’ She held up a hand and curled it into a fist; Katara’s heart leapt, Dad? ‘We just missed the Avatar, it seems, but no matter. Mai and Tai Lee will track him down.’

Zuko scowled fiercely at her. ‘Release us immediately.’

She cocked her head at him, her gaze flickering over Katara and Sokka. ‘It’s not too late for you, Zuko.’ Her words were like poison. ‘You can still redeem yourself.’

Katara glanced sharply sideways at the boy beside her. ‘Don’t listen to her,’ she hissed, unprepared for how frightened she was at the princess’s words.

Azula ignored her. ‘I need you Zuko. I have a plan to penetrate the walls of Ba Sing Se, to take the Earth Kingdom capital for our nation once and for all. I have armies at my beck and call, Mai and Ty Lee by my side, but I need you. The only way we win is together. With me, you will get your honour back, you will earn Father’s love. You will have everything you want.’

Katara, equal parts furious anger and paralysing fear, barked derisively. ‘You could never take Ba Sing Se,’ she told the girl with more confidence than she felt. ‘Your uncle tried and failed, and he’s ten times the general you could ever be!’

‘Yes, yes,’ the princess said coolly. ‘Uncle is skilled in the art of tea and lengthy anecdotes. Now, peasant, I’m having a conversation with my brother. If you interrupt us again, I’ll have you gagged.’ She smirked at Katara’s glower and turned back to the stern-faced Fire Prince. ‘The choice is yours, of course, you’re free to choose as you like.’ She gestured to the soldier behind him, and the man cut Zuko’s bonds.

The shock on his face was clear; he rubbed his wrists slowly. ‘You would vouch for me to Father?’ he asked slowly, ignoring the tense figures beside him.

‘You wouldn’t need my word to make it so,’ his sister said in a softer tone; she’d the perfect lure for this fish and she knew it. ‘You would restore your own honour.’

He closed his eyes, considering her words. ‘Bind their legs,’ he said suddenly, standing, and turning to the soldier beside him. The man hesitated, glancing at Azula, but the princess merely nodded, a wicked grin sliding up her face.

The icy taint of the betrayal struck something deep within Katara and ignited. She gave a furious cry and lunged for whatever part of the prince she could reach. She would kill him!

Sokka jerked his head. ‘Katara, don’t!’ he hissed under his breath, too late. She went for the scarred prince with the only part of her free to attack. She bit at where his legs would surely be under his robe but got nothing but a mouthful of fabric. Some primal part of her had taken over, some creature of fury that strained against her restraints with such wrath it raised welts.

Before she could pounce again, two sets of hands pulled her roughly to her feet, binding her ankles tightly.

‘You traitor,’ she spat, before a gag was roughly pushed into her mouth. Truly she was amazed he didn’t burst into flames on the spot from just the heat of the betrayal in her eyes.

He met her fury levelly, his face blank. ‘I don’t know what games you were taught in that icy wasteland you were raised in, waterbender, but I was raised to strategise. You were never more than a means of learning the Avatar’s weakness: a white lotus gambit.’

She hesitated in her struggles for a fraction of a second, long enough for the slight widening of his eyes to go unnoticed by anyone but her.

He grabbed her roughly from the soldier. ‘The villagers that helped the Avatar are in the town two miles south of here! Go find them and show them how we treat those who show kindness to our enemies.’ The soldiers, all but a handful, leapt to follow the prince’s orders, jogging down the road and out of sight in formation. His breath tickled against her ear. ‘Wait…’

Azula turned to the remaining men. ‘Ready the komodo rhinos and my mongoose lizard. Then tie the peasants to the rhinos’ saddles.’ In those few moments of relief from the shrewdness of his sister’s gaze, Zuko had loosened Katara’s bonds enough for her to wriggle her hands free and rip the gag from her mouth.

‘Sokka! Duck!’ she yelled as she twisted away from the prince, drawing a huge wave from the shores of the bay high over her head. Azula spun in time to see it surge over the party’s heads before it pummelled her and the remaining soldiers, washing them into the bay.

Zuko was already up, slicing the rope at Sokka’s hands and feet. Katara spared a moment to cut her own feet loose with a water blade, sheathing her arms in water as she ran to the others.

‘I’ll get the bags,’ Sokka shouted, ducking as a bolt of blue fire soared inches from where his head had been. ‘Then we have to set their mounts free or they’ll catch us easily!’

Dread curled in her gut; without Appa, they’d be lucky to get away at all. ‘Not all of them! We need at least one!’ She turned to Zuko, startling as he shot a fire blast over her head towards the oncoming firebenders. ‘Do you know how to ride them?’

He dropped suddenly and spun his legs, loosing a wave of fire she and Sokka had to jump clear of. It knocked Azula back into the water. ‘The mongoose lizard! It’s faster! Go! I’ll hold them off!’

They didn’t stand around to argue. Sokka grabbed his bag in one hand and Katara and Zuko’s in the other. Waylaid as he was, Katara darted ahead and sliced through the chains tethering the rhinos to one of the metal war machines. The docile animals barely flinched until she water whipped them, scattering all twelve down the road into the woods.

‘Katara! Help me!’ Sokka had shoved his bag into the panniers strapped to the back of the mongoose lizard’s saddle. The long reptile hissed, turning to scrutinize him with vivid yellow eyes. The Water Tribe boy was having little success cramming in the last two packs.

‘We don’t have time for this!’ She directed the water on her arms at the bags, freezing them to the back of the saddle. ‘We have to get out of here!’

Sokka leapt onto the serpentine creature while Katara unknotted and threw him the reins. Behind her, the flares of flame were getting closer. Zuko had dispatched at least three of the soldiers, but Azula and two others were closing in on him. Katara didn’t think. She vaulted over the rope that had acted as a temporary holding cell for the princess’s mount and sent three tendrils of water snaking through the grass to yank the attacking firebenders off balance.

Azula snarled as she righted herself, glaring at Katara with such loathing that the Water Tribe girl hesitated. The princess swung her hand over her head and brought down a long fire whip lashing towards Katara’s head.

Katara broke the blue flames before they could scorch a trail down her face, cutting the hissing fire apart with another torrent of water that wound around the waterbender before slamming into the princess.

‘Zuko! Come on!’

He turned as Sokka pulled up beside him, the lizard creature twitching in anticipation. Zuko vaulted onto the creature’s back in front of Sokka and reached down a hand for Katara. ‘Quick!’

He pulled her up before him, snatching the reins and yanking the creature’s head around while Katara desperately extinguished any flames that rained down on them. Zuko barked a word in her ear, not one she was familiar with, but it seemed to have an effect on the mongoose lizard because the creature snorted and took off running towards the road south, faster than she would have thought possible.

 

 

Freeing the komodo rhinos had been a stroke of genius, yes, but Sokka had barely let them forget it since they’d narrowly escaped Azula and her firebenders hours ago. They were headed south, doubling back across terrain they’d flown over only the day before. They hadn’t dared stop yet, even to secure their packs in the saddle bags. Because he’d been closest (but mostly to keep him from touting his strategic brilliance during combat) Katara had melted the ice and given Sokka pannier-packing duties.

She had more important things to worry about. Like how tired she was after the fight, and the Fire Prince’s chest against her back, and his arms on either side of her as he steered the mongoose lizard over the rocky grounds that fringed the Si Wong Desert.

‘I’m just saying,’ Sokka said, lifting his shirt over his head. ‘It was a great move. Classic Water Tribe thinking.’

Zuko glanced back at him strangely. ‘Why are you taking your clothes off?’ he asked stiffly, leaning forward, away from the boy behind him.

‘To make myself a shirt hat! Desert-style.’

Katara turned to glare at him, ignoring Zuko’s proximity as he tried to avoid touching her brother. ‘Put your clothes back on!’

He sighed but shrugged his rumpled shirt back on over his head. ‘Clearly you two know nothing about survival.’

You’ll know nothing about survival in a second when I stab you with an ice spear!’

Sokka peered around Zuko to glare at his sister. ‘If it wasn’t for me we’d have rhino-riding, trigger-happy firebenders chasing us right now!’

‘And you’ve done nothing but talk about that all day!’ she snapped in frustration, her fingers twitching towards her water pouch.

‘Uh, why don’t we all just take a deep breath and calm down,’ Zuko said uncomfortably, glancing between the two siblings. ‘Do you think you two could continue this when I’m not stuck between you?’

Katara turned back around with an inelegant snort. ‘Ask Sokka,’ she muttered, her mouth dry with the whipping desert wind. ‘He’s the one that won’t shut up.’

‘Why you—!’

‘Okay, at the risk of my sister catching us, I’m pulling over,’ Zuko announced with a note of irritation. ‘I can’t deal with your bickering anymore.’ The Water Tribe siblings quickly quieted. ‘That’s better.’

Katara stiffened when he rested his hand, reins in palm, against her thigh. Her cheeks burned. The undulating movement of the mongoose lizard meant his fist rubbed rhythmically against her with each of the creature’s strides.

‘Sorry.’ His voice was quiet in her ear; he must have been close, she felt his breath against her cheek. ‘My arms are tired.’

She turned her head a fraction until she could just make him out in the corner of her eye. ‘I can steer if you like…’

He shifted his weight and she swallowed thickly. ‘No, it’s okay.’

She nodded, glad he’d refused. She was weary after their fight and the fear and adrenaline that had come with it. The last thing she wanted to do was constantly adjust their course southward. The warmth of the afternoon sun, and the rocking of the mongoose lizard’s gait, began to lull her into a stupor. Without realising it, she began to recline slowly backwards, one muscle at a time. It wasn’t until the back of her head bounced against the tense curve of a shoulder that she straightened, startled.

‘Sorry,’ she gasped, shaking her head to clear the lethargy.

‘It’s fine,’ he said quickly. ‘You should sleep.’

‘No, I’m fine.’

‘Suit yourself, but your brother’s already dozing against my back, so you might as well.’

Katara glanced back at the warrior’s wolf tail swaying over Zuko’s shoulder. She grinned. ‘If you insist.’

Slowly, she reclined until she was comfortably cushioned in the circle of his arms. ‘Wake me if you want a rest,’ she yawned, her temple brushing against his jaw.

He didn’t reply and she tucked her nose under his chin, sighing as her body relaxed and sleep claimed her.

 

 

She woke as Zuko slowed the beast, its stride shortening and jostling its passengers. She sat upright quickly, clearing her throat as she blinked the tiredness from her eyes and oriented herself. The mongoose lizard had come to a stop beside a narrow creek, though with how pitiful the water flow was, trickle would be more accurate.

‘We should get some water here then find a place to stay for the night.’ The firebender’s voice was husky as the dry desert wind; she didn’t blame him. She’d never been so thirsty in her life.

Sokka slid from the saddle first, stumbling as he hit the ground. He looked strangely bow legged. ‘Urg, this thing has seriously damaged me,’ he croaked, shaking his head at his oddly bent legs.

Zuko waited for Katara to drop to the ground before sliding lithely down himself. ‘You get used to it.’

The three of them, and the salivating mongoose lizard, drunk deeply from the faintly flowing creek. Katara swore the water was the sweetest she’d ever tasted. It was more soothing to her parched throat than the finest wines or lychee juices could ever be, this simple clean creek water.

Downstream from them, Azula’s mongoose lizard lapped up water with an enthusiasm Katara could empathise with.

‘How far do you think we’ve come?’ she asked them once she’d drunk her fill and replenished her bending water canteen.

Zuko squinted into the setting sun; his lips were chapped. ‘A good day’s ride on a mongoose lizard? Forty miles, maybe fifty.’

Sokka groaned. ‘It’s so much slower than Appa,’ he lamented, shoulders slumping forward.

Zuko shrugged. ‘Faster than an ostrich horse or walking,’ he muttered, taking the creature’s reins and leading it across the stream and between two narrow canyon walls. Katara pulled her dress over her head, stripping down to her wrappings, and stood in the knee-deep water. She swirled her wrists and the water rose, rushing up along her body, taking the sweat, sand, and dirt from her skin and hair.

She bent her knees and lowered her arms and the water sunk back into the stream. ‘I’m going to see if I can find any meat,’ Sokka called over his shoulder, wandering off towards the sparse vegetation of the desert’s edge.

‘Don’t go too far,’ she replied, watching him worriedly. The thought of Azula catching him sloshed uneasily within her but he was already walking away, raising a hand in acknowledgement and disappearing from sight.

Katara sighed and grabbed her clothes from the water’s edge, heading towards the narrow pathway Zuko had taken. The mongoose lizard had curled up by the jutting rock wall, its eyes closed. It was tethered to a metal spike driven into the hard ground.

Zuko had taken the saddle bags from its back and laid them by the opposite rock wall while he stacked a small pile of old logs and twigs, igniting them with a barely perceptibly hand movement. She dropped her clothes by her bag, wringing out her hair without her bending. It was nice to be cool after a long day under the baking sun.

‘Sokka’s gone hunting,’ she told him as he stood and turned to her.

He glanced down at her stomach and away. ‘But we’ve got a week’s worth of supplies.’

She shrugged, sitting on a log by the fire. ‘Sokka likes hunting.’ She eyed him speculatively, a rising appreciation settling over her. ‘Zuko… I have to say thank you for this morning. I don’t know if we’ll ever be able to properly thank you for that… I’m ashamed to say I thought you’d turned on us.’

‘Part of me wanted to,’ he admitted in a small voice, sitting across from her and turning the scarred side of his face away. ‘And I meant for you to think I had. I’m a terrible liar, Azula can always tell when I’m lying, so I needed you to think I’d turned on you. For it to look real.’ He met her gaze then, his own conflicted. ‘I’m sorry for frightening you. When you looked at me like that…’ He glanced away, but Katara saw the hurt.

‘I thought you had betrayed us.’ Her breath caught at the memory. ‘It truly hurt. Like I’d lost a friend.’ She smiled when he finally looked back at her. ‘Lucky for me that friend is still here.’

A tentative grin slipped up the prince’s face. ‘Friends don’t try to bite friends.’

She blushed then. ‘I was angry!’

‘Water Tribe peasant.’

She gasped in shock, her lips stretching wide. ‘Was that a joke?’ she laughed. ‘Are you teasing me?’

His smile didn’t stop this time. ‘Savage, your people.’

She laughed outright, clutching her knees. ‘Says you! Have you met your sister?’ It was the wrong thing to say. ‘Sorry, Zuko, I shouldn’t have—’

‘It’s fine,’ he said shortly, but not unkindly. ‘You’re right. She’s sick, I’ve known that for a while now.’

Katara watched him from under her lashes. ‘What she said today, about your honour and your father… What was she talking about?’ He glared at the ground without replying and her heart sunk. ‘You don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to.’

‘I want to.’ She met his heated gaze. The turmoil there was clear and she wondered for the hundredth time how the puzzle pieces of him she’d collected fit together.

‘You know about my scar.’ He stared stoically at the fire and added a few branches. ‘My father burned a permanent lesson onto my face. Just for talking out of turn.’ He wasn’t looking at the fire, not really. She wasn’t quite sure what he saw, but she didn’t dare talk for fear he wouldn’t continue. ‘It’s taken me a long time to realise what he did was wrong. Banishing me for expressing concern for my people, challenging a thirteen-year-old boy to a fire duel. It was cruel, I know that now. It was wrong.

‘But for the longest time, whenever I thought of my father, all I could think of was wanting him to love me, to accept me. For him to give me something. I thought that something was my honour, but it wasn’t.’ He shook his head slowly, as though in a trance. ‘I just wanted my dad to tell me he loved me.’

Katara couldn’t help it. She was a compassionate person and a friend in pain was not something she could leave alone. She stepped around the fire and sat gently beside him, reaching her arm around his shoulders. Her heart ached for the boy’s pain, but her temper roared at the Fire Lord’s despicableness. She couldn’t imagine Hakoda ever treating her or Sokka that way.

‘Is that why you decided to side with us?’ she asked quietly, tracing tiny circles over his shoulder with her fingers.

‘Once I realised he would never be able to give me that, that there are things more important than a boy’s failing faith in his father.’ His lips twitched. ‘I started listening to my uncle. He’s been telling me to look inside myself for years, to ask myself what it is I want from life rather than what has been forced upon me. And I know now that I’ve had to go through these things to discover who I am and what I want.’

He met her gaze steadily; the conflict in his eyes was still there but it was different somehow. Focused. It had purpose. ‘What do you want?’

He didn’t blink and she was reminded forcibly of something this same boy had told her in the belly of the Foggy Swamp…

‘I was only a child when he banished me, and I held onto the idea of my honour like a child. When you and Aang and the others showed me another way, I fought against it like a child. Until I couldn’t anymore. I couldn’t have it both ways. I couldn’t chase my father’s love, and yours at the same time...’

She held her own under his searching scrutiny. What had Avatar Yangchen said? Neither is superior to the other, a balance between the two must be reached in order to achieve harmony. She would meet him, strength for strength.

‘My destiny,’ he said quietly, the skin around his eyes crinkling as he grinned.

She frowned, glanced from his left eye, to right; scarred to whole. ‘Your destiny?’

‘To help the Avatar defeat my father and restore balance and harmony to the world.’

A shiver licked down her spine at the familiar words, and she didn’t know whether to curse the Banyan Spirit for its meddling or thank it. The urge to confess to him her visions and her suspicions about them gripped her. ‘Zuko…’

‘It’s okay,’ he said hurriedly, clearing his throat. ‘I know I’ve done some bad things in the past.’ A tentative smile tugged at his lips. ‘And without my uncle I’d probably still be chasing you all over the Earth Kingdom.’

 She returned his grim warmly. ‘Thank goodness for Uncle Iroh,’ she agreed, dropping her gaze at last. ‘Zuko, I’m sorry your dad doesn’t realise what he’s missing out on. One day he’s going to be sorry for how he’s treated you. But knowing this, it just makes me even more grateful to you for siding with us today. Your sister was offering you everything you’d wanted, and you turned her down. I mean I’m glad you did, but…’ His face was close, barely a foot between his nose and hers.

He nodded and leaned backwards, casting his gaze around the flickering fire lit camp. ‘Thank you, Katara.’

She wrinkled her nose. ‘Oh, I’m “Katara” now, am I?’ she teased, jabbing him with her elbow. She lowered her voice, rasping in her best impersonation of the boy beside her. ‘Not “waterbender?”’

‘Watch it, peasant.’

She laughed and stood, dusting wood chips from her wrappings. ‘I think we should probably get dinner started. Something tells me Sokka won’t be able to add “hunter extraordinaire” to his boasting rights tonight.’

‘You’re probably right.’

Setting up camp, after the rawness of their conversation, was a shy and quiet affair. Now that Appa wasn’t around to carry their weight, they’d been forced to pack only one tent for the three of them. It was Sokka’s fringed tent, and it wasn’t by accident Katara spread Zuko’s bedroll beside hers and Sokka’s.

As expected, Sokka returned well after nightfall with nothing but filthy clothes, dirt-streaked limbs, and angry mutterings about crevices. Only the sight of curry, set aside for him, stirred him from his sour mood.

‘I didn’t have any spices,’ Zuko said, almost apologetically. Katara winced, sure her brother would bemoan the Fire Prince having cooked and possibly tampering with his food.

‘Are you kidding?’ the Water Tribe boy mumbled through a mouthful of rice. ‘There’s meat in here! You don’t need spices when there’s perfectly good meat around.’

Katara raised a sceptical brow. ‘You’re okay with Zuko having cooked?’

The prince in question shot her a hurt look. ‘I’m not that bad a cook.’

But Sokka was avoiding her, eyes on his bowl as he scarfed the curry. ‘Do you think I would have left you alone with him just now if I didn’t trust him?’ he said quietly, gripping his chopsticks tightly. He flicked his gaze towards the shocked firebender and away. ‘You proved yourself today, Zuko. You saved our lives.’

Zuko was about to reply when a hawk screeched overhead. It was a Fire Nation delivery hawk, but the navy and white emblem over its chest was in the shape of a broad leaf flower rather than the signature red and black flame. It swooped down and landed heavily on the prince’s shoulder.

The three of them eyed it warily.

‘Zuko, there’s a hawk on your shoulder.’

The prince glared at the Water Tribe boy. ‘You think!’

Katara edged closer. ‘That doesn’t look like a Fire Nation emblem.’

‘It’s not.’ The prince held out his arm and the hawk obligingly hopped onto his forearm, bowing its head to allow him to extract the scroll from its back. ‘It’s for me,’ he said in surprise.

‘Who’s it from?’ Katara asked, eagerly.

Zuko gripped the scroll tightly. ‘Uncle,’ he said in amazement. ‘He said he’s made contact with his Order and they have information for you both.’ He looked up at them, his lips lifting in a grin. ‘They know where your father and the Southern Water Tribe warriors are.’

Sokka was the first to break the stunned silence. ‘What?!’

‘Dad?!’

There was a hungry look on Sokka’s face that had nothing to do with his forgotten dinner. ‘Where! Where is he?’

Zuko scanned the note, brows drawn. ‘Full Moon Bay, they should be there for a couple of days.’

Sokka ripped his bag open and yanked out a map of the Earth Kingdom, spreading it before the fire. ‘Here.’ He pointed to the little bay, inland from Chameleon Bay and sighed. ‘It would take a week to get there and we’d have to go back over our trail. We can’t risk running into Azula again.’

Zuko knelt beside Katara. ‘You could go this way,’ he pointed out, gesturing to the northeast salient chunk of desert. ‘If you took the mongoose lizard and rode due northwest from where we are, you’d get there in two days, maybe three. Azula wouldn’t think to look for you in the desert.’

Sokka glanced up at him sharply. ‘Me?’ he asked, studying the other boy. ‘Not you?’

Zuko shrugged. ‘Someone has to gather your allies for the invasion,’ he clarified, running a finger over the map. ‘If you and Katara take the mongoose lizard, you’ll travel faster with just two people and be out of the desert in two days.’

Katara shook her head distractedly. ‘No offence, Zuko, but most of our allies have— err— met you before. They’re not exactly going to be thrilled to see you.’

‘She’s right,’ Sokka agreed, his left hand covering his mouth as he thought. ‘We know you’re not a bad guy, but they don’t.’ He glanced at his sister and away quickly. ‘One of us has to go with you.’

She looked at her brother, thought of his rabid joy at word from their father, and knew who it would be. ‘You go.’

He was stricken. ‘Katara, I— no, he’s your dad too.’

She reached out and touched his arm. ‘I know how much you want to see Dad, Sokka. You go. Besides, you guys can refine the invasion plan. Two Water Tribe strategists? The Fire Lord won’t know what hit him.’

It was a mark of how much he’d missed their father that Sokka didn’t immediately launch into a lecture on Water Tribe cunning. Instead, he covered her hand with his and pulled her into a bear hug. ‘You’re the best sister in the world!’

She laughed. ‘You’re not wrong.’ She pulled away from his embrace and gestured to the map. ‘You take the mongoose lizard and cross the desert. Zuko and I will continue on to Kyoshi, then Gaoling.’ She traced the route they’d take. ‘And the Swamp… I don’t think we’ll have time to get any further north.’ An idea struck her. ‘Wait! Could you and Dad sail through the Serpent’s Pass, up to the Northern Air Temple, then back down via the forest and Haru’s village?’

Sokka excitedly traced the path she described. ‘Brilliant!’ he crowed. ‘We’d halve our travel time! Divide and conquer! The ultimate strategy for kicking some serious Fire Lord butt!’ They froze at the same time, turning to the silent firebender.

He held up his hands peaceably. ‘Kick his butt, by all means,’ he said quickly, and the waterbender and warrior fell about laughing. Even Zuko’s lips stretched in a rueful grin.

Chapter Text

 ‘As Crown Prince to the Fire Nation, I know you know how to handle responsibility.’ Sokka paced before the resigned firebender, casting him what was clearly meant to be a formidable look every other step. ‘I, Sokka of the Southern Water Tribe, do solemnly grant you the great responsibility of looking after my sister.’

‘I’m right here,’ Katara pointed out for the third time, leaning against the jittery mongoose lizard. ‘And I’m more than capable of looking after myself.’

Zuko looked as though he wanted to acknowledge her, but Sokka snapped his fingers under the prince’s nose. ‘Hey! Pay attention! Part of your new responsibility is saving her from herself.’

‘That’s offensive.’ She would have been more annoyed by him if their imminent separation hadn’t softened her to her brother’s stupid, lovable antics.

He turned to Katara. ‘And if he tries any funny business, you freeze it off, understand?’

She blanched and flushed almost as red as Zuko, or what little of the prince she could see. ‘Sokka!’

‘I’m just saying—’

‘We know what you’re saying!’

Zuko didn’t shy away from the Water Tribe boy’s fearsome posturing. ‘I thought you trusted me now,’ the firebender pointed out, rightly bemused.

‘Oh sure, in the war against the Fire Nation. But every man is the enemy in the war for my sister.’

Said sister had had enough. She stepped forward and shoved him backwards. ‘If you don’t shut up right now, I’m going to tell Suki about Yue!’

The warrior turned a shade of puce rarely seen in nature. ‘You wouldn’t,’ Sokka stuttered. His sister eyed him sternly; Sokka gave her a dirty look but slunk out from under her glower.

He clapped Zuko on the shoulder. ‘Good luck.’

The prince was a graceless mixture of surprised and sheepish. ‘I’ll look out for her,’ he burst out suddenly. ‘And we’ll gather as many as we can for the invasion.’

The other boy grinned broadly. ‘That’s what I like to hear!’

‘Look out for Azula’s soldiers,’ the firebender added. Embarrassed, he looked anywhere but his Water Tribe companions. ‘I, err, sent some back to the village.’

‘Oh, I forgot about them.’ Sokka frowned. ‘Man, I hope they don’t come back to bite us in the blubber.’

‘Us? What about the people they’ve probably terrorised, thanks to us?’ Katara eyed the two boys fiercely, but neither of them met her gaze. She knew what they were thinking: it was too late to help. Any damage done to those poor people and their village would already be smouldering ashes by the time they arrived.

She turned back to the mongoose lizard, the thought sour on her tongue.

It wasn’t till much later that Katara realised Sokka had woken before both she and Zuko. The warrior had greeted the early hours with an uncharacteristic enthusiasm and positivity. She would look back after the challenges of the next few days and draw strength from her brother’s example: there are unexpected facets to everyone’s character.

‘You won’t really tell Suki, will you?’ Sokka had sidled up to her with an air of diffidence.

‘Of course not.’ She pulled the lanky boy into a tight embrace, squeezing him so he’d know how much she’d miss him. ‘Say hi to Dad for me.’

He wriggled in her stranglehold. ‘Look after yourself, little sister.’

She nodded and cleared her throat to hide the small sob lurking there. Her wet cheeks couldn’t be concealed, but each tear spoke of her love for her father and the brother leaving her to find him. She would be strong, fulfil her part of the invasion plan, and see them both in a matter of weeks.

Sokka clumsily mounted the mongoose lizard and pointed its head towards the flat emptiness of the Si Wong Desert. ‘Don’t drink cactus juice,’ Katara said quickly, clutching her dress in both hands. ‘And watch how much water you drink! It has to last two days.’

He grinned at her. ‘I’m the survival expert, remember?’

And with that he was gone.

She stood silently in the new dawn light, squinting after the dwindling figure. ‘Be safe,’ she whispered as more tears spilled, unbidden, from her eyes.

 

 

‘Are you sure we’ll be able to find a boat heading south from here?’ Katara asked again.

The town was small, but that wasn’t her concern. They were dusty after a day’s walk, and she wanted nothing more than to find a place to spend the night and get off her feet. But her surly travel companion had assured her that the grimy tavern by the water was where they would find passage south. There were a handful of sandbenders loitering by the door to the pub, each of them had a snarl twisting their patchily wrapped faces. Sitting back against his sand-sailer, the tallest of the men sneered at the two travellers. Katara hefted her pack and returned his glare, scowling fiercely— much fiercer than she truly felt.

Zuko gestured to the dockside tavern. ‘Trust me. I spent the last three years living with sailors.’

He pushed open the weather-beaten pub door, and the two of them entered The Drowning Mermaid Tavern. It was grimy to say the least. The place looked as though the tide regularly washed through, dragging all manner of ocean detritus with it. The floor was as stained as the walls, and the low hum of the flies was louder than the swaying drunk in the corner plucking an off-key lute.

‘Hey!’ The barman had a cotton patch over one eye, but the other eye worked well enough to glare at them meanly. ‘You kids, get out of here.’

Zuko raised his chin defiantly. ‘We’re looking for a boat south. Know where we can find one?’

The man’s patch creased as his scowl deepened. ‘Our captains are good Earth Kingdom folk, not criminals who get tangled up with runaways who’ve run afoul of the Fire Nation.’ His good eye zeroed in on Zuko’s scar.

The prince’s fists clenched in an all-too-familiar frustration. Katara stepped quickly in front of him and turned to face the cantankerous bartender. ‘Please, we need to get to Kyoshi.’

The man dismissively waved a hand at her. ‘Do I look like a sailor to you? Go talk to the blokes at the dock.’

She smiled at him coyly and nodded. ‘Thank you, sir.’

Zuko kept pace with her as she made for the door, shoving it open, and savouring the reappearance of daylight. ‘Katara,’ he hissed under his breath. His grip around her elbow chafed. ‘What are you doing?’

‘What does it look like?’ She wrenched her arm out of his grip and started forward to the docks.

‘Just stop for a moment, okay!’ Suddenly he was looming before her. The sun caught his scar and made the puckered skin glow cherry red. ‘We need to go back inside.’

She dragged her gaze up to his face. ‘Why? We should have gone to the docks first, but you had to be the big man who knows how sailors work.’

‘Which is why,’ he snarled through gritted teeth, ‘I’m telling you we need to go back into the pub.’

‘Sailors don’t crew taverns! They crew boats!’

He sighed, repressing with difficulty what she suspected was an eye roll. ‘The kind of passage we need south— quiet, no questions asked— is the kind you buy from equally quiet, questionless men in pubs. Not by skipping along the pier shouting our plans for the whole dock to hear. Do you have any idea how good a tracker my sister is?’

Katara remembered the long night of fear, argument, and pursuit. ‘I could guess.’

He gripped his hair in frustration. ‘Well, we can’t go back in now, anyway.’ He glanced over her head and his frustrated expression changed— became meaner, more threatening. Katara glanced backwards at the source of his shift in demeanour; the sandbenders from earlier had circled closer. The one that had sneered at her swaggered forward with all the appearance of nonchalance.

Appearance only.

‘Come on.’ Zuko tugged Katara forward and started off along the harbour, threading his arm over her shoulders.

Her stomach fluttered. ‘What are you—?’

His grip tightened as she made to push him away. ‘Don’t struggle, just act normal.’

The tight control in his voice, not enough to entirely mask the apprehension, made her hesitate ‘Are they following us?’

‘I don’t exactly have eyes in the back of my head, waterbender,’ he growled. But the thunk of footsteps on the boardwalk, not twenty paces behind them, was all the answer they needed. ‘Whatever you do, don’t let them know who we are.’

She shot him a scathing look. ‘I know that!’

‘Is he bothering you, miss?’

They turned to face the group of sandbenders. There were only four of them. Their other friends must have stayed behind with their sand-sailers. The one who’d spoken pulled his face scarf down to reveal three missing teeth and a scar twisting his lip into a permanent grimace.

Katara blinked and felt for the water in the harbour beside her. Just in case…

‘Miss?’

She smiled curtly. ‘Not at all.’

Toothless sauntered closer. His friends’ slow edging around them didn’t escape her notice. ‘He didn’t look none too friendly back by Ping’s place, did he, boys?’

Zuko’s arm against her back tensed. ‘My friendliness is none of your business,’ he retorted hotly.

‘Weren’t talking to you,’ Toothless said with a humourless grin. ‘We’re talking to your pretty friend.’

‘Yeah, get lost, ugly,’ another sandbender piped in.

The intent gleam in their eyes did it; she’d had enough. ‘Let’s go,’ she whispered, tugging at his tunic.

‘Aww, where you goin, darlin?’ Toothless’s friend, Crooked Nose, laughed, darting forward. Zuko moved fast, disappearing from Katara’s side in the space between blinking. He swept his foot out in an arc and Crooked Nose fell heavily against the old planks of the boardwalk.

He straightened and glared down at the stunned man. ‘Leave her alone.’

Toothless bared his teeth. ‘I told you,’ he snarled, bearing down on the angry prince. ‘We wasn’t talking to you.’

Katara placed a hand on the firebender’s back, over his left shoulder blade. ‘Just leave them, they’re not worth it.’

‘Oh, I could be worth it, darlin,’ the man leered.

Zuko snarled under his breath. One more word, she thought to herself, the quiet fury white hot under her skin. If he says one more word… She focused on pulling the tense firebender along with her as she turned away. Easier said than done. Zuko was practically exhaling flames.

‘We’re not done here,’ Toothless warned, pulling something sharp and gleaming from the belt at his waist. The man’s scarred face had twisted into a decidedly unfriendly scowl. Katara only saw the knife, the evil intent in the sandbender’s eyes, and Zuko’s ready stance. It was all she needed to see.

Twisting on the spot, she shoved Toothless back with the force of the water’s momentum. He stumbled into one of his friends and lost his footing. The remaining upright sandbenders sent a torrent of sand whipping towards Katara. They were quick, she wouldn’t be able to draw more water from the harbour in time—

Flames plumed in front of her, blocking the whirlwind of sand. Zuko leapt forward and forced the two benders back, conjuring flames with practiced ease.

It was only because of the sunlight shining on the pale blade that she saw the attack in time. Toothless had regained his feet and edged around Zuko, raising his arm to strike at the firebender’s unprotected back.

But Zuko wasn’t as defenceless as Toothless thought.

With a shout, Katara spun, whipping her arms overhead in a crashing movement with all the power of the sea swell. Water rose from the bay and spilled over the dock, slamming the knife-wielding sandbender back against the salt-encrusted wall. He clattered against the dilapidated brick like so many matchsticks in a box.

A bright burst of red stained the receding water.

Katara straightened, her anger draining away with the water as Toothless slumped against the wall, unmoving. Crooked Nose, knocked off his feet by the wave, crawled over to his friend, shaking his limp shoulder.

Katara couldn’t look away from the smudged and dribbling stain behind the man’s head.

Someone tugged her numb arm backwards. ‘Come on.’

She stumbled forward; the two nearest sandbenders flinched away from her. Crooked Nose blanched when she knelt beside his wounded friend. The fear in his eyes made her feel sick.

‘Leave him alone!’

Zuko hovered over her shoulder. ‘We’ve got to go!’

She shook her head, holding her hands up peaceably. ‘I can help.’

Crooked Nose battered her hands away. ‘Get out of here!’

‘Please! I have healing abilities!’

The sandbender put himself between her and his friend. ‘You’ve done enough, witch.’

Zuko dragged her to her feet; there were people crowding around the mouth of the ocean-side street. ‘We need to leave now.’ He held her shaking arms by her side, forcing her to fall in step alongside him. ‘Quick, down this way!’

‘N—No.’ She tried to turn around, to go back. The angle of the injured man’s head, so uneven on his neck, could be fixed if she could just—

‘They went this way!’

Zuko’s grip tightened in panic. ‘Come on! Run!’

 She wouldn’t have moved if it wasn’t for his insistent tugging at her hand. He wove along the narrow streets, leaping canals like a predator, barely slowing his stride enough to allow her to keep up. The fading, weathered buildings blurred past in a seamless stretch of browns. Brown walls. Brown doors. Brown, lifeless plants. Red, red blood… Her guide was relentless. He didn’t let her slow. Perhaps the townspeople didn’t want to get too close, or Zuko’s pace was enough to shake their pursuit. Either way, the two of them made it to the edge of town and into the coastal scrub.

‘Don’t stop,’ the firebender gasped, pulling her forward again. Her hand that he’d commandeered ached dully; she wondered dimly why he seemed incapable of clutching people with any softness. That time he’d woken her back in the abandoned Earth Kingdom village, when they’d left the tavern, just now; there was little about him that invited vulnerability.

She stumbled after him, even as night began to fall in earnest. The dull roar of waves signalled the approach of the coast on their left, but for once the slosh of her element sent discordant horror through her. She had always thought of water as defensive, calm, tranquil. What had Avatar Yangchen said? Yin is feminine, water, passive, moon, poor, soft… and black, dark, cold.

Her stomach churned as the swirl of crimson curled through her thoughts. ‘Zuko, stop.’

‘Not yet; we’ll find a place in the dunes soon, but—’

‘Let go of me… Stop!’

He let her go, holding his hands up peaceably. She read the shadowed fear in his eyes. Don’t hurt me, they said.

The Fire Lord’s son, afraid of her.

She hunched over as the sick crawled up her throat and finally admitted to herself that she had done more than merely injure the sandbender.

Warm hands slid the straps of her bag down her arms, pushed her braid back over her shoulder, and hovered above her; fireflies drawn inexorably towards the flame that would burn the life from them. Eyes closed, the sway of the man’s head, dangling— skewed— from his neck… She heaved again, a whimper licking at the back of her throat. Her very sense of self perched precariously as the repulsion bleached the shadows and numbness away, leaving her stark.

Murderer.

‘I wouldn’t… I didn’t mean…’ The sounds didn’t fit her mouth.

His words were soft things, rounded and yielding. ‘Come on.’ Gently. Easy does it, Katara. ‘Let’s get you on your feet.’ Her knees were uncooperative, cumbersome things. Her bag was slung over his shoulder. There was sand sprinkled along it. Sand…

He offered her his hand. ‘Let’s find somewhere to stop for the night.’

The moon was very nearly full, perhaps that’s what gave her the strength to take that first step. Then the second. It was on the third that she threaded her fingers with his and followed him between the loose ground of the dunes.

 

 

Zuko dug out an alcove at the base of one of the sturdier dunes. It was low enough to shelter them from the wind and meant they’d be out of sight should anyone come searching the darkness for them. The firebender had found part of a ship’s wooden hull, or else a broken crate. The splintered wood was large enough to sit over the mouth of their cubby, keeping the cool night air from falling directly on them.

Katara sat huddled around the small oil lamp her companion had lit. It let off no smoke, and she felt each judder like the falling of a whip across her face.

A warm bowl, steam curling from its contents, was pushed into her cold hands. ‘Eat.’

She glanced down at the boiled vegetables and rice. Eat? ‘I’m not hungry.’ Her voice was as whispery as the wind and just as easily carried away.

‘You’re in shock,’ her persistent companion told her matter-of-factly. ‘You’ll feel better if you eat.’

Shock? She mouthed the word, a pretty thing for such a gaping chasm. ‘How would you know?’

The lantern flame swayed and battered at its glass prison; the prince settled beside her with a sigh. ‘I know what you’re going through.’

She looked at him, askance. ‘I bet you do,’ she whispered shakily; the rage was sudden, but welcome. Anything other than this edgeless blade on bone. ‘Hurting people is what your kind do best. Bet you’d kill people for sport back in the palace. Your father’s good at it, your sister loves it. You probably think this is right!

His expression was unchanged. ‘I don’t think it’s right, what you did, but I think it was necessary.’

The righteous fury didn’t want to hear his justifications. ‘You can’t make this okay by—by making excuses!’

The look he gave her was so alien on his face. Pity. ‘I know the Avatar is all about doing the right thing and making sure everyone’s all peaches and rainbows. But life’s not always split neatly into good and bad.’ He looked much older than his sixteen years. His eyes held an age most people rarely reach. ‘Those men wanted to hurt you. If we’d done nothing, they would have. You’ve been fighting in this war for months now; surely you had to know this could happen.’

She hadn’t been aware of the tears until his gaze traced their path over her cheeks. ‘You can’t sit there and tell me what it’s like to—to…’ She swallowed, her lip trembling.

‘I’ve killed a man before,’ he said softly, staring at the flame. ‘One of my own men. And it wasn’t an accident, either.’

She gripped her knees tightly, waiting.

‘I was trying to do the right thing.’ His voice had lowered to the same whisper as hers. ‘My reasons were all wrong, but I knew I was doing the right thing. Zhao’s men, they were trying to hurt… this person. I was breaking him out of prison, and my countrymen, they tried to stop me. I cut them down, dozens of them. But I knew I’d killed this one.’ His gaze flickered to her and away. ‘My sword flew wide. I got his neck instead of his armour. I cut so deep his blood splattered my face… but the prisoner went free.’

If Katara hadn’t been focusing so hard on his story, if she hadn’t latched onto his words with all the desperation of a castaway drowning at sea, she might have pieced together the identity of the prisoner. ‘How do you live with yourself?’

Zuko’s hard-eyed distance faded as he turned back to her. ‘You don’t have a choice. The world needs you, Katara. Your actions mean we survived, and we need to survive to take down my father and restore balance to the Four Nations.’

She didn’t respond. She barely noticed the empty horror inside her had dulled somewhat; the abyssal mouth of guilt had shrunk just enough to allow her to breathe. Zuko sighed and dropped his face into his hands. ‘You shouldn’t have needed to get involved though. I should have done something sooner.’

Her scowl was fierce. ‘I can take care of myself,’ she hissed, dropping the bowl he’d given her to the ground. ‘I think I proved that today!’

He shook his head, rubbing his eyes. ‘I’m the bad guy.’ The words were so quiet, she wondered if he meant her to hear them at all. ‘You’re the Avatar’s girlfriend. You’re meant to be like him: clean hands, someone for people to look up to, admire… I should have intervened.’

Something in what he said spoke to some dormant part of her. Someone for the people to admire… She admired Aang. The Avatar, the great bridge between the spirit world and the physical world. Since she was a child, she’d dreamed of the Avatar coming to save her village, to end the war. Gran Gran had told her and the other children tales of Avatar Kuruk, Avatar Kyoshi, Avatar Roku… great heroes of the people. Souls of true goodness. When she and Sokka had discovered Aang, when she’d met an Avatar, Aang had roused the best in her. She was her noblest self around him. He inspired thoughtfulness, kindness, compassion, love, gentleness… traits her people expected of their women.

But for months now some shameful part of her had known the truth: though there was lightness and compassion within her, those were not the only facets of Katara. Selfishness, anger, bitterness were threads in the tapestry of her innermost self. And there was a very real shame within her at this discovery. The people she most admired— her father, her mother, Aang, Yue— all were good through and through. Not a nasty thought flitted through their wildest daydreams. None that she knew of.

But stealing the waterbending scroll, liking someone as callous as Jet, fighting with Toph, the sandbender crumpling lifelessly against the brick wall— these were not the acts of her heroes. The thought that she could never live up to the standards of those most important to her grated against her idea of herself.

‘I’m not like them,’ she breathed, her stomach churning at her misery.

‘What?’

She glanced up at the firebender and his confused expression gave her pause. The Banyan Spirit had known it all along, their equal and opposite disposition. Zuko struggled with his inner nature just as she did. Just as he wrestled with doing what was right and good despite the expectations of his family, she must come to terms with the darker side of her nature. Avatar Yangchen had said it: an increase in one brings a corresponding decrease in the other. As Katara circled this yawning chasm of anger, guilt, shame, Zuko’s own darkness receded. Instead he’d comforted her, trading roles, correcting their balance.

‘I’m not like them,’ she said more clearly. ‘Like Aang, I mean.’ It wasn’t happiness, or contentedness, it was barely a good feeling at all. But something like understanding lulled the seething waters of Katara’s mind; she held to it like the life raft it was.

Zuko examined her closely, his brow furrowed anxiously. ‘Of course you are. You’re just feeling a little raw from what happened, believe me—’

She shook her head and the tense muscles in her shoulders relaxed. ‘That’s not me.’ She thought of the moon and its cycle, fading in, fading out each month. She thought of the shadowy, dark side of the crescent moon; just because you couldn’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not there.

 

 

The Misty Palms Oasis had long been the final stop for travellers to rest and trade before venturing into the desert. It was little more than a couple dozen earthen huts, the cantina, a florist, and of course, the declining natural ice spring. The Traveller arrived not long after nightfall. He had business with his contacts in the dilapidated town.

He bowed to the sandbenders lounging outside the cantina, entered the dimly lit pub, and removed his straw hat.

The Traveller strolled to the bar, his aching feet begging for a seat. ‘One pot of jasmine, please.’ The barman merely grunted in acknowledgement. The Traveller caught the eye of the old man at the low Pai Sho table in the corner.

He pointed it out to the barman. ‘I’ll be over there.’

The old man was as crooked at the stool he sat upon. His scalp gleamed in the low light of the cantina, as did his eyes, though far more mysteriously.

The Traveller stopped before him. ‘May I have this game?’

The old man eyed him speculatively. ‘The guest has the first move.’

The Traveller nodded politely and sat with no small amount of relief. He plucked his tile from his side of the board and carefully placed it in the very centre of the board.

The white lotus tile glowed orange in the torchlight.

‘I see you favour the white lotus gambit,’ the old man observed, hands tucked in his sleeves. ‘Not many still cling to the ancient ways.’ He bowed, as the Traveller knew he would.

‘Those who do can always find a friend.’

The old man’s bright eyes appraised him with interest. ‘Then let us play.’

The game proceeded just as the Traveller knew it would. He and his opponent rained tiles upon the board in a well-rehearsed dance. The barman eyed them oddly when he delivered the Traveller’s tea, but neither man noticed nor cared.

When the last tile completed the pattern they’d both been working on, and the flower was revealed, Iroh leaned back with a grin.

‘Welcome, brother.’ The old man bowed low from his seat. ‘The White Lotus opens wide to those who know her secrets.’

Chapter Text

Surely the Banyan Spirit knew? If it did, just how much did it know? Did it show Katara those long hours of Zuko’s spectre, reveal to her his opposite nature, because it knew one day that knowledge would save her? Did it know its visions had given her the tools to understand herself? Questions chased questions through her mind, like a dog after so many fleas. She could barely keep the sides of her head from splitting open, the intricacies of her inner landscape spilling messily into the world for all to see.

‘Are you sure you’re okay?’ The Fire Prince hovered around her, fussing constantly. It was almost sweet. Almost.

Slouching dunes towered on either side of them. All day, they’d weaved stealthily between sand dunes, hoping the next town on the coast wasn’t much further ahead. The coastal winds were as harsh as the desert that laid some miles inland. It bit at their flaking lips and it chafed their skin with its gritty touch.

She nodded, not trusting herself to smile. ‘I’m fine.’ Almost.

He stopped, forcing her to slow her heavy steps and turn to face him. ‘You’ve barely said anything all day. Yesterday I couldn’t get you to stop talking. If you want to talk about, you know, you can talk to me, Katara.’

His rough voice made her name sound exotic. Other. She blinked and met his gaze. He was truly alarmed; she was surprised to see it. But of course he would be— how could he know? He hadn’t been there in the Swamp. He didn’t know what his doppelgänger in the mist had known.

She tucked a stray hair behind her ear. ‘Two nights ago, you asked me about the book I was reading.’ She started forward again, waiting for him to drop into step beside her.

‘Your waterbending book?’

‘I lied,’ she said quietly, a light flush staining her cheeks. ‘It’s not about waterbending. It’s about the Foggy Swamp.’

She could hear the frown in his voice. ‘The swamp we’re going to after Kyoshi and Gaoling? To meet up with those waterbenders?’

She nodded. ‘It’s a long story, but the Swamp is a mysterious place. All of us— Sokka, Aang, and me— we all saw visions of people when we were lost there. Aang saw Toph, before we’d met her. Sokka saw his girlfriend who died to become the Moon Spirit.’ She swallowed, glancing at him out of the corner of her eye. She chickened out. ‘I—I saw my mother.’

He didn’t say anything, but that sense that had awoken the night before— the tenuous weight that seemed to teeter between them— told her he was listening intently. The midday sun beat down from above; no wonder the firebender seemed so full of energy.

‘I didn’t know it at the time, but my visions in the swamp taught me a lot about myself. About who I am, who I thought I was, what I could become. I only realised last night what it really meant.’ She shrugged, unwilling to tell him more. She wouldn’t have said this much had anyone else been around. With her recent self-insight— her tentative acceptance of her imperfect makeup— she felt that Sokka, Toph, and Aang wouldn’t understand.  Especially Aang. He would deny her dark side rather than giving her the easy acceptance Zuko had the night before, his positive outlook overlooking those parts of her she had until recently denied.

‘Your mother must have been a great woman if she gave you that kind of insight into yourself,’ Zuko replied reservedly, drawing her from her musings.

Katara’s fingers brushed the pendant at her throat; despite her half-truth, he was right. ‘She was.’

The Fire Prince hesitated before continuing. ‘What happened to her?’

She turned to him, the old pain lapping at her. It was so worn, this pain, so familiar. Such a different texture to the storm of last night. ‘She was killed,’ the waterbender told him bleakly, gritting her teeth against the tears. ‘During a Fire Nation raid six years ago.’

‘I’m sorry,’ Zuko said softly, and the raw pain in his voice gave her pause.

‘You too?’

He swallowed thickly, looking away. ‘I don’t know what happened to her.’ The bitterness and longing sounded as old as her own grief. ‘Chances are she’s probably dead. One day she was just… gone.’

Her heartbeat stuttered and she reached forward to squeeze his shoulder. ‘I’m so sorry, Zuko,’ she whispered, her grief beating in time with her blood. ‘I know how it feels.’

He shrugged, but didn’t move away from her hand. ‘It was a long time ago.’ He fleetingly met her sympathetic gaze. ‘Do you think I might see her, my mother, when we get to the Swamp?’

Katara hoped with all her heart he did. ‘Maybe. The Swamp has a way of showing us what will bring about balance. At least that’s what Avatar Yangchen says anyway.’

‘Avatar Yangchen?’

Katara nodded and dropped her pack, fishing her drinking water from the pocket. ‘The last Air Nomad Avatar before Aang. She wrote the book on the Foggy Swamp’s Banyan Spirit.’ His bewildered expression coaxed a smile from her. ‘Once you’ve spent more time around Aang, you’ll get used to the spirit stuff.’

He didn’t look convinced. ‘What did this tree spirit thing teach you about balance?’

She nearly choked on her mouthful of water. ‘What?’

He eyed her strangely as she wiped the dribble of water from her chin. ‘You said this book spoke about visions that bring balance, and that your vision helped you understand something. What was it?’

He was closer to the spectre-Zuko than she thought. There, that curiosity in his look. It disconcerted her and sent colour rushing to her cheeks. ‘Don’t you know it’s rude to ask about people’s private visions!’ She slammed the lid on her water and hastily shouldered her bag, trudging ahead, flustered.

She hardly heard his muttered apology as he jogged to catch up. ‘It explains a lot about you,’ he said after a few minutes of tense silence.

She peeked at him, alarmed. ‘Explains what?’

He shrugged, hitching his bag higher. ‘How you’ve changed since I saw you at the North Pole. Whatever you saw has obviously had a profound effect on you. You should talk to Uncle about it. He’s good at helping people learn to know themselves and destiny and all that stuff.’ He waved his hand vaguely.

‘What would he say?’ she asked, jumping lightly over a fallen tree. ‘If he were here.’

The prince thought for a moment before continuing in a terrible impression of the old general. ‘Spirits are like a good haiku; one must learn their rules and, err, rhythms to truly appreciate them.’ He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. ‘I’m not very good at impersonations. I barely understand what Uncle’s saying when he’s around, let alone when he’s not here.’

Katara wanted to laugh, but she was so touched by the firebender’s attempts to help her, she trusted him with a smile instead. ‘You’re better at impressions than you think,’ she said kindly as they came around yet another towering hill of sand. ‘That almost sounds like something your uncle would say.’

Zuko returned her smile tentatively, his golden eyes darting between hers. Unable to hold his curious gaze, she pushed onwards, trudging determinedly through the shifting sand. As the wind died down, and she scanned ahead, the small fishing village swam into view.

 

 

Iroh sent out the call.

The White Lotus had a sophisticated, multi-faceted communication channel that connected the three remaining nations. It comprised of a series of mirrors, manned fire pyres, messenger hawks, backroom whispers, symbols etched into communal notice boards, and an irritable but compliant cabbage merchant. Within a day of the Grand Lotus sending out his call, each member had begun their preparations.

Sipping his ginseng tea, Iroh sat in the flower merchant’s back room as Wen, the old man from the cantina, relayed the success of their message.

‘We’ve not yet heard back from those up north in the Water Tribe, but we expect word to arrive soon.’ Wen sipped from his cup. ‘And the other messages you requested— the ones to Prince Zuko, Chief Hakoda, and Avatar Aang— all have been received.’

Iroh crossed his legs before him, enjoying the aroma of the slow-brewed tea. ‘Tell me, Wen, what music do you like? You strike me as a pipa man.’

Wen merely grinned.

 

 

The fishing village of Yu Zhe rarely played host to outsiders. The occasional sandbender stopped by to trade in stolen artefacts or lost scraps discovered in the desert, and once in a while distant Fire Navy patrol could be seen gliding past, out to sea. But two teenagers seeking passage south? That was new.

The barman at the town’s only inn introduced them to the few sailors who regularly ventured outside of Chameleon Bay.

‘I don’t care how hard a worker you are, boy,’ one man laughed, appraising the dusty children. He had a rash over the left side of his face. ‘I’m not taking you as far as Kyoshi for a clean deck and a few coppers.’

The prince leaned forward intently. ‘Do any of the ships from the village go to Kyoshi? Whale Tale Island?’

Rash-Face dismissed him with a wave. ‘We’re fishermen, kid. We fish the bay, that’s it.’

‘Hold on, Buzai, what about Jima?’ The fisherman’s friend pointed to the corner of the room where a figure sat alone by a dirty window.

‘The witch?’ Buzai glowered at his companion. ‘Knowing her, she’ll drown them at sea, the old devil.’

The second fisherman leaned towards Katara and Zuko, lowering his voice. ‘Jima’s a fisher and a trader. She makes the long trip south three times a year to barter in Chin, Gaoling, Kyoshi, sometimes even Omashu. But she hasn’t been able to sail these last few weeks, not since her deckhand was lost at sea.’

‘Tossed into the sea, more like it,’ Buzai muttered, drinking deeply from the fourth bottle lined up before him.

Katara glanced at the small figure by the window. ‘Why did you call her a witch?’ she asked the drunken fisherman; the word cut a little too close to home after the events with the sandbenders.

‘Because she’s one old woman who crews a ship almost entirely by herself.’

Buzai’s friend snorted. ‘Old? She’s only two years older than you, you drunk, and you turned forty a month ago!’

Buzai turned up his nose delicately. ‘I’m young at heart.’

Zuko stood and bowed to the two men. ‘Thank you for your help.’

‘No worries, kid. If you ever want passage around Chameleon Bay, come find me. I’ll give you a few weeks’ work on my barge.’

The prince urged Katara before him, a hand to her lower back. ‘Come on.’

They stopped before the fisherwoman’s table, trying to see the face under her hood. ‘Excuse me, are you Jima?’ Katara asked politely; Zuko’s hand lingered a moment longer against her back before he dropped it.

The figure turned and cast her steely gaze over the two of them. ‘Water Tribe,’ the woman— Jima— grunted at Katara. Her lip curled as she studied Zuko. ‘Fire Nation. Unlikely couple.’

Katara dropped into the chair across from the woman with the flyaway white hair. ‘We’re friends,’ she said clearly, holding the sailor’s stare. ‘And we need a ride south, to Kyoshi. We heard you could help us out.’

Jima had well-worn lines around her eyes. They burrowed deep into her skin, whether from laughter or scowling Katara couldn’t tell. But they creased now as the woman regarded them through narrowed eyes. ‘I want to go as far as Gaoling, but I might be persuaded to stop at Kyoshi first. What’s in it for me?’

‘The way we hear it,’ Zuko said tightly, ‘you’d be lucky to find one person to sail south under you. We’re offering both of our help in return for passage to Kyoshi Island.’

Jima sucked her cheek between her teeth, smirking at Zuko. ‘How old are you, kid?’

He raised his chin defiantly. ‘Sixteen.’

‘And your girlfriend?’

He glowered at her, but Katara answered for him. ‘I’m fifteen.’

‘Let me guess, mummy and daddy didn’t approve of this little mixed nation love affair so you’re running away?’

‘Sure,’ Katara answered smoothly. ‘You believe whatever you want. Do we have a deal?’

Jima picked up her shot glass and drained the clear liquid in one gulp. With a beleaguered sigh, she tugged down her hood and fixed them with a hard stare. ‘If I take you to Kyoshi, you have to come with me to Gaoling.’

‘What? Why?’

‘You think those simpletons on Kyoshi will crew my ship back here? I need you to get me to the big smoke, so I can find another pair of workers to get me home.’ A cynical note crept into her voice. ‘Maybe a swampbender and a badgermole.’

Katara laughed; despite the sharpness of the trader’s words, she liked her. ‘Fine, deal. But we’ve got business on Kyoshi to deal with first.’

Jima cracked her neck. ‘How long will it take?’

Zuko leaned forward, palm down on the table. ‘Could be a day, could be a week. That’s for us to decide. But if you breathe one word about a scarred Fire Nation boy or a Water Tribe girl to anyone, I’ll burn down your boat.’

Katara glanced at him in shock; he sounded like the angry prince she’d first met in the South Pole. ‘What my friend here means,’ Katara said tightly, casting the firebender a significant look, ‘is we would prefer it if you kept our identities to yourself.’

Jima shrugged, busy trying to get the bartender’s attention with a poorly-mimed request for another drink. ‘As long as you get me to Gaoling, scar-face. When can you leave?’

Katara slammed her fist down against the heavy tabletop, startling the abrupt woman. ‘Don’t you dare call him that.’

She glanced between the riled Water Tribe girl and the pale-faced Fire Nation boy and wondered, not for the first time, what their story was. ‘Okay, okay. Touchy scar, I take it? Fine. I want to leave at first light.’

Katara didn’t drop her glare. ‘Fine.’

‘What’re your names?’

Zuko cut quickly in. ‘I’m Lee,’ he said tensely; unlike Katara, he didn’t like their new travelling companion at all. ‘This is… Song.’

‘I’m sure it is,’ Jima smirked, taking the shot the barman offered her. ‘Meet me at the last pier to the east by dawn tomorrow morning.’ She threw back her drink and waved her hand at them. ‘Go on, get out of here.’

Zuko scowled at the dismissal but Katara tugged at his tunic. ‘Come on.’ To her surprise, very little force was required to encourage the firebender to back away from their new acquaintance and out onto the street. He followed her willingly.

Yu Zhe was quiet in the sleepy hours after lunch. A few children kicked a ball down the far end of the road, but their game lacked the fervour of play. The warm afternoon laid over the village like a woollen blanket.

Katara turned to her companion. ‘Lee and Song?’ she inquired.

The prince glanced away. ‘Names I heard while travelling through the Earth Kingdom.’

‘Song. I like it.’ It sounded musical, delicate, transfixing. ‘It’s pretty.’

His nose wrinkled. ‘It doesn’t suit you.’

‘Gee. Thanks.’

‘I just mean it doesn’t sound as hard as your name.’ She eyed him in disbelief. ‘Strong! I meant strong! Oh, forget it!’ He threw his arms in the air and started down the street, kicking dust in his wake.

It occurred to Katara, as she followed the Fire Prince at a distance, that for the future leader of his nation, he was not terribly good with words.

 

 

Word from the Upper Ring of Ba Sing Se is slow these days, but the Earth King is not directly involved in the war. All correspondence sent to him either goes unanswered or the recipients question the validity of the responses. I fear it would be foolhardy, even dangerous, to risk engaging the Earth King’s armies. But if you are determined, beware of the Earth King’s advisors and the agents of the Dai Li.

The old general’s words, scrawled so ominously over the parchment in Aang’s pocket, weighed heavily on the young monk. News of corruption in Ba Sing Se was a huge blow to Sokka’s invasion plan. If they were to wade into the mire of high Earth Kingdom politics, it would take careful forethought, delicacy, diplomacy…

‘Twinkle Toes, if you don’t set this flying rug down right now, I’m going to shoot us out of the air with boulders!’

Aang winced and glanced over his shoulder towards Appa’s saddle; his earthbending teacher was keeping up her formidable scowl. ‘But we’re nearly at the outer wall of Ba Sing Se! It’s amazing, Toph! It’s huge, bigger than ten lion-turtles stacked on top of one another!’

‘I don’t care if it’s covered in sparkles and can sing me a lullaby! We’ve been flying all day. I need a break, I need to be able to see.’

Though her words were flippant, her tone brooked no argument. Aang shook out the reins and called on the bison to circle lower. Once all six of Appa’s feet had touched down, Toph tumbled from the saddle and reclined in the dirt with a sigh.

‘Sweet, flightless earth.’

Aang leapt lightly from the saddle, appeasing his sky-bison’s groan with a reassuring pat. ‘Don’t worry, buddy, she’ll get used to it.’

Toph sat up with a sigh. ‘Why couldn’t you have a badgermole as a companion animal? Or an armadillo-horse?’

As she stood and planted her feet on the ground, she gasped.

‘What?’

A slow smile spread wide over the earthbender’s pale face. ‘I can see your wall,’ she said in quiet wonder. ‘We’re not far from it. It’s the most amazing thing built from earth I’ve ever seen!’

Aang laughed eagerly. ‘I told you it was worth it!’ He spied a nearby tree and leapt lightly to the highest branch he could reach. He could just make out the towering grey mass, the uppermost part of which was wreathed in clouds. It really wasn’t far! Another ten minutes on Appa or… he glanced back at the glassy-eyed girl on the ground below; or a couple of hours on foot.

He floated back to the ground gracefully. ‘Hey Toph. Why don’t we walk the rest of the way? It’s a beautiful day and I’m sure there’s tons of cool things for your feet to see! You could give me your feet’s tour of the great wall of Ba Sing Se!’

The blind girl threw back her head and laughed. ‘Sorry, fluff monster,’ she chortled to Appa. ‘We’re traveling Toph-style now!’

Chapter Text

The beaches just north of Yu Zhe were surrounded by loosely vegetated dunes. The tides and harsh coastal winds carved out dramatic hollows in the seaside of the dunes. The bites were sunken, sad things. The half-dunes had been whole once; now only their scraggily covering of salt-tolerant shrubs and grasses held the rest of the sandbank together.

Katara crouched before one of the more misshapen, dragging her fingers along the brittle crust of sand. It would be the next layer stripped away. The wind would grip these flecks and shells and send them careering into the sea, someone’s eye, the deck of a dockside ship.

The waterbender pressed her palm firmly against the skin of sand, fracturing the surface.

Behind her, feet crunched up the beach; their owner cast a long shadow up the face of Katara’s dune. Wiggling her pinkie across the sand, she breathed deeply as she stroked along the sunlight at the silhouette’s blunt edge. The sun was setting slowly this afternoon, or perhaps her sluggish thoughts made time pass at a snail’s pace. Either way, her companion brought her glumly back to the present.

He made an odd noise, something between a sigh and a throat clearing grunt. ‘When I was in exile on my ship, I, err, found it cathartic to practice my firebending. A good way to let off steam, you know?’

‘I’m sure letting off steam was useful for a firebender.’

The shadow shifted its weight. ‘Steam is heated water. Seems it would be good for a waterbender too.’

Her lip twisted of its own accord; he had her there. ‘Are you picking a fight with me?’

‘Uh.’

A sickening thought occurred to her. ‘Are you afraid to fight me? Afraid I’ll…’ Katara cleared her throat and when he didn’t answer she stood, hugging her elbows across her chest. The sand, stuck to her palm, itched as it rubbed against her skin.

‘I’m not afraid of you, Katara.’ She turned towards the sound of crashing waves, ignoring the firebender beside her. ‘I think you need to get this out of your system.’

‘By fighting you?’

‘Not fighting.’ He lifted his shirt over his head, and her traitor eyes jumped towards him and away. ‘Sparring. Training.’ His shirt slumped into the sand.

An unwilling smile tugged at her lips. ‘You want to spar with a waterbender at the beach?’ she clarified, cracking her neck.

The prince plucked at her sleeve, nodding towards the flatter sand by the water. His casual touch registered in some muted part of her awareness, one touch of many over the last day or so. She wondered if they’d share the same closeness had the others been around. Or if the Banyan Spirit hadn’t made him feel like an old friend.

She eased her dress from between his fingers and backed away, up the beach, eyeing him speculatively. His dark Earth Kingdom pants contrasted brightly with the pale skin of his torso and arms. The muscles in his stomach clenched as he crouched in a familiar bending stance; feet wide, centre of gravity low.

An unexpected tickle of anticipation licked low in her belly. She dropped into her own stance, her breathing speeding. And waited.

Not for long— he struck first, of course.

The flames were hot as the desert wind, even as they hissed and fizzled against the ocean spray that deflected their trajectory. Katara’s throat warmed with each breath of humid air as she panted through the wheeling forms. She began to see patterns in the way his feet stamped and lunged; first firmly, then lightly, they’d dance through a series of kicks. Her eyes narrowed; his moves were steadied and funnelled through his root. His feet.

Her next move was instinctual. It was the same one she’d used back in the dingy town they’d had to flee the night before. The memory of the sandbender and the bloody water made the movement spasmodic, rough. Rather than the fluid sweep of her arms it was meant to be, the erratic gesture made the torrent she summoned churn and slop up the beach. She missed the fire ball she had been trying to block and had to throw herself to the sand to avoid a nasty burn.

Panting, she spun her wrists as she rolled and the wave rushed to her side, buoying her away from the prince’s next attack. Finding her feet amongst the rushing water, Katara guided her watery ride ever closer to her opponent. Sensing her plan, Zuko sent blast after blast towards her to no avail. Katara simply adjusted the trajectory of the wave she rode.

Half a dozen times she flew in towards him and was forced to skate quickly away. On the last approach, Zuko— brow furrowed, jaw clenched— had dropped to the ground and spun agilely on his hands sending out a horizontal wave of fire. The move took the waterbender by surprise. With a gasp, she tumbled into the sand, rolling an several metres to dodge the next attack.

At the last minute, she spied the Fire Prince running towards her. She only just made it to her feet, calling a sheath of water to each arm just in time to meet his fiery daggers.

‘Nice try with your wave riding.’ The strain in the firebender’s voice was rewarding for Katara even as the battle excitement clawed at her innards.

She snarled and shoved him backwards, trying to knock him off his feet. The gleam of sweat over his chest sung to her and she plucked at it with her bending, hardening the droplets into ice and slinging them back towards his exposed skin.

‘Arh!’ Zuko stumbled backwards, clutching his chest where a smattering of sores began to grow, red and angry.

Katara smirked. ‘Ooo, bet that stung.’

The firebender’s eyes darkened and he came back towards her with flaming fists. The wild exhilaration spurred her on. She dashed towards him, drawing water from the approaching wave and ducking under his attack. The water rushed all around them and she twisted it around Zuko’s body, freezing him in place.

Breathing hard, she grinned savagely. ‘Do you give up?’

His furious expression held something… other. Something heated that spoke to the giddiness swirling in her stomach. It was like a bucket of cold water, dousing her excitement. She suddenly lost the taste for the fight, couldn’t quite meet his eyes. Crossing her arms over her chest, she melted the ice and took several steps away from the steaming prince.

His voice was rougher than usual. ‘Katara?’

She swallowed thickly, not looking at him. ‘You were right, that did feel good.’ She drew another calming breath and glanced out at the shifting sea. ‘I’m going for a swim.’

She didn’t wait for a reply. Her dress and leggings she left beyond the reach of the foaming waves; the rush of the breaking water she left for the hushed roar of a submerged world of blues and greens. Far from the burn of golden eyes and flaming fists.

 

 

They spoke very little that night. By the time Katara was done with her swim, the sun had set and the firebender had returned to their camp on the sheltered side of the dunes. They ate quietly to the music of the crackling campfire and slept at separate ends of the Water Tribe tent Sokka had left with them.

Katara retired first but was still wide-awake half an hour later when the firebender slunk through the entrance and dropped heavily into his bedroll, his back to her.

Neither found sleep until the moon arched high in the sky.

Zuko woke first, of course. The grey light of dawn gently picked out the shape of his body beneath the blankets. The whole length of the tent yawned between them, empty save for their sleeping bags placed as far apart as humanly possible. ‘Katara,’ he said with a sleep-husked voice. ‘Wake up, we’ve got to meet Jima.’

She ignored him; hopefully he’d get up and she could start the day centred, calm, without the palette of unease he painted within her. She refused to acknowledge that he’d challenged her bending yesterday in a way that made her fight more intelligently, creatively. Daring. Better.

The canvas at her back crinkled. She expected him to roughly shake her awake as he’d done before; those calloused hands incapable of gentleness. But he didn’t. She could hear the soft whisper of his breathing, even feel a lick of warmth up her back where he was closest. Without being able to see it, she could feel the intensity of his gaze like the summer sun through a light shirt.

Finally, a hand brushed her shoulder. It wasn’t rough, not in the slightest. ‘Katara. Wake up.’

She opened her eyes and pulled away from him as she sat, dragging her blankets with her. ‘Alright, alright, I’m up,’ she muttered, rubbing the sleep from her eyes.

He turned away and began packing. ‘We should leave in about twenty minutes,’ he murmured.

She dragged her dress on over her head, wrestling her arms into the sleeves. ‘Right.’

They made short work of the tent, banked the embers of the fire, and were walking along the beach towards the town within Zuko’s twenty-minute estimate. The brisk morning air did more to wake the waterbender than the sunrise, even with its glorious stain of pinks and oranges spilled optimistically across the sky.

By the time they reached the last pier on the eastern side of the harbour, the tip of the sun was peaking over the horizon.

‘It’s about time you two showed up.’ Jima was straining under the weight of half a dozen oiled canvas bags. The severe woman was dressed smartly in close fitting leggings and a simple tunic tied at the waist. ‘We need to push off. Help me load the rest of the cargo.’

Zuko hefted a sack onto his left shoulder and picked up a bamboo cage of piglet chickens. ‘What’s the rush? The tide is in.’

She dropped her load on deck and turned to the dock. ‘The tide’s not the problem, kid. You’ve got the Hami Tribe livid. They’ve been all over town looking for you.’ Her sharp gaze wandered towards Katara’s frozen form. ‘They sure had a story to tell.’

Zuko dropped his load on deck, shedding his bag and cloak beside it. ‘How badly do you want help getting all this south?’

Jima’s grin was broad and toothy; she handed him the crate she had been holding. ‘I never did like the Hami. Raiders and scavengers, all of them.’

The firebender loaded the crate on board beside the hesitantly clucking pig chickens. As he turned back to take the next parcel from the trader, he caught sight of Katara’s strained distress. The girl hadn’t moved. Her eyes were wide and a vein in her neck stuck out prominently.

He ignored Jima’s proffered sack and leapt back onto the dock, stopping before the waterbender. ‘Come on,’ he said quietly, slipping her bag from her shoulders. ‘Help Jima with those rice bags.’

His touch against her skin as he took the pack drew her from her trance. She turned those frightened eyes on him, drawing herself together. ‘Right.’

 

Jima’s ship, The Pirate’s Peril, was sluggish on its way out of port. While Katara and Jima readied the vessel, Zuko had been ordered to cart the remaining cargo down the hold, into the belly of the ship. The waterbender had only escaped similar drudgery because she’d mentioned her sailing capabilities. While the Fire Prince had lived at sea for the years of his banishment, it had been aboard a steam powered Fire Navy ship. Not the sturdy sailboats of the Earth Kingdom, or even the elegant skiffs of the Water Tribe.

There were a lot of comforting similarities between The Pirate’s Peril and the sailing boats Katara’s people built in the tundra. The feel of frayed rope under hand and the hollow knock of feet against the wooden deck reminded her forcefully of her father and the times he’d taken her and Sokka on his own boat.

Only the fisherwoman’s coarse voice kept the nostalgia at bay.

‘Can’t you tie off those knots any faster, girl?!’

The waterbender cleared her sluggish thoughts with a quick shake of her head and reeled in the mooring line. ‘Done!’

Jima, watching her sternly from behind the chest high steering wheel, puffed at a pipe. ‘Took you long enough, Water Tribe.’

Katara circled around the waist-high counter that boxed in the captain’s seat, leaning against it. ‘What makes you think I’m Water Tribe?’

‘Aside from your Southern Water Tribe dress, hair style, and eyes? Oh nothing, kid.’

She ignored the clearly incendiary comment. ‘How long until we arrive at Kyoshi?’

Jima exhaled thoughtfully, the smoke on her breath snatched away in the breeze. ‘A week, weather permitting.’

Something lurked, half-remembered, at the edge of Katara’s memory. ‘A week? To get all the way to Kyoshi?’

‘You two picked a good time of year to make the trip south,’ Jima grunted, squinting ahead as she adjusted their course. ‘The angle of the moon this time of year plays havoc with the currents along the coast. Good for those of us who want to get down to the south though; we make it double time.’

Katara knew of that current. ‘The Sailor’s Slurry?’ she asked stiffly, her stomach lurching with a familiar nausea…

‘The Sailor’s Slurry, that current running along the southern Earth Kingdom coastline, it’s similar to the unruly seas between the Southern Air Temple and the Fire Nation. You remember how quick we went, even on calm days? We made it to Kyoshi in under a week.’

She traces the edge of the pink and white flowers on the moss-covered tree beside her. ‘No, I don’t remember. I don’t know about any of what you’ve told me. And I don’t care! Can’t you leave me alone?’ The desperation is waning; in its wake, she is just bone-achingly tired.

Each attempt to banish this lingering apparition, either by avoiding him, bending at him, or even running from him, only seems to make him stronger. ‘It reminded me of trips my mother took me on as a kid,’ he resumes as though she hasn’t spoken. Perhaps she is the spectre, and this older, friendly Zuko is imagining her.

She sighs. ‘I don’t know your mum.’

‘She loved the theatre, but nothing made her more at peace than a day out on the water.’ He shoots a smile at her like a weapon; it only unsettles her further. ‘Mother couldn’t stand the metal and steam of the navy vessels that serviced the royal family. She had her own sailboat commissioned. We’d sail it from the inland port west of the capital: Port Cinder. Kind of like how your father took you and Sokka around the South Pole.’

She glances up sharply. ‘How do you know about that?’ she asks suspiciously.

‘She would take a skeleton staff,’ he continues, shedding the shoulder mantle, and stretching his arms over his head. ‘She liked to fill the sails herself. She took us all around the islands, Azula and me, both. I swear I’ve told you this before.’

That otherness takes her again, wrenches words from her lips that aren’t hers. ‘I like hearing about baby Zuko.’ The softness of her tone shocks her more than what she is actually saying.

He smirks— somewhere between innocence and deviance— and heat rises unbidden in her cheeks. ‘Is it what I say that you like hearing? Or is it what you said last night about my voice?’

The flower between her fingers tears as she shoves away from the tree and turns her back on the burning intimacy in the prince’s eyes.

‘Yeah, the Slurry is up and raging this time of year.’ Jima’s words drew Katara from her thoughts and her unsettled stomach. How many times now had that older apparition of Zuko’s words trickled down through her memory like déjà vu?

Katara jumped when the subject of her dismay appeared through the trapdoor to the cargo hold. He hefted himself up onto the lip and stood, kicking the door closed behind him. He met her frozen gaze with a friendly nod and alarm coursed through her; his smile fell.

‘It’s all stowed away in the hold and I’ve tied off anything that will shift,’ he called to Jima over the slap of the swell against the boat’s hull, his eyes flicking back to the tense waterbender.

The trader merely grunted in acknowledgement, puffing at her pipe and scanning the coastline to their starboard.

Swearing to herself that she wasn’t trying to avoid him, Katara sidestepped the prince, marching determinedly past him towards the front of the vessel. She’d left the mooring line at the bow in a tangle on deck in her hurry to help Jima push off. The rope was as weathered as her father’s hands when he’d first showed her how to loop rope around her arm and tie it off. As The Pirate’s Peril came into the rougher waters at the mouth of the bay, the spray pattered against her face like tears from the ocean.

‘Are you alright?’

She started with all the grace of a twitchy rabaroo. ‘Fine,’ she said with a terse smile. More a twitch of the lips really.

She made to push past him, but the firebender blocked her way. ‘You’ve been off all morning. What’s wrong?’

Katara could feel the warmth of him through her clothes. ‘Did your mother like to sail?’ she asked suddenly, clenching the mooring line tightly in hand. She couldn’t bear to meet his eyes.

‘Why would you ask that?’

She exhaled sharply and pushed passed him, shoving the neatly tied rope away out of sight. So, her visions weren’t infallible, thank Tui and La.

When she turned back around, he was watching her guardedly. Suspiciously. ‘My mother loved sailing,’ he confirmed after a pause. ‘She didn’t like the steam powered navy ship my father had assigned her, so she had a local boat maker build her a sailboat in the pre-industrial style. My sister and I spent long summer days running up and down the deck of that ship.’ His expression hardened. ‘How did you know that, Katara?’

Anxiety clenched at her heart with painful, grasping fingers. The churning fear was powerful. It whipped her blood into a thundering gallop, sent it charging through her veins.

He came closer. There was nowhere to go that wasn’t turbulent ocean. ‘Katara?’

The carefree man in the Swamp had known about her family’s sailing traditions, too. She now had an inkling about the conditions under which she would give such a personal detail to the Fire Lord’s son.

‘Before Dad left to fight in the war, he took Sokka, Mum, and I through the ice fields of the South Pole.’ The words tasted of fate. Who had said them first? Some past version of herself? Or the Zuko of the Foggy Swamp? It dizzied her, so instead she focused on what she knew was true. The pounding in her chest. The way the Fire Prince’s gaze changed when he looked at her. The salty droplets on her lips. ‘Did you know?’

Confusion crinkled his expression. It made him unsure. ‘No. How could I know that?’

‘You couldn’t.’ Her voice sounded miserable, even to her own ears.

‘Is it… is it what happened to the sandbender?’ His voice dropped lower than the swish and foam of the waves. ‘I know it’s only been two days, but you can’t let it get to you like this.’

Katara watched him carefully, as though he were a wild animal she didn’t quite trust to not turn and attack. This boy was not yet the man she’d seen in the Swamp, but he was closer to him than the angry boy with the ponytail who’d threatened her tribe all those months ago.

‘I’m fine,’ she said again. ‘I’m fine.’

‘Oi! Water Tribe! I thought you were working for your bed and board. Get over here. Bring your boyfriend.’

Zuko turned around sharply. ‘I’m not her boyfriend!’

But Katara just pushed past him. She couldn’t help shivering; the wind felt icy against the heat in her cheeks.

 

 

‘You call this “bed and board?!”’ Zuko asked in disbelief.

The two hammocks— suspended between the crates, barrels, sacks, and netting of the cargo hold—  and threadbare blankets were patched with age. A hook on a wire suspended a small oil lamp between them that only served to make the tiny space feel even more cramped.

‘You call chatting up Song all day “working?”’ Jima retorted, glowering smugly at the firebender. ‘I need you two down here to listen for rats. If half my cargo gets eaten on the way south, it isn’t worth my time.’ She smirked at the irritable Fire Prince; the sly woman was enjoying this. ‘Perhaps if you knew how to load a hold with any competency, you’d have more leg room.’

Katara intervened before Zuko got them both thrown overboard. ‘What do you want us to do if we hear rats?’

‘Make yourself a rat pie.’ Jima threw her hands into the air in exasperation. ‘Get rid of them, of course.’

The waterbender nodded, not bothering to argue with their prickly host; she was physically exhausted. Jima had worked her hard all day with barely a break. First it was navigating the pass into Chameleon Bay, then oiling every surface, nook, and bearing that ran rope until the rope slipped through without resistance.

Zuko had it worse. For whatever reason, the fisherwoman delighted in making the boy run a series of what seemed like pointless tasks. Climb the mast, come back and fetch a chisel, go back up and notch the new port identification number into the highest point you can reach, fill the etching with ink, your handwriting is sloppy, try again… on and on it went.

Katara had grown tired just watching him.

Jima gestured to a pile of rusted metal. ‘Rat traps.’

The Water Tribe girl kicked off her boots and sat heavily in the far hammock. ‘We’ll keep an eye out,’ she promised.

‘See that you do.’ And with no patience left for pleasantries, she left without saying goodnight.

Zuko surreptitiously lit the oil lamp as Jima passed out of sight. ‘How do you feel about mutiny?’ he grumbled, poking at the flame until it grew large enough to illuminate their cubby hole.

Katara reclined with a sigh. ‘Ask me after she makes me rebraid every length of rope tomorrow.’

‘I think it’s your turn to shimmy up the mast twenty times.’ He groaned as he sat and lifted his legs into his hammock. ‘I hurt everywhere.’

‘Me too.’ She turned onto her side and peered at him through the low light. ‘I wish I could help, but waterbending healing doesn’t work on sore muscles. Believe me, I’ve tried.’

‘It’s fine,’ he said, shifting stiffly in his own hammock to get comfortable. ‘I’ve felt worse.’

She traced the edge of his scar with her gaze. ‘It’ll all be worth it. When Aang defeats your father and this war is finally over, it’ll all be worth it.’ She sighed; the thought of Aang made her miss her friends so much it ached. ‘I wish they were here. Aang would put a positive spin on all of this, Sokka would crack jokes. Toph… Toph would probably defect to Jima’s side actually. Something tells me the two of them would get on. They’ve both got the tempers of sabre-toothed moose-lions.’

Shadows flickered across the firebender’s face. ‘My uncle would probably try to chat her up,’ he said with a smile in his voice. ‘Uncle’s very… complimentary of women.’

Katara snorted her amusement but the wistfulness that had taken hold of her was hard to shake. ‘If your uncle was here, he’d brew that delicious jasmine blend. Aang loved it. He said it was better than the organic blend the monks used to make.’ A sad smile slid through her melancholy.

It might have been the flickering lamp light that made it look as though Zuko scowled. ‘Yeah well, the airbenders were renowned for their tea. It was the primary agricultural product of their culture.’

‘You sound like you’re reciting from a textbook.’

He shrugged. ‘Up until my banishment, I was a model student at the Royal Fire Nation Academy for Boys.’

Katara propped herself up on her elbow. ‘They taught you about the Air Nomads?’ she asked incredulously. ‘But the Fire Nation wiped them out!’

Zuko shrugged. ‘My historical education was thorough.’

She blinked in surprise; she never would have suspected the Fire Nation of educating its children about the other nations. ‘Aang always says the monks made pies and cakes, that sort of thing.’

‘Well, yippee for him.’

Katara raised a brow at his tone. ‘You don’t believe him?’

The firebender was frowning into the distance. ‘You obviously do. You go around spouting whatever he says like he’s a—a—’

‘A what?’ she challenged. ‘An Avatar?’

Zuko’s scowl deepened. ‘He’s just a kid.’

She couldn’t help the steely note that crept into her voice. ‘Why don’t you like him? I thought you’d made your decision about whose side you’re on.’

‘Just because I’ve sided with the Avatar doesn’t mean he’s suddenly my friend.’

‘His name is Aang!’

‘I know!’ He gripped his hair in his hands in frustration. ‘Agni! You never shut up about him!’

She cocked her head at the firebender’s red face, confused by his sudden animosity. What was his problem with Aang? Did he still hold onto some lingering resentment about the Avatar being the key to his return home? Had Aang said something? Or did the airbender’s unflappable cheerfulness just rub the surly prince the wrong way?

‘Why don’t you want to talk about him?’ she probed, watching him clench his jaw.

‘Look. I’m not your little pal who you can sit around and talk about boys with, okay?’

She frowned in confusion. ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’

Zuko’s disdain was very nearly a sneer. ‘Oh, come on. Really?’

‘What?’

He watched her closely, with disbelief. ‘Wow.’ He laid back and snorted, shaking his head slowly. ‘You have no idea, do you?’

Now he was getting on her nerves. ‘About what, Zuko?’

A broken glass smirk hardened his expression. ‘The Avatar is just an ally to me, okay? Not a friend.’

She bit back the barb on the tip of her tongue; she knew his temper. She’d get nothing out of him if she lowered herself to his level. ‘What about Sokka?’ she asked through her teeth. ‘Or Toph, or your uncle? Only allies too?’ She dropped her gaze to her hands in her lap. ‘What about me? Aren’t we friends?’

He glanced at her sharply. ‘You tell me,’ he said finally. ‘Don’t friends usually confide in one another? Rather than lying or concealing the truth?’

Her cheeks heated at his barb. ‘You mean this morning, up on deck?’

‘No. I’m talking about another time you seemed to magically know something about my life that no one else does.’ The sarcasm was so thick it practically dripped from the firebender to pool underneath him.

Katara shrunk back into the cotton netting of her hammock. ‘It was just a guess,’ she said meekly. The lie sounded lurid. Ugly. Vulgar. It dirtied the tentative olive branch he had so hesitantly extended. It burned that branch to a husk.

‘Right.’ The anger in his voice was clear. ‘So, I guess everything you said to Sokka at the library about treating me like a friend and building trust was a lie then?’ The betrayal simmered, it boiled over and scalded the tender, flightless thing that was their friendship.

‘No,’ she breathed, her throat tight. ‘No, Zuko, it’s not that! I meant every word I said, I still do! It’s just this…’ She winced and balled her hands into fists. ‘Urg, this is hard for me to talk about.’

She was surprised by the challenge in the firebender’s eyes. ‘Tell me in the dark,’ he said suddenly, leaning towards her to reach the dangling oil lamp.

Her heart jumped at his sudden proximity. ‘What?’

He lifted the glass casing off the lantern. ‘I had a friend, Mai, when I was a child.’ His face coloured. ‘We built palaces out of furniture in the royal suites when her family came to court. Ballrooms made of blankets and secret bunkers made of cushions.’ He shrugged self-consciously. ‘We hid in the pillow palace when the governess came looking for us and shared secrets. But I always found it difficult to talk about…’ He fell silent, his cheeks illuminated from underneath by the flicker of the oil lamp. ‘It’s easier in the dark, when you can’t see the other person and they can’t see you.’

She clenched her fists again, studying the Fire Prince closely. Again and again it struck her: how wrong you can be about someone.

He watched her expectantly, his hand hovering by the flame. Katara licked her lips carefully. ‘Okay,’ she whispered, laying back slowly against the gently swaying hammock. ‘In the dark.’

There was something deeply, disturbingly exciting about the look he gave her in the moment before he blew out the light.

Chapter Text

 ‘A month! The Earth King won’t see us for a whole month!?’

Joo Dee smiled vaguely. ‘Six to eight weeks actually.’

Aang groaned and dragged his hands down his face. ‘Isn’t there anyway to see him sooner? We have really important information for him! It’s about the war.’

The tour guide had appeared seemingly from nowhere when Appa had landed in the upper ring of Ba Sing Se. Appa and his passengers had set down just outside the gates into the Earth King’s palace grounds— it seemed a little rude to just fly straight in without knocking— and immediately been approached by a number of Imperial Earthbenders and Joo Dee. The woman’s carefully composed façade remained unchanged despite Aang and Toph’s questions during the ostrich-horse carriage ride to the house they had been allocated, several streets away.

‘The Earth King is very busy preparing for the upcoming festivals and celebrations. His pet bear’s birthday is coming up, as well as the annual Stone Throw Festival in the middle and lower rings of the city. It’s quite a busy time!’

Toph glowered at the passively smiling woman. ‘I can see how a pet’s birthday and a festival are so much more pressing to the Earth King than vital intel from the war front,’ the little earthbender said exasperatedly.

Aang turned back to Joo Dee anxiously. ‘Please,’ he said somewhat forcefully. ‘We need to see the Earth King right away.’

‘You are absolutely forbidden from seeing the Earth King before you are allocated an appointment,’ their guide said mildly, blinking brightly in the afternoon sunlight.

The airbender felt that rare shiver of anger trace his spine. Just as he was sucking in a lungful of air to tell the infuriating official just what he thought of her rules, Toph interceded.

‘Thank you, representative, for showing us to our accommodation. We’ll await your notice of our appointment.’ Aang couldn’t believe how polite and sophisticated his loudmouth earthbending teacher suddenly sounded. How did she do that?

Joo Dee bowed low. ‘Have a wonderful afternoon, Avatar. Miss Beifong.’

‘Yeah, see you,’ Aang grumbled, watching her retreat to the carriage. He rounded on Toph. ‘What was all that about?’

The blind girl blew a strand of hair out of her face and yanked Aang towards the house. ‘We’re being handled,’ she muttered darkly, hauling the Avatar up the stairs and through the front door. ‘Typical high society. When something’s inconvenient or uncomfortable, they have a knack for glossing over it.’

Aang yanked his arm free. ‘They can’t gloss over the war! It’s been going on for a hundred years!’

Toph shrugged. ‘Get used to it, Twinkle Toes. Iroh tried to warn us in his letter: there’s something fishy going on here. You’re the Avatar. You decide whether we spend the next couple of months wading through bureaucrats and pleasantries to maybe score an audience with the Earth King. Or we ditch this crumby city and go help our friends.’

‘We can’t give up that easily.’ He glanced around the room for inspiration. Appa’s muzzle appeared in the nearest window, grumbling mournfully. The bison wasn’t the only one depending on them. Aang’s resolve hardened. ‘We can’t give up that easily. Sokka is counting on us to get the Earth King’s armies for the invasion. We have to try.’

Toph sighed and collapsed into a plush, green armchair. ‘Great. Being around society schmucks is why I left Gaoling and look where I ended up.’

‘Cheer up,’ Aang said with renewed vigour, skipping to the window to scratch Appa’s nose. ‘You can teach me how to be a fancy rich person.’

The earthbender just groaned.

 

 

The darkness was interrupted only by the creak of the boat and the soft sound of their breath.

Katara drew in a sharp breath. ‘I don’t know how to begin.’ Zuko didn’t respond; he trusted her to find a way.

She swallowed thickly. ‘You know how I told you about the… the Swamp?’

‘Where you saw your mother?’

Pause. ‘Yes.’

‘What about it?’

Silence.

Irritably now, ‘Katara.’

‘I saw you.’ She said it quickly, all in a rush. The words bled into each other and pierced the darkness with their magnitude.

‘What?’

She licked her dry lips. ‘I—I saw a vision of you. Only you were older. In your late teens or early twenties, I think. And you, err, told me things. You told me about your mother and her sailing and about how she likes the theatre.’ She strained to see him through the gloom of the cargo hold, but her eyes were still adjusting to the dimness. ‘Zuko?’

He took a moment to respond. ‘You saw a vision? Of me? And this vision told you about my mother?’

She regretted the darkness now. She badly wanted to see his face, gauge his reaction. ‘At first I didn’t believe the things the vision said. I thought it was just part of the Swamp’s creepy atmosphere. But then, when you and your uncle joined us, and I began to learn more about you… more and more of what the vision had said began coming true.’

‘My scar.’ He didn’t sound angry, but there was a stiffness to his tone.  As though he didn’t like that she had been privy to the intricacies of his life without his knowledge. ‘You knew about my scar because of this… what? Ghost?’

She fiddled with her fingers. ‘No, not a ghost. Avatar Yangchen says—’

‘Avatar who?’

‘Oh, Avatar Yangchen. She’s the airbender Avatar before Aang. She wrote that book I’ve been reading. It’s a book about the Foggy Swamp and the Banyan Spirit that, well, the spirit is a tree but it also kind of is the Swamp.’

‘Uh huh.’

‘Well, the Banyan Spirit is all about balance and I think it showed me those visions of you to sort of prepare me to accept you into our group, so I’d know enough about you that I’d be open to being… friends.’ Her fingers were clammy now; she wiped them on her dress. ‘The spirit must have wanted you to join us, to help restore balance to the world.’

He cleared his throat and shifted, his hammock butting ever so gently against hers. ‘Did it show you anything else?’

She’d dreaded this question. What could she say? What could she possibly say? There was no way she would admit that spectre-Zuko had seemed to think they were married. Not to mention the intimate, personal nature of this other Zuko and Katara’s relationship. She could barely think about it without becoming squeamishly uncomfortable, let alone discuss it with the source of her discomfort. There was a large part of her that resented the fatalistic notion that her future was so set in stone. If she was to have any choice in how her life would play out, she needed more time to think about those visions she hadn’t yet brought herself to dwell on.

So, she did something she wasn’t proud of: she skirted the truth.

‘A few things. This older you is Fire Lord.’

His fidgeting stilled. ‘Fire Lord?’

The almost childlike shock and apprehension in his voice made her heartbeat stutter in sympathy. Without even thinking about it, she reached over until her fingers brushed his. ‘I know it’s a lot to take in.’

His fingers twitched as hers curled around his. ‘I was raised for the responsibility, but for years it’s been out of my reach. Does this mean it will definitely happen?’

‘I don’t know.’ Her voice was almost drowned out by the slosh of a wave against the side of the ship. ‘I don’t understand a lot of what I was shown. I’m still trying to get my head around what exactly you and I are meant to balance or what—’

‘You and I?’ he interrupted, and she could tell from the sound of his voice that he had turned to face her. His hand was tense against hers. ‘Were you in the visions, too?’

The most disconcerting part of her spectre is her own reaction to the Fire Prince’s heated words. She hates that her palms grow clammy and her heart starts galloping. She doesn’t understand why her legs clench and her movements become clumsy. Why her breath shortens and her eyes widen to watch her antagonist coyly.

Katara has faced fire before. But she’s never burned quite like this.

It’s not just his words. It’s the way he looks at her, like he knows her. Like he’s known her. It’s the familiar way he says her name. Not familiar to her, no; she’s sure she’s never heard him say her name during their previous encounters. No, it’s how comfortably the harsh syllables fall from his mouth.

Perhaps it’s just the coiling humidity. It is stifling…

His eyes scorch her as he shrugs a shirt on over his bare chest. ‘I can’t.’ The smile is playful, but there’s a real undercurrent that raises the hairs on the back of her neck. ‘It’s the anniversary of the peace summit, Katara, we can’t miss it.’ His smirk spreads like syrup. ‘Oh, I’ll take the consequences later, waterbender. Don’t make promises you can’t keep.’

Her cheeks flush, though she’s not quite sure why.

His eyes narrow even as the smirk widens. ‘Bad?’ The whisper is the spark that ignites a bushfire. ‘Oh, I can be the bad guy, little girl.’

Katara is horrified by her body’s reaction. Fighting doesn’t even register as an option. She turns and flees blindly through the Swamp; anywhere is better than standing pinned beneath the prince’s knowing gaze.

‘Uh… not quite.’

He waited.

‘Um, the vision-you spoke about me a little. Well, spoke to me actually. As though he could see me, as though we were having a conversation.’

The skin over her knuckles crawled with goose bumps when his thumb traced lightly over them. ‘What did I say to you? Or about you?’

On second thought, she was glad for the darkness. ‘It wasn’t so much what you said,’ she admitted, shivering despite the cosiness of the cabin.

‘Then what was it?’

‘It was more the—’ she interrupted herself with an embarrassed chuckle. ‘Well, look at it from my perspective. Imagine seeing your enemy while you’re lost in a huge swamp and he starts talking to you like you’re… best friends, tells you personal details about his life, and starts to kind of humanise and redeem himself. I was so confused after that. It’s part of the reason I insisted on helping your uncle after Azula injured him. All of a sudden you went from the bad guy to a guy who’s had to weather a tough life. I couldn’t hate you anymore, I felt for you. You were just as much a victim of your father and the war as me. After I began reading Yangchen’s book, I realised we’re not so different.’

Her hand tingled where their skin met. ‘The other night,’ he said hesitantly, his voice low. ‘You said your vision of your mother helped you understand some things about yourself.’

Her mouth was dry. ‘My mother was an amazing woman and taught me everything I know. But my visions of you in the Swamp helped me understand that I’m not perfect. I make mistakes, and that’s okay. Just because you make a mistake, it doesn’t make you a bad person.’

What little space there was between the gently swaying hammocks seemed to shrink in the wake of her words. His thumb had stilled against her knuckles, and the heat of his palm warmed her like an arctic wolf-lion pelt during a blizzard.

The shock in his voice was palpable. ‘You… You don’t think I’m a bad person?’

‘No.’

The bright burst of flame startled Katara. The firebender was propped up on his elbow, one hand clutched in hers and flames in the other. He examined her closely, his expression remarkably unguarded. ‘But I stole your mother’s necklace,’ he insisted. ‘I sent a bounty hunter after you, I threatened your tribe. I—’

She withdrew her fingers from his and sat up. ‘Stop.’ She ran her hand through her hair, wincing at her sore muscles. ‘You also saved us from Azula and made us tea and joined us to fight against your father.’ She leaned forward intently. ‘You’ve done bad things, but you’ve also done kind and good things, Zuko. And you feel remorse for the things you’ve done. You’re a good person.’

His face glowed through the gloom, blank with shock.

‘Zuko?’

He didn’t answer, but as the flame dimmed, she could have sworn she saw the glimmer of a smile tease the corner of his mouth.

 

 

‘It’s not what you think, Dad—’

‘You left your sister alone with the Fire Lord’s son?’

‘Okay, maybe it is what you think. But it’s not as bad as it sounds! Zuko’s actually a pretty good guy—’

‘You left your sister with the Fire Lord’s son?’

Sokka looked everywhere but at his father’s incredulous disbelief. ‘Look, Dad, it’s a long story, but I swear to you she’s safe. Surely you don’t think I’d do anything that would endanger Katara.’

Hakoda sighed and rubbed his face wearily. ‘Of course not, Sokka.’ The older man’s voice was laden with fatigue. The Water Tribe warriors were berthed at Full-Moon Bay less than a day before Sokka— sunburnt, wind-chapped, but full of enthusiasm— had stumbled up the docks and sent the warriors into a frenzy of celebration. He was the first sight of what they’d left behind that any of them had seen since sailing away from the frozen tundra they called home.

The chief was most ecstatic of all. Until his son had uttered the words, Katara? Oh, she’s meeting us at the rendezvous point. She’s with Zuko.

Hakoda dropped his hand from his face and turned to his son. ‘Long story, huh? Well you better get started.’

Sokka’s face brightened, his armful of maps and battle strategies forgotten. ‘You’ll love this, Dad! It all started when we cornered the Fire Lord’s daughter and forced her to surrender…’

Chapter Text

The Banyan Spirit, like all spirits, does not concern itself with the minutiae of an individual’s joy, sorrow, anger, or fear— except with how these emotional states motivate the individual to walk the Spirit’s path. If the death of an infant at the hands of its own mother would send the cosmic flow of chi down a path of peace and balance, the Banyan Spirit would pull at the strings of fate to have the woman dash her child against a rock. If a lover’s betrayal inspired a man to rise up and defeat corrupt tyrants, the Banyan Spirit would entice the woman to another man without a moment’s hesitation.

It has always been clear to those of us who work closely with the spirits that the greatest among them care very little for the individual lives of mortals. There is great honour in serving the Banyan Spirit, but there is no assurance you will emerge from the fog of its influence with any happiness, or indeed, your life.

Katara closed the small volume with stiff fingers, her mouth twisted as though she’d tasted the sourness of lemons between its pages. It certainly wasn’t the rolling of The Pirate’s Peril that turned her stomach.

Zuko shoved a bowl of crackers, hard cheese, and two faintly steaming dumplings into her hands.

She glanced up. ‘Thank you.’

He didn’t even look her way before taking an absurdly large bite of his own dumpling. Needless to say, the Fire Prince didn’t look terribly composed trying to chew through the overflowing mouthful.

‘What about Jima?’ she asked, nodding towards their captain. The woman had some time ago bound her hair down with a scarf, granting her an even more severe countenance than usual. All harsh lines and edged curves, she squinted at the coastline through the grey drizzle, adjusting their course with a faint smile on her face. Zuko, meanwhile, was huddling into his cloak, tugging his hood as low as he could get it to escape the dusting of rain. By contrast, Jima had now pulled her head scarf away, freeing her hair and filling her lungs through the miserable drizzle.

‘She’ll be fine,’ Katara’s companion muttered once he’d dealt with the ordeal of swallowing the dumpling. ‘I’m pretty sure she doesn’t need to eat; she gets her energy from ordering me around.’

The waterbender gave him a meaningful look. Over the last few days aboard the ship, she’d discovered that appealing to the prince’s sense of duty often convinced him to do the right thing. Especially when it came to Jima. He needed convincing when it came to Jima. The two of them were not exactly fond of one another.

‘It would be disrespectful for us to eat without preparing her something, too,’ she reasoned, biting into a cracker.

He finally looked at her, even if just to narrow his eyes accusingly. ‘I know what you’re doing, waterbender.’

She was “waterbender” again; he must be cranky. ‘What am I doing?’

Wide eyed, lips pouting ever so slightly.

‘You know what you’re doing.’

Katara harrumphed. ‘I just think it’s part of our job, while we’re sailing under her, to treat her with respect.’ She let her eyes dart to the ground before returning to him bashfully. ‘I thought you would understand.’

She did feel a little guilty when he dropped his gaze and his forehead creased. ‘You peasants and your twisted sense of duty,’ she heard him grumble into his cloak when he turned back to the leftover food. The guilt eased when he divvied up the rest of the food into a bamboo bowl and stalked over to Jima. Katara watched the fisherwoman’s delight fizzle and dry at Zuko’s approach and felt her stomach drop. Uh oh…

Their exchange was short.

‘Fine! Don’t expect me to make you anything ever again, you sour old hag!’

‘Fine by me, kiddo, your food tastes like what a firebender churns out their ass anyway.’ The sparks dancing along Zuko’s fingertips sizzled in the rain, but to Katara’s relief, the trader was too busy sneering at the prince to notice. ‘Now finish your lunch, and oil the mast.’

‘But it’s raining!’

Jima’s smile was all cactus and broken glass. ‘Then you better pray for sun.’

The firebender spun on his heel and stormed back to his place by Katara, eating with fast, angry movements while casting looks of furious loathing at the smirking woman by the wheel.

Katara peered at him tentatively. ‘Zuko?’

‘What?’

She tested a small smile. ‘Thank you,’ she said softly. ‘For trying.’

The tension in his shoulders eased. The thundering anger lurked distantly, but that new softness— that recent humility that dulled the prickly edges of him— won out.

He blinked and shrugged, holding her gaze. ‘It’s okay.’

‘Water Tribe! Come here.’

The stiffness in his shoulders returned, as did the anger. Katara sighed with reluctance but stood and dutifully made her way to Jima’s side.

‘Captain?’

The lines around the woman’s eyes crinkled as she smiled. ‘Sorry to ruin your moment,’ she said in a tone that was not at all sorry. ‘But you’re distracting ol’ Lee from his work.’

Katara didn’t reply; she didn’t want to get into another fight with their prickly companion. Behind them, Zuko made a big deal of slamming the wood oil jar, brush, and cloth to the deck as he bent to his work.

‘He’ll have a hard time oiling the mast in this drizzle,’ she observed, peering out from under her hood.

‘He’ll live.’

Katara shed her hood, unable to resist the water against her skin. ‘Miserable weather for sailing.’

‘Can’t imagine a Water Tribe girl would be bothered by a little shower like this.’ The gleam of curiosity— the one the wily trader had taken to turning on Katara all week— gave Jima a devious air. ‘He know you’re a waterbender?’

It took all her strength to keep her face blank. ‘Yes,’ she said coolly, staring determinedly at the ocean. ‘How did you figure it out?’

‘Your little full moon stunt on deck a few nights back. Hard not to notice when you’re as familiar with these waters as I am.’

Katara silently cursed the draw of the full moon. She had snuck up on deck to dispel the fidgeting energy in her veins with a few basic forms and movements, but she’d got carried away in the push and pull of the waves. The constant movement of the ocean around her had been intoxicating, like a melody that got caught in her limbs and forced her to dance to its beat. She hadn’t realised the fisherwoman had been watching her.

‘You sure it’s wise to trust him?’

Katara turned to look at the older woman this time. ‘I’m sure.’

‘You don’t get a scar like that from living a peaceful life. He’s more than he says he is.’ She eyed Katara slyly. ‘Though I’m sure you know more of his secrets than little ol’ me.’

‘I know enough.’

Jima snorted. ‘I bet you do, girlie.’ A thoughtful pause took the trader, a calculating hesitation. ‘You could stay with me and work the fish runs if you like. I could use a strong girl like you. Waterbenders make the best sailors. And I think you’ll do better away from him.’

‘I know you don’t get along with him,’ Katara started, her eyes flashing. ‘But he’s not as bad as you think.’

Jima pulled her pipe from her tunic. ‘I know what the Fire Nation’s done to the Southern Water Tribe, Song. You should too.’

‘I do know!’ she hissed, incensed by the woman’s implication. ‘I know exactly what they’ve done to my home, my people! To me, personally!’

The hard-eyed woman didn’t respond. She didn’t even look up from her pipe. Her silence forced the story from Katara’s lips like some net dredging foul things from the sea bottom. ‘They came one day, a fleet of Fire Navy ships flying sea raven flags. I remember every detail. There was black snow from the smoke of their ships and the men wore red masks over their helmets. I was terrified. My people were running around in a panic, being chased by Fire Nation soldiers shouting about a waterbender.

‘I found my mother in our home, but she was cornered by one of the Fire Nation men. She tried to get me to leave, she told me to go find my father…’ Katara swallowed, her hands shaking by her sides. ‘I was too late. By the time we got back there, the man was gone. And so was Mum.’

The trader puffed on her pipe, shielding it from the misting rain with her hands. ‘And even after all that, after everything they’ve done, you can still be friends with that boy?’ She gestured to Zuko with a nod of her head.

Katara wiped at her eyes and cleared her throat. ‘Of course I can,’ she said glancing over at Zuko. ‘He’s been hurt by the Fire Nation, too.’

‘Hm.’

‘What did they do to you? To make you hate them so much?’

Jima’s expression hardened into a glower. ‘My husband was a firebender,’ the sailor related stiffly. ‘A low-ranking officer in the navy. Had a romantic start, we did; we met when half my village was captured by the fleet he sailed with— my two sisters, my cousin, and a dozen other waterbenders.’

Katara’s jaw dropped. ‘Oh yeah, kid, I’m a waterbender. At least I used to be. Those captured from our village on the northern fringes of the South Pole were all benders. We were to be part of a little Fire Nation experiment.’ Here her voice took on all the warmth of a glacier. ‘They were obsessed with finding ways to stunt or remove a person’s bending. Their engineers experimented on us. Tortured us. Broke parts of us so far beneath the surface of the skin you wouldn’t even know it was there until you’ve had a stranger reach inside of you and shatter it.’ Her lip twisted. ‘I was their first success. Though over time the effects of their… experiments have diminished, I still can’t do much more that push and pull the tide.’

Katara swallowed her horror with difficulty. ‘I’m so sorry, Jima. That’s terrible.’

She laughed darkly, fragmented as broken glass. ‘Don’t waste your sympathy, girl.’

‘Did—did they force you to marry the firebender?’

Jim shook her head jerkily. ‘No, Shin, my husband, had been growing tired of the atrocities committed by his superiors, the atrocities they ordered him to commit. We’d become friendly during the months of my imprisonment; he was the main reason both my sisters had survived. He ordered our guards to treat us with respect, and the medic to see to us daily. On the day they finally broke my bending, he freed me. Well not so much freed as paid the medic to declare me dead so he could spirit me away from his ship.’

The hardness in Jima’s face was hard won, a cynicism well earned. ‘I wanted to kill him when I came to and I realised that he’d saved me but left my sisters and cousin to the tender care of his Fire Nation torturers. But when I tried to call a wave of water over the side of the dingy, there wasn’t even a splash. It was like I was blind to my sense of bending. I tried to throttle him instead.’

‘This is the man you were married to?’ Katara asked in confusion.

Jima blinked. ‘Not yet. I was murderous with hatred, not love.’

‘Right.’

‘He got me to shore and nursed me back to health. And after a hundred fist fights, screaming matches, and drunken arguments, I began to fall for him. For his stupid stories about dragons and volcanos, and the warmth he gave me with his fire. It was years after my escape that we were quietly married in an Earth Kingdom town. Because of the methods the engineers employed, I can’t have children, but his guilt over his actions in the war made him want to care for the orphans the war had created.

‘We were due to take home a young Earth Kingdom boy when Shin was captured and executed as a deserter.’

Katara’s mouth hung open in dismay. ‘Executed?!’

Jima nodded, her pipe now snuffed out and forgotten. ‘By the Southern Fleet Commander, some coward named Zhao.’

A sickening, cold stone dropped heavily into Katara’s stomach. ‘Admiral Zhao?’

‘I’d heard he’d been promoted.’ The fisherwoman caught sight of the girl’s expression. ‘What?’

‘I knew Zhao,’ she said bitterly, her lip twisting. ‘He attacked the Northern Water Tribe and tried to kill the moon spirit but he was killed.’

A fierce hope shone in the woman’s face, making her look years younger. ‘He’s dead?’

Katara nodded. ‘Killed by the Avatar.’

‘The Avatar? Kid, no one’s seen the Avatar in a hundred years.’ Jima frowned at her as though she’d soiled a good moment.

‘The Avatar’s a friend of mine,’ Katara insisted, pinning the woman with a fierce look. ‘The last airbender. I’m his waterbending teacher.’

Jima eyed her strangely. ‘You gonna tell me your Fire Nation friend is Fire Lord and the sun rises in the west, too? I like you, girl, but don’t lie to me.’

Katara glared at her. ‘You think what you want, but I’m telling you the Avatar is back, and he’s going to take out the Fire Lord and restore balance to the world!’ The look the older woman shot her crawled under Katara’s skin and made her want to shake every drop of cynicism from the trader’s body. ‘You want proof? Wait till we get to Kyoshi. I travelled there months ago with Aang and his flying bison. They can tell you!’

Jima smiled placatingly. ‘Sure, kid.’

 

 

In hindsight, Katara should have known. Not about the absence of Suki and the Kyoshi Warriors; she hadn’t come to know the warrior as well as Sokka had. No, she couldn’t have known that Suki would take the Kyoshi Warriors and leave the island to enter the murky waters of the war. But she really should have known that the villagers would be furious at Zuko after how his last visit panned out.

‘I’m telling you! He’s on our side!’ Katara shouted even as the firebender retreated from the angry villagers. ‘You have to believe me!’

The mayor, the bound tuft of hair atop his head bobbing with his rage, held out his hand. ‘Enough! You are a friend of Kyoshi Island, but if you protect that boy from justice, you’re siding with our enemy!’

Katara ignored the tug at her back, leaning forward determinedly. ‘I’m not siding with the enemy because Zuko’s not your enemy! We’re here on the Avatar’s behalf to ask the Kyoshi Warriors for their help against the Fire Lord.’

But the mayor was beyond reasoning, his face twisted in fury. ‘Our brave warriors have already left home for the war, not sided with the Fire Lord’s disgraced heir!’ He drew himself up, glowering at Katara as the armed men beyond him pressed closer. ‘You should leave, Katara of the Water Tribe.’

Zuko’s hand on her shoulder thawed some of the shock that froze her in place. ‘Come on, let’s go.’

‘Popular guy, aren’t you?’ Jima grunted as they hurriedly sailed out of Kyoshi later that same day. ‘Seems like Song here is your only friend.’

Zuko hunched his shoulders and continued looping the mooring line over his arm as they set a steady northeast course for Gaoling. Katara pushed past the trader and dragged the firebender further down the deck away from his tormentor.

‘Are you okay?’

He yanked his arm out of her grip. ‘Fine.’

‘Don’t take it to heart, the things they were saying,’ she pushed, not letting him squirm out from under her gaze. ‘You’re not the same person you were when you were last here, Zuko, and you apologised to the mayor. That’s all you can do.’

The skin over his jaw trembled as he clenched and unclenched it. ‘It wouldn’t matter if I’d come here with a basket of rubies from the Fire Mines,’ he muttered, avoiding her eyes. ‘I’m Fire Nation. My people are hated wherever we go because of this stupid war.’

‘You’re changing that,’ she persevered, clutching his sleeve to keep him from barrelling past her. ‘Give it time! People will see you differently if you show them a different way!’

‘What way?’

‘I don’t know! Just… different. Show them you’re not like your father!’

His lip lifted in a snarl of frustration when she blocked him again. ‘Move, Katara.’

She raised her chin stubbornly, glaring at him. ‘No.’

‘Move!’

‘No!’

His breath came quickly with his anger. ‘What do you want me to say?’ he whispered, eyes darting between hers. ‘The Avatar isn’t here to make us all sit down, hold hands, and sing songs around the campfire. Those people hate me and they don’t even know me. I can’t change that, so stop pretending I can!’

‘You can’t expect people to forgive and forget in a couple of minutes!’ she snapped. ‘You burned down their village, that’s all they know about you. But if you give them time and show them that you’ve changed—’

‘Move!’

‘NO!’

He cursed quietly under his breath. ‘You’re a pain in the ass, you know!’

‘Well, you’re impatient and annoying and—and a jerk!’

‘Did your precious swamp visions tell you that?!’

He was pressed up close to her in his frustration, but she just shoved him back. ‘No! They only showed me how honourable and kind you could be, but right now you’re about as far from that as it gets!’

The brittleness of his humourless smile sapped some of her flare. ‘If you don’t get out of my way right now, I’ll show you just how far from kind I can be, waterbender.’ There was something in his tone— mirrored in his expression— that made her pause. It told her he’d been pushed far enough. He wasn’t ready to confront this particular demon yet.

But Katara was wound up, too. And she was fifteen; she couldn’t always be expected to be the bigger person.

‘In the Swamp, you told me you’d never hurt me or threaten me,’ she hissed, shoving him backwards with more force than she’d meant. ‘If you ever threaten me again, I won’t be your only friend anymore. You’ll have none.’

An ugly silence fell between them. The Fire Prince looked as though she’d pummelled him, sent wave after wave of water crashing down over his head. He had one hand supporting his weight against the prow, his neatly looped rope in a tangled mess at his feet where he’d dropped it. Katara just felt bruised. She was out of practice fighting the Fire Lord’s son. It had been so long now since they’d been on opposite sides. It didn’t feel right.

Tears threatened at the edge of her vision. She spun on her heel and strode back up the deck; she wouldn’t let him see her cry. Not for him.

The footsteps behind her stopped at Jima’s timely interruption. ‘Get back here, Lee. You’ve made a right mess of that mooring line, boy. Sort it out. Then I want you up top.’

Katara didn’t turn to see if he complied. ‘I’m going to check on the cargo,’ she called to the trader.

‘About bloody time,’ was all the reply she received.

Below deck, the neat stack of grain sacks by the stairs had spilled out over the walkway. Katara sighed and set about cleaning up the mess.

 

 

‘His name is Long Feng,’ Toph recounted flatly, digging in her ear with her little finger. ‘I think I met him once when my parents hosted a delegation from Ba Sing Se. I’d have to let my feet get a good look at him to be sure. But he’s this Cultural Minister everyone’s so frightened of.’

Aang peeked over the parapet of the palace wall into the garden beyond. The serious looking man with the long braid paced through the gardens, trailed by a long line of attendants.

‘Why is the Cultural Minister the point of contact for anyone who wants to discuss the war?’ Aang wondered aloud, squinting after the minister himself.

‘He’s probably more than just a minister. Titles only mean so much, Twinkle Toes.’

‘Why is a cultural ministry even involved in the war effort at all? And why isn’t the Earth King? It doesn’t make any sense!’

‘Sure it does,’ the earthbender replied from her perch on the wall just below him. ‘You saw how dirty and poor the lower ring was, right?’

Aang frowned, glancing down at the blind girl. ‘Yeah. What about it?’

‘For these fancy folks to have their nice gardens, and prissy parties, and stupid carriages, those dirty common people need to stay… placated. Most of all they have to stay calm, quiet, and unpanicked about the war. What better way to distract them than with festivals and plays and cultural heritage?’

‘But that’s… that’s corruption,’ Aang protested, glancing back at the party of upper ring residents as they moved out of view.

‘That’s politics,’ Toph corrected, sniffing at the finger she’d just withdrawn from her ear.

Aang frowned, troubled. ‘If you knew this, why didn’t you tell me?!’

I tried to, Fancy Dancer,’ the blind girl pointed out. ‘I told you it would be like this coming here.’

Aang made a small noise of distress. ‘I need to think carefully about what to do about this,’ he said glumly, scratching his head. ‘But in the meantime, let’s visit the Ba Sing Se Zoo! I hear it’s the best zoo in the world and has animals from all over, including rabaroos, a platypus bear, and an armadillo lion!’

Toph snorted her amusement. ‘Nothing gets you down for long, does it, Twinkle Toes?’

Chapter Text

Sokka frowned at the maps spread before him, munching thoughtfully on tiger-seal jerky. The possibilities were endless; all he needed to do was find the path, put in place the pieces, and plot for every possible outcome. Knowing Azula, there would be many, many unexpected outcomes. How could he predict the calculating firebender’s every move?

‘To know your enemy, you must think like your enemy,’ he muttered.

Beside him, Hakoda stroked his beard as he mulled over his son’s words. ‘The ultimate success in war is to subdue your enemy without fighting.’

The younger man smiled widely. ‘Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak!’

Bato, sitting across from the Chief and his son, raised his eyebrows in concern at their matching grins.

Hakoda and Sokka both lunged for the last of the tiger-seal jerky. Sokka should have known better; no one in their tribe could beat Hakoda in a wrestling match when food was at stake.

 

 

Katara turned in early that night. She was tired and out of sorts after her argument with Zuko and wanted to be able to slip peacefully into sleep without the tension that laid thickly over them after the things they’d said upon leaving Kyoshi Island. They’d likely arrive in Gaoling the following day, or the day after at the very latest; as far as Katara was concerned, it wasn’t soon enough. The few minutes she could steal away from the Fire Prince were too short. Jima and Zuko’s frosty relationship meant he wouldn’t tolerate the trader’s company alone for long. Katara had become the buffer between them, but the buffer found herself unable to muster any enthusiasm for the role just now.

‘They deserve each other,’ she murmured irritably. Catching herself thinking again about the firebending-pain-in-her-side, Katara rolled over and turned her thoughts towards more pleasant avenues. Namely her friends and family.

Sokka would surely be with their father by now, hatching an undoubtedly devious plot to outsmart Azula and confront the Fire Lord. The image of her brother and father together pulled a bittersweet smile up her cheeks. What she wouldn’t give to be swaying in a hammock aboard a Water Tribe ship rather than Jima’s. Or to be back in Appa’s saddle, laughing with Aang.

Footsteps on the wooden stairs interrupted her train of thought. Great. He was here.

Katara closed her eyes and tried to slow her breathing.

‘…a fishhook through her eye… hag… hate her stupid boat!’ The angry muttering made her lips twitch.

Footsteps alongside her hammock.

The creak of the cargo.

A firebender’s breathing in the dark.

‘“Move, waterbender?”’ Self-depreciation held to Zuko as tenaciously as a lemur-tick to blood. ‘You idiot.’

Her hammock’s sway gave no sign of the prince’s passing. Not a thread of it twitched with anything other than the swell of the sea and the waterbender’s thundering pulse.

 

 

‘The Boulder feels conflicted about going to war alongside children.’

Jima snorted from where she leaned against the heavy-set doorway of Earth Rumble VI which The Boulder didn’t take kindly to; he shot her a frosty look. The tough leather vest she wore over her light sailing clothes fit right in with the theatricality of The Boulder, The Hippo, and the other showmen of the Earth Rumble underworld.

‘You didn’t have a problem fighting Toph one-on-one,’ Katara pointed out, crossing her arms over her chest. ‘You didn’t even have a problem kidnapping two twelve-year-olds to sell to the Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom nobility.’

‘These guys are slavers?’ Zuko demanded hotly, taking a step forward.

Katara caught his sleeve and pulled him backwards. ‘No. It was one time, just Aang and Toph.’

The hulking earthbender drew himself up to his full height. ‘The Boulder was acting under orders from the dishonourable Xin Fu,’ he argued. ‘Now The Boulder runs Earth Rumble VI where no children fight for money.’

Katara allowed him a smile. ‘Good to see you’ve changed your ways.’

Behind The Boulder, Fire Nation Man cocked an eyebrow. ‘Vhere be Aang?’ he asked, his accent pulling heavily at each syllable. ‘And Blind Bandit?’

‘They’re in Ba Sing Se rallying the Earth King’s armies to fight alongside us.’ Her grin widened. ‘Toph said she was bummed to miss you guys, but she’d take you all on in a rematch if you agree to help us.’

The Boulder opened his mouth to respond but a resounding concussion from behind beat him to it. ‘Hippo happy to fight with Blind Bandit!’ The huge earthbender leaned down towards Katara, drawing a startled squeak from her when he picked her up in a crushing hug.

‘Hey! Put her down!’

‘Uh… th—thanks, Hippo,’ she croaked, trying in vain to wrestle free of the vice grip.

The Hippo pulled back to grin at her with all four of his teeth. ‘We fight,’ he assured her.

‘I hope you lot are better at fighting than you are at dressing yourselves,’ Jima piped up, cleaning her nails against her shirt.

The Boulder’s eyebrow twitched. ‘If you play with fire, sassy woman, prepare to get burrrrrned!

Jima cocked a brow. ‘Aren’t you an earthbender? How would you burn me?’

Katara could have sworn she saw a tinge of pink stain The Boulder’s cheek as The Hippo dropped her. ‘You’ll go down in a landslide of pain!’

The fisherwoman rolled her eyes. ‘You kids are going to need better soldiers.’

Zuko glowered at her. ‘I don’t see you stepping up.’

‘Because I don’t have a death wish, ugly.’

Katara ignored them and turned back to the assembled earthbenders. ‘Thank you all for your support,’ she called to them. ‘Any benders or warriors you can gather by the time we meet at the rendezvous point will go a long way towards finally ending this war!’

‘No, thank you, Katara,’ The Boulder’s glower softened with his tone as he turned to her. ‘For helping us find our courage to fight for our kingdom.’

Fire Nation Man raised a finger half-heartedly. ‘Vell, actually—’

The Boulder spun around to point at him. ‘Can it, Jan, we all know you’re Earth Kingdom.’

Someone cleared their throat at Katara’s back. ‘Katara’s a much nicer name than Song. Very Water Tribe.’

Said waterbender turned to face the harsh lines of the trader woman. ‘Sorry we lied to you, Jima.’

Jima didn’t blink as the earthbenders filed past, heading through the doorway and out into the arena. As he left, The Boulder watched her ambivalently, his brow furrowed. ‘Your friends are idiots, and I’m definitely including grumpy over there in the idiots’ camp.’

Katara shrugged. ‘They’re good people,’ she reminded the sailor; this was something Jima often needed to be reminded about. ‘Brave, dedicated, committed. They all want to do their part in ending this war.’

‘Hm.’

Zuko came up beside Katara, ignoring her companion. ‘I’ve given them the details. They know when to meet us and where. We should get going.’

‘Where are you kids headed now?’

Katara nodded to Zuko before answering the fisherwoman. ‘North. To the Foggy Swamp.’

‘Kid—’

Zuko hefted his bag onto his shoulders. ‘I’ve got our stuff here, let’s head out. I want to get some miles behind us before the sun sets.’

‘Katara—’

Katara nodded. ‘We should see if we can find a market on our way out of town. I’m starving.’

‘Hey!’

Both teenagers turned towards Jima— one shocked, the other scowling. ‘What?’

‘Don’t “what” me, Fire Nation,’ she snarled, returning his unfriendly look. ‘I’m talking to your girlfriend, not you.’

‘Yeah? If she’s my girlfriend, you can talk to both of us,’ Zuko retorted stepping closer to the older woman. ‘I’m sick of you whispering behind my back.’

‘I got better things to do with my time than bitch about you, boy.’

‘Then get lost,’ the firebender growled, leaning forward threateningly. ‘Go find better things to do with your time.’

Lee…’ Katara pushed herself between the two of them, laying her hand against the prince’s chest to force him backwards. ‘That’s enough.’

Jima didn’t take her eyes off the firebender, even as she spoke to Katara. ‘I meant what I said, girl. You’ve got a job with me if you want it.’

‘Thanks, Jima, I appreciate it, I really do. But I have to do this.’

‘I’ll give you one last thing: some advice.’ The trader’s face darkened. ‘Ditch this guy. He’ll get you hurt.’

‘You don’t know anything about me!’ the boy yelled furiously, straining against Katara’s hand.

‘Prince Zuko, son of Fire Lord Ozai and Crown Prince to the Fire Nation.’ The fisherwoman spat the words like a curse. ‘I know you know what he is, girl. And I don’t know if that makes you stupid or naïve, but I do know it’ll get you killed.’ Jima’s gaze flickered to Katara. ‘Take care of yourself.’

The waterbender shook her head slowly. ‘He may be the Fire Prince, but he’s not what you think he is.’

Jima’s laugh was bleak. She stepped back, hands raised in defeat. ‘I tried. Good luck, kid.’

‘Goodbye, Jima. Thanks for everything.’

The surly trader with the broken glass tongue gave Katara a two-fingered salute as she disappeared out the door.

‘Good riddance,’ Zuko muttered, stepping away from Katara’s touch.

The waterbender rounded on him. ‘Why do you have to be like that?’ she demanded, frowning at him. ‘Why can’t you just be nice and get along with people?’

He turned his back to her. ‘I’m not a people person.’

‘You are with me.’ Her frown deepened. ‘Most of the time, anyway.’

‘Don’t worry. Soon you’ll be back with your little friends and you won’t have to make do with me anymore.’

The bitterness in his tone made her hesitate. ‘Is that what you think I’m doing?’

He gave a groan of impatience. ‘Can we get going already? We’ve got a long way to go over rough terrain.’

‘Can’t be any rougher than your mood swings,’ she muttered as she pushed past him. ‘It makes me sad to think you have to find an ulterior motive for me being nice to you— other than wanting to be your friend. It makes me really sad. And it makes me tired. There’s only so many times I can tell you you’re wrong about me before it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, Zuko.’

‘Maybe I’m suspicious of your motives because you give me reason to be.’

Katara paused, her pack halfway onto her shoulder. ‘Excuse me?’

The Fire Prince’s eyes burned golden anger at her. ‘What else did you see about me in that swamp?’

Her mouth was dry. Why was her mouth so dry? ‘What?’

‘I can’t figure out what would be so terrible that you wouldn’t tell me. At first, I thought you’d seen some of the things I’d done in the past, in pursuit of Aang. But you’ve seen the worst of me in the flesh; what could you have seen that was worse than me hunting you down and attacking you?’

He stepped nearer and Katara forgot she was a warrior, forgot her training and her stances. She took one step back for each of his forward. ‘So,’ he continued, ‘then I thought about how you didn’t just see the past. You saw me as Fire Lord, so the swamp must be able to show you things that haven’t happened yet. Things that will happen.’

She swallowed, the sound deafening in the low earthen room. ‘My guess is you saw me do something you don’t like.’ He cocked his head, his eyes hard. ‘I know my decision to help the Avatar bring down my father is genuine, so I don’t think you saw me betray you. If I know you, you’d just confront me about that. No, I think it was something personal. Something this vision of me did to you.’

She tried to clear her throat surreptitiously. ‘Avatar Yangchen says—’

‘I don’t care what Avatar Yangchen says, waterbender.’

‘Don’t call me that. How’d you like it if I went around calling you firebender?’

‘Don’t change the subject.’

The wall of cool earth was little comfort to Katara when it met her back. ‘I think you’re reading too much into it.’ The words sounded weak even to her own ears.

He halted his advance a few feet away, close enough to speed her breathing but far enough away for her to be ashamed that she wished he’d come closer.

Her denial drew deeper lines into the skin around his eyes. ‘You’re a liar, Katara.’

He could call her whatever he wanted. He could yell and pout and storm away all he liked. She wasn’t going to be baited into telling him who his wife would be. Not like this.

‘I can’t tell you,’ she barely whispered.

‘What was that?’

‘Right now. I can’t tell you right now.’

He stared at her expectantly. ‘So, there is something?’

She clenched her jaw and searched for her courage. ‘You’ll just have to trust me.’

His expression darkened, but he didn’t reply straight away. Not before he traced the shiver that ran the length of her, from head to toe, with his gaze. When his eyes returned to hers, she didn’t shy away. Earth Rumble VI, The Boulder, Jima, swamps and visions— all seemed an achingly long way away. She knew he felt it too; it was written clearly across his face. I know, he seemed to say. Then do something about it, she wanted to scream.

‘You’re shaking.’

Her breath caught. ‘We should get moving,’ she said quickly, stepping around him.

She didn’t see him punch the wall, but the blow echoed like firecrackers in the silence.

 

 

Aang knew it was a Spirit World dream straight away. That otherworldliness plucked at his Avatar spirit and lured him through the twists and snares of that other place. It was like that feeling when you dive under a wave, and the turbulence skews your sense of up and down. His spirit churned through the choppy waters with ease; he was an airbender after all. Easily able to go with the flow.

Roku caught him as easily as though he’d been stumbling, rather than rocketing, through the Spirit World.

‘Hello, Aang.’

‘Roku!’

‘It’s good to see you again.’

‘Did you call me here, Roku?’

The wizened man nodded sagely. ‘A friend asked me to pass on a message.’

‘Which friend? What message?’

Roku grinned and flicked something at him— a coin. ‘You must make your way to the Eastern Air Temple before the Day of Black Sun. There, a guru is waiting for you. He can teach you how to control the Avatar State.’

Aang blinked in shock. ‘A guru?’

‘Guru Pathik is very wise. He can help you, Aang…’

The familiar echoing signalled the older Avatar’s imminent departure. ‘Roku, wait!’

With a gasp, Aang shot upright, breathing heavily. The room around him was still in the darkness of pre-dawn; only Toph’s snores from the room next door broke the silence.

‘A dream,’ he muttered sleepily, stroking Momo’s head where it lay on his pillow. ‘Just a dream.’

As he slumped back down, Roku’s coin gleamed dully in his fist.

 

 

Even Zuko began to miss the comparatively easy travelling aboard The Pirate’s Peril after half a day trudging through the bracken and sandy slopes of the southern Earth Kingdom. They’d agreed to stay off the roads to make Azula’s job harder for her; anyone they passed while travelling on the road would easily be able to identify them by Zuko’s scar and Katara’s clothes. It wasn’t worth the risk.

But avoiding the road meant adding hours and miles to their journey.

‘Less than two weeks by boat!’ Katara lamented, tugging her boots off aching feet that night. ‘That’s how long it took us to get from Chameleon Bay to Gaoling! Now we can’t walk more than a few measly miles in a whole day?!’

‘Half a day,’ Zuko muttered, stacking firewood in a tipi-formation.

Katara shot him a dirty look. ‘What was that?’ she asked sharply.

The Fire Prince had the good sense not to reply. The tension that had wedged itself between them since Gaoling hadn’t subsided; if anything, Katara felt more on edge around her companion.

‘I’m hungry,’ she grumbled after a moment of renewed surly silence. ‘I’ll get dinner started.’

‘I’ll cook.’

‘You’re doing the fire, I can cook.’

‘I’ve already started.’

‘No, you haven’t.’

‘Go do something else! Set up the tent.’

You set up the tent!’

‘Can’t you just— Katara!

‘Now I’ve got the saucepan. I’m cooking!’

‘Give that back!’

‘Make me!’

Zuko frowned, but just shook his head at the waterbender’s stubbornness. ‘What’s with you?’

‘What’s wrong? Don’t like being argued with, sulked at, and on the receiving end of a bad attitude?’

‘I don’t sulk.’

‘Oh, please, Zuko, you totally sulk.’

‘No, I don’t!’

‘Yes, you do.’

‘No, I—urg!’ He gripped two handfuls of hair, tugging in his frustration. ‘I’m sorry, okay! Happy now?’

Katara crossed her arms over her chest. ‘You’re sorry?’

‘Yes! I’m sorry for being a jerk back in Gaoling and on Jima’s boat. I’m sorry for trying to force you to tell me about your vision. I’m sorry, okay?’

She hadn’t been expecting that; apologising was the last thing she thought the prince would do. ‘You’re sorry?’ she repeated in her surprise.

Zuko sighed and dropped his face into his palms before bowing from the waist. ‘Will you grant me your forgiveness?’

The familiar unease wound itself tightly in her gut. She’d heard that strangely formal request before…

‘Will you grant me your forgiveness?’

‘No.’

‘Katara, please.’

‘No!’

A vine catches at her clothes, like the hundred before it, like fingers holding her back. ‘You know how Minister Ying can be, how traditional he is. I’ll do what I can, but I can’t help thinking that putting off your diplomatic travels until after the baby might be best—’

‘Get away!’ She reaches into the air for every droplet of humidity she can find. The concern in his expression doesn’t change as the water rushes around him. He doesn’t even flinch.

‘They’re just worried about you, Katara. They don’t know you like I do. I know you can do your duty to your role as Ambassador for the Crown and mother—’

She doesn’t waste any more water whips on her apparition. The droplets harden to a blade of ice and cut her free, well free enough to flee further into the Swamp.

‘Katara?’

She glances up at him, her heart in her mouth, a little frightened by her body’s eagerness. It’s the first time she admits to herself a not wholly unpleasant curiosity about spectre-Zuko’s revelations.

Her lack of fear frightens her. But it also draws her eyes to the prince’s lips.

Lips she’ll kiss? Lips that will kiss her?

A firebender: the father of her children…

‘I’m sorry, too,’ she managed, her gaze still transfixed by the smallest details on the boy’s face. The horizon between scar and flesh. The severe line of his brow. The funny way he tilts his head so his scarred side is less prominent.

She’s transfixed by the shape of the words on his lips. ‘You are?’ he clarifies.

Nodding, she offered the saucepan with a shy smile. ‘For making you doubt my friendship and my trust in you. I promise I’ll tell you about my visions, okay? Just… just not right now.’

He glanced at the pan and back to her, puzzled. ‘Before the eclipse?’

She bit her lip so hard it hurt but nodded. ‘Before the eclipse.’

A rare smile teased the corners of the prince’s mouth. ‘Alright then.’

‘You cook,’ Katara said, unable to help her own grin. ‘I’ll set up the tent.’

The Fire Prince watched her go, followed the movement of her body— graceful, like her bending, even when not in battle— until she caught him staring. They slipped back into that comfortable friendship, the camaraderie from before their fight. The banter came so easily, like liquid pooling in well-worn stone. It followed those newly worn patterns and grooves. Unburdened by their anger, laughter rose with the smoke from their campfire.

If Katara had cared to think on it, she might have noticed the similarities between the boy across from her and the man who’d haunted her steps through the Foggy Swamp. She might have recognised the openness of his smile or how the absence of the tension around his eyes made them round out and invite her curiosity. She might even have discerned that hesitant head tilt— the one that usually hid the brand over his left eye— had vanished, replaced by raw trust with all the fragility of a fledgling raven-eagle. Only after the pyramid of wood had reduced to cherry embers and the teenagers’ conversation lulled to the occasional comment, did the warmth of good company truly make itself known.

‘It’s late.’ A yawn stretched her gaze skyward, enough for her to notice just how high the half-moon had climbed through the night. She closed her eyes against the drowsiness.

‘Good thing you actually set up the tent earlier then.’

Katara smiled without opening her eyes. ‘I set out our bed rolls, too.’ Her sleepiness slurred the consonants and stole their hard sounds.

He shifted onto his side. ‘Are you falling asleep already?’

‘No.’

‘You are so.’

She rolled over and peeled back one eyelid. ‘Am not.’

The prince shook his head, but his lips turned up in a grin. ‘You better get to bed. I’m not carrying you if you fall asleep out here.’ He stood and offered her his hand. ‘Come on.’

His hands were quickly becoming familiar. The way his callouses caught, the width of his fingers between hers, how ticklish the skin between her thumb and forefinger became when he traced circles there.

Once on her feet, she adjusted her hold on the firebender. Neither Katara nor Zuko mentioned it— the failure to relinquish their grasp. She led him around the smouldering remains of the fire to the tent, and at the threshold of the canvas, his shoulder brushed hers. Zuko held back the flap, only letting her fingers slide through his so she could crawl into her sleeping bag.

His laid several feet away.

Zuko hesitated for a fraction of a second— not long enough for doubt to creep in, but long enough for the canvas walls to bulge and sizzle with tension. He dragged the bedroll through the quiet and the darkness. Katara could only see the grey of his outline as he kicked off his boots and slid between the thin mattress and the blankets.

Her fingers found his searching for her own. Her heart swelled through the tightness in her throat; his thumb traced circles around hers. Like two predators meeting, ducking and weaving in some dance to learn the size and shape of each other.

The wrong word could shatter the safety of what sat unspoken between them.

‘Goodnight.’ Why had she never noticed how that rasping note in his voice seemed to slip under her skin and shiver along her veins?

‘Goodnight.’

Chapter Text

The attack came from behind. Only cowards attack their opponent from the back; there’s no honour in a victory born of deceit. As the projectile shattered against the back of Zuko’s head, he spun, body reaching for the familiar salamander stance—

The assailants giggled and raised a second bruised tomato.

The hand on his shoulder did little to calm him.

‘It’s just a couple of kids.’ The smile in the waterbender’s voice drained some of the irritation from his limbs.

He straightened and shook the slurry of tomato from his hair. ‘It’s dripping down my back!’

Katara’s fingers threaded through the hair at the back of his head, combing the rotting vegetable from his hair. ‘You got most of it out.’

Another tomato missed his head by inches. ‘Stop that!’ he yelled at the cackling children.

The two boys stained the street with their laughter, tearing down the dusty road despite the lack of pursuit. Zuko considered sending a fire ball after them, just enough heat to teach them a lesson…

But the waterbender was fussing at him.

It wasn’t entirely unpleasant.

‘If you hold still, I’d be able to get the last of it,’ she scolded him with all the storming anger of a cloudless sky.

The boys disappeared around the next corner, toothy grins flashing at him. Zuko and Katara had stopped for the afternoon in a little riverside town to the north of Gaoling. The river had been diverted to create a series of canals that ran like streets around houses and through the marketplace. So close to the prosperity of Gaoling, the townspeople kept tidy, well cared for, terraced houses. The architecture was alien and not nearly as grandiose as the palace Zuko had grown up in, but something in the arch of the tiled roofs the pillars that framed the bank in the market plaza, reminded the firebender of humid summers in the city of his birth.

The waterbender’s fingers still plucked at his hair. ‘It’s fine!’ he snapped, pulling away from her.

He tried to ignore her knowing grin. ‘If you’re done worrying over your hair—’ Was that a smirk? Was she laughing at him?! ‘—can you help me with these groceries?’

Katara hefted the two bigger parcels, leaving the smaller one on the counter for him. He stared at the bundle of bread, dried chicken-pork, and noodles, his mother’s voice coming to him through the years: A truly honourable man always shoulders his fair share.

He snatched the parcel from the counter and hurried after the girl in the blue dress. ‘Hey, stop.’ He circled around in front of her so she’d be forced to listen to him. ‘Let me take one of those.’

She glanced down at the box under her arm. ‘I’ve got it.’

The tone in her voice would annoy him if it wasn’t so frustratingly innocent. ‘I want to help you,’ he said clearly; perhaps she misunderstood him. She raised a quizzical brow. ‘With the groceries.’ Was he not speaking the same language? Did they have a special peasant song and dance for communicating offers of assistance in the Southern Water Tribe?

‘I’m fine, Zuko.’

He couldn’t help the warmth that blossomed up his neck at his name on her tongue. ‘I want to help you, waterbender.’

Her smile was uncomplicated, genuine, not a trace of malice or manipulation. ‘I know you do.’ Even her words were threaded with sweetness. ‘But I’m fine. I’m perfectly capable of carrying a few potatoes.’

Of course, she could carry vegetables, he knew that. ‘Fine.’

He turned and led the way back down the street, back towards the inn on the edge of town. She caught up to him easily, despite her load— did she laugh under her breath?— and they turned down the street that ran parallel to a canal.

‘Are you still cranky?’ Amused.

Zuko cast her a disparaging look. ‘I’m not cranky.’

‘My mistake.’ Smile.

It was infectious; he felt his lips twitch. ‘I wasn’t cranky with you,’ he clarified.

‘They’re just kids.’ She shrugged. ‘Your hair could use a wash anyway.’

‘My hair?’

Her expression turned wry. ‘The longer it gets, the more time and maintenance it will need.’ Her eyes gleamed as she peeked at him coyly. ‘I like it like this, it suits you better than your bald ponytail look.’

She was joking, only teasing him, right? Katara wasn’t Azula, nowhere near as cruel as his sister. No one was cruel quite like Azula.

‘The shaved head and wrapped ponytail was symbolic,’ he said stiffly, hunching his shoulders. ‘It marked me as disgraced nobility. I wasn’t allowed to grow my hair out until I had captured the Avatar and regained my honour. But now…’ He paused outside the inn door, holding it open for his companion. ‘It doesn’t matter anymore, I guess.’

Katara’s brow furrowed as she passed before him. ‘Your father has a lot to answer for on the Day of Black Sun.’

Zuko didn’t respond. The darkest day in Fire Nation history might be the day of the solar eclipse, but the darkest day for Zuko would always be that fateful Agni Kai— a day of fire and pain. Dirt coats his neck and his face when he kowtows low against the ground. Banishment and shame. If he can just make his father understand, he only cares for his country! Only spoke out of love for his Fire Lord. He lost more than smooth skin in that arena of tears and flames. Ozai’s thin lipped smile. It was only recently that he realised he’d gained more than a scar.

‘Zuko?’

The waterbender had memories of fire and pain, too. She’d lost her mother to the flames of his family’s ambition. ‘My father will pay for what he’s done, but I don’t know if I can defeat him alone.’

Katara closed the door of their room behind him. ‘Who said anything about facing the Fire Lord alone?’

‘The Avatar might be able to bring him down, but not both Azula and my father.’

Her parcels bounced once when she dropped them on her bed. ‘Aang will do his part, whatever that ends up being. But I didn’t mean him.’

He frowned at her. ‘You?’

‘Of course. The Banyan Spirit told me as much.’

He thought of her deadliness in battle, of sandbenders crumbling against sea walls and water as sharp as knives. Then he thought of his father’s malice directed at the confidently smiling girl before him. Fear coiled and plumed.

‘If you’re captured, if Aang and I don’t succeed, my father won’t care that you’re young. He’ll be merciless.’ The fear choked him; it turned his voice hard. Accusatory. Cold.

She eyed him oddly. ‘I know that.’

Ozai’s thin-lipped smile. ‘He’d publicly torture you if he thought it would lure the Avatar to him.’

‘I know what “merciless” means.’

Something gleeful shone in his father’s eyes.

No, you don’t, he thought.

‘You don’t think I’m staying on the sidelines, do you?’

And suffering will be your teacher…

Zuko swallowed the tide of vivid, edged memories, looking at the waterbender rather than the uncertainty of the future or the nightmares of the past. ‘You’re a brave warrior and a master bender. Of course, I don’t think you’ll sit idly by while others fight.’

Her triumphant smile was more than a little smug. ‘You’re not wrong!’

He couldn’t quite muster the same levity that buoyed her spirits. Not when ashes and death circled his throat and made even breathing a chore.

‘Are you okay?’

Her hands were quickly becoming familiar. The way her callouses caught, the narrow fit of her fingers between his, how sensitive his skin became when she idly sketched patterns on it with her thumb.

‘I’m fine.’

She peered at him, concerned. Only his uncle and his mother had ever been concerned about him. ‘You can talk to me, you know. It might help. Tell me what’s on your mind.’

I’m frightened of what my father can do. ‘I’m just thinking about the invasion.’

She stroked a figure eight over his knuckles. ‘It must be hard.’ He didn’t deserve the compassion in her tone. ‘It’s easy for me to forget that, as bad as they are, the Fire Lord and Azula are still your father and sister. It’s okay to feel conflicted.’

He glanced at her sharply. ‘I don’t feel conflicted. Not anymore.’

There was that look again! Searchingly, she probed at him. Looking for what? ‘You’re okay with the possibility that you might need to kill your father?’

He couldn’t hold her gaze. ‘No, no, I’m not okay with it. Killing anyone is… complicated.’ As you well know. ‘But between doing what’s right and what’s comfortable and easy, my uncle has raised me to do what’s right. I know it’s my destiny to defeat my father and restore balance to the world.’

Her grip on his hand tightened. ‘You and me, both.’ Her voice was almost breathless, as though she held some great insight or knew something he didn’t. ‘The Banyan Spirit! This is why it showed me those visions of you. We’re meant to offset one another, help Aang, and restore balance to the Four Nations!’

Visions and prophecies were discouraged in the Fire Nation. They were considered primitive, barbaric. But the waterbender… Katara had known about his mother. About his scar. The burning curiosity licked at him again: What more of his future had she been shown?

Despite his misgivings, Zuko liked the idea of fighting alongside the girl clutching his hand with fire in her eyes.

‘I don’t know what I was concerned about,’ he said in an attempt at humour. ‘My father doesn’t stand a chance against the Avatar, the spirits, and your rag-tag group of rebels.’

Another squeeze. ‘Our rag-tag group,’ she grinned, her nose wrinkling prettily. ‘You’re one of us now, Zuko!’

As she turned to unpack their purchases, Prince Zuko clenched his hand against the ghost of her fingers between his.

 

 

Their journey to the Foggy Swamp had taken a somewhat meandering tone. Each morning, he awoke to the waterbender’s fingers curled into a loose fist by his. Once she’d shaken off the fog of sleep (usually at least half an hour after they’d packed up camp and started out on the road), she continued to side-track their travels with whimsical pit stops. First the Zen gardens to the east, then the town built around the canal system. Or the lake catchment of the Feng Cho River they were headed for currently. The damn waterbender couldn’t go one day without splashing around in a puddle or lake.

Though he complained about the delays, Zuko was slyly invigorated by the girl’s excitement for the humble sights of the southwestern Earth Kingdom. She had a way of distracting his goal-oriented drive to get to their next destination and help him enjoy the fields of wildflowers in hidden valleys or the isolated beauty of the dry desert ridges and plains.

The land didn’t have the same lush, green vibrancy of the Fire Nation, but Zuko began to appreciate the Earth Kingdom in a way he never had before. He noticed the clear green of the rivers as the waterbender threaded streams of it around her arms and shoulders. He caught glimpses of creatures he’d never suspected the existence of— tiny winged pigeon snakes in the scrub and turtle voles in the reeds by the riverbank. The waterbender revelled in it all— from the smallest seed to the largest buffalo deer.

They came across the Lin family several days later when crossing the northern road to reach the river on one of Katara’s fanciful detours. They had time, she claimed as she waved away his concerns, they were ahead of schedule. There were still almost two months until the rendezvous at the Black Cliffs.

Today they made to cross a part of the road that followed the keyline of a gently sloping valley, down towards the water. The ancient river oaks that lined it whispered faintly as the wind shuffled their needles. The road was slippery with damp, shaded as it was under that dense covering of foliage. That was how Pak and Ru had slid into the shallow ravine at the edge of the road, overturning their cart.

‘We should go around,’ he whispered as they peered down at the group blocking their path. ‘If we stay low and quiet, we can get clear of them and cross without them seeing us.’

Katara glanced at him as though he was speaking a different language. ‘Sneak away? We should help them.’

He gave her a pained look; couldn’t she make anything easy? ‘Do I need to remind you who’s looking for us?’

‘Azula won’t suddenly find us because we helped a few locals.’ She had the nerve to sound impatient, as though he were the unreasonable one.

She didn’t know his sister like he did. ‘It’s a bad idea.’

‘It’s the right thing to do.’ She stood from their hiding spot and called down to the man and woman on the road. ‘Hello!’

The man— seated on a rock smoking a pipe— returned her wave. ‘Good morning.’

Zuko swore under his breath but followed the Water Tribe girl as she scrambled down to the road. He couldn’t rightly leave her to get ambushed.

‘Not so great a morning for you, by the looks of it,’ Katara commented in an apologetic tone. Trust her to feel sorry over something she hadn’t done. ‘Can we help at all?’

The man on the rock stood laboriously. His right leg was oddly stiff and seemed to pain him when he walked. ‘I don’t know how much help you can be, to be honest.’ His hair was dusty, knotted with leaves. ‘Name’s Pak, this here is my wife Ru.’

The woman beside him nodded pleasantly. ‘Nice to meet you.’

The waterbender couldn’t help herself. ‘My name is Katara. This is my friend, Zuko.’ He scowled at the use of his true name. ‘We might be able to help pull that cart back up onto the road at least.’

But Ru was shaking her head. ‘I’ve been trying for hours,’ she explained, wiping a trickle of sweat from her temple. ‘My husband was injured fighting in the war, but we’ve both been trying all morning. It’s just so damp under these oaks, the wheels keep slipping further down the ravine.’

Zuko knew what was coming, and knew he was powerless to stop it.

‘I can certainly help with that.’

Ru eyed Katara curiously. ‘Are you an earthbender, then?’

The waterbender flexed her hands as she followed the other woman to the edge of the ravine. ‘Something like that.’

Zuko followed her closely, taking the opportunity to hiss in her ear: ‘What are you planning?’

She barely spared him a glance. ‘There’s enough water in the soil here for me to bend the wagon back onto the road if I freeze it and use the ice to drag it up the hill.’

Zuko glanced down at the little hand cart below. Ignoring her flagrant use of her easily identifiable bending (he knew he’d never talk her out of it), he saw one glaring problem with her plan. Even if she could draw enough water from the boggy forest floor, the wagon was wedged under the lip of a long rotten log. Someone would have to prop it up enough for Katara’s icy plan to work.

Someone would have to get down there.

Great.

‘Wait,’ he advised, dropping his pack and shedding his shirt.

The waterbender watched him with an almost pained expression on her face. ‘What are you doing?’

He nodded to the offending log as he began carefully sidling down the slope. ‘I’m going to get the cart out from under that rotting tree so you can bend it up here.’

‘Don’t slip!’ The note of panic in her voice warmed him.

‘I won’t.’

He did. Ru was right; the ground was treacherously slippery. Mud coated his shoes before he’d even reached the bottom of the slope. It had a thick, cloying scent, like fruit left too long in the sun. Knowing his luck, the mud splattered up to his thighs would soak the stomach-turning scent into his pants.

Damn overly-helpful waterbender!

‘Zuko! Are you okay?’

The worry in her voice did not make him square his shoulders and scramble quickly to his feet. ‘I’m fine!’

He navigated his way under the log, crouching beside the cart and bracing his shoulders against it. ‘Are you ready?’ he called, his voice muffled by the dank humidity in the air.

‘Go!’

Zuko silently thanked his uncle for every early morning firebending drill the old man had put him through. Even so, his arms and legs trembled against the groaning cart. It was heavily laden and— thanks to a series of tightly knotted ropes— everything was still very much in place. It only made the wagon that much weightier.

Ice crept like a vine from the sludge of the ground. Four stalks of it, growing like great frozen plants, gripped the cart and hefted it, creaking, into the air. It teetered as it climbed, Zuko slowly withdrawing his steadying grip until the whole thing settled in a slowly melting icy shell back up on the road.

Zuko was just eyeing the muddy climb— wondering why in the hell he got himself into this situation in the first place!— when water pooled before him, hardening into a disk of ice.

Katara winked at him from the road above. ‘Hop on.’

 

 

Pak and Ru made the waterbender inexplicably nostalgic.

‘… used to play a game when we would travel for long stretches on Appa. Aang loved it. We’d look up at the clouds and find shapes in them! Aang once spotted a rabbit-fox shaped one, and Sokka, well, Sokka’s always looked like food.’

His sister used to play a game too: how many burns could she give her handmaids before their mother noticed and scolded her. ‘Sounds great,’ he said without any enthusiasm.

‘Aang was great at coming up with games,’ she went on, a slow smile spreading across her face at some memory.

Zuko practiced the breathing exercises his uncle had taught him to moderate his inner flame. If he had to listen to Katara prattle obliviously on about the Avatar’s stupid games for one more minute, he’d burn down a tree.

Luckily for Zuko, they rounded a corner and the Feng Cho Lake spread out before them as far as the eye could see. It was practically untouched, the forest sprawling right up to the bank.

‘Wow!’ At a glance, Zuko could see the waterbender’s awe. She gazed, open-mouthed, at the vast lake with a softness that belied her strength. He glanced back at the lake, searching for what she saw that stuck her so forcefully. The water shimmering in the midday sun was a little pretty, he supposed. The majesty of the lake surrounded by forested hills was quite striking if you took the time to look at it.

But by far, the best view was the girl undressing by the water’s edge.

‘When we were travelling from the South Pole to the Northern Water Tribe, we would stop to rest Appa a couple of times a day.’ She shook her hair loose, dropping the hair ribbon on the pile of clothes by the water’s edge. ‘We always chose a spot by the water so Aang and I could practice our bending and Sokka could manscape— his word, not mine.’

Zuko thought he heard her say something about bending and landscape, but he couldn’t be sure. Most of his attention was focused on not watching the waterbender pick her way gracefully across the pebbles and into the lake— or more accurately, watching her while trying not to be caught watching.

He wouldn’t have been so successful if Katara hadn’t been distracted by the warm shallows.

‘Aang barely needed my help, though,’ she continued, sinking down until only her head and shoulders showed above the water. ‘He took to waterbending really quickly, maybe because water is quite similar to air in a lot of ways. Though he did get distracted a lot when we practiced.’

Zuko’s thoughts, pleasantly filled with the image of the Water Tribe girl in her bindings, darkened. Of course, the boy would get distracted by his semi-naked waterbending teacher! His pathetic crush on the girl wouldn’t have helped either.

Katara lifted a dripping foot from the water, eyeing him curiously. ‘What are you doing?’

Zuko flushed. He hadn’t moved since Katara had shed her dress. Most likely his jaw was touching the ground. He closed his mouth and ground his teeth.

‘Nothing.’

Her lip twitched. ‘Are you coming in?’

He wanted to. Badly. ‘No.’

It was as though a cloud had passed in front of the sun; her smile dimmed. ‘Oh. Sokka and Aang used to swim with me all the time.’

‘I’m not Sokka or Aang.’

She dropped her leg back under the water, sinking lower until her chin brushed the gently rippling surface. ‘You get grumpy when I talk about Aang,’ she observed, her eyes narrowing in speculation. ‘Why?’

Zuko’s brain was working a little slower than usual, recovering from the waterbender’s display. ‘Huh?’

‘I don’t understand what it is about Aang that makes you so upset.’

Upset? ‘I’m not upset!’

Her smile turned smug. ‘My mistake.’

She was teasing him. She did that a lot. ‘Are you going to be long?’ He pointed to the sun, brushing against the distant hilltops. ‘We can make it another couple of miles before night.’

She turned in the water, staring up at the sky above. ‘Let’s camp here tonight.’ The contented note in her voice drew his gaze. ‘This place is so nice.’

Zuko thought about the invasion— about those they still had to find in time for it, about having to turn flames and blades against his father in a couple of months— and how many more rough miles stretched between them and the Foggy Swamp. But then he caught the blissful smile sprawled across the waterbender’s face.

‘I guess we could camp in that clearing back by the road.’ His early officer’s training frowned at his acquiescence. ‘But we should probably spend the time practicing our bending.’

She glanced across at him, her slick hair sticking to the side of her neck. ‘We can train later.’ She beckoned him as she swam a little further away. ‘Come on! I bet I can beat you to the other side even without waterbending!’

Zuko dropped his pack before his sense caught up with him. ‘I should really—’

‘Zuko! If you don’t relax and come for a swim, I’m going to summon a tsunami and make you!’

He couldn’t very well say no to that.

 

 

‘I am Long Feng, Grand Secretariat of Ba Sing Se and head of the Dai Li.’

Aang glanced at Toph. The little earthbender crossed her arms over her chest. ‘I thought you were the Earth King’s Cultural Minister?’

Long Feng blinked, his expression unchanged. ‘I assist His Majesty in many ways, Miss Beifong.’

‘Perhaps you could assist us by letting us speak to the Earth King,’ Aang suggested with a grin. ‘We have information about an invasion of the Fire Nation that’s absolutely crucial for him to hear.’

‘Yeah, and don’t even start with the “six-to-eight-week waiting list crap” that Joo Dee tried on us.’ Toph pointed at the thin man before them with no small amount of menace. ‘This could be the most important report His Earthiness hears all year.’

The Grand Secretariat eyed them shrewdly, reclining in the throne-like chair of his private study. ‘His Majesty has no time to get involved with the day to day minutia of military activities,’ he said incredulously, shaking his head. ‘While I applaud you children and your penchant for melodrama, His Majesty’s main concern is the city of Ba Sing Se and its cultural heritage. All his duties relate to issuing decrees on such matters. It's my job to oversee the rest of the city's resources, including the military.’

Aang frowned; that didn’t sound like the Earth King he’d known a hundred years ago.

Toph was downright disdainful. ‘He’s your puppet,’ she said, sounding gravely disappointed. ‘Just a figurehead for you and your Dai Li agents.’

‘Oh, no, no.’ The false shock in Long Feng’s voice turned even Aang’s smile sour. ‘His Majesty is an icon, a god to his people. He can't sully his hands with the hourly changes of an endless war.’

‘But we found out about a solar eclipse that will leave the Fire Nation defenceless,’ Aang protested, taking a step forward. ‘You could lead an invasion! We’ve already begun gathering our allies—’

‘Enough!’ The distant, polite façade slipped as Long Feng stood. ‘I don't want to hear your ridiculous plan. It is the strict policy of Ba Sing Se that the war not be mentioned within the walls. Constant news of an escalating war will throw the citizens of Ba Sing Se into a state of panic. It is the Earth King’s decree that we focus our efforts on promoting the rich cultural heritage of the city.’

Anger— sharp and unfamiliar— bit at Aang. ‘But that’s just wrong! You can’t hide it, there are refugees everywhere! I’ll tell everyone! I’ll tell them all what you’re doing!’

From the shadowy corners of the room, four Dai Li agents materialised. ‘Until now, you've been treated as our honoured guests.’ Long Feng’s voice dropped low; silky smooth. ‘But from now on, you will be watched every moment by Dai Li agents. If you mention the war to anyone, you will be expelled from the city.’

Toph clenched her fists so tightly, they could almost be heard creaking with frustration. ‘Thank you for your time, Grand Secretariat,’ she snapped, grabbing Aang’s arm. ‘It has been most enlightening. Come on, Aang.’

The Avatar turned away from the thin man in disgust, following his earthbending teacher from the room.

 

 

 

Despite the waterbender’s proclivity to get side-tracked by every noteworthy body of water, they made it to the fringes of the Foggy Swamp still remarkably ahead of schedule.

‘We’ll have to veer west from here,’ the waterbender informed him as they paused for lunch at the swamp’s border. ‘The swampbenders’ village is on the other side of the swamp. We can just follow the tree line until we find it.’

Zuko swallowed his mouthful of tea. ‘Why don’t we just cut through the middle?’

Her eyes tightened. ‘The Swamp’s really treacherous travelling. I told you about what happened to me, Aang, and Sokka last time. No, it’s safer if we just go around it.’

Safer? Did she think he was frightened by a few old trees? ‘I’m not walking a week out of our way just because you saw a couple of ghosts in there.’

She glared at him. ‘They weren’t ghosts! And it’s not just the visions! The swamp itself attacked the three of us and separated us last time! It’s dangerous in there.’

He met her glower with a look of cool unconcern. ‘I’m not scared of some wet plants, waterbender.’

She was moments away from putting her hands on her hips and giving him the lecture of a lifetime when the wind picked up. It had been dead still all day, the sun beating down at them while the ripe scent of stagnant water rose. Not a puff of wind to be found. The sudden gale whipped at their clothes and tore the fruits from their fingers. Zuko slung his pack over his shoulders and crouched beside the grimacing girl beside him.

‘I told you!’ Katara cursed, saving the small tea sachet from tearing away with the wind.

Zuko decided now was not the time to concede the point. ‘Stay low! Follow me!’

But her hand shot out, holding him in place. ‘No! We have to go in!’ she shouted, squinting against the howling wind.

‘What?! But I thought you wanted to go around?’ He flinched as the wind intensified. ‘Can’t say I blame you!’

She pulled him closer to yell over the whipping winds. ‘This storm is the Banyan Spirit pulling us in! We have to go, or it’ll get worse. I’ve seen it before!’ She tugged at his arm. ‘Quick!’

Cursing under his breath, Zuko stood and fled after the Water Tribe girl towards the inexplicably breezeless canopy of the Foggy Swamp.

Chapter Text

Green.

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—

Nothing.

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.

‘Zuko! Help!’

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.

‘Huu!’

No response.

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.

‘Zuko!’

‘Katara.’

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.

‘You’re back.’

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.’

‘My… presentation?’

‘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.

‘Hey, Katara!’

Her heart leapt at the familiar voice.

‘Aang?’

‘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.

‘Aang!’

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.

He knew.

‘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.’

‘…Of course.’

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.

‘Huh. Weird.’

‘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.’

‘Anytime, cousin.’

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.

‘Thanks.’

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?’

‘Of course.’

‘Of course?’

‘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.’

‘Different how?’

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.’

‘You do?’

‘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?’

‘Hmm?’

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.’

‘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.

Chapter Text

‘Aang—’

‘We can’t.’

‘Twinkletoes—’

‘We can’t, Toph!’

The earthbender threw her hands into the air. ‘And I’m supposed to be the blind one here!’

Aang stared up at the walls of the Earth King’s palace, his stomach turning with uncertainty. Long Feng had again stymied their attempts to discuss the invasion with the king. He refused to allow Aang, Toph, Momo, and Appa into the palace grounds, let alone an audience chamber. The young Avatar thought of his friends, spread out over the Earth Kingdom, relying on him…

‘I’ve failed again,’ he whispered bleakly.

‘Oh, stow it, Twinkletoes,’ his earthbending teacher said shortly, thumping the wall beside her. ‘We’ve got bigger fish to fry than your confidence.’

He glanced at the girl forlornly. ‘But how can we? Long Feng’s control over this city… he owns everything, Toph! Even the king and the military. And he already said he won’t help us.’

Toph sighed. ‘Aang, we need to look at the bigger picture here.’ She cracked her neck. ‘We’re not going to be able to topple Long Feng’s conspiracy between now and the invasion. Certainly not with enough time to get the Earth King’s armies to the Fire Nation— assuming, of course, we could actually convince the guy to lend us his army.’ She pointed to the south. ‘One crazy tyrant at a time, oh powerful Avatar.’

Aang frowned, turning from the high palace walls. ‘You want to leave?’

‘What did Roku say in your vision?’

‘Roku?’

‘Yes, jeez. What are you, deaf?’

‘He said I should go to the Eastern Air Temple before the invasion. There’s someone there who can teach me how to control the Avatar State.’

Toph crossed her arms over her chest. ‘Then it’s obvious what our next move should be.’

One crazy tyrant at a time. Could they handle the invasion themselves? Just their friends and allies from the Earth Kingdom? Against the might of the Fire Lord’s forces? Even with the eclipse it would be risky.

Aang turned to Appa. The bison blinked one large, chocolatey eye. ‘What do you think, buddy?’ he asked his old friend softly. Many times, during the struggles Aang had faced, he wished with all his heart that Appa could channel the wisdom of his people. If only Monk Gyatso could speak through the bison; Aang needed someone to tell him what to do. He couldn’t always be expected to make the right decision.

‘Hey! Twinkletoes.’

But he did have someone.

Toph had already scrambled up into the saddle, a wicked grin split over her face. ‘Let me put it this way,’ she said sweetly, ‘get on. We’re going.’

Aang didn’t argue.

The uncertainty in his stomach eased somewhat. ‘Right.’

Momo chittered happily in his ear as he guided Appa up through the smog that sagged over Ba Sing Se like a sickness. It felt a little like running, this leaving. But he vowed to himself that he would return. One day, he would come back, he would see the Earth King, and he would set things right.

Ba Sing Se faded to a distant blip on the horizon.

‘Where would you be without me, Twinkletoes?’ Toph called from the saddle where she laid, picking her feet.

‘I don’t know,’ Aang admitted, smiling back at her. ‘I really don’t.’

 

 

The humidity of the Swamp woke Katara long before the sunrise did.

The air hung stale and heavy as though there shouldn’t rightly be any room for the Fire Prince and Water Tribe girl to sleep within it. Katara groaned as she rolled over, feeling the sweat on her body like a second, very unwanted skin. Something buzzed up the length of her leg, irritating her further.

Despite the heaviness in the air, her throat was dry as the Si Wong Desert. Water. She needed water.

Someone shifted beside her.

Her eyes shot open as the night before caught up with her.

Zuko blinked at her, his water skin halfway to his mouth. ‘You’re awake.’

She didn’t want her cheeks to colour, but of course they did. ‘Good morning to you too,’ she croaked, licking her dry lips.

The firebender suited the early morning light. It made his scar look mysterious, softer, and his thin frame rounded— less edges and fire. She hadn’t noticed these slight morning changes in his face before. The sleepy, half-closed eyes weren’t sharp and piercing at this hour. There was an understated vulnerability about him, something he usually hid beneath his clothes and the wakefulness of day. Unchecked by his irritability and scowl, Zuko appeared as the boy he was, closer to the man he would be.

He laid back slowly. ‘Thirsty?’

Katara rubbed her eyes, leaning up onto her elbow. ‘Very, thank you.’

The water was as warm and soupy as the air, but at least it was wet. Zuko watched her tip the canteen to her mouth, his gaze flicking to her throat as she swallowed.

The silence was deafening.

‘Much better,’ she sighed, returning the skin to the firebender. She let her fingers brush his and was rewarded by a flush of red up the prince’s cheeks. A heartbeat later, his thumb traced down her palm.

Katara’s cheeks ached under the giddiness of her grin.

‘I tried not to wake you,’ Zuko muttered, discarding the water and turning to face her. ‘You don’t usually wake up properly for at least another hour.’

She chuckled at the ludicrous notion. ‘You should have woken me sooner,’ she admonished gently, wiggling her foot between his ankles.

She’d never seen the prince so wide-eyed, uncertain. ‘I didn’t want to presume…’

Katara shuffled forward and pecked him chastely on the lips. ‘You can presume.’ His hesitant smile had Katara blushing.

Zuko was struggling for words, it seemed. ‘How— err… how, um, long? You know, have you… um…’ Mild panic hardened the openness in his expression. Katara took pity on him.

‘How long have I what?’

He gestured distractedly, with all the suaveness of a desert cactus. ‘You know… wanted to…’ He sighed, dropping his hand in the small space between them. ‘I’m… I’m not very good at this.’ He pointed to his mouth. ‘Talking.’

Katara couldn’t hide her giggles any longer. The boy’s awkward attempts to express himself— as elegant as a koala lamb taking its first shaky steps— was endearingly hilarious. She ducked her head to avoid offending the prince’s prickly pride.

‘You’re laughing at me.’

Katara glanced up in alarm at his tone. ‘No! I was just—!’

His lips were hard, insistent. A delicious reminder of boggy cider lingered on them, smooth and crisp and welcome in the growing heat of the little tent. It occurred to Katara that Zuko didn’t have a problem expressing himself this way, though it made her a lot less coherent.

Heat licked at her face like sunburn. It coiled around her limbs like a great hot-blooded viper weasel. Was the ground smouldering? Had her skin blistered and boiled away to nothing? She gasped when he broke the kiss, lips throbbing as though her pulse sought to extinguish the fire that originated there.

She opened her eyes; she couldn’t remember closing them. ‘I should laugh at you more often.’

Zuko smiled that smile— the one that had sent her heart pounding all those months ago in the foggy mire of the swamp. I know you, it said. I know you more than I did yesterday.

‘A few months ago, a waterbender from the South Pole laughing at me would have made me furious.’ He traced a strand of Katara’s hair over her shoulder.

She returned his grin. ‘A peasant laughing at his royal fieriness? Scandalous!’

His brows drew together. ‘Not as scandalous as the Crown Prince making a waterbender the next Fire Lady.’ Eyes widening, he glanced at her sharply. ‘Sorry, you said you didn’t want to talk about that.’

She studied the seam of space between them. ‘I’m too young to get married,’ she told him, eyes downcast. ‘The betrothal age in the Southern Tribe is sixteen. Besides, you’re only just sixteen yourself. I don’t think it’s something we need to worry about for a long time.’

Zuko was silent for a moment. ‘The children of Fire Nation nobles are sometimes promised from birth.’

Something cold slithered through Katara. ‘Are you—’

The tent waved as though in a high wind. ‘You awake, cousin?’

Katara sat up as though a bolt of electricity had shot through her. ‘Due?’

A vague shadow hovered by the front of the tent. ‘That’s some mighty fine canvas you got there.’

Katara snatched her dress from the ground; what would the swampbenders think if they found her and Zuko in their underclothes, alone, in the tent?!

Too late.

Due’s head appeared in the entrance. His hair was mussed from sleep, his leaf hat absent. Instead, several small twigs dangled from his shaggy mop.

His smile was mild as an Earth Kingdom autumn. ‘Y’all got a nice lil set up.’

Katara didn’t know her cheeks could flush so red. Not pink. Not even Fire Nation maroon. It was a very specific caught-cuddling-in-underwear-with-the-prince-of-the-Fire-Nation red.

Neither Zuko or Katara seemed able to respond.

Due scratched his head; a trail of ants marched unnoticed from his hairline. ‘The heat gettin’ to you, cousin?’

Katara pulled her dress over her head, shakily. ‘Uh, no, it’s okay.’

‘You got the healin’ touch, don’t you?’ the swampbender asked, kneeling in the entranceway.

‘I learned from Yugoda in the North Pole.’ Her brow creased. ‘Is someone hurt?’

‘Oh, it’s nothin’ worth cryin’ over.’ He blinked, considering. ‘Although, I guess Gin would say different.’

‘What happened?’

‘Oh, he got a fish hook in his eye.’

‘What?!’

Due shrugged. ‘It’s not the first time, but our healer can’t get it out alone.’

The Fire Prince was eyeing the swampbender irritably. ‘Why can’t your healer do it?’

‘Zuko.’

Due shrugged, digging in his ear with a finger. ‘She’s only young. Our Clever Woman died last season, before she could teach Mino all her ways.’

Katara followed Due out of the tent. ‘Where are they?’

‘Out the front of Mammie Ji’s place.’ The swampbender sniffed his wax-coated finger. ‘You want me to show you?’

Katara suddenly understood how Sokka must have felt during their time with the nomads in the Cave of Two Lovers. She was moments away from slapping her palm to her forehead in frustration. ‘Yes.’

Due ambled— ambled— back into the village. Zuko caught up to them as they passed the first huts, dressed in his usual clothes and scowl. Due didn’t seem to notice. He even stopped to greet a friend of his wife’s before Katara reminded him of the boy with the fishhook in his eye.

‘See you later, Mi!’ he drawled, waving a hand lazily as they moved on.

‘Come on by for a bowl of swamp fly later, Due!’

There was surprisingly little panic among the group of tribespeople on Mammie Ji’s front porch. The unfortunate Gin was oddly limp. He reclined against a slowly snoring catgator, his mouth hanging slack. Yun muttered quietly to a much older, squat tribeswoman in a mud-stained sack dress.

The Chieftess nodded to Katara. ‘Cousin.’

‘Hi, Yun. What happened?’

‘Gin was out with the menfolk. Every few days we go searchin’ for folk. It’s easy for outsiders to get lost in these parts.’

Katara pushed away her impatience. ‘But how did he get a fishhook in his eye?’

‘An accident, far as I can tell.’ Yun shrugged and gestured to the thin figure by the unconscious boy’s side. ‘This is Mino, the Clever Woman.’

Katara blanched. The Clever “Woman” was a girl scarcely older than ten. What little hair she had that wasn’t knotted into dreadlocks was braided with corkwood, rocks, and dried vines. A thorn, several inches long and coated in hard amber, pierced the girl’s left ear. Her arms, neck, and face were streaked with swamp mud, pale skin peeking through the dried earth. Unlike the other women in the tribe, she wore a long dress— dirty cream and green patched— that hung down to her ankles. It was made for a much taller person, hitched up at the waist by a leather belt to free her bare feet. The most spectacular array of bone bracelets adorned the girl’s wrists and ankles.

Mino’s bright blue eyes studied Katara closely. ‘Thanks for comin’, cousin.’

Katara tried not to stare at the giant thorn through the girl’s ear. ‘No problem. How can I help?’

The Clever Woman beckoned her closer. ‘Clever Aga, the one before me, never taught me how to fix anythin’ as complicated as the eye; there’s so many parts.’

Katara swallowed, her stomach curdling at the sight before her. The barbed hook had passed through the boy’s eyelid, nicked his eyeball, and emerged again. Thankfully, the wound was shallow and had missed the iris. She may be able to save his sight! His comatose state was concerning, though.

‘Why is he unconscious?’

Yun shifted behind them. ‘He was hollerin’ and writhin’ about. Wasn’t doin’ him no good, so Tho clubbed him over the head to bring him back here.’

Katara dropped her face into her palm; yes, she could certainly empathise with Sokka now. ‘For future reference, head wounds are never a good way to treat an injury.’

Mino leaned over the prostrate Gin. ‘I keep tellin’ ‘em that…’

Katara hid a smile. ‘I think I can help you with this and save his sight. Here’s what we need to do…’

 

 

Three hours, another two knocks to Gin’s head from the butt of Tho’s oar, and one bloody fish hook later, Katara directed Mino in bandaging the swampbender’s eye closed. The young Clever Woman had removed the hook one agonisingly slow movement at a time, while Katara followed with her bending. The Water Tribe girl healed any new wounds the jagged hook opened and burned out the infection festering in the wound. Gin would likely have a droopy eye, and the rest of the wound would need to heal in its own time, but the boy would be able to see eventually.

Zuko had been whisked away by Tho and Due at some point to help prepare breakfast for the tribe. The thought of the prince cooking for a tribe of peasants tasted deliciously of irony.

Mino handed Katara a moulded leaf mug. ‘Thanks for your help, cousin.’

‘I’m sure you would have managed fine without me,’ the older girl pointed out, sipping the spiced tea.

‘I don’t think so.’ The Clever Woman’s tired smile fell. ‘Clever Aga never got to teachin’ me anythin’ like this.’

‘Was she unwell?’ Katara asked gently. ‘Due said she passed last year.’

Mino shook her head, her thorn piercing glinting in the low light. ‘Naw, she was just old. She been around since before the war.’

The Water Tribe girl frowned. ‘Why did she wait so long to take on a student?’

‘Oh, she don’t choose her Swamp Daughter,’ Mino remarked, retrieving a small pot of what looked like sludge from the case beside her. ‘The swamp marked me out for her.’

‘Swamp Daughter?’

The wild looking girl dipped a finger in the sludge and inscribed a crescent moon over the wrappings on Gin’s eye. ‘That’s what they call the Clever Woman’s student. The swamp marked me. Clever Aga was always tellin’ me how late I was. Late in comin’ to be marked out, late to my lessons, late to learn.’

Katara’s heart squeezed for the quietly-spoken girl beside her. ‘How did the swamp mark you?’

‘Blue eyes like the skies, and death givin’ breath to life.’

‘Is that a poem?’

‘It’s the prophecy from the Banyan Spirit. Ev’ry Clever Woman since Clever Win has had blue eyes and killed their mamas durin’ the birthin’.’

Ice seized Katara’s throat. ‘You’re… you don’t have a mother?’

Mino shrugged and rested a hand on Gin’s forehead, muttering what sounded like a pray under her breath before replying. ‘My birth mama died when I was marked. Then Clever Aga was my mama.’

Katara tried not to see herself in the braids and muddy streaks that made up the young Clever Woman. After all, the girl looked nothing like her except for the eyes. She tried not to see another young, motherless girl with bending she couldn’t quite understand yet. Swamp instead of tundra; hot, heavy air instead of icy winds; cicada frogs droning instead of wolf seals howling.

A responsibility too large for narrow child shoulders slipping over a girl trying to be something she was never prepared for.

‘Mino,’ Katara started, pushing away the threatening tears. ‘I—I don’t know the Swamp Tribe’s traditions or how to be a Clever Woman. But I do know how to bend.’ She thought of ice and fog and swirling whirlpools of water that towered into the sky. ‘All kinds of bending. I can help you; I can teach you how to heal.’

Mino’s mud-streaked lips parted in shock. ‘You will?’

The hunger in the girl’s eyes hardened Katara’s resolve. ‘Zuko and I have to leave soon; there’s something we have to do. But until then I’ll work with you every day! And if you need me, I’ll come back. I’ll come back as soon as I can, I promise.’

Tears welled in those bright, blue eyes. Despite her fierce appearance, Mino’s age shone through. She leaned forward, threading thin, shaking arms around Katara’s neck.

‘Thank you,’ she whispered into the Water Tribe girl’s hair as tears and mud streaked Katara’s neck.

 

 

‘You did what?

‘She’s ten, Zuko! She’s like the High Fire Sage of the Foggy Swamp Tribe, and her adopted mother died before she could learn how to do her job. I’m going to stay to help her.’

The Fire Prince glowered at her. ‘Are you insane?!’ he demanded, throwing his hands into the air. ‘Has the heat fried your brain? What about the eclipse? The invasion?’

Katara fisted her hands, glaring at him. ‘The invasion is still two moons away!’

‘During which we still need to recruit the swampbenders, sneak into the Fire Nation, find the rendezvous point, and meet up with the others!

They stood stubbornly apart, glaring at one another across the mossy clearing on the outskirts of town. Those tribespeople not out hunting or foraging blatantly stared at the bickering pair. While people in the Foggy Swamp Tribe disagreed, they rarely yelled at each other. The locals were enjoying the spectacle.

‘Look!’ Katara grabbed the infuriating firebender and dragged him further from the village. ‘Sailing to the Fire Nation with the swampbenders will be much faster than any navy ship. Waterbenders are way faster! She needs me and we have the time.’

Zuko shook his head slowly, freeing his arm from her stranglehold. ‘You just can’t help yourself, can you?’ he muttered, striding over to a buttressed root.

‘I don’t turn my back on people who need me,’ she reminded him as the words summoned an image from the depth of her memories: crouched over the faintly smoking figure of his uncle; the scent of burning flesh in the air.

His eyes flashed as he crossed his arms and leaned back against the roots. ‘I remember, waterbender.’

‘Then you know why I have to do this.’

‘You should have talked to me.’

She blinked. ‘What?’

‘You should have come and talked to me first.’

‘I don’t need your permission to—’

‘It’s not about permission,’ he said tightly, glaring at her. ‘We’re… We’re a team, right? Teams decide things together.’

Katara’s retort died on her tongue. That was why he was so mad? ‘We… we are a team,’ she affirmed. ‘I’m sorry, I guess I forgot. For a long time now, I’ve kind of kept our group together. Aang, Sokka, Toph; I’ve had to make a lot of decisions.’

His stern expression lingered for barely a heartbeat. ‘It’s okay.’

She smiled hesitantly. ‘I’ll make it up to you.’

Zuko’s brows raised; pink tinged his cheeks. ‘You don’t have to.’

‘I want to.’ She brightened. ‘I know! I’ll see if I can convince Yun to serve possum-chicken instead of bugs tonight. I know you didn’t like them very much.’ A strange smile took over the Fire Prince’s face. ‘What?’

He shook his head quickly. ‘Nothing. That sounds nice.’

Katara took his hand. ‘Come on. I want to introduce you to Mino properly.’

Chapter Text

No one blank-faces quite like a group of two dozen swampbenders.

‘Solar eclipse?’ Due asked mildly, scratching his elbow.

Katara nodded.

‘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.

‘Right.’

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!’

‘…Into what?’

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.’

‘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.

Chapter Text

‘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.’

 

 

Dark canvas.

Laboured breathing.

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.’

‘I could!’

‘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 know—’

‘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.’

‘Fine.’

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.’

‘Mmhm.’

Zuko.’

‘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.

Chapter Text

 

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.’

‘Hmph.’

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.

-o-

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.

-o-

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!’

-o-

‘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.’

‘I’m fine.’

‘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.

-o-

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!’

-o-

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.

-o-

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.’

‘It’s possum-chicken.’

‘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.

Chapter Text

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.’

-o-

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.

-o-

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—’

‘No.’

‘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!’

-o-

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.’

‘Too easy.’

‘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,’

-o-

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.’

-o-

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?’

‘Yeah?’

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?

‘Um…’

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…’

-o-

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.’

‘Zuko!’

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.’

‘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.’

‘No.’

‘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.’

‘I know.’

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.’

‘Am not.’

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.’

‘Zuko!’

‘It’s true.’

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?’

Would she?

Be there?

In the Fire Nation?

‘My—my tribe…’

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.

‘Zuko, I…’

‘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.

-o-

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.’

‘Indeed.’

‘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.’

Chapter Text

 

The Water Tribe Chief’s tent was far too small for the invasion consultation, so the circle convened outside around a wide stone table (curtesy of Toph) upon which dozens of maps of the Fire Nation gleamed in the candle light.

The circle sat as follows: Bato and Sokka were seated either side of the Chief. Beyond Bato sat Haru (at his own request, something about an argument with Sokka) with Tyro, Jima and The Boulder (the latter casting the former covert glances), and Teo’s dad, the Mechanist, beside them. On Sokka’s right were Aang, Toph, Iroh, Piando, Jeong Jeong, and finally— slumped like school children in a classroom— Yun and Huu.

Truthfully, Hakoda had his doubts about some of the “soldiers,” namely those armoured in leaves and twigs, but Sokka’s glowing recommendation settled his disquiet. The boy had grown after all; he was a man now.

As the circle broke up, the volunteer invaders leaving in groups of ones and twos, Hakoda overheard his daughter’s name on the Swamp Tribe Cheiftess’s lips.

‘…a day or two before we set on out for these here islands.’

‘I see. And did she tell you why? A young lady has her secrets, but I can imagine a woman such as yourself would be wise to the ways of girls.’ The former general certainly had a way with words. And women.

‘Naw, we don’t know why Cousin Katara was outta sorts. But her boyfriend left with her, and he’ll be keepin’ an eye on her.’

The old man was listening with the most peculiar gleam in his eye. ‘Indeed?’

A feeling like ice churning in stormy seas charged through Hakoda’s veins. It was all he could do to keep from slamming his fist into the table before him. He would have words with the Fire Lord’s son when he finally turned up.

Unfortunately, Sokka had overheard the exchange also. ‘Boyfriend?’ the young man scoffed, stopping by General Iroh’s side. ‘Zuko? He’s a fire bender, not a boyfriend.’

The tribeswoman’s mild expression remained impassive. ‘Sure, cousin, if you say so.’

Hakoda turned from the group, staring out beyond the cliffs just as the moon drifted from behind a cloud. Under the milky crescent moonlight, his anger turned to fear as his daughter’s face drifted through his thoughts. Dammit, Katara, where are you?

- o -

It took four days for the battered swamp skiff to pull into the dicey waters of Black Cliff Cove. They had left their little island, name still undecided, the morning after learning to redirect lighting and discovering the secrets of swamp visions under pale moonlight. And somehow they’d managed to leave the island’s sands and forests with much, much more than they’d arrived with.

As though the spirits themselves ordained their luck, Zuko and Katara had nothing but sunny days, strong winds, and not a Fire Navy patrol ship to be seen. Their luck made them lazy and they began to forgo keeping watch on the horizon. The electricity of the other’s touch, whether ordained by spirits or their own doing, was nothing short of addictive below deck in the gloom of the cargo hold. Katara found herself wishing they’d another day or two alone on the little boat. The tiny space that had once felt like a prison was now a safe haven of soft touches and softer words whispered back and forth in the humidity of the Fire Nation’s tropical seas.

‘What happens when we get there?’ she mumbled against Zuko’s lips as the boy sketched his name over her hip.

‘What do you mean?’ He knew what she meant.

The lantern overhead threw long, dancing shadows. They twitched and swirled, casting darkness and light over their faces in equal measure. ‘What do we say?’ she pressed, holding the softness in his eyes all to herself for a few days yet. ‘About this?’

He flashed into shadows. ‘We don’t say anything.’

‘You don’t want to?’

The shadow shifted and the flame again lit his face. ‘I wouldn’t deny it if someone asked,’ he muttered, his hand stilling against her hip. ‘Surely you know that?’

She nodded, waiting on the words she could see him struggling for.

‘I don’t think we need to tell anyone. Not in words. Let’s just… let them figure it out for themselves.’

 ‘You’ll have to practice keeping your hands to yourself then,’ she teased quietly, tracing the curve of his smile. ‘You’re always touching me.’

‘And what do you call this?’ he asked, looking pointedly at her fingers on his face.

She bit her lip to keep from grinning. ‘I can control myself.’

A wicked spark that had nothing to do with fire bending lit the prince’s eyes. ‘I could prove that wrong in about five minutes,’ he whispered, trailing a wide circle over her hip, across her back and down to…

Katara laughed and squirmed away from the touch. ‘So, don’t hide it, but don’t flaunt it?’

He smiled his relief. ‘Exactly.’

Outside, rain began tapping against their skiff, whispering through the timber of its hull. It’s drumming lent the dimly lit cargo hold a melody to match its creak and the ocean’s slosh. Like a blanket made of sound, the Water Tribe girl and the Fire Prince whispered about the end of the war.

‘Does the Fire Lady have to wear red?’ Will I have to give up the traditions of my people?

‘What projects do you want to do in the South? How many nights will I have to sleep without you?

‘Can we use one of those messenger hawks to write to each other? Will you forget me, and moments like these, when we’re at different points of the compass?

‘Will you visit?

‘Will you?’

 Zuko’s scar was rough and smooth against her fingers, like the well-worn hides of her frozen homeland. Perhaps she wasn’t quite as far from home as she thought.

-o-

Mere days later they stood at the skiff’s prow, shoulders brushing, as Katara steered the ship towards one of the earthen docks in Black Cliff Cove. There were three raised piers, busy with a motley assortment of skiffs, sail boats, and warships. Her heart leapt into her throat at the familiar curved prow and blue sails of the Water Tribe ships.

‘We’re finally here,’ she said quietly, ambivalence tearing at her.

‘Hm.’

She pointed to the figures waving from the cliffs towering high above their heads. ‘Who’s that?’

Zuko craned his head, shielding his eyes against the sun. ‘I don’t— oh.’ The figure leapt into the air, looping and gliding his way down to the pier. Zuko said it like a curse word: ‘the Avatar.’

She glanced at him, grinning slyly. ‘Don’t sound too excited.’

But Zuko had gone the colour of eggwhites, eyes narrowing at the bald figure dashing along the earthen dock.

‘You’re here! You’re finally here!’ Aang leapt the last twenty metres, crashing gracefully onto the deck of the little skiff. ‘Katara!’

Despite the strangeness creeping in her bones— could he see the change in her? The part of her sealed in flames?— Katara grinned at her friend. ‘Aang!

The air bender sped to her side, and she hugged him tightly. ‘Where have you been? Did you get past the blockade okay? How was the Swamp? This is a cool boat!’

Katara laughed and disentangled herself while Zuko pulled the boat into berth. ‘I’ve missed you so much!’

Zuko pushed between them to tie the skiff to the mooring pegs, and Aang’s grin flickered like a candle in the wind. ‘Hi Zuko.’

The fire bender merely nodded.

Aang took her hand, urging her towards the shore where others were running. ‘Come on! Everyone’s so excited to see you!’

Katara glanced back at the figure crouched by the railing. ‘I’ll just be a moment, Aang,’ she said with a smile. ‘I just have to get my things.’

‘I’ll get them!’

‘No!’ Her blankets and bedding, twisted and tangled with Zuko’s below deck, flashed through her mind. She caught the excitable air bender and gestured towards the figure that had just fallen from the pier into the water. ‘Er, I think that was Sokka. Can you go help him? I’ll just get my bag and meet you back here.’

Aang squinted into the sun at the flailing arms trying to climb back onto the dock. ‘I think Toph’s behind it; it’s the third time he’s fallen into the bay in two days.’

Zuko was already in the cargo hold, hastily rolling his bedding and buckling it onto his bag. His movements were stiff. Gone was the relaxed, easy boy she’d spent the last week with.

Katara climbed down beside him, kneeling by her bedding, and kissing him chastely on the lips. ‘Come to me later tonight,’ she whispered, smiling at him. ‘After everyone’s gone to bed.’

He blinked in surprise. ‘Sure.’

Back up on deck, a dripping Sokka and a chortling Toph were waiting.

Sokka’s expression lightened as he caught sight of her climbing from the hold. ‘Katara!’

She wasn’t prepared for the rush of love at the sight of Sokka, Toph, and Aang— together. Dropping her bag on the pier, she pulled them all into a back-cracking hug, burying her head in Sokka’s neck.

‘I missed you guys so much!’ she exclaimed, sniffling faintly.

Sokka pat her back tentatively. ‘Alllllright. We get it. You love us.’

‘Yeah, Sugar Queen, you’re breaking our hearts.’

Katara laughed and let them go. Toph and Sokka turned to greet Zuko, but Katara didn’t catch their exchange. Her father— a little greyer around the temples, a little stiffer in his gait, but still sporting laugh-lines around his eyes— was marching down the dock towards her.

Safe. Alive.

Here.

‘Dad!’

She couldn’t move fast enough; in fact, she narrowly avoided following her brother’s example and tumbling into the water. Hakoda, too, was running towards her and they sunk to their knees laughing and crying and hugging away four years of absence.

‘Dad,’ she sobbed, squeezing him so hard her teeth clenched.

‘I’m here,’ he assured her, holding her as though she were still the little girl he’d left on the ice. ‘You’ve grown.’

She gave a watery laugh, but his words hit her like the white wash in a wave, something that wanted to unsettle the moment.

Over Hakoda’s shoulder, a familiar face smirked. ‘Jima?’ she exclaimed.

The fisherwoman nodded with a brittle smile. ‘Hey, kid.’

Katara drew back, Hakoda pulling her to her feet. ‘What are you doing here?’

‘Oh, just here for the sights.’ The older woman rolled her eyes. ‘What do you think?’

‘The Boulder tried to dissuade the sassy woman from accompanying him, but she simply couldn’t refuse The Boulder’s charms.’

Jima’s eyes were in danger of rolling so far back she’d see the inside of her skull. ‘Yeah, I came with this idiot and his friends.’

Katara waved to the Earth Rumble VI team, the Hippo returning her wave so enthusiastically he nearly knocked Fire Nation Man off the dock.

Zuko’s voice broke through the chatter of waves and friends reuniting. ‘Uncle.’

Iroh strolled slowly up the pier, no longer dressed in dirty Earth Kingdom robes, but fine navy and silver ones bearing a white flower crest. His eyes were trained on his nephew, and when the boy tried to bow his greetings, the old man simply pulled him in for a hug.

Beyond their embrace slouched four partially naked figures. ‘Hey! Yun, Huu! Due, Tho!’

Yun nodded. ‘Cuz.’

Due merely dug in his ear with a disturbingly satisfied grin across his face. ‘Lookie here, Tho! It’s them kids what stayed with us. Hey, ‘Tara!’

Hakoda’s hand on her shoulder drew her attention back to him. ‘I’m glad you’re finally here.’

She glanced up at him, that strange vertigo of irritation and joy mixing uncomfortably within her. ‘Me too.’

-o-

It was a mark of just how much Sokka had missed her that he voluntarily helped her set up her tent between his own and Toph’s earth tent. Impatience might have also been a factor.

‘Come on,’ he whined, dancing from one foot to the other. ‘Hurry up! You can unpack all your girlie things later!’

‘What’s the rush?’ she demanded, spreading out her hastily stowed bedding. Where’s my pillow?

‘Only that we finally have the gang back together!’ he said, offended that she hadn’t realised. ‘We want to hear everything, right guys?’

Toph yawned loudly. ‘I want to find Sparky and practice my bending against a fire bender. The Order of the Old Guys won’t spar with me.’

Sokka flapped his hand at her. ‘Whatever, the angry jerk can come too. But let’s go! Team Avatar!’

‘What about Teo? And Pipsqueak and The Duke?’ Aang asked, passing Katara a drink of water. ‘And Haru?’

Sokka’s face darkened. ‘Not Haru!’

A look of consternation crossed Aang’s face. ‘But I already invited him.’

‘Hey everyone,’ Haru called cheerfully, Teo to his right.

Sokka made a pained face. ‘Urg. Fine. Where are Pipsqueak and The Duke?’

‘On their way,’ Teo supplied, balancing his chair on just the two back wheels. ‘Check this out!’

Only Aang seemed inclined to marvel.

‘And Zuko?’

Toph took a deep breath. ‘Hey! Captain Hotpants!’ she shouted across the camp.

Katara glanced up in time to see Zuko walking at his uncle’s side through the city of tents. He frowned at the little earth bender, but his uncle gestured to the group and, with a beleaguered sigh, the Fire Prince made his way over to them.

Toph sniggered under her breath. ‘He’s answering to Captain Hotpants,’ she said gleefully.

The fire bender eyed the group cagily. ‘What?’

Sokka squared his shoulder, throwing his chest forward. ‘You are hereby cordially invited—’

‘We’re going to explore the island,’ Katara interrupted, rolling her eyes at her brother’s theatrics. ‘Just the kids. Will you come with us?’

Her voice drew his attention as though she’d shouted. ‘Kids.’

Aang nodded hesitantly. ‘Kids and teenagers.’

Zuko glanced back the way he’d come. ‘My uncle—’

‘Has all his old, weird friends,’ Toph said flatly, tapping her foot impatiently. ‘We’re just waiting for Sugar Queen here to finish unpacking all her knickers and—’

‘Toph!’

‘—then you and me are having a showdown.’

Zuko eyed the little earth bender cautiously. ‘I thought we were exploring.’

‘Exploring, fighting. Same, same.’ Toph shrugged.

‘Hey, guys,’ The Duke called from his perch on Pipsqueak’s shoulders.

‘Finally!’ Toph and Sokka chorused.

Katara stepped out of the tent, trying to catch Zuko’s eye. ‘So, where are we going?’

Sokka resumed his impatient dance. ‘This way!’

Aang grabbed Katara’s hand, pulling her forward away from the others. ‘Come on, Katara! There are the fuzziest, cutest koala-sheep you have to see!’

Detangling herself from the air bender’s enthusiasm, Katara smiled at him. ‘Lead the way.’

Haru dropped into step beside her, a foot taller and grinning. ‘Hey, Haru. How are you?’

‘I’m great. I’m here with my dad and some of the benders from our village. When we heard what Sokka was planning, well, we knew they’d want to help.’

‘That’s great, Haru,’ she began, but Sokka appeared between them like a ghost rising from the earth, glaring accusingly at the older boy.

‘Move along, pretty boy.’

Haru just shook his head, but fell back to talk with Teo, Pipsqueak, and The Duke.

Katara turned to her brother. ‘What was that for?’ she demanded as they started to descend into a shallow valley spotted with koala-sheep.

‘Never you mind, sister,’ Sokka said knowingly. ‘I’ve got your back.’

‘Urg, I’ve been back with you for an hour and already you’re back to regular old Sokka,’ she grumbled, glancing over her shoulder as Toph’s booming laugh sounded behind her. The little earth bender was cackling while, beside her, Zuko looked less than pleased.

‘It must have been hard for you without me,’ he agreed.

Katara rolled her eyes but couldn’t help the smile that slid up her cheeks. ‘It was just torture,’ she agreed.

‘So, what took you guys so long?’

Katara stumbled on a tussock of grass. ‘What?’

‘You and Zuko? The Swamp guys said you went off somewhere on your own suddenly. Did you get word of Suki?’

Guilt stirred in her gut like autumn leaves in a breeze. ‘Um, no. The Kyoshi Warriors weren’t on Kyoshi.’

‘I know that.’ He flapped his boomerang at her. ‘I meant did you go to try and find them?’

‘Ah, not exactly.’

Sokka frowned. ‘You went on a super-secret mission and you won’t tell me? Katara, I love missions, especially the super-secret kind.’

She fidgeted with her necklace. ‘It’s not super-secret,’ she said defensively, playing for time. ‘It’s just, you know how the Swamp is, well, creepy?’

The Water Tribe boy nodded knowingly. ‘I seem to remember some creep. Go on.’

‘Well, Zu—I mean I, uh, saw a vision of Mum.’

Sokka’s eyes widened. ‘What about Mum?’

Stiffness, steely as hardwood, crept into her voice. ‘Something about the man who killed her.’ Sokka didn’t have a reply for that. ‘And, well, Zuko knew the sigil I saw— the Southern Raiders— so we left the Swamp to go to a Fire Navy communications base to find where they’re stationed.’

‘What?!’

‘Shhh!’ She flapped her hands at him, the family resemblance uncanny despite her lack of a boomerang. ‘Not so loud!’

He narrowed his eyes at her accusingly. ‘You found Mum’s killer?’ he hissed.

Chagrin stained like tiger-seal blubber soup on white clothes. ‘Not exactly.’

‘Katara,’ he implored as Aang ran ahead, chasing the sleepy koala-sheep.

‘We didn’t have the time,’ she admitted, the shame she’d spent the last week trying to forget suddenly acid on her tongue. ‘They’re stationed down south, near Whale Tail Island. It would have taken too long on the skiff to get there and back again.’

Sokka considered her, his jovial expression more serious now. ‘What were you planning on doing?’

‘I don’t know. Confront him, I guess.’

‘And Zuko just went along with this?’

Her cheeks bloomed red. ‘Yes.’

‘Classic Fire Nation. He would.’

‘Sokka,’ she said with a frown.

‘That was really irresponsible, Katara,’ he said in a tone far too like their father’s. ‘You worried all of us, especially Dad. You could have told the swamp benders at least.’

Lectures on responsibility from her brother was the last thing she’d expected. ‘Why do you think I called it off?’ she said hotly, shooting him a hurt look. ‘I knew I had to be here for the invasion. She’s your mother too. I thought you of all people would understand.’

Hurt crawled along her brother’s face like ant-mites over the earth. ‘Katara…’

‘I should have known not to tell you,’ she said frostily, ignoring the bruise in her conscience; she knew it wasn’t Sokka’s fault. But somehow just knowing the man was out there and not being able to go after him… ‘Sorry. Sorry, Sokka, it just sucks.’

The Water Tribe boy flipped his boomerang, catching it. ‘Yeah. It does.’

They spent the afternoon down by the koala-sheep field, sharing their stories and adventures from their time apart. Aang’s modesty about learning to access the Avatar State with a guru at the Eastern Air Temple surprised them all. He barely spoke about his training and avoided Katara’s curious questions as he shared the circumspect details of his time there.

Sokka made up for it by monologuing for nearly an hour, turning minor skirmishes with Fire Nation soldiers into epic tales that he bullied Zuko, Toph, and Haru into helping him act out.

‘And then I— no, Toph! You’re a fire bender, not an earth bender here; put the rock down!— then I used a sneak attack, like hiiiiiya!’ He made to strike at Zuko, but the fire bender dodged and disarmed him easily.

‘How did you take anyone down like that?’ he asked in disgust.

‘You weren’t there, Captain Hotpants!’

‘Stop calling me that!’

Toph shook her head at the two of them and turned to Katara. ‘What about you? Anything exciting happen in the Swamp?’

The older girl shrugged nonchalantly. ‘I had a vision,’ she offered, glancing at Aang. ‘About you,’ she told him.

‘Me?’ The air bender grinned. ‘What was it?’

‘The Swamp Spirit— the Spirit of the Banyan-grove Tree— told me you need to find balance within yourself before you can bring balance to the world.’ She tilted her head, considering. ‘But from what you said of your lessons with Guru Pathik, it sounds like you already have.’

The boy’s face tightened. ‘Yeah,’ he said with second, more strained smile. ‘I’ll get there.’

Katara returned it. ‘I know you will.’

‘Why don’t you show us these fancy new Avatar powers?’ Toph suggested with a wicked smile. ‘We’ve got a perfectly good fire bender for you to glow at.’

Aang’s dismay shadowed his sunny disposition like an overcast day. ‘Didn’t you see enough of it at the Eastern Air Temple?’

‘I never tire of Fire Lord butt-kicking displays,’ the little earth bender retorted.

Katara leaned forward excitedly ‘Come on, Aang! If you show us what you learned, I’ll show you some anti-fire bending techniques Zuko taught me.’

‘How nice of Zuko,’ the air bender said stiffly, but his tone melted with a sigh. ‘Sifu Iroh has been teaching me basic fire bending forms, but I don’t think they’ll be much use during the eclipse. Learning some anti-fire bending would be great.’

‘You first,’ she encouraged, disheartened by the absence of the boy’s jovial nature.

For the first time, Aang looked severe. ‘The Avatar State isn’t a gimmick. Roku wouldn’t want me using it for fun.’

Toph sighed. ‘Ever since guru-training, you’ve been such a wet blanket,’ she muttered, lying back against the grass. ‘Alright, Sugar Queen, show us your stuff.’

Katara took Aang’s hand; it was small and lithe like a tiny bird. ‘It’s okay, Aang, I understand,’ she said, smiling gently. ‘Maybe you can learn something from this. After all, water is your strongest element when it comes to taking down fire benders.’

‘Pfft,’ Toph scoffed. ‘Oi! Hotpants! You’re up!’

Zuko— watching Sokka prod at an angry Haru’s upper lip with equal amusement and irritation— glanced over, catching Katara’s eye. ‘Up?’

The water bender stood, dusting herself off. ‘You, me, bending battle.’

‘Bending battle?’ Sokka asked, fondling the hilt of the sword at his hip.

‘Bending battle!’ Teo and The Duke chorused, scurrying out of the way back beside Aang.

Zuko’s frown asked her why.

‘I want to show Aang those offensive water bending moves we worked on,’ she told him, a grin edging up her cheeks. ‘And since he hasn’t had a water bending lesson in weeks…’

‘Hey! I practiced!’

Barely,’ Toph called, tapping her feet against the ground.

Sokka glared at Zuko. ‘Did you fire bend at my sister? After I explicitly handed you the supreme responsibility of her safety?’

Katara clicked her tongue in irritation. ‘Sokka, I’m alive, aren’t I? Now sit down!’

The warrior turned his nose up. ‘Fine, but after you’re done splashing Zuko with puddles, I want some sword practice.’

No one bothered arguing.

Zuko sighed— too long away from the gang’s antics had worn away his tolerance for their quirks—shed his jacket, and turned to face Katara. ‘You may want to move back,’ he advised their audience, breathing deep into his stomach to stoke the flames there.

The group shuffled back several metres; it would have to do.

Katara uncorked her canteen and summoned a large globule of sea water from below the jagged cliffs. It froze in the shape of rough sea swell, ready to be drawn upon should the water bender need it.

‘When you fight the Fire Lord,’ Zuko said to Aang without taking his eyes off his opponent, ‘your air bending won’t be safe.’

‘Why not?’ the young monk asked indignantly.

‘Because air makes fire grow,’ the prince replied patiently. ‘And if I know my father, I’ll bet he will have figured out some way for your air strikes to make his stronger.’

The image was uncomfortable: a stronger Fire Lord.

‘Your best element to use would be water, or even earth,’ Zuko continued. ‘Water is the natural opposite of fire, and its bending style is perfect for turning a fire bender’s energy back against him.’

‘There won’t be any energy to turn if you just crushed him with a rock,’ Toph told Aang in a stage whisper.

All the time he spoke, Katara maintained her tidal wave stance, waiting.

‘You can’t crush him with a rock, he’s too fast,’ the fire bender told Toph. ‘But you can turn his attacks against him, make his offense yours.’

The strike came quickly without any of the tightly controlled fire bending forms she was used to. It burst from Zuko’s fist in a succession of molten balls aimed at the place he knew she protected least, her centre. The water almost sung as she spun it in messy figure eights to catch each blast, hissing as the flames fizzled away to nothing.

With a grin, she drew on her frozen reserve and sent a wash of sea water at the fire bender’s legs. Zuko flipped forward, only metres from her, and bent fire in a whip, slashing towards her. The defensive move came without thought. Arms raised and wrists flicking, water rushed towards her like the tide, raising, catching the attack and crashing down over the Fire Prince’s head.

She had him now. Working quickly, she lunged and bowed, her arms wheeling in a well-rehearsed dance to the tune of her breath. But the water rushing around her opponent trembled and broke as Zuko spun, flinging fire from his feet, his legs, his mouth.

Katara backpedalled with a snarl, drawing her dispersed element close around her and raising two tentacles to engulf her arms. She caught Zuko’s renewed attack, noticing with satisfaction the way he was favouring his left arm. She’d got him!

Her watery limbs plucked his attacks from the air with ease and again she sent thin ribbons after his feet. You should try to break my root, my stance, he’d told her under the hum of humidity and cicadas. Power in fire bending comes from the breath and having a strong root. He ran at her, leaping the reaching tentacles and formed a large disk of flames, hurling it towards her.

She dodged it by mere millimetres. The heat against her cheek stole her breathe and she barely spared him a glance before responding with a series of icy arrows, sharp and deadly.

But he was getting closer.

She had to move; she never won once he turned the fight into a wrestling match. Well, except for that one time…

‘Argh!’ Zuko’s cry nearly unbalanced her from the ice slide she bent to escape him. He was clutching his thigh, glaring after her. Flames plumed from his nose with his exhale. The fire he shot at her was like shooting stars with trailing tails. They flew wide but caught the grass around her, sizzling and evaporating her water as she skated past.

She stumbled and fell, hard, as the water ran too thin to hold her weight. Her hair caught on something and yanked, bringing tears to her eyes and cascades of brown to her shoulders. With a savage shout, she sent the water at him with enough speed that it would feel soft as a boulder when it landed. But he knew her well now after so long fighting against each other in battle and training. He dove under the wave, rolling to break his fall, and sprinting for her.

Katara drew water from the very grass, shouting with the effort. Ice grew between her and the quickly approaching prince, spikes as sharp as knives, turrets as tall as his chest. They slowed him down, but she had to twirl to dodge the flaming fist aimed at her shoulder.

Water again encased her arms and she fought like a storm to keep those flaming hands at bay. Once she managed to repel him with a blow to the gut, long enough to grimace over the burns and welts swelling on her forearms, but he came back snarling, sending fire over her shoulder, so close she heard her hair singe.

With a shout, Katara drew more water to her, covering herself in its cool fluidity. For a second she floated, only her eyes and mouth open to the air, but before she could finish the move, Zuko tackled her around the middle, sending them sprawling in the ashy, muddy grass.

She shifted her weight, turning the momentum of his attack so she could twist away, scurrying to her hands and knees and drawing a shield of ice to her arm. It caught his next attack before she’d finished forming it, clenching her teeth and pushing more ice into the rapidly melting shield.

Moving into the wide tsunami stance, one knee still on the ground, she shot a tendril at his left arm, coating it in ice and pulling him off balance. He grunted as he fell on his injured leg but kept her from standing with a spray of fire, just above her head.

Breathing hard, dripping, Katara tried to finish it, to freeze him to the ground with the mud slick against his back. But Zuko was wily, and he was fast. And he was a fighter to the very last.

Some feat of athleticism and control and he was crouching, leaping towards her. Despite the slippery mud coating his hands, he held her firmly, a wild grin sneaking up his cheeks. Surprised, Katara didn’t respond in time. Before she knew it, he had her pinned. Ice shielded arm twisted underneath her front, face pressed into a patch of lifeless grass. Above her, crouched the prince, pressing her down firmly.

For a moment of suspended silence, only the gasps of their lungs and the roaring of her pulse in her ears broke the tension. Then the cheer rose like the tide, bellowing and whooping.

‘Shame about the audience,’ Zuko whispered darkly in her ear before releasing her arm. It was a moment longer before he rolled to the ground beside her, panting just as hard as her.

She unfroze the ice around her other arm and turned with a wince onto her back. ‘That was…’

The breathless chuckle from the fire bender coloured her cheeks. ‘You’re covered in mud.’

She joined his laughter. ‘Have you looked in a mirror?’ She reached out, wiping away the chunk on his chin.

‘That was incredible!’ Sokka reached them first, his fists clenched, eyes shining. ‘Katara you were all, woooooo, splash! Shing! And then Zuko was like hiiiiya! Stupid bending power! Woooosh!

Katara laughed weakly, sitting gingerly. ‘Thanks, Sokka, you really have a way of capturing the whole thing.’

‘Incredible?’ Aang had a face like a rabid platypus bear. ‘Incredible? That was dangerous! You nearly killed each other like ten times!’

Zuko tried to sit but fell back with a grimace. ‘My side.’

She didn’t hesitate to pull up his shirt and run her fingers over the gash there. ‘Ouch!’ she muttered, drawing fresh water from over the cliffs again. ‘Sorry, I shouldn’t have made them so sharp.’

He flinched as she pressed one hand to his side and the other sought out the cut on his thigh. ‘No— ah!— no, you were great. I would have lost if you hadn’t broken your focus when you injured me.’

‘Yeah, Katara, you should have finished him off!’ Everyone turned to Sokka sceptically. ‘You know, in the battle. Not kill—’

‘Anyway,’ Toph said loudly, crossing her arms over her chest. ‘That was a great fight! My feet could hardly believe their eyes.’

Katara chuckled breathlessly, finishing the cut on Zuko’s leg and turning her focus to his side. ‘Thanks, Toph.’

‘You should be more careful,’ Aang insisted, crouching by her side. ‘Look at your arms.’

He had a point. Her forearms were the texture of thick cake batter, swelling in some places, reddening in others. Now she noticed it, the dull pain began building into something sharper. ‘Right, ouch.’

Zuko sat, his hand resting over hers against his side. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said in that voice that berated the speaker with self-loathing. ‘The Avatar’s right, I shouldn’t have been so—’

‘It’s fine,’ she said firmly, drawing the water to her free hand and laying it over the burns. She groaned in relief at the cool, soothing push-and-pull feeling of the healing. ‘You didn’t do any worse than I did to you.’

Anxiety was discernible in the tightness of his frown and his rigid shoulders— she could practically hear the internal scolding— but at her words, it eased somewhat, like sailing into the eye of a storm. The softening of his expression, his gratitude, brought a smile to her face.

But above them, Sokka was glaring. ‘Um, Katara. Why is Zuko holding your hand?’

She glanced down at the fire bender’s pale skin covering hers, then up at her brother’s purpling expression. ‘Why are you so bad at making battle sound effects?’ she replied, her grin widening. ‘Some things we’ll never know.

‘Um, not to interrupt, but shouldn’t we get going?’ Haru suggested hurriedly from Katara’s other side.

Toph shrugged. ‘Don’t ask me. Ask the Plan Man.’

‘Where are we going?’ Katara asked, siphoning mud from her face with Toph’s help.

‘There’s some fancy invasion meeting tonight of Snoozle’s creation.’

‘Of course, there is,’ Katara sighed.

Chapter Text

 

Sokka’s Super-Secret Council of Anti-Fire Lord Plots, Plans, and Schemes (The SSSCAFLPPS, or Scafflips, as Toph began calling it— everyone else just referred to it as the invasion brief) convened on the evening of Katara and Zuko’s arrival at Black Cliff Cove. With only two weeks before the invasion, the time had come for their group of ragtag benders, soldiers, rejects, hermits, and troublemakers to learn what precisely their roles would be in the upcoming conflict.

And Sokka was shuffling papers like cards in a deck.

Shuffling.

As though random paper movements would help him remember they were to land at the Dockside Port, not the Portside Dock. He’d now dropped his hastily scribbled notes three times; even Toph was taking pity on him. A sign of just how pathetic he truly appeared.

Katara tried to keep up, to nod along to his nonsensical murmurings of ‘tank sneak attack’ and ‘bad guy’s battlements… baddlements, haha… heh,’ but her thoughts wandered from Sokka, the eclipse, even her brother’s invasion plan.

Not because she didn’t believe in the plan. Sokka and Hakoda, along with the White Lotus and the Mechanist, had been slaving away for hours and days developing their best hope of ending the war with the first real advantage in a hundred years. Sokka had the same fervour in his eyes as Aang when he spoke of bringing peace to the world, or her father before he’d left them alone on the ice shelf.

No, Katara didn’t doubt the strength of their mission.

But another of the Banyan Spirit’s predictions had come true and her insides had turned that familiar swirl of churning oceans and bubbling cauldrons…

Zuko’s swords twirl in equilibrium, dancing sunset on their razor edges.

‘Two swords?’ she wonders aloud, Avatar Yangchen’s words gleaming in her lap. ‘Why two?’

He pauses at the tail end of a form, trailing the left sword around to meet the right. ‘These are dual swords, two halves of a single weapon. Balanced together. You shouldn’t think of them as two separate swords; they're two parts of the same whole.’

The words rise to her tongue, unbidden— from where? The spirit rooted miles away in the swamp? Or her own soul, the fabric of her own makeup?— and she blushes as red as the sunset. ‘Just like us.’

The fire bender’s smile is shy as always, but the sense of déjà vu, of the scene’s growing familiarity, cuts at the simple joy of the moment like the dual points of his swords.

‘Katara!’

‘Hmm?’ She smiled apologetically. ‘Sorry, what did you say?’

A light frown creased the Avatar’s brow. ‘Um, are you okay? You seem distracted.’

She was spared response only by her father exiting his pavilion, Iroh, Zuko, Piando, and Bumi at his back. In fact, the entire crowd of two hundred-odd benders and warriors fell into a fragile hush. Even Jima, three rows back and four curse words deep into an explanation of why The Boulder will never take her to dinner at Gaoling Hot Soup, fell stubbornly silent as though the unofficial leaders of the invasion had brought with them a cloying, heavy mist. A mist that dampened men’s voices, women’s laughter.

Hakoda seemed to make eye contact with each and every person present. ‘I’d like to start this evening’s briefing with an introduction. Some of you know my daughter, Katara of the Southern Water Tribe.’ Her cheeks heated and her feet were too large for her body, but she stood slowly, with purpose, as a cheer rose from her friends throughout the crowd. ‘She arrived this morning with another ally from the Fire Lord’s very family, Crown Prince Zuko.’

Obviously accustomed to being presented to great numbers of people, Zuko didn’t blush. He didn’t even step forward from his place at his uncle’s side. He merely nodded, once, to the Southern Chief’s welcoming gesture. Due and Tho waved from their place at the edge of the group, but other than their thin greeting, dead silence met his introduction. Katara’s heart ached for the hurt she sensed behind the severe stare. But Zuko surprised her.

Zuko surprised everyone. Even his uncle.

‘I know you must have mixed feelings about me being here,’ the prince said clearly, drawing abreast of Hakoda. ‘I can understand why you wouldn't trust me; I know I've made mistakes in the past. My family has committed unforgivable crimes against you and your people, and I apologise on behalf of my father for those.’

He bowed, low. Not a bow his father would ever condescend to give to disillusioned people desperate for something to hope for, but one of a man, contrite and humble. ‘Like all of you, I’ve been through a lot in the last few years. But I'm realising that I had to go through all those things to learn the truth. I thought I had lost my honour and that, somehow, my father could return it to me. But I know now that no one can give you your honour. It's something you earn for yourself by choosing to do what's right. All I want to do now is play my part in ending this war, and I know my destiny is to help you restore balance to the world.’

Katara wasn’t sure who started the cheer. The muttering broke out like a shiver down the spine, and before long Toph’s howl rang through her head, drowning out most other noise. But someone in the crowd of Earth Kingdom, Water Tribe, and Fire Nation began that cheer. And the rest of the group took it up with earnest enthusiasm. Even Jima’s eyes gleamed with something decidedly more optimistic than dismay.

Hakoda allowed the cheer, watching the prince from the corner of his eye before calling the crowd to order. ‘I think I speak for us all,’ he called over the swamp benders’ enthusiasm, ‘when I thank Prince Zuko for his wisdom and his sacrifice.’

Katara’s grin split her cheeks when her father bowed to the scarred boy beside him. ‘Thank you, Chief Hakoda. Your people have the most reason to hate me but have been nothing but brave and forgiving. You do me great honour.’

He stepped back into line beside his uncle, the old man’s eyes shining with pride so bright that no eclipse could ever dim it.

Hakoda turned back to the assembled invasion force, each and every one of them leaning forward eagerly. ‘Here’s how this will go,’ he said clearly. ‘You will hear the invasion plan from those who have devised it. You will be given the opportunity to voice any concerns you feel are important, and then you will be assigned to a faction to which you are bound until we have secured the Fire Nation capital and ended this war.’

There was another cheer, but it was a short burst of enthusiasm. Everyone present was preoccupied with the papers Sokka was now setting up on an earth board jutting from the ground halfway down the raised platform.

‘At the end of the briefing, you will have one opportunity to take your leave of this camp without any man or woman thinking less of you. One opportunity. From tomorrow morning, we’re heading to war.’ Hakoda held the invasion force’s attention for a moment longer before clapping his hands before him. ‘To begin the briefing, my son, Sokka, will outline the general shape of the plan. Sokka?’

The Water Tribe boy’s knees were shaking. ‘Thanks, Dad.’ Katara could have face-palmed at his blatant attempt at imitating their father’s baritone. ‘There are a few, uh, basic things you need to know.’ He pointed to the map of the Fire Nation pinned to the earth board behind him. ‘In two weeks, there will be a solar eclipse. The total eclipse will last for eight minutes, during which the sun will be entirely blocked out by the moon, rendering all fire benders—’ his nerves calmed under the possibilities ‘—powerless.

‘Our Fire Nation allies—' here he turned to grin at General Iroh ‘—have theorised that fire benders’ firepower will be weakened in the hour before and after the total eclipse. Which is good for us because the Earth King won’t be joining us and the Fire Lord’s daughter, Princess Azula, discovered our plan to invade a few months ago.’ It was a mark of just how seriously Sokka took his role in the invasion that he refrained from making jerk bender jokes at Azula’s expense. ‘They know we’re coming, which isn’t great. But they don’t know how we’re coming, what we’ll be getting up to, or who it’ll be knocking at the Fire Lord’s door.’

A few people laughed; Jima caught Katara’s eye and mouthed, Your brother?

She nodded.

The fisherwoman shook her head. He’s an idiot, came the reply.

Katara could only half disagree.

Hakoda flipped Sokka’s plans two pages ahead. That’s when the young warrior really hit his stride. ‘Thanks to our friends in the Northern Earth Kingdom, Southern Water Tribe, and Order of the White Lotus, we have some serious weapons and information available to us.

‘First, we know precisely where the Fire Lord will be on the day of the eclipse.’ Sokka pointed triumphantly to the charcoal sketch of a bunker beneath what appeared to be a palace while mutters hissed and dribbled through the crowd.  ‘Yes, his Fieriness— sorry, Zuko— is heading for the basement where he’ll likely be guarded by non-benders and members of the Royal Guard trained in eclipse-proof combat. Our earth benders will be briefed by General Jeong Jeong in the construction of the bunker and will be responsible for forcing the Fire Lord to the surface where the Avatar will be waiting.’

Aang squared his narrow shoulders as the weight of four hundred eyes—  the hopes of every person, bender or not— settled over him. Katara placed a supportive smile on her face to match the hand she rested on his arm. His bottom lip trembled faintly.

‘Before we get to the Fire Lord, though, we’ll need to take the port city of Dockside,’ Sokka continued, glancing at Iroh again. ‘General Iroh?’

The old man stood forward, looking many years younger than he was. ‘Thank you.’ He bowed to the young man, his hands buried in his sleeves. ‘And thank you all for welcoming my people into your confidences. That you are willing to look past the crimes of our forefathers to come together with us in this time of trial shows the true strength of your honour.

‘Our ships will have to land in Dockside. It is the most direct route to the heart of the capital. However, there is great hope here. The common people of the Fire Nation are the ones who have been hit hardest by this terrible war. Like you, they have lost sons, fathers and uncles to conscription and battle, and they have no love for the Fire Lord’s plans. It is my belief that these simple folk, should they receive the right inspiration—’ here he spared his nephew a glance ‘—will rise up and help our friends to secure the city. For we must move on the palace from a place of strength and comradeship.’

Sokka nodded, his eyes gleaming. ‘We’re sending the first faction ahead of the main invasion force, a smaller group that can infiltrate Dockside, spread the word, and while they’re there, wreak havoc on the battlements along our path up to the caldera. It will make the main invasion force’s lives much easier, too, if you’re able to get a man on the gate between Dockside and the Royal Road,’ the Water Tribe boy added with another grin.

‘For you, Master Sokka, we shall do our best,’ Iroh responded, inclining his head. ‘Our friend, Master Piando, has learned of a new defence of the Fire Lord and Princess’s: a fleet of airships. We suspect they intend to use these inventions to force our people back to the boats.’

The Mechanist stepped forward, his one remaining eyebrow now missing. ‘To my shame, my own designs contributed to these monstrous creations,’ he began, a steely anger marring the gentleness of his face. ‘This, as it turns out, is both our curse and our blessing. I have a fair idea of how we can disable the airships. If you can get warriors into the hanger, I can ensure they never make it off the ground!’

Sokka smiled as though the Fire Lord himself crouched before him in chains. ‘In addition to this intel from the White Lotus, we have a fleet of water bender powered submarines, a dozen earth bender propelled tanks, a few mechanical water troughs so we can bring the sea with us as we push up the volcano, and a really quite stylish suit of armour for Appa, if I do say so myself!’

Katara couldn’t help herself, the cold reality of the coming days forced the question from her. ‘So the first faction will work on taking down the Fire Lord’s battlements and airships, but what about those metal tanks? He’s sure to have dozens of those.’

Iroh turned to her, winking so only she would see. ‘A wise question, Master Katara. During my campaign against the mighty earth benders of Ba Sing Se, we had dozens of fire tanks. They were formidable weapons, resistant to the largest boulders our enemy could summon.’ A sly look crept across the old man’s face and suddenly he was far from the jovial old man who enjoyed games and tea. ‘But even the strongest mountain may crumble under one fault line.’

‘Uncle’s right,’ Zuko asserted, pointing to the Mechanist’s blueprints on the board behind Sokka. ‘The fire tanks are solid steel, but they have a seam along each side wide enough for their tracks to pass though. A precision hit by ice or earth or even a spear would jam its pistons.’

‘And without pistons… why, it’s helpless!’ the Mechanist exclaimed, scribbling something on the edge of the blueprint. ‘It won’t be able to move or fire its canon! Incredible!’

Katara saw the effort on her brother’s face to remain composed in the face of schemes. ‘Without their machinery and defences, our path up the volcano will be clear,’ he said. ‘We aim to be in the palace city before the full eclipse to give the Avatar the advantage of its power when facing the Fire Lord!’

Hakoda clapped his hands again, catching Sokka’s eye and grinning. ‘Master Pakku has one final note to contribute before we open the floor to questions. We thank you for your attention and your patience.’

The old water bending master, much like Iroh and the other members of the White Lotus, seemed invigorated, youthful even. He strode to the centre of the platform, eyes sweeping the excited faces before him. ‘We have consulted every library, every university, every great master known to us in the weeks leading to this moment,’ he began, the dry cadence of his voice like the icy city of his home. ‘Only one other full eclipse has ever been recorded, and that was hundreds of years ago. We know the effect of the lack of sun on fire benders, but our scholars in the North were curious as to the effect of the phenomenon on my people— on water benders.’

Heat prickled at the base of Katara’s skull. ‘We do not know for certain what the eclipse will do to our water benders. Tui, the moon spirit that grants us our powers, will move boldly in front of Agni, the sun spirit, entirely blocking him. As such, we suspect some level of interference, and there is a very good chance that it will be to our advantage.’

Sokka flipped to the last page of charts, showing the cycles of the moon. ‘Water is the element of change and adaptation. We’ll take this chance and have our water benders leading the charge, turning the enemy’s offence against them. Who better, should the Fire Lord produce some defence we don’t know about?’

Pakku bowed and retreated to where Bumi was snort-cackling while stroking a flat-faced kitten.

Sokka mimicked Hakoda’s hand clap, turning to face the audience. ‘Dad? Anything to add?’

Hakoda turned to the invasion force, opening his arms wide. ‘Now is the time for questions, my friends. Concerns, clarifications— the floor is yours.’

Mutters scattered through the crowd like raindrops sliding down glass. Jima’s lips were pursed, but she listened attentively to The Boulder’s whispers beside her. Yun was chewing thoughtfully on a wad of tobacco; Tho and Due were somewhere else entirely judging by their matching dazed expressions. Something passed between the Mechanist and Tyro, and Pipsqueak stood from his place at the edge of the platform.

‘Some of us,’ Tyro began, squaring his shoulders, ‘have our children or young friends with us. Quite a few of us, in fact, yourself included, Chief Hakoda.’

The Southern Chieftain nodded once in acknowledgement.

‘We propose,’ Tyro continued, gesturing to the two men flanking him, ‘one ship and a small group of warriors take the children and set sail for the Earth Kingdom before the adults begin the invasion.’

‘What?’ Haru stood, fisting his tunic in indignation.

But Tyro spoke over him. ‘War is no game. The Avatar and Prince Zuko are excused from consideration, given their stations, but an invasion is sure to be bloody and brutal. Even without their bending, the Fire Nation is not helpless.’ His gaze flickered towards his son. ‘Sometimes bravery means finding the courage to do what’s right, not what you want.’

Before Sokka (red-faced with his restrained declaration of manly competence) or Toph (moments from earth bending Tyro a new attitude) could voice their protests, Hakoda raised a hand to silence the buzz of conversation. ‘As a father and a single parent, I hear your concerns, Tyro of Hejian. Of course it is every parent’s right to decide what is best for their children. If any parent here wishes to send their children to safety, arrangements can be made.

‘My children have not only lost a parent to this war, they’ve been fighting it for a year now.’ He turned to the young man at his side. ‘It was Sokka’s intelligence and cunning that uncovered our intel on the eclipse and his particular… way of thinking that got the invasion plan started. My daughter Katara is the last water bender of the Southern Water Tribe. She is a master in her field and the Avatar’s teacher.’ The crooked grin was that of childhood ice dodging and fishing trips in the snow. ‘Toph Beifong’s parents aren’t here to speak for her, but I would not deny such a gifted warrior the opportunity to fight.’

The Chief stepped forward, more sombre now. ‘Joining your faction and this invasion requires you to agree to all facets of the plan, even a retreat should it be necessary. Should the worst happen, should the battle turn against us, we do have a retreat plan.’ He turned to where Katara, Toph, and Aang sat beside Teo, Haru, and The Duke. ‘You kids are to take Appa and Aang, and leave. No arguments, no last-minute hero moments, no hesitation.’ They were warriors now, warriors taking their orders. ‘Do you understand?’

 Katara nodded stiffly even though her father’s words boiled the blood in her veins; she would not abandon her friends just because they might get captured. But she nodded her lie nonetheless. He would not be able to stop her.

Hakoda turned back to the broad earth bender. ‘Does that satisfy your concerns, Tyro of Hejian?’

The older man’s beard seemed longer, drawn. ‘That it does.’

Her father acknowledged the man with a nod, turning back to the group. ‘Any other comments?’

Silence was the loudest response.

‘Very well. Everyone present has agreed to the risks of this mission. We thank you for your courage and your sacrifice.’ Hakoda nodded to Sokka and the boy came forward with two pieces of parchment. ‘Each of you has been assigned to either the infiltration and sabotage faction, or the main invasion faction. Once everyone has received their assignments, you may go. Tomorrow morning, report to your faction general. For the sabotage crew, that’s Master Piando; the invasion force, that’s me.’

Katara gripped her dress tightly as her father began to read…

‘Avatar Aang: invasion. Prince Zuko: sabotage.’ She met the fire bender’s gaze across the raised platform, whispered promises hanging heavily between them. ‘Master Pakku: sabotage. Bato: invasion. Master Jeong Jeong: sabotage. Toph Beifong: sabotage.’

‘Yes!’ the little earth bender hissed, a wicked grin lighting her face.

‘Sokka: sabotage. Haru: sabotage.’

A groan escaped the earth bender beside her. ‘Maybe I shouldn’t go after all,’ he muttered to himself.

‘Katara: invasion.’

The next name was called, as well the faction, but the water bender had ceased to listen. Across the platform, half obscured by her father’s form, Zuko was talking to his uncle in a heated undertone.

Aang called her name and she turned to glare at him. ‘What?’

The air bender’s sunny grin faltered. ‘We’re— we’ll be together for the invasion. All the others are going with the sabotage group.’

Katara nodded, distracted. Not if she had anything to say about it. ‘Yeah. Go, invasion group.’

The air bender peered at her. ‘Are you okay, Katara?’

She wanted to snap at him, wanted to stand up and scream at her father that he did not get a say in her role in the war when he had abandoned her to care for their entire village. She wanted to tear the paper from his hands and scribble over her name because she would fly away on Appa before she’d leave her brother, Toph, and Zuko to face the hostility of the Fire Nation without her.

Except then Aang would be alone.

She breathed deeply, forcing the outraged injustice from her tone. ‘I’m fine, Aang. Just worried about everyone. I don’t like the idea of splitting up.’

‘I know. I didn’t think you would. We just got the family back together.’

Zuko was glowering at her. His eyes spoke the words she couldn’t hear his lips mouth: together.

‘We will be together, Aang,’ she said quietly, holding the fire bender’s gaze. ‘On the day of the eclipse, we’ll all come together again. You heard Sokka: the plan is to push up to the palace as one group.’

‘As a group,’ the air bender muttered, but the distance in his eyes took him far from the roll call on the dais. ‘We attack the Fire Lord’s palace as a group and then I have to kill him.’

The air bender’s tone pulled her attention towards him as easily as if he’d taken her head and turned it by hand. What could she say to that? What words of comfort could she give this boy whose heart longed for peace but whose fate was knotted up with violence? Aang’s gentle soul was as light as the element he was born to, weighed down with water, earth, and fire. The Avatar’s mantle sat weightily and lopsided on his shoulders. This was not a boy made of killing and decisiveness.

With the Banyan Spirit’s warning blaring like a tanggu drum, Katara took the boy’s hand in hers. ‘We can talk about this,’ she promised him, the weight of his struggle lagging against her own back. ‘We have time, we’ll figure it out.’

The boy’s distress swirled in eddies behind his eyes. ‘How? How are we going to figure out a way for me to defeat the Fire Lord without taking his life?’

You’ll have to, or else someone else will, she thought grimly. Aloud she said, ‘You should talk to General Iroh, Aang. He knows—’

‘Yeah,’ the air bender said with a mouthful of glass. ‘Sure. I’ll just do that. Talk to Iroh about how to kill his brother!

His distaste for his task was a hand slapping ripples onto the surface of a pond, Katara let the waves of her anxiety dissipate. ‘He’s a wise man, Aang; he knows what needs to happen. He might be able to advise you, help you find a way to come to terms.’

But the young Avatar was pulling his hand from hers, his face stony as Earth Kingdom soil. ‘Do you even hear yourself?’ he muttered furiously. ‘You’re talking about killing someone.’

‘Someone who’s killed a whole lot of someones, Twinkletoes,’ Toph piped up from Aang’s other side.

‘That doesn’t mean he deserves the same!’

Katara sighed, and her heart expanded with her friend’s pain. ‘Aang, no one’s saying he deserves to die. But he can’t… he can’t live.’

In her thoughts, a sand bender crashed against the side of a building with the force of the tide. Blood stained the ground, the water, and the deepest crevices of her innocence. She wondered what Aang would say if he knew she had blood on her hands.

‘Listen to Madam Fussy Britches,’ Toph said flatly, cleaning a speck of dirt out from under her nails. ‘This isn’t a matter of slapping the Fire Lord in chains, locking him up and throwing away the key. That’s not going to fly. Say we bust into his palace, knock him out, and put him in jail. Sparky takes the throne and the war’s over. Do you really think all Ozai’s supporters won’t just plot against Zuko if they have Ozai as a rallying point?’

Katara raised a perplexed brow, surprised at the young girl’s insight. ‘Toph’s right, Aang. War has become a culture in the Fire Nation, especially among the nobility. For any peace to last, the old regime needs to be well and truly over.’

Red with indignation, Aang’s retort was interrupted by the Water Tribe Chieftain’s loud clap. ‘We all know our roles,’ he concluded, staring around at the group. ‘Your faction commander will detail the plan tomorrow morning. For now, dismissed.’

Distracted, Katara watched her father join the White Lotus generals, Zuko, and Sokka by the far side of the dais. ‘I have to talk to my dad,’ she told Aang apologetically, concern for the air bender bruising her insides. ‘We’ll talk about this later, I promise. For as long as you need.’

‘Don’t worry, Sweetness,’ Toph said with a wicked grin, clasping Aang tightly in a headlock. ‘We’re about due for another one of our Tough Love Chats, aren’t we, Twinkletoes?’

Aang spluttered under her grip. ‘Arg— Toph!— can’t breathe!’

The earth bender’s enthusiasm almost coerced a smile onto Katara’s face.

Almost.

One look at her father’s broad back— turned on her— swept that brief reprieve away. The uncomfortable ambivalence she’d felt towards him since arriving at Black Cliff Cove had grown thorns and uprooted. In its place, was a steely, unyielding anger.

She was furious with her father.

‘Thank you, gentlemen.’ The glint of comradeship in Hakoda’s eye did nothing to ease the tempest in Katara’s throat. ‘Your input and wisdom has been invaluable over the last weeks and months.’

‘Not at all, Chief Hakoda.’ Iroh smiled at her approach. ‘It has been our privilege to work with you. I know I speak for my nephew, too, when I thank you for your honour and integrity.’

Pakku grinned as the young water bender joined the circle. ‘Uh-oh, I’ve seen that look before. Who’s been foolish enough to get on your bad side, Katara?’

She bowed stiffly to the old man. ‘Master Pakku.’

Sokka nudged her excitedly in the ribs. ‘What do you think?’ he asked, posing with both arms in the air. ‘Invasion Strategist Sokka? The Anti-Fire Lord Man? Oooh what about just… The Rebel?’

A shifting and mumbling silence. It was a gift of Sokka’s, inspiring awkward silences.

‘Captain Rebe—’

‘The invasion plan sounds good,’ she said tightly. ‘But I’m coming with the sabotage faction to the Fire Nation.’

Hakoda’s brow darkened like a storm. ‘You were assigned to the invasion group, Katara.’

She glowered with the rise of her fury. ‘I heard you the first time, Dad, but I’m going with Sokka.’

‘We’ve worked on this plan for weeks. We need our water benders in the subs, with the main invasion force.’

Ugly and hot, the anger sloshed. ‘Sokka’s plan,’ she interjected coolly. ‘It was Sokka’s invasion plan.’

The silence that followed was heavy now, heavy in a different way. A personal way.

At Hakoda’s side, Bato cleared his throat. ‘General Iroh,’ he said loudly. ‘Could I interest you and your friends in a drink? I think we still have some polar ale left in our stores.’

‘A very kind offer,’ Iroh replied with a sheepish grin. ‘Bumi, Pakku, Piando, Jeong Jeong, after you.’

Sokka’s triumph fell into something nearer disappointment. It cut at Katara, her brother’s uncomplicated love for their father. ‘Go with them, Sokka.’

‘But—’

‘Listen to your sister,’ Hakoda said firmly, his frown unchanged.

Zuko turned to follow the Water Tribe boy and his uncle, but the warrior’s father pointed at him. ‘You. Stay.’ He frowned. ‘What I mean to say is please wait, Prince Zuko. I would like to speak to you both.’

Katara crossed her arms tightly while serpents sloshed in her gut. The banished prince didn’t appear nearly as composed.

‘Uh, me, sir?’

‘Yes. Come here.’

Zuko looked like a man headed to his own execution.

‘You can’t order him to stay like that.’ The words were weighty with venom; they struck and stung. ‘And how dare you send Sokka away!’

‘But you asked him to—’

‘You have this ridiculous notion that you can just tell people what to do, that fighting in this war is your responsibility alone! Well Sokka and I have been fighting for nearly a year now! And Zuko even longer!’

Hakoda’s expression settled from bewilderment to creased and folded sorrow. ‘Katara—’

‘And another thing!’ she hissed, facing her father as rage lashed like rain in a storm. ‘I need to be with the sabotage group! Do you really expect me to sit by while my friends and family leave again to risk their lives?!’

This silence was more tender. It bruised and leaked, and to Katara’s shame, tears fell from her eyes just as easily as her hurt had from her tongue.

‘You’re talking about me leaving home, aren’t you?’ the broken man with her father’s face asked into the silence of her confusion.

And suddenly it didn’t matter if she stood with Sokka and Toph and Zuko during the next couple of weeks, or with Aang and his ambivalence. None of that seemed as burning or important now. Here she was again, at fifteen instead of twelve, with her father threatening to separate them all over again.

‘How could you leave us, Dad?’ The words fell as easily as the tears. ‘I mean, I know we had Gran-Gran, and she loved us, but we were just so lost without you.’

‘I'm so sorry, Katara.’

As quickly as her anger had turned to sadness, her resolve turned again and she sought out her father’s embrace. It hadn’t changed, the way he held her. No matter how old she got, how she grew and changed, he had always dwarfed her with the sheer gentleness, the steadiness, of his hug. It seeped into her, washing away the bitterness that clung to her insides. You abandoned me, the anger shouted, but the words were carried downstream. Perhaps she’d pick them up and look at them again another time. Just not now on the eve of her family’s third separation. Once, when her mother died. Twice, when he’d left the weight of their village spread between two children’s shoulders. Three times…

‘I understand why you left.’ It feels important for him to know this. She, better than any of her friends, understood the demands of war. ‘I really do, and I know that you had to go, so why do I still feel this way? I'm so sad and angry and hurt!’

The gentle grip tightened like a python-lizard, and Katara swore she could feel her father’s blood stutter in his veins. ‘I love you more than anything. You and your brother are my entire world. I thought about you every day when I was gone, and every night when I went to sleep, I would lie awake missing you so much it would ache.’

The sob bubbled up her throat and burst against his chest, like the tide breaking against a reef. There was solace in retreating into the arms that had soothed her in childhood, comfort in releasing the enormous responsibility she’d worn since watching the men sail away from the village. Though she was still a year away from sixteen, Katara had long been a woman.

And she would stand on her own two feet.

‘Um, do you want me to come back later?’ Zuko looked about as comfortable as if he’d been asked to sit on a boarcupine. ‘I can come back?’

She wiped her eyes on the back of her sleeve, shaking her head. From somewhere below the echoing abandonment, she pulled a watery smile. ‘No. Don’t go.’

He glanced between her and Hakoda. ‘Um.’

‘I wanted to talk to you both.’ The rawness had not quite left the chief’s voice. ‘About a few things.’

Katara’s smile grew into a grin at the fear in Zuko’s eyes. The boy didn’t know that the Southern Water Tribe practiced free love, that young people were free to choose who they wanted. Arranged marriage and strict social control was the hallmark of the North, not the Southerners. No, Zuko had no need to fear what she could tell was haunting him. Strange. Facing down his sister and his father didn’t seem to frighten him, but the thought of talking to her father…

‘First of all,’ Hakoda eyed Katara softly. ‘Sweetheart, you can’t go with Sokka and the sabotage faction. We’re only sparing one water bender from the main fleet, and that’s Pakku. I need you here, and not just for your bending. Aang is struggling with his role in the invasion. Sokka tells me he listens to you.’ He laid a hand on her shoulder. ‘If that boy isn’t ready to face the Fire Lord by the eclipse…’

We’re doomed. If Aang wasn’t ready to face the Fire Lord, everyone in the invasion— the swamp benders, their friends from the Earth Kingdom, the folks from the Northern Air Temple— would suffer. She knew she could do it; she had the words somewhere inside of her to allow Aang to find the right way. She would be able to help him find his courage.

But beside her stood a golden-eyed boy who’s back she’d pledged to watch. Not to mention Sokka and Toph. How could they splinter and separate here just when they needed each other most?

‘Your father’s right.’

She caught Zuko’s gaze, the quiet intensity she’d come to expect from him settling her discord. ‘You think I should stay with the main invasion force?’ You think I should break our promise? That I should leave you to convince your people to turn on your father without me?

‘I think you’ll have to. If you come with us, you’ll unbalance the whole invasion.’

She doesn’t need to be back in the swamp to recall the vision he’s reminding her of.

‘Minister Ping, I feel it incumbent upon me to remind you that the Fire Lady will be in the Western Earth Kingdom during this year’s fiscal session and so is unable to answer your, I’m sure, very reasonable requests for funds towards…’ The vision’s Zuko makes a show of checking a ledger. ‘The Cross-Cultural Exotic Dancer’s Guild. Really, Minister Ping?’

The old man is extraordinarily impertinent for someone making demands on the Fire Lord. ‘Your wife— Her Majesty’s travels often prevent her from indulging in the freedom to conduct her duties as she might otherwise choose. I would remind my lord that should he share my concerns—’

‘He doesn’t.’

‘—he need only ask, and I would be more than willing to arrange more… domestic advisers for Her Majesty.’

Rather than the towering anger that she has come to expect from the Fire Nation Prince— Fire Lord?— stalking her through the swamp, Katara is surprised by his weary amusement. ‘Come now, Minister Ping, you know distaste for the Fire Lady’s foreign advisors is not acceptable, especially not when one of those very advisors is an earth bender capable of levelling this palace.’

‘My Lord—’

‘As for your other concerns,’ Zuko is magnanimousness itself. ‘Her Majesty will travel as much as we deem necessary. What you seem to forget, Minister, is that this country has spent the past hundred years tearing at the strength of the other nations. Lady Katara represents a change in how we will conduct ourselves on the world stage, a change towards balance. She rules from abroad when she must, and I from the palace.’

The old man cannot seem to help the grudging respect as he bows low to the young Fire Lord at ease in his study. ‘Yes, My Lord.’

‘Thank you, Minister Ping.’

‘Thank you, My Lord.’

A sigh escaped her as another of the Banyan Spirit’s lessons came full circle. She certainly couldn’t be the one to unbalance the invasion.

‘You’re right,’ she admitted, mouthing the words around the discord they stirred in her chest. No, she wanted to cry. My brother needs me, my friends need me.

And so does Aang, came the reply. Funny. It seemed to speak with her mother’s tone, this voice that urged her towards her duty.

‘You’re right,’ she repeated, turning to Hakoda. Perhaps he was confused, this man who had raised her, by her heeding words from a Fire Nation boy where his same sentiments had gone unheard. She thought it must be hard for him, hard for a father to watch his daughter grow up. ‘I’ll stay with the invasion faction and meet up with Sokka and the others on the day of the eclipse.’

Hakoda nodded, holding her gaze. ‘Thank you, Katara. It’s not always easy doing your duty. Especially when it means the people you care about are far away.’

She eyed him sternly. ‘They won’t be gone for long. We’ll be back together in a couple of weeks, right?’

‘Right.’

She exhaled heavily. ‘Alright.’ She gestured to the fire bender. ‘Come on, Zuko. The others want to spend a few hours together without the adults before we go our separate ways.’

‘One moment.’ Water and fire bender both turned to look at the War Chief. ‘There’s one more thing I’d like to say.’

Zuko’s face was as red as his father’s flag. Katara worried the inside of her cheek. ‘What is it?’

‘You two were late to the rendezvous.’

She blinked. ‘Late?’

‘Yes. You should have arrived days ago with the swamp benders. As a result, we had to wait to send the whole sabotage faction. You put the entire invasion at risk.’

Zuko recovered quickest. Stepping forward, he bowed from the waist. ‘It was my fault, Chief Hakoda, a navigation error. Will you grant me your forgiveness?’

A sinking pit took up residence in Katara’s belly. ‘No, it wasn’t,’ she retorted, dragging the fire bender back. ‘It wasn’t his fault. It was mine, my choice that made us late.’

Hakoda glanced between them. ‘Sokka told me something of your divergence. Some story about finding the man who murdered your mother.’ Here, the cool blue of his eyes slid towards the Fire Prince. ‘He said you helped my daughter find this man.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Chief Hakoda is fine.’

‘Yes, Chief Hakoda.’

‘Did you act honourably towards my daughter?’

Zuko’s splutter had taken on a Sokka-like clumsiness. ‘Sir?’

‘Chief Hakoda,’ the older man said firmly. ‘Did you act honourably? Did you show her how to find this man?’

‘Oh.’ Zuko dropped his hand from the back of his neck. ‘Yes. We broke into a naval communications base and discovered his fleet is down south. But without the flying bison, we couldn’t get there and back in time.’

‘And this was why you were late?’

‘Yes, si—Chief Hakoda.’

The chief in question studied the boy closely, from the earnestness in his eyes to the slight tremble of his hands. ‘Hmm.’ He turned to Katara. ‘Has your grandmother met this one?’

‘Briefly.’ She rolled her eyes at Zuko’s puzzled look. ‘You threatened her and my village, then bent fire at us.’

The prince was flaming now, too, just with humiliation and regret rather than anger. ‘That was your grandmother?!’

‘We kind of skipped the introductions.’

A sly smile crept up Hakoda’s cheeks. ‘I think she would have been more offended at the lack of manners than the fire bending.’ Turning back to Katara, he sobered. ‘You have to know how irresponsible your decision to chase down the Fire Nation soldier was. There’s more at stake here than revenge.’

‘It was justice!’

‘It was revenge, sweetheart, and I don’t blame you. What I wouldn’t give to meet that man.’ Darkness descended over her father in a different sort of eclipse— not one to take away bending, one to instead steal happiness and nights of sleep. ‘It’s irrelevant. For now. From tomorrow, when you report to your faction leader, which incidentally is me, you’re to do exactly as you’re told. Do you understand?’

She scowled, but guilt was eating at her insides. ‘Yes.’

‘And you.’ He turned on Zuko, the severity still heavy on his brow. ‘You’re to ensure the same. Absolute obedience, prince or not. Do I make myself clear?’

‘Yes, Chief Hakoda.’

Katara tapped her fingers against her elbow. ‘Great. Can we go now?’

‘You may.’ They turned to leave. ‘Oh, and Zuko?’

‘Yes?’

Straight lines and hard edges converged on the Water Tribesman’s face. ‘I expect the same diligence you’ll pay to this invasion to be applied to all aspects of your life. The same care and attention and mindfulness.’

Zuko coloured for a third time. ‘Yes, sir.’

Hakoda was already turning away. ‘Goodnight.’

 

Chapter Text

 

Excerpt from the Ember Island Players’ musical reproduction of

The Epic of the Eclipse and the Scarred Dragon

From the fires of destiny,

the Scarred Dragon rose.

The brave folk of Dockside

their Lord they had chose.

With cries of joy

and wails of delight,

they proclaimed him theirs

and joined to his fight.

 

The people who actually bled for their country didn’t care whether the name Ozai or Zuko followed the title “Fire Lord.” They were starving. They were bereaved. They were buckling under the weight of wartime taxes. They agreed to join the saboteurs and, come the eclipse, the invasion force itself, but only out of sheer practicality. Or was it desperation?

A Dockside woman named Sen, widow and spokesperson for the town, made this perfectly clear.

‘Listen,’ she told him after he’d laid bare to this room of people his vision for a future without war. ‘Frankly, Prince Zuko, we don’t give a shit whose arse is on that throne as long as I can feed my family and raise my sons without fearing another round of conscriptions. We’ll help you, but only because the rumour is that your sister is to be Crown Princess if you fail.’ A shiver went through the crowd, a look of steel through the woman glaring at him. ‘We’ll help you, Prince, because we need to help ourselves.’

 

Clever and cunning,

he swept the enemy with ease;

the battlements and airships,

from their strength to their knees.

 

As fire caught on Haru’s shirt, leaving a burn just as permanent as the lesson seared into Zuko’s own face, the Crown Prince wondered if his father was so evil after all. If these men, his countrymen— and one day, his subjects— fought so viciously for the Fire Lord, was rule under Ozai truly worth all this death? All the struggle?

Despite Sokka and Iroh’s careful scheming, nothing about the sabotage had gone to plan, had been easy, had been fun.

Zuko was distant thunder, growing louder and more ashamed at the swell of screams from his father’s soldiers— his soldiers— as Toph crushed them between pillars of towering earth. He broke like lightning upon the waves at the cries of those burning at his back.

 

Armoured with iron

and ivory bone,

for his bites and his howls

the Wolf Warrior was known.

The smile he wore,

the devil may care,

the Warrior’s laugh

rung like steel in the air.

 

Sokka lost the taste for his good humour when he met the gaze of the first person he’d killed. The man— a boy, really— stared with eyes of glazed horror at the spear embedded in his side. His helmet had fallen away in the scuffle by the dock, and his sob soaked through the Water Tribe boy’s armour and shirt and skin. Sokka felt it land below his flesh, somewhere by his bones.

This could be me. The thought bounced like stone in his mind. It sunk and settled against his heart. This could be me.

 

The earth she made buckle,

its boulders were thrown;

the enemy’s doom

was the Shattering Stone.

She ‘quaked the ground

and the enemy’s hearts,

then sang lewd songs

about their mothers and smarts.

 

The song didn’t come from a place of laughter.

Despite the hard and unyielding nature of her element, Toph just wanted to bury the sound of bones breaking under the earth at her fingertips. It wasn’t a song so much as a scream. Anything to drown out the crack and splinter of the bodies she couldn’t see.

 

Battle ‘came fierce

with reinforcement’s arrival.

When the Tempest Tide struck

there was no survival.

Graceful, she danced,

sure, bold, and strong.

Her waters drowned the enemy

all the day long.

 

The fighting had already begun. Katara wasted no time learning why the saboteurs had attacked before the main invasion force arrived; she threw herself into the battle, dragging half the bay’s water along behind her.

She was millimetres away from death or grave injury at any given moment. She swung and twisted and jumped and lurched. She didn’t have time to die yet. Not yet. Her friends were somewhere ahead and they needed her.

With weapons of ice and razor-sharp water, she cut down every fire bender between them. With tears of stinging horror, she cut down every whimper that fell from her breaking heart. A man with a moustache, someone’s son. A woman armoured in leather and steel and fear, someone’s daughter.

It could be me, she snarled against the back of her teeth. It could be me.

 

The fourth and final

of our hero’s companions

was the Avatar himself,

bender of seas, storms, magma, and canyons.

The wisdom of hundreds,

all the power in the world,

the Airbender Avatar

with certainty whirled.

 

The first person Aang saw Katara kill chilled him to the bone. And a numb air bender is not a nimble air bender. He took a fire blast to the shoulder, returning the blow with a roaring gust of wind— just enough that his attacker was knocked, winded, to the ground. Not permanently hurt. Please don’t let anyone else die…

Up ahead Toph turned a tank full of people into a metal wafer.

Up ahead, Zuko’s dual swords cut twin crimson ribbons into a soldier’s neck.

Up ahead, Sokka was retching whilst trying to pull his spear from the twisted steel-and-gore of a weeping man’s belly.

Aang’s soul sunk so low that he wondered, not for the first time, if he was the right choice of Avatar.

 

Onwards they tread

as the eclipse dims the sky.

Through gates, ‘cross roads

up volcanos they fly.

The going is tough,

the way is hard,

yet Agni decreed no fire

shall stand against the Scarred.

 

They nearly lose it all, the hard-earned progress, when they begin their ascent up the volcano. The eclipse is early. Or they are late. Though Pakku’s theory proves true and the water benders swell with power, they’ve not enough of the sea with them to press it to their advantage.

The swamp benders falter. The water benders of the White Lotus stumble. Katara does not. She finds there is water in places she’s never thought about.

The gore on her skirt. The tears on her brother’s face. The sweat on Zuko’s brow.

She finds it as quickly as she loses it in the bodies of her enemies.

 

The capital of Fire they storm

Dragon, Warrior, Stone, Tempest, Avatar.

Victory nearing,

shining like a star.

The Shattering Stone

reaches into the earth,

she pulls and she heaves

at the tyrant with mirth.

 

Ozai spills from the unearthed bunker like a maggot exposed to daylight. He should be powerless, but the eclipse is over too soon and his daughter is death itself at his side. They repay Toph for her digging by setting her alight.

Katara never knew a child’s scream could ring so clearly above the clamour of battle.

 

The tyrant he swung,

Fire poured from his fists…

 

Ozai would have murdered Zuko had Katara and Aang not been so close. The man was shouting obscenities at his son, and the boy with the scar over his eye was beginning to crumble under the lashing.

‘Aang, go!’

The Avatar gasped with the force of the blue flames. ‘But, Azula—’

I’ll handle Azula,’ she snapped, knocking the princess off her feet with bloodstained water. ‘Help Zuko!’

 

The Scarred Dragon was unfazed,

and consulted his wits.

 

Sokka was down, a broken bone at worst. Azula roared fire so hot it turned Katara’s water to hissing steam. Her brother would have to manage without her.

She prayed to Tui and La that Toph was capable of the same…

 

He parried with sword

and struck, palms full of fire.

 

They were meant to have the eclipse onside. Fire was supposed to be out.

‘KATARA! DUCK!’

Her hair caught the flames and the bushes to her right dehydrated and died so she could extinguish the bite of the princess’s rage.

 

But Azula had plans

for her hate and her ire…

 

Lightning crackled. Lightning struck. The scream torn from Katara’s chest was silent in a world of falling friends.

 

Chapter Text

 

She doesn’t know what to say to the boy who took a bolt of lightning to save her life. It feels real now, the hints and foreshadows of a swamp spirit hundreds of miles away. He’s made it real.

And now he won’t wake up.

-o-

In the hours and days after the invasion, Katara feels less substantial than the smoke rising from the ruin of smouldering debris in and around the palace. The invasion doesn’t drift away with the smoke. The sabotage, the eclipse timing, Aang’s resolve, the ability of a group of teenagers to stomach the gory demands of the battle; Katara wonders if there’s enough time left in the world to mend wounds like these.

Under the glow of her hands, a wash of pale, sickly faces are small shards of reality between seconds that eel along for eternity. In these moments of clarity, the horrors of the invasion make themselves plain.

Azula is dead. And for long minutes that stretch like oil over too much canvas, so is Aang.

Minute after painful minute he lay, crumpled like a castaway doll, until the awful, final moment of the battle when she is free to sprint to his side, slipping in the crimson puddle seeping from the gurgling princess. In that moment, she prays to the Moon and Ocean Spirits for their gift of spirit water to the mere mortals of this world.

When Aang’s lungs bend air and the flicker of his heartbeat stutters against her hands, she doesn’t spare a single second on relief. Someone else is dying.

Back across the plaza, Zuko is struggling to move.

She hasn’t the time to waste on holding back tears; they streak through the soot and blood and fear on her cheeks. In fact, they’re some of the first water to answer her call when she rolls the ashen fire bender over and lays glowing hands along the fault rent in his chest by his sister.

-o-

The next moment, separated from all the others by a now-familiar child’s scream, sees the skin over Toph’s neck, shoulders, and back burned away to nothing— red flesh ballooning, bursting outwards. The little earth bender is clutching at Katara’s torn and gory dress, sobbing for her mother, and the water bender weeps in horror as she closes ice over the burn to give her friend some relief from the pain. Katara is in the infirmary now, and Pakku kneels beyond Toph’s shivering form, his face more severe than Katara has ever seen as she calls to him for more water.

-o-

Word travels around the infirmary, the news breaking into Katara’s new world of burned and broken children and crying adults.

‘The Fire Lord has been captured!’

‘He’s in prison?’

‘He’s awaiting trial.’

‘How did they get him?’

‘The Order of the White Lotus! They caught him sneaking away after the Avatar fell.’

Prison. Sharp edges blur in Katara’s sight. The dying Water Tribe warrior beneath her hands is breathing shallowly and crying for his wife, Rama. Katara knows her. She once sat at the woman’s feet, weaving a baby blanket for her first-born.

Prison for Ozai.

But death for the man before her, widowhood for his wife, and fatherlessness for his son.

She presses the faintly bloodied water back to the gaping wound in the man’s side. I won’t allow it. I won’t…

But beside her, Hakoda’s voice breaks as he closes the man’s eyes. ‘Enough. Enough, Katara.’

She adds the tears collecting under her chin to the flickering glow around her hands, but they may as well be pressed against a husk of driftwood for all the good it does the warrior.

-o-

Hours pass. Some she’s healed, others draw their last breath under her pleading touch. Take a break, she’s told, so she sits with her wounded friends and feels her heart bleed for their pain. She’s at Zuko’s bedside, her head in her hands.

She doesn’t know what to say to the boy who took a bolt of lightning to save her life.

He hasn’t woken since thanking her in the plaza, and now men in robes are trying to take him away and make him a king.

‘He’s not ready!’ she shouts at them through the exhaustion and the fear. ‘If you move him, he’ll die!’

None insist long after that. If Katara could see herself— dress purpling with bloodstains; her hair wild, singed; the edge of madness in her eyes— perhaps she wouldn’t want to cross herself either.

-o-

When Aang wakes, two beds down from the Fire Prince, his tattoos flicker into a glow before he sits with a start. That’s when the convulsions begin.

‘Jima! Bato! Hold him down!’ Katara’s instantly at the boy’s side, some part of her yelling this, but there’s a larger part that’s so frightened she can hardly breathe. ‘Aang? Aang!’

But the air bender’s eyes are whites, and not the glowing kind. The seizure makes it difficult, but she slaps a hand sheathed in water on either side of his head. The room spins on a dangerous axel as she attempts to soothe the spasms, ignoring the voice in her head that whispers to her how hopelessly out of her depth she truly is.

‘He’s too hot,’ she shouts at the figures around her. ‘Jima! Cool him down!’

‘I—I can’t, kid. You know I can’t!’

‘Do it! Now!’

‘I can’t, I said!

‘JUST TRY! His brain’s overheating!’

The broken woman wants to argue, but Katara is just unhinged enough to turn that water on Jima should she be pushed too far. With a deep breath, Jima gathers the mismatching edges of herself, bends from the knee, and sweeps her arms towards the twitching boy on the bed. Not quite a wintery bluster, more a chilly damp, but it’ll do.

It takes Aang half an hour to fall back, sweat-covered and exhausted, into his bed. The fear overtakes Katara— stress no fifteen-year-old should labour under. She orders him tied down.

-o-

‘No. Sokka, no. Leave me alone.’

‘Come on, little sister, lie down for a moment. Just rest your eyes.’

‘I can’t, they need me.’

‘You’ll be right here. Look, that bed’s free.’

‘No, that’s Yun’s bed.’

‘Sh—she, uh, doesn’t need it... anymore.’ Yun stroking her hair by a swamp fireside. Yun teasing her about a fire bender’s gift of swamp lilies. Yun still and unmoving on the crimson bed. ‘Come on, just sit with me at least.’

‘No, Sokka.’

‘You’re going to kill yourself, Katara. You’re driving Dad crazy. He’s this close to having you forcibly removed from the infirmary. Just… please.’

Her brother’s hand in hers distracts the moment, draws her gaze away from Toph’s shallow breathing. His arm has recovered quickly; it was a clean break after all. He’s busy these days. It’s a miracle he’s here at all, what with convening the Interim Regency Council on Zuko’s behalf and sending communications out to the world declaring the war to be over…

Katara lets him help her up from the chair beside Toph. She allows herself to be guided into lying back in Yun’s bed, the blankets to be pulled up, and his hand to rest on her head.

‘You’ll stay?’ She has to make sure, even if she’s already barely conscious. ‘You’ll wake me if they need me?’

Sokka drops the satchel of scrolls at his hip; some things are more important than the rest of the world. ‘I’ll be here when you wake up,’ he promises, stroking her hair the way he did when she was no bigger than a tiger-seal pup.

The worry, like stones behind her eyes, eases when she slips into sleep.

-o-

While the bruises under his sister’s eyes lighten with sleep, Sokka struggles through columns of characters detailing the Earth Kingdom’s demands on the temporary government of the Fire Nation. Around him, the infirmary is a concentration of the chaos they unleashed during the eclipse. An earth bender from Haru’s village is covered with a crimson sheet and taken from the room. Nearby, Hakoda is consoling Tyro with vacant words that fall woefully short of the towering man’s grief.

‘Sir?’

Sokka looks up from the scene across the room. Sir? I could get used to this! he thinks, but the joke feels wrong. Perhaps because he’d usually share it with a group of people now dead, dying, or stricken. The thought depresses him.

‘What is it?’

The Fire Nation soldier bows stiffly. ‘I was sent by General Bumi with news, sir. He said they found a— er— lemur.’

Sokka stands so quickly he sends parchment flying over his sister’s bed. ‘You found Momo?!’

‘Um, yes, sir. In a manner of speaking…’

Sokka’s heart falls as hard as one of Toph’s boulders. He wonders if the Four Nations are as different as he once thought. The Fire Nation man has exactly the same mix of dread and sorrow etched into the lines of his face as his father across the room, keeping an earth bender from crumbling to the ground. It doesn't matter their nation— Fire, Earth, Water— they all weep just as bitterly. For the first time, he’s glad Suki never got the message about the invasion.

‘Have him brought to the hall with the rest of the… the dead. The Avatar will want him buried.’ He hears the steely note in his voice and turns to his sister before the tears can show. ‘That will be all.’

‘Yes, sir.’

-o-

When Katara wakes and the Fire Prince is missing, she blames Sokka and throws him out of the infirmary in a fit of rage.

‘He’s their new Fire Lord!’ he shouts over her screams. ‘It’s their right to take him!’

‘Get out! Just get out! AND DON’T COME BACK!’

She slams the doors and turns back to the infirmary with fury flying from her like flames. Patients and healers are all suddenly very busy with their work. Especially Pakku, who bends water through the open window so enthusiastically it smacks Bumi in the face.

‘Ahhh! Pakku! Use your careful jing, dammit!’

‘My apologies, Bumi.’

Katara wipes the sleep from her eyes and catches Aang’s gaze. He smiles sheepishly, waving at her from his bed by the far wall.

‘Aang!’

She moves like an air bender; her feet barely touch the ground. When she takes the boy’s narrow shoulders in a bruising hug, he laughs faintly.

‘Woah, Katara— ouch!’

‘You’re okay!’ she cries, wiping her eyes. ‘Yesterday— the seizure— but you’re awake!’

His smile falls like a body struck down by lightning. ‘I don’t… I don’t really remember much. What seizure?’

She summons a handful of water from the barrel in the centre of the room. ‘You had a seizure. We think it’s an aftershock from Azula’s attack. She really got you.’

His face crinkles as he leans forward for her to work on his wound. ‘Azula? But Sokka said I was fighting Ozai?’

Katara’s heart sinks. ‘You—you don’t remember? The whole invasion?’

He shakes his head wearily. ‘The last thing I remember is chasing Ozai into some courtyard. Sokka said… he told me I didn’t capture him. That the White Lotus did.’ He crumbles forward into his hands and whispers, ‘I failed you all.’

‘No, Aang, you fought so bravely. It’s just, Azula snuck up on you. You can’t help that.’ She feels around the centre of the wound, the twist of energy like a snarl of purpleberry. ‘Besides, we won as a team. Together, all of us. Not one of us could have done it all by ourselves.’

‘But she’s dead, isn’t she?’ Katara has never heard the young monk’s voice so devoid of life. ‘I heard that, too. I betrayed my people, my vows. The monks taught me that all life is sacred. Even the life of the tiniest spider-fly. I’ve always… I’ve tried to only ever use violence for necessary defence. I never meant to become like Ozai. To take a life...’ The boy bleeds from his broken heart now; it stains the pale bedsheets with his horror. ‘I’m a monster.’

The smoke and Katara’s scream can do nothing for the boy pierced through by lightning and falling from the sky. She’s too late to catch him, to soften his fall as he crumples against the ground.

‘No!’ Zuko’s roar startles Katara forward, but the princess’s blue fire is everywhere. It snarls and roars towards the water bender, and she only narrowly avoids the flames, falling and hitting her head against the cold stone pavers.

‘Really, Zuzu? An invasion? During an eclipse?’ The princess’s voice is high, cold relish for her destruction. ‘So predictable.’

Katara stands, the dark princess watching her coyly.

‘On your knees, water bender. I won’t ask again.’

But terrible, beautiful fury is riding through Katara’s veins. Her Avatar has fallen, and the world around them is burning.

‘Stupid, girl! I said, kneel!’ The flash of lightning is fast.

But Zuko is faster.

He takes the bolt down his right arm, his tunic sleeve catching light as his body dances and seizes like a marionette with tangled strings. The strike meant for the girl he held as she wept for a dead mother burns through him and blackens his fingertips on its way out.

Barely has he struck the ground, deadly horror crawling through Katara’s chest, before she screams and summons every scree of water she can find.

The first ice spear pierces the princess in the leg, pinning her in place.

The second hits her torso with such force it runs her right through.

Aang’s face is downturned with the weight of his guilt.

Katara’s hands drop from his back. ‘Don’t worry, Aang,’ she tells him stiffly, standing and turning back to the infirmary door. ‘You’re not the monster.’

-o-

The guards outside Zuko’s bedroom door try to turn her away.

She can’t blame them, not really. Their home has been invaded and they’re protecting the only hope of restoring order to their country. She really can’t blame them, looking back. At the time she just thinks the men are lucky that General Iroh is visiting his nephew and hears the commotion before it becomes messy.

‘Gentlemen, this is Katara of the Southern Water Tribe, master water bender, healer and personal friend of Fire Lord Zuko,’ the old general admonishes gently, bowing to the girl himself. ‘Please, she is always welcome here.’

‘Yes, sir.’

‘Our apologies, Master Katara.’

She eyes them distrustfully, breathing heavily, but doesn’t argue. After so long being chased by men in these uniforms, she finds it difficult to return their smiles. Despite her agitation, she’s gentle when she pushes past Iroh into the red and gold room.

The ornate gold and fine oil paintings adorning the walls mean nothing to her. She barely notices the high, pressed metal ceiling, the rich furnishings, the carpet which tells the woven history of the nation born of fire.

All she has eyes for is the pale figure surrounded by men in crimson robes.

Iroh joins her before she can start shouting again. ‘It’s good to see you, Katara, even if you might better be spending your time sleeping.’ He gestures to a pair of plush armchairs by the door where a teacup stands, steaming. ‘Or showering. Would you like me to call a servant to run you a bath?’

She shakes her head and exhales sharply. ‘I want to see Zuko.’

‘I’m afraid my nephew is entertaining other visitors before we may have the pleasure of his company.’

‘What are they… Did that guy just mention taxes?!

Iroh nods grimly. ‘Taxes and death are two things you cannot escape in this life, especially if you are to be Fire Lord.’ The old man offers her the teacup with a seated bow. ‘And you, brave Katara, you have my sincerest gratitude for saving my nephew from the latter.’

She takes the cup but lacks the presence of mind to respond to the former general’s thanks. ‘He should be resting,’ she insists, trying to steal a look at the wounded boy around the jostling noblemen. ‘Not… Fire Lording.’

‘I agree,’ the old man says cheerfully. ‘But at this time, I believe we must practice patience. They will be done soon— look, Minister Ping is already leaving with Admiral Xao.’

The two men, faces severe as they whisper, bow shallowly to Iroh as they reach the door. Katara, they barely acknowledge.

‘Thank you for your visit, gentlemen. You do my nephew a great honour,’ Iroh says with a sincere bow.

‘Former General,’ Ping responds tightly before leaving the room with his companion.

‘Friendly,’ Katara comments, narrowing her eyes at the door. Minister Ping. Where has she heard that name before?

‘Yes, aren’t they?’ Iroh replies sunnily, standing and pacing towards the bed. ‘Excuse me, Minister Chan, Acting Minister, Minister Yao, Your Holiness, General. My sincerest apologies, but the Acting Fire Lord’s healer has arrived and insists on his attention immediately. As his health must be all of our utmost concern, will you join me in allowing the Acting Fire Lord his rooms?’

‘Former General—’

‘Chief Advisor.’ Katara’s heart leaps as though she’s back in the swamp and the rasping voice is sneaking towards her through the humidity. ‘I’ve made that clear, Minister. My uncle is Chief Advisor to the Crown and I enshrine him with the authority to make these decisions on my behalf. Thank you for your time.’

The men begin to shuffle at the dismissal.

‘Uncle, please bring the healer and ensure he has fresh bandages; I did ask last time but he—’

As the men file out of the room, Zuko finally catches sight of the girl wearing bloodstains and discord, clutching his uncle’s favourite teacup by the door. There is a fluttering in Katara’s chest, like the wings of a sparrowkeet, and she stands from the chair.

She doesn’t know what to say to the boy who took a bolt of lightning to save her life.

He whispers her name and wrestles his way to the edge of the bed, but his legs shake like the ground under an earthquake and his countenance is hardly more stable. His uncle and the water bender reach him at the same time, pressing him back, ashen-faced and trembling, into the pillows.

‘Don’t move!’ she tells him, tears stinging her eyes. ‘I didn’t spend three days keeping you alive for your stubbornness to go and kill you!’

But the fire bender is beaming like the sun. ‘When I’m sick, you come to visit me.’

‘I’ve been busy.’ The words come out in a whisper, like somehow his awkwardness with words has seeped under her skin. ‘They needed me in the infirmary. I had to help, I mean you really should hire better healers now that you’re Fire Lord. And the one time I take my eyes off you, my idiot brother lets the Fire Sages steal you away.’ Her insides are steel unmelted, yet she’s smiling as hard as he is, gripping his face between her hands. ‘What are you doing working in the state you’re in?! Tell the guards not to let those old guys past the doors until you’re better.’

Zuko laughs and hugs her tightly to him. ‘Giving orders already?’ he teases, and it’s all Katara can do to keep from sobbing. As it is, tears glisten on her cheeks as she hugs the Acting Fire Lord, mindful of his injured shoulder.

When he presses his lips first to her ear, then cheek, and finally her lips, the Former General and Chief Advisor clears his throat delicately, looking out the window with a mild expression. Katara flushes as red as the duvet. From the colour of Zuko’s cheeks, he’s forgotten the old man’s presence as well.

‘U—Uncle!’

‘Good afternoon, nephew.’

‘We—er, I was just—'

‘Don’t mind me,’ the old man says cheerfully, glancing between them. ‘It warms an old man’s heart to see the tenderness of young love.’

At this, Zuko is incomprehensible. ‘Uncle, I don’t think— you can’t just— we weren’t even—'

Iroh glances at him expectantly. ‘Do you have something you wish to tell me, nephew?’

The younger man stutters something about an accident and youth and tradition, but Katara covers his hand with hers. ‘No,’ she tells the old man, catching Zuko’s eye with the lure of her own. ‘Nothing at the moment.’

Iroh smiles at her warmly. ‘Like a good wine,’ he agrees sagely. ‘Balanced and better with age.’

 

— The End —

 

Chapter Text

The Painted Lady began visiting the Fire Nation capital six months after an invasion and an eclipse scorched the war from the Four Nations. At first it was mere rumour; small sightings, unimportant victims, easily ignored. But when she stole into General Itsuki’s villa and nailed the assassination commission and a bolt of red fabric above his bound-and-gagged body in the entryway, she began to draw the attention of the nobility.

And the Fire Lord.

‘General Itsuki has been cut down,’ Minister Ping reported with a bow in the Fire Lord’s direction. ‘He is being held by the Royal Guard until the document found in his possession can be verified.’

An awkward silence fell limply over the room.

Calmly— in appearance only, inside he was flames and suspicion— Zuko studied the commission for his death. ‘You’re telling me a spirit discovered the general’s treason, captured the man, and strung him up by his loincloth?’

Alleged treason,’ Admiral Hao interjected.

Minister Ping cleared his throat. ‘Ah, we are consulting the Fire Sages and the Royal Archivists for guidance in this matter, Your Majesty.’

Every noble, military man, and advisor stood as Zuko got to his feet. ‘Don’t bother,’ he told the man shortly, rising indignation licking like flames at his insides. ‘I’m sure this is just—'

The council room doors opened with an obnoxious bang. ‘Fire Lord Hotpants!’

Zuko’s cheeks coloured as red as the Royal Guardsman who staggered into the room after the figure in green. ‘My—My apologies, Your Majesty, I tried to stop her!’

‘And I told you it was urgent, flame boy, so cool it,’ the young earth bender commanded, shaking off the man’s grip on her sleeve.

The burn scars that could be seen— along her neck and arms— weren’t nearly as noticeable as the angry pucker of Zuko’s own scar. The skin was shiny, bleached mostly white thanks to Katara’s healing hands, with just the barest blush of pink beneath the faint puckering. Many fifteen-year-old girls would carry such scars with horror; Toph wore them like a badge of honour.

‘Your Fieriness,’ she intoned obsequiously, sweeping downward in a perfect noblewoman’s bow.

Minister Chan stood to stamp her foot in fury. ‘Master Toph, how dare you interrupt His Majesty with such disrespect!’

‘Minister Chan, how dare you accuse the Fire Lord’s personal friend of disrespect!’ Toph fired back, a smirk curling up her cheeks. ‘His Royal Fieriness’s attendant said this meeting was due to finish half an hour ago and that’s how long I’ve been waiting. In case you forgot, you all hired me and my students to renovate those magma caverns under the palace. I’m here to report to my boss so if you don’t mind let me get on with it, or I’ll charge your government double to finish the job.’

Zuko resisted the urge to drop his face into his hands with great difficulty; the sheer quantity of complaints that would crowd his desk by the end of the day... Dammit, Toph.

Chancellor Yao laid a calming hand on Chan’s as the minister’s face purpled with rage.

‘Master Toph,’ Zuko called before the earth bender could continue. ‘As luck would have it, the council was just dispersing when you announced your arrival. If you would accompany me to my office, we’ll conduct our meeting there.’

He could see the earth bender repress the urge to roll her eyes. ‘As you wish.’

 

-o-

 

‘Do we need to have another talk about Diplomatic Toph and Regular Toph and which situations warrant which one?’ Zuko asked shortly after his attendant closed the office door behind him. ‘Because next time you pull a stunt like that, I’m going to have my guards remove you from the council chambers, diplomatic consequences be damned!’

The earth bender crossed to the other side of the room to recline in his chair, the comfortably padded one behind his overflowing desk. ‘Katara sent me,’ she said simply, eyeing him wickedly. ‘Ooo, I felt your heart stutter then, Sparky. Hear something you like?’

He shot her a dirty look. ‘Thin ice, Toph.’

‘Don’t you want to know what Madame Fussy Britches said?’

Damn her. ‘I’ll see her during the trade negotiations later today. What’s so important it can’t wait till then?’

‘Painted Lady intel,’ Toph said flatly, kicking her bare feet up onto his desk with a solid thunk.

His suspicions confirmed, Zuko paced like a caged moose-lion. ‘I told her to stop that months ago!’

‘Cause Katara does everything you tell her to,’ Toph implied, tapping her dusty big toe against his pressed metal lantern. ‘Besides, she probably didn’t hear you over the corruption and war profiteering of the lords you’re powerless to punish.’

‘It’s too risky, Toph. What if she’s hurt? What if someone finds out it’s the Water Tribe Ambassador running around and stringing up the nobility? Does she want to start another war?’

‘Just one with the people trying to have you killed.’

That gave him pause. ‘That’s not the—it’s just not how things are done in the Fire Nation.’

The earth bender shrugged. ‘Take it up with your girlfriend. I’m just here to tell you about the blasting jelly stored in the catacombs under that butt ugly temple down the road. The fancy people one.’

That froze the Fire Lord even further, in fact it practically turned him to stone. ‘What?’

‘Oh, and the secret meeting in those same catacombs tonight between the suspected top conspirators.’ Toph’s grin was wickedness itself. ‘Katara just wants to spy on them, but I thought, why not kill two birds with one stone? Give them blasting jelly burns to match yours and mine.’

Zuko was granite with shock. ‘She… She wants to do what?

‘Let her work out the details, Sparky,’ the little earth bender told him with a flippant wave. ‘What I need to know is where can my students and I take those twelve barrels of liquidy explosion now sitting in my room to safely blow them up?’

Horror painted him chalky. ‘You brought… blasting jelly… here?’

She shrugged. ‘I told you it was important.’

The fire bender exploded into action. ‘Taki!’ he shouted, exhaling flames as he turned towards the opening office door.

His attendant dropped into a respectful bow, familiar with this side of the Fire Lord’s temper. ‘How many I be of service, Your Excellency?’

‘Where is Kat— err, the Apprentice Ambassador for the Southern Water Tribe?’

‘I believe her ladyship, Apprentice to the Southern Water Tribe Ambassador, is taking lunch with the Royal Chief Advisor, Prince Iroh, Your Excellency,’ the man replied, glancing nervously at the grinning earth bender in his master’s seat.

Zuko drew himself up, squaring his shoulder. ‘Invite her to join me for tea in my office immediately. Do not take no for an answer, she is to report to this office directly.’ Taki bowed halfway to the ground. ‘And when you see my uncle, ask him to take my place in this afternoon’s negotiations with the Earth Kingdom and Water Tribe delegates.’

‘Yes, Your Excellency.’ The man withdrew promptly.

‘Oh, you’re in so much trouble, Sparky,’ Toph chortled from behind him. ‘She is to report to this office directly. You know how much Katara loves being ordered around.’

‘Shut up,’ Zuko snarled, turning back to the earth bender and planting both hands on the desk between them. ‘Now explain to me exactly why you’ve decided to endanger everyone in this palace by bringing blasting jelly into my house, and Katara by encouraging her insane Painted Lady fantasy!’

Toph raised a quizzical brow. ‘Insane fantasy?’ she said in disbelief.

‘This isn’t some game, Toph!’ he snapped, working to keep his voice down. ‘Do you have any idea what will happen if anyone finds out it’s Katara behind the face paint? Do you know what they’ll demand— my enemies in the government, nobility, and the manufacturers guilds? Do you know the penalty for vigilantism, especially in the wake of the Blue Spirit’s crimes against Zhao?’

‘Do you understand what it’s like for your friends to hear about assassins and poisoned food when we’re hundreds of miles away?’ the little earth bender asked sharply, all teasing gone, shut out like the warmth of a hearth behind a closed door. ‘Do you know what it’s like to know exactly who’s plotting your friend’s murder but having to bow and smile and play nice for the sake of politics? You’re not the only one involved in this anymore, Zuko.’

‘Things in the Fire Nation—’

Who cares about how the Fire Nation does things,’ she snapped, standing and stalking towards him. ‘I’m not Fire Nation, and neither is Katara or Aang for that matter.’

Zuko blinked, backing up a step at the blind girl’s approach. ‘Aang? What does he have to do with this?’

‘Who do you think told Katara about the first assassination attempt when you were too stupid to?’ She poked him hard enough to bruise. ‘Look I get you had a messed-up childhood and all, but I’m here to tell you waiting around for someone to finally get past your guards and kill you is a dumb move. Yelling at your friends when they see you need help is even dumber. Yelling at Katara for trying to help you is probably your dumbest idea yet, second only to yelling at me. Get used to it, Hotpants, we’re not going anywhere.’

He gaped silently at her, rubbing the sore spot on his chest. ‘Ouch.’

‘There’s more where that came from,’ the earth bender warned, yanking open the door and slamming it behind her.

 

-o-

 

‘I really fail to see how this is a bad idea.’ She is the furthest thing from contrite, this water bender sent by the spirits to drive him insane. Sent by the Banyan Spirit and now impersonating a beloved spirit of his Nation.

Katara.’ He used his firmest tone of voice, the one that silenced squabbles between the military’s generals and the armistice council or, more impressively, those between Sokka and Appa. ‘No.’

Zuko. Yes.’

He scrunched the Out-Islander’s Petition for the upgraded sewage initiative and wondered when the disease of Sokka’s personality had infected the water bender. ‘Blue Spirit,’ he reminded her in the shorthand that had grown between them over the past two years. ‘Remember?’

She scoffed. Scoffed. ‘The Blue Spirit achieved a lot more than you give him credit for. In fact, the Painted Lady could use some back up tonight. Did Toph tell you? I’m planning on—’

‘No!’ He stood and threw the initiative at the far wall, stomping. ‘Katara, you can’t do this! When I said I wished there was a direct way to confront corruption in the government and figure out who was sending the assassins, it wasn’t an invitation for you to dress up as the patron spirit of justice and risk your life. We’ve talked about this.’

She leaned back against the door of his office and Zuko could have breathed frustrated fire at the nonchalance on her face. ‘Yell a little louder, why don’t you? I think there’s someone in the east wing who didn’t hear you.’

‘Have you been talking to your brother?’

She quirked a brow. ‘What? Why?’

‘No reason.’

‘Are we done, Fire Lord? I was enjoying the lunch break with your uncle before Taki almost literally dragged me down the hall.’

‘You’re not taking this seriously!’

‘Urg, Zuko, I’m taking it very seriously. I just refuse to talk to you when you speak at me instead of to me!’ She was stern now; iron and steel and he saw the ghost of a crown in the decidedly Fire Nation updo over her shoulder. ‘I’ve only been back in the capital officially for a week and you’ve been treating me like one of your servants or councilmen; ordering me around, telling me what I can and can’t do. Kidnapping me from my lunch with your uncle.’

He’s careful here; Uncle Iroh warned him about these traps, traps a younger Zuko would have barged on into with all the weight of a rampaging kimodo rhino. The old man’s insistence on what he called “the ways of tea and women” talks were starting to pay off in spades.

‘Why do you do it?’ he asked instead, cooling the heat of his temper. ‘Why take it into your own hands?’

The iron in the water bender rusts over and turns to soft beach sand. ‘You know why I do it,’ she said plainly, tilting her head to one side.

He didn’t let the gentleness in her eyes soften him. ‘How long are you going to split your time between teaching and building in the South, diplomacy in the Earth Kingdom, and sneaking into my country to play vigilante?’ he asked bluntly. ‘You’re spreading yourself too thin, Katara. You can’t keep this up forever and at this pace you’ll never—’ He cut himself off hurriedly.

She narrowed her eyes. ‘I’ll never what?’

‘Er, have time to dedicate to your projects back home.’

‘Was that really what you were going to say?’

‘Yes.’

‘Are you sticking with that answer?’

‘…Yes.’

She drummed her fingers against the deep blue tribal robes over her thigh. ‘You need the freedom that the Painted Lady can offer,’ she told him firmly. ‘She’s not bound by politics and, frankly, gets the job done much more quickly than your ministers ever could. But she could use some help.’ Zuko was wary of the devious sparkle catching light in her eyes. ‘I hear the Blue Spirit is very accomplished at getting into places he shouldn’t.’

‘You can’t be serious.’

‘Think of it this way,’ she suggested, stepping forward to run her thumb over his bottom lip. ‘The sooner the Painted Lady clears Ozai’s loyalists and the war profiteers from the city, the sooner I know you’re safe and can focus on my projects at home.’ She held his gaze with ease; it had been a long time since he’d the power to resist her. ‘At that pace, I might be ready to answer that question you keep asking me.’

She followed her thumb with a brief tease of a kiss, leaning back just as he tried to deepen it. ‘Is this what you’ve been learning during your apprenticeship to Bato? How to get your own way with kisses?’

She may have been dressed in the blues of her people but, with that look in her eyes, she burned with the element of his nation. ‘Oh no, Fire Lord Zuko, that was a diplomatic tactic of my own invention.’

‘Some tactic,’ he muttered, caught by the gleam on her lips. ‘Wear the necklace I carved you.’

Katara grinned and stepped back. ‘Ask me from behind the mask.’

Zuko clicked his tongue as she bowed low and made to leave. ‘Fine. I’ll meet you after dinner,’ he growled, grabbing a handful of her formal Water Tribe robes and pulling her to him. ‘By the fullmoon maple in my private garden.’

She melted into his kiss this time, returning it with just as much enthusiasm. She’d only been in the Fire Nation for a week officially (three unofficially, to disguise her presence in the city coinciding with the Painted Lady’s activities) and very little of that time had been spent together. Though their relationship was known to family and friends, hosting a foreign delegate in his chambers for weeks on end wouldn’t be an act befitting a Fire Lord. Nor would kissing in corridors. Or offices.

They took their moments where they could.

 

-o-

 

‘I can’t believe you’re actually going along with this,’ Katara sang gleefully as they darted into the courtyard of the Abbey of the Painted Lady. The abbey’s patron spirit was no coincidence. Katara had come across the nunnery upon first starting her mission in the shadows; she needed somewhere discrete to stay when in the city “unofficially.” It was only after Sage Aoi granted her humble quarters in exchange for her help healing the sick that she recognised the Painted Lady, a far cry from the figure that had haunted her second visit to the Foggy Swamp.

Katara traced the pale billowing dress and crimson face markings. ‘This woman,’ she said to Sister Meki, the nun showing her around. ‘Who is she?’

Meki bowed to the icon. ‘She is the Painted Lady, miss, our patron spirit.’

Katara frowned. ‘I’ve seen her before. In a vision.’ In a swamp, whilst looking for your Fire Lord.

‘Indeed, miss? She is one of the patron spirits of women, keeper of women’s knowledge, known to guide her supplicants in matters of justice, love, and destiny.’ The older woman brushed her thumb over the icon. ‘You are blessed to have received a vision of her.’

Zuko, his face hidden behind the mask of the Blue Spirit, slipped through the doorway beside her like a shadow. ‘Compromise,’ he replied shortly, peering back the way they’d come.

Katara was gleefulness itself. ‘It’s been over a year since I’ve seen you do anything other than Fire Lord at people. Don’t tell me it’s not nice to get out into the city and take action,’ she teased, hoisting herself onto the outhouse roof below her bedroom.

The Blue Spirit did not deign to reply, but she saw the lightness in his step, the one missing these days with the weight of his responsibilities, the gridlock of politics, the unease of four assassination attempts in eighteen months. He bent at the knee, offering her his hand. ‘Let me help you up.’

She didn’t question how he’d make the climb; he’d visited her here under the cloak of night enough times to know he could climb through the window unassisted. Smiling beneath the crimson zukin over the lower half of her face, Katara let him boost her up the wall and into the sparse bedroom.

It was exactly the sort of room to be expected of a nun’s abbey; the sliding shoji window was the only source of natural light or extravagance in the humble room. The mud render on the walls was pale, the rice straw mat neatly woven but fraying now with age. The only furniture was a square short-legged table and zabuton in the corner and, beside the bamboo sliding door of the closet, a heavy wooden chest secured with an iron lock.

While the Blue Spirit appeared on the window ledge and stepped into the room, Katara was already kneeling before the chest, drawing water from the pitcher on the table and freezing it in the shape of the lock’s internal mechanism. No permanent key existed for this chest; she took the secrecy of her alter-ego’s identity very seriously.

A finger ghosted down her cheek, pulling the zukin away from her face, and continuing to trace down her neck. ‘No,’ she told the wandering hand sternly, pulling the altered Painted Lady costume from the chest. ‘Wait by the window while I get changed.’

A sigh preceded the hand’s withdrawal from its journey to her waist and Katara pulled the neatly folded bundle open. While the river spirit’s true depiction wore a long white, flowing gown under a broad-brimmed straw hat, Katara had made some adjustments to the spirit’s outfit for her own requirements of stealth and speed. In place of the Lady’s hat was a thick band of deep burgundy, marked with a distinctive crescent moon, that spanned her forehead and held her long hair down and out of her eyes. Over her fitted black shirt and trousers, she donned a light shift in the Painted Lady’s style but with twin splits up the thigh to allow for easy movement. The zukin— red to match the headband— she kept up around her mouth. The rest of her face, shoulders, and chest were crimson stripped in the Painted Lady’s distinctive swirls.

‘Toph told me to tell you that she got rid of the barrels,’ she said to the surly figure behind her. ‘I can’t believe she brought them into the palace knowing what was in them. I should have been more specific when I told her to stash them somewhere no one would find them.’

‘Yes, you should have.’

Katara sketched the last of the crimson swirls over her cheeks and checked her reflection in the mirror under the lid of the chest. ‘Take it up with Toph,’ she muttered, closing the chest and standing. ‘I’m just passing on the message.’

Zuko scowled at her, his mask dangling from his fist, but when she turned to him he melted like ice in the sun. ‘Well? What do you think?’

He turned his glower to the floor, shrugging. ‘You look… The Painted Lady usually has a big hat.’

‘Not if she wants her peripheral vision clear, she doesn’t.’ She grinned at him, adjusting the two hidden water canteens beneath her shift. ‘Come on, Fire Lord. We have conspirators to catch!’

 

-o-

 

The Dragonbone Catacombs— resting place of all Fire Lords, Zuko’s predecessor excepted— were a cold and unfriendly place despite the many roaring torches mounted in brackets of bone. After they were forced to secret themselves behind a marble dragon statue for the third time, Zuko assured Katara that the Catacombs were usually deserted.

‘I didn’t expect there to be so many people around,’ he breathed as another figure in hood and cloak passed down the long corridor beyond their hiding spot. ‘And none of them Fire Sages.’

‘It’s actually happening,’ she whispered, pressing back against the statue. ‘The meeting. I’m finally going to catch those murderous cowards…’

‘Attempted.’

She shot him a disgusted look. ‘Excuse me?’

‘Technically, they haven’t actually murdered me.’ He raised the blue and white mask to whisper.

‘Do you really want to get into an argument about semantics, right now?’

He dropped the wooden mask back into place. ‘No.’

Once the hallway was empty and silent, two shadows dashed from behind the white dragon and flew down the corridor, sneaking left around the corner in pursuit of the last hooded figure to pass by. The caverns wound deeper into the volcano, downwards, until the walls were hot to the touch and a neat trench to one side of the path ran slowly with bubbling sulphurous water.

When raised voices bounced back down the corridor with the flickering of torchlight, Zuko pulled Katara into one of the decorative alcoves, squeezing in beside a bronze statue of a Fire Lord so old his plaque had worn away with the years.

‘Just around that bend,’ he whispered in her ear, a trickle of sweat itching in his hair, ‘the corridor widens into a cavern called the Dragonbone Shrine. They must be there.’

She nodded, her burgundy forehead bumping against his mask. ‘Is there anywhere to hide?’

He wracked his memory of the ancient room; spiral columns lining the walls, an alter by the far wall, prayers hung on wire suspended between the columns, elaborately painted screens that sectioned—

‘The screens.’ He grinned under the mask. ‘The last time I was here, after my grandfather’s funeral, there were screens painted with his greatest accomplishments all around the room.’

Katara nodded, peering down the corridor as the voices quieted down. ‘You remember the plan? Can you do it?’

The thrill of excitement in the face of danger mixed with the heady pleasure of finally taking action against his enemies made his pulse thunder like a drug in his veins. ‘For you, my lady.’

He took perverse delight in the blush he watched rise above her zukin. ‘Having fun?’ she asked, her blue eyes a hurricane in the flickering light of the corridor. ‘Finally?’

He was having fun. And he’d have more in celebration of their victory later that night. ‘Let’s go.’

They slunk like shadows, hiding in the lower light beneath the torches. The tightening of his nerves kept Zuko’s feet light, his hearing sharp as he first peered then edged around the corner, pressing himself back against the wall as he approached the open archway.

In the centre of the great cave, a group knelt at a low table arguing viciously amongst themselves. With a blow he felt in his stomach, Zuko recognised the loudest of the figures: Admiral Choi Hao, an old friend of his uncle’s, and one of Zuko’s staunchest supporters in his push for reforms of the Fire Nation’s military and navy.

‘That viper-weasel,’ he cursed under his breath; anger and betrayal joined the adrenaline dancing in his veins.

‘If Itsuki talks,’ the hooded figure closest to the masked pair by the door was saying.

‘Why did he keep the execution order after commissioning the deed?’ a woman demanded. ‘What kind of imbecile plays at treason and doesn’t take every precaution to protect himself?!’

‘Our incumbent ruler doesn’t hold with torture,’ Hao said calmly, opening his arms, palms upwards. ‘Itsuki won’t betray us under the threat of mere questions and prison. He will hold his silence and bide his time. In the interim, we have bigger problems to resolve.’

Katara joined Zuko by the entrance to the cavern, flattening herself against the wall. ‘Hao,’ she hissed, too loudly in her fury. ‘That lying worm!

He nodded once, trying to place the other voices in the room.

‘Stuff the plan,’ she seethed, blue eyes burning brightly. ‘We can take them.’

He ached to. Every muscle in his body was tensed and ready to produce fire so hot, none of them would even think about betraying him ever again. The boy he’d been two years ago would have. But the man he was today stared into fierce blue eyes that had dedicated countless hours slinking through the muck and the mire of these traitors to protect him.

And now he had to calm his fury to protect her.

‘No. Hao might be old, but he’s a skilled fire bender. We need to take them by surprise and carry out the original plan.’ It’s a good plan, he’d told her unwillingly back at the abbey. Not because he hadn’t wanted to praise her cunning or acknowledge her careful work over the last few months— he praised her problem-solving after every summit or council they both sat on. No, he was frightened of encouraging anything to do with the Painted Lady; he couldn’t stomach her putting her safety and reputation on the line for him.

‘Fine. I suppose it would be a waste of a perfectly good plan.’ She flicked her gaze to the cavern. ‘No screens.’

She was right. There was nothing for them to hide behind. ‘That’s going to be a problem.’

‘No, it won’t.’ A smirk stole up into the water bender’s eyes. ‘I’ll improvise. Go.’

With a deep breath— drawn down deep into his belly, stoking his inner fire— Zuko reached across the Dragonbone Shine, past the conspirators, and into the torches lining the far wall. With a stiff grasping movement, half of them went out.

A cloying wave of fog spilled into the cavern and the figures at the table fell uneasily silent.

‘What in the world?’

‘Tohru, light the torches, I can hardly see a thing.’

‘This is bad, Admiral…’

Hao’s voice rose above the confusion. ‘Who was last to arrive? Misaki? Were you followed?’

A woman’s voice, raised in fear. ‘What? No! Of course not.’

At the edges of the room, under the cover of humidity and the low light, a water bender and the Fire Lord stole closer to their quarry through slowly spreading mist. Too late the conspirators thought to make for the corridor; it was blocked by a wall of sheer ice.

‘No.’

‘It’s here! The Painted Lady!’

‘Agni protect us!’

There! Look!

Katara let the mist lick around her ankles but cleared the air between herself and the conspirators. Let them catch sight of her, point and cry, their faces bleached white. Even Hao and General Tohru looked discomposed.

She didn’t blink as she raised a hand, pointing it at them, glowering. ‘Traitors,’ she spat in the rasping tone she reserved to disguise her voice. ‘Thieves and betrayers.’

The marchioness Misaki dropped to her knees in a kow tow. ‘A thousand apologies to your honour, mistress spirit,’ she babbled hysterically.

‘That’s no spirit,’ Hina, the leader of the metalworkers’ guild, shouted, her dark eyes scowling.

‘No, indeed,’ Hao agreed. ‘You are most definitely flesh and bone, are you not, my dear?’

Katara didn’t reply; she only had to keep their attention until Zuko was in position. ‘Why?’ she rasped, drawing the dagger at her waist carefully. ‘What reasons do you have for betraying your country, your Fire Lord, and your people? This is the only chance you have to make your appeal.’ She let the threat hang between them as the fog bellowed and the ice groaned in the heat. ‘Make it count.’

‘I’m afraid we are under no obligation to make such an explanation, young woman,’ Hao said as though they were simply discussing poetry or the Ember Island Players most recent flop. ‘I hope you never find yourself in the position of having to make such an explanation to the real Painted Lady. The spirits do not suffer mortals to wear their likeness.’

Katara had made enough offerings to her patron’s shrine at the abbey to feel safe from such superstition. ‘This is your last chance, Admiral Hao,’ she hissed in her river spirit’s voice. ‘Confess.’

But the sly old man was cocking his head, eyeing her like a puzzle to be solved. ‘You’re not from here, are you, girl?’ He glanced from the mist to the ice at his back, comprehension rising like the sun in his eyes. ‘You’re a water bender.’

She didn’t move, didn’t speak.

Hao took a step forward. ‘Master Katara?’

Marchioness Akane looked aghast. ‘That water peasant from the south?’

‘Quiet,’ Hao chided without looking away from the crimson figure before him. ‘The colours of my people look well on you, Master Katara, but you must know, we can never allow your scarred friend to destroy our proud Nation.’

He likes the sound of his own voice more than Sokka, she thought dryly, spinning the dagger in hand. ‘Is that so, Choi Hao?’ she asked in bored tone.

He pursed his lips at the breach in protocol. ‘You must understand—’

‘That is where you’re wrong, Hao,’ she interrupted smoothly, taking a threatening step forward. ‘You and your friends are the ones who have misunderstood. Azula is dead, Ozai is never, never coming back, and the world is moving away from their legacy faster than you can imagine. You’ve chosen the wrong side, you see,’ she continued in a silken tone. ‘And for the rest of us to move forward, you need to get out of the way.’

Zuko struck like his sister’s lightning, quick and deadly. The pommel of his dao swords knocked the two war industry representatives’ unconscious before anyone noticed him looming out of the mist behind them. Katara used the confusion of his attack to freeze the other five conspirators’ in place, right up to their knees.

After that, it took Zuko mere moments to bind their hands behind their backs.

‘I’m sure you’ve heard of the Blue Spirit,’ she continued as though nothing had happened. Deftly, she pulled the zukin down, feeing her face, to return Hao’s furious glower with a grin. ‘A friend I made in the Earth Kingdom who loves peace as much as I do. He doesn’t talk much, but if you give him reason to, he’s as deadly with those blade as he needs to be.’

Misaki was crying twin streams of tears. ‘You each have two choices in how this night ends,’ Katara told them, pacing closer. ‘The first option, infinitely better for all of you, is the simplest: you shoulder your dishonour, receive a fair trial, and accept the rulings of the court.’ She held up the dagger by its tip, thoughtfully. ‘However, if you would like to invoke your right to the Fire Nation’s seppuku and… take your own life…’ She frowned at this; never would a wrong doing be punished by ritual suicide in the South Pole. ‘Then you have that option also.

‘Your second choice, is less pleasant. While you are correct, Hao, that your Fire Lord does not hold with torture, that is not the practice of the Water Tribes,’ she lied smoothly, flicking the knife into the air to catch it by the hilt. Here, she lowered her voice ominously. ‘And your Fire Lord is not here. Never forget that you are all guilty of plotting against my friend with the intention of resuming a war I fought and bled to finish. If any of you so much as raises a hand to myself or my companion, you won’t live to see another sunrise. We’re a very long way underground here; it would take weeks for someone to find what’s left of you.’

Even Hao, a military man, had paled considerably. Katara nodded approvingly at their good sense to stay silent.

‘Hao, you may decide first.’

The proud old man lifted his chin slowly. ‘I invoke the right to seppuku,’ he said stiffly. ‘Assuming, of course, you understand your responsibility as witness?’

‘You have to,’ Zuko told her bluntly for the third time. ‘It’s Fire Nation custom among the noble and warrior class.’

‘It’s barbaric. And cruel! They should go to trial, like any other person would.’

But the Fire Lord was shaking his head, his expression gravely serious. ‘This isn’t something you can argue away, Katara, whether you like it or not, seppuku is a tradition older than the war. It’s like ice dodging for your people.’

‘You want me to give this knife to a man and watch him open his stomach with it?!’

‘Yes. If any of them choose to, that’s exactly what you should do. I mean, you don’t have to watch if it makes you uncomfortable…’ He trailed off under her scowl.

‘After everything that happened during the invasion, do you really think a little blood will make me swoon?’

He took a deep breath and covered her hand with his. ‘Honour is everything here,’ he explained quietly, loving the indignation in her eyes just as he knew it would need to calm, to balance out into acceptance, for her to play her role. ‘What these people have done, betraying me and their Nation… it brings their entire family into dishonour. Seppuku… removes that. The sacrifice of their life restores their family’s standing— no grudges held against the dishonoured man’s family, no feud for revenge against the Fire Lord. Everyone respects the rights and traditions of the seppuku. Here, it’s as sacred as the law.’

Katara watched the silver haired man just as fiercely as he regarded her. She had met his young daughter, his older son, knew of his wife— people he would leave behind without father and husband. Zuko’s voice bloomed in her memories once again: ‘If he lives, they all follow him into dishonour. Exile, prison, in some cases even execution. Unless he makes this sacrifice.

She nodded to him, her stomach clenching. ‘I understand, Admiral Hao.’

 

-o-

 

In the end, only the Blue Spirit and the Painted Lady emerged from the Dragonbone Catacombs, the latter with tears of crimson paint running like blood down her face. She waited while Zuko slunk into the above ground temple and left the conspirators’ written confession and the Painted Lady’s signature red cloth by the front door, where it— and consequently the bodies in the Catacombs— would soon be found.

With the ghosts of seven people clinging to her elbows, Katara and Zuko returned to the palace directly. Through hidden doors and passages secreted in the narrow spaces behind the rich wooden panelled walls they crept; Zuko knew every trick opening, each hidden walkway that let them move unseen through the palace.

Before long, he was pressing a lick of flame into a sooty keyhole and a waist-high door opened into the Fire Lord’s personal suite.

The fire bender, blue and white mask grinning, waved her forward. ‘After you.’

The sitting room was silent. Empty. Only the candles flickered in their brass wall brackets when the drafty passageway opened. The walls in Zuko’s personal rooms had been painted white upon his coronation: sitting, tea, and bedroom all. Katara had been hosted in both the sitting and tea rooms before, both in her diplomatic role as Bato’s apprentice and privately, and she had revelled in the departure from crimson. It granted the room a lightness and serenity the palace otherwise lacked. But tonight, those pale walls felt charcoal dark.

She didn’t spare the sitting room a glance, making directly for the ornate double doors into the Fire Lord’s bedchamber and wet room beyond.

Discord stirred like a disturbed river bed, somewhere below her lungs.

The door to the wash room— less ornate, but still carved with the long sinuous bodies of dragons— opened on silent hinges and Katara reached with her bending for the water in the deep stone basin under a golden-edge mirror. The water sloshed and sighed, circling her shoulders likes a mother’s embrace. She leaned into the Rising Moon stance and the slosh became a roar as she washed the mess of tears and paint from her face.

And still, eddies of unease circled her spine.

‘Katara?’

The voice in the doorway jarred her smooth transition into the Midnight Blossom form, splashing half the water onto the cold stone floor. In the light of the fire in Zuko’s palm, the water on the floor was red as blood.

Crimson drops leaked from her tunic. ‘Can I borrow some clean clothes?’ she heard her voice ask; it echoed against the mosaic walls, flat and empty.

‘Of course.’ He disappeared from the mirror over the basin only to reappear a minute later at her side, red silk clutched in hand. He set down the clothes by the basin, crouching before her to gather the wet blood-stained tunic and pull it up over her head. It dropped to the ground with a wet slap, but Zuko was already undoing the ties at her waist, the knots at her throat.

She was still as ice in the tundra, but the breeze low in her gut was slowly building to a gale. ‘I don’t,’ she began, but the words lost their way somewhere around the lump in her throat.

‘I know,’ the fire bender muttered, pulling the stained leggings past her ankles.

‘They all chose it,’ she told the top of his head as he freed her feet from the trousers. ‘Every single one of them. They all have families— some of them are parents and they still… they cut their own…’

Zuko stood, holding her shaking hands out to slip the black wrap shirt down her arms. ‘I know,’ he said simply. ‘I know. I’m sorry.’

‘Sorry?’ She whispered the word, tested its metal.

He didn’t respond.

‘Are things any better now?’ she pushed, hugging herself tightly when he released her arms.

‘Things are a hundred times better now,’ the fire bender assured her in a careful tone, circling her to work at the knots of her breast band. ‘A good portion of that you have direct responsibility for.’

A sob sucked at the air in her throat. ‘Sure, the world isn’t at war anymore but those people… those people were supposed to be working for the citizens of the Fire Nation, governing for them, making their lives easier. All they did was resist the war ending so they could buy a few more villas on Ember Island and then…’ In her mind’s eye, the seppuku knife slashed through silk and bamboo cotton to bloom crimson flowers on the cold stone floor of the Dragonbone Catacombs. ‘Is this what our lives will be? Hard work that end in an execution?’

Her wrappings loosened and Zuko pulled them up over her head, his hands gentle, slow. ‘Possibly,’ he muttered, the quiet despair in his voice playing like autumn leaves in the air. ‘Half the time I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing.’

The words sliced like a knife to the belly; sharp and painfully true. ‘What do you do?’ she whispered, wiping at the tears that wouldn’t stop falling.

He avoided her eye, pulling the soft silk shift down over her head. ‘I write to you if you’re not here, talk to you if you are.’ Embarrassment curdled with vulnerability and bruised between them. ‘Or uncle, he was raised to be Fire Lord and is a better leader than I could ever be.’

Katara’s heart thumped loudly at the dejection— like skin rubbed raw— in Zuko’s eyes. ‘He doesn’t think so,’ she reminded him, stilling his fussing by laying her hand over his chest. ‘Nor do I. Or Sokka, or Suki, or Toph, Aang, Dad, your people…’

He shrugged; he’d believe it in the morning when he had to don a crown of flames and command a nation.

Katara sniffled, leaning into his hand when he wiped at the tears under her eyes. ‘What advice would your uncle give tonight?’

‘Patience. Something to do with patience…’ He sighed, though a ghost of a smile hid in the corner of his mouth. ‘He once told me that change is like watching a sunrise. At first you can’t see the dawn lightening; the landscape still appears dark. But before long you look back to the horizon and can see hills and trees and forest.’ He shrugged self-consciously. ‘I don’t know what it means, really, but—’

‘Shut up.’

Zuko glanced down at her in shock. ‘What?’

‘Shh!’ she insisted, straining for the memory, that distant feeling of having heard those words before rising…

The Swamp’s jungle clears long enough for a gentle breeze to tickle and cool the sweat beading along her arms. She shouldn’t, she should be conserving the water in her canteen, but she takes the time to guzzle water from her canteen. The humidity sips at her energy, licks the sharpness of her strength down to a blunt edge.

She cannot lose hope now. They must be around here somewhere. Sokka. Aang…

‘Uncle thinks you should rest,’ her apparition advises from the opposite side of the small clearing. ‘He’s right, you know? You’re burning out. Why don’t you take a week, visit your grandmother?’

The girl in Water Tribe blues sighs, a bubble of panic making its way out of her chest as laughter. ‘Sure! I’ll just magically find my way out of this stupid swamp, ignore your father’s war, and ride on home as though nothing’s happened!’

The fire bender’s face softens, his hair is long and loose around his jaw. She finds she can’t hold his gaze. ‘When you watch the initial stages of dawn, without a clock or time piece, you may not be able to recognise whether the sky is really lightening for a while. You can still see the stars and the shades of the night darken the landscape. It is that way with any beginning.’ A soft smile spread up his cheeks like the rising dawn. ‘Gradually, it becomes clear to your senses that the light is definitely increasing and as you continue to watch, the world slowly wakes up. Soon, the first rays of sun show. A new day has begun.’ He has crossed the clearing, freezing her in place long enough to place a warm hand on both her shoulders. ‘Your projects will take time, my love, make sure you don’t lose yourself in the process.’

In the distance, she can hear them, her brother and her Avatar. ‘Don’t call me that,’ she whispers, her lower lip trembling.

His head tilts to one side. ‘Call you what?’

‘Love.’ She almost chokes on the word. ‘Your love.’

His fingers raise goose bumps on her neck when he draws back. ‘One day, our love will be all that keeps us going.’ He says it like a promise, a vow. ‘When you have blood on your hands and despair saps my determination, it’s love that—’

Aang bursts into the clearing with a rush of wind and Zuko flickers from view.

‘Katara!’ the monk shouts in relief, sprinting to the ashen water bender’s side. She sobs onto the Avatar’s shoulder and holds her brother tight enough that she won’t feel her own arms shake.

In the Fire Lord’s wet room, Katara curled her fingers into Zuko’s shirt, tugging him closer. ‘You meant now,’ she breathed, looking up excitedly. He looked perplexed to say the least, but he gripped her arms all the same; there was something electric in the water bender that drew him into her mood.

‘I meant what?’ He glanced over his shoulder. ‘I think you’re in shock, Katara, come sit down.’

She let him guide her to the crimson coverlet of his bed, but she didn’t stay seated for long. She crawled onto his lap, marvelling at the hand fate had dealt them all those months and years ago in the humidity of the Foggy Swamp. She’d once cursed the visions that had thrown her life’s course into question, fought and resisted them, the choices that had been taken from her. But as she took Zuko’s face between her palms— smooth skin against her right hand, knotted scar against her left— she kissed him and whispered ‘yes’ to a question he’d been asking her for six months now.

He responded immediately with a hand on the base of her spine, pressing her closer.

It roared in her veins, the strength she knew she would spend in service to not only the Fire Nation, but the world; there was no other way, and for the first-time peace settled over the old grievances with her fate.

Zuko broke the kiss first, the gold of his eyes a thin ring, but flaming brighter than fire. ‘Are you sure?’ he whispered, chasing the shiver up her spine with his fingers.

With something like ‘I love you’ on her lips, she responded. ‘It would be my honour.’