It always starts the same.
A jumble of images, dizzying flashing lights. Snatches of sentences she doesn’t understand, so much screaming. This dream has haunted her since before she can remember, but every time she has it, it feels more vivid, more real, more frightening than the time before.
A red sky, the comet.
A golden phoenix, reborn in blue flames.
Screaming. It hurts her ears.
The little boy with gray eyes – his face is so familiar now – crackling with lightning and concentration.
The image shifts to her blue-eyed brother, recoiling against fire. When she was a child, he’d been older and almost unrecognizable behind sweat, blood, and a beard. Now, she realizes, this could be her brother any day—as soon as he decides to let that beard grow. Beside him is the girl with a shock of wild black hair covering her face. She’s grabbing at something and the most awful screeching makes Katara cover her ears.
Finally, the man in red, shouting her name. Katara is suddenly in the moment, reaching out to him and screaming – he can’t die, too much depends on him—
Something hits her, pain blooms in her side. The women, with blood on her face and insanity in her yellow eyes, grins viciously. Her lips are the color of blood. “Wake up, Katara!” she sings.
She sits up, suddenly at home in the North. In her bed. Alone.
Katara stares at her trembling hands, tries to catch her breath. Her nightgown is soaked with sweat and her hair is stringy and wet. She draws in a trembling breath, but then forces herself out of bed. There are more important things than her fear.
She kicks her blankets aside and shoves her feet into seal fur slippers. There isn’t enough time to find a gown to cover her arms—she runs out of her room and down the hall in a thin shift, her breath rushing out before her in frantic white puffs.
It takes half a minute to reach her brother’s door, another to pound on it like a possessed woman. Sokka isn’t supposed to be home for another week, but the door swings open anyway. Her brother looks like he’s literally stepped off the boat—her blood runs cold when she sees the healthy beard on his face. Katara gapes at him, then she can’t breathe because it’s starting and she’s not ready and –
There’s water on her face and she’s lying on her brother’s bed. He looks half dead with exhaustion and half crazy with worry. She realizes that she must have passed out. “You had a panic attack.” her brother says, instead of hello.
“I saw it again,” she breathes, “there’s more, Sokka, there’s so much more, there’s too much!”
His hands are on her shoulders, “Katara, you have to calm down—
“No!” she cries, sitting up, “You have to record it!”
The look on his face says that he’s about to do anything but record her dreams, but then she forces herself to breath. “Please,” she says, “I’ll calm down as soon as I know it’s on paper.”
Sokka blinks, unconvinced. “Please.” She begs.
“If you faint again,” he mutters, rooting around for paper and ink, “I swear I’ll never record a single dream ever again—
He’s barely had a chance to prepare before she begins talking.
They spend an hour going through the dream again and again and again. She recites every detail she can think of, the noises, the sights, the order. Anything could be significant. Sokka writes every detail faithfully. It isn’t until he sets his scroll down that she can truly relax. Somehow, the grip of the vision releases her, and she can sag against her brother and breathe.
“I’m sorry.” She whispers.
“Don’t be.” He says and strokes her hair like he used to when they children and their mother had just died.
“How did the negotiations go?” she asks.
Katara is asleep before he finishes his first sentence.
“Shh!” he hisses, but he doesn’t stop moving, doesn’t stop moving within her.
She clutches him tightly and they fall and fall and fall together into darkness.
He’d carried her back to her own bed a thousand times. He’d held her through the worst of her nightmares, let her curl up on him when they’d fled to the North Pole and there hadn’t been a bed for her to sleep on.
Somehow, somewhere, his sister had grown up.
Sokka still carried her to bed every now and again, but Katara had gotten a lot heavier.
Or at least she had been heavy.
Now, she was painfully thin.
For the last year, the nightmares and visions had become stronger and stronger and the toll they took was heavier and heavier. His seventeen year old sister had become thin and gaunt, sleepless and anxious.
She wakes as he carriers her back to her room. “Sokka,” she whispers, “Sokka, stop. I can’t sleep.”
He’s half-dead with exhaustion; the negotiations in Kyoshi had taken weeks longer than he’d expected, Suki had been far more difficult to convince than he expected. Even so, he’s not about let his sister walk off in the middle of the night and agonize over her visions until her sanity snaps.
“No,” he decides, “You’re going back to sleep until morning.”
She wiggles in his grip and he’s forced to set her down. “Katara,” he begins, “You kept me awake for an hour writing down your crazy dreams—now do me a favor and sleep. Then I can sleep. You don’t want to kill your only brother, huh?”
“There’s too much to do,” she mutters, walking away, “There’s so much I have to do before—
It’s like she hasn’t heard a word that he’s said. Something in his chest hurts—seeing his sister like this hurts. Katara hasn’t been herself for a long time; the visions have turned his mouthy, vibrant, stupidly optimistic sister into a pale, anxious wreck. Sokka catches her arm, pulls her to a stop. “Katara,” he says sternly, “Before what? What do you have to do?”
She turns to face him with eerie blue eyes and a face as blank as the night. She’s in the grip of a vision, staring at him like he’s a stranger. The moment passes and his sister blinks.
“Sokka?” she says, “You’re hurting me.”
He releases her and she sags against him. “There’s so much to do.” she says again.
Sokka has to force himself to keep his voice even. He’s not the master of tact, but even an idiot knows that shouting won’t help. “Katara,” he says, “You can’t prepare for anything if you let the visions kill you.”
But she’s already walking away and he watches her go, silently. All his life, he’s protected his sister from danger, from the Fire Nation, from the expectations of the North. He’s never been able to protect her from herself.
He’s been warned, of course, that she’s far more powerful than she appears—something he’d assumed was silly superstition. Even so, he is cautious. He watches her for a time, carving ice with quick nimble brown hands. There is already a body—a man he thinks, wearing heavy armor. Zuko is startled to find his face appearing beneath her careful, graceful bending.
She pauses to regard the sculpture, pursing her lips. “I need to know who you are,” she whispers, “It’s starting, where are you?”
“Why don’t you just ask who I am?” he says, stepping out from behind a shadowed column.
The Oracle doesn’t seem surprised to see him there, or the half-dozen silent men who begin to spread throughout her workshop. She turns to face him and immediately tilts her head. “Your nose is bigger than I though.” she says, crossing the room.
She reaches out to touch his face, but he catches her hand. She blinks. “Who are you?” she asks again, tugging her hand back.
He obliges. “Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation,” he replies, “And you’re the Oracle.”
“Zuko,” she breathes, “Your name is Zuko.”
His name sounds foreign on her lips, exotic even. He can’t help the image the pops into his head—this woman gasping his name as he moves within her, looking at him with those stunning eyes. Spirits, he thinks, she’s beautiful.
“Your mother was right,” she says, almost to herself, “Azulon would not have suited you at all.”
Lust forgotten, he recoils, “How did you know—
Zuko stops, composes himself. He was warned that she would be like this. Difficult, seductive, confusing even. “Someone told you then?” he suggests, casually.
“No.” she says, distracted.
The Oracle turns back to her sculpture and begins to refine his features. “I saw the day you were born,” she says, “Your mother wanted another name—something she loved dearly, but I never heard her speak it.”
He answers the unspoken question. “It was Kuzon,” Zuko says stiffly, “But my grandfather named me.”
The Oracle smiles, opens her mouth to speak, then abruptly her face goes blank, as if she had been a marionette in action and now her strings have been cut. “The sages believed you wouldn’t survive,” she announces in an altogether unworldly voice, “But the granddaughter of Avatar Roku begged the son of Sozin and he held you through the night and breathed the fire right back into your heart—
Zuko shakes the girl out of her trance. “I don’t have time for old stories,” he snaps, “Will my men and I escape this palace tonight?”
The Oracle blinks, eyes still vacant. “The wheels of destiny turn and turn and turn,” she hisses, “When the Oracle is stolen by the banished prince—
He shakes her again. “Will we escape safely?” he demands again.
She ignores him and clutching his shoulders, she shouts, “When the Oracle is stolen by the banished prince—the boy in the iceberg will appear! The day of the comet grows near! There is much to prepare—
Later on, he’ll tell himself that the desperation of the moment made him do it. It’s not a lie, but Zuko doesn’t kiss her because he needs to prevent an entire fortress of water tribe warriors of discovering him and his men. He kisses the Oracle because somehow, he’s lived this moment before. Maybe in a daydream or nightmare or fever dream, he saw this woman and he saw himself and when he takes her shoulders and touches his lips to hers, it feels right.
The Oracle stills.
Her lips are soft and warm, he inhales and she smells, somehow, like jasmine. Zuko watches as she blinks slowly, coming up from her lethargy like a seal coming up for air. He steps back but maintains his grip on her shoulders, steadying her. The Oracle stares at him.
“Zuko?” she whispers, as if they’ve known each other their whole lives, as if they have not just met, as if he has not seen her in dreams for the past five years.
Then he catches himself and remembers why he’s here. This isn’t some celestial hook-up, not some sort of star-crossed romance. He’s here for a reason.
“Will my men and I escape safely tonight?” he asks again, but his tone is careful and his grip on her shoulders is protective—what he’s protecting her from, he’s not sure of yet.
She doesn’t fall back into a trance. Instead the Oracle nods. “Yes,” she says, “But you’re supposed to take me with you.”
It’s easier to be the blunt, brutal prince. It’s easier to forget this moment that has transpired between them. “That’s why we’re here,” he tells her coldly, “You’re going to be a gift for my father.”