The air in the middle ring is heady with smoke, carrying the smells of rotisserie meats and fruits, burning incense, and black powder from bang snaps and sparklers. These great dull plumes offer the only respite from the stinging, sour medley of incompatible perfumes wafting off the sea of passerby. Children weave wildly through the crowd, nearly upturning a display of hammered silver wind chimes, though their tinkling song can barely be heard over the din. All around, vendors and performers carry on their clamor without even sparing a glance.
Toph was right about one thing: no one was going to recognize them in this chaos.
“Come ooonnn, Snoozles,” the girl growls impatiently, tapping her bare foot on the packed dust. “Do we really have to stop at every other stall you see?”
At Toph’s cajoling, Sokka squeezes back into the circle of teenagers, elbowing a young girl in the face on his way. From beneath the hood pulled tightly down his face, Zuko spies not one, but two paper kites in the shape of twin koi clutched between the Water Tribe boy’s hands. He rolls his eyes.
“Hey, this is a festival. You’re allowed to enjoy shopping at a festival,” Sokka sniffs, shooting a haughty look at Toph. “Not that any of you wet blankets would know anything about that.”
“I’m enjoying myself,” Aang inserts amicably, bouncing a little too lightly on the balls of his feet and knocking his hat askew. He rights it quickly, but not before revealing a flash of the identifying blue ink that cuts down his forehead. The airbender’s excitability used to be bearable, endearing even, Zuko thinks with a wistful frown, but that was before he was fifteen and already towered half a head above him.
“Yeah, whatever, Twinkletoes,” Toph says as she pushes her way out of the circle, effectively leading everyone down the street. Zuko, trailing slightly behind, has to strain to hear her. “It’s not my idea of fun to stand around waiting for you to try on a new dress or whatever.”
Sokka makes an indignant spluttering noise up ahead. “That was one time! And it’s a traditional warrior’s outfit — besides, that’s not even — these are exotic, handcrafted Earth Kingdom oddities!”
“But why do you need two of them?” Katara’s voice sounds from behind him, so close that it causes the hairs on the back of Zuko’s neck to stand on end. “What are you going to do, fly a kite in each hand?”
Sokka looks over his shoulder at his sister, his face scrunched in a thoughtful frown.
“These are kites?”
Zuko sighs through his nose, eyes ticking to the sky as if Agni himself could save him from this day. It’s not entirely his friends’ fault, and he knows he shouldn’t take his dark mood out on them, but he’s been nursing a headache since long before the sun burned out over the horizon, and the stress of being in the heart of Ba Sing Se during the largest festival of the year was... well, it was a bit much for Zuko.
He broke from his last meeting of the day with muscles aching and the overwhelming urge to curl up in ball in his chambers despite it being mid-afternoon when, by either a stroke of luck or an unfortunate misstep, he’d run into Toph. Toph, who’d invited him to join the gang in celebrating one of the few nights of the year that they were all in the same city at once. Toph, who’d said it would be the ‘party of the century’, yet still managed to get Zuko to join in.
The truth is, Zuko didn’t really need much convincing. This year’s international peace summit has been a grueling week, and he’s exhausted from navigating the tight ropes of endless formalities and political tension. There’s something cathartic about being able to leave it all behind, just for one night. Adorned in the civilian clothes he almost didn’t pack, wandering without purpose as a nameless face in the crowd.
And, of course, he’s happy to be surrounded by his friends again — in a social setting rather than around a round table discussing limits on trade. Zuko hates to admit it, but being Fire Lord is more isolating than he ever would’ve imagined. Sure, he has Mai and Uncle and now Suki, too, but he sometimes finds himself missing the war, if only for moments like this. Firebending every day, living for the moment, surrounded by friends; if he forgets all about the weeks spent trying to get everyone to forgive him and the constant, looming threat of death, it was actually a nice time.
Unfortunately, that elating feeling of freedom is tempered by a rising anxiety that builds with every glance spared his way, every lingering pair of eyes on his scar, every time Aang nearly gives away their identities in his careless exuberance.
“Guys! Check it out!”
Zuko snaps his head up to see what the monk in question is pointing to. The road has opened up to a sunken market square. Crowds gather on the steps, watching as four performers, each dressed in the coloring and style of one of the four nations, leap and twirl around the plaza with vibrant ribbons. A quartet of musicians stands off to the side, punctuating their dance with a dreamy song.
“I don’t get it. What the hell are they doing?” Toph asks.
Zuko watches them, captivated by the strange movements. The ribbons flutter and swirl gracefully in the air, creating odd shapes in the sky, almost like aerobatic calligraphy. The music slows as the dancers stalk one another in slow circles, each body racked with tension, when, suddenly, the pipa explodes with fury and the ribbon dancers swipe and lunge at each other, frenzied in their fight to triumph this bizarre battle.
He recognizes the score from his childhood studies: Ambush from Ten Sides, a musical retelling of the battle of Shu Jing, where a general was so thoroughly defeated that he ended up committing suicide right on the Jang Hui river. It’s a violent and sad story, but for a moment, the melody transports him to a time of peace. The afternoon light spilling lazily through the blinds in the sunroom, cushions thrown haphazardly around the room by his fidgeting as he struggles to keep pace on the tsungi horn to his mother’s expert plucking, the delicate smell of jasmine...
He is so entranced that he almost misses his friends leaving to take seats on the stone steps. Following belatedly, he catches up with Katara’s side to hear her still bickering with Sokka.
“Well, I’m not helping you carry all this junk back to the palace. And we really need to be saving our money for food.”
Sokka actually has the decency to look chastised, though Zuko knows it’s only his fear of missing out on festival food. After only a second of deliberation, he leans over and blurts softly to Katara, so only she can hear.
“You don’t have to worry about that. I can buy you dinner later.”
Katara turns to him, her mouth popped into a little ‘oh’. But instead of a smile, her features sour to worry. She chews her lip before speaking.
“You don’t have to do that. Sokka swindling all our money isn’t your problem.”
His jaw twitches in frustration, working to say really, it’s no trouble, when Suki cuts in, leaning over Sokka’s lap and grabbing Katara by the arm. She gestures towards one of the sidewalk vendors displaying jewelry on a blanket behind them, and they crawl over together, the conversation over.
Zuko watches her go, feeling oddly dejected. The few coppers it would cost him for a bowl of noodles cooked by the side of the road is really no big deal, and it’s the least he can do for a friend. But, as always, Katara is obdurate in her refusal to accept what she considers handouts.
While totally unnecessary, he can empathize with her stubborn desire for self-reliance. So instead of dwelling on it, he turns his attention to Toph and Aang on the step in front of him. The dancers are moving to a new song now, one that Zuko doesn’t recognize. Evidently, it’s from some play Aang saw over a hundred years ago.
The monk dives into a complicated explanation of four noble youth from each of the four nations, all trapped in a great love affair. Zuko tries and fails to keep up with his haphazard retelling of the plot, but all the stuff about about arranged marriages and love potions goes right over his head.
“This must be the part where Bansi takes Sapna to... no wait, that’s Bansi and Akane. Oh, yeah! I forgot to mention that the sorceress owes Hiroyuki a favor, so that’s why the love potion backfires on Bansi and that’s why he’s dancing with Akane instead of with Sapna, but that’s bad news for Hiroyuki because he’s in love with Akane, which is why he’s chasing them around.”
“I’m pretty sure that’s all made up,” Zuko says, and Toph snorts.
Sokka bumps his shoulder, having slid into Katara’s vacated space.
“Yeah, that story was a bunch of nonsense. Why isn’t Bansi dancing with the yellow chick? Since when did he start liking Akane back?”
“Hey, it’s been a while since I saw the play,” Aang amends, rubbing the back of his neck, “But I’m, like, 90% sure that’s what happens.”
Down in the plaza, the girl in red is captured by her partner’s blue ribbon, and she twirls towards him. Aang snaps his fingers and points to the display, quirking a boastful brow at Zuko.
“See? Now Hiroyuki is going to confess his love.”
Sure enough, the music changes to something softer and the pair dance together, almost sensual in their tentativeness. The man slides to his knees before the red woman, his arms open to her, presenting himself as her prisoner. Blue and red swirl together, and for a while, Zuko lets the melancholy music wash over him.
A soft giggle behind him catches his passive curiosity and he glances over his shoulder at Katara and Suki, still kneeling by jewelry merchant. Just as his gaze makes contact with the girls, Suki closes in on Katara’s face and uses her littlest finger to paint her lower lip in a deep red stain. He chokes a little on his spit as he swallows, the dancers completely forgotten.
Sometimes he wonders if Azula would have had a life like this, if she were normal, if she weren’t currently locked away in the capital’s highest security mental asylum. He wonders what it would be like to grow up with a sister who played dress up with her friends instead of manipulating them into strangling the palace cats.
He jerks his head away, feeling like somehow he’s intruded on a private moment, and tries to bite back the bitter taste of nostalgia for something he’s never had. The erhu’s mournful cries arc through the sky while the guzheng drums quicker and quicker, rumbling the earth beneath him. Zuko tries to focus on the dancers, but the image of Katara’s lips, red as a plum and pouting under Suki’s touch stays burned in his mind, superimposed over the flurry of yellow, red, and blue.
They manage to make it through another song before Toph stands, stretching and yawning dramatically.
“Well, that’s enough of that.”
“What? But you haven’t even seen Hiroyuki and Bansi duel for Akane’s hand!” Aang tugs on the girl’s sleeve.
“I can’t see any of it,” Toph says, waving a hand in front of her face. “And I’m getting bored, so let’s hit the road and check out the rest of this festival.”
“I’m with Toph,” Sokka says, standing and surveying the plaza, his fish kites tied to the strap of his messenger bag. Zuko rises to his feet as well, thinking of his uncle when he hears his joints crack with the movement.
“A man can’t survive off of pastries and tea,” Sokka continues, referring to the summit’s paltry lunchtime refreshments. “I need some meat.”
Aang, too, rises to his feet with an airbender’s grace just as Suki and Katara stumble back into the circle, giggling amongst themselves.
“There you are,” Sokka grins at the girls, snaking an arm around his girlfriend’s waist. Zuko can’t help notice Toph shuffling to point her feet away from the couple, her face neutral as polished stone.
“Alright, can we go now? We’re wasting precious moonlight here,” she grunts.
“Where do you want to go?” Zuko asks, shoving his hands in the sleeves of his old travelling cloak. As if he’d been waiting for that question all night, Sokka yanks a municipal map out of his bag, unraveling it violently with a single snap of the wrist. He makes a show of licking his thumb and dragging it down the coordinates along the edge. Across from him, Suki and Katara exchange not-so-covert looks, one resignedly charmed and the other amiably exasperated.
“I figure we’re in the central plaza of the wood district, since over there,” Sokka points to the east, down a street decorated with bright flags and lanterns strung back and forth from the highest windows, “is the silk district, where we got off the monorail, so steel district must be that way,” he points in front of them, towards black smoke rising above the rooftops, “and the spice district is over there,” he motions vaguely to the west, where, just at that moment, confetti geysers above a roaring crowd.
He rerolls the map, carefully returning it to his bag, when a feral grin splits his features.
“Councilman Harshul told me there’s a lot of butcher’s shops between Steel and Spice, and during festivals they have the best barbeques.”
“Do we have to? I’d rather stay for the rest of the show.”
“Well, I’d like to check out the steel district, maybe get some of my knives sharpened, see if anyone’s selling fans,” says Suki.
“Ugh, no more shopping,” Toph laments, throwing her head back. Her lips curl in a wicked smile. “We should head towards the residential area and crash some house parties.”
“Now THAT sounds like fun!” Aang nods. He turns towards Zuko and Katara, “What do you guys think?”
Katara thumbs the ends of her loose hair, low at her hips, looking stricken.
“Oh, uh, I don’t know...”
Zuko just shakes his head.
“If we start crashing parties, someone’s going to recognize us. It’s just reckless.”
The silence that settles over them is awkward and devoid of eye contact, as each friend casts about for activity ideas to appease everyone.
“How about we split up?”
Zuko looks to Katara in surprise. So does Sokka.
“Are you crazy, woman?” He cries. “You can’t split the party — what if someone gets lost? Or snatched?”
“Snatched?” Katara deadpans.
“I’ve heard some very unsettling things from Deputy Gopan about people disappearing in the lower ring,” he stage whispers the last words, eyes darting shiftily around the sparse crowd.
“Well, we aren’t in the lower ring, are we?”
“Body snatchers could be lurking anywhere, Katara!”
“Sure, right, like in all these populated, wealthy neighborhoods, which are regularly patrolled by guardsmen—”
“—Are you kidding? That’s the most opportunistic time for a snatcher to strike!”
“How would you know?”
“Deputy Gopan says—”
“—Deputy Gopan hasn’t stepped foot out his dusty old office in centuries—”
“—And he’s never been snatched. Coincidence?”
“Nobody wants to snatch you, Sokka,” Zuko cuts in before their bickering can get even further out of hand. “I think splitting up’s a good idea.”
Splitting up means less arguing. It also means less dawdling about asking to get recognized. Aang nods in agreement.
“Party-crashers come with me and Toph!”
He looks around with wide, hopeful eyes.
“Eh, I’m going with Sokka to the steel district,” Suki deflects, “Zuko? Want to come with us?”
Zuko smiles, caught off guard by the warm feeling of being included in things, but shakes his head. He would enjoy browsing the swords, but he knows how much Suki has been looking forward to this trip, and, in particular, to spending time alone with Sokka, since she’s been in the Fire Nation for nearly a year now training Kyoshi warriors to be his personal bodyguards.
“No, you guys enjoy it,” the corner of his mouth quirks up again in a half-grin, “try to keep Sokka from getting snatched.”
Suki’s laugh cuts off as abruptly as it starts, her comportment flipping so abruptly it’s scary. She bows to Zuko with full Fire Nation propriety.
“I’ll protect him with my life, my Lord.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Sokka says, looking a little flustered with her gravitas, and tries to save face in the sudden attention by leaning down to plant a possessive kiss to her temple.
Katara turns to Zuko then, offering him a friendly smile.
“I guess that leaves you and me.”
Zuko smiles back and shrugs.
As the group drifts apart, Sokka starts blurting out the ‘ground rules’ for their walkabouts, his propensity for planning shit still annoyingly alive after all these years.
“Okay, everybody plan to meet back here in this plaza at midnight for the fireworks, alright? No excuses! We don’t want to get lost —”
“We got it, midnight!” Toph shouts, already several paces away, her and Aang eager to escape to the residential area.
“See you guys later!” Aang waves.
“Katara, don’t do anything stupid or dangerous, okay? I’m technically still responsible for you, so,” Sokka trails off as he and Suki bleed into the crowd.
“How could I? You’ll have taken all the stupid with you!” she shouts after him, smiling as she does. She turns back to Zuko, a brow quirked.
“Well, what would you like do until midnight?”
Zuko purses his lips, looking back down to the plaza, to the dancers. All four of them are performing, now, moving to the crowd’s rhythmic clapping. The song is aggressively mirthful and energizing, and it helps him solidify his mindset. Tonight might be his last night of freedom, at least until the next annual peace summit, but that will be at the North Pole, where it’s nearly impossible to disappear like this. He might as well try having fun.
“Food?” He asks. Katara grins.
They do end up eating noodles cooked by the side of the road, and, just as he predicted, Katara insists on paying for her own meal. After dinner, they wander, finding themselves drawn to the quieter outskirts of the city. The celebrations out here are reserved and peaceful, the locals preferring to drink together in their own homes or take leisurely strolls under the lantern lights, and it fits his mood.
When it’s just the two of them like this, it’s easy to pretend that the last year never happened. There’s no stilted small talk, no cautious probing into all that they’ve missed out on in each other’s lives, nothing forgotten and nothing to re-learn. Katara’s easy to talk to, and she gets him. Conversation flows so effortlessly between them, he can almost pretend they’ve never spent a day apart, let alone an entire year.
Some effects of time can’t be ignored. It still hits him like a punch to the gut how much she’s grown when he wasn’t looking. She looks older now — of course, they all do. He has yet to adjust to tilting his head up to in order meet Aang’s eye or seeing Toph’s features devoid of the softness of childhood. At seventeen years, Katara already looks like a woman; an unavoidable reminder of just how far they’ve come since the war.
She’s grown into her water-tribe cheekbones, famously strong and high, which now balance out the softness of her button nose and dimply smile. Her overly expressive doe-eyes that used to look so huge and childlike before have softened, now sly and feline like they’re holding back a secret she’s dying to let him in on.
Her figure has softened as well, not that Zuko has noticed. He definitely hadn’t detected the swell of hips swaying under her travelling cloak, or how starkly they contrast with her tiny waist, cinched tightly by the tie of her modest tunic. And he certainly hasn’t spotted how, when her trousers are tucked into her boots like this, it displays just how fucking toned her calves are —
He meets her eyes again to see her smirking at him, and he flushes, knowing he’s been caught zoning out. “Uh, sorry?”
She lets it slide, gesturing forwards with her chin. “I was just asking if you knew what those girls were doing. They’ve got wicked skill.”
He immediately sees the girls she’s referring to.
“Diabolo,” he says, “it’s a kind of juggling. Want to get a closer look?”
She eyes the diabolos whipping around on their flimsy strings with brows raised.
“Only if we stay out of the smack zone.”
Zuko chuckles and they walk together towards the girls. They can’t be older than eight or nine, but they have an abundance of confidence and, what was it Katara said?
The girls light up under their attention, eager to show off all that wicked skill to their teenage audience. They demonstrate a series of increasingly complex tricks, each stall, jump, and toss, earning them a shocked and impressed noise from Katara. The wicked skills come to a culmination when the girls spin and switch diabolos midair, ending the catch with a synchronized curtsy. Katara claps and laughs delightedly.
“You guys are so cool,” she praises them.
“Thanks!” the taller one beams. “Do you want to try?”
She outstretches her arms, offering up her diabolo and batons.
“What? I — uh,” Katara ducks her head, casting a furtive glance to Zuko, “I don’t know how to do that.”
“It’s easy,” Tall says.
“Yeah,” Short agrees, flashing them a toothless smile, “we’ll show you.”
Zuko nudges her with his elbow, feeling unusually playful. “C’mon, Katara, show us your wicked skills.”
She gives him an unimpressed look, but takes up the challenge like he knew she would, grasping a baton in each hand. Short steps up to Zuko, shyly proffering her own diabolo set. He holds his hands up and backs away, maintaining a safe distance between himself and the opportunity to look like an idiot.
Short shrugs and returns to idly performing solo tricks.
“Ah! Zuko, look! I’m doing it!”
Katara squeals in satisfaction as she spins the diabolo back and forth along the length of the string. Tall stands behind her, gripping her elbows with tiny hands and guiding Katara’s arms alternately up and down in order to keep the diabolo spinning. Katara beams proudly at him, looking entirely like the girl’s personal puppet. Zuko rolls his eyes. It’s fucking adorable.
“Ready to make it jump?” Tall asks.
Katara falters. “No!”
“Just snap your arms out like this,” Small demonstrates, spreading her arms and pulling the string taught, causing the diabolo to fly into the air and fall back down onto the string.
“Uh...” Katara tears her gaze from her spinning diabolo to Zuko, and he gives her a thumbs-up of encouragement. She takes a breath and pulls the batons apart, causing the diabolo to hop up.
“Eep!” She lunges after it, letting it fall back onto the string.
“You did it!” Small exclaims. Katara hands the toy back to Tall with a pleased grin and thanks them. Her hair falls in her face when she gives them a semi-formal bow, and she has to blow it out of her eyes when she straightens again. Her arm loops around his and he catches her eye, bright and twinkling in the firelight, and lets her drag him onwards. Through the empty backstreets and narrow hutongs, he follows wherever she leads.
It’s not long before their path opens up again, taking them to a little flower garden. Snailflower vines climb up the walls and creep across the wooden beams shading the space. Green and gold lanterns are nestled beneath the leaves, their light reflects in the rippling pools of a small, ornate fountain in the center of the garden. It reminds him of Jin.
Katara breaks off and approaches one of the low-hanging vines. She reaches for one of the snailflowers, turning it carefully with her fingers. While she inspects it, Zuko regards her.
“You know,” he says before he loses the courage, “once, when I was living in the lower ring, I told a girl I was a juggler. But then she asked me to juggle for her and I... totally sucked at it. I dropped everything. In the middle of a restaurant, too. It was a train wreck.”
Katara tears her attention from the flower, her face torn between sympathy and amusement. Amusement wins out, and she erupts in a peal of giggles.
“Why did you tell her you were a juggler if you can’t juggle?”
His hand twitches, seeking to rub the back of his neck out of habit.
“Well, I, uh, kind of told her I used to be in a circus?”
She snorts out more laughter.
“Why? What led you to weave this web of lies?”
“I don’t know. We were — sort of — on a date. She kept asking questions about my past and it’s not like I could answer! We were living undercover.”
She smiles reassuringly at his embarrassment, but Zuko swears he sees something devious spark behind her eyes.
“Does she still live here? Oh, Zuko, we have to find her!”
He gives her a double take. She can’t be — she better be joking. He’s never been good at telling when his friends are just teasing him. Flustered, he stomps away. Katara cackles behind him.
They’re approaching an area that reminds him of where him and his uncle lived when the city bell tolls nine. They’ve been out for three hours, with three more hours to kill before meeting the others.
“So, how are things going as Fire Lord?”
Zuko chuckles and has to stop himself from running a hand through his hair and risk dislodging the hood of his cloak. It’s getting longer now, cropped near his collarbones, and Zuko sometimes wishes it was still short, like how it was right before the end of the war, or sometimes even before that, in Ba Sing Se. He forgot how heavy and constantly in-your-face long hair was.
“Things have been alright, dismantling some of the older colonies has been particularly tricky —”
“I want to know what’s up with you,” she corrects gently. Then she gives him that smile, the one where she tilts her head and looks up at him through her lashes, and it makes him do whatever she asks. She plays dirty. He sighs.
“I don’t know. Stressful.” Lonely. “But fine,” he adds when he sees her worried look. “I have Uncle to advise me, so. And Mai helps.”
Katara presses her lips together and nods. “How is Mai?”
“She’s good. She wanted to join us, but — uh, she couldn’t?”
The uncertain inflection at the end of his sentence makes it sound like a question, and he cringes. He’s never been good at lying. When he invited Mai to come out with them, her exact words were ‘I’d rather have another slumber party with Ty Lee and her sisters than endure an hour in the city with those bozos. You have fun, though’. Katara seems to catch on.
“I understand,” she chuckles. “But I know it hasn’t been easy for you lately. I heard the rumors about the New Ozai Society resurgence.”
She lowers her gaze, her voice softening unbearably.
“How have you been dealing with that?”
Zuko can feel his heart beating in his chest. He’s avoided broaching that topic with the gang for a reason, both to keep them from worrying about him and because of the primal anxiety he gets just by thinking about it.
“I don’t know. These last few months have been tough,” he says carefully. He takes a deep breath, feeling all his frustration threaten to spill out at once. The words have been locked in his chest for so long, it feels like they’re always clawing at the back of throat, desperate to escape. He thinks of the riots in Caldera city, and the hatred he’s seen all week in the eyes of the other visiting dignitaries.
“My countrymen don’t respect me because I’m not enough like my father, but none of the other leaders trust me because they think I’m too much like him.”
The words hang heavy in the air between them. He chances a quick look at Katara, whose whole face is drawn in a troubled frown. Uncomfortable, he opens his mouth to backpedal, but is cut off.
“Zuko,” she says with some heat, tugging on the sleeve of his robe to get him to face her fully. “That’s not true. Your father was toxic for your country, and you’re nothing like him. It’s the best thing about you.”
Zuko’s lips part in momentary shock. Katara continues on, unfazed.
“Your uncle is right — you’re the best person for this position. With time, Keui and Arnook and all the others will come to see that, just as I have.”
Zuko looks at her in disbelief. The way she beams up at him — like she’s already put all her faith in him — it only makes his stomach plummet further. Her reassuring words are instead another weight on his shoulders, another source of guilt to coil around his gut.
“How can you say that? I’ve made so many mistakes; I have no idea what I’m doing. It’s only a matter of time before I fuck up again,” he shakes his head, the dam on his words finally breaking, “I feel like I’m barely holding on here.”
He can’t even look at her, but her silence and the subtle shift of her weight is enough of an answer. Great, now I’ve made her uncomfortable. He pinches the bridge of his nose.
“Come here,” she says, and suddenly she’s tugging on his arm, dragging him down one of the narrow alleyways.
“Katara, what —” he trails off as they come to a stop in front of a doorway in the dilapidated earth wall. Well, more of a person-sized hole covered by a tattered drape. Zuko eyes the sign hanging above the entrance. The paint inlaying the carved characters has nearly faded with time; it takes him an extra moment to read it. When he does, he groans.
“Yes. It’ll show you that everything’s going to be fine. It’s all meant to be.”
Zuko’s lip curls in a grimace, and he looks briefly between her, with her encouraging smile, and the sign.
“Don’t tell me you actually believe in that nonsense. They just tell you what you want to hear.”
She sniffs, as if personally affronted. “It isn’t nonsense! When we were travelling the Earth Kingdom, before you joined us, we went to a very wise fortuneteller and you know what? Every one of her predictions ended up coming true.”
He can feel an eyebrow rising in unsure concern. All this time and he thought Katara was one of the smart ones. She rolls her eyes at his expression.
“Won’t you at least feel better knowing that even a stranger believes in you?”
He crosses his arms, biting back the caustic ‘no’ that will only serve to get him a whap on the arm. He wants to argue. He’s been to fortunetellers before with his uncle, and all they’ve ever done is wax poetic about troubled energies and ‘self-inflicted suffering’. But Katara’s got that look in her eye, simultaneously flinty and eager, like she knows she already has the argument won and is just waiting for the other person to realize it.
He looks around for an out. Further down the alleyway, a couple of thugs are playing dice and eying Katara’s backside with looks that Zuko wants to punch right off their faces. Around the corner, a hollow-faced man and a darkly colored woman exit another drape-covered alcove, eyes glassy and lips stained yellow as if they’ve been drinking paint. Zuko sees no way out of this, and he definitely doesn’t want to linger here much longer, so he finally rests his eyes back on Katara.
“This is ridiculous,” he mutters, and she nearly squeals, pulling him through the curtain. His regret is instant.
Zuko blinks rapidly, trying to adjust to the dark inside the building. Most of the light comes from the alley, spilling through the edges of the doorway and lurching across the room in time with the flapping of the drape. Sparse candlelight dots several shelves, cubbies, and tables throughout the room, revealing the mountains of clutter they house. He sees crystals, dusty old books, animal specimens floating in green jars, skulls of animals he’d never seen before, a wine rack stocked full of incense — and that was just the half of it.
“Looking for a reading, little ones?”
Katara flinches comically at the high, adenoidal voice that appears out of nowhere. They turn to see an old woman watching them from another doorway, previously hidden behind a curtain disguised as a decorative tapestry.
“Yes,” she answers, her voice more sure than Zuko feels. “For myself and my friend.”
The old woman grins, her barely there set of stained teeth glint under her hooked nose. Her wrinkles carve into her sallow skin, curving around two beady green eyes.
“Excellent,” she crows, “Would you like to be read first, my lovely?”
“No,” Zuko interrupts, shaking his head and half-stepping in front of Katara. “No, nope. We’ll go together.”
Katara turns to Zuko with what he expects is a confused look, but Zuko keeps his sights locked on the woman. The hag narrows her eyes at him.
“You have a loud energy about you. Your presence might interact negatively with my ability to read the fates.”
“That’s okay,” Katara says cheerfully. “We’d mostly like to know his future.”
“Ah, I see.”
The woman’s gaze flits to Katara, then back to Zuko. Her expression morphs into something odd, fixing him to the spot. For a second, Zuko thinks she must recognize him. But the moment passes and she releases him, spinning on heal to disappear through the tapestry.
“Follow me, then,” she calls behind her.
Katara and Zuko exchange a glance. Before he can get a word in, Katara shrugs and pushes back the tapestry. And like always, he follows her. Behind the tapestry is a long and narrow passageway, illuminated by glowing green crystals — just like in the catacombs under the palace. Zuko shudders, a chill settling deep into his bones.
Except, instead of mud and bone and impenetrable, seeping stone, the walls and ceiling here are covered in soft cloth, decorated in intricate mandalas and beautiful symbols Zuko doesn’t recognize. The walls feel like they’re shaking, vibrating with music and conversation somewhere above them, and he swears the air grows heavier the further they walk.
“Are you sure about this, Katara?” he hisses. “This place feels dangerous.”
“C’mon Zuko, it’s all just a front. It’s supposed to feel dark and mystical.”
Zuko doesn’t reply, merely feeling the fabric of the walls brush against his shoulders as they turn another corner. Are the hallways getting narrower?
Katara, misinterpreting his wariness, takes on a playful tone.
“Don’t tell me you’re afraid of getting snatched?”
“This lady just creeps me out. She looks like a witch.”
Katara gasps, “Zuko! Don’t be rude!”
“Yeah, I might insult the witch and she’ll cook us up for supper or something,” he mutters under his breath, ducking his head under the fabric, and straightening to find they’ve entered a dimly lit room —
“I am no witch, but I can assure you my powers are beyond this world.”
Zuko’s cheeks burn with embarrassment, and Katara glares at him. The woman doesn’t seem to mind the slight, however, as she calmly directs them to sit at the low table before them, from which a large glass ball protrudes.
Zuko sinks into the old floor cushion. It’s lumpy and uncomfortable. On top of that, he feels like he can hardly breathe, the air is so stale and thick with incense. He tracks witchy lady with an angry glare as she hobbles over to an antique iron stove in the corner and readies a black kettle on top of it.
She looks back to them over her shoulder. “I don’t normally perform multiple readings at once, but you two are an interesting pair. Even by living as long as I have, you don’t often see your eyes in these parts, let alone found on companions.”
“The world is changing,” Katara says with a tight smile. “The war is over. The nations are allies again.”
“So they are,” the fortuneteller agrees, finishing up at the stove.
She takes her time seating herself on the floor opposite them. When she’s settled, she lays her palms against the tabletop and cocks her head, assessing them. Zuko can tell Katara is buzzing with excitement, but he can’t understand why. He just wants to get this over with.
“Let us begin,” the fortuneteller says, flipping her hands palm up on the table. Katara grasps her hand and holds another up between them. The women stare at him, waiting. Oh. Zuko fights an eye roll and takes their hands, first Katara’s in his left, then the fortuneteller’s in his right.
She addresses Katara first. “Peer into the eye and witness your fate.”
The eye? Ah, she must mean the crystal ball. The three of them watch as it fills with smoke, glittering hazy swirls fogging up the domed glass. It’s a neat trick, Zuko concedes, she’s probably hiding more of that damn incense under the table.
“I know what you wish to ask, dear, and the answer is no. You have been misguided, chasing after these righteous beacons. Look into the darkness, and you will find the light within. Look into the darkness, and you will never be blind.”
Zuko frowns, but apparently the nonsense means something to Katara, given the way she deflates and nods at the table with a solemn look in her eye. He looks back to the fortuneteller and flinches, caught off guard by her beady eyes boring into him.
She ticks her eyes down meaningfully. Zuko glances at Katara, and she smiles eagerly at him. Resigned, he leans forward and looks into the crystal ball.
“You have stepped upon soil of many lands, but the ones you love are closer than you think...”
Zuko can’t help the eye roll this time. The ‘fortune’ sounds like one of Uncle’s proverbs: charming on its surface, but devoid of any useful content.
“...The farther you run, the deeper they will burrow in your soul...”
At first he thinks it’s his imagination, but he begins to see shapes take form inside the smoke. He leans in closer.
“...Always looking to the past for belonging, never beyond your feet...”
He sees wildflowers, soft ribbons of light scattered on the forest floor, falling snow.
“...There’s a choice in who surrounds you, but not with whom you’re bound...”
He hears the ocean. There’s violence in the waves, shifting and crashing together.
“...You have the power to change your fate, but not your destiny.”
The kettle whines, startling him back to reality. The fortuneteller turns and removes it from the stove. When he looks back to the crystal ball, all he sees in it is grey smoke. He shakes his head and slips his hand out from Katara’s.
“But what about his...” Katara ticks her head to the side, searching the right word, “professional aspirations?”
The fortuneteller arches a brow at her. She peers into the swirling fog in the crystal once more, but sighs.
“Your future in this realm is clouded, but perhaps we can use another method.”
She pulls two small clay cups from a nearby cupboard and pours them each a cup of tea, sprinkling the leaves right in the water. She scoots them across the table.
“Drink from your cup and we will see what the leaves tell us.”
The cups are barely large enough for one swallow. Zuko, a man who prefers not scalding his tongue, clasps his in both hands and concentrates on channeling out some of its heat. Out of the corner of his eye, he sees Katara cool her own cup with a frosty breath across its surface. She tilts her head back, emptying the cup in one go. Zuko’s is close behind.
“Now tell me, darlings,” the fortuneteller’s voice sounds around them, “What do you see?”
Zuko peers down into his cup, trying to make sense of the leaves at the bottom.
“I see, well, it looks like an hourglass,” Katara comments quietly. “But if I look in the negative space, I see a rabbit.”
“The rabbit is a good omen. It is a call for bravery; if you accept, you will soon shed the illusions that burden you. But the hourglass is a warning. Time is running out, you must decide quickly or be deluded forever. Seek balance, synchronicity.”
Zuko squints at his leaves, wondering if he really drank all the tea in the cup. The leaves look like they’re still moving, like sand under the shore.
“I just see a bunch of squiggly lines. No, wait,” he turns the cup around in his palms a full half-rotation until the shape finally pops out at him. “I see a hand? Sort of, a lumpy hand?”
The witch’s voice sounds from somewhere far away, high and musical. “A journey awaits you, but it is wrought with many wrong turns. Perhaps the ocean calls you. Do not let mistakes prevent you from rising again. The hand will offer friendship. Creation. God.”
The cup drops from his hands with a clatter, his head won’t stop swimming. Either he’s suffocating from the all the incense smoke, or... He shoves himself away from the table, trying to rise.
“I — I need some air,” Katara gasps at his side, and he watches her flee the room.
“Katara, no, wait!”
The urge to protect her sobers him, momentarily clearing his head enough to stagger after her. In this state, she could get ambushed, she could be hurt or — or taken advantage of. Agni, he should have listened to Sokka about the body snatchers!
The hallway seems to breathe around him, warping and constricting unnaturally, and there’s way more turns then he remembers there being on the way in. As he races from the room, he hears the witch’s voice again, coming from inside his head like a memory.
“The journey of a thousand miles begins with this first step.”
His vision blacks out and he stumbles, his legs giving out under him. By sheer force of will, he holds himself slumped against the cool wall, crawling blindly along it until something gold flashes before him, and in the light he sees Katara. His feet race to eat up the space between them but somehow they get tangled together. He falls to his knees just as the fresh, cool outdoor air hits his lungs.
Retching noises to his side make him turn, but the lantern light is just too bright to see. He squints. Katara is hunched over, bracing herself on her knees, vomiting right in the alleyway. There’s barely enough sense left in him to right himself and walk over. He collects her hair as gently as he can with sweaty, shaking fingers and fists it together at the nape of her neck.
She whimpers at him in between heaves, either out of gratitude or mortification, Zuko’s not sure. He holds her hair back for as long as he can as she empties herself onto the dust, but Zuko’s always been quite grossed out by vomit, and whatever was in that tea has enhanced every disgusting sight, sound, and smell caused by Katara’s chewed up noodles making mud in the street. It soon becomes too much for him and he staggers backwards to lean against the wall. His panting turns to dry heaves and then he’s vomiting, too.
“Hey, it’s okay, let it out, shhh,” Katara’s coos at him, her voice shaky from her own sickness, while a hand rubs his back soothingly. He remembers vaguely that his mother used to do that when he was sick as a child, then Uncle a few times during their first year at sea so, so long ago.
Purging himself definitely helps. When his stomach is finally empty, he feels infinitely better. He stays slumped against the wall, letting the cool breeze catch the sweat on his forehead, until the hand on his back stills.
“Zuko?” Katara asks timidly. “I—I think I’m seeing things.”
Zuko looks to Katara, the sheen of sweat on her flushed cheeks and neck sparkling in the lantern light, then out to the alleyway. What awaits him causes his jaw to drop. He rubs his eyes and takes a step forward, only managing one breathless sentence.
“I see it too.”