Katara wakes like floating to the surface of the ocean. The scene comes to her slowly, and for as long as she can, she clings to the peace still sticking her eyelashes together. Something had happened, she knows, but she’s not sure what, and she doesn’t want to remember for as long as she can. She searches for the last receding threads of sleep, but all she finds is an overwhelming weariness spreading throughout her body.
When she finally opens her eyes, it barely comes as a surprise to find that she’s with Zuko again. A mix of emotions begin to vie for her attention—fear and anger most prominently, as she would have expected, but other things too that she doesn’t want to admit to. Things like gratitude. Things like allegiance.
For the first time, she is seeing him completely unguarded, and for the first time, she can’t imagine hurting him.
What had happened the night before? She remembers the burn of the fever, the rough patch of leaves and the first fade to black. She remembers fire and the water and a cloak and a cup of tea. A cloak that’s still around her shoulders; an empty cup that sits inches from her right hand.
She remembers the warmth of Zuko’s body as he held her like she was something fragile and important.
Katara seriously considers bashing her head on the tree behind her so that she can pass out again and forget everything.
Instead, she rises slowly, stretching out each joint and muscle in her body as she stands up. There’s a vicious crick in her neck from where it hung bent as she slept, but otherwise, she feels miraculously refreshed, powerful and new again. The tea must have worked.
Zuko’s still fast asleep. The fingers of his left hand are curled loosely around the hilt of a knife, and he’s slumped against a tree much like she was a few minutes ago. The sun is high in the sky at his back. He doesn’t look ready to wake any time soon, though. Katara thought all firebenders liked to get up at sunrise exactly, but he must have had a tiring night.
For the slightest second, the scene is familiar. It’s just like a hundred other mornings she’s spent on the run, awakened by Toph to make breakfast while Aang runs through earthbending forms and Sokka snores. This is not so different. The basic situation is the same, even if the Avatar and her brother and her twelve-year-old earthbending master have morphed into a once-evil prince that is not quite her enemy and not yet her friend.
Naturally, Katara makes him breakfast.
It takes some creativity to rekindle the fire, since Zuko obviously doesn’t need to carry spark rocks or matches with him, but she rubs two charred sticks together until they catch. While the flames spread, she turns to the pack Zuko had left lying a few feet away from him. It’s stuffed full of traveling food, dried fruit and noodles and jerky in hastily-wrapped packages, all of it foreign to her. She’s wary of trying it—her past experiences with Fire Nation cuisine haven’t been pleasant—but near the bottom, she finds a packet of grains that look similar to the kind she uses at home to make congee. It smells the same when she heats it in the teapot with water from the river. She never stops to wonder why she’s taking the time to make the Fire Prince breakfast. She can’t think about it just yet.
Katara’s stirring something in a teapot suspended over the fire. Her eyebrows are narrowed, her mouth pinched, and she’s staring at whatever she’s cooking with the same ferocity she’s only recently stopped directing at him. Whatever it is she’s so deeply mistrustful of, it smells good.
“What are you doing?” Zuko croaks. She jumps nearly a foot in the air, and the kettle begins to whistle spontaneously.
“Spirits,” she says indignantly. “You nearly gave me a heart attack, you jerk.”
“Are you making breakfast?”
“I’m trying to,” she grumbles.
Huh. Well, that’s new.
Zuko stumbles over to her, still groggy from the few hours of sleep he’d gotten. “It smells good,” he offers.
“What, you expected it would be horrible?”
“What? No! I’m trying to pay you a compliment!” he stutters. He can feel the heat rising too easily to his face. “It smells good and I’m sure you’re a really good cook!”
Katara sighs and shoves a bowl of something thick and hot that looks sort of like stew into his hands. “Just eat. It’ll shut you up.”
It is good. No wonder her brother’s so obsessed with eating. Zuko probably would be, too, if he lived with Katara. He shovels his down, but Katara eats in pensive silence, studiously avoiding his gaze. He can guess easily enough what’s on her mind.
“Listen, Katara,” he finally says when the deathly silence finally becomes too much for him to bear. “I know you don’t want to lead me to the Avatar. I know you still don’t trust me. I get it. But please, just at least let me help you find him. You don’t know the Fire Nation. If you keep going on your own, you’re going to get caught.”
His guess was right. Katara sets aside her bowl and finally meets his stare. “Why did you save me?” she asks.
“Uh.” The question throws him for a loop. He’d expected an argument, another abrupt denial, but not that.
It wasn’t even a conscious decision, really; the only possible thing he could’ve done was to pick her up and bring her to safety. There wasn’t another option.
“I would’ve died,” she continues when he doesn’t answer. “I was really, really sick. I would’ve starved, or someone else would’ve found me, and I would have been out of your way forever.”
“Why would I want that?” he exclaims.
Katara looks away again, searches for the answer in the leaves of the treetops. “I don’t know why you wouldn’t.” Her voice is soft, but firm.
“We’re on the same side now! How many times do I have to tell you?”
“Maybe you’re not on your father’s side anymore. Maybe you’re even on Aang’s side. But why would you be on mine? I’ve been nothing but rude to you—“
“That’s not true,” he interjects. “You try to be, but that’s not how you are naturally. It’s not. You’re nice to me sometimes, when you’re not thinking about it.”
“Well, I promise I’m not trying to be.”
And then Katara smiles at him. A real, genuine, warm smile. Not a sarcastic smile or a wry one. The kind of smile she’d give a friend.
Zuko smiles back, and he knows that something’s changed for the better.
Screw it, Katara thinks.
“I’m going to the Black Cliffs.”
As soon as she says it, she’s regretting it, wondering if it might not be a huge ploy after all, but Zuko is nodding seriously and now it’s out in the open and she can’t take it back. Even if he’s lying, she can still take him out herself.
“That’s not too far of a walk,” he tells her. “Two days if we go quickly.”
“Do you know the way?”
“It’s not hard. You just keep going west.” He doesn’t elaborate, but he quirks an eyebrow in challenge. Katara rolls her eyes.
“Sokka was always the one that was good with directions.”
Two days isn’t bad, she thinks. Two days plus the two in prison plus the two she’d spent wandering alone. That’s only six days—a long time, but not too long. Not long enough that they would’ve given up on her. Not Aang; not her brother.
Katara douses the fire and shoves the dirty plates back into Zuko’s pack before standing. “Okay. Let’s go.”
“Now?” The Fire Prince looks up at her with a frown. “Katara, you’re still weak. You need to rest more. You nearly died last night.”
“I can rest when I find my friends.”
“I didn’t save your life just so you can walk yourself to death!”
“I know my own limits, Zuko,” she says.
He looks like he wants to argue further, but Katara shoulders his pack, and he sighs. “Fine,” he mutters. “Tell me when you get tired. I’m not carrying you around if you faint again.”
Without any more explanation, he sets off into the densest area of trees at a rapid pace. He’s out of earshot by the time she mutters “I won’t” behind his back.
Traveling with the Avatar’s waterbending girlfriend really isn’t that different from traveling alone. Katara’s an easy companion; she keeps up with his pace and doesn’t try to make conversation. It couldn’t be more different from the transcontinental walks he’d taken with his uncle through the forests of the Earth Kingdom. Iroh wouldn’t stop talking, or singing, or whistling, and Katara won’t even answer his questions with more than a monosyllabic grunt. Which is fine. They don’t have to be friends right away. They don’t have to be friends ever, as long as the rest of her group accepts him. The Avatar will be thankful to him for helping her to safety, and the earthbender, at least, seems reasonable and rational. Katara’s brother might be an issue, especially if she keeps up her vaguely hostile attitude, but they’ll need a firebending teacher one way or another. He’ll do whatever he can to help.
“Are you tired?” he asks Katara for the fifteenth time. For the fifteenth time, she shakes her head, eyes fixed resolutely on the faraway horizon.
“Are you hungry?”
Another head shake.
Another shake, this time accompanied by an annoyed cough.
“Do you want to stop?”
“I’m fine,” she snaps.
Well, it’s the longest sentence she’s said to him since they started walking. Zuko counts it as a success.
“I haven’t been to this part of the forest in forever,” he tells her, because it’s the first thing that comes to his mind. “I mean, obviously, because I’ve been away for so long. Chasing you. Which I’m sorry about, by the way. I know you know that already, but, uh, I kind of owe you a lot of apologies for that. Especially the time with the pirates. And at the North Pole. And in Ba Sing Se.”
The only response Katara gives is a narrowing of her eyes. Maybe talking about all the bad things he’s done isn’t the best idea.
Resolutely, though, he keeps talking. “There were times we worked together, remember? We fought Azula together.”
“What’s your point?”
She sounds bored and exasperated in equal measure. It’s the exact same tone of voice Azula used to use on him whenever he spent too long taking the attention away from her. Hearing it coming out of Katara’s mouth is annoying, but combined with her previous immature silence and the weariness of walking for two and a half days straight and the general frustration Zuko is currently feeling for the world at large, it’s too much.
He stops walking. Katara halts a few paces in front of him, a reprimand already on the tip of her tongue, but he cuts her off before she can say it.
“What is your problem?” he exclaims. “I’m just trying to be nice! Is that so wrong?”
“Nice? Nice?” The waterbender throws her arms wide. “You’re the Prince of the Fire Nation! Maybe you’ve changed sides, maybe you’re trying to help, but never once have you been nice. You are not a nice person. Stop trying.”
“Maybe I am a nice person! You don’t know me, Katara!”
“You don’t know me either!” She’s shouting now, her voice ringing through the forest.
“And it’s so wrong that maybe I want to? We don’t have to be enemies forever! You’re acting like such a—such a—“
“Such a child!”
She glowers at him with a smoldering anger intense enough to rival the Fire Lord’s. “Maybe,” she spits, “it’s because I am. Because we both are.”
“Oh, please. We haven’t been children for a long time.” Children don’t break out of prison on their own, he thinks. Children don’t have to save the whole world by taking down their own families.
“And I’m so wrong for wanting to act like a kid for once in my life?”
As if to prove her point, Katara turns on her heel and stomps off. “That’s the wrong direction,” he shouts as scathingly as he can. She doesn’t answer, but the fog swirling about her head crystallizes into a handful of icy darts that she flicks over her shoulder at him.
After that, he doesn’t try to make conversation for the rest of the afternoon.
When they stop, it’s a mutual silent agreement. They reach the edge of the forest just after night falls. Wordlessly, Zuko pulls up short and drops his pack to the ground before beginning to gather dead branches and twigs into a pile.
Katara’s hungry, but Zuko had stopped asking her if she needed food after he’d exploded on her. She’d exploded back, she guesses, but still. It was his fault. He shouted first. He’s been aggravating her all day with his wheedling questions. It wasn’t as if she couldn’t take care of herself, couldn’t tell him if she needed to stop.
She doesn’t want to stop now—she’d rather keep walking for as long as she possibly can, and maybe get to the Cliffs by the next night and finally get back to her friends—but beyond the last sparse fringe of trees in the distance is a wide, flat plain without any form of cover, and she doesn’t want to get lost without the protection of the forest.
There’s plenty of food in the satchel, and while Zuko lights the fire, Katara pulls out the ripest-looking fruit and a half-full package of rice. The only two bowls and the kettle are still sticky and clotted from breakfast, but there’s no river nearby. They’ll have to do. She pours a little of her own water into the kettle.
A shiver runs down her spine as she’s struck by how oddly domestic the scene feels: Zuko stoking the flames now in their makeshift hearth, and her making dinner for them both. Like her mother used to for her father. An adolescent marriage born of hopelessness and necessity.
Her mother and father never fought like this, though. Katara avoids looking at him as well as she can for sitting five feet away from him, awkwardly trying to stir the rice over the fire he keeps under strict control. She can hear him breathing, long and stilted huffs that she recognizes as the breathing patterns Aang tried to mimic the few times he’d attempted firebending. Each time he exhales, the flames flicker a little higher.
She hands him his bowl full of rice and an apple. He nods at her in thanks. The quiet is getting eerie now as the dark becomes absolute, but she’s not going to be the one to break it. Uncomfortable silence is a thousand times superior to having to listen to Zuko ramble on pointlessly—or, worse, having to actually make conversation with him. He’s a convenient and temporary ally, not her friend.
For a long time, the only sounds are the scrape of chopsticks on tin and the crackle of the flames and the song of the insects. When she’s not looking at him, Katara can almost pretend she’s alone, or, better yet, that she’s traveling with Aang and Sokka and Toph and the silence is a companionable one, not a weighty, forced, painful one like the vague truce they’ve held all afternoon.
She should’ve known it wouldn’t last. Zuko sets down his bowl with a loud clink and lets out a long, exasperated sigh.
“Katara, we can’t do this forever.”
“Do what?” She begins to count the rice grains sticking to the rim of her bowl so she doesn’t have to look up.
“This whole silent treatment thing. It’s stupid.”
“Well, what do you want to talk about?” she asks petulantly. She knows she sounds childish, but she couldn’t really care less what he thinks of her.
He sighs again. The sound infuriates her for some reason. “Anything,” he exclaims. “Anything, I don’t care. What’s your favorite color?”
“What kind of question is that?”
“At least I’m trying!” The flames blaze brighter temporarily, and then recede back. “I get that you don’t trust me. You’ve made that very clear. But tomorrow is going to feel a hundred times longer than it has to if it’s anything like today. Polite conversation isn’t a pact of everlasting kinship, okay? I’m not trying to trick you or anything like that.”
She concentrates harder on the last of the grains, because she can feel him looking at her now, feel the heat of those golden eyes on her cheek.
“You don’t have to forget everything I did in the past,” Zuko murmurs. He sounds almost gentle. “Just admit that it’s possible for people to change sometimes.”
People change. She thinks of Jet, of Hama, of everyone who she’d believed was truly on their side only to turn around and stab them in the back. She thinks of the way it felt to watch her brother move across that moonlit clearing against his will with nothing but pure, unadulterated fear shining in his eyes.
And then she thinks of Sokka, and how different he is from the boy that told her girls couldn’t fish. And of Toph, who’d grown into her confidence, who’d blossomed into a smart and compassionate friend. And of Aang—Aang, who hadn’t breathed in a hundred years and then turned from a young boy into the man that could save the world in less than six months.
“My favorite color is white.”
“White? Not blue?”
He’s doubly surprised: first that she’d answered the question at all, and second at how she had answered it. He’s not sure white is even a color.
She shrugs. “At home, everything is white. It’s all covered in snow. But the thing is, white reflects other colors. It can be a thousand different colors all at once.”
“Mine is green.”
“Really?” It’s her turn to be thrown for a loop.
“It’s peaceful. It reminds me of my uncle.”
“You must like it here, then.”
“Yeah, actually, I do.” He’s liked the forest since he was young; the Capital City had always been loud and thriving, never an empty place anywhere he went inside the caldera. Out in the forest, it was much easier for him to reflect and actually be able to think away from the constant demands of his family.
“It is kind of pretty,” she agrees. “Prettier than the Earth Kingdom forests. The trees are more elegant.”
“Cherry ginkgoes.” It’s almost an automatic response. At Katara’s questioning gaze, he qualifies “they were my mother’s favorite. You should see the way they blossom in the spring.”
For a moment, he worries that he’s overstepped the boundary of their fragile truce by bringing up his family—his mother, no less—but Katara brushes the comment off quickly. “Believe it or not, I hadn’t actually seen plants growing on land before this year. Only seaweed. I had no idea forests like this even existed.”
“You never left the South Pole?” Zuko gawks. Even before he’d been chased from his home, he’d seen plenty of the Fire Nation and a good chunk of the Earth Kingdom from following his father’s royal entourage.
Katara shakes her head. “Never. There was nowhere to go for a young girl like me. I wasn’t ever supposed to, either. If I hadn’t met Aang, I would have stayed there and married one of the warriors. I probably would have become the tribe’s healer, if the Fire army didn’t get me first.”
“That doesn’t sound very exciting.” He doesn’t address the jab at his nation, partly because he couldn’t respond to it without making both of them angry and partly because he knows she’s right.
“It isn’t. Or it wouldn’t have been. I would have hated it.” A long breath escapes from her lips, strong enough that the flames flicker ever so slightly. “And look at me now. I’ve been to all four nations, I know more about waterbending than most of the Northern Water Tribe’s most powerful benders, and I’m traveling across the enemy’s country on foot with the Crown Prince of the Fire Nation.”
“Ex-Crown Prince,” he corrects.
“Temporarily deposed Crown Prince.”
“There’s nothing temporary about it.”
She stares at him levelly, her cool blue eyes unamused. “When Aang beats your father, who’s going to take over the country? Your sister? That’d just make everything worse.”
“Seeing as Azula is currently the first and only one in line for the throne, yes,” he spits.
“Aang would never allow that.”
“He’s the Avatar, not the emperor of the world! He doesn’t get to overrule two centuries of customs just because he can bend four elements. The people would never accept it.”
“How would you stop her, then?”
Zuko’s been trying to avoid thinking about that very topic. Of course he knows, but he doesn’t want to consider what it means for him and Azula and the nation as a whole if the Avatar does, actually, depose his father.
“There’s only one way to dethrone the reigning Fire Lord,” he says, aware of how heavy his voice has suddenly gotten. “Agni Kai.”
“What’s Agni Kai?”
“A formal duel for honor. The winner is awarded the crown. Traditionally, it’s fought to the death.”
“Oh.” Her mouth drops open into a circle of shock. He can see her mind working, figuring out what he’d already thought about a thousand too many times: either he kills his sister and becomes the Fire Lord, or the war will never truly be over.
Suddenly, his throat goes very dry, and he can’t speak. He swallows convulsively until his tongue begins to work again. “I’m tired,” he says brusquely. “I’m going to sleep. Thank you for dinner, Katara.”
He’s not sure if she tries to say anything else. He turns away from the fire and stretches out on the ground and tries his best not to think about anything at all.