“The Fire Lord is coming!”
A few heads turn to look at him, but for the most part, people duck their heads and continue to rush by. Whispers rise out of the crowd. Crazy. Liar.
Next to him, Katara balances on her tiptoes, getting every inch of leverage she can from the old wooden crate that has her perched a foot above the street. “This is a serious threat, people! You have to listen! Ba Sing Se is in danger!”
“Tell me something I don’t know,” a merchant passing by scoffs.
Katara reaches out to him, leaning off the crate and trying her hardest to catch his attention. “No, listen! This is different! This is the Fire Lord himself, and he’s coming, and you have to prepare yourselves to fight—sir, wait!”
He doesn’t stop, of course. No one has all day. They’ve been out here screaming their lungs out for hours and not a single person has stopped. It doesn’t matter where they are—and they’ve been on plenty of different streets, because every time they stop for more than twenty minutes the Dai Li starts pushing meaningfully towards them and they have to dissolve into the crowd before the agents get too close—nobody ever pays attention. It’s not that they don’t hear. Obviously they hear; Katara and Zuko are shouting as loud as they can, and heads turn, eyes glance, but feet always shuffle right past as if they hadn’t seen anything at all. But they whisper. The rabble of the Lower Ring mock them mercilessly, Zuko can hear it, mock their bedraggled appearance and ragged voices. They mock them for trying to help.
“Katara,” he mutters, “this is hopeless.”
She doesn’t even pause in her shouting to answer him. She just shakes her head and starts windmilling her arms, trying to whip up more attention from the obviously apathetic populace.
“What, Zuko?” she hisses.
“We’re wasting time. None of them are paying attention to you. Come on.”
“No, you come on! Maybe if you were shouting too—”
“I have been,” he reminds her. “All morning. And nothing’s happened. Face it, these people either don’t believe you or they don’t care.”
“Don’t care? These are their lives we’re talking about!”
“They think we’re crazy. They don’t have to listen, so they aren’t.”
Finally, she drops her arms and hops down off the box. Zuko gratefully follows. His throat is starting to ache from shouting so much.
“Fine.” She starts walking towards what seems to be nothing in particular, though she does it very purposefully. There’s no choice for Zuko but to follow, so he does, nearly jogging to keep up. She’s been on this maniacal jaunt since they left the alley yesterday; last night, she’d barely even slept. The sound of her tossing in her bed had kept him awake half the night. “If they won’t listen, we’ll have to make them listen.”
“What does that mean?”
He shouldn’t have asked. Apparently, Katara’s crazier than he thought. She hooks a sudden right onto a doorstep, raises her hand, and knocks.
“Katara, what the—”
The door swings open to reveal a disgruntled old man. He peers at the two of them down his nose. “I already bought Earth Scout dumplings from my niece, so—”
“That’s not what we’re here for, sir,” chirps Katara. “Do you have a moment to speak about the massive threat currently being posed to your city by the Fire Lord’s plot to storm the city in one month?”
The brick bruises his backside when he lands hard in the middle of the street.
People in Ba Sing Se are rude and they really do not care about their own safety. Katara has come to this conclusion based on her brief and numerous encounters with the sector of the population that has houses in the Lower Ring. Without fail, every single one of the citizens they visited slammed their doors in Zuko and Katara’s faces if they even bothered to open them in the first place. It’s even worse than standing in the street and shouting, because at least then she can pretend that someone is taking the message to heart—but the flat-out rejection she faces at every door makes her sick.
She feels hopeless. The situation had never been this desperate before. No spirit costume or fake projection of an old Avatar could get the message out. To care, the people would need something to believe in, and it’s quickly becoming evident that the people of Ba Sing Se believe in nothing at all.
Zuko has stopped telling her their efforts are futile, but his silence says it louder than he ever could. They’ve been out since the sun rose over the green-tiled roofs, and now it’s sinking behind the wall, bathing the city in pinkish half-light. Everything they’ve done today has been one huge, consecutive failure. An absolute waste of a day—one of the few they have left, one of the few they could have spent searching for Aang, because that’s another thing they have no clue where to start on. It’s like the Avatar and all of Katara’s friends have disappeared into the Spirit World. Except for the wanted posters hanging on every corner, Katara would almost believe he never came back.
“Katara,” Zuko says, and it’s the gentleness in his voice when he says her name that breaks her. He pities her. He, the exiled, abandoned, broken ex-prince, pities her. And it’s not fair. He’d been frustrated, too, this morning when nobody had even bothered to spare them a glance, and now he’s just…resigned. There’s none of the righteous indignation he’d been so fond of when she knew him before the eclipse, none of the royal arrogance he’d worn like a shield. Just an exhausted look that she knows means he’d given up long ago and is just going through the motions.
So she figures it’s not entirely her fault that she snaps, because she still is frustrated that they are trying to save lives but it is hard to help when they themselves are so helpless. “This is all your fault, you know.”
“If you hadn’t gone with her,” Katara spits. “If you’d chosen right the first time. If I didn’t have to use the water on Aang because your sister nearly killed him, if we didn’t have to wait for weeks for him to heal while you lounged around in the Fire Nation planning battle strategy. Plotting to take over the world. If you’d just come with us, we wouldn’t have to do this.”
The thing is, she knows as she says it that the words are irrational. Zuko’s allegiance wouldn’t really have changed anything. But it’s like something has taken over her voice and is spewing all of the dark angry thoughts that have been lurking at the back of her mind every time she’s looked at his face. He’s with her now—but back then, last time they stood together inside these walls, he chose Azula over her and that is never going to change. The fact that he betrayed her is never going to change.
She knows they are fighting words, and she knows it’s fighting dirty and she fully expects Zuko to fight back. But what he does instead shocks her more than any argument he could have made: he nods. “I know,” he says morosely.
She gawks. “What?”
“It was.” He shrugs. “I’m not going to argue, and I can’t apologize enough. I betrayed your trust. I was angry and confused and I felt lost, and I didn’t know what I was doing. I know that doesn’t excuse it.”
Just like that, the fight drains out of her, and suddenly, Katara is just very tired. Zuko is frowning, but he’s not angry—his brow is furrowed and his mouth is pinched in concern. For her.
“I’m sorry. That was out of line,” she mutters.
“Believe me,” Zuko says. “I understand how you feel.”
He wraps an arm around her shoulders and her side is enveloped in warmth and she can’t help herself from sagging into him. The aching pressure on the soles of her feet dissipates, and she sighs. Zuko says “C’mon, let’s go find some dinner. I bet you’re hungry.”
She tries to apologize again, but the words stick in her throat. He doesn’t seem to care. He just keeps his arm around her, supporting her, and Katara thinks for the first time that maybe people really, truly can change.
By the time they collapse into the rickety chairs in their apartment laden with food from some restaurant he’d managed to find specializing in Water Tribe cuisine, Katara has mellowed. She’d been putting all of herself into shouting, and now she looks utterly spent, her eyelids fluttering even as she reaches for the container of something that looks prickly and rotten and smells even worse. Zuko hates Water Tribe food, but it’s worth the sting of excess salt in his mouth to see the way her face lights up with her first bite.
“I missed these so much,” she moans. She tips back her chin and closes her eyes as she chews, and the elongated column of her throat shifts under her skin. It’s distracting and he’s not entirely sure why.
“What are they?”
“Sea prunes.” Katara’s tongue darts out to lick the juice from her fingers. He can’t tear his eyes away from the motion. Some part of him knows he is staring and he must look like a complete idiot, but Katara’s eyes are still closed. “Try one.”
The carton scrapes across the tabletop as she pushes it toward him. Zuko breaks out of his reverie to hesitantly dip a hand into the cold liquid they’re preserved in and fish around for the smallest one he can find. They’re slimy. The smell alone is enough to make him gag.
“You just…eat it?” He eyes the purple-green ball dubiously.
Katara nods. “Just try it! They’re great.” As if to demonstrate, she grabs another one and pops it in whole, chewing with relish.
Zuko is many things, but he is not a coward, and he hates passing up a challenge. The first taste of the sea prune isn’t so bad—it’s colder and tangier than he’s used to, but it’s not bad. Mollified, he bites down. It bursts open against his tongue.
By the time he’s stopped gagging and spitting into a napkin Katara’s giggles have nearly subsided. “The great Prince Zuko, defeated by a simple sea prune. Nobody knew of his secret weakness.”
“You’re the one that deserves to be ashamed!” he sputters. “That thing isn’t food! It’s—it’s toxic! It’s a weapon!”
“It’s a delicacy, actually.” Katara plucks another one out and smiles at him as she chews. “And now you’re wasting it. You’ve disrespected my entire culture. You are the most hopeless diplomat I’ve ever met.”
“You’re one to talk, Miss ugh-Zuko-my-poor-tongue-can’t-take-these-fire-flakes.”
“Yeah, cause they’re gross!”
“There is absolutely no accounting for taste among the rabble.”
Katara turns up her nose at him and twists up her mouth into an exaggerated scowl. It might have been a little intimidating to him, once, before he learned the difference between fierce Katara and teasing Katara, but all it is now is cute. “Fine then, my lord. Maybe you’d prefer the nice, bland, un-salty noodles instead.”
“That sounds fantastic, in fact. Thank you for being so considerate, Katara.”
“Nozomi,” he corrects himself. “That’s going to take some getting used to still.”
“Yeah, we’ll have to work on it.”
“Sorry you couldn’t choose your own name.”
“It’s okay.” She smiles. “It’s a really pretty name, anyway. I couldn’t have come up with one that good.”
“It’s better than Li.”
“Anything would have been better than Li.”
It’s almost confusing, the ease with which they laugh together now. It hasn’t even been two weeks since Katara refused to look at him, and now it’s the most natural thing in the world for them to both collapse together over the table, food abandoned in favor of cacophonous peals that wrack their bodies for no real reason except that they’re both unstable and laughing is better than the alternative. So they laugh at nothing in particular, and the sounds blend together into one long melody and Zuko thinks eating a million sea prunes would be worth it if Katara would always look this free and light.