“You follow through too far,” Zuko says. The tree branch above him is burnt beyond recognition, raining grey and black ash down on his head. He does not pay any attention to it. “Air is about a constant push and pull. Fire is about restraint. You can’t expect it to obey you.”
Aang throws his hands up. “If I can’t control it, then how can I bend it?”
“Most of the motions in firebending are about stopping. Precision. There’s a reason. You’re thinking of this like air and water, but it’s more like earth. You shouldn’t throw stones without a target. Earth and fire don’t just dissipate when you’re finished.”
Zuko crosses their arena, which is framed by the forest to the north and the river to the south. Their camp is set against the forest. Sokka and Suki went into the woods to track down supplies an hour or so before. Katara is standing with her feet in the water and Toph is leaned up against a dozing Appa. The sun is low in the sky, barely breaking the tops of the trees.
“It feels like air,” Aang says in a petulant tone. Zuko flinches because it’s a childish thing to say. Sometimes he forgets how young Aang is and other days he wonders if they’ve all gone mad, sending a child to face the Fire Lord.
“Air doesn’t strip off your skin if you make a mistake. Practice the fundamental stances again this afternoon.” Zuko pulls his over-shirt back on and wishes he had a way to tie back his hair. Closer to the shore, he can see that Katara is doing her own bending forms.
Aang groans and flops down on the ground, made barren by repeated bending practices. “Now I know why you like sword fighting. At least it makes sense.”
“Done already?” Toph calls out.
“I have to practice now,” Aang shouts back. He is still face down in the dirt but Toph seems to hear him. She snorts. She rotates pebbles in the air absent-mindedly, tossing them in slow figure eights.
“I hope you know this does not mean I’m taking it easy on you later, twinkletoes.”
“Are you sure we can’t do swords again today?” Aang asks Zuko, who shakes his head adamantly. Attempting to teach Aang anything about non-bending combat was an exercise in futility.
Toph outright laughs. “You’ve been teaching Aang how to use a sword?”
“I thought he might like to know something besides basic firebending, since that’s what my father will expect.”
“What’s the point of that?” Katara asks. “Bending gives you the advantage.”
Zuko shrugs. He grabs a container from their bags and fills it in the river, upstream from where she is standing. “All benders believe that they are inherently superior, which is what a good tactician should use to his advantage. Most bending is ideal at five to fifteen paces. In close combat, Aang and Toph would struggle to manipulate their elements effectively.”
“But I wouldn’t,” Katara says. As if to prove her point, water from the river curls around her wrists. She is only wearing her white tunic and loose pants, rolled up above her knees. It’s hot as the Fire Nation under the noon sun.
“You still need mobility, especially in your hands,” he replies. “And you prefer mid-distance weapons like the whip or ice.”
Katara puts her hands on her hips. “Are you saying that I couldn’t handle a real fight?”
“No, I’m saying that you don’t have any hand-to-hand experience and you shouldn’t underestimate your opponents. Someone like Suki could beat you, bending or no bending.”
“Maybe,” he shrugs again, unwilling to make the promise. He remembers their fight in the North. “You’re a better bender than I am.”
Katara breaks into a smile and his heart skips. “Let’s do it then,” she says.
“Fight me. Don’t bend. See if you win,” Katara says, slowly, as if she's explaining the rules of a board game. Zuko feels cold disbelief creep into his veins. “Unless you’re scared?”
“I’ll put five gold pieces on Zuko,” Toph declares.
“I don’t have any gold!” Aang whines.
Zuko sighs. He knows it is a bad idea and yet— he needs to practice teaching. He hates to think Katara might actually need to use a blade, but the battle they face was full of uncertainties. It couldn’t hurt to give her the extra lesson. He nods and takes a long drink before tossing the container back to their bags.
“Fine,” he says. “But we’re not using real swords. I’m not risking our healer losing a hand.”
Katara rolls her eyes – actually rolls her whole body – in exasperation. Zuko tries not to look too carefully at her and the shape of her hips and the long line where her neck meets her shoulder. He has two makeshift wooden blades that he’d carved for Aang. He tosses one to her and Katara catches it easily.
She gives it an experimental twist. Zuko feels more and more like he is making a mistake.
“I never thought I’d say this,” Toph remarks, “but this is something I wish I could see. Tell me what’s happening, twinkletoes.”
“Nothing yet,” Aang replies cheerfully. He is watching them with rapt attention and Zuko feels even more awkward standing in front of Katara.
“Shift your hand down,” he tells her. “Your stance isn’t wide enough. It should be more like it is when you use the whip. This is about balance. You don’t want to let me knock you off your feet.”
“Is that what you’re trying to do?” Katara asks. She’s smiling again and her competitive nature is almost infectious.
“No,” Zuko smiles back, “That is what I’m going to do. Don’t worry. You’ll get better with practice.”
“Stop flirting and start fighting!” Toph yells.
Zuko feels his ears go red and a blush spreads across Katara’s face. She huffs but doesn’t dignify Toph with a reply. He picks up his own wooden sword, the heavier of the two, and take up a position five paces from her. They stand parallel to the river on the sand of the bank.
“Ready?” he asks.
She immediately shifts from a defensive to an offensive stance, as easily as if she’d done it a hundred times before. Her feet are close enough, but her shoulders still aren’t set quite right. Zuko does not correct her again. He knows it will only annoy her and then she might really hurt him.
“Begin!” Aang proclaims, as if he’s officiating their competition.
Zuko expects her to strike first, but she only mirrors his step to the side. She watches him with calculating eyes. He can almost hear her mind turning through possibilities.
He takes the opportunity and strikes, catching her left leg before she can dodge.
“You’re thinking too much,” he says.
Katara grunts in frustration and parries the next blow. She twists faster and faster as she grows used to the new weapon, nearly catching him across the side. Zuko’s heart pounds as he traces his way through old training patterns, baiting Katara and leading her. She senses his intention and she flushes in anger.
“You’re teasing me,” she says, in that incensed and perfectly angry tone only she can use. She rushed forward, faster and harder than before, and manages to land a hit on his right arm that sends pain down into his hand.
Zuko stops following the training routine. He blocks her second blow and catches her hand, disarming her easily. He can feel her flash of panic and seizes on it to trap her other hand, twisting both of them behind her back.
“I’m not,” he replies. His mouth is closer to her neck than it needs to be, though Aang and Toph haven’t noticed. They’re busy arguing over their bet.
Zuko knows that she is angry. He can feel the shake in her hands. He knows as soon as he lets go she’s going to launch her whole bodyweight at him. He plants his feet and releases her. Katara does exactly what he expects—she hurls herself at him with renewed ferocity.
It’s one of the first things he learned about hand-to-hand combat and he does it without thinking. He knocks her off her feet and pins her to the ground.
“The easiest way to do this is use your opponent’s body weight, not yours. You don’t weigh that much,” he says. His tone is measured but he is painfully aware of how close they are. Their hips are pressed together and their noses almost brush and he can feel her breath fanning across his skin. Katara inhales sharply and her bottom lip catches between her teeth in a way that makes him think about biting her and he can smell her—
“What is going?” Sokka exclaims. “Someone better tell me right now!”
Katara forcibly shoves him to the ground and Zuko rolls over, covering his face with his hands. Sokka is standing next to Appa, his face pale and bloodless, while Suki grins at them over his shoulder.
“Oh, don’t worry,” Aang says. “It’s a fake fight. Katara bet Zuko she could beat him with no bending.”
“I don’t think fighting is what he’s worried about,” Toph mumbles. Suki snorts in agreement.
“Well,” Sokka says awkwardly, “Did you… win?”
Katara turns red, tugging on her hair the way she always does when she’s nervous. “I… No. I lost. Of course. Zuko is much stronger than I am. I’ll start on dinner.”
She stands up quickly, brushing invisible dust off her clothes, and stalks off toward the camp. Aang begins relaying highlights of the fight to Sokka and Suki has nothing but a knowing smile for Zuko as he collects the two wooden swords.
Katara resolutely avoids him for the rest of the evening. She makes dinner in complete silence and lets Zuko serve himself rather than accidentally touch him. Sokka makes multiple jokes at her expense and she does not bite. It isn’t until the sun has set and most of the group are fast asleep that Zuko catches her alone.
She is standing by the river, a hundred paces from camp and behind a curtain of trees Aang has not yet burnt. At first he thinks she must be bending, but as he gets closer he sees that her arms are crossed. She’s wearing only her white underclothes, the things she wears to bed.
“Katara,” he calls out, “can we talk?”
She turns around and smiles wryly. “What if I don’t want to? What will you do? Tie me to a tree?”
Zuko’s ears go red and he feels a cold, heavy shame in his chest. “No. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t,” Katara says. She rolls her eyes again. “I’m joking.”
“Still—I never apologized. Properly.”
“Apology accepted,” she says. She steps towards him, onto the grass. She looks like some kind of spirit in the moonlight with her white clothes and her long, unbound hair.
“I wanted to say that you fought well today and there’s no reason to be embarrassed. Even if the others wouldn’t know the difference,” he explains. “You would be excellent at hand-to-hand combat if you practiced it. Much better than I am.”
“Is that what you think?” Katara asks, stepping closer to him again. “That I’m embarrassed I lost?”
“I…” Zuko pauses, unsure of what to say. He did think that. It’s so much easier to think of what to say when Katara isn’t looking at him expectantly. “I didn’t want things to be weird between us, I guess.”
Katara laughs. “It’s pretty weird, Zuko. This whole situation is really weird.”
“Yeah,” he agrees.
Katara shakes her head. She shifts even closer, so close that he can feels the ends of her hair brushing against his shoulder in the wind. She stares at the water, listening, as if it is speaking to her.
“I always liked this sound,” she says. “When I couldn’t sleep, I would listen to the waves and the ice. Being on land feels so foreign and solid and … it’s too quiet, sometimes. For me to fall asleep.”
She looks at him expectantly and he isn’t sure what to say.
“It must be nice to have such good memories of home,” he replies.
“You never feel that way? So far from home?”
“No,” he says. He surprises himself with how confidently he says it. It’s the first time he has ever admitted it out loud to anyone. “I miss things about the Fire Nation. Some of the people. But not the palace. Fire was my father’s tool. I didn’t start bending properly until I was ten or eleven. I knew that I could do it. But when I tried I felt… I was so afraid. That it would crawl inside me and make me like him. And I guess it did.”
Katara grabs his hands, forcing him to look at her. Her eyes are shiny with unshed tears. “You are nothing like him. You will never become him.”
“Were you afraid of me?” he asks. The words spill out before he can stop them. “Earlier today. Are you afraid of me, now? Of the things I’ve done?”
“No,” she replies, her voice like steel, like ice, perfect and sharp and unyielding. “I’m not. You chose this, when it was the hardest for you. It was harder for you than for any of us. I think that makes you a good person, Zuko.”
He swallows what he was going to say, because she is still touching him. Their hands are still entwined. She looks down at their fingers clasped together and back up at him.
“If anything,” she continues, “I’m scared of how I feel about you.”
“Katara,” he starts, but she leans up and kisses him and he forgets every word he has ever learned. The kiss is soft and chaste but it feels like forever until it ends and he breathes in again.
“I was embarrassed because I was thinking about doing that,” she says. “And I knew Sokka would freak out. Suki tried to give me the talk earlier, as if I don’t know about moon tea.”
“Moon tea,” he repeats, his brain still numb from the kiss.
“You know, to prevent conception,” she says. She glances down again. “Not that we’re… not that we need that, right now. At this moment.”
“Right,” he agrees. It is a really terrible idea with the comet approaching and living in the camp. Katara is so young, still, despite everything, and Zuko wants to give her what she deserves. Something real and tangible and lasting—not a promise for if they live, if they win, if they save the world.
“We’re going to try again tomorrow,” she says. “With the swords.”
“I have firebending lessons again tomorrow. I don’t know if I can keep up with you,” he replies.
“Oh,” Katara smiles, “You can try.”