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Call Me Katto

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AN: This fic was inspired by psychedelic aya's story, "a girl worth fighting for," which is a crossover of ATLA and Mulan. It's fun and fast, so check it out!

"Call Me Katto" takes place a year or so after the end of the series, and it assumes very little from the show happened. The Hundred Year War goes on, Sozin's comet never happened, and the resistance is still struggling. Other things are different – it will all become clear in the story. There will be some OOCness - characters are a little older and spent the last few years differently than they did in the show. I'm rating the story M for probable future heaviness.

Hope you like it! I got really excited about this idea when I read psychedelic aya's story and I hope you will too!


"Katara, I'm serious. You have to let this go."

It was just like Sokka to fall back on the traditional view in the face of good sense. Katara rammed the pestle harder into the mortar of glacier root before her, but refused to tear her eyes from where her stupid brother stood all haughty and righteous in the doorway.

"People die all the time in this war, Katara. It would destroy me and dad if you got hurt."

"Just what do you think it would do to me if one of you got hurt? An ocean away, it'd be months before I even heard about it. And what could I do? Sing the mourning songs with the other women? Stitch a death shroud for a body that isn't coming home?"

She shuddered and slapped the pestle down by the fire pit. The contents of the mortar were fine as flour and she set the little stone bowl down before she could give in to the urge to throw it. "No, Sokka. I need to go to the front with you. I'll go crazy if you leave me to sit here with Gran-gran while you run into the most dangerous place in the world."

"This whole argument is crazy! What would you even do in a fight? Smack the firebenders with a frying pan? Scowl them to death? Splash them with magic water? Yeah, the war'll be won in no time!" He flung his arms up in the air. "All hail Katara, mighty warrior from the South!"

"I can fight," Katara snapped. It was almost true. She was certainly strong from all the work she did, and she was quick enough to catch fish with her waterbending. It was just training that she lacked. Sokka shot her a withering look. She went on. "And I could finally learn waterbending at that training camp you keep talking about. Didn't you say Bato mentioned a Master had come in with the refugees from the North?"

"He only trains boys, Katara. Only men go to war. You can't just-" He flailed his arms as if trying to signal her from a distance. "-just do whatever you want! There are really good reasons why women don't go to war."

Katara crossed her arms over her chest. "Well I have really good reasons to go. So, when Dad gets here, I'm going with you."

Sokka scoffed and seemed on the verge of saying something, but she pushed past him through the door and out into the brilliant tundra morning. Sokka's voice followed her as she marched between the huts. "Dad'll never allow it! 'Cause he's not crazy! Katara?"

She passed the last huts and marched out toward where the ice floe broke off and the ocean lapped against the jagged white seam. The water was dark, except where it reflected the sky and the distant, hazy sun that hung so low in the north this time of year. During his visit two months ago, Bato had told them to expect Hakoda's ship any day after the fox-owl moon, and every day made Katara more anxious as the wait went on.

He would stop for a day to deliver supplies and news and then he would take Sokka away to war. Because he was finally old enough, Bato had said, because they needed men like him.

When Hakoda finally arrived, Katara would only have a day to convince him to take her, too.

But surely her father could be made to see reason. She was almost seventeen and she'd never left the South Pole. She'd never properly learned to waterbend, though she'd made up a few tricks of her own during the moments she stole from chores during the day.

It just wasn't fair. Sokka kept saying she couldn't fight, but whose fault was that? He spent all his time hunting and sparring while she did all the drudge work around the hut. He had only taught her a few moves so she could help him practice, and now that his trainee warriors were a little bigger, he didn't even teach her that much anymore. She knew it wasn't some kind of intentional sabotage, but it was hard not to wonder sometimes.

Katara looked off across the water at the icebergs creeping along the horizon. Each one had a big jagged chunk that jutted above the water, but Katara knew that the submerged part was what was really impressive; a vast inverted mountain of ice, stabbed down deep to where the light faded away, and beyond.

It was the tip of the iceberg everyone paid attention to; that was the part that caught the pink morning light and reflected the moon. The tip was the part that reflected on the ocean sometimes and made it seem like the ice underneath was just the same as that up above. Katara knew better than that, though. You had to look past the surface to really understand something.

Suddenly, a ship coasted between the very two icebergs Katara had been watching. It was a sleek Water Tribe vessel, gliding rapidly toward the village. Katara's heart throbbed. She spun and ran back to the village to tell everyone Chief Hakoda had come home.


Some miles to the west, a battered steamer was coasting along the edge of the same field of icebergs. It was smaller than most modern Fire Nation vessels, an older model that could be spared from the Royal Navy.

Or it had been five years ago when the Fire Lord had graciously bestowed it on his unworthy son on the event of his banishment. That son stood high on the observation tower, scanning the vast empty plain of the southern wastelands through a spyglass.

Zuko's wartail whipped against the back of his bare scalp but he hardly noticed. It was so cold here, colder than he remembered it being two years ago. The wind licked across the ice and blasted every inch of bare skin until it turned painfully red and chapped. Last time, he hadn't felt it the way he did now. He would stand out in the wind for hours, searching that blazing white landscape until his entire head went numb, and then he would practice firebending until everything burned.

Zuko had been numb and burning for so long.

"Prince Zuko," came his uncle's amiable voice from the control room door. "You have been out here for a long time. Wouldn't you like to come in for a hot cup of tea?"

He used to rail at his uncle for not caring about his search for the Avatar. Now he only stewed. A man could only circle the globe so many times before admitting that what he was looking for could not be found. Or so Iroh would have him believe.

Zuko had argued at the time and ordered a course be set for the South Pole. He didn't even know why, it just felt right. That was months ago, after the fall of the last holdout of the Northern Water Tribe. Zuko had spent the better part of a year scouring those icy shores, watching from a distance as the Fire Navy blackened the icy walls and bridges of that city. He hadn't seen it before the fighting started, but it had crossed his mind that the place had probably been very beautiful once.

Iroh's suggestion that the Avatar might not ever be found had come back to him often during the long voyage south, whenever he stared off into the horizon and only saw the horizon. For so long he had lived without doubt; the Avatar was out there and eventually he would show himself and Zuko would be there, Zuko would capture him. Zuko would go home and his honor would be restored.

Time hadn't dulled his certainty, Azula had.

On the way north, he had received news during a one-time-only visit from his sister that Mai had gotten married. Zuko had told her he didn't care, but it had shaken him and she knew it. He wasn't thirteen anymore. He was nineteen, or nearly. A grown man by any standard. His old girlfriend, a girl he might have really loved, had married some nose-picking noble while he had been on this quest.

This ridiculous quest for something that might not even exist.

It gnawed at him like the wind.

"Zuko?"

He turned to find that Iroh stood beside him at the rail, peering up at him with that assessing expression.

"Sure Uncle," Zuko said. He looked back out over the water. "Hot tea sounds alright."

When Zuko made no other move, Iroh left and returned with the tiny cups he favored in each hand. It stung Zuko's fingers at first, but then it felt good to hold the porcelain. Iroh stood beside him again, inhaling steam from his tea and gazing out at the icy plain.

"Why are we here again, Nephew? Wouldn't you rather search for the Avatar in the tropics?"

"If the Avatar was hiding in the tropics, someone would have found him by now." Zuko sniffed his tea, then breathed deep. "Besides. I thought you didn't believe in the Avatar, Uncle."

"It isn't that I don't believe he exists, Zuko." The old man looked up at him and seemed to make up his mind about something. "It is that it might not be your destiny to find him."

Zuko whipped his head around to glower at him. "And what is my destiny, Uncle?" he asked in his chilliest voice. "To languish in exile while Azula takes my crown? To die without honor and be forever remembered as a failure? Is that a new family tradition you're starting?"

Iroh only stared out across the water and sipped his tea until Zuko had finished. Then, quietly, he said, "Destiny is not a simple matter of success or failure, Prince Zuko. Destiny is the road you walk as you pass by all the victories and defeats of your life." His sharp eyes cut over to Zuko. "A wise man recognizes when he's trying to walk a path that will take him places he does not truly want to go."

With that, he turned and walked back into the command room, shutting the door softly behind him

Zuko scowled after the old man for a moment, then hurled his teacup overboard. Hot tea bit at his fingers and then immediately went cold. The cup soared until it hit a hulking iceberg. The sound of it shattering was tiny, and hollow, and it made Zuko ashamed.


When the little village turned out to greet the returning warriors on the ice, Katara couldn't help but notice how much older her father looked. More gray in his hair, and a limp he hadn't had before, which he quickly evened his stride to conceal. He descended the ramp at the head of the handful of men who had come, after so many years, to see their families again. The lucky few to survive.

It had been a joyous reunion for everyone.

Though she was anxious to talk to Hakoda about her plan, Katara was of course enlisted to help prepare a feast. She left her father and brother sitting together in their small hut, happily relating stories about hunts and fights, and huddled in another hut with the other women, stewing sea prunes and roasting bison-hares and selecting strips of different pickled fishes and cabbages.

Katara was assigned the task of constantly stirring the sea prunes to prevent them from sticking. It seemed to go on for hours, and the smell of the steam was acrid, unpleasant. She kept stealing glances out of the hut door whenever it opened, though she didn't know what she was looking for.

"Be careful, Katara," Gran-gran said, noticing how her stirring spoon had stilled. "You don't want them to scorch."

"Sorry, Gran-gran," Katara said. She picked up her stirring and tried not to look so pensive, and the old woman settled down next to her and began shelling the ice peas that had been drying in their pods all winter.

Later, the entire tribe gathered in the biggest hut, cramming in together to sit on the floor and eat and tell stories. There were so many stories to tell about the war.

"If we had known there was going to be an eclipse," Hakoda was saying, "we could have done so much more. We could have even stormed the Fire Nation Capital itself."

Sokka finally took a breath between bites. "What did you do?"

"Well, it's an interesting story. Bato had gone into this tiny port town to trade news with an informant he knew and we were waiting at the dock for him when these three Fire Nation steamers anchor all around us…"

Katara watched her dad tell the story and tried to envision herself there, surrounded by Fire Nation soldiers. She wondered if she would ever have the skill and courage to stand up to enemies the way her dad did. Tightening her fingers around her spoon, she decided then and there. Yes. Yes, she did. She was going to do this. For Sokka, even if he didn't think he needed her. And for herself.

"Katara?"

She shook herself from her reverie to find that the room was chattering away, all but her father and Sokka, who were both looking at her. Hakoda's eyes had a gentle shine in them and he smiled.

"You seem distracted, my little waterbender. Everything alright?"

"Yeah," Katara said, looking down at her bowl. The nickname felt strange. She hadn't heard it for so long. "I just… There's something I really want to talk to you about-"

Hakoda's smile vanished. "Yes, Sokka mentioned it. We'll discuss it later," he said, and then turned toward the sound of his name, smiling again.

Katara stared at him for a long moment, stricken by the harshness in his tone. She didn't need to have the promised discussion later to know how Hakoda felt about her going to war.

"I'm sorry, Katara," Sokka was saying quietly. His hand was on her knee beside him, seeking reassurance. "I didn't mean to tell him before you could. It just slipped out. You scared me with all that talk about-"

Katara looked at him and he went quiet, his expression pained. Whatever he saw in her face, he seemed to feel pretty guilty about it.

But guilty didn't fix this.

In one smooth movement, Katara surged to her feet and, like an afterthought, dropped her bowl in Sokka's lap. With a yelp, he barely caught it right-side-up. A lot of eyes were on her as she walked out of the hut, stepping over people to get to the door. People asked where she was going and then went quiet when she wouldn't look at them.

It was better outside. The air bit through her and cleared her head of all that heat and closeness. The sun was still setting, a long process this time of year, and even though it wasn't really safe to wander the tundra alone at night, Katara struck out toward the sunset. She made a run for it.

She ran until her lungs burned and her legs threatened to collapse under her. She left the flat plain and climbed over a rise to another plain, another stretch of coast. The ocean was blazed up with the fire of the setting sun, orange and striking, and all the shadows across the snow were stretched out like blue teeth toward her. It was beautiful and it made Katara furious.

She used a simple bending move she'd made up to harden the downward slope and then skied down it until she hit a rough patch and went tumbling. At the bottom, panting, she dragged herself up and kept going. She couldn't run anymore, but she could bend. She used sharp movements of her arms and shoulders. The ice cracked and tore away in unpredictable chunks before her.

It felt good to see so much of her element respond to her call. She had worked so hard to get this strong, and it was clumsy and brutal bending, but it was powerful.

And with her father's dismissal and Sokka's betrayal stabbing so sharp in her chest, she needed to feel some kind of power.


From the observation deck of his steamer, anchored for the night, Zuko watched what had to be the weirdest display of waterbending he had ever seen. He'd seen a few of the captured Northern waterbenders work on the outer walls of their city, but they had been graceful, precise. There was a recognizable ebb and flow to their movements.

With the bender at the far side of that ice plain, it was more like two rabid animals fighting in a barrel of water. There was some ebb and some flow and a whole lot of other stuff, too.

Zuko twisted his spy glass to get a better look at the bender but all he could really see was a long hooded parka. Whoever it was, they had a lot of power. It was a good thing there was so much distance between them.

Zuko had lowered his spyglass and was considering ordering a move farther out of range when a heart-stopping crack resounded across the plain. He watched in horror as a vast chunk of the ice floe split off and came inching inexorably toward his bobbing steamer.

"Start the engines," he shouted. "Get us back!"

He could hear his crew hustling in the control room behind him and the engines thundered to life, the anchor clanking up, but the ship wasn't moving fast enough. The ice floe kept coming. One of the lookouts shouted and Zuko looked back only to find several of the icebergs they had passed between had closed together. They would have to go forward and hope they could get out from between the floe and the other icebergs surrounding them.

"Full power ahead! We have to make the gap!"

But he could see even now that it was impossible. The space was closing too quickly. He had to do something.

Zuko slid down the access ladder to the main deck and raced to the bow. The ship was designed to drive through ice but blows from the sides were more likely to damage it. He began punching fire at the nearest points of ice on the approaching floe.


Katara scrambled back and stared in wonder and horror as a gaping crack opened up in the ice and the two vast sheets separated. She must have hit some fault line in the ice because this had never happened before. She pressed her mittens to her face and glanced over her shoulder toward the village. It was over the rise, of course, so no one would see what she'd done, but they may have felt it. This would probably come back to bite her later.

When she turned back, she found a huge block of ice had risen above the surface. Rather, a bubble of ice. It was round and swirled and seemed to glow a little from inside. There was a shadowy shape inside and, as Katara leaned closer to look at it, it opened its big, glowing eyes.

It was a kid! Trapped in the ice!

Katara didn't exactly decide that she needed to open the bubble. She didn't really think about it, except that there was someone trapped in there who needed help. She made a big slashing motion with her arm…

And was blasted back about fifteen feet as an explosion of white light beamed straight up in the sky.


Standing in the line of firebenders who had joined him along the gunwale, Zuko was mid-punch when the light shot up in the sky. He shaded his eyes for a second and then stared at it, a new kind of chill lancing through him.

It was the Avatar. It had to be. Suddenly a part of him that had been sleeping came roaring to life.

"Uncle," he shouted, not taking his eyes from the light. He wasn't even sure that Iroh had come on deck during the emergency, but he couldn't hold in the satisfaction. "It looks like you were wrong about my destiny after all, old man!"

From behind him there was no sound, and Zuko had no way of knowing how his uncle's heart at once fell and soared. Iroh blocked his eyes from the light and watched his nephew's posture change, the dejected bend in his neck easing at last.

For Zuko, the moment was ecstatic. The Avatar was right over there, at last, within his grasp. He would capture him and go home. He could finally go home.

All he had to do was subdue one crazy, unpredictable waterbender.

That had to be why no one had found the Avatar yet – he'd already been reborn from the Southern Water Tribe. From what he could see, the Avatar had looked fairly young and energetic. It was possible Zuko had found him before he could train in the other elements, which would mean an easier fight.

"Uncle, prepare a unit for excursion. We have to capture the Avatar before he gets away!"

"Prince Zuko, are you certain the situation here on the ship doesn't require your attention first?"

The light faded and Zuko stared out across the vast plate of ice that was closing in on his ship. He hurriedly punched more fire at the ice, but it was too late. The floe collided with an iceberg ahead of his ship and the gap of open water narrowed on either side of the hull. Someone shouted, "Brace for impact!"

Zuko braced himself but the actual impact was gentle, rocking the ship to starboard until the observation tower grated against an iceberg. The steamer settled slightly with a metallic clank, and then was still.

Zuko scanned his crew and, finding no one grievously injured, looked back toward the source of the light. He couldn't see anything around the massive chunks of ice that now obstructed the area, but the Avatar couldn't have gone far.

"Uncle," he said. "Prepare that unit now."

"Of course, Prince Zuko… But perhaps…"

Zuko whirled. "What?"

Iroh was shrugging and using that I'm-just-an-old-know-nothing-but-here's-what-I'd-do face. "Perhaps it would be more prudent to focus the men on digging the ship out first, since we cannot currently reach that area on foot."

Zuko snapped back to look again. To his disgust, Iroh was right. The ice locking them in place had completely separated from the mainland, leaving wide gaps of water between the two masses.

"Rrr! Fine! All of you," Zuko snarled, pinning the firebenders on deck with an imperious gesture. "Begin melting through the ice ahead. No breaks until this ship is free!"


Groaning, Katara sat up and rubbed her face with a mitten. As her vision cleared, she spotted a skinny kid climbing out of the iceberg. He looked about as dazed as she felt. And weird. He had blue arrows tattooed on his forehead and hands and not a single hair on his head.

When his eyes focused on Katara he grinned a big, goofy kind of grin and said, "Hi! I'm Aang!"

Katara smiled back, a little mystified, but glad the boy had escaped the ice apparently unscathed. "Hi, Aang. I'm Katara."

"Is this the South Pole?"

Katara sat forward and blinked hard, not sure she'd heard him right. "Yeah, South Pole. That's us!"

"Wow," he said, squinting past her at the rise and, beyond, the mountains. "It's so beautiful."

Katara twisted where she sat to look back and, yes, the light of the setting sun had painted the peaks orange and pink and cool blue. She looked back and found the kid had stood up and was stretching. He was wearing strange flappy yellow clothes. Katara felt cold just looking at him. "Are you okay?" she asked.

"Yeah, just a little groggy," he said, and began loudly clearing his throat and peering around at the shattered bubble. "Wow! I wonder how long I was in there!" A look of worry suddenly took his face and he leapt back into the iceberg weightlessly. "Appa!"

Katara struggled to her feet and made her way closer. She didn't quite trust herself to hop over the gap between the iceberg and the floe, so she just stood up on her tiptoes and tried to peer inside. "Hey! What's going on in there?"

Suddenly, a monstrous shaggy head loomed up out of the ice. Katara screamed and scrambled back until she realized it wasn't following her – and that Aang was perched on top of that head. He looked thrilled.

"What is that?" she asked. She tried to sound less uncertain than she actually was.

"This is Appa! He's my best friend!"

Katara did her best to grin. "He looks like a good friend to have."

"He sure is! Appa and I go everywhere together, right boy?"

The creature gave a great huff and began clambering up out of the bubble. Katara stood back to watch. Aang was jabbering about something excitedly but she hardly heard him, too focused on how enormous Appa was. And how many legs he had.

"So how about it?" Aang asked, hopping off Appa and onto the floe next to Katara. He was short, maybe ten or eleven years old, if she had to guess.

"How about what? Sorry…"

"Penguin sledding! I flew all the way here to go penguin sledding. Would you take me?"

"I'm a little old for penguin sledding. Maybe one of the kids in the village could take you," Katara said, rubbing the back of her head. "Wait, did you say you flew here?"

"Yup! Appa's a flying bison," Aang said, patting Appa's shaggy head. He cast a hopeful look Katara's way. "If he takes us for a ride, then would you take me penguin sledding?"

"A flying bison?" Katara asked, skeptical. Was this kid playing a prank on her? "I thought they went extinct a hundred years ago…"

Aang just laughed like she was the one trying to play a prank. "Good one, Katara. But seriously, where are all the penguins?"


Zuko was the first one off of the tugboat when it ground to a halt against the icy shore. The sun had gone down more than an hour ago, but the night was bright with starlight reflecting off the snow, so it was easy to see where he was going. He didn't rush toward the cluster of icebergs where the light had come from, but he set a brisk march, his men keeping pace in two short lines behind him.

They were all exhausted. In the back of his mind, Zuko heard a voice much like Iroh's chastising him for pushing his men too hard. It had taken well over an hour to clear the ship of that tangle of ice and more time still to ride the tugboat back through the icebergs to the mainland. The firebenders were spent. Knowing this, Zuko had brought them along more for show than anything. If he was lucky, the Avatar would still be nearby and Zuko would be able to intimidate him into coming quietly back to the tugboat.

But Zuko was never lucky.

It was no easy task to identify the exact origin of that light. The ground was torn up everywhere, chunks of ice flung in so wide a radius that Zuko wasn't even sure where it ended. What he could tell right away, though, was that the Avatar was long gone. He had watched for movement with his spyglass until it had grown far too dark to see anything, but there had been no sign.

"Split up," he commanded, pointing off to the west and east. South, there were only mountains stacked to the sky. He led the men going east and began the slow climb up the tightly-packed snow of a rise.

He couldn't have lost the Avatar already. And even if the trail was cold, there were only a few villages on this continent. Someone was bound to know something.

Yes, Zuko assured himself as he climbed. Someone would know something and he would squeeze it out of them one way or another.


Katara got Aang back to the village a little before moonrise. The bison had made himself a burrow in a snowdrift on the near side of the rise, wuffing mournfully as if he couldn't possibly go another step. Aang went on cheerfully enough, tapping his staff as he walked.

"Don't worry," he said. "Appa's just tired. He'll be up and flying again in no time."

"Sure Aang." Katara still wasn't sure if she believed that Appa could fly at all. That would explain how Aang had gotten to the South Pole, but Katara still had a lot of trouble believing it was possible.

She had a lot of trouble believing a lot of things Aang was saying.

"The Southern Air Temple?" she asked again.

"That's right. In the spring. It's so beautiful, Katara. All the trees and bushes bloom and the halls fill with warm sunlight."

"Aang, you don't have to make up stories to convince me to like you, okay?"

He blinked up at her, then laughed a little. "Why would you say that, Katara?"

"It's just hard to believe that people are living in the Air Temples again. After what the Fire Nation did to the Air Nomads, it seems like it would be disrespectful to just move into their temple like that."

Aang stopped walking. The faint light coming from the village fell softly on half of his face. He looked scared. And maybe a little guilty. "What do you mean? What did the Fire Nation do?"

Katara took a step closer and peered into his face. "Come on, Aang. Everybody knows the story. You couldn't have been in the ice that long…" When he didn't crack a smile, she sobered. "The Fire Nation wiped out the Air Nomads about a hundred years ago. The Air Temples are all in ruins."

Aang took a step back, then another. "No. No, that's not possible."

Katara reached out a hand toward him. "Aang…"

"It's not possible," he said again. And then he rapped his staff against the ice and it snapped open to reveal a wide red glider. Aang leapt into the air—

And flew. Really flew. Katara watched him soar off into the night, stunned. Aang was an airbender. Was that even possible? Were Airbenders living somewhere in secret? Or had he truly been trapped in the ice for a hundred years?

Katara stood staring at the point where Aang had vanished, not even sure she believed what she had seen. After a few moments, she heard footsteps coming from the village, just one pair.

"I was worried about you," Hakoda said as he came to stand beside her. "It was childish to run off that way, Katara."

Katara blinked and looked at her father's stern face. Had she imagined Aang? Had she knocked her head on the ice and dreamt him up? If she had, maybe it was best not to tell her dad about him. She shut her mouth and swallowed. "Sorry, Dad. I just… needed a little air."

"It sounded like there was an avalanche. We just got a search party together when I spotted you coming over the rise."

She almost wanted to ask if he'd seen Aang, but didn't like the accusation in his tone. "You don't have to worry, Dad. That was just me. Bending. I hit a weak spot in the ice or something and-"

"Katara," Hakoda placed his hand on her shoulder and leveled his familiar blue eyes on her. So familiar, but so… distant, now. It had been years since Katara looked into her father's eyes. Something had changed, and she felt trapped under his hand and his gaze. "You're practically a grown woman now," he said, "but you'll always be my little girl. I'll always worry, because that's what fathers do."

"And Sokka?" Katara tried not to sound bitter when she said it, but she couldn't help it. "Do you worry about him, too?"

"Of course. Maybe even more."

At his wry tone, Katara allowed herself a tiny half-smile. The hand on her shoulder didn't feel so burdensome now, but it was still a weight. "Let me go with him, Dad."

The instant the words left her mouth, Hakoda drew back. Katara pressed on. "We'll take care of each other – just like we always have! Let me come to the training camp and really learn bending. Please."

"Katara, no." The finality of it cut her off, the emotion in his voice stunning her. "I'm going to say this once and I don't want to ever hear you talking about it again. A training camp is no place for a young woman, and a war is even worse. Your mother would haunt me to my dying day if I let you go to war."

To her shame, Katara felt her eyes welling up with tears. Frustration, shock, an exhausting day, whatever it was, it came leaking onto her cheeks. She turned her back on Hakoda, hoping he wouldn't see.

He sighed and spoke more gently. "Katara, you don't know the kind of danger you're asking to poke your nose into. I've heard of awful things happening to young women in the border towns, and it's not just the Fire Nation. There are a whole lot of bad men looking to take advantage of the chaos of war however they can. It would… It would kill me if something happened to you. You're so much safer here."

Katara glared out at the vast white emptiness before her. Oh sure, the stars were diamonds and the snow was velvet. Sure, there was no shade of blue the tundra lacked. But there were a whole lot of other things missing.

She was trying to think of a way to put this into words when Hakoda patted her shoulder. "Come in, Katara. It's cold."

Katara faltered. She didn't even know how to talk to him anymore. "Give me a minute," she mumbled, scrubbing at her cheeks. Her mittens rasped against the chapped skin.

She listened to Hakoda's pause, and then his steady footsteps as he returned to the huts. Only after the sounds of his boots had diminished into silence did she move.


Zuko peered over the rise and down onto another wide plain of snow. In the distance, there was a tiny wreck of a village huddled in the lee of a sloppy snow wall. The village emitted a few flickers of firelight and by that light and the light of the rising moon he saw a figure bending down, snatching up double handfuls of snow, and hurling it farther than seemed possible for a nonbender.

Zuko smiled. There he was. The Avatar.

What was he doing? Was this some new technique?

The distant figure kicked a final chunk of ice halfway to the ocean and finally stalked off into the village. Which tent he entered, Zuko couldn't be sure, so a nighttime raid would be more challenging…

In the back of Zuko's head, that annoying voice that sounded like his uncle chimed in. Better to attack with the dawn when your powers will be at their strongest and your men well-rested.

Grudgingly, Zuko allowed that this was true. He also noticed a sentry posted at the top of the poorly-constructed wall and, upon further investigation, spotted a Water Tribe war boat moored off the shore.

So, the rebels had come home to collect the hidden Avatar. Zuko was suddenly glad he hadn't acted on impulse. There could be dozens of warriors down there, and he had only four exhausted firebenders. No, it would be better to attack at daybreak.

Chapter Text

Katara entered the hut quietly and went directly to her bed next to Gran-gran, who was snoring away. From the lack of uproarious male snores, Sokka and Hakoda were still awake behind the blanket Sokka had strung up for privacy.

Katara struggled out of her parka and outer layers and curled up tight in the soft furs of her bed. The biggest pelt was a polar cat. Hakoda had told her and Sokka the story of how he had speared it just as it was about to claw him open from one end to the other. Katara's mother had shushed him from more grotesque retellings and then they would share this fond look, like they each loved the thing the other was doing. Life had been good then, easy. Sometimes it hurt just thinking about it.

Katara shut her eyes and listened to Gran-gran's steady breathing until she wasn't thinking of anything at all.

She woke in the darkness to Gran-gran rising for the day. This was the way in winter. They rose in darkness and cooked by the light of their cook-fires, and the sun came much later, and for just a short while before easing away again.

Katara lay in bed for a time and listened to Gran-gran stir the embers and feed the fire to take the edge off the unrelenting cold. Then, Katara dragged herself from the warm cocoon of her bed and pulled on her dress and parka and went to bend water from the snow for morning tea.

When the smell of breakfast filled the hut, Hakoda rose and ate. He paid the women compliments and mentioned how he missed their cooking. Gran-gran was delighted but Katara fidgeted with the fire, and then picked at her food, never really meeting his eyes. When he'd finished, Hakoda went to see about preparations for his departure and Gran-gran followed along, saying something about packing up "a little something for the trip."

Finally, Sokka dragged himself out from behind his privacy blanket, yawning hugely. At the same time he was yawning, he seemed to be trying to say 'good morning.' It just wasn't happening, though.

Katara just went on poking at her food.

Sokka winced, and then filled his own bowl and came to sit beside her. Eventually, he spoke again. "Katara, remember that time you were doing your water magic stuff and accidentally whipped that big one-eyed tiger-seal?"

Katara nodded over her bowl but didn't look up and didn't speak.

"Well do you remember how I stopped it from charging with my boomerang?"

"Yeah, Sokka, I remember."

"Remember how surprised you were? That I managed the shot?"

Katara sighed and let her bowl rest in her lap as she shot him a tired look. "Well, you kind of couldn't hit the upside of an ice floe on purpose back then, Sokka. It was a miracle you didn't kill me."

"The point," Sokka stressed, "is that you shouldn't underestimate your big brother."

Katara only frowned. "Since when is reasonable concern the same thing as underestimating? And, hey, who's underestimating who, here?"

"You're over-thinking it. Just," he held up a hand and peered down into his bowl, long-suffering misunderstood Sokka. "Just take it for what it is."

Katara scowled and poked around her bowl without eating. He was leaving her behind because he was too afraid of what would happen to her and had the gall to tell her not to worry… She just couldn't shake the anger.

Not an hour later, Katara stood with Gran-gran and all the other women, gathered together once more on the ice as the moon entered its final hour. It was a tearful goodbye and, even though Katara was angry with both of them, she hugged Sokka and Hakoda tightly before they went up the gangplank and onto the ship.

And then, they shoved off and they were waving goodbye. Katara raised her hand and didn't know how to breathe through all that betrayal. As soon as she could, she dodged out of the crowd and went back to the hut.

She sat at the edge of the cook-fire, using the faint glow to stitch a pair of Sokka's old pants. He wouldn't need them anytime soon, but she had to do something. When that was done, she stitched the armpit back into one of his favorite old shirts. He would be helpless without her. No one to sew his pants, no one to watch his back.

Katara nipped the end of the thread and was folding the shirt to put it away when she caught sight of herself in the spotted mirror they kept leaning against one wall. She held Sokka's shirt a little straighter, crossing it over as if it were tied. It had been small on Sokka, but on her…

She stripped off her dress and put on the old shirt, belting it loosely. It was so bulky that it hid her trim waist. Her curves straightened. Her thin arms seemed bigger. In Sokka's shirt, Katara very nearly looked like a boy…

A half-formed idea began to turn in her head. What if…?

She untied her braid and worked her hair into something that resembled a wolf-tail. Her face was still round and soft, but if she cut her hair short enough….

"Well," said Gran-gran from the doorway. "This is new."

"I was just…" Katara released her hair and raised both arms. "Making sure I got both of them! You know, armpit holes are so sneaky sometimes…" She forced a laugh.

"Mm-hm," said Gran-gran. She set a pail down by the door. "When that's all taken care of, you can make some more ice flowers for Mina. She's throwing another of her fancy brunches."


Dawn was slow in coming and Zuko sat in the dark for hours waiting before summoning his servants and donning his armor in the dark anyway. Then he stood on the observation deck, scowling into the lightless east. There was moonlight still, winking off all the ice like bones, but it lent Zuko none of the power of the sun. He had neglected to consider the long nights here, and anxiety rose in him as the hours crawled by.

Iroh came to stand beside him after a time, sipping tea from his remaining cup. He did not offer any to Zuko. "Ah," he said after a time. "Such stillness. Is there any land more tranquil than the frozen poles?"

"I think you're confusing tranquility with desolation, Uncle. There's nothing alive here to make noise."

"Sometimes there is more to a place than is immediately evident, Prince Zuko."

Zuko scoffed and scowled but despite himself he could hear the distant huffs of wind in the mountains, the grating of huge chunks of ice bobbing together in the waves. Somewhere far in the distance, some kind of animal sang a strange, gargling song.

Though he was looking hard for it, Zuko was unable to see the Water Tribe vessel as it coasted between the moonlit icebergs. By the time the sun peeked over the horizon, the rebel ship was long out of sight. It was only as the steamer rounded the outcropping of ice and neared the village that Zuko realized what had happened. He scanned the horizon with his spyglass, but to no avail.

"They must have left before daybreak," he said through his teeth. On the rail, his hands smoldered.

Iroh, still at his side, assessed him through the corner of his eye. "Shall we set a course for the north, Prince Zuko?"

Zuko glared at the bleak little huts. "No. Someone there will know where they went."


Katara knelt in the snow outside the village wall, coaxing frost to climb on itself in tiny petals radiating out from the bead of ice she had started with. When the fragile structure was complete, she settled it carefully in the pail with the others, wiped the sweat off her forehead, and started another.

Making ice flowers was strenuous. It took a lot of focus and a lot of control. The results, however, were lovely. The other women in the village loved them, especially Mina, who just liked pretty things in general. She had visited the Northern Water Tribe as a child and even now, as an old woman, she held on to an appreciation for elegance that most of Katara's people abandoned as frivolous long ago. Katara thought Mina was fun, but she was really glad to have an excuse to practice bending.

She was just putting the finishing touches on the latest flower when she heard the cry rise up from the village and felt the rumbling of the ice. She leapt to her feet and ran to where her people were gathering in the village, staring at the approaching ship. A Fire Nation steamer.

It had been years since the last visit from the Fire Nation. Officials had come to warn them against aiding the resistance in any way, which they of course were unable to do in any case. It rankled with Katara and especially Sokka, but they just stood quietly until the ship left.

This steamer wasn't as big, but it still blasted through the ice. Finally, it ground to a halt and lowered its beakish ramp. The sharp end hit Sokka's defensive snow wall and crumbled most of it to the ground. One of the little warriors gasped. One of the old women moaned. Katara put her arm around her grandmother.

A gang of soldiers came down the ramp, led by a young man in an ornate helmet. There was something off about his face, something wrong with his eye maybe. Katara didn't think much about that, though, because his angry expression was perfectly evident. And it was scary.

He came to stand before the villagers, scanning their faces and scowling. "Where is the Avatar," he finally said. It wasn't a question. It was a command.

Katara blinked. There was a stunned silence. Then, Kana spoke. "The Avatar vanished a hundred years ago," she ventured. "If he has returned, he has not done so here."

The man in the helmet scowled even harder. "Don't make the mistake of lying to me," he said, then raised his voice. "There was a waterbender born here."

Katara felt a chill run through her. The blood drained from her face. Was he talking about her?

"Maybe he showed some skill with the other elements," he went on. His yellow eyes raked the villagers. "You concealed him from the Fire Nation, and now that he's grown, you intend for him to join the resistance."

Katara was finally able to take a breath. He didn't know the only waterbender in the South Pole was her. He couldn't know.

Yet his eyes caught on her and stopped, then narrowed. "You know something."

"Me?" Katara squeaked. Gran-gran's arm tightened around her waist and she raised her chin. "I have no idea what you're talking about. No one here has seen the Avatar. You should just leave!"

He stepped closer to her until the difference in their height was obvious. From so close, she could finally see what was wrong with his eye. Half of his face was twisted up with an enormous scar. Katara clamped her mouth shut and tried to meet his eyes, but she kept glancing back at that scar.

The whole time, he pinned her down with his stare. "Should I?" he said. His voice was alarmingly soft. "And which way should I go? Where did the men who were here last night go?"

Katara didn't speak, couldn't speak. She only flinched away from him and into her grandmother's arms.

"They don't tell us," said Jama in her tired voice. The note of anxiety made her sound more excited than Katara had ever heard her. "It's not like we need to know." One of the other women made a disgusted sound. "Well, it's not," Jama snapped.

The Fire Nation leader withdrew from Katara and returned to slowly regarding the other villagers. "Maybe that's true," he said after a long moment. "But it hardly matters. There's really only one direction to go from here and with my engines, I can outstrip any sailing craft. I will overtake that vessel in a matter of days. What you can tell me now will make all the difference in how merciful I'm feeling when I catch them."

Katara felt sick. This guy was going to chase down her family? He was terrifying. She didn't even want to think about what he meant when he talked about mercy…

"There's a camp! That's where they're going!"

A lot of voices rose, trying to quiet her. "Takura! No!"

"Somewhere on the Earth Kingdom coast!" Takura rushed on, hands upraised in pleading. "Please, don't hurt them!"

Katara watched a strange look pass through those fierce yellow eyes. Victory, gratitude, hunger. "All I care about is capturing the Avatar," he said. He spun on his heel and commanded the departure at a shout as he climbed back up the ramp. His soldiers followed, trotting to keep up.

A fight was breaking out among the women, many were scolding Takura. Jama actually slapped her. Katara just watched the steamer slowly disengage from the ice and then veer off to the north. North, where Sokka and Hakoda and all the other men were sailing back to their no-longer-secret camp.

"We have to warn them," she said.

"Oh Katara," said Gran-gran, still clutching tight to her side. "There is nothing for us to do now but trust Hakoda to evade his enemies. Trust and hope."

Katara watched the steamer diminish for a moment, watched the long plume of smoke rise up in the air and vanish.

"No," she said, hardly louder than a whisper. "There's something I can do."

And with that she pulled away from her grandmother and went running back toward the west, toward the rise and the hollowed drift where, if she was lucky, if she wasn't imagining everything that had happened last night, the flying bison still lay sleeping.


Sokka had this weird feeling in his stomach. It was kind of like he'd eaten too much blubber and pickled smackerel and the two forces were fighting for dominance in his gut.

Or maybe it was guilt. He laid his head on his arms and stared back toward the south, where the coast was just a white glimmering line on the horizon now, trying to remind himself that Katara was safer there.

Safe, yeah. But would she ever forgive him?

They had never really been apart like this before. Katara had always been there, even when he kind of wished she hadn't been. He had sometimes longed for time like this, for the company of men and the teasing and fighting that went along with it. For brotherhood.

"Hey Sokka," smirked Tantec, a Northern guy who was tying down a line nearby. "You could probably swim back by dark if you started now!"

On the other hand, Katara's caring and comforting nature was pretty great to be around most of the time.

Sokka straightened up from the gunwale and made himself laugh. "Yeah, and I could probably make it back to the boat by tomorrow morning if you guys keep up this pace."

Tantec shrugged. "It's the wind. Very weird wind today." He finished tying off the line and loitered, scratching under his arm. "Look, I don't know a lot of you Southern Tribe guys, so I'm just gonna ask. Who's your sister betrothed to?"

"Katara? Betrothed?" Sokka sputtered, cracking up. "Oh, that's rich."

Tantec just stared like he didn't get the joke. "But she wears that betrothal necklace."

"That was our mom's," Sokka said, wiping his eyes so he could look more closely at the other guy. Tantec was big in the chest and shoulders and wore his hair in one of the longer northern styles. Sokka had initially liked him, because he had an easy teasing way about him, very manly, but now he was starting to get the impression that the guy was a real meat-head. "Why do you ask?"

Tantec shrugged, fiddling with the band tied around his bicep. "You know, it's just good to know who a girl belongs to."

Sokka watched him stroll off to do some other duty, kind of stunned. He shook it off. Really, it was a lucky thing Katara had stayed behind. She would have ended up in so many fights with Northerners, if they all had attitudes like Tantec.

He looked back toward the coast again, reflective, but what he saw drove thoughts of Katara's righteous anger right out of his head.

"Fire Nation smoke off the stern!" He shouted, leaping up to point at the tiny vertical black line that had undeniably appeared in the southern horizon.


Katara searched for almost an hour for the snow drift she remembered the bison crawling into. After digging into about a dozen mounds and finding nothing but a fox-owl burrow, she sat at the bottom of the rise with her arms crossed over her knees and tried not to cry.

She had nearly convinced herself that it had really happened, that she would be able to make the flying bison carry her to her father's ship. Now, she was racking her mind for another solution. Maybe she could take a canoe, but it would take a lot of paddling and probably a lot of waterbending to catch up to those ships. And she hadn't exactly perfected waterbending canoe propulsion. Sokka had complained that she nearly sank them every time she tried it. Katara kind of suspected the jerking just made him seasick.

But she couldn't just sit there and do nothing.

By the time she returned to the village, the sun had made it halfway through its short trek across the sky. The light was glaring off the snow and Katara was blinded for a moment after she entered the hut.

"I've been waiting for you, Katara."

Gran-gran sat at the fire pit, sharpening her cooking knife. Her posture was as peaceful as ever, but her eyes when she looked up at Katara were a little sad.

"Come sit with your Gran-gran."

"I actually really need to-"

"You can spare a minute."

Katara sat. She knew that tone of voice. Her grandmother only ever used it when she was at the end of her patience.

"Have some soup," Kana said in the same voice.

Katara filled her bowl and made herself take a bite, then another.

"Not a lot of people know this, Katara, but I came here from the Northern Water Tribe when I was about your age. Eat." Kana kept sharpening that knife as she spoke, eyes set on the whetstone. Katara took another bite of soup. "Their ways are different, especially for women, and there came a day when I couldn't do what was expected of me anymore." She finally looked at Katara, and a tiny smile creased her face. "I see so much of myself in you, and that's why I know that you have to do this."

Katara froze with the spoon in front of her mouth.

"Eat," Kana said. "Just listen."

Katara ate.

"Hakoda and Sokka are right, of course. War is dangerous. But that is as good a reason for them to stay here as it is for you." Kana set the knife aside and began packing items into a bag. A little sewing kit. Bundles of food and clothes. "You are a waterbender. To deny you the chance to learn how to use your gift is to deny you your destiny." She cinched the drawstring of the bag tight and looked flatly at Katara. "And to deny you your destiny because you were born a girl is the height of stupidity."

"Oh Gran-gran," Katara said. She lunged forward to hug her grandmother and couldn't help the tears that were leaking down her face. "Thank you."

Kana's arms held firm around her for a long moment, then she pulled back, tugging Katara's braid gently. "You will have to be careful, Katara. If you're going to train with the Water Tribe men, you'll need to convince them that you're one of them. No one can suspect you."

Doubts flooded Katara's mind, but she nodded.

"Now," Kana said, and picked up her knife again. "Let's take care of this hair."


"I want that ship! Full speed ahead!"

Zuko couldn't tear his eyes from the Water Tribe vessel as it grew nearer. He was close enough now to see the rebels running around on deck, desperate to gain speed. They had no chance, though. Their sails, fully hoisted, flapped in the lack-luster wind while Zuko's steamer surged ever closer. Within the hour, he would have them.

More importantly, he would have the Avatar.

Beside him, Iroh did not seem to grasp the momentousness of this moment. "Prince Zuko, what will you do with the rebels, once the ship is captured?"

"I don't know, uncle," Zuko huffed. "If they cooperate and hand over the Avatar without a fight, maybe I'll just let them go."

"I do not imagine the Fire Lord would view that favorably."

"My father's war against the world is his own problem. All I care about is capturing the Avatar."

Iroh was silent after that, and Zuko glared through his spyglass instead of looking at him. Once he had the Avatar, he could afford to think these other things through.

Suddenly, the observation deck jolted beneath his feet and the ship began losing speed. Iroh staggered but didn't fall. Zuko braced himself with a hand on the railing and turned back to the control room. "Report!"

"Something's jamming the propeller, sir!" shouted a technician in the doorway. "We'll blow the engine if we don't stop!"

Zuko snarled. "Cut the power until the propeller is clear. I want this ship up and running now."

"Aye, sir!"

"Prince Zuko," Iroh said in a tone of innocent inquiry. "There seems to be some commotion aboard the rebel vessel…"

Zuko spun back to look. Something was definitely going on. When he looked through the spyglass, he could see that a dozen or so of the tribesmen had gathered on the stern and were cheering and waving. A couple had lowered their trousers and were mooning him.

Zuko lowered the spyglass and barely restrained the urge to throw it into the sea. Instead, he jammed it into his uncle's hands. "See for yourself."

While Iroh was looking through the spyglass and making shocked (yet annoyingly amused) sounds, the technician popped back through the door from the control room.

"Sir, our main propeller is trailing ropes and some kind of buoys. We've sent a man down to cut it loose but there may be some damage to the hub. We may have to put in for repairs."

With a snarl, Zuko turned back to glower after the Water Tribe ship – just in time to see the sails fill as the wind picked up.


Katara set the paddle down across her lap and rubbed the back of her head again, marveling at the prickly feeling of her naked scalp, her bristly short wolf-tail. Her canoe presently bobbed at the edge of the iceberg field. It was as far as she had ever been from home, and she was a little scared of all that open water.

So she felt her hair and laughed just a little. "Oh Sokka, you're gonna laugh when you see this…"

Then, drawing a deep breath, Katara used sweeps of her hands to propel her little vessel to the north. It was much faster than paddling, but Sokka had been right about it being a rough ride. The canoe wasn't made for high seas travel, either. There was no way it would survive a big wave. Unless Katara could use her bending to keep it afloat. That was a big 'if,' but, since the flying bison option was out, the canoe was Katara's only chance of getting away from the South Pole.

She had a map in her bag and knew that somewhere to the north were the islands that had belonged to the Air Nomads. She would canoe from one island to another, always north and east, and eventually she would hit the Earth Kingdom.

Unless she could somehow magically intercept Hakoda's warship, her best hope was to get to the Earth Kingdom, find the training camp, and find her family there. That, or tell Bato about what had happened and get him to send a search party.

A little wave sloshed over the side of the canoe and gathered around Katara's feet. She streamed it out of the boat and went back to the paddling motions from before. The ocean seemed to go on forever and the sun was beginning to sink toward the west. Gran-gran had tried to convince Katara to wait and leave in the morning, but there wasn't really time.

She went on through the long hours of afternoon until her arms were exhausted and daylight was just a greenish glow along the west horizon, then she used bending to freeze the water all around the canoe until the craft was wedged in the center of a raft of ice.

"There," Katara murmured, digging some jerky from her pack with heavy hands. "That should keep me from sinking in my sleep."

She was chewing her jerky and staring up at the stars when there was a swooping sound and her ice raft jerked a little.

Katara's first, nerve-racking thought, was that some big hungry ocean predator had come to investigate. But then she sat up in the canoe and found herself looking into a pair of big gray eyes.

"Hello," Aang said, a little sheepishly. "I'm Aang. Would you mind sharing your ice with me for a while? I'm beat."

Katara rubbed her eyes. He was still there. And he really did look exhausted. There were dark circles under his eyes, and something else, a heavy sadness.

"I don't want to impose…" he was saying, tapping the tips of his index fingers together.

"No, you're not imposing," Katara said. "I thought you were a hallucination!"

He grinned half-heartedly and then sat down with his back against the canoe, laying his staff across the ice. "Wow, you must have been out here for a long time. What's your name?"

For a second Katara hesitated. Didn't he recognize her? "I'm Kat-oh." He didn't recognize her – and that was a good thing. It would be better for her to practice pretending to be a man as much as possible before she got to the training camp. "Yup," she said, trying to make her voice a little deeper. "Katto's my name."

"Cool," said Aang. "It's great to meet you, Katto. I mean really, I don't think I could have flown the rest of the way to the South Pole tonight."

"Flown?" Katara asked in her manly Katto voice. "What are you, an airbender or something?"

"Yeah," Aang said quietly. "Maybe the last."

He was staring out across the water and Katara could see all the sorrow in his profile. It wasn't exactly manly, but she reached out and put her hand on his thin shoulder. "I'm sorry to hear that, Aang."

The airbender looked at her and offered a little smile. Then he narrowed his eyes. "You actually look really familiar, Katto."

Katara jerked her hand off his shoulder. "I get that a lot. Just have one of those faces, I guess!"

Aang kept eying her like he was trying to work something out.

"Okay! Woo, am I bushed," Katara said, laying back down in her canoe and pulling her sleeping bag up to her nose. "Goodnight, Aang!"

"Goodnight," he said slowly.

For a long time, Katara listened to him just sitting there silently. The ocean lapped at the ice. Eventually Aang settled down to lay flat, apparently comfortable enough with the cold. It was a while longer before Katara relaxed enough to doze off.

Chapter Text

Katara woke well before dawn and stared up at the setting moon – or she would have if there hadn't been a pair of huge animal eyes gazing into hers.

She screamed and scrambled upright and back in her canoe as the creature, some kind of monkey-thing, leapt away from her and over the edge of the canoe. Aang shot up as well, and the animal wrapped itself around his head like a frightened hat.

"Whassappening?" Aang slurred.

"There's something on your head!"

"Huh?" The airbender reached up to feel the quivering mound of fur on his head and then laughed a little. "Oh, that's just Momo. He's a lemur."

Katara finally relaxed a little, pressing a hand to her throat to still her hammering heart. For an instant, her fear returned as she felt only bare skin where her necklace should be. But no, that's right, it was bound around her wrist instead. She lowered her hand to her lap and felt it there against her palm, smooth and familiar.

Atop Aang's head, the lemur blinked its round eyes at her. "Where did, uh, Momo come from?" And how many other pets did this kid have?

"The Southern Air Temple. He was the only one living there, that I saw. It was… so empty." Aang's tone brightened as he went on. "He was sleeping in my tunic when we got here. Sorry if he scared you, Katto!"

It took Katara a beat to remember that she was supposed to be a boy right now. "I wasn't scared," she said, slapping her bound chest. "I just wasn't expecting to wake up with a lemur on my face is all!"

Aang pried Momo off his head and held the creature in his lap, petting him. He peered at Katara with that thoughtful expression again. "Why do you keep doing that?"

"Doing what?"

"Pitching your voice all low like that." Aang grinned. "It sounds kind of silly."

Katara froze. "I'm not pitching my voice. It's naturally like this."

"You also scream a lot like this girl I met yesterday…"

"Yeah? Well, lots of people have high-pitched screams."

Aang was quiet for a moment, peering down at the lemur in his lap. "Katto, I want to ask you a question and, whatever the answer is, you can trust me not to laugh or be weird about it." He looked up at her again, eyes huge and searching. "Are you actually a girl dressed up like a boy?"

"Pff! No!" Katara huffed. "Are you?"

Aang only went on looking at her, inching his eyebrows up slowly as if to say Really?

Katara slumped. "Is it that obvious?"

"The voice thing was pretty obvious. But your hair looks great!"

"Thanks, Aang," Katara said quietly. She was in so much trouble. The little kid who just got out of the ice after who-knows-how-long had figured her out overnight. How could she hope to fool an entire camp of soldiers?

"You are Katara, right?" he asked after a moment. "I honestly couldn't tell at first."

Katara nodded, then leveled a hard look on him. "But I'm Katto for now, alright? Nobody can know I'm a girl."

"Why not?"

"My dad and brother are fighting in the resistance against the Fire Nation. I need to look out for them, and the waterbending master won't teach me unless I'm a boy."

"I didn't know you were a waterbender!"

"Well how did you think my canoe got locked in ice like this?"

Aang shrugged, scratching his head. "I guess I just thought it was an accident. I was really tired…" He seemed to deflate a little and went on petting Momo. "Which is kind of weird, seeing as I was apparently sleeping in that ice for the last hundred years."

Was that even possible? But Katara watched as Aang's head hung down, and she tried to imagine what it would be like, waking up after a hundred years to find that everyone she knew had died – and not just of old age, but many at the hands of the Fire Nation.

"Hey," she said gently, "You must be hungry. I have some seal jerky and dehydrated sea prunes, if you want some."

He perked up at that. "Air Nomads don't really eat meat – but I'd love to try some sea prunes!"

He didn't seem so enthusiastic after biting into one.

"Yeah, sorry, they're a little… rock-like," Katara said, rubbing the back of her neck. The shaved back of her head prickled her fingers. "I'm still trying to work out how to draw the right amount of water out of things."

"Nah, they're great!" Aang said, gnawing on a prune. "You dried these yourself? With bending? That's really cool, Katara!"

"Thanks! Since I haven't had any training in waterbending, I've had to make up a lot of stuff…" While Aang was chewing, Katara explained how the Fire Nation had taken away all the other waterbenders, how she'd grown up hiding her bending from outsiders. Then, because he asked, she told him more about the hundred years of war, the fall of the Northern Water Tribe, the fighting in the Earth Kingdom. "It's really important that I join in this fight, Aang. Not just for my family, either. I'm the last Southern waterbender. I can make a difference, I know it."

Aang had finished his prunes and was hugging his knees. He looked so fragile. "I wish I felt that way. I don't want to fight the Fire Nation. I don't want to fight anyone."

"You're just a kid," Katara said. "You don't have to fight."

He looked up at her with his huge gray eyes and opened his mouth like he had to say something, only it wouldn't come out. Then he propped his chin on his knees. "It's not that simple."

"Do you want to talk about it?"

Aang definitely looked like he wanted to talk about it, but he peered up at the pinking horizon instead. "I should go get Appa."

"Okay… Where are you going to go next, Aang?"

He looked back at her and everything about how lost and alone he was struck her to the core.

"Tell you what," she said. "If you don't have any other plans, how about you come to the Earth Kingdom with me? You could probably fly me there in a tenth the time it's going to take to get there by canoe. And besides if – and I mean this is a huge long shot, so don't get your hopes up – but if anyone's going to know anything about any surviving airbenders, they'll probably be a part of the resistance."

The joy that overtook his face was contagious. Despite her own doubts, Katara found herself grinning back even before he started speaking. "That's a great idea! Only… how will I find you again when I come back with Appa?"

"Well…" Katara peered to the north. There was nothing within sight, just leagues of ocean and a pinkish horizon. "There are a lot of islands north of here. I'm not sure how long it will take me to reach them… or even which island I'll land on, but maybe we could come up with a signal so you could tell where I am when you fly over."

"Yeah! Like a giant ice-sculpture of a penguin!"

"Um, I was thinking more like an arrow made of sticks on the beach…" A frightening thought struck her. "And it might be a good idea for me to avoid leaving obvious signs of waterbending everywhere I go, too. There's this creepy Fire Nation guy looking for a waterbender who he thinks is the Avatar."

A weird look came over Aang's face, like something had crawled into his boot. "Why would he be looking for the Avatar? Didn't the Avatar vanish before the war started? Isn't it kind of crazy to still be looking for him?"

Katara shrugged. "He didn't exactly look well-adjusted when he came to my village. I don't know why he's looking for the Avatar, but I'd really rather not find out."

"Yeah," Aang said, twiddling his thumbs. "That seems like the wisest course."

Zuko stirred the sticky rice soup around his bowl, watching the way the grains oozed together to fill the ruts his chopsticks left behind. The disgusted twist of his mouth had little to do with food, though.

Apparently, a very similar phenomenon to that in his bowl had occurred in the propeller well when those buoys broke open and released a gluey substance that clung to the seals and gummed up the rotating shaft. Even when the ropes and unbroken buoys were removed, the propeller only ran at half speed and kept overheating.

"When I catch those Water Tribe rebels, I'm going to make them wish they'd never been born."

Across the table, Iroh raised his eyes from his soup and lowered his chopsticks. "And how do you plan to go about catching them?"

"The navigator calculated their initial trajectory. After the ship is repaired, we'll continue along their route at full speed until we overtake them."

"The wind was steady through the night and only rose yesterday. Are you certain we will still be able to close the gap?"

"If not," Zuko said through gritted teeth, "we will follow the trajectory to their destination and scour the coast. There are only so many places suitable for a rebel camp."

"Quite true," Iroh said, tucking a grain of rice into his mouth. "Why, with the reinforcements these rebels must have amassed since the fall of the Northern Water Tribe, it is probable their numbers will make them difficult to miss!"

Zuko scowled at the old man and refused to speak. Iroh was exaggerating; there was no way the training camp would be large enough to draw attention to itself. It was a secret camp, after all. It would likely prove very difficult to find. That was part of the old man's point.

The other part was that the camp would house a force much larger than the crew on that Water Tribe ship. Zuko had just twenty fighting men aboard his own vessel – eight firebenders and twelve soldiers. In the frustration of losing his quarry and adjusting their course for the nearest port, it had not occurred to him just how many more rebels might be waiting for him when he finally found that camp.

And 'waiting for him' was the operative term. There would be no element of surprise.

Zuko stirred his rice soup and glowered until a technician came to stand inside the door of the dining room.

"Prince Zuko, we've entered the harbor."

"Finally," he snapped, dropping his bowl a little too hard. One of the chopsticks flipped out onto the table, but Zuko was already halfway out of the room.

It was a stroke of luck that the steamer had stalled out less than two days' painfully-slow voyage from this harbor, but Zuko did not see it as luck. He avoided Fire Navy stations as much as possible. To have to put in for repairs here of all places was infuriating.

Zuko emerged on the main deck and came to stand at the bow, glaring out at the harbor as the ship struggled toward the pilings. Midday had passed more than an hour ago and the dock bustled with soldiers going about their work. Sea birds coasted between the warships where they were moored in a tidy row, and their thin cries cut through the midday clamor. The sunlight sparkled off the water and lanced at Zuko's good eye.

And, as if the universe truly was conspiring against him, the Admiral's flagship was docked by the only empty space.

Before Aang left, he offered Katara a push and, not knowing any better, she said yes.

Once she'd cleared away the ice, the airbender created a spinning ball of air and rode it across the water in a big circle, yelling gleefully all the way. Katara had smiled watching him – it had been a long time since she'd seek a kid play and actually get enthusiastic about it – until she realized he was building up momentum for the push.

"No, Aang, that's too fast!"

But she was too late. He hit the back of the canoe hard and Katara flipped back off her seat as the little craft went skidding across the ocean. She didn't see Aang waving goodbye, but she heard his voice, already far away.

"See you soon!"

The canoe traveled on its own until Katara managed to get upright, and then she began bending water past the boat. She was getting better at it, her strokes were smoother and less water came sloshing overboard, but it still wasn't terribly fast. Her arms got tired, but she didn't stop.

And then, quite suddenly, it got a lot easier. Katara stopped bending and felt herself coast, still drawn along by the water.

"It's a current," she said, thrilled. She took out her map and squinted to see where Sokka had drawn in little arrows when he was a kid sitting with their dad after dinner. Hakoda would show his son all the major currents so that he could be a better sailor one day.

It was one of those lessons Katara hadn't needed to learn and hadn't really cared about at the time. Now, though, there was a little bubble of resentment in her chest, a feeling like she'd been cheated out of something.

With her finger, she traced the area where she probably was, following a tiny wobbly arrow north and east toward the gap between Air Nomad and Earth Kingdom islands. If she was lucky, she could use this current to reach the southernmost island that had belonged to the Air Nomads in as little as a day.

She didn't really consider the fact that those islands belonged to the Fire Nation now.

"Have Lieutenant Jee instruct the crew not to speak of anything they've seen. I don't want any more delays, and I don't want Zhao finding out about the Avatar."

"Yes, of course, Prince Zuko," Iroh said as they descended the steel gangplank. "From what our head engineer has told me, replacing the seals will take the better part of the afternoon." He smiled and went on in a coaxing tone. "And I hear there's a very fine waterfall on this island that would be worth spending an afternoon going to see…"

"Out of the question," Zuko snapped, turning on the dock to glare.

"It could be very relaxing."

"I don't need relaxation, Uncle. I need this ship in working order and I need it now!"

A familiar smug voice came from behind him. "Urgent business, Prince Zuko?"

Zuko turned to face the approaching man with ill-contained dislike written large on his face. "Admiral Zhao."

Zhao smirked and then bowed in greeting to Iroh. "And General Iroh. It is an honor to stand in your presence once again. How many years has it been?" The expression on his face would have seemed innocent except for the way he slid his eyes to Zuko's scarred face.

"Why," Iroh said, ticking off fingers. "Five, Admiral. I had not realized it had been so long since our paths crossed!"

"I suppose you have been quite busy," Zhao said, peering back at their ship. "My harbormaster reported you arrived at an unusually sedate pace. Is there anything the matter?" He was smirking at Zuko again.

"Debris stuck in the propeller," Zuko said. "We'll be on our way shortly."

"Debris, you say? What sort of debris?"

"The kind that gets stuck in propellers."

For a moment Zhao only stared at him with that smug, crafty smile on his face. He looked like he was putting something together, and Zuko didn't like that at all.

Then Iroh cut in cheerfully. "We were just discussing visiting the Glistening Glacier waterfall while the ship is being repaired. Perhaps you would like to join us?"

Zuko shot the old man a glare from the corner of his eye.

"Delightful as that sounds," Zhao was saying, "I have quite a bit to do in preparation for the upcoming campaign. We're putting down a rebellion, you know, and the Fire Lord, in light of my victory in the north, has granted me ground support in my endeavor to conquer the southern coast of the Earth Kingdom. Perhaps another time." He bowed, just enough to be polite. "Do enjoy the waterfall."

Zuko clenched his fists at his sides and watched Zhao walk away, then turned on Iroh. "What were you thinking? Why would you want to go anywhere with him?"

Iroh shrugged innocently. "If we got very close to the falls, perhaps we wouldn't hear him when he describes his latest promotion."

Zuko blinked, then allowed a brief, surly smile. "Fine," he said. "Since we can't possibly leave before the ship is repaired, I'll go see your stupid waterfall."

Katara added the finishing touches to her arrow and stepped up the rocky beach to get a good look at it. She'd made it wide and blocky, like Aang's tattoo, and pressed the sticks into the snow crusted between the stones of the beach. It would easily be visible – until the tide came in. If Aang didn't show up by then, she might have to adjust her strategy.

She had come upon this island on its western side in the early afternoon and landed her canoe near a stream that let out into the ocean. If she had walked the beach around the jutting mountains to the south-east side of the island, she would have seen the Fire Nation harbor which served as a base for all naval activities in the South Pole.

But Katara didn't walk the beach. She wondered what else might be on the island, but her worries outweighed curiosity. Besides, she didn't want to miss Aang, should he fly over.

Mostly, though, she was nervous about being on this island on her own. Katara had spent the entire previous day paddling and thinking about that creepy Fire Nation guy. She hoped that Sokka and Hakoda had been able to stay clear of him, but she was also pretty scared for herself. It occurred to her, belatedly, that anyone traveling past might spot her signal and decide to investigate. What if the Fire Nation came along before Aang did?

So instead of exploring, Katara dragged her canoe up into the bushes, built her arrow, and then sat under the trees by the stream, eating a strip of seal jerky and waiting. Then she rehydrated a sea-prune (they were never the same after dehydrating) and chewed on that and waited. After that, she had grown cold and, not wanting to draw attention to herself with a fire, she paced.

Sunset was approaching. It had been about two days since she and Aang had parted. Katara wasn't sure how fast the flying bison flew, and she wasn't sure where Aang would start looking for her. It could be days more before he showed up.

Maybe it hadn't been such a good idea to invite him to join her. He was just a kid and getting him involved in the war was selfish and dangerous. But then, he was the last airbender. Wasn't that more important than being a kid? Katara had had to set aside the kid part of herself long ago, because there were people depending on her. She had set aside a lot of things to be strong for her family and her people.

This was what she was thinking about when a clatter of rocks behind her alerted her that someone was approaching down the stream.

Zuko was fairly certain his uncle had gotten them lost. Following directions he had claimed came from a "very reliable source," Iroh had led him up a twisting mountain trail studded with equally twisted, scrubby trees, then down into a valley forested in evergreens (and thorns,) and then up another mountain trail. The new trail differed from the old one in that Zuko was almost positive that there had never been a trail there to begin with.

He yanked yet another strand of thorns off his pants between boots and armor and stepped over a fallen log. "This is a waste of time."

"Ah, but think of how satisfying it will be, after this difficult journey, when we finally arrive at our destination!" Iroh used a small tree to haul himself up and over a large rock. "I think I might take a swim. It's said that the pool at the base of the waterfall has restorative properties."

"There's no time for that!" Zuko paused and then clambered up the rock after Iroh. "Uncle, there's snow on the ground. You can't be serious."

"Invigorating! Just what I need to stir my old blood."

Zuko made a face and followed Iroh over a ridge and down into another thickly forested valley. This time, though, he could hear the thunder of the falling water. They descended at an angle toward the roar and, finally, the trees split to reveal a spray as tall as the steamer, hammering down a sheer rock face into a wide teal pond. Despite himself, Zuko smelled the mist on the air and felt a little accomplished.

Iroh braced his fists on his hips, heaved a great breath, and began taking off his clothes.

"Uncle! We don't have time for this! We need to get back to the harbor before sunset and the journey back over the mountains will take at least that long!"

"Don't worry, Prince Zuko!" Iroh said, tossing his shoulder plates on the pebbled shore and yanking his robe open. "We will take the easy way to return."

Zuko's good eye twitched. "The easy way?"

"Yes! Along the stream and then the beach! We will arrive back at the harbor in less than an hour, I'm told." He turned to face Zuko in just his undershirt and the pants he – thankfully – wore under that robe. "Are you sure you don't want to swim? You look a bit warm."

"No," Zuko seethed. "I don't want to swim. I'm going back without you." He stabbed a finger at the old man. "And if you aren't back by the time my ship is ready to depart, I'll leave you on this island, too." He spun on his heel and stalked off along the bank.

Sometimes Zuko wondered why his uncle had bothered coming with him in his exile. He seemed bent on testing Zuko's patience to its limit with his distractions and stalling techniques. And Zuko had the sneaking suspicion that Iroh still didn't believe that the Avatar had returned.

Well, he'd prove it to the old teapot. He'd fulfill his destiny by capturing the Avatar and reclaiming his honor. He'd sail back to the Capital and present the Avatar to his father. With the terms of his banishment met, Ozai would have no choice but to allow him to return to his rightful place as heir.

And Iroh could suck on his game tiles and watch.

Zuko came around a final bend in the stream only to find a young Water Tribe man standing near where the trees opened out onto the beach. More like a boy, really. He was shorter than Zuko and slighter of build, probably at least three years younger. He looked harmless enough and was clearly just as surprised to see Zuko as Zuko was to see him.

But for Zuko, surprise almost always led immediately to anger. "This island is Fire Nation territory," he said. "So who are you and what are you doing here?"

Chapter Text

Katara stood very still while, inside, she was wrestling a part of her that kept shrieking to run away.

It was that same creepy guy from before. Without the helmet, he looked even creepier, from his shaven head to the ruined bit that was left of his scarred ear. Glaring the way he did, he looked like a real blood-thirsty warrior.

Katara felt more than ever like a fraud. She didn't know enough waterbending to really defend herself and, even if she used it, he'd realize she was the waterbender he was looking for. Not only that, but she didn't have any other weapons. What was she supposed to do against this guy? And how was she even supposed to convince him that she was a man when Aang wasn't even fooled?

She thought automatically of the only man she'd had consistent contact with in the last five years. Sokka's voice came ringing into her head, the words he'd been saying over and over to the village boys. Show no fear.

If she was going to be a warrior, she had to shake off the fear that had clutched her for so long. She had to remember why she was here. Katara clenched her fists at her sides. Her mother's necklace knocked against her knuckle.

This Fire Nation guy, this bully, wasn't going to intimidate her. Well, he was, but she wasn't going to just take it. Not anymore.

Katara frowned and drew a breath through her nose. She made her voice steady, but didn't try to lower it like she had with Aang. "I'm just passing through, I don't want any trouble."

The Fire Nation guy narrowed his eyes and took a step closer. "Where's the ship?"

"What ship?" Katara took one careful step back. She was only a few running strides from the beach and the bushes where she'd hidden the canoe. Could she drag it to the water before he caught up to her? He was in armor. It would probably slow him down… but would that be enough?

"The ship you arrived on." Another step closer.

"I came by canoe." Another step back.

The creepy guy paused, and his glare got even more intense. "Across an ocean? You're lying."

"No," she said, and stepped back even though he hadn't moved. "I'm just a really good paddler."

His mouth twisted up on one side but it wasn't exactly a friendly smile. "I know you were with those Water Tribe rebels," he said. Not breaking eye contact, he stepped on a stone and began crossing to her side of the stream. "They've landed on the island to spy on Zhao's base. Now where are they anchored?"

Katara scowled and bit the inside of her lip to keep the panicky edge from her voice. She was very close to the canoe now. But from the way he hopped so easily from stone to stone, she could tell he was very agile for a man in armor. "Look, I don't know any Zhao and I don't know anything about his base. I'm not with the ship you're talking about, okay? I'm just one guy heading north."

"To join the rebellion."

He stepped lightly onto the shore. Nothing separated them but about fifteen feet of empty air. Katara clenched her teeth and didn't blink. She had this crazy idea that, if she blinked, he would suddenly be right in front of her.

"Nah," she said in her most scathing tone. "I just wanted to see Ba Sing Se before somebody set it on fire."

Zuko scowled even harder. This kid had a lot of nerve for someone who claimed to be traveling all alone through enemy territory. He still didn't buy that. The Water Tribe was a pack – they never did anything alone if they could help it. He wanted to scan the trees on either side of the stream for signs of an ambush, but instinct was telling him that the boy in front of him was getting ready to bolt and, if Zuko broke eye-contact, he'd see it as an opportunity.

He didn't want his enemy to have any opportunities to escape. Even in the highly unlikely event that he actually was traveling by canoe, he might still know where the training camp was. And if Zhao was starting a campaign on the southern coast, Zuko would need every advantage he could get in locating the camp before him.

A knowledgeable prisoner would be a huge advantage.

"A smart mouth will get you burned, peasant," he said. "You don't want to tangle with me. If you're smart, you'll come quietly."

"I'm not going anywhere with you."

There was something just a little familiar about the kid's voice, and his eyes. If Zuko had been thinking about it, he would have realized that his opponent looked a lot like the Water Tribe woman who had challenged him to leave the village a few days ago. But he was not thinking about that Water Tribe woman – he actually tried not to think about women as a general rule because it inevitably made him think of Mai and all the other girlfriends he couldn't have – and the resemblance slipped right past him unnoticed.

"Actually," Zuko said, "you are."

He struck then, a carefully controlled punch of flame that would stun, but not injure. He expected the kid to dodge or run into the woods or try to block with a concealed weapon, and he was ready to attack again or run after his quarry.

What he wasn't ready for was the gout of water that sloshed up out of the stream, deflected his fire, and then turned on him with uncontrolled force. Zuko tried to block but was too surprised. The water hit him hard and sent him tumbling back into the stream. Luckily, it wasn't deep, but Zuko found himself on his elbows in the water, staring up at the kid – the waterbender, the Avatar! – who was scowling down at him.

"You think that's it?" The Avatar shifted his arms and his weight and the water around Zuko turned to ice, locking him in place. "I say no and you say yes, and you just get your way? That's not how it works, pal." He started making big gestures with his arms.

Zuko remembered those gestures. He'd seen something like that through his spyglass before that entire ice shelf had split away and trapped his ship. He took the biggest breath he could with his belly locked in ice and started building up heat. He had to break out of this ice or the Avatar might kill him.

But there was a roar from upstream and he had to turn his head to look.

A curled wave was tearing through the forest toward him.

"Have a nice swim."

Zuko had time, before the wave hit, to shout and blast himself out of the ice. At the same time, the Avatar dragged a canoe out from the bushes and leapt in just as the wave picked it up and sent it hurtling out into the ocean. Zuko tried to take cover behind a tree but was yanked away by the force of the water and sent rolling onto the beach, where he tumbled across the rocks before struggling, snarling to his feet in the shallows.

Nearby, Iroh coughed and sat up with a wild look in his eyes. He was completely, horrifically naked. Zuko flinched away from the sight and stared at the ocean.

"Uncle, are you alright?"

"Yes, just a little bruised. Luckily," he said as he climbed to his feet and patted his belly, "I am amply buoyant and float quite easily. What happened?"

"The Avatar." Zuko pointed at a canoe-shaped spot in the distance. "I didn't recognize him. He caught me by surprise this time. He won't get so lucky again."

Iroh peered at the distant canoe – which was making remarkable progress toward the north – and tugged at his beard.

"Come, Uncle," Zuko said, marching across the beach. "We have to get back to the ship and follow him before he gets away."

"Oh, okay." Iroh crossed his arms over his chest and shivered. "Can we find my clothes first?"

Katara bent the water past the boat with more speed than she usually did, working at an almost frantic pace, but the hammering of her heart had little to do with the work of bending.

He had nearly gotten her. He had been so close that she had felt the heat from his fire on her face. She had fallen back on instinct, streaming water like she usually did but with more urgency, more speed. It had been clumsy but it had worked.

She had won. Against that scary Fire Nation bully.

Katara stopped bending and just let the canoe coast for a moment. She had never fought anyone before, not really. Her pulse throbbed in her throat, her eyes couldn't rest on any one thing, she couldn't bear to hold still…

It was amazing.

She threw her arms up in the air and stared wide-eyed up at the darkening sky. "I can do this!" she shouted. Her voice was swallowed up by the empty air.

Katara dropped her arms and went back to bending water past the canoe. The sun was setting off to her left. Ahead, not so far away, another island jutted its mountains up toward the sky. Maybe she could rest there tonight. If she felt like it when she got there. If she didn't, she should really keep on going. It wouldn't be smart to wait around on an island now, anyway, what with-

"Oh no! Aang!" Katara stopped bending and turned in her seat to look back behind her. Of course, there was no spot on the horizon that could be the airbender, magically arriving at the perfect time. Katara rubbed the prickly back of her head. There was no way she could wait for him now. If she put an arrow out on the beach of any of these islands it would lead that creepy Fire Nation guy straight to her.

And even though she was still elated at having beaten him once, Katara wasn't foolish enough to welcome a rematch. She knew she'd caught him off guard, just from the stunned look on his face. And the way he had blasted out of the ice like that… that had been really terrifying. He was stronger, better trained. And now he would be coming after her.

No, Katara couldn't afford to wait for Aang now, and even if she could, she didn't want to put the poor kid in that kind of danger. She had to continue on to the Earth Kingdom alone, no matter how long it took, and no matter what got in her way.

"Yes, Prince Zuko," Iroh said again, "what I saw was very powerful waterbending, but it was not the work of a master. How can you be so sure that this boy is the Avatar?"

"Uncle!" Zuko turned to face the old man and spoke in a low voice. They were just past the end of the docks, almost within hearing range of the men stationed at watch. "Don't mention his name here. If Zhao finds out the Avatar is right under his nose, he'll put every possible obstacle in our path to keep me from capturing him. Remember what he did at the North Pole."

Iroh, of course, did not need reminding. Even half a world away, he had felt it keenly the moment the Moon Spirit had been snuffed out. The entire world had felt it, that week of moonless nights and tideless oceans. Rumor told that Princess Yue had pleaded to sacrifice herself to bring the Moon Spirit back to life. It was only on condition of the willing surrender of her entire people – most notably her father, the king – and the incarceration of every waterbender that Zhao finally allowed it. He had defeated the Northern Water Tribe on the same day he had slain the spirit; he had demanded their submission a week later out of spite.

"He will want to hunt down the Avatar himself, Uncle. I can't let that happen."

"No, you are right," Iroh said. "That would be a catastrophe." He put his hand on Zuko's shoulder. "But you are putting a great deal of hope on the chance that this waterbender is the Avatar. I simply do not want to see you disappointed if it should turn out that he is just an ordinary waterbender."

"He's not an ordinary waterbender, Uncle. I can feel it." Zuko truly could feel it. He knew with every breath he drew and every step he took back around the island that this waterbender was special. This waterbender, the Avatar, was the key to his destiny. He pulled out from under Iroh's hand and led him onto the dock. "When we reach the ship, I want to make the fastest possible departure. We can't afford any more delays."

"Very well, Prince Zuko."

Yet, when they arrived at the ship, Zuko found the dock lined with stacks and stacks of crates that he recognized to be about half of his supplies. A group of handlers were leading the Komodo rhinos down the ramp in a line. At the bottom of the ramp, Zuko spotted the back of a familiar gray head. "Lieutenant Jee!" He stalked toward the officer, barely restraining his snarl. "What's going on here?"

Jee turned immediately at the sound of his voice, almost as if he had been waiting for him. "Prince Zuko, the Admiral has confiscated a… rather significant portion of our resources."

"What! Why wasn't I consulted?"

"Sir, you were nowhere to be found. I sent men all around the base looking for you."

Zuko pinched his eyes shut as if he'd swallowed too much of a cold drink. How had he let his uncle talk him into going to that stupid waterfall? He could practically feel the old man rubbing the back of his neck and blushing. "Fine," he snapped, looking back to Jee. "I want this ship ready to sail in five minutes. Unload whatever Zhao wants and get us out of here."

He made to climb the ramp into the ship but Jee cleared his throat. "Um, sir, the Admiral also requested your presence as soon as you returned."

Zuko just stopped on the ramp and scowled up at the entry to his ship. Behind him, Iroh asked, "Did the Admiral give any indication of the reason for this visit, Lieutenant?"

"Dinner, I think, sir."

Zuko sat gritting his teeth through an uncomfortably formal meal with a man he despised and watched his uncle have a remarkably civil conversation with him. He should be out, chasing down the Avatar while he was still within reach, but, even though the anxiety and tedium were killing him, a part of him relished watching Iroh smile and politely skewer Zhao.

Zuko was fairly certain Iroh despised Zhao at least as much as he did, yet the old man just chatted on and on about people they had known in court years ago. He asked a lot of questions about how people were doing, and his concern and interest exposed Zhao's complete lack thereof.

"No, I don't know how Lady Akuma has been." A sly smile knifed its way under the bored expression on his face and he shot a glance at Zuko. "Busy, I imagine. Her nephew married not so long ago and she has been helping his new wife prepare for children. Prince Zuko, you know Lady Mai, don't you?"

Zuko shredded a piece of fish with his chopsticks. Children? Already? He tried for a bored tone but it was hard when he kept remembering Mai as she had been at thirteen. "She's one of my sister's friends."

"I seem to remember the two of you were an item before your banishment."

"If you can call twelve-year-olds holding hands an item, then I guess that's true." He set down his chopsticks and frowned across the table. "Enough small talk, Zhao. Why did you invite us here?"

"I only wanted to be the bearer of good news, Prince Zuko. You see, I received a messenger hawk today carrying an amazing piece of information. It seems the Avatar has returned."

Zuko stiffened as if the other man had leaned across the table and slapped him. "You don't say."

"Apparently the eyes in temple statues all over the world lit up simultaneously," Zhao said, admiring a bit of fish in his chopsticks as if it was especially juicy before popping it into his mouth. "I don't suppose that during your search you've seen any signs of the Avatar's presence. Have you?"

"No," Zuko said. He focused on not moving as he lied. "None."

Zhao's sharp eyes never left his face. "Yet when you arrived in my harbor you were eagerly on the trail of someone. My mechanics report that the mysterious debris from your propeller is the same substance Water Tribe rebels have been using to throw off Fire Nation pursuit for years now. Who were you chasing, Prince Zuko?"

Zuko frowned at his plate and missed Iroh's meaningful look.

"Since what little loyalty you ever had to the Fire Nation has clearly shriveled up in exile, let me guess," Zhao said. He leaned back from the table, smiling as Zuko shot him a glare. "You were chasing a ship of Water Tribe rebels, and the Avatar was among them."

Zuko opened his mouth to say something gloating and immeasurably foolish but then he spotted Iroh's subtle look, the minute nod of his head. And Zuko realized what an opportunity this was. If Zhao went off hunting the Water Tribe rebels, Zuko would be free to chase down the Avatar without his interference. "You're right," he said finally. It had the slightly stilted tone of all of his lies.

"Right about what, Prince Zuko?"

"About the Water Tribe ship, and the Avatar."

Zhao watched him closely. His smile had diminished somewhat, and that made Zuko nervous. "Where were they going?"

"I don't know," Zuko said. "North." Sending Zhao on the wrong trail was one thing. Sending him to the correct destination was another.

Zhao stood from the table and walked slowly around the room, peering out his windows. "Not many know this, but I have a great many spies in the Earth Kingdom. They trade information to me and I, in turn, promise positions of safety in the inevitable new order. My sources tell me many different things, but one thing they all say is that there is a rebel training camp somewhere along the southern coast of the Earth Kingdom."

Zuko tensed slightly. Zhao, watching him from the window, smirked. "Thank you for all of your help, Prince Zuko. You may depart whenever you like."

Zuko immediately shot to his feet and headed for the door, though Iroh was still rising.

"And, Prince Zuko," Zhao added, still peering out the window. Zuko paused in the doorway and turned back, tight-lipped. The Admiral left the window and approached him slowly, stopping too close for comfort. "If you persist in your efforts to capture the Avatar, be very careful. The first time you get in my way will be your last."

Zuko only glared harder. "Watch who you threaten, Admiral. I'm still the crown prince."

"Are you?" Zhao asked. "Because I wonder, and I'm not the only one, if the crown prince is still banished when the next in line reaches her majority, who is the rightful heir to the throne?"

Zuko met Zhao's stare, unflinching until Iroh thanked Zhao for dinner and pulled him from the room, but the same painful question had crossed his mind before. What would happen next summer when Azula turned seventeen and he still hadn't come home? In truth, it was a thought that he rarely entertained, because he had fought so hard against considering the possibility that he might fail.

Now, he decided as he climbed the ramp into the ship and ordered the departure, was not the time to start.

Katara paddled and bent water through most of the night, then dragged her canoe past the tree line of the nearest island and slept in it for a few hours before dawn, when she dragged the craft back to the water and began the cycle again. Always north and east. North and east. In the early morning hours, she passed between the large islands with their high, spiking mountains. She passed smaller islands that were little more that rocks jutting up out of the spray.

Always, she kept an eye out on the water behind her. Turning back to look so frequently made her wish Sokka had been on this trip so that one of them could face each direction. Then again, it was nice to be free to determine the pace. It was nice to decide when she should rest and when she should keep going.

Mostly, she just kept going.

Every night that she spent in her canoe on the shore, she slept a little more peacefully. No frightening animals came after her. No more Fire Nation soldiers discovered her. And, even if they might, there was a new certainty in Katara that she could handle it. She had handled the situation with the creepy guy. Maybe, with some practice and training, she could handle anything.

It was dawn on the third day when the steamer caught up to her. Katara was still bundled up in her sleeping bag in the canoe, cursing the ridges as she rubbed her stiff back. She had just barely sat up when she heard the chuffing of engines and spotted the knifelike nose cruising around a rocky outcropping. She was past the trees, but in daylight she could see that there was little undergrowth to hide her and the blue of her clothing would stand out strikingly against the snow.

In a wave of inspiration, she bent snow up off the ground and into a heap over the canoe. She could hardly move inside, but she poked a hole and peeked out at the steamer. It was the same one that had landed at the village. She couldn't see too well, but she was almost certain she saw someone with a flapping tail of black hair high in the tower.

Creepy.

The ship passed fairly quickly but, as she waited in her dark, safe snow cave, Katara dozed off. She slept most of the day there, waking only when it became too stuffy to breathe.

She continued that afternoon, chewing a strip of seal jerky as she bent and watched out for the steamer – ahead of her, now, somewhere. She didn't have a lot of food left and she wasn't sure what she would do when she ran out. Nothing was growing right now on any of these islands and she didn't really have time for fishing or hunting.

But Katara decided that was a less pressing concern than some others she could name.

When it got dark, she found she wasn't tired, so she kept going. She bent in the dark until the fat crescent that was left of the moon rose, and then she grew stronger. Her bending became faster, her movements more economical.

It had grown very late indeed when she rounded an outcropping and came upon the steamer, anchored for the night. Katara eased the canoe back behind the rocks and took a moment to try and think.

She could climb the bank and hide out in the trees for the rest of the night, but then the steamer would still be ahead of her tomorrow. It could slow her pace and, with her stores of food running low, she couldn't really afford the delay. For the same reason, she couldn't afford to take the time to go the long way around the island.

But trying to sneak past the ship would be dangerous, too. Undoubtedly, they had sentries posted. If they spotted her, they would chase her down regardless of the late hour.

Katara bit her lip and frowned up at the stars. She had been traveling mostly east and slightly north since she started following the coast of this island. Maybe…

She pulled out her map and squinted, trying to see in the dark. Maybe she could veer north and then turn east once she was far enough out to sea. She would be exposed out there, easy to spot, but her boat was tiny compared to a steamer and it would be harder for them to spot her than the other way around.

Drawing a deep breath, she folded up her map and tucked it away, then waited. As soon as the moon descended past a mountain, she took a sharp turn away from the coast and made hard for the north.

Katara could not have known how luck favored her that night, but the sentries posted around the ship were nodding off at their posts. Prince Zuko had kept the ship running at high alert almost constantly for the past three days, stopping only when he received a second formal complaint from the crew and realized that he himself was too exhausted to lead. So as the canoe glided away from the island and into the distance to the north, no one spotted it.

Katara bent her way north until dawn, and then veered east into the rising sun. The days were noticeably longer here, and under the sun she shed her parka. The breeze was soothingly frigid against her neck and the damp spots where Sokka's old tunic clung to her back and under her arms. She ate the last of her jerky and kept bending. She ate the last of her sea prunes and kept bending. She bent until her arms felt dead and numb and letting them hang relaxed at her sides felt unnatural.

At dusk, the sun cast orange light across the clouds that had accumulated into a sheet above, and Katara put Sokka's old parka back on and drank the last fresh water from her canteen. Thunder sounded in the distance, but she only kept bending herself forward as fast as her weary body could manage. A cold, heavy rain began to fall, and Katara paused to refill her canteen and then later, occasionally, to bend the water that had gathered in the bottom of the canoe back into the sea. Then she went back to propelling the canoe.

Katara couldn't see the island through the rain and exhaustion, so she struck land hard, driving the canoe far up the beach. She climbed out and, staggering in her weariness, tried to drag it a little farther to get past the tree line. She was too exhausted though, and instead lay down on the wet sand, rolled the canoe on top of her to keep the rain off, and went to sleep right there.

Katara was far too tired to notice the natural harbor she had unwittingly steered into, or the huge elephant koi she had passed over along the way. However, when the sun rose just a few hours later and they were patrolling the island as usual, the Kyoshi Warriors did not have any trouble noticing Katara at all.

Chapter Text

Katara awoke in a strange hut with blinds lowered over large open windows. Daylight peeked through the slats and striped the floor near where she lay on a pallet. A covered bowl and a cup of water sat on a tray nearby. Whatever was in the bowl smelled wonderful; Katara's stomach rumbled. She reached for it, and that's when she noticed her sleeve.

The clothes she was wearing were not Sokka's.

Katara scrambled to her feet and found herself in a loose tunic and wide-legged trousers. The bindings were missing from around her chest but her mother's necklace was still snugly wrapped around her wrist. She scanned her surroundings with more care. Behind the blinds, the windows had cane bars and all she could see beyond was thick greenery. The door had no latch or knob on the inside.

Katara was imprisoned, and whoever had imprisoned her knew she wasn't a boy.

There was a sound of footsteps beyond the door and then, with the clatter of a heavy bolt being lifted, a woman entered the hut. She was dressed unlike anything Katara had ever seen. Her clothes were bulky and green and armored and her face was painted white with striking red markings. In her arms, she carried a blue bundle. The door shut behind her and, from the sound, was bolted again.

Katara met her level stare with one of her own but crossed her arms over her chest a little self-consciously.

"You're up," the other woman said in a surprisingly high voice. She tossed the bundle lightly aside. "Good. Now you can answer our questions before we decide whether or not to kill you."

"Kill me?" Katara snapped. "What did I ever do to you? You're the one who locked me up and – and apparently undressed me in my sleep!"

"We were drying your clothes," she enunciated. "You know, so you wouldn't freeze to death? We probably saved your life."

"Why go to all that trouble if you're just going to kill me anyway?"

"I told you, we're still deciding what to do with you."

Katara glared right back at her for a solid minute.

"You should eat your soup," the woman said. "We'll be here for a while."

"I'm not hungry," Katara said. Her stomach groaned like a trapped animal.

"Sure you're not." The other woman sat down on the floor and watched Katara, waiting.

Katara stood a moment longer, but her stomach growled again and she finally sat on the pallet and, haltingly, lifted the lid off the bowl. A little puff of steam curled up and escaped. The soup inside was clear and contained a few shreds of meat and greens. It was marvelously salty, though, and Katara drank it down quickly, not minding how the hot bowl stung her fingertips.

"My name is Suki," the other woman said when she set the bowl back on the tray. "What's yours?"

"Katto," Katara said. She drank a sip of the water, but then thought better of it and set the cup back on the tray mostly full. Then she looked back up at Suki.

Even through the face paint, she could see the dry disbelief on her face. "Right. Katto. And you're just a boy who paddled all the way in his canoe from the Southern Water Tribe."

Katara only glowered.

"We know you're a girl, you know. Why are you trying to hide it?"

"I can't fight with my people and protect my family as a girl."

"Why's that?" Suki asked, raising an eyebrow.

Katara huffed and rolled her eyes. "I don't know. Because the real Water Tribe is run by big tough warrior men, and women who can fight are too threatening to their manliness."

"Is that so?" Suki asked in a thoughtful tone. Her eyes were narrowing. "So you'd have us believe that you disguised yourself as a boy and you're on your way to join the resistance against the Fire Nation?"

Katara crossed her arms over her chest again. "You make it sound hard to believe."

"How can we be sure you aren't a Fire Nation spy?"

"How can I be sure that you aren't?"

"Kyoshi Island has stayed out of the war for over a hundred years. Our borders are closed. We know everyone who sets foot on the island, and suspicious characters are never allowed to remain here for long."

Katara suspected from the sharp look in Suki's eyes that 'remain here' also probably meant 'remain alive.' She refused to look away though. She'd faced down that Fire Nation guy. She wouldn't back down now. "How can you just stay out of the war? Even all the way at the South Pole, we suffer. We miss our men who've gone to fight, and the people who were killed or taken in raids. There aren't enough hunters to feed everyone. Every day is a struggle there. How can your island just- just sit this one out like it's a big game?"

"It's not a game," Suki said. She raised a fist before her, sitting forward. "It's survival."

"What's the point of surviving when all you'll survive to see is the world burning down all around you?" Katara asked. She leaned forward as well. "And you think your island will be safe then? Once the rest of the world is conquered, do you really believe the Fire Nation will leave one little island free to do as it pleases?"

Suki glared and Katara glared right back.

"You'd have us send our warriors out to join the resistance?" she finally asked, sitting upright again. "Maybe you are a spy. Maybe you came here to lure away our defenses with inspiration speeches and, as soon as we're gone, the steamers will come over the horizon to take over the village."

"I really don't care what you do," Katara said. "All I want is to keep going north."

"Unfortunately," Suki said as she rose easily to her feet, "that's no longer an option. You'll remain here while we discuss your fate."

Katara watched her turn for the door and a horrible feeling flashed through her. Suki had clearly already decided that she had come to sabotage the island. She would report as much to whatever authority was making the decision and Katara would be trapped in this hut for the foreseeable future. At best. At worst, she would be executed.

The wooden bolt moved and the door cracked open. Beyond, the sun was setting. Suki raised her foot to take a step over the threshold. Katara struck.

She leapt to her feet and bent the remaining water out of her cup and blasted Suki right between the shoulder blades, sending her tumbling through the door. Before the blow even hit, Katara was running. Suki made a shocked 'oof' sound and then Katara burst through the doorway and leapt over her sprawled body. She sprinted for the cover of the woods. Behind her, she heard Suki's voice shout.

"Waterbender! Don't let her reach the village!"

Katara didn't even make it to the trees. Something hard struck her in the back of the head and she went down in the grass. Gasping to regain her breath and struggling back to her feet, she glimpsed what appeared to be a fan on the ground nearby. Someone had hit her with a fan and knocked her down?

There was no time. Katara whirled to face her opponents and found three women surrounding her. One was Suki. The other two were dressed in the same strange uniform. They all held fans and stood in stances that were decidedly dangerous-looking. Katara curled her hands into fists and stood with her feet apart, ready.

"You can't keep me here," she said. "My family needs me."

Suki rolled her shoulder. Her expression was cross. "That was a pretty cheap shot, Katto. Let's see what you've got in a fair fight."

The two other warriors shot her a look but backed off, folding their fans away.

"If I win," Katara said, "will you agree to let me go?"

Suki laughed. "Alright. In fact, I'll make it even easier for you. If you can knock me down again, I'll escort you to the mainland myself." She shifted easily into a fighting stance. "But if I beat you, you get back in your cage without making me drag you."

Katara narrowed her eyes. Suki looked pretty dangerous, but Katara could still win with waterbending, couldn't she? All she had to do was knock her down… "You've got a deal, Suki."

"Good," Suki said in her sweet tone. "Ready when you are."

Katara crouched and bent the water off the threshold into a thin stream before her. Suki struck, charging toward her across the grass. Katara tried to freeze the ground under her feet, tried to trip her with ice, but Suki leapt right out of the path of her bending. Her foot came up hard and caught Katara right in the stomach, sending her flying back.

Wheezing, Katara stared up at the sky for a moment. That had hurt an awful lot. She hadn't realized it hurt so much to be kicked in the stomach. A part of her wanted to stay down, give up, and just not let that pain happen to her again.

But Katara couldn't let her adventure end on this island, so close to the Earth Kingdom. She couldn't let one woman in makeup keep her from reaching Sokka and Hakoda. Still regaining her breath, she surged to her feet.

Suki stood a short distance away, casually twirling a fan. "Feeling beaten?"

Katara assumed her fighting stance. "Not quite."

Suki smirked and, in a blink, attacked again.


Zuko stood on the bank of the stream, facing the Avatar. "This time, I've got you," he said.

The Avatar blinked his large blue eyes and smirked, unimpressed. It was strangely erotic. "You don't want to catch me, Zuko," he said.

"Yes I do! I want nothing more!"

"Are you sure?" The Avatar reached up and tugged his wolftail loose. He looked weirdly pretty in the light of the setting sun. "Are you sure you want me?"

"What are you doing?" Zuko demanded, balling up his fists. "Fight me!"

The Avatar was taking off his parka. The Avatar was opening his shirt.

"Hey!" Zuko grabbed his shoulder, intending to jerk him around to face him, but instead found the Avatar pressed bare-chested against him, peering up at him with those deep blue eyes. Those eyes made Zuko so thirsty, like he'd been walking for days without drinking. "Why won't you fight me?" he asked through his cracked throat.

The Avatar raised a hand and pressed it against his face. "Alright, Zuko. I'll fight you." He leaned in closer. Zuko noticed he had very soft-looking lips.

"I don't want to fight like this," Zuko said, but he couldn't pull away.

The Avatar's very soft lips brushed his, and they were cool and soothing as water. Zuko groaned and drank.

And woke up with his face pressed against his forearm and an aching pressure tenting his sleep pants.

Zuko sat up and rubbed his face, drawing several deep breaths. This was the third time he'd had the dream and it was really starting to creep him out. There hadn't been any kissing the first two times – just a disconcerting feeling that something about the scenario was arousing that he didn't quite understand. It had been a little weird, but he hadn't worried about it especially.

But this new thing where he made out with the Avatar was crossing the line. He did not have the hots for a mid-pubescent boy. Setting aside the fact that the kid couldn't be much more than fourteen, Zuko had seen any number of partially clothed men in his life and that had definitely never interested him before.

Maybe it was just… an expression of how much he wanted to capture the Avatar and regain his rightful place? Yeah. And it was all kind of tied in with his desire to have a normal life with, maybe, a normal girlfriend who might kiss him sometimes. Yeah. Yeah, that seemed like a good explanation.

He definitely didn't want to actually make out with the Avatar. He thought back to the scruffy-looking boy on the bank of that stream. The baggy, worn-out clothes, and that ridiculous wolf-tail that left his ears standing out at either side of his head. Not attractive.

Only, the face he remembered was not so different from what had been in his dream. Weirdly pretty. Especially those large blue eyes with their fierce gleam.

Zuko shook the memory away and climbed from his bed – better not to think of that now. As soon as he composed himself, he summoned his servants and donned his armor, then climbed up to the control room. The sun was only just cresting the horizon and the ship had begun its third sweep around this island. Zuko eyed their progress on the map as his technicians made the standard morning reports.

There had been no sign of the Avatar except for a few scrape-marks on beaches that may have been made by a canoe – or perhaps, as Iroh kept suggesting, a wandering lion-seal. Regardless, it had been days since Zuko had seen even that much. He was starting to believe that the Avatar had already made the crossing to the Earth Kingdom. He scanned the distance on his map. A long way to go in a canoe. But, for a powerful waterbender?

Yet even a powerful waterbender would probably make for the nearest point of land. "Helmsman," Zuko said without looking away from the tiny script. "Set a course for Kyoshi Island."


The fight, if it could be called that, went on for what felt like hours to Katara, until the sun had dipped below the horizon. A few other warriors had gathered around the edge of the clearing, and a couple of what must have been village people were among them. Katara didn't really notice that, though.

Suki knocked her down again and again with kicks and punches that seemed to come out of nowhere. In the gut, in the chest, in the face, in the knees and ankles and feet. Everything hurt in a sharp new way. Suki was way too fast to actually hit, but Katara kept dragging herself up off the ground, kept assuming that fighting stance. Her attacks only got sloppier and weaker, until she was just splashing the dribble of water that was left at her opponent before taking another blow. And going down. And hauling herself back up.

"Do you yield?" Suki asked in a hard tone. She'd left the smirking sweetness behind several rounds ago.

Katara, on her hands and knees in the flattened grass, sucked her split lip and tried to push herself up. She couldn't. She was physically exhausted and the shock of being hit – actually hit by another person – over and over again, made her shake and hang her head. Some locks of hair had sprung loose from her wolftail and hung over her face, clumping together with sweat.

But she couldn't just give up. She had to get to the mainland. She had to get to Sokka.

"No," Katara grated. She swallowed to try and clear her throat but all that was in her mouth was blood. She felt sick.

"You're done," Suki said. "Just yield so I can go home already."

"I'm not done," Katara said, and looked up through her hair. "I'm not yielding."

Suki frowned down at her. "Not yielding, huh? Then I guess we'll just have to pick this up again tomorrow because I've worked up an appetite kicking your butt for the last hour. Yani, Nara, help Katto back to the box. Give her some more soup. She's got a big day tomorrow."

The two warriors 'helped' Katara back into the hut and left her on the pallet. She was asleep when someone brought her soup, but she drank it down cold when she woke up at moonrise. It was very late by then, the moon a thinner sliver than it had been days before, but Katara sat up on her mat, staring at the crisp white bars of light on the floor.

Everything hurt, everywhere. How was she going to endure another pounding like that tomorrow? Helpless tears leaked down her cheeks as she swallowed the last bits of meat from the bottom of the bowl. She crossed her arms over her knees and shut her eyes.

The bowl slipped from her fingers as she dozed and clunked harmlessly on the floorboards. Katara set the porcelain back on its tray and then lay down again, too exhausted to think, too exhausted for despair.


The steamer was only hours south of the island when Zuko received a report of a smoke column on the horizon behind them. He had just sat down for a cup of tea with his uncle in their shared sitting room, but immediately leapt to his feet.

"Zhao must have sent a ship to follow us," he said. He made for the door, but Iroh sighed hugely and Zuko paused.

Frowning, he sent the messenger back to the control room. "Tell the helmsman to veer east and make for the mainland. We'll circle back after dark." Then, stiffly, he returned to sit at the low table. Iroh was pouring the tea, not looking at him. "What?" Zuko said when he couldn't take it anymore.

"It is worrisome," Iroh said, raising his teacup in his large hands, "that Zhao is so bold in challenging you."

"He's arrogant. He doesn't expect me to succeed and it will lead to his ultimate downfall."

Iroh raised his keen yellow eyes. "Or perhaps he has a legitimate reason to believe you will never rise to power."

Zuko paused, a dart of pain or fear cutting deep – he was not sure which. Did Iroh truly doubt that he could perform his task? "What do you mean, Uncle?"

Iroh drew a great breath and lowered his tea. "You were young when you left the Fire Court, Prince Zuko, and you may not remember. It is a tumultuous atmosphere. Plots and alliances form and dissipate as quickly as the steam from this pot." He lifted one thick finger to split the wisp of vapor rising from the teapot's spout. Zuko watched the two wisps rejoin, then part again. Iroh withdrew his hand as he went on.

"If Zhao is so certain that you will not sit the throne that he dares insult you to your face – especially now, when it is confirmed that the Avatar has finally returned and you are more likely than ever to accomplish your goal – then it is possible that he knows of some such alliance. It is possible that there are forces in place even now to assure that it will be Azula who follows Ozai on the throne."

Zuko blinked, stunned. "Uncle, are you saying someone's planning to assassinate me?"

"That is one possibility," Iroh said, tugging his beard, "but assassination is not the only way to keep you from returning to the Fire Nation. Simply sustaining your banishment would be enough."

Zuko closed his hands into fists. It had never crossed his mind that someone might work against him just to prevent him from going home. "Who do you suspect would do a thing like this?"

"I don't know," Iroh said, breaking the wise spell with a wide-eyed shrug. "It's been five years since I had contact with most of the Fire Court. A lot can change in five years. Or five days, for that matter."

Zuko narrowed his eyes and forced his hands to flatten on the table. "I can't worry about political phantoms until I have the Avatar, Uncle. That's the one thing I can do something about now. Zhao and whatever scheming allies he has will have to wait." He picked up his tea and sipped through tight lips. It was too hot but he didn't care.

"Do not underestimate him, Prince Zuko. Zhao is overconfident, but it is only because he thinks he has a strategy you cannot beat."

"How can I prepare to counter such a strategy when I have no idea what it is?"

"Ah, as always I have a method for dealing with such unknowable circumstances."

Zuko perked up until he saw how Iroh smiled his most cheerful smile. "Let me guess," he said. "Tea."

"Not just any tea, nephew! But this tea! A blend of ginseng and rare herbs that will promote an agile mind and, more importantly for a man of my advancing years, digestive regularity."

Zuko shot his uncle an especially dark look.


Katara woke a little before dawn to the sound of the bar being drawn from the door. She sat up in the dark as the door swung open and three shadowy figures entered the room. From their pale faces, she could tell they were more of the uniformed warriors.

"What's going-?"

They closed in on her suddenly and Katara swiftly found her hands bound tight behind her back and a cloth bag thrown over her head. She struggled a little between them as they hustled her out the door and down a slope through the forest. Mostly though, she went along with them quietly.

Where everything had hurt last night, it still hurt now, only a little differently. Katara had grown stiff in her sleep and her shoulders ached the way they were twisted to accommodate her bound hands.

Finally, she was led tripping up some steps and into another building. Someone ripped the sack off her head and Katara blinked hard at the torch-lit room before her. There were fans and armor on the walls. Suki stood in the middle of a practice space, hands on her hips as she waited.

"I decided I'd rather mop the floor with you instead of watching you eat dirt all day," she said. She indicated a bucket by one wall. "There's your scrub water. Start when you're ready."

One of the warriors snickered as she untied Katara's hands. She scowled back at that anonymous painted face, then turned toward Suki, rolling her stiff shoulders.

She wasn't ready for this. She wasn't sure she'd ever be ready again. But fighting Suki was the only way she could see to get off of this island. If Katara just gave up, she might as well have never left the South Pole.

All she had to do was knock Suki down once. Just once.

"Thanks," Katara said, assuming her stance. "I think I'll start by wiping all that smug off your face."

She blasted water out of the bucket at Suki's head but the warrior leapt backward out of the way and then darted toward her.

It went pretty much the same way it had gone yesterday, and Katara quickly learned when she hit the floorboards for the first time that she wished they'd stayed out in the grass. If anything, she fought even harder to keep from going down on those brutally hard bards.

The better part of an hour had passed when Katara finally managed to land one blow with her water, blocking a kick toward her head – but Suki just spun around and swung a backhand for her face. Unthinking, Katara raised an arm in the path of her wrist and then followed through with a punch from her other arm. Suki ducked forward and spun on one foot to knee Katara in the side.

"Huag!" she gasped, and staggered back a few steps, clutching her throbbing ribs.

Suki didn't press her. "That wasn't a bad block," she said. "Your balance was off, though. It slowed you down. Here," she smirked. "Try it again."

Almost too fast, she spun around and came at Katara again with the same backhand. Just like before, Katara blocked and then punched, and Suki ducked and came up with her knee. This time, Katara stepped back out of the way and let Suki's knee pass between them, then surged forward, shoving Suki's shoulder.

The warrior, already standing on one foot, nearly fell. Katara drew an elated breath. Then, Suki's arm shot out and she flipped over only to spring upright again. She faced Katara and crossed her arms over her chest.

"I gave you that one because I feel guilty about beating the crap out of a waterbender who can't even fight."

Katara bared her teeth, breathing hard. "I can fight. What do you call what we've been doing for the last hour?"

"Sad." Suki raised an eyebrow. "You rely on bending an awful lot for an untrained bender. Why don't you try to hit me without it?"

Katara raised her fists before her in a pose she seemed to remember Sokka assuming.

Suki laughed. "Is that some kind of crazy Water Tribe style?"

"Yeah," Katara said, unamused. "Wait 'til I show you my tiger-seal iceberg punch." It wasn't a real move, just something that Sokka had talked about a lot as a kid, but Suki didn't have to know that.

"Right. Why don't you try throwing that one while standing in your waterbending posture. That wasn't too bad."

Wasn't too bad? Katara glowered but slipped back into her basic bending stance and then advanced on Suki. All she needed was one good shot. Just one.


Zuko stood in the wind and watched the northern horizon. The coast was off there in the distance, but he could not see it in the dark. So, too, was the ship that had been pursuing his. They had hugged the coast until night had truly fallen, then looped around wide through open water. Soon it would be dawn and they would arrive back at Kyoshi Island. Perhaps the Avatar would have already moved on to the mainland, but at least Zhao's men would not know where the trail picked up.

Zuko gripped the rail and scowled into the darkness to the west. When he finally returned home with the Avatar and reclaimed his throne, his first act would be to root out Zhao's subterfuge and expose him for whatever treachery he had doubtless helped plan. Maybe he could even banish him. Now that would really scorch his sideburns.

But his father liked Zhao. He exemplified precisely the ruthless ambition and moral blindness that Ozai most valued. Would he still think so highly of the traitorous admiral when Zuko exposed his plot to keep the prince in exile?

Something about the situation didn't quite sit right with Zuko. It made him uncomfortable, like walking on a crumbling bridge over a chasm. So he didn't dwell on it.

Instead, his thoughts strayed again to the Avatar. He would capture him on Kyoshi Island and, if not there, then in whatever Earth Kingdom hole he tried to hide in. Zhao could try to stop him all he wanted; Zuko wouldn't be kept from his destiny.

He could practically see those eyes now, peering back at him from the distance. He had slept a few hours earlier that night, until the dream woke him. The creepy kissing hadn't gone away. And now, even fully awake, he felt a weird thrill just thinking about those fierce blue eyes.

It didn't mean anything. Just that the Avatar was the key to everything Zuko wanted. Once he captured him, Zuko could finally start living his life again. The shameful exile would be over. The unending journey around the world would become no more than a memory.

The sun was beginning to rise. He could feel it in his chest, his own inner fire rising. The sky softened and, faintly, he could see the island darkening on the horizon.

Zuko clenched his jaw. Today was the day he would capture the Avatar.


Katara never landed her one good shot. She spent the entire day with Suki, including a short midmorning meal during which the warrior ate an enormous bowl of fish and noodles and never smudged her makeup. Then, it was back to fighting.

"I have to admit, your determination is pretty impressive," she said as Katara was scraping herself up off the floor that afternoon. "And you learn fast with little instruction."

Katara stood, shoulders slumped forward as she got her bearings. "I had to learn bending without any instructions at all," she said. She touched her mouth where it seemed to be bleeding again, then glared at Suki. "I have to reach the mainland if I'm ever going to find a master."

"If we do decide to let you go," Suki said, "You'll probably be grateful for this."

Then she whipped Katara's feet out from under her. She fell hard, too tired to roll through the impact. Katara lay on the floor for a moment, breathing hard and blinking until the spots faded from her vision. "Oh," she said, "so grateful."

"How were you planning to explain to the other Water Tribe men why you were so useless in a fight?" Suki asked, looming over her with her arms crossed. "At least now you know how to take a punch and you could tell them you used to get beat up a lot. Are you going to get up again or are you ready to yield?"

Katara struggled to sit up and then climbed to her feet. She was crouched and ready to fight when another of the warriors came running up to the door. "Suki! Strangers on the beach!"

Chapter Text

Katara swiftly found herself bound, bagged, and tripping blindly back up the slope to her prison under the gloved hands of her captors. They locked her back in and stood outside the door, speaking in tones too low to be heard.

"Hey! Hey, what's going on down on the beach? Who's here?"

"Pipe down in there," one of the warriors said.

"Is it the Fire Nation?"

"I said shut it!"

Resigned, Katara scowled at the door for a moment before her eyes fell on a wad of blue fabric. Suki had dropped it there yesterday, she remembered. When she investigated further, she found it was all her clothing. It was, indeed, clean and dry, as Suki had said.

Grudgingly appreciative, Katara took off the tunic she'd been wearing and would have replaced her breast bindings, but she caught a whiff of how vile she smelled and reconsidered. Using some of the drinking water she'd been provided, she dampened the least offensive corner of the old tunic and quickly wiped herself down, then dressed swiftly. She was covered in bruises and spots of dry blood came away from her nose and mouth. It was good to be in her own clothes again, though.

Katara had only just finished gathering her hair back into its wolftail when there was a commotion outside. The door burst open and Suki came in, hauling a new prisoner by the scruff of the neck. He was wearing a sack over his head, but he was small and his weird flappy clothes were really familiar.

Katara stepped involuntarily closer. "Aang!"

"Kat-ah-ha?" the bag asked. "Im mean… Katto?"

"So you do know this kid." Suki yanked the sack off the airbender's head. Beneath, he was gagged, but he stared happily at Katara. Suki crossed her arms. "He was down on the beach riding the elephant koi."

"And you tied him up because only spies would ride elephant koi?" Katara shot Suki a withering look. "He's like twelve."

Suki shrugged and removed the gag and ropes around his wrists. "That's old enough to be a spy."

"I'm not a spy," Aang said in his reasonable tone. "I'm just a wandering monk." A sudden smile took his face as he looked back to Katara. "Man, am I glad to see you! I looked all over for you in those islands to the south. Why didn't you wait for me?"

"Sorry Aang," Katara said. "I had a run-in with that creepy Fire Nation guy and didn't want to drag you into it, too. I thought you'd be safer on your own."

As he stared at her face, his smile drained away. "Did he do that to you?" There was something building up under the shock in his expression – was it guilt?

Suki cut in, smirking. "That's from training. Katto has been teaching me Southern Water Tribe fighting techniques."

Katara's fists balled up at her sides. "If you're done tying up little kids, I'd be more than happy to continue."

Aang peered back and forth between them and forced a worried sort of laugh. "Come on, guys! Violence won't solve anything."

Suki talked right over him, crossing her arms and smirking. "I've seen more than enough of your skills for one day. Why don't you and your little buddy catch up and get some sleep before your hearing tomorrow?" She turned and marched out the door before Katara could come up with a good retort.

Aang looked up at her woefully. "What's the hearing for?"

Katara shrugged. "I don't know. They're deciding whether or not I'm a spy for the Fire Nation – and you too, from the sound of it. Maybe we get to defend ourselves."

"I don't really know anything about the laws on this island, but this doesn't seem very just to me."

"No kidding," Katara said, sighing as she sat down. "I don't know what we can do about it, though, except wait and see."

Aang looked troubled, as if he was thinking very hard about something. Finally, he came to sprawl on the floor beside her, idly forming little spheres of air and rolling them across his fingers.

"So," Katara said, "what have you been up to?"

"Oh," Aang let the sphere above his fingertip dissipate and rubbed the back of his neck. "Appa and Momo and I looked for you for a few days, and then I thought it'd be fun to ride the elephant koi. But it turns out there's this giant sea monster in the bay that eats elephant koi…" He shot her a sideways look. "I got pretty scared when I couldn't find you, Katara. There are a lot of Fire Nation ships in the south seas."

"I only saw the one," she said, "but it was pretty scary. I'm sorry you had to go through that on your own, Aang."

"I wasn't really alone," he said. "Appa and Momo were with me."

Katara blinked. "So where are they now?"

"One of those warriors tied Momo up in a bag, but Appa is still sleeping down in the woods by the beach, I think." He grinned. "They'll have a really tough time putting him in a bag."

Katara laughed a little, then sat back on her arms and stared at the ceiling. "If we could get to Appa, maybe we could get off this island." She shot Aang a narrow-eyed look. "He really can fly, right? That's not just a joke?"

"Ha ha! Yeah, Appa's great at flying."

"Alright then," Katara said. "All we need is a way to escape from this jail."

"And find Momo."

Katara nodded and peered off to the side. "Right…" She didn't want to say it to Aang, but she really didn't like the idea of escaping from this cell and then risking everything for a lemur. That lemur did happen to be one of this kid's only companions in the world, though. They'd just have to make it work. "But for now, do you have any ideas that could get us out of here?"

"Hm…" Aang scratched his head, leapt to his feet and, before Katara could say anything, went through a quick form and blasted air through one of the windows. The hanging blinds banged hard against the sill, then detached from the hooks holding them up and fell with a clatter. The bars behind the blinds were completely unaffected. Aang shrugged. "Guess not."

The door scraped open rapidly and one of the guards stepped in. "What's going on in here?" She glared at the blinds on the floor, then at Aang. "Are you tearing up our jail, kid?"

"Uh," Aang said, crouching defensively.

Katara threw her hands up in the air. "Well, uh! What do you expect when you… let prisoners go hungry! Where's our soup?"

"You'll get it when you get it," the warrior said, glowering. She point at Aang. "I've got my eye on you."

Aang smiled his most innocent smile and the guard stomped back out. He puffed out a big sigh of relief.

"It was a good try," Katara said, "but we'll have to think of something else."


After they had eaten their soup, they looked for some way out of the cell, but found nothing. Katara was too weary and sore to do much more than watch Aang test the walls and ceiling and she finally dozed off to his frustrated grumbling as he braced his feet against the wall and tried to pull a bamboo bar out of one of the window.

At dawn, they were tied up and marched down a slope Katara thought she recognized – until they took an odd turn, went down some more, and finally found themselves seated at the front of a crowded meeting hall. Their hands were still tied behind them and they sat on a slightly upraised dais. Uniformed warriors surrounded the room and one held a sack with Momo's head sticking out of the top. Aang gave a thrilled cry and the lemur perked up its enormous ears and purred.

An old man in a strange hat called the hearing to order and the townspeople quieted to listen. "Katto and Aang, what evidence can you provide that you are not spies sent by the Fire Nation?" he asked.

"What evidence can you provide that we are?" Aang asked, again in that reasonable tone. It sounded a lot more mature than Katara would have expected. Maybe that was a result of being a monk, though.

"The burden of proof is upon the accused," the man in the hat said. "Spies are many and clever in this age and Kyoshi Island is within its rights to defend itself against suspected espionage by any means necessary."

"That doesn't seem very fair," Aang said. A look passed over his face like he'd realized something. "Wait, did you say Kyoshi Island? As in Avatar Kyoshi?"

"Yes," the old man said, a little annoyed. "This island was her home nearly four hundred years ago."

Aang opened his mouth to say something, but then got kind of a frightened look on his face and closed it again. Katara shot him a nervous glance and then spoke up. "Look, we're not spies. We don't even know anything about your island to tell. I've been here for two days and I haven't even seen your village. Can't you please just let us go?"

There were some skeptical noises from the townspeople.

"Elder," Suki said, stepping forward from one side of the room. "Much as I love feeding trespassers to the Unagi, my interactions with Katto have led me to believe her story that she's just another Water Tribe warrior on her way to join the resistance."

Katara sat stiffly in place, blown away. Of all people, she had never expected Suki to come to her defense. The warrior, who had only looked at the old man up to this point, turned her gaze to Katara. She opened her mouth to say something else, but a sound came from outside, the ring of a bell.

Everyone in the room turned, some shouting in fear. Several of the uniformed warriors rushed out. Suki leaned close to the old man, shooting a much harder look at Katara and Aang as she spoke a few low words. The elder frowned at them.

Aang sprang to his feet. "What's going on?"

Suki approached swiftly. She looked suddenly dangerous again. Katara struggled to stand. "A Fire Nation ship has landed on our shore," Suki said. She got a grip on each of their upper arms. "You're coming with me."


Zuko led his men at a swift march into the island's only village. From afar, a couple of villagers had spotted him and darted out of sight. Now, the streets stood empty all around him. Except for the quick figures ducking through the shadows.

Zuko noticed them, but hardly. He had been furious when he realized that Zhao had repurposed all of his rhinos and he would have to make a slow and undignified entrance on foot. However, upon landing on this stupid island, he'd found a wrecked canoe on the beach. The Avatar was here. That was really all that mattered.

Zuko reached the crossroads that seemed to be the middle of the village and peered at the buildings and porches around him. "I'm looking for someone," he said, loud enough for all those skulking shadows to hear him. "A waterbender who arrived by canoe. Give him to me and your village will come to no harm."


Katara heard that Fire Nation guy shouting and felt Suki freeze an instant later. The bag was back over her head and she wasn't sure where they were, but that shout had come from pretty close. Katara could feel Suki hesitating, thinking. Did she want to hide them from the Fire Nation? Or did she want to turn them over and save her village? Even if Suki didn't believe she was a spy, that didn't mean that she would protect them at the cost of danger to her people.

Katara didn't want to wait and find out how she would choose.

Looking down her nose, she could see where Suki's foot was just beside her own. Without warning, Katara raised her heel and stomped on it, then elbowed the warrior's side. It hit her armor and just knocked sideways, but a loosening of her grip would be all a quick airbender needed.

"Aang, run to Appa! Get out of here!"

Suki grunted and Katara heard some gusting sounds and hope lanced through her. At least Aang would get away. Then her face was up against a wall and Suki was twisting one of her wrists painfully.

"That was a dumb move, Katto. They heard you."

Then her bonds were cut and Suki jerked her away from the wall, yanking the hood off her head. Katara staggered and finally got a look at the alley she stood in. On one end was a sunny street. On the other end was a tangle of greenery. Another hood and some ropes lay on the ground that way. Suki stood in a doorway, glowering.

"Better run," she said, pointing toward the woods. Then the door shut and she was gone.

But it was already too late. There were pounding footsteps from the street. "At last," said a familiar voice. Katara whirled to find that creepy Fire Nation guy assuming a fighting stance at the end of the alley. "You'll find me a much more challenging opponent now that I know who you are, Avatar."

Katara raised her hands and shook her head. "I'm not-"

"Avatar?" The door Suki had vanished behind burst open and the warrior stepped out, staring at Katara and then the Fire Nation guy, then Katara again. "You're the Avatar?"

"No! I'm not," Katara said. She held out a hand, indicating the man at the end of the alley. Soldiers had come to stand behind him now. "This guy's been following me for days."

"If you want to deny your identity like a coward, that's fine," he said. "But you won't fool me. I saw you at the South Pole. I saw the light. You won't slip away from me again."

"The light? That wasn't me! That was-"

Katara froze as it all came together in her head. A column of light in the sky. An airbender trapped in the ice for a hundred years, as long as the Avatar had been missing from the world. A kid who woke up to a war that hadn't been there before. Aang, small and so brutally alone. And, weighing on his shoulders, this enormous responsibility.

And before her stood a frightening man who wanted to hunt him down. Katara couldn't let that happen.

"Um!" she said, holding up one finger and racking her brain. "That was, a waterbending form, that is more powerful than you can possibly imagine! Because I actually am the Avatar!"

Suki was narrowing her eyes at her but Katara was paying more attention to the creepy guy, who had bared his teeth. "I'll give you one chance to come quietly," he said.

Katara weighed her options. If she fought him here, with no water nearby, she would definitely lose. If she went quietly, she might win some time for Aang, but then she'd be the creepy guy's captive. It only took a split second for Katara to determine the best course of action.

She spun around and sprinted toward the other end of the alley.


Zuko punched a burst of fire after the Avatar but the girl warrior between them darted forward and blocked the blast with the two fans she suddenly clasped. The impact sent her skidding back. Zuko didn't hesitate. He bolted forward and kicked a line of flame at her and, when she blocked, he dodged easily around her and continued down the alley. Behind him, he heard the sounds of his soldiers engaging the warrior as he raced into the trees where the Avatar had disappeared.

Only it turned out there was nothing but a steep slope just past the bushes. Zuko wheeled his arms but couldn't stop.

"Wauh!" He tumbled down the short distance of the slope and then rolled off a ledge, only to fall flat on something remarkably soft not too far down.

"Ow," groaned the body beneath him.

Zuko pushed himself up only to find that he had landed on the Avatar, who had apparently just endured the same fall. So close, he looked like he'd endured more than just the fall, though; there were splotches of bruise along his jaw and his mouth was a little swollen and scabbed. Zuko quickly stifled the memory of the dream as it tugged at him. He tore his eyes from those lips and focused.

The Water Tribe boy blinked up at Zuko once, a dazed look in those striking eyes, and then tensed. "Get off me," he said.

"So you can run away again?" Zuko smirked. "I don't think so." He did sit up, though, straddling the Avatar's hips on his knees. He needed something to tie his captive's hands together, but he didn't have any rope. The Avatar was wearing a sash around the waist, though. That would work. He tugged the knot loose.

"What are you doing?" the Avatar squeaked. His hands slapped and shoved at Zuko's. "No! Don't!"

"Stop squirming!" Zuko finally got the knot untied and yanked the sash free. And then he made a grab for one of the Avatar's wrists but missed. His fingers dug hard into the flesh of the boy's chest.

"Ow! I said no!" The Avatar, clutching his chest with one hand, reached up with the other and slapped Zuko across the face.

Zuko did not immediately understand what was going on. He fisted a hand in the Water Tribe boy's tunic and dragged him up so that he could glower closer to his face. "You little peasant. What kind of-?"

But then he saw the way that the tunic splayed open from his grip to reveal bindings around the Avatar's chest, which those slender hands were still splayed out to cover.

"You're a girl," he managed, easing back an inch. A tension he had not been entirely aware of before dissolved. This made so much more sense.

Then he noticed the desperate look in those blue eyes, that pretty mouth grimacing as the Avatar turned her face away from his. Turned away, he realized with a jolt, to keep him from kissing her. Zuko made a shocked sound and let go of her tunic, sitting back and holding up his hands.

The Avatar gripped her shirt together and glared up at him. Her eyes narrowed and she gritted her teeth. "Get off me," she said.

"It doesn't matter if you're a girl," Zuko said, regaining some balance. "You're the Avatar. I'm still not letting you get away again. Now give me your hands so I can tie them."

She glared up at him, breathing hard. "No."

Zuko glared right back. "If you won't cooperate, I will use force."

The Avatar only pinched her mouth into a tight scowl.

"Have it your way." Zuko snatched up one of her hands – there was something tied around her wrist already – and didn't see her other fist coming for his nose. It stunned him, knocking him back and loosening his grip just enough for the Avatar to scramble out from under him. Zuko blinked hard to clear the reflexive tears and spotted her sprinting away through the woods. He snarled and leapt to his feet to race after her.


Katara ran with everything she had. She didn't notice the loose ends of her tunic flapping behind her or the briars that snagged her as she tore downhill. All she noticed was the sound behind her of that firebender snarling and gaining ground.

He may not the creepiest he could be, but she still didn't want him catching up.

Katara leapt over a rotting log and barely caught herself before flying off another drop, grabbing a tree and turning hard to the right instead. Ahead, she saw where the trees thinned out onto the beach. If she could make it to the water, she might be able to defend herself.

But there was a shout and a blasting sound behind her and Katara found herself sprawled across the moss, winded from the fall. She scrambled to rise but wasn't quick enough. A hard hand caught her arm and turned her face-first against a tree.

"No!" Katara choked, yanking her hands from his grasp, twisting away.

"Hold still!" he yelled, wrestling her back against the tree. He was suddenly pressing his armored hips against her butt, pinning her lower body to the tree as he clamped her wrists together and swiftly bound them. "I told you," he said as the knot cinched tight, "you won't escape from me again, Avatar." He jerked her away from the tree and began steering her back up the slope with one hand gripping her shoulder.

"My name is Katto," Katara snarled. He didn't respond but when she tried to jerk out from under his hand, his fingers were bruisingly tight. She bit back her wince. "What do you want with- with me, anyway?"

"I'm taking you back to the Fire Nation to present you to my father."

That seemed weird. "Your father?"

"The Fire Lord," he said through tight lips.

Katara stumbled and turned to stare at his scarred face. "You're a prince? I thought you were some kind of bounty hunter!"

He glared at her and shoved her on up the slope. "I am not a bounty hunter," he said, his tone indicating that he took offense to the very notion. "Save your breath for walking."

Katara climbed in silence for a time. The creepy prince set a pretty fast pace and she actually did need to save her breath. As they came closer, she could hear fighting in the village. "Your soldiers sure seem to be having a great time up there," she spat.

"There wouldn't be any fighting if the villagers weren't resisting."

"Yeah, I guess to the Fire Nation, defending your home from invaders is a real crime."

"Just shut up and climb."

When they emerged back at the edge of the village, Katara could see a group of firebenders in profile on the main street, but she couldn't see what they were firing at. One turned to glance down the alley and did a double-take before shouting, "Prince Zuko! It's an airbender!" Then, suddenly, they all went flipping and flying backward in a huge gust of wind.

"Aang!" Katara shouted, unthinking. He had come back for her!

The monk ran around the corner, staff in hand. "Katara!" he shouted. Then, seeing the firebender behind her, he scowled and assumed a fighting stance. "Let her go!"

If the prince – had his soldier called him Zuko? – hadn't still been gripping her shoulder, Katara might not have heard his soft words. "An airbender?"

She had to get away. They had to get away before he worked it out and started attacking Aang. Katara stomped his foot in his moment of distraction and sprinted down the alley. Behind her, she heard the firebender shout and then Aang whirled his staff and a gust of wind cut right past her. With a shocked cry, the prince went hurtling back through the bushes and down the slope they had just climbed.

Aang hurriedly untied her. "I'm so sorry, Katara! I keep forgetting the name thing!"

She waved him off and looped the sash back around her waist with a hurried knot. "Not a big deal right now, Aang. We need to get out of here!"

"Right. Come on!" He led her down the alley and out into the street, where the enormous bison was growling and lumbering after a group of terrified soldiers. Katara clambered up the creature's furry side as Aang leapt on his head and grabbed the reins. "Appa, yip yip!"

She had only just tipped over the edge into the saddle – tugged along by a fluttering Momo – when the bison surged into the air. Though she was preoccupied with gripping whatever she could to hold steady against the unfamiliar surge of flight, Katara could hear the infuriated yell of the prince as he emerged again from the bushes.


Despite rushing his men back to the ship and launching immediately at top speed to follow the flying bison, Zuko couldn't spot the beast anywhere in the sky. He commanded a course north anyway and searched the empty distance with his spyglass. Iroh soon joined him on the observation deck and stood silently by.

"I had her, Uncle," Zuko said as he scowled into the distance. "I had the Avatar tied up right there in my hands and she still escaped."

He did not see Iroh's brows creeping up. "The Avatar is a girl now?"

"She was disguised as a boy." Zuko shot his uncle a frown. His face was heating. "It wasn't easy to tell!"

"Sure," Iroh said, shrugging and looking out across the ocean. "Corporal Hong informs me there was an airbender in the village as well," he said at length, "and that he and the waterbender escaped together on a flying bison."

"Yes."

Iroh gave his nephew a searching sideways look. Finally, he said, "Prince Zuko, do you imagine it's possible that it is the airbender who is the Avatar, and perhaps not the waterbender?"

Zuko turned to look at the old man. "How could it be possible, Uncle? The airbender is only a child – how could a child vanish for a hundred years and then reappear, miraculously unaged?"

"The Avatar is capable of unknowable things, Prince Zuko. And the Spirit World is nothing if not mysterious."

"But I saw the waterbender and the light together at the South Pole. There was no sign of the airbender then." Zuko turned back toward the empty sky ahead. "Besides, the waterbender confessed that she was the Avatar."

"Did she?"

"Yes. She denied it at first but, when it became clear that I had witnessed her display of power at the South Pole, she admitted it."

Iroh watched him for a long moment, tugging his beard. "You don't think she might have been lying?"

"Why would she lie? What could she possibly gain from making herself my target?"

"It seems to me that a girl who dresses up like a boy and leaves home all alone must be very brave. Maybe she was protecting someone else."

Zuko frowned. He didn't like this conversation any more than he liked talking with Iroh about his father. At heart, he deeply wanted to be right. He didn't want to chase a bug-eyed little kid on a bison around. He wanted to believe that the Avatar was a pretty girl with a fierce edge, because he wanted to chase that girl. He wanted to chase her and catch her.

But Zuko didn't really consciously think about this. He thought about what he had seen at the South Pole, and he clutched hard to that evidence. He thought of those piercing blue eyes. He thought of the necklace that was in his pocket right now, the necklace that had come loose from her wrist during her struggles against him.

"It doesn't matter," he said. "They're traveling together. We'll capture them both."

"My nephew, there may come a day when you will have to-"

But Iroh was cut off by the distant blast of a ship's horn to the east. Zuko gritted his teeth and looked through his spyglass at the approaching steamer, only to grit his teeth harder still. The ship hailing them flew the Admiral's banner.


Chapter Text

Katara rode in a wide basket-saddle on the back of a giant flying beast and felt a little like she had fallen through time into her childhood fantasies. If she shut her eyes most of the way, she could almost pretend she was small and safe and her mother was lulling her off to sleep with that easy rocking. She could almost remember what it was like to sleep the peaceful sleep she'd known then, when the only monsters in her dreams were huge and soft and friendly.

But the wind was cold and Katara had stopped dreaming those dreams a long time ago. She had new monsters, now, and she never slept that soundly anymore. Her wrist and her throat felt naked where her mother's necklace should be, and she kept reflexively reaching for it. The wind had been thorough in drying her tears, though, and her cold hands she mostly kept tucked under her arms.

She sat in the saddle behind Aang where he rode on Appa's enormous head, and spent her time alternately scanning his map and watching the steady swell of the distant landmass ahead.

Her map had been lost along with her parka and the rest of the supplies Gran-gran had packed for her, where exactly only the Kyoshi warriors could say. Luckily, Aang's hundred-year-old map seemed good enough to do the job. They would reach the mainland soon and, with any luck, a village on the tip of the peninsula. If she'd had money, perhaps she could have bought a new coat there. As it was, she chafed her arms and hoped for the generosity of strangers.

"We should land Appa a safe distance inland," Katara said. "We don't want to be visible from the water when that ship catches up."

"Yeah," Aang said. "We definitely don't want to run into that Zuko guy again."

Katara peered at the back of his bald head. She was worried about how quiet he'd been since they left Kyoshi Island, and she didn't want to press him, but she needed to know. "Aang, can we talk about that?"

"Sure, Katara. What's on your mind?"

"Well… Zuko's chasing me because he thinks I'm the Avatar. And he initially thought that because he saw me bending at the South Pole – and he saw the light that beamed out of the ice when I found you." She could see how his shoulders tensed and she didn't want to go on, she didn't want to cause him pain, but she had to know. "Now, though, he thinks I'm the Avatar because I told him that I am."

"What?" Aang spun around to face her. He looked terrified. "Why would you do that?"

"I don't know – it all happened so fast. All I could think was that, if he found out that I didn't make that light, he'd find out that you did. And then he'd be chasing you, Aang. I didn't want you to have to deal with that alone."

"You shouldn't have to deal with it, either, Katara!"

"Well he's not going to just go away, Aang. He's going to chase somebody. Better me than you." She drew a breath and softened her tone. "Especially if you really are the Avatar."

"I…" He spun back around on Appa's head and clutched his knees to his chest.

Katara didn't speak for a long while, but she laid her hand on his shoulder. "If you were the Avatar, I would only want to help you, Aang. I can't imagine what you must be going through, waking up to find that everything is so different."

Under her hand, his shoulder felt tiny, bird-like in its fragility.

"I want to protect you in any way I can, Aang."

He turned around then, wide-eyed. "But who's going to protect you, Katara? Zuko caught you today. What happens the next time?"

Katara raised her chin. "We've made it to the Earth Kingdom. If we're lucky, we can find the rebel camp soon and I'll start training. Zuko won't find me then and, if he does, he's the one who should worry about what's going to happen."

Aang looked skeptical. "The monks always taught us that the wisest way to enter a dispute is to step lightly and proceed with caution. I've gotta say, your plan really doesn't sound very cautious to me, Katara."

"That's an Air Nomad philosophy," she said, shrugging. "In the Water Tribe, you dive in and, if the ocean is too cold, you just have to get used to it."

Aang laughed, a little reluctantly, and then turned back to face the distant land. For a long while, he was quiet. "I wanted to tell you earlier," he said at last. "But you're right. It was so scary to wake up and find that the whole world had changed. I still can't totally believe that the Air Nomads are gone. Everyone I knew is gone." He hung his head. "And as the Avatar, I have this huge responsibility to the entire world. I haven't even learned any of the other kinds of bending yet. I don't even know where to start."

"Well, why not learn waterbending?" Katara asked, quickly warming to the idea. "You're already coming with me to the rebel camp. The waterbending master there would probably be glad to help the Avatar."

"That's a great idea!" Aang said, smiling over his shoulder. That smile quickly faded though. "Only, I'm not sure if the rebels will be so happy to see me when I tell them I don't want to fight in the war…"

Katara shrugged, smiling. "You're just a kid. I'm sure they'll understand."


Zuko gritted his teeth and locked his eyes on his uncle's slow, practiced movements instead of the hated man on the far side of the table. Iroh lifted the teapot and, with a graceful turn of his wrist, poured into each of the three cups. But eventually the slow stream of tea ended and the pot clunked gently back on the table and Zuko could not help but look at Zhao, who had spent this entire encounter watching him for any sign of the anxiety and impatience seething under his skin.

Yet in this, Zuko had an edge. It had been five excruciating years since he first squirmed through tea with Uncle. Apart from the clenching of his jaw, he held perfectly still.

They spoke in terse pleasantries for a while, until Iroh finally worked around to the point. "You have yet to tell us the occasion for this visit, Admiral," he said as he peered over his cup.

Zhao set down his tea and folded his hands before him. "Ah yes, a most unfortunate matter, I'm afraid. Due to the sensitive nature of the navy's activities in this region, it is my unfortunate responsibility," he said, a faint smirk tugging around his mouth, "to formally prohibit this vessel from entering southern Earth Kingdom waters."

Zuko forcibly unclenched his fists under the table, never looking away from Zhao. "An admiral can't restrict my ship's movements," he said in his calmest voice. "Even banished, I still outrank you."

To his right, Iroh sat very still, watching Zhao from under hooded lids.

"Oh, I'd never dare to contest that, Prince Zuko. But this," he said, producing a messenger hawk scroll and laying it on the table before him, "is a royal mandate sent directly from the Fire Lord." Zuko snatched up the scroll and, as he was reading it, didn't see how Zhao's smirk widened. "As you can see, these waters are off-limits for all non-military ships."

"How fortuitous that you were nearby to alert us to this development in person," Iroh said.

"Yeah," Zuko said in an undertone as he began reading the scroll a second time.

"Yes, General Iroh, fortuitous indeed that our paths would cross. For the past two days, I've been investigating reports of a most unusual creature sighted in the south islands. Perhaps you might have glimpsed it in your travels?" He laid both hands on the table. "A flying bison?"

Zuko's fingers crumpled the scroll as he shoved it back across the table. "We haven't seen anything like that."

"Aren't they supposed to be extinct?" Iroh asked, laughing a little too loudly.

"Yes. But so are the Air Nomads who used to ride them," Zhao said. He was watching Zuko, waiting. "And with the Avatar returned, suddenly extinction doesn't seem quite so permanent."

Zuko scowled back at him for a long moment. Then, he sat back and lifted his teacup to slowly sip. "If you've finished delivering your message, I have things to do."

"Prince Zuko," Iroh said. "That is no way to speak to a guest."

Zhao was already rising. "Quite alright, General Iroh. The day grows short and the hunt for the Avatar awaits." He paused at the door to look back with a smug smile. "Best of luck with… things."

Zuko listened to the clank of the door and then the impacts of boots as Zhao led his escort back as they had come. He waited until the other man was past hearing before he leapt to his feet and hurled his teacup at the far wall, shattering it into innumerable pieces.

"Aw," Iroh said, shepherding the last two cups away. "That was the last guest cup. How will we ever entertain with just two cups?"

"That doesn't matter anymore! Don't you understand?" Zuko whipped his arm around to point at the door, finger trailing a little flame. "Zhao has won a royal mandate that effectively makes the sea south of the Earth Kingdom into Fire Nation water."

Iroh frowned up at him then, that assessing edge returning to his eyes. "And now if your ship is spotted there, you will be arrested."

"Yes! Zhao has made it impossible for me to search the coast." Zuko clutched his head and turned away, then slashed his arms downward. He went on as he glared at the shut door. "I'm too close, Uncle. I can't let him stop me now."

"But what can you do?" Iroh asked. "He's already taken our land transport. Without the ship, we would have no way of moving safely through disputed territory that is still primarily held by the Earth Kingdom."

"I know."

"I mean, we're Fire Nation nobles! With an armed escort! We would really draw attention to ourselves!"

"I know!" Zuko turned a scowl on the old man. "But I'm too close to give up now."


After walking into the near-empty market a little past sunset and having a tense discussion with the last potato merchant about the drawbacks of the rigidity of monetary trade, Katara and Aang ended up gathering nuts in the woods outside of the village and then sleeping with Appa in a clearing. On the bright side, an old woman with a big cart of used clothing had tutted over the skinny Water Tribe boy in his shirtsleeves and gave Katara a moth-eaten wool poncho.

Now that night had fallen and the chill had deepened in their little clearing, she was doubly grateful for the charity. Aang seemed perfectly comfortable sprawled out on Appa's side but, for all the bison's warmth and soft fur, Katara had trouble sleeping that way.

He was so big and warm, and she couldn't stop remembering the creepy prince. He had been big and warm, too, only more heavy and hot - heat had seeped through his armor and she could almost still feel it on her hips and butt, under her hands, everywhere he had touched her. When she closed her eyes, she could almost see his glaring face, with those eyes so asymmetrical and yellow and sharp.

Katara had hugged plenty of the men from her village before, had even seen a couple of them naked when she helped Gran-gran with certain healings, but she had never felt disconcerted by a man the way she had today. This had been frightening, especially when he had started taking off her shirt. She had panicked and thought immediately that he had seen through her disguise, that he meant to force himself on her right there on the moss and leaves.

But that clearly hadn't been the case. The shock in his eyes when he looked down and saw her bound chest had been obvious. He hadn't suspected. That was heartening on its own. But not comfort enough to drive away the memory of that terrifying second when she had thought he was really going to try to kiss her.

Katara rolled onto her back and shuddered. Hakoda's warning was coming back to her now, what he'd said about awful things happening to women in war. She was frightened now that she was starting to really understand what that had meant.

But it was far too late to turn back, and even if it hadn't been, Katara refused to be scared off that easily. She would find that camp and she would learn bending and help keep Sokka safe. All she had to do was find the rebels. Katara let her fear drain away and stared up at the stars for a long while, trying to think of a way to find a secret rebel training camp.

"Maybe we should just ask people," Aang suggested over their morning nuts. "Just because the Kyoshi warriors thought we were spies doesn't mean everyone in the Earth Kingdom will, too."

"That's actually not a bad idea," Katara said as she daintily picked a bitter flake of hull from her teeth. "Except that we'll be drawing attention to the fact that there's a secret camp somewhere, and also leaving a trail of witnesses who might remember us if Zuko comes asking later."

"Oh yeah. Ugh." Aang flopped back against Appa with a big sigh. "Traveling incognito is so frustrating."

"Would you rather go around telling people that you're the Avatar?"

"I don't know," he said at length. "Maybe."

Katara looked up from the nutshell she had been trying to crush, frowning. "That was kind of a joke, Aang. The more people know, the more they'll start coming after us."

"I know, it just feels wrong to hide from the world." He stared up at the morning sky, and it made his eyes shine, all that light. "I've been in hiding for way too long already. People need to know I'm alive."

"Aang, if you don't want to fight, you shouldn't draw attention to yourself. The Fire Nation is ruthless. They-" Katara raised her hand toward the empty space at her throat, then lowered it again. She met Aang's gaze squarely. "They wouldn't hesitate to imprison or kill a kid. It may not seem like the most Avatar thing to do, but for now the best we can hope for is to keep out of sight until you're strong enough to pose a serious threat. When you've really come into your power, the Fire Nation will think twice before messing with you."

Aang leapt to his feet. "It shouldn't be that way! The Avatar isn't supposed to threaten and intimidate people into doing what's right."

"I agree with you. The Avatar should be respected and honored," Katara said, "but that's not the reality we're living in, Aang. The Fire Nation is trying to dominate the world and the only thing they respect is power."

"It didn't used to be that way! My friend Cuzon was nothing like that!"

Katara nearly dropped her nut. "You had a friend in the Fire Nation?"

"I had friends all over!" Aang flung his arms around to demonstrate. "The Fire Nation! Omashu! Tons of little villages in the Earth Kingdom! I was going to the South Pole to look for friends there when I hit that storm and got trapped." His shoulders slumped. "And now it's a hundred years later and all my friends have probably died of old age."

Katara rose and placed a hand on his shoulder. "You did make a friend at the South Pole, Aang. I know that doesn't mean much in the face of all that loss, but I'm not going anywhere. I'll—"

He threw his arms around her waist and hugged her. It was a little bit of a shock to suddenly have his head pressed against her bound chest, but Katara held him close and rubbed his thin back, aching for him anyway.

"I'll never let anything happen to you."

For a moment, everything was still and safe.

"Wow," said a voice from the edge of the clearing. "That's really touching."


It took the rest of the day to skirt around the peninsula to the west and find a suitable place to land, but by dawn on the following day, Zuko marched off his ship at the head of his column of soldiers. He had left a handful behind to defend the ship, but it was a token force. The ship was to withdraw from the coast and weigh anchor on the horizon until Zuko returned with the Avatar and signaled for Lieutenant Jee to collect them. With any luck, by sunset they would be back aboard the ship and making for the Fire Nation.

But Zuko was never lucky.

"Ah," Iroh said, stretching his arms overhead. "There is nothing like marching at dawn in the Earth Kingdom! The air here is so fresh, with just a hint of mist. And look at those trees! The buds are thickening on the ends of the branches. You can really tell that spring is near at hand!"

Zuko only clamped his mouth tighter and didn't look at the old man walking beside him. He didn't look at the stupid trees, either.

Initially, Zuko had told his uncle to stay behind and run the ship in his absence but Iroh had had one of his obstinate moments. "No nephew of mine is going to march through hostile territory without backup," he'd said. And then, when Zuko tersely explained that he would have most of his soldiers to back him up, Iroh had waved it off as if over a dozen men couldn't possibly offer the level of protection that one concerned old uncle could.

Zuko knew perfectly well that Iroh was a master firebender, but he was also about sixty and for the last five years had mostly just displayed mastery of sitting around playing Pai Sho and drinking tea. It seemed likely that Iroh would only slow him down.

"Oh!" Iroh cried, and even around the side of his helmet, Zuko saw him drop. He spun back, thinking the old man had taken a fall.

"Uncle!"

But Iroh was only crouching by a bush, gazing at a twiggy lump dangling from one branch. "Look, Prince Zuko! This is the chrysalis of a Dragon Tongue Moth. When it hatches, the moth will appear brown and plain like the clouds of moths that gather around lights in the Earth Kingdom, but this moth is quite special in that it is carnivorous and uses the cover of other moths to sneak up on its prey."

Zuko clenched his fists and assumed a furious pose. "We don't have time for trees and bugs! We have to get across this peninsula before the Avatar moves on!"

"Oh yes, of course!" Iroh cheerfully rose and the party resumed its march. "It's been so long since I had the chance to really enjoy nature up close!"

"What are you talking about? We visited that stupid waterfall not a week ago. You were about as close to nature as possible." Zuko grimaced at the very memory.

"Ah, but a week later and many miles nearer the equator, life is bursting at its seams. It takes so little to turn the hard-shelled seeds of winter into tender sprouts, straining toward the sun!"

Zuko couldn't see Iroh peering at him expectantly, but he could feel it. He glowered and marched on.

To reach the village on the south end of the peninsula, they had to march a winding trail through hills with rocky caves. As the sun rose higher, it became more difficult to tell which direction they were going. It was past midday when Zuko led his men around a rocky outcropping and into a clearing, only to find himself face-to-face with a striking sight.

It quickly became evident that 'striking' was a very appropriate descriptor for a patrol of earthbending soldiers.


Katara and Aang both leapt into fighting stances and turned to face the voice, only to find a skinny old man standing just past the trees, wiping his eyes. Behind him was a cart of what appeared to be big pink mushrooms.

"I mean," he sniffed, "I ain't seen that kind of devotion between two young men since my danged darlin' Opo left me for that low-down man-thievin' potato merchant!"

Katara and Aang shared a sideways glance. Katara lifted an eyebrow. Aang smiled and shrugged. "I guess we are pretty great together," he said to the mushroom man. "Sorry to hear about Opo."

"Yeah," Katara added, tearing her speculative gaze from the airbender. "That must have been really hard for you."

"Sure was!" the old man said, digging a hanky from his pocket. "Woke up the next day feelin' like somebody'd plugged a squidtaki in my chest and let it bloom into this big beautiful frilly thing – you know how they do—"

Katara nodded with a pained smile. She did not know. Not at all.

"—and then just took a notion and ripped the whole thing out and threw it down and stomped on it like it was nothin'!" He made a stomping move with his skinny leg and heaved a sigh into his hanky before shoving it back in his pocket. "So I gave up on love and now I'm a supplier for the resistance!"

"Wow!" Aang said. "That sounds awful!"

"But," Katara cut in a little forcibly, "what a great cause to devote yourself to. We were actually on our way to join up, too – only we aren't sure how to get to the training camp."

"Hey, I'd love to help ya!"

Katara smiled as joy and relief bubbled up in her chest. Could it really be this easy?

"I don't know nothing about no training camp, though."

Katara's heart fell but Aang seemed less affected. He was rubbing his chin. "Wait, does that mean you do know something about a training camp, or…?"

"Nope," the mushroom man said, shaking his head. "Not nothing."

"Hmm…" Aang and Katara shared another glance.

"Can you tell us anything that might help?" Katara finally asked. "We don't even know where to start looking and it seems unwise to just ask anybody at random."

The mushroom man squinted and twisted the scraggly hairs on his chin together. "Well, all I really know in this world is fungi. I gather it up and sell it to a fella in Gao Ling – at a reduced rate of course! Wan Ma is his name, works as a groundskeeper or somethin' like that. You oughtta ask him about that camp you're lookin' for."

"Wow! Thanks!" Aang said.

"Yeah, thank you so much," Katara said, clutching her hands together before her. "Where can we find Wan Ma?"

The old man scratched his head. "Tough to say, really. I guess since today's a Tuesday he'll probably be at the match tomorrow night, if you can get there in time…"

"The match?" Katara asked, frowning. "What match?"


"Raugh!" Zuko leapt and spun, kicking two blasts of fire in rapid succession at the earthbender captain.

The captain raised a wall of dirt and easily blocked both strikes, then launched a boulder at Zuko's head. It glanced his shoulder and spun him off balance but Zuko quickly regained his root and attacked again before the other bender could pull back from his last strike. The captain hurtled against a tree and slumped at its base, groaning but still.

It was only then that Zuko realized the extent of the devastation around him. The ground was torn apart, clods of grass and rocks scattered amongst and across the unconscious bodies of earthbenders – and several of his own soldiers.

He quickly commanded his men who were still standing to see to the wounded. Then he turned toward an uprooted tree that was burning across the clearing in time to spot Iroh draw a deep breath and, with a calm press of his hands, put the fire out. Zuko turned away to watch his men rise stiffly to their feet. None seemed to have died – luckily, since the attack had been fiercer than he had expected. He did not look up as Iroh came to stand beside him.

"A decisive victory, Prince Zuko," the old man said.

"There were only six of them," he said, astonished.

"Yes," Iroh said. "The Earth Kingdom army is rigid and highly organized in its training practices. A small patrol such as this is designed for a strategy they call 'stun and run' – while the majority of the force stays to fight the enemy, a runner returns to base to inform command of the enemy presence. Then a full squadron is sent to wipe out the threat."

Zuko's eyes widened for an instant before Iroh raised his hand to indicate one of the soldiers who lay unconscious at the very edge of the clearing.

"Luckily you have a concerned old uncle who keeps these things in mind."

Momentarily stunned, Zuko stared at Iroh, immeasurably grateful and unable to say the words. He looked up to see one of the earthbenders coming to and quickly commanded him bound. At length, he looked back to find Iron still watching him. "I'll take the survivors captive and send them back to be held in the ship until I can complete my mission."

"And will you do the same thing the next time we encounter one of these patrols?" Iroh asked. His voice was quiet but harsh. "Do not make the mistake of thinking this will be the only one, Prince Zuko. The Earth Kingdom commander will not need a report to know what happened in this clearing when he sees the ground, the trees. And in a land filled with refugees, this wreckage will not go unnoticed for long. Then there will be larger forces patrolling, looking for a Fire Nation presence."

Zuko scowled, all gratitude forgotten. "Does that frighten you, Uncle? Are you so terrified of the earthbenders that you'd have me abandon my quest and accept a life of banishment?"

"I would have you think realistically about the strength of your enemies," Iroh snapped. He shut his eyes, then looked back at Zuko. His tone softened. "We cannot hope to force our way through this territory as if we own it, Prince Zuko. It is not a matter of fear. It is a fact."

Zuko glowered and opened his mouth to snap something scathing and dismissive, but at that moment a brown moth floated past his face and lit on Iroh's head.

"Ah," the old man smiled. "A Dragon Tongue Moth, already emerged! Do you see the red stripe down the abdomen? That is the telling mark."

Zuko scowled at the moth. There was indeed a thin red stripe down the center of its brown abdomen, though he wouldn't have seen it if he hadn't known to look.

His eyes widened as a sudden idea struck him. "You said this area was probably full of refugees, right?"

"Yes. Probably." Iroh's brows crept up. The moth opened and shut its wings slowly, then fluttered away.

Zuko turned to watch his men finish binding the captives. It appeared there had been no deaths. A tightness in his chest relaxed. "I want you to return to the ship with the men and wait for me."

"Prince Zuko," Iroh said quietly. "To disguise yourself convincingly, you will have to cut off your phoenix plume. Think of how that will look to your political opponents. If you do this, you will lend credence to any claims your enemies might make that you have turned against the Fire Nation."

"That will only ever matter if I capture the Avatar and return home, Uncle. And if I do that, any doubts about my loyalties will immediately be put to rest anyway."

Iroh watched him, clearly unconvinced. "That is a very optimistic view, my nephew."

"I have no other choice left," Zuko said through tight lips. "This is the only way I can capture the Avatar and reclaim my honor now. I won't be stopped by one stupid, shallow tradition."

Iroh drew a great breath and let it out with a sorrowful sound. "Then I cannot allow you to go alone on your most dangerous adventure yet." At Zuko's sharp look, he pressed on. "A young man traveling with his aged uncle will be a much more sympathetic figure than the young man alone."

Zuko held his scowl for a moment. He wanted to argue. He would be faster without Iroh. He would be more subtle, draw less attention.

And when he captured the Avatar, he wouldn't have his uncle hanging over his shoulder and asking uncomfortable questions. Not that he needed to be alone with her... exactly...

But Zuko thought of the earthbender patrol, and that pesky airbender who had so easily blasted him down that alley. Although he really didn't like it, Zuko knew he would need help to subdue both of them. Besides, it was only respectful to accept his uncle's offer.

He drew a breath and stiffly said, "And… it's come to my attention that a concerned old uncle can be… invaluable. When he decides to be."

Iroh smiled up at him cheerfully. "I'm so lucky to have such a wise nephew."

Zuko only frowned and turned away to give his men their new orders.

Chapter Text

Katara and Aang ate big pink mushrooms during the ride east to Gao Ling, a parting gift from the helpful old man. "Save them for supper time, now," he'd said, arching a bushy eyebrow in a suggestive way that Katara had totally misinterpreted at the time. Then he'd picked up his cart and tromped off through the woods.

They'd been in the air for an hour with their stomachs rumbling before she opened the sack and handed one of the mushrooms to Aang. He peered down at it speculatively. "I don't know Katara. The mushroom man was pretty specific about when we're supposed to eat these…"

"I'm sure it'll be fine," she said, taking a nibble of cap. "We haven't had an actual meal since Kyoshi prison soup. And we need to keep our strength up."

"Good point!" After that, Aang practically inhaled his share.

The mushrooms had an earthy, savory flavor that was unlike anything Katara had tasted before, and she really enjoyed them until hours later when Appa landed on a little hill outside the city and, even sprawled in the grass nearby, she felt like she was still sailing through the air.

"Wow," Aang said, slumping nearby. He was staring at the sun where it hung low in the west, raising a hand as if he might make a grab for it. "Is the sunset making everything pink, or is that the mushrooms?"

"I don't know," Katara said, staring up at the clouds, which seemed to be slowly whirling together – or not moving at all, it was hard to tell. It didn't matter, though, because everything was all pink and purple and glowing. "But it's so pretty."

She dozed off that way and it was like sinking into a warm bath, a sleep that poured around her and buoyed her up toward a sky seething with stars.

Katara looked down only to find that she was standing on the flat top of an iceberg. The ocean sprawled on forever all around, blue and turquoise and alive.

"Don't trust the lemur," said Sokka in a whisper-voice.

"Sokka!" Katara spun around. He was crouching on the other end of the iceberg, putting on war-paint. Something wasn't right, but she ran to kneel with him anyway. "I've come all this way to find you!"

"This was a bad idea, Katara." There was something wrong with his war-paint. It was all white. And red and black. It was a Kyoshi warrior's paint. "Are you ready for practice?" He reached up and grabbed her wrist.

"I- Sokka!" His hand was so hot. "You're not Sokka!"

He held her tight with one hand and used the other to wipe away the paint, only to reveal his shaved head and huge scar. His asymmetrical yellow eyes glared at her. "You're coming with me," the creepy prince said.

"No!" His hands were so hot. His entire body was so hot. Katara looked down and saw the iceberg was melting. "Look what you're doing! Stop!"

"You're trying to trick me, but it's not going to work," he said. He was up to his hips in a growing puddle of water now. The iceberg was losing its sharp edges. They were getting closer to sea level.

"Are you blind? Look around!"

But he wouldn't tear his eyes from her. They were sinking rapidly now. Katara was up to her waist in the puddle. Zuko was up to his shoulders. "When I present you to the Fire Lord, be sure to compliment his hair." His stern face sank under and he was still pulling Katara down.

"I won't! I'm not going!" She pulled hard against him but still she sank. The water crept up her neck, her chin. Finally, she drew a breath and her face went under. For a moment, she floated in calm darkness.

Then she needed to breathe. She thrashed, desperate, but she couldn't breathe.

"Aah!"

She found herself sitting upright in the grass on the hilltop. Momo fell in her lap from where he had been sprawled across her face and screeched, scrambling toward the big shadowy shape of Appa. Nearby, Aang rolled over in the grass and said something about hog-monkeys. Breathing hard, Katara lay back.

The sky was beginning to grow pale in the east, but the stars were still brilliant in the night sky. Just as they had been in her dream. Katara clenched her jaw. She didn't remember a lot, just Sokka turning horribly into the creepy prince. Something about an iceberg… All she really remembered were yellow eyes and hot hands on her wrists.

Perhaps it was the dream, but she couldn't lay still. Katara scrambled to her feet. Maybe she would take a walk. Just around the hill to help her think. She made her way down the hill and began marching. Now that she was really awake, she was filled with a boundless energy. She could probably walk for days if she needed to. She could probably run.

"Hey Katara!" Aang whirred by on a ball of air and started circling her rapidly. "Did you sleep well last night? Because I slept well! I feel really great! Do you feel great?"

"Yeah, I do. Aang!" Katara stopped marching and held out her arms. "This must be an effect of the mushrooms! Maybe this is why the rebels are buying them! As some kind of energy boost for the soldiers!"

"I don't know if I agree with the use of substances to achieve an altered state of being like this," Aang said as he whizzed around in the grass, "but it is pretty fun!"

"Aang, you have to quit airbending. It's dawn and we don't know who might be wandering around the woods."

"Okay!" He leapt spryly to his feet and stood beside her, smiling hugely. "So what are we gonna do today, Katara?"

She shrugged. "I don't know. We have all day until we can look for Wan Ma at the earthbending match. What do you want to do?"

Aang peered up at her and his face split into an enormous grin. "Oh, I think I can come up with some way to kill time."


Zuko stared down at the Avatar where he had pinned her at the bottom of the slope. "Finally," he said. "I've got you."

"Have you?" she asked. Her blue eyes were fierce and full of secrets.

He clutched her slim wrists in one hand and started tying the sash around them. Only, the sash turned to water and dripped between his fingers. It tickled and made her hands slick between his. She was slipping away. Zuko bared his teeth. "Stop it!"

"Or what? You'll force me?"

"Yes!" Zuko jerked back from the sudden revulsion in her eyes. "No! It's not like that!"

"You seem confused," she said. Her hands were on his thighs. He could feel them there, their cool weight.

"I'm not confused. Stop that! I know exactly what I want."

He tried to shove her hands away but his fingers passed right through hers. Suddenly, she was made entirely of water and the sash had reformed, twisting tight around his wrists. The Avatar's fingers crept under the plates below his belt and on, and on.

Zuko woke at dawn to the sound of his own pained groan and found himself laying on the ground in a forest. For a moment, he was very confused indeed.

Then he smelled smoke and braced himself on his elbow to find his uncle making tea in the clearing beyond.

"Where did you get all that?" Zuko demanded. The dinged cook pot he had seen last night when Iroh boiled them some sort of food that had tasted like dirt. The porcelain tea pot and cups had not made an appearance since their encounter with Zhao.

Iroh smiled at him far too brightly. "I found my teapot in with the supplies I packed when we left the ship yesterday. Isn't it wonderful? Now we can have an energizing cup of tea before we begin our day!"

Zuko wanted to leap up and shout but he was aware of his body's lingering reaction to the dream. It was quickly going away, but he didn't want to just jump up and risk Iroh noticing.

"We're supposed to be refugees," he said instead. "We can't walk around the Earth Kingdom and hope to blend in if you whip out a high quality tea set every time we camp!"

"What's high quality about it? It's quite plain. And, besides, the set is incomplete." He shrugged, smiling again. "Nothing quite exemplifies a life of loss and desperation quite like a half-smashed tea set."

Zuko had his doubts. He also had a niggling sense that Iroh intended a double meaning in that statement. So he scowled at the old man and sat up to stretch.

Before his soldiers had left, Zuko had shed his armor and traded his Fire Nation clothes for the underlayers of one of the earthbenders. Iroh was too fat for that, but his robe was more brown than red anyway and, without the shoulder plates and the topknot, he just looked like any scruffy old man.

A remarkably easy transition, Zuko thought darkly as he rubbed his stubbly head.

On the ship, he had had attendants who carefully shaved around the diamond of his plume every day. After he'd been burned, the physician had needed to shave away much of his hair to treat him. Zuko had just never bothered to grow it out again.

In fact, he would never admit to it, but he was a little afraid to. He wasn't sure how much of his hair would come back from the scarred area, if any, and adding a goofy lopsided haircut to his list of problems was likely to undermine his authority more than anything. So for five years, he'd worn the phoenix plume alone and he'd thought it made him still look something like a prince.

Except, apparently, not to the Avatar. She'd mistaken him for a bounty hunter. Zuko surged to his feet. A bounty hunter! He was the crown prince, destined to sit on the throne of the most powerful nation in the world someday. The very idea that he would hunt down people for money was so far beneath his dignity it was laughable.

"Tea, Prince Zuko?"

He spun to find Iroh sitting calmly by his dwindling cook fire, sipping from one delicate cup. "It's light," he said. "There's no time for tea. We have to find that stupid village before the Avatar escapes again."

"Perhaps if you take a moment to balance your mind before we resume our journey, you will find the correct path more easily."

"I already know the correct path! Now get up! We have to leave!"

Iroh sighed and drank the last of the tea from his cup, then began packing up his junk in the bag he had brought from the ship. Zuko watched with his arms crossed for a moment before huffing and stalking off to the south.

It was a mystery to him that Iroh had thought to bring along a tea set but no blankets or provisions apart from packets of tea leaves. The terrain of the peninsula had turned out to be much more challenging than Zuko had anticipated and a march that had looked on the map like a day's travel had stretched into two days and a cold, uncomfortable night on the rocky ground. He was sore and hungry and tired from a restless night and he could not wait to get to this village, capture the Avatar, and go back to the comfort of his ship.

He'd gone maybe twenty paces when Iroh came running to catch up. "Whoo," he said, grasping his belly. "If we are going to keep racing around this way, I may actually lose some of this extra weight at last." He smiled. "Not that I don't feel attractive already."

Zuko glowered at him but kept marching onward. "How can you think about your body image at a time like this?"

"Reflection on the self, and the Self, is an important part of choosing right action, my nephew, and it happens no matter what you are doing – whether hunting the Avatar or hunting a meal." He shot Zuko a sly glance. "Or hunting a pretty girl…"

Zuko gritted his teeth. "The Avatar is not just some pretty girl. She's a spirit reincarnated for thousands of years, capable of feats of incredible power. And capturing her is the only way I can even hope to reclaim my honor."

"Perhaps," Iroh said thoughtfully, "but without self-awareness, how can you be sure that you are not losing yourself in the process?"

"I'm not losing anything," Zuko said. "I have nothing left to lose."


"Yeah-ha-ha!"

Katara clutched her hands together before her and winced as she watched Aang ride a mountain goat-dillo down a sheer cliff face. It thrashed and leapt, spearing upward with its pointy horns as it tried to fling the airbender off, then balling suddenly into its shell and rolling down along a narrow trail. Aang just ran on top of it, unbelievably agile. And merry. He was having the time of his life.

Katara, on the other hand, was sitting on a ledge across the ravine, envisioning the sort of enormous punctures those horns could cause and the many broken bones that were an inevitable consequence of a fall from this height.

She really wanted to ride one, though. She could probably do it if she tried.

Katara shook her head roughly. That had to be the mushrooms talking. The hike up into the mountains had taken most of the edge off that swell of energy but she kept having the weirdest urges to do reckless stuff. And she was definitely not more physically capable than normal. She'd taken a pretty rough fall jumping from rock to rock earlier because she had had this feeling that she could do anything when, really, the physical limits of her body still applied. Even so, the fall hadn't hurt as much as it should have, and Katara might have been lulled back into the giddy invincible feeling again if it hadn't been for the towering inner giant that was her responsible side.

"Katara! You've gotta try this!"

"Be careful, Aang!"

But he wasn't. The mountain goat-dillo threw him and he went hurtling across the ravine into the cliff face near Katara with a breathy "Oof!" He slid down and lay on the ledge beside her, grinning a dazed kind of grin. "I always wanted to try that," he said.

"Are you okay?"

"Yeah," he said, whirling around to sit upright and launch off the ledge. "I'm going again!"

"Wait!" Katara snagged the back of his flappy tunic and pulled him down to sit with her. "It's past midday. We should probably start heading back now so that we can meet Wan Ma."

"Oh yeah! Good idea!"

They made their way down the rocky trail, which was a lot more treacherous than Katara remembered it being. Momo – who had also had his share of mushrooms – was flying intricate loops overhead like a tightly-wound buzzard. Aang was chattering on and on about things he had ridden and aspired to ride. Katara drew a deep breath and interjected an 'uh-huh' and a 'that's great, Aang,' whenever he paused, but she wasn't really listening.

She was wondering what the rebels could possibly hope to accomplish by feeding these mushrooms to their troops, apart from getting a bunch of them killed.

They got back to their campsite a little before sunset and ate some nuts they had gathered along the way. As she was cracking one between two rocks, Katara longingly remembered how good those mushrooms had tasted. Luckily, they were gone, or she might have been tempted to eat another one.

At dusk they snuck into the slums of Gao Ling and crept past Earth Kingdom guards who patrolled the streets. It took some time to find the seedy wine house that the mushroom man had described, and by the time they got there, the fights were well underway. At the time, though, they didn't know that was what was going on.

"Seems really quiet to be the place we're looking for," Katara said, looking through the dully lit windows at the few, scattered clientele inside. She checked the sign again to be sure. It had apparently been painted over not so long ago, and read 'Qin Lo Chun's House of Falling Rocks.' "Nope. This is it."

"Do you feel that?" Aang asked. "The ground is shaking a little."

Katara looked down at where the planks of the porch quivered slightly against their loose nails. "Huh," she said.

They went in and approached the man at the bar, who frowned at them. "I don't serve minors," he said, "so don't even ask."

Katara frowned. "We're not here to drink. We're, um, here to see a man about a badger-mole."

The barman's eyes narrowed. "That's a real big animal for two little kids. Maybe you oughta go home and sleep on it."

"Actually," Aang said, smiling, "we're very mature for our age."

"Look," Katara cut in. "We're not leaving until we see the… badger-mole so you might as well just let us. See it."

He stared at her a moment, eying her roughed-up face. "You look like a scrapper. You'll probably be fine. It's your little buddy I'm worried about."

"He's resilient," Katara said, patting Aang's head through the weird little hat he'd adopted to hide his tattoo.

The barman grumbled but glanced around and led them into a back room where he made a couple of sharp gestures and used earthbending to open a stone door onto a tiny stone room. He gestured them in. "I'll lower you and you pay down there. And don't you dare tell any of your little friends about this."

"Don't worry!" Aang said. "We're completely reliable."

The stone door shut behind them and then they were dropping through the dark. Katara grabbed the stone wall, feeling sick not just because of the drop, but because they didn't have any money at all.


"What do you mean you won't take Fire Nation money?"

The potato merchant fixed Zuko with a disdainful look and crossed his arms. "I don't know what part of the Earth Kingdom you came from, but we're at war with the Fire Nation. Their currency's no good here. For our infrastructure to hold against the manifold stresses of war, we must avoid artificial inflation wherever possible. And besides," he added, scanning Zuko's dirty Earth Kingdom disguise, "I don't do business with looters and thieves."

Zuko snarled and had just opened his mouth to reprimand this mouthy peasant when Iroh squeezed in front of him. "We'll pay double," he said. "These yellow ones are very robust!"

The merchant's face transformed and he cheerfully sold Iroh a sack of lumpy potatoes for a ridiculous sum of money. Zuko only stood back, scowling over his crossed arms until Iroh was ready to move on. "We need to leave this place. No one here has seen them."

"But where do we go next?" Iroh asked with a bewildered shrug. "All we know is that they probably at least stopped here. If we aren't patient enough to ask around, we will risk going in the wrong direction."

"So we'll follow the coast and-"

"Oh! My goodness! Your ears must be freezing!"

Zuko found his path blocked by a skinny old lady in front of a cart heaped with clothing. She wore a shapeless hat and her limbs seemed to stick out from a bundle of not-quite-matching layers. He frowned down at her twitchy waving hands.

"Let Miss Meong find something for you!" She began rummaging through her cart, flinging things left and right.

"Don't bother," he said, and was about to walk around her when she leapt up and pulled an itchy green hat over the top of his head and down to his eyeballs. Zuko scowled and would have reached up to yank it off, but Iroh caught his sleeve.

"That is a nice piece of embroidery!" he said, digging in his pocket. "What do we owe for it?"

The old lady held up one bony hand. "Miss Meong doesn't charge for supplying refugees with the necessities. She is the generous heart healing the wounded body all around her."

Zuko was pretty sure that Miss Meong was a crazy bag-lady and that the hat she'd put on him might be giving him some kind of lice at that very moment. Iroh, on the other hand, was delighted and engaged her in a friendly conversation about the rewards of public service. Zuko had rolled his eyes and turned to walk away when the old lady finally said something interesting.

"Why, just the day before yesterday a pair of lost boys came staggering into town, no money, no food, desperate for anything at all, the one frozen about half to death, the other as bald as you, poor boy, and Miss Meong gave them the woolliest things she had available. Probably saved their lives, and does she ask for payment? No…"

Zuko turned back. "The bald one. Did he have a blue arrow tattooed on his head?"

Miss Meong scratched her chin, thinking. "Yes? Maybe? Miss Meong sees a great many sad little heads."

"Which way did they go?" Zuko demanded.

"Forgive my nephew," Iroh said to the wide-eyed old lady. "The two boys you are describing are his friends, and he is concerned about their safety."

Miss Meong smiled weakly at Iroh, then glanced back at Zuko. "They seemed to have a camp north of town…"


"Hey kid, no free shows. You either pay up or get out."

Katara stared up at the enormous bouncer who was taking admissions by the door. He was blocking the hallway ahead with his body, but she could hear a crowd shouting and jeering beyond. There were also thunderous crashes of rock and smashing glass, and occasionally some screams of pain. She kind of didn't want to see what was going on past the corridor. But she had to.

"We're just looking for someone," she tried again to explain. Even here she had to shout over the noise. "We've come a long way and we just want to talk to a guy who's here. We won't even look at the fight."

"No free shows. Back on the elevator." The bouncer started herding them back through the doorway.

"Aang, go!"

"Sorry!" he said with a shrug before darting between the big man's legs and then racing down the hall.

"Hey! Get back here!"

The bouncer half-turned after him and Katara saw her chance. She darted around him and raced down the corridor. She felt the bouncer's fingers snag in the back of her poncho and a rock jut up to trip her but then she stumbled free and she dodged into the crowd beyond.

To anyone who had seen the Earth Rumble tournament, the underground bare-knuckle earthbending matches would seem less showy and excessively violent. The ring was much smaller, a circular pit around which the audience crammed on tiered stone balconies, placing bets and shouting while the combatants below beat each other to a pulp.

To Katara, who was on the lamb from a bouncer, knew very little bending, was caught in a big crowd for the first time, and recently learned exactly how much it hurt to be kicked much less pummeled with rocks, the entire experience was nightmarish. A scuffle broke out over a bet nearby and she dodged around it. Where had Aang gone? Which of these people was Wan Ma? How was she supposed to find anyone in this chaos?

"Hey! Watch it, skinny!" said a piping voice as Katara bounced back from another body.

"Sorry! I-" She froze. The girl she had collided with had to be a couple years younger than her and her eyes were pale, unseeing. She was blind. Katara had run right into a blind girl. "Oh my gosh! I am so sorry! Are you okay?"

"Well, I think so but I could really go for a cold drink. How about you buy me one." It wasn't a request.

Katara jerked her head back from the expectant hand the girl threw out. "I'm sorry," she said, a little less apologetically, "but I don't have any money."

"Of course you don't." The girl sighed and dropped her hand back to her side. "Did you just sneak in or something?"

"I! No! I didn't!"

"Wow," the girl said, a little smile creeping across her face. "It's okay, you know, I sneak in all the time. They've got this stupid policy about letting young girls in. It's such a crock."

Katara's jaw hung open. "I am not," she said, "a girl, okay, I'm a guy."

The blind girl laughed. "You mean to tell me that with that girly voice and that girly posture and that girly apologetic crap, you're trying to pass as a boy? That is rich!"

Katara scowled. Girly posture? Was this kid not actually blind? Was that just some kind of scam to get free drinks out of strangers? She opened her mouth to make an accusation but a bell rang below and the girl raised a finger in her face – alarmingly close to her mouth, actually.

"Hang on a second."

The announcer had leapt into the center of the ring below as the other two contestants were being mopped up. "And now," he cried, "the much-awaited match of the week! We have here, straight from Omashu, an earthbending street-fight legend! Wanjo Naru!"

The crowd screamed and booed and leapt up and down and Katara almost didn't see the strapping young man as he emerged, waving, from a tunnel. He wasn't as huge as the last contestants had been, but the wide belt and loincloth he wore did little to cover the long muscles of his belly and thighs. His hair was a bushy mass except for the wide topknot favored in the Earth Kingdom and his grin was broad and gleaming.

"Is he pretty?" the girl beside Katara asked.

Momentarily forgetting that she was angry with this girl, Katara sighed. "Yeah. He's pretty."

Katara didn't notice, but the girl smirked. "Good."

"And," the announcer went on, "to teach Wanjo how we do it here in Gao Ling, four-year champion of the Earth Rumble Tournament and undefeated master of the bare-knuckle ring, The Blind Bandit!"

"That's my song," the girl said, and dropped into a quick form. Then she was gone, replaced by the pillar of rock that had jutted up to launch her.

Katara stared, mouth hanging open again. The crowd was already going crazy before the girl went soaring overhead and landed in the pit, precisely opposite Wanjo Naru. When she hit, the ground rippled to meet her and the cheering reached a fever pitch.

"So Wanjo!" the Blind Bandit said as she straightened. "I hear you're a real pretty guy. I'll try not to mess up your face, too much."

There were some 'ooh's and hisses from the crowd. Wanjo stood tall through it with a dignified look on his face. "I know you're only threatening me because you're intimidated," he said at last. The crowd jeered. "But don't worry, Blind Bandit, I will beat you, but I won't humiliate you as you probably deserve."

"We'll see who's humiliated when the dust comes down," she said.

The fight that ensued – which Katara watched as if frozen in place – was brutal. The Blind Bandit was smooth and seemed to know what Wanjo Naru was doing before he did it, but Wanjo was quick and used a variety of techniques. They both landed glancing blows but there was no true sign of who would be victorious. Katara bit her nails, hoping despite herself that the blind girl wouldn't get crushed in rubble.

So she didn't see it coming at all when the bouncer latched a hand on her shoulder and spun her around. "Won't even watch the show," he said. "Right. You're in big trouble now, kid."


Chapter Text

Katara quickly found herself marched into an office off the hallway that she had run through before and forcibly seated in front of a wide desk. On the other side sat a skinny man with a tattoo on his neck, counting money. He didn't look at her until he had finished with the coins in his hand and scribbled a number in a ledger before him. Then he folded his hands and looked up at her.

"So you think you can come running into my joint and see my fights for free, huh?"

"Oh no! This has all just been a big misunderstanding." The crowd roared behind her.

"A what?"

"A misunderstanding!"

"A misunderstanding?"

Katara nodded.

"Yeah, see, that still don't fix the situation I've got here now, which is that I got two spectators in my audience and two coins missing from my pocket. You get me?"

"Um, yes." There was another surge of cheering. "Yes!"

"Good. Now what do you want to do to rectify my situation, kid?"

Katara leaned forward, clasping her hands before her. "I'd like to begin with a heart-felt apology…"

The skinny man rubbed his fingers together. "That's real sweet but it's got no jingle. Try again."

"Uh, my friend and I would be happy to, uh, wash dishes for you or something…"

"Wash dishes? What do you think this is, your granny's tea shop?"

Katara crossed her arms. "Well what do you want us to do? We don't have any money. We can't even afford food."

"Oh, poor little refugees got no money. Save that sad tune for somebody who ain't heard it five times a night for the past thirty years." He leaned forward on his desk and pointed a hard finger at her. "You and your hoppy little chum are gonna work off your admission in the ring."

"What?" Katara sat back hard.

"I said-"

"I heard what you said! We're not earthbenders! We don't even like fighting!"

"I can imagine why that might be true," the man said dryly as he gazed at her bruised face. "But a debt's a debt, and you two ain't leaving this stadium until you've paid your admission, one way or another."

"Surely we can work something else out. You seem like a… reasonable enough sort of person," Katara said, raising her voice to be heard over a surge of screaming from the crowd outside. "See, I came here looking for a man named Wan Ma. Do you know the mushroom man?"

"The mushroom man?"

"The mushroom man!"

"Yeah, I know the mushroom man! Real fun guy."

Katara blinked. "Well, he sent us here to find Wan Ma, who has some information we need."

"Is that so?" the man said, sitting back and steepling his fingers before him. "And what makes you think Wan Ma would help you for free? I mean, uh, he's a reasonable guy, but…" He shrugged, brushing his lapel.

Katara was getting a weird, nervous feeling in her gut. "Uh, it's for the good of a free Earth Kingdom?"

The man smirked. "Right. Let's talk seriously for a moment, now," he said, arching an eyebrow. "I'm Wan Ma. You look Water Tribe. You a bender?"

Katara gave a weak nod. "Katto."

"Katto of the Water Tribe. I like that. I can work with that. So here's my offer, Katto of the Water Tribe." He turned his steepled fingers to point at her. "You fight a round. I'll forgive you that little misunderstanding and tell you whatever you want to know."

Katara swallowed. "I'm not a very good bender," she said. "I won't win."

"That's alright," Wan Ma said, nodding toward the door. "This mob loves a lost cause."


When Zuko finally found the clearing north of the village, there were only a few signs that his quarry had ever been there. The grass was still a little bent from where a huge animal had lain and there were a few long white hairs snagged in a bramble. But there was no sign of where they might have gone from that point. The bison had taken off and the trail simply ended.

After some deep breathing and a long look at his map, Zuko led his uncle back to the coast to the south-east and then followed it toward the distant mountains as the sun set at their backs.

Iroh had not been helpful since they left the village. "Honestly," he was saying. "I think it looks good on you!"

"It looks ridiculous." Zuko scratched at the green hat. It actually did keep his ears pleasantly warm, but it was hideous. "The only reason I'm still wearing it is to make my face harder to recognize. If we come upon the Avatar suddenly, the element of surprise could make all the difference."

"I am sure that, when the Avatar sees you again, she will find you cool, yet sensitive."

"She'll find me ready," he said, scowling at the mountains. He did not notice Iroh's rising brows and sideways glance. "No more surprise attacks or little airbender friends popping up out of legend to save her this time."

Iroh tugged at his beard for a moment, watching Zuko watch the mountains, but said nothing.


Katara didn't see them prepare the ring for her. All she saw was a series of corridors and tunnels and a steamy locker room where a bunch of naked earthbenders were showering and slapping each others' backs. And butts. Apparently men did that here. Katara turned red to the roots of her hair and followed the guy with a clipboard straight through the room.

"Are you certain you won't take your shirt off?" he asked before they moved on. "The crowd really loves that."

"Um, no. I'm good."

He cast a disparaging eye over her shoulders and muttered something like 'no big loss' before turning away. Katara glowered but didn't press the issue.

In the last tunnel, she crossed paths with Wanjo Naru, who was even taller and brawnier and handsomer than he had seemed from afar. He also had a bruise covering about half his face and was walking with the help of two medics. That didn't actually do as much to diminish his attractiveness as Katara might have expected. She experienced the sudden urge to run and help him along, to lay her hand on his big, wide chest and soothe his hurts.

Katara shook her head roughly. That was a weird thought. Was that an affect of the mushrooms, too? This was no time for fantasies. She had a job to do.

This would be just like having Suki beat the crap out of her, only afterwards she would get the information she needed to find the rebels. She was so close. All she had to do was put on a show. And get pummeled with rocks.

Katara set her teeth against the fear and raised her chin.

The guy with the clipboard led her to a blocked off tunnel and gave her some last-minute instructions. Then, he hustled away and Katara was alone, breathing deeply and listening to the muffled roar of the crowd, the shouts of the announcer.

"For the final fight of the night, Wan Ma presents a special treat. From the frigid icy plains of the North Pole, for the first time ever, a bender has come to challenge the bare-knuckle earthbending master herself!"

Katara felt a little sick. None of this was true. And now she had to fight that vicious blind girl? The girl who knew she was a girl and could expose her to everyone? Why had she ever agreed to this? She drew some more deep breaths.

"You all know your champion," the announcer was saying to the wild screams of the crowd. "Now, I give you the challenger, Katto of the Water Tribe!"

The stone door ground open and Katara strode out into the light. There was a lot of booing and a little laughter from the crowd. As her eyes adjusted, she could see the ring had been altered into a wide strip of stone flanked on either side with deep water. She had emerged on one end of the stone strip. On the other end stood the Blind Bandit, smirking.

"Katto of the Water Tribe?" the girl laughed. "I've never even heard of you!"

Katara struggled for a comeback. "Are- you sure you shouldn't be named the Deaf Bandit, then? Since you haven't heard of me?"

The crowd was silent. The Blind Bandit slashed an am through the air to point at her. "Not cool. I'm gonna give you a real pounding for that one, Katto."

Katara tried not to look as nervous as she felt. The announcer began the countdown. A creepy smile spread across the Blind Bandit's face. Sweat prickled the back of Katara's neck.

"Begin!"

The Blind Bandit struck first with a pillar of rock that slammed hard into Katara's gut and sent her hurtling back against the wall. She slid down to the ground and then dodged sideways, managing to miss the next blow by diving into the water. Before she hit the surface, she heard the eathbender shout.

"Lucky!"

Katara surfaced quickly, forming a big disk of ice that she could stand on and turning to face her opponent again. Only, the Blind Bandit wasn't looking at her. She was staring straight ahead as if listening very closely.

"Hey Katto," she said. "Is your voice always this squeaky and girly or are you nervous about fighting a real bender?"

"I'll show you a real bender!"

Katara froze the water all around her and broke off a huge chunk of ice like she used to do at home. She was about to launch it at the blind girl when a head-sized rock caught her in the belly and sent her sailing across her own ice to fall hard, completely flipped over onto her face.

She leapt up snarling. With both arms she raised jagged walls of ice one after another to block the next couple of flying rocks, then sent a powerful stream swirling around the ring at the earthbender. It hit her like she didn't even see it coming.

"Waugh!"

She went flying into the water on the far side of the rock strip and came up with one hand on the far wall. Her black hair clung to her face.

"Alright, that's it!"

A column of rock shot up out of the water and the Blind Bandit stood on it to hurl huge chunks of rock at Katara. Katara raised more shields but the stones quickly blasted through, leaving her exposed to the last rock, coming straight for her head.

Until a gust of air blasted it down into the ice and Aang landed in the middle of the ring.

"Enough!" he shouted. "We didn't come here to fight in your stupid competition. We're looking for Wan Ma."

There were mutters around the audience. Katara came to stand beside Aang, peering up at all the stunned faces. In an undertone, she said, "What part of staying out of sight are you finding so difficult exactly?"

"All of it," Aang said. "The world needs to know I've returned. The rest will work itself out."

Katara clenched her jaw. That was definitely the mushrooms talking.

Aang raised his arms, staff in one hand. "I'm the Avatar, and I'm looking for Wan Ma!"

"He's over here," someone said. A bunch of people were pointing to the skinny guy with the neck tattoo, who stood stunned by the exit.

"The Avatar?" he said, disbelieving.

"That's right," Aang said, and flew up to talk with him.

Katara glanced around and tried to build a ramp of ice she could climb but ended up with an amorphous shape that just fell apart.

"Really?" the Blind Bandit said from behind her. "You hang out with the Avatar and you suck this bad at bending?"

Katara turned around and crossed her arms over her chest. "I was good enough to knock you around."

"That's only because I'm blind and I can't see your attacks coming, Katto!" She jabbed Katara in the shoulder with two fingers. "I want a rematch."

"Listen, I'd love to," Katara said, and then knocked her hand away, "but I kind of have an actual war to go fight instead of a make-believe one where I brutalize my own people!"

"All I hear is 'blah blah chicken blah blah excuse.'"

"You really should get your ears checked," Katara said sweetly, and stalked toward where an attendant was waiting to give her a ride up out of the pit.

She didn't see it, but behind her the blind girl narrowed her pale eyes.


After a jittery chat with the Avatar, Wan Ma was happy to take them to meet the leaders of the rebel forces. Flanked by a few earthbenders, he led Katara and Aang through tunnels under the town that seemed to go on forever. They rode a great stone block pushed by earthbenders through miles of tunnels, grinding fast through the clammy torchlit air.

At last, they emerged in a huge dome where shuttered lanterns marked wide walkways around the circumference that went up and down several levels, all visible from the edge. Katara could see nothing high above, where the ceiling vaulted away to darkness, but far below, she thought she could hear water.

"We're under the mountains," Aang said, amazed.

"Yeah," said Wan Ma. He spoke a few words to a man in a green uniform and sent him running off before shepherding them along. "Since the Fire Nation started moving in on the southern territories of the Earth Kingdom, refugees keep pouring into Gao Ling. The Earth Rumble Federation, and yours truly, took it upon ourselves to give something back to the people. So we built this place to serve as a base for the resistance."

"Uh huh," Katara said. "You sure struck me as a real champion of refugee wellbeing when you were coercing me into a pit fight."

Wan Ma shrugged. "Man's gotta eat, kid. You did great in there. I'll pay you next time."

"Right."

They took some open stairs up several flights until they reached what seemed to be the top tier of the facility, where Wan Ma led them into a meeting room with a huge map spread over a low table. A big Earth Kingdom man in nightclothes stepped away from the table as they entered. He stared unabashedly at Aang's arrow tattoo.

"Avatar Aang," Wan Ma said, "this… gentleman is General Fong. He leads the Earth Kingdom faction of the rebel forces. General, Avatar Aang and his friend, Katto of the Water Tribe."

"Avatar," Fong said, and the title emerged from his mouth the way a stale breath does from a swimmer too long underwater. He inhaled and bowed. "It is my honor to receive you."

"Thank you for your welcome," Aang said, and smiled. "Those are some nice pajamas."

Fong blinked and looked woefully down at himself, then back at Aang. Katara could see in his eyes the moment he truly realized Aang was just a kid. "Apologies for my state of dress," he said, slowly. "It is not every night that I'm awakened with the news that the Avatar has returned."

"Yeah, sorry about the hour." Aang rubbed the back of his neck.

"Not at all," Fong said. "Please, join me."

He gestured to the big table and Aang sat. Katara hesitated beside Wan Ma, clasping her hands together.

Fong noticed her. "You are from the Southern Tribe, are you not?"

"Yes," Katara said. She remembered what the Blind Bandit had said about her posture and straightened, letting her hands hang at her sides. "I came to join the resistance and met Aang along the way."

"You didn't come with the ship that recently returned from the South Pole?"

"Uh, no. See, my family doesn't really live with the rest of the village and, uh, I guess my, uh, uncle Hakoda kind of, forgot me." She shrugged, grinning hopefully.

Fong narrowed his eyes. They were weary but cunning. "I've never known Chief Hakoda to forget a man behind."

Katara swallowed. Her eyes darted to Aang, who looked really nervous. She hoped she didn't look that nervous.

Fong crossed his arms. "You look young for a recruit."

"Yes," she blurted. "I am, a bit. But, the way I see it, what's a few years when a war is going on?"

"But Chief Hakoda didn't see it that way, and he left you at home."

Katara raised her chin. "Yes."

Fong watched her a moment longer. "I don't get involved in the business of the Water Tribe, but I will say that you're starting your military career with a mark for disobedience."

Katara ducked her head at that.

"Excuse me," Aang said, and Fong immediately turned to face him. "If you're keeping a record, Katto deserves other marks too – for bravery, loyalty, and determination. He came almost all the way to the mainland alone in a canoe, and faced Fire Nation soldiers more than once. And he did all of that to get here, just so he could look out for his family." Aang smiled at her but she was watching the general, who was assessing her anew.

"Far be it from me to take the Avatar's recommendation lightly. I'll pass that information along to Chief Hahn," Fong said. "He'll be in charge of your training while Chief Hakoda is away."

"Chief Hakoda isn't here?" Katara asked.

"No," the general said, with a thoughtful look at her. "He's taken his crew on a mission. We don't expect him back for another month."

Katara wasn't sure whether to be dismayed because she'd missed her chance to go with him, or relieved that she would have time to train and establish herself before having to face him. She also desperately wanted to ask if Sokka had gone with him, but it didn't seem like the right time and Fong probably wouldn't know anyway.

"Private Tsing," he was saying, "escort Katto to the Water Tribe barracks. Make sure he has the basics. The rest can wait until morning."

Katara bowed to General Fong, then to Aang. He was looking at her a little uncertainly, as if he didn't want her to leave.

"See you later, Aang," she said.

He smiled then. "Seeya, Katto."

The green-uniformed man led Katara down far past the level where they had started. The air felt damper farther down, and they began passing many doorways blocked off with curtains that emitted snores from beyond. Finally, they stopped outside a door with a blue curtain, the private handed her an armful of folded blanket, and then he marched off. Katara watched him go for a moment, then turned back to the curtain, drew a deep breath, and pushed through.

There were bodies sprawled everywhere. Hammocks strung from the ceilings, stone shelves set into the walls, sleeping bags cluttered across the floor – the place was packed. And noisy. There were maybe a dozen different types of snores happening in that room simultaneously. It was impossible to tell if one of them might belong to Sokka.

Katara peered around for an empty spot and made for a corner where there was enough space to sit down. She stepped on a guy's hand and nearly tripped over another.

"Ooh – sorry!" she hissed. "Sorry…"

The snoring went on for the most part and, finally, she settled down in her corner and wrapped the blanket around her shoulders and, for hours, tried not to think about what Sokka would say when he saw her, or if he was even here, or how this wasn't the way it was supposed to be.


"Prince Zuko, are you sure you wouldn't rather make for the city?" Iroh asked again the next morning. "We could stay at an inn, sleep in real beds! All of this camping is hard on my old back."

Zuko kept marching onward. He refused to slow for his uncle's imagined maladies. He hardly slowed for rest – and not at all for food. "That city in too far inland. It would take most of a day to make the walk and the Avatar won't have gone there anyway. The rebel camp will be someplace where they can easily hide their ships. That means the coast."

"But what if the Avatar needed to stop for directions, too? Maybe someone in Gao Ling will know which way she headed? We could avoid days of fruitlessly searching the coast if we only take the time to visit the city first."

"Or we could completely avoid the city," Zuko said, turning to loom over the old man, "where, need I remind you, there are lots of people, some of whom may realize that we're not actually refugees."

Iroh smiled hopefully, "Or they might treat us with kindness because we are so downtrodden."

"I don't want any more charity from these people!" Zuko took off the hat and flung it over the cliff. It sailed a long way before vanishing into the sea far below. His ears immediately became cold again, but his head itched all over and it was driving him crazy, not scratching it.

Iroh peered woefully down at the roiling surf. "A shame to waste such delicate needlework."

"We're taking the coast," Zuko enunciated. He turned away and kept walking.


Katara was running through twisted tunnels of ice. All around her, there was rumbling. Sokka was lost somewhere here, maybe hurt. She had to find him before one of these tunnels collapsed, but she couldn't shout – the noise might bring it all down. She turned corner after corner and found herself running up a slippery slope, sliding back just as fast as she ran so she got nowhere.

Something made her turn her head to the side, some thread of intuition. The creepy prince was watching her through the ice. Was he trapped as well, or was he on the outside looking in?

Yellow eyes were locked on her, yellow eyes that wouldn't look away.

Katara jerked awake to the clang of numerous bells and shouting out in the hallway. "Get up! Get up, you lazy slugs! Morning workouts! Let's go!"

The men all around her were struggling into clothes and boots as they yawned and blinked bleary eyes. Katara, who hadn't even taken her boots off before sleeping last night, fell in with the crowd, following to wherever they were headed.

The men she had been sharing a room with turned out to be younger than she had expected – around her age, maybe a little older. They were all Northern Water Tribe.

And a few of them were really nice looking. Katara noticed this especially as they were pulling their shirts on over their muscled backs and chests. Most of them had a thicker build than her skinny brother – maybe a result of having enough to eat when they were growing up. Realizing she was staring, she folded up her blanket, noticed no one else was doing that, and then kicked it into a wad in the corner.

Apparently, they wore their hair longer in the North. Katara kind of wished she had known that before she had let Gran-gran shave the back of her head. On the way out of the barracks, she rubbed the bristly hairs that had grown in over the past week and wondered in passing whether she should shave it again or grow it out.

Those thoughts were quickly driven from her mind, though. It turned out the rebel complex was vast beyond Katara's expectations. In the mid-levels, they had huge training rooms, all lit by channels cut carefully through the rock that caught the daylight and magnified it off crystal growths to fill the rooms with light. On the way to wherever the Water Tribe recruits were going, they passed rooms full of Earth Kingdom recruits. Benders rolled boulders across the floor, guys with spears struck at dummies in red uniforms.

"Hey, are you new or something?"

Katara turned to find a couple of the guys walking ahead of her had turned back and were scrutinizing her as they walked. She gave her best first-day smile. "Yeah, I just got here last night. I'm Katto!"

"Jeeka," a guy with sad little mustache-hairs said, then nodded at the other guy, who had a bone piercing through his nose. "Attuk. You Southern Tribe?"

"That's right," Katara said. "How could you tell?"

"You kind of look like that Sokka guy. Only girlier." They laughed and Attuk slapped Jeeka's shoulder.

"Ha ha," Katara said, trying not to sound as nervous as she felt. She wanted them to like her, accept her into the group. That was what the Water Tribe was all about, the group, the community. This was all in good fun. "Yeah, well, Sokka is my cousin so we do share a certain family resemblance."

"Sokka didn't mention he had a cousin."

"Oh, he didn't? I guess he, uh, just doesn't talk about me much!"

Attuk only stared at her. Jeeka smirked. "He mostly just talks about how there's nobody decent to spar with in the whole South Pole."

They cast her pitying glances, laughed some more, and turned back around.

Katara blinked and frowned. That hadn't gone at all like she'd expected it to. She'd been nice. What was their problem?

They finally arrived at a big training room and mingled around racks of practice weapons with another group that had gotten there earlier. Katara spotted the back of Sokka's head from across the room. He was telling one of his jokes to a big crowd of uncertain faces.

She had to go talk to him before he spotted her and said the wrong thing. Katara wove through the group and waited behind Sokka for the end of the joke.

"…so the tiger-seal says to the sea-prune, 'Got any molar?' Get it? Teeth!"

Katara remembered that joke. It had never seemed funny to her, but she had missed hearing her brother tell it. In his audience, there were a few laughs, and some eye-rolling amusement. Sokka raised his hands in an open gesture and bowed his head. Katara tapped him on the shoulder and he craned his neck to peer back at her.

For an instant, he didn't recognize her. Then his jaw dropped and he spun around to face her, raising a finger to point. "Kat—"

Katara held out her hands and quickly spoke over him. "What, no hug for cousin Katto? Sokka, I'd almost think you aren't happy to see me."

"Katto?" Sokka stared at her and let his arm drop back to his side. He shut his mouth and glanced at the curious faces all around. "Katto! My cousin!" He flung his arm around her neck and began dragging her between the racks of weapons. Katara flailed an arm and went along. "My little cousin! It has been so long since we talked. Or met. In public." As soon as they were out of the crowd, he dropped his voice to a hiss. "What are you doing here?"

"Let go!" Katara shoved him until he released her from the headlock, then glared at him. "You know why I'm here."

Sokka glanced around again and put his arm around her shoulders, pulling her close so that he could speak very quietly and rapidly in her ear. "Katara, you don't know what kind of trouble you're in here. These Northern guys are not fooling around. If they figure you out, they'll want to kill you."

Katara rolled her eyes and started shaking her head, but Sokka pulled back to lock gazes with her. "I'm serious. They have a law. I checked. If they catch you, they'll execute you."

Chapter Text

Katara met Sokka's worried stare for a long moment, then laid her head on his shoulder. She hadn't come all this way just to die at the hands of her own people, but was it even possible, in such close quarters, to keep such a monumental secret? It didn't matter. She couldn't run away, now. She certainly wouldn't go all the way back home, not after all she had already endured, not if Sokka stayed behind. "I'll just have to not get caught. Which was the plan, anyway."

Sokka held her tight until the words sank in. "The plan?" He made a disgusted, almost whiney sound and pulled away from her. He was looking at the bruises on her face, his eyes getting wider every second. "You've always been so responsible and this is— this is just so stupid. Stupid and selfish and crazy. I never would have expected something like this from you."

Katara braced her hands on her hips. "Selfish? How was coming all the way here alone, going through everything I've gone through just to back you up, selfish?"

He pointed a finger at her. "You're not here to back me up. You're here because you want to learn waterbending! It's an obsession, Kat—" He gritted his teeth. "Katto, and if you keep at this, it's going to get you killed."

Katara huffed and opened her mouth to argue but he had already turned his back on her and started stalking out of the weapon racks. Past him, she could see the faces of interested observers. They snickered amongst themselves. Katara growled out a frustrated sound and made to follow Sokka.

This was just another of those stupid arguments that they had all the time back home. They argued, took a little time to reflect on what had been said, and then reconciled with greater understanding. If this one had been a little fiercer than normal, it was only because Sokka was scared for her safety. Katara asserted this to herself and, glowering at his back as he returned to his new friends, kept her distance.

Except, as she watched him laugh at something and crack another bad joke, there was a raw, lonely place in her gut that wasn't normal at all.

"You don't belong here."

Katara spun around to find herself peering up at a Water Tribe man with his big arms crossed over his chest. He was a bit past middle age and had a few long scars tracing his jaw line. His chilly stare was unflinching. It just screamed execution culture.

Katara stepped back. "What are you talking about? Of course I belong here. I'm Water Tribe!"

"You're Katto?" he said.

"That's right."

He nodded toward the door. "Master Pakku is training the waterbenders down by the pier."

"Oh! Okay!" Katara turned toward the door, then turned back, squinting. "Sorry, the pier?"

He didn't even look at her, turning to face the trainees as they hustled into rows. "All the way down."

Past him, Katara locked eyes for an instant with Sokka. He had that worried crease in her brow, the one she knew so well, but he just fell in with the other men. Katara scowled and, fists tight, stalked out of the room.

She found the nearest stairs and made her way down, listening through the echoes of men shouting and rocks rumbling, straining to hear something like water. Finally, she heard it, the rush and flow and rippling of water.

Katara emerged from the last flight of stairs at the bottom of the dome, which turned out to be a circular pier with a single exit - a channel cut straight through the rock. All around the circular harbor, she could see ships moored to stone posts, illuminated by outcroppings of huge, glowing crystals that stood taller than her along the edge of the water and jutted high out of the walls. The crystals cast a bluish light over everything, including the waterbenders.

Katara stood frozen at the bottom of the stairs, watching two young men bend whips and disks and shards of water at each other. Every motion was graceful, flowing from posture to posture as they attacked, defended, and swung round to attack again. She had never even seen waterbenders before, and it awed her now that she could become like these men, that she would learn to move that way, to command her element with that kind of poise. She was so happy, she could almost have wept.

Sokka's accusation came back to her then. Selfish. And with a feeling like swallowing an ice cube, doubt lodged itself deep in her throat. She had wanted this so desperately, for so long. Had she allowed that desire, that ambition, to blind her to what was right?

But now was not the time to think about it. One of the waterbenders lost his footing and went down hard, only to have his arms encased in ice by his opponent. "Not bad," said an old man with long hair and stringy mustachios, "For the beginner level. A well-trained firebender would easily escape from that pitiful effort at restraint. Next."

He raised his icy eyes and suddenly he was watching Katara as the sparring pair rubbed the backs of their necks and moved to sit with the other pupils. Katara bit back her joy and uncertainty and stepped away from the stairs.

"Don't tell me," the old man, who must have been Master Pakku, said before she could open her mouth to speak. "You're the waterbender who arrived last night with the Avatar and you're late for training because you thought you deserved to sleep in."

Katara stopped, stunned. "No, I just went to the wrong training room by mistake."

"Right," he said. "And I suppose you think I should just let you start training with the others, since it was only an innocent mistake."

She sensed a trap and hesitated. "Yes?"

Pakku arched an eyebrow. "Even the smallest error can have a terrible consequence - and you were not just late this morning, but for the past few weeks, during which time your fellow students have advanced far beyond the level of the beginner. Give me one good reason why I shouldn't send you back to your barracks until I have time for you."

Katara didn't notice how the students behind Pakku were elbowing one another and smirking wearily where they sat together in a row. She only noticed the way the old man sneered as if she could never hope to be good enough to earn this opportunity. It made her furious. "I traveled for almost a week to get here! In a canoe!" Pakku blinked a slow, bored blink. Katara clenched her hands into fists. "I deserve a chance to learn."

"You deserve it. That is exactly the sort of response I would expect - from an earthbender." Pakku went on, mouth curved up in a satisfied line. "Are you an earthbender, Katto of the Southern Tribe?"

"No." Katara had to force the word through her clenched teeth.

"Then study closely." He assumed a pose and drew a long stream of water from the harbor, bending it around him as he moved through the positions of an intricate form. "A waterbender must be able to swiftly adapt and redirect with cool precision. Entitlement has no place in waterbending, because a waterbender's expectations must always be fluid, so that he may react to sudden changes in his opponent's strategy and turn their strength into his own."
Katara watched, resentful and yet amazed at Pakku's grace and control. She wanted so badly to learn - but it was like he dangled the possibility in front of her, just out of reach.

Pakku closed out the form, returning the water to the harbor without a splash, and watched Katara with arms crossed over his chest. "You will spend today practicing the form I just showed you in the tranquility of solitude."

Katara stiffened. How could she practice a form when she'd only seen it done one time? "But-"

"And do it on the other side of the pier so that your flailing won't distract the rest of the class." He pointed across the wide circular body of water at a spot that was hard to see between the ships.

Katara opened her mouth to argue again, but remembered what he had said. Adapt and redirect. Cool precision. She wouldn't be able to sway Pakku with arguments or reason, but she could still learn from him if she was flexible.

Drawing a big breath, she bowed and stalked off around the pier. The soft laughter of the other students followed her until Pakku's voice cut across them.

"Pupils Hanno and Yarek, are you going to get up and show us your pitiable interpretation of bending or have you decided that giggling behind your hands like girls is a more appropriate pursuit for men of your calibre?"


Katara spent hours working on the form, trying to remember the details of how Pakku had guided the water, how he had shifted his weight. It was impossible - there were so many gaps in what she remembered that the best she could do was hit some major points and guess about the rest - but she worked at it anyway. As the day went on, her stream became steadier even as her muscles quivered with the work.

Around what must have been midday, a man in a green uniform interrupted her to let her know that lunch had been provided. When she followed him back around the pier, the others were already eating bowls of soup. Katara sat with them long enough to drink hers down, then shot Pakku - who sat comfortably on a chair of ice as he slowly ate - a dull glower before returning to her practice.

It was after lunch that Aang appeared. "Hey Kat- Katto!"

Katara dropped the water she had been streaming with a big splash and turned around to find him strolling towards her, a sheepish smile on his face. "Hey, Aang. Where have you been?"

"Meetings. Apparently it's the Avatar's duty to meet all the leaders of the rebellion and listen to them talk about their strategies for defeating the Fire Nation. And then advise them, I guess."

He sounded pretty glum about it. Katara offered him a helpless smile. "I guess they've got to be really glad to see you. The old legends tell us that the Avatar can restore balance to the world."

Aang heaved a sigh, shoulders slumping. "Yeah, only I can't do any of that big powerful Avatar stuff because I haven't mastered the other elements. It's like the generals don't get that. They keep telling me their ideas about the war but I don't even know anything about wars or strategy or fighting."

"Well… I know one thing you can do," Katara said, pulling her water up from the stone with a shift of her arms. "You can start learning waterbending right now. Did you talk to Master Pakku?"

"Yeah," Aang said, brightening. "He told me to come learn whatever you're learning. So, uh, what are you doing?"

Katara shrugged. "To tell you the truth, I don't exactly know."

She gave him a rundown of what Pakku hat told her and showed him what she could remember of the form. As he began working through the postures with her, his stream of water was bigger and smoother than anything she had produced so far.

"Like this?" he asked. The water swirled through a perfect strike and returned easily to him.

Katara frowned, cross at having worked so hard all day just to be outdone by a kid. "Yeah, that's great, Aang. Keep working."

"Oh! Check this out!" He added an improvised twist, swirling the water in an unexpected spiral. It was really cool. Katara scowled.

"You know what I just remembered? Master Pakku also said this should be done in tranquil solitude, so how about you go practice over there while I practice here."

"Oh. Okay." Aang began shifting away, casting her a hurt look. "I'll just be over here, then."

Katara felt a little guilty about snapping at him like that, but this was important. She had to focus on her own form, not get hung up over how much better he was at it. Already. With a deep breath, she sank into position and worked.

When the dinner hour came, Aang left for another meeting and all the students across the pier filed out to go to a mess hall somewhere. Katara, hot-faced and weary, decided to stay and keep trying. She would have to work harder than the others if she wanted to catch up and, despite being tired, she wasn't ready to stop. After a day of practicing the same motions, she felt strangely caught up in them, like she was washing back and forth in the surf.

"Put more weight on the balls of your feet."

She very nearly dropped her water. Pakku stood on a little ice floe in the harbor, watching her. "You must be ready at all times to change direction. When one path is blocked, the master waterbender already knows a dozen other ways to turn."

Katara adjusted her balance and continued with the form. From the corner of her eye, she saw Pakku draw up a high seat of ice from which he could observe. The form was easy now, the logic of tides seemed so simple, but there were still these gaps. Katara was afraid Pakku would notice and criticize her.

Instead, he said, "Chief Hahn informs me you're quite the adventurer."

Katara straightened. "I-"

"Oh please, don't let me interrupt your practice. By all means, carry on. Keep your knees bent."

There was a certain meanness to the way he said it, but Katara only returned to the form, a little more stiffly than before.

"It's interesting," Pakku said, "that your uncle never mentioned you to me. He'd led us to believe that there were no waterbenders at the South Pole."

"He had?" Katara said. She almost dropped her water yet again, but held on and continued slowly through the form. Preventing her from going to war made a lot of sense, but keeping her a secret altogether? Katara felt a sad, cold shell clamp shut in her chest. Was her father… ashamed of her?

"Yes," Pakku was saying. "The absence of benders, as you surely know, was a tragic result of years of raiding by the Fire Nation. Perhaps Chief Hakoda's caution was as well."

"I don't understand… Why wouldn't he have told you about me?" Katara turned to face him, but he only lifted an eyebrow until she returned to the form.

"Trust is not so easily come by amongst the rebel alliance, as you'll soon find out for yourself, no doubt. There are ears everywhere, and some of them invariably belong to the Fire Nation. Perhaps your uncle was protecting you because he did not want the enemy finding out that there was a lone waterbender left defenseless at the South Pole."

Katara swallowed. Despite the paranoia she had faced on Kyoshi Island, she had not considered the possibility that there might be spies in the rebellion itself. What if that creepy prince found out where she was? There was no way he would actually come after her, not in this fortress… was there?

"Then again," Pakku said, stepping down onto the pier, "maybe he's just embarrassed to share blood with a boy who can't seem to grasp the difference between tensed position and relaxed position."


"Enough!" Zuko shouted, flinging his arms out above him and barely restraining the urge to bend fire in his fury. He stomped up to the nomad leader and shoved a finger in his scruffy face. "One more song about freedom or the life of a wanderer or secret love tunnels, and I'll rip the strings off that pipa and strangle you with them."

"Okay, man, I hear ya," Chong said, holding up his hands. When Zuko backed off, he leaned closer to his wife and whispered too-loudly. "Careful, Lily. This guy has some serious anger issues."

"I can hear you and I do not have anger issues!" Zuko shouted.

Lily smiled at him and nodded sagely. "It's nothing to be ashamed of, Li. Anger is just the bright blossom sprouting off a hidden root-" she pressed her hands to her chest, "-of pain."

Zuko snarled and went to sit by Iroh where the old man was brewing tea by the fire. "Uncle, I can't travel with these people another day. They're making me crazy."

"I don't know," Iroh said, smiling, "That song about the secret tunnel is pretty catchy!"

Zuko stared at him, disbelieving. Behind him, the guy with the pipa was plucking out the chords of a new song he had been working on for the past few days. Zuko knew this was what he was doing because he had, for the past few days, been marching the coast with these vagrants trailing after him, singing their songs and telling stories to an especially jolly Iroh.

"We're out of food," Iroh was saying now, shrugging. "And they're happy to share in exchange for a little money. Although," he pinched the pouch hanging from his belt. "We are beginning to run low on funds…"

"That's because you keep paying double what things are worth," Zuko spat. He flung himself down and scowled up at the undersides of new leaves, washed ochre in the firelight. Beyond were the brilliant stars. They seemed very twinkly and happy and they filled Zuko with helpless, unspeakable rage. He shut his eyes and fiddled unconsciously with the necklace where it was tied around his wrist, rubbing his thumb along the smooth edge. It was weirdly calming.

They had been following the coast for a week now, with no sign of any rebels or bison bedding spots or waterbenders. Presently they were camped at the tip of an inlet that Zuko had been almost certain would take him to a secluded harbor. Only it hadn't. They had come all this way, and all he could think to do was keep going east, keep scouring the coast for any sign.

The only interesting thing he had seen in the past week was the huge number of Fire Nation warships patrolling the coast. It made him almost glad that he had come overland instead of by sea – almost. More than gladness, he felt fury at Zhao for forcing him into this position, and desperation to capture the Avatar and get back to his ship and frustration at the total lack of signs of where she had gone.

But more and more of late, he was tired. His feet were sore from the ill-fitting Earth Kingdom boots and he was always hungry. It gnawed at him, constant and oppressive. In all his years traveling the seas in search of the Avatar, Zuko had never gone hungry. He had missed meals in his enthusiasm for the search, but there had always been money for supplies, money enough that he had never given it a second thought.

Really, on some level, wasn't that a generous gesture on his father's part?

"Alright, everybody," Chong said suddenly, holding up an arm. "My newest song is ready for your enjoyment. So prepare to enjoy."

Zuko groaned and rolled on his side to face away from the others.

The nomad started singing some up-beat song with an edge and Zuko wasn't really listening until the chorus. "Katto is toast!"

He sat up in a flurry, watching the nomad go on.

He came to town from the Water Tribe.
She made him fight her just to stay alive!
She'd never ever lost a match before-
But he walked out on her to join the war!

She's the Blind Bandit,
and she's gonna find him,
and then,
Katto is to-oo-oast, Katto is to-o-o-oast…

As he heard the name again, Zuko leapt to his feet. "Katto? The waterbender?"

Chong stopped singing to smile at him. "Hey! You know Katto of the Water Tribe?"

Zuko crossed the camp and loomed over the nomad, on the brink of commanding him to divulge whatever he knew. But unaccountably, he remembered the bag-lady who had been so much more helpful when she thought he was looking for his friends. After a hesitation, he sat down near Chong and braced his hands on his knees in a very stiff version of informality. "Yeah," he said, forcing a lighter tone. "He's, uh, a friend."

"Wow, you're friends with Katto of the Water Tribe? You must know the Avatar, too!"

Zuko narrowed his eyes but pressed on. So maybe these morons were calling the little airbender the Avatar - that didn't mean anything. "I'm actually looking for him. We were, ah, traveling together. And got separated."

The girl who spent all her time dancing and picking early flowers peered up at him from where she'd been lying on a blanket. "Is it true that Katto of the Water Tribe adopted the Avatar as a little brother and has sworn a solemn vow to protect him?"

Zuko blinked, frowning a little harder. "No. I don't know."

Chong threw an arm around his shoulders. "You've gotta tell me honestly, man! For the people! Is Katto really brave or really dumb?"

Zuko shoved him off. "Brave! Get off me! Why would you ask that?"

"Weren't you listening to the song? Man, that guy challenged the bare-knuckle earthbending champ and then left the pit to join the Avatar in the war against the Fire Nation. Everybody in Gao Ling was talking about it when we left - everyone's gonna want to know the story!"

Zuko's good eye twitched. Gao Ling was the name of that city he had been so determined to pass around. Iroh had been right to urge him toward it and now they had lost a week. Zuko clenched his teeth and twisted his fingers into the knees of his pants.

The chubby guy in the pink tunic had held up his hands before him and was making a pronouncement. "The Blind Bandit has demanded a rematch but Katto is nowhere to be found."

"They say he's in hiding, training with the rebels for a great battle," Lily put in.

"But," Chong said, "the Blind Bandit won't take no for an answer. She's declared that, if Katto won't face her in the ring before the week is out, she'll hunt him down herself."

Zuko's heart leapt up into his throat. "Tell me everything you know about this Blind Bandit and the proposed match."


Katara only barely made it to the mess hall in time to claim the last scraps of rice before the kitchen guy hauled off the pot for washing. She sat at an empty rock table and gobbled down the meal more hastily than was polite.

At least she got dinner tonight. The past few days had seen her down at the pier until long after the dinner hour, striving to perfect the forms she was learning. Submitting to Pakku's sniping direction was strenuous in its own right, and she slept hard in her cramped corner of the barracks every night, though not hard enough to keep from waking up every time someone let out an especially uproarious snore.

"Hey Katto!"

It took Katara a second to realize someone was talking to her. Usually, she only really spoke to Aang or Pakku, and neither of them went to the mess hall for meals. Sokka ate early and spent a lot of time with his new friends. He almost seemed to be avoiding her. That wouldn't have been so strange back home, to not talk to her for a few days while they were fighting. Here, though, the isolation felt harsher than it ever had back on the tundra.

Katara turned on her stone seat to look up at the guy hovering just behind her, one of the two warriors she'd met the morning after her arrival. "Hi Jeeka…"

Jeeka tugged one of the ends of his sad mustache as he talked. "Haven't seen you around much since that first day. How's training going? I hear Pakku's a real ice-hole."

"Er, he's tough but I'm really enjoying the work." Katara smiled. It seemed like Jeeka was being genuinely friendly. Was her persistent niceness paying off at last? "I've never had a chance to learn before, so it's really great to finally make some progress."

"Yeah, I'll bet. Listen," Jeeka said, sitting down on the stone seat beside hers and casting a subtle gaze around. "Attuk and a couple of the other guys were saying this thing, and I didn't want to spread a rumor that wasn't true, so would you mind answering a question for me?"

"Sure." There was a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach.

"Chief Hakoda is your mother's brother, right?"

"Yeah."

"So was your father, like, a hog-monkey or something? Because you stink so hard, my eyes are watering just talking to you."

Some guys at the next table over snickered and, when Katara looked up, they boldly met her eyes before turning back to their own bowls.

The worst thing about it was, it was true. She smelled awful. It was the worst thing about living amongst men. For them, there was a sauna and shower room. Katara had tried going there late at night, but the chances of someone walking in on her were too great and she always chickened out after quickly wiping off under her clothes.

So, knowing that what Jeeka had said was probably pretty close to the truth, she could feel her face turning red when she turned to glare at him. "I'm so sorry that my smell is making you uncomfortable, Jeeka," she said in her most withering tone. "But I find it hard to believe you can smell anything with all that mange under your nose."

He stared at her for a second, then shook his head and glared. "If you've got a problem, we can settle this right now. I don't even care if you are a bender, I'll knock your teeth in anyway." He jumped up, looming over her.

Katara scoffed. "What are you, twelve? I'm not going to fight you."

Jeeka laughed a mirthless laugh. "Oh that's right. You aren't even training with the real waterbenders, are you? You're just a weird rube kid. A waterbender who can't even wash himself." The guys at the other table laughed as well.

Katara glared at the bits of rice still left in her bowl for a second, then rose up in a rush, glaring up at the much taller, much bigger boy. For an instant, their gazes locked and Katara started forgetting about Water Tribe community values, and how it wasn't really civilized to get in a fight with an ally in the mess hall.

"Katto of the Southern Tribe?"

She tore her eyes away from Jeeka to see the tribesman who had spoken. She didn't know him, but she could tell he was a Northerner and a tried soldier by the bands around his biceps.

"Chief Hahn wants to see you. Now."

Katara went with him, shooting Jeeka a parting glare on her way through the door. He didn't see, though, because he was already laughing with his friends. She had to force herself the last few steps out of the mess hall instead of rushing back to take a swing at him.

The soldier led her up and up the stairs to one of the upper levels, and then to a meeting room where several men sat around a wide, low table. Among them were Master Pakku and Aang. When Katara walked in, he gave her an anxious look instead of his usual smile.

A handsome man in tribal regalia stood as Katara entered. Or, he might have been handsome in a classic, overbearing way if he hadn't immediately mispronounced her name. "Kato of the Southern Tribe, I am Chief Hahn of the North."

He paused after the introduction as if there was a very quiet applause going somewhere Katara could not hear. She bowed uncertainly. "Chief Hahn. And, um, it's Katto."

"Have a seat, Kato," he said, grinning as if he hadn't even heard her. "Are you ready to do your part in the fight against the Fire Nation?"

Katara was stiffly lowering herself to one of the sitting cushions and fell the rest of the way at this question. Her gaze shot to Master Pakku. "Ah! Actually, I haven't even tried any sparring yet, so my training really isn't anywhere near-"

Hahn only waved a hand. "Don't worry. It's a promotional move for the war effort, no big deal."

"As I have already mentioned," Pakku curled his lip, "twice, Katto's training is coming along more rapidly than I might have expected, but he is nowhere near a master." He was looking at Hahm in much the way one would look at a tiny but offensive insect. "This 'promotional move' you're suggesting could very well kill him."

Aang was glaring at Hahn. "It's insane to risk a person's life just to draw others into joining the resistance. Even if Katto didn't die, how can you be sure it would work like you're saying?"

Hahn sat with regal grace, smiling a huge toothy smile. "With all due respect, Avatar Aang, it's the nature of promotion. I have complete confidence that, when Katto of the Water Tribe enters the ring for the much-anticipated rematch with the Blind Bandit-"

Katara's jaw dropped and she stared at Hahn, transfixed, as he went on.

"-most of Gao Ling and the surrounding countryside will be there - and those who aren't' there will want a blow-by-blow recap. It's a match between the old hold-outs, the self-involved Earth Kingdom men who think they can go on living their lives hiding away from the war, and the inspired young warriors who have come to this land to do what's right, to stand up against the Fire Nation and finally push back against what has seemed for so long like an unstoppable force."

Those words rang through Katara's head and, for an instant, she almost wanted to do it. She almost wanted to stand up in front of all those people and tell them what they should be doing. But in order to do that... "You want me to go back to Gao Ling and fight that crazy earthbender again?"

Hahn leveled a disdainful look on her. "Don't tell me you're scared of a teenaged girl."

"Yes!" Katara said. They all stared at her but she didn't care. "That teenaged girl is ten times the bender I am. She's the undefeated champion of that seedy underground pit, not because of her reputation or her sassy banter, but because she is actually that good."

There was a long moment of silence during which Hahn scrutinized her. "Even if you lost this match, your presence in the ring would send a message to everyone who hears the story. The Water Tribe has come to the Earth Kingdom. The Avatar has returned. The free powers of the world have joined together."

"All except for Ba Sing Se," Aang said in an undertone.

Hahn went on as if he hadn't spoken. "Now is the time to stand up to the Fire Nation, Kato. Only you can deliver this message to the people. Will you do it?"

"You don't have to, Katto," Aang said more loudly. "There are other ways to unite the world. It doesn't have to be done through violence."

Katara met his concerned gaze and smiled back. "Thanks, Aang," she said, and then turned her eyes to meet Hahn's smug look. "But Chief Hahn is right. This is an opportunity to reach people, and I have to be the one who does it. And if I have to fight the Blind Bandit to get it done, then that's what I'll do."


Chapter Text

Katara tugged at the fingerless gloves she'd been given, not because they were uncomfortable, but because she felt like she should be doing something with her hands as she waited in the too-warm locker room for the attendant to collect her. There hadn't been so much waiting last time, and now she felt sick with it, like the anticipation and fear she had been experiencing in the days since she learned about this plan had all stored up in her body. Somewhere, the crowd roared. Katara shuddered.

Had it only been that morning that Aang had come down to the pier before one of her last-minute training sessions with Pakku? It felt like so much more time had passed since she had seen him with that tense but determined look on his face, since she'd heard him say the words, "I'm sorry Katara, but I can't stay here any more."

"Aang," Katara said, glancing at where Pakku had sat down with a cup of tea just a stone's throw away. "What do you mean? You're leaving? You're a great bender but you're no closer to mastering waterbending than I am. How can you just leave?"

"I can't stand all this… business of war, talking about people like they're just numbers and resources to be used for the cause. That's not how this war is going to be stopped." He peered at her, eyes huge and pleading. "And I can't sit in that theater and watch you get beaten up again, Katara. It's not the right way. That's not how it's supposed to be."

Katara laid her hand on his shoulder. "Maybe not," she said gently, "but until you do know how it's supposed to be, until you have the power to make it right, we have to keep on fighting as best we can."

"I know," he said, looking away as his face creased bitterly. "I don't think I'm going to figure it out in a war meeting, though. I have to take Appa and go."

"Where, Aang? Where can you hope to find answers like these?"

"I don't know. Maybe the other Air Temples." He paused a moment, looking thoughtful. "The monks always told us that the lessons we need to learn won't be found at any destination but along the road we take to get there." He smiled. "So I guess I'll just fly around and see what happens."

Katara laughed but her smile died swiftly. "Aang, promise me you'll be careful. Be so, so careful. I don't like the thought of you all alone out there."

"I won't be alone. I'll have Appa and Momo." The lemur at that moment was twitching its nose at Pakku, who stared back with an expression of weary resignation. Aang peered at Katara from the corner of his eyes. "You could come too, you know."

Something giddy caught in Katara's chest. She pictured herself riding off on a sky bison, leaving behind all her fear of discovery or creepy princes or the Blind Bandit, all the pain of Sokka's cold shoulder. It was a pretty picture, all in the pastels of a sunrise, but it wasn't real. And she wouldn't learn waterbending on a bison. She wouldn't fix things with Sokka by running away.

She shook her head. "I'm so sorry, Aang. I want so badly to be there for you, but I can't leave now."

"It's alright. I figured it was kind of a long shot." He smiled but it wasn't a happy expression. Katara squeezed his shoulder.

"If you've finished confessing your undying devotion," Pakku said over his tea cup, "we can continue preparing for that hopeless cause of a match you agreed to. No rush."

Sitting on the damp stone bench in the locker room, Katara felt every bit of that snide remark. It was hopeless, and even knowing this she had agreed to it, and it was happening in just minutes now. She couldn't hope to win, but she could make it look good for the audience - because that was the part that mattered. It wasn't the Blind Bandit she wanted, it was the crowd of people shouting right now as a great tumbling sound shook the floor under her feet.

Katara tugged the fingerless gloves and then adjusted the blue and white hide armor they had given her. It was the standard Water Tribe battle gear - only they had had to adjust it a lot to make it fit her narrow shoulders. She didn't wear a helmet; she would need mobility in her neck and shoulders. Instead, she had dabbed on the wolfish warpaint Sokka had always played around with. It wouldn't make a difference to the Blind Bandit, of course, but the people would see a fierce Water Tribe warrior.

And that was what she had to be.


"Uncle, stop talking to these people. They're brigands."

Zuko crossed his arms over his chest to keep from touching the sweaty stranger on his right and frowned down at the pit where an earthbender with badgermoles tattooed on his enormous pectorals was flinging disks of slicing rock at a pair of slender, acrobatic men. They evaded the disks as much with gymnastics as with deterring wedges of rock - except when one missed his chance and took the rock across the chest. There was a terrible cracking sound and he went down hard. Zuko wrinkled his nose. "This is horrible. Why would anyone pay money to watch something like this?"

Iroh winced in sympathy, then shrugged. "Probably to distract themselves from the difficulties of their own lives. The people of the Earth Kingdom have endured generations of war and strife. They are grieving the loss of family members and suffering the frustration of a struggle that must seem hopeless. Perhaps the simplicity of a brawl offers them relief."

Zuko frowned harder and watched the badngermole-guy dodge a boulder and knock some teeth out of the last acrobat. He had searched the globe for the Avatar, the bridge between this world and the spirit world. To find her in a fighting pit seemed… very wrong.

But Zuko didn't allow himself to doubt. The waterbender was the Avatar, he was sure of it. Perhaps people had just seen the airbender and misunderstood. Ultimately, that didn't matter. What mattered was that Zuko had tracked her down. Now all he had to do was figure out a way to catch her.

As the ring was being cleared and adjusted for the next event, the announcer came back out in his semi-formal attire, bellowing loud enough to reach even the back rows.

"Now, ladies and gentlemen, the most anticipated match in the history of bare-knuckle earthbending! Your champion, the Blind Bandit, will face down the runaway challenger, Katto of the Water Tribe!"

Zuko tensed. Two stone doors opened on opposite ends of the ring. From one emerged a girl with black hair and a proud bearing. As soon as he saw that she wore yellow and green, Zuko immediately looked to the other door. His hands clenched around the fabric of his shirt when he recognized the waterbender's walk, the way she shifted her weight from foot to foot. She wore some kind of Water Tribe armor and her face was painted, but it was her.

"So Katto!" The earthbender slouched, confidence emanating off her in waves. "What made you decide to crawl back out of your hidey-hole and face me?"

Zuko watched the Avatar stand as tall as she could. Her hands were fisted at her sides. "I came to show the world that, even driven from our homelands, the Water Tribe is strong. The Fire Nation can imprison us and take our lands, but we endure, and we fight back." She pointed up at the crowd. Zuko's eyes widened as her gaze rolled over him. "And I challenge all of you to stand up now, while there is still time, and protect your land and your people from the Fire Nation."

There were murmurs all around the tiers. Zuko suddenly felt very conspicuous and pulled his wide hat a little lower.

Below, the woman who called herself Katto went on. "Now is the time. The Avatar has at last returned to our world, but only by uniting and working together will we restore balance and peace."

"Blah blah blah," said the Blind Bandit, swiping a hand through the air. "Enough with the political mumbo-jumbo. Let's get this-" She cut herself off suddenly and sniffed. "Is that stench you?"

"No!" The Water Tribe girl slipped into an outraged stance, then quickly corrected herself. "Are we fighting or what?"

The announcer called the start and, immediately, the Blind Bandit shot the Avatar straight up in the air with a jutting stone. She wheeled her arms as she peaked and started to fall and, somehow, a big wave rose up to catch her from one of the two reservoirs on either side of the strip of earth from which the Blind Bandit was attacking. The Avatar surfed the wave around the pit in a frenzy of motion as pillars of rock stabbed up at her.

"Wow," Iroh said. "Very athletic." He elbowed Zuko. "I can see why a young man might want very badly to capture her…"

Zuko shot him a glare and only then realized he was clenching his hands so hard in his shirt that he was putting holes in the worn fabric. He lowered his arms to his sides instead and went on watching the Avatar evade her opponent's attacks. "She's the Avatar. That's all the reason I need."

But the Avatar could definitely move. Zuko swallowed.

Down on the rock of the pit, the Blind Bandit was growing frustrated. "Quit wriggling and hold still so I can smash you!" She dropped into horse stance and raised up a wall of rock in the path of the wave.

The waterbender only had a split second to react, but she rode up the wall and then swooped around to stand at the top, feet iced to the stone, as she guided her wave back down, crashing toward the earthbender. The Blind Bandit froze for an instant (Zuko thought he heard her say 'uh oh' very quietly) and then raised a suit of rock to hold her in place as the wave blasted over her. She came out a second later, coughing, as the Avatar leapt down from the top of the wall and bent up a long stream for her next strike.

"Gotcha," the earthbender smirked. She bent rock boots up the Avatar's calves and the stream of water crashed down harmlessly. Katara tugged her feet trying to free herself. Zuko took a step toward the pit but Iroh caught his arm.

"You must not interfere! If you reveal yourself in front of this mob, the consequences could be disastrous."

Zuko opened his mouth to argue but then the Avatar froze the stones and smashed them away with another stream. She was too slow to escape the Blind Bandit, though.

The girl yanked the ground out from under the Avatar's feet and sent her sprawling. When she tried to roll away, a rock jutted up in her path and she slammed against it with her own momentum. The Blind Bandit by now was in what looked like a set routine. She slid forward and chopped and three spalls knifed out of the ground to knock her stunned opponent into the water.

Katara came up gasping and froze a floe of ice that she could climb up onto and, painfully, regain her feet.

"Ha ha! From the sound of it, you're getting tired, Katto. Or should I call you Splatto, since that's the sound you make when I hit you with a rock?"

"You know," Katara said, bending the water out of her clothes and streaming it around her body. "I'm about sick of your smart attitude. Don't you realize that while you're down here, fighting for money, people are dying out there?" She hurled the stream in a long whip, snapping the earthbender's face.

"Ow!" The Blind Bandit bared her teeth. The crowd was silent, shocked. "Yeah, well somebody's about to die in here!"

She took a fierce step and a wide stone platform burst up through the water, coming up under Katara's ice and lifting that and the waterbender together.

"There you are," the Blind Bandit said, and then struck.

Another spall stabbed up out of the platform, shattering the ice and striking Katara in the face. She went down hard and didn't move.
"No!" Zuko jerked away from his uncle, shoved through the crowd, and leapt down into the pit. She couldn't die, not now, not after he'd searched so long for her. She was his one hope, his one chance at reclaiming his honor.

It didn't even cross his mind that there would be a new Avatar to find.

He landed on the stone platform and, slipping on the ice and rubble, dropped to his knees to clutch the girl's limp body to him, cradling her head in the crook of his arm and feeling her face, her neck. She groaned softly, and Zuko could have wept, he was so relieved. He cupped her cheek in his palm.

"Hey! Fanboy! Get your hands off my defeated challenger."

Zuko raised his head to find the Blind Bandit pointing directly at him. "I'm not-"

"No fans in the arena!" Two big bouncers came running out into the ring. They used earthbending to drag the stone platform up close to the central strip.

Zuko's mind raced in those instants. He had the Avatar in his arms now - but how could he possibly get her out of the pit? And even if he managed that, how would he get her back up the stone elevator without an earthbender? How could he even hope to fight his way out? Iroh had been right. The second these people realized who he was, they would tear him apart. But he couldn't just give up, not now when Katara was helpless in his arms.

So he would just have to fight.

"I'm not a fan." Zuko lowered her to the stones and ice she'd been lying on and rose to face the bouncers. Only they weren't moving in. The crowd was chanting something, it sounded almost like 'launch him.'

And then he spotted the grinning Blind Bandit as she slid her feet across the floor. Zuko's eyes widened and he hurtled backward into the crowd. Grabbing hands caught him and quickly shoved him upright. People were laughing and slapping his shoulders.

"Nice try, kid!"

"…hero-worship…"

"…swear my cousin probably feels about the same way…"

"…heck of a jump…"

"…only wish he was your boyfriend…"

Zuko, red-faced, spun around, trying to identify who had said that last bit. "He's not my boyfriend!"

There was a roar of laughter and Zuko just tugged his hat down and made his way back to where his uncle was waiting with a tiny smile creeping across his face.

"I have to say, my nephew, that went much better than I might have expected."

Zuko glared at him, still hot-faced, then peered down to where the Avatar was being carried off on a stretcher. "We have to get down into the infirmary."


Katara hovered between painful consciousness and the sweet blank of oblivion. Her face was killing her. And her ribs and her stomach, and various other parts to lesser degrees. She had this weird echo in her ears, and a vague sense of alarm that she couldn't quite connect to any one source.

"I can tell you're waking up, so just get it over with already."

"Ugh," Katara said, forcing one eye open to confirm that, yes, it was the Blind Bandit. And yes, they were alone in what seemed to be an infirmary.

"You slept for a solid hour. I guess you probably needed the beauty sleep after what I did to your face." Her tone was so far off apologetic, it was almost laughable.

Katara raised a hand to feel a damp bandage across the lower half of her face. At even the light exploratory contact, a lance of pain shot through her jaw. It brought tears to her eyes, it hurt so much.

"The medic said your jaw might be broken, so don't go straining yourself to come up with any witty retorts. Not that you could if you tried, but, you know."

Katara pulled the gauze away. It had only been draped over her face and came away quite easily. "Water."

"Just so we're clear," the earthbender said as she poured from a pitcher on the bedside, "I'm not your nurse."

"Ha ha." Katara struggled to sit up on an elbow and took the cup. She sipped a little, then groaned at the pain of that little motion.

"Yeah, okay, I get it. It might have been excessive." The Blind Bandit pointed in Katara's face. "That's the name of the game, though, and it's not my fault if you can't dodge to save your life. Literally."

Katara rolled her eyes and sipped again from the cup. It hurt, but the water was so cool, so soothing. She just wanted to immerse her jaw in it. That seemed like it would help. She bent the water up out of the cup with her free hand and cupped it to the sorest place along her jaw. The contact immediately hurt in that toe-curling inescapable way, but then the coolness seeped in. Katara shut her eyes.

"I told Wan Ma this whole thing was stupid, bringing in a waterbender. You're all so… squishy and vulnerable. It's no fun beating up waterbenders."

Katara heaved a sigh and frowned at the girl. Her jaw felt so much better already. "Why are you even here? Just come to gloat?"

"Actually, I came to try and make friends."

Katara dropped the rest of the water on her shirt front. "You… want to be friends… with me."

"Yeah," she said, shrugging. "I mean, I'm a girl who likes fighting and you're a girl who likes fighting and I just kind of figured, you know… but you're right, it's crazy. Seeya!" The girl spun around to bolt but Katara reached out and caught her arm.

"Sorry, it's not crazy. I'm just surprised. I didn't think you liked me." She frowned. "Didn't you just threaten to kill me during the match?"
The blind girl waved a dismissive hand. "That's game talk. It's mostly just for show." She gave a little shrug. "But I like you. You're kind of self-righteous, but at least you're interesting."

"Thanks," Katara said with a sour twist to her mouth.

"And you keep some interesting friends, too," the girl said, laughing a little. "First the Avatar and now that guy who jumped in the ring when you went down. That must have been a ten foot jump…"

"What guy?"

"Yeah, you were pretty out of it. He acted like he was your boyfriend or something, all, like, clutching your unconscious body and touching your face… It was gross but also kind of sweet. If you like that kind of thing."

Katara lay back, frowning, trying to think who that might have been, but no one came to mind. Only Aang and this girl knew her secret. And the creepy prince, but there was no way that guy would be at an Earth Kingdom pit fight - unless it was a pit where they fed Earth Kingdom captives to Komodo rhinos or something. She grimaced.

"I'm Toph, by the way. It's kind of a secret, so don't tell anyone."

Katara peered up at her, then smiled. "My real name is Katara. No one's supposed to know that either, but since you already know my secret, I guess it's no big deal."

Toph grinned one of her smug grins. "I'll just call you Splatto until I come up with something better."

"Great," Katara said dryly.


"No," Zuko bit out, "I don't know the password, but-"

"Then you ain't going backstage, pal. We got rules and regulations in this establishment and nobody gets special passes." The skinny man with the neck tattoo sat back in his chair and crossed his arms over his chest. Zuko hadn't been able to identify his exact position here, but it seemed to be some cross between owner, manager, and conniving business pirate. The owner's eyebrow lifted sharply. "Unless you got something I might like to have. What's that around your wrist?"

Zuko tugged down his sleeve to cover the Avatar's necklace where it gleamed dully in the lamp light. "It's worthless. Just a trinket." Even if it was worth something, he didn't care. It wasn't a thing he could trade away. He turned instead to Iroh beside him. "How much money do we have left?"

Iroh produced two lonely copper coins. "Just our change from admission. We might be able to get something to eat," he said, rubbing his chin, "or perhaps a passable cup of tea…"

"Look," the owner said, holding up his hands, "You fellas look like you've hit some hard times lately and I don't want to go taking advantage of any destitute refugees. But maybe I can cut you a deal and help you make a little money to get back on your feet." He glanced between Zuko and Iroh. "Either of you guys benders?"

Zuko stiffened and shared a nervous sideways glance with his uncle. "No! Just, regular refugees."

"Ah, that's too bad," he said, waving one hand at the open door and picking up his brush with the other. "Now get out. I got things to do and you're wasting my time with this desperate crap."

With a resonant thump, Zuko planted a hand on the desk and jabbed his finger in the owner's face. "If you don't let us down to the infirmary this instant, I will personally teach you a whole new respect for desperation."

The owner peered disdainfully up at him. "Kid, lemme tell you a secret. Rock beats fist every time." Still holding Zuko's incensed gaze, he raised his voice. "Chipper."

A voice came from the doorway. A very deep voice that must have originated from a very large chest. "Yeah, boss."

"Make sure these two have a safe trip back up to the street. I wouldn't want Li here to go falling in another pit or anything tragic like that."
"Nah, boss. That'd be a real shame."

"Yeah," Iroh said. "It really would. Think of your back, Li!"

Zuko made a disgusted sound and, with a final glare at the owner, followed the old man out the door. The bouncer who answered to Chipper really was as big as his voice seemed to suggest, but Zuko only shot him a hard look in passing. He'd gone just a few steps toward the elevator when a high voice stopped him.

"Well, if it isn't Katto's most invested fan."

Zuko turned back to find the Blind Bandit just behind Chipper, leaning against the wall and smirking. He scowled. "I told you, I'm not a fan."

The girl's unseeing eyes widened a fraction but Iroh spoke before she could. "Oh! The Blind Bandit herself! Li, isn't this an honor?"

"Yeah, Uncle. A real honor. I'm so honored I could just-"

The Blind Bandit whipped a hand around as if to stop a rolling stone. "I have a couple things to say to you, but first, I've got business."

Zuko seethed and curled his hands into fists at his sides as the girl - he hadn't quiet realized what a pipsqueak she was when she stood in the ring - yanked some paper bills from her pocket, walked into the office, and slammed them down on the desk with a bender's force. "What kind of cheating bull-monkey bologna is this, Wan Ma? You know I don't accept paper money!"

"Aw jeez, Bandit, ya know, I just ran out of gold to make your wage this week and-"

"Shut your gibbering weasel face and get me my gold before I decide I deserve a raise for putting up with this appalling lack of professionalism!"

Wan Ma made a few more nervous sounds, then there was a rattle of money and the Blind Bandit came stomping out of the office to stand before Zuko. There was a fat sack of coins hanging from one of her hard little hands. "That's how it's done, Fanboy."

Zuko crossed his arms over his chest and peered down his nose at her. Seeing her meet with such success where he had failed only infuriated him more. "If I needed some savage child to tell me what to do, no doubt I'd be immeasurably grateful. And don't call me that!"

"Li!" Iroh put his hand on Zuko's shoulder. "That's no way to talk to the bare-knuckle earthbending master and four-time Earth Rumble Champion!"

Zuko fumed. The girl smirked, turning her head toward the old man - generally. "I like you. What's your name?"

"Mushi," Iroh said, smiling his big overly enthusiastic smile.

The Blind Bandit narrowed her eyes but kept on smiling. "Right. And you're Li." She raised an arm to point in Zuko's face.

He knocked her hand away and replied in his most acidic tone. "Yes. That's why he calls me Li."

For some reason, this was funny to her. The Blind Bandit let out a hard laugh. "You know what?" she said. "I just got paid. How about I buy you guys some noodles and we have a little chat."

"Sorry," Zuko sneered, "but we have to go-"

"You're looking for Katto, right?" she asked. Zuko froze and mentally flailed for some way to deny it. The girl just rolled on. "Because he's already gone back into his creepy waterbender lair. You won't find him here - or anywhere probably… unless you guys are secretly earthbenders."

Iroh held up a single finger. "Which, we are not."

The Blind Bandit got that amused look on her face again. It was really starting to make Zuko suspicious. "So you might as well come with me and have a hot meal and, who knows? Maybe I'll remember just where that waterbender lair is."

Iroh readily agreed and began chatting with the girl as they walked toward the elevator. Zuko scowled at the back of her head. He had a weird feeling about this, and a lot of it stemmed from how hungry he was, and how good a bowl of noodles sounded. And how fiercely he wanted to get his hands on the Avatar again.

In a platonic way. Not in the literal way where he felt her cool skin warm to his palm, and held her weight across his lap and her head so near his chest and looked down into her pretty face, all marked up with the blows she kept suffering. There was something about the evidence of her struggle, so clearly and cruelly written on her face, that clawed at a sore place in his chest. He wanted to capture her, and hold her close, and…

But Zuko's weird feeling was not about what he wanted. It was about the apparent ease with which the Blind Bandit seemed to be offering these tempting things.

Because Zuko was never lucky. Not like this. Growing up with Azula had taught him not to take a smirking girl's generosity at face value. The Blind Bandit was up to something, though he wasn't sure what.

With a final huff, Zuko stalked after the pair. He didn't know what she was up to, but whatever it was, it didn't matter. No half-grown big-mouthed rock-chucker was going to keep him away from the Avatar.

Chapter Text

"Fanboy, you've got sauce on your face."

Zuko, who had been eating his noodles with as much slow dignity as he could muster after the starving days it had taken to return to Gao Ling, actually raised his hand to his face and wiped before seeing the Blind Bandit's smirk and realizing he'd been had. "That's not my name!"

"Yeah, well-" The girl tucked away a tidy bundle of noodles. For a dirty little savage who favored grubby open-air noodle stands, she had impeccable table manners. "-nobody goes by their real name around here, anyway, and Li is about the most boring alias you could pick. Fanboy has a nice ring to it."

Zuko froze and shot his uncle an alarmed look. The old man, with a mouth stuffed with noodles and strands hanging down into his bowl, could only stare back at him and shrug. "But," Zuko said, "Li is my name."

"You're lying. You also lied to Wan Ma about not being benders. But you didn't lie to me about not being earthbenders. Since you guys are about as Water Tribe as a box of fire flakes, that really only leaves one last type of bender."

With his heart in his throat, Zuko glanced at the noodle vendor who was loudly singing to himself behind the counter, and then looked down the street where people were still visiting food stands and lingering under the glow of lanterns. No one was close enough to hear the Blind Bandit's accusation.

She was just sitting beside him at the noodle counter, eating peacefully as if she hadn't just accused two strange men of being firebenders. Like the whole situation was entirely in her control.

Which, unfortunately, it really was. There were people everywhere. A patrol of soldiers marched down the street. Out in public like this, Zuko couldn't fight her with firebending and the only other weapon he had was his knife. He'd seen enough of her skills in the pit to know she was far too formidable to be defeated with a simple knife.

"You don't know anything about us," Zuko forced out. "We aren't liars."

The girl sighed forcefully and rolled her unseeing eyes. "Would you just give it up already? I can tell you're lying right now. Just like I can tell you really aren't some random bare-knuckle fan and you really don't have any money to feed yourselves, and that Mushi here really does love southern province noodles like he said."

Iroh lowered his chopsticks from their frozen position and chuckled softly. Zuko couldn't fathom how any part of this situation was amusing to him.

"So get smart and knock off the lying crap," the girl finished, plucking up her next delicate bundle of noodles.

Zuko cast another look around and then leaned closer to her so that he didn't have to snarl too loudly. "What do you want?"

"Aw jeez, what was it I wanted," the Blind Bandit said with mock-thoughtfulness, allowing her chopsticks to hover over her bowl at a precise angle. "Oh yeah. What's your deal with my buddy Katto?"

Zuko lurched back at that. He had expected questions about how firebenders had come to wander penniless through Gao Ling, not a personal inquisition about this girl's pit fight opponent. "What does that have to do with anything?"

"Katto is my newly acquired friend, genius, and I'm not about to let some uptight weirdo mm-hm-bender get in the way of our life-long platonic relationship." Zuko was bristling but the Blind Bandit just pointed her noodles at him, scowling. "So you tell me what you want with my friend or I'll give you the pummeling of a lifetime and then let the soldiers have you."

Zuko scowled right back, mind racing, but it was Iroh who spoke. "We have been following Katto for almost two weeks now, all the way from the South Pole."

"Uncle!"

Iroh shrugged. "Well, it's true. And if the Blind Bandit can tell when we are lying, we might as well only tell the truth." Despite his light tone, the look on his face was hard, meaningful. Zuko froze. They could only tell the truth, Iroh was saying, but what he meant was that they didn't have to tell all of it.

"My nephew has risked much in coming to Gao Ling," Iroh went on. "If his presence is discovered, he would not merely suffer the punishment of the Earth Kingdom, but become a criminal amongst his own people."

"Yeah, yeah, sad story." The Blind Bandit swallowed a mouthful of noodles. "That doesn't tell me why he's after Katto."

"Honestly," Iroh said, raising his brows and shooting Zuko a sly look. "I think my nephew has a crush."

"Uncle!" Zuko's face heated and he fisted his hands in his lap to keep from setting his chopsticks on fire. "I do not!"

The Blind Bandit smirked. "What did I say about lying, Fanboy?"

Zuko's fists trembled against his thighs and he gritted his teeth, but he remained silent. She was wrong. It wasn't a crush. An obsession. A feverish need. An aching, unending drive to catch her and return with her to the Fire Nation. But not a crush.

"Alright," she went on, frowning now. "So he thinks he's in love or whatever. Fine. What does Katto say to all that?"

"Nothing, so far," Iroh said. "I do not believe that the subject has ever come up between them."

"Is that true, Fanboy? You guys ever have a moment?"

Glowering, resenting her - and Iroh too for putting him in this position - with every word, he said, "We haven't talked about it."

The Blind Bandit tipped her head to one side, narrowing her eyes. "You didn't answer the question."

"It's a stupid question," Zuko snapped, flinging an arm up in the air. "We didn't have a moment, we had a collision! It was an accident! And then she ran away!"

"Ah hah!" the girl crowed. "So you do know Katto's little secret. I thought for a while there that you were just into boys."

Zuko was frustrated with the word games and embarrassed - embarrassed about his slip, and this entire conversation, and most especially (considering the confusing dreams) what she had just said. So he may have spoken more loudly than he had intended.

"I'm not into boys!"

On the street behind him, a few conversations dropped off. There was some laughter. The noodle vendor peered at him disparagingly and shook his head before going back to his song. Zuko bowed his hot face over his noodles and glowered at what remained in the bowl. He suddenly wasn't as hungry as he had been before this conversation started.

"Right. Anyway," the Blind Bandit forged on, "Katto never expressed an interest in having you stalk her across the planet?"

"I'm not a stalker," Zuko enunciated.

She immediately stabbed a finger in his face. "You believe that so I'll let this one slide but let me tell you something, noodle-head - following a girl around for two weeks and across an ocean without her consent is so stalking that it's super-stalking."

"Alright! Fine! Call it what you want." Zuko sat back and crossed his arms. His tone was low and scathing. "What else was I supposed to do? She kept running away."

"How about stop for a second and ask yourself why she felt the need to run?"

"Ah," Iroh said, nodding. "A young man must always be careful to think about how his young lady-friend views his actions."

"It wasn't me," Zuko bit out, glowering at Iroh. "She was on her way to join the rebellion. Obviously. And now she's done it." He turned his scowl back on the Blind Bandit's doubtful expression. "Can you tell me where to find her or not?"

"Oh, I can," she said, shrugging. "I don't think I want to, though. You strike me as the kind of guy who can't see past what he wants enough to grasp all the trouble he's causing for other people."

Zuko clenched his fingers into the fabric of his pants, then forcibly relaxed them. "Try to understand," he said, struggling for patience, "I have to find her. Wherever she's gone, I have to go there, too. It's the only way I'll ever regain my honor."

"Regain your what, now?" The Blind Bandit set her chopsticks down, tipping her head stiffly toward him. "What'd you do to lose your honor in the first place, Fanboy?" The question felt a little threatening.

"That's no concern of yours."

"It was," Iroh said carefully, "a misstep. Family matters. Nothing to do with Katto."

"What did you do?"

Zuko scowled at the hard look in those milky eyes, then at the noodles in his bowl. "I spoke when it was not my place to speak."

The Blind Bandit did not say anything for a moment and he got the feeling that she was listening very closely to him, as if the echo of his words would reveal all that he wasn't saying. Then, finally, she relaxed and took a bite of noodles. "You must be from an important family."

Zuko jerked back at that, but she didn't seem to notice.

"Always somebody to impress, gotta look good for the other important people, phuh." She spat out a flake of what might have been eggshell. It clinked against the edge of her bowl. Zuko pulled a face. "You say one wrong thing and they want to slap a nanny on you at the age of fourteen. Fourteen!"

Zuko's mouth pulled down in his confusion and he peered at Iroh, who only shrugged. The Blind Bandit suddenly whacked him on the back.

"Ow!"

"Don't worry, Fanboy," she said, talking right over him. "I can get you in."

.


.

When Katara arrived back at the base, she was escorted up for an audience with Chief Hahn, who stared at her swollen face with something between disdain and resignation. "I hear you lost."

"I told you I would," Katara said, crossing her arms over her chest. She ached all over and wanted nothing so much as to lie down and sleep. She wanted to sit, but Hahn didn't make any invitations. He sat behind a desk, apparently in the middle of going over some figures, and Katara held out hope that this meeting would be brief. He sat back in his chair and set down the brush, though, and that hope fizzled out.

"Do you know why you're here, Kato?"

"No," Katara said, frowning as a sudden thought occurred to her. Had they somehow figured her out? Did that guy leaping into the pit after she lost tip someone off? She focused on keeping her breathing steady.

"Word is," Hahn said, rising from his chair, "the Avatar came to see you this morning. Is that true?"

"Yeah."

"And then, about half an hour later, he left the compound."

He watched her closely and Katara blinked, then nodded that she understood.

"Got any idea when he might be coming back?"

Katara frowned in thought. "Well… he mentioned traveling some pretty long distances. It could be weeks, I guess." She looked up and found Hahn staring at her, aghast. "Didn't he tell you he was going?"

"He can't just leave!" There was an edge of fear under Hahn's affront and Katara took a step back. "We're in the middle of a war and he's just flying off to see ruins and look for more lemurs? This is completely beneath the dignity of the Avatar!"

Katara straightened. "He's also a child who recently learned that his entire race was annihilated and everyone he knows has died."

"You admit that you supported his decision?"

"I do."

Hahn narrowed his eyes at her and just watched her for a long moment. "You Southern rubes have a real problem with authority," he said, "so let me make this clear. If you ever give me another reason to doubt that your loyalty lies with the Water Tribe, I'll make sure you never have the chance to turn your back on your people again."

Katara blinked, genuinely shocked. "Are… Are you saying you'll execute me for not agreeing with you?"

Hahn crossed the room with a stride just shy of a swagger and loomed over her. "You're a soldier now, Kato. It's called mutiny. Ugly word, isn't it?"

Katara was pretty sure that mutinies only happened on ships and Hahn actually meant insubordination, but she wasn't about to correct him now. She cleared her throat. "Yes, sir."

"Then you better-" Hahn sniffed suddenly and his eyes widened. He took a step back. "Gross! Don't you bathe?"

"I, uh, haven't had a lot of time."

Hahn shook his head, disgusted. "Well make time. Now. This isn't the South Pole where you can just air yourself out once a week and nobody can smell you over their own BO. Have a little consideration for others. La." He scrutinized her, crossing his arms over his chest. "No wonder no one wants to share the new barracks with you."

Despite the fresh worries weighing on her mind, Katara perked up at that. "It's already done?"

Hahn rolled his eyes and spoke in the most grudging tone Katara could remember hearing. "Your service to the rebel alliance is appreciated and your request wasn't entirely unreasonable. If I'd known you were going to let a teenaged girl beat you this badly, I might have reconsidered. But it's done now, so whatever."

Katara opened her mouth to express her relief and her wide-eyed gratitude, but Hahn waved a hand and turned back to his desk.

"You're dismissed. Go scrub until you stop stinking like a hog-dillo den."

Katara practically ran from the room. It had been her one request when she agreed to face the Blind Bandit - a new barracks where there would be space for her to stretch out and not kick someone or elbow someone else or be kicked and elbowed all night. And, if she had the new room to herself, maybe she could finally get clean. Maybe she could wash her bindings, which she'd been wearing pretty much nonstop since Kyoshi Island. Her aches suddenly seeming less poignant, Katara hustled down the stairs to a new, blissfully clean existence.

It was late and no one was out on the walkways. The usual chorus of snores creaked out from the many curtained doors. Finally, Katara spotted the new door, just past the room where she had been sleeping for the last week. The blue curtain was patched, made of reclaimed fabric, but the room beyond was dark and empty. Katara unhooked one of the lanterns from the rail of the walkway and tossed the curtain aside.

And scoffed. The room was tiny, maybe big enough for three people to share, uncomfortably. Hahn begrudged her this? She stepped back out and saw that, yes, the room shared one wall with her old barracks, but the other wall was shared with a stairwell. The earthbenders had really had to squeeze to fit another room in.

Too grateful to think much on it, Katara hung the lantern back up and crept into her old barracks to collect her bedroll and clothes, then went in search of a bucket and soap she could use to bathe. She was not gone long but, when she returned, a candle was burning in her room.

Someone was waiting for her inside.

.


.

The Blind Bandit left Zuko and Iroh at a ramshackle inn and, as promised, returned for them in the afternoon of the following day. She took them back to the House of Falling Rocks and made them sit at the bar while she went someplace in the back. The bartender asked once if they wanted anything and, when they declined, shot Zuko and Iroh unhappy looks as he wiped out glasses.

Finally, the girl came back and took them down the elevator they had previously ridden to view the match. This time, though, the doors opened onto a sort of terminal. A large flat rock sat in a wide channel that cut through the stone floor and vanished down a long, lightless shaft. Several young men stood on the flat rock, looking excited and, upon the appearance of the Blind Bandit, amazed.

One especially large man did not look so amazed. He wore the green uniform of an Earth Kingdom soldier and the look he gave the blind girl could only be described as wary.

"Wanjo Naru!" she said, smirking. "How's the life of a serviceman treating you?"

"It is fulfilling, Blind Bandit. The only true calling for a warrior."

"Yeah, yeah. I brought you these recruits. Pre-approved for your convenience."

Zuko met the soldier's measuring stare and stared right back, struggling not to show the shock he'd just received. Recruits? He had been under the impression that the Blind Bandit would be sneaking them in. He certainly hadn't agreed to join the rebellion!

"You there," Wanjo Naru said to Iroh. "Aren't you a little old for fighting?"

"It is true that years have passed since I left my prime." Iroh folded his hands into the sleeves of his robes. "But as the saying goes, there is always a place for a talented brewer of tea."

Wanjo Naru didn't look convinced.

"He's with me," Zuko finally said, his tone asserting that he would be more than happy to fight about it.

Wanjo Naru scanned him from head to foot, frowning. His eyes lingered a moment on the scar. "You possess a warrior's spirit," he said. "You at least have come to the right place."

Zuko could not have said whether it was the earthbender's overly formal way of speaking or his boldness in staring at his scar, but he immediately disliked Wanjo Naru.

"Alright. Great seeing you, Wanjo, but I've got things to do," the Blind Bandit said with a huff and then, in an undertone, "Prissy pretty-boy. Seeya, guys!"

She turned to go but Zuko rushed after her. He caught her shoulder near the elevator and, with a groan, she turned to face him, crossing her arms over her chest. "What now?"

Zuko bent toward her and whispered through his teeth. "This isn't what we agreed on."

"Oh, get over it and be grateful I could get you in at all without proper identification papers." A little smirk started stretching one corner of her mouth. "The camp is totally underground, you know. Tough spot for even the trickiest mm-hm-bender to squirm into. Or out of." She was fully grinning now. "And, uh, security is pretty high in that hornet's nest. You'd better behave yourself if you don't want to get stung."

Zuko's expression slackened as he started to truly realize what she'd done. The Blind Bandit had helped him get into the rebel base, sure, but she'd also locked him into a world of stone and enemies.

Her grin only brightened. "Hey, did you get a good look at Wanjo?"

"Yes," he managed.

"Does he seem… pretty to you?"

Zuko pulled a face and jerked away from her.

"Because Katto thought he was pretty."

"Katto thought…?"

"Hey," she said, as if it had just occurred to her. "I sure hope you're pretty, Fanboy. That would probably really help your chances." She slapped his shoulder and then disappeared into the elevator with a grind and crash of stone.

Zuko shook his head as if to throw off these unpleasant new lines of thinking and then rejoined the other recruits. Iroh was hard at work making friends with the young men, who all wanted to know how he knew the Blind Bandit, but Zuko assumed a scowl and crossed his arms and waited. His entire posture dared someone to just try and speak with him. Just try.

From the corner of his eye, he could see Wanjo Naru preparing with another soldier to push the slab of rock. It was difficult to tell how he was built with the armor bulking around him, but he had a square jaw with a tidy line of facial hair, and his features had a certain balance to them that Zuko supposed a woman might find attractive. Since the Avatar was a woman, he guessed it wasn't impossible that she might find Wanjo Naru… pretty.

Dislike slowly began to ferment into a complex brew of resentment, disdain, and bitter jealousy.

As they slowly ground into motion, Zuko glared at the dark tunnel ahead and tried not to think about any of that. Then, a great stone door slid shut behind them, closing off the terminal from the long track. A lantern hung from one of the steel rails around the slab and it swayed with the earthbenders' steady propulsion, casting dizzying shadows across the smooth track and rougher walls.

Behind him, he could hear the other recruits yelling together about Katto of the Water Tribe and the Blind Bandit. These boys had been inspired to join up because they had heard the Avatar speak before the fight, he realized.

Iroh disengaged himself from the conversation and came to stand beside him. When he spoke, his voice was nearly lost in the grinding of stone on stone and carried only far enough for Zuko's ears. "A most challenging shift in circumstance."

"It doesn't matter. Once I have her, I'll figure out some way to escape."

Iroh raised an eyebrow. "Some way of passing through tons of rock with two struggling prisoners and an army of their allies surrounding us? Yes, that will be quite a feat indeed."

Zuko's face tightened and he gripped the rail ahead of him, refusing to look at the old man. He had nearly forgotten about the airbender, and now they were trapped in this underground fortress. There were too many parts in motion now for Zuko to settle into any sort of plan.

"You must be very cautious now, my nephew," Iroh went on. "If we are caught here, we will be executed. It is vital that you wait until the correct moment before taking action."

"How can I possibly wait?" Zuko snapped. "The moment she sees me, she'll know who I am. My face isn't exactly unremarkable." In fact, she might already know that he had followed her here because he had been so foolish as to leap into the pit; the first thing anyone would think to describe about him would be his scar.

Iroh peered at him and raised a hand to lay on his shoulder. Zuko tensed. Iroh's hand fell gently back to his side. "My nephew, you are right. She will recognize you at once and, in all likelihood, she will run to the nearest authority to report you."

"I'll have to restrain her quickly."

"Or," Iroh said in an innocent, shrugging tone, "you could employ a different tactic."

Zuko turned to look directly at his uncle, frowning. "Like what?"

"Why, do you imagine, a girl might disguise herself as a boy?"

"To avoid… unsavory attention, I guess." Zuko felt his face heating and was glad of the dim light.

"Maybe so. But! A waterbender who is by and large able to defend herself? Why would she keep up the charade even after arriving amongst her allies?"

Zuko was silent, frowning in thought.

"Do you remember the waterbenders from the North Pole, my nephew?" Iroh finally asked.

"Yes. Repairing the walls after their surrender."

In chains. He could not remember the Northern waterbenders without remembering their chains, strung collar to wrists to ankles to waist with a series of rings that allowed the commanding firebender full control. If the waterbender took a step out of line, the captor jerked the chain, yanking the prisoner out of bending posture, and often off his feet. The memory put an uncomfortable feeling in his stomach and he quickly banished it.

"Do you remember seeing any women among them?" Iroh asked.

It took a moment, but Zuko straightened, eyes widening as he stared into the darkness ahead. "They don't teach women. If she's exposed, her master will no longer train her."

"Very likely correct. You can use this knowledge to protect yourself, but only for a time. Eventually, she will find a way around your defense."

Zuko turned to peer searchingly down at him. "And then what, Uncle?"

Iroh shrugged. "I don't know. But she's a waterbender, and like her element she will always adapt to the circumstances that rise to challenge her. You will need to be flexible when you face her, to determine the best strategy."

Zuko sighed and turned back to the tunnel, bracing his elbows on the rail. "You know I'm terrible at strategy. I can't even win at Pai Sho."

"That is because you always choose the same approach, the straightforward gambit, always attacking. But you know there are other methods as well."

They ground on through the clammy darkness and Zuko stared ahead, trying hard to think about strategy for a long while before giving up and imagining scenarios in which he confronted the Avatar.

.


.

Very aware of the bucket of water in her off hand, Katara pushed the curtain aside. His name came out on a relieved breath. "Sokka!"

He had been dozing off leaned up against the back wall and, when she spoke, he jerked awake, lurching upright and mumbling. "…no more squats!"

Katara entered the room fully and set the bucket down by the door. She wanted to be glad to see him, but it was hard after the long day, the long week she'd had. It was hard to peel back the protective barriers she had raised against him. All she really wanted was a good scrub and a long sleep. "What are you doing here, Sokka?"

For a second, he gave her an incredulous look, but then he bowed his head and raised his hands. "Okay, okay. I admit I may not have been the best brother in the last week. You probably have five more reasons to be mad at me than I can think of, so let's just… I guess, table all that for right now…"

Katara shot him a dark look, but he kept talking as he repositioned onto his knees.

"I heard about the match," he said, and he looked up at her with such a shaken expression that Katara immediately softened. "I can't believe Hahn sent you into that." Sokka waved his hands suddenly, but kept his voice low as he went on. "I mean! Not because you're, you know, a girl, but because you haven't even had a week of training and everybody knows the Blind Bandit is some kind of bending prodigy."

Katara went on frowning at him for a moment, then peeked out onto the empty walkway and came to sit rigidly in front of him. "Okay, so you heard I risked my life and decided it was time to stop pretending I don't exist? That's real grown-up of you, Sokka. Thanks."

He shrugged, rubbing the back of his neck. "I haven't been pretending you don't exist. I just… This place is so weird, Katara. I don't think it's safe for us to be seen together a whole lot."

"No? Afraid my girl cooties will rub off on you?"

"More like Hahn will start to think the only two Southerners under this mountain are plotting a 'mutiny.'" He made quotation marks with his fingers.

Katara fought off the sudden urge to smile. Instead, she crossed her arms. "He had that talk with you, too? What did you do?"

"After Dad left on his mission I… kind of asked a hypothetical question about girls learning to fight."

For a moment, all she could do was stare. The straightness leaked from her back and her shoulders eased out of their hard square. "Oh, Sokka…"

"You're my sister," he said, watching her earnestly. "And even though you really drive me crazy sometimes, and there was never a day in my life at the South Pole that you didn't find a way to wreck with girlyness-" He drew a big breath and rubbed the side of his neck. "-I love you a lot. I knew how important it was to you to learn waterbending and, it took me a while to realize it, but I really let you down when I didn't help you talk to Dad. I was so desperate to get away from home and do what men are supposed to do that I forgot that you're not a kid anymore, either."

Katara didn't speak. The emotion welling up in her chest and throat was so intense, she couldn't have forced out words if she'd tried. She just flung herself forward, latching her arms hard around her brother's neck and letting a few hot tears leak down her face.

Sokka's arms came up around her, warm and familiar. "Oh great, the hugging again." Despite the words, she could hear the reluctant pleasure in his voice.

"I thought you hated me," she sniffed after a moment, realizing as she said the words that it was true. "I thought you hated me for coming here."

"Don't get me wrong - I'm not happy about it. But," he sighed, suddenly uncomfortable, "you're nobody's property, Katara. The ideas these Northerners have about girls…" He withdrew, glancing at her, then away. He had a troubled look on his face. "Look, I'm getting the feeling more and more that we need to be a united front here. Dad didn't exactly decide to leave. Hahn ordered him and the rest of the Southern fleet to run some kind of secret mission."

Katara sat back. "But, we're a separate people. Hahn can't order Dad around."

Sokka drew his shoulders up toward his ears. "I don't know, Katara. Something weird is going on here. There's apparently another compound nearby where the actual soldiers are housed, all underground like this, but apparently prepared for rapid deployment. And I heard the creepiest rumor about healers yesterday…" He looked at her, then shook his head. "I'm kind of hoping that one was just a rumor."

"What was it?"

"Let's just say, if it's true, you're going to throw a fit." Sokka glanced at the doorway suddenly as a man in the next room let out one of the sudden, rattling snores that had been waking Katara periodically all week. "I should probably go," he said. "We'll talk again later, especially now that you've got this room all to yourself." He rubbed his chin and peered around as if just noticing. "Nice digs."

"Yeah, I'm pretty excited about having the privacy. You know, so that I can bathe?" She crossed her arms and shot him dry, expectant look.

"Oh hey, that reminds me." Sokka winked and pointed at her with both hands. "Nice musk. Super manly."

Katara rolled her eyes but hugged him again before he could leave. It was only after he'd gone that she realized he had left his candle behind. She blew it out and undressed in the dark to the distant snores of men.

.


.

Katara arrived early at the pier and threw herself into practicing the new form Pakku had shown her a few days ago, but her thoughts were muddied with Sokka's visit and other worries that had fled her in her exhaustion the previous night. Where had Hakoda gone? What was Hahn's problem with the Southern Tribe? Where was Aang and was he okay? What had Toph meant when she'd said, "I'll swing by sometime," and should Katara be worried about that? Every time she mashed the questions down and tried to focus on her bending, they snuck back in between one breath and another.

"If that form is too difficult for you, I know some children's exercises that you could try."

Katara knew by now to not stop her practice when her teacher's acerbic voice came from farther down the pier. "It's not too difficult, Master Pakku," she said, forcibly injecting her voice with calm. She double-checked her posture (weight balanced, knees bent, tense position, relaxed position, tensed…) and tried the next step only to have her stream of water wobble suddenly and drop a foot in the air. Katara sighed. "I just have a lot on my mind right now."

"A disciplined mind is a mark of the true master," Pakku said, "but 'disciplined' does not mean empty. Thoughts come unbidden to any mind. One hopes."

Katara clenched her teeth despite the lingering ache in her jaw. He was watching her and, for all that she was glad to have his tutelage, a part of her was always worried when he observed her. She was afraid of being discovered, and a little ashamed of her deceit, but more than that, she was striving so hard to perfect the forms and catch up with the others. She was trying so hard to deserve this training, and she didn't want to fall short.

So when she closed out the form, she finished in a perfect stance, her motions perfectly measured. Pakku went on talking. "A waterbending master must learn to let his thoughts flow through him, which can only be accomplished by allowing thoughts to come and go with the same ease."

Katara straightened to face him, braced and waiting for his instruction.

Pakku only lifted an eyebrow and turned to leave, gusting a great sigh. "For Tui's sake, try not to latch onto them and brood. There is nothing so trying as a brooding teenager."

Katara clenched her fists and scowled at his retreating back for a moment before drawing a deep breath and returning to her stance.

Down the pier, Pakku stopped and looked back at her. "Are you coming to practice the next set with the other students or do you need more alone time with your feelings?"

She ran to catch up.

Learning with the class was much easier than learning alone, even though the movements were more advanced. Katara listened to Pakku's snide corrections as he wove through the group and applied them to her own form. When he inspected her, his brows tipped up in mild surprise and he moved on to the next pupil. Katara allowed herself the tiniest smirk as she continued.

When the day ended, none of the other students would speak to her, but Katara didn't even notice. Filled with giddy satisfaction, she mounted the stairs, ate her rice alone in the mess hall while people chattered all around her, and then returned to her barracks. She planned to bathe again tonight - her bindings were so much more comfortable after she had washed them - and enjoy a full night's sleep, free of the raucous snoring of the other Water Tribe men.

Had she been paying attention, Katara might have heard the other boys talking in the mess hall about the new recruits, and she might not have been so surprised when she brushed past the curtain into her barracks to find a young man sitting on a bedroll set up across the narrow room from her own.

He leaned against the wall in such a way that at first she only saw his right side and his dismal posture, elbows hitched up on his knees. His hair was cut weirdly short, so that his pale scalp showed through the dark hair, and he wore Earth Kingdom clothes with holes in them. To Katara's half-second assessment, he seemed like some sort of refugee. He didn't even look up at her when she came in, just went on glaring at the opposite wall with a sour expression on his face.

His, actually, really handsome face. Handsome, and maybe slightly familiar…

That might have seemed more important if Katara hadn't just returned to find all her hopes for the night dashed. Not just the night, but the foreseeable future. She couldn't share this room with some new recruit. She had only just managed to find a way to bathe, there was no way she was going to let it slip away from her now. And besides, this guy couldn't possibly be Water Tribe. Some of the Northern guys were pale, but this guy was just pasty.

Katara crossed her arms over her chest and glared down at him. "I think you're in the wrong barracks."

He looked at her then. His head whipped around as if he knew her voice. His sharp brow tipped back. His yellow eyes stretched wide.

Yellow. And asymmetrical.

But there was no denying it was the scar that told her who this was. One yellow eye stared out of that twisted, reddened flesh in just the way she remembered from Kyoshi Island a week ago. When he spoke, his voice was the same rasp.

"Actually," said the creepy prince, "I'm not."

Katara spun around to bolt from the room.

.

Chapter Text

Katara took two steps and her fingertips brushed the patched curtain.

Then the creepy prince was on her, shoving her to one side of the doorway, face-first against the wall. Or, really, his hand, which had somehow shot up to cover her mouth. His other arm was wrapped hard around her, holding her tight to his chest. Katara jabbed at him with her elbow but the cramped space made it impossible to put any power behind the blow. She drew breath to scream through her nose.

"Don't," he said to the back of her ear, but it was the heat of his breath that stopped her rather than the word. "Unless you want whoever hears you to know that you're not what you're pretending to be, either."

Katara's lungs were burning. She let the breath out so that she could suck in another and another. This was not happening. How could this be happening? How could he have followed her here? His chest was so hot against her back and his arm was pressed up under her breasts. Suddenly hyperaware of the intimate contact, she choked on another wave of panic. Katara was terrified.

And furious. She stomped his foot with all the force she could muster.

"Unh!" His face pressed against the side of her neck and she could feel for a second how he grimaced. But he pitched his weight forward and off that foot and Katara was finally able to shove back against him and, in his moment of unbalance, jerk away.

For an instant, she was free. Then she spun back and found him blocking the door out of the narrow room. His face was hard with his fury. In the grubby clothes and sad haircut, the prince should have looked less intimidating, but somehow he was just as terrifying as ever. Katara unthinkingly assumed a bending stance and then cursed herself for emptying her bucket of wash water before sleeping last night. Breathing hard, she met his angry look with one of her own.

But the creepy prince made no move to attack. Instead he straightened and crossed his arms over his chest, still scowling. "Is that the only move you know?"

"What?"

"You've used that strike on me twice now. Is it a favorite or are you just really uninventive?

It took Katara a second to grasp that he'd switched gears. She scoffed but didn't relax from her fighting stance. "Considering the results it gets me, it probably should be my favorite move."

His frown soured further. "Good. If you're predictable, it'll be that much easier to defeat you when the time comes to take you to-"

He turned his head sharply to listen, though he didn't let his eyes stray far from her. From the walkway behind him, there was a distant sound of shuffling feet and chatter, recruits coming back to their barracks from the showers.

"We've already had this conversation." Katara lowered her chin, glaring hard at him. "I'm not going anywhere with you."

The prince bared his teeth and took a threatening step toward her but then stopped himself. "It's not in either of our interest to draw attention to ourselves here," he said at a much-reduced volume. "So for now, let's just agree to disagree on that."

"I don't know, I think the Chief would probably be grateful enough to overlook some things if it meant getting his hands on Prince-"

He stabbed an imperious finger through the air at her. "You will call me Li until such time as I permit you to do otherwise. And I wouldn't be too confident about anyone's gratitude if I were you. In fact-" His yellow eyes narrowed and he crossed his arms again. "-I doubt your leader's happy feelings would last very long at all in the storm of betrayal from the men you've deceived."

Katara stiffened, realizing this was true. Hahn had already displayed the extent of his gratitude to her - and it had only dried up quicker when she showed weakness by losing to Toph and sympathizing with Aang. How much more drastically would he react if she was revealed as a woman? Execution, Sokka had said. Her peers already didn't like her. She had no delusions that they would support her. And Pakku… she didn't even want to think about the sort of scathing things he would have to say.

The prince's mouth curved up in a particularly nasty smirk. "I'm right, aren't I?"

Katara's lips peeled back off her teeth. She wanted to tell him he wasn't, that the Water Tribe stuck together and she didn't have anything to fear from her own people… but it wasn't true, and he knew it. He could see it in her face.

But there was one man under this mountain that Katara could trust. Sokka had always been such a planner. Between the two of them, surely they could make one firebender quietly disappear.

So Katara straightened from her fighting stance and crossed her arms primly. "Li's a really stupid name, you know. Are you honestly trying to pass as Water Tribe with that? Because that's just pathetic."

The sudden change in topic seemed to throw him, but only momentarily. "There's nothing wrong with my name!"

"Pff," Katara rolled her eyes and went on just loud enough to make him squirm. "I have never in my life heard of a tribesman named Li. You should probably sneak back out of here the way you came, before somebody else notices and you end up with your throat cut."

"I have a perfectly good cover story," he said in a forcefully controlled voice.

"I'll bet. Does your brilliant cover story explain why you don't look even remotely Water Tribe?"

"Yeah, it does."

Katara spat out a chilly laugh, shaking her head. "I've got to hear this."

He gave her his sour look, hesitating for a moment. "All I have to say is that my family situation was complicated. People don't like to ask a lot of questions when a Water Tribe kid looks Fire Nation. Or is civility not a part of your culture?"

She wanted to slap him again. Her arms came apart before her so that she could clench her fists at her sides. "How dare you? How dare you hide yourself like a rat-viper under someone else's tragedy?"

"I don't exactly have a lot of opti-"

"And how dare you insult my culture when it's yours that fills the world with pain and destruction!" Unthinking, Katara stalked closer and poked him hard in the chest. "You should be ashamed of yourself."

Anger warred with surprise in his expression. That he might find what she was saying surprising made Katara even angrier. "It wasn't my idea," he said at last. "The attendants asked what nation I was and I said Water Tribe. They filled in the blanks on their own."

That didn't make Katara feel any better. The men performing intakes were rigid and pretty invasive with their questions. She had gone through the process of entering the camp, she knew it wasn't as easy as hinting at a sad story. "They wouldn't just take your word for it."

"I had a token. It was apparently pretty convincing." He held up his wrist and tugged back the sleeve to reveal a flash of blue and white. He turned his head again suddenly as if he'd heard something, but Katara didn't notice.

The sight of her most treasured possession tied around the wrist of a prince of the Fire Nation hit her like a fist in the gut. "My mother's necklace," she said, a little breathlessly. The relief of seeing it again, after believing for days that it was lost forever, was almost suffocating. Her hand came up reflexively to touch that smooth disk, but froze inches away and jerked back to ball into a fist at her side. "You stole that from me on Kyoshi Island!"

"I didn't steal it! It fell off your wrist while you were struggling."

"You mean when you were threatening me and taking off my clothes!"

A red spot appeared high on his unscarred cheek. Was he blushing? "I wasn't- You know I just wanted the sash for a rope!"

Katara opened her mouth to shout something back but heard a soft noise from outside the door. Zuko must have heard it too, because he spun around at once and yanked the curtain aside to reveal a group of smirking Water Tribe boys. The sound had been Jeeka, clamping a hand over a skinny kid's mouth to stifle his laughter.

Upon being discovered, he released his hold and bared his teeth in an ugly grin. "You must be Li! We just came by to welcome you to the resistance, right guys?"

There were some murmurs of agreement, some snickering. How much had they heard? Did they suspect? A little panicky, Katara shoved Zuko to one side so that she could stand next to him in the doorway, sneering. "Aw Jeeka, aren't you a sweetheart."

She really didn't like the smug, excited look on his face, but she met his eye without flinching. "I'm just a friendly guy, Katto. Maybe not as friendly as you, though."

"What's that supposed to mean?"

"Nothing," he said, shrugging. "Just that you're a real friendly guy." The boys around him laughed at that. She wasn't sure what they found so funny about being approachable and considerate, but Katara knew right off that she didn't like their tone. Had they figured her out? It was impossible to guess. Jeeka went on, still smirking. "So you two already know each other?"

Katara said 'no' at the same time that Zuko said 'yes.' She shot him a dark look, only to find him peering down at her with this weird pinched expression. The giggly kid snorted out another laugh. "We've crossed paths," Katara said, "not that it's any of your business."

"Right," Jeeka said. He held up his hands and backed up a step. "We'll just let you fellas get back to, uh, catching up."

Chortling and whispering to each other, the group made its way back to the room next door. Katara watched them go, mind racing. What was so funny? Were they just amused that she was stuck living with someone she detested, or were they plotting to expose her and get her killed?

"You really don't fit in around here, do you?"

She whipped around to find Zuko watching her with a measuring look on his face. Did he mean to somehow use this against her, too? "I fit in just fine."

"Right." He let the curtain fall shut. "Because that was just exemplary of Water Tribe camaraderie."

Katara's jaw ached from how hard she was clenching her teeth together. She squared her shoulders to face him, not really thinking about how there was less than a foot of space between them. She wanted to say something that would cut him as deeply as he had just cut her, something that would get him out of her room at least and at best make him shrivel up and disappear completely.

But for all her mental grasping, she came up empty-handed. "Shut up," she sputtered. "Just shut up and get out of my room."

"It's my room, too, now."

Katara didn't really think about it, she just raised her hands to shove him. He was fast, though, and caught her wrists in his hot palms. It was then, when he was frowning down at her with his one sharp eyebrow set at a mean angle and his scarred eye almost twisted shut that she realized how close he was, and how big he was. How she could shout for help but only at risk to her own safety.

"This will be so much easier for both of us if you would just quit fighting the inevitable."

Katara made a shocked noise and tried to jerk away from him, but his grip was too strong. And then, suddenly, his eyes widened and he let her go. She fell against the opposite wall and sat there, momentarily stunned and staring up at him.

Zuko held out his hands before him. He looked very uncomfortable. "I didn't mean that like it sounded! I'm not going to force you into anything. Except, well, for being my captive. But I won't touch you! I mean, not any more than I have to, in order to capture you. That is." His cheek was blazing. Even the scarred side of his face was reddening a little in the unscarred parts. He glared at the ceiling, then back at her. "Look, I just mean that, for now, I'm not going anywhere and neither are you, and fighting each other won't accomplish anything."

He looked plaintive, earnest, impatient - but he didn't look like the vile exploiter she kept thinking was in him. This was just like the last time, in the woods, when she had been so afraid and his mind had been in a totally different place. Even the way he had held up his hands was the same, as if someone periodically shouted 'hand check' and he was always be the first to respond. In her chest, Katara's heart started to settle down. Being trapped here with Zuko wasn't good, but as long as he didn't try anything, she could bide her time.

She repositioned her legs and sat against the wall, wrapping her arms around her chest. "Fine. But we need to set some ground rules."

He glared at her as if she was in no position to make demands but Katara only raised an eyebrow. Zuko huffed and sat across from her, surly-faced but listening.

"No more grabbing me or trying to restrain me. It creeps me out."

He blinked as if it was somehow surprising that she would feel this way. Katara almost pressed the issue, but then he nodded. "Okay."

For a long moment, she just met his level look with her own, watching. Zuko kept waiting. His posture was rigid, his legs crossed neatly in front of him and his hands resting on his thighs. He looked almost like a scruffy guerilla leader demanding the release of captives, but he was so obviously a prince in a costume.

Katara blinked hard. She wasn't thinking straight. Now that the fear was fading, she became aware of her weariness. It would have been nice to clean up before sleeping, but that was obviously out of the question, now. "I'll think of more later," she finally said.

"That's not how negotiations usually work."

"Yeah, well, sharing a room with the guy who's been threatening to catch and imprison me kind of falls out of the realm of the usual for me, so let's just agree to play it by ear, alright?"

He frowned at her tone but finally nodded.

"Alright," Katara said. She glanced at the bedroll she was sitting on and realized it was his, and that he was sitting on hers. Her face started to get warm. "Alright. I think I want to sleep now, so…"

"Oh…" Zuko said, looking down and stiffening as if realizing the same thing.

Katara climbed to her feet and, awkwardly dodging around him, settled onto her own pallet. Hurriedly kicking off her boots, she pulled the blanket up to her chin and curled up facing the wall.

This was incredibly weird.

Behind her, she could hear some rustling of cloth, a long pause, and then more rustling. The candle winked out and the silence stretched. Finally, Zuko spoke. "Do… Do people always sleep fully clothed here?"

Katara hunched her shoulders up to her ears, eyes about to pop out of their sockets. "New rule! Don't take your clothes off in this room."

"Fine," he seethed.

Tired as she was, Katara didn't sleep much that night. Instead, she lay stiffly on her side for hours, listening to Zuko's perfectly even, very conscious breathing.

.


.

Zuko blinked awake as his inner fire stirred with the dawn. Not that he could have otherwise guessed at the hour from under this mountain. The room around him was warm and quiet except for the faint snores coming from the next barracks. And the soft breathing of the girl just feet away.

He turned his head and looked at her outline in the dim light spilling under the curtain. She had not even shifted in her sleep and the swoop from her shoulder to her hip was just as it had been the previous night.

She looked so small. He hadn't really thought of her as small before. Skinny, when he still thought she was a boy, but not small. Not fragile. Not girl-like in the way his sister's friends had always seemed girl-like, creatures of some other world, sort of like how birds were delicate and light and shouldn't be touched.

Katara wasn't delicate. He had seen the blows she took in the ring with the Blind Bandit, the marks on her face at Kyoshi Island. She was tough, he knew it. And she seemed so fearless.

So it surprised him that she got 'creeped out' when he won their little skirmishes. Not because Zuko didn't understand (vaguely) about what could happen to overpowered women, but because he had not really considered himself to have done any overpowering to start with. He had simply, by virtue of greater strength and training, won a physical altercation. (Which was different, somehow.) He hadn't thought of Katara as weak or vulnerable, but as dangerous.

It just hadn't occurred to him - and in fact the idea only ghosted through his mind, leaving a hazy sense of disappointment - that she didn't exactly think of herself that way.

Zuko sat up and rubbed the sweat from his neck. It was warmer in these caves than he had anticipated and the little room didn't allow the air to circulate. He usually woke up hot, but his ship was designed with an intricate system of ducts and vents that maintained a comfortable temperature. Here, the excess heat his body produced added to the natural warmth of the air and left him awake through most of the night, wishing to shed the bulky Earth Kingdom layers.

He shot the sleeping Avatar a glare and thought that he would probably have been fine if he had just been able to take off his shirt.

But if he could lull her into a sense of security, his personal comfort was a small price to pay. He would go along with her demands and he would suffer the night sweats and, when the proper time came, maybe she wouldn't be prepared to defend against his attack.

Zuko rose and pulled on his misfit boots and left the barracks quietly. Iroh had been taken to some sort of servants' quarters yesterday and it was about time Zuko figured out where that was.

It was perhaps half an hour of peering down hallways and sneaking past guards before he found the corridor branching off one of the lower walkways that led to the kitchens and servant dormitories. It was even hotter there, the air thick with steam. The showers were not so far away from here, he seemed to remember being told. As he had hoped, Zuko came upon his uncle alone in one of the kitchens, pouring hot water into the teapot he had brought from the ship. He crossed between two long tables and spoke quietly at the old man's shoulder.

"Uncle."

Iroh startled but did not spill the hot water. He peered back at Zuko. "You are not supposed to be here, my nephew. There will be trouble if you're caught in this wing."

Zuko crossed his arms over his chest and noticed that the old man had set out both of the remaining teacups. "I'm not concerned about receiving demerits, Uncle. Something amazing has happened."

"Yes, amazing indeed," Iroh said, smiling. "I have stumbled upon a ring of Pai Sho enthusiasts right here in the dormitories! Last night was a most welcoming experience - I lost my boots in a gamble and won these much more comfortable sandals."

Zuko frowned down at the indicated sandals, which were, in fact, on the brink of falling apart. They seemed to be held together with little more than twine and good fortune. "No," he said, pinching his eyes shut. "I mean for me. The room they assigned me is the Avatar's. I'm perfectly positioned to capture her and make our escape."

Iroh finally set down the pot and turned to face Zuko, looking surprised. "That is good news. Do not forget the young airbender, though, my nephew. And do not be hasty. The key to this maneuver will be careful preparation."

"Yes, Uncle. I'm working on it."

"You must be cautious of the other young men sharing the room, lest they suspect your true nature - or hers, since your fates are bound together now."

"There are no other men. What do you mean about our fates?"

Iroh lifted his eyebrows and peered up at him. "What do you mean there are no other men?"

"It's just the two of us in that room. Uncle, what about our fates?"

There was a strange expression on the old man's face, as if a big light had been switched on inside him and the glow was seeping out through his faintly crinkling eyes, his tightly controlled mouth. Iroh turned back to his teapot and began readying the cups. "What I mean is, if she is discovered, she will have no reason not to expose you in turn, my nephew. You must keep her secret as carefully as she keeps yours, or we will all fall together." He peered stealthily at Zuko from the corner of his eye as he poured the tea. "It is crucial that you protect her in this way."

Zuko thought on this for a moment as Iroh placed the cup in his hand. His sips were slow and careful, practiced now after these years. He needed to protect her? That didn't seem right. She was the Avatar. She was perfectly capable of protecting herself. Although, now that he considered it, that Jeeka guy had been giving her a hard time… Maybe she didn't need protection so much as…

Iroh was talking again, his voice low and peaceful. "…could potentially be difficult for a prince to learn such boundaries, but I am confident that you are up to the task."

"What?"

There was a distant shuffling of feet from the corridor. Zuko swallowed another sip of tea and set down the cup.

"I should go. I'll find you again soon, Uncle."

Iroh smiled a tiny, secret smile that Zuko didn't see as he crept out the door and, concealing himself in a side passage from a group of yawning cooks, made his way back out to the main walkways. Across the wide circular atrium, he spotted the blues of a group of Water Tribe recruits on one of the levels below. He followed their progress until they jumbled inside one of the training rooms, then hurried to join them.

He caught a few inquisitive glances but most of the tribesmen avoided looking at him. Zuko did not give much thought to why that might be - he was used to people bowing or politely averting their eyes - but in truth it was a combination of rumors about his heritage and the grim expression on his face.

While the other recruits milled around, Zuko crossed his arms and surveyed the weapon racks. He hadn't trained with any of these - which was good, since he had to appear to need training if he didn't want to be shipped off to some warfront. He had lifted a sword with a long leather-wrapped grip when a voice came from beside him.

"Nice choice."

Zuko turned to find a skinny guy watching him with a casual half-smile on his face. He wore the same partly-shaved hairstyle as Katara, but he was older, and nearly matched Zuko in height if not bulk. The skinny guy went on, shrugging and bracing a hand on one hip.

"A lot of people shy away from whale-tooth swords because of the reach, but there's nothing like them for close combat." The guy stuck out a hand. "Sokka, Southern Water Tribe."

Zuko blinked. Was that the reason for the similarity? Did this guy know Katara? There were other villages in the South, weren't there? More importantly, did he know that Katto wasn't a boy? Belatedly, Zuko gripped the proffered hand. "Li."

Sokka frowned at him for an instant, then adjusted his hand to grip Zuko's forearm pointedly. Then, he let go. "No affiliations, huh?"

"What?"

"You're not a part of either tribe." Zuko stiffened, but the skinny guy raised a hand and went on. "I'm not saying it to be rude or anything, I just mean it's tough for a guy to come into this crowd without some friends. People who know people. You know."

"I don't need friends." Zuko placed the sword back on the rack with a clatter.

"Yeah," Sokka said, a thoughtful note in his voice. "You don't really strike me as the buddy type."

Zuko turned a glare on him and he immediately held up his hands and assumed a detached expression.

"Just saying. No judgement here."

"Why are you talking to me?" Zuko asked the question with exactly as much disbelief and suspicion as he felt - because people never chatted him up this way. This was an entirely peculiar experience and it made him very uncomfortable. He was sure this guy was after something, though he couldn't guess what.

Sokka waved at the weapons rack. "You just seem like a guy who appreciates sharp weapons. I, too, appreciate sharp weapons. But, I can see I'm bothering you, so I'll just go back to minding my own business."

"Yeah, you do that."

Zuko watched Sokka saunter back to a group of other skinny guys. He told some joke and they all laughed and slapped his shoulders. Zuko glowered and tried to imagine what he could be up to.

.


.

Katara stirred to the clang of the wake-up bell and for a moment lay calm in her bedding.

Then she remembered what had happened last night and she sat up in a rush. The pallet on the other side of the room was empty. She wasn't sure whether that was a relief or a cause for concern but she was glad Zuko wasn't there to watch her yank her boots on and scrub the gross taste out of her mouth. Whatever plan he was hatching, she had to hatch hers first. She had to find a way to talk to Sokka tonight.

Fortunately, training that day was largely a repeat of the previous day, and Katara found the form returned to her much more quickly than it returned to the other students. By the third hour, Pakku had her demonstrate the sequence for everyone and then shamed the entire class for falling behind the 'untutored bumpkin.' Katara tried not to look pleased, but even with her mild offense at the descriptor, it was very very hard not to smile.

She was more aware of the dirty looks today than she had been yesterday.

Lunch came, and Katara found herself sitting off from the others as usual. The tea served with the meal was unexpectedly good. Shockingly good, actually. As an old man refilled her cup, she couldn't help remarking on it.

"I am glad you are enjoying it," he said, smiling and lowering his eyes - which looked pale green in the blueish light of the pier. "It is an honor indeed to receive the praise of Katto of the Water Tribe!"

Katara's brows shot up. "You know who I am?"

"My nephew and I saw your recent match against the notorious Blind Bandit." He said the name as if she was some ruffian - which Katara had to admit wasn't too far off the truth. "It was an impressive display against such an accomplished opponent! And your speech was very inspiring, too. My nephew and I - and several other new recruits as well - joined the resistance the very next day."

"Wow," Katara said, stunned. A glowing feeling was welling up in her chest. She had really done it, she had really inspired people into action. "I had no idea I'd had such a strong effect. Thank you for telling me that… er, what's your name?"

"It seems that most people will be addressing me as 'new tea brewer' here, but you can call me Mushi." The old man smiled and left to refill Pakku's teacup.

Katara, too far away and distracted anyway by the blaze of new pride and her delicious tea, did not hear what the two old men chuckled about together. It did occur to her, though, that news of the match was probably how Zuko had tracked her here. If only getting rid of him again could be as easy as a rematch with Toph...

In the afternoon, Katara was permitted to take part in the last round of sparring. Her opponent, a kid named Hanno, was quick and unexpectedly fierce in his attacks. Katara, on the other hand, winced every time she struck at him. She didn't want to hurt him, after all. Her defense was much stronger than his, though, and he eventually tired and missed a block that should have been simple.

"Sorry," Katara said as he clambered to his feet, staggering under the weight of the water soaking his clothes.

"Go suck an iceberg."

Pakku dryly reminded them of the value of facing defeat with dignity, then said a few snide words about technique (not Katara's) and the crippling failure to strike when the chance arises (entirely Katara's) before dismissing them. It was while she was climbing the stairs that the backward glances of the other students penetrated her brooding.

They looked annoyed. Hanno had a derisive twist to his mouth. Katara stopped climbing and held out her hands to either side. "What?" She was genuinely confused. What had she done to earn all of this?

"Nothing," Hanno said, his expression unchanging. "I just don't know how that earthbender girl got so famous if she found you challenging."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Katara demanded but they just kept climbing. She shook her head and didn't hurry to catch up.

In the mess hall, she slumped onto one of the stone seats around an empty table and bent over her rice bowl with what she hoped looked like rapt attention. In fact, she was beginning to hear her name in the clamor of conversation and knew that, if she was to look up, she would catch smirking eyes watching her. She was tired from a long day and little sleep, and the unending worries. She didn't even want to bother.

Then, something moved in the corner of her eye as someone put a bowl on the table and sat down beside her. Katara half-expected it to be Jeeka, back for another of his taunts, so when she looked up and found Zuko's surly yellow eyes on her, she jerked in surprise.

"I think they know who you really are," he growled.

Chapter Text

"What did you do?"

That was the question Katara was in the process of asking when she choked on a piece of some kind of leafy vegetable. She gulped from her water cup, shooting the firebender a glare that should, if there was any justice in the world, have singed.

But he just went on peering down his nose at her, his face a little crinkled in distaste. "I said, I think they know who you are. A guy from the Southern Water Tribe was talking to me today. Do you know him? Sokka?"

Katara threw back another gulp of water to give herself a second to think. The story that she and Sokka were cousins was widely known, but if she could keep Zuko from figuring out their connection for a little while, Sokka could be more helpful in getting rid of him. "No," she said at last. "He must be from one of the other villages." She looked down into her bowl as she said this. There were no other villages at the South Pole. All it would take was a glance at a map and Zuko would know she was lying.

But he only began picking through his bowl with the chopsticks he'd been given. His eyes were locked on someone across the room. When Katara followed his gaze, sure enough, there was Sokka. "He's up to something," Zuko said.

"Are you sure? Because, that guy doesn't really seem all that smart. I mean, look at him! Right?" Katara held out an arm toward where Sokka was twisting his pinky in his ear. He peered suspiciously at whatever had come out on his finger and then elbowed the guy next to him, apparently asking for a second opinion. Katara almost rolled her eyes. "Doesn't exactly scream mastermind."

"We still have to be careful. An idiot with a big mouth could do just as much damage."

"Who's this 'we' you're talking about? I'm not going to help you hide and spy on my own people."

"I'm not a spy," he said through his teeth. "And you'd better help me hide because the only thing I'm really going to want to do before they chop my head off is tell everyone I meet about you."

Katara glared at him and he glared right back. "Fine. You've expressed your concerns. Now would you go sit somewhere else? Sharing a room with you is more than enough together-time for me."

"You go sit somewhere else. There aren't any other empty tables."

"I was here first."

Zuko closed his chopsticks up in a fist and snatched up his meal. "Fine."

Katara watched him stalk across the room and sit abruptly at a table populated by a few Water Tribe guys. It was weird seeing how they reacted to him. Their eyes widened and they leaned away, like he was a bonfire and they suddenly found themselves sitting too close. At the same time, they nodded and offered him nervous smiles.

Katara scowled. Water Tribe guys never smiled at her. Letting out an annoyed little growl, she went back to eating and quickly emptied her bowl. If Zuko was here, maybe she could get a moment alone in the room. Maybe long enough to clean the last couple of days of grime off. She tried to make eye contact with Sokka, but he just kept goofing off with his little warrior buddies. Jeeka, however, caught her eye and made a gesture that she didn't understand. The confusion must have been evident on her face because he and his friends had a laugh as they watched her. Finally, Katara huffed and stalked out of the mess hall.

.

.

Zuko was hardly aware of the jittery boys at his table and their stilted conversation. He didn't notice how their eyes strayed toward him and then flitted away, or how they talked about inane, general topics. If he had noticed, he probably would have thought it was because of his intimidating skill in the training room. Even when he held back and used weird, unfamiliar weapons, he was still a stiff contender amongst these Water Tribe fighters. But he wasn't thinking about that now.

Katara was being totally unreasonable. She should be grateful that he wanted to help her avoid detection by that chuckley idiot, but instead she just brushed off his concerns. She seemed more preoccupied with keeping away from him than with the more immediate threat. It frustrated Zuko, because he needed her to trust him at least enough to let her guard down.

It also kind of hurt his feelings, but that was a response that Zuko would not even admit to himself.

So he ate his meal without saying a word and then followed the trickle of recruits down to the showers. There, his temper sluiced off with the hot spring water that earthbenders had redirected through ducts in the ceiling. It came down in a few well-spaced sprays through a wide room and drained off through a hole in the floor. An earthbending attendant waited at the doorway to open or close the spray openings as needed.

As he undressed in the adjoining cubby room and shoved his filthy clothes into one of the stone compartments, Zuko silently marveled at the ingenuity of these earthbenders. In the Fire Nation, things were done with steel pipes and coal power. There were showers like this, but they were entirely fabricated where this one relied almost entirely on manipulation of the natural world.

He had always been taught that the Fire Nation's way was the only reasonable way, but here was a perfectly viable alternative. The knowledge settled somewhere at the back of his mind as he shut his eyes under one of the sprays and let the water sting against him.

It hurt a little - the reservoir above the shower room was nearly full so the water pressure was higher than was entirely comfortable - but it was a biting, enticing, teasing kind of pain. It beat against Zuko's shoulders and back and chest with a driving power that forced him to stop and just endure it for a moment. It almost remind him…

Guys laughed and chatted around him, though, and he soon scrubbed down with a sliver of the coarse soap that was provided and returned to the cubby room. The attendant handed him a stiff towel and the service seemed so familiar and normal that Zuko didn't so much as blink.

"Nice, right?"

At his cubby of dirty clothes, Zuko turned to find Sokka following him at a respectful distance with his own towel wrapped around his waist. Zuko didn't slow the quick motions of toweling the water from his skin. "Sure."

"What, you aren't impressed?"

"I didn't say that," Zuko said, frowning at the other guy.

Sokka met his gaze a little disbelievingly for a second, then shrugged and peered up at the ceiling as he started drying himself. "Man, when I got here, this was probably the most mind-blowing thing I had ever seen. All this hot water… and the genius system… I could never have imagined anything like this at the South Pole."

"I can see why," Zuko muttered, unthinkingly. He jerked straight. "I mean, I've never been there. I just mean it makes sense. That you would think that."

Sokka nodded good-naturedly and began wiping water off his own narrow chest and shoulders. "You're not thinking of putting those Earth Kingdom clothes back on, are you? They smell pretty ripe."

"I didn't exactly come here with luggage." He said it with some heat, hoping the guy would get lost again.

But Sokka was unfazed. "The attendants do our laundry, too. It's pretty great - and they don't complain like my sister does. There are clean clothes in that closet, right over there." He pointed, smiling a pleasant smile. "You can even get into your own blues."

"Oh." Zuko peered down and away. He felt oddly ashamed in the face of this apparent courtesy.

"So where are you from?" Sokka asked, still not going away.

"Uh," Zuko said, then bent forward to hide his face and dry his legs. "My family lived in a little village. On the sea, to the west of here. You wouldn't have heard of it."

"Got any siblings?"

Zuko heaved a sigh. "A sister. I'm gonna…" He turned toward the closet Sokka had indicated but before he could hurry off, the other guy was right there beside him.

"Oh man! Me too. Aren't they just… awful?"

"Yeah," Zuko said, even though Sokka's put-upon smile suggested that his definition of awful was totally different from his. Zuko's sister had traveled for days, maybe weeks to meet up with his ship in exile and smugly tell him about Mai's beautiful wedding. Somehow, he didn't imagine Sokka's sister was cut of the same cloth.

"Mine is sixteen. How old is yours?"

"The same." Zuko pulled the closet open and sifted through a few tidily-folded tunics, reading the writing on the bottoms of shelves that indicated general sizes. There were even some shoes and boots arranged neatly in the floor. Zuko picked out some stuff that would probably work and was back at his cubby, climbing into his new loincloth when Sokka caught up to him.

"You might keep that to yourself, about your sister," he said quietly as he threw his clothes on with a kind of reckless ease. "These Northern guys take strategic marriage pretty seriously. With your fighting skills, a lot of them would probably marry her just to have you for a brother-in-law so they could ask for favors later."

Zuko froze with one leg in his pants. "Marry her?"

"Yeah," Sokka said carelessly as he clawed his way into a new undershirt. "And they'll bug you about it, too. Ask you for permission for the honor of courting your sister like she's a-"

"She would kill me."

"Right?" Sokka tugged down the shirt and smiled at Zuko's genuinely horrified expression. "You seem like a sensible big brother, Li. I think we're going to get along just fine."

Zuko pulled on his shirt and rolled his eyes under the fabric. Sokka just kept talking. He went on and on about training and weapons and hunting. It was only when Zuko was tying Katara's necklace back around his wrist that a pause came in the jabbering.

"Nice betrothal necklace," Sokka said in an odd tone. "I didn't know you were married."

"What?"

Sokka pointed at the necklace. "That's the sort of carving a Northern guy gives the girl he's betrothed to." When Zuko's eyes widened, he went on. "Some wives send their husbands off to war with their betrothal necklaces for good luck. I thought that was why you had that one."

Zuko blinked. "Oh," he said. "No. It's my, um, mother's."

"Oh! Yeah," Sokka said, tilting his head. "It does have a real 'mom' vibe to it…." A really weird look came over his face. "Listen, I've gotta run, stuff to do, you know. Catch you later!"

And with that, he grabbed his pants and dashed out of the cubby room, leaving Zuko to dispose of his old clothes and put on his new Water Tribe boots in peace.

.

.

Katara was squeezing the last of the soapy water out of her bindings when Sokka burst through the curtain, wide-eyed and breathing hard from running. "That guy. Li. Mom's necklace? What - he do?"

Katara frowned at him and bent clean water through the fabric to be sure she got all the soap. She had to hurry if she wanted to be done before Zuko got back. "His name isn't Li and he's exactly as Water Tribe as the Fire Lord."

She explained hurriedly about Zuko, how he'd come to the village and caught up to her in the islands and, apparently, followed her here. "I don't know how he's planning to get me out of here, but he's going to try sometime and we have to get rid of him before that happens," she said as she drew the last of the water from the long strip of fabric.

Sokka had come to kneel beside her and he kept an aching, desperate look locked on her. "Katara, tell me this guy hasn't been… you know… getting handsy or anything."

Katara huffed and dropped her hands hard in her lap. "That's it? I tell you he wants to abduct me and take me to the Fire Nation and you're worried that he's copping feels?"

"Well the abduction thing is easy to solve! Just tell him you're not the Avatar!"

"And just let him chase Aang? No, Sokka. Aang is way too important. It's better for the world if Zuko stays trapped here for now."

"Yeah, right here. With you. Every night." Sokka flailed at the two bedrolls, just feet apart. "Practically spooning!"

Katara took a breath for patience and put her hand on her brother's shoulder. "He's not… totally creepy, Sokka. He says he's not going to do anything to me. Except try to capture me and take me to the Fire Nation. It's a little crazy, but I actually kind of believe him. So we need to focus on the real problem here, alright?"

Sokka watched her a moment longer, then shut his eyes. "Alright. You know what's best for your own safety." He looked at her again, and his expression was grim. "Now, when you say 'get rid of him,' what do you mean exactly?"

Katara blinked, and frowned. "I don't want to resort to murder but I'm not sure what else we can do. He's too strong for us to hold captive and he'll tell everyone about me the first chance he gets. I was kind of hoping you'd have an idea."

Sokka only shook his head. "Just matching his combat skills is going to be nearly impossible, Katara. From what I saw in the training room today, we'll be lucky if we can subdue him with just the two of us. We might have to wait to make our move until Dad comes back."

"That's weeks from now, Sokka. What if he figures out his plan first?"

"I don't know."

They sat together for a moment, and then Sokka grabbed her hand from her lap.

"I should go. He'll be here any minute."

Katara squeezed his hand and then he was gone, leaving the curtain swaying in his wake. They were in big trouble. It felt better to have Sokka in on this situation with her, but the fact that he didn't have any better ideas about how they could deal with it was not reassuring.

Waiting for Hakoda to return was a big risk, and it meant living with Zuko for the better part of a month. And it also meant needing her father's help the minute he arrived, which she didn't like for a variety of reasons. Some of the problem was her pride, but more of it was the gnawing certainty that, whatever delusions Sokka still held, they would have to deal with this problem like they had dealt with all their problems over the last four years - without him.

It would be so much better if she and Sokka could just beat Zuko on their own and somehow get rid of him. There had to be some way they could get an edge on him, surprise him so that he wouldn't see the attack coming.

Katara drew a deep breath and bunched her fingers through the dry bindings in her lap.

.

.

Zuko liked Water Tribe boots a lot better than Earth Kingdom boots. They were more flexible than Fire Nation boots, too, so he was quieter than ever as he climbed the stairs and walked the stone walkways. He crossed paths with Sokka on the way to the barracks and raised a hand in grudging salute.

Sokka flung his arms wide. There was a weirdly intense smile on his face. "Li, buddy. You look just great in blue. Just… great."

Zuko made a mild, unhappy sound and continued on to his doorway. He pushed the curtain aside and stepped through.

And stopped.

And stared at the slim back of the girl kneeling at the far end of the room. There were a few loops of her bindings around her chest already, and the white cloth cut brightly across her back beneath her darker shoulder blades. Her neck stretched long and slender above, even as she bent her head to her task, and the back of her head was weirdly attractive where the short growth concealed almost nothing. Her strong, slender arms stretched and folded and twisted to reach as she spooled the bandage around her torso. Below, her sides cut in to a trim, hard waist and then thickened outward into a suggestion of her hips before disappearing beneath blue trousers.

But it was the channel down the center of her back that really drew the eye. Zuko found himself wanting to run his thumb along it, just to feel if it would be as smooth and cool as he imagined.

Katara glanced over her shoulder suddenly and gave a tiny yelp. "Shut that!"

Realizing he had been holding the curtain open, Zuko shoved it back into order. And then stood across the tiny room from the only shirtless girl he had ever encountered.

She was still watching him, frowning. "You're still here," she said, almost like a question, but more scathing.

"I, uh… Right." Of course he was supposed to leave. He knew that. He had known that. He turned to go. "I'll be outside."

"Fine. Go there."

Scowling again, Zuko went. He crossed the walkway and stood with his hands fisted around the rail, peering across the cylindrical atrium. Men were milling about everywhere with the weary saunter of evening. From this vantage point, Zuko could see down to the lower levels where the servants were carting the last dishes from the mess hall to the kitchens, and some tousled recruits came and went from the showers.

He had pointedly not thought about Katara in the showers, though the water had brought her to mind. (The stinging, battering quality of it, really.) It hadn't occurred to him that she couldn't use that facility, but it occurred to him now, along with a mental image of soap bubbles trailing down her spine.

Zuko shut his eyes hard and then opened them again to glare across the atrium some more. He needed to stay focused if he was going to gain the Avatar's trust and somehow get her out of here. And gaining her trust meant not doing anything she would find 'creepy,' like lingering in the room while she was trying to put her clothes on or staring at her skin.

Or thinking about how, if he had left the showers just a few minutes earlier, he might have walked in before she had even started putting those bandages back on.

This was no good. He had to do something. A day of training with the Water Tribe recruits was not enough to tire him like a day of firebending practice. Maybe he could sneak down to visit Iroh tonight. He would have to wait until things quieted. There were too many people now.

At just that moment, Zuko spotted Jeeka and his friends emerging from the showers. It was a long distance, but Jeeka had a particularly aggressive stride that was easy to recognize and his friend, Attuk, was especially big. From sparring that day, Zuko had also learned that Jeeka tended to strike at perceived weak points with special ferocity. It had only taken a few vicious stabs at Zuko's left side to prove that his scarred eye was undamaged, and the third strike had ended with the toothy guy on the floor.

Striking weak points was a tactic that Azula had always used with a lot more finesse, but where she did it to ensure efficient victory, Jeeka seemed to take an inordinate amount of satisfaction. If he was targeting Katara, it was because he thought she was weak.

Figuring she had probably had enough time now, Zuko peeked back into the room before ducking inside. She lay on her pallet, facing the wall. Was she pretending to be asleep? Zuko rolled his eyes and tried not to feel guilty.

"You have to fight Jeeka," he said. It was the safest thing to say, and he had to say something.

Katara sat up on her elbows so she could fix him with her glare. "What?"

Zuko sat on his pallet across from her and she sat up to face him at his level. "He's a bully, and he's paying way too much attention to you. It would be too easy for him to figure this out."

She crossed her arms over her chest. "Look, I know you think you're helping to keep my secret or whatever, but I'm not going to just take the Fire Nation solution and pick a fight with someone I should really be getting along with."

"It's not the Fire Nation solution," Zuko said, gritting his teeth. "It's a guy thing." Katara barked out a laugh but he only kept going. "Look, for girls, maybe making friends is as easy as being nice to people, but for guys, it's more complicated. There's a pecking order. If you aren't fighting for a place in it, other guys think it's because you aren't strong enough to win."

Katara stared at him for a moment, mouth tugging down in distaste. "That's moronic."

"Yeah, it is. But if you want to keep this up, you're going to have to play along."

She narrowed her eyes at him and Zuko braced himself for the argument he felt coming on. Finally, she tipped her head back, scrutinizing him. "How did you learn about any of this stuff?"

Zuko jerked back, then glowered. "What's that supposed to mean?"

Katara only shrugged, impassive. "I just thought a prince would be above jockeying with other boys for position and wrestling in schoolyards."

"I was! I am!"

She only blinked at him, a dry look on her face. Zuko could just envision the ugly picture she was composing behind those chilly blue eyes, a spoiled prince who thought he was better than everyone but was really no more than a coward hiding under a crown. It struck too close to his own fears, the shame of his banishment. Maybe that was why he said what he said next.

"I went to an academy as a kid so I saw it happening, but I was never included in any of that stuff - and yeah, it was partly because of who I was, but it was also because my mother taught me that instilling fear and conflict was the wrong way to gain respect."

A weird look came over her face, and Zuko stiffened, raising his chin. He hadn't meant to say that. He hadn't even thought about it in the past five years, largely because he had unconsciously abandoned that philosophy when he left the Fire Nation. His father, after all, was living proof of the power to be gained through fear and domination, while his mother…

But Zuko didn't want to think about that. He couldn't. He forged on instead, the way he always did. "The point is that you don't have a position of power to fall back on. For whatever reason, Jeeka's taken an interest in you and he's going to keep pushing until he finds some way to break you, so you need to strike first."

Katara was still watching him, but the weird look had faded. "If your mother taught you that," she said, like she didn't believe him and hadn't even been listening to the rest of what he'd said, "why do you put so much energy into being intimidating all the time?"

Many feelings were building up in Zuko's chest; frustration that she pushed him back to this topic he couldn't bear to think about, and hurt that she wouldn't listen to him when he was trying to help her, and confusion, because he certainly did not put energy into being intimidating. It just happened. In the world his father had created, all the complex feelings rumbling through Zuko had only one viable form of expression. Helplessness and sorrow and uncertainty were weak, but rage… rage was strong.

Zuko unthinkingly leaned toward the waterbender, fisting his hands on his thighs. His glare was murderous, though he didn't really know it. Katara leaned back, eyes widening as he neared.

"She was wrong," he said.

He held her stare for a moment, then rose easily to his feet and stalked out of the room.

.

.

Katara drew a deep breath as the curtain stilled and let it out in a rush.

She wasn't totally sure what had just happened there, why Zuko had shifted from what she was starting to think was base-level anger into maximum overdrive, but she wasn't going to let his emotional problems upset her. She wasn't going to let his angst wreck her calm. It was like Pakku had said; a master waterbender let thoughts and feelings come and then allowed them to go.

So Katara shut her eyes and let the outrage and fear and fury come for a moment. He had no right to stare her down like that. He had no right to tell her what to do. And he certainly didn't have any right to make her wonder if he was actually a decent human being somewhere under all the snarling and mixed messages. She let these thoughts come, and then she let them go. Gritted her teeth, and just… really let them go.

But an image was in her head now, and it was hard to let that go as quickly as it came - because Katara believed on a basic level that everyone loved their mother the way that she loved hers. She pictured a kid-Zuko listening to a wise queen in some red palace. Only the kid-Zuko was so hard to fathom. In her mind, he was a tiny adult, scarred and furious and commanding.

Then she remembered how he had stood so dumb-struck in the doorway when he walked in on her before, how he had stuttered, so obviously nervous. She remembered his face, split between the permanent glower of his scar and the up-tilted brow, the wide eye, his mouth open just a little. Maybe he had been a shy kid.

Gran-gran had always told her that you could tell a lot about a man by how he reacts to a pretty girl. Since Katara hadn't had any men around to observe (Sokka didn't count, obviously) when she started getting interested in men, she had gulped down Gran-gran's stories and guidelines. A man who seemed confident when faced with a pretty girl, Gran-gran had said, was probably used to pretty girls and should be dealt with carefully. A man who seemed afraid was probably hiding something. A man who seemed stupid probably hadn't spent a lot of time around girls. Or he might just be stupid.

Katara knew that Zuko was not stupid, but she was pretty sure from all his blushing and stammering and awkwardness that he wasn't used to being around girls. Letting him catch her rewrapping her bindings had been a sort of test. She could have done it under an open shirt instead of letting him get an eyeful, but then she wouldn't have been certain. Now she was certain.

Zuko wasn't just uncomfortable that she was a girl. He thought she was a pretty girl. And that was a mighty weapon in her favor.

A sort of plan was forming in Katara's mind, an idea that might distract Zuko enough to keep him from figuring out how to get her out of the rebel base and maybe even enough for her and Sokka to get rid of him altogether. Whatever that meant, exactly.

It was so dangerous, though. He seemed to be pretty respectful of the boundaries she drew now, but if she pushed him, would that restraint last? Or would he have one of these furious moments and do something awful?

Katara drew another breath and let it wash away her fear and worry as it passed out her lips. They returned again, like foam riding waves up the sand, but she knew what she had to do. She couldn't beat him in combat, not yet, but she was growing stronger every day. Until she achieved mastery of her element, she would find another way to do what needed to be done.

Katara lay back on her pallet and stared at the shadows on the ceiling, trying to make sense of the jagged shapes as she waited for Zuko to return.

Chapter Text

As if to add to all the frustrations of the day, Zuko couldn't find Iroh anywhere. He waited until most of the servants had settled in for the night and then crept through their dormitories and the private spaces only they were to use.

He had never been good at subterfuge. Whenever he and Azula went sneaking around the palace as kids, it was Zuko who got caught. Azula was great at stealth, but then, Azula was great at everything.

Zuko, on the other hand, made clumsy missteps and too much noise, but he had learned a lot from his errors. He was also very fit now from these years of physical conditioning, and it followed that he could make his body do most anything he needed. The Water Tribe boots helped, softening his footfalls as he hurried down long hallways and leapt up to hide over thresholds.

But Iroh was nowhere in the servants' quarters. It was like the old man had just disappeared. Or maybe his underground Pai Sho league was more exclusive than he'd suggested. Zuko rolled his eyes at the thought but embraced it to help him ignore the thread of worry that kept tugging at him.

It was well past midnight when Zuko left the servants' area, weary but still seething, and snuck past the guard watching the atrium to return to his dormitory. He considered trying to explore the upper levels, but there seemed to be guards posted in all of the stairwells above the dormitories. He guessed that made sense. Getting into the rebel base had been relatively simple and, if pretty much anyone could do it, it was probably wise to guard the movement's leaders against assassination.

Not that Zuko cared anything about that. He was here for one thing and one thing only.

He brushed through the patched curtain and lay down on his pallet with hardly a glance at the Avatar. He knew he had frightened her earlier, and he didn't care. She was the one who refused to listen to reason, who made that nosy comment about his… intimidatingness. It wasn't his fault if she found him intimidating. She was so…

"Where did you go?"

Lying on his back with one arm under his neck, it was easy to just turn his head and see that she was on her side facing him tonight. She looked sleepy, like he had awakened her on coming in, though he had been very quiet. Her blue eyes caught the faint light from under the curtain and glimmered.

"That's none of your business," Zuko said.

Katara frowned at him. "I should be the one mad at you, you know." Yet she didn't sound mad when she spoke, just drowsy. She blinked slowly. "You're the one who turned all scary."

Zuko narrowed his eyes at her and then glared at the ceiling. "I didn't mean to be scary. Exactly. But I don't want to talk about my mother."

"Alright." Katara shifted and her voice became more muffled. She had pulled up the blanket over her nose but Zuko could still feel her eyes on him. "You brought it up, so it seemed like it was okay."

"Well it's not."

She was quiet for a long time and Zuko started to think that she had drifted off, but then she spoke again. "Thank you for your advice." Zuko's eyes widened and he turned back to look at her. Her eyes had shut and she had tugged the blanket back down, so he could see her mouth moving when she mumbled two more words. "About Jeeka."

Zuko lay very still, watching her, now that those striking eyes were off him. So near sleep, her lips were fuller than usual. They parted slightly and a pink dart of her tongue winked out and vanished. "I still don't want to fight him, though," she said.

Zuko swallowed, and tore his eyes away to stare at the ceiling again. "If you put it off long enough, he'll make a move on you first." He clenched his teeth. "I mean, he'll challenge you, and you don't want that to happen someplace where there won't be witnesses."

"Why's that?"

"When you win, you want everyone to know about it."

"What if I lose?"

Zuko turned his head again to frown at her. There was a little furrow between her eyebrows and he remembered all the bruises on her face at Kyoshi Island, the beating she'd taken from the Blind Bandit. Had she ever even won a fight?

She had managed to knock him down on that island near the South Pole. It was a cheap shot, though. He hadn't even known she was a bender, then. Or the Avatar. Or a girl.

Looking at her now, her weary face easing into slumber, it was a wonder he had ever not known.

Zuko spoke very quietly, and there was no doubt in his mind that what he said was true. "Then you'll keep trying until you win."

One corner of her mouth tugged up just the tiniest bit, but she said no more. Zuko watched her until her breathing deepened, then went back to staring at the ceiling. Some clenched feeling in his chest had released, and he felt suddenly drowsy himself.

.


Katara woke up to a faint sound and, opening her eyes just a slit, watched Zuko sit up on his pallet. The room was wonderfully toasty, but her surly roommate really didn't seem happy about it. He tugged the front of his shirt out at the neck and flapped it against his chest, then ran his hands over his face and the back of his neck, coming to rest with his elbows on his knees.

"Ugh," she said, and he startled at the sound of her voice, drawing his knees in closer to his chest. "Why are you awake? They haven't even rung the bell yet."

Zuko cleared his throat into a fist and wrapped his arms around his knees. "It's sunrise. I always wake up at sunrise."

Katara burrowed deeper under her blankets. "Without someone demanding you get up and do chores? You're crazy."

"Yeah, well, look at you. How can you stand this heat?"

"Heat like this is a luxury in the South Pole. We would never waste the fuel to get the huts this hot. Besides," Katara said, sitting up on her elbows, "I would think you'd love the heat, being, you know…"

He was staring straight ahead at the curtain over the door. Was he blushing? Why was he blushing?

"…a firebender and all."

Zuko shot her a sour look. "Where do you think all this heat came from, exactly?"

Katara's amused feelings went away. "Did… did you almost set the place on fire in your sleep or something?"

"No," he said, rolling his eyes subtly so she wouldn't see - but she did because he was about as subtle as a sack of rocks. "It happens to a lot of firebenders. It's totally safe. Just uncomfortable." Suddenly, he was scowling at her. "It would be a lot less uncomfortable if I hadn't agreed not to take my shirt off in here just to make you feel better."

Katara blinked. "Oh. Well…" She bit her lip and reminded herself of her plan, and the importance of being considerate of his comfort. Within reason. "I guess it wouldn't be so bad if you took off your shirt."

"Augh," he said as he immediately jerked his sash apart and threw the Water Tribe shirt back off his shoulders. He twisted off his sweat-spotted undershirt and for a split second sat there, just breathing deeply, before he flopped back on his pallet with a gust.

Katara stole a glance at his hard arms, one of which stretched easily within reach of where she lay, and then pulled up her blanket to hide her burning cheeks. Suddenly, it did seem a little hot in here.

The other boys were not really built like Zuko. They tended to be on the hungry side, with jagged elbows and slender necks. Zuko looked almost as muscular as that Wanjo Naru guy had been. No wonder he was so strong. Katara quietly reassessed every struggle they had ever had. Of course he had won. He was practically a grown man.

She had known that the first time she saw him, though. When he came down from his ship with those soldiers, it had not even crossed her mind that he might be near her age. It was only here, between the blushing and sputtering and bickering - and the stubborn notion that he loved his mother - that Katara had started thinking of him as one of the boys.

He wasn't, she reminded herself now, but she needed to treat him like one if she wanted her new plan to work.

Last night had gone very well for a first step. Gran-gran had always told her that boys needed to be appreciated or they acted out. Sokka had been her prime example, transformed from moping to swaggering by Kana's single compliment on the arctic hen he'd caught.

Applying that principle to Zuko had been so easy; he was already trying to be helpful, so all she had to do was acknowledge his efforts. She still hadn't agreed to do what he wanted her to do, just thanked him for the contribution. He had softened like blubber by the hearth.

Though perhaps that had something to do with the way he had been staring at her mouth when he thought she wasn't looking.

Katara wasn't entirely naive. She had gotten the 'marrying age' talk from Gran-gran, and a little private celebration one night with just the women of the village. Sokka, with many complaints and threats, had been left in charge of the sleeping children, and the women had huddled around their fire and gotten tipsy off seaweed slosh until long after midnight. They had made some pretty ribald jokes about a variety of topics, among them all the many ways husbands loved their wives' mouths. For kissing, and complimenting, and other things.

Katara's face got hotter as her eyes darted over the ridges of his abdomen. No way. No way was she actually going to do any of those things. Especially not with this guy who was her enemy, who was a prince and a firebender and therefore despicable. He would be distracted enough by compliments and glimpses of skin. She hoped.

"You have no idea," Zuko said quietly, "what a relief this is."

He was still laying with his eyes shut, but his voice was nearly a groan. More heat flushed Katara's cheeks. She pulled the blanket up to her eyeballs so that she could only see him from the neck up. "I'm glad you're feeling better."

Zuko turned his head to frown at her for a long moment. "You should go back to sleep. It'll be another hour before the wake-up call."

"Too late for that. I'm not used to drowsing around while someone else is awake."

"I could go."

"It wouldn't matter." Sensing her face had cooled somewhat, Katara sat up and stretched her back and shoulders. She didn't look to see if his eyes were on her, but she was pretty sure they were. Her jaw cracked with a yawn. Ouch. "Where would you even go? They post guards all over the place here."

He didn't say anything for a moment and Katara turned to find him scowling at the ceiling once more.

"Oh right," she said, a scathing note in her voice. "That's none of my business."

Zuko's scowl deepened but he said nothing. Katara huffed as she yanked on her boots and retied her wolf-tail.

"Well, I'm going to the pier. It may not be any of your business, but it's not like I'm doing anything I need to keep secret."

She didn't wait for a response, but stalked from the room. An extra hour of practicing her forms would only speed her along toward her goal, and she needed the cool calm of the pier now. There was a bead of sweat itching down the center of her back and it took a lot to keep from scratching it.

.


Zuko waited until he was sure she was gone, then puffed out a sigh and, sitting against the wall, adjusted himself. Water Tribe pants were nowhere near as comfortable as Fire Nation pants. In fact, they were snug pretty much everywhere, but very noticeably more so in some places than in others.

Especially after waking from dreams of Katara's mouth on his shoulders, biting with the same wet sting of the shower spray. Images kept flooding back to him - water pouring over her skin, pinning her with his body against the stone wall, rocking his hips against her.

Only he'd awakened to find it was his pallet he was rubbing up against and no sooner had he regained a little dignity than Katara stirred as well. He'd finally gotten himself under control, and then she sat up and arched her back and he could see the long hard line of her from fists to hips, the way her usually loose shirt hugged tight when the small of her back tilted just so. The way her butt rounded out against the pallet.

Now, Zuko was alone for the first time in a week and his body was making demands with an intensity he hadn't experienced before. He frowned at the curtained doorway and, as if rebelling against him, his hand crept over his thigh and up to the ties of his pants.

Zuko almost never allowed himself the comfort of his own touch. To his mind, it was another kind of weakness, and a mercy he didn't deserve in exile. It also felt sad and desperate where, before his banishment, it had been so uncomplicated.

Leaving the ties still snugly knotted, Zuko jerked his hand back to the pallet beside him and drew several deep breaths through his nose. He summoned his most sobering thoughts - dishonor, and the persistent mental image of Iroh tumbling naked across that rocky beach.

Zuko grimaced and straightened. He had to find Iroh. Wherever the old man was, he had likely gotten himself in some kind of trouble. Maybe he'd finally been caught stealing. Zuko hoped it was no more than late night tile games or his uncle's sticky fingers, but that thread of worry was tugging much harder this morning than it had the night before.

Hurriedly, Zuko donned his shirts and boots and made his way back to the servants' quarters. To his shock and relief, Iroh was there in the kitchen again, just as he had been the morning before. Now, though, he seemed to be waiting. On spotting Zuko, he smiled and offered a cup.

"I was beginning to think you would not come! I am glad that you wish to continue our morning tea rituals in spite of the difficulty of this new arrangement."

Zuko took the cup, hardly listening. "Uncle, where did you go last night? I searched for hours."

Iroh held up both arms, expression giddy. "It was incredible! I was personally invited to play Pai Sho with the resident master waterbender and, you will never believe it, but it turns out we know each other!"

Zuko did not even notice how he sloshed hot tea on his fingers when he set down the cup. "What do you mean, you know each other?"

"Years ago, we were members of the same society dedicated to the appreciation of art and beauty. And Pai Sho!" A more thoughtful look puckered the old man's brow and he tugged the new growth of his beard. "He was not initially as pleased to see me as one would hope such an old acquaintance would be…"

Zuko held out his arms to both sides, eyes growing wider as he prepared to shout.

Iroh, seeming not to notice, settled his hands on his belly and chuckled. "And he was certainly uncomfortable to learn that the Crown Prince of the Fire Nation was here with me!"

"Are you out of your mind?" Zuko shot a glance over his shoulder toward the main corridor and lowered his voice. "Uncle, these people will kill us. We have to get out of here right now." The Avatar was down on the pier. They would grab her and then… find some way. Maybe there were tunnels off the pier. Maybe they could get a ship out.

But Iroh was still smiling. "Wait, I haven't told you the best part! Despite his initially dubious inclinations, I finally managed to convince my old friend that you truly have decided to join the resistance, and that you are only biding your time to reveal your true identity when the moment is right."

"You mean when I decide I'm ready to face the afterlife?" Zuko injected the question with all the malice pent in his chest.

"Well," the old man said, shrugging, "the implication was that you would find a way to prove your loyalty to the resistance beyond question and later challenge your father for the right to sit the Fire Throne, but it is always a good idea to seek spiritual peace."

Zuko clapped a hand to his forehead. Trust his uncle to come up with the most convoluted deception possible. "How could you get us tangled up in this? The plan was to capture the Avatar and escape. Not intentionally raise suspicions about our loyalties while you play board games with some old sea prune!"

"My nephew," Iroh said in a suddenly serious voice. He laid a hand on Zuko's quivering shoulder. "There is no way out from under this mountain, unless they allow us to leave."

Zuko froze. "That can't be true, Uncle. There has to be a way."

"I have served tea through the whole of this compound, Prince Zuko, and there is no passage out that can be opened without an earthbender. Even the pier is blocked off from the sea with walls of rock. We are very much trapped."

.


Katara had not been practicing for half an hour before Pakku arrived and sat off to one side, watching her. It did not disconcert her as it had before she had begun training with the other students. In fact, she hardly payed him any attention now, focused almost entirely on the push and pull of weight and energy, until he spoke.

"Pupil Katto, do you know anything about the defeat at the North Pole?"

Katara answered without pausing in her movements. She understood now that this was a training technique that Pakku employed, trying to distract the mind so that the body would falter, revealing points of weakness in form. Katara's body did not falter. "The Fire Nation invaded the city and killed the Moon Spirit, disabling all the waterbenders. I felt it the day the moon died, even on the other side of the world."

"And what happened after that?"

"The Fire Nation occupied the city and imprisoned all of the waterbenders. But a princess was able to heal the moon."

"Princess Yue, yes. Wife to Hahn. She sacrificed herself to return life to the Moon Spirit, and the moon returned power to our people." He paused a long moment and Katara stepped through a complex attack pattern. "Do you know what happened then?"

"No, Master Pakku."

"The moment my bending returned," Pakku said slowly, "I was able to overpower my guard and lead some of the other waterbenders through the solid ice of the cliffs to escape the city. Many were subdued, but the rest of us bent a ship and made for the Earth Kingdom."

Katara blinked at this. They had bent an entire ship of ice? And to maintain its form for all the time it would take to cross the sea? Her respect for her master only grew.

"There were many we had to leave behind. All of the women and children. And then, the healers."

Pakku said the final word with a kind of pained care. Katara's brow furrowed but it was the only sign she permitted to show her thoughts. Hadn't Sokka mentioned something about the healers? Despite her welling curiosity, her bending went on, motions smooth as the water whipping past her to strike an imaginary point. "The healers, Master Pakku?"

"Ah, that's right. I had forgotten how backward things are in the South." Pakku crossed his arms over his chest. She felt his eyes on her like two pricks of ice. "In the North, women do not learn waterbending, but healing. It is a gentle, feminine practice where waterbending is the violent and dominant art."

Katara's water shuddered, but she smoothed her breathing and let the anger flow out as quickly as it had come. Or she tried to let it flow out, but it stuck, seething in her belly. Pakku went on.

"Our society has always been built upon dualities that work together to create balance and harmony. Yin and Yang, light and dark, feminine and masculine. This dynamic even forms the basis for our spirituality, as Tui and La exemplify the shifting push and pull of waterbending and healing, and all of life."

Katara, as she listened intently, was nearing the end of the form. She stepped through the final defensive posture and exhaled, lowering her arms with the final release of energy. Then she turned to bow to her master. He sat on his chair of ice, watching her with his head tilted to one side, a pensive pinch to his eyes.

A chill was rising up Katara's spine. Why he was telling her all of this?

"The healers were scattered throughout the city during our escape, because the Fire Nation knew they were no threat. In fact," he said, raising a brow and letting his mouth twist unpleasantly, "it seemed the Fire Nation army had quite a few uses for healers."

Katara tried not to dwell on what those might be, but his tone made it difficult not to hazard a guess.

Pakku went on blandly. "But they had uses for all of us. That blood-soaked Admiral, Zhao the Conqueror, I heard him call himself, he only allowed Princess Yue to return life to the moon because the city could not function without waterbenders to work the locks and dams."

Because she had never seen the city, Katara didn't know what he was talking about. He took in her confusion and dryly curled his lip, then rose to his feet and slowly paced toward her. "The point," he said, "is that the Fire Nation did not simply defeat us in the North. They sought to destroy us down to the very foundations of our culture. They brutalized and enslaved our people and sullied the two aspects of the duality we have celebrated for thousands of years. They murdered the moon itself, just to prove that they could."

He was very close now. Katara peered up at the bitter hardness of Pakku's face, his cutting scrutiny. "Now tell me," he said, "Pupil Katto. How does a master waterbender respond to that?"

Katara swallowed. "I guess… like his element, he adapts, and finds a new way?"

"The regurgitated wisdom of the young. How inspiring."

"No," Katara said before she could think better of it. Pakku lifted a brow at her. "Maybe the North's way was always too rigid. A wave doesn't just push. It pulls, too. In waterbending, we attack with defense. The water possesses both aspects and we push and pull it between them." She unconsciously balled up her fists at her sides but kept her tone even. A little voice in the back of her head was shouting for her to stop, just shut up, but she didn't listen. "If the healers had known how to waterbend, the North would have been twice as strong."

Pakku peered down his nose at her. The sweat on the back of Katara's neck felt suddenly icy. Finally, he spoke. "It's too bad you weren't there thousands of years ago to share this insight with the founders of our culture."

Katara frowned up at him but didn't rise to the bait again. Her face felt hot and her heart was in her throat. Why were they having this conversation? Why was Pakku watching her so disdainfully?

"I have been teaching boys the ancient art and tradition of waterbending for forty years," he said, eyes narrowing, "and in little more than a week you have proven yourself more dedicated to learning than any student I have ever taught."

Katara blinked but dared not move otherwise. Pakku sounded perfectly calm and the words seemed complimentary, but a cold fury was swirling under the surface.

"I intend to make an example out of you."

.


Zuko went through the motions of training that day, all the while wondering how many of the men and boys around him knew who he really was. He had left the kitchen in a fury that morning and the anger just simmered on into the afternoon. It made it hard to focus on controlling his strength.

"Ow!" Sokka rubbed vigorously at his chest where the blunted spear had struck. "Do you have to hit that nipple every time?"

Instead of pulling back as usual, Zuko knocked the other guy's spear out of his hand in his moment of distraction and drew back for what could easily have been a death blow. "Do you have to whine about it every time?"

For an instant, Sokka tensed as if he actually expected the strike to come. Then he frowned and bent to retrieve his weapon. "You could just stand to switch it up a bit. That's all I'm saying."

"Well maybe if you'd learn to deflect properly, I would actually need to!"

"Well maybe if you'd slow down and let me practice, I could get the movement right!"

"Your enemies aren't going to slow down and give you a second chance, Sokka. You have to learn to be faster." Zuko assumed the ready position and, the instant Sokka raised his spear, he struck.

Only this time, the skinny guy did things a little differently. Instead of the block and dodge combination that they had been practicing for the past hour, he spun through the strike and swung the butt of his spear for Zuko's gut.

Not expecting the switch and distracted by his own thoughts, Zuko took the blow full force. He made a sharp sound as he lost his breath and staggered a few steps back, staring at the other guy in surprise.

Sokka was frowning at him, holding his spear at the ready. There was something unexpectedly grim in the set of his face. "Sorry, Li," he said. "I thought for a second there that you were some kind of expert."

Zuko straightened and, baring his teeth, stalked in to attack again. A whistle tweeted at that moment though, and one of the big Water Tribe warriors who oversaw training instructed everyone to switch partners. Zuko shot Sokka a final glare and Sokka returned it.

Later on in the mess hall, Zuko ate alone and was inwardly pleased to have taken the last empty table. When Katara came in, she would have to be the one who sat awkwardly with other guys that night while Zuko savored his tragically small meal in peaceful solitude.

Only, Katara never came to dinner.

.

Chapter Text

The shackles around Katara's wrists had grown so much heavier through the day and every impact with the floor had taken more of the edge off her will to keep fighting. She lay heaving on her side, and even though the choke had been released, she hardly had the strength to pull her extremities away from where the chains drew them to the belt around her center.

"Are you going to get up again," Pakku asked from his icy seat, "or have we reached the extent of Southern Water Tribe determination?"

Katara bared her teeth and struggled to her feet. On the controlling end of the chain, Nodak cast her a guilty look that she didn't see. He wasn't the best waterbender, but he was strong and he could definitely yank a chain. Katara knew where to direct her frustration, though. She bowed to Pakku. "Maybe it would help me, Master, if I understood just what I'm supposed to do."

He sipped his tea as if he hadn't been watching her fall down all day. "As I recall, I taught you the technique this morning."

"How am I supposed to assume any of those stances if I can't stay on my feet?"

Pakku blinked at her and curled his lip. "Adapt."

Katara turned away and seethed, her fingers bent into infuriated claws before her. Then she drew a big breath, relaxed her shoulders, and returned to the starting position. Nodak waited until Pakku called the signal and, already wincing in sympathy, yanked the chain.

Katara hit the stone with the same slap of impact and huff of lost breath she had been making all day. The other students had thought it was funny for the first hour or two - Katara could hear them snickering from down the pier where they practiced the forms she had already mastered. She had wanted to say something clever like 'joke's on you, fellas,' only she wasn't so convinced that was true.

Instead of letting her get too far ahead of the group, Pakku was teaching her an advanced technique using what he termed an advanced teaching method. This might have actually meant that he was punishing her for something, or preparing her. Katara was not going to eliminate any possibilities.

Even after all the other students had gone up for the evening meal, she had refused to give up in the face of her master's snide oversight. Finally, Pakku sent Nodak away to get something to eat and stood looming over Katara where she sat, tangled under her chains and glowering. "Don't worry," he said as he pulled a key from his pocket. "I'm sure you'll get it eventually."

It wasn't a reassurance so much as a reminder that tomorrow, and every day, would be more of the same until she worked it out.

He didn't bend to unlock her cuffs and Katara clambered up once more and held up her shaking wrists to him. She had never realized how heavy chains really were. As they fell away and spilled to the stone at her feet, she rubbed her chafed wrists and drew deep, calming breaths. Pakku opened the other locks and took the rattling device away and, for a moment, Katara just stood there with her eyes closed, savoring the new lightness of her limbs.

"Are you lost?"

She thought at first that Pakku was speaking to her until she saw his focus went right past her. She turned and blinked in surprise to see Zuko standing on the lowest stair. He didn't look lost, just a little startled at having been spotted.

Then something happened. Before Katara's eyes, he squared his shoulders and leveled an imperious look on Pakku. "No," he said, stepping off the last stair as if he owned the pier. "I know exactly where I am."

"Are you sure?" Pakku asked, crossing his arms over his chest as if bored. "This is a waterbender's space. You may be wearing blue, but if you're a waterbender then I must be a dragon."

Zuko's frown deepened. "You're right. I'm no waterbender."

"Then to what do we owe the honor of this visit?"

Katara watched this exchange, all the while feeling more and more nervous. There was a subtext here that she did not quite understand - but she knew it was there, and it was hostile. These two knew each other somehow. Prodded by the worries she had already been harboring all day, she immediately wondered if Zuko had informed on her. Yet why would he? He'd only expose himself in the process.

Zuko's eyes flicked to her before he spoke. "I was curious."

"Oh, then by all means," Pakku turned to Katara, and his gaze was hard under the aloof surface. "Pupil Katto, perform the first sixty movements for our visitor."

Katara blinked, and shot Zuko a suspicious frown. "Master Pakku?"

But Pakku only peered down at her and quietly asked, "If a man stands on a pier watching the ocean every day, will he become immune to drowning?"

Katara's eyes widened. "No," she said, and bowed. She stepped away from him then and, with a final glance at Zuko, assumed her starting position.

.


Zuko crossed his arms over his chest and watched the Avatar rise up with her breathing, lifting a great tear-shaped ball of water from the harbor. It traced easily around her, mimicking the rise and fall of her arms with rippling grace and then hardening and striking at points of high tension.

Katara's face was perfectly calm and alert, but focused on her task. Her body shifted easily through the familiar postures, breath and balance moving together in perfect synchronization.

"Your esteemed uncle tells me you have decided to see an end to the madness."

Zuko blinked and looked sidelong at the old master who had come to stand nearby. Pakku, as Katara had called him, was watching Zuko with a dry expression.

"But old men are prone to sentimentality and Iroh was always such an optimist."

Zuko scowled and looked back at Katara. "I didn't come here to discuss my uncle."

In fact, he had only ventured down to the pier after finding the barracks empty, descending the stairs perhaps a little more quickly than was prudent. If Pakku hadn't spotted him at once, he would have satisfied himself with the knowledge that Katara was only staying late at practice and left without incident. But Pakku had spotted him, and recognized him at once.

Zuko had known just looking at this man that he was the very sea prune Iroh had been playing his late night Pai Sho games with. It couldn't have been another jolly fat man, no, but a stern and crafty one.

Pakku watched Zuko watch Katara for a moment longer, then turned to observe his student. "Katto has the potential to be the greatest waterbender of this generation. Certainly the best that I have trained. Observe the balance, the attention to detail. If he continues to train at this rate, he will achieve the level of master well before spring's end."

Zuko turned to stare at the old man at that. He had been training for most of his life and there were still sets he had not perfected. He was struck with a sudden memory of Azula, the child prodigy, outstripping him with every tutor until they finally had to have separate tutors entirely. Perhaps it made sense for Katara to progress so quickly, being the Avatar, but it still unnerved him.

Pakku did not deign to spare him a glance. "Yet it is not talent that makes Katto so powerful. It is the unflagging thirst he has always known. It's in his eyes. His determination and urgency are born of the need to defend himself and those he loves. A need that has for years been impossible to meet, and now… well, you can see."

Katara sent a whip cracking out over the harbor. The sound slapped against the high walls all the way up the atrium. Yes, Zuko could see. He frowned and absently thought of counters against that attack.

Pakku turned squarely to face him then, smirking. "I understand that you and Katto are already acquainted. Consider his training my gift to you. A sort of coronation present. He'll make an excellent ally in any dispute you may face as you claim your crown and bring a peaceful end to the war." He raised his wiry brows and the amusement in his eyes was sharp as a knife. "Or maybe you will stumble between Katto and the people that matter to him."

Zuko scowled up at Pakku's long face but said nothing. He didn't want to reveal the genuine worry rising up in his throat as he considered the danger, not in the future, but now, tonight, when he lay down four feet away from Katara and went to sleep.

Pakku, still smiling with the same chilly amusement, turned to climb the stairs - but not before his parting words. "Either way, no thanks is required."

Zuko watched the old man climb for a second, then turned his wide eyes back to Katara. She was closing out the form, her steps and strikes becoming smaller as she approached the tranquillity of the end. For a moment, he considered retreating up the stairs, but immediately banished the idea. He wouldn't let himself seem afraid of her. He had come here for a reason.

So Zuko tightened his arms where he had held them folded against his chest and waited for Katara to step away from the final, relaxed posture. She did so slowly, as if there was a big weight on her, and then came toward him. Her look was narrow-eyed but weary.

"Where's Pakku?"

"He left. You missed dinner."

"I guess so." Katara heaved a sigh and stepped around him to start up the stairs. Zuko kept apace. She stared straight ahead, jaw tight, as he watched her. "How do you know him?"

"I don't," Zuko said. She shot him a glare. "He found out who I am through a third party, alright? I'm not stupid, I wouldn't just walk up and introduce myself."'

Katara stopped and peered ahead up the stairwell before leaning closer to him, baring her teeth. "Does he know about me, too?"

Zuko frowned and raised his chin a degree. "I don't know. He didn't seem to." …but would Iroh be foolish enough to tell her master that crucial secret just so he could gossip about Zuko's nonexistent romantic life with another old man? Zuko put a hand over his face and pulled it down slowly. "It's not impossible."

Katara was glowering at him. "What do you mean, it's not impossible?" She jabbed him in the chest with one finger. "You do know this is my life we're talking about, or did that escape your not-stupid attention?"

"Calm down." Zuko knocked her hand away, narrowing his eyes. She valued her training pretty highly if she considered it her life. It hadn't really occurred to him when he was talking to Pakku, but maybe putting a stop to her growing power by telling her secret wouldn't be such a bad idea. And if Pakku already knew about him, she couldn't very well use that as leverage…

Katara's eyes widened and she tipped her head to one side, frowning furiously. "Calm down? My head is on the block and you want me to calm down?"

"What-?"

She grabbed two fistfuls of his blue tunic and yanked him closer - or yanked herself closer to him, but the effect was similar. "I don't want to die at my own people's hands. The thought upsets me kind of a lot. So don't tell me to calm down when you're threatening me with that."

Zuko's hands came up reflexively and latched onto her shoulders, forcing her to keep some distance. "What are you talking about?"

Her grip loosened but she didn't back away. She looked furious, disbelieving. "The tribe will execute me if they find out. What did you think was going to happen?"

Zuko blinked down at her, genuinely shocked. They wouldn't execute the Avatar. Would they? Were they so blinded by their stupid traditions that they would extinguish their only slim hope for winning the war? Something wasn't matching up here.

But Zuko wasn't ready to think about that. He became aware of where his hands were - and of the fear that Katara was trying to mask with ferocity - and relaxed his grip. His tone, however, was low and angry. "Listen, whatever Pakku knows," he said slowly, "he isn't planning on having you executed."

"How can you be sure?" It wasn't a frightened, pleading question. It was a through-the-teeth question, a demand. It made Zuko's heart thump hard in his chest.

He really did not want to admit what had passed between him and Pakku, mostly because it had stung his pride. That, and Zuko knew better than to let an enemy smell fear. "You're pretty clearly his favorite student," he sneered.

A weird look came over Katara's face and she backed off, releasing his tunic. She shook spasmodically and it took Zuko a moment to recognize her weary laughter. "Right," she said, continuing the climb. He followed her up a few steps before she shot him a sideways look. "Really?"

Zuko scowled. "We didn't exactly have a heart-to-heart but that was the impression I got."

Katara looked up the stairs and suddenly she was smiling this little, glowing smile. Her cheeks pinked slightly. Zuko had never seen a look like that on her face before and it stunned him, the pretty sweetness of it. She looked like she should have flowers tucked behind her ears like that crazy dancing nomad girl.

Zuko quickly tore his eyes away and focused on not tripping up the stairs.

.


Katara collapsed immediately when they got back to the barracks, even though Zuko quickly left for the showers and she would have had the time to bathe if she had wanted. She was so exhausted, she hardly got under her blankets before losing consciousness.

It seemed like only minutes had passed but it must have been hours, judging by the distant snoring and otherwise heavy quiet of the compound, when she was jarred awake by a persistent, firm poke against her shoulder.

"Wake up."

Surging up on her elbow, Katara glared at the prince kneeling in the space between their beds. His unscarred side glowed pale in the half-light from under their curtained door but, in the groggy fury of being disturbed, Katara didn't care how handsome he was. She was stiff and so, so tired, and here he was waking her in the middle of the night. She bared her teeth, searching her numb brain for words that would express the aggravation twisting her up inside.

"Here. Eat this."

He held out a rolled up cloth and, when she didn't immediately reach for it, gave it a little shake.

"Just take it."

Katara glowered, disbelieving. "What?" It came out more snarl than word.

Zuko huffed and put the little bundle on the edge of her pallet, but still knelt there, looming over her. "It's a couple of rolls from the kitchen. You can't train all day and not eat. It weakens your chi. Trust me."

Katara had to take several breaths before she really understood what was going on here. At an obscene time of night, in a brusque disruption of her vital sleep, Zuko had brought her a gift. She wanted to fling the rolls right back at him because she wasn't hungry, she was sleeping, and his priorities seemed really way off base.

But Gran-gran's voice was in the back of her head, telling her about how men put way too much value on gifts, how they would labor over something in private and then shove it in a girl's hand and expect her to infer that that all of that invested time and care translated to feelings about her. Zuko had taken the time to sneak into the kitchens and steal food for her. He was concerned about her chi. And, much as Katara wanted to lash out at him, she reminded herself of the bigger game she was playing now.

She couldn't bring herself to thank him, though. So instead of speaking, she tugged the folded cloth apart and took out one of the slightly stale rolls and forcibly crammed the whole thing in her mouth, glaring up at him as she chewed. "Mm."

Zuko watched her, momentarily wide-eyed, and then gave a short nod and retreated to his own pallet. Katara, still chewing resentfully, watched with narrowed eyes as he removed his shirt and lay down. As the bread softened in her mouth though, she started to feel the empty ache that she had been sleeping hard enough to ignore. Swallowing felt a little like dropping a pebble into a well.

After a moment, Katara picked up the other roll and ate it at a slower pace, watching Zuko's chest rise and fall. She thought about asking about the stealing, since that seemed like pretty un-princely behavior, but it felt like a barb after he'd done it for her. Her tired mind rambled to a spot that had been nagging her before.

"Who's the third party?"

He turned his head to frown at her. "What?"

"Who told Pakku about you?"

He narrowed his eyes at her and she waved her roll.

"If this person is a threat to you, he's probably a threat to me, too."

Zuko huffed and glared up at the ceiling. "He's not a threat. Just an old fool who thinks people are his friends when they really aren't."

Katara chewed for a moment, swallowed. "Why hasn't Pakku reported you and gotten you arrested?"

He sat up to glare at her this time. "You'd better hope he doesn't."

"I know, I know. You're taking me down with you." Katara popped the last bite of roll into her mouth, rolling her eyes.

Zuko watched her, marginally less angry. "My… third party has convinced your master that I actually want to help the resistance, and that I've betrayed my father and my nation to make a bid for the crown." He sounded especially angry about this idea, particularly in the way he emphasized that word - betrayed.

"I hate to break it to you, but Pakku did not seem convinced today."

"No," he said, giving her an odd look. "He didn't."

"And that doesn't concern you at all?" Katara asked, incredulous. She was tired, she should be laying down to sleep - but something about this was so weird and it was all so urgent. Her life hung in the balance.

Zuko laid back and stared at the ceiling again. It was hard to tell from this angle, because all Katara saw was that scarred eye, but she thought the set of his mouth seemed broody. "I don't like lying. I wanted this to be simple, and honorable. No disguises or cover stories, just capture the Avatar and go home."

Katara did not want to unravel the twisty spool of line that was Zuko's brain. She didn't really care how he justified being such a brute, or why he was so bent on capturing the Avatar - because he was the enemy and being awful was just his prerogative. His spots of decency, on the other hand, seemed jarringly mismatched with everything she had always believed about Fire Nation men, and instead of making her question her assumptions, encountering those spots made her angry.

"Just capture the Avatar?" she spat. "How could you possibly think that could be simple or honorable? The world's great hope for peace and balance reappears after a hundred years of war and suffering, and you want to just snatch it out of our hands and take it home to Dad like a gutted fish?"

He looked at her sharply, but there was something almost… frightened in his expression, like he didn't want to hear what she was saying.

And Katara realized that she had come dangerously close to admitting that she wasn't the Avatar. She crossed her arms over her chest. "Well it's not going to happen. Because I won't fail the world by letting you stop me."

Zuko went on watching her, and anger twisted the handsome side of his face to match the scarred side. "We'll see," he said.

.


The next few days settled into a trying pattern. Zuko woke at dawn and left without disturbing the Avatar to meet his uncle for tea. The old man chatted happily about Pai Sho and his latest gambling debt, but he also occasionally had something useful to tell him.

For instance, the Air Nomad monk had left the compound for a long journey the day before their arrival and, while Zuko seethed at the inconvenience of having to search for a second quarry once they got out of the mountain, he was secretly glad that he didn't have to deal with the kid right away.

The prospect of escaping the rebel base remained daunting. Shipments of supplies and recruits arrived weekly but there was no way three stowaways could ride the slab-train without the earthbenders who pushed it noticing. There were some rumors, Iroh said, about a fleet of ships returning sometime, but they were vague about how and when. Zuko bit his tongue and waited.

During the days, he spent hours knocking the Water Tribe recruits around, but it gave him a minimal amount of satisfaction. Sokka didn't make any more openly friendly overtures, but he did ask Zuko a lot of obnoxious questions about stance and technique that were sometimes difficult to answer without dropping hints about firebending or high-quality tutors. The skinny guy had this way of nodding and saying 'Right' that made Zuko suspicious, but didn't quite leave room for a challenge. It was subtle and therefore infuriating.

Katara continued to miss dinner and Zuko kept bringing her food in the night despite himself. On a level, he knew it would only made his task harder later when he had to subdue her, especially since her training was progressing so rapidly. But then he thought of that pretty smile she'd had on the stairs and how skinny she was, and he figured a few rolls wouldn't make that much of a difference anyway.

He didn't wake her again, though. Watching her stuff her face while wearing that surly, totally unappreciative expression once had been quite enough. Instead, he left his offerings at the edge of her pallet and tried to listen for the noises she made when she woke in the night. It didn't even cross his mind that she would see the food and decide to eat instead of trying to murder him - he didn't trust in the power of gestures that way - so he slept lightly regardless. Still, he never really heard her stir in the night, and that unnerved him.

They rarely encountered each other awake. Zuko left her in the mornings sleeping and, when he returned from the showers in the evening, she was usually already unconscious, sprawled out on her pallet. Her cropped hair would fall loose from its tie and hang around her face, surprisingly fluffy. Sometimes Zuko wanted to touch it, but he didn't need her to tell him that that was creepy.

He also kind of wanted to ask about the scrapes and bruises that darkened around her wrists as the days passed, but he repressed that urge without mercy. Her little pains were of no interest to him. Just like her opinions and feelings. He didn't even want to hear whatever stupid, naive thing she might say next.

In truth, an awful certainty was rising up in Zuko, a sick understanding that he had made a huge, potentially irreparable error. But he tried not to think about that. He would not doubt. He would stick with his plan and he would capture the Avatar. Then, he could go home.

And one day, during training, Sokka asked a question that changed everything. "So Li," he said, swinging his whale-tooth sword experimentally, "whatcha gonna do on leave day?"

Zuko almost dropped his sword. "Leave day?"

"Yeah! You know, the day where we get to leave?" Sokka shrugged and waved an airy hand at the stone ceiling. "Kind of a big deal."

Zuko just stared at him for a second with a dumbfounded expression on his face. "They just let us leave?"

Sokka laughed at the look on his face, but there was a peculiar hard edge to it. "Oh man, you just kill me sometimes." He straightened up into the ready position for the drill they were working on and, after a second, Zuko followed suit. "They let us out in Gao Ling for a day every two weeks. The city has some pretty neat sights and shops. If you happen to need a new bag, I know this great little boutique - they actually call it that! A boutique…"

Zuko stopped listening. He wasn't even really paying attention to the block and riposte they were supposed to be practicing. Suddenly, escape had become possible. He would follow the Avatar out into the city and, as soon as her guard was down, subdue her. Then he and Iroh would haul her back to the ship - it would only take a few days if they maintained a healthy pace - and, once she was secured in the brig, they would chase down that pesky airbender. Everything was coming together. Anything was poss-

"Ow!" Zuko jerked his empty hand out of the air where Sokka had just whacked it with his blunted sword.

"I told you you were holding that hand too far forward," Sokka said, a little smugly.

Shaking the sting out of his hand and glaring, Zuko didn't really think. "If we were using broadswords instead of giant animal teeth, that would have been a block."

"Yeah," Sokka said, rolling his eyes, "because a different weapon totally makes up for being completely spaced out. What were you just thinking about? It totally distracted you."

"It's nothing," Zuko snapped. He resumed the starting position but Sokka just took on a thoughtful pose, stroking his chin and letting his sword hang limp from his hand. Zuko gritted his teeth. "Come on!"

Suddenly, Sokka's face split into a knowing grin. "You're thinking you'll go to Gao Ling and find a girl, aren't you?"

Zuko nearly dropped his sword. "What?"

"It makes so much sense - I think we've all noticed how tense you've been since coming here, Li…"

"I'm not tense!"

"Nothing to be embarrassed about, buddy, it's perfectly natural. Very manly. You strike me as the kind of guy who goes for the proper ladies, am I right?"

"I-! No!"

"The ones with the billion layers of silk and their hair all tied up in crazy loops and-"

"I'm not into any of that stuff!"

But Sokka wasn't even looking at him anymore, just fondly gazing up toward the ceiling as he went on. "Or maybe one of those girls who rides around in a veiled palanquin." Zuko growled but the other guy didn't even seem to hear him. "I saw a girl like that last leave day. I'm almost positive she was the most beautiful girl I've ever seen but it was really hard to tell." Still smiling that goofy smile, he looked back to Zuko. "Hey! I could be your wing man! We'll get you a girl in two flicks of a penguin's whiskers."

"I don't want a girl!" Zuko snapped.

He did not realize that he had spoken loudly enough to be unmistakably heard by the other pairs of practicing recruits around them, and he didn't notice them snickering and sharing glances. All Zuko noticed was Sokka, watching him with those measuring eyes that didn't quite match the goofy smile.

"Eh, probably for the best," he finally said with a shrug. He slid easily into the starting position. "In the North, they say spending too much time with women drains a man of his Yang energy."

"That's stupid." Zuko struck - much harder than the drill required.

Sokka blocked and twisted through for the riposte. The dull point of his blade stopped against Zuko's chest. The goofy smile was long gone. "Got a problem with my sister tribe's traditions?"

They repositioned at the ready. "You don't?"

"It's different for me. I'm actually Water Tribe."

Sokka attacked and Zuko easily knocked the blade wide and made the touch despite the nervous chill settling in his gut. "What's that supposed to mean?" he asked, not yet pulling away. The tip of his sword rested over Sokka's heart.

Sokka just met his stare steadily. "You know what it means."

In fact, Zuko knew it could mean two things. Either Sokka was telling him that being part Fire Nation excluded him from the Water Tribe, or he was saying that he knew Zuko wasn't Water Tribe at all. It was impossible to tell from the look on his face. Zuko could only think to scowl and attack again. If he said the wrong thing, he could give himself away.

The day ended and Zuko finally returned to the barracks to find Katara's knocked-out body on her pallet. He left her a bundle of dumplings from the kitchen and laid down to sleep as usual.

Only he kept staring at the ceiling and thinking. He thought about leave day, and capturing the Avatar, but he also thought, weirdly, about Sokka. The guy was up to something, or he knew something. Zuko couldn't put his finger on what bothered him about this - because he had always suspected Sokka - but his mind kept slipping back to that conversation they'd had in the cubby room. He kept remembering how Sokka had helped him get his own Water Tribe clothes, and had commiserated with him about sisters, those particular words he had used.

Aren't they just… awful?

Something drastic had changed between then and now, and it bothered Zuko more than he could admit that Sokka's simple friendliness had just evaporated. Not because it was a sign of potential treachery - that bothered him a normal amount - but because something genuine had been there that wasn't there anymore, and Zuko kind of missed it. In a weird, unconscious way.

Eventually, he shoved the thoughts away and dozed off, but it was a restless sleep. In fact, Zuko slept so lightly that he startled awake when, in the very late hours, there was a sound of trickling water in the room. For an instant, he lay stiff and still and listened to the soft splashes before realizing what the sound meant.

Katara was bending. Here, now, while he slept. She could kill him with a knife of ice between one heartbeat and the next.

In an explosion of motion, Zuko leapt from his pallet toward the sound and collided with the kneeling waterbender before she knew to raise any defense. She bit back a surprised sound as she went down beneath him and Zuko easily caught her wrists and pinned them to the stone floor.

"What are you doing?" he demanded.

Glaring up at him, she sputtered a bit louder than she should have, a little wheezy under his weight. "Get off me!"

"You're bending in the middle of the night. Do you think I'm stupid enough to just let you kill me in my sleep?"

Katara, breathing heavily, bared her teeth. "I wasn't bending, you stupid jerk. I was bathing."

Only then did Zuko realize that where his bare chest was pressed up against her, she felt smooth and cool and soft and wet. Her breasts. Her naked breasts were touching his chest. She wasn't even wearing her bindings. He could tell. He could feel it.


Chapter Text

"I-" Wide-eyed, Zuko glanced down to where his skin sealed against hers. It was a mistake. Even in the shadows of the faint illumination creeping in from the walkway, he could make out perfectly the curves of her breasts, the contrast between their skins. His brain stuttered and then he wrenched his eyes away. "I didn't mean-"

"Just, get off me," Katara snarled.

He did, scrambling to put space between them, staring fixedly up at the ceiling so he wouldn't look at her again. "It was an accident, I didn't mean to-"

It was because he was so resolutely averting his eyes that he didn't see her attack coming. All Zuko knew was that he was backing up and, suddenly, there were cuffs of ice binding his wrists against the wall and he was hanging there, slumped half-sitting on his pallet, as Katara loomed over him, wrapping a shirt tightly across her chest. She folded her arms around herself and glared down at him. Her face was twisted up with fury.

And then she straddled his hips and sat hard on his legs. "How do you like it?" she asked through her teeth. "Huh? How do you like being pinned under someone who can do whatever they want to you?" She kept her arms folded tight across her chest but leaned over him, glaring in his face.

Zuko felt at once appalled and aroused and it was a tangle of feelings he didn't know how to deal with. Her weight on his thighs was tantalizing - in fact, her leg put a slight pressure on his groin that was making it hard to think straight - but the way she looked at him, all that rage in her face, made a lump form in his stomach. Fear or disgust or shame.

Zuko swallowed hard and shut his eyes to cut through the confusion, to focus on his breath, on his growing anger. He began heating his hands, but it would take a moment to remove the ice without making any telling blasting sounds. "Get off me."

"Or what, Zuko? You'll call for help? You haven't got any soldiers here. It's just like you told me - there's no one here to save you, either."

"I don't need any help," Zuko said, clenching his teeth. He opened his eyes and met her glare with his own. "Certainly not to beat you."

Katara raised a hand then and patted him on the cheek - the unscarred cheek, the one in the light. "Keep telling yourself that."

She withdrew her hand quickly but the touch was cool and damp, and just enough to remind Zuko of the feel of her breasts against him. He realized he was breathing harder than he really meant to. He clenched his teeth and brought at least that under control. But the rest of him…

Oh no. No! Not now!

Zuko tugged his wrists and they slid in the melting cuffs but it wasn't quite enough for him to escape. "Okay! You've made your point! Now let me go!"

But it was already too late. He was hardening under his Water Tribe trousers and her leg was pressed right up against the swelling lump. When he struggled, it only pressed harder. Katara opened her mouth to make some other snide comment, but then froze. Her eyes widened and her mouth stayed slightly open. She just stared at him.

Zuko panicked. He yanked his wrists and finally, finally they slipped free. He shoved Katara away and drew up his knee to conceal the bulge, even though it was too late.

Katara sat back between their pallets, braced on one arm and still watching him with that shocked, almost betrayed look on her face. She had uncrossed her arms as she fell back and now the shirt gaped a little in the front, but she didn't seem to notice.

Zuko scowled at her. His face was unbearably hot. "I can't help it! Sometimes it just happens!"

Her expression darkened but instead of scrambling away like he expected, she just sat where she had fallen. "Everything is just so great for you, isn't it?" she hissed. "You go wherever you want in your little steam ship, terrorize whoever you like, and nobody can touch you because you're the prince with the biggest army."

Zuko could only blink at her, transfixed by the hate in her eyes. This seemed like a complete non-sequitur and the jump only confused him more. He didn't even notice the water dripping on him from the melted ice still stuck to the wall.

"You have every advantage. Physical strength, education, wealth, power - even this." Katara jerked her chin toward him, but what she meant was obvious. "A situation that frankly terrifies me, turned around, just gets you off. Does that seem fair to you?"

"No," Zuko said, and the full force of his scowl returned to him. "But if you think that life just isn't fair for you, think again. That wasn't fun for me - it was humiliating."

Katara met his hard look with her own for a moment longer. Then she sat up and tugged the shirt closed up to her throat, crossing her arms again. "I'm sorry I did that to you. Training has been… emotional, lately, and the way you grabbed me was very upsetting." She finished stiffly, then watched him for a beat. "This is where you apologize to me for freaking out for no reason and breaking your promise."

"For no reason?" Zuko scoffed and folded his own arms. "I had every reason to think you were about to make an attempt on my life."

Her face scrunched up in disbelief. "Really. Because I put off such a sneaky back-stabber vibe."

"It's not funny. You keep acting like you're just this girl and you're not. You're powerful and dangerous and if you decided to try and solve all your problems some night by taking me out, you could probably do it." Zuko flinched as the words came out of his mouth. They made him sound scared, and he wasn't scared of her, he wasn't. "I did what I thought I had to to protect myself and I'm not apologizing for it."

Katara frowned at him but her expression was thoughtful. At length, she said, "You should still apologize, because you agreed not to do something and you did it anyway, knowing it would frighten me."

Zuko glared at her, but said nothing.

"And you also touched, and looked at, my breasts without my consent."

He cringed and stared fixedly at the opposite wall. "I… actually am pretty sorry about that."

"I want a real apology - especially since you're trying to weasel out of responsibility for disrespecting our terms, and therefore me."

Zuko forced himself to meet her eye and, still glaring and blushing, bit out, "I'm sorry for making you uncomfortable, Katara. My behavior was unfitting of a gentleman and a prince."

Katara's eyebrows kept creeping up.

"What?" Zuko spat.

"Nothing. That was just…" She raised a hand as if to dismiss the subject and glanced at her bucket before leveling her stare on him. "I need to finish."

For a moment, Zuko only stared back at her, waiting.

"Turn around?"

"Oh. Ah, okay." Zuko lay down on his side facing the wall and absolutely did not shut his eyes as he listened to the soft sounds of cloth and water moving. He was listening for tension, for the sort of quiet that would come before a strike, but it never came. For a long while, he stared straight ahead, trying to focus on keeping his breathing even instead of wondering just now naked Katara was getting behind him. Because wondering about that dragged him back to remembering the feeling of her flesh against his, and the particular shape of her breasts when they were pressed up against him.

"This is so much less awkward when you sleep through it," she grumbled after a while.

It took him a long moment to process that. "You mean you've done this before?"

Katara sighed. "I do this almost every night. Which is one of several reasons why it's just ridiculous that you thought I was trying to kill you."

Zuko pinched his eyes shut, stung by his own stupidity, his own failure. She could have killed him any night she wanted, and he hadn't even stirred.

"I wouldn't, you know," Katara went on quietly. From the sound of her voice, she was facing him, maybe looking at his back. She went on primly. "We could make a new rule about it - but if I'm the only one following the rules, there really doesn't seem to be a point."

Zuko scoffed and rolled his eyes. "How can you say that? None of the rules even apply to you."

"Fine. You want to suggest one?" Katara's voice was saccharine. "I'll do my very best."

Zuko glared at the wall and tried to think of a rule, something he wanted her to stop doing. He could demand that she stop taking off her clothes in the room, but that wouldn't really accomplish anything… except make her stop taking off her clothes, which was just… probably a good idea but somehow really not appealing.

"I'll think of one later," he grumbled at last.

"Suit yourself," Katara said. "I'm going ahead with the 'no sleep-attacks' rule. That applies to both of us."

"It's not your turn."

"Snoozers losers. Besides, we're not going in turns. It's not a game." She was quiet after that, and Zuko listened to the soft trickles and splashes until they stopped altogether and she laid down to sleep. Even then he listened, to her gentle breathing and the soothing sound of her sighs as she settled. It only stoked the arousal still aching in him, and made sleep even harder to reach.

.


Katara waited on the pier for Pakku to arrive, slowly working through the set he had demonstrated for the rest of class two days ago. She had only seen it from afar while she was practicing falling down, but she had listened to his hours of criticisms against the other students. That was always so instructive.

Inwardly, she was delighted, because her brush with Zuko last night, despite being confusing and embarrassing and just weird, had yielded an unexpected epiphany. She had been so furious that she acted without thinking, bending that ice around his wrists even as she tried to regain her feet. Now, today, she knew how to get out of the chains. She was waiting for Pakku with chilly glee. He had forced her to slip behind the rest of class to learn this skill, but that would soon enough be remedied. Katara smirked just thinking about it.

"Is something funny, Pupil Katto?"

"No, Master Pakku," Katara said, carrying smoothly into the next movement despite her surprise. She pulled out of the form and turned to bow to him as he descended the stairs. "I am ready for today's instruction."

"So I see," Pakku sighed. The students trickling down the stairs behind him elbowed one another, but Katara just waited, fighting her smile.

When she finally succeeded in escaping the chains after these past days of struggling, and Nodak lay soaked and prone on the pier nearby, the other students stared in shock that quickly morphed into resentment. Katara barely noticed. Her eyes were fixed on Pakku, who only nodded and uttered the words, "Well done."

Then he allowed her to rejoin the group for afternoon sparring and Katara politely beat every other guy who stepped up against her. She met an equal measure of defeat, but that was to be expected after all that she had missed. Yet even though some of them used tricks she hadn't seen before, but her basic defense was strong because she had practiced the forms so haphazardly (in tranquil solitude) that all her early errors in form contributed to a stronger understanding of how her element responded to variations in technique. When Yarek turned a wave into a spray of needles, Katara broke them into slush. When Hanno hurled three huge blades of ice at her, she redirected all three with one sweep of her arms.

"Sorry," she said with a little cringe each time she locked a guy in ice or sent him tumbling to the floor.

But it didn't matter how much she apologized - they still glared at her like she had done something unforgivable. Losing wasn't any better. Then they smirked and chuckled as a group, as if the victory was collective. When the day finally ended, Katara watched them crowd together on the stairs and began following them at a distance. She should have been glad - she was going to get a hot supper for the first time in days - but all she felt was anxiety and sadness.

"You will never be one of them, you know."

Halfway up the flight, Katara turned back to find Pakku peering up at her, his hands linked behind his back. He started slowly up the stairs.

"You will train beside them until there is nothing left for you to learn, and then you will all go to war. You will suffer together. Some will die, or be captured. You can personally save their lives over and over again, but every time one of those boys is lost, the others will look at you," he said, stepping up on a level with her, "and they will wonder, 'Why did it have to be him? Why not Katto instead?'"

Katara stared at him, at the cold indifference on his face. It frightened her and filled her with sorrow. "You don't know that. The Northern Water Tribe values community just like the South - they'll accept me when I prove myself."

Pakku hitched up an eyebrow. "You think so? What do you imagine it will take to accomplish that?"

Katara clenched her teeth and thought hard, but he went on before an idea could occur to her.

"Sacrificing yourself? Perhaps they will pat you on the back in the afterlife." He started up the stairs past her. Katara hurried to keep up.

"It won't come to that. It's just going to take a little time. When they get used to me and they see that I'm a strong warrior, they'll accept me."

Pakku stopped and looked down his nose at her. "But you will never be one of them. Those boys will never look at you and think 'brother' as they do with one another. You could become the greatest waterbender of your time, but you are not and will never be a part of this tribe."

Katara met his stare with wide eyes, unable to speak, unable to turn away.

"Perhaps you could find the acceptance you crave amongst your own people," he went on, "but you are no longer the… child they knew, either."

A cold, sick feeling knotted up Katara's gut. 'Child' sounded so much like 'girl' when Pakku said it that way. More than that, though - what he said rasped her worries about her father, about Sokka, about the men of her tribe who were sure to know her on sight. What if Hakoda and the others returned and none of them were glad to see her? What if they rejected her as completely as the other waterbenders had?

But Pakku wasn't finished. "That child is gone. You have adapted, and now you are something else altogether." He said this as if, whatever she was, he wasn't convinced he liked it. "For all the strength and all the frailty that brings you, it is the toll you must pay to travel the road you have chosen."

Katara could only stare up at him as he turned and continued calmly toward the next level. When he was out of sight, she latched a hand onto the railing and drew deep breaths, one after another.

It took a while for her heart to stop hammering that way, but finally she made it to the mess hall. She stood in line with her bowl and held it out for the cook automatically, but she didn't really see the rice and steamed fish he ladled into it. She just took it and sat absently at one of the stone tables and forced a bite between her tight lips.

Pakku knew. He had to. Her life hung on his whim. And if he allowed her to live, she was doomed to be isolated amongst her own people. Sokka would always keep his distance to protect them from Hahn. Her father would be furious at how she had defied him. The other Southern men - practically her uncles - would be disconcerted, or disdainful, or afraid of her and what she had become. Suddenly, Katara just wanted a hug from Gran-gran. She missed Gran-gran so much she couldn't swallow past the hot lump in her throat.

"No late training today?"

She spun in her seat to find Zuko sitting beside her, frowning in what looked like uncomfortable suspicion. His hands were still around his bowl where it sat on the table, as if in preparation to beat a hasty retreat. "What's wrong?" he asked, narrow-eyed. "Is your old sea prune of a master running out of tricks to teach you?"

He clearly meant it as an insult, but Katara couldn't help her startled laugh. Zuko stared at her, a little stunned. The laugh got a grip on her and turned into a persistent nervous chuckle. She put a hand over her face and braced herself on the table. "Sea prune…"

"It's not that funny," he said in a grouchy tone but when Katara peeked at him between her fingers, she saw him watching her with his mouth just slightly upturned at the corners. It was nearly a smile. It made him look… almost mellow, and even more handsome.

The memory of the previous night struck her like a fist in the gut. At the time, she had been so angry… but then he'd said that thing about being humiliated and Katara couldn't help but feel bad about being the one to put another person in that position. Even if he didn't feel bad about his own actions, that was no excuse for her to shrug off her conscience. (She was a bigger person than that, after all.)

Now though, when he looked at her with that almost-smile softening his eyes, Katara remembered different things about last night. Like the way his thighs had surged under her, or that hot lump digging into her inner thigh. Warmth pricked at her cheeks and she took a sip of water to distract herself. "Have you ever even tried sea prunes?"

"Not intentionally." Zuko seemed to be focusing on eating his food, but he kept stealing sidelong glances at her. "My uncle slipped them onto the menu for an entire week the first time we circled the South Pole."

Katara took up her chopsticks and smirked at him. "Sounds like a man of good taste."

"I guess if your taste runs toward grease and blandness." His eyes widened. "I mean…"

"Mm hm," Katara said, blowing off the insult. "And what do you prefer to eat? Live embers? A nice pate made of the ashes of your enemies?"

Zuko frowned at her. "Spiced meat. And fruit." He looked back into his bowl, picking.

Katara waited a long moment, eating steadily. "We have to eat a lot of grease at the Poles. There isn't much fuel for fires, so we have to keep weight on to survive. Sea prunes are filling - and easy to gather with no hunters around. And they last forever in the ice."

He was watching her steadily, his eye a little wide as he listened.

"My grandmother told me there used to be a lot of trade with the mainland, back when the tribe wasn't just struggling to survive. Stewed sea prunes are traditionally bland, but for years she made them with imported pepper." Katara took a bite of rice and met Zuko's eye. "But all that ended after the raids."

He had the decency to look away first. "Your grandmother sounds like… a good cook," he finally ventured.

Katara squinted at him and then allowed a half-smile. "She is." She raised another bite of rice and smiled fully. "You met her, you know."

Zuko whipped his head around to stare at her. He narrowed his eyes. "That old woman. With the girl-" His eyes flew open in sudden recognition, and remembered outrage. "You're the one who told me to leave!"

Katara frowned, nonplussed. "You just realized that?"

"I've had other things on my mind." His voice was suddenly acidic. He kept watching her, glowering again. "You were right there in front of me. I knew you knew something. I could have captured you then and avoided all of this trouble."

"Yeah, well that'll teach you for assuming the Avatar had to be a guy."

They glared at each other a moment longer. Without another word, Zuko picked up his bowl and stalked to another empty table across the room. Katara watched him go and only got angrier as she saw his shoulders hunch when he sat with his back to her. For some reason, it bothered her quite a bit that he hadn't recognized her, and it bothered her even more that he would sit with her and almost be good company and then just leave her alone again. She shoved more rice in her mouth, suddenly desperate to get out of here.

"Lovers' quarrel?"

The rice turned to sand on her tongue. Swallowing hard, Katara turned to stare at Jeeka. Attuk, the big guy with the nose piercing, stood behind him along with Hanno, who crossed his arms over his narrow chest. They all looked pretty pleased with themselves.

"What did you just say?" Katara had to force the words past the choking sensation in her throat.

"Oh, I asked if you and your boyfriend are having relationship problems," Jeeka said. "I overheard some pretty loud noises from your barracks last night and, uh…" He shrugged, waving the empty bowl he held in one hand. "I mean, big guy with a temper like that, I can't imagine he's too easy on you between the skins."

Katara stared, aghast, and that only seemed to amuse them more. "He is not my boyfriend," she finally managed. Her face was getting hot with the insinuation.

They roared, they laughed so hard. Attuk slapped her on the back with enough force to slam her against the table's edge. It jabbed painfully against her ribs. Katara bared her teeth and shot to her feet.

The mess hall got quiet as she scowled up at the three guys. Because she did have to scowl up. Hanno was the shortest, but he was still taller than Katara by half a head. The other two towered over her. It only made her glare harder.

"Alright," Katara snarled. "I've tried being nice to you guys. And what do you do? You make stuff up and try to intimidate me. You think you can push me around? You think I'll just sit here and take it?" She whipped up a finger and jabbed Jeeka hard in the chest. "Well you're wrong."

He slapped her hand away and sneered. "What are you gonna do, droolbender? Give me a stern talking-to? Everybody here knows you're no fighter." He shoved her experimentally, just hard enough to make her back up a step. "You'd rather get on your knees like a girl and suck off that half-breed than fight like a real man."

Katara's jaw dropped. "Wow. Racist, sexist, and homophobic all in one sentence. You're really going for some kind of record, aren't you?" Suddenly, she was glad she wasn't a part of this tribe. She was glad she didn't have to like the men around her. Katara stepped back into his space and shoved him a little harder. "Thugs like you make me sick."

"Oh, I make you sick, huh? Is that right?" Jeeka came right back at her, grabbing the front of her tunic with one hand and leaning so close she could smell the fish on his breath. "You sure that's not the lingering taste of Fire Nation dick?"

"Oh! You disgusting-" Katara tried to shove him away, but his grip was too strong. There was a sound of a bowl shattering on the floor, and then his fist came up out of nowhere and sent her staggering back several steps. She didn't fall, though.

Instead, she wiped the corner of her mouth on the back of her hand and looked down at the smear of blood, then back up at Jeeka. He was still smirking, but there was a sudden uncertainty in his eyes. He had expected that to knock her down, she realized. He had expected one hit to take the fight out of her.

Katara bared her teeth. She had finally exceeded her capacity for tolerance.

With a waterbender's balanced stance, she rushed in and, yelling, threw the sort of punch she'd learned from Suki - a fast jab that didn't need a lot of power because it had so much speed. Her fist connected with Jeeka's chin, his head snapped back, and Katara was immediately ready to strike again. Which she did. She punched him twice in the stomach until he staggered backward.

It should have been surprising that Attuk would strike at her then, but it wasn't. It wasn't surprising at all. He lunged in with a huge, swinging arm. Katara, perfectly balanced, stepped out of its path and then back in to shove his shoulder, using his own momentum to send him spinning off into another table.

A stream of water came rushing fast as a fist and struck her in the stomach, knocking her breathless and back a step, but Katara straightened quickly. She noticed Hanno then, as he snatched the water out of people's cups and sent a blade of ice stabbing through the air toward her. Katara remembered this attack from their spar not an hour ago. At the time, she had just redirected it and sent it back as a wave.

This time was different. She melted the blade and whirled it around her shoulders, simultaneously drawing the water from the first strike off the floor on a low path behind her legs. Then, using the pull of the backswing to give the push even more power, she sent the two streams rocketing toward Hanno in opposing directions. One hit him in the face, cutting right through his sluggish defenses, while the other struck at his knees. He fell hard to the floor, drenched and gasping.

As she held the final position, Katara smirked. Apologizing was the last thing on her mind.

Then two big arms came up around her waist, binding her elbows to her sides and lifting her off her feet, and the water she'd been controlling fell useless to the floor. She struggled against Attuk's crushing hold, kicking at him with her heels, but she couldn't land a solid blow from this angle. Jeeka was suddenly there in front of her, and she managed to kick him in the gut before he got close enough for his own strike.

But then he did. He grabbed her wolf-tail and punched her in the face repeatedly. Katara sagged. As suddenly as the blows had started, they stopped. Eyes shut and head spinning, it took her a moment to recognize the voice she was hearing.

"If you need to pick on a kid to make yourself look like a man," Zuko said, "you should at least try to beat him up on your own, without your cronies helping."

Katara looked up, blinking to clear the spots from her vision, and found Jeeka still gripping her hair with one hand. The other was cocked back, like he was about to punch her again, but his wrist was trapped in Zuko's white-knuckled grip. The firebender stood straight and rigid and there was a look of readiness to him, like he could strike at any moment.

"What, you really want to defend this little weirdo?" Jeeka asked. "I figured you were above all this petty tribe business, Li."

"This weirdo is my roommate. That makes it my business." Zuko's fingers clamped a little harder and Jeeka's face twitched. "Now let him go before I decide breaking your wrist is my business."

Jeeka released his grip on Katara's hair and backed up a step. "Alright, Li. Take it easy, man…"

Behind her, Attuk grumbled and let her go all at once. Katara hit the ground awkwardly and fell forward on her hands and knees. Her face really hurt. A lot. She heard Jeeka and Attuk moving away but when she looked up all she saw was Zuko, offering her a hand. After a hesitant second, she took it and let him help her climb to her feet. He immediately began herding her out of the mess hall and, when she stumbled, dragged her arm around his neck.

"You did okay," he said, "but it would have been better if you'd won."

Katara huffed, but she was very conscious of all the eyes on them and the way his arm was across her back, pulling her along. His hand was warm against her arm through the cloth of her shirt. His shoulders were hard and sturdy. She glanced across the faces in the room and noticed a lot of smirking.

"I didn't expect them to gang up on you like that. Next time, you'll be ready."

"Have you…?" Katara peered up at him, squinting even though it hurt to do that. Her right eye was starting to swell. Zuko was focused on getting her through the door, then down the hall to the stairs. Should she tell him? Maybe she should wait until she felt a little steadier on her feet, in case he decided to drop her suddenly.

"Have I what?"

"Have you, um, ever seen anybody look as dumb and scared as Jeeka when you said that thing to him? I mean, talk about… dumb… and scared. Right?"

Zuko frowned at her, but it was a confused frown rather than the usual angry one. "Maybe you should be seen by a medic. He might have hit you too hard."

"Pff! I'm fine," Katara said, trying to pull away from him to prove she could walk on her own. He didn't let her go, though, and she hung off his shoulder as they climbed the stairs. He was so warm, and noticing this again made the silence seem awkward. "I could have beaten him if Attuk hadn't caught me like that."

"Yeah, but he did. You'll have to come up with some kind of defense against that move."

Katara started to say something but there were running footsteps coming down the stairs and, suddenly on a landing, they came face-to-face with Sokka.


Chapter Text

Sokka stared between them, wide-eyed and a little breathless for a second. Then he took a half-step back, assuming a forcibly relaxed posture.

"Hey, guys! I was just, you know, practicing my stair sprints. Gotta be prepared for the big counter-offensive! Constant readiness - that's the warrior's way! Say, Katto, fellow Southern Tribe guy," he said, pretty unsmoothly, "what happened to your face?" There was a lot of intensity bottled up behind that assumed casualness and it made Katara suspect he was on the brink of throwing his arms around her.

"Well, fellow Southern Tribe guy Sokka," she said through a forced grin. What was he doing? He was going to tip Zuko off. "I'm not sure why you suddenly care, since we have had no real affiliation up to this point, but I got in a fight with some bullies."

Sokka opened his mouth, and from the look on his face he was about to ask who had dared hit his little sister, but the words never came because Zuko cut him off.

"Maybe if you'd had a little more interest in solidarity before now, it wouldn't have happened."

Katara and Sokka gaped at Zuko at the same moment but the glare he had leveled on Sokka was stony and unchanging.

"What?" he spat. "You don't think I'm Water Tribe enough to know you're a coward for not standing by your own people?"

"Hey!" Sokka pointed at Zuko, glaring himself. "I don't need you to tell me how to how to be a-"

"Guys!" Katara cut in, grabbing Sokka's hand to keep him from saying something stupid and revealing. Zuko had let go of her arm where it was slung across his shoulders, presumably to free up his hand for a fight, so Katara gripped the ridge of muscle near his neck. Their staring contest went on. "Sokka, Li here was just helping me get back to the barracks. I'd appreciate it if you'd quit being rude and just let us go. Li, thank you for your concern, but Sokka and I are perfectly capable of figuring out our tribal allegiances on our own."

Sokka looked at her first, a little shame-faced, but then his gaze dropped to where Zuko still had his arm across her back and was gripping her shoulder to hold her close. His expression darkened. "Alright. You're right, Katto, I can admit it. I've been rude. I'll just let you guys get back to what you were doing." He turned his frown on Zuko. "Li, buddy…" He shook his head slowly but couldn't quite say whatever he was thinking.

Thank the spirits.

Then Sokka stepped around them and continued down the stairs at a much slower pace. Katara watched him, and realized he must have heard about the fight from one of his many friends and come running. It was lucky he had been too late - he could have revealed their relationship to the entire camp.

"What's his problem with you?" Zuko asked as he covered her hand on his shoulder and started pulling her on up the stairs.

"What?"

"You're one of his people. It doesn't make sense that he wouldn't be allied with you."

"Ah, well…" Katara endured a panicky moment. If their story fell through and Zuko figured out they were closer than they seemed, ambushing him later would become harder. But she didn't want to out-right lie to him… not when he had just risen to her defense twice in the space of ten minutes. "This training base… It's mostly run by the Northern chief. He doesn't trust Southerners, so Sokka and I have been keeping our distance to kind of avoid raising any flags."

Zuko shot her a sidelong look. "So you do know each other."

"Well we don't, like, hang out exactly, but we do know each other, yeah." Technically, it was true. At present, they didn't hang out at all. And living together since birth was totally different from hanging out...

Zuko looked away and was quiet for a moment. "Does he have some special reason to hate the Fire Nation?"

We all do.

Katara tamped down the thought but couldn't keep the tension out of her voice. "What do you mean?"

"When I first got here, Sokka was really outgoing. But then something changed, and he said this thing that made me wonder."

They climbed for a while, then emerged on the walkway toward the barracks. Katara didn't exactly want to say it, but with his arm around her and the unsettling comfort she was finding in him, she had to. She had to remind herself. "A firebender killed his mom."

Zuko's shoulders jerked under her arm but she didn't look at him. She pressed on. "Just came into their house and murdered her during a raid. Sokka's little sister saw him, but she wasn't fast enough to get help in time."

Zuko pushed the curtain aside and Katara disengaged from him to pass through the doorway. She kept her back to him and crossed her arms over her chest. The pain in her face felt so trivial now, just another stupid distraction. "She wasn't even a waterbender," she said. "She was just a woman, making lunch for her family like any other woman in that village."

Zuko said nothing, but she heard the sounds of him milling by the door. "That's terrible," he said at last. "I didn't realize…"

He trailed off, but Katara turned around, scowling. He was just standing there, looking shocked with his scarred face, his princely bearing. "You didn't realize what? That innocent people were suffering in this war? Your family's war? You didn't realize the grinning idiot would have a sad story? Everybody here has a sad story, Zuko. They wouldn't be here if they didn't."

His shock morphed so easily into anger. Was rage the only thing he knew? Instead of speaking, he turned and stalked out of the room. Katara breathed deeply to clear her head. There was a pang in her stomach where Hanno had struck her, and remembering that brought her other hurts to the forefront. She put her hands over her swelling face and lay down on her pallet under all the weight of older, more real pains.

She didn't always cry when she remembered her mother, not like she used to. But from time to time the grief would hit her again, the intense longing for the comfort that was gone forever from her life. In her mind's eye, she could see her beautiful young mother still, kneeling by the hearth in their old house as she so often had, and she could see the empty hole that no one, not Hakoda, not Gran-gran, no one could ever fill.

It hadn't happened in months this time, and, stripping the voice out of her sobs, Katara let her face twist and her hands clutch at her throat for the necklace that wasn't there. Later, she would be strong. Now, though, she let herself have this moment to ache.

.


Zuko stalked down to the showers, scowling at everyone he passed. He hated the looks on their faces, the mirth that transformed into alarm under his glare. He hated all of them. He hated the Water Tribe and the Earth Kingdom. He hated Katara and Sokka and all of them.

He was shaken. He never liked having his understanding of the world challenged, and learning that Sokka - joking grinning easy-going Sokka - had actually endured such a brutal loss was difficult to process. It was hard not to sympathize and feel suddenly, sickeningly culpable. But even as a prince of the nation that bore responsibility for this, what could Zuko have possibly done to prevent it? He had spoken out against the mistreatment of their own people in the waging of this war, and had been banished as a result. How much more severe might his punishment have been if he had spoken out against the mistreatment of the Water Tribe?

Zuko scrubbed himself viciously in the biting spray, and was yanking on his pants when Sokka came into the cubby room and made straight for him. With a sharp sigh, Zuko knotted the ties and braced himself.

"Look, Li," Sokka said, holding out his hands like a peace offering. "I heard what you did for Katto, and I wanted to… kind of thank you, I guess. You didn't have to get involved, but it speaks pretty well of you that you did, in an unfair fight like that. So," he said, bouncing his arms off his sides, "thanks. For that."

Zuko pulled on his undershirt and paused to stare at Sokka narrowly. "It would have been pretty low to just sit back and watch him get thrashed three to one," he finally said.

"Yeah," Sokka said. He had that assessing look on his face again. "A man's gotta stick up for his friends."

"He's not my friend," Zuko snapped, and began punching his arms through the sleeves of his tunic. "I told you, I don't need friends."

"I remember. I'm just not sure I get it. See, everybody saw you pretty much carry him out of the mess hall, and everybody knows you guys share that room, just the two of you, and they've seen you sit together sometimes at meals, but the old rumor mill tells me you just end up exchanging death-stares and arguing about something. It seems like nobody can agree about what…"

Sokka scratched his head, not as if he was thinking, but as if he was getting mad and needed to take a second. "But nobody's arguing that sometimes there are sounds of a struggle from your barracks at night. Or that you and Katto watch each other whenever you're in a room together, like no one else is even there."

Zuko was starting to get uncomfortable with where this was going. A crowd of guys left and they were alone in the cubby room. He pulled on his last boot and stood to meet Sokka's eye with his own hard stare. "I don't have all day, here, Sokka."

"The point," Sokka said, narrowing his eyes and crossing his arms, "is that people think you're together." He paused a moment, then grimaced and went on. "Like a couple! Like two gay boys waxing their fishing rods alone together on the tundra!"

"What?" Zuko jerked back so hard he banged his elbow on a stone cubby and clutched the joint, seething. His face was hot with anger or embarrassment, maybe both. "That isn't true! At all!"

"Are you sure?" Sokka asked, a bit of a challenge in his eyes. Zuko bared his teeth and his hands curled into fists but the other guy just went on. "Because people don't know how else to understand how weird Katto is. There've been rumors since he arrived here that he was kind of on the girly side. You know, with the not showering with the other guys, and the prissy manners and the, just, unmanly niceness he flings around all willy-nilly."

Despite his anger, Zuko was struck by the idea that this rumor might be the only reason Katara's disguise was working at all. She definitely didn't make a masculine man, but there were other kinds of men. Still, Zuko curled his lip. "Unmanly niceness?"

"I'm making a point, here!" Sokka held up both hands again. "Katto would have to grow about a foot taller and have his voice drop an octave to change people's minds at this point, but you're not in that position. You're his roommate, and people figure you're a big guy, moderately frightening, so you can do whatever you want." He shrugged. "Maybe you want to avoid the issue and keep your hands off Katto. That's an option." It didn't exactly sound as casual as Sokka seemed to want it to sound, but Zuko didn't really think about that.

He just scowled for a long moment, then crossed his arms over his chest. "I take back what I said about you being a coward. Cowards don't say stuff like this to my face."

"Nope," Sokka said, smiling. "That's what friends are for."

Zuko grimaced. There was a conflict brewing in him, and he wasn't sure how to deal with it. On the one hand, Sokka's smile seemed genuine, if wary, and it reminded him a little of his early kindness. It was a pleasant smile. It made Zuko think that Sokka wasn't all that different from him, and that maybe they had both experienced a kind of loss that not everyone understood.

On the other hand, Zuko was frustrated with this conversation, with the challenges to his understanding of the situation, and with himself for wanting things that didn't make sense in his life as he knew it now.

So he stepped closer and scowled into Sokka's suddenly uncertain face. "We are not friends. I suggest you rethink the way you address me from now on."

He watched the fear in Sokka's eyes harden and turn into something else. "Maybe you're used to telling people what to do and having them just obey," he said, "but do yourself a favor and don't expect that from me, because it's not gonna happen."

Zuko narrowed his eyes. "Do you honestly expect me to believe that you want to be my friend this badly? You're up to something. What is it?"

Sokka stepped back and tilted his head to one side as if to see Zuko from a new angle. "You know, you're probably the most suspicious person I've ever met. You're defensive and arrogant and kind of creepy," he said, shrugging. Zuko teetered on the brink of shouting. "But then you do this really decent thing for my… fellow Southern Tribe guy… It just makes me wonder whether you're not actually an honorable man, pretending to be all that other stuff."

Zuko straightened, taken aback. In all his years searching for the Avatar, he had never really asked himself whether a man could still be honorable when his honor had been lost. He had believed for so long that the only way to reclaim his honor was to do whatever it took to capture the Avatar, and that only ruthlessness would allow him to redeem himself and reach his destiny. Search the world, threaten the villagers, sever his plume, lie and lie and lie.

And here was this skinny Water Tribe guy, laying it out so flatly before him, referring to honor as a quality instead of a possession that could be taken away.

Which was just stupid, of course. Thousands of years of Fire Nation tradition upheld honor as a reason to fight and die. It was a prize to be earned through blood and work, not some goody-goody virtue that existed in everyone's heart.

Zuko let his face twist with the familiar anger and surged into Sokka's personal space. The other guy jerked backward, but Zuko caught the front of his tunic and held him close. "Think carefully about what you say to me, Sokka. I'm not above knocking that stupid smirk off your face." He shoved him away and pointed a finger in his shocked face. "Next time, I won't hold back."

Then he stalked past the other guy and out onto the walkway, rapidly arriving back at the barracks. There was no escape in this compound - he only grew angrier, no matter where he turned. Maybe Katara would be asleep already and he could meditate in peace until it was late enough to sneak into the servants' quarters and look for Iroh. Not that he would have any more success tonight than he had any night he went looking for his uncle, but at least the activity would burn off some of his furious energy.

But when he pushed the curtain aside, Katara was not asleep. She was kneeling over her bucket, pressing handfuls of water to her face. She just stayed there when he entered, knuckles dripping and face concealed, and drew a deep, shaky breath.

Then she looked up at him and Zuko's eyebrow rose. Her face wasn't as swollen and bruised as he had expected, but her eyes were puffy and red. Had she been crying? He froze as his anger drained away in the uncertainty of the situation. Was he somehow to blame? He hadn't even said anything! And even if he wasn't at fault, what was he even supposed to do? He hadn't encountered a crying girl since childhood.

"Does… Does my eye look less swollen to you?" Katara asked, indicating her right eye - which, if he remembered correctly, had been about to swell shut when he left.

Did she want to pretend that she hadn't been crying? Because… Zuko could do that. Immediately relieved, he crossed the room and crouched across the bucket from her, peering closely at her eye. "It looks almost normal. What happened?"

Katara stared at him, bewildered. "I don't know. I just thought the water would make it feel better, and it did."

"Huh," Zuko said and, realizing he was still examining her face, looked away. "Were you… going to bathe?"

"I was waiting for you to come back."

He looked back at her, startled. She looked panicky. Two pretty pink spots had appeared on her cheeks.

"I mean! So that you wouldn't walk in on me again! Not so that… you could be here. Exactly. Ugh. This is so awkward." The blush had spread down to her throat. She buried her face in her hands.

Zuko watched her, a soft, wild feeling rising up in his chest. "I could help," he said. His voice was a little huskier than he had meant it to be.

Katara glared at him through her fingers.

He cleared his throat hastily. "Er, here." His face felt pretty hot, too, all of a sudden. He put his hands on either side of the bucket and, with a controlled exhalation, he sent his heat into the water until it felt right. Tiny bubbles rose to the surface. He withdrew.

"That's a neat technique." Katara raised her hand and passed it through the wisp of steam rising off the water and sent it twirling in unnaturally intricate whorls. "I didn't know firebending could be… gentle like that."

Zuko flicked his eyes between the dissipating spirals and her thoughtful expression as she watched them. "Fire is life and energy," he said absently, Uncle's words. "It's not always a violent element."

Katara looked at him then, and there was something piercing in her gaze. "Thank you for heating my water," she said, firm but not quite rude. "If you don't mind, I'd like to use it now."

Not caring for the dismissal, Zuko frowned at her, but he rose and turned to his pallet. Instead of laying down, though, he sat cross-legged facing the door and shut his eyes. He could almost ignore the sounds of her moving behind him when he focused on his breath this way.

"What are you doing?" Katara asked after a long silence.

"Meditating."

"On what?"

Zuko opened his eyes, frowning harder now. "On nothing. On breathing. That's kind of the point of meditating."

"Oh." There was a sound of water being crushed out of a rag as she spoke. "That sounds like what I do when-" And then, Katara broke off in a breathy groan that licked down Zuko's stomach, straight to his groin. His fingers fisted in the fabric on his thighs.

"New rule," he grated. His voice was hoarse and his breathing was erratic. "Don't ever make that sound again."

There was an astonished silence from the other side of the room, and then Katara squeaked. "Oh! I didn't even think of-! I just-! I haven't had hot water to wash with in weeks…"

It occurred to Zuko that, in an indirect way, he had been the reason she had made that sound. And suddenly he was both glad and disappointed that his back was to her, because there would be no hiding his arousal this time. This was different from getting excited about a dream or accidentally touching her breasts. This time, he had done something that had given her pleasure, and he wasn't ashamed that his body was reacting to that.

He smiled a crooked smile and shut his eyes. "Glad I could help," he purred, "but try to control yourself."

.


Katara was so hot-faced she thought she might pass out from sheer mortification. She made herself breathe, and stared at Zuko's rigid shoulders and the thickening fuzz on the back of his head. His pale scalp was almost totally hidden now, but the hair was still ridiculously short. Katara wasn't thinking about that, though.

What was that voice he had just used? Was he… flirting with her? He was supposed to be uncertain and falling all over himself, not catching her off-balance with suggestive remarks. And certainly not making condescending reprimands about her behavior! What had changed? Was it the firebending? Did practicing that little technique somehow alter his brain and make him think he could just… tease her? Like that?

There was nothing wrong with Katara's self-control. She just hadn't expected the hot rag to feel so good against her throat, and hadn't thought about what her little noise would sound like to the teenaged boy in the room. She felt like she should say something, some witty retort that would put him back on his heels, where he belonged.

"Do you know that all the other guys here think we're a gay couple?" Katara asked primly after a long moment of scrubbing her face and neck and shoulders. She watched Zuko narrowly, waiting for his startled and horrified response.

He didn't even flinch. "Yes," he said. He was smirking. She could hear it in his calm, quietly delighted voice. She'd never heard him speak this way before. It was infuriating yet unnervingly pleasant. "I have heard about that."

"What, and you're just fine with it?"

Zuko was silent for a moment. "Why shouldn't I be? If a rumor helps explain why you're more feminine than most guys, it ultimately only helps hide the truth."

Katara sat back, stunned and a little horrified herself. She hadn't thought of it that way at all. If she was completely honest with herself, her pride had taken a real knock from the things Jeeka had said, and she wanted to deny all of it fiercely and immediately. She drew breath to argue that she should just try to find ways of seeming less feminine - even though she couldn't for the life of her think of any - but he went on first.

"Besides," he said, and the smugness in his voice only deepened, "mine is the position of power in that little fiction."

Unbeknownst to Katara, Zuko only meant that he was just the roommate, he was the one who could extricate himself from the situation if he wanted to, and he wasn't the target of any real animosity as a result of the rumor.

But Katara immediately got a mental image of him standing over her while she knelt at his feet. The long muscles of his abdomen stretched up before her, and his simmering yellow eyes watched, and Jeeka's voice crept behind her like a snake - you'd rather get on your knees like a girl and suck off that half-breed…

She was repelled and aroused and ashamed to be aroused by such a thing.

Zuko went on, oblivious. He emitted the sort of mocking laugh a kid uses when he finally beats an opponent at a board game after a long and difficult struggle. "This really burns you up, doesn't it?"

Katara responded with a dirty trick she had used on Sokka any number of times. She froze a little water into slush and sent it sweeping down the back of Zuko's shirt. He shouted and contorted trying to get it out again and Katara calmly wrapped her arms across her breasts to conceal them. When he turned to glare at her as she had known he would, she met his eye with her own chilly stare.

"You used bending against me when my back was turned," Zuko said in an especially dark tone.

"I splashed you with cold water because you were taunting me about something really inappropriate!"

"Attacking an opponent's back is shameful."

"You aren't my opponent," she said with withering sarcasm, "you're my gay boyfriend."

Zuko jerked back at that. Finally. The widening of those yellow eyes was a balm on Katara's stung pride. Then his eyes flicked down over her, just for an instant, before locking back onto her gaze. "I'm not gay," he said.

Katara rolled her eyes and tried to ignore the weight of what he was saying to her. "Yeah, I get that."

He watched her for just a moment longer, then his gaze slid along her collarbone and he turned back to face the door. Katara dunked her hands back in the hot water in the bucket, suddenly breaking out in a tiny shudder. She went on with scrubbing her prickling flesh and finally replaced her bindings and climbed out of her pants to begin on her lower body.

"I wanted their acceptance," Katara found herself saying quietly, "and instead all I get is ridicule and gross insinuations about what I supposedly do in private. I just don't understand."

Zuko was quiet for a long moment and she started to think he'd gone back to meditating, but then he spoke. "You're not going to win these guys over by being nice to them."

Katara thought of Pakku, and the brutal truth of what he'd said. "I'm starting to think I won't ever win them over, no matter what I do. And it's not like the Northern Tribe is that great anyway, and I didn't exactly expect a warm welcome when I came here, but I never thought I'd become such a pariah."

"Maybe what you want isn't acceptance," Zuko said. "Maybe respect is enough. And you can get that pretty easily."

"What, by beating them all up?"

"Pretty much."

Katara scoffed and shook her head, but she couldn't help but think of Jeeka and Hanno and Attuk. She couldn't help remembering the satisfying feeling when they had all gone down, before Attuk grabbed her.

"I hate to say it," she sighed, "but the Fire Nation solution is starting to sound pretty appealing."

Zuko made an annoyed sound, but didn't challenge the term. "You should practice being more aggressive. Challenge people when you catch them looking at you. Invade their space. Never apologize. That kind of stuff."

"Yes, sifu Zuko," Katara grumbled as she scrubbed one foot. "Teach me the ways of manhood."

.


Katara spent the next several days looking for an opportunity to pick another fight. She stared down a few guys in the mess hall and kept waiting for Jeeka to make another attempt on her, but nothing came of it.

As if to make up for it, she started really punishing her fellow students during spars. Interestingly, she found that when she was bent on actually hurting the other guy, she won a lot more. Pakku didn't make any more comments about hesitation - in fact, he didn't say much of anything to Katara at all. In the shadow of his blistering criticisms, she continued to excel. She learned the forms swiftly and needed little correction. As her repertoire grew, so too did her versatility. Yet she still pushed herself even harder than before. She often woke when Zuko rose and, as soon as he left, made her way to the pier for early practice.

Then, one morning, she caught sight of Zuko sneaking into the servants' area. She stood gripping the rail on the walkway as he vanished down that corridor and came to a big realization. His 'third party' - whatever ally he had in this compound - was probably a member of the staff. Katara made a note to inform Sokka.

And then she decided that maybe it wouldn't be such a bad idea to follow him and actually see who this third party was.

She got halfway down the corridor when a chubby cook popped out of a side door and, pink-faced and flustered, told her she couldn't be back there. Katara swallowed back her apologies and made a note to try again another day.

Because, it turned out, Zuko seemed to be going to the servants' area every day.

The second day she followed him, she made it to the end of the corridor and was immediately sent back by a stern guard. Who knew they had guards stationed inside the servants' area? She delivered a very convincing excuse about being really hungry and barely avoided a demerit. After that, she was more careful, and decided not to try to follow Zuko unless she could follow closely.

Despite still being angry pretty much all the time, he was being remarkably decent, and that made Katara nervous. She had mostly experienced him as an absent roommate - gone before she woke, not yet returned when she slept - except for the food he'd been bringing her. That stopped after she started coming to the evening meal regularly, but Zuko did other things now. He sat with her in the mess hall and pointed out potential opponents she could fight. Katara nodded along and listened, and often caught him watching her from the corner of his eye as she ate. Other people continued to watch them, but their eyes darted away when Katara fixed them with her 'would you like to fight now?' stare.

Interestingly, the more she used that stare, the less snickering and smirking she saw.

Zuko heated her bath water every night. She suspected that he missed firebending and that was why he was so enthusiastic, but wasn't about to ask. He also didn't pretend to sleep while she bathed anymore, either, which had been awkward enough the one time. Because he so obviously hadn't been sleeping.

Instead, he sat facing the door, apparently meditating. That had been awkward too, at first, but he never turned around - except for that one time, after the slush-attack - and he rarely spoke, and after a few nights this way, Katara became more comfortable with this arrangement than she had been with bathing while he slept. She began to trust him in that small way.

And then a day came when Katara had brought her bathing water up to the barracks and was waiting for Zuko when she realized she had been living with him for almost two weeks. She knew because the next leave day was tomorrow and he had joined up right after the last one.

It wasn't that she had forgotten he was here to abduct her and take her to the Fire Nation, but their day-to-day routine had become almost comfortable. They didn't discuss the Fire Nation or the Avatar or the war, and there were peaceful moments when Katara found herself pretending that none of that existed. And when she did that, when she pretended that Zuko was just a guy with a fake name and she was just a girl in disguise and they were in on this thing together, she felt weirdly fond of him. Remembering why he was in the compound to begin with was jarring, and it gave her an awful sinking feeling, as if she'd done something inexcusably foolish.

So, when Zuko came into their barracks that night, water from the showers still dotting his prickly hair, and knelt beside her bucket, Katara crossed her arms and frowned at him.

"What are you going to do tomorrow?" she asked. She didn't bother asking it like a casual question. She asked it like the accusation it was.

Zuko's eyes widened just a fraction and he spoke in a stiffly careful way that she suspected meant he was lying. "Well, tomorrow is leave day," he said, "so I guess I'll go to Gao Ling. And, maybe… go shopping."

"Sounds fun," Katara said dryly. He wasn't meeting her eye. He was plotting something, she knew he was - he had to be. "What are you going to shop for?"

"Um… actually, I don't have any money. So I guess I'll just be browsing anyway."

"Browsing. Right."

She watched him heat the water, the peaceful look that came over his face as he focused for those seconds. She had watched him do this every night for nearly a week and she'd never noticed before how, no matter how calm and relaxed he was, that scar remained stiffly the same - twisted and furious. When he looked back up at her, he was frowning too.

"What are you going to do?" he asked.

Katara shrugged a little as if thinking about it, though she and Sokka had discussed it at length. "Actually," she said, "I'm staying right here."

By the way he clenched his jaw and glared, she knew she had just thrown a big wrench in his plans. Katara smirked.

"What's wrong Katara?" Zuko said quietly. His yellow eyes were so bright in the shadows of their room, seemingly lit by an internal blaze. "Scared to come out and play?"


Chapter Text

Zuko watched as Katara's smirk faded and color tinted her cheeks. He forced himself to keep his eyes locked with hers instead of tracing that pretty blush. If he didn't look away, maybe she would rise to the challenge. Maybe she'd let her temper carry her into taking an unnecessary risk.

And then, finally, he'd have his chance.

Katara was frowning now. "I may have been scared of you when you were hunting me across the South Sea," she said, "but I'm not anymore."

"Well." Zuko didn't move from where he knelt across the bucket from her. Steam drifted up between them. From this position, he could leap on her before she even realized there was danger. "Aren't you a big girl."

"Nah," she said. "I'm a big man, now."

She didn't look scared at all. She looked ready, scowling and leaning toward him just as he leaned toward her. When she looked at him that way, it sent a hot jolt down his spine. It made him want to meet her challenge, just barrel in and-

"How do you know my name?"

Zuko blinked, stunned. "What?"

Katara crossed her arms and raised an eyebrow. "My name. You used it that time you apologized and again just now. Where did you hear it?"

Zuko shot her a disgusted look and moved to sit on his pallet, facing the door. The moment was clearly gone. He would have to try again later. "Your little airbender friend shouted it loud enough for everyone on that miserable island to hear." Thinking of the monk put a sick twist in his gut. There was still no word from Iroh as to the boy's whereabouts.

"Hmph. I would've thought you'd have trouble hearing what he was saying - you know, since he was also blasting you back down that hillside at the time."

"That happened later," Zuko seethed. He listened to the shuffling sounds of Katara stripping off her clothes.

She had gotten so much louder and less cautious over the past few days, as if the snaps and whooshes of falling cloth were a part of her secret and she'd only lately decided he was allowed to hear them. But she never made any of those throaty moans. It seemed she meant to obey Zuko's one rule religiously - and he found himself a little disappointed that she was so disciplined.

He waited until she was pretty far into the process before speaking again, and used a low, calm tone, as if out of idle curiosity. "Where is your little friend, anyway?"

There was a stiff silence, and then a splashing sound inside the bucket. "I honestly have no idea. What do you care?"

"I can't be curious?"

"Not about him."

Katara was quiet after that, except for the sounds of her bathing. Zuko settled into his meditative position - though in truth he had no hope of clearing his mind of the stormy search for a way to get Katara to leave the compound tomorrow. Whatever the airbender was doing, it didn't matter so long as Zuko was trapped under this mountain. Tomorrow was his big chance to escape, and it was unlikely that he would have another before the next leave day. Two more weeks amongst the resistance would be unbearable on its own, but Zuko also had to deal with Katara's frustrating proximity, Sokka's dirty looks, and Iroh's apparent gambling problem.

The old man was supposed to be collecting a small wage for his work, but it kept falling under the Pai Sho table. Zuko had never noticed this sort of behavior when they had had access to the family wealth, but a few coins seemed so much bigger when they were all alone. It was ultimately a small matter, but it meant that they would have no funds for the return journey to his ship. No more than a nagging worry and an inconvenience, yet Zuko found his uncle's irresponsibility strangely unnerving. Iroh was odd, but he had never directly compromised Zuko's mission as he seemed to be doing now. The awareness settled in the back of his mind, quietly disconcerting.

There was a sound behind him that he recognized but hadn't heard before in this room, the wet rasp of a razor. Then it cut off suddenly and Katara winced softly. After a moment, the rasp began again.

Zuko narrowed his eyes. "What are you doing?"

"Shaving my head," Katara huffed. "Not that it's any of your business."

"Why bother? The others grow out their hair. It could help you blend in." In fact, Zuko liked the way she looked with her hair coming back in. Sometimes he touched the back of his own head and unconsciously wondered if her hair would feel anything like his.

"I'm not ever going to blend in with the Northerners," she said. There was a little anger and resentment in her tone. "I'm Southern Tribe. This is how Southern guys wear their hair. Ouch!" The rasping sound cut off again. "This is so much harder than it looks," she grumbled.

Zuko just listened to her for a while, frowning at the curtain.

"Hey, um," Katara finally said, "will you help me?"

"Me? I've never shaved anything in my life."

"Oh come on. You obviously had to shave your head pretty often when you were wearing that ponytail."

Zuko made a shocked noise. "That was a phoenix plume. It's a traditional mark of royalty."

"Oh wow," Katara said in mock-amazement. "I had no idea that Fire Nation royals were so fun and perky."

Zuko hunched forward and seethed. "Shows how much you know."

Katara took a deep breath and spoke in a more respectful tone. "Okay, maybe that wasn't a very nice thing to say. I'm just frustrated because I keep cutting myself. And I've already started, so I can't just stop now."

Zuko allowed himself one spiteful moment to imagine how ridiculous she was going to look walking around this base with scabs all over her head.

"Please, Zuko?"

It rocked him a little, those words coming from her in that soft, hopeful voice. It made his heart knock hard inside his chest. It brought something out in him that he didn't expect.

Zuko turned to look at her. She sat in just her pants and breast bindings, the curve of her collarbone scooped out in shadow and the muscles of her stomach just faintly visible through her soft flesh, even when she leaned forward with her elbows on her knees that way. Her shoulders were narrow, but with her arms spread and relaxed as they were, she looked bigger, more confident. She watched him evenly, the look on her face unreadable.

Zuko rose and came to sit behind her without a word, even though he had been honest about his lack of experience. He had always been shaved by attendants. But, he figured as he lit a candle, he could probably do this. After all, he knew what it should feel like…

Katara straightened and held the razor over her shoulder for him to take. "Thank you."

The soft note was still in her voice, and her fingers lingered an instant on her shoulder after he took the razor, and the back of her neck and shoulders were all bare and unprotected before him. Zuko steeled himself and reached up to touch the back of her head.

Her short hair was already slick with soap and he had to take a moment to slide his fingertips against it, to drag his thumb up the base of her skull. From this position, he could see how her shoulders stiffened and her breathing came a little harder. Was she nervous to have an enemy armed behind her, or was she enjoying his touch? Whatever the cause, her tension itself was exciting. Zuko clenched his jaw and brought the razor up to start at the back of her neck, as his attendants had always done.

Katara jerked away almost immediately. "Ow!"

Zuko stared, shocked, as a tiny line of blood welled up where the blade had slid just below her hairline. "I- I'm sorry!" Then she was frowning at him over her shoulder.

"You weren't kidding, were you? You've never done this before."

The astonishment in her voice made him uncomfortable, but he bit back the angry retort that came snarling up behind his teeth. He didn't want her to tell him to stop. "It isn't really considered proper for princes to do stuff like this."

Katara's eyebrows inched up. "So, what, you just sit still while other people do it for you?"

"Yes."

"Isn't that weird?"

"Why would it be weird? It's just what princes do."

She blinked and turned back to face forward. After a moment, Zuko lifted the razor and tried again, this time more cautiously. A small patch of her hair cleared away and he released a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding.

At length, Katara spoke. "My brother takes shaving his head pretty seriously. Back home, he'd hog the mirror for a whole afternoon, and he'd never let me help when we were little, no matter how much he nicked himself. He said it was a matter of manly pride to keep his warrior's wolf-tail looking fierce yet tidy." There was an easy smile in her voice when she said this. It made Zuko ache a little in a way he didn't understand. "I guess I kind of expected you to be the same way about your… phoenix plume. Which was silly. You're very different from my brother."

Zuko worked silently for a little while, slowly baring a wide patch of skin up the back of her head. It was silky under his fingers, the bits of hair prickly. He wiped the blade on a rag and carried on. "It's not so different," he said. "My plume signified more than my royal status. It wasn't easy to cut it off." He sighed. "And it won't be easy to go home without even enough hair to make a topknot. Forget manly pride - the Fire Court will question my loyalty to my nation."

"Why would you do it, then?"

"I had to be inconspicuous to follow you here."

"No," Katara said. "I mean, why would you follow me here at all? Why are you so bent on taking me to the Fire Nation?"

Zuko lowered the razor and glared at the half-shaved back of her head. It was easier to say it in a calm voice when he spoke to the back of her head. "I have to capture the Avatar to restore my honor and end my banishment."

Katara sat very still, then turned to stare at him. "I didn't know you were banished."

"It's not exactly my favorite thing to talk about."

"What did you do?"

Zuko glared.

"Okay, okay…" Katara turned back around, shrugging. "Excuse me for caring."

Despite his irate silence, Zuko went on carefully with his task, by turns resenting her and savoring the feel of her skin. When he moved to her side to cut above her ear, he could see how her eyes slowly shut as he glided his fingertips across her newly shaved head, checking for stubble. It softened his temper to see her relax under his hands this way.

Then he was done, and he watched for just a moment as Katara used her wash rag to wipe the last traces of soap and trimmed hair from her head and neck and shoulders. She gave him a hesitant smile. "You did a good job for a first timer. Thanks."

Zuko nodded stiffly and went back to his pallet. He didn't bother sitting to meditate. He felt tired, and simply removed his shirt and lay down facing the wall instead.

Katara went shuffling around her usual business and finally snuffed out the candle and lay down on her own pallet. Her breathing steadied and, after a long quiet, she spoke. "I like you better with hair," she said softly.

Zuko rolled over to stare at her. Was she making fun of him? Was it growing in as silly-looking as he had always feared it would? Was she saying she liked him better in disgrace? He narrowed his eyes.

But Katara gave nothing away. She lay snug under her blanket, one arm draped over her eyes. Zuko relaxed, still watching her, until he eventually drifted off.

.


When he woke, Zuko opened his eyes and found himself still facing her. Katara had squirmed in her sleep and lay on her stomach, her face mostly hidden against a folded-over corner of the pallet. She hadn't tied up her hair again the previous night and a few wavy tendrils fell down to her cheek. That probably tickled.

Zuko tore his eyes away and tugged on his shirt. He couldn't afford to be distracted today. He had to meet with Iroh and devise a way to get Katara into Gao Ling. He had to get her back to his ship. He had to go home.

The walkways were quiet as they always were at dawn and Zuko found Iroh at once in the kitchen, sitting on a stool by one of the smaller stoves as his water came to a boil. The old man was nodding off and jolted when Zuko addressed him.

"Uncle. We have a problem. The Avatar is planning on staying here for the entire day. We have to figure out a way to get her out of the compound."

Iroh yawned hugely into his hand. "Pardon me! I guess I stayed up a little too late last night. There were some interesting new developments-"

"I don't care about your Pai Sho league! Uncle, we have to get out of here today or we'll be trapped for another two weeks. The ship has already been sitting at anchor too long. If Zhao finds it, there's no telling what he'll do!"

"Actually," Iroh said, frowning worriedly up at him, "it is likely he has already discovered the ship. And, more importantly, that you are not on it."

Zuko gripped the nearest surface - which happened to be the iron stove - and then yanked back, shaking off the sting. "How can you know that?"

The old man shook his head. "It is only a hunch. But Admiral Zhao has begun the full invasion of the southern provinces, and his progress has been startling. He has already taken Chin Village and several small towns to the east."

"That doesn't mean anything. This invasion has been his plan for weeks. The fact that it's begun now could be a coincidence."

"Or it could be that he knows you have gone inland in disguise, and he intends to cut off your means of escape," Iroh said, a stern note in his voice. "Think, Prince Zuko. To the south there is a sea you cannot sail. To the north, mountains that would be treacherous to cross. Now, armies close in from the west and the east. Even if we are able to escape this compound and subdue the Avatar, all roads will be blocked with Fire Nation soldiers - soldiers who may recognize you. How will we reach the ship without being seen?"

Zuko gritted his teeth, clenching his hands into fists. He didn't even feel how the burned one stung. "Then we'll travel through the forests. We evaded the Earth Kingdom patrols. We can evade the Fire Nation."

Iroh did not look convinced. "Even if we could, what if Admiral Zhao has decided to conscript the crew in our absence?"

Zuko turned away, digging his fingers into his scalp. "I don't know! I'll think of something!" He drew a deep breath and looked back at Iroh, unaware of the scowl on his face. "How long do we have?"

"Five days, perhaps a week before the armies converge on Gao Ling."

Zuko's eyes widened. "Zhao's force is enormous. How can it possibly move that fast through enemy territory?"

"The Earth Kingdom army has put up a strategic defense, but most divisions have withdrawn north toward Ba Sing Se." Iroh peered sadly at the pot seething on the stove. "By order of the Earth King, if rumor can be believed."

"He's just abandoning Gao Ling to be invaded? What about his people?"

Iroh looked back at Zuko and rose to his feet. He laid a hand on his nephew's shoulder. In his eyes there was a gentle, arresting love.

Then he pulled away and began preparing the tea. "There is a veil over Ba Sing Se. Little information comes in or goes out. What is clear is that the resistance does not have the direct support of the Earth King, for all that many of its members are - or were recently - Earth Kingdom soldiers."

"Deserters?" Zuko blinked and stared fixedly at his uncle's hands, their calm, practiced movements. "How can an army of deserters and refugees hope to defend an unwalled city like Gao Ling?"

Iroh used a folded cloth to grip the handle of the pot and poured the boiling water. Steam wafted out and back up in rapid coils. "Earthbenders can raise walls in seconds, and there are many earthbenders in Gao Ling. What's more, the mountains and cliffs along the coast will make Fire Nation supply lines long, and harder to defend against guerrilla tactics. Gao Ling itself has a direct underground passage to the sea-" Iroh held up a finger and twirled it around to indicate the base around them. "-and can resupply in a siege, so long as the Water Tribe fleets continue to outmaneuver the armada."

He looked up at Zuko, cunning amusement in his old eyes, though he did not smile. "When he strikes the city, Admiral Zhao will find that his campaign has suddenly become more difficult than he anticipated."

Zuko allowed just one corner of his mouth to tighten in a smirk but it vanished quickly. Much as he enjoyed the thought of Zhao breaking his shiny new army on some scrappy backwater city, he had more immediate concerns. "Then maybe we'll have time to make another escape attempt."

"I do not think so, Prince Zuko." Iroh settled the lid on the teapot. For the first time, Zuko noticed that the pot was on a tray, and a slightly mismatched third cup sat beside the two originals. "When the fighting starts, the recruits who have reached a sufficient level will be sent out into combat. You are on the list, as is the Avatar."

"Even better," Zuko said after a moment. Iroh picked up the tray and began walking from the room and Zuko, frowning, followed along. "As long as we're out of the compound, we can subdue the Avatar and make our escape at any time."

"If that is what you choose," Iroh said. He paused in the corridor and peered searchingly up at Zuko in the half-light of the hallway. "Have you forgotten the Air Nomad, my nephew?"

"Of course not, but the waterbender is here now. We'll find the Air Nomad when we're safely back on the ship."

Iroh's brow knit and he seemed to come to some decision. "In addition to the news of Admiral Zhao's movements, I have heard a more disturbing rumor. It seems that a ship of the royal fleet was spotted in the south sea, headed east at some speed."

Zuko tensed. "Azula."

"It is possible that she, too, is aware of your presence on the mainland, but it does not seem as if she is looking for you." He emphasized the last word and Zuko pinched his eyes shut.

"You think she's chasing the Air Nomad."

"The Avatar," Iroh said gently.

Zuko looked at him, a little wild-eyed and furious. "I guess if you're a fool who believes every rumor out of Gao Ling, he must be."

Iroh's brows crept up and he shrugged innocently. "I only mean that that is what Azula believes she is hunting." He turned and began walking along the hallway again, taking a right into a small sitting room. "Perhaps you are right and she is simply chasing down an impostor. But if you are wrong…"

Zuko paused in the hallway, grimacing. He did not want to step through this door. He wanted to go back to the kitchen. He wanted to go back to his barracks and watch Katara wake.

But instead he stepped through the door and watched Iroh set down the tray on a low table. On the far side of the room sat an old man with bushy white hair and two narrow scars clawing down the side of his face. He was dressed like a beggar. When Zuko entered, he opened his eyes - his yellow eyes - and watched him while Iroh straightened and went on speaking. Zuko scowled and watched the stranger back, trying to place where he had seen him before.

"If you are wrong," Iroh said, "and Azula captures or kills the Avatar, she will claim your birthright when she reaches her majority this summer. She will rise as Fire Lord after Ozai, and the war will continue to decimate the people of this world - and the Spirit World - with no end in sight." Iroh held out a hand to indicate the table. "Please Prince Zuko, sit."

Zuko did not want to sit. He continued his staring contest with the man across the room. Iroh's use of his real name only unnerved him more. "Who are you?"

The man said nothing but his head hunched a little lower. There was bitterness in the tilt of his mouth.

Iroh peered in the man's direction and smiled. "Ah, don't mind him! Another old friend. He has not decided yet whether he wishes to join us." He lowered himself to the floor by the table, shooting the man a sly, amused look. "…no matter how much I tell him about this blend's particularly fine aroma." Iroh looked back up at Zuko. "No doubt he will change his mind when he sees how much we enjoy ours."

Zuko narrowed his eyes a degree more before finally sitting at his uncle's side. He looked away long enough to watch Iroh pour the tea, but then took up his cup and looked back. The other old man seemed not to have so much as blinked. The expression on his leathery face was calm and stern and ever so faintly angry. Zuko sipped his tea and did not flinch despite the heat, despite the bite of the cup against his hand, though it was starting to blister.

"Prince Zuko," Iroh said, and waited until Zuko turned to him before going on. His expression was suddenly grim. "Azula must be stopped."

Zuko blinked, hesitated. Would his own sister really do this to him? Would she really snatch away his one hope of returning home just to take the crown for herself? Azula had never allowed herself to be second in anything, but would she really go so far as to exile him forever from their homeland?

He couldn't help but think of the way Katara had spoken of her brother the previous night, the obvious fondness in her voice. It hurt him more than he could admit that he believed Azula was more likely to doom him than speak of him lovingly that way. It hurt so much, he couldn't quite let himself believe it. He couldn't quite let himself believe any of it.

But that didn't mean he would let her just… do whatever it was that she was up to.

Finally, he nodded. "If she really is chasing the airbender, then we have to leave now - today. We can't afford to fail. We must get the waterbender out into Gao Ling. If we're lucky, we can get back to the ship in just a few days and sail wide around Zhao's armada in the south. It'll take longer, but at least we'll be on the right side of the continent."

"Prince Zuko," Iroh said gently. "Do you remember when we talked about strategy? When we first arrived at this camp?"

Zuko narrowed his eyes. "No."

"I shall remind you. You see," Iroh held up a hand, squinting thoughtfully at him, "your favored strategy in Pai Sho, as in life, is always the straightforward attack. You seek to overwhelm your opponent quickly, and your greater ferocity often makes this tactic successful. But when you meet with strength that heavily outweighs your own, this strategy is prone to failure. Think of our march across the Earth Kingdom - if we had gone on as we started, we never would have reached Gao Ling, or found this base, much less gotten in." He grinned. "And we wouldn't have met Miss Meong or those delightful nomads!"

Zuko glowered.

"As I was saying, the straightforward gambit may not be the most likely to lead to success in this venture. Between Admiral Zhao's fleets and armies, you and your ship will be conspicuous and easy to take down. If, however, you were to ally yourself to others who share your desire to stop Azula from capturing the last airbender, you might find your task much more easily accomplished."

Zuko stared at his uncle, a little shaken, then frowned down at the teacup between his hands. The liquid inside was pale and still faintly steaming. His hand hurt, and it took him a moment to remember why.

"Perhaps," Iroh said quietly, "if you explain the situation to Katto, you will find there is no need to subdue her at all. She may volunteer to help you defeat Azula."

Zuko jerked upright. "That's impossible! She knows why I'm here, Uncle! She'll never trust me enough to leave this compound with me willingly."

"Maybe you are right," Iroh said, shrugging, "But maybe she is more courageous and selfless than you expect. From what I have heard, it is clear she cares a great deal for the young airbender. I suspect that, given the chance, she would be glad to help you stop Azula from hurting her friend."

Zuko sat back from the table and stared at his uncle for a long, shocked moment. "I won't lie to her."

Iroh cast him a sidelong glance as he bent over his cup.

"I won't pretend I've abandoned my mission. If she agreed to come, she'd have to do it knowing that I still intend to take her back to the Fire Nation."

"You would risk the success of your mission," said the old man on the other side of the room, "simply to keep trust with this girl?" His tone was level, and contained no trace of mockery, but the question struck Zuko as impudent.

He wheeled around, a fierce snarl taking his face. "It's a matter of honor! I don't want a victory tainted with deceit!"

"And yet you are here," the old man said pointedly. There was heat in his voice now. "Pretending to be an unfortunate child of war to conceal your selfish aims. Does this deception not shame you?"

Zuko leapt to his feet. "Who are you to criticize me, old man?" Iroh reached up toward him, but he jerked his arm out from under his uncle's hand.

The old man's expression remained hard. "Jeong Jeong."

Recognition seeped in at last. Zuko had seen this man's face before - had seen him marching the grand hallways of the palace, making efficient reports to the Fire Lord. The rags and scars made him look smaller, and somehow more dangerous. "Admiral Jeong Jeong."

"Former Admiral," Iroh provided. "But he is also called the Deserter, now."

Zuko took a step back from the table, from the traitor across the room. But it was Iroh he looked at, beseeching. "Uncle. Why are you consorting with this man?"

"As I said, Jeong Jeong is an old friend. We played many good games when he was in the Capital." Iroh peered steadily up at Zuko, as if waiting. "He was always known to be a man of great honor. Aren't you curious about why he chose to abandon his position, his life's work?"

Zuko shook his head unthinkingly, still staring at his uncle.

Iroh, too, had been a great man who abandoned his life's work. He had turned away from all the honor of his military career and become a weeping, undignified failure after his son's death - or so Azula and Ozai had inferred over and over until Zuko understood, on a level, the pity and shame and derision he was supposed to feel for Iroh.

Sometimes he forgot. Sometimes, Zuko let his often-suppressed sympathy and gratitude distract him from the truth. He forgot that Iroh was a disgrace, that Iroh would never redeem himself for his defeat at Ba Sing Se and, worse, seemed not to care. He seemed interested only in games and simple pleasures. He seemed to have given up hope.

At moments like these, Zuko looked at Iroh and unwittingly saw a ghastly specter of his future - grown old in disgrace and exile, with only petty amusements to dull the ache of his hopeless and honorless existence. It flooded him with fear and anguish, and left him with only one recourse.

So Zuko gritted his teeth and straightened, and let the fury slide over him like a reassuring touch. He scowled down at Iroh. "I don't know what you expected to come of this little meeting, and I don't want to know. Whatever I may have had to do to end my banishment, I remain loyal to the Fire Nation."

I am your loyal son.

"I'm taking the waterbender today," he said. "And if you aren't at that noodle shop to meet me as we agreed, I'll leave you under this mountain and you can play Pai Sho in the dark for the rest of your days."

He didn't cast another glance at Jeong Jeong, only spun and marched out of the sitting room and back to the kitchen, back to the walkway, back to the barracks. He didn't bother sneaking, but no one saw him anyway. He just needed to get back. He needed to find Katara and watch her sleep if she was sleeping and wake if she was waking and find some way, any way, to tempt her outside.

But in the barracks, her pallet was already empty.

.


"Okay, just so we're clear." Sokka began ticking items off on his fingers. "Stay here. Don't make too much noise. Don't go anywhere. Especially, and this is the most important part, don't go to Gao Ling."

Katara rolled her eyes and crossed her arms over her chest. Sokka had found her waterbending down on the empty pier shortly after the wake-up call and had insisted on going over the plan again, even though they'd already agreed on it. They'd agreed that the pier was the safest place for her, where she could be nearest to her element. They'd agreed that Sokka would try to find Zuko and keep an eye on him from a distance - and try to figure out who his partner in the servants' area was. And, especially, they'd agreed that Katara shouldn't go to Gao Ling.

"I don't hear any 'yes Sokka's and I'm starting to think that your enthusiasm for the plan is lackluster."

"Yes, Sokka," Katara grumped. Then she heaved a sigh and smiled wearily at him. "It just feels kind of… cowardly to hide out down here all day. I know Zuko's really dangerous, but I'm not afraid of him."

"Caution and cowardice are two different things, Katara," Sokka said. He put his hands on her shoulders and smiled down at her, speaking very quietly. "And, you know, you might be the least cowardly person I know. I'm really proud of you, little sister."

Katara smiled back, a bit watery-eyed. "Thanks, big brother." She slid under his arms and hugged him hard around the chest. "I'm really jealous that you get to go out and actually see the sky," she said into his shoulder. "I miss the sky down here."

Sokka held her tight, pressing his cheek against the side of her head. "Yeah, this crystal-based lighting system seemed pretty cool at first but it got old real fast." He rubbed his chin up and down the side of her head suddenly. "Hey, nice shave!"

"Ah, yeah, thanks!" Katara bit her lip and thought for a split-second about telling Sokka that Zuko had done it for her. It didn't feel right, though. If felt like she would be exposing an intimate secret. Which was ridiculous.

Only, her body had felt electrified the entire time his hot fingers traced her skin. The cold edge of the razor had been a distinct counterpoint, and the drag of it across her scalp had chilled her in the most delightful way. It had taken everything she had not to shudder and gasp. Even now, the memory was making her uncomfortable in the embrace with her brother and she suppressed it.

When they parted, Katara was blushing a little and Sokka, grinning, cupped her cheek. "Be safe, Katara."

She was about to tell him something to the same effect, but there was a sound from above. When she looked up, the railing of the walkway overhead was empty, but Katara was still a little unnerved. Sokka, too, held his stare on the next level for a long moment.

Katara half-smiled and shoved his shoulder. "Would you stop worrying and get out of here already? Zuko left the room early - he might get on the first shuttle."

"Alright, alright!" He held up his hands and turned for the stairs, speaking blithely over his shoulder. "I try to be supportive, and all I get is attitude."

"Poor Sokka, so unappreciated."

Katara smiled and watched him go, then went back to her bending. She did not know that Zuko stood concealed on the level above, watching her as a pained scowl twisted his face.

Chapter Text

Zuko followed Sokka up the stairs at an inconspicuous distance, stewing. He hadn't heard much of their conversation, but he had heard his name. He had heard Katara say his name to Sokka. She had broken their trust and told someone who he really was.

And he had seen that hug. That had been a pretty intense hug. The way Katara had just thrown herself against this skinny, lying, conniving… Sokka. And then he'd wrapped his arms around her and it was like they'd done it a thousand times. Zuko saw him touch her face. And nuzzle her, the ash-hole. He'd backed up from the rail before he had to see a kiss.

It was like they loved each other or something.

Zuko snarled silently and caught sight from the landing of Sokka heading out onto the barracks level. He was looking around, a steely expression on his face - looking, Zuko realized, for him.

They were together. They were together and they were plotting against him. They always had been. That was why Sokka was so persistently friendly - and yet so tense and protective. Because Zuko was sharing a room with his girlfriend.

And Katara… Zuko couldn't think about Katara right now. Not yet. But he would deal with her very soon. Right after he took care of this.

He stepped out onto the walkway and passed easily through a crowd heading the other way, down to the stone shuttle that would take them to Gao Ling. They parted for him with a few nervous glances at his furious expression - looks he didn't even notice. What Zuko noticed was Sokka, stopping in front of his barracks door - his and Katara's barracks - and saying something before poking his head in past the curtain.

Zuko came up behind him and crossed his arms over his chest. "Looking for someone?"

"Gah!" Sokka leapt and flailed in alarm, then broke off with a sheepish chuckle. "Oh Li! Hey, buddy, I was just looking for you."

"Hey buddy," Zuko spat. "What a great surprise to see my friend Sokka. What can I do for you, Sokka?"

"Well, uh," Sokka was watching him with some uncertainty now. "I just wanted to see if you'd like me to show you around Gao Ling a bit, you know, since you're going for your first leave day and, really, everybody needs somebody to show them the ropes, right?"

Zuko met his winning smile with a flat, hard stare. "Sure," he said. "Sounds like a great time."

"Great time! Yeah," Sokka said, grin fading. "I guess we should hurry though, huh? To catch the early shuttle?" He started stepping toward the stairs and Zuko mirrored the movements, maybe putting a little more aggression into the gesture than was entirely necessary. Sokka sped up. "Don't want to miss this one! The next shuttle doesn't go until noon. Then we'd miss out on all the great deep fried breakfast breads they have in the shop district. Mmm, fried breads!"

Zuko walked beside Sokka in silence, casting him dark sidelong glances. What could Katara possibly see in this guy? If she thought Wanjo Naru was appealing, Sokka was way too skinny and big-mouthed and big-eared and just goofy in general.

That was a passing thought, though. The thing that kept hammering at him was how he had almost fallen for it, for both of them. He had almost wanted this ridiculous guy to be his friend. And Katara… He felt like such an idiot, every bit the gullible dumdum Azula had always said.

Sokka was peering at him with a crease in his brow and a thoughtful pinch to his mouth. "Li, are you doing okay? You seem kind of… upset."

They were in a stairwell. Other guys were ahead of them and behind them moving down the steps. Zuko resisted the urge to start shouting. "I'm fine."

His uncle was slipping toward full-blown treason, his sister was off doing something unspeakable, Zhao was closing in, and now he'd allowed himself to fall for this bumbling treachery. For Agni's sake, they were the only two people here from the Southern Tribe. Of course they knew each other!

"Are you sure? Because, it really seems like you're not."

Zuko wanted to snap at him to quit pretending already, to stop dragging out the false sympathy whenever he sensed weakness. But now wasn't the time. Now was the time to stay calm and handle the situation with some finesse.

"I just, have a lot on my mind," he bit out.

"Anything you want to talk about?" Sokka asked after a moment.

Zuko scowled at him and Sokka immediately held up his hands and backed up.

"Just trying to be helpful."

"Yeah, well you can knock it off."

"Okay, jeez."

They walked the rest of the way to the station without speaking and boarded the stone slab that served as a shuttle. It had been extended to haul a larger load and was still crowded with passengers. Probably, Iroh was somewhere near the front, but Zuko didn't bother looking for him. Recruits chattered all around them but he stood stiff and silent and Sokka fidgeted nearby, occasionally chatting with someone he knew. Finally, the earthbending guards began preparing to push the shuttle.

Zuko turned to glare at Sokka then. "I've changed my mind," he said. Sokka raised an eyebrow. "There's something down on the pier that I need."

He stepped off the block and back onto the platform and turned back in time to see Sokka, wide eyed, surging forward to follow him. Zuko punched him in the face. Sokka went flying back to be caught by the other recruits. He sagged in their arms, stunned, or maybe unconscious. Zuko hoped he woke up with an awful headache. The recruits shot him disapproving or nervous looks but he only glared back at them. One of the earthbending soldiers shouted at him, but Zuko only turned away. He didn't care. He didn't care about demerits or petty grudges or any of it.

He was going to get the Avatar. But first, he needed to stop by the training rooms.

.


Katara had worked through the first sixty movements and three advanced sets before she saw, from the corner of her eye, Zuko coming down the stairs. He was quiet, and she might not have noticed him at all if it weren't for the broadswords he held in either hand. They caught the blue light of the crystals and flashed.

A thrum of anticipation swept through her. She smirked. She had kind of hoped it would happen this way.

In the back of Katara's mind, she hoped Sokka was okay, and that Zuko had just given him the slip somehow. She would figure out a way to subtly ask about that when she'd beaten him. But she didn't want to give anything away; maybe Sokka just hadn't found Zuko yet. Maybe he would come down the stairs at any minute. Katara let the thoughts flow away, never losing focus on her bending.

"Come to observe again?" she asked. She altered the form in subtle ways to keep herself mostly facing him, so that she could always see him in case he moved to strike.

Zuko stopped at the base of the stairs, scowling. The swords hung from his hands, points near the ground. "You've been playing a dangerous game."

He sounded furious. More so than usual. But Katara wasn't going to let that rattle her. He had been quiet last night after helping her with the razor, and she hadn't been sure how to read his obvious tension then, either. Maybe he was upset that she had asked about his banishment, but maybe he had resented her for requesting that personal service from him. Maybe shaving her head had stung his royal pride.

Or maybe he knew about Sokka. Maybe he had hurt Sokka. That thought struck sharply at her, and the resultant fear refused to be released. "I don't know what game you're talking about," she said, guiding a trail of water through a complex, zipping path around her body.

"Then let's skip the small-talk."

Zuko rushed toward her and Katara sent her stream lashing at him in a wide arc. He slashed through it with one sword and then the other, spinning around to pass through the breach. And then he was coming for her again. Katara brought the water back toward her - and he must have seen it in the way her posture shifted because he knew to turn around and jump over the roiling wave. As he landed and spun to attack again, she brought the water up in a ready position around her.

"I'd almost forgotten how fast you are," she said, dangerously close to grinning. "But are you fast enough for this?"

She raised up a half-octopus, four tentacles swiping through the air at him. He shouted as he fended them off with whirling spins and rolls and dancing blades. It was pretty impressive, the acrobatics he was capable of. But also frustrating. Who knew a firebender could be so slippery?

Then, finally, Katara landed a hit. She knocked him hard in the stomach with a straight-on strike from one tentacle, forcing him skidding and stumbling back. He grunted, and looked up at her with a pained snarl, and then rushed in again. This time, he ignored the single tentacle she raised to whip at him and instead shouted and slid down on his knees, using both blades to slice all four tentacles off at their bases. The water was falling from the air as he looked up at her, glaring just feet away, arms still in the crossed and extended position.

For the space of a breath, Katara was trapped in the heat of Zuko's eyes, pinned between the conflicting forces inside her. Drops of water tumbled through the air around him, this banished prince with all his privilege and honor and selfishness. He was beautiful and monstrous, and he was bent on having her.

The fear and outrage washed away easily now, but other things left stubborn traces behind.

With a furious cry, Katara lifted the water up off the floor in a rush of ice all around him, shoving him back and locking him in place before he could even fully uncross his arms from their backstroke. Zuko stared down in alarm and strained against the ice around his arms and back and legs, but it was too thick to muscle out of.

Katara straightened from her final position and folded her arms over her chest. "Looks like you're stuck. Too bad you can't firebend, since anybody who happened to be on the walkways would see."

"Raugh! If I could, you know you wouldn't stand a chance against me! That's the whole reason you're down here, so that you can hide from me!"

"I wasn't hiding, I was waiting! I've been waiting to fight you for weeks!"

That seemed to only enrage him further. His good eye bulged and his neck strained as he bared his teeth and fought against the ice. Steam was rising up around him. He was melting his bonds a little at a time.

Katara stalked closer and loomed over him. "I won this round. But I'm not finished with you yet."

Then she took a few steps back and released him, drawing the water back around her in an easy stream and waiting for his attack.

Zuko gave a startled cry as he fell to his back without the support of the ice. With hardly a second spent recovering, he lunged off the floor and charged toward her, roaring his fury.

.


She was too good for him to win like this - Zuko started to accept that after the fourth time she knocked him down - but she wouldn't finish it. Katara was weak that way; she wouldn't just kill him and get it over with. That was her mistake. He could keep fighting like this all day. Eventually, she would slip up. Eventually, he'd get the edge. And when he did, he wasn't going to hesitate. He would knock her out and carry her out of here.

He just had to be patient.

Breathing hard now, Zuko climbed to his feet and attacked yet again, this time with a carefully choreographed sequence of feints and flashy attacks that finally, finally got him within striking distance. But Katara just dodged his sword and surfed away on a wave, making an easy circuit around him and coming smoothly back to the stone a long way down the pier. The wave crested behind her and then she sent it surging back toward him. Zuko tried to run out of the way, but there was no escaping it. If he'd been able to bend, he could have countered that move. As it was, the wave caught him and washed him into the harbor.

For a moment, he thought he might drown in those quiet shadows. The dark water kept him down with an unexpected current. He could see where it rippled and winked in the blue crystal light above, but, however he kicked and paddled, he couldn't seem to reach it.

Then the water around him lifted up in a big glob, scooping him out of the harbor. He saw through the wavering side how Katara stood on the pier, guiding its movements with sweeping motions of her hands and shoulders. Then, she let it go and Zuko fell flat onto the stone of the pier, drenched and gasping.

"I used to catch fish like that," she was saying. "It was one of the first useful things I learned to do with bending." Zuko got up on his hands and knees, coughing. There was only one sword on the stone before him. The other, he realized, he had lost in the harbor. Katara went on. "Everything had to have a use at the South Pole. I didn't get to practice playing with weapons like you or my brother. I had to take care of my people right then, not in some hypothetical future battle scenario."

Zuko glared up at her. "That's probably the saddest thing I've ever heard."

"What have you ever done for someone else?" Katara demanded, fists braced on her hips as she stood over him. "When have you ever put the needs of other people before your own? You don't even know how to take care of yourself, much less another person!"

Zuko didn't really think about it, he just saw an opening and he struck. He tackled her full-on, taking her down beneath him. She managed to blast him in the face with a gout of water, but the attack wasn't balanced and didn't have the power to stop him from grabbing her hands and weighing them down to the ground over her head.

He had her. Finally. He had her. His mouth tugged up in a breathless smirk.

Katara snarled and struggled under him, and he realized that, though he was still braced on his hands and knees, he had landed between her legs. Her thighs strained against his hips and, when she tried to push out from beneath him, she inadvertently rubbed her body against his in exciting, distracting places.

She didn't look frightened, though. Not this time.

"Alright," she seethed. "You finally win one - because you used a cheating surprise attack. The score stands at about nine to one, now. Good for you. Now get off me."

"No."

Katara bared her teeth, but her eyes flicked down to his lips for just an instant. "What, you think you can somehow wrestle me up the stairs to the shuttle now? The second you let go of me, I'll douse you."

"Then I guess I can't let go."

The words just popped out of his mouth, partly a growl and partly something else. He was still so angry with her, but the nine rounds leading up to this one had taken a lot of the energy out of his anger. He was still mad, but it wasn't the explosive potential he had been filled with when he stepped onto the pier.

Katara stared. Then she frowned up at him, clearly annoyed. "Cute. But seriously. Get off me."

"You've been toying with me," Zuko said. The betrayed ache of it was surfacing out of the comfortable haze of anger. He didn't like it. He frowned down at her. "Every night I listen to you take your clothes off right behind me, and I sit there like your trusty fool, doing nothing. This whole time, you've been teasing me, just to blind me to what you've been plotting."

That hit home. Katara's eyes widened and she seemed to be actually seeing him suddenly. Then she frowned harder. "I don't practice basic personal hygiene to tease you. Not everything is about you."

Zuko shook his head slowly. She wouldn't deflect him from this. Not now that he knew what she was up to. Not now that he knew how she and Sokka had been working him over. "You woke me up on purpose that first night, didn't you? To make me feel stupid, like I'd overreacted."

"Are you deranged?" she hissed. "I didn't wake you up on purpose! I was half-naked!"

Zuko's mouth tilted slightly upward in a hard sort of smile. "No need to remind me, Katara. I'll never forget."

He was being sardonic - because that had surely been the entire point of what she'd done that night, after all. She had wanted to saddle him with some memory. It just happened to be the memory of the soft, wet pressure of her breasts up against his chest. Every night he turned his back and listened, and couldn't help but remember.

Now though, she made a soft sound of shock. Her cheeks darkened in the blue light and she stared up at him for a second, wide-eyed. Zuko couldn't help it; he traced her slightly-parted lips with his gaze. They were small and plump and they looked so soft and inviting. He should be knocking her out right now and carrying her up to the terminal.

But the midday shuttle wouldn't leave for hours yet.

"Do you expect to intimidate me like this?" Katara demanded. She was frowning severely up at him. Her hands clutched against his, trying to curl into fists. "Because you can't. You don't scare me, Zuko."

Her fearlessness, the sound of his name on her lips, those fierce blue eyes - all of her pulled him inexorably downward.

"I don't want to scare you," Zuko said, lowering his face toward hers. She didn't twist away. Not this time. "Tell me to stop if you're scared."

.


Katara glared up at him as he inched closer, a lot happening in her head for those scant seconds.

Zuko had figured out her game, or at least a part of it, and even though most of what he had pointed out had been accidental on her part, it still contributed to a not-entirely-untrue image of her that she found pretty unflattering. He'd left out the more wholesome things she'd done to maneuver around him, all the little tasks and niceties Gran-gran had taught her. As if she was only using her body to manipulate him. As if she was some kind of floozy or something. As if she was wronging him by using every weapon at her disposal to evade him, to survive.

But it wasn't exactly totally untrue, either. She'd very intentionally let him catch her replacing her bindings that time, and she'd decided not to put a shirt on when she asked him to help her shave. It wasn't like she was the only one who went shirtless, though. He did it every night. It was pretty hypocritical of him to suggest that her shirtlessness was somehow more distracting or unfair than his. Katara thought this, glaring up at him, and glared a little harder.

His eyes just kept simmering. In this light, they didn't quite look yellow, more of a pale green, and that somehow made this more okay. But those eyes burned no matter the hue, and Katara felt herself heating under their stare. The feeling had been building the entire time they fought. His shouts, the athletic twists and thrusts of his body, this piercing stare.

And even, shamefully, the way he held her down. His hands were hot and dry against hers and his long body hovered over her like a promise. Being restrained still frustrated her and infuriated her and she wanted to fight him until she broke free - but it was just a challenge, like the chains, and she knew she would break out sooner or later. And that was weirdly exciting.

Katara was weirdly excited. Those eyes and that frowning mouth issued a challenge that she itched to meet. A thousand reasons not to floated through her head, but there he was, lowering his mouth towards hers. Katara couldn't just sit back and let him think he had control over this, that he was the only one being toyed with in this game. She had desires too, and they were worth just as much as his.

So she craned her neck and strained upward and kissed him hard before he could kiss her.

It was really more a mashing of her lips against his than any kind of nuanced kiss. Katara had never kissed a boy before and, for a heartbeat, she was afraid she had done it wrong. Zuko's eyes widened, but then they blazed as he bore down against her, his mouth a hot, clumsy press. His fingers tightened where they were twisted with hers, and then he lowered himself to one elbow and brought one hand down to cup her jaw, to trail his fingertips over the newly shaved skin behind her ear.

Katara shuddered and made a little sound into his mouth. Her hand was free, but then it wasn't - she was running it through the short growth of hair on the back of his head, scratching up his scalp. Every time she gasped in another breath, her chest brushed against his until she finally arched her back and rubbed firmly against the wide muscles still suspended above her.

Zuko groaned, not a fierce sound, but an aching one, struck through with a note of helplessness. His hand still gripping hers clutched and gentled. And then he lowered his weight onto her. His hips settled between Katara's thighs and it was like a light switched on in her head.

Oh. That's-

Then there was a grinding sound from one of the walls and a piping voice cut across the harbor like a whistle.

"Alright, Splatto! Time for a buddy day!"

Zuko wrenched away so suddenly, it was as if someone had physically yanked him to his feet. His face was bright red and he covered his groin with one hand and pointed furiously with the other.

"You! What are you doing here?"

Katara sat up, dazed and breathless. She turned to find Toph swaggering through a doorway that hadn't been there before, smirking the toothiest smirk Katara had ever seen.

"I'd ask you the same thing, Fanboy, but by the sounds of you two dorks' heart rates, you were either fighting or totally about to bone. Either way," she whipped up a hand, "it can wait. Me and Katto are gonna go have some fun."

Katara watched her grind a fist into the opposite palm for a second before the implications of all she said sank in. Then, she leapt to her feet too. "Wait, you know him? How do you know him?"

Toph shrugged. "Eh, I went in to straighten out some things with Wan Ma after our rematch and who should I bump into but your biggest fan…"

Biggest fan? Katara shot Zuko a speculative look, but he wouldn't meet her eye. Was he… Was he the same guy who jumped down into the pit? He was standing painfully straight, covering himself and glaring at Toph, somewhere between livid and mortified. The earthbender just went on as if she didn't notice.

"He was pretty desperate to find you, and he knew your secret already, and he was traveling with this really smart old guy. It seemed like he was poised to cause you some trouble so I figured," she shrugged, "better if he was close enough for you to shut him up in person. You're tough. I knew you could handle it." Another toothy grin spread over her face. "I wasn't sure if you'd want to actually handle it, but right on!"

Katara flinched, a little wide-eyed and livid herself. "You mean… you let him in here? Do you realize how much trouble you've caused?"

Toph stomped a few steps closer and pointed two fingers at Katara. "Tough girls chew trouble up and spit it right in the face of fear, and don't you forget it!"

Katara leaned into the other girl's space, glaring. "Friends don't help each other's enemies find them in sensitive locations where discovery of certain secrets can result in death! And do you even have any idea who this guy is? What he is?"

"As far as I'm concerned, he's a persistent noodle-head with both a metaphorical and literal hard-on for you." Zuko gave an outraged cry but Toph went on like he wasn't even there. "If you can't deal with a situation like that, maybe you should just stay in your stupid dude costume forever!"

"Would you keep your voice down? You could get me killed!"

"Hold up," Toph said, her grouchy expression suddenly incredulous. "Seriously?"

.


Zuko stood back and watched Katara tersely explain her situation to the big-mouthed earthbender. Ordinarily, he would shove his way into this conversation and tell the pest to get lost, but his trousers were still humiliatingly snug. Somehow, the fact that she was blind didn't make him feel any better. Until his body was under control, he didn't really want to draw attention to himself.

Not the twerp's attention, anyway. Katara's attention, on the other hand…

He drove the thought away, trying to focus on his anger instead. His outrage. Why had she suddenly decided to kiss him? Was this another distraction, another trick? Did Sokka know she was willing to go this far in their deception?

Exactly how far was she willing to go…?

Zuko shook that thought off as well and as a last resort summoned up the memory of Iroh, naked on that stony beach in the South Sea, goosebumps on every conceivable-

He shuddered and straightened to find the two girls were walking away from him, toward the dark doorway. "Hey!" he snapped, regaining his bluster. "Where do you think you're going?"

Katara turned back toward him and, for a second, her look was unreadable. Then she smirked. "Oh, you weren't listening? We're going out for a girls' day."

"Buddy day, Splatto." The earthbender crossed her arms, also looking pretty pleased. "Girls' day is where you get all dolled up and talk about your future husbands. Buddy day is way more fun."

Katara cast her a woeful little moue. "Right."

Zuko's hands fisted at his sides. "You're going to Gao Ling?" He almost couldn't dare to believe it.

Katara peered back at him and her expression took on a particularly superior cast. "Yes." She blinked slowly, an arrogant half-smile creeping across her face. "And I dare you to come find me."

Zuko's pulse thudded and he had to tear his eyes away from hers and think of Iroh again. A second later, he looked back. "I will," he promised. Katara watched him, and the half-smile slackened. Her breathing was uneven.

The earthbender snickered. "Wow. Get a room, you guys."

"We have one," Zuko said, not looking away. Katara's eyes widened as if she'd forgotten.

The little twerp hooted at that. "Oh ho! Come on Katto, let's go get some sugar biscuits. I want all the dirty details." She latched one hard hand into her friend's tunic and dragged her backward through the doorway. Katara kept her eyes locked on Zuko as she trippingly followed her into the dark. The look she gave him was intense and uncertain, but her jaw was hard and set.

Zuko stepped forward to follow them, but a wall of rock slid down, shutting the door in his face.

"Rrrah!" He flexed his hands into fists before him and turned back to retrieve his swords. The one lay abandoned in a puddle, still crusted with ice where hilt met blade. The other was somewhere at the bottom of the harbor.

The midday shuttle still wouldn't come for hours yet.

Zuko snarled, took a big breath, and dove in. The water was cold, and it helped drain the heat still lingering in his skin from Katara's kiss, Katara's body arching up against his. She had seemed to want him - but Zuko knew better than to trust in the way things seemed. This was a part of her game, just another manipulative little tactic to distract him from his true mission.

It took three tries, but he finally made it to the bottom and, even blind in the dark, managed to find the sword. Then he clambered back up onto the pier and, dripping, made his way up the stairs. He changed clothes in the empty cubby room and then went to the terminal, only to be told by a stern guard - the same one who had shouted at him before -that he wasn't allowed to leave with those weapons. He got in a pointless argument with him, demanding how he was supposed to defend himself, but ultimately took them back to the training room and then sat on the floor in the empty terminal, waiting for the shuttle to return.

He would find Katara. And he didn't care how powerful she was, or how powerful her obnoxious friend was, he wouldn't let them beat him. Not this time. This time, he would win, because he had to. There was no other option.

Finally, the stone gates thundered open and the slab came grinding out of the dark tunnel, its lanterns appearing as pinpricks and slowly growing larger. A few recruits had come back already, chatting and carrying purchases and grinning in the sunny way of people who had enjoyed a pleasant morning.

All except for one guy. Sokka stood on the shuttle as it cleared, unmoving. There was a big dark ring around one of his narrowed eyes and his arms were folded over his thin chest. His glare locked on Zuko and didn't so much as waver as the other guy rose smoothly to his feet and stepped off the platform.

The earthbenders who had pushed the slab passed by, chortling about a tea break or something, and suddenly the terminal was empty. The shuttle wouldn't leave for half an hour more, and Zuko was determined to spend that time staring Sokka down from across the width of the shuttle.

Only Sokka wasn't backing down. He wasn't smiling or joking or assessing. He unfolded his arms so that his hands could curl into fists at his sides. "Find what you were looking for, buddy?"

Zuko allowed himself to remember, then, the taste of Katara's mouth, the firm pressure of her bound breasts as she shoved herself against him. A smirk tugged up one corner of his mouth as he glared back at Sokka, suddenly smug with this petty new triumph. "Yeah, buddy. Is my lip bleeding? Because she gets fierce when she's into it."

Chapter Text

"What do you mean, you don't like rice wine? It's the only kind of wine worth drinking!"

"Well," Katara said, carefully folding her fingers together on the sticky table before her. She had already offended her friend by questioning the age-appropriateness of wine in general and was enjoying the sunlight spilling through the window too much to let buddy day end early. "I always wanted to try plum wine but I just feel like any wine at all might be too strong for me right now, since I need to keep my guard up in case Zuko actually finds us."

"Who now?"

"Zuko? The, you know, fan?"

Toph swept a hand through the smoky air. "Fanboy? Phah! That guy's miles away right now. We've got at least a few hours to relax - and what better way to kick off buddy day than with sugar biscuits and a bottle of rice wine!"

"The sugar biscuits were really great… But it's not even midday. Only people with serious problems drink before dusk."

"This is a war, Splatto. We've all got serious problems."

Katara wasn't sure exactly what she'd expected from this experience, but it wasn't a terrifying lightless ride through the earth at breakneck speed, immediately followed by a visit to a tea house where people were being thrown bodily out the front door. Toph had insisted that this was the only place that would still serve her after some 'oversensitive nose-pickers threw a fit about a couple scams.' The establishment was full of large, rough-looking men who seemed to be drinking a lot more wine than tea. Katara had been nervous about that until she noticed how they all glanced at Toph and their eyes widened with recognition. Most of them studiously ignored her. A few said hello in too-bright tones. Toph just waved them off and guided Katara to a table in a sunny private room off the main area.

And now she was ordering wine from a strained-looking man in an apron who seemed like he'd rather not bring wine to a young teenaged girl but really didn't want to say it in those words to this one in particular.

"And a pot of tea," Katara forcefully inserted before he could go. "Please."

When the server was gone, Toph shot her a sardonic smile. "Hey, good one. That was almost guy-like until the please got in there and girled it up."

Katara frowned. "You know, talk like that reinforces the sexist expectation that politeness is only-"

"Alright, alright. I get plenty of lectures from my nanny, I don't need one from my friend, thanks."

"Your…" Katara's frown only deepened as she took this in. "…nanny?"

"Keeper. Minder. Woo Jin. Whatever, she's constantly on my case about every little thing I say. And she's wising up to my tricks. It's getting harder to sneak out at night, which puts a killer cramp in my style."

"I'm sorry," Katara said, squinting. "Why do you have a nanny?"

Toph huffed a sigh and waited for the server to come in from the larger room and pour their drinks and arrange the pot and bottle (it was actually quite small) and cups. As soon as he was gone, she spoke in a moderated tone. "My parents think I'm just a helpless little blind girl. They always have. Since I was a little kid, they've kept me tucked away on our estate like I'm some shameful secret. I acted out a few weeks ago, said some things they needed to hear, and I ended up saddled with Woo Jin all day, every day." She slugged some wine from her ceramic cup. "Yee haw. I gave her the slip today by setting a boarcupine loose in her bedroom. That'll keep her busy until at least mid-afternoon."

Katara held her teacup in both hands even though the heat bit hard into her fingertips. "But… you're an incredibly powerful bender. How can your parents possibly think that you're helpless?"

"I don't know. For a long time, I didn't bend in front of them. My true strength was like my secret as a secret, my way of having an identity they couldn't control. When I finally stopped hiding what I could really do, my parents only got more worried." Toph turned her cup in her hands on the table, frowning. "It's like they resent me. Or they're scared of me."

"That's awful, Toph." Katara held her tea beneath her mouth for a long moment, thinking. "Maybe they're just scared that they won't be able to take care of you anymore."

"But I can take care of myself."

"That's just it. Sometimes people get attached to a certain idea about their loved ones and, when it turns out that that idea isn't really accurate, they get scared or angry." Katara bit her lip and tried not to worry about the Southern fleet's imminent return. "Maybe your parents understand that you're capable of taking care of yourself, but they're fighting to keep the relationship they know with you now - because they love you, and they can't imagine that relationship changing for the better."

Toph raised her eyebrows. "That's… really insightful, Katara. I didn't know you were smart, too." She snickered. "I mean, I'm glad. I just didn't want to get my hopes up."

"Thanks," Katara said with a dry arch in her eyebrow.

"What about your family?" Toph asked, hitching an elbow on the table and turning one finger in her ear. "Tell me about them."

.


Zuko watched Sokka's face go a little pale in the lantern light. "You're talking about fighting, right?" He sounded a little desperate, a little furious. "Because if you're not talking about fighting, then there is no reason that she should be having any contact with your lips at all, ever. Ever!"

"We fought - for a while," Zuko conceded. His smirk widened at the sight of Sokka's obvious disquiet. "But then I won, and I guess she decided I deserved a reward."

Sokka's expression twitched with a panicky openness, then pinched back toward fury. "What do you mean, you won?" He took a bold step closer, bringing himself within arm's reach. "Where is she?"

"On her way to Gao Ling," Zuko said, stepping forward to meet the other guy's challenge. They were about the same height, but Zuko was much bigger in the shoulders and chest. There would be no real contest between them. "Her little earthbender friend interrupted us at the rudest moment. But that's not a problem. Katara and I will just have to pick up later where we left off - with me on top of her while she rubs up against-"

"Yaah!"

Sokka tackled him in an uncoordinated, mindless way and, because Zuko hadn't really expected him to dare to lash out at all, they went down in a tangle of fists and incoherent yelling. It turned out Sokka possessed a lot more wiry strength than he appeared to, and had some knowledge of wrestling holds. They struggled for a while, but Zuko's greater strength finally allowed him to pin the other guy face-down on the stone with an arm twisted behind his back. Sokka hardly seemed defeated, though. He turned his head to the side, some hair sprung loose from his wolf-tail, and glared up at Zuko with one big, enraged eye.

Actually, he kind of looked a lot like Katara.

"You two thought you were so clever, didn't you?" Zuko growled. "The only Southern Water Tribe people here. How stupid do you think I am?"

"Pretty stupid." Sokka winced as Zuko tightened the pressure on his arm.

"I wouldn't be so smug if I was in your position. It would be easy to break your arm this way."

"Go ahead! It won't change the fact that Katara isn't going anywhere with you. She's too strong! You won't be able to beat her without your bending, and even if you could, you won't be able to sneak her out of Gao Ling. There's a rebel army stationed in that city. They won't just let you desert." Sokka's mouth tugged up in a hard smile. "You're a rebel, too, now, Li."

Zuko bared his teeth and leaned closer. "I'll find a way."

Sokka barked out a mirthless laugh. "What, are you gonna fly back to the Fire Nation? Do firebenders secretly have scales and wings? Because I've wondered."

"Shut up. If you give me away, I'll give her away. Or did she explain that to you?"

"She explained everything to me."

"Oh, everything, huh?" Zuko smirked, sensing a chance to twist the knife. Because, for some reason, breaking Sokka's arm didn't seem like the right thing to do. Needling him about his girlfriend was much better. "Did she explain her end of your little smokescreen to you? The part where she 'accidentally' let me see her breasts? Or-"

"Lalalala!" Sokka's eyes pinched shut. "Not something I need to hear! No-no-no-no!"

"Or the way she gave me that razor and had me sit behind her and shave her head!' Zuko talked right over him, delighted. "I spent almost an hour touching her while I did it. She loved it."

Sokka stared up at him, agog.

"Her mouth tastes like jasmine tea. Have you ever noticed that?"

Those wide eyes strained oddly, horrified and suddenly speculative. "Why would I know what my sister's mouth tastes like?"

Zuko blinked, frozen. Sister?

"Is it really that messed up in the Fire Nation?" Sokka pressed. "I always kind of figured you guys practiced cannibalism and temple-trashing but, I gotta say, incest never occurred to me."

Zuko made an appalled noise and derailed that train of thought before it could even leave the station. "No! It's not like-! You're her brother?" He loaded all his incredulity and weird, shaky relief into that last word.

Sokka peered up at him, dry and disbelieving. "And you thought, what, that I was her betrothed or something?"

Zuko sat back, unthinkingly releasing his hold on Sokka's arm. There was a really strange feeling welling up in his chest. "Yeah."

Sokka grunted and rotated his arm back into a normal position. He twisted up on one elbow and peered at Zuko straight-on, frowning. After a pause, he huffed. "I'm going to pretend I didn't hear all of that stuff you just told me, for two reasons. One - gross. And two - Katara told me you weren't completely creepy and, although I really have my doubts right now, I do trust her judgement. But I gotta level with you-" His jaw firmed and he pulled out from under Zuko where he crouched. Sokka sat up, frowning harder now. "Regardless of what happens in Gao Ling today, if you do anything to my sister that she doesn't want you to do, I will visit all kinds of righteous brotherly vengeance on you. I don't care who you are, or where you go, or how good you are at fighting. I'll find a way."

Zuko met Sokka's steady glare and hardened his own expression. The similarities between Katara and her brother kept getting more obvious. Just like his sister, Sokka would change directions and adapt to be a thorn in Zuko's side. "That's a pretty bold thing to say, Sokka. Especially since I could put an end to you right now."

Sokka just watched him closely for a long moment, then sat back and crossed his arms as if a death threat was no big deal. "A big brother protects his sister. You know how it is."

For a second, Zuko was confused. Then, he jolted back. He remembered that hug he had witnessed this morning, the easy intimacy of it. He remembered how they talked about each other, Sokka's fond complaints, Katara's blend of admiration and teasing superiority. "No," he said gruffly. "I don't know anything about that."

"What, you wouldn't protect your sister from some guy who's been threatening her?"

Maybe it was the wry disbelief in Sokka's voice, or the weird feeling in his chest, but Zuko curled his lip and spoke without thinking. "My sister would do something really horrible to the guy herself, and then she'd mock me when I came running. She's always tricked me into looking stupid like that, always outpaced me in every way. You have no idea how-"

Zuko cut himself off. Sokka was staring at him, a little stunned at the intensity of his outburst. Zuko tore his eyes away and stood up, turning to glare down the open tunnel, into the long darkness ahead of him. These people couldn't possibly understand. They were all snuggles and chuckles and sweet memories of each other. They had no concept of what it was like to be surrounded at the closest level with people who schemed against each other and looked down on each other. It filled him with bitterness enough to choke.

He didn't notice when Sokka came to stand beside him, leaning one hip against the rail. "I guess our sisters are really different people," he said at length. Zuko turned to look at the pensive frown on his face. "You're not going to take mine away from me."

Zuko's mouth twisted unpleasantly and he was about to make a fierce comeback when Sokka went on.

"She's not the Avatar."

.


Toph slid a foot under the table and used earthbending to shoot a fallen nut off the floor and into her mouth while Katara looked on, at once amazed and disgusted. Who knew what had been on this floor?

"I don't think you have anything to worry about, Sweetness," Toph said as she chewed. "Your dad will understand why you did what you did - and if he's as smart as you said, he'll appreciate the strength and determination you've shown along the way. Here, you need more of this." She poured another healthy dollop of rice wine into Katara's teacup and, because this had already happened several times, Katara just accepted it and pretended it wasn't happening.

"Thanks, Toph. That's really comforting," she said, smiling and just a little misty-eyed. She had never had a friend her own age to talk to like this, and it was so validating and reassuring. It was as if any doubt she might have, Toph could help her overcome. It was like-

"Alright," Toph said, rubbing her hands together briskly. "Enough stalling, Splatto. I wanna hear about the boning."

Katara immediately thought of the processing of fish, cutting the bones away from the flesh, and her face crinkled in bewilderment. "What boning?"

"You and Fanboy? In that room he said you guys have?" Toph laid her hands on the table and grinned. "I've heard that firebenders have better stamina than any other kind of bender, and they can go for hours."

...processing fish...? "What are you talking about?"

Toph sat forward, the smile melting right off her face. She raised both hands, made an 'O' with finger and thumb, and completed the gesture vigorously. Katara's mouth sprung open and she nearly dropped her teacup. Toph slapped her hands down on the table and rolled her eyes. "Seriously? You guys are bunked up for two weeks and nothing? Is he ugly or something? I thought his voice was kind of nice, but-"

"I'm not going to-!" Katara lowered her voice and tried to soften the offended edge. "I'm a virgin! I'm not going to lose it now, in the middle of a war! Especially not to a guy who's not only my enemy, but also determined to capture the Avatar. Do you know he's a banished prince? There's no telling what he might have done to get banished to start with."

Toph's eyebrows were riding high. "Woah. That is an important family…"

"What?"

"Way to go, Splatto! You snagged a prince!"

Katara braced a hand on her forehead. "Toph, you know sex isn't the same thing as love or marriage, right? Guys may want to have sex with girls, but that doesn't mean they want to have anything else to do with them after."

Toph was already rolling her eyes again. "I've heard all that before and it's a bunch of bologna they feed girls to make them feel like they don't actually want sex, just love and marriage. Which is stupid." She jabbed a thumb into her own hardly-developed chest. "I'm fourteen. And I may be too young to have sex, but that doesn't mean I don't want it. And think about it constantly. And touch myself in private like, every night."

Katara's face was getting hot. They were in this secluded room, and no one would hear them talking, but that didn't make the topic any less embarrassing. Her hands had roved under the skins some nights back home when Gran-gran stayed at one of the other huts, and even some hazy nights when she hadn't - which Katara would never ever confess to anyone. Still, seeking her own pleasure wasn't something she had done enough to really be comfortable with talking about it.

But Toph seemed not to notice. "You've said yourself that we're in the middle of a war, Katara. Sure, there's a lot going on and it's hard to deal with, but you're a soldier. If all the refugees pouring into Gao Ling are any indication, you'll probably end up fighting for real pretty soon. I don't want to burst your bubble, but you could die doing that. The other soldiers know it - the lady houses make a killing off all these recruits… Do you really want to risk leaving this life without trying something that everybody makes such a big deal about?"

Katara could only stare at her for a long moment as this very real possibility sank in. Death in combat, death by execution, death by pit fight, death for being a spy, death by thirst in a canoe on the ocean - it had always been with her. She had simply accepted it as an inevitable risk of trying to reach Sokka. It had not occurred to her to think about what she might miss by dying young.

"I always wanted to get married," she said quietly, at length, as she stared down at her empty cup. "I fantasized about a temple made of ice that the light could sparkle through. I would wear the longest, finest furs, and walk by my dad to stand before the elders while the entire village sat watching. The men would have come back from the war, all of them, and everyone would be happy." Katara frowned suddenly. "It was silly. Just something I thought about sometimes when I was doing chores."

She paused and poured more tea into her cup, careful not to spill. "But spoiled girls don't always get a chance to marry in the Water Tribe, Toph. And never like that. And they don't usually go with men worth having if they do get married… My dad would be ashamed of me."

"Even after everything you've accomplished?" Toph asked, skeptical.

For a second, Katara saw herself in the ice temple, dressed in the long fur gown - with her cropped hair pulled back in a wolf-tail. She flinched. Maybe it was already too late. Maybe her only idea of what the future could be had already been irrevocably smashed the second she cut off her hair.

Only it had been Gran-gran who did that. Her words by the cook fire returned suddenly, warm and creaking. …there came a day when I couldn't do what was expected of me anymore.

Toph went on, frowning. "Your value doesn't lie in being somebody's future wife, Katara. Maybe it did once, but you're different from other Water Tribe girls, now. You're a warrior." Her tone hardened. "And that means you need to think more about yourself, and what you really want. Warriors have to fight for themselves as much as for their people."

Katara had her doubts, but she didn't want to discuss it anymore. She settled her hands around her cup and lifted an eyebrow. "And you think I should want to just… bone the banished prince?"

"Is he pretty?"

Katara's face heated. "Well… when he isn't scowling or shouting… yeah, he is. Or mostly, anyway. He has this…" She gestured at her face. "…scar. It's not pretty but, I don't know, he's so angry all the time, it just kind of fits his face."

"Righteous," Toph said. "Do you want to bone him?"

"Before we had this conversation, it hadn't even crossed my mind." Katara sipped primly.

"Liar!" Toph pointed across the table as Katara sputtered and coughed. "You've thought about it! You probably wanted to do it right there in the puddles by the pier! Didn't you!"

"I did not!"

"Liar!"

Katara gritted her teeth and wiped the back of one hand across her mouth. "Fine! I thought about it! He was lying on top of me and his… his…"

"Dick," Toph supplied with glee. "Boner. Eel. Stiffy. Hard-on."

"I'm not saying any of those! His…" All of the blood in her body was gathering in her face. She twiddled her fingers in her lap. "…parts were pressed up against mine and it was… really nice."

"Nice how?"

"I don't know! Like, heavy and hot and… just nice, alright?"

Toph finally sat back, a kind of unnerving, dreamy look on her face.

Katara shut her eyes and rubbed her face with both hands. "It doesn't matter, though. He's still my enemy. He wants to take me to the Fire Nation because I convinced him I'm the Avatar-"

"Yeah," Toph snickered, "I'll bet that's why."

Katara forged on, glaring. "And I have to keep my edge. I don't want to let my guard down with him any more than I have already. Keeping Sokka alive and fighting the Fire Nation are the only things I can afford to worry about right now."

Toph's mouth tipped at an angle. "You know, I'll bet he was banished for speaking out of turn."

"What?"

"When I talked to Fanboy and his uncle, he said he had lost his honor for talking when he shouldn't have. That's probably how he ended up banished, too. He said the wrong thing to the wrong people, and somebody, my money's on the Fire Lord, sent him to capture the Avatar."

Katara frowned. "But the Fire Lord is Zuko's father. And he was searching for the Avatar before I ever found Aang, so there was no sign yet that he would ever return. Would the Fire Lord really send his own son on an impossible quest like that?"

Toph leaned forward on one elbow and shook the last drops of wine from the little bottle into her mouth. "High society families are pretty intense. They're a lot more concerned with appearances and lines of succession. And besides, the Fire Lord is kind of a power-hungry psychopath, so it makes a lot of sense that he'd be brutal in punishing an heir who expressed any kind of dissent."

"Huh…" Katara filed that away for later consideration. It hadn't even crossed her mind that Zuko might have been banished for standing against his father in some way. And if he would do that… Her heart thudded uncomfortably and she shut down that line of thought. However confident Toph might seem in her theory, there was no sense in getting hopeful about it when there was no proof. "How do you know all this stuff, anyway?"

Toph grinned lopsidedly and climbed to her feet. She wavered only a little - more of a swagger, really - and Katara wondered in passing how a fourteen year old girl had developed such a strong tolerance for rice wine. "My family's kind of a big deal. I was trained to be a high society lady."

Katara would have been very impressed if Toph hadn't then belched loud enough to make her ears ring.

"Come on, Splatto. Lunch time. Let's go get some noodles."

.


For a second, Zuko felt a little queasy, like the slab had started moving under his feet without him noticing it. Sokka was Katara's brother. He would know better than all the stupid gossips in Gao Ling, and all of Iroh's questionably reliable sources. And Zuko could see the blunt honesty in the other guy's face. He could see it, he knew.

…but still.

"You're just telling me that to fool me into giving up, now that I'm so close."

Sokka gave him an odd look. "No, I'm serious. Katara really isn't the Avatar. Just an ordinary waterbender, no other type of bending abilities. It took years just to teach her how to start a camp fire." He paused, narrowed his eyes. "The real Avatar is that airbender kid. You should probably go chase after him."

"Stop it, Sokka. You won't trick me again. And quit looking at me that way! You-"

From the corner of his eye, Zuko saw the earthbending soldiers returning from their tea break. A few recruits trailed after them. He lowered his voice for Sokka's ears alone.

"I'm finished with your little game. Get off the shuttle."

Sokka crossed his arms, a confident smirk creeping across his face. "Nope. I'm going back with you. You don't get to chase my little sister around without dealing with me, too."

Zuko glowered, but there was nothing he could do. Punching Sokka before the shuttle started moving wasn't a trick he could pull a second time - that stern soldier would probably make him stay behind if he caused trouble. He would simply have to lose him in the city.

Finally, the slab started moving, grinding into the dark of the tunnel. The giant doors slid shut behind them and the lantern light vibrated along the smooth stone walls ahead. The cool, damp breeze picked up.

Sokka's voice just barely rose over the steady noise. "You just really like her, don't you?"

"What?" Zuko snapped straight and immediately felt a little warmth flush his cheeks. "No!"

Sokka rolled his eyes, outright grinning now. "Oh come on! You were trying to make me jealous back there." He started ticking items off on his fingers. "You intervened in that fight for her, you got defensive of her with me afterwards, she mentioned you brought her food…"

"None of that means anything!" Zuko snapped, then lowered his voice. The other guys were keeping their distance on the far end of the slab, and the grinding of the shuttle covered most noise, but he could only shout so loud before he became audible despite all that. "I have to make sure she survives so that I can complete my mission."

"You're refusing to listen to reason. Everybody knows about the airbender. He's the only airbender. Rides a flying bison. It's all pretty magical, really."

"Shut up!"

"But instead of chasing him, obviously the real Avatar, you've convinced yourself that you should be trying to catch my sister. Because, even without her hair-loopies, she's still a pretty girl - instead of a boy monk."

"No," Zuko snarled, leaning into Sokka's face. "I'm chasing her because she's the one I saw create an immensely powerful light at the South Pole. She is the Avatar. And you're a liar."

Sokka leaned back just a little but didn't look away, narrowing his eyes. "When was the last time you were with a girl, anyway?"

Zuko's face twitched involuntarily and he backed up a fraction. "That has nothing to do with anything!"

"The Northerners all think a man needs to get with a woman every now and then to keep his mind sharp. Personally-" Sokka shrugged. "-my mind works just fine, and I'd rather find a girl I love. But you seem to be suffering some kind of serious inner turmoil. Who knows? Maybe a visit to one of the lady houses could help you see the situation more clearly."

"I don't need to visit a lady house! I need to capture the Avatar and go home!" Zuko turned away and gripped the rail and was struck with an intense feeling of deja vu. Only, instead of the dark tunnel yawning away, there should have been a vast ocean, and instead of the skinny Water Tribe guy slouching beside him, it should have been his uncle, suggesting that maybe a stop at one of the spas in the colonies could be quite soothing - and, after all, sometimes a man must allow himself to accept what few tender mercies he can find. Zuko had shouted at him then, too, almost the exact same words.

"How long has it been?" Sokka asked. "Since you left home, I mean."

Zuko glared at him and opened his mouth to tell him to mind his own business. "Five years," he said instead.

Sokka's eyebrows inched up. The bruised ring around his eye was a little swollen and gleamed in the lamplight. "That's a long time. You must have been, what, fifteen when you left?"

"Thirteen."

"…So is capturing the Avatar like some crazy Fire Nation rite of passage for princes?"

"You ask too many questions," Zuko said, baring his teeth.

Sokka shrugged. "I'm a curious guy. It's a long ride. What else can I do?"

Zuko turned back to face forward. "Just shut up and think about your place in the universe, Sokka."

He'd said it in a dark tone, but the other guy laughed and leaned his elbows on the rail beside him, facing the opposite direction. "Ah! It's too bad you're not actually a penniless refugee. I might have actually given you my permission to court my sister."

It was a ridiculous thing to say, said lightly as if it had no meaning at all. Zuko shot him a sidelong glare but didn't respond. He sensed he was being baited. Silence was the wisest course.

At length, Sokka spoke again. His tone was serious. "Katara's not cruel. She's mean when she's angry and she can hold a grudge like you wouldn't believe-" He peered thoughtfully at Zuko. "-but she wouldn't string you along with the intention of making you feel dumb."

Zuko narrowed his eyes, not sure why Sokka was telling him this. Sokka only looked back at him, and his eyes had that steely quality they sometimes got during their training sessions, right before he used a really clever feint or drove home an unexpected strike.

"If you're going to take all that anger with you when you face my sister, at least be angry for a legitimate reason."

Zuko scowled and turned back to face the darkness. "I am."

They rode the rest of the way in silence and then arrived in the terminal. At the earthbending operator's urging, all of the passengers crammed onto the elevator. Zuko found himself pressed between Sokka's shoulder and the wall and he wasn't at all convinced that the elbow digging at his ribs was unintentional. Finally, they emerged from the House of Falling Rocks and Zuko strode down the crowded street. When he glanced back, Sokka was trotting along not far behind him, easily keeping pace.

It took time to lose him, but not much. Zuko ended up turning a corner and hiding inside a curio shop. He stood behind an unnerving monkey statue with ruby eyes and watched out the big front window as Sokka passed by on the street, glancing back and forth as if uncertain which way to go. Zuko smirked as he trotted out of sight.

"Interested in a bargain on some rare scrolls?"

Zuko glanced at the clerk, a grinning man with an oily voice, and then turned to go. "I'm in the wrong shop."

He didn't even hear the clerk huff as he slipped out the door. Zuko backtracked to another street, then made his way to the noodle shop where Iroh was supposed to meet him. With any luck, they would be able to figure out where Katara and that little beast had gone before the last shuttle left in the evening.

Zuko was racking his brain trying to think where they could start looking when he came down the final stretch of street and spotted the familiar shape of his uncle sitting at the counter of the noodle shop, bent over a bowl. He approached at such an angle that he didn't see the people sitting on Iroh's other side.

"Uncle."

Iroh peered at him, wide-eyed with noodles dangling from his mouth. Zuko crossed his arms and frowned a little harder.

"We need to leave. The Avatar is somewhere in the city and we don't have a lot of time to find her."

"Fanboy, do you ever stop being such a stiff?"

Zuko practically leapt out of his skin when he realized the smaller person sitting on Iroh's other side was actually the earthbender. She was smirking at her own bowl of noodles and went on talking, though Zuko hardly heard her.

Because on her other side sat Katara, staring at him with wide eyes and a faint blush. There was a noodle dangling out of her mouth, too, and he watched the sudden pucker of her lips as she slurped it up and it disappeared.

Those lips had been so soft and cool pressed against his. Now they would probably taste like the sauce from those noodles. Zuko was suddenly fiercely hungry.

Somewhere the earthbender was inviting or commanding him to sit and have some noodles. She was making some snide comment that Zuko didn't even register. The stool next to Katara was empty. He took a step forward.

And Sokka dodged around him and made to take it first. "Hey little cousin! Noodles, huh? I love noodles!"

Zuko grabbed the back of Sokka's shirt and yanked. Sokka half-turned and braced a hand on Zuko's face, shoving him back. They grappled for a moment. There was a ripping sound. The earthbender was laughing her head off.

"Oh, stop it," Katara huffed, rolling her eyes. "Honestly, it's like boys never stop being six years- Sokka, what happened to your eye?"

Chapter Text

Katara could tell from Sokka's smug glance at Zuko, and the slight widening of Zuko's eyes, exactly what had happened. It was written on their faces, clear to attentive eyes.

"You hit my brother," she said, genuinely appalled. Appalled enough to reveal her true relationship with Sokka, though this didn't even cross her mind.

Zuko checked his unnerved expression and frowned harder, raising his chin. He opened his mouth to offer some defense or make some sneering comment but Katara shoved past Sokka and stood in his personal space. She unthinkingly wore her best 'would you like to fight now' face and Zuko seemed momentarily taken aback. His fingers slid easily out of their grip on Sokka's tunic. Katara jabbed him in the chest hard with one finger.

"Don't ever hit my brother. If you want to fight someone, you're going to fight me, understand? You don't touch Sokka."

Sokka himself made a squawky protest in defense of his manly fighting skills, but no one was listening. Zuko seemed stunned for an instant, but then he recovered to a furious scowl. "Keep him out of my way and maybe I'll spare him when I subdue you."

"In your dreams! You don't get to set conditions!"

"I would honestly love to see this escalate to you guys making out on the food prep counter," Toph interjected, "but you're gonna draw a crowd if you don't cool it."

"She's got a point, Katara." Sokka had at some point gotten a grip on her shoulder and was tugging her back firmly. "This isn't a good time or place for a fight."

Katara glared up at Zuko and he glared right back. The heat from that morning was still in his eyes, but the sunlight made them glow, they were so golden. They created an intense feeling in her - a tangle of hate and guilt and desire.

"And there is no time or place where it would be okay to make out with this guy."

"Sokka!" Katara whirled to stare wide-eyed at her brother. Sokka was watching her with a nearly teasing look in his eyes but then turned a harder stare on Zuko. And Katara understood. She spun back around, more furious than before. "You tattled to my brother?" She shoved Zuko's shoulder but he only twisted with the force, remaining in the same spot before her. His unnerved expression had returned, though.

"Ooh, bad move, Fanboy."

"No! I didn't know he was your brother!"

"It wasn't tattling, per say," Sokka said, and Katara could hear the smirk creeping into his voice. "More like bragging."

Katara couldn't stifle the outraged sound boiling up from her chest. Zuko glared at Sokka, then looked back at Katara, a little desperation creeping in. "It wasn't like that! I thought he was your boyfriend!"

Katara pulled a face and found herself beyond words. Sokka, on the other hand, was just warming up. "Right. Because bragging to a girl's boyfriend is better than bragging to her brother."

The old man who Katara had known as Mushi - though she was starting to think that wasn't his real name - cleared his throat. "Technically, it is. Back home, boasting of the favors a lady has chosen to bestow is a common way of dissuading romantic rivals. A gentleman would never knowingly reveal such intimacies to a lady's family, though." He gave Zuko a significant look. "That would be unthinkably rude."

"Not now, Uncle." Zuko forced the words through clenched teeth.

Katara wanted to demand how it was possible that such a delightful, kind-natured old man could be related to the seething teenager in front of her. She wanted to demand what had gone wrong to make Zuko turn out the way he had.

Instead, she took a deep breath and huffed out a sigh. "No, now isn't the time." She frowned up at Zuko for a beat.

Later, she said with her eyes. He just watched her narrowly, waiting.

Then, Katara turned away. "Come on, Sokka. The Blind Bandit would like to buy you some noodles."

"Hey!" Toph said, stiffening on her stool. "Buddy day isn't a date, Splatto - I'm not shelling out for every stray who comes along to tug your heartstrings."

"He's not a stray. He's family." Katara settled on her stool and glanced back at Sokka in time to see him shoot Zuko a final smug look. She leaned a little closer to Toph, rolling her eyes and lowering her voice. "And I don't know whether anybody would call my brother pretty, but he's not totally unfortunate looking either."

"Really!" Toph brightened and shouted an order at the noodle vendor.

.


Zuko stabbed his chopsticks into his noodles and ate mechanically, hardly tasting the tangy sauce or the fresh chopped greens, and certainly not savoring his first meal of the day.

"Isn't it a happy coincidence," Iroh was saying, "that the Blind Bandit happened along just in time to so generously buy us a meal? For the second time, too! We should really write her a note as a gesture of our appreciation…"

Zuko shoved a slice of boiled egg past his grimace and tried to ignore his uncle and eavesdrop on what Katara and her brother were whispering about at the far end of the counter. After she had finished glaring at him - just because he'd punched her brother, which was hardly anything to be angry about really since he was fine, obviously well enough to pull a fast one on Zuko outside that curio shop - he had been relegated to sitting on Iroh's other side like an excluded child.

"My favorite part is the cilantro. Such a pungent aroma!"

"My favorite part," said the earthbender, who hadn't stopped smiling since Zuko arrived, "is the tension riding under the surface of this entire noodle luncheon. I haven't had this much fun since that time I moved a colony of ostrich-ants into Wan Ma's office. Making friends with Splatto has got to be the best decision I've ever made."

"A new friendship is like a perfect moon peach, sweet to the taste and with a great seed at its heart that can be a source of joy for years to come. But first you must be cautious not to break a tooth!"

Zuko glowered at his noodles as the earthbender laughed and complimented the old man's inexhaustible supply of proverbs. He felt uncomfortably as if Iroh's words were directed at him and that didn't bear thinking about.

How was he going to get Katara away from her annoying friend, not to mention Sokka - who was suddenly beginning to look like the clingiest, most involved brother alive? Zuko had been so focused on getting Katara into Gao Ling that he hadn't really considered how he would get her out again and on the road to his ship.

It certainly couldn't be done at this noodle shop, not with squads of soldiers marching by and all the shops along that street packed with recruits on leave. Sokka had been right. Firebending was out of the question here. So how could Katara be lured into going off alone?

"Hey Fanboy! What's your opinion on rice wine?"

In fact, Zuko had never tried rice wine before. Despite the occasional enthusiastic solstice celebration amongst his crew, drinking wasn't something the prince ever thought or cared about. At this moment though, the question irritated his already frayed nerves. He leaned forward to glare at the girl around Iroh - not that she could see him do it. "Shouldn't you be in school?" he demanded, a little more loudly than he had meant to.

"School's for tools, Fanboy. I prefer a real-world education. Speaking of which!" She hunched forward onto the counter and gestured with her chopsticks. "When I caught you and Katto together earlier, what would you call that position?"

Zuko's face flooded with heat and he sat very straight on his stool. "Shut your mouth, you nosy little pest!"

Iroh's eyes widened a fraction, but then he smiled placidly. "Forgive my nephew's bluntness, Blind Bandit. I imagine he is uncomfortable discussing such things with a young girl - as any honorable man would be."

The girl made a rude noise. "I don't see why talking about it is such a big deal. I'm blind, so I can't read on my own. Everything I learn, I learn by talking and listening. A lot of people refuse to tell me things for exactly the reason you just said - because I'm young and answering my questions makes them uncomfortable - but when I don't get an answer from one person, that just means I end up asking someone else." She frowned. "I could have avoided a lot of trouble if the right people had just answered my questions the first time I asked them."

Zuko got the disconcerting feeling that his uncle would jump on this opportunity. The old man was always trying to explain things like this to him. Uncomfortable things. Things that distracted Zuko from his mission, things he might like to learn about - but later, when his banishment had ended and he could get on with his life. He really didn't want to hear Iroh, however well-meaningly, explain anything like this to a little girl.

So, growling, he snatched up his noodles and went to sit beside Sokka before he could hear Iroh's gentle words. "That sounds like a very frustrating situation for an inquisitive young person. Maybe if you tried explaining to the people who care for you the consequences of limiting your knowledge, they would be more forthcoming. But, then again," he said, smiling demurely and lifting his cup of bitter tea, "knowledge gained later on through experience can be a unique delight, too."

.


"Katara, you know I love you and I know you're capable of handling pretty much anything at this point…" Sokka hunched close to Katara, whispering instead of eating. The noodles sat untouched on the counter before him, letting off tendrils of delicious-smelling steam. He must have been really anxious. Katara met his steady gaze, annoyance warring with concern. "…but tell me you're not actually developing feelings for Zuko."

The noodles slid out from between her chopsticks. She looked away. "Feelings? Sokka, it was one kiss. I wasn't thinking straight. I got caught up in the fight and it just happened."

"Yeah, but if it happens again? What'll you do if Toph doesn't show up next time?"

Katara didn't answer and Sokka let the words hang in the air for a long moment.

"Look, I know he's not all bad. He's an angry jerk pretty much constantly, but he isn't evil… but none of that changes the fact that he's still here to take you away, Katara. If you lose your head, you'll just make it easy for him."

"I know," she hissed. "I know why he's here and I know not to let my guard down."

"Then why would you give him a razor and let him shave your head, Katara?"

She made an annoyed sound and slapped down her chopsticks, crossing her arms over her chest. "Got any other little stories you'd like to trot out against me? What else did he tell you? How about the bathing? Or the night I iced him to the wall?"

Sokka winced and waved his hands. "Stop, I'm begging you! I'm dying of poisonous mental images already, I can't take any more." He heaved a breath and braced a hand on her shoulder. "The point is that you're putting a lot of trust in him and, sooner or later, he's going to betray that trust. He'll have to."

Katara shot him a sour look and finally sighed and uncrossed her arms, leaning forward with one forearm on the counter. With the other hand, she touched her temple. There was no way to share a room with someone for weeks and not develop some level of trust, but had she let this go too far? Was it even possible for her to untangle the ways in which she had grown to trust Zuko from the ways she knew she shouldn't trust him at all?

Sokka went on gently. "Whatever reason he has for chasing the Avatar, he's not going to just give up and let it go, Katara. He's been at it since he was thirteen and he's my age now. Honestly, I think he's a little unhinged."

"I think so, too," Katara said. She stared at her chopsticks for a moment, noticing how they were so straight that they revealed the way the wood of the counter had warped.

"Don't."

She looked up. Sokka was frowning at her. "What?"

"You're feeling bad for him. Stop it."

Katara curled her lip at him. "I'm sorry, Sokka. I'll be sure to knock that off - since sympathy can just be switched on and off like that."

Sokka drew a breath and tipped his head toward her to say something else, but then looked suddenly past her, frowning. Katara only heard Zuko coming. The back of her neck prickled as he passed behind her.

He sat down on Sokka's other side and, glaring at each of them in turn, resumed eating his noodles.

"Hey buddy," Sokka said, forcing a pleasant smile. "It seems like maybe you're unfamiliar with good manners, but we were having a private conversation. So maybe you should just scoot on back to sitting with Uncle Friendly."

"That's not his name. Whatever is happening over there, I don't want anything to do with it," Zuko said in a low voice. He turned more fully to fix his scowl on Sokka. "And since you're just plotting against me anyway, I see no reason to grant you the courtesy of privacy."

Katara rolled her eyes. "Ha! As if you aren't plotting against us!"

"At least I'm up front about it."

"Are you suggesting that I haven't been up front? Because that is ridiculous! I have never implied that I intended to just throw my hands up and let you win."

Gaping at her, Zuko pointed fiercely at Sokka, who sat stiff and wide-eyed between them. "You led me to believe you hardly knew him."

"You hid your uncle in with the servants. Seems to me like we're even."

They glared at each other for a moment before Sokka broke in. "This is a war, you know," he said. "Bit bigger issues at hand than hurt feelings. Besides, we all know whose side everybody is on. Katara and I are on the side of peace, balance, and goodness. And, er, Li and Uncle Friendly are on the side of greed, violence, and disregard for all life." Sokka shrugged, smiling blissfully. "There, now there's no need for any more confusion."

The chopsticks in Zuko's hand gave an ominous crack as his fist tightened around them. He spoke in a low, barely-controlled voice. "It's not that simple, Sokka. The motivations behind this war are more complex than that. And it's naive to just assume you're fighting for the good guys."

"How can you say that?" Katara demanded, leaning over Sokka to eye him more closeley. "You've seen what's left of the Southern Water Tribe. How can defending our culture from total annihilation be in any way morally hazy?"

Zuko held her stare for a moment. "Both sides do terrible things in wars," he said, then turned back to his noodles. "There is no good side."

Katara and Sokka shared a skeptical glance. Then Sokka puffed out a sigh and bent over his noodles, subtly cutting Katara off from further interaction with Zuko. She glared at her brother for a moment, then went back to her own food.

They ate in silence for a while, and Katara half-listened to the conversation Toph and the old man seemed to be having about family and trust. Then, quite suddenly, Toph hopped off her stool. "Well, this has been great, everybody, but I've gotta-"

"There you are, young Miss."

Katara turned, along with everyone else, to watch the woman approach out of the crowded street. She was quite tall and slim, and wore modest but fine clothes in the style of the region. Her face was perfectly round and calm. Over one shoulder, she carried a paper parasol, which she closed as she came under the roof of the open-air noodle house and set with its point just before the low hem of her skirt where it hid her slippered toes.

As if Katara couldn't have guessed who this was, Toph quickly supplied the name. She crossed her arms over her chest and slumped forward. "Well, if it isn't Woo Jin. You're getting quicker at wrangling those boarcupines."

"It is my honor and pleasure to have become acquainted with an animal handler of some skill."

"I'll just bet it is," Toph said, baring her teeth.

"Yes," Woo Jin said, utterly unaffected by the lackluster innuendo. "It is."

Toph only stood there, frowning and silent for a long while, while Woo Jin watched her, her only movement the placid blinks of her lovely gray eyes. Finally, Toph stomped. "I don't care what you say, I'm not going home yet."

"Your tutor will arrive shortly. It would be most ungracious to keep him waiting."

"He's a sour old hogmonkey and he can wait until my vision comes back. I don't want to learn his stupid bump language anyway. Fourteen years of blissful illiteracy has treated me pretty well." Toph suddenly forcibly relaxed and shrugged. "Look, Woo Jin, I know it's a pain for you to come all the way out here and find me, so how about I fix you up with a nice bottle of rice wine, maybe a free show tonight, and you can just relax and have a good time. Just tell my parents you looked but couldn't find me."

"Despite the consistent generosity of your offers, Miss, it is my pleasure to follow the guidelines by which your parents contracted my services." Woo Jin's eyes crinkled just faintly, the corners of her mouth just barely deepening in a coquettish smile. "And besides, to accept such a bribe would be most unladylike."

Toph flung out an arm suddenly and grabbed Katara's upper arm, dragging her backward off her stool. "This is my new friend, Katto. We've been enjoying a really fun day together. You should really think twice about disrupting the development of my social skills, Woo Jin."

"Uh, hi," Katara said, forcing her face into a squinty grin as she regained her balance.

Woo Jin peered at her with doubtful eyes, then tipped forward in a formal bow of greeting. "It is an honor to meet a friend of the young lady."

"Stall her," Toph hissed at Katara's shoulder.

"I… uh, it's a lovely day, isn't it? The sky? It's been very… ah, sunny!"

A tiny furrow formed in Woo Jin's perfect brow. "Yes, the sun has been quite warm today."

"Try not to be so lame," Toph whispered. Katara shot her a put-upon frown and drew another breath to try again.

"Actually," she said, pulling up short, "I love that dress. The color is really flattering with your complexion."

Woo Jin's tiny, perfectly outlined mouth turned up just a little at the corners but her eyes were delighted. "Truly? I wondered whether the trim might overbalance the overall flow…"

"Excuse me, little cousin," Sokka said, manfully elbowing Katara aside. To Woo Jin, he puffed up his chest and struck a philosophical pose. "I, too, am the young lady's friend. Sokka - Southern Water Tribe. You are…" He squinted with the effort of finding the proper word. "…beautiful! Like a dream! Or… some nice ceramics or something…"

Woo Jin's eyes widened a fraction. "Thank you for your kind words." Her tone gently suggested that they were unnecessary and ill-timed.

Iroh broke in, still sitting by the counter. "They say that meeting a truly elegant woman is like coming upon a cactus in the desert, whose life-giving nectar at once revives a man and inspires in him visions!" Iroh held out a hand before him, wide eyed, then frowned and tugged his beard. "Or was it that a desert cactus produces a life-saving and hallucinogenic juice?"

Woo Jin peered at him, her mouth pulled delicately downward. "Thank you, respected elder, for sharing such wisdom…"

Katara turned to sneak away from the unbelievably awkward scene unfolding, only to find Toph gone. She glanced around but saw no sign of the girl. Beyond where Sokka was going on at length about warrior training and subtly flexing his biceps, Woo Jin had a weary sag to her eyes.

Still on his stool nearby, Zuko was smirking. "It looks like you've lost your earthbender."

Katara took Sokka's seat, bracing one elbow on the counter and frowning at Zuko dryly. "So you think you have a shot now?"

"That's all I need."

"What are you gonna do? Knock me out? I think we determined pretty conclusively this morning that I can beat you."

Something in Zuko's smirk shifted, tightened, and Katara was reminded of what else had happened that morning. "You beat me when you had an entire harbor of your element handy," he said, leaning a little closer. "But what will you fight me with here?"

Katara swallowed. "Water is everywhere," she said, refusing to back down. They were Pakku's words, and she wasn't even sure she knew what they meant yet, but saying them gave her comfort. "I'm not scared of you, Zuko. Whatever you're plotting, you won't win."

"So sure, Katara?"

He looked down suddenly and Katara followed his gaze. He raised his hand to hers where it hung from her arm on the counter. Slowly, with just the tips of his fingers, he stroked the edge of her palm and down to the end of her pinky. It was such a simple, tiny touch, but her eyes widened. It lit her up, that simple touch. When she looked back at him, Zuko had leaned a little closer.

"Are you so sure you don't want me to win?"

Katara breathed out a hard laugh. "What, so I can be your prisoner? No thanks."

Zuko's lips were still tight with that mean little smile. She wanted to knock that look right off his face - or shock him back to the boy she shared a room with. He spoke first, though. "You seemed to like being my prisoner this morning. Kind of a lot, actually." Katara's mouth fell open and Zuko immediately looked there, his eyes narrowing just slightly in focus. "I'd be glad to refresh your memory."

With a shocked sound, Katara turned to face straight ahead, watching the vendor rinse a big bowl of noodles with cold water. From the corner of her eye, she could see Sokka and the old man still somehow waylaying Woo Jin. Zuko didn't back off. He spoke near her shoulder. She could feel his breath faintly on her neck. When had he gotten so close?

"Are you acting offended to try and control me?" he asked softly. "Do you think I'm gullible enough to keep my back turned now, when you've obviously been playing your little game against me all along? I refuse to keep being your fool, Katara." He paused and she felt his eyes crawl across the side of her face, her neck, the triangle of her chest visible at the crossing of her tunic. "But I'll play your game. And I'll win."

Katara frowned, unnerved. Her game had been a small thing. Compliments and glimpses of skin. Now she realized it had slipped out of her control. Sokka was right - she had trusted too much. She had trusted Zuko to remain pliable and boyish, but something had happened and his behavior had changed. He had started looking at her every action as an effort to manipulate him. It frightened her. She was afraid to be alone with him like this.

"I passed a pretty secluded alley on the way here," he whispered. "Let's go there for a little while, Katara. I'll pin you up against the wall and you can pretend to be shocked when my-"

Katara turned her head to glare at him directly. "I'm not pretending. You're being very offensive."

Zuko drew back an inch, assessing her. She could see him searching for the hidden motives.

"This isn't a game to me, Zuko. You're really starting to creep me out."

He was frowning, and turned his head slightly, narrowing his eyes as if he wasn't sure whether to believe her.

"You're acting crazy," Katara said, an imploring edge rising in her voice. "Like you can't believe a word I say. What happened? Where did you go?"

Zuko's face twisted, bitter and angry and suspicious. "I woke up." He clamped a hand around her wrist. "It's time to go."

Katara reacted without thinking. Her free hand turned and swept past her body - and the untouched noodles in Sokka's bowl shot straight into Zuko's face, hard as a fist. He tipped back with a surprised cry (muffled with noodles,) stool and all, and fell hard on the stone floor. Katara stared down at him, also surprised. He raised his head and glared up at her through the noodles dangling over his face.

Then he was spinning to his feet with a snarl. Katara stumbled back off her own stool and reached with bending for the big bowl of cool water and noodles that the vendor had set aside. There was a terrified cry.

"My noodles!"

But Zuko was charging her and Katara had no time. She swung the water and noodles down on him like a big squishy hammer, knocking him flat at her feet under the weight. Zuko hit hard, but immediately looked up at her and, baring his teeth, began to push himself up.

And then Sokka dodged past her to punch him hard in the face. Zuko went down again, and this time lay still.

"Man," Sokka said, shaking out his hand. "For something that felt so good, that hurt a lot." He turned toward the street. "Come on, Katara. Let's get out of here before he wakes up."

But Katara was already watching the old man hurry to kneel at Zuko's side. He touched his face gently with a worried expression. Somewhere behind her, Woo Jin glided away, murmuring something about 'more ruffians and degenerate brawlers' but she wasn't paying attention.

"We have to help Mushi carry him back," Katara said.

"Katara!" Sokka grumbled, gripping her arm and leaning close. "What did we just discuss? Remember, about feeling bad for that guy? Just leave them. Maybe they'll miss the last shuttle and decide to leave."

Katara peered at her brother and raised an eyebrow. "Sokka, if we just leave them out here and they're free to go, what's to stop them from telling the first Fire Nation army they meet all about the secret rebel training camp?"

Sokka made a pained, unhappy face. "That's a good point." He heaved a sigh.

When they approached, the old man peered up at them, initially a little startled. Then he smiled. "I hope you can forgive my nephew. He has been under a great deal of pressure lately."

"Yeah," Sokka said, bending down to hoist one of Zuko's arms over his shoulders as Katara lifted the other one. He was so heavy. "He gives off that vibe."

With the old man's help, they hefted Zuko's limp body into an upright position and began making their way toward the House of Falling Rocks. The noodle vendor, weeping openly, began gathering up the spilled noodles - a close observer would notice that he gathered them into the same food prep bowl that Katara had snatched them from just minutes before.

"My nephew's situation grows more complicated every day," the old man said as he walked along with them. "And yet he refuses to adapt to the new circumstances. I worry, you know?"

Katara shot him a narrow look at the use of that word, adapt, and it clicked into place that this was the man who had given her away to Pakku. Zuko had called him an old fool, but she wasn't so certain. He seemed kind, and wise, but his eyes - they were yellow like Zuko's by daylight - were bright and sharp.

Sokka was speaking, narrowing his eyes at the old man. "You know Katara's not the Avatar, right?"

"Sokka!"

"You can't protect that kid forever, Katara! This is getting too dangerous."

"Katara," Iroh said, smiling. "A name as lovely and strong as the young woman herself."

Katara narrowed her eyes. "You mean Zuko didn't tell you already?"

"He has become very secretive lately. There are apparently many things he does not wish to tell his old uncle." He averted his eyes to focus on the street ahead and Katara was grateful as her cheeks grew warmer. "Yes, I know that Katara is not the Avatar. But my nephew possesses a very deep capacity for denial. He will not listen to me."

"No kidding," Sokka said. Katara shot him a hard look across where Zuko's head hung between them.

"Actually, since the subject has come up," the old man said, looking back to peer at Katara with worry in his eyes, "there is a matter of some urgency that I would like to discuss with you…"

.


Zuko woke to a rhythmic pounding in his head and the distant sounds of chattering recruits. He recognized the acoustics of the walkways and the great domed atrium and knew without even opening his eyes that he was back in the barracks.

He became aware first of the pain, radiating out from his scarred eye. It wasn't unusual that the scar ached. A change in weather could make the damaged nerves twinge for hours. What was unusual was the way the ache centered on his cheek and seemed to spike deep to the back of his head.

So the second thing Zuko became aware of was the memory of Sokka punching him while he struggled to rise up from under a mass of water and noodles. He clenched his teeth, and when that hurt his head, he only clenched them harder.

The third and most crushing thing he became aware of was his phenomenal failure. Not only had he missed his chance to capture the Avatar, but he'd been knocked out by her skinny, ill-trained brother. He'd lost that fight hardly after it begun - and she'd beaten him with noodles, of all things. The shame was debilitating. All he could do was lay there for a long while, pinching his eyes shut to cut out the faint light from the walkway.

There was a sound of the curtain being brushed aside and another presence entering the room. Zuko laid still and listened. He knew her step by now, light as a practiced servant's. It hadn't occurred to him to despise her for it until now.

The waterbender settled on her pallet and spoke gently. "I brought you some dumplings from the kitchen. Your uncle set them aside for you."

Zuko didn't respond. He knew she could tell he was awake from his breathing, and maybe the tightness of his jaw, but he didn't care. He had nothing to say to her and he didn't want to play whatever new game this was. She was as crazy as any girl, he refused to trip through her minefield of interpersonal do's and don'ts - and, if he was honest with himself, he was ashamed.

"Alright," she said, and there was another rustle. "That's fine. You don't have to maintain your chi if you don't want to." There was a long pause and a tiny sound, a repetitive 'pop' and tiny rasp that Zuko wasn't familiar with. At length, the waterbender spoke again. Though her tone was gentle, the words tore at him. "I'm not the Avatar."

Zuko knew that. He had known for a long time, on some level. How could this girl, this peasant with her brutishness and her earthy seductiveness, possibly be the bridge to the Spirit world? How could she have been the Avatar when her own people disdained her and hid her away as they had?

Still, his mouth twisted at her admission.

"I won't apologize for lying to you," she said. "Protecting Aang was the right thing to do. He needed me. He still needs me, maybe more now than ever." There was a long quiet, punctuated only by the soft, steady sound and the distant echoes of activity. "Your uncle told us about your sister."

Zuko's grimace only tightened. Of course he had. That fat, Pai Sho-loving failure couldn't keep his mouth shut about anything. He saw these people and thought they could all be great friends, as if he was blind to the irreconcilable differences between them. As if he couldn't grasp how weak and foolish the Water Tribe was, how blind and stubborn the Earth Kingdom, how Jeong Jeong bowed his head under the weight of all his dishonor. It was like Iroh had forgotten the importance of what family they had left and abandoned whatever loyalty he might have had to their nation.

"We're going to help you stop her," the waterbender said.

"I don't need your help," Zuko spat.

"Actually," she said, and the rhythmic sound paused. A little anger was creeping into her calm voice. "You do. We can help you cut weeks off the voyage and evade the army and the armada. That time will make all the difference in catching up to your sister's ship."

Zuko's head was throbbing. Still, he opened his eyes and turned his head to glare at her. Sewing. She was sewing some blue article of clothing - a shirt, it seemed - but her hands were still, with the needle poised above the cloth. Her eyes were hard on him.

"And you're not leaving without us," she said.

Chapter Text

Zuko lurched upright, sudden fury powering him to sit opposite her, rigid as the prince he still was. With his back so straight, his greater height was obvious. He frowned down his nose at her where she bowed her head over her task. "Who are you to issue ultimatums to me? You're nothing but a Water Tribe peasant, a little girl who never learned her place amongst her own barbaric people - as a drudge."

Her eyes widened in offense and her neck arched back. "How dare you!"

"How dare you? You think you can deceive me and amuse yourself at my expense for weeks and then I'll just meekly agree to this scheme you've cooked up with my traitorous uncle? I am the crown prince of the Fire Nation. I won't be leashed and led around by some… common floozy!"

"Now let's get something straight, right here and now!" Katara flung the needlework down and raised a finger to point in his face. The room was small, their pallets separated by not two feet of empty floor, so she was close enough for the gesture to be uncomfortable. Zuko tilted his chin up to glare over her finger. "I am not a floozy. I did what I had to do to make myself safe. It's not my fault you felt so uncomfortable with me, because you certainly didn't mention the things that made you uncomfortable before exploding at me about them." She began ticking things off on her fingers sharply. "I don't bathe for your amusement. I don't spend every minute thinking of ways to dupe you. You took off your shirt in this room - in front of me - as often as I took off mine without you seeing, so don't you even start with me about what you remember."

Zuko found himself leaning back slightly from the force of her diatribe and, when she delivered her final point, he almost tipped backward.

"And I would never laugh at you for behaving honorably. That's the one thing that makes me feel safe around you."

He watched her furious expression as she drew a few calming breaths. Her face had gone a little pink with the force of her feelings and her hands were now fisted up on her thighs. It was plain to see that she meant what she'd said.

And suddenly it was clear to him. This was no cool-mannered manipulator like Azula. This was no lightning, cracking a perfect path across the sky. This was a stream that ran its course gently in one season and gushed in the next, and flooded and spilled over and changed its path, but always stayed true to the same valley.

"You kissed me," Zuko said suddenly. "Why did you do that?"

Katara frowned at him, and the pink in her cheeks only deepened. "You were about to kiss me," she said defensively rather than answering. "What does it matter?"

"Did you want to, or were you just…" He narrowed his eyes, a little scathing. "…doing what you had to do?"

She stared back at him for a moment, then looked away. "It's complicated."

"Explain."

Katara flashed him a glare, then pulled her knees up to her chest, hugging them to her. "I did want to, but that doesn't matter." She settled her chin on one knee and frowned at a corner of his pallet. Zuko just sat straight and still, watching her. He could wait. He had spent years waiting. Finally, she went on. "It doesn't matter if you're honorable or handsome or any of that - because in the end you're still the prince of all the firebenders. And it was a firebender who murdered my mother in our house when I was little."

Zuko's eyes widened but he didn't move otherwise. Somehow, he hadn't made that connection yet. He hadn't realized that Sokka's little sister in that story was actually the young woman sitting before him.

"The raiders came," she said, and he could hear the deep ache in her chest, "and I ran to find her, but he was already there with her. I will never forget-" She cut off, sharp as the splintered peak of an iceberg. Her voice cut him in places too tender to think about. Her silence swallowed him like the cold black sea.

Then her eyes were on him, blue and hard and damning. "And here you sit before me, wearing her necklace around your wrist. The last thing of hers that I have, the last possession that touched her skin, that somehow survived the fire - is your token, your free ticket into the resistance." She paused, and her eyes narrowed. "Sometimes when I look at you, I can't help but think of the man who killed my mother. His eyes were darker, but they had that… heat that yours have."

Zuko swallowed back something that was catching in his throat. Sickness or protests or his own furious sadness, rising up to mirror hers.

Katara went on, but she didn't look away again, instead raising her head up off her knee and frowning, scowling. "So when I kissed you, it didn't matter that I wanted to, because it was the wrong thing to do. And when you say nasty things about me and my people, that doesn't matter either, because I hate the Fire Nation just as much as you hate the Water Tribe."

"I don't hate the Water Tribe," Zuko managed.

"No," she said, assessing him. "You just think we're worth less because we aren't like you. And you look down on us for our poverty - which your war created. And you figure the disappearance of our culture is no great loss. You may not hate us, but you don't care if we all die. For someone in your position, it amounts to the same thing."

Zuko drew a breath to contest that, but then stopped himself. He glared down at the floor between them instead. She had a point, for all that he didn't want to think about it, and arguing with her about it now, after she had just revealed the depth of her own loss, felt really inappropriate.

"Why were you going to kiss me?"

He looked up at her, blinking off those thoughts. "What?"

Katara raised an eyebrow and folded her arms on top of her knees instead of around them. "I told you why I kissed you. Turnabout is fair play."

Zuko was not so sure he ascribed to that belief, but he only frowned at her mildly. "I wanted to."

"Why?"

Zuko frowned harder.

Katara rolled her eyes. "Why would the crown prince of the Fire Nation want to kiss a Water Tribe drudge-turned-floozy, when that's so obviously beneath his station?"

Zuko winced at the acid in her tone. "That… I didn't mean that."

"Yes, you did. You can't get mad and say whatever you want and then pretend it's not a part of you." She waited a beat, then went on. "Let me rephrase. Why would you want to kiss me when you were that angry with me?" She looked suspicious, and maybe a little angry herself.

Zuko folded his arms over his chest, shrugging a little into the gesture. He wouldn't tell her, couldn't put into words, that she was irresistibly beautiful when she met his temper with that fearless light in her eyes, when she stole glances at his lips in blue flashes and blushed like she knew what was in his mind - like it was in hers, too.

"It just… It seemed like the right moment, alright!"

Katara watched him, her expression unimpressed. "Holding me down - again - after fighting for more than an hour and leveling a bunch of accusations against me. That was when the time felt right to you?"

Zuko turned away, seething. "You said you weren't scared."

"I wasn't."

"Then what's the problem?"

She let out an annoyed breath and picked up the shirt she had been sewing, sitting cross-legged again to work. "I'm just trying to understand when I should be afraid of you and when I don't need to be."

The way she frowned up at him without turning her face toward him made him grit his teeth. His head was throbbing again. Still. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"You know perfectly well what it means."

And Zuko did know. He remembered all the things he'd said to her at the noodle shop. The paranoia, the insinuations. He'd even suggested that they go to an alley, that he would hold her against the wall…

Zuko scowled down at the floor between them, pinching his eyes shut. At the time, he had been thinking of lightning. Between his stung pride over Sokka and his fears of Azula's involvement, he had been mentally bracing himself to face her again. He had been preparing himself to play her deadly games and had started jumping at shadows. Katara's voice came back to him - You're acting crazy! Where did you go?

Zuko looked up at her, bent over her task. There was a delicate furrow in her brow, her only outward sign of the tense waiting she was doing. She wasn't lightning. She was just a stream. She and Sokka had conspired against him because they had to, because he was a threat to them, not because they routinely played head games. They were just… a different kind of people.

She had kissed him because she wanted to. She thought he was honorable.

That's the one thing that makes me feel safe around you.

And when she had turned away from him later, he had offered to pin her up against a wall in an alley like some… common floozy. Zuko's face grew hot with shame. Partly, he had been trying to think of a way to convince her to slip away from Sokka. He had thought (and kind of hoped) well, she seemed to like kissing him earlier, so maybe she would like to go somewhere and kiss. And he had thought, well, she seemed to enjoy being held down on that occasion and, well, he certainly would like to pick up where they had left off… So his thinking had been dumb and he had read the wrong things into her responses. He had thought it was all a part of the game, but it hadn't been. Not really.

"I'm sorry for offending you," he said finally.

Katara looked up at him and waited, still sewing steadily.

"I mean, with what I said just now, about you being a drudge-turned-floozy. You're not-" Zuko hung his head, pinching his eyes shut, then looked back up at her, scowling with the effort. "It was a stupid thing to say and I know it's not true. But what I'm really trying to say is, I'm sorry about offending you earlier, too. At the noodle shop. And," he swallowed, his eyebrow tipping back, "I'm really sorry for creeping you out. I… misunderstood the situation."

Zuko dropped his gaze for a second. He didn't like apologizing at the best of times, and this was definitely not the best of times. He drew a deep breath and looked back at her, pressing on. "You don't need to be afraid of me - not like that, anyway. I won't… doubt that you're genuine that way again."

Katara remained quiet, watching him with a tight twist in her mouth each time she pulled a stitch through. She seemed unconvinced. After a long moment, Zuko went on.

"It's just… my sister has never played by the rules. She lies, she always lies. And she's a prodigy like you-" He did not notice the way Katara's eyes widened at that. "-so she's always shown me up and found ways to manipulate me into making a fool of myself. When you kissed me, and then you seemed… different at the noodle shop, I thought that's what you were doing. I thought, maybe you had raised the stakes to throw me off balance or make me back off. And I didn't want to back off, because I didn't want to lose and I just didn't-" He drew a breath. "It was stupid of me."

"I remind you of your sister?"

"No!" Zuko stared at her in momentary horror, then took in her faint smirk. He knew it at once for a measure of forgiveness, and relaxed a degree as he went on. "You're powerful like her, and bending comes easily to you. That's where the similarities end." He blinked, unaccountably remembering. "Except that you're both sixteen. But that doesn't really matter."

Katara scoffed gently and looked back at her sewing as she tied off a thread. Then she tucked the needle between her teeth and held up the shirt to examine her work.

Zuko frowned. "Is that Sokka's?"

"Yeah," she said airily. "Some jerk ripped it today and I thought it'd be nice to fix it before it went in the hamper."

"That's what the servants are for."

Katara eyed him as if deciding whether she wanted to start this fight.

"It's their job," Zuko said. "They get paid to do that sort of work. If you do it yourself, how are they supposed to make a living?" He crossed his arms. He had her on this, he knew it.

"Having to wash my brother's socks is bad enough," Katara snipped. She folded the shirt idly. "And besides, if I don't use my skills every now and then, I might forget them. And what kind of wife would I-" She cut herself off and looked away from him, frowning. "You should eat your dumplings before they get too cold."

Zuko followed her gaze to the bundle at his bedside and, suddenly aware of the hungry ache in his belly, picked it up. He ate slowly as Katara unfolded the shirt and added some final additional stitches around the hem. She seemed edgy, as if she didn't want to hold still.

She was thinking about marriage? It seemed so otherworldly, so preposterous and far away from the rebel camp and the war, from everything Zuko knew, really - but that was what she had said. What kind of wife would I be, that was the phrase she had been about to use. And because Zuko was occupied with chewing and watching her, his mind rambled across the notion. She would be a dutiful wife, devoted to her family and her children. Protective. Fierce. Self-sacrificing. Difficult. She would insist on mending all of their torn clothing, no matter how the palace servants complained.

Zuko choked on a dumpling and spent a long moment coughing and chastising himself for whatever rogue thought that had been. When he could finally breathe easy again, his head was pounding harder than before. He reached toward his scar, where the pain originated, and touched it gingerly, just at the lower edge.

"You don't ever massage that, do you?"

He opened his eyes to see Katara watching him, the shirt set aside. There was a subtle accusatory note in her voice.

"You should. Scars get more sensitive when they aren't worked regularly."

"What, are you a physician too?" He didn't really mean for the question to be as scathing as it was. Only he did.

Katara only arched an eyebrow at him and crossed her arms. "I've helped my grandmother with most of the births, deaths, and healings around the village since I was a child. I know a few things. Like that scars run deeper than the skin and the less they're touched, the more sensitive they can become."

In fact, Physician Shiro had been telling Zuko something very similar for the past five years. Knowing this didn't make it any easier to touch the scar, though. It was his mark, his punishment, his shame. Touching it made it more real. And the feel of it… glossy and stiff and strangely textured in places, it was repellant. It was hard enough to allow Physician Shiro to touch it once a week for his prescribed treatments. So he wasn't exactly serious when he said what he said next.

"If you're so concerned, why don't you just do it for me?"

Zuko froze, but it was too late to take it back. He didn't want to reveal his vulnerability over the scar any more than he wanted Katara touching it.

But she only frowned at him. "I'm not some servant you can boss around and make demands of. And you aren't a child. You should do it yourself."

"Fine," he snapped, and shoved the last dumpling in his mouth to hide his relief. He had chewed and swallowed and tossed the napkin away before Katara spoke again.

"You aren't doing it," she said. She was watching him narrowly, waiting.

Zuko decided she would be an obnoxious, nagging wife, too. "I don't feel like it right now. I'll do it later."

She narrowed her eyes. "No you won't," she said. "You'll put it off until you forget."

"So what if I do? It's my scar, alright? It's on my face, not yours! I don't need your questionable medical expertise and I don't need your pity, so just back off!"

Katara stared at him, a little shocked at his vehemence, and Zuko glared back at her. Maybe they were going to be temporary allies in the fight against Azula - Zuko was still mulling that over - but that didn't mean he was obligated to go along with her every whim.

"I just don't like seeing people in pain," she said, finally.

"Pain is inevitable," he snapped. "We all have to suffer. That's life."

Katara blinked and frowned thoughtfully. Then she shrugged, plucked up the shirt, and rose to her feet. "Alright. Your scar, your face."

Before he could demand where she was going, Katara tugged the curtain aside. Sokka, who had been sitting just outside the door, popped into view. "Not that I was eavesdropping," he said with a shrug and a wave of one hand, "because it's really kind of tough to hear anything clearly out here anyway, but you two could just bicker until the moon falls, couldn't you?"

Zuko surged to his feet. "What are you doing here?" His head pounded but he stood straight and tense.

"I asked him to wait," Katara said. She turned in the doorway to level a firm look on Zuko.

Because I didn't want to be alone with you.

The certainty that that was what she meant hit Zuko like a rhino kick to the chest. He could only stare at her, wide-eyed. There was a sinking feeling in his stomach. Something that had been between them was gone now - he had spoiled it. He had lost it.

…the one thing that makes me feel safe around you.

Zuko watched, a little numb, as she turned back to her brother. Sokka frowned at him over her shoulder, and his eyes were sharp. They missed nothing.

"Here. It's fine," Katara was saying as she tossed the shirt into his chest.

Sokka took it and peered down at her, his face a concerned pucker. "Are you sure? Because he doesn't look any less like a crazy jerk to me."

"Would you get out of here before somebody notices us talking? We have to maintain a low profile."

"I know, I know, until Dad comes," Sokka said, a little too brightly. "But don't be afraid to call your big brother if this jerkbender gives you any trouble." A big smile split his face and he looked back at Zuko, delighted. "I just came up with that one while I was waiting out here. Jerkbender. Pretty good, right?"

Zuko crossed his arms over his chest and thought about putting a matching ring of bruises around Sokka's other eye during their next training session.

"Genius, Sokka," Katara said. Zuko could hear her eyes rolling. "Comedy at its best. Go? Now?"

Sokka left with a final chuckle - and another penetrating look at Zuko - and then they were alone again. More alone than before. Katara glanced at him, then lay down on her pallet, dragging the blankets over herself without a word. Slowly, stiffly, Zuko sat.

He didn't have to ask to know that there would be no more heating her bath water, no more pretending to meditate as she splashed behind him. He wasn't sure what kind of alternate arrangement she would come up with, but it didn't feel right to ask. It felt… invasive in a way he hadn't been aware of before now. But it didn't feel right to just be silent, either. Zuko had to fix the thing he had broken. He had to say something, the right thing. He had to try.

"Your father is coming?"

The shapely lump of her body didn't shift under the blanket. "In a week or so. Hopefully by then we'll have some word on where Aang or your sister have gone. And then Sokka can talk our dad into sailing us there."

"...You don't sound so sure."

Katara was rigid for a moment, then rolled over and propped up on her elbow, scowling at him. "Do you remember that time you mentioned your mom and then didn't want to talk about it? Well this is a similar situation. I don't want to have this conversation with you."

Zuko's eyes widened against the intensity of her glare.

"I'm going to sleep now," she said in the same icy tone, "and when I wake up, I don't want to talk about my dad or my mom. Is that clear?"

Zuko blinked, then covered his astonishment with a scowl. His frustration was building, but he kept a level tone. "Yes."

Katara flopped back over, huffing under her blankets, and Zuko yanked once on his sash, then stopped. She had complained earlier that he took his shirt off in front of her. In fact, it occurred to him now that it had always bothered her that he took his shirt off in their room. He had thought initially that was something to do with her modesty, but it occurred to him now that maybe it was just the opposite. Maybe the sight of him was uncomfortably provocative, just like he found the sight of her. She had wanted to kiss him…

In Zuko's head, there were two voices telling him what he should do. The first voice was angry, full of spite and heat. He should take off his shirt and let the peasant work out her own problems. Maybe she would cave to temptation and the fiasco of the past two weeks would actually come to something after all. The thought teased him with a delicious, selfish pleasure.

The second voice, gentler but somehow stronger than the first, was appalled by the very notion. He should keep his shirt on as an act of contrition, as a step toward rebuilding what he had broken. To do anything else was to further dishonor himself, and Katara.

Zuko abruptly let his hands fall in his lap and felt the ridge of the necklace dig into his thigh. He tugged the slim disk from his cuff and traced his thumb along the edge in the soothing gesture he had not performed since arriving here. In the faint light, it gleamed. It looked almost sharp enough to cut him now. This was the necklace of a dead woman, a treasure for all its plainness. It had survived the fire, Katara had said, and Zuko didn't want to think about what that meant - but he knew.

He looked at her, stiff and hunched away from him, much as she had been that first night he stayed here. It wasn't until now, when she had shut him out so abruptly, that he realized how much she had let him in before - and how much he desired that. Now his mistakes and her mother's death rose between them like a wall of ice, and Zuko didn't know what to do. He wanted to shout and rage at her, tell her she was childish to ever think she could cling to someone who was gone by keeping some worn-out trinket. He wanted to grab her arm and roll her over, and look into her eyes as he told her he was sorry over and over until that distance just went away.

But Zuko only lay down on his back, fully dressed, and traced the smooth edge of the pendant as he stared at the ceiling. He could wait. He had spent years waiting. He shut his eyes and his chest flooded with the weary anxiety of beginning a difficult climb all over again from the start.

It did not occur to him to turn to a new path.

.


When Katara woke the next morning, the room was stifling and Zuko was pulling on his boots to go. He shot her a wide-eyed look when she rolled over and then he hustled to leave, keeping his sweat-spotted back to her as much as he could. Katara might have thought this behavior was odd, if she had cared.

But she didn't care, she assured herself. This was the start of a new era between her and the banished prince. She had no illusions about their new alliance - it would last just long enough to stop Azula and then Zuko would turn on them and try to capture Aang. Sokka was right. Zuko wasn't going to just let this go. And Katara was going to refrain from developing any feelings.

But it was difficult not to notice how the boy she lived with had resurfaced out of the angry, proud, sulky prince she had encountered when she came back into the room. And it was hard not to recognize that he was twisted up inside, as unhinged as Sokka said.

And it was really hard not to have some… frustrations about the way he neglected that scar. She'd been around him for two weeks and last night was the first time she could remember seeing him touch it. Katara didn't need a reason to want to help a person in pain. She didn't have to have feelings for someone to want to soothe an ailment. She was just a nurturing person like that. It didn't mean anything.

Katara yanked on her boots and made her way down to the pier for some early bending practice. After the noodle incident, she was curious about other sodden materials. If she could bend the water inside noodles, what else could she do? There wasn't much to practice with at the pier - except for an abandoned length of rope looped around one of the pilings. Katara tossed it in the water and let it become saturated and then began manipulating the water inside to drag the rope on a coiling path around her. Then she wrung all the water out and practiced putting it back in, rehydrating it much as she had tried with her preserved sea prunes in the past. She was using sinuous motions of her hands and wrists to make the rope slither across the stones when a voice broke the stillness.

"A fascinating display of ingenuity," Pakku said as he approached, hands linked behind his back. "If you ever need to frighten your enemies with a scary snake, I'm sure they will find your skill beyond match."

With as much dignity as she could muster, Katara returned the rope to its piling and dragged the water out in a thin, dirty stream. "A master waterbender must be creative, able to rapidly adjust his thinking in any scenario, especially a scenario in which water is scarce."

She released the stream into the harbor and turned to face her master. He wore the same dry, unimpressed expression that she had come to expect from him. Yet, something was different. His mouth was more pinched, his eyes more focused. "Our enemy is rapidly entering striking range. You alone among the current students are ready for true combat," Pakku said. "Or as ready as I believe you are capable of becoming."

Katara stiffened, fairly certain that this was intended to be a barb.

"Several new squads are being formed and will deploy for field training tomorrow, but I have gone to great pains to ensure that you are grouped with… Li." He blinked slowly, disdainfully. "I trust you'll keep him from losing his way."

Katara furrowed her brow but bowed her assent before turning a frown up at Pakku. Did he truly believe Mushi's story that Zuko would challenge his father for the throne? Surely not, but if he did…? It could be disastrous.

Katara let out a breath. "He's not going to do what his uncle says," she bit out.

Pakku raised an eyebrow. A smile was creeping into his cool eyes. "How can you be so sure? What can water claim to know of the intentions of fire?"

"He only wants to capture the Avatar. It's his obsession."

"Oh, I'm sure there are other things on his mind as well," Pakku said. He gave her a sly smile, as if she should know better, then turned to walk along the pier with his hands still joined behind him. Out of habit, Katara fell into step beside him, though her frown had only deepened.

.


Zuko was having a difficult day, but it had started with a few instants of the most mindless pleasure he'd known since before his banishment. All he remembered of the dream was Katara beneath him and everything being wet - the pier, her mouth, her breasts, everything. He'd been rising into consciousness as he ground his hips the last few times against his pallet, rising with his passion to something pure and clear and groaningly, desperately needed.

And then his eyes had popped open as the sticky mess in his trousers began to seep against his thigh and he saw Katara beginning to stir under her blankets and for an instant he was terrified he had made some telling noise. All of the shame and remorse and frustration of the previous night came flooding back and he practically bolted from the room.

After surreptitiously making his way to the cubby room and changing into clean pants - all the while silently cursing his body and this humiliating little betrayal that honestly hadn't happened in years now - he stopped on the walkway outside, not sure where he was going.

Zuko did not want to see Iroh, and it took him a moment to remember why; the old man had gone ahead and enlisted Katara and Sokka in the effort to stop Azula without Zuko's endorsement. Iroh had worked around him and put him in a position where he had little choice about what to do, now.

But angry as he was, Zuko could admit that riding out of this compound in a Water Tribe ship was infinitely preferable to skulking back across the countryside to where his own vessel was anchored. The arrangement would become tricky once he had the Avatar in hand, but he could afford to worry about that later. Now was the time for quick action. With Azula involved, they would need the advantage of every minute to stand a chance.

And, after all, his greatest complaint about the plan had been that he expected to have to lie to Katara to get her to leave with him - and he had not. It crossed Zuko's mind that perhaps Iroh had done the lying for him, but really it was better not to question the easy acquisition of her cooperation. Better not to bring it up at all.

He made his way to the training room and sat meditating - or some facsimile that was less like clearing his mind and more like forcefully not thinking about how he could possibly hope to regain Katara's trust while also not bringing up his quest to capture the Avatar. He was also (more successfully) not thinking about why that was suddenly so important, or how it was even possible to accomplish both goals.

Training was especially trying that day - as if every opponent he faced was stiff with fear or laziness - and Zuko had settled into annoyed resignation by the time the row of partners rotated once again and he found Sokka before him, smiling and bouncing his war-club idly against his palm.

"Buddy," Sokka said.

Zuko only narrowed his eyes and assumed the start position. He had hoped to get through these repetitions without excessive talking, and was starting to feel pretty optimistic after they had worked through a few sets.

It didn't last, of course.

"So," Sokka said at length as he settled into the offensive stance and lingered before the strike. "Your sister's apparently terrifying."

Zuko waited for the attack but Sokka held off until he huffed and answered. "Yeah. She is."

"Do you think she'd like to date me?"

Zuko was still frozen in bewildered alarm when Sokka finished the attack, and he barely managed to twist his club down in time to prevent the blow from landing. "Are you crazy?"

Sokka grinned. "I almost got you that time." He assumed the defensive position.

Zuko frowned at him and took his turn. When Sokka was preparing for his next strike, he still had that slick joke smile tugging at his cheeks.

"How many of my kids do you think she'd like to have?" Whack.

Zuko had an easier time blocking that strike, but he was only getting angrier. "Why are you doing this?"

Sokka shrugged. "Distraction tactic. A brother's revenge. Your hair looks especially spiky today and - gotta admit - feeling a little jealous. I've got motives like you wouldn't believe."

Gritting his teeth, Zuko remained silent. They went through a few more turns - always with some provocative question from Sokka - before he finally had enough.

"Do you think your sister would mind tidying up my ice hut?" Whack.

The words just slipped out as Zuko was drawing back for his own strike. "Do you think your sister would mind moving into the royal palace?"

"Nah!" Sokka said, grinning and blocking with ease. "So long as she could run the place, Katara could live anywhere." He shifted into the offensive and Zuko, stunned, barely managed to keep up. "Do you think your sister would mind gutting all my fish? I catch a lot of fish."

Zuko scoffed as he blocked. "Only if you mean verbally. Do you think your sister would mind polishing my crown for me?"

Sokka glared, blocked, and stabbed a finger at him. "Is that an innuendo? Because if it is, then no, my little sister is not interested in polishing anything of yours."

Zuko, cheeks warming, scowled right back. "That's not what I meant."

"Oh. Okay then!" And Sokka swung then, with little warning. "Do you think your sister would mind polishing my boomerang?"

"Hey!"

.


"This will be our last lesson for a while," Pakku said at length. "It's time we discussed something that will be of greater use to you where you are going than another thousand-year-old technique you'll only use to make a rope squiggle."

Katara clenched her jaw, then relaxed again. "I am ready, Master Pakku."

"Good. It is time," Pakku said, peering down at her, "that you learned about fire."

Katara blinked, and shot him a sideways glance, but said nothing.

"Fire is the element of power. In combat most firebenders will seek to overwhelm you with rigid attack sequences composed of many simple, direct strikes in rapid succession. What does a master waterbender do, when faced with such unflagging aggression?"

Katara walked a few steps and thought. "A master waterbender seeks to use his opponent's strength against him. So, he would follow his defensive movements through to offense… And he would challenge the rigidity of the firebender's form."

Pakku lifted an eyebrow. "I'm beginning to believe you've learned something after all," he said with a tiny smile, and then looked ahead. "Fire is our elemental opposite and, thus, much of what it does is backward to the way we do it. Where water is versatile and adaptive, fire requires a root and can only burn harder to achieve its ends. Where water pushes and pulls but remains largely unchanged by the act of bending, fire gasps in and out of existence at the bender's whim. More appropriately, it is the bender's power - his breath control and inner fire - that creates the element outwardly."

Katara thought of Zuko's meditation, the unthinking state of mind he mentioned that was so similar to hers when she was bending. She thought of the calm look on his face when he heated her water, the steady change in his breathing. Unbidden, the flash of his eyes returned to her, along with a rush of mingled desire and guilt. She clenched her jaw and forced the thoughts away.

Pakku went on. "Water is not a stable element, but it is more stable than fire, which can feed and grow without the bender's constant attention. Without his self-control, fire settles on a thing and burns it until nothing remains."

He was looking at her, she realized. Katara turned to meet his speculative eye. Pakku stopped walking and frowned down at her.

"Does water burn, Pupil Katto?"

"No, Master Pakku." Katara had to fight the urge to fidget under his assessment. Despite her efforts to let the thought flow away, she was remembering the water in her bucket, the way Zuko had used his bending to… excite it the way he had. Pakku's question felt weirdly personal with this in her mind, but it wasn't, of course. He was only asking about water. Katara cleared her throat. "It boils… and it turns to steam, but it doesn't burn. It doesn't stop being water."

Pakku's eyes narrowed fractionally. "Good." He looked away and began walking again. "You are correct. Water can gain power from fire. Water can take what fire carelessly offers and turn it to its own ends." He was looking at her again. "Do you understand what I am telling you, Pupil Katto?"

Katara, face pinched in uncertainty, peeked over at the old man's dry frown. "That… boiling water is… powerful?"

Pakku sighed deeply and set his weary gaze on the pier ahead, and the stairs down which a few students had begun to trickle. "Perhaps a discussion best saved for another day. For now, you will learn another technique of the ancient art of waterbending that you can set to your next undignified purpose." He curled his lip. "Perhaps this one will help you perfect the hiss."

.


The game - though Zuko thought of it more as a mental conditioning exercise - went on until they rotated partners, then picked up again when they were paired up for the spear session. Zuko didn't notice the glances increasingly being cast his direction as the day came to an end, and he didn't really pay attention to the quiet conversations that hushed as he walked by on his way to the mess hall.

It was only when his bowl was full and he was crossing the wide dining room that he realized a lot more eyes were on him than usual. Suspicious, Zuko lowered himself into a seat beside Katara. She glanced at him and, still chewing, frowned.

The look on her face suggested she would have liked to know what was wrong with him, but she didn't ask. After a brief assessment, she looked back at her own bowl and took another bite of rice. Zuko, frowning, began eating as well. It was several bites later before it occurred to him, with a spike of anxiety, to wonder if someone had overheard his low mentions of crowns and palaces during Sokka's stupid game. Oh, Sokka would pay if Zuko had exposed himself over that ridiculous-

"Hey. Are you Li?"

Zuko turned and looked up to find a man standing just in arm's reach, looming. He was one of the Water Tribe warriors - not a recruit, but a banded warrior - just a bit older and bigger than Zuko. There were a couple of other guys standing behind him, idling with arms folded. The look on the lead warrior's face was thunderous.

"Do you know who I am?" he demanded, not waiting for an answer.

"No." Zuko narrowed his eyes. If he was going to be caught, he was going to go bravely at least. "But I know you're interrupting my meal."

"I'm Tantec," the warrior said, as if that should mean something. He raised a big, meaty finger at Zuko. "Are you trying to poach my girl?"

Zuko knocked his hand away. "I don't know what you're talking about."

Tantec swung a hand toward Katara and, for a heartbeat, Zuko was afraid she'd been discovered as well, but then the warrior went on. "Word is you've been buddying up with the Southerners the whole time you've been here and today I hear you were yukking it up with Sokka about his sister! Katara!"

Beside him, Zuko felt more than saw Katara stiffen. Except for a slight widening of his eyes, he didn't react, just glaring up at the other man. "Yeah? So?"

Tantec gave him a withering sneer as if he knew nothing, nothing at all. "Katara, daughter of Chief Hakoda, is my betrothed."

There was a beat of silence in which Zuko suddenly remembered Katara's mention of being a sort of wife and something about betrothal necklaces, and a horrible feeling started welling up in his gut. Then, on his other side, Katara herself rose snarling to her feet.

"Says who?"

Chapter Text

Katara spent most of her day puzzling over Pakku's little riddle between bouts of practicing the new technique - raising mist. At first she would sweep her arms up and shift her feet and tendrils would come curling up off the water in lazy whirls, but by midday she could lift a haze thick enough to conceal a piling. By the evening meal, she could almost cover one of the moored ships. She didn't notice the others' resentful gazes - they were still working on the pilings - but if she had, she wouldn't have cared.

Water can gain power from fire. Water can take what fire carelessly offers and turn it to its own ends.

Mostly, Katara tried to envision how her bending could adapt to the rapid, ferocious attacks Pakku had told her to expect. She thought of Zuko, the few times he had fought her with bending, but she only really remembered the one time - the first time, on that little island far to the south - and he had only struck at her once, then. His punch had been sudden and fierce, and it had been almost instinctive to draw up the water of the stream and whip it around at him. Almost, because she had been angry when she did it, she recalled. What was it he'd said? Some bullying thing. It had been back before he had hair, it was almost like he was a different person then.

Katara lost control of her mist and it splattered down on the ship in big fat drops. She sighed, cleared her mind, and tried again.

Zuko was not a different person. He could make all the rational-sounding apologies he wanted, but it didn't change who he was and what he planned to do. When his opportunity came, he would use every weapon at his disposal to capture Aang. Katara would have to be prepared for anything. She hadn't expected him to be so good with the swords, or to be so tireless during their match, and she could only assume that that energy and skill would translate into his firebending as well. She had to be ready.

Katara raised her arms and shifted her feet and a wall of mist hissed up off the harbor, billowing like silk.

So, later, when Zuko sat down beside her in the mess hall, she hadn't really noticed how edgy he seemed. She had wondered how near he was to mastering firebending, whether he had already accomplished it. She went on eating, and wondering, until the big warrior, Tantec, said her name.

Then she looked up at him. He looked vaguely familiar, but that didn't mean anything to her now, because the next words out of his mouth made the rice she had just swallowed turn to concrete in her stomach.

"Katara, daughter of Chief Hakoda, is my betrothed."

For a second, she could only stare past Zuko at this big Northerner with his arrogant posture, trying to wrap her head around his claim to possess her like an ice hut or a caribou-yak. For a second, she pictured trying to be a wife to this swollen-headed strutting brute. She didn't want to wash his socks or mend his clothes. She didn't want to cook his meals or have his children.

She wanted to beat him into the ground.

Katara was on her feet before deciding to stand. "Says who?"

Tantec turned his frown to her, mild confusion crossing his expression. "Chief Hakoda. We'll be entering talks upon his return. What's it to you?"

"What's it to me?" Katara wasn't really aware that her voice was high, too loud. "What's it to me? I will never consent to-"

Zuko shot up between them, and his hand was suddenly on her shoulder. He fixed her with a wide-eyed glare. It took Katara a few heavy breaths to realize why he looked so alarmed. She blinked, then looked back to the warrior.

"…to… my cousin… marrying a man she hasn't even met!"

Tantec crossed his arms and scoffed, casting a disparaging glance over both of them. "We met," he said. "When I sailed to the South Pole with Chief Hakoda's crew."

Katara's face twisted up in disbelief - because she certainly didn't remember ever meeting this man during Hakoda's visit and he obviously didn't recognize her. But his face was a little familiar. He may very well have been among the crew. Katara had just had more important things on her mind.

"But that doesn't matter anyway. Unlike the South, where you bumpkins don't live by any particular rules, the North has a certain way of doing things. A man talks to a girl's father and brothers." Tantec curled his lip. "Not her dopey cousin."

Katara glared up at him and stepped away from the table, around Zuko, so that nothing separated her from the warrior. She wasn't really aware that she was preparing for a fight, but she was. "If you want to marry Katara," she said, "you should be talking to her. That's how it's done in the South."

"And who's going to marry her down there? A tiger-seal? This yellow-eyed outsider?" Tantec looked at Zuko and laughed. "She won't thank you for setting her up with a half-Fire Nation man with no family, no home, and nobody to vouch for him. She'll take one look at his face and she'll see what everybody sees - an unwanted son."

Katara was on the brink of spitting that Zuko was a vast improvement over Tantec, but she was cut off before the first word even left her mouth.

"What did you say?" Zuko asked suddenly. Katara glanced at him and found his entire body had gone stiff. The banished prince stood rigid and tall, eyes wide with outrage.

In the back of Katara's head, a tiny voice said, Oh...

Tantec shook his head, and somehow smiled and curled his lip at the same time. "Everybody knows your father was some raping firebender. What happened? Did you go knocking on his door one day? My bet is he told you to get lost - the only way firebenders know how. It's plain as the scar on your face."

"Rrah!" Suddenly Zuko was chest-to-chest with Tantec, baring his teeth. Violence seemed to radiate out from his entire body, a fury Katara hadn't seen in him before. Tantec flinched back, then returned the glare with equal force.

It happened in just an instant. Katara smelled smoke. She glanced down and saw Zuko's hand fisted around his chopsticks. They were smoldering. Unthinking, she clamped her fingers around his knuckles, squeezing tight and breathing out the sting. He turned just his eyes to look at her. Something passed through that fierce yellow. An animal eased back from the bars of its cage.

Katara's fingers were burning, but the chopsticks were not. The whiff of smoke vanished in the quiet mess hall.

"Let's all just take a moment," she said, the words heavy and hard to move past the yelp trying to erupt from her throat, "to remember that we're adults here, and that slinging nasty words around-" She glared up at Tantec, who frowned back. "-is undignified for grown men."

Zuko didn't back off, but Tantec glanced between them and then stepped away, folding his arms over his chest. He was a warrior, after all, and was supposed to be above all this. "Yeah, well, just remember your place and stay out of my way. I'm marrying the Southern princess. It's just a matter of working out the details with Chief Hakoda."

Zuko twitched under her grip. Katara only scoffed and pulled him toward the nearest exit. "Yeah, you work it all out with Chief Hakoda. Princess Katara will just love that."

Katara managed to get Zuko out of the mess hall and into the stairwell before she had to let go of his fist. She stopped and pried her fingers away, wincing, and then looked. Her palm and the pads of her fingers were blistered and red and it hurt.

"I- I burned you!"

Katara squinted up at Zuko. He looked startled, horrified. She wanted to say, Of course you did. That's what firebenders do. She wanted to shake him until he stopped looking so surprised at the destruction he wrought. There was a lump hardening in her throat, threatening to come boiling out in tears of pain and frustration.

But Katara wasn't that girl anymore. She wasn't a girl who cried. She was a warrior who snarled.

"Yeah, you did." She swallowed and blinked hard and started down the stairs. There was no clear reason in her head as to why she was going down instead of up. She just needed to walk away, and she just decided to go down. Zuko kept apace, apparently not noticing. "You nearly gave yourself away," she said through her teeth.

"I'm so sorry, Katara," Zuko said. He wasn't looking at the stairs at all. He was looking at her, holding out his hands to her, pleading. "I didn't even feel your hand at first. I lost my temper and it just- happened! Rrhh! What were you even thinking, anyway? You can't stifle fire like that when you aren't a firebender, Katara!"

"Don't you dare make it sound like this was my fault!" She shoved him back with her uninjured hand. The burned one, she held close to her chest. "And don't be so loud here. It echoes. You'll give us both away next."

He stiffened and fell a step behind her, but didn't go away. Katara finally arrived at the pier. She hadn't really decided to come here, but now that she was by the water, it seemed like a good idea to put her hand in it. Because it burned, and the water would be soothing.

She knelt on the edge of the pier and bent down to reach, to dip her hand below the cool surface. And it was cool. Cool and gentle and aching. Katara braced her forehead against the flat stones and sighed.

"What are you doing?"

The pain was fading. She didn't even lift her head to glare, just speaking to the stone. "The water feels good."

Zuko was silent for a long moment. "You're glowing."

Katara turned her head to frown at him where he stood some feet away, but he only looked back at her, bewildered. Actually, he wasn't looking at her, but at her hand in the water. Katara peered down, too, and her eyes widened.

She really was glowing. Or maybe it was that the water was glowing around her hand. Katara sat up and the water came with her, a glove of gentle light. Beneath, her skin was smoothing, the blisters relaxing away completely.

"What is that?" Zuko asked. He was still standing at a distance, looking suspicious and a little alarmed.

Katara flexed her hand and felt the surprising normalness of it, the total lack of tightness or pain. The glow faded and the water dribbled away. She swallowed. "In the North, female benders are trained in healing. I didn't know I could just do it, though."

After a tense pause, Zuko came to kneel beside her, glancing between her hand and her face. He frowned and held out his hand to her. "Would you like to try again?"

For a second, she thought he was offering to burn her so that she could get more practice and she was about to make a snarky retort, but she paused when her eyes fell on his palm. There was a big red wedge across the heel of his hand and up his two smallest fingers. It looked at least a day old.

Katara peered at him, pulling a wry face. "You burned yourself?"

Zuko frowned harder. "No! I put my hand on a stove." His cheek went a little pink. "Firebenders don't burn themselves," he said, surly.

He seemed about to withdraw his hand, so Katara snatched his wrist and, shifting to face him, held it firmly between them. She didn't particularly feel like healing him now, after he had burned her, but she could see the benefit of practicing a new technique and there was a lot of energy racing through her now, seeking an outlet. Besides, if she did it wrong and made his hand worse, she wouldn't have to feel guilty about it. With her other hand Katara pulled a stream of water up from the harbor and awkwardly molded it into a glove before laying it over his palm. It took a second, but the water began glowing again.

Zuko made a soft, startled sound that eased into a sigh.

It was strange. Katara could sense the hurt in his hand, the disruption in need of soothing, and the act of healing was as simple as combing a tousled pelt into order. When the glow of the water faded, there was still some redness to his pale skin, but the blisters were gone. Pleased with herself, she looked up.

Zuko was watching her with an aching openness to his face. Katara, for all her frustration with him, could sense the hurt in him. She didn't really think about the movement. Still gripping his wrist, she raised her hand toward his scar.

His eyes flicked to her fingers, then back to her gaze. "Don't," he said. His face was suddenly hardening, closing off, but the word sounded as much like a plea as a command.

Katara haltingly lowered her hand, letting the water splash down between them. Immediately embarrassed and angry again, she frowned down at his hand and prodded one of the red marks so she wouldn't have to see whatever that wrenching thing was in his eyes.

"Does this hurt?"

"When you do that, yeah." His tone was sour but he wasn't pulling away. Katara felt at his fingers, examining the reduced toughness of the burn, the faded color. "It's a lot better, though," he finally said, much more quietly. "Thank you."

"You're welcome," Katara said, abruptly releasing him and sitting back with her own hands clenched in her lap. She felt suddenly foolish for a lot of reasons. Zuko was watching her as if struggling to come to some decision.

"Did you…" Zuko cleared his throat. "Are you really a princess?"

Katara scoffed and rolled her eyes, then climbed to her feet and headed for the stairs. Zuko hurried to keep up. "The only real Water Tribe princess was Yue of the North, who left this life to save the moon. But my dad is the Southern chief, so technically, according to the Northern way of doing things, I guess so. You've seen the village, though. A title like that doesn't mean anything there. That's not how we live."

Zuko climbed beside her in silence. Katara stole a look at him from the corner of her eye. She didn't like how seriously he was taking this princess thing. She didn't like it that he was following her around right now like he was concerned about having burned her, and she didn't like it that she actually believed that feeling was genuine.

"You should probably start addressing Sokka as Prince Sokka, though." He shot her a horrified look. She went on, smirking just a little in grudging amusement. "Just to be properly respectful."

Zuko's eyes slowly narrowed. One corner of his mouth tugged up. "Right. Because offending the dignity of Prince Sokka probably results in dire consequences."

"Yeah," Katara snickered, "like, he'll issue a royal mandate! The offender must sit through his retelling of the Pickled Walrus-bear Toe Knuckles Incident!"

Zuko just looked at her. Katara knew that look - it was the look of someone deciding that Sokka's clever humor actually didn't run in the family after all.

"Trust me," she huffed. "He does voices for all the knuckles. It's awful."

"I'll take your word for it," Zuko said. She didn't catch the soft look in his eyes as he watched her.

They returned to the barracks and Katara expected him to leave for the showers, but he didn't. He hovered in the doorway as she sat on her pallet and peered up at him with a mildly impatient frown. She couldn't undergo her hurried new bathing routine until he left, but he just stood there, scowling as if with some great effort.

Finally, Zuko locked his eyes on her and, stiff and formal, bowed hand-over-fist. "Please accept my deepest apologies, Princess Katara, for my shameful loss of control. It was not my intention to burn you and I am sincerely grateful for your intervention on my behalf."

Katara immediately wanted to protest the use of that joke of a title. She wanted to wave him off and tell him he'd already apologized once and just stop him from making such a big deal out of it already. Instead, she sat there, stunned, and remembered what Pakku had taught her today about firebenders and the necessity of self-control. This was clearly a really big deal to Zuko. And despite herself she found, on a level, that she had really needed to hear those words.

Zuko just held the bow, and finally turned his eyes up at her. His expression was impatient, searching, desperate. He expected her to say something.

"It was an accident," she said, shrugging as if she understood, as if it could happen to anyone. Which it couldn't.

Zuko frowned. "An accident that could have ruined your hand. Firebenders can't afford to have accidents, Katara." He looked down again. "You're supposed to accept or reject my apology."

"Alright," Katara said. She straightened and assumed a formal tone. "I accept your apology, Prince Zuko."

Still not looking entirely happy, he rose from his bow and crossed his arms and just stood in the doorway for a long moment, glaring at his rumpled pallet. Then, with a final glance at her, he swept past the curtain and away along the walkway. Katara, heaving a sigh, hurriedly took up her wash rag and braced herself to use yesterday's bathing water. Zuko was quick in the showers - she didn't have a lot of time.

.


Zuko marched down to the showers, glowering at everyone he passed but not seeing the one face he was looking for. It was in the cubby room that he found him, wrapped in a towel and laughing in the steam with his little Northern buddies. Zuko caught his eye as he stalked across the room.

"Sokka," he said, crossing his arms. "Got a minute?"

"Sure, Li! Let me just-"

"Now."

"…Or now…"

Zuko didn't wait for him to say goodbye to the others, who looked on wide-eyed as he grabbed Sokka's arm and dragged him to a more isolated corner. Then he whirled on the other guy, scowling.

"Who's this Tantec guy and why's he so convinced he's betrothed to Katara when she doesn't know anything about him?"

"Betrothed?" An alarmed expression flashed over Sokka's face, but then melted into a laugh. He slapped Zuko's shoulder - a chummy gesture that almost slipped past Zuko's notice. Almost. "You're really getting into this! Alright, you got me this time, but the next time we train-"

"This isn't a game, Sokka. The guy came into the mess hall to pick a fight with me and Katara pretty much ignited. She nearly gave herself away." That wiped the smile off Sokka's face. "He said he's entering negotiations with your father. Tell me what's going on."

Sokka shrugged and then rubbed the side of his neck. "Well… Tantec was the first guy to ask me about Katara, but he hasn't tried again since the first time. I guess it's possible he talked to our Dad about it before getting off the ship, but there's no way he'd just agree to marry Katara off to that meat-head. Maybe he told him that thing about negotiations to get him off his back."

In Zuko's chest, a frozen block was melting.

"Although," Sokka went on, anxiety creeping across his face, "Hahn has really dominated a lot of the discussions between the two tribes. If he saw a chance to forge a marriage bond, he would probably pressure Dad to make some kind of arrangement."

Zuko frowned, momentarily caught up in the power struggle, the impossibility of Katara yielding to such a marriage - especially now that she had become such a powerful bender. No, surely she would-

"Why so interested, buddy?"

Zuko blinked and found Sokka examining him with a smug expression on his face, hands braced on his narrow hips. He sputtered. "I'm not interested, I just-! It was upsetting to her, and I wanted to find out what was up."

"Mm hm," Sokka said, "and I'll bet you were about to tackle the guy over a totally different issue, right?" Zuko hesitated. Sokka gesticulated. "This one guy even said he smelled smoke, but everybody's pretty sure he's just making stuff up to get attention…"

Zuko narrowed his eyes but didn't question how Sokka seemed to know so much of what went on around the base. It didn't make sense that someone who talked so much should also be able to hear so much, too. "Actually, it was a different issue," he grated.

"Yeah, sure!"

"No - really."

Sokka just shot him a disbelieving smirk and shrugged.

Seething, Zuko crossed his arms and hunched a little forward, glancing around to be sure no one was watching them. Then he locked a hard glare on Sokka. "He said anybody could look at my face and see I was an unwanted son."

"Oof," Sokka winced, then rubbed the back of his neck, looking away. "He must have really wanted you to throw a punch. It would look pretty bad for one of the warriors to start a fight with a recruit, but if you'd struck first, he'd have had all the justification he needed to beat up a rival."

Zuko scoffed. "He could try." Sokka was frowning thoughtfully at the floor. It made him a little uncomfortable. "Is it true?"

"What?"

Zuko scowled. Suddenly he was the one looking away. "Nevermind."

Sokka was quiet for a second and Zuko shifted his weight to walk away before he spoke. "Your whole cover story does kind of suggest that calling you unwanted would be pretty likely to strike a nerve. And, with the scar…" There was a shrug in his voice.

Zuko looked up at him, narrow-eyed. "Yeah?"

Sokka shrugged again. "I'm just saying it's a little… blasty-looking."

Zuko glowered.

"And pretty much, you know, located right where someone might…"

"Go ahead, Sokka," Zuko snarled. "Where someone might what?"

Sokka waved a hand casually, rolling his eyes up to the ceiling. "…punch a guy covered in noodles who was threatening his sister. That's all I'm saying."

Zuko breathed deeply and fought hard against the urge to blow smoke.

"Maybe if you started telling a story about how you were a freedom fighter for a while and you got in a fight with a firebender one time, and you won, only-"

"I don't want to tell some stupid story, Sokka."

"Hey, suit yourself. Personally-" Sokka pressed a hand to his chest. "-I enjoy telling a good scar story. For example, see this right here?" He held up his thumb, close to Zuko's face. "That's from the time I got two fishhooks stuck in my thumb!"

Zuko leaned away, grimacing. "Two?"

"Well, I got one stuck and the only thing I had around to try and get it out was my spare fishhook."

"Right," Zuko said, twisting his mouth. "Because that makes perfect sense."

.


Katara bathed hurriedly with what she had, then lay down on her pallet and stared at the ceiling, thinking. Her mind was a jumble - there was so much to think about.

She thought about Pakku's riddle, what water could gain from fire. She thought about Hakoda's imminent return, and what kinds of answers he was going to have to the furious questions brewing in her mind. She thought about going to find Sokka and demanding some right now, but they had already risked enough contact for the time being. She thought about the field training that she and Zuko would be sent for tomorrow…

She thought about Zuko. His fire, and remorse, and explosive anger. She thought about the things Tantec had said that had set him off that way. His father. His scar. She didn't like the inevitable conclusion that led her to, and she shied from the idea of any father inflicting a wound like that on his own child, but Katara was familiar with the horrors firebending could wreck upon a body. Her own hand. That other, dearest body. She shut her eyes and thought of other things.

She thought of the way she had grabbed Zuko's fist - stifled the fire, as he'd called it - and wondered if that could somehow be what Pakku was talking about. Could waterbending be used to control the energy of firebending?

With so much whirring through her mind, it was no surprise that she was still awake when Zuko returned, though he had taken longer than usual. Katara turned her head to look at him as he settled on his pallet and he startled and darted his eyes away from where they had been - the curve of her hip under the blanket, she realized.

Zuko cleared his throat, not looking at her at all now. "Here. You didn't get to finish your rice, so..." He held out a bundled napkin.

Katara hesitated, then sat up and took the offering, unfolding it to reveal a puffy bun. She glanced up. Zuko was watching her with his usual frown, perhaps a little anxiety in his eyes. "Thank you," she said, and began eating slowly.

"You're welcome," he said in a stilted voice, staring alternately at her and the floor. At length, he turned on his pallet to take off his boots.

"Did you get something for yourself?" When he looked at her, Katara shrugged. "You ate less than I did at dinner."

Zuko peered at her as if searching for some other question she could be asking. At last he shook his head and set his boots aside. "I'm not really hungry."

Katara sighed and tore half of the bun away from the part she had already eaten, then held it out to him. Zuko looked for a moment like he wanted to argue, but then took it, a sulky knot in his brow. He ate with remarkable speed, Katara noticed. "We're shipping out tomorrow," she said at length as she settled again in her blankets. "For field training. Did you hear?"

"Yeah," Zuko said as he swallowed his last bite and lay back, folding his arms behind his head. He did not take off his shirt. "Do you think we'll get back in time to meet your… to catch our ride?"

Katara blinked. He was avoiding mentioning her father. She studied his profile. "I don't know, but we'll have to."

He shot her a sideways look. "Even if it means deserting?"

"We'll be deserters anyway when we leave on Dad's ship," she said, shrugging. "Saving Aang is more important."

Zuko looked back at the ceiling and seemed to be mulling this over. His scar caught the light in several softly glowing ridges. His eye was barely open.

"I know I'm not supposed to talk about it," he said at length, "but Sokka doesn't think your father intends to arrange a marriage for you."

Katara paused, hesitated. He was pushing her boundaries by bringing up her dad - but he'd also gone looking for Sokka tonight? He'd brought her food and talked to her brother? She took a moment to trace the glossy ridges of his scar back to where it vanished against his sleeve. At last, she sighed. "Of course Sokka doesn't think so." She paused for a long while, watching his eye widen, then relax. "Did your mother teach you to apologize formally like you do?"

Zuko's eye widened and, when he turned his head to look at her, he was frowning. He examined her for a long moment. "Court etiquette. I had tutors." He shut his eyes, scowled for a moment, then looked back at her with a more controlled expression. "But… my mother taught me that rules like that existed so that you'd always know what to do in an awkward situation."

Katara smiled faintly. "That sounds handy."

"It is if you remember the rules."

"There are a lot?"

"Thousands," Zuko sighed. His breath gusted across the space between them and the word stroked gently past her cheek. He was looking into her eyes steadily, and Katara found her breathing was coming a little faster than it should have. "So many I gave up and just learned how to make the different levels of formal apology."

Katara laughed softly. Zuko didn't laugh, but he drank her in with his eyes - she could see it, the way they darted across her smile, her eyes, her cheeks. His own mouth turned up at the corners, just the tiniest bit, and his eyes took on that softness, that gentle warmth.

Katara knew she was supposed to be sternly not developing feelings. She knew he meant to turn against them at the first opportunity. She knew nothing had really changed, not really, and it never would. Zuko was still that creepy prince, was still conflicted and unhinged, dangerous even when he didn't meant to be. And he was still bent on capturing the Avatar.

…but when he looked at her the way he did now, heat pooled in her chest and her groin and she found her own eyes widening, her smile drifting away. She found her breath coming a little harder. She found herself wanting him to be closer.

She found, when the sharpness returned to his eyes and the hints of a smile evaporated and he very frankly assessed her lips, she liked that even more.

Zuko looked suddenly back at her eyes and the tendons in his neck grew taut as he began to sit up, as he began to slowly roll toward her - but then he stopped, and shut his eyes, and lay back. His mouth twisted bitterly.

Katara swallowed and blinked, faintly relieved but more disappointed than she had expected. Was it so wrong, she wondered, to just want to touch him? Just, for a little while?

"How's your hand feeling?"

He turned back to look at her, frowning in confusion. "Fine. The same."

"But it hurt before, didn't it?" Katara bit her lip. "Maybe I should… try again?"

Zuko peered at her, and his eyes flicked just for an instant to her mouth, her teeth against her lip. He licked his own lips, just a tiny dart of his tongue. "Yeah. Good idea."

Katara sat up on her pallet, cross-legged, and drew water from her bucket - it wasn't that dirty, she reasoned. He didn't have to know. Zuko mirrored her on his own pallet and watched as she scooted closer. He held out his hand before him, expectant.

Katara formed the water around her hand and then grasped Zuko's between both of hers. His hand felt big, heavy in its construction in a way that teased at her pleasantly. She went through the procedure again, and the water glowed and Zuko sighed. But this time, Katara peeked.

She looked up at his face as she held his hand, and watched the furrow ease from his brow. His mouth opened and then shut without sound. The glow of the healing water was blue and cast his scar into sharp relief. It looked almost purple, cut out of the shadow that way.

The glow faded. Katara let the water drain away. She still held his hand. Zuko opened his eyes.

Katara stared into the heat simmering there.

She did not think of the man who killed her mother. She didn't think of the Fire Nation, or even of fire at all. She did not think of her father's disappointment, or her future husband, or the war her people were losing. She didn't think about waterbending or picking fights or the overbearing sexism surrounding her, and she didn't even think about Toph's philosophy or Sokka's concerned admonitions.

As she leaned slowly forward to seal her lips against Zuko's, she thought just for an instant, just in passing, of Gran-gran's advice about kissing.

Kiss all the boys you can, Katara. When you marry, you'll only get to kiss one.

It had seemed like a joke at the time - because there were no boys around for kissing and marrying age had seemed so far off. Now, it made sense. Kissing was allowed. Kissing didn't hurt anything. Kissing didn't mean she'd developed feelings, it just meant she felt like kissing.

And so did Zuko, apparently. The instant she leaned past some imaginary midpoint between them, he surged forward, capturing her mouth with his.

After that, Katara didn't really think of anything at all.

Kissing was kind of like bending. Only, instead of the fluid passage of thoughts, Katara found thoughts replaced with images, pin-pricks of awareness that burned and washed away. Zuko's fingers uncurling against the back of her head with a delicious rasp. The electric wetness when he opened his mouth and traced his tongue across her lip.

Katara found the sounds escaping her throat sounded nothing like her at all, and the sounds Zuko made sounded like abandoning all hope or embracing an unexpected victory. She didn't dwell on it.

It was only when the solid pressure of his hand settled over her calf, and the heat leaked through the cloth, and his thumb traced and retraced a questing arc toward the back of her knee that Katara started thinking. And she didn't think of stopping - she thought of things that hand could do higher up between her legs. Suddenly, kissing wasn't enough.

An alarm rang out in the back of her mind.

With her fingers still fisted in his hair - though there wasn't really enough to grip yet - Katara pulled back and swallowed. Zuko watched her, her eyes and her lips, like there was a message to be read there. He tipped his forehead against hers, his eyes narrowing with desire.

Katara swallowed again and forced her hands down to his firm shoulders. "Goodnight, Zuko."

He jerked back - though he didn't remove the warm hand that was still cupped around the nape of her neck - and his eyes widened. "Goodnight?" He sounded indignant, annoyed. His face was rapidly returning to its scowl. "Did I do something to offend you?"

Katara narrowed her eyes at his tone and withdrew her hands to her thighs. Her breathing came a little easier. "No, you didn't offend me," she said. "But it's late and we have a big day tomorrow so just… goodnight."

"But…" Zuko traced his thumb up the side of her neck to nudge her ear as he started to pull away. The gentleness was startling. His scowl hadn't faded - it just took on a pained edge. "Didn't you like it?"

Katara found she was leaning into his hand and, when it rose to cup her cheek, she unthinkingly turned her head to place a breath and a kiss against the swell of his palm. She opened her eyes to Zuko's searching gaze and found her face heating. "I liked it," she admitted.

His eyebrow tipped back suddenly and he began leaning in again, guiding her toward his mouth that had finally, finally stopped frowning.

"But it's late," Katara said faintly, breathing hard. She couldn't seem to make herself pull away. "And… I need to stop."

Zuko stopped. For a long moment he only examined her face with hungry sweeps, taking in her parted lips, her uncertain eyes. Then he shut his own eyes and sat back, dropping his hands on his knees. His mouth twisted as he drew a deep breath through his nose, then another. His eyes opened, and his expression was only a hint less severe. "Goodnight, Katara."

She flashed him a weak smile and retreated to her own pallet, hiding under her blankets even though she felt too warm for them tonight. For a long while, Zuko just sat and breathed behind her, the same controlled pace for what felt like hours. He sat that way so long that her mind roved away as she maintained her own measured breathing.

There was an ache in her stomach that she didn't understand and a throb in her sex she understood all too well. And even though she let her thoughts come and go as easily as leaves in a stream, even though she reminded herself that kissing was allowed, and kissing didn't hurt anything, the ache settled deep as a fever and her heart beat faster than it should have, not from passion but anxiety.

Katara listened to Zuko breathing until he finally lay down on his pallet, and she listened longer still after that before an exhausted sleep finally took her.

.

Chapter Text

Zuko hated Warrior Rodak, had hated him since the day he made a disparaging remark about Zuko's sword grip - which was ridiculous, since Zuko had an excellent grip - but today he hated him more than ever. But then, Zuko hated everyone today.

"Alright ladies!" Rodak was shouting from his upraised platform in the shuttle terminal - a different one from that which linked the base to Gao Ling - and his voice carried over the two dozen or so gathered recruits. "When you hit ground level, each squadron will be heading a different direction. Your assigned leaders will make all final calls on attack strategies once you locate your target - if you can. Pick-up is sunset in three days, so if you get separated from your group, get back to the rendezvous point or you're walking to Gao Ling. Clear?"

There was a chorus of shouting that Zuko refused to take part in. Beside him, Katara was shouting her Water Tribe lungs out - and Sokka, wherever he was, was probably shouting, too. They were such a couple of…

Zuko twisted his mouth and hefted his supply pack and tried not to think about all the reasons why he didn't know how to finish that sentence anymore. The issue of royal lineage was just the latest in a slew of discoveries about the siblings. However little status might matter to Katara, being the Southern princess seemed to mean something to the Northerners, and Zuko got the feeling that that meant it should mean something to him, too.

He had wanted to ask Iroh about that - and some other things as well - this morning, but the old man was nowhere to be found. Probably sleeping off a long night of racking up debt. Zuko squashed out his unacknowledged worries as he joined the other recruits in the slow press to board the shuttle. Katara shuffled along ahead of him, bent slightly forward and tugging the straps of her supply pack.

It was obviously too heavy for her, but Zuko wasn't about to interfere. He watched her struggle with a sort of not-quite-guilty-exactly satisfaction. It was the happiest he expected to be today. Why deny himself so tiny a thing?

He knew, in theory, that what had happened last night wasn't a game to her. She had kissed him because she wanted to, not because she was trying to heat him past all bearing. She had also stopped him because she wanted to - for whatever crazy girl reason - not because she was trying to make him lay awake all night, broiling under his Water Tribe clothes. She did not want to toy with his desires - she desired him herself, and she wanted to act on it. To a point.

Zuko understood this, and he accepted that there were limits, but he was in a foul mood after his long, frustrating night, and he saw no reason that Katara should be spared his temper any more than the rest of the world.

The shuttle at last was fully loaded and heaved into motion. Katara, gripping the rail in front of him, swayed backward with the lurch. Her pack jabbed against his stomach. She peered over her shoulder at him, face half in shadow.

"Sorry."

"Just watch it, alright?"

The shuttle was packed tight, and everyone was bumping everyone else around them, though Zuko hardly noticed this. He noticed that he was close enough to Katara to pick her scent out of the crowd of bodies around them, close enough for her to hear his regular speaking voice over the grinding stone.

"You seem especially grouchy today," she ventured, frowning faintly.

Zuko glared. "I didn't sleep well." He tried to say no thanks to you with his eyes, but she didn't seem to pick that up.

"Sorry to hear that," she said, not even a little contrite. She turned back around and Zuko was left examining the way the lantern light wrapped around her slender neck. He either wanted to press his lips there or flick the back of her head. He did neither.

The two voices were at war in him again. The first voice was delighted at this new turn of events. It was about time, after all - a man was hardly a man if he had never been with a woman. So what if the peasant princess might be deluding herself about his intentions and allegiances? So what if she was foolish enough to trust him, or maybe even develop feelings for him? He had never actively lied about what he meant to do, after all. She would make her choices and Zuko was perfectly justified in accepting whatever affections she might choose to offer him.

To all of which the second voice in him was appalled. To take advantage of Katara's newest display of trust, so intimately, all the while withholding his true intentions, was wrong. It was a grave dishonor on them both. He should put an end to it and reaffirm to her his unwavering determination to capture the Avatar.

But Zuko did not want to put an end to it. And then again he did not want to dishonor Katara any more than he wanted to dishonor himself. Most pressingly of all though, he did not want to face the dichotomy between the two voices in him. He did not want to have to choose. He figured, half-heartedly, so long as it was only kissing, no permanent damage would be done.

They arrived at last in another terminal and were led by an earthbending guide through a long, carved passageway and several stone doors to what seemed to be a natural cave. There, the guide left them, and they filed along by lantern light through several gaping chambers and cramped tunnels until, finally, the cavern opened up into a yawning mouth of blinding daylight.

Zuko hadn't realized how much he hated caves until he stepped back out into the sun. It dappled through the trees on the slope outside and he paused and lifted his face to it, shutting his eyes to feel the relieved crackle of his inner fire.

"Wow," Katara said beside him, "I didn't notice it in the city, but spring is really in the air here. Everything is so fresh and green. Oh, look at those little flowers!"

Zuko did not look at the flowers, but he looked at her - fiercely. Katara, crouched to examine a sprits of little pink petals, didn't even notice. Zuko crossed his arms and glared harder. "You're being really girly right now."

She straightened, shot him a tiny, superior frown, and stomped off to join the rest of their squadron.

Zuko caught a glimpse of Sokka before he vanished into the bushes, headed straight west. He seemed to have already made fast friends with his own teammates - no shock there. As one of eight guys, Sokka could probably befriend the whole lot of them in the space of three days. Zuko stalked off to the south-west after Katara.

They trudged down a game trail that angled into a dramatic valley and finally stopped at the edge of a stream that ran the length of the bottom. There, the designated leader - a tall, gangly guy Zuko didn't even recognize, probably from one of the other training groups - spread out a map on a flat rock and called them all to crouch in a circle around it.

"Men, the Fire Nation presence is located somewhere in this region on the coast," he indicated a circle penciled on the map. He seemed on the brink of going on, but one of the other guys interrupted.

"Wow, Palluk. 'The Fire Nation presence'?" he chortled. "Taking our dress rehearsal pretty seriously, aren't you?"

Palluk fixed him with a stern look. "If we're going to benefit from this training exercise, we have to take it seriously." He went around the circle, meeting each recruit's eyes. "It's our responsibility as warriors to defend those who can't defend themselves. The people of Gao Ling are depending on us to be strong enough, smart enough, and quick enough to keep their enemies at bay. We owe it to them to make every opportunity count as we prepare ourselves for this war. Are you with me?"

Beside him, Zuko heard Katara's voice stand out of the chorus, a high note. "We're with you." Zuko only nodded. Palluk watched him for a second, then pushed on.

"It'll take us at least most of today to get into the area. Once we do, we'll locate their camp, wait until after dark, and attack in the night. With a little luck, the enemy will be neutralized before dawn tomorrow and we'll be back here with a whole day to spare."

The joker from before said something about working on his tan, but the guy next to him - Jeeka's big crony, Zuko recognized with a start - socked him in the arm.

"We'll cold-camp until our mission is complete. No light, no racket. Scouts will lead the way in rotating pairs. I'll go out first. Li, you're with me. The rest of you, stay together. Nobody goes out alone."

They broke up and Zuko followed Palluk at a trot down the stream. Obviously, he was in for some kind of lecture - probably something about team spirit and insubordination and the distinctions between the two - but he didn't bother worrying about it. Palluk was taller but he was slim as well. Zuko could sit through a stern talking-to, and if the need to knock this guy around came up, he didn't doubt he could do that too.

.


Not two hours into the march, Katara really needed to pee.

It had never been a problem in the base because there had been water closets - the Earth Kingdom's greatest invention - but here she was expected to stay with the group and there was nothing to stop one of the other guys from coming after her and ultimately barging through the bushes only to find her with her trousers around her knees and, oh wow, no boy parts to be seen.

She drew a deep breath and tried to relax.

It didn't help that they were following the stream - which was apparently the most enthusiastically burbling, trickling, splashing stream of all time. And the anxiety itself went beyond her current state of distress. If she wasn't thinking about that, she was thinking about Sokka, all on his own with that other group of guys. She didn't even know if he knew any of those guys, and that made her nervous, training exercise or not. And she also thought, annoyed and in passing, of Zuko and how he was being such an especially unpleasant person today. She tried not to think much about him, though. It made the knots in her stomach pulse.

Perhaps the most anxiety-enhancing thing about her current situation, though, was that Attuk kept casting her not-quite-subtle sideways glances. Or perhaps it was that, when she had dropped back from the group to try and subtly disappear for two minutes, he had dropped back as well.

Or perhaps it was the latest thing, when he came to walk beside her on the narrow path.

Even with the stream right there, Katara didn't want to fight him now. Just the thought of bending water made her want to dart for the bushes. The memory of Attuk grabbing her and squeezing her like he had wasn't much better.

With her anxiety only mounting, though, Katara knew she had to act - and now. The moment the rest of the squad rounded a bend, she stopped and frowned up at the big guy. He was watching her, stern-faced and heavy-browed. Between the seriousness of his face in general and the ivory ornament pierced through his septum, it was hard to tell whether he meant to look threatening or it was one of those things that just happened.

Katara didn't care. Maybe if she iced him to a tree, she could get a moment to go relieve herself.

"Alright," she snapped. "Whatever your problem is, I really don't care right now. So unless you want to end up shaking slush out of your boots for the next three days, I'd suggest you back off right now."

Attuk's expression didn't change. He just stood a few feet away, staring down at her like a misplaced giant. He opened his mouth to speak - the first time Katara had ever heard him say anything - and the words he said stabbed through her.

"I know you're a girl."

.


For a guy who had grown up on a frozen wasteland, Palluk knew a lot about deciphering the jumble of information available in a woodland valley. Zuko followed close after him, watching the way he avoided patches of thorny brush and seemed to know where the deeper mud would be by some hidden power. They were mostly silent, except when Palluk would pause and indicate some snipped-off twig or a pattern of lumps in the soft soil.

Monkey-deer. Porcuboar. Moose-lion, little one.

It was like the animals themselves came blossoming out of the half-hidden signs they left for him, and Zuko started to see it too, or thought he did. The shuffling lumbering footsteps, the selective grazing from one bush and never another, the round space in a patch of high grass where a body had curled until dawn.

Palluk led them a long way down the stream and then circled back up to one ridge for a look-out. They descended again into the valley and were making their way back upstream to rejoin the group when Palluk slowed them to an easy walk and finally said it.

"I guess you're probably wondering why I singled you out that way," he said. He was bouncing his hands lightly against his thighs as he walked.

Zuko glanced at the gesture but faced forward, gripping the straps of his pack to keep them from slicing his arms off. "It had occurred to me."

"Word is you're a top-notch warrior," Palluk said abruptly. He had straightened and fixed Zuko with a direct look now. His smile was mild, and maybe a little disinterested. "Who taught you?"

"Ah… I traveled a lot… so I picked things up here and there. Mostly, though, my uncle taught me."

Palluk's smile deepened. "Yeah? Me too. My uncle was always busy, but he made time for me. I think he kind of favored me - because he only had one daughter and, you know, a man always wants a son to teach things to." He was looking ahead now, and his gaze seemed so far-off. "Now he doesn't even have her."

Zuko could only frown ahead, around a bend where he knew the stream would fork.

"That's why I'm trying so hard to be a good leader," Palluk said at length. "My uncle is imprisoned in the North now, but someday he'll be free again. He'll hear about the great things I'll have done, and he'll be proud."

Zuko didn't want to think about this, so he looked closer at Palluk, who was younger than he had thought. Maybe not much more than sixteen. All his growth had been vertical, but Zuko got a feeling that the rest of him would catch up and everything would balance out for Palluk. He turned his gaze forward again and glared.

For all his scrutiny, Zuko did not notice how the younger man searched for words.

"It's come to my attention that you and Katto are… involved."

Zuko shot him a frown. He didn't want to talk about this, either. "Something like that."

Palluk paused for a bit too long, then blurted, "I'd appreciate it if you'd keep your… physical relationship out of sight during this exercise. We don't need any distractions, and - not that I've noticed any PDA issues so far, but that kind of thing could really create tensions in the squadron that I'd just as soon avoid. So just- until the mission is done, be discrete."

Zuko bit back a derisive snort and an especially nasty comment about just how discrete his physical relationship with Katto really was. Instead, he let out a deep breath. "Of course."

"Thank you, Li. I'm indebted."

Zuko had hoped that that would be the end of it, but Palluk kept going - like an old dam had broken, like he was straining toward something. "I really want you to know, though, that I understand how hard it is to do what you're doing. I mean, openly like you are. Living like that in the Water Tribe is…" He sighed and ran a hand over his face and back to his high, shaggy tail, knocking the beaded locks at his temples aside. "It's tough. You do everything you're supposed to your whole life and just one slip-up and you're a joke around the barracks. And it's hard to come back from that… It's hard to get any respect at all once you lose it…"

Zuko stared straight ahead and went on walking, stiff and wide-eyed. This conversation had drastically changed from what he thought it was.

Palluk didn't seem to notice. He laughed mirthlessly. "I mean, not everyone can suddenly become a powerful waterbender like Katto. And he's even luckier to have a guy like you there to watch his back. I used to read accounts in the palace library-" Zuko's eyes widened further. "-about gay couples who lived together and were still respected as hunters and warriors, but it hasn't happened in my lifetime. I guess…" He paused for a long moment, like the words had suddenly dried up. When he did finally speak, his voice had diminished to a smaller version of itself. "I guess you guys kind of give me hope."

Zuko looked at him then, and for a second there was shock and remorse written large across his face. Palluk was drawing hope from that lie - a lie of omission, but still a lie. Zuko felt like the worst kind of fraud.

Then he shuttered his expression and glared ahead. "Look, you can't live your life waiting for somebody else to show you that it's okay," he said. "If you're passionate about something, or someone, you have to chase that with everything you've got."

Zuko turned to look at Palluk then and found he had stopped walking to stare achingly back at him. "What if I fail? What if I lose the respect of my people? I'll shame my uncle and my mother. Dishonor the memory of my father. No one would follow me as a leader. Hahn would never even raise me up to begin with, because all my pull is on my uncle's position."

It didn't occur to Zuko that he was paraphrasing Iroh's words until they were already out of his mouth. "You'll earn the most respect from your people when you fail - and I mean devastatingly - but then get up and try again." Then he frowned and shook his head, whipping his arms out to either side. "And what do you mean, fail? You're on your way to being a good leader. You had solid command earlier. You even called me out right away because you knew I could be trouble." Zuko scowled and waved one hand in a dismissive arc. "If you want my advice, quit doubting yourself. Anybody who doesn't believe in you is a fool - you most of all."

Palluk just stared at him for a long moment and Zuko, uncomfortable, huffed and stalked on upstream. Eventually, the younger guy closed the distance between them and walked at his side.

"I am sorry to have had to ask for your discretion," Palluk said after a long moment of walking. "And I don't expect you to forgive me or respect me for what I'm sure you think is cowardice. But are you always such an ice-hole when someone opens up to you?"

Zuko frowned at him but Palluk just met his gaze with a wry lift in his brow. The vulnerability was tucked away again. The leader had returned. Zuko looked back ahead, frowning harder. "I didn't sleep well."

"You should probably grow up and get over that, and quit taking it out on everyone else."

Zuko only glowered. They walked in silence and rejoined the group shortly - only to find that two people were very obviously missing. Zuko didn't wait to hear what had happened. He dodged past Palluk and the others and sprinted back upstream.

.


Katara stood frozen, transfixed. She even forgot about running water - for a second. Belatedly, she forced herself to smile and choked out a laugh. "Attuk! That is one crazy thing to say! You… crazy guy… you."

He just stood there, still peering down at her with that unreadable look on his face. "When I grabbed you in the mess hall," he said, gesturing briefly at his chest before dropping his hands. "Hard not to notice."

Katara let the smile melt away and glared up at him instead. Bad enough that he'd felt her breasts, but this guy was close with Jeeka - who nearly topped her list of undesirable secret-discoverers. Her hands curled into fists at her sides until she snapped one up to point at him. "Who have you told?"

"No one."

"You could probably just make your buddy Jeeka's day telling him something like this. Why should I believe you'd keep it from him?"

Attuk tugged back his sleeve to reveal a blue ribbon and a polished ivory carving not so different from her mother's. This one was so new, though, it didn't have the same warm glow - instead it gleamed white as ice. "My betrothed would've wanted to come here," he said quietly, at length. He had a careful way of speaking, as if each word cost a price as he spoke it. "She was a trained healer. Maybe could have been a fighter like you, if she'd gotten out of the North."

Katara stared at him, and her temper and suspicion started to ease. She remembered what Pakku had said about the healers left behind, about how the Fire Nation had found 'uses' for benders untrained in the martial arts. She wondered if Attuk's betrothed was even still alive.

"What's her name?"

"Iyuma," he said, and the name came out like a little sigh. The perpetual furrow in Attuk's brow deepened. "Why are you here?"

Katara hesitated, then crossed her arms. "I came to protect my family."

Attuk nodded faintly. "You shouldn't be here. You'll get hurt."

"Are you saying you don't think I can fight?" She said it like a threat, but Attuk didn't seem to get it. He only shook his head.

"Just don't like seeing girls get hurt."

Katara frowned up at him for a long moment. She wanted to ask more questions to see if he was sincere, but the sound of the stream was overwhelming. She shut her eyes and drew a big breath. "Hey, wanna do me a big favor right now?"

She had just rearranged her clothes and was emerging from the bushes when she heard Zuko come upon Attuk on the other side of the bend in the stream. He was snarling something when she caught sight of them, leaning in close to the big guy's face to point a finger and issue some heated threat. Attuk looked even stonier than usual. Katara just marched right past them and didn't bother looking back to see if they would follow.

"Come on! Training exercise, remember?"

Palluk met them with a scathing lecture about the consequences of insubordination and sent Attuk and another guy, Kola, off to scout. Then they all got back to marching - and at a faster pace now that Palluk was setting it himself.

Katara hefted her pack and threw herself into the march. She suspected there were rocks in the bottom - something that could jab her in the kidney, anyway - that magically grew in weight but not size as time passed. Her legs weren't trembling with exertion or anything, but it wasn't even midday yet and they had many miles to go.

Then, abruptly, the weight diminished. Katara peered over her shoulder at Zuko where he was following closely and, apparently, had untied her bedroll from the pack and tucked it under his arm. He met her eye and sneered. "So you don't collapse before lunch."

"I'm not weak." But Katara hefted her pack and hurried on. She was proud, but not so proud she wanted that extra weight back.

"What were you doing with that guy?"

Katara didn't look back this time. She didn't need to see Zuko scowling to know he was doing it again. Always. They were following the group pretty closely now, since Palluk had so clearly explained his new discipline policy, and it wouldn't be safe to discuss what Attuk knew here. "Later," Katara said, and for several hours, that was all she said.

They didn't stop for a midday meal so much as ate handfuls of nuts from their packs while Palluk drove them tirelessly onward. Katara took her turn at scouting and the steady jog almost killed her when she and her partner mounted a hill. She made it, though, and only began staggering with weariness after she got back. Zuko took on more of the weight of her pack without comment. For that much, Katara was grateful.

It was dusk before they reached the ancient ruins of what might have been a bathhouse once, judging by the big stone tubs now covered in moss and dirt and sprouting plants. The ruins were significant only because they marked the squad's progress as somewhat lacking. They were just outside the perimeter of the target area and Katara wasn't the only one who was weary after such the strenuous march.

Palluk commanded a camp set up in the woods off the ruins and two big tents went up pretty rapidly. It turned out the incredibly heavy thing in Katara's pack was a bundle of cane tent poles. Maybe that was someone's cruel joke, sticking her with the tent poles. Not at all amused, she scarfed down her cold rations - some kind of preserved rice balls filled with an earthy, savory paste that tasted kind of familiar - and collapsed on her bedroll. She didn't really notice the three other guys settling in around her - including Zuko - because she had embraced sleep with the resigned expectation that someone was going to nudge her awake for sentry duty all too soon.

Only no one did.

Katara dreamed of the mossy ruins, all the tubs filled with hot water by the light of the fattening moon. She dreamed of steam slithering into the sky, and her own body submerging in dark, hot water that smelled like dirt and moss and growing things.

She woke slowly in the darkness before dawn, rising so smoothly out of her dream that for a time she didn't realize she had stopped dreaming. Warm lips dabbed at the back of her neck and a weight held her around her waist loosely. Her back was flat against a hot chest that swelled and receded with calm breathing. And, even through her sleeping bag, she could feel the hard lump that pressed against her bottom - and eased back and pressed again with languorous desire. Katara's mouth fell open on a sigh and she tilted her hips, unconsciously seeking a more satisfying angle.

Zuko nuzzled the back of her neck, behind her ear. She knew the soft rasp of his "Mhh…" but he said nothing. His hand, on the surface of her sleeping bag, began creeping up to her chest.

Katara let her eyes slit open, then blinked and stared at the sleeping recruit just a few feet before her. Kola, she remembered. He slept with his mouth gaping open, breaths throaty and loud. From the fainter snores, the fourth guy in the tent was still sleeping too. A part of her knew she shouldn't do this, shouldn't risk waking them. For a thousand reasons, she shouldn't. But that part was just a nagging voice in the back of her head right now.

Mostly, she was filled with blazing energy. Right now, she could probably do anything. She arched her back to grind harder against Zuko. He met her with more force, so close to the spot she wanted him that Katara sank her teeth into her lip to keep back a frustrated moan.

"Ah." Zuko opened his teeth against the spot in her neck where her pulse beat hardest. His hand withdrew and fumbled through the side of her sleeping bag, then ventured back to her chest. Katara grabbed his wrist and guided him inside the crossing of her shirt. He growled and grasped at her bound breast, scratching his nails across her nipple until it hardened.

Katara stifled a cry but couldn't hide her jolt. Zuko sat up on his elbow and kissed her jaw, her cheek. Her head turned as if of its own volition and she glimpsed the fire in his eyes before he ducked his mouth to take hers. His kiss was rough and wet, and Katara fell into it, rose up to challenge it.

Then there were footsteps outside and Zuko jerked away just an instant before the tent flap whipped open. Palluk peered in at them, looking a little manic.

"Get up! Time to move! What, are you frozen to the ground? Let's go! Go, go!"

Everything jolted into motion at once and the camp was rapidly torn down and loaded up. Zuko took the bundle of tent poles for his own pack and Katara, with a breathy smirking sort of laugh, took everything out of his bag and rearranged it properly when he couldn't make it all fit with his method of violent cramming. She would have teased him about not knowing how to pack a bag, but he kept watching her with the same steady, hungry look - it was hard to phrase a good barb when he looked at her like that.

Especially today, when the anxious knots were oddly gone from her stomach and she felt at once like running away and tackling him to the ground. Which would probably be easy. She could easily do that.

It didn't occur to her until they had marched for a couple of hours - at a very rapid pace, even for Palluk - that she had felt this same exhilaration and invincibility once before. When she did, she turned to look at Zuko, wide-eyed.

"They slipped us mushrooms," she said. "In the rations."

He only frowned at her, and something in his eyes made Katara think about the way he had awakened her - only she didn't want to think about that right now, she couldn't, and the thoughts flowed away so easily today.

Looking away, Katara went on to explain about how she and Aang had encountered the mushroom man all those weeks ago, how the mushrooms had made them loopy and then gave them a feeling of irrational invincibility. "Aang nearly got squished by a mountain goat-dillo. It was like he didn't even know the meaning of fear. And maybe that's partly an Air Nomad thing…" She trailed off, smiling and shaking her head.

Zuko was beginning to get a broody look. Katara refocused.

"The point is, this could be really dangerous," she said, jerking her head toward the rest of the squad, who were also chatting quietly amongst themselves. "If they think they can do anything, they could kill themselves trying."

Zuko frowned a little harder. "Maybe Hahn thinks they'll be braver that way," he said at length.

"Maybe Hahn is a self-involved idiot who doesn't know the first thing about being a chief," Katara muttered. "He sent me into that pit fight when I hadn't trained a week. I wouldn't put it past him to sacrifice other recruits for some kind of political angle."

Zuko was watching her, she realized, and his eyebrow was tilted back in that uncharacteristically open expression he sometimes got. Then the moment passed and he just looked ahead with his usual frown. Katara resigned herself to baby-sitting the guys around her - and, even though this was just a training exercise, she determined to let Palluk in on her suspicion at the next opportunity.

Only it didn't quite happen the way she had hoped. The scouting party returned at midday with news of the target ahead and Palluk ordered total silence as they crept up on the hilltop where the enemy camp was located.

The 'enemy' was supposed to be a handful of warriors dressed up in reclaimed Fire Nation disguises, holding a few Water Tribe captives. And initially, that was what Katara saw. Five men in Fire Nation armor sat idly around a campsite, chatting and playing tile games and occasionally looking into tents where the scouts reported having seen the captives. Palluk gestured for them to pull back, but Zuko waved his hands to draw the group's attention and pointed forcefully at one of the soldiers who sat by the too-large fire.

He was lighting a pipe with a little lick of flame between his fingers.

Chapter Text

"So the guy lit a pipe!" Kola held his hands out to either side and looked to the sky as if for reason, then back at Zuko and went on. "We were halfway down the hill! Are you telling me your eyesight is so good you're sure that he wasn't using a twig or something?"

"Yes," Zuko snapped. This was a lie - Zuko's eyesight was pretty average - but he knew the gesture well enough from watching the few men aboard his ship who would smoke a pipe in the evenings. The particular turn of the thumb and fingers that made that bright little flame. It didn't matter how he knew, though. "We can't attack that camp."

"But if those are really Water Tribe prisoners in the tents," Katara said, "we can't just run back to the base. We have to help them."

"It won't help them if a bunch of raw, drugged teenagers blunder into that camp and get themselves killed." Zuko leveled a hard look on her. She knew that he knew the relative strengths better than anyone here. Five soldiers against eight recruits would be a slaughter. But she just wouldn't give it up. It must have been a result of the mushrooms. Personally, Zuko did not feel invincible, not exactly. He knew those soldiers would stomp this little squad without a doubt.

Unless he broke out his firebending, and then they would definitely win. In fact, in a fire fight, Zuko could probably beat those soldiers all on his own. He could probably take all the other recruits, too. And Katara.

Oh, he could definitely take her.

Zuko couldn't help but look in her fierce eyes and think of that morning, when he woke up with her in his arms and she had pushed back against him, had so clearly wanted as he wanted. Looking at her now, when her passion was high and she was rising back against him, he was pretty sure that, if he could just get her alone, she would want to do more than kiss him.

And suddenly, that seemed laughably unproblematic.

But the mushrooms were a big complication. Zuko wanted Katara - feverishly, desperately - but he didn't want to take advantage of her in an altered state. In fact, the moment she had told him about the mushrooms, he had started rethinking the events of that morning. He had started to wonder whether her passion was just a result of her drugged mind. (And whether, maybe, when she came down from this high, she was going to be really, really mad at him.) However he might struggle with moral subjectivity, there was no arguing that getting Katara alone while she wasn't in her right mind with the intent to… do more than kiss, was wrong. Even if he was in an altered state, too.

So now they were having this fight about what to do about the captives instead, and it wasn't as good as what they had done this morning, and it wasn't as good as actually fighting with her, but it helped Zuko burn off a little of the intense energy that buzzed through him. "It would be better," he said, trying and failing to use a moderate tone, "to go back and send a rescue party after them."

"But it might be too late then!" Katara said, flinging her arms out to either side. "Those people need help and they need it now!"

"I'm with Li," one of the other guys said. "Better to be safe than sorry. There were just five that we saw, but what if there are more in the woods? What if they're waiting for a bigger force? We should just get word to the resistance and let the real warriors handle it."

Katara whirled on him. "Oh," she sneered loudly. "And I guess you're one of those fake warriors who carries a sword to look cool, right? We are real warriors and it's our responsibility to help those captives."

"We have a mission," Palluk said, quietly, thoughtfully. Everyone looked at him when he spoke that way. He twisted his jaw. "Maybe Li's right, and those are real Fire Nation soldiers. That means the stakes just got raised - but it doesn't mean we can just run away from the mission."

Zuko couldn't believe what he was hearing. "You're out of your mind! Your judgement is compromised! And even if it wasn't, you can't fight five firebenders with seven half-trained recruits and a waterbender-" He turned his furious look on Katara, who was glaring right back at him and opening her mouth to argue already. "-when there's no water on that hill. Those men are career soldiers! They were probably special picked for whatever mission they've been assigned - which might just be to capture a bunch of dumb kids and make them talk about the base!"

There was a moment of silence as they all stared at him.

"How would they know where to find us?" Kola asked. His eyes were a little frightened, fixed on Zuko in a way that suggested that he already had one idea.

Zuko scowled back at him. "How should I know?"

"You seem to know a lot, is all. That's all I'm saying."

"Shut up, Kola," Palluk said, rubbing his temple. "No one wants to hear the latest conspiracy theory right now." He straightened up and locked his eyes on Katara. "Katto, how long did you say the effects of these mushrooms last?"

"It was half a day for us - but we ate them earlier, too, so this could go on until sunset."

"Right." Palluk looked around the group, frowning. "Li is right. Our judgement is compromised. All of us. But whatever we decide to do, we have until sunset to think it over anyway, since we can't fight firebenders under the sun." He crossed his arms. "Li's also right that, if those are firebenders out there, we're outmatched. But Dekka is right, too. It would be prudent to make sure that the resistance finds out that the Fire Nation is already here. And Katto is right," he said, his eyes falling on Katara again. "It's our duty to help those captives."

Zuko could tell, even before the end of Palluk's little speech, that he wasn't going to like whatever scheme the skinny kid was cooking up. He crossed his arms and braced himself for it.

"So," Palluk said, "here's what we'll do…"

.


The first step of the plan was to assume positions around the enemy camp and wait until dark. Katara crouched behind some bushes with Kola for most of the afternoon and evening. It rained early, but only lightly, and then the clouds whisked off by evening. Katara bent the water out of their clothes and then off the ground under a tree so she and Kola could each get a nap in.

The whole experience wouldn't have been so bad if Kola had been able to keep his mouth shut like he was supposed to, but the guy just would not quit whispering about whatever stupid thing popped into his head. Katara just gritted her teeth and waited. The effects of the mushrooms were starting to wear off, and her mind was buzzing with all the things she had so easily let go this morning. The knots were back in her stomach, fiercely twisting as she remembered all the reasons she shouldn't-

-but it was nothing next to the prickling ache that started where Zuko had rubbed his… parts against her, an ache that blazed the length of her spine and stomach and thighs, that tickled always at the back of her mind. She tried to let thoughts of that morning drift away, but they dropped anchors and lingered.

Kissing wasn't enough.

"…know he's your boyfriend and all, but he might be a spy. Just saying…"

Katara shot Kola a scowl. It was dusk and he was sweating profusely - she could see it dotting his neck and temple and hairline in sparkly drops. One trickled down into the crossing of his shirt. Katara huffed, glanced at the sleepy Fire Nation camp, and then looked back at Kola. She smirked.

Letting out a puff of breath and sweeping a hand, she turned all the beads of sweat to ice. Kola jerked and rubbed at his face, then stared at her, wide-eyed. "Did you just… bend my sweat?"

"Yeah," Katara said, staring him down. "You seem nervous, Kola. Why don't you take a few breaths, get centered, and quit working yourself up over nothing?"

"Right. Okay, Katto." He was quiet for a long time after that, but it was a loud quiet - Katara was so aware of him trying not to say anything that she was just as tense as she had been when he was talking. Finally, he cracked. "I didn't know waterbenders could bend sweat."

Katara rolled her eyes, even though she hadn't known either until she did it. "Water is everywhere," she said.

"That's pretty neat," Kola said. "I remember this one time when this buddy of mine set up an aquarium…"

Katara sighed and resigned herself to ignoring him again. She watched one of the Fire Nation soldiers stand up and, stretching, duck into one of the tents. The time was close. The tent reminded her of that morning, of Zuko's lips and hand and… parts. So she tried to think of other things.

Noodles, wet ropes, and sweat - but water was everywhere. Clothing after a rain...

Sea prunes. Katara blinked when it came to her that she had been bending the water out of sea prunes to preserve them. And they were just vegetables. Hardly able to see in the growing dark, she frowned down at the short spring grass tufting up at the base of the bush they hid behind and, idly, trailed a hand over it. It was lush from recent rain. Full of water.

Katara had pulled the water from enough sea prunes to know what would happen to the grass. It would turn dry and dead at once. It would be changed forever, even if she tried to put the water back. She ran her hand over it again and marveled at its softness as the darkness deepened around them.

The night grew quiet, studded with croaks and chirrs from the treetops that winked out of the silence like stars, and the time came.

Katara opened her water-skin against her palm, muffling the squeak of the cork. The sound couldn't quite be hidden against the sparse night chorus of spring, which concealed little. They would have to be cautious. Katara led the way around the bush and up the gentle slope, light and quiet without her pack. They wove between the trees and came at last to the edge of the clearing. In the camp, the fire burned low. Only one man sat as a sentry, his back to one of the two tents that were supposed to contain the captives.

Katara bit her lip and watched as two shadowy recruits crept up the open ground of the hill to the rear of the other tent. She tried to guess which was Zuko and which was Palluk, but in the darkness and the distance, it was difficult to distinguish them. One knelt and a knife flashed as he began cutting the seams that connected sheets of canvas. The other crouched low and peeked around the tent at the sentry, then made a waving gesture.

That was Katara's signal. She led Kola up the slope, stepping high to keep from rustling last year's laid-over grass. He was blissfully quiet now, when it counted, and they reached the second prisoner tent silently. Katara crouched low and very slowly leaned past the edge of the tent to spy on the sentry while Kola worked the knife.

The sentry sat very still, his expression - from Katara's angle - bored as he listened to the night sounds. He was neither young nor old, and had sharp little mustachios at the corners of his mouth. Katara looked at him and tried to think 'enemy'. A career soldier, Zuko had said. A man who had made war his life's work. She tried to hate him, the way she'd been told a warrior had to hate his enemy.

The sentry started picking his teeth idly in that gross way Sokka often did. Pulling a face, Katara carefully withdrew and checked on Kola's progress. He had opened a flap in the corner of the tent and was ready to creep inside on Katara's signal. She nodded and he ducked down and crawled through.

But his boots rustled the flap. Katara heard the sentry stir and darted around to the other side of the tent just an instant before he would have spotted her. She heard him pause at the back of the tent and knew he would notice the cut seams unless she did something - anything.

Katara reached for the water in the grass - the spring rain that had damped everything that afternoon. She made it twitch and rustle in a little spot. The sentry tensed - she could hear his boots grind as he set his feet. Katara drew a careful breath and sent the rustling disturbance scurrying down toward the woods, like a frightened animal, something small enough to hide in the grass.

After a long, tense moment, the sentry returned to his post. Katara crept back around to the rear of the tent and waited.

It wasn't long after that. A shaggy head emerged, quickly followed by a big, stealthy body. The warrior was dressed in red - the underlayers of a reclaimed Fire Nation uniform - but the beads in his hair were obviously Water Tribe. He looked at Katara and his eyes widened. Katara gestured for silence and jerked her head toward the sentry. Quiet as a polar cat, he came to take her place as lookout. In the flicker of firelight that caught his face, Katara could see he was about her father's age. She lifted the cut flap to help the next man out.

There were five warriors, all dressed in red. Some still had ropes trailing from their wrists when they emerged. Some had cuts and bruises and burns that Katara could see, but none were grievously injured. Finally, Kola squeezed back out of the tent. Katara waited until he was ready before leading them down the slope the way they had come.

In the forest's leafy darkness, they returned slowly and quietly to the designated rendezvous point - the same hollow where they had plotted this rescue hours before. The walk took more than an hour, and there was no knowing whether the others had gotten away, except that the high chirping in the treetops continued to be the only noise. No shouts, no distant blast of firebending. Then, finally, they passed between the large stones that marked the edge of their temporary base.

Shadows rose up to meet them.

"Katto?" Palluk stepped forward. "You got them." Katara could practically feel his pride and relief. He quickly offered the escaped captives food and water. "We don't have much. Half our supplies are apparently drugged with some kind of mushrooms…"

Katara moved past him and off to a side of the hollow as the men accepted everything hungrily. As they settled to quiet munching and talking, she found herself counting shapes in the dark. Attuk. Danna. Three big men, the other warriors, who rose to join their comrades. For a second, she didn't see Zuko.

Then his warm hand fell on her shoulder and Katara turned to find him standing by the wide trunk of a tree. She had almost walked right past him. There was a feeling in her chest like she'd tripped and nearly fallen, but stumbled aright just in time. Her arms flew up as if to sweep around his chest and pull him to her.

Katara caught herself and redirected the motion, throwing her arms straight up in the air as if to stretch, like she had meant to do that. Not hug him. Certainly not hug him. What had she been thinking? It must be a lingering effect of the mushrooms.

Katara couldn't see much in the darkness, but she saw Zuko jerk back like he thought she was going to hit him.

"All this running," she said, faking a wince and twisting to stretch a different angle. "It, uh, really makes my back tight."

He relaxed, and she didn't need to see to know he was frowning. "Right."

The other men in the camp didn't seem to notice them. They had settled in a loose circle around the hollow, sitting back against rocks or trees. The first man Katara had seen emerge - apparently the captain of this crew - was talking.

"…larger force that hit us at dawn. Some kind of advance guard. They've apparently figured out some way to get troops and supplies up the cliffs south of here." There was a weary shrug in his voice. "Point is, they took us out and, when they asked what we were doing, I knew they already knew it was a training setup, so I just told them it was a combat exercise and fighting was the objective."

"I guess they bought it," Palluk said. "They only posted the one sentry."

"They underestimated you," the captain said. He was starting to smile. "They figured they could handle a squad of recruits even if the attack came at night. Fire Nation logic."

There were some chuckles around the circle. Katara thought she saw Zuko stiffen in the corner of her eye. She shuffled, uncomfortable.

"Honestly," Palluk said, "they probably could have. There are strong fighters in my squad but the battleground wasn't favorable for us - not enough cover and no water for our bender. And we're down men, too, because I sent runners back to the drop-off point this afternoon to make sure the resistance knows that the Fire Nation is here."

"That was good thinking," the captain said. "All our reports indicated that the enemy forces wouldn't be able to reach this area for at least a week. If things had gone wrong back there, your runners might have been the only warning Chief Hahn had before a flanking army came up out of the south."

Palluk was quiet and a few of the other warriors murmured their own praises. Katara saw one man - she wasn't sure who - lay a hand on their young leader's shoulder.

"Chief Arnook would be proud…"

Katara would have gone on listening, but Zuko tugged her sleeve and she turned to find him gesturing for her to follow him around the tree, away from the others. She glanced back at the huddled men, then went after him, careful not to break unseen sticks with her steps.

Shouldn't...

He did not lead her far, just far enough to dampen their voices from the others' ears, and then he stopped. There was a shuffle of fabric as if he was crossing his arms. It took him a moment to speak and, when he did, his tone was grudging. "I'm sorry about this morning."

Katara stared at his shadowy shape, unsure what to say.

"I didn't mean to… take advantage of you while you were sleeping. And drugged." He huffed and snapped his head to look away. "I wasn't exactly myself, either."

She wasn't sure what made her do it, whether it was the mushrooms or a day spent teased by thoughts of him or this, this awkward unnecessary apology, but Katara stepped into Zuko's space and balled her hands in the front of his tunic and, in his surprise, shoved him staggering back against the tree behind him.

"Kat-"

Whatever name he meant to say, it vanished into Katara's mouth as she kissed him. For a moment, he was hers - pliant and yielding to the demands of her lips and teeth. Then his hands settled on her waist, slid up her back to the ridges of her bindings, gripped her shirt and tightened into fists. His mouth remembered itself.

Zuko spun them around so easily, Katara hardly felt it happen. Then her back hit the tree hard, knocking her a little breathless, and he was pinning her with the length of his body, especially his hips, especially…

Katara gasped and tugged his shirt apart, opening it to expose his chest to her searching palms, her digging fingers. She raised her thigh against his hip and he gripped it enthusiastically, lifted her up against him, against the tree. His angle shifted and-

Oh. That's…

Katara's head dropped back and she tried not to breathe too loudly, she tried, but his mouth was hot and open against her neck and she could hear how his breaths came in sharp, desperate hitches.

And over how quiet they were trying so hard to be, she could hear the sounds of Palluk rousing the others to continue their flight. Zuko stilled and drew away an inch and just breathed against her shoulder for a long moment before letting her slide back to the ground. Katara pried her hands off of him so that he could right his shirt, but her fingers tingled all night long with the memory of his skin.

They marched until near dawn and rested through the final hours of darkness before rising again and hurrying onward. Katara sensed the tone of their expedition had altered. There was a lot less chatting and a lot more peering around. The warriors took on the supply packs and urged the recruits to march faster still. Scouting parties were sent ahead and behind and they made every effort to cover their trail. They even walked the rocky stream bed for the better part of an hour, soaking their boots. It had been an easy matter for Katara to dry everyone later, though, and the pace never slowed for anyone's blistering feet.

Zuko followed along behind her or walked beside her, and may have spoken three words the entire time. His silence was a relief. If he had had questions, Katara wouldn't have had answers to give him. And even the answers she did have, she couldn't just admit to him. It felt too much like giving him power.

And Zuko didn't need any power over her. Katara spent a lot of the march reminding herself exactly what he was. Firebender. Banished prince. Son of the Fire Lord, sent to capture Aang. None of that had ever changed.

It was just… in the context of her desires, none of it mattered.

They caught up with the two 'runners' Palluk had sent - who had apparently run so hard the day before that they slept long past dawn. Palluk hid his disgust well but Katara gave Dekka her most disparaging look.

It was well past midday when they arrived at the cave. One of the other groups had returned early and the guys all lay basking on the rocks, mostly naked in the sunshine despite the coolness of the air. They greeted the returning squad with grins and bragging until they realized something wasn't right. The warrior captain gathered them all together and explained the situation, then looked around at them, grim-faced.

"Alright, recruits. You've all passed your test, some of you above and beyond. Your job now is to wait here until sunset and make a full report to Chief Hahn when you return to the base. My men and I are going back out to scout the coast to see where the Fire Nation is scaling the cliffs."

"What about the last squadron?" Katara blinked as all eyes turned on her. She frowned around at them, then fixed her gaze on the captain. "The squadron that went west. What if they don't return by sunset?"

The captain shielded his eyes and checked the angle of the sun. "They've got a few hours yet. They'll probably come running in." He dropped his hand and faced Katara, and the set of his jaw was stern. "But if they don't, a rescue team will be sent. Under no circumstances are you - any of you - to leave the drop-off point unless it's to return to the base. Is that clear?"

Katara said yes along with everyone else, but her frown didn't ease. When she watched the warriors leave - loaded up now with all the recruits' viable provisions and about half of their weapons - her frown only deepened. She crouched on a slanted rock and glared down the slope to the west, down the bushy path she remembered Sokka taking.

Zuko came to stand beside her, though she didn't look at him. "Sokka's a smart guy," he said at length. "If his squad ran into trouble, he probably handled it."

"Yeah," Katara said, glaring at the trail and willing her brother to emerge. "Probably."

Most of the other recruits napped through the late hours of the day. Even Zuko lay down near Katara's rock. She didn't notice at all how he opened his shirt to the sun. She was weary, nearly exhausted, but she couldn't have slept if she had wanted to.

There was a terrible fear rooting itself in her gut.

The sun was near setting when the last squadron arrived, a straggling line of guys trudging up the hill. Katara leapt off her rock and ran to meet them. Even at a distance, she knew something was wrong. They all looked desperately weary. One guy sat down hard the second he reached the clearing. Some of the others had lost their packs. Their eyes were all shocked, all uncertain.

There were only seven of them.

Sokka wasn't there.

Katara passed by them all and looked down the trail after them, but it was empty as far as she could see. She marched back to where the others had stopped and grabbed the arm of the closest guy, wrenched him to face her. "Where's Sokka?"

The guy blinked. "He said he'd slow them down and catch up with us later. At the statue. But he didn't come." He kept blinking. Katara wanted to shake him.

But she only let go and took some steps back, turned away. She clutched her head, her face. Her knuckles went white, unfelt. Behind her, Zuko was talking to the rest of the squad, asking some questions she couldn't even understand right now, because how could anything matter right now when everything was teetering on the brink of falling apart.

It was like the last time she saw her mother. When Kya told her to find Hakoda and she went, not knowing that when she came back, the house would be full of smoke and a smell like meat - only Mom hadn't been cooking any meat.

Suddenly Katara was standing outside that door again. She didn't know what she would find beyond the door. She knew Sokka was inside, and something awful had gotten in there with him. It was the most frightening feeling she could imagine.

But she had to open that door.

Katara whirled to face the squadron. "Where's the map." Her voice was thick with fear or fury, but she spoke with her teeth.

They all looked at her, even Zuko, but she didn't really see him. It was the guy who had sat down, the guy with the pack, who shrugged off the straps and dug in the side pocket for a moment. He held up a poorly folded map, his arm heaving with each labored breath. "The camp… north of target…"

Katara snatched the paper away and opened it up, but she had never been good with maps. Sokka had always hogged the navigation duties. She stared at it until her vision blurred, not really seeing the lines on the paper, not really sure what they meant. Then she refolded it - properly this time.

Sokka never would have allowed this kind of treatment of a map.

A hand fell on her shoulder and Katara turned to look up at Palluk. His expression was compassionate but stern. "You can't be thinking of going, Katto. We have orders."

She blinked, not understanding.

"We have to return to the base."

Beyond him, Katara could see Attuk crossing his big arms over his chest. Kola stood not far behind him and gave a helpless shrug. "Don't worry about it, Katto. They'll send a rescue party after your cousin. It'll work out."

The sadness broke like a bubble and all the fury roared out. Katara shoved Palluk's hand away. "I'm not going back in that hole in the ground while Sokka's in trouble."

"Well you're not going after him," Palluk said with a little more force. He stood uphill from her, towering over her anyway. "Until this exercise is over, you're under my command. I won't let you go."

"Good luck stopping me!"

Katara turned on her heel and began marching back towards the path. Palluk grabbed her shoulder again and dragged her back. "You've got a canteen of water to bend up here, Katto. You're not going to win this."

She whirled out from under his hand and didn't bother with the cork in her water-skin. Katara took the water from the trees, from the bushes, she ripped it from the very ground around her. The stream came roaring out of nowhere and blasted Palluk in the chest, launching him up the hill to collide with Kola. They both went down in a drenched heap. Attuk looked on, frowning harder but unmoving. His eyes were tight. Palluk sat up and stared at her, horrified.

Katara scowled at the lot of them and took one threatening step forward.

All three flinched.

She turned to go and found herself face-to-face with Zuko. He was downhill from her, which meant she didn't even have to tilt her head up to glare at him. "Are you going to try and stop me, too?"

"No," he said, "but you dropped your map."

Katara blinked and looked back only to find that, yes, in the midst of her bending, she had dropped her map on the rocky ground. She leaned down and snatched it up, then whirled back to find Zuko still there, his thumbs tucked into the straps of the pack he was wearing. Watching her - Katara would have noticed the wariness if she hadn't been so furious - he stepped to one side, out of her way.

"Let's go."

Katara shot him a suspicious look and then stalked hurriedly down the trail. She hardly noticed the dead, dry leaves showering slowly from the tops of the trees she had killed, or the twigs that shattered as she brushed by them, or the shriveled blades of grass that crumbled as she stepped on them, crushed to dust.

All Katara knew, all Katara cared about, was opening that door. And this time - she swore it through her teeth, through the tears aching out of her eyes - she wouldn't be too late.

Chapter Text

Warning: this chapter contains violent death and trauma. (OCs - not canon characters, but still.) We're entering a more M part of the story.

.


Zuko followed Katara at a safe distance down into the valley and up the opposite slope. At the top, she didn't even pause - just kept going west, toward the setting sun. He watched her, the chopping swing of her arms and the surge of her shoulders with heavy breathing and occasional shudders. From about five long paces behind, he couldn't hear her crying, if she was, but she looked so delicate with her slim neck and small frame. She just looked like a girl alone in the woods.

The pace she set though, even after such a long march and so little sleep, was brutal.

It was hard to reconcile all that Katara was, because she was so many things. Zuko had been so preoccupied with the passion of her kisses that he had nearly forgotten that she was a waterbender capable of shockingly resourceful techniques - moves that seemed to come entirely out of nowhere. She was also a champion of those in need and a fiercely protective sister, fearless when it came to Sokka. There was no doubt in Zuko's mind that she would have left alone if he hadn't followed her, and perhaps would have preferred it that way.

But despite all that, she was also one skinny teenaged girl with a map crushed in one hand while she scrubbed at her face with the other. She was also a girl alone in the woods.

Zuko was a little mad at her for being so reckless. While he had his doubts that Hahn would make saving Sokka a high priority, it was pretty stupid to just storm off and expect to be able to rescue him alone from an entire advance guard. That would amount to around forty men. Even if she could suck the water out of an entire forest, Katara wasn't going to be able to win against an entire advance guard.

Really, she was lucky she had Zuko. She should be grateful. Not… crying. There was no way to be sure what had happened until they investigated, but the invading soldiers would be more likely to capture than kill at this point. They needed information. Sokka was full of information. He would be fine. Probably.

Unless they were torturing him. Zuko winced at the thought. The Fire Nation didn't condone torture but, with Zhao in command of this campaign, who could say what rules would be thrown out the window?

Katara didn't need to hear that from him, though. Zuko really wasn't sure what she needed to hear right now. So he kept his distance and waited for her to run out of steam.

Only, it was taking a really long time.

Katara followed the blaze of the setting sun, then the glow. Then she followed the memory of it, marching implacably onward. When it was fully dark, Zuko followed closer so that he wouldn't lose her. Because she didn't stop. She didn't even slow down. She stumbled over roots and fallen branches, blundered through briars, but she just kept going. Zuko stumbled and blundered after her for a respectful amount of time before speaking.

"You should get some rest," he said. "We'll start again first thing in the morning."

Katara didn't speak, and she didn't even falter a step. She just kept going. Zuko gritted his teeth.

"Katara, we can't walk all night like this. We-" He tripped over a root and staggered even closer, then planted his feet and fisted his hands at his sides. "This is stupid! We're stopping, now!"

She did not stop.

Zuko stood in her wake for a long, seething moment, then hurried to catch up. He nearly reached out to grab her shoulder but then remembered Palluk and just held out his hands is if to plead. "You'll get us lost like this. We won't be any help to Sokka if we can't find him because we got turned around in the woods at night."

Katara halted so suddenly that Zuko nearly ran into her. She spoke without turning around. Her voice was very quiet. "Fine. But we're moving on at dawn."

Then she sat down at the base of a tree while Zuko dug the tent poles out of his pack. He messed with the canes for a while and then, half-blind and disgusted, shoved them aside and just unpacked the bedrolls. He laid them out on top of the groundcloth and then looked at Katara.

It was perhaps an hour past dusk and the moon was already high, casting licks of pale light through the canopy and across the forest floor. Some fell on Katara, illuminating her exhausted, undignified slump. She was asleep. Zuko thought about it for a moment, then crouched at her side and gently scooped her up.

She was heavier than he had expected and her head pressed sweetly to his shoulder for the moment it took him to move her and lower her into her open sleeping bag. He paused a second, hesitating. Then, slowly, Zuko removed her boots and tucked her little feet in and then did all the toggles to hold the bag closed around her.

He had never done such a thing for someone else before. It put a strange, warm ache in the pit of his stomach as he poked the last horn toggle through its loop and let his eyes linger, just for a second, on the spots where the moonlight glazed her eyebrow, her ear. Her forehead was puckered slightly even in sleep.

Then Zuko fell on his own sleeping bag beside her, too tired to take off his own boots.

He woke at dawn drenched in dew and a little chilled, immediately wishing he could just-

Zuko lurched upright, looking bright-eyed at the forest around him. He wasn't in the base anymore. There was no one to hide it from, here. Katara was still sleeping beside him, so Zuko assumed his meditative position and, with a few slow, deep breaths, steamed his clothes dry. His extremities flooded with the delicious heat of his element, the tingle of energy.

When he opened his eyes, Katara was watching him. He wasn't sure how to read the grim look on her face.

"Good morning," he said.

She sat up without a word, pulled on her boots and began readying their gear, bending the dew away before folding or rolling. Zuko dug in the pack and found some bags of nuts and a sack of what appeared to be sticks but was actually some kind of jerky. Katara tried to take the pack from him to load it, but he put the food in her hands instead.

"I'll do it."

She frowned at him, and then sat eating nuts and watching as he assembled the pack the way he had watched her do it that time. Finished, Zuko hauled the burden onto his back and adjusted it to sit as comfortably as it would, then he shot Katara a mildly smug look.

"Why are you here?" she asked, still frowning at him. She had stopped eating.

It wasn't the response he had expected, so he glared and crossed his arms to conceal his disappointment. "Without me, you wouldn't have any supplies or shelter and you'd probably be lost by now."

Katara only narrowed her eyes. "Yeah, but why are you here?" Zuko hesitated, and she went on in a chilly tone. "It would be pretty dumb to try to head for your ship now, Zuko. You still can't sail the South Sea. I just thought I'd point that out."

The idea hadn't actually crossed his mind, and perhaps that showed on his face because Katara turned her glare down and away.

"Don't tell me you're actually here because you're worried about Sokka."

Zuko didn't want to pursue this line of thinking, because he had risked quite a lot coming along on this crazy rescue attempt. If he was spotted by any of Zhao's soldiers, it was very possible that they would recognize him, and if word got back to Zhao that the banished prince was roaming the countryside with resistance guerillas, Zuko would have a lot of explaining to do when he returned to the capital.

Katara couldn't have known, but what she was really asking was, Why are you risking all of this for my brother - and for me? And Zuko really did not want to start thinking about that.

"Sokka's going to be fine," he snapped. The next words tumbled out of his unguarded mouth. "They won't kill him if they think they can get intelligence from him."

Katara shot him a stricken look and her face went a shade pale at that. Zuko had just enough time to realize his mistake. Then she was unfolding the map across the ground with a hard set to her jaw. Clutching his head in frustration for a moment, Zuko let out a seething breath and then came to crouch beside her for a better look. She frowned at him briefly, then went back to scrutinizing the map.

"I think… we're here."

Zuko narrowed his eyes at the spot she indicated. "That's a hill. We're in a valley."

Katara huffed and snatched her hand away.

He gaped at her. "You have no idea how to read a map. You would've left alone with no supplies and you don't even know how to read a map."

She scowled at him. "I can read maps just fine! I just have more practice with maps of islands or coastlines… I would have been fine as soon as I hit a landmark."

"You mean like the ocean?"

Katara fixed him with a furious look and then turned away, hissing out a disgusted noise.

Zuko rolled his eyes and pointed at a spot he knew. "Look, this is the drop-off point. We went straight west maybe five miles before sunset…" He used the scale and a twig to measure a rough idea of their progress, then placed a pebble on a valley that might be the one they were in. "So we might be half a day from the statue where they were supposed to meet Sokka, and another half day from the camp."

He looked up and found Katara watching him, frowning. "Since when do princes know how to plot a march?"

"Since always," Zuko sneered. The suspicion in her eyes was getting old. "I started learning maps and military strategy when I was nine. What did you learn? Fish-gutting?"

Her thoughtful frown tightened into something less forgiving. "I learned to do everything my mother did for us before she died, only without her."

Zuko couldn't stop the widening of his eyes or the pained clench of his teeth. He couldn't meet that incriminating look in Katara's eyes without flinching. She rose abruptly and began leading the way west once more. Zuko folded the map and, at a distance, followed her.

He maintained that space for a long time, struggling with his own thoughts. About mothers. About the holes they left when they went away. Katara had stepped up to take care of her family after her mother died, but for Zuko, there was none of that. There was Azula, cunning and cruel and always working an angle, and there was Ozai, embroiled in his new power and having even fewer words for his son than he had had before. Neither of them had missed Ursa, and neither of them had needed anything from Zuko.

And then there was that frightening lie Azula had told him the night Ursa left… That lie that made Zuko feel sick if his thoughts ever strayed to it…

After a few months, Iroh had returned from Ba Sing Se with all his disgraceful failure and weak, nearly debilitating grief. By then, though, things had already settled into a new order. Zuko had chosen a certain course and was working hard to please his father. Where Katara had taken on her mother's role for her family, Zuko had had to struggle to create a place of worth for himself in his father's eyes. In fact, he was still doing it.

But Zuko did not really think about this. He just thought about how unfair it was that Katara thought she was the only one suffering the loss of a mother, that she had glared at him like he was somehow responsible. She had done this before, after the first time they kissed. She had said it didn't matter… because he was the prince of all the firebenders, because she looked at him and saw a murderer. And it hurt suddenly now in a way that it hadn't hurt before. He had sympathized with her, had ached for her and performed personal services for her that should have shamed him… and she only threw it all back in his face.

Finally, near midday, he closed the distance between them and offered her some jerky. Katara paused to reach into the sack, but didn't meet his eyes. Then she turned back around and kept walking without a word.

It was the chilliness that finally got to him. She didn't glare at him - she treated him like he wasn't even there. Like an anonymous servant or a peasant in the street. Zuko stopped and scowled at the stubbly back of her head.

"What's your problem?" She stiffened between two trees, pulling up short. He surged on. "I came along to help you and you're acting like I've done something wrong! What was it? Did I carry too much stuff for you? Here!" He threw down the sack of jerky and struggled out of the pack, slinging it to the ground. "Oh, that's not it? Well maybe I was too helpful with the map! Let's walk north for a while!" He flung his arms up in the air. "Maybe then we can throw all the food in a river! How does that sound!"

Katara spun around and stalked a few steps toward him. She was glaring at him as if he had intentionally lost his mind. "Would you keep your voice down? Or are you trying to get the Fire Nation's attention?" She crossed her arms over her chest. The look on her face stung him, it was so cold. "Maybe you, me, and Sokka can share a prison tent. Ooh! Or maybe they'll let you help torture my brother for information! Just for old time's sake!"

"You don't know what you're talking about!"

"I know the kind of evil the Fire Nation does!" She was shouting, leaning forward, baring her teeth. And then she was crying, too, but didn't seem to notice. "I know what it's like to look into the eyes of the man who killed my mother! I know what his fire did to her body! I helped stitch her shroud when I was seven!" Katara cut herself off and twisted her face away, then looked back at him, calmer but no less furious. "And all while you sat in your palace, learning how to send raiding parties to other villages, spreading war and hate and misery across the whole world."

Zuko glared at her and took a step closer, pointing a finger in her scowling, tear-streaked face. "You have no idea what it's like. You think my life has been easy? You think I wanted to send men to die?" He threw his arms out to both sides. "My mom left! I had to struggle to be worthy just so my father would remember I existed! You don't know anything about me!"

"I know you're being a real ice-hole right now!"

"Me? You're the one who-"

"My brother might be getting tortured by the Fire Nation, Zuko! Your people!" She shoved his shoulder as she said his name, but he only twisted with the blow, staying just as close and meeting her glare as she went on. "So why are you following me? What do you want from me? Gratitude? Another make-out session against a tree? The Avatar?"

"I'd settle for you not acting so much like you hate me!"

Katara froze, and there was a tremulousness to her down-turned mouth. "I don't hate you. But right now the only thing that matters is finding Sokka. So if you want to throw another childish tantrum-" Zuko jerked his head back, glowering. "-you can catch up to me later."

She turned to march off, but not before Zuko grabbed her hand. Katara leveled a severe face on him but didn't jerk away as he might have expected her to. He too a long, deep breath and, still scowling, slowly reached up to thumb the tears from her cheeks. She didn't smile, and she didn't lean toward or away from his touch. She only stared at him, her eyes falling slowly wider. Her voice was a tiny, uncertain thing.

"What are you doing?"

Zuko clenched his teeth, not sure how to answer. It had just… bothered him, those tears. And touching her lightly this way was soothing. Having her eyes on him now was like sipping cool juice after eating a box of fireflakes - it cleared some of the roughness away, made it easier to swallow. He ran the backs of his fingers once more down her damp cheek, then let her go and bent down to retrieve the pack and the scattered sack of jerky.

After a second, Katara crouched with him to gather up some of the meat strips that had spilled. She shoved them in the sack and pressed it into his waiting hands, shooting him a furtive look, then hurried off.

Zuko sighed, wedged the jerky back into the pack, and followed. There was something warm and heavy in his chest, something that had been there for a while, something that was getting harder to ignore.

.


Katara nearly walked right past the statue, even though it was almost as big around as her entire village. It might have been some kind of bear once, but it was so old that the weather and creeping vines had eroded it until the snout and ears had crumbled away and the shoulders had slumped and the entire thing looked a lot more like a small hill than a sculpture. At the foot of the statue, she found evidence of the squad where they had waited for Sokka, footprints in the soft soil and an empty cloth bag that had contained nuts.

Katara wasn't an accomplished tracker like Sokka, but she knew how to interpret obvious signs. She knew how to turn their course north-west as they continued up out of the valley on a narrow game trail, and how to break away from the trail to maintain their heading. She also knew how to be quiet and focused and listen.

She didn't know how to deal with the boy following her. So she didn't.

Late in the afternoon, Katara crested a hill and spotted a fire in the valley below. She stopped Zuko and pointed. The resigned look on his face sharpened and he shrugged off the pack to leave behind. They crept down the slope together and approached the fire in silence.

It was a crew of Fire Nation soldiers, about fifteen of them scattered around the camp, some preparing the evening meal while others chuckled quietly together about something. A couple of tents were set up - big red Fire Nation tents, not like Water Tribe tents at all. Katara wasn't sure how Sokka's squad had been dumb enough to attack this camp - if that's what they had done, she hadn't exactly gotten all of the details - but it was really no wonder they had run into trouble doing it. There were far too many soldiers here for eight recruits to fight. Maybe they had been drugged with mushrooms, too. The third group, the guys who went northwest and returned early, hadn't had the preserved rice dumplings in their rations. But maybe Sokka's squad had.

Katara was about to make her way around the perimeter of the camp to check out the tents when Zuko caught her sleeve and tugged her back.

"This isn't the group we're looking for," he said, barely an audible whisper. "They may have broken off from the advance guard, but they won't have Sokka."

"We still have to check," Katara bit out. She didn't want to think about what would have to happen if Sokka wasn't in one of those tents, but she knew. They would have to figure out where he had been taken. Which meant more delays, and more time for Sokka to endure whatever tortures the Fire Nation was going to inflict on him.

She began to withdraw again but Zuko caught her sleeve again. "What are you doing? We should wait until they're asleep."

"You wait. They put their tents so close to the bushes, they won't notice."

Zuko made a frustrated sound, but he followed her around the camp to the backs of the tents. There, he laid his hand on her shoulder, leaning close to where she crouched. "Katara, this isn't necessary. If we just wait a couple hours, it'll at least be dark."

Katara frowned at him. "Sokka could be in one of those tents. I'm not waiting."

Zuko glared at her, then pried his hand off her shoulder. He looked like it was an incredible struggle for him not to argue. The sight made her stomach throb, sick or anxious or…

Katara slipped out of the bushes and, staying low to the ground, approached the rear of one tent. She used the knife she had been issued for the exercise to cut a slit in the fabric - it was lighter than canvas and took no sawing at all - and then peeked inside.

The other end of the tent was tied open, so the interior was easy to make out. Some bedrolls, a few packs of gear, half-unloaded. No Sokka.

Katara withdrew and, in a crouch, made her way to the other tent to perform the same check. The second tent was not tied open like the first had been and all she saw through the tiny hole was darkness. She cut the hole a little longer, long enough to fit two fingers in and open it…

…and looked down at the startled face of a Fire Nation man who had apparently been napping. Which he obviously no longer was.

Katara spun and bolted into the bushes before he could shout. Zuko fell in just behind her, grumbling something through his teeth that she didn't care to hear. There was a cry from the camp, some yelling, then a crash of big armored bodies through the bushes.

"Where are you going?" Zuko snapped.

"I don't know! Down!" In fact, it was one of the survival rules Pakku had taught them. When fleeing in the Earth Kingdom, a waterbender's best bet was to head downhill - because that's where the water would be.

"Well go faster! They're gaining!"

Katara didn't know how it was possible for armored men to gain on her when she was running as fast as she could already, but she pushed for what little more speed she had. Zuko was with her, step for step. They leapt over a fallen log and came into a small glen where the trees trailed long leafy tendrils toward the ground. Katara wound through easily and she could hear Zuko lashing tendrils out of his way as he followed her. And then, between the trees, she spotted a little pond.

Katara stopped and turned around, assuming a fighting stance. Zuko skidded to a halt, glanced past her and then back at her, wide-eyed. He seemed on the brink of saying something biting, but then just snarled and drew the whale-tooth sword he'd been issued. They waited together for the soldiers to come through the clutter of leafy tendrils.

There were five of them, two wearing faceplates and two others armed with spears. The last man wasn't wearing a helmet and stood out in front of the others. The captain, Katara guessed. There was some gray in his hair, not so unlike Hakoda's. He stepped forward and raised his hands as his men circled out around them. "Alright boys," he said. "There's no shame in coming quietly when you're badly outnumbered. Nobody needs to get hurt here. So just put down the sword."

Katara could see how his eyes lingered on Zuko's face a second too long. Did he recognize him, or was it just the scar? She balanced her weight, felt the steady flow of her breathing as it slowed. "You're right," she said. "Nobody needs to get hurt here at all. We're looking for a Water Tribe guy. My brother. Tell us where he is and you and your men can go back to your camp without any trouble."

There were some chuckles. The captain only frowned. "What is it with you Water Tribe kids? Do you all have smart mouths or is it just your family in particular?"

Katara's stomach lurched. She bared her teeth. "Where is he?"

"Never mind that," the captain said. "You'll be joining him soon enough. Now yield before you get hurt."

It crossed Katara's mind to agree and let herself be captured if it meant being taken straight to Sokka - but then she thought of Zuko. One of the spearmen was staring at him with a lot more scrutiny than was necessary in this situation. No doubt that could only mean more trouble.

"Maybe you're confused about the situation," Katara said, shifting into the twenty-seventh position. "Let me clear things up for you."

She struck at the captain first, launching a stream of water out of the pond and toward his chest. Uttering a startled cry, he managed to block with a burst of flame but Katara only redirected, taking the stream around to nail the firebender on his right. The man grunted behind his faceplate and flew back hard against a tree, then slumped.

Katara hardly noticed the spearmen closing in on Zuko because the third firebender went on the offensive, punching and kicking at her with measured strikes. She blocked one and then another with the same whirling stream of water and then divided it to block with one stream and attack with the other, taking the firebender's feet out from under him.

She would have pressed the advantage, but from the corner of her eye saw the captain leap toward her, bringing down a lash of flame. Katara barely managed to bring up a weak wave to block and the force sent her tumbling back toward the pond.

The captain kept coming, punching and kicking rapidly as he closed the distance between them. Katara struggled to keep up, and tried to attack and block at one time as she had with the other firebender, but the captain was ready for that. He jumped right over her strike, kicking fire with both feet as he came down. Katara brought water up to block but still went flying back into the pond with a cry and a crash.

For a moment, there was just the still cold of the pond. Then Katara bent a great disk of ice to bear her to the surface. She emerged already in a bending stance, blinking the water from her eyes to glare at the captain where he stood on the bank, an instant from releasing his next strike.

Katara lifted both arms and raised up a wave beneath her. She surfed a serpentine path toward him, dodging around his bursts of flame and finally taking him down with the force of her wave coming to ground. She landed, took two running steps to slow down, and bumped chest-first into a tall boy with a stalk of grass in his smiling mouth.

"Hi," he said.

"Hi," Katara breathed automatically. He was startlingly handsome and startlingly close.

His easy smile widened just a bit, his eyes crinkling pleasantly. "I'm Jet."

Katara backed up a long step and cleared her throat but she could feel the blush flashing across her cheeks anyway. "Um! I'm Katto."

Jet's face screwed up. "Really? Because I thought I heard your friend call you Katara up by the camp."

"You heard wrong," Zuko snapped. He was suddenly standing next to her, straight as a post and still holding his sword.

Jet watched him, still cool and smiling but now with just a hint of suspicion on his face. "Alright," he shrugged. "My mistake." He sounded relaxed, even a little amused. Katara noticed for the first time that he held two hooked swords in an alarmingly casual manner. There was blood on them. Suddenly, a lot came into focus.

She flexed her hands at her sides and felt for the water on the ground all around her. "And what do you mean, you heard him? Were you spying on us?"

"Nah," Jet said, smiling at her again. "Me and my freedom fighters have been staking out that camp all day waiting for a chance to take those soldiers out. You guys provided the perfect distraction." He looked around the clearing. "And really took care of your share of the fighting. Nice."

Katara took a moment to glance around the glen, so she wasn't looking at Jet when he said his final words.

"We figured you guys could use a hand finishing the job."

The two spearmen were lying not too far from where they had converged on Zuko, the first firebender was still collapsed against the tree, and the captain lay in an awkward tumbled position, one leg caught in a bush. A scruffy boy - girl? - was darting from body to body with a knife. It took Katara a moment to realize what she was doing. She had already visited the first three and was gripping the captain's hair, drawing back to cut his throat when it sank in.

"No!" She did not hear Zuko shout at the same time, too focused on rushing the killer with a gout of water from the nearby pond. The blow came unexpected and sent her flying back on her rear with a raspy shout.

She was scrambling to her feet, suddenly holding swords, and Katara would have struck again, but something steely hooked her elbow and spun her around. Jet peered down at her, clearly angry and confused.

"Easy, Katto. I thought you guys were part of the resistance."

"We are! But you can't just murder these people when they're unconscious! They're human beings!"

"They're Fire Nation." A growing fury came into Jet's eyes, but that didn't frighten Katara. It was the weird flatness that made her take a step back. "They came here for a war so they should get one. Longshot! Smellerbee!"

Katara spun away from him and rushed toward where the captain lay, passing right by the girl with the swords, who watched her, disbelieving.

"You're too late for that guy," the girl said, though Katara could see for herself now how the captain's throat lay open, blood mixing with the water puddled on the ground. She wondered, sickly, if it had been the jostling of her own interference that slashed the knife so deep. The girl was talking again. "Don't go crying about it. He would have done worse to you."

Katara wrenched her eyes away from the gray in his hair and scowled at the girl. She wore stripes of red face paint. Was it blood? Katara lurched to her feet. She felt sick, and horribly, rattlingly still alive. "No. He would have taken me captive and shown me where they're keeping my brother."

The girl's expression shifted, but Katara didn't notice. Beyond her, she could see Zuko facing off with Jet, his whale-tooth sword at the ready. Off to one side was a gangly, frowning guy holding a stick - no, a bow with its string cut - and on the ground behind Zuko was the last firebender. He was on his hands and knees near where Katara had knocked him down.

"He's just a soldier," Zuko was shouting. "He's beaten and he knows it!"

"Just a soldier?" Jet asked. His voice was a little too loud, a little too intense. "Just a soldier? Soldiers exactly like him have raided every village between here and the Great Divide! He's Fire Nation! A firebender! He's a killer and he deserves to die for his crimes!"

With his free hand, Zuko yanked the soldier's helmet off. It clattered to the ground. A young man - not much older than any of them - with a topknot and wide, frightened eyes, peered up at them. Zuko didn't even look, like he knew the guy's face, like he knew every soldier's face somehow. He just went on glaring at Jet.

Katara took a step forward, but the girl moved first. "Jet!" She crossed the glen toward the tall guy and then stopped midway, standing still armed and at the ready. "They need him. The waterbender's brother got captured."

It seemed to take a second for the words to sink in. Then, Katara saw how Jet's shoulders loosened before his back straightened and he took a step away. Never seeming to look away from Zuko, he stalked to the other side of the glen. "Freedom fighters, huddle up," he said.

The scruffy girl and the gangly guy shared a glance and then followed him. They all started whispering together. Katara swallowed hard and crossed the grove herself on legs that didn't exactly feel like her own.

Something was different.

Zuko watched her approach, still holding that sword. His scowl softened as he took in her expression, though. "You have some blood on you," he said.

Katara looked immediately at her hands, because shouldn't it be on her hands? But there was no blood there. The blood was on the knees of her trousers where she had knelt by the captain's side. It stained the blue cloth an ugly purple. Bending to look, Katara retched, but nothing came up. She straightened, rubbing the back of her hand over her mouth, and drew some deep breaths.

Zuko was still watching her. She couldn't quite hold his stare now, so she looked at the firebender instead. His eyes had been on her too, she realized, but he dropped his gaze when she looked at him. She said something, words that came automatically so that she didn't have to think.

"Tyno," he said to the ground. "Private Tyno of the fifty-seventh."

Katara nodded but quickly stopped. The motion made her ill. "Do you know where they took my brother, Tyno?"

His eyes flashed up at her, then at Zuko, then at the freedom fighters still debating in whispers across the glen. Or maybe he was looking at the scattered bodies of his comrades, dead in the dirt. He swallowed hard and looked at the ground. "I… I know where they took him. Sokka. His name is Sokka?"

Tyno looked up at her then and Katara felt her brother's name like a blow. She couldn't bring herself to speak. The freedom fighters had killed the soldiers so fast - while Katara had just stood there, not understanding. How easy would it be for a Fire Nation soldier to kill Sokka? Just cut his throat. Just burn him. How short was the distance between alive and dead?

Zuko spoke when it became clear Katara was not going to. "That's him."

Tyno's eyes only flicked up to him before dropping again to the ground. His words came out in a rush. "Two days' march south, there's a base. They took him there for questioning because…" He hesitated, squirmed a little. His eyes darted up to Zuko's face and he lowered his head, lowered his shoulders subtly toward the ground. "Because the Admiral is on his way."

Katara didn't understand this, but apparently it meant something to Zuko because he took a sharp step back and his eyes went wide and furious. She might have been able to swallow past Sokka's name and ask what it meant, but Jet's voice came from behind her first.

"Okay," he said, an all's-forgiven shrug in his voice. Katara turned to find him walking closer, weapons sheathed and hands out in an open gesture. Somehow, his smile wasn't a fraction as reassuring as those unarmed hands. "So I may have been a little hasty back there. It's been hard for my crew since we were burned out of our old territory; caution became the name of the game for us a long time ago. No witnesses, no survivors. I hope there's no hard feelings." He stopped and cocked his slim hips, hitching one hand up by his belt. "The freedom fighters and I would like to offer you our help in rescuing your brother."

Chapter Text

Warning: this chapter contains sexual content.

.


Hey Katto.

That was pretty rough, what happened back there.

Listen, I know you've gotta be feeling pretty raw right now, and I know you're worried about your brother, but try not to think about it. We're watching out for you now. We're a family, Katto, so we know what it's like to be missing a brother. You've got nothing to be scared of, now, though. Not with us on your side.

I've got Li, too.

Yeah. I guess you've got him, too. He's pretty good with a sword. Not a real nice guy, though, is he?

Don't worry about it. You don't have to talk if you don't want to. I'll just tell you a little about the gang. It's okay to think of them as your family, too, if you want to…

.


Zuko walked with one hand gripping his captive's upper arm, guiding the blindfolded private along the narrow game trail. Jet had insisted on the blindfold, just in case Tyno made an escape attempt, but Zuko didn't think that was going to happen. The guy had no fight left in him. With his hands bound behind him, he trudged on however he was driven, obedient as a dog.

Even so, his steps were short and uncertain and they soon fell behind the others. But that was fine by Zuko - he didn't really want to travel with these cutthroats anyway. Ahead, Katara walked beside Jet, and Zuko could see how that bloodthirsty looter looked at her, even if she couldn't. Jet went on talking and talking, and Katara just stared straight ahead the entire time - but Zuko remembered how she had looked when she first ran into Jet, when he had just knocked out the last spearman and turned to see her blushing up at that criminal.

But she wasn't looking at him that way now. Not after what he and his "freedom fighters" had done.

A part of Zuko was reeling, too. He had never actually seen anyone die before and now, suddenly, he had. Soldiers. Men like those he had ultimately been banished for trying to protect. His grip on Tyno's arm was a vice because, while he wasn't ready to let his thoughts return to those lost men, he could easily focus on protecting this survivor. That was something he could do.

He wasn't so sure what to do about Katara walking alongside Jet, though. It had come as a shock to Zuko when she accepted his offer of help - because she had been so obviously shaken by the carnage. He had protested loudly but couldn't ask the questions he really wanted answered with the freedom fighters right there. How could she want the help of people who killed so easily - when she already had Zuko's help, which was better? How could she ally herself with them when she knew, had to know, what they would do to Zuko if they figured out what he was?

It hurt him, following Katara so close to his own death this way, but in his mind there was no other path to walk. And no other way to walk it now than lagging behind, waiting for the right time to demand answers.

"May I speak, sir?"

Tyno's voice was low, but Zuko tightened his grip in warning. The freedom fighters weren't close, but they were still too close. "You were told to call me Li."

"I'm sorry, sir. Li! It…" Tyno flinched. "It feels improper."

Zuko knew that he was not talking about the impropriety of using a captor's given name, but of using any such informality with a member of the royal family. Tyno, like one of the spearmen, had recognized Zuko on sight. He had nearly even kowtowed back in the glen, but had managed to restrain himself. Thankfully. Zuko's mouth twisted down into a sour frown.

"I don't care how it feels," he said through his teeth. "If you reveal me to these people, we'll both die. Do you understand?"

"Yes… Li." Tyno swallowed. Zuko could hear it even over the evening calls of birds and frogs. "May I speak, Li?"

"No. Just shut up and walk." Zuko did not want to hear whatever it was this guy wanted to say. He didn't want to talk about the deaths of the other soldiers. He didn't want to talk about why he was traveling with these people, apparently having betrayed his country. He didn't want to talk about why he was following a waterbender around like he was somehow bound to her when he wasn't, he wasn't at all.

He couldn't have guessed that Tyno only wanted to tell him that they shared a birthday, one year removed… And that Tyno's mother, being something of a manic follower of the royal family, had always teased him as his birthday approached by pretending that they were celebrating the prince's birthday. Tyno wanted to explain how funny it was, how strange, that he'd spent his childhood answering questions like 'what kind of cake do you think the prince will want this year?' or 'has the prince gotten tired of fire flake casserole?' and how he had sometimes pretended that he really was the prince in question, discussing himself in the third person. 'Yes, mother. I do believe the prince would love a fire flake casserole this year. With sliced char chilies on top.'

He wanted to put words to how hard it had been on his mom when the prince had been banished for weakness and cowardice when he was little more than a child, how Tyno would sometimes catch her watching him, then fourteen, with a miserable, fretful look on her face. He wanted, on some level, to tell Zuko how mad he had been with him, how much he had hated the spoiled cowardly prince who had so disappointed Tyno's own sweet mom, foremost amongst all the Fire Nation. He wanted to explain how he'd grown up and joined up and never ever expected to meet that prince, and that, if he had, he certainly wouldn't have expected that prince to risk himself saving Tyno's life.

Tyno wanted to express his gratitude, and his confusion, and the pride stirring in him as he realized that this was his prince - a man who, even in banishment and dishonor and disgrace, cared for the lives of common soldiers. A brave, capable prince who had severed his plume and maybe fallen in with a strange ally - that waterbender had gone from pitiable to terrifying in the space of a minute - but who was obviously in disguise, and obviously still bore some loyalty to his people.

In the wake of the horror Tyno had just endured, witnessing the deaths of his entire unit, most of whom he had lived and joked and fought beside for almost three years now, he could only really think - only really wanted to think - about telling his mother all about meeting Prince Zuko. He could picture her face brightening at once, and the image wrapped around the wounded parts of him, protecting him from the bloody turn reality had just taken.

Tyno wanted to talk about all of this - because Tyno was a bit of a talker - but he knew better than to defy a member of the royal family. It was with great effort that he restrained himself.

Gripping his arm, Zuko did not guess at any of this, partly because he had long refrained from thinking much about how people must see him, but mostly because he was watching Katara's shoulders slacken as she emerged from the path into a camp of shabby lean-tos camouflaged with boughs of leaves and clumps of grass and moss. He watched how Jet gestured around like he was proud of this mud-wallow of a hideout, and seethed.

Guiding his captive a bit more roughly than was necessary - and entirely unaware that he was doing so - Zuko moved to a flat spot several yards and large trees away from the camp to set up the stupid tent. He didn't remove the prisoner's blindfold, just sat him down at the base of a tree and then threw down the pack and started working. His prisoner sat quietly, but Zuko wasn't paying enough attention to be glad about it.

Darkness set in and a savory smell came from the camp but Zuko just kept working, tying the canvas over the assembled frame the way he'd seen the other recruits do it. Or something like that. It wasn't quite coming together right but, with daylight flown, he didn't care anymore. It was just a stupid tent.

"Dinner."

He turned to find Katara approaching with a bowl in each hand. In the gloom, it was hard to see her face, but her voice was dull and soft. She pressed one bowl into Zuko's hands and then, not quite looking at him, went to Tyno, who was still sitting at the base of the same tree, being very quiet. She untied his blindfold and then his wrists and made an appalled sound.

"Oh! Your hands are freezing. You can't tie a person's hands this tight, Z- Li."

Zuko, just standing there holding his hot bowl, scowled at her in the dark. "He's a firebender. He'll get over it."

"What, firebenders don't need proper circulation?"

Zuko only glared in response to her scathing, but Tyno spoke up, his voice low and stiff. Katara was still crouched beside him, apparently trying to warm his hands. By the sound of it, he pulled away. "He means that firebenders control the heat and energy in their bodies. My hands'll warm up in a second. It's fine."

Katara stayed frozen where she was for a moment, then backed off, apparently stunned by his tone. She was rising to her feet when he spoke again, like he was coming to some realization.

"You know who he is. You shouldn't speak to him like that."

Katara froze and shot a look at Zuko, but he had only turned his glare on Tyno, annoyed. "I'll speak to him however I please," Katara said. Her voice was tense but heavy, weary. "And if you're smart, you'll follow your own advice and think about who you're talking to. It didn't take much to thrash you the first time. I doubt a rematch would go much better for you."

Tyno scoffed. "You're bluffing. You don't even have anything to bend here."

"Shut up, private," Zuko cut in, scowling. "Katto could take you out with that soup in your bowl. Show him the proper respect or I'll teach it to you, personally."

They both stared at him for a moment, then Tyno murmured, "Yes, sir. Li." He bowed his head over his bowl. "I apologize for my impudence, Katto," he bit out, and then started eating.

Katara, after standing still a moment, came to sit with Zuko where he settled at the far end of the small campsite. For a long while, she didn't say anything, and the only sounds were the low chatter from the nearby hideout, the night songs of frogs and insects, and the quiet noises of eating. Then, so low Zuko almost didn't hear her, she spoke.

"Have you ever killed anyone?"

Zuko nearly choked on the last bite of his soup and for an instant just sat very still. He watched Katara from the corner of his eye, the way she clutched her knees to her and stared at the ground. He wondered whether she would respect him less for the truth, but decided to tell it anyway. "No."

"But… this is a war." She said it like she was just realizing it, like it hadn't occurred to her before tonight that she was right in the middle of one, that she had gone to a lot of trouble to get there. "How can you fight a war without killing people?"

Zuko held his empty bowl in his lap, rubbing his thumb over a chip in the rim. "I… haven't really been fighting the war." He spoke as low as she did. And she sat so close, he was sure she could hear, yet she was quiet, so he went on.

"When I first started chasing you across the Earth Kingdom, I marched with a small compliment of soldiers. We met an Earth Kingdom patrol, fought them, and won." Katara dug her chin against her knee. Zuko didn't know why he had thought it was a good idea to tell her this, but he pressed on anyway. "No one died. I had them taken back to my ship and locked up there, so they wouldn't report seeing my soldiers. I…" He hesitated, then peered at her, and decided she didn't need to know how relieved he had been to find no one had died in that skirmish. "In a way, it would have been easier to just kill them. And then they wouldn't still be there, eating my ship's rations out from under my crew… But I couldn't let them go, and killing them didn't seem… It wasn't…"

"Right," Katara supplied. She was looking at him, now. He could see a glimmer of her bright eyes in the moonlight seeping through the canopy. "It wasn't right."

"Yeah." Zuko slumped, frowning at his bowl. The earthenware was growing cool in his palms.

Katara shifted and drew a long breath, staring ahead again. "Jet says killing is inevitable in a war, and every time we show mercy is a time that the Fire Nation doesn't someplace else, so our numbers are constantly dwindling while theirs remain the same."

"That's a lie. The Fire Nation takes prisoners whenever possible."

"You do," Katara whispered against her knee. "But nobody took my mom prisoner. Jet's entire village was burned. Smellerbee's parents died. Longshot's parents died. Pipsqueak and the Duke, Shells and Knockit and Molls… They all lost people. Whole families. They didn't just get imprisoned somewhere, Zuko. They died. Because it's a war and in wars people have to die." She swallowed and pushed on. "So now, Jet says they're making it so the right people die. Soldiers on the march. Not families defending their homes."

Zuko's mouth pinched but he forced the words out anyway. "Jet's insane. You saw him today. He killed those men indiscriminately. And they weren't bad men, Katara. That lieutenant in charge? Trying to convince us not to fight? He did that because he knew we were recruits. He thought we'd only get hurt and he wanted to give us an out."

Katara didn't lift her head to look at him. She just hugged her knees tighter. "I know. I tried to stop Smellerbee but-" Her voice was thick. She was crying, Zuko realized. He could see the glimmer of fat tears rolling down her cheek. "I wasn't fast enough."

Unthinkingly, he set his bowl aside and brushed her slick cheek with his fingertips. She shut her eyes and roughly clutched his hand to her face. And suddenly, Zuko didn't know how it happened, she had flung her hard thin arms around his neck and buried her face against his shoulder. He raised his arms around her more slowly, his astonishment turning to a sort of aching pleasure.

"I have to be faster, Zuko," Katara gasped against his neck, tears coming harder now. "I can't be too late for Sokka. I won't. If I have to hang out with a bunch of killers to save him, I'll do it. Whatever I have to do."

Zuko pressed his cheek to the shaved side of her head and shifted to hold her closer. She was so bent on protecting her brother, maybe she'd forgotten that she needed protecting, too. It was a lucky thing she had Zuko. "I already told you," he said, the only thing he could think to say as, even through all the fear and sadness and determination, the smell of her skin tugging at him, "Sokka's going to be fine."

There was a clunk across the clearing. Zuko looked up to find Tyno, from what he could see in the moonlight, studiously looking at the bowl he had just dropped on the ground. Katara pulled away and Zuko shot the private a scowl.

"Smellerbee says there's a stream in the valley," Katara said quietly. "I need to wash the blood out of my pants. I'd-" She shuddered and wiped her face. "I'd forgotten."

Zuko nodded absently, thinking about how tightly he was going to tie his captive for the night, but his attention snapped back to her when she spoke again.

"Come with me."

"What? Why?"

Katar fidgeted a moment. "I want your company."

Zuko watched her twist her fingers into the fabric of her trousers and wondered what that was supposed to mean exactly, but didn't want to seem stupid, so he didn't ask. "What about the prisoner?"

As one, they looked over at Tyno, who was apparently now examining what patches of the sky he could see through the treetops while twiddling his thumbs. Zuko was immediately annoyed. Katara only shrugged and spoke a little louder than they had been. "Well, if he does try to run, the freedom fighters will probably get to him before we do."

She stood up and started digging through the pack for the wedge of soap while Zuko hauled Tyno into the tent and tied his wrists again. "You heard what Katto said?"

"Yes, Li," Tyno said, puffing out a breath. He sat still and quiet as Zuko tightened the knots. "I won't try to run… but… May I speak, sir? Li?"

Zuko gritted his teeth. Katara was waiting and she wanted… his company. And he didn't want to learn about a common soldier's opinions on gay interracial relationships or treason or, really, anything. He didn't want to think about rumors of any of this getting back to the Fire Nation when Tyno survived. All Zuko wanted was to give Katara his company. Whatever that meant, exactly.

"Not now."

Tyno sighed but Zuko hardly noticed as he emerged from the tent. The night seemed bright now compared to the darkness inside, and Katara stood at the edge of the clearing, facing the valley. She had stopped in a patch of moonlight, and it limned her with a silver glow, especially the long stretch of her neck as she gazed up into the light.

She did not turn as he approached, and after a hesitation, he settled his hand on her shoulder lightly. Through the cloth of her shirt, he felt her collarbone against his fingertips.

"Did you eat with the others?"

Katara was quiet for a moment longer, then she took his hand in hers and tugged him along a trail into the deeper darkness of the valley. Zuko noticed the evasion, but didn't remark on it as he followed her down the winding path. Her hand clamped around his, cool and hard, callused. A worker's hand. On a level, Zuko knew that still mattered.

But he did not think about it, he only followed her into the valley. They came to the stream, a faintly gurgling flow that Zuko could easily step over. Katara released his hand and knelt on the moss to trail a hand in the water. The ripples glittered in the few tiny dots of moonlight that managed to make their way so far down.

"The soup had rabbotter in it. I couldn't eat it." She hesitated before going on, voice hardly rising over the low sounds of the water. "After my mom died, I couldn't eat meat for weeks. I couldn't stand the smell."

Zuko sat down beside her, a little more heavily than he had meant to. "I know what you mean," he said at length, clenching his fingers around the caps of his knees. He took a long breath and went on. "After… I was burned, everything smelled disgusting for weeks. But my uncle told me I had to eat if I wanted to have the strength to complete my mission."

Just remembering that moment was hard. Zuko had been so preoccupied with his shame and pain at the time that he had lashed out at Iroh, shouting something about what a fat old man would know about strength. He couldn't remember the exact words now, and he was glad, because the memory shamed him at this moment in a way that it hadn't before.

Zuko cleared his throat and went on. "You should eat some nuts when we get back. You'll need your strength to help Sokka."

Katara was quiet, had been quiet. Then there was a rustle of cloth and Zuko could tell, not so much from what he saw but the way she moved, that she was taking off her shirt. He couldn't see much at all, just the spots where the moonlight hit her shirt, then the skin of her shoulders and her bindings. He shut his mouth and swallowed hard and sat stiffly beside her, not sure what to do as his face heated in the darkness. She stood and, he was sure, started untying the knot of her trousers. Zuko tore his eyes away and stared ahead across the stream.

"I can see you," he managed at last, thinking maybe she thought he couldn't. It came out as a hoarse whisper.

Katara paused. Her fingers stilled together against her belly, just above his eye level. "Don't you want to?"

He wrenched his head around to look up at the looming shape of her, eyes wide open. Didn't he want to what? See her? Touch her? Taste the sweat on her skin? Yes. Yes. To anything.

"Yes."

Zuko watched as she lowered her pants, watched the darts of moonlit skin appear across the faint swell of her belly, the bones of her hips, the long smooth muscles of her thighs. She sat to pull off her boots and tossed her pants into the stream to soak. Then she sat back and folded her legs beside her, leaning toward him on one arm, and was still.

Her shoulder was just inches from his. He imagined he could feel the warmth of her body, crossing the short space between them. It took a steady, stubborn restraint to keep from putting his arm around her and drawing her against him.

"I just want something good," she said in a breaking voice almost too quiet to be heard.

Zuko wasn't sure what this meant, whether she was speaking philosophically or literally, about the future or the present. All he really knew was that he didn't like her voice sounding like that, so fragile and lost, and he would do anything in his power to change it.

"Anything."

Katara turned her head to face him and through the dark he could only just see the faint whites of her eyes. She reached across and slid her fingertips up from his chin - his jaw, his cheek, the edge of his scar. He choked on a soft wail. It was at once sensitive and numb. It felt like her touch might hurt him, it might be hurting him and he wouldn't even know it until the damage was done.

But he didn't pull away, and Katara didn't pull away either. She just leaned in and covered his grimace with a kiss, a persistent, demanding kiss that Zuko surged back to answer. His fingers bit hard into his knees but his teeth were gentle against her soft mouth, he made sure.

They stayed that way for a long while, and then Katara was up on her knees, still kissing him, and she moved to straddle his lap. His arms looped around her waist, then suddenly constricted, pulling her harder against him in that most needful place. Their mouths went slack and groaning together for a second as Katara rocked to the slow beat of her own need. In this position, Zuko could only submit to the agonizing pace, and he clenched his teeth against the burning, against her fingers on his jaw, against her other hand between their bellies, sliding downward.

If he could have thought, he would have been able to recognize a lot of reasons why this was a bad idea - for her more than for him - and he would, in good conscience, have had to bring those issues to light. He would have had to stop her.

"Ahhn," he said instead, because it was all he could say. He didn't think to try and stop the slide of his own hands against her bare back, the one gliding lower until it crept over her loincloth and kneaded one cheek of her butt.

She rolled against his grip.

It was an accident, really, when his ring finger slipped under the side of her loincloth and brushed the soft hair of her sex. But Katara made that sound. That gut-wrenching sound she had made the first time he had heated her water. She groaned that way and tilted her hips in an invitation he didn't need to know anything about girls to understand. Zuko kissed her firmly and accepted.

Things grew less clear after that. The space between her legs was slick and complicated, but he tried things until he found something that made her make that sound again. Her hand found its way inside his pants and it was so much better when Katara did that than when Zuko did it himself. Awkward and uncoordinated, but so much better.

She was kissing his ear and murmuring, "You're so good. Zuko, you're so good." And it made Zuko moan - because he had always wanted to be good. He had wanted so badly to be good.

And then she was pulling his pants down a little and raising up a little and positioning and Zuko could only think yes yes yes as her slippery flesh nudged him and then, suddenly, he was inside her. Katara tensed in his arms. He could only pant with his face pressed against her shoulder and wait for her to move, to do something… Only she didn't.

Zuko raised his face to look at her but, through the darkness, he couldn't possibly have seen the pained twist of her mouth. And because he had been so adamant over the years about not letting Iroh talk to him about women or sex, he had no way of knowing that a girl's first time could hurt. When Zuko looked up at Katara's face, he could only see that she had thrown her head back, and he could see her shoulders rising and falling with her shallow breathing.

Zuko thought she had to be feeling what he felt. Because wasn't that how it worked?

He trailed kisses up her neck and then rolled her on her back on the moss. Katara squeaked and then winced and then moaned as his weight came down on her. All of those things. It was more complexity than Zuko could work through at this moment. All he really understood now was the command rooted deep in his flesh. He rocked his hips.

Katara made sounds that Zuko thought he understood but actually didn't. He didn't know how pain lanced through her pleasure, how it hurt to rise up against his aggression the way she liked to do - and did anyway because it was hers, it was all hers, the aching fullness and the sting and the sounds he made were hers and the moon winking through the treetops at her, she wanted all of it. All of it. She bared her teeth and wrapped her legs around him and held him tighter - because he was hers, because even if this was a stupid thing to do, he was the warmest and most reassuring thing right now, because under all his anger and scars and ill-placed loyalty, he was so good. But Katara spoke only in gasps and stifled cries, so Zuko didn't understand anything beyond her pleasure.

It ended very quickly and Zuko choked out a groan over her shoulder with his forehead in the moss, then slumped. As his breathing slowed and his wits came swimming back to him, he became aware of her fingers first. Katara was tracing his spine through his sweat-sticky shirt with a slow, idle ease. He nuzzled behind her ear until she gasped and then pressed kisses there as he caught his breath. For a long while, they were both quiet, and Zuko found himself unaccountably afraid of whatever words might come next.

"Since you're here," Katara said, and he relaxed at once; he could hear her faint smile, "we should wash your clothes, too. I'm not sure what a prince is supposed to smell like, but I really don't think this is it."

He puffed out an amused breath and caught her earlobe between his teeth. "You've got no room to talk. I've never met a princess who smelled so much like a Komodo rhino."

"You like it," she accused faintly, tipping her head to the side to give him easier access. "Everyone knows you're gay for my manly musk. Just come out already."

Zuko released her ear and really did laugh at that, a tiny, breathy laugh that was more a pleased spasm in his stomach than a sound. Katara turned her head and looked up at him. Her wide eyes caught the moonlight. "Give me a second," Zuko said, shifting his weight just to remind her he was still inside her, "and I'll show you exactly how gay I am for you."

Katara winced and Zuko jerked his head back, stung. "I… I'm sore, Zuko." She said it like she didn't want to admit it.

"I hurt you," he said, shocked.

Katara raised her hands off his back, then dropped them again. "It was my first time," she said, like that explained everything. Like she was a little insulted for some reason.

"It didn't hurt me," Zuko groused. It was closer than he had ever wanted to come to admitting his inexperience.

She paused, then shook her head, and she was smiling again. The smug superiority in her voice reminded him just a little of the way she talked about Sokka. "You're not a girl, Zuko. It only hurts for girls."

"Oh." He hesitated and then withdrew slowly, shifting to lay beside her. Katara started to sit up, but he snapped his arm around her and held her shoulder against his chest. He could feel her frowning at him. "Just… for a minute," he said, dipping his chin to brush her temple.

Katara sighed, and tipped her head toward him. "We really do need to get back. Tyno's waiting up there, all alone."

Zuko grunted out an annoyed sound and stopped tracing his mouth along her cheek. He let her go, and this time sat up with her. "Do you think the freedom fighters will bother him?"

"I don't think so," Katara said, "but they aren't exactly predictable."

She fumbled around in the dark finding her pants and the soap she had brought and told him to strip and even put him to work washing his own clothes. (Zuko scoffed at the indignity but humored her.) When he finished first, Katara fondly accused him of doing a lackluster job, then suggested that he put more effort into washing himself.

As they climbed the path back to the camp, Zuko caught her hand in his and trailed after her like he had on their descent. He had the strangest feeling that it would be better if they could just stay in this dark valley, and if everything between them could be as simple as awkward lovemaking and washing in the dark. But it wasn't that simple. And every step up the hill came with a reason that this had been crazy and stupid and dishonorable. Around halfway, their hands slipped apart.

They emerged in their camp again and crept into the tent, where Tyno was already snoring loudly. Katara settled into her sleeping bag and Zuko sprawled out on the groundcloth beside her for a long moment before remembering, and digging in the pack sightlessly, and then shoving a bag of nuts into Katara's hands.

"Eat."

There was a long silence, then a rustle and the soft munching sounds he had been waiting for. Zuko relaxed on the groundcloth and dozed off to that sound, blissfully exhausted.

.


Katara ached through the long march the next day, her hips and thighs and back all sore from the use of unfamiliar muscles. And between her legs there was a lingering rawness that mingled with the pleasant-yet-frustrating ache of unfulfilled arousal.

She welcomed the physical discomfort, held tight to it - because listening to Jet talk had made her doubt a lot of things, and seeing those men die had killed an innocent part of her, and it was right that her body should hurt. If the last few weeks had taught her anything, it was that fighting required some pain. And if there wasn't pain now, when Jet was challenging one of her fundamental beliefs, how could she know that she was struggling to keep it, that it was worth fighting for? How could she know that she was still alive to fight his insidious way of thinking if the effort wasn't marking her somehow?

Not that pain had been what she was after when she invited Zuko into the valley. Katara didn't want to think too much about why she had decided to do that - not so much the valley thing but the real thing, the big thing that she had just abruptly decided she wanted to do when she was touching him and he was touching her. She couldn't face the reasons now, or the consequences, not when Sokka was the only thing that mattered.

But she was aware of Zuko in a way she hadn't been before. She could feel him following along behind her, closer today than he had been yesterday. When she glanced back, his eyes were always on her, waiting. She could smell his scent on her skin even after washing, and her whole body twinged with it, this reckless blend of complex emotions - delight and remorse and pride and shame all tangled up at once.

So she focused instead on the ache of her body and on pressing the crew to march faster, harder to the south. Jet walked with her again today, and talked more about the evils of the Fire Nation, but Katara 'uh-huh'ed and 'yeah'ed through most of the conversation, only half-listening. Whether it was the thing with Zuko or the chance to bathe and climb into cleaner clothes, or the night's sleep, she felt better today. She wasn't shell-shocked the way she had been. She wasn't drifting above herself, watching the world pass with horrified disbelief. She was in her body in a very real, painful way. She had her edge back. Her convictions were hers.

And she knew Jet was a killer, and his way wasn't for her.

Katara stole a look at him from the corner of her eye. He was lean and hardened from difficult living, and his eyes had this way of never quite warming, never quite opening up. The way he had been so persistent with her yesterday, so patient and understanding and yet so bent on winning her over to his cause, had been comforting at first. But now it was setting off alarms. Now it felt a little rehearsed, like this was how he always dealt with the survivors. This was how he fed his army.

Jet was fighting this war the way he thought he had to fight it - and maybe for him it was the right way. Maybe it really was his only option. Or maybe he just liked killing Fire Nation people. Snuffing them out easy as candles.

Katara frowned ahead. "Have you heard? The Avatar returned."

"Yeah," he said, "I heard something about that. Little airbender kid, right?"

Katara nodded. "Legend says the Avatar has the power to create balance between the four nations."

"He's got a tough job, then, since there are only three nations left and one of them is bent on wiping the others out, too." Jet was shaking his head. "No way is one kid gonna be able to stop the Fire Nation armies."

Katara wasn't sure. She knew Aang was supposed to be powerful - but apart from some nifty airbending and a little waterbending and a lot of really agile animal-riding, she hadn't seen him do much. Certainly not any world-changing displays of legendary Avatar power. "But he has to be the one to end the war," she said, quietly. "Somehow, he has to do it. Otherwise, people will just keep dying. The only way for there to be peace is if the Avatar puts an end to the war."

Suddenly Katara felt incredibly foolish. Aang had seen all of this so clearly. He had come to her before he left and asked her to go with him. And she had said no, too determined to learn waterbending and help her brother with this stupid war - because she had been so sure then that the only way to win was to win on the battleground. But if she had gone with Aang, she could have been protecting him, and through him all the people who suffered, all the people he could save if he survived to end the war. She could have helped him find a better way, the right way.

If she'd gone with him, she would be floating in the clouds right now, a mile above all this blood and pain and horror. If she'd gone with him, she wouldn't have lost… whatever unnameable part of her that was gone now.

"That'd be great," Jet said, shrugging, "but this isn't a fairytale, Katto. It's not some kids' story." He lowered his chin, and glared ahead. "In the real world, the war never ends."

Chapter Text

They marched through the day and set up camp at dusk in a hollow between two knobby hills. Katara found Zuko pitching the tent off from the others again and offered him some tips on how to set it up properly this time.

"I know how to do it," he said, hammering a stake into the ground with way more force than was necessary. His two-handed grip on the mallet was dedicated, pushing overkill. It made Katara want to either huff and roll her eyes or smile a little secret smile.

"I just don't want to wake up buried in canvas again like this morning," she said instead as she sat nearby peeling the leathery skin off of one of the pocketful of lychee nuts she'd gathered from the side of the trail through the day. They were cold camping and there would be no soup tonight, but there were a lot of edible plants that Jet had pointed out. "I thought I was going to suffocate. Not a great way to start the day."

Zuko shot her a scathing look over his shoulder, but it turned into something more startled and heated as he watched her bite into the peeled fruit. "I'll just have to wake you more gently tomorrow," he said.

Katara's eyes bulged and, blushing, she glanced at Tyno where he sat tight-lipped and blindfolded nearby, probably close enough to hear that tone. She turned a glare back on Zuko, who only frowned at her for an instant before going back to his work. He apparently didn't care what their prisoner thought. Personally, Katara felt like the guy had been through enough and she would rather not make him uncomfortable with weird, complicated tension.

With a huff, she went to sit by him and untied his hands and blindfold, then gave him a couple of lychee nuts. Tyno peered over at her, frowning as he watched her peel one of hers before finally starting on his own.

"How did you know my brother's name?" Katara asked. The question had been nagging at the back of her mind for a day. She wasn't sure she wanted to hear the answer, but she had to ask.

Tyno shrugged. "Sokka, Southern Water Tribe. It was the only thing he would tell us. Except jokes. Sokka's got some pretty good jokes." He looked at her and his smile faded.

Katara, relieved by the mental picture of Sokka joking with his captors - because that meant probably not being tortured - rolled her eyes. "Yeah, yeah. Funnyness isn't a family trait. I get that a lot."

"You're… a girl, right?"

Katara straightened up at once, and assumed a glare a second later. "Are you asking for a drink, Tyno? Because I'd love to get you one."

He held up his hands before him, shaking his head rapidly. "No! I just don't understand!" When she didn't yell at him immediately, Tyno relaxed a degree and went on. "Why are you trying to hide it?"

Katara thought about pushing the lie, but what did it matter? He was one Fire Nation soldier, one guy who, as soon as they let him go, she would never see again. He couldn't give her away to Jet and the others because they already knew - for all that they agreeably played along with her alias and pronouns. The way they took it so seriously made the whole illusion feel so… silly.

Katara shrugged. "The Northern Water Tribe won't allow women to fight, or even learn martial bending. And I had to come after Sokka - because of course the first thing my brother would do is get captured by the Fire Nation." She shook her head and finished peeling a lychee nut. "Do you have siblings, Tyno?"

He shook his head and shoved one of his own fruits into his mouth. "Just me and my mom. I don't want to offend you or anything, but that's pretty barbaric about the waterbending. I can't imagine if things were like that in the Fire Nation." His eyes popped a little wider. "Princess Azula would make them change the law. She'd probably banish anyone who got in her way."

"I hear she's a prodigy," Katara said with studied disinterest before too-smoothly eating the lychee nut.

"She's crazy."

Tyno clapped both hands over his mouth and stared at Katara like she'd made him say that.

"Please don't tell Prin- Li, that I said that," he said through his fingers. "The Princess is not crazy, she's just under a lot of pressure because this is the year of her majority and she'll become crown princess this summer if Prince Zuko doesn't return. And she only banished one nobleman's son and it was for a very good reason since he was apparently cheating on her with a serving girl… Well, I guess she's banished two people, since she banished the serving girl, too."

Katara had pulled a face, lychee nuts forgotten.

"My mom keeps me up to date. Letters. Gossip about the royal family is this huge deal to her." Tyno gave a nervous chuckle. "She's a funny lady."

"Wait." Katara glanced over at where Zuko was tying the canvas over the tent poles - correctly now. She looked back at Tyno. "So, if the prince doesn't capture the Avatar and return to the Fire Nation by Azula's birthday, he'll lose his place in line for the throne?"

Tyno nodded. "By royal mandate. And, it's Princess Azula."

"You… You mean Zuko's father ordered that?"

Tyno nodded again, more slowly. "The Fire Lord. And, it's Prince Zuko..."

Katara ignored the last bit and sat back, appalled. "And you think my people are barbaric." She crossed her arms stiffly and looked at Zuko, the shuttered pride on his face as he stood back to admire the tent he'd assembled. "He deserves better."

Zuko glanced at her at that moment, unsubtly checking to see if she was looking, and Katara unconsciously gave him the same mildly impressed nod she gave Sokka when he did something helpful. She didn't notice how Tyno watched her, how his eyes widened slowly as he took in her expression, and then Zuko's, and then hers again. He might have asked a rudely personal question but Zuko was approaching, frown firmly back in place.

"Is that all we have to eat?" he demanded.

"There's jerky in the pack still. And some nuts, but not a lot."

Zuko scowled. "Didn't your thieving new friends take supplies from that camp they raided yesterday?"

Katara peeled a lychee nut and held it up to him as she tersely explained that, yes, there were rations stored back at the freedom fighters' hideout, but they were traveling light and fast, and that meant eating what they could gather when they could. Zuko took the fruit from her fingers and, not looking away from her, bit it in half. Katara glanced down at his mouth, the juice on his lips and the work of his jaw, then back up at his steady stare. Waiting.

"They're tart," he said.

"They aren't quite ripe yet," Katara agreed. "But we can't exactly wait around for that."

Zuko ate the other half of the fruit and Katara, feeling weirdly breathless, met his stare until Tyno started to squirm. Then she cleared her throat and gave the prisoner more lychee nuts and went to dig in the pack for the jerky. When she straightened, she found that Zuko had followed her. He stood very close, watching her. The look on his face wasn't exactly angry - but it was tense, like it hadn't decided yet what it wanted to be.

Katara was pretty sure she knew what he was thinking about, and it made her anxious, like she was on the spot suddenly, like she might be forced to think about things she wasn't ready to work through just yet. Like last night had changed whatever was between them and Zuko expected… to talk? To do it again? Katara couldn't deal with his expectations, whatever they might be. Not now.

He opened his mouth to say something and she held out the bag to him. "Do you want some jerky?"

"Uh…" he looked down at the bag, momentarily derailed, and then dug a hand inside as if he had no choice. He held a stick of dried meat in one hand and frowned at her. "Thanks."

"You're welcome." Katara started to dodge around him, but he caught her around the waist and stopped her at his side. She would have snapped at him, but he locked his eyes on her and spoke quietly before she could.

"I'm sorry I hurt you last night. I…" She watched him scowl at a point just past her and then turn a look on her that was equal parts pleading and annoyed. "I can do better. For you."

Katara blinked up at him and felt her face heat as she grasped what he was saying. Gran-gran had warned her about this, about men and their pride, their delicate egos when it came to their prowess at what husbands and wives did between the skins…

But Katara couldn't think about husbands or wives or Gran-gran or any of that right now, because it was all tied into the future she had tossed away on a whim. Looking up at Zuko, she didn't see a husband at all - she saw a boy who was always struggling to be worthy. And despite the lingering soreness, and despite the hovering threat of all the other things she wasn't ready to think about, Katara looked up at Zuko's unhappy face and she wanted him again.

Last night, he had actually laughed. And it had been so arresting, hearing that soft, relaxed sound come out of the dark… but she couldn't think about that, either.

There was only one thing she could think about right now, the thing she had to think about now that her head was cleared of its traumatized ringing, and thinking of that one thing made her desire seem hollow and selfish and it made Zuko's fretting over his performance seem entirely inappropriate. "We're close to the Fire Nation base," she managed, looking at their small camp, at Tyno pretending not to watch them as he peeled lychee nuts on the far side of the tent. "We should get there tomorrow. And tomorrow night we'll rescue Sokka."

Zuko stood stiff against her. She didn't see the red spot growing on his unscarred cheek, or the way he ripped his gaze from her to glare into the woods, but she felt his hand loosen from her side, the heat that had pressed through the cloth of her shirt suddenly receding. "Yes," he said. "We will."

Katara swallowed and haltingly raised her arm to loop around his waist in the same way that he held her. He frowned down at her, confused. Katara struggled to find the right words. "I can't… I'm not…" She frowned and took a deep breath. "Until my brother is safe, I can't think about this."

Zuko's eyes widened fractionally and his chin tilted up, away from her. "I see," he said quietly, viciously. He began to pull away but Katara held him tight. He frowned harder at her.

"So," she pressed on, "you can't… die. Okay? Because, after tomorrow night…" She shut her eyes and shook the thought away, then looked back up at him, urging and frustrated. "I don't even know, but just… promise me."

He stared down at her with an incredulous twist to his face. "That I won't die?"

"Yeah," Katara said, starting to realize how dumb this sounded, "because, when I can think again, I want to do it with you. Thinking! I mean… and talking about it."

Zuko's frown didn't ease, but it changed slightly. "Fine. But you have to do something for me, too."

Katara hesitated, then gave a jerky nod.

Zuko watched her steadily. "Once we get Sokka back and… you start thinking again, this is going to get a lot more complicated. So I want to share your bedroll tonight."

"But!" Katara's face blazed and she shot a glance at the prisoner, who had finished with the lychee nuts and was twiddling his thumbs and peering up at the treetops as darkness set in. She whispered, scandalized. "Tyno will be right there…"

"I don't care," Zuko said. "He won't even notice. And if he does, he'll get over it."

"Zuko!"

He seemed perplexed by her shock - and then, suddenly, his eyes widened and he jolted against her. "I don't mean-!" His cheek was getting red but he managed a scowl anyway. "I just mean to sleep. Nothing else." Some of the irritation eased from his expression and his eyes took on a searching quality. "But… if you want to… we could go somewhere."

With her arm around him the way it was, Katara could feel his tension, the way his breathing changed. She could feel the way his hand, on her side, twitched, subtly tightening. She knew he could feel her breath come harder against his arm, too, and she thought it had to be obvious how she wanted him.

"I'm still pretty sore," she managed after a moment.

Zuko only nodded and suddenly looked away. "I still want to sleep in your bed tonight," he said. He did not say with you, but Katara knew that was what he meant.

Even with sex off the table, sharing her bed with him still felt like a big deal to Katara. And even after weeks of sharing a room, sleeping just feet apart, and even after what they had done last night, giving him this thing he was demanding still felt significant and dangerous in a way she couldn't quite nail down.

She was not thinking about it, but Katara had slept close that way with her family when she was small, and she and her grandmother had slept back-to-back on many nights, and on some especially cold nights, Sokka would shiver enough to get over his manly pride and sleep with them, too. (He had a strict 'but no snuggling!' rule and had extracted agreement from all parties that no one outside their hut ever needed to know.) To share her bed with Zuko was to allow him another level of intimacy, not so much that shared between husbands and wives (though it was that, too) but between family.

And why would he want that, anyway? Wasn't he just after…?

But delving into that question, and all the other questions it provoked, was more than Katara wanted to deal with right now. This was all just a silly distraction from her real problems, anyway. When Sokka was safe, she could work it out. Until then, what did it matter if she permitted Zuko this when she had already done something so much more permanent with him? Something… irreparable.

Katara shut her eyes and shook the thoughts away. She would think of those things later. "Fine," she said, leveling a firm look on him. "Just to sleep."

Zuko nodded and peered back at her, jaw clenched tight with something that wasn't exactly anger, wasn't exactly pain.

But Katara couldn't face that right now, either. She tugged away and went to give Tyno some jerky. The prisoner met her eye with what he seemed to think was a casual smile, but she could see how his eyebrows arched with too much enthusiasm for dried seal.

It didn't get any less awkward in the tent. There was no light, so Katara knew Tyno couldn't possibly see how Zuko pulled her sleeping bag open and slid into it behind her. Or how Zuko's knees nested inside the bend of hers, or how his arm came around her waist, or how his nose and breath nudged the back of her bare head, hardly touching. And he certainly couldn't have known about the hard lump that brushed just once against her bottom before Zuko inched his hips carefully back.

Tyno just lay on the other side of the tent, sprawled over his own sleeping bag - the one Zuko had settled him on last night without comment - and slowly worked up to a gusty snore. But Katara was sure that he knew, and even if he was just a soldier who she would never see again, it made her nervous.

It was only when she felt Zuko's breathing deepen behind her as he drifted off that she allowed her hands to unfreeze from where she had curled then together under her chin. Only then did she trace her fingers over his thick forearm, his broad wrist, the hard tendons trailing up to his knuckles. He drew a big breath and sleepily caught her fingers where she had laced them between his, pulling her tighter against him, pulling himself tighter against her. The lump was not so hard when he pressed it against her again in his sleep - and this time held it there - but Katara knew what it was.

She clutched his hand to the bindings between her breasts and tried to let the thoughts flow away as easily as they came, but the feeling in her chest was more of a stone than a leaf. It dragged at her until she lulled herself off with measured breathing.

Zuko woke her gently as he had said he would, nuzzling the back of her neck. For the blissful moment before true awakening, Katara stretched against the length of his body and sighed in the nearly-uncomfortable warmth inside her sleeping bag. Her voice caught in her throat when his hot mouth opened against the hollow behind her ear.

On the other side of the tent, a throat cleared.

Katara's eyes popped open - much as Zuko's did - to the sight of Tyno staring fixedly up at the open vent flap, tapping his fingers together over his stomach. "Sun's up," he said, and swallowed.

Behind her, Katara could feel Zuko seething. "It sure is," she said with false cheer, sitting up hurriedly. "We'd better get going, huh?"

.


Jet's scouts - a pair of skinny, nearly-invisible kids dressed in mud and leaves - rejoined the group late in the afternoon to report the base's location and layout. Zuko hovered on the edge of the gathered freedom fighters as they drew maps in the dirt and planned attacks on pointy seed pods that represented tents. Katara crouched with Jet, a stubborn turn to her mouth as she made her demands.

It was nice to watch her frown like that at someone else. Especially when that someone else was Jet. And especially when she was insisting that she and Zuko would rescue Sokka on their own while the others created diversions around the base. It almost made up for the way she had ignored him all day.

But it did nothing to soothe the sick ache in his gut. Her promise about thinking and talking later was more a source of anxiety for Zuko than any kind of reassurance. Katara clearly believed that what they'd done in the valley wasn't just foolish and dishonorable, but a mistake, an error she'd made because she wasn't thinking properly. As if she had never intended to take him as a lover at all and, now that it was done, she meant to use Sokka to scrape him off like mud from her boot.

Zuko wasn't going to let that happen. He wasn't going to just meekly let this go. Katara had wanted him, had needed him that night. And last night she hadn't been exactly enthusiastic about being in his arms, but she had relaxed in her sleep and Zuko was fairly sure he could win her over with a little time. If he was persistent, she would eventually need him again. If he proved himself, then she would want him. So he would wait, and when the time came, he would be ready. And once Sokka was out of danger, and once they were back in their barracks under that stupid mountain - Zuko couldn't believe he was actually looking forward to that - Katara would have no choice but to deal with him.

"We'll need to split up when we retreat anyway," she was saying to the freedom fighters. "It's the best way to throw off pursuit."

Jet said something about making sure that they got away alright but Katara only reminded him of the safety of his own people and insisted that it was a rescue, not an attack - they couldn't hope to win against so many, so the best course was a swift strike and quick dispersal into the woods.

When the plan had been settled on - or near enough to satisfy Zuko - he returned to where he had tied Tyno to a tree out of hearing range and began loosening the knots. The private had been blissfully silent today, rightfully afraid of saying something that would provoke Zuko's temper.

They had shared a look that morning as Katara rose and hustled out of the tent. Zuko, his legs still tucked into her sleeping bag, had glared. Tyno had cringed and shrugged his shoulders up to his ears, and hadn't met Zuko's eye since.

Zuko, in large part, saw Tyno as a common man, just another soldier over whom he held authority and such elevated status that speaking to him, apart from giving orders, was beneath his royal dignity - a long-upheld system to which Tyno largely adhered. Saving Tyno's life and acknowledging his presence at an inconvenient moment were two different things. Better if Tyno had just kept his poorly timed throat-clearing to himself and not startled Katara right out of Zuko's hands when she had seemed to be warming to him again. Better if Tyno had just shut his stupid eyes and thought of the Fire Nation.

Another part of Zuko was embarrassed at being caught, and at having been distracted enough in the first place to forget that Tyno wasn't some Water Tribe guy who would sleep right through sunrise. Maybe Sokka would sleep in more… but that line of thinking only led to more frustrating problems.

Zuko jerked Tyno to his feet and began retrying his wrists. The private was hanging his head when he spoke, so it was difficult to hear, really. But Zuko heard.

"May I speak now, er, Li?"

Zuko gritted his teeth and yanked a knot tight. "If it isn't information about the base, I don't want to hear it. In fact," he said, suddenly adjusting Tyno's blindfold down and tightening it in the private's mouth. "We're about to return you to the army and all your talking could cause a lot of trouble. So keep it to yourself."

Tyno heaved a breath and was silent as Zuko drove him with a hard hand on his shoulder toward where Katara waited. Her expression as she took in the gag seemed a little concerned, but she made no comment on it, just leading the way through the trees.

They skirted the base wide to the north and hid in some deep bushes between two of the posted sentries. A soft rain picked up, concealing the sounds of their movements and seeping through their layers as they crawled to the edge of the clearing. From that vantage point, they could see several tidy rows of tents pitched in a flat area that had apparently been the edge of the forest before it was cleared of trees. Over the tops of the smaller tents, a few of the larger command pavilions could be seen, their red and black flags fluttering in the wind coming off the ocean. And beyond the flags, Zuko could just make out the light of the setting sun as it cut under the clouds and glazed a great steel arm - some kind of crane - that apparently leaned out over the cliff.

"What is that thing?" Katara asked in a whisper. She was lying on her belly beside him, her shoulder nearly touching his. But not.

Leaning a little closer than he probably needed to, Zuko spoke without looking away from a returning patrol as it marched between the nearest tents and into the base beyond. "It's a motorized winch. That must be how they're getting supplies up the cliffs."

Katara shot him a narrow-eyed look but didn't say whatever it was she was thinking. Instead, she looked back at the rows upon rows of tents. "There are so many. Even with the freedom fighters' distraction, how are we going to find Sokka in time?"

"They'll be keeping prisoners in one of those big walled pavilions," Zuko said. "We'll have to sneak through the soldiers' camp first, but there are only a few places Sokka could be." He turned to look at Katara, at the hard worry on her face. From the corner of his eye, he caught a glimpse of Tyno watching him with a thoughtful expression. Zuko ignored him, but looked away from Katara anyway, and back at the long shadows of the camp.

When darkness had fallen, torches lit the centermost part of the base but the outer reaches were left in darkness - or nearly, as the moon began its slow climb behind the thick clouds. The sentries traded out at dusk and soldiers began filtering into the tents. It was only when the moon was high over the breaking clouds and the sentries traded out a second time that Jet's nightbird call came trilling from across the clearing. Zuko tensed but it was Katara who surged into motion at the first blast from the west.

The sentries, turned toward the disturbance, didn't see her scurry through the blackened tree stumps. Zuko yanked Tyno along by the wrists - retied in front for just this reason - and hurried after her.

The private wasn't as quiet as Zuko might have wished, but they made it unnoticed to the outskirts of the soldiers' camp and dodged between tents before men began bursting out to answer the call to arms. Katara was already hopping ropes down the narrow aisle between the backs of tents, staying low and relying on the half-darkness to cover her. But the sky was clearing and she did not seem to notice that the occasional light of the fat moon made her as visible as any of the soldiers running along just feet away.

Zuko scowled at her recklessness, but he was angrier at the fact that she'd left him behind. He pulled Tyno along, rushing, and barely closed the distance between them in time to crouch with her behind one of the pavilions where she hid from a passing squadron of spearmen.

Wordlessly, Zuko indicated a spot in the pavilion wall where two sheets met and Katara bent to tug them apart and peer inside. From the faint glow on her face, Zuko knew there had to be some light burning within but, whatever Katara saw, it wasn't what she was looking for. She turned away and led them to the next pavilion.

Off in the distance, another round of blasting sounds came - but from their rhythm, Zuko knew they were the sounds of firebending, not explosive jelly. Of course Zhao's forces would be organized to respond quickly to any threat. For all that Zuko hated him, he had to admit to the man's competence as a commander.

The freedom fighters had their own ways of coping with Fire Nation order, though. There was another uncontrolled blast from some other part of the camp as they launched their second attack, then a third from nearer to the cliff. Soldiers were running in all directions now but the chaos wouldn't last. There wasn't much time.

Katara peered into another pavilion but that wasn't the one, either. She was about to dart to the next in the row, but Zuko grabbed her shoulder to stop her. Katara turned back, glaring, but he only shook his head, holding up a finger. There was a lot of shouting going on in the clamor of the attacks, but Zuko could pick out one voice, an unpleasantly familiar voice.

He gestured for Katara to follow him and pulled his prisoner along a different way, toward where Zhao was bellowing orders into the night.

.


Katara wasn't sure what she was supposed to be seeing, but Zuko was tense behind her, peering around her and the tent she hid behind at some well-guarded man in ornate armor. Soldiers ran reports about the damage and attacks to the north and west, and then hurried off again with orders ringing in their ears. The man himself was middle aged, with big sideburns and, she quickly observed, a knack for punishing messengers.

"Corporal Pakai, return to your commanding officer and tell him that fire had better be out when I get to his quadrant or I will throw him - and you - in it!" The corporal bolted but the man in charge hardly seemed to notice. He spun to another soldier and even from a stone's throw away, Katara could see the vein popping on his temple. "Take a brigade and burn out the forest! That perimeter should be fifty yards wide, not twenty! I want those rebels in chains or cinders and I want them now!"

The soldier saluted, and even though his face plate concealed his expression, Katara could see the fear in his jerky movements. The shouting man dismissed him and then whirled on a slim fellow who had been waiting beside him all the while. He stood poised with a coal stick for taking notes and leaned away, eyes glued to his clipboard, while the other man clenched his teeth and rigidly gripped his hands behind his back.

"Setting aside the Fire Lord's report for the moment, open out a new missive to Chief Hahn."

Katara almost fell. It was only Zuko's hand, suddenly gripping her arm, that kept her from staggering out of their hiding place. The man went on, puffing his chest out and glaring at the scurrying soldiers as he spoke.

"Keep it to the point. Remind that ungrateful traitor that I spared his life so that he could perform a very simple function and, since his pitiful machinations have failed to deliver more than a handful of ships thus far, express my growing doubts vis-a-vis his usefulness." He turned his head slightly to sneer at his scribbling assistant. "When you thank him for the one recruit he delivered in that debacle of a training accident and this-" He bared his teeth and gestured sharply just as another explosion sounded from the north. "-joke of an attack on the station that I explicitly ordered him to rearrange patrols to keep secret, be sure to mention his father's tenuous - no, failing - health."

"Yes, Admiral," the assistant said, still writing. "Shall I get this in the air now, sir, or…" He watched a squad of soldiers jog past. "…maybe later?"

The admiral spun on him, furious. "If I wanted it done later, I wouldn't be telling you to do it now. Get out of my sight!"

The assistant gave a squeaky final 'yes sir' and hastened for one of the pavilions. The admiral, snarling, marched toward the north side of the base, followed closely by his personal guard.

Katara had to take a moment to let what she had heard really sink in. Hahn was working for the Fire Nation. The chief of the Northern Water Tribe himself was a turncoat. Even having met Hahn, and knowing his dubious strategies, the enormity of this discovery was still mind-blowing. But here was proof; he had sabotaged the field training with the intent of handing over at least two squads of the strongest recruits to the Fire Nation. It was no accident that she and Sokka were in those groups, the only Southerners, the only recruits who didn't answer to Hahn as their chief. Hahn had planned to get rid of his biggest potential challengers - including Palluk, who was nephew to former-chief Arnook and had the family connections to make a legitimate move against him once he turned seventeen.

"It would have been a crippling blow to all the recruits still in training," she said quietly.

"What?"

Katara turned to frown up at Zuko. He looked a little wide-eyed, but mostly just grim. "If most of the best fighters were captured on a field training exercise, the other recruits would have lost hope. That was Hahn's plan. That's why he drugged us with the mushrooms. He didn't mean to just feed the Fire Nation information with us as captives - he could do that by himself. He's trying to take down the resistance from the inside."

Zuko was nodding. "By striking at the morale of all the warriors in training."

"We have to warn them. We've got to find Sokka and get out of here."

"Mmf."

Katara looked over Zuko's shoulder at Tyno, who was peering forlornly at her. "Do you know where they're keeping prisoners?"

His expression was one of great strain. Zuko huffed, but Katara just pushed past him to untie Tyno's gag.

He worked his jaw for a second and peered down at Katara, uncertain. "I don't know where they're keeping Sokka, but there was another prisoner that came in before my unit left last week. They kept her on the damaged warship anchored below for repairs."

Katara's stomach sank. If they went all the way down the cliff, they might not be able to come back up again. And if Sokka wasn't down there, they would lose their chance to get him out of the base. "Why would you tell us this? How can we be sure you aren't lying to us to waste our time and get us caught?"

Tyno blinked and shot a sideways glance at Zuko. Zuko crossed his arms. "Well," Tyno said, swallowing hard. "Ah, Li, saved my life, so I'm honor-bound to him… not to mention… I'm a loyal…" He seemed to be straining really hard and then, suddenly, something broke. He held up his bound hands to Katara, pleading. "You're good-hearted, Katto, I know you are. She needs help. I don't know if anything has actually happened to her or I'm just overly sympathetic to my enemies like you-"

Katara jerked back. "Hey!" Tyno didn't even pause.

"-but a pretty girl like her doesn't need to be a prisoner of war. It's…" He fixed her with another uncertain look but then pressed on. "It's a temptation to the wrong sort of men… and there are rumors about Admiral Zhao's old divisions from when he was a commander."

There was a pause, the space of a long breath, in which Katara realized that she really would have to save this other prisoner too. Even if she was a stranger, this girl was in trouble with the Fire Nation. How could Katara not do everything in her power to help her? Saving Sokka still came first, but after that…

Then, she remembered that name. "Admiral Zhao?" she demanded, pointing back where the man had just stood. "That was Admiral Zhao? As in the invader of the North? Zhao the Conqueror?"

"Don't call him that," Zuko said, disgusted.

"Oh, I'm sorry," Katara said, turning to glare up at him. She was standing very close and there wasn't much space between his crossed arms and her bound chest, but she glared up anyway. "I didn't realize you felt so strongly about your favorite admiral's nicknames. What do you prefer? Moonslayer?"

"I'd prefer," Zuko forced through clenched teeth, "that people just let his stupid nicknames fizzle out already. He made them up himself, you know. He's the most pompous, ruthless ash-hole I've ever met."

Katara opened her mouth to deliver some snide quip about pots and kettles but found herself suddenly transfixed as his eyes flicked down to her lips, then back up to meet her stare. It was the tiniest movement, but she saw it in the moonlight, clearer than by day, and suddenly other things became horribly clear as well.

Katara backed up a step. It rattled her, being reminded of the reality of Zuko's position. He was a prince - of course he would know his nation's admirals. And yet it still came as a shock to realize that Zuko was personally acquainted with the man who had so cruelly subjugated the Northern Water Tribe.

But to be reminded at the same time that he was also the boy who had held her through the night, who she had guided into her body in that dark valley. To think that she had allowed this same prince to roll her on her back and have his pleasure with her. That she had even wanted him to, that she wanted him still.

To think of the price…

Katara had been trying so hard not to think of any of this but now it had happened. The impact was an arrow punching through her chest. Everything else faded into the background.

But only for a moment. There was still an undeniable force tugging her forward. There were still people who needed her. She could focus on that. She didn't have to deal with this now. Not yet.

Zuko must have seen some indication of her feelings on her face. A cloud covered the moon and he reached out to lay his hand on her shoulder. "Are you al-?"

Katara knocked his hand away and bared her teeth. "Don't touch me. I'm not some spoiled prince's property, you have no right to touch me."

Even in shadow, she could see the whites of his eyes, the backward jerk of his posture. "I never said you were."

He sounded shocked, angry, hurt. Katara was glad. He deserved it. Maybe if she hurt him, he would stop looking at her the way that he did, like he knew her, and wanted her, and cared for her, even. Maybe he would stop making his weird demands and gestures, quit feeding her and following her and… and trying so hard and…

In her chest, there was a horrible ache, but she wasn't sure exactly what part of this situation was causing the pain.

So she swallowed and clenched her jaw and reminded herself of what she did know. This was the prince of her enemies, and he would try to capture the Avatar and eliminate all hope of peace, because if he didn't he would risk losing his crown forever.

And the rest didn't matter because, right now, only one thing mattered.

"We'll finish searching the tents, then we'll find a way down to the ship," Katara said. The clouds swept off the moon and she could see how Zuko scowled at her, how his face twisted with it.

"Going down to that ship is a waste of time. Sokka will be in one of these pavilions." He stabbed an arm out, pointing. "You just said we need to get back and warn your people about Hahn."

"I'm not abandoning someone who needs help," Katara said, glaring right back at him.

"This is crazy, Katara! You're going to get us killed or captured over what a prisoner is telling you?"

Katara shook her head and turned away. "We don't have time for this."

She didn't see Zuko pinch his eyes shut and then, glaring at Tyno as he dragged him along, hurry to catch up. She did hear, faintly, Zuko snarling something and Tyno making a quiet but heartfelt apology.

Katara wasn't paying much attention, though. She was peeking out into a wide walkway between pavilions, carefully checking for oncoming soldiers, but she saw none. Most of the commotion now was on the north and west sides of the camp. Katara led the way across and then dodged around the corner of a tent to where she knew the meeting of sheets would be. She spread them just wide enough to see, and froze.

Sokka knelt in the middle of the large space within, facing the open tent flap. Despite the shadows, Katara knew him at once by his wolf-tail and the sound of his voice, even though it was muffled by a cloth tied over his mouth. She barely hesitated. She didn't hear Zuko's protests as he rounded the corner with Tyno and saw her slicing through the ties and ducking through the opening, scrambling to reach her brother.

It was only when Sokka snapped his head around to look at her and she registered his wide, worried eyes that she realized something was wrong. He was trying to say something through the gag, but all she understood was the last word.

Trap.

Then, torches flared all around the inside of the tent and Katara saw the soldiers lining the formerly shadowy walls. Admiral Zhao himself stepped in front of the tent flap, a picture of smirking victory.

"Well well," he said. "If it isn't the favorite new hero of the resistance. Welcome to my supply station..." His smirk deepened and took on a cruel edge. "…Katto of the Southern Tribe."

Chapter Text

Zuko could hear Zhao going on through the brightly-lit gap in the pavilion wall, but he wasn't listening. He dragged a sputtering Tyno swiftly back to the intersection between pavilions and down another shadowy aisle just instants before a handful of soldiers rounded the corner to surround them. Out of sight, Zuko listened to them clank past, mind racing.

"You have to help her."

Zuko turned an infuriated eye on his mouthy prisoner. Tyno wilted at once, dropping his eyes as was proper, but he didn't stop whispering.

"Not that I'm telling you what to do, sir. Li! Sir! It's only-" He looked up again, and even though he stood taller than Zuko, his humble slouch made him seem much smaller. He held out his bound hands, pleading. "Prince Zuko, I know that girl is insolent and- and inappropriately ungrateful for your attentions, but she's got it bad for you, sir, you should see the way she looks at you, she's just proud or confused or something but she'll come around if you'll just help her. Girls are like that, they need to know you're serious…"

Zuko stared at the chattering soldier, momentarily taken aback. It had not even crossed his mind to run away and leave Katara to her own fate. Of course he was going to help her.

Even though she'd entirely done this to herself by being so impatient and bursting into that tent without Zuko's support. And even though the particular way she had spat the words 'spoiled prince' had stung and burned into his memory. …and even though it offended him that she would think that he considered her to be his property just because he had reached out to touch her in his concern at the sudden horror on her face - because that's what normal people did when they were concerned. And what was her problem anyway?

But Zuko was too distracted to focus on any of this now. He didn't even register Tyno's use of feminine pronouns. All he really got from the outburst was that he was getting advice on girls from his subject-turned-prisoner at a really terrible time. And how much could some green private even know about girls, anyway?

Zuko had no way of knowing that Tyno was actually very accomplished with girls, because he had been the sort of boy who listened to and respected his mother and had grown into the sort of man who listened to and respected women in general. And for all that Zuko was far from inattentive or disrespectful with girls, he simply didn't understand (as Tyno was beginning to) the particularly conflicted feelings Katara had for the Fire Prince. Tyno actually had a great many thoughts on the subject.

But, even if the present situation hadn't been as desperate as it was, Zuko was in no mood to listen anyway. Hot-faced, he slashed a hand through the air, cutting Tyno off. "Just shut up, Private! If you want to be helpful, shut your mouth and do as I say."

.


Katara stood frozen in place, half-crouched over Sokka at the center a circle of about a dozen Fire Nation soldiers. She wasn't about to look away from Zhao to count them, but the men she could see wore the armor and faceplates of firebenders. And although the ground outside was still wet from the rain, there was no water to bend inside the tent.

Zhao went on, a disdainful curl tugging at his smirk as he assessed her. "I didn't expect the Water Tribe's rising champion to be such a spindly guppy, but I suppose they don't have much left to work with."

Sokka made an angry noise behind his gag, more on behalf of the Water Tribe than Katara - who was, he would have admitted, pretty skinny. But nobody was listening to Sokka.

Slowly, Katara straightened. She still held her knife in one hand from slicing through the tent and her fingers clenched around it. It made her feel a little braver. "I know who you are, too, Zhao," she said, her voice clear and hard and so cold. "You led the invasion of the North. You've committed atrocities against the people of the Water Tribe - and the moon spirit itself." She bared her teeth, unthinkingly assuming a fighting stance. "You're a monster."

Zhao laughed an easy, mocking laugh. "You intend to fight? Please. Do you really think you stand a chance against me? Soon your little friends in the forest will be apprehended - or killed, it makes no difference. The end result is the same; you're alone, surrounded by firebenders, with just that canteen of your element at hand. Even with the power of a full moon, you can't possibly hope to beat these odds."

Katara blinked. The full moon. She had forgotten. Pakku had told her that the full moon could give a waterbender great power, but could it possibly be enough? She glanced around the firebenders before her. Some of them were breathing a little heavily. They had been running, she realized.

Zhao misinterpreted the widening of her eyes. His smirk cut deep lines in his face as it widened. A bead of sweat caught at his temple. "A strong waterbender with just a dribble of water. What a frustrating dilema. I imagine you wish you'd stayed hidden away like a coward at the South Pole now, don't you?"

"No," Katara said, sheathing her knife. She didn't even bother popping the cork from the canteen - because she didn't need that water. Because water was everywhere. She just lifted her arms into a starting posture and glared fixedly at Zhao. "But you're about to wish that I had."

Zhao's face twisted and he opened his mouth to shout an order but Katara moved first. She took hold of the sweat gathered in the underlayers of the men around her - just like she had done to Kola days ago, only a little differently this time. Katara had had power before. Now, under the full moon, anything was possible. She froze the liquid into the fabric to keep it from drawing out - there were a some gasps and unmanly shrieks - and then hurled the ice with wide sweeps of her arms. If Zuko had seen, he would have recognized at the heart of her movements the same clumsy, brutal bending he had first witnessed at the South Pole. Only now, there was balance and precision mingling with the brutality. And so much more power.

Firebenders went flying through the air to crash into one another. They skidded across the tent floor and collided in heaps. There were a few little puffs of flame, but the soldiers were all so startled by their suddenly icy underwear and the immediate loss of their footing that none of them managed a solid move. Zhao ended up at the bottom of a heap of armored men, still somehow bellowing under all their weight.

"Steam it out! Steam the sweat out of your armor!"

But Katara was already hauling Sokka up and scrambling out of the open tent flap.

It was exactly as they emerged, staggering into the open air of the aisle, that the pavilion went down behind them, collapsing as if someone had suddenly sliced the support lines. Katara glanced to her right and spied Tyno, hands still bound and his gag back in place, stepping back from the rope he had just cut with what appeared to be a standard issue Water Tribe knife.

"Time to go," Zuko said behind her.

She didn't even get to turn around. Sokka was suddenly dragging her along as she still clasped his arm - only really it was Zuko doing the dragging with a grip on her brother's stained tunic while Sokka shot her an uncertain, alarmed look. Zuko snatched the knife from Tyno's hands, growled "Stay," and began leading them toward the north-east edge of the camp and the forest from which they had come.

They had only run a short distance when Katara dug in her heels. "We're going the wrong way," she said. "We have to rescue the other prisoner."

Zuko whirled on her, furious. "No! Zhao knows we're here. There's no time to argue. We have Sokka, we've got to get out of here now!"

"Not without the other prisoner," Katara said, and pulled on Sokka, though Zuko's grip was iron.

Sokka glanced between them and said something along the lines of Hello? Tied up guy here? but no one understood him because of the cloth still covering his mouth. Unnoticed, he rolled his eyes hugely and began squirming to pull it down over his chin.

Zuko took one fierce step closer, raised a finger to point in Katara's face, and opened his mouth to say something truly belligerent, but then pulled up short and whirled away toward the sound of many footsteps. A squad of soldiers had heard the commotion and was charging the aisle toward them. Somewhere behind them, Zhao was shouting. An alarm bell was clanging. Katara saw, from the corner of her eye, Zuko's hand raising for his sword.

The light of the full moon was a cool gloss on her skin.

Katara stepped forward and dropped into a bending posture, then rose savagely up with chopping sweeps of her arms, easily raising a flood of narrow streams out of the damp earth. They struck the soldiers with hammering power, a dozen passing blows that hit or missed or were blocked but only looped around to strike again and again. It was an intricate burst of chaos - intricate as a flower made of ice.

Then it was over and the soldiers lay tangled with their spears, stunned or unconscious.

Katara drew the water back to her and wore it as two sleeves down her arms. She turned on Zuko, frowning and determined. "We're going to the cliff."

Zuko just stood glaring at her, his hand still resting on the pommel of his sheathed sword. Had Katara looked at him just seconds earlier, she would have seen his eyes much wider, but all she saw now was his glare.

"Really, guys?" Sokka asked, finally wrestling out of the gag. "Can't you argue and untie me at the same time?"

Katara finally looked at him, and it was like hitting a wall. His annoyed, sarcastic, beloved face. The ghost of the bruise around his eye from where Zuko had punched him on leave day. The water fell in a splash off her arms just before she grabbed him in a fierce hug. "Oh Sokka! You're alright!"

He stood there, trapped in her arms with his wrists still bound behind him. Katara couldn't see the smile he was struggling against, but she could hear it in his voice. "Oh, so now you're happy to see me…"

"He's not going to be alright for long if we don't get moving," Zuko snarled, but he pulled his knife and cut through Sokka's bonds as he spoke. "We have to get out of here before Zhao regroups."

"You know how much I love agreeing with Zuko," Sokka said, gripping her shoulders and drawing back, "but he's got a point this time. We should really get out of here."

"I know, I know!" Katara didn't wait for Zuko to start leading them back toward the forest. With a grip on Sokka's sleeve and a firm look at Zuko as she turned, she began hustling them straight south toward where the crane jutted above the tents.

.


Though he easily kept pace with the Water Tribe siblings as they sprinted between tents and dodged down narrow access ways, Zuko was preoccupied. He was convinced that Katara didn't fully grasp the danger that they - and he, personally - were in. Zhao would organize strike forces and he'd waste no time hunting them down. If they were captured, Katara and Sokka would face imprisonment and possible execution. For Zuko, so much more was on the line.

All it would take was Zhao catching one glimpse of him and he would be branded a traitor. Tyno had sworn that he wouldn't report seeing Zuko, and he had seemed pretty genuine, so it was still possible for Zuko to come away from this rescue mission without losing what little respect his people might hold for him.

Unless Katara took unnecessary risks to save this girl she didn't even know - and not just that, but a prisoner of war whose allegiances had never been made clear. It seemed absolutely unreasonable to Zuko. Who would do such a thing? What could make Katara gamble to rescue Sokka and then, after miraculously winning, risk everything by diving right back in for some unknown girl?

But Zuko remembered the Water Tribe prisoners that Katara had demanded they rescue during their sabotaged training exercise. He had thought then that her total lack of self-preservation was a result of the mushrooms. Now, it was becoming clear that this was a permanent defect. Katara genuinely wanted to help people. And she would risk herself to do it. She would risk all of them.

It crossed his mind to rebel against her, to enlist Sokka into talking sense into her because Sokka at least knew to look out for himself, but Zuko said nothing. He only followed the path she ran toward the cliffs. If he couldn't change her mind, he certainly wasn't going to try to fight her into doing what he knew was the smarter thing. Not when arguing would only draw attention.

Not when the moon was full and he couldn't firebend.

Zuko watched as a couple of firebenders turned a corner and, after a startled instant, assumed fighting stances in their path. Katara didn't even slow down. She leaned to one side, arms straight as swords as she reached down toward the ground, gathering water up from the mud of the walkway. So much more water than Zuko would have expected. The firebenders struck simultaneously but Katara's wave rose up and swallowed their night-weak blasts, then swooped around and came up under their feet, freezing them into jags of ice. They were still struggling as Zuko ran past on Sokka's heels, locked up to their necks and wrists.

Sokka, staring back at them, had a look on his face somewhere between delight and alarm. He caught Zuko looking at him and smirked, but it seemed a little forced and he turned back around without making the expected smart remark. Zuko, in his preoccupation, did not much notice.

They finally reached the cliff with little other interference and stood at the edge over what had to be close to a two-hundred-foot drop. Far, far below, the sea glittered in the moonlight. A few dark shapes - ships - sat at anchor, pinprick lights glowing from their towers. There was no path down the cliff, no easy way to climb. But there was the crane. It loomed over them like a giant, dangling a long cable that supported a wide steel platform at its end. The platform was currently locked into its docking station, an equally wide walkway with posts and rails that jutted out perhaps ten feet from the edge of the cliff. At the far end were a set of levers that apparently engaged the locking clamps.

The crane's control booth was empty. The whole docking area was empty. The blasting sounds had largely stopped in the north and west, but new clanks and shouts and marching had risen up to the north-east. Zuko's jaw clenched a little harder as he realized that Zhao had expected them to flee into the forest. He had probably even sent men to cut off their escape.

It should have made him happy to think they had evaded that trap, but instead it just frustrated him more.

"Aw man," Sokka was saying as he peered down at the distant ships and then up at the crane. "We're going down there? This seems like a really bad idea."

"The other prisoner is on one of those ships," Katara said as she struggled with a lever. She did not have the weight to throw it, but that didn't stop her from trying. "We have to help."

"Katara! What about us? Who's gonna help us when Zhao catches up and we're still trying to make this thing work?"

"There's no other choice now," Zuko said, and pointed at the other lever. "Get the platform unlocked. I'll start the motor."

He spun and raced into the control booth and, looking over all the buttons and levers and switches and dials, wanted to kick himself. Zuko had no idea how to start the winch.

.


Sokka frowned as he watched Zuko dart away. "Somebody got up on the wrong side of the sleeping bag."

"What?" There was a sound of impact and Sokka turned to find Katara pulling away from the lever where it had apparently jabbed her in the ribs. Her hands must have slipped. She rubbed the spot vigorously and turned a sour look on Sokka. "Are you going to help me or what?" Her voice was a little shrill.

Sokka, mulling this over, came to lean his weight against the lever. "So you came all this way to get me, huh? That's a pretty long walk…" The locking mechanism disengaged with a grinding clank.

"Sokka, I wasn't going to just let you get imprisoned or killed," Katara said, rolling her eyes as she moved to the other lever. "I would have gone a lot farther if I'd had to."

"It's a lucky thing the rest of your squad felt the same way," he said. "And had so much blasting jelly on hand…"

"That's not the squad. They went back to the base without us. The explosions are thanks to some freedom fighters Zuko and I met on the way here."

"Ah," Sokka nodded sagely, even though he knew next to nothing about freedom fighters. He'd never met any. And now, suddenly, Katara had. He got a grip on the lever as well but he was still watching her. "And I guess Zuko tagged along because he missed me, too, right?"

Katara didn't look at him. She just pushed the lever hard, even though she had to know it wouldn't move until Sokka helped. He did after a second, and with a hum of steel, the platform rocked free of its moorings. Katara straightened and crossed her arms over her chest and watched the platform sway over the long emptiness above the sea.

"I don't know why he's here," she said quietly, tight-lipped. Sokka wasn't sure whether or not she was lying.

In the camp behind them, there were sounds of a commotion. Zhao had to be getting close by now.

"Go tell Zuko to hurry up," Katara said, stepping away from the dock to face whatever enemy might come out from between the big supply tents. "There's not much time."

Sokka balked for a second, then turned away. As he ran for the control booth, he was thinking a lot of different things. He was thinking about how overwhelmingly powerful his sister had suddenly become, and what that meant for him as a big brother. He was thinking about pride and protection, and he was nursing a stung part of himself that had never felt this way before.

And he was thinking that Katara had spent a few nights camping alone with a guy who had a big, obvious, Fire Nation crush on her. At least they were still bickering. Nothing too bad could have happened if they were still bickering… probably…

But that was a thought for another time. Sokka burst into the control booth to find Zuko flipping switches and yanking levers seemingly at random. He stopped and slumped. "You've gotta be kidding me."

Zuko turned a wild eye on him - really, one eye wide and alarmed while the other one just pretty much glowered like it always did - and shouted. "It's different from the one on my ship, alright! All the signs are worn off! I'm not a technician! I can't do everything!"

Sokka held up his hands in a placating gesture that could conveniently become a defensive blocking-type move, just in case that might be necessary. "Okay, okay… Let's just take a deep breath and think this thing out." He folded his arms, stroked his chin, and peered down at the control panel. "Starting the motor is the first thing you'd do, right? And most people are right-handed, so…"

Sokka reached out with his right hand and jabbed an especially big red button (this being a Fire Nation machine, pretty much all the buttons were red) high up on the console. The motor roared to life. He smiled and held out a casual hand, shooting a satisfied glance at Zuko. "See? You take a sec to calm down and things become a lot clear-"

"I am calm," Zuko shouted. He adjusted a throttle he apparently recognized and only glanced out the observation window for a second before shoving Sokka back out of the control booth. "Run! You're going to miss it!"

Zuko was doing something else with another lever but Sokka didn't wait to see, because he noticed that the platform was pulling horizontally away from the dock. He sprinted toward the walkway, snatched up Katara's hand where she was still stubbornly watching for enemy soldiers, and ran even faster toward the departing platform. It was lowering now, a bit more quickly than it pulled away.

"Jump!"

Sokka never let go of Katara's hand, so he felt her leap with him. The impact of their combined weight barely swayed the platform, it was so big and heavy. Sokka looked back to see they were now near eye-level with the locking mechanisms. They were descending a lot more quickly.

"Zuko."

Sokka looked immediately at his sister, because her voice sounded so… weird, but her face gave away nothing. Katara was staring back at the control booth, where the firebender made some adjustment and the platform accelerated a measure more. They quickly sank below the level of the dock and couldn't see any more. But even over the noise of the motor, they could hear Zhao shouting.

"Take that rebel scum! I want him alive! I want them all alive!"

There was a squeak of a cork coming out of a canteen. Katara was staring upward with a strained intensity on her face, bracing herself for something. Sokka drew breath to shout 'no' - because forget her crazy powers, anything she might do now would only put her in danger - but the blasts of firebending cut him off.

He looked up just in time to see, some thirty feet up, Zuko leap off the dock, trailing a little fire from the back of his shirt. He must not have realized how fast the platform was dropping because he jolted in mid-air and wheeled his arms ineffectually as he flew in a slow arc and then began plummeting toward the platform. Only, not quite.

"He's gonna fall short!"

But Katara was already in motion, leaping across the platform to slide on her belly up to the very edge, reaching. Sokka's heart hammered behind his teeth and he threw himself down to grab her legs. He landed just as Katara caught Zuko's hands and the firebender's weight dragged her over the edge to her waist.

"Not what I would have suggested," Sokka grunted as he began hauling them up inches at a time. "Hey buddy! Have you been eating rocks since you left the base? Because you weigh a ton."

He couldn't see, from where he crouched and strained, but Katara was staring down at Zuko, and Zuko was staring back up at her, and the rattled, astonished looks on their faces were nearly identical.

Sokka only knew that Katara didn't say anything, and neither did Zuko until he had latched one hand on the edge of the panel and, with a grip from Sokka, hauled himself up. Then, sitting there with his shirt still smoldering, he locked eyes with Katara. "Thank you."

She watched him back for a moment and Sokka noticed that a pucker formed in her brow like it always did when something was weighing on her. "You're welcome," she said, and then briskly stood and drew up the water she had spilled.

Sokka only hesitated for two thoughtful seconds before throwing his hands up. "And I guess my contribution doesn't count? You nearly pulled my sister down with you, jerkbender. Without me, you'd both be suffering from the belly-flop of a lifetime."

Zuko tore his eyes off Katara to frown at Sokka. He seemed to be fighting a brutal internal battle.

Sokka peered at him, squinting one eye. "Really? It's that hard?"

"Thank you Sokka! There. Will you quit-?" Zuko stopped talking because the platform suddenly jerked to a halt. He leapt to his feet and stared up the length of the cable toward the crane high above. "They're going to reverse it and haul us back up."

"What?" Sokka bolted to his feet as well. "You mean you didn't sabotage the controls?"

Zuko glared at him. "I was kind of in a hurry. There were units of soldiers closing in and Zhao nearly saw my face. There wasn't exactly time to try snapping off any levers or-"

The platform jolted and began shuddering upward.

"That's just great," Sokka said. "I spend four days trying to escape from the Fire Nation, get rescued by my little sister and her stalker, and then recaptured within ten minutes because the Fire Prince couldn't find the time to-"

"I am not a stalker!"

"Sokka, quit complaining," Katara cut in. "We're not getting caught."

She was standing at the very edge of the platform, facing the moon-glittering ocean and the sprawl of stars to the south. For a second, Sokka thought she looked small, fragile. Then, she raised her arms and shifted her feet.

"We're going to jump."

"What? Katara, we've gotta be at least a hundred feet up still! We can't just-!"

"No time!" Zuko shouted. Suddenly, he was shoving Sokka closer to the edge as Katara made a big lifting gesture with her arms. There was a whoosh of water below but Sokka was busy struggling against Zuko's grip on his shirt and shouting.

"Remind me why we bothered saving you!"

The 'oo' sound drew out into a scream as Zuko jumped after Katara, yanking Sokka along with him. For a long, gut-wrenching moment, they tumbled through empty air. Then, a huge tentacle of water received them. Instead of splashing into it like would be normal and expected and natural with how water usually works, they skidded along the top of the tentacle as it formed a sort of giant slide and, in a horrifying rush of spray and whipping air, they hurtled out onto the ocean below.

But even then things weren't normal. No, it was just water magic all over the place tonight. Like some really freakish holiday no one had bothered telling Sokka about.

Katara did something with her arms and a big ice flow formed under them, bearing them upward. The water from the dispersing tentacle surged under them and they rode it toward the nearest of the anchored Fire Navy ships.

"There," Zuko said, pointing. "That one has a scaffold set up for repairs."

Whatever this was supposed to mean, it apparently made sense to Katara, because she shifted her weight and redirected them toward the vessel Zuko had indicated. There was a shout of alarm that Sokka only barely heard over the sound of rushing water.

"They see us coming, Katara! They'll be ready for us!"

"No," she said, twisting at the waist and shifting her knees and feet to follow, "they won't."

"Katara…" Zuko started, and for a second Sokka was relieved because that sounded like a tone of reason. Suddenly, he had an ally.

But Katara wasn't listening. She whipped back forward with a surge of energy and the wave beneath them doubled in height, launching the ice floe onto the deck of the damaged ship. There was no grind of impact because, an instant before striking the steel, the ice turned back to water and sloshed out in all directions, knocking the dozen or so soldiers who had come on deck straight over the gunwales.

Sokka barely saw this as he slid and tumbled through the landing, but Katara never lost her feet. He had to scramble to catch up with her as she used the water to blast through the steel door into the lower levels. Just as he was about to follow her over the threshold, Zuko's voice came from behind him.

Sokka turned just in time to accept the whale tooth sword. For an instant, Zuko pinned him with a determined look. "I'll watch her back. Just keep up." Then, the firebender rushed past him through the door.

For a second, Sokka was stunned. Then, he gritted his teeth and ran after them, too angry for words. Too angry to really think past Zuko's audacity. Too angry to really notice how well they worked together, Katara using her sleeves of water to punch and blast and sweep obstacles out of her path while Zuko followed just close enough to shout directions and take out enemies that emerged from side passages with punches and kicks he definitely didn't learn in Water Tribe warrior training. There wasn't much for Sokka to do but knock out downed soldiers who seemed to be on the brink of getting back up. It was a vastly different role from what he had played with his squad days ago. He'd been the leader then. Now, he was a rescued prisoner, a prize, an afterthought.

They made their way deeper and deeper into the ship until they came to the brig, a block of cells guarded by a few men. They were already on their feet to fight and one even managed a short burst of flame before Katara knocked them all roughly against the far wall. Zuko snatched up a ring of keys off a table scattered with game pieces and swiftly unlocked the first cell, but it was Katara who went in. Sokka peered through the bars, stunned.

He hadn't known it was a girl prisoner they were saving. She stood before the cot at the back of her cell in a fighting stance even though her hands were manacled in front of her. One of the legs of her pants was mostly missing and a bandage wound above her knee. Her face was pretty even through her bruises and tense expression and suddenly Sokka was glad they'd decided to run this errand.

Katara held up her hands and stopped a step inside the cell. "We aren't going to hurt you," she said. "We're here to free you."

"Wow." The girl's eyes widened and stayed glued to Katara, who stiffened like she was confused. "I honestly never would have guessed this could happen."

"Do… I know you?"

The girl suddenly smiled and leaned her weight on her good leg, cocking her hip and her head. "I'd offer to knock you down a half dozen times to refresh your memory, but I think we've got more important things to worry about right now."

"…Suki?" Katara stepped toward her, sounding amazed. They commenced a girly 'I didn't recognize you without your makeup' conversation.

Sokka leaned closer to Zuko. "Are they… friends?"

"How am I supposed to know? You're her brother."

Sokka was about to say something about Katara's strange new life in which she knew people that he didn't know, but she spoke first, guiding the prisoner toward them. "Suki, this is Sokka, my brother." Meeting Suki's polite eye, Sokka assumed his most charming expression and opened his mouth to say 'hi', but Katara just kept going. "And this is… ah, Li. Li, is the key to the manacles on that ring?"

Zuko jangled through the keys for a moment, then reached for the cuffs. He didn't seem to notice how Suki was glaring at him. "Li. Right," she said, shooting Katara a scathing look. "What are you doing with this guy? Wasn't he trying to imprison you?"

Now it was Zuko who stiffened, frowning down at her. His hands froze, the key hovering over the cuffs. "Kyoshi Island."

Katara was shifting her feet, glancing around. She was even blushing a little. "Yeah, he was. But not anymore. It's, uh, complicated."

"It's not that complicated," Sokka said, turning a bright smile on Suki, snatching the keys out of Zuko's stunned hand, and shouldering the other guy out of the way. "See, our buddy here is on a quest to capture the Avatar and we're on a quest to save the Avatar. So we're traveling together to make our final battle more convenient."

"I see…" The manacles fell away and Suki rubbed her wrists. She gave him a not-totally-convinced sort of smile.

Zuko huffed. "This is ridiculous. We need to leave."

"Yeah, we do," Katara said tonelessly, turning away. Sokka didn't really notice.

"Will you help me?" Suki asked, still smiling faintly up at him. "My leg was injured when I got captured."

"No problem," Sokka said, wrapping his arm around her waist as she put hers over his shoulders. He didn't really notice Katara hurriedly leading the way back out of the room or Zuko rolling his eyes as he followed her, but he really noticed how firm Suki's side was, how her muscles moved under the skin. How small her hands were and yet how strong her grip was on his shoulder. He really wanted to talk to her. He should come up with something to say.

"So… You hit my sister… Since you're a girl, I guess I can overlook that."

"Is that so?"

.


Zuko ran on Katara's heels, closer than before. There weren't as many soldiers to fight on the way out and it was making him nervous. Katara seemed nervous, too. She wasn't running as fast as before, pausing before rounding corners and actually taking the time to listen for sounds of trouble. They paused at the base of a stairwell and Zuko glanced down a side hall. When he looked back, he found Katara gazing up into the light.

She looked so fine in yellow light. It put a warm glow in her skin that she didn't quite get from the light of crystals. Zuko swallowed and reminded himself of her brother and that Kyoshi woman just behind them. Well, a ways down the hallway behind them. But still back there.

"There'll probably be more resistance closer to the deck," he said. "They might be undermanned since the ship is out of action, but we can't count on being lucky."

Katara tore her eyes from the light. She looked uncertainly at him, instead, like she wasn't sure whether to believe him. Her mouth opened and he knew there was a question she wanted to ask, but she didn't. Instead, she frowned, nodded, and hurried on up the stairs.

Zuko pushed away his longings. He tried not to wonder what she would have said, and he did not ask why she had looked so shaken when she had caught him at the cliff. He tried not to wonder whether Tyno had been right, whether Katara might actually… have it bad for him. Now wasn't the time.

The rest of the ship seemed largely empty as well. It seemed the men they had fought on the way down were all still where they had fallen. Sokka was apparently pretty good at hitting people in the head. For a moment, Zuko allowed himself to hope that their escape would be easy. They would rush out in the moonlight and Katara would bend them another ice floe to carry them off. Sokka would be distracted by the Kyoshi woman, and Zuko would finally get a chance to talk to Katara. Finally, she wouldn't have an excuse to dodge him. Finally, he could tell her…

What?

What did he even want to tell her? What could he possibly say that would make any difference to her when his ultimate goal was still to capture the Avatar and return home? It was strange, alarming to realize now just how far the Avatar had been from his mind for the past few days. He had been tangled up thinking of Katara, Katara's touches and looks and frustrating unavailability. Katara's quest to rescue Sokka, Katara's incomprehensible mind. Zuko had been so preoccupied, he had even been foolish enough to let her lead him into this potentially damaging escapade.

But it was true, what Sokka had said. For all that they had gone through together, they were still at cross purposes. Zuko would still have to fight them in the end. He would still have to defeat them if he wanted to regain his honor. And he did. More than anything, he wanted his honor, his throne, his destiny. That was what he had always wanted. That was his priority.

...even if Tyno had been right...

This was what Zuko was thinking when they burst out onto the main deck not to the open sea and peaceful moonlight, but to Zhao and a small company of soldiers. Katara froze and, just in the shadows of the doorway behind her, Zuko froze as well.

Zhao's expression was haughty and he linked his hands behind him in an easy way that Zuko knew at once was contrived. "I admit I'm impressed that you've gotten so far," he said, though his tone was far more condescending than congratulatory.

Katara scoffed. "So far? This is it, Zhao. It's over. You're on an ocean and you hardly have any soldiers to back you up. I beat you with your own sweat before. How much damage do you imagine I can do here?" She held out her arms and the scope was enormous, the ocean, the moon.

Zhao's face took a sour twist. "Pride comes before the fall, Katto," he uttered. He lowered his chin, baring his teeth. "You may have a certain peasant ingenuity, boy, but you're nothing but a savage. Without the power of the moon, you'd never have left that tent."

"I guess we'll never know."

"Wrong." Zhao gestured with one hand and a couple of his men stepped aside to allow others to come forward. Two of them. The chains clanked with their shuffling steps. "You're a novice," Zhao said, tone suddenly musing, "you must be used to tests. Consider this your final test. Let's see how you fare against masters."

Zuko could see how Katara jerked back a step, but he couldn't stop staring at the waterbenders. They hardly looked Water Tribe at all anymore. Their hair was cropped short, their beads cut away. Their clothes were red and plain. It was in their eyes that their difference was obvious; they were blue, and they were broken.

"You mean for me to fight these men?" Katara demanded, holding out a hand. "You take my people as slaves and then sic them on your enemies like- like they're dogs and this is some awful sport?"

Zhao was smirking now, delighting in Katara's obvious shock. "I've come to find that, under the light of a full moon, savages are best controlled with slightly more domesticated savages. Yukko, Matlek, I want this boy thrashed within an inch of his life, but not killed. Begin."

The waterbenders struck together, hauling up huge streams of water from the ocean below and sending them rushing at Katara. Zuko's heart leapt up into his throat. But then she adjusted her posture and sent the water back - not at the waterbenders, but between them, at Zhao. He hardly dodged aside and the edge of the stream knocked him spinning. The water went straight past and bowled half his men off the ship.

"You can't make me forget who my real enemy is, Zhao! Monster!"

But the waterbenders had already struck again and Katara had to rush to deflect, redirect their strikes back at them. The sheer amount of water gushing through the air was enormous. She took a hit and staggered but didn't fall, just kept fighting. The waterbenders circled with her slightly, dragging their control chains. One of them still had a firebender holding the far end of his chain. The other did not, but did not seem to notice. The chains made them slower, Zuko realized. Even if their technique was perfect, even if they had practiced in tandem, Katara could still beat them.

Then, a hand clamped on Zuko's shoulder and he nearly whirled around and punched Sokka before the guy pointed past him, past the waterbenders. "They're waiting to strike at her back. We have to get over there."

Sure enough, Zhao stood by the remaining soldiers, obviously watching Katara for an opening. Zuko jerked a step forward, then halted, hesitated. If he joined this fight, Zhao couldn't help but see his face. And Zuko's priority was his honor, his throne, his destiny. Zhao's political maneuvering could make those things harder to reach even if he did capture the Avatar. Katara took another sidestep closer to the Admiral, who watched her with wolfish eyes. In Zuko's chest, something was tearing.

But he didn't move. Sokka and Suki rushed past him.

But the bending fight was only growing more intense, blocking the way. Whips and waves and chunks of ice hurtled through the air. Katara finally froze the chains to the deck and managed to knock one of the benders over the gunwale - so hard, in fact, that the firebender holding his chain was yanked over with him, apparently because his gauntlets were frozen in their grip.

Then Katara was yelling something at the other waterbender, only Zuko didn't really understand what, didn't really hear because all the sounds were falling away, and his vision was narrowing to one thing. Zhao was charging Katara.

Zuko wasn't aware of shoving past Sokka. He didn't pause a beat to assess his priorities. He didn't see Suki dart up on the gunwale and sprint at the remaining firebenders. He didn't feel the handful of ice daggers that sliced the underside of his arm. He didn't notice how Katara flicked her eyes to him for a split second before she looked back at her opponent, or the way she unflinchingly let him run straight at her.

All Zuko saw was Zhao, drawing up as much fire as he could in the night and sending it blasting toward Katara's back.

Then Zuko dodged in behind her and, with a shout, brought his heel down in a fiery kick that sliced through Zhao's attack and sent tendrils of flame curling off the wet deck with a hiss. He held his bending stance and saw Zhao's face shift through shock, and then recognition, and then satisfaction.

"Prince Zuko," Zhao said. "I didn't think it was possible to sink to greater depths of dishonor and disgrace," he said, a smile cutting jagged creases around his mouth, "but you do have a talent for shaming your father in the most spectacular ways."

Chapter Text

Molls ran through the dark woods, scrambling over fallen logs and worming her way through the tangle of branches that she hoped would slow down the firebenders chasing her. Unfortunately for Molls, they were just blasting their way through the wreckage and gaining steadily. Her heart was in her throat and Molls was actually scared, really afraid for her life for the first time in the months since she'd left home.

Molls had joined the freedom fighters after her father hit her for the last time, but she told everyone it was after the Fire Nation had killed him. In a metaphorical way, this was still true, because the man that had raised her had gone away forever when he lost his arm, and needing help for everything had made the man who came home a bitter, frustrated stranger. As the only daughter in her family, she had been the one to take care of him. But then he hit her for the last time, and she ran away.

Sometimes she liked to think that the girl she had been had died, too. So now her name was Molls, and Molls didn't feel bad about leaving her father with no one to care for him, because Molls wasn't anybody's daughter. Molls wasn't anybody's anything. Molls just built traps and rigged bombs that would hurt the people who had hurt the girl she used to be.

Traps and bombs where tricky, and Molls liked that. She liked things that were tiny and complicated but had a big impact, and maybe that was why she had hidden the boomerang from Katto after stealing it from the last Fire Nation camp. The holster was obviously Water Tribe and Katto would have probably wanted it back for her brother, but Molls hadn't been able to let the boomerang go, because it was fascinating. It wasn't big or heavy, but the holes did something really interesting to effect the way it flew and, despite the laws of physics or reason, it always came back when she threw it well.

But a boomerang wasn't going to do her much good against a handful of firebenders, not when she was on her own, and her fighting skills were, according to Jet, a little underdeveloped and, according to Smellerbee, crap. Molls only hoped to lose her pursuers in the tangled dark, but it was close to impossible when they kept shooting fire at her and half-blinding her, throwing her shadow across the bushes and trunks ahead of her.

Suddenly, she staggered out of the treeline and found herself on the edge of the cliff, looking out over the sea - too far below to jump. Molls whirled around to dodge back into the woods, but too late. The firebenders emerged and spread out, approaching slowly.

"Take it easy, kid," one said. "You've got nowhere else to run."

Molls yanked out the boomerang and held it at the ready. A couple of the soldiers laughed. For a second, Molls teetered on the border between cringing and lashing out. For a second, the not-quite-dead girl in her missed her dad, and the way he had always said he would protect her.

But Molls didn't have a dad. She threw the boomerang as hard as she could and it went whistling in a weird curve, whacking one solder's face plate after another. It was only enough to stun them. There was no time to waste. Molls darted between two men who were clutching their helmets and disappeared into the woods just as the boomerang flew through the spot where she had stood. The soldiers gave chase but it was already too late; the grubby girl had vanished in the shadows.

No one noticed the boomerang. With no one was there to catch it, it just kept on going, spinning out into the moonlight.

.


Katara deflected stream after stream, flying chunks and knives of ice, waves that nearly knocked her down - but she didn't stop shouting.

"…but it's okay now, Yukko! You don't have to fight me anymore. Nobody's holding your chain! We're rescuing prisoners. We can take you, too. You can join the resistance and fight the Fire Nation."

The waterbender only bared his teeth and, roaring, tried to hit her with an overhead strike. Katara took the water to one side and looped it back around to course over the rail of the ship. "Or not!" she said. "You could go free. Let me get your chains off and you can go free."

"Stupid Southern kid," he finally barked as he hefted more water up from the ocean. It was the first time he'd spoken and his voice was harsh, ill-used. "There's no place to go! There's no winning this fight!"

Katara thought for a second that he meant the fight between them and was on the brink of telling him he couldn't beat her when his relaxed-to-tense transitions were so lopsided, but then his stream turned into a wave and almost bore her off the ship. Katara redirected and surfed up the wall of the observation tower, then back down, closer to her opponent than before. Now she could see the lines in his face, the middle-aged shape of his brow, and she could hear what he said next as he was drawing the water to him for his next strike.

"You can't beat the Fire Nation, kid. If they can't destroy you outright, they find out who you love and they chain you with it."

That struck home. Sokka. If Zhao had held a knife to Sokka's throat, he could have ended this back in the tent. But, disconcertingly, she didn't think of just Sokka. Zuko flashed like spark rocks in the back of her head, and Katara felt her stomach drop again like it had when she saw him plummeting through empty air. She shut the thought down on instinct, knowing it was one of those things she couldn't face now, but Yukko's words rattled through her again and again.

…they chain you with it.

Katara's stunned moment cost her. She quickly found her feet whipped out from under her and fell hard on her back, then barely rolled aside in time to avoid Yukko's jagged spears of ice. It was so close, in fact, that one spear stabbed through her shirt beneath the arm. In her rush to regain her feet, Katara didn't even hear the fabric tear.

.


"Aw man…" Sokka dropped the tip of his sword and stood, shoulders slumped, outside the action.

Through the flying debris of his little sister's ongoing waterbending fight and Zuko's shouting match with Zhao, Sokka watched Suki fight six soldiers at once. She made it look so easy - which, Sokka knew now from real-life experience, it was not. For him, fighting a bunch of Fire Nation soldiers had ended with bruises, captivity, and four days of failed escape attempts. For Suki, it really looked like it was going to end with six knocked-out soldiers and the sweet taste of victory. Her leg certainly seemed to be feeling better all of a sudden, too. And that was just… just great.

A little part of Sokka still couldn't believe a girl could fight that well. It was closely related to the part of him that was so shocked to actually see the extent of Katara's power. It turned out that Sokka wasn't the man he'd thought warrior training would make him. He couldn't protect his sister or Suki, he couldn't stop Zhao, he couldn't even escape on his own. As a brother and a man, he was failing. And it hurt.

But Sokka's mind wasn't the type to falter for long. He stuttered and then knew the next step.

They would have to get off this ship, and soon. Katara's ice floe trick had worked in a pinch, but who knew how long she could keep that up. They either needed a way to get back up the cliff or they had to find a more permanent vessel - in which they could outpace a fleet of steamers. Which, honestly, seemed pretty unlikely. But the crane was pretty much out of the question and Sokka really didn't feel up to climbing a two-hundred foot cliff by moonlight.

Zhao was bellowing something pretty harsh about weakness and, when Sokka's gaze fell on him, he had an idea. Unless the Admiral's waterbenders had done the same thing Katara had - and it seemed unlikely, since those two weren't exactly the liveliest guys - Zhao had to have some kind of boat to get out to this ship.

Sokka rushed to one gunwale, barely clearing out of the path of a wave Katara rode up the observation tower, and peered over into the dark water below. Sure enough, there was a longboat bobbing there, alternately knocking against the hull and tugging against its mooring line. It didn't look like a regular Fire Nation boat, but more like a deep-keeled canoe. Kind of like somebody had ripped off a Water Tribe boat and gave it a sinister paint job.

Sokka straightened and turned around just in time to see a soldier rubbing his head as he prepared to emerge from the observation tower. Without any yell of warning, Sokka charged him and struck him hard enough to knock him a step back inside. It was the perfect amount of time to see all the other soldiers lined up behind him in the corridor - and then slam the door shut. Sokka wrenched the locking wheel and stuck his sword through to jam it, then spun back on the chaotic deck and shouted.

"I know you're all having a real fun time here but-!"

He cut off as he saw something familiar come winking out of the night sky, spinning in a lazy arc. Sokka stepped up on the gunwale and leapt just in time to catch it, like he always caught it. He had thought it was lost forever. He had fought so hard to get the warriors to let him bring it along on the training exercise and then had felt so stupid when that Fire Nation captain had taken it away. During his long hours of incarceration between escape attempts, he had even had this weird empty feeling, like he had lost a piece of his identity.

Luckily, boomerang always came back.

.


This wasn't an Agni Kai.

Zuko had to forcefully remind himself that this was not an actual duel, and that he really was on Zhao's side in this war. He had to remind himself that there was no reason to fight this man - even though he really, really wanted to. Especially after that snide remark. But Zuko knew what was right behavior for a prince, and he knew that brawling with his father's favorite admiral wouldn't help his case later. However bad this looked, he wasn't a criminal - he was a prince, and he would act like a prince.

Zuko straightened from his fighting stance and glared across the empty feet separating them. "I'm still loyal to the Fire Nation and to the Fire Lord. But these people are under my protection, and we're leaving. Stop this interference at once, Zhao."

The admiral laughed and didn't relax his own bending posture. "Your protection?"

"Yes. They're vital to my plan to capture the Avatar."

"And you expect me to obey the orders of a traitor? Your banishment has taught you nothing." Zhao's face twisted and the humor wrung right out of it. "You have no home, no honor, and a pack of filthy savages for allies. You're a disgrace. When the Fire Lord learns of this treachery, no doubt he'll order you apprehended and imprisoned to keep you from bringing more shame on the royal family."

"There's no treachery here!" Zuko shouted, raising his chin. "I did what I had to do to chase the Avatar. My father will understand."

"Yes," Zhao barked. "He'll understand perfectly! Only a man who lacks any real power resorts to pathetic excuses. You're weak! Your father has always despised your weakness and if, by some unlikely accident, you ever manage to capture the Avatar and return to the palace, he won't suffer you to live there for long."

Zuko jerked back as if he'd been slapped but it was only the force of memory hitting him. Azula in his bedroom door, sing-songing the stuff of nightmares. Fury boiled up to swallow the raw fear and Zuko stepped forward, hands in fists at his sides. "That's a lie! He'll welcome me home with honor, and restore my throne!"

"If he wanted you on the throne, he would have allowed you to return years ago. But he didn't, and he never will." A wicked smile spread over Zhao's face as his eyes cut past Zuko to watch something behind him. "Because he always knew the sort of weakling he'd raised. And now I see it for myself, the banished prince protecting the back of a dirty little Water Tribe-"

He cut off and squinted, then gaped in realization. His eyes locked back on Zuko, and there was something more there. Disgust, cruel amusement.

"-girl."

Zuko whirled around to look at Katara, unthinkingly confirming everything even as he turned his back on Zhao. For a second, he only saw how she stood over the last waterbender, but then he noticed where her shirt gaped open under one arm to reveal her thin, bound chest in profile.

"I told you," the admiral said quietly in the breath before striking, "to stay off the South Sea."

.


Katara surged to her feet and sent the ice spears back as a rain of hard pellets. Yukko redirected some but caught a lot more with his face and hands. Before he could recover, Katara gathered the water off the deck up under him, raised him high, and planted him hard on the steel. Then she iced him in place on his back, ignoring his groaning.

Standing over him, she peered down, and perhaps her face was a little more merciless than was normal for her. "So that's it? Zhao has someone you love so you just do whatever he tells you?"

"He has my sons," Yukko grated. His eyes kept flicking down to her chest and a furrow deepened in his brow, but Katara didn't notice. There was blood in his teeth, but Katara didn't care. "Obeying Zhao is the only way I can keep them safe."

"No," she said, her mouth twisting. Even if Sokka was captured, she would never let herself be chained this way and used against her own people. Not ever. "You could shake off this despair and go rescue them instead of hiding behind excuses."

Then, even as Yukko opened his mouth with an incredulous twist to say something more, Katara broke the ice off the deck and sent it hurtling over the side, paying no mind to Yukko's shouts as he fell. He would land face up and he could just stare at the moon and think about what a terrible person he was until he had recovered enough to break out of her ice.

There was a cry and Katara spun back around to find Zuko rolling across the deck, trailing smoke. He came to rest on his back, and Zhao quickly advanced on him. Katara shouted in warning and drew up water for an attack, but she was too late. Standing directly over Zuko, Zhao roared and punched at his head.

Katara watched the fire build around his fist as it sailed through the air. There was no way this ended without the smell of burning flesh, Zuko's flesh. She was too late. Ice lanced through her chest.

And then, impossibly, Zuko's body twisted and spun around and popped back up. In a whirl of legs, he kicked Zhao's front foot right out from under him and the other man went staggering back as Zuko regained his feet. He wasn't quite steady and, from where she stood, Katara could see the gaping hole scorched through his shirt, the blisters rising from the back of one shoulder nearly all the way down to his waist. But he stood in a fighting stance and, as Zhao took another unbalanced step back, Zuko struck with a fiery kick.

Katara, still holding the water she had drawn up, froze and watched. She had never seen Zuko firebend before, not more than a punch here and there. Now, it struck her how natural it looked when he did it. It seemed so right that all his constant anger could funnel through his self-control and make fire out of thin air. It wasn't scary at all like she'd always believed firebending should be - it just fit. Firebending fit Zuko. Because it was a part of who he was. And, despite all the fear and hate she'd grown up feeling for firebenders, Katara watched Zuko bend and what she felt was completely contrary to what she knew she should be feeling.

In her chest, something was tearing.

He advanced implacably, shouting with each blazing kick and punch as he drove Zhao back and finally knocked the other man from his feet. Then it was Zuko standing over his felled opponent and Katara knew that, in that armor, Zhao wouldn't be making a surprise recovery. Zuko held his arm back at the ready but didn't strike.

"Do it!" Zhao roared.

"No!" Katara sputtered as she saw Zuko's fist come down, the glaring flash of fire. Maybe it was the shock that held her in place. Because Zuko wouldn't. He just wouldn't.

And he didn't. He scorched the deck next to Zhao's head and Katara thawed from her moment of horror. She rushed closer and barely heard Zuko spit out some threat as he stepped back from Zhao, not letting the other man from his sight. Katara nearly threw her arms around him right then, but Sokka's cry stopped her between one step and the next.

"Boomerang! You do always come back!"

She turned to find her brother holding the boomerang aloft for an instant before hurling it to the other end of the deck where it smacked into the back of a firebender's helmet. He crumpled to his knees and then his back and, standing over him and all the other downed soldiers, Suki straightened and, looking a little stunned, watched the boomerang whip back to Sokka. Then, she smiled and quirked up an eyebrow like this was some mildly pleasant surprise.

Not really noticing, Katara grinned at her brother as well. "Nice shot, Sokka!"

He shrugged, smiling lazily as he scratched his chin with the sharp end of the boomerang. "What can I say? I'm gifted with rare talents." There was a blasting sound and the door behind him shuddered. Sokka's eyes widened and he hustled across the deck. "Time to go!"

Katara took a step after him but then turned back to find Zuko lingering over Zhao. His expression was furious, but he didn't speak.

"Go ahead," Zhao spat. "Run away like the coward you are. Go scratch your fleas with the other wolves."

Zuko held his silence but his fists trembled at his sides, though Katara wasn't sure whether it was from pain or fury. She crossed her arms over her chest and frowned down at Zhao. "What? You want us to stay until more of your men come so that we can embarrass you in front of them? You've lost, Zhao. Taunting us now just makes you look even more pathetic."

He turned a snarl on her and seemed on the brink of saying something, but then pulled back, visibly restraining himself. "We'll see who's embarrassed in the end, Katto of the Southern Tribe." He said the name like it was a joke that he was suddenly in on.

Katara didn't like his tone, but she wasn't about to ask about it. Instead, she tore her suspicious look from Zhao and found Zuko straightening, a little alarm creeping into his expression. "Time to go," she said.

He looked at her, just for a second, and then nodded and continued to watch Zhao as they crossed the deck to where Sokka and Suki had already climbed down a rope ladder to the scaffolding and the boat below. Katara nearly asked Zuko if he could climb with his back so burned - it looked even worse up close - but just shook her head, knowing he would only say yes. Boys always wanted to seem so much tougher than they were.

Katara waited until Sokka released the boat from its moorings, then lifted the vessel on a wave to about the level of the ship. It took a lot of energy that she no longer had, and the wave didn't hold steady, but she and Zuko made the jump into the boat and then Katara sped them off to the east with big sweeps of her arms, following the coast.

.


Sitting at the front of the longboat, Zuko watched Zhao rise up from the deck and glare. The admiral strode slowly to the rail, hands linked behind his back, and watched the boat rush away, but he made no move to attack. Zuko went on watching him until he was out of sight and the ship grew small in the distance while the sweeps of Katara's arms grew gradually slower. Only when the steamers were black freckles lost in the distance did Zuko look away. He took a big breath - too big, he realized as the skin on his back split and seared with fresh pain that bubbled up over the steady throb - and, grimacing, shut his eyes.

He hurt so much, but something was wrong. Zhao wouldn't have given up so easily if he'd really wanted to stop them. He had another plan, Zuko decided through the dizziness and nausea. Zhao had some other way to get at them. That had to be it. Something to do with Katto… But Zuko couldn't think through the pain just yet.

The boat slowed and then coasted across easy swells and, as if from a great distance, Zuko could hear some clunking noises and Katara telling the other two to paddle for a while. Sokka made some crack about her "water magic" muscles and the Kyoshi woman laughed quietly and drew him into a conversation about Katara's time on her stupid little island.

"Hey," Katara said from much nearer. Zuko blinked a few times and focused on her face. She was sitting on the slat-seat in front of his, leaning close. Her gaze was penetrating, worried. "Let me take a look at that burn."

Zuko pinched his eyes shut but didn't pull away as he felt her sit next to him a moment later. Her movements were slow and her touch gentle when she put her hands on unburned parts of his back and shoulder and shifted what remained of his shirt, but she didn't say anything for a long while. At the other end of the boat, the rhythmic sloshing of the paddles and quiet chit-chat went on.

"Alright," Katara said at last. Her voice was clear and controlled and Zuko could never have guessed at how the sight of the burn made her ache. Memories and sympathy and fears unrealized were all bottled up and hidden behind her calm healer's voice. "This may hurt at first, so brace yourself."

Zuko knew it would hurt, and scowled. He expected the jarring cold of her healing water as it spread slowly down his back. That didn't make the shock or the pain any less. He bared his teeth and fisted his hands in the fabric over his thighs. Then the pain eased, taking some of the burning with it.

"I can't believe you rolled around on your back like that after you got this," Katara said quietly, maybe a little chastising. "That must have hurt a lot."

"You think I should have just let Zhao burn my face off?" he spat.

She made an offended noise. "I'm trying to tell you it was impressive."

"Don't patronize me."

Zuko couldn't see her rolling her eyes and choosing not to argue. All he knew was the slow, cool pass of her hands, the fade of the most acute pain. And he knew that this pain, and his exposure to Zhao, and all the new obstacles he would face for it, were her fault. Her fault for distracting him from Zhao, and from his honor and his destiny and basically everything in his life that had any value.

But it was his own fault for being weak. He had let himself be distracted. He was supposed to be a prince, but he had allowed himself to pursue the crazy things he'd inexplicably started to want from this girl - a Water Tribe girl! - and had failed to control himself when he should have, time and again. Suddenly, he could see all that he had done from another perspective, a lofty perspective he had somehow left behind, and he was so ashamed. He had been such a fool. A weak, sentimental, honorless disgrace.

Then the cool press against his back stopped. "How's that?" Katara asked, and something in her voice made Zuko open his eyes and look at her.

Katara's face had a haggard pull to it that he hadn't seen before. She looked completely exhausted. And, he hadn't realized with his eyes shut, she had straddled the bench to face him. He could feel the light touch of her knees against his thigh and lower back. With the weariness and confusion and stubborn pain still coursing through him, Zuko didn't find her parted legs as arousing as he normally would have. But it was still arousing, and more so was having her focus on him this way. After these days of her thoughts bent so wholly on Sokka, now she was looking at him. A battle raged inside him, his pride facing off with his desire. Zuko couldn't quite muster the anger to snap at her like he felt like he should.

"Better," he said, turning away. "You should rest." At the other end of the boat, Suki was watching him with a measuring look and Sokka was watching her with an expression somewhere between suspicion and delight.

"Not yet. We have to put more distance between us and Zhao." Katara leaned back, bracing one hand on the rim of the boat. But when she tried to stand, she just sat again and apparently thought better of it.

Zuko shot her a sidelong frown. "Let the others paddle for a while," he said. "Zhao isn't coming after us."

"How can you be so sure? He seemed pretty determined to kill you back there."

"We would have seen flashes as the engines fired up by now. He has some other plan. He must. Otherwise he would have kept fighting to delay us on that ship."

Katara was quiet for a long moment and Zuko looked over to find her staring at him. She didn't look away, and the furrow in her brow only deepened as he met her stare. "How much trouble are you in now?"

"What do you mean?"

"For fighting with an admiral… and being seen with us. That seems like it would get even a prince in trouble." She looked worried, like she was dreading whatever he might say next. It made Zuko feel weird. He frowned down the length of the boat instead, and now Sokka was watching him, too. His expression was no longer a happy one. He actually narrowed his eyes at Zuko. Zuko only huffed and looked back at Katara.

"Pretty big trouble."

"Big enough to make it impossible for you to go home?"

Was that… hope in her eyes? Was she hoping he'd be permanently banished? Zuko glowered. "No," he bit out. "I think dragging the Avatar back to the capital in chains could probably still open a few doors."

"Oh! Well that's good, then! Um, for you."

Zuko leaned back, watching her. Her relief seemed genuine. He was very confused.

Katara went on with a weak laugh. "And, uh, I guess it's pretty good for us, too! Since you are, you know, the only person in line for the throne who might actually consider, oh…" She shrugged. "…helping the Avatar end the war."

Zuko was appalled, horrified by the very idea, and curled his lip as his voice rose. "And what? Betray my father and my country? Be the failure everyone expects me to be? Live up to every accusation of cowardice and treason that Zhao just leveled at me?"

Katara stared at him, and her nervous humor drained away, leaving just a weary sag to her face. "It's not cowardly to stand up to a bully, Zuko, even when they're supposed to be on your side. I learned that from you. Remember?"

"That- that was different! My father isn't-!" He glared harder at her, baring his teeth as if the right words, true ones, would come out on their own. Then he wrenched away with a snarl, forcefully crossing his arms over his chest. "You don't understand. You're just some Water Tribe girl. You can't possibly understand the complexities of Fire Nation politics," he spat. He didn't even notice the mild tightness of his back with the movement of his arms.

Katara did, though. "I should treat this burn again later," she said at length. Her voice was as cold and distant as her homeland. "But for now, I'm going to rest. Forget what I said. I'm tired, I don't even know what I was thinking."

Zuko watched her clamber upright and make her way nearer to the middle of the boat, and then lay down on the flat deck. She curled on her side and, for a heartbeat, Zuko regretted leaving their supply pack back in the woods outside the Fire Nation camp. Then he looked back up and found Sokka frowning at him again. Glaring back, Zuko turned to face the other direction and sat on the deck with his back to the seat, wedging himself upright with his arms crossed on his knees. He listened to the paddles in the water and let the waves lull him and most certainly did not think about his father.

.


Sokka watched Zuko go from yelling at Katara to gazing at her kind of woefully in the space of a minute or so. That guy was a poster child for emotional instability. Katara had even worked her latest magic water trick on him - healing, she'd said, though Sokka didn't see any reason for healing water to glow, apart from adding to the freakishness of the phenomenon. But excessive showmanship was no reason for Zuko to be such an ungrateful, snappish-

"Maybe you could explain something for me," Suki said quietly, pitching her voice under the splashes and sloshes around them so that Katara wouldn't overhear. "Why is that guy really here? I mean, aside from the obvious."

"What's obvious?"

Suki shot him a sideways glance. "You're right," she said after a moment. "Nothing about this is really straightforward, is it? You're all together but you aren't really allies, and yet he throws himself into some kind of potential political turmoil to protect Katto's back… Katara, whatever." She shook her head. "You told me yourself that in the end you'll just end up killing him, or he'll kill you, so why wait around for him to get the drop on you? Why not just take that paddle while he's sleeping and let him and the ocean work it out?"

Sokka blinked at Suki for an astounded second. "Kyoshi Island's a pretty rough neighborhood, isn't it?"

"It's a peaceful society protected by elite warriors trained in the arts of stealth and hand-to-hand combat." She smirked at him. "And we also have a sea monster."

"Yikes," Sokka said, frowning a little at the horizon. Why was it he'd left his sister behind at the South Pole but he felt like he was the one who had missed everything? "We actually kind of need Zuko's uncle to help us find the Avatar. Letting his nephew drown really wouldn't win us any points with him."

"Accidents can happen."

Sokka peered at Suki, trying to gauge whether that was a suggestion, an offer, or just a statement of fact. It was impossible to tell. She was so pretty, and so amazingly cool but also kind of scary at the same time. He'd never met anybody like her. He wasn't even really sure how to treat her. She was obviously a warrior, but Sokka didn't really know how to deal with a warrior he'd like to kiss.

Maybe he should ask Zuko. The thought was accompanied by an image of the firebender's outraged, probably blushing face. Sokka decided to save that one for later, even though Zuko's answer would probably be something really unhelpful like, Snarl at her. Girls love snarling.

Weirdly, Sokka was uncomfortable with the idea of anybody trying to off the angry jerk. But that was a stupid feeling to have about an enemy (which Zuko was, after all) and it would be a real blow to his manliness to admit to having it. "Yeah, well," he said, shrugging, "I just don't want to disappoint my sister, since she went to all the trouble of busting me out and all. Katara's pretty set on an accident-free plan in which she eventually beats Zuko to the point of embarrassment and he just sort of gives up and goes away."

"Pff, yeah. I'll bet…"

Suki chuckled softly, but Sokka just stared at the back of Zuko's head and wondered. Even as he'd said the words, he knew the situation was more complicated than that now. He'd seen the way Katara had looked at Zuko as she healed him, the way she had lunged to grab him on the platform, the way he had sprinted to put himself between her and Zhao. This wasn't the same tension they'd had in that noodle shop, or even in the barracks afterward. Something had changed between them. Something significant had happened.

Maybe it was just a result of the difficulties they'd faced together on their journey to rescue him. Maybe they had just bonded through adversity. Or maybe Katara had totally lost her mind and kissed the jerkbender again. Or maybe he'd kissed her this time.

Sokka narrowed his eyes and went on rowing, watching his little sister doze off on the deck. Now that she wasn't hurling half the ocean around, she almost looked fragile again. She looked like she still needed her big brother. And maybe Sokka wasn't the great warrior he had anticipated becoming, but he was smart and persistent. He could find other ways to keep her safe.

He didn't have to fight Zuko to make sure the jerk kept his hands to himself.

.


The Fire Nation camp spent much of the remainder of the night on high alert and, once the Admiral returned, there were a lot of public censures to be doled out, so no one really ended up sleeping much before sunrise. Tyno had the unhappy privilege of spending several long hours in the Admiral's tent, describing everything he could remember about the freedom fighters and Katto of the Southern Tribe and his friend Li.

Or, at least, for the first two hours, he called him Li.

"Explain it to me, Private, because it is…" the Admiral paused halfway across the tent with his hands tightly linked behind his back and then turned around, scowling, "unfathomable to me that you would spend two days in the custody of a man with yellow eyes and a very distinctive scar and a formal bearing that is entirely unlike that of any Water Tribesman but the Northern chief, and yet it didn't even cross your mind that he might be the banished prince in disguise?"

For a second, the only sound was the scratch of the notary's brush as he transcribed the session. Tyno twiddled his thumbs. "Well… it's been a long time since there was an official portrait released, sir. And, er…" He hesitated as the Admiral stalked closer. "He didn't really act the way I expected the prince to act."

"Go on."

So Tyno went over his story again, just as he had told it the two previous times, only now he focused on how Zuko had saved him from the freedom fighters, how he had been so fearless in combat, how he had uncomplainingly endured the hardships of their march. "So you see, sir, he didn't seem weak or cowardly at all. And since most of the stories I've heard about Prince Zuko have to do with his banishment and his failures, it never even occurred to me that my captor could be the same man."

The Admiral was vigorous in his cross-examination, and Tyno repeated most of what he had already said another time or two before Zhao finally sat down in the camp chair in front of his. He braced one elbow and one hand on his knees and fixed Tyno with a penetrating look.

"And the girl?"

"What girl, sir?"

"The girl who calls herself Katto of the Southern Tribe."

"I didn't know that Katto was a girl, sir," Tyno managed through his genuine surprise - not at Katto being a girl, but at Zhao knowing. Tyno was not a great liar - he had never really had a reason to lie before - but he knew that admitting to having told the Admiral one lie would cast everything else he had said into doubt. "I, ahem, I didn't think the Water Tribe let women fight, sir."

"They don't," Zhao said, a momentary smirk tightening his mouth. "What did you make of Katto and Prince Zuko? Did they seem… friendly?"

Tyno didn't have to fake his scoff. "Hardly, sir. They rarely spoke to one another and, when they did, they usually had something to argue about." It was an unintended torture that Tyno had to bite back the urge to elaborate about the times when they hadn't argued, when there had been a striking tenderness and need between them. And that first night, when they had left him alone and gone off together… He was kind of dying to talk about that with someone.

But not the Admiral, whose reputation suggested he wouldn't really be terribly sympathetic to stories of tragic young wartime love and who would probably not retell it quite the same way later. Luckily, Tyno had been practicing keeping things to himself rather a lot in the last few days. He managed to shut up and wait for Zhao to go on.

It was the hour before sunrise when Tyno was finally allowed to go rest in the soldiers' camp, but despite the weariness of his body, he didn't feel like sleeping. He borrowed ink and paper from one of the other men and sat on his cot, writing by the light of a candle. A few other men had managed to get back to their beds and their snores mingled with the rasp of Tyno's brush.

Dear Mom,

You're never going to believe who saved my life in the Earth Kingdom…

Chapter Text

Katara woke slowly to the heat of the sun on her skin and the smell of cooking fish. The former was a relief from the cool breezes of the night and the latter, considering the empty ache of her stomach, was pretty tantalizing. There were also voices, low voices half-lost in the rush of the ocean, apparently trying not to disturb her.

"I gotta hand it to you, buddy - I never thought I'd be happy to have a firebender in my castaway lifeboat but you're definitely proving yourself a valuable crew member of the SPS Water Tribe's Revenge."

"It's stupid to name a boat this size," Zuko said with a sort of quiet, stubborn vehemence. "And that name is really clunky."

Suki nearly spoke right over him. "I think Water Tribe's Revenge has a pretty nice ring to it."

"That's probably because you have a sense of humor, and you can appreciate the sophisticated irony of the SPS Water Tribe's Revenge being a craft recaptured from the Fire Nation. Zuko'll get it eventually. But we probably shouldn't bug him while he's cooking."

"This isn't cooking! This-"

There was a chorus of shushing.

"It's firebending," Zuko grumped. "And I understand the joke - it's just stupid and childish."

A little disoriented, Katara cracked her eyes open to the blazing sun and the empty front of the longboat. The deck rocked beneath her and, as she peeled her face off the planks, she found she had drooled all down one cheek.

"Ugh," she said against her sleeve, shifting so she could sit with her back to the side wall.

"Good job, jerkbender. You woke her up."

Katara turned her head in time to see Zuko glowering at Sokka. He was the closest, sitting astride a seat as he held a steady flame beneath the big fish skewered on a pole that had to be a broken paddle. Sokka held the other end of the paddle, sitting back and bracing the pole on his knee so that he didn't have to bear its full weight. Suki sat beside him, unwinding the bandage from around her leg.

As Katara watched, Zuko's flame surged a little brighter under the fish. Sokka, eyes on the food, winced then frowned. "Hey, watch what you're doing! It took hours to catch that thing and I hate the taste of burnt fish. Katara! You know how I like my fish. Make him do it right."

Before Katara could do more than blink, Suki scoffed and shot him a half-amused, half-disbelieving look. "She's your sister, Sokka, not your cook. Besides, she rescued us last night. You should be making sure that fish is cooked the way she likes it."

"The way I like it is the way she likes it," Sokka said with a dismissive smile. But then doubt crept across his face as he looked back at Katara. "Right?"

Suddenly everyone was looking at Katara. Suki had a smirk on her face that said Go on. Tell him he's wrong. Zuko looked like he expected her to start spouting off a recipe and had commenced resenting her in advance. Katara just pressed her fingers over her eyes.

"As long as it isn't raw or too charred to taste, it'll be fine. Where are we?"

"We followed the cliffs east through most of the night," Sokka said, "but there aren't exactly landmarks down here. If we were on top of the cliff, we could probably figure out where we are in relation to the mountains, but…" He peered up the sheer rock face that towered over them to the north. "…it's a long climb to get to that view."

"Yeah," Suki said, following his gaze. "The Kyoshi Warriors sometimes train by climbing the mountains on our island, but those cliffs are nowhere as high as this. It'll take us all day to scale that monster."

Sokka peered back at Katara. "I don't guess you can waterbend us up there?"

"Sorry, Sokka. It was all I could do last night to get us down here - and that was with the full moon to help." Katara hitched her legs up and rested her elbows on her knees. She really didn't feel strong enough to do a ton of bending, much less rock climbing. Hopefully eating something would help with that.

"We're going to have to climb it," Zuko said, glaring down at the fire in his hands. "You can talk about it all day, but talk won't get us up that cliff."

"I agree," Sokka said. "We've gotta do this. But first we've gotta eat this tasty fish. Mmm…" The look on his face was overly tender.

Katara didn't really notice, though. She was frowning at Zuko's back, which she could partly see through the scorched ruins of his shirt. Those final moments of the previous night were returning to her gradually, beginning with a sense of frustration with Zuko and a stung, almost embarrassed feeling… because, like a moon-eyed child, she had suggested that he help Aang end the war, and Zuko had just snarled a bunch of stuff at her. Big shock there. But it still hurt that he would brush her off like that.

And that he would say she was "just some Water Tribe girl." After everything… That he could say that to her now, after the things they had shared, hurt Katara more deeply than she could really admit to herself.

So, when she looked through the hole in Zuko's shirt at the fierce red of his burn, Katara was more mad than sympathetic. She got up and made her way closer. "Scoot up."

Zuko frowned at her. "What?"

Katara huffed. "Your back looks terrible. Scoot up the bench so I can sit behind you while I work on it."

Sokka was snickering quietly. Zuko looked outraged. "My back is fine!"

"It is not. There are still blisters. It's got to hurt."

"I can deal with it," he said stiffly, looking back at the fish. Glaring, really.

Katara crossed her arms. "I might be just some Water Tribe girl," she spat, "but I know it'll be hard for you to climb all day with your back like that. So quit being difficult and scoot up."

Zuko looked back at her and his scowl plainly indicated his intention to argue with her, but Sokka spoke first. "She's got a point, you know," he said, leaning his weight on one elbow against the rail. "And she'll drive us all crazy with her nagging if you don't do what she wants."

"Nagging?" Suki asked in a quiet, dark tone.

"Nagging?" Katara demanded.

Sokka shrugged and held up his one free hand in defense. "I'm just saying that you're very… persistent when you're convinced you're right."

"I am right!" Katara stuck out an arm toward Zuko, who was back to glaring at the fish. "He's injured! We can't afford to take any risks when we make the climb. We all have to be at our strongest."

"That's right," Zuko said in a brutally calm voice, "which is exactly why you should be saving your strength. I can climb all day. Can you?" He turned a hard look on her, like he already knew the answer.

Katara forgot all about how she had been wondering the same thing, made a shocked noise, and then bristled. "Ugh! I'm trying to help you! You are the most ungrateful, stubborn, short-sighted-"

"Hey guys! Fish is done!"

Zuko didn't seem to notice that Sokka had drawn the fish away. Flames still crackled over his hands as he glared up at Katara. All in a rush, he shut his fists and stood to face her. Sokka shouted something about rocking the boat but Katara only heard Zuko. "I'm ungrateful? I just risked my life and my throne to help you rescue Sokka and you're picking a fight with me! Zhao will report seeing me to my father. I'll be lucky if I can finish my mission without being arrested for treason!" He flung his arms up, trailing sparks, but Katara didn't so much as flinch, just went on glaring up at him as he continued. "All because of you! Because I followed you!"

"I never asked you to come! I didn't ask for your help!"

"Well you certainly found enough uses for me!"

"So you carried the pack and pitched the tent! Fine! Will your royal dignity ever recover from such distasteful menial labor?"

Zuko only crossed his arms and frowned at her and, suddenly, Katara realized what else he was referring to. The anger evaporated right out of her as she met his level stare.

It had been an important part of Katara's coping strategy to not think about Zuko's feelings. Better not to wonder, better not to allow any foolish hopes that could blind her to what he was up to. It was so much safer to assume that he only wanted the thing that teenaged boys wanted as a general rule, and that doing that with him had been a kindness to them both. But now, with sudden clarity and certainty, Katara knew that Zuko had not been following her all this time in the pursuit of that thing.

He cared about her. He wanted her safe. And he probably wanted a whole bunch of other things she hadn't even considered, too.

But the fact that his feelings were evident and genuine didn't make them any less dangerous. Already, Katara felt a tiny, fierce hope rooting itself in the back of her mind, a hope that could distract her and disarm her at the worst possible moments. She felt sick and terrified and elated.

In her shock, it didn't occur to her to be glad that Zuko's body was blocking Sokka and Suki from seeing her expression as she gaped and blushed. Zuko never stopped frowning, but his eyes flicked to the side like he was remembering they had an audience. Then he looked back at her and huffed, pinching his eyes shut and gritting his teeth. "Just! Eat your food. Okay?"

"Yeah," Katara managed. "Okay."

Zuko blinked at her as if her sudden compliance came as a shock. Then he turned stiffly and sat on one end of the seat, leaving space for Katara to sit beside him. As she did, she caught Sokka watching her with that thoughtful look that meant he was trying to work something out. Katara's heart hammered a little in her chest. How much had he guessed already?

But Sokka smiled when he handed her a quarter of the fish. Warm oil dribbled down her fingers. "Eat up, now!" He stuffed a chunk into his own mouth and chewed with apparent relish. Katara, despite herself, coughed out a weak chuckle.

They ate in relative silence for a while until Suki struck up a conversation about fishing and asked several questions about trade and school migrations at the South Pole that soon had Sokka and Katara hashing out their respective memories of how the industry had worked before all the men left. Even as she talked, Katara noticed from the corner of her eye how Zuko sat eating his fish with intense focus. He was in pain, she knew it. After the fish was gone and the grease washed away, Katara offered to heal Suki's leg, but the burn was too old to really do much for. Zuko still refused to let her work on his back but Sokka had a splinter in his elbow that he was more than happy to let her handle.

Then, finally, they moved the boat in close to the cliff and, with a sweep of her arms, Katara raised them up on a column of water to a narrow ledge perhaps twenty feet up from the sea. Once they had all stepped ashore, she let the water fall and the longboat went bobbing off on the waves toward the south.

"You know, I think I'll miss the SPS Water Tribe's Revenge," Sokka sighed. "Red and black aren't exactly my colors but I've gotta admit, they make for a snazzy getaway boat."

"Maybe you can repaint the Southern Water Tribe fleet," Suki said as she tied one end of a salvaged rope around her waist.

"Yeah!" Sokka said, delighted. "And then we could sneak attack steamers. The Fire Nation would never see it coming!"

Zuko, peering up the cliff in search of handholds, made a disgusted noise. His end of the rope he and Sokka shared was already firmly knotted around his waist. "Nobody would fall for that, Sokka. It's completely idiotic."

Sokka shrugged and smirked and tied his own knots. "Which is exactly why no one would expect it."

"Oh, Sokka…" Katara rolled her eyes and tried to watch exactly where Suki was putting her hands and feet, then followed her up the cliff.

It was grueling, and Katara's fingers were soon sore, and her knuckles and cuticles bloody from scraping into crevices. Suki was trying to maintain a slow, steady pace, but the rope was almost always fully stretched out between them. The boys quickly outpaced them, and that was pretty disheartening. Katara's legs and arms and back and neck all ached unrelentingly and, before the sun had even reached its midway point in the sky, she felt like collapsing.

"Suki," she called up the ten or so feet separating them, "I don't know if I can do this."

Suki gripped a narrow ledge with one hand and looked down at her with an encouraging sort of smile that she certainly had never used during Katara's imprisonment. "You're already doing it, Katto. We're halfway there, so the worst part is over."

Katara was almost certain that this was a lie; they were not halfway up the cliff and the worst part was clearly only just beginning. "I'm serious. You might have to cut me loose and finish the climb on your own."

"Do you want to take a break?"

Her fingers, jammed between two rocks, were screaming. "The only thing worse than climbing is stopping," Katara grated.

"Okay," Suki said as she turned back and pulled herself up to the next grip. Katara was sure that each step would be her last. Then Suki looked back down at her and, lifting an eyebrow, said, "So, your brother. Is he single?"

Katara choked on a little rock dust. "What?"

"Does Sokka have a girlfriend or a fiance I should know about?"

"I- No… not that he's told me about." The rope went taut and Katara had to climb up a few feet as she formulated the question that had been nagging at her ever since Sokka had started flirting with the Kyoshi Warrior - which had been pretty much on sight. "You don't find him sexist and offensive?"

"Oh, I do." Suki just kept climbing as she talked, like it was as easy as strolling along a beach. "But considering the culture he's coming from, he's not so bad. In fact, from what I've seen, he seems pretty smart. And he's cute and funny, too."

Katara couldn't hear very well, so she strained and closed a little of the distance between them.

"Honestly," Suki went on, "I find him really refreshing. The last week was… rough. I can put a brave face on it, but some things happened that… they were just bad."

Katara froze for a second, then kept climbing, peering up at the bottoms of the warrior's boots despite the danger of catching grit in her eyes. "Do you want to talk about it?"

"No," Suki said thoughtfully, like she was only just coming to that conclusion. "I don't really want to think about it yet. I'm alive and I'm free, and that's what matters."

"Yeah," Katara said, peering down and off to one side and feeling suddenly like her problems were petty next to what Suki had to be going through. Imprisoned by enemy soldiers. It was chilling to think of what might have happened in that cell over the past week. And here was Suki, so composed and undefeated, climbing unendingly like it was the easiest thing in the world.

"Look, I like you, and I respect you as a fellow warrior, so I'm just going to tell you now." Suki looked down and leveled a frank stare on Katara. "I'm probably going to sleep with your brother before we get to Gao Ling."

"Oh!" Katara hesitated, not sure what Suki was looking for. She grimaced. "Gross…"

"That's not going to be a problem for you, is it?"

"Why would it-?" But then she thought of Zuko, and she knew one way it could be a problem. "As long as you don't hurt him, no. But if you break his heart or something, we will have a problem. And facing off with me again won't be like last time, Suki."

She actually laughed. "I'm not arguing, Katto. You probably really could mop my own dojo floor with me now. On a good day." With a smirk, she continued her climb. "No, I'll tell Sokka the truth; I like him, but it's not a marriage proposal." Almost idly, she went on. "I guess you must have had a similar conversation with your shouting partner, right?"

Katara didn't realize she had stopped climbing until the rope tugged. Then she strained onward. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"Right," Suki said, "and he just had that little fit down there because you haven't said 'thank you' yet."

Katara climbed in silence for a long moment. "Does Sokka know?"

"I'm not sure. He knows something's up for sure, but I don't think he has it figured out exactly. He's smart, though, and he's paying attention, so it'll happen sooner or later"

Katara grimaced and put one hand over the other, and just carried on. There was nothing else to do. She had hoped to keep Sokka from figuring out any details about what had happened, but now that he was suspicious, he would treat it like one of his stupid mysteries until he wheedled out the truth. He could be working Zuko over right now…

"So what did happen?" Suki asked at length. "The last time I saw you and that guy, he was kind of running you down. Now you two fight over who gets to be the most self-sacrificing. That's got to be quite a story."

Katara absently wiped the sweat from her brow, sore fingers forgotten. "Can you keep a secret?"

Suki laughed. "Warrior's honor," she said. "It stays between us."

"Then I guess it really started when Zuko heard the rumors about this pit fight I got wrangled into in Gao Ling."

"Yeah, we heard some of that on Kyoshi Island, too. Katto of the Southern Tribe gets his butt kicked by the Blind Bandit and keeps coming back for more." Suki grinned down at her. "Familiar story."

"Ha ha," Katara said. "Don't worry, you won't have heard the rest before..."

.


"…but that really came in handy the third time I tried to escape, only-" Sokka laughed a big, fake, self-deprecating laugh. "-I didn't even think about the guards on regular patrol. I ran around a tent, right into a squad. Now that was embarrassing!"

Zuko did not look down at Sokka. The sun was beginning to set off to the left and they were so close to the top now, and Sokka had been going on about his escape attempts for hours. Zuko was tired, and hungry again, and his back hurt so badly he could hardly think of anything else. He didn't really consider that Sokka's monologue had the not-entirely-unintended benefit of fueling Zuko's steady flow of annoyance and frustration, which had really been instrumental in driving him up the cliff.

At last, Zuko gripped the ledge and, with a few deep breaths and a last surge of strength, hauled himself over. Then, despite how it hurt, he sprawled on his back, staring up at the pink edges of the clouds and dragging in one deep breath after another.

"Hey! A little help here!"

Zuko stirred himself and pulled the rope up, easing Sokka's way and then clasped his hand to haul him over the edge. Then they sat together as they caught their breath. Zuko peered down the dizzying distance below. "It'll be dark before they catch up at this rate."

"Not much of a climber, my sister," Sokka panted, spread-eagled on the rock. "She wouldn't even try climbing my ice fortress, back in the village."

"Probably because she had better things to do," Zuko grumbled, then frowned at Sokka. "You built that thing? I thought the children did that."

Sokka glared at him and jabbed a thumb into his chest. "I was fourteen! Upkeep hasn't been a priority, alright?"

"Right." Zuko looked back down the cliff. "We can lower the rope to them when they get close enough, but it'll be a while."

"Good, because I'm exhausted. I could use a nap."

Zuko stared at him in disbelief. "How can you think of sleeping while Katara's in danger?"

Sokka rolled his eyes but sat up, huffing. "Fine, fine. Unlike some people, I didn't get to sleep more than a couple hours last night, but if you think fretting and jumping around up here like the girls' personal cheerleading squad will help, I guess disagreeing makes me the bad guy."

Despite his weariness, Zuko stood up to loom over Sokka. "Do you realize how scared Katara was when she found out you'd been taken captive? She couldn't think about anything except finding you! I had to coax her into eating and resting! She was reckless - she almost got us caught and made friends with a bunch of cutthroats to help you. She wasn't-"

-herself.

Zuko scowled and shook off that hurtful thought. "And what do you do when she's in a life-threatening situation? Take a nap?"

"Hey! First off, she's climbing a wall, not imprisoned by the Fire Nation. She has her…" Sokka flailed a hand, clearly annoyed. "…intense girl-warrior friend to help her, and she can handle herself. Also, if she falls, she'll fall into water, and I don't know if you noticed last night, but water is one thing Katara has pretty much handled." He paused and climbed to his feet, hands balled into fists at his sides. "Secondly, where do you get off thinking you know how to worry about my sister better than I do?"

"I-" Zuko hesitated an instant too long.

"She told me what you did."

Zuko's face clenched in shock, then horror. "What?"

"Last night," Sokka said, suddenly crossing his arms. He assumed a cool, stern expression. "While you were sleeping and Suki was taking a break, Katara and I had a little chat. Seems like eating and sleeping aren't the only things you've been coaxing her into."

"What are you- I don't know what you're talking about!" Was this a trick? Did he actually know anything? Would Katara really have talked about what had passed between them with her brother? Zuko couldn't quite believe it, but he was blushing anyway. He could feel it.

Sokka was watching him with a look sharp enough to cut. "Oh you don't, huh? How about the sleeping bag? Does that jog your memory?"

"She told you about that?" Zuko choked out the words before thinking. He was blushing even harder now. He turned away and put his hands on his head for a tense moment before whirling back and slashing one hand through the air. "So what! I was risking my life for her! I asked for one thing! It's not like she hasn't made demands of me!"

Sokka's face gave a weird twitch, then recovered, angrier than before. "And you think that gives you the right to…? What did you do?"

Zuko narrowed his eyes as the realization set in. "Katara didn't tell you any-"

Suddenly Sokka had a fistful of the front of his shirt and was shouting near his face. There was a ripping sound that no one heard. "What did you do to my sister?"

"You lied!" Zuko shoved him back but Sokka kept his grip.

"What did you do?"

"I held her! Alright? That's what I asked for." Zuko shoved again and this time Sokka let go and stood a step back, watching him. "I just wanted-" Zuko crossed his arms and scowled out at the ocean. He was blushing harder than ever, because he hadn't really thought much about that desire at the time, and now he was realizing that Sokka would probably think of it as unmanly. He turned his scowl back on the other guy and was about to dismiss the topic, but Sokka spoke first.

"This isn't just a crush for you, is it?" The look on his face bespoke realization and, so much worse, pity.

"No! I mean, I don't- That's not what I-"

But Sokka just went on, watching him. "You risk your life for her, you take care of her like it's your job or something, you were nagging me just a minute ago…"

"Nagging?" Zuko jerked back in offense.

Sokka only scoffed. "What, are you in love with her or something?"

Zuko froze. There was a strange feeling rattling through him, and he suddenly felt much more as if he was standing at the edge of a precipice than he had felt when he was actually looking down the cliff.

"Because that's a really dumb move for you," Sokka went on. "Considering your mission." He shook his head slowly and folded his arms over his chest. "Katara's not going to let you take her little buddy away just because you've got feelings for her."

Zuko bared his teeth. This conversation had been uncomfortable to start with but now it was digging into territory he didn't like to think about. "I know that," he snarled. "This has nothing to do with my mission."

Sokka rolled his eyes. "It's got everything to do with your mission. If you capture the Avatar and go back to the Fire Nation, how do you think Katara will feel about you then?"

"Stop it, Sokka."

"But if you join our side and protect the Avatar, you'll lose your chance at ruling the Fire Nation. Enter failure, shame, dishonor, blah blah…"

"Shut up! It's not a joke!"

Sokka had tipped his head to one side and was scrutinizing him. "This is what you guys were arguing about last night, isn't it? Katara was trying to convince you to actually join us, wasn't she?"

Zuko pointed a finger in his face. "It's none of your business, Sokka, so stay out of it!"

Sokka recovered and batted his hand aside. "Newsflash - as long as you've got an interest in my sister, it will always be my business."

"She's an adult, she doesn't need you interfering in her affairs."

"I'm not arranging a marriage here, buddy," Sokka snapped. "I'm making sure that my little sister doesn't get her heart broken by some flame-brained jerkbender who's going to have to choose between her and a five-year obsession! She likes you, and I hate that, not because I don't like you, but because I can see far enough ahead to know what's coming. In the end, you're going to betray someone, and if that someone is Katara, I'll do everything in my power to make you regret it for the rest of your life."

Zuko met Sokka's scowl with one of his own to conceal his speechlessness. After a moment, Sokka went on. "Now, since napping is off the table, I'm going hunting. If you want to help Katara, I'd suggest you find a good place for a campsite and gather firewood and soft stuff to sleep on."

He turned and strode off into the woods to the northeast, pulling the boomerang from the back of his sash as he went. Zuko watched him until he was out of sight, then let out an infuriated snarl and turned back to look over the cliff. Far below, Suki and Katara were still climbing at their painfully slow pace. The sun went on creeping toward the horizon.

Drawing a deep breath, Zuko turned toward the forest and, heading in the general direction of the mountains to the northwest, began looking for the things Sokka had suggested. It was a long while before he found anything, though, since it was hard to see through all his frustration. It was even hard to walk when the weight of the decision Sokka had laid out so simply upon him was staggering.

.


"I just don't think you need to beat yourself up about it," Suki said, pausing to peer over her shoulder. The orange light of the setting sun cast brilliantly across her earnest face. "Seeing people die in combat for the first time… it really changes you. People do crazier things than seek comfort after something like that. It's not like you intentionally played on his emotions to take advantage of him or something. He should be able to understand that."

Katara mulled this over as she climbed. "It just seems so unbelievable to me that he would… that he would actually think there could be anything between us when he's so bent on taking away the last hope my people have for peace."

"I don't know what to tell you, Katto. All I know is, this is a war, and you have to do what's right for you to keep fighting for what you believe in. You need love to power you and keep you human, but sometimes it can convince you to do some terrible things, too."

Katara thought of Suki's village, of the Unagi they'd threatened to feed her to, whatever it was. She wondered who else Suki had fed to the Unagi to protect her people.

But that had little bearing on Katara's present situation. Right now, she had to remember what was most important and what she needed to do to continue fighting for that. But if Aang was the most important part of ending the war, what was Katara going to do about Zuko? More alarmingly, what was she going to have to do to Zuko to ensure that Aang remained free? Last night, he had seemed impossible to sway from his path. He was so full of anger and conviction…

But in the back of Katara's mind, the hope that had taken root that morning had only grown stronger. It was a desperate, impossible hope that made her think maybe Zuko's mind could be changed after all. Because he had feelings for her. He would want to help her, wouldn't he? Maybe he really could be convinced to change sides. Arguing hadn't worked, but maybe…

Gran-gran's voice came back, her satisfied moments after coaxing Sokka into doing some chore or other. Bait a trap with honey, Katara, and you'll always catch a sweeter ice bear.

The moon was rising by the time they reached the top of the cliff. Katara heard some talking and then Suki disappeared. The rope snapped taut and Katara found herself practically dragged up the rest of the way to where Sokka and Zuko were both pulling. It was Sokka who gripped her hands and hauled her up.

"Wait till you see what I caught us for dinner! I don't even know what it is."

Zuko huffed where he hovered behind him. "I already told you, it's an anteaterelope."

"Well you could have let other people have a turn to guess! Honestly, buddy, you are the worst at games."

"Zuko doesn't like games," Katara found herself saying, a tiny, weary smile tugging at her mouth. "They're beneath his royal dignity."

Zuko was watching her closely, his expression uncertain. Sokka just rolled his eyes. "Yeah yeah."

"I don't know, Sokka," Katara went on, smirking now. She was so happy to not be climbing anymore. It made her a little giddy. "We should probably take a page out of his book, since we are technically a prince and princess now."

"You know what? You're right," Sokka said, straightening with very stiff formality and bowing a ridiculous, sweeping sort of bow toward her. "Why Princess Katara, you are looking rather splendid tonight, with that artful dirt arranged about your person and the moon lighting up your rags."

Katara curtsied as she had learned to do back home for Mina's fancy brunches and caught Zuko's bewildered, appalled stare. Suki was snickering in the background. "Oh Prince Sokka! How you flatter your royal sister."

"No more than such royalty requires. Might you do me the honor of accompanying me whilst I skin our evening repast?"

"It would be my royal pleasure, Prince Sokka."

"Come, Prinsister!" Sokka cried, offering his arm. Katara, giggling, placed her arm over his and walked with him into the trees.

Zuko shouted after them. "I never talk like that! You're both crazy!"

"I've gotta admit," Sokka said as he led her through the woods to wherever he had stashed his catch, "teasing that guy never gets old. He's strung tight as a pipa."

"I hope you haven't been giving him too hard a time," Katara said quietly. "He did kind of do a lot to help me rescue you, you know."

"Yeah," Sokka said, and in the moonlight that managed to peek through the trees, Katara could tell he was turning to look at her as they walked. "He's been telling me all about that, actually."

Katara, breaking out in a mild cold sweat, tugged her arm and found it securely trapped in Sokka's clutches. "Has he?" she managed.

"Yup."

For a second, Katara bought it. Then she shook her head. Sokka wouldn't be playing around so much if he really knew. "No he hasn't," she huffed, rolling her eyes. "You're trying to trick me into telling you secrets, but there aren't any secrets to tell. You might as well just give it up, Sokka."

"I wouldn't feel like I needed to trick you if you'd just be honest with me."

"I am being honest," Katara lied primly. "There's nothing to tell."

"What about the cuddling?"

She stopped walking, and Sokka did too, frowning down at her in the dark. "He told you about that?"

"With my powers of deduction, I hardly needed him to tell me," Sokka scoffed. Then, more seriously, "Katara, why are you letting him get close like this? You know what he's going to do."

"I," Katara said at length, beginning to walk again, "I'm not actually sure. We saw some people get killed, Sokka. It was scary, and losing you was scary and… the thing with me and Zuko, it just happened, okay?"

"Katara," he said in that plaintive tone he got when he was disappointed or thought she was acting crazy.

"What was I supposed to do, Sokka? Let the leader of the freedom fighters talk me into agreeing with a whole bunch of crazy justifications for murder? Zuko was comforting when I needed comfort, and he was safe when nothing else around me was. And I didn't mean to- to develop feelings, and I know he's not exactly stable and I know he still wants to capture Aang but I can't just let go after all that he's done for me, for us, and-"

"Katara," Sokka cut in, his voice so much quieter, so shocked. He pulled them to a stop this time. "He's the Prince, of the Fire Nation. How far are you going to let this thing go?"

"What- What do you mean?"

His hand was warm on hers as he clutched it to his side. "Look, I get that there's a line between reasonable concern and Northern misogyny, but I don't really know where it is, here. I just hope you know Zuko isn't a viable candidate for marriage."

Katara choked, and wheezed for a second. Sokka must have mistaken the sound for a laugh.

"I'm serious, Katara. Setting aside for the moment the fact that the Fire Nation is taking over the world, even if Zuko wanted to marry you, princes don't get engaged to peasant girls. If Zuko gets his position back, he'll end up following in his father's evil footsteps and married to some stiff noblewoman with impeccable manners and lots of red in her wardrobe."

"Alright, I get it! I'm unrefined, poor, and blue! You can stop now!" Katara pinched her eyes shut and pressed a hand to her forehead. She had not really thought of Zuko as a potential husband, had in fact banished the thought of marriage entirely. Now that her quest was over though, she couldn't hide anymore.

Sokka, whether he knew it or not, was forcing her to face the extent of what she had done to herself. She had given her virtue to a man who wouldn't and couldn't possibly marry her. Not only that, but if even a rumor of this got out, no Water Tribe man would want to marry her, either - Southern princess or not. Because who would want to tie himself to an impure girl, much less a girl who had given it up to the Prince of the Fire Nation?

Katara bowed her head as that wedding fantasy from her childhood crumbled away and vanished. Her heart was hammering and she felt dizzy. It was one thing to hear Toph or Suki talk about what it meant to be a soldier in wartime and how that should change Katara's values. It was quite another to apply those philosophies to her life. Katara could acknowledge her worth as a warrior, but to allow herself the freedoms of a warrior only made her feel selfish and foolish - because she was a girl first and foremost, and girls who did these sorts of things were selfish and foolish and deserved nothing but scorn.

A warm hand settled on her shoulder. It was so familiar, her brother's easy touch, and it steadied Katara at once. She had not realized how she missed it. "I just don't want you to waste your time on some guy who can't honor you," Sokka said. "You deserve better. That's all."

"Oh Sokka…" Katara threw her arms around him and hugged him tight. For once he didn't complain, holding her just as hard.

With her face pressed against her big brother's shoulder, Katara was pummeled by guilt and shame and fear. And nostalgia. How many times had she run to Sokka when she was upset as a kid? How many fears had he dispelled for her? Now, Katara had a wild urge to confess what she'd done, to let Sokka help her deal with it, to tell him he didn't need to worry at all anymore because she was already ruined and she actually didn't deserve better. But her mouth only twisted into a grimace as she started crying.

"Hey," Sokka said gently, rubbing her back. "I'm sorry, Katara. I didn't mean to upset you…"

"No, it's just," she choked. "It's been a really tough few days."

He was quiet for a long moment, just holding her, and then he rested his chin against her head. "You know you can tell me anything, right? Whatever's going on, you don't have to deal with it alone."

It was on the tip of her tongue. It was lodged in the back of her throat. It was jabbing against her heart as she swallowed it down. Because whatever Sokka said, there were things he didn't need to know. Not now, maybe not ever. Telling him would only upset him, and embarrass her.

And, besides, they weren't in the South Pole anymore. Katara wasn't a kid. She had to deal with this on her own.

She drew back and wiped her eyes. "It's just… seeing those men die. It made me realize how much danger you were really in, you know?"

From the look on his face, Katara knew he wasn't wholly convinced. Still, he wrapped an arm around her shoulders and pulled her close as they continued walking. "Well, I'm safe now," he said, picking a strand of briars out of their path. "How about you tell old Sokka all about it while I skin our mystery dinner?"

Katara chuckled wetly and nodded. "Yeah, okay," she said, but in the darkness she couldn't bring herself to fake a smile.

Chapter Text

Zuko was incredibly uncomfortable and, despite what his mother had told him so long ago about the rules of etiquette saving a person from awkward situations, he had tried everything he could think of and it wasn't helping with this one.

"Uh," he said, "there's a stream over the hill. If you want a drink or something."

"I'm good," Suki said, and just went on sitting by the fire he had built, watching him from the corner of her eye.

Maybe Kyoshi Warriors had some kind of immunity to etiquette.

Zuko crossed his arms and sat against a tree, then winced when his back touched the bark and sat forward instead. How long did it take to skin an anteaterelope anyway? Would Sokka tell Katara about the private information Zuko had let slip? Would she be mad? She would probably be mad. She had been mad when he told Sokka about the kiss. But maybe she would recognize what he hadn't told Sokka about and actually be pleased. Or maybe Sokka would trick her into revealing that, too.

Zuko braced his face in his hands and sighed. Whenever they did come back, one or both of them were probably going to be angry with him. Maybe he should savor the quiet while it lasted.

"So," Suki said at length, prodding a stick into the heart of the fire. "Burn any good villages lately?"

Zuko straightened and scowled. "Your village wouldn't have caught fire if you and your little girlfriends hadn't waylaid my firebenders."

"Oh," she said with a too-sympathetic moue, "poor big strong invaders, had to work to get their way." Her tone, in contrast to her sweet voice, was acid.

Zuko met her glare but was saved from having to reply by the arrival of the Water Tribe siblings. Finally. Sokka came first and made some cheerful joke as he set up the cleaned and spitted meat over the fire. Zuko wasn't really listening though. He was watching Katara, who was perfectly at ease and even smiled, but still had a look about her eyes like she had been crying. The moment she caught Zuko's gaze, she froze and her smile faded away. There was a peculiar expression on her face, worry and sorrow and something else, but she quickly dropped her eyes and turned to the others.

This did not strike Zuko as a favorable sign.

"I hear there's a stream over the hill," Suki was saying to Sokka. "But, it's pretty dark now. Will you show me the way?"

"I could have shown you the stream half an hour ago," Zuko griped from across the fire. Not that he wanted to go off into the dark and the brambles with Suki, since that seemed like a great way to get 'accidentally' shoved into a gorge or something, but he'd put a lot of effort into being civil and it hadn't gotten him anywhere.

Suki shot him an annoyed (and maybe a little distasteful) glance but didn't say anything because Katara had suddenly choked and was coughing into her sleeve. "Bug," she said when she realized everyone was watching her.

Sokka shrugged. "Gee, Suki, I'd love to, but, uh…" He shot a narrow glance at Zuko. "…I should really keep an eye on the meat while it's cooking. Maybe Zuko can go with you now."

Zuko mentally cursed himself for setting himself up for that, but Suki protested before he could. "I don't really want to go with Zuko."

Zuko scowled. Sokka gave Suki a bewildered glance. "What's wrong with Zuko?"

She looked back at him and raised one eyebrow.

"Sokka, quit being rude," Katara said, folding her arms over her chest. "Suki asked you."

Sokka's mouth opened to protest. Before the words even fully formed in his head, Zuko heard himself interjecting. "A prince with no prior engagements should never deny a lady's reasonable request for escort." They all stared at him until he wanted to squirm. He only frowned instead. "It's a real rule. I didn't make it up."

"There you have it, Prince Sokka," Katara said, smiling faintly. She waved her brother off. "Go do your royal duty."

"Alright, fine. But I'll be right back. And I mean right back." Sokka followed a smiling Suki through the bushes, shooting suspicious glances over his shoulder. He pointed two fingers at his eyes and then at Zuko, and then