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Searching for Warmth

Chapter Text

Katara hates the cold.

She’s lived in at the North Pole for five years, but despite the numerous furs draped over and around her body, she feels a chill that makes her long for home.

But where is home to a girl like Katara?

The only sound for miles is the crunch of snow under boots. Katara relishes the noise. For years, she has been chastised for stomping too loudly, but now there is no one to admonish her. Her companion stomps twice as loud, his frustration echoing every step.

It had been a long journey, and there was no end in sight. Katara and her partner, a man named Arluuk, had traveled from ice post to ice post, checking in with every village. It was their duty to connect the scattered pieces of the Northern Water Tribe, the rural outposts far from the capital city. Technically, it was Arluuk’s duty — Katara was ordered along as a precautionary measure.

Arluuk had fought it, as any reasonable man would.

“I can take care of myself. I don’t need some woman slowing me down.”

But in the end he was overruled: it was always a good idea to have two heads to keep watch for wild polar-dogs, and Katara, while still not a fully trained healer, would be a welcome set of hands at many of the more far-flung villages.

It was not lost on Katara that her presence was meant to be an insult. She had rather gotten used to it.

Katara had arrived at the North Pole five years before, hungry for a chance to become a true Waterbending Master. It was not to be; the North Pole did not train women to fight.

She had railed against this for weeks She was the only Southern water bender, and she, of all people, surely she deserved to fight after everything she had been through… after what the Fire Nation had done to her. Sokka, her brother, who had accompanied her to the North, did his best, but he, too, had been young and untrained. The Northerners would not let him train as a warrior so long as he supported his sister’s insane request. They threatened to send her away without any instruction before she quietly acquiesced. Better to learn healing than nothing at all.

Katara was a skilled healer, better than some of the Masters. But her Southern ways held her back. Every full moon, she dutifully applied to achieve the Master rank, but she was turned away.

“Not yet,” said the healers. “You are impatient.”

“Not yet,” they said again. “You are too meek.”

“Not yet. You are too arrogant.”

“Not yet. You are too angry.”

At eighteen, Katara understood what was happening. To let her become a Master was to put the Southern Water Tribe in equal standing in the North, and everyone knew that the Southerners were savages.

So Katara became a savage.

Sokka had long since left the North — it was much easier to declare oneself a trained warrior once one had defeated every last man on the training grounds — although he had been hesitant to leave behind his sister. He had left her once before.

“Never again,” he had said with such fury and conviction that Katara had almost wept.

Still, she pushed him to leave.

“Our people need you,” she said. “You’re not leaving me, not really.”

“Katara, I won’t do it.”

“Sokka…”

Never. Again.

But then word came North that Fire Nation ships were circling the Southern Isles, and even Sokka’s devotion to his little sister could not keep him from his duty.

It was all for the best, because Sokka probably would have stopped Katara from some of her more rebellious acts. Except for the ones involving food — Sokka could never resist a midnight kitchen raid.

Her misdeeds were what had landed her on this months-long mission with Arluuk. Her grumpy companion was being punished by her presence, and the Northern Water Tribe was getting rid of a pest all in one fell swoop.

“There,” grunted Arluuk, pointing to a small outpost ahead. “That’s our stop for the night.”

After five weeks of traveling together, they had settled into a routine. Arluuk would start a small fire while Katara unearthed furs and supplies from the ice chest contained in each shack. They would switch positions — Katara stirring together a warm, quick meal, while Arluuk took stock of the maps and tools. They would make sure each outpost was in order, replacing supplies as needed, before settling into silence and darkness. They slept deeply, buried in furs, before packing up to the next outpost. They had not come across a village in days.

It was supposed to be a great honor, visiting the smaller tribal fractions. Long ago, it had been a way of securing alliances, of reminding people of shared heritage and culture. But as the War of One Hundred Years had waged, the small villages grew smaller still, distrustful of all outsiders, even other Northerners. Those who lived in the capital forgot about the small people, or worse, reviled them. The tour of the north had once been a great rite of passage for young men, and now it was a punishment.

Arluuk was the youngest son of Nanouk, a fearsome warrior in the Northern Water Tribe, and had five brothers ahead of him. Each and every one despised their youngest brother.

The story went like this: Meriwa, wife of Nanouk, loved her sons very much. She was as warm and kind as any woman of the North Pole had ever been. Her only small wish was a daughter, and who was Nanouk to deny her? She was happy when there was a baby inside her, for she loved all her children, but she had a secret hope that this one, the sixth, would be a girl.

It was not to be. A squalling boy emerged bathed in blood. Too much blood. And Meriwa did not stop bleeding, no matter what any of the healers did. She was gone before she could feel the warmth of her last child in her arms.

When Katara first arrived in the North, she had tried to befriend Arluuk. She had heard the story from the other healers — the best way to get gossip was always to listen to the older women — and she had felt a kinship with Arluuk. After all, she knew what it was to be raised without a mother.

“Go away, fire-eater!” he had shouted, pelting her with a snowball. Her shock at the words fire-eater froze her in place, and the slush exploded in her face. Arluuk had been able to fit in with some of the older boys for a while — they were impressed by his aim — but Katara had learned her lesson and avoided him after that.

Now they were stuck together for an entire season, walking around the North Pole to persuade suspicious villagers that yes, they were all still the same Tribe, still fighting for one cause.

It’s a surprise, then, when on a clear, crisp day Arluuk asks:

“Do you still want to learn to fight?”

Katara’s heart leaps, but she remembers the snowball.

“It is forbidden for women to fight,” she says cautiously.

Arluuk frowns, keeping his eyes on the horizon as they trudge across the ice. Several long beats pass before he speaks again.

“You’re the only one in the entire North Pole who’s ever seen a firebender.”

Katara says nothing. She is not a patient person by nature, but she has learned that it can be worth it to listen to what is unsaid.

“Do you remember how they fight? The style, the moves?”

“Yes.” It’s not something she could ever forget.

“Then… if you knew how to water bend, you could fight back, right?”

She hears the question underneath, so she answers it.

“I could teach you how to fight back,” she says.

Arluuk continues as if he had not heard her. He points to the hut in the distance, their next stopping point, and is silent for the rest of the walk.

They are just finishing their dinner when he speaks for the first time.

“Tomorrow,” he says. “Tomorrow, I will teach you how to water bend.”

Katara does not sleep that night.

 

Water bending is hard.

Arluuk is a stern, but not unkind teacher. The best part of their arrangement is that he actually starts speaking to her — full sentences, and not just about the daily necessities of their travel — and in the dark of night he tells her Northern folk tales and she shares Southern ones. They are surprised to find so many similarities, and they often argue over what happens in each tale.

“So Tui then pushes the canoe —”

“No, it’s La who guides the way. The men are pushing the canoe!”

“Who’s telling this story, me or you?”

“You, but you’re telling it wrong!”

There’s not much time for training — they have a bigger job to do, after all — but she slowly manages to freeze and thaw the few cups of water they use to make soup every night.

“I don’t understand it,” grumbles Arluuk after a month of practice. “I’ve seen you heal a man who almost got his whole arm ripped off by a tiger seal. How come you can’t make a water whip?”

“Shut up,” Katara practically snarls. “You’ve been trained to do this since you were a child just because you were a stupid boy.”

Arluuk is, strangely, immune to her anger. Katara thinks it’s perhaps because everyone has been angry at him his whole life — he’s just used to it. The fight goes out of her and she slumps back.

“It’s just… scary,” she admits quietly. “When water is in a body, I can feel where it’s supposed to go, what it’s supposed to do. But here… there’s nothing to control it. What if I lose control?”

Arluuk nods, eyes narrowed in thought. Then, his faces clears.

“I have an idea.”

“What?”

“Tomorrow,” he says, and he rolls over to sleep.

“You know, it’s really annoying when you do that.”

“I know.”

Katara waits. She feels like she’s spent her whole life waiting, but she still doesn’t know what she’s waiting for.

Their outpost is close to the sea this time, and there’s a little rickety boat half-buried around the back. Arluuk, a Master Water Bender at nineteen, is able to quickly free the ship from its icy hold and carry it to the edge of the ice shelf. They both climb in before Arluuk reveals his plan.

“Okay, you’re going to try the water whip here.”

“Here? On this tiny boat? In the middle of the water?”

“Yes,” he says, and he waits.

“What if I crack the boat in half?” Katara feels panic rising in her throat, but calms at Arluuk’s serene expression.

“I’m right here. I’ll keep us safe.”

She takes a deep breath and centers herself. As always, she feels the presence of warm water first. She wonders if this is because of her training as a healer, or if it is her Southern blood, searching for warmth again. She can sense Arluuk’s heartbeat, and it calms her. He is not afraid of her.

Perhaps he should be. He doesn’t know what’s she’s done to get here, after all.

The fury that rises within comes as quickly as ever. She is angry — she has been angry for years — and she is itching for a fight. This is why she had been afraid to bend the water before. The whip she bends points razor sharp, and it cracks the air as it moves. She feels a leap in Arluuk’s heartbeat — fear? Excitement? — and she slams the whip across the face of a nearby iceberg.

Crack!

Katara prepares another whip and strikes again. It is easy, so dangerously easy, to bend the water as she wills it. She tests it, freezing the whips in the air so that they crackle and splinter into a diamond spray. She blasts cold sea water up in a giant wave. Thrice more she strikes the iceberg before she settles herself back in the boat. She is panting, and she knows that tonight she will be bone-tired from this exertion, but the thrum of adrenaline makes her numb to the pain.

For the first time in five years, she feels warm.

Then, a blinding light, and a ear-splitting crack as the iceberg before them opens and a figure appears.

An airbender, Aang.

Aang is young and impossible, and Katara likes him immediately. It seems the feeling is mutual, because Aang sticks to her side like glue. It makes quite an impression on the villagers they meet — a Northern water bender and Southern healer accompanied by a monk and his bison.

What Aang tells them is stranger than any folk tale: he is the Avatar, an air bending, sixteen-year-old monk who, along with his flying bison Apaa, had become trapped in an iceberg for a hundred years. It takes a few days for this to sink in, and for Aang to get caught up to speed on the modern world. It is a distressing time, and more than once, Aang disappears in his sadness and confusion, only to return at the end of the day to dive under the furs between them.

The one most changed by this turn of events is, strangely, Arluuk. He becomes quiet again. Katara misses their easy companionship — it had, for a brief moment, been like having Sokka back — but she is surprised when Arluuk calls them together for a formal meeting. It seems strange to have such import placed on a pow-wow of three people and a bison, but Katara, for once, bites her tongue.

“Avatar Aang,” says Arluuk solemnly, ignoring Aang’s flinch at the sound of his title. “The world has become unbalanced in your absence. For peace to return, you must help restore it.”

Katara can see the anxiety in Aang’s eyes, and she glares at Arluuk. He ignores her.

“You will not be alone. It would be my greatest honor to help you in this quest. If you would allow me, Avatar, I could teach you the ways of water bending. I am not a man of greatness, but I am a Master, and it is my duty to my people and to you, Avatar, to offer you my assistance.”

He finished his speech with a deep bow to Aang, who looks both pleased and mildly uncomfortable.

“You want to teach me water bending?”

Arluuk twitches a bit. Propriety dictates he cannot rise from his position until Aang has accepted or rejected his offer.

“Can we start right now?”

It’s as close to a yes that Arluuk can get out of the excitable young monk, and he straightens, smiling in relief. He catches Katara’s eye and winks.

“Tomorrow.”

Less than a month passes before danger rears its ugly head.

Danger comes in many forms in the North — the roar of a polar-dog, the scream of a blizzard, the silence of the cold. But there is only one danger Katara truly fears.

A Fire Nation ship.

The sight of it almost paralyzes her. Suddenly she is seven again, injured and terrified. Praying that Sokka will come to save her, yet hoping that he is far away and safe.

The moment passes and Katara’s face turns to stone. Not this time, she thinks. This time, I can fight.

The ship chases them from port to port. They fly away on Apaa, but he’s easy to track in the sky. They could move further inland, but there are villages there, and Arluuk refuses to lure danger towards his people.

They send Apaa away as a diversion. It doesn’t work; whoever is running the ship is clever, as loathe as Katara is to admit it.

After two weeks of dodging and fleeing, their trio is exhausted and trapped. The Fire Nation troops have them pinned in a small peninsula. The end is coming, and it won’t be pretty.

One night, Katara purposefully cooks the last of their dwindling meat. Aang, a staunch vegetarian, is unable to stomach the smell and sets about building a large snowman upwind of Katara’s simmering stew.

She gives Arluuk and meaningful stare.

“We can’t outrun them forever,” she says.

Arluuk flinches.

“We have no other choice,” he answers, eyes fixed on the horizon.

“The Serpent’s Feint.”

It is one of their shared stories — and a favorite of Arluuk’s. His eyes widen, staring incredulously at Katara.

“You can’t be serious.”

“It would work.”

“It’s suicide!”

“Keep your voice down, would you?” She shoots a nervous look at Aang, who is practicing his ice spheres.

“Katara, that’s a fairy tale. This is real. In the real world, we would be captured.”

“Yes,” she agrees. “One of us could be captured.”

“Katara, you can’t… you of all people know what Fire Nation can do…”

“I am not afraid,” she says. It is only the half-truth.

“Then you’re stupid,” says Arluuk. “I won’t let you do it.”

“Arluuk, please,” she says, unable to keep the emotion from her voice. “Aang is more important than any of us, and you need to help him train.”

“And what, throw you to the lion-vipers in return? You know Aang will never agree to that. He cares about you… and I care about you, too. You’re like a… like a sister to me.”

Katara shuts her eyes, wishing she could block the pain from his voice.

“I have said good-bye to a brother before,” she says a little shakily. “But I know I will see him again, just as I will see you again. The Fire Nation did not break me the first time. It will never break me. But if we do nothing, the Fire Nation will take Aang and they will destroy him. They will destroy him and the hope of every person the Fire Nation wishes to oppress.”

“I am faster now,” she continues. “I am stronger. I know what you have taught me and I am not afraid to use it. I will lead the troops away from here, and you will save Aang. Whatever happens, he will need you more than he will need me. Are we agreed?”

Arluuk looks positively mutinous, but Aang bounds over and breaks the tension that hangs between them.

“Guys, come check out my snow man! Or should I say, my snow bison!”

They dutifully praise Aang’s large sculpture before they reluctantly destroy it — no need to give away their position any more than they already are — and Arluuk catches Katara’s eye.

He nods.

The Serpent’s Feint goes like this:

There once was a very clever young man who wished to marry his true love. However, she was cursed with a terrible affliction — the North and South disagree on what precisely the affliction is — but the young man had to embark on a dangerous journey to save her.

The path was treacherous — again, disagreements abound as to whether it was icy, or windy, or steep, or muddy — but along the way the clever man managed to pick his way safely through obstacles. Finally, there was only one more: a hungry dragon.

The dragon was large, fearsome, and more clever than any trickster who had ever walked the earth. Now, this poor man had to sneak his way into the den of the dragon and steal a potion containing an antidote. A sure way to die, but the man had a few tricks up his sleeve.

The dragon was very clever and so he was very bored. He was intrigued to watch the man approach with hands raised, and palms lowered — no sign of bending or weapons.

“Oh great and fearsome dragon!” called the man. “I have come to seek an antidote that only you possess.”

“Hah!” laughed the dragon. “Do you think I give away my possessions so easily? Look and see if any have succeeded!”

And the man saw the skeletons of many men who had come before him, swords in hand, and had fallen before the dragon. Still, he was not afraid.

“It is not for me that I come,” the man continued. “But my true love.”

“What do I care of love?” said the dragon. “Begone, peasant, and be thankful you were not eaten today.”

“Why would you eat me?” asked the man. “There is a much fatter, slower man coming behind me to ask for your help. He will be worth the wait.”

And the man left.

The dragon waited. He was eager to get a meal, especially if it was going to walk right into his lap. He waited, and waited, and waited.

Clever beings are not always patient, and the dragon was no exception. When finally, hours later, he heard a crashing in the brush nearby, he sprang forward.

The fat man moved faster than expected, and the dragon raced to keep up through the winding trees. Faster and faster they raced, the dragon following the loud crashes until they reached the ravine below. The man was trapped, and the dragon pounced.

Only there was no man. The dragon had chased a large boulder down the hill.

Furious, he raced back to his cave and found nothing amiss. Nothing, except a small bottle of precious antidote.

The dragon searched high and low, but he never found the clever man. The man lived out his days with his true love, her affliction cured, and they lived happily ever after.

 

 

Katara tells herself this story as she waits, watching the small troop of Fire Nation soldiers gather beneath the small hill where she hides. She is waiting, waiting for the moment to send out the boulder.

With a deep breath, she settles herself on a small sled and flies down the hill, straight past the waiting troops.

They let out a cry of alarm at the blue blur zipping past them and immediately give chase. She’s loaded up the sled with a bundle of furs that she’s carefully dressed in Aang’s robes. A little bit of bending speeds her along, hopefully disguising the fact that there is no young monk with her.

By now, Aang and Arluuk would be miles away. Arluuk had taken them out by boat before the first light under the guise of practicing new bending techniques. They had insisted Aang swap his robes for more suitable furs. Katara had given him a long hug before they departed.

“Why don’t you come with us, Katara?” Aang pleaded.

“You’ll see me soon enough,” she said.

Now she was zipping over the snowfield, shouts of angry Fire Nation soldiers chasing her down. A few fireballs were lobbed towards her — not close enough to hit her, but they terrified her nonetheless. She dodged as best she could, but the effort slowed down the sled, and soon she had to get up and run.

The jig was up. She would have to abandon the “monk” and flee.

She never did find out what the Fire Nation soldiers thought of the dummy Avatar in her sled. She was too focused on getting away, running as fast as she could towards the nearby hills of snow. There was an empty cave near there — perhaps she could get there fast enough that they wouldn’t see… maybe…

There was a roar so close and so loud she almost fell over with shock.

She turned and she ran. She had a better chance of fighting a troop of Fire Nation soldiers than she did a mother polar-dog.

Chapter Text

Prince Zuko was having a bad day.

To be fair, he could not really remember having a good day in the past seven years. He had had some neutral days and some really, really bad days. So a regular bad day was not unusual, and perhaps as good as he could hope for.

The first bad thing about this day came from the horrible, unrelenting cold of the North Pole. It was the literally the last place he had wanted to look, but he could only put off the inevitable for so long.

The second bad thing was that it was his birthday.

As a child, Zuko had loved his birthday. He had been spoiled by his mother and been allowed to eat all the sweets he had wanted. His sister, Azula, had done her best to be slightly less bossy, but he usually caved at let her be Firelord Sozin when they played Avatar Attack. Even his father had made an appearance: a pat on the head, or an approving nod as Zuko demonstrated his newfound skills in calligraphy, the tsungi horn, or soldier drills.

It had all changed when Azula began firebending. Zuko remembered the feeling of envy and excitement, and was even more thrilled when his own bending appeared just a few days later. But Azula had always outshone him, and every year on his birthday his father gave him less praise and more criticism. Azula stopped wanting to play Avatar Attack with him. She only wanted to play the Flinching Game.

Turtleduck poop. A rotten egg in your mouth. Crunching a snail with your bare foot.”

“Gross, stop it!”

“You’re not suppose to flinch, Zuzu!”

And she would pinch his cheek with her piping hot fingers.

For a while, he at least had his mother, who would spend the day with him watching the turtleducks, making sure he had a candle in his dumplings to make a wish at dinner.

But then she had disappeared, and Zuko had endured three years of pure misery.

It was laughable, now, how foolish he was. Things could always get worse.

For the past four years, Prince Zuko had scoured the earth for the Avatar, his own private game of Avatar Attack. But he wasn’t like Azula — she had always found him and beat him. Zuko had never been good enough.

Zuko begs off from the birthday celebration his Uncle has planned — every year Uncle Iroh attempts a party, and Zuko loves and hates him for it — and instead spends his twentieth birthday like he has spent almost every night in exile.

Zuko has only seen the scar on his face a few times. There are no mirrors in his room, and he avoids his reflection at all costs. But he sees his face reflected in the eyes of the people he meets. Some look at him with pity, others with revulsion. Children are curious and stare. Once, a baby cried and although the mother tried to assure Zuko that her son was merely tired, not afraid, Zuko knew.

He was a failure.

Every night, Zuko lay in the dark and he would gently touch his scar, so softly that the damaged tissue underneath felt nothing. He passed his fingertips over the mottled skin and remembered.

People choking to death. Blood and vomit. Mom dying.“

“Zuli, stop! Ouch!”

“Don’t flinch, dumb-dumb!”

The next day is almost good.

It is a cold, gray day. The further north they get, the closer the sky seems. Zuko is starting to feel claustrophobic.

He makes his usual rounds about the ship. He has long since lost the illusion of command. The men aboard follow his orders, but they don’t bow to him as he passes. They are not afraid of him — they often tease him when they see pretty girl his age, or try to goad him into joining them in song during Music Night. Firelord Ozai certainly would not tolerate such disrespect, but Zuko finds that, at the very least, it speeds things along. It’s hard to efficiently hunt for the Avatar if your crew is wasting time bowing to you every time you so much as sneeze.

A shout comes up from the bow of the ship. Zuko hurries towards it, then stops dead.

A beam of light, brighter than the moon, glows in the distance. It rises from the earth straight into the sky above. Zuko has spent the last five years obsessively reading every scroll he could find about the Avatar, and there is no mistaking this sign.

The Avatar has returned.

He spends the morning barking orders as the crew frantically redirects towards where the beam was spotted. Zuko feels fire in his veins.

His moment approaches.

They chase the Avatar for weeks and finally, finally they have him trapped.

The soldiers are out on the ice. They look a more rag-tag team than Zuko would have hoped, but they are determined. For as much as Zuko has longed to go home, he knows every man on his ship has longed for it as well. A blur of blue and orange speeds past them and Zuko and his troops don’t hesitate. Zuko flings some fireballs at the speeding sled, careful not to hit them. He needs the Avatar unharmed to prove to Firelord Ozai that he has accomplished his task.

The sled skids to a stop, and only one figure gets up. Blue, not orange.

A trick!

Zuko feels flames erupting from his fingertips. He could not remember being angrier with himself. How could he be so stupid? The Avatar was miles away by now.

Then a roar echoes through the canyon, and Zuko freezes.

The Water Tribe peasant — a girl, by the size of her — is running back towards them.

Run!” she screams. “Dog! Run!

Zuko has just enough time to puzzle over why this girl was speaking in Fire Tongue before her meaning catches up to him. By then, it is too late. Zuko spots them: two small polar-dog cubs huddled together in the distance. That meant…

Shen had always been the fastest of all the soldiers, and it was he who was closest to the mother polar-dog. She swatted him aside as if he were nothing more than a pesky fly, and streaks of red stained the snow.

Zuko sprang into action, launching three fireballs at the polar-dog. Not direct hits — he could still see the little cubs in his mind’s eye — but close enough to frighten her. The polar-dog let out a groan of fury and fear, but another two fireballs saw her off, loping back to her waiting cubs. They disappeared into the blinding snow field behind them.

Zuko moved towards Shen, but he was not the first to the body.

The Water Tribe peasant was kneeling by Shen’s side, turning his body over.

“Get away from him!” snapped Zuko, and for a moment he felt a stab of fear. He remembered his father’s stories of Water Tribe savages — they ate their dead, they killed foreigners on sight, they were ugly and stupid — but the girl did not budge. She had pulled off her gloves and her hands danced inches above Shen’s chest.

Nothing could have prepared Zuko for this moment. He watched, stunned, as Shen’s wounds started to shrink and contract. The surface of his skin fused back together. If not for his terrible pallor and the red snow beneath him, it would look as if Shen were merely asleep.

The Water Tribe girl swore. Zuko jumped.

“His heart stopped,” she said. Her gaze fixed on Zuko, who was closest to her. “Do you know how to do chest compressions?”

He was completely speechless. Who was this girl? She dressed like a Water Tribe peasant, but spoke fluent Fire Tongue. She even knew curse words! And she had performed some sort of witchcraft to reverse Shen’s injuries.

Clearly annoyed, the girl set to work thumping on Shen’s chest. Zuko started and knelt next to her.

“I’ll do it,” he said, readying his hands to take over.

“Not too hard,” she cautioned, grabbing his arms into position. “Don’t let your adrenaline take over.”

Zuko tried hard not to grimace. Uncle was going to love repeating that phrase to him in the future.

He had no idea how long he labored — a minute? Five? An hour? — but the Water Tribe girl kept her hands dancing above him. It seemed she was doing something to the inside of Shen.

“Stop!” she said suddenly, grabbing Zuko’s hands again. “Look!”

Shen’s face, while still pale, was turning pink from the cold again. Zuko watched a lazy pulse jump in his neck.

“You did it!”

Zuko stared, wide-eyed. She sounded… proud? She was not quite smiling at him, but her face was filled with gratitude. Zuko flushed, embarrassed by her attention.

The girl looked around, realization dawning on her face. She made to stand, perhaps to run away again, but she went up too fast.

Zuko had never caught someone mid-faint before. He tried to use this as a defense to Uncle later when he was chastised for dropping her unceremoniously onto the ice.

 

 

Zuko re-heats the Water Tribe peasant’s tea five times before she wakes.

Uncle Iroh is scandalized, of course. He insists that they wait to brew the tea once their “guest” has woken, but Zuko is impatient. He hopes the smell of tea will rouse her, but it seems to have no effect. To pass the time, he keeps the tea warm, staring at the face of their new captive.

It is not the captive he was hoping for, true, but he is coming around to the idea slowly. He has been tracking the Avatar for weeks, watching as the yellow and orange-clad figure raced around with two Water Tribespeople. They had been reluctant to split up, despite Zuko and his crew’s best tactical efforts. Zuko had not fallen for the feint of sending the bison away, and it had paid off for a while.

Zuko might not have the Avatar, but he has the Avatar’s friend. Zuko does not have any friends of his own, but he is given to understand that friends might do foolish things like attempt daring rescues.

Father was right, Zuko thinks. Love makes people weak.

For all his impatience, he does not notice when the Water Tribe girl first stirs. She is staring at his face — his scar — but strangely it is only when he faces her head on that she is afraid.

She is the first person who ever flinches at his right side instead of his left.

Zuko does not have time to parse this, and he begins his interrogation at once. Uncle has dozed off, thankfully. If he knew she was awake, he would slow things down by offering tea.

Still, Zuko is not a total barbarian. He thrusts the now lukewarm tea in the girl’s direction. She scuttles backwards on the bed into a corner. She looks around wildly, no doubt disoriented by her surroundings and Zuko presses his advantage.

“Where is the Avatar?”

She looks at him as if he has grown a second head.

“It’s no use pretending you can’t understand me,” he says. “You spoke to us before. Now, tell me. Where is the Avatar?”

“Nephew!” Zuko clenches his fists in frustration. Uncle Iroh has roused himself from his chair and is now bowing to this Water Tribe peasant like she is some sort of honored dignitary aboard their ship. To her credit, she looks as bewildered by Uncle Iroh’s behavior as Zuko.

“Do not tell me,” says Uncle Iroh good-naturedly, “that you have not offered our guest tea?”

“She’s not our guest!” Zuko shouts. But he adds in a quiet grumble, “I did offer her tea but she didn’t take it.”

“Perhaps she has a more discerning palate than you, nephew. Please forgive him,” Uncle addresses the still baffled-looking Water girl. “My nephew has many talents, but brewing tea is not yet one of them.”

“Uncle!” Zuko shouts, furious. Flames lick at his wrists and the Water Tribe girl goes rigid at the sight.

Something curious happens. The open bewilderment slides off her face and is replaced with dead, dull eyes. She folds herself into a more dignified seated position, a slight bow to her spine. Zuko is reminded of his servants when he was young, only they looked upon him with a bit more kindness than the Water Tribe girl. She holds the same form, but her face betrays no emotion.

Zuko wonders again how on earth a girl with such blue eyes can look and act so very Fire Nation.

Uncle Iroh seems unsettled by the change as well, which makes Zuko even more nervous. They wait in awkward silence as the tea steeps, but when it is ready, the girl does not take the cup that is offered to her. Uncle Iroh sets it lightly in front of her and takes a sip of his own tea.

“You must be thirsty,” says Uncle, even more gently than before. “Please, drink.”

The girl says nothing, staring blankly at the table before them.

Zuko takes a sip of his own tea and sets it down. He is eager to start asking more questions, but just as he takes a breath to begin, the Water Tribe girl darts out a lightning fast hand and grabs his teacup.

Zuko braces himself for a splash of boiling water in his face — Idiot, he tells himself. How could you not see this coming? — but he cannot contain his shock when the Water girl downs his tea in one gulp instead.

The tea is too hot, and her eyes water a bit as the liquid must scald her throat, but she makes absolutely no sound. She merely sets the empty cup down before her and gently places her own in front of Zuko.

“Uncle would never poison tea,” Zuko says, and his voice sounds stupid even to his own ears. How could this stranger know the oddities of his uncle?

“Ah... you thought perhaps the cups themselves?” says Iroh, still gentle as ever. “A clever girl you are, Miss…?”

His attempt to fish for a name is fruitless. His pouring of a second cup of tea, however, is accepted.

“Where is the Avatar?” Zuko demands again. Enough with this tea nonsense.

His questions have no effect. He asks half a dozen — where is the Avatar going, who are you, how long have you know about the Avatar, why did you save Shen, why won’t you speak — before he can feel flames of anger threatening to consume him. He has come so close only to falter once again. She is afraid of him, he can tell, but not afraid enough.

What would Azula do? he asks himself. It is not a comforting thought.

What would Father do? That idea is even worse.

What would Mother do?

He closes his eyes. He does not like to think about Mother, but then he remembers the way his mother had with servants.

The inferno inside him quiets, and he takes care to meet the Water girl’s gaze.

“We are not going to hurt you,” he says, and he sees doubt and anger cloud her otherwise impassive face. “You have saved the life of one of my men. You did not have to do this. It was an honorable thing to do.”

She looks surprised, and he is surprised at himself as well. But she seems to be listening to him, so he presses on.

“I owe you a debt of gratitude for saving one of my soldiers. No harm will come to you while you are on this ship. You may not believe my word, but you have it.”

He wonders what is happening behind those blue eyes.

“We did not come here to hurt you or your people. We are here in search of the Avatar. I must find him.”

“And what does the Fire Nation want with the Avatar?”

Her voice drips with fury and poison. He almost wishes she had not spoken — the last person who spoke to him with such derision was his own father, and Zuko has tried very hard to erase that part of his memory.

He takes a steadying breath, and thinks of his mother and his home.

“My name is Prince Zuko. I —”

But the rest of his sentence dies at the strange sound she makes. A hysterical giggle bubbles out. She claps both hands over her mouth.

His faces twists in humiliation. He knows he is a laughingstock, but he does not enjoy being laughed at.

“I’m sorry,” she says quickly. “I’m not laughing at you, really. It’s just…”

She looks helplessly at him. He quirks his good eyebrow up but her expression remains the same. He soldiers on, knowing full well that the sound of her laughter will return to him later that night as he makes his usual inspections of his ruined face.

“I must find the Avatar to regain my honor. I have searched for him these past four years —”

“Four years?” she interrupts again. She looks a bit abashed at her outburst, but she continues nevertheless. “Everyone thought the Avatar was dead until a few weeks ago. Why did you start four years ago?”

“On the condition of my exile,” he says, feeling a bit wrong-footed. Anyone who has ever heard of him has known about his exile — they practically laugh in his face at his silly quest.

“Exile?” she says, looking alarmed. “You were exiled?”

“Yes,” he says slowly, looking at his Uncle for support.

“My dear Miss…” Uncle tries again, but the Water girl only gasps and looks at Uncle Iroh in horror.

The Dragon of the West,” she whispers.

Uncle gives an almost imperceptible twitch.

“It has been a long time since anyone has called me that. You may call me Iroh,” he says, trying to keep his words light. The Water Tribe girl looks like he has just asked her to drink a cup of poisoned tea.

“How do you know who my Uncle is?” demands Zuko, thoroughly confused. “How do you know about me? Why do you speak Fire Tongue?”

He does not expect the black look that crosses the Water Tribe girl’s face. It could turn one’s blood to ice.

“You know why,” she says.

“What are you talking about?”

“Don’t play stupid!” she hisses angrily. She abandons her pose of a docile servant and draws herself into a more offensive position.

“You’re one of them. A Firebender.” She says it like a curse.

Zuko is both confused and angry. A not uncommon combination of emotions for him, but it is unpleasant nevertheless. The Water Tribe girl absolutely refuses to elaborate or say another single word to either of them.

Despite her obvious anger, her earlier exertions had clearly taken a toll. After an hour of glaring at Zuko, she struggles to keep her eyes open and she falls asleep sitting against the wall. Uncle Iroh gently lowers her to lie back on the bed and covers her with a heavy blanket.

Zuko insists on taking the first watch. He knows this prisoner will be valuable, he just doesn’t know how yet.

Chapter Text

When Katara wakes again, night has fallen.

She takes stock of her surroundings in the darkness. Stars wink at her through a window, so she knows she is in a cabin above the water. She is lying on one of the most comfortable beds she has ever felt, and the fur draped over her is thick and warm. A far cry from the last Fire Nation ship in which she had been held.

There is not much else in the spartan room. The two chairs were her captors sat — Prince Zuko and General Iroh, Dragon of the West, she remembers with a flutter of panic — are empty. There is a low table and a cluttered desk, upon which she can see a collection of candles.

She rises from her bed as quietly as possible, grabbing the closest candle. She turns to look for spark rocks and then curses her own stupidity. On a Fire Nation ship, they have no need for spark rocks.

Impossibly, the wick springs to life, and a small flame flickers in front of her. She whirls towards the door.

The low candlelight casts deep shadows over the burned half of Prince Zuko's face. His expression is inscrutable.

His feet, however, give him away.

“I won’t hurt you,” she whispers. She is surprised to find it is true — she has no intention of harming him. Yet.

Prince Zuko straightens from his defensive position and scowls.

“I know,” he snaps. “What are you doing in the dark?”

“What are you doing in my cell?” she fires back. “That’s what this is, right? I’m your prisoner.”

Prince Zuko raises an eyebrow at her.

“This is my room.”

She looks around more closely. There are no personal effects of any kind. No pictures of family, or letters from friends. No art adorns the walls, the desk, or the table. Nothing but a handful of scrolls and a few maps strewn about.

“What happened to you?”

An ugly scowl appears on Prince Zuko’s face, and — she suspects he does not notice he does this — his feet slip back into a defensive position again.

“I could ask you the same thing,” he spits at her. The candle in her hands is blazing hot.

Katara scowls right back, but she doesn’t take the bait. Not this time.

“You are the Crown Prince of the most powerful nation in the world. Your living quarters should be three times this size, easily, and you should not be gallivanting around the world looking for someone who didn’t exist for a hundred years.”

Prince Zuko looks furious, but Katara is not afraid of him anymore. Not when she knows he is afraid of her.

“Shut up, you stupid peasant. What do you know?”

“Clearly not enough, or I wouldn’t be asking why you live like some sort of deranged monk.”

“You’re one to talk. I know monk’s robes when I see them — that’s what he is, isn’t he? The Avatar?”

“Yes, he’s a monk, but that doesn’t answer my question. I asked about you.”

“You’re not the one in charge, here, peasant, so I suggest you hold your tongue.”

“No.”

Prince Zuko raises his eyebrow again. Katara presses on.

“You said no harm would come to me on this ship. You gave me your word. I believe you, I do. I just want to know what kind of man I’m dealing with here. If you’re planning on killing my friend because you’re on some sort of… I don’t know… ego trip at being the first to find him, then I’m putting an end to this right here.”

The prince’s shoulders sag a little, but the fight doesn’t leave his eyes.

“Who are you?” he asks.

“Katara,” she says. He waits for her to elaborate, but she offers nothing.

“I am not going to kill your friend. Really,” he says at her skeptical look. “But I need to bring him back to the Fire Nation. It’s the only way I can go home and lift my exile.”

“Why were you exiled?”

Prince Zuko reacts like an angry boarcupine. She can practically feel the fury bristling from him.

“Fine, fine,” she says, lifting her hands in surrender. “You don’t want to talk about it.”

There is a tense silence and Katara takes the moment to center herself. She seeks out water, and feels the pulse of Prince Zuko’s racing heartbeat. She does not pretend to understand what emotions pump through his veins.

She pushes further, to the water around them. The water that surrounds the ship.

The moving water.

There is no other word for it. Katara panics.

“The ship is moving. You’re taking me somewhere.”

“We’re moving south.”

“No, no, no, you promised. You said I would be safe. You said no harm would come to me.”

“I did. I wouldn’t — ”

“Stop the ship. Take me back!”

“You’ll die out on the ice!”

“Better to die on the ice than at the hands of the Fire Nation!”

“I said we wouldn’t hurt you!”

Liar!

There are tears streaming down her face, and her hands shake. She wants to call the water to her — better to sink this ship than return to the Fire Nation — but in her blinding fear she has no control. She can barely control the rush of her own blood pounding in her heart.

The yelling brings General Iroh into the room, and Katara presses herself into a corner. There is no escape now. There are voices yelling, more than just the prince arguing with his uncle, and soon the doorway is crowded with men, so many men, staring at her and shouting and it’s all too much.

Katara can feel the pounding of blood all around her and she just wants it to be quiet.

Bodies fall to the floor, and the shouting stops with several loud thuds. Katara looks up.

They have all fainted.

They are not dead, she is sure of that. She can feel the blood lazily coursing through every body, speeding up faster, especially in the young prince. She had certainly slowed a heartbeat before — a useful trick when a wound was gushing — but never on so many people at once. Never so effectively.

She would be proud of herself if she wasn’t completely terrified.

Katara knows exactly what will happen when they realize what she can do. This is not a trick she can play twice.

Instead, she plays dumb.

She slumps to the floor facing away from the soldiers. She can hear a few groaning as they get up, and then a warm pair of hands are on her shoulders, turning her over.

“What did you do?” demands Prince Zuko, looking about as terrified as Katara feels.

“I don’t know.” It’s mostly true, which makes it much easier to sell the lie. She does not have to fake the trembling in her hands as he yanks her into a seated position.

“Perhaps,” says General Iroh, rising to his feet, “It is time we learned a little bit more about our guest.”

 

 

It is not as late into the night as Katara had assumed. Most of the men are still awake, and as she’s ushered into the mess hall, she sees abandoned sets of cards and pai sho tiles.

She is seated near the door to the kitchen, and the eyes of a dozen-odd soldiers, a prince, and an infamous general bore into her.

General Iroh tries first.

“Would you like to tell us your name?”

Katara is silent. This is a trick, probably to get to Aang. She won’t let that happen.

“It’s Katara.”

She starts. Prince Zuko is scowling at her, and the back of his neck is slightly red as his troops stare at him.

“How do you know this, nephew?”

The prince scowls even more.

“She told me. But she wouldn’t say anything else, or how she knows so much about the Fire Nation when everyone knows the Northern Water Tribe hasn’t made contact in almost fifty years.”

“Ah, but you are not from the Northern Water Tribe, are you, Lady Katara?”

Ice cold fear wraps itself around her heart. Her face betrays nothing. Years of training have prepared her for this.

Prince Zuko, on the other hand, is wearing every emotion on his face. The primary one seems to be confusion.

“You’re from the Southern Water Tribe? Why are you here?”

“There aren’t any benders left in the South,” says one of the men. Katara does not know their names, and she knows it’s safest for her not to learn them. She should not get attached lest she need to take matters into her own hands.

Prince Zuko addresses her again.

“If you came here to learn bending, why aren’t you… better at it?”

Katara is sure the only person she’s ever met with less tact is her brother, Sokka.

“The Northern Water Tribe does not train women to be warriors,” General Iroh explains. “They are trained to be healers.”

“That’s what you did to Shen,” Prince Zuko says, nodding his head. Katara finds it oddly comforting that he continues to address her, even if she refuses to speak. She has spent five years in the North being ignored. It is strange to be spoken to so directly.

Katara allows a concession and breaks her silence.

“Where is he?” she asks. They stare blankly at her for a moment before she explains. “The man who was injured. I healed the wound as best I could, but there is a risk of internal bleeding still. I should examine him again.”

“Shen is resting, as should you, Lady Katara. But fear not, we will seek your expertise if needed before the morning.”

General Iroh seems gentle and kind, but she knows he is a shrewd tactician. She has heard enough stories to know there is more behind his quiet prodding, and she’s had enough of waiting for him to reveal himself.

“What do you want from me?” she asks, addressing Prince Zuko. He is easier to read than his strange uncle.

But Prince Zuko is ready for her. He had anticipated this attack.

“You are to remain on this ship until an exchange can be made: you for the Avatar.”

“That will never happen.”

“Then you will not leave this ship.”

“So what, I’m your prisoner forever?”

“How did you learn to speak Fire Tongue?”

The question throws her, and her face is unprepared. She can see in Prince Zuko’s expression that she has given herself away — he knows this is a painful spot to press, a weakness to exploit.

Katara stays silent. She will not give in to his taunts. He knows exactly why she speaks his language.

Except… except that Prince Zuko is looking at her with curiosity, as if he had never encountered a Water Tribe woman with Fire in her mouth before. But surely he must know…

“Prince Zuko,” asks General Iroh softly. “What do you know of the Southern Water Tribe?”

“They populate the Southern Isles, and have for centuries,” Prince Zuko states, reciting the words like a student who has studied his scrolls. “Traditionally, there were water benders there, but not in at least two generations. Most of their population has disappeared due to in-fighting and other territorial disputes. Disease took many, and they are mostly isolated fishing villages now.”

Katara sees red. She knows what the Fire Nation thinks of her people, but to have it repeated without hesitation, with such conviction in front of her…

“Partly true, Prince Zuko, although I’m sure Lady Katara would offer corrections on several points.”

Prince Zuko waves a hand impatiently.

“What does this have to do with the Fire Nation?”

“Think, Prince Zuko. Is everything you said true?”

The prince frowns and begins to think out loud. The crew watch with rapt attention.

“Well, they do live in the Southern Isles. I guess that’s close to the Fire Nation, but you’d need a big boat to get there. If they’re really just fishermen, then it would be a difficult journey. You’d need a Fire Nation ship to get there reliably.”

“Good. What else?”

“Uncle, is there a point to all this? You clearly know the answer, so why don’t you tell me?”

“Some journeys must be arrived at oneself, young nephew.”

“He is ashamed of the truth.”

Katara’s words act as she intended: a smack in the face of every stupid Fire Nation man in the room. They gape at her, and she discards her mask of passivity. It had protected her before, and perhaps it could protect her now, but she is done hiding.

These men wanted to keep her on this boat? Well, they needed to know who they were dealing with.

“Your uncle does not want to admit to you what scum roam the Southern seas on your big ships. He knows your nation’s shame, but he is too cowardly name it.”

Prince Zuko looks shocked, and Katara smirks in satisfaction. Good, she thinks. Now hit him again.

“You think my people have died from in-fighting and disease? The only disease is the Fire Nation. They come and they go and they leave nothing behind.”

Prince Zuko lunges forward in anger.

“The Fire Nation has not been at war with the Water Tribes for years — before anyone in this room was even born!”

“Who needs war when you can just pillage and raid?”

“Raid for what? Your people are fishermen, you have nothing to take!”

“That’s right,” Katara says frostily, and she sees the men around the room shiver. “Water Tribe lives are nothing to you, are they?”

She watches the realization dawn on a few faces — several more had known all along what she was — but still Prince Zuko stares at her, confused. She readies a dagger of words and twists the knife in.

“You think this is the first Fire Nation ship I’ve been on? The first time your people have taken me prisoner? That my life hasn’t been traded away before? I have always been an object to you, Firebender. Not any more. I will not be your slave.”

She spits at his feet and it freezes to ice.

Prince Zuko gapes at her. His mouth opens and shuts several times.

“A… a slave?”

He turns to his uncle as if to confirm, but General Iroh only closes his eyes as if in pain.

“But… but that’s impossible. Slavery… it’s illegal, it’s wrong.”

“Hah! What is right and wrong to a Firebender?”

Prince Zuko whirls around to confront her but his voice fails him. He turns again to his soldiers, searching as if he is waiting for them to deny the truth.

No one speaks.

The twisted pleasure Katara felt at flinging her suffering in his face begins to ebb away. She has waited for this, waited for her moment for revenge. She has a ship full of Fire Nation soldiers to hurt, the crown prince of the nation…

But she catches Prince Zuko’s ashen gaze and something shifts.

She can feel his heartbeat, fast and unsteady. The blood beneath the surface roils in a familiar way, and she knows he is trying desperately not to vomit. She has a choice. A little more and he will lose control, humiliating himself in front of his men.

His heartbeat slows. Color returns to his face.

She wonders, later, whether it was mercy or weakness. She does not find an answer.

 

 

Prince Zuko says nothing to her the next day, but he follows her like a shadow. She is shown to a new room and is surprised that it is not a prison cell. It is small, but it has a little window and a narrow bed with a thick blanket. Someone has left a folded paper crane on her thin pillow.

Prince Zuko leads her around the ship silently, first to breakfast and then to the soldier’s quarters to see Shen, the injured man. He is weak and distrustful of Katara at first, but after a prolonged healing session, he becomes chatty. They spend a peaceful hour resting together after the session and Shen tells Katara about all his favorite Fire Nation plays. She has seen a few of them, tucked away in the servant boxes of the opera hall, so they pass some time quoting their favorite parts.

Prince Zuko spends the afternoon poring over maps and scrolls, and Katara is not allowed to leave his side. He tosses a handful of scrolls at her, presumably to keep her from interrupting him, so she ends up spending most of the afternoon re-reading some of her favorite childhood fairy tales. She tries not to think about how often kissing a prince is involved in these stories; she has no desire to emulate them.

Katara expects a quiet dinner, but to her surprise, four of the crew form a short line to talk to her. It seemed that Shen had been most impressed with her skills, and had raved to whomever passed through the bunks that the Water Tribe girl wasn’t so bad. Worth a try at any rate.

The first to speak to her is named Koo. He has a small laceration from working in the kitchen as Shen’s replacement. Katara barely lifts a finger and the cut is gone.

Next is Uyen. His shoulder aches of arthritis in the cold. He is not a fire bender; Katara is surprised to learn that almost everyone except Prince Zuko, General Iroh, and Shen, the cook, are non-benders. Arthritis is harder to fix, and there is certainly no way to reverse the damage, but Katara lowers the inflammation, smoothing away the aching points. He leaves her with a tired smile.

The third man, Kansu, has a watery cough that Katara clears before chastising him about smoking. He seems more amused than abashed, but he promises not to resume his habit for a full three days.

Lieutenant Jee is last, and the most sheepish. His right eye is swollen and purple, and he almost leaves before she can help but she bosses him back onto the bench.

“You’re in charge of steering the ship,” she says as she waves her hands over his eye. “I don’t want you to steer us into an iceberg.”

There is some muttering among the remaining crew about this healing display. Most are quiet enough to keep their voices down, but a few times she hears a mention of ‘witchcraft’ and ‘unnatural behavior.’ She keeps note of their faces. It never hurts to know what your enemy looks like.

Prince Zuko stares at her as she finishes her dinner. She is too tired to interpret his mysterious looks, and it is a relief to fall into a deep, dreamless sleep.

 

Four days crawl by until Katara grants Shen a clean bill of health. The crew decide to celebrate with Music Night.

Katara has been careful not to grow attached to her captors thus far, but it has proven more challenging than expected. Slowly, each member of the crew has approached her — even the ones who called her a witch — to ask her for help. She has alleviated headaches and backaches, smoothed away burns and scrapes. It was General Iroh who first asked about her ability to heal old wounds and suddenly she was spending every meal with her hands wrapped around wrists and ankles that had been sprained long ago. She cannot heal scars or undo most of their damage, but she pounds away at scar tissue beneath the surface, urging blood back into some of the damaged areas. It is not a perfect job, but every man walks away lighter than when he arrived.

She is thankful for these healing sessions, as it is her only true chance to see the ship and evaluate her enemy. As on the first day, Prince Zuko is her own personal jailor, and he spends most of his days shut up in his cabin, frowning more and more deeply over his growing stack of scrolls. His only other activity is firebending. The ship is fairly small, but there is a large gymnasium to practice, and she sits motionless in a corner as she watches him.

At first, she thinks he means to intimidate her. The prince shifts through a series of increasingly furious movements, kicking and punching the air with waves of fire. The room heats up, and Katara blinks when Prince Zuko removes his tunic to continue sparring an imaginary partner.

This is a trick, she thinks. He’s not really human, he just looks like one.

General Iroh often joins his nephew for these training sessions, but Prince Zuko is alone on the first day. When the raging fire quiets, he gathers his tunic to leave and jumps when he notices Katara watching him.

He had forgotten she was even there.

During these training sessions, Katara watches for weaknesses and catalogues them away. It is clear that Prince Zuko’s scar has lead to some vision impairment. He compensates well, but he gets flustered when fire comes too close to that side. Another weakness: his turbulent emotions. Katara knows enough about firebending to know that a distracted firebender is a dead one, and she watches as Prince Zuko struggles to center himself after a day with his scrolls. She wonders what he has read to unbalance him.

He rarely speaks to her, and that suits her just fine. They are two hungry lion-sharks, circling and waiting to strike. Katara is not patient by nature, but she has learned to wait. Her moment will come, and she will escape.

Music Night provides a good distraction, and she peers out of the small window in the mess hall as the men arrange themselves and their few battered instruments. Katara calculates the stars and confirms her theory: they are moving along the coast line of the North Pole, first south and then east, towards the capital city. It is obvious that they intend to trade her away there. She smiles bitterly to herself; the Northerners will be happy to have gotten rid of her and replaced her with the world’s savior. She is not leaving this ship any time soon.

The music starts, and Katara listens half-heartedly as she plots her options. There aren’t many. She could kill everyone on board, of course. She has been itching for revenge on the Fire Nation for years. While it seems that killing Prince Zuko would not be quite as much a blow as it would have been before his exile, surely it would change something? But being alone on a ship she could not pilot would mean her death, too. Besides, there were other people in Fire Nation who deserved death more than these men.

She is pulled from her thoughts by a sweet tenor voice. Shen smiles and gestures to her. Almost as if in a trance, Katara answers.

The song is a common one in the Fire Nation, a duet between a man and and a woman who are arguing lovingly about getting married. It had always been one of Katara’s favorites.

The crew seem to delight in having a new voice on board. They play song after song, each intended to be sung by a woman, or at least have a duet with one. Katara can’t help it; it’s been years since anyone has invited her to join in a celebration.

When she was young in the Fire Nation, singing was one of the few pleasures she and her fellow captives had. They were forbidden from singing their own songs, of course, and most of the other slaves she lived with were Earth Kingdom anyway. So they learned Fire Nation songs, subverted them, hummed them when going about back-breaking labor or braiding a Fire child’s hair.

Katara sings the bawdier version of the songs she knows, and the men roar with laughter. But she cannot forget that they are still her enemies.

The singing quiets for a bit — Katara is given cup after cup of soothing tea for her voice — and the men begin to swap stories.

This is her undoing.

It is easy to pretend these stoic men of the sea are evil. They may not be faceless, but they are mindless, following the orders of a prince hell bent on his own power. They are killers, cruel and unforgiving, and she would do well to remember that.

But in the quiet warmth of the mess hall, the men speak gently of the women in their lives: their daughters, their wives, ailing mothers and memories of beloved grandmothers. Katara does not know if this is a usual habit, or if it has been sparked by her presence, but she feels a knot twist in her stomach. She sneaks a glance at Prince Zuko and the knot twists tighter.

She knows he is scarcely older than she is, that he only just turned twenty. She rues that she will never forget when his birthday is, a useless fact from her Fire Nation imprisonment. He looks young here amongst his men, and terribly lonely. He sits next to them, but not with them. His voice never joins in the songs. Instead, he stares out the small port hole at the stars. She wonders of whom he is thinking.

A few more songs are sung, quiet lullabies that the men had once sang to their own children. By the end, Katara can no longer hide her tears. She is not the only one.

Prince Zuko walks her back to her cell, his face still dry but pained. He gives her a curt nod and locks the door behind her. They both know the lock is broken — she had clumsily iced it over the first night as a show of strength — but he insists on the ceremony anyway.

Katara settles into her bed, limbs heavy. She lets the darkness envelop her.

Not for the first time in her life, Katara hopes she does not wake up.

Chapter Text

The Water Tribe girl usually wakes late, and Zuko uses his time wisely. He meditates with his uncle like always, and checks the ship’s course with Lieutenant Jee. He is deeply annoyed at the rate of their progress — almost every morning, the ship gets partially iced in, and it can take hours to break it free. Yet Zuko knows as well as his crew that the deeper waters harbor fierce storms at this time of the year; it is better to be slow than to be sunk.

Zuko carefully gathers his scrolls for the day, arranging them such that the Water Tribe girl cannot read them. He has caught her trying to peak, but he refuses to share his reading materials with her. He does not want her to know what answers he seeks.

Every day since her arrival, Zuko has poured through every possible scroll on Fire Nation laws and seafaring history. At night, he tosses in his bed, sick with the thought that his people — the glorious and righteous Fire Nation — had enslaved others, was still enslaving others. He could find no outright record of this, but some strange inconsistencies had come to light.

The scrolls mentioned the capture of enemy insurgents and alternative imprisonment. They hinted at compulsory servitude as a form of punishment, but this sounded like the treatment of prisoners of war, not women and children. Zuko wasn’t sure of Katara’s age, but she certainly did not look older than him. If she had really been a slave, it had been as a child. The thought made Zuko more seasick than any storm could.

Zuko had avoided asking Uncle Iroh about it until, finally, he admitted defeat.

“I have not seen it practiced myself,” said his uncle, staring mournfully into his cup of tea. “But yes, it is true. There are those in our nation who would buy and sell flesh this way.”

“But how? There are laws… someone would notice, someone would report it to the authorities…”

“Ah, you have hit upon the crux of the matter, I am afraid.”

Zuko sets down his cup of tea. His hands shake.

“Military men…. They’re… we’re the ones who are doing this?”

“Who else would have the means to facilitate the transport of these poor souls?”

Zuko takes several breaths that do nothing to calm him. So it’s true. His people had enslaved the Water Tribe girl.

“How do you think she escaped?” He does not mean to ask the question aloud, but it slips out, unbidden.

“I could not imagine,” says Uncle Iroh sadly. “Our guest is a very brave young woman.”

Zuko feels his heart twist. He knows his uncle disapproves of the Water Tribe peasant’s imprisonment, even if he does agree that she should stay aboard the ship at least until they come close to another village.

Zuko does not want to hurt the Water Tribe girl. She had saved Shen’s life, and she had not hurt any of them, except, perhaps, for the strange fainting episode. Still, Zuko had worked four long years to return home. He wasn’t going to abandon his last hope just because some poor girl had been mistreated.

His mind is clouded as he approaches the prisoner’s chambers. He slides back the broken lock and stands in the doorway. He really should fix the lock, but the look on her face when he discovered it shattered told him it would be futile. She refuses to be caged any more than she already is, and, as much as Zuko is loathe to admit any similarities between himself and this peasant, he understands the feeling.

He is surprised, however, that the girl does not take advantage of her freedom as she has every morning. She usually is seated and ready for him, but today she is curled up on the bed. She gives no indication to have heard him.

Zuko clears his throat, but the girl does not move.

He tries again, wary of a trap.

“Food is being served. We must go.”

No response.

“You will not be given additional food, Water Girl.”

She flinches a bit at the name, but her back stays to him.

“Fine!” he shouts. “Stay in here and go hungry!”

He storms off, but quickly doubles back. Perhaps this is part of a trick, sending him away so she can escape. He checks the room again.

The girl has not moved.

He knows she is not asleep or dead — she had clearly heard him before — but he wonders if perhaps she is ill. He walks over to her bed slowly, still on guard for a sudden attack, but the girl is staring blankly at the wall.

“Are you sick?” he asks, more curious than afraid now. “Is it… woman problems?” He remembers a particularly excruciating lesson from his uncle about the challenges faced by women. He knows that perhaps she is in pain, curled in a ball such as she is.

But her expression does not change. Not woman problems, it seems.

Zuko weighs his options. This could still be a trap — she could be biding her time to flee. But there is something unsettling in her face that Zuko does not like. He has seen it before, once, and he knows where it might lead. He scours the room and confiscates anything sharp, and a long sash for good measure. He tosses them out into the hall so she cannot use them.

He stays in the room. His stomach growls loudly — she must be able hear it — but he refuses to move. Eventually, Unlce Iroh arrives.

“Nephew, what are you…” he trails off when he sees the Water girl’s unmoving form, and the pile of suspicious objects outside her door. He gives his nephew an alarmed look, but Zuko shakes his head.

“She won’t get up,” he explains to his uncle. “I didn’t think I should leave her here alone.”

Uncle Iroh nods and disappears, returning a few minutes later with some porridge. Zuko eats his share quickly, but the Water girl is unmoved. She doesn’t move for hours. Uncle Iroh brings Zuko some scrolls so he can continue his work.

Finally, she gets up. Although she has not moved an inch all day, she looks exhausted. Whatever demons she is battling, they seem to be winning the fight.

But not entirely. She has enough left in her to glare at Zuko for blocking the door.

“I need to use the toilet. Surely you don’t intend to follow me there?” she snaps.

Zuko does not, but he does perform a quick inspection first. He finds no way to harm oneself in a toilet, and he permits her to enter. Then she returns to her bed and does not move.

This pattern lasts for two days. She drinks tea a few times, and once she nibbles at some fish, but she visits the toilet soon afterwards and he suspects she does not keep it down. She is growing weaker, and Zuko begins to fear for the worst.On the third day, she begins to shiver violently. Zuko does his best to keep the room warm, and this seems to help a little. But even in the warmth, she trembles, and Zuko sees fear in her eyes. It is not the cold that makes her shake.

Zuko has spent three days watching his prisoner like a hawk. He has wedged a chair into the corner of the cramped room and fallen asleep in it every night, jerked awake by his usual nightmares. Each time, he sees her gleaming eyes watching him. He does not speak to her except to offer the odd encouragement to eat or drink. She only listens about half the time.

Zuko almost never sleeps past sunrise, but the past few days have taken their toll. He tells himself he is worried about the girl because he needs her: the Avatar will not come quietly if his friend is harmed, Zuko is sure of it. But it is only a half truth. He does not want to the Water girl to die because he does not want her blood on his hands. He has already been scarred by shame once in his life; the stain of her death would stay with him as much as any scar could.

When he rouses himself an hour after the sun, he sees that the girl is awake. Not just awake, but alert. She is surrounded by a few of Zuko’s scrolls.

“Give me those!” he says, lunging for the scroll in her hand. She lets go, surprised.

“Are those reports true?” she asks, her voice scratchy from disuse.

“Yes, and you’re not supposed to be reading them.”

“Why not? They’re about the Earth Kingdom.”

“They’re…upsetting.”

The scroll in question is about a terrible plague affecting the Kwong Valley outside the Earth Kingdom. A sickness that spread from house to house, the villagers dying in droves. The symptoms were disgusting: massive amounts of white, liquid stool, and no amount of water could replace the lost fluid. Children wasting away and strong, healthy men and women reduced to pools of their own waste.

“What do you think is causing it?” asks the Water Girl.

“I don’t know. Why do you care?”

The girl is quiet, staring at the back of the scroll.

“I would like to look at your maps of the Earth Kingdom.”

“What?”

The request takes him by surprise. Three days of nothingness and now she wants to look at maps?

They make a bargain: breakfast in the mess hall for access to maps. The girl eats dutifully, ignoring the stares of the curious crew members, before she eagerly descends onto Zuko’s messy desk. Later, she asks for parchment and a brush, which Zuko grants her in return for eating lunch. If she is annoyed by his persistence, she does not show it. She spends her entire afternoon carefully running her finger over the maps and then scribbling on the parchment.

His curiosity piqued, he cannot resist looking over her shoulder late in the day. She is copying a part of the map.

“You’re tracking the path of the sickness.”

The girl looks up at him with wide blue eyes. They are not dull like yesterday — they shine with something, but Zuko is not sure what.

This project spans into the next day, and Zuko is grateful he no longer has to coerce her to eat or drink. In fact, they speak in full sentences for the first time.

“Who rules over the Kwong Valley?” she asks.

“It has been disputed for a while,” he answers without hesitation. “It was colonized by the Fire Nation many years ago, but it was partially abandoned. It’s not quite independent, but it was never fully reabsorbed into the Earth Kingdom either. It’s been prone to these outbreaks of illness — I don’t think either side wanted to claim it after that.”

“How often do you get these reports?”

“Once a season from the Earth Kingdom. There have been at least two outbreaks since we’ve been… traveling, but sometimes they’re more frequent.”

She seems obsessed with tracking the sickness, tracing her hands over the map over and over. It’s a strange fixation, but it allows Zuko to relax.

He stops following her. It’s not that he trusts her, not by a long shot. It is a calculated risk — she cannot truly escape, and it seems that her interest in her project will keep her content. Plus, Zuko is desperate for five minutes where he does not feel the burn of bright blue eyes.

It is a cold night, as usual, and most of the crew pass the time in the mess hall, which is warmed by the fires from the kitchen. Uncle Iroh is trouncing everyone in pai sho, and several deckhands are swapping stories and cards. Zuko is frowning over a scroll, annoyed by faint banging noise from somewhere on the ship.

The scroll in question is about illness. He doesn’t know much about the cause of most illnesses, but it seems that no one really does. He is looking into ‘illness of spirt,' the sadness or mania that he has observed in others, when he reads a chilling passage:

It is critical that, following an attack of severe depression, the subject remains under close care. Occasionally the patient will experience a seemingly-miraculous recovery, only to be found dead at their own hand shortly after. This phenomenon is explained thusly: the patient, having decided to finally end their own suffering, achieves a sense of tranquility, perhaps even joy. It is impossible to say if these individuals regret their actions in the final clutches of death — that is only for the spirits to know.

Terror buzzes in Zuko’s brain. What is that banging sound…?

“Has anyone seen the prisoner?”

Silence descends upon the men as they look at Zuko in confusion. The seeds of panic start to germinate.

“She was sitting in the corner earlier. She was reading something.”

“That was hours ago. I thought she went to bed?”

“She could have gone outside. Maybe she went out through the kitchens…”

The men spring to life, soldiers once more, as Zuko orders them to search the ship. Zuko himself leads a small group to search deep in the bowels of the vessel.

The banging noise grows louder. It is coming from the gymnasium.

Whatever Zuko had prepared himself to see, he was not expecting this.

The Water Tribe girl has removed her boots and is standing with her back to them. No, not quite standing. Her legs move up and down, bumping and kicking a ball into the air. The ball comes down to her feet and she blasts a kick into the wall.

Bang! The ball smacks into the wall and rebounds towards her. She resumes her game of keep up.

There is a shout in the hallway behind from one of the other groups, and it draws her attention. She turns to see Zuko and three of his men standing awestruck in the doorway.

She smiles.

Zuko has never seen the Water girl smile before. It has been a very long time since anyone other than his uncle had smiled at him, let alone a young woman.

At least, that is the explanation he gives himself for his pounding heart.

She softly kicks the ball to his feet with the insole of her foot. Zuko looks at the ball and back at her face.

A challenge.

Uyen at his side whoops in delight. He is an avid lover of kick-foot, and he swoops in to steal the ball, passing it back to the Water Tribe girl. She returns the pass gracefully, her movement more like a dance than a run.

Another shout goes up. Cho, the short, squat soldier next to Zuko shouts to the other groups to call off the search. There is a match to play.

The soldiers crowd in and teams are established. Only half of them can play, such is the cramped space of their gymnasium, but most are happy to watch. Zuko has seen plenty of pick-up games between his men over the years, but he has never seen anyone play like the Water girl before. He wonders if it is because she has played on ice. The ball moves quickly across the cold metal floor, and she is the only one who can keep up. She seems to have a sense of exactly how to place the ball — it zips across the floor precisely to her target. It’s a good thing they are not keeping score: she has already scored five goals by herself in as many minutes.

The play becomes more aggressive. The men try to block the Water girl with varying degrees of success; she is quick, but they are bigger. There are cheers and shouts from the sidelines. Zuko feels the ghost of a smile on his face.

A loud ripping sound brings an abrupt silence. Toro, the biggest of all the soldiers, has grabbed the girl’s tunic to stop her and come away with half of the fabric. He stares in horror at the gaping hole he has left in her shirt.

But the Water Tribe girl is full of surprises.

She shrugs off the tunic and throws it aside, exposing the wrappings underneath. She stands with hands on hips in front of a speechless Toro.

“Guess you’ll have to use your feet to stop me instead of cheating!”

And she nimbly spins over the ball, directing it between Toro’s feet and to her own waiting teammate. They score and the game resumes.

Zuko has seen a woman in her wrappings before. He’s seen a select few in less than that before, so he certainly should not be surprised to see the expanse of skin on a woman’s back.

He is surprised, however, by the tattoo.

Stretched up and across the Water girl’s back is the body of an octopus, tentacles outstretched to creep onto a shoulder and around her waist. Zuko averts his eyes to not stare, but he knows the damage is done. He won’t be able to forget what it looks like.

The game goes on with a renewed intensity. Zuko’s efforts not to admire the unexpected cephalopod dwindle by the minute. He is just starting to wonder at who put the image there when there is a cry of pain and a thud.

The spectators, including Zuko, leap to their feet. The Water Tribe girl is in a heap on the floor, and it is Toro again who looks stricken.

“I’m sorry!” he says desperately. “I didn’t see you behind me, I didn’t mean —“

“It’s alright,” she says, muffled on the floor. She pulls herself into a seated position.

It is most certainly not alright.

A long gash has appeared above her right brow, and blood is dripping down into her eyes and onto the floor. There is an audible gasp. She grimaces.

“Honestly, not the reaction I was looking for right now,” she grumbles.

Zuko fights an insane urge to laugh at these words, and masks it by diving to grab her ruined tunic off the floor. He shoves it into her hand and she presses it against her face.

“Alright, that’s enough,” says Zuko angrily. “Return to your posts.”

The men disperse with a few mournful “Sorry, Katara”’s but she waves them off. She seems surprisingly upbeat for someone who has had her brow split open.

Zuko steers her towards his own cabin and lights all the candles. He darts over to Uncle Iroh’s room to borrow a mirror; he is careful to hold it away from himself.

The Water Tribe girl looks bemused, but obligingly sits as Zuko indicates. He procures a flask of water and holds the mirror up for her use.

She raises her eyebrows in surprise and then winces in pain. Zuko keeps his hands steady.

As he had suspected, the girl makes good use of the mirror. He watches as she carefully mops up the blood. She holds her hands delicately over her face and moves them in rhythmic pulses, occasionally stopping to collect more water from the flask. He cannot look away from her, the concentration and intensity of her gaze. She looks into the mirror as he watches her.

In a matter of minutes, the cut is healed and the girl slumps back, tired. Zuko calls for a passing guard. He knows keeping himself warm with his own bending is especially tiring. He imagines healing oneself must feel the same.

“Bring some clear broth for the Water Tribe girl,” he says.

As he settles back down across from her, there is fire in her eyes. He blinks in surprise.

“My name,” she says cooly, “is Katara. You would do well to remember it.”

He is taken aback. He had not forgotten her name but it had seemed too intimate to call her as such, even in his own head. A name had power, after all. Titles existed for a reason, to remind people what they were.

Calling her the Water Tribe girl reminded him that she was not, nor would ever be, his friend or ally.

He pauses awkwardly for long enough that the broth arrives, and she downs it in a few gulps. Zuko pretends to not glance at the lone tendril of the octopus tattoo that peaks over the top of her shoulder blade.

“Do you play kick-foot?” she asks, and Zuko starts.

“No,” he says, too surprised by the question to stay quiet. “Not since I was little. I kept… setting fire to the ball on accident.”

She laughs. It haunts his dreams that night.

Chapter Text

Katara feels a strange lightness to her. It is hard to call it happiness, but it feels surprisingly close. She wakes with purpose and reminds herself of her goals.

1) To protect the Avatar at all costs.
2) To live long enough to see Sokka again.
3) To make it to the Earth Kingdom and stop the spread of the White Death.

The last goal is the most convenient to work towards while trapped on the ship. She spends her time reading every scroll she can to identify the source of the illness (unknown), those infected (the villagers of the Kwong Valley), and methods of treatment (limited).

She had gone to the North Pole to learn to defeat the Fire Nation and she had been blocked at every angle. It was time to try something new. If she could not fight the Fire Nation herself, she would lift up others so that they could. The tricky part was now she was healing Fire Nation soldiers, too, and her goals seemed to be shifting under her feet.

The morning after the first kick-foot match, the soldiers are sheepish and shy. They feel badly about ruining her tunic and knocking her down. Katara waves their worries away. Fire Nation soldiers had done worse to her in the past.

These words, intended to soothe, do not have the desired effect.

An awkward silence descends. General Iroh is the first to break it.

“Lady Katara —” she has asked him several times to just call her Katara, but his propriety never flagged — “might I ask you a personal question?”

“Yes, General Iroh?”

“Are you married?”

She cannot stop the laughter bubbling from her. Prince Zuko stares at her, incredulous, like she has just transformed herself into a polar-dog.

“No, General Iroh. I was told several times I was ‘uniquely unsuited to marriage.’”

“Oh?” The old man’s face crinkles into a smile. “And why is that?”

“Lots of reasons. I was too talkative, too stubborn, too ugly —” a murmur goes around the room at this — “too fat, too thin, too tall, too short…”

The men around the room are frowning now.

“That’s ridiculous!”

“What brutes! Who would insult women in such a way?”

Katara feels a hot flash of anger.

“I heard you refer to a woman you met in Omashu as a ‘complete dog-face,’ so you can get off that high ostrich-horse, Cho. Men of all nations are cruel to women.”

Cho has the decency to look abashed. It does not make her feel any better.

General Iroh skillfully pivots the conversation to safer waters.

“I have heard that tattooing is a rite of passage before marriage in the Water Tribes.”

“Yes,” she says, coming down from her anger. “A woman covers herself in ink the night before her wedding from the neck down.”

“I could not help but notice…”

“The octopus?” There is a grin on her face she cannot help. She is rather fond of the tentacles that loop around her back. “Well, you can’t exactly cover yourself in tattoos, so everyone helps. It’s important to practice so you get it right when the moment comes. Everyone volunteers to test out new designs once in a while. They fade after a few months, so you get plenty of time to figure out which ones you like.”

“And because you are so covered in the North, the men do not suspect this practice, I assume?”

“Yes,” she agrees. “Young women have their own communal huts. Men are not allowed inside.”

“I heard,” says Shen excitedly, “that men and women are required to stay separate until marriage in the North and there are severe penalties to the man if he disobeys.”

Katara raises an eyebrow. These men clearly don’t have a good understanding of how patriarchal societies work — it’s always the women who are punished for transgressions — but she is curious to hear what rumors they have heard. It helps feed her arsenal of hatred for the Fire Nation. It is hard to keep a tight grip on her anger when the men here are mostly kind to her.

“What sort of penalties?” she asks, keeping her tone light.

“I heard,” whispers Xuan conspiratorially, “they make it impossible for you to ever make love to a woman ever again.”

General Iroh clearly disapproves of where this conversation has headed and opens his mouth, but Katara speaks first.

“How on earth could you enforce that?”

The men look at her uneasily. No one wants to answer her directly, but she stares down at them until Xuan adds in a whisper:

They cut off your manhood.”

A beat passes.

“So?”

“So?! Without that, how can you…”

“I mean,” amends Katara, rolling her eyes, “that just stops him from using one tool. He can still make love to a woman. It’s not like he doesn’t have hands or a mouth.”

There are several shocked and surprised noises, but it is Prince Zuko who draws her attention. He has choked on his porridge, half of it coughed out onto the table.

When he meets her gaze, she smirks.

 

 

After more than three weeks on the ship, Katara knows they’re getting close to the capital. It’s making everyone antsy, but no one more than Prince Zuko.

Prickly to begin with, he scowls or shouts at the slightest provocation. He orders the men to reorganize the weapons room and then does it again himself a day later. He is constantly writing the start of letters, only to burn them to cinders moments later. Even Katara herself is anxious. She has no idea if Aang is hiding the capital, but she hopes Arluuk has prudently taken him far away.

As they had done in the early days of her captivity, Prince Zuko becomes Katara’s shadow again, but she doesn’t mind as much this time. She wants observe this strange prince, who is full of fury and anger, but will blush and sputter if given the smallest hint of teasing. Katara asks him about Fire Nation birth control methods and he practically spits out his tea; he even seems embarrassed to find her practicing her anatomy drawings of basic musculature. Still, he answers her, albeit red-faced, and asks her questions about her drawings. She learns to keep her face neutral, but not closed off. Even a hint of annoyance will send him skittering away, pouting for hours.

Katara had learned much about the Fire Nation prince in her enslavement. She had been bought at market to serve as a lady’s maid for a girl her age, Shi Fen. Katara had quickly learned that to be a slave to a little girl was to serve as a life-size doll rather than a playmate. Katara had worn whatever Shi Fen demanded, done whatever she had wanted, and listened to her complaints and triumphs for years.

Shi Fen had several particular interests, but one favorite was the Royal Family. She was particularly interested in the young Prince Zuko, whom she frequently declared was handsome and noble and terribly rich, and would come to the colonies and fall in love with her. She would live out her days as a princess in a castle, with Prince Zuko and an army of servants catering to her every whim.

Don’t worry, she had assured Katara. You’ll still be my maid, too.

Katara had seen many images of Prince Zuko in her youth — a young boy with golden eyes and an angular face — but she had not recognized him as a man. There was something darkly humorous that it was Katara, a former slave, who had met him before Shi Fen. She wondered what Shi Fen would make of Prince Zuko now.

The prince in question was currently practicing some vicious fire bending moves with his uncle as Katara watched. The gymnasium had grown warm, and despite the ferocity of the training session, Katara felt sleepy and loose from the heat.

A shout of pain cuts through the air and the fighting stops. Katara jumps to her feet and rushes to Prince Zuko without a second thought. There is an angry burn slapped over his bicep, and he hisses in pain. But when Katara reaches out her hand, the prince jerks away.

“Nephew, please,” says General Iroh. “Lady Katara can help.”

“I’m fine,” says Prince Zuko through gritted teeth.

General Iroh frowns.

“Pride will not heal a burn, Prince Zuko.”

“I said I’m fine!”

“Please,” says Katara softly. “Let me.”

She moves slowly, as if tending to a wounded animal. She can feel the pounding of his heartbeat; he is ready to flee. She holds his gaze until he blinks and, resignedly, nods.

Katara knows burns. She has healed them long before she was trained to do so, when all she could do was pour water over her fellow captives’ limbs and cry. Prince Zuko’s burn shrinks and disappears, but she does not stop there. The muscle beneath has been overused — his insane training regimen, most likely — and she works to soothe the ache. Prince Zuko keeps his eyes downcast, away from her, and his heart rate slows.

It is only now that she realizes how close she is, her hand on his bare arm. She can smell his sweat. Something ancient thrums within her, and she takes a steadying breath.

Don’t be stupid she thinks. You’ve smelled boy sweat before. This is the same. He is the same.

He is not the same.

Every man Katara has ever healed — and she has healed many — has offered her a quick thanks and gone merrily on his way. Even the ones she had brought from the brink of death had offered only passing smiles in gratitude. She was a healer; it was expected that she do her job.

When she steps back from Prince Zuko, he immediately sinks into a deep bow. She has been trained in Fire Nation manners, and she knows what this means.

Equality.

A flicker of surprise passes over General Iroh’s face, but it is transformed into a smile when his nephew raises himself upright. They bow to each other as the end of a fight dictates and Prince Zuko hastily shoves his tunic on. He does not meet Katara’s eyes.

 

 

“Why did you heal me?”

Katara sips her tea. She and Prince Zuko sit across the low table in his cabin, having retired for the evening to read. Well, Katara had been reading. Prince Zuko had been sending an increasing number of glances her way until he had finally broken the silence.

In truth, she’s not sure why she healed Prince Zuko, or any of the crew for that matter. Even from the first encounter when she saved Shen, she had felt sure that she should help, but she did not know why.

Instead, she asks the question that has burned inside her for weeks.

“Why haven’t you asked me to heal you sooner?”

Prince Zuko looks surprised.

“I haven’t been injured.”

“Yes, you have. I felt your muscles earlier. You are tired from training.”

“I’m used to it.”

“You nicked your hand on a knife last week.”

“It was a small cut.”

She looks at him, her heart filling with sorrow. She should hate this man, the prince of the people who kidnapped and abused her. Instead, she feels pity.

Because Katara knows burns. She knows that the one on his face is no accident.

“You lost an Agni Kai.”

Prince Zuko’s face hardens and he turns away, hiding his scar.

“You said you can’t heal scars.”

“No, but if there damage underneath…”

“It doesn’t matter,” he says harshly. “You can’t fix it. It doesn’t deserve to be fixed.”

The Fire Nation and their stupid obsession with honor and shame.

“Losing a fight is not worth —“

“I didn’t lose!” he roars, whirling to face her fully. Katara holds her ground and glares back.

Then, just as suddenly as his anger flared, it dies. He slumps back in his chair.

“I didn’t lose,” he repeats quietly. “Because I didn’t fight.”

Katara’s brow furrows in confusion.

“I thought the point of the Agni Kai was to fight?”

“It is. But I wasn’t fighting who I thought.”

Katara’s confusion deepens. She had thought she had guessed correctly: a scar from a battle, exile for losing to someone beneath him. His temper had gotten him into trouble.

But she should have known better. This prince is not who she expected.

“You may as well know the truth,” he says dejectedly.

He keeps his eyes averted from hers, his expression set and his position defensive. Katara tries not to breathe too loudly, afraid to break this fragile moment.

“Four years ago, Firelord Ozai, long may he reign, was generous enough to allow me to attend a war meeting. I promised to remain quiet, but I spoke out instead. I dishonored myself.”

Katara waits, hoping he will explain what he spoke out against, but Prince Zuko does not elaborate.

“I accepted a challenge to Agni Kai. I was ready to face the general I had opposed, but…”

Prince Zuko trails off again, lost in his memory. When he speaks again, his voice is barely a whisper.

“By casting aspersions on the general, I had insulted Firelord Ozai himself. It was he who I faced and I…I did not fight back. I was cowardly and weak and I was punished.”

He lifts his face to meet her stunned gaze.

“That’s the truth. You are on the ship of a disgraced man. I am worthless until I return the Avatar to the Fire Nation, and I must not rest until I do. The chance to regain my honor is all I have. I promised you safety on this ship, but I must capture the Avatar. I know you will try to stop me; that is your prerogative. But I will do whatever I have to in order to return home.”

They do not speak again. Katara goes to bed, and does not sleep for many hours.

 

 

Prince Zuko and Katara barely speak the next day, to each other or to anyone else. The crew seems happy about this development — Prince Zuko’s shouting had been getting rather irritating.

Katara spends her day lost in thought, and night has fallen when she comes to her decision. She goes to Prince Zuko’s chambers.

He is alone, as always, but he shows her in offers her a seat. She accepts and asks him to extinguish the candles.

“Why?”

“Some things are said more easily in the dark.”

The candles go out, and Katara begins.

“When I was seven, I got snagged in a bear trap. At least, we thought it was a bear trap at the time. I couldn’t get free and I sent my brother Sokka to get help.”

Prince Zuko stays silent, and Katara is grateful. She has only told this story once, to Sokka, and it did not end well.

“Before my brother returned, a troop of Fire Nation soldiers found me. The trap had not been for bears, but for people. They took me aboard their ship and we sailed to the colonies. There were forty of us when we left, and only thirty arrived.”

She can still smell the stench of the rotting, bloated corpses. She can hear the sobbing, desperate pleas of men and women. She had told herself this is a dream, this isn’t real, Sokka is coming so many times that even her fellow captives had prayed for Sokka’s arrival.

She breathes in the smell of ginseng tea and ink. She remembers where she is and continues.

“I was sold to a wealthy family, the Changs, and for a while I was relatively safe. I was meant to be a maid. I was kept clean, I learned to read and speak Fire Tongue, and I was fed every day. But then… things changed.”

“I was ten when the Changs started running into financial troubles. I never learned the details — I was a child and a slave after all — but the household started to shrink. They sold off the older slaves first, then most of the household slaves. They kept a few strong workers to keep the farm going, but they had to sell most of their land in the end. By the time I was twelve, I was their last bargaining chip. Young men usually fetch the highest price at market, but if you know who to ask, you can get even more for a young girl.”

There is a sharp intake of breath, but Prince Zuko says nothing. Katara feels the trembling in her hands, the waves of tingling that prickle up her legs. The fear is as strong now as it had been then.

“His name was Colonel Ito. He had owned some land close to the Chang house, but he was frequently away on some campaign or another. When he came back, he would usually purchase a young companion in the slave markets. She would be gone before he left.”

Tears flow silently down her cheeks, but her voice does not falter.

“I had found their graves several months earlier. They weren’t buried deep — the summer monsoon had washed the soil away and there was… there was a hand… I buried it again and I put a stone on top to mark it. Whoever she was, she deserved to be put to rest properly. I didn’t know I would need to find her again…”

This is the part of the story where Sokka had vomited. Katara takes a deep breath.

“Colonel Ito himself came to inspect me and a deal was made. I was supposed to be his birthday present. I knew what that meant. The Changs tried to soften the blow — they let me sleep in a small cabin by myself, gave me sweets and firecrackers. They felt sorry for me, and they forgot to watch me closely.”

“I went back to that grave, and… and… I dug up the body. I stripped it of its flesh. I had no real training to bend the water in it, but it was not hard to do. I gathered her bones and I brought them to my cabin.”

“On the bed, I laid her out and covered her in the firecrackers. I had pried up some of the rotten floorboards earlier to crawl out. I locked the door from the inside and I set the cabin ablaze.”

“I managed to find a ship to sail me to the Southern Isles. I was lucky they only wanted me to work on board, and nothing else. I had spent five years longing to return home, waiting…”

Katara lets out a long sigh. She slumps back a bit, staring up in the darkness.

“It wasn’t like I had left it. Five years I waited, but nothing had waited for me. People had assumed I was dead, and now I was not. I didn’t fit in like before — I would forget myself and start speaking in Fire Tongue instead of Water. I had forgotten old songs and games. Everything I had learned to do was the wrong way: the way I cooked, the way I spoke, even the way I braided my hair.”

“I stayed for a while — I had Sokka, and it wasn’t like people wanted me to leave — but in the end I couldn’t stay. I had hoped, maybe, in the North Pole… but I didn’t belong there, either. I’m not sure there’s anywhere I belong. It’s why I’ve been looking at those maps. I don’t know if I’ll fit in in the Earth Kingdom — I probably won’t — but maybe I could do some good there. Help people, I guess. If there's nowhere I belong, maybe that means I can go anywhere I’m needed.”

There is a moment of silence in the darkness. She can hear Prince Zuko’s steady breathing. She gives herself one last push.

“You said you would do anything to return home. You’ve waited almost as long as I did to go back. Maybe things would be different for you. I hope so, for your sake. But there’s a chance that chasing the Avatar isn’t enough — it will never be enough — to make the Fire Nation your home again.”

She leaves him the darkness, alone again.

Chapter Text

The spirits hated him, that was the only explanation.

Zuko and his crew had dealt with plenty of storms and bad weather over the past five years, but nothing quite like this. A blizzard hits with a sudden ferocity, and the crew scrambles to keep the ship afloat. It’s all they can do to hunker down and hope the storm passes soon, and even that exhausts them.

He’s on another pass around the deck helping to secure supplies when an icy gust picks up, whipping a hard piece of metal into his face. It’s on his left side, and he doesn’t see it coming. It stings, but it’s only when he feels the warmth of blood trickling onto his chin that he heads inside to clean up.

Katara, who Zuko suspects can smell blood like a lion-shark, finds him trying to mop himself up. He’s cross-legged on the floor of his room with an old scrap of fabric pressed to his face.

“Here, let me.”

“I’m fine,” he says curtly. He knows he shouldn’t take is anger out on her — it’s not her fault the spirits have cursed him with yet another obstacle to his quest — but it’s hard to bite his tongue.

Katara is, if anything, emboldened by his bad mood.

“Zuko, you’re being ridiculous.”

It’s been a long time since anyone has called him by his name, just his name. Even Uncle Iroh insists on adding his title; Zuko suspects this is Uncle’s way of boosting his nephew’s self-esteem. Zuko should be insulted that this Water Tribe peasant is addressing him so informally, but it’s strangely almost a relief. For a moment, he doesn’t have to be a prince, just himself.

In his stunned surprise, Katara pounces. She quickly waves away the blood and leans in closer, but Zuko involuntary moves away, flinching.

The cut has sliced across his scar.

Katara seems to realize his hesitation and drops her hands.

“I don’t have to heal it,” she says gently. “But I should at least clean the wound.”

Zuko nods, not trusting his voice.

Her movements are slow and methodical, unlike many of the complicated motions he has seen her perform before. She seems to recognize the question in his expression.

“There are a lot of blood vessels in the face,” she explains, continuing her steady pace. “It can be tricky, so if it’s not a life-threatening cut, it’s much better to take your time.”

After a few seconds, she appears satisfied with her work and sits back on her heels.

“I can close it up if you’d like.”

Zuko closes his eyes. There are two voices in his head: one is sure that this is some sort of trick, that she will take his blood and bend it against him. She is the enemy, and besides, he is a man who deserves his wounds.

But the other voice…

Zuko is tired. There is something within him that just wants to curl up and disappear. A part of him that wants to give up and float away. If she is trying to kill him, perhaps it would not be such a bad way to go.

He sighs and lets his head fall against the wall behind him.

“Okay.”

He can’t feel her healing his face in the same way that he felt her heal the burn on his arm. The skin of his cheek has been too warped by fire to feel much, but he knows without seeing that she has completed her task easily. He was never in danger for a moment.

There is a part of him that is disappointed.

He sits up fully, Prince Zuko again, and gives a small bow.

“Thank you, Katara.”

He expects her to leave — he is sure there are other members of the crew who would appreciate her healing hands for their own scrapes and bruises — but she makes no movement for the door. They sit, staring at each other.

Zuko remembers her voice in the darkness the night before, the chilling tale of her imprisonment and escape. He wonders how she can bear to look at him, a man who was born of Fire. How she can stand to help him, to heal him.

There is a flame warming inside of him. The longer she holds his gaze, the more it grows. He doesn’t know what it is, but it makes him want.

What does he want?

She extends a hand towards his face, and he does not move away. Her fingertips brush his cheek and he wishes more than anything that he could feel it.

“Could you heal it?” he rasps, “The skin underneath?”

He has spoken something from the darkest reach of himself, something he thought he could never admit to anyone. He has always felt that he deserved his scar, that he truly had dishonored himself. But there has always been doubt, too. Was it not enough to have been marked as a failure? Did he need to feel the sting of his father’s disapproval every waking minute? Did he deserve the pain?

Katara’s eyes narrow in concentration. There is a spark in her gaze; his own flame jumps higher.

He has seen this side of her many times: with the Earth Kingdom scrolls, in their kick-foot matches, in healing his crew. He knows what comes next.

“I have an idea.”

Katara tells him exactly how she will assess the damage to his face before beginning her healing regime. She explains that the scar itself will most likely be unchanged, and it may take several healing sessions to work on the tissue underneath. She warns him that it may even hurt, that moving blood in one’s face can cause headaches or other discomfort.

There is something comforting about a bossy Katara, something that makes him feel cared for even as she explains she’s about to cause him pain. He tries not to think about why this is, and instead nods, surprisingly eager to begin.

Katara reaches out with both hands, one on each side of his face. She brushes over each cheek, his brow, and his temples.

“On a scale of zero to ten, zero being no sensation and ten being the same, how much can you feel the hand on your left side compared to the right?”

She marches her fingers across his face, sometimes a poke and sometimes a caress, with Zuko dutifully reporting a number back, usually between zero and two. The edges of his scars get as high as five, and Katara appears satisfied with her initial assessment.

“I’m going to probe around a bit and see what we’re in for. If it gets uncomfortable, you need to stop me.”

She takes one of his hands and sets it on her knee. Zuko’s eyes go wide.

“It might feel difficult to talk if I’m inspecting your face,” she explains calmly. “So you can squeeze my knee instead. Once for stop, twice for slow down. Got it?”

He nods, wondering what he’s gotten himself into.

It feels… weird It’s like having his face poked by a curious child, only it’s poking from the inside. Like something is trying to push it’s way out of his skull.

He tries to sink into meditation, but it’s a distracting sensation. Even more distracting is Katara herself. She lets out occasional huffing breaths, or a curious hmm. She is close enough to him he feels a little glow of her body heat, a vague scent of fire lillies — Uncle must have given her access to his special supply of soap — and the shifting of her knee beneath his hand.

Katara seems to lose herself in her task, and Zuko can feel her start to press deeper into him. He closes his eyes to center himself. It’s not quite painful, but the pressure somehow makes him feel tired, like he’s being literally stretched too thin.

It’s similar to how he felt when he was healing from his injury. He would spend his days in his darkened bunk, doing nothing yet still feeling exhausted, like he had run for miles. Uncle had tried to explain that his body was tired from healing, but Zuko had raged and yelled, desperate to prove that he was ready to hunt the Avatar, even if he was too fatigued to produce a flame.

Then Zuko remembers the heat of his father’s fire, the smell of flesh burning, a scream…

The pressure stops instantly and Zuko feels cold. He opens his eyes.

Katara has both hands raised, palms facing him. Her face is serious, but her voice is soft.

“Are you okay?”

He hadn’t realized he had squeezed her knee. He blinks in surprise.

“Fine,” he says, embarrassed to have lost him composure. “I’m fine. Go again.”

But Katara shakes her head.

“Let’s wait a bit,” she says. “I’ve got a good idea what I’m in for, and I want to save some of my strength in case anyone else needs healing today.”

Zuko nods and rises to his feet. He helps pull her up, unsure of what else to do with his hands.

“We can try again tonight. Let’s go get some lunch first.”

She smiles, and he almost smiles back.

 

The blizzard continues for two days. Every morning and night, Katara comes to Zuko’s room and prods at his face. Twice more he squeezes her knee to stop, but soon he can control himself, and instead can request that she slow down instead.

He stops touching his face before he falls asleep. He tells himself it’s because he’s gotten poked enough by Katara, but the truth is that he is afraid. He did not want to get his hopes up, but he knows that if he were to brush his cheek and still feel nothing, he would be crushed by the disappointment.

As the blizzard clears, Zuko experiences no relief. He feels strangely nauseated, and the left side of his face feels icy, stabbing pains as he walks around the deck. When Katara comes to heal him that night, he flinches from her raised hand.

“What’s wrong?”

“I think we should stop,” he says, regretting the look of concern on her face. “I’ve got a headache.”

“I can fix it.”

“No! No, I mean… I…”

“Spit it out, Zuko.”

“I think you might be making things worse,” he says reluctantly. “My face hurt every time I went outside, and I’ve got this pain behind my eye…"

Katara’s eyes sparkle. She grabs his face and he winces. Her hands are cold.

Her hands are cold.

Zuko’s eyes widen and his jaw drops.

Katara starts to brush her fingers over his cheeks like she had the first time. Zuko counts.

“Four. Seven! Three. Six. Oh, that part is still a one… Three. Three. Five. Seven. Five.”

It’s hard to keep the count going. He’s smiling too much.

They agree to skip the healing session for the night to give them both a break, but Zuko does not want Katara to leave yet. It’s nice not to be alone.

Instead, he unearths a box from the drawer of his desk and set it in front of her. It’s almost a year old, and certainly not as good as it was when he got it, but it’s all he has to share. Katara smiles and tilts her head curiously.

He likes it when she smiles at him.

It’s unnecessarily formal for the occasion, but Zuko remembers his mother’s lessons on how to share a meal with an important guest. He carefully arranges the table for them and invites Katara to be seated. She looks at him a little apprehensively but takes a seat and waits. Zuko opens the box and extends it towards her with an incline of his head.

“What is it?”

“You’ll like it,” is all he says.

Katara carefully selects her piece, holding it uncertainly. Zuko selects his own and places it in his mouth. She copies him.

Her eyes widen.

“Chocolate!”

The warmth Zuko feels is not his usual flame. It’s not a flame at all, more like glowing embers. The feeling expands through his chest and down into his bones, to the tips of his fingers and into his feet.

He smiles. She smiles back.

They spend a happy hour sharing the treats, swapping stories. Katara explains that she has tried chocolate once before, a stolen treat from the kitchen of her masters.

“It was for Shi Fen’s birthday cake. She was being extra bratty that year — she wanted to do all the possible celebrations. Most colonists like to do both Earth and Fire traditions, but she wanted to do a Water Tribe one, too.”

“How do you celebrate birthdays?”

A dreamy expression comes over Katara’s face. Zuko’s chocolate melts a little faster than usual in his hand.

“Your family weaves a flower crown. Sokka was terrible at it, of course, so I usually made my own, but he always went out and found the flowers I wanted. He said it wasn’t as dignified as hunting for meat, but he made an exception for me.”

“It was just the two of you?”

The dreamy expression fades.

“Yes. Our parents were killed in a Fire Nation raid when we were little. I don’t remember them.”

There is an awkward silence. Zuko offers Katara another chocolate, and she accepts, continuing with a sigh.

“Anyway, Shi Fen made me spend all morning picking her flowers, and then I was supposed to help make her an Earth Kingdom cake and Fire Nation dumplings… so I stole the chocolate meant for the cake. It was a really stupid idea — I was lucky I didn’t get caught — but I gave some to all the other slaves, too, so nobody told on me. I only got to eat one piece in the end, but it was delicious. Thank you, Zuko. For sharing with me.”

Zuko feels his face burn with embarrassment.

“It’s nothing. Really.”

“A prince sharing a luxurious set of chocolates with a peasant?” asks Katara slyly. “It’s certainly unusual.”

“So is a Water Tribe healer helping Fire Nation soldiers.”

There is another silence, slightly less awkward than before. Katara reaches for another chocolate and pops it in her mouth. A second later she is coughing and sputtering.

“Sorry!” says Zuko, jumping hastily to his feet. “I’m sorry, I forgot. Some of the chocolates have chili in them.”

Katara’s eyes water as she coughs, but it seems that she is trying to laugh in between spasms. Zuko hurriedly brings her water, which she guzzles down eagerly.

“Thanks,” she gasps. “I wasn’t expecting…”

HIC!

Katara lets out the loudest hiccup Zuko has ever heard in his life. She claps a hand over her mouth and Zuko purses his lips trying not to laugh.

“Oh! I think the spice is — hic!

Zuko can’t help the snort of laughter, and soon Katara is giggling, punctuated by loud, body-shaking hiccups.

Zuko laughs until tears come to his eyes, until he is clutching his side and gasping on the floor. Katara isn’t in better shape; each hiccup sets off a chain reaction of giggling and even more hiccuping. They spend several minutes trying to calm themselves down, only for an errant hiccup to escape and start off the whole cycle again.

They try several times to get the hiccups to stop — drinking sips of water, Zuko trying (and failing) to scare the hiccups away — until they reason that they should ask Uncle Iroh for assistance. Uncle was very wise in most matters — why not the hiccups?

As they amble towards the mess hall, Zuko feels that maybe this might be a good day after all.

He is wrong.

 

 

Admiral Zhao is an absolute dickhead.

Zuko had always been of this opinion, but his dislike for the man deepens with every pompous word that comes out of Zhao’s mouth. It is crucial, however, that Zuko keep his feelings to himself. His crew and a certain Water Tribe healer were counting on him.

Zuko is thankful that Azula had wanted to play the Flinching Game with him as children. It helps him keep a straight face when Zhao reveals his plan to attack the Northern Water Tribe.

But Agni, is it hard.

Zuko thinks back to the day before, when he had felt happy for once, and how quickly it had been dashed by the look on his Uncle’s face.

“Prince Zuko, there is news. Admiral Zhao’s fleet approaches.”

The men would have to scramble to make sure the ship was free from ice and ready to receive the admiral, but the biggest problem, of course, was Katara.

“We could hide her in the crew’s quarters,” suggested Cho.

“Admiral Zhao might do an inspection,” Toro pointed out. “He would have less access to General Iroh or Prince Zuko’s rooms.”

“It will be expected that such a high-ranking official be hosted by them,” said Lieutenant Jee. “Surely he will be invited into their cabins and she will be discovered.”

“It’s worse than that,” said Shen morosely. “We can’t hide her anywhere. The shipping manifest has our food stores, and they’re a little lower than expected because we have an extra person on board. Even if they can’t find her, they’ll suspect someone is here if they check our logs.”

“Maybe they won’t check?” said Xuan hopefully.

“Admiral Zhao won’t miss a chance to make us look bad,” Zuko said, finding his voice. “There’s nowhere to hide.”

“Nowhere,” said Uncle Iroh. “And everywhere.”

“Uncle! Now is not the time for riddles!”

“What he means,” said Katara, looking stricken, “is that I can hide in plain sight.”

Zuko’s eyes narrowed.

“Zhao will wonder why we’ve taken on an extra crew member without permission. And besides, you look… I mean… you don’t exactly look like you’re from the Fire Nation.”

Katara’s eyes were watery. She seemed to have understood something that Zuko had not.

“Yes,” she agreed. “But I do look like someone who should be serving the Fire Nation.”

There was a terrible silence, and then the shouts of the crew drowned out the racing of Zuko’s heart.

“No!”

“Katara, you can’t…”

“We would never!”

“Impossible!”

“Please,” said Uncle sternly, silencing the room. He turned to Katara, his expression full of sorrow. “Lady Katara, I do not suggest such an undertaking lightly. This ship is, of course, under my nephew’s control, and there are alternatives.”

“We could run,” said Zuko, catching his Uncle’s meaning. “If we get the ship free, we can dodge Zhao, get you to the Earth Kingdom…”

Katara gave him a feeble smile that made his heart turn over. He knew she would refuse.

“It’s okay, Zuko. I can do it.”

There were a few raised eyebrows at the lack of title in her address, but no one spoke. Katara took a several deep breaths before speaking again.

“What I would ask you all to do for me is very dangerous. I would understand if you were to leave me here on the ice —” there was a chorus of protests at this — “but if you wish to deceive the admiral, there is a way.”

She turned to Zuko, her expression heavy with something he could not name.

“I will need to be your slave.”

As despicable as the plan was, the crew eventually agreed that it was the best option. Admiral Zhao had spent many years in the Southern Seas, and almost certainly acted as a slaver himself. He would not be surprised to see a Water Tribe slave aboard a Fire Nation ship. Zhu, the quartermaster, agreed to repurpose old clothing to create a suitable disguise for Katara. Although Zuko found the idea repugnant, he admitted it was a good plan to fool Admiral Zhao.

Until, that was, Katara had explained that she would have to act as Zuko’s personal slave.

“It’s the only way I’m untouchable,” she explained over Zuko’s protests. “If I’m just a regular slave, Admiral Zhao or any of his men would feel entitled to… use me. You and General Iroh are the only people with higher standing than Zhao. If I belonged to you, he could not take me away from you — stealing from a prince would be a crime.”

Zuko wanted to vomit.

“Why can’t you pretend to belong to Uncle then?”

“I am afraid that I have spoken strongly to Zhao in the past about his suspected methods in the Southern Seas,” said Uncle Iroh, “He would not believe that I would be the kind of man to take such a… companion

“And you think I seem like the type of person who would?!”

“Zuko,” said Katara gently, laying a hand on his arm. “You don’t have to do this.”

But she was wrong. He did have to do this — he had promised her safe passage on his ship, and what’s more, he couldn’t not do this. He tried to tell himself it was because he needed her intact for his trade with the Avatar, but that was not quite the truth.

He sighed and let her go. She and Zhu prepared a suitable disguise and Zuko readied the ship.

The sun’s weak rays had set as Admiral Zhao’s fleet approached. Zuko and his crew gathered again in the mess hall, which had been immaculately cleaned. The room went silent as the door opened. Katara walked barefoot across the floor and stood in front of Zuko. He averted his eyes.

He recognized the pants — an old pair he outgrew a few years ago — and the tunic seemed to have been one cut from the same set. Katara and Zhu had done well; the tunic now opened to reveal most of her upper back and shoulders in a distinctly Fire Nation style. They had clearly attempted to keep as much fabric as possible, but Zuko could still see a shiver ghost across Katara’s flesh. A veil covered the lower half of her face, and her eyes were rimmed with kohl. Zuko wondered where they found some. Her hair was elaborately braided in Fire Nation style, similar to the ones Zuko remembered on the servants in the palace.

Around her neck was a belt fashioned into a collar. He suppressed a shudder.

“Last chance to back out,” she whispered, eyeing him.

He met her gaze, eyes blazing.

“Never.”

He had to lock her in his room before Zhao arrived, and when he escorted her into his cabin he noticed a large bruise on her back.

“You’re hurt.”

“Oh!” she said, surprised. “No, I… I needed to scrub off the tattoo just in case. I didn’t want to identify myself in any way. I thought a bruise would cover the parts I couldn’t get off. Did I get it all?”

Zuko squinted.

“I guess there’s a little bit of ink here, on your shoulder, but…”

Katara held a hand to the spot and frowned in concentration. When she lifted her palm away, the skin was purpled.

“You…”

He should not have been stunned — he had seen her heal bruises with a wave of her hand — but this was something different. All this time, from the moment she had set foot on the ship, she could have used her bending to hurt them. Instead, she had healed them. Even him, the exiled prince of the Fire Nation.

He was not sure what to say, so he bowed deeply and made his exit. He triple-locked the door.

Admiral Zhao had, as expected, toured the ship and inspected it thoroughly before settling down to speak with Zuko and Iroh. Zuko does his best to keep his face passive, but occasionally has to pinch himself to keep from speaking. Zhao’s plan is insane. But Zuko has no choice but to go along with it: Zhao has him cornered.

“Of course, Prince Zuko,” Zhao says with false humility. “It will be an honor to have you at the head of the attack with my fleet. I know you seek to capture the Avatar. It is believed he is hiding in the capital. You should be able to capture him while we bring those Water Tribe savages to heel.”

“Yes,” Zuko says woodenly. “Well reasoned, Admiral Zhao.”

He resolves to speak as little as possible — Azula had always teased Zuko for his ineptitude at lying — and instead listens as Zhao prattles on about the glory of the Fire Nation. Uncle Iroh is also silent, watching stone-faced as Zhao sneaks in a few digs about the failed siege of Ba Sing Se.

One of Zhao’s men interrupts to bring him a note. Zuko spies a flash of triumph on Zhao’s expression.

“Prince Zuko, forgive me,” says Admiral Zhao in a tone of polite interest. “There seems to be an inconsistency with your food stores. Have you taken on another crew member? Your father, Firelord Ozai, long may he reign, did not tell me you had increased your manpower.”

Zuko clenches his fists. They had expected this, but it still grates to hear Zhao’s smug tone.

“A personal matter,” he says through gritted teeth. “None of your concern.”

“Ah, forgive me, Prince Zuko,” says Zhao even more smugly. “But it is my duty to ensure that all Fire Nation naval supplies are accounted for. We can’t have inconsistencies, even for such an… honored figure such as yourself.”

Zuko is surprised his breath does not come out as steam. Fury simmers within him.

Don’t flinch, Zuzu.

For once in his life, Azula’s voice centers him. When he speaks, his tone is polite but commanding.

“I have taken a companion on board, Admiral Zhao. I know such a practice is uncommon, but it is not unheard of. My father himself has several such companions — I am sure he would not begrudge me taking one for myself.”

The last part is a bald-faced lie: Zuko is sure his father would be furious at Zuko having any sort of comfort during his quest for the Avatar. That much had been made clear when he had been given this ship and its motley crew.

Admiral Zhao’s brow is raised, and a smirk plays about his lips. He merely nods and lets the subject drop.

After an awkward meal, Zhao lingers, clearly waiting for Zuko to invite him into his personal chambers as tradition dictates. Zuko drags his feet, but realizes it’s more suspicious to keep hiding Katara than to pretend she really is just a slave of no importance. He reluctantly invites Zhao for a drink, and sets about slowly unlocking his door.

“Quite elaborate security,” quips Zhao. “Are you concerned your companion will flee?”

“She knows better,” says Zuko harshly. “I like to keep my things protected from prying eyes.”

Zhao nods, seemingly impressed by this answer, and Zuko feels sickened by his own words.

Just give him his stupid tea and be done with it. Then he’ll leave.

When the door swings open, Zuko spots Katara backed into a corner of the room, prostrate in a deep bow. Her forehead touches the floor, her arms outstretched towards him in deference. His stomach revolts at the sight, but he does his best to keep a neutral expression.

“Slave,” he barks in Common Tongue. “Tea. Now.”

Katara raises herself quickly and sets about making the tea. Her movements are graceful and fluid. If she is afraid, she does not show it. Her eyes remain downcast, her head bowed.

When she brings them their tea, she bows deeply and returns to her corner again, where she is poised in wait for the next command. Zhao rakes his eyes over Katara’s body, his eyes lingering on the large bruise on her shoulder. Zuko’s hands itch with fire.

“Your father would be impressed,” Zhao says lightly. He stares at the bruise. “Very impressed.”

These are the words Zuko has longed to hear for years — longer than his exile, since he was just a child trying to make his father proud. And now, to hear that this, the abuse of a Water Tribe woman, was what he needed to do to make his father happy…

Zuko sips his tea and holds his expression steady. If Zhao notices the candles in the room flickering, he doesn’t let on.

Mercifully, the charade comes to an end. Zhao, seemingly satisfied with his inspection of Zuko’s ‘companion,’ sees himself out with one last lecherous stare at Katara’s bowed form. Zuko does his best not to slam the door behind him.

Zuko and Katara had agreed to keep talking to a minimum so long as Zhao and his men were about. Even whispers might be heard by an eavesdropping lackey, so they have to communicate mostly through hand gestures. Zuko fumblingly tries to mime are you alright? which Katara seems to understand and nods shakily.

They have a much more heated exchange of hand-waving when it comes to sleeping. It would be suspicious for Katara to have her own sleeping mat in the room given the nature of their pretended circumstances. Still, Zuko refuses to let her sleep on the floor and gesticulates wildly to indicate she should take the bed.

She gives him a little shove, smirking. She has guessed correctly that Zuko would never try to manhandle her, even to get her to sleep. But two can play at this game: Zuko lies down on the floor and smirks right back. He is too heavy for her to hoist back up into the bed. Katara lets out an angry huff and clambers onto the bed. When Zuko is satisfied that she is settled, he gets up to grab himself an extra blanket for his chilly night on the floor. Two hands dart out from behind and yank him backwards. He topples onto the bed.

“Stop being ridiculous,” whispers Katara angrily. “You’ll freeze on the floor. Just shut up and go to sleep.”

“It’s not proper.” It’s not the real reason he’s reluctant to share a bed with Katara, but it’s close enough.

She rolls her eyes.

“Do you really think I wasn’t sharing furs with Arluuk and Aang? We would have frozen to death. Trust me, I’m used to it.”

Zuko, fearing they had already spoken aloud too much, lies silent. He gets under the furs and waves the candlelight away. He makes sure not to move a muscle in the narrow bed lest he touch her.

Somehow, he manages to fall asleep. It is short-lived; a few hours later he jerks awake. Katara is trembling beside him, curled into a ball.

Zuko moves without thinking and places his hand against her back. He presses his warmth into her, palm flat along her spine. Katara continues to tremble, but she scoots towards him, and he moves to press his other hand against her.

He takes deep, steadying breaths. His hands warm and cool in time with his breathing and he feels Katara’s back rise and fall with him.

When he wakes again, Katara has turned to face him, her forehead pressed against his chest. His arm is numb from her weight on top of it, but he smiles faintly as he disentangles himself from her. He will keep this memory with him today as he faces Zhao.

That dickhead.

 

 

Zhao insists on taking Zuko and General Iroh through the details of the attack plan throughout the next day. Zuko listens carefully; as much as he dislikes Zhao, knowing his plan of attack will allow him to keep Katara and his crew safe.

That night, he and Katara scratch out messages in silence:

Zhao plans to lead the fleet towards the harbor in two day’s time. We’ll reach the capital and launch the attack in five days.

On the full moon?

Yes. He thinks the element of surprise will allow his troops to penetrate quickly into the capital and catch the Water Tribe off guard.

Maybe, but they’ll also be at their most powerful. I’ve seen them fight, Zuko. On the full moon and with the end of summer, the Fire Nation will be at a huge disadvantage.

Zhao believes the risk is worth the reward.

The reward? I know Ozai wants to bring all the other nations under his control, but there’s no way the Northern Water Tribe will be subdued before winter, and not without great losses to the Fire Nation.

Zhao kept going on about some secret weapon, but he wouldn’t say what it was.

Katara sits back and ponders this for a while as Zuko burns the scrap of paper. He feels a churning in his gut. He is uncertain about sharing all of this information with Katara. He had promised her safe passage aboard his ship, and they did share a goal of not letting the Avatar fall into Zhao’s hands. But to share Fire Nation military information with her was most likely treasonous.

Zuko rubs his scar distractedly. He needs to keep Katara safe while simultaneously attacking her sister tribe, and capturing her friend before Zhao can. His loyalties feel pulled in all directions: his duty to his people, to the woman he promised to keep safe, and to himself.

For once, Zuko would love to ask his uncle for advice, but he’s certain that Zhao’s men are still skulking about. He gives up and goes to bed. He is awoken less than an hour later by a loud rapping on the door. He grabs his parka. Usually nightly interruptions require his attention on deck.

Zhao is waiting for him on the other side of the door. He is wearing his own parka, and Zuko locks his door behind him as he steps out into the hall.

“Prince Zuko,” bows Zhao. “I request an audience with you regarding our plan. I seek your opinion on an important matter.”

Curious, Zuko follows as Zhao leads him out onto the cold deck. Zhao is staring at the horizon in the direction of the capital city. The moon should be waxing, but it has not yet risen for the evening, and the sky is still dark.

Zuko is impatient. It is cold outside, and he does not like leaving Katara alone.

“Well?” he prompts Zhao irritably.

Zhao smiles slyly, his eyes alight.

“Prince Zuko,” he says in a purr. “I have waited for this moment for a long time.”

Zuko feels his inner flame leap up in alarm. He slips into a defensive stance; whatever is making Zhao so smug cannot be a good thing for Zuko.

“The glory of the Fire Nation approaches. Soon, all nations will bow before us. Firelord Ozai, long may he reign, will bring light into the lives of the savages around the globe. He is willing to sacrifice for this. Our invasion will be costly, but we shall reap the rewards tenfold.”

“Unfortunately,” he continues, “there has always been a problem for Firelord Ozai. Succession.”

Zuko’s anxiety climbs higher still, but he holds himself in check. Zhao likes to talk, and the longer Zhao talks, the more Zuko can think a way out of whatever is coming.

“You have been fortunate, Prince Zuko, that the Avatar has reemerged. And yet it has been over two months and you have not captured him. They say he is a teenage boy — a pacifist monk! — and yet you have proven yourself incompetent in his capture.”

Zuko’s hand itch with fire. He wants to wrap them around Zhao’s throat.

“But you’ve always had the same problem, haven’t you? Ever since you were a boy. Firelord Ozai knew you were weak, that he would be better without you as his heir. You’ve always been too sentimental.

Footsteps distract Zuko and he whirls around. Two soldiers stand in the nearby doorway, each with a tight grip on the person between them.

Katara.

Flames erupt from Zuko’s palms. Zuko moves without thinking, but before he can take more than a step, there is a sharp, blinding pain in his side. He staggers, and sees Zhao holding a knife gleaming red with blood.

There is a gasp and Zuko staggers again, his hand flying to his side. He has not fully extinguished his flames, and he feels searing heat where the knife had pierced him. Zhao’s eyes gleam as he lunges at him again, grabbing him by the throat. His knife cuts cleanly through Zuko’s phoenix tail, and Zhao is left holding the clump of hair. Zuko is brought to his knees.

“So tragic,” whispers Zhao. “A young prince, murdered by his own Water Tribe slave. The Fire Nation will have no choice but the attack the Water Tribes in retribution.”

Zhao manages to lift Zuko back up. Zuko is on the verge of fainting, he’s losing blood…

“Goodbye, Prince Zuko.”

Zhao shoves him over the railing and Zuko hits the ice cold water below. The world goes black.

Chapter Text

Katara had known something was wrong when Zuko had left with Zhao. She had been unsurprised that Zhao’s men broke down the door a short while later. She had considered attacking them, but she had to be sure Zuko and the crew was safe first.

A month ago, she was ready to kill everyone on this ship. Now, she was determined to save them. What had become of her?

The soldiers dragged her out onto the freezing deck, and she was thankful she had had the foresight to wrap herself in extra furs after Zuko left, just in case.

She wants to cry out to Zuko in warning, but the sound is trapped in her throat. She watches, horror-struck, as Zhao plunges the knife into Zuko’s side.

She struggles against the men holding her. The wound is obviously deep, and Zuko will bleed out in minutes if she doesn’t get to him, but the strong hands gripping her arms fix her in place.

Zhao cuts off Zuko’s hair and says something about the Water Tribe, but Katara isn’t listening. She has other things in mind.

With a deep breath, she reaches out and feels the rhythmic pulses of the soldier’s blood. With a long exhale, she slows the pace, pushing their blood down towards the ground. The grips on her arms loosen, and both men collapse at her feet.

By the time the soldiers have fainted, it is too late. Zhao has hoisted Zuko up and thrown him overboard. She hears the splash and her stomach drops.

Zhao turns towards her, surprised by the sight of his soldiers lying on the deck. He holds his knife tightly in one hand, and Zuko’s wrapped phoenix tail in the other. His grip on the knife tightens.

Katara reacts without thinking. Her hands fly to her throat to undo her makeshift collar. If she is about to die, she will not die looking like a slave. Zhao looms close, but the belt in her hand is long. She flings it in Zhao’s face, the cold metal striking him hard. He gives a howl of pain and steps back.

Katara jumps.

The water is ice cold, and immediately she regrets her decision. Instead of saving Zuko, she has likely doomed herself to an icy death.

No. Not like this.

The tide is pulling her away from the ship as it steams towards the capital, and Katara gathers her wits. She reaches out with her bending, looking for warmth.

A body. Zuko.

She plunges into the depths, spinning a current to aid her towards Zuko. She grabs hold of him and shoots towards the surface. She is lucky it is a dark night — her waterbending is still messy and uncontrolled, and splashes loudly.

Zuko is unconscious. She probes briefly to see if she is already too late, but finds, strangely, that while blood pools inside of him, none of it is escaping. The heat of his fire pressed against his flesh has cauterized the wound.

Katara works to make an ice raft beneath them. It takes a few tries — Zuko is still warm enough that he starts to sink through her first frantic attempts — but eventually it is solid enough that she can use the raft to push them towards the shore. She thanks Tui and La for their many blessings: the darkened night, the favorable current, and the nearby shoreline. More importantly, the nearby ice post Katara remembers as one of the first stops on her trek with Arluuk.

When they meet the ice shelf, Katara drags Zuko onto safer ground and works quickly to pull the water from his clothing. It is trickier than she would have imagined, but finally she is satisfied and proceeds to dry her own clothing. Her hands shake with the effort and with the cold.

She kneels next to Zuko and checks his pulse. Zhao’s blade was sharp and sliced cleanly for which Katara is grateful. She can quickly stitch the major vessels back together and stem the bleeding. Zuko is still in great danger; if she cannot heal him within the hour, he will surely die. But if they stay exposed on the ice shelf, Zhao could double back to find them, or the cold will consume them both.

Katara decides to leave.

She packs Zuko in snow, both to camouflage him and, once she freezes the snow to make an ice layer over his body, to provide some insulation from the wind. He will be hypothermic soon, so Katara must hurry.

She runs. The ice post is half a mile away, and it should be stocked with supplies. Katara prays that she makes it back to Zuko in time.

Fear pounds in her chest. Her mind replays the scene over and over: the glint in Zhao’s eyes, the surprise and pain on Zuko’s face, the sound as his body hit the water beneath. She tries to shake it away. She has to stay focused. She has to have hope.

You can do it, Katara! She imagines Aang cheering her on. It’s always the right thing to help someone in need.

You know what to do. It is Arluuk’s voice now. You are stronger than you think.

No stupid Firebender is going to take down my sister!

She thinks of Sokka and runs even faster.

When she makes it to the ice shack, she half-sobs in relief. It is still perfectly stocked, and she sets out a nest of furs for her return. There is even a small cache of food frozen in the ice — she is amazed the polar-dogs haven’t tried to raid it yet.

From the back of the shack, she unearths what she needs and sets off again. Her footprints guide her back to where she has buried Zuko.

It’s a little awkward, pulling a sled meant for a pack of snow-dogs, but she makes good time. By the time she makes it back to Zuko, she can feel sweat coating her face. She uses it to bend a small whip to crack open the ice surrounding him. A risky move, given her usual lack of control, but thinking of the encouragement of her brother and her friends helps her focus on her task. After several rather inelegant attempts to get Zuko onto the sled, she manages to strap him in place and turns back to the ice post again. It’s slow going, and she has to spend her energy erasing the tracks they leave.

In the ice hut, she gets to work. Hypothermia has set in, which is both hurting and helping Zuko. The cold can be fatal, but it does slow the damage of the tissues Zhao had harmed, and Katara can work quickly to repair those. The issue will be warming Zuko back up.

She says a quick prayer to Tui and La before her final step. She grabs the sharpest hunting knife from the ice chest and moves the blade to Zuko’s cauterized wound. She makes an incision.

The blood is cold. Katara holds her hands out and pulls a fine loop of it through the space between her palms. She thinks of the Southern Isles: a tropical breeze, a humid day, the warmth of the hot sand. The water warms, and she threads it back into Zuko’s body.

She begins slowly warming Zuko and pulling the impurities from his blood. She had always grumbled when her healing trainers had her work on failing kidneys, but now she is acting as one herself, filtering and cleaning Zuko’s blood. He stirs a few times, not entirely conscious. Once he cries out for his uncle, twice for his mother. Katara holds back tears; she forgets that although Zuko is a prince, he is still just a young man. She wonders who was the last to place gentle hands on this man before her.

Hours later, she deems her work complete. She seals the cut she has made and heals the flesh damaged by fire. No outward trace of the injury remains.

Katara chips out a meat stick from the ice chest and forces herself to eat it as quickly as possible. Then, utterly exhausted, she bundles herself in the furs next to Zuko and instantly falls asleep.

 

When she wakes, the end-of-summer sun is already quite high in the sky. She quickly inspects Zuko, who appears to be stable, but unconscious. She’s quite proud of her handiwork, but she can’t be satisfied for too long. When Zuko wakes, he will need to eat, and there isn’t enough food in the ice shack to sustain both of them for long.

Katara chips out a few more of the meat sticks to fuel her for a hunt. She uses a bit of bending to guide her, seeking out warm bodies amongst the frozen tundra. She spots a rabbit-fox and unleashes a water whip to strike it down. It’s not a clean hit, and the poor thing struggles to run until Katara hits it a second time. She asks Tui and La to forgive her for prolonging the suffering of this innocent creature. She needs to eat meat to survive in a place like this, but she’s starting to think that Aang’s vegetarianism isn’t totally crazy.

She skins and guts the rabbit-fox on the ice, leaving the entrails as an offering to Tui and La; most likely, a polar-dog will come eat it, and the circle of life will continue. The thought makes her feel a little lighter as she returns to her patient.

She is surprised to find that Zuko is awake. His golden eyes snap to her, and he squirms a bit in an effort to sit up.

“Don’t move,” barks Katara. “I haven’t been able to triple-check I’ve got you all sewed up properly yet.”

Zuko freezes and lowers himself back down, wincing a bit at the pain. Katara sets down her prey and kneels next to Zuko, removing her gloves to inspect him more carefully. He lies perfectly still. Everything seems to be in order — she helps reduce some inflamed spots and recirculate some fluid that’s built up — but his heart rate is rather high for someone lying down. His breathing is fast and shallow. She puts a palm on his chest.

“It’s all right, Zuko. You’re safe.”

Zuko shuts his eyes, as if in pain. He grimaces.

“No,” he says through gritted teeth. “It’s not all right. Zhao tried to kill me, Uncle is still on the boat, everyone is going think I’m dead, that you….”

“Shh. You need to rest.”

“I can’t rest, Katara,” he shouts, trying to rise up. “”We have to get to the capital before Zhao does.”

“Are you seriously going to go after the Avatar right now? You were about to die from a knife wound just a few hours ago!”

She forces him back down, but it’s a struggle. He glares at her for a long moment before letting his head drop to the ground.

“This isn’t about the Avatar. Zhao is going to go through with his attack. People are going to die — Fire Nation and Water Tribe — all for this stupid plan.”

He turns his head to look up at her, eyes blazing.

“We have to stop him.”

Tears spring to her eyes. Zuko has told her many times that his greatest desire was to recapture the Avatar, and now he wants to throw it aside to save the lives of his soldiers. And not only his own soldiers, but the soldiers of an enemy nation.

“We will stop him, Zuko. I promise,” she says shakily. “But we need to rest first. It’s two day’s journey on foot, and neither of us will be strong enough to start before tomorrow. And I’ll want to heal you again tonight. Zhao knew what he was doing when he placed that knife; I don’t want to have missed anything.”

Silence falls and Katara works to break down the rabbit-fox to make a stew. It will be easier for Zuko to digest as he heals. She goes to find some spark rocks and comes back to find the fire is already lit.

“You shouldn’t be bending,” she chastises.

Zuko says nothing. He is staring blankly at the ceiling, unhearing.

When the stew is ready, Katara cannot wait. She sets out a bowl next to Zuko and ravenously devours her own. Healing has sapped much of her energy, and the hot broth helps warm her. Zuko does not touch his food. She is reminded of her own refusal of food on the ship, but this time she has very little to bargain with to entice him to eat.

It’s hard to say that she knows or understands Zuko — perhaps such an understanding would be impossible. But she has seen a few moments of vulnerability, moments he almost certainly had not intended to share, that she thinks she might understand what’s bothering him.

“He was wrong, you know. Zhao. You’re not weak.”

“Yes, I am.” Zuko’s voice is scarcely a whisper. He closes his eyes and teardrops glimmer on his lashes.

“No,” Katara bristles indignantly. “Look at you, Zuko. You were stabbed and thrown in the freezing ocean. You should be dead. But you’re here because you are strong.”

“I’m here because of you,” he rasps. “You saved my life… why?”

He turns to look at her, eyes mournful and tired. Her breath catches in her throat.

“I was stupid,” Zuko continues. “Stupid to think I could fool Zhao. Now he’s going to use this as an excuse to hurt people.”

“He would have done it anyway, Zuko. It’s not your fault.”

Zuko shuts his eyes again and turns away from her. She wishes she could see his face, but she knows any movement will cause him to shut down. There is a muffled sob, and Katara’s heart breaks.

“It’s my fault. It was always my fault. I was never good enough.”

“No, Zuko…”

“He never wanted me. He hated me. He sent me away…”

Katara realizes they’re not talking about Zhao any more.

Zuko takes a shuddering breath and turns back to stare at the ceiling. Other than the wet tracks on his face, his expression is blank.

“I thought if I captured the Avatar, I would prove my self worthy. Worthy to my people… to my father… but that was never going to be enough, was it? All those years, Uncle tried to distract me, show me things other than chasing the Avatar, but I wouldn’t listen. He knew… he always knew my father didn’t want me back. And I was too much of a fool to see it.”

Katara cannot resist placing her hand over Zuko’s heart. Zuko’s hand moves automatically to cover hers, and her breath hitches.

“You could have left me to die on the ice…” she starts.

“You saved Shen’s life. It would have been dishonorable to abandon you.”

A smile tugs at her face. Sometimes, Zuko can be so predictable.

“Yes, you did the honorable thing. You told me on the ship that you had no honor — that you had lost it. At least, that’s what Firelord Ozai told you. Why, then, did you do the honorable thing and save me?”

“I needed you to trade for the Avatar.”

“Yes, but my presence put you in danger when Zhao arrived. You chose to protect me.”

“Stop it. I was trying to help myself. I’m not… I wasn’t…”

“You are strong, Zuko,” Katara interrupts, “because you care. You want to save your crew, you want to save the other soldiers, you want to save me because you can see that all lives are important, not just your own. Firelord Ozai is willing to sacrifice the lives of his people — his own son — to get what he wants. And he has the audacity to say his desires are those of his people! You are not like him, Zuko, and that is good.”

Zuko seems unconvinced, but his breathing is a little more even. Katara decides to press her luck.

“You know, I’m glad I met you.”

Zuko raises his good eyebrow halfway up his forehead.

“I am! When you were chasing us… All I wanted was revenge on the Fire Nation. I wanted to hurt you and the rest of the crew, I volunteered to do it. But you weren’t what I expected. None of you were. You had people you loved and missed like I did, you sang songs and played kick-foot with me. You were just… people. And not the people who hurt me. Don’t get me wrong, if I ever find those people, or if I ever see Zhao again, they’re going to wish they were never born… But I spent a very long time feeling angry. And in the end, it just left me feeling empty.”

Zuko is watching her with a guarded expression. He has not let go of her hand.

“I am glad I met you, Zuko. Maybe you don’t feel the same way, and that’s okay. I just wanted you to know. Now, will you please eat some soup before it ices over?”

Katara helps prop him up to eat, and he downs his bowl quickly. He settles back down and closes his eyes. Katara sets about preparing for the next day’s journey. She dries out the rest of the rabbit for portability, and assembles extra supplies. By the time she has finished, the sun has long since set, and she moves under the furs next to Zuko.

She probes his injury again, satisfied with her previous work. She settles down to sleep.

“Katara?”

“Yes?”

“I’m glad I met you, too.”

She falls asleep with a smile.

 

Zuko moves a little stiffly the next morning, but he insists it’s due to the cold rather than injury. Katara keeps a close eye on him, but they can’t afford to lose any time. They must leave for the capital as soon as possible.

Zuko marches out of the hut, but Katara calls him back.

“Before we do this, there are things you need to know.”

Zuko squares up to face her and waits.

“This mission is going to be dangerous long before we reach the capital. Storms, cold, hunger… you saw that polar-dog attack before. We can’t take risks. We have to work as a team. Equals, got it?”

“Got it.”

Katara gives him a skeptical look and he rolls his eyes.

“Look, I don’t want to insult your people, but it seems like the men around here assume women can’t do anything. That’s stupid. I know you’re more than capable of taking care of yourself.”

She grins, feeling a strange fluttering inside of her.

“Good. Then it’s settled.”

They start walking before Katara brings up her second concern.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen when we get to the capital. Bringing back a firebender… it’s going to cause trouble. There’s no guarantee they’ll listen to us.”

“As a… disgraced prince, I don’t have much standing, but we can still bring them the warning. They might not want to let me go after but… I suppose better one firebender die than thousands.”

Fear stabs into her heart.

“Zuko, no! I won’t let them kill you!”

“It’s okay, Katara.”

“No! It’s not okay. Would you let them kill me?”

Zuko looks scandalized.

“Of course not!”

“Then I’m not letting them kill you! Equals, remember?”

Zuko huffs out a breath.

“You know, you can be super annoying when you’re determined.”

Katara grins triumphantly.

“That’s what most of the Northern Water Tribe said.” Her face falls. “Actually, it might be a bit of a problem for us…”

“What happened?”

“Well… you were right, earlier. The Northern Tribe is pretty convinced that the only use a woman has is to feed men and make babies. And they think the Southern Water Tribe are all a bunch of back-water idiots, so I didn’t exactly impress a lot of people. After a while I got fed up so…”

Zuko’s teeth are whiter than the snow. He lets out a rare bark of laughter.

“I bet you raised hell.”

“I wasn’t that bad! But… okay, fine, I did cause some problems.”

The walk takes hours, but they pass the time telling stories. Mostly Katara fills in Zuko on her rebellious past. She explains that her major transgression had been helping women with family planning, but she had pulled a number of other pranks as well.

“Oh! I forgot: once I was forced to spend a week scrubbing the council hall floors because of ‘lewd behavior.’”

Zuko turns pink, and he rubs his scar as if trying to hide his blushing.

“It’s nothing like that,” she laughed. “Remember I mentioned the all-women’s huts? I hosted a dance party. Apparently my dance moves were too scandalous, and one of them ratted me out.”

“What a jerk.”

“Yeah. Most of them were pretty nice though. They just couldn’t be nice to me in public.”

“Those sound like pretty crappy friends.”

Katara shrugs.

“We were all in a bad position. It’s hard, not having any control over your future. I was the only one who could choose to leave, or choose my own husband. Most of the other girls had that chosen for them.”

“Arranged marriages are not uncommon in the Fire Nation,” Zukoa says. “Especially amongst the nobility. But usually both parties have to agree.”

“Yeah, the Northern Water Tribe is very one-sided. If a man wants you and your father agrees, it’s done. The biggest trouble I got in was over that.”

“Someone wanted you?” Tendrils of smoke appear at Zuko’s fingertips.

“No, of course not. It was my friend, Yue. She is the daughter of the chief — everyone wants a chance to marry her. Her father isn’t a bad guy, but there was no way he could fend off all the offers. It was looking pretty dire when we were fifteen, so I snuck into the library and looked up some of the legal scrolls. Yue is pretty special; when she was a baby, the Moon Spirit saved her life, so she is connected to the spirit. Anyway, I found an ancient scroll that indicated that to act against the express wishes of the human spirit-vessel was to risk the wrath of the spirits themselves. The moon is really, really important to the Water Tribe, so they left Yue alone. She’ll get to decide if and when she get married.”

“That was very kind of you to help her.”

“Yeah, Yue is a great. She’s the one who inked the octopus on by back.”

Zuko’s face goes pink again, and they walk along in a silence until they reach the next ice shack. Zuko helps set up the fire, although Katara insists that he rests while she cooks them a meager stew. Zuko does not protest; in fact, she has to wake him up to eat.

Before they settle for the night, Katara finds a spare razor blade in the supplies and fixes Zuko’s hair. It’s a sensitive subject — Zuko is reluctant to let her shave off the last remaining stump of his phoenix tail — but in the end agrees that it would be best to look somewhat presentable to the Northern Water Tribe.

“Just don’t tell anyone I was the one who did this for you,” warns Katara.

“Why not?”

Katara blushes. She’s very glad she’s seated behind Zuko and he can’t see her.

“It’s something the Fire Nation and Water Tribes have in common. Hair has a lot of symbolism. The only person who is allowed to cut a man’s hair is his wife. In smaller villages, it’s even a part of the marriage ceremony.”

Once Zuko’s remaining hair is shorn, they dive under the furs without a glance in each other’s direction.

Despite their exhaustion, they press on again the next day, the capital gleaming in the distance. They calculate that at their current speed, they will arrive a day and a half before Zhao’s fleet, hopefully enough time for the Northern Water Tribe to reinforce their walls. Katara worries it won’t be enough.

“It’s a good plan,” she tells Zuko, “but they’ll never listen to it.”

“Why not?”

“Because it’s being presented to them by the prince of the Fire Nation. There’s no way they’ll trust that it isn’t a trap.”

“Then I won’t tell them, you will.”

Katara shakes her head.

“That won’t work either. They won’t listen to me.”

“Just because you’re a woman? Ugh, that’s so stupid!”

Katara shrugs. Zuko seethes, sparks of light dancing between his fingers. He twirls them anxiously as he thinks.

“Would they listen to the Avatar? You’re friends with him… maybe he can get them to see reason?”

Katara’s lips quirk upwards.

“You want to team up with the Avatar?”

Zuko glowers at her and curls in on himself. She regrets her words; she had only meant to tease, not to hurt.

“There’s no point in me going after the Avatar anymore,” says Zuko quietly. “I can never go back.”

Katara cocks her head to the side, confused.

“Do you still want to go back?”

“Of course!”

“But why?”

Zuko’s face is solemn, his eyes sad. Something inside Katara twists in sorrow.

“They are my people, Katara. It was, is, and always will be, my duty to protect the people of the Fire Nation.”

He slumps against an icy wall and frowns. The flames circling his hands go out.

“It doesn’t matter now, though. I couldn’t help anyone even if I tried. Not with my fath— not with Firelord Ozai in charge.”

He crawls under the furs and turns away.

“Zuko…”

“Goodnight, Katara.”

His tone is final, and there is an edge of desperation, as if he were about to cry. Katara noisily packs away their things, and if she hears a strange breathing and snuffling sounds, she pretends not to notice. She crawls under the furs with Zuko and places her hand on his back, like he had done to her on the ship when she had been consumed with terror. Her hands aren’t warm, like his were, but he goes still and his breathing deepens. Once she thinks he is asleep, she turns away and curls up.

Sleep does not come for a long time. An hour has passed before she feels Zuko move. He rolls towards her and snakes an arm over her. He tucks his face against the back of her head; she can feel his warm breath on the nape of her neck.

She checks his pulse — still asleep, and unaware of his movements. She imagines he’ll be mortified in the morning and try to offer some sort of apology for his uncouth behavior. But Katara understands it: it has been a long time since she has been held, or has held anyone in her arms. There are very few people she would allow so close to her.

Sleep comes, warm and deep.

Chapter Text

Katara has to throw a fit to end all fits, but she succeeds in getting herself locked in a cell with Zuko upon their arrival at the capital city. He has the nerve to be annoyed about it.

“Now we’re both stuck here, when one of us needs to be telling the chief that the Fire Nation is coming!”

Katara does not explain that she has almost certainly saved Zuko from death again. Most outsiders are killed on sight, and it’s only the begrudging respect that the warriors have for her brother, Sokka, that she herself is allowed to vouch for her companion.

It takes an hour, but Arluuk and Aang finally make their way into the prison. It is clear by Arluuk’s expression that just arranging a meeting with them has exhausted his limited political sway.

“Katara!” Aang leaps into the cell and throws his arms around her. “We were so worried! Arluuk told me your plan after we left you. I wanted to go back, Katara. I wanted to send Apaa —”

“It’s alright, Aang,” she interrupts, hugging him close. “It was my choice. We had to protect you.”

Aang frowns darkly and crosses his arms.

“I don’t want my friends to risk their lives for me.”

“Too bad,” says Katara in a sing-song voice, sticking out her tongue. Aang’s lips twitch, and she can tell he wants to smile despite his attempt to look serious.

Arluuk steps forward and grabs Katara by the forearm, a warrior’s greeting. It is common between men and women in the Southern Water Tribe, but almost never seen in the North. Katara is moved by the silent display of affection.

Arluuk and Aang turn to face Zuko, who immediately bows in the Fire Nation style. He swallows and takes a step towards them.

“Avatar Aang, Arluuk of the Northern Water Tribe. We come with news about an impending attack from the Royal Fire Nation fleet.”

Aang looks alarmed, but Arluuk seems suspicious.

“I’m afraid in all the excitement earlier, we did not catch your name, Firebender.”

This had been a rather deliberate tactic on Zuko and Katara’s part. Without his phoenix tail, a symbol of his royal status, and with his Fire Nation clothing swapped for furs, Zuko was unrecognizable as a prince. His golden eyes had given him away as a member of the Fire Nation, but the Northern Water Tribe had yet to discover exactly who their prisoner was.

Zuko sneaks a glance at Katara. She nods.

“My name is Zuko. I was, until recently, the crown prince of the Fire Nation, and heir to the throne after Firelord Ozai, long may he reign.” This last part is said as a reflex, and Zuko winces a bit after saying it.

“What?!” yelps Arluuk, unnerved. “Katara, how could you —”

“He’s on our side!”

“Do you really think a Fire Nation prince is going to help us defeat his own people?”

“Not defeat, just defend against. Please, Arluuk,” Katara pleads. “We just want to keep everyone safe.”

“Safe!” shouts Aang. “He spent weeks trying to capture us! He did capture you!”

There is an ugly look on Aang’s face as he glares at Zuko, who is clearly struggling to bite his tongue.

“Stop!” shouts Katara. “Yes, Zuko took me on his ship but he saved my life. His own people tried to kill him, so I saved his life. We don’t want anyone to get hurt, but if we do nothing, the Fire Nation will be here in less than a day and hundreds will die.”

Arluuk and Aang are stunned into silence. Zuko stands rigidly beside her, but she can feel the anxious pounding of his heart. Aang speaks first.

“Do you trust him, Katara?”

“With my life.”

She feels Zuko’s heart race even faster and sees the back of his neck flush. Aang nods.

“Then I trust him, too.”

Zuko looks bewildered by this statement and looks to Arluuk.

“I don’t trust you yet, Prince Zuko. But if you’re here to alert us to a Fire Nation attack, I want to hear about it. I’ll get a council called. Wait here.”

As if Katara and Zuko could go anywhere with five armed guards outside.

Hours pass before they are brought before the council. Zuko has practically melted a track in the floor of the cell from pacing. Katara can feel waves of anxiety pouring off of Zuko, but he strides into the hall with his head held high, his face a mask of calm. She is glad she can feel his heart beating; it’s somehow comforting to know he’s as scared as she is, even if he doesn’t show it.

The hall is filled with the elite Northern Water Tribe society: warriors and waterbending masters, merchants and scholars. Chief Arnook presides, lifting a hand for silence. Katara spots Yue seated to her father’s right. Yue gives her a tight smile, and Katara feels a little lighter.

“Chief Arnook,” she begins. “I —”

“How dare you!” thunders Nanouk, Arluuk’s father. “A woman, addressing the council without permission!”

Katara refrains from rolling her eyes and clenches her fists in anger. This wasn’t the time for stupid Water Tribe male pride! Still, she obligingly raises her hand to be acknowledged. She is, of course, ignored.

“Chief Arnook,” continues Nanouk, sneering at Katara with obvious dislike, “this Southerner has brought danger into our midst, and we must follow our laws and punish them both immediately.”

“While I agree that the Firebender presents a threat,” adds one of Arluuk’s older brothers, “should we not interrogate him first? Surely we can glean information about our enemy from him.”

“Then we can be rid of the both of them!” adds another brother with obvious glee.

Arluuk looks at Katara with dismay. It’s clear he wishes to give her permission to speak, but she knows that to do so would put him and Aang in danger as well.

Aang, however, seems not to have bothered learning about the power structure of the Northern Water Tribe, because he leaps up in anger.

“They’ve done nothing wrong! We should give them a chance. They’re only here to —”

“Nothing wrong?” roars Nanouk. “This girl has violated the safety of our people. And who knows what this Firebender has done! We know they’re all barbarians — he would kill us all if he had the chance.”

Zuko seems unaffected by this insult. If anything, he looks a little confused. Katara realizes the problem.

“Could you at least use the Common Tongue when insulting us?” she interjects. She jerks her head towards Zuko. “He doesn’t speak Water Tongue.”

Her interruption sets off another round of yelling — still in Water Tongue, of course — and she groans quietly. Her impatience may have cost them the chance to say anything. There’s no way anyone is going to give her permission to speak now. Even poor Yue, who has been raising her hand as long as Katara, is being ignored.

Zuko takes a step forward, palms raised. The hall falls into a tense silence. Katara holds her breath.

“Chief Arnook,” he says solemnly in Common Tongue. “I understand that I am unwelcome here and that my presence puts you in a difficult position. I came here to offer a warning of an impending Fire Nation attack.”

Before he can elaborate, the hall explodes with angry shouts. Someone from the highest seats throws an ice ball— Zuko effortlessly bats it away, but Katara can feel the pounding of his heart. Chief Arnook silences the hall again, and Zuko continues.

“Admiral Zhao commands the Royal Fleet just outside the gates to your city. He intends to attack tomorrow. You must wall up your city before he arrives or the lives of your people will be at stake.”

“A threat!” shouts Nanouk. “This is a trick! He is here to —”

“Nanouk, please,” says Chief Arnook. The crowd tenses, waiting to hear the chief speak. He turns to address Zuko. “How are we to trust this information? We do not even know your name, Firebender.”

Zuko draws himself up, shoulders back and chin held high. Despite his shaved head and ragged furs, he looks more like a prince than Katara has ever seen. She feels her heart pound, but not with fear.

“I am Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation. I was exiled four years ago to search for the Avatar, and an attempt was made on my life four nights ago by Admiral Zhao. Katara saved my life. We have come here together to prevent the loss of lives — both Water Tribe and Fire Nation — from Zhao and his bloodlust. I implore you, Chief Arnook, to protect your people before it is too late.”

The hall is stunned into silence. Katara notices Zuko repositioning himself slowly into a more defensive stance, but his head stays proudly raised to face Chief Arnook.

“If what you say is true, Prince Zuko,” says Arnook with a frown, “then the fleet will be here in just a few hours. We will not have much time to prepare.”

“Chief Arnook, please,” says Nanouk. “This story is ridiculous. Are we really supposed to believe that the Fire Nation is foolish enough to attack us on the full moon, when our warriors will be at their most powerful? It would be unthinkable!”

“That’s kind of the point of a surprise attack,” says Zuko, annoyed.

While Katara certainly isn’t thrilled with Zuko’s lack of tact, it’s a relief to know he hasn’t somehow transformed into some perfect boring prince. Nanouk goes purple with anger, but he’s interrupted by Aang before he can speak.

“Why not take him at his word? If the Fire Nation are really coming, you can build up the walls and you’ll all be saved. If they don’t come, well… then you just have a really big wall! What’s the harm?”

Chief Arnook nods his head to Yue, who is still raising her hand dutifully.

“Thank you, father,” she says, rising to address Aang. “The walls that surround our city will protect us, but they will also block us from the sea. The end of summer means we have just a few short weeks to hunt much of our winter stores. Closing ourselves off early will mean less food, which could be more dangerous than a Fire Nation attack.”

“However, I believe preparing ourselves for attack is the correct choice,” continues Yue to some grumbling. The men in the room clearly dislike that a woman is expressing her opinion on military tactics so boldly, but few can object to the chief’s daughter having her say. “I think you are unduly biased against the Southern Water Tribe, Nanouk. Katara has lived with our people for five years. There is hardly a person in this room who she has not personally healed. And she, of all of us, has the least cause to trust a Firebender. If she trusts Prince Zuko, if she saved his life, then surely he must be a man of his word. It would be better to have a lean winter than bloodshed on our shores that could have been prevented.”

Yue sits back gracefully by her father’s side.

“Chief Arnook, you can’t seriously be swayed by this!”

“Katara has proven herself untrustworthy before — why should we trust her now?”

The only good Firebender is a dead one!

This last shout was said in Water Tongue, for which Katara is grateful. The previous comments disparaging her seem to have ignited something in Zuko; he is slowly sinking into the ice floor.

“Enough!” shouts Chief Arnook. “Take the prisoners back to their cell. We must discuss this in private.”

Katara and Zuko are hustled towards the door by several armed guards. Katara shares a glance over her shoulder at Arluuk and Aang, who look stricken. Time is running out.

 

 

They sleep fitfully in shifts. Zuko insists that one of them stay awake in case Aang and Arluuk come to see them, but the truth lies unspoken between them. They know the guards outside their door are most likely waiting for a chance to kill them both.

Morning is breaking when the shouts go up. Katara tenses.

Black snow!

“What is it?”

“They’re here.”

Only one guard remains; the rest have presumably gone to fight to Fire Nation fleet. Katara exchanges a look with Zuko and he nods. With a deep breath, she slows the heartbeat of their guard. He crumples and lies asleep on the ground. Zuko quickly melts them free. They race out of the prison and into a back alley, trying to avoid detection.

The city is in chaos: women and children are retreating to the inner, more fortified parts of the city while men of all ages rush out towards the harbor. Katara spots a few of her fellow healers running to help and she feels torn. There will certainly be wounded to tend to, but first she needs to find Aang. She drags Zuko through the city streets, careful to hide whenever a warrior runs past lest Zuko be spotted.

“Where are we going?” he hisses.

“We’ve got to get Aang out of here before Zhao break through the city walls,” she says, ducking them behind some barrels.

“How? Zhao will have the harbor surrounded.”

“He can take Apaa. I know it’s risky,” she says at the the frown on Zuko’s face. “But he can fly west first, drawing Zhao away, and then go south. It’s not ideal, but he can drop you off in the Earth Kingdom. Your uncle told me he always made your crew stop in Omashu once a year for tea — maybe you can meet him there.”

Zuko stares at her, wide-eyed and open-mouthed.

“What?”

“You… you want me to go with the Avatar?”

“If you stay here, they’ll kill you, Zuko.”

“I know,” he says, waving a hand. “But you’d trust me with the Avatar?”

Katara lets out a frustrated groan.

“Zuko, we don’t have time for this! I trust you, okay? And I don’t want you or Aang to die, and that’s why you both need to get out of here as soon as possible!”

“What about you?”

“I’m coming with you.”

Zuko grins.

“Good. Let’s find the Avatar.”

They weave through the shouts of the city trying to get to higher ground to survey the battlefield. It seems that there had been some reinforcements along the harbor wall, but it had been too little, too late. Zhao’s fleet is enormous, and the rising sun only increases their firebending power. Katara shivers in fear.

“There!” shouts Zuko, pointing.

Katara has never actually been allowed in the Spirit Oasis before, but she and some of the other girls had watched Yue perform her spiritual duties from the outside before. She has enough forethought to bow in reverence to the spirits and use the little brush by the gate to cleanse herself before entering. Zuko looks deeply confused but follows suit.

“What is this place?” he whispers in her ear.

Katara is distracted when she catches sight of Aang slumped over. She rushes to his side, leaving Zuko to stand awkwardly by the pond.

“Don’t touch him!”

Arluuk grabs Katara’s hand as she reaches for Aang, holding her back.

“It’s okay,” he adds, catching sight of the alarmed look on Katara’s face. “He’s in the Spirit World.”

“He’s dead?” yelps Zuko.

“No.” Yue is seated next to Aang, watching two large koi fish in the pond next to them. “He is communing with the spirits.”

“We need to get Aang out of here,” says Katara, turning to Arluuk.

“Aang wants to help. He’s trying to see if he can access the Avatar State.”

“But he’s never done that before!” cries Katara, frightened. “He told us he was scared to try it, that it was dangerous!”

“We’re all in danger now, Katara,” says Yue. “Aang wants to help.”

“He won’t be of any help if he falls into Zhao’s hands,” says Zuko. “We need to get him out of here before the walls fall.”

“What makes you so sure the walls will fall?” asks Arluuk, eyeing Zuko with suspicion.

“Zhao is relentless. And he kept going on about some secret weapon to render waterbenders powerless. I don’t know what it is,” he adds, seeing the look on Arluuk’s face, “but he wants the Avatar, too. His fleet is massive, and they won’t stop until Zhao has the Avatar and the Northern Water Tribe surrenders.”

“We will never surrender,” proclaims Arluuk.

Zuko looks unimpressed.

“Whatever. We can at least save the Avatar if we can get him on that bison of his. Where is it?”

“Apaa is being stabled on the outskirts of the city, a mile north of here,” says Yue calmly. “It would be difficult to bring him here. The Fire Nation would try to strike him down in the sky, and he is too big to fit through most of the city streets.”

“Then let’s wake the Avatar up and get him to his bison!”

“He’s not going anywhere with you, Firebender!”

“Arluuk!”

“Katara, I know you trust him, but he spent weeks trying to capture Aang. Maybe his intentions are good now, but who’s to say he won’t turn on us when he’s got the chance?”

“I say he won’t, and that should be enough for you to believe!” Katara huffs.

Their argument goes in circles for quite some time before Aang gives a little shudder and sits up. Katara rushes to his side.

“Are you all right?”

Aang’s pale eyes glimmer in the sun’s setting rays. He opens his mouth to speak.

BOOM

The sound echoes through the city and a chill runs down Katara’s spine.

“The walls…” Arluuk trails off, looking stricken.

Yue composes herself first.

“The Fire Nation will come looking for you, Aang. You must hide.”

“But —”

“The longer they spend looking for you, the higher the moon will rise. Our warriors will gain strength and be able to repel the attackers. Arluuk, as Aang’s Waterbending Master, it is your duty to protect him. Katara, you must join the healers in the huts where you will be needed. Prince Zuko, you and I must work together to bring peace between our people. I know neither of us has much power, but we can still do our duties to save our soldiers from more losses.”

Despite the severity of the situation, Katara grins. She always did like Yue. There is some quick discussion of logistics — Katara is particularly loathe to be parted from her friends without reassurances that they will meet again — before they break apart.

Katara does not have to venture far to find people to heal. Most aren’t even soldiers, just panicked civilians who were hurt trying to flee. She fixes twisted ankles and helps hoist unruly children into moose-elk-drawn carts. She can hear the sounds of the battle approaching and has to duck from a few errant fireball and water whips. She heals the Water Tribe soldiers that manage to crawl towards her. When they aren’t looking, she soothes the wounded firebenders into a deep sleep, hoping their injuries are not so bad that they cannot escape in a retreat.

She feels tears stinging her face. She hates the Fire Nation. How could they be so cruel and violent? What had the Northern Water Tribe done to deserve this unprovoked attack?

But then she hears the Fire Nation soldiers pleading to go home, for their mothers, for death to embrace them. These men were no different from any others. They were following the orders of a mad man. They gave their lives to satisfy the ego of a tyrant.

Katara did not hate the Fire Nation. She hated the Firelord. And as luck would have it, his right-hand man was running past her.

Katara sprints to keep up, but Zhao is faster. Twice, Katara has to stop to avoid a crumbling ice wall cracked by soldiers fighting. She loses Zhao in a crowd and curses.

She hears angry shouting. Zuko.

She turns towards the Spirit Oasis and gives a sudden gasp. The world tilts and Katara stumbles to the ground.

The moon glows an angry red. Katara struggles to catch her breath as she rushes towards the gate of the Spirit Oasis. She freezes at the scene in front of her.

Zuko stands in front of Yue, fire blazing from his fists as he punches towards Zhao. Zhao dodges, but he’s somewhat hampered by something in his hands… a fish? Katara glances towards the pond. One of the koi fish is missing.

Katara feels slow and drunk. Something is wrong with her blood, like it’s moving in the wrong direction. Fire flashes around the Spirit Oasis as a second figure appears. General Iroh.

“Zhao!” he yells. “Do not do this! You must not anger the spirits!”

"I am a legend now! The Fire Nation will for generations tell stories about the great Zhao who darkened the moon! They will call me Zhao the Conqueror! Zhao the Moon Slayer! Zhao the Invincible!”

“Shut up and put back the stupid fish!”

As tactful as ever, Zuko Katara thinks. She wants to help, but she feels slow and sluggish. Arluuk and Aang appear at her side, poised to fight. Arluuk looks as ill at ease as Katara feels, but he moves to shield Yue from the danger. Aang leaps into the fray, using an air blast to amplify Zuko’s fireballs. Zuko looks surprised at this sudden teamwork, but they move together to corner Zhao.

“Put it back,” says Aang, his voice devoid of its usual merriment. “You can make this right, Zhao. Just put it back.”

Zhao, pinned between Zuko, Aang, and General Iroh, lets out a defeated sigh. He moves to lower the struggling fish back into the pond.

Fire bursts from Zhao’s hands and a powerful blast lights up the Spirit Oasis. Katara feels a stab of cold and darkness falls.

The Moon Spirit is dead.

Screams echo through the city. Katara feels a horrible emptiness, as if the blood in her veins has been sucked out. She reaches out to feel for a heartbeat.

Nothing.

It is General Iroh who reacts first, launching a vicious strike at Zhao, who is forced to flee. Zuko and General Iroh sprint after him. Katara staggers to Yue, Arluuk, and Aang, who are all crouched around the mutilated body of the koi fish.

Aang moves to place the fish gently back in the pond, although it is obviously beyond repair. His tattoos begin to glow, and the water swirls around him. Katara reaches out her hand, but Arluuk stops her again.

Aang’s body, luminous despite the absence of the moon, begins to rise as water surrounds him.

“The Ocean Spirit,” whispers Yue. They watch helplessly as the form moves towards the battle. Katara hopes that whatever happens, Aang will pull through.

“The Moon Spirit is dead,” Arluuk says, head in his hands. “Even if the Ocean Spirit does… whatever it’s getting Aang to do, we still have no moon. No bending, no healing…”

“The Moon Spirit is dead, but it is not gone,” says Yue, her voice heavy. “There is still a way to keep Tui alive.”

Arluuk and Katara exchange puzzled glances. Their expressions turn to horror as realization dawns.

“No, Yue…”

“You can’t —”

“I must,” says Yue. “It is the only way.”

“Yue, please,” says Arluuk, who looks on the verge of tears. “Our people need you.”

“Yes,” Yue agrees mournfully. “They do. This is how I can help them.”

Katara wants to argue, but she knows it will be pointless. Yue would do anything for her people, even sacrifice her own life.

Arluuk seems to understand this, too. He bows deeply to Yue and then grips her arm tightly in the warrior style. Katara follows suit, choking on her tears. Yue’s eyes brim with tears of her own, but they do not fall.

“I am ready,” says Yue. “Thank you, my friends.”

Katara cannot bear to watch. Her limbs tremble as sobs wrack her body.

“Go,” whispers Arluuk. “Find Aang. He will need you after being in the Avatar state. I’ll stay with Yue until… until…”

Katara nods and throws her arms around Arluuk. He returns the hug tightly.

“If you find Zhao,” he whispers, “show him what the Water Tribe is made of.”

Katara doesn’t need to be told twice. She takes off in a run, making a beeline towards the giant behemoth of ocean and Aang.

Fury builds inside of her. It twists itself around her heart, her grief and her sorrow, boiling and bubbling beneath the surface. So much has been taken from her, from her people, from her friends. She relishes the chance to fight, to hurt…

The Ocean Spirit is moving out towards the sea, swallowing ships and soldiers alike. It turns Katara’s stomach to think of Zuko’s crew. Her anger transforms itself to fear, thinking of those men in the icy depths of the sea…

Most of the Firebenders are retreating, running frantically back towards the few ships that remain. An explosion of fire catches Katara’s eye and she slows her path to Aang. She hears the shouting of men, and a particular Fire Nation prince.

Katara pivots, making a beeline for Zuko and his uncle. She needs to get them to safety as the Ocean Spirit turns towards them. It will be upon them in only a few minutes.

They are fighting in a small clearing that usually serves as a waterbending training ground. It is immediately clear that while General Iroh and Zuko are aiming to subdue Zhao, Zhao is going for the kill. Katara has to swallow a yelp when Zuko narrowly avoids a spear of fire.

The ground has turned to slush from the heat, and Katara slips a little as she approaches. Zhao spots her and grins.

“I see your plaything has come to join us, Prince Zuko!” Zhao yells over the roar of General Iroh’s fire.

Zuko’s eyes widen in fear.

“Katara! Stay back!”

Something primal pulses within her and the sky lights up. The Moon Spirit has been restored, and Katara knows that Yue is dead. A silent scream echoes in her head as Zhao approaches.

Zuko and General Iroh try to block Zhao with their fire, and he deflects it away with difficulty. Time is running out; the battle will soon be over and Zuko and General Iroh will be in danger. Katara moves steadily towards Zhao.

“Katara, what are you doing?!”

She does not answer, but keeps walking towards Zhao. She can feel the thrum of his blood. He sneers at her.

“Come to watch me kill the prince? Don’t worry, slave. I’ll finish what I started, and then I’ll kill you too.”

“I am no slave.”

She yanks.

It’s easy, so much easier than she expected, to kill a man. Her fingers barely twitch and she can feel the blood burst from the vessels in his brain. He dies instantly, but the effect is grotesque; she has yanked too hard, and blood seeps from his eyes and his lips as he sinks to his knees. The vessels in his face explode under the skin, liquid pooling under the surface. He falls facedown into the snow, lifeless.

Katara turns to Zuko, who stares at Zhao’s corpse, horrified. General Iroh is watching Katara warily as she steps towards them.

Zuko blinks and looks at her.

“Are you… are you alright?” he asks.

She’s not sure how to answer that, but she is saved from replying by a shout from Arluuk.

“Katara, help!”

Katara, Zuko, and General Iroh rush towards the sound. Arluuk is holding Aang, who is shivering and unconscious.

“I left Yue after she…” Arluuk swallows. “I got to Aang right as the Ocean Spirit ebbed away. I can feel a pulse, but he won’t wake up.”

Katara raises her hands and evaluates him as the others look on.

“He’s been weakened by the Avatar state,” she says, frowning. “His chi is very unbalanced. I can fix it but Arluuk, I need your help. We have to get Zuko and his uncle out of here.”

Arluuk looks shocked.

“Katara, I know you trust them, but I can’t help them escape. They’re Fire Nation; it would be treason.”

“Fine, then you hold Aang while I try to get them out of here.”

There are some small boats by the training grounds, and Katara flips one over and pushes it through the slush to the water’s edge.

“Get in!”

Zuko stares at her.

“What about you? If they know you helped us…”

“I’ll be fine,” she says, so convincingly she almost believes herself. “Zuko, you have to go. I’ve already lost one friend tonight… please.”

General Iroh acts first. He bows deeply to Katara, and to Arluuk.

“There are no words for what you have done for my nephew and myself,” he says. “Your bravery and compassion are a testament to your strength. I hope our paths will cross again, Lady Katara.”

He boards the boat and moves to grab the oars. He looks expectantly at Zuko.

“Katara, I can’t… You saved my life… They’ll hurt you for this.”

“I’ve been hurt before,” she says. “I’ve survived.”

This is apparently the wrong thing to say, because Zuko looks even more reluctant to leave. He looks so forlorn that she can’t stop herself. She throws her arms around him and holds him close, savoring his warmth. After a moment, Zuko grips her back just as tightly.

“I’ll find you again,” she whispers. “It will be alright.”

She knows neither of them believes it, but what else is there to say?

“Katara!” says Arluuk suddenly. “Aang… he…”

Aang is twitching violently in Arluuk’s arms. Arluuk has to set him on the ground to avoid a flailing fist to the face.

“Go,” says Zuko. “The Avatar needs you.”

Katara runs to Aang, trying to reign in his frenetic movements. She hears Arluuk speaking to the firebenders, and the sound of powerful waves headed out to sea. After a minute, Aang seems to settle and Katara looks up.

Zuko is gone.

Chapter Text

Cold wind whips Katara’s hair into her eyes as Apaa navigates south. She lets the tendrils sting her face — it is too short to tie back any more.

The Northern Water Tribe had not been unreasonable. They had allowed the Avatar and his friends to remain in the capital while he recuperated. Arluuk and Katara, however, had received their punishment for aiding the escape of the Fire Nation prince immediately. They knelt before the high council and their hair was shorn. Katara’s braid and Arluuk’s wolf tail were burned on a pyre before they were paraded through the town as traitors. They were lucky that many of the civilians refused to pelt them with snow — Katara had helped quite a few of them escape the firebenders.

A week had passed before Aang was well enough to fly. Arluuk and Katara had tried to persuade him to travel directly to the Earth Kingdom, but Aang was insistent: he wanted to return to the Eastern Air Temple. Katara was sure that Aang held out hope that there were still airbenders alive. She had hoped Apaa would never land. She didn’t think she could face Aang’s grief on top of her own.

She snuck a furtive glance at Arluuk, who was absentmindedly rubbing the spot where his wolf tail had been. She had tried to apologize for his punishment — it had been she who had asked him to help Zuko — but Arluuk had waved her off.

“I’m not mad at you,” he said sadly. “It was the right thing to do. And I know this isn’t your fault, I just… I just need some time.”

They had barely spoken since. Katara hated the silence, but there was nothing to say that would not add to their collective pain.

As Katara had predicted, the Eastern Air Temple was a disaster. Aang had found the preserved body of Monk Gyatso, his guardian, and had almost entered the Avatar state. Katara had pleaded with him to calm down, and Arluuk helped carry Aang back to Apaa. They made camp for a few days; despite Aang’s misery, he could not leave his home just yet.

Katara isn’t sure why, but on the last night of their stay, she decides it is time to tell them her story. Arluuk knows about Katara’s past enslavement, but not about her escape. Aang has no idea about any of it, and every detail seems to wound him. She tells them both about her time on Zuko’s ship, too — about the strange kindness of the crew and the Fire Nation prince.

By the end of her tale, she is crying again, but her heart feels a little lighter when Aang wraps his arms around her. Arluuk joins on the other side, and the three of them weep together. When they pull apart, Arluuk wipes his face sheepishly, but Aang is unashamed of his tears.

“We’re going to make things right, Katara,” Aang promises. “I know I let everyone down… I was scared and ran away when the world needed the Avatar… I wasn’t ready to be the Avatar. And I don’t know if I’m ready now, but I promise you, I’m going to do everything I can to stop the Fire Nation from hurting people like they hurt you.”

“Thank you, Aang,” says Katara warmly.

“You won’t be alone, Aang,” adds Arluuk. “We’ll be with you. We’re here to help you.”

Aang beams and grabs them both into another hug. Katara senses this is going to become a pattern and she’s all for it. They could all use some more hugs.

 

Their next stop is Kyoshi Island.

“Kyoshi was the last Earth Avatar,” Aang explains. “She was a super cool warrior, and there are still trained warriors just like her on the island… at least, there were a hundred years ago. And there are giant koi that you can ride!”

This sounds dangerous to Katara, but Aang is grinning from ear to ear, so she decides to keep quiet.

The Kyoshi Warriors are indeed still in existence and, after some initial hesitation, welcome the Avatar and his friends to stay. They are thankfully given much lighter clothing; Katara has been sweating non-stop in her furs.

They are just settling in when Katara gets the best surprise of her life.

Sokka!

Her brother swings her around in circles until she is dizzy, laughing with unbridled joy. Sokka sets her down to take a better look at her and frowns at the tendrils of hair just grazing her chin.

“I’m okay, Sokka,” she says shakily. “I’m so happy to see you.”

Sokka gives her a crushing bear hug. He still looks concerned as he pulls away, so Katara deflects.

“What are you doing here?”

“It’s a long story.”

Aang and Arluuk join them — Sokka is formally introduced to the Avatar, whom he seems a little shellshocked to meet — before he recounts his adventures.

“Well, after I left you, we —” Sokka gestures towards a crew of a dozen Southern warriors — “went back home to protect against those Fire Nation ships. Turns out most were fishing vessels, but there was one that was most likely there for human trafficking. We sank it,” Sokka adds darkly, “and the waters were free of trouble for some time.”

“Over the last two years, we’ve been venturing out looking for allies. It’s only a matter of time before the Fire Nation sets their sights on us again, and we’re stretched thin as it is. We thought it would be best to increase our trading lines, see if we can get any political allies on our side. It would make the Fire Nation think twice to know that attacking us would mean attacking others as well. It was hard to get the Kyoshi Warriors to trust us — you saw how they are — but we’re really, really luck they came around. They’re kinda like us — a small but scrappy force. They’ve got brains and brawn; what more can you want?”

There’s something funny about Sokka’s praise of the Kyoshi, but Katara can’t quite put her finger on it. That is, until the leader, Suki, joins them. Katara hasn’t seen that dopey look on Sokka’s face since he used to follow Yue around. Speaking of which…

“Maybe I should catch you up on my story in private…”

It’s a brutal conversation. Sokka takes Yue’s loss hard — she was his first love, even if their relationship had always been quite chaste by necessity — and he’s equally disturbed by Katara’s capture by Prince Zuko.

“Sokka, I told you, Zuko saved my life. I would have died if he left me on the ice alone.”

“You shouldn’t have been in that position in the first place! That’s it, you’re sticking with me from now on.”

“Oh, so you want me on board your ship while you sail around through Fire Nation-patrolled waters and try to negotiate with potential enemies to join your cause?”

“Hmph. Well, when you put it that way…”

“I can handle myself, Sokka,” she says, but there is no bite to her scolding. “I know you worry about me, but I worry about you, too. We’re both just trying to do what we have to to end the war.”

Sokka leans back and sighs.

“Yeah, you’re right. Still sucks though.”

“Yeah,” Katara agrees. “It does.”

Despite everything, Katara is happier in Kyoshi than she has been in years. She spends her days with Arluuk and Aang as they waterbend, or with Sokka and the other Southern Tribesmen as they plan their next stops around the Earth Kingdom. She discovers new things about her brother: that he has learned Earth Tongue to get around, that he has lost to Suki at arm wrestling no less than ten times, that he has a tattoo on his butt because he lost a bet.

“Tattoos are very manly. It’s of a sea-wolf, and it’s — stop laughing, Katara!”

It’s nice to have some girls to spend time with, too. The Kyoshi Warriors look rather terrifying with their makeup on, but most of them are surprisingly sweet. They teach Katara a few tricks for dealing with short hair, and Katara teaches them some Southern Water Tribe dance moves. Sokka walks in while Katara is teaching Suki to hula and he practically trips over his own two feet.

All good things must come to an end, and it soon becomes clear that Aang’s presence is known in Kyoshi. Fire Nation ships are spotted in the distance. Suki and her warriors prepare to defend their island with the Southern Water Tribe warriors acting as an advance fleet. The best way to keep the island safe, however, is for Aang to leave.

It is the hardest goodbye yet, and even Sokka cries when they hug one last time. Katara allows herself the luxury of a long goodbye: she thanks each Kyoshi Warrior individually for their help, and bids farewell to all the Water Tribe warriors. Aang, as usual, brings in a ray of hope and levity.

“How about we meet here in one year? I’ll be great at waterbending and earthbending by then — we can have a reunion!”

“That sounds wonderful, Aang,” says Katara.

“See you in a year, sister,” whispers Sokka into her hair.

“I love you, Sokka.”

“I love you too, Katara.”

Arluuk and Aang help hoist her into Apaa’s saddle. They fly away in silence, watching the people of Kyoshi fade away into misty clouds.

 

 

They criss-cross the continent, stopping in villages and large cities. On some days, they walk instead of fly to throw off Fire Nation patrols; Sokka had insisted that they do this at irregular intervals and although Katara rolls her eyes, she knows that Sokka’s instincts are usually good.

Weeks pass as they roam around in search of an earthbending master for Aang. They are forced to flee Omashu after Bumi’s refusal to teach Aang and the city’s capture by the Fire Nation. Aang leads them listlessly through the Earth Kingdom for a while; he seems to have difficulty processing the changes of the past one hundred years even more than usual. Katara and Arluuk try to give him space, but they both know that each day Aang goes untrained in the four elements is another day that Firelord Ozai works to destroy the world.

They make a wrong turn and end up in the Foggy Swamp for two weeks, although they all enjoy the opportunity to learn a new water bending style. Katara takes to it the fastest; the swamp may be leagues away from the Southern Islands, but much of it reminds her of home. Her short hair curls up in the heat, and she sighs happily with each humid breath. The warm water feels like the Southern seas, or the warm blood of one of her patients. The swamp people are a little weird, but they are welcoming. Arluuk and Katara are happy to find water benders who don’t seem to view their short hair as a sign of shame; if anything, a few swamp benders are eager to adopt this new fashion.

Aang has a vision in the swamp of his earthbending teacher, and they make a quick hop over to Gaoling to find her. It’s not what any of them expect: a blind girl of only sixteen years who has the foulest mouth any of them has ever heard. She’s also unbelievably rich and overprotected half of the time, and the other half she spends winning underground, illegal earthbending tournaments.

When all is said and done, Toph Beifong decides to join them to teach Aang. The transition does not go smoothly. Katara is excited to have another girl on the team, but Toph seems to abhor any type of bonding activity. Katara knows she should be patient, but Toph seems to know how to press on her every nerve.

“I’m just asking you to help a little!” Katara shouts.

“I can take care of myself, Sugar Queen!” Toph yells back.

“We’re supposed to be taking care of each other!”

“Well, leave me out of it!”

Toph stomps off, again, and Katara is left alone to make dinner. Aang and Arluuk are training in a nearby river, and Katara is thankful no one is around to hear her cursing in Fire Tongue.

As their meager dinner boils, Katara darns one of Aang’s socks, frustrated. Even though she isn’t in the Northern Water Tribe anymore, it is still assumed that she will be the one to take care of all the domestic chores. She lets Arluuk take Aang off to practice without her because she knows Aang has progressed well beyond her and she would only slow them down. But still, she wants to be doing something more helpful to stop Firelord Ozai than just laundering the Avatar’s shirts.

Toph wanders back a short while later, popping some berries in her mouth.

“Oh, you’re still here? Great,” she gripes sarcastically.

Katara’s first instinct is to snarl something nasty at her, to fight back. But then she looks at the sad pile of laundry in front of her, the carefully cut-up carrots for their dinner, and the polish she had been using for Apaa’s saddle. She gives up.

“Yeah,” she says miserably. “I’m still here.”

Toph frowns and wanders over.

“What’s wrong with you, Sugar Queen?”

“Why do you care?”

“I don’t!”

Toph stomps off again. Katara stays put, her chin in her hand as she stares mournfully at the fire.

A few minutes pass before Katara hears a crunching sound behind her. She can feel Toph’s heartbeat, just like the little earthbender can feel hers.

“Look,” says Toph angrily. “I don’t need you mothering me, alright? I got enough of that at home.”

“I know.”

“And I’m not going to be someone I’m not, so you can forget all those girly bonding things you wanted to do. I’m not interested.”

“Okay.”

“Seriously, Sugar Queen, what is your deal? You’re normally way madder at me for saying stuff like this.”

Katara raises her eyebrows at Toph, but remembers that the earthbender can’t see her expression. She can’t think of what to say, so she stays silent. Toph looks puzzled, but the moment is interrupted by the return of Aang and Arluuk.

“Smells delicious, Katara! I’m starving!” Aang bounds over and eagerly grabs his bowl. “Oh… do we have anything other than carrots?”

“Or anything non-vegetarian?” asks Arluuk hopefully.

“No, sorry,” answers Katara dully, scooping some of the porridge into their bowls.

“Why are you apologizing?” Toph asks. “They should be thanking you. You did all the work.”

Katara shrugs and looks at her porridge. She forces herself to eat even though she’s suddenly not very hungry.

“It’s really good!” says Aang encouragingly. “Way better than yesterday!”

Arluuk shoots Aang a look, but Katara can’t bring herself to care.

“I’m going to bed,” she says, spreading out her blankets next to Apaa.

“It’s not even dark yet,” says Arluuk.

Katara pretends not to hear this. She faces away from her friends, staring blankly at Apaa’s fluff. She can hear rustling as the others finish their dinner — there is some debate as to whether it’s truly necessary to clean all the cookware — but she doesn’t move. She feels an emptiness inside of her. She wants to drive it away, but the longer she stays still the more it consumes her.

Her friends settle themselves for the night, and she listens to each of them fall asleep. She remembers the last time she felt this way, holed up in Prince Zuko’s Fire Nation vessel. Strangely, she misses his presence. He had been awkward and ill-tempered — any time a crew member stopped by to inquire about her, Zuko had dismissed them with a curt message not to disturb her while she rested — but he had been kind, too. He had worked very hard to get her to eat, and, once he realized her interest in the sickness of the Kwong Valley, had given her access to whatever she wanted to keep her spirits up. She hopes that wherever Zuko is, he and his uncle are safe.

He’s probably dead at the bottom of the ocean, hisses a small voice in her head. You didn’t save him. You can’t save anyone in this war.

The moon is high when Katara slips out of her sleeping sack to sneak off into the woods to go to the bathroom. She wanders back to camp slowly and almost runs right into Toph.

Tui and La, Toph! You scared me.”

“I’m sorry,” blurts Toph. “For earlier. You just wanted someone to help out for once.”

“Oh… it’s okay. I’m used to it.”

“You know that’s super depressing, right?”

Katara doesn’t know how to respond, so she moves to go back to her bed. Toph grabs her arm.

“You want us to be a team, right? I’m… not really used to that, but I can try it, I guess.”

“Okay.”

“Are you… okay?”

“Does it matter?”

She goes back to bed, waiting for the monotony of the next day to begin.

It begins rather loudly, with a resounding crash of earth caused by Toph.

“Wake up, knuckleheads! We’ve got shit to do today!”

“Ugh, Toph,” groans Aang. “Five more minutes.”

“No way,” she says happily. “We’ve got to get a training session before we hit the road.”

“I thought we agreed to stay here for a few days,” says Arluuk, pulling on his boots. “And I thought I was going to be training Aang this morning.”

“Nope! You’re helping Sugar Queen with breakfast before we take off.”

“Take off where?” says Aang. “Arluuk is right. This spot is perfect!”

“Perfect for you, maybe. But we’ve got to find a spot for all of us.”

Aang looks around, confused.

“What do you mean? We’ve got earth for you, water for Arluuk, and both for me!”

“Aren’t you forgetting someone?”

“Who? Oh… sorry, Katara. But you’re a waterbender, too! Maybe you could come practice with us today?”

“Katara’s got better things to do than to mess around with us,” says Toph confidently.

Katara’s head rears back in surprise.

“What do you mean?”

“Look, I don’t know you that well yet, but these guys have been telling me you’re crazy good at healing. I figure there are plenty of people out in the world who could better use your talents.”

“I guess,” says Katara tentatively. “But I want to help Aang… to help all of you. We need to work together to bring down Firelord Ozai.”

“Yes, but Toph has a point,” says Arluuk thoughtfully. “If we could find a place to train Aang and allow you to heal people, that would be doing the most good.”

“Yeah…” says Aang slowly. “Yeah, that’s a good point! But where would we go?”

Katara has an idea.

 

 

The Kwong Valley is a vibrant explosion of red, yellow, and orange beneath them as Apaa sails overhead. Katara feels her heart pound in anticipation.

“Thank you,” she whispers to Toph. “I think this is exactly what I needed.”

“Ugh,” grunts Toph. “I’ll be more thankful when we’re back on the ground.”

They alight near a small village near the mouth of the great Kwong River. Katara’s mapping skills on Zuko’s ship had traced the area to three outbreaks of the White Death. While her companions are more than a little wary of Katara’s mission to investigate the cause of a plague, they nevertheless agreed to see if the sickness could be stopped. It’s immediately apparent that things in the village are dire.

There are a few people roaming about, looking weary and drawn. An old man informs them that the White Death is sweeping through the valley again, and leads them to the quarantine huts.

“I wouldn’t go in if I were you,” he warns. “Most don’t come out again.”

Katara sends the others to practice bending on the ridge above the village; something tells her it’s best not to disturb the earth and water so close to the sick.

The smell of the hut is an affront to the senses. Katara gags and quickly ties a kerchief over her mouth. It doesn’t do much for the odor, unfortunately.

Katara crouches next to a child, younger than ten by her estimation. The child is shivering and feverish, but not quite as sick as many others. This is a good place to start. Bringing a child back to health is a good way to establish trust, and the child looks otherwise fairly healthy.

Katara tries to explain to the child that she is a healer, but the child does not seem to understand her. The child either does not yet speak the Common Tongue, or she is too sick to focus. Katara presses on, raising her hand to the child’s forehead.

She traces through veins and arteries, through the hollows of bones and the pouches of organs. She takes stock of her basic findings: there appears to be an infection in the gut, and whatever is causing it is ripping the child apart from the inside out.

Katara works to heal the damage and lower the inflammation, but she is worried. This had been what she feared. Clearing inflammation was tricky; you could lessen the damage, but in a few day’s time it could come back just as strongly. That was always the problem with healing. In the absence of a clear cause of pain — a broken bone, a burst vessel — it was difficult to fix the ailment. But that was why Katara was here, to find out the very source of this illness. She just had to save these people first.

It is an exhausting day. The child lives, and so do several of the others, but a few die before she can reach them. She steps out of the hut to cry privately before going back in for a second session. The people she has healed are well enough to leave the hut, although they are not allowed back into the main village yet. They build a second makeshift structure and huddle together to stay warm in the cool air. The winter here is mild, but the villagers are bone-thin and shivering.

Her last patient is emaciated, his body wracked by violent bouts of illness. His mat is soiled and the stench makes Katara’s eyes water.

“Please,” whispers the man. “Please, I don’t want to go back. Don’t take me back.”

His eyes are glazed, his brow covered in sweat.

“It’s alright,” whispers Katara. “I’m here to help you.”

“I can’t go back,” he whispers. “Don’t let them take me.”

Katara isn’t sure what he means, so she pushes this aside and gets to work. By the time she is finished, the man’s gaze is more focused, and he is able to crawl out of his filth. Katara helps him to sit up to change into cleaner clothing. She turns to pass him a tunic and gasps.

The man’s arms and torso are covered with angry welts, scars of burns accumulated over years. The man freezes, wide green eyes locking with hers. Suddenly, his pleas make sense.

“I—” The man starts to sweat again, and Katara can sense the frantic beating of his heart.

“It’s okay,” she says quickly. “Put this on.”

He shrugs on the new shirt. She helps him strip out of his fouled pants and washes him quickly with some clean water she had brought in. He tugs on a new pair, leaning on Katara for support.

Despite his gaunt appearance, Katara can tell that this man would be quite handsome if properly nourished. He is tall and broad-shouldered, his hands roughened from manual labor. Katara gives him a sad smile.

“How long have you been free?” she asks.

The man looks stunned.

“You…?”

Katara nods. The man looks relieved.

“Just over a year. I’ve been trying to hide out here but… well, the Fire Nation are always looking for escaped slaves.”

Katara squeezes the man’s hand in sympathy.

“I’m Katara.”

“Tako.”

They give each other a bow, Fire Nation style, and share a wry smile.

“Hard habit to break,” he says.

“Tell me about it. Now, let’s get you some food.”

 

 

The Kwong Valley is remote and not often visited by the Fire Nation, so it is ideal for Aang to get some much-needed training time. Katara launches herself into her healing. Word spreads throughout the valley and she frequently flies solo missions on Apaa to villages who send for help. It’s hard work, and some days she feels like she’s barely treading water. But she knows she’s making a difference, and there is no satisfaction like the smile of a healthy child.

Still, the cause of the disease remains a mystery. Most people Katara heals get better, but several relapse and the White Death rears its ugly head again and again. She keeps a log of where the the disease pops up, but it’s messy and confusing. She often has so much work to do just healing people that she can’t ask them many follow-up questions.

Tako, the former slave she had healed on her first day, quickly makes himself indispensable to her.

“For the first time in my life, I can do whatever I want,” he explains. “I want to help you. I know I don’t have much to offer, but I want to do my part.”

It takes a few days for him to regain his full strength, and Katara spends most of her time away in other villages. When she returns, she finds a new man, healthy and hale, and he has much to tell her.

“I don’t know how to write,” he admits bashfully, “so I couldn’t add things to those logs you keep. But I did my best to remember, so here goes.”

He has done remarkable work: he has interviewed every single villager to ask about their home life, their travels, their eating habits, everything. He draws a rudimentary web in the dirt as he explains to Katara the connections he’s found.

“People in the village have mixed heritage. Those from firebending families are much less likely to get sick. I counted. For every five earthbending families, only one firebending gets ill. Most of the villagers eat the same food, but there is one big difference I could find: tea.”

“Tea?”

“All the firebending families drink tea during their meals. Some of the men who work in the fields, the non-benders, will drink water straight from the streams while they’re working, but the rest of the time, they only drink tea.”

“Hm,” ponders Katara. “Any other differences?”

“Children were more likely to get sick, as were the elders. Most of the time if one person was ill, the whole household was ill. It could be spreading from person to person, but they all said they got ill at roughly the same time, which makes me think it could be something they ate or drank.”

“The path of the illness follows the river…” says Katara slowly, remembering her map. “The villages on the ridge don’t have as many cases of sickness.”

“I know you’re the healing expert. I don’t know if it’s possible for water to make people sick, but that’s the closest link I could find.”

“Tako, this is amazing! I can’t believe you did all this.”

Tako flashes a blinding smile.

“It was nothing. People around here are pretty friendly when they’re not, you know, shitting their brains out.”

Katara thinks that Tako does not give himself enough credit. She watches him flit between the villagers, charming everyone he comes across. His winning smile and piercing eyes sway even the most recalcitrant people into opening up to him. She starts taking Tako with her on her missions; he asks the villagers questions while Katara heads to the quarantine huts. Together, they become more and more convinced there is something wrong with the water in the Kwong Valley. Tako helps convince people to switch exclusively to tea, and the number of cases of White Death drops dramatically. Katara and Tako toast to their success, but there’s still the issue of knowing the exact cause of the illness.

Aang volunteers to communicate with the Spirit World, but quickly learns that there are no malicious spirits lurking in the water. Toph wants to build a dam, but it’s unclear how that would affect the towns below, and there’s no clear evidence that would stop the issue. Arluuk and Katara examine the water for impurities, but it’s there’s no obvious contaminant.

Tako takes it upon himself to test the tea. Through his usual charm, he queries dozens of families about their choice of tea leaves and finds absolutely no correlation. Frustrated, he comes to Katara to vent.

“Green tea, ginseng, ginger, jasmine — every type of tea you could imagine, and every family swears by their own blend. But it doesn’t seem to matter what type of tea they drink, so long as they drink it.”

Something clicks slowly in Katara’s mind. A riddle.

“Tako, have you heard the story of the frog in boiling water?”

“It’s something about the frog boiling alive, right? Seems like a bad way to go.”

“Yes,” Katara agrees. “But the boiling water kills the frog. Boiling water kills other animals, too.”

Tako catches on.

“Boiling kills living things. If the villagers boil the water, they kill whatever is living in it… you think the White Death is something alive?”

“Well, I didn’t see anything in the water,” quips Toph.

“Me neither!” adds Arluuk. “Hey, wait a minute —“

Toph grins and goes back to chucking rocks at Aang.

Katara and Tako set up an experiment to test their strange theory. Katara waits until the full moon when she is the most sensitive. Blindfolded, she is handed several sealed vials of liquid and she reaches out, sensing for life inside. At first, she feels nothing and she begins to worry that this idea was too crazy to work. She sets down the vial and Tako hands her a second. She reaches…

“Oh! There’s something in this one! But it’s tiny…”

It must be ten times smaller than anything she’s ever felt. Barely a few drops of water are squeezed inside, but she can sense it. A slight difference in the quality of the water — there are tiny bags of stuff moving about. There aren’t very many moving beings, and Katara wonders if maybe it’s all in her head. Tako hands her a third flask.

“Whoa!”

Whatever liquid is inside, it is teeming with life. Little beings like the ones Katara had felt before are squirming in every direction. She’s sure now that’s she not imagining things. There is something alive in this liquid, thousands and millions of small droplets zooming around.

A fourth flask reveals nothing. Katara removes her blindfold.

Tako takes her through the four flasks: boiled river water, regular river water, the secretions of a sick person, and boiled secretions (It was disgusting, Katara says Tako with a shudder. The smell, Agni!). It seemed as if the living creatures in the river were using humans to amplify themselves, and exploding out to continue their life cycle. Tako and Katara can hardly believe it.

Armed with their findings, they issue another decree to the villagers across the valley: boil all water before use. The number of White Death cases drops to almost nothing, and people across the valley join together in celebration. Katara spends the night dancing happily around the large bonfire. They each share their culture’s respective dance moves: Aang teaches them how to pirouette and leap gracefully, Toph leads them in a line dance that’s mostly stomping, and Katara swings her hips and circles her wrists towards the sky. She and Tako spend the evening combining Fire Nation and Water Tribe moves — passionate dips and twirls with sensual closeness. A few nosy elders ask if the two of them are engaged, but Katara laughs them off. She’s caught Tako ogling Arluuk’s biceps enough times to know that he’s definitely not interested in her.

It’s almost winter solstice when they leave the valley. It’s time to take their research to the next level, and that means they need to get to a larger city, preferably one with a university. Toph is not exactly thrilled to be heading back to Gaoling, but she’s the first to admit it’s the best place to continue their work.

“If you want to look at tiny stuff, there is good glass production in the city,” she says. “Someone probably makes a good enough lens for you to see really tiny stuff.”

The villagers shower them in thanks and requests that they return for a bonfire soon. Aang is bounding about excitedly, hugging everyone goodbye.

“Are you sure you want me to come with you?” asks Tako. “I’m not… I mean, I don’t know how much of a help I’ll be.”

“Tako, I couldn’t have done any of this without you,” says Katara warmly. “You helped these people as much as I did.”

Tako blushes and scuffs a foot on the ground.

“Yeah, but now that we know what causes it… I can’t read, or write, or bend anything like you guys can.”

“I can’t read either, if it makes you feel better!” shouts Toph from Apaa’s saddle.

“This is a private conversation, Toph,” says Katara, rolling her eyes. “But Tako, seriously, none of that matters. You’re smart and you’re hardworking. The people here love you and trust you, and for good reason. I would be honored to have you as part of our team.”

“Come on, Tako!” Aang says happily, skidding back into the coversation. “We won’t take no for an answer.”

Tako smiles and climbs aboard.

 

 

Two months in Gaoling and Katara’s life is transformed.

Her discovery with Tako has sent shockwaves through the scholarly world. They had brought their findings to Professor Lang at Gaoling University and asked to use his powerful new optical device, which he had coined as a ‘microscope.' He had been thrilled to demonstrate his device, and immediately offered Katara and Tako positions in his small lab. They had been slightly hesitant about this level of attention — Tako feared a return to his former masters, and Katara needed to keep the news of the Avatar’s presence in Gaoling quiet. They eventually agreed, although Katara adopted a pseudonym of ‘Uma.’

“Uma is a good choice,” said Tako. “Very Earth Kingdom. Katara is a pretty name, but that name and your eyes? Water Tribe to the core.”

“I’ll take that as a compliment.”

Toph’s overbearing parents had allowed the Avatar and his teachers to stay with them, although Toph chafed at their frequent nosiness and demands. Katara tried to get Toph to sympathize with her parents, who were harboring some of the most sought-after figures in the world, and who kept having to explain the loud crashing noises heard from their property as extensive remodeling.

Tako is transformed as well. He is finally back to a healthy weight, and his good looks attract stares as he paces around the city, looking for new and interesting samples to investigate. He is often unaware of the stares, as his head is buried deep in a pile of scrolls. Every evening, he and Katara work on reading lessons while Arluuk and Aang practice waterbending in the Beifong family fountains.

A problem emerges halfway through their stay: Aang has clearly outgrown the training grounds the Beifong’s have to offer, but it would be risky to announce his presence in the city at large. Although Gaoling maintains its independence, there are Fire Nation spies everywhere. To make matters worse, Apaa begins to look listless and sad being penned in the large stables; he obviously cannot fly around without leading the Fire Nation straight to the Beifong Manor. The group discusses their options over and over, but it seems like they’re going around in circles. Tako and Katara are doing important work in the city, but Aang, Toph, and Arluuk are stuck. If they leave the city, the Avatar and his teachers will progress, but Tako and Katara will hang about without serving any higher purpose. The obvious answer is to split up, but no one wants to admit that it might be the best option.

Finally, the decision is made for them. Professor Lang calls Katara and Tako into his office.

“As you are well aware, I’m sure, our work is the most important discovery of this century, possibly of all time.”

Katara tries to keep her face neutral. She likes working in the lab, but Professor Lang is more than a little full of himself.

“Therefore, I have received many opportunities to expand my research. We will be transferring to Ba Sing Se next week; we will have much greater freedom there, and, more importantly, greater funding. I expect you both to join me, Uma and Tako.”

“As if he could do it without us,” says Tako in an undertone as they leave Professor Lang’s office. “We’re the ones who found the White Death microbe! He was just looking at his own snot under the microscope before we showed up.”

Team Avatar is forced to split. Aang is distraught.

“It will be okay, Aang,” Katara says reassuringly. “You need to focus on your training, and you’ll know exactly where to find Tako and me if you need us.”

“Yeah, Twinkletoes,” says Toph with a punch to his arm. “We’re still Team Avatar even if we’re apart.”

“You’ve really come around to this whole idea of being a team, haven’t you?” Katara teases.

She winces at the strength of Toph’s punch, and the earthbender grins.

“I guess I have, Sugar Queen. Take care of Mr. Dance Pants for us. Don’t let him get into too much trouble.”

Katara and Tako watch as Apaa lifts off into the night sky under cover of darkness.

It is time for a new journey

Chapter Text

On the surface, Ba Sing Se is an extremely boring city, but Zuko can sense that there is something rotten at the core of this place. The phrase “there is no war in Ba Sing Se” is said with such frequency and finality that it puts him immediately on guard. Zuko spends six months doggedly tracking Dai Li movements around the city, trying to get to the bottom of things. It’s not like he has anything else better to do.

In theory, he is helping Uncle Iroh at the tea shop, but Zuko is well aware that they are both keeping their jobs solely thanks to Uncle’s excellent brewing and unparalleled palate. It was how they had made their way into the Upper Ring of society in the first place. Zuko certainly does what he can — hauling crates of tea, scrubbing and cleaning — but customer service is definitely not his strong suit. Especially when the majority of the customers are cranky rich ladies who seem to delight in pointing out all of Zuko’s faults in what they must assume is a helpful tone.

“Such slouching!” they reprimand him. “How will you ever impress others with your height?”

“And that frown!” they sigh. “How will you woo young women?”

“What will become of you?” they lament.

Zuko is lucky that they are so charmed by his uncle. Most days, Zuko is relegated to the smaller tables to serve men holding business deals, or tables with noisy children. He usually quiets the children by teaching them to fold paper cranes. It costs the shop a bit to give away the paper for free, but the parents always leave large, grateful tips.

Still, Zuko is able to power through the dreariness of his days by the excitement of his nights.

Uncle Iroh is certainly aware of Zuko’s nighttime excursions — he has to creep past Uncle’s room as he exits and enters the small apartment above the shop — but he seems to be giving his nephew quite a bit of leeway. After all, the tea shop is Uncle’s dream, not Zuko’s, and yet Zuko does his best to help his uncle. It had taken several weeks to decide on Ba Sing Se, and in the end, Zuko had gone along with the plan without protest.

Zuko thinks back to their escape from the Northern Water Tribe. They had been extraordinarily lucky. Arluuk’s waterbending had steered them into the path of the southern current, and they had managed to drift in relative safety towards the edges of the Earth Kingdom. They had rowed in silence, swapping shifts, determined to get out of the ocean as soon as possible.

Their first night on shore, they had found a quiet inn where Uncle Iroh had purchased a room. Exhausted, they had devoured their first hot meal in days and collapsed into bed. The next morning, they practiced their usual meditation together before Zuko recounted what had happened to him during their time apart. Uncle Iroh paused for a long time before speaking.

“When you disappeared, Zhao told us that he had witnessed Lady Katara shoving your body overboard before taking to the sea herself. None of us believed him, but I feared for the worst… I knew you would not allow your phoenix tail to be cut unless you were in truly dire circumstances. We suspected that Zhao and his men had disposed of both of you. The crew was quite distraught.”

Zuko understood why his crew had mourned Katara’s loss — she had been well-liked, and was a useful healer to them all — but he was surprised that his crew cared much about him. He had assumed they were all simply doing their duty, and they would be happy to be rid of their ornery prince.

“What happened to the crew?” he asked his uncle, afraid of the answer.

“We were required to join with Zhao’s fleet,” Uncle Iroh explained. “Although we were a small ship, Zhao argued that all soldiers should be put to use. We were to be part of the first wave on the ice.”

Zuko’s stomach plummeted. The vanguard was an honorable position, but it almost certainly spelled death, especially against such a fortified enemy.

“I do not know what became of most of the crew,” said Iroh sadly. “I did my best to lead them — no lives had been lost before the city wall’s breached, but I must admit that I abandoned my position to follow Zhao. I suspected that his ‘secret weapon’ would be one that would do more harm than good. I regret that my intuition was correct.”

Uncle Iroh paused to refill their teacups. Zuko drank his without tasting it, lost in the memory of the battle.

“To find you again,” continued Uncle Iroh, “was a great stroke of luck. I had faint hope that the absence of both you and Lady Katara implied that perhaps you were together and alive. It was very brave of her to save your life.”

Zuko’s throat constricted and he put down his tea.

“I left her,” he rasped. “The Northern Water Tribe… they were cruel to her and I left her behind.”

“She asked you to leave, nephew. You were respecting her wishes.”

Zuko had spent the entire boat ride silently wrestling with himself over his decision to leave Katara, and it seemed he still could not come to a conclusion about his feelings. He changed the subject.

“Where will we go now?”

Uncle Iroh gave him a long, evaluating look.

“Where would you like to go?

This was a stupid thing to ask, in Zuko’s opinion. There was only one place he wanted to go, and there was no way to ever return.

Instead, he said, “I don’t care,” and went back to bed.

They had wandered the fringes of the Earth Kingdom for several weeks, struggling to find a place to stay. Several cities were ruled out; they were too recognizable a pair, even without Zuko’s phoenix tail, and they both agreed that it was best to keep a low profile. Uncle Iroh kept speaking eagerly of their ‘new lives,’ but this only made Zuko feel worse. He didn’t see the point in starting a new life when his previous one had been so miserable.

To make matters worse, Zuko’s bending was in flux. Every morning, the sun’s pull on him felt weaker, and his flames grew smaller. He managed to avoid his usual firebending exercises with Uncle Iroh — all in keeping a low profile, he had explained — but he knew that many of his previous moves were no longer accessible to him. He was terrified by this development. He had already lost his home, his title, and any last shred of respect he had held in this world. To lose the very source of his being was too great an indignity to bear.

When they finally settle in Ba Sing Se as refugees, Zuko makes an agreement with himself. At the very least, Uncle deserves a good life. He deserves to run a tea shop like he wants, and to be safe from the clutches of the Fire Nation. Zuko vows to help his Uncle achieve these goals as best he can, and hopefully his inner fire will last that long. But once Uncle is settled and his fire goes out, Zuko will have to end his life.

It is not that Zuko wants to die so much that he does not want to live any more. There is very little point: he has no prospects for a better future, and his past is in ruins. How could he possibly build a new life if it meant stepping away from who he had been? How could he erase the past when it was permanently marked on his face?

Tracking the movements of the Dai Li helps stoke the fire within him, and Zuko is grateful. All is not lost quite yet, although he knows he is on the precipice. Despite his fury at the injustices of the city — the inequality, the propaganda and obfuscation — his fire still dims. He steals a pair of dual dao swords from a sleeping Dai Li guard; he needs to be armed in case his fire fails him before he is ready.

One night, Zuko is creeping through the extensive underground tunnels around the city when he hears music. Intrigued, he follows the sound to its source, a girl about his age with a small lyre. She does not hear him approaching, and gives a soft scream when she finally spots him.

“Shh!” hisses Zuko. “You’ll alert the Dai Li.”

Thankfully, the girl speaks the Common Tongue. Zuko has not made much of an effort to speak Earth Tongue, even though he knows it would be useful in the shop. The girl looks relieved.

“I thought you were Dai Li,” she says. “I wanted to practice my music, but there’s a curfew… what are you doing down here?”

Zuko senses that this girl would be unlikely to act as an informant to the Dai Li, but he doesn’t want to take any chances. He redirects the conversation.

“If you want a quiet place to practice, there’s a hall around the corner.”

Zuko has discovered many oddities of the Ba Sing Se tunnels, including several large, sound-proofed rooms. He has a suspicion that these rooms had once served particularly nefarious purposes; some had manacles bolted into the walls, or dark stains on the floor. A soundproof room would be very useful if you wanted to keep the torture of your citizens quiet.

Zuko leads the girl to the nearest room, keeping his suspicions about the room to himself. The girl looks delighted.

“Oh, wow! This place is huge! You could have a whole dance party in here and no one would hear it!”

Unable to resist her enthusiasm, Zuko explains that he has found several more such rooms. He draws her a quick map so she can find them herself.

“Thank you so much! This is amazing!” The girl smiles at him, and Zuko feels shy. “My name is Jin. What’s yours?”

“Lee,” he says, staring at his feet.

“Well, it was nice to meet you, Lee. Do you play music?”

“No.” He’s not about to admit to his tsungi horn days.

“Oh, that’s too bad. Well, if you want to join, I think I can get some friends to join me and we can host a dance night. It will be so much fun! You have to come.”

Zuko cannot think of anything he’d like to do less than dance with a bunch of strangers, but he’s not sure how to get out of this conversation.

“I’m a student at the Ba Sing Se University. What about you?”

“I work at The Jasmine Dragon.”

“Oh! I’ve seen that place! I’ll come by when we’ve got the dance party date set, and then you can come! You seem like you know a lot about these tunnels; it will be useful to have an extra set of eyes on the lookout.”

She leaves Zuko alone in the room, wondering what exactly had just happened.

 

 

True to her word, Jin comes to the tea shop the next week.

“Tomorrow,” she whispers to him excitedly. “Can you come?”

Zuko is about to make up an excuse, but Uncle Iroh swoops in.

“Lee!” he says excitedly. “Who is this charming young woman? Are you going on a date?”

Zuko flushes. Jin giggles.

“Just a party for now,” she says coquettishly. “If Lee will stop dragging his feet and come have fun with us.”

“He would be delighted,” says Iroh with a flourishing bow. “Nephew, you are very lucky to be invited to spend time with young people like yourself.”

It’s good to know that his uncle can still annoy him enough to make him accidentally melt the nearest candle.

He goes to Jin’s dance party, although he plans to spend the entire time acting as a lookout. There’s a small band playing and a gaggle of giggling women. Most of the men stand around uncomfortably, none of them eager to break the ice and dance first.

“Before we start,” Jin announces, although the party has been going for at least half an hour. “I want to thank Lee for finding this place!”

There is a smattering of applause and several curious glances his way. He tries not to scowl too much. He can feel his face turning bright red.

“Will you join me in the opening dance?” asks Jin, eager and bright.

He wants to say no, but everyone is looking at him and he feels trapped. Jin takes his silence as a yes and drags him to the middle of the floor.

“It’s okay if you don’t know how to dance,” she says kindly. “I’ll start us with something easy. How about a waltz?”

Jin has no way of knowing this, but Zuko can practically waltz in his sleep. He might not like dancing, but he definitely knows how; he learned to be nimble on his feet from a very young age. At first it was to please his mother, who insisted he learn, and then it was to avoid Azula trying to purposefully step on his toes to mess him up. He tries to play dumb with Jin, letting her lead him around as the band carries on, but, as if in a trance, Zuko’s feet and body start to move of their own accord. He whisks her around the dance floor in a much more spirited waltz than she had started, only stopping when the song dies away.

“Wow, Lee! That was amazing!” squeaks Jin. “Where did you learn to dance like that?”

“I better go keep a lookout,” is his gruff response, and he stalks off the dance floor.

He spends the rest of the night on high alert, but no Dai Li show any signs of moving towards the dance party. Everyone is dancing in earnest; Zuko’s opener with Jin has paved the way. The party lasts a few hours and then disperses.

“Will you come to the next one?” asks Jin as she puts on a heavy coat against the winter chill.

Zuko demurs, but ends up going anyway. It is hard to avoid the dance parties. Jin becomes a regular at the shop, frequently accompanied by some combination of friends. Zuko has trouble keeping all their names straight — yet another skill that Azula had excelled at as children that Zuko lacked — but he does remember their orders. In his head, he refers to them this way: Oolong, the mathematics whiz; Matcha, the philosopher; Verbena, who keeps testing out her poetry on Zuko. It seems that every week Jin has a new companion to introduce to him, most of them fellow university students. They are not his friends, but they are all friendly to him. They try to leave him big tips, and none of them ever fuss if their tea goes cold and demand a free one, like the cranky ladies in the corner. He sees them at the dance parties where he is always forced into at least one dance. Usually it is to welcome a new member, or to teach one of the many men how to waltz.

Zuko has traditionally not had a great track record with women. Growing up, he had been around Azula and her friends, Mai and Ty Lee, but he had interacted with very few other women until his recent time with Katara. He wasn’t sure what to conclude from his limited sample set. He ruled out gleaning anything from Azula’s behavior — she was his sister and a princess, and bound to behave differently towards him than an unrelated person. Ty Lee and Katara had been kind to him, but were very different people. And then there was Mai, who had been his girlfriend for a short while before his exile.

He had been aware as a boy that Mai had a crush on him; Azula had teased them both mercilessly about it for years. But he had been young and preoccupied by things he deemed more important than his sister’s silly friends. It was only around the time he had realized girls were very interesting that his mother disappeared, and his world had felt too confusing to explore that aspect of life just yet.

It was a year before his banishment that he had come across Mai alone in a library, twirling a small knife.

“What are you doing back here?” he groused. He had been hoping for a quiet spot for himself and he was not eager to share with her.

“Azula wanted to play hide-and-seek,” Mai said dully.

“That game is for children,” Zuko responded imperiously.

Mai shrugged, still twirling her knife.

“You know she probably just wanted you to go away, right? The game is just an excuse.”

Mai stayed silent, eyes focused on her sharp blade.

“Why are you always so grumpy?” he asked her. No response came.

He pondered this for a moment. Why was Mai always so miserable? She came from a good family, and as far as Zuko could tell, neither of her parents were as… difficult as his own father. But then again, Mai was friends with Azula, which certainly wasn’t an encouraging sign.

Zuko put aside his scrolls.

“Wanna see something cool?”

Mai showed no obvious interest, but she followed him anyway. He lead her into the weapons room, covered wall-to-wall with swords, daggers, and other miscellaneous blades. Zuko was the only one in the palace who went there except for the servants who were responsible for keeping the weapons polished. Zuko spent a lot of time there after his mother disappeared.

Mai did not smile, but her eyes lit up as she looked around the room. Something within Zuko stirred. He felt really, really good. Over the next few weeks, he chased the feeling. Every time he made Mai feel good, he felt good, too. They practiced their swordsmanship together — Zuko with his dao blades and Mai with her daggers — and sometimes they talked afterwards. It was difficult as neither of them were particularly skilled conversationalists, and were not eager to be vulnerable with one another. But after a month had passed, Zuko had worked up the nerve to kiss her. She seemed to like it, so he kept doing it.

They had feared what would happen should Azula discover their tryst, but both of them were surprised when those fears went unfounded. Azula had marched into the weapons room, Ty Lee tumbling in behind her, disturbing Zuko and Mai in a somewhat compromising position.

“Ugh, there you are, Mai,” said Azula, rolling her eyes. “Zuko, please get off my friend. We’ve got more important things to do today than deal with you.”

And that had really been the extent of it. Azula had been annoyed if Mai and Zuko were spending time together when she was bored and wanted attention, but she left them alone the rest of the time. Zuko wasn’t sure why — he kept waiting for Azula to do something to take away his one happiness in the world — but no reckoning ever came.

After his failed Agni Kai, he never saw Mai again. He did not blame her; her family would lose face if their daughter was associated with an dishonored exile such as himself. He told himself that they had not really been in love, just two people trying to stave off loneliness together. Still, he could not help himself from writing her a letter, which, like almost all his letters, went unanswered. The only person who had ever answered a letter had been the one he least expected and had only written to out of sheer desperation: Ty Lee.

Dear Prince Zuko,

I won’t be able to respond to more letters because I’m running away tonight. There’s a circus coming through town and they need a contortionist — don’t you think that would be fun? But don’t tell Azula. She’ll be really mad that I’m leaving.

Also, don’t tell Mai I told you this, but she’s really sad you’re gone. Her parents keep talking about arranging her marriage, so I think she’s worried about that. You’ll have to come back soon, okay?

I hope you’re doing okay out there. The sea can be so calming for your troubles — I bet your aura will be back to normal soon.

Ty Lee

In truth, some of Zuko’s early attempts to return to the Fire Nation had been more than just to appease his father. The thought of Mai married off made him queasy. He wasn’t sure if he himself wanted to marry Mai — even though they had liked each other, marriage was a rather big leap — but he didn’t want her pawned off like some sort of trinket. But Mai had not responded to his letters, so he stopped writing.

There were other girls in his years of travel, always in place where Zuko disguised himself, but nothing ever longer than a week before his crew moved on to the next location. Most of his dalliances were just to let off steam — a night of kissing in a dark park, a tryst in a quiet inn — although there had been one woman near the Western Air Temple who he had been quite taken with. But it turned out she had been involved with another man all along, and had been using Zuko to make her real boyfriend jealous. The whole affair had left a bad taste in his mouth, and he had put romance aside ever since.

Now, in Ba Sing Se, he is surrounded by women. He finds that he rather enjoys their company, as limited as it is. They are clever and sweet, easily excited by their studies and eager to tell Zuko about their favorite subjects. Jin teaches him obscure facts about Earth Kingdom history, and Oolong helps him set up a better bookkeeping method for the shop. Matcha and Verbena frequently give him advice on how to deal with some of the thornier old ladies, and he finds it actually helps. More of Jin’s friends rotate through the shop, and Zuko learns basic Earth Tongue phrases and where the best noodles in town are sold.

The only drawback is that sometimes a new girl will try to flirt with him, leaving him utterly flummoxed. It’s not that he wants to be alone — certainly his subconscious is very eager for him to respond to the attentions of these women — but he cannot imagine any prolonged romantic interaction going well. He would have to keep his past a secret, and it would feel like a lie to get close to someone without explaining who he really was. But telling anyone who he was would put them in danger, and Zuko is done causing problems for other people. So he scowls and frowns at the flirtation until Jin jumps in to help him.

“Don’t mind Lee,” she tells her friends. “He’s shy. Don’t worry, you’ll get to dance with him at our next party.”

At that point, the girl would usually meet someone with a less prickly personality and Zuko would be left alone again. He did not want it to hurt, but it always did.

 

 

Winter is finally melting into spring, and life continues its routine in the tea shop. Jin has a new friend today, one of the rare men she brings along. He is easily the most handsome man Zuko has ever seen, and he tries not to be jealous of the man’s perfect, smooth skin.

“Keemun tea, please,” says the man with a winning smile. Zuko has, of course, instantly forgotten his name.

Usually, he asks Jin’s friends about their studies to be polite, but when he returns the man is deeply engrossed in his scrolls, so Zuko does not learn much about him. He orders a second pot of tea an hour later, giving Zuko another flash of perfect teeth.

“Lee,” whispers Jin in an undertone. “Are you coming tonight?”

Zuko doesn’t know why she always asks this, as he has come to every party without fail. Still, it makes him happy that she invites him, even if he’s always so grumpy to her.

“Of course,” he responds, setting down Keemun’s tea. The man grins and leans towards Jin.

“Oh, this is the famous Lee?” The man smiles even more widely and turns to Zuko. “I hear you’re quite the dancer… will I get to see some of your moves tonight?”

Zuko flushes and stomps away. The man seems unaffected by Zuko’s rudeness, and gives a little wave as he heads out the door with Jin and Matcha.

Zuko helps his uncle tidy up the tea shop and prepares noodles in broth for their dinner. It’s the only time Zuko can firebend openly, and heating up dinner is one of the few things he can still do. If Uncle notices Zuko’s diminished bending, he says nothing about it.

As night truly falls, Zuko sneaks out of the apartment. He notices Uncle Iroh is missing as well — it seems they have both taken up nightly jaunts in violation of the city’s curfew — and makes his way down to the tunnels. He arrives at the party’s location, saluting the handful of university students acting as that evening’s guard.

The party is already in full swing when Zuko arrives, which is a bit surprising. Although people have become less shy about being the first on the dance floor, Zuko is almost always one of the first to open the festivities. He gets in his one required dance and then skulks around for the rest of the evening. But this night, the dance floor is already alive with revelry, and it’s easy to see why.

The couple in the middle of the dance floor is far and away the best pair of dancers Zuko has seen in Ba Sing Se. They flow like water around the hall, hands roaming up and down as they turn and dip in sensuous movements. Zuko feels a flame flicker inside him.

Don’t be such a pervert, he scolds himself. It’s just dancing.

But he has never seen dancing like this before. He recognizes the basic steps — a Fire Nation waltz, actually — but the figures are practically glued together. The woman swings her hips about, accentuating a trim waist and powerful legs. This is the other thing that catches Zuko’s attention. Most women dress modestly in Ba Sing Se — the Dai Li basically enforce it — but the dance parties feature more revealing clothing. This woman’s dress flies upwards as she is twirled around, revealing her tanned, muscled legs. Zuko’s flame jumps higher. Then he catches a glimpse of the woman’s face.

Katara.

Zuko’s heart stops in his chest. How could this be? What was she doing here? Shouldn’t she be with the Avatar?

Zuko shakes his head as Katara continues to glide about the dance floor. She throws her head back in a laugh that Zuko cannot hear over the pounding music, but he feels it in his very soul. He takes stock of her more closely, squinting at her distant form. Her hair is much shorter; it barely grazes her shoulder in the rare moments she is standing still. His stomach lurches, and he wonders what she has done to get here. Still, her face radiates happiness, and he thinks that whatever punishment the Northern Water Tribe inflicted upon her, it does not seem to have damaged her spirit.

It is with another shock that Zuko finally notices Katara’s dance partner, the handsome man from earlier. Katara and the man spin around the room, closer to Zuko, and the man locks eyes with him. He gives Zuko a wink and they disappear back into the crowd.

It feels like his brain is trying to move in five different directions at once. He wants to talk to Katara immediately, but there’s no way to get to her without making a scene. And what if she wants nothing to do with him? After all, he had only ever caused her trouble; maybe it would have to be enough for him just to know that Katara was alive and well, and he should leave her alone?

His anxiety about Katara is short-lived, however. Zuko does not know much Earth Tongue, but he knows enough to understand why the music suddenly stops.

Dai Li! Everybody run!

Panic breaks out as people race towards the tunnel exits. Zuko automatically assumes his role. He has been involved in diverting the Dai Li before, and he always carries a firecracker to the party just in case. He runs full-pelt to the opposite side of the tunnel and, with a quick glance around to ensure he is not seen, lights the firecracker, tossing it down one of the slides the soldiers use for quick access.

“Over there!”

Zuko folds himself into a crevice in the wall as the Dai Li race by, chasing after the sound. They disappear from sight and Zuko slinks back into the hall to make sure nothing incriminating has been left behind.

The hall is empty. There is no shred of evidence anyone has been there except for the scuff marks of many shoes on the floor. Katara and the handsome man are long gone, as expected.

Zuko wanders home slowly. It should be a warm spring evening, but he has never felt so cold.

Chapter Text

Zuko is distracted and irritable the next morning. This is not very different from his usual behavior, so no one seems to notice.

Between waiting tables, he creates dozens of plans to find Katara again, only to remind himself that perhaps Katara did not want to be found by the ex-prince who kidnapped her.

She told you she would find you again, he reminds himself. You should look for her. Maybe she’s at the university…

She just told you that so you would leave her sister tribe alone, says another voice in his head. Why would she actually want to see you again?

He’s so distracted by this internal struggle, he does not notice the handsome man until he comes face-to-face with him at the counter.

Zuko gapes at him, unsure where to start.

“Um, Keenum tea, right?”

The man blinks, surprised.

“You remembered my order?”

“Well, I don’t remember your name.”

The man laughs and extends a hand.

“I’m Tako,” he says with a smile. “And I think we have a friend in common.”

The blood rushing in his head is deafening. Zuko feels like he is under water.

“Uh, what?”

“She’s outside, in the side alley” Tako whispers. “She was worried you might not want to see her, or she would make a scene in here or something.”

Uncle Iroh, who seems to have a sixth sense for when Zuko is about to do something stupid, wanders over with a look of concern.

“Nephew, is everything alright?”

“I’m…I’m going to step outside for some fresh air,” he says stiffly. “Uncle, can you… This is Tako, and he would like some Keenum tea.”

“Ah!” says Iroh happily. “One of my newest additions. Would you like to know about the origins of this blend?”

The man looks genuinely interested. Zuko shrugs off his apron and slips out the back door.

He spots Katara at once. She is standing alone near the main street, watching the Upper Ring denizens walk past. She is wringing her hands nervously, which makes Zuko feel a little better. He feels like he might explode at any moment.

Then she turns towards him and her face lights up. He’s pretty sure his heart actually does explode.

Katara tackles him in a hug, and he has to take a step back to balance himself. He had expected her to yell at him for abandoning her on the ice, and he had been wholly unprepared for the force of her embrace. Still, some part of him knows to take advantage of the one hug he will probably get all year and he wraps his arms around her in kind. He feels her shake and is surprised when she pulls away to see tears on her face.

“Sorry,” she gasps, wiping her eyes. “I’m not usually a happy crier.”

“You’re happy to see me?”

Katara’s head rears back in shock.

“Of course I am! I was really worried about you!”

“Oh.”

He can’t think of what to say, and an awkward silence descends. She seems annoyed by his silence, so he says the first thing that pops into his head.

“Your hair is shorter.”

Her face softens, and she gives him a weak smile.

“Yours is longer.”

She reaches up to run her hand through the short, spiky hair on his head. Zuko files away the sensation for later; it’s been a long time since anyone has touched him like that.

“Do you…” Zuko wracks his brain for something vaguely intelligible to say. “Do you want to get something to eat?”

Katara smiles and nods.

“Wait here,” he says. “I just need to…”

“Oh! Of course. You should tell your uncle where you’re going.”

Zuko stops halfway into the tea shop.

“How did you know my uncle was here?”

Katara smirks at him, and his stomach does a little flip at the sight.

“Who else would get you a job at a tea shop? Besides, Tako told me he saw you here, and he described your uncle, too.”

“Tako knows who I am?” Zuko says, alarmed.

“No! No, I didn’t tell him who you were,” Katara says, flushed. “He just told me he came to a nice tea shop yesterday, and there was a man with a scar… well, it sounded kind of like you, so I asked if there was an older man there as well. I was pretty sure it was you two, but I wasn’t sure… I hoped it was though. I’m glad I was right.”

Zuko swallows thickly.

“Okay. I’ll be right back.”

Of course, it takes forever to actually leave, because Uncle insists on greeting Katara himself and showering her with praise. Katara blushes and smiles and Zuko grits his teeth. He did not need to know what Katara looked like when she blushed. Tako joins them, amused, and teases Katara.

“Wow, when you told me you thought these were your friends, I had no idea what kind of friends they were!” he says, tugging Katara’s short braid. “How did you guys meet?”

There is a long pause as Zuko and Uncle Iroh exchange looks. How can they explain without revealing who they truly are?

“We met like you and I did,” Katara responds. Zuko is deeply confused about how this could possibly be true — it seems unlikely that Tako also kidnapped Katara in an attempt to capture the Avatar and restore his honor — but Tako just raises an eyebrow and nods.

“Cool,” he says evenly. “Mushi, perhaps we should get back to the tea so it doesn’t over-steep?”

Uncle Iroh gives a little start at his false name.

“Ah, yes! It would be a shame to let such an excellent brew go to waste. It was wonderful to see you again, Lady Uma. Lee, enjoy your afternoon off.”

Uncle Iroh and Tako duck back inside. Zuko turns to give Katara a quizzical look.

“Uma?”

“Oh, like you’re one to talk, Lee.”

Zuko grins and leads Katara out into the streets of Ba Sing Se. The city has never looked so bright.

 

 

It is shockingly easy to talk to Katara.

Zuko has never been much good with words. In fact, he has a knack for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. He’s accidentally insulted plenty of people, been rude to people who had tried to help him, and, of course, gotten half his face burned off for speaking his mind. Zuko often has trouble understanding his uncle’s strange riddles, but the phrase ‘silence is golden’ was one he definitely believed in.

Katara talks enough for both of them that first meal. Zuko can hardly believe all the work she has done and he tells her several times how impressive it is, but she just smiles shyly and shakes her head.

“I couldn’t have done it without Tako. Or Toph, Arluuk, or Aang — all of them helped.”

Zuko tries not to be jealous of Tako, but Katara’s gushing tone strikes a nerve. It seems that her new friend is not only shockingly good-looking, but charming, compassionate, and clever. He tries to reason with himself that as long as Tako makes Katara happy, Zuko should have no complaints about it. Katara deserves someone to make her happy.

Zuko fills Katara in on his own tale, but it is much shorter and without any victories, personal or scholarly. In fact, the whole summary is accomplished in just a few sentences.

“We made it to shore, and we traveled around for a few weeks. We came to Ba Sing Se as refugees, and Uncle got us jobs at a tea shop. He was so good, he got poached to work in the Upper Ring, so I went, too. That’s it, I guess.”

Katara gives him a smirk.

“Oh, I don’t think so,” she says. “I’ve been here for two weeks and I’ve heard a lot of talk about Lee, the master of the dance parties.”

Zuko’s face goes bright red.

“It’s not like that. I just helped Jin find a place to hold the parties.”

“And apparently taught half the university how to dance.”

“It’s just a stupid waltz.”

“Hey,” says Katara gently, placing a hand softly on his arm. “I’m not trying to tease you. I think it’s really nice that you helped them. This city seems really stifling.”

Zuko relaxes a bit. He keeps his arm still, hoping she won’t move her hand.

“It is,” he agrees. “The Dai Li have a tight hold of society here, but I can’t really figure out why. I mean, it keeps the people contented and docile, so that makes them easy to manipulate. You’ve been here long enough to hear people talk about how there’s no war here. But it seems like the Dai Li are building towards something… I just can’t figure out what.”

Katara leans forward eagerly, and Zuko finds himself telling her about his nightly escapades to track Dai Li movements around the city. Katara rests her chin in her hands, thinking. Zuko tries not to miss her warmth on his arm.

“We’ll have to be careful here,” she says finally. “You, too. If they knew who you were…”

They make their way back to the tea shop. Zuko is surprised to find that most of the afternoon has passed already — he had lost track of time with Katara — and his uncle shoos him away.

“Nephew, I said you had the afternoon off. Please, you should be showing Lady Uma around the city. The safe parts,” he adds in an undertone.

He doesn’t have a set plan, but it doesn’t seem to matter. Katara seems content to wander through the streets and gawk at the nobility. She leads him to the university and shows him the lab where she works, even the small room where she stays.

“And it’s right next door to Tako’s room, which is convenient,” she explains. “So we can work together really easily.”

Zuko finds it more and more difficult to swallow his jealousy, but he tries to stay polite and asks her more about her research. She obliges, and he reminds himself that he already has the gift of Katara’s company. No need to ruin it by being angry about her boyfriend.

Katara may be new to Ba Sing Se, but she seems to know the university square well. She pulls him into several interesting shops, and he greets several of Jin’s friends, who seem surprised to see him outside the tea shop. He fumblingly tries to introduce Katara to them, and thankfully they supply their own real names so Zuko doesn’t have to reveal he only knows them by their tea orders.

Dusk falls and Katara insists they go to her favorite noodle shop for dinner. Zuko can hardly believe his luck; the part of him that assumed Katara would not even want to see him again is amazed that she is willingly spending not one but two meals together. As they await their bowls, Katara fidgets nervously.

“What’s wrong?” he asks.

Katara bites her lower lip, looking unsure of herself. Zuko wonders if he has done something to offend her, and anxiously rewinds through everything he said that afternoon.

“I don’t want to upset you,” Katara begins, and Zuko braces himself for the worst. “How long… how long have you been having trouble with your fire?”

His jaw drops.

“How did you…?”

“When I touched your arm earlier, you felt… colder than usual. And then when we went into the shops and I took your hand… I just remember you feeling warmer, you know, in the North Pole.” She adds this last part as a whisper in case anyone is eavesdropping. “Maybe it’s just because it was so cold there, and you felt warm in comparison. But you’ve been through a lot recently, and, well, it wouldn’t be surprising if it affected your bending.”

Zuko is too shocked to be embarrassed that she has found him out so easily.

“I don’t understand. What do my circumstances have to do with my bending?”

Katara cocks her head and gives him an evaluating look. His embarrassment catches up to him and he scowls at her, hunching back. Katara seems to realize she’s waited too long to respond, and reaches out to place another reassuring hand over his. He tries not to wince; her hand is much warmer than his.

“When I got home from the colonies,” she says in a whisper, “it was really hard to bend. Not that I really knew how to bend in the first place, but it felt… pointless. Like I was blocked somehow. I started to think that I couldn’t bend anymore.”

“But you can,” says Zuko breathlessly. “It came back.”

“Yes, but it was a scary time. You must feel scared, too.”

Zuko can feel his heart pounding, and he knows Katara can feel it, too. She knows he is afraid without him speaking the truth, yet it spills out from his lips.

“Yes. I am afraid.”

A weight Zuko did not know he carried lifts from him, and he feels dizzy with relief. To speak a name to his fear does not remove it, but it no longer chokes him. He feels tears sting at the edge of his eyes.

The waiter arrives with steaming trays of food, and Katara and Zuko spring apart. Zuko takes the opportunity to surreptitiously wipe his eyes while Katara is distracted.

“Have you talked to your uncle about it?” she asks, doling out portions of each dish.

“I haven’t told anyone about it.”

“It’s not shameful to be struggling, Zuko.”

He glares at her, but Katara only rolls her eyes. He lets out a long sigh.

“I know Uncle would want to help me,” he says, giving Katara a little bow in thanks as she passes him a plate. “But I don’t think he can. I’ve been trying to deal with it myself and it just gets worse.”

“Maybe that’s your problem right there,” she says gesticulating with her chopsticks. “I didn’t get better until I asked for help.”

Zuko chews a mouthful of bok choy as he contemplates this. If Katara has dealt with this problem herself and overcome it, it seems prudent to take her advice.

“How long did it take?”

“A while,” she smiles ruefully. “Not the answer you want to hear, I know. But it took me a long time just to admit that something was wrong in the first place — something you can relate to, I bet — and there weren’t any benders in the Southern Isles, so they didn’t know if it was normal.”

“Is it?” His heart beats faster with worry. “I mean, I’ve never heard of anyone losing their bending before…”

“That’s because no one wants to talk about it. Like I said, it’s not shameful to struggle, but a lot of people seem to think it is. So they stay quiet, and things just fester and get worse.”

“Still, just admitting you’re having a problem can’t be the whole story,” Zuko says. “I’m not going to be better just because you know I’m… not well.”

“No, you won’t. But now you can work on it, and people can help you.”

“How?” Zuko tries to curb the edge of anger in his voice, but it creeps out anyway. “Being a firebender is punishable by death here. It’s not like I can walk around and say ‘Hey, Zuko here. Former Prince of the Fire Nation, and I seem to be having trouble blasting you all with fire. Any tips?’”

Katara seems to find his anger amusing and lets out a little snort.

“Fair point. But I’m sure your uncle would have some insight. He was always talking about the source of inner fire on the ship, and I’m sure he’s had trouble with his bending.”

Zuko blinks at her, shocked.

“Why do you think Uncle has lost his bending before?”

Katara gives him a sad look, and sets down her chopsticks.

“I was alone once, on the ship with your uncle. You were talking to Lieutenant Jee about our course, and your uncle wanted me to share tea with him. I told him I didn’t trust him — he was the Dragon of the West, after all — and he said he had not been that man in a long time. I asked what could possibly change a man like that and… and he told about your cousin, Lu Ten.”

Zuko feels a wave of grief pound into him. His cousin had been everything Zuko wanted to be: strong, kind, funny, and an amazing bender. Before he had gone off to war, Lu Ten had attended many of Zuko’s firebending trainings with Azula and he had always praised them both equally, which annoyed Azula but had made Zuko very happy. He had loved his cousin very much, and never spoke about him. But now… Zuko wondered if perhaps Katara was right, if speaking his pain might lessen it. So he takes a deep breath and he tries.

Katara listens to his memories of his cousin until long after the dishes are cleared away. He makes her laugh several times and tear up once. He forgets entirely that they had been discussing Zuko’s own bending until Katara asks the waiter for another round of tea.

“Sorry,” he says sheepishly. “I didn’t mean to get so carried away.”

“There’s no need to apologize,” says Katara kindly. “I like your stories.”

Zuko rubs his face to hide his blushing. Katara just smiles at him and continues.

“Your uncle told me a bit about Lu Ten, too. I could see that it was very painful, the type of pain that could split a person in two. I can’t say I know that exact type of pain, but certainly after my… my enslavement, I felt very lost and alone, even when I was surrounded by my people. It’s hard, to feel isolated like that. Maybe that’s how you feel, too. Maybe that’s why you’re having trouble bending, because you feel separated from even yourself.”

Zuko nods stiffly, his throat tight. He busies himself pouring the tea and hands Katara her cup. He tries to avoid her gaze, but he notices that she is worrying her lip again, looking unsure of herself.

“Thank you,” he blurts to Katara’s surprised look. “You always try to help me. Even though I’m… me,” he finishes lamely.

“Everyone needs help sometimes,” she says with a shy smile. “And besides, I like you. I want to make sure you’re okay.”

Zuko feels his flame spark. Katara seems to be engrossed with her teacup, a faint blush staining her cheeks.

I like you. I want to make sure you’re okay.

It replays in his head as they silently drink their tea. He can feel his flame glow faintly inside him, small but brighter than it has been in weeks.

When they finish their meal, Zuko insists on walking Katara back to her university housing. He gives her a deep bow in parting.

“Thank you for today,” he says, summoning his courage to speak the truth. “You’re always welcome at the shop. Uncle would love to see you… and so would I.”

Katara beams at him and gives him another hug. Zuko does not hesitate to return it.

“Oh, you feel warmer now,” she says happily, pulling away.

“Must be all the tea,” he says, rubbing the back of his head nervously. “Uncle always says tea is good for the spirit.”

“A wise man,” she laughs. “Goodnight, Zuko.”

“Goodnight, Katara.”

He takes the long route home, barely dodging the Dai Li night patrols. It might be risky to be out so late, but Zuko, for once, does not want this day to end just yet.

 

 

It takes a few more days to work up his nerve, but Zuko eventually tells his uncle the truth.

“I’m having trouble with my inner fire. I have been for months,” he admits anxiously over their evening tea. “I was afraid to tell you. I thought you would… think less of me for it.”

Uncle Iroh places a hand on Zuko’s shoulder.

“I am sorry, Nephew, that you thought even for a moment that you could not come to me. Please, tell me what troubles you. I will brew us some chamomile tea — it is very soothing.”

He’s not really sure how to explain what’s wrong given that his entire life is a mess. Abandoned by his mother, despised by his father, exiled from his home — it would be far easier to list the handful of things in his life that are good than to try to catalogue all of the bad. Instead, he tells Iroh of the feeling Katara described, of being separate from everyone and everything. Uncle seems to understand this and nods.

“A very difficult feeling, yes. I, too, struggled with my bending once. I feared it would never return.”

“But it did,” says Zuko anxiously. “How?”

“It is not so easy to explain,” says Iroh, and Zuko has to mask his disappointment. “You must treat the source of the pain first. Only then can you heal the wound.”

Uncle talks in riddles for a bit longer before bed, and Zuko feels the usual sense of confusion from talking to his uncle, but he feels a bit better, too. Katara had been right. Telling his uncle had been the right choice.

His days fall into a new pattern. Uncle Iroh takes extra care with their morning meditations, often asking him questions about his feelings, which Zuko forces himself to answer honestly. It can be painfully embarrassing to be so vulnerable, even to his own uncle, but he can feel his flame returning. It is still pitifully small, but at least it is steady.

The morning meditation helps, but Zuko secretly thinks the real reason his flame has returned is Katara. Every time she enters the shop with a smile on her face, he feels his stomach flip in excitement. Sometimes Zuko makes her laugh and he can feel sparks at the edges of his fingertips. She comes by at least three times a week, more often if she can make it. Sometimes she stays long enough that they can get dinner together, and it is easily the best part of Zuko’s week.

There is, however, one issue. Katara is usually accompanied by Tako, and Zuko finds it increasingly difficult to stifle his jealousy.

Zuko knows he is being ridiculous. It should be more than enough for him that Katara is present in his life, let alone that she seems to consider Zuko a friend. And yet his traitorous heart pounds every time she smiles at him, and she creeps into his dreams at night. To be fair, he had dreamt of Katara ever since leaving the Northern Water Tribe; his usual nightmares had been punctuated by visions of Katara being swallowed by the Ocean Spirit, or dying at Zhao’s hands. Those nightmares had somehow been even worse than the ones of his father burning him, and more than once he had rushed to the toilet to vomit.

But there were other dreams of Katara, too. Dreams of being alone in an ice shack, the world quiet and blanketed in snow.

I’m cold, Zuko. Come warm me up.

Zuko had had a particularly embarrassing conversation about sexual health with his uncle when they had first been on the ship. Although Zuko was sixteen and had already crossed that bridge with Mai, his uncle had felt duty-bound to give his nephew a thorough discussion about the physical and emotional aspects of sex. Zuko had tried to remind himself of his uncle’s words when images of Katara under the furs crept into his dreams.

To desire is natural, Nephew. We must take care that our actions do not infringe upon the safety and agency of others, but your thoughts are your own.

Zuko had told himself that it wasn’t like he was in control of his dreams anyway — if he was, surely he would’ve chosen to stop the Agni Kai nightmare — so his thoughts were fine. He had felt a bit more trepidation when he woke up, taking himself in hand and finishing the end of the dream’s story consciously, but he tried to reason that it was just scratching an itch. He would find someone else to fantasize about eventually, and Katara would leave his subconscious.

But now he dreams of Katara all the time. He’s almost impressed with the creativity of his subconscious. Sometimes they’re dancing together in the tunnels of Ba Sing Se, or back on the ice in the North Pole. Sometimes he dreams of the white beaches of the Southern Isles, or the windy slopes of the Air Temples. All of them have the same part: Katara softly stroking the left, scarred side of his face before leaning in for a kiss. Sometime the dream ends there, but more often it continues and he wakes up achingly hard, imaging her sighing his name as he touches her.

She has a boyfriend, he reminds himself in the shop. Stop thinking about her like that.

Another dance party arrives and Zuko purposefully spends his one dance on Jin’s new friend, who Zuko can only remember as Chai. Katara tries to entice him to dance again.

“Please, Lee? It will be fun!”

“I’ve got to go patrol now,” he responds stiffly, backing away.

“Don’t mind Lee, Uma,” says Jin. “He’s got strict rules about having fun. You’ll get him next time!”

Zuko is very determined never to dance with Katara. He doesn’t think his dreams can get any more explicit, but he’s sure that knowing what Katara’s hips feel like moving under his hands would not help.

Instead, he tries to keep his mind focused on the Dai Li and not on the way Tako is pressed up against Katara. On the plus side, Zuko’s inner flame is positively enormous. Jealousy is an excellent way to stoke a fire, it seems.

 

 

Spring blooms in full in Ba Sing Se, and Zuko cannot stop seeing couples everywhere. Jin’s friends bring in their boyfriends, and it feels like the whole city is performing some bizarre mating dance that Zuko is determined to avoid.

One morning, Tako pulls Zuko aside out of earshot of Katara.

“So, it’s Uma’s birthday tomorrow,” Tako whispers.

Tako always takes care to use Katara’s false name. Just another reason Tako makes a superior boyfriend, a fact that does nothing to decrease Zuko’s burning jealousy.

“We were hoping to have a surprise party here tomorrow later afternoon. Can you help?”

Of course Tako is also a considerate enough boyfriend to plan a party. Zuko nods, trying to hide his scowl.

“Great! I think there will be seven of us together. Jin said she could drop off a cake earlier. Then we’re going to the noodle house up the street before the dance party. You’re coming, right? Uma really wants to dance with you.”

Of course Tako didn’t feel insecure about Katara wanting to dance with someone other than himself. Zuko nods again, the fire inside him practically bursting to get out.

Tako gives him a beaming smile.

“Thanks, Lee!”

He wanders off and Zuko takes several deep breaths to compose himself.

Tako is a nice guy, he reminds himself. He makes Katara happy. He’s not trying to rub it in your face. Just be normal for once.

To be honest, Zuko doesn’t know much about Tako beyond his work with Katara. He knows they met in the Kwong Valley, but Tako has always managed to avoid discussions of his past before that, or of any interests outside of his research. Where Zuko might be colossally awkward about his own past, Tako makes these discussions charming and effortless, and whomever brings up an uncomfortable topic quickly forgets why they asked in the first place.

Zuko tries once to ask Katara about Tako’s past, but she refuses to elaborate.

“He has his own secrets, just like you. I don’t tell him about your past, and I’m not about to tell you about his.”

Abashed, Zuko never asks again. Still, that doesn’t mean he isn’t curious.

That evening, Zuko takes extra care to clean the shop. The tables are spotless, the back room organized beyond reproach. Over dinner, he asks his uncle for two favors: a late start in the morning, and an early end to the day so he can join Katara’s party. He promises to do extra work in exchange, but his uncle waves him off.

“I am happy you will spend time with friends, Nephew.”

Zuko wants to respond that only Katara is his friend — she’s the only one who knows who he really is after all — but Uncle Iroh seems so pleased about Zuko’s plans that he stays quiet.

Bright and early, Zuko dresses himself and heads to the market. It takes a while to hunt for what he wants, but eventually he presents himself to the old woman running the booth of interest. Zuko takes great care in his selection, and the old woman, seeing his dedication, offers several helpful suggestions. When he has finished his choices, the old woman gives him a kind smile.

“A bouquet for a special lady?”

Zuko flushes a bit, but he is not completely embarrassed by this question. Katara is special to him, even if it’s not exactly in the way he wants.

“I was hoping,” he asks, kicking himself for not opening with this detail, “that you might be able to make a crown?”

The woman looks surprised, but smiles even more widely, revealing several missing teeth.

“A very special lady indeed,” she says happily, and sets herself about her work. “A crown costs extra,” she adds.

They are in the process of haggling when Zuko is surprised by Uncle Iroh.

“Nephew!” he says delightedly. “So this is what you are doing with your morning?”

Now Zuko really is embarrassed.

“What are you doing here, Uncle?”

“Nephew, where do you think we get the flowers for our shop? Mei Ling here is a genius with floral arrangements.”

Uncle Iroh bends to place a kiss on the outstretched hand of the old woman, who is laughing loudly.

“This is the nephew you told me about? Well, he’s got good taste… Wants a flower crown for a special lady.”

Zuko flushes even more as Uncle Iroh eyes him happily.

“Ah, yes. Today is Lady Uma’s birthday, if I am correct?”

“I told him a flower crown costs extra,” the woman adds.

“Hm, would you be persuaded to negotiate?”

“It depends,” says the woman coyly, batting her eyes. “What will I get in return?”

How had Zuko’s morning shopping come to this?

He leaves with his crown in hand, slightly scarred by watching his uncle flirt so openly. He wants to never, ever think about how his uncle plans to repay the florist.

Several hours later, Jin bursts in the tea shop door.

“They’re coming!” she squeals excitedly as Zuko leads her to the special booth he has prepared.

More of Jin’s friends — Zuko spots Matcha, Verbena, Oolong, and Chai — sneak in, giggling, before Tako leads a blindfolded Katara across the threshold. She takes a deep breath and smiles.

“The subterfuge was unnecessary, Tako,” she scolds smilingly. “I know exactly where we are.”

“Ah, well done, Uma. But did you know about this?”

He removes the blindfold with a flourish and Katara blinks.

“Surprise!”

Her mouth moves to form a surprised “oh!” and Zuko cannot fight his own smile. He ducks behind the counter to get the tea brewing.

When he returns to the table, Katara smiles widely. He hopes she is distracted enough that she doesn’t notice the pounding of his heart.

“Look what Tako got me!” she says excitedly. It is a scroll about medical history — Zuko feels a twinge of satisfaction at this unromantic present — but Katara seems thrilled about it. Zuko gives a tight smile and goes to fetch his own gift.

Katara is deeply engrossed in conversation when he returns. He takes a deep breath.

“Here.”

Katara turns to look at him, eyes wide. Her expression is serious, and Zuko feels anxiety creeping through him. She meets his gaze and opens her mouth, but nothing comes out.

“She’s speechless!” laughs Tako. “Well done, Lee!”

Katara blushes and reaches for the crown. Zuko tries to ignore the jump of his fire as their fingertips brush.

“Lee, I…” she says haltingly. “This is…”

He feel hot shame bubble in his chest. He had thought this would be something she would want. Truthfully, there had been a small part of him that had looked forward to this public moment. He had imagined her radiant smile, perhaps a hug… maybe she would realize that Tako wasn’t the best possible boyfriend ever. After all, he had not gotten her such a thoughtful gift.

Katara is smiling as her friends coo over the gift, but he can see the panic in her eyes. The gift had been too much, too overwhelming. Her eyes are wet, as if she were on the verge of tears.

He retreats to the kitchen, berating himself. He clenches both fists in his hair.

“What were you thinking?” he whispers angrily to himself. “Stupid, stupid, stupid…”

“Zuko?”

Zuko jumps a foot in the air and whirls around. Katara stands in the doorway, the flower crown perched atop her head. Zuko feels like someone has punched him in the gut. He had always accepted the fact that Katara was pretty, but now she looks luminous, a bolt of lightning striking before him.

In his dumbfounded state, Katara moves to wrap her arms around him.

“Thanks, Zuko,” she whispers, and he almost shivers at the sound of his name.

“I’m sorry,” he says quickly. “I didn’t mean to upset you. You don’t have to wear it if you don’t want to.”

“I love it,” Katara says reassuringly. “It’s perfect. I didn’t mean to make things weird before. It’s just… the last time I had a crown, it was from Sokka, and it made me miss him and…It was really nice of you to get me this. It makes me feel like… like I’m home.”

Oh.

“You’re welcome,” he whispers.

Katara keeps her crown on for the rest of the night, beaming whenever anyone asks her about it.

“Lee gave it to me,” she says, smiling at Zuko. “Isn’t it beautiful?”

Katara’s friends eagerly analyze the meaning of each flower, an argument that lasts through most of dinner.

“Mostly blossoms from fruit trees,” says Matcha. “A sign of new beginnings.”

“Pear is for friendship,” Oolong adds. “But cherry blossoms mean beauty…”

“Ooh, look, there’s jasmine too!” says Chai excitedly. “That’s unconditional love!”

“And gardenias,” sighs Verbena. “Secret love.”

“Hm, the greenery looks almost like bamboo springs. Beauty and grace… this is quite the flower crown, Lee!”

“Oh, come on,” Tako adds with a laugh. “It’s a really nice crown, but I doubt anyone knows what all those flowers actually mean.”

“We do!” Jin points out.

“I don’t,” says Katara with a shrug. “Where I’m from, you just pick ones that look nice. Either way, I think it’s wonderful.”

She gives Zuko a winning smile and he busies himself eating his noodles. He had known perfectly well which flowers he was choosing. He had spent many hours watching his mother craft beautiful bouquets rife with meaning. It’s probably for the best that Katara doesn’t care much about the message, but Zuko feels a bit better having been at least honest with flowers in a way he can’t be with words.

As they make their way down into the tunnels, Katara grabs Zuko’s hand.

“I get the first dance tonight,” she says eagerly. “And don’t even think about saying no, because it’s my birthday and I get to be greedy.”

Zuko knows he should find a way to turn her down, to insist that he’s needed on patrols all night, but as the music swells he cannot find the strength to say no. He folds her into his arms, closer than he has allowed anyone else, and they move together across the floor. It is not as passionate an embrace as Katara and Tako usually have — Zuko has enough wits to not try that — but he cannot help if his hands feel a little warmer than usual on the small of her back. Katara beams at him, and Zuko is grateful that for all the suffering he has seen, he at least will have this one moment of perfection in his life.

He lets her go reluctantly, and she is swallowed in a crowd of eager suitors, each wishing her a happy birthday and asking for a dance of their own. Zuko slinks away.

It is thankfully a quiet night in the tunnels of Ba Sing Se. If there are Dai Li agents patrolling, they are no signs of them about. Zuko checks back on the party every so often — it gives him a little thrill to see Katara wearing the flower crown all night — but he notices that Tako seems to be absent. Katara is spending much more time than usual on the sidelines, chatting with her girlfriends.

Zuko realizes it’s not his place to judge, but he can’t help his annoyance. Tako is a fool if he chooses to spend the night away from Katara. If Zuko were in his place, he would….

Zuko shakes his head at this particularly unhelpful line of thinking. He turns into a small tunnel adjacent to the music hall and stops dead.

Well, that answers where Tako is, Zuko thinks as he swiftly backs away.

He stands awkwardly at the edge of the tunnel, trying to think what to do. He knows that standing there will prevent others from rounding the bend, but he also risks running into Tako when he emerges, and Zuko would rather not admit to what he has just seen.

It’s not that Zuko is shocked. Two men embracing is perhaps less common than a man and a woman, but the Earth Kingdom is an extremely conservative place. There were rules against such things, and punishments to accompany them. Zuko frowns. In his lessons as a child, this prudishness was given as an example to the inferiority of other nations. The sexism of the Water Tribes and the homophobia of the Earth Kingdom had made him and his fellow Fire Nation pupils feel righteous. After all, women were frequently in positions of power in the Fire Nation, and two men or two women could kiss in the street without anyone batting an eye.

Then again, the Fire Nation had used this line of reasoning as a subtext for enslaving others, so who is Zuko to cast stones upon others?

He hesitates long enough that the decision is made for him. Tako nearly trips over him as he exits the tunnel.

“Lee!” he says, panicked. “I was just — I mean…”

“It’s okay,” Zuko says, holding up his hands. “I don’t care. But if you want somewhere more private in the future, there’s a room across the hall…”

“Oh, thanks,” says Tako, clearly relieved. “Um, sorry if you had to see that.”

“No worries,” Zuko shrugs. “Really, it’s not a big deal.”

Tako gives him an evaluating look and then nods.

“Let’s get back to the party before the birthday girl feels too left out.”

But the party is dying down and Katara is yawning as she steps out of the hall.

“Oh, there you are. Everything okay?”

Zuko and Tako nod. Katara leans in to give Zuko one last hug for the night, and Zuko realizes with a sudden frightening clarity that Katara in fact does not have a boyfriend. He wishes her goodnight and then races home, as if trying to outrun his thoughts.

Just because she doesn’t have a boyfriend doesn’t mean she wants you.

Chapter Text

Two weeks after Katara’s birthday, Zuko works up the nerve to talk to his uncle.

“I need your advice,” he says over evening tea.

Uncle Iroh nods and serves them both a second cup. He waits patiently while Zuko struggles to find the right words. Despite all their recent work on his bending, Zuko still finds it difficult to speak openly with his uncle. Logically, he knows that Iroh will be patient with him, but there is a deep-rooted fear of rejection that lurks around every statement. With every swallowed word, Zuko can hear his father’s angry voice — spit it out, you foolish boy — and he freezes.

But Iroh only drinks his tea, gazing off into the middle distance until Zuko finally speaks.

“It’s about Katara.”

Iroh nods encouragingly. Zuko takes a deep breath.

“I like her,” he admits in a rush. “Very much. I have been considering telling her of my feelings.”

Uncle Iroh does not usually interrupt, but he sets down his tea and gives a happy clap.

“That is wonderful news, Nephew. Lady Katara is a remarkable woman.”

“She is,” Zuko agrees. “That’s the problem.”

Iroh’s eyebrows go up, but again he waits for Zuko to speak.

“Katara is… amazing. She’s brilliant and kind and beautiful. She deserves to be with someone like her.”

“You think you do not deserve to be with her?” Uncle Iroh asks.

Zuko waves a hand impatiently.

“What I want is immaterial. The problem is deeper than that. Katara is Water Tribe. I am not.”

“Forgive me, Nephew, but I am surprised to hear you espouse such ideas. That you would believe the people of one nation were above or below the other…”

“No!” shouts Zuko hurriedly. “No, I didn’t mean that at all! It’s just… The Fire Nation hurt Katara. Our people enslaved her. She deserves to be free of that.”

Uncle Iroh considers this as Zuko elaborates.

“I know I’m not really a prince anymore, and that I can never go back to the Fire Nation. But for a long time, I was supposed to be the face of the nation, the embodiment of our culture and our people. It would be wrong of me to ask her to ignore that. I need your advice on how to… to push past these feelings. I want to be Katara’s friend because I can’t be anything more than that.”

Uncle Iroh is silent as he pours a third cup. He appears to be lost in thought, but Zuko tries to be patient.

“I fear that your mother has done you a disservice on this matter, Nephew.”

What?

Zuko almost never speaks of his mother, and Uncle Iroh has followed suit for years. Zuko is shocked to hear her disparaged, and feels a rare leap of his inner fire at this insult.

“I do not mean to speak ill of Lady Ursa,” Iroh adds quickly. “When you were young, your mother feared that you and your sister might become spoiled, that you would think of yourselves as more important than others due to your privilege. She worked hard to instill certain values, but most of all that you believe that your duty to the people was the highest good. Duty over self is not a bad motto, especially considering my brother seems to believe the exact opposite.”

“What are you saying, Uncle?”

“Do you know why I always call you Prince Zuko, and not just Zuko?”

Zuko must admit he has pondered this before, but has never come up with a satisfactory answer. He shrugs.

“You are both: a prince and a man named Zuko. Your duty to your people is important, but your duty to yourself cannot be ignored either. You are two parts of one whole. I understand you are concerned over the unforgivable acts that Fire Nation people have perpetrated against Lady Katara. But you did not commit these acts, nor are you asking her to reciprocate feelings for the Fire Nation itself. You are speaking to her as Zuko, a man.”

Zuko wants to protest, but his uncle continues.

“You said Lady Katara deserves to be with someone like herself. Like her, you have been hurt by the Fire Nation. Like her, you are kind and honorable. I cannot tell you to put aside your feelings for her because I do not think you should. To be seen and understood by another is a rare gift, one with which I believe you both have been blessed. I urge you, Nephew, not to run from it.”

Zuko is silent as he drains his cup. Together, they carefully clean and put back their tea supplies as they ready for bed.

“Uncle?”

“Yes, Prince Zuko?”

“Thank you.”

 

 

Zuko agonizes about his decision for a few hours before he sees Katara again. She enters the tea shop with a little wave and something settles into place.

He’s going to tell her. He just needs the right moment.

This gives him something new to agonize over, which is almost comforting. He’s not sure what to do with himself if there isn’t something to feel tortured about.

It seems that now that he’s resolved to confess himself to Katara, they can never find time alone. Katara and Tako are consumed by a new project, and spend less time at the tea shop than usual. On the rare nights that they can grab dinner, it’s usually in a crowd and Zuko is lucky if he even gets to sit next to Katara, let alone have a private conversation with her.

He decides that the next dance party will have to do, but it immediately goes sideways. They’ve barely arrived before the Dai Li are spotted nearby, and everyone has to run for it. Zuko gets caught up with Katara and Tako, and they emerge near the university.

“Ugh, I could’ve used a night to blow off some steam,” complains Tako. “I feel like we’ve been working non-stop.”

A mischievous look comes over Katara’s face. She gives Tako a sly smile.

“Do you still have that bottle of sake?”

Tako lets out a peal of laughter.

“Uma, you read my mind. Wanna join us, Lee?”

Zuko is torn. On the one hand, it is more time with Katara, and he’s getting along much better with Tako now that he’s no longer consumed by jealousy every time they meet. On the other hand…

“Stop overthinking things and come have some fun!”

Katara grabs his hand. Zuko follows her.

They settle in Katara’s room, passing around a bottle of very mediocre sake.

“Hm, we’re going to need something stronger than this,” Tako says, taking a swig. “I had been hoping to get laid tonight and now I only have alcohol to comfort me.”

“Jung Ho again?” Katara asks.

“He does have the best body,” says Tako with a shrug. “Present company excluded.”

“Did you just compliment yourself?” asks Zuko with a laugh.

“No, I meant you. Oh, don’t give me that!” Tako scolds as Zuko coughs on his sake. “You must know how good-looking you are.”

Zuko raises his one eyebrow and gestures sarcastically at the scarred half of his face.

“I’ve seen worse,” says Tako with a shrug. “It just gives you an edgy look. Besides, I was talking about your body, which is fantastic. Right, Katara? I believe your exact words when first describing him were ‘like a statue come to life.’”

Katara gives an indignant squeak and throws a pillow at Tako’s head.

“You promised never to repeat that!”

“Oops,” says Tako, throwing the pillow back.

They dissolve into giggles and Zuko downs two shots of sake in quick succession. He’s not sure how to process this new information.

A knock interrupts the escalating pillow fight. Katara leaps up and answers it to reveal a small, mousy woman.

“Sorry to interrupt, Uma. We’re having some trouble with the specimens, and Professor Lang said to contact you or Tako. I tried Tako’s door… oh, there he is! Anyway, could you…?”

“I’ll be right there,” says Katara, grabbing a bag. “Sorry guys, I’ll be back soon. Keep going without me!”

Zuko looks longingly at the door, wondering if he should take this as a sign that he should just go home for the night. Tako, on the other hand, sees this as a challenge.

“Alright, it’s just you and me, Lee. Let’s do this.”

Thankfully, Tako’s skill at conversation gets them through the first bottle, by which point Zuko is feeling quite chatty himself. Katara is gone a long time, and Tako and Zuko talk about a wide variety of topics. Zuko is so engrossed in their heated conversation as he pours out the last dregs of a second bottle that he doesn’t hear Katara enter behind him.

“Hey!” says Tako happily. “Everything go okay? Don’t worry, we drank plenty of sake on your behalf!”

Katara is staring at them, wide-eyed, and suddenly the evening comes into focus. Zuko and Tako turn to look at each other as if seeing one another for the first time. They realize why Katara is looking at them strangely. She had caught them mid-conversation in Fire Tongue. And not only were they both speaking in fluent Fire Tongue, but they had been heatedly debating Fire Nation politics.

Tako gives him a sloppy smile, his arms spread wide.

“Hah! I knew you were Fire Nation,” he says happily. “One of us, right? You must’ve been in a really fancy household. Your accent is super posh.”

Zuko tries to clear his head from the sake.

“Guess I don’t need to be so covered up all the damn time,” continues Tako, rolling up his sleeves.

Zuko’s eyes go wide with horror. Tako’s arm is covered in burn scars. Zuko realizes with a lurch exactly how he got them.

“Tako,” says Katara softly, picking up their forgotten first bottle. “Lee actually wasn’t a slave. But he did know about me. He won’t tell, right Lee?”

Zuko shakes his head violently. The world is spinning, and not just from the drinks.

“No, no. Of course I wouldn’t… I’m really sorry, Tako, that you were… I… I…”

He scrambles to get up. Katara tries to catch his arm but Zuko dodges and heads for the door.

“I gotta go,” he mumbles, tripping over the threshold.

He shuts the door quickly and races unevenly down the steps. He makes it to some bushes outside the building before he vomits.

He could blame it on the sake, but it tastes like guilt.

 

 

Two more weeks crawl by as summer approaches. Zuko keeps hoping for another dance party, and one is finally announced for three day’s time. Zuko takes care to have a fresh set of clothes ready for the occasion.

The day before the dance party, however, Zuko has to contend with his least favorite day of the year. It is his birthday again.

He takes care not to reveal this fact to anyone. Uncle Iroh knows, of course, but Zuko hopes that he has taken the hint over the years and not planned a celebration. Still, Zuko must admit that he does harbor one secret birthday wish, and spends all day hoping Katara will come to the shop.

She doesn’t.

Zuko volunteers to take the clean up shift so Uncle Iroh can make dinner while Zuko pouts. He knows it’s stupid; it wasn’t like he had told Katara it was his birthday, or he was certain she would have shown up. He had just wanted a little bit of luck. A smile from her would have been more than enough to make it a good birthday.

As he trudges up to the apartment, he is distracted from his sulking by a delicious aroma. He rolls his eyes — it seems Uncle Iroh has tried to do something nice after all. Zuko pushes open the door and stops.

“Oh! Surprise!”

Katara is seated at the small dining table with Uncle Iroh. She leaps up to pull Zuko into a tight hug, which he returns weakly in surprise.

“Happy birthday, Zuko,” she says, pulling away.

“You… you knew?” He whirls around to face Uncle Iroh. “You told her?”

“He didn’t have to,” says Katara with a laugh, moving towards the tiny kitchen of the apartment. “I grew up hearing about you, remember? Your birthday is exactly a month after mine.”

“Oh.”

Uncle Iroh ushers him to sit, and pokes his head into the kitchen to whisper to Katara. Then he waves his hands and all the candles in the apartment go out.

“Happy birthday to you…”

Katara appears in the doorway holding a bamboo steamer. A small candle pokes out the top, and the soft light flickers over her face. Katara and Uncle Iroh continue to sing in Fire Tongue as she lowers the tray in front of Zuko.

Xiao long bao, his favorite.

He tries to speak, but his throat feels tight and his eyes itch. He realizes now how Katara must have felt when he had given her the flower crown. Zuko is inundated by years of memories he has tried to bury: his mother singing to him, his sister demanding he share his bao with her, the taste of Fire Nation food. He’s not sure if he wants to laugh or burst into tears.

“Make a wish, Zuko,” Katara whispers.

Zuko lifts his gaze to meet hers.

I wish I could make you as happy as you make me.

He blows out the candle as tradition dictates. Katara and Uncle Iroh clap happily. Katara disappears back into the kitchen to fetch more trays, each of which contains more dumplings. Both his uncle and Katara look at him expectantly, waiting for him to take the first bite.

“Excuse me,” he says quickly, and he flees to his room.

He can hear Katara and Uncle Iroh speaking in low voices, and shame churns in his gut. Why couldn’t he just be normal for once? Why did he have to get so emotional all the time? He remembers a particularly terrible birthday, the first after his mother left, where his father berated him for crying over his dumplings.

Zuko takes several deep breaths. His father is not here. Katara and Uncle Iroh had done this out of kindness, not cruelty. Zuko had watched the servants in the palace make xiao long bao before, and he knows it’s a lot of work. They did this for him, and now he’s hiding in his room like a coward too afraid to face his own feelings.

Fortunately, Zuko thinks of a way to spare himself from some awkwardness and returns to the table with a bottle of sake he had tucked away in his room. He bows formally to Katara and his uncle.

“Thank you both for this celebration,” he says, relieved that his voice sounds strong. “I am honored by your thoughtfulness. I hope that I might contribute to the evening to thank you for your kindness.”

Katara beams at him. Uncle Iroh gives Zuko a sly smile and examines the bottle of sake.

“Do I want to know where you got this, Nephew?”

Zuko shrugs. In truth, he had pilfered a crate of the stuff from a Dai Li patrol that had ‘confiscated’ it from a local vendor. He had intended to return the crate to the shopkeeper anonymously, but the man at the shop had caught Zuko in the act and insisted on gifting him with a bottle as a thanks.

He pours the sake for Uncle Iroh and Katara and proceeds to inspect his dumplings. Just the sight of them makes him feel terribly homesick. He can tell by Katara’s fidgeting that it had been she who labored over them, and he wants to make sure to praise them properly.

The bao is delicious, but Zuko is relieved that they are not identical to the ones in Caldera City. The mix of herbs and spices is a little different, and it makes it easier to swallow it down without the added baggage of his childhood memories.

“These are great, Katara,” he says honestly. “I can’t believe you did all this work.”

“Oh, it was no trouble,” says Katara happily. “Besides, I had an ulterior motive.”

Zuko raises his good eyebrow. Katara looks at him sheepishly.

“Well, I’ve never actually had one of these before. We made a lot of them, but we were never allowed to eat them. So I don’t actually know how to do it.”

Uncle Iroh launches into a lengthy explanation of dumpling etiquette to an attentive Katara. Zuko looks down at his plate, his stomach roiling again. He forgets so easily that many of the things he finds comforting about Katara — her eager use of Fire Tongue, her enjoyment of the same foods as him — comes from such a dark past.

Katara’s laughter pulls him out of his reverie. She winks at him over her chopsticks.

“Okay, here we go!”

She pops the dumpling in her mouth and chews thoughtfully.

“It’s pretty good!” she says, swallowing. “I always thought they would be spicier. But I like them like this… how are they different from the ones in the Fire Nation?”

“Why do you think…?”

“The look on your face,” says Katara gently. “You looked surprised, so I figure they must be a little different than what you’re used to.”

“They are,” Zuko admits. “But they’re really good. Just as good as the ones at home.”

Katara laughs.

“Good, because these are your birthday present. I didn’t get you anything else.”

“You didn’t have to get me anything. It’s nice enough just to see you.”

Zuko is surprised that he isn’t embarrassed to admit this out loud, and he is rewarded by a pretty blush on Katara’s face.

“You’re welcome,” she says shyly.

The rest of the evening is one of Zuko’s best ever birthdays. Katara has made enough dumplings to feed a small army, and the sake pairs deliciously with every bite. As the hour grows late, Zuko insists on walking Katara home before curfew, although he has to play the birthday card to talk her into it.

“I thought you didn’t want anything for your birthday,” she teases as he holds the tea shop door open for her.

“I said I wanted to see you,” he corrects. “And that includes making sure you get home safe.”

“You know I’m perfectly capable of walking home by myself, right?”

“Of course. I just like walking with you.”

“Oh… thanks, Zuko.”

They walk in silence, but Zuko doesn’t mind. Every time he glances over to catch her eye, they both grin at each other. His cheeks hurt from smiling, something he wasn’t aware was actually possible.

He has to run home to make it back before curfew, which is made uncomfortable by the volume of dumplings in his belly. But as Zuko settles down to sleep, he feels contented in a way that he has not in a long time.

Tomorrow he will tell Katara how he feels. The world is full of possibilities.

 

 

Zuko arrives early to the dance party, such is his anticipation for the evening. Fortunately, Katara arrives just as the band starts to play, and Zuko eagerly asks her for the first dance. She accepts.

Zuko dives into the dance, spinning them around the room with zeal. Katara beams at him, sliding her hands over his shoulders and chest. He knows she can feel the racing of his heart, and yet she presses herself even closer. Emboldened, Zuko traces his fingers over the curve of her hips. He doesn’t think he imagines how her eyes darken.

The moment is cut short as the cries go up.

They’re coming! Get out, now!

The tunnels are crammed with people as those still arriving are forced to turn back. Zuko can actually hear the Dai Li soldier’s footsteps this time as he races to the surface streets. Katara does not let go of his hand, and drags him through back alleys and to her front door. They quickly sneak up the stairs and lock the bedroom door. Shouts come up from the university’s inner courtyard as Dai Li soldiers pour out of the tunnel system.

“What about Tako?” Zuko asks, suddenly stricken. “I didn’t see him following us.”

“He’s fine,” says Katara. “He was staying with a friend tonight anyway. He decided to skip the party.”

Zuko feels a little embarrassed. He had been so focused on Katara that he hadn’t even noticed she had arrived without Tako.

“The Dai Li look like they’re going to settle in for the night,” says Katara worriedly. “I don’t think you should go back out there. Will you stay here for the night?”

Zuko isn’t sure what to do. Katara is right, of course, that the safest course of action would be to sleep in her room. But Zuko wants to tell her of his feelings for her, and if she does not return them, it will be a very awkward night. Even if she does reciprocate his affections, it’s rather presumptuous of him to think he can sleep in her bed on the very first night.

“Zuko?”

“I like you,” he blurts. “A lot. I… wanted to tell you tonight.”

Katara bites her lip as if trying to fight a smile. Zuko’s heart is pounding in his chest, but it doesn’t quite feel like fear.

I did it, he thinks wildly. Whatever happens, at least I told her.

Katara moves close to him and her smile falls away. Her eyes flit over his face, lingering on his mouth. She lifts a hand and gently touches the left side of his face. Zuko leans in.

There is liquid fire coursing through his veins. The flame within him roars, crackling and hissing as Katara presses her lips more insistently to his. He has to fight the urge to burn down every candle in the room.

She pulls away, her eyes alight.

“I like you, too,” she whispers. “Will you stay?”

Zuko nods.

He’s not sure how long they stand there, pressed together tightly. Zuko revels in each sense: the warmth of her body, the sound of her sighs, the smell of her hair. His every nerve feels electrified. He is grateful that his movements seem to be happening without needing conscious decisions, because every thought in his head is drowned out by Katara’s presence.

When they finally pull away, Katara grins at him with a dazed expression, her lips slightly swollen from their fervent kissing.

“Wow,” she whispers. “I’ve never been kissed like that before.”

Zuko tucks an errant strand of Katara’s braid behind her ear. He presses a kiss to the nape of her neck and she shivers. Zuko has certainly been kissed before, but it’s never felt quite like this.

Katara looks up at him with an anxious expression.

“I’m not very experienced,” she admits quietly. “I mean, I know things — you learn a lot from the communal women’s hut over the years — but I haven’t actually done very much.”

“That’s okay,” says Zuko quickly. “We don’t have to do anything, especially not tonight. I just… wanted to tell you how I felt about you.”

Katara beams and strokes his scarred cheek. It is his turn to repress a shiver of pleasure.

“Oh, I definitely want to have sex with you at some point,” she says breezily as Zuko turns bright red. “But we can work up to it, if that’s okay with you.”

“More than okay,” he rasps. “Whatever you want.”

A mischievous grin steals across Katara’s face. She wiggles her fingers against his side and he lets out a yelp.

“Oh, that’s how you want to play it?”

Katara shrieks as Zuko responds in kind, and they devolve into a tickle fight. Zuko has a brief flash of his previous relationships and tries to imagine having enjoyed this sort of levity before. He thinks Mai probably would have stabbed him if he tried to tickle her.

He chases Katara around the room and she retreats onto the bed, laughing. Zuko pauses, unsure of what to do, but Katara snakes her arms around his waist and pulls him down to meet her. She wastes no time resuming their kissing, and Zuko thinks this might be the greatest night of his life.

Zuko takes care to set a slow, steady pace, moving his hands slowly up and down Katara’s sides. She wiggles impatiently against him for a while before moving his hands towards her breasts. He brushes against her gently.

“Oh!” Katara whispers softly. “I like that. Would you do it again?”

Zuko is more than happy to oblige.

Things escalate in this way until Katara has clambered on top of him, grinding her hips against his. He is throbbing with arousal, his breath ragged as he continues to touch her. Katara pulls away from their kiss, her face pinched in concentration as she rocks her hips.

“Oh, Zuko!” she breathes quietly. She goes rigid.

Definitely the greatest night of his life.

Katara comes back to herself and stares down at him, wide-eyed. She rolls off of him with a contented hum.

“You know,” she says quietly, hands sliding up his chest. “I always thought it was so ridiculous the way some of the girls talked in the North Pole. They kept saying how they just couldn’t help themselves, or ‘one thing led to another.’ I thought it was so easy — just kiss for a little while and then stop, how hard could it be to control yourself? — but it makes much more sense now.”

Her hands migrate down, and she pauses.

“Do you want me to…?”

“It’s okay,” he whispers.

“But you didn’t get to —”

“It’s fine,” Zuko shrugs. “Really, Katara. This has been incredible. I don’t need anything else.”

Katara frowns and bites her lip again.

“Will you show me how?”

Zuko tries to insist that really, he is more than satisfied, but Katara gently palms his still-aching cock through his pants and he lets out a groan. Katara’s eyes light up in excitement as she strokes him through the fabric.

“Can I…?”

He feels the usual twinge of vulnerability taking his pants off in front of a woman for the first time, especially with the concerned look Katara is giving him.

“Oh, sorry,” she says, catching his eye. “I’ve actually seen a lot of cocks before, but never aroused. In the healing huts,” she adds to his shocked expression. “It’s much bigger than I expected. How on earth is that supposed to fit inside me?”

Zuko gives another groan. At this point, she isn’t even going to have to touch him at all to get him to come.

She does, though, in a slow, tortuous exploration. Zuko thinks that perhaps she is just taking her time, soothing her own nerves, but he catches her sly grin. She is very aware of the effect she is having on him, and seems to be enjoying herself. This thought provokes another low moan, and Katara captures his lips in a kiss.

His release comes swiftly, legs shaking at the force of it. Katara beams happily at him and she waves a hand to clean up the mess.

“That’s useful,” he says thickly. He feels like he is sinking into the bed beneath him.

“Perks of being a waterbender,” she says snuggling into him. “Next time, can you touch me like that?”

The flame inside him dances eagerly. The base of the fire glows red with warm embers.

“Yes,” he whispers. “Anything.”

Zuko wakes first with the rising sun. His inner fire stirs with the sun’s rays and with the peaceful slumber on Katara’s face. He thinks again of his past lovers, especially Mai. He hopes she has found her own version of Katara.

As the sun pulls higher, Zuko can no longer ignore the sounds of city life outside. He must return to the tea shop to help Uncle Iroh with the breakfast crowd. He disentangles himself slowly from the sheets, and Katara reaches out a hand.

“Mmm, Zuko,” she rasps sleepily. “Stay.”

He leans forward to press a warm kiss to her neck. She smells heavenly.

“I have to go help Uncle,” he explains, stroking her hair.

Katara rolls over to face him, blinking against the sunlight.

“Can I come by to see you tonight?” she asks shyly.

His heart swells.

“I would love to see you.”

Katara beams.

“Good. I’ll see you later,” she says kissing him softly goodbye.

Zuko runs all the way home. He can’t help it; every few seconds, he remembers a new detail from the night before and his body wants to leap with joy. He settles for a more dignified jog, with an occasional enthusiastic jump over a puddle he could have easily avoided.

Uncle Iroh is waiting for him in the kitchen, looking concerned.

“There you are, Nephew. I was very worried. It is not like you to be out all night, and still be gone in the morning. I —”

He breaks off catching sight of the rare grin on his nephew’s face.

“Sorry, Uncle Iroh,” Zuko says happily. “I was with Katara.”

Uncle Iroh does a poor job of hiding his own smile.

“Ah, very well then.”

“She’s coming by tonight,” Zuko can’t resist adding. He must look like a lunatic smiling like this.

Uncle Iroh can’t contain himself. He bursts out laughing.

“I take it Lady Katara reciprocated your feelings? Good. I can make myself scarce tonight.”

Zuko flushes.

“I didn’t mean… I… We…”

“Oh, and I will leave some anti-fertility tea on your pillow before she arrives. It is important that you drink it before, and not after.”

“Uncle!”

“Come, Nephew. I have a new blend to prepare today, and I will need you to move some crates in the back.”

Zuko rubs his face in embarrassment, but he’s still grinning.

Chapter Text

The long summer days are hot and dry in Ba Sing Se. Katara is happy her hair is short enough to pile in a bun atop her head as she peers into her microscope.

Her work with Tako under Professor Lang progresses at a rapid pace. They have long since identified the precise microbe causing the White Death, and half a dozen others since. They still have no idea how to target and kill these tiny beings, but it is some comfort to know what they are. Tako becomes particularly skilled in the use of Professor Lang’s optics, which is useful as Professor Lang himself spends most of his days courting the favor of the Ba Sing Se nobility. Tako seems particularly rankled by this — he often refers to the people of the Upper Ring as ‘oppressors’ — but Katara is thankful for Professor Lang’s absence. It allows her to use her waterbending without fear of discovery.

She turns her attention to animal models in the laboratory, and spends most of her days infecting and treating mice with various microbes and tinctures. She masters moving increasingly small amounts of water, and can redirect blood flow with the merest twitch of her fingers. It comes in handy when she needs to put the mice down. She can end their suffering quickly.

Over dinner, she tells Zuko about her work.

“It’s strange. I thought I would use my healing for good, but I spend more time killing mice than I do helping people.”

Zuko mulls this over for a moment, chewing thoughtfully on his noodles.

“Killing the mice is part of it though. Without the mice, you couldn’t say for sure you had found the precise agent causing the disease, right?”

“That’s true,” she says with a sigh. “Still, sometimes I feel guilty. And what’s even weirder is that I’ve killed an actual person and I feel way guiltier about the mice.”

Zuko snorts.

“Well, Zhao was a dickhead. Plus, it was self defense.”

Katara sets down her chopsticks. She swallows thickly.

“I know, but… I wanted to kill him. I wanted him dead.”

Zuko does not seem perturbed by this admission.

“So did I.”

“I saw you fighting him. You weren’t aiming to kill.”

“No, I wasn’t. Zhao was still a soldier, and even though I’m not… even though I can’t go back to the Fire Nation, I can’t kill my own people. I did sort of hope he’d fall into the ocean and drown, though.”

Her evenings with Zuko are often like this: something normal, like a cheap dinner at a noodle house, punctuated by whispered admissions of their dark pasts. Zuko tells her about his mother, about the cruelty of his father, about his regrets of his own anger towards his crew and his uncle. Katara speaks of Sokka and her friends, her worries that she isn’t doing enough to help others, her desire to find a place she belongs. It’s a miracle no one overhears these confessions, but Katara learns that the people in Ba Sing Se are preoccupied with keeping their heads down and out of trouble from the Dai Li. No one has time to worry about anyone but themselves.

At night, however, Katara sees a whole new side of Zuko.

Katara had always rolled her eyes at the women of the communal huts in the north. They would sneak back late at night from a tryst with a secret boyfriend and gush over what they had done. Katara had barely been able to hold her tongue at this behavior. You’re just having sex, not inventing it, she wanted to say.

Now, she has to swallow her pride and admit she understands exactly how all those women felt. It was almost impossible to think that anyone had ever felt this good before.

She spends most evenings with Zuko, either in her small room at the university or in Zuko’s small room above the tea shop. He takes his time memorizing her, learning where she likes to be touched. His expression is serious as his tongue traces her skin, his warm fingers snaking around and into her. When he brings her to her peak, he smiles so brightly, it feels like she is looking into the sun.

She learns him, too. She is not surprised to find that Zuko seems to enjoy it most when she is gentle: hands running slowly through his short hair, soft kisses down his chest, a caress across his scarred face. He curls into her like a sloth-cat, his raspy voice a purr of contentment.

Katara.

But Katara craves the heat, and Zuko is more than happy to supply it to her. In the mornings, she rolls onto him, and he thrusts into her eagerly, his breath in short pants. He makes her come twice, three times, before he follows after her. Katara had heard of such a thing in the north, and she is thrilled to discover it is indeed possible. When she sees him again in the evening, he whispers her name, tells her how much he craves her, how much he wants to fuck her. Katara shakes with pleasure, burning with desire.

They lie back after, sweaty in the summer heat. He falls asleep wrapped around her like a frog-snake. She has to peel him off of her when it gets too sweaty, but she doesn’t mind.

The news of their budding relationship makes waves amongst her friends.

“I knew it!” cries Tako triumphantly. “I knew he liked you back. Hah, Jin owes me a moon cake. She thought for sure you were going to tell him you liked him first.”

Her girlfriends all want to know the details — was Lee as gifted in bed as he was on the dance floor? — but Katara keeps her mouth shut. She does not want to kiss and tell, and although her friends respect her wishes, they use every opportunity to tease Katara and Zuko. Every time Zuko serves them tea, someone pipes up.

“Do I get a smile, too, Lee?”

“Oooh, Lee, there are gardenias on the table today. Are you trying to send Uma a message?”

“Lee, will you still come dance with us even though you’re with Uma now?”

Zuko’s behavior at the dance parties does raise some eyebrows. He breaks his usual one-dance-only rule to whisk Katara around the floor two or three times, but he still spends most of the evening patrolling the tunnels. Katara resumes her usual dancing with Tako, which seems to cause a stir. Katara ignores this; Tako is her friend, and dancing with him is fun. Besides, she knows that although Zuko does like dancing with her, he does not enjoy the staring and whispering that accompanies it. Sometimes when they return home from a night out, he will wrap her in his arms and whirl her around the tea shop, or sway gently around her room, alone and away from prying eyes.

On the eve of the summer solstice, they spend a very pleasurable evening in Zuko’s room. The power of the sun seems to have a stimulating effect on Zuko, and he is more aggressive in his words and movements. While he always makes sure that Katara is satisfied, he seems particularly focused this evening, watching her from between her legs as he brings her to peak after peak.

“Zuko, please,” she moans. “I want you inside of me.”

Zuko obliges, thrusting into her as she tries not to scream with pleasure. She feels like he has transferred his fire to her, every movement electrifying her. Soon he is pressing himself against her, groaning her name. She swings her hips to match his pace and he shudders, a few final thrusts before he collapses next to her.

“Mmm,” she hums happily.

Zuko gives a contented sigh, folding himself around her. They lie quietly for a long time, so long that Katara thinks that perhaps Zuko has fallen asleep. Then he moves his head slightly and whispers in her ear.

“I love you.”

Katara turns to him immediately and sees a faint look of surprise on his face. Perhaps he had thought she was asleep, or he had not meant to say it out loud. Either way, the look is quickly replaced by one of resolution, and she knows that he means it.

She kisses him, hands roaming eagerly over his body. She tries to keep her touches gentle, but her excitement makes her a little more grabby than expected.

“I love you, too,” she gasps, beaming at him.

Zuko shines.

 

 

If there is one difficulty in their relationship, it is the question of their future together.

The beauty of their arrangement has always been that they could be open about their pasts. Each had seen the other at particularly low moments: Katara, murdering a man, and Zuko, suffering an attempted murder. They knew each other’s secrets and shameful memories, and they finally could speak openly about things they had always tried to bury.

But while they find it possible to speak about the past and the present, the future is always a stumbling block. Both of them are aware that a reckoning is coming. Katara will eventually go help the Avatar, and Zuko… well, Zuko has avoided thinking about his future ever since the North Pole.

As the summer passes by, Katara tries to bring it up, but Zuko dodges the discussion.

“Zuko, we need to talk about this,” Katara hisses quietly over their gyoza.

Zuko rubs his face distractedly.

“Fine,” he says wearily. “On one condition.”

The bottle of sake is bigger than either of them expected, but it does help the conversation flow a little more easily once they get started.

“Look, I know you’re going to have to leave the city eventually,” Zuko says. “You’re too good to be stuck here forever. And this place kinda sucks anyway.”

“But what about you? Do you want to stay here?”

“It doesn’t matter what I want.”

“Zuko…”

“No, really. I can’t move forward with my life, Katara, because I’m not really me anymore. I don’t have anywhere to go. I don’t have anything to do. Helping Uncle with the tea shop is the only thing I can really hope for.”

“Zuko, that’s not true. You could do so many things…”

“And what, hide who I am for the rest of my life?”

“Isn’t that what you’re doing here?”

“Yes,” he admits. “But as long as I keep my head down, no one is going to question who I really am. You know what people are like here. But you… you deserve more than this. You can help people — you want to help people. I would only hold you back.”

“You could help people, too, Zuko.”

“How?”

Katara hesitates. She knows Zuko will not react well to her suggestion. He seems to sense her anxiety and takes her hand.

“I’m listening,” he says patiently.

“Well… Aang will need to learn firebending.”

Zuko gawks at her.

“You think… you think I should train the Avatar? Katara, I can barely bend my own fire as it is.”

“You’ve gotten so much better! And Aang is good with dealing with chi flow and all that weird Avatar stuff, so you could even help each other!”

“Katara,” says Zuko sadly. “I can’t.”

“Why not?”

“The Avatar’s mission is to bring balance to the world, right? That balance must come at the expense of the Fire Nation. I don’t disagree that it needs to happen,” he adds quickly before Katara can protest. “But I’ve told you before, I can’t be involved in something that will hurt my people.”

Katara sighs. She hates to admit that she can see his point. She wants to press the issue further, to remind him that Aang needs to take down Firelord Ozai, which surely is for the greater good. But she takes in Zuko’s slumped shoulders and the fight leaves her. She leans forward to kiss his cheek.

“Okay,” she says softly. “You’ve been a good sport. We don’t have to talk about this right now. But maybe we can try again sometime?”

Zuko nods, the ghost of a smile on his face.

“We’re still going to finish this sake though, right?”

They stumble back to the tea shop an hour later, giggling and tipsy. Zuko keeps pulling her into side alleys on the way to steal kisses, which Katara enjoys immensely. As they fumblingly unlock the shop door, Katara hears voices.

Zuko freezes, instantly on alert. Katara reaches out with her bending.There are five other bodies in the main tea shop, but she has no way to tell who they are. To be safe, she takes a hold of the blood she senses, and freezes their limbs in place.

“What the —”

Katara releases her hold immediately and bursts into the shop. Zuko follows close behind. She’s not sure where he was keeping the blade he’s suddenly holding, but he moves subtly in front of her. Katara pushes her way around him, towards the source of the outburst.

Aang returns her hug tightly, and she lets out a laugh of delight.

“Aang! You scared us. What are you doing here?”

But her levity falls away at the serious expression on Aang’s face. She blinks, taking him in. There is a shadow of a beard across his face, and he’s sprouted a few centimeters taller than her in their time apart.

Over his shoulder, she spots Toph, Arluuk, and Uncle Iroh seated around a small table. Tako is leaning into a nearby corner looking absolutely furious.

“What’s going on?” asks Zuko slowly. He lowers his dagger, but it’s still clenched tightly in his fist.

“Why don’t you tell us, Firebender.”

“Tako!” scolds Katara, scandalized.

Tako shoots her a dirty look. He crosses his arms and leans back into his corner.

“Seriously, what is happening right now?”

“Ugh, this is going to take forever,” says Toph in a huff. “Okay, here’s the story. Apaa got stolen in the desert, we think he’s being kept here in the city, we found Mr. Dance Pants and asked him where you were, he said you were with your boyfriend and brought us to see Gramps here, Ice Man let it slip that ‘Lee’ is actually the presumed-dead prince of the Fire Nation and now he’s pissed. There, that basically catches you up to speed.”

Katara tries to process this information and exchanges a stunned look with Zuko. Tako lets out a grunt of frustration.

“If you’ll excuse me,” he says snidely, pushing towards the door.

“Tako, wait —”

But the door slams behind him. Katara rubs her hands over her eyes, wishing she had not imbibed so much sake.

“I’m sorry, Katara,” says Arluuk ruefully. “I thought he knew about Zuko.”

“He did, sort of,” she says wearily. “I mean, I told him about meeting Zuko before. He just didn’t know Zuko and Lee were one and the same.”

“Do you think he’ll… tell people?” asks Zuko quietly.

“No,” says Katara with a sigh. “But he’s going to be really angry with me.”

“That’s not fair. You were just keeping my secret. You keep his, too.”

“I know, but it’s not the same. Tako has some… strong feelings about the Fire Nation.”

“I mean, they did enslave him,” Toph points out, slurping a cup of tea.

Zuko buries his face in his hands, his expression anguished. Katara wants to soothe him, but something tells her an open display of affection will not yet be well received by her friends.

“Wait a minute,” she says, her tipsy brain catching up with Toph’s earlier proclamation. “Apaa is missing?”

Aang looks mournfully at the floor.

“Yeah. We think he’s here but… well, no one will tell us anything. They keep repeating the same thing—”

“There is no war in Ba Sing Se,” Zuko and Katara finish dully.

“Yeah! How did you know?”

“People around here say that a lot,” grouses Zuko. “So you’ve been in contact with the Dai Li?”

“Some dude named Long Feng,” says Toph. “Real piece of work. He’s going by the title of ‘Cultural Minister’ but you can tell he’s got this place under his thumb.”

“So they know the Avatar is here,” says Zuko with an edge of panic. “And now they know we’re associated with you…”

“Don’t worry,” assures Arluuk. “We snuck out and we weren’t followed. Toph can tell if we’ve got a tail. We went straight to Tako and he brought us here. We were all wearing these cloaks to disguise ourselves just in case.”

“It’s hot as balls here,” Toph complains. Uncle Iroh chokes on his tea at her crude words, but Zuko gives a little snort of laughter. Toph flashes him a brief smile.

“We didn’t mean to place you in danger, Katara,” Aang says earnestly. “We need to find Apaa. Only no one will talk to us, and I’m starting to think…”

“Don’t give up, Aang,” Katara reassures, placing a hand on his arm. “We can find him.”

“I have an idea,” says Zuko slowly. He curses softly in Fire Tongue and Uncle Iroh gives him a disapproving look. “I haven’t been following the Dai Li since… well, it’s been a few months. They’ve got a network of tunnels under the city. There are some huge caverns down there, definitely big enough to hide a flying bison.”

“Tunnels?” says Toph eagerly. “Now you’re speaking my language. Let’s go!”

“Hold on,” says Arluuk. “The Dai Li know we’re looking for Apaa. They’ll have increased security. We need a plan before charging in.”

“Aww, where’s the fun in that?”

Katara expects Aang to look cheered by this discussion, but he is still giving Katara a strangely pained look.

“We’ll get him back soon, Aang. We just need to make a plan.”

“Thanks, Katara,” he says, but she can tell his heart isn’t in it. She shares a concerned glance with Arluuk who shrugs.

“Well, this has been fun and all — you make a mean pot of tea, Gramps — but we better get back before one of those insane Joo Dee ladies realizes we’re missing.”

“We can walk you back, Katara,” Aang offers.

“Oh, that’s okay,” she says. “I’m staying here tonight.”

Aang looks concerned again, but Arluuk just rolls his eyes over Aang’s shoulder.

“We probably shouldn’t come back here for a while,” says Toph, seemingly oblivious to Aang’s strange behavior. “Is there somewhere private we can meet tomorrow night?”

Katara describes the underground dance hall she and her friends frequent. Toph seems delighted by this choice of location.

“See you tomorrow, Sugar Queen!” she says happily, dragging Arluuk and Aang out the door.

After they have gone, Uncle Iroh clears away the empty cups in the kitchen. Katara turns to Zuko. He leans back in his chair, lost in thought.

“Are you alright?”

“Not really,” Zuko admits. “Your friends hate me and you’re probably going to have to leave with them soon.”

“Zuko…”

“You don’t have to fix this, Katara,” Zuko says without malice. “In fact, I’m pretty sure you can’t fix this. I’m the one who chased around the Avatar for months — I don’t blame him for not trusting me.”

“It’s weird, he was ready to trust you in the North Pole. I don’t get what’s different.”

Zuko raises his eyebrow and gives her a sarcastic smile.

“You can’t tell?”

“No,” she says, annoyed.

“They don’t like that I’m your boyfriend.”

“That’s ridiculous!”

“Is it? How would you feel if Tako started hooking up with someone in the Dai Li?”

“That’s not the same thing.”

“Isn’t it? I can’t outrun who I was, Katara. And I don’t blame them for thinking I have an ulterior motive. I am still without my honor.”

Katara rolls her eyes.

“Enough with the stupid honor thing again!”

“It’s not stupid!”

“Yes, it is! You never lost your honor because that’s not a thing that can happen. We’ve discussed this; your father’s definition of honor isn’t one you agree with anymore.”

“I’ve still hurt people, Katara.”

“You’ve made a mistakes. You’ve atoned for them. Zuko, it’s time to let go of your shame. You can never move forward if you don’t.”

She expects him to erupt in more anger, but he stays quiet. Uncle Iroh pops his head back in.

“Is everything alright, Nephew?”

“It’s fine, Uncle.”

“Good. I need to see an old friend tonight. Please be careful, and do not let anyone inside until morning.”

Zuko looks surprised, but he nods. Katara follows him up to his room. They get undressed in silence, and it is one of the rare evenings they don’t take advantage of their privacy. Katara runs her hands through Zuko’s hair as he curls into her.

“I love you,” she says, a hint of desperation in her voice.

“I love you, too.”

She hopes that love will be enough in the end.

 

 

True to his word, Zuko spends the next few evenings sneaking through the tunnels of Ba Sing Se. Toph joins him; she alone seems to get along well with Zuko, although he pulls a face every time she refers to him as ‘Sparky.’

Arluuk is pouring over maps as Katara sneaks into the Avatar’s compound. Aang closes the door behind her, and they leave Arluuk to his maps to speak to each other.

“Arluuk told me you’ve basically mastered waterbending. Congratulations.”

Aang smiles, but it does not reach his eyes.

“Okay, out with it.”

“What?”

“You’ve been acting really weird. Tell me why.”

“It’s nothing!”

“Is this about Zuko?”

Aang grimaces.

“It’s not… I just wasn’t expecting to find him here with you, is all.”

“Do you not like him?”

“I mean, he did kidnap you.”

“He saved my life, Aang.”

“Yeah, only because you saved his crew member’s life! You make it sound so noble.”

“Aang, please. We’ve always been honest with each other. Can you just tell me what’s going on?”

Aang avoids her gaze, sighing deeply. There is a long pause before he speaks.

“Why Zuko?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, you could have anyone be your boyfriend. Why Zuko?”

“Aang, are you… jealous?”

Aang crosses his arms angrily.

“Monk Gyatso always said jealousy is a toxic emotion.”

“That doesn’t mean you don’t feel it every once and a while.”

“Argh, fine!” Aang says with a frustrated shout. “I’m jealous. Are you happy?”

“No,” answers Katara honestly.

Aang sighs.

“I had just hoped… you’re the nicest person I’ve ever met, Katara.”

“Aang, I literally killed a man in cold blood.”

“It was self defense!”

“No, Aang,” she says softly. “I wanted to kill him. I didn’t exactly like killing him, but I’m very glad he’s dead.”

Aang looks at her, thunderstruck.

“You asked me why I love Zuko,” she continues, ignoring Aang’s wince at the word ‘love.’ “Zuko has seen the worst parts of me. He didn’t flinch. He loves me for who I am, and not who he wants me to be.”

Aang worries his lip between his teeth.

“I guess I can understand that,” he says resignedly. “Katara, I hope you don’t feel that I’ve… judged you for what you’ve done.”

“I know,” she says with a slight smile. “Just because we make different choices doesn’t mean we can’t be friends.”

“Yeah,” Aang says quietly. “Friends.”

Katara feels guilt building inside of her. She doesn’t want to hurt Aang, and she knows this rejection will hurt. But she can’t see any way around it, and in the end, she really does want to be his friend.

Aang must see something in her expression, because he gives her a real smile.

“I’ll be okay, Katara,” he says gently. “You’re right. I had an idea of you in my head, and I just kept building on it while we were apart. Maybe I was wrong. If Zuko makes you happy… well, that’s what I want for you. To be happy.”

Katara pulls Aang into a hug, which he reciprocates warmly.

“Thanks, Aang.”

“Do you really think Zuko and Toph will find Apaa?”

“Read ‘em and weep!” comes a muffled shout from outside the door.

Katara and Aang emerge to find Toph grinning triumphantly in the foyer, a disheveled Zuko behind her.

“Pretty sure you say that for card games, not heists,” he complains.

“Yeah, yeah, whatever, Sparky. The point is, we found Apaa!”

“Really?” Aang is practically levitating with excitement. “Where is he?”

“Right here in my pocket, Twinkletoes. Come on, what do you think? That we’d lead him right back here on a leash? We released him from the tunnels, but he’s taking a lap around the city for some fresh air.”

Aang looks stricken.

“What if he gets captured again?”

“They’ll have a tough time capturing him,” Zuko says quietly. “Most of the Dai Li are… indisposed.”

Tui and La,” breathes Arluuk, “what did you do to them?”

Toph beams, clapping her hands together with glee.

“We dosed their tea with some very potent laxatives.”

There is a stunned silence before everyone bursts into laughter. Even Zuko gives a little rasp of amusement.

They hole up at the Avatar’s for the evening, and it is well past midnight when Apaa lands. He looks a little worse for wear, and seems very afraid of Zuko.

“It’s my own fault,” says Zuko, voiced tinged with regret. “They had these manacles on him, and I had to blast the chains with fire to get him free. It really scared him… most animals don’t like fire.”

“You used your bending?” Katara asks in an undertone.

“I was really angry,” Zuko says with a shrug.

Katara slowly heals Apaa’s burns — she tries to underplay the seriousness of some of the injuries to console an already weeping Aang — and Zuko watches carefully nearby. By the end of the hour, Apaa is eating apples out of Zuko’s hand and giving little snuffling sounds of contentment.

“Good to have you back, Fur Ball,” Top says, hugging one of Apaa’s giant legs.

Arluuk says a prayer to Tui and La in thanks for Apaa’s safe return. Aang insists on sleeping outside with his friend.

In the morning, Katara and Zuko sneak away to their respective homes before anyone is the wiser.

“Thank you,” she says before they part. “For helping Aang.”

Zuko gives her a kiss.

“I’ll see you tonight?”

“Tonight,” she promises.

 

 

Word slowly trickles through Ba Sing Se that the Avatar and his bending masters are living in the city. Katara finds it difficult to meet with her friends; she insists on keeping her connection to them a secret, just in case.

“If you need to leave suddenly, I won’t be a loose end,” she explains to Aang.

“You don’t want to come with us?” Aang asks.

“It’s not that,” she says. “My work is here. Tako and I have made so much progress. I really think this is how we can help the most people. But I need access to the lab and…”

Aang grimaces. She has described to him their methods of animal testing, which is a point of contention between them. He is, however, happy to hear that Katara is making an effort to eat vegetarian meals more frequently.

Word comes for Aang from the Eastern Air Temple, a guru who claims he can help Aang access the Avatar state. Aang is reluctant to leave, but Katara encourages him to go.

“I know the Avatar state is still troubling you. Besides, I’ll be right here when you get back.”

Aang eventually agrees to fly with Apaa and Arluuk. Toph begs off an adventure involving flying.

“As much as I like having Fur Ball back, I’d rather keep my feet on the ground where I can see them, thank you very much. Don’t worry, I’ll use the time to keep tabs on the Dai Li. Maybe Sparky will join me for some fun.”

Katara watches as Apaa sails away under the cover of darkness. She hopes Aang will find what he needs.

A week passes, and the stress of dealing with Avatar drama, piles of work, and an angst-ridden boyfriend catches up to her. Katara hates these strange attacks that overwhelm her. One moment, she is fine, hard at work like always, and the next she is shaking and trembling. Her heart pounds and her hands and feet tingle. She has to close her eyes against the onslaught of panic that consumes her. She tries to push through the day, but the feeling only grows worse. When she meets Zuko at the tea shop at the end of the day, she puts on a brave face, trying to compensate for her inner turmoil. But she is frequently distracted by dark thoughts, and Zuko catches on.

“You’re unwell,” he says, frowning at her over the simple dinner he has cooked for them.

“I’m fine!” she says brightly. Too bright. Too loud.

Zuko sighs and they finish their meal. Katara doesn’t eat much, and Zuko clears away their plates. She crawls into bed, hoping he will believe she is just tired from a long day.

Zuko settles down next to her and strokes her hair.

I love you.”

His Water Tongue is clumsy and limited, but he had been very motivated to learn this phrase. Katara bursts into tears.

Zuko continues to stroke her hair as she cries, whispering his few phrases in Water Tongue. Sometimes it makes her laugh and she feels a brief ray of sunlight on her. But then the clouds come over her again and she descends back into the darkness.

She sleeps fitfully, and Zuko extends a sleepy hand towards her when she wakes in a panic.

“I’m sorry,” she repeats over and over. “I’m sorry, I’m being stupid.”

I love you.”

In the morning, she wakes late, disoriented. Zuko has left her a note.

K,

I went to tell Tako you were taking a sick day. I’ve got breakfast for you out in the kitchen. I’ll come check on you soon.

Love,

Z

Katara tugs on one of Zuko’s old tunics and wanders into the small kitchen. She smiles at the arrangement of her favorite fruits. She hears the door open behind her.

“Did you try to make this into a picture of an octopus?” she says, lifting her plate for inspection. “It’s so cute, Zuk — oh! What happened to your face?”

Zuko gives her a grimace.

“I hoped you wouldn’t notice.”

“You have a black eye!”

“It’s fine, Katara.”

“Come here,” she demands.

Zuko sits obediently while she heals the bruise. Zuko raises an eyebrow.

“People in the shop are going to wonder how I got rid of it so fast.”

“Oh,” says Katara, feeling another flood of anxiety. “I didn’t…”

“It’s okay!” Zuko says quickly, noting her panic. “I’ll just tell them I put some makeup on it.”

Katara gives him a skeptical look but Zuko shrugs.

“It will give the old ladies something to talk about. How are you feeling?”

“Um, okay,” she says. The feeling of dread is coursing through her again, and she closes her eyes against it.

“Uncle has some calming tea for you. I’ll go make some.”

“You don’t have to do this, Zuko. I’ll be fine.”

Zuko looks unsure of himself. Katara reaches for his hand and he gives her a tight smile.

“You would take care of me if I needed help, wouldn’t you?” Zuko asks tentatively.

“Of course.”

“I know I’m not as good at this stuff as you are, but I want to help. I just want to make you feel better.”

“You’re very good at taking care of me,” says Katara with a genuine smile. “I’m afraid I’m not very good at being a patient.”

Zuko gives a rasping laugh and goes to boil water for the tea.

“So the black eye?” she prods.

“You’re not going to like it.”

“Please, Zuko. Now I’m imagining something really terrible.”

“Well, I went to go see Tako to tell him you were sick and…”

Katara’s hand fly to her face in horror.

“Tako punched you? How could he —”

“It’s okay, Katara. I told him to do it.”

“What?! Why?”

“To get it out of his system. Look, he’s spent his whole life angry at the Firelord and the Fire Nation for his enslavement. Now he discovers someone he thought was his friend and equal was actually high up in the rankings of a power structure that oppressed him? I’d be furious, too.”

“But Zuko, you were a child. You didn’t have any real power to stop what was happening. You didn’t even know it was happening.”

“Still, I lived a life that profited from his suffering. I don’t blame him for hating me and what I represented.”

Katara quietly sips her tea. If she puts aside her current feelings about Zuko, she understands Tako’s position very well. After all, it had been a little over a year ago that she had met Zuko on the ice, and she had felt ready to kill him then. Perhaps a punch in the face wasn’t such an overreaction.

“I still don’t think getting punched is the right way to make reparations,” Katara says with a frown.

“I agree,” Zuko says, sitting down to drink his own blend of tea. “But I’ve only got so much to offer, and I figured it would at least settle things between us for a bit.”

“Do you think it worked?”

“Yes, actually, I think it did. He said he would come by for dinner tonight with the two of us, so even if he’s still mad, he’s at least not going to put you in the middle of it, which is what I wanted.”

Katara takes Zuko’s hand.

“Thank you. You’re a really good boyfriend, Zuko.”

He flushes and bites his lip.

“Are you going to be okay for a while if I pop back down to the shop? I’ve got some scrolls in my room if you want to read them.”

“Okay,” she says sleepily. The calming tea is very strong, but it’s helping.

Zuko gives her a long kiss and leaves the apartment.

Katara spends the day lazing about. There are still moments of blinding panic, but the more she naps, the better she feels. By the time Tako arrives for dinner, she feels well enough to put back on her own clothes and help make a salad while Zuko boils noodles.

Tako seems to have indeed buried the hatchet. He and Zuko engage in a spirited discussion of amendments to Fire Nation law to favor protections for the people over those in power. Katara sips more of her calming tea, pressing sleepily into Zuko’s side. He glances down occasionally to give her a small smile or a kiss on the forehead before he turns back to his discussion with Tako.

The next morning, she feels back to her usual self and breathes a sigh of relief. She pulls Zuko away from his morning meditations and tugs off his clothes. She wants to focus on his pleasure to show her gratitude to him, but as usual, Zuko flips the tables on her. Soon, she is the one writhing and moaning in delight.

On her way out the door, he catches her by the arm and pulls her in for one more searing kiss.

I love you,” he whispers. Fire Tongue this morning.

I love you,” she whispers back. Water Tongue flows from her lips.

It is a memory she will hold tightly in her heart in the coming days.

 

 

It is a busy day in the lab, and Tako and Katara deal with increasingly strange demands from Professor Lang. He sends an assistant scurrying between his office and the lab, asking Katara and Tako to provide him with samples and slides and notes. Tako and Katara comply, but as the sun sets, they start to wonder if this strange dance will go on all night.

Finally, the assistant requests that Tako and Katara themselves follow her to Professor Lang. Katara is surprised that they walk right past Lang’s office. In fact, they exit the building altogether and walk to main administrative building into the opulent office of the dean himself. Tako pulls a face; it’s clear he is not a fan of the decor that boasts of power and wealth.

Professor Lang is seated next to the dean, and, strangely, both are seated across from a young woman sitting in the dean’s rather large chair. There’s something familiar about her. Katara exchanges a sidelong glance with Tako, who seems similarly confused.

“So, this is the famous duo: Uma and Tako?”

The woman rises from her chair to inspect them. Katara feels uncomfortable and tries not to fidget under the woman’s stare.

“Professor Lang has been quite talkative these past few hours,” the woman continues in an almost bored voice. “The work he describes is remarkable. Truly, you have both made great strides for the Earth Kingdom.”

There’s something so familiar about this woman’s mannerisms… if only Katara could just think

“Professor Lang is accepting a promotion,” the woman says with a smile that does not quite reach her golden eyes. “And you are both coming with him. Your talents are better served under my direction.”

“And you are…?” Tako pipes up.

Katara’s blood runs cold. She knows exactly who this woman is.

“I’m the woman who’s bringing you to the Fire Nation. Say goodbye to Ba Sing Se.”

Chapter Text

It’s an unusually quiet night in the tunnels, and Toph is disappointed.

“The one night I get you to ditch Sugar Queen and there’s not even anything fun happening!” she says, kicking a pebble despondently.

“I’m not ditching Katara. She sent a message to the shop earlier that she has to work late.”

“Yeah, yeah… wait a minute. Do you hear that?”

Zuko does not hear anything, but races after Toph. He trusts her tiny feet.

At the end of the long hall, Zuko can make out voices. He’s able to identify the leader of the Dai Li, Long Feng, and a few other head honchos. Toph creeps closer, Zuko close behind.

“It is done. Now we shall rule the city without interference.”

We?

Zuko’s blood runs cold. He knows the sound of his sister’s voice anywhere.

“Let me make something perfectly clear.” Azula’s tone is sharp and dangerous. “You have reached this position due to my plan. Only one of us can rule, and I’m afraid it’s not going to be you.”

There is a sound of earth slamming, and Long Feng lets out a howl of pain and fury.

“Don’t worry, you’re just being replaced,” says Azula idly. “I need someone who can keep a close watch on things while I’m away. Thanks for all your help. The Dai Li have been very handy. I’m sure they’ll keep things in order when I’m back in the Fire Nation.”

The footsteps of the group and the shouts of Long Feng drift away. Zuko stands petrified, his heart pounding in fear.

“Whoa, there. What’s wrong, Sparky? Do you know that lady?”

“My sister,” he rasps, throat tight. “Azula.”

“Oh, shit.”

“Exactly.”

They make their way as quickly as possible back to the Jasmine Dragon. Uncle Iroh is enjoying a cup of tea and looks up in alarm at Toph and Zuko’s breathless faces.

“She’s here,” gasps Zuko. “Azula. She’s come for the Avatar.”

Uncle Iroh ushers them in, urging them to drink tea and recount exactly what had happened. Zuko tries to refuse — who would drink tea at a time like this? — but Toph grins and takes a cup.

“What?” she says. “If your crazy sister is really back, I might not get tea this good for a long time.”

“Ugh,” groans Zuko. “Uncle, Azula has taken over the city. She used Long Feng to take control of the Dai Li for herself. She says she is installing her own puppet while she goes after the Avatar.”

“Actually,” corrects Toph, “she said she was going back to the Fire Nation.”

Zuko pauses. That had been what Azula said, but surely she had not sailed all the way to the Earth Kingdom to capture Ba Sing Se and not the Avatar residing in it?

“Maybe she knows Aang is away,” Toph continues. “I know Apaa left at night to make tracking harder, but maybe someone spotted them. That might be where she’s going next.”

“If that is the case, there is work to do,” says Uncle Iroh solemnly. “Prince Zuko, there is something I must tell you.”

Whatever Zuko expected his Uncle to say, it definitely wasn’t this.

“Let me get this straight,” he says faintly once his uncle has finished. “You are the leader of a top secret organization that is designed to help keep balance and protect the Avatar. This has been going on for years.”

“Yes,” Iroh says. “I am sorry I did not tell you sooner, Nephew. I did not think you were ready.”

Zuko lets his head thud loudly on the table in front of him. His mind is swimming.

“So what now?” asks Toph. “We have to tell Aang to watch out for Princess Danger, right? He’s supposed to be at the Eastern Air Temple for another week. We can make it there in a few days if we leave tonight.”

“I can’t just leave,” says Zuko, worried. “What about Katara? If Azula finds out about her connection to the Avatar… if she finds out Uncle and I are here…”

“You are right, Nephew. Perhaps our best strategy is to divide and conquer. I will accompany Master Toph to the Avatar and Master Arluuk. You shall remain here to keep and eye on the Dai Li and Lady Katara.”

Zuko nods, his panic ebbing a bit. It had sounded like Azula was leaving soon, so if he could just lie low for a few days…

It doesn’t take long for Uncle Iroh to pack his things, and Toph assumes it is too dangerous for her to risk returning to the Avatar’s compound. Instead, Zuko gives her all his meager traveling supplies, and Toph looks thrilled.

“It will be nice not having to walk around in these stupid fancy clothes any more!”

“Please be careful,” says Zuko seriously.

Toph’s smirk falls.

“Hey, it’s gonna be okay, Sparky. I’ll take good care of Gramps for you.”

“You should take care of yourself, too.”

“Aw, don’t worry about me!”

Zuko’s heart twists. He’s grown quite fond of Toph and her brash ways. It reminds him of when he was a child and actually got along with Azula.

Toph seems to recognize Zuko’s melancholy mood, and steps in to give him a tight hug.

“This never happened,” she says, pulling away from him quickly. “If Sugar Queen asks, I’ll deny everything.”

Zuko gives a small chuckle.

“Bye, Toph.”

“Take care, Sparky.”

Zuko bows deeply to his uncle on his way out.

“I trust you, Nephew,” says Uncle Iroh, as if sensing Zuko’s trepidation. “You have the strength to do what is best. We will be together again soon.”

It takes a long time for Zuko to fall asleep without the sound of his uncle’s muffled snoring through the wall.

 

 

The customers are disappointed the next day by Iroh’s absence. Zuko does his best to explain — an urgent tea fiasco — but most people don’t seem to buy it. In the end, people don’t dwell on the disappearance of his uncle because they are too busy discussing the news.

Ba Sing Se has fallen.

Bulletins declaring allegiance to the Fire Nation have popped up all over the city. All citizens will be required to take an oath to their new rulers. This is all treated as good news; bloodshed did not occur thanks to the lack of war in Ba Sing Se.

Zuko keeps an open ear as he circles around the tea shop. He listens for any sounds of Azula’s name, but no one mentions the Fire Princess.

It is almost closing time when Jin appears on the verge of tears. Zuko ungracefully shoos out the last of the customers and turns to Jin.

“Lee, I’m so sorry,” she says, sobbing. “They took them away last night. I wanted to come sooner but they were following me.”

“Slow down,” Zuko says, shushing her. “Who was taken?”

“Uma and Tako.”

There is a loud buzzing sensation throughout Zuko’s body. He blinks, trying to clear it.

“What?”

“There was a big meeting yesterday with the dean of the university and Professor Lang. There was a rumor that Lang was being poached by another university because he’s always going after more funding and stuff. And then… I don’t know exactly what happened, but Uma came to me and told me that Professor Lang accepted in a position in Caldera City!”

Zuko struggles to keep his breathing even and listens to Jin.

“When are they leaving?”

“That’s the worst part,” cries Jin. “They already left.”

Zuko lowers himself into a chair before his legs give out. Jin continues to cry.

“Uma said that they had to go with Professor Lang — it didn’t really sound like she had a choice — but she wanted me to give you this.”

Jin holds out a letter with shaking fingers. Zuko snatches it. It’s immediately apparent that the letter is written in a code, and that it has been opened at least once before.

“Who else has read this?” Zuko whispers.

“The Dai Li showed up just after Uma left. They knew she left it with me and forced me to open it.”

“And now they’ve probably followed you here, Jin!”

“No, they didn’t!” Jin cries. “Please, Lee, listen to me. I promised Uma I would bring this to you. Only I knew the Dai Li were waiting to follow me, so I wrote a second letter last night, a fake one. I brought it to the librarian. His name is also Lee. I just wrote that he should burn it immediately in case the Dai Li found it. The Dai Li already questioned him about the letter — he’s fine — and they stopped following me earlier. But to be safe, I waited a while to come here. I’m so sorry, Lee, but her ship left before dawn. There wasn’t any time…”

Zuko scans the sparse letter.

Dear Lee,

I am leaving tonight for the Fire Nation to continue my research. It is an exciting opportunity, and I am very glad Tako will be with me to help.

I think it will be very interesting to see the Fire Nation. I know you once said you would like to see it as well. I must say, I hope you don’t choose to visit while I am still working there — I will be very busy!

I hope to share a cup of tea with you again soon. Thank you for everything you have done for me.

-Uma

Zuko’s inner flame is roaring. He wants to run, to hunt Azula’s ship down and drag it back to port. He wants to crush something, to hurt someone. The fury inside him is too hot; it will burn him down to nothing.

“Lee?”

“Thank you, Jin,” Zuko says stiffly. “You were brave to deceive the Dai Li and deliver this message. I am forever grateful to you.”

Jin’s eyes swim with unshed tears.

“Oh, Lee,” she says hiccuping. “I’m so, so sorry.”

They sit in silence. Zuko knows that he should at least offer Jin some tea, but he is too focused on what needs to be done.

Katara is long gone. A good Fire Nation ship — and Zuko is sure that Azula has commandeered the best vessel the Fire Nation navy has to offer — will have made too much progress to be caught by anything made in the Earth Kingdom. Zuko rereads the letter. It is clear that Katara wants him to stay away, not to mount a rescue. But it is insane to even consider her entering the Fire Nation. Even with Tako on her side, she would be entering a den of viper-lizards. Zuko could not abandon her.

“I just don’t understand,” says Jin finally. “I know that Professor Lang’s research is important, but Uma and Tako work on disease outbreaks. I haven’t heard of any problems in the Fire Nation, so what would they possibly want with them?”

This is an excellent point, and it launches Zuko into a new realm of worries. What if there was some sort of plague in the Fire Nation? Katara could certainly heal people, but not without revealing her waterbending, which would put her in great danger. Zuko rubs his face in frustration.

“Fuck!” he yells, pounding the table. Jin gives a frightened jump and Zuko feels a hot flash of shame. “Sorry.”

“It’s alright,” Jin says quietly. “I understand.”

Jin stays for a while, but it is clear neither of them has anything else to say. Before she leaves, Zuko grabs her arm.

“I need to ask you one more favor,” he says.

“What is it?”

“Take care of the others. Keep having the dance parties, but be safe. The Dai Li will be looking for people who oppose them. We have to fight smart.”

“You’re leaving,” she says plainly.

“I can’t stay,” he whispers. “Not while they have Uma.”

Jin nods, her jaw set.

“We’ve sat on the sidelines of this war for long enough. It’s here now. We need to do our part. Good luck, Lee. I hope we meet again.”

She gives him a graceful bow, Earth Kingdom style, and Zuko returns it. He locks the door behind her and goes to gather the few remaining things in the apartment.

His fire blazes. He hopes he can do what he needs to before it runs out.

 

 

Uncle Iroh has always cautioned Zuko to not let his anger get the best of him, to think before he acts.

Zuko is very grateful his uncle is not around to witness his next several terrible decisions.

He boards up the shop and hangs a deliberately vague sign out front — closed until further notice — and leaves a no more explanatory letter for the landlord. Then he sneaks out to steal an ostrich-horse from the Dai Li headquarters.

The stupid thing is well-trained, and squawks like crazy when Zuko tries to ride it. It keeps running back towards the base, leaving Zuko spinning around and dizzy trying to urge it to go forward. Eventually Zuko is thrown to the ground and, now being chased by several angry Dai Li agents, is forced to flee into the slums of the city. In his distraction, he’s almost mugged by two much larger men, and narrowly escapes by threatening them with fire. He’s ironically lucky that Azula has recently taken Ba Sing Se; it’s no longer illegal to firebend, so Zuko can escape.

By the time he reaches the Dai Li tunnels — now crawling with activity thanks to his stunt with the ostrich-horse — he is already exhausted. He drags himself through the narrow sewers that exit the city walls, gagging. He is free, but he is in desperate need of sleep and a bath. He will have neither for quite some time.

He is fortunate to make good time during the rest of his journey. He finds a river to bathe in, but he sleeps sparingly. He is limping a little as he hauls himself up the steps of the Eastern Air Temple, and sags against the wall of the cave where he finally finds Aang, Arluuk, and a small, half-naked man who Zuko can only assume is Guru Pathik.

In a bizarre stroke of luck, Uncle Iroh and Toph arrive only minutes after Zuko, despite their headstart. Both are shocked to see him.

“Nephew! What are you doing here? What has happened?”

Zuko does his best to recount the news properly, but it is hard with all the interruptions and outbursts. By the end, Aang, Arluuk, and Uncle Iroh are shaking their heads in dismay. Even Toph looks frightened.

“But why would they take Katara?” Aang cries. “What could Azula possibly want with her?”

“The Master of Death.”

They turn to look back at Guru Pathik. Zuko had forgotten about him entirely.

“The Master of… Death?” Arluuk asks, confused.

“It has been said,” Guru Pathink says in an airy, detached voice, “that the Master of Death can save or kill a man with the flick of a wrist. The Master can stop a plague or bring pestilence. To have the Master of Death on one’s side is to defeat death itself.”

Zuko has to admit, that does sound like something that would appeal to his father.

“No way is Sugar Queen the Master of Death,” scoffs Toph. “She doesn’t kill people.”

“Well…” Arluuk says awkwardly.

“She killed someone?!”

“It was in self defense!” Aang shouts.

“Kinda,” mutters Arluuk darkly.

“Who did she kill?” Toph says with excitement.

“Admiral Zhao,” Arluuk responds. “The guy who killed the Moon Spirit.”

Toph lets out a long whistle.

“Damn, Sugar Queen… Aw, man, ‘Master of Death’ is a way cooler nickname than Sugar Queen! I guess I better start calling her that.”

“Katara doesn’t bring death and pestilence,” says Aang irritably. “She’s a healer.”

“Yes,” agrees Uncle Iroh. “But rumors have a power of their own. If Azula had thought these rumors were true…”

“She wants to use Katara as a weapon,” Zuko realizes with alarm.

“Katara wouldn’t do that,” Aang says.

“Azula won’t give her a choice,” Zuko says. “And forget Azula. If my fath— if Firelord Ozai is behind this, then…”

Silence descends.

“If Ozai thinks she can be of use,” says Arluuk slowly. “That might not be a bad thing. No, really! It means he’ll want to keep her alive.”

“Alive and trapped in the Fire Nation!”

“I know, Aang. But Katara is smart, and she knows how the Fire Nation works. Honestly, out of any of us, she’s probably the most equipped to be… accidentally undercover.”

To say Zuko feels cheered by this idea is a bit of an overstatement, but he must admit it is a good point.

“Still, Firelord Fuckface isn’t going to be happy when she refuses to kill people for him. We’ve got to get her out before that happens.”

“Hm,” Arluuk says, “that would actually line up pretty well with our plan.”

“Plan?”

The Avatar and his two Masters turn to look at Zuko. They share a worried look.

“Nephew,” Uncle Iroh says in a serious tone. “It is time for you to choose a side.”

Zuko looks at his uncle. His heart gives an uncomfortable lurch.

“I can’t go against the Fire Nation, Uncle. It’s treason.”

“You would not be against the Fire Nation. You would be against Firelord Ozai. He has worked to convince the world that they are one and the same, but he is wrong. If you want to fight for your people, Prince Zuko, you must choose for which people you would fight.”

Zuko sees the expectant faces of Aang, Toph, and Arluuk staring at him. He closes his eyes, head in his hands.

Truthfully, he had expected this moment. Part of the urgency of his travels was not only to warn the Avatar and his friends, but to try to outrun this decision. And yet, every moment he slowed his pace, every time he attempted to sleep, he would see Katara: smiling and trusting that he was a good man, urging him to do the right thing.

Zuko takes a deep breath.

“Avatar Aang,” he says, bowing deeply. “For a long time, I thought it was my destiny to capture you and bring glory to the Fire Nation. I was wrong. I may not know what my destiny is, but I know what is right. You must help restore balance to the world and bring and end to Firelord Ozai’s tyranny. I may not be as great a firebender as others, but I have achieved mastery. If you would accept my help, I can teach you what you need in order to bring Ozai down.”

There is a stunned silence. Guru Pathik, sensing the tension, tiptoes out of the cave slowly.

“Okay,” Aang says finally. He bows low in return and Zuko blinks.

“Okay?”

“Okay.”

“Welcome to the team, Sparky!” Toph cheers, giving him a bruising punch to the arm.

Arluuk gives him a nod. Uncle Iroh is beaming.

“I am so proud of you, Prince Zuko.”

Zuko flushes. His inner flame warms.

“Now,” Uncle Iroh says, clapping his hands. “I must leave you. I will see you again soon, Nephew.”

“You will?”

“Yeah,” Aang says. “About that. We better fill you in on our way to Kyoshi.”

“What’s in Kyoshi?”

“We’ve got some friends to meet.”

 

 

Zuko has never ridden on a flying bison before, but it’s rather pleasant other than the cold. Toph, who doesn’t seem to like flying much, snuggles against his back. By the end of their long journey, even Arluuk and Aang have found an excuse to sit next to him.

Apaa begins his descent. The roiling in Zuko’s stomach has little to do with the change in altitude. He starts to question whether he’s made the right choice, if it’s morally acceptable to risk the lives of Fire Nation people by helping the Avatar. Could he even help the Avatar with his bending as shaky as it was? And what about Katara — was he already too late to save her?

“Hey, Sparky, you okay?”

“Hm? Oh, yeah, sorry.” He tries to warm himself but his inner flame sputters weakly.

“Just think about what a jerk Zhao was,” Arluuk suggests.

“Ouch, a little too hot, Sparky.”

“Sorry.”

“It’s all good. Thanks for keeping us warm. This is pretty nice.”

As they disembark from Apaa, a troupe of women in armor and thick war paint approaches to greet them. There is a big dust up over Zuko’s presence — swords are drawn, a woman named Suki manages to get him in a headlock — but Aang is able to smooth things over. Zuko is impressed by the monk’s way with people. Zuko could certainly learn a few things about how to appease a hostile crowd.

The second challenge comes as the sun sets and the warriors of the Southern Isles disembark on the shoreline. A young man with a fresh tattoo on his arm bounds over to them, eagerly embracing Arluuk and Aang. It’s clear by the way he’s looking around who he really wants to see.

“Where’s my sister?”

Zuko’s stomach falls. This must be Sokka, the brother Katara had always spoke so fondly of. Zuko watches as Aang delivers the bad news. Sokka and his crew look devastated.

“We’re going to get her back,” says Aang with conviction. “And we’ve got some help.”

He introduces Toph, who marches over to Sokka and shakes his hand in greeting. Sokka winces at the strength of her grip, but gives her an amused smile. His attention turns to Zuko.

“Who are you?”

Zuko takes a deep breath. Some of the Water Tribe warriors are already eyeing him suspiciously.

“My name is Zuko. I was once the Crown Prince of the Fire Nation. I have been exiled by Firelord Ozai and he ordered an attempt on my life before the Siege of the North.”

The Southern warriors react instantly, clubs raised to strike. Only Sokka does not move.

“Zuko? Katara’s Zuko?”

Zuko’s chest feels tight. Katara must have told her brother about her capture by the Fire Nation prince, and that she had saved his life. Zuko nods.

“That’s a bit of an understatement,” Toph laughs. “He’s Katara’s boyfriend now.”

Now Sokka does raise his weapon.

“Ugh, men,” Toph says, rolling her eyes. “Look, Katara is a grown-ass woman and she may have weird taste in guys, but if she trusts Zuko, that means he’s a good person. And he’s going to teach Aang firebending so we can take down Firelord Fuckface, so let’s just all get to work, shall we?”

Sokka’s expression wavers between distrust of Zuko and amusement at the phrase ‘Firelord Fuckface.’ Eventually, he drops his club and extends an arm in the traditional Water Tribe greeting.

“I’ve still got my eye on you,” he hisses under his breath.

Zuko has to admit, meeting Sokka went better than he expected.

 

 

Once the dust is settled, the group gathers to discuss their plan. People keep shooting Zuko furtive looks, and he has to work hard to swallow his anger. He was here, wasn’t he? He wasn’t about to run away and tell the Fire Nation they were coming.

Zuko tries to focus. The plan is intricate, and he had only heard a rough sketch on the ride to Kyoshi. The general idea was to take advantage of an upcoming eclipse. Firebenders would be powerless without the force of the sun to sustain them, and the other nations would be at an advantage. They would storm Caldera City and find Firelord Ozai and Aang would use airbending, waterbending, and earthbending to take him out. Zuko immediately sees several issues with this plan.

“First of all, you can’t just sail into the harbor. There are booby traps that can be deployed before you ever make it to the beach. And even if we do get on shore, the Firelord isn’t going to be out in the open to greet us. There are fortified bunkers under the palace. And even if we find the one he’s hiding in, you want Aang to kill him when he’s made it very clear he’s not comfortable doing that!”

There is an outburst of protests, and Suki silences them all.

“We know about the booby traps already,” she explains to Zuko’s surprise. “We’ve had spies in the Fire Nation for a while now. And as for the bunkers, we’re pretty sure Toph has it covered.”

The little earthbender flexes her biceps to the amusement of the gathered warriors.

“Well, what about Aang?”

The table turns to look at the Avatar. Zuko is struck by how young Aang looks. He’s barely seventeen, with a patchy, uneven beard and long, lanky limbs.

“There’s only one way,” Suki says gently. “Aang, if you don’t take him down, we lose our chance to restore balance to the world.”

Aang fidgets nervously.

“I know.”

The warriors seem satisfied with this and resume discussing details. It is not lost on Zuko that Aang did not technically agree to kill Firelord Ozai. He tries to pull Aang aside after the meeting, but the airbender disappears into his room.

Instead, Zuko sits alone outside the meeting room watching the stars. He hears the long grass rustle nearby and turns to see Sokka approaching him.

Zuko has been impressed by the Water Tribe warrior today. It is clear he has a good head for battlefield tactics, carefully weighing risks and rewards. The lives of his soldiers are precious to him. Zuko can see why Katara admires her brother.

Sokka gestures next to him and Zuko nods. Sokka takes a seat and they listen to the faint sounds of the ocean in the distance.

“I’ve got a special mission for you if you’re up for it.”

Zuko doesn’t have to ask.

“You want me to rescue Katara.”

“Three times she’s been taken by the Fire Nation, and not once have I been able to help her,” Sokka whispers in a tight voice. “I can’t leave her behind again.”

“The Avatar will need to take down Firelord Ozai,” Zuko says slowly. “I won’t be able to firebend during the eclipse. If anything, I’ll be a distraction in a fight. I would be much better put to use finding Katara.”

“Do you have any idea where they’ll be keeping her?”

Zuko rubs his temples in frustration. He’s been considering this problem for the past two weeks without a satisfactory answer.

“Honestly, I don’t know. It’s possible she would be at the university because that’s where her work would be. But if my fath— if Firelord Ozai has any inkling that we’re coming, and he thinks she’s a valuable weapon, he will probably bring her into hiding with him.”

“So she might be in one of the bunkers?”

“It’s the smartest place to keep her,” Zuko agrees. “But it’s not a guarantee.”

“How long to get to the university if you can’t find her in the bunkers?”

“The good news is the university is closer to the port than the palace. If we don’t find her in the bunkers, we can double back. But the university is huge, and I have to admit I don’t know the layout very well. It’s not like I went there much as a child. I don’t suppose any of your spies are also academics?”

Sokka shakes his head. They lapse into silence, each lost in his own thoughts.

 

 

The eclipse approaches quickly, and Zuko spends most of the week training with the Kyoshi Warriors and Water Tribe men. If it weren’t for the imminent threat of death hanging over them, Zuko would almost find it enjoyable. He uses his swords more than he has in months — more than ever he misses Katara’s healing hands for his sore muscles — and he learns plenty of new hand-to-hand combat moves. It is difficult to say if Suki or Sokka is the most skilled fighter. They seem to be able to read one another’s minds, and neither of them is ever willing to let the other one win. Seeing the way they look at each other after the training sessions makes Zuko feel heartsick and lonely.

The morning of the eclipse, Zuko feels unbalanced. He knows it’s because of the imminent disappearance of the sun, but it’s a disconcerting feeling nevertheless. The Water Tribe fleet has long since left, sailing for Caldera City with the Kyoshi Warriors, but Zuko, Toph, Arluuk, and Aang wait until the final hours to board Apaa. They don’t want to risk any rogue fireballs hurting the bison.

It seems like a dream, seeing his home from above. Five years since his exile, and he finally returns with the Avatar. Not in the way he had imagined it, but Zuko feels a twinge of amusement that technically this invasion will fulfill the terms to lift his banishment.

The city is quiet as they land on the beach next to the arriving ships. Zuko exchanges a nervous glance with Sokka. It’s clear that the Fire Nation is expecting them.

There’s no time to worry about a trap being laid. The eclipse is short, and they only need to take down one man for the rest to fall. Arluuk leads them through the city streets. Zuko had sheepishly admitted he did not know the best routes around his own city given his sheltered childhood. Arluuk uses his excellent memory for maps and navigational skills to get them within close range of the palace. Once Zuko is familiar with his surroundings, he takes over and leads the group to the source of the tunnels. Toph gleefully takes center stage.

Zuko had not quite believed Toph when she told him about her metalbending. It had been Zuko who removed Apaa’s metal manacles, partly because Toph needed to use her feet to keep a lookout. Toph had claimed bending them would be easy for her. Now Zuko can see why.

The gates into the tunnel system are crumpled like paper by the time Toph is finished, and they race forward. Zuko has a good idea of where his father might be hiding, and he leads them to a fork between two tunnels.

“He must be in one of these two,” Zuko says with a confidence he doesn’t quite feel. “Toph?”

Toph frowns. Not a good sign.

“I can tell there’s someone in each of them, but I can’t say more than that. Who else would be down here?”

“My sister,” Zuko says. “Or maybe Katara.”

“We should split up,” says Arluuk. “Aang, you and Toph can take down the Firelord. I can go with Zuko.”

“No,” says Zuko firmly. “Aang needs you more than me. Firelord Ozai will be a formidable foe, even on his own. Azula will be looking for a fight, and I can distract her while you three work together.”

“How do we know which tunnel we should take?” Arluuk asks.

“We don’t. We just have to hope we’re right.”

The four share apprehensive looks. Technically, Toph is staring over Aang’s left shoulder, but it’s close enough. Zuko feels a flutter of anxiety. He doesn’t have many friends in this world, and perhaps it’s too soon to call these three friends. But he really, really doesn’t want anything bad to happen to them.

Zuko feels a stab of cold and a violent shiver passes through him. Aang gives a little twinge of discomfort.

“We have to go,” says Zuko, and his breath comes out in a cold fog. “It’s now or never.”

They take off. Aang, Arluuk, and Toph move to the left and Zuko jogs down the right. He tries to prepare himself to see his sister again: her smirk, her insults, her cutting tone. He feels almost ready when he emerges into the hall.

Fuck. Wrong bunker.

Before him, standing on a raised dais, is Firelord Ozai. Zuko feels small in comparison, a mere child looking up at his distant father. A primal fear paralyzes him.

“Ah, my worthless son. I had heard rumors that your death at the hands of Admiral Zhao were exaggerated. How disappointing.”

“Guards,” Ozai calls in a bored voice. “There is no need for you to witness a familial dispute.”

The guards slink out of the room. Zuko finds his voice.

“The Avatar is here to set things right.”

“Is he, now?” Ozai says in the same bored tone. “I’ve heard he’s a pacifist monk.”

“You shouldn’t underestimate him.”

“I can see why you would say that. After all, you failed to capture him.”

“You sent Zhao to kill me,” Zuko hisses. “Your own son.”

“And what kind of son are you?” Ozai thunders. His bored demeanor vanishes and there is poison in his gaze. “You are weak and foolish. Your brashness always got the better of you — I assume you haven’t forgotten your failure at Agni Kai?”

Zuko seethes, but he stays silent. He thinks of Uncle Iroh and tries to stay calm.

“I know why you’re here,” Ozai says in a sly tone. “But you won’t find her.”

Zuko’s heart rate skyrockets. He hopes he is far enough away from Ozai that he cannot see the sheen of cold sweat on Zuko’s face.

“The Master of Death is mine!” Ozai cries triumphantly. “I will bring glory to the Fire Nation with the greatest weapon the world has ever seen! You think I would leave my greatest asset exposed? She is far away from here, you fool. I sent her away days ago, and you stand no chance of capturing her from me.”

Zuko’s stomach drops. He glares at his father as he shakes with silent rage.

“You haven’t changed,” Ozai says, bored again. “You have no respect, no honor.”

“I have changed,” Zuko says. “You wanted me to think I lost my honor because I disagreed with you, because I valued the lives of our people above your desire to rule the world. You made me think I was wrong, but I wasn’t. All my life, I wanted you to love me. I thought if I could just be like you… but I never could. And I’m glad. You’re a monster. A monster who burned his son just to feel his own strength.”

“I was teaching you respect!” Ozai roars.

“It was cruel and it was wrong!” Zuko yells back. “You’ve tried to convince the world that the Fire Nation way is right, but you have poisoned our nation with your cruelty. You made a mistake sending me away; I know what you’ve done to the world now. I’ve met people we’ve enslaved, people we’ve burned, families we tore apart because we thought we knew better than them. It has to end. And I’m going to help the Avatar end it.”

“If that’s how you really feel, so be it,” Ozai says, his voice deadly quiet. He raises his arms.

Zuko feels a flicker of his inner fire. The eclipse is ending, and his father is aiming right at him.

In the four years Zuko and Uncle Iroh had wandered in search of the Avatar, Zuko had learned many firebending moves from his uncle. A few he had never quite been able to execute, especially bending lightning. He had been determined to try after reports of Princess Azula’s own prodigious feats, but Zuko had never succeeded. But there was one lesson he did remember quite well. He had rolled his eyes at his uncle, insisting it was ridiculous, but he had practiced the technique that would supposedly redirect lightning in the not-unreasonable chance that Azula decided to test her skills out on him.

There is a spark between Ozai’s fingertips and Zuko has just enough time to ground himself firmly before lightning strikes. The energy passes through him, activating every nerve of his being. He pushes forward and the bolt surges away, ricocheting across the hall and cracking the columns above the dais. In the explosion, Ozai is hurled to the ground.

Zuko doesn’t wait around to see what happened. He runs.

Aang, Arluuk, and Toph are in the tunnel ahead, dodging blasts of blazing blue fire. It seems that Azula’s powers have returned in full, and she is wasting no time attacking the Avatar. Zuko springs forward and fires a blast smaller than his sister’s, but he has the advantage of surprise. Azula is forced to duck, and whirls to glare at the new attacker. She catches sight of Zuko.

His heart twists. He had left the Fire Nation when Azula was only fourteen, practically still a child. She has grown into a young woman who bears a rather strong resemblance to their mother. Her face is slack with shock.

“Zuzu?”

Brother and sister circle each other slowly, each evaluating their long-lost sibling.

“They said you were dead,” Azula says slowly.

“A lie,” Zuko says. “It’s all been lies, Azula. Everything they taught us about the war, about the righteousness of the Fire Nation…It needs to end, Azula.”

Liar,” she hisses, her hands alight with fire.

“You always said I couldn’t lie,” he points out.

There is a scream of fury from the end of the hall, undoubtably Ozai awakening from the blow Zuko dealt him. There is a spasm of something across Azula’s face. Zuko might call it fear, but he knows that Azula is never afraid of anything.

His friends take their chance to run, and Zuko follows. Azula sprints after them, but Toph manages a clever move to cave in the tunnel behind them to block her. They race to the surface where the streets are mercifully still quiet. If Zuko had to guess, he would think that Ozai had evacuated the city ahead of the eclipse. This strategy was not unheard of, and would certainly have been presented under the propaganda that barbaric foreign invaders would kill any civilian they came across. In reality, Zuko knows the bigger threat would be civilians witnessing the extent to which Fire Nation soldiers would go to hurt their enemies. Half of the port side of town is burning, and Zuko is pretty sure it wasn’t started by the non-bending forces of Kyoshi and the Southern Isles.

As they race towards the port, Aang suddenly pivots back towards the palace.

“Wait! We need to find Katara!” Aang yells.

“She’s not here,” Zuko shouts back.

“What?! How can you be sure?”

“My father doesn’t lie when the truth would hurt more. If he says he’s sent her into hiding where we can’t reach, he means it. She’s not in Caldera City.”

Aang looks stricken.

“We failed,” he whispers.

“We need to get out of here, Aang,” Arluuk urges, grabbing him by the arm.

By the time they make it to the beach, the ships are pulling away in retreat. Sokka had made dozens of contingency plans, and most of the fleet is already in relative safety at the edge of the harbor. Apaa hovers above them, out of range of Fire Nation catapults.

Sokka and three of his men are battling a few Fire Nation soldiers on the beach. The addition of a waterbender and the Avatar a mere inches from the shore quickly subdues them. Sokka whirls to face Zuko.

“Katara?”

Zuko shakes his head grimly. Sokka swears violently in several languages.

“We’ve gotta get out here,” urges Toph. She sounds uncharacteristically nervous; Zuko knows she is ill at ease on the sand.

They turn to the small ship beached behind them just in time to see it explode.

“Well, that can’t be good,” Toph says, covering her ears at the sound.

“C'mon,” Zuko urges. “Before they redirect the catapults.”

They sprint down the beach, a troupe of Fire Nation soldiers mirroring them on the embankments above. There is another small ship at the edge of the beach, but that’s not what Zuko has in mind.

He slows a bit, and the Fire Nation troops race ahead towards the boat.

“What are you doing?” yells Arluuk. “They’re going to set the boat on fire if they get to it first!”

“Let them!” Zuko shouts back. “We’re not aiming for that ship!”

When the troops have almost made it level with the ship, Zuko takes a hard left, racing to scramble up the embankment. He pulls Toph up first so she can plant her feet on solid ground, and the men hoist themselves up after her.

“What the hell are we doing?” Toph shouts as Zuko directs them up a side street. “Are you seriously taking us back into the city?”

“No,” Zuko answers. He points to the right. “We’re going there!”

“That’s really helpful,” Toph says sarcastically. “Thanks, Sparky.”

“C’mon!”

Zuko had always been fascinated with the air bases as a child. On the winter solstice, balloons would rise into the night to rain fireworks on the city below. Zuko had memorized the launch points around the city so he could get the best views every time.

They have to fight off a handful of guards, but their group easily subdues the threat. The war balloon sits at the ready, and Zuko sparks it to life.

“What the hell are we standing on?” Toph says flexing her feet. The balloon starts to lift and she shouts in alarm.

“Hang on!” Zuko shouts, and he blasts as much fire as he can to lift the balloon high into the air. Aang uses airbending to deflect some rogue fireballs, but soon they are too high for benders to reach, and moving too quickly for the catapults.

“Good thinking back there,” Sokka says with relief as they sail to meet the Water Tribe fleet.

“Sokka, I… Katara… I’m sorry.”

Sokka face pinches in pain.

“She’s alive,” Zuko says, and Sokka looks the slightest bit relieved. “She’s safe for now.”

The thrill of escape wears off quickly. Soon, everyone is hunched and sullen, brooding over their regrets. The airship steams along at a steady pace; the embers burn hot and their fuel will last several hours.

Zuko buries his face in his hands. He had finally confronted his father. He should feel proud, but he just feels empty. His anger is gone, and all that is left is a hollow where his heart should be.

Zuko goes to give the fire a boost, but nothing happens. His fire has finally run out.

Chapter Text

Katara isn’t sure how it is possible to feel so at home in a place she’s never been, but Caldera City surprises her.

She spent five miserable years in the Fire Nation colonies, but the colonies are much further north, and very different from the Fire Nation itself. Caldera City sits at the same latitude as most of the Southern Isles, so the climate and flora are remarkably similar. The first time she spots a plumeria tree in bloom, she almost cries.

Of course, Caldera City is unique from the place of her birth, but strangely these differences are comforting, too. The streets bustle with people, loud conversations held in Fire Tongue, with vendors leaning out of shop windows to sell steaming bowls of food. It is much spicier than Katara is used to — it's the one thing she doesn’t really enjoy about Caldera City — but the aroma is divine. The university where she works sits between two worlds: the high society around the palace, and the working class port. The divisions are not strong like in Ba Sing Se, and grimy pubs and pristine tea shops are nestled together all over the city. Everywhere Katara goes, she sees schoolchildren playing in the streets, elders watching from apartment windows, young teenagers sharing bao as they meander through the city.

Katara finally understands why Zuko was so desperate to return here.

She sees glimpses of him everywhere: the golden eyes of a smiling child, the sullen expression of a teenager dutifully helping his grandmother with her errands, the serious contemplation of the university scholars with their scrolls. The people in Caldera City are warm-hearted and hot-tempered; arguments break out quickly and are resolved with a friendly hug and smile. Haggling is close to a national sport, although kick-foot seems to be even more revered.

She has re-analyzed her letter to Zuko a thousand times, and prays to Tui and La that he has enough sense to stay away. She feels conflicted. On the one hand, there is a small part of her that wants him to stage a daring rescue. It’s what she would want to do for him if the roles were reversed. But on the other hand, she is well-guarded here, and it would put them both in extraordinary danger. Logically, Katara knows she is safe so long as she remains in the good graces of the Fire Princess and the Firelord. No need for Zuko to upset the apple cart just yet.

Katara had felt sick with anxiety as they had sailed away from Ba Sing Se. Her track record with forcible transport on Fire Nation vessels had not ended well: enslavement and attempted murder. She had no idea why she and Tako were being taken to Caldera City. They were given to understand they were wanted for their scientific expertise, but it was unclear why this expertise was needed. They were assured — perhaps with a little too much enthusiasm — that the people of the Fire Nation were in perfect health, with no plague or pestilence in a hundred years. But then why were two experts in tracking and identifying disease necessary?

Three days passed on the ship before rumors reached Tako’s ears. He hastily dragged Katara into their small private quarters to explain.

“Master of Death?” Katara goggled at him. “They think we can stop death?”

“I’m more worried they think we can cause it,” Tako said darkly.

As the ship approached Caldera City, Katara grew increasingly agitated. She reached a breaking point when the harbor was finally in sight. One of the many Fire Nation guards on board had been harassing her since they left Ba Sing Se, escalating slowly as the Earth Kingdom disappeared from view. He finally made his lewdest proposition yet, and Katara lost it.

“Get away from me right now, or I’ll break it in two,” she hissed.

A high laugh pierced the air.

“Well said, Master Uma.”

Princess Azula stepped out of a shadow. The Fire Nation soldier jumped about a mile and spluttered out an attempt at an apology.

“Save it,” Azula said coldly. “The second we dock, you are relieved of your position.”

“But I’ve served your father for the past twenty-five years!”

“Congratulations,” Azula said sarcastically. “Enjoy your forced retirement.”

She sidled by the man, motioning for Katara to follow her. Katara felt the knot of anxiety in her stomach tighten.

She was not sure what to make of Princess Azula. Zuko had mentioned his sister several times, so Katara had a general idea of what to expect. Azula was a gifted firebender, a prodigy if the stories were to be believed. She had relished her power, and Zuko had lamented that they had grown apart over the years. Azula had grown crueler as her bending prowess grew, and once their mother had vanished, Azula flourished amongst the many nobles willing to grovel to her and Firelord Ozai. And yet…

Katara remembered what she had thought of the Fire Prince at first: brash, taciturn, mean-spirited. She had been right in some ways, but very, very wrong in others. She tried to reserve judgement on the Fire Princess until she could observe her more.

Still, the Fire Princess was extremely intimidating. Katara followed meekly as Azula strode down the deck of the ship.

“I’ve heard a lot about you, Master Uma,” Azula purred. “Some of it seems quite farfetched.”

Katara said nothing, but she met the Princess’s gaze. Azula looked mildly amused.

“Firelord Ozai, long may he reign, has sent me to fetch you. Oh, and to bring Ba Sing Se to heel, but that was child’s play. I must say, I expected to find someone a little more…”

She trailed off, looking Katara up and down. Katara did not rise to the bait. Azula looked more amused still.

“A woman of few words, I see. Well, that will serve you well here. Firelord Ozai does not like to be interrupted.”

Katara clenched her fists, thinking of Zuko’s scar. She wondered if Azula meant to bring her before the Firelord directly.

I could kill him, she thought wildly. Just a yank and he would be mine.

Azula seemed to not notice Katara’s homicidal urges.

“If you really can do everything that little professor of yours claims, you’ll serve our nation well.”

“And just how exactly,” Katara said, unable to resist lifting her silence, “will I be serving the Fire Nation?”

Azula smiled coldly.

“You’ll find out soon enough.”

It takes two days before Katara and Tako are brought before the Firelord and the High Council. Both of them spend the morning vomiting up their meager breakfasts in terror. They share a long hug before they set off from their new university housing, flanked by several guards.

The palace is beautiful, and Katara catches glimpses of lush gardens framed in archways. She thinks of Zuko as a child, racing through these hallways and she feels a flicker of hope. Then they are ushered into the war room, and her blood runs cold.

Firelord Ozai looks exactly as Katara has seen him depicted in the posters that cover the city. He would be a handsome man, but there is something cruel in his expression that sours his good looks. It is hard to believe the man bends fire; his eyes are as cold as ice.

Katara can feel sweat gathering on her brow. She hopes it can be played off as a foreigner unused to the heat.

Azula stands before Katara and Tako, speaking about them as if they were her new pets. The council listens with interest, although Katara can detect a few nervous heartbeats that match her own. She wonders at this, but there is scarcely time to analyze it before the Firelord rises to his feet. Everyone rises in turn to bow. Katara and Tako join the bowing, and she is thankful that years of servitude have made the motion automatic. She is sure she could not consciously decide to bow to this monster.

“Well done, Princess Azula,” Firelord Ozai says.

Azula gives another bow, but freezes when her father speaks again.

“Although I must admit some disappointment. The Avatar was spotted in Ba Sing Se, and yet you failed to capture him.”

Azula’s expression remains calm, but Katara perceives the smallest twitch in her left eye.

“The Avatar had been reported in the Eastern Air Temple when I arrived in Ba Sing Se,” Azula explains. “I thought it prudent to bring back the more precious quarry first.”

“Fine,” says the Firelord dismissively.

Katara wonders at this interaction. Zuko had always said that Azula was their father’s favorite. Katara is unsure if Zuko had exaggerated, or if Azula’s stock has slipped a bit with her father.

“It is said,” the Firelord continues, addressing Katara and Tako, “that you both are masters at recognizing disease.”

Tako swallows, but no sound comes out. Katara can sense the pounding of his heart. She finds her voice.

“Yes, Your Excellency.”

The Firelord looks satisfied with this and continues as if speaking to a rather stupid pair of children.

“It is true, then, that you can induce disease in a subject?”

Katara and Tako share a look of wide-eyed panic. She does not like where this conversation is going.

“We use mice,” Tako manages to choke out. “We use them to prove that…”

The Firelord waves his hand in annoyance and Tako falls silence.

“I do not care much for the details of your methods, only the results. It is true then, that you know how to make a person — or mouse, I suppose — ill?”

“Yes,” Tako says reluctantly.

“Very well. Tomorrow you shall return and demonstrate this to us. Then we can proceed.”

Proceed with what? Katara thinks. She has a guess, but it is almost too dreadful to contemplate.

He waves them away, and they are ushered quickly out of the door. The moment they are safely back in their university housing, Tako covers his face in anguish.

Agni. You know what this means, right?”

Katara stares blankly out the small window.

“Yes,” she whispers.

She is afraid.

 

 

The demonstration goes as well as expected. Katara and Tako arrive with their supplies: a dish of agar covered in microbes, two cages of healthy mice, and a small needle. Katara asks Princess Azula to do the honors of sterilizing the needle before Katara pricks a set of mice in one cage with the isolated microbes. They return to the council the next day to find one cage of mice still healthy and active, and the other set shivering, struggling, on the brink of death. The Firelord’s eyes light up in interest.

“So the mice will die soon?” he asks.

“It depends,” Tako explains. “Some of them may be strong enough to clear the infection. About one in three dies from these microbes, similar to what we observe in humans.”

The Firelord frowns.

“Don’t you have anything more potent?”

Katara and Tako had hoped this would not be the Firelord’s response, but they had anticipated it. It is clear what the Firelord wants them to do.

“It is possible,” Katara says slowly. “But it would take time to find such a thing.”

“You have a week,” the Firelord snaps before dismissing them.

Back in their lab, Katara panics. In truth, she has no idea how to make something more deadly — they are usually quite focused on doing the opposite — and a week is certainly not enough time to definitively isolate a deadly microbe.

“I don’t think we need to,” Tako whispers to her as he loudly moves around glassware. They have adopted such habits to avoid being overheard, as they both suspect many of their university colleagues are actually spies sent by the Firelord to ensure their loyalty.

“Tako, the Firelord won’t be satisfied until we bring him something that kills on the spot. And he’ll want us to use it on more than just mice! We’ve got to do something… get out of here somehow.”

Tako shakes his head slowly, his expression distant.

“If we run, they’ll find us. Or they’ll find someone to replace us. I know we’re pretty good at this stuff, but we’re not the only ones out there. No, the Firelord is going to keep trying to find a way to kill people. If we’re the ones he trusts to do it, we’ve got control over the situation.”

“I see your point,” Katara concedes. “But you’re forgetting the fact that Ozai wants us to bring some super-deadly microbe in tomorrow and we’ve got nothing.”

Tako’s expression is still distant as he stares down into the university courtyard. Students and scholars hurry across the courtyard to avoid the autumn rains.

“Long sleeves are in fashion,” he says idly.

Katara’s face twists in confusion.

“Um, I guess? What’s that got to do with…”

Tako turns to stare at Katara’s hands.

“You could wear long sleeves.”

Something clicks into place. Katara leaps up and hugs him tight.

“Tako, you’re a genius.”

The next morning, Katara and Tako present themselves to the high council. They perform the experiment as before — a pinprick of microbe into the mouse — and the moment the mouse is set back in its cage, Katara’s hidden fingers twist. The mouse freezes and slumps, instantly dead.

Murmurs break out throughout the council. Several heartbeats race, but Katara is unsure if they are from excitement or fear. The Firelord gives a cold smile that does not quite reach his eyes.

“Well done, Master Uma, Master Tako,” he says. “Although I must admit, this seems a rather tame death.”

Katara’s blood runs cold.

“Your Excellency?”

“Surely you must be aware, two such intellects such as yourselves,” says the Firelord silkily. “I have no interest in killing mice.”

Tako and Katara stay stock still. The Firelord’s smile widens into a feral grin.

“Our enemies are numerous, and the war has limped along for years. My predecessors were weak in their thinking that foreigners could be subdued. There is only one true solution: those who would not bend to the Fire Nation’s will must be eliminated.”

It is as they had feared. Katara feels faint.

“What I want,” the Firelord continues, a manic gleam in his eye, “and what you will deliver to me, is a weapon unlike any other. A death that shall strike fear into the hearts of our enemies — a gruesome end to barbaric people. Our air ships can carry it far and wide, and we shall rain death onto the disgusting rebels that resist us. The Fire Nation shall stand alone, the true beacon of righteousness, and we will rule over all!”

The shout of Firelord Ozai echoes through the hall. The meeting passes like some horrible nightmare until Tako and Katara can leave.

“A bomb,” Tako says hoarsely. “A biological weapon. He’s even more of a monster than I thought.”

“Tako,” Katara says urgently. “You were right. We need to control this thing. We have to build him a bomb, but it doesn’t have to work. I can keep him satisfied by ‘proving’ it kills the mice. I’ll just make the next mouse bleed more; he’ll like that.”

“What if he asks you to test it out on a person?”

Katara draws a deep breath. She had not considered this.

“I guess,” she says slowly, “we’ll just have to take the risk. I won’t kill for him,” Katara says quickly to Tako’s ashen face. “But the longer we’re here, the more we can stall. We can gather intel, and slow his progress of making an actual weapon.”

Tako nods. He takes her hand and they cling to each other. The rain continues to pound against the window, but they can no longer hear it.

 

 

They barely have time to come to terms with the situation before they are whisked away to the inner regions of the Fire Nation island. Katara and Tako try to keep their heads down and not protest, but the move is confusing. The Firelord had been adamant about rapid progress, and then suddenly they were being led out of the city on a field mission whose purpose was still unclear.

The Fire Princess had not joined them on this mysterious quest, but had dispatched two young women to lead the caravan of guards and equipment. Katara had heard of both of these women before from Zuko, and she had to admit she was curious as to the type of friends Azula kept.

Mai was brooding and withdrawn, spending most of their travel time toying with various knives hidden on her person. She rarely spoke, and when she did, her tone was dull and sarcastic. Ty Lee was her polar opposite: bubbly and bouncy and an incessant chatterbox. Katara found it hard to trust such unwavering enthusiasm. Both girls seemed to be wearing carefully constructed masks, albeit in different forms.

It takes two days of travel to reach the outskirts of the main Fire Nation island. Tako and Katara expect that they are going to be housed in this remote area so that they can prepare their weapon away from the main population of Caldera City, but Mai and Ty Lee inform them that their stay will be temporary.

“This is an aid mission,” Ty Lee says breezily. “Look at all these poor people — they’re all skin and bones!”

She’s right. The people are malnourished and the buildings are in a state of disrepair. Katara notices the lack of young people immediately: anyone of fighting age is noticeably absent. The villages consist of elders watching a few young children, and the odd maimed soldier returned from the front. Katara notices the scabbed legs of the youths, the hacking coughs of the elders. There is sickness here, and it turns her stomach. This is the richest, most powerful nation in the world and its people are suffering as much as those she had seen in any other place.

Despite this, it is a relief to get to work. They fall into their usual rhythm. Katara heals while Tako gathers information. This is, of course, complicated by the fact that Katara cannot openly waterbend in the presence of their guards, so she disguises her work with touch: a hand on the shoulder while comforting an elder, holding the hand of a sick child. It makes progress slow, but it’s still progress nonetheless.

After two weeks, they are unceremoniously yanked away and taken back to Caldera City.

“But we’re not finished!” Katara protests. “We’ve barely scratched the surface!”

“Yeah, and I had finally figured out how to slow down the worm infections!” Tako adds angrily.

Ty Lee gives a little shudder of horror. She has been particularly squeamish about the sickness, and Tako bristles in anger.

“These are your people, and you don’t even care!” he thunders. “All you do is sit in your fancy houses and get rich while these people are literally dying in your fields.”

“Calm down,” says Mai dully. “It’s like this everywhere.”

“That’s even worse!”

“If you think so poorly of us,” Ty Lee says indignantly, “then why are you helping the Fire Nation?”

Katara gives a cold laugh.

“You really think we had a choice to come here? You think we want to help the Firelord? The only good thing we’ve done here is help those villagers, and we weren’t even allowed to finish the job!”

Ty Lee bites her lip, but says nothing. Mai continues to glower at Katara and Tako. They pass the rest of their journey in a tense silence, occasionally punctured by Tako pointing out the large houses of nobles and sarcastically guessing how they had done their duty to help the common people.

Katara and Tako are escorted directly to the door of the lab so they can resume their work for Firelord Ozai. As their guards file out, Mai bumps forcefully into Tako. She does not apologize, and leaves with a tumbling Ty Lee at her heels.

“What was that about?” Katara asks.

Tako frowns and rummages in his pockets. He pulls out a card.

“She slipped me this,” he says warily.

Meeting tonight, sunset. Sozin Library. Password: apricot.

“What is it for?” Katara says.

“No idea. But I think I should go.”

“Really? It could be a trap.”

“I don’t think so… I have a feeling I’m not the only one who disapproves of the Fire Nation power structure.”

“You think it’s a meeting for some sort of rebellion?” Katara asks in alarm.

“Maybe,” Tako says, still staring at the card. “I know not everyone in high council meeting agrees with Ozai. You told me you detected some nervous heartbeats in that room. And Toph is good at detecting lies, too. I watched people lie while she checked, and I noticed some patterns in behavior. There were more than a few people at that council table who didn’t like what was happening. And if even the most rich and powerful want to bring their leader down, I’m sure plenty of the commoners want to as well.”

Katara doesn’t disagree with bringing down Ozai, but they are in a precarious position. Any perceived disloyalty from them would be punished with execution, and then Ozai could find someone who actually would build a bomb for him. They needed to tread lightly.

In the end, Katara lets Tako go without protest. Despite the danger, she knows that to keep him from helping in this way will only do him harm. This is his fight: justice for the oppressed, power for the people.

She stays late in the lab that night to fight her own fight against tiny, deadly beings.

 

Azula frequently checks on Katara and Tako’s progress, but something seems different after their return from their ‘aid mission.’ Katara learns of the invasion they had missed, and understands why they had been sent away. She keeps her composure as she listens to the gossip — the traitor, Prince Zuko, returned with Avatar! — but weeps in private. She wishes more than anything that she could see Zuko again.

Azula seems rattled by the invasion, and Katara assumes it is the increased pressure from Firelord Ozai. Katara goes to weekly progress meetings to demonstrate disgusting results to the Firelord, and she notices his annoyance with his daughter. His demands increase — he seems even more paranoid than usual — and there is no pleasing him. He does seem to enjoy when Katara makes the mice bleed gruesomely, and she is forever grateful that she can bend blood after she has already killed the mouse quickly and painlessly.

After these status reports, Azula ‘invites’ Katara for tea. The invite is, of course, mandatory, so Katara just considers it an extension of her meeting with the Firelord. Tako does not have to attend the meetings thanks to Katara’s insistence that one of them stay close to the lab at all times. In reality, Tako sneaks out to attend more rebel meetings, which he recounts to Katara after her return.

More than two months have passed since the invasion, and Katara becomes familiar with the palace hallways. After a grueling session with Firelord Ozai — he had demanded exact statistics on how quickly their agent of destruction could travel once a bomb had been detonated — she trudges over to the Fire Princess’s private rooms. She expects to find Azula, perhaps with Mai or Ty Lee, but as she enters the door she is surprised to find a man standing with his back to her. Azula is next to him, her face twisted into an expression of pure loathing. The man has a hand wrapped around her wrist and he looms over her menacingly.

At the sound of Katara’s footsteps, the man whirls around, causing Azula to stumble a bit in his grasp. Katara gasps.

It is Colonel Ito, the man who had bought her as a slave, and whom she had escaped from five years ago.

She reacts without thinking, her fists raised and clenched. Ito gives a grunt of pain and releases Azula, his right hand grasping at his left arm. Katara advances on him, her face contorted with fury.

“You killed those girls,” Katara says, her voice shaking. “You tortured them, you defiled them, and you couldn’t even give them a real burial. Give me one reason I shouldn’t kill you right now.”

Katara’s fingers twist and Ito crumples to the ground, writhing in agony. Katara can feel Azula’s eyes on her, but the Fire Princess makes no move to stop her. Anger boils in Katara’s veins, and she can feel her legs shaking with adrenaline. Ito struggles to look up at her and his eyes narrow.

“You…” he says in a hoarse voice. “You’re supposed to be dead.” His mouth twists into a cruel smile. “And I never even got to play with you…”

The rest of his sentence dies as Katara lunges, fists raised. Ito’s mouth opens in a scream, but no sound emerges.

“He’s still doing it,” says Azula quietly. “Torturing girls. Killing them.”

Katara’s eyes snap to her. Azula’s face is pale, but her eyes are dark and flashing. In her distraction, Katara loosens the hold on Ito and he attempts to move himself into an attacking position. Katara redoubles her efforts and he collapses again, clutching his arm.

“It’s a clot,” she says icily. “A big one. One wrong move, and it will stop your heart forever.”

Sweat is starting to drip from Ito’s forehead as he labors to breathe. He glares at Katara with such hatred, it feels like a burn.

“You should kill him,” Azula says quietly. “He won’t stop until he’s dead.”

“Traitor!” gasps Ito. “I know what you’ve done, you stupid girl. I’ll kill you both, and then I’ll take your lifeless corpses and ra—“

Katara cannot bear to hear the rest. With a yanking motion, she dislodges the clot from the artery wall and it immediately blocks the vessel. Blood pools behind it, and Ito claws at his chest as he struggles to breathe. After a few moments, he goes limp, giving a final few gasps of air in a futile attempt to bring oxygen into his body.

“Quick,” Azula says sharply. She pulls Katara out of the room and shoves her into an enormous armoire. “Don’t move until I come back.”

Katara hears the door click shut and Azula’s footsteps as she moves towards the outer hallway.

“Help!” Azula’s muffled shout can barely be heard from the inside of the closet. “I think he’s had a heart attack!”

There is more muffled shouting and footsteps, but Katara stays motionless. She replays Ito’s death in her mind over and over again. She feels nothing: no anger, no elation, no regret. She’s not even relieved — a small part of her is convinced that a man as evil as Ito can’t be killed.

It takes almost an hour for Azula to open the door again. Guards and medical staff make inquiries that Katara cannot quite hear through the door, but in the end she hears them struggle to lift and remove Ito’s body. Only after the sounds have died away completely does the Fire Princess open the wardrobe and yank Katara out.

“Couldn’t have them find you in here,” she explains, forcing Katara to sit before her. “They’d wonder why the ‘Master of Death’ didn’t save his life.”

Katara eyes Azula warily. Azula lowers herself in a seat across from her, staring right back.

“I know what you are, Waterbender.”

Katara’s heart seizes. Her eyes snap to Azula’s hands, waiting for lighting to strike. Azula lets our a mirthless chuckle.

“Did you really think I hadn’t noticed? With those ridiculous long sleeves you wear, even though it must get in the way of your work in the lab.”

“Mai wears long sleeves,” Katara says weakly. “Doesn’t seem to stop her from throwing knives.”

“Yes, and Mai did mention your funny habits on that aid trip you went on. Always touching people, providing a helping hand. The people seemed to be getting almost magically better. It’s true that waterbending healers are rare in these parts, but it’s easy enough to recognize if you know what you’re looking for.”

Katara stays silent, and hopes that Azula’s tendency to monologue will come in handy. She needs to buy time to figure out how to escape. As much as Zuko had lamented his difficult relationship with his sister, Katara was pretty sure he wouldn’t appreciate it if Azula was murdered, and that was really the only way out of this Katara could think of.

“Firelord Ozai doesn’t suspect you,” Azula says cooly. “He’s too wrapped up in this idea that you’re going to bring him glory. He hasn’t noticed your twitchy fingers during your demonstrations, or that those reports you keep bringing him are obviously fabricated. Although I must commend you, you hide it well. It certainly can’t be easy to build a fake bomb with the threat of execution for treason hanging about your head.”

“I’m not a Fire Nation citizen,” Katara says angrily. “So it’s not really possible for me to commit treason, is it?”

Azula smirks.

“No, you’re not a citizen. But you were certainly an unwilling member of our society before, weren’t you? And so was your friend, Tako.”

Katara’s stomach lurches in fear. It’s one thing for Azula to threaten her, but if she knows the truth about Tako… if she could send him back to his former masters…

Azula scoffs at Katara’s frozen expression and continues.

“I’m not going to rat him out. Or you, for that matter. Although it seems that I’d have no one to send you back to, seeing as Ito intimated he was your previous… owner.”

“You said he still killed girls,” Katara says quickly. “Are there more being kept somewhere? We need to find them and —“

“Relax,” Azula says lazily. “He hasn’t had one in months.”

“How do you know?”

“Because,” says Azula with a grimace. “For the past year, he’s been chasing after me.”

What?

Azula stands abruptly and walks to a window overlooking the garden. She speaks without turning around.

“I was supposed to be his ultimate prize, and he was supposed to be my punishment. Firelord Ozai has been pitting us against each other, you see. If I failed my assignments, I was going to be forced to act as his… escort… on missions. But only if he succeeded in his task, and I’m happy to say that he’s been trying to capture Gaoling with little success. It certainly helps that his opponent has been tipped off about his movements for months.”

“That’s why he called you a traitor,” Katara says, realization dawning. “He thinks it was you.”

“It was me,” Azula says, finally turning back around. “Firelord Ozai must be stopped.”

Katara’s jaw drops.

“You… Are you…? How….?” she splutters.

Azula heaves a bored sigh and settles back into her chair, limbs akimbo.

“I suppose I have to explain myself, seeing as we’re on the same side now. I’ve been against Ito for a while, but I must admit that helping your friends has been a more recent development.”

“My friends?” Katara asks, alarmed.

“The Avatar and his masters,” Azula says to Katara’s absolute astonishment. “One of whom is my brother, although I’m certain he’s unaware that it’s me giving them intel. He’s never been especially creative when it comes to subterfuge. Used to hide behind tapestries when we played hide-and-seek as children, as if that wasn’t the first place I’d look.”

Katara’s throat feels tight. She wants desperately to ask more about her friends, about Zuko, but she is still waiting for some sort of trap.

“Firelord Ozai wants to destroy the enemies of the Fire Nation,” Azula continues, her expression hardening. “He would rather burn down the world and rule over the ashes than have anyone else in power. That’s what he wants you for, of course. He is a fool. What is the use of power if there’s no one to wield it over?”

“When I was young, I agreed with my father. We were both the younger of two siblings, you see, and were always overlooked. It was obvious I was more powerful than Zuko — I could bend circles around him — and yet I was always in his shadow. He would be the Firelord because of the circumstances of his birth, not of his own merit. And my mother had the gall to lecture us about duty and honor. What was the point of doing the ‘right’ thing if it wouldn’t get me anywhere? And then she was gone, and I was finally given the attention I deserved. It was clear that I, not my brother, should be my father’s true heir. And then Zuko went and got himself in trouble and got sent away…”

“That was when things changed. I had always been my father’s favorite because I had compared favorably to Zuko. But with him gone…”

Something in Azula’s face pinches, and she stares down at her hands.

“I didn’t want Zuko gone. We may have grown apart after our mother left, but I never realized… I never realized what he was protecting me from.”

If Azula were anyone else, Katara would reach out a hand in comfort. As she would rather not get a face full of fire, she stills stock-still, listening without betraying a single emotion.

“My father pitted us against one another because he could. He pits everyone against each other just because he can. He’ll do it to you, too,” she says, with a glance up at Katara. “But he never wanted me to be his heir. He doesn’t want an heir. He wants immortality.”

“I can’t make someone live forever,” Katara says quickly.

“And he’ll kill you when you fail,” Azula says dryly. “He has no loyalty to anyone but himself.”

“Is that why you are trading Fire Nation secrets?”

“My father is only good at one part of being the Firelord,” Azula continues. “War. He left the rest of the work to ministers and council members, but it’s mostly under my control. It’s all the worst bits — education, health services, food supplies. All the sorts of things my mother had us train to do our duty to the people. I’m really not suited for it, though. Besides, there aren’t any resources to do a good job with all our funds going into the war chest. I’ve had to use the best of my real skills — public relations, image control, favorable trade agreements — to keep my father’s head attached to his shoulders. The only reason the people haven’t revolted against a hundred years of war is that they can still get the bare minimum to survive. But people aren’t going to be satisfied with scraps for much longer.”

“So you want Firelord Ozai removed,” Katara asks hesitantly, “because he’s doing a bad job? And then you’ll be Firelord?”

Azula gives a little shudder of horror.

Agni, no. I want Ozai removed, but I’ve done enough of the grunt work to know that I wouldn’t make a better Firelord. But for a long time, I assumed I’d have to do it, if and when Ozai was ever killed or ousted. Now, there’s a better option.”

Katara takes a sharp inhale of breath. Azula’s golden eyes pin her in place.

“I believe you know my brother,” Azula says silkily. “And if the rumors are true, you know him very well.”

Panic seizes Katara again, and she cannot bring herself to speak. Fortunately, Azula continues, a smug look on her face.

“My father kept raving about Zuko trying to steal you away after the invasion, which didn’t make sense. My father was convinced Zuko wanted a weapon of his own, but that's not really Zuko’s style. A few weeks ago, after I made contact with some of the spies on the Avatar’s side, I heard that Zuko had been living in Ba Sing Se as a waiter named Lee... and I remembered the Dai Li claimed you had some sort of connection to a Lee, but they never found anything substantial. Now, coming to capture the ‘Master of Death’ might not be the sort of behavior I expect from Zuko, but mounting a foolish rescue mission to save a girlfriend…? Plus, you’re exactly his type. Such a bleeding heart, like Mai.”

Katara lets out an involuntary snort at the thought of Mai wanting to help anyone other than herself. Azula seems less amused.

“I know Mai is the one who tipped Tako off about those meetings — yes, I know about the meetings — and she’s the one who leaked the real story about Zuko’s Agni Kai, that he was just sticking up for the lives of our soldiers. There have been pro-Zuko supporters for years, and now that he’s been seen alive and with the Avatar… Well, the stage is set for the war to end, and either Ozai or Zuko will end up on the throne. It’s clear who the people would prefer. My brother may have his limitations, but he’d be a welcome change of pace at least.”

“And you?” Katara says with suspicion. “You must be getting something out of Zuko on the throne or you wouldn’t support him.”

Azula gives a tight smile.

“Like I said, Zuko has his limits. He’s been out of the country for five years, and he was always bad at dealing with the nobility, what with his obsession of taking care of the common folk. He’ll win hearts and minds easily, but he won’t keep them without a little bit of help.”

“And that’s where you come in?”

“Exactly,” Azula says, nodding. “Zuko has never really known how to spin things, how to craft an image. I’ve spent years trying to protect my father’s, and he’s still in power despite all the damage he’s done to our people. Zuko will get the title and the opportunity to do his precious duty to his people, and I’ll get to do all the fun parts.”

“What makes you think Zuko will agree?” Katara says angrily. “After all, you’ve been helping Ozai for years now. Why should he believe you’ve changed your ways?”

Azula’s face twists into a scowl.

“Zuko knows what kind of man our father is. If I didn’t help him, I would have been exiled or worse. And I’m the one who’s limited the damage Ozai has caused. Ozai wanted to attack the Northern Water Tribe three years ago, and it was I who manipulated him into delaying. I couldn’t stop it once the Avatar was in play and Zhao — that idiot — got involved, but I prevented it for years. And if Ozai had his way, the capture of Ba Sing Se would have led to the loss of thousands of lives, but I brought the city to heel without a drop of blood spilled. I’ve saved thousands of our people’s lives. I just managed to do it without getting half my face burnt off.”

Katara fumes at this slight against Zuko, but she has to admit, Azula’s work — if what she says is true — is very impressive. She watches as Azula rises from her seat again to move towards a painting, pulling it down from the wall. Behind it is a safe, which Azula unlocks to pull out a stack of old parchment.

“I didn’t find these until a few months ago,” Azula says, her voice strangely choked. “My father hid them from me.”

Katara cautiously lifts one of the scrolls and receives a shock at the familiar handwriting.

Dear Azula,

We just made it to the Southern Isles. The Western Air Temple was a bust, just like the Eastern Air Temple was. Uncle made us detour through the Earth Kingdom to get tea. He says we need to go to Omashu next time to get the good stuff. It will take weeks off of our schedule. If you’re getting these letters, I’d appreciate it if you could find a way to send him a crate of ginseng tea — he won’t stop talking about it.

We’ll be in the Southern Isles for a while. It’s kind of like home: it’s warm, it’s got sandy beaches and big mountains, and everyone here hates me, too. I’m sure you’d like it.

You probably won’t respond to this letter. You haven’t responded to any of the others, so I’m not sure why I’m writing this. Maybe it annoys you to know that I’m still alive.

Stay safe and don’t let Dad boss you around. I guess by now you’re probably bossing him and everyone else around. I must admit, I’d like to see that.

Your brother,

Zuko

There are hot tears on Katara’s face. Her heart aches in a thousand ways: for the lonely child that Zuko was, for the loving man he is now, for the fact that she would give anything to receive her own letter from him. She lifts her gaze to Azula, who is staring at her with a calculating expression.

“I didn’t get his letters,” Azula says, eyes still fixed on Katara’s. “My father kept them from me. Why he didn’t just burn them, I don’t know, but I found them a few weeks ago when I went digging. Zuko wrote me letters for a year after his exile.”

Katara lets out an involuntary half-sob. Azula picks up a letter and stares at it, her eyes gleaming.

“It is sad, isn’t it? My big brother, still trying to watch out for me from afar. It’s why he’d make a good Firelord. Always caring about others and that sort of thing. I don’t know if he’ll have me by his side when he ascends to the throne — I’m sure he doesn’t trust me one iota — but he’ll do a good job. And that’s what the Fire Nation deserves.”

Katara stays silent, but she feels a small twinge of compassion for Azula. She is glad she had reserved her judgement on the Fire Princess. Just like her brother, she is not who she appears to be.

Azula blinks and quickly snatches up the parchment, secreting it away in the safe again. She returns to her seat across from Katara and gives her a serious look.

“You and I need to work together. And Tako, of course. You’ll keep my father busy with those bomb reports, and I’ll pass things along to your friends. I don’t think it’s worth the risk to give them direct information from you, in case it falls into the wrong hands. They know you’re alive and safe, though.”

“Do they know the plan about the bombs? That they're fakes?”

“Not yet,” Azula says, shaking her head. “If that information were to be leaked and get back to Ozai… well, I don’t really feel like attending your public execution. Besides, it’s not like the Avatar needs to know about it immediately given that it’s a bogus weapon anyway.”

Katara nods slowly. Azula has been exceedingly clever. Katara can’t help but imagine what Azula would be like at Zuko’s side, how much of the political nonsense he could avoid with Azula’s deft hand at work. She shakes this thought away.

“So what now?” Katara asks.

“Nothing, I suppose. We continue as usual. Oh, you should know that Mai and Ty Lee have been working with me as well. Mai’s been involved a lot longer than either of us, of course, and Ty Lee has excellent contacts. But other than that, let’s just keep this quiet, shall we?”

Katara nods and rises shakily to her feet. She gives Azula a bow that is lazily returned. She races back to the university to find Tako and tell him everything.

After the debriefing, Tako lets out a low whistle and slumps back into a chair.

Agni this is getting complicated.”

“Tell me about it,” Katara says, head in her hands.

“It does explain some of the stuff at the meetings lately,” Tako says slowly. “There’s been a lot of talk about what should come after Ozai, and there does seem to be a large pro-Zuko faction.”

“Really?”

Tako flushes and rubs the back of his neck.

“Tako, what did you do?”

“Well…” he says sheepishly. “I may have let it slip that I actually know Zuko.”

What! Tako, that’s incredibly dangerous! What if someone finds out who you really are?”

Tako shrugs.

“They actually already know I’m a former slave,” he says to Katara’s surprise. “It came up early on. People didn’t believe the Fire Nation was actually enslaving people so I may have… taken off my shirt and shouted at them a bit.”

“You didn’t tell me about that!”

“I know, and I’m sorry,” he says mournfully. “It was right before your first solo meeting with the Firelord and you looked so nervous… I thought I would get to tell you after, but we were so busy and it slipped my mind… Anyway, people know I’m a former slave, and that I crossed paths with Zuko. I kept you out of it,” he says quickly, “but Zuko and I had a couple really good discussions, you know. I know a lot about how he thinks about Fire Nation laws and policies.”

“So you’re what, telling people Zuko’s political talking points now?” she says with a groan. “Making promises to people on his behalf without his knowledge?”

“No, nothing like that! I just told people what his priorities were. You know, ending the war, revamping the judicial system, fixing health and education. I don’t know exactly how he wants to solve those things, just that he knows they need solving. People agree with him, and they want a leader who has the same values as them.”

Katara covers her face behind her hands. She can taste the salt of her sweat and tears. She feels consumed by worry: Firelord Ozai’s demands and threats, Azula’s work as a spy, and now Tako’s actions to foment rebellion amongst the common people. She starts to tremble as Tako moves to wrap a comforting arm around her.

“I’m sorry, Katara,” he says quietly in a rare moment using her real name. “I know you’re scared for Zuko. But if we want to end this war, we have to prepare for what comes after. We’re going to win, Katara, I know it. And when we do, the Fire Nation will have a lot to answer for. Zuko can do it, but only if he has the people on his side.”

“I know,” Katara says through her tears. “It’s the right thing to do. I just…”

“It’s okay,” says Tako softly. “I know.”

He holds her tightly until her sobbing subsides. Exhausted, they both crawl into bed. It’s not the first time they’ve been too scared to sleep alone, and having a warm body close to her makes her feel safe when she wakes in the night.

Tonight, she hopes she dreams of Zuko and that wherever he is, he dreams of her, too.

 

 

The stage is set for the end. The Fire Sages predict the arrival of a comet that will bring unprecedented power to firebenders. Firelord Ozai and his weapon, custom-made by the Master of Death, will strike then.

Katara has three months to put the weapon together with Tako’s help. The Firelord increasingly ignores Tako and relies more on Katara. Perhaps it is because it is always she who demonstrates the death of the mice which cements the image of her as the sole ‘Master of Death.’ Tako becomes almost invisible, much to his benefit. His involvement in rebellion activities increases. Katara, on the other hand, is forced to spend more and more time in council meetings where war plans are discussed. Azula is present for these meetings as well, and the two of them resume their usual pattern of ‘tea’ afterwards. Tea is never the main event, however: Azula busies herself writing coded communications for the Avatar’s allies, and Katara pours over scrolls outlining the intended drop sites for her ‘bombs.’

She does, however, get one respite from all the war planning, although it’s harder work than anything else she does. It had taken Azula weeks of hinting, manipulating, and flat-out asking her father, but Firelord Ozai permits Katara to venture out of the university thrice weekly to run a healing clinic.

“It is a wise decision, Father,” Azula had said in a flattering tone. “Master Uma will be able to build the Fire Nation’s youths to their strongest abilities. You shall command the greatest army, with soldiers who are able to withstand disease and injury.”

Katara, of course, could not make super soldiers any more than she could build a deadly bomb, but at least she can help the poorest in the city fight against the usual illnesses. Together with Tako, they dole out medicine and supplies while Katara sneakily uses her healing hands on those in need. They start to gain a reputation, and the clinics become crowded with desperate people. Katara does her best, but it’s hardly enough. Her patients, however, are grateful just to be seen.

“There are hardly any doctors left,” they tell her. “Most of them have been drafted.”

With Firelord Ozai’s final plan in place, almost everyone of fighting age has been conscripted. Doctors are not the only people in short supply: teachers, farmers, even those responsible for Caldera City’s waste management have been shipped off to military training. The absence of all of these people is felt hardest by the children of the city. They are without education, without food, and without clean water. Cases of the White Death start cropping up, and Katara and Tako work in overdrive to eradicate it. But despite the chaos, Katara and Tako are ordered to return to their posts at the university. Firelord Ozai considers his bombs of the utmost importance.

Tensions mount as the comet draws nearer. Tako is almost arrested several times while returning from the rebellion meetings — Ozai’s cronies are trying to close in on the movement’s leaders — and only narrowly escapes detection. Azula looks pale and withdrawn, and snaps at everyone who presents her with even the slightest inconvenience. And then, three weeks before the comet, Ty Lee brings a bloodied and battered Mai to Katara’s doorstep.

“We only just got away,” Ty Lee breathes. “I don’t think we were recognized with these scarves wrapped around our faces, but the last guy was fast. He hit her in the face, and I had to break his arm so we could get out of there.”

Katara wordlessly moves her hands over Mai’s face, fixing the break in her nose. It must be excruciatingly painful, but Mai doesn’t make a sound.

“You shouldn’t have done it,” Ty Lee says tearfully. “They could have killed you.”

“You were trying to take down those recruiting officers, right?” Tako says, bringing Katara fresh water to use on Mai’s split lip. “The ones who shake people down if they don’t present at least one person per household to fight?”

“There’s no point in it!” Ty Lee continues, addressing Mai. “It won’t bring him back!”

Mai, who had remained perfectly stoic before this, flinches and turns away. Katara raises an eyebrow at Ty Lee.

“I think you’d better explain what’s going on,” she says.

Ty Lee looks anxiously at Mai, clearly not wanting to provide more details without permission. But Mai’s shoulders slump a little, and Ty Lee seems to take this as a sign to speak.

“Oh, it was awful,” Ty Lee says quietly. “The Northern Siege. Everyone knew it was reckless — Azula tried to stop it for so long — but in the end… All those poor soldiers. There are so few survivors that came back. They talked about this weird… thing… It drowned everyone, and… and…”

Katara’s stomach twists. She wonders if Ty Lee and Mai know that the ‘thing’ was in part powered by the Avatar they are now trying to protect.

“Reiji was such a nice guy. He was kind of like Zuko in a lot of ways… good heart, terrible father. But his aura was just perfect for Mai. They were so happy together.” Ty Lee stares at the back of Mai’s unmoving head with great sadness. “But he was drafted, the same as everyone else. And he was so smart, he got promoted very quickly. His crew was supposed to be one of the first on the ice. He was a great fighter, like Mai. You should have seen him with a broadsword!”

Ty Lee lets out a shuddering breath and wipes her eyes.

“That’s why we were going after those recruiting officers. If it weren’t for them… Reiji was an only child, and his father could still fight, but he refused. He sent Reiji instead. And now… now he’s at the bottom of the ocean somewhere.”

“Did you manage to take them down? The recruiting officers?” asks Tako quietly.

“One of them… There was a lot of blood,” Ty Lee says quietly. “He might be dead, I don’t know.”

Silence falls. Tako is glaring furiously out the window, while Ty Lee sniffles next to him. Katara moves wordlessly in front of Mai, who is staring blankly at the wall. She finishes healing the cuts and moves towards her textbooks, rummaging for a sheet of paper.

“Here,” she says, holding it out to Mai. Mai takes a look at it and frowns.

“What is this?”

“A map,” Katara says quietly, “of the blood vessels in a body. If you strike in these places,” she continues, pointing at the diagram, “your target will bleed out in a matter of seconds. These places,” she points again, “will inflict serious — but not necessarily critical — damage. You’ll put them out of commission for a while, but they most likely won’t die.”

Mai stares at the page without emotion, but her fingers map the spots Katara has indicated. After a long moment, she hands it back to Katara.

“Keep it,” Katara says. “I don’t need it anymore.”

When Ty Lee and Mai leave, Tako turns to Katara.

“Did you give her that to encourage her to kill people, or to keep them alive?” he asks.

“Neither,” Katara says simply. “I wanted to give her a choice.”

Tako nods, and they return to their work. Every minute, the comet draws nearer.

 

 

Two days before the comet arrives, Firelord Ozai and his troops ready the war balloons to take to the Earth Kingdom. Armed with bombs and the power of the comet, the Fire Nation will raze the Earth Kingdom to the ground.

Katara stands on the air base just a stone’s throw from the Firelord. He’s giving a boastful speech about the might of the Fire Nation to his troops. Katara feels anxious, but she attributes it to the final stressful days of preparation. She has barely seen or spoken to Tako, Azula, or anyone else. Just hours and hours of drills and bomb-loading with the Fire Nation generals and other high-ranking officers.

As the airships take flight, Katara feels a powerful sense of relief. It’s finally over.

Tako’s shout from across the air base comes just in time. Katara ducks instinctively, and narrowly misses decapitation. A blade moves across her face, slicing her brow. Blood spills down into her eyes, and she scrambles to move away. The palace guard nearest to her, the one Ozai had follow her around the past two weeks for continuous ‘protection,’ raises her weapon again.

A blast of heat and blue fire bats the guard away, but Katara, disoriented, stumbles back into another guard, who strikes her with the butt of his sword. She sees stars as she crumples to the ground. More guards converge upon Katara, but so do her friends. Distantly, she can hear Tako’s yells and the thunks of Ty Lee’s chi blocking, and she feels Azula’s hot fire and the rush of Mai’s blades as they fly through the air. Katara knows she needs to protect herself, but in the confusion she can’t tell whose blood she would gather, and she can’t risk taking out her friends on accident.

A body slams into Katara as she struggles to right herself, and she lets out a scream as her knee twists obscenely in the wrong direction. A guard towers over her, and slams his foot into her side. She’s lucky that he seems to have lost his weapon, but his kicks do considerable damage. By the time he is thrown back under a hail of fireballs, Katara is sure her ribs are broken, and she fears movement could puncture her lung.

She should have expected this, she realizes faintly. Firelord Ozai was loyal to no one, not even to the Master of Death.

The fight rages, but Katara is immobilized by pain and the heavy body crumpled on top of her. Someone — she thinks it is Tako based on the size of the hands — drags her out and she gives a gasp of agony. She is hoisted into the air and the pain becomes unbearable.

Her last thought before she slips into the darkness is of Zuko. She hopes he can forgive her for not saying goodbye.

Chapter Text

After the failed invasion, the Avatar’s allies scatter.

Zuko receives word from Uncle Iroh. An attempt on his life was made upon his return to Ba Sing Se to meet with other members of the White Lotus — hence his absence from the invasion — but he requests that Zuko continue his mission to train the Avatar. Uncle Iroh, along with Kyoshi Warriors and Southern Water Tribe Warriors, assure him that their time of attack will come again.

Arluuk, Toph, Aang, and Zuko fly to the Western Air Temple to lick their wounds. It is here that Zuko reveals his deepest shame.

“I can’t keep my promise to train you,” he tells Aang. “I’ve lost my bending.”

“Well, we just have to get it back then!”

Zuko is bewildered by Aang’s optimism. Katara and Uncle Iroh had said they had struggled to regain their powers after difficult losses. Zuko is about to tell Aang this when Arluuk interrupts.

“It’s a little more complicated than that, Aang,” Arluuk says. “It can take a long time to regain bending if you lose the source.”

Zuko stares at him.

“Have you…?”

“Yes,” says Arluuk quietly. “I was really young. I had barely started bending when it went away.”

“What happened?”

Arluuk gives a hollow laugh.

“I didn’t think I deserved to be a bender. My whole life, everyone blamed me for my mother’s death. She died giving birth to me,” he explains quickly. “It was always my fault she was gone.”

“That’s bullshit,” says Toph hotly.

“I know that now,” Arluuk agrees. “But when I was little, it was hard. It’s not like I had a mom to tell me any differently. Anyway, I started to think about how everyone was right, I was just born bad, and my bending just… stopped. I was stuck in this mindset and I couldn’t get out.”

Aang lays a sympathetic hand on Arluuk’s shoulder.

“How did you regain the source of your bending?” Aang asks quietly.

“Water flows. It’s constantly moving, changing, adapting. My problem was that I was fixed in place. I thought I was bad, and that I could only ever be bad. One day, I thought... I thought I could try to be good instead. I had a hard time with it — I even threw a snowball at Katara once; I called her something awful — but eventually, I started to think of myself as more fluid. I wasn’t all bad, and I wasn’t all good. I was both, and I could shape myself into the person I wanted to be. Once I had that in place, my bending was back and it just kept… flowing, I guess.”

Zuko ponders this as Arluuk continues to speak.

“Fire is obviously different from water. You need to find what brings you fire. Then your bending will return.”

Once Aang and Zuko decide to visit the ancient city of the Sun Warriors, Zuko is already feeling a bit more like himself. He thinks about what Arluuk said, about becoming the person he wanted to be, and about what Katara said, about how speaking a name to one’s pain could be healing. He wants to be like his friends: kind like Katara, open like Aang, confident like Toph, secure like Arluuk. The fact that he now has friends seems a miracle itself — why not another miracle to restore his bending?

It’s not a miracle in the end, but a gift. Zuko stares into the source of fire, and it stares back. Dragons are alive, and they show him and Aang the way.

Zuko feels cleansed, reborn in the fire like a phoenix. He sees now how shame has always hindered him, how the sins of his father have weighed on him. Fire is life, and life is fueled by emotion — emotion his father always wanted him to hide away. He is not ashamed by the tears on his face as he watches the dragons dance.

Upon their return to Toph and Arluuk, Aang and Zuko perform the dance of the dragons to Zuko’s biggest flames yet. Aang has a way to go before his fire is under perfect control, but Zuko is elated. He feels for the first time that the war can be won.

Despite his newfound bending prowess, Zuko still struggles in the darkness. Without the power and comfort of the sun, it is easy for nightmares to lurk, taunting him about his failure to rescue Katara. He imagines a number of increasingly horrific scenarios. Toph starts forcing him to fight brutal bending battles before bed just to tire him out.

Then messages start to arrive. Zuko, Toph, Arluuk, and Aang adopt a circuitous route around the globe — Arluuk suggests that they do this to shore up allies for whenever the time is right for their next assault on Firelord Ozai — and along the way they hear whispers. It seems that they have more allies than expected, because everywhere they go, there is news. They are reassured that Katara and Tako are alive and well, and that internal forces are amassing within the Fire Nation. The messages contain astonishing levels of detail. Zuko is sure that only someone truly close to his father would know such things. He wonders at who among his father’s high council could have turned spy.

Their first major stop is in the Kwong Valley, where they are greeted like heroes.

“Avatar Aang! Master Toph, Master Arluuk! We have awaited your return!” says a village elder happily. Her face falls a bit as she looks Zuko over. “But where are Master Katara and Tako?”

The unhappy news of Katara and Tako’s capture by the Fire Nation is relayed, but, strangely, they seem unworried by Zuko’s presence.

“Oh, we have heard of you, Prince Zuko,” says an old man shrewdly. “We tried to speak ill of you once, and Master Katara told us off. She said you were an honorable man.”

Zuko feels a wave of grief at the image of Katara defending him. He wonders if he will ever go longer than a day without wanting to scream at the pain of her absence.

The people of the Kwong Valley gather for a large bonfire. Several of them share stories of Katara, and Zuko is astounded by how her work with Tako has transformed the valley. The people here are healthy, and the entire community flourishes. There are fields bursting with food, children learning their letters and numbers, babies being born. Zuko wishes more than anything that Katara could see what her work has lead to.

Before the Avatar and his masters leave, the elders of the Kwong Valley call a council meeting.

“We pledge to you our support in overthrowing the tyrant, Firelord Ozai. Our people are willing to fight. Say the word, and we will be with you.”

This is a pattern that emerges as Aang, Toph, and Arluuk re-visit places of their previous travels. Everywhere, there are fighters — benders and non-benders alike — eager to pledge themselves to the Avatar’s cause. Many of them emphasize that their condition for fighting is to remove Ozai and supplant him with Zuko.

“Well, of course they want you on the throne, Sparky,” Toph says after Zuko expresses his disbelief at this. “You can’t possibly be any worse than Firelord Fuckface.”

“Toph,” Arluuk chides her, “you know it’s more than that. Zuko, they want you on the throne because they know about you. They know you’ll do right by the the rest of the world.”

“But how do they know that?” Zuko says, still dumbfounded. “It’s not like I have any power right now, and I haven’t really done anything.”

“You’re not giving yourself enough credit,” Aang says, idly twirling air currents around himself. “People know you were exiled for trying to prevent troops from being sacrificed, and everyone who’s met Katara knows that she trusts you. Plus, you’re not likely to try to crush the Earth Kingdom or Water Tribes now that you’ve got friends there.”

Zuko privately thinks that this alone should not be enough for people to pledge their lives to his cause, but he reasons that if most of them are really joining to help the Avatar or Katara, that’s okay with him.

 

 

There are several surprising visits over the next few months, the first of which shocks Zuko to his core. None of them have been deep in the mountains of the Earth Kingdom before, but they have heard whispers that there is a faction of ardent Avatar supporters hiding there. Apaa lands them in the center of a well-hidden training camp, and suddenly there are dozens of spears and fireballs pointed right at them. It is not the sight of the Avatar, but of Zuko, that causes the group to lower their weapons.

“Prince Zuko! We knew you were alive!”

“Lieutenant Jee?”

Zuko’s eyes go wide as members of his former crew drop their weapons to rush towards him. There is Shen, Toro, Cho, Uyen, Koo… everyone from the ship is here, bowing to him deeply and grinning.

“How…?”

“The Ocean Spirit spared us,” Lieutenant Jee explains. “Or, I suppose, the Avatar spared us.”

Aang’s face twists in sorrow and Arluuk puts a hand on his shoulder. Zuko knows how much Aang regrets the loss of lives in the Northern Siege.

“Yeah, we bowed to the Ocean Spirit like the waterbenders were doing, and it left us alone,” says Shen, oblivious to Aang’s discomfort. “We got out of there fast, though. Pulled some injured people onto the ship before we left.”

Zuko looks around. All of the men and women present have a look of Fire Nation about them, either in their manner of dress or their golden eyes. With a jolt, he recognizes his old sword master, Piandao, and several high-ranking Fire Nation military officials who had supposedly perished in previous campaigns.

“You’re all… deserters?” Zuko says in amazement.

“We like to think of ourselves as true patriots of the Fire Nation,” Piandao says imperiously. “We will fight to restore our nation from the mess Firelord Ozai has made.”

“Sounds great,” Toph says with a wide grin. “Well, sounds like our work here is done if you’re going to be on Team Avatar. Think we can get some food before we head out?”

They end up staying over two weeks. Zuko is in high demand. The deserters are eager to know about the prince they have pledged to support, and to hear news of the Fire Nation. Unfortunately, Zuko knows as little as they do about the goings-on of their homeland, but he does feel bolstered by the spirited discussions of politics. He is pleased to discover that his ideas are not only listened to, but supported. It is a far cry from his days hiding his feelings from his father.

Shortly after their arrival in the camp, a young captain approaches Zuko and asks to speak with him privately.

“My name,” says the young man, “is Reiji. Mai told me about you. She is… or was, I guess… my girlfriend before the Northern Siege.”

Zuko blinks and his stomach sinks in understanding.

“She doesn’t know you’re alive, does she?”

“No,” Reiji says despondently. “And there’s no way to contact her without revealing all the deserters. It would put everyone’s lives in danger. I know you were in the Fire Nation during the eclipse. I wondered if you…?”

Zuko shakes his head sadly.

“I didn’t see her,” Zuko says to Reiji’s obvious dismay. “But Mai is smart and she’s tough.”

“I know,” Reiji says with a smile. “But she’s had to be tough for so long. I wish I could…”

His sentence dies away, and Zuko feels grief wrap itself around him again. So Mai had found happiness, and it had been ripped away from her, just like it had been from Zuko. He takes a deep breath and faces Reiji with a solemn expression.

“I will return to the Fire Nation again, and when I do, I will find Mai. I’ll…” Zuko trails off, unsure of what to say.

“Tell her I love her,” Reiji says with a sad smile. “Kind of a weird thing to ask her ex-boyfriend to do for me, but she always said you were a good person.”

Zuko shuffles his feet awkwardly before steeling himself again.

“You’ll be able to tell her yourself,” he says with more confidence than before. “We’re going to win this war. You’ll see Mai again.”

“I hope so,” Reiji says quietly. “But if I don’t…”

“I’ll tell her,” Zuko says quickly. “I promise.”

 

 

They leave the Fire Nation deserters, and Aang directs them to the Southern Isles. None of them except Zuko has been before, but it’s suggested to be a good staging area for the coming fight. They have heard about the approach of a comet in two month’s time. The end is drawing near.

When they land in the Southern Isles, Sokka and his warriors are waiting for them. Sokka embraces them in the Water Tribe fashion before leading them to discuss the war plans. His tactical brilliance is as sharp as ever, and they spend the next few days frantically writing coded messages to allies to direct them for the coming battle. Instead of writing, Toph spends her time practicing metalbending in the anticipation that she gets to crush Fire Nation tanks and airships.

The Southern Isles have been transformed in Zuko’s absence. In his last visit while searching for the Avatar, the villages had been sparsely populated, the people suffering from malnourishment and various ailments. But, as in the Kwong Valley, the people are now thriving, and there are several pregnant women and small babies waddling about. Zuko is confused by this development, as he knows that the good health of the people is not Katara’s doing, despite her desire to return to her homeland. It is Arluuk who discovers the cause of the change.

“Yura! What are you doing here?”

A curvaceous young woman clad in traditional Southern garb gives Arluuk a wide smile and a little bow.

“Arluuk! What a pleasure to see you again!”

“Hi!” Aang says when Arluuk seems too stunned to speak. “I remember you — you’re one of the healers from the Northern Water Tribe, right?”

Yura gives Aang a beaming smile. Arluuk seems to come back to his senses, blushing furiously. His gaze hovers just above Yura’s head, and Zuko has to hold back a laugh. It seems that Arluuk is discomforted by Yura’s revealing Southern clothing, although his eyes occasionally stray to her bare shoulders and stomach.

“Yes, there are several of us here,” Yura tells Aang. “After the council voted to exile Katara and Arluuk, a few of us decided to leave as well.”

“Why?”

Yura’s smile grows sad, but her voice is kind as she responds.

“We had so little freedom in the North. Our whole lives were decided for us almost before we were born. We wanted more than that, but we didn’t know how. Katara told us about the Southern Isles and, well... we thought we might try it out.”

Arluuk frowns, looking at Yura directly.

“Try it out? You’re going to go back North then?”

“No, I think not,” Yura says. “It’s nice here, even though it is quite hot. Besides, they need healers down here, and it’s good to feel useful.”

Yura introduces them to several other Northern expatriate women, all of whom pledge to act as healers in the final showdown with Firelord Ozai. Arluuk seems to disapprove of this, and Zuko pulls him aside.

“You can’t possibly think they don’t deserve to fight just because they’re women,” Zuko says hotly.

“Of course I don’t think that,” Arluuk snaps back. “I just… don’t want them to get hurt.”

Zuko smirks.

“You mean you don’t want Yura to get hurt.”

Arluuk’s face flames and he gives Zuko a shove.

“Oh, shut it. Not all of us have girlfriends.”

Zuko does his best to hold his tongue. But over the next few weeks, he and Toph invent a myriad of situations for Arluuk to visit Yura — Zuko needs bandages, Toph has a headache and can’t walk to the healing huts herself — which makes Arluuk roll his eyes, but he never protests. Yura always seems happy to see him, and Zuko suspects that more than once, Arluuk lets Aang land a particularly sharp water whip in training just to have an excuse to visit the healing huts.

As they gather information about the coming comet, it becomes clear that Aang must focus on his firebending. He makes great strides, but he still struggles with the force of his flames. He seems particularly unbalanced after spending the day in the war meetings. Zuko ends the training session early, and they go down to the beach. Aang flings himself down on the sand in frustration.

“You’re struggling because you don’t really want to master firebending,” Zuko says.

“Of course I want to master firebending!” Aang says with a groan. “I have to use it to defeat the Firelord.”

“Well, that’s the problem, isn’t it? You don’t want to defeat the Firelord.”

“Yes, I do!” says Aang hotly. “Of course I do! After everything he’s done, everyone he’s hurt…”

“What I mean,” says Zuko, crossing his legs in the sand, “is that you don’t want to kill him.”

Aang falls silent. He moves his fingers through the sand absent-mindedly, frowning.

“I don’t want to kill anyone,” Aang admits quietly. “I know I… I killed those soldiers when I went into the Avatar state in the North Pole. I don’t want to lose control like that again. I know they were there to hurt the Water Tribe, but to kill them for it…”

“If you don’t kill Ozai,” Zuko says softly, “other people will be killed. Hundreds, thousands, maybe more. It’s for the greater good.”

“So what, I’m just supposed to abandon my principles and kill someone? Would you kill him?”

Aang looks up, a guilty expression after this outburst. Zuko closes his eyes and focuses on the sound of the waves in front of them.

“I don’t know,” he says finally. “I’m not sure I could. It’s a terrible thing you’re being asked to do. And Ozai is a terrible person, but you’re right. Killing someone isn’t as easy as it sounds. But if it meant saving people, I would do it.”

“I think…” Aang says in a frightened whisper, “I think it would change something in me to kill someone. Like I would lose a part of myself.”

Zuko nods in understanding. He wishes he could talk to Uncle Iroh, even if only to get a confusing riddle in advice.

“Katara killed Zhao,” Zuko says. “It didn’t destroy her. But you’re not Katara, and she’s not you. Only you know if you can kill Ozai in the end. I hope you can, Aang. We need you to restore balance.”

“What if… what if there was another way? What if I could restore balance without killing him?”

Zuko shakes his head sadly.

“I know my father. He won’t stop, not ever. Not until he’s dead. I’m sorry, Aang. But I don’t see another way.”

Aang sighs and flops back in the sand. They stay on the beach for an hour until Zuko drags Aang up.

“Come on, I have an idea.”

Zuko grabs Toph and Arluuk for a joint training session with Aang.

“Right, so you’re struggling a bit with consistent firebending, but we all know that that’s going to be the most powerful element the day of the comet. I thought we could use your other skills to your advantage.”

“How?” Aang says curiously. “If anything, airbending will be a boost to Ozai’s flames.”

“Yes, but it can be a boost to yours, too. And you’re not just an airbender anymore, Aang. You can waterbend and earthbend, too.”

“That’s true,” Arluuk says with a frown. “But I don’t see how he can use waterbending much if fire will be so powerful.”

“He won’t be,” Zuko says, grabbing a stick to draw in the dirt. “But he can use waterbending moves.”

Arluuk’s face lights up.

“Modifying the moves to suit fire… that’s a great idea! Aang, you could make a fire whip... or a fire wave!”

“What about some fire boulders?” Toph says excitedly. “Or a fire landslide?”

“And I can use air blasts, too!” Aang says, delighted. “Let’s try some right now!”

It takes a few days to work out the kinks, but it’s enormously instructive, and not just for Aang. Each of them learns to incorporate the style of the others into their bending. Arluuk invents a hybrid water-spraying move based on Aang’s airbending, and Toph bends sheets of earth like a tidal wave over them. Zuko transforms Arluuk’s ice discs into rings of his own fire, and channels his flames to blast himself into the air like Aang’s air scooters. The people of the Southern Water Tribe seem to find these training sessions extremely entertaining, and the end of the day’s exercises is often met with whoops and cheers from a crowd of youths.

But as the comet draws nearer, tensions run high. The Water Tribe warriors prepare their ships for the meeting point in the Earth Kingdom, and messenger hawks circle endlessly above. The night before their departure, Aang seems quiet and subdued. The current Water Tribe chief has just given a long speech preemptively thanking the Avatar for ending the war and killing the despotic Ozai. Aang retreats to the beach, and Zuko lets him go.

The next morning, Aang is gone.

 

 

Arluuk, Toph, and Zuko spend the next few days in heated debate. No one can find any trace of Aang. The Avatar is missing, and the eve of battle is nigh. They decide to do the unthinkable and leave the Southern Isles without him.

“We just have to hope that he’ll be back in time,” Arluuk says uncertainly.

“Yeah, but Twinkletoes was the one who specialized in hope,” Toph says in an uncharacteristically worried tone.

Zuko says nothing. He doesn’t want to admit to how angry he feels at Aang’s absence. Still, Zuko has made promises to many people over the past several months, and he intends to keep them. He’s going to take back the Fire Nation or die trying. If Aang can’t take Ozai down, Zuko will.

The plan is set, and the entirety of the rebel army gathers together for one last night before the comet. Thanks to their excellent Fire Nation spies, those on the Avatar’s side of the war are well aware of the Firelord’s plan to use the comet’s influence to attack the Earth Kingdom. They have also been informed of the plan to drop several bombs across the globe, but they are assured that these bombs are all fakes, and will do little more than land with a thud and a puff of harmless powder upon their detonation. If it weren’t for Aang’s absence, Zuko would feel that they had a strong chance of winning the war.

Zuko’s spirits are buoyed by seeing his uncle, who has amassed a large group of fighters. Many are members of the White Lotus — Zuko still can’t quite wrap his head around the fact that his uncle has been leading them in secret for years — but many are not. There are people from all over the Earth Kingdom, including a number of familiar university students from Ba Sing Se. There is even a contingent from the Northern Water Tribes. Zuko is deeply impressed that his uncle has managed to sway some of the more ornery warriors to join in the fight.

Zuko and his uncle share a cup of tea before their usual meditation routine. Zuko sinks deeply into himself, his mind blank but for the aroma of Uncle Iroh’s fragrant jasmine blend. When he opens his eyes, he finds his uncle staring at him curiously.

“You have embarked on a great journey in my absence, Nephew.”

“Yes,” Zuko says. “We went all over — the Southern Isles, the Foggy Swamp, the Kwong Valley… oh, we even saw the Sun Warriors!”

But Uncle Iroh shakes his head a little, smiling.

“I did not mean your physical journey, although I am glad you have seen so much of the world. I meant that you have taken a journey to find yourself.”

Zuko’s lips twitch in amusement. As much as he complained about it over the years, he had missed his uncle’s way of speaking. A little cryptic and circular, perhaps, but Uncle Iroh had never pushed Zuko, only prodded him along. He did not tell Zuko the type of man he should be, only that he should answer the question for himself.

Zuko takes a deep breath.

“Thank you, Uncle. You have always worked hard to help me find my way, even when I did not know I was lost.”

Tears glimmer at the corners of Uncle Iroh’s eyes. Zuko’s chest feels tight with emotion at the proud look on his uncle’s face.

This was what he had wanted: the love of a father. It had not come from the man he expected, but it was all the more precious for it.

His uncle pulls him into a hug and he does not resist, returning the hug warmly. He doesn’t know the last time he has embraced his uncle — perhaps he never has, given how formal their family was — but it feels right.

They pull away and resume their tea ceremony in silence. It is a rare moment of peace, and Zuko wants to savor it.

 

 

The mood is tense in the camp, and Zuko worries that it will be to the detriment of their strategy in the morning. He knows that anxiety can warp his bending, and as he watches Toph frustratedly crack boulders, he tries to think of how to lift morale. When he figures it out, he buries his head in his hands and groans.

“What is it?” Arluuk asks, concerned.

“We’re going to have to throw a dance party,” Zuko says miserably.

Arluuk laughs, and several people turn to look at them. Zuko drags himself to his feet and sets off to find the contingent of troops from Ba Sing Se.

Jin is busy with the Water Tribe healers, carrying a bushel full of aromatic herbs to make poultices for burns. When Zuko tells her his plans, she tosses the bundle aside and claps with delight.

“What a good idea, Lee! I mean, Zuko — wow, it is weird to call you that!”

This puts a rare smile onto Zuko’s face. He watches as Jin runs off to gather her friends.

As much as Zuko dislikes being stared at, he figures he better get used to it if he’s planning on being the Firelord. Gritting his teeth a little, he bows to Jin as a circle of curious soldiers form around them. Her friends have assembled a mismatched set of instruments and strike up a jaunty tune. Zuko and Jin leap together and whirl about as everyone looks on.

Zuko is pleased to see his intuition was correct. Once the first song ends, a dozen people have joined in the dancing, with many more racing towards the source of the music. He lets go of Jin, and retreats to the sidelines next to Toph, who is clapping and stomping her feet in time with the band.

“Good thinking, Sparky,” she says with a grin. “This will put people in the mood.”

“We need clear heads for tomorrow,” he explains.

Toph gives a snort of laughter.

“Oh, that’s not the mood I was talking about,” she says, jerking her head to the left. Zuko follows the movement to see Arluuk’s retreating figure, hand-in-hand with Yura.

“Oh.”

“Don’t worry, Sparky. People have to get the whole ‘I-might-die-tomorrow’ thing out of their system. You just gave them a chance to go with it. Trust me, people are gonna feel better tomorrow morning.”

“What about you?” Zuko asks, curious.

“I’m on the sidelines with you tonight,” she says, her smile a little distant. “Nobody here to get me dancing.”

The emotion of the evening seems to catch up with Zuko, and something impulsive steals over him. He holds out a hand to Toph.

“How about a dance with me?”

Toph narrows her eyes skeptically, her hand half-raised towards him.

“I don’t know any fancy Fire Nation dances,” she says. “I’ll just end up stepping on your feet.”

“I’m good at avoiding that,” he says, shrugging, and he grabs her hand.

It’s nothing like dancing with Katara, or anyone else for that matter. Most of the time, he just swings Toph around in a circle and she squeals in delight. Zuko can’t help his own laughter. He feels younger than he has in years. He remembers the fancy balls his grandfather held when he was Firelord. He remembers causing a ruckus with Azula, swinging her around like this. She had liked it, too.

When the crowd disperses and people stumble to bed — with very few people ending up in their own beds — Zuko and Toph half-heartedly help clean up the remnants of the party.

“You think Twinkletoes will come back?” Toph asks quietly.

Zuko takes a deep breath. The night seems to have dulled his anger, but there's still a lingering ache of abandonment. So many trusted people in his life had left him — some on purpose, and some taken from him — that he has a hard time believing that Aang will return. But he knows how hard they have trained, and although he knows Aang is special, he can't help but think that this final battle would be about more than just the Avatar's role.

“I don't know, Toph,” he says softly. “But we're here, and we're going to restore balance to the world, with or without the Avatar.”

He doesn’t sleep well, but when he wakes, he feels ready.

The end is here.

 

 

The comet comes into view just as Zuko sails over the harbor of Caldera City. The capital shimmers in the heat of celebratory firebending. Apaa gives a groan of fear under Zuko, and he is careful to land out of the range of catapults. Despite the fact that Ozai intends to attack the Earth Kingdom today, Caldera City is still well-guarded. After all, Ozai knows that Zuko is alive, and this is the perfect time to usurp him.

For the first time in ages, Zuko is alone. His friends had stayed to fight Ozai, and he had refused the aid of anyone else. Despite their absence, he does not feel afraid. He knows what waits for him here.

He races to the palace, dodging between people showing off their firebending prowess. He’s not surprised that most of the people in the streets are quite old or quite young; his father will have recruited all the able-bodied men and women that he could to fight in his war. Zuko, clad in a dark cloak, goes unnoticed.

He falters as he passes the university, tempted to search for Katara, but he knows his time is short. His father, in a pique of arrogance, has raised himself to the status of ‘Phoenix King,’ and thus a new Firelord will be named today. Zuko cannot miss the pronouncement.

He arrives in the nick of time. A wizened old Fire Sage is droning on in front of a small crowd comprised exclusively of palace guards, high council members, and other Fire Sages. It is a far cry from a typical coronation, which should take place in full view of the populace so that they might embrace their new leader. Instead, Zuko spots Azula standing alone in the front, an almost-bored expression on her face.

“Today,” wheezes the old Fire Sage, “a new Firelord ascends. Princess Azula has been named as the rightful heir of Phoenix King Ozai, long may he reign. Are there any who would challenge this claim?”

“I challenge!”

Zuko’s shout causes a rippling wave of whispers that rise into shouts.

“Prince Zuko!”

“He’s alive! He is the true heir!”

Traitor!

Zuko ignores this and strides forward, pushing past the crowd to stand before his sister. She smirks.

“About time you got here, brother. I was thinking I’d have to run this place myself.”

“You don’t dispute my challenge?” he says, feeling a bit wrong-footed.

“Not at all,” she says, and her smile seems almost genuine. “I wouldn’t have worked so hard to send you all those messages if I wanted the throne for myself.”

“You…”

“Enough!” shouts a voice in the crowd. Zuko whirls around to see one of his father’s oldest cronies, a portly noble named Kenzou, red-faced with rage. “Prince Zuko is an exile and a traitor. Fire Sage Daisuke, you cannot allow this.”

“Actually,” says a timid-looking Fire Sage, “he has fulfilled the conditions of his exile, and he is Ozai’s first born. If Princess Azula does not object…”

“You are not fit to rule the Fire Nation!” Kenzou bellows, ignoring the little Fire Sage.

“You wish to challenge me yourself?” Zuko snaps back, a hint of Azula’s arrogant style. She smirks at him approvingly.

Kenzou blusters. The man is no match for Zuko in any sense, but he catches his breath and his eyes narrow. He turns to the guards.

“You know your orders!” he roars. “Kill him!”

Zuko and Azula spring apart as a blast of fire punches the space between them. The fight is on.

The guards make their first mistake immediately. They seem to assume that Azula is on their side, or worse, that she isn’t even a factor in the fight at all. Zuko has made the mistake of ignoring Azula a few times in his life, and he’s always regretted it. The guards learn this lesson, too.

As Zuko darts and dodges a dozen guards, three come down in quick succession from Azula’s blasts. It takes them a moment to reorganize themselves to fight both siblings at once, and Zuko takes advantage of their distraction to gain the high ground. The energy from the comet boils within him, and he unleashes a wave of fire that sweeps over his opponents. Before they can recover, he stomps and kicks upward, sending a dozen boulders of flame at them. Across the courtyard, he hears Azula’s laugh.

“You’re going to have to teach me that one, Zuzu!”

He gives a grunt and blasts himself upwards, landing next to her. For the first time in his life, Azula is giving him an impressed look.

“Let’s get rid of these idiots, shall we?” she says, barely flinching as she steps back from a spear of fire.

“The series we did to impress Lu Ten,” he shouts over the roar of fire, and they sink into position.

Moving in synchronized circles, they whirl with fire, blasting and deflecting in unison. The guards do their best to respond, and several times Azula and Zuko are forced to leap apart. The guards have changed their strategy now and try to focus on Azula. Her fire is hotter, certainly, and burns blindingly white and blue. The heat of it saps the air from the courtyard, and more than one guard stumbles, gasping for breath. Zuko himself has to take care not to get too close.

Azula may have more raw power, but Zuko’s firebending has been refined in his time with the Avatar. The guards punch at him with fire, but he dodges and weaves through them, flinging back flames of his own. He uses the element of surprise to his advantage. He draws his opponents close to him — he can tell that they favor an attack on his left side, where his scar obscures some of his peripheral vision. But he can feel their heat there, and he swings up his arms in a pillar of fire. He can practically hear Toph goading him on as he uses a technique similar to her boulder-cracking to break apart the balls of fire coming at him. Then he uses a favorite move of Arluuk’s to whip a line of fire across the advancing guards, knocking them backwards. With a puff of the little remaining air, Zuko darts out a ball of fire that whirls around, disorienting the guards as they trip over themselves to escape it. Azula delivers one last blast of pure flame, and the guards collapse, overheated and out of breath. Azula and Zuko pick their way through the pile, using the pair of cuffs held by each of the guards to lock them in place.

Zuko has to admit, he didn’t think he’d win so easily. But then again, he didn’t think he’d have his sister on his side.

He looks up to see several of the non-bending nobles are also lying motionless. A few have fallen flat on their faces, immobilized, while others are pinned in place against columns pr the ground, daggers piercing their clothing or, occasionally, their limbs. There’s quite a bit of cursing.

“Language!” chides Ty Lee, scandalized. Mai stands beside her, twirling another dagger threateningly.

The wizened old Fire Sage is clutching his chest, looking wide-eyed at the scene before him. The timid-looking Fire Sage pipes up in her squeaky voice.

“Are there any other challengers?”

The cursing continues, but no one comes forward.

“Very well then! We may proceed at once!”

“Actually,” Zuko says quickly, “I think we should do this the traditional way. Not in secret, like this.”

“Good thinking, Zuzu,” says Azula, strolling along the nobles and giving a select few some well-placed kicks. “Get the people involved.”

“We don’t know that Ozai has fallen yet,” Zuko says darkly.

“A matter of time,” Azula says confidently.

“It will take two days to get a message from the front,” Mai says. “That’s the fastest a messenger hawk could travel.”

“In the meantime,” Ty Lee says, stretching, “maybe we could have a party or something? You know, so the people can celebrate you being back, Zuko!”

Zuko does not like the sound of this, but he concedes that, at the very least, the message that he intends to reclaim his title should be dispersed. The Fire Sages quickly leave to consult their scrolls to find an auspicious day for his coronation, assuming that Ozai really is taken down by the Avatar. Zuko thinks that this is perhaps jumping too far ahead of things — he still doubts that Aang will kill Ozai — but in the meantime, he could gather support so that if and when Ozai did return, Zuko would have the strength to take his father down himself.

Azula gives him an inquisitive look.

“Something the matter, Zuzu?”

“You should probably stop calling me that in public,” Zuko says wearily. “It’s not very becoming of a Firelord.”

“Ugh, don’t tell me you intend to be like father, having everyone scraping and bowing to you all the time.”

“Of course not!” he says hotly, but Azula just smirks. She still knows how to get under his skin in record time. Zuko eyes her warily, waiting for her to strike again, but instead she scowls and lets out a sigh.

“I suppose I should be nice to you,” she says begrudgingly. “Your girlfriend said you didn’t like that I always teased you so much.”

Flames erupt across his body, unbidden and unstoppable with the comet’s power.

“Katara… where is she?”

Azula’s face turns stony, and Ty Lee gives a sad sigh. Zuko’s heart seizes in fear, and his flames leap higher.

“Cool off,” Mai says dully. “She’s alive. She’s just injured.”

Zuko glares at her, but then he remembers that Mai thinks her own boyfriend is dead. She must resent him for being able to see Katara again. His flames evaporate.

“Mai… Reiji’s alive. He survived the Northern Siege, and he joined the rebels. He’s fighting Ozai’s forces right now.”

The little color in Mai’s face drains away. Ty Lee gasps. Even Azula looks unnerved by this news.

“Did he…?” Mai trails off uncertainly.

“He said…” Zuko blushes and rubs the back of his head. “To tell you he loves you.”

Mai takes a deep breath but remains as impassive as ever. Ty Lee is practically vibrating with excitement, but Mai ignores her and steps forward.

“Right then. Let’s take you to Uma. Or Katara, whatever her name is.”

“Hold on,” Azula says. “We have a few things to finish up here first.”

The wait feels interminable, and it’s only once they finally leave the palace grounds that Zuko realizes while his sister had stalled. Zuko had spoken to the remaining, un-arrested nobles to appease them — it seemed several of them had turned spy against Ozai anyway — and appointed some new guards to watch over Ozai’s imprisoned cronies. Mai and Ty Lee stay behind to help as Azula parades Zuko through the streets. It is clear that his route to Katara had been revealed to several people ahead of time, because the streets become crowded with onlookers. Zuko is nervous at first, thinking that perhaps the crowd will turn hostile, but most people just seem excited to get a look at him. Azula seems to sense Zuko is at his limit, however, and hurries him down to the port side of town.

Caldera City, while an impressive and bustling town, has always had a few seedy neighborhoods around the edges. The Fire Prince and Princess make their way through one such neighborhood, and Zuko’s heart sinks to see the poverty here. He sees children without shoes, maimed veterans hobbling towards him in the streets. He has to work very hard to keep his flames in check; he feels more fury with his father than perhaps ever before.

Azula leads Zuko into a dingy building, and catches sight of his confused expression.

“This was one of her healing clinics,” Azula explains. “Father’s guards attacked her once he had his bombs assembled. We fought them off, but…”

The room is dark, and there are several people speaking in low tones. They stop once they hear Azula’s voice and the people inside scramble to their feet to bow to her. Then they spot Zuko and their whites of their eyes widen in the darkness.

Zuko barely registers any of this. His eyes are fixed on the corner of the room where Katara sleeps.

He walks towards her as if in a trance. He lowers himself slowly onto the edge of her bed, but she does not wake. Her face is purpled with bruising, and there’s a large lump under the mattress over her right knee. Her breathing is shallow and pained. Zuko feels the sting of tears on his face. It’s only by the power of the comet that he can feel any fire left within him.

“She’s concussed,” Azula says, her voice unusually soft. “It’s made it hard for her to heal herself, but I think it’s just hard to heal oneself in general. She’s got several broken ribs, and something went really wrong with her leg. She didn’t say what it was. She was pretty out of it last time I was here.”

“How long?” Zuko rasps.

“Two days ago,” Azula replies. “We’ve been keeping her here in secret. Tako’s been here, too, although he’s busy rallying rebellion leaders to help secure the city right now.”

“And the guards who attacked Katara?”

“Dead or still unconscious. They saw me try to defend her, and I couldn’t have my secret get out just yet.”

Zuko should feel chilled by this casual admission of violence, but instead he feels a flash of satisfaction. He would gladly hurt anyone who had done this to Katara.

Zuko takes several calming breaths, taking hold of Katara’s hand. It feels small and cold beneath his.

“When will she wake?” he asks.

“Unclear. Like I said, she was really out of it last time, just said she needed somewhere dark and quiet to get her head right."

Zuko stays for almost an hour, holding Katara’s hand. Azula disappears to speak to other people, but Zuko remains rooted to the spot, hoping that Katara will wake. She doesn’t.

Before they leave, Zuko asks if Katara can be moved, but the matronly old woman running the clinic in Katara’s place shakes her head.

“It was risky enough to bring her here with all those broken ribs,” the woman says. “And all that jostling certainly didn’t help her leg. She needs a few more days here, Your Highness.”

Zuko nods and turns away. As soon as he gets back to the palace, he’s sending over as much food to this neighborhood as possible.

It takes ages to get back. Azula seems to have organized another impromptu parade for Zuko, only this time there are stops to meet people on every block. The people vary — a widower raising three children, an overworked teacher, an injured war veteran — but Zuko’s attention to them does not. He listens for as long as he can, and although he forgets the names of the people, he remembers their struggles as if they were his own. By the time he enters the palace again, he has a mountain of orders to give out, and a long list of tasks to complete.

“You’ve taken this like a turtleduck to water,” Azula quips, amused.

“It’s my duty to —“

“Please, spare me the lecture,” Azula says, holding up a hand. “I’ve heard enough about duty for a lifetime.”

“Azula…”

“Look, neither of us is good at this sort of thing. But I’m sorry. I… I didn’t know about the letters you sent me. And before that, too. I should’ve been on your team.”

Zuko blinks, surprised.

“We were children,” he says softly. “We were just trying to survive.”

“We did survive. But we’d be stronger together.”

Zuko considers this. He’s not sure if he should trust Azula. He’s always had difficulty trusting people. But he has put his trust in Katara, and Aang, and Toph, and Arluuk. He’s stronger for it. Perhaps it’s worth it.

“We would be a good team,” he says, meeting Azula’s gaze. “On one condition. You can’t lie to me, Azula. We have to be honest with one another.”

“I suppose you’re right,” Azula says, heaving a bored sigh. “In that case…”

She moves remove a painting from the wall, revealing a safe from which she pulls a stack of documents.

“Here’s some of the information I’ve uncovered over the past few months. People loyal to Ozai, people loyal to you, people who have been profiting from the war, people involved in the slave trade, that sort of thing. You’ve never had the head for keeping everyone's names straight, so I thought I’d do it for you.”

“The slave traders…”

“Conveniently being rounded up as we speak. I put them on the same mandatory naval conscription roster. I sent word to your friends last week. They should be taking some extra precautions taking those particular soldiers prisoner.”

“You seem confident that the Avatar’s side will win,” Zuko says, raising a brow.

“Well they should, given all the work I did to get them Ozai’s plans. Anyway, we’ll find out soon enough, won’t we?”

Zuko nods and turns back to his work.

 

 

As expected, a messenger hawk with news from the front arrives two days later. Coincidentally, it is also the first time Katara is awake when Zuko visits.

He had continued his daily trips across town in the interim, Azula planning a new route each time. This was under the guise of security precautions, but they both know the real reason for this behavior. The people of the Fire Nation are starved for attention. For a hundred years, their rulers have cared only about war and domination, their personal power over the good of the people. Zuko listens to his people, and he looks them in the eye. Azula seems satisfied with this political strategy, and Zuko is eager to hear what problems he needs to address. It is exhausting, but the result seems to work well for everyone.

As soon as he receives the messenger hawk from the front, Zuko makes a beeline across town for Katara, ignoring Azula’s suggested detours.

His heart leaps at the sight of her. Katara is slumped heavily against her pillows, but her eyes are blazing and her smile lights up the dark room. Zuko does his best to restrain himself, pressing his lips gently against hers. He can taste salt, but he’s not sure which one of them is crying. They rest their foreheads against one another, occasionally letting out a watery chuckle or sob of relief. He presses a few more kisses against the uninjured parts of her face, and she gives a contented hum.

“You’re so warm,” she whispers.

They stare at each other for a long moment before Katara’s face pinches in worry.

“Any news?”

“Yes,” Zuko says, straightening up. “Ozai has been defeated. The Avatar has restored balance to the world.”

If anything, Katara looks more anxious.

“Did Aang…?”

“He didn’t kill Ozai,” Zuko says. “The message said something about chi-bending… I can’t say I fully understand what it means, but it sounds like Aang found a way to take away Ozai’s firebending.”

“So if he’s still alive… does that mean he’s still the Firelord?”

“No,” Zuko says, shifting in his seat. “It’s complicated. Ozai had promoted himself to Phoenix King before the attack. It’s a title that’s not used anymore, and for good reason. The Phoenix King is practically mythical. It’s supposed to be the strongest firebender in the world, descended from royal blood. If he can’t bend anymore, he can’t be the Phoenix King. And in order to be the Phoenix King, he had to abdicate the position of the Firelord.”

Katara blinks, her brow furrowed.

“So what now?”

“He’ll be brought back as a prisoner of war and tried for war crimes,” Zuko says, rubbing hand over his face. “And there will be a new Firelord. Me.”

“How are you feeling?”

“About which part?”

“All of it.”

Zuko lets out a sigh and takes Katara’s hand.

“Better now that I can talk to you about it,” he says honestly. Katara gives him a sleepy smile and waits for him to continue. “The Firelord thing… it’s a lot, but I think… I think I’m ready. I’m willing, at least. There’s a lot to be done, and I want to be the one doing it. It’s pretty overwhelming, but I think… I think this is where I was supposed to end up.”

“And Ozai?”

Agni, I’m not looking forward to dealing with that mess,” Zuko says with a groan. “Trying him for war crimes is going to be complicated. Just getting prison guards for him is going to be a huge headache. But I guess the one good thing is that Aang found a way to defeat him without killing him. I didn’t think he could.”

“How are the the others? Did you hear any news about them?”

“Sokka’s leg is broken,” Zuko says. “He’ll be okay though — he’s actually the one who wrote me the messenger hawk. His handwriting is atrocious… Anyway, everyone else seems to be okay. Shaken up a bit, I imagine, but no permanent injuries. They need to help with the coordination of prisoners and all that, but with Apaa and airships, they should arrive back here by the end of the week.”

Katara lets out a shaky breath, looking relieved.

“Good. That’s good,” she says, sinking deeper under her covers. She looks exhausted, but her eyes sparkle when Zuko catches her gaze. “Tell me everything that’s happened to you since Ba Sing Se.”

“You sure you’re not too tired?”

“I can listen to a story or two,” she says with a wry smile.

Zuko talks for the better part of an hour. Katara occasionally breaks in to ask about a friend here or there, or to inquire about the health of the villagers he encountered, but mostly he recounts the past several months while Katara watches him. As ever, talking to Katara is the simplest thing in the world. He tells her of his triumphs and his struggles, and not once does he worry that she will think worse of him for it.

By the end of his tale, his voice is hoarse, and Katara is starting to nod off, despite her protests that she is indeed fully awake.

“I’ll come back to visit tomorrow,” he says in a low voice, leaning in for a gentle kiss. “And I’ll move you up to stay with me as soon as you’re well enough, okay?”

“Mmm,” is Katara’s sleepy reply.

He rises to leave and comes face to face with a small crowd of people who have been listening by the open door. They all quickly look away and pretend to get back to work, but Zuko knows they’ve heard everything. Ty Lee, his escort across town for the day, is staring at him, wide-eyed.

“You probably want to tell people all about what you heard,” he says to her as they exit the building.

“I can keep things to myself you know!” Ty Lee says indignantly.

“You can, but you’re better at getting the word out. I think you should tell people what you overheard.”

“Really?” Ty Lee says, puzzled. “Why?”

“It will save me the trouble for having to retell all of it, for one thing. People should know the truth. Rumors about what I’ve been up to since the eclipse are going around. I trust you can get the real story out there.”

As expected, word travels fast through Caldera City. There indeed seems to be a good amount of support for Zuko’s ascension to the throne. The reasons vary, but most seem to find his cooperation with the Avatar to be an indicator of peaceful intentions. Zuko just keeps his head down and keeps working.

Once Katara’s ribs have healed up enough for her to be moved safely, Zuko dispatches several armed guards to help in transport her in a palanquin across Caldera City. It takes hours, and Zuko is practically out of his mind with worry. Tako, who has spent the past week acting as a liaison between the anti-Ozai rebels and the remaining high council members, is charged with the escort, and he gives Zuko a sheepish look once they finally arrive.

“Sorry about the wait, but once people found it was Katara we were moving… well, everyone wants to get a look at her.”

Zuko goes to check that Katara has not been too exhausted by the journey and lets out an unexpected bark of laughter. Katara gives a giggle in return. The palanquin and Katara herself are absolutely covered in flowers.

“People wanted to thank her,” Tako says with a grin.

“I didn’t do much,” Katara says modestly. “I could have done more if I hadn’t been working on those stupid bombs all the time.”

“You did enough,” Tako says with a shrug. “You should’ve seen it — people were lining up to give her these,” he says, picking up one of the many bouquets at her side.

“Some of them are for you, Zuko,” Katara says with a sly look. “People seem to know about us.”

Zuko nods, unsurprised. It had been his intention to get this particular message across for two reasons. One, everyone needed to know that to attack Katara was an attack on the soon-to-be-Firelord, and he was not to be trifled with. Secondly, there were a lot of young noblewomen making flimsy excuses to visit the palace gardens these days, and he wanted to head off any awkward interactions.

“So,” Tako says, rubbing his hands together. “Where should we deposit Katara?”

Zuko indicates down the hall and Tako raises an eyebrow. Zuko flushes a bit, but ignores the bait. Azula had already made fun of him enough.

As soon as word had come of Ozai’s defeat, Zuko had asked the servants to remove Ozai’s effects from the Firelord’s chambers. Stripped of all decor, the large rooms echoed as Zuko stepped inside. It was strange to sleep in his father’s old room, but he hadn’t wanted to sleep in his own. There were too many memories. He had never really spent much time in the Firelord’s personal chambers, and without the large tapestries and war trophies, it carried much less emotional weight.

“You know, I was surprised you wanted to take over the room so quickly,” Azula had said, sauntering in after Zuko. “But then I remembered this…”

She leaned against a seemingly blank wall to reveal a doorway. A short hallway appeared behind it.

“I suppose you’re planning on putting your girlfriend in the Fire Lady’s chambers? Bold move, brother.”

“Katara needs to be protected,” Zuko said hotly. “And after everything she’s done for our people…”

“I’m not disagreeing with you,” said Azula, amused. “You always did wear your heart on your sleeve, Zuzu. Well, have fun not thinking about the fact that we were probably both conceived in this room. Good night!”

Zuko had thrown a scroll after her, but she had danced away, laughing. Zuko may have been laughing a little himself.

Katara does not remark upon the significance of being in the Fire Lady’s chambers, but immediately takes a nap. Aang and the others were arriving soon, and Katara wanted to be rested. Next to Katara’s bed, Zuko continues to work his way through a mountain of petitions he has received from far-flung villages. He is loathe to let her out of his sight, and she says she doesn’t mind his presence so long as he wakes her up when the others arrive.

It’s an emotional evening, and everyone cries at least once. As happy as Zuko is to see his friends again, alive and relatively unharmed, he’s unprepared for the depth of his feelings towards the others. There are so many moments that twist his heart: Katara and Sokka embracing, Mai’s face when she spots Reiji for the first time, his uncle’s wide grin and whisper of “I am so proud of you, Nephew.” Zuko stays quiet most of the night because he has no idea what will come out of his mouth if he opens it.

Katara and Sokka, both with their injured legs, are the focal point of the festivities. Sokka is loudly and extravagantly recounting the battle while Katara works her way through the pile of flowers next to her. By the end of the evening, most people in the room are wearing some sort of flower crown; Aang has three of them stacked atop his bald head. When Katara runs out of material for crowns, she start weaving extra flowers into Aang’s short beard, and they both collapse in giggles.

Zuko watches his friends and breathes deeply, feeling his inner flame, steady and bright. For all the challenges that lie ahead, he knows that with the help of the people in this room, he can light the way forward.

 

 

The Fire Sages, in their infinite wisdom, set the auspicious day for Zuko’s coronation in three weeks time. Even with the prolonged warning, it’s a scramble to get everything ready.

Zuko works on his speech for days. Tako and Aang help him with the big ideas, while Katara and Azula help him refine the wording. He tests it out on a broad audience: Sokka, Suki, Toph, Mai, and Ty Lee. He wants to be sure it appeals to both Fire Nation citizens and their foreign guests. All agree that it is a very fine speech. Zuko practices it so often, he can recite it in his sleep, but he’s still sick with anxiety when the moment comes to give it.

The ceremony passes in a blur, but Zuko thinks it goes well. The speech, given to the biggest crowd he’s ever seen, is met with uproarious applause. As he changes from his ceremonial robes to his evening robes for the party, his servants break their typical code of silence.

“It was a tremendous speech, Your Excellency.”

Zuko squirms.

“You don’t have to call me that.”

“Yes, Firelord Zuko.”

Even this moniker feels strange, but it’s better than ‘Your Excellency,’ so he lets it slide.

“The people are behind you, Firelord Zuko,” a valet says, looking surprised at his own daring. “‘A new era of peace and love’ is what we all want, too. And we know you can do it.”

Zuko bows in thanks, and the valet looks overwhelmed. Zuko wonders when the last time the servants were treated with anything other than contempt by his father.

As Zuko prepares to enter into the evening’s festivities with Uncle Iroh, a harassed-looking woman — one of the many coordinators of palace events — is complaining loudly, unaware of the approaching Firelord.

“Dressed like a bunch of savages!” she says hotly. “Half-naked in the presence of the Firelord. I told them to change and they just ignored me! I said that Firelord Zuko would be insulted by their state of undress.”

“Who’s insulting me now?” Zuko says as the woman whirls around and gives a little shriek of fright. She prostrates herself on the floor, babbling an apology.

“Get a hold of yourself, woman,” Azula snaps as she enters the foyer. Her golden eyes glitter like her matching robes. “She’s been going on about it all day.”

“Who’s half-naked?”

Azula smirks.

“Take a wild guess.”

The doors open and Zuko is thrust into the spotlight. He strides forward, Azula and Uncle Iroh flanking him on both sides. He bows deeply to the crowd, who shout and applaud. Zuko thought he would be uncomfortable by the stares, but strangely, he doesn’t mind it so much. He doesn’t particularly like being the center of attention, but he can at least tolerate it now.

He is immediately beset upon by visiting diplomats, nobles, and high-ranking officers of other nations. It takes an hour before he spots any of his friends. Aang has an equal long line of people eager to speak with him, while Toph and Arluuk seem to be working in tandem to avoid becoming ensnared by adoring fans. Zuko quietly steps away from his current conversation — a debate about the colonial holdings, which Zuko does not look forward to untangling in the coming weeks — to look for Katara when he spots her coming his way.

She limps in step with Sokka, both of them leaning heavily on matching canes. They are dressed in the Southern Water Tribe style, and Zuko bites his lip to hold in a laugh. He can see why the party coordinator was so scandalized.

Both of them wear skirts of dried grass, and Katara has an additional wreath of greenery accentuating her wide hips. Sokka is mostly shirtless, although there is a cape that wraps over one shoulder that seems to be made from an intricate pattern of bird feathers. He has a new tattoo on his chest that he bears proudly.

But Zuko has eyes only for Katara. She beams at him, her teeth as white as the circlet of shells atop her head. Her hair is braided in an unusual style — Water Tribe with a Fire Nation twist — and she wears a simple wrap of blue fabric around her chest. As she walks, onlookers stare at her retreating form. Zuko catches a glimpse as she walks past a mirrored pillar; someone has re-inked an octopus across her back. Zuko has to take a steadying breath and hopes he isn’t staring too much.

“Oi, get a room!” comes a shout from across the ballroom, and Zuko scowls. He can’t see Toph in the crowd, but there’s no doubting her voice.

Katara, however, laughs as she draws near, giving an unsteady bow as she leans on her cane. Zuko returns the bow deeply, drawing whispers at this unusual display of respect. He bows to Sokka as well, and they grip forearms in the Water Tribe style as well. The whispers grow louder still, and Zuko has to repress an eye roll.

“You’d think people would have better things to talk about than who’s bowing to whom,” Sokka says with a rueful grin.

“People love to have something to gossip about,” Zuko says with a shrug. “Bowing is the least of it.”

“Wonderful,” Sokka says sarcastically. “The next six months are going to be fun.”

“You’re staying then?” Zuko says. Sokka has been offered a position as a diplomatic connection to the Southern Water Tribe. Zuko had extended it for several reasons: Sokka’s tactical brilliance, the respect Sokka had accrued with his people as a warrior, and the fact that Zuko genuinely enjoyed his company.

“Yep!” Sokka says happily. “Figure I might as well enjoy the hospitality of your people while my leg heals up, seeing as my dear sister can’t heal bones.”

Katara rolls her eyes, but she smiles at her brother.

“Yeah, and the fact that Suki is staying to act as Zuko’s personal security for a while has nothing to do with your decision, right?”

“Maybe I just want to spend time reconnecting with you, sister,” Sokka says, pulling a face at her.

Katara pulls one right back and Zuko lets out a very undignified snort. A nearby noblewoman looks affronted.

“So,” Zuko continues in a would-be casual tone to Katara. “Does that mean you’re staying as well?”

Katara gives him a soft smile that makes his insides feel like they’re melting.

“As long as you’ll have me.”

Zuko has to hold himself back from saying something extremely sappy; Sokka is already making gagging noises. He shoots Sokka a glare and is pleased that it silences him. He’s been working on his authoritative glaring with Azula’s help.

“You’ll want to go back to the Southern Isles eventually, won’t you?”

“Yes,” Katara agrees. “But I’m in no rush. I’ve got what I need right here.”

Zuko flushes faintly and Sokka makes more retching sounds. Katara pokes him and Sokka lets out a yelp. The noblewoman eavesdropping nearby looks more scandalized than ever.

“You'd better make the rounds, brother,” Azula says, appearing at his elbow. “You’re going to need to open the dancing soon.”

Zuko sneaks a guilty glance at Katara. He would like nothing more than to dance with her — stick it to all those close-minded nobles who disapproved of cross-cultural mixing — but Katara could barely hobble across the room, let alone waltz. Katara lays a hand on Zuko’s arm and gives him another soft smile.

“I’ll see you later,” she whispers to him.

The rest of the evening passes races by. Zuko feels like he’s talked to more people in one night than in his entire life combined. It’s an unusual party by Fire Nation standards, and not only because members from the Earth Kingdom and both Water Tribes are present. There are also people from all social classes and backgrounds — Zuko’s old crew from his exile days make a particularly strong impression when they interrupt the band to host their own music night for a few songs — and even the servants are allowed a break to join in the dancing. Zuko catches more than one guard tapping a foot along to the music. The biggest hit of the party is Aang, who somehow manages to lead a tutorial in juggling to thunderous applause and laughter.

No one wants to be the first to leave, but the long day has left Zuko feeling rather worn out. He peers around the room to find Katara tucked away in a corner. She’s speaking to some of the Earth Kingdom guests with a polite expression on her face, but Zuko can tell she, too, is tired.

One of the perks of being the Firelord is that he does not have to make excuses or goodbyes when leaving a room. He strides over to Katara and the Earth Kingdom ladies disperse at his arrival. He extends an arm to Katara, who smiles and takes it. She struggles a bit to walk in an even gait, and Zuko wraps an arm around her waist for support. She gives him an even brighter smile, and they make their way to the main doors.

Zuko can feel the curious gaze of onlookers around them. Usually, the stares make him feel smaller, a diminished flame doused by the cold eyes upon him. But this time he feels strong, his inner fire unwavering. He knows who he is. He is proud to have Katara by his side.

He leads Katara to her chambers, pausing briefly outside her door. She gives a snort of laughter.

“Are you seriously not going to come in unless I formally invite you?”

“They’re your chambers,” Zuko says sullenly. “Maybe you don’t want me to come in.”

“Impossible,” Katara says, laughing. “I’ve got to keep you around to keep me warm.”

“The Fire Nation isn’t hot enough for you?”

Katara smirks, her eyes darkening.

“It could be hotter,” she says in a whisper, grabbing a fistful of his robes.

Zuko makes sure to lock the door behind them.

The exhaustion of the day dissipates as he carefully lowers Katara onto the bed, crawling in after her as she pulls him down for a kiss. In the weeks since their reunion, they have been careful with each other, mostly to avoid re-injuring Katara. They had dived back into the emotional aspect of their relationship — long discussions into the night of their feelings, their fears, their futures — but they have been forced to ramp up the physical aspect slowly. It has been an exquisite torture, a thirst they have been unable to quench. Not that Zuko has not enjoyed their time together. He reminds Katara of the quip she had made back on the ship about a man being able to use his hands and mouth to please a woman. She laughs until her ribs ache, remembering Zuko’s choked reaction.

Katara moans as Zuko works to undo the knot of her top. It pulls away easily and Zuko grins in satisfaction. His hands slide up to part her skirt, his fingers finding their target.

“Have I mentioned how much I like this outfit?” he rasps against her skin.

“Mmm, you look very handsome in those robes,” she whispers back. “But I’d really prefer if you took them off now.”

They undress slowly, stopping to tease and kiss exposed skin. Katara entices him to move over her, parting her legs.

“You sure?” he pants, eyes slightly unfocused.

“Yes,” she says with a sigh. “I can’t promise I’m going to move very much, but I really want you to fuck me.”

Zuko does not need telling twice, and he sinks into her with a groan. It’s a little awkward trying to not jostle Katara’s injured knee, but they’re both so worked up, it doesn’t seem to matter much. Katara comes quickly with a choked cry of pleasure, and Zuko cannot resist following her.

They lie back, grinning.

“How long will the octopus on your back last?” Zuko asks breathlessly.

“A few months, give or take. Why?”

“I’ve had some rather elaborate fantasies of you with that tattoo,” Zuko admits to Katara’s laughter.

“Well, that’s the best incentive to heal quickly I’ve heard yet,” she says with a wide smile.

They fall silent, breathing deeply and listening to the sounds of the still-raging party nearby. Katara turns to look at him, a hand softly stroking the edges of his scar.

“I love you.”

“I love you,” he says back. “Are you warm enough now?”

“Mmm,” Katara says happily, nuzzling into his side. “Yes, thank you.”

Zuko smiles softly, watching as Katara’s eyelids grow heavy. Her breathing deepens as she falls asleep. Zuko turns to stare at the ceiling.

Today, he had promised a new era of love and peace. Tomorrow, it will begin with Katara by his side.

Chapter Text

Katara still hates the cold.

Perhaps it is because she now splits her time between the Southern Isles and the Fire Nation, and she is unused to the northern chill. Perhaps it is because the cold makes her knee stiff and achy from its injury during the war. Or maybe the North Pole is just too damn cold, even in the height of summer. Judging by the heavy furs worn by the other attendees of the bi-annual peace conference, she’s not the only one who feels this way.

The Northern Water Tribe has gone all out to impress their international guests, and Katara has to admit the grandeur and detail of the conference hall is beautiful. The ice glitters in the light, reflecting the ever-lasting summer sun. Even though it is well into the evening, the room is as bright as midday.

Katara takes in the people surrounding her. Sokka is enjoying the many shellfish dishes on buffet while Suki looks on, amused. Tako is in deep conversation with a handsome man wearing Earth Kingdom robes. Katara tries to guess if they are flirting or talking politics, although she concedes that Tako is highly skilled at doing both simultaneously. Toph, who dislikes being on the ice as it requires her to wear thick boots, has made the best of her situation by commandeering a low table for arm wrestling with other diplomats. Katara smirks. Literally strong-arming one’s allies seems a strange way to keep the peace, but she must admit, everyone who fights Toph seems less aggressive and more willing to compromise after the fact.

Across the room, she spots Zuko in conversation with Arluuk and Yura, who is holding their eight month-old son, Tulok. Katara winds her way through the crowd towards them as Yura hands the baby over to an alarmed-looking Zuko.

“There you go,” Yura says happily. “See, he likes you! He does tend to like firebenders; I think it’s because you’re all so warm.”

Arluuk laughs at the expression on Zuko’s face and claps him on the shoulder.

“Don’t worry, I looked like that every time I held him for the first month,” Arluuk says, grinning. “And I haven’t dropped him yet, so you’ll be fine.”

“I think he likes your crown,” Katara says, watching Tulok point, open-mouthed, at the shining golden flame set in Zuko’s hair.

Cautiously, holding Tulok tightly to his chest, Zuko reaches up with one hand to remove the crown. Katara suppresses a smirk, glad that Azula is in the Fire Nation while Zuko is away. Azula would certainly scold Zuko for this breach in royal protocol, but Katara knows that Zuko has never put much stock in the crown.

“It’s just a piece of metal,” Zuko had always said, shrugging. “Toph could probably reshape it into a turtleduck and I wouldn’t even notice.”

Indeed, Zuko had often been seen in public without his crown. His people did not disapprove of this strategy. Instead, it seemed to elevate him even higher in public opinion. That he could still command a room even in the plainest attire and quietest voice spoke to his true strength, and to the respect his people had for him.

Now, Zuko lowers the golden flame for the baby’s inspection. Tulok is wide-eyed, tiny fingers scrabbling against the cold metal. Zuko allows him to bring it close to his face and then, staring at Zuko directly, Tulok attempts to shove the crown into his mouth.

“Urgh!” Zuko says, affronted, as Arluuk roars with laughter. “Why are babies so disgusting?”

“You get used to it,” Yura says with a chuckle. “Slobbering on your crown is definitely not the most disgusting thing he’s done.”

Zuko pulls a face and Katara does her best to hold back her laughter.

“Why don’t you two take a break from the baby and Zuko and I can watch him?” Katara says to Arluuk and Yura. Zuko looks more alarmed still, but Arluuk and Yura look pleased.

“We’ll just grab something to eat and be right back,” Yura says reassuringly.

“No, we won’t. We’re taking advantage of free babysitting. Good luck, Zuko,” Arluuk says, leading his wife away.

Zuko rounds on Katara, the effect of his glowering tempered somewhat by the babbling baby blowing bubbles with his own spit.

“Oh, look,” Katara says with a sly grin. “There’s Aang. I promised I would catch up with him this evening. You’re fine with Tulok for a bit, right?”

“Katara!”

“I love you!” she says in a teasing voice, sliding away. She looks back after a moment to check if she’s pushed it too far, ready to return if Zuko needs help. But Zuko is already focused back on the baby in his arms, smiling a bit at Tulok lets out a happy giggle.

The sight of it stops her in her tracks. Aang approaches and taps her on the shoulder.

“Is that Arluuk and Yura’s baby, or did I miss out on some really important information?” Aang asks as Katara pulls him into a hug.

“Tulok is eight months old, Aang. You saw me less than six months ago.”

“I’m kidding, Katara. Just surprised that Zuko looks so comfortable with a baby. I kind of assumed he would be freaked out.”

“So did I,” Katara admits. “I was trying to prank him, but…”

Aang gives her a knowing smile. She flushes a bit and changes the subject.

“How are you, Aang? Tell me about how things are going with the Air Acolytes.”

It’s as easy as ever to shift Aang’s focus. He moves breezily from story to story, filling Katara in on his work of the past six months. She catches him up on the details of her own work before Aang is distracted again by Zuko across the room. Katara has been watching the pair of them out of the corner of her eye as well. Zuko has been carefully holding up objects for Tulok to inspect with his chubby hands, gently pulling them away before he can get his mouth on them. The added bonus of this intimate moment is that the other diplomats leave Zuko alone, and Katara wonders if Zuko might offer to babysit from now on just to avoid some of the more unpleasantly obsequious figures in the room.

“How’s that going?” Aang asks, jerking his head towards Zuko.

“Things are good,” Katara says a bit too quickly.

Aang raises an eyebrow, but there’s no judgement in his gaze, only curiosity. Katara sighs.

“Things are good. We’ve just been talking about the future and it’s… well, it’s always complicated being the Firelord, isn’t it?”

“Or the Firelord’s girlfriend,” Aang says sympathetically.

“Yes,” Katara agrees. “But we’re figuring it out. It will be alright, things just take a while. We’ll be okay.”

“I know you will,” Aang says, smiling.

Toph’s voice carries across the room, challenging Aang to arm wrestling. Aang is not normally a participant in Toph’s friendly squabbles, but he seems to recognize how uncomfortable being on the ice is for his earthbending master, and he gives Katara a hug goodbye as he sets off across the room. Katara turns back to Zuko, deep in thought.

A week before they had left for the North Pole, Katara had been spending a long stretch of the year in the Fire Nation. Most of her work was in Caldera City at the university or one of the newly-formed medical clinics, but she resided in the palace with Zuko. One evening, she had arrived in Zuko’s chambers to find him extremely distracted. She had showered and stood, naked and dripping wet, in front of him before he noticed her.

“Oh,” he said, dazed. “Hello.”

“What did the council say to you?” she asked, toweling off while Zuko put away his scrolls. “You said there was some big meeting today?”

“Mostly the usual stuff. Trade tariffs and grain prices, that sort of thing.”

A flush crept up the back of his neck, and Katara bit her tongue. She waited, knowing it usually took Zuko a few tries before he could tell her something he found difficult to say.

“They wanted to talk about marriage.”

“Oh.”

Something squirmed in Katara’s gut. She and Zuko had been together ever since they had reunited in the Fire Nation five years before. Their relationship was no secret. Zuko made most of his public appearances with her by his side, and more than once they had scandalized some uptight nobles who had caught them kissing in a secluded hallway.

Still, marriage was different. It would elevate Katara to royal status, and there were plenty of people who did not approve of a waterbender mixing blood with firebenders. Katara and Zuko had certainly spoken about marriage before, but they had always agreed that it would be best to work slowly, to ease the public into it. Katara knew it deeply annoyed Zuko that public opinion needed to be involved in their relationship at all, but she understood why he felt the need to listen to it all the same. His predecessors had spent their reigns as Firelord doing whatever they pleased, regardless of what the people wanted, and Zuko did not want to follow in their footsteps.

Katara took a deep breath, bracing herself for the worst.

“Did the council have any suggestions?”

“Yes, actually. They asked what was taking so long for me to ask you to marry me.”

Katara blinked. This was not what she had expected to hear.

“They… they want you to marry me?”

“They’ve been hinting at it for years. Seems they finally got fed up enough to be forthright about it,” Zuko said, flopping down on his enormous bed. When Katara stayed silent, he propped himself up to look at her with a quizzical expression. “Are you surprised?”

“Yes,” she said honestly. “I always thought… I’m not… I’m not a firebender.”

“Neither was my mother.”

“Yes, but she was at least Fire Nation. And we know she’s Avatar Roku’s granddaughter now, so she certainly had more credentials than I do.”

“You’ve got plenty of credentials,” Zuko said defensively. “What you’ve already done for the Fire Nation… for the whole world! The Fire Nation should be so lucky to have you. The council knows it. You’re probably the most revered figure in the country, including me.”

“Some people still seem to think I’ve got some sort of magical, waterbending hold on you,” she pointed out.

“Well, you do have a hold over me, but it’s got nothing to do with waterbending,” Zuko said with a snort. Katara shot him a look and he grew serious again. “Really, Katara. Having you as the Fire Lady… it just makes sense. Sure, there will be people who won’t like it, but they’re the ones who miss having Ozai on the throne anyway. What’s the difference if I do one more thing to piss them off?”

“You’re talking like this is a wholly political decision,” Katara said. “But I know it’s not for you.”

“No,” Zuko said softly, staring down at his hands. “It’s not.”

“We’ve talked about marriage before,” Katara said, sitting down gently next to Zuko. “What’s bothering you?”

“It’s just… the council, they see you as just a figure. It makes sense — they see me that way, too — but you’re a person. And being the Fire Lady… it’s like you would belong to the Fire Nation. You’ve done so many great things, and there’s so much more you can do. But if you were the Fire Lady, things would change. You might not have the same freedoms as before, and I couldn’t ask you to give that up. Not for me, or for the Fire Nation.”

Katara took Zuko’s hand. They had discussed this before a few times, but never quite so openly. She waited until Zuko met her gaze.

“The difference is that it would be my choice this time,” she said gently. “Even if you weren’t the Firelord, being with you would mean giving up some things… but I would get a lot out of it, too. I want to be with you, Zuko. I love you. I know that marrying you would be more that just love… that it would change my life, and not always in a good way. But being with you… that’s what I want. You said I could do great things, and I will. But I want you by my side when I do them.”

Zuko’s shoulder sagged in relief and he wrapped his arms around her waist, pulling her close. She closed her eyes, breathing in his smoky scent. After a moment, she pulled away and smiled.

“Besides, what do you think I’ve been doing for the past year?”

Zuko smirked at her, his expression lightening.

“I did think you were spending an awful lot of time in training sessions.”

Although Katara had not expected this discussion of marriage, she had anticipated that a change would come eventually, and she had been preparing for it. She had been working to train new scientists and health workers to follow in her footsteps. There was so much ground to cover, both in the lab and literally around the globe, and so many diseases and treatments to uncover. It had been clear to Katara and Tako for a long time that the best way to progress was to increase their forces. Both of them now spent the majority of their time teaching their skills to a new generation. Katara knew that she could set her sights on bigger things. She had been working with Zuko and Aang on global healthcare councils, and she was becoming rather invested in seeing it through. Zuko seemed to read her mind.

“You know, the Fire Lady traditionally has great sway over Fire Nation programs. Not recently, of course, but I think you’re the right person to start it up again… Perhaps you’d like to get that health program of yours off the ground?”

His eyes sparkled in amusement as Katara kissed him. He seemed happily distracted by her before he pulled away again. His face shrank with worry.

“There is one more thing the council wanted… An heir.”

This was a topic they had spoken about even more frequently than marriage. Ever since Ozai’s defeat and subsequent trial for war crimes, Zuko had been tortured by what to do about his father. He had met with Ozai in prison a few times to get information, but had always emerged extremely rattled. Several times, Zuko had sworn that he would never have children, not if fatherhood meant putting someone through the agony he had been through. Katara had tried to reason with Zuko that he would never be as dreadful a father as Ozai, but there was a small part of her that understood Zuko’s fear of parenthood. She herself felt uncertain; it wasn’t like she had had parents to show her the way, either.

Katara took a deep breath.

“If you don’t want children…”

“I do,” Zuko said quickly. “With you, I do.”

“Really?”

Katara’s heart raced, and she could feel Zuko’s pounding as well.

“Yes,” he said quietly. “I still don’t know if I… if I could be a good father, but I think with you… I would want a child with you. There should be more of you in the world, Katara.”

Katara could not resist pressing a warm kiss to Zuko’s lips. Her hand traced softly over his scar until his heart rate slowed.

“I feel the same way about you,” she whispered.

Zuko gave her a smile that set her heart racing again, and they did not speak for a long time. They were preoccupied in undressing each other fully, their gentle caresses giving way to more passionate kisses and touches.

Katara gently pushed Zuko back onto the bed, and he grinned beneath her as her hands roamed downwards. He gave a soft groan as she kissed a line down his abdomen, her eyes fixed on her prize. She pleasured him with her mouth until smoke started to curl from his fingertips. She pulled away to right herself and sink down on top of him. He grabbed her hips and moved in time with her, his hands growing hot against her skin. Katara’s legs seized around him as she came, and he gave a long groan with his release. Katara rolled off of him and waved the traces of their coupling away.

“Just because we agree we want children doesn’t mean I think we should start now,” she said.

“Agreed,” Zuko said sleepily. “I think every single council member would have a heart attack if they found out I got you pregnant.”

“I would assume they’d try to bully you into marrying me immediately.”

“I know. Planning a wedding on such short notice would be what induced the heart attacks.”

Katara is pulled from this memory as she stares at Zuko and baby Tulok. Zuko catches her eye and she wanders over.

“You seem to be handling things quite well,” she says, smiling at the baby.

“It’s pretty easy as long as he doesn’t poop,” Zuko said, bouncing Tulok as he goggled at Katara. “Agni, I hope Arluuk and Yura come back before that happens.”

Katara laughs and gives Zuko a kiss on the cheek. She stays close to him for the rest of the evening, eager to share in his warmth.

 

 

By the end of the week, Katara is exhausted. The negotiations have gone well, and peace should be maintained for another two years — thankfully, the next set of negotiations will be held by the Southern Water Tribe, and Katara for one cannot wait to swap furs for leis — and it is time to celebrate. Her presence at the party is not strictly necessary, however, and she has somewhere better to be.

Zuko had been strangely distracted all week. He had done well in the meetings, and had kept his focus there, but as soon as they were released for meals or for the evening, he had been brooding and aloof. Katara had been a little annoyed by this. It was difficult to assure everyone that the Fire Nation image had changed if the Firelord was being distinctly unfriendly, but she chalked it up to being back in a place with so many dark memories. Katara herself had had to step out from a meeting after a particularly powerful memory of Yue caused her to tear up.

Now that the end of the conference had arrived, however, Zuko seemed focused again. He had extended a formal invitation to Katara to ditch the day’s celebrations to spend time with him, and she had acquiesced. She had teased him for being so formal about it, but Zuko had not seemed put off by her ribbing. Her interest was piqued by this unusual behavior.

When she arrives at the meeting point with Zuko, he is alone with a team of polar-dogs hitched to a sled. His guards are pointedly ignoring him, and Katara presumes Zuko has ordered them to look the other way for the day and leave him alone. Azula would be displeased if she knew her brother — who still lacked a formal heir — was galavanting around without protection, but Katara feels confident that between her and Zuko, they could take on most of their foes together. She hops on the sled with Zuko and they set off across the ice.

As the the polar-dogs dash over the snow, Katara starts to guess at their intended destination. Her suspicions are confirmed when they pull up to an ice shack, and Zuko sets out bowls of food to appease the hungry dogs.

“This is the place we spent the night before making it to the capital,” Katara says, looking at Zuko. “Where I cut your hair.”

Zuko’s hand twitch nervously, a few sparks appearing between his fingertips. His face, however, looks determined.

“You said then that we needed to be equals out here, to protect one another. That is what I want: to be your equal. Always.”

He moves to take Katara’s hands in his. Her heart pounds in her chest.

“Katara, will you marry me?”

Katara tackles him back into the snow, and the dogs let out barks of alarm. Katara ignores them as she kisses Zuko, who immediately wraps his arms around her and holds her close. When she finally pulls away, she is laughing with delight.

“Is that a yes?”

“Yes, Zuko. I will marry you.”

He pulls her back down for another kiss. They sink back into the rapidly melting snow.

They spend the afternoon entangled in furs on the floor of the ice shack. Katara enjoys the absolute privacy and displays her especially loud appreciation for Zuko. They have to pause in their fun when the dogs decide that Katara’s moans of pleasure are howls to join in on; Zuko laughs so hard he cries.

Before they head back for the evening, they nestle down in the furs to relax in the empty silence of the North Pole.

I love you,” Zuko whispers in Fire Tongue.

I love you,” she replies in Water Tongue.

She wraps her arms around him, safe and warm.