Katara found the Avatar when she was fourteen years old, on a fishing trip with her brother. The next day, a Fire Nation ship sailed into the harbor.
It was not the first, but it was the first in a long time. Katara remembered when the Southern Raiders came—she remembered when the wall was breached, and she slipped out of her mother’s grasp to go help Hama fix it, because that was her duty. She never noticed the soldier, not until her mother drew a knife from her belt and drove it into his neck. She remembered his blood pouring out into the snow, and the screams of the soldiers swept out to sea and spitted on bone spears. This was how the tribe dealt with invaders. She could never forget.
When the ship came, she was ready, but her mother and grandmother held her back. For almost six years, the tribe had been almost forgotten by the world. There were no raids, but very little contact with the outside world, either, due to the Fire Nation patrols in the Southern Sea. Three years ago, her father had taken advantage of their international anonymity to slink past the patrols during the 24-hour-darkness and come to the Earth Kingdom’s aid. That was how they would survive—deception, creativity, adaptation.
So Katara waited at the docks, with Hama and her brother beside her, flanking her mother and grandmother. Sokka had his club in his hand; Katara and Hama struck discreet bending poses. They waited as a young man in armor disembarked the ship, followed by an old man and soldiers in their death masks.
“What business do you have with the Southern Water Tribe?” Kya asked in a voice like stone.
“Where is the Avatar?” the man demanded. “Where are you hiding him?”
The wind blowing over the ice was the only response.
“I know he’s here. Air nomad? Master of all four elements? Probably about your age?” he said, sneering at Gran-Gran, and Katara didn’t need to look to know Sokka’s grip on his club had tightened.
The man in the armor growled in frustration and lifted his arm to send a warning shot over the gathered crowd, and Sokka and Katara moved at the same time. Sokka struck at his elbow and Katara twisted the snow at his feet, and the man stumbled. He recovered quickly and backed away to give himself space, punching flames at Katara. She caught them with a wall of snow and leapt forward to put distance between the fight and the assembled tribe, praying that Aang would stay quiet from his vantage point in the tower. She had only known him for a day, but he was her people now, and these invaders were not going to touch him.
The Fire Nation soldiers didn’t interfere with the fight. To her humiliation, they didn’t need to. She and Sokka had the advantage of numbers, but the man clearly had more experience, despite his own youth. He moved seamlessly from one move to the next, while she and Sokka struggled to adapt training exercises learned in sequence to the improvisation of a battle. Sokka was quickly disarmed. Katara hit the man with a water whip that knocked his helmet right off his head, and he looked at her with murder in his eyes and sparks at the corner of his mouth.
Aang swooped down on his glider and planted himself in the middle of the fight.
“Looking for me?”
“You’re the Avatar?” the man in the armor said, incredulous.
“I am. And if I go with you, will you promise to leave everyone alone?”
He nodded. Aang bowed his head and loosened his grip on his glider.
“That is a very kind offer, Avatar Aang,” Hama said in her gentle croak. “But I’m afraid we can’t allow that.”
She leapt forward, pressing her hands outwards with her palms in, and all six of the man’s guards were pushed back by a wall of snow that hardened to ice. Katara took advantage of the man’s momentary distraction to draw up waves of water that curled around him and froze before he could do more than stumble half a step back.
For a moment, his eyes widened in fear. He was younger than she had first thought, Katara realized, not much older than she was. Then his eyes found her and narrowed with hatred, and the ice around his face began to melt.
“You little peasant,” he snarled.
Hama’s outstretched hand bent into a claw, but Katara didn’t know what her master would have done next, because suddenly there was a wall of fire that separated the Water Tribe from the Fire Nation invaders. She hadn’t been watching the old man. He had been watching from the gangplank with an impassive face, and he was dressed only in robes, so she had assumed he was some kind of servant or scholar. But his eyes were hardened chips of topaz, and Katara saw she was wrong to underestimate him. Even Hama seemed stymied by the flames that spread from one end of the docks to the other, licking away at the outer defensive wall.
The old man touched the ball of ice surrounding the boy, and his hand passed through to his shoulder with no resistance.
“Prince Zuko,” he said in a low voice. “There is honor in accepting defeat.”
The boy’s face was seething with rage, and it was clear that he didn’t agree, but what was left of the ice around him turned to steam and together he and the old man, their hands raised defensively, backed away onto the ship.
“The Avatar is under the protection of the Southern Water Tribe,” Kanna declared before they disappeared into the hull. “Do not come back.”
Zuko came back.
His second attack came when Katara, Sokka, and Aang were on the way back from the Southern Air Temple. They had to sneak out on Appa, the avatar’s flying bison, because their mother hated the idea. But Aang refused to accept the destruction of the Air Nomads, and Katara could see no other choice. She was irrationally angry when Zuko attacked—she wanted to yell at him that Aang had just learned that his mentor was murdered by the Fire Nation and had suffered enough, thanks, and what the hell was wrong with him?
She had plenty of time to wonder. Zuko attacked again, and again, and again. He attacked the walls head on. He set up bombs as a distraction and hit them from the other side. He snuck into the city through the ice floes. He revealed a surprising talent for swordplay.
He lost. He always lost. But he always managed to slip away or retreat behind his uncle’s unbreakable wall of fire, and they didn’t have any proper ships to bring the fight to him. He interrupted Aang’s lessons and put the entire tribe one edge—and, Kanna pointed out, put them at risk for a full-scale invasion if they weren’t careful. He was the Fire Lord’s son. He might be pursuing Aang with a single-minded intensity, but he wouldn’t care if the entire tribe became a casualty. Finally, they decided to send Aang to the Northern Water Tribe, which could withstand such an invasion. Katara would go with him, to continue his training on the way.
“Honestly, I’m kind of glad,” Aang admitted to her as Appa took to the sky. “I hope we get the chance to visit some of my favorite places on the way… and I think I’ll do better with you as my teacher. Yours is—well, she’s kind of scary.”
Katara shivered, even though she was well used to the southern cold, and gave a noncommittal shrug.
“I’m excited to visit the Northern Tribe. Neither of us have ever left the South Pole before, and it will be fun to travel.”
“Yeah, and hopefully with just the three of us, we’ll be able to throw that crazy jerk off the scent,” Sokka said, leaning over the side of the saddle to make a rude gesture at the ship in the distance.
Katara looked over the other side. She couldn’t see the Fire Nation ship from this angle, but she could see a pod of whales beneath them, skimming the surface of the ocean. Every once in a while they leapt above the waves, gleaming black in the dazzling sunlight, and she imagined they were waving goodbye. Her hand drifted up to touch the stone at her throat—her mother’s parting gift. She watched the whales until Appa finally sailed out of their territory, and the South Pole was beyond her sight. She turned to the horizon with a hopeful smile.
The young prince stood at the prow of his ship and stared out over the white waters of the southern ocean, eyes fixed on a spot nearly three miles distant, where walls of ice rose into the sky. Behind him, the deck was silent as the crew milled about, trying to perform their duties without catching his eye. His uncle walked up behind him with his hands folded in his sleeves.
“Perhaps the time has come for a strategic retreat,” he suggested.
“If you give yourself time to—”
“I’m not letting the Avatar get away!”
Iroh bowed his head and takes a step closer. His voice was grave.
“Prince Zuko. How long is this one-man siege going to last?”
“Six hundred and one days,” Zuko spit, singeing the words on the way out. The crew gasped at the insult as he stalked off the deck.
The Dragon of the West sighed and began to plan.