Actions

Work Header

The Blackfish and the Dragon

Chapter Text

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.

“Enough!”

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.

“No.”

“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.

Chapter Text

The bells rang on the Day of Black Sun, and the world held its breath. The Fire Lord was dead. The new one might be dead soon, too.

The ships of the Southern Water Tribe went home to watch and wait. The Earth Kingdom armies bunkered down to prepare for the worst. The Fire Nation dealt with its problems alone, and Katara had no idea what would come of it until a few weeks later, when another metal warship pulled into the harbor, with a white flag displaying the Avatar’s sigil at its tower.

Her father wanted to go alone, but he was outnumbered. Again, Katara went to meet the Fire Nation with her family—a larger family than before, with the addition of her father, Pakku, Bato, Aang, and Toph. They learned that the Fire Sages had officially crowned Iroh, neither his niece nor his nephew had tried to depose him, a civil war seemed unlikely, and the aspiring Ambassador to the Southern Water Tribe was here to offer the Fire Lord’s conditional surrender. The ice groaned ominously under his feet and his eyes flickered to Katara’s face.

“All of the Fire Lord’s ambassadors have a copy of the terms he wishes to send to the Avatar, as well. I understand that your children were his companions. If they know where he is—”

“I’m here.”

Hakoda shifted to the side to reveal Aang, and the ambassador bowed low.

“Avatar Aang, my deepest apologies for not greeting you sooner. It would be my honor to present the Fire Lord’s peace treaty to you.”

Aang nodded, looking very somber and very unlike the boy Katara knew. Hakoda suggested that they all retreat to the House of Meeting. The ambassador took only a secretary and two guards with him, while the entire Southern Tribe took seats around the round walls of the building. Katara could tell the Fire Nation delegation didn’t like being surrounded, because they kept glancing over their shoulders, but the ambassador tried to look calm as he produced sheafs and sheafs of paper.

He addressed Aang first. The terms he offered focused on Avatar business and the death of the Air Nomads—restoring the temples, caring for the environment, reforming the role of the Fire Sages. He claimed that Iroh was deeply invested in restoring balance to the world, and Aang seemed cautiously pleased. His mask slipped only once. The ambassador said that Fire Sage Shyu had already been released from prison, and in fact was the one to crown Iroh, and Aang jumped up and crowed “That’s great!” Then he remembered himself and sat back down with a solemn nod.

Then the ambassador turned to Hakoda. The first thing he did was present a handwritten letter from the Fire Lord which, as far as Katara could tell, was full of flowery language that meant absolutely nothing. Pakku glared at the letter with narrowed eyes, and she shared the sentiment.

They spent a much longer time discussing the Water Tribe treaty, because Iroh was offering separate treaties to the North and the South, and he wanted Hakoda to be familiar with both of them. It proposed immediate release of the last Southern waterbender held in captivity, promised a favorable trade agreement, and detailed Iroh’s plan for a reduction in the Fire Nation’s military. Hakoda listened impassively, asking occasional questions but giving no hint as to his opinion. Katara’s knees began to go numb, even on top of the thick polar bear dog rug, and she hoped the ambassador was miserable.

Finally, the ambassador fell silent and shuffled his papers in a distracted way.

“Is that all?” Hakoda asked.

“No, sir. There is one final article. Fire Lord Iroh has named his nephew, Prince Zuko, as his heir. To cement the treaty, he suggests a union between Crown Prince Zuko and your daughter Katara.”

There were a few gasps, but they came from very far away. The circle of people around the fire was struck dumb.

“A union?” Sokka repeated. A look of disdain flashed across the ambassador’s face.

“A marriage,” he clarified, and Aang and Sokka exploded.

“You can’t just do that!”

“My sister—

“How can you just say that—”

“—jerkbender—”

“Who even comes up with this stuff—”

“—not in a million billion years—”

Boys,” Kya said sternly, and Kanna grabbed both of them by the ears and yanked. They sat down, still fuming.

Katara couldn’t breathe. The air was too cold, it had frozen in her lungs. Toph was sitting behind her, and suddenly the earthbender punched her right in the center of her back. Katara coughed and began to breathe again. The ambassador frowned.

“It was my understanding that arranged marriages are customary in the Water Tribes. The Fire Lord means no offence.”

“Arranged marriages are customary within the Water Tribes,” Hakoda corrected. His voice was even colder than the feeling in Katara’s chest. “But it is rarely practiced in the South, and no younger than sixteen. My daughter is only just fifteen.”

“Of course,” the ambassador said with a conciliatory bow. “In the Fire Nation, couples of mixed nationality need to adhere to the marriage age of their own homeland, and Prince Zuko himself is over a year shy of our age of majority. The wedding would take place next fall, at the earliest.”

“If at all.”

“Of course,” the ambassador said again, and then he began to talk about the role of the Fire Lady, and inheritance law, and about a wife’s rights if her husband died before her and their children, about what happened if they didn’t have children, if the children weren’t firebenders—

“Dad,” Katara interrupted softly. “May I be excused?”

Hakoda glanced at her.

“There is no need.” He looked back at the ambassador and inclined his head. “You have given us much to think about, sir. Thank you for explaining it so fully. We are willing to treat with the Fire Nation, but for now, we need to look over the preliminary articles on our own.”

“I understand completely, Chief Hakoda. Fire Lord Iroh extends his deepest thanks for your graciousness in this matter.”

The ambassador stood and bowed, and Hakoda asked someone to show the party to quarters in the Common House. Most of the Water Tribe crowd shuffled out, too, until only the family and Hama remained.

“This is outrageous,” Hama said hotly, but before she could continue, Pakku held up a hand.

“I do not disagree with you, Hama, but before we discuss Iroh’s proposals, I think we should know exactly what they are.”

“We just spent two hours talking about it,” Aang frowned. “It’s crazy!”

“We talked with the ambassador. Not the Fire Lord.” Pakku held out a hand, and Hakoda gave him the letter. He pointed to a small drawing in the bottom corner of the scroll, which Katara had taken to be decoration. “The amaryllis tile—representing shyness or reticence. This is a code, used by the ancient, secret society known as the Order of the White Lotus.”

“Wait—the White Lotus…” Sokka dug into his pocket and pulled out his pai sho tile.

“Where did you get that?” Pakku asked sternly.

“From Master Piandao, my sword teacher.”

“Hmph,” he sniffed. “Yes, he is a member of the Order, as is Iroh. As am I.”

“You’re friends with Master Piandao?” Sokka gawped.

“We are associates.”

“Does he ever talk about me?”

Pakku gave him a withering stare.

“Pakku,” Hakoda said, forehead creasing. “Does that mean you knew about Iroh’s plan?”

“Some,” Pakku said evasively. “The Order of the White Lotus has traditionally kept out of the war itself, except in small, secret ways. Last winter, Iroh was able to leave me a message during the Siege of the North indicating that circumstances had changed and he might take drastic action against his brother, but he was not specific. I don’t know when his plans truly began to take shape—other members of the Order were more centrally located, and knew more. Now. The amaryllis tile indicates that there is a secret message included in the letter. This second mark represents the method that will reveal it.”

In the opposite corner of the scroll, there was another flower, this one encased in a square. It was a fire lily. Pakku removed the lid from the lamp nearest to him and held the paper over the flame. Katara gasped. Words were forming on the back of the page.

“What’s it say, what’s it say?” Toph asked eagerly, tugging on Katara’s sleeve. She took the scroll from Pakku and began to read out loud.

Dear Chief Hakoda,

I recognize that some of my proposals may be offensive to you, and so I am writing this letter to explain myself.

It was in the South Pole that I first realized I must overthrow my brother—not only for the good of my nation and the world, but for my beloved nephew. This may be difficult for you to understand, given his attacks on your people, but from the observation of many years, I know that any cruelty committed by Zuko has been motivated solely by his love for his father, himself a cruel man. I saw, at the South Pole, how the kind, just, determined boy I knew might grow into such a man, and I could not allow that, especially having lost my own son to this war.

That is also why I have suggested a marriage between Zuko and your daughter. The joining of two families will certainly strengthen the bonds of our treaty, and it will also demonstrate to the entire world that the Fire Nation will no longer hold itself above our neighbors. Furthermore, it may give the Water Tribes some peace of mind to know that one of your own will help shape the future of our nation. You need not rely on our assurances alone when we say that we value peace and love for our fellow human beings.

I believe that your daughter has a strong and beautiful spirit that will be a good influence on my nephew, and I give my solemn oath that his sense of duty and honor towards his family is unmatched. One day, perhaps soon, Zuko will become Fire Lord, and such a partnership will ensure that he fulfills this role to the absolute best of his abilities.

You may, justly, be wary of sending your daughter to a nation of former enemies. I am also willing to negotiate an engagement between my niece Azula and your son, but I believe this solution would be less effective for a number of reasons, on which I can elaborate if you wish.

I await your response and convey, once more, my deepest respect for you, your family, and all the people of the Southern Water Tribe.

Fire Lord Iroh

By the time she had finished reading, her voice was faint.

“It is a trick,” Hama declared. “Katara is the only waterbender born in the South for two generations. They want to marry her out of the tribe so that we die out.”

“Ridiculous,” Pakku said crisply. “I know Iroh, and he is a fundamentally trustworthy person. He will put his nation’s needs instead of ours, naturally, but he would not resort to underhanded tricks.”

“Yeah!” Toph agreed. “Uncle’s a good person. And he cares a lot about his nephew. Not that I’m saying the guy should get to marry Katara just because, but I think the letter is honest.”

“Neither of you are members of the Southern Water Tribe,” Hama said coldly. “You have no say in our affairs.”

“Hama,” Kanna murmured. “Pakku has come to make a life here in the South—just as I did. And the young lady is simply trying to help.”

“This isn’t helping!” Aang insisted, brandishing at the letter. “Katara can’t marry him!”

“Yeah, I’m with Aang on this one,” Sokka said. He folded his arms. His over-the-top anger hardened into a solemn stubbornness. “Fire Lord Iroh never really attacked us, and if Toph and Pakku say we can trust him, fine, we can trust him. But we can’t trust Zuko.”

“That’s why I think I have to do it.”

Her lips formed the words without thinking, and there was a long silence as everyone stared at her.

“Katara!” Sokka said in a hushed voice. “You can’t—you can’t—”

She locked eyes with her father. He didn’t want her to do this, she could tell in an instant—no one did—but he was the only one who could really tell her no.

“Zuko is going to be Fire Lord someday. And we can’t trust him. If he marries someone from the Fire Nation, who’s to say she won’t make him worse? The war could start up again as soon as he takes the throne. Or what if they go to the Earth Kingdom next, and it’s someone who was raised like Toph? Someone taught that girls should be quiet and dainty and sit in a nice room somewhere and not pay attention to the world outside? I’d never be able to forgive myself if that happened.”

“It’s not your problem!” Aang said angrily. “You can’t just let them force you to—”

“No one is forcing me into anything,” Katara interrupted, rounding on him. “But it is my problem. I can’t just—just sit here in the South Pole darning socks when I know people need my help!”

Her father closed his eyes and turned his face away. Kya touched his shoulder gently, then covered Katara’s mitten-clad hand with her own.

“Sweetheart… it means leaving your home. Even if everything Iroh says is true, it would be dangerous. Perhaps it would be better if this Princess Azula—”

“No,” Katara cut her off. Doubts squirmed in her stomach like slippery eels, but she knew she couldn’t do that to Sokka. “We may not be able to trust that Zuko will do the right thing, but we can trust that Azula will do the wrong thing. Mom…” She squeezed her mother’s hand back. “You taught me how to be strong. You taught me I had a responsibility to my people, that I needed to defend them in any way I could, even if it was hard. I know this isn’t what you had in mind, but… I think it’s what I have to do.”

That wasn’t the end of it. Hakoda suggested they take a break, and when they returned, Katara spent another hour with her parents alone, going over the advantages and disadvantages. They gave their permission. She spent the remainder of that day, and all of the next, talking herself hoarse with Sokka, Aang, and Toph, who ranged from not-exactly-thrilled to angry-enough-to-accidentally-blow-up-the-South-Pole. At the end of the day, Aang flew away on Appa and didn’t return for three days.

She asked her grandmother if she was doing the right thing. Kanna stared at her for a long time and said “Yes.” Katara wondered if she meant it, or if she just knew it was what Katara needed to hear.

By the end of a week, Hakoda and the Fire Nation official had reached an agreement on the treaty. The ambassador had been wary of bringing up the idea of marriage again, but with everything else settled, he was forced into it. He glanced at Katara.

“And what about…?”

Katara looked down at her hands, folded in her lap.

“My daughter accepts the proposal,” Hakoda said stiffly.

“Excellent.”

He was the only one who thought so.

The Fire Lord himself traveled to each of the other nations for the treaty signings. First to the North Pole, then Ba Sing Se, then the South. On the day of Sozin’s Comet, he would sign the final treaty with Aang at the Southern Air Temple.

The entire Southern Water Tribe gathered at the harbor to greet his ship… except for Amikai, the last captive waterbender, who had arrived two days previously. She was an old woman now, older than Hama, and her health was poor. She had been sent directly home, to avoid the long trip that the rest of the Fire Nation delegation would endure. There had been much weeping and celebrating and embracing, when she arrived, but it also had the unfortunate effect of reminding the Tribe how much they had lost. It was a grim populace that watched the guards disembark from the Fire Lord’s ship.

The soldiers formed two lines on the shore, and between them walked a Fire Sage, a scribe, the ambassador, and then him. The Fire Prince.

Zuko looked different than the last time he was here. His hair had grown out and was pulled into a neat topknot, which was better than the shaved head and ponytail look, but he was still scowling. Katara had never seen his face take on any other expression. He wore a tight shirt under his flowing tunic, but no coat and no armor, and she wondered how he was keeping warm—spite, perhaps? The Fire Lord, who followed behind him, was also wearing only silk robes, but the rest of the delegation was swathed in cloaks and still looks miserable. Good, she thought.

Her parents stood at the front of the crowd. The procession stopped before them, and the Fire Lord made a rigidly correct bow. Katara eyed him carefully. He looked… like he had always looked. A kindly old man—she hadn’t even thought he was a fighter, the first time she saw him. She tried to picture him standing over his brother’s body with lightning crackling at his fingertips, and couldn’t manage it.

“Chief Hakoda and Chieftess Kya of the Southern Water Tribe,” he intoned. “I am deeply honored to meet you in person, and grateful for your hospitality on this happy occasion. Please allow me to present to you my nephew, Crown Prince Zuko.”

Zuko stepped forward and bowed. Hakoda returned the Fire Lord’s greeting, then reluctantly turned aside and held out his arm. Katara took a deep breath as she stepped forward. Her hair was done up in an elaborate style, decorated with beads and supported by ivory combs, and she was wearing a dress with more purple in it that blue. It felt unnatural, but she knew it was to remind everyone who she was—meaning a princess. She fixed her eyes on Zuko and glared at him to remind him that who she was was the youngest master waterbender in living memory.

“My daughter, Katara of the Southern Water Tribe.”

Zuko inclined his head.

“I am glad to meet you again, Master Katara, in more pleasant circumstances,” Iroh said.

He paused, and Katara wondered what he was waiting for. Then the Fire Lord elbowed his nephew in the side, and Zuko reached out and grabbed Katara’s hand. He pecked at her knuckles in a mockery of a kiss.

She hated him, she thought viciously. She hated him, and she hated this, and nothing would ever change her mind, and he looked up at her with tight gold eyes that clearly broadcasted his agreement.

“Shall we head inside to discuss the treaty?” Kya asked, as Hakoda was choking on his rage.

“Let’s,” the Fire Lord agreed.

The ceremony was brief. Her father and the Fire Lord signed the treaty, then Aang as a witness, and then Katara and Zuko signed the calligraphed contract that marked a Fire Nation engagement. A servant handed Zuko a wooden box, which he held out to Katara. She hesitated before she opened it. Inside was a necklace—a gold charm, carved in the shape of a lotus, hanging on a dark-colored ribbon that might have been maroon or purple. It was difficult to tell.

“How lovely,” Kya remarked. “We weren’t expecting such a gift… I’m afraid we have nothing to offer in return.

Iroh glanced at Pakku quizzically.

“That will not be necessary. I was under the impression the gift of a necklace was customary upon engagements in the Water Tribe.”

“In the north,” Katara said, the first words she spoke. “Not the south.”

“My apologies, Master Katara,” Iroh started to say, but Zuko talked over him impatiently.

“Well, I’ve already got the necklace, so why don’t you just take it?”

Katara swallowed. She reached up behind her and tried to untie the ribbon of her mother’s necklace, but her fingers were clumsy and the moment stretched long enough to be uncomfortable. Her mother took off her mittens and stepped up to help—when she was finished, she slipped the necklace into one of Katara’s pockets.

The prince tied the new one around her neck, and from the corner of her eye she saw Aang look away.

Then there was a feast. It took place more or less outside, under an enormous tent of reindeer-mammoth skin, so they had enough room for all of the tables. Katara and Zuko were seated at the center table together, but they tried not to look at each other, and exchanged a dozen words for the entire meal.

“I hope you like the necklace.”

“It’s nice.” After a pause: “Are you enjoying the food?”

“Yes.”

Towards the end of the evening, the Fire Lord beckoned to a woman in the crowd, and she came to the head table. Iroh stood as she approached and turned to Katara.

“Master Katara,” he said. “Allow me to introduce Jingyi Kan.”

“Hi,” Katara said.

The woman was tall, with steely grey eyes and a sharp face that tightened like Katara had done something wrong. She wore a set of simply cut black robes and a maroon cloak so dark it appeared black at first glance, with a scarlet pin shaped like a flame. She bowed.

“It is an honor to make your acquaintance, my lady.”

“Jingyi has provided invaluable assistance to the royal family for many years,” the Fire Lord continued. “She will serve as your attendant in the Fire Nation, and she has brought a gift to prepare for your arrival.”

“Oh wow, that’s so thoughtful,” she said with a bright smile.

Jingyi looked over her shoulder and nodded, and two guards dragged a trunk up to the table. They dropped it with a heavy crash, and one opened the top to reveal… scrolls. Dozens and dozens of them. Zuko snickered to himself.

“What’s this?” Katara asked, in her best attempt at politeness. The corner of Jingyi’s mouth turns down.

“For your own edification, my lady, I suggest you study these volumes in the coming months. The Fire Nation has a long, storied history and many important customs, and it is important that you learn them before you arrive. First and foremost, every citizen of our great nation must know her place.”

There was the slightest of pauses—enough to set Katara’s heart racing. She wanted to make a sharp retort, to tell this woman that the Water Tribe had its own history and its own customs, thank you very much, and she would be damned if she’d let some prissy attendant or irritiable prince or murder-happy king tell her where her place was or was not.

“I can assist you with that,” Jingyi finished, and Katara exhaled a cloud of ice crystals and reminded herself that the treaty was signed. She strove for civility in her response, hoping that the strain of it didn’t show.

“Thank you, Jingyi. I’m sure they’ll be very interesting.”

Jingyi thanked her, bowed again with absurd grace, and glided away on the ice. At that moment, Hakoda stood and lifted his arms, and Iroh returned to his seat. Zuko rested his chin in his hand, looking bored, and Katara glared at him.

“Friends, let me extend my gratitude to you all. We are thankful to have you here with us on this historic day—Water Tribe or Fire Nation.”

Sokka cleared his throat pointedly, and Hakoda smiled at Aang and Toph.

“As well as our particular friends from the Air Nomads and the Earth Kingdom. This is the first night of the Great Peace, and may it be followed by many, many more. We will conclude the evening with a performance from our waterbending masters. Pakku of the North and Hama of the South.”

Pakku and Hama stepped out from under the tent into the large open space before it, underneath the green ribbons of the polar lights. Before they could so much as take their position, Katara found herself standing. The beads in her hair clinked against each other, and the long fur parka was heavy. She wasn’t used to bending in such finery, but she was determined. Her father, to his credit, hesitated for less than a breath before smiling.

“And, of course, my daughter Katara.”

He lifted his arm again and stepped toward her. His hand was square and strong as it took hers, and he escorted her to the tundra with a kiss on the cheek. Pakku and Hama stepped to the side to make room. This is my place, she thought vindictively, and she took a deep breath.

Without a word or gesture, all three sank into their first pose. She knew where they were going to begin, and it took only a glimpse of Pakku’s arm moving to know where they would go. Her fancy hair and her fancy coat didn’t hinder her. She moved through the performance with effortless grace, with a master’s competency, and she hoped that every single citizen of the Fire Nation—including her betrothed—was watching.

 

 

Chapter Text

The wedding was set for a year later, after the vernal equinox. Suki was released from prison, and came to stay in the South Pole for a few weeks before going back to Kyoshi. Toph went with her; she wasn’t ready to go back to Gaoling, but she was done with living on ice. Aang left. Katara studied her Fire Nation scrolls, and then set them aside and tried not to think about it.

The peace held.

When it came time for the wedding, most of the tribe piled into the boats. They arrived the day before, and were met by another procession, this time with the entire royal family. If it was hard to smile politely at Zuko, it was even harder to see Azula, and smile and bow and not shout you tried to kill my friend, but Katara was pleased with her own poise.

This was an international affair, so Chief Arnook was there, too, along with representatives and a smaller delegation from the Earth Kingdom. Some nobles from Ba Sing Se and Gaoling, King Bumi—and Toph and all the Kyoshi Warriors. Most of the day was a blur.

Katara slept poorly that night in her fancy guest room, until finally there was a knock on her door that threatened to break not only the door, but the whole hallway. Katara yanked it open to find Toph with her hand hooked through Suki’s elbow, although Suki didn’t look awake enough to understand what was happening.

“For the love of lava, Sugar Queen, you’ve got to stop,” she said, yawning. “I’m right next door, and you’ve been tossing and turning so much, it’s making me seasick.”

“Sorry,” Katara said gratefully.

They all piled on the bed together and talked. Suki asked if she was nervous about the wedding. Katara said no, and then immediately proved herself a liar by changing the subject. They talked about the Kyoshi Warriors for a while, and Toph’s tentative meeting with her parents. She wasn’t going home, she said, because her father was still yammering on about correcting her education, but her mom had slipped her some more of the family money to go towards founding a metalbending school.

“I think she thinks if I’m teaching people to bend, I won’t actually be fighting,” Toph shrugged. “Which is just dumb, but I’m not going to tell her that. We’ll see. I want to get some more practice in before I start teaching it, anyway.”

They talked for an hour or two, and fell asleep in the same enormous bed. The next morning, Jingyi found them like that, scolded Katara severely, and shooed Suki and Toph out. A gaggle of maids piled into the room instead.

“The wedding’s not until tonight,” Katara said, panicked, and the attendant stretched herself up to her full height.

“It is never too early to begin preparations, Lady Katara. A flower does not bloom without infinite care.”

This was one of Jingyi’s proverbs. The scrolls she had left were absolutely littered with proverbs, most of which Katara suspected had been made up just to break the spirit of whatever poor unfortunate young lady was compelled to read them. They drove Katara batty.

The team of maids tried to help her bathe, but Katara protested vigorously. She bent the water out of the tub and threatened to dump it over their heads, and they settled for letting her wash herself after receiving copious instructions. Use this soap, my lady, then this one, then this cream, and take care to wash your face with the contents of this bottle but for only thirty seconds. Katara forgot all of their instructions instantly, but emerged smelling of lilies, so she was pretty sure she’d done something right.

The rest of their treatment was… well, not entirely unpleasant. It reminded her a little of the spa in Ba Sing Se—they wrapped her in a plain red robe and brought her to a huge, open room full of embroidered cushions and vases of flowers, with two musicians in the corner playing a guzheng and a reed flute. They massaged her hands and feet, gave her a facial, painted her nails, teased her hair into an elaborate style, and did her makeup.

It took a long time, and over the course of the day, other guests were led in. Her mother and grandmother, first, then Toph and Suki and Yugoda, and every woman from the Water Tribe delegations by lunchtime. Some of the maids tended Katara, but others did little things for the other guests, too—they fawned over Kya’s long hair in particular—and plied everyone with tea, dumplings, and fussy little sweets decorated with flowers. If Katara could forget why they were here, she almost would have enjoyed herself.

“Um… ’scuse me… Katara?”

There were cucumber slices on her eyes, but they fell to the floor as Katara sat up and blinked at the door. Aang was standing there, having quite obviously used his bending to dart around the maid at the entrance—she had that telltale windswept hair.

“Aang! Hi. What are you doing here?”

“I was hoping…” He ran his hand over his arrow. “Uh, do you think we could maybe talk for a minute? In private?”

Katara’s cheeks got hot. The chatter in the background began to fade—Aang had just unknowingly triggered the Water Tribe’s bloodhound instinct for gossip.

“Now’s not really a good time. I’m…”

“Her ladyship has just received a pedicure,” one of the maids announced primly. “She couldn’t possibly stand for another half-hour, and by that point we’ll need to be fixing her hairpins or we’ll be woefully behind.”

“Yeah,” Katara said gratefully. “We’ll talk at the wedding, okay?”

Aang deflated.

“Okay.” He pulled something out of his pocket and held it out. “Well, here. I wanted you to have this.”

“Your bison whistle!” Katara turned the wooden carving over in her hand. “Won’t you need this?”

“Nah, it’s okay. Appa and I spend all of our time together now, and in any case, there have got to be other bison whistles out there somewhere, right? But I want you to have this one.” His gray eyes were almost painfully earnest. “If you ever need me… I want you to be able to call.”

Katara swallowed thickly.

“Thanks, Aang,” she whispered. He nodded and left with a wave.

The whispers began as soon as the door closed, but after a few minutes they grew into loud, casual conversation once more. Katara clutched the whistle tightly.

The ceremony was due to begin at sunset, and as the hour approached, Katara was bundled away to the guest quarters to dress. She had never seen her wedding robes before, and she was surprised at how much she liked them. It was a beautiful flowing dress of white silk, embroidered with lilies in shining gold thread. The cuffs and the belt were a mix of blue and red—she would have thought it would clash, but the combination of a deep sapphire blue, a lighter sky blue, and the vibrant cherry red was pleasant. The symbol of the Fire Nation was embroidered into the belt, and she also wore a stole blazoned with the symbol of a master waterbender.

It took a long time to put on, but finally one of the maids lowered a gauzy veil over Katara’s face and announced that she was ready. She folded her hands in her sleeves and stroked the cool silk lining to keep herself calm.

She wondered what the Fire Nation thought of her when she stepped out into the large, open courtyard where the wedding would take place. The Water Tribes stomped  their feet and cheered at the sight of her, while the Fire Nation was silent—but she didn’t know if that was disapproval or mere cultural difference.

Zuko glanced at her when she reached the altar, then turned back to the Fire Sage before them. They both kneeled. Katara peered at Zuko out of the corner of her eye, trying to decide if he was more angry or nervous. She couldn’t tell, but she was struck at how well the early evening light suited him. The last strong rays of sunlight both softened and sharpened his face, emphasizing the cut of his jaw and his high cheekbones while dulling the contrast between his pale skin and the dark scar. It occurred to her that he was handsome. Or he would be, if it weren’t for his perpetual scowl.

He caught her looking and scowled more deeply. She looked down at her hands, and she didn’t look up again until the Fire Sage finished his speech—it was about balance and trust and devotion, but never mentioned love—and handed her a cup of wine. She drank. It left a dry feeling on her tongue.

They stood, and Zuko removed the veil from her face. The entire courtyard cheered when they bowed to the crowd, and the Fire Sage announced her as the Princess of the Fire Nation for the first time.

A banquet followed. Their conversation was even more brief than the one at their engagement dinner, although it ran along similar lines.

“Are you enjoying the meal?”

“Yes.”

“It’s not too spicy?”

“It’s fine.”

The banquet lasted for hours. Musicians, dancers, and benders provided entertainment, until finally midnight came, and it was time for the Water Tribe ceremony.

A circle was cleared in the middle of the courtyard, and Katara’s grandmother came forward. The light of the full moon left deep shadows in the lines carved in her face, and Katara shivered. Most of the time, Kanna was just Gran-Gran, but on a night like tonight she looked every inch the village elder, and before her, Katara felt humble.

The drummers pounded out a steady beat as she and Zuko approached the circle. They started from opposite ends of the dais, so that the gap between them narrowed as they reached it. Their families joined them, and as they knelt, and Kya and Iroh wrapped a large blanket around their shoulders. It shouldn’t have been Iroh—it should have been Zuko’s mother. Katara felt an unexpected twinge of sympathy. It must be difficult to be an orphan on your wedding day.

And then Kanna lifted her hands, and all of Katara’s sympathy was for herself. Tears pricked at her eyes. The Fire Nation ceremony was too foreign to provoke much, but she was a girl from the South Pole and this was a wedding. This was her wedding, the one she had been dreaming of for years, and she should have been kneeling on ice out on an open field surrounded by people she knew, and the man beside her should have been a warrior with broad shoulders and blue eyes that creased often in laughter, not—not—

She took a deep breath and exhaled, turning the water particles in the air to ice. She could feel Zuko turn slightly towards her, but she kept her eyes on her grandmother.

“We gather here to bind Katara, daughter of Kya and Hakoda, to Zuko, son of Ursa and Ozai, so that their house may forever be one. Destiny has guided their steps, the tides have shaped their path, and the light of the moon blesses their union. Does the family of Katara give its blessing?”

“We do,” Kya said solemnly.

“Does the family of Zuko gives its blessing?”

“We do,” said Iroh.

Kanna looked at Katara. Her eyes were hard to read.

“Do you give your consent?”

“I do,” Katara said in a soft voice.

“Do you give your consent?”

“I do.”

Kanna stepped back and lifted her voice.

“Does the community recognize this union?”

“We do,” the guests echoed, Water Tribe and Fire Nation and all the others. Katara squeezed her eyes shut, and her grandmother painted a swooping, stylized yin on her forehead.

“It is done.”

They retired soon after. The servants showed her to a large room decorated with heavy drapery, red and gold and black everywhere except her humble trunk, sitting beside the bed on its raised dais. Zuko lit the wall sconces for her and dismissed the servants. Katara was too tired to protest—either at the presumption or the jets of flame shooting past her—and she sank on the bed.

“So… this is your bedroom,” Zuko said. He rubbed absently at his forehead, smearing the partially dried paint. “Mine is through that door.”

He pointed, and then he sat down on the mattress next to her, almost a foot of space between them. This was the first private conversation they had had as a married couple. Their third overall, she thought—the first being when he captured her, grabbed her wrists before she had even spotted him and tied her to a tree, and the second being their brief spat in the caverns of Ba Sing Se. Not an auspicious beginning.

But this was her chance to… not start over, exactly, but to change the direction of their path. She took a deep breath.

Her husband put his hand on her shoulder.

“I—”

“What are you doing?” she asked in a voice colder than ice.

He wavered for a moment, then he stood and let his hand fall.

“Good night.”

He walked through the door separating their rooms, and she heard the lock turn.

There was a persistent knock on her door at sunrise. Katara would have thought princesses were allowed to sleep in, and she felt a spark of irritation—which fanned into flame when she realized that the knock was coming not from servants in the hallway, but Zuko at the door connecting their rooms. She wrenched it open.

“What?”

“They’re going to check the sheets,” he said as he pushed past her.

“Who?”

“The servants. They’re going to check the sheets when they come in.” At her incredulous look, he continued impatiently. “To make sure the marriage was consummated and the bride was—a maiden.”

He had the good grace to blush at that, but Katara was still flabbergasted.

“How on earth are they supposed to know that?”

“You’re a girl, aren’t you supposed to know this stuff?” he retorted. “Maidens bleed on their wedding night.”

This was the nation she belonged to now. Katara slapped her forehead.

“Of all the ridiculous nonsense—wait. What happens to a woman if the marriage is consummated and she doesn’t bleed?”

“Well… technically, her husband can initiate an annulment… but that doesn’t usually happen, either because they’re in love or because the marriage is too important. Probably the husband’s family just asks for a higher dowry.”

Katara was too outraged to realize the significance of the look he was giving her, but when she did, she punched him on the arm.

“Ow!”

“Not me, moron! I just can’t believe the entire Fire Nation is so stupid. If any of you had even thought to ask a Water Tribe healer…!” She took a deep breath and put her hands on her hips, mustering all the patience she had. “Not all maidens bleed. The blood comes from a tissue lining. On some women it’s large enough that it tears, but on some it’s too small, or it’s already torn from exercise, or it’s flexible enough that pressure doesn’t tear it. And I cannot believe there are women out there who have gotten divorced because they had the misfortune to be born with a small vaginal lining in a backwards country like this!”

Zuko’s face had bypassed pink and red and gone straight to purple.

“Well maybe Water Tribe women—” he started hotly, and then he stopped.

“Water Tribe women what,” Katara replied in her deadliest voice.

He didn’t take the bait. He growled at her as he stalked over to the bed. Before she could stop him, he took out a dagger and slashed at his own arm. The wound was shallow, but it bled, and he smeared some of it on the sheets and threw out a “there, you’re welcome” over his shoulder as he walked back to the door.

Katara reminded herself that she was a good person.

“Zuko, wait.”

He stopped on the threshold, and she grabbed the wrist of his injured arm. With her other hand, she drew the water from a pitcher on the bedside table and placed it over the cut. It glowed, and when she bent the water away, the skin was perfectly healed.

“Thank you,” he said, surprised.

“Don’t bother,” she sniffed. “I just don’t want people saying the Water Tribe barbarian tried to assassinate her husband on their wedding night.”

He scowled, but she was pleased to see that he couldn’t come up with a satisfying retort. He had to settle, instead, for slamming the door.

Katara’s blood was steaming and she didn’t think she’d be able to get back to sleep, as much as she might want to. She paced for a while, muttering to herself, and then decided she might as well explore her room. It didn’t have any windows, which was annoying, but she found spark rocks buried in her trunk and was able to light the lanterns herself.

There was a large attached washroom and a dressing room, both impressively stocked. The silks hanging in the closet were in varying shades of red, mostly, but here and there she spotted a bit of blue—which was more than could be said for the rest of the room. It was just so drab. She went through her trunk and found a few pelts and decorations that were part of her wedding trousseau, and spread them out on the bed. She didn’t have anything to hang them with, but she was debating where they would go when there was another knock—this time on the outer door.

She opened it to find one of the servants who dressed her for her wedding, the one who made her excuses to Aang. She introduced herself as Ayako and said she was to be Katara’s personal maid.

“The porter will draw you a bath, Your Highness,” she said, gesturing at the man who has accompanied her, and he bowed and went to the washroom. “I can assist you, if you would like. Perhaps just with your hair?” she added, and Katara reconsidered her instinctive refusal. Her hair was stiff with all of yesterday’s manipulations, and she remembered how much the Fire Nation humidity had wrecked it the previous summer.

Katara was shy at first, but when Ayako poured the first pitcher of water over her hair, she shared this concern, and within five minutes they were discussing hairstyles and insisting that no, they were really jealous of the other for her [coloring, hair texture, height, etc] as happily as any other pair of teenage girls.

Ayako was eighteen, Katara learned, and had been at the palace for three years, but she had only just been approved to attend to a lady one-on-one; until now she had been assisting various visiting ladies under close supervision.

“But you shouldn’t take it as an insult, my lady,” she said hastily. “This way, you see, I don’t have any particular habits, so I can learn your preferences more quickly, and the head housekeeper thought you might be more comfortable with a girl closer to your own age. I promise I know just as much as the more experienced maids.”

“I trust you,” Katara assured her. “That smells wonderful,” she added with a happy sigh.

Ayako was brushing jasmine oil into Katara’s hair, and while it would never be sleek, it could now be pulled back into a simple knot without exploding. Katara had finished washing, and was perfectly happy to lie back in the warm, soapy water and let Ayako finish.

“I was so pleased to hear of your engagement, my lady,” Ayako continued, and Katara thought you’re the only one. “Because I knew I would be promoted around the same time, and otherwise I think I would have gone to Princess Azula.”

“What is Azula like in private?” Katara asked. “Because I’ve only ever seen her on the battlefield, and she can’t be that—”

“A-hem.”

Katara and Ayako both jumped. A heavy silver hairpin dropped with a splash and a thunk.

“Discretion,” Jingyi said from the doorway, “is the watchword of the truly elegant.”

“Do the truly elegant know how to knock?” Katara asked, crossing her arms over her chest, and Ayako giggled shrilly before clamping her mouth shut. Jingyi frowned.

“Her Highness has an engagement in half an hour,” she reminded Ayako.

“Yes, ma’am, I’m almost finished. Except—” Katara lifted the pin in a ball of water, the way she had once captured fish, and Ayako gasped. “Oh! Thank you, Your Highness.”

Jingyi waited in the hallway as Katara dried and dressed. The attendant looked her over and nodded her approval once as they glided down the hallway—or at least Jingyi glided, and Katara did her best.

“You must be careful what you say to servants,” she murmured. “Some girls will spread a story like that for half a copper piece. Some will spread it for free. And then the very first thing the country learns about you is that the foreign princess who was welcomed so kindly is already antagonizing our beloved conqueror of Ba Sing Se. Consider whether that is something you want them to know.”

“Ayako isn’t like that,” Katara said dismissively.

“You have known her for an hour, Your Highness.”

“I’m a good judge of character.”

“Always?”

To that, Katara had no answer.

Her “engagement” was breakfast with her family. It was traditional, apparently, a chance for the bride and groom to privately indicate if an annulment was necessary. Katara had barely stepped into the room when Sokka crashed into her, hugging her as tightly as he could. She hugged him back for a minute, and then she started to have trouble breathing, so she pushed him away.

“Are you okay?” he demanded.

“I’m fine, Sokka.” She glanced at her attendant. “Will you be joining us, Jingyi?” she asked. Wasn’t that elegant? she thought smugly. A very princess-y way to say ‘get out.’

“I wouldn’t dream of intruding on your family’s privacy, Your Highness. Fire Sage Riki will join you in an hour.”

Jingyi bowed deeply and left.

“Ugh,” Toph exclaimed. “Manners.”

“You said it,” Katara muttered. She went around the room, hugging Suki, her mother, her father, Gran-Gran, Toph with some difficulty and Pakku with less than she expected. “Where’s Aang?”

“He’s, uh, around,” Sokka said, rubbing the back of his head. “You know him, all about balance and meditation and whatnot. He’s never hungry, that kid.”

What a terrible liar her brother was.

Katara didn’t call him out on it, although she could see Toph making faces behind his back. She took her place at the breakfast table. It was laden down with food—porridge, honey, fruit, eggs—and her appetite had returned. The delicate tap of silverware on porcelain was the only sound in the room, until Kya spoke up.

“It was a lovely wedding,” she said. Her voice was bright, but thin. “You looked so beautiful, Katara.”

“Yeah, the prettiest thing I’ve ever seen,” Toph chipped in, and Katara threw a dried fig at her head, for which she was scolded.

“And Master Piandao was there!” Sokka added.

“He’s a good man,” her father said approvingly. “He has a real appreciation for the value of stink bombs.”

They all found something good to say about the Fire Nation. Gran-Gran liked Iroh—he flirted with her, apparently, so Pakku, on the other hand was displeased. Suki had a whirlwind chat with one of Azula’s friend, the pink one who could take away bending, and Toph showed off her metalbending in front of five generals, all many decades older than her, who were stunned into silence. (Terrified admiration, Toph thought, was even better than friendship.)

Katara could tell they were trying not to badmouth her new home, and she couldn’t help but wonder what they were holding back. It was a long time before anyone mentioned her husband.

“Did you and Zuko enjoy the wedding?” Kya asked. Sokka scoffed.

“It was nice,” Katara said. She wasn’t actually sure if she was lying—the food, the flowers, the clothing, they were nice. “I was really tired by the end, though.”

“Mm.” Her parents exchanged a look, and Kya tried again. “Now that the two of you have had a chance to talk privately, do you think you’ll be able to… get along?”

“Yes.”

She looked at Toph, who was sitting across from her. The floors were black marble. Toph frowned, but she didn’t say anything.

Soon after, Fire Sage Riki arrived. He bowed to Katara first, which startled her, and to her parents second.

“Greetings, Chief Hakoda and Chieftess Kya. In accordance with Fire Nation law, the parents of the bride and groom may request an annulment on behalf of their children under certain conditions: cruelty, impotence, lack of virtue, and improper hospitality to the family. Prince Zuko’s guardian declines to pursue annulment. Do you wish to exercise that right?”

Katara saw, under the table, her mother rest her hand on Hakoda’s knee. He released a deep breath.

“We also decline,” he said.

“Then let bride and groom become husband and wife.” He was an old man, and his voice was deep and harsh and very, very final.

After breakfast, Katara went to find Aang. Suki helped her get out without being seen—once she was out of the palace, she knew where to go.

The historical Avatar’s Residence was on the edge of the city, nestled up against the inner edge of the volcano. There were tunnels nearby, and an underground spring, and caves above the cabin. The idea was that the avatar and whatever animal guide they had could be comfortable there. Of course, for the last hundred years it had been used by whichever general had the Fire Lord’s favor, but Iroh had restored it to its original purpose.

Aang was not in the house. As Katara approached, she saw a flash of white in one of the caves high up on the cliff.

“Aang,” she called through cupped hands. “Will you please come down?”

Aang peered over the edge of the cave, then turned away. Appa was the one who responded. He glided down and landed close to her, tilting his head in the way that means he wanted a pat. She obliged, and Aang alighted next to her. He was frowning and he didn’t quite meet her eyes.

“You weren’t at breakfast this morning,” she said. “You were invited.”

“I was tired,” he said shortly. “The party went late last night.”

Party. Wedding.

“I thought you left early. I looked for you.”

Aang shrugged. Katara sighed. She wanted to touch his back, to reassure him, but she didn’t think that would be a good idea. She clasped her wrist in front of her.

“Aang, we have to be adult about this,” she said, knowing it was unfair, knowing he was a thirteen-year-old kid and that none of the last two years had been fair in any sense of the word.

“It’s not right,” he said. “I don’t understand how you could agree to do this!”

“We’ve gone over this before, Aang.”

“I thought you would change your mind.” He looks up at her with hurt eyes. “You could still change your mind.”

“No, I can’t.”

“But my friend Kuzon told me—”

“I don’t care what he told you,” Katara snapped. “I don’t care what I can do, because I’m not going to spend the rest of my life second-guessing myself. I’m married now and I’m going to stay married, and every time you argue, all you do is make me feel worse about it!”

Aang flinched, and Appa made a sympathetic woofing sound.

“Do you—love him?”

“Of course not.”

“Do you even like him?”

“What are the odds that, at the end of a hundred-year war, the Fire Nation would have a prince who was about the same age as a Water Tribe chief’s daughter?” Katara asked instead. “A chief’s daughter who was a waterbender, a strong waterbender, someone who could defend herself—one of the avatar’s masters? Someone who’s traveled all over the world, making friends in the Earth Kingdom and the North Pole, even a few in the Fire Nation itself?”

“What’s your point?” Aang cried out, frustrated.

“My point is that—this is my destiny. I have a chance to do some real good, and I can’t turn my back on that!”

“I thought my destiny was to end the war, and I was wrong!”

“Your destiny is to restore balance. You can help with that if you stop antagonizing the Fire Nation.”

“How can you marry someone you don’t love just for destiny?” Aang pleaded, ignoring her. “What if…” He blushed. “What if there was someone else, someone you were actually meant to be with?”

She couldn’t cry. She couldn’t let a hint of tears choke her voice, because Aang would hear them and… draw conclusions. She needed him to hear her words.

“This is more important, Aang,” she said, slow and deliberate. “It’s more important than me and how I feel. It’s about what’s right for everybody. For my people, for Zuko’s, for Toph’s. Even for yours. If I had to sacrifice my own happiness for all those people… I’ll do it. Every time.”

His forehead crumpled. He looked at her like she’d just broken his heart (she had), and against her better judgement, she reached out for a hug.

“Aang—”

He floated up onto Appa’s head before she could touch him.

“Yip yip!” he called, and Appa took off.

Chapter Text

The next morning, Katara woke even earlier to accompany the entire Water Tribe delegation to the docks. She hugged each and every one of them—some of them twice—and watched until the ships were out of the harbor.

Behind her, there was a cough.

“Yes?” she asked. A large number of people had come with her—an honor guard and a secretary and her attendant and all the porters who had insisted on carrying everyone’s luggage—and out of this sea of red robes, a messenger appeared.

“Your Highness, Prince Zuko would like for you to join him in your dining room for breakfast.”

“Fine.”

She turned back to the harbor and sighed. In her mind’s eye, she traced the path they would have to sail, the way she had traced it a hundred times with her finger on the map Jingyi had left last summer. It wasn’t a hard journey, not with a good wind and a sturdy ship, but it had to twist and turn around the islands of the Fire Nation and the Southern Air Temple, and that made it seem longer.

There was another cough. Katara glanced over her shoulder.

“Prince Zuko said—he is waiting for you, Your Highness, and his schedule is busy today.”

“That doesn’t sound much like an invitation.”

The messenger shifted his weight from foot to foot. Katara took a deep breath and held it for a count of ten. When she exhaled, a sudden wave rocked all of the boats in the harbor.

“Very well.”

“That was the rudest invitation to breakfast I, or anyone, has ever gotten.”

Zuko had been slouched in his chair, but he sat up straight and started to load his plate without a hint of remorse.

“Well, we have to have breakfast together.”

“Says who?”

“Says one of our proverbs. A successful marriage begins at daybreak,” he quoted. Katara’s brow furrowed.

“What does that mean?”

“It means…” Zuko thought for a moment. “It means we have to have breakfast together. Every morning. It’s a Fire Nation custom.”

Katara would have pushed back on that, except in the Water Tribes it was customary for families to have every meal together. So she didn’t want to push her luck. She still humphed as she pulled out her chair and sat down.

“Fine. But next time you want to see me, you can come find me yourself.”

Zuko rolled his eyes, and they ate in silence. The food was similar to what was served yesterday, except that today there was a servant to pour the tea and two guards stationed inside the door as well as outside of it. Zuko seemed lost in thought; he didn’t thank the tea pourer, and Katara took a moment to feel smug about her manners.

Then she started to think about the rest of her day. She had no engagements, except for dinner with some of the other young women at court. It was a strange idea—having nothing to do. Katara had always had a mental list of chores that needed to be done, but now she had servants to cook her food, clean her house (palace), wash and mend her clothes. At some point, she would be expected to rule, but not yet. Now she could spend her days learning painting or calligraphy, taking up a musical instrument, studying history, riding ostrich-horses, reading poetry, or sitting around drinking rice wine and feeling sorry for herself.

At the moment, only the last option had any appeal. The tears she hadn’t shed at the docks stuck in the back of her throat, and she bit her lip and stared down at the dregs of tea in her cup.

“Are you okay?”

Zuko sounded more alarmed than compassionate. Katara gulped the last of her tea to clear away her tears and grimaced

“I’m fine.”

It was just two of them sitting at the large table, but Zuko leaned back, putting more distance between them. His eyes remained on her. Of course now he wanted to look at her, she thought resentfully. At their engagement banquet, at their wedding, he had barely been able to look at her. Like she was just so ugly that her fine clothing couldn’t hide it, couldn’t make up for the fact that her hair wasn’t shiny and her skin wasn’t death-pale and she was a dirty present who never bathed.

He had not, her conscience reminded her quietly, actually said any of these things. But she buried her conscience, because she would much rather be angry at her husband than cry in front of him.

He looked away—finally—and rested his elbows on the table with his hands clasped together.

“Uh.” He cleared his throat. “When I first left home…”

“I’ve left home before, actually,” she said acidly. “Someone kept trying to blow up my village.”

Zuko turned as red as his robes.

“I wasn’t trying to blow it up!” he said loudly. “I just wanted the avatar!”

“You just wanted to kidnap a twelve-year-old? I don’t think that’s the moral argument you think it is!”

Zuko had no response. He fumed through the rest of the meal, and Katara reveled in her triumph.

She decided that the best thing to do would be to leave the palace. She wanted to explore the city. Her brief time spent in the outer islands had made her start to like the Fire Nation in the first place; maybe getting to know the ordinary people, the city around her, would make this building feel less like an enormous, fancy prison.

“Where are you going?” Zuko asked when she stood.

“Out into the Caldera,” she said stiffly.

“Fine.” He addressed the guards at the door. “Zhee, go find Princess Katara’s attendant and bring her back here. Li Xen, they’ll need an escort.”

Both guards bowed, and one slipped out the door.

“Oh, that won’t be necessary,” she said, with a diffident smile at the one who remained. “I can take care of myself.”

“Take the guards,” Zuko ordered.

“I don’t want to,” she said, narrowing her eyes.

“You are a member of the royal family and you need to act like it.”

“You can’t tell me what to do.”

“I’m the Crown Prince. That means I can.”

“I’m a human being with free will and self-respect,” Katara said. “That means I can tell you to shove it .”

Zuko glared at her.

“Li Xen,” he said.

“Yes, sir?” the guard said. His voice was careful—Katara had no idea what he was thinking.

“I’m ordering you to take the princess to the city and stay with her all day. If you lose her, I’m going to dock your pay and put your whole squad on reduced rations for a week.”

That bastard. He smirked at her, and Katara thought of Iroh’s letter, about how his nephew was really so kind underneath the surface. She almost rolled her eyes. Then she came up with something better: she affixed a beatific smile to her face and patted his cheek. He nearly fell out of his chair as he jerked away.

“Oh darling, it’s so sweet of you to worry,” she cooed. “Of course I’ll take the guards with me—you know I can’t bear to see that pouty face.”

“Thank you… my… dear,” Zuko snarled, and Katara stepped down from the table.

She could feel the tea in Zuko’s cup. She waited until he lifted it to his lips and yanked every last drop into his lap.

At first, Katara’s fun exploration was more like a walking lecture. Jingyi was scandalized that Katara refused a palanquin, and in retaliation she delivered a steady stream of information on their surroundings, the history of the Caldera City, and the pedigree of any nobles they spotted on the way.

Katara listened with half an ear. It was a beautiful day, and she was determined to enjoy it. The sky was clear, but the remains of a predawn rain sparkled on the leaves and petals of exotic flowers she had never seen before. The Fire Nation, apparently, took pride in its flowers—they passed many houses with large gardens, and when they reached the market, it seemed like every stall had a basket of flowers hanging from it. She lingered as they passed by a basket of pink blooms with an especially heady scent.

“Would you like to go shopping, Your Highness?” Jingyi asked.

“Oh, I didn’t bring any money.”

“Princesses don’t carry money,” she chuckled. “You purchase things on credit—any vendor in the Fire Nation would honor it.”

Katara thought of Sokka, and wished he were here. She was too practical to enjoy a shopping trip just for shopping’s sake. Her brother would have made it fun. But still, it couldn’t hurt. Her studying materials had included at least a dozen scrolls on appropriate clothing and accessories for various occasions, and this would be a good chance to actually understand some of it.

The first stall she approached glittered in the sunlight; it was crowded with glass statues, beads, and other baubles. Katara was admiring one when the vendor finished up with another customer. He saw her and gasped.

“Princess! I am so sorry to have kept you waiting—please excuse my failure and accept my humblest greetings.” He bowed at the waist.

“Oh, that’s fine,” she said, embarrassed. “I was just admiring this.”

She gestured at the statue in front of her. It was a glass fire lily sitting in a glass vase. Streaks of red and yellow gave it life, and the work was so intricate she could see the dusting of glass pollen on the stamen, the slight wrinkling of the petals at the edges.

“Ah, your highness has exquisite taste,” the vendor said with another flourishing bow. “This rare beauty is the work of Master Mako Shokunin, the greatest glassbender in the Fire Nation.”

“Glassbender?”

“Yes. The art of glassblowing has a long and distinguished history in our humble nation, but it is usually practiced by nonbenders using special stoves and tools. A few skilled firebenders practice this art using their own flame, and we call them glassbenders. It is a highly revered technique.”

“I can see why.”

“Please, Your Highness, take it,” he urged. He picked up the glass flower and tried to hand it to her. “As a token of admiration and a gift of welcome.”

“No, thank you, I couldn’t,” Katara tried, but the vendor was persistent, and it was Jingyi who saved her.

“You do the princess a great honor,” she said in a voice like river water over smooth stones. “But we could not deprive your table of such fine craftsmanship. The other patrons will surely be grateful for the chance to admire your wares.”

The vendor bowed for the third time, and Katara and Jingyi bowed back before moving on. She lingered over jewelry, clothes, and shoes, and did her best to imitate Jingyi’s courtly speech, before reaching the food section of the market.

Katara had no reason to stop—she might never have to shop for her own groceries again, which was a strange thought—but she couldn’t resist, especially when she walked by Shui’s Fruit Emporium, which displayed several varieties of fruit she had seen but didn’t know the name for. Shui was ecstatic. He showed her dragonfruit and cometfruit and something he called bombfruit.

Bombfruit?” she couldn’t help but laugh. “That’s not what they call it in the Earth Kingdom.”

“Pah!” Shui waved aside the Earth Kingdom. “See for yourself, Your Highness—this part is the bomb.” He gestured at the bumpy brown body of the fruit. “And this is the boom!” He gestured now at the green leaves that sprouted out of the top in a way very vaguely reminiscent of an explosion.

“Well, you are the expert,” Katara conceded with a grin.

“Please, lady, take one—and if I may recommend to the palace chefs, to grill slices of bombfruit with a light chili sauce—”

He kissed his fingertips, and when Katara confessed that she’d never had grilled fruit before, let alone fruit with peppers, he insisted on preparing some immediately. She saw no reason to object—a slice of fruit was certainly less expensive than the amber necklace she was offered three stalls ago. It was shockingly good, even though Jingyi frowned when juice dribbled down Katara’s wrist and almost fainted when she licked the sweet chili sauce from her fingers.

After that, it was like the floodgates had been opened. Every single vendor wanted to feed her. Diced mango, dumplings, sausages, rice balls, skewers of meat, tiny bowls of noodles. She didn’t want to be rude by refusing, or appearing to favor one shop over the other, so she resolved to try a little bit from all of them. The grocers and butchers who couldn’t give her ready-to-eat food started popping up behind cooks and telling Katara proudly that they provided the raw ingredients of this dish or that one.

Soon there was a moving crowd around her, like the ones that used to follow Aang in the Earth Kingdom, all listening on her every word. At one point she tried a stewed ocean kumquat and declared “These are just like sea prunes—my favorite!”, and at the next three stalls she was given ocean kumquat salad, ocean kumquat dumplings, and an ocean kumquat on a stick. It was all rather overwhelming, not least of which because Jingyi was there the entire time, hissing in her ear about bowing and table manners and proper forms of address. The good thing about the crush of people was that Katara got a lot of practice very quickly, and by the time they finished she could execute a flawless bow even though her stomach felt as round and tight as a watermelon.

“Everybody was really nice,” Katara said as they headed back to the palace. It was mid-afternoon and she had missed lunch, but that was really not a problem. “My father didn’t think Iroh would be able to consolidate power this quickly.”

“He hasn’t,” Jingyi said crisply.

“But I’m a part of the royal family, and if they’re this pleased to see me, when they don’t even know me—”

“Traditionally, the Fire Lady wields a great deal of influence over domestic matters. They are all seeking your favor, Princess Katara, but it would be folly to mistake this for popularity.”

“But I’m not the Fire Lady!” Katara spluttered. Jingyi turned those disapproving flint eyes on her again.

“The Fire Lord is a widower, and you are the wife of the Crown Prince. Functionally, it is the same thing. At present, the Head Steward is running the palace, but you begin your household management lessons tomorrow.”

Household management, Katara thought resentfully. Cooking and mending pants, but for posh ladies.

“Does Azula have to take these lessons?” she demanded. “Does Zuko?”

“Prince Zuko has already begun to take on management of the Caldera, which also typically falls under the Fire Lady’s purview. Princess Azula has no interest in this matter—although Your Royal Highness does have the privilege of delegating such tasks, if you wish.”

She was giving Katara a look, a look that said this would be a bad idea and an etiquette catastrophe and that Katara was an unsophisticated peasant for even thinking of it. Katara ignored the look.

“Thank you,” she said. “I might.”

That evening, Katara had dinner with Azula and her friends, and silently resolved to never, ever delegate anything to Azula if she could possibly help it.

Over the course of the meal, Azula chastised servers for clearing dishes too soon and too late, dismissed a cook for leaving an un-diced stem of cilantro in the soup, ruthlessly mocked a wine-pourer’s haircut until she cried, and threatened to fire a second cook for refusing to serve fresh stuffed squash flowers despite them being, as he explained repeatedly, woefully out of season.

And the worst thing was that the princess seemed to be in a wonderful mood. She never shouted. She spoke harshly, but she was smiling more often than not, a sharp kind of smile that Katara disliked. She wasn’t sure why this sadism surprised her so much—she had known firsthand that Azula was not a kind person.

But she couldn’t help but think of Zuko, when he was still stalking the South Pole. He was also impatient and rude and domineering, and they could sometimes hear him berating his crew across the ice floes, but once he had made his point, he moved on. And one day, Sokka’s boomerang had knocked a man overboard, and they heard Iroh’s alarmed shout of “He’ll freeze to death!” Before he even finished the sentence, Zuko had stripped off his breastplate and dove into the frigid water, and emerged dragging the crewman and puffing bursts of fire.

At the time, Katara remembered being mostly concerned that her enemy could breathe fire, but she thought about it now and privately decided this was a good method of separating the bad from the evil. Zuko might not be a very good employer, but he didn’t delight in his servants’ misery the way his sister did.

This was the first charitable thought she had had about her husband.

“Ooh, I almost forgot!” Ty Lee said towards the end of the meal. Ty Lee had been carrying most of the conversation, although she fell quiet whenever Azula spoke and listened with slavish devotion. Mai was almost silent, and Katara was too focused on keeping up with Ty Lee’s rapidfire speech and interpreting Azula’s sly condescension to speak much herself. “Is your cutie brother single, Katara?”

“No. I think you spoke with his girlfriend the other day. He’s dating Suki. You know,” she added, eyes flickering towards her (ugh) sister-in-law. “The leader of the Kyoshi Warriors.”

“Of course,” Azula said with a smile that made Katara think of a lizardcat. She tried not to make a face in response. “We’re old friends… of a sort.”

“Oh wow, they must be so cute together!” Ty Lee gushed. “Suki has the prettiest aura when she’s not imprisoned, and I just love your brother’s ponytail!”

“It’s a warrior’s wolftail,” Katara corrected, smiling to herself.

“How quaint,” Mai said in a deadpan voice. Katara might have tried to make a friendly response to that, except the look Mai shot her was less than friendly, and it died in her throat. She looked down at her plate.

“Don’t mind Mai, Kat,” Azula said. “She’s always been a little overprotective of her friends. Haven’t you, Mai?”

“Whatever.”

Katara had no idea what that meant. She tried to think of a suitable topic of conversation but kept coming up empty. If someone would just acknowledge the zebra elephant in the room and maybe, perhaps, apologize for attacking her on multiple occasions, she thought she could get along with these girls. Well. She could try. At least with Ty Lee.

A new, fresh wave of homesickness washed over her. For most of her childhood, Sokka had been the one closest in age to her, but in the last few years, she had gotten used to having her friends around. Not just Sokka, but Aang and Toph, even Suki, after the treaty had been signed. This was a different kind of homesickness, not for the place, per se, but the people who made it home.

As if Azula could sense weakness, she rested her chin on her folded hands and said, “So tell us, dear sister-in-law, what is it like in the South Pole?”

“Very cold,” Katara said cautiously. “The snow doesn’t melt, even in the summer. There aren’t very many plants, especially compared to the Fire Nation, but the ice can be beautiful, and the sky goes on forever.”

“Dear, dear,” Azula said, eyes glinting. “It must be very vulnerable to siege warfare, no?”

Katara couldn’t believe the princess would be so blatant, and she was momentarily alarmed. A glance at Mai and Ty Lee revealed that neither had even taken notice of this line of questioning—was this just how Azula made small talk?

“No,” Katara said firmly, looking her in the eye. “We get all the food we need from hunting, fishing, and harvesting. There are edible sea plants, and our food is often better preserved than food from other nations. Plus there’s an endless supply of fresh water.”

“Good,” Azula said. “I’m pleased to hear our friends are so… hardy.”

Katara inclined her head and had no response. The only sound in the room was the delicate clink of silverware—and then, somewhere in the distance, a bird call that floated in through the open window. Katara wondered if it got cold enough here for the birds to migrate in the winter. Back in the South, the fish would be spawning, the penguins laying their eggs, the villagers left behind hard at work beginning their summer harvest. She sent up a silent prayer that the ships would be swift and safe in their journey back home; if they were delayed, it could spell a long, hard winter, even with improved trading to ease some of the burden.

She thought about mentioning this, and decided against it. Azula would only say something snide, and Ty Lee, for all her chattiness, didn’t seem the type to discuss hunting and fishing, and Mai—

Mai was staring at her, she realized, her grey eyes as sharp as the knives secreted in the folds of her dress.

“What?”

“Nothing.”

Katara was almost sure her perpetual frown deepened, but when the meal ended shortly later, she was no closer to understanding Mai than she had been at the beginning.

“How was dinner, my lady?” Jingyi asked as she escorted Katara back to her room. She had eaten with Li and Lo in the smaller room next door.

“It was—fine. My household management lessons start tomorrow?”

“After breakfast, princess. If I may make a recommendation, I would suggest contacting a calligraphy master as soon as possible, too, so that you may begin the thank-you letters for the wedding. You have a lunch engagement with the governors’ wives, and perhaps you would like to begin history lessons as well. Did Your Highness have the opportunity to finish the scrolls I left in the South Pole?”

“Not all of them. I’m sorry.”

They walked the rest of the way in silence. Jingyi bowed and wished Katara a good night, and Katara replied automatically. She opened the door and stared at her room in confusion for a moment. It looked different—why did it look different?

“Oh!”

Ayako had been fussing with the corner of a hanging, but she jumped at the sound and whirled around.

“Your Highness! Welcome back. I brought some people in to hang your things—did we do it right? I was trying to remember how you had everything laid out the other day.”

No real Water Tribe room was complete without a fire in the middle of the floor, but her new bedroom was as close as it could be. There were two pelts—one tiger-seal, one wolf-seal—on the wall, and a huge polar bear dog rug on the floor. Sokka had made her her very own boomerang, and taught her how to use it—she still wasn’t very good, so it was consigned to decoration, hung on the wall between the pelts. Her blackfish mask was hung in the place of honor above her bed, and the blue wedding blanket was spread over the covers.

“It’s perfect,” she breathed. She wrapped her arms tight around herself. “Thank you.”

“This reminds me of the masks they make in Hira’a,” Ayako said, gesturing towards the bed.

“Oh? Do they make blackfish masks there?”

“I don’t think so—I meant the style. They have thick lines like this. What did you call it?”

“Blackfish.” Katara sat down on the bed and tugged her hair out of its knot. Ayako offered to brush it out for her, but she waved her away and took the comb herself. “In the Southern Water Tribe, there are two sacred animals: the wolf and the blackfish. The wolf represents the warriors, and the blackfish the waterbenders, so we paint our faces with their likeness for battles and wear the masks at special ceremonies and celebrations. They’re a lot like people. They live in families, hunting together, protecting each other, living and dying together. Sometimes, a lone wolf or blackfish will get separated from the others, and you can tell because you can hear them calling for each other from miles away.”

Her voice died out.

“That’s very nice, Your Highness.”

“There aren’t many of us left,” Katara said. She put the comb down in her lap and gazed at the mask, swallowing hard. “When I was growing up, there was only one other waterbender in the entire South Pole. There are more now, but still not many. The prisoner of war who was returned. One of the young boys, who we just found out about this spring. Some northerners are there, too, but they have different traditions. I hope… I hope I did the right thing,” she said in a soft voice, more to herself than anyone else.

Gently, Ayako pried the comb from her fingers and placed it in the proper drawer. She crossed to the doorway and bowed.

“I hope you’ll be very happy here, princess.”

Katara thought of her very inauspicious breakfast and dinner, and her more hopeful lunch, and managed a feeble smile.

“Me, too.”

 

 

Chapter Text

“The southern and eastern islands have some tourist spots—particularly Hira’a—as well as some manufacturing, but they are most notable as the source of the nation’s fish. There is no one large wholesaler, unlike the agricultural industry, and typically families own their own ships, or—”

“Do they use ships ?” Katara interrupted. “Or boats?”

The steward hesitated.

“Does it matter, Your Highness?”

“Ships can travel further out onto the ocean, which makes a difference in the kind of fish that they can catch, and they’re larger, which makes a difference in the amount.”

“Ah.” He consulted his notes. “They use boats, Your Highness. Most families own their boats, but some of the poorest share ownership with their neighbors.”

“And what kind of boats do they use?” she asked, scribbling frantically—while still producing beautiful characters that would make her calligraphy instructor beam with pride. “Catamarans? Canoes? Sealcatboats? Coracles?”

“Forgive me, my lady, I don’t know. Perhaps you can ask Governor Zhani; he oversees the far eastern islands, and I believe he will be in the capital next week.”

“I will, thank you.”

Jingyi cleared her throat.

“Your Highness,” she murmured. “Perhaps this discussion should continue at a later date? Steward Takuma has already stayed half an hour longer than scheduled.”

“Oh!” Katara glanced at the clock and smiled apologetically at her long-suffering tutor. “I’m so sorry, Takuma. I didn’t notice. Thank you for staying longer.”

“It was my pleasure, Your Highness,” he said. “As always, I appreciate your, ah… enthusiasm.”

The steward gathered all of his scrolls and ledgers and left. Katara scanned her notes. She needed to get some colorful inks to really organize them, but what she had would make Sokka proud. Her “princess” lessons took up much of her day, and covered topics like management of the royal household, the nation’s budget, and Fire Nation law. They were dull, complex, and overwhelming, and her obsessively detailed notes probably didn’t help—but she didn’t want to forget anything.

Katara leaned back in her chair and stretched, stifling a yawn. It had been nearly two months since the wedding, and her life had settled into a routine with depressing swiftness. She spent most of the morning with the steward or one of the other tutors Jingyi had arranged—although she had graduated from her calligraphy lessons quickly, no doubt because she had been forced to practice by writing about three hundred thank-you notes to wedding guests, many of whom she had never met nor even heard of.

(“Shouldn’t Zuko be doing some of these?” she had demanded of Jingyi when her hand began to cramp.

“Have you seen Prince Zuko’s handwriting?” her attendant sniffed. Katara realized, two hours later, that this was almost a compliment.)

She had literature lessons and music lessons, too, which were more fun than her lessons with the steward in part because she wasn’t the only student. They were small, exclusive classes catering to young men and women of the Fire Nation nobility. She wasn’t exactly friends with any of them, though. Many were snobbish jerks she didn’t want to spend time with, and even those who weren’t had a reserve she found difficult to break through. Some of her fellow students were colonials who, like her, were adjusting to life on the mainland, and she was friendlier with them.

As for her husband… well. They had breakfast each morning; no matter how early Katara woke, Zuko was always waiting for her in their dining room. (She had learned there were actually eight dining rooms in the royal wing: four reserved for princes and princesses, one for the Fire Lord, one for the Fire Lady, one standard banquet hall, and one banquet hall with enormous windows from which to view sunsets, storms, and interesting astronomical phenomenon. Katara had yet to set foot in the last.) They compared schedules and sometimes commented on the weather. Many nights, they had dinner together, too, although they were usually more public events and they spoke even less than at breakfast.

Zuko kept summoning her via messenger whenever he needed to, and the door between their rooms remained locked.

There was a dry cough behind her, and Katara sighed.

“Yes, Jingyi.”

“The day flies, Your Highness, and the wise sparrow flies with it.”

“Sure.”

“Do you have plans for the afternoon, Your Highness?”

“I have a letter to my mother I wanted to finish, and then I was going to the lake by the Avatar’s Residence to practice waterbending.” This garnered no response, and she turned to see her attendant pursing her lips. Sometimes Katara really, really wanted to throw a pie in Jingyi’s pinched face. “Do you have another suggestion?”

“Princess Azula and her companions are going to the harbor for masks for the Fire Days Festival.”

“I already have a mask.”

“A mask of Water Tribe make. Don’t you think it might be a nice statement of cultural unity to purchase a new one—and, in doing so, strengthen the bonds of friendship between you and your sister-in-law?”

“I think the fact that I’ll be wearing Fire Nation robes to a Fire Nation festival in the Fire Nation is a pretty strong statement in favor of cultural unity,” Katara said dryly. “But sure… the bonds of ‘friendship’ between me and Azula could always use some strengthening.”

So she had lunch on her own, and then joined Azula, Mai, and Ty Lee on the road to the harbor city.

A hundred years ago, the division in the Fire Nation’s capitol had been rigorous: there was the Caldera, home to the palace and the noble families, and Minato, the harbor city, home to commoners and the trade district. The war had blurred the distinction, however. Any common sailor or soldier who survived long enough moved up in the ranks and eventually acquired a little prize money. The lucky ones could even afford to buy land and titles, or position their children to do so. Now the divide between the two was almost nonexistent. There was a short road separating the two parts of the city, but they were both referred to as “Caldera City,” they shared an administration, and it wasn’t uncommon for noble youth from the upper Caldera to go down to the harbor to take advantage of the vibrant shopping and restaurant district.

The four girls from the palace weren’t the only ones who had come here to shop for the festival the next day. There was an enormous store with masks piled on dozens of tables and hung on each of the walls. Some were full face masks, others designed for only the upper half, or just the eyes. Some represented spirits, others animals or (Katara presumed) famous figures from Fire Nation history. She saw at least one that looked suspiciously like Iroh. Ty Lee spotted a wall of pink, clapped delightedly, and dragged Mai over there, leaving Katara and Azula to browse the tables.

Katara eyed her sister-in-law with trepidation. She still didn’t know Azula very well, although she had probably spent more time with the princess and her friends than anyone else in the Fire Nation. She had a hard time separating Azula-the-combatant from Azula-the-person, even more so than Zuko. (Zuko shouted as a combatant and sulked as a person.)

“So…” Katara said as she meandered down a row. “What do you do for fun?”

“I have a weekly spa treatment at the palace and one at the exclusive public spa in the Caldera. Skincare is critical to overall health, you know, and it would be shameful to neglect one’s appearance in a role such as ours. I am also an excellent pipa player, and I enjoy the occasional volleyball game. I’ve never lost. It’s envigorating. Aside from that, training takes up most of my time.”

Azula didn’t seem to find the question odd; it was only natural to her that people would be interested in her. She showed no hint of returning Katara’s interest.

“Okay,” Katara said slowly. “Do you train with Zuko?”

Azula laughed. She picked up a Painted Lady mask and examined herself in a nearby mirror, and Katara resisted the urge to snatch it from her.

“Of course not. Why would I?”

“I’ve always found my bending gets better when I practice against other people.”

“Well, yes, but only when you’re fighting a skilled opponent. Zuko is a poor firebender; he still trains with Sifu Xue. You’ve fought him—surely you’ve seen.”

“Yeah, I have,” Katara frowned. “I think ‘poor’ is a bit of an exaggeration.”

“Please.” Azula set the mask down and moved down the row. “Zuzu’s lucky he can firebend at all. Most firebenders are born in the summer, and we draw our power from the solstice. My birthday, for example, is the very day of the solstice. Zuko’s? The day after the autumnal equinox. Even when we were kids, the difference was obvious.”

“You’re overestimating the importance of the seasons,” Katara said casually. She held up an olive green mask that covered everything but her mouth, glanced at the mirror, and set it down again. Green really wasn’t her color. “Water Tribe healers have been studying the link between birth and bending for centuries. Ancestry and the time of birth definitely have something to do with it, but it’s not a definitive link. And it’s not at all tied to how powerful an individual might be.”

“What do waterbenders know about firebending?” Azula dismissed.

“We can do math, at least,” Katara snapped. “The Fire Nation has a huge number of benders for its size. You can’t all be born in the summer—half the country would have to have summer birthdays!”

“Yes.” Azula raised an eyebrow. “Why else do you think we have a fertility festival in early winter?”

Katara stared at her dumbly for a moment, and then looked at the masks around her, and a young couple a few feet away who were trying on masks and teasing each other and giggling. She turned bright red, and Azula snickered.

“Well—that’s still not enough!” she spluttered. “How do you explain identical twins where one is a bender and the other isn’t?”

“Luck,” Azula said simply. “Some of us are born with it, and some aren’t.” She smirked down at the row of masks and picked up one designed to cover only the left half of the face. It was yellow, with elaborate red “makeup” around the eye. She held it up to her face. “Which do you think Zuko is?”

“That’s not funny, Azula,” Katara said sharply. Her sister-in-law shrugged and set the mask back down.

“Marriage is treating you well, then?”

“Fine.”

“You and Zuko are getting along?”

Katara lifted her chin.

“Yes.”

“Good.” Azula put on an eerie white and gold owl mask that reminded Katara of Wan Shi Tong. She tried not to shiver, and Azula cocked her head. “You know, Kat,” she said thoughtfully. “You and I should spar sometime. I bet the results would be interesting.”

“…Sure.” And probably blow up half the Palace in the process. Not great for the bonds of friendship.

Azula decided on the creepy owl mask, naturally, and they met Mai and Ty Lee at the counter. Ty Lee’s mask had more glitter and flowers than Katara could have possibly imagined. Mai’s was more modest, but still bore a wide smile and big pink blush spots that indicated who had really picked it out.

“You didn’t find anything, Katara?” Ty Lee asked.

“No, I think I’m just going to stick with the one I brought with me.”

As they left the shop, Katara’s gaze wandered over the plaza and came to rest on a woman begging at the mouth of a nearby alley. Her heart lurched. She had never seen a beggar growing up. In the Water Tribes, especially the South Pole, they relied on trade more than money, and the gap between wealthy and poor was small, almost nonexistent. It had been disconcerting to visit cities in the Earth Kingdom and see people begging out loud, sometimes performing for money, bearing the scorn or recriminations of passerby. It was different in the Fire Nation. The woman knelt on a small mat with her hands folded in her lap, a sign and a bowl in front of her. Her shame was so acute, it was almost palpable, like waves of heat emanating off a fire. Some of the passing citizens dropped coins in the bowl—she bowed each time—but none stopped to speak or even look at her. There was no need for her to prove her desperation, for anyone to lecture her for her failure. They all knew.

Katara looked at her. She couldn’t stop looking. The beggar looked… like her mother. In the days just after the men’s departure, when the hunting was poor and someone’s child always crying. Her cheekbones had the same sharpness and her skin the same sallowness. Katara’s hand drifted to her belt, but there was nothing there. Princesses didn’t carry money.

“Katara.”

“Hm?” She turned to find Azula waiting impatiently.

“Are you coming, or not?”

“Yeah,” she said, her voice heavy. “I’m coming.”

The festival was the next day. When evening fell, the large outdoor grounds of the palace were transformed into a festival ground. There were firebenders, jugglers, a puppet show, a fortune teller, and musicians. Katara wandered around, wearing her blackfish mask, and had a lovely time, until she began to get hungry. Even in such an informal setting, the order of precedence had to be observed—which meant that she filled her plate high with food and sat down next to her husband.

“Hello.”

“Hi.”

“Are you enjoying the festival?”

“It’s fine. Are you?”

“Yes.” So far, a typical conversation for them. Katara cast around for something new to say, and her gaze fell on the blue and white mask by his plate. “I like your mask.”

“Oh. Thanks.”

“Where’d you get it?”

“It doesn’t matter. It’s from a play. Forget it.”

“...Okay.”

She added ‘some weird mask’ to her mental list of things that Zuko was oddly sensitive about, and focused on her food. After a few minutes, though, an Earth Kingdom noble fell into the empty chair on her other side.

“I was looking for you, Your Highness,” he said with barely-concealed impatience.

“Oh?” she said. She was startled, and she dropped a bit of pentapus tentacle onto her dress, but the diplomat didn’t seem to notice. “Pardon me—have we met?”

“I am Daniu Song, governor of the Xibei province. The Fire Lord’s timeline for repatriating the colonies is absolutely disgraceful. He claims that the number of blended families is higher than expected, but really. I looked for you in the meeting today, but—”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Katara said, holding up a hand to forestall him. The diplomat had been gazing around the grounds with narrowed eyes, like they were two combatants stranded together in enemy territory, and his frown deepened when he looked at her. “I know the process is moving more slowly than anyone had hoped, and I wish I could help, but I’m not involved in drawing up treaties.”

“Why not?” he demanded.

“Well…” she faltered. “Um, I’m still learning, and I’m focusing on the Fire Nation itself at the moment. There are just so many different contracts with different parts of the Earth Kingdom, and they’re all very long and complicated—”

“So? The whole point of having a foreign princess in the Fire Nation is that she is ideally placed to negotiate between the nations, isn’t it?”

“That’s part of it, I guess…”

“Yet you’ve been here two months and haven’t been participating in any of these negotiations?”

Katara’s hand tightened into a fist around her chopsticks. She forced her shoulders to straighten and her chin to lift and tried to look down her nose at Daniu, the way Jingyi looked at her.

“My role in the Fire Nation encompasses many duties, sir,” she said in the loftiest voice she could muster. “The relationship between the Fire Nation and the Earth Kingdom is complicated and evolving. I understand your position, and I will be better able to advise the Fire Lord when I have learned everything about my new home. Please believe me when I say that I will do everything in my power to keep the peace, but I am not a spokesperson for the Earth Kingdom. You and I won’t have the same methods even if our ultimate goal is the same.”

“Hmph.” The diplomat shrugged rudely and took a sip of wine. “Perhaps I am asking too much of a Water Tribe girl.”

“What is that supposed to mean?” Katara snapped, coloring.

“That it’s not surprising you don’t consider the colonies a priority, coming from a land that has none. If the Earth Kingdom had been informed of the plan to marry a foreigner into the royal family, we would have submitted our own candidate.”

Katara opened her mouth to say something that would probably be very impolitic—not to mention loud, and possibly accompanied by wine icicles—when a voice on her other side beat her to it.

“I didn’t ask for the Earth Kingdom’s opinion.”

She hadn’t realized Zuko could hear them over the babble of conversation, but he leaned over to glower at the diplomat, who flushed. Even the tips of his droopy moustache quivered with embarrassment.

“For your information, I was the one who decided to propose to Princess Katara, with Fire Lord Iroh’s approval, and she chose to accept. Stop talking like my wife is an ostrich horse we bought at auction.”

“I meant no disrespect, of course, my lady.”

“None taken,” she said sweetly, and he made a hasty exit with a few mumbled words farewell. Katara glanced at Zuko, who had sat straight in his chair and was now directing his scowl at his wine cup. “Thank you.”

“Whatever.”

“He means ‘you’re welcome’,” the Fire Lord said from Zuko’s other side. He craned his neck to smile at her and then flashed a disapproving look at his nephew.

“I can speak for myself!” Zuko retorted.

There was an awkward silence, and after a moment he stood and stormed off through the crowd. Katara glanced at Iroh, and was caught off guard by the intensity of his expression. Surely he was used to this kind of behavior from his misanthropic nephew—but Iroh’s mouth formed a grimace and his eyes fluttered shut, like he was in pain. It lasted for hardly a moment, before he looked at Katara with a kindly smile, and she wondered if she had imagined it.

“I hope you are enjoying your evening, Princess Katara, despite the turbulent conversation.”

Katara opened her mouth to spout the poetic kind of nonsense that Jingyi had been drilling into her for months, and realized suddenly that she couldn’t. Song’s accusation had lodged in her throat like a cube of ice, and she couldn’t force words out. She closed her mouth and managed a nod.

The Fire Lord heaved a heavy sigh, and turned away to hide his sorrow.

The next day, Katara canceled all of her lessons. Jingyi said “Of course, that is your right,” in a way that made it clear that she disapproved, but Katara needed to think. She took all the letters she had received from her family and friends in the last two months, went to the royal family’s private garden, and spread them on the ground in front of her.

There was a riot in Daipen last week , Suki had written. You’ve probably already heard of it. The Fire Nation garrison had orders not to escalate the situation, so I took the Kyoshi Warriors out and we helped calm the crowd. Toph came, too—she said she wished you were there to ice them all to the ground and give one of your famous lectures, but you probably have bigger things to worry about than a few unruly colonials.

Amikai is adjusting well, from her mother. Her waterbending is still weak, and Pakku wants to send for a healer from the North Pole to see if there is anything that can be done. He thinks prison damaged her chi paths somehow. He says (in his usual grumpy way) that this would be easier if you were here, but we know how important it is to have you in the Fire Nation. We’re all very proud of you.

Don’t worry about things here, from her father—written the same day as the letter from her mother but apparently in secret, which had amused her. The hunt is going well, and with more waterbenders here, we are getting more done than ever before. We should have enough fish, pelts, and dyes to trade in the winter. The most important thing now is that the Fire Nation makes the transition to peace. We believe in you.

And then there was Sokka. Handwriting lessons?! You’ve got to be kidding me! If you’re looking for something really important to do, why don’t you steal me those super-secret tank plans? I bet I can figure out how to make them run on waterbending and blubber.

They all had such faith in her, she thought with a pang. Except for Sokka. Sokka was right—probably not about the tanks, but about her priorities. What was she doing here? She was supposed to be fixing the Fire Nation, turning Zuko into a good person, serving as the moral compass of the whole country. It had seemed doable from the South Pole, but now that she was actually here, she was floundering. There was just so much she didn’t know, and she didn’t know where to start.

She sat back against the big tree and pulled her knees up to her chest, staring down at the letters. Practically speaking, she wasn’t sure if it would help to have her friends here. Sokka would get into over-the-top arguments with her teachers because they just weren’t thinking big enough, and Toph would mock Jingyi ruthlessly behind her back whenever she talked, and Aang would get so distracted trying new things and want to show off (assuming he would even talk to her—he hadn’t answered either of her letters yet). They would probably slow her down.

But she missed them. This would be so much easier if she didn’t feel so lonely.

She pressed her forehead against her folded arms and took a few deep breaths until she was confident she wouldn’t cry. She didn’t want to cry. She wanted to be the woman they believed in.

“Li Xen, will you go find Zhee?” she asked her guard as she reached the door to go back inside. “I want to go down to the harbor.”

“Yes, Your Highness.”

“And where will we be going, Your Highness?” Jingyi asked. She was hovering today, probably as retaliation for Katara canceling her lessons.

“Just out to the market. There’s a little problem I want to work on.”

She found her way to the plaza easily. The beggar was in the same spot as she had been two days ago.

“Your Highness,” Jingyi warned as they approached. “She would rather have her dignity than your pity.”

“I’m not offering pity.”

Katara crossed the plaza and sat, cross-legged, in front of the beggar. The woman glanced up wearily and jumped at the sight of her. Her mahogany eyes flickered up to the crown pin in her hair, and her pale face turned paler.

“Your Highness,” she murmured, bowing low until her forehead touched the ground. Katara’s heart gave a nervous little flutter. She hoped she was doing the right thing.

“What is your name, madam?” she asked.

“Chenyu, my lady,” the woman said, lifting her head. She bit her lip. It was rude not to offer her surname, they both knew, but she couldn’t bear it. Katara didn’t press.

“Sit up, please.” She glanced at the sign on the ground. For the education of five children, good and loyal servants to the Fire Lord, long may he live. Education, not food, Katara noted. “I’m sorry to ask—” she said softly.

“I will do everything in my power to assist you, my lady.”

“—when did you last have a hot meal?”

“Dinner last night, my lady,” Chenyu admitted.

“And your children?”

The woman’s spine straightened.

“They brought lunch to school today, my lady, every one of them.”

“I was about to have lunch. In the South Pole, where I’m from, we have what we call the Common House. It’s a place for people to go if they don’t have a home or family, if they are tired or ill and need help, or if they just want company. To tell you the truth, I miss it—my family and I ate there almost every day. I never ate a meal alone until I came here. Would you be willing to share with me?”

“Your Highness, I… It is an honor I can—”

“Excellent,” Katara chirped, interrupting before the not that she knew was coming.

She sent Jingyi to a food stall nearby, and struck up a conversation about the one topic she knew Chenyu wouldn’t be able to resist: her children. The eldest, a son, was eleven years old and the only firebender. Her daughters were nine and seven, just getting to the age where they were constantly bickering with each other, and she had two twin boys just five years old. The three youngest had all been born when her husband was in the Army, but he had since returned home.

Katara didn’t bring up the family’s difficulty, but when Jingyi returned, Chenyu stared down at the bowl of food and began to speak in a low, trembling voice.

“Zhihao hadn’t finished his contract when the war ended,” she said. “He was released early because we had young children, but that means he isn’t entitled to the full pension, and he has been unable to find other work.”

“I see. Eat, please.”

Chenyu obeyed. The meal was sweet peas and sliced pork belly over rice, and she ate slowly, either because her appetite had shrunk from habit or because she was savoring it, Katara couldn’t tell. Her own food tasted bland and dry in her mouth.

“I’m sorry—I should know this—does his early separation mean your children are ineligible for scholarships? There are some meant to help the children of veterans.”

“Yes, Your Highness, I know. They are in a public school, so there is no tuition to pay, and we have a scholarship to help with supplies, but the scholarship is limited to three children. For the rest, there is still books, ink, brushes, uniforms. And they all wear out the uniforms so quickly because they have no other nice things…”

“I see,” Katara repeated. “And the educational reforms required you to purchase all new books this year, to replace the ones now designated as propaganda.”

“We are loyal to Fire Lord Iroh,” Chenyu said hastily. “We are happy to buy new books, if it means that our children will learn the truth.”

“Yes,” Katara sighed. “But the truth is expensive, isn’t it?”

They finished the meal in silence. Passersby stared, and Katara tried to keep her face bland and pretend she didn’t notice.

“Chenyu,” she said, setting her empty bowl on the ground. “I will be honest: there’s not much I can do to help you. I can’t offer you or your husband a job—there are too many looking right now, and the Fire Lord is trying to stop the kind of favoritism and corruption that was so common in his brother’s rule. When I am the Fire Lady, the Caldera will be my responsibility and I can make big changes, but at the moment I’m still learning.”

“I understand, Your Highness,” Chenyu said. “You have already done more than anyone could expect. I am deeply honored by your attention.”

“But I want to do something ,” Katara pressed. “If there was one thing that would make your life easier—the price of housing, or childcare, or some kind of help to find work—one little thing that could make a difference…”

“Food,” Chenyu said immediately.

“Food?”

“Yes, Your Highness. The price of food has always been high, but lately it has become so difficult, with Zhihao no longer fed by the Army. When he works, he is doing hard labor, so he needs to eat more, and Zuko, too—”

“Zuko?” Katara interrupted, and Chenyu smiled.

“My eldest. Princess Ursa used to visit each neighborhood in the Caldera once a year. I gave birth shortly before her visit to our neighborhood, so I was not able to go see her, but my husband spoke to her and told her why. She was a kind woman… she gave him a blessing to take home for us. I named my son in honor of hers.”

Katara didn’t know what to say to that, so she just nodded.

“My Zuko is a firebender, my lady, and firebenders need to eat. A meal like this, if I were to make it for my children, would cost a week’s wages. We are not starving, but we are hungry. And everything else is harder to bear, when one is hungry.”

“I understand.” Katara was quiet for a moment, thinking, and then she stood. Chenyu leapt to her feet as well, and Katara picked up the empty bowls. “Thank you for sharing the meal with me, Chenyu, and your thoughts. All of this came from Tenzou’s, just on the corner. If you take your family there, he will feed all of you, once a week, and add it to my personal bill.”

“Your Highness,” Chenyu said, horrified, and Katara touched her arm.

“Please don’t argue. It’s hard for me to see good people struggle—you’ll save me a lot of worrying if you accept this small favor.”

Chenyu pressed her lips together until they were bloodless, but then she gave in. Her whole body relaxed as she exhaled, and a tentative smile lit up her face.

“I am a fortunate woman,” she murmured. “My children are healthy, I have seen peace in my lifetime, and between the two of us, my husband and I have met two princesses. I will never forget this kindness, my lady.”

Katara’s response stuck in her throat. She managed a goodbye, and turned back to return the bowls to the restaurant. Her heart was pounding and her head buzzed with a million thoughts at once—but her steps were light.

Chapter Text

“You are fidgeting, Your Highness.”

“These shoulder things are really uncomfortable,” Katara muttered. “My back is already sore.”

“They are traditional,” Jingyi said, as if that were the beginning and end of it.

Katara sighed. She tried to avoid wearing the traditional robes—they were heavy and uncomfortable and just plain boring compared to the other beautiful silks in her closet. But this was her first solo meeting as Fire Princess, and she thought it was best to look the part. So she wore the boring robes, tied her hair in a simple topknot with the crown pin, and even asked for the full tea set so she could prepare it herself.

The only thing she had not done, despite Jingyi’s pointed suggestion, was invite Iroh or Zuko to join her. Iroh was still buried in negotiations with the Earth Kingdom, and Zuko—well, if he hadn’t chosen to make this a priority, she didn’t want to waste energy convincing him and the man she was meeting with. She had an idea, and the authority to make it happen, and she wanted to do this on her own.

“Princess Katara,” the porter said with a bow. “Taro Kenzou is here to speak with you.”

“Thank you. Please send him in.”

She was immediately thankful for her preparations. Kenzou was not an old man—there was no grey in his hair and only faint lines on his forehead—but he gave the impression of being older, with his pallid face and the old-fashioned cut of his robes. His bronze eyes swept the drawing room—taking in the hothouse flowers arranged on the windowsill, the elaborate porcelain tea set and sweets plate, Jingyi and Katara with their ankles crossed and legs precisely folded—and seemed to bestow grudging approval. He considered Katara for slightly too long before he bowed, but she decided she was willing to forgive that, if the rest of the meeting went well.

“Welcome,” Katara said warmly. “Thank you so much for agreeing to meet with me—please, sit.”

“Thank you, Your Highness,” he said in a dry, bland voice. “I have been to the palace before, of course. But your attention is flattering regardless.”

He sat on the low couch across from them. Katara introduced Jingyi and began to make the tea. She had brewed tea a hundred thousand times, but most often in whatever clay cooking pot they had scavenged during their travels with Aang. She still found the precise Fire Nation ritual challenging, and her attendant directed her with a few strategic coughs whenever she hesitated. The resulting brew was drinkable.

“So, Master Kenzou,” Katara said when the proper compliments were paid and graciously accepted, and she could set her cup down. “The reason I asked you here is because I have been looking for ways to help the poor people of this city, many of whom are veterans or widows and orphans, struggling to adjust to the peace. One of the major problems is the price of food. It’s far too high.”

“I agree,” Kenzou said immediately. “The Fire Lord’s timeline for releasing the colonies is absurd. He is moving much too quickly.”

Katara was startled into silence, and the man helped himself to a tea cake. She managed a weak smile.

“Well, I don’t know if I agree with you there.”

“It’s the truth. This peace is putting tremendous stress on the markets—colonies that have belonged to the Fire Nation for eighty, ninety years cannot be abandoned without wreaking havoc on businesses. A gradual seven-year plan would be much more sensible.”

“It is a very delicate situation,” Jingyi said softly. “I am sure the Fire Lord appreciates the wise counsel he has received from all angles.”

Katara kept her smile plastered to her face with considerable effort. She cleared her throat.

“Master Kenzou, I looked into the records and found that you are currently the largest supplier of grains and vegetables in the mainland region. Your prices are… high.”

Had she been asked, she would have said that Kenzou was already frowning, but evidently that was his normal expression. At her words, an acute frown creased his face.

“Managing such a large number of farms is an expensive venture, Your Highness.”

“Of course, and I am sympathetic,” Katara lied in a soothing voice. “But the cost of food in the city is four times higher in the city than the country—”

“Transportation costs.”

“And twice what it is for the royal household.”

“I am a patriot, madam,” Kenzou said coldly. “I offer a discount to the royal family out of the goodness of my heart.”

“For which they are deeply grateful,” Jingyi interrupted. A lady must have more in common with a delicate stream than a squawking parrot, Katara thought. “The Kenzou family is well-known for its generosity, and certainly no one could doubt the strength of your connection to the palace.”

“Yes,” Katara said. She sipped her tepid tea. “We have relied on your assistance for many years. All I am suggesting is that you consider lowering your prices, or at least—”

Speak with the Minister of Agriculture, she was going to say, so that the government didn’t waste time coming up with plan after plan that the nobility would reject at half a glance. But she didn’t get to say any of that, because Kenzou’s frown turned into a sneer, and he set his cup down with such force, he almost cracked the porcelain.

“This has gone from a pointless meeting to an absurd one,” he said in a voice dripping with contempt. Katara gaped at him.

“Excuse me?”

“My family has served the Fire Nation for three hundred years, and now you ask us to beggar ourselves for the Fire Lord’s naivete?”

“Your hair clip is expensive enough to feed a poor family for three months,” Katara snapped.

“Your Highness,” Jingyi hissed.

“So could yours, girl.”

“Master Kenzou!”

“At least I’m trying to help them! You’re just being selfish!”

“I will not sit here and be insulted by a child two days from the ice caps,” Kenzou barked. He stood to his full height and Katara jumped up, balling her hands in fists.

“Fine! Then I won’t insult you by offering my money anymore, either. Your contract with the palace is already paid through the end of the month—after that, consider it canceled.”

“Very well, madam,” Kenzou said disdainfully, and he stormed out of the room before Katara could summon a water whip to wash that smug look off his face.

She stood still for a moment, panting like she’d just run a mile, with her fingernails gouging marks into her palms.

“Your Highness,” Jingyi said faintly. “That was… perhaps unwise.”

“I’ll fix it,” Katara said shortly. “Shui can get us fruit, and we can… I can… I’ll fix it.”

After she found a private room to release the angry, humiliated tears that were clawing at the back of her throat. And after she got out of these stupid robes.

The next morning, Katara found herself in the breakfast room before Zuko for the first time ever. The reason became apparent very quickly—she poured herself a nice cup of tea and was just starting to eat when the door burst open.

“I just had a talk with the kitchens—you canceled our grocery supplier?” he demanded. Katara jumped, then crossed her arms and tilted her chin up.

“Good morning to you, too,” she said. “I’m going to find a new supplier. That’s my project for today.”

“No, you won’t! Taro Kenzou is the only farmer—”

“He is not a farmer. He owns three houses and a luxury steamer.”

“He’s the only farm owner in the area capable of supplying enough food to a large urban population. Every other supplier near the Caldera is too small.”

“Which is how he gets away with starving people,” Katara said. She jumped to her feet and slammed her hands on the table. “He sets the prices for the entire city, because if any of the smaller farmers try to lower prices, they get mobbed! That’s if he hasn’t run them out of business already! He’s a terrible person. He charges the common people ridiculous prices—twice as much as what he charges the crown. They can’t afford that!”

We can’t afford that!” Zuko countered. “He gives the crown a bulk discount because we buy food for the palace, the poorhouses, and all domestic military bases, which is a lot more than your average shopper at the market. And no one will want to give us a good rate if you keep breaking contracts. You don’t know anything about running a country, so don’t pretend like you do!”

Katara had been taking her household management lessons for months. She had an unholy amount of figures in her head—the royal household’s budget, the Caldera’s budget, the military budget. She unleashed this hailstorm of statistics on him to point out that yes, she actually did know what they could afford, and was viciously pleased at the look on his face.

It didn’t last.

“We’re about to launch a huge project to redirect the military’s budget to convert factories and steamships to peacetime use and hire staff for a flight of balloons,” he said coldly. “My uncle is announcing it this afternoon. So all of that military budget you’re counting on, it’s already gone. If our food costs doubled, you would need to fire staff at the palace or cut the budget for things like city guards and poorhouses, and see how many people will thank you for that.”

This was news to her. Katara felt her cheeks get hot, but she wasn’t ready to back down just yet.

“Then I’ll talk to other suppliers and find something that works. Men like Kenzou are the reason crime is up and the poorhouses are crowded in the first place!”

“And they’ll be a lot more crowded if he takes his business out of the Caldera and all his employees lose their jobs.”

“You can’t just let them hold the country hostage!”

“The archipelago only produces 23% of its own food!” Zuko shouted, brandishing his arm, and for half a second it was funny. It was funny that the guy who used to shout about capturing the Avatar was getting worked up over agriculture, and if Katara was in a better mood, she’d appreciate it. “The rest comes from the Earth Kingdom colonies, which we’re giving up, so prices are going to go up whether we want them to or not, and if men like Kenzou don’t see farming as a valuable investment, people are going to starve! Not people like him, who have money and options, but the common people who can’t keep up with it already. Don’t pretend you were thinking of them—if you had, you would have renegotiated the contract, not broken it. You did it for your own ego.”

“That is completely—how did you—”

“Your attendant told me what he said.” Zuko crossed his arms. “If he was out of line, you could have just ended the meeting. Instead you lost your temper.”

“My temper?” Katara said, almost a shriek. “That’s rich coming from someone who goes up like a firework every other day!”

It was a weak response. It wasn’t a real response at all—Katara knew it and Zuko knew it. He raised an eyebrow. She stormed off.

Katara spent most of the morning with the steward as he gently, patiently explained all the reasons why Zuko was right.

She sent off a message into the Caldera, and then she went to a formal lunch, where Iroh’s Chief Minister announced the new economic project Zuko had told her about. She tried not to look at him for most of the meal—tried not to look at anyone, in fact, to nurse her wounded pride. But as the crowd of attendees left the dining hall and began to disperse, she grabbed Zuko’s arm and yanked him into a side room—which turned out to be the banquet hall she had yet to use, with the big windows. It was a gloomy day, and the view was gray as far as the eye could see.

“Hey!”

“You were right.”

“What? I mean—yeah, I know I was right!”

She crossed her arms.

“Well, I’ve scheduled a meeting with Kenzou to apologize and try to get the contract back, so will you help me or not?” she asked in a rush of words.

“Why should I clean up your mess?”

“Because it’s the right thing to do. Because he’s not going to give me the same rate after I’ve insulted him, but he might listen to you. Please?”

“Fine. But you’ll let me take the lead, right?”

“Yes.”

“And don’t grab me like that again.”

“Fine! Then you stop ordering me around—and sending other people to do it for you!”

“I’m not going to just drop everything I’m doing and go searching for you all over the city when I need to talk to you! Besides, this is different. You actually surprised me—I could have burned you accidentally!”

“It’s not my fault you don’t have control over your bending.”

“I have—”

“Stop!” Katara ran a hand through her hair and took a deep breath. “Truce. We need to go have this meeting, and fix it, and just—not argue for two hours. Do you think you could do that?”

I can, can you?”

“He’ll be here in half an hour. That study by the library, with the screen with the giant crane on it.”

“They all have crane screens.”

“It’s the one with the one giant crane, not all the little ones—forget it. You can figure it out.”

Katara stomped out of the room and went straight to the nearest courtyard. There was a small fountain there, and she froze it and unfroze it and made a few unflattering ice statues to calm herself down. Then she went to the study where she had scheduled the meeting. No tea this time, no fancy flowers—just business. Zuko was already there, and they waited in silence until a porter knocked on the door and introduced Kenzou.

He looked even grumpier than the day before, but at the sight of Katara, his lips twitched into the faintest smirk.

“Princess Katara.” He bowed. “Prince Zuko.”

“Good to see you, sir.”

“Indeed. It’s been a long time—years, in fact.”

“Yes,” Zuko said, although Katara saw the knot in his throat bob as he swallowed, and she guessed that meant they hadn’t met since Zuko’s banishment. But he kept his temper—he simply sat down and looked at her.

She thought of Chenyu and her battered sign and the way her eyes shone when she talked about her children.

“I apologize for how I spoke in our last meeting,” she said. The words were stiff and formal, but at least they weren’t coming out through gritted teeth. “I mean you no disrespect. Your family’s business has been an honored partner of the royal household for many years, and I humbly request that you consider resuming that partnership.”

Kenzou looked down on her with his brittle bronze eyes and she wanted to call the whole thing off. She lowered her gaze. Let him think it was respect. Really, it was because she would start yelling if she had to look him in the eye any longer.

“Naturally, we cannot abide by the terms of the original contract,” he said in a cold voice. “They were the result of a longstanding trust between our two parties, and that must be reestablished before we can extend the same courtesy.”

“We understand,” said Zuko. Katara had not been addressed.

There was some back-and-forth negotiating, and they settled on a 30% increase in price. It could have been much worse, Katara reminded herself, but inside she was boiling. When it was finished, all three stood, and Kenzou looked at her again for the first time since her apology.

“I trust this will not happen again,” he sneered. “The Fire Nation takes contracts seriously, and we have no patience for outsiders or amateurs interfering in our business.”

“It won’t happen again,” Zuko said.

“Indeed.”

They all jumped and whirled around to find the Fire Lord himself at the door—Katara hadn’t even heard it open. Iroh’s hands were folded in his sleeves and his expression was calm, but his eyes were slightly narrowed.

“Fire Lord Iroh!” Kenzou exclaimed. He bowed deeply.

“You need not worry, Master Kenzou. The duty of tending to economic matters remains with the royal family… as it always has.”

The words lingered in the pause that followed, and Kenzou turned red. Iroh looked at Katara and smiled.

“Princess Katara may not be as familiar with Fire Nation customs as us old-timers, but politics has not yet made her cynical, and that can be a very good thing! I believe we should all try to emulate her generous spirit. For example…” He turned the draft of their new contract towards him and scanned the document. “I see your costs will increase for the palace by 30%.”

“I am afraid I cannot budge on that, my lord,” Kenzou said firmly.

“Not at all, not at all. But perhaps you will consider passing on the discount to your other customers. By, say, 15%?”

“I will consider it,” Kenzou said. He was positively green with ire, but he could hardly say no.

“Excellent! The crown will look favorably on those who do their part in these challenging times. Don’t you agree, Princess Katara?”

“Yes,” Katara said, unable to stop the growing smile on her face. “Your service to the nation would be greatly admired, sir.”

Kenzou was forced to bow to her before he left. As soon as the door closed, though, Iroh turned on his nephew, anger plain on his face.

“Prince Zuko, explain yourself!”

“I didn’t do anything!” Zuko spluttered. “I fixed it—it was Katara’s fault!”

“And so you allow that man to speak to her with such disrespect? It is shameful!”

“I insulted him first,” Katara admitted. She doesn’t know why she was defending Zuko, except that it was the truth, and she felt like she was intruding on something private, seeing them argue. “I know he’s a jerk, but we didn’t want to make him angry.”

Iroh waved his hand.

“Humility is a valuable trait for any leader, but you must always take care not to demean yourself. And both of you must understand that you are no longer rivals, or enemies, but a family.” His gaze landed on Zuko. “A man who dishonors his wife dishonors himself threefold!”

“I understand,” Zuko said in a cutting voice. “Thank you for your wisdom, Fire Lord Iroh.”

He stormed out of the room, red up to the tips of his ears, and Katara stared after him in confusion. She had noticed, in the past few weeks, that Azula spoke to their uncle more, and more pleasantly, than Zuko, but there was real malice here that she hadn’t seen before. She thought of Iroh’s letter, his assurance that his nephew was a kind, loving boy. Where did this come from?”

She looked at the Fire Lord. He sighed, then turned to her and inclined his head.

“Princess Katara, would you care to join me for a cup of tea?”

She was curious, so she agreed. They went to a large sitting room with windows and paper screens painted with lotuses, and knelt on soft velvet cushions. The low table before them was spread with the tea things, all in their proper place. Iroh’s valet offered to prepare the tea, but didn’t seem surprised when Iroh declined his help. The difference between Katara’s hesitant moves the day before and the Fire Lord’s calm expertise was like night and day. He began by placing the brewing pot on top of a small tray, and then a strainer on top of the pot. He opened a tin and stirred the tea leaves gently with a small wooden spoon—and held it out so Katara could inhale the delicate aroma—before scooping them into the strainer. Next, he placed the kettle of water in his open palm and heated it until steam rose from the spout.

“In some schools of tea-making, this would be a grave rudeness,” he told her with a serious voice but twinkling eyes. “It would be considered showing off—and after all, whether or not one is a firebender has very little to do with one’s tea-brewing abilities. But the last time I had a stove in this room, a stray spark singed the carpet, and I was scolded most severely.”

Katara highly doubted that, but she accepted it with a smile. Iroh poured the water over the strainer and set the kettle aside. The pot was very full, and when he placed the lid over it, weak tea spilled over the lip. Iroh let out a deep, content sigh, and they waited. There was no timer, but the tea, when he poured it, was perfect.

“You did a very noble thing,” he said. “In both confronting Kenzou, and in admitting your error.”

“I don’t feel like I helped at all,” Katara admitted.

“I understand. When I was a prince, I often felt like my contributions to the Fire Nation were… ineffective. I tell you this in confidence: for all the destruction that the Fire Nation caused over the last hundred years, the war was, frankly, getting to be embarrassing. The things I did for the honor of my nation—and true victory always beyond my grasp! And then I lost my son in the Siege of Ba Sing Se, and… it all began to seem even more pointless than before. It was this realization that led me to the Order of the White Lotus, and the cause of peace.”

He heaved a heavy sigh.

“But that is all the past now. I merely meant to point out that sometimes our actions can have consequences we do not expect. You showed compassion, courage, humility, and thoughtfulness in these last few days, and those tools will serve you well in the future, even if you do not yet know how to wield them to their full effectiveness.”

Katara felt a blush stain her cheeks and a warmth bloom in her belly that had nothing to do with tea. She ducked her head in acknowledgment of his words and took another sip.

“Fire Lord Iroh—” she began.

“You may call me Uncle, you know,” he said with an indulgent smile.

“Thank you,” Katara said, smiling hesitantly in return. “I think my attendant would object.”

“Ah! Jingyi is an admirable woman, but she can be a bit of a stickler for precedence. I have never been so formal.”

“You always call Zuko Prince Zuko,” Katara pointed out.

“My nephew is a complicated young man,” Iroh responded gravely. “I find it helps for him to be reminded of his position.”

Katara nodded. She brought her legs against her body a little tighter and clutched her tea with both hands. She wondered how much the palace knew about her marriage, and how much had gotten back to Iroh. The passage between her bedroom and Zuko’s was supposed to be private, but with the way they acted around each other in public, she couldn’t imagine anyone thought they were lovers. They tried not to fight too much where other people could see them, but sometimes it just couldn’t be helped.

She was in a difficult position. She liked Iroh, and Iroh (somehow) liked Zuko, and she needed to find a way to say “how can you stand him?” without admitting that she couldn’t.

“Has he always been… so complicated?” she tried, and Iroh’s smile took on a particular shade of understanding.

“Ah.” He set his teacup down. “Yes and no.”

Katara thought he would continue, but silence reigned between them for more than a minute.

“I thought the two of you were close,” she prompted.

“Yes, we were.” Iroh sighed. “And then I killed his father.”

Oh.

“But—but that wasn’t—” Your fault, she was going to say, except it was. “But you had to. Ozai was a terrible person. He was steamrolling over the Earth Kingdom and you stopped him. Zuko believes in the peace, doesn’t he?”

“He does, and it is true that my brother was not a kind man—nor was he a particularly loving father. But perhaps that is what makes it more difficult. Zuko spent many, many years trying to earn his father’s affection. Now that goal is beyond his reach, and I was the one who snatched it away.”

Katara considered this for a moment. She really didn’t know much about Zuko, she realized, beyond his family tree (one of the first things Jingyi made her learn) and his tempernment. She wondered what his father was like to live with—certainly he must have been very different from her father.

“Is it true that he was banished?” she asked.

“Yes. About three years before we reached the South Pole.”

“But he must have been—fourteen?”

“Thirteen.”

“Why? What happened?”

Iroh looked up at her, and the dancing light in his amber eyes was gone. He took a sip from his cup and set it back in the saucer with a soft clink.

“I think that is a question you should ask my nephew directly, Princess Katara.”

She already had, once. She got no answer.

“I don’t—really know how to talk to him,” she admitted, rubbing her arm.

“He is your husband.”

“That makes it harder.”

“Yes,” Iroh mused. “Forgive me—sometimes it is difficult for old men to remember what it was like being young.” He held up his cup in a toast. “But I have every confidence that you will succeed.”

Katara wished she could agree.

Chapter Text

“Why did they throw you in here?”

Zuko scratched a line in the dust with his thumb. Behind him, the Water Tribe girl was pacing.

“Oh wait, let me guess—it’s a trap. So that when Aang shows up to help me, you can finally have him in your little Fire Nation clutches! You’re a terrible person, you know that? Always following us, hunting the Avatar, trying to capture the world’s last hope for peace. But what do you care? You’re the Fire Lord’s son. Spreading war and violence and hatred is in your blood.”

“You don’t know what you’re talking about!” Zuko snapped.

“I don’t? How dare you. You have no idea what this war has done—to me, to my people! Our waterbenders were stolen and tortured, our culture is dying day by day, it’s all we can do to keep from starving, and then you showed up and started throwing bombs at us! What did we ever do to you?”

He looked over his shoulder. She had crouched down, and she was turned away from him, evidently not expecting an answer. He wanted to be angry at such disrespect, but all he could manage was exhaustion. He shouldn’t have listened to his uncle. He shouldn’t have believed things would get better. Azula was always going to be smarter than him, and people were always going to look at him with scorn, and the war was everywhere, even in Ba Sing Se.

“I don’t hate anybody,” he muttered. “I never wanted to hurt anybody.”

“Yeah, right.”

“I just wanted to go home.”

“Then why didn’t you?” she asked. She glared at him over her shoulder with blue eyes that crackled like lightning. “Why didn’t you get back on your ship and go home and leave mine alone?”

“I was banished, okay?” Now it was his turn to pace around the cave, doing his best not to look at her. He had never actually had to explain this before; everyone else had simply known. “Do you really think I wanted this? Unless I capture the Avatar, I can’t go home.”

He expected her to yell some more, but the cave was silent. Zuko’s steps slowed and then stopped. He looked back at her and found her watching him, her lips slightly pursed.

“How did they know?”

“Who?”

“Whoever banished you.”

“My father.”

“How did he know where to find Aang? How did you find us?”

“I got lucky.”

The words spilled from his mouth before he could stop them. Zuko turned away and pinched the bridge of his nose, trying to stave off a headache. Lucky, that just made him think of Azula, and that lead him to Uncle, and his guilt lodged like a stone in his stomach. He should have known Azula would come. She always did. He just hoped that Uncle had really managed to get away… he shouldn’t have to pay for Zuko’s mistakes…

“That must have been hard,” the waterbender said in a soft voice.

Zuko did a double-take, but she didn’t look like she was mocking him—she had stood, and her arms were looped around her torso defensively, but she had an open, honest face. What was her name again? He was sure he’d heard it before. Takara? Katara?

“Can I ask…?” She bit her lip. “Why were you banished?”

Zuko’s hand tightened into a fist.

“It’s none of your business,” he lashed out, and they retreated to separate corners of the cave and didn’t speak.

The waterbender turned to face him, her hair falling loose around her face, eyes as cold and sharp as ice.

“Why am I not surprised?” she asked bitterly, and they stood on opposite sides of the battlefield once more.

Chapter Text

Katara took a couple of days to consider Iroh’s advice. Part of her thought that Zuko’s actions couldn’t be justified and she didn’t even want to entertain the notion—and part of her was dying of curiosity to know what he might say. She started to talk a little more at breakfast, always about carefully neutral topics like the food or something they had covered in her literature class. She attended more of the larger public dinners and eavesdropped on his conversations with others. He was as taciturn with Fire Nation nobles as he was with her. Possibly even more so.

Funnily enough, the first major change in their relationship was entirely unforeseen. It didn’t even start with Zuko—it started with Ayako.

Katara was chatting with her maid one morning and started describing the South Pole. She told Ayako more than she had told Azula, and more cheerfully, but she got stuck when Ayako asked her what snow was like. Like ice cream, she said, but that wasn’t quite it, and the difference nagged at her. She tried to make snow that day, but produced only ice.

After a few hours of trying, Katara went to one of the main training areas in the palace. There were two—one was a private courtyard used only by nobles and the royal family, which Azula favored, and the other was a larger ground open to all the firebenders among the palace and city guard, which Zuko preferred because Xue, the Chief Firebender of the Palace Guard, was one of his childhood instructors. Katara had been avoiding both. When she wanted to waterbend, she went to the ocean or the lake by the empty Avatar’s Residence.

Today, she went to the larger training ground. It was its own separate building on the palace grounds, and she could hear the sound of sparring through the gate as she, Jingyi, and her guards approached. The grunting, the stomp of boots, the whoosh of flames made her pause—her heart was suddenly racing. She took a deep breath and pushed the gate open.

A covered hallway surrounded a large, open rectangle of packed earth. There were benches in the shade, barrels of water, and a few waiting medics with full kits. The inner space was divided in two halves. On the left, groups of firebenders moved through set forms together. Katara watched as a column, eight guards deep and ten long, moved in perfect synchronicity, and couldn’t help but admire their deadly grace. The remaining space was marked by circles on the ground, which held sparring duos. Zuko was in the far circle with Xue and a guard Katara didn’t know.

A wizened old man, with a few tufts of snow-white hair, was sitting by the door. He looked up underneath bushy eyebrows at Katara’s entrance and immediately barked something at the firebenders, who halted, turned, and bowed to her in unison. Zuko flashed an annoyed look from his dueling circle.

“Princess Katara,” the old man said in a gravelly voice that added a syllable to every word. He stood, straight-backed despite his age, and bowed. “You honor us with your presence.”

“I hope I’m not interrupting, sir,” she smiled. “I don’t suppose you’re used to having waterbenders here.”

“You would be the first in living memory.”

“Princess Katara.”

She turned and bowed to Xue, a short woman with close-cropped hair and a mottled burn scar peeking out from below her sleeve. Her face was perfectly blank—Katara suspected she was in her fifties, at least, but she didn’t even have laugh or frown lines to confirm it.

“Master Xue, good morning.”

“Good morning, princess. Are you looking for someone or do you care to train?”

“Both. I wanted to consult with Mako Shokunin, and I was told I would find him here.”

“Indeed you have.”

“At your service, madam,” the old man said with another bow, and Katara greeted him again, properly.

Xue dismissed the firebenders in the nearest dueling circle and barked out an order for water. Jingyi and the guards melted against the wall, and the firebenders resumed training. Katara and Mako knelt in the circle with a tub of water between them.

“I’ve seen some of your glass works,” Katara began. “In the market. There was a fire lily, and a glass temple. They were exquisite.”

“Thank you, Your Highness,” he replied with a crooked smile. “It is an old, old art in the Fire Nation, mostly practiced by old, old folk like me.”

“And is it true that you actually bend the glass?”

“To some extent. Bending the fire in melted glass takes time. In a typical piece, traditional glassblowing techniques are used to create the general shape, and firebending to shape the finer details that are difficult or even impossible to achieve by other means.”

“I see.” Katara considered this for a moment. “Have you ever seen snow, Master Mako?”

“I have, my lady, many years ago.”

She tried not to think of what that meant.

“I’m trying to make snow, but I’m having trouble. It’s very easy for a waterbender to change water to ice and ice to water.” She waved her hand and the tub froze; she waved again and it melted. “Ice is just solid water, so it’s simple. But snow is more complicated. It’s water plus air, and I can’t make it without getting ice. I don’t know any waterbenders who have tried to make snow, because most of them live in the poles where we don’t really need it. I thought you might have some advice, because glassbending also involves different elements.”

“Hmm.” Mako scratched his chin. His beady amber eyes were alight with curiosity and he poked at the tub of water. “Glass and fire are already present in my pieces. Bending them is a matter of bending the fire and dragging the glass along with it. It is a very slow, steady process—like waterbending with fire.” He smiled. “It seems like your problem is getting air into the water.”

“Yes.” Katara rested her chin in her hand. “I could do it if I had an airbender’s help. Aang and I once bent clouds together.”

“Ah! That is interesting. Tell me, princess, can you turn water into steam?”

“No,” Katara said, but she brightened. “I can’t make it that hot—but I can turn it into fog!”

She lifted her hand and a tiny cloud rose above the water. When she squeezed her fist, it hardened into a cluster of snowflakes, and Katara was momentarily delighted. Then she tried to compact it into a snowball, and it smashed together and hardened to chips of ice.

This, Mako said, was like glassbending. She needed to move the water slowly and deliberately, so that it pulled the air with it instead of collapsing. He gave her some tips and left her on her own to practice.

Meanwhile, the group training finished and the firebenders retreated to the benches that lined the walls to rest, stretch, drink water. Some watched Katara, but most watched Zuko. There was a particular form Xue was trying to teach him, and after a while she dismissed the other firebender and stepped in to train with him herself. It was an advanced technique, beyond the common guard, and there were occasional murmurs of admiration.

Katara wasn’t watching, but she could tell Zuko was getting frustrated, because he was grunting and growling and making all kinds of loud distracting noises that just got louder and louder. She spent a full two minutes condensing a small cloud of snowflakes until they were almost touching, and she was convinced that this time she’d gotten it when Zuko roared like a komodo rhino and each snowflake cracked into tiny shards of ice.

“Are you giving birth over there?” Katara demanded furiously. There was a hoot of laughter, quickly smothered, from some of the guards. She stood and whipped around to face him, and Zuko turned red.

“I’m firebending. Sorry for disturbing your little winter wonderland, but fire was the element of power.”

“Oh, and anger is power to you, is it?”

“Yes!”

“Why am I not surprised?” She crossed her arms and congratulated herself on not sticking her tongue out at him.

“What would you know about it, anyway?”

“Gee, I don’t know,” she said, widening her eyes and fluttering her eyelashes. “It’s just that one of us is a master bender and the child of a powerful, much-loved ruler, while the other—”

She was interrupted by a snarl as Zuko stalked towards her.

“You want to go?” he demanded.

The water from the tub was already rushing towards Katara’s hands when a horrified Jingyi shrieked “Prince Zuko!”

They both turned to stare at her aghast face.

“You can’t fight your wife!”

Zuko glared at her. Katara smiled sweetly.

“It wouldn’t be much of a fight.”

“Clear the field,” he shouted without looking away. “And bring more water for the lady.”

The last few guards lingering in the courtyard hastened away. Four others started carrying over two of the large barrels of water and placed them on either side of the sparring circle.

“Xue, you’ll judge,” Zuko ordered.

Katara stripped off her heavy outerskirt and her jacket with its long, bell-shaped sleeves. Xue looked at her appraisingly.

“Of course, Prince Zuko… although I’m not sure how. Usually a fire duel goes to the first burn, but in this case…”

“How about I win if I knock you out?” Katara suggested to Zuko. “You know. Again.

“And you lose if you run away. Like always,” he countered. “I’d say until I incapacitated you, but there are no trees here, so—”

“There are plenty of people for you to hit in the back with lightning—” Katara shouted, her temper flaring out of control.

“Hey, that wasn’t even me!”

“I don’t care who it was, you arrogant a—”

Xue coughed.

Katara realized very suddenly that she and Zuko were glaring at each other, red in the face, two inches apart, with the entire courtyard staring at them in petrified silence. Zuko’s fists were smoking. The water in the barrels was not only frozen, but cracking.

“Perhaps this may be a good time to mention that, traditionally, husbands and wives are not permitted to fight in an agni kai,” Xue murmured.

Zuko inhaled and exhaled slowly, yellow eyes flashing.

“This isn’t an agni kai,” he said, only gritting his teeth a little. “It’s just a training duel.”

“Even so, in marriage it’s easy for tempers to run too hot—”

“We’re fine,” Zuko snapped. “We’re just—teasing. Right, sweetheart?”

Katara swallowed the words she wanted to spit at him.

“Yeah. Teasing.”

Xue looked between them, utterly unconvinced.

“Very well.” She stepped back to the edge of the circle. Katara and Zuko crossed forearms. “First burn or first blood. Ready.”

They each took three steps back.

“Begin!”

Unsurprisingly, Zuko began the match by punching as many fireballs as possible— s he ever going to try something new? she thought disdainfully. Instead of wasting effort trying to absorb each one, Katara called the water from the barrels towards her in a solid wall of ice. Then, quick as lightning, she drew a smaller whip to pushed Zuko off-balance. He was knocked back a few feet, but he managed to stay upright, and he backhanded a long tongue of fire that lashed at her head.

Katara ducked, and in the same movement pushed the water so it hit Zuko low and carried him up into the air. There was a murmur from the crowd as the ice froze. Zuko bared his teeth, and Katara smirked. She’d gotten him with that move before, and she knew the reminder grated on him.

It didn’t hold him for long. Zuko breathed fire and melted the ice encasing him, then slid down the ice slide and suddenly they were battling in close quarters. It was a good fight, as intense as any they had ever fought—Katara hadn’t faced such a challenge in months. She was more powerful than the last time she had faced him, but she hadn’t had to move this quickly in a long time, and as the match drew on, Zuko noticed and used that to his advantage.

The first moment Katara realized she might be in danger was when Zuko began drawing a circle around her, forcing her to continuously turn to keep him in her sight. She was keeping up with him, but she would leave herself too exposed if she made any of the slower, grander gestures that called forth more powerful waves. She tracked him in a complete circle twice, without slowing, and then Zuko aimed a fireball directly at her feet.

She stumbled. He smirked.

“You can always yield,” he suggested.

Katara growled and twisted her feet. She couldn’t beat him at this game—so she refused to play. You can’t knock me down, she thought as the water beneath her became ice, climbing up her legs and anchoring her to the ground. Zuko’s eyes widened.

“So can you,” she said.

He hesitated for just a moment, and that was all Katara needed. She yanked with one arm and then the other, winding in a tight circle, and a cyclone emerged. Zuko tried to step back but the water caught him—he sliced a gap but the fire didn’t reach Katara and her arms didn’t falter. The cyclone tightened around Zuko until he lost his balance and fell heavily to the ground. He was dizzy and disoriented, and that gave Katara a precious few seconds to press her advantage.

She broke free of the ice binding her and froze Zuko in place instead. She advanced with her arms already in position for a water whip. First blood—a water whip to the cheek would bleed enough to count, but it wouldn’t hurt much and it would heal quickly.

But something stopped her. Zuko met her eyes sullenly, waiting for the blow, and Katara wondered why her arms didn’t want to move… until he glanced away and presented her with his cheek. His unscarred cheek.

Everyone was watching. Katara lowered her hands half an inch.

“Do you yield?” she asked quietly. Zuko jerked his head and stared at her. He didn’t look like he believed his own ears, so she repeated the question again.

“Yes.” He swallowed and raised his voice. “I yield.”

There was a modest round of applause from the watching crowd. Katara freed Zuko from the ice and offered a hand helping him up. (She could have offered to bend the water out of his clothes, too, but she wasn’t above savoring her victory with a little pettiness.)

Zuko was still staring at her. She couldn’t make out the expression on his face—not anger, not quite confusion. Curiosity, maybe. She dropped her gaze to the ground and bowed. He did the same.

“That was an impressive display,” Xue said, with something approaching a smile. “Prince Zuko, it seems like you have an easier time using the Striking Dragon form when under pressure. We will keep that in mind for the future. Princess Katara… forgive me, Your Highness—I can’t offer much in the way of specific praise for a waterbender, but believe me, you have earned it.”

“Thank you, Xue,” Katara said with a smile. “If you ever meet Master Pakku of the Northern Water Tribe, I’d appreciate you passing that on. He’s been taking on some new students recently, and I wouldn’t want him to forget his favorite.”

“Of course, Your Highness,” Xue snorted.

“We’re done for today,” Zuko said.

“Yes, Prince Zuko.”

He walked out the door, followed by his valet and his guards. Katara stood and watched him for a moment, until Jingyi approached her and offered her jacket. She helped Katara dress and said a few things about modesty and the destructive power of anger and the keys to a successful marriage. Katara wasn’t listening.

She paused at the door to say goodbye to Mako. His craggy face lifted in a smile.

“Slow and steady, my lady,” he murmured.

“It was wrong of Azula to hit your friend in the back.”

It was the following morning, and Katara was still half-asleep as she entered the dining room for breakfast. She stopped in the middle of a yawn and blinked quizzically at the blurry form of her husband standing behind the breakfast table, staring at the tile just below her feet.

“What?”

“She shouldn’t have done that. It wasn’t an honorable way to fight. And it was wrong of me to tie you to a tree, too, when really I probably could have just tied your hands, and I definitely shouldn’t have used your mother’s heirloom against you, or driven you away with firebending when you offered to heal my uncle. I probably should have been more careful in the South Pole, too, since I knew there were noncombatant women and children and the elderly there.”

Katara stared at him. His gaze rose to meet hers.

“Well?” he said impatiently.

“Well, what? What are you doing?”

“I’m apologizing!”

“For a few very specific things.”

“Yeah, for the things I feel guilty about!”

Katara crossed her arms and scowled.

“I notice ‘chasing us halfway around the world’ doesn’t make the cut.”

“Look.” Zuko pinched the bridge of his nose. “I had to chase the Avatar, okay? It was that or give up on ever going home, and I couldn’t do that. You have to understand that, right? I get why you hate me for it, but it’s not like I had a whole lot of options. And sometimes I was an honorable opponent, but there were some things I did that definitely weren’t okay and I’m trying to apologize for those!”

“Okay,” Katara said slowly. She crossed to the table and sat down across from him. “Then, I guess I accept.”

Zuko sat down. He had evidently dismissed the server this morning, so Katara poured her own tea—and then mutely reached across the table to pour Zuko’s cup, too. He was back to avoiding her gaze, like a skittish ostrich-horse.

“Why now?” she asked.

“Yesterday… you could have hurt me, but you chose not to. That’s—not something that usually happens here. I’m not used to—” He cleared his throat. “—trusting people. And I realized I’ve given you a lot of reasons not to trust me. So—I’m sorry.”

She peered at Zuko over the rim of the cup.

“I accept your apology,” she said again, more deliberately. His shoulders slumped in relief, and he glanced at her with a smile. She didn’t see him smile much—this was a small one, like the first curve of the sun clearing the horizon. She found herself smiling back as she filled her plate. “That was fun, yesterday.”

“Yeah, it was. I can’t believe you beat me that quickly.”

“I can,” she smirked.

“Do you… want to train, after breakfast? Not like yesterday,” he said hastily. “I was just going to go to the private yard and run through some of my firebending forms. You could come with me and practice your waterbending. There’s water. We can bond, or something.”

“Okay.”

They ate in a silence as complete as any other morning they had spent together, but this one seemed steeped in anticipation. Towards the end of the meal, Zuko cleared his throat again.

“Do you want to hear a tea joke?”

“Sure.”

“Well… I can’t remember how it starts, but the punchline is ‘leaf me alone—I’m bushed!’”

The room was quiet. Behind her, Li Xen gave a very suspicious-sounding cough, and Zuko deflated. Katara couldn’t help it—she giggled. Zuko looked cheered as he resumed eating, and she was kind enough to let him think she was laughing at the joke, rather than her old enemy’s momentary resemblance to a sad armadillo-sloth.

When the meal ended and they began the short walk to the private training ground, Katara began to second-guess her agreement. She had said yes to preserve their tentative truce, but now the thought of turning her back to him while he was firebending a foot away made her skin crawl.

The royals’ yard was similar to the main training yard—packed earth instead of stone, with a covered walkway around the edges and two large water troughs. The main difference was that it was smaller and more private; they left their guards at the entrance, and there was no on-call medic waiting for them. All told, the yard was actual peaceful. Katara took a deep breath and closed her eyes. The last dregs of winter still lingered in the air, but it was almost reassuring. It was a mild cold, and even in her light Fire Nation clothing, it was nothing more than a playful nip at her skin.

Katara began to walk through the first waterbending forms without opening her eyes. She had learned these as a very small child, and there was comfort in them; they didn’t involve much actual water, but they helped her feel the way her body moved, the seamless passage through positive, negative, and neutral jing. She turned with the form and found Zuko moving through his firebending kata beside her. He was quiet and focused, and the flame wasn’t so much a threat as a pleasant warmth in the winter air.

They trained in silence for almost ten minutes, and Katara got lost in her own mind. She didn’t notice when Zuko stopped moving; she only knew that at some point she turned to find him standing still and staring at her intently. Her heart stopped.

“You’re not trying to bond ,” she said furiously. “You’re trying to learn how to defeat a waterbender!”

She yanked a column of water from the cache and knocked him back, despite his protests.

“I’m not! I’m not, I swear!” He sat up and pushed his damp hair out of his face. “I was just interested in your feet!”

Katara was in the middle of freezing him to the ground, but she let her arms fall.

“You were… interested… in my feet,” she repeated slowly.

“Yeah.” Zuko hastened to stand. “Yesterday, when we were sparring, I tried to break your root—that’s the trick to beating a firebender, because we need to have a strong stance.”

“Well, duh,” Katara said with a frown. “That’s why I iced myself to the ground.”

“Yeah, and I didn’t expect that. I don’t think that would work for a firebender—well, obviously we can’t use our element to fix ourselves in one place, but even if we could, I don’t think it would help.”

“Why not?” she asked, curious despite herself.

“I’m trying to figure that out. We have more kicks in our bending, but it’s not just that, it’s something else.”

“Here, take your stance.”

Katara pulled the water up and wrapped it around both their ankles. She and Zuko each took the proper stance, and then she froze the water to ice. She moved through her first form again, and Zuko moved through his. Hardly anything changed in Katara’s movements, but Zuko kept straining against the ice, and the bursts of fire he produced seemed less powerful than before.

“I’ve got it,” Katara said. “It’s because the fire is coming from inside of you. It takes a burst of chi to produce it—like striking spark rocks together. You need both movement and force, and it begins with you. If I want real power, I need a river, not a bucket.” She pulled the water in a gentle circular motion. “I can’t hold the water in front of me and push and expect that to work. I need to build momentum, to help the river find its path—so it’s more important for me to be stable and steady than to be jumping all over the place.”

“I see.”

Zuko punched the air and produced a modest burst of flame. Katara drew the ice back and he repeated the motion, this time taking a firm step forward—and the fire was twice as strong. He grinned and repeated the movement twice, and on the second time Katara thought about what he said, about breaking an opponent’s root, and turned the wet tiles to ice. Zuko’s foot came down on it and he slipped, flailing his arms.

“Wo-oah!”

She laughed—she couldn’t help herself—and she was still laughing when Zuko hit the ground and rolled up onto his hands, kicking spouts of flame at her frozen ankles. The ice melted and she stumbled back, then fell. No one had ever taught her how to fight from the ground, and before she could recover, Zuko was standing over her with his fist six inches from her throat.

She should have been angry. They stared at each other, breathing heavily, and at the same moment their faces split into identical grins. Zuko opened his hand, and she grasped his forearm and let him help her to her feet.

“First one down loses?” she asked as she bent the water off the ground and back into the cache.

“For a count of three?” he suggested, lifting his hands.

“You’re on.”

That night, she accepted an invitation to dine with Iroh privately in his apartments. He showed her a glass statue Mako made for him—a beautiful golden phoenix rising from red flames—and fussed over whether her tea was too hot or (spirits forbid) too cold.

“Rumor has it that I missed quite a match yesterday,” he said when there was a pause. His eyes twinkled. “Although I did not hear who won.”

“I did,” Katara said, incensed. Iroh smiled.

“I am not surprised. You are a bender of unique skill and strength, Princess Katara.”

“Thank you.”

“My nephew’s instruction has been somewhat fragmented, but I believe he does show promise. And the mark of a truly wise man is the ability to learn from all sources. Do you agree?”

“Yes,” she said. There was something she was missing, but she didn’t ask for clarification. She still didn’t know Iroh very well, but she got the sense that he rarely answered questions in a straightforward manner.

“Good. I suggested such to Prince Zuko, also.” He reached over and patted her hand, and Katara jumped. “I am glad to hear you are getting along better.”

Are we? Katara thought, but she didn’t put her doubts into words. Iroh’s hand was warm and large and familiar—it made her think of her father. Not many people touched her nowadays, except for Ayako and sometimes Ty Lee. And Ty Lee’s hugs were just a bit too whirlwind to be a comfort. For a moment the dull pain of homesickness sharpened.

“Speaking of which, there is a small matter in which I would appreciate your assistance, if you are willing.”

“Of course, I’d love to help. What is it?”

“I have been thinking lately of how the Fire Nation may best put your many talents to use. I know that you are still learning, but my steward has informed me that you have surpassed expectations, and he believes you are ready to take on a more active role in our politics, if you are willing. I know it can be quite boring,” he added, eyes twinkling.

Katara bit her lip and pushed noodles around in her bowl. The whole debacle with Kenzou had cowed her. It had been almost a month, and she hadn’t tried to interfere since—only thrown herself into her studies with renewed vigor. She suspected the steward was only passing along compliments because he was trying to get out of the many spontaneous, hours-long lessons she had forced him to give. ( Politely . She hadn’t actually ordered or threatened him, just… given a little royal nudge.)

“I’m… just not sure if I’m ready, Fire Lord Iroh. Uncle,” she amended at his look.

“It is better to pick a fruit before it is ripe than to let it fall to the ground.”

“But sweet fruit comes only from bitter patience.”

Iroh threw back his head and laughed.

“You see? You have already learned much from Miss Kan. Perhaps it will ease your mind if I tell you that I am thinking of shaking things up. Traditionally, the Fire Lady has more to do with domestic matters in the Fire Nation, but it occurs to me that this would be a waste of your considerable traveling experience. I would like you to join me in some of my meetings with representatives from the other nations. I know you have gotten entreaties from some of them already, and you are friendly with both Ambassador Sennik and Ambassador Asa.”

“I’ve known Asa all my life, and Sennik’s mother was my healing teacher in the North Pole—but I think they see me more as a friend than as the princess of the Fire Nation. And as for the Earth Kingdom… it’s composed of three independent city-states, six provinces, three independent islands, and huge swaths of semi-governed territory, before we even get into the problem of the colonies. How can I possibly know enough to start treating with them?”

Iroh looked puzzled. He frowned for a moment and silently counted on his fingers.

“I thought there were four independent islands and five provinces.”

“Are you forgetting the East Wind province? It used to be part of Ba Sing Se province, before the peninsula merged with East Wind Island.”

“Ahh, that does explain a very confusing meeting I had last week. And now I am even more convinced that you are ready. I beg of you, Princess Katara. Will you turn on an old man who needs your help?”

He adopted a feeble voice that would fool no one, and Katara couldn’t help but relent. He had chosen his words very carefully—she knew she couldn’t say no.

Chapter Text

The next few weeks passed quickly. Winter melted into spring, and with it, Katara’s feelings towards her new homeland began to improve. She and Zuko could now go four days in a row without shouting at each other; they returned to the public training grounds occasionally to show off this newfound civility, as well as their daily-more-impressive bending. The spring rains had begun, which meant she was surrounded by water all the time, and finally got to attend a storm-watching party. And she was attending more diplomatic meetings, per Iroh’s suggestion.

At first she had been nervous, and she remained mostly silent. But silence was not in her nature. It had started with something small—a Fire Nation official who named the Pang family as the wealthiest in Gaoling. Katara corrected him, and the meeting moved on, but that was the first crack in the dam, and by the next day, she was commenting on the proceedings as frequently as anyone else.

Most of the meetings were with the Earth Kingdom. The South Pole had made some initial agreements with the Fire Nation, but her father wanted to make more progress on reconstruction so he could get a better sense of what their needs would be before resuming negotiations. As for the Northern Water Tribe, the diplomatic party had been recalled at the end of winter, and Katara didn’t meet with them until they returned.

The meeting was held in the Fire Lord’s main audience chamber. Katara wore a set of light blue robes—cut in the Fire Nation style, but familiar enough that she hoped it would give her an advantage in the negotiations. It couldn’t hurt to remind the ambassadors where her sympathies lay. She was one of the last to arrive, and the ambassador stood when she entered and grasped her hand.

“Master Katara,” he said warmly. “Excuse me—Princess. It is good to see you again.”

“You too, Sennik. How’s your mother?”

“As steady and strong as a glacier, as always. She sends her best.”

The room was much more severe than the sitting room where Katara had met Kenzou, but even so she felt more comfortable in it. She was sitting on the dais, beside Iroh, and Sennik was not a very intimidating dignitary. He was wearing a warrior’s uniform, with a wolftooth necklace the only mark of his status, and his face naturally settled into a faint smile, like Yugoda’s. The only other Water Tribe citizen in the room was Tlinga, whose official title was deputy ambassador. Katara, knowing how the Water Tribe worked, assumed he and Sennik were ice-dodging brothers who had arm-wrestled to decide who would be first in command and who would be second. A far cry from the rigid bureaucracy of the Fire Nation, which had produced the other attendees—the Foreign Minister, the undersecretary of industry, a budgetary advisor, two minor secretaries, and three scribes.

“Ambassador Sennik,” the Fire Lord began. “I have learned that the Northern Water Tribe recently discovered oil reserves in its territory.”

“Yes, that is so.”

“And Chief Arnook plans to extract it?”

Sennik nodded.

“If I may be something of a nosy neighbor, I would urge him to be cautious in his approach. The Fire Nation has much experience in this area, and I am embarrassed to admit that our own efforts to extract resources has done much damage to the natural beauty of the earth. The North Pole is a remarkable place, and I would hate to see it so spoiled.”

“Your warning is appreciated, but unnecessary,” Sennik said in a chilly voice. “The Northern Tribe is well aware of our responsibility to our waters. But as we move out of our isolation, we must make use of our resources. Leaving the oil untouched is out of the question.”

“I understand. In that case, may I suggest that you look to the Fire Nation for some of your labor needs?”

“Our engineers have more experience in drilling and mining than any other nations’,” the undersecretary of industry interjected. “The mistakes of a fledgling operation can be dangerous, even irreversible. A Fire Nation crew can prevent those early mistakes.”

Sennik and Tlinga exchanged a glance.

“Forgive me, Fire Lord Iroh,” Tlinga said. “We are not as well-versed in these kinds of negotiations as our friends in the Earth Kingdom. It sounds to me as though you just proposed the beginning of a colony in our lands.”

“Oh no,” Katara said quickly. “That’s not at all what we’re suggesting. It wouldn’t be a large crew, and they wouldn’t be the only ones working on the project. Just enough men and women to start the program and train Water Tribe workers. I’ve actually spoken to Wei Zhen, who would be the chief engineer, and he is very interested in finding ways for waterbenders to work on rigs. He thinks they might be able to check for leaks and improve safety measures in a way that nonbenders can’t. And of course none of the crew would be firebenders.”

The two Water Tribe men considered her. Katara tried to sit straighter and project serene confidence. You would have listened to Yue, she thought. Listen to me.

“And what does the Fire Nation hope to get out of this partnership?”

“An exclusive contract for the building of equipment,” the undersecretary said. “And a small percentage of the profits—that is all. We would also expect the Water Tribe to fund the expedition, although no doubt a reduction in the fee could be arranged.”

An intense negotiation ensued. It lasted for the better part of the afternoon. Sennik and Tlinga agreed to the contract for building equipment, but specifics had to be hammered out. Over the course of the meeting, they whittled down the Fire Nation’s share of the proceeds to almost nothing. The question of who would pay the engineers, though, took the most time. They seemed to be going in circles. It puzzled Katara, until she realized that the problem lay between Sennik and Tlinga; the former didn’t want to pay the engineers, but the latter didn’t want them to come to the North Pole at all.

Finally, Iroh called an end to the meeting. He was the only one who seemed as calm at the end as he had been at the beginning. Katara, herself, had never felt so frazzled; she decided that the Foreign Minister’s nasally voice was the most annoying sound in the world, that Tlinga was an ass who deserved a snowball down his tunic, and that Sennik (while still a fundamentally decent person) needed to have his ear pinched so he could be scolded into submission.

She was mentally working on a good rant to share with Ayako when they had dinner in Katara’s room that night, but when she stood to make her farewells, Sennik stood, too.

“Your Highness, would you like to join me and my friend for dinner this evening? It will be our pleasure to entertain a guest from our sister tribe, and my wife will be making seal-and-seaweed soup.”

Katara would have declined, except her stomach gurgled at the mere thought of seal-and-seaweed soup and would not be dissuaded. Besides, she reasoned, she would have a better opportunity to pinch Sennik’s ear in private.

She went back to her room first, to freshen up and share an abbreviated form of her rant with Ayako, and then her guards escorted her to the Water Tribes’ diplomatic housing.

Sennik’s wife was named Yura. She had decided to accompany her husband to the Fire Nation, she said, because she had heard that Fire Nation food was spicy and was concerned he wouldn’t get enough to eat while he was gone—and besides, they had no children and it would be boring to remain home alone. Katara empathized about the spiciness problem, thanked Yura for her hospitality, gushed over the Water Tribe furnishings in the house, and ate second helpings of the soup with an effusive barrage of compliments. Then she went for the kill.

“You’ve made feel so at home here,” she said with a smile. “At the meeting, earlier, too. I forgot how stubborn Water Tribe men are, even about something so obviously in their best interests!”

Tlinga snorted. He rolled his eyes and finished a cup of wine.

“You’re an optimist.”

“Sometimes, yes.”

“When it comes to politics, it is best to be a realist. Realistically, allowing a team of so-called engineers to enter the North Pole would be like playing fetch with a polar bear dog.”

“Sennik doesn’t think so,” Katara said, looking for an ally, but the older man’s face was stern.

“Sennik does think so,” he corrected her. “But I happen to believe the reward of greater resources—and more funds available for our warriors—outweighs the risk of firebenders having access to our territories.”

“It’s a small group of nonbending engineers,” Katara wheedled. “And they’re doing you a favor!”

“Army engineers, who could easily pass along information about our defensive tactics. Their access to the city itself would be heavily restricted to keep that from happening, of course.”

“We’re at peace !”

“For how long?” Tlinga asked.

His words sank like a stone in a quiet pond, and Katara fell into a stunned silence.

“You seem to have forgotten who Iroh is, Katara,” Sennik said with a grave frown. “It is not surprising—you are young. But even in your lifetime, he led the Siege of the South, the North, and Ba Sing Se.”

“Siege of the South? That’s a bit much. I was there, and it wasn’t fun, but they were trying to capture the Avatar, not conquer territory. And it was led by Zuko, not Iroh—just like the Siege of the North, which was led by Admiral Zhao. Fire Lord Iroh actually fought Zhao in that battle and defended the moon spirit.”

“Just because a man is not fool enough to kill a spirit, does not make him trustworthy. He may have fought Zhao, but first he helped him breach our walls. And what excuse do you have for Ba Sing Se?”

“No excuse. Only the knowledge that he lost his son in that battle, which is what made him contemplate peace in the first place.”

“To lose a child is a terrible thing,” Yura said softly. “But it is difficult to trust in the grief of a man who would kill his own brother.”

Katara had no response to that. She looked at Sennik and Tlinga and saw that they agreed.

“You really think the peace is going to fail?” she asked.

For the first time all day, she heard a note of uncertainty in her own voice. She sounded young, and she hated herself for it. None of them would look at her.

“You really think I would let it fail?”

“If I had a daughter, I would not have let her marry the Crown Prince of the Fire Nation,” Sennik murmured evasively. “Not under Fire Lord Iroh.”

“The boy is one thing,” Tlinga agreed. “But an old polar-dog doesn’t learn new tricks. Don’t know what Hakoda was thinking.”

He had refilled his wine glass; when he went to take another sip, it fell onto his face in a pile of slush. Whatever he had been about to say, he reconsidered when he saw Katara’s face.

“Not that—I’m sure the Chief had his reasons. Er. Sorry.”

Katara nodded her cold acceptance of his apology and glanced mournfully at the last dregs of soup in her bowl. She had completely lost her appetite.

“All right,” she said, taking a deep breath. “You don’t trust Iroh. But would Chief Arnook accept the Fire Nation’s help anyway?”

“I believe so. As long as we know that doing so won’t be filling their war coffers. We would be more comfortable if they shouldered the burden of paying for their side of the endeavor.”

“Do you trust me?”

“Within reason,” Sennik said after a stilted pause. Katara accepted that that was the best she was going to get.

“Then here it is: the Fire Nation can’t afford to pay for the engineers. We’re cash poor right now, and with the huge influx of returning colonials and veterans, the country is struggling. Half the reason Iroh wants to send engineers to the North Pole is to show the rest of the world that our industry and manufacturing can benefit everyone, so more Fire Nation citizens will be hired to work in other nations. Unemployment is high and the islands are getting crowded. Like it or not, you have to admit—no one benefits from an unstable Fire Nation.”

“I see,” Sennik said slowly. “So what do you suggest?”

“That the Northern Tribe pays the engineer’s wages and provides them with accommodations, and bills it to the Fire Nation as a long-term loan. In a few years, when things have stabilized, the loan can be repaid more easily.”

Tlinga and Sennik exchanged yet another look.

“It will still be a risk.”

“Yes.”

“We will need to discuss the details with the Fire Lord’s ministers. And Chief Arnook probably won’t give his full approval until one of us goes over it with him in person.”

“But you’ll recommend he take the deal?”

“I will. On your word, Master Katara.”

“Thank you.”

Yura put a plate of rosewater jellies on the table. Katara ate enough to be polite, but the conversation had turned formal and awkward, and her appetite did not return. When she made her farewells, she lingered at the gate of the garden, staring sightlessly out at the city. It was starting to rain, and the drops made little pip-pip-pip sounds when it hit her guards’ armor.

“Princess,” one of them said gently.

“Hm?” Katara looked around to find him holding out a waxed parasol.

“Would you like an umbrella, my lady?”

“Oh, no. Excuse me, Zhee, I wasn’t thinking.”

She lifted her hand and bent the water away from all three of them.

“Thank you, my lady.”

They began the long walk back to the palace.

Katara was still dissatisfied with the meeting the next morning, when she and Zuko met for breakfast. They had taken to having their meal outside to enjoy the warmer weather, and they ate quickly so they had more time to spar. Sometimes they had specific constraints—bend without taking more than five steps in each direction, bend only using ice (Katara) or without hands (Zuko)—and they traded victories. Sometimes it was a simple, no-holds-barred duel. Katara had never lost one of those, but they were lasting longer each day. Their last battle had gone until almost noon. Katara had won, but Zuko had been insufferably pleased with himself, and refused her challenge for a rematch at dusk. He claimed sunset was his time for prayer and meditation.

Every night? she had asked. For how long?

For as long as it takes, he had replied, and when she had pressed for details, he had just looked down his nose, as if Katara was some inelegant rube who couldn’t possibly understand the quest for enlightenment, or the concept of working hard for an end goal, or the true joy in staring at a candle or whatever.

The idea that they would like each other if they spent more time together had not borne immediate fruit.

She knew something was off about her this morning, from the moment they began. She just couldn’t stand still for long enough to summon the large, powerful moves that would knock Zuko down for good. Her attacks were as scattered as her thoughts—she darted here and there, pestering Zuko like a fly while he turned to keep her in his sights. It was still an intense duel… but at the end of it, Zuko grabbed her by the wrist and danced around her, pinning both arms behind her back.

“Got you,” he said smugly in her ear, and the strangest sense of deja vu shocked Katara into stillness.

She growled and tried to kick—a chunk of ice to the groin would give her the advantage back—but Zuko was too close. He felt the start of the movement and kicked at her ankle, and the water fell in a hopeless puddle.

“No, no, no. If this was a real fight, you’d be dead already. That means I won.”

“Fine! Let go of me!”

Zuko released her, and Katara whirled around and put her hands on her hips. He looked entirely too pleased with himself.

“Okay, the only reason you won is that I have a lot on my mind this morning.”

“Me too,” Zuko grinned, stretching his arms above his head. “My mind was full of ways to beat you.”

“I want a rematch.”

“Wow, you’re such a sore loser.”

“I am not! I just want a rematch! Tonight.”

“I can’t tonight,” he shrugged. “I’m in the city all afternoon, then staying there for dinner with the mayor, and—”

“And let me guess,” Katara said. “Then meditating.”

“Yeah.”

She rolled her eyes. Strands of hair had fallen out of her bun, and she reached up to re-tie it and turned away.

“What is it with you and meditating?” she demanded. “You’re as bad as Aang, and at least he has the excuse of being a monk. Is this something you guys stole from the Air Nomads after you killed all of them?”

She flung the words at him carelessly, but they stuck—Zuko wasn’t smiling anymore.

“You know what? I’m going to ignore that, because I’m in a good mood and you’re clearly in a bad one. But if you didn’t want to be a part of the Fire Nation, all you had to do was say no.”

“Excuse me?” she spluttered.

I didn’t attack the Air Nomads any more than you did. We’re both Fire Nation citizens and you have to accept that.”

“First of all—”

“Okay, fine, I attacked one Air Nomad, but that doesn’t count!”

“It absolutely does count! And secondly, I spent all of yesterday defending your uncle—who you don’t even talk to, by the way—”

“That has nothing to do with you!” Zuko yelled, turning red all the way up to the tips of his ears.

“Nothing to do with me? What happened to ‘oh, we’re both Fire Nation citizens, we should be getting along?’”

“Getting along doesn’t mean you get to stick your nose into everyone’s personal thoughts all the time!”

“Ugh, you are impossible!”

“And you are insufferable!”

They stormed off in different directions. No one claimed a victory that morning.

Katara moped for the rest of the day. She had lunch on one of the balconies, with only Ayako for company, and wrote a long letter home while Ayako polished her jewelry. 

Then she rested her chin on her hands and stared out at the view before her. The east side of the palace faced the city and the sea behind it, and on quiet days she could hear the occasional work-whistle or temple bell. But the west side faced a small, lush forest, nurtured by the rich volcanic soil and the Fire Nation’s frequent spring and summer rains. It was nothing like the South Pole. The leaves were a mottled mix of blue and green, more vibrant than any other plant she’d seen in her life, with the occasional glimpse of jewel-bright flowers. Monkeys chittered and birds squawked.

“What’s that sound?” she asked after a particular pretty call—a serious of low whoops that ended in a high whistle.

“A barred sparrowl, I think, Your Highness,” Ayako said absently. “Or a dove-parrot? I always get those two mixed up.”

“What about that one?”

“Hm? I didn’t hear it.”

“It had a nice rhythm.”

Ayako shrugged and placed a newly-sparkling hair pin to the side. Katara watched her work for a moment, a frown tugging at her lips.

“Ayako.”

“Yes, Your Highness?”

“Do people… talk about me?”

“You’re a princess. Of course they talk.”

“What do they say?”

“It’s just gossip, my lady,” Ayako hedged. “Don’t pay it any mind.”

“But I want to know. Do people think I’m doing a good job? Do they think of me like—like some interloper from the Water Tribe? Do they trust me?”

Ayako put down the earring she had just picked up, and folded her hands in her lap. Her eyes raked the treeline as she thought.

“Well, I mostly talk to the other servants… and some of my neighbors who work in the market… and most of them think you’re very kind, Your Highness. They’ve met you, or they’ve met someone who’s met you. They think you’re informal and maybe a tiny bit naive, and they didn’t really like the idea of a Water Tribe princess, but they like you. They believe you’re trying to help.”

“Okay,” Katara said slowly. Ayako had picked up the earring and a rag again. “What do they think about me wearing all of that when food and housing are so expensive and unemployment is so high?”

“You’re a princess, my lady,” Ayako said, again, puzzled. “I think it would be more strange if you didn’t.”

“Okay.”

“And just for peace of mind, I’ll have you know you’ll never have to worry about them hearing any mean gossip from me,” she sniffed. “ I know how to keep my mouth shut. Not like Prince Zuko’s valet.”

“What kind of gossip does he spread?” Katara asked sharply. “Do people know—”

That the door between our bedroom has been locked since the wedding, she was going to ask, and even though she snapped her mouth shut on the words, she could tell Ayako knew what she was going to ask. She snickered, and Katara scowled.

“If I were Azula, you’d get zapped for that.”

“Yes, princess. Yong doesn’t talk about anything too private. He knows he’d be fired if he did. But he tells people how the prince spends his time, what his moods are like, that kind of thing. If he said anything in his quarters after the two of you have had an argument—which doesn’t count as private, because you fight in public.”

“Point taken,” Katara mumbled.

“Is it true that Prince Zuko apologized for fighting you when he was hunting the Avatar?”

“More or less. How did you know that?”

“Yong told everyone. He said the prince practiced what he was going to say for two hours.”

“Oh no,” Katara groaned. “That almost makes me like him.”

“Aren’t you supposed to like your husband, Your Highness?”

“What would you know?” Katara said, flapping her hand. Then she paused. “You’re not married—are you?”

“No, I’m not,” Ayako laughed. “Although I have a few candidates for the position at the moment.”

“Oh, really?”

“Really.” She tossed her curtain of black hair over her shoulder. “We’ll see if any of them are serious enough to stick around until the solstice festival. I’d like to have a date this year, and if I haven’t narrowed it down by then, maybe I’ll at least get more than one gift.”

“You’ve got it all figured out.”

“Some of us need to work for our silver earrings, my lady.”

Katara rolled her eyes and drew her chair closer.

“Come on, then. I want to hear about these candidates.”

That evening, Katara had dinner with Azula and an assortment of Fire Nation ladies, chosen by Jingyi, Li, and Lo. Many of them were older, and some quite snooty, but Katara had the dubious good luck of sitting next to a woman just a year older than her, Yazhu, who seemed fundamentally kind… if a bit dumb. She had big, dark, sealcow eyes made bigger and darker by skillfully-applied makeup, and her conversation was peppered with references to her father, a former admiral.

“I like you,” she announced as the servers were clearing the table for the dessert course.

“Thank you,” Katara said, caught off guard. She had started to doze off just a tiny bit, somewhere in the catalogue of souvenirs Yazhu had bought on her family’s recent vacation to the southern Earth Kingdom. “I like you, too.”

“My father says that if we have to have a foreign Fire Lady, it’s better that it’s you, because it lets Prince Zuko save face.” She paused, and a distressed frown creased her forehead. “Oh, did that sound mean? I didn’t mean it to be mean. It’s just an expression.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Katara dismissed. “What do you mean, save face?”

“Well, you know.”

“No. I don’t.”

She was dying of curiosity, but at that moment, a server set down two bowls of coconut custard in front of them, and she was forced to share Yazhu’s attention.

“Because you’re a bender, and because you actually go to meetings and stuff. That must be so boring. But it shows Fire Lord Iroh likes him, because he could have got Prince Zuko a stupid wife. Or married you himself instead of making Prince Zuko his heir.” She ate another spoonful of custard with a happy sigh, oblivious to Katara’s horrified stare. “My father likes Prince Zuko, too. He liked the old Fire Lord, but he didn’t think he should have banished the prince.”

Katara felt her ears prick up like a panther-cat’s, but she forced herself to incline her head politely and picked up her own spoon. One of the occupational hazards of being princess was that casual acquaintances tended to stop gossiping when she got too near—which, Jingyi would have said, was proper etiquette, because ladies did not gossip, merely inform their friends of pertinent information. And Katara… well, didn’t have very many friends. Most of her pertinent information came from Ayako. Evidently Yazhu’s etiquette instruction hadn’t been as thorough as Katara’s, or else she made friends very quickly.

She wanted to press for more information, but she was conscious of the other women at the table. She took a small bite of her custard and tried to formulate a delicate way to draw out the answers she was looking for.

“Did…”

But at that moment, a cringing messenger approached her seat.

“Your Highness,” he said. “Prince Zuko has sent me to tell you he will be on the upper West Wing balcony and would like you to join him within the hour.”

An abrupt silence had fallen on the table so that everyone could eavesdrop, and there were titters, and Katara gritted her teeth. She knew he did this on purpose.

“You’d better go,” Yazhu urged, her sealcow eyes round and concerned.

“No, it’s fine. Tell Prince Zuko I am grateful for the invitation,” she said in a polite, breezy voice. “But I am afraid I must decline.”

Ty Lee giggled, then clapped a hand over her mouth. A cluster of three women, at a safe distance down the table, began to whisper. The messenger did his best to sink into the floor.

“I beg your pardon, Your Highness, but Prince Zuko said specifically that it is not a request.”

There was no sound at all this time, except for the faint rustle of silk as all of the assembled ladies looked at her face and then hastily away.

“My, my,” Azula said placidly. “This sounds very serious. We can excuse you right now, Katara, if it’s that urgent.”

Her cheeks were burning.

“How kind of you, Azula,” she choked out. “Do enjoy the rest of your evening, ladies.”

She managed to walk out of the dining room with her head held high, and then she stormed through the hallway towards the upper West Wing balcony, where she found Zuko sitting in the lotus position with four candles in front of him.

“Never do that again!”

“Yeah, I’m gonna do that again,” he said without turning around.

“You—”

“It’s not my job to chase you all over the palace,” he said curtly.

“Then you ask me to come find you,” Katara said. “You don’t order me around—especially not in front of Azula.”

“What does that matter?” he frowned, looking over his shoulder.

Katara crossed her arms and huffed. She sat down and turned her face away, although she could feel Zuko still looking at her.

“Azula is part of the reason I married you,” she admitted. “She—worries me. I mean, you did a lot of bad stuff when you were chasing us, but… Iroh said you did most of it to prove yourself to your father.”

Zuko tensed beside her, which was all the confirmation she needed.

“My father sent me to capture the Avatar,” he said stiffly. “I couldn’t come home without completing that mission.”

Katara nodded.

“Right. But you didn’t go out of your way to cause destruction or conquer territory. Azula tried to kill him. And your uncle! I don’t trust her. I think you’re willing to keep the peace, but I don’t think she is, and that’s why I don’t want her to come anywhere near the throne. If either one of us looks weak, if we look weak together, that makes Azula look like the better option.”

“I get it,” Zuko sighed. “A man who dishonors his wife dishonors himself threefold.”

“Or vice versa,” Katara mumbled. “I, um. I’m sorry. For what I said this morning, and the other day. Back then. When we were… y’know… shouting at each other in public.”

“Me too,” Zuko said. The corner of his mouth turned up slightly. “I think you might have actually scared Xue. I don’t think that’s ever happened before.”

“It was a team effort,” Katara chuckled. There was a moment of silence, except for the persistent squawking of birds and chirping of crickets. There was a question bubbling up in her chest, but when she finally managed to ask, Zuko spoke at the same time. “Why—”

“Is that—”

They both stopped.

“You go.”

“No,” Zuko said, clearing his throat. “You first.”

Katara took a deep breath.

“Why were you banished?”

None of your business.

“I spoke out of turn at a war meeting,” Zuko said, quieter, as if that might make it less outrageous. “I questioned something that was said and embarrassed my father in front of all his generals. And because he had always wished Azula was his heir, and I finally gave him an excuse to get rid of me.”

“Oh.”

She didn’t know what she had been expecting. In years past, she would have guessed that Zuko had committed something so egregious that even the Fire Nation couldn’t overlook it—attacked one of his own soldiers, perhaps, or profaned a temple or something. In her more optimistic moments, she had mused that perhaps it was the opposite, that a nation so dedicated to war might banish someone for displaying kindness. But she had never guessed it would be something so… trivial.

“I’m sorry.”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“But still—”

“Is the only reason why you married me because you were afraid of my sister?” Zuko interrupted.

“I’m not afraid of her,” Katara countered immediately. “And no, it’s not the only reason.” 

She hesitated for a moment, unsure of how much to say. When she had first accepted her engagement, she had told herself it was only to keep the Fire Nation from reverting to its wartime ways. But she had had more than a year to consider it, now, and she knew that wasn’t the whole truth. She had talked about this with Toph, a little bit, and shouted some of it at Aang the day after her wedding… but she wasn’t sure if she and Zuko were that close yet. Sure, they had been getting along better recently, but did that count as friendship?

The moment had grown too long, and she sighed and spoke frankly.

“I spent almost a year training, teaching Aang, helping with the invasion, thinking I was going to help end the war. And then—it ended without me. I still felt like I wanted to do something to help build the peace, but the South Pole… it’s small. My whole family is there, and I knew they still thought of me as a kid. I didn’t know if I could seriously help rebuild the Southern Water Tribe, but I was in the Fire Nation for a couple of months before the Day of Black Sun and I got to know some of its problems. I do think I can do a lot for this country. Eventually. I hope.”

“I think so, too.” Zuko shifted his weight awkwardly, then cleared his throat and sat up straighter. “Okay. Um. So this morning we were talking about meditation, and I thought… maybe we could do it together? Have you ever tried it?”

“Well, I know how to breathe,” Katara snarked, unable to resist and relieved to be back in familiar territory. “And I learned yoga in Ba Sing Se, although it was all done by nonbenders.”

“But you don’t meditate regularly.”

“No.”

“I think that’s because, for earthbenders and waterbenders, your element is mostly external. It’s different for firebending, and I’m guessing it’s different from airbending. Our elements come from within. When I was in school, they told us that’s what makes fire and air the most dangerous elements.”

“Air isn’t a dangerous element,” Katara argued automatically.

“I’m just telling you what they told us, okay? They said that, because heat and air come from inside us, firebenders and airbenders have less natural control. They said airbenders didn’t think twice about sucking breath from people’s lungs, or jumping off cliffs or pushing people from heights, because for them, bending was literally as natural and easy as breathing. It didn’t require thought.”

That… wasn’t as much a lie. Katara was adamant that Aang would never try to kill anyone, but it was true that self-preservation when it came to heights wasn’t even something he considered. She could see that being twisted into Fire Nation propaganda very easily.

“And for firebenders,” Zuko continued. “It’s so easy to lose control, because fire is alive. If you drop your water, it just lays there. If I let go of a flame, it will keep going if it can. Meditation is a way to focus the mind on your element. The more you sink yourself into it, the more you understand it, the better your control becomes. That’s why the Fire Lord always has that wall of flame in front of him, to show that his control is so impeccable, he can maintain it no matter what he’s doing.”

“I thought it was just to look cool,” Katara admitted. Zuko, to her disbelief, grinned.

“Yeah, that too. So… that’s why firebenders and airbenders both meditate. I don’t really know if it would help with waterbending or not, but... do you want to try?”

Katara’s thoughts drifted to Aang, and she felt a dull ache in her stomach. She wanted to write to him, get his opinion on everything Zuko had just said—but he had responded to her first three letters with a short, five-sentence missive, and she couldn’t bear to face that again. I miss him, she thought. And Toph. It used to be the three of us talking about bending like this.

But there was nothing to be done about that now, so she might as well make the best of it. She nodded in agreement. Zuko seemed surprised, but pleased.

“Okay, good. Some of it should be pretty similar to yoga, I think. Start by stretching, getting your muscles loose, opening the chi paths throughout your body. Then exhale and relax into a position that feels natural.”

I know more about chi paths than you, she thought, but that seemed like a counterproductive thing to say, so she let it go. Her eyes drifted shut and her breathing began to slow.

“Breathe in and out. In and out. In and out.” Zuko paused. “The next step for firebenders is to connect to our inner fire.”

“So I should look for my inner water?” Katara muttered. She could only imagine some of the jokes Sokka would make if he were here.

“The source of your bending, yes. Think about what drives you, how it feels when you’re bending, and follow that feeling to the center of chi inside of you. It grows and shrinks, ebbs and flows. Hold it within you. Protect it.”

The sea doesn’t need protecting, Katara thought. In the back of her mind, she noticed that she and Zuko were breathing in sync, but this was the point where fire and water diverged. Fire might have a central point, a flame that needed to be protected, nurtured, controlled. But Katara knew she could no more control the ocean than she could contain it—it was everywhere, all-consuming, a friend that she moved with rather than a beast she could push around.

To master chi is to master healing, Yugoda had taught her. Learn to sense it, to follow its paths, to coax it in the right direction. Katara focused on that, on the paths of chi, until she felt her body glowing like Yugoda’s model, shining and dimming with her breath.

“There is fire within you,” Zuko continued. She didn’t bother to correct him—his voice had the dullness that came from rote memorization, and she didn’t want to jolt him out of his head. “There is fire before you. It is the same. There is only one flame, and it is yours.”

The first thing she was aware of was Zuko’s blood. It moved the same as hers—a little slower, but following the same path in the same pattern. Then she felt the water in the bowl, then in the vines that crept over the balcony, then in the cool spots where the condensation gathered and remained throughout the day. The water sang. It wanted to pull together, wanted to dance with her, but Katara narrowed her focus on the bowl.

She didn’t know how long she had been sitting there when she finally opened her eyes, but the moon was high. The water in the bowl was rolling like a tiny wave, building on each inhale and crashing on the exhale. The scene was lit by the peaceful glow of Zuko’s candles. Katara turned and watched him for a minute. His eyes were closed and his forehead smooth. She had never seen him look so calm—even when she had knocked him unconscious in the North Pole, he had scowled.

He opened his eyes and looked at her, and Katara blurted out, “I wouldn’t have said yes if you were a stranger.”

Zuko’s eyes widened.

“What?”

“I mean… I knew you cared a lot about your uncle, so when he wrote and said you weren’t a bad person, just a good person who’d done some bad things, I was willing to take the chance. I wouldn’t have done that if I hadn’t known you were kind to people you cared about.”

She had meant it as a compliment, but Zuko looked like steam was about to come from his ears.

That’s what he said?”

“Well, not in those exact words.”

“So that’s it? You were scared of Azula and my uncle told you I wasn’t evil incarnate?”

“What do you expect, Zuko?” Katara asked, exasperated. Their tentative peace was stretched thin again; the candle flames flickered and the water in the bowl was still and cold, and getting colder. “You wanted me to say I had a massive secret crush on you? That I woke up every morning and thought I hope Zuko attacks us again because he’s just so dreamy?”

“No!”

“Then what do you want me to say?”

“I don’t know! Forget it!”

“Why did you agree to marry me?"

“Because my uncle told me to and said it was you or that blind earthbending kid.”

Katara’s jaw dropped.

Toph?”

“Never mind—it doesn’t matter.”

He left the balcony, leaving Katara more confused than ever before.

Chapter Text

When summer hit, the days seemed to slow. Between the sudden downpours and the inescapable humidity, it wasn’t unusual for people to retreat to their rooms twice a day to change into dry clothes, and midday naps were common. Katara tried to take most of her meetings outside to avoid the stuffiness of the palace, but it was so sticky that she found herself wishing, for the first time in her life, that she wasn’t a waterbender. The ability to airbend—to just conjure a breeze whenever and wherever she wanted—that would really be something. On the other hand, she could ice beverages with a snap of her fingers, which meant that everyone from Ayako to Azula started being really, really nice to her, even on fiercely hot days that shortened everyone’s temper. So at least there was that.

It all culminated in the day of the summer solstice—the biggest holiday in the Fire Nation, as well as Azula’s birthday. The day began at dawn with a sumptuous meal, and Katara spent most of the morning at the royal spa. She had a cold lunch in her chambers while Ayako and a half-dozen mades helped her dress in layers of silk so fine, it was almost translucent.

The Solstice Festival was one of the only opportunities the common people had to see the royal family. Instead of celebrating in the palace, they would spend the afternoon on a boat in the harbor, and there would be a long procession through the capital city.

Katara couldn’t help it—at the sight of the palanquins, she balked. She was walking with Zuko, and he felt her hand tense on his arm.

“It’s traditional,” he reminded her in a low voice that couldn’t be heard by any of the people around them.

“I know. But I just… it’s just…”

“We can’t walk in between the Fire Lord and Azula. Besides, I have something to show you and it’s easier if we’re sitting down.”

Katara sighed. Zuko offered her a hand getting into the palanquin, and she made sure to thank each of the bearers as she sat down. She drew back the curtains, too, so she would be able to see people in the crowd more easily. Zuko sat beside her, and cleared his throat as the procession began its slow march.

“I know this was a while ago,” he said. “But I was thinking about what you said. About the price of food. I talked with the Minister of Agriculture, and... well, just read this. My uncle is going to sign it next week.”

He shoved a scroll into her hands. Katara unrolled it far enough to reveal the first paragraph.

“Proclamation of new agriculture subsidies for the promotion of peacetime self-sufficiency?”

“We’re making food more expensive for us and cheaper for everyone else,” Zuko explained. “On a bigger scale. Basically, the crown gives farmers tax breaks so it’s easier and more attractive to grow food. But they have to apply, and if the farm has more than fifteen employees, a royal accountant goes out to make sure they’re keeping prices affordable.”

“Isn’t that going to be expensive?”

“Yes. But that reparations payment you negotiated with the Southern Water Tribe ended up costing less in coin than we expected, and that plus the profit from the first season of balloon flights should keep it funded for the first year. If we can just make it through a harvest season, other expenses should go down enough to make up for it.”

“This is amazing,” Katara said as she read further. “This was your idea?”

“It was yours.”

“It really wasn’t.”

“It really was. I’ve just had more time to study, so I knew enough about Fire Nation law to make it happen.” His lips curved in a sheepish smile. “Happy solstice?”

“Thanks,” Katara laughed.

They were passing from the noble section of the city to the common section, and suddenly there was a much larger, much louder crowd. Katara heard her own name shouted from all sides—mostly from young girls—and leaned forward to wave. The cheers got louder, and some of them were throwing handfuls of flower petals. She craned her head to see Iroh and Azula’s palanquins; the calls were quieter, and neither of them were getting flowers.

“The first solstice after a couple’s wedding is supposed to be lucky,” Zuko explained when she shared this observation. “The day itself represents longevity, and the flower petals represent healthy children.”

Katara looked at the trail of blossoms piling up in their wake.

“I think they’re being overly optimistic.”

Zuko’s lips twitched.

“And you’re the only one getting such a loud response because you’re the only one waving. It’s not dignified.”

“Oh, come on. You never wave to crowds?”

“Not really. Not since I was a kid.”

“Well, these people are being very nice, even if they are trying to convince the spirits to give me an unreasonable number of children, so I’m going to wave back. And so should you, because otherwise I’ll embarrass myself, and a man who dishonors his wife—”

“I’ll wave if it keeps you from finishing that stupid proverb.”

True to his word, Zuko leaned forward and waved—stiffly and awkwardly—at the nearest group of people, a father with three young children who nearly jumped out of their skin at the sight of the crown prince looking straight at them. Zuko’s name became more prominent in the roar of sound, and although he blushed, he also seemed to relax. He even smiled just the tiniest bit.

“See, it’s—”

“Shut up.”

Katara wondered if the crowd would still cheer for her if she pushed her husband out of the palanquin.

Eventually, they reached the harbor. Iroh made a brief speech to the assembled crowd, wishing them health and prosperity and peace, and revealing that the rhinos following the procession were pulling carts full of suncakes, enough for every child in the city to have one for free. Katara’s brief moment as the most popular member of the royal family was over, and they proceeded to the boat.

In the center of the deck, a huge stage had been cleared, with low couches and cushions for the audience. Everyone sat, and servers brought out a light lunch and chilled juices, which were much appreciated in the noon heat. Iroh got up and made another short speech, this one wishing Azula a happy birthday, and introduced the first entertainment in her honor: a troupe of dancers, whose faces were dramatically painted white, gold, and orange in a way that reminded Katara vaguely of the Kyoshi Warriors. After that there were knife jugglers, an acrobatic troupe that Ty Lee had to be forcibly restrained from joining, and a decorative firebender.

There was a brief intermission, and then the master of ceremonies announced a play, telling the origin of the Fire Nation. Zuko groaned and slumped down in his seat.

“They’re going to butcher it,” he grumbled. “I just don’t understand how the Ember Island Players are so popular.”

“Well, from what I’ve heard of the myth, it’s all wrong anyway,” Katara teased. “So it doesn’t really matter.”

According to the play, when the world began, a day lasted a lifetime. But as the Long Solstice came to an end, the people began to panic about what would follow. Some gave up immediately and resigned themselves to the darkness. (They were supposed to be the Water Tribes, as evidenced by their blue costumes. Katara was mildly insulted, and had the sneaking suspicion that she would have been majorly insulted in years past.) Some wanted to find a solution, but were too stubborn to leave their lands. Some went looking for the sun but were too ditzy and got lost on the way.

And some followed the sun all the way to the western edge of the world. It still took years for the sun to completely set, and in that time, they fought for some overdramatic reason Katara couldn’t follow, and scattered over the islands. But as Night approached, they reconciled and gathered at the oldest volcano of the oldest island to watch the sun go down, at a place called the Sunset Cliffs. The leader of one of the groups prayed a song of thanksgiving (poorly) to the Great Sun Spirit, and a passing dragon heard him and flew down. The dragon was actually a very well-made puppet—Katara thought the special effects were, on the whole, a lot better than the acting. The dragon lit the first fire for the people on the island, and some of them became the first firebenders. There was another weird conflict that didn’t seem to make much sense, this time with the dragon attacking the firebenders, but they defeated it, to a round of raucous applause, and then the actors took their bows.

The last performance was a singer. The sun was low in the sky, and a woman stepped up to the stage, carrying a large drum. She set it down and bowed, first to Iroh, then to the sun in the west. She knelt and began to sing a song Katara couldn’t understand.

“It’s the prayer of thanksgiving,” Zuko whispered. The melody was sort of familiar, now that he pointed it out, but the singer had a much more beautiful voice than the actor. “It’s in the old language, the one used by the Sun Warriors before the islands were unified.”

Katara nodded. Even though she couldn’t understand the woman’s words, her song sent chills up Katara’s spine. She had a low, velvety voice, and the words came from deep inside her, in time with the pounding of her drum. It reminded Katara of the songs the Water Tribe sang on the winter solstice. Maybe at this very moment. Her heart ached with sudden homesickness; she had sent a long letter, and solstice presents, but it would be another three weeks before she actually saw her family again, and longer until she saw the South Pole.

She applauded as the song ended, but a wistful sigh escaped her lips, and Zuko looked at her curiously.

Then Azula turned to Katara, with that unerring sense for making things uncomfortable, and said, “Today is the winter solstice for the Southern Water Tribe, isn’t it, Kat?”

“Yes.”

“And how is it celebrated? It must be very different than how we celebrate here.”

“Not that different,” Katara said stubbornly. “Except that it’s much colder, so most of the celebration is inside. There’s a huge feast, and then we go to the House of Meeting. The elders tell the story of how the South Pole was founded, and there are prayers and a mask dance.”

“Ooh, what’s a mask dance?” Ty Lee asked.

“We… put on masks. And dance.”

“How wonderfully—unspoiled,” Azula said with a poorly disguised smirk. “I’d love to see it. Why don’t you demonstrate?”

There were titters from those near enough to hear them.

“She doesn’t have a mask, Azula,” Zuko snapped.

“Oh no?” Azula asked innocently. “What about the one you wore to the Fire Days Festival, Kat? I thought it was still hanging in your bedroom.”

The titters were louder, this time, and Katara knew her own face must be as red as Zuko’s.

“Well—she’s not going to go back and get it, I mean we’re on a boat—”

“They’re not meant to be done by one person,” Katara interrupted shortly. “Besides,” she added in a stroke of brilliance. “In the Water Tribes, it is the height of rudeness to upstage someone on their birthday. If anyone is going to perform to praise and applause today, it really should be you.”

Azula narrowed her eyes, clearly trying to work out the trap, but then Ty Lee took up the call, and some of the other guests, and the princess’s ego got the better of  her. Li and Lo ushered her up on stage to demonstrate something called the Advanced Phoenix form.

“That was smart,” Zuko muttered.

Katara sat back against the sofa and crossed her arms.

“Sometimes it’s just not worth the fight.”

“Azula’s been my sister for seventeen years and I’ve never walked away from a fight with her.”

That’s because I’m smarter than you, Katara thought about saying, but she figured there was a 50% chance Zuko didn’t get the joke, and if he yelled, there would be even more laughter directed at them. She fixed her eyes on Azula.

Zuko leaned back against the sofa, too, and casually draped his arm over the back of Katara’s seat. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw him lift his hand like he was going to put it on her shoulder, then lower it on the cushion. Then lift it again. Then drop it again. She tried, in vain, to hold back the smile tugging at the corner of her mouth.

He bombed the Southern Water Tribe, an indignant voice whispered in her ear. And tried to kidnap Aang a dozen times!

He apologized.

He’s a jerk.

He’s trying. He’s better than I thought he was, and he’s trying to get better than that. And there’s no point in holding a grudge when I’m committed to staying married.

Azula reached a particularly impressive part of her form that involved spinning rings of fire. The audience oohed and ahhed, and Katara readjusted so she was leaning against Zuko’s side with her head resting on his shoulder. He jumped so hard he almost fell back over the sofa.

Besides. He’s kind of cute when he’s flustered.

When the sun had set completely, the Fire Sages stood at the Sunset Cliffs in the distance and made a huge ball of fire, and the entire island echoed with cheers and whistles. That was the cue for the servants to bring out dinner. It was a bountiful meal with dozens of dishes, most including long noodles, sesame seeds, and fresh fish, for luck, and spiced even more heavily than usual. Katara ate until she was stuffed, helped by the glass of milk a server brought her between each course. She wouldn’t have thought she had room for dessert—but Zuko insisted that dessert was the best part and that she simply couldn’t skip it, not on her first solstice.

A server set a suncake on her plate. She had seen some fancy desserts in her time at the palace, but this was certainly the fanciest—the round cake was actually shaped like a sun, and the golden crust was imprinted with an intricate flower and the characters for luck and happiness.

“Be careful,” Zuko warned.

“Oh, come on,” Katara said, exasperated. “Don’t tell me dessert is spicy, too.”

A few people in earshot laughed, but it wasn’t a mean-spirited laugh. Many had already dug into their own cakes—Katara noticed that they were carefully slicing them into pieces before taking a bite.

“There are tokens in some of them,” Zuko explained. “A coin for wealth, or a compass for a happy journey—”

“Or a gold ring,” Azula interrupted, holding up a ring that still glinted despite being liberally coated in filling. “For fame and admiration.”

Katara cut open her cake, but after much poking and prodding she was forced to acknowledge there was no token inside.

“Aw, mine’s empty.”

“Except for a very delicious sweet bean paste!” Iroh reminded her, and she smiled.

“Oh, of course, and that is really the most important prize of all.”

“Hear, hear,” Mai muttered as she dug into her dessert with uncharacteristic gusto.

It seemed like half the guests had prizes in their cakes. Zuko almost ate his. He cleaned it carefully with his napkin and squinted at it.

“Which one is this? It looks like—a flower?”

“Ah, the lotus hairpin!” Iroh exclaimed. “Traditionally, it goes to the most beautiful woman at the table. Sometimes the spirits give it to her directly, and sometimes they give it to a lucky man who must serve as their messenger.”

Zuko blinked. He glanced at Katara with wide eyes, and there was a chorus of giggles from some of the younger women in the room—and jeers from the men. A faint pink blush touched Zuko’s cheeks and he looked down the table.

“Give it to your wife, dum-dum,” Azula said, rolling her eyes.

“I was going to!” he said defensively, although his flush darkened. 

Katara lifted her sleeve to hide her mouth so she could laugh at him without anybody noticing, and then inclined her head. Ayako had spent almost as much time on her hair this morning as at their wedding. A whole paper fan, painted to look like the setting sun, had been woven into her topknot, and strings of beads clacked together whenever she moved. But there was space for Zuko to slide the tiny flower-topped pin above her ear.

“Thank you.”

“No problem,” he mumbled.

The night ended soon after. They disembarked from the boat, and the procession began to move in reverse. Katara was grateful for the palanquin this time; it had been a long day, and she was yawning before they even left the docks.

“Did you, uh, have a nice time?” Zuko asked.

“Yeah, it was fun,” she smiled. “Just too hot. There should be a swimming break somewhere in there.”

“There were a hundred people with their fanciest hair and makeup, wearing their fanciest robes.”

“I’m the Fire Princess. A trendsetter. I’ll set a trend of wet, post-swim hair at fancy parties.”

“Sure,” Zuko snorted. “Why not?”

“Oh, and remind me to tell you later about my idea for a new way to collect taxes—I was thinking about it earlier but I’m too—too tired to go into it now,” she said with a yawn.

“Okay.” They rode for a minute in silence, and then he asked, “So what is the winter solstice like in the South Pole? Really?” 

“Like I said, it’s not all that different. There’s an elaborate meal, which takes weeks to plan because we have to make sure we don’t use up all the winter stores. There’s a story about the founding of the South Pole, like the one with the dragons. The dances start as part of the story, and then they keep going. We share all of the important things that happened in the last year, and hopes for the coming one. Some people will juggle or sing or tell jokes until it’s over—and there’s a lot of drinking. That’s pretty much it.”

“I’ve never heard how the South Pole was founded,” Zuko said with a frown. “I tried to study the Water Tribes, in case the Avatar had already been reincarnated, but I didn’t find much.”

“Paper and ink don’t do well at the poles,” Katara shrugged. “Mostly when we write stuff down, it’s either temporary or it’s meant for outsiders. Our storytellers memorize everything important.”

“I see. Can you tell me the story?”

“Not really.”

“Why not?” he scowled. “Is it supposed to some big secret? We told you our story.”

“Ours takes three hours to tell, Zuko,” Katara said, dryly.

“Oh.” He hesitated. “Well, we’ve got a while before we reach the palace. Is there a short version?”

“I guess… if I cut out some of the founding of the North Pole, the emergence of the clan system, and the day-by-day account of the First Hunt.”

“Please do.”

“All right. But I’m not a proper storyteller,” she warned him. “So if it gets boring, or if I forget something, don’t blame me.”

“I won’t.”

Katara stifled another yawn. She paused for a moment to think of which parts to cut, then she took a deep breath and began to speak. Her eyes drifted shut, and her voice settled into the familiar rhythm. In the distance, she could almost hear the drums.

“Time began with the long darkness. In the darkness, the First People were born. They cried, like babies cried. Who was the first to answer? La, spirit of the ocean. The people at the top of the world cried and La heard them. She left the Spirit Realm. She gave them food. She gave them water. When that wasn’t enough, she called for help. Who did she call? Tui, spirit of the moon. He left the Spirit Realm. He brought the first light. The sun was curious and came after, and the long darkness ended. What else did Tui give? Our most precious gift: he taught us how to push and pull the tides.

“It came that there was a chief, clever and proud, and he was a strong waterbender. He loved a woman, a beautiful woman and wise. The chief had an evil brother, jealous and cruel, and he attacked the woman. She prayed. To Tui and La, she prayed, and they answered her prayers. They gave her sharp teeth and claws and keen ears, and she became the First Wolf. The Wolf killed the evil brother. Blood stained her sharp teeth. The tribe was angry and afraid, and they tried to hunt her. She ran away, all the way to the bottom of the world.

“The chief did not know of this evil thing. Why not? I don’t know. Maybe he was out fishing, or maybe he had blinded himself to his brother’s ways. When he learned, he wept. ‘My love is gone forever,’ he said. ‘The bottom of the world is far away. And if I go, what then? She can run like the wind, and she will hide from me.’ Tui and La heard his weeping and scolded him. So clever and so proud and so strong—why was he weeping? So he prayed, and they gave him fins and a tail and keen eyes, and he became the First Blackfish. Through all the oceans he swam, until he reached the South Pole. He found his love again.

“But a Wolf is a Wolf and cannot live in water, and a Blackfish is a Blackfish and cannot live on land. On one day—on this day—they took their human forms and met in a village, in this village. They lay together and made babies. Their children grew and grew numerous. Some chose to swim in the deep. Some chose to hunt in the snow. Some chose to live as humans, to keep the gift of their tongues, to praise the moon and the ocean, and to pass on the story of the Wolf and the Blackfish. This is the story.”

She fell silent. The wood beneath them creaked, and in the distance she heard a flute from a party that hadn’t ended yet. She felt suddenly self-conscious, and she fiddled with the end of her sleeve.

“Thank you,” Zuko said after a pause. “That was… interesting.”

“Interesting?” It was hardly the nicest compliment she had ever received—she wasn’t entirely sure it was a compliment.

“Yeah. I just realized you know a lot about my home, and I don’t know much about yours.”

“Well, you should study,” she huffed.

“Yeah, I should. You’re a really good storyteller.”

Katara looked down and smiled to herself. They were quiet for the rest of the ride, and then as they walked through the palace, but it was a content kind of quiet. When they reached her door, Katara turned to say good night, but the words died in her throat. Zuko was watching her, determination written in the line of his brow. She saw the knot in his throat go up and down, and then he grabbed her hand and kissed it.

It was different than when he kissed her hand at the South Pole. He had barely grasped her fingers then, and given a quick peck to her mitten-covered knuckles, and glared at her the entire time. The resentment on both sides had been obvious. This time, he kissed the flat of her hand, close to the bend in her wrist. Her breath caught. His hand was warm, and when he looked up at her, his expression was… hopeful. His eyes were dark, like tiger’s eye, with a faint gleam where the light of a lantern hit his face.

“Good night,” he said quietly. He dropped her hand and retreated to his own door.

“Good night,” she echoed, just before the door shut.

She retreated to her bedroom. It was empty. Katara sat at her mirror and started to take her hair down, staring sightlessly at her own reflection. After a few minutes, the door opened, and Ayako darted in.

“Your Highness,” she said breathlessly. “I’m sorry I’m late.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Katara said, smirking. She glanced at her maid in the mirror. “How was your date?”

“It was lovely,” Ayako said with a grin. She stepped forward and began to extract the fan from Katara’s hair. “And yours, my lady?”

Her hand hovered over the lotus pin, and she raised an eyebrow.

“Yeah… lovely.”

 

 

Chapter Text

“Hi, Ty Lee—oh, sorry. Hi, Ty Lao.”

Katara had met each of Ty Lee’s sisters a few times—Azula invited them to the palace sometimes to fill out a guest list, but not so frequently that Katara got to know any of them well. Azula said they gave her a headache. Katara privately suspected it infuriated the perfectionist princess that she couldn’t tell the difference between the six unless they were wearing dramatically different clothes.

“Hey, Princess!” Ty Lee’s sister chirped. “Did you and Ty Lee have plans today?”

“Yeah, I was going to show her some yoga moves in the park—the one named after Zuko’s grandmother, whatever it’s called. Is she not here?”

“She is, but she’s sick,” Ty Lao said, wrinkling her nose. “Everybody’s sick, except me, because I eat four ornages a day so my immune system is awesome. Ty Lum has these crystals that she claimed would keep her from getting sick, and she’s the worst one of all!”

“Yikes,” Katara winced. “I could try and heal her if it’s really bad…”

“Nah, just a cold.”

“Okay. In that case we should just let them beat it on their own—their bodies will be stronger for it. And Ty Lee probably would have just embarrassed me, so maybe it’s for the best. Tell everyone I hope they feel better!”

“I will!”

Katara waved as Ty Lao shut the door, then started to wander towards the park, anyway. It was a quiet morning; she passed a few people on the street, but in the wake of the holiday, people were getting back into their normal routine. As she entered the park and headed towards her favorite hill, with a private copse of trees, she found it completely empty except for herself and her guards, and with their boots walking over the grass instead of stone or metal, they were as silent as ghosts.

Having guards had been one of the weirdest things about being a princess, but Katara had adjusted. She had even become sort of friends with some of them, although she wasn’t supposed to, especially the two who had been with her since the beginning. She would chat with them in the mornings, and for the solstice Li Xen had given her a cute little origami fish. Zhee had retired just a week before, and Katara had sent him off with a bonus and a beautifully calligraphed (in her humble opinion) thank-you note. She hadn’t had time to get to know his replacement yet.

It was a peaceful setting, Katara standing on the hill and stretching and her guards waiting alert at the path. Or at least it was, until the peace was shattered by a man dropping from the trees. He was holding knives of fire that sliced beneath the helmet of one guard, and he kicked at the other, releasing a blast of fire. They were both knocked to the ground.

Katara reacted on instinct. One arm flew to her waist to pop the cork from her bending skins—but they weren’t there. She didn’t have any water.

The assassin must have seen the look of horror on her face, because his expression twisted into a snarling grin. But then her training took over. As the assassin struck again, Katara dove for the ground and rolled, reaching for the water around her—droplets left from the morning’s downpour.

She recognized the assassin’s next form—it was one Zuko had used—and as fire roared towards her head, she ducked, dropped to one knee, and hit him with a solid block of ice in the stomach. The assassin fell on his back as all the air left his lungs, and Li Xen managed to get to his feet. He winced, but he held his fist over the assassin’s face.

“Don’t move,” he ordered

Katara melted the ice and froze it into manacles around the assassin’s wrists and ankles.

“He won’t,” she promised.

Together, she and Li Xen got the assassin to his feet and replaced the makeshift cuffs with real ones. Her guard was also wearing a horn at his belt, and he used it to blow three blasts—two short and one long—and then two long ones. The sound was vaguely familiar to Katara, but she couldn’t place it.

Her eyes were drawn to the assassin as her stomach churned with revulsion and adrenaline. He was a small man, but wiry, with long, shabby hair and sullen silver eyes.

“Why?” she asked, the word bursting from her.

“Your Highness—” Li Xen tried to discourage her, but he broke off as the assassin spit in her face. The guard hit him in the stomach, and then drove an elbow into his back when he doubled over. From then on, the assassin maintained his silence and refused to look at her, let alone communicate.

Members of the city guard had begun to swarm the garden. Two of them knelt by the new guard, the one she didn’t know.

“Is he—?” she asked, hushed.

“Yes,” Li Xen said curtly, and she shuddered.

The palace guards had arrived, now. There was an awful lot of shouting. They took the assassin away, and then the palace guards formed a phalanx, with their fists wreathed in flames. The squad leader bowed to Katara and said they would escort her to the palace.

Zuko met them at the gates. He almost barreled past them, as a matter of fact, then his eyes locked on Katara’s and he shoved guards out of the way to get to her.

“I’m all right,” she said.

He didn’t believe her. He yanked at her wrists so he could examine her arms for burns, and scanned her clothes for fraying.

“What happened?” he snapped—not to her, but to the squad leader, who gave a terse, official report.

Katara was grateful for the return of the crabby prince. Her arms ached as if the fight had lasted hours instead of minutes, her heart was fluttering, and she had stumbled over her feet several times on the walk. If Zuko had been kind, she thought she might actually cry.

“Zuko, I told you, I’m all right,” she insisted. He rounded on her.

“Where were your guards?” he demanded furiously.

“They were there. Li Xen was injured and the other one, he…” She swallowed.

“You only took two?” he shouted. “What were you thinking?”

“I can handle myself,” she shouted back, hands on her hips. “I’m a master waterbender, I was able to knock him down—”

“He never should have gotten that close! What if the next one has backup, Katara?”

“Next one—?” she started to say, but he plowed right through.

“How could you be so irresponsible? Have you even thought about what would happen if you were killed? How—how weak we would look—how furious the Water Tribe would be? It would start the war again, maybe a civil war too, all because you weren’t being careful! From now on, you will take a full squad of guards with you every time you leave the palace, and that is an order.”

“This isn’t the first time this has happened,” Katara said slowly. Zuko’s good eye nearly bugged out of his head.

“You’ve been attacked before?”

“Not me. You.”

In the span of two heartbeats, Zuko’s face went brick red, and she knew she was right even though he tried to deny it.

“I’ve heard that alarm before,” she persisted. “Three blasts on the horn, sometimes two after. Always on days you went out into the city. You’ve been attacked, too, and you never even told me.”

She had thought it was a bird call.

Zuko stood stock still for a moment. He opened his mouth like he was going to speak, and then looked away and snapped it shut. He turned on his heel.

“Take the princess back to her room to rest, and stay with her,” he barked at the squad leader. “No visitors except me, the Fire Lord, and her attendant. And the royal physician—I’ll be sending him along.”

“What about Princess—”

“No.”

“Zuko,” Katara warned. He glanced at her and sighed.

“Fine. The attendant, the physician, and the royal family. No one else.”

“And my maid.”

“And her maid. No one else.”

“Yes, Prince Zuko,” the squad leader said with a bow.

Zuko stormed off. Katara was still, watching him, until one of the guards touched her arm.

“Princess,” she said in a kind voice. “We should move on.”

“Yes. Thank you.”

Katara cleared her throat and looked around her at the guards, who had not relaxed once during this conversation, never released the fire in their hands or stopped scanning the area for threats. She had been thinking of them as backup, as members of her team, the way Aang and Toph and Sokka had supported her in battles, but that was wrong. They were not here to help her fight. They were here to die for her.

“All of you,” she said in a more steady voice. “Thank you.”

The squad leader bowed on their behalf.

“It is an honor, Your Highness, and a duty we are pleased to fulfill,” he said. The squad began to move, and Katara wondered idly how many of them agreed.

Katara spent the rest of the day in her room. The physician came and confirmed that she was fine, which she already knew. Jingyi lectured her endlessly, and she tried her best not to listen. Ayako fussed for a little while, until finally Katara managed to distract her by asking if it would be possible to alter some of her elegant Fire Nation outfits so that she could wear her water skins without looking too out of place. Ayako said she couldn’t see why not, and started pulling out robes and making notes for the seamstresses.

Azula visited for lunch, which was unfortunate. Katara had stopped Zuko from banning his sister because she didn’t want to seem threatened by her, but she hadn’t actually wanted a visit. Which was probably why Azula came.

She spent the first twenty minutes coolly asking after Katara’s health, saying things like “it must have caught you completely off guard” and “well, I can understand why you would be frightened.” Katara ground her teeth a lot. Finally, Azula seemed to come to her point.

“I want you to know, dear sister-in-law, that the assassin has already been interrogated,” she said.

There was a mixed fruit salad to finish the meal, and Azula was picking through it for lychee nuts. Katara was oddly fascinated by both the delicate precision with which Azula wielded her chopsticks, and the humanity of this quirk. Previous interactions had led her to believe Azula saw her food as fuel only, but this little act of favoritism almost made Katara like her.

Then she realized Azula had taken all the lychee nuts, and she was irritated again.

“I supervised the interrogation myself,” Azula continued as she dug into her ill-gotten prizes. “And I am confident that he told the truth. Well, not at first. Once the consequences of lying were made clear to him, he became far more complacent.” She paused so that Katara could imagine what those consequences may have been. “He was working alone. Just one of those disgruntled veterans we seem to have so many of these days.”

“I see,” Katara said. Her heart was beating hard. She thought of Toph and wondered if Azula could somehow tell. “Why—why me?”

Azula shrugged.

“He fought in the Siege of the North, apparently, and didn’t like the idea of a Water Tribe girl being Fire Lady.”

“That’s it?” Katara blurted out. She had been thinking about it, as much as she tried not to, and came to the conclusion that it was either her interference in the food trade or her status as the Avatar’s waterbending teacher that made the assassin pick her over, say, Zuko or Iroh. Maybe the fact that, as a woman, she was seen as an easier target by someone who would eventually move on to the others. “Just because of where I come from? Not even something I’ve done?”

Azula raised an eyebrow.

“You don’t have to have done anything. You’re the princess. You’re a symbol of something greater, and that’s all these people need.”

Azula lifted another lychee nut and then paused. She stared at it, turning it one way and the other so it glistened in the light.

“Can I give you some advice?” she asked slowly.

“Yes?”

Azula popped the fruit in her mouth.

“Do you know why I have never faced an assassin, when both Zuko and our uncle have? It’s because I’m a better firebender than my brother,” she said without giving Katara a chance to respond. “I don’t know if I’m better than my uncle, but I think I am, and so does everyone else. Someone who appears weak will always have to prove otherwise. Someone who shows their strength doesn’t have to bother. You could do well here. You became a master at fourteen—not as young as I did, I grant you, but still, impressive compared to most. If you dropped all these niceties, stopped trying to get servants and beggars to like you, stopped trying to prop up my brother’s failures… you could be a strong player in this game. If not, I’m afraid you will face another attack, and another, and another, until someone comes along who is stronger.”

The food in Katara’s stomach was cold and curdled.

“Is that a threat?” she asked.

“Why, Kat, I’m hurt,” Azula pouted. “I would never be so cruel as to attack my only sister.”

“Right,” Katara drawled. “Because you’ve always extended that same courtesy to your only brother.”

The princess’s lips twitched.

“It’s an offer, Kat. Think it over.”

“You know,” Katara said conversationally. “I really, really hate it when you call me that.”

Azula broke her calculating gaze by rolling her eyes.

“Fine. Don’t ever say I didn’t try to be nice.”

She took her leave, and Katara spent the next hour pacing. She stopped only when Iroh arrived, bearing tea and comfort.  He confirmed Azula’s story—that the assassin was acting alone, he wasn’t paid by anyone, and he seemed motivated mainly by hatred of the Water Tribe. Iroh also presented his deepest apologies, which Katara found very sweet even though it was unnecessary.

She was still thinking deeply when he left, but the Fire Lord’s visit had a soothing effect, and she didn’t feel the need to pace. Instead, she sat on a bench in her dressing room and watched Ayako examine her clothes. The maid had found an extraordinarily fancy water skin—it was embossed with gold leaf—and was pulling out different outfits to compare what kind of straps would be most discreet for different silhouettes. Katara watched as she moved on to a red tunic, trimmed in gold, that would hit her just above the knees, with long slits up to the hips. It wasn’t unlike Water Tribe summer clothes.

“Wait,” she said. “Can you take that down?”

“Of course, my lady. Is there a problem?”

“No. I want to wear that for dinner. That and those maroon leggings I wore for bending practice the day after last.”

“Your Highness, that is not evening wear,” Ayako said, horrified. “They’ll think I can’t do my job!”

“‘They’ is my husband—he won’t notice. And if anyone else says anything, tell them I’m just a stubborn waterbender with weird ideas about clothes. Can you send a message to the kitchens? I’d like dinner for two in the courtyard, around sunset.”

“Yes, my lady.”

She went to go talk to a porter, and Katara sat down to brush out her hair. The crown pin was too heavy and formal to go with the tunic. Instead, she braided her hair and wound it into a coil on the back of her neck, fixed with the simple lotus pin Zuko had given her on the solstice. She regarded herself in the mirror with approval, satisfied that she had straddled the line between “competent peasant” and “decorative princess.”

Ayako returned and fixed her makeup. As sunset approached, she left her room.

“Prince Zuko thinks you should remain in the palace, my lady,” the guard outside her door said quickly. He looked apprehensive—she didn’t recognize him, but he must have heard how she reacted when ordered around by her husband.

“I am,” she assured him. “Is Prince Zuko in his rooms?”

“No, Your Highness. I believe he is speaking with the leaders of the guard.”

“Well, can you send him a message from me? I’m having dinner in the courtyard, and I’d like to politely request that he join me as soon as he’s free.”

“Of course, Your Highness.”

The courtyard had already been set up. Katara sat on a cushion underneath the small pavilion. There was another cushion for Zuko, with a low table between them, and two servants who stood unobtrusively outside the pavilion. It was a lovely night; a light summer breeze chased away the persistent humidity. When Zuko emerged, he stalked halfway across the courtyard and then stopped, staring at her. She braced herself for criticism—but he was silent.

“What?”

“Nothing.”

His eyes were fixed just to the left of her face. Her hand flew up to touch the lotus pin.

“What—am I not supposed to actually wear it? Is it just a solstice thing?”

“No, it’s not—it’s fine. Forget about it. Hi.”

“Hi.”

He sat down on the other cushion. The dishes for the first course had already been laid out, and one of the servants jumped forward to uncover them as the other poured drinks. They melted back to their positions without a word.

“I’m not going to apologize for what I said,” Zuko warned her. “It was the truth. You were being careless.”

“I know.”

“So if you’re trying to make me feel guilty—”

“I didn’t invite you here because I expected you to apologize.”

“Oh.”

The first course was cold picked vegetables and an ocean kumquat soup. Katara smiled to herself. No one could mistake this for a Water Tribe meal—the vegetables were different and the broth for the soup was much lighter than sea prune stew—but it was as close as a Fire Nation chef could get. Clearly someone was trying to cheer her up.

Zuko was still eyeing her suspiciously, but he, too, began to eat. After a minute, he put his spoon down.

“And I don’t think I was being rude, either. I may have raised my voice a little bit, but it as only because I was upset—”

“You were shouting and it was rude,” Katara corrected him. “But that’s not why I invited you. Can you be a bit patient, please? Just until the main course?”

She glanced at the servants who waited with the remaining plates. There were a lot of them; at home, dinner was usually one hearty dish, but the Fire Nation liked dozens of little dishes that complemented each other. Zuko looked at her, then the servants. He raised his hand, and one approached with a respectful bow.

“Are you ready for the next course, sir?”

“Give us all the food now and go away.”

“That is not just rude, it’s obnoxious,” Katara snapped.

“When I was a waiter, I would have loved it if a customer told me to go away!”

“But you don’t have to be obnoxious.” She smiled at the servant. “You can bring us all the different courses at once, please, and then take a break. We should probably be done in an hour. See?” she said to Zuko. “Same thing, infinitely less rude.”

The servant was fighting a smile as he bowed again. The two men piled all of the food on the little table—Katara and Zuko had to hold their plates and utensils in their laps—and retreated out of the courtyard entirely. They weren’t alone; guards still waited just inside and outside the entrance. But they were as alone as they could be, and they wouldn’t be overheard.

“Why didn’t you tell me you had been attacked before?”

“I thought you already knew,” Zuko hedged. “It’s not like it was a big secret—”

“No,” she interrupted. “That’s not good enough. You didn’t tell me. We’re married, and you hid something really major from me. Why?”

“I don’t know,” he sighed. “I thought I could handle it myself… For the record, the most recent one wasn’t a real assassination attempt. It was some veterans who got worked up over drinks, happened to see me on my way back to the palace, and tried to start a fight. Somebody drew a knife, but my guards and I took care of it. The last serious attempt was right after our wedding, but I thought it was over. Besides, I… I didn’t think you would care that much.”

Katara stared at him.

“Zuko. I know we’re not friends, but that doesn’t mean I would want you to get murdered.”

“Yeah, I know that now,” he said and, to her surprise, he grinned. It wasn’t a smirk, not meant as a challenge or a taunt or a triumph. Just a normal teenager-making-a-joke grin. “But it wasn’t always that obvious. Remember that time I tied you to a tree? You probably wouldn’t have minded then.”

“Yeah, I remember,” she said dryly.

“Why did you even steal that scroll, anyway?” he asked as he dug into his food. “You were a master, and it was a beginner’s move.”

“It was the principle of the thing! I didn’t need to have it, but I needed pirates to not have it.” Zuko laughed. She finished her drink and he refilled it for her. “And I wasn’t a master yet.”

“You weren’t? Could have fooled me.”

“I was a good waterbender. But I didn’t become a really great one until we started training in the North Pole… when I had something to prove.” She took a deep breath. “Listen… it’s not just that I want to know about problems like this. I want to help solve them.”

“I told you, I can handle it. You don’t have to—”

“I don’t care. It’s important to me that, when it comes to things like this, we’re partners. When I was growing up…” She bit her lip. “Technically, women in the Water Tribes own their houses. They’re supposed to be in charge of their homes and their families. What that really means is that their sons ask them for advice, and then ignore them. It means they spend all their time having babies and taking care of babies and doing laundry and making sure dinner is served on time, and getting none of the praise men get for the hunt or battle or whatever they’re off doing. And that’s just in the Southern Tribe—in the North it’s worse. They wouldn’t even teach me how to fight!”

“You’re kidding.

“No, I’m not. Female waterbenders in the North were trained in healing and healing alone.” She shrugged. “It was better in the South… Life is more difficult down there. There’s less to forage, so the hunters have to travel further, and women are trained to defend their homes, at least, and we have more freedom to choose who to marry. And, to be fair, when a good coat is the difference between life and death, knowing how to sew and do laundry is actually really important. But I just—that couldn’t be my life. I love my dad, my brother, my mom, but… watching that happen over and over again, and then leaving and seeing what else was out there… I couldn’t do it. I came here because I thought I could do more. That I could actually help.”

She trailed into silence and took a slow, deep breath. The sky above them was a pure sapphire blue, but the sun had just barely set, and a pastel yellow clung to the horizon. It turned the little pond gold. A family of turtleducks chased each other around the edges; the hatchlings were beginning to moult, and she wondered if turtleducks could fly.

“You can help,” Zuko said finally. “You already are. I didn’t expect— I never would have— You’re like the loudest, most opinionated girl I know. I never would have married you if I was looking for someone to sit in the palace and stay quiet all the time.”

Katara raised an eyebrow.

“I think there was a compliment in there, so I’m going to let that slide.”

Zuko rubbed the back of his neck, embarrassed, and devoted his attention to refilling his plate. He took too many meat skewers and dumplings, and drenched them all in a spicy sauce that Katara could handle in only the tiniest amounts. She told him that he needed more vegetables, and he took some spicy pickled cabbage. She argued that cabbage hardly counted as a vegetable and he needed more dark greens, and he retorted that she had nerve criticizing someone else’s food, because her plate was the blandest thing he’d ever seen. She pointed out the bombfruit with chili sauce and he said that didn’t count.

They fumed and ate in silence for several minutes, until a particularly bold turtleduck waddled over to Zuko. He smiled to himself and crumbled a piece of cake for it.

“This was my mother’s favorite place,” he said. “She said it was the most peaceful spot in the whole Fire Nation. One time I said the turtleducks were too loud for that to be true, and she said they were part of nature, so it was a peaceful loudness.”

“What happened to her?” Katara asked softly.

“She’s dead. I think.”

“You don’t know?

“I’m not sure. I used to think she was either dead or banished, but the war’s been over for more than a year and she hasn’t come back, so… I think she’s dead now.”

“I’m sorry.”

Zuko shrugged.

“She didn’t have much to do with politics,” he said thoughtfully. “But that wasn’t because she was a woman, it was more to do with the fact that she had young kids and that she was the wife of the younger prince. She did a lot of charity work in the Caldera, though. She used to help out at the hospitals, and at least once a year she tried to visit every neighborhood, even the poorest ones that other nobles wouldn’t be caught dead in.”

“I knew that,” Katara said. He looked up, eyes widening in surprise.

“You did?”

“Yeah. When I tried to fix the price of food, that was because of a conversation I had with a woman down by the harbor, and she mentioned that your mom had visited.” She smiled. “She actually named her son Zuko, because your mom gave him a blessing or something.”

“Oh, yeah.” Zuko crumbled more cake sheepishly. “That happened a lot… People usually name their kids in honor of relatives, but if they have a lot of kids or not enough relatives, the royal family is good inspiration, I guess. There’s a weird number of Zukos and Azulas running around. The funny thing is when I go to the outer islands, where people don’t see the royal family very often, I never get recognized as the prince. I’m just some other guy named Zuko.”

“Really? Even with—”

Her mouth snapped shut, and her cheeks heated. Zuko’s hand crept up to touch the bottom of his scar.

“It’s not unusual for people to have burn scars, from training or fights… mine’s a little more dramatic, but a lot of people don’t know what it looks like, just that I have one.”

“I’m sorry.”

He shrugged.

“It’s fine. It’s not like I can forget.”

“Does it—hurt?”

“It didn’t at first. The last year or so, it started to hurt at the edges… it’s stiff, and it kind of pinches the rest of my face. It’s not that bad, though.”

Katara hesitated for a moment, wondering if this was overstepping, and then she uncorked her waterskin before she could second-guess herself. She drew out a small ball of water and brought it up to Zuko’s face. He jumped.

“What are you…”

He trailed off as the water began to glow. His eyes drifted shut, and the water sank into his skin. Katara let her hand fall, resting her fingers against his scar. The skin did feel stiff, hardened into distinct ridges, but in between it was still smooth to the touch. Zuko’s chest rose and fell as he took a deep breath—and then he opened his eyes, staring straight at her and through her, and Katara’s stomach flipped over.

“Thank you,” he said.

She dropped her hand.

“You’re welcome. I—It’s been a long day. I should go to bed.”

“Oh. Yeah.”

She stood. Zuko scrambled to his feet, too, and Katara shot him a puzzled look. He cleared his throat.

“Good night.”

“’Night.”

She turned away, but he blurted out “Katara—” and she turned back.

Zuko took a step closer and reached out—she thought he was going to pick up her hand and kiss it again, but instead he just sort of brushed her arm and leaned down to kiss her cheek. For a moment he lingered. His skin was warm, and the garden was very, very quiet.

Then Zuko drew back. He couldn’t quite meet her gaze; he looked down at the grass beneath their feet.

“Good night,” she repeated softly.

Katara turned away and left the courtyard. She didn’t need to look over her shoulder to know he was watching.

That night, Katara tossed and turned and couldn’t get to sleep. She thought about ringing the bell cord next to her bed to call Ayako, but she always felt guilty when she did that—her maid deserved to sleep through the night, even if Katara couldn’t. What she really wanted to do, she thought, was stroll through the gardens and enjoy the moonlight. She wouldn’t need to disturb anyone for that, just ask some guards to accompany her, and they were already awake and waiting outside her bedroom.

But the thought made her skittish. Some other night… not tonight.

She rolled over again, resolving to go to sleep right now—and then her eyes fall on the door between her room and Zuko’s.

Maybe he would go with her, she wondered. Maybe that would make her feel better than some guards she didn’t really know. She certainly had more firsthand knowledge of what a good fighter he was. But she couldn’t order him to come with her the way she could order the guards. He would probably turn her down and go right back to sleep.

But Katara didn’t really want to go on some long, extended walk, either. She just wanted a little fresh air to make this room feel less tight, less closed-off. Even a window would help.

Maybe Zuko had a window.

She got out of bed and wrapped her blue wedding blanket around her shoulders. For a moment she stood there, staring at the door. It wasn’t weird, she told herself. They were married. They were supposed to share a room at some point. If they had been in the Water Tribe, they would have been sharing a room since the wedding.

Finally, she forced her feet to move and knocked on the door.

“Zuko?” she called quietly. At first she thought he was asleep or ignoring her, but then she heard “Katara?” in a groggy voice.

“Can I come in?”

“It’s open.”

She tried the latch and was surprised to find it unlocked. It had been locked from his side since the morning after their wedding—or at least she had thought so. She peered inside the room with some trepidation. It was dark, but her eyes had adjusted enough that she could see it was very like hers. Same furniture, similar decorations, except with the addition of a pair of swords mounted on the wall and some portraits of people she didn’t know clustered around a low altar.

Zuko was sprawled in the middle of the bed, and he pushed himself up on one elbow. She couldn’t make out his expression.

“I couldn’t sleep. I thought maybe you would have a window—for the moonlight—but you don’t. I’ll go.”

“Yeah, I do,” he croaked.

He stood, yawning, and walked over to the wall. His fingers found a groove in the wood Katara hadn’t seen, and he drew back a wooden shutter. A paper screen and a wooden lattice ensured that the room was private and secure—but the moonlight filtered through, and Katara crossed to the window with a happy sigh without thinking.

“That’s perfect.”

Zuko ran a hand over the back of his head.

“You, uh. You want to stay?”

“Yeah, if you don’t mind.”

“No, no, it’s fine.”

She walked up to the bed, hesitated, and changed direction. Zuko had gotten up from that side—she didn’t know if he had a strong preference. She walked all the way around to the other side and lay down on top of the covers, with her blanket around her. Zuko lay down again, and they awkwardly looked anywhere except at each other.

“That’s the blanket from our wedding,” he said. He reached out to stroke the edge.

“Yes.”

“It’s really soft.”

“We take a lot of pride in wedding blankets. When Sokka and I were little, in the winters we slept in our parents’ bedroll every night. Their blanket was big enough for all four of us.” She smiled. “I remember one year, he decided he was too old for that, so he set up his bedroll across the room… and then, when it got too cold, he just rolled right over. I don’t know how my parents kept a straight face. My dad pulled me really close so Sokka wouldn’t hear me laughing.”

Zuko snorted.

“You all slept in the same room?”

“Yeah, private houses in the South Pole are all one room. Easier to heat.”

“But they’re made of ice . I always wondered how you could stand it—my ship was always freezing.”

“Ice is actually a great insulator. A lot better than metal. And the insides were hung with skins and pelts… and our blankets are very, very warm.”

She offered him a corner. He hesitated before draping it casually around him. It was a big blanket, and there was still half a foot of space between them.

“All right, I can see how this would help.” She was tracing the geometric pattern without thinking about it, and Zuko’s eyes were on her fingers. “Do you get homesick?” he asked.

“Yes. Sort of. But also… I spent almost a year traveling, and I liked it a lot. When I went home, I was happy to be back, but before I came here, I was already starting to feel restless. I think now I’m a little bit homesick and a little sick of—just being in one place. Do you ever feel like that? Do you miss your ship?”

Zuko rested his head on his folded arms.

“I was banished. It’s different.”

“Yeah. I guess it is.”

“Sometimes newlyweds go on trips around the islands,” Zuko said with a yawn. “When I talked to Uncle about it, he said he didn’t think it was safe, but maybe in a couple of months…”

Katara bit her lip.

“I never really apologized for what happened earlier. I was reckless, and I’m sorry.”

“Me too.” His eyes had drifted shut, but he opened them and met her gaze. The filtered light made them look green, like a panthercat’s. “I’m sorry I yelled at you. I know you’re a strong bender, and it’s not like you were trying to get yourself attacked. It wasn’t necessary.”

“You were really worried, huh?” Katara teased, lips curved in a smile. Zuko frowned.

“Of course I was. You’re my wife.”

“But not…” Not your lover, Katara was going to say, but she trailed off into a blush.

“Doesn’t matter,” he shrugged. “I’m your husband. I’d have to honor you and defend you and worry about you if you were the most annoying person in the world. And you’re not. The most annoying person in the world.”

“Thanks,” Katara smiled. “Neither are you.”

She wasn’t sure what happened next. Maybe she relaxed and sank closer to the center of the mattress. Maybe Zuko moved further underneath the blanket. Maybe they both leaned forward, slowly, intentionally. She wasn’t sure of that, but she was sure of the fact that their lips touched in a chaste, barely-there kiss, as faint as the light filtered through the blue paper.

They pulled away. Zuko lifted his hand and hovered in the air for a moment before cupping her cheek. A soft sigh escaped Katara’s lips and then he kissed her again, more solid this time. Her fingers wrapped around his wrist and she wiggled closer. It was a good kiss, she thought, made better by the darkness and stillness around them, and her heart thumped when Zuko opened his mouth against hers. She gasped a little, and that was where the problem began—the gasp turned into a yawn before she could stop it.

Her cheeks burned. Zuko snorted.

“I’m sorry. It’s just—it’s late—”

“You’re tired. And the window.”

“Yeah,” she smiled. “I always sleep better when I can see the sky.”

“I understand.” Zuko shifted a little further away, although he remained under the blanket. His eyes drifted shut, and he yawned, too. “You know, if you wanted… you can come over whenever you want…”

Katara wasn’t sure what to say to that, but she didn’t have to. Zuko’s breathing turned soft and regular, and within moments she followed him into sleep.

She woke up alone the next morning, wrapped in the blue blanket in her husband’s bed, and was almost disappointed. Not because she wanted him to be here, she told herself quickly, but because his absence suggested that he was uncomfortable about last night. She didn’t enjoy his cold awkwardness, and he was sure to be cold and awkward for the next few days.

Katara returned to her own room. She dropped the blanket on the bed and opened the door for her maid. She was hoping for a bath, but Ayako startled at the sight of her.

“You’re awake! My apologies, Your Highness—the prince said you would be sleeping in. He has already gone down to breakfast.”

It was later than she had thought it was, so she skipped the bath, and Ayako called another maid to help get Katara dressed and make her hair presentable in record time. When she entered the breakfast room soon after, she found not only Zuko, but Iroh and Azula, and she wished she had stayed in bed. Of course. The rest of the royal family had only joined them for breakfast twice in the past six months, but of course they would choose today.

“Princess Katara!” Iroh called joyfully. “It is lovely to see you. I am afraid we have finished off the mango, but would you care for a cup of white jasmine tea?”

“Thank you, Fire Lord Iroh,” she said with a bow, reverting to formality in her awkwardness. She took the only seat available, between Zuko and Azula. “I’m sorry for being late.”

“Zuko told us you weren’t coming at all,” Azula said with a shrewd look.

“I’m sorry,” Zuko apologized. “I know you didn’t sleep well—I just told your maid not to bother you—”

“It’s fine,” Katara said.

Still, Zuko seemed contrite for reasons she couldn’t even guess at. He poured the tea for her, and offered each of the breakfast dishes by name. He spooned sliced moon peaches onto her plate and turned pink when one slips into the floor.

“Maybe you should have slept late,” Katara teased, and he looked bemused and offended for half a second before laughing at himself.

Iroh’s smile, as he watched them, was serene; Azula’s less so.

“You seem to be in a remarkably good mood this morning, Zuzu,” she cooed.

“I guess,” he said, even as all traces of good mood vanished. He gave his breakfast a surly poke.

“I suppose we have Katara to thank for that,” Azula said, turning her charming smile on Katara. Katara knew she was up to something, but had no idea what—silence seemed like the safest response. “Why, I don’t think I’ve seen my brother this happy since he was dating Mai.”

Zuko choked on his tea. Katara dropped another peach slice.

“Oh, you didn’t know? Yes, they were quite taken with each other. They dated until… well, what with the war and the engagement and the wedding, it’s hard to get the timeline straight. When did the two of you end things, Zuko?”

“It was when the war ended,” Zuko snarled. “Before we got engaged. And it doesn’t matter.” His eyes slid to Katara’s face. “It was only a couple of months.”

“Childhood sweethearts before that,” Azula said in a loud whisper.

“Azula!”

“Azula,” Iroh said in a firm voice. “I do not think your brother wishes to discuss such things over breakfast. A day that begins in disharmony will never want for chaos.”

“Of course, Uncle.”

Katara stared down at her plate. There were eels squirming in her stomach now, and she couldn’t imagine eating a slimy peach. She took a soft bun, instead, but it stuck in her throat.

Of course Zuko had had a girlfriend when he returned to the Fire Nation. He was sixteen, he was a prince, he was… She didn’t know why she hadn’t thought about it before. Mai’s persistent animosity suddenly made sense. She had been in love with Zuko, probably expecting to be Fire Lady some day, and then Katara had come and snatched him away.

And maybe Azula’s snide implication was correct—maybe they had kept dating even after the engagement. Why not? A year was a long time, and it wasn’t as if Katara would have known, and he had made it perfectly clear that he had wanted this just as little as she had. Her Fire Nation literature classes were full of poems and epics about clandestine lovers doomed by unlucky stars and arranged marriages—that was how things worked at court. Even if they had broken up, it wasn’t unreasonable for Zuko to take a mistress at some point. Maybe not Mai—she seemed too proud—but some other noblewoman, or a courtesan, even a maid as long as she could be discreet...

It didn’t matter. It really didn’t matter. She was his wife, and someday she was going to be his queen and the mother of his children, but not his lover. Neither of them had wanted this. Why shouldn’t they be allowed to snatch at some little bit of happiness, when they could? It didn’t matter.

Zuko was looking anywhere but at her. Azula was looking down at her plate with that lizardcat-that-got-the-cream smile that Katara hated so much.

“More tea, Katara?” Iroh offered, even though her cup was still half full.

“No, thank you.”

“What time will you and Zuko be training today? I had hoped to find some time in my schedule to watch. Sifu Xue tells me the display grows more magnificent by the day.”

“Actually, I think I am feeling a little under the weather,” Katara said, touching her forehead. She meant it to be a lie, but as the words passed her lips, they felt true. “It’s the full moon. I didn’t sleep very well last night.”

She avoided everyone all day. She started to read over a dozen books and reports and discarded all of them. She wrote letters to her family, but they were as short as possible—the bare minimum of reassurance that she was all right and any assassination attempts they may or may not have heard about were not serious enough for her to come home. She didn’t tell them what else had happened, or respond to any of Ayako’s pointed looks.

That evening, she went to find Zuko. She found him on the west balcony, with four unlit candles in front of him and a wooden bowl of water off to the side. He glanced over his shoulder and flashed the tiniest, relieved smile.

“There you are.”

Katara folded herself into the lotus position beside him. He pinched the wick of each candle, sparking them into flame. Katara stared at the bowl of water before her and took a deep breath. It rippled in sympathy.

“Why didn’t you tell me about you and Mai?”

The rhythm of his breathing didn’t change, but he was quiet for a long time before he answered.

“It’s over.”

“But you loved her.”

He bowed his head. Katara swallowed and stood to leave.

“Katara…”

He didn’t follow.

That night, Katara locked the door between their rooms.

Chapter Text

“Hi, Katara. It’s nice to see you again. Since, um, this morning. You look really nice tonight. Well, you always look nice—not that that’s the only thing I notice about you, because you’re also smart and tough, and I really admire that about you because I know we’re supposed to be partners. Anyway… oh, happy birthday! Anyway, I think there’s something we should talk about. So. We’re married. And we’ve been married for a while now, and some people have been starting to ask questions about… things. There’s no rush on the things, to be clear, but if you wanted to talk so we’re on the same page, that would be great. If you want to. I know you’ve sort of hated me in the past, and possibly still do, so if we could… fix that somehow… it might help? Also, I don’t know if it’s relevant but I—I’m in—I might be—”

Zuko’s reflection stared back at him balefully. He groaned and ran his hands through his hair.

“Ugh, this is impossible,” he muttered. He glanced at the clock and swore under his breath. It was getting late, and he wasn’t even dressed yet—where was Yong?

He stalked over to his closet and yanked the door open. His usually-unflappable valet crashed to the ground, having been pressing his ears to the crack. He looked up at Zuko with a sheepish smile from under a pile of red silk. Zuko glared at him.

“Yong,” he said through gritted teeth.

“Yes, Your Highness?”

“You know how, in exchange for not directly spying on me for my sister, I look the other way when you tell some embarrassing things about me to your friends in the servants’ hall?”

“...Yes, Your Highness.”

“This is not one of those things.”

“Yes, Your Highness.”

The valet scrambled to his feet and held up a set of robes for Zuko’s approval. It was high summer, and the air was thick with heat. The robes were his lightest set, with a pale pink linen underlayer and red silk jacket.

“Isn’t that a little informal?” Zuko frowned. “I thought the maroon and gold would be more appropriate.”

“I have it on good authority that Princess Katara finds shoulder spikes ungainly, sir,” Yong said loftily. “Besides, the colors will clash. These robes should please your wife immensely.”

“Who said anything about pleasing my wife?” Zuko said sharply, trying to minimize the importance of his valet’s earlier eavesdropping—but he realized his error when Yong actually snorted and had to bite his lip to keep from bursting into laughter. Zuko sighed. “Is there any chance I can keep you from telling people I said that?”

Yong hemmed and hawed, which meant no, there was not. Oh well. It was hardly the first time Zuko had been the laughingstock of the palace.

He dressed quickly. Yong tied his hair and offered the artifact his uncle had given him. Zuko rejected it, like always, in favor of the newer, simpler crown pin. When he was finished, he stepped out into the hallway just as the door to Katara’s room opened a few feet down. She was looking over her shoulder as she exited, laughing at something her maid had said, and Zuko’s heart skipped a beat. She looked beautiful. So beautiful, that for a moment he thought he was hallucinating—her hair seemed to be sparkling in the low light. Then he realized that there was actual glitter in the profuse amount of oil her maid used in the summer to keep her raucous curls under control. The effect was still dazzling.

“Oh, hi,” Katara said. The easy camaraderie they had shared after the solstice had ended abruptly after Azula’s breakfast revelation, and her voice was still muted. But enough time had passed that they were speaking again, which was at least an improvement.

“Hi. Um. Happy birthday.”

“Thanks.” She looked up at him with a cautious smile. “I got your present. It was really nice.”

“Yeah, the guy who did the wedding portrait, the court painter, he’s supposed to be the best in the country or whatever, so…”

He offered her his arm and she slipped her hand in the crook of his elbow as they began to walk.

“Sure... I actually liked the other one better, though. The one of me bending? I wouldn’t have expected an artist from the Fire Nation to paint waterbending moves so accurately.”

“Oh, uh.” He blushed and rubbed at the back of his neck. “That was me. My sword master had this thing about warriors learning how to paint.”

“Oh, did you study with Master Piandao too?”

“‘Too’?”

“Sokka studied with Piandao before the invasion. But you’re a much better painter than he is.”

Zuko had accepted Piandao’s tutelage as a boy only because his uncle had assured him endlessly that Piandao taught only a very exclusive group of elite swordsmen and that therefore no one could cast aspersions at a firebender learning from him. This new information gave him pause. He declined to comment, however, and they walked out to the palace grounds in as comfortable a silence as he could have hoped for.

They walked in a comfortable silence out to the palace grounds. The party was set up in the back, where the neat palace gardens blended into the wild jungle. He knew Katara was endlessly fascinated by the plants out here, and she gasped in delight when they reached the top of the stairs. The fire lilies were in bloom, and they gleamed in the golden light of the setting sun and dozens of tiny lanterns that cast a warm glow over the crowd. A small band was playing near the bottom of the stairs, and people were clustered around an assortment of small tables, helping themselves to finger foods and wine.

There were cheers and whistles as the herald announced them and they began to descend. Katara was beaming and waving at people already.

“Where are your parents?” Zuko asked, craning his head, but the crowd was such a mix of red, blue, and green that he couldn’t pick them out easily. Part of him was relieved, but the other part had been hoping to get the most intimidating moment of the night over as quickly as possible.

“I’m not sure,” Katara said. “And it’s just my dad—Gran-Gran had the flu last week, and my mom stayed at home to help her recover.”

“That’s too bad.”

“Yeah,” she sighed. “I miss them a lot… oh, there’s your uncle!”

A fond smile creased the Fire Lord’s face, and Zuko almost smiled back before schooling his face into a more neutral expression. Sometimes he was able to forget that he was essentially a hostage in his own home—that he and Azula might very well have been victims of his uncle’s coup if they hadn’t agreed to be the obedient, repentant heirs. Sometimes he saw his uncle and wanted to smile and complain about tea and even ask for romantic advice because a kiss on the hand is the ultimate princely gesture, which no lady can resist! wasn’t really cutting it anymore. Then he remembered the smell of sizzling flesh and burnt hair, and the smile went away on his own.

Iroh greeted Katara and wished her happy birthday, and she smiled and called him Uncle. Zuko took a deep breath, reminding himself to be civil. He could be civil for an evening.

“And thank you so much for your gift—it’s incredible!”

“The truth is, I don’t know how much of the credit is really mine. Master Mako did the work, of course, and when he learned of the intended recipient, he truly surpassed himself.”

“Well, I’ll be sure to thank him, too, when I see him.”

“And may I just say you look lovely this evening. Perhaps even… radiant?”

He raised an eyebrow significantly, and glanced from Katara to Zuko. Zuko was puzzled—and then he realized what Iroh was hinting at and he was both enraged and mortified.

“Goodbye, Uncle,” he said. He tightened his grip on Katara’s arm and marched her away.

“No,” she said faintly over her shoulder. Her cheeks were a deep brick red. “What—why—”

“Forget it.”

“Is it the dress?” she mused. “Should I change…?”

She looked over her shoulder again, and her hand absently smoothed the silk of her dress. It was high-waisted, inspired by the hanbok worn in the Southern Earth Kingdom, with a full skirt that Zuko was trying desperately not to step on. Most of it was sky-blue, with dark blue accents and cherry blossoms embroidered in pink.

“No, don’t worry about it. You look great.”

“Really?”

“Of course,” he said, annoyed. “Why would I lie about that?”

“Oh, never mind.”

They had put enough distance between themselves and Iroh, and they stopped. A server appeared to offer them wine, and people came up to greet Katara. She accepted them all graciously, but it was clear she was looking for someone. She kept going up on her toes to peer over the crowd. Zuko’s stomach had started to churn.

“That, um, that reminds me. Hey.”

Katara looked at him.

“Were you talking to me?”

“Yeah. I just remembered—there’s something we should talk about. Not now, but… soon?”

“Okay,” she said slowly. “Is everything all right?”

“Yeah—I mean I think so—but—”

“Found ya!”

Her brother materialized out of the crowd. He launched himself at her and hugged her with such enthusiasm that Katara was lifted off the ground.

“Sokka!” she laughed. “Oh, I missed you so much!”

“Have you been gone?” Sokka said breezily. “I guess. I didn’t really notice.”

“Don’t be a jerk,” the girl with him scolded. She hugged Katara, too, and said happy birthday. She glanced at Zuko, and he cleared his throat.

“Hi. Zuko here.”

“Yeah, I know who you are.” She crossed her arms. “You kind of burned down my village.”

“Oh. Sorry about that. Nice to see you again.” He looked down at his wine glass, but it was already empty.

“This is Suki, Zuko,” Katara said, touching his elbow. “She’s the leader of the Kyoshi Warriors.”

“Oh, I know the Kyoshi Warriors. That’s pretty impressive.”

“Did Toph come with you?”

“Yeah, she went to get food,” Sokka said. “I wanted to go with her—”

“But I said we needed to say hello to the guest of honor first,” Suki said, rolling her eyes. “Ask her about her metalbending school—I think she’s ready to actually start it, assuming things in the colonies quiet down in the next couple of months. She’s gotten plenty of practice.”

“That’s great,” Katara said, but she seemed distracted. “And what about… Aang?”

Sokka and Suki exchanged a look.

“He’s kind of… missing?” her brother said.

“He’s what?”

“Shh,” Sokka said hastily. He looked around dramatically and then glared at Zuko. “We don’t want to spread it around.”

“He’s probably okay,” Suki said. “He went to the Eastern Air Temple a while ago—”

“Ugh, is that the one with that guru?” Zuko said, pulling a face. “He spent a week babbling at me about chakras before he told me he wasn’t the Avatar. We were almost at the southern coast by that point.”

“Are you seriously complaining about Guru Pathik’s behavior when you kidnapped him?” Katara demanded, and Zuko backtracked.

“That’s not relevant, is it? Sorry.”

Anyway,” Sokka continued. “He went to see the guru to learn more about the Avatar state, but then he stopped replying to my letters—”

“Join the club,” Katara muttered.

“So Toph went over to the temple to look for him, and the guru said Aang was on some kind of journey with another spiritual guide and would probably be gone for at least a week.”

“A week? And how long ago was this?”

“...Two weeks ago.”

“I can’t believe you didn’t tell me!”

“He’s okay, though! He left Appa at the temple, and Guru Pathik said that Appa would know if Aang was hurt.”

“And I can’t believe he would do this! He can’t just run away like this every time. He has people who care about him, he has responsibilities—”

“Like what?” Zuko asked absently as he snagged a dumpling from a passing waiter. He would not have thought this was a controversial question, but when he turned back to the conversation he found all three of them glaring at him. “What?” he said defensively. “Aside from mastering earthbending and firebending and spirit stuff, what responsibilities does the Avatar have? He’s a fourteen-year-old kid and the war’s over.”

“He maintains balance and peace in the world,” Katara said in a voice like ice. “And he’s a symbol of hope for the people.”

“Is he, though? When people were relying on the Avatar to end the war, fine, but the war’s over and he didn’t end it. The Fire Nation did. Sure, the Avatar signed the treaties, but we’re the ones who drew them up, and the other nations all independently negotiated them. You and I are doing a lot more to help the Fire Nation get back on track, the Northern Water Tribe is doing more to help the South Pole. Even the Kyoshi Warriors are doing more to help with the colonial riots,” he said, gesturing at Sokka and Suki. “It’s been a hundred years since anyone really relied on the Avatar to do anything, and no one is exactly holding their breath now. Except the ones who think the Fire Nation is going to attack again,” he added as a bitter afterthought. “They still expect him to step in and keep us in line. But the rest of the world can survive for two weeks without your precious Avatar.”

“You don’t even know him!” Katara hissed.

“Why are you giving him so much credit?” Zuko retorted.

Suki hooked her arm through Katara’s.

“Come on, Katara,” she said soothingly. “It’s your birthday. Let’s go get you a drink and leave the stupid boys to themselves.”

She glared at Zuko as they left.

“That was almost impressive,” Sokka remarked. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m pretty good at making my sister mad at me. But you got her so mad, so quickly.”

“I don’t even know if that made our top ten,” Zuko sighed. His gaze wandered aimlessly around the room. “Oh no.”

“What? What?” Sokka asked, whirling around with his hand on his boomerang.

“Your father is talking to my ex’s uncle,” he groaned. He pointed. They could only see each man in profile, but Hakoda’s stormy face and the warden’s unctuous smile was enough to demonstrate how the conversation was going. Zuko had met the man twice and still didn’t know his actual name. Mai always sarcastically referred to him as “my uncle, the warden.”

“Wow. He has the most punchable face I’ve ever seen.”

“Yeah,” Zuko sighed. “And I’m pretty sure that if your dad punches him, it’s going to be my fault somehow. I’ll go rescue him.”

“Hey, he’s my dad—leave the rescuing to me, thanks.”

They crossed the garden. Hakoda looked over at their arrival and exchanged a wordless but expressive look with his son.

“Ah, Warden,” he said in a tight voice that immediately put Zuko on the defensive. His brief stay in the South Pole had been incredibly tense, and that voice was a big part of the reason why. “Allow me to introduce my son, Sokka. And I presume you know Prince Zuko already.”

“Oh yes,” the warden said, looking down his long nose at Zuko. He sniffed. “I am very familiar with Prince Zuko.”

“Right. Hi.”

“I was just telling Chief Hakoda about the Boiling Rock,” the warden continued, bestowing his smirk on the Water Tribesman. “And the accommodations we provide for our prisoners. Under my tenure, we never had members of the Water Tribes, although of course it was a possibility we were quite prepared for.”

“Great,” Zuko said through gritted teeth. “Chief Hakoda—”

“And of course, we are also the most secure prison in the world for the worst of the Fire Nation, too. Always have been, and always will be, even if I do say so myself.”

“What an honor,” Zuko said flatly. Who had even invited this guy? It had to have been Azula. Or possibly Mai, if she was still trying to punish him for that letter, which she had obviously told her family about. He really needed to get Hakoda out of earshot as soon as possible. “Chief Hakoda, we were actually just looking for you, because… tell him why, Sokka.”

“Because we… need help with… the food!” Sokka said brightly.

Zuko used the drape of his long robes to very discreetly stomp on his idiot brother-in-law’s toes. Sokka’s answering stomp was less discreet.

“Help with the food?” the warden repeated.

“Yeah! There’s a problem in the kitchens.”

“And what problem requires the attention of a guest?”

The two young men glanced at each other.

“Eating it?” Zuko suggested.

“I can certainly assist with that problem,” Hakoda said gravely. “I’m honored you thought of me first. Warden, it’s been a pleasure.”

Zuko made a beeline for a small, partially-enclosed gazebo that was just outside of the party’s perimeter, and the two tribesmen followed—Sokka snatching a plate of appetizers on the way. They sat down and ducked beneath the rail to avoid the warden. It really was possible to care about one’s job too much.

“Ugh,” Zuko pronounced, tipping his head back. “This is already a terrible party.”

“Not a bad rescue and food requisition mission, though,” Sokka said. Zuko could have sworn the plate of was full when he first picked it up, but it was a third empty now.

“Yes, yes, well done, boys,” Hakoda said. “Now I, for one, need a drink.”

He was eyeing Zuko sideways, in a way that made him distinctly uncomfortable. He was being sized up, and he didn’t like being sized up. His instinct was to either adopt his haughty prince persona and shout a little or turn sullen and quiet and refuse to respond to anybody. Both of which seemed like effective ways to make his father-in-law hate him.

“Sokka—save me some of those—do you have the flask?”

“Yeah,” Sokka said through a mouthful of shellfish. He passed over the plate and drew a flask from his pocket. Hakoda took a sip and handed it back to Sokka, who did the same.

“Give some to Zuko,” Hakoda nodded. “He’s earned it.”

Sokka handed over the flask with great reluctance. Zuko eyed it suspiciously.

“What is it?”

“Alcohol. Ever heard of it?”

Zuko rolled his eyes and took a large sip—and promptly choked.

“What is that?” he coughed, while Sokka pointed and laughed like a braying donkeygoose.

“Vodka,” Hakoda said with an amused smile. “You don’t have that in the Fire Nation?”

“No!”

“Ha! He really hasn’t heard of alcohol!”

“We have alcohol,” he protested. “We drink wine and whiskey, like civilized people, not tank fuel.

He realized, at Hakoda’s raised eyebrow, that this might be construed as an insult. Sokka shrugged, snatched the flask back, and took a swig.

“Whatever, lightweight.”

“I am not a lightweight!”

“There’s no shame in being a lightweight,” Hakoda said seriously. Zuko looked between the two Water Tribe men, knowing full well that this was a trap, and held his hand out with a sigh. “Throw it back,” Hakoda advised. “Aim for the throat, not the tongue.”

Zuko threw it back. The alcohol still scraped his throat raw on the way down, but the aftertaste was almost pleasant. Cold and harsh, like ice.

“Attaboy,” Sokka said with exaggerated condescension, patting Zuko on the back. “You’ll get there.”

“The first time you tried vodka, you went running to your mother and said you’d just drank poison by mistake.”

“Aw man,” he whined as Zuko laughed. “She told you?”

“She told me. How old were you—thirteen?”

“Yeah.”

“I was thirteen the first time I drank, too,” Zuko said without thinking. “Aside from a sip of wine at holidays.”

“Snooping around in your father’s liquor cabinet?” Hakoda asked indulgently.

“No. I found out the sailors on my ship had brought liquor aboard, then I confiscated it, and then I… drank it.”

This wasn’t a happy memory, he remembered suddenly. It had been six months after his banishment, and one night he had been so frustrated and defeated that he had thought he might as well see what slacking off felt like. He’d drunk far too much whiskey and thrown up over the side of the ship. The sailors thought it was seasickness, and scoffed that he hadn’t mastered it after so long at sea, but his uncle had realized what was wrong. He had helped Zuko back to bed and stayed with him, rubbing his back as he cried himself to sleep.

“Can I have some more of that?” he asked in the hopes they wouldn’t ask for more details.

“Sure.” Hakoda eyed him as he drank, and spoke in an overly casual voice. “So, Zuko.” He popped a shrimp in his mouth. “A few days ago, I got a letter from my daughter saying that I might hear rumors that she had been the target of an assassin, but they were entirely exaggerated, that she had dealt with it, and that the ‘assassin’ in question probably hadn’t even been trying to seriously hurt her. Is that true?”

“That’s a tough question to answer,” Zuko said slowly. “Because if I say no, it means I’m calling your daughter a liar.”

“And if you say yes?” Hakoda asked, raising an eyebrow. Zuko tried to think, but the seconds ticked by and his thoughts were spinning like water circling a drain.

“Then... I’m a liar. So. Tough question.”

“You nailed it, though,” Sokka snickered. He held up the tray. “Snack?”

“You should take some,” Hakoda advised. “We’re going to be here a while.”

“Great,” Zuko said weakly.

It seemed like days later when someone finally came to end the interrogation. Katara wandered towards the gazebo, frowning. The glitter in her hair looked even more amazing in the lantern light—as if the stars above them had fallen into her curls.

There you are,” she said impatiently when she spotted Zuko. “I’ve been looking for you. Azula keeps making snide little comments about her showcase on the solstice and I want to wipe the smug look off her face, so—you’re drunk.”

“No,” Zuko asserted. “No, no, no, no, I’m fine.”

He stood and stumbled against the wall. He righted himself in seconds and beamed at Katara, but she did not look as proud as he would have hoped.

“You definitely can’t firebend with me like this. And is that—?” She leaned forward and sniffed, then rounded on her father and brother. “It is! It’s vodka—it’s been forty minutes and you already got my husband drunk?”

“In my defense, sweetheart,” Hakoda began. He stood, with greater elegance than Zuko; Sokka clung to the rail of the gazebo for support. “...It is a party. Also, have I told you that you look lovely tonight?”

“Hmph.”

Katara looked between them, then held out her hand. Sokka gave her the flask, which was almost empty; only about half a sip sloshed around when Katara shook it. She knocked it back gracefully, and a content little shiver moved her shoulders. Zuko stared. His wife was really, really pretty, and she had gorgeous eyes, even—especially—when they focused on him with a hard glint that told him he had one last chance to avoid her disapproval.

“I’m going to make it snow,” she declared. “That’ll show Little Miss Perfect Princess. Are you sober enough to sit, watch, clap, and save me a blueberry tart for when I’m done?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“And don’t call me ma’am!”

“Yes, ma—an?”

The glare Katara shot him over her shoulder as she stalked away was downright poisonous. Sokka draped an arm around Zuko with a smirk.

“Smooth, jerkbender. Real smooth.”

Zuko decided he hated his brother-in-law.

“I told Katara she was being stupid.”

Zuko was beginning to think there was some kind of conspiracy to make his wife angry at him. First it had been his uncle’s comment, then the conversation about the Avatar. The vodka. Possibly the warden, if he had kept going around passing on his stupid little insinuations about the Water Tribe and prison. Maybe he couldn’t be blamed for Azula being rude, and Katara’s snow performance had been received by much praise—but apparently he had dawdled on his way to the dessert table, because he had been unable to save her a blueberry tart, and she seemed miffed at having to settle for strawberry.

And now his ex-girlfriend had told her she was stupid.

“You said what?”

Mai folded her arms and surveyed the crowd with a bored expression.

“I heard she’s been avoiding you ever since she found out we were a thing. That’s stupid. I told her so.”

“She hasn’t been—well—I mean yeah, she avoided me for a bit but only—why would you do that?” he demanded, and Mai gave him a look that said, very eloquently, that he was acting just the way he did when they broke up the first two times.

“Because she kept giving me this stupid look and I was tired of it. I’m not the kind of pathetic girl who’s going to moon over someone else’s husband and she needed to know that. And…” She actually hesitated, then lowered her voice. “I kind of owed you. You’re still the worst boyfriend ever for—what you did. But you’re a pretty okay friend for keeping it a secret. And you’re apparently a decent husband, so I know you’re not going to sit around mooning over some other girl, either. You’ve got too much honor or whatever.”

“Or whatever.”

Zuko jumped and turned to see a young, snickering girl in green leaning against a nearby tree trunk.

“This is a private conversation,” he snapped.

“Oh, sorry about that,” she said, very clearly not sorry. “Did I forget to introduce myself? Toph Bei Fong, the All-Knowing, Greatest Earthbender Who Ever Was or Will Be.”

“You’re pretty tiny,” Mai said blandly.

“Hey, watch it,” Toph growled. “I grew two inches last year!”

“Wooooow.”

“Besides, you don’t need to be tall to be all-knowing. And what I know is that Hot Stuff here has at least one very good reason he won’t be cheating on Katara, and it’s got nothing to do with honor.”

“Oh really,” Mai said. She looked at Zuko with an appraising eye, and he flushed.

“Why are you listening to her?” he asked. “I don’t even know her!”

“Well, you’re not the All-Knowing,” Mai said. “She’s the All-Knowing.”

“I like you,” Toph grinned. She pushed herself off the tree and came to stand between them, shoving Zuko away. “How do you feel about smashing things?”

“Crude. Boring. I prefer stabbing things.”

“You know, that’s an argument I can respect. It’s wrong, but I can respect it.”

The two girls began to debate various methods of combat, while Zuko watched them and frowned. He did know who Toph Bei Fong was—vaguely. He had heard some stories from Katara and he knew that Uncle liked her. But this was his first real conversation with the girl himself, and he didn’t know what to think. He certainly didn’t like the things she was implying about him, loudly, when there was no way she could know what she was talking about. Was there?

“Hey,” he interrupted. “What you said before—”

“This is a private conversation, actually,” Mai said, deadpan.

Toph snickered again and held up her fist. Mai made eye contact with Zuko as she smirked and bumped it with her own. This was a terrible development and Zuko was going to regret it a lot.

“What makes you think—” he pressed on. “What other—how did you—?”

“I can read your mind, Hot Stuff,” Toph said. Her right foot drew a circle on the ground. “By which I mean, your heartbeat. It’s saying all kinds of interesting things tonight.”

“That doesn’t prove anything,” Zuko said, relieved. The truth was, he didn’t care that much if Toph knew… what she thought she knew. What mattered was who else she was going to tell, and if all she had to say was that her feet could feel his heart beating, he was pretty sure he was in the clear. No one else was going to believe that. “How can you tell what someone is thinking from a heartbeat ?”

“Are you trying to say I’m wrong?” Toph said, crossing her arms.

“Yeah.”

“Oh, okay, good to know. Katara!” she turned, and speaking of heartbeats, Zuko’s jumped erratically at the sight of her as she approached the group with a friendly smile on her face. “Just so you know, Zuko’s heart totally doesn’t flutter every time you enter a room, and it speeds up every time you talk for completely unrelated normal reasons.”

Katara looked befuddled.

“Thanks, Toph?”

Zuko swooped down and clutched the girl’s arm.

“Why don’t I get you a drink, Toph?” he said through gritted teeth. “Come help me find something you’ll like.”

“She’s fifteen!” Katara called as they retreated.

Toph swiped a bottle of wine off a table as they passed and held it up to Zuko’s face.

“Is this cheap stuff?” she asked. “I don’t like cheap stuff.”

“This is a party for the Fire Princess held in the royal palace,” he said, grabbing the bottle from her hand and taking a sip. “Nothing here is cheap.” He handed the bottle back and reconsidered. “Except what Sokka brought. Don’t drink with Sokka.”

He dragged her off to the side of the party where they were in shadow, tucked under the stairs. Toph took a long pull from the wine bottle, nonchalant, turned slightly away from him.

“You’re in love with Katara,” she announced.

Zuko’s heart did something really weird in his chest. He didn’t know how to describe it—maybe Toph did. He opened his mouth to ask a really stupid question, closed it, then thought fuck it and said, “Can you really tell?”

“Obviously.”

“No, I mean… can you tell the difference between love and—other things?”

Toph wrinkled her nose.

“I’m not a mind reader, Hot Stuff. I can’t tell you if you’re soulmates or if you just want to get under her tunic. I’m just saying, you’ve got it and you’ve got it bad.”

“Fuck,” he sighed. Toph wordlessly held up the bottle, but he shook his head. He sat down with his back against the wall. Toph joined him and tilted her head curiously.

“Are you… disappointed?”

“It’s complicated.”

“Why? Because she’s from the Water Tribe and you’re from the Fire Nation? You knew that going into it and you’ve already been married for like nine months, so I recommend getting the fuck over it.”

“No, that’s not why. It’s because… my parents loved each other at one point,” he said. He didn’t even know why he was talking—he suspected the wine and the vodka had something to do with it. “Then, when they stopped… they stopped speaking to each other. Could barely stand to be in the same room. Used their kids against each other. It was terrible.” He took a swig of wine. “Betrayal hurts a lot worse when it comes from someone you love.”

He thought of his uncle, the caverns of Ba Sing Se, the underground bunker, and felt like he might vomit.

“You could just not betray her,” Toph suggested. “’Cause Katara’s definitely not going to betray you. She’s not the type. The closest she’s ever come to betraying anybody is when she fed Appa these berries so we would stay in this one town longer. But the berries didn’t even hurt him, and she did it because she wanted to help starving kids and sick people. She’s a terrifyingly good person.”

“It’s not that simple,” Zuko frowned. He tipped his head up towards the sky and closed his eyes, feeling the cool night breeze on his face. “When you’re ruling a country, sometimes there are no good answers, so we’re going to clash at some point. It can be hard not to take things personally, and we’re both already inclined to get—touchy. We...”

He trailed off. He was about to tell Toph about how he and Katara had kissed, and then she learned about Mai and avoided him for three days and then it felt like they were distant strangers again, only worse. Then he recalled that Toph was Katara’s friend, not his, Katara’s fifteen-year-old friend he met for the first time ten minutes ago.

“Why am I even telling you this?” he asked. “You’re a kid.”

“I’m a really smart kid,” Toph countered, crossing her arms. “And I just so happen to be Katara’s best friend. Or at least I better be her best friend. What’s so bad about things getting personal? That just means you care. Katara can be pretty bossy and overprotective and she yells too much, but she cares a lot and that’s a good thing.”

“Yeah, but she wants us to be partners,” Zuko sighed. “That means putting the Fire Nation first, putting our children first when we have them. If we start a real relationship, eventually it’ll all blow up in our faces and make everything that much harder.”

At first, Toph was silent, and when she spoke, it was in a low, soft voice that sounded disingenuous coming from her.

“Oh, man,” she said. “That’s really sad.”

“It’s the truth.”

“That’s what I mean. You really believe that. That’s sad.”

Zuko’s throat was tight. Toph stood and took the wine bottle, claiming he really didn’t need any more. She punched him on the arm before disappearing.

Zuko groaned and flopped back on the grass, squeezing his eyes shut until he saw stars. He forgot to ask Mai about her uncle, he realized, but that didn’t seem very important anymore. He had made a mess of this whole night. He had annoyed Katara’s brother, insulted her father, accidentally sicced his ex-girlfriend on her. He might have earned Toph’s pity, but he didn’t think it would help.

It was easier when he was angry. Easier when he resented being forced into this, when all he had to do was sit through breakfast and get out. He hadn’t needed to try so hard, and if he had been miserable, if he had pushed his uncle away and borne the brunt of Azula’s sly digs and spent most of his days alone—well, he was used to that. He knew how to do it. He didn’t know how to do this.

“Ow!”

He yanked his hand back from under someone’s foot and opened his eyes just in time to see Katara jump back.

“Tui and La, you’re really drunk.” She scowled down at him and put her hands on her hips. “You are literally falling down drunk.”

“I didn’t fall down,” Zuko protested. “I just—laid down.”

“Because you’re drunk.”

“I’m not—” He pushed himself up on his hands, and his head spun. “Sorry.”

“Hmph.” Katara sank down on the grass beside him with perfect grace. “On your birthday, I’m going to spend the whole time getting drunk with your sibling and her friends, and it’ll serve you right.”

“You seemed like you were having a nice time,” he said apologetically.

“I was. I am.”

They fell into a comfortable silence. Katara looked at the moon and Zuko looked at her. The light glinted off the lotus pin he’d given her on the solstice. It was a cheap gift, and he hadn’t even planned to give it to her, but she wore it all the time. The sight of it always gave him a funny feeling in his chest, like a giant hand was squeezing his heart.

“You said there was something you wanted to talk about,” Katara prompted.

“Oh. Um. It’s nothing.”

“It didn’t sound like nothing.”

“Now isn’t the right time,” Zuko said evasively, which was the exact wrong thing to say, because Katara’s eyebrows arched and she straightened her shoulders in the way that always projected her intent to poke, prod, or water-whip him into submission.

“Now you’ve got to tell me,” she warned, and he sighed.

“All right, all right. It’s about… what my uncle said.”

“Oh.”

Katara ducked her head, and Zuko wished the earth would swallow him up. Maybe Toph was still around to put him out of his misery.

“Just because—well, we’ve been married for a couple of months now, and people are going to ask, and we haven’t talked about it—”

“And what is there to talk about, exactly?” Katara asked, fiddling with a lock of her hair.

“Nothing! Nothing. It just… it felt like we were sort of making progress, and then we weren’t, and I wanted to… We are going to have children eventually, right? I mean… the whole thing with our wedding night—this isn’t some kind of secret plot to ensure the Fire Nation royal line dies out, or anything?”

“No,” Katara huffed. “No secret plot. I’m fine with us having children at some point, just… not right now.”

“Okay. Good. Yeah. Just let me know… whenever.” He cleared his throat. “I’m not trying to rush you, or anything, but—can I do anything to, uh, help you—hate me less?”

“I don’t hate you,” she said reflexively. She paused and tilted her head like she was thinking. “I don’t hate you,” she said again, with more confidence.

“After we—after what Azula said, you didn’t talk to me at all for three days.”

“I know. I’m sorry about that, but it wasn’t because I hated you. I was just… confused.”

“About what?”

“Don’t laugh,” she warned.

“It’s your birthday,” Zuko said solemnly. “I wouldn’t laugh at you on your birthday.”

“Okay.” Katara took a deep breath. “I never… had a boyfriend or anything. There was never anyone around, or I never had the time, or whatever. So I really have no idea what I’m doing. I’m trying to be a wife, and a princess, and a citizen of the Fire Nation, and it’s all brand new to me and at least for those last two things I have help. But for this, for how to be in a relationship, I’m trying to figure things out on my own. And… when I heard about you and Mai… I don’t know. It was hard enough to figure out who I needed to be, and knowing that you were wishing I was someone else, that made it even harder.”

“I’m not,” Zuko said quickly. Katara sent him a reproachful glare, and he reached out to touch her hand. “I mean it. I—I broke up with Mai. Before we got engaged. Before the war had even ended.”

“Why?” she asked shrewdly, and Zuko picked his words very carefully.

“We just… grew apart. I wasn’t happy with the way things were. I changed, and she didn’t. Anyway. My point is, just because we dated doesn’t mean we were perfect together or that I wish you were her. And…”

He hesitated and looked down at the ground before him. It was harder to talk about her when he was looking at her.

“You remember a couple of months ago, when we were talking about why we got married, and I said my uncle made me? That wasn’t the whole truth. The truth is, he started giving this whole long speech about why an arranged marriage would be a good idea, and I started thinking about what kind of person would be a good Fire Lady. Someone who’s willing to learn a lot, someone with strong principles who will act on them, someone who’s brave and who cares about people. He mentioned you as an example, and I said you would be fine. He was kind of leaning on it hard, but theoretically it could have been anyone.”

“But I was fine?” Katara echoed. There was no inflection in her voice, and Zuko wouldn’t look at her. He picked at the grass beside him.

“Yeah. I had seen what a great waterbender you were, and that doesn’t happen if you’re not smart and dedicated. And I knew you cared. Not just for your friends, but for my uncle when he was hurt—even for me, in Ba Sing Se, when I didn’t deserve it. I thought you would be a good Fire Lady. I won’t pretend I was thrilled about it… I was still angry about—about things, and I still felt like I had been backed into a corner in the first place. But I agreed to it.” His heart was hammering in his chest. “And just because I didn’t expect to like you doesn’t mean that I don’t. Like you. A lot.”

Katara was silent, but he could feel her staring. Behind them, the party was winding down; the band had started to pack up their instruments, and he heard a few people starting to say goodbye. They would be looking for the guest of honor.

Zuko cleared his throat.

“So—”

Katara cut him off. She must have eaten another one of the strawberry tarts, he thought, because she tasted like strawberries and vanilla custard. What had he last eaten—did wine count? Was it going to annoy her again? It didn’t seem like it. Her tongue curled against his and she sighed and rested her hands in his chest. Unthinkingly, his arms came up around her. He smoothed his hands over her back, tamping down her voluminous skirt until he could feel the curve of her waist.

His heart was hammering, so hard he knew Katara must have noticed. This was so much more real than when they had kissed in his room, and he realized with a jolt that anyone could turn the corner and find them like this. They wouldn’t think anything was strange—she was his wife , he was expected to kiss his wife—but it was still a disconcerting thought. Then her breath hitched and everything went away except for the heat of her mouth and her limbs and his own hunger.

After a minute, Katara broke the kiss. She stared up at him with wide eyes, and Zuko opened his mouth to say something very stupid about how her eyes looked like the moon and also the ocean. But before he could get the words out, Katara jumped up and ran away.

Zuko gaped after her.

“Good night!” he called at her retreating back, and got a faint response in return. He looked at the sky above him. “Women,” he muttered, with feeling, and then he fell back in the grass and watched the stars dance above him.

Chapter Text

The week following Katara’s birthday was like a mini vacation. She couldn’t cancel all of her meetings, but she certainly had a much lighter schedule than usual. She used her free time to shop with her father and Sokka, visit volcanoes and spas with Toph and Suki, spar with Pakku—and not think about the confusing new developments in her relationship with Zuko.

Zuko made it easy for her; he was adamant that he didn’t want to keep her from her friends and family, so they always had guests at breakfast, and he didn’t seek her out during the day. Toph and Suki, on the other hand, pestered her for details. She tried to demure by insisting that they had more important things to talk about than boys, but eventually they managed to wrest every little detail from her, down to the kiss at her birthday party.

“Do you… you know?” Suki asked one afternoon, quirking her eyebrows meaningfully. They were soaking in a hot spring, and Katara sunk even lower.

“Did you know Iroh suggested at first that he should marry Toph?” she said desperately, and Toph snorted.

“That’s not true.”

“It is.”

“It is not. Uncle already told me about it—he mentioned my name as a joke, and Zuko didn’t catch it because your husband had no discernible sense of humor. Now do you love him or not, Sweetness?”

“I don’t know.”

Suki looked at Toph, who grinned.

“She’s a fucking liar,” she declared happily, and she splashed at Katara’s face. Katara spat out a mouthful of sulfurous water and froze the water around Toph with a flick of her wrist. The earthbender squawked in protest.

“I’m serious! I honestly don’t know! I mean, how do you even tell, really? And does it matter? He’s my husband and we have to get along, and it’s better that we get along, so maybe we shouldn’t examine it too closely and get worked up about—”

“Okay, I am not having this conversation again, Sugar Queen,” Toph said, crossing her arms. “Uh-uh. Boy talk over, we’re moving on. Had any good fights lately?”

The next day, they took a small sailboat out for a trip around the island, and Toph somehow bullied Zuko into joining them. He had a very manly conversation with Sokka and Hakoda about ships and the tides and sailors’ superstitions—a surefire way to win the approval of men from the Water Tribe. Katara watched him surreptitiously from the stern, where she was unsuccessfully teaching Pakku to produce a snowball, and told herself that the fluttering in her heart was absolutely normal. The ship, thankfully, was wooden, so Toph couldn’t contradict her.

Finally, the day of departure came. The idea was for the ships to be off by breakfast, but of course that didn’t happen. There was packing that hadn’t been done right, and last-minute gifts that had to be exchanged, and then it was so late in the morning that they might as well stay for lunch. Iroh joined them so he could squeeze in one more game of pai sho with Pakku, but he declined Toph’s invitation to walk with them down to the docks.

“I must be heading up to the Sunset Cliffs.”

“What’s at the Sunset Cliffs?” she asked.

“Nothing, except a most magnificent view. But today is my late wife’s birthday, and the cliffs are the place where I scattered some of her ashes.” His eyes were misty. “Zhen Shi was a wise, gracious, and beautiful woman. Comparable, I may say, to any of these lovely young ladies,” he added, because he was Iroh, and he bowed to each of them in turn.

They expressed their sympathy, and Iroh said his farewells.

Katara fussed the whole way down to the docks. She knew what she was doing and she couldn’t help it. After the fifth time she asked her father if he was sure he had packed his good pants, because Mom would kill him if he forgot, he put his arm around her shoulder and squeezed her tight.

“We’ll miss you, too, snow mouse,” he said quietly. A high-pitched giggle escaped Toph’s mouth, and Katara knew this nickname was going to have much more widespread use in the future.

Hugs were exchanged, goodbyes said, promises to write made. Hakoda and Sokka both shook Zuko’s hand, and Sokka tried to subtly stand on his toes to be taller. Then they all piled into the ships and left.

Katara watched them go, sniffling just a little bit. Zuko cleared his throat and put a hand on her shoulder, and she leaned back against him.

“Are you okay?”

“I’m fine. Just—tired.” She smiled feebly. “I know we barely did anything important all week, but I’d still like to nap for a few days.”

“You’re a princess—you can nap for as long as you want. I’ll walk you back.”

Zuko held out his arm, and Katara tucked her hand in the crook of his elbow. As they walked, her gaze drifted up to the Sunset Cliffs. Katara hadn’t been up there herself yet, although of course she remembered the story from the solstice.

“Do you ever miss your aunt?” she asked.

“Hm? Oh. No, she died before I was born… she and my mom were pregnant around the same time, but she went into early labor. She and the baby both died.”

“That’s so sad.”

“Yeah. We don’t talk about it much.”

“Do you want to go up to the cliffs, to pay your respects? I can nap some other time.”

“I don’t know…”

“I’m sure your aunt’s spirit would appreciate it. And your uncle, too.”

Zuko exhaled a gust of air.

“What happened between the two of you?” Katara probed gently. “I thought you were close.”

“We were. Before he killed my father.”

Katara thought of her own father, sailing on the waves behind them. She couldn’t imagine forgiving someone who had killed him. But then, she couldn’t imagine Hakoda as a tyrant, either. She looked down at her feet on the cobblestones.

“Your father wouldn’t have agreed to a peace. When the comet came, he would have killed a lot of people.”

“I know that. Better than you do! But…”

He trailed off, eyes fixed on the cliffs in the distance. Katara rested her other hand on his forearm, and instinctively he tugged her closer.

“He gave me a choice,” Zuko said finally. “He said he hoped I would stay as his heir, but if I couldn’t do that, I could accept an honorable banishment. Or I could challenge him to an agni kai for my right to the crown.”

“Well… yeah,” Katara said, hesitant. “That seems like—well, more of a statement of fact. It was either those three things, or start a civil war, and he couldn’t really suggest one of those—”

“That’s not the point!” he snapped. “The point is, he knew exactly what he was saying. He was there during my first banishment, and he knew how hard it was for me. He was there at my first agni kai, when my father burned half my face off. He acted like it was a choice, but it wasn’t, and for him to offer it anyway—” He cut himself off abruptly. His voice was thick with self-recrimination. “Then again, the last time I had to make a real choice, I betrayed him. So maybe it’s my fault.”

Katara’s heart was pounding in her ears. Her foot caught in a loose stone and she stumbled; Zuko helped her steady herself. He turned his face to make sure she was okay, and she could see the edge of his scar. He was always very careful to present his right side to her. She had assumed it was because his vision was compromised on his left, and he was a warrior who hated having people in his blind spot. Now she wondered if it was shame.

Zuko caught her looking.

“Did I not tell you that?”

Katara shook her head.

“I thought—I thought it was a training accident.”

“No. It wasn’t.” He frowned, staring at nothing in the distance. “I’m surprised no one else did. It wasn’t exactly a secret. There were lots of people there.”

“You—you spoke out of turn.”

“Yeah.”

Katara nodded. She felt outraged and horrified and a little sick—but she bit her lip to keep any of the words on her tongue from spilling out. She knew Zuko well enough to hear the embers crackling in his voice, and she knew that implying he needed pity was a good way to ignite them. There were a thousand different ways she could start a fight right now (intentionally or otherwise), and precious few ways to avoid one, aside from silence.

But she had never been one to take the easy way out. She spoke slowly and carefully, laying down each word as precise as the stones they walked on.

“It would have broken Uncle’s heart to lose you,” she said. “He told me he’s wanted the war to be over since the Siege of Ba Sing Se. But the thing that finally pushed him to act was you joining the war. The idea that you might die, or become something you’re not. He said you were kind, and just, and honorable, and that you becoming cruel to fit your father’s idea of a powerful man was the worst thing he could imagine.”

Zuko’s steps slowed.

“I understand if you can’t forgive him right now. But he loves you. Don’t ever doubt that.”

He stopped in the middle of the street. For more than a minute he stared at her, gold eyes inscrutable, and Katara thought she had overstepped. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. His expression flickered like he was in pain.

“Okay,” he rasped. “I don’t know if I can… but I’ll try.” He bowed his head so close their foreheads were almost touching. “Will you come with me?”

“Of course.”

Katara smiled, and his lips brushed against hers.

They made their way to the outskirts of the city. The path up the cliffs was old, rarely used these days but still maintained by the Fire Sages. It wound through trees and up the mountain. In places it was too narrow to admit more than one at a time, and too steep to climb without effort. The guards in their plate armor struggled; halfway up, Zuko dismissed them. Iroh’s guards would be at the top there, anyway.

But when they reached the guards, the challenging climb became the least of their worries.

There were four of them, and every single one was sunk five feet deep into the earth, with only their heads and shoulders exposed and rock clamped over their mouths. At the sight of Zuko and Katara, the panic in their expressions was tempered with relief and they strained against their cages, jerking their heads at the top of the scraggy cliff. Katara and Zuko paused only long enough to exchange a horrified look before they broke into a run.

Uncle!” Zuko shouted as the ground rumbled with the unmistakable sound of an earthbending battle. “Uncle, answer me!”

They pushed past the last tree into the open clearing of the cliff, just as Iroh let out a cry and clutched his arm. His gaze turned on his nephew, a mix of surprise and relief.

“Zuko!”

There wasn’t time for anything else. He leaped backwards to avoid another attack—from a woman wearing Water Tribe blue and wielding a bone club. Katara gasped.

Another blue-clad warrior lay on the ground, still smoking, and there were two earthbenders. Zuko jumped in between them, forcing them to scatter with a huge wave of fire, and Katara attacked the woman. She pulled the water from her skin and sliced at the woman’s arm, cutting deep enough that her blow was diverted and it was all she could do to keep the club in her grip.

The woman whirled around and snarled at Katara, brows drawn tight over her eyes. Her brown eyes.

“You’re not from the Water Tribe!” Katara shouted, and the assassin smirked at her.

“But who’s going to tell?”

Quick as lightning she transferred the club to her other hand and flung it at Katara. She leaped behind Iroh and delivered a sharp jab to his other shoulder. His arm went limp.

“Uncle!” Zuko shouted again.

He was distracted—he turned away from the earthbenders and lunged forward to defend Iroh. His back was exposed but Katara was there in a second, covering his blind spot.

“She’s a chi blocker,” she warned.

“Look out for the short one, he’s fast.”

The earthbenders tried to make the ground sink beneath her feet, but Katara was too quick; she made an ice slide and swooped around in a graceful circle. She managed to get between the chi blocker and Iroh, which gave the older man space to get to Zuko’s side. Katara joined them, and together they faced down the three would-be assassins.

It was still a difficult fight. Iroh was trying to bend with his feet and his breath, but she could tell it tired him, and with only one foot on the ground, he was more vulnerable to the earthbenders. As a result, she and Zuko shouldered more of the burden.

But it was almost… exhilarating. Whatever else she was, whatever expectations people had of her, Katara was first and foremost a waterbender. She was a very, very good waterbender—and with her husband at her side, she was better. They moved seamlessly between attacking and defending, engaging one opponent and then the other, keeping them off-balance.

Then Katara killed one of the earthbenders.

She didn’t even think about it. She was about to trap him in a cage of icicles, but he raised his fist towards Zuko, who was weaving around the chi blocker with such fierce concentration that he hadn’t noticed. Fear seized Katara’s limbs, and at the last minute an icicle went awry and pierced his abdomen. The earthbender fell, choking on his own blood, and his companion let out a wordless shout and flung a fist of stone at her. It wrapped around her wrist and she lurched off her feet. She was dragged by the wrist to a boulder behind her.

“Katara!”

Zuko flung a wall of fire over the landscape to stall their attackers and dashed towards her. He grabbed the stone fingers with both hands and tried to pry them apart, unsuccessfully.

“This is going to hurt,” he warned.

He drew back and fired a blast like a grenade. It was small, but forceful and white-hot, and the stone cracked in three places. Tears sprang to Katara’s eyes as the skin on either side of the stone blistered.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Zuko mumbled like a mantra as he drew a knife and carefully pried the stone off. Behind them, there was the sound of rising earth.

“No,” Katara gasped.

They both jumped up, fire and water in their hands.

“Not a step closer,” the chi blocker warned. She was clutching the club in her uninjured hand, although blood was still flowing from the wound and there was a new, shiny burn mark on her leg. Three sheets of stone jutted out from the ground, trapping Iroh, and the earthbender was smirking.

“Prince Zuko,” Iroh said gravely. “There is honor in accepting defeat.”

Katara shivered with the memory of cold, and Zuko’s eyes widened. The world was breathlessly still. Slowly, Zuko lowered his hands.

The earthbender relaxed, because there was no firebending form that allowed a combatant to bend with their palms facing the ground; Katara smirked, because she could feel Zuko’s weight shift imperceptibly to his back foot. The chi blocker drew back to strike Iroh with her club, but in the same moment Zuko pushed a rolling wave of fire towards the assassins and Katara propelled herself forward to bend a curtain of water around them. It pulled them close, so they couldn’t escape.

The chi blocker howled with pain and fell to the ground. The earthbender managed to block Zuko’s strike, but only by yanking away one of the stone walls that had been trapping Iroh. Seeing himself now outnumbered three-to-one, the man snarled and bent a hole in the ground. Zuko tried to grab him, but the earthbender was gone. They heard the sound of tunneling getting further and further away, and the last agonized rasp of the chi blocker’s breath, and then the clearing was eerily silent.

Katara wrapped water around her burns and healed them. The pain had been like a high-pitched wine in the back of her head, impossible to ignore. With that done, she helped Iroh out of what was left of his cage.

“Princess Katara, you are a sight for sore eyes,” he said with a weary smile.

“And look what I can do.” She placed her hand on his back, the water glowed, and he was able to stretch out his arms.

“Ah, that is much better.”

She looked over her shoulder, intending to ask Zuko if he was injured at all, but then she closed her mouth and stepped aside. Zuko was standing there, arms limp at his side, his face drawn and pale. He looked much younger than he was.

“Zuko,” Iroh said warmly. Zuko bowed his head and squeezed his eyes shut.

“Uncle, I’m sorry. For everything I’ve done—for the way I’ve been treating you—I’m so, so sorry and ashamed—”

Iroh took hold of his shoulder and yanked him into a fierce hug.

“How can you forgive me so easily?” Zuko exclaimed. “I thought you must be furious with me.”

“I was never angry with you. I was sad, because you had lost your way—and frightened that my actions had only driven you further from your path.” He drew back and cupped Zuko’s cheek. “But here you are, exactly where you needed to be.”

Zuko hugged him back, sniffling.

“I had help.”

“There is no shame in that. Speaking of which—young lady, where do you think you are going?”

Katara had been quietly backing away. She jumped.

“I—I thought you might want some privacy.”

“Come here.”

Iroh pulled her into a hug. He thanked her again, in a low whisper that Zuko couldn’t hear; she got the feeling he wasn’t talking about her waterbending this time. Then the three of them returned to where the guards were still trapped in the ground. Thankfully, they were in tightly-packed earth, not solid stone, so Katara was able to free them—muddier than before, but otherwise unharmed. The first guard she freed blew her horn, and again, an enormous number of guards showed up in shockingly little time.

They returned to the palace to find Xue waiting for them, her grim face even grimmer than usual.

“Fire Lord Iroh.”

“Master Xue.”

“Twice in two months, sir. We have a problem.”

“Perhaps.”

“So far, the royal family has been safe inside the palace, but I believe we should tighten security around the palace complex just in case. As for personal security—”

“Uncle,” Zuko interrupted. He had kept his hand on the small of Katara’s back as they walked, but now it curled around her waist. Katara tried to resist the urge to stretch like a panthercat. “Katara is tired. I’m going to take her up to our rooms.”

“How very chivalrous of you, Prince Zuko,” Iroh said gravely. His eyes twinkled. “I thank you both, again, for your assistance.”

Zuko’s hand pressed harder against her as he led her through the hall, and her heart skipped a beat. At the threshold, though, Katara stopped and looked over her shoulder.

“They were dressed like people from the Earth Kingdom and the Water Tribes,” she called back. “But I don’t think they were. Well—the earthbenders were from the Earth Kingdom—what I mean is I think they were paid by someone from the Fire Nation who wanted the blame to fall on the other kingdoms. You should look into that.”

“Thank you, Your Highness, I will,” Xue said with a slight bow, and Zuko hustled Katara through the door and up the steps.

When they reached their quarters, Katara didn’t ask before opening her door—and then almost groaned. Ayako was pacing inside. She looked up and sighed with relief.

“Princess Katara, thank the spirits above you’re okay! I heard the guard go out—”

“It wasn’t me,” Katara reassured her. “And it’s fine, everything is fine. Um. Can we talk about it later?”

“Of course,” Ayako said, puzzled by Katara’s unusual shyness. Then her gaze fell on Zuko, who was lurking by the doorframe and trying to pretend that he wasn’t hiding. She looked back at Katara slyly, from under her lashes—if her maid hadn’t been such a professional, Katara would have said she winked at her. “Will you need me this afternoon, my lady?”

“No, I don’t think so,” Katara said, embarrassed. “Thank you, Ayako.”

“Yes, my lady.” Ayako left the room and turned to bow. “Your Highnesses,” she murmured, taking unreasonable delight in the plural.

Zuko nodded at her, then stepped into the room and shut the door behind him. The room was silent, and it felt much smaller with him in it. His gaze held hers for a moment before trailing down, and Katara blushed and fiddled with her hair.

“I—” Zuko began, but he was interrupted by a knock on the door. He froze. “Who is it?”

“This is Jingyi Kan,” an affronted voice responded, and Katara sighed.

“It’s rude to ask for someone’s identity through a door,” she said in a low voice. “That’s why you’re supposed to let servants answer it first, and then decide if you want to be in or not.”

“I really don’t care,” Zuko hissed.

“She’ll keep knocking,” She crossed the room and opened the door. “Good afternoon, Jingyi.”

“Your Highness, I heard of this afternoon’s unpleasantness,” Jingyi said with a sniff as she swept into the room like leaves on an autumn breeze. “It is abhorrent—simply abhorrent. We will need to double your personal guard, I believe.”

“I wasn’t even the target,” Katara protested.

“I’m sure Prince Zuko will agree.”

She raised an impeccably proper eyebrow in Zuko’s direction.

“Well, Xue is going to be reviewing all that,” he said slowly. “Um—”

He glanced between Jingyi and the door, but she didn’t notice.

“In the meantime, I will send for the physician—”

“I don’t need the physician.”

“Your Highness, I really must insist, for safety’s sake.” She looked to Zuko for backup.

“She doesn’t need the physician. We’re fine. Just—” He glanced at Katara. “—go take a break.”

Katara was going to kiss him in thirty seconds, regardless of who else was in the room.

“Take a break?” Jingyi repeated, baffled.

“Yeah. It’s been a very busy day, and the princess needs to rest, and you need a cup of calming tea.”

He ushered Jingyi out the door and slammed it shut behind her, then turned and leaned back against it. Katara sat on the bed with her hands folded in her lap. Zuko’s eyes raked her body. He walked over to her and sat on the edge of the bed. Her hair was starting to fall out of its fancy Fire Nation style, and he reached up to brush it out of her face. His hand trailed through her hair for a moment longer than necessary, before resting on her shoulder. His eyes drifted shut as he tilted his head and leaned closer to kiss her jaw, just below her ear. Katara shivered.

She took his face in both hands and pulled him up for a real kiss, open-mouthed and hungry. His hands gripped her thighs and then settled on her waist, and he tugged her closer. She followed where he lead, straddling his lap and draping her arms around his neck.

“You’re incredible,” he breathed against her lips. “The way you bend, the way you move—”

“Zuko.” She smiled and pressed his bottom lip with her thumb. “Any other time I’d love to hear you tell me what a great bender I am. Right now, why don’t you just tell me I’m pretty?”

“You’re beautiful,” he said earnestly, kissing down her jaw, her neck. “You’re so, so pretty.”

“You’re cute,” she giggled, and she kissed him again, slower and deeper.

His hands ran up and down her back and then buried in her hair. He started to pull out pins, dropping them haphazardly on the floor. The minutes slipped by; Katara wasn’t sure how many, there in that windowless room, but her skin was starting to get hot and sensitive, and the embroidery of her clothes was unbearably itchy. She wanted to feel air against her skin, the soft brush of her hair. Zuko’s hands.

She fumbled trying to take off her clothes. Zuko pulled off his own tunic first and then pushed her hands away and stripped her slowly, reverently.  They moved in perfect sync, like fighting, hands and lips and hips in harmony. Katara was whimpering before long, which would be embarrassing except Zuko was breathing harshly and that was louder in the close room.

“You drive me crazy, you know?” he mumbled as his mouth trailed over her skin. “Ever since that night in my room. I have to just lie there, on the other side of that door, knowing you’re right here —”

“You should have said something,” she reproached when she found her breath, tugging at his hair so he looked up at her.

“Said what? You didn’t know I wanted you? Even after I kissed you? Even when I made an ass of myself a million times?”

“I think I kissed you,” Katara corrected. She rocked her hips against his lap. “And you’re always an ass.”

Zuko groaned so loud she could feel the reverberations in her chest, and flung her back on the pillows in retaliation. She giggled and stretched out against the smooth sheets, and suddenly he was everywhere , touching her, rubbing her, pressing her down into the mattress. She panted against his neck and dug her fingers into his shoulders. He had such very nice shoulders.

“Please,” he whispered. “Please, can I—”

“Yes, yes.”

They both groaned when he pushed inside of her. She framed his face with her hands, touching their foreheads together, and he dropped butterfly-light kisses on her lips.

“Is that—” He swallowed. “Is that okay?”

“Yeah,” she breathed.

“I’m not hurting you?”

“No blood,” she smirked, and he gave a hoarse chuckle and kissed her again.

“Do you need a minute?”

She had never felt like this before. It wasn’t pain, she thought—it was pressure , certainly, and her body was hot all over and her lungs were crackling with energy, and she wanted more, more, more.

“I need you to move.”

“I need a minute,” he admitted.

She raked her nails over her back and licked a bead of sweat from his collarbone.

“Katara—”

“Hm?” She wrapped a leg around his lower back.

“Katara.”

His hips snapped out and in and out again, pulling a series of high moans from her lips. His grip on her hips was bruising, and she twisted her hands in his hair. In the back of her mind, she realized they could have been doing this for months and she was annoyed at herself.

No, she thought. She reached up and touched Zuko’s face. His scar, down his cheek, resting her fingers on his mouth. No, they needed this time. They needed to see each other in joy and sorrow and fear and anger. Their wedding night never could have been like this, not when they were practically strangers. This was so much better.

She opened her mouth to say something, heart quivering with nerves, when Zuko choked out her name again and collapsed against her. She ran one hand down his back and his muscles shuddered under her touch.

Then Zuko looked up at her with such a mortified expression that Katara did the only thing she had been advised to never, ever, ever do in bed with a man: she laughed at him. She clapped a hand over her mouth, but the first giggle escaped. Zuko’s expression morphed into the outrage she had seen so often in such different contexts, and then she was no longer giggling but howling with laughter, snorting in a very undignified, un-princesslike way. She clutched at his arms and pressed her mouth against his in a failed attempt to stymie the laughter.

He growled at her and pulled away, but was a sound that Katara was very familiar with, and she knew he wasn’t going far. This was now a challenge. He slithered down the bed and threw her legs over his shoulders, and her laughter turned into a strangled gasp.

In this, as in all else, Zuko was relentless. He ravished her with his tongue until she was squirming, trying to pull him closer with hands and legs, leaving bruises on his back as her feet kick out instinctively. She tried to say his name but it came out in percussive syllables interrupted by gasps and a high, whining sound that would have been embarrassing if she could actually focus on anything except the fire in her belly.

She patted at his head to tell him to stop, when she was finished. Zuko rolled onto his back, resting his head on his interlaced fingers, and smirked at the ceiling.

“Don’t look so pleased with yourself,” Katara said, gulping for breath. She tried to poke him in the temple, but her eyes had fallen shut, and she missed and poked his neck instead.

“Hey, I’m just glad we have something new to bond over.” He flopped his head back to grin at her. “Wasn’t that more fun than meditation and agriculture subsidies?”

“Well, yeah,” Katara mumbled.

She sat up and was suddenly self-conscious. Now what? It felt strange to lounge around in the nude for no particular reason, but equally strange to immediately cover herself up, now that Zuko had seen every part of her body and touched most of them. And there was an uncomfortable squelching sensation between her legs, which none of the women in the Water Tribe had warned her to expect. They had told her a lot about sex, about how it could be wonderful and terrible and kind of boring and, yes, awkward—but not this awkward.

“Spirits above,” she groaned, digging the heels of her hands into her eyes. “Someone’s going to change the sheets in the morning.”

“So?”

“So. There are sixteen different people responsible for linens in this palace, and I barely know any of them. Total strangers are going to know we had sex tonight. That’s just weird.”

“How can you complain about privacy when your whole family lived in a one-room house?” Zuko paused. “Wait, what do couples in the Water Tribe do for privacy, anyway?”

“They wait til everyone’s asleep, or they send the kids to the Common House for the night,” Katara said. The “duh” was evident in her tone. “My Gran-Gran used to take us.”

“But then the whole family knows. That’s so much weirder than a couple of random servants!”

“Why, though? People tell their family when they’re in love, getting married, and having babies—why not having sex?”

“Ugh. I can’t explain it—it’s just—no.”

Katara laughed at him again and dropped a kiss to his forehead. She wriggled, trying to keep her legs clamped shut, as she got off the bed and wrapped herself in a red bathrobe.

“Where are you going?” Zuko asked.

“Washroom.”

“I’ll come—”

“You will not. There have to be some boundaries, Zuko!”

Five minutes later, she reluctantly peered out from behind the bathroom door. She wanted to bathe. Usually, she informed Ayako that she wanted a bath, and Ayako told the porter, and Katara sat in the outer room until the door opened again with a welcoming puff of steam. She had never actually watched them do it. She filled the tub with cold water, hoping it would warm up, but it never did, then looked around unsuccessfully for some kind of pump or stove.

Zuko had dressed and was standing at the door, talking to someone. She waited, well out of sight, until he turned around.

“They’re going to bring dinner up here,” he told her. “Unless you really want to go down and eat with Azula and her friends.”

“No, I really don’t.”

She shifted her weight in the doorway. A slow smirk spread over his face.

“Was there something you needed me for?”

Katara sighed.

“How do I heat the bath?”

He strutted over to the washroom and was careful to maintain eye contact as he approached the tub. He stripped off his shirt—he really was stupidly attractive—and submerged his entire arm, and within a minute, the surface of the water was giving off steam. That was probably why Katara was blushing.

“Well. I don’t see how I was supposed to figure that out.” His smirk widened to the point where it might as well have been a smile. Katara crossed her arms. “Aren’t you going to leave?”

“Aren’t you going to say thank you?”

“For your tubs being poorly designed? I don’t think so!”

“We have self-heating tubs, too, that draw from the hot springs, but they smell bad. You’re a princess. You’re above the smell of sulfur.”

“I think that’s very short-sighted,” she sniffed. “What if the water was too fiddly, and I wasn’t a firebender? Would I be expected to just stand around waiting for someone in my robe?”

“You make an excellent point,” he said seriously. “Maybe I should stay here until you get in, then. Just to make sure the temperature is all right.”

“Fine.”

Katara turned her back on him in a useless show of modesty before letting the silk robe dropped to the floor. As she stepped into the bath, a soft hum escaped from her chest—the temperature was perfect, just on the pleasant side of too-hot. For a moment she lay on her back with her face tipped up towards the ceiling, and then she dipped her head under the water and shook out her hair. She emerged to find Zuko kneeling with his folded arms on the edge of the tub.

“You’re staring.”

“Can you blame me?”

His eyes were almost black, and a thrill of desire crept up Katara’s spine. It was different than before—before was all movement and instinct, and this was slow and deliberate and intoxicating. She draped her arms around the rim of the tub, relishing the way her husband’s eyes flickered to the bend of her wrists and then the curve of her breasts where they were just barely visible over the surface of the water.

“Perhaps… you should stay here,” she conceded, loftily, like a queen. “In case the water gets cold again.”

“Perhaps,” he agreed.

The next morning, Katara was vaguely aware of the sound of feet running back and forth outside her room, before the door was suddenly thrown open. She jumped into a sitting position, reaching for a ribbon of water on instinct, and looked around. Jingyi stood in the doorway, wringing her hands.

“Your Highness, there is terrible news. Those fiends must have returned in the night,” she cried. “The prince’s valet can’t find him anywhere, and his bed hasn’t been slept in—Prince Zuko has been kidnapped!”

Katara blinked at her in confusion, and then looked down beside her. Zuko wasn’t kidnapped. He was right there. He squinted up at her, then sat up with a yawn and rubbed his head.

“Wuzgoinon?” he mumbled.

Jingyi’s jaw dropped. She looked between them, and then a dark flush began at her neck and rose all the way up to her hairline.

“Discretion,” Katara said solemnly, “is the watchword of the truly elegant.”

Jingyi sprung into a low bow.

“Excuse me—Princess Katara, Prince Zuko. I apologize—don’t know what came over me—the servants—worrywarts—”

She was still mumbling as she backed out of the room. Katara managed to hold her serious expression for a full five seconds, but when she turned to look at Zuko, she burst out laughing. Her normally early-to-rise husband still looked confused, and he had a truly remarkable case of bedhead.

“What just happened?”

“I’ll tell you later,” she promised. She kissed him on the cheek and tugged him back down onto the bed.

Chapter Text

They were late to breakfast that morning. Katara would have preferred to skip breakfast entirely—to avoid seeing another person all day, as a matter of fact—but Zuko insisted that they needed to talk to Iroh and Xue about new security procedures. Zuko returned to his own room, and Katara lay in bed for five minutes, mustering the courage to open the door for Ayako when her body was covered in dark smudges from her husband’s mouth and her hair resembled a liontiger’s mane.

“Don’t say anything,” she threatened when she finally managed it, and Ayako obeyed to the letter. Possibly because she was too inflated with delight to open her mouth without whistling like a tea kettle.

Breakfast was enjoyable—the meeting, less so. Iroh had faced several assassins in the first months of his rule, and Zuko a few earlier in the year, when Iroh’s security had been increased. But most of the recent attempts had been random, like the disgruntled veteran who had attacked Katara. Yesterday’s attempt had hinted at some broader conspiracy, and that took planning and access on a far more worrying scale. In response, Xue wanted to shut down the palace and the Caldera to anyone without pressing reason to be there, interview everyone with access to the palace, and limit the royal family’s movements out of the palace grounds. Everyone was somber. Even Azula was in a sour mood.

The meeting lasted all morning. Zuko decided to have a private lunch with his uncle for the first time in years, so Katara took hers alone in the library. She had some letters she wanted to write to the governors of the colonies, and she hoped that the studious atmosphere would keep her from daydreaming. It turned out to be an entirely futile enterprise, but she persisted, and she was still there when Ty Lee burst through the door.

“Katara!”

She jumped, leaving an unsightly blotch of ink in the middle of the page. There was only one other person in the library, the scholar who maintained it, and he opened the door of his office just long enough to shush the intruder. Ty Lee ignored him and darted over to Katara’s table.

“Ty Lee?”

“My mom’s cook heard from the delivery boy from the grocer from one of the palace cooks from one of the maids that Zuko spent the night in your room and that your attendant walked in on the two of you doing it!”

“She did not,” Katara hissed in mortification. “Zuko was asleep when she came in!”

“But he was in your room,” Ty Lee pressed triumphantly. Katara sighed.

“Yes. And… yes.”

Ty Lee clapped.

“I knew it! Your aura is sparkling.”

“Has everyone been talking about us?” Katara groaned.

“Well, not really. That’s the thing, no one can really know if you guys were seeing each other or not, except Zuko’s valet told a bunch of people that he didn’t think you were and that Zuko was totally bummed about it. But your maid always tells people to butt out, because that kind of gossip is improper. But that doesn’t mean you can’t gossip with me. Was this the first time since the wedding?”

Katara looked around to make sure they were alone, and leaned closer.

“Don’t tell anyone, but… it was our first time. Ever.”

“That is so against the rules,” Ty Lee gushed. She grabbed Katara’s hand. “Tell me everything.”

The blush wouldn’t leave Katara’s cheeks, but even so, she was bursting to comply with Ty Lee’s demands. Most of the story had been dragged out of her by Toph and Suki earlier that week, but it had ended on an uncertain note. It was nice to actually have something good to share, and she probably wouldn’t be able to talk to her other friends for months.

“It’s just that I didn’t even know him when we were first married, you know? So that first night, I got nervous and I kind of snapped at him and he left, and then we spent months either ignoring each other or fighting.”

Ty Lee nodded vigorously.

“That was Mai and Zuko’s entire relationship.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. Fighting, ignoring each other, or making out. It was ex-haus-ting. Continue.”

“Okay, so things started to change when we started bending together, because we were finally spending time together without fighting—or, well, fighting but in a fun way. And he was almost sweet, when I got attacked? I mean, you know, still Zuko, but he wanted to make sure I was okay, and then we kissed.”

“Shut up,” Ty Lee gasped. “But that was forever ago! What took you so long?”

“Because that was when I first found out he had dated Mai, and I was worried he was still in love with her. So nothing really happened until yesterday. It was—” She was grinning like a loon, and she shook her head. “I don’t even know how it happened. We were talking, and I gave him some advice and he took it, and I love when people do what I tell them to. Then it was the first time we fought on the same side, and I know it’s kind of horrible because it was really serious, but it felt so good having him at my back. It just felt right.”

“Also,” Ty Lee said with a solemn nod. “He’s hot. With all those muscles, and the growling and the eyes and stuff? And when he’s firebending he’s always swooping around and stretching and you’re like how else can he move?”

Katara covered her face with both hands.

“Hey, am I right or am I right?”

“You’re right,” she admitted.

The door opened, and then she heard Mai’s voice.

“There you are. What are you doing in a library?”

“I was looking for Katara,” Ty Lee said brightly. “Guess what? Last night she and Zuko had sex for the first time ever.”

“Ty Lee!”

“What? Oh, does ‘don’t tell anyone’ include Mai?”

“It did, yeah,” Katara said, sinking back in her chair. She sat up suddenly and dropped her hands. “And it definitely includes Azula!”

“Oh, there’s no way Azula doesn’t know already,” Mai said. She sat down in the chair next to Ty Lee and crossed her legs. “So, should I be saying you’re welcome or I’m sorry?”

“What?”

“How was it?” Ty Lee asked, shoving at her arm.

“It was… nice.” Katara smirked. “The second and third times were even nicer.”

Mai snorted and Ty Lee screamed, and the librarian came out to shush them again.

“This is so great.” Ty Lee threw her arms around Katara. “You’re going to be so happy! You’re going to have the prettiest babies and the most gorgeous aura! I’m so happy for you!”

“Also, not that I care, but I told you so.”

“Ugh, I should write to Toph,” Katara sighed. “She also told me so, and she’ll be way more insufferable if she finds out I waited to tell her.”

“Oh, you’re writing to Toph?” Mai said casually.

“Well, really it’s to Suki. Because Toph, you know… can’t read. That’s the tricky thing about keeping in touch with Toph—you can’t tell her anything without being comfortable with at least one other person reading it. But she lives pretty close to Kyoshi, and I know she and Suki see each other a lot, so hopefully she’ll get the message.”

Mai didn’t seem to be listening; she twirled a lock of hair around her finger.

“You can tell her I said hey. If you want.”

“Okay… How did you guys get into the palace, by the way? I thought Xue was going to lock it down for a while.”

“Personal friends of princesses get through faster than random ministers,” Mai said, waving her hand. “She interrogated me for forty minutes when I got here, though.”

“I wasn’t in there for nearly that long,” Ty Lee said, cocking her head.

“Really?” Katara blurted out. “I mean, no offense, Ty Lee, it’s just that one of the assassins was a chi blocker. I would have thought she had more questions.

“Me too! And I was super willing to cooperate. I was going to tell her everything, but she stopped me after ten minutes and said I could go. I can’t imagine why.”

“Can’t you?” Mai asked dryly, and Katara couldn’t help but laugh.

She talked with Mai and Ty Lee for a while longer, until Azula showed up. She was in a stormy mood—apparently Mai had been sent to fetch Ty Lee and was expected to return immediately—and she only humphed at Katara’s greeting. Ty Lee shrugged and waved goodbye as she was dragged away.

Katara finished the one letter she had actually started, and went up to the messenger hawk aviary. She had just sent a hawk out when a human messenger appeared in the doorway.

“Hi, Hina,” she said cheerfully. “Looking for me?”

“Yes, Your Highness.” The messenger looked at her with baleful eyes, and the smile dropped off Katara’s face.

“You’re kidding me.”

“Prince Zuko told me to tell you specifically that he is summoning you—”

“I’m going to kill him!” Katara declared, stomping past the door. “And you can go straight to Xue and tell her so, and tell her I don’t care if it means she has to bar me from the palace, because I’m going to kill him! Where?”

“The dining room, Your Highness,” Hina called after her.

Katara raced through the palace, fueled by her anger, and flung the door to their dining room open to see Zuko lounging against the table. He straightened and smirked at her.

“You!” 

“Hi.”

“Don’t ‘hi’ me!” she fumed. “I have told you a thousand times to stop summoning me, and you can’t expect to get away with it just because you’re a good kisser—”

The words had barely left her mouth when Zuko decided to test her hypothesis. He pulled her flush against him and kissed her until she couldn’t breathe. She poked him in the chest listlessly but had lost the train of her argument.

“I know,” he grinned. “I only did it because you’re cute when you’re angry.”

“Well,” Katara puffed. “Well. That… bodes well for our sex life, if maybe not for our marriage in general. But seriously, don’t do it again.”

“I won’t do it again. Also, you think I’m a good kisser?”

“You think I would keep kissing you if you weren’t?”

“No, but it’s one of those things it’s nice to hear.” He ran his hands through her hair and cupped the back of her skull, kissing her again. “Do you have anything important for the rest of the day?”

“I can’t remember,” Katara said. She fisted her hand in his tunic and headed for the door. “So let’s call that a no.”

They lounged on Katara’s bed for a while afterwards. She had discovered that Zuko was an excellent cuddler. He was tall and broad enough to curl around her entirely. He smelled like sandalwood and candle smoke, pleasant even under the faint odor of sweat. He didn’t fidget, and he actually knew when to be quiet, which was a rare trait among her friends. She dozed for a while, tethered to consciousness only by his hand drifting up and down her bare back.

“Oh, there it is. The famous mask.”

She opened her eyes and stretched. Zuko was looking at the mask above her bed with curiosity.

“Mm-hm.”

He tilted his head.

“What is it?”

Katara was surprised he didn’t know. Thick, stylized lines were carved into the wood to give the impression of a snout, and the mouth was bared in an eerie grin, but she would have thought the distinctive black face and white eye-spots would have given it away.

“It’s a blackfish. You never saw one, all the time you were at the South Pole?”

“I don’t think so.”

“You’d remember if you had. We’ll have to make a special trip to find them, when we visit—they’re incredible to watch. When I was a kid, I used to go out with my waterbending master to learn from them.”

“I thought the moon was the source of waterbending.”

You try learning from the moon.” She propped her head up on one hand. “Toph learned earthbending from badgermoles, and I know Aang said all the airbenders at the Southern Air Temple bonded with flying bison. The source of firebending is dragons, right?”

Zuko  hesitated. He lay down and nestled his head against her shoulder; his hair tickled her chin.

“Yeah.”

“I’d like to see some of those.”

“They’re… not around anymore.”

“Why not? What happened?”

“My great-grandfather Sozin happened,” he said bitterly. “He started the tradition of hunting dragons for glory. There were the ultimate firebenders, and if you could conquer one, your firebending talents would become legendary and you'd earn the honorary title dragon . The last great dragon was conquered long before I was born, by my uncle.”

“I can’t believe he would do that,” Katara remarked. “Or anyone in the Fire Nation, really. I thought dragons were sacred. They gave you fire.”

“I know. But you remember, at the end of the play, the dragon attacked people? That comes up a lot in stories about the dragons. People say they were majestic and impressive, but wild and dangerous, too. The thing is, since I returned to the Fire Nation, I’ve been reading a lot of old history, and I haven’t found records of any dragon attacks. Even the play—I found three other versions of that story, between 150 and 300 years old, and all of them end peacefully.”

“So you think Sozin lied? He started rumors about dragons being dangerous?”

“Yeah.” He sighed. “The old scrolls I found said that there were Fire Lords that bonded with dragons, like the Avatars used to. They said that dragons were wise and stubborn and independent. They usually lived alone, in volcanoes in the Fire Nation, but they would fly all over the world when they weren’t nesting, and they mated for life. Fire Lord Koki said they were the heart and soul of our nation. They gave us hope when we didn’t have anything else. And we killed them.”

His voice had gone hollow—they weren’t just talking about dragons anymore. Katara threaded her fingers through his silky hair.

“Hope is harder to kill than that.”

“It’s already been two years,” he said. “And we’re still trying to convince our own people that what we’re doing is right.”

“It’s only been two years,” Katara countered. “And you’ve already convinced a lot of people.”

Zuko rolled over on his back and stared up at the ceiling.

“My uncle didn’t win the throne in an agni kai, though, and that’s making it a lot harder.”

“What do you mean?” Katara frowned. “He beat your father, didn’t he?” He glanced at her.

“Well, yeah, but there’s a difference between a fight and an agni kai. Didn’t you study that somewhere?”

“Agni kais came up in the legal code a lot… I know they’re legally binding, as long as the challenge is issued properly and there are witnesses.”

“It’s more than that. Agni is the old word for fire, but it also means soul. A fight is just a test of who is stronger and faster and knows more moves. An agni kai is a test of who is right. Whose soul is purer, who has more honor, who has divine approval of their actions. That’s why losing one brings shame, and winning one can determine the rightful Fire Lord. My uncle says that he challenged my father to an agni kai, but my father declined and attacked him instead. He’s still the firstborn son of Fire Lord Azulon, so he has the right to rule. But people don’t trust him. They respect him as a strong leader and they’ll go along with peace because they have to, but you can’t make moral arguments when your authority comes from killing your brother. They don’t believe in him. Not the way they believe in you.”

Warmth bloomed in Katara’s cheeks. She traced idle circles on his chest.

“You’ve been your uncle with the Caldera since before I got here. I’m sure they believe in you, too.”

“Why should they? I’m not as smart as Uncle, or as kind as you. I feel like I’m just making things up as I go.”

Katara was quiet for a minute, then she leaned down and kissed the bend of his shoulder.

“Do you know why we wear masks for the solstice?” she asked. “Or why warriors paint their faces before their first battle?”

“To look cool? Ow!”

She had flicked his ear.

“No. It’s because we aspire to be like the thing we’re pretending to be. If you’re scared, or embarrassed, or worried—no one can tell underneath a mask. If you want to be clever like a blackfish, or brave like a wolf, you put on the mask and let their spirit take over. So, if you think the Fire Nation needs dragons… be a dragon.”

Zuko turned his head to the side to stare at her. His face softened in a smile.

“What?”

“Nothing.”

“Then stop looking at me like that,” she said, wrinkling her nose. “It’s weird.”

“I’m not allowed to look at my wife?”

“Not if you’re going to be weird.”

He cradled her face in his hands and kissed the tip of her nose, her lips, the underside of her jaw.

“I love you,” he mumbled. He sounded embarrassed; he glanced up at her and his mouth stretched into something more like a pained grimace than a smile. Katara gave a longsuffering sigh.

“Fine,” she said. She stretched out over the sheets and closed her eyes. “You can stare for five minutes. But then we’re going to spar, even though it’s after sunset, and I’m going to kick your butt.”

“Deal,” he laughed.

Katara did win their match that night, and the next day, and the one after. In fact, it was starting to become concerning—one of the many ways that life in the Fire Nation changed over the next few weeks.

Some of the changes were quite pleasant. She and Zuko spent almost every night together, and most mornings… and some of the afternoons. They continued to bicker, naturally, but she found that a few hours of solitude to cool down and then half an hour in bed together was a much better resolution than anything they had tried previously. They had more to talk about and were less inclined to let awkward silences grow. She was starting to get along better with Mai and Ty Lee, too, and her bending had achieved near-legendary status in the palace.

But not all was moon peaches and cream. Access to the palace was still heavily restricted, and no further information about the assassins or who hired them was forthcoming. Messages poured in constantly—from the outlying islands, from other nations, from mysterious places—and Iroh looked grim every time he read one. When Katara went out into the city, she took two squads of guards with her at Zuko’s insistence, and sometimes he caught her at the gate and said that he had been wanting to stretch his legs and might as well join her. The whole palace, the whole nation perhaps, was on edge.

And as the days passed by, she began to realize that her victories on the training grounds had less to do with her prowess and more to do with Zuko’s surprising lack thereof. His attacks had less power, and as he threw himself into the battle with more energy to make up for it, he tired more easily. She could tell he had noticed, too, but the matter went unaddressed between them until Iroh expressed an interest in seeing them spar.

They went to the private training ground. Iroh sat in the shade of the covered hallway, calling out frequent praise—complimenting Zuko’s firebending adaptation of the wave, admiring the precision of Katara’s dual water whips. But he fell silent as the strain of the duel began to show for Zuko. Katara wasn’t able to incapacitate him, but she was able to hit him far more often than she should. His blocks just didn’t have their usual heat. Zuko stumbled, time and time again, and his recovery began to slow. Katara, on the other hand, batted his attacks aside without flinching—to the point that on two occasions she accidentally sprayed a torrent of water out onto the floor of the hallways, because she was used to him turning such blasts into steam.

After the second such occasion, Zuko finally gave into his frustration with a snarl.

“What is wrong with me?” he demanded, rounding on his uncle. “You know it usually has more power than that!”

“Mm,” Iroh agreed with a tight nod. “This is worrying. How long has this issue been occurring?”

“About two weeks. Since…” Zuko glanced at Katara and blushed.

“What?” she asked. He rubbed the back of his neck.

“I think it might… have something to do with you. I first noticed it after we, um—started getting along better—I thought maybe it might be because I’m worried about hurting you?”

“As if you could!” she retorted, indignant.

I know that! But maybe my subconscious doesn’t!”

Iroh considered this for a moment, and proposed a test. He replaced Katara on the training ground. After a brief clash, it became evident that Katara was not the problem—but perhaps Zuko was also feeling overprotective of Iroh, since The Incident, so Iroh sat again and directed Zuko in a series of moves. Still, his fire was weaker than it should have been. Iroh frowned and suggested a break and a cup of tea.

They relocated to the garden. Iroh’s valet brought out the tea set, then bowed and left them alone. They sat under the big oak tree by the turtleduck pond. It was a peaceful spot, although Katara could tell Zuko was tense. She drank her tea with one hand and reached out with the other. Zuko smiled shyly at the turtleducks and wound their fingers together.

“I remember when you were a boy, Prince Zuko, when you first began your firebending training,” Iroh said in a serene voice. “You mastered the basics very quickly.”

“No, I didn’t,” Zuko frowned.

“You did. Your breathing was exceptional, your root was strong. You faltered when your instructors tried to teach you combative forms; you struggled to produce the requisite power. I saw that you had begun to improve when I returned from Ba Sing Se, and then you improved by leaps and bounds when I took over your instruction, after you were banished. Do you see? Grief and rage has been the source of your power.”

“But… I want to be a strong firebender without being angry all the time. I don’t want to be that person anymore.”

“You’re not,” Katara said, squeezing his hand, and Iroh bestowed upon her a benevolent smile.

“Princess Katara is correct. You have undergone a great transformation lately. You have accepted your grief and let go of your anger, and I believe that when you have come to terms with who you are now, your bending will return to its full strength.”

“What must I do?” Zuko asked.

There was a heavy pause, broken only by the quacking of the turtleducks and the soft clink of Iroh’s cup in its saucer. His face creased in a smile.

“Take a vacation,” he suggested merrily.

“A vacation!?”

“I think you should take your lovely bride,” (here he bowed to Katara) “and show her around the outer islands. You will be able to escape the politics of the capital for a little while and become acquainted with the people, and they can become acquainted with you.”

“But what about you?”

“We are already well acquainted, my nephew.”

“No! I mean, don’t you need us here? If we had gone on this trip a couple of weeks ago…” Zuko trailed off ominously.

“Thankfully, the palace guards are now on high alert, and I don’t believe the assassins will make another attempt, at least not soon. And I have been thinking of inviting my good friends Piandao and Jeong Jeong to visit soon. Besides.” His face turned grave. “I have lately been reconsidering our strategy on security. It is clear that, whoever is behind this recent attack, they are very familiar with the palace, its surroundings, and how the guard is organized. Otherwise how were they able to find me in such a remote spot, and to evade detection in the days since? I am concerned that, if there is another attempt, the entire royal family will be in the same place, going on in a similar manner. It would be a great comfort to me to know that the two of you were somewhere else. A very small party, no public schedule, no great fanfare. Just until the Caldera has been fully secured.”

The argument made sense to Katara—or maybe it was just the way her heart had swelled with delight at the idea of traveling around the country with a small group of people and no formal dinners. Logically, she knew it wasn’t a worldwide trip of four on a flying bison, but it was closer to real freedom than she’d had in months.

“I think your uncle is right,” she said to Zuko, who still looked on the fence. “It’ll be perfectly safe, and I want to get to know the Fire Nation better… besides, you did promise me a trip, didn’t you?”

She kissed his cheek, and from the corner of her eye she could see Iroh wink his approval of her feminine wiles.

“All right,” Zuko relented. “Let’s take a vacation.”

It took a few days of planning, but by the end of the week they were ready to go. They were traveling by ship, with only Jingyi, one squad of guards, and a porter to handle their bags. Zuko and Iroh had planned most of their itinerary together, and only Iroh, Azula, and Ayako and Yong knew exactly when they were leaving. They came down to the docks to see them off.

“Hang on,” Zuko said after suffering through Iroh’s goodbye hug. He was frowning at the piece of paper in his hand. “What’s this at the end? Two days at the Sun Warrior ruins?”

“Ah, yes, I added that last minute,” Iroh said casually. “I needed to coordinate with someone else’s schedule.”

“Who else? The ruins have been abandoned for a thousand years—and what do we want to go stare at some old buildings for, anyway?”

“Oh, no particular reason,” Iroh said, waving his hand. “But the Sun Warrior civilization had a powerful connection to the natural world, and I suspect that visiting their homeland would be extremely beneficial for anyone struggling with their firebending… which is why I have arranged for you and the Avatar to visit the ruins together.”

“You wrote to the Avatar?”

“And he wrote back?” Katara interjected, bristling.

“So make sure to stick to your schedule!” Iroh said cheerfully, backing off the gangplank with extreme haste. “And enjoy your vacation!”

“Uncle!” Zuko protested from the ship, but the gangplank lifted, the horn blew, and they began to pull away from the harbor before he could get any answers. He scowled and slumped against the side of the ship. “Ugh! So not only is my firebending weaker than it should be, but my uncle is going around telling people, and I’ve got to poke around some ruins with a kid monk. This is just great.”

Katara leaned against the rail and turned her face towards the sea breeze.

“Well, why don’t we trade? I’ll go on field trip with Aang to see some old ruins and learn about firebending, and you can stay on the ship with…”

She trailed off and nodded at Jingyi, who was standing as stiff as a board at the prow of the ship. Despite the fact that they were in the hottest part of a Fire Nation summer, she was still wearing her black robes and her maroon cape. Zuko pulled a face.

“Nah, I’m good.”

“Thought so.”

Chapter Text

“This is going to be fun,” Katara declared as she brushed out her hair. “The last time I was in the Fire Nation, we were in disguise. Everything was really beautiful, but it was hard to have a good time looking over our shoulder everywhere.”

She fixed her hair in the same style she had worn back then, with two locks in the front done with gold clips. She tilted her head in the mirror and frowned.

“Does this look right?” she asked.

They had left Ayako and Yong back in the Caldera. It had seemed like a good idea at the time—they were trying to travel light, after all, and their servants had certainly earned a little time off—but Katara realized she was woefully out of practice when it came to styling her own hair.

“It looks great,” Zuko reassured her. She looked at his reflection in the mirror. He was lounging on the bed and pouting.

“Would you tell me if it didn’t?”

“Does it matter?”

“Apparently not,” she said dryly, eyeing Zuko’s hair. He had decided to skip the topknot today, since they were only going to the beach. She wasn’t sure if he could see anything, let alone her hairstyle. “I’d go with the hair loopies, but I don’t have a good way to wear my lotus pin with them.”

“Do you have to wear it all the time?”

“You like it when I do.”

“I do,” he admitted. A smile tugged at her lips.

“Besides… it’s how we mark engagements in the South. Not necklaces—hair ornaments. It makes me feel—it feels right.” She looked at herself in the mirror again and tilted her head. “But I’d have more options if I had two. Do you think we could buy one somewhere?”

“Why bother?” he asked. He pushed himself off the bed and sauntered over to drop a kiss to her neck. “Just wait until the next solstice—it goes to the most beautiful woman at the table, so obviously that’ll be you.”

“Wow, that was soooo smooth,” Katara laughed. She turned away from the mirror and folded her arms. “Who are you and what have you done with Zuko?”

“You don’t think I’m smooth?”

“Remember that one time you told me I looked nice and I said ‘really?’ and you got mad at me and asked why I thought you were lying?”

Zuko groaned and kissed her on the mouth.

“I was hoping you’d forget that,” he mumbled.

“I forget nothing.

Zuko deepened the kiss, and one hand went to bury itself in her hair. Katara snatched it away and placed it on her back, which had the unfortunate effect of convincing Zuko to drift lower.

“Still no,” she murmured.

“We have time.”

“We have less time than we had ten minutes ago, when I said we didn’t have time.”

There was a knock on the door, and they both jumped.

“Coming!” Katara fussed a little on the way to the door. “Hi, Keahi!”

“Good afternoon, Your Highness,” Keahi said with a bow. In the interest of privacy, they were staying with the mayor of Hira’a instead of at an inn, and his youngest son had volunteered to be their tour guide of sorts. Keahi was Zuko’s age, short and stocky, with a deep tan and a dazzling smile, and by his own admittance preferred lounging on the beach to anything else. “Are you ready?”

“Yes!”

“Where’s Jingyi?” Zuko asked as he hefted their bag.

“She’s not coming,” Katara smirked. “She has strong negative feelings about sand.”

“So do I, and I’m coming.”

“Are you seriously complaining?”

“What about your guards, Your Highnesses?” Keahi interjected hastily, trying to stave off an argument. It was a kind thought, although Katara could have told him it would be useless. She almost skipped as they left the house and stepped into the sunlight.

“We’re going to the beach with a master waterbender,” Zuko said, catching her around the waist. “I think we’ll be fine.”

“Yeah, we’re kind of trying to keep a low profile,” Katara added. “Speaking of which, you can just call us Katara and Zuko. There’s no need for this whole ‘highness’ thing.”

“Okay. Thanks, Katara,” he said with a grin. It faltered, though, and Katara twisted around to see that Zuko’s face was contorted in a deep scowl. She elbowed him.

“Ow!”

“If you keep doing that, your face is going to get stuck that way.”

Zuko insisted that that was just his face, and they squabbled about it all the way to the beach.

It was gorgeous—like something out of a painting. Palm trees dotted the white sand, festival music echoed from a nearby boardwalk, and the ocean was the deepest, most vivid blue Katara had ever seen. But the best thing, in her opinion, were the waves, and the people gliding through them on large wooden boards. Keahi noticed her interest.

“Have you ever been surfing, Prin— Katara?”

“Not exactly,” she said with a grin that split her face in two. “But I’m going to love it.

They walked up to a stand set up in front of racks of surfboards. The clerk was around their age; he was twirling a lock of his long hair and staring wistfully at the ocean, but he perked up when they approached.

“Hey,” he grinned. “Keahi, right?”

“Hi, Makana. How’re the waves today?”

“Man, don’t make me say it. I’m working another four hours, if I don’t die of jealousy before then.”

He found Keahi’s surfboard in storage, and offered to rent ones to Katara and Zuko. Katara accepted eagerly, but Zuko declined.

“I’m not going anywhere near the ocean when you’re in it,” he said, poking Katara in the arm.

“I’m not going to cheat!” Katara said virtuously.

“Yeah, right.”

“Is it possible to cheat at surfing?” Makana asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Just you wait.” Zuko agreed to watch, though, and he walked with them to the edge of the sand. “Hang on, do you even know how to swim? You grew up in the coldest place on earth.”

“Watch and learn, fire boy.”

Keahi offered her some tips, and the two of them paddled out into the surf. Katara fell off at the first two waves, but by the third she had found her balance. It was fun—she had done something similar in combat, but riding the waves was more exhilarating when she wasn’t controlling them, when all she could do was rely on her instincts.

Of course, once she had gotten the hang of it, she had to amplify the waves. Just a tiny nudge to keep the thrill alive. Keahi noticed, but he just grinned and winked. Zuko didn’t realize what she was doing until she boosted a wave to be twice as high and half again as long as the ones they had started on. Keahi whooped with delight.

“Cheater!” Zuko called from the shore, and Katara flung a jet of water at his head.

They were in the surf for more than an hour before Katara decided she needed a break. She stuck the board upright in the sand and joined Zuko, who was lying on a towel in the shade of an umbrella and reading a scroll.

“Did you want to give it a try?” she asked as she wrung water from her hair.

“No, I don’t really swim recreationally since I almost drowned twice and then floated on a raft through the northern sea for three weeks.”

“That’s fair.” Katara draped herself over the towel. “Is that work?”

“No. Just beach reading.” He rolled it up somewhat hastily, though, and distracted her with a kiss. “Do you want ice cream?”

They waved Keahi in and asked him if he wanted to join them, but he turned them down in favor of sunbathing, so they walked over to the boardwalk by themselves. It was crowded with food stalls, shops, and games, and even though it was the end of summer, there were still a lot of people roaming around. Naturally, the longest line was in front of the ice cream shop, but Katara didn’t mind. Skipping lines was one of the privileges that she enjoyed as a princess in the Caldera, but it was usually accompanied by lots of staring and bowing and fawning compliments, and she wasn’t sure if she would ever completely get used to it. The anonymity was kind of nice. She leaned against Zuko’s side and he looped his arm around her waist.

As she was reflecting on this, however, she realized that the young boy in front of her kept glancing over his shoulder with wide eyes, and she sighed. It was probably Zuko who had caught his attention. He wasn’t the only one in the Fire Nation with a burn scar—the line was full of people dressed down for the beach, and she saw more than one—but the placement of his was pretty distinctive.

“It is you!”

She touched Zuko’s arm to get his attention with a rueful smile—but when they looked down at the boy, he was beaming up at her.

“Hi, Painted Lady!”

The boy’s mother turned around and her eyes widened in recognition, just as Katara’s gaze fell on the distinctive port wine stain on the boy’s shoulder.

“Oh, hi, Wen,” she said sheepishly. “I didn’t recognize you. You’ve gotten bigger.”

“He never stops,” An Min said fondly. She bowed. “We never would have expected to see you here, my lady. Welcome back to the Fire Nation.”

“Thanks. I, uh, actually live here now.”

Katara toyed with her hair awkwardly. She had spent the better part of a day helping the village clean out the river, and she had been introduced to everybody… sort of. She and her friends had been careful not to actually share their names, and the villagers hadn’t asked. The more suspicious ones just addressed her as “waterbender.” Others had insisted on calling her “the Painted Lady” or just “my lady.”

Now there was no need for such secrecy—in theory. She spoke up hastily to forestall any awkward questions.

“I wouldn’t have expected to see you here, either. It’s a long way from home, isn’t it?”

“Yes, but my late husband’s family lives here. Our village is doing so much better, thanks to you, and we were able to take a real vacation for the first time in years.”

“Are you her boyfriend?” Wen demanded of Zuko.

“I’m her husband,” Zuko said, bemused. He put his arm around her shoulders, and Wen’s eyes went as large and round as dinner plates.

“Wow, you’re so lucky! She’s the coolest person ever!”

“Is she?”

Katara elbowed him.

“Yeah! There was this factory in our town that was run by bad guys, and she blew it up!”

“That does sound like her,” Zuko said with a sideways smirk. An Min was looking at him strangely.

“And she got us food, and helped us clean up the river—the fish only have one head now—and she helped my mom when she was sick—”

An Min was staring at Zuko, now, her mouth slightly open. She turned to Katara, and Katara shook her head with a slight smile.

“It was so good to see you again, Wen, but it looks like it’s your turn.”

“Oh, yeah!”

As cool as Katara might be, she was no competition for ice cream, and the boy turned away to order. His mother looked apprehensive.

“My lady—Your—”

“There’s really no need,” Katara said, waving her off. “We’re here on vacation, too. And, um… I’d rather not be too… you know, public about the whole thing.”

The woman bowed. They got their ice cream and left, and Katara and Zuko stepped up to the counter. She hadn’t been paying attention to the flavors, and the unexpected meeting had left her flustered. The line behind her began to grumble as she dithered.

“She’ll have the mango,” Zuko said finally.

“Excuse me!”

She glared at him, but the impatient saleslady was already scooping, and then Zuko took the cone and shoved it in her face. She gave it a reluctant lick.

“Oh, that’s really good.”

“Told you so.”

They took their ice cream and strolled down the boardwalk.

“So… the Painted Lady?”

Katara ducked her head.

“That was the local spirit. We were there for three days; the first night, I just wore a hood so I wouldn’t be recognized, but when they thought it was the spirit helping, it seemed like a good idea to look the part. I went to their sickroom to heal people, stole some food and medicine from the factory, and then Aang and I flooded it to keep it from polluting the river.”

“When was this?”

“Almost three weeks before the invasion.”

“Before the fighting even stopped.”

“Yes?” Katara said. Zuko had a funny look on his face, and she was concerned. He shook his head.

“You just… delayed your whole mission, to help people who were technically your enemies.”

“They were people. They needed my help.”

Zuko stopped in the middle of the walkway to kiss her. A gaggle of people almost walked into them and complained loudly as they passed, but Katara didn’t care. His lips were soft and cold and tasted like coconut.

“Don’t tell anyone,” she said, a little breathless, when they parted and resumed walking.

“Why not? Those people think you’re a hero.”

“I just don’t think it’s a great idea to tell people that the Fire Princess used to be a disguised vigilante who destroyed government property.”

“I was a disguised vigilante traitor once, too,” Zuko said wistfully.

“No way.”

“I was! I freed the Avatar from Zhao and the bison from the Dai Li.”

“Okay, I don’t remember any of that first one so I’m pretty sure you’re lying. And to count as a vigilante, you need to have freed Appa out of the goodness of your heart, not because you were trying to capture Aang. Is that what you were doing?”

“I also stole a lot of stuff from rich people,” Zuko said evasively. “Does that count?”

“Considering how rich you are, no it does not.”

“Well, I wasn’t rich then.” He licked his ice cream. “It was after Zhao stole my ship and Azula had us declared traitors, so we were dirt poor. I’m not very good at fishing or begging. I’m pretty good at stealing.”

“Still doesn’t count,” Katara said, poking him in the side. “And don’t tell my dad you can’t fish. He’ll drag me right back to the South Pole without a second thought.”

“Would it help if I told him I was rich?”

Katara shook her head, laughing. They wandered around for a few more minutes, until they had finished their ice cream, and then Katara proposed that they return to the beach.

“I want to see if I can surf in a whirlpool.”

“As fun as that sounds, I think I’m going to hang out here for a bit,” Zuko said, avoiding her gaze. He perused the stalls around them.

“You sure?”

“Yeah, you go back. I’ll catch up later.”

Katara returned to the beach on her own. Keahi was still sunbathing, but on hearing Katara’s proposal, was game to give it a try. She wanted to master the whirlpool first, so she remained on the sand while he went out on his surfboard. They discovered that yes, it was possible to surf a whirlpool, as long as there was a waterbender who could provide a path out when the surfer got too close to the center, and also that bending a whirlpool on a public beach was a great way to get the ocean to themselves.

But Katara was a kind and generous person, so she offered the other surfers turns while she practiced, until she was confident that she would be able to bend and surf at the same time. It was exhausting. It was more fun than she’d had in years.

Eventually she returned to their spot on the beach and stretched out to enjoy the sun’s warmth and rest her eyes. It occurred to her that Zuko had been gone a long time.

She heard a wistful sigh, and squinted in the sunlight. Keahi was sitting on the towel next to her, staring somewhere across the beach. She sat up and shaded her eyes. The only notable thing in that direction was the surfboard stand. It was getting late in the day, and there was no one around except the clerk, leaning against the stand with his chin propped in his hand. The wind teased his hair, and she glanced at Keahi with a smirk.

“He’s kind of cute, isn’t he?”

“Hey!” Keahi directed a stern frown her way, as if that would keep her from noticing that he was blushing. “You’re married.”

“So? I can still tell when guys are cute.”

“I’m telling Prince Zuko,” he taunted.

“Don’t you dare! I’m just saying, you should go talk to him. Oh man, speaking of cute—”

She pointed in the direction of the boardwalk, where an adorable little girl was waddling towards them. She was wearing a pink bathing suit and carried a huge cone of strawberry ice cream, with her mother hovering protectively behind her.

“She’s adorable,” Katara cooed.

“Ah,” Keahi said with a sage nod. “I’ve seen this before, when all of my sisters got married. Baby fever. You’ve got a terrible case, and motherhood is the only known cure.”

“I do not have baby fever.”

“You don’t? Are you telling me that when you look at that toddler, you don’t—” He adopted a high voice that totally did not sound like her. “—just want to squish her little cheeks and count her little toes and just eat her up?”

“Okay, that’s just being a human being, with a soul. Oh look!” she spotted Zuko walking around the small family and waved. “There you are! What is that?”

Zuko hefted an enormous plush toy dragon in triumph.

“I won it.”

“Is that where you’ve been all afternoon?”

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure those games are rigged.”

“Everyone knows that,” Keahi said.

At that exact moment, the waddling toddler lost her balance and fell back on the sand. She seemed unhurt and undisturbed—until she realized that her ice cream was now melting on the ground. She burst into tears. Her mother knelt down, making soothing noises, and tried to pick her up, but the toddler was squirming and kicking too much to get a good grip.

“Aw,” Katara said, wrinkling her nose in sympathy. Zuko looked alarmed. He rushed over.

“Is she okay?” he asked. “Is she hurt? My wife’s a healer—”

“That’s quite all right,” the mother said with a sheepish smile. “She’s okay, just a little dramatic. It’s been a long day, hasn’t it, Miko?”

Miko continued to screech—but then she spotted Zuko and she fell silent. Her eyes were huge in her small face.

“Is that—better?” he asked hesitantly. “Or worse?”

“She likes the dragon,” Katara pointed out, and he looked between Miko and the toy in his hand.

“Oh.” The toddler hiccuped, and the possibility of more tears seemed imminent. Zuko held it up so she could see better—he looked so nervous, one might expect it to explode at any minute—and spoke in a voice that sounded suspiciously like his uncle. “Hello, young lady. Mister Dragon says everything will be okay. It’s no good crying over spilled ice cream... because... you can always get some more?”

Miko squealed with laughter, her mother beamed, and it took all of Katara’s willpower not to melt like the ice cream in question.

“Baby fever,” Keahi muttered under his breath.

Shut up.”

“See? All better,” the woman said, bouncing the toddler with a smile. “Thank you, young man, that was very kind.”

“It’s no problem.”

She turned to walk away, but Miko let out a disappointed wail and reached for the toy.

“Oh for goodness’s sake, give it to her!” Katara demanded.

“That’s really not necessary,” the woman said, embarrassed, and Zuko frowned.

“But…”

Katara crossed her arms and raised one eyebrow, trying to wordlessly convey you’re arguing with a waterbender at the beach?. He looked between her and the toddler, who was holding out both arms and making grabby hands and looking unreasonably adorable. He sighed.

“Here.”

He deposited the toy in the toddler’s arms and she hugged it with a vice-like grip. It was nearly twice her size.

“Really, you don’t—”

“It’s fine,” he said. He shrugged and backed away, holding up his hands, so she couldn’t hand it back. “It’s not like I had a use for it, anyway.”

“Well, that’s very, very generous. Say thank you, Miko.”

“Da!” Miko said happily, waving the dragon in Zuko’s direction.

Before she turned away again, the woman made eye contact with Katara and mouthed something that looked an awful lot like ‘he’s a keeper.’ She nodded back and wiggled her fingers at Miko. Zuko sat down next to her, and she glared at him.

“Were you really not going to give that adorable little girl your stupid dragon toy just because you spent two hours playing dumb games for it?”

“Well, it was going to be a present for you.”

Katara blinked.

“Oh.”

“Yeah. You said you wanted to see a dragon, and this was the only chance you were ever going to get,” he said. He lay down and folding his hands behind his head. “Hope you’re happy.”

His lips curved in a smirk, and Katara swooped down to kiss him.

“Okay.” Keahi stood up. “This is getting gross. I’m going to go… return the surfboards.”

Katara smiled to herself. She really did love when people did what she told them to.

They stayed in Hira’a for two more days. Their anonymity had been pretty well blown by the second day—something about waterbending on a public beach—and they hadn’t been completely able to escape politics, but Katara didn’t mind. It was the first time she had had a chance to talk to people from the outer islands, except for the governors, and the first time she got to see Zuko do the same. As shy as he was, she thought he did brilliantly. The people were eager to impress him, and he was eager in return, but the snobbishness of the nobility in the capitol was nowhere to be found. Their occasional lapses in formality endeared them to their subjects, rather that earning their scorn.

There was an enormous feast the last night, with what felt like half the village in attendance. Afterwards, they snuck out to take a private stroll through the rainforest.

“Are you sure fire came from the dragons?” Katara mused as they walked, their fingers interlaced.

“Yeah. Why?”

“I’m just saying. Maybe your people learned how to bend from the fireflies,” she teased.

The bugs swirled around them lazily, blinking on and off. Zuko pushed aside a branch that hung over the path.

“It’s not even real fire,” he said. “It’s just a glow, like those light crystals in the Earth Kingdom.”

“Has anyone ever told you you’re no fun?”

“Everyone, every day, my whole life.”

The trees gave way to the beach. A content sigh escaped Katara’s lips; the moon was huge, if still a bit lopsided, hanging just above the ocean. She slipped out of Zuko’s grip and almost floated down to the water. The waves parted for her, rising up to meet the ink-black sky. She ran her fingers through them and spun in a slow circle. Like a compass needle seeking north, her face tilted towards the moon.

She spun faster and faster, and the water whirled around her like when she was a girl and she used to make cyclones of snow. The blood in her veins was singing.

She stopped suddenly; her skirts swished around her and the water was suspended in the air, every last drop. Zuko still waited at the shore, watching her with a bittersweet smile on his face. They hadn’t talked about his bending, but she knew it hadn’t recovered yet. She lowered her arms, letting the water sink back in its place, and held her hands out to him.

Zuko kissed her fingertips when he joined her, then spun her around to face the horizon. He tucked his chin against her shoulder. The tides tugged at their ankles and his breath tickled her neck.

“My uncle told me… well, this was the second week we were floating on that raft with nothing to eat but seaweed, so I don’t know if he was making much sense. But he told me the moon used to be a Water Tribe princess.”

“It’s true,” she said. “Her name was Yue. She was my friend. I…”

“What?” Zuko prompted.

“Nothing. Just… I thought about her a lot when we got engaged,” she admitted quietly. “Yue had an arranged marriage to some jerk. Sokka was in love with her, so he was really upset, of course. He was upset when we got your uncle’s letter, too. All he could think about was how unhappy she had been… but in the end, she didn’t marry anybody. Zhao killed the moon spirit, and Yue took its place.”

She swallowed and felt lips touch the rim of her ear.

“I kept thinking about that. What else would I be willing to sacrifice, if it meant keeping my people safe…? Marriage didn’t seem like much, in comparison.”

“My parents had an arranged marriage, too,” he said. His voice was rough. “I’ve been thinking about them a lot, the past couple of days. My mom grew up here, and she was living here when they got engaged. I wonder if they ever stood here, like this, before… before everything fell apart.”

Katara pulled back so she could look him in the eye.

“You’re not your father,” she reminded him.

The wind blew a lock of hair in her eyes. He tucked it behind her ear and buried his face in her shoulder.

“I know.”

“And… being married to you… it’s not a sacrifice.”

She felt his lips crook into a grin against her neck.

“I hope we’re still happy in ten years. And that’s such a weird thing to say, because I’m really not used to being happy in the first place.”

“Well, get used to it.”

Zuko hummed, and she felt the reverberations through his chest. The silver light of the moon sparkled on the ocean, and the world was peaceful and still.

Chapter Text

It was the last day of their vacation before they were supposed to meet Aang, and Katara was spending it hiking an unreasonably high mountain through the densest jungle in the Fire Nation. Earlier that day, when Zuko had announced their route, Jingyi had immediately said she would meet them at their destination via the funicular, and Katara simply rejoiced at yet another opportunity for hard-to-come-by privacy. Two hours later, the funicular was looking pretty good.

“There is no way this place is worth it,” she declared.

She was taking a brief break to lean against a tree trunk as wide as their house in the South Pole, because Zuko was hacking at a huge snarl of low-hanging vines that obstructed the way forward. How was this even a path?

“Trust me, it is.”

He sheathed his swords and bowed, gesturing grandly at the way forward. Katara sighed and resumed walking.

“Why are they called the Fire Falls, anyway? I mean, what is it with you people and fire everything? I’m proud of being from the Water Tribe, but we don’t sit around Water Village next to Water Mountain putting water flakes in our… water.”

“There’s an actual reason, I swear. The waterfall is at the far western edge of the island. If you get there in time for sunset, the light reflects off the water, and it looks like they’re on fire. There are two ways to get there: there’s the Upper Ridge, which you reach by funicular, which is always crowded and has an okay view. Then there’s the Lower Ridge, which you can only reach by taking this path, has the perfect view, and is always private. Our mom took us here when we were kids once. It was the most incredible thing I’d ever seen—and it would have been the perfect place to end our vacation,” he added with a scowl.

Katara sighed. Zuko was moving faster than she was—he had longer legs and sturdier shoes—but she skipped to close the gap and grabbed his hand.

“Look, I know you don’t want to do this Sun Warriors field trip thing—”

“What makes you think that?”

“—but will you please try to be optimistic? For once? For me? Uncle thinks it will help you get your bending back.”

“I guess,” he muttered. He sighed and swiped at a fern with his sword half-heartedly. “But I still don’t see how some old rocks are supposed to help. And it’s just humiliating to have to go with the Avatar.”

Katara was going to scold him for that, and then she remembered her own reaction to bending with Aang, in the beginning. Her instruction from Hama had always been… intense. The sweet old woman cackling at Gran-Gran’s jokes around the stew pot had turned into a hard-faced warrior who wasn’t afraid to knock Katara down with a column of ice water again, and again, and again, until she got it right. She had learned. Aang, when he first arrived, hadn’t liked Hama’s style. He had struggled—so Katara had no reason to expect a prodigy when she began his training on the road.

Three weeks into their trip, she had exhausted every move she knew. Aang had mastered them all. She tried to cover up her inexperience by adopting Hama’s method, turning stern and hard and demanding. And then… well. Then she had tried something new. She shivered at the memory.

“Don’t think about it like that,” she said. Her voice was perhaps a little too upbeat, but Zuko didn’t notice. “You’re both going there to learn—you’ll figure it out. And I know you never really got along with Aang, but the last time you met him, you didn’t get along with anyone.”

“Oh, thanks.”

“It’s true, isn’t it?” she laughed. “I’m sure it’ll be different, this time. Aang’s my friend.”

“Is he?”

The look he sent her way was pointed. Katara pursed her lips.

“Well, I’m definitely going to yell at him when we find him, but that doesn’t mean anything. I yell at you all the time.”

“That’s tr—” His grin faded. “Did you feel that?”

They slowed to a stop. The jungle wasn’t quiet—if anything, the birds got louder—but  with her attention focused, Katara heard the next quiet rumble.

“That’s earthbending,” she said in a hushed voice.

They stared at each other, wide-eyed. There might be a perfectly innocent explanation—a handful of wealthy Earth Kingdom tourists had begun to visit the Fire Nation soon after the war ended. Wordlessly, Zuko drew his second sword and Katara uncorked her skins. Zuko stepped off the path and crept forward; she followed him, careful to step in the same spots and move slowly. As they approached the ridge, they heard voices.

Three men stood in the small clearing. Two of them were wearing blue, but even from this distance Katara could tell they weren’t Water Tribe. One had his hair bound in a ponytail instead of a wolftail, and the other was wearing a tunic made out of some very thin, shiny silk that no one would wear within ten miles of the poles. They were speaking to a third man in dark green robes. Behind them, the Fire Falls made a dull roar, and they spoke in raised voices to hear each other over it. The topic of conversation was evidently a jagged wall of new stone that turned the cliff into a dead end.

“If it gets any higher, the people in the funicular might spot it—”

“And I’m telling you, it’s not enough,” the one in green said impatiently. “There’s no room for error here.”

He turned so his face was in profile and raised the wall another foot, and Katara drew in her breath sharply. It was the same assassin as before, the earthbender who had gotten away. Zuko’s shoulders tensed, and she knew he recognized him, too. His grip tightened on his swords—but then he turned his head just enough to meet her eye, and his shoulders slumped. Backup, Katara mouthed. Zuko nodded and took a silent step towards the path.

At that moment, a parrot-lemur squawked above their heads. The earthbender turned instinctively, scanning the branches, and then his gaze fell.

Without thinking, Katara yanked at the water around them. Thick vines sprang to her, forming a solid wall between her and Zuko and the assassins, and the first chunks of stone bounced harmlessly to the ground. It didn’t last long—the next thing the assassins did was produce huge spikes that tore through the vines—but it was long enough for Zuko to draw the horn from his belt and blow an alarm blast. Katara released her grip on the plants as she and Zuko darted forward, one from each side, to flank their opponents.

There were no chi blockers in the group, this time. The two men dressed as Water Tribesmen both had clubs, but they clearly had little experience wielding them. Ponytail used it like a war hammer, whacking huge cubes of stone at Zuko. He deflected them with his swords easily. Silk Shirt dropped the club immediately in favor earthbending. A rolling wave of stone coursed towards Katara, but she leaped over it neatly. The earthbender drove another stone spike towards her; Katara used it to propel herself into the air and rained down knives of ice on both men. Summer humidity clung to the air, and she didn’t even have to touch her skins.

This fight was different that the last one. The stone wall halved the size of the cliff, and she had absolutely no practice fighting with someone using dual swords—the range of Zuko’s blades was twice that of Sokka’s, and Katara tried to give him a wide berth, which was difficult in such a small space. She was forced on the defensive, to avoid huge gestures that put her in harm’s way. She was forced to use ice instead of water, because it was more restrained and she was worried about accidentally hitting Zuko. And little by little, she was forced to give ground.

Suddenly, Ponytail lunged at her from the back. Zuko whipped around and caught the club on his swords, then realized Katara’s predicament. He crossed his swords in a defensive posture and darted towards her. They closed the gap between them and stood back to back, rotating slowly to keep their opponents in view.

“You know what Xue would say?” he murmured.

“Planes of movement.”

“Mm-hm. Forward and back. Side and side.”

“Up and down.”

All three of the assassins struck, punching enormous boulders straight at them. Zuko caught the first on his swords. They had angled themselves so that Katara would take the brunt of the other two. They came from the left and right—and smashed into each other as she dropped to her knees. One palm facing towards the sky, she bent a dome of water that scattered the debris and caused their opponents to stumble. Zuko dove for the nearest man—the one with the silk shirt—and slit his throat.

The earthbender tackled Zuko, his face a mask of rage. They tussled for a moment before, and one of Zuko’s swords went spinning off into the brush. Katara raised her hands, furiously trying to think of a way to separate them without harming Zuko. Then a bone club connected with her skull.

Katara saw stars. Unbidden, a cry escaped her mouth, and she stumbled, but she recovered quickly. Ponytail was clumsy with his weapon, unfamiliar with it. She ducked under his next blow and swept his legs from under him. He lost his momentum and teetered on the cliff for a heartstopping moment, before falling with a scream and a splash into the water far below.

But it was her own voice that had doomed them. Zuko heard her, and in his moment of distraction, the earthbender gained the upper hand.

Katara whirled around to find the earthbender hauling Zuko up, his hands bound behind his back. The earthbender stamped his feet and rock encased Zuko’s ankles… and with a flick of his wrist, there was a knife at Zuko’s throat. Zuko’s eyes fluttered shut and he grimaced with self-recrimination.

The world went quiet. The roar of the falls faded to a whisper, and time slowed. Katara’s arms floated up of their own volition, but she didn’t know what to do with them. The last rays of the dying sun glinted off the knife.

“I’m not here to kill him.”

It took Katara a moment to register the words, but only half a moment to dismiss them as lies.

“Great,” she said humorlessly. “Then let him go.”

“My orders were to capture him,” the earthbender continued. “In whatever condition necessary. Does he need his feet, do you think?” he asked, and the rock crawled further up Zuko’s shins. “What about his eyes? One is more than enough—I’ll even let him keep the good one—”

“Katara, don’t—”

“Shut up.”

Katara’s blood ran cold.

“What do you want?”

“Stand down, waterbender. That’s all. My orders were to capture him and kill you. Stand down, and stay down, and you’ll both survive this day.”

She didn’t believe him. The knife was so close to Zuko’s throat, so unbearably close, and Katara could see the vein throbbing in his neck… she could feel it. Her breath caught. She could feel it. She could feel his blood—and the earthbender’s, too. The sun was setting behind her, and before her was the rising moon. It had only just begun to wane. She could do it. All she had to do was…

Her hands trembled. No. No, she didn’t need it. She could do this without it.

Zuko was staring at her. His eyes were as gold as the sun behind her, and tight with pain. He turned his head just slightly. A thin line of blood welled up from the tip of the knife.

“Give me your word,” he said. She didn’t understand him, but the earthbender’s face sunk into a satisfied smile.

“You have it.”

Zuko’s eyes met hers again.

“No,” Katara said, horrified. “No, Zuko—!”

He took a deep breath, and Katara knew what was coming but was powerless to stop it. 

He exhaled fire, rivers of it, burning hotter than any dragon ever managed, and it was all Katara could do to block it with a wall of water that hissed and steamed. She couldn’t see, and she sliced through the mist just in time to see the assassin sling Zuko over an eel hound that emerged from behind the wall, and then they were gone. She screamed his name again, darting towards the trees, but the lizard melted into the foliage.

Her foot caught a root. Katara fell, scraping her hands. She couldn’t get up. The world was tilting, upside down and unfamiliar, and she was too dizzy to tell ground from sky.

“Princess Katara!”

The world tipped further as Jingyi fell into the clearing, skirt torn, a dagger of fire in her hand and smoldering leaves in her wake. She hadn’t even known Jingyi was a firebender. The prim and proper attendant looked at her and the alarmed expression on her face softened for a moment, until she saw the body.

Someone planned this, Katara thought, very carefully. Someone knew when they were traveling and when they would be alone.

“Did you know?” she demanded in a throaty voice.

“I—what?”

Katara was across the clearing in a heartbeat, and her hand closed like a claw around Jingyi’s wrist.

“Did you know?”

Jingyi turned to look at her. Her face was chalk-pale and her eyes were wide. She was older than Katara had thought she was, and more frail. Her iron hair was just gray, and although she was a firebender, her wrist was thin and Katara could tell she had had little or no combat training.

Her lips mouthed the word “no” and Katara believed her. She grabbed her by the shoulders instead.

“Listen to me,” she ordered, her mind racing a mile a minute. “You heard the fighting from far away, you heard me scream, and when you got here, the clearing was empty. You went over to the cliff and you saw my body on the rocks before the river washed it away. Nothing more. If someone suggests I was pushed, or fell, or jumped—you don’t know. All you know is that I’m dead. You don’t know where Zuko is, where our attackers were, nothing. Tell Iroh the truth, if you can get him alone, but other than that, trust no one. Do you understand?”

Jingyi swallowed and nodded.

“And where—where will you be, Princess?”

“Somebody took my husband.” Her voice broke like the crack of a glacier. “I’m going to get him back.”

For a moment, she thought Jingyi was going to pull out an etiquette rule about how a lady always delegated rescue missions to the proper authorities. Instead, the older woman did something that shocked her: she dropped to her knees in a full kowtow. Katara gaped in a most unladylike fashion.

“I knew his mother,” Jingyi said as she stood, her steady voice wavering. “When she first came to the palace, I was her attendant. Princess Ursa was… she was… a lot like you. May the spirits guide you and defend you, my lady. I will pray for the prince’s safe return each day.”

“Thank you,” Katara said. She felt like she should say more, but at that moment they heard the sound of guards crashing through the bushes.

“Over here!” Jingyi shouted. She burst into instantaneous tears—handy trick—and Katara melted away in the opposite direction.

Katara had no idea where she was going. True night fell, and the twisted canopy overhead was so thick that even the almost-full moon cast no light on the ground. She didn’t have a torch, or spark rocks—what did she need them for, when she was married to a firebender? She didn’t have food. All she had were Zuko’s swords, and a pair of sturdy shoes (thank the spirits they hadn’t been attacked when she was wearing sandals), and a bison whistle, which she blew every ten minutes.

It was a long shot, but Aang was supposed to meet Zuko at the Sun Warrior ruins tomorrow, so he must be somewhere in the Fire Nation. She knew she had no hope of following the mount on foot. She fought her way through the trees for at least an hour, wielding one of Zuko’s swords poorly, until she came across a path. She was no hunter, but she recognized a lizard track in the soft mud on the northbound edge. The mount would have a difficult time crossing rough terrain, too—if she followed the path, surely she would find it, sooner or later.

The moon climbed higher in the sky. She felt it, even if she couldn’t see it. It was midnight, her feet were blistered and aching, and there had been no further sign of the eel hound, or the assassin, or Zuko. Katara stopped in the middle of the path, and tears of frustration pooled in her eyes.

She sheathed the sword and looked down at the whistle clenched in her hand. The white paint had begun to crack and fade in places, showing the wood underneath. She remembered when Aang had first bought it. One of their three remaining copper pieces, wasted on a whistle that didn’t make a sound. Sokka’s exasperation and sarcasm. Her own annoyance tempered by her affection for the boy who could still find whimsy in the midst of the war. They had met the pirates that same day, she remembered, and Zuko had grabbed her and captured her and held her mother’s necklace up to her neck. She had hated him more than she could remember hating anyone.

Katara took a deep breath and brought the whistle to her lips, one more time. She blew—and heard a familiar soft bellow in response.

“Appa!” The word burst from her mouth and her head snapped up. “Aang! Aang, I’m down here!”

“Katara!”

Appa began to descend. The trees overhead creaked ominously, and small branches and leaves showered onto the path. Katara leapt back as the bison landed, and Aang jumped down to the ground, an easy grin on his face.

“Hey, Katara! I thought that must be you—Appa just started going crazy—”

He had gotten taller. That was all she had time to notice before she grabbed him by the arm and dragged him back towards Appa.

“There’s no time—we have to go—I’ll explain later—”

“Hey, wait, wait. What’s going on? Is everything okay?”

“They took Zuko!”

“What?” Aang frowned. “What do you mean—who?”

“I don’t know! I don’t know.” She ran her hand through her hair and gulped in air. “They attacked Iroh a few weeks ago, but one of them got away, and there were more of them—he said they were under orders to kill me and kidnap Zuko, and he got him and they went this way—”

Aang’s face fell into serious, determined lines. His hand tightened on his glider, and he nodded once.

“Then let’s go. Don’t worry—we’ll find him.”

The last few months of hurt and betrayal melted away. Hope kindled in Katara’s heart, and she was so full of gratitude that she flung her arms around him without thinking. Aang’s hand hovered over her back for a moment, then he hugged her back. He pulled away and leapt gracefully onto Appa’s head. Katara climbed onto the bison’s back less easily—she was out of practice—and then they were in the sky.

For a long time, they flew in almost complete silence. At first Aang kept Appa just above the treeline, so they could try to spot the lizard among the foliage, but when that didn’t work, they climbed higher and higher to get a good vantage point. Katara’s stomach was twisted in knots. After a while, Aang stretched and leaned back on the heels of his hands.

“So…” he said sheepishly. “How have you been?”

All at once, the past ten months came rushing back. Katara narrowed her eyes.

Where have you been?”

Aang’s shoulders slumped. He closed his eyes and exhaled.

“I know you must be angry with me. I’m sorry.”

“I’m not angry,” Katara snapped. “I just want to know where you’ve been for the past year , where apparently they don’t let you send letters to your friends—”

“I’m sorry! Listen, after the war ended… I felt really, really guilty.” He drew his knees up to his chest and wrapped his arms around them. “I thought bringing peace to the world was my destiny, and without that—I didn’t know what to do. You and Sokka went home. Toph went back to the Earth Kingdom. But I didn’t have a home to go to, and then you said you were going to go to the Fire Nation…”

“Aang, you could have stayed with us,” she said. She was trying to be kind, but her frustration still bled through. “You know you could have. Even after my wedding—you could have visited, could have said something. Instead you ran away! Again!”

“Yeah. I know. But the last time we talked, I was upset. What you said, about making sacrifices… I needed to think it over. So I’ve spent the last few months going all over, trying to understand my destiny. I went to all the temples—not just the Air Temples, but the ones in the Earth Kingdom and the North Pole. I even met with Fire Sage Shyu, once, but I made him promise not to tell anyone I was in the Fire Nation... I went to a whole bunch of different fortunetellers, and the library at Ba Sing Se, and then I spent some time with Guru Pathik. And then I went on this sort of spirit quest to talk to my past lives, and you won’t believe this thing I met—”

“Wait—there!”

Katara flung her arm out and leaned over Appa’s saddle. They had reached the edge of the archipelago. The eastern horizon was just begin to lighten with the dawn, but the ocean was still so dark, it was almost black—except for a small burst of flame in the distance.

“What?”

“Did you see that? That has to be them!”

“I saw some fire… but are you sure it’s them? It’s the Fire Nation. It could be anybody.”

“No,” Katara said, sinking back in relief. “It’s Zuko. That’s what it looks like when he’s using his breath of fire.”

“Then I bet I know where they’re going: the Western Air Temple.”

Chapter Text

They stopped only once, briefly, to give Appa a rest, and arrived at the Temple near sunset the following day. Katara wasn’t sure they had reached it, honestly—it looked like a barren canyon, but Aang assured her the temple was there, hidden beneath the lip of the cliff. He knelt on the ground, closed his eyes, and touched his palm to the earth—and nodded silently. They were here.

Katara tried to be as quiet as possible climbing down the face of the cliff, but luck was against her; she dropped to the ground, Aang silent as a ghost behind her, and looked straight into the face of the assassin.

“This wasn’t our agreement, girl,” he snarled.

He had been sitting on a fallen pillar, but he jumped up, dragging Zuko with him. Katara almost wanted to laugh. In addition to the stone cuffs around his wrists, Zuko had a set of fetters around his ankles, and huge braces that kept his knees and elbows straight—at this point, it would have been easier to coat him in rock candy.

What kept her from sharing her amusement was the knife digging into the soft skin of his throat. The cut from the day before had begun to scab over, but it cracked again. A bead of dark blood spilled down his neck.

She took a deep breath. No time for hesitation now.

Katara held out both hands in a stiff, unnatural gesture, and the assassin’s limbs seized up. She jerked her hand to the side and his arm flew out, flinging the knife away. It clattered on stone in the distance, and his eyes widened in horror. Zuko looked confused; Aang was the only one who knew what had just happened.

“Katara!” he protested, but she jerked her other hand and the assassin’s hold on Zuko broke.

At a gesture from Aang, Zuko’s bonds crumbled to dust, and he stumbled away from the earthbender, loosening his limbs so he could join in the fight. There wasn’t much fight left. The assassin looked shaken by what had just occurred, and he moved slower than usual. Before he could strike a bending stance, Katara drew the water from the fountain behind him and coated the ground with a thin sheet of ice. His stance went awry, root snapped. Aang swept a rush of air at the assassin, and Zuko a column of fire, and the force of both blows sent him reeling.

He slipped on the ice and fell over the lip of the cliff.

“No!” Aang cried.

“Damn it!” Zuko swore, but they could do nothing more than watch as the earthbender fell a long, long way down. There was a crash at the bottom, and Katara swallowed.

“I didn’t mean—I didn’t—”

“You did what you had to do.” Zuko turned and looked at her and something in his face changed. He stepped forward. “Katara—”

“Katara—” Aang started to say, but she was focused on her husband.

He took a step forward and held up his arms with a hopeful little smile. She slapped his hand away.

“How dare you?” she hissed. “What happened to being partners, you—you asshole?”

“I’m sorry.” He stepped closer. She wrapped her arms around her own torso so she wouldn’t be tempted to hug him, but she didn’t stop him from putting his hand on her shoulder, then slipping over to rub the back of her neck. “I’m sorry, Katara,” he said quietly. Her traitorous body melted at his touch. “Thank you.”

She turned her head and buried it in his shoulder, and Zuko hugged her tight. He was shaking.

“Katara, you shouldn’t have done that,” Aang said. He sounded upset, and she knew why.

“Shouldn’t have saved my life?” Zuko snapped.

“Bloodbending! You said you never wanted to use it!”

“Stop yelling at her,” Zuko shouted, releasing Katara to round on him.

“I’m not yelling!”

“Zuko, it’s okay,” Katara said, laying a hand on his arm. “He’s right—I always said I didn’t want to bloodbend, but I—”

“See?” Aang said triumphantly.

“Aang, I didn’t have a choice. I—”

“So back off,” Zuko snarled. Katara was starting to get a headache.

“No!” Aang said, incensed. “I’m her friend and I’m not just going to stand aside when she needs my advice!”

“Well I’m her husband and I trust—” Zuko fell into an abrupt silence, staring intently at Aang’s face. “Oh.” His posture relaxed and he put a hand on Katara’s back. “I get it. You’re jealous.”

Aang flinched, and Katara felt warmth rise in her cheeks.

“Zuko,” she warned softly.

“What? It’s the truth, isn’t it? It doesn’t actually matter who’s right, as long as the Avatar can claim the moral high ground and say he loves you more than I do—”

Aang turned around and ran for the edge, snapping his glider open.

“Aang!” Katara called. “Wait!”

She darted towards the cliff, but Aang soared away without looking back. Katara watched him go and sighed, her stomach churning with guilt. Aang and Zuko, as far as she knew, hadn’t spoken since their formal introduction at the Water Tribe treaty signing. It was probably too much to hope that these two people she loved would be friends right away, but she was still disappointed somehow.

“Zuko—”

She turned, and her reprimand died in her throat. His eyes were glazed. His arms, hanging limp at his sides, were dusted with new bruises. He looked terrible.

“Is there anyone else here?” she asked. He shook his head. “Sit. Rest.”

His eyes focused on her, and when she darted in for a quick peck on the lips, his hand tangled in her hair and held her there. Katara’s mouth fell open with a sigh and she clutched at his tunic. His stomach gurgled when she pulled away.

“When was the last time you ate?”

“I haven’t.”

“Slept?”

You try sleeping in a stone cocoon.” He rubbed at his face. “He knew I could breathe fire, and it’s almost impossible to stop someone from doing that without suffocating them, but it takes a lot of energy to use. He was careful.”

“Mm.” Katara looked around them. “I left our supplies with Appa, but I’m sure our friend won’t mind if we borrow his. You rest.”

The fact that Zuko obeyed was all the proof she needed that he was exhausted. Katara started a fire, first, and then fished through the assassin’s supplies. She found several full water skins, salt fish, rice, and some green onions with the roots attached that must have been growing around the temple. It had been a while since she cooked over a campfire, and the results were a little blackened, but edible. Zuko wolfed it down, at least.

“We should set up a different camp,” he said when he finished. He yawned. “There might be accomplices—”

“Don’t worry about it,” Katara said. “We’re not leaving without Aang, and you’re about to fall over. You need to rest.”

“I’m fine.”

She sat down beside him and called a ribbon of water to her hand. She healed the cut on his neck, first, and Zuko wordlessly held out his arms. The water slipped over the bruises, washing them away as easily as dirt, and she trailed her fingers over pale, unblemished skin.

“I can’t believe you were mad about Mai,” he said sulkily. “Even though you didn’t tell me about you and the Avatar .”

She had been waiting for something like this, and she sighed.

“His name is Aang. And… it wasn’t anything. Not really.” She wrapped her arms around her knees. “I never thought of him that way—not until the Day of Black Sun. He kissed me, just before the invasion was supposed to start… and then the war ended and we never really talked about it.”

Zuko was quiet, and she could tell he was struggling to control his temper. It seemed to take an unusual amount of effort for him to force air in and out of his lungs, and when he spoke, his lips barely parted.

“Did you love him?”

“That’s a complicated question.”

“No, it’s not,” he snapped. He leaned back on the heels of his hands and looked out at the canyon.

“I wasn’t in love with him. But he was my friend, and I didn’t want to hurt him. And—it was more than that. You have to understand, Zuko. I dreamed of the Avatar returning for years. Years. It was the only thing that kept us going, for so long. And when we found him, when I found him in the ice, we didn’t know he was the Avatar at first. He was just some kid who needed a friend. Hama was the one who recognized him, and from that moment on… I just knew our destinies were tied. I knew it was his destiny to end the war, and mine to help him.”

“You were wrong.”

“Yeah,” she said. “I was. But that feeling, that confidence, that willing to leave everything you’ve ever known for something bigger… it doesn’t really go away. It’s the same thing I felt when I decided to marry you.”

Zuko was quiet.

“You think I don’t understand what that feels like? You don’t think I know what it’s like to search for your destiny and fail?”

“You thought hunting the Avatar was your destiny because you were forced into it. I’m not saying that wasn’t hard, but I don’t know if it’s the same thing.”

“That’s not what I meant.” He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “On the Day of Black Sun, I planned to leave the Fire Nation and join the Avatar.”

“What?”

“I packed my things. I got a balloon. I was going to find my father during the eclipse, confront him, tell him he was cruel and wrong and that I was leaving. Then I would find my uncle, beg his forgiveness, and together we were going to find the Avatar and teach him firebending. I thought I was going to end the war. That I was finally going to do something right.”

“Why—why didn’t you tell me?” Katara breathed. “You were going to find us? Why—you never told me!”

“I never told anyone—except Mai. I told her in the letter I left. It didn’t matter. None of it ever happened. I got to the bunker, and…” He swallowed. “He wasn’t dead yet. I went to him, and he was… happy to see me. For probably the first time in my life. He thought I was going to avenge him. I had all this stuff I wanted to say, but when it actually came to it—I was a coward. I didn’t say anything.”

Katara knelt beside him and touched his hand. He didn’t look at her; he turned further away.

“He was your dad, Zuko, and he was dying. It’s okay. No one would blame you for—”

“Yeah, but no one would have believed me, either,” he interrupted. “That’s why I never told anyone. Not even Uncle. He asked me why I was there, and—I lied. It doesn’t matter. I don’t believe in destiny anymore.”

“I do.”

He glanced at her, lips curled in scorn.

“Which one?”

She framed his face with her hands and kissed his forehead.

“You.” She kissed his eyelid and the top of his scar and his lips. “And me. Destiny’s a funny thing, isn’t it?”

His face softened under her touch, and a reluctant smile tugged at the corner of his mouth. He tilted his head up to return her kiss. Then he drew her hand away from his scar and pressed his mouth against the center of her palm.

“Tell me about bloodbending.”

Her hand folded into a fist. She rocked back on her heels and looked away.

“I don’t really want to talk about it.”

“I know. But I think you should.”

Katara sighed.

“My teacher, Hama… she was captured by firebenders once, when she was young. She was kept in a prison without any water, but over time she realized that on the full moon, when her bending was the strongest, she could feel a person’s blood. Then she could bend it. She escaped using bloodbending. On the way back to the tribe, she used it to… to attack Fire Nation citizens. She would bloodbend them into caves, or lose them in forests, or tie them up somewhere, so they disappeared like our waterbenders disappeared. I asked her if it was only soldiers, and she said yes, but I—”

Her voice faltered. Zuko squeezed her hand.

“But I don’t know if I believe her. Before I left with Aang, she tried to teach me. She told me about how I could… force a man to slit his own throat, attack his friends and family. Pinch a blood vessel and kill him without giving him a chance to fight back. Just—completely take away his free will.” She took a deep breath. “I said no.”

“But you changed your mind?”

She nodded. She took her hand back and closed her eyes. She couldn’t look at him when she said this.

“The first time… I was training Aang. He was better than me. I wanted to show off, so I tried bloodbending on him. I hurt him. It was just an accident—I pulled too hard and he fell—but I just felt so awful, I said I would never use it again. And I meant it. Until after the war. After our engagement. Hama asked… she asked me what I would do if I was alone in a room with my husband and no water.”

A grave silence followed. She expected outrage, moral indignation, disbelief. Instead she got silence. Finally she couldn’t bear the suspense, and she opened her eyes to find Zuko watching her with an expression she couldn’t begin to fathom.

“Katara—”

“I wouldn’t have used it.”

“You should. Promise me—promise me that if I ever give you cause to need it, you’ll use it.”

“I didn’t mean to, today. But—but I saw him, and you, and I was—I’ve never felt rage like that.” She shivered. “It was the same with Aang. I just got mean. I—I scared myself.”

Zuko’s gaze turned appraising, and then he sat forward on his knees.

“I know how you feel. Hold my hands.”

He held his hands up, palms facing inwards. Katara frowned but obeyed. She cupped his hands from the outside, slotting her fingers in the spaces between his, and he bent a small flame. It pulsed with heat, nothing more than a candle’s breath.

“Do you feel that?”

“Yes.”

“Is it good or bad?”

“I don’t—I don’t know what you mean.”

“Is the fire good, and am I a good person for bending it? Or is it bad, and I’m a bad person because it’s mine?”

“Jeong Jeong would say it was bad. He said he felt cursed to be a firebender, because it was all about destruction, and I was blessed to be a waterbender instead.”

“Do you agree with him?”

Even then, she hadn’t. Jeong Jeong had talked about waterbending as if it was some great gift, and Sokka had yelled you burned my sister at Aang as if she hadn’t done just as bad or worse, and Aang had sworn never to firebend again and her hands had twitched with the memory of his blood in her hands. Jeong Jeong, she could understand—he hadn’t known. But the others… it was like they had forgotten. Like she was this perfect girl and someone else had yanked Aang to the ground. She still remembered how he had looked up at her, his grey eyes wide with shock and the faintest glimmer of fear.

She had knocked Zuko down, too. A hundred times or more.

“Let me guess: you want me to say no, that firebending isn’t inherently wrong, it’s what you choose to do with it, so that you can turn around and say the same thing about bloodbending.”

Zuko’s lips quirked in a tiny smile. He let the flame dissipate, and wrapped his fingers around her wrist. He pressed her palm against his chest.

“Do you feel that?”

His blood was flowing through his veins, his arteries, his capillaries, pumped through his heart and his lungs, up to his brain and down to his toes.

“Yes.”

“Blood flows. Fire burns. That’s what it does. It’s not about good or bad, it’s what you choose to do with it. You’re a good person, Katara, and I have faith that whatever you can do, you’ll do it for the right reasons.”

“I used it to hurt Aang.”

“It was an accident. You were fourteen and lost your temper—if we were all judged by those standards, none of us would look good. You knocked Aang down, and you saved my life. Let’s call it even.”

She wasn’t sure if she believed him. She sighed, and Zuko wrapped her in his arms. Twenty-four hours, they had been apart. Twenty-four hours of fear and panic and desperation. But his touch was warm and sure, his heartbeat strong where her ear was pressed against his chest, and she felt all of that tension melt away. Zuko’s fingers trailed through her hair.

“I’m usually on the other end of those speeches,” he said quietly. “My uncle’s the real expert.”

“You acquitted yourself well.” Her stomach lurched at the thought of Iroh. He must have heard what happened by now—she hoped Jingyi had found him. She hoped the Caldera was safe. “Zuko… what are we going to do?”

He sighed.

“I don’t know.”

They sat there for a long time, listening to the silence. Katara suggested that Zuko try to sleep. He tried to protest that he wasn’t tired, that she would need his help if they were attacked again, that it wasn’t that late—but he finally lay down with his head in her lap and fell asleep. When Aang returned, she was running her fingers through Zuko’s hair. Her first instinct was to retreat, embarrassed, but she forced herself to remain still.

“You’re back.”

Appa landed on the other side of the low-burning fire. Aang dismounted and sat down across from her. He looked lanky, like a polar dog pup trying out new limbs, and his forehead was creased with lines of worry she didn’t remember from when they were kids.

“I’m sorry for yelling at you,” he said in a muted voice.

“It’s okay.”

“It’s just that I remember how upset you were back then. If I started to go against my beliefs, I would want my friends to tell me.”

“I know, Aang,” Katara said softly. “But the first time Zuko and I fought that guy, the same thing happened. I couldn’t have used regular waterbending without hurting Zuko, too—but I wouldn’t use bloodbending, and I almost lost him. I couldn’t let that happen again.”

Aang nodded slowly.

“I understand.”

“If I ever start to use bloodbending the way Hama did, I want you to warn me. But I don’t think it’s all evil anymore—I think it could be used for good, too.”

“Okay. I trust you.” It was that easy. She could hardly believe it. His gaze wandered down and Katara realized she had resumed her idle petting. “You really love him, huh?”

She swallowed.

“Yeah. I do.”

He nodded again. He stared down at the fire, and the red outlines of the burning coals were reflected in his dark eyes.

“Do you remember, back when we were in Ba Sing Se, I went to master the Avatar State?”

“With Guru Pathik. I remember.”

“I lied to you all. I came back and said I had mastered it… but I hadn’t. Guru Pathik said that to truly connect with nature, with the universe, with all my past lives, I had to learn to let go. I had to understand that, to really be the Avatar, I have to be more than myself. I tried—I really did. But there was an earthly attachment I couldn’t let go of.”

“What was it?” He looked up at her. “Oh.”

“Yeah.” He sighed. “I was able to let go of my grief and my fear and my guilt… but when I first woke up, the first thing I saw was you. And when I learned about the war, about the Air Nomads, about how everything had changed… you gave me hope.” He sniffed and rubbed at his eyes. “Everything good about the world all got wrapped up in you, and I couldn’t give up my hope. I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be,” Katara said. She swallowed back her own tears and smiled to herself. “I kind of did the same thing.”

“Yeah, but you didn’t. What you said the last time we talked—about making sacrifices for everyone else—it stuck with me. All year I’ve been thinking about it, trying to move forward. I thought I understood, but then I saw you yesterday and… well, I guess I wasn’t ready yet. But now I am. I was being selfish. I thought it was okay, because it was love that held me back… I didn’t think that love could be selfish, but it was , because it meant I was putting the people I cared about on a higher pedestal than everyone else in the world. And because I didn’t trust you to make your own decisions. That was wrong. I’m sorry.”

Katara felt her chin wobbling, and she bit the inside of her cheek to keep from crying. Aang continued to stare into the fire, and the only sound was the soft cracking of the wood. It was joined, after a moment, by Katara’s whisper.

“Aang… I am so proud of you.”

“I don’t know why. I haven’t really done anything.”

“You’ve been through so much the last few years, but you’ve learned and grown… and I’m proud to be your friend.”

Aang sniffed again, but he smiled, his eyes shining.

“Thanks, Katara. I’m proud to be your friend, too.” His eyes flickered down to Zuko. “Is he okay? Did that guy hurt him?”

“He’s fine.” She touched his forehead. “Just tired. He didn’t sleep at all yesterday.”

“Neither did you.” She yawned, as if on cue. “I’ll keep watch. You should cuddle up with Appa. He’s soft.”

“I remember.” Katara shook Zuko gently by the shoulder. He woke with a quizzical grunt. “C’mon.”

“Wherewegoin?” he slurred, but he stood obligingly, and she propped him into a standing position.

“Not far.”

They lay down on Appa’s tail, and Zuko curled around her and fell asleep again at her command. He was very pliable when he was tired; she resolved to put this knowledge to good use in the future. She looked back at Aang, illuminated against the fire, and drifted off to sleep.

When Katara woke the next morning, Zuko and Aang were already awake—and talking. She had a difficult time dragging herself into consciousness, and as she stretched, a groan was pulled from her lungs. They stopped talking abruptly and looked over at her.

“Hi.”

“Hi Katara!” Aang said evasively.

“Hey.”

“What’re you guys talking about?” she asked, annoyed at herself for having lost her chance to eavesdrop.

“Breakfast,” Aang said. “You want some?”

“Sure.”

“Someone sent the assassin a message,” Zuko said as she approached the fire. He handed her a bowl of jook, and she noticed the messenger hawk perched on a nearby piece of debris. It cocked its head and stared at her with beady little eyes.

“What does it say?”

“We haven’t read it yet—I was just going to wake you.” He broke the seal on the scroll and unwrapped it. A frown pulled at his mouth as he scanned the parchment. “It’s not signed… it just says to remain here for at least a month, maybe longer, until he gets another message to move to ‘the next location,’ and the writer will send backup.” He tilted his head, breath coming out in an annoyed puff. “The handwriting looks familiar, but I can’t place it.”

Katara peered at the parchment. It was spindly writing, as if a spider walked through spilled ink onto the page, but she didn’t recognize it. She dug into her breakfast, and the three of them began to plan. Zuko wanted to send the messenger hawk to Iroh with a warning and head back to the Caldera immediately, but Katara protested. The message could be intercepted too easily—they didn’t even know if the hawk was trained to return to anyone except its master. She also objected to the idea of going back to the capital; she thought it would be safer to fly directly to the South Pole. Aang suggested they shouldn’t choose a destination until after sneaking into a Fire Nation town to find out what was going on.

“It’s too dangerous,” Katara said, crossing her arms. “We’re three very recognizable people, and we don’t know what’s happening. We need to go somewhere where we know we’ll find allies.”

“My uncle’s an ally, isn’t he?” Zuko snapped. “We need to warn him—he and Azula could be in danger!”

“Yes, but…” Katara bit her lip and took a deep breath. “But we have to think about this first. Whoever hired those men, they wanted me dead and you alive. That must mean they either want to use you as a bargaining chip to influence Iroh—in which case he’s perfectly safe—or they wanted to install you as Fire Lord for some reason. In which case… honey, I’m sorry, but we have to think about the possibility that he’s already dead.”

Zuko blanched, then jumped to his feet. His bowl clattered to the ground and Momo leapt at it.

“He is not dead!”

“I don’t think so, and I really hope he’s okay, but we can’t rule it out. Think about it, Zuko—if they were trying to wipe out the royal family, what would be the point of waiting? You’re thinking that we can get to the city in time to do something, but we’re three days in at this point. That’s plenty of time to tighten security. It makes much more sense for the assassins to strike everyone at once, or as near as they can make it. If that was their goal in the first place, and we don’t know if it was.”

Zuko sat down heavily and buried his head in his hands.

“I have to know they’re okay,” he mumbled. “Uncle, Azula—”

“I’m sure they’re fine,” Aang said, patting him on the back. Katara was a little surprised Zuko didn’t shake him off. “They’re both amazing firebenders, and they’re in the palace. That’s gotta be one of the safest places in the Fire Nation.”

“And don’t forget, Piandao and Jeong Jeong are there,” Katara said. She placed her hand on Zuko’s other shoulder and rubbed a soothing circle. “And Mai and Ty Lee. If we take turns flying, we can be at the South Pole in four days. Four days there, three back to the Caldera if we need to. Sokka has a messenger hawk we can use to contact Uncle, and if things are really bad, we can ask my father to send a fleet of Water Tribe ships with us as backup. Okay?”

Zuko’s back rose and fell beneath her hand as he took a deep breath.

“Okay. Then let’s leave now. ” He stood and looked up at Appa “And I hope this thing is faster than it looks.”

“This thing is Appa,” Aang said indignantly. “And he—”

He cut himself off as Appa shuffled forward with a happy woofing sound and licked Zuko from toe to head. Zuko turned away in disgust, only to be licked on the side as well.

“—likes you,” Aang finished, puzzled.

“Yeah,” Zuko said with grudging fondness. “I saved him from the Dai Lee once.”

“That was you?”

“Mm-hm.”

Zuko flashed Katara a half grin and mimed locking his lips closed; she rolled her eyes as she cleaned up breakfast. They were in the sky by the time the sun had fully cleared the horizon.

The first two days of the trip were relatively uneventful. Whatever truce Zuko and Aang had struck, it seemed to be holding—they discussed firebending and speculated on their mysterious mission from Iroh, and Aang shared some stories of visiting the Fire Nation a hundred years ago. He started addressing Zuko as “hotman” and wouldn’t stop, even when Zuko’s eye started twitching every time he said it, but Katara thought Zuko was more grateful for the distraction than annoyed.

By the third day, they had reached the polar waters. Neither of the boys seemed bothered by the cold, but Katara was shivering. Finally Zuko pulled her into his lap and wrapped his arms around her. In front of them, he produced a modest flame so she was warmed on all sides. She leaned against him gratefully. Around noon, though, Katara abruptly sat up and pushed Zuko aside. She moved to the edge of Appa’s saddle and leaned over.

“Zuko,” she said curtly. “There’s a ship. A Fire Nation ship.”

“What?” Zuko joined her and stared down at the sea below them.

They were flying over a field of ice caps—white, grey, and blue as far as the eye could see. Except, there, obscured by a crag of ice, was a spot of black and red. A watchtower with its flag snapping in the wind.

“Is that one of the ships that’s been decommissioned?”

“No,” Zuko said grimly. “It’s the Southern Raiders. Aang! Take us down!”

“Huh?” Aang looked over from his seat on Appa’s head.

Katara explained the situation, and Aang guided Appa down. The bison landed in the water with a gentle splash. He moved slowly, at Aang’s direction, until they had a good angle, where they could see most of the ship without being spotted themselves; the fact that Appa’s coloring was better suited to the surroundings certainly helped. It became very clear, then, that the ship was doing its best to avoid detection. It was motionless, with anchors attached to the glacier that hid it from view. Sailors moved around the deck, and although some of them walked around so casually Katara knew they must be off-duty, nevertheless there was no talking, no singing, no noise that would carry over the water.

“They’re hiding,” she said. “Why are they hiding?”

“We don’t know that,” Zuko frowned. “I think I could imitate a distress flare. If they try to respond, we’ll know they’re here for a legitimate purpose. If not…”

“That’s not good enough,” Katara said. Her voice was calm and matter-of-fact, although it trembled a little in the cold. Her heart was trembling, too, and racing faster than an eel hound. “We’ll give away our position. And if they’re here to attack the tribe, we have to do something.”

“Something?”

Zuko locked eyes with her, and for a moment the cold felt more acute. There was no doubt in Katara’s mind that Zuko would defend her, personally, from Fire Nation attackers. But this was different. Would he attack his people to keep hers safe? If the situation was reversed, would she be able to attack the Water Tribe in defense of the Fire Nation?

I would if they were the aggressor, she said to herself. I would stand by whoever was in the right. But the thought made her uneasy.

“I’ve got it!” Aang grinned. “We’ll do the Painted Lady thing! And the Blue Spirit thing!”

“Wear a big hat and blow stuff up?”

“No, we’ll do the thing. You know.” He brought his hands together with a whooshing noise. “Make a lot of fog. And Zuko can do his sneaky thing and sneak onto the ship. They’ve got to have their plans or their orders written down somewhere, right? Do you think you’d be able to find them?”

“Yeah, I think so,” Zuko said slowly. “I know the layout of the ship, and I know the filing system. But it would help to have a distraction, in case the captain is in his quarters when I get there. No matter what they’re doing here, I bet the sailors would alert the captain if the Avatar’s bison is seen flying overhead. It would give you away, at least, but if you don’t look down and go south, they’ll probably just think you’re going to the South Pole to pay your respects to Katara’s family. She was your teacher, so no one will think that’s strange.”

“Sounds like a plan to me.” Aang looked at her. “Katara?”

Fire Nation raiders were circling the South Pole for the first time since Katara was a child. She wanted that ship to drift an inch closer. She wanted to bring it down. She wanted to send water pouring through the windows, tear cracks in the hull, squeeze it, crush it, encase it in ice a foot thick.

But then she thought about Li Xen, and Chenyu’s husband, and the soldier who had died for her in the park. She watched as one of the sailors nudged his friend and pointed at a piece of floating ice, and wondered if they were trying to find shapes in it, like she and Sokka had when they were kids. These are my people, too, she reminded herself.

“Okay.” She glanced between Aang and Zuko. “But be careful.

First, Katara enlarged one of the ice floes so she and Zuko could dismount from Appa. she was grateful, again, that she and Zuko had been attacked while on a hike, not at the beach or at home. She could still feel the cold through her boots, because they weren’t lined with fur, but they were much more comfortable than slippers or sandals would have been.

Next, she called up a thick blanket of low fog. It appeared to rise gradually out of the polar twilight, and within a few minutes, she couldn’t see either of her companions, though she knew they were only a foot away. Zuko gave Katara a rough idea of the window he needed to reach, and she taught him how to imitate a puffowl call so he could signal Aang to begin the diversion.

“All right, brace yourself,” Katara said, sinking into a bending stance. “I’m going to break off a small platform, and send it up on a wave.”

“Wait!”

Zuko exhaled and burned a hole in the fog. He took one large stride, held Katara’s face in both hands, and kissed her. His mouth was still warm, and so were his thumbs where they brushed over her cheekbones.

“I wish we didn’t have to do this stuff anymore,” he whispered. “But if we have to, I’m glad you’re here with me.”

“Me, too,” Katara murmured. She stood on her toes to kiss him on the cheek, and he dropped his hands and stepped back.

“Wish me luck.”

“You don’t need it.”

She was pretty sure he was smiling. Zuko took another step back, and Katara closed her eyes. She couldn’t “see” with fog as clearly as Toph could see with earth, but she had been practicing, and she could make out the edges of the ship. She conjured a large, slow-moving wave and pushed Zuko up to the ship. He had to jump to get to where he wanted to be, but after a minute they heard a low, whooping call, and no alarm.

“That’s your signal.”

“I got it. I could use some luck, though,” he joked. It was a little stilted, but still, it was a joke, and she thought that was a good sign. “You know, in case they decide to play the old throw-fireballs-at-the-avatar game.”

“Good luck, Aang,” Katara laughed.

Aang flashed her a goofy smile, then called “yip yip!” and set Appa flying. The bison lowed as he launched into the sky.

After that, there was nothing to do but wait. Katara stood on the ice for a good seven minutes, staring through the fog to the ship she knew was there. They hadn’t actually talked about how Zuko would get back, but she listened intently for another puffowl call. She almost jumped out of her skin when a figure broke the surface of the water right in front of her and started to push up onto the ice.

“What—” she shrieked, but Zuko yanked at her ankle so she fell and he could cover her mouth with one wet hand.

“They’ll h-hear you,” he said through chattering teeth.

“What were you thinking?” she hissed. “Do you have any idea how cold that water is?”

“Yes.” Zuko pulled himself up onto the ice floe, shivering violently, and breathed fire on his fingers until he could unfurl them. He held out his arms as far as they could go—which wasn’t very far, because he was keeping his elbows tucked against his core. “B-b-bend it away, pl-please.”

“You are going to drive me grey,” Katara muttered as she bent the water out of his clothes. Zuko warmed himself with a small flame in his palm and stopped shivering. “We’ll show up at the South Pole and Gran-Gran and I will be twins.”

“The captain was coming back—I needed to be quick. Besides, I’ve done it before.”

“I don’t want to know. Don’t do it again. Did you find the plans?”

“Yeah.” He held up a leather-bound tube. “It’s the most recent communication they received. Everything else was dated at least a week before the assassins came for us. Should we find Aang first?”

Katara bent their makeshift raft south until they found Appa and Aang, treading water once more.

“You got it?” Aang asked as they climbed into the saddle. He leapt off Appa’s head and alighted next to them.

“Yes.”

“What does it say?”

Zuko opened the tube and dumped out the scroll. His eyes darted over the sheet for the moment before they stilled, staring at one spot so hard Katara was worried he might burn a hole in it. The grim expression on his face dissolved into nothingness, and dread crept into Katara’s stomach.

“What is it?” she asked, gripping his arm. “Are they going to invade?”

“No. They’re supposed to scout the area occasionally and report on any Water Tribe naval activity. A preliminary investigation suggests the South Pole may have collaborated in my assassination.” His lip curled in distaste. “The working theory is that I was the target and your death was an unexpected consequence. The investigation should be completed in five weeks—”

“Five weeks?” Aang interrupted. “That long?”

“Long enough for the polar twilight to end,” Katara said numbly. “If the Fire Nation wanted to invade, the time of midnight sun would be their best chance.”

“Yeah,” Zuko said. “And at that point, the scouting ship will receive word on whether they should return to the mainland or start looking for reinforcements.”

The wind over the ice was the only sound.

“Iroh wrote this?” Aang asked in a hushed voice. Zuko swallowed.

“No. According to this, my uncle decided to abdicate the throne.” He sighed. “I knew the handwriting was familiar.”

He put the scroll down. Katara and Aang bent their heads over it and saw the same spider-leg characters from the assassin’s orders. Except this letter, unlike the other, bore a signature.

Fire Lord Azula.

Chapter Text

The soft glow of lamps in the Water Tribe village was on the horizon when Katara mustered the courage to speak. She was sitting in Zuko’s lap again, his arms draped around her with a fire before them, but they had been silent for hours.

“Are you okay?” she asked quietly.

“No.”

“I know this must be—”

“Please,” Zuko said. He buried his face in her neck. “Please don’t.”

She should have known, she thought for the hundredth time. The fists of rock that the assassin had used against her the first time, that was a Dai Lee tactic. Officially speaking, Azula had disbanded the Dai Lee as part of the peace treaties—why had they just believed her? And their schedule for their vacation had been so tightly guarded. Really, only the royal family could have known. Then there was her conversation with Azula, all those months ago in her rooms.

You could do well here, if you stopped trying to prop up my brother’s failures.

Is that a threat?

It’s an offer.

Katara shivered.

“Are you still cold?”

“No, I’m…” She had turned to see him better, but her gaze was caught by something in the water. A soft smile grew on her face. “Zuko. Look.”

He turned.

“Is that—?”

“Yeah.”

Below them was a pod of blackfish. They were playing in the surf, their dorsal fins just poking above the surface. They nudged each other and whistled playfully. Two of them breached; a third cleared the water and rolled over in the air before crashing back to the ocean, and a startled laugh burst from Zuko’s chest.

“That one’s Po,” Katara grinned. “He’s always showing off. See that smaller one there, with the perfect circle of gray behind her fin? That’s his grandmother, Ren. She’s the oldest one in the family. The one next to her is her daughter San, and the one with the notch in her fin is her older daughter, Ka. That one jumping right now is Ka’s youngest daughter, Wei—she’s gotten so big! I can’t make out that one off to the side… oh, that’s Ta. Look, she’s had a calf since I left—”

“Are you making this up?” Zuko asked suspiciously.

“No!” Katara laughed.

“You really know them all by name?”

“I’ve known them all my life. Literally. Half the pod is older than we are, Zuko.” She sighed with contentment and nestled back against his chest. “They’re very territorial. This is their home, and they’re always going to be here.”

“Mm.” Zuko kissed her temple.

“We’re going to figure it out, you know. We’re not going to let her win.”

“I know. But we’re going to need help. A lot of help.” He was quiet for a minute, and when he spoke, his voice was as quiet as the wind around them. “I thought… our father always pitted us against each other. I thought, with him gone, eventually we would… it doesn’t matter. I was wrong.”

She had nothing to say.

“Katara!”

Katara disembarked from Appa and fell straight into Sokka’s arms. He squeezed her so tight that breathing was a challenge. But he smelled like whale oil and smoke and home , and she buried her face in the fur of his parka.

“We heard—we heard—” He squeezed her harder, if that was possible, then released her to hold her by the shoulders instead. His eyes raked over his face, wide and concerned. “We heard you were dead, then that you were alive, or might be—”

“I’m okay,” Katara said. She was startled to realize there were tears in her eyes. “We’re okay.”

Zuko dropped down beside her. Sokka hesitated. He went for a hug, but Zuko held out a hand; Sokka grabbed him by the forearm and shook his whole arm awkwardly, then punched him on the shoulder.

“Congrats on being… y’know… not dead.”

“Thanks, man.”

Katara heard her name again, and the crowd was shoved aside. Her father yanked her into a long hug, then passed her over to her mother, Pakku, Gran-Gran, and at least four other people in a whirlwind of sound and touch. She was instantly dizzy.

“Prince Zuko!”

Katara looked around. Two men were gaping at Zuko; she was confused at the intensity of their reaction until she recognized one as the ambassador from the Fire Nation. The other must have been his assistant. Evidently they had both discarded their silk for Water Tribe furs.

“We heard reports—thank the Great Spirits you’re alive! We must send a hawk to your sister—”

“No.”

The word came from two voices at once. Hakoda and Zuko shared a look.

“Azula already knows I’m alive. She’s got a pretty good idea what’s going on, actually, but she doesn’t know I’m here and I want to keep it that way.”

The ambassador’s assistant colored.

“Is that—an accusation?” he spluttered. “Really, Your Highness! We must—”

“I’m your prince, and I forbid you from contacting her.”

People had already been whispering, and one or two of them called their gruff approval—the only thing the Water Tribes liked better than gossip was someone showing some backbone.

The assistant stretched up to his full height.

“We have an obligation to keep the Fire Lord informed—”

“She’s not the Fire Lord yet,” the ambassador murmured. His lips barely parted, and he peered at Zuko with shrewd eyes. “Fire Lord Iroh made her his heir ‘given the circumstances of my nephew’s death.’ It was very carefully worded. Without a body, the Fire Sages must wait a month to confirm death, and until then, Princess Azula is only acting Fire Lord.”

“That doesn’t make a difference!”

“I think it does.”

Zuko pushed forward through the crowd until he was at Katara’s side.

“My uncle is alive, then?”

“Yes. Last we heard, he was alive and well.”

Katara hadn’t realized how much this burden had been weighing on Zuko until it lifted. His shoulders slumped as he exhaled. She touched a hand to his back and he rested his forehead against the top of her head with a grateful smile.

Hakoda regarded them for a moment.

“I think we need to talk.”

They retreated to the House of Meeting. Naturally, every member of the Water Tribe wanted to be present—and Katara had no doubt they would all know the full story by day’s end—but Hakoda limited the group to the family, the ambassadors, the elders, and a few of the more trusted warriors. A hot meal was thrust upon them, and Katara happily accepted a parka, even though it was much warmer inside than it had been on Appa. She and Zuko knelt by the fire and explained everything, starting with the attack on Iroh, through to the events at the Western Air Temple.

Zuko was impatient, but he waited until they finished to ask for news of the Fire Nation.

“Our information is limited,” Hakoda said, glancing at Kya.

“We received a letter two days ago,” she said. “Well, two letters. The first was from Iroh. He told us—” She swallowed. “He told us the two of you had both been killed. He said that he couldn’t bear to rule, having lost another son, and that he had named Azula as his new heir. Her letter… it had more details about the attack. And she asked for an account of any members of the Southern Tribe who might be abroad at the moment. That worried us. Now, knowing about the Southern Raiders—it makes more sense.”

“Iroh was able to include a secret message,” Hakoda continued. The ambassador sat up straighter.

“You never told us this!”

“No, I didn’t. I’m sorry, Itsuki, but when there has been a conspiracy to murder my daughter, I’m inclined to keep secrets as close as possible. It was a very short note on the back of the letter. He said that Azula came to him and indicated that Zuko was alive and unharmed, and would remain so as long as Iroh agreed to abdicate. But he heard from Jingyi that you were actually alive, Katara, and trying to find him. He said that, if the two of you were to come here, we should tell Zuko that he should still complete his task with Aang—I assume you know what that means—but beyond that, he had no instructions. He would be content only knowing that the two of you were safe, and he trusts that whatever you do next will be the right decision.”

“So,” Kanna said. “What is your decision?”

Katara glanced at Zuko and took a deep breath. He nodded.

“We’re going to go back and expose Azula,” she said decisively. “We have some evidence of what she’s done, and if we present it to the Sages, we could force her to step down. But what we have might not be enough. We might have to remove her—some other way. We need ships.”

The room was cold and silent.

“So much for the so-called Great Peace,” said Amikai, the withered old waterbender who was the sole survivor of a Fire Nation prison. She sat in a corner, with her own private lamp warming her. Her hands were folded in her lap, so thin and frail that her veins showed, deep indigo tracks beneath her skin. “Do you miss war so much?”

“We’re not trying to start the war again, but if we let Azula take over the Fire Nation, she will invade the South Pole,” Zuko said grimly. “And I know my sister—she won’t stop there.”

“Yeah, we can’t just let Azula take control!” Aang said.

“Nor can we leave our own shores undefended,” Hama countered. “The Southern Raiders are here. We can’t send all of our warriors off to the Fire Nation—unless you will let us sink the ship first.”

She addressed Hakoda, but it was Katara who replied, her cheeks hot and her hands tightened into fists.

“They haven’t done anything! They’re under orders to wait and watch, and they’re following them because they’re being lied to. You can’t attack a ship full of innocent men!”

“Innocent men?” Hama hissed, but Hakoda held up his hand.

“I won’t give the order to provoke an attack on a scouting ship,” he said firmly. “Move on.”

“I think Katara’s right,” Bato spoke up. “The first line of attack should be a trial—but we should send a small fleet with them, and perhaps a fleet from the Earth Kingdom as well, to show that the world stands behind Fire Lord Iroh. I’m not eager to end the peace, but a show of force might be enough.”

“Why is this a question for the Water Tribes at all?” one of the elders asked. He held a thick, gnarled walking stick, and he stomped it on the ice for emphasis. “Internal Fire Nation politics is none of our concern. One Fire Lord is the same as the next.”

“No, they’re not!” Sokka protested. “Fire Lord Ozai fought the war, Azula’s trying to start it back up again—Fire Lord Iroh was the one who ended it. It’s not internal politics if one ruler is going to blow us up!”

“But do we have a right to interfere?” one of the warriors asked somberly. “I agree I would rather have Iroh on the throne than this girl… but I would rather have Hakoda as our chief than a Fire Lord puppet, and I wouldn’t want them to make that decision for us.”

“What about the treaty?” Katara said, looking to her father for help. “Dad, isn’t there something about offering mutual aid and protection? I thought the whole point of marrying me into the royal family was to strengthen the ties between the Southern Water Tribe and the Fire Nation—no offense,” she added, touching Zuko's forearm, and there was a rumble of chuckles. “I had just mean I hoped that my own tribe would be a little more sympathetic in the face of a coup that left the Crown Prince and Princess of the Fire Nation in exile.”

“We didn’t sign a treaty with the Crown Prince and Princess, Katara,” Hama said, her lips twisted in an ugly frown. “We signed a treaty with the Fire Nation, not with an individual. For him to come to us, demanding ships—”

“He’s not—”

“I’m not demanding anything,” Zuko said. He held up a placating hand. “I know I don’t have the right to demand anything on behalf of my nation. I’m here with a request, as a member of your clan. In the Fire Nation, when a couple marries, the woman joins her husband’s household and family, but in the Water Tribe, the man joins her. He becomes a son to her mother and a grandson to her grandmother, and just as he owes her a home, food for her table, and protection, he owes honor and respect to her family. In exchange, he is entitled to their wisdom and aid.”

They all gaped at him, including Katara. She had told him a little about life in the South Pole, but she hadn’t gone that in-depth, and she certainly had never used that kind of language. It was formulaic—sacred or legal language, used when the elders reprimanded family members who didn’t uphold their end of the bargain or when the tribe gathered for the solstice rituals. Where on earth had Zuko learned it?

“I know I’ve failed,” he continued. “My sister has driven us out of our home…” A wry smile touched his face. “And Katara has done a lot more to protect me than the other way around. But I’m trying. Restoring my uncle to his place on the throne, and returning to the Fire Nation to help him rule, is the right thing to do. For the Fire Nation, for the Water Tribes, for both of us. I want to fulfill my duty to your family, and I’m asking for whatever wisdom or aid you see fit to give me.”

He bowed in the Water Tribe manner—not as deep as in the Fire Nation, with his hands fisted on his thighs. He didn’t see the look that passed between Kanna and Hakoda, but Katara did. Hakoda sighed.

“I’ve heard all I need to hear. I must consult with my son in private.”

Zuko looked at Sokka quizzically and moved to stand, but Katara grabbed his arm and said, “He means you.”

The rest of the audience was slow in rising, but finally the House of Meeting was empty except for the family. Hakoda’s expression was grim.

“Dad, what’s wrong?” Katara asked bluntly.

“Regardless of how long Azula remains on the throne, I’m afraid Iroh’s career as Fire Lord is over.”

“That’s not true!” Zuko blurted out. “We can take her down, and once people hear what happened—”

“Azula has blamed your death on the Order of the White Lotus,” Pakku interrupted, and the words lingered for a moment in the chill air. “The whole country now knows of its existence and Iroh’s involvement. Piandao and Jeong Jeong have already been arrested. No doubt her fraudulent investigation will widen the scope to include the Water Tribe and factions of the Earth Kingdom, but it will remain a White Lotus plot at heart. The naive half of the population believe the story that Iroh has abdicated out of grief for his dead nephew. The cynical half know it’s a lie, but they think Azula is allowing him to step down rather than being publicly charged with your assassination. You can refute the fact of your death, but…”

“But Iroh killed his brother,” Katara murmured. “Now an organization he helps lead is accused of trying to kill his nephew… and if we blame Azula for the false story, he will have deposed his niece, as well.”

“Precisely.”

There was a heavy silence, and Zuko looked between the rest of them in horror.

“So you’re saying… Azula’s already won? Even if we could get rid of her—if she’s already poisoned people’s minds that badly—there’s nothing we can do?”

“Not quite,” Kanna said. Her craggy face lifted in a slight smile. “You were right, before. You are a member of our family, and that makes you entitled to our care. As your Gran-Gran, I can promise you right now that we will offer you sanctuary here in the South Pole, either openly or in secret, if that is the path you wish to take. If you wish to return to the Fire Nation…”

“...then as Chief of the Southern Water Tribe, I will pledge my ships to your cause,” Hakoda concluded. “But we will not be reclaiming Iroh’s throne. We will be claiming yours.”

“So. How’s it feel to be back?”

It was after dinner. Katara was dangling her legs over the outer wall of the village—or maybe she should call it the city, now—and she looked over her shoulder with a rueful smile.

“Weird.”

Sokka sat beside her and leaned back on his hands.

“Well, maybe we can get Zuko up here and then push him off. Just like old times.”

Katara snorted and they stared out at the foggy horizon. When Sokka spoke again, his voice was uncharacteristically serious.

“It’s been three years, Katara. Less. Do you really think he’s ready to be the Fire Lord?”

“No,” she said honestly. “But if it’s a choice between him, Azula, and civil war, I choose him every time.”

Sokka’s shoulder twitched in a grudging shrug. She wound her arm through his and leaned against him.

“He was a kid, Sokka. A hurt, angry kid who wanted to go home. What he did—it was wrong, and I’m not going to defend it. But that kid wouldn’t ever have bowed to Dad, or surrendered a fight to keep me from getting hurt, or… or played dolls with a crying peasant girl to cheer her up. And Zuko has. He’s grown up and he’s changed for the better. That’s what we’re all trying to do, isn’t it? Don’t we all want a second chance?”

“Hmph.”

“Besides, the way things are now—they’re not working. When people look at Iroh, they don’t see someone they can trust and deal with. They see the Dragon of the West. They see a brother killing a brother for power. When I’m the one in the room, or when it’s Zuko, we get more done than if the Fire Lord was with us, even though he’s smarter and more experienced that both of us. Dad’s right. Even if we could get rid of Azula and just put Iroh back on the throne, I don’t think we should.”

“All right,” Sokka sighed. “I still don’t like it, but I get it.” They were quiet for a minute. “Dad’s going to take him ice dodging tomorrow morning. With me and Aang. Get in a little bit of manly bonding action.”

“Be nice to him,” Katara ordered, poking him in the chest, although the fact that she was beaming probably meant that her threat held less weight.

“Absolutely not! He’s my brother. Brothers aren’t nice.”

“You’re nice to me.”

“Oh yeah?”

Sokka pulled her into a headlock and gave her a noogie, and Katara shrieked.

“Sokka!”

She bent snow down the back of his parka.

“Ack! No fair, no fair! No magic water!”

The tussle didn’t last long, and after a minute, Sokka hit the wall with his heels and said, “I, uh. I’m going to propose to Suki.”

“Sokka!” Katara shoved at his arm. “That’s great! When?”

“She’s coming for a visit in a few weeks. I’m gonna ask her to, you know. Stay.”

“What’s she going to do?”

“Say yes, I hope.”

“No, I mean she’s not leaving Kyoshi just to sit around washing your socks. What’s she going to do here?”

“Oh, yeah. Everything, I guess?” Sokka shrugs. “I’ve got big plans, Katara, and Suki’s really good at poking holes in them. But then she patches them up. She’s really bad at mending pants but really good at mending plans. So she’ll help me actually put everything together... and I think she said something once about making some kind of Water Tribe version of the Kyoshi Warriors?”

“She’ll have to call it something different.”

“I’ll tell her,” he laughed.

“I have to admit—being married? All things considered, it’s pretty awesome.”

“Yeah,” Sokka said skeptically. “You seem like you’re having a great time.”

Their house felt a lot smaller than it used to. Katara remembered the months before her wedding, when the addition of Pakku and Hakoda seemed to shrink the space, but for much of that time, Aang, Suki, or Toph had been visiting, and she and Sokka had joined them in the Common House.

Tonight, her entire family, including Aang, was crammed into one room, and it felt full in a way it never had before. Everyone had something to do; she suspected that they all wanted to take their mind off the meeting. Hakoda repaired a fishing net, Sokka carved something for Suki, Kya and Kanna mended clothes, and Aang pestered Pakku. Katara sorted through the meager supplies they had brought with them and settled down to comb her hair for the first time in several days.

Zuko had been quiet all evening, and he was endearingly awkward now—he sat in the corner, straight as a beanpole, looking around at each person in turn and hoping someone would give him a job to do. Finally Katara took pity on him and told him to come sit in front of her. He had put his hair in a topknot when they were traveling, but she untied the ribbon and combed his hair out. It was getting long, almost past his shoulders. He was grimy from the road, like all of them, and she would have to find a way to subtly suggest a steam bath tomorrow.

Her hand brushed against the skin of his neck, and she jumped.

“Zuko, you’re burning up! Do you feel okay?” she asked with a frown, touching his forehead. He flashed an incredulous look over his shoulder.

“It’s negative a hundred degrees outside. I’ve been using my breath of fire since I got here.”

He puffed a small ball of fire and Katara could actually feel his internal temperature ratchet up, and the healer in her freaked out.

“I do not like that,” she announced. “Bodies have a very set range of comfortable temperatures, and messing around with it like that can’t be safe—especially with your bending the way it is. We’re getting you a parka.”

“I don’t want a parka.”

“Mom, do we have an extra parka?” Katara asked at the same time as Sokka asked, “What have you got against parkas?”

“They’re flammable,” Zuko shoots back. “Those furs will go up like a match if I try to firebend, and they’re so puffy I couldn’t do it properly anyway. And besides, I—” He caught himself, but not quickly enough, and the end of his sentence was a mumble. Sokka looked absolutely delighted. He leaned closer, cupping his ear.

“What was that?”

Zuko turned red and glared at him.

“I said, I don’t look good in blue, all right?”

Sokka took that and ran with it. Katara thoughtfully held the parka up to Zuko’s skin. It did wash him out a little.

“Perhaps a darker shade?” Kya suggested.

“I was just going to say.”

“That’s not necessary, ma’am—”

“Mother, does Pakku have any spare clothes?”

“Why do I have to give up my clothes?” Pakku asked, affronted, but Kanna was already rifling through their trunk.

“It’s really fine,” Zuko protested. “I can keep myself warm!”

“I would prefer if you didn’t accidentally melt the house,” Hakoda muttered.

“It’s not good for you, it’ll tire you out,” Katara scolded. Kanna held up a tunic and a coat in a deep sapphire blue.

“Oh, yes, that’s much better,” she approved. “Here you go, dear.”

She handed them to Zuko, who tried to push them back, and then to Katara, who acceptd.

“What else can we expect from a guy who wore a dress to his wedding?” Sokka cracked.

You wore a dress on Kyoshi,” Aang pointed out.

“They were robes,” Zuko growled. “And what does it matter?”

“Just put on your parka, Zuko,” Katara said, dumping everything in his lap.

“My parka,” Pakku grumbled.

“I don’t want to!”

“It will keep you warm—”

“What does it matter?” Zuko shouted, jumping to his feet, and all the background chatter ceased. “Why are we even talking about this? We have to figure out how to keep my psycho sister from killing my uncle and taking over the Fire Nation—what does it matter if I’m cozy when we’re doing it!?”

The house was silent. Zuko was breathing heavily and staring at Katara, to whom the bulk of this outburst has been addressed. Before she could formulate a response, Sokka jumped up and shoved at Zuko, hard.

“Stop—yelling—at—my—sister!”

He stomped forward, pushing Zuko bit by bit, and finally Zuko stumbled and shoved him back. He turned on his heel and stormed out of the house.

It still felt small, Katara thought, but she felt smaller. Nobody would look at her directly, and a blush stained her cheeks. She wasn’t sure what to say. She didn’t want to brush off Zuko’s rudeness, because she had no intention of letting him get away with it. She didn’t want to say they always fought like this and that she was going to yell at him when she got a chance, because that sounded even worse. But she also didn’t want to say what a jerk, right? and allow her family to indulge in their worst assumptions. It felt like it would be a violation of their code, the you-don’t-shame-me-in-front-of-Azula code.

Ugh, Azula. She didn’t want to think about Azula right now.

Overall, it was an embarrassing situation and she was really going to make Zuko grovel for this one, as soon as they had a moment of privacy.

“He’s not usually—” she tried to say, but she had no way to finish that sentence.

“—this passionate about parkas?” Aang suggested.

“Yeah.”

Kya put a hand on Katara’s shoulder.

“It’s been a long day,” she said gently. “I think we could all use some sleep.”

There was a murmur of agreement. They started to clean up the tools of the day and set out bedrolls. Hakoda was just about to darken the lamps when the curtain over the entrance was pushed aside and Zuko returned.

They all turned to stare at him. His cheeks were pink from the cold, but he seemed calmer, even though he couldn’t quite look anyone in the eye. He let the curtain fall behind him and knelt.

“I’m sorry for my outburst,” he said in a steady voice. “It was inexcusable. You’ve been so kind in offering me your hospitality… and your clothes… and I am very grateful. In the future, I promise I’ll act like it.”

There was a pause.

“Well, that’s settled, then,” Gran-Gran said warmly, and Zuko’s face was split with a grateful smile.

Hakoda cleared his throat. Zuko looked at him, and he jerked his head at Katara. Zuko’s gaze met hers.

“Katara,” he said softly. “I’m sorry.”

Katara frowned, and Zuko bowed his head. Maybe he was searching for more to say, but Katara didn’t wait for it, because without a second of hesitation, she bent a huge lump of slush down the back of his tunic. Aang and Sokka, forgetting his hatred of magic water, laughed uproariously as Zuko squawked, jumped up, and started clawing at his back.

“Oh noooooo,” she cooed. “Your clothes are all wet. Good thing we have some warm, dry spares.”

The look Zuko shot her was torn between mutiny and adoration, but adoration won out. He accepted the bundle and went behind a screen to change. When he emerged, the lights had been turned out and the family was all wrapped up in their bedrolls. He picked his way across the room with the help of a tiny flame in his palm, and extinguished it as he lay down beside Katara. He wrapped an arm around her waist and rested his forehead on the back of her neck.

“I’m an ass,” he whispered. Katara rolled over and kissed the tip of his nose.

“Yes.”

“It is very warm,” he confessed. “But it’s so puffy. I feel like a bunch of rice dumplings on a stick.”

Katara giggled, and Zuko’s scowl turned into a grin. He pulled her closer, hands dancing up and down her back.

“I miss our blanket,” he said. She sighed.

“Me, too. It’s wasted in the Fire Nation, and now that we could really use it, we don’t have it.”

“Mm. It’s so warm, I bet we wouldn’t need any clothes at all…”

Katara bit her lips against more laughter and tilted her head for a kiss—and then, out of nowhere, Sokka walloped Zuko with a pillow.

“Stop—giggling—with—my—sister!”

“Ow! Quit it!” Zuko sat up and wielded his own pillow in retaliation.

“Sokka!”

“Boys,” Hakoda scolded wearily.

“Sorry, Dad.”

“Sorry, sir.”

Zuko lay down again, and Katara was about to roll over and close her eyes when one more thing occurred to her.

“Speaking of Water Tribe traditions,” she hissed. “Where did you learn all that, before? About joining a woman’s family when you get married? I never told you that.”

Zuko grinned broadly and dropped a light kiss on her lips.

“Beach reading.”

Chapter Text

Zuko slumped against the side of the ship, panting heavily. He was sweating, and he pulled off his borrowed parka and tossed it aside.

“Don’t tell Katara,” he ordered the ship at large as he gulped in air. He rubbed a hand over his face. “I never want to do that again.”

“The good news is, you don’t have to,” Hakoda said. He was still sitting, cross-legged in the bow of the ship, completely at ease. “Congratulations, Zuko. You passed.”

Warmth bloomed in Zuko’s chest. He didn’t know where to look, so he tilted his head back and closed his eyes. Adrenaline was coursing through him, making his limbs tremble. Sokka punched him in the arm.

“Yeah, congrats, buddy.”

You shut up,” he retorted.

“Hey, I wasn’t the one who used airbending on the sails.”

“You told him to!” Zuko said, at the same moment Aang protested, “You told me to!”

“How was I supposed to know it would actually fly?”

“Definitely the most, ah, creative ice-dodging I’ve ever seen,” Hakoda smiled. “Let’s drop anchor here—Kya packed us a lunch.”

They dropped the anchor and let the sails go slack, and the ship bobbed listlessly as they ate. Aang and Sokka had been ice-dodging before, and they began an enthusiastic retelling of the event, with frequent comments and questions from Hakoda. Zuko was silent as he ate and listened.

It was high noon, but at this time of the year, the South Pole was stuck in a dull twilight. Zuko felt sluggish and off-balance, unable to feel the sun. It reminded him of the first time he had visited the South Pole—although then, it had been summer, and his disorientation had been due to the twenty-four hours of sunlight. He had spent almost a month here, working himself into a frenzy like a scent hound on a hunt who had finally found its prey. He glanced at the monk sitting beside him. For a moment, he saw a flicker of a memory—he was looking at the Avatar, his target. Then Aang looked up and smiled, and it disappeared.

He finished his meal and wandered over to the side of the boat, where he leaned over the rail. It was still bitterly cold, and the wind was beginning to cool the sweat on his neck, but he didn’t mind. He inhaled the crisp air and exhaled a thin wisp of fire.

In the distance, the water made an odd rolling motion. He leaned forward eagerly, and this time something broke the surface—a blackfish fin. Several of them. He counted five whales. They didn’t breech as high as the ones they had seen the day before, but the sight still lifted his spirits.

Hakoda joined him at the rail, and Zuko stifled his instinct to jump to attention.

“Do you know why we take our young men ice-dodging?” he asked.

“Hazing?” Zuko guessed.

“Not quite,” Hakoda chuckled. “Look around. We’ve got a lot of ice in the South Pole, and some animals, but not much else. It’s not an easy place to live. To thrive, you need help.”

“My uncle told me the Water Tribe values family and community above all else.”

“He’s right. A man’s connection to the women in his family is quite natural—he is born to his mother and married to his wife. To cement his connection to the men in his family, we have ice-dodging.” He angled himself so he was facing Sokka and Aang, too, including them in the conversation. “You’ve all gone through this ordeal together, and you come through it as brothers. You’ve proven your courage, wisdom, and trustworthiness to each other, and that’s not a bond that can be easily broken.”

He put his hand on Zuko’s shoulder, and Zuko almost jumped. He had always found Hakoda intimidating—his pale, stern eyes, his face weathered by the sun, with premature lines at his temples and a sailor’s tan deepening the chestnut tone of his skin. That was all still true, but he seemed softer than before. Strong, steady, not stern. Zuko saw the glimmer of Katara’s eyes in her father’s, and echoes of Sokka’s grin in his smile.

“You’ve got another ordeal coming up, son. But we’re here to remind you that you’re not alone.”

“Yeah.” Aang stood and joined them at the rail with an encouraging smile. “We’ve got your back, Zuko.”

“Water Tribe style,” Sokka added with a grin and some kind of wiggly hand gesture. Zuko looked between them and then down at the deck. His boot scuffed at the weathered wood, and he remembered how his steps used to clang on the deck of his steamer. He swallowed past the lump in his throat.

“I don’t deserve this.”

“You do,” Hakoda said firmly. “That’s the thing about ice-dodging. You’ve earned the loyalty of your brothers, and proven your own, through this task. Nothing matters except what you do on the boat.”

“Of course it does!” Zuko cried, pushing himself off the rail. “The boat is obviously a metaphor for life—and I’ve spent my whole life fucking things up! I attacked the South Pole a dozen times, I kidnapped you from the spirit oasis, I tied Katara to a tree, I betrayed my uncle in Ba Sing Se—and what have I done to make up for it? Nothing! Every time I try to make things better, I fail. I’m asking you guys—the whole Southern Water Tribe—to do something really dangerous, which might not even work, so I can be Fire Lord. What right do I have to do that? Why do I even deserve to be Fire Lord?”

The wind blew and the limp sails flapped half-heartedly. The boat bobbed up and down. Aang and Sokka glanced at each other, and Aang stepped forward.

“I think I know how you feel,” he said, more serious than Zuko had ever seen him. “The monks told me I was the Avatar earlier than they were supposed to because they were worried about the war coming. It was my duty to train harder, to defend my people and help keep the peace… but I couldn’t do it. I was scared. I ran away. I got stuck in the ice, and a hundred years later when I woke up, everything had changed. And I felt like it was all my fault.”

“But it wasn’t. The Fire Nation—my great-grandfather—”

“I know, but I still felt guilty for running away. Even now—people tell me I’m the Avatar and I’ve got all this great wisdom and I’m responsible for the peace, and I don’t get why. I haven’t done anything. But just because I failed in the past doesn’t mean I get to run away from helping in the future.”

“Yeah, and it’s not really about you, anyway,” Sokka chimed in. “When all the warriors left, I was the one who did most of the hunting for the village, taught the kids, did all of the stuff the men used to do. And I was in charge of Team Avatar a lot of the time, too. It wasn’t because I was the smartest or most important person in the group. It’s because they needed someone, and I was there. Maybe you won’t be the best Fire Lord ever. Maybe you don’t get a statue and a parade and a holiday in your honor. But they need someone. And right now, you are the one who has to step up.”

Zuko looked between them. He couldn’t bring himself to accept that they were right… but nor could he think of a convincing reason why they were wrong, not without sounding like he was trying to shirk his duty. He sighed, which they seemed to take as defeat. They each put an arm around each other’s back and held out the other, looking at him expectantly.

“No.”

“Group hugs are a traditional part of ice-dodging,” Hakoda said seriously.

Zuko sighed again and stepped forward for a hug. The air was warmer around Aang—he didn’t need a parka, either, but he didn’t get nagged about it—and Sokka seemed to be hugging him and trying to put him in a headlock at the same time. But still, it was… sort of nice. Zuko gave it a minute or two before he pulled away, and they let him.

“There’s just one more thing that worries me.”

“What is it?”

“The fact that I can’t take the ships.”

There was an immediate chorus of protest and confusion. Zuko looked at Hakoda apprehensively. He was expecting a scowl, narrowed eyes, a reprimand for his ingratitude—instead the older man gave the tiniest nod, and his eyes twinkled like the ice.

They sailed back into the harbor late that afternoon. A crowd was there to greet them, and Zuko wondered sheepishly how many of these people had been at the docks the first time he sailed a ship into the Southern Water Tribe. They disembarked, and Hakoda held up a hand for silence.

“The spirits of water, bear witness to this mark,” he said in a solemn voice. “Today, Zuko has earned the Mark of the Brave—the same mark earned by his wife,” he added with a crooked smile, and there were hoots of laughter from the crowd. He dipped his thumb into a small bowl of blue paint and drew a crescent moon mark on Zuko’s forehead. “I hereby acknowledge him as an adopted member of the Southern Water Tribe.”

His ears were ringing and his heart felt tight in his chest. Sokka slapped him on the back and he almost fell down.

“Thank you,” he said in a strangled voice, and Hakoda grabbed him. Zuko was frozen for a moment before he let his hands rest on his father-in-law’s back.

“Go find her,” Hakoda said quietly as he released him.

“Yeah.”

Katara was mingled with the rest of the crowd, but he picked her out easily, her sky-blue eyes his lodestone. He wove his way through the people and ducked down to accept a kiss and a word of congratulations whispered in his ear, then he put his hand through her elbow.

“I need to talk to you,” he said as he began to lead her away.

“Where are we going?” she said when they came within sight of the south wall.

“Out of the village. I don’t want you freaking out and breaking somebody’s house.”

Excuse me?” Katara yanked her arm back. “You think I don’t have control? I’m a master waterbender!”

“And I am a master of pissing you off.”

They left through the watch gate, and Zuko made it another fifty feet before Katara planted her boots in the snow, crossed her arms, and said, “Zuko.”

“Fine.” He laced his hands behind his head, avoiding her gaze, and then sighed and said, “I’m not taking the ships.”

“My father changed his mind? But—”

“No, he offered. I’m just… not taking them.”

“You what?” Katara shrieked, and the glacier behind them cracked.

“Katara!”

“Zuko! What do you mean you’re not taking them?”

“I mean it doesn’t make sense , Katara! For one thing, the Southern navy is still only half the size of the Fire Nation navy, so we would probably lose unless we tried a preemptive strike, and I won’t do that. And even if we could win… Azula has already turned people against my uncle, so if I’m going to be the Fire Lord, I need to be absolutely beyond reproach. Right now, you and I are both pretty popular, but if I show up with my father-in-law’s fleet at my back, people are going to say I’m a Water Tribe puppet. They might actually prefer Azula. I need to do this the right way.”

Katara considered him. Her lower lip pushed out in a stubborn pot.

“Did you tell Dad about this?” she asked suspiciously.

“He agrees with me. I think, instead, we put together a council of three judges, one from each nation, and the Avatar as the final mediator. We would stay here for a little while, put together the evidence, contact some other representatives from the Earth Kingdom to back my claim… and make our case.”

“Okay,” Katara said. “And what if that doesn’t work?”

“Even if we can’t prove she’s guilty, I’m alive and that automatically puts me ahead of her in the line of succession.” It took a monumental effort to push the next words out of his mouth. “The Fire Lord doesn’t need evidence to banish someone.”

“That’s not what I meant. I mean—what if she rejects the council completely? What if she challenges you to an agni kai?”

The cold wind tugged at her hair, blowing her loopies across her face. They were pinned at the top with little gold lotuses—Zuko had found a matching pin in one of the villages they visited. His gaze wandered over her hair, the creamy fur trimming the hood of her poncho, the ribbon at her neck. Anything to avoid her eyes.

“Then I’ll accept.”

“Then you’ll die.

“Uncle thinks I can get my bending back. With things the way they are, he wouldn’t have told me to go to the ruins unless he was confident.”

“She can shoot lightning!”

“I can redirect it,” he said, omitting the fact that he had never actually done it before. Katara frowned more deeply.

“Zuko… even if that’s true, even if you can beat Azula—you know what that means, don’t you?”

“Yes.”

“You’re prepared to kill your sister?”

He tore himself away and began to pace.

“I’m prepared to do what’s right. She tried to kill you, Katara! She tried to kill Uncle! I don’t want to do this, but if she doesn’t give me a choice—I will.” He inhaled a lungful of the icy air. It hurt. “There’s one more thing we should consider.”

“What is it?” Katara asked wearily.

“Do you—want to get divorced?”

He was expecting the ice to crack again, but it didn’t. Katara’s jaw dropped and her brow furrowed—not in outrage, but in confusion and pain. She inhaled and opened her mouth to speak, then deflated. Her arms crept up to wrap around her torso, and Zuko felt like a monster.

“Do you want to?” she asked in a hushed voice. He was silent for a minute, mustering up the courage to say the right thing. It never came.

“No,” he blurted out. “I don’t. I think I have a better chance of winning a trial if you help make my argument, and if Azula does kill me I think you’re the only one who can beat her and has a claim to rule the Fire Nation afterwards. And—and I love you and I think marrying you is probably the best thing that ever happened to me and I don’t want that to end.”

“Then why…?”

“Because Azula knows that. She knows you’re a threat to her, especially if there’s a chance you could be pregnant with my heir—”

“I’m not.” Her cheeks darkened. “Um—unplanned pregnancies aren’t really a thing with waterbending healers. I figured we’d talk about it, later, but—but if you want to get divorced then it doesn’t really matter, does it?”

I want you to survive this. If you become some kind of—rallying point for enemies of Azula, if she tries to kill you just because of this, this treaty marriage that neither of us asked for, I would feel like the worst person in the world. I mean—I’d be dead, but—” He pinched the bridge of his nose and forced his voice to turn gentle. “You wouldn’t have to make the decision yet. I could write out a bill of divorce, and you could stay here and wait to see what happens. If I die, you could just sign it, write an earlier date, and tell Azula you had never wanted to marry me in the first place and changed your mind once you realized it meant getting involved with something like this. She might believe it.”

He expected her to be conflicted. He expected her to cross her arms and stare over the frozen plain, avoiding his gaze. But that wasn’t what happened. Her chin tilted up and her eyes narrowed, and her mittens wrinkled as her fist tightened.

“No.”

“No?”

“No.”

“I told you, you don’t have to decide now—we probably won’t leave for a few weeks still—”

“I don’t care.” She fisted her hands in his parka and yanked him down for a fierce, biting kiss. “I don’t care—I don’t need time to think it over. I’m your wife, and I love you, and I’m coming with you.”

Everything stopped.

“You—what?”

She raised an eyebrow.

“Where did I lose you there?”

“You… did you say you love me?”

“Yes. I’ve told you that I love you before,” she said uncertainly, her forehead puckering. Zuko shook his head. “Yes, I have. In my room, that first night we were together.”

“No.”

The word came out as a whisper. He lowered his head, unconsciously, towards hers, wanting to be close to her, close enough to feel her breath on his mouth and see the tiny flash of white as she bit her lip.

“What about in Hira’a? Or at the Temple, when I found you. I must have—”

“No, you didn’t.”

“Oh. I’m sorry... I meant to. I guess it just—seemed so obvious...” She tipped her face up and their lips met. “I love you,” she repeated, and it hit him just as hard as it had the first time. His arms came up around her and he held her tight against him—or as tight as he could, with their absurdly puffy coats. He kissed her again, and again, and one more time, and when he pulled away it felt like his lungs were shaking.

“Okay,” he said. “So. I love you, too. You’re going to come with me, and we’re going to stay married. And whatever happens… we face it together.”

“Promise?”

“Promise.”

The wind whistled over the desolate plain, but inside his chest, a fire was burning strong.

 

 

Chapter Text

The next week was a busy one. Katara spent a lot of time in the House of Meeting with Zuko, Aang, her father, his council, and the Fire Nation ambassador. They were doing their best to cobble together a copy of the Fire Nation legal code from memory, turn the shaky, abstract code of international law into something that was concrete and useful, and frame their case in the most compelling way possible. It was stressful, difficult work, made more difficult by the fact that the Southern Tribe valued democracy more than any other nation in the world. Katara had always been raised to believe that was a good thing—if pressed, she would still admit that it was a good thing—but spirits above, it had to be the most annoying method of coming to a decision, and it required many long breaks so no one would resort to murder.

Even during her breaks, it seemed like everyone wanted to talk to Katara, all the time. She gladly stepped in to help with waterbending lessons. Pakku and Hama had a small group of students now, from both the North and the South, but it was clear there were tensions between them. Katara’s lessons were notable not so much because she was the best master, but because she was able to prove that the Northern and Southern styles could indeed be blended into one… and because, as one of the children told her in a loud whisper, she was easily the nicest waterbender in the whole South Pole. The children seemed quite in awe of her, even the nonbenders—she couldn’t step into the Common House without being bombarded with questions.

(“Are you really a princess, Katara?”

Really really?”

“Do you have a pet dragon?”

“Does Zuko have a dragon? How many dragons does he have?”

“Is it true that it never snows in the Fire Nation?”

“Of course not! That’s impossible!”

“How did Zuko get that scar?”

“Do you think he’s handsome?”

“Are you guys gonna have babies now?”

“How do dragons have babies?”

“They lay eggs, stupid.”

“Do you have a dragon egg? Can I see it?”)

But she spent most of her free time with her mother and grandmother, sewing. On her very first day in the village, when Zuko was out ice-dodging, she had asked her mother if she thought any of the women might be able to loan her some fabric to fix their ratty Fire Nation things. Instead, Kya had opened a chest to reveal a large collection of fabric and thread. Some of it was blue, white, and purple, but at least half was in Fire Nation colors—red, maroon, and even a small amount of gold.

“What is all this?”

“Your wedding gifts,” Kanna said with a warm smile. “This, too.” She held up the fur in her hands. “We kept them here, for when you came back.”

Katara ran her hand through the fabric with a tight throat. In the Fire Nation, only poor women made their own clothes—and even then, they saved up to hire a professional seamstress for their wedding robes, at least, and wore them on each nice occasion thereafter. The women of the royal family only wore robes made by the finest seamstresses.

If asked, any Water Tribe woman would say she also wore clothes made by only the finest seamstresses—because each and every one considered herself among that number. She had done her part as a child, learning to block and mend alongside her mother and grandmother, and learned well, because poorly-made clothes at the poles meant death. As she grew, she learned the finer skills, how to dye, embroider, and bead. The most substantial part of her wedding gifts were raw materials, and dressing her husband and children in beautiful clothes was the greatest source of pride in her life.

Katara had spent a great deal of time and energy making sure that her life went in another direction. But with the world crashing down around her, and the people she loved needing her help—it was nice to have something she could do for Zuko that produced immediate results, no matter how small. Her mother and grandmother had already begun making clothes for their stay in the South Pole, so after some consideration, she started on something for his return to the Fire Nation: a pair of trousers and a long under-tunic in the darkest maroon fabric, and a short-sleeved outer tunic in scarlet, with gold along the collar. She embroidered the trim, too, with black moons and gold suns. Fire Nation embroidery was usually flowing and asymmetrical—flames, flowers, trees, dragons—and the repeated geometric pattern would stand out, but she wanted it to. Zuko would look like a Fire Prince with a Water Tribe wife. When she finished that project, she began a matching set for herself, with gold moons and white suns embroidered on blue cloth.

She found great peace in sitting and working with her family. Zuko, unfortunately, was stressed and impatient and struggled to keep from melting the ice cap. They all did their best. Sokka taught him how to kayak (successfully) and throw a boomerang (disastrously), and Aang took him penguin-sledding. Kanna tried to fatten him up, Hakoda took him fishing, and Pakku tried to teach him pai sho despite Zuko’s repeated protests that if Iroh’s many lessons over the years hadn’t stuck, he just wasn’t meant to learn the game.

Privately, Katara thought that her mother had the best success. For the first few days, Zuko was awkward and nervous around Kya. He wasn’t rude, he didn’t ignore her, but his discomfort was obvious. One afternoon, when they had finished lunch and were about to resume their conference in the House of Meeting, Kya drew Katara aside and asked, “When did Zuko lose his mother?”

“When he was ten.”

“Ah.”

That night, after dinner, they all settled down to their indoor tasks. Again, Zuko sat in the corner with nothing to do—but then Kya called him over.

“Zuko, come here.”

“Yes ma’am?” he asked as he knelt in front of her.

“Gran-Gran and I have been working on your parka so you don’t have to keep borrowing Pakku’s—”

“You don’t need to do that!”

“Of course I do,” she said, in a grave voice. “This won’t be your last visit to the South Pole, will it? What would the Fire Nation say if we were so inconsiderate towards our guests as to let them go cold? Not to mention the women of the Water Tribes—they would all whisper about me letting my son go around in borrowed clothing, and I don’t think I could bear the shame.”

She bundled him into the work in progress and began to pin the pieces together, directing him to keep still with a gentle hand on his shoulder. Katara looked down at her own work, pressing her lips together as tightly as possible to keep her smirk from showing. They had measured Zuko before he went ice-dodging. The fabric was already cut, and dyed, and the torso had already been stitched together. But Zuko, the lovable idiot, didn’t catch the shameless lie.

“So, you’re trying to learn more about the Southern Water Tribe,” Kya said. “Have you heard the story of the First Hunt?”

“No, ma’am.”

“Then I’ll tell it to you.”

Her hands moved tirelessly as she spoke. She pinned all the pieces in place, making adjustments here and there. The suede was dyed a darker blue than usual, and the fur was from black wolf-seals instead of polar bear dogs—not quite as warm, and more time-consuming to make because of the irregular shape, but also not as puffy. The sleeves would be two inches shorter than usual, and there were laces to tighten them, so Zuko could bend fire without worrying.

As time went on, Kya ran out of things to do with the parka while Zuko was still in it. She took the hood off first, to sew it together. Zuko didn’t move. He had turned his head slightly, not quite looking at her, but the better to hear the story. When she finally told him to take the whole thing off, he turned around and gave it to her and remained there, listening and watching as she worked.

Katara smiled to herself. That night, when they curled up together in their bedroll, Zuko buried his face in her shoulder and squeezed her a little tighter than usual. And if he trembled in her arms… well. She didn’t say a thing about it.

On the morning after the equinox, Katara found herself awake before Zuko. That was unusual. Even here, where the polar twilight meant that the sun never rose, Zuko had been unable to break his early-rising habit. She wondered briefly if he was sick, but his breathing was regular and his forehead was only reasonably warm where it touched the back of her neck, so she decided to let it go and enjoy some extra sleepy cuddling.

The rest of the family woke and began to dress and do their hair for the day, but Zuko didn’t stir.

“Someone’s a mole-slug-a-bed this morning,” Gran-Grant tutted.

“I don’t know if he’s been sleeping well lately,” Katara said apologetically. “There’s a lot going on.”

“Well, chop-chop!” Sokka said. “We’ve got things to do!”

“Maybe you can do your own chores for once instead of roping Zuko into it,” Katara snapped.

“Hey! I genuinely need his help this morning. We were going to start laying the foundation of the new boathouse today. I need as many strong, able-bodied men as possible.”

“How about a waterbender?” Katara said, rolling her eyes. “We’ll let Zuko sleep in for once, and I’ll help—”

She started to push herself up, but Zuko’s arms, draped loosely around her waist, suddenly tightened. He let out a quiet, very realistic snore as he slotted his hips against hers.

“On second thought, I don’t know if I can get up without waking, and he’s obviously tired,” she said in a bright voice. Was she babbling? She was trying not to babble. “Firebenders need the sun, you know. He’s probably just tired because of the whole no-sun thing.”

“I think you could both use a rest,” Kya said, faintly amused. “Why don’t we go have breakfast in the Common House, and you can join us whenever you’re ready. There’s no rush.”

“But my boathouse—”

“Your father will help you, Sokka.”

“Will he?” Hakoda frowned.

“He will,” Kya said, and with the ease of long practice, she hustled them all out of the house.

“I thought they would never leave,” Zuko said, exasperated, as the canvas fell over the entrance. He yanked Katara closer and slipped a hand under her tunic to stroke the warm skin of her stomach. “I like your family, but this no-privacy thing is the worst.”

“Well if you weren’t so shy—”

“Don’t finish that sentence,” he ordered. He gripped her waist and rubbed against her, teeth nipping at her neck. “I don’t want to think about it. It’s my birthday, and I missed this so much.”

Katara froze.

“It’s your birthday.”

“Don’t worry about it. There’s been a lot going on.”

“Still, I can’t believe I—”

She broke off as his other hand cupped her breast, thumb brushing her nipple. Heat pooled low in her stomach. Zuko molded his body against hers, and Katara looked over her shoulder for a kiss. It was an awkward angle, and they clashed a bit, but the eager push of his tongue against hers was heady. She was always strangely proud to have him like this—needy and impatient and rutting against her. It felt like a profound accomplishment.

But tantalizing got old quick. Zuko rocked into her for a little while, and then with some wiggling Katara managed to get on top. She leaned down to kiss him as they moved together, not an inch of space between them, her hair draped in a curtain separating them from the empty room.

She sank down on his chest to catch her breath, and Zuko rubbed her back in silence. He had a knack for finding the sore spots, which she had learned and come to appreciate in Hira’a—surfing was fun, but every single muscle in her body had ached the next morning. After a few minutes, she tried to flop on the bedroll beside him, but Zuko wouldn’t let her. One hand carded through her hair. He tilted her head up for a kiss and held her forehead against his for a long, lingering moment.

“You’re thinking too much,” she murmured against his lips.

“I’m just thinking about how much I love you.”

“Mm, I love you too, but that’s not it. You’re thinking about serious things—I can tell by the wrinkle.”

She poked at his forehead, and Zuko pouted. (He hated it when she called it a pout; he insisted it was a manly scowl.)

“I’m too young for wrinkles.”

“Yeah, and too young to be thinking about serious things on your birthday.”

“I just…” His thumb brushed back and forth slowly over her cheekbones. “I was thinking about…”

The knot in his throat went up and down, and Katara felt goosebumps rise on her shoulders. They hadn’t talked much about… worst case scenarios… since their discussion on the ice plains. The rights of a Fire Nation widow had come up when they first got engaged, but Katara hadn’t given them a moment’s thought since. She didn’t want to. She kissed the center of Zuko’s chest, just beneath his collarbone.

“Can it wait until after breakfast?”

“Sure,” he sighed.

They sat up. Katara had had plenty of experience getting dressed without leaving her bedroll, on winter days when even the interior was too cold to be pleasant, and she slipped into clean underthings with ease

“That was kind of fun,” she mused as she fished around for her leggings.

“Kind of?”

“I mean like this,” she laughed. “Secret and quick and half-dressed. It reminds me of that play in Ganshu a few weeks ago, when we snuck off at intermission… We should do this more often.”

“You want to try and sneak out of parties when you’re the Fire Lady? Good luck with that.”

Before Katara could react to that, the canvas flew back again and a gust of cold wind blew over them.

“Katara!”

“Toph?”

She had barely gotten a robe around her when the earthbender barreled into her and knocked her back.

“Don’t ever do that again,” she growled.

“What—get attacked?”

“Die.”

“I’ll do my best, but I don’t think you can reasonably expect me to—”

“And you.” She swung her arm around and pointed right at Zuko’s nose. “You neither. You’re going to give Uncle a heart attack.”

“You’re going to give me a heart attack first!” he said furiously, still wiggling to adjust his trousers. “Didn’t anyone ever teach you how to knock?”

“On what, canvas? Sorry for interrupting your private time, Hot Stuff.”

“You’ve successfully embarrassed him,” Katara said dryly as he turned red. She got up and started to brush and braid her hair. Toph sat cross-legged on their sleeping roll and felt around for anything soft and warm. She settled on Zuko’s newly-finished parka, but he yanked it out of her hand. “Be nice to Zuko, it's his birthday.”

“How did she even—not that—you can’t even see anything! We’re on ice!”

“All-Knowing,” she reminded him. She held out her hand and he passed her a blanket, which she wrapped around her shoulders. “It’s fucking cold here, by the way. But here I am, with Suki, to give your sister the metaphorical ass-kicking she so rightly deserves. I told Mai you were alive, and—”

“You what?” Zuko said, gaping at her. “She’s going to tell Azula! We’ll be walking into a trap!”

“Wow, the trust really jumps out. Can’t imagine why you guys broke up. She’s not going to tell Azula. She wrote to me first and basically said she wanted to turn on Azula.”

“Oh.” A flash of gratitude flitted across his face, and Katara knelt next to him and squeezed his hand. “But that still doesn’t mean we’re safe. I wouldn’t put it past my sister to intercept someone’s mail—”

“Then it’s lucky Mai’s as paranoid as you are. She wrote in code.”

She pulled a crumpled scroll from her pocket and handed it to Katara. Katara unrolled it and read the letter out loud.

Dear Toph,

I hope you find a way to read this. I know you and Katara were good friends, and I think we’re close enough that I can offer my condolences for her death, based on our letters before. I know I don’t really demonstrate my feelings much, but the atmosphere is really sad around here. Everyone is mourning—Uncle and Azula especially.

Maybe it’s awkward, because I used to be involved with Zuko, but that doesn’t mean I don’t care. His and Katara’s deaths are a tragedy, especially under such circumstances. She was a kind person, and he was not the worst boyfriend ever.

I need to keep this short, because my mother wants to leave for the market soon. It is almost the end of summer in the Fire Nation; the winds have come and the rainstorms are over. I’ve never been to Kyoshi. Please write back and give me an idea of what it’s like.

My mother is calling me. We need to buy mourning clothes, and then we’ll go to the sanctuary in the temple and pray for their spirits.

Mai

“That’s it?” Katara asked with a frown. “Mai says I’m a nice person and Zuko isn’t terrible, and you write back and tell her everything? That’s an awful big risk, Toph.”

“It would have been a risk for someone like you to tell her everything,” Toph said with a grin. “Because you didn’t read the actual message. But I’m the greatest earthbender in the world. I didn’t read the words written in ink—I only read the ones underneath. The ones written in lead pencil.”

Toph lifted her hand gracefully, and a series of glimmering gray characters lifted off the page.

“I hope you find a way to read this: Think letters demonstrate my uncle and Azula involved Zuko and Katara’s deaths,” she read. “Need to leave Fire Nation, come to Kyoshi. Please give sanctuary.”

“That’s… really clever,” Katara said. “Why didn’t I ever think of that?”

“To be fair, I did tell you guys I couldn’t read. And I mostly meant it. Any words that get carved into stone in the Earth Kingdom, I’m awesome at—as for the rest, Aang started teaching me a couple of months ago, then Suki kept it up when he went wandering. I wanted to keep it a surprise until I got really good. And the lead pencil, that was all her. Suki and Aang have been writing in the dirt like chumps.”

“Did you find a way to write back?” Zuko asked with a frown. “Or is she just going to show up in Kyoshi while we’re on our way to the Fire Nation?”

“Yeah, I did, and I told her to stay put. In a hidden message, worrywort. I told her I had been practicing my metalbending and sent her some kunai engraved with traditional Earth Kingdom proverbs,” she said. “You know, things like ‘keep everything important close to your heart’ and ‘that which is lost lives on.’ Bullshit like that. She’ll get the message—the engraving throws off the balance of the knives.”

“That’s smart,” he admitted grudgingly.

“I know. Sometimes I amaze even myself.”

“Although Azula might think it strange that you’re sending Mai presents when you barely know her,” Katara pointed out.

“Again with the paranoia!” Toph said, throwing her hands in the air. “Will you relax already? It’s not like we’re strangers. We’ve written each other letters before.”

“You have? Since when?”

A blush touched Toph’s cheeks.

“You wrote me a letter like two months ago and said Mai said hey, so I wrote and said hey back, all right? What’s with all the questions? Who are you, my mother?”

She rolled the scroll back up, shoved it in her pocket, and stormed out of the house, leaving Katara and Zuko to stare after her.

“So that was…”

“Interesting?”

“Weird.”

“Yeah.” She put her hand on his shoulder and kissed his cheek. “But Mai’s on your side, and it sounds like she had some actual proof. That counts for something, right?”

“Yeah…” He looked down at the abandoned letter again. “Mai’s uncle is the warden of the Boiling Rock—I bet that’s the ‘next location’ mentioned in the assassin’s letter. This might be actual proof . It’s coming together.”

His eyes were bright, and Katara was on the brink of saying that’s great, Zuko, before she noticed the waxy cast of his skin. Everything was coming together… which meant Zuko was one step closer to overthrowing, imprisoning, banishing, or killing his sister. Katara swallowed her positivity in favor of a kiss on the cheek and an offer of breakfast, which he accepted gladly.

Another week passed. Letters arrived from King Bumi and King Kuei—the former writing to back Zuko’s claim to the throne, the latter agreeing to contribute a magistrate to the Council of Three, although they had declined to tell him why. Their legal argument took shape, became something convincing and sure and almost eloquent. Bato was the first to bring up the possibility of a departure, and Katara couldn’t sort through all the flotsam and jetsam of emotions this evoked. Luckily, all discussion about returning to the Fire Nation was put on hold the next day as a late blizzard blew into the South Pole, blanketing everything in a heavy coat of snow.

Katara spent most of the day inside with Zuko, her parents, and her grandparents—the house had officially become too crowded with the addition of Suki and Toph, so they had gone to the Common House with Sokka and Aang. Zuko had suggested Katara might like to join them, but he himself found the idea of sleeping in a large room with mostly strangers to be a step too far, and Katara found that the idea of sleeping separate from her husband was, at the moment, unendurable. (Again, she refused to investigate this very far.)

There was plenty to do, indoors, and they spent the day cooking and cleaning, preparing equipment for the busy spring, talking, and singing—Zuko as busy as anyone else—but after dinner, Gran-Gran hefted a small pot of stewed sea prunes and held it out to Katara.

“Take these to Amikai and Hama’s house, dear,” she said in a brisk voice. “Check in on them.”

“They’re still living alone?” Katara frowned. Kanna grunted.

The old waterbender had been given a berth in the Common House, next to Hama’s, but decades of exposure and near-isolation had taken its toll on her. The sound of footsteps passing her bedroll at night made her scream; when she sat down to a shared meal, she clawed at anyone who tried to help themselves first, and took far more than she could eat. It had just been easier to give her her own house, and Hama had gone with her to help with the upkeep.

But were still two frail, elderly women, so Katara willingly wrapped herself in her warmest furs and trudged through the snow to make sure they were okay.

“Hama? Amikai? It’s Katara,” she called through the canvas door. The wind was howling, the snow so thick that no one but a waterbender could find their way, and she wasn’t sure if they could hear her. “I’m coming in.”

There were two different sheets covering the door, and when Katara entered the house, she began to sweat immediately. Every inch of the walls was covered in furs, and the two women were sitting on either side of a blazing fire. Amikai squinted at Katara.

“Kanna’s granddaughter,” Hama reminded her lowly.

“She sent me with lunch,” Katara said, lifting the cauldron. “Do you mind if I join you?”

“Kind of you not to forget your old master,” Hama said with the same craggy smile that Katara had known since she was a child. She smiled back on instinct, and tried not to dwell on the fact that Hama had not attended a single meeting since Zuko made his request—even though she was certainly entitled, as a village elder and, until recently, the only master waterbender. She had never missed one before.

Katara sat down and began to dole out the stew. She passed the bowl and scanned the one-room hut, trying to be subtle while cataloging its contents. There was a jug of whale oil for the lamp, a privy dug in the corner, a pile of peat for the fire, a bulging bag of the kind used to store salt meats. When she had satisfied herself, she looked forward again—and jumped, spilling some of the stew from her bowl. Amikai was staring right at her with eyes like spear points.

“He must be careful, because you’re pretty,” she said. “I was never pretty, so there was no need.”

She tilted her head up, so Katara could see the jagged burn scar that started on her chin and trailed down her neck. Katara was no stranger to burn scars, but even she had to flinch, imagining such soft, thin skin subject to flame. She looked down at her bowl and straightened her shoulders.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Zuko’s never hurt me.”

“Well,” Hama said in a voice dressed up as kindness. “Not recently. But you can’t say never, dear, can you?”

Katara looked up and met her gaze.

“Never.”

“Only a matter of time,” Amikai croaked. Her spoon scraped the bottom of her bowl, and she scrounged for seconds from the pot. “They can’t control it. Comes out of all of them, eventually. And you’re going back.” She barked out a laugh. “I’d throw myself in the sea and drown before I went back. Not easy for a waterbender to drown—but then, I’m not much of a waterbender anymore.”

“You don’t know what it’s like,” Katara said shortly.

“On the contrary,” Hama said, her eyebrows lifting. “You’re speaking to the only two waterbenders in the world who do know what it’s like, Katara. Oh, sure, Pakku visited—but a week in the Fire Nation is nothing. Even a few months—nothing. We were there for years. We know .”

Katara opened her mouth to retort, but her gaze settled on Amikai again, on her frail hands and the way they shook as she held them above the fire. She remembered her mother’s letters from months ago, about how Amikai’s bending hadn’t improved much at all since she came home. The Northern delegation hadn’t thought to bring healers, and Hama had never been able to master that particular skill.

“Amikai,” Katara said. She softened her voice. “Would you like me to try to strengthen your bending?”

The old waterbender tilted her face up, and the lines of her face shifted, almost imperceptibly. She nodded once. Katara crossed the small house and knelt behind her. She drew a small amount of water from their jug of snowmelt, to begin with, and concentrated it on Amikai’s shoulders. Each one bore a snarled mass of spiritual scar tissue, just as she expected.

Amikai grunted as she worked, and Katara winced. She got only the barest flashes of an injury, when she healed it, but she knew her patient saw and felt more. She tried to be gentle as she pulled and prodded at the older woman’s chi paths. Amikai’s hands tightened and her chest swelled with a deep breath.

“Every child born in the Fire Nation learns to swim,” Katara blurted out. “And the ones from traditional families learn to sail, too, even though they rely on steam engines for most of their travel. They’ve never seen ice, or snow, but they know how to be on the water. The first people I ever met on the islands were living in a river town—all their buildings were on stilts. The river was being polluted by a nearby factory, but we drove the Army out and cleaned it up…”

She talked for as long as she worked, until her throat went dry. She avoided any controversial topics—no agricultural battles, no colonies, no Azula—and lingered only on the things about the Fire Nation she had missed. It was hardly a convincing argument. A few months of friendship with her maid and an old artisan couldn’t erase decades of imprisonment. But as she let the water fall back into the jug, Amikai tilted her head up to look at the ceiling. The snow was still falling above them.

“Do you remember the monsoons, Hama?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“How many of us tried to escape, the first time we felt the rains come? It felt like the entire ocean was crashing above us. We learned better. The monsoon season taunted us with what we couldn’t have… but towards the end, I looked forward to it. Fresh, free water. The closest thing to home, even if it was beyond my reach.”

Katara listened with her hands folded in her lap. Her heart began to pound; it felt loud in the silent room, in counterpoint to the whisper of the fire and the distant drone of the wind.

“Do you feel any better?” she asked quietly.

Amikai held up her arms, and Katara and Hama each scrambled to their feet to help her stand. The older waterbender shifted into a bending stance and held out a clawed hand. The water lifted in a shaky globe. Amikai took a deep breath. Her first movements were hesitant as she streamed the water around her, but it followed gracefully, and she gained speed and confidence—and snapped a perfect single water whip.

“You did it!” Katara cheered, touching her shoulder, and a crooked smile creased the old woman’s face.

“Not bad,” she admitted grudgingly. Hama patted her arm, and her eyes met Katara’s.

“Well done, dear,” she said with an approving nod. Katara remembered, suddenly, the days before bloodbending, when a nod from Hama was the greatest prize she could attain, and her throat swelled.

“Is—is there anything else you need?” she asked.

“Not now,” Amikai sighed. “Takes a lot out of you, healing… but I wouldn’t mind if you came back again later.”

“We’re going to be leaving soon, probably, but—I’ll do what I can before I go.”

“Mm.” Amikai examined her for a moment with pursed lips. “Stupid,” she declared. “But brave. Good girl.”

She shooed Katara away, and she stumbled out into the snow to ponder what had just happened.

The snow cleared the next day, and it was decided that they would leave on the following. Just Katara, Zuko, Aang, Sokka, Suki, and Toph—everyone else would be needed, in case the Southern Raiders did attack earlier than anticipated. Sokka was the most reluctant to leave, but they had decided that it would send the wrong message for Katara to make the request for a council on behalf of the Southern Water Tribe.

The night before their departure, Katara jerked awake after a few fitful hours to find it was still deep night; the moon tugged at her consciousness. Her family was still sleeping peacefully, and she listened to their breath, the few light snores, until restlessness overcame her. Zuko had shifted in his sleep; he was on his back with his hands resting on his stomach, and she managed to slip out of their bed without waking him.

She left the house and wound through the silent village until she reached the docks, where she sat and stared out at the water. Her mind had been buzzing with so many thoughts recently that it all faded into a distant hum. She watched the ice caps drift on the retreating tide and thought about Amikai, Azula, Hama, Pakku, Zuko, Ayako, Sokka, Suki, Kya, Hakoda, Iroh, Aang. The moon set and the air felt suddenly colder. She realized she was crying.

“Are you okay?”

“I’m fine.”

Her voice gave her away; the words bubbled up past the tears. Zuko sat down beside her. He was wearing the clothes she had made—hadn’t bothered to put on a parka—and she considered lecturing him once again about wasting his energy. But he put his arm around her shoulders, and she was grateful for the warmth.

“You’re crying.”

“Yeah. I just… it’s weird, coming back. It’s like I’ve gotten a glimpse of what life would have been like if I were an ordinary Water Tribe woman with an ordinary Water Tribe husband… who happened to be bad at fishing and was too stupid to wear a coat.”

Zuko laughed softly, and Katara sniffled.

“It feels like home. But also—not. This just isn’t me. And then what’s waiting for us in the Fire Nation… I still agree it’s the best plan, but that doesn’t mean it’s not scary. I don’t feel ready for it all. I just wish that, for once, I actually felt ready.”

“Katara…” Zuko hesitated. She watched his breath condense in the air. “If you wanted to stay, you could stay.”

“I already told you—”

“I don’t mean get divorced. I mean, this is always going to be your home. Blackfish have their territory, right?” he said, attempting a grin. “So you could stay here, and I could go handle Azula and put my uncle back on the throne and come back to be with you. I don’t think I could be a good Water Tribe husband for very long, but for a little while, a few years maybe—until you’re ready. Or, if the people won’t accept my uncle, I could rule on my own for a bit. We could visit each other… twice a year, on the solstices. Like your myth,” he said, rubbing her arm. “The Wolf and the Blackfish… the Blackfish and the Dragon?”

“No,” Katara smiled. She wiped the last cold tears from her cheeks and kissed him lightly on the lips. “It’s a nice story, Zuko, but I’m not really a blackfish, and you’re not really a dragon. My ancestors chose to be human, and I made a choice to be your wife. I’m coming with you. Besides…” She trailed away. The polar wind seemed to blow more fiercely, and she shivered. “Did I ever tell you about the first time I saw Fire Nation soldiers come to the South Pole?”

“No.”

“I was eight years old. The sentry on the wall blew a warning, and the black snow began to fall—soot, from the ships’ engines, mixed with snow. I went back home to find my mother, but they broke through the wall, and I wanted to help fix it. That was something Hama had always had me do, to practice, so I thought I could do it. I went back outside. There was a soldier…”

She paused.

“Even now, I don’t really remember him. I didn’t see him. My mother did. They had orders to kill the last Southern waterbenders; after Hama escaped, they weren’t take prisoners. Mom stabbed him before he had the chance. Afterwards, my father was angry. At me, mostly, for leaving when my mother told me to stay, but also at my mom, for following me on her own. She wasn’t a warrior, and he said she should have come found him. She said—I remember it so clearly—she said ‘And leave Katara? Never. This is my home, and I will do whatever it takes to keep it safe. For my children. For our family.’

“I may be from the South Pole, but the Fire Nation is my home now, and its people—and you, and your uncle—they’re my family. The thought of Azula taking it, hurting people, killing people, undoing all the work you’ve done—”

We’ve done.”

“Yeah.” She took a deep, shaky breath. “I can’t let her do that to my home.”

Her eyes drifted shut and she snuggled against Zuko’s chest. The village was starting to wake; it was still quiet, but she could hear muffled voices inside some of the igloos, the footsteps of some early risers heading to the Common House or the privacy. Zuko kissed the top of her head.

“I get it,” he said finally. “And I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

There you are!”

They looked around to find Kya waving at them from the edge of the village.

“Come on, you two—breakfast is ready, and you can’t travel on an empty stomach!”

“Coming, Mom!” Katara called. “What?” she asked as Zuko snorted.

“Nothing. I was just thinking… I bet my mom and your mom would have liked each other.” His smile softened. “And she would have really liked you.”

This was the highest compliment Zuko could pay, and Katara had nothing to say in return. She laced their fingers together and tugged him back towards the house.

They departed that morning, after a series of long goodbyes. Katara looked out over the sea of serious faces and felt her stomach twist into knots. Once they set out, though, she found her nerves fading into the background. She was with Aang and Sokka and Toph, going out to save the world—and this time with Zuko and Suki for backup. This felt right. She knew how to do this.

For the first day, they sailed together. On the second, Aang and Zuko climbed on Appa to head for the Sun Warrior ruins. They arranged to meet in a small, secluded cove not far from the main island, and promised to be there in three days, no matter what. Katara busied herself sailing the boat with Sokka and Suki, trying to distract herself from the questions circling around in her brain. What if this trick didn’t actually work, and Zuko’s bending was still weak? What if they got hurt? What if they hurt each other? What if it took longer than expected?

But at sunset on the fifth day, Sokka called an Appa sighting. They all crowded around the deck, which had the unexpected downside of making it difficult for Appa to land. Zuko dropped to the ship while the bison was still circling.

“Is everything ok-aaaay!”

Katara yelped and grabbed Zuko’s shoulders as he picked her up and swung her in a circle.

“Everything’s fine,” he beamed as he set her down.

“What happened?”

“It was amazing!” Aang gushed as Appa finally landed—squashing Sokka a little bit in the process. “We learned this incredible ancient bending form and now we’re like the best firebenders ever!”

“You got your bending back?” Katara asked Zuko, somewhat wary. She had never seen her husband look this happy. It was unsettling.

“Yeah. Ask me how.”

“How?”

First, he kissed her, hard on the mouth, and then on her cheek, before his lips found her ear.

Dragons.”

 

 

Chapter Text

The weather was wet when the ships sailed into the capital harbor. Not the intense, temperamental thunderstorms of the summer months, but a dismal fall dampness. Visibility was so poor through the fog and drizzling rain that the ship was almost at the Gates of Azulon before the sentry spotted them.

“Halt!” a voice called. “Who goes there?”

Katara stepped up to the bow of the ship and swept her arms in a high circle. The water around the ship was suspended in the air for a brief moment, before it formed a huge dome above them, leaving the air clear.

“Waterbenders!” someone of them cried. “Sound the alarm!”

“State your business,” the captain shouted, her eyebrows drawn in a hard line. “We have no Water Tribe ships on today’s manifest.”

“We’re coming home,” Katara called back simply.

“Captain Taki,” a guard gasped, hanging out of the mouth of one of the great golden dragons. They all looked rather funny, poking out of the dragons’ eyes and ears and leaning over the metal Azulon’s shoulders. “Is that—?”

“It can’t be.”

Zuko stepped up beside Katara and held up his hand, a flame flickering to life in his palm. The guards burst into whispered conversations.

“Prince Zuko,” the captain said, stunned. “Princess Katara—we thought…”

“Will you let us through?” Zuko asked sternly. “Along with our friends?”

“Of course, Your Highness. Lower the gate!”

The nets fell back into the water and the ship sailed through.

“Thank you,” Zuko called up as they passed. “I’ll remember this. Is my sister in the capitol?”

“Yes, Your Highness. It’s her coronation today.”

“Perfect. We’ll surprise her.”

“Welcome back, Your Highness,” the captain said with a deep bow.

“That was dramatic,” Toph muttered as the boat glided towards the harbor. “You sure you don’t want Aang up there, too, doing his little marble trick?”

“Don’t be jealous just because you’re not royalty,” Zuko smirked.

“Hey, I’m better than royalty, Hot Stuff. I’m rich.”

“Well, I’m a genius,” Sokka claimed.

“I’m the Avatar!”

“I have a healthy sense of self-esteem that doesn’t require outside validation,” Suki shrugged.

“Overrated,” Toph said with a dismissive wave.

Katara’s stomach flopped over when they came in sight of the harbor city, and she reached for Zuko to steady herself. They pulled into the docks without notice and disembarked. The atmosphere was like a festival—everywhere she looked, flags snapped in the wind, vendors hawked food and firecrackers, children darted around clutching sweets. The people down by the docks were far too poor to attend the coronation themselves, but they were waiting for the bells that would celebrate the crowning of a new Fire Lord, the birth of a new era.

Beneath the celebration, though, there was an undercurrent of tension. As their small group wove through the crowd, here and there they passed people wearing white funeral armbands whose smiles were tempered by sadness. Prominent posters tacked up in the public square sought information on the Order of the White Lotus, with Piandao and Jeong Jeong’s faces blazoned across them. And when they turned a corner, they came across a little urban temple with a newly-built shrine on its tiny front yard, and Katara found herself staring at her own face—hers and Zuko’s. It was a shoddy, mass-produced copy of their wedding portrait, but with his scar and her blue robes, they were easily recognizable. The shrine was littered with offerings: piles of incense ash, little cakes, lotus blossoms, and more than a few ocean kumquats. Katara swallowed hard and squeezed Zuko’s hand.

A woman and her children had been kneeling at the shrine, but as their group approached, they stood and turned to walk away. The mother sniffed and wrapped her arm around the tallest child’s shoulders—and then her eyes met Katara’s, and she gasped.

“My lady!”

“Chenyu!”

Without thinking, Katara launched herself at the older woman. They were practically strangers, but for the last few weeks the Fire Nation had been a sea of faceless unknowns, each one a potential conspirator—and it was so good to see a friendly face.

Her mind caught up with her limbs, and she stepped back.

“And this must be your Zuko,” she said to cover her own embarrassment, smiling down at the reedy boy at his mother’s side. She touched Zuko’s forearm. “This is mine.”

“Your Highness.” Chenyu bowed. “We are so glad—so glad to see you.”

“Thank you.”

“Everyone, this is Chenyu, a friend of mine,” Katara said, stepping back to wave her friends forward. “Chenyu, this is my brother Sokka, and our friends Suki, Aang, and Toph.”

“It is a great honor to meet you,” Chenyu said politely, as they all waved and called informal greetings and—in Sokka’s case—struggled not to burst into laughter at the sight of someone treating Katara like a princess. “Children,” she scolded over her shoulder.

The kids had been gaping—some at Aang, but most at Zuko—but at their mother’s voice they scrambled into a line, arranged by age, and bowed, as she introduced them.

“You’re the Avatar,” one of the young boys announced, with some difficulty due to two missing front teeth.

“Yup,” Aang said cheerfully.

Wow.

The kids swarmed him—except for young Zuko, who was staring at his namesake and standing so straight and tall that he looked as though he would float off the ground at any moment.

“Where’s your husband?” Katara asked Chenyu.

“He’s working,” she said with a proud smile. “He…” The smile dropped off her face. She looked at Sokka and Suki and Toph, in their blue and green and yellow clothes. “He was recalled to the Army,” she said in a faint voice. “Many veterans have been called back in the past few weeks. As a precaution, Princess Azula said.”

“We have to go,” Zuko said grimly.

“Yes.”

Katara started to make their goodbyes, but then young Zuko looked up hopefully and asked, “Can we help?”

“Yes,” Zuko said, to Katara’s surprise. His face was solemn. “Can you let everyone know we’re back?”

The boy nodded rapidly, eyes shining. He turned to face the road and cupped his hands around his mouth.

“HEY, EVERYONE!” he shouted, displaying truly impressive lung strength for one so young. Katara thought he must be an excellent firebender. “LOOK!”

A few people stopped what they were doing and looked—and then they burst into gasps and surprised exclamations, and then everyone was staring at them.

“...Thanks.”

“You’re welcome, sir!”

Aang took the lead as they resumed their march to the palace, occasionally nudging people out of the way with airbending. A  spontaneous parade formed behind them. No one, as of yet, seemed to be asking why their prince and princess had been miraculously returned to them; they just expressed their thanks through greetings, shouted blessings, and a few off-key renditions of the Fire Nation national anthem. Zuko kept twitching to look over his shoulder.

“Stop worrying,” Toph said to him.

“I’m not worrying.”

“Sounds like you’re worrying, buddy,” Sokka contributed.

“I’m just being careful,” he snapped. “There are six of us and a thousand over people out here, and they’re all too close, and statistically Katara and I are due for another assassination attempt soon.”

“You were the one who told that kid to tell everyone you were back,” Suki pointed out.

“I didn’t think he’d be so good at it!”

“Will you quit it?” Toph said. “They’re happy to see you and happy you’re alive. I know that might be weird, but you’re gonna have to get used to it.”

Katara laced their fingers together and squeezed.

“Try waving,” she suggested.

A grudging smile flitted across Zuko’s face. He exhaled heavily and lifted his other hand to wave at the crowd. They cheered.

The streets grew quieter as they reached the Upper Caldera, as more people were either celebrating in their mansions or attending the actual ceremony at the palace. Even the parade behind them felt more subdued; Katara wondered if they were starting to think about the full implications of Zuko’s reappearance, or if they had simply picked up on the mood of the procession’s head. No one was teasing Zuko anymore.

The gates to the courtyard were open—the guards standing beside them straightened and gripped their spears tighter at the sight of the crowd. As they got nearer, though, the guards recognized them and gaped. Katara recognized several from the squads that usually guarded her and Zuko.

“Hi, Li Xen,” she said as they approached. “Have you been demoted?”

“Yes, Your Highness,” he said in a choked voice.

“I’m sorry. We’ll fix that.”

Li Xen fell down in a full kowtow, and the other guards were quick to follow.

It was quiet on the other side of the gates. No one saw them, at first—the spectators were all facing the other way, looking up at where Azula knelt before the Fire Sage. The first to notice their arrival was Iroh. He leapt to his feet. The Fire Sage saw him out of the corner of his eye and looked up, and the back rows of the crowd began to whisper as Zuko and Katara passed through them.

“Well, what is it?” Azula asked impatiently.

She looked up just as Iroh darted down the steps. He pulled his nephew in a fierce embrace.

“It is! ” someone near them gasped.

“Prince Zuko!”

Azula’s eyes widened, then darted to Katara’s face. She drew back in shock, and her lip curled.

That’s right, Katara thought, glaring. I found him, and I saved him, and we’re here to take you down.

Iroh grabbed her by the shoulder and she stumbled into a hug.

“I owe you a lifelong debt,” he whispered in her ear, his voice rough with unshed tears. She didn’t know what to say, so she only squeezed him tight in response.

“Zuko!” Azula said with feigned relief. She didn’t even move from the dais, although she did stand. “Thank goodness you’re alive—”

“Save it, Azula,” he snapped, his voice raw. “I know what you did.”

“What I did? I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Zuko stepped up onto the first stair and angled himself so that he was speaking not only to the Sages, but to the buzzing crowd before them.

“May the Great Spirits bear witness to my words,” he declared. “I accuse my sister, Azula daughter of Ursa and Fire Lord Ozai, of hiring assassins who attempted to kill our Uncle, Fire Lord Iroh, and my wife, Princess Katara; of hiring them to take me prisoner; of usurping the throne; and of conspiring to violate our treaty with the Southern Water Tribe and break the Great Peace.”

“This is preposterous,” Azula scoffed. “I know it will be difficult for you to hear, brother, but the White Lotus has been implicated in the attack on you. If you are looking for treachery in the family, I’m afraid you must look elsewhere.”

“No,” Katara said coldly, stepping up to Zuko’s side. “No more of your games, Azula, no more of our lies—we have proof.”

Someone in the back of the crowd shouted “Lies!”, but there was an immediate response, calling for silence, demanding that Katara continue. Aang sent a huge gust of wind out over the courtyard, and the crowd quieted.

“We have the note you sent to the man holding Zuko hostage—”

“A forgery, no doubt,” Azula dismissed.

“We have sworn evidence of your Dai Li agents’ involvement—”

“The Dai Li has been disbanded for years.”

“We have the orders you sent to the Southern Raiders,” Katara continued, raising her voice.

“If the Water Tribe is conspiring to assassinate members of the Fire Nation royal family, we have every right to defend ourselves,” Azula continued, but her temper was growing short. “I’m surprised you don’t understand that, Katara. But then, your grandfather is a member of the Order of the White Lotus, isn’t he? What an interesting coincidence.”

“Mai!”

Katara turned at Ty Lee’s shocked gasp to see Mai step out into the corridor behind them. Her mother reached out and grabbed the corner of her sleeve, but Mai shook her off.

“I have evidence, too,” she said. Her normally bored voice was hard. “Weeks’ worth of letters between Princess Azula and the warden of the Boiling Rock, making arrangements for Zuko and members of the White Lotus to be imprisoned there. All dated before the attack.”

Anyone close enough to see Azula’s face saw the truth written on it. Her shock was fury were plain—her eyes narrowed and a vein in her forehead bulged. Her hands tightened into fists.

“And I have this knife,” Iroh said gravely, holding up a black and red sheath. “Which I gave to my nephew many years ago, which you gave to me a month ago as proof that he was under your control.”

The Chief Sage found his voice.

“This is all highly irregular,” he said, voice trembling with trepidation. “In light of the circumstances, the coronation will be postponed, and these accusations will be brought before the magistrate.”

“No,” Zuko interjected. “Not the magistrate. This goes beyond the question of Fire Nation law and Fire Nation politics. I propose that we form a council of the three nations, with the Avatar to act as our mediator.”

“I’m here on behalf of my father, Chief Hakoda of the Southern Water Tribe,” Sokka said quickly. “If Azula is making accusations, we want to defend ourselves, and we want the Avatar, too.”

“The Avatar,” Azula sneered. “Of course you want the Avatar. But why do you or your chief think you have any right to make demands on me? What right does the Avatar have to pass judgement on the Fire Lord?”

“The Fire Lord isn’t above the law, Azula,” Aang said, lifting his chin.

“The Fire Lord is the law. I have the divine right to this crown, and all you have is the arrogance of a backwoods chieftain and the moral arguments of a dying race—”

“Azula!” Iroh barked. “You go too far!”

“Too far? Too far?”

Her eyes blazed. She tore the cloak from around her shoulders and began to storm down the steps. Smoke was coming off her fingertips. Zuko took two more stairs and positioned himself between her and Iroh. She halted.

“You’re defending him?” she hissed. “He murdered our father! And you just stood aside—”

“It was the right thing to do, Azula.”

“No! We deserved better. The Fire Nation deserves better.”

“Don’t pretend you were thinking of the Fire Nation,” Katara snapped. “You could have made an honorable challenge, but instead you took the coward’s way out—”

“Stay out of this, waterbender! This isn’t your fight.”

“This is my home, and I won’t let you—”

“Enough!” Azula shouted. “Enough. You want me to do this the right way? Fine. We’ll do it the way it was always meant to be.” Her eyes locked on Zuko’s. “You and me, brother. Agni kai.”

The words rang out like the peal of a bell. An eerie calm was left in their wake; Zuko’s shoulders relaxed and his arm, held out in front of Katara protectively, fell to his side. Katara was standing on the step, just below, and she couldn’t see his expression—nothing of his face, in fact, except for his scar. Even so, she knew what he would say. A chill ran down her spine.

“You’re on.”

There was a process to an agni kai. There were rules. One of the most important was that it had to occur near sunset, the sacred time, but that a few hours at least must pass, so that cooler tempers would prevail when the combatants decided whether the fight would be to the first burn or to the death. This late in the day, the duel should have been postponed to the following day.

But for this challenge, there would be no question, and both Zuko and Azula insisted on proceeding immediately. The guards did their best to clear the courtyard; some of the nobles left eagerly, knowing they would have to face the winner and not wanting to choose sides too early. Others squeezed into the walkways to witness the duel. The commoners who had followed the procession remained, to a man. Lucky ones found space under the walkways or even climbed on the roof to watch, while unlucky ones had to be content with listening to commentary relayed back to them.

The combatants retreated to the end of the courtyard along with their companions—Katara for Zuko, Li and Lo for Azula. Aang, Sokka, Suki, Toph, and the Fire Sages took positions behind the low wall, towards the middle of the field. Iroh joined them after pressing a small wrapped package into Katara’s hand. Zuko and Azula stripped off their heavy tunics, and a servant came running up with the traditional armbands and stoles.

Katara felt… not calm, exactly. But not all the way in her body, either. She was aware that her heart was beating fast and light, like a polar hamster’s, but she found it relatively easy to keep her face blank and her hands still. She needed to be calm for Zuko. If he thought she was upset, he would be distracted. She unwrapped the package Iroh had given her and was unsurprised to find the old crown.

“Kneel down,” she directed Zuko.

He knelt. She combed through his hair with her fingers and drew it into a topknot. The skin around his eye softened when he saw the artifact, and she pinned it in place. He stared up at  her, serene but intense, like he was trying to memorize her face.

Katara touched his cheek.

“Remember your root,” she said in a steady voice. “And your breath. And… I love you.”

He smiled. She bent down and kissed him—a brush of lips as insubstantial as that first night in his room, as soft as sunlight.

“I love you.”

Zuko went up on one knee. Katara stood and backed away, into the corner. She hugged her torso and touched a hand to the pendant at her throat. Zuko and Azula both stood and turned, and the red cloths fluttered to the ground. A gong sounded.

It was… beautiful. Deadly, and frightening, and sad—but beautiful. Azula struck like a viper, and Zuko swept waves of fire onto the field with as much power and grace as Katara had ever seen. He matched her. He didn’t waste time with the elaborate, precise moves that Azula favored, and didn’t waste energy on diverting each one individually. He stood his ground, conjuring huge walls of flame that absorbed her strikes or winding whips that diverted them. Azula hesitated for a moment, clearly uncertain in the face of such tactics, and he sent a blazing wheel of fire in her direction that forced her to leap away to avoid it.

He looks like a Fire Lord with a Water Tribe wife, Katara thought to herself. She wasn’t up to smiling, but hope overtook the fear in her chest.

Zuko’s confidence seemed to enrage his sister. Her lips curled in a sneer and she propelled herself across the courtyard with billows of blue flame. Zuko tracked her, knocking away her blasts of fire and doing his best to interrupt her path. She dodged three times—but the fourth blast connected. She tumbled to the ground and landed hard.

There was a moment—just a moment—when she was winded and disoriented from her fall, and Zuko could have struck. Katara saw his muscles tense, his foot take an instinctive step forward. But then he stopped. He waited for Azula to get to her feet. She had bitten her lip in the fall, and she spat blood on the stone.

“So you’ve learned a new trick, Zuzu,” she sneered.

“More than one,” Zuko goaded her. “Throw a little lightning and we’ll see.”

A ripple went through the crowd. The last war ended this way—with a Fire Lord who could bend lightning, and a brother who could redirect it. For a moment, it seemed like Azula wouldn’t take the bait.

Katara heard the crackling that began to build in the air, but she wasn’t looking at Azula. She didn’t see. Zuko’s head turned and his eyes met hers, wide, more frightened than she had ever seen him. He started to run. Azula’s arm began to slide away from her body, too far over, too far, pointing not at Zuko but at her—

“No!”

Zuko leapt in front of Katara with his arm outstretched. He caught the lightning and drew it into his body, and she saw, in her mind’s eye, his chi paths all lit up, blazing, burning from the inside. She felt her own heart stop.

The bolt dissipated into the gloomy gray sky and Zuko crashed to the ground. His whole body twitched and then went still. There were cries of outrage and horror from the audience, and above all of them her voice.

“Zuko!”

Katara was running towards him, not thinking, not planning, not worrying about the rules or the consequences, knowing only that he needed her—but she was interrupted by a blast of fire.

“I told you, Kat,” Azula crooned. She surfed toward Katara on a wave of flame and Katara danced away, drawing water from the caches towards her. “I told you you needed to let him fail. You always knew it would end like this.”

“This is not the end,” Katara snarled.

She stepped forward, foot hitting the ground in a percussive firebending motion, and swept two enormous waves onto the field, converging on Azula in the center. Azula brought forth a wall of fire and was able to hold some of it back, and a tremendous hiss rose with the steam. Katara just barely had time to dive out of the way when darts of fire cut through the condensation. She flung a handful of ice darts in return, and for a moment they were caught in a deadly dance around the edges of the courtyard. Katara was distantly aware of shouting, but she had no idea who it was or what they wanted. Zuko had rolled onto his stomach and was reaching for her, and it was all she could do to keep him out of the crosshairs.

And then someone was climbing over the wall—running onto the field—it was too late to pull back the jet of water she had just thrown at Azula, too late to combat the blast of fire Azula had sent in her direction—Katara’s heart was in her throat—

“Enough.”

It was a voice she knew. It was a hundred voices, all at once, and the figure in the center of the field began to glow.

Awe and dread pooled together in Katara’s stomach. Aang stood between her and Azula with his arms outstretched and his face contorted in anger, but it was a calm, cold anger. A swirling wind began to build in the courtyard and his feet lifted off the ground. Katara shrank back. This was not her friend Aang. This was the Avatar.

Azula bared her teeth in a grin.

“Avatar.”

“Azula,” Aang said in a voice like judgement, and her smile flickered. “You have broken the Treaty of Four Nations. You have shamed the sacred rite of agni kai. You stand in opposition to the balance. Do you defend yourself?”

“You have no authority over me,” Azula hissed. “I have nothing to say.”

“Then you are guilty, and you will pay the penalty.”

Azula threw a ball of fire at him, but Aang batted it away like it was nothing and kept walking until he was right in front of her. The wind howled, stronger than any storm Katara had ever felt. She struggled to stand; it pushed her back against the rail, and Sokka grabbed her and hauled her over it.

Azula fell to her knees. Aang put one hand on her forehead and the other over her heart, and the light within him grew brighter and brighter, until the entire courtyard was bathed in turquoise light. Katara winced and looked again at Zuko. He turned his head to find the source of the light, and hope sprang like a well in her heart. She jumped up, intending to go to him, but Sokka grabbed her by the arm.

“Are you insane?” he shouted in her ear. “Look!”

She looked. A dark indigo had emerged, like the tint at the center of a candle flame, spilling out of Azula, pushing back against Aang’s chi. Katara didn’t know what was happening, but she could feel it. Her whole body thrummed with energy. She looked between the two, then at Zuko, feeling helpless.

“Toph—”

“His heart is still beating,” the earthbender said. “It’s not regular. But it’s there.”

Sokka put a comforting hand on her shoulder. The seconds dragged into minutes. Katara waited, only remembering to breathe when her lungs were shrieking. She stared at the boy she had pulled out of the iceberg and prayed.

When it happened, it was just like she remembered. The indigo light was snuffed out, and the bright blue light shot up towards the sky. She had to close her eyes against it. Slowly it faded. Aang stumbled, and Azula collapsed. Katara gasped.

“Did—did he—?”

Aang stepped back and turned his face towards the crowd. Behind him, Azula rolled onto her side. She pushed herself up, and her blazing eyes fell on Aang. Even from a distance, Katara could see the way rage suffused her face, and the princess’s fist drew back.

“Look out!” someone from the crowd called, but it didn’t matter. Azula punched, but no fire came from her hand. Her face went blank with shock. She looked at her hand and tried again, then held them both out like she was trying to conjure a flame.

“What did you do?” she whispered. “What did you do?”

“I took away your firebending,” Aang said, sounding much older than fourteen. A chill ran up Katara’s spine. “For too long, fire has been an element of hate, rage, and war. You won’t use it to threaten innocent people anymore.”

“You can’t—” The whites of her eyes were showing, and her face was warped with pain. “You can’t do that—you—”

Azula launched herself off the ground, her hand twisted into a claw, but the earth leapt with her. Two spikes enveloped her hands, dragging her back to the ground. She howled like a wounded animal and began to weep, full-bodied sobs that tore at her throat. Katara stared. Her stomach twisted in pity.

Pity for Azula—that was something she never expected to feel. But she couldn’t help it. Azula had always been so poised, so confident, so cold. Katara had never seen her overcome with any emotion—happiness or rage or sorrow—as complete as this grief.

“Katara!” Toph said in a sharp, high voice. “He’s fading!”

Katara went cold. She had almost forgotten.

“Zuko!”

She leapt over the rail and sprinted towards the spot where Zuko lay. He hadn’t moved. She drew the water to her and held it over his chest, closing her eyes. This was the second time she had healed one of Azula’s lightning wounds. If she had done it once, she could do it again.

His body was badly burned on the inside, and she worked frantically to fix it. She soothed the burns and restored the damaged tissue… but his heart wasn’t beating.

“A healer needs to recognize death,” Yugoda said in a voice like the touch of skin on cold, dry snow. “There are two things a waterbender cannot fix. One is the stilling of chi in the brain. You can feel and redirect chi, but you cannot supply it where there is none. The other is the stilling of the heart. If you come across someone whose heart beats irregularly, you can fix the damage and the rhythm will correct itself. But you cannot force a heart to beat if it has failed.

“Either one of these symptoms means that recovery is impossible. When both occur, that is death.”

The first time Katara had tried this, she had the spirit water to aid her. She didn’t have any now… but Yugoda had not been a bloodbender.

A strange calm settled over Katara. She could feel the faint bursts of chi in Zuko’s brain, like the fireflies they had seen in Hira’a. His heart was still, but Yugoda had taught her that the heart was resilient, that it wanted to correct itself. She could show it how. She knew she could.

If I ever give you cause to need it… Zuko had said. Katara almost laughed. She took a deep breath. In and out.

Her hand hovered in the air above Zuko’s chest. She pushed down, fingers spread wide, and blood pooled in the lower chambers of his heart. She pulled up, fingers forming a loose fist, and the chambers contracted, pushing the old blood into the upper chambers and out into his body. She did it again, and again, and again. In and out. In and out.

She thought of the water in the bowl and the wicks of the candles and the soft rhythm of his breathing. The tide at their ankles. The small flame cupped between their joined hands and the drumbeat of his warm, living heart as he held her palm against his chest.

She remembered that rhythm. She knew it. She felt it.

Zuko inhaled sharply, and Katara was so startled that she released her hold on his blood—but it didn’t matter, because it was moving on its own, pumped with ease by the muscles she had already healed. He stirred with a pained grunt and opens his eyes. They darted around frantically until they found hers, and then his face relaxed.

“Thank you, Katara.”

Her eyes filled with tears.

“I think I should be thanking you.”

She swooped down and kissed him, twisting her fingers in his hair, and the unnatural silence of the courtyard was broken with a wordless roar from the crowd. She was too relieved to be embarrassed. She ended the kiss only when she was good and ready, and then she helped Zuko to his feet. He was weak, but steady—he curled one arm protectively around his chest and draped the other around her shoulders.

Zuko scanned the plaza. Before Katara could ask what he was looking for, his gaze fell on Azula.

The princess had stopped her violent weeping. She stared at Zuko with an utterly wretched expression; er eyes were wide in her pale, pale face, her brows were furrowed, and her lips were parted like she wants to speak. She looked shocked, betrayed, and relieved. More relieved than anything else. At the South Pole, Katara had asked Zuko if he was prepared to kill his sister. She realized now that no one asked Azula if she was prepared to kill her brother—and, to the surprise of all, it seemed like the real answer was no. She almost killed him, and she was glad that she failed.

Then Azula’s expression crumpled, and she began to scream and cry at the same time, cursing Zuko and Aang, swearing revenge, begging for her parents. Katara felt her stomach twist into knots, and Zuko’s eyes were like shuttered windows. The noise of the crowd faded to a gossipy rumble.

“Toph?” he asked.

“Hot Stuff,” she said, hopping over the rail.

“Can you take her to—” He hesitated, then sighed. “The infirmary in the Tower?”

“You got it.”

“Make sure she doesn’t hurt herself. The guards can show you the way—”

“We’ll do it.”

Mai and Ty Lee stepped forward. They both looked grim; a waterfall of silent tears was pouring down Ty Lee’s face, and Mai rested a comforting hand on her back. Zuko nodded his appreciation. Mai paused just long enough to bow at the waist before the group departed.

As Azula’s screams faded from the courtyard, Zuko buckled, and Katara grabbed his arm to steady him.

“You should rest.”

“I have to… the Fire Sages… no one won.”

“Aang said she violated sacred law. Surely that must mean she forfeited?”

“I don’t know. The Fire Sages will know.”

“It can wait,” Katara said, touching his cheek. “You need to rest.”

Zuko nodded and moved as if to turn back towards the palace. Out of nowhere, there was a cry: “Fire Lord Zuko!”

They both turned to look at the crowd. It was an unfamiliar voice, and they couldn’t find the speaker. After a breathless second, it became an impossible task, because a man with a booming voice picked up the chant, and a woman called “All hail Fire Lord Zuko!” and the cry was repeated on all sides.

Iroh was the first to bow. He stepped out onto the field so that everyone could see him and smiled, the corners of his eyes crinkling. He knelt and touched his forehead to the ground. Like a ripple turning into a wave, the crowd did the same. There wasn’t room for them all; the ones on the rooftops and crushed against the back wall kept up the raucous cheering, and some of those on the ground followed Iroh into the courtyard. Katara spotted Jingyi in the crowd, still wearing her traditional black, with tears pouring down her face. Her lips moved. Katara couldn’t hear what she said, but she could guess—because a moment later, calls of “Fire Lady Katara” began to mix with the others.

She remembered, suddenly, what Jingyi had said to her the night of her engagement. Every citizen of our great nation must know her place. At the time, she had thought it was an insult, a snide reminder that Katara was and would always be an outsider. Now she knew better. It was a reminder that she was going to rule all of these people. That she was responsible, not only for herself or her own family, but for every single one of them, in return for their love and their undying devotion. It was a place of honor and privilege, second only to that of the Fire Lord.

Katara looked up at her husband, and her heart swelled with pride. He was surveying the crowd with a look of awe and humility on his face, but at the tilt of her head he looked down and his eyebrow quirked in a silent question. Katara’s lips twitched into a faint smile. She began to kneel.

As quick as lightning, Zuko grabbed her and pulled her flush against him.

“Don’t you dare,” he snapped. His hand brushed against her cheek and he touched their foreheads together. His voice softened to a whisper. “Don’t you dare.”

 

 

Chapter Text

“I knew I’d find you here.”

Zuko looked up and smiled at her. A turtleduck, sensing that his attention was diverted, squawked with indignation and clambered up into his lap.

“I was just about to send someone for you,” he said. “To ask for you to join me.”

Katara laughed and sank down to the grass beside him. There was a small plate of rolls, and she crumbled one between her fingers and offered it to the offended turtleduck. It snatched the whole thing from her hand and jumped back into the pond.

“How are you feeling?”

Zuko shrugged wordlessly. The massive shoulder spikes rose and fell like tectonic plates in an earthquake.

“I think your brother is being even more obnoxious than usual to try and distract me from my nerves.”

“Is it working?”

“I’m not really nervous, but he’s really obnoxious.”

“Yeah,” Katara snorted, tucking her slippers under her robes. “You just kind of have to love him anyway. Besides, he proposed to Suki the night before we left the South Pole and she said yes and it’s killing him to keep it a secret, so we should give him some slack.”

Zuko looked at her with wide eyes.

“Are you kidding me?”

“Nope. Suki told me. Just in case Az— in case things didn’t go well, he said. They’re letting us have our big coronation first before stealing the spotlight… and make sure to act surprised, all right? Suki promised not to tell anyone, and then made me and Toph promise not to tell anyone, and now I’m making you promise, too.”

“Okay,” Zuko said, shaking his head with a fond smile. “I don’t see how an engagement would outshine a coronation anyway, but I appreciate the thought.” He paused. “I asked Aang if he would be up on the platform with us when it happens. The Fire Sages have to do the actual ceremony, but… People are going to be afraid of him, and I want them to see that I trust him.”

“That’s a good idea.”

“He also said he thinks there’s a chance Azula might be able to get her bending back.”

Katara startled, but Zuko’s face was calm.

“Should we be concerned?”

“I don’t think so. He said—I don’t remember exactly what it was, but something about how there are chi reserves that can replenish themselves but chi paths that can’t? Because… chakras. I don’t know. Basically, she can build up her strength on her own but that won’t be enough to get her bending back completely. She’ll have to learn the way the first firebenders did: from the source.”

“The dragons.”

“Yeah. So she’ll have to heal, convince me and Aang that she can be trusted with their location, and face their judgement without being killed. Even if she wanted to do it, I don’t know if she could.”

“I think she can,” Katara mused.

She hadn’t meant to speak out loud, and Zuko did a double take. She was thinking of the pain in the princess’s voice when she said he killed our father, and the confused relief in her eyes when she realized Zuko was going to survive. Katara wasn’t sure if she could describe these things, or if they were really evidence. She shrugged.

“Call me an optimist, but I believe in redemption.”

Zuko smiled. He laced their fingers together and kissed the back of her hand.

“I’ve got a present for you. Well, two presents, but the other one is for later.”

He twisted around to reach for two wooden boxes on his other side. He lifted the larger one first, and opened it to reveal a folded piece of midnight-blue cloth. It was a sash, embroidered with a symbol in gold—the sun, fitted with a crescent moon.

“I told Ayako these robes were missing something,” Katara said with a smile. “She told me I’d been away from the palace too long, that the fashion had changed.”

“It has—I’m changing it. I had them make one for me too, now that I’m officially a member of the Southern Water Tribe. Actually I wanted to wear the clothes you made me for the ceremony, but the Fire Sages said they were too casual.”

“You were bullied by five old men in pointy hats? I thought you earned the mark of the brave.”

“Well, I had already beaten them once, so I decided to show mercy.” He picked up the second box and lifted the lid. “They were not happy when I said I was melting down the old crowns.”

Katara wasn’t surprised to see the ornaments in the box. The five-pointed flame had become a five-pronged sunburst. She had never seen the Fire Lady’s crown, but she knew it hadn’t looked like this. She reached out and ran her finger over the graceful curve of the golden moon.

“Do you realize next month it will be three years since we met?” she asked. The corner of her mouth tilted up. “You called me a peasant.”

“I was hoping you had forgotten that.”

“I forget nothing.”

Zuko stood and helped her to her feet. They tied the blue sashes for each other and stood for a moment in peaceful silence. The turtleducks chittered, and Zuko brushed a loose strand of hair from her face and kissed her beneath her ear.

“We should go,” he said. His breath tickled her skin. He bent down to pick up the box with their crowns, and his other hand found hers. “Are you ready?”

A breeze stirred the leaves above them and teased at his topknot. Katara remembered how he looked when she first saw him, a boy with a shaved head and armor and a frightening scar. He looked older and younger now. Less hard but more confident. Broader shoulders, longer hair, absent the bitter teenage scowl. His expression was serious, but the harsh lines on his face were smoothed away. He wore his pride like a simple cloak, not gilded armor.

Katara had no idea how she looked by comparison, but the soft light kindled in his eyes reassured her. She stretched up, and he leaned down, and their lips brushed.

“No,” Katara whispered.

She threaded her arm through his, and they left the garden together.