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Fraternizing with the Enemy

Chapter Text

Time is of the essence. 

 

Katara doesn’t want to let herself forget that: every wasted second opens the door that’s already straining to hold back catastrophe a crack wider. The sooner Earth King Kuei stamps his seal of approval on the plans for the invasion of the Fire Nation, the sooner Katara will be able to breathe with the knowledge that matters are in hands more capable than her own. Whether Kuei knows what he’s signing off on or not, he’s the only one who even can, and she has to make sure that he does before…

 

Well, she isn’t sure what, but she’s learned lately that there’s always some ominous after waiting for those who fail to act in time. 

 

But, urgent errand or none, her feet drag. She finds her eyes drifting lazily across the bustling plaza, as if they’re sticking on every figure and building they see. Look around, something tells her, when what it should be telling her is get moving. The scrolls grow heavier in her hand with each passing, precious second. Move, says reason. But something louder and harder to define says look, and she heeds its call. She knows so little of cities, even after all these months of travel, that it isn’t hard to talk herself into stalling. 

 

There’s much to fascinate, even in this tiny corner of the city: Ba Sing Se is a hub of activity that never seems to let up. Katara has no particular love for it, and she doubts that would change much if it weren’t policed by eerie smiles and soothing lies and glowering men in green, but it has a way of making her feel like she’s waking up after a lifetime spent sleeping. That makes it easy to stop and stare, and when her eyes drift to the open door of a tea shop – homey in a city of unnerving perfection, a lived-in building with warmth radiating from its cramped dining room – she doesn’t have the will to tell her feet not to move. They carry her to the tea shop almost of their own accord, and she decides, when Momo chitters excitedly, that her judgment of the place must’ve been sound. She can hear the shouts of the staff over the din of chatter as she approaches, calling for refills, and no one so much as looks at her as she enters – a rarity, in a place where Water Tribe blues are so uncommonly-worn. Katara doesn’t mind, for she’s not rushing like she knows she should be; this gives her time to observe, and that, apparently, is all she’s capable of doing right now. She hasn’t registered her tiredness much lately, but she feels the sleepless nights pressing down on her eyelids as her heavy eyes try to take in as much as they can. 

 

She knows this is a terrible position to have put herself in: exhausted, vulnerable, unfamiliar with her surroundings, far from help. But she doesn’t feel that urgency any more than she feels the weight of the scrolls in her hand; maybe, she realizes, she is not transfixed, but so utterly exhausted that she can’t bring herself to resist the urge to stall, stop, rest. Her eyes flutter closed for a second, though she’s standing, and she’s jarred back awake by a waiter’s call for more lychee tea. 

 

Katara hasn’t been able to sleep in days and she knows that that was always going to catch up to her eventually, but she finds it ridiculous that this, of all moments, is the one that her sleep deprivation has chosen to strike. She’s carrying top-secret information, and she needs to be as alert and awake as she ever has been, but as she slumps into a chair at a table that she’s decently certain is unoccupied, she can barely keep her eyes open. Her head is heavy and she’s nearly let it slump to the table when a half-familiar voice wakes her. 

 

“Miss? Are you all right?”

 

“Wha’?” Katara yawns, raising her eyes and blinking to clear them. “Um…yes?” 

 

“If you’re tired, I’d recommend the black tea. It’s…” the boy trails off the moment Katara’s eyes, still too bleary to tell her brain what it’s seeing with any kind of clarity, meet his. 

 

“…energizing,” he says faintly. “I…I’ll be right back.” 

 

With that, he’s all but sprinting into the back of the shop, and only then does Katara’s mind wake enough to put the pieces together. She can’t remember seeing his face, but she knows that voice. And she knows why he ran. 

 

Zuko,” she hisses under her breath, and without a moment’s regard for propriety or the scene she’s causing or even the sheer stupidity of attempting this when she has so little energy to spare, Katara makes for the counter. Cursing her luck, she approaches the owner – Zuko’s uncle, she now realizes – and plants her hands on the counter so forcefully that Iroh flinches at the sound. “Sir, I need to talk to your waiter,” she says, hoping her voice is flinty and determined and not six seconds from a cavernous yawn. (It comes, of course, but at least she gets the words out first.) 

 

“I’m afraid he won’t allow that,” he tells her, and she knows from the arch of his brows that he’s recognized her and puzzled things out. “But if you’re not going to threaten him, be my guest. He could use some-“ 

 

Katara pushes through the swinging doors to the kitchen without a second’s hesitation. 

 

“-friends his own age,” Iroh mutters, shaking his head as he watches Katara retreat with sudden vigor in her step. 

 

She waits until she’s out of earshot of the patrons – this isn’t their quarrel, after all, and they shouldn’t have to listen to it – to call after him. “I know you went back here, Zuko!” she shouts, confident that the parcels of tea lining the walls will be soundproof enough to keep this between the two of them. 

 

“My name is Lee!” he calls back, and under different circumstances, Katara might’ve laughed at that. Here he is, cornered, and he isn’t even trying to hide; better an alias, apparently, than an evasion. But she’s frayed at every edge, exhausted and suddenly alert to the urgency of her mission, and she’s in no mood to laugh when she could be setting the record straight. 

 

“Oh, really? Then why do you look and sound exactly like Zuko?” 

 

“I have no idea who Zuko is!” he calls from some undisclosed location, which she can tell from the way his voice carries is at least halfway across the storeroom.

 

“Then why did you run when you saw me? Quit playing dumb, Zuko. You aren’t going to convince me that it isn’t you.” 

 

“I…I was going to get some black tea! Because you looked tired and I was worried about you!” he protests. She’s almost impressed that he’s kept up the game for this long, but she’s not feeling patient, so she decides to put an end to it. 

 

“Look, Zuko, you’re not going to fool me, so I’ll give you thirty seconds to tell me why you and your uncle are in Ba Sing Se before I waterbend you into next week.” 

 

This is a ridiculous claim, as the only available water is in the tearoom and she can’t very well bend it through the door, but it seems to have its desired effect – Zuko, as Katara is learning, doesn’t think things through thoroughly enough to be able to spot an obvious bluff like that. (As evidenced by his pathetically flimsy cover, she supposes.) He steps into an open aisle, standing opposite Katara with all the confidence of a fawn separated from its mother. It’s an apt analogy – he’s all shyness now, long lashes and wide eyes, holding his head at a half-curious, half-frightened tilt – and it’s utterly disarming. 

 

She’d been expecting the formidable adversary who’d hunted Aang – hunted her – for months on end. But there’s nothing of that Zuko in this scared, cornered boy. Even his stupid ponytail is gone – his hair is growing out, shaggy and just long enough to fall in his eyes. He’s awkward in Earth Kingdom greens that are just a little too long for him. Swallowed by his robes and hidden behind his shaggy hair, Zuko couldn’t be further from the person who’s plagued Katara’s worst-case-scenarios (she refuses him the honor of showing up in her dreams, even nightmares) since the North Pole. 

 

But, where it should be reassuring, all of that only serves to stoke her anger, because if this is the person she’s been running from so frantically all this time, she’s a lesser adversary than she’d thought. 

 

“I said you had thirty seconds,” she hisses, angrier still for the conflict she feels. “And it’s been at least fifty-two.” 

 

(Truthfully, she has no idea how long it’s been, but it sounds good this way. Intimidating. Like she is in control.) 

 

“Running,” he says, his voice steelier than his expression. Thank the spirits, Katara thinks, because at least he’s not gone completely soft on her. “Just like you.” 

 

“Who says I’m running?” Katara crosses her arms. It’s ridiculous to deny it, of course, but she won’t give him the dignity of being unquestionably right. 

 

“My sister’s trying to kill us both.” Zuko shrugs. 

 

“Give me one good reason not to run to the Earth King and make sure he does it before she gets the chance,” Katara shoots back, trying not to let her voice shake. Seconds ago, it had been a gargantuan effort just to keep her eyes open; now, every muscle in her body is tensed and she stands as alert as she should’ve been all along. 

 

So she stares. 

 

And stares. 

 

And stares, and opens her mouth and prepares to give Zuko another tongue-lashing when he gapes like a fish instead of presenting her with an adequately compelling reason not to rat him out when she drops off the scrolls (and she really should be doing that right now, but instead she’s locked in snail’s-pace verbal combat with a boy she hates and there’s no going anywhere). 

 

But he beats her to the punch. 

 

“We need each other,” he tells her, so serious that she has to blink a few times to clear her vision, make sure she’s not seeing things. (Never mind that it’s the hearing and not the seeing that matters now.) 

 

“I’m sorry, what?” 

 

“We need each other!” he repeats, more emphatically, before his eyes widen at the realization of his gaffe and he elaborates, “to beat Azula.” 

 

“Oh.” Katara doesn’t want to admit to being as relieved as she is that he didn’t mean something else. The relief wears off quickly, though, and her eyes narrow. “Wait, what?” 

 

“We…are both running from Azula,” he says, panic creeping in at the edges of his words and bleeding onto his face. She doesn’t know Zuko all that well, but she knows that he’s a fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pantser – if she didn’t already, she’d know from the way he’s so obviously pulling this ridiculous argument about their duality or whatever out of thin air as he goes. “You and me. And…all of your friends. We want the same thing, see?” 

 

Katara crosses her arms. “I’m not exactly following, but it sounds like you’re trying to cut a deal with me, and I want to know why you think I would ever agree to that.” 

 

“Hear me out!” he throws up his hands, voice cracking. “Katara, please. Uncle and I don’t want any trouble-“ 

 

“Trouble seems to be all you want, mister I-must-find-the-Avatar-to-restore-my-honor,” Katara snaps, desperately hoping that he’ll miss the flush in her cheeks and she’ll forget about the way her heart stuttered like an off-beat metronome at the sound of her name in his familiar rasp.

 

“Look, I really don’t want to die right now, and I know you have no reason to trust me, but I know things about Azula that you wouldn’t think of,” Zuko pleads, urgency supplanting panic in his tone. “And it makes sense. We want the same thing – she wants the Avatar, you want to protect him. She wants me and Uncle on a boat back to the Fire Nation in chains, and I want…not that. We can help each other.” 

 

“You said it makes sense,” Katara replies, bypassing the, frankly, surprisingly sound logic of his argument in favor of the one detail he’s forgotten to clarify. “What’s it?” 

 

“Forming an alliance.” 

 

“Oh, that’s rich.” Katara begins to pace, arms still folded across her middle, with a smirk that doesn’t want to exist but does anyway on her face. “You think that a common enemy makes us friends? After everything you put Aang through – after everything you put me through?” 

 

“I never said we were friends, Katara!” 

 

“Well, at least you’re not completely delusional, then.” 

 

“I just said that it would  be…” he searches for words. “…mutually beneficial. If we teamed up.” 

 

“Or I’ve got you cornered and you’re terrified of me, so you’re making an offer you think I won’t be able to refuse?” Katara tries to arch an eyebrow like she’s seen Sokka do when he wants to seem like he has a situation under control, but she’s pretty sure that all she does is wiggle her brows unfetchingly. At least it’s a distraction, though – maybe if he’s staring at the caterpillar march of her failed eyebrow raise, Zuko won’t notice the near-audible thump of her frantic heartbeat against her ribcage, or the way she’s as frightened as he is. 

 

“Well-“ 

 

“How do I know you’re not going to turn around and use me to bait Aang into giving himself up so you can take him home to your father?” Katara challenges, pacing again. It’s intimidating, but it’s also effective at concealing her face from his view – easier than schooling her expression when there’s so much that it wants to say. “And how do I know you’re not working with Azula, anyways?” 

 

“Because I’m a terrible liar and a worse actor,” Zuko says plainly. 

 

“Meaning?” 

 

“If I were lying, you wouldn’t believe me.” 

 

“What makes you so sure that I do?” 

 

“Well, you haven’t disemboweled me with waterbending yet, so I’m pretty sure that you think I have information you could use.” Zuko shrugs as if the threat of disembowelment is nothing particularly unusual. Katara is almost fascinated by the ease with which he vacillates between abject terror and utter nonchalance, but she doesn’t have enough spare brainpower to dwell on it. 

 

“You’ve gone from pretending not to be you to acting like a scared deer to trying to form an alliance in the space of ten minutes, and you expect me to believe that all of this is true?” 

 

“Um. Have you met yourself?” 

 

“What does that have to do with anything?” 

 

“You could and would kill me without hesitation if you didn’t think I was telling the truth.” 

 

“I do not go around murdering people!” Katara protests, though it’s really not relevant, this reputation is serving her well in at least this one instance, and every second she wastes here, arguing the finer points of her moral code with Zuko, of all people. 

 

“I’m pretty sure you’d make an exception for me.” Zuko sounds like he’s thought about this a lot, which is equal parts flattering and worrisome. 

 

“No, I’d just report you,” she says drily. “I’m not one to take the law into my own hands.” 

 

“Wow. That is so incredibly reassuring.” 

 

“Isn’t it?” her eyes are steely and her tone has none of its sarcastic lightness anymore. 

 

“Anyway. Alliance.” He looks back at her, clearly eager to forget about her threats. “I really do think that we’d have a better chance of not getting caught if we…shared information.” 

 

“That makes a surprising amount of sense for something you came up with on the fly to save your own skin, but I’m not convinced that you aren’t using this as a way to get to Aang.” Katara frowns. “In any other case, I’d agree, but…” 

 

“I’m done hunting the Avatar, Katara.” 

 

“He has a name!” 

 

“Fine. I’m done hunting Aang.” Zuko recoils like it hurts to give the faceless entity he’s hunted for so long a name. “I promise. I know you don’t trust me, but at least trust the facts. Why would Uncle and I be running a tea shop in Ba Sing Se if we were still looking for him?” 

 

“Hm.” Katara doesn’t want to admit that, now that he’s no longer in a blind panic, his logic is completely sound. “So that’s Azula’s job now?” 

 

“Her and her friends, yeah.” Zuko sighs heavily. “And they’re hunting me and Uncle, too.” 

 

“As you said. And you want to…team up and fight her?”

 

“No, avoid her.” 

 

“What, you’re just going to hide out in the Upper Ring serving tea forever?” 

 

Something that could be hurt or doubt flashes across Zuko’s face, but it’s gone as quickly as it appeared. “No, just until she gives up-“

 

“I don’t know your sister as well as you do, but even I know that she doesn’t just give up.” 

 

Zuko doesn’t say anything to that, and she almost feels sorry – clearly, she’s hit a nerve. But he doesn’t let it affect him for long, if at all, and it’s not defeat in his eyes when he looks up at her. 

 

“It’s not complicated, Katara. I tell you what I know about Azula, and you tell me the rest. We help each other out, you don’t kill me-“ 

 

“I don’t kill people-“ 

 

“And, as soon as we figure out what to do about Azula, we never have to see each other again.” 

 

“And what exactly is ‘the rest’?” 

 

“Where you’ve been, and where she’s come the closest to finding you, and all of that. Stuff that would help us predict what she was going to do next.” 

 

“I think the whole point of Azula is that you can’t do that, Zuko.” 

 

“But…we could try?” 

 

Katara shrugs. “Either way, I get the better end of the deal, so I’m not complaining. But how would we even do that?”

 

“Meet up, I guess? At…at the shop?” 

 

“Not very inconspicuous.”

 

“Yeah, but I’m still not sure that you won’t try to kill me, so I need witnesses.” 

 

“Hm. You’re smarter than I thought you were.” It’s harsh, but Katara can’t help but smirk. “So we exchange information and go on our merry way?” 

 

“Well, I was kind of assuming that we’d keep each other updated-“

 

“No way am I telling you where I live.” 

 

He shrugs. “Then, I guess…you come find me? You know where I’ll be.” 

 

“Yeah.” Katara inclines her chin, thinking it over. “I mean, it does make sense, but…”

 

“You don’t trust me.” 

 

“I have no reason to.” 

 

“Well, I did save you from the pirates.” 

 

“Shut up.” 

 

“I mean…” 

 

“I liked you better when you had no sense of humor.” 

 

“Didn’t know you liked me at all.”

 

“I don’t. I just disliked you less.” 

 

“Whether you like or dislike me hardly matters. All I need to know is whether you’re taking the offer.” 

 

 

“Fine,” she huffs. “I’ll meet you here at dusk. No earlier. Make sure we aren’t followed.” 

 

She doesn’t wait around to hear anything more. 



Chapter Text

This, in hindsight, was probably not Zuko’s wisest decision. 

 

Oh, sure, it seemed perfectly sound in the moment of blind panic which had birthed it: it buys him at least a few hours’ worth of assurance that Katara won’t take what she’s learned to the Dai Li (he thinks it will, at least – one can never be too sure), and it’s at least somewhat possible that Katara will have useful information. Even the logic of his argument was solid – after all, it is true that they have a common enemy, and pooling their knowledge on said common enemy makes strategic sense. But the rest of it? The hastily-formed alliance, the very real possibility that Katara’s only agreeing to talk him into a trap or planning to take what he says and turn on him?

 

In that light, this agreement is slapdash, irrational, and completely insane. 

 

In other words, it’s classic Zuko. And he really shouldn’t be surprised when Katara arrives at the Jasmine Dragon dusk and she isn’t alone. 

 

“Did we agree that you could bring backup?” Zuko narrows his eyes. “I’m pretty sure you were supposed to come here by yourself.”

 

Katara shrugs. “You never specified,” she says, gesturing to the diminutive Earth Kingdom girl by her side. Zuko’s pretty sure that he’s seen her before, though he can’t quite place her name or the circumstances of their meeting. “This is Toph Beifong. Think of her as a safety measure.”

 

Oh, Agni, the Beifong kid. He remembers, now, precisely where he first encountered her, and precisely why that should concern him.

 

“I’m just here to make sure you don’t try anything stupid,” the girl says, shrugging as if she really can’t care less whether he does or doesn’t. “And I’ll be able to tell if you’re lying.”

 

“Um. This was not part of the deal.”

 

“What, worried that you won’t be able to feed me false information?” Katara folds her arms across her chest. “Let this be your reminder that I still don’t trust you. Just because I agreed to meet with you-“

 

“Trust me, the feeling is mutual.” He levels a glare at Katara, which only widens her smirk, and then at Toph, on whom it has no effect at all. “Can we just get this over with?”

 

“Right.” When Katara agrees, he extends his hand towards the shop’s back entrance, too worried that he’ll blurt out something not entirely to his advantage if he tries to speak. She and Toph follow, though he catches Katara throwing glances over her shoulder every couple of feet. Do you have to make it so obvious that you don’t trust me?, he thinks, but he can’t really blame her when he’s just as certain that she’ll have the Avatar waiting to ambush him around the next corner he turns. She doesn’t, though: they make it through the storage area and dining room of the tea shop without incident on their way through to the apartment. It’s more secure there – better not to risk being overheard.


Katara, once they reach the apartment, stands in the doorway as if she isn’t quite sure where to go from there. Toph enters as if it is her apartment and not his, plops into a chair, and promptly crosses her arms as if she’s been greatly inconvenienced.

 

Zuko isn’t sure what to make of this.

 

“So.” It’s Toph who starts, glaring across the table at…something slightly to the right of Zuko’s head once he sits down. “You and your uncle are on the lam.”

 

“If by ‘on the lam’ you mean being chased by my unhinged sister, then yes, we are.” Zuko returns her glare, even though the positioning of her eyes (they’re unusually milky, he notes) is such that he isn’t sure if she’s looking at him or at the blank patch of wall over his right shoulder. “And I agreed to talk to Katara, not you.”

 

If Toph is offended, she doesn’t show it. “Well, Katara’s standing in the doorway, gaping like a fish, so wouldn’t you rather talk to the person whose head’s on straight?” she challenges.

 

If Katara is offended, she doesn’t show it, either. Then again, she doesn’t show much of anything, frozen as she seems to be in the doorway.

 

Zuko, though, is offended, and doesn’t care if he shows it. “Look, I don’t know what game you’re playing, but I agreed to this because I thought it would help us both and if it’s not going to do that, you might as well just go.”

 

“You’re bluffing,” Katara finally interjects. “You need a guarantee of our silence too badly to throw away your only option.”

 

“Oh, so now she speaks?” Toph turns her head, though her eyes still don’t look like they’re actually on Katara, and sticks out her tongue. “Way to make the backup do the heavy lifting.”


“I…needed a minute,” Katara says with as much dignity as she can muster.

 

“You sound like my sister,” Zuko adds unhelpfully. Katara rewards this lapse in judgment with the stoniest glare of which she is capable. “Uh, speaking of. We should…probably talk about her.”

 

“That is why we’re here, yes,” Katara says drily. “So. Do you know anything useful?”

 

“Define ‘useful,’” Zuko says, despite possessing the knowledge that he absolutely does not.

 

“Uh…her current whereabouts?” Katara crosses her arms in a way that Zuko is beginning to realize is very, very Katara.

 

“No clue. I haven’t exactly been keeping tabs on her location.” Zuko shrugs, because there doesn’t seem to be anything else to do with his body that would be appropriate right now and all of this pent-up adrenaline has to go somewhere. “It’s mostly just been Uncle and I randomly wandering through the Earth Kingdom and trying not to die lately.”

 

Katara scans the apartment’s opulent common room with a quizzical tilt of her chin. “Uh…this really doesn’t look like ‘trying not to die.’”

 

“Well, no, not recently-recently, but, uh.” He clears his throat. “Yeah. We haven’t, um…had eyes on her.”

 

“And do you have any idea where she and her creepy sidekicks went after that whole drill fiasco?” Toph asks, raising her eyebrows in mirror-image of Katara’s. “’Cause that’s the last we saw of them.”

 

“What…drill fiasco?”


“Quit playing dumb, Zuko. You know exactly what she’s talking about.” Katara crosses her arms again, This Time With Feeling.

 

“Um, no, I…I’m not,” Zuko says, though he knows it’s a weak defense. “I really don’t have any idea what you’re talking about. Why? Is that the last time you saw her?”

 

“She was here, Flamebrain,” Toph says as if each and every single bone in her body is unimpressed with this tomfoolery. (It probably is.)


“What?” Zuko’s eyes dart around the room as if he expects Azula to emerge from the walls at any moment (which, really, wouldn’t surprise him as much as one might think it would). “Here-here? In Ba Sing Se?”

 

“Yes, here-here.” Katara doesn’t really seem to believe that Zuko’s confusion is genuine, though it couldn’t be more so. “She and these two other girls our age were trying to breach the city walls with a drill. You’re seriously telling me that you didn’t know that was happening?”

 

“Um…no.” Zuko isn’t sure whether to be embarrassed that he’d managed to miss something so obvious, relieved that he’d managed to miss Azula, or frightened by the knowledge that she was here – and with help – without his knowledge. “How…how did we miss that?”

 

“Censorship in this place is tight?” Toph shrugs. “I mean, they managed to hide an entire war from the whole population of Ba Sing Se, so I guess a drill trying to breach the walls wouldn’t be that hard to cover up in comparison.”

 

“Wait, so Azula was actually in Ba Sing Se? When was this?” Zuko has about six more questions to add, and he leans forward, palms flat on the table to balance his weight, but Toph raises a hand to cut him off.

 

“Try to keep up, Flamebrain,” she says coolly. (He resents this nickname. However, he resents the idea of a broken nose quite a bit more, so he doesn’t choose to raise the issue.) “That had to have been a couple weeks ago now.”

 

“A couple of weeks? You’re telling me she’s been in the city for a couple of weeks and I never heard about it?”

 

“No, that’s what we’re asking you,” Katara says. Her voice is surprisingly level now as she slips into her now-familiar role as voice of reason.

 

What is?”

 

“Where Azula went after that,” Katara elaborates. “Two-ish weeks ago, she and her two…friends, or whatever, showed up outside the city with a drill that they were trying to use to breach the outer walls and take Ba Sing Se. We managed to stop them, but only just, and we’re pretty sure they aren’t still in the city, but we have no idea where she ran off to after that.” Katara pauses to breathe. “I was hoping that you’d have information that I didn’t about where she went, but you obviously don’t.”

 

“Wait, give me a minute.” Zuko holds up a hand the way Toph had earlier (when in doubt, he’s learned, mimic others’ body language), and the girls take the hint, to his relief. Neither say anything as he sits in silence, processing what he’s learned. “Okay. So…Azula was here with two girls our age, trying to breach the walls with a drill – what kind of a drill could break through city walls, anyway?”

 

“A really, really, really huge one,” Toph adds. This detail hardly needs clarifying, but it nevertheless appears to be enlightening to its recipient, who nods in recognition.


“And you have no idea where she might be now?”


“You’re the one who said I had useful information, not me,” Katara points out.

 

“You do. I didn’t know she was traveling with her entourage.”

 

Katara narrows her eyes. She’s still standing in the doorway, too wary to come inside (Zuko notices that her hand almost never leaves the waterskin hanging by her hip), but she’s begun to lean against the doorframe. “Entourage?” Great. So this is normal, too. “Is that, like…an actual thing?”

 

“Not exactly, but if you saw her with two girls our age, I’m pretty sure I know who they were,” Zuko explains. “She had these two friends growing up, Mai and Ty Lee. The three of them did everything together. Wouldn’t surprise me all that much if she’d recruited them to help find me or…whatever.”


“One was a tall girl with two buns in her hair and the other was some kind of acrobat or something,” Katara specifies.

 

“Mmhm. Definitely Mai and Ty Lee, then.” Zuko lets out the kind of longsuffering sigh he’s been waiting for an excuse to release since he talked himself into this corner. “That’s not great for us.”

 

“Nope. The acrobat girl-“

 

“Ty Lee.”

 

“So the tall one is Mai?”

“Yeah.”

 

“Okay, anyways. Ty Lee knows how to temporarily disable bending, which, like you said, obviously isn’t great for us.” Katara and Toph wince in near-unison, even though they aren’t facing each other and couldn’t possibly have been intentionally coordinating their reactions. The synchronicity is a little creepy. “Mai doesn’t seem to be as bad, but even so, the last thing we need is more people who want us thrown in a Fire Nation prison.”

 

“Agreed.”

 

“Why just a Fire Nation prison? I’m pretty sure Snake Fangs wants us locked up as bad as Azula,” Toph interjects.

“Snake Fangs?” Zuko’s eyes narrow. “Who’s Snake Fangs? And how have you people managed to make so many enemies?”

“Toph likes making up nicknames,” Katara sighs, as if this is a regular occurrence which, by now, is too familiar to be annoying but too annoying not to acknowledge. “Snake Fangs is Long Feng, the leader of the Dai Li.”

“Those creepy earthbender guys?”

 

“You’re aware that they’re the ones with all the power around here, right?” Katara asks.

 

“Well, yeah, but that doesn’t explain why he wants you in prison. Why does he want you in prison?” Now it’s Zuko’s turn to cross his arms. He thinks this is a rather good move, turning the tables and whatnot. (If Katara agrees, it’s impossible to tell.)

 

“We, uh…kinda told the Earth King that there’s a war on,” Toph says candidly. “And, y’know…got him arrested for treason. I’m pretty sure that hasn’t actually done much to stop him, but still.”

 

“The Earth King just…didn’t know that his country was at war?” Zuko’s pretty sure the girls are messing with him, but everything else they’ve said makes sense, so he decides to take the risk of maybe believing them. “You’re joking, right?”


“Sadly, no.” Katara’s shoulders slump wearily. “I don’t know how, but the Dai Li managed to keep him completely in the dark until we showed up. He really did have no idea that a war was going on.”

 

How?”

 

“Well, the fact that he has the common sense of a paper bag doesn’t really hurt,” Toph tells him. “He’s completely dependent on his Dai Li agents. We only managed to convince him by showing him the remains of the drill, and even that barely worked.”

 

“Okay, and then what?” Zuko decides to put off his disbelief for long enough to get the information he needs in a rare display of pragmatism of which he’s a little too proud.

 

Katara visibly holds back, chewing her lip (uncertainty – that’s new) as she considers the best response. Zuko has never been fluent in body language, but he doesn’t need to be told that she’s trying to figure out how to tell him what he needs to know and hide the rest. “We…were able to give the Earth King information about the war that he needed to know.”

 

“Because you needed his armies to fight the Fire Nation?” Zuko guesses.

 

“No,” Katara says flatly. He can’t tell if she’s lying.

 

“Katara, the Fire Nation is trying to kill me. I’m not going to be mad if you tell me that you’re trying to attack it.”

 

“I highly doubt that,” Toph cuts in. “You seem to take your loyalties pretty seriously, whether you want to or not.” Zuko shoots her the kind of dirty look that lets her know that she was right.

 

“All we agreed to talk about was Azula, so I’m not going to get into the details of the Earth King situation,” Katara replies after a beat. “All you need to know is that he needed to know about the war. Theorize all you want, but I don’t think it should be hard to figure out why.”

 

“No,” Zuko admits, though he wants to probe. “Anyway. He knows now?”

 

“Seems like it, although you can never really tell with a guy who throws parties for his pet bear.”

 

“He does that?” Zuko wonders, not for the first time, if he hasn’t quiet shaken off the fever he’d come down with a week or so ago. This would certainly all make a lot more sense if it were some sort of fever-induced hallucination.

 

Never mind that. Hallucination or not, this is useful, and he needs to stay alert.

 

“Don’t ask,” Toph huffs.

 

Zuko has about a thousand follow-up questions, but before he asks, he pauses to sift through the information he’s received and shuffle a list of pressing questions around in his mind until they’re in order of urgency (and, truth be told, likelihood to be answered) until he finds one that ticks both boxes. “If your goal is not to get captured, why would you come to the one place you knew she’d find you?”

 

“Did you miss the part where she was trying to conquer Ba Sing Se?”

 

“And you were trying to stop her?”


“We did stop her.”

 

“So why stay?”

 

“You know I’m not going to answer that.”

 

“Actually, I don’t. I have no idea why you stayed here after you gave up your location. Seems like a great way to get caught.”

 

“There are some things more urgent than avoiding your sister.” Katara looks down at the floor again – keeping secrets, even from her mortal enemy, is clearly not her favorite.

 

“Like what, training the Avatar? You could’ve done that anywhere.”

 

“Um, no.”

 

“Dude, just quit it. She’s not going to give anything up.” Toph fixes the wall behind Zuko with her most pointed glare. Why does she always fix her gaze a few inches away from whatever she’s looking at?, he wonders, but doesn’t ask. “What matters is that we’re still here now, and we need to get as much information on your sister as we can so that when Aang gets back-“

 

“Toph!”

 

“The Avatar’s not in Ba Sing Se?” Zuko’s eyes nearly bug out of his head. “But…but I just-“

 

Wait. Don’t.

 

“-but you just said that you all fought Azula together!”

 

“Yeah, two weeks ago,” Toph goes on. “But then-“

 

Toph Beifong, I swear…”

 

“Katara, we can trust him,” Toph says firmly. “Seriously. He isn’t lying. He’s not going to turn on us.”

 

“How could you possibly know that?” Zuko asks before he realizes that the last thing he wants to do is cast doubt on his sincerity.


“I have my ways,” Toph says, and he can tell that he isn’t meant to press. “Anyway. After Snake Fangs got arrested, we all got letters that the Dai Li had intercepted-“

 

“Toph, what are you doing?” Katara hisses through her teeth. Zuko probably isn’t supposed to hear her, but he does anyway.

 

“-trying to get us to split up. I was pretty sure mine was a trap, and Katara needed to sort out some stuff with…” Toph finally thinks better of offering up so much information. “…people, so we stayed behind.”

 

“So you’re the only two members of your group left in the city,” Zuko realizes. “Huh.”

 

“I think we should go now,” Katara replies, forcing a chipper tone over the knife-point sharpness of her words. She finally passes the threshold and yanks Toph’s arm with more force than either is used to. “Before you can tell Flamebrain here any more-“

 

“I didn’t even say anything bad!”

 

“-sensitive information.”

 

“Wait, don’t!” Zuko calls after them, his chair teetering precariously on its back legs as he stands a little too quickly. He sees stars, but he’s not particularly worried about it. “I can still help you!”

 

“I’m sure you can,” Katara says in a tone that seems to lower the ambient temperature by several degrees.

 

“No, I’m serious!” he protests, surprised at how frantic he is to have his burning questions answered. “I know Azula better than you do. I could…I could help you figure out her next moves?”

 

“Great. We’ll be back tomorrow, same time,” Toph says with a self-satisfied smirk that can’t mean anything good.


“No, we will not!” Katara protests.

 

“Will too.”

 

“Will not.”

 

“Who’s acting like a child now?”

 

“I never said you were acting like a child!”

 

“Yeah, but you thought it-“

 

Zuko watches the two go, bickering loudly enough that he hears a few neighboring businesses open their shutters to see what’s happening.  So much for subtle.

 

He sinks back into his chair as soon as they’re out of sight and buries his head in his hands. So much for helpful.

 

**

 

“She’s pretty, Zuko.”

 

Zuko glances up at the sound of Uncle’s voice and lets out another of his longsuffering sighs. “I think she wants to kill me.”

 

Iroh smiles knowingly. “Doesn’t that make her even prettier?”

 

“No.” He pushes his udon noodles around in their bowl, because he certainly has no intention of eating them. “Just a lot more annoying.”

 

“Either way, it’s good to see you making friends.”

 

“I wouldn’t call it that.” He lifts his spoon, then lets it fall to the surface of his soup with a watery thwick.

 

“Well, give it time.”

 

“Hmph.”

 

“I’m serious, Zuko.”

 

“So am I.” He glances up again. “The Avatar isn’t here anymore.”

 

“Oh.” Iroh’s face falls, slowly, methodically, like the descending notes of a scale. “I see.”

 

He doesn’t have to explain that, with that knowledge, his years of Avatar-hunting are well and truly over.

 

He doesn’t have to explain why that matters, either.

Chapter Text

“So sorry for the hold-up! I’m just out of a meeting. I’ve been in so many meetings lately.” King Kuei shakes his head as if tutting at a minor annoyance.

 

To him, it probably is, she reminds herself.

 

“Oh?” her eyes narrow, though she does her best to keep their movement too small for the King to detect from his throne a few yards away. “May I be so forward as to ask what’s been taking up so much of your time lately?”

 

Kuei nods enthusiastically, as is his custom. “It’s this whole dreadful war business,” he sighs. “I really don’t know how to make heads or tails of it.”


“In that, you have my sympathy,” she says coolly – it’s an easy lie, and one she nearly chokes on. War is the easiest thing in the world for her to understand. War raised her, made her, tested her and trained her, and she is its child. Dimly, she thinks that people and their soft, fickle hearts – their unpredictability, their foibles and falling-outs – are the true mystery. “Now that you’ve been made aware of the war, what are your advisors pressing you to do about it?”

 

“Well, you see, that’s the tricky part,” he says, adjusting the ridiculous glasses that perch at the end of his nose. “They want me to sign off on all of these invasion plans they’re drawing up, and I don’t know the first thing about planning an invasion.”

 

“Oh, really?” she arches a painted eyebrow. “War or no war, I would think that a noble monarch such as yourself would at least have been given an education in military tactics. Strategy, that sort of thing? No?” she longs to take one of the fans at her sides and flick it open and closed, open and closed, but such a gesture would be unbefitting of a Kyoshi Warrior – she knows how they treasure those fans. Kuei probably knows too little of their culture to see such a gaffe for what it is, but she isn’t taking any risks. “That’s a shame. Perhaps we could be of assistance in that area?”

 

Kuei leans forwards, as if to get a better look at the three Kyoshi Warriors kneeling before him. “You could?” he asks, a little too eager. Pathetic, she wants to scoff. No Fire Nation heir would ever be allowed to maintain such blatant ignorance of the basic facts of rulership, of warcraft – they’re one and the same, after all. “Did you and your Warriors fight in the war?”

 

“No,” she says, drawing out the syllable as if she has to think about this. Of course not. We’re neutral, hiding from the war like the cream-faced cowards we are, she’d say if she felt like being honest, but she rather prefers to win, and winning means staying in character; she bites her tongue. “Kyoshi Island is neutral, so our Warriors are not involved directly in the fighting. But we live with the threat of war just like everyone else does. We’re as concerned as I’m sure you are, and I can assure you that we are nothing but committed to the task of bringing the Fire Nation down.”

It’s another well-packaged lie, even harder to swallow than the last. Azula has no trouble going against principles, usually, but something about this casual denunciation of her birthright and her quest is difficult to stomach. Lying is second-nature, though; the Earth King can’t see the way her stomach twists.

 

“Then I can’t tell you how grateful I am to have you here,” King Kuei replies. “You know, I’ve been having the worst time with my advisors lately. They all talk in the most ridiculous military jargon, and I just can’t keep a single word of it straight. And I want to help! I’m…I’m the King, after all.” His shoulders droop. “I just don’t know how to do it without help.”

 

“Without the help of the Dai Li?” she prompts.

 

Kuei raises an eyebrow. “I guess word gets around fast.”

 

“I heard about what happened to their leader yesterday,” she says, voice dripping with mock-sympathy. “I’m so sorry. It must be so hard to have to do something so difficult without the help of the person you used to trust most in the world.”

 

“Oh, it’s horrible,” King Kuei freely admits. “Right when I sign off on a plan to invade the Fire Nation, too…”

 

She has to rein in every muscle in her body so as not to tense and give up her lie. “Oh, really?” she says, casually as she can muster.


Kuei nods. “They’re planning to invade this summer, on the day of the solar eclipse. That’s just about all I understood, and I hate signing off on a plan that I can’t even explain, so…”

 

“We can’t have that,” she agrees. “Why don’t you show us these plans? We’re all trained in both combat and strategy. We might be able to help you piece together some of what your advisors are planning.”

 

She doesn’t care if he declines – she’ll move any mountain to get her hands on a copy of that invasion plan.

 

“Really?” King Kuei’s eyes light up, and she sees that she’s been worried in vain. “I really would appreciate that so much!”

 

“Of course, Your Majesty,” Azula says evenly. “This benefits us as much as it benefits you, after all. And we’re not exactly in the practice of turning down help.”

 

**

He’s taken to lying awake well into the night, trying to clear his mind, kicking the sheets into an tangled lump at the end of his bed, thinking too much in spite of his best efforts not to. Sometimes lying still isn’t enough; on those nights, he paces, or sometimes merely sits up and tries to meditate if he thinks the risk of waking Uncle is too great. None of it ever helps, and he doesn’t know why he bothers, but he does anyway.

 

He has to do something, after all, else the realization that all he is  and all he will ever be is an Upper Ring tea server with a name not his own and a story with one too many blanks will eat him alive.

 

He’s tried to rationalize this to himself since his first meeting with Katara. He’s been done hunting the Avatar for weeks now – that’s not his life anymore, and it would be impossible for him not to know that. He’s not a Fire Nation prince or even really a runaway anymore; he’s a lucky fugitive making a life on this patch of sanctuary ground, even if he feels it retreating daily beneath his feet for no reason at all. He’s tried to explain why he feels the way he does: he knows the Avatar is near and it kills him to be passing up this chance, maybe. Perhaps he can’t trust a good thing, and he’s held onto that idea as stubbornly as he does everything else in the hopes that, when this too-good-to-be-true life falls apart as everything around him does, he’ll have something to do, someplace to go back to. But none of those explanations satisfy him, and he hates the nights, because that is when it becomes hardest to deny that he’s known the real reason for his fitfulness all along.

 

The Avatar has always been more of a promise than a quest to him: find the Avatar, restore the order that he never should’ve broken to begin with. Knowing that the Avatar – Aang, he knows now, nothing more than a child out of time in more ways than one – is out there, somewhere, that he could be found, has kept him going when the road was too steep and the temptation to stop climbing almost too great to ignore. And he should feel even better, knowing that he’s found himself in the same city as the Avatar and his companions by sheer luck. But it doesn’t, because he’s doing nothing with it. All that luck, and he’s wasting it serving tea to the dithering upper-class of a city his family wishes it controlled and plotting with a girl he should hate and another girl he should hate even more.

 

This is why luck never seems to land on you, Azula would tell him. When it does, you just waste it. Just like you waste everything else. She’d crack her knuckles, roll her neck as if presenting a challenge. My time, the gift of your bloodline.

 

But he gave that up, and so he didn’t even know that he was sharing the bone-dry air of this revolting town with the child whose capture could give him the life he longs for. And now that he does – now that he does by mistake, by the accidental admission of a girl he’d only ever agreed to speak to because he thought he’d be sliced in half with an icicle or whatever it is that waterbenders use in combat (note to self: learn what waterbenders use in combat so you can taunt her with anticipated threats without looking stupid) – it’s too late.

 

His fist slams the mattress.

 

It’s too late. He had the kid in the palm of his hand and he let him fly away. His one chance to prove that he’s more than a waste of royal blood, to see pride in his father’s eyes instead of revulsion is gone with the thwish of an opening glider.

 

Zuko doesn’t know why he bothers anymore – not with these meetings, not with this place, not with the illusion that he’ll ever be whole without his honor.

 

**

 

“I can’t believe you’re making me do this.”

 

“Katara, we have to,” Toph pleads with all the earnestness she’d ardently deny possessing if she were ever asked. “I know you don’t like Zuko-“

 

“That’s the understatement of the century.”

 

“You guys got along fine once you started talking, but…regardless. You may not like it, or him,but if you want to figure out how to take out Azula, you’re going to have to work with him. He knows her better than almost anyone, doesn’t he?”

 

“Well, yeah, but how do we know he’s not loyal to her?”

 

“Get off your high horse for five seconds and look at the facts, Katara! Why would Flamebrain and his uncle be running from her if they were on her side?”

 

“We know how smart this girl is, Toph. We can’t afford not to assume that everything she or anyone who is or has ever been allied with her does is a setup,” Katara argues. “For all we know, she could’ve sent Zuko and Iroh here as a smokescreen to get information out of us. I mean, would you put it past her?”

 

“No,” Toph says cautiously, “but I would put it past Zuko to be able to hide something so huge if that was what she was doing.”

 

“But-“

 

“Katara, I can tell when people are lying.” Toph throws up her hands helplessly. “I don’t know what else to tell you. He was telling us the truth, and you wouldn’t even need my seismic sense to tell if he wasn’t – he’s, like, terrible at it.”

 

“And you know this…how?”

 

“I just do,” she insists. “The guy was scared out of his mind. Heartbeat through the roof, sweating, fidgeting, the whole nine yards. His seismic reading was so all over the place that I was surprised he didn’t fall over dead, and you’re trying to tell me that you think that his whole life here is a lie?”

 

“How do you know that that nervousness wasn’t because he was making it all up, then?” Katara doesn’t know why she’s resisting so firmly, but she’s certain that she can’t afford not to. “Wouldn’t that be a pretty good reason to be all jittery or whatever?”

 

“There are different kinds of nervousness. Being terrified of death by waterbender is a lot different than being nervous about getting caught in a lie. The tells are totally different, and…they just don’t feel the same. Seriously. Haven’t you learned to trust me on this stuff by now?”

 

“Well, yeah, but I have to be sure that you’re not letting your…personal feelings cloud your judgement.”

 

“Personal feelings?” Toph smirks. “You’re the one with ‘personal feelings,’ Sugar Queen, not me.”

 

“I am not!”

 

“Hatred is a ‘personal feeling,’ you know.”

 

Katara’s shoulders slump. “Right.” She pauses, then adds, “and I don’t hate him.”

 

“Yeah, but trust me, I’m not,” Toph assures her. “And we’re already late. So can you please just make up your mind before he starts thinking we got run over by a cart on the way there?”

 

 

**

 

This is a most interesting development.

 

Zuko has never been what one might call a sociable child; he never was to begin with, always too shy to join in anyone else’s fun, and he’s certainly not had many chances to improve since his banishment. So to see him willingly spending time with a girl his age – two girls his age, later on – without anyone’s coercion, when no amount of begging could convince Zuko to see that nice girl who’d asked him on a date again, despite his own admission that they’d had a nice time…

 

It’s unorthodox, to be certain. And even more so that the pair is making a return visit.

 

“Hello, girls!” he calls from the low futon where he’s been sprawled out since the shop’s closing, perusing one of those salacious romance scrolls he’s heard so much about (if anyone asks, he has not been harboring a collection of them for years) when he hears them come in.

 

The Water Tribe girl – Katara, his nephew had said, with the kind of disdainful edge to his voice that let him know exactly what he really thought of her – freezes in the doorway, blinking rapidly as if she can’t quite trust her vision. It’s the earthbender who speaks up first.

 

“You’re the Tea Uncle,” she says. “Hey. Fancy seeing you here.”  

 

“He lives here,” Katara hisses, elbowing her friend’s ribs.

 

“I could say the same of you, Miss Beifong,” he says lightly. “Zuko is…well, who knows where Zuko is.” He makes a cursory scan of the apartment, then frowns. “Would you like me to go get him for you? I’m sure he’d hate to be late for your meeting.”

Katara looks like she has some very particular words to be said to that, but she chooses not to share them.

 

“Nah, I’m sure he’ll show up eventually,” Toph says. “It’s okay. Just let him take his time.” She takes a seat at the nearby table, just as she had upon her first visit, and crosses her legs at the knee, hunching over. “So. You two are on the run from the law, huh?”

 

“Well, if my niece qualifies as ‘the law.’” Toph, it seems, hasn’t changed much. “But we’re not running anymore. This is our life now.”

 

“Really,” Katara says skeptically. “Because Zuko specifically told me that he wanted to trade information for the express purpose of using it to outrun Azula.”

 

“He said that?” he raises his eyebrows. “Well, that’s not a sentiment that I share, though I do see how it could be useful to…pool information if she’s chasing us all.”

 

Katara’s eyes narrow. “How did you know that she was chasing us?”

 

“You think I didn’t know that you were the Avatar’s companions?”

 

“Well, I knew you knew that, but I didn’t know if-“

 

“I didn’t. Not with any certainty,” he tells them. “But now that Zuko isn’t going after the Avatar anymore, it stands to reason that Azula would be sent out in his place.”

 

“So you’re done hunting Aang?” Katara challenges. “Zuko failed to mention that to us.”

 

“Zuko is terrified of you, Katara. His brain probably deserted him,” he chuckles. “I think there are probably a lot of things that he ‘failed to mention.’”

 

“Oh?” that gets Katara’s attention. “Such as?”

 

“Who’s to say?” he can’t let himself forget that this deal is between Zuko and Katara; it isn’t his place to give away any more than Zuko is willing to divulge. “Hopefully, now that he knows that you aren’t going to kill him” – it’s gently delivered, but a warning all the same – “Zuko will be better able to give you the information you need.”

 

“So you’re not going to give me anything.”

 

“Not until my nephew does,” he says. “Sorry. This deal was between the two of you. I’m only associated by proximity.”

 

“Fair enough,” Toph cuts in. “So what are we going to-“

 

“You’re early.”

 

Three pairs of eyes swivel to the doorway when Zuko appears, holding a towel and blinking nervously. “Uh. Sorry. It’s just-“

 

“Don’t worry about it, Zuko,” Iroh says warmly. “I was just having a nice chat with your lady-friends here.”

 

He drops the towel, though whether from shock or embarrassment he’s not sure. He notices in its absence that Zuko’s hair is wet. Must’ve been bathing, he realizes.

 

“They’re not my lady-friends,” he scoffs. “Who even says that?”

 

Katara cuts in before Iroh can answer. “Why didn’t you tell us that you weren’t hunting Aang anymore?”

 

“I…what?” Zuko narrows his eyes, then turns to his uncle. “What did you tell them?”

 

“I only told them of my theory that Azula is probably taking over the search for the Avatar because you are no longer involved in it,” Iroh tells him. “I, of course, assumed that you had already told them this, but…apparently I was mistaken.”

 

Please don’t do that,” he huffs, striding to the table with a little too much sulk in his step and slumping into a chair. “So why are you two here again?”

 

“Because you didn’t finish telling us what we need to know last time,” Katara says coolly.

 

“You weren’t the one who wanted to come back,” Zuko points out, glaring daggers at her. “I wasn’t asking you.”

 

“Zuko! That’s no way to speak to a lady!”

 

Zuko soundly ignores his uncle, and Katara crosses her arms. “Yeah, well, Toph talked me into coming, and this deal is still between you and I and no one else, so please, just tell me what you know about Azula so we can get out of here and be done with this whole stupid alliance.”

 

Iroh observes the two as they stare at each other, stalemated, across the table. Tension hangs thick in the air, and he nods knowingly.

 

Perhaps, he thinks, this was a little bit inevitable.

Chapter Text

 

“Mai, come take a look at this.” 

 

It’s rather unnecessary to ask when Mai can’t be more than two feet behind Azula, but she likes the way it sounds – casually authoritative, the way she so often doesn’t. Anyone can make demands; not everyone can secure compliance with a simple request, and she never wants to let herself forget that she belongs in the latter category. Mai’s put-out huff as she approaches, though there’s not much of an approach to be had, is as satisfying as the jolt of lightning leaping from her hands. Azula waits until she’s sure that Mai is curious as to why she’s been summoned – peering over her shoulder at the scroll in her hands, posture inquisitive – to speak again.

 

“This invasion plan isn’t half-bad,” she says offhandedly, as if discussing the weather or something equally mundane. “Two-pronged – they’re planning for a naval assault, followed by a land one. Then the Avatar is going to confront my father when that the comet leaves us vulnerable, apparently – not a bad use of that time.”

 

“But we know about it now,” Mai replies, deadpan despite her obvious curiosity. “So how’s any of that going to help them?”

 

“Well, even if we’re prepared for them, the invasion force is going to make a dent.” Azula’s father may believe that his forces are invincible, but she’s not even halfway stupid enough to agree. He hasn’t seen how much damage a clever, outnumbered enemy force can do if they leverage their advantages well the way she has. Superiority in battle is a tactical matter and it’s clear that their adversaries are more competent in that respect than she’d like. “Ideally, it would be best to keep any fighting as far away from the Capital as we can, partly because it’s good sense and” – she rolls her eyes – “partly because the delusional old officers who’ve let themselves be lulled into a false sense of security are going to throw a hissy-fit when they’re forced to realize that our control is slipping.” She pauses, then adds, “of course, they’re right to be concerned, but stupid not to have realized-“

 

“Your point?” Mai interrupts, arms crossed. Azula’s fists clench, but she says nothing – Mai knowswho’s pulling the strings, and it’s hardly worth the provocation to chastise her for her choice not to move as directed.

 

“What we have to do,” she says, drumming her fingers across her forearm as she inspects the scroll laid flat in front of her, “is ensure, beyond a doubt, that the Avatar will fail.”

 

“Can’t the Army take care of that?” Ty Lee cuts in from the other side of the room. “It seems like they’d be able to do that better than the three of us could.”

 

“It would seem that way, wouldn’t it?” Azula manages an even tone though she wants to spit at the mere idea of putting something so vital as this in any hands but her own. “But the Army isn’t going to be able to prevent the invasion, only defeat it. They could repel the invasion from the city, true, but that doesn’t do much good when our goal is to stop the invasion force from reaching the city in the first place.”

 

“And you’re suggesting…what, exactly?” Mai asks.

 

“Well, we need to keep the Avatar and his allies as far away from the Capital as we can, so the tidiest solution is to scatter those allies.” Azula pauses for a beat, thinking, then nods. “Yes, that should work. We already know who’s aided the Avatar in the past, so it won’t be difficult to figure out who might be involved. Once we do, we cut them off.”

 

Ty Lee’s eyes narrow suspiciously. “You mean we-“

 

“No, Ty Lee, we don’t have to kill them.” Azula scoffs – these people are far too predictable. “That would be neater, but we need the Avatar and his companions distracted, not vengeful. Giving them even more cause to strike than they already have wouldn’t be smart.”

 

“So what would be?” Ty Lee asks, visibly relieved. She’s loyal, but altogether too softhearted; Azula’s growing tired of this need for coddling.

 

“Well, without the advantage of the comet, this plan wouldn’t have a chance of succeeding,” Azula replies. This is what she’s been driving at this whole time. “We need to do two things: one, keep their allies out of the picture; and two, send them on a wild goose chase so that they miss the only opportunity they have to do any real damage.”

 

“Prison?” Mai guesses. “That’d get them out of our hair.”

 

Azula smiles, offering her friend the smallest of nods. “That was my plan,” she says evenly, trying not to let Mai see how pleased she is that she’s guessed – maybe I didn’t choose entirely useless allies. “We’ve already got the Kyoshi Warriors in lockup at the Boiling Rock, and I don’t see why we can’t do the same to – oh, the Southern Water Tribe forces, the Earth Kingdom bureaucrats who signed off on this plan…you know. Anyone with ties to the Avatar or to the invasion. They can hardly mount an invasion from a maximum-security prison, and I’d bet half my kingdom” – she likes saying that, throwing around her status even though it isn’t really hers yet – “that they’ll drop what they’re doing and try to spring them before the invasion. They’ll fail, of course, and there goes their chance.”

 

“And then what?” Mai asks.

 

“Oh, I forgot to mention the best part of this whole thing.” Azula’s eyes glint – she’s built up to this too well to lose momentum by answering Mai’s question. “This is the easiest chance we’ve gotten yet to corner the Avatar. Capture his allies, and he’ll be nothing but a child running from an army.”

 

Mai nods, though her expression is too blank to betray what she really thinks of that. “So we capture him once he comes for their friends at the Boiling Rock?”

 

“Whenever we get the chance, but yes, that is ideal,” Azula confirms. “And there’s more.”

 

This oughta be good, she thinks she hears Mai mutter under her breath, but she chooses to ignore her.

 

“The first thing we need to take care of is this alliance they’re forming with the Earth Kingdom,” she continues. “And to get the Earth Kingdom’s forces out of the way, we have to take Ba Sing Se.”

 

**

 

“I’m proud of you, Zuko.”

 

It’s the last thing Zuko expects to hear after the spat his uncle has just witnessed, so he stiffens, unsure how to respond. “For what?” he asks, trying not to let his voice rise.

 

“You’ve taken a big step.” He pats his shoulder, and again, Zuko stiffens. “There’s a long ways between stopping your search for the Avatar and agreeing to ally with him. I’m impressed that you’ve chosen to. That’s all.”

 

“I have nothing to do with the Avatar,” he spits. “I’m meeting with his allies because I thought his girlfriend was going to kill me and you know that.”

 

“I highly doubt that she’s his girlfriend,” Iroh says lightly.

 

“What does that mean?”


“Just an observation,” Iroh replies. “Anyways. I know that this is an alliance of necessity more than anything, but it’s still an important step.”

 

He bites his tongue – there doesn’t seem to be much to be said to that.

 

**

 

“…from within.”

 

Jae sets down her basket of linens and hefts it onto her shoulder again, hoping that it will stay balanced this time. She doesn’t yet have the easy grace that seems to come so naturally to the other laundresses, and she hasn’t yet been able to find an angle at which the baskets of linens she spends half her days carting around would stay situated on her shoulder or hip yet. These kinds of stops to readjust are more frequent than she let on. Besides, they serve their purpose.

 

The halls are nearly always eerily deserted, and no one ever sees her stop or suspects much if they happen to pass her by. She’s new, and no one expects much of her yet; that is an advantage she intended to use. It isn’t a coincidence that the sound of voices often prompts her stops – if she can, she’ll wait to shift a slipping load until there’s a reason to, something to overhear, the far-off sound of a voice she recognizes. Most people whose whispers closed doors can’t conceal fall into the category of those whose voices prompt her stops; Jae rarely needs to have heard a voice more than twice or thrice to have it filed away in her memory, and its sound brings a face to mind within seconds.

 

This voice – so memorable because its owner sounds like she is snarling even when she isn’t – belongs to one of the Kyoshi Warriors who’d been meeting with the King when she’d last been sent to deliver a load of freshly-ironed linens to an unmade bed mere yards away from Kuei’s war room. Surely she’ll have something interesting to say; gossip is invaluable currency in the laundry rooms, so she pauses, pretending to struggle with her load, and keeps her ears open. Jae knows that she is a terrible laundress, but she’s an excellent spy, and as far as her fellow laundresses are concerned, a coworker with a gift for the acquisition of tantalizingly forbidden gossip fodder is a thousand times more valuable than one who can starch napkins to perfection. This job is the only thing keeping her from the streets of the Lower Ring, and, so long as she has information, they’ll vouch for her no matter how poorly she performs. Chances like this are all too important not to take.


“Are you sure?” that second voice – bright, high, nasal – Jae can’t place, but she’d seen the Kyoshi Warrior whose voice she recognizes with two companions; perhaps this girl is one of them.

“Am I ever unsure, Ty Lee?” the leader challenges. “You saw what they did to that drill. How did they do it? From within.” She pauses, and Jae wracks her brain – drill…? Where have I heard that before? But nothing comes up, and she has to divert her attention back to the girl’s voice when she continues speaking. “But we’ve got to do it soon. Strike while the iron is hot and the Dai Li’s leader is in prison,” she says lightly.

 

“What are we doing, though?” a third voice, this one more toneless than should be possible, interjects. “For all this talk of ‘bringing them down from within,’ you haven’t actually said much about how you’re gonna do that.”

 

“I know what I’m doing, Mai.” Now there’s a sharp edge to her voice that wasn’t there before. “Leave the logistics to me.”

 

“But won’t you need backup?” the second girl asks. “You can’t take on the whole Dai Li alone!”

 

Pieces begin to slot into place as Jae works through what she knows: three nameless Kyoshi Warriors, appearing out of nowhere in Ba Sing Se mere days after the news of a war (serving up that bit of gossip had been the greatest accomplishment of Jae’s life) rocked the palace on its foundations; talk of bringing something down from within; the repeated references to the Dai Li and the absence of its leader – Jae’s picked up enough political savvy in four months of constant eavesdropping to complete the picture.


The Kyoshi Warriors are planning a coup.

 

Her survival instincts tell her to drop her linens and bolt before the palace falls, or at least try to find someone she can warn because an attack like this, when the court is already in chaos, has every chance of succeeding. But curiosity – and the realization that her reward (hopefully monetary, though she’d accept a promotion) will probably be greater if she has more information to fork over – keep her from moving. She tips her basket of linens so that it’ll look like…well, she’s not sure what, but a little less suspicious (maybe someone tripped and had to be carried off, their linens forgotten?) than a basket of pristinely-folded napkins abandoned in a hallway halfway to their destination, and presses herself flat against the wall behind an oversized silk wall-hanging. She’s missed a sentence or two in her haste to hide, but she picks up the threads of the conversation quickly.


“He’s not in the city right now. We know that.”  


“But he’ll be back, and your father sent us to capture the Avatar, not Ba Sing Se,” Mai protests.

 

The…Avatar?

 

“Perhaps, but we have to focus on what we can do now. The Avatar can wait.”

 

Jae feels like she’s swallowed a stone, the way the words sit in the pit of her stomach. She hardly wants the only home she’s ever known to fall, but she can’t let the Avatar be taken. After all, it had been she who, sensing a piece of information the laundry ladies would kill for, had overheard a group of teenagers trying to break into the palace, left a back door unlocked and cracked open when she’d gone to fetch water for the laundry.

 

Normally, she’d never risk her job that way, but all she could think of when she’d realized who was trying to infiltrate the palace was the picture of Avatar Kyoshi her mother had kept on their mantle, and the stories she’d told of the Avatars and their exploits, and she’d known that her mother would’ve been sorely disappointed in her if she’d failed to aid him. “Someday, we’ll have an Avatar again,” she’d always said, stroking Jae’s hair, offering reassurances that would’ve seemed emptier than air to anyone else, and she believed them with all she was. She’d have marched into the room to give these women a tongue-lashing (and a swift push out the window, failing that) if she’d heard what Jae is hearing now.

 

And she may not be anyone’s idea of an altruist, but she’s not willing to let this happen.

 

She bolts, flinging her basket of linens into a nearby room without staying to watch them scatter. She doesn’t know where to go or how to find any of the people she needs to warn of this plot, but she doesn’t think about it – what matters now is that she tries.

 

So she crosses her fingers, and she runs.

**

“Someone’stryingtocapturetheAvatar!”

 

Katara narrows her eyes, unsure what to make sure of the scruffy, panting, panicked girl who’s come banging on their door in the middle of the night. “Come again?” she asks, a little suspicious, and she’s grateful when Toph pads down the hallway to join her. “Do I know you?”

 

“No.” The girl pushes her bangs out of her face. “Sorry. Bad introduction. I’m Jae.”

 

“Um…okay,” Katara says uneasily. “And what are you doing here?”


“Oh, man, it took me, like, an hour to figure out where you lived,” she pants, dodging the question. “You wouldn’t believe how hard it is to get-“

 

“Someone told you where we lived?” Toph cuts in, her hackles raised.

 

“Who?” Katara follows up. “And why did you need to know? Who are you?”

 

The girl’s eyes widen until they show more white than pupil and her breath, even though she’d caught it, starts to go again. “I swear, I’m a friend!” she cries, insistent, with nothing of the casual tone she’d maintained only moments ago. “You have to believe me. There’s someone at the palace after the Avatar and I have to warn him before-”

 

“The Avatar?” now it’s Katara’s eyes that widen. “Wait, back up. Who, what, and why?”

 

“I don’t know,” Jae says, shaking her head frantically. “These Kyoshi Warriors who showed up a few days ago. I don’t know their names but they’re planning a coup and one of them kept talking about how her father sent her to capture the Avatar and…” she trails off.

 

“Oh, Spirits,” Katara mutters. “How do you know that?”

 

“I’m a laundress,” she explains hurriedly. “At the palace. I overhear a lot of things and I…I thought I should warn you.”

 

If she’s telling the truth, this girl is nothing short of Spirits-sent, and Katara knows not to take this lead lightly. “How do I know you’re not trying to throw us off?” she challenges, testing the waters.

 

“She isn’t lying,” Toph cuts in. “If this is part of the plan, she doesn’t know anything.”

 

Jae crosses her arms. “I’m risking my job to warn you. Why would I lie about this?”

 

“Okay.” Katara takes a grounding breath. “Do you remember anything about these people? Anything at all?”

 

Jae nods. “There were three of them, all Kyoshi Warriors.”

 

Toph elbows Katara’s side.

 

Azula. Her fists clench. “Okay. And do they know that you heard them?”

 

“They shouldn’t,” Jae says. “They didn’t hear me pass by.”

 

“And will anyone know that you left the palace?”

 

Jae shakes her head. “No one cares that much, but I don’t want to risk it. I’ll probably just camp out somewhere for the night.”

 

“No, you won’t.” Katara cracks the door open wider. “You have information. You’re staying with us.”  

 

**

 

“Katara, it’s three.”


Zuko can’t say he’s surprised, but he’s still a little disgruntled to find her at the tea shop at an hour like this.

 

“Azula’s in the city,” she says by way of a greeting, gesturing to a scrawny girl he doesn’t recognize. “This girl’s a servant at the palace-“

 

Laundress,” Jae corrects.

 

“Sorry, laundress.” Katara looks like she’s trying not to roll her eyes. “She’s a laundress at the palace and she overheard three girls dressed as Kyoshi Warriors talking about a coup. It’s gotta be her.”

 

“Um, no, it doesn’t.” Zuko’s five seconds from slamming the door and going back to bed when Katara grabs his sleeve.

 

“Jae here says that their leader was talking about how her father send her to capture the Avatar,” she hisses. “Who else is that going to be?”


That has his attention.

 

“What is she doing here?” Zuko asks. “Does she know that I’m-that’ we’re in Ba Sing Se?”

 

“I don’t know,” Jae says. “Just that she’s trying to do a coup and something about the Avatar.”

 

Zuko gives Katara a hard look. “You really think we can trust this girl?”

 

Katara shrugs. “Toph says she’s not lying, and I’m not taking any chances.”

 

“And what are we supposed to do about this?”

 

“Um, leave?” Katara posits. “If the Fire Nation takes Ba Sing Se, we’re going to be trapped. Forget trying to stop her – we have to get out of here.”

 

“And what am I gonna do?”

 

“…come with us, you idiot.”

 

“You must be joking.”

 

“Do you want to be sent back home in chains?”

 

“No, but what are the rest of your friends gonna do to me if I do that?”

 

“Have you met Aang?”

 

“Fine, then. Your brother?”

 

“He’ll deal with it.”

 

“This seems like a terrible idea.”

 

“Yeah, but so does sitting around, waiting for her to take the city,” Katara counters. Jae scratches the back of her neck, obviously listening and obviously a little uncomfortable. “Aang and Sokka just got back and I told them I had to pick someone up before we left, so we’re just waiting on you-“

 

"You mean they don't actually know you're trying to bring me with you? Katara, this is a terrible idea." 

 

She never answers, though.

 

“When are you leaving?” Zuko jumps at his uncle’s voice in the doorway behind him. 

 

“As soon as possible,” Katara tells him, straightening visibly at the first sign of compliance she’s had this entire conversation. “Appa’s waiting, and we didn’t want to leave you stranded after all the help you’ve given us.”

 

This, Zuko knows, is a bold-faced lie. Katara would leave him without a second thought if she didn’t have a good reason not to. (Why is she offering, then? He thinks, but he quickly shoves the question down.) But Iroh seems to buy it.

 

“Zuko, you’re going with her,” Iroh says flatly.

 

“No, I’m not.” He pauses, realizing that Iroh hadn’t said anything about joining them. “And what are you going to be doing?”

 

Iroh doesn’t answer, and it doesn’t take long for Zuko to realize what he’s getting at.

 

“Uncle, no.”

 

“Someone has to try to stop her, and it’s not going to be you.”

 

“I’m not-“

 

Zuko.”

 

“Uncle.”

 

“You need to get as far away from your sister as you can.”


“So do you!”

 

He shoves Zuko out the door and doesn’t say another word, and before he can get out a single word of protest, Katara is taking his hand, and they are running.

Chapter Text

 

Sokka looks from Zuko to Katara and back to Zuko, then to Jae, and the space between his brows diminishes with every look at his sister and her uninvited plus-ones. Like a caterpillar-centipede, Jae notes with interest.

 

The gap finally closes when his eyes drop to their grasped hands.

 

“What,” he says, backed up against Appa as if he’s afraid that either of Katara’s guests is going to bite, “happened while I was gone?”

 

“I formed an alliance,” Katara says coolly – far too coolly for the circumstances, in Jae’s opinion, considering that she has to convince her brother and the Avatar (that, she still can’t quite believe) to flee a coup with their nemesis.  

 

“I’ll say,” Sokka scoffs, crossing his arms in disgust.


“He has information we need,” Katara explains. She tries to keep her tone even, but it’s hard not to notice the way it wobbles, strained by her efforts not to let her volume rise. “We happened to meet up and he proposed an alliance-“

 

“Because she threatened to kill me!” Zuko cuts in, vainly hoping that this will prove to be the right thing to say.

 

It is not the right thing to say.

 

“Oh, she did, did she?” Sokka’s eyes narrow and he begins to pace in front of them. “And what exactly was this proposal of yours?”

 

“Will ya shut up already?”

 

“No, I will most certainly not!” Sokka calls up to the saddle, where Toph is sprawled out with her feet up against its lip so she can sleep.

 

“I explained this, Snoozles,” Toph crosses her arms but she doesn’t sit up – apparently it isn’t worth the effort. “Your sister and Flamebrain here agreed to exchange information about Azula! That’s it! I was there! He’s not lying and believe me, I woulda known if this was an excuse to make out!”

 

“Then why are they holding hands?”

 

“We are not holding hands!” Katara protests.

 

Then she looks down at her hand.

 

She drops Zuko’s like it’s on fire, which, given the way his cheeks are aflame with embarrassment, really isn’t too far from reality.

“Riiight.” Sokka shakes his head. “I don’t like this, Katara.”

 

Nooo, I’m shocked.”

 

Sokka glares up at Toph again – this time with feeling, to be sure she can feel his wrath even with her feet up so she can’t sense such things. “Can you not?”

 

“Look, Snoozles, we can trust the guy. I told you that, like, a thousand times. He’s not trying to get with your sister, he’s been helpful, and he’s gonna die if we don’t get him out of here. It’s, like…not that hard to understand.” Toph pokes her head over the side of the saddle. “Aren’t you supposed to be smart or something?”

 

“If it eases your mind, he didn’t even want to come with me,” Katara adds.

 

“Great! Then send him back!”

 

Zuko, whose hand’s been lingering near Katara’s since he dropped it, raises it in a weak shrug. “Fine by me.”

 

Katara grabs his wrist and gives it an insistent tug. “Don’t even think about it,” she hisses, then turns her glare on her brother. “Either of you.” Without another word, she pulls Zuko to Appa by the arm, and Jae, who still hasn’t dropped his hand, stumbles along behind them.

 

“Hey, guys, wha’s with the yelling?”

 

“Go back to sleep,” Toph says crossly. “The adults are fighting again.”

 

“Fighting?” Aang tries to sit up but doesn’t get far before Toph pushes his shoulders back down. “Why?”

 

“Flamebrain, remember?”

 

“Oh yeah.”

 

“Really?” Sokka shakes his head in disgust. “Is anyone here gonna back me up?”


“Doesn’t look like it.” Jae glances back over her shoulder as Katara reaches down to pull her up into the saddle, trying her very hardest to remain unfazed by the absurdity of the situation she’s found herself in. “I’m Jae, by the way. Not like anyone asked.”

 

“We’ve kind of had more pressing concerns,” Sokka says. She’s almost offended that this boy who’s so offended by this Zuko’s presence barely registers hers, but she shakes it off – invisibility is her default, and it shouldn’t bother her like this.

 

 

She still can’t resist a rebuttal, though. “Well, I exist, too. Just thought you should know.”

 

 

“I’m aware.” She, too, Toph had briefed him on before they made their escape – he probably knows she was the reason they’d known to flee in the first place, which makes it all the more insulting that he doesn’t seem to care that she’s there. “But you aren’t the one I’m worried about.”

 

Jae reaches down to help Zuko up the way Katara had for her, and Sokka gives them both another of his glares. “How do you know I shouldn’t be?”

 

“I don’t, but I’m pretty sure a kid the size of a toothpick isn’t gonna kill us in our sleep.” Sokka tries to sound nonchalant, but his expression is a little more pensive now, and a shade more fearful. Jae is rather proud of that.

 

“I resent that idea,” says Toph.

 

“You…might be an exception.”

 

Toph preens.


“Jae, quit stirring the pot,” Katara chides. “Sokka, she’s perfectly trustworthy. She-“

 

“Warned us about the coup, I know. Toph told me. Thanks for that.” With no one left to back him up, he reluctantly climbs into the saddle. “Don’t make us regret this.”

 

Glaring has always been one of Jae’s strengths. “As long as you don’t make me regret warning you.”

 

Aang, who’d been nodding off in the saddle until hearing Jae’s voice, stirs again. “You the girl from the palace?” he asks, rubbing at his eyes. He doesn’t sit, but he pushes himself up on his elbows to get a better look at their new recruit. “Thanks for the war-“

 

Aang freezes mid-sentence, and Jae’s brows furrow. “You okay?”

 

Oh, Spirits, I’m talking to the Avatar, she realizes. I’m talking to the Avatar. I’m-

 

“…ning. Sorry,” Aang says after a moment, shaking himself.


“Wow, your heart rate’s going crazy,” Toph comments. Jae really doesn’t like the implication of the smirk that spreads across her face. “You good, Twinkletoes?”

 

“Twinkletoes?”

 

“Toph does nicknames,” Katara explains.

 

Jae scrunches her nose. “You call the Avatar ‘Twinkletoes’?” She glances back at him, surprised to find that his grey eyes are saucer-wide. He’s smiling, though, so she imagines it isn’t because of fear. “Are…is he actually okay with this?”

 

He blinks a couple times, than shakes himself. “Sorry, what?”

 

“Dude, get a grip. You just met her.”

 

Toph!”

 

“What?” she shrugs. “I just report what I see!”

 

Katara glances from Aang, to Toph, to Jae, then back to Aang, and sighs. “Shouldn’t we be in the air by now?”

 

That, at least, gets Aang’s attention. He tears his eyes from Jae and nods resolutely, taking Appa’s reins.

 

Toph rests her feet against the lip of the saddle again, and Sokka, after one last suspicious look at Zuko, lies down, too. Her eyes drift to Aang, straight-backed at the head of the saddle as he flies, and then to Jae, who’s staring at the back of Aang’s head with the same fascination he’d shown upon meeting her; with no one else left to check on, she finally lets herself turn to Zuko. He’s gripping the saddle, white-knuckled, as they ascend above the city, and she lays her hand on his arm – he’s probably terrified, she realizes, and the thought makes her heart twinge. It’s a gesture of trust or something else she doesn’t quite want to acknowledge, but she doesn’t want to let him think he isn’t safe with them.

 

She doesn’t know why she cares, but she’s grateful when his hand slips into hers and his tense shoulders relax.

 

**

 

“So you know this Zuko guy pretty well, I take it.” Jae looks to Sokka for the first time in a few hours once the rest of their team drifts off.

 

“Yeah.” Sokka slumps against the side of the saddle, folding his arms across his middle with Appa’s reins still in his hands. “He’s…uh. We have a history.”

 

“What kind?” Jae asks, instinctively searching for useful gossip even as she realizes with a pang that, in all likelihood, her days as a purveyor of palace gossip are over. She never thought she’d miss them, so she’s surprised to find that she almost does.

 

Sokka eyes her warily, as if sizing her up, before he responds. “He’s a Fire Nation prince.”

 

“Oh.” Jae’s eyes drift to her lap. That should carry more weight than it does, but she’s only known that the Fire Nation is waging war on her country for a week, and it’s hard to feel the revulsion that her traveling companions do when they think of it. “I guess that’s bad, isn’t it.”

 

“Right.” Sokka’s voice softens. “I forgot that you guys only just found out there’s a war going on. That probably doesn’t mean much to you, does it?”

 

She looks up, surprised that he’s figured that out so quickly. “Not as much as it apparently should.”

 

“Well, it’s not just that,” Sokka continues. “He’s also kinda…been trying to capture Aang for as long as we’ve known him.”

 

Jae’s eyes widen and she risks a wary glance over her shoulder at Zuko, sleeping behind her. He and Katara are pressed together, perhaps unintentionally or perhaps not, and their heads rest against each other. Sokka shakes his head. “Well, your sister certainly seems to have made up with him.”

 

“I didn’t tell you she was my sister.”

 

“Two Water Tribe kids in the Earth Kingdom? It’s obvious,” Jae points out. “And you have the same eyes.”

 

Sokka shrugs. “Fair enough.”

 

“Anyways, your sister and Zuko?”

 

“You know as much as I do,” he says. “Apparently she confronted him in his uncle’s tea shop and he offered to give her information so she wouldn’t kill him. Then they got all buddy-buddy, and now they’re sleeping on each other.” He says the word sleeping as if it’s venomous. “I mean, look at them. Cuddling. He’s been chasing us around the world for a year, but she’s all, ‘nooo, Sokka, he’s changed! Oh, yeah, he’s just great!’” he spits contemptuously over the side of the saddle for emphasis. “I can’t believe she agreed to this. Or that Toph allowed it.”

 

“She never actually said any of that,” Jae points out. “I actually don’t think she even likes him. Like, even platonically. Or…at all. In any way.”

 

“Then why were they holding hands earlier?”

 

“I was also holding Zuko’s hand,” Jae points out. “And I don’t even know the guy.”

 

“But that was different.”

 

“Why, because she’s your sister?” Jae arches her eyebrows. “It sure looked the same on my end.”

 

“But-“

 

“Sokka, seriously. There’s nothing going on there, and even if it were…butt out, will ya?” Jae rolls her eyes. “Not like it’s your business who she likes.”

 

“Uh, it is if he’s our sworn enemy!”


“Sworn enemies don’t usually volunteer valuable information,” she says evenly. “I should know.”

 

“Oh? And how’s that?”

 

Jae shrugs. “Back at the palace, I was a laundress, but my real job was collecting gossip.”


“That’s a job?”

 

“Well, not officially.” Regret gnaws at Jae’s stomach for the loss of that life, even though it hadn’t been much to begin with. “I was a laundress, like I said, but I wasn’t very good at…well, laundry. So I mostly got sent out to deliver it to different parts of the palace, and that meant I overheard a lot. And then I realized that, since I sucked at my actual job, I’d be in a much more secure position if I had something the other laundresses wanted, and you know what those old biddies wanted more than anything?”

 

“Information,” Sokka answers without missing a beat. Something like admiration crosses his face. “So you started keeping your ears open, huh?”

 

Jae’s eyes light up for no reason other than the unexpected joy of being understood. “You wouldn’t believe the stuff an invisible little girl in the Earth King’s palace can overhear if she tries. Stuff a bunch of bored laundresses with five kids apiece and a serious lack of excitement would kill to learn.”

 

“And you fed them the juicy gossip you overheard so they wouldn’t fire you?” Sokka guesses.

 

“I was probably the first person in Ba Sing Se outside of the King and the council that you guys met with to find out about the war,” she tells him proudly. “But…I didn’t tell the laundresses that one.”

 

“Why not?”

 

She shrugs. “All the gossip I traded was pretty harmless to them. Affairs, betrothals, courtships, what performers were going to be visiting the King’s court – the kind of stuff you’d find in the gossip scrolls. Never…I don’t know, anything of substance. It felt wrong.”

 

“But that was the biggest news in years.”

 

“Yeah, but…these women have so little already.” Jae tucks her legs to her chest. “I wasn’t about to make them panic.”

 

“Ah, so you do have an altruistic streak.”

 

“No, I just didn’t want them going home to their oversized broods and kissing them goodnight like it was the last time they ever would.”

 

Like they did.

 

“Yeah.” Sokka nods thoughtfully. “Yeah, you do have an altruistic streak. Same thing that made you run and warn us that someone wanted the Avatar.”

 

“No, that was my mom.”

 

“Your mother made you-“

 

“No, my mother is dead.” It’s always best to get that one out of the way before it builds up to some sort of tearjerking grand reveal.

 

“So’s mine.”

 

“I’m sorry.”

 

“Me, too.”

 

“Anyways.” Jae’s never been one to talk about her feelings, and she doesn’t plan to start now. “It’s just…when she was alive, she’d always tell me these stories about the Avatar, and how she was so sure we’d have one again.” She ducks her head, self-consciously pushing a stringy lock of hair, oily from too many days without a palace-mandated washing, out of her face. “It was actually me who left that door open so you guys could get into the palace.”

 

“No kidding,” Sokka says under his breath. “Really?”

 

“I had to do what I could.” Jae casts a glance over at the sleeping Avatar. “If she were alive, my mother would never have forgiven me if I didn’t.”

 

This time, when Sokka looks back at her, he smiles. She’s never seen him do that before.

 

“Thank you,” he says. “Really.”

 

“It was nothing.” Jae shrugs, pleasant warmth seeping into her cheeks at the first praise she’s received in months.

 

“But it changed everything.”

 

“I’m glad.” Her eyes dart up to follow Sokka’s shifting expressions again, then drift back down to her hands folded in her lap. “So…what’s it like?”

 

“What’s what like?”

 

“Traveling with the Avatar.”

 

“He’ll probably tell you to call him Aang, for one,” Sokka starts. “And…it’s, well. Stressful, dangerous, far too disorganized, and probably not going to accomplish anything in the end. Questionably worth it, but also the only choice we have.”

 

“And what’s he like?”

 

“Single.” Sokka throws her a wink she wishes she could unsee.

 

“Ew.”

 

“What, did you see the way he looked at you when you first met?” Sokka seems to be enjoying this a little too much. “The guy was gaping like a fish. That’s exactly how he used to look at my sister, and he had the biggest crush on her for a while.”

 

“He was probably just surprised that the girl who saved his life looked so ratty.”

 

“You’re not ratty.”

 

She’s a little surprised to find him coming to her defense, but she doesn’t let it show. “No, but I look like it.”

 

“Nah, you could be pretty if you got cleaned up a little.” He looks away. “But, like, not my type. I like someone else. I mean, from Aang’s perspective, ya know?”

 

“Right.” Jae rolls her eyes. “Good to know.”

 

“In all seriousness, though.” Sokka heaves a sigh. “He’s a good kid, and he’s been through way too much. That’s…basically the gist of him.”

 

“Aren’t we all?”

 

Sokka shakes his head, then glances around the saddle at his friends – Toph, sprawled out through the middle of the saddle with her feet up on its lip; Aang, asleep with his head on her shoulder; Katara and Zuko, who’ve shifted even closer in their sleep (they’ll be mortified when they wake up, Jae is sure) so that Katara’s face is pressed to Zuko’s shoulder – then back to Jae, all matted hair and dirty skin and threadbare green tunic.

 

“Maybe.”

 

**

Zuko wakes, but he doesn’t stir.

 

It isn’t that he particularly enjoys the weight of Katara’s head on his shoulder, though her warmth is comforting on a frigid night. Rather, he’s a bit petrified of her reaction if he wakes her in an attempt to move, and figures it’s best not to risk it. It’s a useless precaution, though, and she wakes only a few moments later.

 

“Sorry,” she stammers, as soon as she’s alert enough to realize where she is. “I didn’t mean to.”

 

“’s okay.” He misses the warmth of her body pressed against his side almost as soon as it’s gone. “It was an accident.”

 

Katara crosses her legs and hugs her arms around her torso to fight the high-altitude chill. “Are you okay?”

 

“You mean with flying?” he asks. “I mean, it’s weird, and I’m still not sure it’s safe, but it’s better than being captured.”

 

“No, I mean with leaving.” Katara angles her body towards his. “Your uncle?”

 

“Oh.” Zuko presses his hands to the cool leather of the saddle, careworn and cracked with use. “I thought I made it clear how I felt about that.”

 

“I know you did.” He’s surprised, when he looks up, to find that Katara’s eyes are full of regret. “And I really am sorry. I wanted him to come. I hope you know that.”


“He’s all I have left.”

 

“And I’m sorry that he made us leave him behind.” Katara looks up. “But I’ll never apologize for getting you out of there.”

 

“But why?” Zuko’s hands fist. “Why do you even care?”

 

“You’re an ally,” she says. “You helped us. We wouldn’t-“

 

“Don’t even try, Katara. You didn’t get any useful information out of me and you know it.”

 

“But you tried, Zuko.”

 

“When has trying ever been enough?”

 

“Zuko, I don’t leave my allies to die.” She shakes her head as if she cannot comprehend why he isn’t following. “Even if they aren’t ‘useful.’ Who even says that? People don’t matter because they’re useful!”

 

He doesn’t even want to begin to get into the reasons he knows that that statement isn’t true.

 

“I still don’t get why you care so much.”

 

“I don’t care about you personally. I care about you because you’re a person.”

 

Zuko shakes his head. “Then why go to all this trouble?”

 

“I couldn’t just leave you to die!”

 

“Yeah, you already said that, and we’re going in circles here-“

 

“Because that’s it! That’s the explanation. The whole explanation!” Katara pinches the bridge of her nose. “I don’t know what you thought I was going to tell you, or what you wanted me to tell you, but that’s it. And I’m asking how you’re doing because I know what it feels like to leave things behind, okay? Quit reading into it so much. We’re allies, and you’re a human being, and that’s it.”

 

He wonders why that stings the same way he wondered a few moments ago why he missed her comfortable weight against him, but he doesn’t dare voice those questions even to himself. “Right,” he says flatly. “Of course.”

 

She’s folded in on herself when she drifts off this time, far from him. And he doesn’t dare get as close as he did before, but he inches closer before he settles in even so.

Chapter Text

Chameleon Bay

 

“This place is a dump.”

 

Azula doesn’t raise her eyes from the map she’s examining.  “I’m well aware of that, but we’re not exactly here to sightsee.” Her finger lands on a point of the map indicating a rocky outcrop. “My best guess is that they’re hiding out right about here. There aren’t many of them, so this really shouldn’t take too much time, and” – Azula glances up at Mai – “we won’t be here for long.”

 

Mai doesn’t look convinced, and she paces around the table to look over Azula’s shoulder at the map of Chameleon Bay she’s been studying for what seems like hours. “And our actual goal here is…what again?”

 

“We’ve been over this, Mai.”

 

“Well, yeah, but ‘scatter their allies’ is an extremely vague instruction.” She shakes her head as if this is all a terrible waste of time. “What are we actually doing?”

 

“Well, there are several things we could do, but which we go with is probably going to depend on the exact placement of the Southern Water Tribe navy within the bay, so you have to be ready to do any of them.”

 

“Great,” Mai huffs. “More stuff to remember.”

 

“You know, you can always stay behind,” Azula points out, nonchalant. “If you aren’t feeling up to the challenge.”

 

Mai tacitly ignores her. “So what exactly are these multiple plans I’m supposed to have memorized?”

 

“Well, we could annihilate the fleet, but it isn’t ideal, so that would be a last resort.”

 

“Why isn’t that the default option if we’re trying to make sure they can’t join the invasion?”

 

“Well, ideally, we want to prevent an invasion from ever occurring, and the Avatar’s allies are a better distraction alive than dead.” Azula taps out an impatient rhythm against the map with a metal-tipped quill. “So we arguably either want to overpower the fleet and ship the navy off to Boiling Rock, or send it limping home for repairs it won’t be able to get done in time for the eclipse.”

 

“And which are we going to do?”

 

“Depends on whether they have more manpower or vessels.” Azula shrugs as if she’s weighing in on dinner options and not planning an attack. “If they have more soldiers, it’ll be easier to do damage to their fleet. If they have more ships, it’ll be easier to take prisoners. Simple.”

 

“…right,” Mai replies, clearly not convinced. Azula turns in her chair (it spins, which Mai finds highly unnecessary, though not everyone does – she’s walked in on Ty Lee spinning the chair at breakneck speed several times when she thought no one was looking) and fixes her companion with a warning glare.

 

“I don’t think I should have to remind you how vital it is that this operation succeeds.”

 

**

 

Senlin Village

 

“So. Do we have any idea where we’re going?”

 

They’ve barely touched down in Senlin Village the next night when Sokka’s the first one to breach the question, but it doesn’t seem like he’s the first to ask it if the sheepish looks his teammates exchange are any indication.

 

“Don’t know, and as long as I don’t end up in prison, I don’t particularly care,” Toph says, leaning carelessly against Appa’s saddle.


Katara elbows her ribs and then suggests, “maybe we should go back to Chameleon Bay and meet up with Dad.”

 

Sokka shakes his head. “No, that was our original plan, but I’m not so sure it’s a good idea anymore.”

 

“But why? We’ll probably be safer with them than we would be on our own,” Katara points out.

 

“No, that would just put an even more obvious target on our backs.” Sokka looks off into the distance as if this matter requires great deliberation, even though it’s clear to everyone present that he already knows what he means to say. “I mean, we aren’t exactly subtle as it is, and neither are they, you know?”

 

“Right.” Katara looks a little disappointed, but she nods in agreement. “But we can’t go back to the Earth Kingdom, and I don’t think going home would be a good idea, either-“

 

“We could always go to the Fire Nation,” Jae cuts in, to everyone’s surprise. She hasn’t said much to anyone but Sokka (even Aang, who’s asked her what felt like a thousand questions in the past day alone, only gets monosyllables most of the time). “I mean, I don’t really know what I’m talking about, but if that’s where you’re in the most danger, that’s where no one is going to think to look for you, right?”

 

For a moment, half of the group stares at Jae in shock, and the other half stares at their own shoes, embarrassed not to have reached that conclusion on their own.

 

“What?” she asks, her cheeks hot with their sudden attention. “It’s basic misdirection.”

 

“That would be a great idea if we were traveling alone,” Katara finally replies, “but now that we have Zuko with us, I don’t know-“

 

“I can speak for myself, you know.”

 

“Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t know you had an opinion what with all your silence!”

 

“I was thinking, genius.”

 

“Oh? And what did you come up with?” Katara crosses her arms challengingly.


(Interesting, Jae notes. She’d assumed there was some kind of connection between the two, given the way Katara had dropped everything in a panic to get him out of the city, but upon closer inspection, they don’t even seem to get along.)

 

“I’m with Jae on this one,” Aang cuts in. “Hide in plain sight, you know?”


Katara looks a little bit displeased with the conclusion but doesn’t say anything.


“Katara has a point,” Zuko reluctantly admits. “I’m recognizable. I don’t know how we’re going to stay in the Fire Nation for six months without anyone figuring out who I am.”

 

Sokka crosses his arms. “Remind me again why we can’t just leave him behind?”

 

“Sokka. No.”


“But why?” Sokka whines. “This would be so much easier without him!”

 

“I’m right here, you know.”

 

“We’re not leaving Zuko behind, and we can’t keep him from being recognized in the Fire Nation, so we really have no choice but to meet Dad at Chameleon Bay,” Katara decides. “But we can’t make that flight back right away, so we’ll camp here for a day or two to recuperate and figure out where we’re going next-“

 

“I thought I was the plans guy!”

 

“Yeah, but your plan was to ditch one of our most valuable allies, so I don’t think you really get an opinion here.”


“Oh, so he’s a valuable ally now?” Sokka looks like he’d like to fall into a bottomless pit that, given the smirk on her face, Toph would be happy to provide. “When did that happen?”

 

“Sokka, I’m not going to argue with you. We’re camping out for a night or two, and then we’re heading to Chameleon Bay, meeting with Dad, and going from there. End of story, buck stops  here, done-“

“Enough synonyms,” Jae interrupts. “We get it.”

 

“I don’t know where you found this one, but I like her,” Sokka comments, but Jae doesn’t seem flattered.

 

“I don’t really like this plan, but I just got here, so I’m pretty sure my opinion doesn’t count,” she continues. “But isn’t your, uh…oversized pack animal going to die of exhaustion before you make it back?”


“He’s a Sky Bison,” Aang corrects – apparently, in this area, even Jae isn’t above reproach.

 

“Sounds fake, but okay,” Jae replies.

 

Aang looks like he wants to say something more but Katara stills him. “That’s why we’re stopping to rest,” she explains. “Appa needs a day or two, and so do we.”

 

Jae raises a skeptical eyebrow. “And that’s supposed to be enough?”

 

Katara pats Appa’s saddle and gets a grunt that could mean just about anything in reply. “He’s pretty tough that way.”

 

This is hardly the strangest thing Jae has heard in the past twenty-four hours, but she shakes her head as if it just might be. She notices Aang glancing over at her a little too frequently as they set up camp and wonders if he knows just how skeptical she feels, grateful that he’d backed her and nervous just the same that, in failing to convince the group to take her advice, she’s put him in harm’s way. Every so often, she risks a glance back when he’s looking down, and she wonders how many people are resting their hopes on a child’s scrawny shoulders the way her mother had – how many people she’d be letting down if she let anything happen to him. He’d been in favor of flight to the Fire Nation, but he doesn’t seem too bothered by the change of plans. He’s humming to himself as they make camp, either too desensitized to imminent danger to care anymore or totally insensible to its presence. And more Jae watches and thinks, the more uneasy she grows, and the more she becomes convinced that she can’t let the group go to Chameleon Bay.

 

No one’s exactly entrusting her with the Avatar’s guardianship, but she’s found herself in his company and his confidence, and, unlike his other companions, she hasn’t yet been dulled to the importance of the task. There is only one Avatar, after all, and a handful of chances for him to take on the Fire Lord; neither, none, can be waster. So, even though no one is asking a thing of her except that she stay out of the way, she’s not going to let him down.

She owes her mother, and every other mother who’d wanted a safe world for her children, that much.

 

**

 

Chameleon Bay

 

“Are you absolutely certain?”

 

Bato raises his shoulders halfheartedly. “There’s a Fire Navy ship in the mouth of the harbor. I doubt that could mean anything else.”

 

Hakoda nods resolutely. “In that case, we need to get a hawk to the Avatar as soon as possible.”

 

Bato’s eyes narrow skeptically. “We don’t even know where he is right now.”

 

“No, but it’s vital that he and my children know not to come looking for us. And I know someone who might be able to find them.” He doesn’t elaborate, and Bato doesn’t ask him to. “Last I recall, there’s bison fur all over the beach.”

 

“Uh…well, yes. There is.”

 

“Go down and collect some. Tie a few strands to the letter,” Hakoda instructs. “Tell the Avatar we’re under attack, and send it with a hawk to Zhangbo.”

 

“Zhangbo?”

 

“If there’s anyone who can find them, she’s in Zhangbo.”

 

**

 

Senlin Village

 

“This is a terrible idea.”

 

“Tell me about it,” Sokka sighs. He leans back into a felled log and stretches. “We’re running into a burning building.”


“Why didn’t you overrule them?” Jae presses. “I mean…we’re sending the Avatar into danger for no reason.”

 

Sokka shrugs. “Honestly, the Fire Nation plan wasn’t that much safer,” he tells her. “No offense.”

 

“I never said it was. None taken.” Jae shifts, angling herself towards him. “But it’s better than running off to the first place they’d think to look for us.”

 

“I know you don’t like it, Jae.” Katara takes a seat beside Jae and she flinches, surprised – she hadn’t heard her approach. “Really, I don’t either, but I also know that we can’t do this without backup.”

 

“What if trying to get it just gets us and our backup killed?” Jae counters.

 

“She’s right.” Zuko returns from the campfire with a second helping of cranefish stew, even though it’s been sitting out for an hour and it’s probably all but congealed now, and slots in between Katara and a sleeping Toph. Neither Jae nor Sokka misses the way Katara preens (she’s really not as subtle as she thinks she is) at his obvious enjoyment of her cooking. “Chameleon Bay’s gonna be the first place my sister thinks to look if she decides the Avatar-hunt is on again. I’m not saying I want to go to the Fire Nation, but the alternative is a thousand times worse.”

 

“Zuko, be realistic. We’re six kids on the run against the entire Fire Nation army, and we need all the help we can get.”


“No, what we need is to stay alive and keep all of your allies-“

 

Our allies.”

 

Our allies alive until the invasion. We can’t throw away our shot like that,” Zuko argues. “You have no idea how hard it’s going to be to stage another attack if that one fails.”

 

“Oh, and you do?” Katara challenges.

 

Zuko doesn’t even know what to say to that, but a good thirty seconds of outraged, incomprehensible sputtering get the point across just fine.

 

“Okay, so you do.” Katara slumps against the log with the same slump in her shoulders that she’s seen Zuko display when he’s feeling peevish several times now. “But the fact is that if we can’t go to the Fire Nation, Chameleon Bay is the only viable alternative.”

 

“We could figure out where my uncle is,” Zuko suggests, eyes questioningly hopeful even though he already knows what Katara is going to say. “He’d be more helpful than anyone.”

 

Katara looks, for a moment, like she’s going to shoot back with a scathing analysis of just how terrible that idea is, but she stills before she speaks and her face falls in the span of seconds. She doesn’t say anything; instead, she lays her hand on his forearm. He stiffens at her touch, and she flinches back as if to move her hand away before the tense muscles of his wrist relax and she leaves it where it is. “I know you miss him,” she says, her voice soft enough to curl up in. “And I don’t disagree that he’d be helpful, but we don’t know where he is, and trying to find him would be way more dangerous than meeting up with my dad or hiding out in the Fire Nation.”

 

“But-“

 

“That’s why you hated this idea, wasn’t it?” Katara realizes. “Because you’re worried about your uncle?”

 

“I’m not worried,” he snaps.

 

“Hey. Look at me.” Tentatively, her fingers wrap around his wrist, and he can barely help but comply. “We’re going to find some way to get him out. I promise. Okay?”

 

Zuko’s eyes aren’t hard with anger or stubbornness anymore, but their softness isn’t sweet. It’s the softness of an open wound, too raw for Katara to look at without feeling like an intruder, and she looks down at his wrist in her hand so she won’t have to. “Then why aren’t we looking for him now?”

 

“You said it yourself, Zuko,” Katara points out. “We can’t afford to waste time or risk our lives with the invasion coming up.”

 

“Finding uncle is not a waste of time!”

 

“Of course not, but do you really think he’d want us to go after him when he stayed behind so we could escape?”

 

“Well…”

 

“Hey, uh, this is all very touching, but you two aren’t getting anything done,” Sokka cuts in, and Katara releases Zuko’s arm like it’s caught fire. Her eyes are wide as a scared deer’s when she skitters away, as if to deny the undeniable tenderness with which she’d looked at Zuko only seconds earlier. “If no one has a realistic way to keep Zuko from being recognized or a better idea, we’re going to Chameleon Bay, and that’s the end of the story.”

 

Neither has anything to say to that, and though the sun’s only been down for an hour, both slouch back against the log, exhausted after the endless day they’ve had. Zuko’s second helping of soup lies forgotten by his side, and his hand reaches for Katara’s – it seems inappropriate to ask for comfort, but she’s never denied him, so he hasn’t stopped, and he doesn’t plan to.

 

Katara turns to him, keeping her movements subtle so as not to draw her brother’s suspicious eye. I promise, she mouths.

 

In the absence of anything to mouth back, he squeezes her hand.


(This time, when he wakes early to find Katara’s head against his shoulder, he smiles. It’s strange and not entirely welcome, this sort of intimacy with the enemy, but it is warm and all of the things he is not.

 

He lets his arm wrap around her waist almost of its own will. Perhaps she’ll wake up once he’s fallen asleep again and think it an accident; he almost hopes she’ll realize it was not.)

 

**

Zhangbo

 

“Bison fur?” June mutters to herself, then glances over at the hawk still waiting expectantly for her signal to leave. “Is this the Avatar again?”

 

She unrolls the parchment out of which the tuft of bison fur had fallen. “’June – urgent. Find the Avatar and his companions. Tell them that the Southern Water Tribe fleet at Chameleon Bay is under attack by the Fire Nation, and not to come looking for us. What matters is that they stay out of her way until the invasion. Payment attached.’ Hmm.” She rolls up the scroll again, deposits the pouch of coin it had been attached to on the tabletop, and taps out an unstructured beat against its mahogany (what exactly would possess a client to pay for bounties in fine furniture, she didn’t know, but it was a nice table). Deliberating, she empties the pouch and counts up the payment – it’s not half-bad, and she knows it must’ve made a dent in the Water Tribe fleet’s emergency fund. “Well, he paid well. Nyla?”

 

The shirshu, slumbering across the room, cracks open an eye, evidently displeased at having been roused.


“Come check this out,” June calls, holding out a palmful of bison fur. Nyla sighs, but she stands (June winces when her snout bumps one of the exposed planks of wood holding up the ceiling) and pads over, close enough to take a few whiffs of the fur. “Think we should go for it?”

 

There’s no question that Nyla is awake now, eyes wide and alert at the strange but familiar smell.


“That looks like a yes,” June observes. “Is that a yes?”

 

It was, indeed.

 

**

 

Senlin Village

The Next Morning

 

“Aang.”

 

No response – Jae pokes the Avatar’s shoulders, but he still doesn’t wake. How is this kid still alive if he sleeps like this?

 

Aang.”


“Mmrgh?” he mutters, turning over to face Jae. “Wha’s happening?”

 

Jae sits up, clutching her blanket close to her chest, and points. “That.”

 

That, at least, gets his attention, and he bolts upright. “Is that a shirshu?”

 

“So you do remember me,” an unfamiliar voice replies. “I’d be flattered if I weren’t so unimpressed.”

 

“Wha’?” Aang rubs at his eyes. “I don’t even know who you are.”

 

“Hm.” A woman in black and red circles in front of the shirshu and leans against its enormous front leg. “Unimportant, really. What I’m more interested in hearing is why you, of all people, make yourself so easy to find.”

Chapter Text

Katara shifts, turning in her sleep with a dissatisfied noise at having been disturbed. It’s hardly more than a whimper, but Zuko still turns back to her in the second that he can spare. It’s pointless, because she’s going to wake up sooner or later and it might as well be now, but some twinging urge that he can neither afford nor suppress forces him to check, to make sure she’s sleeping peacefully even if just for one more moment.

 

Then he turns back to the gathering commotion on the other side of the camp.

 

“Who are you and what do you want?” Jae’s voice, always louder than her tiny frame should allow, cuts through what’s left of the stillness.

 

“I don’t want anything, ‘cept to do the job I was paid for and get moving.” Someone – she’s only visible as a silhouette in the low predawn light, but Zuko would recognize the shape of the animal looming behind her anywhere – shrugs casually, as if she’s stopping by to borrow a cup of rice and not invading the Avatar’s campsite before the sun is up. “It’s in everyone’s best interest to get this over with quickly, so if you could just take this-“

 

“You never answered her questions,” Toph interrupts. Zuko jerks – he hadn’t heard her wake – but he takes that as his cue to stand.

 

He has no earthly idea what June is doing here, but he doubts it’s good, and he isn’t taking any chances. There are countless people who might be looking for any of their companions, but it just as easily could’ve been Azula who’d hired her to root him out and drag him back to the Fire Nation in chains, and he’s not taking any chances. “I know her,” he cuts in, his voice raspier than usual with sleep as he stands and makes his way over to the place where Aang, Toph, and Jae are sleeping around the dying embers of last night’s campfire.

 

He can just barely make out the look of surprise on June’s face at his presence and it takes everything Zuko has not to let his shoulders sag in relief. If she didn’t know he would be here, she must not have been sent to find him – that’s one of the many awful possibilities off the table. “Zuko?” she asks. “Last I heard, you weren’t exactly on the best of terms with the Avatar.” Her eyes scan the camp and she smirks when they drift to Katara. “But it is nice to see that you’ve managed to get your girlfriend back.”

 

“She’s not-“

 

“Then why were you sleeping next to her?”

 

“You didn’t even know I was here until I got up,” he mutters under his breath. “And didn’t you say you wanted to make this quick?”

 

“Well, yes, but I thought I ought to congratulate you. She’s about five leagues out of yours.” June smirks. “And once you got up, it wasn’t that hard to figure out that the lump she was cuddling with was you.”


“I was not cuddling with her!”

 

“Mmhm.” June’s smirk stays plastered-on, almost eerily unwavering, then falls after only a few seconds. “Anyways. Her father sent me to find the Avatar and deliver a message.”


“Wait, wha’?” Sokka asks, rubbing at his eyes as he sits up. “Dad sent us a message?”

 

June nods tightly. “I’ll let you read it,” she says, and tosses him the scroll. Too groggy to move quickly, he barely catches the scroll before it lands in the embers of the fire. But even in his exhaustion, Sokka’s eyes widen in evident distress when he scans the letter.

 

He looks back up, first at Aang (with worry), then at a still-sleeping Katara (with more worry), then at Zuko (with suspicion). “Someone wake my sister,” he says.

 

“Is it bad?” Aang asks.


Sokka nods. “We’re not going to Chameleon Bay.”

 

“And with that, I take my leave,” June says, already walking away as she throws a backwards glance over her shoulder. “And make yourselves harder to find. It’s only a matter of time before your sister tries to hire me to find you all, you know.”

 

**

 

“What do you think is going to happen to them?” Katara’s voice is small and she seems to fold in on herself, curled up tightly in the back right corner of Appa’s saddle. No one thinks it wise to get too close, so they give her a wide berth: Aang at Appa’s reins, Sokka a few feet off on the left side next to Toph, Jae and Zuko on the right.

 

“Nothing good,” Zuko says dimly. “They don’t pose enough of a threat to be targeted for any other reason than their connection to you, and it’s possible that they’re trying to use this as bait.”

 

“To get us to Chameleon Bay?” Jae asks.

 

“It’s possible. I could see Azula doing that.”

 

“We should’ve gone while we still could,” Katara says, visibly holding back tears.

 

Sokka looks like he’s aged ten years overnight, and his expression melts into mournful resignation at her words. “He didn’t want that, Katara,” he says, though his heart is clearly not in it. “He wouldn’t have risked sending out a hawk or paying June to find us if he’d wanted us there.”

 

“But we should have done something!” she protests. “That was our tribe – our fleet. Our family, and where were we when it was attacked?” Katara throws up her hands. “Sleeping peacefully in the Earth Kingdom!”

 

“We’re a lot more use to them alive than we would be dead,” Toph points out. There’s an uncharacteristic note of melancholy in her voice, though no one would ever tell her that. “Aang kinda has to be alive, y’know? We don’t have the option of charging in and getting ourselves killed.”

 

“Maybe not him. Maybe not any of you.” Katara raises her eyes above her knees, which she’s tucked to her chest. “But I could’ve done something. I should’ve.”


Her eyes steel themselves, and absently, Zuko can’t help but remember that blue’s always been the color of the ones who stop at nothing.

 

**

 

This is where we’re hiding out?”


“This is where no one is going to bother to look for us,” Katara says flatly. Even she has to admit that this is a last resort – they’ve passed over at least a dozen towns now, and this polluted neck of the river isn’t what any of them would’ve chosen – but she’s hardly in the mood to debate about what they could’ve, should’ve, and would’ve done. “And we need food, so please just go with it.”

 

“I don’t think anyone would’ve bothered to look for us back in that nice, normal town with the school,” Toph huffs, but she’s silenced by one of Katara’s ‘don’t-try-me’ looks.

 

“I mean, she’s not wrong,” Zuko cuts in. He throws a glance at the murky water flowing sluggishly past the base of the cliff they stand on and grimaces. “This isn’t exactly the kind of place people come if they have any other options.”

 

Katara jabs an elbow into his side. Zuko pulls a face, but he knows better than to say anything.

 

“Well, if it keeps us on schedule, I really couldn’t care less.” Sokka shrugs. “I mean, it’s advantageous, right? We’re not going to waste time in a place we all hate.”

 

“Oh, I promise it’s nicer than it looks!” calls an unfamiliar voice from below. The group looks down to find an old man, barely clothed from the waist up and waving enthusiastically, standing on what looks like the ricketiest dock any of them have ever seen. It’s so paltry that none of them had even noticed it and Sokka doesn’t look too enthused when he realizes that it’s probably their only way into the village. “You need a lift?”

 

“Oh, um…that would be great!” Katara says with all the false chipperness she can muster. Sokka glares at her, and Zuko’s eyes dart nervously in several directions before he tugs the hood of the  cloak they’d found for him in Senlin Village closer to his face so his scar won’t be visible, but  

none of them has any better ideas, so they follow her down and board a boat just as rickety as the dock where it’s parked.

 

“So, what brings you here?” the ferry driver asks. “We don’t exactly get many visitors.”

 

“We’re just here to get some provisions and move on,” Sokka says.

 

“Oh, you’re traveling?”


Sokka crosses his arms. “What else did you think we’d be doing out here?”

 

“Yeah, good point!” the driver says, his cheeriness unabated. “Well, it’s not much, but I hope you find what you’re looking for out here.”


“Yeah, so do we,” Toph pipes up. She elbows Sokka’s arm. “We’re on a tight schedule.”

 

“Oh, really?” the man cocks his head. “Rushing home in time for the Fire Spirits Festival?”

 

“Something like that,” Zuko says dourly.

 

“Yeah, we’re…from the Earth Kingdom colonies!” Katara says, shooting a help-me-out-here look at Aang and Jae. They’ve both been silent, and she isn’t about to let them off the hook for it. “We’re trying to get home to our family in time.”

 

The ferryman sizes them up. “You’re all related?”

 

Katara winces – she doesn’t know if she’d be able to pull off the lie that a group with a representative from every single nation is somehow related even on a good day, and she hasn’t slept since she got word of the attack on the Water Tribe fleet. “Well, you see-“

 

Sokka puts his hand on her shoulder. “This here’s my sister…Mei,” he says cautiously. Then he claps a hand against Zuko’s shoulder. “And her fiancé…”

 

“Lee.” Zuko’s face reddens beneath his cloak, but he understands the importance of the ruse too well to risk anything.

 

“And my fiancé, Jae,” he says, gesturing at Jae, “and her sister…Linh, and their brother…uh, Peng.”

 

Aang looks displeased, but he, too, knows to keep quiet.

 

“Jae, huh?” The ferryman sizes up the only member of their group who’d been allowed to keep her own name – it’s Earth Kingdom and she’s hardly famous, so it’s not as if anyone would suspect anything upon hearing it. “You seem a little young to be gettin’ married.”

 

“My parents needed one less mouth to feed,” she replies, not missing a beat. She meets Sokka’s eyes and both have to bite back a laugh because there is nothing funny about this predicament they’ve found themselves in but this moment, they both have to admit, is rather amusing. “Couldn’t talk them out of it.”

 

“Well, that’s too bad.” The man shakes his head. “You could always run off and stay here, you know. We need all the help we can get around here.”

 

Katara glances down into the water, then back up at the ferryman. “I noticed that the river’s really polluted,” she says, brow creased with concern. “What’s happening to it?”

 

“That there factory,” he says, pointing upriver. “That’s where the army makes its metal. It’s been making a mess of our river for years.”


“Hm.” Katara tenses, and, squeezed against Zuko as she is, she can feel his muscles tighten, too. “That must be why we couldn’t catch any fish on the way in.”

 

At that, the driver cocks his head again. The effect is a little unnerving. “We used to be a fishing village, you know,” he says. “Before the factory came along and started mucking up the river.”

 

Katara’s mouth presses into a line, and she doesn’t say anything else. Sokka’s expression grows wary – she’s already on the edge after the couple of days they’ve had, and unnervingly liable to do something rash. It feels as if the air grows colder around them as she sits, fists clenched and back ramrod-straight, staring out at the village with a look in her eyes that leaves nothing to the imagination. Even Zuko, who’s not yet familiar enough with the workings of their group to know when to run for cover before Katara snaps, shifts uncomfortably, careful not to let his thigh brush hers (it does anyway). And they stay like that, in fraught silence, until they reach the town.


And the silence only seems to thicken then, because whatever they’d imagined might await them across the river, the reality is worse.

 

The town is built on stilts, wooden walkways half-crumbling with rot connecting thatch-roofed houses. The sick and elderly lie about on the footpaths, their groaning and the sluggish flow of the river and the buzz of flies the only sounds to be heard in the eerie silence. Katara’s brow creases more tightly with each passing moment, and Sokka’s hand hovers protectively an inch from her back, though it’s unclear to anyone whether he intends to shelter her from some unknown danger or hold her back if she plans on becoming one. It’s no better when they stop for food – all that’s for sale is a barrel of fish that look likelier to kill them than a few days without eating could ever be.

No one misses the gathering storm, and it’s hardly surprising when Zuko stirs at a sound in the middle of the night and realizes that the bedroll beside his is empty.

 

**

 

It’s the smell of bison breath that first alerts Zuko to the fact that something is off. He coughs at the pungent odor and pulls himself up to a seated position with arms too tired to hold up the rest of his body, bleary eyes scanning the camp. It’s force of habit – truthfully, there’s nothing suspicious about being hit with a blast of Appa’s morning breath long before the sun comes up – but he’s awfully glad it’s so second-nature when he sees movement.

 

He glances over at Katara’s bedroll – that, too, is instinctive now – and the moment his sluggish, sleep-clouded mind registers the fact that it is empty, he is crawling out of his own. Either Katara is up and about at an ungodly hour of the morning or she’s being abducted, and he intends to find out which it is.

 

It doesn’t take long, though. Part of him wants to be relieved when he sees her circle Appa again, dressed in a dark cloak he’s never seen her wear before (he wonders where she got it, but that’s the least of his worries), but part of him is also more than a little suspicious when he sees her coax the bison’s mouth open and feed him a handful of something he can’t quite identify in the dark. “Katara?” he whispers hoarsely.


She freezes at the sound of her name, then glances back at him.


“You didn’t see anything,” she whispers back, and resumes feeding Appa.

 

“Where’d you get the cape?”

 

That’s what you’re worried about?”

 

“Well, yeah, I-“ he stops once she turns again and he gets a better look at her. “Wait. Is that mine?”

 

She shrugs. “I was always going to return it.”


“After you did what?”


“Keep your voice down!”

 

Zuko flushes – he hadn’t realized that he’d been raising it. “You never answered my question.”

 

Nothing,” she insists.

 

“Why are you feeding Appa?” he asks, figuring he won’t be able to wrangle a better answer out of her.

 

“He hasn’t eaten in days,” she points out.

 

“Okay, but couldn’t you have fed him at a reasonable hour?” He pauses. “And not in a cape and weird hat?”

 

“Just go back to sleep, Zuko.”

 

“Not until you tell me what you’re actually doing up.”


Katara’s shoulders slump, and she looks as if she’s considering the idea for a moment before she sighs in defeat. “I need to do something to help those people,” she says, keeping her explanation as vague as she can. “Please don’t tell anyone.”

 

His eyes narrow. “So you’re a vigilante now?”

 

Her eyes narrow in response. “Hardly.”

 

“I happen to have vigilante experience,” Zuko says before he’s even fully aware that he’s forming the words.

 

**

 

Zuko is almost too shocked that Katara agreed to this to be annoyed that he’s essentially her glorified bodyguard for the night. Really, few other emotions register, except faint irritation with his past self for throwing out a mask that he really could’ve used right now, and something traitorous that he doesn’t want to name at the otherworldly beauty of Katara in borrowed clothes (some of them his), diaphanous white veil drifting around her face on a wind that seems to kiss it with a lover’s gentle flattery. But shock alone is more than enough to keep him still while Katara slips in and out of homes and buildings that might be infirmaries. He considers asking what exactly she’s doing in there, but he doesn’t think it would be wise.

 

He takes her triumphant grin as an answer in and of itself, but he still asks when they arrive back at the camp, slipping back into their bedrolls as if they’d never left. Katara drapes Zuko’s borrowed cloak over his blanket and he feels curiously hot.


“Healing people,” she says simply, and when his eyebrows rise, she adds, “what, didn’t I tell you I could do that?”


She had not.

 

He swears she sleeps a little closer to him that night.

 

**

 

There’s a story going around the next morning about a river spirit’s visit. Zuko tries to keep his features blank. But as soon as he manages to catch Katara alone, he smirks.

 

“The Painted Lady, huh?”

 

She smiles – full, bright, genuine – for the fist time since her father’s letter arrived.

 

**

Zuko makes a surprisingly good partner in vigilantism, but there are lines he won’t cross.

 

“Your brother was kidding, Katara.”

 

“But he was right,” she argues. “The townspeople are going to be back to square one as soon as we leave if we don’t go after the source of the problem, and the only way to do that is to destroy the factory.”

 

“Do you really think it’s smart for me to be traipsing around committing acts of treason in a Fire Nation factory?”

 

Katara gnaws her lip. “Well, that is a good point.” Her fingers tap out a rhythm against her forearm. “But you’re not going to stop me from going.”

 

“Do whatever you want,” he sighs tiredly. “Just be safe.”

 

“Of course.”

 

**

 

He follows her to the factory anyways.

 

(People who can set things on fire, she learns, make excellent partners in ecoterrorism.)

 

**

 

“I knew you were trouble!” Sokka points an accusing finger, using his free hand to shake the jumble of foliage Katara had stuffed her bedroll with from the blankets. “I knew it!”

 

He’s done more damage to the Fire Nation in the past few weeks than you have!” Katara shoots back, grabbing Zuko’s wrist without thinking about it.

 

Oh, he thinks. I guess I did.

 

He hadn’t exactly been thinking of it like that – Katara makes it so easy to see what she sees, people in need of help and not the corrupt government causing their suffering. But he has, and some part of himself with which he’s grown increasingly uneasy of late chastises him. Your own nation, it tells him. What kind of an heir are you?

 

Sokka sighs. “I’ve got my eye on you.”

 

Katara’s still holding his wrist; too conflicted to bear her single-minded conviction, Zuko wrenches free.

 

**

 

“You realize what they’re going to do to you if you go down there, right?”


Katara shakes her head, scanning the surface of the river below. Fire Nation cruisers cut across the water like oversized gnat-flies, and no one has any illusions about where they’re headed. “What choice do I have?”

 

“You did what you could for those people.” Zuko almost hates himself for saying it, and Katara’s sharp intake of breath is like a dagger to the heart, but he forces out the rest of the words he’d meant to say. “You don’t have to put yourself in danger for them anymore.”

 

Katara’s eyes widen in horror. “Are you listening to yourself? You know better than anyone what the Fire Nation will do to people who fight back!”

 

“And that’s exactly why you need to stay here.” He tries to keep his tone measured, but it doesn’t work. He’s truly not sure anymore what he’s saying – whether he wants to protect her, whether it’s the conflict in him speaking over his voice of reason. He takes her wrist, so small in his hands that he’s almost afraid it’ll snap, as if to hold her back. “Katara, they will kill you. If not worse.”

 

They could take you like they probably already took your father. He doesn’t even have to say the words for her to know that he means them.  

 

“And what if they do?” she turns on him, wrenching her wrist from his grasp. “Aren’t there worse ways to go than that?”

 

“They’re never going to win without you, Katara.” Apparently the other side of the conflict is winning now, though neither wants to let Katara leave. “I know you feel guilty about your father, and believe me, I know what’s going through your head right now, but you can’t put yourself in danger. Not now.”

 

“How would you know what I’m feeling?” her eyes are hard and cold as a storm-lashed sea. “How could you possibly?”

 

“How do you think I felt when you dragged me out my own front door and left my uncle to die in Ba Sing Se?”

 

“Then why are you still here, Zuko?” Katara snaps. “Why haven’t you left and gone off to join your sister if you’re so reluctant?” Her eyes lock on his. “I’m not stupid, Zuko. I know that’s why you went cold.”


“Fine.” Zuko grits his teeth. “Fine. If that’s how you’re going to be.”

 

She grabs his wrist this time, harsher than he’d dared to when their roles were reversed. “I don’t know what your deal is, Zuko,” she snaps. “But I will never, ever turn my back on people who need me.”

He watches her go, wishing he knew how not to turn his back on anything at all.

 

**

 

Katara is not captured.

 

She returns to the camp, still stonily silent, and Zuko’s relief at seeing her alive and well is so immense that it almost cracks his heart in half. He barely remembers to care that she won’t speak to him. He makes the best of it; for two days, they work day and night to clean the river, and he does what he’s told without a word to Katara. He even manages to glower at Jae when she splashes him with river muck, and to crack a faint smile when she and Aang dissolve into uncontrollable laughter at the look on his face. He works alongside them, pretending that a part of him doesn’t still stir with unease at the sight of the Avatar’s open, smiling face. He plays the part. He gives no one cause to doubt that he is not one of them. Still, though, she no longer sleeps beside him in Appa’s saddle when they depart, and for days, no one says much.

 

He is alone with his thoughts, and he feels almost ill at the realization that nearly all of those thoughts now are about her.

 

Chapter Text

Observation is power and power is security, so really, Jae can’t afford not to pay attention.

 

It’s been a couple of weeks now since she began traveling with the Avatar’s companions and she’s picked up on quite a bit in that time. It’s no different than eavesdropping on palace gossip, except that she no longer has to sniff it out herself when everything she could possibly want to know is playing out under her nose. (The group either trusts her more than they should or underestimates her ability to use information against them, if their loose tongues tell her anything.) She knows where each member fits into the group, pieces of a puzzle that was complete without her. Aang is the reason they keep going; Toph is, from what she can surmise, is somewhere between the team’s muscle and its resident pot-stirrer; Sokka plans and Katara executes; Zuko sulks, lights fires, makes longing eyes at Katara, and occasionally jumps in to suggest that the team divert its course to go find his uncle, of whom he seems quite terribly fond. Jae has a decent grasp on their opinions of her now, too: Katara finds her useful, Toph finds her amusing, Zuko couldn’t care less about her, Sokka likes the way she thinks, Aang likes…everything. (He stares a lot. It’s getting a little bit weird.) None of them but Sokka gives her any real attention, but none of them seems convinced that she’s going to betray them, either, so that’s reassuring. The way she’s quickly fallen into the group, a sort of fringe member who’s trusted and relied-upon if not necessarily included, is equally so.

 

It’s just like the palace, really.

 

Just like the palace, save for the Avatar’s sudden infatuation with her (still struggling to separate heroic myth from ordinary boy in her mind, Jae isn’t really sure how to deal with that), and the chance to observe gossip in the making instead of just hearing about it later, and the friendship of a Water Tribe boy who seems to understand her like no one ever has.

 

She tells herself that this is no different than the life she’s always known when she wryly offers to wash the group’s clothes, even though she was a terrible laundress and only remained employed as one because she is an excellent spy. She tells herself that this isn’t insanity when they take her up on an offer made in jest, wearing their old clothes again while she does what she can to launder the Fire Nation disguises they’ve stolen from a clothesline without soap. Zuko boils water because she can’t imagine washing without hot water, and Sokka’s determined to make a science of it and before they even begin, they try several bending techniques to dry their clothes. Airbending leaves them too stiff and firebending takes too long, so waterbending wins; Jae washes, Katara dries and notes the dirtiness of her own Fire Nation clothes, swapping them for her old palace uniform so she can wash them, too.

 

It’s ridiculous, really, stopping to do laundry while they’re running for their lives. Perhaps they needed it; Jae isn’t really sure. She’s glad to be of use, if anything. And it’s odd, seeing everyone in their own colors again; she decides that they look better that way, more like themselves. Toph, as usual, presents the sole exception: she’d ordered Zuko to burn her Earth Kingdom clothes when they’d arrived, and wears one of the extra tunics in the bag Iroh had insisted that Zuko take for the journey, which hangs to her ankles. (Katara, who still won’t even look at Zuko, nevertheless looks a little jealous.) Jae, for one, feels more like herself in the white-and-forest-green hanbok she hasn’t worn since she left Ba Sing Se, and she turns a swatch of the cotton of the skirt in her hands as if to memorize the feeling.

 

“You look good in green,” Aang tells her a few hours later; she blinks a few times before thanking him perfunctorily and moving a few inches further from him.

 

(It’s not that she dislikes him – she doesn’t know how anyone could, legend aside, dislike someone so earnestly well-meaning. But that hardly means that she likes the way he stares, or follows her like a lost puppy.)

 

Even so, it’s with a twinge of regret that Jae changes out of her old uniform at the end of the day. The loose red trousers and wraparound skirt she wears instead don’t feel quite right, and she’s never liked the way she looked in red. In these clothes, she’s just another Fire Nation teenager, just another member of this group – and perhaps the uniform had been the same, marking her as just another servant, just another Lower Ring girl trying to stay off the Upper Ring streets, but at least that was somewhere she belonged. She isn’t sure if that applies here. And if those ruminations leave her a little more melancholy than usual, she doubts anyone will notice.

 

But someone does. Someone always notices.

 

“You seem kinda…off,” Sokka says, much later that night when they should be sleeping but aren’t. They’re always the last two up, though Katara had joined their daily late-night conversation a few nights a few days ago (probably, Jae thinks, to avoid pesky thoughts of the firebender she’d rather ignore). And they always talk.

 

It’s nice, just talking. She’s never had anyone her own age to just talk to, let alone late at night – let alone about the meaning of life and the futility of attempts to fix its problems, and so on and so forth. (Sokka is very cynical. She finds that she likes that about him.)

 

“Aren’t we all?” she answers with a halfhearted shrug.

 

Sokka looks her over, then nods as if he knows exactly what she means. “It’s the clothes, isn’t it,” he surmises. “All that red. It’s bad for morale.”

 

“’Bad for morale,” she snorts. “Yes. That is exactly why I’m acting weird.”

 

(She can’t ever seem to keep from smiling when he gets like this. It’s infuriating.)

 

“It comes with the territory,” Sokka says, then throws a suspicious glance around the campsite. “Enemy territory.”

 

“You are so stupid for a smart guy.”

 

Sokka shakes his head. “Would you quit trying to get me to forget that you just admitted that you’re acting weird?”

 

“I’m fine.”

 

“You sure about that?”

 

I obviously don’t give anything of value to this group and I’m not sure why I’m even here, she thinks, but all that comes out is “of course.”

 

“Okay, now I know you’re lying.”

 

“I’m fine.”

 

He decides to switch up his tactics, since the ones he’s been using clearly aren’t working. “Is this about Aang?”


Jae narrows her eyes. “Why would this be about Aang?”

 

“Because he likes you…?”

 

“No.” Jae tucks her knees to her chest. “Definitely no.”

 

“Ohhh. He’s bothering you, isn’t he?” Sokka asks, as if he’s got this all figured out. “He did the same thing to my sister-“

 

“Well, yes, but it doesn’t…actually bother me.” She hears fabric rustling, and a beat later he settles in beside her. “I mean, it’s weird, but I don’t really care that much.”

 

“Hmm…is Zuko giving you the creeps, then?” he side-eyes her. “Have you finally gotten it through your head that we’re in the Fire Nation?”

 

“Zuko doesn’t even talk to me.” Jae pulls a face at him. “And I’m pretty sure you people would be in mortal danger in anynation, so no, it hasn’t.”

 

“My sister hasn’t been on your back, has she?”

 

“Nope, too busy trying to convince herself that she’s not-“

 

“Please do me a favor and don’t finish that sentence.”

 

Jae’s elbow digs into Sokka’s ribs. “You can’t pretend you don’t see it.”

 

“Uh, yes I can,” he says, shooting her a wounded look, “and I will.”

 

“Fine. No one is bothering me, okay?” Jae snaps, suddenly overwhelmed by the urge to end this conversation before it gets out of hand. “I’m fine. Everything is fine and it isn’t anybody’s fault that I’m dead weight!”

 

“Hey, uh, everyone’s trying to sleep-“

 

“Right. Sorry.” Jae shakes herself. “I don’t know what came over me.”

 

“No, you’re good.” Sokka sighs as if he’s seen this all before. “And believe me, I get it.”

 

“All these bending prodigies and I’m just the girl who does the laundry,” Jae huffs.

 

“It’s a necessary service!”  

 

“We wasted two hours on it just because I needed to feel useful,” she mutters. “Why’d you even let them do that? Don’t you have a schedule?”

 

“Poor hygiene is a serious health hazard.” Sokka shrugs. “And trust me, it wasn’t just because of you. I mean…we had to do it eventually. You actually made it more efficient.”

 

“Hmph.” Jae’s shoulders rise and fall as she huffs out a sigh. “I don’t really believe that, but thanks.”

 

“Well, if it’s any consolation, I feel you.” Sokka claps Jae’s shoulder, which she isn’t convinced is entirely necessary but appreciates nonetheless. “Why do you think I have a schedule? Everyone’s gotta earn their keep somehow.”

 

“No, but that’s different. You’re, like…a founding member,” Jae argues. “And you’re Katara’s only family. People actually care that you’re here.”

 

Sokka looks almost offended. “Do you really think we’d be feeding you if we didn’t care about you?”

 

Jae shoots him a glare that could raze a mid-sized grove of trees.

 

“…point taken.”

 

“I’m probably here because Katara thinks I have useful information,” she huffs. “And because Aang thinks I’m cute or whatever.”

 

“Um…no.”

 

Jae raises one eyebrow, a technique she’s perfected over the years.

 

“You probably saved all of our lives, Jae,” Sokka points out. “That’s, like…a big deal.”

 

“Okay, and?”

 

“You should believe me when I tell you that you are, contrary to popular belief, a contributing member of this team.”

 

Contrary to popular belief?” Jae’s voice rises and she winces when Zuko, who’s been sleeping (further than Katara than he had been last week, but not by much), stirs at the sound.

 

“Well, you’re not wrong,” she says glumly, after a moment without response from Sokka. Zuko, who’s never been a heavy sleeper, props himself up on his elbows to listen in. “I don’t really have any useful skills besides laundry, and I’m not even good at that.”

 

“Well, neither do I, so I guess that makes us even.” Sokka glances over at Zuko, and his eyes drop to the dao swords he keeps by his bedroll when he sleeps. “But, I mean, bending’s not the only useful skill there is, right?”

 

Zuko, now openly eavesdropping, reaches for his dao swords and clutches them protectively. Already, both he and Jae can hear the wheels in his head turning.

 

“No,” Zuko says without any prompting.

 

“No…it’s not the only useful skill?” Sokka glances over.

 

No, it’s not going to happen.”

 

“Oh, we’ll see about that.”

 

Jae can already see this argument ending with multiple stab wounds, most of them probably self-inflicted by an overly-determined Sokka, and interposes herself between them even though they’re far enough apart that it’s unnecessary. “You don’t need a sword, Sokka,” she says in what she hopes is a decent impression of Katara’s diplomat voice. “And you don’t need to give him one, Zuko. Okay?”  

 

Neither says anything, and it crosses her mind once again just how gifted her teammates are at finding unnecessary diversions with which to concern themselves when they need them least.

 

**

 

“You found a what?” Katara’s eyes widen. “Why?”

 

“Blame Jae,” Sokka says evenly.


Jae almost chokes on her soup. “Blame me? For the thing I explicitly told you not to do?”

 

“Hey, you got me thinking about it.”

 

“No, she actually did tell you not to,” Zuko cuts in.

 

Thank you, Zuko.”

 

Zuko doesn’t respond to Sokka, narrowing his eyes and studying Sokka intently instead. “Wait,” he says slowly. “Who…where did you find a sword master?”

 

Sokka shrugs. “Stroke of luck, I guess? There happened to be one in the area.”

 

“Huh.” Zuko tries to sound nonchalant, but it’s clear when he almost chokes that he isn’t. “Weird coincidence.”

 

Katara gives him one of her we’ll-talk-later looks for that; as this is the most attention Zuko’s gotten from Katara in two weeks, his cheeks color and he looks a little more pleased than he should.

 

**

 

“You can’t let him go train with that guy!”

 

Katara sighs heavily and turns from the map she’s studying to face Zuko. He doesn’t usually barge into her tent at all hours of the night, but all things considered, she’s not shocked that he has – what surprises her more is that he’s soaked to the bone.

 

Oh. Right. She stares for a moment, taking in his soaked tunic and dripping hair. It looked like it was going to rain earlier. It shouldn’t be shocking when that is the entire reason they bothered to put up tents tonight in the first place, but she’d hardly expected him to show up sopping-wet. As a courtesy, she bends the water out of his clothes, though his breath still comes out in visible puffs. “What are you doing here?” she asks.

 

“That sword master that Sokka found?” Zuko clarifies, hands on his knees as he catches his breath. His hair, which she’d forgotten to dry, still drips to the floor “He knows me.”

 

“Oh?” Katara narrows her eyes. “And this is a problem…why?”

 

“He’s been in good standing with the royal family my entire life,” Zuko explains once he has his bearings. “I don’t know what his deal is now, but if my father still trusts him, even the smallest connection that he makes between us and Sokka is going to be a disaster.” The urgency in his tone is enough to get Katara’s attention, but it’s the wild look in his eyes that she can’t look away from. “Do I really need to spell out what would happen if Master Piandao was still working for my family and he figured out Sokka’s actual identity? He’d be leaving a trail right back to us.” He meets her eyes. “And the Avatar.”

 

“For the Spirits’ sake, Zuko, use his name!”

 

He doesn’t feel the need to respond to that - this is one of the most commonly-recurring of their many pointless arguments. Instead, he runs a hand through his hair, sending a shower of droplets to the floor. He stands there for a moment, sulking, to make sure he’s made his point in suitably dramatic fashion. And when he’s content with that, he continues.

 

“Look, I know you’re upset with me, but if you don’t want to get us all captured, you have to talk your brother out of this,” he says instead. “I’m…I’m trying to help you, Katara. I may not know where I stand right now, but I care about you, and I don’t want to let you put yourselves in danger.”

 

“I…oh.” Katara resists the urge to let her hand drift to her throat and clasp the pendant of her mother’s necklace. Yourselves, he’d said. The confession still leaves her heart racing. “I…okay. Thank you.”

 

“Please talk to him,” he pleads. “I’m…I wouldn’t be telling you this if it weren’t important. Please warn him.”

 

Katara nods weakly. “Of course.”


“Um…well, I guess that’s all, then,” Zuko mutters, obviously stalling. “I…sleep well.”

 

“Zuko,” Katara asks, coming to a sudden realization, “whose tent are you staying in tonight?”

 

The tents are far too small for three, and she knows that Aang and Sokka usually share. Since Toph always sleeps in an earthbent shelter, they only carry one other tent, which is usually Katara’s and would be Jae’s if she hadn’t elected to share Toph’s ‘to see what it’s like to sleep in the dirt’ (how that girl ever made a living doing laundry, Katara has no idea).

 

She has a feeling she knows the answer.

 

“I’m not,” he says, confirming her suspicions.

 

“You’re going to delay us if you get sick,” she says.

 

“Yeah, but-“

 

“You’re sleeping in here, Zuko.”

 

He meets her eyes. They look a little bit like armistice.

 

“I may not know how much I can trust you yet, but I’m not going to leave you hanging, either.” Her gaze doesn’t waver. “Not if I can help it.”

 

**

 

Tent-sharing is a fantastically good start, but Zuko knows that he has far to go if he wants Katara to believe him when he says that he means well. So he corners Sokka, who’s sulking over his ruined plans of sword-mastery, after breakfast.

 

He doesn’t know if he’s quite ready to call himself an ally of the Avatar or an enemy of the Fire Nation. He doesn’t know if he’s quite ready to call himself the ally of anyone but Uncle or the enemy of anyone but Azula. But he can’t look at Katara without feeling as if, were he to be unable to add her to the list of people whom he can trust and by whom he is trusted, he would be failing himself. He knows that, if he were able to go back to Ba Sing Se and choose to stay, he might well have done so; he knows that he would have regretted it for the rest of his life, however long that was. He knows that she doesn’t trust him and rightfully shouldn’t; he knows that he wishes she understood that she is the reason this process of figuring out where he fits is so full of contradictions. There’s nothing he can do to straighten out his own mind, but he can take action to show them that he doesn’t want to hurt them.

 

So he approaches Sokka and sits beside him without saying a word.

 

“Thanks a lot,” Sokka scoffs.

 

“I can teach you how to use dao swords,” he offers, again, without prompting.

 

“Thought you told me you were never gonna do that.”

 

“Yeah, but that was before I ruined your other plans,” he said. “So do you want to learn or not?”

 

“What kind of a question is that?” Sokka’s face breaks into a grin. “Of course I do.”

 

He glances across the campfire to see Katara watching them, seemingly pleased, but he’s surprised to find that Sokka’s palpable excitement is as much of a relief.

 

Maybe, he realizes much later, it was belonging, and not Katara’s attention (which he also realizes much later that he’s had all along), that he’d truly wanted.

Chapter Text

Ember Island

 

“Remind me why we’re here again?”

 

Azula shoots Mai a look that has far less to do with the unnecessary dig than it has to do with the way this place seems to be doing its very best to infuriate her on every possible front. Sand manages to infiltrate the her shoes even on the paved path, and though she’s used to heat, the humidity here – combined with the crowds, which are at peak size during the summer holidays – is almost unbearable.

 

“We’re being exiled,” she reminds her with far more patience than she thinks the question deserves.

 

“From?” Mai picks at her nails, freshly shellacked with a coat of red so dark that it’s almost black.


“Business we’re apparently not qualified to sit in on, despite having neutralized nearly all of the Avatar’s allies singlehandedly,” she says. Azula’s hair, loosened from its topknot today, smacks Ty Lee across the forehead as a disgusted shake of her head sends the ponytail whipping in her direction. “You know. The usual.”

 

“Probably boring anyway,” Mai huffs.

 

“Hey, don’t be like that!” Ty Lee protests. “I mean, isn’t this going to be fun? I’ve always wanted to take a girls’ trip.”

 

“Well, I haven’t,” Mai interjects, though her voice loses a hint of its acerbic edge when she’s addressing Ty Lee. The change, however subtle, makes Azula’s stomach turn.

 

“This is not a reward,” Azula snaps, even more irritated now. “If my father wanted to reward all of the progress we’ve made, he would let me in on whatever it is he’s discussing with his war council right now. Instead he sends us on, as you put it, a girls’ trip.” She stops abruptly, clutching the strap of her beach bag possessively as she whirls on her friends. “Oh, no. This is not a reward. This is a slight. And I’m warning you now not to forget it.”

 

The porters carting their luggage up to the beach house give Azula an even wider berth than usual as she storms up to the front door and jams the key into the lock so forcefully that it almost breaks off. Mai and Ty Lee exchange a skeptical look – she’s usually so much more composed than she is right now and neither is really sure why this setback was the one to set her off when they’ve faced so many.

 

Nevertheless, they follow her through the door.

 

**

 

The Boiling Rock

 

Survival is an art in a place like this, and, separated from anyone anywhere near her own age and surrounded by hardened criminals, Suki knows that all too well. There’s no point in putting up a fight and even less in making herself seen, not when so many people here would see a teenage girl by herself as the easiest of targets. Eyes down, she reminds herself every time she’s led out into the yard for “recreation,” whatever that’s supposed to mean – it’s best not to be noticed at all. Especially now that the prison’s vacant cells have been filling so quickly.

 

Of course, there’s no official way that Suki would know that. People don’t exactly share such pertinent information with prisoners in solitary confinement. But guards are often loose-lipped, and word gets around quickly in the yard; soon after the first arrivals, the gossip was so pervasive that she couldn’t help but hear it no matter how hard she tried to make herself irrelevant. “The Southern Water Tribe fleet,” the whispers had said, and at first her heart had leapt into her throat.

 

Then it had plummeted. Sokka had never traveled with the fleet, as far as she knew, and it would be far better if he hadn’t.

 

Nevertheless, she’ll occasionally raise her eyes now during recreation time, looking for the telltale blue. She’s heard the way he and Katara talked about their father, and she can use all the allies she can get, so Suki’s made a routine of it: she shuffles out into the yard, eyes down, shoulders curving in on themselves, broken as anyone would expect. She makes for the corner she always sits in, arms wrapped around her knees to make her body small (appearing dejected usually deters attention, she’s learned), and only when enough people have passed her by to assure her that no one’s decided to pay attention to the girl who haunts the southwest corner today will she begin her search. It’s tricky to differentiate between nationalities when everyone wears the same ochre uniform, but with very rare exceptions, only Water Tribespeople have blue eyes, so she searches for them in every face which passes by.

 

It takes two weeks to find a pair, and the moment she does, she reaches out without a moment’s hesitation and tugs at the man’s pant leg. He freezes and turns, hackles raised, and his brows knit together when he sees who wants his attention. The prison population is incredibly diverse – people of every nation, age group, and profession seem to have managed to get on the Fire Nation’s worst side – but even so, it’s unusual to come across a prisoner so young here. The man obviously knows that, and he crouches so he’ll be closer to Suki’s eye level.

 

“You’re Water Tribe,” she says, praying she hasn’t managed to find a Northern Water Tribe prisoner who won’t be of any help at all. “Are you with the Fleet?”

 

“…yes,” the man says cautiously. “Why do you ask?”

 

“I have some friends in the Southern Water Tribe,” she offers, unsure why she’s asking at all. She doesn’t want anything from this man or any of his compatriots, and she doesn’t think she would have much to gain even if she did. But she keeps going anyways. “And it would be nice to know someone here.”

 

“You do?” the man asks, the effort of piecing together how on earth an Earth Kingdom teenager would’ve met Water Tribe friends written all over his face. “From where?”

 

Suki clears her throat to make sure she has his attention. “The ones traveling with the Avatar,” she says, enunciating every word without any more volume than she needs so she’ll get this man’s undivided attention but no one else’s. “Sokka and Katara? We’ve crossed paths a couple times.”

 

Oh.” The man’s face lights with recognition. “Well, why didn’t you lead with that?”

 

Suki crosses her arms. “I did lead with that.”

 

The man considers for a moment, then shrugs. “Fair enough.”

 

“I guess I just thought it would be good to have some people here who I know won’t try to kill me,” Suki explains. “I figured that you were as good a bet as anyone, even if you took a while to find.”

 

The man offers his hand to help her up, and though she doesn’t need it, Suki is more shaken than she should be. It’s the first kindness she’s been shown since she arrived, and though it’s an enormous relief to know that she wasn’t wrong about the Water Tribe fleet, it’s also so unexpected that she can’t quite process it at first. “Sokka and Katara’s father is here, too,” he tells her as he leads her across the yard. He’s tall and imposing, and crowds of prisoners part to let him pass – that’s never happened for Suki before. “If you have any news about them, he’ll probably be glad to hear it.”

 

“I don’t, sorry,” Suki tells him, almost colliding with a prisoner who isn’t getting out of the man’s way as she trails after him. “I haven’t seen them since they got to Ba Sing Se.”

 

“Well, if you’re a friend of his kids’, I’m sure he’ll still be glad to see you,” the man says. He doesn’t seem to think anything is a big deal, a mindset that Suki isn’t sure if views with more admiration or skepticism. Then he glances back at her, seemingly sizing her up. “Earth Kingdom?”

 

“Kyoshi Island,” she clarifies.

 

“Huh. Isn’t Kyoshi Island supposed to be neutral or somethin’?”


“It is neutral.”

 

“Then how’d you run afoul of the Fire Nation?”

 

“Helping the Avatar’s sky bison,” Suki explains. She doesn’t want to get into the details with a near-stranger. “As did the rest of my warriors.”

 

“You a Kyoshi Warrior?”

 

“I…that was implied, yes,” Suki says. She isn’t sure if the man understands a word she’s saying, but she’s so relieved to be talking to someone who she’s reasonably sure she can trust that she’s not bothered.


They approach a group of men who look like they’re probably his compatriots, but he doesn’t seem to notice. “Huh. Neat. Where’re your fans?”

 

“Confiscated?” Suki raises an eyebrow. “Like all weapons are when you get thrown in prison?”


“Ohhh, right.” The man shakes his head as if to chide his own foolishness. “Of course. They took my spear, too.”

 

At that, one of the other Water Tribe men glances over at them. He’s young and just as tall as her companion; his lips pull into a smirk that looks more pained than suave, one that makes the prison gruel she’s been fed for every meal this week feel heavy in Suki’s stomach. “Looks like Panuk’s found himself a girlfriend!” he hollers, drawing the eyes of nearly everyone in the courtyard, until an older man who looks uncannily familiar grabs his wrist.

 

“Don’t, Nukilik,” the man warns. “Panuk, who is this?”

 

Suki steps forward. “I’m Suki,” she tells the man. “I-“

 

“She knows your kids!” Panuk interrupts with a little too much pride in his voice. “Right, Suki?”

 

Oh. That’s why he looked familiar. “You…you’re Sokka and Katara’s father?”

 

His eyes widen, taken-aback. “Well, yes, I am, but…how do you…how did you? Meet them, I mean?”

 

“They visited my island,” she explains, “and then I met up with them again on the way into Ba Sing Se.” Panuk looks offended that he hadn’t received these specifics beforehand. “We…we’re good friends.” She’s not exactly eager to explain any further details of her relationship with Sokka to his father, so she leaves it at that. “And…I guess I just wondered, when I heard that the Southern Water Tribe fleet had been taken captive, if…maybe I could find someone else who knew them?”

 

“Of course. I’m Hakoda,” he tells her with a curt nod of greeting. “I’m afraid I don’t have any recent news of them, but we got a hawk out when we were under attack, and we’re hoping that they received it in time to steer clear of Azula.” His brow creases. “They’re not here, so I’m going to take that as a good sign.”

 

“I’m glad.” Suki’s voice threatens to break without warning. “That…they’re not here.”

 

Hakoda regards her with some combination of curiosity and concern that she can’t quite read. “And how did you end up here? You can’t be more than-“

 

“Fifteen.”


“Fifteen,” Hakoda repeats under his breath. “I can’t even imagine.”

 

“My warriors and I were trying to help the Avatar’s sky bison escape,” she explains again. “Azula made sure I was separated from them when we arrived, though. They’re somewhere else.” Somewhere better, she hopes. Somewhere that isn’t reserved for the people who aren’t ever supposed to see the light of day again.

 

Hakoda shakes his head and she can almost hear the thoughts he doesn’t verbalize: how young she seems here, alone and vulnerable in spite of her formidable skill; how unfair it is that she’s been brought here to wither away alongside murderers and traitors; how much of his own children he can see in her expression, so afraid and yet so determined not to break. And she’s sure that Hakoda can hear hers, too: wondering if she’s finally found someone to trust in this miserable place, trying to pick out the similarities between his face and his children’s. It’s a long, fraught moment before either of them is able to speak again.

 

“I’m glad you found us, Suki,” Hakoda finally says. She offers a weak smile in response.

 

“I don’t really know why I did,” she says with a shrug. “I guess I just wanted to see something familiar.”

 

“I can understand that.” His eyes drift around the cluster of Water Tribe warriors, so out-of-place in prison reds, then land on hers again. “But I do have to ask you something.”

 

“…yes?” Suki asks cautiously.

 

“Would you be interested in making another acquaintance?”

 

**

 

Inzhun Village

Central Fire Nation

 

Nights are always the hardest.

 

Nights mean hours of distraction-free stillness, desperately trying not to think about Uncle and finding himself unable to think about anything else. He knows very well what Azula wanted with Iroh, and if he’s still alive, it would almost be better if he weren’t. He relives the night he fled in his mind every single time he tries to fall asleep and he tries to force himself to imagine a version of events in which he stays with Uncle and they manage to stop Azula’s coup (a pipe dream and he knows it), or where he convinces him to come with the rest of the group; the second scenario is his favorite by far. On the train of thought that leads to that outcome, Uncle is here right now and Zuko is listening to his chainsaw snores instead of the soft whines that Katara lets out every few minutes in her sleep. It’s the one where Uncle helps the group to navigate and come up with Fire Nation codenames which all have ridiculous meanings of which the group is unaware and at which Zuko rolls his eyes. It’s the one where Uncle and Toph challenge each other to games of pai sho every night after dinner, because that’s what they’d done back at the teashop; it’s the one where Sokka and Jae rag on Uncle for trying to make tea out of things that are probably poisonous, and where he helps Katara make dinner (and tries to cajole Zuko into doing the same); it’s the one where he and Katara gang up on Zuko to ensure that he doesn’t get a moment’s peace, and he doesn’t even mind.

 

It’s the one that should have been reality, and every second that it isn’t tightens the band around Zuko’s lungs. But it’s all he has, so he lets his mind wander at night even though he knows it’ll just make him feel worse. Better this rosier version of reality in which Uncle is here and safe than any of the dozens of more plausible what-if scenarios that his mind would be churning up if he let himself think about them, or the conflict he feels on the rare occasions when Uncle isn’t the only thing on his mind.

 

That, too, keeps him tossing and turning late into the night – the honor he still thinks he’d give anything to reclaim, the approval he desperately desires, and the five companions sleeping around him (and the one who is not) who’ve thrown all of that into question. He no longer knows if he even can want the approval of a family like his (and if they’ve done anything to Uncle, he’ll be certain), or if approval and belonging and honor are gifts that only they can give him. Every sore muscle, exhausted from days of sparring with Sokka as he attempts to indoctrinate him into the way of the sword, makes him doubt that; every friendly arm-punch from Toph, every second serving of dinner, every night he spends curled up next to Katara and every morning that he wakes with his head on her shoulder or her hand resting on his chest (that one had nearly given him a heart attack) makes it harder to believe that he needs the family he was born into to be whole.

 

But the part of him that isn’t ready to let go doesn’t see it that way.

 

He opens his eyes, turns to his back, turns his face up and watches stars wheel across the sky above.

 

**

 

Ember Island

 

In the last twelve hours, Azula’s positively thrashed every adolescent on Ember Island at beach volleyball; stress-eaten three mangoes (covertly, of course – no one can know she’s had to turn to fruit for consolation); been invited to a party which she promptly declined to attend despite Ty Lee’s vehement protests; and stewed.

 

She keeps her cool, of course, but it gets harder to keep a lid on her simmering anger as the day goes on. It isn’t that anything much happens: for the most part, Mai lies on the beach with all the enthusiasm of a corpse, and Ty Lee flirts with everything that breathes. It’s more the potent combination of a slight that hasn’t been repaid and a general sense of malaise. She’s never felt quite so vindictive, nor quite so unresolved to do anything about it.


After all, it was she who took Ba Sing Se and captured the Southern Water Tribe fleet and the motley allies that a particularly talkative Water Tribe sailor had so willingly named. It was she who’d gotten wind of the invasion plans and figured out how to nip them in the bud, and none of it had been enough. She has nothing more to offer and if her best isn’t enough to get her a seat at the table when important matters are being discussed, there’s little that she can do to change that. She can’t remember the last time she felt so defeated, but it makes her want to snap at the slightest provocation; it’s Mai and Ty Lee who finally light the tinder.  


They’re sitting around a bonfire as the sounds of a wild party rage on next door, as morose a group of teenagers as one could hope to find in a place like this. Mai and Ty Lee have been talking for what feels like hours but Azula hasn’t chimed in – she’s really not even listening, but she can’t help but glance over at one particular sentence.

 

“I’m just so tired,” Mai says. Her voice, usually so flat, is almost three-dimensional tonight. “I’m sick and tired of being a cardboard cutout and I don’t even know how to stop.”

 

Ty Lee’s eyes widen with sympathy. “I know exactly how you feel,” she says soothingly; she reaches for Mai’s arm, but she swats it away. Ty Lee looks a little bit hurt, but she forges on. “That’s what it feels like when people mistake me for my sisters, as if we’re all interchangeable and none of us really matters on our own.”


“Can’t you ever just listen?” Mai snaps. “I didn’t ask for sympathy or anecdotes and I don’t want them!”

 

Ty Lee’s face falls. “I’m…I’m sorry. I thought-“

 

“You always think something, but never once have I ever seen you think about what I might be thinking. And no one ever does!” Mai raises her hands. “Everyone’s so quick to say ‘oh, of course Mai doesn’t have an opinion! Haven’t you heard? She hates everything equally,’ as if they’re not the ones who sucked all of the life out of my life!”

 

Normally, Azula would be paying close attention to this conversation – Mai never raises her voice – but she’s too busy trying to contain her barely-lidded anger to bother. Instead she watches them, Ty Lee’s face growing more and more dejected as Mai lets out the resentment she’s been hiding behind a façade of utter apathy for so long.


She wishes she could be the girl spouting off for the world to hear, but she’s never exactly had that choice.

 

“Mai, I-“

 

“Save it,” Mai snaps, turning away from Ty Lee. “You may be nice, Ty Lee, but it’s not that hard to tell that all you care about is yourself.”

 

Ty Lee’s breath catches, and somehow, it’s that tiny interruption of the conversation that gets Azula to snap.

 

“You two are hilarious, going on about matching sets and hating everything,” she seethes, fists clenching around handfuls of sand, “while I’m doing things my father could never have even dreamed of with a force of this size and he rewards me by sending me on vacation when I have a rightful place on his council!”

 

Ty Lee and Mai are both staring now, but they don’t say anything. Azula takes that as her cue to continue.

 

“I have done everything he’s ever asked of me.” Azula presses her eyes shut against an unfamiliar burning sensation. “And have I ever failed him? Once. Once, and that was enough to make sure that nothing I did was ever right with him again, apparently.” She slams her fist into the sand, grateful for the way it shifts around her knuckles so she doesn’t break them. “I’ve spent over a month chasing the Avatar’s pathetic allies all over the world and I’ve subdued all but one – and, might I add, one that we could be neutralizing right now if he hadn’t shipped me off like some common criminal being transferred to another prison – and this is what I get? A weekend on Ember Island disguised as a gift when I should be in the meeting that’s going to decide the future of the nation that I will one day rule?” Azula almost forgets to breathe, and her face is feverish. “I have been and done everything he wants, and that’s how he repays me. Unbelievable.”

 

“I’m sorry, Azula,” Ty Lee finally says after a fraught moment. “You really did deserve to be there.”

 

Mai says nothing, which is probably wise.

 

“I did,” Azula says under her breath. “And I’m going to see to it that, next time, he understands that as well as you do.”

Chapter Text

“Okay, here’s the deal.” Toph drops her voice conspiratorially. “You see those street gamblers?”


Jae nods. From the wall, she watches the gamblers move three halved coconut shells around at random. They’ve been here long enough now to see several patrons choose a shell only for the grinning vendors to lift the one next to it to reveal a pebble underneath. “I think I can see where this is going.”

 

“You have to pick the one that has the rock under it when the bowls stop moving,” Toph explains, even though Jae already knows that. (She doesn’t have any idea how Toph could possibly know that, but that seems beside the point.) “The other players mess up because they can see the shells moving, and they think that the rock is under the wrong one. But I…”

 

“Can sense them with your earthbending?” Aang, on Jae’s other side, suggests.

 

“Exactly.” Toph cracks her knuckles. “And we’re going to replenish our funds.”

 

The gamblers don’t even know what hit them.

 

“Those gamblers didn’t even know what hit them,” Toph tells the rest of the group, later that afternoon when they return to camp. She shakes the pouch of silver they won with a satisfied cackle.

 

Katara frowns. “How?”

 

Toph shrugs. “Playing their game?”

 

“So…you cheated,” Katara says. Her frown deepens, and she folds her arms across her middle. “Really, Toph?”

 

“I mean, he was cheating, too,” Toph counters. “So I was really just paying him back for all of those innocent people he scammed.”

 

“Oh, really?” Katara gestures to a garnet-studded hairpiece that Jae hadn’t been wearing the last time they saw each other. “Is that why you went shopping?”

 

Sokka pokes his head out of his tent, where he’s been hiding out to avoid being asked to help with the cooking. “You went shopping?” he gives Jae a betrayed look. “Without me?”

 

Jae shrugs, though she can’t deny that it feels surprisingly good to know that she’s gotten Sokka’s goat. Sorry, she mouths in his direction without a hint of contrition.

 

“Hey, gotta give some credit to the lady of the hour, right?” Toph snickers, elbowing Jae’s arm. “Jae’s a crazy-good actress. I don’t think those guys would’ve bought the whole innocent-blind-girl act without her.”

“Yeah!” Aang chimes in. “She did great!”

 

“Really, Jae?” Katara shakes her head.

 

“It was fun,” Jae says remorselessly. “What, do you have something against fun?”

 

Katara scoffs and turns back to the pot of soup she’s stirring. It is so appropriate and so irritating to know that she’s been working for hours while Jae, Aang, and Toph were cavorting around town breaking the law and spending their money on ridiculous trinkets. She’s been poring over maps and turning over possible invasion strategies with Zuko and Sokka; they’ve been running scams. They think she’s averse to fun; she knows that someone has to give it up so that the rest of them can have theirs. She hardly has the privilege of wasting her time the way they do.

 

Well, at least I have a front-row seat at all of Sokka’s sword lessons, she tells herself. And, to be fair, it is somewhat entertaining to watch Zuko train her brother to use a sword properly – Zuko is a stickler for technique while Sokka resists it with every bone in his body, and Katara is endlessly amused by the way Zuko’s face reddens when he corrects Sokka’s form for the sixth time in ten minutes. But that’s about all she can afford when someone has to hold down the fort and there’s no one but her willing to do it.

 

“I am not averse to fun,” Katara huffs after a long pause. She glances around for support, and her eyes land on Zuko as he emerges from his (really their) tent. “Right, Zuko?”

 

Zuko narrows his eyes. “What exactly am I agreeing to?”

 

“I’m fun, right?”

 

“Sure,” he says.


(Sometimes his desperation to get on her good side comes in handy.)

 

Thank you, Zuko.”

 

“His opinion doesn’t count,” Toph says, approaching the cooking fire and sticking a finger in the pot to taste the fish stew (again) that Katara has been preparing. She tastes it, then grimaces. “Too salty.”

 

“How about a ‘thank you’?” Katara snaps. “Do you have any idea how long it takes to feed you people?”


“Why doesn’t my opinion count?” Zuko asks in quick succession, more baffled than genuinely hurt.


“You think I can’t feel your blood pressure go up whenever you talk to her? Please.” Toph smirks. “And geez, Sugar Queen, I didn’t say I wouldn’t eat it. It’s just-“

 

“I told her the last pot wasn’t salty enough,” Zuko cuts in, cheeks red. “It’s probably my fault.”

Katara gives him a look that turns to gratitude once she realizes what he’s doing.

 

“Well, there you have it. Zuko likes things salty.”

 

“Oh, this is worse than I thought,” Toph mutters. “Next thing you know she’s going to be putting fireflakes in everything.”

 

“Wait, would you actually do that?” Zuko’s eyes light up.  

 

“Some of us would rather our taste buds not be on fire,” Katara says drily. “No.”

 

“He says that like he doesn’t already keep a little shaker of crushed-up fire flakes in his pocket and put it on everything,” Jae interjects. “What difference would it even make?”

 

Zuko gives her a dirty look. “It always makes a difference.”

 

“You two are disgusting.” Toph kicks up her feet and folds her arms behind her head. “But this does give me an idea…”

**

The Boiling Rock

 

Suki scans the courtyard for a strip of red fabric tied around a wrist. The symbol was as deliberate a choice as it was a practical one – it’s the easiest available option, but it’s also inconspicuous seeing as anyone could be wearing a band of fabric ripped from a uniform, and in a sea of red cotton, its wearer won’t stick out. And it’s what Hakoda had said the man he wanted Suki to meet would be wearing when they last saw each other, two days ago. They haven’t been sent out into the yard at the same time since then and she’s more desperate to locate this new ally than she wants to admit.

 

She finally spots a waving hand clasping a strip of red cloth that flutters in the wind and elbows her way through the crowd to find its owner. He’s no taller than Suki, plump and bearded and old enough to make her wonder how long he’s been locked up here. She doesn’t say anything for a moment, but he seems to recognize her, so she doesn’t duck for cover, either. “Suki?” he asks.

 

“That’s me,” she says, returning his greeting bow – he must be Fire Nation, she realizes, though the copper color of his eyes should’ve been given it away before the bow did. “Are you-“

 

“Iroh,” he says warmly. “Hakoda told me about you.”

 

“Likewise,” she says. “He thought I should get in touch with you, whatever that meant.”

 

“Ah, right.” His eyes glint. “It’s always good to have allies, is it not?”

 

“Well, it’s not like I’m trying to bust out of here or anything, but I guess,” she says, shrugging.

 

Then she realizes why he’s got that glint in his eyes.

 

“You’re trying to bust out of here, aren’t you?”

 

**

The wanted poster nearly pushes Katara over the edge, but the final straw is the sight of a bird on Sokka’s shoulder when he, Toph, Aang, and Jae return to camp hours after their departure.

 

“Are you kidding me?” Katara throws up her hands. “We’re only months away from the most important eight minutes of any of our lives, and you’re wasting enough time to buy a messenger hawk with your scam winnings?”

 

“Hey, Hawky is useful!” Sokka insists. “We need to keep open lines of communication, don’t we?”


“That is not the point, Sokka.” Katara points an accusing finger at her brother. “I just can’t believe how immature you people are!”

 

“Hey, who do you think’s been paying for our food lately?” Toph cuts in defensively. “You’re the one who’s always complaining about how you have to spend all this time cooking!”

 

“I’m fine with cooking and I certainly never asked you to do anything that” – she unrolls the slip of paper she’d found in Toph’s luggage – “would get you on a wanted poster!”

 

“Please, sugar queen, no one was buying your whole self-sacrifice act,” Toph says lightly. “It’s a classic mom thing.”

 

There is more to unpack in that single sentence than Katara cares to, and she doesn’t even try.

 

“Aaand you’re not even denying it. Typical,” Sokka sighs.

 

“You realize that you’re not actually our mom, right?” Toph cuts in. “You act like we put you through so much when, really, no one is even asking you to cook or keep things neat or make sure I go to bed on time-“


“When did I ever do that?”

 

“Okay, it’s a hypothetical example, but you get it!” Toph shrugs her shoulders. “You are so obsessed with controlling every little detail of our lives that you just…completely forget that you’re a kid like us who has no more say over what we do than any of our real parents.”

 

“I am not obsessed with controlling you.” Katara turns her back. “Honestly, when have I ever said any of that?”

 

When did you ever need to?” Toph shoots back.

 

“It’s not my fault that you’re finding people to project your own problems with your parents onto,” Katara says icily, “but it’s going to be if you get caught, and I’m not willing to sit by and let you guys get yourselves arrested.”

 

“Katara, don’t,” Sokka calls after her as she leaves, but she doesn’t listen.

 

**

Fire Nation Palace

 

“If I’m going to be Fire Lord, I should have experience with these things, shouldn’t I?”

 

Ozai eyes his daughter suspiciously. “You have to be lying to yourself if you really claim to believe that you’re ready to be sitting in on war councils.”

 

Azula’s fists clench where she’s clasped them behind her back. “Father, I’ve neutralized nearly all of the Avatar’s allies alone,” she points out, willing her voice not to shake. “I took Ba Sing Se almost singlehandedly. I was the one who planned and executed nearly all of the missions that are going to prevent an invasion of the capital, and if that doesn’t prove my readiness, I don’t know what’s going to!”

 

“Perhaps you should’ve thought about how badly you wanted that seat at the table when you let your brother and the Avatar slip out from under your nose when all three of you were in the same city,” Ozai says coolly. He waves his hand in her direction. “Dismissed.”

 

Azula knows better than to struggle as two guards arrive to lead her out of the throne room, but she is anything but composed.


He had taken this from her just as he’d taken her birthright and her mother’s love and nearly everything else she’d chased for so long, and he would be the one to pay.

 

Perhaps, in doing so, he would win her the esteem she knew she deserved.

 

**

 

“Hey, what happened back there?”

 

Katara yelps in surprise as Zuko’s voice carries across the grotto. “How did you even find me?” she asks, deflecting to give herself enough time to get her bearings. It’s not as if he couldn’t have stumbled upon the grotto below their camp where she’s bathing by accident, but she wasn’t expecting to be disturbed, either.

 

“You usually go where there’s water when you need to think,” he says, and her cheeks color to know that he’s noticed that.


“And you came to check on me.”

 

“You usually don’t blow up like that. Just making sure you’re not going to strangle anyone when you get back to camp.”

 

She doesn’t answer. “Thanks for defending my soup,” she says instead. “Even though I really didn’t care that much what anyone thought. And Toph knows when people are lying.”

 

“No, you definitely cared.” Zuko won’t meet her eyes, instead letting his eyes drift from point to point in the middle distance, and Katara realizes only after a moment spent watching him that he’s trying not to stare.


(It’s a truly inconvenient time to remember that she’s wearing only her underthings.)

 

“You shouldn’t sneak up on people,” she says.

 

“You shouldn’t keep changing the subject,” he fires back. “Now can you please answer the question so I don’t have to sit here all night?”


“Would you?” Katara asks. “Sit here all night to get your answer?”


Zuko shrugs. “I don’t really want anyone to get stabbed, so yeah, I guess.”

 

“And what if I told you I wasn’t going to stab anyone?”

 

“I wouldn’t believe you.”

 

“So you’d wait here all night for me?”

 

He shrugs.

 

“I’d get pretty cold,” Katara reasons, “and I can’t get out while you’re still here because I don’t have clothes, so wouldn’t that be kind of rude?”

 

He looks at her for a moment, considering, then begins to undo the knot that keeps his tunic closed. Before Katara can even sputter a half-coherent sentence, he holds it out to her. “Here,” he says. “If you’re cold.”

 

“You only have one change of clothes!” she protests. “And…and now you’re not wearing a shirt!”

 

Spirits, I wish I could not care that he’s-

 

Katara. No.


“I train Sokka without a shirt all the time,” he tells her. “And you’re gonna get all pruny if you stay in too long.”

 

“And why would you care if I got pruny?” Katara asks. “It’s not going to hurt me.”

 

“You’ll probably get sick.”

 

“No one gets sick from pruny fingers, Zuko.”

 

“Katara, please just take the shirt.”

 

“Okay,” she finally concedes. “Can you turn around?”

 

“Right.” He turns and she bends the water out of her hair and undergarments so she won’t get his shirt wet. Its material is silky against her skin, and it hangs off of her even though she and Zuko aren’t far apart in height. “Thank you.”

 

“Safe to turn?” he asks.

 

“Safe to turn,” she confirms, taking a seat beside him on the flat rock at the pond’s edge. “Thanks. Again.”

 

“Do you think she was right?” Zuko asks after a weighty pause. “About you acting like their mom?”

 

Katara sighs wearily. “I…I want to believe that she was wrong, but maybe I have been mothering them a little too much.”


“Well, to be fair, someone has to keep them from getting you arrested.”


“Yeah, but I might be a little bit more uptight than I need to be,” she admits. “I guess I never noticed because it’s how I’ve always been, but now that I think about it, I can kind of see how that would be hard to live with.”

 

“You’re not hard to live with,” Zuko says, sounding almost surprised at his own words. “I mean, take it from a guy whose sister wants to kill him. You’re really not.”


“Well, that’s nice of you to say.” Katara gives him a wan smile. “Thanks.”

 

“I mean…you do work too hard,” he adds. “But, like…that’s not her problem.”

 

“I work hard because no one else will,” Katara says, her voice small. “That’s just how it’s always gone. I mean, my mom died when I was eight, and there wasn’t really anyone else around to step up and make sure life went on, you know? All of the men were away, and the only people left who didn’t have their own families to take care of were old women and kids even younger than me. Someone had to work, or we’d all have starved.” She lets a wan smile slip past her defenses. “Or worn the same socks for seven years, like my brother did.”

 

“Well, that’s horrifying.”

 

“Right?” Katara shakes her head. “Honestly. I guess I know deep down that it isn’t fair, but I never really think about it anymore.”

 

“Have you actually talked to them about any of this?”


Katara shrugs. “Who’d even get it? Toph, who hates her parents and hasn’t had to work a day in her life? Aang and Jae, who don’t even have any? Sokka, who I just overheard saying that he barely even remembers our mom’s face because I’ve been his stand-in mom since he was ten?”

 

“Well, maybe not, but you could try.”

 

“It hurts, you know,” she says. “Knowing that they think I’m…I don’t know, this crabby old stick-in-the-mud. Because I never wanted to be that person, you know? I’m not allergic to fun. I just…can’t really have much of it if life is going to keep going.”

 

“Yeah, this really sounds like stuff you should be telling them,” Zuko says. “Even though I know you won’t. But…I guess I’m glad you’re telling me.”

 

“Well…thanks for listening, then.” Katara sighs again. “I know this isn’t really what you signed up for.”

 

“Well, what I signed up for was an alliance that I only made to stop you from killing me on the spot, so I’d say I’ve actually done pretty well.” Zuko sighs. “I know I’m only here because I keep trying to save my own skin, but I’m…I guess there are worse places I could be.”

 

Katara reaches over as if she’s going to take his hand, then changes her mind and pats it. It’s an awkward gesture, but he still feels like he’s going to combust at her touch and he has to remind himself not to think about the fact that she’s wearing his shirt so he won’t set something on fire. “I think so, too.”

 

She tries to meet his eyes, but they can’t help but be drawn to his bare chest, and she turns her burning face, inching away. “Sorry, I keep forgetting that…” she gestures to the fabric of the tunic pooling around her waist. “Sorry,” she stammers. “We should…”

 

“Yeah.” Zuko shakes himself. “Yeah, uh…we should.”  

 

(She realizes only hours later that she has no idea what Toph’s idea was, and she isn’t sure if she wants to.)

**

“You know, Zuko told me that I should talk to you guys about how I feel overwhelmed, but I never thought that was going to happen in a prison cell.”

 

Running a scam – turn Toph in, collect the price on her head, escape, and move on – had seemed like a perfect way to make up with Toph without having to unload her trauma on a twelve-year-old. They hadn’t counted on a cell she couldn’t bend her way out of, though.

 

“I feel ya,” Toph says. The heat is oppressive and sweat begins to bead on both of their foreheads. “But it was a good con while it lasted.”

 

“You say that as if it didn’t end with us in a jail cell we can’t bend out of,” Katara huffs. She swipes at the sweat on her forehead with the back of her hand, then freezes. “Wait…”


“Please tell me that’s your ‘I have an idea to get us out of this stupid cell’ voice,” Toph asks, letting out a sigh when she hears Katara stand and begin to run in place. “…it wasn’t, was it?”

 

“Isn’t most of the human body water?” she asks, panting with effort, and it’s only a few seconds before Toph hears the sound of water slashing through the wooden bars of the cell. The door falls after a moment.

 

“Oh. That was your ‘I have an idea to get us out of this stupid cell’ voice,” Toph snickers. “Nice going, Sweetness.”

 

“My brother’s not the only guy with a head for plans around,” she says lightly. “Now we have to get back to-“

 

Katara freezes.


“Katara?” Toph asks cautiously. “Are we good?”

 

“You tell me, Miss Beifong,” a voice that Toph can’t quite place interjects. But she can feel a third heartbeat in the hallway, and Katara’s speeds to a frantic allegro.

 

“You again,” Katara spits.

 

“What, not so happy to see me?” the girl asks. “Pity. Am I to expect the same sort of welcome from my no-account brother, then?”

Chapter Text

Before Toph can even ask what’s happening, Katara is grabbing her wrist and running. Her pulse is pounding, and Toph feels the hand she’s holding grow slick with sweat; she can sense footsteps in pursuit.

 

“You know, I was tempted to let you two off the hook,” their pursuer – and now Toph realizes with a start why her voice sounds so familiar – calls out from behind. “Since it isn’t you two I care about. But since you’re practically asking to be taken in, I supposed I’ll have to give you want you want.”

 

Katara curses under her breath, which Toph would never let her hear the end of (she’s been a vocal critic of Toph’s colorful language in the past) if they weren’t on the run. “Zuko,” she whispers, enough panic in her tone to send chills racing up Toph’s spine.

 

“Aang, actually, but it is interesting that your mind immediately went to my brother,” she says. Azula, Toph finally realizes. “What is going on there?”

 

“If she has the energy to trash-talk, why hasn’t she caught us yet?” Toph pants.

 

“Too easy,” Azula says, her voice growing more distant as they run. Katara comes to a halt when she realizes that Azula isn’t even moving anymore, nearly sending Toph crashing into her; now it's her turn to curse under her breath, and, for perhaps the first time since they've met, she says nothing. “It’d be much more useful to let you go.”

 

Why?” Toph asks. Katara’s hand grows clammier in hers. “Don’t you want to use us as bait?”

 

“Wait, no,” Katara realizes. “No. She wants us to lead her back to Aang.”

 

“Ah, so you are smarter than you look,” Azula says. “No wonder my brother likes you so much.”

 

Katara throws her arm across Toph’s chest to hold her back, then takes a defensive stance. “Don’t even think about it,” she snaps.

 

“Well, you don’t have to lead me back to them. It’d be ideal, but it’s not the only way to get what I want.” Toph feels as if she can see Azula’s expression as clearly as Katara can even though she’s never seen a smirk before. “It’s just the easiest.”

 

She gets the feeling that Azula knows something the two of them don’t and the sound of pounding footsteps – three from their side, one from Azula’s – soon follows.


“Case in point. They come for you, I get what I want,” Azula says, her nonchalance clearly forced. That's weird, Katara notes - she's never known Azula to sound so strained before. She shifts her feet into a defensive stance, but whatever she’s planning – whatever she means by the smirk she means for her brother and the Avatar – it doesn’t pan out, and Katara’s eyes widen when, seemingly causelessly, she crumples to the ground.

 

 

“Resourcefulness,” Jae says, grinning unabashedly as she holds Katara’s iron cooking pot aloft. Azula’s crumpled at her feet, its unfortunate victim. “Bet she never saw that coming.”

 

Sokka looks at Jae with the expression he usually reserves for meat and overpriced trinkets.

 

“Of all the things,” Zuko mutters, “how was it a cooking pot that finally took her down?”

 

Jae nudges Azula with her toe. “Oh, she’s not dead, just…conked out for a while,” she says, still a little too proud of herself. “And it wasn’t the cooking pot that did it. It was-“


“The element of surprise,” Sokka finishes. “Jae, I’m gonna be honest here. I think I might be a little bit in love with you.”

 

Jae looks like she might have an aneurysm, but she doesn't get a chance to respond before Aang cuts in. 

 

“Uh…guys?” Aang says warily, eyeing Azula’s crumpled body. “Shouldn’t we be getting away from her before she wakes up?”

 

Katara nods resolutely. “Jae, do you know how long she’ll be out for?”

 

“Well, I’ve never exactly done this, but it’s probably not going to be that long.” Jae’s arms start to droop with the effort of holding up the cooking pot, which dwarfs her diminutive frame. “I say we head back to camp and get going.”

 

 

 

**

 

“We should be able to stop here for the night,” Katara says after a quick scan of their surroundings. The clearing is spacious enough to accommodate a fire and six sleeping bodies, and from the looks of it, it’s undisturbed – though a proper village would do more for Katara’s frayed nerves than a campsite would, it’ll be safe.

 

“I don’t know, Katara,” Sokka says after completing the same scan. “Isn’t this pretty exposed?”

 

“Yeah, I’m a little worried,” Toph agrees. She plants her foot to sense what’s around her and shakes her head. “There’s something off about this place.”

 

“Okay, then what else would you suggest?” Katara asks, planting her hands on her hips. “Because as far as I’m concerned, this is as good as this is going to get. It’s safe, convenient, and-“


“Completely exposed,” Sokka says again. “If Azula comes after us again and she manages to find us here, we’re toast.”

 

“Literally,” Jae adds unhelpfully.

 

“But we’re not going to be able to put up a fight if we’re all exhausted,” Katara reasons. “I know it isn’t perfect, but this spot’s pretty isolated, and it’ll give us a chance to rest before we keep going.” She looks around the group – Sokka and Toph’s faces are skeptical, Jae’s is impossible to read, Aang’s is just tired, Zuko’s is so dazed that whatever emotions he might be feeling aren’t discernable. “We’ve all had a long day, and we need to sleep, okay? So let’s just make camp here.”


“Whatever,” Toph says, crossing her arms.

 

“No fire, though,” Sokka decides. “It’ll make us too visible.”

 

“Fine,” Katara concedes. “Then in that case, we might as well settle in and try to get ourselves warm before the night gets really cold.”

 

“And sleep in pairs,” Sokka says. “Hypothermia kills.”

 

Aang looks to Jae, who looks to Sokka, who doesn’t look at anyone, while Zuko and Katara try their hardest not to look at each other.

 

“I’m…not sure that’s necessary,” Katara says after a pause, though she knows as well as Sokka does from years in the South Pole that his suggestion is good.

“You don’t have to sleep next to Flamebrain, you know,” Toph points out. “Ever considered that?”

 

“What does Zuko have to do with anything? I just don’t think we need to sleep in pairs,” Katara protests. “I mean, I’d get it if we were at the South Pole, but it’s not even cold here!”

 

“Some of us get cold easily,” Aang says, ever the diplomat. He shrugs. “If Sokka thinks it’ll help, I believe him. And besides, won’t we all sleep better knowing that someone has our back?”

 

“See? He gets it.” Sokka digs through Appa’s saddlebags to find their bedrolls. “And besides, we don’t have that many blankets. Sharing is efficient.”

 

“You say that as if we need them,” Katara says. “It’s still warm, and I can’t imagine it’ll get that much colder.”


“Well, we’re on an island. It always gets cold at night on the coast,” Sokka reasons. “Seriously, can you just go with it? No one is making you sleep next to-“

 

“Why is everyone making this about Zuko?”


“Hey, you said it, not me.” Sokka raises his hands, then rolls out a bedroll and promptly flops down on it (considering its thinness, that can’t be comfortable). Aang follows his lead, and Toph, after a brief squabble about whether or not she has to sleep on a bedroll at all when she prefers the ground, reluctantly joins him under the blanket. That leaves Zuko, whose sharing with Jae is a nonstarter and who seemingly has no interest in sleeping next to Sokka, to stare intently at Katara until she comprehends his meaning, and Jae, who can’t decide which of the possible setups she could end up as part of would be least humiliating, to join Sokka when he waves her over.

 

Katara won’t look at Zuko as she lifts the blanket to allow him in, but she certainly doesn’t shy away, either. He’s always been warm, and though the night isn’t cold, she certainly appreciates the warm weight of the arm that slings itself across her shoulders as he starts to drift off. It’s heavy, and she isn’t sure how she feels about this proximity, but Zuko radiates heat and it’s almost impossible not to let it lull her to sleep.

 

Toph puts an end to that when she sits up abruptly, provoking a yelp of protest from Aang at the loss of their shared blanket.

 

“You guys,” she says, her voice shaky. “I think I can hear people.”

 

“You’re hallucinating,” Sokka groans, yanking his blanket off of Jae when he turns to look at her. “Go to sleep.”

 

“No, I’m serious,” she insists. “There are people underneath the mountain. I can feel them, and…I can hear them.”

 

“You’re definitely losing it,” Sokka replies.

 

“No, I’m not!” Toph’s voice grows more agitated. “Why would I lie about that? There are people beneath the mountain, and they’re screaming!”

 

“That doesn’t even make sense,” Zuko says. “How would there be people underground?”

 

“I don’t know, but I can feel them there,” Toph says, hugging her knees to her chest. “It’s creeping me out. I feel like we shouldn’t be here.”

 

“I agree. You shouldn’t be.”

 

The whole group turns, several of them letting out undignified shrieks at the sound of an unfamiliar voice behind them. An old woman stands half-obscured by a cluster of trees, hunched over the lantern she’s carrying; it sends long, tonguelike shadows dancing across the clearing. There’s something unnerving in her smile that sends the group skittering towards each other, each a little closer to their partner than they need to be.

 

“These woods aren’t safe,” she says kindly. “I have an inn back in the village, and I’d feel much better knowing that you were safe and warm in my rooms. Can’t have you disappearing like the rest of the villagers who’ve wandered into the woods at night.”


“Disappearing?” Sokka’s eyes widen. “What do you mean disappearing?”

 

“People enter these woods and don’t find their way out,” she says with a shrug far too nonchalant for her words. “Why don’t you let me get you set up at the inn? Fix you some tea? I won’t charge you.”

 

“Um…that’s not exactly a great sales pitch.” Sokka crosses his arms. “’People are disappearing, come stay at my mysterious inn!’ Yeah…really not sounding too good right now.”  

 

“I promise, I mean you no harm,” the woman says. “Now, why don’t you come with me?”

 

It’s a proposition that they should all know better than to accept, but they’re just frightened enough to be willing to take what they can get. So they follow the woman back through the woods, some still clutching each other’s hands, until they reach the village. Even though it’s barely an hour past nightfall (in their exhaustion, it feels much later), it’s still lively, and plenty of people sit out on their porches or wander the streets; still, though, there’s something slightly odd about it. Katara, too eager to get to safety and follow up on the woman’s comment about disappearances in the woods to care, brushes that off, though she grips Zuko’s hand for security, as he does hers.

 

She feels his shoulders slump in relief along with her own when they enter the building, if only because they’re under a roof. The woman, who’s since introduced herself as Hama, watches them as they go up to their rooms with a knowing smile. “You two make a lovely couple,” she tells them.


Zuko’s hand immediately unclasps from hers.

 

“We’re not,” Katara stammers. “A couple.”

 

“We’re not anything,” Zuko agrees.

 

“Oh, I see how it is,” Hama says. Her voice drops to a whisper. “Keeping it a secret, hm?”

 

“No, no, not at all! Katara’s cheeks flush. “There’s…nothing to be secretive about, really. We’re not…we aren’t like that.”


“Well, that’s a shame, seeing as I’ve only got five rooms prepared,” she says. “Looks like the two of you are going to have to double up.”

 

“Oh, uh…that’s okay.” Katara’s cheeks are still burning, but she can’t deny that she’s relieved not to be sleeping alone in a place like this. Hama is kind, and the village seems completely normal, but it’s unnerving in a way she can’t quite place and isn’t sure she wants to. Even so, they drift off quickly; wordlessly, they elect to sleep back-to-back, neither wanting to let up their defenses after they day they’ve had. Katara’s glad for their exhaustion when she wakes early the next morning to the sound of footsteps against the creaky boards of the next floor up, if only because it keeps her from thinking too much about where they’re sleeping.

 

Naturally, she seizes on the distraction of the mysterious footsteps and pads down the hall to check each of her friends’ rooms, wary of the possibilities in a town whose citizens apparently disappear regularly. Aang, Toph, and Jae are undisturbed, and she barely thinks to check Sokka’s room, entirely certain that he’d have made so much noise if he’d been taken that she couldn’t possibly have missed it. But instinct prompts her to check anyways, and her heart falls when she opens his door a crack to find nothing more than a lump in the bed where he’d once been. Heart pounding, she closes the door as quietly as she can and begins to slip back down the hall towards the stairs to go investigate, only to collide with someone at the base of the stairs.

 

“Katara?” Sokka hisses. “What are you doing?”

 

“What were you doing? I thought you’d been kidnapped!” Katara snaps so that her relief at his safety won’t show. “I heard footsteps and went to check on everyone and you-“

 

“Shhh,” he whispers, carefully making his way down the hall so he won’t step on any of the creakiest boards. Katara notices that he’s holding a chest and wonders how she missed it before. “I had to do some poking around.”

 

“Seriously?” Katara hisses. “You can’t just go traipsing around in people’s houses!”

 

“This place is creepy!” Sokka protests, opening his door again. Katara follows him in. “It’s not smart not to know what we’re getting into.”

 

“And it’s even less smart to go looking for trouble,” she points out, a little louder now that they’re alone. “And what’s in that chest?”

 

“I have no idea,” he admits. “But it was behind a locked door, and I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be if it wasn’t important.”

 

Katara crosses her arms. “You broke into a locked room?”

 

“Well, what else was I supposed to do?”

 

“Oh, I don’t know, leave it alone?”

 

“But whatever this is has to be important!” Sokka insists. “Maybe this’ll tell us why this place is so weird.”

 

“I highly doubt that,” Katara snaps. He’s already unsheathing his sword, attempting to use it to unlatch the chest’s lock. “Not to mention how wrong it is to be snooping on a nice old lady who took us in for free.”

 

“She’s creepy,” Sokka reminds her. “You’re not really going to deny that, are you?”

 

“Well, this place is a little strange, but she’s perfectly fine,” Katara counters. “And even if she weren’t, what business do we have-“

 

The chest unlatches at the same time that his door does.

 

“No, no, it’s quite all right,” Hama says, leaning against the doorframe for support. “Of course you’d be curious. But you could’ve asked me, you know.”

 

Sokka freezes, the chest’s lid falling open. It nearly clatters to the floor until Katara remembers that whatever is inside is probably valuable and dives to catch it. The object inside still clatters to the floor, though, and Hama bends with some effort to pick it up, stroking the object’s contours lovingly.

 

“A…comb?” Sokka asks, disbelieving. It’s blue and white, obviously made of bone, and curves gracefully into a curlicue at each end.

 

“My most prized possession,” she tells them proudly. “It’s the only thing I managed to bring with me when they took me from the Southern Water Tribe.”

 

**

 

Sweat beads on Azula’s brow, still sore from the cooking pot with which it’s recently become acquainted, and she swipes at it irritably. Her hood hangs down over her eyes, and her loose hair occasionally blocks her vision. It’s not pragmatic, but it’s something that Princess Azula would never allow – in other words, a perfect disguise – so, in spite of the heat and the stares, she contents herself with pushing her hair back behind her ears, careful not to disrupt the hood that obscures her easily-identified features. She clenches her fists against the whispers that swirl around her and scans the crowds for any sign of a familiar face, or any snatch of conversation that might reveal the whereabouts of the strange children staying in the woods nearby.

 

She’s let them slip away one too many times, and she’s no longer sure if it’s parental approval or personal pride which drives her to pursue them with full knowledge that she will not let it happen again.

 

**

 

“Ah, so I see you’ve brought your boyfriend.” Hama smiles, though there’s something unnerving about it even in its kindliness. “How sweet.”

 

“I’m not,” Zuko sulks.

 

“He’s just here to observe,” Katara says with a conciliatory smile, even though it’s only half-true. Sokka, still wary, had all but insisted that someone accompany Katara when Hama had offered to show her apparently-lost Southern watebending styles, and since Aang was too valuable, Jae inadequately-equipped to defend Katara if need be, and himself and Toph both unwilling, Zuko had been stuck with guard duty.


Katara resents this. She doesn’t need a bodyguard – Hama’s harmless, and even if she weren’t, she’s perfectly capable of defending herself. But Sokka hasn’t quite let go of his suspicion yet and deemed two people less likely to disappear than one.

 

“Ah, I see.” Hama lifts an eyebrow. “Well, I’m sure he’ll find this as enlightening as you will.”

 

“Uh…me…too,” Zuko, who’s not quite sure how he feels about all of this, stammers.

 

Hama continues as they begin to walk, though neither knows where she’s leading them. “You’ve probably both wondered how I came to be here,” Hama starts. “As I’ve wondered about you, I must confess.”

 

“I have,” Katara admits. “It’s not every day that you run into a Southern Water Tribeswoman in the middle of the Fire Nation.”

 

“Of course.” Hama’s eyes darken. “It’s a miracle that I’m still here at all.”

 

“Oh?” Katara asks.

 

“I wasn’t much older than you when the Fire Nation raids on our tribe began,” Hama tells her. “Just about sixteen. Now, back then, the Southern Water Tribe had as many waterbenders as the North, and at first, we were able to hold them off, but one by one, they started picking us off.” She shakes her head. “We did our best, but there was only so much that a dwindling group of waterbenders could do against the entire Fire Nation fleet.”

 

Neither Zuko nor Katara misses the way Hama’s gaze flits to him and hardens when she mentions the Fire Nation, as if she knows exactly who she’s talking to. Zuko wonders if she does, and – if so – why she hasn’t said anything.

 

(But mostly he pictures a younger Hama, one who looks suspiciously like Katara, trying to hold off the Fire Navy alone, and his stomach turns.)

 

“Of course, the time eventually came when they took me, too,” Hama sighs, more resigned than anything. “I’ll never forget what it felt like to watch the only home I’d ever known disappear through the cracks as they closed the ramp of that ship.” She averts her face. “They kept me chained up in the dark, not knowing that I’d never see it again.”


“I can’t even imagine what that must’ve felt like.” Katara can no longer bring herself to meet Hama’s eyes. “I thought I had it hard because I lost my mother in one of those raids, but…to be taken away from your home like that? That’s so much worse.”

 

“Oh, you poor things,” Hama says, sotto voce, and presses Katara’s hand. “We’ve all lost much to the Fire Nation, haven’t we?”

 

Katara swallows hard, then nods. “We have.”


“I’m amazed that you’d maintain such a close relationship with one after all of that,” Hama clucks, looking over at Zuko. “Assuming that you are Fire National, of course?”

 

Zuko nods mutely. He doesn’t want to admit it, but he feels oddly compelled to.

 

Katara shrugs. “I thought the same thing when we first met, but I’m starting to realize that the Fire Nation hurt its own people as much as it hurt ours,” Katara tells her. “No point in holding innocent civilians who’d probably be horrified if they knew all of this responsible for what the Fire Lord and his armies are doing.”

 

I’m hardly an innocent civilian, Zuko can’t help but think.

 

“Oh, really.” Hama doesn’t sound like she agrees. “Well, that’s very generous of you.”

 

Katara makes a noncommittal noise in reply. “So, how did you end up in this village?” she asks. “Did you escape?”

 

“Eventually,” she says. “But not until I’d spent two years in prison, watched day and night in a cage too far from any source of water to bend.” Her eyes cloud over. “They wouldn’t even give us a drop to drink unless our hands were tied so they could be sure we wouldn’t use it to escape.”

 

(Hama was their age, Zuko realizes, and his stomach gives another twist. Fifteen or sixteen, probably, locked away without the aid of her element – and he knows from watching Katara that waterbenders don’t do well when they’re too far from a source of water for too long – and, if he knows anything of the Fire Nation, that was probably just the beginning of what she suffered.


He pictures the young Hama who looks so much like Katara in chains, and he’s never felt the weight of his nation’s sins more heavily.)

 

“And how did you escape?” Katara asks.

 

“I don’t want to talk about it,” Hama says curtly, and neither asks any more questions as they approach a field awash in orange and Hama comes to a stop. Fire lilies, Zuko realizes. “And besides, we’re here for you, not me.” Hama’s eyes, no longer cloudy, glint now. “You won’t always be surrounded by water, and I’d be failing in my duty as a Southern waterbender if I didn’t show you how to find it where it seemingly can’t be found.”

 

Katara lifts an eyebrow but doesn’t say anything, entranced as Hama sucks a swath of lilies dry. Water swirls in a graceful arc around her outstretched hands, and the lilies she’d desiccated wilt.

 

“Because if you look in the right places, water,” she says with a very pointed look that is unmistakably meant for Zuko, “can be found anywhere.”

 

**

Zuko doesn’t even hear Hama enter his deserted bedroom. 

“Did you know that, for several years, your face was on every propaganda leaflet your father’s lackeys passed out around these parts?”

 

Zuko feels frozen in place, unable even to be startled by the sound of Hama’s voice in the doorway. His heart races, and he has a feeling she’d waited all day for an opportunity to get him alone.

 

“Your face was everywhere back when you were banished,” Hama continues. “They called you a traitor to the crown, and for a while, I almost pitied you. After all, I have some experience with convictions of treason.”

 

“What do you want, then?” Zuko wills his voice not to shake as his hands are.

 

“But then it occurred to me that you weren’t acting out of some sort of misguided sense of justice at all,” Hama continues, avoiding his question. “Admirable though that might’ve been, you were just like I once was.”

 

“Which means what, exactly?”

 

“A teenager, desperate to hold onto the only thing you knew.” Hama steps close enough to put her hand on his shoulder, but he’s still so shocked that he doesn’t even flinch. “But do you know what the difference between you and I is, Prince Zuko?”

 

“Why didn’t you just tell me you knew who I was from the beginning?” he asks, voice hoarse with fear. He knows almost nothing about this woman except that she’s a skilled bender with ample reason to want him dead, and that alone turns his stomach.

 

Again, she doesn’t answer.

 

“The difference,” she says instead, “is that one of us is on the wrong side of history, and the other on the right one.”

 

He says nothing.


“Ah, so you don’t deny it.” Hama lifts her hand from his shoulder, and he shudders at the cool evening air that occupies the space where it sat. “I suppose it’s good to know you people are capable of repentance.”

 

“What do you want from me, Hama?” he finally asks.

 

“Oh, trust me, you can’t give me anything I truly want.” She circles around him and sits down beside him, her weight displacing his on the saggy mattress. “What I want is to erase the past sixty years, forget about the Fire Nation, and live in peace with the family and friends I left behind and the rest of the waterbenders your people stole from their homes and chained up to die here. But you can’t give me any of that.” She shakes her head. “All you can give me is the satisfaction of knowing that one of yours suffered the way every single one of mine did.”

 

Zuko’s throat feels raw when he replies, “so you want to kill me.”

 

“Oh, no. That would be far too easy, and I doubt Katara would look too kindly on it. I really do admire her, you know – all that raw power, waiting to be refined…” Hama sighs rapturously. “I can’t afford to have her on my bad side. So no. I don’t plan to kill you.”

 

“Then what is it that you want?”

 

“I want you to know,” she says, lifting her hands so that they almost resemble Katara’s when she’s going to bend, “what it feels like to be utterly powerless.”

 

Without intending to, Zuko stands, backing himself into the wall behind him with steps that don’t feel like his own.

 

“What are you doing to me?” he gasps.

 

“The same thing they did to me and every other Southern waterbender,” she says. “Taking everything they could of us until all that was left was a shell, incapable of doing anything but their bidding.”

 

Zuko’s breath seizes in his throat. For a moment he can’t breathe, his throat refusing to let air through, and he tries to raise his hands to claw at it in panic but he can’t.

 

“I never intended to kill you, Zuko,” she says, her hands shifting to release his throat. He sags, gasping for breath. “I never intended to kill all of those people who disappeared into my woods, either, and I didn’t.”

 

“It was you?”

 

“As I’m sure your companions are figuring out right about now,” she says coolly. “That Sokka wasn’t too hard to convince to go investigate the clues I left in their path.”

 

“You revealed yourself just to get me alone?”

 

“No, I never intended to kill you,” she repeats. “I intend to break you.”

 

**

It’s not hard to track six teenagers who’ve wandered into a village of a little over a thousand – they, and a rash of mysterious disappearances on nights when the moon is full, are all the people in this town seem to talk about. She quickly learns that they’re staying at an inn – perfect, she thinks. All in one place.

 

She rubs at the goose-egg on her brow as she approaches, almost fascinated. She’s had her share of scrapes and bruises, but she’s so rarely bested that anything beyond that is a novelty. She should be ashamed, but she’s almost appreciative of the bump – it has been so long since she had an opponent who could best her without any unfair advantage using only cleverness and skill and strategy. Those who get the better of her so often resort to intimidation, to guilt – bile rises in her throat at the thought of her father, the way he knows she’s surpassed him and so belittles her to make himself feel the larger – but whoever took her out yesterday had done so using only a cooking pot and the element of surprise. The villagers told her it was a scrawny girl around her own age wielding a pot almost as big as she was (surely an exaggeration, but she gets the point), and Azula’s almost curious about her.

 

She’s almost desperate enough to wonder what would happen if she stopped giving chase, stopped trying to prove herself to a father who she knows deep down will never accept that proof, stopped hunting the child who’s caused her so much strife already. If she were allowed to – unthinkably – see the humor in the knot on her forehead instead of fighting off such thoughts with the bitter insistence that she must be ashamed to have been beaten so easily. But the part of her that’s just desperate enough not to let go of the things she’s always told herself will secure her position forces her to keep walking.

 

She hardly remembers to be suspicious when no one greets her at the entrance to the inn.

 

**

 

The inn is eerily quiet when Katara returns from the market, the provisions Hama had asked her to restock heavy in a basket on her arm. Normally, if nothing else, she can hear Sokka and Aang’s voices as they debate whatever strange happenings are causing the rash of disappearances from these woods, or Toph’s heavy footsteps, but now she hears nothing.

 

Nothing, until she catches a faint, pained grunt she can barely hear even in the silence, and she’s running up the stairs before she can stop to think. Her first thought when she can is that something might’ve happened to Hama – she’s old, after all, and almost completely alone here, and if she’s hurt, she might be in danger if Katara doesn’t get to her. But she begins to realize that she’s guessed incorrectly when the muffled sounds of struggle lead her back to her own room.

 

At first, she can’t see where the sounds are coming from – only Hama, sitting on her bed and holding her hands aloft. Relief floods Katara’s senses at seeing Hama safe, but a few more steps inside snatch it back.

 

The half-alive grunts and labored breaths she’d been hearing are coming from Zuko.

 

Hama has him pinned against the wall from a yard or so away, and he’s grasping at his throat as if he can’t breathe. “Hama!” Katara cries, pulse rapidly quickening. “What are you doing to him?”

 

“Water is everywhere, dear,” she says, smiling ever-so-slightly as she jerks Zuko’s arms away from his throat so they pin themselves to the wall behind him. Katara runs to him, tries to pry them free, but every muscle in his body seems to resist her and she can’t get them to budge. “In the air, in the ground…in the body.”

 

“His blood,” Katara realizes, her hands falling slack to her sides. Zuko’s eyes plead for aid she can’t give him and she muffles a sob, clapping a hand over her mouth. “You’re…”

 

“Bloodbending, yes,” Hama says. “I would’ve taught you, you know. Still would.”

 

“Hama, you’re hurting him,” Katara says, barely managing a whisper as her lungs gasp for purchase. “Why are you doing this?”

 

“Don’t worry, dear, I was never going to kill-“

 

“Let him go!”

 

“I will in time,” she says calmly. “But not yet.”

 

Undeterred, Katara turns back to Zuko, whose hands have drifted back to his throat, and tries to pry his hands free. “Why?” she asks, grunting as she finally manages to wear down his resistance and pull one hand free.

 

“You already know that answer, don’t you?” Hama releases Zuko and he slumps forward, sheet-white, into Katara’s arms.

 

“She knows who I am, Katara,” he says, his voice hoarse.

 

It clicks, then: how Hama had managed to escape from that prison and why she’d never wanted to talk about it; why this village and no other is experiencing those mysterious disappearances; the way Hama always watches Zuko when she thinks no one is looking; all her talk of finding water wherever possible.

 

All of her longing to make what’s left of the Fire Nation that took her captive pay.

 

“What do you want with him?” she asks, voice dropping dangerously low. She barely registers the sound of someone storming through the door of the inn and up the stairs.

 

“Oh, nothing sinister. Just to teach him what it is to be powerless,” she says, swirling a tendril of water around her fingers almost playfully to mask the stone-cold hatred in her eyes. “He’ll be fine, but he’ll never forget it. That, I can guarantee.”

 

“This isn’t-“

 

“This isn’t what?” asks a voice that, on any other day, would’ve put Katara in fight-or-flight. Zuko, still too wobbly on his feet to stand, blanches at the sound of her voice. “Sorry, am I interrupting something?”

 

“Please,” Zuko rasps. “Leave me alone.”

 

Azula’s eyes widen.

 

Katara’s never seen her surprised before – her expression didn’t even waver when she’d registered the pain of Jae’s cooking pot to the head – but it’s unmistakable: Azula’s eyes widen. And it isn’t hard to see why when Zuko looks like death itself, slumped over an irate Katara’s shoulder while a seemingly-harmless old woman watches them with an unnerving combination of smugness and pity.

 

“What have they done to you?” she asks, forcing her voice to wrap around the words like a coat of sickly-sweet syrup. It takes more effort than it should, and she wants to recoil from the grotesqueness of her brother’s present state every time she speaks. “Scared of a couple of peasants?”


“Mm. ‘Peasants.’ Curious how little things change,” Hama sighs. “Your ancestors called me precisely the same thing when they took me captive.”


Understanding dawns on Azula’s face – she knows nothing of this woman, but revenge is a language in which she is fluent.

 

“You know, I was just telling your brother that his face was on every propaganda leaflet in the province a few years back,” she continues. “As was yours, Princess Azula.”

 

There’s no doubt about it this time, either: Azula is shocked. Hama, it seems, has a way of chiselling herself beneath her skin and sticking there that few others ever have.

 

“I almost pity you, you know. Who would ever have taught you that you bowed before a throne of lies?” Hama shrugs. “You’re no older than Katara here, I’m sure. But I really can’t manage much sympathy for you.”

 

Azula backs towards the wall, all thoughts of her brother and the Avatar and her mission evaporating as she raises her hands in preparation to fight. But before she can, she finds them forced behind her back by something not of her own mind, and her feet walk backwards without her intent until she’s pressing her back to the wall.

 

“Your brother, I spared,” she said. “But I’d find it so difficult to see you walk free when the wrong side of history has served you so well.”

 

In a matter of seconds, the future flashes before Katara’s eyes: Hama, taking control of Azula’s limbs as the princess grapples for purchase that she won’t find, forcing her hands to her throat and contracting their muscles, constricting her throat. Watching, unable to do anything but gape in horror, as the heir to the Fire Nation throne chokes herself. And though she’s never felt anything but contempt for Azula, the image is so grotesque – so inhuman – that the idea of letting it pass is unthinkable.

 

She doesn’t know where she finds the strength or the instinct to do it – perhaps it’s the full moon, or sheer desperation. But when she reaches for her element, she feels the orderly flow of water through Hama’s veins, and it calls to her hands as she twists them until Hama, too, is standing.


She expects to feel relief, having the upper hand, but all she feels is regret – that this woman who’d deserved so much better has forced her to take such an action, that her now-adversary could’ve been a mentor and friend. She closes her eyes and forces her to her knees, and Azula, who’s as horrified as Katara in perhaps the only concurrence they’ve ever come to, binds her hands with a strip of cloth torn from a bedsheet.

 

It’s a twist of fate so utterly bizarre that neither even questions it as they bolt the door behind them and flee, Katara supporting most of Zuko’s weight (Agni knows that Azula won’t do it, even now), into the light of the full moon.

 

“We need to find the others,” she pants to Zuko, who nods weakly, once they reach the village. “Can you walk?”

 

“Well enough.” His voice is as wan as his face. “What are we going to do with her?”

 

“I don’t know, but what matters now is getting the others and Appa and leaving.” Katara grasps Zuko’s arm a little harder than she needs to. “She’s not trying to kill us-“

 

“That’ll change, trust me.” Katara wilts like one of Hama’s fire lilies at the sound of Sokka’s voice, approaching from behind. “I told you that woman was up to something.”

 

“We have to go,” Katara tells him.

 

“I’ll get Appa,” Aang says, clearly as shaken as she is. She wonders what he’s seen, and why Toph trails after him so closely on the way to the stables where he’s being kept.

 

Azula is silent as they prepare to go, nearly forgotten until Katara and Zuko are alone again and she speaks.


“What did she do to me?” she asks, looking down at her hands – they’re shaking – with more fear in her voice than Katara’s ever heard. “Why does this keep happening?”

 

The look that passes between Katara and Zuko as she sinks to the ground, breath coming in short, leaves no doubt as to what they’re going to do about the problem of the broken, shaken girl before them.

Chapter Text

 

“Zuko?”

 

Katara stirs from sleep, curled up against Appa because the chill of this night needed the balm of living warmth, at the sound of rustling fabric. When she opens her eyes, she doesn’t find Zuko where she’d left him, sleeping as peacefully as could be expected against Appa’s paw – instead, he’s seated, his posture rigid and his breathing erratic. He doesn’t seem to hear her.

 

“Zuko,” she says again, keeping her voice low so as not to startle him or wake the others. She reaches out, but backs away when he flinches at her touch. In the pale moonlight, his face is sheet-white, and the bags beneath his eyes are more pronounced than she’s ever seen them. His shoulders rise and fall jerkily with each breath, and he doesn’t turn his head at her voice or her touch, wild eyes fixed on some indefinite point in the distance. “Dreams again?”

 

He closes his eyes as if if the fact hurts to acknowledge, and nods. “Mmhm.”


This time, when Katara moves close enough to touch him, he doesn’t flinch away. “About-“


“Don’t.” His eyes press shut again.

 

“Okay.”

 

“Go back to sleep,” he says roughly. “I’m fine.”

 

“You don’t have to say that, Zuko.” Katara risks a hand on his shoulder, and she wants to wilt in relief when he doesn’t pull back. “If it’s keeping you from sleeping-“

 

“It’s none of your business, Katara.” His tone is a little harsher this time, and the comment would smart if it weren’t for the vividness of Katara’s memories of the night she knows he’s dreaming about. She doesn’t think she’ll ever forget it, and she wasn’t even the one harmed.

 

“Maybe it isn’t, but I was there,” she points out. “I just…well, if you want to talk, I know what you went through.”

 

Everyone knows what I went through,” Zuko snaps. He’s not wrong – the thorough account of their discovery of Hama’s true intentions that Katara had made as they fled the village had made sure of that – but it isn’t the same.

 

Not everyone practically carried you downstairs when you looked like you were at death’s door, she wants to fire back, but now isn’t the time. “Okay, fine,” she says a little too tightly. “If you need me, just wake me.”

 

But it’s farcical to imagine she might be able to drift off again now, knowing that Zuko is in the kind of pain he can only pretend he knows how to manage. And it’s not ten minutes later when, hearing his breathing grow labored again, Katara sits again, and opens her arms to him.

 

She knows there’s a good chance that he won’t allow her to touch him after that night at the inn, but it’s all her instincts will allow, and he slumps forwards, every ounce of strength left in his body dissipating as his arms find their way around her waist and his head lolls against her shoulder. He clings to her as if he fears that she’ll evaporate in his arms, and when she sets her hands gingerly against his back and shoulder, she realizes that he’s shaking. He isn’t crying, but he looks like he could start at any moment.

 

“You’re safe now,” she whispers, her hands finding their rhythm as they stroke his shaking shoulders, even though she knows it’s a lie. They are, none of them, safe here. But what she can reassure him of – that he’s not going to be taken again, that there are no enemies here (even Azula, mutely broken as she’s been for the past day, seems eerily innocuous) – is more vital now than ever. “We’ve got you. I’ve got you.”

 

She doesn’t for a second imagine that he believes her empty reassurances, but he lets her hold him as he breaks apart, and she’s grateful for that – that he’s allowing her to do anything at all.

 

“I’m here,” she says, without warning or reason, after she’s held him for what feels like hours. Her hands, satisfied with the stillness in his shoulders now that they’ve stopped trembling, drift upwards; she doesn’t know what prompts her to card her fingers through his hair, but he lets out a whimper that makes her think he approves. “I kept you safe once, and I’ll do it again.”

 

But why? Asks the voice she’s heard since she plucked him from the jaws of death the night of the coup that’s been growing more insistent ever since. Why do you care? Why him?

 

She closes her eyes, forcing herself to focus on the scent of a coming rainstorm in the air, the angles of the ground beneath her, the softness of Zuko’s hair between her fingers. But it doesn’t stop her mind from racing to answer the question it’s posed for itself.

 

There are a hundred reasons that she shouldn’t trust Zuko. He didn’t choose to help her out of altruism, or to come with them because he wished to be her ally more than he wished to aid his own nation; she still doesn’t know where he stands with the Fire Nation, what he’d do if he was given the chance he’s been chasing all these years. For all she knows, he might turn his back on them at the first opportunity; he’s said nothing to prove that he feels otherwise.

 

But she has a feeling – the most unreliable kind – that he wouldn’t still be here if that were true. It’s a confidence weeks in the making but she trusts it now, perhaps against her better judgment. Because, if she’s to be the kind of honest that she shies away from when it comes to Zuko, she wants to believe that he wasn’t just trying to get on her good side when he agreed to train Sokka to use his swords or offered to help with dinner the night after she confessed to feeling overwhelmed, and that the shock on his face when Hama told them her story was as real as her own.

 

She wants to trust that this boy, breaking in her arms, would deny a nation and a birthright for the chance to be on the right side of history. Maybe not for her, or for their group (perhaps one day), but…if there is some – any – reason that he might be willing to do what would’ve been unthinkable to him only months ago, she wants to believe that he’ll choose to do it. And not, as she’d tell anyone who asked, just because he’s useful, or to make a moral example of him or some such thing – no. She wants him to change with every word whispered in the dawning light not because he is influential or useful, but because, after all this time, he is someone to her. Because he is Zuko, and because Zuko – somehow, improbably – matters now, figures into the shape of the world she wants to mold when all of this running and doubting is over.

 

It’s been so long since she wanted something so selfish, and she’s probably a fool to think he’d ever choose her in the face of the decisions he’s going to have to make as they approach the day of the eclipse.

 

But she knows, in that hidden compartment of her heart reserved for things that she can’t afford to want, that she wouldn’t be here, holding him, if there weren’t a chance enough to build a hope on.

 

**

 

“We’re a week away from our best chance to cripple the Fire Nation and we don’t know what’s going on with any of the people who were supposed to be our allies, Zuko’s having a breakdown, and now we have to deal with his sister who’s also having a breakdown and might kill us at any moment, so no, I’m not feeling particularly optimistic!”

 

No one bats an eyelash at Sokka’s hysteria after the fourth such speech in an hour, but no one is any closer to a solution, either.

 

“I think that Azula is probably…too preoccupied to turn on us,” Katara says cautiously, indicating the princess with a skeptical tilt of her head. She’s tied up – Sokka had made sure of that, and not even Aang had wanted to argue against it – but they all know that she’s not likely to stay restrained, even by Toph’s metalbent cuffs, if she wants to escape. She's not clearheaded enough to try anything right now, but she often has bouts of lucidity that no one can predict; none of them are sure when she might have the mental faculties, traumatized as she still is, to try to escape. That she hasn’t already is miraculous and Katara can’t help but wonder what exactly is going through her mind to prevent it.

 

“We can’t be too careful, and she’s a huge liability,” Sokka says, barely bothering to lower his voice even though she’s only a few feet away. “I mean, if she decides to run back home, she’s going to be able to tell the Fire Lord everything.”

 

“You know that she can hear everything you’re saying, right?”

 

Sokka jumps at the sound of Azula’s voice. She's back, he mouths to Katara. “…no?” he offers weakly.

 

“I’m not crazy,” she says, her voice less fortified with false bravado than anyone save Zuko (who’s barely keeping his eyes open) has ever heard it. Even when she's more present, she isn't quite her usual self. "I know what you think. I'm not." 

 

“...volatile?" Sokka offers instead. Katara elbows his side. 

 

“Well, I’m not going to deny that.” Azula lets out a longsuffering sigh. “But if I wanted to run back home, I would’ve done it already.”

 

“And why haven’t you?” Toph challenges. “Shouldn’t you be trying to take Twinkletoes and make a break for it?”  


“What difference would it make? Zuzu here” – she indicates Zuko, who always seems to withdraw when Azula is lucid, with a jerk of her chin – “spent almost four years chasing you down, and look where it got him.”

 

“I don’t follow,” Sokka says suspiciously.

 

“Father never actually thought either of us would be able to capture the Avatar,” she says. “I knew that from the start. Zuko didn’t. But, where he went anyways because he thought that capturing Aang would get him back into Father’s good graces, I went because I was convinced that I could make easy work of it, even if it was a fool’s errand.”

 

Jae squints. “Weren’t you having a mental breakdown, like, five minutes ago?”


“It’s called ‘using silence to my advantage,’” Azula snaps. No one believes her for a second, but Jae – who lacks the relevant experience to know not to cross Azula (after all, she knows her only as a girl felled by a cooking pot) – wisely lets it drop. “And are you the girl who hit me with a pot?”

 

Jae can’t help but smirk. “Yes, ma’am.”


“Hm,” Azula sniffs. “Juvenile, if I do say so myself.”

 

Anyway.” Sokka clears his throat. “We need to figure out what we’re going to do about this before Azula decides to change her mind and kill us all.”

 

“You know, spite is a powerful motivator,” Azula says with nonchalance that she clearly doesn’t feel. “Why would I ever send you all off to my father like he wants me to when it’s never going to satisfy him?”

 

“Azula, we have no way of knowing whether you actually mean that,” Katara says as gently as she can. “I’m sure you can understand, given our history, why we’re…being cautious.”

 

“Oh, I get it. I just think you’re working against yourselves by keeping me tied up. Shouldn’t you be sending me back to the Fire Nation as a double agent?”

 

“You’d never agree,” Sokka says. “And ‘double agent’ implies that you’re also helping your dad, so…no.”

“True, but it’s damned if you do, damned if you don’t,” she points out. Once again, Katara is amazed at her composure when she’d been so fragile only moments ago – it’s as if she’s had this planned from the beginning, though she knows that there’s no way she has. “You keep me around and risk me turning on you, or you let me go and risk the exact same thing. Take your pick.”

 

She tries to tell herself to be gentle – that Azula needs her compassion now, in the wake of an experience whose scars she’ll probably always carry – but her fists clench at her sides. “We’re perfectly aware that there are no good options,” Katara says icily, “but we could have left you behind, and we didn’t. You’d do well to remember that.”

 

“I don’t know why you didn’t,” she says. “But you did, and that’s a decision you’re going to have to live with. So you tell me, Katara. What are you going to do? Try to use me in whatever way you can?”

 

Absolutely not, she almost says, because she has little respect for this girl who’s done so much harm but she’s not about to be the next in a long line of people who’ve made her their weapons. Instead, she casts her eyes around the group, gauging their expressions before she makes her choice.

 

“Toph,” she says after a pause in which every eye in the group is trained on her, “take the cuffs off.”

 

Toph shoots to her feet. “Are you nuts? No!”

 

“It’s better this way,” Katara tells her, though she knows no one will believe it. It’s true – Azula’s far less likely to pose a threat if she’s allowed to choose whether to stay or to go – but she doesn’t expect them to agree. “On one condition.”

 

Azula, still handcuffed, raises her eyebrows. “Which is…?”

 

This is the kind of gamble Katara knows better than to take. She has no guarantee that Azula will comply. But it’s the only one she’s got, and the team’s leaning on her now more than ever, so she steels herself and makes her request.

 

“If you decide to leave, your father never learns where Aang is or has been,” she says.

 

A fraught silence falls over the campsite as Azula considers the proposition. “Well,” she says slowly, “I’m certainly not tripping over myself to give my father what he wants at the moment, so I suppose I can agree to that.” She holds out her hands. “Now can you take these stupid things off of me?”

 

“You sure about this, Katara?” Toph asks.

 

“I’m sure, Toph. Cuffs off, okay?”

 

She sighs, and reluctantly bends the metal bands free of Azula’s wrists. Azula glances down at her hands as if unable to believe that they’re free and, as soon as she’s reasonably sure that they are, she bolts to her feet. But when she tries to stand, she can’t take two steps before she begins to wheel about like a drunkard, unsteady on her feet after three days of numbness and captivity and a mind clouded by memories of the terror it’s endured. At the realization that she cannot complete even the simplest of tasks right now, her former composure shatters and her wide, frightened eyes search for something they don’t find.

 

Fragile, Katara can’t help but think, watching her wander about like a lost baby deer. Azula has always been so invincible that it’s still, even after seeing her brought to her knees by bloodbending, morbidly strange to see her this way. Whatever composure she’d been able to muster up to convince the group to let her go is shattered and it’s all Katara can do not to go to her.

 

She can see it in her friends’ eyes, too – this fractured, pitiable girl is hardly the adversary they’ve feared for so long. Even Sokka, so casually cruel before, looks remorseful; even Zuko, with more reason than anyone to want to watch her go, looks aghast. And when she turns dizzily after a few disoriented attempts to find her way out of the woods and collapses against Appa, her hands grasping fistfuls of his fur as she sinks to her knees and lets out a sound that’s almost animal, it’s Zuko who’s at her side in seconds. He tries to pry her away, but she’s unusually strong in her anguish, and he’s still too weak to make any headway. He turns to the group, his still-wild eyes blown wide.

 

“We can’t let her go back to the Fire Nation like this,” he says, though no one has any illusions about how far she’d make it if she were to try to flee in this state. His voice is taut with desperation – the most emotion he’s shown to anyone but Katara in that single moment of weakness since Hama’s village – and he doesn’t have to elaborate.

 

The Fire Nation doesn’t look all that kindly on weakness, he’d told them once. No one who remembers that wants to imagine what would happen if Ozai’s favorite child wandered back to the Fire Nation capital like this, in and out of lucidity and dazed and half-delirious more often than not. Perhaps Azula’s shown Zuko more cruelty than anything else, but Katara knows Zuko too well now to suspect that he’d ever let anyone be sent back into the clutches of the Fire Nation court in a state like this.

 

Because as impressively composed as Azula seems when she’s lucid, she’s not in control. And there is a reason that control is Azula’s constant aim – the same reason that she’d reacted to Hama’s bloodbending the way she had. Complete control of oneself, Katara is beginning to understand, is the only way to survive in a world like hers, and right now, she has none.

 

“Then what do we do?” Sokka asks. “The comet’s in five days, and we’re working with so little that we can’t afford any more disadvantages.”

 

“Five days is plenty of time to figure something out.” Zuko’s eyes, still bloodshot and ringed with circles so dark they look like bruises, harden. “But you know as well as I do that if we turn her loose, she’s going to be dead within a week whether she makes it back home or not.”

Azula releases her death-grip on Appa’s fur and turns, lifting her face from the place where it’s been burrowed into the bison’s side like a child afraid to look at a stranger. She blinks at Zuko, then shakes herself and scrambles to back away, still clumsy from days without walking. He catches her arm before she can fall, and she jerks away, eyes darting around the campsite.

 

“She was fine ten minutes ago,” Jae says under her breath, watching in horror.

 

“I know.” Katara inhales sharply. “Which is why we can’t let her go.”

 

“Okay, but what are we going to do with her?” Sokka asks. “She’s still dangerous when she’s not…like this.”

 

“I don’t know.” Katara shakes her head, watching as Zuko (still picking up his own shattered pieces) attempts to restrain his sister. “I thought she could choose to stay or go, but I don’t think she can right now, so…we have to make that call for her.”

 

“And your call is that she stays?”

 

Katara takes a breath to ground herself.

 

“She stays.”  

Chapter Text

Day of Black Sun

Six Hours Before the Eclipse

 

It’s never much of a question what to do about the Day of Black Sun invasion that fell to pieces weeks ago. For once, no one disagrees: it’s their best chance, and, though modified and hopelessly outgunned, it has to go forward.

 

“We don’t have the benefit of a navy, like we planned,” Sokka tells the group, reviewing their plan the morning of what would’ve been the invasion. “Or…a land force, although I did manage to get in touch with an Earth Kingdom resistance movement that Princess Plan-Killer over here didn’t manage to sniff out. We’re essentially going it alone, which means that stealth and speed are of the essence if we’re going to get Aang into the palace in time to face the Fire Lord. So, in light of that, I’ve made some changes to our plan-“

 

“And by that you mean you’ve completely scrapped it and come up with some half-baked scheme that has a 12% chance of working?” Toph asks.


“Kindly save your comments for the end of the briefing,” Sokka says, sticking out his tongue. “Anyways. Jae has extensive experience with sneaking around palaces, so we’re going to send her out first. She’s going to find her way in a few hours before the eclipse, disguised as a palace servant, and figure out a way to let us in.”

 

“Where are you gonna get her a uniform? No one’s going to buy that without one,” Zuko points out. “Every servant at the palace wears a specific uniform that tells everyone what their position and rank are, and that’s going to determine where in the palace she can go.”

 

“That sounds very inefficient.” Sokka looks disgusted. “Why do people in the Fire Nation have enough free time to come up with this stuff?”  

 

“And inconvenient,” Katara adds. “Zuko, do you know of any way we could get her a uniform?”

 

“Stealing one’s going to be pretty much impossible. They’re palace-issued, so they’re stored in a warehouse that’s almost as heavily guarded as the main gate.” Zuko shakes his head. “It’s a waste of personnel.”

 

“No it isn’t,” Azula says. No one’s surprised by her sudden bursts of clarity anymore – she seems to slip in and out of consciousness without warning. “Almost all assassination attempts before they did that were by people impersonating servants. This way, people who aren’t actually servants can’t easily pass for them.” She narrows her eyes. “Why are we talking about this?”

 

That is another of the quirks of Azula’s mental state that they’ve discovered: for a while, she’d jump into conversations seamlessly without knowledge of their context, but as she recovers, she’s becoming far more aware that there’s something she’s missing.

 

“Um…no reason,” Sokka says, shrugging. He still doesn’t trust Azula not to go running back to her father with the news of their whereabouts at the first opportunity, even in a state like this. Realistically, she’d probably make it a few miles before becoming disoriented, but he doesn’t like the idea of risking even that. “So there’s absolutely no way to get our hands on one?”

 

“Not unless she managed to knock out one of the outdoor servants without getting caught and found a believable excuse to go inside,” Zuko replies. “And even that would be unlikely.”

 

“Well, we kinda need a way in, so…I’m willing to take that risk.” Sokka looks to Jae. “You?”

 

“I mean, I’m not super confident that I’d be able to knock someone out with my bare hands, but I’ll do my best,” she says. “Then what?”

 

“After me, Katara, and Toph find Jae’s access point and slip into the palace – this is the risky part – we’re going to send Aang in,” Sokka tells them. “With Zuko.”

 

Katara’s mouth presses into a line. She’d made it abundantly clear when she’d first caught wind of this plan that she didn’t like the idea of sending Zuko to face his father when he’s already been on-edge (and sleep-deprived, for that matter) since his encounter with Hama, but both Sokka and Zuko had insisted, and there’d been no way for her to convince them not to go with it.

 

“Zuko is going to tell the servants that he’s captured the Avatar and is bringing him to his father,” Sokka continues. “Meanwhile, we’re going to find a way to follow, and when we get to the throne room, we’ll sort of lurk while Aang figures out what he’s going to do. On Zuko’s signal, we’re going to get into defensive positions, like we practiced” – they had practiced, ad nauseum, in countless clearings with Appa acting as the Fire Lord’s throne – “and Aang is going to fight Ozai while he can’t bend. And there ya go! Invasion accomplished!”

 

“That’s never going to work,” Azula says, and this time Sokka does flinch – he hadn’t expected her to be listening in. “He’s too heavily guarded, and unless your plan is to have Katara bloodbend an entire squadron of the best-trained royal guards in the entire Capital at once, you’re not going to get anywhere near him.”

 

Sokka’s eyes narrow suspiciously. “Why point it out, though? What do you have to gain by helping us?”

 

“By helping you? Nothing.” Azula’s eyes narrow, too. “But I have plenty to gain by bringing him down.”

 

“So how do you suggest we do that?” Sokka asks.

 

“Wait,” she says flatly. “Don’t bother going after him today. Father knows that the eclipse leaves him vulnerable, and he’s not stupid enough to let his guard down the one time you’ll ever get a chance to make a dent.”


“You said it yourself. It’s our one chance,” Jae points out. “If we don’t go after the Fire Lord today, we might never get another opportunity like this.”

 

Azula pauses for a moment.


“I told him,” she says flatly, without emotion and – for the first time in a while – without effort. “After Ba Sing Se. The Earth King was stupid enough to give up his entire plan to a so-called Kyoshi Warrior without a second thought, and what did you think I was going to do with that information?” She shakes her head disgustedly. “Oh, no, that was information that my father just had to have. Surely he’d recognize my contributions if I stopped an invasion, wouldn’t he? So I did. I stopped it.” Azula barks out a hollow laugh. “I made sure every single one of your allies wound up at the Boiling Rock, and look where it got me.”

 

“Dad,” Sokka breathes, his hands curling into fists at his sides. Katara reaches for his arm, trying to calm him or at least remind him not to do anything rash, but it’s unneeded – with a deep breath, he releases the tension in his hands. “Dad is at the Boiling Rock? What’s the Boiling Rock?”

 

“A maximum-security prison,” Zuko cuts in. The old apprehension with which he’d regarded his sister before her breakdown returns for a moment. “Is that where you’re keeping Uncle?”

 

Azula shakes her head. “He’s fine, Zuko. No need to come for my head over that.”


“You…” Zuko’s breath comes in short. “You took him? You did?”

 

“You said it, not me,” Azula sighs. “Anyways. I gave Father everything he needed to know to prevent an invasion, and he’s probably expecting you. My advice? Break your stupid allies out of the Boiling Rock today instead. That’d be a better use of your time.”

 

You took Uncle!”

 

Toph, whose hearing has always been unusually sensitive, winces as Zuko shouts. In seconds, Katara is at his side, but even she can’t stop him from storming over to Azula where she sits against Appa’s side and grabbing her by the collar until she reaches his height.

 

“Zuko, she’s giving us everything!” Sokka shouts, evidently more concerned at the loss of an invaluable source of information than at the possibility that he’ll do her any real harm, but it’s as if Zuko doesn’t hear him.

 

“Uncle was all I had,” Zuko spits, letting Azula to the ground. “He’s the only reason I escaped, you know that? He’s your own flesh and blood, and thanks to you, he’s rotting away in that hellhole with no way out!”


“Not all of us have as much cause to care about our uncle’s well-being as you do, Zuzu,” Azula says, shaking her head as if she’s chastising an unruly child. “Ever consider that? He may have been all you had, but what did he ever care for me? All I ever had reason to see him as was a traitor to the crown.”

 

Zuko’s hands are still shaking, but he turns his back and walks away before his sister gives him any more reasons to do things he can’t afford right now. He stands near Katara this time, gravitating towards her like he always seems to when he’s sure of nothing else in his world; she reaches for his hand, grateful when no one says anything.

 

“Why are you telling us all of this?” Sokka says once they’ve had a chance to simmer down.

 

“I’m not in the kind of mood that inclines me to want to see my father succeed,” Azula says. “If he sees fit to send me out on wild squirrelgoose chases that won’t satisfy him even if I succeed, so be it, but he’s not going to get my help.” She turns to look at the group now, her eyes locking on Zuko’s. “And you people, however much I want to throw you all in a cell, are the best chance any of us have at knocking that charlatan off his stupid throne.”

 

**

 

Two Hours Before the Eclipse

 

They can’t take Appa into the city for fear of being recognized, so the best they’re able to do is leave Jae at the gates to be escorted in by the Earth Kingdom resistance fighters they’ve managed to get in touch with. They’ll take Jae to the palace, and perhaps assist with the subduing of a servant (so she can steal her uniform) if she’s lucky.


She thought she’d make the journey alone, but Sokka and Aang had both insisted upon accompanying her until then. No one had wanted to allow Aang to take such an unnecessary risk (he’d pouted incessantly when they’d told him so), so it’s she and Sokka who approach the gates. Sokka lets her slip her hand into his, for which she’s grateful, and when they reach the gate, he gives it a squeeze before they come to a stop.


“See you on the other side, I guess,” he says. Jae smiles weakly.

 

“I guess.” She shrugs. “If I don’t die in there.”

 

“Don’t die in there, then,” Sokka says. “I kinda like having you around.”


It’s the last thing she should be thinking about, but the words still bring a smile to Jae’s face. “Really?”

 

“’Course I have,” he says, knocking his shoulder into hers. “It’s not every day that I meet a girl who’d attack a princess with a cooking pot and wouldn’t think anything of it.”

 

“Well, I would hope not. Imagine the chaos if there were more of me,” Jae says in a vain attempt to distract herself from the impending danger with humor. “Monarchies would tremble before an army of me.”

 

“Well, let’s hope this monarchy trembles before just one of you,” Sokka says, dropping his voice. It’s relatively deserted in this alcove where they’ve stopped to say their goodbyes, but the Fire Lord probably has eyes everywhere and they both know it. “Because I think we’ve already established that you’re not allowed to die out there.”

 

“You, too,” she says, uncomfortable with what would’ve been unbelievably lavish praise in her previous life. “And make sure no one else does, either, okay?”

 

“Well, that is the goal-“

 

Jae punches his arm, because a hug would leave too little to the imagination, and steps through the gate.

 

**

 

Sokka watches Jae go, flanked by what has to be the second-or-third-most gorgeous woman he’s ever seen (he recognizes her as his initial contact, a woman who’d called herself Zijun) and a girl about his own age, that one shorter and plainer but wary and vigilant in a way he can’t help but appreciate.

 

Please be okay by the end of this, he thinks when she throws one last long look over her shoulder at the pillar he’s hiding himself behind, and he wonders when and why he began to care so much.

 

**

 

I wonder if you’d miss me, Jae thinks, risking one last glance back at Sokka. If I died in there.

 

She realizes with morbid amusement that she hopes he would. She’d come for Aang, determined to aid the Avatar; she’d stayed because she had no place to return to, but perhaps that wasn’t the only reason. Maybe I started to care about someone else, she thinks, catching a tiny flash of movement out of the corner of her eye as she turns to risk one last look at Sokka.

 

She stops wondering what might become of him if she died (probably nothing) and starts hoping she never has to find out what might become of her if he did.

 

**

 

One Hour Before the Eclipse

 

It’s Katara who notices first.

 

“Um…Sokka?” she asks cautiously, as they’re preparing to leave the promontory where they’ve landed Appa, well away from the city guards towers’ lines of sight. “Where is Azula?”

 

“Here, like she’s-“

He trails off mid-sentence.


“Oh.” He takes stock of their surroundings and shakes his head. “Oh no.”

 

“Yeah. Exactly.” Katara crosses her arms. “She’s gone.”

 

“From a cliff half a mile outside the most heavily-fortified city in the world? Are you nuts? Of course she’s not gone,” Toph snaps. She’s been a little tense since Jae left – “I have a bad feeling about this place,” she’d explained. “She’s gotta be here somewhere.”

 

“Uh, no, she’s definitely not here somewhere,” Aang informs her, his frown lines deepening. “Do you think she’s going to warn her father that we’re coming?”

 

“No,” Toph cuts in. “She wasn’t lying when she said she wanted to help us.”

 

“Azula always lies,” Zuko cuts in. “Even if she were, I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t be able to tell.”

 

“That’s ridiculous. I can always tell.”

 

“Not if it’s Azula,” Zuko says darkly. “And we need to go before she leads him straight back to us.”


“She’s your sister,” Toph grumbles. “How did you not notice that she was gone?”


“I was preoccupied!”


“We all are, Flamebrain! That isn’t-“

 

“Toph, enough,” Katara chides.

 

“-an excuse.”

 

“Well, wherever she is, we don’t have time to find her, and either we wait it out here and miss our shot or go in, crossing our fingers she hasn’t told the Fire Lord where to find us.” Sokka glances around the half-circle that their group forms. “Which is it?”

 

“We have to try,” Katara says, her voice shaky but firm. “I couldn’t tell you why, but I trust her. And we have to try.”

 

**

 

“I don’t remember instructing you to leave, Azula.”

 

There’s no greeting, nor any curiosity or even annoyance in Ozai’s voice when she’s led into the throne room. Even bedraggled, she’d been ushered in to see her father without a second thought from any of the guards, and she wipes her uncharacteristically-sweaty palms on her tunic before she bends in a formal bow. “Father,” she says, voice icy, relishing the control over her mind that she knows she has for now even though she doesn’t know how long it’ll last.

 

“You look five steps from death,” Ozai says flatly. He eyes the barely-shrunken goose egg on her forehead.

 

“Not without cause,” she says, faking exertion. It’s not hard, given how much restraint it takes not to launch herself at her father and do her best to strangle him on the spot. “I wouldn’t have appeared before you like this if I didn’t have news of the utmost importance to give you.”

 

“Spit it out, then.”

 

“I’ve been tracking the Avatar,” she tells him. “And this morning, he and his companions arrived here. I followed them, of course.”

 

“And?”

 

“They were going to proceed with the invasion alone,” Azula says. “And I saw my opportunity.”


“And?” Ozai prompts again.


“They were all in one place. I took what I was given.”

 

“Stop beating around the bush, Azula. What did you do?”

 

She raises her eyes to meet his – a risk she’d only take under the utmost duress – and doesn’t let her gaze waver. For just one moment, she has to feel this, to remember what it’s like to be in control before the memories of the inn overtake her mind again. She stands straighter and her voice comes out stronger when she finally speaks again.

 

So many times, she’s stood before this throne to grovel, begging for something she’s never had a prayer of securing. Her father’s love, she knows now, is as elusive as her mother’s, and she is finished pretending that it is not. So she stands, for once; she defies what once she chased, and if her knees nearly buckle with the effort of holding back the tide of memories that wants to wash over her, she stands anyways.

 

“I killed the Avatar,” she lies, as easily as she takes her next breath. “He and his companions will threaten you no longer.”

 

**

Thirty Minutes Before the Eclipse

 

Jae knows the moment the servants in the stables where she’s hiding turn to stare that something is wrong, and though she’s left a gate and three doors unlatched to allow her companions to follow her, she has a sinking feeling that it isn’t going to help.

 

She knows from the moment she hears whispers of a Princess’ return that they’re not going to win today.

 

(That stableboy with the shovel has been looking at her as if he suspects something all along – it’s really no surprise when it crashes down over her head.)

 

**

 

Ten Minutes Before the Eclipse

 

“If I were you, I wouldn’t go in there.”

 

Sokka pauses at an unfamiliar voice and nearly wilts with relief when he turns to find the Earth Kingdom resistance leader watching them in the shade of a cluster of wisteria trees, dressed in a gardener’s rough red trousers and tunic. She shakes her head helplessly when she knows Sokka is looking.

 

“Why?” he asks, narrowing his eyes. “Did Jae not get the doors?”

 

Behind him, Katara and Toph come to a stop. Aang and Zuko are hanging back, waiting for the go-ahead, and Katara glances over her shoulder to make sure they’re still in place.


“No, she did, but she was supposed to have come out to meet me ten minutes ago, and I haven’t heard from her.” Zijun shrugs. “I can’t leave this post without a good reason, so I’m just waiting for her. And a few minutes ago, someone ran outside saying that the Princess had returned, saying that she’d killed the Avatar. Which…” she gestures to Aang. “Obviously not.”

 

Zuko’s eyes widen. “Why would she lie about that?”

 

In spite of everything, Katara’s face lights up. “She was protecting us,” she breathes, a smile playing at her taut lips. “She wanted him to believe that he was safe so he wouldn’t see us coming!”

 

“But…why?” Zuko sputters. “Why would she do that? She’s never been anything but loyal to Father – why now?”


“Maybe she was telling the truth for once,” Toph muses.

 

“Anyways, I would just go,” Zijun says. “Even if he doesn’t see you coming, if Jae’s been caught, there’s no way your cover hasn’t been blown.”

 

“Do you think…what do you think happened?” Sokka asks. “Do you think she could just be late?”

 

“There was only one other person in the stables where she was hiding out, and he left a while ago,” Zijun says. “If she were delayed, it would probably be because she couldn’t get away without causing a scene, and that’s definitely not possible.”

 

Sokka’s eyes harden. “And where did you say the stables were?”

 

“Sokka, no.” Katara crosses her arms. “You’re not running off by yourself if our cover might be blown.”

 

But he doesn’t listen, of course.

 

He never listens when it comes to her, Katara thinks.

 

(She can’t and won’t read too far into that.)

 

“We can’t throw away our shot for this, Sokka,” Toph says, though he’s retreating and she knows he can’t hear her.

 

He doesn’t listen to her, either.

 

**

 

Two Minutes Before the Eclipse

 

Later, Jae won’t remember anything but the throbbing in her head and the burning in her bloodied cheek and the sound of a panicked voice as she came to. Her memories, as far as anyone is concerned, end with a stableboy raising a shovel and begin again with the rushing of wind, a pair of arms cradling her body, her throbbing head propped up against a shoulder, and a whispered prayer of thanks when her eyes flutter open to see clouds float by like the memories she’s lost.

 

“Jae?” that voice – and it’s only ever been one – says again. “Can you hear me?”

 

Sokka, Jae thinks, and she smiles. She lets her eyes try to focus on his face, even though it hurts to keep them open.

 

“Did we win?” she says, though her voice is feeble.

 

Sokka doesn’t answer, but she feels her body pressed closer to his chest, and when she opens her eyes again, she sees the rest of their group watching her with anxious eyes.

 

It doesn’t take long to put the pieces together. They’d hardly be fleeing if they’d won, and she can think of only one reason that they’d all be unharmed but still not victorious.

 

They couldn’t save their plan and me, she realizes. Without thinking, she reaches for Sokka, and her arms wrap around his middle with more strength than they need to.

 

And they chose me.

 

**

 

One Hour After the Eclipse

 

“Tell me why the Avatar’s sky bison was seen taking off from a cliff outside the city limits if its mount is dead.”

 

Azula blinks up at her father with vacant eyes. He looks down at her, expecting an answer that she doesn’t give; all he gets is a panicked whimper.


“Pathetic,” he spits. Ozai reaches a hand and takes rough hold of her chin, forcing her unseeing eyes to meet his. “No wonder you felt the need to lie.”

 

Her breathing gets harder, but that’s the only change he can detect in her behavior, and he huffs in frustration. “I’m sure you don’t need to be reminded what happens to those who defy me,” he says, and snaps the fingers of his free hand to alert a servant to the need for assistance. “Pong, the dungeons?”

 

Pong can’t restrain the shock on his face. “The Princess, Your Majesty?”

 

He nods curtly. “And ready her for transfer to the Boiling Rock.”

Chapter Text

Western Air Temple

 

Jae’s hands clasp around the tin mug of tea like a vise, shaky as they are, and she wills herself to feel the scalding heat of the metal against her skin. When she wants to wince, she clasps tighter.The pain is proof, after all – proof that she’s survived, even if she wants to deny it every time she sees her reflection in the steaming liquid.

 

“You shouldn’t have done that,” Jae says, bitter as the leaves at the bottom of her teacup. “Agni, you shouldn’t have done that.”


She’s picked up that phrase from Zuko, because it’s got more punch than ‘Spirits’ and it’s personal, or perhaps because it feels better to take the name of someone else’s god in vain. Better, more distant – alien, almost, as if she’s slipping out of the skin she was born in and into someone else’s.

 

Agni, how she wishes she were someone else.

 

“We weren’t just going to leave you behind,” Toph says across the campfire. “Kinda rude of you to think we would.”

 

Jae would blink in surprise at that if she were any less numb. (It might be the lingering effects of her concussion, but she doubts that it is.) “Didn’t think you’d throw away your opportunity for a nobody,” she says, swirling the liquid in her cup just to watch the leaves rise from the bottom and fall again.


“No, we wouldn’t,” Toph replies. “We knew that you’d got caught and our cover was probably blown.”

 

Jae weighs her words, then shrugs noncommittally. “Fair enough.”

 

“It isn’t your fault, Jae.” Toph pads over to the opposite side of the campfire, where Jae is seated in the middle of an otherwise-empty log, and sits beside her. Sometimes it still amazes Jae how much Toph knows about her surroundings without ever seeing them, but right now she barely notices that she’d known exactly where to go. “And even if it was because of you, that’s on us. We all know you would’ve clobbered us all with the cooking pot before you let us ditch the plan to come after you.”

 

Jae laughs without mirth. “Yeah, I would’ve.”

 

“And you’re not a nobody,” she says. Toph punctuates her words with an elbow to Jae’s shoulder.

 

“Oh, really,” Jae says drily, rubbing at the spot Toph had hit. “That’s interesting, coming from little miss heiress here.”


“Trust me, I’ve met a million filthy-rich nobodies in my life,” she says, huffing out a sigh as she crosses her arms. “No brains, nothing to say, just fancy names and vaults full of money. Those nobodies? I woulda let ‘em rot in the stables, for all I cared. They’re the nobodies, not you.”

 

“That’s all very touching, but I wasn’t talking about my…rank.” Jae knows better than to think any of them, even Zuko, care where she came from when so many of their beginnings were humble. “But I’m not…useful. You know. From a purely logistical standpoint.” She shrugs. “And I don’t know what I did to inspire this kind of loyalty. I mean…we barely even talk.”

 

“You wound me, Starchy.” Toph pretends to stab a dagger into her chest. “Do you really think so little of me?”

 

Starchy?”

 

“You smelled like starch for a full month after you joined up,” Toph explains.

 

“Oh, right. I guess I’d kind of forgotten that the starch they made us use on our uniforms had a smell.”

 

She gave me a nickname, Jae realizes.

 

“My old nickname was Elephant because I heard everything,” she tells Toph. “I like yours better.”

 

“Elephant? What’s that got to do with hearing?” Toph scrunches her nose.

 

“Oh, right. You’ve never-“

 

“Seen an elephant, yes, thank you for noticing.”

 

“Elephants have big ears,” she explains. “Hence…”

 

“Oh.” Toph considers for a moment. “I’m assuming your actual ears are average-sized?”

 

“Yes, that’s…yes, they are.” Jae almost smiles. “Anyway. What were you saying?”

 

“You were saying you didn’t know what you did to inspire loyalty or something, I think?”

 

“Oh, right.” Jae takes a sip of her tea, which is almost too bitter to drink, and winces. “I mean, I still don’t.”

 

“You risked your life to warn us about Azula, and then ran off with people you didn’t even know. You managed to get two out of five people in this group to fall in love with you in, like, a day – maybe three, if you add a month and count me when I heard that you took out the princess of the Fire Nation with a cooking pot. You were the only one of us who actually did your job back at the palace.” Toph swings her left foot, repeatedly stubbing her toe against a rock protruding from the ground in front of her. “You might not bend anything, but you’re badass.”

 

“Better not let Momtara hear you talking like that,” Jae huffs, trying to conceal the redness in her cheeks before she remembers that Toph can’t see it.

 

“Momtara,” Toph repeats, then grins. “I love that.”  

 

“I heard that!” Katara calls from the place she’s set up her tent a few feet away. She’s been arguing with Zuko inside for what feels like hours, though both girls have long since tuned it out. “And by that, I mean all of it!”

 

“Whatever!” Toph shouts, far too loud for the distance between them. Then she turns back to Jae. “Like I said. Badass.”

 

“And no one is in love with me,” Jae mutters, scratching at a spot that doesn’t itch just to distract herself. “Don’t be ridiculous.”

 

“Honey.”


“…whatever weird thing Aang thinks we have going on is not happening,” Jae amends.

 

“You only say that because you didn’t see the look on Sokka’s face when he found you blacked out in the stables.”

 

“Neither did you!”

 

“No, but I didn’t need to.” Toph looks almost regretful.

 

“He definitely doesn’t feel that way about me,” Jae says with more authority than she feels. “Doesn’t he have a girlfriend?”


“Ehhh…kinda?”

 

“Exactly.” Jae shakes her head. “Not in love with me. Worried because he’s a good person and I was half-dead, maybe, but that’s it.”

“All right. Keep telling yourself that.” Toph stands, brushing nonexistent dirt from her pants. “But I don’t wanna hear you tell me it’s your fault we lost again, got it?”

 

“But-“

 

“Jae, I will earthbend you into a wall.”

 

“Sounds like fun.”

 

“You are ridiculous.”

 

“You too,” Jae deadpans.

 

“Well, have fun, then,” Toph huffs. “Sulking or whatever. Maybe go let your boyfriends know that you’re not concussed anymore.”

 

“I’m pretty sure I still am, though.”

 

“You’re still what?” Aang asks, approaching with their one and only cooking pot (that one) filled with the water Katara had sent him to fetch. “Are you doing all right?”

 

“I’ll give you two the room,” Toph says. “Have fun. Be safe-“

 

“I hate you,” Jae calls after her, wondering how on earth a twelve-year-old could’ve possibly assimilated so much chaos into her body in such a short lifetime.


“What was that all about?” Aang asks. “And are you okay?”


“Just concussed,” Jae says, sluggish eyes falling back to the now-tepid tea in her mug. “Same as always.”

 

“Well, I hope you feel-“

 

“She’s still got that concussion?” Sokka interrupts, approaching with enough plant ephemera gathered from around the temple to make a fire. “They don’t usually last that long. Are you getting enough rest? This light is probably terrible for your-“

 

“Agni, Sokka, I’m not dead,” Jae huffs. “Honestly. I’m fine.”

 

He evidently doesn’t believe her, and kneels in front of her to check. “Hmm. Not looking so hot.” Sokka turns to Aang. “Her pupils aren’t dilating. That’s not a good sign.”

 

“How do you know this much about concussions?” Jae asks, disgruntled already. “I really don’t believe that you’re not just making this up as you go.”

 

“I hit my head a lot growing up,” he says, shrugging. Jae’s not the least bit surprised to hear that, but she still rolls her eyes. “I had to learn how to make sure I wasn’t gonna croak every time I banged into something.”

 

“Sounds like kid-you had issues,” Jae grumbles.

 

“You know, you’re not wrong, but that’s beside the point because you shouldn’t be-“

 

“Give it a rest, will ya?”


“I am not giving it a rest!”

 

“Sokka, please.”

 

“You need to get inside.” He stands and offers his hand. “This much light isn’t good for you. Really, you shouldn’t even be sitting up when you’re still like this, and-“

 

“Why are you doing this?” Jae snaps, swatting away his hand.

 

He doesn’t say anything, but he doesn’t move his hand away, either. Jae’s vision is swimming now – the longer she’s out in the light like this, the woozier she feels – and she looks up at his hand, then follows it up to his face. His eyes are wide with concern, but his jaw is set, hard and determined. She doesn’t really know what it is in his eyes, but it makes her throat catch, and she reaches for his hand. In one hand, he claps hers; the other settles against her back, holding her steady even though they both know she can walk. As they step beneath the cover of one of the temple’s hypostyle walkways, she blinks to let her vision adjust, and winces at the throbbing in her head. She stumbles; he catches her, muttering something she can’t make out.

 

“You have to stop pretending you’re fine, Jae,” he chides when they finally reach his tent. Jae’s memory of the tent’s being erected is hazy, but she’s grateful that it has been when she ducks beneath it and all but collapses to the bedroll.

 

This gets worse when I’m out too long. Good to know. Jae sinks to the bedroll with a pained grunt.

 

“Yeah. Not fine,” Sokka says, sitting beside her. “That didn’t take long.”

 

“Shuddup,” Jae groans. She feels for the cut on her cheek and runs her fingers over the ridge where the shovel had cut her.


“Does it hurt?” Sokka asks, watching her intently. “Katara can fix that.”


“No, ‘s fine,” Jae says, rolling onto her back and opening her eyes to stare at the ceiling. She wishes she could go back to pretending that her head doesn’t throb with every step she takes, but she’s not sure how she could now that she’s acknowledged it.

 

“I don’t know why she hasn’t just fixed you already,” Sokka grouses. “It’s not like she’s doing anything important.”


“Arguing with Zuko is its own kind of important, I guess,” she says, letting her hand drop back to her side. “They have to let the tension out somehow, right?”

 

“Ugh, don’t remind me.”

 

“’sides, I asked,” she says. “She doesn’t know what to do for that. We tried.”

“I seriously don’t believe that. It’s a cut.”

 

“No, not the cut. I asked her not to heal the cut.” She sighs. “The concussion? She’s never fixed a brain before. Doesn’t know how.”

 

“Wait, why? It’s going to get infected.”

 

Jae smiles weakly. “I wanted the reminder.”

 

“Of what, the fact that you won’t take care of yourself?”


“No.” Jae shakes her head. “That I did something useful.”

 

Sokka folds her palm over hers, saying nothing, and it’s a moment before she speaks again.

 

“Get some rest, okay?” he squeezes her hand.

 

“Mm,” she mutters, turning fitfully. Her thoughts are hazy now. “Toph said something weird earlier.”


“Toph says a lot of weird things. I wouldn’t read too much into it.”

 

“Right.” Jae swallows hard, letting his hand drop from hers. “Of course.”

 

“That…didn’t mean I didn’t want to know what it was, Jae.”

 

“It wasn’t important.”

 

He takes her hand again. “You sure about that?”

 

“Just something about you being in love with me. Crazy, right?”


“Was that how she put it? Love’s a pretty strong word.”


“I know. Which is why I though she was nuts.” Jae pauses. “Plus, you have a girlfriend.”


“It’s…complicated.”

 

Jae swats his arm.

 

“I guess one could say that I do,” he concedes.

 

“You could’ve led with that.”

 

“It isn’t that simple.”


Jae can see it all now, even in her swimming vision: maybe he does care for her, and she for him, but they’ll run across this girl of his eventually, and when they do, he’ll be in a mess he can’t sort out without losing one or the other. So she shakes her head and lets his hand go again.

 

“It should be,” she says, and before he can ask again, she lets her eyes flutter shut.

 

**

 

“Will you take five seconds and listen to me?”

 

You’re the one who’s not listening!” Zuko’s face is flushed with anger. “Now that Azula’s turned, we can’t be sure what my father is going to do, and the longer we wait-“

 

“The likelier it is we never get him out. I know.” They’ve rehashed this debate a thousand times by now. “And you’re not the only one who has people you love locked up, but that doesn’t mean we can charge in expecting to spring them. You have to think things through or you’re just going to get us all killed!”

 

Zuko winces at those words. She knows he didn’t mean for her to see it, but she narrows her eyes anyway. “What?” she asks.

 

“Nothing,” he says gruffly. “And we need to get to the Boiling Rock. That’s our only objective.”

 

“Yes,” Katara says, trying to keep her tone measured. Her voice cracks, throat too dry to let the words pass through. “But we have to have a plan.”

 

“Then make one,” Zuko challenges. “Show me a plan to get my Uncle and Azula out of prison, and I’ll wait. But you keep telling me to wait when you can’t guarantee that we’ll ever make it there, and I’m sick of it!”

 

“I don’t know.” Katara raises her hands helplessly. “I’ve told you, I don’t know. And neither do you, or any of us, and none of us are going to by ourselves. We aren’t going to figure out what to do, arguing amongst ourselves like this.” She backs a few steps away from Zuko, closer to the wall, without really knowing why. She’s not frightened, despite the wildness in his eyes and the tension in his body, but she still shies towards the protection of the wall behind her. “When things settle down, we’ll regroup and start figuring out the best way to go about this, okay?”

 

I’m using my schoolmistress voice, she observes, not entirely pleased with herself.

 

“When is that? Do you realize what’s at stake here?” Zuko begins to pace. “My father’s going to be furious about this, and when he gets mad, he also gets paranoid, and when he gets paranoid, people get executed!” He stops, turning to Katara with fury blazing in his eyes. “People like my uncle, and my sister, and your father, who probably don’t have time for us to wait around.”

 

“And we’re not going to wait around, but look at us, Zuko!” Katara whirls on him. “You’re a wreck, I’m a wreck, Jae is concussed, Sokka isn’t going to be of any use until Jae recovers, and the only two people in any shape to run a jailbreak are the one person we can’t afford to send and the one person who’d get herself given away in five seconds, and you expect us to have this all planned out already?”

 

“I never said-“


“Zuko, you have no idea what this invasion was supposed to mean,” Katara says, her voice smaller now. “We’ve spent so long trying to end this war, and yesterday was supposed to be the day that we finally did, and…we lost that chance.” She wills herself not to cry, but even so, she swipes at her tears with her open palm. Zuko approaches, and she doesn’t stop him.

 

“I do know that,” he says cautiously, reaching out his hand; she takes it. “But…”

 

He trails off, and she takes the opportunity to continue. “All that time and planning, and it was just…gone, almost before it even started, and what did we have to show for it?” she meets Zuko’s shellshocked eyes. “Nothing. Telling ourselves that we could win even though we were hopelessly outmatched, finding out we might’ve been wrong…that hit us harder than you’re giving it credit for. We’re not just going to charge out on another mission that’s probably doomed.”

 

Their eyes meet in the space between seconds before they manage to tear them apart. Zuko’s free hand reaches out and she laces her fingers through his; their joined hands settle between them. There seems to be no use discussing plans now, when they’ve both said all there is to say and neither has the heart to repeat the same arguments. All they can do is wait; neither wants to.

 

“We’re going to get him out, Zuko,” Katara promises. “You can trust me when I say that, right?”

 

She drops one of his hands and reaches out to cup his cheek, but he turns his face away. “You don’t know my father if you think you can promise me that.”

 

“No, I don’t.” This time, when she reaches for his scarred cheek, he doesn’t pull away. “But if we don’t tell ourselves we can make it, we never will.”

 

He shakes his head, shaggy hair brushing against her hand. “You’re just saying that.”

 

Katara pulls her hand away, and his eyes open again at the loss of contact. “Maybe I am. But if I don’t tell myself that I have a chance, who’s going to?” She lets her eyes close this time. “The odds are terrible, Zuko. If we don’t tell ourselves that we have a shot in a world where the good guys never win, who else is going to?”

 

“You’re all insane.” Zuko lets out a huff. “You fight when you don’t have a chance but won’t when you do?”

 

Katara tries not to notice that the space between them has decreased somehow. “Nice to hear that you think we’ve got a shot.”

 

“You said it yourself, Katara. If we don’t tell ourselves that, who’s going to?”

 

Her eyes flash, and a hand at his elbow finally gets him to look at her again. Their faces are only inches apart now, and she swallows a lump in her throat at the sudden proximity. Her hand drifts to his chest in a moment of insanity, and she can feel his heartbeat thudding frantically under her palm.

 

“Who indeed,” she says, then turns to go, head bowed.

 

She doesn’t trust the next words out of her mouth, so she never lets them out.

 

**

 

“That settles things, then.” Sokka sighs, shifting to lean forwards on his elbows. “Me, Katara, and Zuko-“

 

“I’m coming whether you want me to or not,” Jae interrupts.

 

“No, you’re not.”

 

“Try and stop me.”

 

Sokka clears his throat. “Me, Katara, and Zuko are going to take a boat out. She’ll cool the water enough to let us through, but since there’s nowhere dry to store the boat, we’re going to have to find another way home.”


“That boat definitely has room for four.” Jae raises her shoulders. “Just saying.”

 

“I mean, it does.”

 

“This is a stealth operation,” Sokka says through gritted teeth.

 

“And no one here is stealthier than Jae.”

 

“Okay, but-“

 

“I think she should go,” Toph cuts in. “She’d be helpful.”

 

“See?” Katara says, gesturing to Jae. “She’s fine now, and, I mean…she’s volunteering. We aren’t exactly in a position to turn down volunteers.”  

 

“I mean, whatever,” Zuko says, arms crossed peevishly. “If you think she’ll be okay.”

 

“And from there…” Sokka cracks his knuckles, trying far too hard to seem tough. “From there. we do a jailbreak.”

Chapter Text

 

The Boiling Rock

 

Present – Mid-Morning

 

Suki is amazed at how little two men whose entire lives have been spent planning battle tactics can get done in the space of the two weeks they’ve been attempting to plan their escape from the Boiling Rock. Granted, it’s not as if they’ve had ample time together to coordinate, but they’ve scrapped so many plans that she’s beginning to suspect that they’ll never be able to settle on a solution.

 

She’s still glad to know them, though. The prying eyes don’t follow her the way they used to when she’s flanked by Water Tribe soldiers, and it’s good to see a familiar face every once in a while.

 

“I’m telling you, the Cooler is our ticket out of here,” one of the Water Tribe soldiers says in a whisper that’s hardly quiet. “I don’t know why we’re not looking into that.”

 

“Keep your voice down,” Suki hisses. “You’re not as stealthy as you think you are.”

 

The soldier looks offended, but he doesn’t say anything.

 

“I agree, Panuk,” Iroh says gently. “But I’ve spent enough time in there to know that there’s no way to use it to escape.”

 

Suki winces. She’s never been thrown in the cooler since she can’t firebend, but she’s heard enough to pity the kind old man who’s taken her under his wing for having spent so much time there.

 

“No, no, I know it seems that way, but hear me out,” Panuk insists. “Think about it. It’s supposed to keep out heat, right?”

 

“…yes,” Hakoda says cautiously. He’s heard too many harebrained escape plans, most of them from Paunk, not to be leery of this latest idea. “What exactly is your point, Panuk?”

 

“It’s cold. The water is hot. Put cold thing in hot water, and we’re out of here!”

 

“That does make sense, though I’m not sure if it’s going to work,” Iroh replies after a moment’s thought. “But it’ll only hold about five of us.”

 

“Oh.” Panuk’s shoulders fall. “Yeah. I guess that’s true.”

 

“And how would you get the Cooler into the water in the first place?” Hakoda asks. “It does have potential, but have you thought about that?”

 

“Uh…is it removable?” Panuk asks, shrugging helplessly.

 

“Okay, so how would we remove it if we could?” Suki challenges. Even if they can – even if they don’t deem an escape plan that’ll only let five of them out to be unconscionable -  she doubts Paunk has considered that. “Without being caught?”

 

“Well, we could always get someone thrown in there,” Panuk reasons. “One of us who doesn’t firebend, so we aren’t at a disadvantage. Then we, uh…figure out how we would…remove it?”

 

“And how would we do that without being caught?” Suki asks, arms crossed. Poking holes in questionable escape plans is just about her only source of entertainment these days, and besides, she doesn’t want to sign off on anything that isn’t airtight (or…watertight?, she thinks, wondering when she’d managed to absorb Sokka’s sense of humor).


Panuk pauses, his eyes drifting around the group.

 

“Well,” he says, “in the event that any of this works, wouldn’t a prison riot do the trick?”  

**

 

En Route to The Boiling Rock

 

Two Hours Earlier

 

“So, to recap-“

 

“We’ve been over this four times, Sokka,” Jae sighs wearily. “Can you please give it a rest?”

 

“But…we need to have every detail hammered down before we arrive,” Sokka protests. “And you just had a concussion! It’s not that unreasonable of me to think that maybe you’d need some extra help remembering-“

 

“I’m fine now.” Never mind that Katara had managed to figure out how to fix the knock Jae had taken to the head, as much to get her brother to stop fretting as to help Jae – this exchange is still happening all too frequently.

 

“Yeah, but this one time I hit my head and lost my short-term memory for, like, two weeks,” Sokka insists. He’s probably lying and they all know it, but he doesn’t seem to care.

 

“No, you didn’t,” Katara says tiredly, leaning back against the edge of the boat.


“Yeah. You liar.” Jae pulls a face at him, though he’s turned around while checking the sails for the fifth time in an hour and doesn’t see it. “I’m fine, and you’re driving us all batty with your repetitiveness.”

 

Sokka slumps. “I know. But I can’t afford to let anything go wrong.”

 

“Neither can I, but you don’t hear me talking everyone’s ears off.” Zuko rubs at his eyes – apparently Sokka and Jae’s little tiff woke him from a nap. “I’m with Jae. Just lay off.”

 

Katara watches Zuko out of the corner of her eye, pretending to be watching Sokka instead. “Have a nice nap?” she asks, voice a little testy even though she’s grateful for a chance to change the subject even though she’d usually steer clear of bringing up or addressing Zuko so explicitly. Something between them has felt off since the failed invasion – she can’t tell if it’s the kind of “off” that spells disaster, or the kind that’s born of some mutually-anticipated but unspoken shift – and it’s easiest to ignore him, a conclusion that Zuko seems to have come to as well. But that’s rather beside the point now that what matters is getting Sokka to stop before their allies start jumping ship.

 

“I wouldn’t call it that,” Zuko mutters, wincing as he sits. “I have the worst crick in my neck.”

 

“Better have my sister look at that,” Sokka suggests. “I bet she’d even throw in a nice shoulder massage if you asked nicely.”

 

“No, she would not,” Katara replies, cheeks burning. That would be a flagrant breach of the uneasy, unspoken agreement they’ve come to. “Stop being ridiculous, Sokka.”

 

“Don’t worry, I wasn’t going to ask.” Zuko scratches at the back of his neck, wincing as he brings his arm back down to his lap. “Must’ve slept on my arm funny, too.”

 

“Well, I could look at it, but healing doesn’t work that well unless there’s actually something wrong with you,” Katara explains.

 

“This is true,” Sokka admits. “We used to have her try to fix our sore backs after we slept on the ground all the time. Never helped much.”

 

Zuko narrows his eyes, evidently confused. “Then why did you tell me to ask her for help?”

 

“Oh. That.” Sokka snickers. “I just think that watching you two idiots try to act natural while she was giving you a neck massage would be hilarious.”

 

Katara scowls. “You know, I really think you missed your true calling,” she scoffs.


“Oh?” Sokka turns to face them, arching an eyebrow. “What would that be?”

 

Zuko looks at Jae, who doesn’t understand why he’s doing so, and Katara shakes her head.

 

“Stand-up comedy,” she deadpans. “Because you’re clearly a comedic genius.”

 

“Dude, you’re staring,” Jae says, raising an eyebrow at Zuko in imitation of Sokka’s expression. “What gives?”


“Jae, don’t you agree?” Katara asks. “That my brother-“

 

“Oh, I thought Katara was talking about you when she said that Sokka missed his true calling,” Zuko explains. “Guess I was wrong.”

 

“No, sorry, Katara, I didn’t catch that,” Jae says, then turns back to Zuko. If Katara wonders how she could’ve missed that in a boat barely big enough for the four of them, she doesn’t ask. “And what would make you think that, Zuko?”

 

“Oh, ‘cause I never understood why you two wouldn’t just date already.” Zuko shrugs. “I mean, it’s obvious that you like each other-“

 

“Nope. No. Not going there,” Sokka interrupts. “Next in line, please! Keep it going, folks. Move along, nothing to see here-“

 

“Sokka, we get it.” Katara presses her hand to her forehead. “And Zuko, how on earth is it that you don’t pick up on anything, but you somehow caught that?”

 

“Zuko doesn’t pick up on anything?” Sokka asks, all too eager to dodge the subject of his relationship with Jae or lack thereof. This, after hours at sea on the way to The Boiling Rock, is a pattern they’ve settled into: this back-and-forth, passing the conversation around, dodging questions they’d rather not answer. “Tell me, what hasn’t he picked up on?”

 

Katara’s cheeks flush. “Lots of things.”

 

“Oh?” Jae, just as eager to avoid a return to the previous subject as Sokka, asks. “Such as?”

 

“Oh, you know. Things like the fact that his sister managed to run off during the invasion,” she says casually, and immediately regrets her words when Zuko winces beside her. “And that-“

 

“You know what, I’ve changed my mind. I think we should go over the plan one more time,” Zuko decides. “Sokka?”

 

“Hey, man, this time it’s not my fault.” Sokka shrugs in a “don’t-shoot-the-messenger” gesture that isn’t entirely necessary this time. “So, what parts do you need clarification on?”

 

And this is how the game always ends: the back-and-forth brings someone too close to the brink of a confession none of them would be foolish enough to make, and they wind up here again, talking about the one thing that won’t lead them to disaster.

 

It’s foolproof, really.

 

**

Capital Prison

 

Five Hours Earlier

It’s not yet light out when Azula awakens. In the dark, she can make out the shape of her hands but not of her surroundings, and she hears a persistent dripping from the ceiling a ways off. A cell, she realizes, conjuring a flame to better make out its size and features. How…?

 

Her last clear memories don’t end here, and she struggles to call back any that might help her to explain how and why she’s locked up. She rarely remembers what happens when the fog of panic takes her mind – sometimes for seconds, leaving nothing more than gaps in conversation that she can easily fill, but other times for hours upon hours in which she can’t remember where she was or what she’s done – but she knows that whatever had happened the last time she’d gone under must’ve led her here. Her father had believed her when she’d claimed that the Avatar was dead, and her last reminiscences were of his face, only faintly displeased, and the sour taste of bile rising in her throat at the sight of him.

 

Azula can only conclude that he must’ve caught her in the lie, and it’s easy to piece things together from there. This has to be the Capital Prison, but she won’t be here for long if she’s accused of something so serious as covering for the Avatar – if her father knows what she’d tried to do, she’s shocked that he left her alive. Surely he can’t intend to keep her here, where he knows she could easily overwhelm the guards if he had to. Surely he’d only allowed it because he’d been convinced that his daughter had lost her sanity and wouldn’t be able to think clearly enough to escape.

 

Azula stands shakily to look through the window-slot in her door and surveys the passageway outside of her cell. It’s dark, lined with cells on either side and guards posted at each one; they’re hardly the most elite on the palace security force (those ones have the dubious honor of serving her father), and she’s confident that it won’t be difficult to bypass them on her way out. In monents, Azula calculates a strategy: she knows that these doors are supposed to be bending-proofed, but she doesn’t need to open her door. All she has to do is overwhelm the next guard who comes to bring her food.

 

It’s almost pathetic how easy her father has made it for her to outwit him, and when she does, she knows almost without thinking about it what she’s going to do. She’ll never have her father’s approval, and she might not yet have a whole and clear mind (that’s the unpredictability in this plan), but she will have the Fire Nation at her feet if she does even a fraction of what she knows she’s capable of.

 

Once, Azula was Fire Lord Ozai’s greatest asset, but he’s made his choice. If he wants to deny his daughter her birthright, force her hand, and toss her into prison like some common rabble-rouser, she will simply have to work around him.


Maybe, if all goes to plan, without him.

 

(It’s six hours of stewing in vengeful thoughts before a tray of rice and broth gives her the means of escape, and she doesn’t run far. Because now, she knows, her work must be done from the inside.)

 

**

 

The Boiling Rock

 

One Hour Earlier

 

It’s shockingly easy to sneak into a maximum-security prison when no one thinks it’s possible. Fitting into a guard’s uniform when even the smallest of them have six inches and at least thirty pounds of muscle on Jae is much less so.

 

“I’m going to trip over these pants,” Jae says, glancing around to be sure she’s not being watched when they meet up on the catwalk they’d used to break in after they’ve all gotten their hands on prison uniforms. Katara, at least, seems to have the same issue as Jae, though to a lesser degree as she’s a little taller and a lot less scrawny. It’s oddly reassuring.

 

“Roll up the waistband,” Katara suggests. “And tie it off if you have to. That’s what I did.”

 

“Believe me, I tried.” Jae shrugs helplessly, the baggy fabric of her tunic rustling with the rise and fall of her shoulders.

 

“Jae, you’re fine,” Sokka says curtly. “Now, we need to get somewhere where we can figure out where they’re keeping the prisoners of war. I don’t really trust Katara not to get herself caught after what she pulled the last time we were at a prison-“

 

Hey!”

 

“Don’t even start, miss motivational-speaker.”

 

“Fine,” Katara huffs. “Anyways, what were you saying?”


“You and Zuko are going to stay here while I try to figure out where Dad, the Water Tribe Fleet, and Iroh are being kept,” he says, dropping his voice so as not to be overheard. “You watch the yard. If anyone we know gets let out on recreation time and you see any of them, get down there and follow them to their cells to brief them on what we’re doing here.”


“Right.” Katara looks to Zuko. “You on board?”

 

“I really think that it should be me going out there,” he replies.


“Nope. Way too recognizable. What’s going to happen if someone sees you without your helmet?” Sokka reasons. “Jae and I are inconspicuous. It needs to be us.”

 

“Jae’s about to trip over her own pantlegs, Sokka,” Zuko points out. “How is that any less suspicious than me?”

 

“…you realize that I wasn’t giving you a choice, right?”

 

**

 

Thirty Minutes Earlier

 

“So. I’m new here.” Jae doesn’t waste a moment, sidling up to two guards in the mess hall and parking herself at their table before they get a chance to protest. “Mind giving me the low-down on what I should expect?”


She is way too good at this, Sokka thinks, a little annoyed, as he pretends to sweep a few yards away.

 

One of them raises his eyebrows. “Aren’t you a little young to be working here?”

 

Jae shakes out her hair after she takes her helmet off, which conveniently doubles as a head-shake. “Just turned nineteen,” she lies. “I’ve always been short, so people usually think I’m, like, twelve. I mean, they didn’t even make a size of uniform small enough for me. Sucks, right?”

 

One of his companions gives Jae the side-eye. “How’s a toothpick like you supposed to do this job?” she asks.

 

“I’ve trained in martial arts since I was young,” she lies effortlessly. “Anyways, that’s all beside the point. I want to know who all I’m supposed to be guarding.”


“Prisoners,” says the third guard, who doesn’t seem particularly bright.

 

“Well, yeah, but what kind? I hear that the prisoners here are supposed to be threats to national security,” Jae says conspiratorially. “What kinds of threats? Traitors? Murderers? Prisoners of war?”

 

“All of the above, but lately it’s been a lot of war prisoners,” the woman tells her. “The Princess has been rounding up all of the Avatar’s allies, and they’re taking up a ridiculous amount of space. Who knew that kid had so many fans, huh?”

 

“Oh, really,” Jae says, interested but not too interested. “I think I did hear about the Southern Water Tribe fleet.”

 

“Oh, yeah. Those guys are a pain to deal with,” says the guard who Jae suspects isn’t the brightest ember in the firepit. “Always together, and they never want to do what anyone tells ‘em.”

 

“Why doesn’t the prison administrator or whoever just separate them?” Jae asks. It’s a dangerous question if it gives anyone ideas, but it’ll help them to figure out where the Water Tribe prisoners are being held. “It seems like that would be the obvious thing to do.”

 

“I dunno. Not my area.” The first guard shrugs. “I do the area with the most high-risk prisoners, and there’s only one Water Tribe guy there. The leader. Thinks he’s real tough, but every time I see him, he’s talkin’ to some little girl.”

 

“Some little girl?” Jae squints. “How did a little girl end up in here?”

 

“I guess she leads some kinda group of warrior girls,” the other guard explains. “They managed to get on the Princess’ bad side, so here they are. She can’t be much younger than you, but it’s still weird.”

 

“Huh. Interesting.” I’ll have to ask Sokka about that. “And what other kinds of prisoners are in that area?”

 

“Oh, your garden-variety murderers and stuff, but right now I’ve got the Fire Lord’s brother in there, too,” he brags. “He ain’t much to look at anymore, that’s for sure. Definitely goin’ nuts.”

 

“I see,” Jae mutters. “Well, I think I’m back on duty in a few, but thanks for the help!”

 

She catches Sokka’s eyes across the room and inclines her head in a subtle nod.

 

**

 

Present

 

“Zuko, you’re spacing out again.”

 

“Sorry, what?” Zuko shakes himself, shifting his weight against the railing overlooking the yard.

 

“You okay?” Katara asks. “You got really zoned-out for a minute there.”

 

“Oh, right.” He scratches the back of his neck – Katara is beginning to recognize that as a nervous habit of his. “Sorry, yeah. Just anxious.”

 

“Me, too.” Katara can’t lay her palm on his arm without looking suspicious (no one’s around, but someone could come by at any moment), so she settles for a subtle nudge. “I’m terrified that we’re not going to find my dad here. That…you know. He never made it this far.”

 

“I don’t know what I’m going to do if we can’t find Uncle, so I know the feeling.” Zuko lets out an exhausted sigh. “I’ve spent so long wanting nothing more than to come here and find him, and now that we have, I almost wish we hadn’t, you know?”

 

“I do know.” Katara’s eyes sweep across the yard again. “But Azula told us he was here, right?”

 

“Yeah, but Azula always lies.”

 

“Well, she told us the truth about not being on your father’s side anymore,” Katara points out. “Doesn’t that count for something?”

 

“I mean, sure, but that doesn’t undo an entire lifetime of compulsive lying.”

 

“No, but it means that she might’ve been telling the truth about this. And isn’t it better to believe that she might’ve been? We won’t…”

 

Katara trails off, eyes fixed on a point in the yard below. Her eyes widen behind her helmet and she lets out a gasp that she tries and fails to conceal.


“Katara?” Zuko whispers. “Do you see something?”

 

“That’s them,” she says, her voice shaky with disbelief. “Dad and Panuk and Nukilik and all the guys I grew up with and they’re talking to a girl who looks a lot like Sokka’s girlfriend who went MIA a couple months ago and…wait.” Katara grabs Zuko’s arm, yanking him to the railing so forcefully that he’s afraid for a second that he’s going to fall over it. “That guy in the middle – is that your uncle?”

 

“What? Where?” Zuko’s voice pitches higher as his eyes frantically search the yard for the group Katara is pointing out. “I can’t…I don’t see him.”

 

“There,” Katara says, eyes shining, and she takes Zuko’s hand to point it in the direction that she wants him to look. “See? The southwest corner. It’s a bunch of Water Tribe guys clustered around two men and a girl our age.”

 

Zuko’s heart feels like it could plummet to the ground below when he finally finds what she’s looking at. “I…I think it might be,” he admits, almost afraid to hope. When he does, he laughs, unable to hold himself back. “What are the odds of that?”

 

They both know that now is the time to act, but neither wants to, and Zuko doesn’t complain when Katara throws her arms around his neck. He wraps his around her waist, and if he hadn’t been attempting not to draw attention, he thinks he might be tempted to lift her off the ground and spin her. He’s never had an occasion to do so before, but his cousin always had – it didn’t matter whether the recipient of his affection was a servant, one of the many girls he’d brougth home, or the old cook who’d always brought him his favorite pastries when he requested them at odd hours of the night; such was Lu Ten’s favorite expression of joy. And it’s almost sobering to think of him in a moment as buoyant as this, but it reminds Zuko of his true objective, and he lets Katara go before he can convince himself to stay like that for as long as she’ll let him. His hand lingers on her forearm, though.

 

“I’m going to go down there and try to figure out where they’re keeping Uncle,” he tells her. “You figure out where the Water Tribe warriors are being held. Then we’ll meet up with Sokka and Jae out here, right?”

 

Katara nods tightly, doubt flickering across her face in place of the joy that had been there a moment ago. “Right.”

 

Neither wants to move, or to admit why.

 

“Um,” Katara says. “Be safe, okay?”

 

He squeezes her forearm. “Of course. You too.”

 

Zuko walks away before Katara does, and she’s surprised to find herself moving to catch him. She feels like she’s watching this scene play out from somewhere in the distance as she reaches for his wrist, catches it, and uses the momentum of the movement to pull him back towards her and as close as she can get. He freezes, his expression questioning, but he takes one step closer even so and, when she takes his wrist in her hand, he offers the other to her. They’re so close now that she can feel his short, quick breaths tickling her nose, and for the first time in as long as she can remember, Katara acts without a second thought.

 

“I meant it when I told you to stay safe,” she says, and before he can reply, she pushes herself up onto her tiptoes and presses her lips to his.

 

Oh, Spirits, why did I do that?

 

 She falls back to the flats of her feet, blushing furiously, and drops his hands, about to turn away, when Zuko catches her wrist the way she had his. She turns, her expression questioning, and he’s wide-eyed, his lips parted, signals of attraction not even Katara could miss.

 

Oh, Spirits, I think he liked it.

 

Shr turns to him, and he smiles, something knowing and nervous all at once. It’s beautiful. He is beautiful, and she’s grateful that, if this mission goes haywire, she’ll always know that she managed to see it before it all fell apart.

 

“You better not let anything happen to you,” he says, smiling now like she’s never seen him smile before, and he presses a hand to the small of her back, bends at the neck as if bowing to her, and kisses her once more for good measure. He takes his time the way she hadn’t, and his lips are exactly as warm as she’d have expected them to be, soft and almost shy, and when they pull away, he leans his forehead against hers. “Okay?”

 

“We have such terrible timing,” Katara laughs, knees shaking. Spirits, I think I’m going to melt, she can’t help but think, and it’s all she can do to get out a wobbly “okay.”

 

“Then let’s go do a jailbreak.”

 

**

Suki!”

 

Jae rolls her eyes – if Sokka’s going for subtlety, he’s not landing very close to the mark. She can hear him through the door she’s pretending to guard. But even the humor of the situation can’t keep her heart from plummeting when she peers through the window-slot and watches him embrace a girl in prison red as if he’s drowning and she holds a lifeline.

 

Whatever feeble feelings he’d had for her seem paltry in comparison to this, and though Jae knows she should be glad she’d encouraged him to let them go in light of the reunion she’s witnessing now, she can’t quite bring herself to. Sokka had seen her like so many others hadn’t bothered to; Sokka had believed in her, bolstered her confidence, made her laugh and laughed in return, fussed over her when she was hurt, told her she was pretty. And to a girl shown as few kindnesses as plain, unremarkable Jae, those things built and built until they became something she could no longer explain or control.

 

Something that he clearly feels for this prisoner and not, no matter what they’ve shared, for her.

 

She turns away, watching the hall as he debriefs Suki inside her cell.

 

**

 

For a moment, Zuko stands in the open door, breathing hard. He’s not sure if he can believe his eyes, and it takes a full minute to snap out of it, close the door behind him, and take off his helmet, which he does so hastily that it clatters to the floor.

 

“Uncle,” he whispers, afraid that he’ll vaporize if he gets any closer.

 

Iroh looks up, eyes wide with shock. “Zuko?”

 

“Uncle,” he breathes. And Iroh doesn’t get a chance to respond before Zuko all but falls to his knees and collapses in his uncle’s arms, which encircle him after a moment of shock.


“What are you doing here?” Iroh asks, but Zuko is too choked up to answer, tears threatening to spill as he pants against his uncle’s shoulder. He’s lost weight in prison, and his scrawniness takes a moment to get used to, but Zuko clings to him the way he should’ve back in Ba Sing Se – the way he should’ve all along, every time he’d had the chance to listen to Uncle’s voice but instead obeyed his father’s. He cries after a moment, burying his face in the crook of Uncle’s neck, and wordlessly, he vows never to let Uncle risk himself that way again.

 

“I’m so sorry,” he sobs. “I’m so sorry.”

 

“Zuko,” Iroh sighs, rubbing his shaking shoulders. “You have nothing to apologize for.”

 

“But…but…she locked you up because of me!”

 

“No, she locked me up because I’m a traitor to the crown.” Iroh manages a weak chuckle. “And I don’t want to hear one more word about how you should’ve stayed behind with me, because I stand by my decision to kick you out that door and I’d do it again.”

 

“I was so worried, and they wouldn’t let me come and find you until now, and I’m sorry I didn’t come for you sooner, and…and…” Zuko breaks off to catch his breath. “I’m sorry.”

 

Iroh pauses.


“You have nothing to apologize for,” he says soothingly. “And I understand that you’ve not only joined up with the Avatar-“

 

“You practically made me do that!”

 

“-but also got your sister to turn on your father?” Iroh asks. “If you’ve really managed to do that, Prince Zuko, you are a miracle-worker.”

 

“…I didn’t actually do anything,” he says, his breathing and frantic heartbeat beginning to slow. “She got sick of him all on her own.”

 

“Well, even so.” Iroh pats his back. “I believe that all goes to show that I made the right choice.”

 

“We’re getting you out of here,” Zuko says, lacking a better response. “Me and Katara and Sokka and this servant girl from the palace in Ba Sing Se are going to get you and Suki and the Water Tribe fleet out, okay?”

 

“Funny that you should mention that,” Iroh says, letting go of Zuko and getting to his feet. Zuko, noticing the shakiness in his legs, extends his arm to help him up. “Because we’ve all been trying to do that for weeks.”

 

“Unsuccessfully?”

 

“Well, I’m still here, aren’t I?” Iroh shrugs. “And don’t think I didn’t notice that you’re still traveling with your lady-friend.”

 

“That is not relevant right now!” Zuko snaps, color rising rapidly in his cheeks. “And she’s not my ‘lady-friend’. Unless-“  

 

Wait, is she? Do I know that?

 

He considers, and then realizes that, irrelevant or not, nothing would make Uncle happier than a juicy tidbit about his perpetually-single nephew’s love life. Then again, if he tells uncle about their kiss, they’re never going to get out of here.

 

“…never mind,” he says. “We’ve managed to beach the boat we came in, but it only fits seven people, so we’re going to need backup to get everyone out. Have you all made any plans yet?”

 

“’Unless’ what, Zuko?”

 

“Unless…” oh. Right. “Nothing. We have to focus on the escape right now. Anyways-“

 

Iroh waves the objection off. “Zuko, we’ve been thinking about nothing but this escape for three months. I think you can spare a second to tell your poor old uncle about the pretty lady you’ve been traveling with.” He raises his eyebrows suggestively. “I could always tell you had a crush on her.”

 

“I didn’t.” He pauses to consider. “Until about a month ago.”

 

“Ah, so you admit it!”

 

“She kissed me.” He thinks it’s probably best to bite the bullet. “But I don’t think we’re…anything. It was kind of sudden.”

 

Oh?” Uncle beams. “See? I knew I was making the right decision when I sent you with her!”

 

Zuko crosses his arms. “You’d spent three months in prison just to get a girl to kiss me?”

 

“You know what I mean!” Uncle says jovially, clapping Zuko on the back. “When was this?”

 

“…twenty minutes ago.” He’s never been more mortified, but it’s the least he can do for Uncle when he’s been through so much. “Before I came and found you. She kissed me and told me not to die.” He clears his throat, succeeding only in sounding like he’s choking on a chicken bone. “And then she started walking away, so I caught her and then kissed her and also told her not to die.”

 

Uncle raises an eyebrow.

 

“I’d say you were hopeless, but you’re clearly not that bad if you managed to get a girl like her to kiss you in a near-death situation.”


“Now can we please discuss the plan?”

 

“But we have so much to catch up on!”


Later,” Zuko says firmly. “We’re going to have a four-hour boat ride back to the Western Air Temple, and then you can ask me whatever you want, okay? But for now, we need to focus.”

 

“I can’t believe you just got kissed and all you can think about is committing crimes.” Iroh shakes his head. “Where did I go wrong?”

 

The Zuko of six months ago would’ve had a sharp word waiting on the tip of his tongue for a statement so ridiculous as that, but he can’t bring himself to lash out now. He’s missed Uncle too much for that.


“Tell me about your escape plan,” he requests, firm but gentle, and uncle, to his relief, complies.

**

 

“One more time,” Katara requests. “Who’s doing what?”


Hakoda shakes his head fondly. “You already know this plan like the back of your hand, Katara.”

 

“Yes, but I’m not taking any chances.” She bites her lip. “So…one more time?”


“All right, but I’m not sure it’s necessary.”

 

“It is.”


“If you insist. Anyways. At noon sharp, Sokka is going to have someone send all of the prisoners into the yard, which will give us all the chance to reconvene. Once we have everyone there, Nukilik is going to start a fight, which will throw the yard into chaos so we can slip off. Then, you and Suki are going to take the Warden hostage, which will make sure that the guards won’t cut the lines when we all get into the gondolas. From there, the four of you plus myself, Suki, and Iroh will escape in the boat you took to get here, and the rest of the warriors will get themselves around to the landing pad where they keep the war balloons that the Warden and administrators use to get back to the mainland. Right?”

 

“Right,” Katara says tightly, hands fisting in the fabric of her guard’s uniform. “No Cooler, no fuss.”

 

“Yes, Panuk is devastated, but he’ll live.”

 

“Okay.” Katara nods nervously. “I have to go before it starts looking suspicious that I’ve been in here for so long, but I’ll see you, right?”


“Of course.” He squeezes her hand before she turns to go. “And try not to worry too much, all right?"


"Dad, we're about to break you and a dozen other prisoners out of a maximum-security prison." Katara could almost laugh at the ridiculousness of the advice. "Do you really expect me not to worry?"

 

"No, but we all know what we're doing," he tells her. "So try not to worry more than you need to." 

 

"Well, I'll try." Katara smiles wanly. 

 

"That's the spirit," Hakoda says gently. "You know that I'm proud of you, right?" 

 

She smiles. "Thanks, Dad." 


He inclines his head. "Of course. Now, what is it that Sokka keeps saying?" he pauses, then smiles when he remembers. "Oh, yes. 'Let's go do a jailbreak.'" 

 

**

 

The prison yard is a cacophony of sound and motion and Jae plunges headlong into the chaos, as she always has. Her friends at the center, walled in by a ring of Water Tribe warriors who shield their escape, press close to one another so as not to be swept up as Suki and Katara search for the Warden. He’s safely situated above the chaos on one of the catwalks, naturally, but the glint in Katara’s eyes tells Jae that she isn’t worried – he can’t exactly run from a girl whose bending style he’s never seen and cannot hope to counter. So, with Suki waiting in case she needs backup, Katara begins her ascent.

 

She makes a run for the balcony on steps she bends and freezes from the water in the waterskin she’s kept concealed beneath her uniform. She doesn’t have much to work with, so every few steps, the previous steps have to be melted before the next can be formed; one misstep would be disastrous and she has only milliseconds to bend her next foothold before she falls. Jae’s jaw slackens at the realization that she’s never seen Katara do this before – she has to be making the technique up as she goes, and she’s executing it almost flawlessly.

 

She concludes that they’re lucky beyond belief to have this girl on their side and not the other way around.

 

The Warden, predictably, has no clue what to do in the face of such an unprecedented threat, and he tries to flee. But Katara’s too fast and too clever to allow him to get far, and when she’s climbed over the catwalk’s railing and gotten her footing on solid ground again, she sends the contents of her waterskin to chase him, icing over the walkway. He’s too bulky to move with very much agility, so he slips almost immediately, brought down by his own momentum, and Katara unhooks the handcuffs attached to her belt to restrain him.


(She takes a special kind of pleasure in the horror on the Warden’s face at having been bested by a teenage girl – and a waterbender, no less – who shouldn’t have been able to get anywhere near him.)

 

Even once Suki arrives (she, unlike Katara, took the stairs, and it seems from the looks of things that she wasn’t allowed through without a struggle), it’s hardly light work to get the Warden back down to the yard. By the time they do, though, the rest of their group has managed to clear a path to the gondolas, with half of them already loaded up. But, even though the two can see Sokka, Jae, Zuko, and Hakoda clamboring into a gondola, followed by a group of the warriors who take the next one, something doesn’t seem right.

 

There’s something about the scuffle in the yard that seems poised to run out of control, and guards are charging into the yard on all sides. They’re already running as fast as they can while they’re dragging the Warden (who, naturally, drags his feet) along, but if they waste a second more, they won’t be able to get through. They’ll be trapped, and the guards will no doubt cut the line without the Warden in one of the gondolas. Urgently, Katara uncaps her waterskin and slicks the ground behind her again, sending prisoners and guards alike skidding perilously around the yard as they try to regain their footing. She and Suki each support half of the Warden’s weight and, to speed up their escape, Katara manages to spare a tendril of water to freeze the ground beneath the Warden’s feet, too, to reduce the effort of lugging him along.

 

The gondolas continue to rise, and they’re just close enough to hear the shouts of the remaining warriors as they pile in. Almost there, Katara reminds herself, but their surroundings are in too much disarray to allow her to be sure of anything. And when a guard tries to corner them, she’s so exhausted that she briefly wonders what they’d do to her if she were to lose her footing, if her knees gave out seconds before they made their escape.

 

A burst of flame means she never has to find out.

 

“Get into the gondolas,” an unfamiliar voice instructs them. Katara turns her head to see Zuko’s uncle, blocking their path to the gondola from the charging guards. Flames leap from his hands, and the remaining prisoners skitter to the outskirts of the yard to stay out of his way. “I’ll hold them off.”

 

“We have to get out of here!” Suki calls over her shoulder, but she doesn’t stop for a second. “As soon as we’re on that gondola, make a run for it!”

 

Iroh turns to look at her right as they reach the platform and shove the Warden into the next arriving gondola, both panting with exertion. “I’ll be fine!” he insists, and Katara doesn’t have time to think about it much as she slams the gondola’s door behind her, a weight lifting off her chest. They’re safe now; the guards wouldn’t dare cut the line with the Warden onboard, and Iroh’s keeping them busy anyway-

 

“Wait,” Katara pants, her heart falling. “He was never actually going to follow us, was he?”

 

“No, no, he has to,” Suki pants, her face paling. The Warden makes a displeased noise through his gag, which both girls ignore. “He’s coming, he just wanted to make sure we got off of the ground first. That’s all.” Her chin begins to tremble. “That has to be all.”

 

“But…how?” Katara says, her breathing shallow.

 

“He’s a master firebender, Katara. He’s going to be fine,” Suki insists through gritted teeth. “He’ll get into a gondola as soon as he can. See? He’s heading for us now.”

 

Katara grips the edge of her gondola until her knuckles turn white, and she breathes a sigh of relief when Iroh finally closes the door to his gondola and it lifts into the air. Suki’s shoulders sag with relief, even though he’s so far behind them that they can barely see him. The guards still can, though, well enough for one of the ones who can firebend to aim a shot at the cable tethering his gondola to the line.

 

Katara curses under her breath.

 

They’d spent so long ensuring that the guards wouldn’t cut the lines that they’d forgotten that there were other ways to bring down a gondola, ones that – of course – the guards would be eager to use on a single, isolated car whose occupant whose attack had allowed half of their most high-profile prisoners to escape.

 

No!” Suki shouts, throwing herself to the back of the gondola so forcefully that it pitches. Katara grabs the back of her shirt, afraid that Suki will pitch over the side, and, perhaps so she won’t have to watch the gondola’s tether burn and break, she grabs Suki by the waist, pulling her away from the side. “Iroh!”

 

“Suki, you’re going to fall,” Katara tries to warn her, but she still strains against her grip, as if it’ll allow her to reach out and catch the fast-falling gondola.

 

No,” she repeats, shoulders beginning to shake. She averts her eyes seconds before the gondola hits the surface of the water with a sickening splash. “No, no, no!”

 

Katara turns away, but she still hears the sound of the gondola hitting the water – nevertheless, it’s only when Katara hears a shriek so guttural it’s barely human from a hundred feet down the line that its meaning hits her, full-force and straight in the chest.

 

“I’m so sorry,” she whispers behind the hand she’s pressed to her mouth, stumbling back into the opposite wall of the gondola, and she doesn’t even know who she’s apologizing to.

Chapter Text

 

Western Air Temple

 

“Are you hungry?” Zuko doesn’t look up. Katara isn’t sure if he didn’t hear her or just isn’t inclined to respond, but she sits beside him anyway, nudging his arm with the soup she’s saved for him.

 

His slumped shoulders don’t even move.

 

“Zuko,” Katara coaxes. “You need to eat.”

 

He opens his mouth, then closes it. “I don’t want it.”

 

“I know you don’t, but you have to keep your strength up.” Katara feels impossibly small, unable to make a dent in the walls he’s built these past two days, and she shudders at the way her voice comes out like a mother’s scolding her unruly children. “It’s five-flavor. Your favorite.”

 

“Just leave,” he says through gritted teeth.

 

Katara doesn’t, but she snatches the bowl away, almost afraid that he’ll throw it at her. “No.”

 

He doesn’t make any move to take it, but he turns on her, eyes wide and face pale. “I told you that I needed to be alone!”

 

“I’m not going to do that, Zuko.” She squeezes her hands into fists, willing herself not to lash out. “You need to eat, and I’m not leaving until you do it.”

 

“If you wanted to help me, you should’ve caught that gondola,” he mutters, turning away from her. “The least you can do now is go away.”

 

She staggers to her feet, reeling like she’s been slapped. Her breath won’t come, and a band tightens around her chest as she struggles for words that aren’t materializing. “I…I was in shock,” she finally stammers. “I would’ve done anything-“

 

“And yet you did nothing?” he turns back to her, trembling with fury. “You were in shock? You let him die because you were in shock?”

 

“I didn’t let him anything!” she snaps, too shocked to measure her tone.

 

He shoots her a look so utterly betrayed that she has to clap a hand to her mouth to hold back a sob, and she turns and runs before he has a chance to say another word.

 

**

 

Fire Nation Palace

 

It’s a stupid risk to take. Uncalculated, really, and entirely pointless. There’s nothing to be gained by it, venturing topside when the most sensible solution is to lie in wait, hiding out and riding out the lessening but still worrisome fluctuations in her lucidity where no one will find her.

 

But fire is life, and Azula has not seen sunlight in days.

 

She turns her face up towards the sun, and for a moment she wishes she could erase as soon as it’s over, she lets its light wash her face and doesn’t force back the choking sob rising in her throat. It should be filling her with its power, but all she feels is broken and small and damaged, and all she wants is to sink to her knees and give in.


She doesn’t, of course – she’s never had that choice. She has to turn back for safety and she’s wasted long enough. But she savors her first taste of warmth that does not burn in days all the same, and she realizes with panging urgency that, should she not succeed, it will be her last.

 

**

Western Air Temple

 

The Avatar decides to give counseling a try after Katara returns to camp in tears for the fourth time in three days. He sits beside Zuko, cross-legged, and at first, he doesn’t say anything – Zuko wishes they’d all let him be, but at least he’s grateful for that. It’s only when Aang turns those round, sympathetic eyes on him that Zuko begins to feel distinctly uncomfortable.

 

“Your uncle did an amazing thing,” Aang says when he thinks Zuko’s gotten used to his presence, evidently unaware of his discomfort. “I hope you know that.”

 

Zuko flinches away. “Don’t.”

 

“Okay.” Aang clears his throat. “I can’t even imagine how much pain you’re in right now, but if you need anything, we all want to help you, okay?”

 

“If you think I’m going to sit here and talk about my feelings, you’re delusional.”

 

Aang looks a little bit hurt, but he doesn’t make much of it. “Okay,” he says evenly. “I get that. Everyone grieves differently, and stuff. Just tell us if you ever do want to talk, okay?”

 

He glares. “If I wanted to talk to someone, I’d go find Katara, not you.”

 

The offense on Aang’s face at that doesn’t appear to be on his own behalf. “You realize that you’ve made Katara cry four times today, right?”

 

He doesn’t respond. Typical. Aang crosses his arms – he’d tried to give those two the benefit of the doubt, but he’s not going to sit around and watch Zuko break his best friend’s heart. “She’s trying to help you, Zuko,” he says firmly. “We all are.”

 

Zuko shakes his head, saying nothing.

 

“But you can’t expect her to be there for you when you’re taking everything out on her.” Aang wants to raise his voice, but he knows it wouldn’t help. “I know you’re angry, but blaming her-“

 

“She could’ve done something, and she didn’t!”

 

“Would you have been able to think that quickly in her shoes?”


Zuko levels him with his stoniest glare. “For Uncle? I would’ve tried anything.”

 

“She would’ve, too.” Aang shakes his head, disappointed but not surprised. “And you can grieve all you want, but the minute you start telling people it’s their fault he’s gone, you’ve crossed a line.”

 

“Says the twelve-year-old?”

 

“I’m not done trying, you know.” Aang brushes the dust from his robes as he stands. “I can take it. But I’m not letting you walk all over my friends.”

 

Zuko lets his shoulders droop, and he doesn’t watch Aang leave.

 

**

 

Fire Nation Palace

 

Even in hiding, Azula can’t hide from hearsay, and she’s only half-surprised to hear that Father’s finally rid himself of Uncle.

 

It’s in a show of softness which she deeply resents that the first thing she thinks of when she hears the news is her brother. Perhaps the time she’s been off her game has dulled her sharpness, but she hopes he’ll keep going.


She hopes they’ll both be able to keep going.

**

 

Western Air Temple

 

“Hi.”

 

Zuko starts to wonder how long it’s been since he’s moved when Jae comes to check on him. “Hi.”

 

That, at least, is more than Jae expected after Katara’s multiple Zuko-related breakdowns and Aang’s soundless fury. “Do you want to walk?” she asks, testing out a new strategy since her friends hadn’t had much success with theirs. To her surprise, Zuko nods, and she extends his hand to help him up. They walk side-by-side for a few minutes; Zuko looks at everything but her. They don’t speak.


They don’t speak, until they do.


“I didn’t mean it,” he finally says.

 

“Didn’t mean…?”

 

“The stuff I said to Katara.” He watches the ground as if the secrets of the universe are unraveling before him on the cobblestones. “I didn’t mean it.”

 

“I figured.” Jae nods knowingly. “I didn’t think you did.”

 

“I made her cry,” he says blandly. “I didn’t want to make her cry.”


“Well, I mean, some of the stuff you said was pretty awful, but I don’t think she blames you.” Jae glances over at him to find him still staring at the ground. “I honestly don’t think you told her anything that she hasn’t already been telling herself.”

 

“She shouldn’t be.”

 

“I know, but go figure. That’s how she is.”

 

“You know what sucks?”


Jae laughs mirthlessly. “All of this?”


“The last conversation that I ever had with Uncle was about this.” His voice begins to wobble. “Her.”

 

“Katara?”


“Uncle always wanted me to make friends.” Jae can hear the difficulty with which he keeps his voice from breaking in his tone. “Or get a girlfriend or whatever. And he always used to tell me that he thought me and Katara would be good together, and that was the first thing he asked me about when he found out I was still traveling with her.” It’s obvious that this is a weight off his chest. “When I saw him again.”

 

Jae wordlessly places her palm on his arm.


“I told him that she kissed me,” he says, his voice threatening to break again. “He was so excited.”

 

When?”

 

“Like, an hour before that.”

 

About damn time. “Huh. Interesting.”

 

“And that’s all I can think about when I see her.” Zuko stubs his toe against the walkway. “He wanted to catch up, but I said we’d have more time later, and…and…”

 

“I’m sorry.”

Zuko stops trying to keep his voice in control. “I should’ve let him,” he says, impossibly fragile.

 

“You couldn’t have known, though.” Jae feels privileged to be the one to whom he’s decided he can open up, but she knows she has to tread carefully. “Neither could she.”

 

His shoulders slump as if someone’s cut the cord holding them up. “I know.”

 

“He really meant a lot to you, didn’t he?” Jae asks gently.


“Yeah.” Zuko takes a drawn-out breath to calm himself before he speaks again. “He did. He does.”

 

“I get that.” Jae stops in front of Zuko, doing her best to get his undivided attention. “And I know how much this stuff hurts. And you know what? No one would blame you if you wanted to run off and live in some backwoods town, forget about the war and the Avatar and the Fire Nation, and pretend you’d never known him. Agni knows you’ve already lost enough, and I get that this probably isn’t that helpful, but…I don’t know.” She shrugs. “Too many people try to hand out easy solutions to grief. And I’ve been waiting half of my life for someone to tell me that it’s okay to stop fighting. And no one’s ever done that for me, so I might as well try to do it for you.”

 

“That’s nice and all, but I can’t.” Zuko’s eyes darken. “Someone did this to him, and someone has to pay for it.”  

 

“Are you sure?”


Zuko levels her with a look that could cut metal.

 

“Okay. If you feel up to it.”

 

“Whether or not I feel up to it has nothing to do with anything,” Zuko snaps. “How many more lives is the Fire Nation going to take if I just run off?”

 

“…aren’t you just trying to get revenge or something?”

 

“Maybe that’s all I care about, but I know that Uncle didn’t die so I could give up.”

 

**

The Boiling Rock

 

It’s a long, hard climb to the landing pad – even with a ladder, it’s certainly not one meant to be made on legs withered from months in prison. But it’s hardly the hardest part.

 

If he could pilot a gondola whose flotation devices could barely withstand the lake’s heat for more than a moment back to land, surely he can climb a ladder.

 

(But it’s really the memory of his nephew’s guttural scream, forever ringing in his head, that gives him no choice but to keep climbing.)

**

 

Western Air Temple

 

“We need to talk.”

 

Sokka has a speech on the tip of his tongue, but it vaporizes the moment Zuko lifts his tear-stained face to his.

 

“Oh. Um.” He sputters, searching for words he can’t find. “I…I’ll come back later.”

 

“No, say it.” Zuko’s voice is more weary than challenging. “You’re going to light into me about your sister, right?”

 

“She’s crying. Again.”

 

Sokka doesn’t point out that this time it’s because of Suki, who’s mourning the loss of her prison mentor too, and not Zuko. The point still stands – he can’t be flinging baseless accusations at Katara when she’s already unmoored.

 

“I’m sorry.”

 

“I’m not the one you need to apologize to.”

 

“I know.”

 

“Look, I’m really sorry about your Uncle-“

 

“Save it.”

 

Oh, so he’s back to being mean again. Jae had mentioned that he’d been a little more reasonable when she’d talked to him, and Sokka was hopeful, but apparently that hope was unfounded. “Do whatever you have to do, unless it involves convincing my sister that it’s her fault.” He looks back down at Zuko. “Because if you actually think that, I don’t even know what to tell you.”

 

“I don’t.”

 

“You better be telling me the truth.”

 

(He watches Zuko’s lightless eyes for a moment, and he doesn’t really need the confirmation.)

 

**

 

Fire Nation Palace

 

A month ago, Azula would’ve clocked anyone who told her that she’d be spending the bulk of her time in the months before the Comet’s arrival squeezed between planks of wood in the palace’s rafters, eavesdropping.

 

But it is such a good way to get classified information.

 

All of the ceilings in the Throne Room are wooden, meant to prevent intruders from safely scaling them (they’re flammable, and the slightest misstep could set them aflame). It takes every ounce of control Azula possesses to keep from producing the slightest spark as she listens in on her father’s council, and she lives in terror of what might happen if she were to find herself spiraling. But it’s worth the fear when she learns every one of her father’s plans, his comings and goings, the voices in his ear and what they’re all saying.

 

Plans begin to form and reform there above the world.

 

**

 

 

 

Western Air Temple

 

“Hey, how are you holding up?”

 

Zuko laughs humorlessly. “How does it look like I’m holding up?”

 

“Fair enough.” Suki smiles wanly, sitting down beside him. “Nothing feels real, you know?”

 

“Everything feels too real,” Zuko disagrees.

 

“I’m sorry.”

 

Zuko looks over at her. “You knew him?”

 

“In prison.” Suki folds her hands in her lap. “Hakoda introduced us.”


“Right. Sokka said that.” Zuko’s pretty sure he hadn’t been meant to overhear, but he’s had little else to do today but listen in.

 

“It’s not exactly easy being a girl alone in jail.” Suki risks a quick look at Zuko, but he doesn’t seem to notice. “I was always getting shoved around and catcalled and…well, I’m honestly shocked that it wasn’t worse. Your Uncle…”

 

“Yeah?”

 

Suki takes a deep breath. “He couldn’t exactly do much, but he did whatever he could to protect me.”

 

“That sounds like Uncle.”

 

“Yeah,” Suki says ruefully. “He talked about you a lot. I could tell you meant the world to him.”

 

Zuko should be running as far as he can from this conversation, but he finds that he wants to hear what Suki has to say – to know that he isn’t alone in his knowledge of his Uncle’s goodness. “How did you meet?” he asks, ignoring the tightness in his chest as best he can.

 

“Well…I was looking for allies, I guess. Sounds kind of stupid, right? I mean, like, what were they going to help me do?” Suki raises her shoulders in a halfhearted shrug. “But anyways. I knew the Water Tribe navy was being held there, so I kind of just…waited around until I ran into one of them, who introduced me to Hakoda, who introduced me to Iroh.”

 

“He likes adopting stray children.” Zuko can’t bring himself to use the past tense yet. “I’m glad you met him.”

 

Suki reaches for his hand. “I’m glad you had him.”

 

They’re quiet after that, touching as if that sharing of skin might help to diffuse the grief they share, and neither sees the need to say anything at all. What could they, even if they wanted to? It’s all so pointless – pointless to remember, pointless that it happened in the first place – and yet neither would willingly surrender, in this moment.

 

Toph joins them after a while. There’s really no reason for her to, but she sits in silence beside Zuko, and he’s grateful for her presence even though it doesn’t do much to ease his mind. They’re three now, ignoring the barely-muffled sounds of the Water Tribe warriors trying unsuccessfully to tiptoe around their grieving rescuers, and they draw attention: Aang sits beside Toph, and she slips her hand into his, wilting like a day-old flower. It’s growing dark now, and Sokka sits beside Suki, who rests her head on his shoulder, as Jae does on his other side when she, too, joins them.


They’re a line of six now, sullen and silent, and no one wants to disrupt them – or perhaps no one wants to be infected with their sadness, though Suki, at least, suspects that the other warriors already have been. Even Hakoda seems graver than she’s ever seen him, and she sees him watching them a few times when he thinks none of them are looking.

 

(She notices, too, that even in a line they’ve formed a half-circle around Zuko, shielding their weakest, and she’s proud of that – that even in their and his lowest moment, they are ever-loyal.


Suki’s barely had time or cause to remember that she’s missed them.)

 

Even then, it takes another hour and the sunset for Katara to join the group, and when they do, it goes without saying that they part down the middle to allow her to sit beside Zuko. He seems surprised to see her there, and she can’t quite look at him, but she takes his hand, and Zuko is weary enough now not to resist the urge to let himself fall against her shoulder and cave in around her like he’s wanted to all day.

 

He does not deserve this after all he’s said and done in his grief, but he’s too grateful to feel her arms wrap around him to hold back.

 

“I’m so sorry,” she whispers, burying her face in the crook of his neck.

 

“It’s not your fault.” He clutches her like a lifeline. “None of it is.”

 

“But-“

 

“It’s not.”


Katara doesn’t say anything.

 

“I’m sorry,” he says once he has his bearing.

 

“It’s okay.”

 

“No, it isn’t.”


“None of this is.” Maybe Katara shouldn’t be so fast to forgive, but they are all too broken to add to the list of things that need mending. “But we’re going to make it right.”


“Is that even possible?”

 

“Well…maybe it’s not. But we’re going to try.”

 

Chapter Text

Western Air Temple

 

“Your stance is wrong.”

 

Aang’s patience is too depleted now to stop him from turning to give Zuko a pained look. “I’ve been doing this forever.”

 

“Yeah, and you’re gonna keep doing it until you get this right.” Zuko crosses his arms. “Horse stance.”

 

“You sound like Katara,” Aang huffs, but he doesn’t resist. Zuko circles Aang impatiently, surveying his stance, then pokes his back.

 

“Shoulders back,” he says gruffly. “You’re slouching again.”

 

“Seriously?”

 

“Firebending comes from the breath,” Zuko says for the sixteenth time in an hour. It barely hurts to repeat Uncle’s words after so many attempts, which is a small mercy. “You’re constricting your lungs if you don’t hold your shoulders back, and you won’t get as much power-“

 

“But I’m not even firebending yet!”

 

“So whiny,” Zuko mutters. “Look, we’re heading out in an hour. All you have to do is hold that form for five minutes and you’re done for the day. Is that really so hard?”


Aang adjusts his shoulders with a long, weary sigh.


(Zuko doesn’t tell him that his form is perfect now.)

 

**

 

“Are we sure this is advisable?”

 

Katara sets down the bundle of blankets she’s tying up and turns to her father. “No, but Zuko thinks we should keep moving, and he knows how the Fire Lord thinks better than we do.”

 

“I get that. I do,” Hakoda says thoughtfully, watching his daughter as she resumes her packing. “But I’m not sure that we should be turning to Zuko for tactical advice right now.”

 

Katara narrows her eyes. “I told you that we could trust him.”

 

“And I trust you in that, but he also just watched his uncle die, Katara.” Hakoda sighs, as he’s been doing a lot more often lately than she can ever remember him doing before. “I don’t think anyone would have a clear head after that, and we need one if we’re going to pull this off.”

 

“Oh. Right.” Katara stops packing again, but she doesn’t turn. “I mean…you’re right, but I think he’s right in this one case. If someone wanted to find us here, they probably could, so it makes sense to keep moving.”

 

“Right. Just making sure.” Hakoda shakes his head. “Something tells me I shouldn’t be entrusting the lives and safety of dozens of people to a teenager, but if you think he’s reliable-“

 

“He is.”

 

“You seem pretty insistent.”


“As I should be. Zuko’s done more than his part to prove that we can trust him.”

 

“But he’s also not in the best place right now. You have to realize that.”

 

“Of course I do!” Katara’s hands fall to her sides, and she balls them into fists. “But that doesn’t mean that nothing he says has any weight anymore, and it doesn’t mean that he’s going to turn on us. He’s not.”

 

“I never suggested that he would,” Hakoda says evenly. Interesting, he notes. He must’ve done something truly impressive if he’s won her loyalty like this. “Just being cautious.”

 

“He’s been through enough without having his so-called allies question his loyalties,” Katara snaps. She’s tried not to lose her temper lately, especially not with her father, but she isn’t in the mood to stop herself today. “Everyone approved the plan to move on to Ember Island, but if you don’t like it, just overrule it! No one’s going to stop you!”

 

“No, I’m not going to do that. I’m just worried about him.” He sighs again. “About all of you.”

 

“We can take care of ourselves, Dad.”

 

“I know you can, sweetheart. That doesn’t mean you should have to.” Hakoda shakes his head sadly. “You’re kids.”

 

“Well, we’ve managed so far, and I think we’ll be able to handle this.”


“Largely thanks to you, I’d guess.”

 

Katara straps her last bundle to Appa’s saddlebag and turns back to face her father, hands on her hips. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

 

He pats the stone bench he’s been sitting on as he rests in between tasks, beckoning Katara to join him. When she does, he continues. “I’ve noticed that you tend to take on a lot more responsibility than the other kids,” he says.

 

“Well, yeah, but someone has to.” She shrugs helplessly. “I’ve always had to do that. It’s nothing new.”

 

“I’m sorry.” He squeezes her shoulder. “I should’ve known that from the beginning.”

 

“How could you have? You were gone.”

 

“But-“

 

“It hasn’t been bad lately,” Katara interrupts, trying to change the subject before they both spiral into guilt and start bandying blame around uselsessly when they should be addressing the matter at hand. “Before the prison, Zuko helped me a lot.”

 

“He did?”

 

Katara nods. “Ever wonder where Sokka learned to use dao swords?”

 

“Well, yes, but what does that have to – wait, that was him?”

 

“Yeah. He was always trying to do things to earn my trust back at the beginning, and one of the first things he did was to train Sokka because we didn’t know if we could trust this sword master he wanted to train with.” Katara finds her cheeks warming. “And he was always the only one who offered to help with the chores.”

 

Hakoda can’t help but smile at the idea that perhaps Zuko’s oh-so-effective bid for the group’s trust had been no more dramatic than an offer to help with the dishes.

 

“He sided with me when I wanted to help his sister, even though he hates her.” Katara folds her hands in her lap. “But mostly, he just…gave me someone to lean on.”


“Well, you certainly seem to like him.”

 

She glances up at her father and smiles. “I do.”

 

“And I understand all of that. I never really doubted that he was a good kid,” Hakoda continues. “But I do question how fit he is to make tactical decisions after the week you’ve all had.”

 

“Well, he isn’t,” Katara finally admits. “But I happen to agree with this one, so I’m backing him up.”

 

He can see it all in the glint of her blue eyes: trust, improbably earned; hope, wrapped up in the fate of someone who’s already hanging on by a thread; affection, barely concealed; respect, staunch and unwavering. Things his daughter should not, by any rights, feel for the Crown Prince of the Fire Nation, no matter who he is. And yet, when he thinks of the burdens she’s had to shoulder – ones he’s ashamed to admit that he’s barely given a thought to before now – it makes nothing but perfect sense that she’d feel so strongly about a boy who’d helped her to carry them.

(Perhaps one day she will love him for it, if they live long enough.)

 

“All right,” he concedes. “In that case, are we about ready to take off?”

 

**

 

Ember Island

Several Hours Later

 

“You said I was going to be done for the day!”

 

“I changed my mind.”

 

Aang sulks.

 

Zuko matches him sulk for sulk.

 

(It would almost be amusing, the Avatar and the Crown Prince sulking together in what most would probably regard as a tropical paradise, if it weren’t so inconvenient.)  

 

“Fine,” Aang huffs, wishing he’d stopped putting off his firebending training a long time ago. Maybe he wouldn’t be stuck on the horse stance if he’d asked Zuko to start training him back when he joined, though least he’s got that down now. Irritating as this surprise practice session is proving to be, he keeps his shoulders perfectly still, and Zuko gives him a sharp nod of approval. “Can I move on to actual firebending yet?”

 

“Well, you don’t exactly have time to wait around, so I suppose it wouldn’t kill you.” Zuko’s expression conveys his displeasure with this idea quite openly. It’s no secret that his choice to begin training Aang two days after his uncle’s death was anything but accidental, and he’s clearly a little more willing to compromise on the fundamentals than he’d usually be, but he doesn’t seem to like it. “But if your breathing is off, I’m not passing you.”

 

“Am I in school?” Aang asks innocently. “Are you giving me grades for this?”

 

Zuko’s answering glare is clear enough.

 

“Right,” Aang says sheepishly. “So, where do we start?”

 

**

Fire Nation Palace

 

From her hideout beneath a set of staff stairs, Azula schemes.

It’s hardly an ideal scheming spot, and she’s getting sick of having to bat cobwebs out of her face every time she moves, but no one’s going to find her here, and that is all she needs to be worried about right now. It’s a small miracle that she hasn’t been caught climbing the throne room’s rafters (not technically in the throne room – it takes a trip through a crawl space above a closet in a nearby servants’ corridor to get in without being spotted) or returning to this hideout, and she can never be sure that her luck will hold.

 

She needs it to, if she’s going to make anything of the information she’s sitting on.

 

Father’s War Council had particularly useful business on its agenda today, and she now knows their next steps. Logistically, it’s brilliant – with the Comet’s aid, it won’t be difficult for the Fire Nation’s army to subdue the Earth Kingdom once and for all, and she’s not really surprised that her father’s council had settled on that strategy. But it does present a problem for her, because it’s going to get harder to unseat the Fire Lord with every victory, and she’s got to take him out before he has a chance to topple the Earth Kingdom if she wants to take him out at all. And she’s beginning to realize, from her perch above the world and her cubby below ground, that she’s never going to be able to do this without backup.

 

The Dai Li are loyal but locked up – springing them would run too high a risk of getting her caught. Her uncle is dead, so even if she had been desperate enough to ally herself with him, he’s no longer an option. She doesn’t know where Mai and Ty Lee disappeared to after she undertook her last solo mission, and besides, she’s not sure that two nonbenders are going to provide her with enough additional manpower to overthrow her father. This is sort of the Avatar’s job, but…

 

Have you lost your mind? She almost laughs aloud. Her head’s been less foggy lately, and she almost never catches herself slipping anymore, but she wonders with that thought if she’s really made much progress. But what choice does she have? One whiff of the Fire Lord’s plan and her brother and his friends will be scrambling to the Earth Kingdom’s aid like the pathetic do-gooders they fancy themselves to be, and suddenly her father will have a whole new set of distractions to keep his attention diverted while she sneaks around his back and drives in her knife. And it isn’t as if she has any better options.

 

This better pay off, she thinks as she pulls herself to her feet, ducking so she won’t hit her head as she’s done far too many times lately. It’s the kind of gamble that Azula knows far better than to take, but she has no other cards to play, and she’d rather fight her way out of the corner she’s been backed into than stay there.

 

Wherever they’ve disappeared to now, she will find them, and without even knowing what they’re doing, they will put her on the throne.

 

**

 

Ember Island

 

“Oof. His form’s looking pretty sloppy.”

 

“No kidding.” Jae takes a luxurious swig of her coconut water (served – to her delight – in its own shell), then shakes her head. “His breathing is way out of control.”


“Zuko looks like he’s the one who’s about to combust,” Suki adds. She’s been solemn lately – Jae assumes that’s unusual for her – but watching Aang’s firebending lessons has provided some much-needed levity that even she can’t resist. “I give it ten minutes before we have to call in Katara to dunk his head before he sets the place on fire.”

 

“Ten? Make that three.” Sokka snickers. “I gotta say, though, he’s a better teacher than I thought he’d be. Aang’s actually making progress.”

 

“That’s debatable.” Toph settles in beside Suki on the steps of the pavilion. “His heartrate is through the roof.”


“Well, yeah, it’s eight million degrees,” says Jae, who’s used to Ba Sing Se’s unvaryingly moderate climate. The northern Earth Kingdom is always dry and so temperate that the temperature is rarely even noticeable, and she’s been suffering even more in the Fire Nation’s intense humidity than the Southern Water Tribe warriors. “It’s like training in an active volcano.”

 

“This is an active volcano!” Sokka points out gleefully.


(Apparently, Sokka is as in love with geology as he is with meat, weapons, retail therapy, and women whose names refer to the moon. Jae tries unsuccessfully not to find this endearing.)

 

“Yup. This whole stupid country’s built on a series of murder rocks.” Toph grins, and Jae isn’t sure if Sokka’s excitement is infectious or Toph simply appreciates the idea. “I mean, it sucks, but it was a cool idea.”

 

“You people are ridiculous,” Suki teases fondly, leaning her head against Sokka’s shoulder.‘It’s complicated’ my eye, Jae can’t help but think. Nothing could be less complicated than the easy affection the two have fallen back into since their reunion, and try as she might to ignore it, Jae’s stomach gives a twist when she thinks too much about it.

 

“No, what’s ridiculous is that kid’s form. What’s he doing, pointing his toes? Is this Firebending 101 or some weird dance class?” Sokka shakes his head in mock disgust as they watch Zuko and Aang run through another round of fire fists.

 

“Question.” Toph smirks. “Does either of them have a shirt on?”


Sokka eyes Toph warily. “What kind of a question is that?”

 

“One that I want you to answer, doofus.”

 

“No,” Jae says bluntly. “Why?”

 

“Oh, I was wondering why I could feel Katara’s blood pressure rise from all the way up on the  breezeway,” Toph cackles. “Aww. Someone’s got a crush-“

 

“She kissed him, idiot,” Jae says, feeling rather privileged to have this information. It only occurs to her when Sokka’s jaw unhinges that she probably wasn’t supposed to share it.

 

“When, why, and how?” Sokka sputters. “Wait, no, don’t answer-“

 

“Prison, because she felt like it, and I didn’t ask,” Jae answers smoothly. “And I probably wasn’t supposed to tell you that, so please don’t say anything if you don’t want me to end up impaled on an icicle.”


“Don’t say anything?” Sokka turns to face her, so close she can feel his breath on her face. “You drop a bomb like that and expect me not to say anything?”

 

“Yeah, because it’s none of your business,” Jae says impassively. She tries not to react, but it’s hard not to flinch away.

 

“It’s really not, Sokka,” Suki agrees.


“But she’s my sister!”


“And?” Jae raises her eyebrows. “And besides, I don’t think either of them is thinking about that right now. I mean…”

 

“Oh, Katara’s thinking about it, I guarantee you.” Toph cranes her neck in the direction of the breezeway where Katara’s standing, hanging out laundry on a clothesline. “Hey, Sugar Queen, enjoying the view?”

 

Katara gives Toph a look that could cut metal and stomps back inside, the empty laundry basket on her hip.

 

**

 

“Hey, are you holding up okay?”

 

Zuko looks up from the pot he’s been scrubbing. Katara can’t imagine that he’s ever had to wash dishes before, but he doesn’t even have to be asked anymore. “Yeah, why?”

 

“You seem exhausted, that’s all.” Katara bends the water off of a soup bowl and sets it in one of the cabinets above the sink. She reaches out to cup his chin and turns his head so that he faces her. “You’ve got circles under your eyes.”

 

“That’s not new.” She extends her other hand to examine him, but he bats it away. “I’m fine.”

 

“Zuko, don’t bother. I know you’re running yourself into the ground.”


“And you’re not?”


“This isn’t about me, Zuko.”

 

Zuko doesn’t quite feel bold enough to reach for her chin as she had, so he settles for a very halfhearted and incredibly fleeting brush of knuckles to the side of her face. “You don’t get to chew me out for working too hard when you’re doing the same thing.”

 

She averts her face. “I’m not the one who just…” don’t, she reminds herself. “Never mind.”


“No, but this is what Uncle would’ve wanted for-“

 

“No sleep, running yourself into the ground? Really?” Katara’s eyes soften. “No, it’s not, Zuko.”

 

“But it’s what we’re going to have to do if we ever want to end this war,” he sighs, digging the heel of his palm into his forehead.

 

“You won’t be able to do much of anything if you’re running on empty, though.”

 

“Same goes for you,” he counters, but his heart isn’t in it. He leans heavily against the countertop now, and Katara gently takes the hand that hangs limp at his side, giving it a squeeze and a tug away from the counter. Can I? she seems to ask, and he nods gratefully.

 

“You’ve had a lot thrown at you, and I’d imagine that being back here isn’t helping,” she says gently, even as she has to fight the exhaustion out of her own voice. “Go get some rest, okay?”

 

“The dishes-“

 

“I can finish them. It’s okay.” They’re almost done anyway – all that remains are the few that they’ve left to air-dry.

 

“Uncle would kill me if he knew I left a girl to do her chores alone!”

 

Katara stops walking, more shaken than she should be. Perhaps it’s the urgency in his voice which tells her he’s nowhere near done grieving even as he tries to conceal it, or maybe it’s the fact that, of all the arguments he could’ve resorted to, it’s that most simple and trivial of them all that he’s used. Either way, it stops her in her tracks, and before she can think about it, she turns and folds him into her arms. He slumps against her, and she doesn’t need to say anything – it’s enough, in this moment, to know that she’ll hold him up when he barely has the strength to stand on his own.

 

“You can’t run yourself into the ground,” she finally says after a moment of silence.

 

“I don’t think I have a choice.”

 

She lets him go, her left hand still lingering at his waist. “Yes, you do.”

 

“Katara-“

 

“Go and get some sleep, okay?” she says, trying to change the subject before he can find another way to stall.

 

“Only when you do.”

 

“Zuko…”

 

Fine,” she huffs. “I guess I’ll see you in the morning, then.”

 

“Wait, Katara?” Zuko calls softly after her, careful not to wake the others.

 

She turns back. “Yeah?”

 

Blood rushes to his face, and he’s not sure whether he’s doing this because he’s running too empty to know better or because it’s what Uncle would have advised him to do if he were here. Would it be inappropriate to ask if I could kiss you goodnight?, he almost asks, but he thinks better of it at the last second.

 

“Um…goodnight,” he says instead. “Sleep well.”

 

With a knowing smile, she crosses the hall to him and kisses his scarred cheek. (He can’t feel it, which he thinks is veryunfair.) “Goodnight, Zuko.”


And for a blessed instant, he almost forgets that the weight of the world rests on his shoulders.

 

Chapter Text

Piandao’s Castle

 

 

Master Piandao’s butler nearly jumps out of his skin when Iroh appears at his front gate, but he lets him pass with nothing more than a lifted eyebrow and a dry greeting. Sure, Iroh is allegedly dead, but he’s still hardly the strangest thing that the gatekeeper has seen in his twenty-year tenure.  It’s Piandao himself, when alerted to the supposedly-late General’s presence, who has the most trouble believing his eyes.

 

“It’s him, I can assure you,” the butler says, fighting to keep an even tone. “Am I to let him in?”

 

Piandao gives him a look – what kind of question is that? – and he shuffles off to fetch the visitor again, leading him up to the office where Piandao conducts White Lotus business.  

 

“The…late General Iroh, sir,” the butler introduces him.

 

(He’d have thought this much stranger if a nearly-naked Earth National with the wildest hair he’d ever seen hadn’t been by last week, babbling something about Omashu. Whatever business Piandao’s been conducting lately has attracted some rather colorful characters.)

 

**

Ember Island

 

“Come on, when else are you ever going to get a chance to see a play about yourself?” Sokka protests. “It’s, like, the ultimate display of admiration and respect-“


“It’s really not,” Zuko cuts in. “If you’d ever actually seen an Ember Island Players production, you’d know that.”

 

“Ugh, do you always have to side with her?”

 

Katara shoots her brother a look that leaves little room to be questioned. “We’re not going.”  

 

“I actually think he has a point,” Suki cuts in, unrolling a parchment poster. Katara studies it again, and she has to admit that the watercolor renderings of their group – they’ve even got Jae – are exquisite, but she still shakes her head. “We’ve all been training so much that we’re bound to need a break eventually. Why not check this out?”

 

“I don’t know, I think it could be fun,” Aang offers. “What do you say, Toph?”

 

Toph shrugs. “Whatever. If it gets me out of washing dishes, I’m down.”

 

“It won’t,” Katara assures her. She can’t believe that any of them are seriously considering this – even Zuko’s been silent, and she knows for a fact that he’d usually hate the idea of it. “The way I see it, going to this play would only upset us all, and we’d waste time that we could be using productively-“

 

“I’m with Sokka,” Toph decides, interrupting Katara’s rebuttal. “Why not? Should be entertaining, even if it sucks.”

 

“See? Everyone wants to go!” Sokka raises his hands. “You gotta give us the night off.”

 

“Hey, I’m not the one who made a minute-by-minute schedule,” Katara huffs. “Have it your way. If you guys all want to go see this play, go ahead.”

 

“I’ve never been to a play,” Jae admits. “I guess I’d kind of like to see what one is like.”

 

Sokka nods gravely. “It’s for the edification of the children, Katara,” he says, fixing his best take-me-seriously stare on his sister.

 

“Jae’s the same age as me,” Katara mutters under her breath. “Fine, then. I’ll stay home with-“

 

“Actually, I think I’d kind of like to see this,” Zuko cuts her off. “My mom always used to take us to see the Ember Island Players, and they were terrible, but it brings back memories.”

 

Katara sighs, and six pairs of eyes fix on her.


“Fine,” she sighs. “I’ll go.”

 

**

Piandao’s Castle

 

 “I see.” Piandao nods thoughtfully. “And is anyone else aware that you’re still alive?”

 

“Anyone smart enough to ask what happened to the war balloon I commandeered to get out of there.” Iroh tries to force a chuckle, but it comes out coughlike. “But nobody who knows who I am has seen me alive. That, I do know.”

 

Piandao’s eyebrows lift in surprise. “It surprises me that you haven’t tried to contact your nephew.”

 

“I wanted to.” Iroh breaks eye contact with a weary sigh. “But I didn’t know where he is, and if I tried to find out, I’d probably leave a trail right back to the Avatar.”

 

“Yes, I’m fully aware of that, but it still comes as a surprise.”

 

“I intend to make contact as soon as it’s safe,” Iroh replies. “But I’ve been traveling for so long that I’m not sure when that’s going to be.”

 

“Well, whenever that is, it had better be soon,” Piandao tells his colleague. “I just got word that they’re mounting full-force invasion of the Earth Kingdom when Sozin’s Comet returns, and if the Avatar is going to face the Fire Lord, it needs to be before then.”

 

Iroh’s brow creases. “That’s only a month out.”

 

“Exactly.” Piandao drums his fingers impatiently. “Unfortunately, we’re going to have no choice but to make contact.”


“But we have no idea where they are,” Iroh points out.

 

“Yes, but that shouldn’t be an obstacle.” Piandao catches Iroh’s eye with subtly exaggerated gravitas.

 

“Agni spare me,” Iroh mutters. “Tell me you’re not thinking what I think you’re thinking.”

 

“Well, she is the best.”

 

“And she wants to kill me more than those prison guards ever did,” Iroh reminds him.

 

“That is a problem of your own creation, Iroh.”

 

“I suppose it has to be overcome,” he sighs. “So you think I should send word?”


Piandao tries not to smile. “Got anything with your nephew’s scent on it?”

 

**

 

Ember Island

 

“Hey, are you sure you’re all right with this?”


“I’m not the one who didn’t want to come,” Zuko points out, glancing down at Katara’s hand and then cautiously setting his own over it. She flips her palm and laces her fingers up through his in the second between sentences. “Are you sure you’re all right with this?”

 

“Yeah. Of course.” Katara offers him a tight smile in the dark of the theater. “I mean, I am a bit concerned about that little turf war going on between Aang and my brother, but I get why we need this.”

 

“Turf war?” Zuko peers over at Sokka, who’s sitting with Suki in the row below theirs. Jae innocently takes a seat at his right, near the end of the row, and Aang is glaring at Sokka from the other end, evidently put-out at not having been able to sit beside her.


“He’s gotta get over himself,” Toph comments. She’s seated a few feet away from Zuko and Katara at the end of her row, feet up on the bench to rest before they have to watch the performance. “That’s just not happening.”

 

“I don’t get how he can even be thinking about girls at a time like this,” Zuko huffs. “Honestly. He should be thinking about how he’s going to improve his awful fire fist form.”

 

“You’re one to talk, Flamebrain,” Toph says lightly, even though she can’t sense what they’re doing with her feet up on the bench.

 

Zuko turns to glare at her. “That’s different.”

 

“Well, at least you’re not denying it anymore,” Toph replies, but if she’s going to say anything more, she doesn’t get it out before the curtain rises.

 

**

 

Your Average Seedy Fire Nation Tavern

 

“You better not be planning to ask if you can buy me a drink.”


“I see you haven’t changed a bit,” Iroh says conversationally, though he privately believes that he’s going to break out into a cold sweat if June doesn’t turn around soon. She didn’t need to face him to know that he was there, and she apparently doesn’t intend to even now that he’s announced himself. “I hope your skills remain as sharp as your wit evidently has.”

 

“Flatterer,” she scoffs, but she finally turns, which is more of a relief than it should be. “What do you want this time?”

 

“Well, you see-“

 

“You want me to find your nephew, don’t you.” June studies him. “You’re supposedly dead – everyone knows that. Let me guess. You want me to track down Zuko and tell him you’re alive?”

 

“Well, not exactly-“

 

“But basically?”

 

“I need to find the Avatar before the fourteenth of the month.”

 

“And you want me to use Zuko’s scent to find them, don’t you,” June guesses.

 

Iroh, who’s never quite forgotten the beat-down he’d received upon their last meeting (maybe trying to buy her a drink had been overstepping), sweats. “Well, yes, that had been my intention.”


“And this has something to do with the fate of the world, doesn’t it?”

 

“Well, to be fair, everything that is related to the Avatar has something to do with the fate of the world,” he points out.

 

June rolls her eyes. “You do realize that you’re supposed to be dead, right?”

 

“I am aware of that, yes.”

 

“You know, the guilt of losing you must be killing your nephew,” June muses. “And I’ve always liked that kid, so I suppose I’ll track them down for you if you can pay.”

 

He takes a pouch of silver from his robes. “Of course.”

 

She takes the pouch and weights it in her hand, then tosses it up and snatches it out of the air with a satisfied nod. “All right.”

 

“I’d be willing to double the payment if you’d take me to them,” Iroh offers.

 

“You crazy or something?”

 

“Well, I am supposed to be dead. What do I have to lose by asking?”

 

“Triple payment and I’ll consider it.”

 

Iroh winces, and hopes the Order of the White Lotus and its fabulously wealthy members won’t mind bankrolling the addition when he’s fairly certain that it’s non-negotiable if he wants this mission to succeed.

 

“My nephew’s not going to act on orders that came from me through you if he doesn’t realize beyond a doubt that I’m still alive.” Iroh fishes around in his robes for the rest of her payment, which he doesn’t find. “Could you give me an hour to go scrounge up the rest of the money?”


“Hope you’re not planning on stealing it, General,” June asks, glancing at him askance. She couldn’t care less how he gets the money as long as it’s hers at the end of the day, but she can’t resist the jibe.

 

“Now, why on earth would I even need to?”

 

He smiles at her with that ever-so-slightly unnerving twinkle in his eye and disappears into the crowd.

 

**

 

Ember Island

“You know, I should say no.” An actress about twenty years too old to be portraying Katara turns out to the audience, fluttering her eyelashes and pressing her knit hands to her chest (which is, considering that she’s wearing what’s clearly supposed to be an imitation of a protective Water Tribe parka, ridiculously exposed). “But you’re just filling me with so much hope that my heart can’t stand it!” she presses her hand to her forehead as if she’s going to faint dead away, which the real Katara thinks she just might. “I would love to take a broken soul such as yours under my wing!”

 

“But I don’t want to be fixed!” Stage-Zuko sulks, his hand raised towards nothing in particular in properly pointless angst. “You and your hope are going to get in the way of my brooding!”

 

“Good Agni,” the real Zuko mutters.

 

“That is not what happened!” Katara whisper-shouts, indignant.

 

“Of course it’s not. What’d you expect?” Zuko drapes his arm around Katara’s shoulders before he even realizes what he’s doing, and he’s about to pull it back when Katara leans into his shoulder and makes it all but impossible. “It’s the Ember Island Players. They suck.”


“You’re the one who wanted to see this,” Katara mutters, not really watching the beginnings of their onstage alliance. It’s probably a lot more crying and soliloquizing about hope, anyhow.

 

“Yeah, but not because I thought it would be good,” Zuko says lightly. She feels him stiffen, though, when a man who’s clearly supposed to be his uncle steps through an onstage door.

 

“Ah, nephew, who’s your lady friend?” stage-Iroh asks in perhaps the only line of dialogue thus far that Katara’s thought reflected reality even slightly.

 

“She’s not my lady-friend!” Stage-Zuko snaps, and Katara deems it unwise to point out that at least they’d gotten that right.


“Well, I won’t interrupt,” ‘Iroh’ says saucily, throwing the two a wink before disappearing behind the door. “I’m going to go…start a pot of tea!”


“They make him look like some kind of buffoon,” Zuko says under his breath, and when Katara reaches for his hand, she finds his fists clenched.

 

“None of this is accurate, right?”

 

Zuko shakes his head. “They could’ve tried.”

 

**

 

“Oh no, is that a political conspiracy I’m overhearing?” a woman about a foot taller than Jae will ever be who’s wearing a cheongsam eight times tighter than anything Jae could walk in leans against the same onstage door, which is apparently now supposed to represent the palace in Ba Sing Se. She cups her ear and presses it to the door. “What’s that? Princess Azula is going to conquer the city? How tragic! I must go and warn the Avatar of her plans – but how will I find him?”

 

“They made me look like some kind of courtesan,” Jae comments, truly more fascinated than offended. Never mind the fact that it’s both wildly inappropriate and wildly out-of-place - she wonders if that’s the rumor going around. Do people really think that the Avatar’s newest companion is some sort of...whatever this woman is supposed to be, and not a scrawny fourteen-year-old laundress? It’s not a question she’s ever asked before, but she wonders now. 

 

“No clue where they got that,” Sokka replies, shoveling a handful of fire flakes into his mouth. Some of them spill into Suki’s lap on their way to his mouth, and she delicately brushes them onto the floor, shaking her head. “But that’s a nice dress they’ve got you in.”

 

“You’re an idiot, Sokka.”

 

“Too much?”

 

Jae glares at him. “Too much.”

Never mind that it isn’t her, or that she’ll never be half as conventionally lovely (or as tall - she especially resents that) as the actress playing her.

“Sorry,” he says, then quickly moves on to ask, “is this the part where you meet my sister?”

 

Sure enough, Katara’s actress enters from stage right, crossing down and pressing her hands to her chest as she always does. “Oh, we are saved!” she crows before beginning to cry profusely. Great. Another meltdown. Jae had found the outbursts amusing at first, but she’s starting to pity Katara at least a little bit; the actor playing Toph (also inexplicably a man) seems just as annoyed when he pats actress-Katara’s shoulder. “How will we ever repay you, oh clever scullery maid to whom we owe such a great debt?”

 

“Spirits, can’t these people get anything right? She’s a laundress,” Sokka scoffs.

 

“Well,” stage-Jae quips, “might you happen to have a handsome, charming older brother to whom you might introduce me?”

 

Real-Jae chokes.

 

“What’s that all about?” Suki teases. “You two have a thing while I was locked up?”

 

“No!” they both insist.

 

Jae still looks away, feeling a little guilty.

 

**

 

“Toph, I have a dilemma!”

 

“I don’t talk like that,” Aang mutters, sinking down into his seat. It’s a fair observation, but it doesn’t get him any sympathy from a cackling Toph.

 

“Nah, I think they were pretty bang-on,” she laughs.

 

“What do you need?” Stage-Toph takes a seat on a nearby boulder, conveniently set there for his use, but it’s evidently paper-maiche and it collapses the moment he tries to sit. The audience, naturally, finds this all quite a bit more amusing than the real Toph does. “Would you say you’ve hit rock-bottom?”

 

“No, it’s because I’m such an airhead,” Aang – who’s being portrayed by a teenage girl, for reasons of which he’s uncertain – bemoans. “I thought I loved Katara, but I must admit that Jae’s loveliness is too much for me to bear!”

 

“Why not both?” Stage-Toph waggles his eyebrows. “You know what they say-“

 

“Okay, I think I’m starting to get your point now,” Toph says, her face faintly green.


“We’re twelve,” Aang sputters in agreement.

 

“Or you could always just drop those two and pick me instead!” Stage-Toph adds.

 

“I’m suing these people,” Toph decides.

 

“Absolutely disgusting,” Aang agrees.


They move a few additional inches away from each other.

 

“For the record, I don’t think I’d ever go to you for relationship advice,” Aang says after an awkward beat of silence. “No offense.”

 

“None taken.”

 

**

 

 

“Zuko! If I’m going to die, you must allow me the honor of a kiss goodbye!”

 

“Oh, Agni,” Zuko says under his breath, though he’s privately grateful to have something besides his uncle to focus on as they approach the moment he’s been dreading since the show began. “This is going to be-“

 

Stage-Katara nearly tackles Zuko as she runs into his arms, and the kiss their actors share couldn’t resemble the shy, cautious first kiss they shared in reality any less if that had been its intention.


“-bad, isn’t it,” he sighs.

 

“Those the actors enjoyed that way more than they should’ve,” Jae comments. “Just…ew.”

 

“Katara pinches the bridge of her nose. “Believe me, I agree.”

 

**

 

“Uncle, you will not believe the good fortune into which I’ve fallen!” Zuko’s fictional counterpart flails about in what is supposed to be Iroh’s cell like a drunken lemur attempting to dance, colliding with the walls so frequently that they nearly give out. “I’ve been kissed!”

 

“This,” Zuko sighs, “might be the only thing this stupid play’s gotten right so far.”

 

Katara claps a hand over her mouth. “You’re kidding.”


“Minus the flailing,” he admits. “I did tell him. You know. About…that.”

 

“Really?”

 

Zuko doesn’t reply, but Katara rests her head against his shoulder anyways. “We were in imminent danger of death and you still used your precious time to tell your uncle that I’d kissed you? I’m touched.”

 

She is, really, even though she’s decently certain that Iroh would’ve pried it out of him whether he’d wanted to bring it up or not. He always had had a sixth sense for those sorts of things.  

 

“Please. Uncle was more excited than I was.”

 

She knows she’s not supposed to notice the strain in his voice, but she does, and she holds his arm a little tighter.

 

**

 

“Hey.” Toph nudges Zuko’s calf with her foot. “Do you wanna step out?”

 

“No, I’m fine,” he says stiffly, even though they’re all hoping that he will. None of them likes the idea of letting Zuko relive what he’s been through these past weeks, but he seems determined to stay.


“You sure?” Katara asks, just to be safe.

 

“Katara, I’m fine.”

 

“All right,” she sighs, turning back to the play, where stage-Katara is in the heat of battle with the Warden of the Boiling Rock (it looks terrible; she has half a mind to go have a word with whoever’s in charge of the special effects, because clearly they’ve never seen waterbending before). Katara’s still holding Zuko’s hand, and she feels it stiffen in hers when her actress and Suki’s make a show of hauling the Warden towards the wheeled carts that are serving as gondolas for the escape portion of the show. “Are you absolutely sure?”

 

“Quit it, Katara,” he says through gritted teeth, and she lets it drop. A crowd of chanting extras in prison guard uniforms rush in from stage left to block them, at which point Katara’s actress begins to cry again.

 

As she always does.

 

“Whatever shall we do?” she sobs. “Suki, I do believe we’ve been cornered!”

 

“Never fear, young ladies!” cries Iroh’s actor, waving a sword that may or may not be a prop around without the slightest regard for safety or technique (Suki and Katara have to duck to avoid being hit, and real-Katara assumes based on their petrified expressions that the sword is probably real) as he jumps into the fray. “I’ll hold them off while you run!”

 

“But we can’t abandon you!” Actress-Katara cries, reaching out as Suki throws her over her shoulder like a sack of rice and, hauling the warden with just one hand, makes for the next cart. (It’s not nearly big enough for three; the effect would be comical at any other moment). “Not after all you’ve done for us!”

 

“Don’t you worry! It’s not like I’m going to die or anything!” he calls, incongruously merry, after the girls as they run.

 

Zuko drops Katara’s hand without warning and he’s out of his seat before he can hear another word.

 

**

 

“I’m about to go and give the idiots who wrote this thing a piece of my mind.” Suki takes a place beside Zuko on the balcony railing. “I’m sorry you had to see that.”

 

“I thought I could handle it.” Zuko shakes his head, hair falling in his eyes. “I really did.”

 

“Why should you have had to, though?” Suki tips her chin up to watch the horizon, or maybe just so the breeze on her face will remind her of something she needs to remember but can’t quite place. “I mean, I couldn’t even watch that stupid scene, and…”

 

I’m not the one who lost the person closest to me, she finishes silently.

 

“It wasn’t even that.” Zuko’s fists clench.

 

“Wasn’t even what?”

 

“It wasn’t what you thought.”

 

“You mean…watching that didn’t bother you?”

 

“No, it did.” The way he’s clenching his fists leaves little room to doubt that. “But just because they made him look like some crazy old fool.” He releases his hands, flexes his fingers, and curls them back into white-knuckled fists.

 

Of course. Suki’s shaken, too, but she softens at Zuko’s words, laying her hand on his shoulder. She doesn’t know him well, but their grief is shared, and she more than anyone understands why the Players’ version of Iroh angered him so much. And she realizes, when his back tenses beneath her hand, that he needs to be alone.

 

“I’ll be inside,” she says. “If you need me.”

 

**

 

Agni, I hate them. I hate them, I hate them, I hate them!

 

Zuko stubs the toe of his boot into the flagstones with each repetition, and it doesn’t become any less true. He’d known this play would be ridiculous, thought it would separate him from this reality he only knows how to cope with by pretending that it’s something less than real – it hadn’t. He’d had his two days of mindless grief back at the beginning before he’d forced himself to think of absolutely anything else, and since then it’s been shockingly easy to convince himself that none of this is real. His uncle is alive and well somewhere; the Avatar is going to be fine, firebending or none; he can go ahead and enjoy this strangely comforting rhythm he’s settled into with the girl he thinks he might love (there’s no point in denying it) because nothing is real, and everything is going to be all right in the end, and he’ll wake up one day and face none of the looming consequences, none of the world-shaking truths that confront him in this strange, hazy dream.

 

But even the Ember Island Players insist he acknowledge it: his uncle is gone, and to most, he died a disgrace to the bloodline. He’d done all that he could to allow his crew to escape, but no one who hadn’t heard his gondola hit the water would ever know that. He’d died a hero and these pathetic excuses for thespians – and the rest of the Fire Nation, for that matter – had marked him a traitor.

 

There’s bitter irony in that: his kinsmen have always been exulted for their failures, and he is denied even a modicum of the respect he’s owed.

 

It makes Zuko want to burn something, and by the time Katara comes to check on him, he’s so angry he can barely see straight. Her words are nothing more than sounds, and when she touches his arm, he wilts, too weary and too overwhelmed to do anything else.

 

“Zuko,” she says for what has to be the fourth time now as his vision and hearing finally clear. “Breathe.”

 

He doesn’t know why, but he does.

 

“Good,” she says soothingly, taking both of his hands. “Keep breathing with me, okay?”

 

Uncle would’ve asked him to do the exact same thing. She takes a long breath in; he follows, and lets it go when she does.

 

“Do you want to talk about it?” she asks after a few long breaths.

 

“No,” he says shakily. “No. Please don’t.”

 

“All right.” She squeezes his hands, then lets them go. “Can I do anything for you?”

 

He reaches for her hands, missing their cool weight in his own. “No.”


“All right.” She looks down at their joined hands. “Would you like me to go, then?”

 

“No.”


“Okay,” she says softly, her thumbs brushing his knuckles. “I’ll stay.”

 

None of this is real, he tells himself, then bends to rest his forehead against hers. Katara’s breath catches at his closeness. You’re going to wake up.

 

“Katara?”

 

She exhales shakily. “Yes?”

 

“I…I want to kiss you again.”

 

Her breath hitches again. “Now?”

 

“If…if you want,” he says uncertainly. You’re going to wake up. “Can I?”

 

“Won’t it make things worse?”

 

This isn’t real.

 

“No.”

 

“All right.” Katara laughs nervously, tilting her chin up until their noses brush. “If you’re sure.”

 

He drops one of her hands, and uses his newly-freed hand to cup her chin, then her cheek.

 

This isn’t real, he tells himself, insistent, as he kisses her, and it’s soft and regretful and all of the things that a kiss goodbye should be because any minute he’ll wake up, this will all be over, and he’ll have to surrender the sweet with the bitter.


At least, that’s what he thinks he needs to believe.

 

“Like that?” Katara asks afterwards, a little out-of-breath.

 

“Yeah.” He nudges his nose against hers. “Again?”

“All right,” she says, laughing softly, and this time she threads her fingers through his hair with so much tenderness that it aches.

 

And as much as Zuko wants to believe that this is the last moment of a nightmare that’s sweeter than it should be, something in him knows that it’s wrong, too – that this is no dream, that this isn’t the time to kiss or be kissed. That he ought to be thinking of nothing but his grief, that the fate of the world hangs in the balance and he cannot afford a second’s distraction.

 

But he doesn’t stop. Perhaps he’ll regret it later, but he doesn’t stop.

 

**

 

It’s been four days of this, and Azula’s finally sure she has them bagged. They have to be on Ember Island, and finding them in the town – which has always struck her as claustrophobic – should be easy.

 

It’s only once she’s climbed the trellis of the Ember Island Playhouse that she deeply, sincerely wishes it had been just a little more difficult.

 

**

 

June hadn’t wanted to take Iroh any further than the beach house after they’d tracked Zuko’s scent to Ember Island and failed to find them there, so he’s strolled through the town for about an hour now, searching for any sign of a group of teenagers hiding in plain sight. But it’s only after he notices the intermission crowds milling around that he thinks to check the Playhouse, which – thankfully – is easy enough to break into during a show. After all, no one’s watching the upstairs terrace, and he’s gotten enough practice lately to be a proficient climber.


(He does nearly topple back over the wall when he finds exactly what he’s looking for and Azula, but he manages to hang on.

 

It’s been three weeks since his alleged death, and his nephew – who he’d feared would be unmoored without him – is doing just fine.

 

Oh, yes. Just fine. And he’s not sure that he’s ever been prouder.)

 

**

 

Azula and Iroh have never agreed on anything so quickly as they do when a look passes between them, then back to the object of both their quests and his…girlfriend, perhaps, though neither is really quite sure.

 

Facial sparring partner, Azula offers, though she keeps quiet. This can wait.

 

(But not too long.)

 

“Well, well, well,” Azula says when they finally come up for air. “I have to say, this is not how I expected to be reunited with my brother.”

 

But when Zuko turns, it isn’t Azula’s face that he sees.

Chapter Text

Zuko backs slowly towards the trellis, face blanched. He raises one hand in front of him as if to defend himself, and it’s probably only because of Katara’s hand on his other arm that he doesn’t bolt back into the theater.

 

“Oh, relax. If I wanted to hurt you, I’d have done it already,” Azula says, evidently having concluded that it’s she who has caused this sudden shift in her brother’s behavior. Katara has a feeling she’s wrong.

 

“I’m losing it,” Zuko mutters under his breath. “I have to be losing it.”

 

Uncle looks like he’s about to speak when Azula cuts him off. “No, I assure you that you’re not,” she says, leaning back casually against the trellis as she picks at her cuticles. “Really, I’m insulted that you think me so incapable of magnanimity.”

 

“You’re dead,” Zuko sputters, louder this time. “You’re both dead.”

 

“Me?” Azula raises an eyebrow. “Where’d you hear that? I certainly haven’t.”


“I’m very much alive,” Iroh agrees. “And I’m sorry that I didn’t-“

 

“Iroh?” Katara asks, incredulous. “How?”  

 

“I’m losing it,” Zuko mutters again. “This isn’t real.” He presses a hand to his forehead as if trying to scrub away the thought. “None of this is real.”

 

“Zuko, I promise you, I’m right here,” Iroh replies, his brow creasing with concern. “You’re not crazy, and I’m not dead.”

 

Katara’s hands, soft against Zuko’s feverish skin, stiffen and then ball into fists, leaving the hot night air to kiss the skin they no longer cover. “Then why didn’t you tell him that as soon as you could?” she snaps, her voice cold with fury. “If you made it out, why wasn’t finding us the very first thing you did?”

 

“I wanted to, but-“

 

“Do you have any idea how hard this has been for him?” Katara’s voice rises as its temperature drops. “You’re the only family he has left, and he thought you were dead!”

 

“I’m right here!” Azula interjects, but Katara – whatever goodwill she’s ever felt towards Azula – isn’t in the mood to address her.

 

“It’s been three weeks,” Katara continues, her voice dropping dangerously low. “Three weeks. Twenty-one days, and almost every night he’s woken up screaming in the middle of a nightmare about you being boiled alive!” Katara’s shoulders rise and fall with every ragged breath. “Which we all thought you were, by the way!”

 

“Katara,” Zuko says, his voice strained. “Please don’t.”


“So what do you have to say for yourself?” she asks, angling her body away from them both. “Because it better be good.”

 

Iroh has an excuse – he’d been prepared for something like this – but it dies on his lips. He should explain that it wasn’t safe to contact Zuko, but something tells him that this girl with all the rage of a storm-wracked sea in her eyes would shoot down every explanation he could give her. He hadn’t been prepared for that, nor for the possibility that he’d have left Zuko in such a state, and he can’t bring himself to tell her.

 

“I’m so sorry,” he says instead.

 

Zuko’s wide, scared eyes meet his over Katara’s shoulder, which shields his body from…what, no one can really be sure. Iroh doesn’t really care, either, because it’s finally sinking in that Zuko is in pain – again – and that he is its cause.


And that can’t stand, so he nudges past an extremely disgruntled Katara to fold Zuko into his arms.

 

At first, he stiffens. Tears would’ve been expected, or even the kind of anger they’d seen from Katara, but he doesn’t say anything at all. He doesn’t make a single sound at all, really, and when Iroh finally lets him go, he looks more curious than angry or grief-stricken.

 

“How?” he asks.

 

“Flotation devices,” he says with a smile. “Courtesy of the good people at the Boiling Rock.”

 

“Unbelievable,” Katara mutters under her breath. Azula’s answering nod, even though she wasn’t asked anything, makes Katara wonder if she agrees.

 

“But…why didn’t you tell us sooner?” Zuko shakes himself, still unconvinced. “If you were alive the whole time?”

 

“It wasn’t safe. I didn’t know where you were, and if I’d tried to find out, I’d have led a trail right back to you,” he says, casting his eyes down. Katara narrows hers, as if challenging him. “I only have now because your father-“

 

“Let me take this one, Uncle.” Azula shrugs off of the trellis and strides languidly towards them, as if she doesn’t have a care in the world. It’s an act – one that’s easier to see through in the tension of her shoulders than it usually is – but it’s an impressively convincing one, given the state Azula was in when last they saw her. “Since I’m assuming you and I are here for the same reason.”

 

“I can’t imagine that we are,” Uncle says, his frown deepening. “I’d rather-“

 

“Father’s trying to invade the Earth Kingdom,” she says flatly, before Iroh can get a word in. “When the comet comes back, he’s going to use the power boost to knock the Earth Kingdom flat on its back. Normally, I wouldn’t care less, but I know that you and your friends do, so I have a proposition for you.”

 

“Absolutely not,” Iroh says firmly.

 

“You have no right to dictate what he can and can’t do when you let him think you were dead for three weeks,” Katara cuts in acidly.


“Well, you heard his girlfriend. Let me finish, will you?” Azula rolls her eyes. “Honestly. It’s like you’ve forgotten that I outrank you.”

 

“Well, at least you’re back to normal,” Katara sighs, too preoccupied to be anything more than annoyed. It’s good to know that Azula’s health is good again, and that she’s more of an irritant than a threat now.

 

“Yes, and I must thank you for your help. Father would’ve had me killed in seconds if I’d tried to make it back on my own.” She cracks her knuckles. “Nearly did, but that’s irrelevant now. Anyways. I have a proposition for the two of you.”

 

“Just the two of us?” Katara asks suspiciously, since Zuko’s still too shocked to reply.


“Oh, no, I need the Avatar. And I would like to spend a little more time with that girl who hit me with the pot.”


“You’re not revenge-killing Jae, Azula,” Zuko says tiredly. Katara’s so surprised to hear him speak that she forgets to be concerned at how blandly he makes that comment, as if Azula’s threatening the lives of people who besmirch her so-called honor is nothing new.

 

“Oh, that’s her name? Hmm. Earth Kingdom.” Azula taps her chin. “How provincial. Anyways, she may be a backwater Earth National, but she’s sharp. I’d like to figure out how she does it.”

 

“She’s literally just insane,” Katara offers. “That’s it. She has no regard for her own safety, and she’ll try pretty much anything. Moving on. What’s this proposition?”

 

“Hm, sounds like my kind of girl-“

 

“Honestly, are you giving us a proposition or propositioning her?”

 

“Why can’t it be both?” Azula raises her eyebrows innocently. “Anyways. On the day of the comet, I want to get the Avatar to deal with my father while the rest of the powers that be are occupied with the invasion.”

 

Katara nods – it’s a surprisingly reasonable idea. Aang had always been meant to take on the Fire Lord, anyways, and it might as well be now, though it doesn’t give them much time. “And what will the rest of us be doing?”

 

“Well, don’t you want to save the Earth Kingdom?” she asks with another raised brow. It’s almost frightening how well she can convey emotions she almost surely doesn’t feel with nothing but her eyebrows.

 

“And what’s in it for you?” Zuko asks, narrowing his eyes. “You wouldn’t be doing this if there wasn’t something.”

 

“Ah, of course.” She smiles smugly. “If Aang takes care of Father, someone’s got to take his place.”

 

“Oh, absolutely not,” Iroh cuts in.

 

“Oh?” Azula looks almost pleased to have been challenged. “I’d love to see you try to stop me.”

 

“Don’t presume that I won’t, Princess Azula,” Iroh replies, and he looks like he’s about to say something else when Zuko speaks up.

 

“He’d wipe out half of the Earth Kingdom,” he mutters under his breath. “Uncle, is whatever you came here for related to that?”

 

“Yes, it is,” he says, surprised at Zuko’s sudden clear-headedness. Maybe it’s the gravity of the situation sinking in. “The White Lotus believes that the Avatar-“

 

“The what?” Katara interrupts, crossing her arms.

 

“The…White Lotus,” Iroh says slowly. “It’s…well. I’m afraid I can’t tell you much-“

 

“Oh? Just like you couldn’t tell your nephew that you weren’t dead?” Katara snaps. “Go ahead. Explain yourself.”

 

“I’m sorry, Master Katara, but I cannot reveal White Lotus secrets to…outsiders.” He winces on the last word.

 

“Katara’s not an outsider,” Zuko cuts in, stepping in front of her. Now his hand rests on her arm, instead of the other way around.

 

“Of course not, but for the purposes of the safety of the Order of the White Lotus-“

 

“But you can trust her,” Zuko insists. “Probably more than you can trust me.”

 

“Oh, now this is interesting.” Azula smirks. “She’s really got a hold on you, doesn’t she, Zuzu?”

“Shut up.”

 

“We’re teammates,” Katara says through gritted teeth. “We don’t go where the rest of us can’t follow.”

 

“As noble as that sentiment is, Master Katara” – she preens a little at the title, which few people ever use – “I’m afraid that you’re going to have to trust us on this.”

 

“So I’m supposed to trust some secret society with my safety? And my teammates’?” Katara crosses her arms. “Please explain how that’s supposed to be reassuring.”

 

“Katara, please,” Zuko sighs. “Look, Uncle, I trust you, but we have no idea what you even want from us, and I’m still not convinced that you’re not a figment of my imagination, so could you please give us something?”


“Well, I would’ve, but your lady-love here had…several questions that I needed to address first. Evidently.” He clears his throat. “Excellent choice, by the way.”

 

“Not relevant,” Zuko says through gritted teeth.  

 

“Anyways. The White Lotus believes, as does your sister, that Aang needs to face the Fire Lord on the day of the invasion,” Iroh explains. Katara thinks it’s somewhat odd that Iroh refers to the Fire Lord as if he’s a complete stranger, but she doesn’t question it. “Which would leave the rest of you free to bolster the Earth Kingdom’s defenses. How you’d do that is still up in the air, but the goal is to stop Ozai before he orders the attack to advance, and have the Earth Kingdom’s defenses intact in case we fail.”

 

“So…this is the exact same thing that Azula wants us to do, except that you become the Fire Lord instead of her?” Katara asks.


“Well…I suppose it looks that way, but I don’t think it’s really the same idea in principle.” Iroh clears his throat. “Besides, I’m not so sure that I would become Fire Lord.”

 

Katara catches on before Zuko does, and her eyes widen. “Oh, absolutely not,” she says firmly, echoing Iroh’s own words. “There is no way.”

 

“Wh…what?” Zuko blinks rapidly, glancing around in confusion. “Katara?”

 

“Iroh, I know it makes sense on the outside, but he’s not ready to-“

 

“Katara, I can speak for myself,” Zuko says once he’s finally gotten his bearings. Then he turns to his uncle. “Why me?”

 

“Fresh blood,” Iroh explains. “The rot in our lineage is far too deep, and I’m afraid it’s touched me more than I should have allowed it too. It has to be someone new. Untainted.” He meets Zuko’s eyes. “It needs to be you, Zuko.”

 

I’m young,” Azula scoffs, but she doesn’t say anything more. Katara suspects that she’s scheming and not conceding, but her uncle doesn’t seem to.

 

“With all due respect, Iroh-“

 

“Katara, please,” Zuko sighs. “We can talk about this later.”

 

“But-“

 

“You don’t need to coddle me.” His eyes are soft, but his tone is hard. “We’ll figure this out, but what matters now is deciding whether we’re going to do this at all.”

 

“Don’t we have to?” Katara asks, chastened but not much so. “How many innocent people are going to die if we don’t?”

 

“Right.” Zuko lets out a long, weary sigh. “But we should probably ask the others first.”

 

“By all means,” Iroh agrees. “Take some time, if you need it.”

 

“Well, I would prefer that you got me an answer promptly,” Azula counters. “If possible.”

 

“We’re not making you Fire Lord,” Zuko says shortly. “If you want to take Father down, fine. But that’s as much as I’m helping you do.”

 

Azula sniffs. “We’ll see about that.”

 

**

 

“Yeah, I’m lost.” Sokka sinks back into the couch cushions. “So your uncle isn’t dead, your sister isn’t crazy, your dad is going to murder the Earth Kingdom, they all want us to stop him, and any of three people could theoretically end up being Fire Lord?”

 

“Yeah, you’ve basically got it,” Jae, who’s been keeping up admirably (she credits the practice she’s had at following heinously-complicated threads of gossip), confirms.

 

“Well, we have to do it,” Aang says. “Can we at least agree on that?”  

 

“Of course.” Katara folds her hands in her lap. “I think.”


“Well, yeah,” Sokka agrees. “Suki?”

 

“Of course.”

 

“I’m in,” Toph says. “Which leaves-“

 

“Me,” Jae finishes. “And I’m in, too. And…Zuko?”

 

“I thought we’d already established this.”

 

“Well, that settles that, then.” Katara gives the group a tight smile. Which only leaves the hard part, she doesn’t say.

 

**

 

“Hey, how are you doing with all of this?”

 

Zuko glances up from the breakfast dishes he’s scrubbing clean. “Uncle? Don’t ask. I honestly couldn’t tell you.”

 

“Well, I guess that’s better than being in shock,” Katara comments with a halfhearted shrug. He seems better this morning than he had last night, but she can’t be sure. “Speaking of, I’m sorry I got up in his face earlier.”


“Um…yeah, that…was a lot,” Zuko says haltingly. “It’s okay, but he didn’t do anything wrong.”

 

“Zuko, he didn’t even try to let us know that he was still alive. I don’t care what he said – anything would’ve been better than watching you wander around like a ghost for three weeks.”

 

“I was fine,” he says peevishly. “None of it felt real anyway.”

 

“But the nightmares-“

 

“Weren’t really that bad when the whole thing felt like one,” Zuko tells her. “I kept thinking I’d wake up and everything would go back to normal, and…I guess it did. Sort of.”

 

“Oh, Zuko,” Katara says softly, setting a dried plate in the cabinet before stepping forwards, close enough to touch him. First, she touches her cheek to his shoulder, as she always does; then, she loops her arms around his waist. “I wish you’d told me.”  

 

“It wouldn’t have helped.” He doesn’t wrap his arms around her this time, but she can tell from the way he softens that he appreciates the grounding coolness of her touch.

 

“I guess not. Is that selfish of me?” Katara asks. “That I’d want to know even if it wouldn’t help, just because I hate not knowing what’s happening to you?”

 

“You’re never selfish, Katara.” He nuzzles his cheek against the side of her head. “Ever.”

 

“That’s definitely a lie,” she laughs humorlessly, nudging her cheek against his neck in kind. “I’m selfish all the time.”

 

“How?”


She doesn’t really want to reveal any of the more selfish thoughts she’s had lately, so she starts to change the subject. “Like how I go too far trying to protect you because I can’t stand seeing you hurt, never thinking about whether you actually need me to.”


His heart tightens like a clenched fist in his chest. “How’s that selfish?”

 

“Just is.” She lifts her chin to rest it on Zuko’s shoulder. “Like…I had no right to tell anyone that you weren’t ready to be Fire Lord. I don’t know the first thing about ruling a country, and you might be the only person alive who does know if you’re ready. But all I could think about was how you’re already kind of a mess, and throwing a country fresh off a war with a thousand problems to fix at you would just about do you in, and how I couldn’t stand watching you fall apart, and-“

 

“Why?” Zuko releases Katara and she looks at her feet guiltily, as if caught doing something she shouldn’t have been. “Why do you care so much?”

 

She looks up again and studies his face for a moment as her silently-moving lips shape a reply.

 

“You matter to me, Zuko,” she says simply.

 

“But…why?”

 

“Do I have to have a reason? I owe you a lot. You’ve proven to me that you’re good and loyal and trustworthy. You’ve been there for me when most people had no idea I was struggling, you never once saw me as a replacement mother, you listened. Spirits, do you have any idea how long it had been since anyone really listened to me? You saw something in me that no one else ever had, and you showed me that you cared – about me, about everyone – at every opportunity. Do I need any more reason to care for you than that?”

 

Zuko looks at her, inscrutable, for a moment after she finishes. She’s grabbed another plate to dry without even thinking about it, and she holds it to her chest, shoulders hunched as if she’s trying to curl in on it. Her chest rises and falls rapidly with her breaths, there’s a few soap bubbles stuck to the tips of her hair, and her cheeks are flushed.

 

He has to take a moment just to shake the words loose.

 

“You mean that?”

 

“I would think all of the kissing would’ve cleared that up,” she mutters.

 

“Yeah…honestly, I wasn’t totally convinced that all of the kissing wasn’t a figment of my imagination,” he admits sheepishly. “Or some weird consolation prize in a really long nightmare.”

 

Katara tilts her head curiously. “Is that why you asked me to kiss you again last night?”

 

He shrugs. “I figured I’d wake up any minute and that wouldn’t be a thing anymore, so I had to do it while I still could.”

 

“Um…no,” Katara says, glancing down at her bare feet and shifting them to find a cooler place on the tile to stand. “No. That was real.” She clears her throat. “Not going anywhere.”

 

“Oh.” He doesn’t look at her. “…oh.”

 

“Looks like you’re stuck with me!” she announces with anemic forced cheeriness. “Better get used to it.”

 

“Um, I don’t…I don’t actually mind that.” He coughs into his hand. “Sorry. I’m just…bad at this.”

 

“No, it’s okay.” Katara laughs shyly. “And we’re in the middle of a war.”

 

“And my dead uncle isn’t dead,” Zuko offers.

 

“And Azula’s not trying to kill us.”

 

“And you’ve kissed me four times,” Zuko adds.

 

“And your uncle and your sister both caught us,” Katara laughs.

 

“And here we are, washing the dishes,” Zuko finishes, and something about that strikes a chord with Katara that has her laughing uncontrollably within seconds. She’s slumped over the counter within ten, fighting back tears, and Zuko can’t do anything but watch in utter befuddlement before the hilarity of the nothing-at-all that has her laughing so raucously washes over him, too, and soon the stomach muscles he hasn’t used like this in so long are burning with exertion.

 

Because here they are, a boy and a girl at war – natural-born enemies who look at each other as if the whole world exists for the moments when their eyes meet across a table – doubled over in a kitchen at the beginning of another day full of improbabilities, laughing at nothing. Katara’s in denial and she knows it, Zuko’s a little bit in love and he won’t admit it, and absolutely everything matters more than this – than them – and yet nothing does.

 

They’re out of breath when the moment passes, and Zuko presses Katara into his arms in a rare demonstrative moment. She laughs once more against his tunic and buries her face in the familiar scent that lingers in his clothes from those stupid sachets he’d thrown in his departure bag back in Ba Sing Se and refused to relinquish later on, and he kisses the top of her head, feeling bold.

 

“I’m not going anywhere,” she promises.

 

He says nothing in reply, but he squeezes her shoulders.

 

His message is clear: we’re going to make it.

Chapter Text

 

There’s a funny thing about traveling with the Avatar: after a while, one stops seeing the world’s last hope for peace and starts seeing a twelve-year-old with the weight of the world on his shoulders and a penchant for misplaced trust and even more misplaced affections instead.

Jae wonders what her mother would say if she could tell her that – that the boy she’d put so much hope in is surprisingly ordinary. Somehow, she feels convinced that her mother would've liked that.

Jae watches him train sometimes, and she still thinks about that – how Aang’s not what she expected at all. She doubts she’s what he’d been expecting when he heard about the girl who’d saved his life back in Ba Sing Se either; maybe it’s fitting. Whether or not it is, she finds her awe and fascination waning as her worry that he won’t be able to take on the task at hand, and she watches him as if somehow, it’ll prepare him.

 

It takes a few days for Aang to notice this, and it’s only days before the comet’s arrival when he finally spots Jae watching from the steps of the pavilion after an exhausting session with Zuko. Immediately, his face lights up, and he waves her over. “Jae!” he calls. “How’d I do?”

 

In some other life, this crush of his might’ve been amusing. (He’s the Avatar, after all.) But after a few weeks of this, it’s more painfully awkward than anything.

 

“Um…I don’t know?” Jae shrugs. “Ask Zuko.”

 

“Passably well,” Zuko calls from the other end of the courtyard, where he’s toweling off. (Somehow, watching that feels indecent, so she doesn’t.)

 

“There you have it,” Jae replies. “Pretty sure that’s better than the last thing he called you, at least. What was it, ‘impressively subpar’?”

 

Aang’s already-flushed cheeks redden. “You heard that?”

 

“I sometimes watch you two practice,” she offers, hoping it doesn’t sound as creepy as it could. “It’s entertaining.”

 

“Oh?” Aang looks pleased. “Well, do you think I’m getting better?”

 

“I mean, I don’t know anything about firebending, but Zuko doesn’t look like he wants to murder you, so I think so,” she says. “Do you think you’re going to be ready to face the Fire Lord, though?”


His shoulders slump. “That’s the million-yuan question, isn’t it.”

 

“Yeah.” Jae can’t help but sympathize, and she wishes she hadn’t asked. “Sorry.”

 

“No, it’s okay. I know you’re all thinking it.” He makes his way over to the steps where she’d been sitting and flops down with an exhausted sigh. Jae sits beside him, not wanting to be impolite. “I don’t think I’m going to know that answer until I do, you know?”

 

“Makes sense.” Jae picks at the decorative tassels at the waistband of her loose cotton pants. Unwilling to weather another awkward silence, she continues, “did you know that you were the main character in all of my bedtime stories as a kid?”

 

Stupid. Of course he doesn’t know that.

 

“Really?” nevertheless, Aang’s eyes widen. “Like…the Avatar, or me?”

 

“Well, kinda just the Avatar, but same deal. My mom was one of those crazy people who thought the last Air Avatar was still out there somewhere.” She laughs weakly. “Not so crazy after all.”

 

“Oh. That’s…that’s neat,” Aang replies. “Did you ever believe her before you met me?”

 

“Not in the slightest.” Jae bites her lip. “Losing your only family at ten is a pretty good way to make sure you don’t believe in anything like that.”

 

“I’m sorry.” Aang sighs again. “I know what that feels like.”


“She’s the reason I came with you guys, actually,” Jae says, trying to divert the subject before she has to dig much deeper into her own psyche with a not-quite-friend who’s uncomfortably invested in her every word. “Because if she’d been alive and known that I got word about a plot to kill the Avatar and I didn’t warn you, she’d have run me over the coals.”

 

“Well, I’m glad you did.” He looks up at her. “Did I ever thank you for that?”

 

Jae shrugs. “Didn’t need to.”

 

“No, seriously. Who knows what Azula would’ve done to me if we hadn’t gotten out of there?” he shrugs. “I probably owe you my life, and I know you don’t really like me very much-“


“I don’t dislike you,” Jae interrupts. “I just don’t like you.”

 

“Yeah, I know.” She waits for an apology – sorry that my mere presence makes you uncomfortable half the time, something like that – but one doesn’t come. “But I guess that’s good to know. Anyways. Thank you for that.”

 

“No problem.” Jae leans back against her palms. “I don’t know you very well or anything, but I’m glad I did it.”

 

“And I’m glad we got you,” Aang answers.

 

“Um…”

 

“Azula definitely would’ve gotten us in that town we scammed if you hadn’t been there with that cooking pot,” he says, and to her own surprise, Jae laughs – really laughs. Snorts, even, which is rather unfortunate.

This situation she’s found herself in is utterly absurd, and it’s really the only halfway-decent response anymore. “Spirits, this is ridiculous,” she wheezes, head in her hands.

 

“I’m…having…a crisis,” Aang agrees, laughing so hard he can barely get words out between gasps for air. “And you’re…just a launderer from Ba Sing Se-“

 

Laundress,” Jae corrects, still laughing too hard to sound convincing. “Launderers do something with money…I think.”

 

“-and we have to kill the Fire Lord,” Aang pants, “and I don’t even know if I can, and you…you think I’m crazy, don’t you?”

 

“Only a little bit,” she says, finally regaining her composure. She flicks a stray tear off her cheek. “I mean, I’d beat the guy to a pulp, but you’re not me.”

 

“I wish I was,” Aang sighs, his mirthful smile falling away. “I’d just airbend a cooking pot into his head and call it a day.”

 

“Or earthbend your own cooking pot and hit him over the head with it,” she offers. “You could do a lot of things with four elements and a pot.” She smiles dreamily. “Cooking pot on fire.”

 

“Cooking pot made of ice?” Aang suggests.

 

“See? If I were you, I’d turn killing that dude into an art.”

 

“That’s very disturbing.”


Jae shrugs. “Does he not deserve it?”

 

“I just don’t think it’s for me to decide if anyone deserves to live or die,” he tells her. “And I know that I’m supposed to deal with him, but…I don’t even know if I can do that.”

 

“Somehow I know you’re going to figure it out,” Jae says.


“You mean that?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

He smiles, and she feels, without being able to explain why, that he gets it – gets her, finally. “That means a lot, coming from you.”

**

 

“Do you ever wish you’d stayed home?”

 

Sokka looks up from his third helping of braised Equatorial Sea-Hen. “Um…no?” he asks, mystified. “Since when are you the philosophical type?”

 

Toph shrugs. “Just wondering. I mean, seeing as we could all die here without ever seeing our homes again,” she says far more nonchalantly than she should.

 

Sokka considers for a moment. He thinks of Suki, of course, and then of Aang, and all the people they’ve assisted (and scammed, in one instance), and looks to Toph. He thinks about Jae, even though he still feels a twinge of guilt when he thinks of her, and Zuko, and the change in his sister since she was given something new and meaningful and gratifying to dedicate herself to.

 

“No,” he finally answers. “I don’t think I do.”

 

She can’t see him, but somehow, Toph still knows exactly where to look when she smiles up at him. “Neither do I.”

 

**

 

“Iroh?”

 

“Oh, Suki!” Iroh looks up at the sound of her voice, pleased that she’s chosen to join him again. She usually does – he’s touched to find that she’s grown somewhat attached to him – but sometimes she seems to prefer her boyfriend’s company, so it’s a pleasant surprise. “Nice evening, isn’t it?”

 

“Yeah.” She sits down beside him on the beach house’s front steps. “I wanted to ask you something.”

 

“Yes?”


“You and Azula,” Suki says. “What’s going on with that?”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“I just wondered…well, you and Zuko have always seemed so close,” she explains. “And I guess it kind of just surprises me that you and Azula aren’t. I kind of wondered why.”

 

“Well, Azula…” he thinks for a moment. “I suppose she’s never been as receptive as Zuko. That’s all.”

 

“How so?” Suki asks with curiosity that surprises Iroh. As far as he knows, the girls’ only interaction had ended in Suki’s imprisonment, so this interest is unexpected. “Unreceptive to what?”

 

“Azula was…focused on pleasing her father,” he says cautiously. “And she didn’t care much for me.”

 

“Zuko was just as focused on pleasing his father, though,” Suki points out. “So why the difference?”

 

He raises an eyebrow. “Surely you don’t need me to explain that.”

 

“No, I do.” Suki grows bolder with time. “They were raised by the same people, right? They had to have gone through the same things. So…what gives?”

 

“Well…Zuko was always more his mother’s child than his father’s,” Iroh tells her. “Sensitive, kindhearted. Hotheaded, too, but he had a good heart that I never really saw in Azula.”

 

“But they had the same mother, didn’t they?” Suki presses. “Wouldn’t Azula have picked some things up from their mom, too?”

 

“She and Ursa weren’t close,” he explains. “Not the way Ursa and Zuko were.”

 

“But she was still her mother, wasn’t she?”

 

“Well, yes, but-“

 

“I just don’t understand why you think she’s beyond help when they started in the same place, and you obviously don’t feel that way about Zuko.” Suki shakes her head sadly. “A lot of my Warriors came from homes like theirs, and we never would’ve talked about them the way you talk about Azula.”

 

“You’re criticizing me,” he says, neutral but obviously surprised.

 

“Zuko’s a great kid, and I think you did him a lot of good,” Suki sighs, folding her hands in her lap. “I just don’t get why you couldn’t have done the same for Azula.”

 

“It would’ve been too hard to get through to her-“

 

“Did you try?” Suki crosses her arms. “Even if it was probably not going to work, did you ever really try to have a relationship with her?”

 

“Well, Ozai-“

 

“She’s fourteen, Iroh. Whatever horrible things she’s done – and believe me, I know better than almost anyone that she’s done a lot of them – how was she ever supposed to learn if the only adults in her life who weren’t evil or crazy wrote her off as a lost cause?”

 

“Well…I suppose you’re right,” Iroh concedes. “But I just didn’t think-“

 

“There was this girl back on Kyoshi Island,” Suki interrupts. “Rui. She’d run away from home because she was being beaten, and one of the senior warriors found her in Yokoya and brought her back to live with us. That’s a Kyoshi Warrior thing, taking in girls who don’t have anywhere else to go, and she was a disaster at first.” Suki shakes her head fondly. “She was a little older than me, and she was the meanest person I’d ever met. She’d had to be to get by after she ran away, but everyone was terrified of her, and for a while even the leaders treated her like a loose cannon.”

 

“And?” Iroh asks. What is the point of this anecdote?

 

“None of that helped her get better,” Suki says. “You know what did?”

 

“…no?”

 

“Our leader, Ami, decided one day that she was going to take Rui under her wing,” Suki tells him. “She trained her personally, sat with her at meals, made an effort to talk to her. No one had ever done that for Rui before – not even me, I’m ashamed to admit. And, don’t get me wrong, Rui’s still mean as a tomcat, but she’s a part of the team, and she cares about us. She’s gruff, but we all know now that she has a good heart.” She meets Iroh’s eyes. “Just like I think Azula might if someone did that for her.” Suki pauses for effect. “Like you did for Zuko.”

 

“I’m afraid it might be too late for something like that, Suki,” Iroh says with a weary sigh. “Though I see where I could’ve done better.”

 

“I honestly wouldn’t blame you if you’d done everything in your power for Azula and she still had sided with her father,” Suki says. “That’s not what I mean. I honestly don’t know if it would’ve worked. But I’m surprised that it never even occurred to you to try.”

 

“And what would you have me do about that?”


Suki’s expression hardens. “The least you could do is treat her like a person.”

 

“I wasn’t under the impression that I didn’t already do that,” Iroh defends himself.

 

“Maybe, but she’s in pain and she’s been through a lot. You could at least acknowledge that instead of acting like she’s crazy.”

 

“I get what you’re saying, but you’re sixteen, Suki,” Iroh replies. “There’s a lot that you don’t-“

 

“A lot that I don’t know?” Suki narrows her eyes. “Half of the Kyoshi warriors were abandoned or orphaned or came from homes like hers. Half of being their leader was helping people adjust to a life where they weren’t surrounded by people who were out to get them. Believe me, I know what pain looks like on a little girl who no one ever looked out for, and what helps it and what doesn’t.” She peers up at him, eyes challenging. “Can you honestly say the same for yourself?”

 

 

**

“You’re here to threaten me, aren’t you.” Azula, hugging her knees to her chest, doesn’t look up when she hears Katara enter the room.

 

“I just want to talk,” she replies, edging through the door of the room she’s been staying in (apparently it was her childhood one) and softly latching it behind her.

 

“Hm. Right.” She unfurls, swinging her legs down over the edge of the bed. “About what?”

 

“Can I sit?” Katara asks.

 

“Sure.” Azula doesn’t move, but she glances at a spot beside her on the bed. Katara takes a seat beside her. “What is it that you wanted to talk to me about?”

 

“This plan of yours.” Katara crosses her legs beneath her. “What is it you really want to get out of it?”

 

“You know the answer to that question.”

 

“You want to be the Fire Lord, I know. But…why now?” Katara glances over at her. “Aren’t there easier ways to do that?”

 

Don’t encourage her, part of Katara insists, but the rest of her doesn’t listen.

 

“Look at it this way.” She sighs heavily. “The last time my father saw me, I was half-crazy and locked up. I broke out of the palace dungeons, got what information I needed from him, and ended up here, and if I ever went back, I’d be dead before I took two steps into the throne room.” Her eyes glint. “All my life, he’s been trying to cheat me out of the things I’ve earned a thousand times more than he ever has, and if I want to beat him, I can’t give him the chance to do it again.”

 

“Cheated you how?” Katara asks, morbidly curious.


“He’s been using me as his errand girl for a year,” she spits. “Half of his victories were mine, which I naturally didn’t get credit for. Where would he be without me?” Azula jabs her finger into the comforter repetitively. “Nowhere close to where he is now, and not one bit of it got me any closer to…” she trails off. “Anything.”

 

Katara can’t help but feel a twinge of pity, even though she’s done almost nothing to indicate that she deserves it. “What is it that you want, then? Revenge?”

 

“I want to be out from under his thumb.” She clenches her hands into fists.

 

“So you can take what he won’t give you,” Katara realizes. “And you want to be Fire Lord because-“

 

“That way there’s no one to stop me,” she finishes with a hard glint in her eyes.

 

Katara wants to try to dissuade her. The last thing the Fire Nation needs is Azula on its throne when she’s like this, hurting and angry and desperate for the power she’s never had, but she can’t help but feel a twinge of sympathy for her. She, too, has been here, powerless and willing to do almost anything not to feel like a helpless prisoner of circumstance anymore.

 

“But do you really want to have to rule an entire country?” Katara asks, the gentleness in her voice surprising even herself. “Is it not enough to be able to live your own life?”


“Of course it’s not,” she spits. “Why would it be? That throne is my birthright!”

 

Actually, it’s Iroh’s, or at least Zuko’s, she thinks, but she’s still wary enough of Azula not to want to say that.

 

“I can’t really say that I know much about ruling countries, but I don’t think that being Fire Lord would make things any better,” Katara tries to reason with her. “As long as your father isn’t-“

 

“Do you really think my uncle would be an improvement?” Azula sneers. “He hates me. And my brother might cut me some slack if it was him, but he’s fall apart after ten seconds on that throne.” She sniffs. “Zuzu’s never had the stomach to rule.”

 

“As insulting as that is, I kind of have to agree. I don’t want him to be put through that.” Katara crosses her arms. “But you don’t have to control thousands of lives to control your own.”

 

“You have no idea what it feels like to have every advantage – every skill imaginable – and still be powerless.” Azula’s copper eyes are molten with rage. “And until you do, I expect you to believe me when I tell you that I’m going to sit on that throne if I have to watch the world burn to do it.”

 

Katara’s jaw sets. “Is that an ultimatum?”

 

“Make of it what you will.”

 

“Then know that you can’t count on my help.” She meets Azula’s eyes. “You have my sympathy as a girl, but as an adversary, know that I’m going to do what I have to.”

 

“Fine, then. You wouldn’t be the first.”

 

Katara latches the door behind her, head spinning, and it’s a long moment before she remembers to breathe again.

Chapter Text

Ember Island

 

It’s nearly sunset now, and the sky bathes the sand below in color; the waves lapping the shore now carry the soft sheen of mother-of-pearl, and Zuko rests his head against Katara’s stomach, the warmth of his cheek almost feverish against the stripe of cool skin that her top exposes. Her fingers work out the knots in his hair with the same practiced grace with which they pull water from the ever-present pouch at her hip.

 

“Come back to me in one piece, all right?” she asks, her voice gentle as the sun’s last watery rays of light.

 

He can’t promise that. Come tomorrow, she’ll be leading an attack on the Fire Nation’s aerial fleet with her brother, and he and his sister will be escorting the Avatar to the palace to face his father; neither of them can promise anything, really, in the face of the odds that face them.

 

“Okay,” he replies, instead of all of that.

 

She drops her hand to his cheek and her cool fingers fan out across his warm skin. “You sure?” she traces his cheekbone absentmindedly with her pointer finger.

 

“Sure.”

 

“All right,” Katara sighs. “Then you better not go dying on me.”

 

“Not gonna die on you.” He lifts his head and flips onto his stomach to get a better look at her, propped up on her elbows. “You?”

 

She leans forwards to kiss him. “I don’t plan on it,” she says when she’s pulled away. She doesn’t linger this time like she usually does, resting her forehead against his.

 

“Good.” He bridges the gap for her, pressing his forehead to hers while a hand at the nape of her neck steadies him.

 

At that, Katara falls back against the sand. “If you’d told me last year that this was what I’d be doing the night before the end of the world, I’d have frozen you solid,” she laughs, though there’s really nothing amusing about all of this.

 

Zuko considers. “Yeah, you would’ve,” he agrees. “Not that I’m complaining.”

 

“I mean, I’m not either, but it’s almost funny. “You and me were pretty much born enemies, and here we are, cuddling in public. Weird, right?”


“We’re not in public,” he grumbles, but it isn’t very convincing with his face buried in the fabric of her top.

 

“Yeah, but you get it.”

 

“Yeah, I do.”

 

“My whole life, I thought of you as everything wrong with the world,” she continues. “And now I think I might be in love with you.”

 

Zuko chokes on nothing, which is probably not the ideal response to a confession like that, but she doesn’t seem to mind. If anything, it makes her laugh. “What?” he finally manages to sputter.

 

However unideal his last response was, this one is worse.


“Sorry,” Katara mutters under her breath, no longer laughing. “Bad time, I guess.”

 

“No! No,” he insists. “Good timing! Great timing. I promise.” He thinks he might not mind if Agni struck him down on the spot. “I’m just…surprised. Sorry.”


“Why?” she sounds almost hurt. “Have I not made that clear?”

 

“Made what clear?”


“Are you trying to make me say it?” Katara’s voice catches. “That I loved you.”

 

“…no,” he says softly. “I just…always thought I’d be the one to say it first, that’s all.”

 

Not now, and maybe not ever, but…first.

 

Oh.”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“You don’t have to say it now.”

 

“Okay,” he replies, half-choked, because he thinks he might die on the spot if he spat it out with so little warning or prelude. “But…I do.”

 

She kisses the crown of his head. “I could tell.”

 

**

Fire National Aerial Base

 

None of them had asked for this, but only Jae had asked for exactly the opposite.

 

When they’d started to lay out their plans, Jae had asked to accompany Iroh and that secret society of his (she’s still not entirely sure what its deal is, though she’s taken to referring to it as the “old guys’ Avatar fanclub”) to liberate Ba Sing Se. It’s her city, and even though she wasn’t there to see it fall, she’d rather be there to see it freed than off with either of the other two groups, doing things that don’t hold nearly the same weight to her as the liberation of the city she’s always called home.

 

But no one had signed off on that.

 

To her credit, Azula had offered to take her to face the Fire Lord because, apparently, Azula hates everyone but Jae, but every other member of their group had shot that down immediately. This was really very tragic, because Jae thinks she’d be better at that than taking out an airship fleet. Of course, that was where she’d ended up, but she isn’t happy about it. Objectively, she has the best team – she’d rather hedge her bets with the the Water Tribe siblings, Toph, and Suki than with Azula (whose fondness for her she doesn’t reciprocate) or some old guys whose motivations are both unclear and dubious.

 

But still.

 

Stealth is a lost cause with such a large group, but by the time reach the outlying island where the fleet is docked, they don’t need it. No one is looking at the embankment where they’ve parked the eel-hound that brought them here with dozens of airships lifting into the sky.

 

“We’re too late,” Sokka murmurs, dismayed, but Katara’s jaw sets in determination.

 

“Toph, how good is your aim?” she asks.

 

“Are you thinking what I think you’re thinking?” Toph asks as a grin spreads across her face. “Because it’s pretty good.”

 

“Take Sokka and Suki,” Katara instructs her. “I’ll get Jae.”

 

“What do you mean you’ll get me?” Jae asks warily, but before she has her answer, Katara is taking her arm and running for the water on the other side of the ridge. “Wait! You’re going to go over the cliff!” she shouts, but Katara is taller and stronger than her, and if Jae lets go of her arm, she’ll probably go hurtling over the precipice.

 

For a fleeting second, she deeply regrets having agreed to this.

 

“That’s the idea,” Katara calls, and in seconds, the ground gives way beneath their feet. Before she can even scream, a column of water rises to meet them, its surface freezing into a sheet of ice on which they remain standing (with no small effort) as the column rises and carries them towards the next-closest airship.

 

Once the initial shock fades, Jae’s eyes widen. She can’t imagine the focus it must be taking to keep that plank of ice atop the water column and stay balanced, but Katara seems to be doing it without effort. “When I tell you to, you need to jump,” she instructs. “I’m not going to let you fall, but you have to get the timing right.”

 

“Or what, you’ll drop me?” Jae cries over the noise of the fleet lifting off.

 

“In all likelihood, yes!” Katara shouts. The airship is close enough now that they can see its boarding platform, and when Katara gives the signal, she throws herself towards the platform and reaches, closing her eyes in spite of every better judgment.

 

She can’t look, even after Katara grabs her hand and pulls her to her feet.  

 

“We have to get into the engine room,” Katara tells her once they’ve scaled the ladder leading to the body of the airship. “If I can ice over some of the machinery, I can crash the airship, and we can move on to the next one.”


“Move on how?” Jae asks. “And what am I supposed to be doing?”

 

“Same way we got to this ship,” she says. “And you’re here to rough up anyone who tries to get in my way.”


Jae isn’t quite sure how she’s supposed to do that when her reputation for being able to do so is based on a single, isolated incident whose circumstances she can’t replicate here (she’d be fine if she just had some high-quality cookware!), but she likes the sound of it. “Got it.”  

 

**

 

Royal Palace

 

“I take it we’re all in agreement about what we’re going to do with my father,” Azula says, feigning disinterest. Zuko and Aang both know better – Appa probably knows better – but to say so would be a death sentence.

 

“Yes,” says Zuko.

 

“We are?” asks Aang. He’s wearing his Innocently Confused Face – Azula hates his Innocently Confused Face.

 

“Oh, give me a break,” Azula sniffs. “We all know what we have to do, whether or not it” – she glares at Aang – “appeals to our sensibilities.”

 

“You can’t seriously still be having doubts about killing him.” Zuko crosses his arms. “We’re going to be there in half an hour, and if you don’t know what you’re going to do-“


“He’ll finish you off in about ten seconds,” Azula finishes. “And you’re really not giving me any compelling reason not to kill him myself.” She sniffs. “At least I won’t hesitate to do what needs to be done.”

 

Zuko is somewhat inclined to agree after hearing Aang waffle about what he’ll do to stop his father for several days now, but he shakes his head. “This has to be Aang’s fight,” he says.

 

“It should be the job of whoever’s most qualified, and I don’t think even you would argue that that wasn’t me,” Azula protests. “Why is it Aang’s? Symbolism?” Azula scoffs. “Symbolism doesn’t get the job done.” She pauses to think, then adds, “or end wars. I guess. If that’s what it is you want.”

 

“Isn’t that what you want, too?” Aang asks, wide-eyed, and Zuko has to resist the urge to roll his eyes. If Aang hasn’t realized that his sister has few if any altruistic motivations for choosing to turn against his father by now, he probably never will.

 

“I used to think this war was glorious,” she says, her tone surprisingly raw and unpolished. “Now I can tell you with reasonable confidence that it’s my idiot father and his idiot ancestors’ attempt to make themselves feel a false sense of superiority, but it’s not the war I’m trying to end.” Her eyes glint when she looks back up at Aang. “It’s him.”

 

Zuko half-expects Aang to launch into a dithyramb about forgiveness and try to talk Azula out of patricide, but he only nods thoughtfully. “I’m glad you’re starting to see the light,” he says, oddly unconcerned that Azula is so consumed by her desire to have her revenge. “This war has-“

 

“Oh, I don’t care,” Azula says, eyeing him distastefully.

 

“But-“

 

“Let’s just not,” Zuko sighs, feeling every bit the exhausted father of unruly siblings. He’d never imagined himself playing the diplomat, but someone’s got to.

 

“No, I need-“

 

“You need to get yourself in the right headspace,” Zuko tells Aang. “You can’t afford to be distracted right now.”

 

“Yes, that, if it gets you to shut up,” Azula agrees.

 

Zuko chalks up the fact that he nearly tells Azula to be nice to Katara’s influence.

 

Aang, though, takes no hints from that exchange. “Well, either way, I’m glad you’re helping us,” he says, far too cheerfully.

 

“As you should be. I’m very useful.” As much as she apparently resents being used, Azula preens. “But you should know that I’m going to do what I have to do.”

 

Azula,” Zuko warns.

 

“If he doesn’t kill Father, I’m doing it for him. Don’t expect anything else.”

 

**

 

Somewhere Over the Southern Ocean

 

“Jae, I think we’re being followed!” Katara calls from deep in the engine room. Jae stands guard as she expertly stretches the tiny amount of water in her two waterskins (she’d doubled up for the occasion) to damage enough working parts to stop the engines, and when she pokes her head out the door, there is, indeed, a stray crew member wandering towards the engine room.


“Got it,” she calls, cracking the door open and adjusting her stance.

 

The man comes closer, perhaps having heard her voice. “Anyone there?” he asks, and when no one answers, he keeps walking. Just a little closer, Jae wills him, and when he obeys, she brings the blast-proof metal door in just an inch and flings it back out at the man with every ounce of her strength as he reaches for the handle.

 

His body thumps to the floor.


“That makes five,” Jae calls, turning to Katara. Both girls can’t help but grin.

 

It’s ridiculous, the very idea that a girl as small and inexperienced as Jae might have a body count like that in a place like this, but she’s finding that she quite enjoys subverting expectations.

 

**

 

“Think I could shoot it down?” Azula asks, apparently almost giddy at the prospect as she squints up at the airship carrying their father to the promontory where they’re waiting for him.

 

“I don’t know how drowning him before I even have a chance to talk to him is going to-“

 

“Aang, if you so much as imply that you intend to try to talk him down, I’m going to burn you to a crisp.”

 

“No, but there’s no use in killing him right off the bat,” Aang protests feebly. “Don’t you need the closure?”

 

Zuko is pretty sure that she does, but again, chooses not to say so.


“Well, there are more satisfying ways to finish him off,” she says thoughtfully. “I suppose I can wait.”

 

Despite the loose ends and the barely-veiled resentment simmering between the two, they lapse into silence until the Fire Lord, standing at the prow of his airship like the pompous amateur thespian he is, comes into view. Fire blooms from his hands and Aang’s eyes widen, grey reflecting a burst of brilliant orange.

“We have to stop him before he toasts us,” he says, and for once, no one disagrees.

 

**

 

Ba Sing Se

 

As the Fire Nation’s sigil burns to ash against the palace wall, Iroh finds his mind wandering to his niece. Had she hung this banner herself, and why had she come in the first place? What could’ve possessed such a young girl to do such a thing?

 

Then he shakes himself, because he’s always known the answer to that question. Prideful, cunning, and cold she may always have been, but surely no fourteen-year-old would become a killer or a conqueror on her own. No one could’ve changed Azula’s tendencies, but they were only honed, sharpened into the weapons that took down a once-mighty city, by the careful manipulation of her father.


The way Zuko’s would’ve been, too, if there’d been more to work with than a kind, sensitive heart and a penchant for saying the wrong thing at the wrong time.

 

Perhaps Suki had been right; perhaps he’d only given Zuko the grace that he should’ve afforded them both, and perhaps one day he’ll start to change that. But now, watching the city smoke and smolder with the remains of the Fire Nation’s might scattered about its streets, all he can hope is that both his niece and his nephew will find the success in their missions that he has in his.

 

Perhaps then, now that he’s done undoing the damage of Azula’s mistakes, he might be able to start undoing the damage done by his own.

 

**

 

Somewhere in the Fire Nation

 

“I’m not even surprised enough to be disappointed in anything but my security staff’s failure to keep you locked up.” Ozai scans the tableau before him: smoking airship debris descending like otherworldly snowfall, his two children flanking the Avatar on either side. Smoke curls from Azula’s fists.

 

“What you should be disappointed in is your own mediocrity,” Azula snarls. “What kind of sorry excuse for a Fire Lord has to ship off his fourteen-year-old daughter on errands that any ruler worthy of his throne would be able to take care of himself?”

 

“I see your brother is putting ideas in your head.” Ozai smirks. “I have to say that I’d never expected you to be so weak-minded, Azula.”

 

That precise and inopportune moment, of course, is the one at which Aang decides to step forwards. “Fire Lord Ozai, you have to end this war,” he says, resolute but oblivious to the mood of the moment. “This senseless killing has gone on long en-“

 

“You dare interrupt me?” Ozai’s eyes harden. “I am speaking to my daughter-“

 

“He’s right, you know.” Azula crosses her arms, though Zuko sees through her composed façade and suspects that Aang probably does, too. “Not about the senseless killing part, necessarily. But I know that this war of yours has only ever been about making yourself feel important.” She scoffs. “Honestly. It’s as if you don’t have the self-awareness to realize that you’ll never be anything more than a firebender of slightly above-average skill who happened to be” – she levels a glare at him – “born lucky.”

 

“And this violence has to end!” Aang cuts in, apparently undeterred. Azula, annoyed as she is, has to give him credit for his gumption – Ozai might just kill him for that. “You’ve done so much damage to this world, but you can stop this before anyone else gets hurt.”

 

When Ozai doesn’t immediately shoot him through with lightning for that, Zuko jumps in. “The Fire Nation can’t go on like this,” he says, surprised to hear his own voice when every other part of him wants to keep quiet. “We are everything that is wrong with this world-“

 

“Fool,” Ozai mutters, adjusting his stance. “I should’ve killed you when I had the chance.”

 

Azula mirrors his stance and meets his glare defiantly. “Funny, we’ve both thought the same of you.” His extended fingers begin to spark, and she simply smirks.

 

“Azula,” Zuko warns, because he’d known all along that this fight was coming, but it’s senseless to provoke Ozai unnecessarily the way he knows Azula will. Interposing himself between the two, he extends his arm and breathes in, centering himself. To their side, Aang calls up a jet of flame, and that is all the provocation that Ozai needs to let his sparks fly and fan out into tendrils of lightning headed for the dead-center of Aang’s chest.

 

“You idiot!” Azula cries, shoving Aang to the ground and out of the path of the lightning. “None of us were ready!”

 

“Oh?” Ozai cackles, unfazed, as fire blossoms in his hand and rolls outwards towards Azula, still sprawled out on top of Aang where she’d knocked him to the ground. Almost without thinking, she raises an arm and counters his blast with a jet of her own, shielding them both from the flames as Aang scrambles out from beneath her. Zuko, recognizing that Ozai is distracted, gets in a shot at his right side, which does no damage but at least draws his attention away from Azula long enough to let her get to her feet. She aims a kick that sends a burst of blue flame hurtling towards his chest, then throws her weight to her other side to shoot a second blast which, sloppily-aimed as it is, singes his thigh but does nothing more. If he’s in pain, he doesn’t show it, and Azula grits her teeth, using a jet of flame to propel herself towards him. Before she can, though, he cries out, and Azula glances up to see a tendril of flame winding around his ankle.

 

She knows without a moment’s thought that the attack was her brother’s. That move is one of Katara’s, and though she’s never seen it done with fire (she wonders why she hadn’t thought of it), it’s painfully obvious where Zuko got the idea. Smart, she grudgingly admits to herself as he sends a second tendril snaking towards their father’s other ankle, pulling it back towards himself to throw Ozai off-balance. He’s buffeted by gusts of wind on either side – Aang, she realizes – and, as the ground beneath his feet begins to rumble (also Aang, she’s sure), Ozai grapples for purchase that he doesn’t find, teetering ever-closer to the cliff’s edge. Azula grits her teeth and opens her palm, trying to form tendrils to trap his hands the way Zuko had his wrists, but she’s never tried such an attack and can’t quite get them to keep their shape. Ordinarily, this would enrage her, but she doesn’t have the time for that now – and, as Ozai manages to throw off Zuko’s constraints, she realizes that it wouldn’t have done much good. Even as the earth shakes and the wind pushes him back towards the cliff’s edge, he begins to regain his balance, and Azula’s eyes widen in shock.


It occurs to her, once again, that she might not win this fight, and the thought is so terrifying that she can hardly stomach it.

 

She charges, propelling herself with the heat of her fire, and wheels around him, an idea forming in her mind. He might be more skilled or at least brute-force powerful than she cares to admit, but he’s also outnumbered three to one, and if she can get him to forget that and drop his guard, he’ll be easy pickings. She fights at far too close a range for comfort, trying attacks that don’t make the least bit of sense; she laughs, half-crazed, as if she’s as disconnected as she was the day he imprisoned her. Aang and Zuko, neither of whom have figured out what she’s doing, do what they can to assist, but neither makes much of a dent. This, she thinks almost giddily, is working perfectly.

 

But after a moment, he stops blocking her nonsense attacks, stops trying to get her off of him, stops responding to her haphazard blows, and he turns out to Zuko and Aang instead.

 

**

 

I never did actually tell Katara that I loved her.

 

It’s an incredibly out-of-place thought, especially when he knows there’s a decent chance he’ll be able to redirect his father’s attack if he’s doing what Zuko expects, but it still crosses his mind when he sees his father raise his right arm and extend two fingers.

 

“You should’ve known better than to-“

 

He doesn’t finish the sentence, eyes blowing wide. Staggering forwards, he takes only a few steps before he begins to convulse, collapsing to the ground only feet in front of the two.

Chapter Text

 

Above the Southern Ocean

 

They’re about six airships in when the floor begins to pitch wildly beneath Katara’s feet.

 

“Uh, Katara?” Jae calls from the door over the cacophony of crewmembers scrambling about, probably either trying to figure out what’s happening or inducing general panic if they already know. “I’m not exactly an expert, but I think we might be going down!”

 

That’s the logical conclusion, of course, but Katara’s not particularly worried, since that’s sort of the goal. They’ve never cut it this close, but there’s no reason to believe that they can’t or won’t make it out. “That’s the goal, isn’t it?” she calls back, melting the thin layer of ice she’s spread across the fine machinery of the engine so that its water can seep into the cogs and, hopefully, return to her pouch if they have time. “We’ll be fine!”

 

Jae’s eyes blow wide. “Are you kidding me? This thing feels like it’s going to-“

 

“Give me a second,” Katara cuts her off, raising her voice to be heard over the whir of shorting-out machinery. That’s odd, she observes – none of the other engines they’ve taken out made that sound.  “I just need to-“

 

“This thing is going to fall apart, Katara,” Jae warns again, but by the time Katara bends the water back into her waterskins and looks up, it’s a little late for warnings. The engine begins to spit out acrid smoke, the floor and walls tremble violently, and before she can get her bearings, Katara is thrown into the wall by the rocking of the airship’s carriage.

 

Now she’s starting to worry.

 

“Grab my hand!” Jae shouts, reaching for her only to be thrown backwards by another bump. Nevertheless, Katara scrambles to her feet and grabs Jae’s hand, pulling her to her feet as they begin to run for the doors. Both know that they need to get out of this deathtrap of an engine room before the smoke becomes too thick to breathe in, but Katara doesn’t have a plan beyond that, and she suspects that even sharp-witted, perpetually-six-steps-ahead Jae doesn’t know where to go if they ever manage to make it out of the engine room. So she throws her full weight against the door – still blast-proof and obscenely heavy, unfortunately for the two of them – and can only hope that it’ll budge.


It finally does on the fourth bodyslam, and the girls stumble out into the corridor half-choked, coughing up smoke. They pause for the second it takes to look at each other and nod in silent agreement, making a break for the bomb bay.


“If we can get the doors open somehow, I’ll be able to cushion our fall into the water,” Katara explains. “But we’re probably not going to be able to get down there without running into some-“

 

“Hey! You!”

 

“Hostiles,” Katara sighs, indicating a group of crewmen blocking their path. It presently occurs to neither that they have no idea where the bomb bay is, not when they’re faced with a squadron of soldiers on one side and a smoking engine on the other.  

 

“What are you people doing here?” the soldier who appears to be their leader asks. He squints suspiciously, and it occurs to Katara that he doesn’t seem like the brightest spark in the firepit. “You don’t look like-“

 

“They’re saboteurs, idiot,” one of his companions points out. She shakes her head disgustedly. “Why do you think the ship’s going down?”

 

“You all need to get to the bomb bay,” Katara tells the group, hoping that diverting the subject will throw them off. “If the ship goes down, you can just get whoever’s up in the control room to open the doors and you’ll drop down into the water. It’s not too far, so you’ll all be fine, and besides, I’m a waterbender.” She meets their eyes challengingly. “If you cooperate, I can make sure that none of you gets hurt.”

 

“A waterbender? Hilarious.” The leader smirks. “You’re probably just trying to get us all killed, huh?”

 

“Um, no, actually, if she wanted to do that, she would’ve done it already,” Jae points out. “And it would probably be in your best interest to listen to her before she changes her mind.” She leans into the wall as the ship rocks. “Or this stupid ship goes down with all of you in it.”

 

“That would probably work,” the soldier who’d figured them out muses. “We need to get off this thing, and that would be safer than trying to get everyone on this thing a parachute in time.”

 

“You can’t be serious! She’s the reason we’re going down in the first place!” the leader protests.

 

“Maybe, but what are we going to do, take her into custody? We’re going down!”

 

“Which is exactly why you all need to shut up and follow me!” Katara shouts, stumbling as the cabin pitches violently to the left. “So can someone please tell me where the bomb bay is?”

 

**

 

Elsewhere in the Fire Nation

 

The world smells of sulfur and singed flesh, and Azula’s skin tingles with electricity in the aftershocks when Ozai topples to the ground, leaving her standing behind the hazy wall of smoke that separates them.

 

Her technique, she can see clearly now, was wildly flawed: it takes time and centering and preparation to properly bend lightning that she did not have. She should’ve been lining herself up for the shot for a good minute or so before she took it, not throwing haphazard punches that looked as untrained as they had been deliberate. The circumstances hadn’t given her much of a choice, of course, but she still shakes her head, chiding herself. But she forgets her embarrassment at the lapse in technique when her father’s body begins to convulse, ragged breaths pushed from his lungs with unsustainable effort.

 

“Never leave your back unguarded,” she mutters, finally remembering to slacken her stance and rejoining her brother and the Avatar. Azula steps gingerly around Ozai’s body, his limbs jerking about wildly as they try in vain to fight off the shock of her lightning; maybe he could’ve kept it from reaching his heart if he’d had warning, but she’d given him none.


Good, she thinks, coolly satisfied.

 

“You should be thanking me, you know,” she says in response to Zuko’s aghast expression. “He was going to shoot you.”

 

“I know that,” Zuko stammers, blinking rapidly as if he can’t quite believe his eyes. “I…I could’ve redirected it.”


“Perhaps, but isn’t it better not to have to?” Azula shrugs. “So you’re welcome, brother.”

 

He looks up at her and isn’t quite sure which of the many Azulas he’s know he is seeing now – the one who’d taunted him with his impending death laughed as his face was burnt, or the one who’d chased down the Avatar and captured Ba Sing Se, or the girl who’d longed for her fearful mother’s love, or the helpless, broken puppet who’d stumbled into his camp lapsing in and out of delirium, or maybe none of them at all. He’s always thought that he’d given up on seeing any good in her years ago, and perhaps her father’s influence is far from undone, but it’s hard now not to question that belief, even as she stands over the half-dead body of her own father.

 

After all, she’d chosen to cooperate, and he can’t believe that she was only doing it for a throne she probably knew would never be hers. She’d saved Aang’s life, though Aang probably doesn’t realize it, and now Zuko’s – consciously, he has to assume. She’d been the reason they knew of Ozai’s plans for the Earth Kingdom. And perhaps none of that adds up to anything resembling altruism yet, but it’s hard not to imagine that someday, with their father gone and her mind free, it might one day.

 

“Thank you, Azula,” he says, and he means it.

 

**

 

Over the Southern Ocean

 

Realistically, Katara knows that she’ll probably be perfectly fine. She’s taken on monumentally more difficult tasks than this one and seen them through – beginning with convincing a squadron of Fire Nation airmen not only to let two saboteurs go, but to help them get to safety – and this one should really be no sweat. All she has to do is soften the blow of their landing in the water.

 

But still, grasping at nothing as she falls through a sky clouded with ash, life seems more fragile than it ever has.


“Katara!” Jae calls, her limbs flailing as she falls. “Incoming!”

 

What?” Katara shouts over the noise of a falling airship and the rest of the fleet still in the air and the screams of its crewmembers as they, too, plummet towards the surface of the water. But she doesn’t get her answer before Jae’s bony knee slams into her ribs at an alarming velocity.


“Sorry!” Jae shouts, trying and failing to level herself. She wraps her arms around Katara’s waist, hoping not to cause any more collisions, but it only makes matters worse and Katara lets out a yelp.

 

“I think you broke my rib,” she pants, her arms weakly pushing Jae’s away from the offending bone. “Or something.”

 

“Are you gonna be-“

 

Neither’s noticed that they’re getting close to the water now, and neither is expecting it when it rises up to meet them. Katara lets out another pained yelp as she hits the water, and though her body cushions Jae’s fall, it takes another beating as Jae’s weight presses her further down into the water. Jae rolls off of her as soon as she has her bearings, but by then, Katara is already wincing as she struggles to get herself upright.

 

“The ship’s going to come down on top of us if we don’t get out of here,” Jae tells her, already moving to sling Katara’s arm over her shoulder even though she can barely swim. Katara whimpers at the movement. “Can you move?”

 

“Yes, but barely,” she says, her voice tight with pain.

 

“Okay, then can you heal yourself?” Jae asks. She’s surrounded by her element – she seems like she should be able to.

 

Katara doesn’t answer, instead gritting her teeth and raising her left arm – the one on her good side – before a swell rises up to carry them out of the falling ship’s reach.


“I need a minute to fix this,” Katara tells her. “But we don’t have one.”

 

Simple as the maneuver is, it’s the first time Jae has ever seen Katara’s bending so labored. By the time they’re out of range, she’s panting, and she collapses backwards, floating face-up on the surface of the water. She’s conscious, but even lifting her shirt and bending water across the already-bruised skin above her injured rib seems like it takes enormous effort. Jae paddles over to see if she can help, but Katara waves her away. Water begins to glow, but its sheen is weaker than Jae has ever seen it, and Katara’s breaths are heavy and deliberate, as if she has to remind herself to breathe. Gradually, though, the pained, pinched expression on her face begins to relax, and with a sharp inhale, she rights herself and turns back to Jae.

 

“It really was a great day for a broken bone,” she says coolly, sounding so much like Azula that Jae has to blink to make sure she’s seeing Katara’s face and not the Princess’.

 

Jae winces. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know that was going to happen.”

 

“Nah, it’s fine.” Katara waves off the apology with a giggle that seems a thousand miles from the even sarcasm of the moment before. “You didn’t mean to. Hurt like hell, but, I mean…we’re alive, right?”

 

“Well, yeah, but how are we going to get out of here?”


“Jae, I’m a waterbender, and we’re in the ocean.”

 

This is an excellent point.

 

“Besides, we’ve made it this far,” Katara says, far more chipper than she needs to be. “So we’ll find a way now, right?”

 

**

 

Elsewhere in the Fire Nation

 

“To the capital city,” Zuko directs Aang, who’s in control of Appa’s reins. “We have to get to the palace and stop my father’s generals before they can carry out the attack.” Aang, who’s still too shocked – though whether by Azula’s random act of patricide or his own inaction, no one knows – to respond, nods and turns the reins to steer him towards the Caldera.

 

“We’re going to need a Fire Lord for that, aren’t we?” Azula points out, reclining against the back of the saddle.

 

“Not necessarily,” Zuko replies. “So long as they believe us when we say that Father’s dead, they won’t have any choice but to do what we say, even if neither of us is technically Fire Lord.”

 

“But it would be so much easier-“

 

“Azula,” Zuko says, eyes softening as he turns to his sister. “I know how you feel about it, but it can’t be you.”

“But…it has to be,” she protests, as if shocked that he might not agree. “I know you don’t want to do it, and neither does Uncle. Who does that leave?” She sniffs. “Perhaps you’re planning on dismantling the monarchy and putting the Avatar in charge of the provisional government? Or maybe you want to put that waterbender girl of yours on the throne?”

 

“She’d be a better Fire Lord than you, that’s for sure,” Zuko mutters under his breath. “But no. It needs to be Uncle.”

 

“Have you discussed that with him?” Azula crosses her arms challengingly. “Because something tells me that he isn’t going to go for it.”

 

“Azula, he has to. He’s the only person with a claim to the throne who has the experience to lead us out of this.” Zuko’s wide, pleading eyes meet Azula’s. “I know you want it to be one of us, but you’re fourteen, and I’d make a mess of things. We’re both way too young and inexperienced to be leading a country that’s basically wrecked the entire world.”

 

“Maybe you are, but I-“

 

“Azula…”

 

“I have nothing if I don’t have that throne,” Azula mumbles, eyes falling to her lap.

 

“Not true.”


“Oh, really.”

 

“You have an entire life ahead of you,” Zuko offers. “Wouldn’t you rather be using it to do things that…aren’t ruling a country? You hate paperwork.”

 

“Well, yes, but I like power.”

 

Zuko lets out a long sigh. “No. Final answer.”

 

Azula looks like she wants to protest, but something stills her, and she doesn’t say a word.

 

**

 

Fire Nation Aerial Base

 

Katara and Jae reach the base to find Sokka, Suki, and Toph in even worse repair than they are. Toph looks like she’s seen a ghost; Suki is supporting most of Sokka’s weight, and Sokka, whose right leg is limp, looks to be in as much pain as Katara was moments ago.

 

“Broken leg,” he explains. “Bad fall. You?”

 

Katara narrows her eyes. “Crash landing.”

 

“Cool, cool.” Sokka winces as he tries to shift his weight. “Can you maybe look at this?”


“Right.” Katara nods and, with Suki’s help, gets Sokka seated so she can examine his leg. With each motion of her water, she winces; it’s an ugly break, one that would be virtually impossible to heal properly on its own. “Exactly how far did you have to fall to get this?”


“Oh, we kinda almost died,” Toph explains. “He’s pretty luck that this was the worst he got.”

 

“No kidding,” Katara mutters, wincing along with her brother as she sets each bone fragment. “This would be a nightmare to set if I couldn’t heal it.”

 

“Oh, really? I couldn’t tell,” Sokka grouses. “Not like I feel like my leg is going to fall off or anything.”

 

“Well, you’ll be fine in a minute,” Katara says curtly. When she finishes, she brushes off her hands and offers one to help him stand. “See if that feels right.”

 

He takes a few ginger steps without pain and then nods. “I’m good,” he confirms. “Thanks.”

 

“Right.” Katara looks to Suki. “We were still supposed to stay here so the others could meet us, right?”

 

“Yeah, but who knows how long that’ll be,” Sokka says with a halfhearted shrug. “I say we figure out where they might be and go find them.”

 

“Well, if they won, they’d probably go to the capital city, right?” Katara guesses. “Zuko mentioned that they’d have to get someone crowned Fire Lord pretty quickly to stop the invasion.”

 

“Sounds like a plan, then.”

 

**

 

Fire Nation Palace

 

Even on an eel-hound, it takes longer to reach the capital city than Iroh would like, but the two-hour journey has its perks. It gives him time to think, and the more he does, the more he begins to doubt whether he’s choosing the right path forward. After all, any of three heirs could inherit the Fire Nation’s throne, and though Azula is still out of the running (much as he wants to mend things with her, he’s not about to let her loose on a war-torn world), the choice that he and Zuko come to is going to profoundly shape the world post-war. There are compelling arguments for both choices: Zuko’s youth and pure-hearted idealism, his own experience and political savvy.

 

But he knows, if he is honest with himself, that there’s only one choice he can make, and by the time he arrives at the palace to find his niece and nephew arguing with a cluster of officials who all seem rather put-out, he knows what he has to do.

 

**

 

In the hour it takes to reach the palace, Katara runs through every conceivable scene which might await them in her mind, preparing for the worst. Zuko and Aang could be dead, and Ozai waiting for the rest of them; Azula could’ve turned on them all; Ozai’s generals could’ve seized power.

 

But when she arrives, she sees none of those things – only Azula, sulking, and Zuko in conversation with his uncle and Aang on the palace’s front steps, and her heart lifts. She’s running almost before she dismounts, calling Zuko’s name before she even realizes what she’s saying, and he turns, running to meet her halfway.

 

“Zuko,” she murmurs, half-choked, as he pulls her into his arms from the stair above. “You’re all right.”

 

You’re all right,” he replies, his voice catching, and only a beat later he adds, “I love you.”


“I broke a rib,” she laughs, “and I love you too.”

 

“You what?”


“I’m okay, though.” She burrows her neck into the collar of his shirt. “Jae kinda fell out of the sky on me.”

 

“Um.”


“It’s a long story.” She pulls back to press her forehead against his. “I’ll tell you later.”

 

He lifts a shaky hand to stroke her cheek. “Okay,” he whispers, soft against her skin. “We have time.”

 

She laughs. “We have time,” she repeats, and then, hastily, “I love you, Zuko.”


“I thought we’d already established that.”

 

She hits his arm.

 

“Even though you’re an idiot.”

 

“Right. I am that.” He laughs. “Which is why it’s probably a good thing that I’m not the Fire Lord.”

Chapter Text

Two Weeks Later

Fire Nation Palace

 

Azula hasn’t yet changed out of the robes she’d worn to her uncle’s coronation (she’d averted her eyes and considered her self-control admirable for having allowed her to stop at that) when she hears a knock at her bedroom door. Tired and morose, she lets out an exhausted sigh. It’s probably Zuko – he’s just about the only person who ever comes to see her, unless she counts Katara, who she doesn’t because Zuko probably sends her. “Come in,” she calls.


“Princess?” a less-familiar voice asks. The Kyoshi Warrior, Azula realizes – she can’t recall her name. “May I come in?”

 

Azula reaches for a rice-flour sweet from the bowl on her endtable and pops it into her mouth, prim and lazy all at once. “Did I not just say that?” she asks.

 

“Right, sorry.” The girl – Suki, she remembers – edges into the room, the fabric of her warrior’s regalia rustling as she squeezes through a crack in the door as if afraid to upset it. “I wanted to ask you something.”


Azula arches an eyebrow. “I thought you had a boyfriend.”

 

“What?” Suki’s eyes widen in surprise. “No! Not like that.” Even through her makeup, Azula can see her blush furiously, which amuses her greatly. “Nothing like that! I just had…an offer for you.”


“An offer.” Azula appraises her suspiciously. “Well, it’s not as if I have prospects at the moment, so I might as well hear it.”

 

“I’d hoped you would say that,” Suki says with an apprehensive smile. “Anyways. I actually wondered if you’d ever consider adding a new combat style to your repertoire?”  

 

She’s rehearsed this, Azula observes. It’s almost impossible to tell, so she must’ve drilled it into her brain pretty well, but she’s observed Suki’s speech patterns as she does everyone’s and knows that this cadence isn’t consistent with her usual manner of speaking – she has to have planned it. “I assume you’re referring to whatever it is you do with your fans?” she asks.

 

“Well, that’s not the most polite way to put it, but yes.” She smiles tightly. “I think you’d get a lot out of a few months with the Kyoshi Warriors.”

 

“Yes, perhaps, but you forget that my last interaction with them was hardly pleasant,” she counters. Never mind that the part of her brain that still sometimes hears her father’s voice scoffs she could learn anything of value from Earth Kingdom nonbenders – she doubts she’d even be allowed on that island after landing its inhabitants in prison.

 

“Yeah, but I know my girls would listen if I told them that you needed our help.”

“I don’t need your help,” Azula snaps. “What am I, a charity case? I’m the Princess of the Fire Nation!”


“No! No,” Suki insists, raising her hands. “Sorry, bad word choice. I guess…we just have a lot of girls who’ve had difficult childhoods-“

 

“I’d hardly call a childhood spent in the lap of luxury where everything came easily to me ‘difficult,’” Azula scoffs, though something familiar and uninvited twinges in her gut at Suki’s words.

 

“Difficult parents,” Suki amends. “Surely you can’t argue with that?”

 

“Well, no, I’ll give them that one,” Azula sighs. “Anyways, your point?”

 

“We know how to help people move past those kinds of experiences because most of our Warriors had childhoods like yours,” Suki explains. Rehearsed again. “A big part of the process of becoming a Kyoshi Warrior is learning to heal from whatever brought you to the group, and I think you’d…be better off if you were able to do that, too.”

 

“I’m not broken,” Azula protests weakly. “Saying that I need to be healed implies that I am.”

 

Suki smiles sympathetically. “We’re all broken. That doesn’t make us any less whole.”

 

“Save the treacly affirmations for someone who’s actually going to believe them,” Azula replies coolly. “I get your point, but I don’t appreciate it. And neither would your Warriors.”

 

“I think you’d be surprised, Azula.” Suki gives her a knowing smile. “Sleep on it, okay?”

 

She doesn’t intend to, but she nods anyways.

 

After all, it’s not as if she has prospects anymore.

 

**

 

One Year Post-War

Southwestern Earth Kingdom

 

“I’m going to pass out,” Jae laughs, flopping back against the cot. Mosquitoes buzz around her and her impact kicks up a cloud of dust, but she’s too tired to notice, and her companions don’t seem to be any less so as they, too, collapse against the cots lined up along the walls of their makeshift dormitory.


“I second that,” Katara agrees, though she’s got her face buried in Zuko’s shirt and her words are too muffled to be clearly audible. She’d fallen on him when he’d fallen onto the cot, which Jae chooses not to observe. They’ve lately settled into the kind of routine that they refer to as ‘comfortable’ and everyone else refers to as ‘positively disgusting’ – she blames that entirely on Katara, who’s always been far more demonstrative than her boyfriend.

 

“I want meat,” Sokka interjects, to which no one says anything. He usually makes this comment after workdays like this ones, spent on a long-term project in the western Earth Kingdom converting a former munitions factory into a hospital.

 

“You always want meat,” Toph points out.

 

“Yeah, but especially today.” He sits up to glare at Zuko. “Because somebody decided that I had to play the diplomat!”

 

“It can’t always be me,” Zuko says bluntly, running his fingers absentmindedly through Katara’s hair.

 

“So you put me on ‘dealing with impossibly stubborn bureaucrats’ duty?” Sokka crosses his arms. “Really?”

 

“Yeah, Aang’s not here,” Jae reminds him. “Someone had to do it.”

 

“And I’ve been the liaison with the administrators for the last six days,” Katara points out. “And you signed up for it when you agreed to take this job.”

 

This does come with the territory as a goodwill ambassador, a role their group (minus Aang, busy with Avatar things, and Suki, busy with the Kyoshi Warriors – and Azula) has fallen into eagerly. Their tasks vary wildly in scope and location, though all of them concern the rebuilding whatever was damaged by the ravages of war, and though the job has its challenges, it is undeniably unrewarding. Even Jae, who’d had her doubts about what she’d do after her tenure as an Avatar Lackey (in her own words) was over, took to the work.

 

But it’s exhausting.

 

“Yes, thank you for your service,” Sokka grouses. “Now could we not be subjected to another hour of you two dorks canoodling?”

 

“Oh, shush,” Katara replies, snuggling against Zuko’s dusty, sweaty tunic. He kisses her hair in response. “At least we’re not publicly indecent like you and your girlfriend.”

 

“We are not,” Sokka protests, though even he can’t deny that. When they’re not on one of their distance-induced breaks, Sokka and Suki have a frightening lack of boundaries. Katara and Zuko, disgustingly affectionate as they can be, are tame in comparison. As such, Katara chooses not to dignify that with a response, instead kissing Zuko’s cheek.

 

“I feel so single,” Jae mutters under her breath.

 

“Trust me, this stuff’s totally overrated,” Toph says with entirely unearned authority.

 

“Right,” Jae sighs.

“And they’ll probably be on another break soon.”

 

Toph!”

 

“Hey, just telling the truth.”

 

“Eventually, Jae,” Katara says gently. “We’re still young.”

 

“You’re one to talk,” Jae mutters under her breath, but it is a good point. So much of what seemed far-off a year ago is reality now – a world at peace, rebuilding; a job, a purpose.

 

Maybe that, too.

 

**

 

Kyoshi Island

 

“Hi!”


Azula looks up warily. “What do you want?” she asks the warrior who’s approached her. Some have tried, but she hasn’t quite learned to regard them with anything but suspicion yet.

 

“Nothing,” she says, utterly unfazed. She’s pretty – vibrant brown eyes, delicate features, glossy hair knotted at the nape of her neck – with a bright, open face, and Azula is surprised that she’s never seen her before. “Sorry if I startled you. I’m Tsubaki.”

 

“And do you need something?” Azula asks.  

 

“No, just wanted to talk to you.” Tsubaki takes a seat beside Azula. “Seeing as we kind of have a history.”

 

“A history?” Azula’s eyebrows raise. “Oh. Right. That.” She clears her throat. “I suppose this would be a good time to say that I’m sorry I threw your people in prison.”

 

“I trusted that you would be, or else Suki never would’ve let you join us,” Tsubaki remarks lightly.

 

“Oh. Right.” Azula scratches at the back of her neck. “Well, I didn’t join.”

 

“Of course. Temporary, right?” Tsubaki laughs. “Sorry. Forgot.”

 

“Just a leave of absence,” Azula says tightly. Who knows how long that’ll be, she doesn’t add. And who knows what I’ll wind up doing next.

 

“Well, I, for one, think that you should stop spending so much time alone, even if this is just a temporary thing,” she replies. “Not good for you.”


Azula turns a glare on her. “I don’t need to be told what’s good for me.”

 

“Would you be here if that were true?” Tsubaki asks. “Somehow I doubt that.”

 

“I don’t appreciate it,” Azula says coldly, closing in on herself again.


“I don’t think that’s true, either,” Tsubaki presses on. “You seem like the kind of girl who wouldn’t be talking to me if she really didn’t want to be.”

 

“Well, I don’t make a practice of isolating valuable allies,” Azula replies.

 

“You clearly make a practice of isolating everyone else, though.”

 

“You know, you’re awfully bold to be speaking to a Princess like that.” Azula’s eyes glint. “I like that.” A year ago, she’d have backhanded Tsubaki after one word, if not worse. She considers this significant character development.

 

“Well, someone has to,” she says brightly. “Might as well be me.”

 

Azula pokes at the rice and vegetables in her bowl, silent in response, but Tsubaki doesn’t seem to mind at all. She has her own food, after all, and given the way she’s scarfing it down, she probably needs it after a long morning of training.

 

“Did Suki put you up to this?” she finally asks after a few moments of silence.


Tsubaki swallows a bite and then shakes her head. “Nope.”

 

“Oh.” Azula kicks at the ground with the toe of her boot. “So you actually wanted to do this?”

 

“You needed a support system that didn’t consist entirely of three-word conversations with Suki and those letters from your brother you always glower at. So yeah, I did.”

 

This is a strange thought, and it takes Azula a moment to wrap her head around it. “Huh.”

 

“I know it takes some getting used to, but that’s the kind of thing we do for each other around here.” Tsubaki smiles. “Most of us were abandoned at some point, so we kind of make a point not to let that happen again once we arrive here.”

 

“I wasn’t.”

 

“No, but still. Not even Fire Nation princesses who got us all thrown in prison are exempt from that.”

 

“I’m honored,” Azula deadpans.

 

“You should be,” Tsubaki informs her. “But you should also take advantage of the fact that you have a built-in support system while you’re training with us.” She pops a sesame ball in her mouth. “Just saying. It’s a valuable resource that you don’t want to squander.”

 

“Hmm.” It certainly sounds more convincing in those pragmatic terms. “Well, I’m talking to you, aren’t I?”

 

Tsubaki nods. “And that’s a start.”

 

**

 

Three Years Post-War

Fire Nation Palace

 

As is customary by now, there’s trouble brewing in the Fire Nation.

 

“It’s…a group that believes my nephew should’ve taken the throne instead of me,” Iroh explains. “Or perhaps my niece – I’m not entirely certain, except that they want me out. That much has been made…abundantly clear.”

 

“Right.” Aang nods. “And you want me to pacify them?”

 

Iroh chuckles. “No, that would be far beyond your pay grade.”

 

Aang’s eyes widen. “But don’t they need to be talked down? Why else would you have called me here?”

 

“If I thought they could be talked down, I would’ve told you so,” Iroh explains. “No. That isn’t what I want. What I’m hoping is that you’ll be able to do some digging and figure out everything you can about these people – what they want, how they operate, who they are. Then we’ll be able to figure out our next steps.”

 

“Okay,” Aang says apprehensively. This isn’t his usual kind of work, but he can’t very well say no to the Fire Lord. “Anything else I should know?”

 

“Oh, yes, one other thing.” Iroh’s eyes twinkle. “I know this is going to be somewhat outside of your comfort zone, so I thought you might need someone to help you figure it out.”


Aang’s eyes light up. “Zuko?”

 

Iroh laughs, but shakes his head. “Not Zuko, I’m afraid.”

 

“Oh, then it must be-“

 

“It’s no one you know, Aang, but I trust you’re going to get along well.” He winks. “She’s an expert at this sort of thing.”

 

**

 

Ember Island

Several Weeks Later

 

There is a new face in the crowd when the Fire Nation’s Sorry-We-Broke-Half-The-World Public Relations Team (Sokka and Jae had come up with that one together) reconvenes for their annual Important Matters Summit (Jae’s idea)-slash-Paid Time Off (Sokka’s).

 

Sokka doesn’t know how to feel about this.

 

“Who is she again?” he asks Suki, from whom he is currently not taking a break, but she only shrugs.

 

“No clue,” she replies. “Obviously Fire Nation, but I haven’t exactly been around there much, so I’m not sure who she is.”

 

“Definitely Twinkletoes’ girlfriend,” Toph decides. “His heartrate goes through the roof whenever she talks to him.”

 

“Aang has a girlfriend?” Sokka’s face splits into a grin. “Good for him!”

 

“Oh, thank the Spirits,” Jae mutters.

 

Katara rolls her eyes, folding her arms across her chest as she joins the group. “She’s not his girlfriend.”

 

“She’s not his girlfriend,” Suki repeats to Sokka.

 

“Yeah, Toph, she’s not-“

 

Toph punches Sokka’s arm.

 

“She’s actually his work partner at the moment,” Zuko explains. “You guys haven’t met her yet. She’s one of the people my uncle hired to replace all the old sleazebags in my father’s cabinet.”

 

“And she’s working with Aang?” Toph asks suspiciously. “On that insurrection project?”

 

“Well, will be,” Zuko corrects her. “He basically threw a packed bag at her and ordered her to crash our vacation.”

 

“Oof. Hope she doesn’t mind PDA,” Toph unhelpfully adds. Both couples in the group turn to glare at her.

“Well, I think it goes without saying that we should do our best not to scare her off,” Katara tells them. “I just talked to her and she seems nice enough. So maybe don’t send her running back to Iroh in a panic?”

 

“Right,” the group agrees, but she has a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach that this resolve to make the newcomer welcome in tame, nonaggressive ways isn’t going to stick.

 

**

 

“’Tara?”

 

Katara doesn’t even move, except to trace her fingers along Zuko’s bicep. In the midday sun, his skin is even warmer than usual, and she barely notices anymore that she’s burning up as she reclines against his chest.

 

“I love you,” he continues when she doesn’t respond after a moment. “But I’m hot.”


“Mmhm,” Katara agrees.

 

“No, like, I’m going to melt,” he elaborates. “Could you maybe…not use my entire body as a pillow when it’s the temperature of the sun outside?”

 

“But I like using you as a pillow,” she whines. Nevertheless, she peels herself off of him and flops back onto the abandoned beach blanket next to his.

 

“Much better,” he sighs. “Sorry. I was just about to combust.”

 

“You, the firebender, from the Fire Nation, complaining that it’s too hot?” Katara pulls a face at him. “Seems unfair.”

 

He takes her hand, lying limp on the sand beside her blanket, and kisses her knuckles. “Very unfair.”


“You weren’t even that warm.”

 

“Says you.” Zuko gives her hand a squeeze and then sets it back on the sand, only to find her reaching for him again.

 

“Well, I could always help you cool off,” Katara says innocently, raising her head and inclining it towards the ocean. “You know. If the heat is really that unbearable.”

 

“No, I’m-“

 

It’s a little late for that, though, and a moment later he’s sputtering as he tries to clear the taste of saltwater from his mouth.

 

“Cool enough yet?” Katara says sweetly. When he glares at her, she laughs and bends the water from his hair.

 

She notices the new girl watching them over the top of her book from a beach chair a few yards back.

 

**

 

“Why are so many of your people dating each other?”

 

Aang shrugs. “Dunno.”

 

“They’re all very demonstrative,” his partner observes.


“Yeah, they are,” Aang agrees. “But if you’re looking, I think Jae and Toph are both still single.”

 

She glares at him. “I’m not.”

 

“Right, sorry.”

 

“It’s interesting,” she says. “Your dynamic. You all seem to have very defined roles in your group. Reminds me of my old Cohort.”

 

Aang doesn’t ask what a Cohort is, because as much as she fascinates him, his partner is also terrifying. “That’s nice,” he says instead.

 

“You know, we’re going to have to say more than five words to each other if this is going to work,” she reminds him.

“Right! Of course.” He bends the remnants of the dishwater from his hands. “I just…”

 

“You’re scared of me?” her face falls. “Of course you are. Everyone is.”

 

**

 

It takes approximately four minutes for Aang’s partner to realize that he’s gone and blabbed, which she expected but still doesn’t appreciate. Still, though, the chocolates on the pillow and constant attempts at conversation from Katara are nice enough, and she’s not about to turn them down. But what she really wants is information.

 

That Earth Kingdom girl seems intriguing, and she wants to know more.

 

She makes the mistake of saying as much, because she may be sharp as a tack and tactically brilliant, but tactful she is most certainly not.

 

“Um…okay,” Jae says blankly. “But don’t you have to report everything I say to the Fire Lord?”

 

“No, why would I?”

 

“You’re his Spymistress. Emphasis on spy.”

 

“No, I’m a nineteen-year-old that the White Lotus recommended Iroh hire because I have enough ties to dead people who worked for them to look legitimate and I’m a decent strategist. I’m not telling him anything.”

 

“All right, then, but shouldn’t we start with introductions before we get to the interrogating?”

 

“Oh.” Jae nods. “Right. I’m Jae.”

 

She extends her hand. “Hina Oyama. Good to properly meet you.”

 

**

Five Years Post-War

Xianli Archipelago

 

The end of the war doesn’t mean an immediate end to the violence of the past century, and nowhere is that more true than it is in the Fire Nation’s volatile western reaches. And one fan-shaped arc of islands in particular, populated by a number of clans and ethnic groups which all have their own ideas about the way their home archipelago should be divided, is proving to be entirely too volatile for its own good. Which is how, nearly exactly five years after the end of the war, Katara and Zuko find themselves doubled over on a remote beach, panting beside the death-trap of a boat they’ve been trying to pilot to land through the notoriously choppy Western Sea with supplies enough to last the beleaguered Guo Clan a month.

 

World peace apparently doesn’t mean an end to supply runs through war zones, and that is precisely the sort of thing that comes with ambassadorship. So now they’ve found themselves here, twenty and twenty-two and feeling positively ancient as they catch their breath and begin the work of hauling the cargo up the beach, bit by bit. Sure, they’ve got a group of villagers helping out, but a suspicious amount of the work falls to them, and they’re both even more bedraggled than before by the time they finish.

 

“I’m dying,” Katara pants, swiping at her sweaty forehead with the back of her hand even though she could easily bend the sweat off with a flick of her wrist. “I am actually dying. When did we get so old?”


“My back is killing me,” Zuko agrees.

 

“We really are old,” she laughs, and when he looks up, her eyes lock on his. They’re tired but sparkling with mirth, as they always do after a mission well-done; she is sweaty and disheveled and he just knows she wants to flop into a bed and refuse to get up, but somehow, she is radiant.


And they are, after all, getting old.

“’Tara?” he asks to break the minute-long silence.

 

“Hm?”

 

“Think we should get married?”

 

Her eyes widen in surprise, but they’ve discussed this – This, capital-T, the nebulous future they’re trying to plan in the midst of all this who-knows-what – too many times for it to come as a shock, and soon her surprise gives way to affection. “Absolutely.”

 

He smiles. “I do, too.”

 

**

 

Eleven Years Post-War

Fire Nation Palace

 

“I don’t understand why I was stuck with babysitting duty.” Azula fidgets with the shoulderpiece of her regalia. “Shouldn’t one of your parents’ adoring sycophants be watching you? Honestly. It’s like they think shoving opportunities to demonstrate some maternal instinct that I don’t have in my face is going to make me grow one.”

 

Soon-to-be Crown Princess Kya has nothing to add, so she stares at her aunt with all the blankness that a six-month-old can muster.

 

“Exactly,” Azula says solemnly. “You get it, don’t you?”

 

For a moment, the two Princesses simply watch one another, entirely passive and so consumed by malaise that it’s incredible that the room hasn’t caught on fire.

 

“Well, enjoy that while it lasts,” she says when she finally turns back to the door. “Your life’s not going to get any easier once your parents are in charge.”

 

Azula finds herself pausing to await a response, even though she knows she shouldn’t. “I’ve really got to stop doing that,” she mutters, then walks to the crib and kneels down beside it to reach Kya’s eye level. “Anyways. Kya. Niece. You’ve got a lot of very unpleasant and irritating things ahead of you and I feel that it is my duty as a former Crown Princess to warm you. But…” she shakes her head, almost unable to believe that she’s having this one-way conversation with her infant niece, but presses on. “You’re also going to get a chance that I never had, and if you waste it, even if I’m dead, I am going to haunt you from beyond the grave until you get a brain and do something about it, you hear me?”

 

Kya doesn’t so much as babble.

 

“Of course you don’t,” she mutters under her breath. “Well, nevertheless, I wish you luck. Perhaps one day you’ll be somewhat less of a dull conversationalist and somewhat more of an heir to the throne.” She squeezes her eyes shut, wondering if there’s anything more that she should say, and surprises herself when she speaks again.

 

“Keep this awful place in good hands, will you?”