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The Color of the Stars

Chapter Text

It was doomed from the start.

Katara can see that now. She’d always known it was reckless, but this—this is little more than a glorified suicide mission. Even without their bending, Fire Nation soldiers are vicious and mechanical fighters, and there are just so many of them. Every time she strikes one down, three more appear.

Her ears sting with the bright clash of metal on metal; all around her, their motley band of friends and allies is fragmenting. Snatches of the scene flash by as she dodges and dashes and whirls the water around her arms: Haru, a boulder hoisted in the air over his head. Bato, lunging, scimitar about to make contact with a Fire soldier’s helmet. One of the massive metal caterpillars, battered and shedding its plates of armor, but crawling forward.

Her friends are strong. Katara knows they are. They’re powerful, and they’ve done all they could to prepare, but they are one hundred people from all over the world, half of them without any formal combat training. They are strong enough to fight to a standstill, but nothing more.

Aang, Sokka and Toph have been gone for a very long time. Too long. Being separated from them makes her feel useless. Without them, she’s like an arm cut off from its body, no support and no direction. She can’t concentrate right. Her body is here fighting, but her mind is inside of the mountain.

She ducks away from a Fire Nation sword and hooks her water whip around the soldier’s ankles. Something must have gone wrong. Aang can’t have been fighting the Fire Lord this whole time; even the Avatar tires out. She flicks her wrist. A wave darts out and slaps the sword out of a soldier’s hand.

What if it was a trap? What if the Fire Lord knew they were coming? What if Zuko or Azula or the Dai Li found them, or they shot Appa out of the sky, or they got lost or couldn’t find him or the eclipse went wrong somehow—

She can’t lose them.

Katara’s arms are aching. The water’s heavy on her wrists, and her head is ringing with the screaming, and the sun is uncomfortably warm on her back.

Her father shouts her name.

The sun is too warm.

There is a single moment when Katara realizes that the game has changed, and before she can adjust—before she can even turn to run—the warmth isn’t just on her back anymore, it’s flashing all around her, and she falls.

-

Fire Lord Ozai is smiling, and Zuko’s blood is boiling.

“Don’t you want to know what happened to your mother?” his father asks. His voice is deceptively smooth, like silk over steel.

Zuko did not come here to fight. He came to offer an explanation; he came to keep the peace, because even after all this time, he cannot harm his father. But the word ‘mother’ cuts straight through his artificial calm.

He turns to face the Fire Lord.

“What happened that night?”

As his father speaks, Zuko can feel the fire singing in his veins. It grows louder with every word, enough confusion and rage to fuel a thousand suns, but he cannot find the spark that usually burns in the pit of his stomach. He feels wrong—empty, somehow, and very young, and he thinks this was a very bad idea but Ozai is talking about his mother. His dead mother.

Who might not be dead after all.

The fire is rising. His ears are filling with a deafening rush and he can’t tell if it’s his own heartbeat or the roar of the flames that are longing to ignite and he has never been this furious in his entire life, not even when he was exiled from his home when he was barely a child, not even when he lost the Avatar and what he thought was his last way to reclaim his past.

“Your punishment,” the Fire Lord says, “will not be as merciful.”

His body sparks to life.

Zuko ignites, but Ozai is quicker.

-

She can’t find her father.

There is so much fire everywhere she can see and it’s all she can do to keep the water around her but she knows she won’t last much longer and she is screaming “Dad, Dad, where are you” and the fire is just getting hotter. There are eight of them she can see, eight deathly gray masks and eight jets of flame and one little waterbender who is too young to die. One waterbender alone who needs her brother or her friends or her father or anyone but she cannot face the fire alone.

Katara knows she can’t hold on. Water and fire do not coexist and she is going to evaporate any second now under the heat and there is nothing nothing she can do. Already her vision is fading and she lets the water drop and she can’t see anything but red when she finally closes her eyes and the battle fades away and she slips into the cool ocean in her mind.

-

Zuko has only held lightning once in his life and it is nothing compared to this. Then, it was invigorating—almost exhilarating—to feel his whole body come to life at once, for every inch of his scarred and weary skin to react so simultaneously to the pure energy in his veins. Then, he didn’t want to let it go.

But his father’s lightning is a thousand times stronger. His body was never meant to hold this much energy. He is shaking with the force, and it takes every bit of his wildly overstimulated attention to keep it from exploding.

“Fight, traitor!” the Fire Lord sneers.

Zuko aims at his father.

His father.

Through the blue webs of crackling fire, he can see his father’s face. His father, who banished his mother, who drove his sister to cruelty, who has tried to kill his own son multiple times now.

His father.

Zuko lets the lightning go. It obliterates the throne immediately.

Fire Lord Ozai laughs patronizingly. “I see nothing’s changed after all these years. I’m disappointed, Zuko. You were always too weak for this nation.”

He advances, and Zuko tries to call fire to his fingers, but his body is too spent, his chi overtaxed and vibrating from the lightning he was never supposed to hold.

“You are no son of mine,” says Ozai, and fires.

-

It’s dark when Katara wakes up. Her first instinct is to pull the water from her hip to her hands, but her wrists are bound behind her back with something stiff and cool—metal, she assumes—and when she extends her fingers and tries to find even a drop where she usually keeps her best weapon, she feels nothing. The familiar, solid weight is gone from her belt.

She strains her eyes to make out any details. Wherever she is, it’s warm, and there’s a slight breeze; she must be moving, because she can feel the wooden slats of the floor shaking, and every few seconds it jolts, thrusting her up for a moment. A wagon?

The memories are returning to her slowly. The invasion was working, and then it wasn’t, and she couldn’t find Sokka or Aang or her father and then the flames—

Oh, spirits.

Katara struggles desperately against the shackles, but they’re Fire Nation steel and even Toph has difficulty fighting against that. Besides, her body feels raw, aching all over like she’d spent too much time in the sun. Either the Fire soldiers were merciful, though, or they’re giving her something to suppress the pain, because it’s a bearable sort of ache—nothing like the burns she still remembers from Aang’s solitary experiment with firebending.

So they didn’t want to hurt her too badly. They wanted to take her alive, instead of ending her on the spot. Katara’s not sure which would have been worse.

It’s just now beginning to sink in that she is a prisoner of the Fire Nation, deep in the heart of enemy territory, and she has no idea where her friends are or if they even survived the invasion and it’s even worse than Ba Sing Se because she is utterly alone and stripped of all her defenses and she is totally at the mercy of the nation that killed her mother and half of her village and there is nothing, nothing she can do about it.

The wagon creaks and then jerks to a stop. Outside, two voices murmur too quietly for Katara to understand the words. A moment later, a lantern sparks to life outside the canvas side, and it’s thrust through the flaps at the back alongside a metal mask.

“Come on,” the soldier rasps. “We’re here.”

-

Zuko can’t suppress the feeling that he’s done this all before. Everything about the situation—the grim soldiers, the oppressive rhythm of the footsteps, the thick gloves secured over his hands to prevent any firebending—is eerily similar to the first time he’d crossed his father. The only thing missing is the agony that had consumed half of his face.

This time, though, he knew exactly what he was getting himself into.

Eight guards really is too much for one escort, he thinks. He’s not sure if he should be flattered, or if his father is just trying to further intimidate him. He’s sure Azula had something to do with it, too. She hadn’t come to see him while he was locked in his bedroom waiting for the guard to assemble. He hadn’t really expected her to.

Nobody had tried to see him, in fact. Not even Mai.

Of course the soldiers wouldn’t let anyone in, but Zuko knows that if Mai truly wants something, she could overpower fifty Fire Nation guards easily. He can’t blame her. That letter was—horrible, really. Nothing even close to an explanation. She deserved better.

Zuko doesn’t know much about love, but he knows enough to know that’s not how to treat somebody he loves.

And now it’s too late to do anything about it, because ahead of him, the Fire Nation royal prison rises out of the mountains, stark and gleaming in the moonlight.

“It’s only temporary,” one of the guards tells him. “You’ll be transported to the Boiling Rock once the city is fully secured again.”

The Boiling Rock? Zuko had known his father was angry, but not that he hated his son that much. Even Uncle hadn’t been condemned to that glorified tomb.

“It’s a shame,” one of the other guards says, so quietly that Zuko can barely hear it. He has distant memories of that voice from his childhood—one of the palace guards that had probably been there at his birth.

He’d always been scared of the prison when he was young, and even recently, whenever he’d come out to visit Uncle, he was filled with unease. But as he marches up the path to the first set of gates now in the thick warm summer air, his hands tied behind his back but his head held high, he is filled with a strange calm. He’d lost, but he’d stayed true to himself. He’d finally done what Uncle believed he could.

He is no longer a prince, but for the first time in three years, he is Zuko.

-

The moon is nearly full. Katara files this fact away in the back of her mind alongside other bits of information about the scene: the prison is ten stories tall. There are three sets of walls surrounding it. There is a pond in the outer courtyard.

She can’t even begin to think about escape, though. Sokka had always been the strategist. He would know what to do. But alone, she can’t see any way out of the situation. Not with her hands tied, not with this many guards, and not alone.

Katara is very, very alone.

The soldiers tighten their grip on her biceps as they pass the pond—not that she could do anything, anyway—and pass through the second set of gates. She is acutely aware of their gloved hands on her arms. All of her senses are heightened by the fear. If she concentrates, she can feel the sweat beading on her forehead.

The third gate is the largest by far, and once they are through, it slams shut behind her with a clang that sounds like a funeral gong. The prison is completely silent and dark aside for the torches that line the walls. The whole place feels heavy and oppressive and too final. She feels a sudden spark of empathy for the fish her father used to catch in his metal trawling nets. Katara is a fish out of the ocean here, cut off completely from her element and trapped a world away from everything she has ever known.

She misses her family with every drop of blood in her body.

The heart of the prison is a winding staircase that’s lit so sparsely it might as well be as dark as the night outside. She loses count of the steps after four hundred have passed away beneath her boots. They spend eternity climbing upwards, farther and farther, and Katara is beginning to wonder if they are planning to chain her to the roof when they stop.

“Welcome home,” the guard says.

_

They left his hands free.

It’s an inconsequential detail. There’s really no reason to bind his hands; even if Zuko did try to bend, the door to his cell is thick metal and he’s in the highest and most heavily guarded area and there are nine floors of the Nation’s best soldiers beneath him and three walls beyond that. Nobody escapes from a Fire Nation prison.

But still, it gives him a tiny bit of relief that they left his hands free, because he didn’t realize that being imprisoned would be so utterly boring. At least this way, he can amuse himself by calling up little flames in the palm of his hand and sending them to float around the cell.

He thinks he’s alone on the top level of the complex. At least, nobody protested when he sent his tiny lanterns out beyond the metal lattice and followed their path with his eyes. The whole level is small—there’s the hallway leading to the stairs, and only one other cell that he can see directly across from his. As far as he can tell, it’s empty, which Zuko finds a little odd. The best-protected location in the whole Capital City, and it’s not in use? It’s not as if there’s a lack of powerful benders to occupy the space.

Zuko stretches a jet of flame between his hands and watches the way the colors flicker against the damp stone. He’ll almost be glad when they move him to the Boiling Rock, because at least it’ll be more interesting than this terrible solitude.

He elongates the flame, stretching it into a bamboo-thin sliver of shining orange, and twirls it around his hands idly. Maybe they’ll let him out someday, if the Avatar wins the war, even if he never got the chance to help—

In the hallway, heavy footsteps echo. Zuko quashes the flame between his palms.

Looks like he got his wish. Something’s happening.

The footsteps grow louder until they pass in front of his cell. Zuko counts three soldiers facing away from him and a fourth pair of feet, smaller, and not wearing the black and bronze boots of the Fire Nation uniform. The bulky metal armor the soldiers wear blocks the rest of the last body from sight.

He hears a clink, a key in a lock, and Zuko strains to see. “Welcome home,” one of the soldiers says, and the small set of feet stumbles forward until they hit the ground of the cell opposite him, followed by two blue-clothed knees and two hands.

The key clicks again, and the soldiers march away. They are talking about him, and Zuko hears one of them laugh, but he can’t concentrate on whatever they are saying because for the first time he has a clear view of his new prison mate and he knows her.

“Katara?” he says.

-

Just when Katara thought things couldn’t get any worse, the spirits proved her wrong again.

Being captured by the Fire Nation was one thing. She’d known all along it was a very real possibility that she’d end up a hostage at some point over the course of the war; she’d made her peace with it long ago. Being separated from everyone she knew—from Sokka, from Aang and Toph, from all of the people who might have been able to help her—is an added insult. Being locked up in a dank cell cut off from the moon and the water is barely bearable.

But being imprisoned alone with, out of every single person in the whole world, Prince Zuko? That’s something she’d never even considered in her worst nightmares.

At least he’d finally stopped talking. When she first was thrown into the cell, as soon as he recognized her he’d started pestering her with questions, a rapid-fire interrogation that she neither had the energy nor the desire to address. He seemed to get the point after fifteen minutes of silence on her behalf, and he’d lapsed into wordlessness, too.

Katara can feel his eyes on her. She stares as hard as she can at the wall opposite her, counting the slimy stones to distract herself from giving in. She is not going to look at him. This is all his fault in the first place—if he hadn’t betrayed them in Ba Sing Se, if he hadn’t chased them all over the world, if he hadn’t driven them straight into the heart of the Fire Nation—

“Listen to me, Katara.”

She nearly snaps ‘does it look like I have a choice?’ The venom stills on her tongue.

“I know we haven’t had the…smoothest beginning. And I’m sorry, I really am, and you have no reason to trust me.” She can’t stop the derisive snort that escapes at that. “But the thing is—well—you can help me. I mean, I can help you. We can help each other.”

Is he always this nervous when he speaks? It’s almost refreshing to hear the proud prince reduced to this—a stuttering wreck, locked up and finally subjected to the same treatment she and her friends have endured for months. Katara’s still not sure exactly what he did to get thrown in here, but it doesn’t matter. They’ve been in this situation before, and she remembers all too well how it ended up.

Zuko sighs. “We’re both out of plans, okay? It doesn’t matter what happened before. Well, I mean, it obviously does—and I’m sorry, I was wrong, I made a huge mistake and I know how wrong I was and I’ll do anything to make it up to you—“

“Save your breath,” Katara mutters, and immediately regrets her lapse in willpower.

There’s a scraping sound and a series of clinks, and when Zuko speaks again, his voice is a little louder. “They’re going to move us to the Boiling Rock in a few days,” he says. “A guard told me. It’s the most heavily-guarded military prison in all four nations. You don’t get out of that place once you’re in. And I don’t know about you, but I don’t really want to die in prison.”

Katara’s not listening to him. Not really. It’s just that there’s no possible way to stop herself from hearing him short of putting her hands over her ears like a child. And anyway, it’s not like she believes anything he says.

It’s possible that she does turn her head ever so slightly towards him, though.

It seems that’s all the encouragement Zuko needs. “I know you need to get back to the Avatar, and I don’t want to spend the rest of my life rotting in jail, either. And I really do want to help you, even if you don’t believe it.”

“So what are you saying?” asks Katara, and when she does turn to look at him for the first time, he’s kneeling at the front of his cell, hands folded but chin raised proudly. Even in the dim light, his honey-gold eyes glimmer dangerously.

“We could break out,” he says.

“How?”

He rocks back on his knees and ducks his chin. “I…sort of haven’t gotten to that part yet.”

“Oh, fantastic.” Katara crosses her arms and turns back to the wall. At least it makes sense. “Great idea. I’m so glad I actually bothered to get my hopes up that for once in your life, you’ve thought of something useful and intelligent.”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t realize you wanted to stay in jail forever!” Zuko snaps. The chain clinks again, and out of the corner of her eye, Katara can see him collapse back into a mirror of her own position. “I mean, do you have—“ He abruptly stops talking and inhales slowly through his nose. His eyes flutter closed when he breathes back out. “Sorry,” he mutters. “I’m not going to lose my temper.”

“But you’re so good at that,” Katara deadpans.

Did he just chuckle? She was trying to make him angry! “I know. I’m trying to fix it. I swear, Katara, I really have changed this time.”

There is not a single person in the world that Katara trusts less than Zuko. Not even his wicked sister. But there’s something in Zuko’s voice, in his face and in his eyes, that makes her wonder if there’s at least a grain of truth behind his adamant protests. He can’t have just switched sides that quickly—not the boy that tracked them around the world to kidnap Aang just to buy his way back onto the Fire Nation throne.

He’s in a Fire Nation prison now, though. They both are.

“Alright,” Katara says. “Let’s pretend that I do agree with you. Hypothetically. If I did—and I’m not saying I do—what do you think we could do?”

She can practically feel Zuko smiling at her from across the narrow hall. When he speaks again, his voice is notably brighter. “This is the prison that my Uncle Iroh is kept in, and I used to come visit him all the time. I know my way around it pretty well. If we could get out of these cells, I’d know how to get us out of the tower, at the very least.”

“That’s a start, but there are still all the guards and the walls and the fact that we’re ten stories up in the air,” Katara points out.

Zuko huffs out a breath of air, and Katara swears she sees the air spark under his nose. She shivers involuntarily. “Give me a little more time, okay? I’ve only had an hour to think about it.”

“We’re kind of on a tight schedule,” she protests. “Didn’t you say they were going to move us to another prison soon?”

“They said they had to secure the city first. That’s going to take a few days. For so few people, your friends caused a lot of destruction. My family doesn’t show it, but it rattled them. They’re not letting anyone in or out of the capital for at least three days.”

Three days. That’s three days closer to Sozin’s Comet, three days she could be spending training Aang, three days that she’ll be apart from them when they need her the most.

Three days compared to a lifetime.

“Fine,” Katara says. “I’m in.”

Chapter Text

It’s deathly quiet in the prison, but Zuko’s never been more on edge. He doesn’t know how Katara can sleep—not with this much riding on exactly what they do in the next two days, and especially not huddled on the slimy stone the way she is. It’s uncomfortable enough just to sit on. But not long after she finally agreed to his idea, she curled up against the wall, her left leg stretched out awkwardly where her ankle is shackled to the short chain opposite her. It looks too painful for any proper kind of rest, but her breathing is steady and every so often she lets out a quiet sigh. It’s the first time Zuko hasn’t seen her completely alert and prepared to fight.

She looks so much younger like this. How old could she even be? His age? Younger? Certainly not older. And she’s spent nearly all of the past year running all over the world.

They’ve got that in common, Zuko thinks grimly. They’re both too young to have left their homes so soon. He hopes to Agni and Sozin and whoever else will listen that she comes out of it better than he has.

A sudden wave of guilt washes over him as he realizes that he was probably the one that drove her away from the South Pole in the first place. That day seems so long ago, considering everything that’s happened since, that he can barely remember it—but for some reason, he can remember her face. As young as she seems now, she was a thousand times more of a child then. There was none of the resilience or resignation or experience he could see in her face the day before for the one moment she’d looked at him.

It’s going to be a very difficult breakout if Katara keeps holding this grudge against him. Zuko can’t say he blames her. If he was her, he certainly wouldn’t trust himself. He’s not even sure he does right now.

He has to get out of here. He can’t spend this much time alone with his thoughts.

Zuko stares at Katara, considering her as he thinks. He doesn’t know much about waterbending besides what he’s seen her do, but he knows she can supposedly heal, though hopefully neither of them will need it. He assumes she can’t magically break through metal, or she would have gotten out of here the minute she was thrown in. And waterbenders can’t summon water the way fire is always with him; Katara will need a source of water to be any help, since there’s no way the guards would have let her keep any with her.

The jailers will have to give them a drink sometime, right? Zuko runs through the list of things he’s seen her use her powers for: as extra limbs, as icy darts, to make a temporary bridge, to freeze someone in place…He can’t see a single way any of that could damage metal, though.

Katara shifts in her sleep, adjusting her arms beneath her head. Zuko can’t help but think that making plans would be so much easier if she was awake as well, but he can’t begrudge her her rest. Maybe he should try to sleep, too.

The stone is even worse when he’s lying on it than he could have imagined. However much he tries, Zuko can’t make himself close his eyes. It takes a small eternity for him to finally pass out, Katara’s form slowly blurring into a pale blue ghost before she fades away entirely.

-

Katara didn’t know it was possible to wake up even more tired than when she fell asleep, but every muscle in her body is protesting movement as loudly as it can. That is something she is not anxious to try again. It might just have been the worst night of sleep she’s ever had—and that’s saying something, because Katara’s gotten pretty well acquainted with the soil of all four nations over the course of her travels with Aang.

Across the hall, Zuko isn’t looking very well rested, either. He looks up at her blearily. Even through her sleepy confusion, Katara’s taken aback. For once, he doesn’t look angry or malicious or moody. He looks…well, he looks tired and taken off guard. He looks human.

When had she stopped thinking of him as human and started labeling him evil?

Zuko notices her staring. He waves hesitantly. “Good morning,” he says, his voice thick with exhaustion.

Katara can feel her cheeks heating up, and she jerks her gaze back to the wall that she’s practically memorized by now.

A moment later, he asks “did you sleep well?”

“Not at all,” Katara answers.

“Really? Because it looks like you did. Not that—ugh, that sounded creepy. I mean you fell asleep quickly. At least more quickly than me.”

“Do you always talk this much?”

Okay, maybe that was a little harsh, Katara thinks. She’s sure he’s heard worse before.

“I’m sorry,” the Fire Prince tells her. “I ramble when I’m nervous. Bad habit.”

“Sokka does that, too,” Katara mumbles to herself.

“Sokka? Your brother?”

“Unless there’s another Sokka we both know.” He wasn’t supposed to hear that!

“I wouldn’t say I know him,” Zuko equivocates. “I only met him a few times. He seems like a very capable warrior. For, uh, not being a bender…”

“He’s extremely capable.”

Katara doesn’t want to spend another second talking about her brother, or Aang or Toph for that matter because all it does is make her worry more. When Zuko seems like he’s about to say more, she cuts him off. “Did you get any further with the escape plan?”

He glances around furtively before he answers. “A little. There’s a guard station on the floor below us with a window we could climb out of.”

“You want us to go straight into the guard’s station? Are you crazy?”

“No, hear me out,” he protests. “All firebenders are weaker at night, and we’re weakest around midnight, when the sun is the furthest from power. The guards change every six hours: dawn, noon, dusk, and midnight. If we can strike while most of them are changing shifts, it should be empty and they’ll be severely weakened anyway. Most of the imperial guard is nothing without their bending. We’d have at least a pretty good shot.”

Not that she’d ever admit it, but Katara’s a little impressed. He’s obviously put some thought into it. “That’s good. My bending is strongest at midnight too, because of the moon. Not that there’s any water around here for me to bend.”

“What about the pond in the courtyard?”

She shakes her head. “Too far away, and besides, I couldn’t get it into the tower. Once we get outside, I should be able to use it.”

“We’ll just have to get out fast, then.”

“Aren’t you forgetting about something?” she asks pointedly.

“What?” Zuko follows her gaze to the metal gates closing off both their cells. “Oh, right. Those are a problem.”

“A big problem.” Katara groans and falls back against the wall, pressing her palms to the floor. And they’d been making such good progress, too. For a minute, she’d almost forgotten what a horrible person he is.

She misses her friends. She misses them with an aching intensity that borders on physical pain. She misses the way that if Aang was here, he’d be able to outsmart the door in a heartbeat because he probably knows the person who designed the prison. Or how Toph would just tear through the metal like it’s dry kelp. Or how Sokka would know exactly how to use science to break it down, like the time he’d used only a torch and a few handfuls of snow to break a rusty lock off an old ship—

Wait.

“I think,” Katara says slowly, “I might have an idea.”

Zuko looks up sharply. “You do?”

“I’d need water. And we’d have to work together.” She’s really more worried about the second part than the first, but if she had something to bend, then she’d feel a little better about needing his help.

“Okay.” He stands up, his head nearly brushing the roof of the tiny cell, and starts to pace. “The guards should bring us breakfast soon, and they’ll have to give us something with liquid in it. I don’t know if it will be enough, or how pure it’ll be, but it’ll be something. If we figure out how to save it up somehow, then maybe…” He stumbles on the slick stone and reaches out to catch himself on the wall. It’s almost enough to make her laugh, except then he looks up at her with realization dawning on his face.

“We have water,” he exclaims.

“No we don’t,” Katara says. “There aren’t any pipes or sinks or anything up here. I would feel them.”

“No.” He points at the damp patch that made him lose his balance. “We have this. Is it enough?”

How had she not noticed that? She thinks she should feel resentment, but underneath it, there’s something else suspiciously similar to admiration.

“I don’t know,” she says. “I’ll try.”

-

“Sokka tried to explain it to me once,” Katara is saying. “He called it thermal destabilization. Something about shocking the metal by making it expand and contract on a really tiny level.”

“What?”

“I have no idea. I just hope it works.”

Zuko looks down at the chain by his ankle, which is surrounded by a very thin coating of ice. They’d had to wait to try Katara’s plan till after the meager breakfast two guards had brought up for them was consumed, but with it they’d both gotten small cups of tea. Zuko had knocked his over to supplement the water pooling in the cracks of the stone, and he assumes Katara had surreptitiously bent hers away out of sight, though he hadn’t seen her do it.

It had been his idea to test it on the chains first, since they couldn’t do any damage to the actual cells without guards noticing. He’d volunteered to free Katara first, but she’d only narrowed her eyes and begun to coax the dirty water out of the cracks on his side of the hall.

It’s obvious she still doesn’t trust him one bit, but Zuko doesn’t expect her to. She’ll get there eventually.

“Okay.” Katara lowers her hands, and the ice contracts with a quiet crunch. “I’m going to melt it off, and then you need to get it as hot as you can as quickly as possible. Don’t evaporate the water, though, it’s all we have and I’m not good at getting it back out of the air.”

Burning metal has never worked in the past; Zuko can never get his flames hot enough to melt it, so he’s more than a little skeptical. He pulls two small flames to his palms anyway and looks up.

“Here we go.” Katara furrows her brow as she spreads her fingers, and the ice drips back down to the stone. “Now.”

Hesitantly, Zuko directs the flames down the chain, surrounding the whole thing in flickering orange. “I don’t know, Katara,” he says. “This is Imperial steel, I’ve never seen it break before—“

“Let me try again.” He quenches the flames obediently, and Katara blasts ice across it again, her normally smooth bending motions jerky and anxious.

“It’s not going to—“

There’s a very audible crack, and Katara smiles triumphantly. “You were saying?”

They make short work of his chain. It takes patience and constant repetition, but with each cycle of fire and ice, the hairline fissures in the links grow larger until the first one gives way and, astounded, Zuko pulls his leg away from the wall. “I’ve never seen anything like this before,” he exclaims.

“Well, it’s not like firebenders and waterbenders have a long history of cooperation.”

“Kind of a shame.” He runs a fingertip over the edge of the metal link. It’s jagged and irregular.

“It works,” says Katara. “We can actually do this. We can get out.”

“Yeah. We can.” Zuko tries smiling at her, and in the biggest surprise of the day, she doesn’t grimace and turn away from him. Instead, she looks mildly pleased and very excited.

“When can we leave? Tonight?”

He shakes his head. “Better wait for tomorrow. These bars are thicker than the chain. Maybe we should work on them without doing any visible damage first.”

She doesn’t answer, just calls up another sheet of ice with a look of renewed determination on her face.

-

Breaking out of one of the best prisons in the Four Nations is kind of boring.

It’s a mind-numbing routine: freeze one small patch of the bars, melt the ice, watch Zuko cover them in flames, and repeat until they can just see the tiny fissures in the metal, then move on to the next section. They have a few scares when the guards come up to deliver meager portions of food, but for such a high-security place, they aren’t very attentive or observant. Zuko says it’s probably because most of them are concentrating on restoring order in the city.

More than anything else about the situation, Katara’s shocked at how cooperative he’s being. She knows that logically, it makes sense for them to work together; they’ve got the same end goal, and the only way for them to get there is together. But he’s different from the boy that had betrayed her in the crystal caves under Ba Sing Se. Or at least, he’s very good at pretending to be different.

Because there’s no way the Crown Prince of the Fire Nation could really change. He’d said he had, and she’d believed him once, and it had ended with Aang nearly dead and the closest escape they’d had to date.

No, people don’t change like that. Especially not people like him.

So when Zuko asks her “where are you going to go when we get out?” as she is shoveling down her disgusting mushy dinner, she is taken aback and suspicious in equal measure.

Instead, she deflects the question. “Where are you going to go?”

He sighs and sets down his bowl. “I’m not sure. I don’t think I can stay in the Fire Nation.”

“What about your sister?”

“What about her?”

“She seemed pretty eager for you to help her in Ba Sing Se. Will she help you now?”

“Azula?” He laughs bitterly. “She doesn’t help anyone but herself. She’s probably ecstatic that I’m out of the way now. Nothing standing between her and the throne.”

Katara can’t help the shudder that runs down her spine at the thought of the power-drunk girl from the cavern ruling over an entire nation. “You were really going to be the Fire Lord?” she asks.

“I was supposed to be, once my father died. No hope of that now. Now, I’m probably the number one enemy of the Fire Nation.”

“What did you even do that was so bad?” she bursts out.

Zuko toys with the jagged end of the chain hanging off his ankle. “I attacked the Fire Lord,” he mutters. “I betrayed my nation and my family.”

Whatever she’d expected him to say, it hadn’t been that. “But I thought you wanted to go back! Restore your honor and all that! You attacked him?”

“I was wrong,” mumbles the prince. “I thought the only way I could make things right was to try to go back to the way they were before. The only life I’ve ever known is one in the Fire Nation, or trying to get back to it. I thought it was my destiny. But my father, my sister, the Fire generals—they don’t care about lives. They just want power. I can’t be like them.”

The look on his face is almost painful to observe. It’s a miserable mix of confusion, anger, and sadness, combining into something so utterly lost that Katara can’t push down the twinge of sympathy she feels for him.

“I thought my destiny was to never leave the South Pole,” she says quietly. “I thought I would never learn to bend properly. And now look at me.”

Zuko looks like he’s about to say something else, but he stops and shakes his head and then says “thank you.”

“For what?”

“Giving me another chance.”

-

She doesn’t say anything to him after that, instead drifting off into a pensive silence, and Zuko wonders if he’d said something wrong again, but all the hostility has left Katara’s body. This time, she lies facing him, the creases of worry that had lined her brow the night before smoothed slightly.

Zuko stays awake until the guards come at midnight, just to be sure, and then he follows her lead, curling up like she had hours ago. This time, he falls asleep with much more ease.

There’s nothing easy about the sleep, though.

Almost immediately after he feels himself lose consciousness, voices fill his mind. The first one is Mai’s, and it stings worse than a lightning shock.

“You left me,” she says, and then her face appears and it is broken and it is Zuko’s fault. “You didn’t even say goodbye! You coward!”

And then there is Azula, next to her, cold eyes glimmering, and she laughs and laughs and Mai begins to laugh too and there are more faces—Ty Lee, Zhao, his father—and their laughs transform into a chant: Fire Prince Zuko, Fire Prince Zuko.

And he wants to scream but he can’t even find his body, he doesn’t even know if he has one or if his country has taken that, too, and then another voice joins the crowd.

“Prince Zuko,” Uncle Iroh says. “You have done the honorable thing.”

Zuko wakes up.

He’s aware of the cold sweat beading on his forehead, despite the oppressive sticky warmth that’s omnipresent in a Fire Nation summer. His heartbeat is pounding in his ears.

“Zuko?”

Katara is watching him with wide eyes. The expression on her face is not quite worry.

He must look bewildered, because she says “you were talking in your sleep. I don’t know what you were saying—something about being sorry, I think.”

He tries to say something, stops, composes his thoughts, and looks back up at the curious waterbender who has become the only ally he has left. “We need to rescue my uncle,” he rasps. “He’s in this prison, too. I can’t believe I forgot about him.”

Something in Katara’s face softens at the mention of Iroh. He is infinitely relieved when she nods without any debate. “Do you know where he is in here?”

“Sixth level, one of the interior cells.”

“Okay.” She nods again. “Doable. If we work fast, I’m sure it won’t be a problem.”

Zuko nods mutely, overcome with relief. He’d expected an argument.

“Get some sleep,” she says, and he can tell from her tone that this is the voice she uses on the Avatar and her brother and the people she calls her friends. “We’ve got a big night ahead of us tomorrow.”

He sleeps better this time.

Chapter Text

“Katara. Hey.”

For a minute, she’s sure it’s Sokka calling her name. She rolls over and groans “one more minute, meathead.” He probably wants breakfast, the dumb-dumb. He can never keep his mind off food for long.

Strangely, though, she thinks she can smell rice and vegetables. Had Aang made breakfast already? Maybe he could see how tired she was. That’s nice.

“Katara?”

The voice is gentler than Sokka’s usually is, and more hesitant. Katara’s not sure why he isn’t yelling and tickling her yet. And where’s Toph? Toph is always up early. Toph wouldn’t miss the chance to wake someone violently.

“Go away, Sokka,” she growls.

Sokka sighs. “Your brother’s not here,” he says patiently. “Sorry. The guards just delivered breakfast.”

Zuko? Katara’s eyes snap open to the sight of a dank stone wall.

“Oh.”

She sits up slowly. Her movements are sluggish; she feels like she’s moving through jelly.

“They gave us chi-blockers in the tea last night,” he tells her. “Don’t drink it. It won’t stop your bending completely, but it’ll slow it.”

“Will we still be able to break out tonight?”

Katara picks up her bowl of rice and looks longingly at the tea. She’s painfully thirsty, and dehydrated is one of the worst things a waterbender can be.

“We’ll have to. They’re moving us to the Boiling Rock tomorrow.”

She grimaces and spills her tea out onto the floor.

“It should wear off by tonight,” Zuko says. Now that she’s more alert, she can hear that his voice is thick with exhaustion, too. “We’ll just have to save energy.”

“Will we have to fight?”

“I hope not.” He doesn’t sound optimistic.

They eat in silence. When they finish, they try to work on the bars, but they both have to combat their weakened bending and it takes a long time to make even the smallest dent. By the time they’ve finished destabilizing the grates in front of her cell in a gap wide enough for her to get out, Katara’s head is aching and her mouth is gummy and dry.

“I need to rest.” She flops back against the back wall, her head lolling. Zuko similarly collapses.

“Nearly done.” He offers her a tentative smile. She doesn’t return it.

“How are we going to get your uncle out?”

The smile slips off his face. “We’re going to have to modify the plan,” he says. “It should be alright. There’s a window on that floor too and it’ll work the same. We’ll just have to be much quicker.”

“Fine.” She’s doing it for Iroh. All he’d ever done was help them, and besides, Toph would never forgive her if she found out they’d left the old man behind. There’s no compassion for Zuko behind it.

Just because they can help each other temporarily doesn’t mean she trusts him.

-

Katara’s moodiness is seriously starting to get on Zuko’s nerves.

He knows she has no reason to like him, but he’d thought she was at least warming up to him, especially after last night. She’d seemed almost concerned in the dark. Maybe it was only because she was tired, but still, that doesn’t warrant the hostile silence and determined avoidance of his gaze she’s now practicing.

The worst part is that he knows he deserves every last bit of her ire. What he did in that Earth Kingdom cavern was an utter betrayal of her trust, and it must look even worse to her. She probably thinks he was trying to fool her the whole time. Given the situation, he can’t fault her impressive talent at holding grudges.

She’s probably a lost cause, but Zuko is stubborn, too. He can’t count the number of times he’s nearly lost his temper and lashed out at her, but every time, he’s managed to turn his frustration into a friendly question or comment. And of course they’re all wasted on her.

Water, the element of change? Yeah, right.

She doesn’t speak for six whole hours. At least, Zuko thinks it’s six hours. There’s no way for him to tell how slowly time is passing, not even a window to see the sun, but when the guards come back to deliver their dinner, they’re different from the ones who gave them the poison tea that was supposed to be their lunch. Katara rouses from the tired stupor she’d sunk into around midafternoon—she’d been attacking their cages with too much viciousness for her exhausted state—and shovels down the food before turning back to the metal with a vengeance.

“You really should rest more,” Zuko says.

She scowls. Even the ice particles she sends shooting up the bars look angry. “I just did,” she grits out.

“Then don’t use so much power bending. You’ll wear yourself out.”

“How long do we have till midnight?”

“Probably about five more hours.”

She says nothing, only twists her hand savagely to melt the ice and gives him a pointed look. Resignedly, Zuko wraps a tongue of flame around the empty spot.

-

How is he so calm?

Katara won’t show it, especially not with the Fire Prince watching her every move, but she’s more scared than she has been in a long time—maybe ever. True, she’d faced the Fire Nation’s army before, but she’d always had her friends with her then. There’s something about traveling with the Avatar that makes her feel a little bit invincible. As bad as the fight gets, she’d always known she had two or three or a hundred people to back her up.

But this time, she’s only got a little dirty water, and her only ally is the Crown Prince of the Fire Nation, who doesn’t have a wonderful record of trustworthiness in her memory. If anything goes wrong—anything at all—she is dead. Not just imprisoned, not just stripped of her bending, dead.

She might not be able to see the sky, but she can tell that the sun is leaving now, can feel the way the moon is rising with the power in her veins. At least she’ll have Yue giving her strength to fight. Of course, that means Zuko will be crippled, but she’s not so sure that’s a bad thing.

The bars caging both of them in have been weakened to the point of almost complete destruction; all it will take is one strong hit to break through both sets at once. In theory, at least. Katara prays to the spirits that it works. She thinks briefly of Sokka, of how nervously excited he would be if he were here now, of how proud of her he would be. She’ll have to thank him for the idea when she sees him again soon.

Because she will see him again soon. All of them. Sokka, Aang, Toph, Hakoda, Bato, Haru, Teo, the Duke and Smellerbee, everyone. She’ll walk all day and night to get to the cliffs if she has to. She’ll get there and they’ll be waiting for her and she’ll finish teaching Aang and they’ll find a way to train him in firebending and they’ll face Ozai again and this time, they’ll win.

Without consciously allowing the thought to form, she wonders what will happen to Zuko. She assumes they won’t have to worry about him chasing them anymore, and when they storm the Capital again, he’ll probably be far away. Maybe she’ll never see him again—that would be the easiest thing. He’ll be with his uncle, either way, and when Aang takes down his family he won’t be caught in the crossfire. He’s still an enemy, but it wouldn’t feel right killing someone who’d helped her escape, even if it had just been for his own benefit.

If he doesn’t bother them, then she won’t bother him. That was the deal: help each other escape. Nothing else.

The moon must have risen by now. She can feel the ebb and flow of the chi filling her limbs, the familiar weight of the power and the tranquility that tempers it. Yue and La are with her.

Across from her, Zuko looks exhausted and pale.

She is going to say something to him—ask if he’s ready, or at least get him alert—but before she can speak, she hears heavy footsteps in the stairwell. Zuko notices them a moment later and snaps to attention.

“It’s time,” he says.

Katara grins.

There are only two of them. Sometimes there are three, but this is better. Their faces are hidden, but their pace seems slower, their movements infinitesimally more sluggish. As quietly as she can, Katara begins to draw the water back to her, forming a puddle beneath her feet.

They turn to check on Zuko first. Perfect. He mutters something, his voice too low for Katara to hear it, but one of the guards scoffs and answers with a haughty “I wouldn’t be talking if I were you.”

She doesn’t give them time to turn around.

It feels incredible to bend again—to bend properly, not just tiny coils of ice but a full-strength jet of dirty water and spilled tea that punches through the damaged iron in a matter of seconds and freezes one of the guards in place before she even has time to call for help. The second spins around, an ember forming in the palm of his hand, but he’s knocked flat by a tongue of fire that spits metal fragments across the hall. He lands in a shallow pool of water. It’s almost too easy.

Katara webs ice over his wrists and ankles and neck so that his voice is muffled by the stone before stooping to climb out of the hole she’d blasted in the metal. For the first time, she smiles at Zuko.

“That ice is thin. It’s not going to last forever.”

He nods and steps out of his cell. “Let’s go.”

There’s not much water left after freezing the two guards, but as they race down the stairs Katara wicks moisture off the walls, gathering it all together into two massive, polluted, gray-green, wonderful whips that encase her arms from shoulder to fingertip. It’s dizzying, the moon and the water and the explosion of pent-up energy all feeding off each other, pushing her footsteps down faster and faster, pushing her heartbeat. Zuko’s footsteps are flagging behind her. His flame flickers on the curved stairwell.

“Sixth flight,” he pants. Katara doesn’t acknowledge it, just turns abruptly and pushes through a heavy wooden door into the waiting embrace of a trio of firebenders.

They hold their flames aloft below their chins in cupped hands, elongating the shadows of their masks into demons, but Katara dos not even register her fear before her right arm is lashing out and extinguishing all three in a wall of water. Her left sweeps their feet out from under them. She brings both down and the water turns to shards of ice that pin them to the floor.

This is her time, not theirs.

“Come on,” she says to Zuko, who has skidded to a stop behind her.

They slow just enough for Zuko to glance momentarily into each cell before moving on. Katara wants to sprint towards the window in the distance, towards the faint patch of moonlight spilling through in distorted rectangles to the floor, towards the force she can feel awaits her outside: the promise of more power, of water enough to drown every miserable firebender in this prison.

“I don’t see him,” gasps Zuko.

“Look faster,” she snaps. There are more guards coming towards them. She can hear them running.

He groans. “Katara, this is where he was!”

“We’re running out of time,” she answers. She will leave him behind if she has to. She has to get outside.

“Uncle!” he yells, and if there were soldiers coming for them before, the whole prison will be able to find them now. “Iroh, where are you?”

There’s no answer except the echoing clang of metal on stone.

“I’m going,” says Katara. She grabs hold of his arm and pulls him after her. The prince does not resist.

The window is inside a small room, the door hanging wide open. Katara runs and does not tire. Every particle of her body is awake.

There are sleepy shouts rising among them as they run and the prisoners awake. Zuko is still calling desperately for his uncle. Iroh is not in this prison, or at least he isn’t on this floor, Katara is sure. He is old, but not stupid, not weak. She’s seen him fight. If he could have joined them, he would have already.

The window grows larger. The shouts swell louder. The moon sings in her blood.

The moment she steps through the door at the end of the hall, she realizes she has made a mistake.

There are guards everywhere. Five, ten, one hundred death-gray masks, and twice as many hands extended, ready to strike with eviscerating warmth. Katara falters. Her mind floods with memories of the last time she’d faced this many firebenders, so few days ago.

Zuko curses under his breath.

It pulls her back, and she is moving fluid as a river, the water following her movements with only the smallest effort. There is a pipe jutting out of the wall. She searches, grasps, pulls, and it explodes, gushing out and spilling onto the floor up to their ankles.

She throws her arms wide, and it freezes.

“Spirits,” Zuko mutters.

“Cover me,” she replies shortly, and turns to the window.

One firebender against twenty isn’t a fair fight, but he is the Crown Prince of the Fire Nation and firebending is about stance and movement of the feet. Besides, this shouldn’t take long.

Katara steps forward. The moonlight washes over her face, and she feels ready to burst.

She brings her hands together, siphons the energy down her arms, and every drop of water she can feel joins together into a horizontal geyser. It punches clear through the stone surrounding the bars.

“How are we getting down?” she calls to Zuko.

He pauses mid-stance and glances out. The guards take the chance to fire back, and Katara barely has time to block the attack with a shield of ice. It seems to make up his mind for him. He starts to run towards her, skids on the ice still coating the floor, and grabs at her to stabilize himself. His hand lands in hers.

“Hold on,” he says, and jumps.

Katara has spent a lot of time in the air in the past few months. It’s one of the occupational hazards of traveling with an airbender. But flying on Appa’s back is very different from falling down six stories with only the hand of one of her worst enemies to keep her tethered to the corporeal world. She’s well-acquainted with gravity by now—from the push and pull of the tides as well as the weight of it that amplifies the higher Appa soars—but it’s never been so violent before. All she can do is concentrate on the heat radiating from Zuko’s hand and pray to the spirits that he knows what he’s doing.

He tries to say something—she can see his mouth move—but the wind rips the words away before she hears them, and a split second later, they hit.

It jars her to her bones, but it’s not as bad as she’d thought it would be. Once she finds her legs again, she realizes it’s because they landed in some sort of bush. Her head is still spinning too hard from the fall to understand much else.

Zuko stands, though—he’s still holding her hand—and jerks her to her feet, gasps “sorry about that,” and blocks a blast from above with his free arm.

He slows when they come to the first of the walls, but Katara doesn’t hesitate. This isn’t the part of the plan she ever had a problem with. Here in the naked moonlight, she is virtually invincible.

The water from the pond two courtyards away spills over the wall a second later, and she freezes it midflight. Zuko balks—he is a firebender—but Katara doesn’t stop running, and she can hear him scrabbling up the side a minute after she does. When he reaches the crest, she melts it abruptly and the tidal force carries them to the other side.

The Fire Prince is cursing profusely now, invoking the names of deities Katara’s never heard of before. He looks half-drowned and miserable. She would laugh if she had time and if every cell in her body wasn’t concentrated on reshaping the water into a second icy bridge as rapidly as she can.

The guards are still shooting. She admires their dedication.

The second wall is harder to scale, and she has to help Zuko up the side, but then they’re over it and the last courtyard stretches between them and the massive final wall. It’s nearly empty except for the twenty or so soldiers between them and freedom.

Apparently, Zuko has run out of gods, because he is just spitting out swear words now.

It’s her turn to say “hold on.”

This time, they ride the momentum of the wave up. For a moment, Katara thinks it’s not going to work—that they’ll plunge straight through the froth that crests the swell of water and into the arms of the guards below—but it holds, and she ices it over just enough that they can run to the top of the wall. One of her hands is in Zuko’s again and it is more difficult to bend with only one available hand but if she lets him go she’s not sure he would make it out on his own and that was the deal. Escape together.

And they had.

The third swell, when it melts, sends them cascading fifty feet out beyond the last wall, and when it finally deposits them on the dirt, they are both gasping for air. Zuko lies spread-eagled on his back and closes his eyes.

Katara looks up and blows a kiss to the half-moon.

Chapter Text

For the first fifteen years of his life, Zuko had never seen a waterbender in action. In one night, he’s seen enough to last him a lifetime.

“Nice job,” he coughs out.

Katara has her back to him. Her face is turned toward the moon. “You too,” she says.

“We can’t stop yet. They’re going to come after us soon.”

“Which way?” She turns back over her shoulder. The moonlight silhouettes her head; in his exhausted and disoriented state, he thinks she looks almost magical, like she belongs to the Spirit World.

 He tears his eyes away and glances around. The city glows like a dying ember in the distant north; they face the mountains, jagged and impassable, so the bay must be at their backs.

“South,” he says. “The farther we get from the Capital, the better.”

The prison suddenly blazes to life, sirens splitting the crickets’ chirping and ripping open the night’s peace. They both leap to their feet.

“South?” she asks. He points to the sparse grove of trees leading into the forest far away.

They run.

The ground is soft beneath their feet. It’s the damp season, and their boots sink into the earth, but they run until there’s no more road and they hit grass. He doesn’t look back, and she doesn’t either. He’s going to ache in the morning, but the fear and exhilaration keeps him aloft for now, and he can’t feel any pain, though he knows he’s burned and bruised and battered worse than he has been in months. Katara’s bleeding from one leg. Her arms are covered in scratches.

They run anyway, the uneven rhythm of their footfalls the only irregular sound. They run until the sirens fade away and the last bit of light from the city gives into the silvery sheen of moonlight coating the endless farming fields. They run until they reach the trees, until he’s lost all track of time or distance, and then they run a little farther until the very last of his energy runs out and the weight of the last few hours crashes onto his legs all at once.

Once he stumbles, he can’t find his momentum again. He staggers to a stop. They’re fully in the forest now, completely protected by the dense trees, and there’s a small clearing just ahead lit up by the last dying planes of moonlight.

Katara grabs a tree and leans heavily against it, her chest heaving. She looks even more winded than him. Looking up, Zuko can see why: the sky is beginning to light, the dark blue fading into streaks of rich purple and pink.

They complete their escape in a clearing just as dawn breaks.

Zuko can’t make his legs bend properly to sit; instead, he braces his palms on his knees and lets the first fire of the day rejuvenate him. It doesn’t do much—he’d been reaching into reserves of energy he hadn’t even known he possessed—but it keeps him on his feet. When he looks up again, Katara is standing in front of him.

“I’m sorry about your uncle,” she says.

He’d managed to block thoughts of Iroh up until now, but with the reminder all of the guilt and fear and loss falls back onto him. For a moment, he can’t breathe.

“Thanks,” he mutters.

“You’ll find him.”

Katara has a very expressive face. Whatever she feels, she projects very clearly to the rest of the world. Zuko suspects she can’t help it. She looks conflicted now, her brow drawn in concern and her mouth set in a hard line. Her eyes, though, are empathetic.

“I have to go find Aang and my friends,” she tells him. “I don’t want them to get too far. They’re probably wondering where I am.”

“We’ll go tonight. Rest a little.” She needs it; she looks even worse than he feels.

The crease in her forehead deepens. “We’re not going anywhere.”

It takes his addled brain longer than it should to figure out what she means.

“I can help you!” he exclaims. “You and the Avatar! You can’t try to find him alone, you’ll be dead within a week!”

“The deal was to escape together. Nothing else.” Her eyes harden from raindrops to ice chips. “I still don’t trust you, Prince Zuko.”

Zuko hates the way she says his name. She makes it sound like a curse.

“I attacked my own family for your friends. They threw me in jail.” Has he really sunk so low that he’s pleading with this waterbender? A Crown Prince, now homeless, estranged, and robbed of his last plan? What is he supposed to do?

“This is more important than you or me. This is about the fate of the world. I can’t risk that.”

“Katara,” he says. “Come on. Be reasonable. I thought we were in this together.”

“It takes more than a few days to earn my trust. I’m not going to forget what happened last time you changed.”

Zuko’s face burns. The rest of him does, too. She might as well have spit venom instead of words. “I’m sorry,” he roars. “How many times do I have to apologize to you? I’m sorry, and I was wrong!”

“Let it be,” she says quietly. “Please don’t look for me.”

His hand is half-outstretched towards her. He doesn’t know why. He doesn’t remember moving. Gently, Katara reaches out and brushes her fingers over his.

“We’re even now,” she breathes.

She turns to the east. Zuko is rooted to the spot.

As she walks away, the sun rises over her head.

-

Three hours into her journey, Katara realizes it may not have been her best idea to run away from the only person around for miles without even asking for directions.

It’s not that she’s lost. She knows where she is. Vaguely. East of the Capital City, west of the Black Cliffs, north of home. Too far from her family.

She can’t be lost, she reasons, if she wasn’t really sure which direction she was supposed to go in the first place.

When she’d left Zuko in the clearing, she hadn’t really been thinking. All she’d been able to concentrate on is how he could never, never find Aang, at least not until they’d dealt with the whole mess that is saving the world. And he puts her off balance, somehow—it’s hard for her to think rationally around him sometimes. Probably because she knows he’s so dangerous. Probably because she’s always thinking about all the ways he could destroy their plans and their lives.

But for all the Fire Prince’s evils, she really should have asked him for a map.

Katara doesn’t even know if she’s walking in circles, because all of the trees look the same. She hasn’t found anything to use as a landmark; there’s a remarkable uniformity to the foliage. Not even a river or a pond or a puddle. For an archipelago, the Fire Nation is awfully dry. It’s a shame; she’s starting to get thirsty.

She strains to remember what she can of the Fire Nation’s geography. The largest and westernmost island, the one she’s on now, is crescent moon-shaped, and most of it is coast; if she walks east for long enough, she’ll have to hit the ocean, and it shouldn’t be too far.

At least, that’s what she thought three hours ago. Now, she’s beginning to think this forest might be endless. All she wants is to get out, get her bearings, and find a water source. Maybe a food source, too. Her stomach growls insistently, and Katara sighs. The last time she ate was nearly sixteen hours ago, and the prison’s portions had been the opposite of generous. And then all that bending, and all that running, and now all this walking. She’s going to need food, and soon.

Sokka wouldn’t have any problem finding food if he were here. He’d hunt down the nearest moving animal and cook it and it’d only take him three minutes. Aang would know exactly which plants were edible, and which ones had medicinal properties, and which ones made the best tea. And Toph would’ve gotten them out of this forest three hours ago so it wouldn’t even be a problem.

Spirits, does she miss Toph.

A month ago, she would have laughed if somebody had told her she’d be pining for the stubborn Earth girl. But she does miss her—her strength and resilience, her dry sense of humor, even the way she punches Katara instead of showing affection like a normal person. And she misses Sokka, her big brother, her best friend, who has always had his heart in the right place and who has followed her to the ends of the earth because that’s how much he loves her. And she misses Aang—misses him despite the confusion that overwhelms her whenever she thinks about the last time she saw him. She misses his jokes, and his antics, and the way he lets her take care of him, the way she can protect him like the mother she lost too soon would have protected her.

Katara hates being left alone with her own thoughts.

Invariably, and not for the first time, they drift to Zuko. She hopes he can find his uncle; neither of them are blameless, especially not Zuko, but he’d helped her. They’d worked together, for whatever that’s worth. She knows she’ll never trust him—but it’s hard to hate someone who’d held her hand as they fell six stories in the most daring escape of her life.

She doesn’t like him, but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t still hope he’s okay.

-

Zuko really hopes Katara’s okay.

It’s completely her fault for running off, but the Avatar would never forgive him if he found out Katara had died under Zuko’s—well, not his supervision, but he does feel a little responsible for her. Whatever she said, he still owes her for Ba Sing Se. And the Avatar’s his only shot at any kind of future now. He’d bet everything on a gamble against his father, and he’d lost. Really, he shouldn’t have expected any different. Azula took all of the family’s luck before he could get any.

At least he knows where he is. He had to amble around for a while to get his bearings, but he’d grown up visiting the forest with the rest of the children of the palace, and he knows the surrounding area. The nearest village is modest, and the people won’t ask any questions. He needs food and a disguise before he can make a plan.

The truth is, Zuko has no idea what to do.

He hadn’t let himself think about where he would go if Katara didn’t let him come with her. He didn’t want to distract himself—getting out was the most important thing, and everything would follow from there. That had been his first mistake, but Zuko had never had great foresight. That had always been his uncle’s job. Iroh would know what to do.

But Zuko’s got even less of an idea where his uncle is than he does of the Avatar’s location. The only possible option would be the Boiling Rock, but the Imperial Guard has no reason to move him there, and Zuko hadn’t heard of any plans for it, either. Mai would have told him. Mai knows everything about what’s going on at the Boiling Rock.

Zuko really can’t think about Mai right now.

He strains his eyes and tries to make out anything he might recognize. There’s a signpost far down the road, just before it slopes away into the valley the village should be in; behind it, the western mountain range rises, peaks obscured by roiling mist. If worse comes to worst, he can hide there for the duration of the war until it’s safe to show his face in any of the nations again.

Zuko’s always hated hiding. He hid from his father once, and he hid from his duties to his family and his nation, and he’s still paying for it. It’s hard to atone properly, though, when the only person he can find on the right side of the war is pushing him away for the very reason he’s trying to change.

The hill crests, and Zuko looks down at the village lying in the valley. He vaguely remembers it from before his exile. It’s not a bad place to stop and regroup while he figures out what to do. Maybe someone will have caught word of the Avatar or his uncle, or anyone, really. At least it’s a place to start.

-

Katara is lost.

She is very, very lost, although she’s not sure if that’s even the right word to use since she never had any idea where she was in the first place. She is lost, and hungry, and she’s walked for so long that she’s forgotten how it feels to stand still. There is nothing in the forest, and as far as she can tell, there’s no way out of it, either.

Late afternoon sun filters through the leaves to freckle the ground with spots of light, and the grass sways in the slightest of breezes. It would be pretty if Katara hadn’t spent the past twelve hours staring at the exact same sight. She thinks she might be going in circles, because she’s passed the same massive tree at least a few times by now, but she’s so tired that her thoughts are unraveling.

There’s a river gurgling faintly far away. That, or she’s hallucinating. She’s been walking toward it for as long as she can remember, but it never gets any louder or softer, never gets close enough for her to feel the water’s pull on her chi. Thank the Spirits for the mugginess of the Fire Nation’s summer, she thinks fervently; at least she’s been able to bend a little moisture out of the air and into her mouth when she gets too parched. It might even be enough to liquefy into a whip, or at least a handful of ice darts, if she had to defend herself.

At this point, Katara would almost be glad to see an enemy. It’s better than being alone.

-

Shun Cho is more derelict than Zuko had remembered. The war had taken its toll on the village in recent years; most of the houses on the outskirts are dark, doors hanging open to reveal empty and gutted interiors. It’s barely evening, but he’s the only one outside in the street for most of his walk in.

It’s a jarring difference from the thriving city he’d left behind. There aren’t empty houses in the Capital caldera. If there ever is, some hopeful politician or decorated veteran will have filled the vacancy by the end of the week. And the streets are always full—sometimes too full—of citizens and merchants and soldiers. Zuko’s memories of Shun Cho are hazy, but they’re nothing like this.

There’s one merchant in town, a weathered man with a drooping moustache and tired eyes. His fruit is nearly as wrinkled as he is. When he spots Zuko, he seems torn between optimism and fear.

“Hello,” Zuko calls out as he draws near. He surreptitiously shakes out his bangs so that they cover as much of his scar as they can.

After a prolonged moment, the merchant offers a cautious “hello” in response. Zuko takes it as encouragement and stops in front of the shabby wooden cart.

The merchant seems to have a bit of everything in the way of his wares. There’s the depleted barrel of fruit, and a few cuts of dried meat hanging above it; a small selection of worn but sturdy traveling clothes typical for a Fire Nation peasant is draped over the awning.

Thankfully, the guards hadn’t searched Zuko before they threw him in prison—probably too shy and wary and in awe of being charged with the detainment of the fallen Crown Prince. He pulls his coin purse from the inner pocket of his tunic, trying his best to muffle the conspicuous jangling.

“How much for the tunic and cloak?” he asks.

The merchant glances at the clothes, surprised. He probably hadn’t expected someone attired like Zuko to take an interest in what are essentially very sturdy rags. “Five bronze pieces,” he answers in a leathery voice.

“Five?” Zuko raises his good eyebrow. “They’re worth more than that.”

He pours out twelve coins. The poor man looks like he might faint.

“I’ll take the satchel, too,” says Zuko. “And enough food for a few days. And that dagger, while we’re at it. Is it for sale, too?”

He hadn’t noticed it till now. It looks out of place in the stall, a little shinier than the rest of the merchandise, even covered in a layer of dust and green-brown tarnish. It glints invitingly in the twilight, the dirty gem at its hilt winking an indeterminate color. It’s well made; it’s obvious even through the grime. It doesn’t look of Fire Nation origin, either.

“I’m afraid somebody else has their eye on it,” the merchant mumbles as he fills Zuko’s new bag with packets of dried rice. “They’ve offered me a very fair price.”

“How much?”

“Twenty silver pieces.”

Zuko places five gold coins on the cart. The man freezes.

“Is that enough?”

“I—“ He gulps, peeks at Zuko quickly as if he’ll be reprimanded for looking too long, and then unhooks the dagger from where it hangs. “Are you sure it’s worth that much?”

“I’m sure,” says Zuko firmly.

With trembling hands, the merchant sweeps the coins off the counter and hands Zuko his purchases. The bag is heavier than he’d expected. He’ll be able to travel for a week without stopping on all this food.

When he turns to walk away, the man gasps and Zuko looks up reflexively. The old merchant is staring at his face.

“Prince Zuko,” he murmurs.

Zuko groans internally. “What about him?” he asks brusquely, trying to affect a neutral expression.

The other man lowers his head again. “Nothing,” he says. “Thank you, sir.”

Fantastic. He’ll have to leave the village now before someone calls the army. Still, he thinks as he slips the new dagger into his belt, it was necessary.

-

When Katara sees the huge tree again, something in her falters without her conscious consent. She hasn’t been able to think properly for hours now anyway.

She stops and falls to her knees under the tree.  The trunk is sturdy. Its knobs and whorls dig into her spine. Her head thumps back, and her legs give out completely.

It’s night. She has to rest.

The canopy of leaves rustles above her, and the invisible insects sing. Far away, the river gurgles tantalizingly. The stars are bright and untouchable. There is no breeze.

Just before she falls asleep, Katara wonders where Zuko is sleeping tonight.

-

When it gets too dark to see the road in front of him, Zuko turns off the path and finds a smooth patch of grass. He lights a bush on fire and digs some of the fruit out of his bag and eats it while he stares into the flames. He’ll have to head back into the forest in the morning. It’s just about the last thing he wants to do, but he needs the cover it’ll give him. He has to get out of the Fire Nation as quickly and silently as he can.

The bush burns out quickly, and he’s left in darkness that seems stronger after the temporary light. He stuffs his cloak behind his head and lies back. Sometime while the fire was burning, the air had grown cooler; Fire Nation nights get cold fast, even in the summer. Grass itches at his skin through his clothing. He has to shift and turn too many times until he finds a comfortable enough position, and even then he feels too exposed to relax properly, every crack and rustle turning into the footstep of an elite firebending squadron somewhere between its source and his ears.

He has to stare at the sky for a long time to calm himself down enough to fall into a hazy trance that isn’t quite sleep. Above him, constellations flash and melt together into a huge starry silver mass as his eyesight blurs.

Somewhere, his sister sleeps under the same sky. Somewhere, Mai might be staring out at the same stars. Somewhere, the Avatar rests under the same inky expanse.

Somewhere, Katara is seeing the same sight.

Zuko’s last thought before he finally loses consciousness is to wonder where Katara is sleeping tonight.

Chapter Text

The sun is long risen when she wakes. Too many parts of her body ache when she stands up to identify all of them. Her stomach is a roaring pit and her feet are swollen balloons.

Somehow, she keeps moving.

If she gets to the Black Cliffs by tomorrow, she will only have been gone from them for four days. Not too long. Not too much time wasted. They won’t have to worry too much. They will wait for her.

She repeats this mantra to herself with each painful, mechanical step.

But hope can’t fill her stomach. She’s known plenty of hunger in her life, but never this intensely. It doesn’t fade into the background like other injuries do. The farther she goes, the worse it gets.

When she sees the bush, she thinks she must be hallucinating. It’s just a manifestation of what she is dreaming about. But the small berries hanging from the branches are soft when she touches them.

They are pleasantly sweet when she crams them into her mouth by the handful. Under normal circumstances, Katara would have exercised much more restraint in eating foreign plants, but all she can think of now is quelling the empty growl in her gut.

When it finally stops, she can think of Aang and Sokka and Toph again. She wipes her mouth with the back of her wrist, stands, and goes on.

For a blissful hour, the walk is tolerable again—almost enjoyable. With the breeze in her hair and the ache in her abdomen quenched, she can start to notice the quiet beauty of the Fire Nation forest. The river still rushes by agonizingly out of reach, and no matter how much she wanders, she can’t find it, but at least she’s in a part she hasn’t seen before. The sun’s light slanting through the trees from the west keeps her direction steady. She pulls water off of the blades of grass and twirls it around the fingers of her right hand lazily.

Then the pain hits.

It’s a knife stabbed in her gut by an invisible hand, twisting, ripping her stomach open, and she thinks she falls and scrapes her palms but she can only feel the fire in her belly and the way it is tearing at her from the inside out.

She crawls blindly forward and searches for anything at all that can help her because she needs to stop it, needs to put the flames out now before she combusts—she needs water she needs it right now—

The river’s rushing grows louder and finally—finally—she can feel it in her spirit, feel her chi reacting to the mass of her element nearly close enough to bend, and she reaches out a hand, pushes all of her energy out to meet it and nothing happens. There is no water at her fingertips where it should be and she can’t put the fire out can’t even get it into her mouth to drink—

Suddenly the fire drops away, and she falls into blissful darkness.

-

The day of traveling is arduous. Zuko rises with the sun, eats quickly, and begins walking. It’s incredibly dull, doing it alone; he’d spent most of the past three years running all over the world, but he’d always had his uncle with him. Even in the coldest, saddest, most dire situations, Iroh had always offered Zuko support and companionship, even if Zuko had been too stupid to appreciate it properly at the time. It feels wrong traveling without his uncle now—he would have filled the forest with chatter and warmth.

He knows that Iroh would support what he was doing now, though. If Zuko can’t help the Avatar directly, he’ll help whoever else he can, and the threat his father is posing to the Earth Kingdom is too huge to ignore. There are millions of innocent people in already-crippled Ba Sing Se alone, and the Avatar is just a twelve year old boy—he isn’t infallible. Somebody has to warn them of the coming blaze.

It feels good to have a purpose again. Now if only he could get out of this damn forest and off the main island, Zuko would almost be happy. Almost. It’s a huge forest, though, spanning nearly the entire width of the island from the outskirts of the Imperial Caldera to the Bay of Azulon. He’ll have to walk for a whole day more to get out, and then he’ll have to get a boat somehow. Probably steal it. He’s got money, but it’s not unlimited, and his future is very uncertain. And he’ll have to sail across the ocean alone—the same ocean he’d crossed a thousand times with his crew, but never before alone. And then travel across the Earth Kingdom, and then somehow try to find whatever remnants of a government Ba Sing Se has left, even though everyone he can think of in the Earth government is either corrupt and allied to his sister or hates him for his role in taking over Ba Sing Se in the first place and the Dai Li will be everywhere and this is going to be an absolute disaster. He can tell right now. He’s going to have to come up with a much better plan somewhere between here and the Walled City, or he’ll be trading a Fire Nation jail for an Earth Kingdom one.

At least he’ll have done something. It’s better than hiding. It’s infinitely better than staying in the palace.

The forest is blessedly empty; most of the main island is well populated, but firebenders like fields and wide-open spaces, and the trees aren’t conducive to either farming or industry. Zuko’s not surprised that he doesn’t see another person all day. It’s what he had been betting on. The hours pass slowly; he bends to distract himself, sending tongues of flame to wrap around tree trunks without scorching them. It’s dull, and it’s horrible, and he spends entirely too much time alone with his own thoughts, but he knows he makes good time. The sun falls out of the sky eventually. He doesn’t stop walking for a few more hours, because he’s not tired and he doesn’t see why he should, and the twilight stretches long and hazy over his head.

He’s just beginning to lag when a flash of blue catches his eye. It’s bright in the dusky half-light, and unusual against the endless greens and browns of the forest. At first, he thinks it’s just a trick of the light, but he draws the new dagger out of his belt and advances cautiously.

It slowly takes on a human shape as he draws closer, but it doesn’t move. The color and form are oddly familiar to him. It’s not until he’s standing over the person that Zuko realizes why.

It’s Katara.

She’s limp, her dark skin blanched with a sickly pallor, and she’s curled in on herself. For a terrifying moment, he thinks she’s dead, until he notices that she’s shivering despite the night’s mild chill.

“Oh, spirits,” he mutters.

He doesn’t even think as he leans down and hoists her into his arms. It’s the only thing he can do. She’s surprisingly light, and her breaths come hot and shallow on his neck. Her skin is too warm.

Fire, Zuko thinks. Iroh always taught him that warmth and comfort are the most important things when he was sick. Tea, too, if he can find the right plants in the dark. He saw at least four that could help during the day. It would help if he knew what was wrong with her in the first place, but he’ll have to make do.

He finds a clear spot free of bushes and trees, leans Katara’s limp form against the trunk, breaks off three branches, and torches them. The green wood lights up and snaps, sending bursts of sparks dancing into the sky. Katara doesn’t move.

She’ll be fine, he thinks. She’d been lying there alone for he can’t even guess how long, and she’s alive. She’ll be fine.

At least, he can hope.

-

She feels the fire before she sees it.

Her back is cold, but there’s warmth emanating from somewhere close in front of her. She feels clammy and she can’t stop shaking. Her teeth keep chattering.

There’s something rough but warm like a blanket wrapped around her, and reflexively, she pulls it closer before opening her eyes. There’s a crackling fire and she doesn’t know where it came from. She doesn’t recognize anything, in fact.

It’s about that time her body starts to register the pain, and she has to shut her eyes again as she groans.

Somebody says “Katara?”

She knows that voice too well. She will have to deal with the consequences of it later.

“Water,” she croaks. There’s a rustle and with effort, she forces her eyes open again. Zuko is leaning over her, silhouetted by the firelight, pupils huge and staring at her with an almost genuine-looking concern.

“Hold on,” he says, and then the ground is gone and her head is spinning and she doesn’t understand until her skull thunks against his chest and she can feel his heartbeat on her cheek. It’s mortifying. She tries to protest, but all she can do is cough ineffectually.

He holds her steady, but surprisingly gently and with ease, as if she’s a bundle of sticks. She doesn’t trust him not to drop her—she tells herself—but even through the fever haze she understands enough to see that somehow, for some reason, he had saved her, had built her a fire and wrapped her in his own cloak which smells smoky and rich with spices that make her nose itch, and now he is carrying her to the river.

She cannot consider all this information because finally, finally the water is close enough and he sets her down on the bank. She reaches for it but she is still too weak to move it properly and she is not close enough. It calls. She shrugs off the cloak and slips in, easy as a fish, and then it is all around her and the relief from the burning is instantaneous and beautiful and magical.

The water washes the fever away from her skin, smooths the scratches and burns and bruises off her body, and after long blissful moments she lets herself float to the surface. Zuko is repeating her name in a strange tone of voice, as if he’s not sure if he should be worried. He is breaking the peace. Katara wishes he would be quiet.

He saved her, though, just as much as the water did.

She opens her eyes to show him she is still alive, and he shuts up. Yue is watching them from above. Katara likes this light much better than the flickering orange. It’s purer, more constant. It may hide but it is always there.

Zuko is watching her in silence now. She closes her eyes and shuts him out.

The current pushes tiny eddies around her limbs, wearing down the sore spots, and she breathes deep damp air and relaxes and drops the agony to the riverbed. It falls away in layers—the pain first, then the anger, then the worry and sadness and finally the all-consuming loneliness until all she feels is tranquility. The bending is almost unconscious, her body using her chi to heal the places that need it most, until she knows she is probably glowing and that must be why Zuko is gasping quietly.

Abruptly, her limbs feel heavy and stiff as rock, and she begins to sink. It takes a huge effort to fight her way back to the surface, but just when her lungs begin to burn, strong arms wrap around her and pull her from the river’s grip. Her head breaks the surface and she coughs wetly.

“Are you okay?” Zuko asks.

Katara backs away on her knees. He’s too close to her, his uneven eyes blocking out the moon. “Just tired,” she mutters, and shivers.

“That was stupid,” says the Fire Prince. “You could have drowned. And now you’re going to freeze.”

Katara shoots him the most pointed glare she can manage. “I’m a waterbender,” she reminds him, and siphons the residual moisture out of her clothes, even though it saps away the last remaining bit of her energy. “I can take care of myself.”

“Can you really?”

She hates the challenge in his voice. It’s obvious he sees her as weak, inferior to him, incapable of surviving on her own. Stupid firebender.

“I have until now,” she spits back, and to prove it, pushes herself to her feet. As soon as she’s vertical, she knows it was the wrong thing to do—all the blood rushes from her head and her vision blurs, the world tilting beneath her.

“Hey.” Zuko’s hands are on her again, one on her shoulder and one on her waist, steadying her. She doesn’t even have the energy to push him away. She’s not sure she could have stayed standing if she did.

So she lets him hold her up, lets him murmur “C’mon, let’s get you back to the fire,” lets him wrap the cloak back around her shoulders, lets him guide her through the trees to the place the branches are still crackling. She lets him help her down to sit in front of the flames.

“I’ll make tea,” he says. “I found some leaves for a healing blend. It won’t be very good, but it should help.”

Katara doesn’t say anything. She tries not to look at him, but he’s sitting across the fire from her filling a metal teapot with water from a flask and then holding it between his hands. The metal glows orange. She can smell the tea through the smoke—musky, earthy, tangy.

In silence, he pours it out into two tin cups and passes one to her. Katara studies it suspiciously. The liquid is dark, swirling with leaf fragments, steam curling off the surface. He could’ve poisoned it easily. She has no reason to trust him—not the firebending Crown Prince, not the boy that betrayed her in a cave under Ba Sing Se.

But if he wanted her dead, why had he worked so hard to save her?

It’s not like the situation can get any worse, she reasons. And she’s sickeningly thirsty. The tea is bitter and hasn’t been strained, wet leaves clumping together into grainy sour chunks in her throat, but it’s warm on her hands and her mouth. She sips at it slowly.

Zuko tastes his and makes a face. “It’s better when my uncle makes it,” he tells her apologetically. “It’s supposed to reinforce chi, though. I mean, I couldn’t find all the leaves and things that are supposed to be in it, which is probably why it tastes so bad, although I think I might’ve burned it a little too—sorry about that. It’ll make you feel better.”

“It’s just wet leaves,” says Katara doubtfully.

He chuckles. “My uncle would have a heart attack if he heard you say that.”

Even if it is just wet leaves, it’s comforting and warm, and it relaxes her if nothing else. She’s so, so tired—she’s been tired for days, but finally, she can rest properly. She tries to stay awake, she really does, because Zuko is still sipping his tea and staring at the fire with a pensive look on his face and she doesn’t want to lose her guard around him again (even though there is a small voice in the back of her head getting louder every minute telling her that he’d found her unconscious and alone and he’d wrapped her in his cloak and taken care of her) but she is beyond exhausted. Every part of her body is loose and aching and to try to move would be to die.

Just before she slips back under the waves, she thinks she sees Zuko glance at her. The look in his eyes is indecipherable.

She swears his lips quirk up ever so slightly into a smile, and then she’s gone.

-

Did she say thank you? He thinks she said thank you. At least, that’s what it sounded like.

She’s asleep again, her head slumped over so that her chin bumps against her chest with every small breath. Zuko can’t fault her. That healing she’d done in the river looked intense. She’s an insanely powerful bender for her age. For any age, really, but Katara’s so young.

He should really get some sleep, too, now that she’s out of the worst of her fever and he knows she won’t wake up and attack him in the middle of the night, but he feels responsible for her, like he wants to—no, has to—protect her from any possible threat, whether there’s anything in the forest to threaten them or not.

He stays up.

His eyelids fight him, but he keeps the fire going, keeps one hand on his dagger and the other ready to bend at anyone or anything that comes after her. Katara sleeps peacefully. Her steady breathing never wavers.

He stays like that for hours, but the moon is the only one that sees them. When he gives in, it is with his hand on the dagger and his eyes on Katara.

Chapter Text

Katara wakes like floating to the surface of the ocean. The scene comes to her slowly, and for as long as she can, she clings to the peace still sticking her eyelashes together. Something had happened, she knows, but she’s not sure what, and she doesn’t want to remember for as long as she can. She searches for the last receding threads of sleep, but all she finds is an overwhelming weariness spreading throughout her body.

When she finally opens her eyes, it barely comes as a surprise to find that she’s with Zuko again. A mix of emotions begin to vie for her attention—fear and anger most prominently, as she would have expected, but other things too that she doesn’t want to admit to. Things like gratitude. Things like allegiance.

For the first time, she is seeing him completely unguarded, and for the first time, she can’t imagine hurting him.

What had happened the night before? She remembers the burn of the fever, the rough patch of leaves and the first fade to black. She remembers fire and the water and a cloak and a cup of tea. A cloak that’s still around her shoulders; an empty cup that sits inches from her right hand.

She remembers the warmth of Zuko’s body as he held her like she was something fragile and important.

Katara seriously considers bashing her head on the tree behind her so that she can pass out again and forget everything.

Instead, she rises slowly, stretching out each joint and muscle in her body as she stands up. There’s a vicious crick in her neck from where it hung bent as she slept, but otherwise, she feels miraculously refreshed, powerful and new again. The tea must have worked.

Zuko’s still fast asleep. The fingers of his left hand are curled loosely around the hilt of a knife, and he’s slumped against a tree much like she was a few minutes ago. The sun is high in the sky at his back. He doesn’t look ready to wake any time soon, though. Katara thought all firebenders liked to get up at sunrise exactly, but he must have had a tiring night.

For the slightest second, the scene is familiar. It’s just like a hundred other mornings she’s spent on the run, awakened by Toph to make breakfast while Aang runs through earthbending forms and Sokka snores. This is not so different. The basic situation is the same, even if the Avatar and her brother and her twelve-year-old earthbending master have morphed into a once-evil prince that is not quite her enemy and not yet her friend.

Naturally, Katara makes him breakfast.

It takes some creativity to rekindle the fire, since Zuko obviously doesn’t need to carry spark rocks or matches with him, but she rubs two charred sticks together until they catch. While the flames spread, she turns to the pack Zuko had left lying a few feet away from him. It’s stuffed full of traveling food, dried fruit and noodles and jerky in hastily-wrapped packages, all of it foreign to her. She’s wary of trying it—her past experiences with Fire Nation cuisine haven’t been pleasant—but near the bottom, she finds a packet of grains that look similar to the kind she uses at home to make congee. It smells the same when she heats it in the teapot with water from the river. She never stops to wonder why she’s taking the time to make the Fire Prince breakfast. She can’t think about it just yet.

-

Katara’s stirring something in a teapot suspended over the fire. Her eyebrows are narrowed, her mouth pinched, and she’s staring at whatever she’s cooking with the same ferocity she’s only recently stopped directing at him. Whatever it is she’s so deeply mistrustful of, it smells good.

“What are you doing?” Zuko croaks. She jumps nearly a foot in the air, and the kettle begins to whistle spontaneously.

“Spirits,” she says indignantly. “You nearly gave me a heart attack, you jerk.”

“Are you making breakfast?”

“I’m trying to,” she grumbles.

Huh. Well, that’s new.

Zuko stumbles over to her, still groggy from the few hours of sleep he’d gotten. “It smells good,” he offers.

“What, you expected it would be horrible?”

“What? No! I’m trying to pay you a compliment!” he stutters. He can feel the heat rising too easily to his face. “It smells good and I’m sure you’re a really good cook!”

Katara sighs and shoves a bowl of something thick and hot that looks sort of like stew into his hands. “Just eat. It’ll shut you up.”

It is good. No wonder her brother’s so obsessed with eating. Zuko probably would be, too, if he lived with Katara. He shovels his down, but Katara eats in pensive silence, studiously avoiding his gaze. He can guess easily enough what’s on her mind.

“Listen, Katara,” he finally says when the deathly silence finally becomes too much for him to bear. “I know you don’t want to lead me to the Avatar. I know you still don’t trust me. I get it. But please, just at least let me help you find him. You don’t know the Fire Nation. If you keep going on your own, you’re going to get caught.”

His guess was right. Katara sets aside her bowl and finally meets his stare. “Why did you save me?” she asks.

“Uh.” The question throws him for a loop. He’d expected an argument, another abrupt denial, but not that.

It wasn’t even a conscious decision, really; the only possible thing he could’ve done was to pick her up and bring her to safety. There wasn’t another option.

“I would’ve died,” she continues when he doesn’t answer. “I was really, really sick. I would’ve starved, or someone else would’ve found me, and I would have been out of your way forever.”

“Why would I want that?” he exclaims.

Katara looks away again, searches for the answer in the leaves of the treetops. “I don’t know why you wouldn’t.” Her voice is soft, but firm.

“We’re on the same side now! How many times do I have to tell you?”

“Maybe you’re not on your father’s side anymore. Maybe you’re even on Aang’s side. But why would you be on mine? I’ve been nothing but rude to you—“

“That’s not true,” he interjects. “You try to be, but that’s not how you are naturally. It’s not. You’re nice to me sometimes, when you’re not thinking about it.”

“Well, I promise I’m not trying to be.”

And then Katara smiles at him. A real, genuine, warm smile. Not a sarcastic smile or a wry one. The kind of smile she’d give a friend.

Zuko smiles back, and he knows that something’s changed for the better.

-

Screw it, Katara thinks.

“I’m going to the Black Cliffs.”

As soon as she says it, she’s regretting it, wondering if it might not be a huge ploy after all, but Zuko is nodding seriously and now it’s out in the open and she can’t take it back. Even if he’s lying, she can still take him out herself.

“That’s not too far of a walk,” he tells her. “Two days if we go quickly.”

“Do you know the way?”

“It’s not hard. You just keep going west.” He doesn’t elaborate, but he quirks an eyebrow in challenge. Katara rolls her eyes.

“Sokka was always the one that was good with directions.”

Two days isn’t bad, she thinks. Two days plus the two in prison plus the two she’d spent wandering alone. That’s only six days—a long time, but not too long. Not long enough that they would’ve given up on her. Not Aang; not her brother.

Katara douses the fire and shoves the dirty plates back into Zuko’s pack before standing. “Okay. Let’s go.”

“Now?” The Fire Prince looks up at her with a frown. “Katara, you’re still weak. You need to rest more. You nearly died last night.”

“I can rest when I find my friends.”

“I didn’t save your life just so you can walk yourself to death!”

“I know my own limits, Zuko,” she says.

He looks like he wants to argue further, but Katara shoulders his pack, and he sighs. “Fine,” he mutters. “Tell me when you get tired. I’m not carrying you around if you faint again.”

Without any more explanation, he sets off into the densest area of trees at a rapid pace. He’s out of earshot by the time she mutters “I won’t” behind his back.

-

Traveling with the Avatar’s waterbending girlfriend really isn’t that different from traveling alone. Katara’s an easy companion; she keeps up with his pace and doesn’t try to make conversation. It couldn’t be more different from the transcontinental walks he’d taken with his uncle through the forests of the Earth Kingdom. Iroh wouldn’t stop talking, or singing, or whistling, and Katara won’t even answer his questions with more than a monosyllabic grunt. Which is fine. They don’t have to be friends right away. They don’t have to be friends ever, as long as the rest of her group accepts him. The Avatar will be thankful to him for helping her to safety, and the earthbender, at least, seems reasonable and rational. Katara’s brother might be an issue, especially if she keeps up her vaguely hostile attitude, but they’ll need a firebending teacher one way or another. He’ll do whatever he can to help.

“Are you tired?” he asks Katara for the fifteenth time. For the fifteenth time, she shakes her head, eyes fixed resolutely on the faraway horizon.

“Are you hungry?”

Another head shake.

“Thirsty?”

Another shake, this time accompanied by an annoyed cough.

“Do you want to stop?”

“I’m fine,” she snaps.

Well, it’s the longest sentence she’s said to him since they started walking. Zuko counts it as a success.

“I haven’t been to this part of the forest in forever,” he tells her, because it’s the first thing that comes to his mind. “I mean, obviously, because I’ve been away for so long. Chasing you. Which I’m sorry about, by the way. I know you know that already, but, uh, I kind of owe you a lot of apologies for that. Especially the time with the pirates. And at the North Pole. And in Ba Sing Se.”

The only response Katara gives is a narrowing of her eyes. Maybe talking about all the bad things he’s done isn’t the best idea.

Resolutely, though, he keeps talking. “There were times we worked together, remember? We fought Azula together.”

“What’s your point?”

She sounds bored and exasperated in equal measure. It’s the exact same tone of voice Azula used to use on him whenever he spent too long taking the attention away from her. Hearing it coming out of Katara’s mouth is annoying, but combined with her previous immature silence and the weariness of walking for two and a half days straight and the general frustration Zuko is currently feeling for the world at large, it’s too much.

He stops walking. Katara halts a few paces in front of him, a reprimand already on the tip of her tongue, but he cuts her off before she can say it.

“What is your problem?” he exclaims. “I’m just trying to be nice! Is that so wrong?”

“Nice? Nice?” The waterbender throws her arms wide. “You’re the Prince of the Fire Nation! Maybe you’ve changed sides, maybe you’re trying to help, but never once have you been nice. You are not a nice person. Stop trying.”

“Maybe I am a nice person! You don’t know me, Katara!”

“You don’t know me either!” She’s shouting now, her voice ringing through the forest.

 “And it’s so wrong that maybe I want to? We don’t have to be enemies forever! You’re acting like such a—such a—“

“What?”

“Such a child!”

She glowers at him with a smoldering anger intense enough to rival the Fire Lord’s. “Maybe,” she spits, “it’s because I am. Because we both are.”

“Oh, please. We haven’t been children for a long time.” Children don’t break out of prison on their own, he thinks. Children don’t have to save the whole world by taking down their own families.

“And I’m so wrong for wanting to act like a kid for once in my life?”

As if to prove her point, Katara turns on her heel and stomps off. “That’s the wrong direction,” he shouts as scathingly as he can. She doesn’t answer, but the fog swirling about her head crystallizes into a handful of icy darts that she flicks over her shoulder at him.

After that, he doesn’t try to make conversation for the rest of the afternoon.

-

When they stop, it’s a mutual silent agreement. They reach the edge of the forest just after night falls. Wordlessly, Zuko pulls up short and drops his pack to the ground before beginning to gather dead branches and twigs into a pile.

Katara’s hungry, but Zuko had stopped asking her if she needed food after he’d exploded on her. She’d exploded back, she guesses, but still. It was his fault. He shouted first. He’s been aggravating her all day with his wheedling questions. It wasn’t as if she couldn’t take care of herself, couldn’t tell him if she needed to stop.

She doesn’t want to stop now—she’d rather keep walking for as long as she possibly can, and maybe get to the Cliffs by the next night and finally get back to her friends—but beyond the last sparse fringe of trees in the distance is a wide, flat plain without any form of cover, and she doesn’t want to get lost without the protection of the forest.

There’s plenty of food in the satchel, and while Zuko lights the fire, Katara pulls out the ripest-looking fruit and a half-full package of rice. The only two bowls and the kettle are still sticky and clotted from breakfast, but there’s no river nearby. They’ll have to do. She pours a little of her own water into the kettle.

A shiver runs down her spine as she’s struck by how oddly domestic the scene feels: Zuko stoking the flames now in their makeshift hearth, and her making dinner for them both. Like her mother used to for her father. An adolescent marriage born of hopelessness and necessity.

Her mother and father never fought like this, though. Katara avoids looking at him as well as she can for sitting five feet away from him, awkwardly trying to stir the rice over the fire he keeps under strict control. She can hear him breathing, long and stilted huffs that she recognizes as the breathing patterns Aang tried to mimic the few times he’d attempted firebending. Each time he exhales, the flames flicker a little higher.

She hands him his bowl full of rice and an apple. He nods at her in thanks. The quiet is getting eerie now as the dark becomes absolute, but she’s not going to be the one to break it. Uncomfortable silence is a thousand times superior to having to listen to Zuko ramble on pointlessly—or, worse, having to actually make conversation with him. He’s a convenient and temporary ally, not her friend.

For a long time, the only sounds are the scrape of chopsticks on tin and the crackle of the flames and the song of the insects. When she’s not looking at him, Katara can almost pretend she’s alone, or, better yet, that she’s traveling with Aang and Sokka and Toph and the silence is a companionable one, not a weighty, forced, painful one like the vague truce they’ve held all afternoon.

She should’ve known it wouldn’t last. Zuko sets down his bowl with a loud clink and lets out a long, exasperated sigh.

“Katara, we can’t do this forever.”

“Do what?” She begins to count the rice grains sticking to the rim of her bowl so she doesn’t have to look up.

“This whole silent treatment thing. It’s stupid.”

“Well, what do you want to talk about?” she asks petulantly. She knows she sounds childish, but she couldn’t really care less what he thinks of her.

He sighs again. The sound infuriates her for some reason. “Anything,” he exclaims. “Anything, I don’t care. What’s your favorite color?”

“What kind of question is that?”

“At least I’m trying!” The flames blaze brighter temporarily, and then recede back. “I get that you don’t trust me. You’ve made that very clear. But tomorrow is going to feel a hundred times longer than it has to if it’s anything like today. Polite conversation isn’t a pact of everlasting kinship, okay? I’m not trying to trick you or anything like that.”

She concentrates harder on the last of the grains, because she can feel him looking at her now, feel the heat of those golden eyes on her cheek.

“You don’t have to forget everything I did in the past,” Zuko murmurs. He sounds almost gentle. “Just admit that it’s possible for people to change sometimes.”

People change. She thinks of Jet, of Hama, of everyone who she’d believed was truly on their side only to turn around and stab them in the back. She thinks of the way it felt to watch her brother move across that moonlit clearing against his will with nothing but pure, unadulterated fear shining in his eyes.

And then she thinks of Sokka, and how different he is from the boy that told her girls couldn’t fish. And of Toph, who’d grown into her confidence, who’d blossomed into a smart and compassionate friend. And of Aang—Aang, who hadn’t breathed in a hundred years and then turned from a young boy into the man that could save the world in less than six months.

-

“My favorite color is white.”

“White? Not blue?”

He’s doubly surprised: first that she’d answered the question at all, and second at how she had answered it. He’s not sure white is even a color.

She shrugs. “At home, everything is white. It’s all covered in snow. But the thing is, white reflects other colors. It can be a thousand different colors all at once.”

“Mine is green.”

“Really?” It’s her turn to be thrown for a loop.

“It’s peaceful. It reminds me of my uncle.”

“You must like it here, then.”

“Yeah, actually, I do.” He’s liked the forest since he was young; the Capital City had always been loud and thriving, never an empty place anywhere he went inside the caldera. Out in the forest, it was much easier for him to reflect and actually be able to think away from the constant demands of his family.

“It is kind of pretty,” she agrees. “Prettier than the Earth Kingdom forests. The trees are more elegant.”

“Cherry ginkgoes.” It’s almost an automatic response. At Katara’s questioning gaze, he qualifies “they were my mother’s favorite. You should see the way they blossom in the spring.”

For a moment, he worries that he’s overstepped the boundary of their fragile truce by bringing up his family—his mother, no less—but Katara brushes the comment off quickly. “Believe it or not, I hadn’t actually seen plants growing on land before this year. Only seaweed. I had no idea forests like this even existed.”

“You never left the South Pole?” Zuko gawks. Even before he’d been chased from his home, he’d seen plenty of the Fire Nation and a good chunk of the Earth Kingdom from following his father’s royal entourage.

Katara shakes her head. “Never. There was nowhere to go for a young girl like me. I wasn’t ever supposed to, either. If I hadn’t met Aang, I would have stayed there and married one of the warriors. I probably would have become the tribe’s healer, if the Fire army didn’t get me first.”

“That doesn’t sound very exciting.” He doesn’t address the jab at his nation, partly because he couldn’t respond to it without making both of them angry and partly because he knows she’s right.

“It isn’t. Or it wouldn’t have been. I would have hated it.” A long breath escapes from her lips, strong enough that the flames flicker ever so slightly. “And look at me now. I’ve been to all four nations, I know more about waterbending than most of the Northern Water Tribe’s most powerful benders, and I’m traveling across the enemy’s country on foot with the Crown Prince of the Fire Nation.”

“Ex-Crown Prince,” he corrects.

“Temporarily deposed Crown Prince.”

“There’s nothing temporary about it.”

She stares at him levelly, her cool blue eyes unamused. “When Aang beats your father, who’s going to take over the country? Your sister? That’d just make everything worse.”

“Seeing as Azula is currently the first and only one in line for the throne, yes,” he spits.

“Aang would never allow that.”

“He’s the Avatar, not the emperor of the world! He doesn’t get to overrule two centuries of customs just because he can bend four elements. The people would never accept it.”

“How would you stop her, then?”

Zuko’s been trying to avoid thinking about that very topic. Of course he knows, but he doesn’t want to consider what it means for him and Azula and the nation as a whole if the Avatar does, actually, depose his father.

“There’s only one way to dethrone the reigning Fire Lord,” he says, aware of how heavy his voice has suddenly gotten. “Agni Kai.”

“What’s Agni Kai?”

“A formal duel for honor. The winner is awarded the crown. Traditionally, it’s fought to the death.”

“Oh.” Her mouth drops open into a circle of shock. He can see her mind working, figuring out what he’d already thought about a thousand too many times: either he kills his sister and becomes the Fire Lord, or the war will never truly be over.

Suddenly, his throat goes very dry, and he can’t speak. He swallows convulsively until his tongue begins to work again. “I’m tired,” he says brusquely. “I’m going to sleep. Thank you for dinner, Katara.”

He’s not sure if she tries to say anything else. He turns away from the fire and stretches out on the ground and tries his best not to think about anything at all.

Chapter Text

She dreams they’re under attack. There’s fire dancing around her in a whirlwind of orange, licking at her hands and clothes and hair and there’s so much smoke that she coughs until she thinks her lungs might come out. She can hear perfectly, though—hear shouts ringing through the fire.

“Katara!” yells her brother, and it’s the voice of Sokka the ten year old boy, Sokka, her fearless, brave, big brother reduced to a child by terror. “Katara, Katara,” over and over, and she reaches out, stumbles blindly for him but the flames roar up in front of her fingers and she falls back.

And another voice joins in, Toph’s voice, rising over Sokka’s like a bird in flight—“Katara, help! I can’t see anything!” She opens her mouth to yell back, to say “I’m here, Toph,” but the smoke fills her mouth again and she chokes so loudly she almost doesn’t hear the third voice—almost—but there it is.

“Katara, where are you?” Sokka sounded young, Toph sounded young, but this is the shriek of a child who has lost his mother, the cry of someone utterly and completely lost, and she almost cannot believe that the voice belongs to the Avatar, savior of the world.

She fights through the smoke, through the wall of fire, reaches for the place where Aang must stand, reaches blindly until her burned palm hits flesh. She forces herself through the agony, steps through the fire and falls into a body too tall, too muscular, too warm. Not Aang. Not even Sokka.

When she looks up, all she sees is dull shining gold.

There’s a brief moment where she feels as if she’s falling into the center of the earth, and then her eyes open to a jet of fire shooting across the clearing.

Are they under attack? Did she even wake up? Katara gropes for her water skin until she remembers that the guards took it and she hasn’t had it for days. She kicks off the cloak she’d slept under and forces herself to her knees, scrabbling for anything she could use as a weapon, as another ball of fire careens through the air. It bursts against a scorched rock.

She can’t see the attacker. In fact, she can’t see anyone—except Zuko, when she follows the next blaze back to its source. He has a strangely calm look on his face, determination painted over all his features. His movements are rhythmic, regular, but flow like seaweed in the current. Every few poses, he presses his hands forward and flames explode against the exact same spot on the rock.

Not an attack, then. Just practice. Zuko is turned toward the sun, his face raised to meet the slant of the rays, and for some reason, Katara can’t make herself look away. She’s learned a fair bit about bending over the past few months, but she’s never seen anyone move the way he does—each movement leading seamlessly into the next without hesitation, fluctuating in an elegant dance without a partner. He bends fire like Pakku bent water, shifting his weight and letting the element flow out almost as if it’s an extension of his arms.

 The movements grow faster, the fire coming more often now, and he begins to jump and kick, his brows furrowing further all the time. His soft grunts of effort ring out across the silent clearing. He’s terrifying like this—Katara had seen him fight plenty of times before, but never with this cold and single-minded focus on his target. It almost seems as if he’s shut off all emotion and given himself over completely to the power—not a person, but a conduit for the flames.

Abruptly, he stops, pulls his hands back and presses his palms together and bows deeply towards the sun. When he straightens, his skin gleams with sweat.

He seems surprised to see her awake. Katara doesn’t move, still sluggish from rising out of sleep and a little stunned from watching him practice, and Zuko tilts his head and tentatively waves.

“Good morning,” he calls.

That seems to break the spell. Her limbs free up, and Katara stretches her arms over her head, feeling the tension left between her shoulder blades from the unyielding dirt seep out. Standing is an effort. The ground spins for a moment underneath her.

She can’t stifle a yawn as she makes her way over to Zuko and the campfire he ignited. “Didn’t sleep well?” he asks. His voice doesn’t betray any of the fierceness he’d just displayed.

Katara shakes her head. “I had a nightmare.”

“Do you want to talk about it?”

Zuko’s eyes, shining through the flames.

“I’ll make breakfast,” she mutters.

“Let me do it. Sit down.”

She obeys, though she’s not entirely sure why. Now that she knows the way Zuko moves when he bends, she can see how it’s echoed in all of his movements. The way he pours water, stirs tea leaves, fans the flames with a flick of his wrist—everything is smooth, somehow. He holds himself without the typical confidence she’s seen in other royals like his sister and Yue, but his hunched shoulders contain a more subtle power, one brought on by the hardships of the real world instead of the artificial comforts of a palace.

Too bad they don’t teach Crown Princes how to cook in the Royal Fire Nation Palace. His tea is pretty good, a musky blend that came from one of the packets in his bag, but he doesn’t know how to stir the grains so that they don’t clump together and congeal on the bottom of the kettle, and then he dumps some sort of red powder into it so that the congee forms a burned, spicy mess. Katara knows she’s grimacing as she tries to eat it, but she’s used to the salty tang of fish and dried meat, and whatever he’s spiced it with makes her lips feel puffy and her mouth dry. She sets it aside after three bites and reaches for a bruised kumquat instead.

“Something wrong with it?” Zuko asks. He’s shoveling his own down like swallowing fire is no big deal.

Katara pulls a face and begins to peel the kumquat. “It’s a little hot.”

“Oh. Sorry. Must’ve added too many fire flakes.” As if to make a point, he pours even more of the crimson specks onto his breakfast.

“Ugh.” She can’t help a slight shudder. “How can you eat that?”

“What? It’s good.”

It takes her a second to realize he’s not joking. When she sees how serious he is, she pushes her barely-touched meal towards him. “Here, have mine.”

Zuko eyes her, shrugs, and resumes eating without questioning her. It’s such an indescribably Sokka-like thing to do that her throat convulses. If he was here, he wouldn’t complain about the food, either. He’d eat Katara’s breakfast gladly and probably lick the bowl, too.

How is he going to react to her showing up with Zuko? How are any of them going to react?

“Is there something wrong with that, too?”

Katara startles and looks up. Zuko is gesturing to the fruit she’s been idly rolling between her palms.

“Or are you just not hungry?” he continues. “Is my cooking really that bad?”

“Oh. No. Well, I mean, no, you should leave the meals to me, but I’m just thinking.”

“About what?”

“About my friends,” she says softly.

“Ah. Yeah, sorry. We can get going now.” He begins throwing the remnants of the supplies into his bag. “We’ll be to the Cliffs by this time tomorrow.”

“Thank you.”

The problem is, it’s not getting to the Cliffs that she’s worried about anymore—it’s what happens when they get there.

-

The Fire Nation past the edge of the forest is practically a foreign country to Zuko. He’d thought he knew his country well, especially the main island, but it’s been years and he never spent much time this far out in his childhood. It’s closer to parts of the Earth Kingdom than the Nation he knows—sprawling farms rolling down to the faraway glint of the sea, mountains rising from the mist—but the coloration is different, and nothing seems to be growing, despite the acres of ashy black soil.

Katara is taking it all in with wide eyes. It’s almost a shame they have to go out of their way to avoid any populated areas; the glimpses of farmland and flat empty plains aren’t really representative of his nation’s impressive roads and towns, in Zuko’s opinion, but there’s nothing he can do about that. Katara’s still far too recognizable in her Water Tribe garb, and she refuses to let him buy her clothes more typical of his country. She says it’s because she’ll be with the Avatar again in less than twenty-four hours and a disguise won’t matter then. Zuko thinks she’s just uncomfortable with him buying her anything. At least she agreed to wear his cloak over the bright blue tunic.

“Your country is beautiful.”

Zuko glances over at her. Katara is staring at the mist-topped range of dormant volcanoes in the distance, her mouth slightly open. “The islands were pretty, but this is so…” She gestures helplessly with her hands. “It’s different. I’ve never seen anywhere else like it.”

“It’s my home.” Beautiful isn’t the word he’d think of to describe it—jarring, maybe, or powerful, but after seeing so much else of the world without his father’s tyranny he’s not sure he could say it’s beautiful.

“I can see why you wanted to get back so badly.”

“I was wrong about that, though,” he blurts out. “I threw away three years of my life hunting down the only thing that might restore balance to the world for nothing.”

She doesn’t say anything. Zuko doesn’t expect her to understand. She’d always known which side she was on, always had the support of her brother and her friends and her family. The only person he had was his uncle, and Zuko couldn’t even save him.

Quietly, Katara asks “Why did you leave?”

They crest the slight hill they’ve been working up for the past hour, and below them, the sparse grassy land drops away into a stunning vista of cottages and roads and a black sandy beach sweeping away into the waves. Katara stops abruptly with a sharp intake of breath.

His nation could be beautiful, someday. It could be beautiful again.

“I disagreed with my father,” Zuko says. “He’s planning to attack Ba Sing Se on the day of Sozin’s Comet. He wants to crush the Earth Kingdom the way my grandfather crushed the Air Nomads. I couldn’t stand by and let that happen.”

“Ba Sing Se? But I thought Azula—“

“Occupation isn’t good enough for the Fire Lord. He won’t stop until the whole world is under his power.”

Katara swears. It’s so quiet he barely catches what she says, but it’s still jarring to hear her actually curse. “He can’t do that,” she exclaims.

“Why not? There’s nothing stopping him now.”

“There’s Aang!” she cries. “And me, and the Water Tribe warriors, and the Earth Kingdom’s army, and—Aang is the Avatar, he would never let that happen!”

“He’s twelve years old.”

“You don’t know him—“

“Nobody is infallible, Katara. I know you believe in him, but he’s still human. You’re not even sure where he is right now—“ at this, she makes a sound of protest, but Zuko doesn’t relent—“or who he’s with, or how his training is going. He doesn’t even know how to firebend properly yet, does he?”

“We’re finding him a teacher,” she says, and crosses her arms.

Zuko snorts. “There are five weeks until the comet, okay? Nobody can master one of the elements in five weeks. The other Avatars took years, and they weren’t even trying to fight a war at the same time.”

He’s made her angry again. Great. Katara huffs like she usually does before she storms off, but this time, she casts about for a road to follow before seeming to remember she has no idea where they are.

“He’ll do it,” she mutters. Zuko has to lean closer to hear her. “I know he will. Wait till you see him.”

How is she so stubborn? It’s like trying to reason with a tigerdillo. He’d forgotten what a strong will the waterbender had, but he can’t fault her for it. Faith is all she has left to cling to in a world changing around her every day. Aang is for her what the promise of someday returning home was for him.

“Katara.” He tries to make his voice as gentle as possible. “Believing in something is different from refusing to see all the possibilities. We all have hope for Aang, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t still have backup plans.”

“In case he fails, you mean.”

“I think we’ve all had enough of leaving things up to fate.”

“Is that what you’re doing now?” she asks. “Making backup plans?”

To be honest, Zuko’s still not quite sure what he’s going to do, but at least now he has a place to start. “If you and your team won’t have me, then yes.”

That sets a small frown on her face. “I have to discuss it with them,” she tells him. Maybe it’s just wishful thinking, but he thinks he detects a note of apology in her voice. “It’s not up to me.”

“Of course.”

“I’ll talk to them, though.”

Oh. Oh. Zuko honestly hadn’t been expecting her to take his side ever again.

It looks like Katara’s not the only one who isn’t losing hope.

-

What is she doing?

One week with Zuko, and she’s promising him her support in joining her friends on what is quite probably the most dangerous and important mission in the history of the world? It’s worse than recklessness, it’s probably insanity.

But she can’t take it back. Not now that she’s seen the way his eyes sparked with hope. Katara knows he’s a liar, knows there’s no way on earth or in the Spirit World she could ever trust him again, but nobody can fake an expression like that.

Besides, he wouldn’t have told her his father’s battle plans if he was plotting to cut and run with Aang again, and he wouldn’t still be traveling with her now that he knows where Aang is. It’s obvious that she’s slowing him down. For some reason she still doesn’t understand, Zuko really does believe he’s on their side now.

No matter what he might believe, though, she’s not going to forget Ba Sing Se. She won’t make the same mistake twice.

Zuko leads them on a winding path along hilltops and through scraggly groves of bonsai, circling around the towns in wide arcs. The sea blossoming before them is like a breath of fresh air after days of stuffy isolation in her home during a snowstorm. Relief and energy and hope flood her veins, and she wants to run towards it and not stop until she’s submerged in the familiar cool waves.

“We’ll get there by tonight.”

Startled, she turns to look at him. Zuko, too, is staring at the faraway deep blue. “We won’t make it all the way to the Cliffs, but at least we’ll get to the shore,” he continues. “I don’t know how we’re going to get across, though.”

“Don’t worry about that.” Compared to defending herself from twenty Imperial guards at once, crossing a channel should be a piece of cake. She’d rather do it tonight, while the moon is in the sky and her friends are likely asleep, but Zuko shut that idea down hours ago.

“Right. Waterbender.” He smiles at her, the corners of his eyes crinkling slightly.

Katara is still getting used to the Fire Prince’s smiles. The first time he’d directed one at her, back in the prison, she’d assumed he was just trying to get under her skin. When he smiled at her the night she’d woken up, disoriented and groggy, by the campfire with the taste of sour berries in her mouth, she’d thought he was trying to trick her. Now, she wonders if maybe there isn’t anything sinister behind his loose, cautious grin after all. The Zuko she’d known as her enemy had always been serious—but then, the Zuko she’d known as her enemy hadn’t saved her from death by fever.

As the afternoon grows into twilight and the ground beneath them gradually slopes down to the water, Katara begins to feel a strange sense of contentment that she can’t entirely explain away by the proximity to the ocean. Ever since she’d woken up in the back of the wagon, hands chained together, she’d been anxious. She doesn’t know if it’s the prospect of seeing Sokka and Aang and Toph again so soon or even Zuko’s help, but for the first time, that overwhelming anxiety isn’t consuming her anymore.

It must have brought on a change in her attitude, because for once, Zuko’s attempts at conversation don’t annoy her. When he asks her if she’s looking forward to being reunited with her friends she answers truthfully. “It hurts being apart from them,” she says. “I know that they’re all capable, and smart, and good fighters, but I can’t help but worry, you know? I love them, but none of them have much common sense. I hope Sokka hasn’t burned everything down by now.”

“The Avatar would have stopped him, wouldn’t he?”

Katara frowns. “Like you said, Aang’s only twelve. Sometimes he doesn’t make the…smartest decisions.”

She’s avoided thinking about it as much as she possibly can since it happened. It hasn’t been hard. Amidst the confusion and fear and desperation, she hasn’t had much time to mull over what Aang did on top of the submarine. But now it’s pushed its way to the forefront of her mind where she can’t ignore it any longer. Heat rushes to her cheeks, and she feels intensely uncomfortable inside her own skin. She needs time to sort out exactly how she feels about it. But if there’s one thing they all need and none of them have, it’s time.

“Are you okay?”

“It’s nothing,” she mumbles. “Forget it.”

“No, come on. It’s okay. You can tell me.”

A week ago, she would have lashed out at him for pushing her. Now, she sighs deeply and says “Aang kissed me before the invasion and I don’t know how to feel about it.”

“Why? What’s so strange about that?”

Katara raises an eyebrow. A look of realization dawns across Zuko’s face.

“I thought you knew he liked you. It’s sort of obvious.”

“Well, not to me,” she retorts with a bit more venom than is strictly necessary.

“Ah, yeah. That would make things difficult.” Zuko lapses into silence for a moment, his eyes fixed somewhere on the fading horizon. “Do you want to…date him? Whatever that even means right now.”

She throws her hands up. “It might be the end of the world! I don’t have time to think about these things!”

“That’s exactly why you need to think about them. We could die at any minute, you know.”

“Oh, that’s great advice.”

“Hey, I left my ex-girlfriend at home without saying goodbye and the only explanation I gave her was a letter. I’m not exactly an expert on relationships either.”

“Your ex-girlfriend?”

Zuko runs a hand through his hair. His expression is pained. “Mai. The girl with the knives. I think you’ve met her.”

“You’re dating her?”

“Dated.”

He doesn’t look sure at all about this decision. He’s fiddling with the dagger at his hip, fingers playing over the hilt, and his eyes are vacant.

“You really liked her,” Katara says softly.

His fingers still on the dagger. “Yeah. I did.”

-

Mai is still on his mind when they reach the shoreline. It’s achingly similar to Ember Island. He hasn’t heard the waves in weeks, and looking out at the ocean, he can almost pretend he’s still there and Mai will come out any moment and tell him she can’t stand Ty Lee and Azula’s constant chattering and he’ll put his arm around her and they’ll stand in the silence that always felt better when he was sharing it with her.

The girl standing next to his is as far from Mai as possible. He can’t bring himself to resent her for it.

“Are those the Cliffs?” Katara asks. He follows her gaze to the dark mass rising out of the water in the distance and nods. There are tiny lights flickering at the top of the shadow, almost like firelight.

Katara raises her hand, fingers outstretched, as if she’s trying to touch the horizon, but notices what she’s doing and lets her hand hang halfway. “We could go tonight,” she whispers. “It doesn’t look that far. I could bend a path. We could be there in an hour.”

“Too risky. They’ll see us coming, but won’t be able to tell who we are in the dark, and they might attack us. And the guards ramp up security along the gates at night since they’re weaker. We’ll leave straight away at dawn, I promise.”

 It’s the only logical choice, but he still feels a twinge of guilt at Katara’s longing expression. Her hand drops to her side, and she turns away. A moment later, the soft clink of the buckles on his satchel meets his ears.

There is no fire for them tonight. Katara doesn’t eat, just lays down on the sand facing the hulking outline of the cliffs and drapes the traveling cloak over her like a blanket. Zuko scrapes together a dinner from the dregs of their supplies and then follows her lead. By the time he stretches out yards away from her prone body, her eyes are still open, focused on the faraway glimmer of firelight.

Chapter Text

Maybe she sleeps that night. She’s not sure. If she does, it’s a restless and uneasy sleep. She drifts between dreams and reality, her mind bridging the gap between the shore and the Cliffs a hundred times. Sokka’s voice weaves in and out and then turns into her father’s. Small phantom arms corded with invisible muscle wrap around her. Two massive gray eyes hang over the shadow of the clifftops where the moon should be when she swims across the channel, but just before she reaches them the sky lightens and suddenly the calm silver catches flame, becomes brilliant gold, and then she’s back on the beach with no one except an unconscious Zuko.

After a few hours of half-dreaming, when the moon is midway through its gradual fall, Katara decides sleep is futile. She watches the cliffs and counts Zuko’s breaths.

It takes an eternity for the sun to show its face. The moment the first ray breaks over the pearl-colored water, Zuko sits up. Katara is on her feet within seconds.

“Sleep well?” he asks.

“No,” she replies shortly. “Let’s go.”

Somewhere in the back of her mind, her body is trying to tell her that it is hungry, it is tired, it doesn’t want to bend an ocean away on an empty stomach and three questionable hours of sleep, but Katara pushes away everything but the thought that it is a matter of minutes until she will be back with Sokka, with Toph and Aang, and she’ll finally be able to stop worrying about how much rest they’re getting or if they’re staying out of trouble. She’ll sleep when she finds them again. Appa’s saddle is comfortable. Sokka will have food. They’ll take care of her, just like she takes care of them.

So she doesn’t use her chi to bend the water into an ice floe just large enough for two people, she uses the thought of how it will feel to wrap her arms around Sokka and bury her face in his chest once again.

“Get on,” she tells Zuko. He hesitantly places one foot onto the floe and slips, his hands shooting out to catch himself on her shoulder, but he finds his balance soon enough. When she glances back at him, he nods.

It should be hard work, bending the water under them to create a series of waves that buoy them across the channel, but Katara is working on pure adrenaline and nothing is registering in her muscles except raw energy. Zuko is silent as she reaches, pulls, pushes back and reaches again. His hand is still on her shoulder. Strangely, she finds it comforting. A firebender isn’t much help in the middle of the sea, but it still feels like a small reassurance. He’ll back her up, enemy prince or not.

It takes more time than she’d thought to reach the rocky strip of sand at the bottom of the cliffs. She maneuvers the floe around the outcrops sticking up through the waves and onto the thin beach, where she staggers to a stop, the last of the power the moon had given her fading away. Exhaustion threatens the corners of her vision, but she is so close. Fifteen minutes. Less.

Zuko’s hand is still on her shoulder, and he comes to stand behind her. “Are you ready?” he asks.

Even though she’s exhausted, she manages to smirk. “Are you?”

-

No. He’s not. He’s more nervous than he’s ever been in his life.

Alright, maybe not ever. He was pretty terrified during that failed Agni Kai. But still, the prospect of meeting the Avatar not as enemies or as hunter and prey, but as allies, is nerve-wracking. And the rest of Katara’s friends will be even worse. The little earthbending girl is powerful, and he’d made the mistake of underestimating her before.

“Let me talk to them first,” Katara is saying as they pick their way up the steep hill. There’s a winding path cut out of the rock, and it’s a difficult climb; she looks dead on her feet. He can tell she hasn’t been eating or sleeping well, and the sickness is probably still in her veins, but he can’t tell her to slow down or take better care of herself. It’s not like she’d listen to him, anyway. “They’ll be taken off guard if you show up with me. They might attack you. Sokka can be dumb like that sometimes, especially when he’s worried. And Aang might jump to conclusions. Hang back until I explain everything to them first.”

All he can do is swallow past the lump in his throat and nod.

The path levels out as they reach the top, and Katara’s back stiffens, her steps faltering. “I remember this,” she says slowly.

Before he can say anything else, she is running, and in moments her form has passed out of his sight behind a huge outcrop of rock. Zuko continues at the same pace. He concentrates on his breathing, tries to calm his racing thoughts.

The grass is growing longer and denser here. It tickles his shins. Katara told him to wait, but he just has to see them. If he stops walking, he doesn’t think he’ll be able to start again. He rounds the rock obscuring his vision and suddenly, the ground drops away into the sea. From here, it looks like an ocean of flames, ignited by the sun’s early orange rays.

He doesn’t have to look long to realize something is wrong.

There are no signs of a camp, or of anyone, for that matter. There are no voices and no sky bison and no Avatar. Instead, Katara is kneeling on the grass, bent double, and as she draws nearer, he can hear her sobbing.

Oh, spirits.

-

She was wrong.

They aren’t here. Sokka is not here, Toph and Aang and Sokka are not here, they are Spirits know where and wherever that is it is not here, it is not with her. It could be halfway across the country. It could be in a prison under the Imperial City. It could be in the Spirit World. It could be anywhere and she could spend years searching and she wouldn’t find them and she doesn’t have years, she has five weeks.

She was wrong. Now she is alone.

There is no bottom in her stomach, all of her blood pouring to her feet and she thinks she is crying but she can’t think past the constant deafening beat of the word alone alone alone on the inside of her skull. They are not here and she does not know where they are and she was wrong and now she is alone.

The longest she has ever been apart from Sokka is nineteen days, when their father took him on an ice fishing trip when he was twelve and she was ten. She was terrified that he was going to fall through the ice and freeze to death, and no matter what her Gran-Gran said to try and convince her he was absolutely safe, Katara still cried herself to sleep every night. Never before in her whole life has she not known where he is.

Now, he really could be dead and she wouldn’t know.

They are the closest friends she has ever known—no, more than friends, they’re her family. What are they going to do without their mother? Who is going to heal Aang’s reckless scrapes and cuts, who will talk Toph out of her rock tents during her moods, who will comfort Sokka when he is lonely and homesick? Who is going to take care of her?

There are tears staining a wet patch onto her skirt. She wraps her arms around her stomach and rocks forward and tries to shut out the feeling that she is falling and she has no idea if there is a bottom to hit when she stops.

There are footsteps. For the slightest second, she thinks that maybe she was mistaken—they aren’t gone, just out of sight, but they are back now and everything will be alright. But the footsteps aren’t right. Not light enough for Aang’s, not quick stomps like Toph’s, not heavy and languid like Sokka’s. They are hesitant.

“Katara,” someone says, and there is a warm weight on her shoulder. “I’m sorry.”

Fire Prince Zuko is sorry. She could almost laugh.

She doesn’t. She doesn’t do anything. She can’t move, even if she wanted to, because she would break into a million shards and scatter to the wind because without hope there is nothing holding her together at the seams.

So she kneels and sobs until there is nothing left to cry out and her throat is thick and sour with dehydration and her body is wracked with dry angry shivers that slowly, slowly fade off into whimpers until the only sound is her own harsh breath and the exaggerated pulse echoing in her ears. Zuko does not take his hand away. She’s glad. It’s the only thing still holding her to the earth.

-

Zuko makes a fire. He doesn’t know what else to do.

It takes Katara a long time to stop crying. He feels extraneous, like an intruder in a moment he knows she wouldn’t want him to see, but at the same time he knows how it feels to be abandoned and he knows that as hard as it would’ve been for him to admit it, he wanted someone there. They are not quite friends, but right now, he’s all that Katara has.

Eventually, she stops shaking under his palm. She doesn’t look up, though. By now, the sun is fully risen, lighting up the cliffs behind them and warming the air.

He doesn’t know what to say, so he builds a fire, because it’s what he does best.

They are both silent as he works, Katara’s head bowed to rest on her knees and her hands clenched into fists against the grass. Tension is written into every line of her body. He tries not to look at her. It feels like an invasion of her privacy to watch Katara in such a vulnerable state. She probably hates the fact that he’s here right now.

Well, Zuko thinks, it looks like she’s going to have to get used to it.

Katara keeps her head down and her limbs folded into herself until he sits down next to her and taps her on the shoulder as gently as he can. At that, she tilts it infinitesimally to the side so that one of her eyes is peering out at him from behind a curtain of dark hair.

“I made breakfast,” Zuko says.

They’re nearly out of food, but Katara sips her tea slowly, her attention fixed on some point far off in the distance over his head. There are dark circles under her eyes. He’d heard her shifting in the middle of the night; depressed, tired, and on an empty stomach, she’s going to be an insufferable travel companion. If she even stays with him. Maybe now she’ll strike off on her own, or try to do something stupid like invade the Capital. Zuko gets the impression that whatever she decides to do, nothing he says is going to have much of an effect.

The tin cup clanks against the rock, and he looks up. Katara’s gaze is exhausted but steady.

“We have to find them.”

The word we catches his attention, and he has to bite down on a spontaneous smile.

“Where do you think they are?”

Katara blows out an angry breath that makes the fringe of hair framing her face flutter. “I have no idea. We were all out of places to go. If the invasion went wrong, we were going to come back here to train and wait for the Comet. My tribe’s warriors even left their ships behind.”

“What about a firebender? Doesn’t the Avatar still need a teacher?”

“Aang didn’t want to learn firebending.”

He holds back a sarcastic response. Katara is balanced on the blade of a knife, dangerously close to toppling off into the boundless rage he’s seen she has inside her. Provoking her is not going to help either of them.

“Okay,” he says. “Alright. Back to hunting the Avatar, just like old times.”

Her lips twitch into a sour imitation of a grin.

“We don’t have long, though. There are a lot of things that need to happen before the Comet comes.”

“We have to find them before then. They need me.”

“It’s important,” he agrees evasively. “But so is warning the Earth Kingdom about my father’s plans. Something could have happened to them. I’m not saying something did—“ he backtracks hastily when Katara’s brows furrow—“but it’s possible. We can’t leave a whole country’s fate up to chance.”

“The Avatar is our priority,” she says through gritted teeth.

“And we have no idea where he is. Katara, we don’t even know where to start. There are five weeks until my father tries to take over the entire world. We could waste time searching for someone who is remarkably good at evading capture or we could save an entire nation from destruction.”

“I’m not giving up on them!” she snaps. “I am never giving up on them! I know you don’t understand loyalty at all but they’re my best friends—Sokka is my brother! I can’t just forget about them!”

He doesn’t understand loyalty?

“I gave up my nation for this!” he seethes. He wants to incinerate something, anything to relieve all the anger coursing through him. “You think I don’t understand? I don’t have a family anymore! I don’t have a home! You’re not the only one that’s scared, so stop being so—“

“So what?”

“So selfish!”

She reels back as if he’d burned her. When she speaks again, her voice is hard and sharp as ice. “I’d rather be selfish than a liar and a deceiver.”

They always end up here. No matter what the argument is, it always finds its way back to this issue, one that Zuko can never fix.

“I’m not going to say I’m sorry again,” he tells her.

“Good. I don’t want you to.”

“But what do you want me to do? There’s nothing else I can do about it! I was wrong, and it was the worst thing I’ve done in my life, but it’s hard to be better when you’re still holding me to my past crimes.”

Katara stares at him for a long, tense moment. He holds himself still, despite the overwhelming urge to pace or fidget or speak or anything to break the horrible intensity of the moment. Time stretches long between them and, not for the first time, Zuko catches himself thinking how hers are the first truly blue eyes he’s ever seen.

Finally, she drops her head and whispers “I don’t know.”

-

The thing is, she wants to forgive him. She wishes they could both move past it—especially because now, it looks like they’re going to be together for much longer than she’d originally anticipated. But when she looks at him, all she can see is his expression as he turned his back on her to join Azula in Ba Sing Se. That same hardened and desperate look that meant “I will do anything for my nation,” the nation that had killed her mother, had killed Yue, had killed her innocence. Zuko’s face is the face of that, and she can’t find a way to separate Zuko the escaped convict who had saved her life from Crown Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation.

“I don’t think there’s anything you can do,” she says slowly. “Nothing I can tell you to do, at least.”

He grunts in frustration. “So what? You’re just going to hate me forever? That’s going to make this whole journey even worse.”

“It’s bigger than just you. Your nation has been ruining my life since I was a little girl. Your soldiers killed my mother.” That seems to get through to him, because he draws back slightly, looking remorseful. “I’m sorry, but I can’t just trust you. Not after everything that’s happened.”

He doesn’t look happy, but at least he seems more satisfied with that explanation. “I’ll earn it back,” he says, as solemnly as if he’s making a vow to the spirits. “And until then, can we try not to have this argument again?”

“Deal.”

“Deal.” He smiles at her, just a glimmer of sunlight. “Now let’s figure out what we’re going to do.”

Neither of them are strategists, but they make a list, the way Sokka would have. Zuko writes it out on a rock with a splinter of charred wood, each of them taking turns to throw out ideas. Katara didn’t expect it to get so long, but once they start, more and more problems rise to the surface—way more than anyone could deal with in five short weeks. Once it’s grown to eight items, Zuko rocks back on his haunches and ponders it.

“This is insane,” he mutters. “We have to prioritize.”

“Finding Aang is the most important,” Katara says immediately.

He nods and writes a number one next to ‘find the Avatar (and friends).’ “Ba Sing Se. We have to warn them. Nobody else knows except the Fire Nation generals and my family.”

“And taking out the Fire Nation forces before they can attack.”

When they’ve numbered all the items, Katara scans the list, wondering how it would ever be possible to even cross half of them off. Some of them—warning the people of Ba Sing Se, getting support for the coming battle from the Northern Water Tribe—don’t seem too difficult, but next to them are phrases like ‘take out Azula’ and ‘depose my father the Fire Lord.’ And find the Avatar, find my uncle, find the Southern Water warriors—find everyone they’ve lost. Looking at the list just makes her feel more anxious.

Zuko, too, is grimacing, mouthing the words to himself. “I think we have to go to the Earth Kingdom,” he says finally. “We can’t stay here, and we can’t find your friends if we don’t know where to look.”

“So you want to forget about them.”

“I want to focus on something we can definitely change. I promise you if we find any information about them, we will drop everything and go search for them. But you know we can’t stay here.”

She does know. She wishes Zuko didn’t make half as much sense as he does.

“Alright.” Katara stands up and shoulders Zuko’s bag. “To Ba Sing Se.”

-

The Southern Water Tribe left their boats anchored in a cove, protected from both waves and sight, but Katara finds them easily. She falters when they come into sight. Their presence is somewhat ominous—if the Water Tribe had made it out of the city, certainly they would have come back for their boats. But she composes herself before he can say anything.

“We’ll need to take the smallest one.” Her back is to him as she walks so he can’t see her face, but the tone is strained. “Most of these need big crews to operate properly, and I haven’t spent a lot of time on them.”

“I captained a boat for three years,” Zuko reminds her.

“That was a steamboat without sails. These are way different.”

Zuko’s seen Water Tribe boats before, but never this many together. There are five moored down to the sand, some with as many as six sails, all made of sleek dark wood. They’re much more elegant than Fire Nation ships, and even the largest is small by his standards, though the ropes and nets running from the masts look unbearably complicated.

“Do you know how to sail?”

“Not really,” she says. With a flick of her wrist, she pulls a wave towards them, bringing one of the boats ashore. “Sokka and my dad have told me a lot about it, though. We should be able to figure it out.”

Zuko stares doubtfully up at the blue canvas sail hanging loose above them. “Are you sure?”

“Do you have any better ideas?”

He has to duck to avoid the wooden beam that comes flying at him. It clips him on the scarred side of his face. “Oops,” says Katara, not sounding very sorry at all.

For someone who claims to never have steered anything larger than a canoe, Katara is pretty good at manning the ship. She seems to know where all the ropes and planks and masts connect and how to maneuver one to adjust another. Within minutes, she’s pulled the sail taut and Zuko’s learned that he will just have to get used to taking orders from her if they’re going to go anywhere. Not that she makes it easy—she throws out phrases like ‘hoist the beam’ and sighs in exasperation when he yells back that he has no idea what a beam is—but he does know what it means when she shouts “anchors aweigh” and raises her arms.

A crashing wave pushes them out of the otherwise-still water of the cove. Katara lowers her arms and looks satisfied.

He takes the wheel, and she joins him at the rail, where she stands still and watches the rest of the boats recede into the black mass of the cliffs behind them. The wind is strong, though, and it doesn’t take long for them to fade into the sun completely, the smoky black smudge swallowed by the fire chasing them out to sea. She mouths something as the last of the land passes out of sight. Zuko doesn’t ask what.

For a moment, she is unbearably still. Then she turns away from the rail with an exaggerated fake grin on her face.

“I guess we should explore, huh?”

-

Water Tribe ships are built for endurance against nature and speed. Sokka had explained it to her many times: they are made of lightweight, flexible wood, double-layered for protection from the vicious sheets of ice and fastened with valuable metal nails that her father has to get by trading with the Earth Kingdom merchant that only visits their tribe once a year. They are structured long and narrow, for agility and something Sokka calls ‘aerodynamics,’ and the sail is wide and hangs over the edge in order to catch the most wind possible. This kind is called a sloop, she thinks. It’s the smallest of her tribe’s sailing ships—one level, one sail.

And, apparently, one cabin.

“We were going to have to take shifts sleeping anyway,” Zuko says. “It’s not like we could just leave the boat unmanned.”

Katara stares at the tiny space underneath the deck. It’s barely even a room, really; just a tiny cabin with a cot in one corner and an ancient stove in another. The floor is covered in coiled nets, buckets, bits of wire, discarded clothing fit for burly adult men, and other personal affects. No food, though, to her dismay. They’re running dangerously low.

“Are we going to have to stop before we cross the ocean?”

“Probably a good idea.” Zuko peers inside the bunker slanted into the wall again, even though they both know it’s empty. “I have no idea how long it’s going to take to get to Ba Sing Se in this thing. And besides, you need new clothes.”

“What? No!” Instinctively, Katara crosses her arms over her chest and glances down at her blue tunic and leggings. True, they’re somewhat tattered, especially after the burns and scrapes of the past week, but they’re some of the few things left she has from home. It’s a reminder of who she is. No matter how far she gets from her family and her tribe, she’ll always be one of them.

Zuko wrinkles his nose in the way she’s come to realize means he would probably be yelling at her right now if he was still half a year younger. “You’re too recognizable. Somebody will call the Dai Li on you the minute we get off this boat.”

“I’ll wear a cloak.”

“You had no problem wearing Fire Nation clothes before, if I’m remembering correctly.”

“Yeah, because I was—“ She bites off her answer before she can say ‘because I was with my brother and not you.’

“It’s not like you’ll stop being Water Tribe just because you’re dressed different.” The ship lurches underneath them, a wave passing by, and Katara steadies herself on the wall. “You can always go back home,” Zuko continues. “Once this is all over, you’ll be Katara of the Southern Water Tribe again.”

It’s hard to miss the bitterness in his words. Katara hadn’t thought of it like that; she almost wants to apologize to Zuko for being insensitive, but before she can even open her mouth, he is brushing past her and back up to the deck.

-

Traveling on the boat is much easier than traveling by foot. Once Zuko gets the hang of it, it’s not hard to steer the small craft, and the waters are nearly deserted. It’s a fast ship, especially with a waterbender manipulating the sea to push them along. They cover more ground in a few hours than they had in half a week of walking.

It’s also easier because they can keep their distance. Zuko stays at the wheel, and Katara stands at the back bending the waves or scrambles up the main mast to stare out at the islands passing in the distance or goes below deck for long stretches of time to do Spirits know what—sleep, hopefully. Without the constant pressure to make conversation, he’s alone with his thoughts.

He had no misconceptions when he stepped foot in the throne room that what he was going to do would be easy, but even so, it’s gone even worse than he expected. Losing Iroh completely, having to break out of a prison and causing a commotion in the process, traveling with—of all the Avatar’s companions—the girl with the justifiably massive grudge against him, were not in his plans at all. One week and he’s destroyed any future he might have had in the world as it is now. Somehow, though, he can’t bring himself to regret it.

There are three years’ worth of mistakes he needs to make up for. This is just the beginning.

The list they made runs through his mind on repeat: find the Avatar. Alert Ba Sing Se. Locate his uncle to teach Aang firebending. Get support from the Northern Water Tribe. Cripple his nation’s forces. Depose his family. A large part of him hopes they don’t get through the first half. Running away from home is one thing, but actually standing up to his father and sister—fighting them, betraying them, other things he doesn’t want to consider—is something he’s not sure he could do. Azula is mad, his father is corrupt, but they’re still his family.

Sooner or later, he’ll have to face them. Zuko’s only hope is that it’s much, much later.

Being back on a boat makes him feel young again, even though everything has changed. He keeps expecting Jee to burst out of the cabin door barking orders or Uncle to come up behind him and offer a cup of tea. Instead, Katara emerges every few hours to check the sails or churn up the waves before delving out of sight again. Twice, she offers him food, but she never stays longer than a few minutes until he’s lost track of the hours; all he knows is that the sun is dipping down in front of them, and slowly, the ocean is swallowing it. Then she comes with a half-full bowl of rice and stays next to him as he eats.

“I can take over,” she offers. “You’ve been up here for a long time.”

“It’s fine.”

He hadn’t noticed, but he is tired; he hasn’t had a peaceful night of sleep since the eclipse. Not that sleeping in a glorified cupboard while the sea rolls under him will be peaceful, but at least it’s better than the ground.

“I like the night,” says Katara. She tugs absently on a dangling rope. Above them, the sail snaps.

“You didn’t sleep much yesterday, did you?” he asks.

“I’ll be okay.”

So he leaves her at the wheel, sailing into the sunset. The sun dwarfs her form like a child staring into a dragon’s mouth, but her blue shines against the dying fire in the sky, steady and strong.

“We’ll find them,” Zuko whispers quietly enough that she never could have heard it over the rhythmic slap of the waves on the hull. “You’ll make it home.”

-

The sea at night is calming. The pattern of the waves, their foam-crested rise and swell and graceful, inevitable fall, is the same all the world over; it’s familiar to her in the way the lullabies her mother used to sing are. The moon is waning into a fingernail-thin crescent, but she is silver and luminescent in the hazy dark sky, no clouds to cover her face. The water turns to diamonds underneath her.

Somewhere, Sokka might be looking up at her too, might be thinking of Yue’s beautiful face set in determination as she gave herself over to the spirit of La. Brave Yue, who had only ever wanted to protect the ones she loved. Brave, lovely Yue, taken too soon from this world by the same people who are about to destroy it.

And the only people left to stop them are a ragtag band of teenagers split across the globe.

Sokka, Katara thinks, wherever you are—please be okay.

Above her, a falling star winks for a split second, fading out just as it crosses the curve of the moon’s tail. Yue will protect him. And Toph and Aang and Sokka will protect each other, just as her and Zuko will have to.

Zuko protecting her. What a strange idea.

But he had already, hadn’t he? Fighting off those guards as she broke open the prison’s window, taking her to safety when she was sick, staying up at night while she slept sometimes in case of attack. And now she’s protecting him in return.

Katara may never trust him, but as far as allies go, maybe he’s not the worst one she could have. Maybe.

Chapter Text

They’re speeding over the crystal waves near Ember Island when he wakes. Katara’s left her post at the wheel and is bending with determination, her forehead covered in a thin sheen of sweat.

“Hey. Sleep well?”

“Decently.” Not entirely true—that’s something he hadn’t missed about living on a boat. “How was it up here?”

“Peaceful.”

Despite her lack of sleep, she does look rested, and her demeanor is noticeably calmer. Rise with the moon, Zuko remembers, and thinks of the North Pole, of the way he didn’t ever stand a chance against her ice at midnight. Still, it’s late morning now, and she’s obviously waning.

“You should take a break. We’re making good time already.”

“I’m fine.” She doesn’t sound very convincing; her voice is thin and flat. The waves rising behind them to push them forward grow a little smaller with each swing of her arm. To be this far already, she must have been amplifying the current for half the night.

“Rest,” he says as firmly as he can. “Make breakfast. I’ll steer.”

Katara looks for a moment like she’s going to keep protesting, but instead she drops her arms and the water falls mid-crescendo with a crash. “I would’ve been fine,” she says.

“I know.”

The waterbender can be strange, Zuko thinks. The strangest thing about her is how similar she can be to him.

He eats with her, sitting on the deck with their backs to the mast and their faces to the morning sun. It’s a humid day, the air thick with evaporated salt, and it clings to his skin and sticks his clothes to his back and sends Katara’s hair curling around her face. A true Fire Nation summer day like the ones from his childhood. He’d always liked Ember Island more than Azula—the palace got too overwhelming sometimes for a child, all that metal and black.

Ember Island, though—Ember Island was light and warmth and old wood and incense and even if they stopped going completely by the time he was eleven, it was one of his favorite places as a child. The water was always calming. For a Fire Nation Prince, Azula had always said, he liked the ocean far too much.

“What are we going to do when we get there?” asks Katara.

Zuko startles slightly. “When we get there?”

“Ba Sing Se.”

“Oh.” He hadn’t really thought about it. He’d been concentrating on getting there first. “Warn the army, I guess. They’ll have to fight off the invasion force again.”

“They won’t listen. We tried to talk to the Emperor before, when there still was an Emperor, and it was useless. We can’t depend on the Earth government for anything.”

“Who else is supposed to defend the city, then?” snaps Zuko. “My dad’s sending the Nation’s entire army, not just one battalion like in the North! A few warriors and benders aren’t going to be able to stop this!”

“I’m not stupid, Zuko.” Katara narrows her eyes at him.

He has got to stop yelling at her if this is ever going to work. They both need to make an effort. “I suppose if we could get the message out to everyone in the city, at least they’ll have the chance to evacuate. At least it’s something.”

“Do you think they’ll believe us?”

“They’ll have to,” Zuko says grimly.

-

The Fire Nation is made up of twelve islands arcing across the ocean like Momo’s tail. Each one is smaller, greener, and emptier than the last, and their boat passes nearly all of them in one day. Zuko says she doesn’t have to work so hard, that the wind is strong enough already, but Katara wants to feel useful, so she churns up waves behind them for as long as she can, only taking breaks when her shoulders complain from the heavy weight of her arms and the ocean and the sky blur together before her eyes.

She can’t help returning to the thought that’s been torturing her ever since the Cliffs, though: that it doesn’t matter how fast they go, because what they are racing towards is not Sokka and Aang and Toph, it is a looming question and a distant promise of violence and bloodshed and maybe, maybe, if they are very lucky a hint of something about where her friends might be. She isn’t even working so hard for the speed—she’s doing it to keep her mind off those thoughts. It works, for the most part, until she goes to sleep and their voices echo inside her skull on repeat—Katara, Katara, help, Katara. All of their voices melding together into a desperate chorus. And Hakoda, Suki, Yue and Jet, Haru, Teo, they all join in until she wakes up after mere minutes with the faces of the dead and lost blurring on the insides of her eyelids.

Sleep isn’t productive anyway. She doesn’t need it.

She bends until she’s not even conscious of the movements anymore. The water seems like it’s getting thicker, or maybe she’s getting weaker, until she realizes the waves have become tiny ripples and she can barely get a grip on them.

All of a sudden, she is laying on the deck and her head is ringing and Zuko is crouching over her, his mouth set in a firm line and his good eye crinkled in worry. “Hey, no, stay down,” he says, and pushes gently at her shoulder when she tries to sit up. “You need to rest.”

She tries to say “I’m fine,” but the words come out garbled.

“You’re going to kill yourself if you keep this up,” he mutters.

He sounds so much like Sokka in that moment that she reaches up to lay a hand on his cheek as reassurance before realizing through her exhaustion-addled haze that the skin under her palm is tough and uneven and too warm instead of familiar day-old scruff.

Zuko jerks back as if he’d been shocked. Katara drops her hand and gasps “I’m sorry,” but he casts his eyes down to the deck and turns the ruined side of his face away.

“It’s fine,” he says roughly, even though it’s obviously not.

“I just—I wasn’t thinking. I’m tired. Really tired. And I was thinking of Sokka, and—“

“You don’t have to apologize.” Zuko runs a hand through his hair. It falls back to his face, his dark bangs obscuring the scar.

Katara tries to concentrate on his words, but all she can think is that he could use a haircut, even though he looks older and more mature like this. “I know you want to do something, but you need to sleep, okay? You’re not going to help either of us if you keep passing out.”

The thing is, she does want to sleep—she’s tired enough now that it actually hurts to keep her eyelids from closing—but she can’t bring herself to face the ghosts in her head, their accusing voices, their empty eyes. She wishes she could rest, but they won’t let her.

Zuko will think she’s weak. Maybe she is. She’s too exhausted to consider it more.

“I have nightmares,” she tells him.

He sighs and looks up at her. “Yeah. Me too.”

Then he disappears, and some time later a cup of tea makes its way into her hands and a cloak that is beginning to feel and smell familiar is wrapped around her shoulders and a voice that is trying its best to be soothing says “Just try. I’ll be here.”

She doesn’t open her eyes again until twilight. Zuko is sitting against the railing, watching the sky.

“Better?” he asks.

Katara smiles. “Yeah.”

-

“We should stop here for the night.”

He’d been counting the islands carefully all day, and the glowing ember to their left is the last one in the Fire Nation archipelago. They’ll have to go ashore to get food for the journey. Once they pass it, there’s nowhere else until they cross the ocean. Zuko had left the village with only enough food for a week, and that was when he assumed he’d be traveling alone. There’s almost nothing left in his satchel aside from the clothes he’d worn in the palace.

“I think I’ve been here before.” Katara peers out at the island as it slowly grows larger. “We stopped on one of these for a few days while Sokka learned swordfighting. Is this where Master Piandao lives?”

“Your brother trained with Master Piandao?

She nods. “Why?”

“Piandao is the best swordmaster in all four nations,” exclaims Zuko. He sounds too eager even to his own ears. “My uncle had to call in a special favor to get him to train me.

“Well, he agreed to train Sokka without any special favors,” Katara retorts, her expression both proud and smug.

From what Zuko had seen, Sokka is only a member of the group because of his sister, a powerless and undisciplined boy among some of the best benders in the world just along for the ride. But there must be more to him than it initially seemed.

“He came to the palace when I was eight. He taught me everything I know about swordfighting.” Instinctively, his hand flies to his back, where he expects to find the handle of a Dao sword. He meets empty air and his own shoulder blade. Without them, he feels naked, defenseless, even though his fire is a thousand times quicker and more destructive.

Almost all of the island’s coastline is deserted, and it’s easy to find a calm spot to moor the boat next to a low, grassy cliff. The water is deep, but a clear cerulean that reflects the emerging stars with the faith of a mirror. Katara uses her ice floe trick to bend them to shore. As much as his fire is a part of him, Zuko has to admit waterbending has certain practical applications and advantages that his element doesn’t. Katara’s getting better at controlling it—the wave deposits them to the edge of the cliff with the precision of a well-trained xirxiu hound.

“I think the town is inland,” she says. “I remember it being in a valley.”

“I know,” Zuko snaps without meaning to.

Instead of fighting back as he’d expected, Katara just draws the hood of his cloak up around her face and pulls the drawstrings tight. “Do you think anyone will recognize us?”

“Not as long as it’s dark and you don’t talk. You know too little about our culture—you’ll give us away.”

“I’m not stupid,” she sputters.

“I never said you were. Just leave the talking to me.”

She takes his orders a little too seriously, staying silent on the short duration of the trek into town. The path is pale sand against the wild grasses lined with obsidian, leading down the cliff and into the dip of the valley at the island’s heart. From above, the town glimmers gently like stars in the water, nestled in the crook of the mountains. It’s an old place, he knows. Quaint, more attuned to the ancient ways than the new. There are no factories or metal mines here. They probably still follow the outdated teachings of Avatar Roku.

“We’re here for food and disguises,” he tells Katara. “If we’re asked, we’re displaced Earth travelers pushed out by the Fire colonists. Not that you should say anything. Leave it to me if someone questions it.”

“What if someone asks me specifically?” she challenges.

“They won’t. Trust me.”

Like Shun Cho, the buildings are mostly quiet residences, but the streets are still bustling despite the hour. It’s not loud in the way the Capital always was—vendors are not shouting their prices, competing with each other to be heard, and the barks of guards are conspicuously absent—but there is a gentler productivity to the sounds: neighbors and friends going about their daily business, chatting as they pick over barrels of kumquats and moon peaches. Their clothing is sturdy and unembellished, plain tunics in muted golds and browns with wide-brimmed rice hats. Even in the clothes of a main island peasant, Zuko will stick out, and Katara even more so in her rich red cloak.

“Stay close and don’t make eye contact with anyone,” he hisses.

He tries to stick to the side streets, but in a town this small, all of the shops and street carts line the main avenue. Lanterns hang from lines strung between garrets, lighting everything with a soft glow that thankfully obscures detail from the faces around them, but Zuko still pushes his bangs to the left side of his face, covering the ruined skin. People here seem to have better manners than Capital citizens, though, or else they’ve learned not to pry, because they turn politely away after a quick glance at Zuko’s hostile expression and Katara’s shrouded form.

The storefronts are uniform dark wood, only differentiated by simple signs hanging over each door. Zuko picks one at random that looks a little less busy than the rest. A chime tinkles as he pushes open the door into a bright interior.

“Welcome,” the woman behind the counter says demurely, and inclines her head. Zuko nods back before pulling Katara to the very back of the store.

“Just stay quiet, okay?” he mutters. “This should be quick.”

Anything she tries to say is muffled by the cloak, but she shuffles a little closer to him in response.

He picked a good store. Everything is dried and packaged, sealed into bags sized perfectly for his satchel. There aren’t many customers, either—on an island this verdant, nobody would choose bland food like this unless they were traveling. Zuko scoops packages into his satchel at random. Katara lags behind, reading over the labels, and behind the dark fabric Zuko knows her eyes are probably wide with curiosity. They must not have places like this at the South Pole. He hadn’t spent much time in shops either until he was exiled—other people had brought him whatever he needed.

“What’s this?”

Katara is holding a clear mesh bag filled with purple-brown objects towards him. The label is small and handwritten in neat calligraphy.

Zuko wrinkles his nose. “Dried rock plums. Put those back.”

“I’ve never seen them before.”

“Well, they’re disgusting. You don’t want them.”

“How do you know that if I’ve never had them?” Katara challenges.

“Because they’re terrible!” He snatches the bag out of her hands and puts it back on the shelf. “Come on, let’s go. I don’t want to spend more time here than we have to.”

She grumbles under her breath, but follows him back to the counter at the front of the store. Zuko adjusts his hair over his scar nervously before approaching the shop helper. “Uh, hello,” he says, lowering his voice and hoping he sounds older than he feels.

“Did you find everything you needed?” the lady questions.

He upends his satchel onto the counter. Packages cascade out in a heap; a few skitter to the ground, where Katara silently reaches down and hands them to him. The woman’s eyes grow large.

“Will that be all?” A vein jumps above her eye.

“Um. Yeah, I think so.” Zuko pulls out his coin purse and pours a handful of coins out. A stupid move, he wasn’t thinking—if possible, the shop hand’s eyes have grown even larger, turned into golden-brown suns in her round face. He tries counting the right amount, loses count twice in his nervousness, and shoves the whole handful at her.

“Here. That’s enough, right?”

She’s peering at him in disbelief now, staring at Zuko too carefully to be comfortable. “Do you want your change?” she asks, her tone shocked.

Behind him, Katara snorts in a way he knows means she’s suppressing a full-blown laugh.

“Keep it.” The food can’t get back into his bag quick enough. He probably misses a few of the packages, but they really have to get out of here now before the lady recognizes him or Katara bursts out laughing or he sets the whole damn place on fire.

He can feel the woman’s gaze on his back as he all but runs for the door, but they make it out onto the street without anyone calling after them, and he sags against the door frame in relief. Katara’s not bothering to hold her giggles in now. She doubles over, the cloak pooling on the street in a great dark mass so she looks like a lumpy wolfbat.

“I see you handle stress well,” she coughs out between peals.

Zuko scowls. “Shut up.”

“You’re a master of disguise. She didn’t suspect a thing.”

“Is this really necessary?”

“Well, was any of that?”

“You are insufferable,” he grumbles. “Come on, we still have to find you a real disguise.”

Clothing shops are more difficult to find. There seems to be only one in the town, but it’s crowded and loud, and after the last incident, crowded is the last thing they need. But after they pass it three times, Katara grabs hold of his arm and stops him.

“We have to go in there,” she says. “We could’ve been done by now if you weren’t so stubborn.”

“It’s busy!” he hisses.

Katara rolls her eyes, and then does something that very nearly makes him set the nearest string of lanterns ablaze: she lowers her hood in the middle of the town’s bustling main street. “Then let me handle this one.”

Zuko had forgotten how strong she is for such a skinny wisp of a waterbender. He can’t do anything but feebly protest as she drags him into the shop by one arm, the other hand clutching the front of the cloak closed tightly over the telltale blue of her tunic. Almost as soon as they set foot in the shop, they’re assaulted by an overly enthusiastic girl in a shade of pink too close to Ty Lee’s signature color for his comfort.

“Hello!” she chirps. “How can I help you two today?”

Katara clears her throat and grins bigger than he knew she could. “It’s my birthday tomorrow, and my boyfriend—“ she jerks Zuko’s arm not too gently, and he winces—“is going to buy me a dress! Right, honey?”

“What—“ Katara tightens her fingers on his wrist, and he swallows. “Uh, yeah. Right. Yes, sweetheart.”

“Aw, that’s so sweet!” the girl coos. “Well, we’ve got Shu Jing’s largest range of fine apparel here—I’m sure you’ll find something both of you will love.” She gives him an exaggerated wink, and Zuko feels blood rush to his cheeks.

“Yes, I’m sure we will.” Katara grins breezily at her and pulls him away, waggling her fingers at the enthusiastic girl over her shoulder. She points at an ornate gold kimono shot through with shimmering gold thread. “Ooh, I like that one!”

“Are you crazy? You’ll never pass for—“

“Zuko,” she hisses, and squeezes his wrist again before slipping her fingers between his.

“Oh. Right.” He clears his throat. “Sorry, honey, but that one looks a little too expensive.”

Katara purses her lips into a pout. “Okay. What about the green one?”

He has to admit, Katara’s plan attracts much less attention than his did. Most of the customers glance at them, smile fondly, and pass right by without another thought. Katara’s dark skin, her blue eyes, her too-expensive clothes seem not to matter to them—or maybe they just don’t notice. Slowly, they work their way to the back of the store, Katara playing her part with a surprising degree of enthusiasm and Zuko trying to keep up. Her hand is small, he notices as she brushes the fingertips of the hand that isn’t holding his across a beaded hem. Small, but very soft.

They manage to lose the assistant quickly and get to the emptier back of the store, where the clothes are plain and cheap, and Katara lowers her voice. “See, that wasn’t so bad, was it?”

“No,” he admits.

Her fingers slip out of his, and she pulls away to rifle through a rack of brown skirts. “Help me out,” she says. “I don’t know what I’m looking for.”

“Something that won’t get you noticed.” Zuko tries to think of what the peasants living in the outermost tier of the Capital used to wear: sturdy, unembellished, lightweight garments. He doesn’t know anything about girls’ clothing—Azula had never been one to play dress-up—and he has no idea what Katara will feel comfortable in, but when he hands her a simple brown wrap top that fastens behind her neck, leaving her arms bare, she nods approvingly.

“And pants. If we’re going to be walking, I’m not going to be wearing one of those horrible short skirts.”

“Fire Nation girls don’t wear pants.”

“Ty Lee does,” Katara points out. “Your sister does.”

Ty Lee and Azula would murder anyone who criticized their fashion choices, Zuko wants to say, but doesn’t.

Katara manages to find a modest pair of knee-length breeches and a maroon sarong to wrap over them. They look secondhand. It won’t help her obviously foreign skin tone, but she can pass as a colonist, maybe, or a mixed-nation descendant. “You have to take your necklace off,” he observes.

Her hand flies to her neck. “No way!” she exclaims, clutching the blue charm protectively. “It’s an heirloom! It’s all I have left of home!”

“It’s so obviously foreign you might as well be wearing a sigh that says ‘I’m Water Tribe, ask me about it.’”

“I’m not taking it off. I’ll feel naked without it.”

“Well, you can’t wear it! It defeats the whole point!”

“I won’t not wear it!”

She’s standing on the tips of her toes, trying her hardest to get in his face and look fierce. The effect is somewhere between mildly imposing and hilarious. The fact that she can’t bend without giving both of them away lessens her authority severely. Still, he’d been doing so well at not angering her. They’d almost been getting along.

Zuko rolls his eyes. “Fine. I’ll buy you another necklace. One that won’t get us imprisoned in a heartbeat. Happy?”

“No.”

“Good.” He stalks off towards the jewelry case.

All of the Fire Nation accessories are vastly different from hers. Most of them are heavy gold, inlaid with expensive red or black gems, and she passes right by them, scowling in distaste. He’s all too conscious of the way the clientele’s eyes are back on them. Tentatively, he lays a hand on the small of Katara’s back, and she stiffens before seeming to remember why it’s there.

“See anything you like?” He bites his lip and adds ‘darling’ to the end of the question when a pair of women glance over curiously.

“Not really.”

Why does she have to be so difficult? “Just choose one,” he mutters. “People are staring.”

Katara scowls at the jewelry as if it’s personally offended her before stabbing her finger at the furthest corner of the case. “Fine. That one.”

It’s a web of fine bronze chains laced together into an intricate choker, touched slightly with tarnish. Five tiny black pearls hang like teardrops at perfectly spaced intervals along the bottom chain. It has to be the oldest and plainest item in the whole case.

“Seriously?” Zuko raises an eyebrow. Katara stares him down without a word. “Whatever. It’s your neck.”

Next to them, the old ladies cough in disapproval, and Katara starts. She reaches up to pat Zuko’s cheek, realizes which side of his face she’s about to touch, and awkwardly pulls away to smooth his hair down instead over the scar. “Thank you so much, sweetie,” she gushes as someone wraps up the necklace for her.

He keeps his hand on her back while the shop girl tallies up the cost. It makes it harder to pay her, but he manages to count out the coins properly this time on the first try while Katara leans into his side and chatters blithely about her ‘birthday plans,’ which apparently include a midnight party at his house and a three-tier mango cake. When the shop girl tells her she’s lucky to have such a generous boyfriend and Katara beams up at him, he only hesitates slightly before pressing his lips to the place where her braid meets the back of her skull. He feels her back go tense beneath his hand.

“Sorry,” he whispers.

Then she has her arms full of shiny red paper and they make it back out onto the street while the assistant waves them out. The moon is up now, the street that much darker without the last of the daylight, and the spaces between the lantern strings hang in shadow that hides them better than any disguise they could come up with. Zuko drops his hand and Katara edges away.

“You certainly got into that role,” she says.

He shrugs. “Well, it worked.”

They duck through the streets like spirits. If anything, the town seems busier now that the sun is down—maybe because the heat is tolerable now, or maybe because the street glows elegantly with a gentle life under the lanterns and shopfronts. The street carts are doing a thriving trade, and everyone is so busy talking to each other that they don’t have time to notice the two dark figures passing from shadow to shadow. They’re nearly at the edge of the town before Zuko glances up and a silvery, familiar flash catches his eye.

“Wait.” He pulls Katara to a stop and stares.

“What is it?”

The cart is surrounded by a crowd three people deep. There are two men behind it, dressed in the simple red robes of students, and the swords drip form the thatched roof and wooden beams.

“Never mind.” He shakes his head. “It’s too busy.”

Katara’s eyes flicker from the sword vendors to his face, where they linger, searching. “Are those Piandao’s?”

“Those are his students selling them.”

“They took those swords you had before in prison?”

“Yeah.”

He’d been trying his best not to think about them, but now it’s impossible to ignore how strange it feels without their weight over his tunic. They’re the only thing he’s had—that’s been entirely his, that no one, not even Azula, had tried to take away from him—since he was nine and he finished his formal sword training, and now they’re locked away somewhere in a dusty back room of the Imperial complex where no one will touch them for generations.

There’s sudden pressure on his arm and he glances down to find Katara tugging on it. “Well, we can’t very well leave you defenseless,” she says firmly, and pulls him out of the shadows.

-

Zuko doesn’t take long to choose his sword. She would’ve thought he’d agonize over them, weighing their benefits, because that’s the kind of person he seems like, but as soon as they get through the dense crush of bodies he’s pointing at a sliver-thin piece of silver and saying ‘that one’ to one of the students.

“Are you sure? That’s a Dao sword, they’re very hard to handle—“

“I’m sure,” Zuko cuts in.

“It’s two hundred yuans.”

He goes slightly pale on the side of his face where the skin isn’t mottled before pouring out what sounds like almost all of the rest of the money in the purse. The student unhooks the sword, and Katara gets a better look: the weapon is slim and tapers into a wicked point that catches the gleam of the lantern light. A tiny black stone lays at the base of the leather grip. It’s half again as long as her arm, but the student handles it as if it’s light as bamboo.

He slides it into a plain scabbard and pushes it towards Zuko.

Then they’re elbowing their way through the final thick of the crowd and trading the lanterns’ light for the stars’ clear glow, and Katara tips her head back and breathes deeply.

“Okay,” she says. “We did it. Okay.”

Zuko doesn’t respond. She looks over. He’s running his fingers absently over the flat of his sword, tilting it to watch the way it reflects shards of starlight.

“I shouldn’t have bought this,” he mumbles. “It’s too expensive. It’s a Piandao sword. I shouldn’t have gone near it.”

The look on his face is an inscrutable mix—anticipation and regret, happiness and loss. He trails his fingers over the sword’s sharp edge before drawing it up and plunging it back into the scabbard that rests loose at his hip. Invariably, Katara thinks of Sokka again and the way he treated his space sword with the same reverence.

“You’ll have to defend yourself somehow.  Now you can.”

“I don’t need an expensive sword to firebend.” He frowns at his feet. “You, though—Katara, you’re not going to be able to bend.”

“Huh? We’re traveling on a ship at sea. Of course I am.”

He shakes his head. “Around people, I mean. If we pretend to be Fire colonists or Earth refugees or anything, you can’t bend water. It’ll give you away in seconds.”

“You want me to stop bending.” Her voice is dull and flat in her own ears.

Zuko sighs. “I don’t want you to. You have to. There aren’t that many waterbenders left, especially not loose in Ba Sing Se—it’d be a dead giveaway.”

Katara looks down at her hands. Her palms are turned upwards, towards the sky, so that moonlight highlights the deep lines etched into the pale brown skin. These hands are the hands of a waterbender, of a citizen of the South Pole. These hands know how to harm and how to heal. These hands are hers, just like the water they shape is hers.

She hasn’t seen the South Pole in a long time. She’s walking through the Fire Nation in a red cloak beside the enemy’s prince. Waterbending is all she has left.

“It’s the only way I know how to protect myself,” she says quietly.

Zuko stares at her—not at her, really, more like through her—as they crest the hill and begin the slope down to the ocean again. He stops suddenly in his tracks and pulls his satchel off his shoulder.

“I knew there was a reason I bought this,” he mutters, rummaging around at the bottom. Triumphant, his hand emerges with something small and gleaming. “I got it in Shun Cho. Take it.”

Katara reaches out. Cool metal brushes her palm, rough with rust but still sharp along the crease of her thumb. A dagger. She doesn’t like to fight at close range—she can be clumsy; her isolated attempts at using Sokka’s sword had damaged her more than anything she was trying to hit. She’d much rather have ice daggers she can send flying across a room at a moment’s notice.

But she doesn’t have ice. She has this old chunk of metal.

Katara rubs her thumb across the glint at the hilt. Her skin comes away smeared with dirt; the bit of glass embedded into the dagger shines blue.

Against her will, she smiles.

“Thank you.” She reaches inside the cloak and slides it into her belt, where her water skins would normally fall. It’s the wrong shape entirely, but the weight is nearly the same.

The temperature isn’t falling, even though the sun set some time ago. It’s just as muggy and warm as it had been all day at sea. When Katara breathes, salt coalesces on her lips. The cloak is too warm, but she keeps it tucked around her shoulders, even though her tunic clings uncomfortably to the small of her back.

They don’t get back on the boat; instead, Zuko goes through his now-familiar ritual of gathering sticks and dry leaves into a pile at the edge of the low bluff. “You should go, um, change,” he says gruffly.

“Oh. Okay.” She finds a secluded spot where the grass grows up to her waist, sheltered by rock on two sides, before dropping the cloak to the ground and for the first time in a week pulling at the tie that keeps her tunic closed. It’s so dirty that she can barely tell it’s supposed to be blue. She hasn’t exactly had time to do laundry like she did when she was traveling with her friends; doing chores when there are only two people to be on guard is much more difficult, and she’d burn before she undresses in front of Zuko.

Now, though, she wriggles out of the tunic and leggings with a twinge of regret before turning to the new clothing. The breeches and sandals are simple, and she manages to fasten the gauzy sarong around her waist with only a bit of trouble, but the top is hopelessly complicated. It seems to tie in two separate places, and she has to pull at it and pick out the knots two or three times before it sits right over her chest. It seems smaller on her body than it looked in the store. Her stomach is bare, which hadn’t bothered her before, but before the only people seeing her on a daily basis were two twelve year olds and her brother.

It’s obvious why Fire Nation women dress like this, though. The fabric is silky and porous, not stifling like her tunic had been. She might not like it, but it has its benefits.

Zuko looks up when she steps into the circle of firelight. He seems startled for a moment, because his jaw works for too long before he says “you look nice” in an oddly rough voice.

“Thanks.” She smooths her hands over the skirt at her hips.

“You, um—“ He looks like he’s blushing a little. “You still look like yourself, though,” he finishes, apologetic. “It might not be enough.”

“Well, there’s not much else I can do.”

“There’s your…” He trails off and gestures vaguely at her head.

She frowns and reaches up. “My wha—oh.”

“You could tie it up, I guess. But girls don’t really grow it that long here. Not peasant girls. Long hair is kind of a status thing. The only people who keep it that long are the royal entourage.”

“Like Ty Lee and Mai.”

“Yeah.” He coughs and looks intensely uncomfortable.

Honestly, Katara should have expected it, after everything else that she’s already had to give up tonight. Compared to her bending, her hair is only a small insult.

“Fine,” she says.

“Katara, you don’t have to—“

“No point pretending to be someone else if I only do it halfway,” she continues wryly. “Besides, it always gets in my face.”

Zuko stands up. His satchel clatters to the ground. “Uh, how do we want to do this?”

“How short does it have to be?”

“For a peasant?” He holds his hand to a point just above his collarbone.

Shorter than she’d expected. Shorter than she’d ever worn it before, even as a child. “I can’t cut it like that on my own,” she says, forcing herself to focus on the task at hand instead of the thought that Water Tribe women do not ever cut their hair above their shoulders. “You’ll have to do it.”

If Zuko had looked uncomfortable before, he looks downright mortified now.

An odd serenity overtakes her body as she walks to the edge of the bluff and kneels, facing out towards the endless expanse of water rolling away into a distant starry horizon. It sings to her, just like it always does, but Katara can’t allow herself to hear it. Water isn’t her element anymore. Not for the next few weeks, at least.

She feels Zuko come to stand behind her. He lifts her hair away from her back with one hand, and then she feels the cold press of his sword against her neck.

Suddenly, she wonders if she was wrong about all of this, wrong to trust him, and any second she will feel the bite of frost into her skin because all it will take is one slight movement and everything she’s worked for will be gone and the last thing she will see is the glint of Yue against the waves—

There is an audible swish, and a weight falls from her shoulders.

Katara reaches up to press a hand to her hair, Zuko’s blade singing as he slides it back into his belt. Her neck straightens automatically without the thick tresses pulling it down. Where she expects to feel coarse tangles, she instead finds a smooth fringe.

Her legs tremble as she stands. Zuko reaches out to steady her before she topples into the ocean. “It looks good,” he offers weakly.

She’s not sure she can say anything. Around her feet, brown locks lie like fallen birds.

“One more thing, though.” Katara’s about to ask what else she has to give when his hands return to her neck. He fiddles with a clasp, and the chains clink softly together until the necklace falls around her throat, the largest pearl settling at the hollow between her clavicles. “There.”

She resists the urge to fiddle with it. She surveys the scene one last time, feeling the wind against her exposed belly, her bare neck, cooling the copper at her throat, before turning her back on the moonlit water and following Zuko back to the fire.

-

She looks strange.

It’s not just her hair, or her clothes, or the lack of waterskins on her belt. It’s all of it together—the way she walks differently now, her head held infinitesimally higher without the excess hair, her shoulders coiled in defense and ready to reach for the dagger she’s strapped to her thigh under her skirt. Together, it works. He barely even recognizes her himself.

Zuko knows that he is an entirely different story. For the most part, he could pass for any peasant Fire youth—except for the scar. Anything he does to hide his identity will be immediately overruled the second someone recognizes that scar. They hadn’t before, in Ba Sing Se, but that was before he ran away from prison and became an international fugitive.

“Katara?” he asks softly. Her back stiffens before she glances over at him.

“Do you remember Ba Sing Se…”

“Well, I can’t exactly forget.”

“No, I mean what you said to me. About…” He waves his hand vaguely in front of the left half of his face. “About being able to heal it.”

“I can’t.” She turns away.

“I don’t mean just because I want you to! Well, I want it gone, of course, but also everyone will recognize me with it and—“

“I can’t, Zuko,” she repeats. “I used the spirit water on Aang when your sister nearly killed him.”

“Oh.”

He doesn’t try to bring it up again. Before they put the fire out, though, Katara leans over him and draws her dagger and hacks at his bangs until they fall to cover the entire left side of his face. It’s far from perfect. He can barely see out of one eye past the dark fringe, and he knows that when he moves too fast, it flutters and the mark is visible again.

“Just don’t give people enough time to recognize you,” Katara offers.

They don’t speak as they haul up the anchor and pull in the ropes mooring the boat to the beach, and when Katara takes her place at the stern, Zuko takes his cue. It’s hot below deck. Katara’s waves are rhythmic; they make a regular pattern of rocking and rolling, and once he gets used to the sensation of the ground no longer being stable again, he fades from the ocean into his dreams seamlessly.

Chapter Text

That night, she becomes the water. At first, she’s bending like she usually does, like it’s written into her muscles: curve, up, twist, straighten, down, push, and curve again, and the waves follow her movements so precisely that she begins to wonder if she is manipulating them or if the ocean is bending her. They become their own cycle—Katara and the ocean, the ocean and Katara for one more night.

It’s not like she’s giving it up forever, she keeps telling herself. Just around other people. She’s done it before. It won’t be so bad—they’ll leave the city soon enough, and then she’ll have all the time left in the world to feel the tides again. Not that that’s very much time, but still.

Zuko comes up at the break of sunrise. She keeps working the waves as he runs through his routine morning forms, sending fire blasting periodically up towards the sun as he jumps and spins across the deck. He keeps pausing to shake his hair impatiently out of his bad eye. It breaks up the flow of his movements. Not necessarily a bad thing, Katara reasons. At least this will stop him from seeming too well-trained.

He makes breakfast, too, before she can say anything about it, and it’s not even bad. He must remember her complaints from last time, because the food is bland, but not spicy like it had been the last time he tried to cook. Katara doesn’t mention it, but when she scrapes her spoon along the rim of the bowl before pushing it away, he ducks his head and grins.

Then he takes the wheel, and for lack of anything else to do, Katara goes below deck to sleep. Zuko has left the single bed neatly made. The corner of the blanket is folded down and the pillow is punched into shape. She slides between the covers and tries not to think about how they smell like a combination of musty spices and smoke that makes her nose itch.

At least the nightmares aren’t so bad this time.

When she finds herself in the thin bunk again, the air is marginally cooler and significantly staler. Nighttime. She’d slept all day. Huh, Katara thinks, and sits up slowly. For the first time in a while, the blood doesn’t rush from her head and leave her dizzy. She feels satiated.

Must be the sea air. It must remind her of home.

She sneezes three times on the way up the stairs, but the scent of smoke still lingers at the back of her throat.

Zuko is standing straight-backed at the pillar, both hands on the wheel, his hair blowing back in the breeze. When her sandals hit the deck, he says “good morning.”

“Tone it down, Mr. Sarcasm,” she retorts. She tugs an empty crate over to where he stands and sits down, folding her legs beneath her. “Where are we?”

“The ocean.”

Katara groans, and Zuko chuckles low in his throat. “No, seriously. Do you know how much farther we have?”

“Not a clue. There aren’t any landmarks out here. I’m just using the sun for direction.”

“What about when it goes down?”

Zuko glances at her out of the corner of his eye. “You rise with the moon, don’t you?”

-

Sometime before dawn, Zuko is jolted awake when his head hits the floor.

It takes precious seconds for his vision to clear and the dancing stars to fade from the inside of his eyelids, during which the ship rocks two more times and pitches everything below deck not secured to a wall or the floor to the left. He rolls into a pile of fishing nets. They tangle around his legs, and he kicks ineffectually, but all it does is wrap them tighter.

There is something very wrong.

He knows by now what Katara’s waves feel like. They are rhythmic, always even, each one the same size and shape and frequency, and none of them are big enough to tip the ship nearly sideways. These are not her waves.

Frustrated, he gives up on kicking and sears through the nets on either side of him before scrambling to his feet. It’s a battle to get to the stairs. Beneath him, the floor seems intent on throwing him into the air or back on the bed. It’s all he can do to snatch his satchel and sword with one hand and one of the rungs of the ladder with the other.

The first thing he notices on deck is how black everything is. It’s not dark—dark can be calm, dark can be the stars and the moon. This is black. Black storm clouds, black roaring waves, black slick wood. And a solitary blinding crack in the void—lightning.

At first, he can’t see Katara anywhere. Panic rises up in his throat. There is water gushing over the rail, but all he can think is that she is not at the stern where she always is, that there is no blue on all the deafening black and Katara is gone.

He screams her name. The water swallows it up as soon as it leaves his lips. It’s lost among the crash and boom and hiss of the tempest. He screams it again, and then again, until his throat is raw and the three syllables ring against the storm: KA-TAR-A.

The deck slides, and his feet go sideways. His desperate fingers catch hold of the mast. It’s so slick that he can barely keep hold. Then there’s a flash of something that isn’t white. He strains his eyes—

She is poised on the slim piece of wood jutting from the front edge of the ship, arms flung outwards as if preparing for an embrace. Her soaking hair streams backwards. Against the colorless sky she is a vision. A powerless spirit.

A wave catches the side of the boat. They lurch to the left. Zuko hugs the mast, and Katara staggers, losing her balance. One foot lands inches to the left of the place the wood ends.

She falls.

Zuko flings himself forwards, shrieking words he doesn’t understand. The ship rights itself but she is not there.

The steering column careens by, the wheel twisting back and forth without direction, and he makes a snatch for it. The polished spoke breaks off in his hand. He hits the bow feet-first. He’s barely pulled himself to his knees when a wall of seawater tumbles over him and for a moment, he loses everything else, his lungs screaming agony into his brain.

He ignores it.

The piece of wood at the front of the ship is thin and jagged. Katara told him it was for ramming and splitting ice floes. It’s just small enough for him to encircle it with his arms. He inches out bit by bit, pulling himself farther until his entire body is wrapped around it, clinging with every bit of energy he has left.

“Katara!”

She is not gone. She’s the most powerful waterbender Zuko has ever met. She is not gone, any moment now she will shoot out of the blackness and disperse the storm with a flick of her wrist because she is Katara and she rises with the moon and this is her element.

Katara cannot drown.

His arms are trembling from hugging the plank. There is a fierce angry roar in his muscles telling him to just let go but he reaches out and pulls until he is hanging over the waves with nothing below him but miles of angry ocean.

He sees her hand.

It is clutching the very slimmest part of the plank. Brown fingers turn white with exertion. Every single vein in his body is telling him to give up but he sees her hand.

“Katara,” he yells again, and this time he hears it, faint against the backdrop of the ocean spirits’ rage:

“Zuko.”

He loosens his limbs just enough that his body pitches over and he is swinging upside down from the plank, and then he pulls himself forwards with his chafed raw knees until he can see her whole body dangling from one thin wrist above the gaping maw of black.

“Hold on!” he shouts. She shakes her head wildly at him. Her eyes are rolling, pupils blown wide against the whites: she is terrified. Her mouth moves. He can make out the words “go back.”

He grits his teeth.

Every inch is an individual battle fought against the wind tearing at his body. Overhead, thunder cracks; lightning sizzles against the waves. Katara’s fingers slip infinitesimally. He fights harder.

Then she is close enough that he can see the way the fingers of her free hand twitch, and how the water beneath her fails to respond aside from the smallest of splashes. He can see the way her now-short hair is matted to her forehead.

His fingers close over her wrist.

“Zuko, go back!” she shrieks. “You’re going to die!”

“So are you!”

“I’m a waterbender, you complete idiot!”

“Then why don’t you do something?”

I am!” she shouts, and with considerable effort, jerks her free arm up. The water beneath them surges and falls flat.

“That’s not—“

“Just go back, Zuko!”

“I’m not abandoning you!”

She opens her mouth to respond, but at that moment, another wave crashes over the both of them and he feels her fingers slip. He clutches them so tight he thinks he might break her hand but the only thing keeping her from tumbling down is him but she is heavy and his arm shoots out and now he can only hold the ship with three limbs threatening mutiny against his brain at any second.

“Let me go.” Her eyes flash with something worse than anger or hate. Resignation.

“That wasn’t the deal,” Zuko says.

Then his grip finally gives out, and they plunge into the arms of the ocean.

Chapter Text

The Spirit World smells like home.

The tang of salt is overwhelming, like the way the village air was thick with it during the thaw season, when for the first time all winter her father and the rest of the men would don their summer furs and storm the tundra for the first hunt of the season. Katara remembers those days as a rush of sunlight and cheering, her grandmother’s arm around her shoulders as Sokka strains to run after the warriors. He would always tie his hair up into a mock wolf tail, even when he had barely enough to pull back. Secretly, she longed to join the thaw hunt, too.

The first time she ever bent, it smelled like this, salt on her tongue and her forehead and fingers. She was barely three. Her mother was chasing Sokka down as he toddled across the snow. She wasn’t watching when Katara, curious, waved her arms excitedly at the sight of a crack in the ice where the sea shone through and promptly fell over as the water shot up to smack her beneath the chin.

Maybe her mother is watching now. Maybe she’s watching her daughter as she is reborn from one world to the next.

It’s warm here, and she’s lying on something soft. She can hear waves breaking gently on a shore. Yue must be here, somewhere, too. Maybe even Jet. They could be waiting for her.

Katara opens her eyes on the afterlife and is mildly disappointed.

Her mother and Jet and Yue aren’t floating above her. In fact, there aren’t any spirits in sight. There’s damp pale sand stretching away from her feet into the foam lapping at the shore and a few broken pieces of wood scattered across the ground.

She takes a careful inventory of her body before trying to move. The muscles ache all over; her skin is chafed raw and itches. She is wearing the Fire Nation disguise she’d died in. In her right hand is something hot, knobby, and tough.

Zuko’s hand, she realizes, and sits up. Immediately, her stomach churns and she keels over, choking saltwater out until her eyes and lungs burn.

Somehow, she’d thought her introduction to death would be more peaceful. If she’s a spirit, then why does she hurt all over like this? Shouldn’t she be more…floaty?

To her right, there’s a wet cough, and Katara struggles to raise her head. Zuko is stretched out on the sand. He’s soaking wet and shaking and morbidly pale, but his eyes are open, staring up at the sky. She scrambles across the sand on her knees until she can get her hands on his chest and pull the water in a shimmering ribbon out of his lungs.

“Where are we?” he asks when he finally stops convulsing.

Katara frowns. “I don’t know. I thought we died.”

Zuko pushes himself to his knees. He glances around, and Katara follows his lead, taking in more of their surroundings. From the sun’s slant, she can tell it’s late in the day; she can’t tell how much time has passed since the last conscious memory she has of falling into an embrace that was familiar and deadly all at once. The sandy ground is flat and stretches featureless in every direction except where it meets the sea. They could be anywhere.

“Did we…” He lets a handful of sand slip through his fingers, grain by grain. They watch it glitter as it falls. “I think we survived,” he says slowly. “I don’t know how, but I think we’re alive.”

Katara nods. “I don’t feel like a spirit.”

“Yeah, neither do I.”

When she stands up, she becomes aware of just how weak she is. Her stomach is in so much pain that it feels like she’s eating herself from the inside out. If the storm was last night, then she hasn’t eaten for a whole day, and after last night—after the struggle with the sheer force of the ocean and the effort of clinging to a ship desperate to buck her off—any last reserves of strength she might have left have run dry.

It hits her then that their boat is gone. The pieces of jagged, shiny wood and scraps of canvas scattered around them are the only things left of the carefully crafted Water Tribe ship—the ship designed for dodging ice and catching fish, the ship that had made its way across the world only to be torn to pieces by the element of its people. It’s gone, and with it, their last hope of a swift passage to Ba Sing Se.

“We need to figure out where we are,” says Zuko.

“How? There’s nothing here.”

“The way we did it in the Fire Nation.” His smile is small, forced, and doesn’t reach his eyes. It doesn’t fool either of them. “We walk.”

They do walk. They do, but it doesn’t feel at all like the forest a mere week ago. There’s something else between them now—they’re bound together by more than pure convenience. If she wanted, before, she could have left. It would have been difficult, but she could have broken away, gone to a town on her own, stolen some money and struck out alone. Now, Zuko is literally the only thing left for her in a place that’s suddenly as unknown to her as the Spirit World. And the way he’d held her hand last night—the way he’d stared at her with naked desperation on his face—that’s something Katara isn’t going to be able to forget.

-

Just before the sun sets, Katara figures out where they are. “It’s a desert,” she tells him, frowning. “It has to be. There’s no water anywhere out here.”

“We don’t have deserts in the Fire Nation.”

She squints at a mountain far off in the distance. It’s the only feature in the entire blank landscape. “Huh. That sort of looks familiar.”

“It’s a mountain. All mountains look the same.”

“No, I’m pretty sure I’ve been here before.” Suddenly, she turns on her heel to glance back at the line of their footprints trailing away through the sand. “The desert in the south of the Earth Kingdom. I went there a few months ago. We found a library buried in the sand.”

“Katara, wait.” But she’s dashing forward, intent on a dune rising just above the rest of the uniformly shining ground. The desert nearly swallows her figure.

An exaggerated sigh accompanied by a puff of smoke escapes his mouth.

When he gets to her, she’s kneeling in the sand, scrabbling through it as if she’s lost something. “I swear it looked like this. There has to be something…look!”

Triumphantly, she rocks back on her heels, clutching a tattered piece of paper. Zuko raises one eyebrow. “And?”

“It’s from the library. It must be.” She thrusts it in his face. It’s yellow, torn in half, and covered in silvery writing in some kind of alphabet he’s never seen before. “Which means we’re in the Si Wong Desert!”

“Are you joking?”

He glances around, desperate to find anything to prove her wrong, but the endless dunes hold no answers. The Si Wong Desert. Out of everywhere they could’ve washed up, it’s the Si Wong Desert.

“Now we know where we are. Isn’t that a good thing?”

“The Si Wong Desert is south of Ba Sing Se. Really far south.”

“How much is really?”

“Days.” His uncle had a map he used to keep in his quarters on the ship; every time he looked at it, Zuko had been astounded by the sheer size of the Earth Kingdom. When they’d lost their crew, he was sure they’d walked all over the entire country, but they’d never been this far south. Never.

“It wasn’t that far on Appa.” Katara frowns.

“Probably because Appa is a giant magical flying bison that doesn’t have to obey human laws of travel.”

“Good point.”

It’s getting cold out. Zuko can feel goosebumps rising on his skin where the still-wet fabric clings; Katara is trying to hide the fact that she’s shivering and not succeeding. The desert is more than it seems, Uncle’s voice says in his head. Warm at day and freezing at night. They are in very, very bad luck.

“We need to get moving,” he says shortly. “I don’t like this place.”

Katara opens her mouth twice, furrowing her eyebrows, like she’s trying to decide whether to say something or not. “We couldn’t really find our way out last time,” she tells him.

“Of course you did. You’re here now.”

“Not without help. Not without sandbenders. I don’t think they’re going to be as friendly the second time around.”

“Fantastic,” he snaps, and falls back onto the sand.

He expects her to yell back like always, but there’s only a thump as she sits down next to him. Her arms curl around her knees. “Sorry,” she says.

Sorry? Katara never apologizes. “For what?”

“I don’t know.” She sucks in a ragged breath. Zuko rolls onto his side to get a better look at her. It’s dark now, twilight, but he thinks he can see moisture glittering at the corner of her eye. “The storm. I should’ve stopped it. I should’ve stopped the waves. I got scared.”

Stopped it? Katara, you’re a waterbender, not a miracle worker.”

She sniffles. “I could have done something, though. I just wasn’t paying attention and I didn’t notice how dark it was getting or how big the waves were and then we were in the middle of it and I tried to stop it but I couldn’t.”

His chest seizes up. An intense and irrational desire to reach out to her, to reassure her somehow, any way he can, washes over him, but Katara looks fragile in this light, like she’ll melt if he tries to touch her. The ghost of a hand brushes over his ruined cheek. “I’ve been saving it for something important.” He reaches out.

And then he remembers the pure disgust on her face as he lashed fire at her feet, and he pulls back.

She’s crying now, head tucked into her dirty sopping knees and hair tangled in curtains around her face and shoulders shaking like they did on top of the cliff, and he thinks of how incredible it is that after everything she has gone through he has only ever seen her cry twice. She’s learned strength, or maybe she’s had it all along. That young girl watching him with ice in her eyes at the South Pole had been strong, but the one next to him on the sand is more than that. She is resilient, determined. Strong and vulnerable.

“You are the most powerful waterbender I’ve ever met,” Zuko says. “If you couldn’t stop that storm, nobody could.”

Katara turns her head to the side. The chips of ice peer out at him from between dark strands.

“Thank you.”

-

The tears are unwelcome, but not unexpected. Knowing Zuko is watching her cry helps them dry up a little quicker. She’s been holding them back for too long. They’re frustration and sadness and loss and longing spilling out onto the sand of an Earth Kingdom desert and they’re probably the only water around for miles and it feels so good to let them fall.

When she looks at him, when she thanks him, he is looking back at her and he looks soft. It’s not a word she’d usually think to use for him—desperate, maybe, or lost, but not soft.

But he is. He’s watching her with a gentleness that she thinks should seem out of place on his ravaged faced but somehow, it belongs there. The lines around his mouth and on his brow aren’t as pronounced; the tension surrounding his eyes is relaxed.

Katara blurts out “Why wouldn’t you let go of me?”

She hadn’t meant to ask him, but it’s been occupying a space in the back of her mind ever since she’d woken up on shore with her hand in his. “You could’ve let me fall.” I probably would have if I was you, she doesn’t add.

Zuko’s jaw works. “I need you to help me find the Avatar. And you’re a strong ally. And someone has to take the watch while I sleep. And it’s not like I could’ve navigated that storm on my own.”

She doesn’t need Toph to tell her that he’s lying.

Toph would ask him for the truth, but Katara doesn’t. A part of her doesn’t want to know. A part of her wonders if even he knows. His gaze ducks away from hers, and he lies back, folds his arms behind his head.

“I don’t think we’re getting any farther tonight.”

“I guess not,” Katara agrees.

The sand is blessedly soft and cool on her neck. She mirrors Zuko’s pose, turning her eyes to the sky. The moon is the barest glint above the single mountain. Tomorrow, it will not be there at all, and her powers will be at their weakest.

“My uncle used to use the stars to guide the way.” Zuko’s voice comes quiet across the heavy desert silence. “I never understood how he did it. He said he could read them, but I could never tell them apart.”

“My Gran-Gran used to tell me stories about them.”

The night is cold, but she can feel heat radiating from Zuko’s skin. His hand had been hot in hers. Almost burning. Like holding her palm over a candle flame, even under the water.

“Do you want to hear one?” Katara asks.

Wind echoes. Then, “I’d like that.”

“Okay.” She puts on her best old-lady storytelling voice and pictures long nights spent at the hearth while Sokka strung together animal teeth on a thread and her father sharpened his sword and snow whispered at the door flap. “Legends say that long ago, a star fell in love with the ocean.”

Zuko shifts. Sand rolls into the folds of her tunic.

“The star was happy with her home in the sky, but every night while her brothers and sisters danced, she would watch the waves from above. She longed to speak to the ocean, to feel something different from the vast darkness, but she had always been told that stars cannot leave the sky. And so she would watch the ocean’s ebb and flow each time she rose into the sky, and admire its strength and beauty and resilience, and she wished she could tell the ocean how lovely it was.

“The other stars noticed one day. They asked ‘Why do you spend every moment watching the ocean? There is nothing there for you.’ And the star replied ‘I did not choose to love it any more than I chose to live in the sky.’ And she said it with such sadness that the oldest and wisest star, the Northern Bride, Aki, came to her and said ‘Come, I will take you to the all-knowing Moon. She may have an answer.’

“And so they went to the Moon, and La asked ‘Who comes here?’ and Aki answered ‘It is one of my sisters, come to ask for your help.’

“‘Ask,’ said La.

“The little star gathered all of her courage. ‘Great Moon, I am in love with the ocean,’ she said ‘I would like to leave the sky to join it below.’

“La sighed a sigh of stardust. ‘Little one, you are made of fire and belong to the air. That which is made of water and earth is not for you.’

“‘I understand,’ said the star. ‘But I feel I shall never live happily away from the ocean. All of my fire burns only for it.’

“And so La turned her silver face to Aki and the little star and told them, ‘I know of a way for you to be with the ocean. But if you leave the sky, you may never return.’

“‘Please tell me,’ the star cried.

“‘When we pass closest to the earth, on the first day of the time of thaw, you must throw yourself from the sky to the water and wait to be caught.’

“‘Thank you, kind Moon,’ said the star, and she waited for the first day of the thaw and watched the ocean each day, filled with excitement.

“On the first day of the thaw, when the sky and the earth are the closest, the little star said her goodbyes to her brothers and sisters. She was scared, but never once did she reconsider. Last, she bade farewell to the Moon, and she blessed her with the light of all the winter nights and sent her on her way. The star gathered up her courage, closed her eyes, and fell.

“Down she plunged, and as she tumbled, she felt herself burning brighter than ever before with the light La had gifted her. She plunged towards the ocean, trembling with excitement, for finally she would meet the one she loved above all. But as she grew closer, she realized the ocean was much, much bigger than she had thought, much bigger than her. However hard she tried, she could not stop her fall.

“The star fell into the ocean that she loved, and no sooner did she feel the first kiss of the water than she understood why the stars and the sea do not touch. She was tossed among the waves, growing dimmer and weaker with each one. She was a small flame, and the ocean was too vast and powerful for her. Soon, she was swallowed entirely in the embrace of that which she loved. But to this day, stars continue to fall in love with the water, and the Moon watches her children leap from the sky with sadness in her eyes.”

Zuko is silent for a very long time—so long she thinks he might have fallen asleep, until she looks over and sees his eyes are open and staring blankly upwards.

“What does it mean?” Zuko asks.

Katara trails her fingertips across the sand, raking miniature valleys out absently as she considers the question. “I guess that sometimes, you might think you want something without fully understanding it. Something that might not be good for you.”

“I think,” Zuko says, “the star was pretty stupid for falling in love with an ocean.”

“It isn’t like she could just choose.”

“I never said she could.”

She rolls her eyes and crosses her arms over her chest. “You just don’t get it.”

He’s quiet again, for even longer than the first time, still focused on a point in the deep violet sky somewhere far above them to the left of the wafer moon. “It was a good story, Katara,” he finally says. He rolls onto his side so that he’s facing her. The good half of his face is pressed against the sand. “Thank you for sharing it with me.”

“Good stories are meant to be shared.” After a moment’s hesitation, she turns too.

“Goodnight, Katara.”

“Goodnight, Zuko.”

Chapter Text

They rise early the next morning to take a quick inventory of what they’d salvaged from the ship over a damp and very salty breakfast. This is all that the ex-prince of the Fire Nation and the Avatar’s waterbending master have to their names: two sets of Fire Nation peasant clothes and a traveling cloak; one Dao Sword and one dagger; a Water Tribe engagement necklace and a piece of junk jewelry; eighteen copper Fire Nation coins; food for two days, the rest ruined by water; and a teapot, a cracked bowl and three chopsticks. It forms a pitiful pile on the dune.

“It’s not very much,” Katara says warily. Zuko shakes his head.

“The coins at least will be worth much more here, but we’re going to need more food. And possibly sleeping bags. Probably a tent while we’re at it. And a water skin for you wouldn’t hurt, and—“

“And we’re in the middle of the biggest desert in the world,” she reminds him. “Let’s get moving.”

They move.

There’s something about the Si Wong Desert, Zuko learns quickly, more than any other place he’s ever been, that produces a certain kind of exhaustion. It’s a hybrid between dehydration, boredom, and despair. The monotony of the dunes stretching out with no end anywhere in sight is one of the most depressing things he’s ever seen; every time they crest one, they glance out eagerly for any sign of a town or a rock or something, but there aren’t even tracks, just a few scraggly cacti that Katara winces at each time they pass one. Eventually, he stops hoping for a town to magically appear and makes his wishes small: that each rise will at least bring them closer to the mountain in the distance.

At least they know they’re headed in the right direction. The sun starts on their right and passes over them to their left as the day stretches out long and unbearably hot. Katara can’t keep track of its path very well, and sometimes she stumbles off the wrong way, but Zuko’s attuned to the sun’s movements much more closely than a Water Tribe citizen. They inch across the barren landscape, too tired to even speak, but at least they move. He knows they do because when he looks back, he can see their footsteps stretching out behin them like a trail of shells on an Ember Island beach.

The worst part, though, worse than the helplessness or even the boredom, is the thirst. Katara had bent as much water from their clothes as she could, but when they tried drinking it, they had to spit it out immediately because of the sea salt’s tang, and it had done nothing but make the thick, gummy ache at the back of his throat worse. Katara was probably suffering even more; she’s never had to go without her water, and she lags behind him, wilting.

They’re not going to make it much farther at this rate. A waterbender in the desert is useless, and a firebender isn’t much better. The Avatar would have been valuable. The earthbending girl at least could have kept the sand out of their eyes. But they are miserably out of their depth.

Katara has one hope: a town he vaguely remembers at the edge of the desert, a place she calls an oasis. She has no way of telling where it is except that it’s south of the mountain. They’ve been south of the mountains all day and have seen nothing. Zuko is starting to wonder if the heat is getting to her head.

If they don’t find something soon, they’re going to die out here. They’ll have escaped one of the best prisons in the world and made it out of a hostile warring nation just to perish undiscovered and alone in a dry, disgusting desert, and their spirits will probably wander the stupid place forever and have no better luck at getting out—

“Zuko,” Katara says in a half-choked voice. “Zuko, look. That’s it!”

She grabs his wrist and finds a sudden burst of energy from somewhere because suddenly they are sliding down yet another dune towards an—oh. Towards a tall pair of weathered wooden gates.

“Misty Palms Oasis,” she gasps. “It’s real. I wasn’t imagining it.”

They skid to a stop at the bottom, catching themselves on the open doors, and Zuko can barely believe that he’s feeling actual solid wood with his own hands again. He’d resigned himself to dying without touching anything that didn’t shift around and slide under his grip. But here it is—a miracle of a town sitting at the edge of nightfall like it had been built just for them to find.

Half-ecstatic and half in disbelief, he wraps an arm around Katara’s shoulders and clutches her to his side. She leans into him for the briefest of moments before seeming to remember who he is and jerking away.

“I guess I can’t wear this,” she says, and tugs the Water Tribe necklace away from her wrist. Her Fire Nation disguise is dusty, but intact, and she’s unrecognizable as the girl everyone’s heard of by now. She considers him for a moment before reaching up to push his hair out from behind his ear to swing down over his eye.

“Perfect.” She flashes him a brief smile. “Let’s go.”

-

Misty Palms Oasis is small, run-down, and a gift from the Spirits themselves.

Just as Katara had convinced herself the town had been nothing more than a mirage, it appeared in the crease of a valley to save them from slow death by dehydration. Some spirit must be watching out for them. Maybe it’s Yue, she thinks, glancing up at the barest sliver of moon.

Once they’re through the gates, the oasis unfolds itself before them: narrow dusty streets, buildings the color of the sand beneath them strewn with colorful panels of fabric, ostrich horses tied up at posts. No street signs—there’s probably not enough here to warrant directions—but the biggest building by far is right across from the entrance. The sign over the door labels it as “the Crystal Spring Tavern and Inn” in an Earth dialect she has trouble deciphering.

“How much money do we have?” she asks, a note of longing in her words.

“Enough,” Zuko says.

There’s music and loud chatter coming from beyond the purple cloth fluttering over the door, punctuated by shouts and cheers. Zuko frowns at the entrance and stops her before she can go in. “Hold on.”

He pokes his head in. When he pulls back, he’s grimacing, and he unfastens his cloak from his shoulders to drape it around hers.

“But it’s so warm out,” Katara whines.

“Believe me,” Zuko tells her, “you’ll want it.” He holds the curtain aside for her. Katara steps through into the dark, hazy interior.

It smells both sweet and sour at once. It’s a scent she associates with the men of the Water Tribe after the night of a festival. These people don’t look like her father and Bato, though. They’re tattooed and shaved and all sharp, somehow, and they move with sluggish, exaggerated movements.

She gulps and pulls the cloak tighter.

“Stay close,” Zuko mutters. Katara nods.

They wind their way through rows of tables and benches full of the bright-eyed travelers. Katara’s all too aware of the way their gaze catches on her and lingers as she passes. Whatever disguise they could come up with, it wouldn’t help them fit in here. They are the youngest people in the place by far—probably in the whole oasis. Teenagers don’t have any reason to visit a tiny town on the edge of the desert. Of course they’re going to attract attention.

Zuko keeps his head down, so she does the same, letting her short hair separate her from them. Most are too distracted by their drinks to care. Still, she feels intensely uncomfortable. We are here to rest, she reminds herself. We are going to get warm food and water and sleep in a real bed.

The innkeeper seems to be a burly, tan-skinned Earth Kingdom citizen, swirling designs shaved onto her skull and metal embedded in her nose and eyebrows, holding court behind the bar running along one wall. Zuko manages to catch her eye and she flashes him a sharp-toothed smile.

“I don’t like this place,” Katara murmurs.

He nods. “Yeah, neither so I, but we don’t really have a choice.”

She’s all too aware of the way Zuko is standing protectively behind her so that she’s sandwiched between his body and the wooden counter, but between him and the rest of the men in this place, she’ll take the lesser of two evils. There’s not enough liquid in the vicinity for her to do any real damage to an attacker. Even if she could, she can’t give them away.

Her hand brushes against the dagger strapped to her thigh, and she relaxes slightly.

The tall woman comes over to them after a few long minutes in which Katara glares pointedly at any of the men who dare to leer at her and Zuko stays stiff as a sword. She leans her elbows on the counter and turns heavy-lidded eyes on them. “What can I do for you two?”

“We need a room for the night,” Zuko says tersely.

She waggles her pierced eyebrows. “You’re a little young, aren’t you?”

“We’re not—“ he exclaims, but the bartender cuts him off with a loud laugh.

“Good for you, kid. I’ll get you a nice, quiet, private one.” She winks at Katara. “Hold on.”

Katara turns to look up at Zuko. He’s staring at a point over her head, his jaw set. “I hate taverns,” he grits out.

“At least it’s not a sand dune.”

He scoffs. “At least the cacti didn’t stare.

The patrons of the bar are staring at them. Katara can feel hair pricking on her arms without even having to look at them. So much for not attracting attention, she thinks.

“Why are they looking?”

“Honestly?” Zuko wrinkles his nose. “Probably at you.”

“What—oh, ew.” Instinctively, she hunches further into herself.

“They’re vagabonds. They probably haven’t seen a pretty girl in months.” He seems to realize what he said at the same time that Katara does, and crimson flush blooms across his cheek and neck. “Wait. I didn’t mean that. Well, not that—I mean, you are—if you want to be—“

“Hey there.”

A heavy hand lands on Katara’s hip. It’s hot even through the fabric of the cloak. With a growing sense of trepidation, Katara looks up into a pair of greenish eyes.

“What are you doing in a place like this, mooncake?” the man drawls. “You’re mighty easy on the eyes for a desert rat.”

“What?” Katara sputters. Her skin is crawling. She judders indignantly away from the invasive hand, but it just follows her movements.

“And what’s up with Mr. Moody over here?” When he jerks a thumb at Zuko, the other men leaning against the bar burst into ugly laughs. Zuko bristles. “I can show you a real good time, sweetheart. Bet you’d like that, huh?”

“Get off of—“ Zuko starts.

Katara has had enough.

“If you don’t take your hands off of me right now,” she hisses, “I will make sure they don’t stay attached to your body. You have no idea what I’ve gone through. Just leave me alone if you want to leave here in one piece tomorrow.”

She doesn’t touch him with the dagger, but he catches sight of it in her grip, inches from his thigh, and it’s enough to make him yank his hands back from her body as if her clothes had caught fire. “Jeez, okay, lady. I’m not looking for any trouble.”

“Yeah, you better not be,” Katara spits. She almost throws in a couple choice swears she’d picked up from Sokka, but the innkeeper returns with a key in her hand and asks “is there a problem?” in a voice ten times more intimidating than Katara could ever muster.

“Not at all,” Katara says sweetly. “Would you please show us to our room?”

-

He really should have expected this, Zuko realizes in hindsight.

“Do you have any rooms that are, um…” Katara’s staring at the one very small bed sitting in the middle of the room, her eyes huge. “Larger?” Zuko finishes. “Maybe with separate beds?”

The lady snorts. “Why, you and your girlfriend have a fight?”

“She’s not my girlfriend!” Zuko howls at the same time Katara exclaims “I’m not his girlfriend!”

“Whatever you say.” She smirks like they’d just told her a bad joke. “And no, we don’t. We don’t get a lot of not-girlfriends around these parts. You still want the room?”

Zuko takes a deep breath and rakes a hand through his hair so that he doesn’t shoot flames at her head.

“Yeah, we’ll take it.” Her eyes gleam as he drops a pair of coins into her hand. She inspects them, squinting at the flame insignia engraved in the copper, and gives him a newly appreciative look.

“Pleasure doing business with you.” She flashes her sharp smile again and slams the door behind her.

Katara sighs in relief and sinks onto the bed. “I hate the desert,” she says feebly.

“Yeah.” He takes a step towards the bed, realizes that Katara is sitting on it, remembers the lady’s sultry wink and the dagger against the creep’s leg, reconsiders, and awkwardly changes direction so that he’s pacing parallel to it. “So, um, that was pretty impressive what you did out there.”

“What did I do?”

“That gross guy that was harassing you. You scared him off. I mean, I could’ve done it for you, but, uh, it was really intimidating, honestly.”

She arches an eyebrow. “Oh, come on. I was raised in the most sexist nation in the world, and I’ve been to all four of them. I can take care of myself, Your Highness.

“No, I know. That’s the impressive thing. You weren’t scared.”

“Who says?” she asks quietly. “There’s a difference between being scared and acting scared.”

It’s dark in the room, the only light emanating from a tiny window high up on the wall, but the shaft of moonlight illuminates half of Katara’s face so that one of her eyes shines wetly. Her gaze is unnervingly steady, fixed on him as she moves back and forth. He remembers when she wouldn’t even look at him for a second.

“I’m going to go get dinner,” he says abruptly. Katara looks away, up to the window, and there’s a strange flash of ache in his throat. “Stay here. I’ll be back.”

The only answer she gives is a nod.

He manages to wheedle two plates of greasy food and an urn of water out of a waitress and, even better, finds a map. It lacks much information besides major towns and landmarks, but clearly labels the edges of the desert, the oasis village, and the channel separating the lower and middle continents of the Earth Kingdom. There’s a whole bin of them rolled up in a barrel with a ‘get to know the SI WONG DESERT’ sign hanging off of it. When he pushes open the door to the room with his hip, Katara has spread the contents of their satchel over the floor and is laboring over the items, separating them out into piles in some sort of arbitrary system Zuko doesn’t understand. She glances up when he enters and sets down the teacup she had been holding.

“We have enough food for three more days,” she announces. “Four, if we skip lunch. Is that enough?”

“I don’t know. See for yourself.” Zuko tosses the map at her feet. She unrolls it and reads as he pours water into the cups, mouthing names to herself. Upside down, it doesn’t make much sense; he cranes his neck to see it the way she does.

“So we’re here,” she mutters, jabbing at a blue spot on the right side, “and we need to get there. Wow, did we really walk that far already?”

“We’ve got even farther to go,” he says grimly.

She grimaces at the paper as if it’ll somehow make the miles fold in on themselves and condense. “Not that far. If we keep up the pace, probably only another day. Right?”

“You want to leave straight away tomorrow?”

“You want to stay here?”

“Good point,” he concedes, and slides her dinner over the dirt floor to her knee.

-

Katara had thought that only Water Tribe boys had stupid made-up rules about being manly, but apparently it’s a problem everywhere in the world.

“You get it half the night, and I get it the other half. It’s only fair,” she exclaims.

Zuko bites his lip. “I’m not kicking you out of the bed, Katara.”

“You’re not kicking me out! We’re sharing it evenly. What happened to first watch, second watch?”

“We’re in an inn. Do we really need a watch?”

“Well—“ she groans and resists the urge to throw her hands up in the air. “Then you take it and I’ll sleep on the floor!”

“That makes no sense!”

“Why not?”

“Because you’re the one who hasn’t been getting decent amounts of sleep because of nightmares.”

Katara hates it when he’s right.

“Seriously, it’s not a big deal. It’s a pretty nice rug.” Zuko stretches out on the floor and breathes deeply. Immediately, he begins to cough, his nose wrinkling as he gags, and Katara can’t stop the tiny bubble of a laugh rising up in her throat before it bursts in her mouth. He looks up at her from under his newly-shorn bangs, sheepish.

“Here, you idiot.” She grabs one of the pillows off the bed beside her and throws it at him. It makes impact with his stomach, and he lets out a soft ‘oof.’ “Have fun with your smelly carpet.”

“I will, thanks.”

The sheets are scratchy, but cool, and it’s absolute bliss to press her cheek against a pillow for the first time since Ba Sing Se. All of the collected aches and tensions radiating over her exhausted body melt away into the mattress. Katara stretches her legs and burrows down under the blanket. The candle on the table flickers out when Zuko waves his hand, and they’re left in only moonlight.

Outside and down the hall, singing echoes from the tavern, but Zuko’s heavy breathing is the only sound in the room. Katara’s left arm is crushed beneath her, and she wants to turn over, but when she shifts, the bed frame creaks too loudly and she winces. There’s a new tension in the enclosed darkness that either hadn’t been there in the desert or she’d been too tired to notice. It’s static, still, oppressive, the two of them so out of place in this room, and her brain can’t stop working even long after her limbs had given up.

If she wasn’t here, she’d probably be on Appa’s back, soaring towards some mysterious island while Toph and Sokka slept. She’d probably be relaxed, maybe joking around with Aang. She’d probably feel safe.

Well, safer, actually.

“Zuko?” she whispers.

“Yeah?”

“Do you regret it?”

“Regret what?”

“Leaving.”

Fabric rustles as he shifts. The question amplifies the tension, and Katara wishes she could grab the words and swallow them back down, but they’re hanging in the air like motes of dust in the moonlight, impossible to catch.

Zuko is quiet for a very long time before he says “No.”

Katara smiles a secret smile into the pillow.

Chapter Text

There’s shouting when he falls asleep, and there’s shouting when he wakes up, his back aching from the floor but still infinitely better than the rollicking berth on the boat or the hot, irritating sand. Katara isn’t moving and her breath is slow and steady, so he tries his best to rise quietly, but the old floorboards creak beneath him when he stands, and she mumbles something before rolling over and blinking her way into consciousness.

Zuko blinks back. “Hey,” he says. “Sorry. I didn’t want to wake you up.”

She stares up at him, hazy and uncomprehending, before shaking her head and yawning. Her hair is sticking up in five different directions. It makes her look more childlike than normal. For a brief moment, she’s only fifteen again, but it’s the eyes of an adult that look back up at him. “It’s okay. I want to bathe before we go anyway.”

“The washroom’s down the hall.” Katara peels the covers back, and he bites his lip. “Um, be careful, though. I don’t know if you can…trust the people here.”

Katara rolls her eyes. “I thought we established last night that I’m perfectly capable of defending myself. Seriously, stop worrying about me, Zuko. It’s kind of creeping me out.”

She breezes out of the room like a summer rainstorm, leaving him shocked and drenched.

When had he started worrying about her so much?

He hasn’t figured it out by the time she comes back in, hair no longer standing on end but lying in damp curls across her skull, and he still hasn’t by the time they leave the inn and stop to fill every available bit of space they have in their bags and pockets with small pouches of water before marching resignedly out of Misty Palms Oasis and into the stifling heat of the desert again. He thinks about it as they walk, Katara squinting at the map and then up at the sun and the never-ending horizon. Not in the prison, certainly—he’d only been preoccupied with getting out—and even taking care of her when she was sick had mostly been out of surprise and instinct than real distress for her health. And not while they were in the forest, while she’d barely said three words to him and it had taken all his willpower not to snap and start yelling at her every time she glared at him. Not even at the cliffs, really. He’d felt sorry for her, but not worried. Not genuinely invested in her happiness.

Somewhere on that open expanse of ocean, Katara had endeared herself to him without even meaning to. He’d stopped thinking of her as a means to his redemption and had started caring.

And she obviously hadn’t.

Then again, he thinks, she’d never betrayed him in the worst possible way minutes after he’d offered to use a magical spirit relic to heal an old cosmetic wound for her. How could he have done that? How could he have thought for even a second that a life with his overbearing father and treacherous sister and a set of dangerous political friends would be better than trying to fix the damage they’d done? Every time his life had been in danger, every agonizing scrape and cut, every exhausting day and sleepless night, he’d take them all over false comfort and security.

If only Katara could understand that, too.

“I think I figured it out,” she calls, triumphant. Zuko starts. She’s turned the map sideways and is staring at it with pursed lips, comparing it to the horizon. “That mountain is here—“ she jabs at the words ‘magnetic center’—“and the oasis is here, so we must be over here, right before the channel. I remember flying over it on Appa. And we’re way beyond the Serpent’s Pass, so we won’t have to deal with that, either. The desert should drop off into a series of canyons soon. If we keep going in this direction, we can skirt around the worst of it, and we should be to the channel by tomorrow!”

“That’s great,” Zuko exclaims. The map had looked like gibberish to him the night before.

For once, Katara’s too excited to snark at him. “It’s nicer there, too,” she tells him as they begin walking again. “It looks a lot like this place I was at with Aang and Sokka, before we even met Toph—the Great Divide. The walk through it might be kind of boring, but it’s easier than trying to get past the sea serpent. Or that cave by Omashu. Wow, I’m glad we don’t have to go through there. When I was there the last time with Aang…” The corners of her mouth turn down a little, and she looks wistful. “There were these really nice traveling singers that helped us through. And Aang and I made the whole cave light up with these glowing crystals. It was amazing.”

“The secret tunnel, right? Uncle used to sing this song about it.”

“No way! The one that’s like secret tunnel, through the mountain—"

Secret tunnel, under the forest,” he joins in.

Katara laughs. “Yeah! Seeeecret—tunnnnellllll.” She throws her arms out and begins shambling to the beat of her own tune, bearing a remarkable resemblance to Iroh after too many cups of cactus wine. “Oh, that is such a great song. I got so sick of it.”

“I had no idea that was a real place. I just thought it was a fable.”

“Nope.” Katara shakes her head. “One hundred percent real. We went through it.”

“Aren’t you supposed to make it light up with the power of love or something?”

She ducks her head. “Sort of, I guess. It was kind of a blur.”

“Why was…” From the way the Avatar looked at her, Zuko had assumed it was a done deal, but Katara is frowning at the ground. Questioning her further would be treading on the fragile surface of this strange truce that’s spontaneously formed between them.

“The canyons, though,” Katara says with a note of desperation. “We’ll be there soon. Once we’re through those, it’s only one more day to Ba Sing Se.”

“Will they be easy to get through?”

She shrugs. “If it’s anything like the Great Divide, it’ll be easy. Just some weird bugs. I bet it’ll be fine.”

-

The scenery shifts so gradually as they walk that Katara barely notices when the first rocks begin to rise out of the sea of sand. The mountain passes from their view to their backs sometime around noon, and not long after, she starts to see the jagged formations separate themselves from the infinite blue horizon. It’s not until Zuko catches his foot on a lip of stone only a few shades darker than the rest of the desert and stumbles that she realizes the canyons are upon them.

The colors around them are changing: the sky readying itself to begin its slow fade into rich cerulean, the sand glowing amber ahead of them, and the ancient massive stones standing proud red and orange, banded with age. The shapes are strange and irregular, pillars and points and holes worn through as if an army of earthbenders had plunged the heels of their hands through in perfect ovals.

Next to her, Zuko sucks in a breath through his teeth. “I didn’t think it would look like this,” he murmurs.

“It’s amazing, isn’t it?” Katara takes a cautious step forward. The ground beneath her feet is shifting less; soon, the sand will fade entirely into rock. “The canyon is up ahead. If we get there now, we can cross before nightfall.”

The rocks grow up around them like a stone forest as they go forward. Katara can’t help but marvel at them. Some of them look like a bender must have carved them, because the shapes are too unusual and beautiful to be coincidental, but there’s no reason for anyone but the hardiest travelers to make it out here and even less for them to waste time messing around with boulders. It almost reminds her of the glaciers at the South Pole: broken, irregular, but smoothed over and shining with a natural beauty impossible to replicate with tools or bending.

One moment, they’re walking, and the next, Zuko’s arm has shot out to block her from taking another step. Katara tears her gaze away from the stone pillars to look down.

Below their feet, the ground drops away into a sheer cliff face plunging down to a dark surface far below. The cleft stretches out in both directions and forward for nearly as far as she can see. It’s punctuated with fingers of stone sticking up almost to the top of the divide.

“I found the canyon,” Zuko says. His hand is clenched into a fist. The knuckles pop white against his skin. “How do we get down?”

Katara considers the side of the cliff. It’s too steep to slide down, but there are enough jagged edges for them to climb. It’ll be tricky. She wishes she had enough water for an ice slide, but everything they’ve got has to be saved for drinking. “Are you up for a little rock climbing?”

Zuko, it turns out, is a fairly adept rock climber. Katara is not.

It takes about three minutes and the rock beneath her left foot crumbling away rather suddenly for her to realize this. Zuko’s already far below her, clambering down the side of the canyon with infuriating ease. His longer legs can span gaps Katara’s can’t.

This was not a very good idea, she thinks. Good going, Katara.

“Doing okay up there?” Zuko calls out.

Katara swallows and clings harder to the stone. “Just fantastic,” she says weakly.

Her arms start to tremble a third of the way down the cliff face. Her fingertips are raw from clutching at the rough edges and bleeding in a few places; her toes aren’t faring much better—the Fire Nation peasant sandals don’t provide much protection. Katara focuses all of her willpower on the movement of one piece of her body at a time: first a foot, reaching out, searching for a foothold, and then an arm to follow before repeating the process on the other side. It’s slow going. She really, really misses Toph right about now.

What makes it worse is that she hears Zuko’s feet hit the ground before she’s even made it halfway. “You’re doing good,” he calls up to her.

Katara grits her teeth. “I don’t need you to tell me that,” she yells back, and edges her right foot out.

She’s finally beginning to get the hang of it when it happens. The ledge she’s holding with her right hand crumbles away into a fine powder just as she moves her right foot down, and suddenly, she’s swaying a hundred feet off the ground with nothing to secure herself and the breeze pulling insistently at her stupid shirt and this is how she is going to die, this time she’s sure of it. Any moment her fingers are going to slip and she’ll die.

“What are you doing?” Zuko shouts.

“What does it look like I’m doing?”

She can hear her own heartbeat in her ears. It’s insistent and irregular.

Slowly, painfully slowly, she inches out, feeling with the ragged edge of her big toe for a place to put her foot. Zuko is babbling something that she can’t afford to pay attention to. Her world narrows to the rock and her right leg, extending just a little farther, searching—there. Her sandal notches into a thin crevice in the cliff face, and she lets out a deep sigh of relief.

“See?” she calls weakly. “All under control.”

It takes years for her to feel solid ground under her soles again. When she finally drops the last few inches, she stumbles, and Zuko reaches out reflexively to steady her. “Nice recovery,” he says.

“Like I said, I can take care of myself.”

-

He gets what Katara meant about the canyons now. There’s an unusual sort of raw beauty about them that he hasn’t come across in the Fire Nation. The rock is ancient, shaped by millions of years of weather into strange forms and color patterns, and in the orange sunlight they tinge red. The walls stretch up above and behind him like a giant’s arms.

He isn’t even going to think about how they’re going to get back up.

Katara is silent and on edge. Her dagger is in one hand; the other is on the cap of the water skin hanging from her belt. It’s silent and still at the bottom of the cleft, but he gets it—it’s disconcerting, somehow, the way the dust is always settling around them despite the lack of wind. The hair on the back of his neck is prickling.

“Move quick,” Katara says under her breath. “I don’t want to get stuck down here when it gets dark.”

It’s wider than it had looked from above. That, or his nervousness is making time stretch longer than it is, because the sun seems frozen in a state of half-death just above the lip of the canyon. Sunset is his least favorite time of day. He can never bend right—the flames come out stuttering and weak. The Dao sword’s weight is reassuring on his back, but he’d feel better in direct sunlight.

The other end of the canyon grows infinitesimally closer with every footstep, and he can begin to make out the strange texture of the rock wall. It’s oddly porous. Uneven holes punctuate the orange streaks with deep purple that hadn’t been on the other side. Katara’s face hardens when she sees them.

“What are those?” Zuko asks.

She exhales in a frustrated rush. “I’ve seen something like that before. They’re—"

There’s a sudden storm of clicking, like rain on a metal roof, and she freezes. “What?” Zuko asks again and starts toward the wall.

“Zuko, wait—“

The cliff explodes.

A cascade of smooth white is pouring out of each hole and down the wall, spreading out and untangling into six legs and a shining abdomen and wickedly sharp curved pincers and millions of sets of beady black eyes all focused on him. There are ten—twenty—too many—

Run!” Katara screams. She grabs his arm.

Run where?

They move to the side, but the giant insects are everywhere. The first one hits the ground and races toward them, twice Katara’s height, and he whips the sword off his back and searches in the pit of his stomach for a spark. They’re trapped down here. Birds in a cage with clipped wings. There is nowhere to go.

“What do we do?” he shouts.

“Fight!”

A jet of water darts out beside him to wrap around one of the arthropod’s clattering feet and pull. It collapses into a twitching tangle of limbs, and Katara pulls the water back, freezes it into a spear, and pierces straight through the chitin between its eyes.

There are ten more behind it.

“We have to get out!”

“You think I don’t realize that?” she shrieks, waving her hands in a convoluted circle. The ice spins around her in a halo of glittering daggers. She fires them off one by one, and the first line of insects falls, but they’re everywhere and too fast and the only fire Zuko can make flickers out short of their hard shells. “Just run! I’ll figure something out!”

They’re back in the brittle grass outside of the Capital City, dry air tearing at the skin of their faces and muscles roaring in protest as they run for their lives. Searing fire has become a windstorm of chirping and clattering and this time they have no destination, no dense forest waiting to welcome them in, just an invisible end to the gash in the earth that’s going to swallow them alive. They can’t outrun their pursuers. Already Zuko knows they’re losing ground, can tell by the din of their thousand footfalls that the army of insects is growing closer, but he can’t turn to look. Katara is sweeping a thin sheet of ice over the dirt behind them. Some of them might skitter away, but the others will just climb over their bodies.

“There!” Katara points. There’s a patch of the canyon wall to their right where the incline begins to slope off and nothing is coming out of the caves. “We can use those to climb!”

“That’ll take too long!”

“Well, do you have any better ideas?”

She veers to the right, and Zuko follows. He finally manages to catch his hand alight. A weak tongue of flame dissipates over his shoulder, but there’s a cloaked squawk and an ugly crunch a moment later.

When he gets to her, Katara is scrabbling at the rock, trying to hoist herself up to the first deserted cave with shaking arms. She’s threaded her circle of ice chips back into the canteen at her waist and her dagger is clutched between her teeth. She turns to look at him with desperation in her eyes.

“Here.” Zuko laces his fingers together and places them under Katara’s foot. It’s all she needs to get to the first ledge before reaching down for him. Her fingers close around his wrist, and she isn’t looking at him, she’s looking out at the canyon swarming with white bodies.

They’ve faced worse before. They can do it.

“Keep going,” he urges, and Katara hitches herself up to the next ledge. He’s had all the benefits of a royal army training and three years of experience in the wilderness. She’s had barely four months of running for her life. As it stands, she’s doing incredibly well. Zuko just hopes it’s good enough.

They’re only a third of the way up when the first bug reaches the bottom of the cliff and begins scaling it effortlessly. Katara knocks it off with a carefully-aimed water blast, but she must be running low by now and the fallen one is just reabsorbed into the encroaching mass. Every muscle in his arms is on fire—he’s exercising ones that haven’t been used in months; the time in the palace has made him soft—but he keeps up with Katara’s labored pace, reaching for the dying sun with each aching movement.

Katara hurls rocks; he shoots weak flames; the crawlers keep falling, but each time they get a little closer, because they climb twice as fast as he can aim and if they don’t get out soon they never will.

He is staring into the sunset when Katara screams his name and something closes around his ankle.

He roars and kicks, but the pincers are strong, and the insect starts pulling, ripping his legs away from the rock face. His hands are shrieking in agony. He can barely keep hold of the ledge with the tips of his fingers, but some desperate strength infuses his arms and he kicks out at the bug again, feeling flames burst through the soles of his boots. They catch the insect full in the face—

It reels back but doesn’t let go, and he’s going to be torn in half at the waist or his wrists are going to snap and he can’t, he can’t, and he yells “go, Katara, get out” because at least she can be alright, has to be alright, has to make it back to her friends and her family because it’s the least she deserves and he thinks he sees her above him silhouetted against the setting sun as he lets go.

His leg cracks as he thuds onto the stone. The insect turns, and he understands—it’s going to drag him into the cave. He lashes fire out of his palms, sweeps it at the crawler’s feet, and it pauses momentarily to hiss at him and stab his leg with one of its pointed feet. It isn’t deep, but it stings like icy death, and he cries out.

There’s a flash of brown like a falling leaf.

The tight grip on his leg disappears. Zuko looks up.

Katara is perched atop the insect’s neck. Her dagger is plunged into its brow up to the hilt. She wrenches it out with a grunt, and it collapses, spewing dark blood all over the rock face.

She turns to him. “Can you climb?”

“I don’t know.”

He struggles to his feet. His leg is pulsing with pain. He doesn’t have to look down to know his boot is soaked with blood.

“You’ll have to.”

“Katara—“

Go,” she says forcefully, her gaze blue steel. “We don’t have time to argue.”

There are splashes behind him as he climbs. The canteen hadn’t been that large, and he was sure she’d ran out of water, but he doesn’t look back. His leg is useless. He hauls himself up with limp arms, wresting every inch away from gravity and the only thing that keeps him going is the thought that Katara is below him and he cannot help her from here and he has to get her out. She cannot die here, not her, not the last waterbender of the Southern Water Tribe, not the blue-eyed girl who’d told him stories and cooked him breakfast and saved his life. Not Katara. Not Katara.

His fingers hit level ground.

He pulls himself over the final edge and collapses spread-eagled at the top of the canyon. His leg is bleeding but he can barely notice it over the rest of the aches plaguing his worn-out body and still he drags himself over to the edge and looks down, terrified at what he will see.

A head of wild hair bobs up and tosses itself next to him, trembling. Katara is covered in sticky dark blood. The splashes—she’d been bending—

“They won’t follow us up here,” she gasps. “We’re out of their territory now.”

She rolls onto her side. Her hair is matted, her face slick with sweat and blood and her skin covered in thin lacerations.

“You saved my life,” Zuko says. It’s the only thing he can think.

Katara’s chest heaves. She watches him, too winded for words, her lips shaping syllables silently. “You saved mine twice,” she finally manages.

“You didn’t have to do that.”

Far below, the insects clatter away back into their caves to wait for the next intruders. Wind howls across the gash in the earth. Katara’s breath is loud and heavy and her eyes shine like rain in the desert.

“Yes,” she says. “I did.”

-

The wound on Zuko’s leg looks worse than it is. She stitches the ragged skin back together with ribbons of water. It’s obvious he’s trying to seem strong, but he winces when she probes at the ruined flesh with careful fingers and again they are in Ba Sing Se with green light catching the creases of his scar tissue. She wonders if she will ever be able to look at him without remembering his face beneath her hand and the way Aang cried out as he tumbled from the air.

Zuko would have died. If she’d kept climbing, he would have died and she wouldn’t have had to worry about him betraying her again and she could have found her friends alone. But she understands now why he could never give her a straight answer in the forest or after the storm. It had nothing to do with the fact that out of everyone in the world, Zuko is the only person she would even remotely want on the Fire Nation throne, or the fact that without his help it’d take forever for her to get out of the desert or even that he had held her hand through an ocean and picked her up before the poison fever burned her to death. In that moment, when she looked down and he was lying on the ledge and his leg was soaked in blood and his face was contorted in pain and resignation, it had been indistinguishable from if Toph or Aang or Sokka had been lying there. There was nothing else she could have done. She couldn’t leave an ally to die.

That’s what Zuko is now. An ally.

Zuko watches with a strange, agonized kind of fascination as she works the water, making it glow against his enflamed skin. It doesn’t take her long to knit up the hole. The insect had been quick and clean; no time for messy things like poison or infection. When she rocks back on her heels and pulls the last of the water away, he says “You’re a miracle worker.”

She ducks her head away so she can’t see the wonder radiating out of his scarred, ruined face. “No. I’m just a waterbender.”

It’s his fault, she reminds herself. It’s his fault I had to use it on Aang in the first place.

“No. Katara.” He catches her wrist. “You’re not just a waterbender. You can be both. You are both.”

“I—“ He looks so earnest. So young, like a kid who’d just seen his first spirit. He’s looking at her like that, and it throws her off completely. “Can you walk?” she asks before she says something stupid. “We should get somewhere safe before it gets too dark.”

Somewhere safe turns out to be the top of a small plateau, the highest point as far as they can see, that they scale in the last minutes of dying sunlight. It’s a little cooler than the rest of the arid land, and if anything or anyone comes stumbling through in the night, they’re mostly invisible from the ground.

Zuko’s slower than normal; he isn’t putting as much weight on his leg, and Katara’s thankful, because she’s too exhausted to manage their usual pace. She barely has enough energy to dig food out of her bag before falling back onto her elbows.

“We should be there tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow? That soon?”

“Maybe the day after.” Zuko shrugs. “I don’t know, we lost time today. But soon. We’ll look for your friends. You’ll be with them again soon.”

The thought of it fills Katara’s stomach with warmth, but Zuko’s tone is morose. He’s staring out at an unfixed point on the horizon back where they’d first landed in the Earth Kingdom.

“Do you miss it?”

He wraps his arms around his knees and rests his chin on them, the dry desert breeze ruffling his hair. “I don’t regret anything I did,” he says. “I just wish it was easier.”

“It’s hard being away from your family. I know.”

“Not my family.” The bitter, aborted laugh startles Katara. Zuko’s shoulder blades tense under his thin shirt. “My uncle’s the only blood relative I care about, and it’s not like he’s ever going to forgive me. I isolated everyone I ever cared about. I had to.”

“Your girlfriend?” she realizes.

Zuko tips his head back and closes his eyes. “Yeah.”

She doesn’t think he’s going to go on, but just when she’s about to lie down and leave him to his thoughts, he says “I wrote her a letter. It wasn’t a very good one. If I ever see her again, she’s going to hate me. She deserved better.”

“We’re in the middle of a war, Zuko. I’m sure she’ll understand.”

“You don’t know her like I do. She won’t just forgive me like that.” His voice gets quieter. “I’m not sure if I want her to.”

Katara tries to remember Mai: cold steel and sharp edges; blunt black bangs and skin like fresh snow, classically beautiful and beautifully deadly. A strange contrast against Zuko’s messy, rounded lines, the way he blurs the boundary between evil and redemption. She can’t picture them together, no matter how hard she tries. Mai would cut him up.

“How did you…” She trails off, frowning, trying to figure out how to phrase the question. “Do you love her?”

It’s not what she meant, not at all, but he takes a bracing breath before his answer. “I don’t know. I think—I think I did, or I could, maybe. I care about her. She deserves better than me. But she’d never betray Azula for me, she was always Azula’s first, and she doesn’t just change. Even if I did love her—even if she loved me—I don’t think it would matter.”

“Of course it matters!”

“Then what about you and the Av—and Aang? Does that matter?”

“I—ugh.” Katara falls back against the rock and presses the heels of her palms to her eyes. “I don’t know. I just—I can’t think about it right now. Not with everything so uncertain. I have to concentrate on fighting. Every time I think about it, I get so confused, and I feel sick, and then I can’t focus on anything else and I really can’t afford to kiss anyone until after this is over. Maybe then I’ll be able to figure it out.”

Fabric rustles, and when Zuko speaks again, it’s from somewhere closer. “I understand. It’s horrible, Katara, and I’m sorry. You shouldn’t have to worry about all of that at once.”

Her head aches, but it feels good to finally let everything out. She’s been holding back the words too long—all the confusion, the anger, the frustration comes out in a messy rush but somehow Zuko gets it, this thing that’s been plaguing her for weeks, because he knows how it feels. He can’t escape it, either. It’s not like Aang, who had nothing to go back to, or Toph, who didn’t want to go back to what she had. Even Sokka—he’d been anticipating the war, waiting to become a soldier all his life, and maybe he’d been forced to grow up a little faster than he’d expected but they all had. She’s not going to be able to go back to her old future, though, no matter how much she tries, and neither will Zuko. They can only go forward.

There’s no moon in the sky tonight. Yue isn’t watching as she rolls onto her side to face Zuko’s scar.

“What’s going to happen when we find them?” he rasps.

Katara inches her fingers across the stone until they make contact with the inside of his wrist. She can feel the artery pulsing under the thin skin, the tendons flexing against her touch before relaxing.

“I don’t know,” she says, “but I want you there.”

-

If he shifts his arm just slightly, if he moves it up by the barest fraction, her hand would slide into his. He wants to, but somehow, this feels even more intimate, the calloused pads of her fingertips against the place his blood beats closest to the surface.

Her touch feels like lightning.

Zuko thinks he knows what that means, but he doesn’t want to. He thinks there’s a reason he can barely picture Mai’s face when he looks at Katara, but he doesn’t want to. He thinks there’s a reason that when she says “I want you there,” there’s something more than the warm glow of friendship, there’s something lodged in his throat that makes it a little harder to breathe when he looks at her. He doesn’t want to feel it.

War, he reminds himself. Exile. We could die any minute. It works, mostly—enough for him to smile back at her while she falls asleep, her touch still cool at his wrist. But he’s just pushing it down. If he’s being truthful with himself, he doesn’t think it’s going to go away.

If he’s being truthful with himself, he’s not sure he wants it to.

Chapter Text

They don’t get to Ba Sing Se the next day, but they get close. The fight in the canyon lost them precious hours the day before, and the scrapes and bruises and strained muscles that Katara can’t afford to heal with the last of their water all add up to slow them down even further. She’s getting sick of yellow and orange. The weird rock structures are breathtaking, but when her overheated mind starts imagining shiny white insects tumbling out of each one to come and tear her apart, they lose a bit of their allure.

She misses the sea.

The Earth Kingdom is hot, dry, and uniform—everything her home is not. If she squints, for a moment, she can transform the stalagmites into glaciers, but they shatter in the sunlight as soon as she widens her eyes. The thirst doesn’t help. She’d wasted a lot of their finite reserve of water on the crawlers yesterday, even before she’d bent the blood out of the dead carapace—which was horrible and disgusting and she’s not sure she’ll ever be able to look at a beetle again in the same way—and it doesn’t leave nearly enough for them. Ba Sing Se is going to be a welcome relief from the constant traveling. Two weeks of walking is making her miss Appa more than she’d thought possible. She misses lots of things—easy traveling, comfortable clothing, decent food, her family.

At least she doesn’t have to miss conversation anymore. Something seems to have made Zuko determined to learn her entire story overnight, because he won’t stop asking her questions: about how she had found Aang, where they had gone first, what they’d been trying to do on Kyoshi Island and in the desert and on the Cliffs, how they’d found Toph. He dances carefully around anything too personal pertaining to her life before Aang, which Katara is thankful for. She’s not sure she’s ready to talk about it without taking out all her anger on him. It’s taken too long for her to even begin to see him as an ally instead of an enemy. She needs more time to separate Zuko the person from Zuko the ex-prince of the country that killed her mother.

But she’s more than happy to tell him about everything she’s seen since she accidentally cracked open the iceberg. Reciting the story brings it all back in a flood, and as she talks, she remembers more and more details—flights over mysterious forests and meals at the tops of mountains in the rain and kind strangers stunned and ecstatic at the sight of Aang’s telltale blue tattoos. It sounds fantastic even as she’s saying it. The memories feel distant, almost as if she’s telling a legend she heard from her Gran-Gran instead of her own adventures.

Zuko listens raptly to every word. His reactions are perfectly timed, maybe a little exaggerated for her benefit, but it’s obvious his wonder is real on at least some level. He cuts in at a few points with questions or comments. A lot of them have to do with his side of events—he’s particularly amazed to find out Aang isn’t actually a master of evasion, just a kid who wanted to see the world—and Katara remembers that while they were stumbling across the globe through winter, Zuko’s ship had been matching their path, from the South Pole to the North and back down. And somewhere in the middle, they’d crossed, each time a clash of red on blue bright enough to stick out among the haze of scenes and moments in her head.

And now they’ve crossed again, and found a vulnerable sort of peace somewhere in the middle of hate and trust.

-

Despite being a firebender, Zuko is really thankful to see water again. The channel is visible from far away, the only thing they’ve seen in days that isn’t a shade of yellow or red, and even before he spots the familiar flash of blue Katara says she feels her element nearby. It’s a far cry from the open ocean, but it’s the width of a sizeable river, albeit much calmer. They must be near the end of the channel, because the pass he remembers crossing on the ferry last time was significantly larger. It’s a good sign. They’ll be there by tomorrow.

They stop at the shore. At least, he does. Katara plunges into the gentle waves without hesitation. She’s submerged in seconds, the only sign of her a trail of bubbles, and she stays under for so long that Zuko would worry if it were anyone else but the best waterbender he knows under the surface. He sets up their camp while she swims until she finally breaks the surface again, drops streaming from her short tangled hair and clothes, and she sucks in an enormous breath and grins at him.

“Come in,” she calls. “It’s nice.”

“You probably think all water is nice.” Still, it looks inviting; he hasn’t bathed since their ship was wrecked, and four days’ worth of sweat, blood and grime is caked on his skin. Cool water will be a relief from the constant summer heat.

Katara watches as he peels his shirt off and tosses his boots away before edging into the channel. It’s even better than he imagined. The small current washes away the warmth of the air that’s uncomfortable to even him, and before he knows it, it’s up to his calves, lapping against his stained breeches.

“See?” Katara turns onto her back and floats toward him, propelling herself with lazy flicks of her wrists that send the water around her cascading in a series of miniscule waves. “Doesn’t it feel good?”

Zuko looks down at his feet. They waver and distort under the current. “Yeah,” he answers.

She raises an eyebrow and elegantly twists so that she’s kneeling in the surf. “Oh, come on. Like you can even feel it. You’re barely even wet.”

“I—“

He blinks as the sensation of sudden cold spreads down his hip. Katara stifles a giggle.

Did she actually just…?

The mischievous smile begins to slip from her face as he stands frozen. She’d splashed him. There’s only one way for Zuko to respond.

He bends down, trails his fingers through the water, and shoves straight at Katara’s shoulder.

It takes her by surprise. Unbalanced for a moment, she stumbles back before rising from the waves. “Did you just attack a waterbender in the middle of the sea?” she says, her tone revealing barely restrained delight. “Oh, it is on.

Zuko doesn’t even have time to react before a storm of tiny drops is flying at him and peppering his chest and arms, clinging to his skin. He swats at them, but Katara twirls the water into a ribbon and pulls it up to loom over his head for a triumphant moment before releasing it.

When he can finally breathe again, he’s laughing through the water in his throat.

“Unfair advantage!” The jets are still coming at him from every side. He dives to his stomach and begins paddling away as quickly as he can into deeper water, watching over his shoulder. Katara adjusts her movements. “I’m defenseless! Have mercy!”

“I show no mercy!” The water in the air mixes with the water beneath him until he can’t tell which is which and he lashes out blindly, hoping some of it makes contact. An amused cry confirms his optimism. A moment later, another tidal wave sweeps over him. He can make out her grin through the wavering filter of the sea.

Then it’s a confused clash of laughter and water and slick skin and he doesn’t know what is where except when he makes contact with Katara for a brief moment before she ducks away, manipulating her element with remarkable ease to catch his feet off balance or send streams pouring down his neck. He gets a couple good hits in, splashing her full in the face once and stunning her long enough to pull her under with him before bobbing back up. She reemerges sputtering and slaps him with a water whip and he gets hold of her wrist as she falls back, and she pushes his head under but he comes back laughing and she’s laughing too and the moonlight is staining her hair silver. Then the whip comes up again and catches him in the side right against one of the old bruises and he stops chuckling long enough to wince.

Katara stills. The whip dissolves and falls back to the channel, flecking them both with drops. “It’s okay,” he protests. “I’m okay. It doesn’t hurt that much.”

She purses her lips and frowns at the scratches littering his chest. They probably look worse to her than they really are; he’d sustained much worse at the hands of his father, but she hadn’t been there when the burn was fresh and raw, doesn’t know that he’s been fighting back against pain all his life and this isn’t really anything in comparison. When she raises her hands again, palms open and turned down, he gets ready to duck away, but the movements seem too slow and controlled for another assault.

Instead, Katara pulls two shimmering rivulets up to hang like ribbons from her hands. Zuko watches, entranced, as she rotates her wrists and they crawl forward, twining their way through the air. The starlight turns them the color of spiderwebs. She glances up at him through damp eyelashes. He wants to reach out and smooth the drops from her cheeks.

A shiver runs through him and shakes him to his core when the ribbons make contact with his hips. Katara twists her fingers, and they inch up his torso, crossing once at the small of his back and again over his sternum before stretching up to end at the nape of his neck. If it’s an attack, it’s nothing he’s ever seen or heard of before. It doesn’t feel like one; Katara is straining to be gentle, the tension of holding the water only barely against his skin evident in the way the bones in her forearms stand out and tremble slightly.

With a twitch of her index finger, the water suddenly goes cold for the briefest of seconds before it begins to glow. The relief is instantaneous. His legs grow weak, and he almost collapses except he’s frozen in place. Every place on his chest that hurts, every bruise and scratch and scrape, ceases to sting, the pain seeping out of his body as the water glows brighter.

Then she reaches deeper and the weariness that’s been weighing down his muscles for years before he even knew there was a waterbender with ocean eyes and healing hands flows out through the luminescent veins she drew across him. Pain that he’d forgotten existed rises up to the surface before flowing away and he feels unbearably light. He would float away with the current if Katara wasn’t holding him down with her delicate diamond streams.

The blue glow flares, Katara furrows her brow, and then the invisible constraints on the ribbons snap and the water drips down his chest. His skin is unbroken and evenly pale.

“Doesn’t that feel better?” she murmurs.

Reality fades back in as he remembers their conversation of a few minutes ago. It feels like waking from a deep sleep. “Yeah,” he says honestly. Better doesn’t even come close to describing it. He feels new. Undamaged.

“Good.”

He doesn’t want to move away.

Her eyes roam over his face, seeming to search for something hidden there. Her lips are parted ever so slightly. With each shallow breath, he can feel a tiny burst of warm air on the hollow of his throat, and it raises goosebumps. Zuko is a firebender, and firebenders do not shiver, but for the second time in one night, he feels an uncontrollable tremor course down his spine and out through every bone.

“Good,” she repeats. Her just-parted lips turn up into a just-smile.

She glides back to the shore, and Zuko is left waist-deep in the water staring helplessly at her back and beginning to realize how much trouble he’s in.

Chapter Text

“I think we need to come up with an alibi.”

Zuko nods pensively, shifting his pack on his shoulders. “Good idea. We should get that figured out before we get to the city.”

That doesn’t give them very long. Ba Sing Se is close to the channel’s edge, and they’d crossed it early in the morning on another of Katara’s ice floes, a short trip strangely reminiscent of the one from just a week ago. The immediate change in terrain told her just how close they were. As soon as they’d reached the other shore, the sand shifted into rough sea grass and sparse trees, taller and farther apart than the gnarled bonsai of the Fire Nation. Katara knows this part of the Kingdom much better. This is the part they’d walked alone without Appa, so the scenery’s familiar.

“Are we sticking to the displaced refugees idea?” asks Zuko. “There are plenty of those in the Lower Ring already. That’s what my uncle and I said last time, and it worked.”

“Beyond that. We need names. Background stories.”

“Refugees from Omashu?”

She shakes her head. “Bigger. Fake names, fake ages, fake jobs, everything. Believe me, we don’t want to end up like Wang and Sapphire Fire.”

“What kind of name is Sapphire Fire?”

“Ask Sokka,” she sighs.

Zuko runs a hand through his hair, a nervous tic that’s grown familiar to her in recent days. “Okay. How about we’re cousins?”

A derisive snort bubble up in her throat. “Cousins? Zuko, have you seen us? I’m about as far from Fire royalty looks-wise as an owlrat.”

“Oh. Right.” His eyes drift down to the tan skin of her shoulder. “You’re pretty obviously Water Tribe. I guess we could say you’re mixed Nation? Half water, half fire?”

“Won’t Fire Nation citizens draw a lot of attention in the poorest part of an Earth city?”

“Okay, half water and half earth.”

“And the water is on my mother’s side. She ran away from the Northern Water Tribe to make a life for herself in the city, but she met my dad instead and they settled down before the Fire Nation invaded her town.”

“Do we really need that many details?”

“What if we get caught?” Katara exclaims. “What if we’re separated and they start questioning us? We can’t leave any details out.”

Without looking up, she knows Zuko’s rolling his eyes at her. “Fine. Then I ran away to join the circus and got lost.”

“And that’s how you met me! Perfect.”

“What, no, I was joking—“ Zuko starts.

“Or we could be recently escaped pirate captives, running for our lives because they were holding us for a ransom that our poor Earth families didn’t have the money to pay.”

“That’s ridiculous.”

“Come up with something better, then.”

Zuko purses his lips in thought. “You’re the long-lost niece twice removed of deposed Earth King Kuei and I’m your bodyguard, tasked with ensuring your safe travel by your father.”

“My rich but ailing father. And you’re my bodyguard because you needed the money to put your sister through university.”

“Or you could be the one wanting to go to the university at Ba Sing Se and I’m your childhood friend looking for fame as a member of the renowned tsungi horn quartet in the Middle Ring.”

“I like it.” Does Zuko really play the tsungi horn? Katara files the information away for the next time they’re in the proximity of a musical instrument. “Though we need a reason my parents aren’t paying for my school.”

“Well, you see, at a young age your mother and three younger brothers were—“

“Hey!”

Their heads snap up in unison.

Katara hadn’t even noticed they’d left the last of the trees behind them, but the scene is unmistakable: a grassy plain crossed with roads running into a half-destroyed stone wall. The outer ring of Ba Sing Se.

And, in front of it, a group of Fire Nation soldiers.

Panic rises up in her blood. She grabs Zuko’s arm, tries to jerk him back to the corner of the forest before they’re noticed, but of course the guards have already seen them—one of them had shouted, and now all four are striding through the knee-high grass, their armor gleaming in the sunlight. They can’t run. There’s nowhere to run. The forest isn’t dense enough for them to hide, and the only other place to go is the gate of Ba Sing Se, nearly a mile away.

“Hey, you,” the guard repeats as she gets closer. “What are you doing? Where did you come from?”

Zuko makes a sound like a cat-vulture choking on a featherball.

Inside Katara’s head, alarm bells are clanging, and she can barely think over the din. She’s only distantly aware of what she’s doing when she takes a step forward to meet the patrol. One of her hands is still clutching Zuko’s forearm; he numbly follows.

“We’re, uh, refugees. From—from Omashu.”

“And what are you doing so far from Omashu? You look a little young to be out here alone.” A mask obscures most of her face, but Katara can still see the way the soldier’s eyebrows raise and her lips pinch together.

“Well, our families, they were, uh, you see—“

“Separated from us,” Zuko cuts in. “We were all traveling together, but we lost them at the ferry station. It was so busy. We just want to get to the Lower Ring and find them.”

“Aw.” The woman’s face softens a little under the mask. “Yeah, that place is a mess. Did you say Omashu? You kids look sort of Fire Nation to me.”

Zuko stutters, coughs, then nods. “Um. Yeah. Well, we were from Ember Island, actually, but our families moved here a little while ago. To find work in Omashu. My uncle heard there were lots of jobs there since the occupation. But there weren’t, really, so they decided to come here instead.”

“That’s quite an adventure.”

If only you knew, Katara thinks sourly.

“Yeah, Omashu’s a dump,” one of the other guards says. “I was there a couple weeks ago. What a mess. Heard some crazy rebels kidnapped the governor’s son and now he’s so paranoid of another attack that he’s barricaded himself in his home and stopped doing his job.”

“He wha—“

“Oh yeah, it was terrible,” Katara says loudly. She digs her fingernails into Zuko’s wrist.

The female guard—the one who seems to be in charge—tuts sympathetically and shakes her head, and Katara catches a glimpse of silvery brown hair. “This whole country is horrible,” she mutters. “Shame you kids had to come over. Should have stuck to Ember Island. What are your names?”

Katara scrambles for an answer, but she doesn’t know anything about Fire names except for the few people she’d met since she left the South Pole and somehow she doesn’t think the guards would believe her name was Azula. Before she can say anything stupid, though, Zuko spits out “Li. And this is, uh, Nozomi.”

The head guard nods. “Well, Li and Nozomi, we can’t do much about finding your families, but we can get you into the Lower Ring. How’s that sound?”

She thinks she might collapse from relief.

“That sounds fantastic,” Zuko says fervently.

-

It could have gone much worse. Actually, as far as ways to get past the mostly-impervious outer wall of Ba Sing Se go, it had been a pretty good one, even if it had been unintentional. The head guard tells them as the scout platoon escorts them across the field that she has a niece around Katara’s—Nozomi’s—age that lives on Ember Island, and she wants to come here for school, too. She talks a lot, which is fantastic, because Zuko and Katara can just nod and grin and not stumble over any more half-baked lies and end up giving themselves away. The other four soldiers ignore them in favor of talking to each other. A couple of lost refugee kids probably aren’t novel around these parts. Which is good. If Imperial guards don’t suspect anything about them, then it’s unlikely anyone else will.

The guards pass through the gates with no trouble. They don’t have to show identification or explain their two charges; the Earth citizens duck their heads and bend the doors open wordlessly, ushering them in through one of the only portions of the wall that remains intact. The rest of the gaps are filled with row after row of metal-covered Fire soldiers in offensive bending stance, ready to shoot at any encroaching threat.

The head guard follows them only a few steps inside of the gate. “I have to get back to patrol now,” she tells them. “But listen, if you ever need help, ask for Yumi. They know who I am. Good luck finding your parents, kids.” She claps Katara on the shoulder, smiles, and turns away. The gates bang shut behind her retreating back.

They’re in.

“Nice job,” Katara mutters to Zuko.

He scratches the back of his neck. “Yeah. You too.”

It was just as he’d suspected—they blend right into the masses of people crowding the Lower Ring. Their ragged but distinctly Fire garb draws a few looks, and he makes a mental note to find some new disguises as soon as possible, but everyone passes by without comment. Ba Sing Se is a messy crush of nationalities. Nobody has time to worry about a couple of dirty teenagers. Katara is taking it all in with wide-eyed wonder, her mouth slightly open in a flattened ‘o’. She probably hasn’t seen the Lower Ring up close like this—not the way Zuko had. She’d been up in the fancy quarters by the King’s palace, not in the true part of Ba Sing Se.

Zuko hadn’t realized how much he missed it.

The Fire Nation has plenty of cities, but there’s something different about this one—different from every other city he’s ever been to. There’s a desperation about it that shouldn’t be so intriguing. Everyone has a unique story; they’re from all parts of the world, all congregating here for different reasons, and hundreds of accents and dialects clash and meld among the bright awnings affixed to the shabby buildings. Faces lurk in every alley, watching; they don’t care who anyone is, they just care about getting enough money for their next meal. It’s dirty and it’s crowded and it’s a mess and Zuko loves it.

“Where are we going?” Katara asks.

He hadn’t even realized he’d been leading her anywhere in particular. His feet had just been tracing their regular path through the streets, ducking through a few alleys to avoid the worst of the crowds, but he knows exactly where they’re headed even if he hadn’t consciously planned it. “When I was here with my uncle, we worked in a shop. The owner was barely ever there. We lived in the back of it. We should check to see if it’s still vacant, and if it is, we can set up base there before we make any moves.”

“You lived in the Lower Ring?”

“Is that surprising?”

Katara finally rips her gaze away from a street performer who’s bending a hunk of stone into remarkably lifelike caricatures of past Avatars. “I don’t know, I kind of thought you would be further up. What happened to that place you had in the Upper Ring with your uncle? This isn’t exactly a Fire Nation palace.”

“Hey, I’m not some delicate royal flower! I was exiled, remember? There’s no way we could get to the Jasmine Dragon now with all the security around the palace. And you’re one to be speaking—you and your friends were the ones with the fancy Upper Ring house.”

“That place was a prison,” she grumbles.

“Probably a really nice prison.”

“What kind of shop was it?”

There’s no time for him to call her out on her blatant changing of the topic. They turn out of an alley, and the familiar green and wood façade of the Pao Family Tea House rises before them out of the chaos of the street as if it hadn’t been a day since Zuko had last left it.

“A tea shop,” he says. “Welcome home.”

-

The door is locked, but Zuko pulls a small silver key out of his coin purse and it clicks as the knob turns. “Good thing I still have it,” he mutters as he steps over the threshold.

“Why were you carrying it around?”

“Memento, I guess.” He aims at something along the ceiling with a practiced ease, and a moment later, a lantern flares to life.

The interior of their old tea shop is covered in a layer of dust, but otherwise, it looks untouched. Tables line the walls in neat rows, chairs upside down on the tops with their legs sticking into the air, and the green curtain behind the back counter flutters gently. It’s filled with a musky, sweet scent, a combination of the old sourness of abandonment and the rich and varied aromas of different kinds of tea. Zuko’s shoulders sag with relief as the place fills with light.

“Cute,” Katara says.

He paces to the center of the long space. “Uncle loved it. He was so happy here. He’ll be glad to know it’s okay.”

Katara tries to picture Zuko and Iroh in the teahouse: the tables filled with customers, the din of conversation filling the air, nephew relaying orders to uncle and uncle passing cups and pots and saucers back, working as a team to serve the people of Ba Sing Se. Zuko as a tea-server would have been a sight to see. It seems like he enjoyed it, however good at it he was; he’s walking slowly towards the back of the shop, the lines of his face shaped into wistfulness.

“We lived back here,” he says, almost to himself. “Come on, I’ll show you.”

Behind the curtain is a long kitchen, a counter running down the center covered in waiting china as if the place is still expecting customers. Zuko brushes by it and leads Katara through a second door in the back corner. “It’s not much, but it’ll do.”

Hesitantly, Katara steps through to the small room paneled with dark wood. The furnishings are sparse—a stove and a cabinet; a long couch pushed into a corner underneath one of the small, high windows; a table with two rickety chairs; a metal teapot already set up with kindling; a dirty burlap apron hanging off a hook. Small, derelict, and very much lived in—very much a home.

“I like it.”

“So did Uncle.”

There’s one cramped bedroom, but thankfully two beds, and a bathroom barely big enough for her to shut the door behind herself, and that’s the extent of their temporary home. Everything smells of herbs and is covered in a fine layer of dust and looks very old. It’s not like she has many belongings to fill the space with, though. She carefully packs her Water Tribe tunic away under one of the beds and unloads the contents of the satchel into the cupboard while Zuko sits on the couch, staring at the opposite wall with his chin in his palm.

“What are you thinking about?”

One shoulder rises and falls. “Things were so much easier last time I was here,” he says quietly. “I thought—I actually thought maybe we could start over. Maybe I didn’t have to be an ashamed exile any more. Maybe I didn’t have to keep running.” He laughs, like the bark of a tiger seal. “I should’ve known that could never happen.”

“Zuko.”

The floorboards creak as he stands. “No, forget it. Pretend I didn’t say anything. I’ll go buy dinner.”

Before she can say anything, he’s gone and the door is banging behind him and the words I understand are still on her tongue. Because she does, she knows how it feels to want a new beginning, to not have to be bound by the stupid rules of an old society—the rules that say girls can’t be fighters and princes can’t be peaceful and a waterbender and a firebender cannot be friends. She gets it.

In a way, though, she thinks they’ve already found that beginning.

He returns an hour later loaded down with packages. Steam is rising from the few on top of the pile, and the smell of cooked meat and soy overpowers the musk of tea. Zuko seems to be in a better mood, too. He smiles at her when she reaches up to take half the load.

“Good trip?”

“Yeah.” Katara takes one of the warm parcels from his arms and starts to unwrap it as he continues. “I’m surprised nobody broke in and took the money Uncle had stashed away here, but I guess our reputation helped. Nobody ever wanted to mess with him. He made the best tea inside the walls.”

“He’ll have to make me some when we find him.”

The word ‘when’ makes him perk up just noticeably. He hands her two plates from the cupboard and snaps his fingers, placing a tiny spark in the kindling under the kettle. “I think you’d like him. He always knows what to say, even in the hardest situations. If he was here, I bet he’d have some silly and meaningful proverb for you.”

“Toph liked him,” says Katara, “and Toph doesn’t like anyone.”

“Well, Uncle isn’t anyone.”

Sitting at an actual table and eating off actual plates with actual chopsticks is a strange experience. It’s been almost too long to remember since Katara had last had a civilized meal, and while Zuko maybe isn’t the first person she would have chosen to have dinner with, he isn’t the last, either. He brought back a variety of dumplings in straw baskets, and they’re good enough to make up for anything the conversation might have been lacking, anyway. It’s a functional discussion—they’d only planned as far as the city gates, and now that they’re here, farther than she’d ever really thought they might get, she’s not entirely sure what the next move should be.

“The thing is,” she mumbles around a mouthful of steamed fish dumpling, “we need to find Aang as soon as possible, but I have no idea where to start.”

Zuko pokes at the food on his plate with the tip of his chopstick. “I agree we need to find him. But we have other priorities too. The comet is coming in less than one month. If we don’t find Aang, or if something happens to him—I’m not saying anything will, but if it did—then my father is going to come for Ba Sing Se. We can’t leave a whole city defenseless.”

“Well, what are we supposed to do? Even if the Earth King was still on the throne instead of your crazy sister and her friends, then nobody would listen. There is no war in Ba Sing Se, remember?” She tilts her head and pitches her voice into a deep facsimile of Long Feng’s tone.

“No, we can’t contact authority, I know. But this city is massive, and the Lower Ring is full of war refugees. There have to be some people who realize there’s a huge threat coming and a hostile dictator on the throne. We just have to find them.”

“How?”

He sighs. “I haven’t gotten there yet.”

Katara wishes she knew more about the Lower Ring. If they’d stayed here her first time in Ba Sing Se instead of the poorly disguised jail the Dai Li had given them, maybe she would have known more about the real people of the city. Maybe she could have had allies to help.

“I guess we’ll just have to poke around. That’s what we did last time,” she tells him.

“Yeah, I think you’re right.”

They finish eating in silence.

When Katara gets up to clear the dishes, though, Zuko catches hold of her wrist and pulls her back. “I, uh, got some other stuff while I was out,” he says a bit sheepishly. “I thought we needed new disguises, since, you know, we’re Earth Kingdom now. So. I got these for you.”

He shoves one of the larger packages into her arms. Katara glances between it and his face, confused. “You bought me clothes? Again?”

“We need them. They’re mission critical, okay? If they don’t fit or you don’t like them or anything we can return them.”

But she’s already tearing into the package and her fingers are met with soft silk and she sighs a little. “Oh,” she breathes, lifting the short green qipao up.

“Um, there are pants too. Cause you said you liked pants. For running. So I got you those too.”

“This looks expensive.” She runs her fingers over the olive embroidery at the hem and frowns.

“It wasn’t really. It’s how people here dress. You’ll fit in, believe me.”

It does suit her. She definitely appreciates the leggings.

“Thanks, Zuko.” She grins. “Or should I say Li?”

He smiles back and begins to stack the dirty dishes. “You’re welcome, Nozomi.”

-

At night, when they’re falling asleep in the stuffy bedroom with the shouts and swears and crashes of town life filtering through the thin walls, Zuko can nearly pretend Katara’s soft breaths are Uncle Iroh’s instead. It doesn’t work for long, because after a few minutes in bed Iroh would have started snoring, but it assuages the loneliness of the situation a little.

There’s something ironic about ending up back here where everything began to change. And now it’s all different—Jet is dead, Azula is on the throne, Uncle is gone. Katara is his—ally? Acquaintance? Friend?

He can’t answer the question because he’s not even sure what he wants her to be.

What he does know, though, is that when he stops trying to imagine her into his uncle and starts thinking of her as just Katara again, it does more for the pang in his chest than any amount of memories could.

Chapter Text

The noise of carts clattering over cobblestones wakes her. There’s sunlight streaming in through the narrow window. For once, she wakes slowly, taking her time to open her eyes and stretch out her limbs and kick the sheets aside. The prospect of not having to walk for miles today brings an involuntary grin to her face, and she sits up, pulling her arms over her head and feeling the joints in her shoulders pop.

Zuko’s bed is unmade. Somewhere in the building, she can hear and feel water running, and the soothing rhythm is almost enough to lull her back to sleep, but just when she’s about to lay back down it shuts off.

A moment later, the bedroom door opens and Zuko walks in. He is wearing only a pair of breeches and his hair is wet and messy. He blinks owlishly at her.

“Good morning,” yawns Katara.

His whole face turns the same shade of red as his scar. “I’ll, um, be in the kitchen for a minute,” he mumbles. “Come out whenever you’re—whenever. Come out whenever.”

She stifles a giggle as he ducks out, closes the door, and barely a second later ducks back in to snatch blindly for his shirt. “Okay, now I’m gone.”

Teenage boys, she thinks.

She bathes quickly and dresses in her new outfit. It’s infinitely better than what she had before. For one, it actually covers her stomach, and there are slits up the side of the qipao that allow her legs to move unrestrained. Better for running, climbing and maneuvering. Plus, it’s a whole lot prettier. There’s not much she can do with what’s left of her hair, so she bundles it into a bun at the nape of her neck and fastens the Fire Nation necklace underneath it. Her mother’s is tucked safely into her wrappings, against her ribs, where nobody will find it.

“How do I look?” she asks when she emerges into the kitchen.

Zuko throws a glance at her out of the corner of his eye from his place by the stovetop, reconsiders, and turns his whole head to look at her face-on. “Uh. Well. You look, uh…”

“So it’s good enough? Nobody’s going to recognize me?”

He blinks at her a couple more times before turning back to whatever he’s concentrating so hard on cooking. “No,” he says. “I don’t think so.”

She sits down at the table. In the daylight, the apartment’s main room looks slightly larger, the sun from the slits of windows illuminating corners that the lamplight had hid in shadow the night before. It’d be cramped if they had to squeeze anyone else in, but for two, it’s much more spacious than the cabin of a sloop and luxurious compared to sand dunes and tree roots. The civilized air of the whole thing instills her with confidence for the rest of their time in Ba Sing Se. Even if it goes horribly, well, at least things could be normal for a day. Or at least as normal as they ever could be when an exiled Fire Nation Prince is serving her breakfast.

“Is this safe?” She pokes at it with her chopstick. “I haven’t forgotten the other time you tried cooking.”

“Hey, I got us dinner last night, didn’t I?”

“You bought it. You didn’t have a chance to mangle it with your untrained hands.” The broth of noodles and bok choy isn’t half bad, really. It’s just fun to see the way Zuko scrambles for words when he gets flustered, how he brushes his hand through his hair repeatedly while a blush inches its way up his neck. He’s so much easier to tease than Sokka or Aang; they’d just fire back a witty response, used to her casual ribbing. In contrast, Zuko is three parts embarrassment and one part fear.

But she finishes it without complaint, and Zuko washes the dishes (it is unbelievably nice to have a boy around who actually appreciates helping with household chores) and then they stare at each other, neither wanting to make the first move.

Zuko’s the one who finally clears his throat. “So, uh. Ba Sing Se. Resistance. Finding your friends.”

“Yeah, that’s what we’re here for.”

The chair scrapes against the floor. Katara opens the door and ushers Zuko through it, hiding her empty hand behind her back to conceal the slight tremor of trepidation. “After you, Li.”

-

Ba Sing Se is different.

It’s not obvious at first. Lots of things are the same—the ostrich horses pounding the ground with their talons, the merchants screaming their wares from every corner, the dirty-faced street urchins peeking out of alleys. But it doesn’t feel the same. Azula had changed the essence of the city, somehow; the fervor has been pushed underground, the people subdued to a bitter subservience that makes them avert their eyes from strangers’ faces and shrink in on themselves. And the Dai Li were never so prevalent when he was last here. They were around, but not on every other corner, not combing the streets in slick dark units. It’s going to make whatever he and Katara are going to do a whole lot harder. Once they figure out what they’re actually trying to do.

For now, they’re ambling around the streets trying their best to look unsuspicious and pretending they have a destination in mind. When they first set out, Zuko did—a vague memory of an empty warehouse near the outer wall, a kid shouting condemnation from the steps of a grocery store. But the warehouse is impossible to locate and the store is dark and empty when he passes by. They’ve fallen back to roaming. The moment Zuko needs to find the restless, rebellious youth that had been so common before is the moment they all seem to have disappeared.

Jet would’ve known.

He tries to block the thought out, but it won’t stay down: if Jet was here, brash and irrational Jet, Jet who had seen through his weak disguise before anyone else did, Jet who is lying in the odd green vault underneath Lake Laogai still—Jet would’ve known what to do. He would have gotten their information to the right people. They are out of their depth, he and Katara, two people who for all the value they may place on their relationships function best on their own. Wandering aimlessly and hoping for a miracle is never going to work, and it’s a waste of the little time they have to believe so.

Tracking down the deposed Earth King at this rate would be quicker.

Next to him, Katara heaves an aggravated sigh. “This is useless. How are we supposed to find someone if we don’t even know who we’re looking for?”

“Well as soon as you have a better idea, be sure to let me know, okay?”

“I’m not the one who lived in the Lower Ring! You’d think you would at least have some kind of contact left here, unless you really were that unfriendly—“

“I’m sorry that I didn’t spend my time buddying up to the rebels plotting to depose my family—“

“Li?”

The name takes a moment to sink in. When they realize, they both fall silent immediately. There are probably a million Lis in this city, Zuko thinks, and it could be any one of them…

Except that to his shock, he actually recognizes the figure working its way through the crowd towards them.

“Zuko, who is that?” Katara whispers.

“It’s—uh—“

“Li!” The figure reaches them before he can finish. “Wow! This is a surprise.”

Katara is staring at the new addition suspiciously, sweeping her eyes from the scuffed boots to the unruly hair. In return, Zuko’s old friend is looking back and forth between the two of them with an expression stuck somewhere between confusion and pleasant surprise.

“Jin! Uh, hey. This is—unexpected. Not bad. Good, I mean. Just unexpected.”

“I know! I thought you and Mushi were gone for good.” Jin grins crookedly up at him. “And to think I nearly never got the chance to use that generous tea coupon, either. Is your uncle here?”

Next to him, Katara is shrinking back under Jin’s intense stare. She must be bewildered. Zuko silently wills her to not say anything. “N-no. Unfortunately. Mushi and I went back to Omashu for a little to, uh…to deal with some family issues. My sister is graduating from—from the earthbending academy there.” Is there even an earthbending academy in Omashu? Do earthbending academies even exist?

“Oh, that must have been so exciting! Everybody here missed you, though. Well, they mostly missed your uncle and his tea. I missed you.”

“You did?”

Katara lets out a snicker that she disguises as a cough.

Jin’s eyebrows jump as she seems to remember the other girl’s presence. “Are you going to introduce us?” she asks. Katara blanches.

Shoot. “Yeah, of course. This is Nozomi. She’s my…uh…”

“Friend,” Katara cuts in, and holds out her hand. Jin takes it. The smile has fallen off her face, but she still says “I’m Jin. It’s nice to meet you, Nozomi.”

“Sounds like you two have a lot of catching up to do,” comments Katara, and raises an eyebrow at Zuko.

Jin nods. “We do, actually! You’d never believe what happened to that old group of Pai Sho players that used to come in to the Jasmine Dragon every night at eight exactly. And those two boys who were going to join the military, and those politicians who came down all the way from the Upper Ring just to taste your uncle’s tea? They got arrested! For fraud! Can you believe it?”

“That’s, uh—“

“Are you hungry? I was about to grab lunch. There’s a place I just found a few blocks away with amazing kimchi. Do you want to join me? I can fill you in on all the changes here, and you can tell me about Mushi and your family if you’ve got time.”

“We would love to,” Katara gushes. She takes hold of Zuko’s arm lightly and smiles at Jin across his chest. “Right, Li?”

-

Jin is a gift from the Spirits. Just when Katara was starting to think Ba Sing Se was going to be a huge waste of time, she shows up bubbling with rumors and gossip that she’s all too eager to divulge to them. She clings to Zuko’s other arm, chattering as they elbow their way through two congested streets and a warren of dark alleys that spits them out into a bright sunlit square, and she barely stops talking until they’re finally seated at an open-air table under a verandah the color of moss boasting “Yung Kim’s Deli—Best in the Three Rings!”

All of the names she throws out are unfamiliar to Katara, but she listens attentively anyway, trying her best to look politely detached from the conversation. Zuko, for his part, looks overwhelmed. His mouth hangs slightly open as he tries to keep up with Jin’s rapid-fire speech.

After the waiter comes over to take their order, she turns to them expectantly. “So. That’s here. Or most of it, at least. But it’s your turn, Li—tell me about Omashu! How’s Mushi?”

“Mushi’s fine,” Zuko says shortly. He avoids both of their eyes, toying with one of the chopsticks. “He misses it here.”

Mushi must have been Iroh’s false name. It’s the only thing Katara knows of that can bring that exact combination of regret, anger and loss to Zuko’s face. So Jin must have been a fairly close family friend to both of them, if she knows Iroh. Katara had sort of assumed Zuko was his usual antisocial self during his time in Ba Sing Se, but Jin must have been outgoing enough to pull him out of his self-imposed exile, because now she’s pressing forward with more questions Zuko is struggling to make up answers for: how was his sister’s graduation? How old is she? What will she be doing next? What about Li’s parents? Zuko answers in the shortest possible sentences, but every one just opens up another question for Jin. Katara doesn’t mind listening to them talk. She’s more than willing to let Zuko take this one—he’s the one Jin’s interested in, anyway. They’ve probably both forgotten she’s here.

Or apparently not, since now they are both staring at her. Katara startles and tears her attention away from the strand of bamboo she had been picking at that was sticking out of the weave of her placemat. “Sorry?”

“I was just asking about your story, Nozomi,” says Jin. “I know Li from last time he was here, but he never mentioned you. Are you friends from Omashu?”

“Me and Li?” The waiter brings three steaming bowls of kimchi at that moment, buying Katara a few blessed moments to recompose herself, and she’s proud of her smooth response. “Right. Me and Li. Yeah, we knew each other from Omashu before. We’ve been friends for a while. We, uh—had a mutual friend who brought us together, and we really hit it off. You know how it is.”

In a sense, it is the truth, and Katara wants to stick to the truth as much as possible to avoid mistakes. Jin nods. “Is this your first time in Ba Sing Se?”

“My first time in the Lower Ring.”

“Just coming back to visit? Or are you going to work at the tea shop too?”

“Uh.” Curse it. This is the part they’d never really gotten around to figuring out. Jin obviously knows more about Zuko’s real family structure than the soldiers did, and the lie about finding their families won’t work. Zuko’s ties here are a double edged sword, because while it’s easy for them to step seamlessly back into the vacancy, it’s going to be even harder to get back out.

She flounders, choking out a ‘maybe,’ and kicks Zuko under the table. He has to take this one. Katara has no idea what he’s told Jin already.

“Temporarily?” Zuko squeaks. “She isn’t here for long. Neither of us are.”

Jin’s expression falls. “Oh. Of course. You’ll have to get back to your family. It’s a bad time to be away, I guess.”

Finally! This is their way in. Katara leaps back into the conversation, eager to steer it to the place it needs to be. “Oh, yeah. Especially from Omashu. It’s totally overrun with Fire Nation soldiers—I’m really worried for our families, but Li and I managed to get away to find help. We were hoping we would find someone here—it’s such a big city, and we’ve been hearing rumors of unrest…”

The lie slips out so much more easily than the rest of them, fully-formed like she’d planned it instead of being a burst of inspiration. Not only does it make sense, but it’s sympathetic, and it gives them an excuse for seeking out the resistance movement. If she was alone, she would have patted herself on the back.

Now, though, she is staring at Jin and trying her best to look desperate and terrified, and it must work, because Jin grimaces and reaches across the table to lay her cool fingers on Katara’s wrist. “I’m so sorry, Nozomi,” she says so sincerely that Katara almost regrets lying to her. “I know everywhere the Kingdom is suffering right now. We are, too. The Dai Li is cracking down hard.”

“But there’s got to be someone fighting back, right?” asks Zuko.

“Well, it’s dangerous. Nobody gets involved unless they really have nothing to lose.”

Jin is smart. She listens; it’s obvious from her massive knowledge of Ba Sing Se gossip. And she’s observant. But she also cares about Zuko more than she’s letting on, Katara realizes. She doesn’t want him to get involved because she’s worried for him.

Poor Jin. If only she really knew.

“Please,” Katara begs. “Is there anything you can tell us? A name? A place? It’s our last hope for saving our families. For Mushi.”

That does it. At Iroh’s false name, Jin’s fingers convulse on Katara’s wrist and she purses her lips. “All I know is there’s a rumor about a group of resistance fighters out in the Yang District, near Chin’s Emporium. The seedy part. You know. There’s a guy there who wears a Dai Li cape because—this is just urban legend, but it’s what I heard—he actually killed an agent and got away.” Her voice drops so low that Zuko and Katara have to lean in across the table to hear her.

“A Dai Li agent?” Zuko asks.

Jin nods. “Yep. The Dai Li took his sister or his parents or something, I don’t know, there are a couple different versions going around. But he’s the leader of a group. I don’t know how many. But it’d be a good place to start.”

“Thank you so much, Jin,” Katara murmurs.

The girl smiles back, but Katara’s not the one she’s looking at when she replies, “Whatever I can do to help.”

-

While Jin is settling the bill with the harried waiter, Katara excuses herself to go to the bathroom. She side-eyes Zuko before she does, glancing between him and Jin, obviously trying to tell him something—Zuko’s just not sure what. He almost stands to catch her and ask what’s wrong, but before he can, Jin finishes talking and turns back to him.

“Well, I’m glad to know you’re still alive, Li,” she says. “I really did miss you. It’s a shame you’re not staying longer.”

A brief, but vivid, memory flashes through Zuko’s mind. A laugh, a hand, lanterns and a fountain. A split-second impression of lips on his. Questioning green eyes. There aren’t any questions in those eyes now—in fact, Jin looks like she understands something all too well as she looks at him.

“Nozomi’s nice. I’m sorry things didn’t work out between us, but it seems like she really likes you.”

“What?” He has to repeat the sentence in his mind three times to finally understand what Jin means, but then—oh. Oh. She thinks—“Me and Ka—Nozomi? No, we—“

“It’s okay. I’m glad for you.” Jin gives him a small smile that, while a bit melancholy, holds no trace of bitterness or insincerity. “She’s very pretty. I can see why you like her.”

Did they really seem like…? He hadn’t thought they were acting any differently from normal, but now, looking back, the way she held his arm, how he had walked a few steps behind her like he always did because it’s his job, he protects the back—to anyone else, he could easily seem like a jealous boy defending his girlfriend from prying eyes.

“Yeah.” Dark, glistening skin, dyed silver by the moonlight, powerful hands drawing patterns up his chest. Full lips breathing life onto the hollow of his throat. Irises that hold oceans. Katara is, she’s more than pretty, he can’t deny. “Yeah, she is.”

“I’m what?”

Suddenly, she’s behind him. Even without turning around, Zuko knows she’s there; he’s gotten used to her presence. Jin’s sad smile grows a little as she looks between them.

“I have to get home now. It was so nice to meet you, Nozomi. I hope we see each other again before you go.”

“Absolutely,” Katara says, and holds out her hand for Jin to shake. Then Jin looks at Zuko, stands, and throws her arms around his neck. For a moment, everything in the circle of his arms is warm and soft.

“Be careful,” Jin whispers in his ear. Zuko nods against her braid.

Then she pulls away and turns her back and walks away and he feels strangely, illogically sorry that he hadn’t said something to reassure her, because she deserves better than him, better than not even knowing his real name and better than losing him to a girl who doesn’t even look at him as a friend. All he’s done is hurt people, and Jin’s just the latest casualty.

But for some reason, it never gets any easier.

-

“So. The Yang District. Do you know where that is?”

“Vaguely.”

“Is it close?”

“No.”

“Are you okay?”

Zuko’s shoulders slump. “Let’s just find this Dai Li killer, okay?”

Apparently not. Katara had hoped Zuko would straighten out whatever open ends he obviously had with Jin when she left them, but either they hadn’t or the way that they had wasn’t satisfactory. There had to have been something going on between them once. The way Jin embraced him so easily, like she was used to the motion, wasn’t the action of a casual acquaintance. Katara wonders how serious it had gotten—did they date? Did she take him home to her family, introduce him as just another refugee, a normal young Earth man, virtuous and penniless? Did she love him? Did Zuko love her?

“She thought you were my girlfriend.”

They’ve passed into a quieter part of the city now, and she doesn’t have to strain to hear him anymore.

Katara’s caught between outrage and laughter. It’s such an insane idea that she’s not sure how to feel. Her and Zuko. Together. Her, in love with her oldest enemy.

Then again, Jin doesn’t know that. She knows Li and Nozomi, two teenagers who had run away together and crossed a country and are living alone in the same house.

“That’s crazy,” she sputters.

“Yeah, that’s what I thought. She likes you, though.”

“Was she your girlfriend? Before?”

He scratches the back of his neck. “Not—not exactly. We went on one date. I didn’t really have time for a girlfriend between hiding from Azula and the tea shop.”

“You liked her, though.”

“I liked pretending I could be normal.”

He doesn’t elaborate. He doesn’t have to.

The buildings around them grow more dilapidated with each street they pass. There aren’t many people around, but the ones Katara sees are flinty-eyed and skeleton-thin, clutching knives or the hands of waiflike children. The rest of the Lower Ring had been poor, but this is destitution. The houses are little more than waiting graves. But it’s obvious from the faded colors of the awnings and the storm-battered carvings on the ledges that once, it had been beautiful. Once, before the war and before the Dai Li, these people had good lives. Zuko stares straight ahead, refusing to acknowledge the eyes fixed on him from every direction, but he grits his teeth. His footfalls are heavy in the silence.

They walk parallel to the wall until they reach a building the color of ash so massive it takes up an entire block. There are more people here, most male and middle-aged, no children. They are all armed. It’s hard to ignore the way they leer at her. Instinctively, Katara shrinks back behind Zuko.

“This is Chin’s Emporium,” Zuko says quietly.

Katara scans the imposing double doors. “It doesn’t look like a store. It looks deserted.”

“It’s not really a store.”

“Then why is it called an emporium?”

“Cause there’s a market inside. Just not a normal one.”

“Should we go in?”

Zuko stares at her. “Katara, do you know what they sell in there?”

“Obviously not, since I didn’t even know it was a real store.”

“Illegal stuff. Mushrooms. Herbal remedies. Poppies.”

Ugh. One experience with cacti and Sokka was more than enough for her A shiver runs down her spine as she reassesses the crowd gathered around the entrance.

Next to the warehouse, though, is an alley that looks somewhat promising. Jin had said near, not in, and Katara wants to avoid talking to any of the gathered crowd for as long as she possibly can. She points the shadowed spot out to Zuko, and he nods, his eyes darting about as they walk towards it.

The dagger is still strapped to the inside of her thigh, underneath her qipao, easily accessible at a moment’s notice, and she keeps her hand ready to grab it if anyone approaches. Bending is out of the question for both of them. It’d draw too much attention, not to mention exposing them as their respective nations. But the alley is completely empty when they enter it. Garbage lies in thick drifts in both sides, and the stale air shifts slightly, pushing old newspapers skittering down the cobblestones, but everything is still aside from it.

“Where are we supposed to look?” mutters Zuko from behind her.

Katara peers into a darkened doorway. “Everywhere.”

He prowls up one side of the alley and she takes the other. The doorways are all similarly lifeless, providing glimpses into abandoned kitchens and dusty shopfronts, but then she pushes aside a heavy green piece of fabric hanging from what she assumes to be the entrance to yet another house to find a whole street behind it instead, smaller and clearer than the alley. “Zuko,” she calls softly.

A moment later, he’s behind her, peering over her shoulder. “You think there’s anything there?”

“Let’s find out.”

At first, she thinks it’s another dead end. It’s still like the last one had been, but there’s the constant sensation of having entered a room in the middle of a movement, of eyes on the back of her head, of just missing something every time she whirls around. The air is warm, but there are still bumps rising on her arms. The dagger is too cold against her palm.

“Maybe we should go back to the emporium,” Zuko calls from his place by an abandoned cart.

She shakes her head. “I don’t know—I think a resistance group would be hiding further back.”

“Katara, I don’t—” His words cut off suddenly in a muffled cry, and Katara spins on her heel, the dagger whipping out of its strap, but already she is too slow. There are hands on her shoulders, pulling, jabbing, inching up to wrap around her neck, long, warm, choking. She can’t see Zuko but she can hear him. He is grunting and there is a clash of metal and he calls her name again.

She shoves back against the body behind her, jerks an elbow into the gut, and there is a soft ‘oof’ as the pressure on her windpipe lessens. There is a split second and she twists out of the attacker’s grip and brings the dagger up and holds it out, her hand shaking.

Her assailant is pale, tall, and wiry, every limb corded with ropy muscle and coiled to strike. His eyes are dark.

“What do you want?” she yells.

His only answer is to leap at her. Something flashes in the sunlight—metal—he has daggers, too, two of them and more strapped to his chest. Katara twists to the side and sprints. There is nowhere to run in the dead end alley, though, and she jumps on top of the cart, sending ancient rotten fruit cascading off of it. The boy follows easily. She leaps off and darts for the green fabric at the entrance to the alley, but then Zuko’s face flashes in front of her, strained and desperate. Metal at his neck. A knife, held by a small tan hand. Her feet grind to a halt.

She feints, ducks to the side, runs back towards the opposite wall to get leverage—to get behind Zuko and get the other person off of him—anything—but the tall boy is there, dagger extended, and she takes three tremulous steps back until she feels brick behind her. Zuko’s face over his shoulder is agonized and she wants to reach out for him. That knife is pressed too close against his skin.

“Give me one reason why I shouldn’t kill you right now,” the boy sneers.

Katara gulps. “I have no idea who you are!” she gasps out. “We don’t have any money on us! We’re just refugees!”

“Refugees blabbing about the resistance.”

He jerks the point of his dagger up so it’s level with her eyes. Everything about him past the quivering silver tip is just as sharp—the angle of his face, the points of his hair, his glaring brown eyes. “What do you know about the resistance? You have no business in it.”

Is this what they’d been looking for?

The man isn’t wearing any sort of cape, nothing embossed with a Dai Li insignia, but he certainly looks dangerous enough to kill more than an agent. Maybe they had found him, albeit in the worst way possible. “Are you him?” Katara asks, forcing down the terror in her voice. “The man who killed the Dai Li agent?”

He says nothing, but his face blanches, his upper lip twitches, and it’s enough to give it away. He knows. “We’ve been looking for you! We’re on your side!”

“Prove it,” he seethes.

“How? What do you want me to do?”

“Figure it out. You’re running out of time.” Behind him, the hand holding Zuko jerks the knife, and he hisses. A thin line of crimson wells up at his throat.

Shakily, Katara raises her hands. The sharp eyes are focused on her as she wills the chi to flood up and out of her body. A quivering line of water rises out of the gutter to hang before the man’s face.

He stares her down through the stream until her vision begins to blur and she can barely keep her hands stable before he finally drops his knife. The person behind him echoes his action, and Zuko falls to his knees, one hand wrapped around his throat. Katara wants to run to him, but the man is separating them and she will not give him any more reasons to doubt them. Zuko will be alright; it was a shallow cut.

“Are you the Dai Li Killer?” she asks again.

The man shakes his head. “I should be asking who you are, waterbender.”

“I’m an escaped war prisoner being sought in at least two nations currently, so you’ll have to forgive me if I don’t want to share my true identity with strangers.”

“Fair enough.” His stance relaxes. The person behind him—a girl, tinier than Toph and older than Suki—bends down to help Zuko back to his feet. “I am not the Dai Li Killer.”

“But you’re part of the resistance?”

“I’m a similarly hunted criminal. You’ll have to forgive me for not disclosing my identity.”

Katara rolls her eyes. “Ugh, fine. But we really need to talk to the leader of the Resistance. We have really important information that he needs to know.”

“You’re crazy.” It’s the girl who speaks this time; her voice is high-pitched and melodic. “We’re not going to lead you anywhere. You could be lying. You could be spies.”

“We’re not—”

“We spared your lives. That’s more than we usually do for intruders,” the man sneers. “Don’t push your luck. I suggest you get out of this area before we decide to remove you.”

“Would you just listen—”

Apparently not. With a flash of silver and light footsteps, they’re gone, passing into one of the second-story shops and out of sight. Katara sighs.

“What now?” Zuko croaks.

She coats his throat with water, swirling it around the cut until it glows and he hisses in relief. “There’s only one thing left to do.”

Chapter Text

“The Fire Lord is coming!”

A few heads turn to look at him, but for the most part, people duck their heads and continue to rush by. Whispers rise out of the crowd. Crazy. Liar.

Next to him, Katara balances on her tiptoes, getting every inch of leverage she can from the old wooden crate that has her perched a foot above the street. “This is a serious threat, people! You have to listen! Ba Sing Se is in danger!”

“Tell me something I don’t know,” a merchant passing by scoffs.

Katara reaches out to him, leaning off the crate and trying her hardest to catch his attention. “No, listen! This is different! This is the Fire Lord himself, and he’s coming, and you have to prepare yourselves to fight—sir, wait!”

He doesn’t stop, of course. No one has all day. They’ve been out here screaming their lungs out for hours and not a single person has stopped. It doesn’t matter where they are—and they’ve been on plenty of different streets, because every time they stop for more than twenty minutes the Dai Li starts pushing meaningfully towards them and they have to dissolve into the crowd before the agents get too close—nobody ever pays attention. It’s not that they don’t hear. Obviously they hear; Katara and Zuko are shouting as loud as they can, and heads turn, eyes glance, but feet always shuffle right past as if they hadn’t seen anything at all. But they whisper. The rabble of the Lower Ring mock them mercilessly, Zuko can hear it, mock their bedraggled appearance and ragged voices. They mock them for trying to help.

“Katara,” he mutters, “this is hopeless.”

She doesn’t even pause in her shouting to answer him. She just shakes her head and starts windmilling her arms, trying to whip up more attention from the obviously apathetic populace.

Katara.

What, Zuko?” she hisses.

“We’re wasting time. None of them are paying attention to you. Come on.”

“No, you come on! Maybe if you were shouting too—”

“I have been,” he reminds her. “All morning. And nothing’s happened. Face it, these people either don’t believe you or they don’t care.”

“Don’t care? These are their lives we’re talking about!”

“They think we’re crazy. They don’t have to listen, so they aren’t.”

Finally, she drops her arms and hops down off the box. Zuko gratefully follows. His throat is starting to ache from shouting so much.

“Fine.” She starts walking towards what seems to be nothing in particular, though she does it very purposefully. There’s no choice for Zuko but to follow, so he does, nearly jogging to keep up. She’s been on this maniacal jaunt since they left the alley yesterday; last night, she’d barely even slept. The sound of her tossing in her bed had kept him awake half the night. “If they won’t listen, we’ll have to make them listen.”

“What does that mean?”

He shouldn’t have asked. Apparently, Katara’s crazier than he thought. She hooks a sudden right onto a doorstep, raises her hand, and knocks.

“Katara, what the—”

The door swings open to reveal a disgruntled old man. He peers at the two of them down his nose. “I already bought Earth Scout dumplings from my niece, so—”

“That’s not what we’re here for, sir,” chirps Katara. “Do you have a moment to speak about the massive threat currently being posed to your city by the Fire Lord’s plot to storm the city in one month?”

The brick bruises his backside when he lands hard in the middle of the street.

-

People in Ba Sing Se are rude and they really do not care about their own safety. Katara has come to this conclusion based on her brief and numerous encounters with the sector of the population that has houses in the Lower Ring. Without fail, every single one of the citizens they visited slammed their doors in Zuko and Katara’s faces if they even bothered to open them in the first place. It’s even worse than standing in the street and shouting, because at least then she can pretend that someone is taking the message to heart—but the flat-out rejection she faces at every door makes her sick.

She feels hopeless. The situation had never been this desperate before. No spirit costume or fake projection of an old Avatar could get the message out. To care, the people would need something to believe in, and it’s quickly becoming evident that the people of Ba Sing Se believe in nothing at all.

Zuko has stopped telling her their efforts are futile, but his silence says it louder than he ever could. They’ve been out since the sun rose over the green-tiled roofs, and now it’s sinking behind the wall, bathing the city in pinkish half-light. Everything they’ve done today has been one huge, consecutive failure. An absolute waste of a day—one of the few they have left, one of the few they could have spent searching for Aang, because that’s another thing they have no clue where to start on. It’s like the Avatar and all of Katara’s friends have disappeared into the Spirit World. Except for the wanted posters hanging on every corner, Katara would almost believe he never came back.

“Katara,” Zuko says, and it’s the gentleness in his voice when he says her name that breaks her. He pities her. He, the exiled, abandoned, broken ex-prince, pities her. And it’s not fair. He’d been frustrated, too, this morning when nobody had even bothered to spare them a glance, and now he’s just…resigned. There’s none of the righteous indignation he’d been so fond of when she knew him before the eclipse, none of the royal arrogance he’d worn like a shield. Just an exhausted look that she knows means he’d given up long ago and is just going through the motions.

So she figures it’s not entirely her fault that she snaps, because she still is frustrated that they are trying to save lives but it is hard to help when they themselves are so helpless. “This is all your fault, you know.”

What?”

“If you hadn’t gone with her,” Katara spits. “If you’d chosen right the first time. If I didn’t have to use the water on Aang because your sister nearly killed him, if we didn’t have to wait for weeks for him to heal while you lounged around in the Fire Nation planning battle strategy. Plotting to take over the world. If you’d just come with us, we wouldn’t have to do this.”

The thing is, she knows as she says it that the words are irrational. Zuko’s allegiance wouldn’t really have changed anything. But it’s like something has taken over her voice and is spewing all of the dark angry thoughts that have been lurking at the back of her mind every time she’s looked at his face. He’s with her now—but back then, last time they stood together inside these walls, he chose Azula over her and that is never going to change. The fact that he betrayed her is never going to change.

She knows they are fighting words, and she knows it’s fighting dirty and she fully expects Zuko to fight back. But what he does instead shocks her more than any argument he could have made: he nods. “I know,” he says morosely.

She gawks. “What?”

“It was.” He shrugs. “I’m not going to argue, and I can’t apologize enough. I betrayed your trust. I was angry and confused and I felt lost, and I didn’t know what I was doing. I know that doesn’t excuse it.”

Just like that, the fight drains out of her, and suddenly, Katara is just very tired. Zuko is frowning, but he’s not angry—his brow is furrowed and his mouth is pinched in concern. For her.

“I’m sorry. That was out of line,” she mutters.

“Believe me,” Zuko says. “I understand how you feel.”

He wraps an arm around her shoulders and her side is enveloped in warmth and she can’t help herself from sagging into him. The aching pressure on the soles of her feet dissipates, and she sighs. Zuko says “C’mon, let’s go find some dinner. I bet you’re hungry.”

She tries to apologize again, but the words stick in her throat. He doesn’t seem to care. He just keeps his arm around her, supporting her, and Katara thinks for the first time that maybe people really, truly can change.

-

By the time they collapse into the rickety chairs in their apartment laden with food from some restaurant he’d managed to find specializing in Water Tribe cuisine, Katara has mellowed. She’d been putting all of herself into shouting, and now she looks utterly spent, her eyelids fluttering even as she reaches for the container of something that looks prickly and rotten and smells even worse. Zuko hates Water Tribe food, but it’s worth the sting of excess salt in his mouth to see the way her face lights up with her first bite.

“I missed these so much,” she moans. She tips back her chin and closes her eyes as she chews, and the elongated column of her throat shifts under her skin. It’s distracting and he’s not entirely sure why.

“What are they?”

“Sea prunes.” Katara’s tongue darts out to lick the juice from her fingers. He can’t tear his eyes away from the motion. Some part of him knows he is staring and he must look like a complete idiot, but Katara’s eyes are still closed. “Try one.”

The carton scrapes across the tabletop as she pushes it toward him. Zuko breaks out of his reverie to hesitantly dip a hand into the cold liquid they’re preserved in and fish around for the smallest one he can find. They’re slimy. The smell alone is enough to make him gag.

“You just…eat it?” He eyes the purple-green ball dubiously.

Katara nods. “Just try it! They’re great.” As if to demonstrate, she grabs another one and pops it in whole, chewing with relish.

Zuko is many things, but he is not a coward, and he hates passing up a challenge. The first taste of the sea prune isn’t so bad—it’s colder and tangier than he’s used to, but it’s not bad. Mollified, he bites down. It bursts open against his tongue.

By the time he’s stopped gagging and spitting into a napkin Katara’s giggles have nearly subsided. “The great Prince Zuko, defeated by a simple sea prune. Nobody knew of his secret weakness.”

“You’re the one that deserves to be ashamed!” he sputters. “That thing isn’t food! It’s—it’s toxic! It’s a weapon!”

“It’s a delicacy, actually.” Katara plucks another one out and smiles at him as she chews. “And now you’re wasting it. You’ve disrespected my entire culture. You are the most hopeless diplomat I’ve ever met.”

“You’re one to talk, Miss ugh-Zuko-my-poor-tongue-can’t-take-these-fire-flakes.”

“Yeah, cause they’re gross!”

“There is absolutely no accounting for taste among the rabble.”

Katara turns up her nose at him and twists up her mouth into an exaggerated scowl. It might have been a little intimidating to him, once, before he learned the difference between fierce Katara and teasing Katara, but all it is now is cute. “Fine then, my lord. Maybe you’d prefer the nice, bland, un-salty noodles instead.”

“That sounds fantastic, in fact. Thank you for being so considerate, Katara.”

“Nozomi.”

“Nozomi,” he corrects himself. “That’s going to take some getting used to still.”

“Yeah, we’ll have to work on it.”

“Sorry you couldn’t choose your own name.”

“It’s okay.” She smiles. “It’s a really pretty name, anyway. I couldn’t have come up with one that good.”

“It’s better than Li.”

Anything would have been better than Li.”

It’s almost confusing, the ease with which they laugh together now. It hasn’t even been two weeks since Katara refused to look at him, and now it’s the most natural thing in the world for them to both collapse together over the table, food abandoned in favor of cacophonous peals that wrack their bodies for no real reason except that they’re both unstable and laughing is better than the alternative. So they laugh at nothing in particular, and the sounds blend together into one long melody and Zuko thinks eating a million sea prunes would be worth it if Katara would always look this free and light.

Chapter Text

The next morning is better. Katara’s not sure if it’s because for the first time, a young woman opens the door to her and actually seems to care about what Katara’s saying, or if it’s because tasting home and feeling laughter has readjusted her mood from its determined sour haze, or even if it was just the benefit of the best night of sleep she’s had in nearly forever. Maybe it’s a combination of the three. Whatever it is, though, it fills her with a buoyancy that pushes her through the streets of Ba Sing Se like a bubble in a slipstream, dancing between doors and frothing over with memorized speeches heralding death and destruction and Zuko’s evil dad. Zuko, for his part, hangs back and watches, though he does come forward to supplement her story if the person is actually responsive.

It’s obvious he still thinks they’re getting nowhere, but to Katara, a handful of successes is better than none. There are sane people. They might be confused, or amused, or just trying to get Katara to go away, but at least a few of them listen patiently as she explains that they have exactly twenty-four days until a super-powered self-declared Emperor of the World comes to bathe their city in fire. All of them end up saying there’s pretty much nothing they can do about it, which Katara reluctantly has to agree with because all the people she talks with are either young children or kindly white-haired elders, but the message is out there. Someone will be ready.

Her thoughts always end up flicking back to the alley two days ago. The point of the knife aimed directly between her eyes is ingrained on a part of her memory she’ll never be able to forget, but more than that, she thinks of the man holding it. Not the Dai Li killer, not the resistance leader, but somebody important nonetheless. Somebody who knows more than he’s letting on. Somebody that she’ll most likely never see again, and, if she does, would impale her on sight. She can’t help but be intrigued.

Zuko won’t go back. He won’t even entertain the idea. He says he’d rather spend the rest of the time they have left before the possible end of the world yelling at people in the streets than nearly get murdered by a homeless Earth girl half his height. He’ll come around eventually, Katara’s sure, but the problem is they don’t have eventually—they have a week at most if they’ll have any hope of crossing even one item off of their clifftop list.

At least they made it this far. Getting to Ba Sing Se is a pretty huge accomplishment to her, considering their history, and now that they’ve arrived, there’s something about the city itself that’s infused her with a manic energy. It’s thrumming in the very air. The Upper Ring had it to an extent, but it was muted, controlled, hidden behind demure smiles and deep bows.

There’s none of that here. Here, everybody swears and runs and shoves and sweats and it’s all so real. There’s a palpable current of franticness underlying every action and it’s nearly impossible to pass through the streets without getting caught up in it. Never in all of her travels with Aang, nowhere else that Katara has ever been, has felt quite the same. Never has there been the same diversity of people, accents and skin tones and nation colors clashing from every corner of the globe and colliding across every road, flying from windows and clotheslines. Never has she seen the array of different foods and clothes and stores selling anything she ever could have dreamed of and more. Never has she felt so frenetic.

Zuko feels it too. She can tell, even if he doesn’t show it. His eyes sparkle as they dash through the streets. He loves it here as much as she does—probably more. It must be the closest thing he’s had to a real home since he was exiled.

Katara has the feeling she might have liked her own time in Ba Sing Se if they’d been here instead of trapped in the Upper Ring where the people pretended there was no such thing as hardship.

She’d like it more, of course, if they made some actual progress, but by noon she’s gotten a few promising cases and a lot of slammed doors. Better than yesterday doesn’t mean much.

Zuko manages to pull her away before she knocks on the forty-seventh door, insisting they need lunch and ‘time to regroup.’ She could probably protest harder, but it is tiring and the prospect of sitting down for a while sounds too good to pass up, so she lets him pull her into a hole in the wall where he calls the server by name and she grins at Katara knowingly before bringing out tea they hadn’t ordered. He pours her a cup and folds his hands.

“I think we need to reconsider our strategy,” he says.

Katara nods. “Agreed. What should we do?”

“Ditch the Lower Ring and go after the palace.”

What?” A few of the surrounding heads spin around to watch Katara spray her mouthful of tea all over the tabletop. She ducks her head and lowers her voice to a whisper. “Are you crazy? That’ll never work! Your sister’s got the whole Dai Li up there guarding it! How would that even help?”

“If we could get some members of the old government out, the people would listen to them more than us. At least it’s something, because right now, we have nothing.”

“Yeah, but at least right now we’re not locked up under Lake Laogai! That’s where we’ll end up, Zuko. Besides, it’d take forever to get anyone out. We’d have to scope out the whole palace, figure out where they’re keeping prisoners, plan how to get past the Dai Li without bending—no. We need to keep a low profile. The most important thing is still finding Aang before the comet, and we can’t do that from another jail.”

Zuko makes a sound like a growl low in his throat. “Fine. What’s your great idea?”

“Split up.”

“Huh?”

“Split up,” she repeats. “Cover more ground. Talk to more people. Some of them are listening—and at least this way, we’ll know they aren’t completely unprepared.”

“I don’t…” He sighs, his forehead wrinkling. “Okay. Fine. We’ll give it the rest of the day. If that doesn’t work, we’re using my idea.”

“Deal.”

It’s clear he doesn’t think it will, but Katara’s confident. Zuko doesn’t know the power of the public. He hasn’t met the people she has—he didn’t see the villages and towns all over the globe rising up to help Aang when they saw him. He doesn’t realize that a government is nothing without the people to support it. The people of Ba Sing Se have energy, and Katara knows they can use it to fight. She’s seen it happen. All they need is a push.

-

Katara goes back to knocking on doors, but Zuko’s reluctant to follow her lead—he’s fallen into the street after a faceful of wood enough times in one day. Shouting aimlessly at passing strangers isn’t particularly appealing, either. That leaves only one option—the most desperate, and probably the worst, but it’s the one thing they haven’t tried yet and he’s tired of being rejected.

The first guy he runs into is in an alley behind a butcher shop. He’s tall, lean, and dark-skinned, tribal tattoos curling up his arms and over his shoulders. He’s terrifying. Zuko gulps and steps forward.

“Hey,” he croaks.

The man glances around as if to figure out who’s talking to him, even though Zuko’s the only other person in sight, before turning his ice-blue gaze on him. “What did you say?” he asks.

Spirits, he’s tall. Is that a scythe in his belt? “I, uh, I said hey,” stutters Zuko. “Um. I’m sorry to disturb you, sir.”

“Do I know you or something?” The man tilts his head and rakes his eyes over Zuko’s body.

“No. I mean, I don’t think so. But, uh, there’s an issue, see, and it sort of affects everyone in Ba Sing Se. Especially here. So. Um. I’m letting people know about it, because it’s happening soon. And people are going to get hurt.”

The man cracks his knuckles. Zuko jumps. “You threatening me, kid?”

“No! No, I don’t want to hurt you, please don’t hurt me. It’s my—the Fire Lord. The Fire Lord is coming to take over Ba Sing Se—”

“Oh, sweet Kyoshi’s loincloth, you’re one of those crackpots.” The tension drains out of his shoulders, and he drops his hands, rolling his eyes at Zuko. “I heard already. The world’s gonna end, blah blah blah. Save it, okay?”

“No, I’m serious—

“Yeah, and I’m the Avatar. Go tell someone who cares.”

Great.

It turns out that skulking around random alleys doesn’t work out too well—it’s just tiring. Everyone hidden in the shadowy bowels of the city is dangerous, and half of the time, Zuko is too intimidated to even address them; the other half scoff and brush him off as crazy before he can get five words out. Anything would be a better use of time than this—they would have had better luck going back and attacking his father instead.

It wasn’t supposed to be this hard. The people Zuko had seen before in the Lower Ring had been so different to these apathetic, hardened ghosts. Ba Sing Se had been so vibrant—and on a level, it still is, but it’s muted now. His sister’s sucked the spirit out of the city. It’s all too evident. Poverty was always an issue, especially in these parts, but the ranks of dirty-faced children huddled under blankets and boxes by the side of the road has swelled drastically.

He wishes he could help.

If he and Katara had the time—if there wasn’t only a too-short month separating them and the possible end of the world—he’d do something about it. He’d bring them to the shop, make them lunch, give them a job, something, because in the end, it’s his fault. It’s his family that’s destroyed theirs. He’s never going to stop regretting it or making up for it.

He’s thinking about this when he stumbles into the fight. It’s not even a fight, really, because that implies two willing participants that at least are somewhat matched in strength. This is a mugging—or it would be if the victim looked like she had any money. Instead, she’s struggling dully against the grip of a burly thug, kicking up little jets of stone from the street that do nothing against her assailant. She’s shouting brokenly with a voice that’s gone hoarse from the effort.

Sudden situations must bring out the worst in Zuko. His actions get impulsive and illogical, because there is no reason for him to interfere; there’s nothing he can do to diffuse the situation, especially with only a sword and no bending. But he doesn’t stop to consider this. He’s moving before he can.

The Dao sword is out of his belt and flying through the air at the attacker while he’s still too distracting with the earthbender kid to see Zuko. When he finally notices, the edge has already nicked a shallow cut across his bicep. That’s when the realization rushes onto Zuko of what he just did.

He can’t even stay out of trouble for one afternoon.

With a growl, the bully rounds on him, letting go of the earthbender’s skinny wrists. Dao swords are wonderful in formal, mid-range, strategic battle, but against fists, they’re worthless for anything but fatal strikes. Zuko’s fingertips tingle with the ache to let the flames fly. He can feel the power building, itching to push out, but he wraps his fingers into his palms and stifles the heat against his own skin. Not here. Not where other people will see. Not where the attacker and the girl would both turn on him as the common enemy without giving him time to explain.

So he has to make do with brandishing the flat of the sword at the burly man, hoping against hope he doesn’t actually have to use it. He’s seen enough blood in the past few weeks. His opponent doesn’t seem to feel the same, though, because he reaches out for Zuko’s throat. Gold glitters in his teeth. “Mind yer own business, brat,” he seethes.

Zuko levels the sword and steels himself to strike.

He doesn’t have to, though, because the man suddenly flies backwards to land hard on his back, his skull hitting with a loud crack that makes Zuko wince. All that’s left in the place he had stood are two thick pillars jutting up at an angle from the uneven dirt.

“Thanks,” says the girl as she flings another rock into her attacker’s gut.

She continues pummeling while Zuko stares, dumbfounded. Soon enough the huge man is in the position he’d had her in only moments earlier, his arms raised to cover his face as he howls “okay, I’m sorry, I’ll leave you alone, please stop” until she finally lowers her arms and the debris falls from the air. Her chest is heaving with exertion.

The thug scrambles to his feet and dashes off into another alley at a remarkable speed for someone of his bulk, but Zuko barely notices. He can’t draw his attention away from the girl. She’s taller than he’d initially thought, but rail-thin and sallow, her brown hair brittle and her olive eyes staring at him from sunken sockets. Her smile, though, gleams.

“Seriously. Thank you.” She tosses her head and the strawlike hair goes flying. “I thought I was done there for a minute.”

He has to swallow before he speaks. His mouth is still dry from the near-fight. “What did he want with you?” he croaks.

She shrugs. “The usual. Money, excitement, something to take his anger out on. Doesn’t really matter.”

It would be hard enough to understand if his heart wasn’t racing, but Zuko’s thoughts are still wild and unfocused. The girl cocks her head. “Hello? You okay there? Did he punch you or something?”

“No.”

“Why’d you help me, anyway?”

“I—“ Why did he? Why’d he save Katara for that matter? Why’d he run away from the only real home he’s ever had?

“It would have been wrong not to,” he finishes lamely.

The girl eyes him, suspicious. “Nice moral compass you got there.”

“Thanks.” He clears his throat. “Uh—what’s your name?”

“Fei Hong. What are you doing back here?”

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

“Try me.” She plants a hand on her hip.

“The Fire Lord is coming to attack Ba Sing Se in twenty-two days using the power of a comet that only comes once every hundred years and he’s planning to take over the whole Earth Kingdom, so I’m spreading the message so all of you can get ready to defend yourselves.”

Fei Hong shrugs. “I’ve heard worse.”

“You—no, but this is real. I mean it. It’s a serious threat.”

“There are lots of serious threats in this city.”

“Argh!” Zuko groans. “I’m serious, okay? Please believe me. No one else has.”

She stops moving suddenly. It’s sort of unusual; she’d always been in motion, a bit of her twitching or shifting at all times, but now she freezes to focus on him with her unnervingly intense stare. He has no choice but to stare back, and what he sees scares him. He sees desperation. He sees years of premature worry lines etched into skin flaking and rough from malnutrition. He sees tired bags on her cheeks and scars littering her neck and shoulders. He sees a life of struggle.

He doesn’t know what she sees, but whatever it is, it makes her step back and say “okay.”

“Okay?”

“I believe you,” she says. “I’m pretty good at telling when people are lying.”

“You’re the first one,” he says weakly.

“You probably weren’t telling the right people. Nobody’s going to fight to protect something that isn’t theirs unless they have nothing else to lose.”

All of the people they’d approached before scroll through his mind: parents and business owners, siblings and lovers, homemakers. People with lives and attachments. People who put safety and security above freedom. But for people without the former, the only thing they have left to hold onto is the latter.

“Twenty-two days,” repeats Zuko.

Fei Hong nods. “I’ll fight.”

“Thank you.”

Thank you.” For just a moment, her exterior slips, and the extent of how little she has to lose is exposed. “You’re brave for doing this.”

“I’ve made mistakes,” confesses Zuko, and the pressure in his fingertips aches. “I’m just trying to make up for them now.”

-

She’s just completed her thirty-third rejection of the afternoon when Zuko comes jogging up to her, weary but infused with a quiet energy. “We’re doing this all wrong,” he pants.

Katara frowns and bites back a scathing remark. “So you’ve said. Many times.”

“No. I mean, I know the right way now. Come on.”

“Zuko, what—“

Warm fingers close around her wrist, and he sets off again in the direction he came, pulling her along after him. She refuses to acknowledge that the touch is beginning to feel familiar.

“I met this girl in an alley—well, I stopped her from getting mugged and then she sort of saved me from getting beat up—and then we started talking. She’s homeless and she’s an orphan. But she believed me. She said she wanted to fight, she’s going to defend the city, and she’s an earthbender too. A pretty good one, even though it didn’t look like she had any formal training. Anyway, what I’m saying is that’s who we need to talk to. The people our age. The ones who are still making their future.”

“Kids? Really?”

When Katara pictured the forces of Ba Sing Se rising up to defeat the Fire Army, she’d imagined a seamless battalion of experienced fighters, men trained in being leaders and coordinated, poised attacks. What Zuko is suggesting sounds more like a gang of teenagers throwing rocks at the most dangerous threat in the physical world. Ozai would slaughter them in droves. “Do you think they’ll actually be able to…” she shrugs. “Do anything? Sending a bunch of inexperienced children into battle would be a bloodbath.”

“Six months ago, you were an inexperienced child.”

“I…”

“Don’t doubt our power,” says Zuko quietly. “Look at Toph. She’s twelve, and she’s defeated some of the world’s most elite fighters. My sister, your brother, the Avatar—they’re all kids, and they fight. We’re kids, and we fight. We’ve fought all our lives, even if we didn’t realize it.”

“I don’t want to condemn anyone else to this!” The exclamation slips out unwarranted. Katara hadn’t been able to put a name to the uneasy feelings she’d had, but this is it—regret. Not for her own path, but for those of the children who’ve started on it already and can’t turn back. She wouldn’t change a second of her time with Aang, but—“It destroyed our childhoods. I can’t ask anyone else to go through that, too.”

Zuko’s footsteps slow to a near-halt and his grip slackens on her wrist. She doesn’t pull away. “They’re living in a war zone, Katara. Their childhoods are already gone.”

The alleys are more extensive than she’d realized. Zuko had stuck to the main ones when he led her around before, but now they plunge into the guts of the city, the parts that even sunlight can’t touch. Compared to this, the rest of the Lower Ring is an extravagant paradise. Even the Yang District didn’t have the figures wrapped in rags huddled in empty doorways that line the street here. The stench of rotting food makes her gut twist, but the dirty faces peering up at her are what make her feel faint.

“How can they live like this?” she murmurs. “Why doesn’t anyone do anything about it?”

“Who is there to help them?”

She must have gasped, because Zuko looks at her and his face softens. “It’s the Dai Li,” he says quietly. “It’s the corruption in the government. Once all of this is over, we’ll do something. When the country goes back to normal—when it’s stable, when we’re all safe—I promise we can fix this.”

They need help now, Katara wants to say. Look at them. They’re dying. It hurts more than any wound to know that he’s right—that there’s nothing the two of them can do to help right now, not alone and exiled and virtually powerless. The only thing they have let to use are their voices.

But words can damage, too, and if they were swords, Zuko and Katara would have stabbed their way through the entire Dai Li armed service in one afternoon.

His theory is right. The best reaction Katara had ever gotten on the street was detached and vague apprehension, but the people here grasp at anything, and they latch tight onto the message. There’s a disproportionate amount of earthbenders driven into hiding from enforced enlistment into the Fire army, and they are young, strong, and very angry. Some of them are the same age as Toph, and when they stamp their feet and curl their fists at Ozai’s name, the pebbles vibrate in the dirt and Katara wonders if Toph would have been taken by the army too if she hadn’t escaped. She wonders how many children like Toph hadn’t escaped in time. These ones did, though, and it takes next to nothing to rile them up to fight. They are looking for blood.

Katara doesn’t want them to fight. With every new person she falsely introduces herself to, with every inch her heart drops in her chest, she hopes against hope that wherever Aang is, he’s training hard and it will never come to this last line of defense against the domination of the Earth Kingdom. But at least if the city goes, it will not go quietly. It will not go unprotected and unprepared. The alleys of Ba Sing Se will explode. They will fight. And alongside them, Zuko and Katara will have to fight their own battle thousands of miles away. They’re going to have to find their way back to the place they started eventually, and they will have to burn it to the ground.

-

They stay out long past sunset and stumble home in darkness broken only by watery puddles of lantern light. Katara is silent by his side. Her hair is falling out of its bun in loose curls around her face, and her steps are slow and labored. Her feet must ache—his do too—but he gets the impression that’s not the cause of her lack of conversation. She has a pensive expression that he recognizes as the one she wears after coming in close contact with the fallout of the war—a little morose, a little frustrated, but mostly guarded, her thoughts obviously racing in her head but for once not on view to him. He lets her think. He’s not sure what he could say to reassure her anyway.

When they arrive at the front door of the tea shop, she finally breaks the silence. “Thank you.”

“For what?”

“I know you never liked this whole idea,” she says. “Honestly, I don’t, either. But it makes me feel a little better knowing that at least they know what they’ll be up against.”

“They deserve to know.”

She ducks her head towards the ground, folding her hands in front of her. The light of the lanterns catches her hair and the highlights of her face, pronouncing her nose and brow and lips and throwing her eyes into shadow. “More than that, though,” she adds quietly. “Thank you for leaving.”

At first, he doesn’t understand what she means, but she continues on, taking his confusion for encouragement. “It was—it is—Zuko, you left everything you know behind. Your family, your friends, your home, everything you worked so hard to get back. Everything you chased for all those years. You gave it up for us. That’s an incredible act of bravery.”

“You don’t have to thank me, Katara.” He must be burning red; he can feel the heat in his cheeks.

“I want to. I need to. Without you, I’d be rotting in a cell in a Capital City prison, and these people would never know what hit them. But you’re working so hard to help them—working against your country, against your family—because you know it’s the right thing to do.” Her voice drops to a fierce whisper. “Never let anyone tell you you’re not honorable, Zuko. You’re the most honorable person I’ve ever met.”

Nothing his father has ever said to him made his throat close up and his head spin the way Katara’s words do. It’s the only thing he’s wanted to hear since the memory of heat on his face—you are honorable. You have honor. Nobody can give it to him, nobody can restore it, but him. And in the eyes of this girl he’s wronged a thousand times, he has restored it already, and it has nothing to do with capturing a prize or reclaiming a crown. It’s his because he redeemed himself.

His breaths come shallow, but the ache in his chest has never felt so good.

He wraps an arm around Katara’s shoulders and surreptitiously brushes the extra moisture from the edge of his eye with his spare hand. “Come on,” he says gruffly. “It’s been a long day. We should get home.”

He doesn’t let her go until they’re safe inside their tiny apartment, and she doesn’t pull away.

Chapter Text

“You aren’t going off on your own.”

Katara huffs and pushes her bowl aside. “And why not?”

“It’s too dangerous. There are horrible people in this city, and most of them are in the alleys.”

“I’ll be fine, Zuko.” She rolls her eyes. “You’re forgetting I’ve survived much worse. Believe me, a handful of thugs and bullies is nothing compared to the Unagi.”

“But you can’t bend. The absolute most important part of this is that we can’t give ourselves away at any cost. One knife isn’t going to be enough to protect you from them. I know, okay? It isn’t,” says Zuko, leaning over the table earnestly.

“Then I’ll run. It’ll be so much quicker this way—we’ll cover twice the ground. I’ll be fine.”

He frowns deep enough that his eyebrows crease and meet over his nose. “I don’t like this.”

“Stop worrying, Zuko.” She stands from the table, hoping it’ll bring an end to the conversation, so she has her back turned to him when she hears what he says next.

“I can’t help it,” he mutters. “You’re all I have left.”

The words shoot straight through her like a shard of ice, just as sharp but burning instead. Her feet freeze in their path. He doesn’t say anything else, though, and a moment later she forces her body to begin moving forward again. She doesn’t say anything to him; he probably thinks she didn’t hear him.

The truth is, she doesn’t want to admit he is all she has right now too.

They part at the place the main alley behind the tea shop splits into a warren of shadowy smaller streets. Zuko places a hand briefly to her shoulder before he turns his back—the goodbye of comrades, of soldiers going off to war, and in a way, they are. It’s quick and simple but the warm weight seeps down through her skin and into the pit of her stomach, settling there like the rocks Gran-Gran used to heat in the hearth before placing them at the foot of Katara’s bed in the worst of the winter months. She tells Zuko “I’ll meet you back here at sunset. Don’t worry about me.”

“Be safe,” he answers.

Then she’s suddenly on her own in the thick of the most dangerous part of a mostly-unfamiliar city with a knife in her hand and a warning on her tongue.

In concept, it hadn’t seemed too difficult. It had worked well for them the day before—scouring the alleys for the most non-threatening looking people and approaching them together, working the initial speech out to a mechanical precision and repeating it to anyone that didn’t run away, lying through their teeth about who they were and where they came from and how they knew so much about the Fire Army’s plans anyway. Towards the end, it was almost easy. Katara had assumed doing it alone would be the same.

What she hadn’t counted on were the differences in reactions between her and Zuko roaming the alleys together and her wandering alone. There had been a few stray looks yesterday, men sweeping their eyes speculatively from her hair to her sandals, but they’d always looked away after catching sight of Zuko’s hard glare. Now, though, there’s no fierce boy to block their gaze. There are leers and taunts and a couple grasping hands that she dispels quickly with a flash of her knife, but it’s unnerving. The message is obvious: this is not a safe place for young girls.

Maybe Zuko was right. Not that she’ll ever admit it to him, but maybe, just this once, he had the right idea. Without her bending, there’s not very much she’s going to be able to do to defend herself if it comes to it. As stupid and as sexist as it is, his presence had kept the men away.

He’s probably facing not even half this trouble, she thinks bitterly. The lowlifes of the alleyways probably respect him, might even fear him. Just because he’s a boy.

Well, she’ll show him. She’ll prove she can protect herself. She doesn’t need any prince to help her. Whatever Zuko’s doing, she can do it twice as well.

-

The point of Zuko’s sword is quivering. He tries to hold his hand steady, but the tremors running down the length of his arm and the alarm bells clanging in his brain make that an impossibility. It makes it hard to concentrate, and his vision blurs. The three bodies hulking over him merge into one huge mass.

“Yer mighty lost, kid,” one of them sneers. The mass advances.

“Stay back,” Zuko shouts, detesting the way his voice breaks. “I—I have a sword.”

He jerks it as if to make a point, and the metal swishes through the air. It should be threatening. Usually, it is very threatening, but knowing he can’t bend to defend himself makes him more nervous than usual. All of his blazing adrenaline has abandoned him when he needs it the most.

“And we got fists, and we know how to use ‘em.”

The pair of arms in the middle lifts them up. Zuko gulps and takes two steps backwards.

“I really would stay back if I were you,” he tries again. “I’ve been trained in swordfighting. I’ve—killed.”

“This is the Lower Ring, not some fancy arena,” the one who first spoke spits.

There are two very obvious choices. Either he sticks to his sword and trusts his training—which, in any fair and honorable situation, would excel, but in an uneven, close uncontrolled situation like this won’t be any use—or he risks bending and giving himself away. Both are bad. Both are going to result in a lot of trouble for him. Only one will conceal his true identity and buffer him from the worst extreme of the bullies’ wrath.

He groans and crushes the embers into his palms.

The middle one lunges first, fist making a wide arc at his ear that’s easy to avoid, but as Zuko ducks, another man catches him in the side with a heavy blow. He stumbles back, temporarily stunned, and fumbles to fix his grip on his sword. No sooner is he re-acquainted with his surroundings than the third man comes up with a knife pointed at Zuko’s gut. Zuko manages to get his sword under the arm and flip it up, sending the smaller blade glittering through the air, but now they’re mad. Mad and stupid. Mad and slow.

Zuko has a third option.

He hates it, but with every split second they come closer, it becomes evident it’s the only choice that could result in him getting out of here safe and alive. It’s not his style—he confronts, he attacks, he punches through his enemies with blasts of flame.

Not this time. This time, he hikes a foot up onto a crate, throws his weight into the movement, and leaps.

The momentum propels him up to the second story of the building, and he hooks his fingers over the railing of a balcony, hoisting himself up and over with a grunt. The thugs are staring up at him and shouting.

Zuko sheathes his sword, waves, and takes off running.

-

Her legs are aching from the flat-out sprint, the repeated impact of shoe soles slapping the hard-packed dirt jarring her bones with every step. Her lungs can’t seem to pull in enough air. There’s fire slashing through her chest, ripping an angry path from the back of her throat to her sternum, and her breaths are coming ragged through her dry mouth. She can’t keep going like this. She can’t.

But it doesn’t sound like the feet behind her are slowing, either, and she can’t face them. They’re bigger than her. Intimidating. She thought she could outrun them, but she doesn’t know these streets like they do. She’s not fast enough, and they’re showing no signs of stopping.

She’s going to have to stand and fight.

It sends a chill down her spine worse than any lack of breath in her chest. She’s got the dagger in her hand and her fists and her feet, but the two of them were older, taller, strong-looking, probably armed. It had been going so well, too, up until she ran into them. She’d been talking to people. Convincing them. And they’d been listening, they’d been promising her they’d spread the word. Of course it couldn’t last—of course she had to make one wrong turn and end up alone in a dead-end street with two leering lowlifes who’d taken too strong of an interest in her. And of course she had to turn and run, and of course she knows nothing about the streets of Ba Sing Se so of course she had to get hopelessly lost.

Of course she had to refuse Zuko’s help this morning. She was crazy to think she could do this.

Behind her, the rhythm of footfalls is growing louder; they’re gaining or she’s slowing. The handle of the dagger is slick with sweat in her hand.

She’d been so confident. She wanted to prove that she could do it—that she doesn’t need anyone else, not Zuko, not Sokka, not Aang, to make a difference. That she’s capable of taking care of herself like Gran-Gran taught her.

She is capable of that, isn’t she?

Just because she’s a girl—just because she’s an untrained waterbender—doesn’t mean she can’t be a fighter. She has been, and she will be, even without support.

It’s her own choice to let her feet run to a standstill, and though her heartbeat is pounding in her ears, there’s something thrilling about turning to face them. They jerk to a stop, temporarily confused.

They’re tall. They’re muscled. They’re men, and there’s a dangerous glint in their eyes.

But she is the last waterbender of the Southern Water Tribe and she is not afraid.

She uses the momentum of the first fist to whip the attached arm around behind the man’s head, and he howls in agony. If she’s lucky, it’s dislocated. If not, it’ll still hurt for a while. It gives her an opportunity to duck low and sweep a foot out to catch the second man’s out from under him.

He’s up again in an instant, glaring now, the rough lust transformed into pure, fiery hate. He lunges again. She twists. It’s like a dance, but she knows her partner better than he knows her; it’s clear he’s never dealt with this style of fighting before. His feet are too planted; he relies too much on brute energy that can be redirected with the smallest of movements. Katara can turn his own strength against him without even needing to bend.

She keeps the other one down with well-timed kicks to the stomach. Her hands stay locked in the air, meeting muscle at every turn and pushing, shifting, changing the direction, turning attack into defense until he’s pressed back against the wall. Somehow her dagger has ended up at his neck.

The man gasps. Under her fingers, the pulse in his neck flutters like a sparrowkeet’s wings. “Who are you?” he rasps.

Katara presses the blade in a little more, just enough to sting, just enough to make him pull back and hiss but not enough to break the skin. “I am more than you will ever be,” she whispers. “Now leave me alone.”

They don’t go after her. Either they’re too stunned or they actually listened to her; it doesn’t matter which.

She doesn’t have to sprint anymore. Instead, she saunters down the alley, knife dangling between two fingers and heart strangely light.

-

Katara’s done something big. Word travels fast in the streets, and gossip about a small girl who’d overpowered two full-grown men with only a knife spreads like wildfire. Nobody knows her name, but Zuko knows it couldn’t be anyone else.

Most of him is filled with pride and relief. He shouldn’t have doubted her; Katara is strong, smart, and resourceful, and she’s got a drive to live beyond anyone else he’s ever seen. There’s a tiny part of his mind that resents her victory, though, and as hard as he tries, it’s hard to ignore. He’d barely managed to outrun his attackers. His only salvation had been ducking into a second-story apartment that he hadn’t realized was occupied until he was already inside it. He’d been promptly thrown out, but at least it had saved him.

After that, though, the day had gone better. The interior streets are full of kids and mostly empty of soldiers and Dai Li, and he’d talked to so many of the homeless refugees that he lost count halfway through the afternoon. Some of them had started up genuine conversations with him. Those cases were both the best and the worst, because they were the ones most interested in what he had to say, but hearing their own tales of being chased from their homes and to the streets put a lump in Zuko’s throat that still hasn’t dissolved. It’s savage and vile and it hits a little too close to home. It seems that’s all his father can do—chase people out of their homes.

He’s going to come back here, someday, if they manage by some miracle to win the war. He’ll come back and fix everything he’s helped to destroy.

Right now, though, the sun is setting and Katara is probably wondering where he is. They have to survive this war before he can even begin to think about peace.

To his surprise, he gets to the junction of passages behind the tea shop before she does. It takes a few minutes for her to emerge out of the crowd, during which he leans against the wall and catches his breath. It’s the first pause from walking he’s had all day, and he’s glad for it; his time in the lap of luxury has made him forget how it feels to be in constant motion. Hard work and fighting are good for him. He can’t afford to be complacent when the comet comes.

He’s finally begun to relax when Katara separates herself from the slipstream of bodies gliding along the street. She is breathless and her skin is tinged pink with exertion and light from the twilight sky, and then she smiles a dazzling, exhausted smile at Zuko and his chest constricts. Everything in his mind goes white.

He’s glad she’s safe, that’s all. He was just worried. It’s normal.

“Hey,” says Katara. “How’d it go?”

Slowly, his thoughts fade back in, and somewhere in the foggy interim a matching smile has spread unbidden across his face. “Pretty good.”

“Me too.”

Her fingers are twitching in the hem of her qipao. Zuko wonders what it would feel like to reach out and still them with his own, cover their fretful playing and feel the cool softness of her skin against his own. The way her joints would fit between his and her thumb would brush along his wrist. He doesn’t, of course, but he wants to so much that his arm jerks out towards hers before he forces it to fall back.                                         

“Come on,” he says. “Let’s go home.”

-

They make dinner together. Katara is starving. She’d skipped lunch in favor of exploring a particularly promising side street (that had, in fact, held a family of three young earthbenders incensed with the city’s current situation) but the hunger is finally catching up with her now that the adrenaline has faded. No sooner do they step back into the shop’s tiny apartment than they are tearing open the cabinets, scraping together odd bits that Iroh and Zuko had left from their last stay. Iroh, being the food enthusiast that he is, had kept them well-stocked, and Katara recognizes enough of the items to create an Earth variation of a stew Gran-Gran used to make in the warm months. Zuko insists on helping, even though he has no idea what he’s doing. Katara doesn’t argue. She’s beginning to get used to his refined palace manners, and she’s not about to deny another willing set of hands. It’s not like Sokka or Toph or even Aang had ever offered to help with cooking. In contrast, Zuko takes to his task of chopping vegetables with a zeal that makes her giggle. She ducks around him as she gathers other ingredients, but the kitchen space is miniscule and she brushes against his back every time she passes.

“Did you run into any trouble today?”

“A little.” She shrugs and shakes a bottle of something she hopes is salt into the pot. “There were a few creepy guys, but I dealt with them.”

“I heard.” Zuko glances at her out of the corner of his eye.

“What do you mean?”

“There were people talking about you and I overheard them. The girl who took out two members of one of the Lower Ring’s most brutal gangs with only a knife and her fists. There’s only one person that could be.”

She flushes. “It wasn’t that impressive. Just waterbending principles minus the water.”

“No, it’s pretty impressive, Katara. Don’t downplay it. You’re strong.”

He says it so easily, like it’s a fact. Maybe he doesn’t realize what it means to her, especially coming from him, but Katara bites her lip and tries not to grin.

“What about you? How’d you make out?”

“Okay. Had a similar situation to yours’. Didn’t go so well.” Zuko grimaces.

“What happened?”

He hacks at a yellowing head of cabbage as if it’s done him a personal wrong. “They attacked me for being on their turf, and I’m out of practice with the swords, I guess.”

“Did they hurt you?”

“I ran away before they could.”

He lowers his voice and ducks his head. Katara concentrates on stirring, but what she really wants to do is put her hand on his shoulder the way he has for her so many times. He’s avoiding her gaze, though, and she doesn’t think it’d go over well. They’re still testing the limits of their relationship; this is one of those invisible boundaries that she hasn’t crossed yet, and she has no way of telling what will happen if she does.

“So no spectacular victory like you, but I got out. It was fine.” Zuko shrugs. “I could have taken them all if I could have bent. I would have knocked them all flat. They deserved it.”

“You did the right thing, Zuko. You didn’t give yourself away. We’ve got more important battles to fight.”

“If I can’t deal with a few Earth thugs, how am I going to win a fight against my father and my sister?”

Katara drops the spoon into the pot, stew and stupid boundaries be damned, and her hands fall squarely onto Zuko’s broad shoulders. Muscles shift under her palms as his chin jerks up and bangs go flying out of his eyes. “Don’t doubt yourself,” she says firmly. “You are a terrifyingly powerful bender and an incredible warrior. I know. I’ve fought you. Whatever happens, you are going to be fine, Zuko. I have faith in you.”

Neither of them move. She didn’t realize she’d come so close; her shoulders are nearly brushing his chest, and she has to tilt her head up to look into his eyes. His breath is strangely shallow. If she stepped any closer, they’d be embracing. He could have his arms around her in a second and he could squeeze so tight he’d snap her spine. He could wrap his hands around her throat. All it would take to end everything is one small movement, one well-placed jet of fire.

But he doesn’t move, and for the first time she can remember, she can’t feel any of the sick hot fear lurking in the pit of her stomach when she looks at his face.

Zuko clears his throat, fanning warm breath across her nose. “Uh, I think the soup is burning.”

-

The soup did end up burning. It was still good. He would probably eat raw boarcupine meat and think it tasted good if Katara made it.

What’s better, though, is the way they sit together at the table after they give up on the charred remains of their dinner and share a pot of Uncle’s best red oolong. Katara loves it immediately and says she’s never tasted anything like it before, which is probably accurate since the leaves only grow in humid equatorial climates and that means it’s very expensive and difficult to find outside of the Fire Nation. When he tells her this, she makes a face.

“I guess something good came out of the Fire Nation after all.”

Her mouth hardens and her fingers convulse around the teacup. Usually, he can ignore the frequent, almost absentminded jabs she makes at his country, but this one is too pointed.

“It’s not all bad. There are good people there. Normal citizens. Not everyone is evil. And there are nice parts, too—the far islands mostly keep to themselves and try to ignore the war.”

“You can’t ignore the war.”

“They’re pretty isolated—”

“Well, they shouldn’t.”

He reaches out to refill her teacup, but she knocks his hand away. “They should know what their country is doing to the rest of the world. They should understand.”

“It’s not their fault!”

“They’re not doing anything to help, either. Nobody else has the luxury of ignoring what’s going on. They just were lucky enough to be born on the right side of the fight.”

“Katara, that’s not—”

“They don’t know how it feels—”

“They do, okay? My family screws everyone over, not just the other nations. My father is a tyrant. My sister is power-hungry and insane. What could anyone have done? What could I have done?”

Katara’s face falls rapidly. The ire fades from her eyes as quickly as a winter sunset. “That’s not what I meant,” she mumbles.

He tries to say “I know,” but the heat rising in his throat makes him wary of speaking without his voice cracking.

The frustration came out of nowhere. It ignites him—anger at his family, at Katara, at their situation, but overwhelmingly at himself, because as horrible as it makes him feel she’s right. He could have done something. He was in the perfect position to take everything down from the inside and all he’d done was lounge around eating fruit tarts and chasing after a girl from his past and trying to please his father. If it hadn’t taken him so long to realize—if he hadn’t betrayed Katara in that cave, if he’d taken Iroh’s offer and lived out his life as a peaceful tea server, hidden and safe—where would they be now? Would the war be over already?

Similar thoughts must be rushing through Katara’s mind. Somehow, at least, she arrived at the same conclusion as him. “You can’t think about what could have happened. What’s done is done,” she says, and sighs, her shoulders sagging. “You made the right choice in the end. We’re going to fix this now.”

“If I’d done it before—”

“Then maybe Azula would have gotten to Aang anyway. There’s no way to know for sure.”

Katara’s voice softens. Outside the window, there are people shouting and the sound of breaking glass. She winces.

“What I do know, though, is that we’re here and we have something we need to do and we are going to do it. We can save this city.”

“How can you forgive me?” he blurts out.

“I’m not forgiving you. Not yet. But I am giving you the benefit of the doubt. You have changed, Zuko, and maybe I don’t totally understand why—maybe I never will—but we’re allies now, and allies do their best not to hate each other. Right?”

He smiles. “Right.”

-

The problem is, it’s becoming disconcertingly easy not to hate Zuko. It’s beginning to feel like she doesn’t hate him at all anymore, not even a bit. It’s beginning to feel a lot like warmth in her stomach and laughter and a level of comfort she never would have dreamt of associating with him.

It’s beginning to feel like friendship.

Chapter Text

It’s easier the next morning for Zuko to turn his back on Katara at the mouth of the alley system. The way she twirls her dagger between her hands as they make plans to meet back up assuages any of his leftover fear; there’s a subtle hardening in her ocean irises that hadn’t been there yesterday, and it makes it obvious she isn’t going to be messed with by any of the backstreet rabble.

Zuko, on the other hand, is wary of accidentally stepping into gang territory again and inserting himself into one of the Lower Ring’s vicious turf wars. He’d been lucky that the men yesterday hadn’t been benders and hadn’t pinned him as belonging to a rival gang, but just because it could have been worse doesn’t mean it can’t still be. The streets he picks are less arbitrary this time, and maybe it means he doesn’t meet as many homeless bender kids, but it also means he doesn’t run into anyone looking for trouble for the entire morning, which is an achievement for him. Even as a disguised refugee, it had seemed like conflict followed him around.

Zuko’s not going to complain. He could have worse issues than an uneventful day. It gives him a chance to listen to the whispered gossip passing between mouths as he strolls by, secretly anxious for any mention of a prodigy blind earthbender or a young Southern warrior with a boomerang or a mysterious boy that maybe, maybe looks a little like the rumored-to-still-live Avatar. There’s not much to show for his efforts—the word on the street is frustratingly vague and contradictory—but he does find some things out. The Fire Navy is moving east; the Northern Water Tribe is struggling to remain isolated; the Fire Prince and the Southern waterbender and the Dragon of the West are all still at large from the capital prison and are rumored to be taking refuge near Kyoshi Island.

When the last rumor spills from the lips of a frightened-looking mother, he can’t help but smile to himself. Kyoshi Island. They might as well use their real names and start bending again for all the chance they have of being discovered here.

-

She can’t let them catch her. If they do, she’s dead.

This is the only thing Katara can think about as she pushes herself to keep putting one foot in front of the other. It’s not like yesterday. It’s not an indeterminate standoff if she slows by even a fraction—it’s not a fight she could ever win. No. If she stops running, it’s death.

Yesterday, she could judge her pursuers’ distance by the volume of their footsteps echoing against the walls, but these are so silent she wouldn’t even know she was being followed if she didn’t keep catching glimpses of dark shadows gliding along at the edges of her vision. They make no sound, don’t call out to each other as they run, only fly like night spirits after her and don’t seem to slow.

If she could bend, she would coat the ground with ice. She would turn the street to the surface of a lake in winter and they would skid into each other and topple like injured tundra moose. But there’s not nearly enough water and she can’t slow down enough to make the proper movements and besides, she isn’t going to bend. Not unless they are holding the sword to her neck. Maybe not even then, because it could give away her identity and by inference Zuko’s location. They can’t get to Zuko. They can’t have the both of them.

One of them is bad enough.

Katara spares a glance behind her and nearly stumbles. Somehow, they’ve managed to gain on her, even though she’s been running faster than she even thought she could. The shadowy quartet is fanned out across the alley behind her, two at the edges and two dashing parallel up the center in a perfectly symmetrical formation. She veers right, holds her breath, and leaps, her fingers grasping desperately as she remembers the strength she’d had to call on to hoist herself up the side of the canyon and begs her arms to find it again. The momentum is enough to pitch her up halfway onto the low roof, and she scrambles the rest of the way up on her elbows and stomach, ungraceful but quick. A shower of loose tiles clatter onto the street but she is off and running. Her feet barely touch the peak of the roof with each step.

She’s not naïve enough to think she’s lost them, but maybe they’re temporarily confused, at least enough to regain her split-second lead. The roofs are thinner and harder to navigate. Their formation will be useless up here. Of course, she’s far more visible, but the element of surprise has been lost ever since one of the agents took their first menacing step towards her as she bent to talk to a girl in a voice that was maybe just a little too loud and a little too passionate about a topic a little too revolutionary for such a public street. She should have been more careful. But they’d appeared from nowhere, the four of them melding out of shadowed corners and overhangs and she hadn’t noticed until it was too late to do anything but run.

She takes a flying jump across the gap between two buildings and lands hard on the opposite side. The rough tile bites into her palms, but she doesn’t have time to care, not when she sees one of the Dai Li agents approaching from the side, perpendicular to her path. The other three aren’t visible but they can’t be far away.

The dagger is heavy against her thigh. Heavy and useless. There’s no way she can win this one, not without water.

Running won’t work. They’re smart, but she’s evaded more dangerous enemies. There is more than one way to lose a tail. Katara dives to her stomach and skids along the roof, praying Ba Sing Se architecture doesn’t differ severely between buildings.

It doesn’t. She pitches over the edge and lands in a crouch on the balcony she’d suspected would be below. A woman stringing laundry from a basket along a line shrieks, but Katara hooks a hand over the line and slides away before her position is given away. The other end is attached to a large, squat building with a mercifully long railing along the edge of the top story that she ducks down behind as she runs, and before she sets off, she snaps the clotheslines with a quick clip of her knife.

Shouts are beginning to rise in her wake, but Katara doesn’t allow herself to think of anything beyond her next maneuver. The end of the roof leads to a wide avenue, but she hops down and runs along it instead of across until she can use two carts passing in opposite directions as cover. Judging from the commotion, she hasn’t lost the Dai Li yet, but she hadn’t even expected to go this long without capture. Maybe if she can keep it up long enough—until she finds an abandoned building, an empty doorway, a sewer cover—maybe—

She skids to a halt. Her arms fly out to steady herself even as her feet turn to run in a different direction, and the agent in her path follows, but Katara grabs at the nearest obstacle and heaves as she tears by. A series of loud, heavy thuds fills the street, followed by a cry of “my cabbages!”

How had that happened? She thought she’d lost them!

The next building is low, only one story, and she jumps back to the rooftops with the aid of a series of crates, using them as steps to get back up to her vantage point so she can survey the city. From here, it’s impossible to pick out the agents—the streets are too choked with people to make out any individual figures, and if they occupy any less crowded alleys, they’d blend in with the shadows. But at least there isn’t anyone else on the rooftops. Katara can take a breath, reassess, plan, figure out how to—

Or apparently not.

With a rush like the flap of a wolfbat’s wings, the agent to her right pulls to a perfect stop, his cape fluttering behind him. “Don’t try to run again,” he says, staring her down. Katara holds back a shiver.

She twists halfway, planning her next leap, but another agent appeared behind her while she was distracted and is advancing slowly. His arms are at his side but she knows they could snap up at any moment and rip the clay roof off the building. Up here, there’s nothing but dry air—not even a hint of rain in the deathly hot summer. Monsoon season isn’t for a month. She doesn’t have anything to fight back with.

Something sharp jabs into her thigh as she stumbles back. The dagger. Of course. At least she has that. Her movements are slow, precise, as delicate as possible to avoid alerting the two—no, three now, another is pacing down the adjoining railing towards her—and then she’s got her and behind her back and the familiar grip in her palm.

“This doesn’t have to be difficult.” The agent’s voice is icier than the walls of her village. “Just come with us. It looks like you need a vacation to Lake Laogai.”

Green light. Jet’s sickly, contorted face staring up into nothing with unseeing eyes. There is no war in Ba Sing Se, no war, no war.

It breaks through her concentration so completely that for a moment, she forgets that she’s on a roof in broad daylight and not in a stone vault under a lake. It’s long enough. They pounce, silent and precise, and she strikes out desperately but she was doomed from the moment she trapped herself up here. There are hands on her back and neck and arms and then something passes over her mouth and nose, a sour taste fills her throat, and green light envelops her.

-

Zuko gets to the main alley a few minutes after sunset. It’s a little later than they’d agreed, but he figures Katara probably won’t mind the extra time to relax a little, and besides, he’d been in a fascinating discussion with an Earth Army veteran about the Dragon of the West’s original conquest of Ba Sing Se and what mistakes the Earth Kingdom had made that they’ll be sure not to repeat. The sun had been at a safe height when Zuko had stumbled into him, but by the time he pulled himself out of the story enough to glance up, it had gotten late without him noticing. It had been a beneficial conversation, though; not only had they gotten a veteran soldier’s support and offer of leadership to the renegade forces, he’d heard all about how a young Iroh and his ingenious son had singlehandedly taken down the walls of the city with a method so devious even the Earth soldier couldn’t keep his admiration out of his voice.

All in all, it had been a very successful day. He’d talked with even more people than he had yesterday, and they all seemed receptive, and not a single one of them had commented on his pale skin or gold eyes or the distinctive scar aside from a few bitter remarks of “the Fire Nation got you already, huh?” In fact, it had almost helped to have the burn covering half his face—people became sympathetic, but never asked about it, and he never had to lie. It had been a good day. He’s tired now, though, and looking forward to a quiet night at the tea shop with Katara. Maybe he could find Uncle’s old Pai Sho board. Zuko’s not sure if Katara knows how to play Pai Sho, or if it’s even played down at the South Pole, but he could teach her. It shouldn’t take too long. She picks things up quickly. It had taken a while for Zuko to learn it, but he was young and irritable and he didn’t really care about playing anything except Hide and Explode when he was growing up.

He’ll go easy on her. Not so much that she’ll notice it, and only for the first few games, but he can imagine the look of triumph she’ll have on her face after she beats him on the first try. That thought alone is enough to quash any dishonesty he might feel for not being particularly competitive.

He can cook tonight, too; Katara deserves a break. As long as she talks to him while he works, he won’t mind at all. Maybe he could make her cherry komodo chicken dumplings. She would like those. Of course, finding fresh komodo chicken around here might be difficult—

He pulls up short at their usual spot. There’s a stray cat and a pair of old men, but no small green-clad girl. No Katara.

Weird. Zuko had been sure she would be here by now. It’s pretty late, late enough he’d been worried she might start wondering where he is, and even by the loosest standards sunset had ended a long time ago. From what Zuko knows of her, Katara doesn’t like to be late, especially not around him; she still acts like she’s walking on eggshells except for the few short and rare moments she lets her guard down. This wouldn’t be one of those. She wouldn’t be late to spite him, and she wouldn’t just forget about him. At least, he hopes she wouldn’t.

Maybe she’d gotten sick of waiting for him and went back to the shop? Zuko wouldn’t blame her. He wouldn’t want to hang around out here alone, either. Ugh, if only he had paid closer attention to the time! She’ll probably be mad now. He’ll just have to make her a really nice dinner. And some more of that oolong tea.

Zuko tries to ignore the uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach as he hurriedly gathers up the items he needs for dinner and makes his way home so fast he’s almost running. It’s logical—very probable, almost certain—that she’s already there, waiting for him, but there’s still a small voice saying what if she isn’t? What if she’s not home?

Which is ridiculous, because where else would she be? Of course she’s at home. Just yesterday, she’d fended off a pair of grown men with only a knife. If it comes down to it, she can always use her bending. Katara’s too smart to be caught. Too proud.

Still, Zuko rushes through the errands a little faster than is strictly necessary.

The roads on his way home are packed. There seem to be extra lanterns going up on every street; crews of uniformed workers are stringing up decorations from the rain gutters and cornices, and gold posters are hung from every balcony, inscribed with characters for fortune and love and happiness. Zuko had heard mentions of a festival throughout the streets today, but he hadn’t realized it would be this big. It seems like every building has some form of embellishment hanging off of it. He’s not up to date on his Earth spirits; once upon a time, during his lessons with the rest of the palace boys when he was young, he’d seen long lists of deity names and what they protected and which nations worshipped him, but it hadn’t been very emphasized and that tutor had mysteriously disappeared two days after Zuko excitedly told his father all about the legend of Tui and La over dinner. A summer deity, though, must be for prosperity because of the ensuing fall. Harvest festivals in the Fire Nation had been massive—or so he’d heard. He’d never been allowed outside the palace walls on festival days. There had been celebrations inside the palace, but they’d been small and controlled.

This must have been how the Capital City was, though: thrumming with excitement and ready to burst. Zuko wonders how he hadn’t noticed the preparations before. The mission must have taken up more of his attention than he realized.

On his street, there is a gold paper symbol affixed to every door except the tea shop’s, and wreaths of some kind of artificial pink-flowered vine are dripping from second-story clotheslines. There aren’t any lights on in his shop, but he didn’t expect there to be. Katara would have no reason to be in the front.

He pushes through the door with his hip, his arms too full of bags to be of much use, and calls out her name as he passes over the dark threshold. She doesn’t answer.

She’s asleep, he guesses. Today must have been long for her. He won’t wake her up just yet, not until dinner is ready; she deserves the rest.

Except the bedroom’s empty, too. The whole apartment is empty. There’s no sign she’d even come back.

A nervous pulse is beginning to thrum between his eyes. She’s not here. She’s out there, somewhere in the city, somewhere and he has no idea where.

Did she leave him?

It’s a thought Zuko hasn’t entertained since the moment he saw Katara’s shoulders shaking at the top of that cliff, but now it bursts out, unable to be held down: did she finally leave him behind? Did Katara finally come to her senses, understand who she’s traveling with and everything he could do to her and her friends? Was being in this city with him again finally too much for her, and she remembered what had nearly happened—had happened—not even a whole season ago? It would be so easy for her to slip away. Effortless. His stomach lurches like the ground had pitched him into the air, and he grasps for something solid, anything to balance him. Maybe none of this meant anything at all.

But she could have left anytime, if she’d really wanted to. It’s not like Zuko was ever forcing her to travel with him. She’d agreed. She’d invited him along. The whole time, it had been Katara’s choice, and if she chooses to leave now it’s still her decision. Leaving without at least saying goodbye to him just doesn’t seem like something she’d do.

Slowly, Zuko relaxes, and his fingers release their death grip on the edge of the table. It doesn’t make any sense for Katara to leave. Not now. She must have gotten worked up about talking to people and not realized the time. That’s more like her—to get so invested in her cause that she loses track of herself in helping others. She’ll come home when she can. In the meantime, he’ll just have to wait.

And he’s got the food now, anyway. He might as well make it. As soon as Zuko sets into the old but familiar motions of stirring and rolling and stretching, nostalgia washes over him, calming his racing nerves.

The cloying scent of cherry brings him back to a different version of himself: smaller, more innocent, completely assured of his identity and home and family, standing on his tiptoes in a cavernous boiling kitchen with his mother. The skin of his face doesn’t feel tight anymore. He can almost hear Ursa’s voice repeating the steps to him, and it helps. For now, he can concentrate on the rhythmic movement of his hands and not the thought of Katara, alone and Spirits know where. She’ll find her way back home eventually, and when she does, Zuko will be waiting.

-

When she wakes up, the first thing she feels is relief, because it’s not to sickly green lantern light and slick stone walls and the tantalizing, infuriating drip of a thousand tiny leaks but to a modest room paneled in wood filled with fresh air. Her wrists are bound, and she’s slumped against a wall, but she’s definitely above ground—the weight and energy of the lake isn’t pounding above her the way she remembers last time. They haven’t got her yet. Up here, wherever here is, she’s still got a chance.

Most of that optimism dissipates once she takes stock of the room, of course, but at least she can see the door from where she is behind a thick wooden lattice. Between it and her are five Dai Li agents, milling around the dim room beyond like buzzard wasps around a carcass. Escape is currently and indefinitely out of the question.

One of them notices her open eyes before she can take in much else, and before she can even open her mouth, he’s descending on her, his hat shadowing most of his face from view. “You have disrupted the peace in our great city,” he intones. “It’s time we refreshed your lessons, citizen.”

“Here?” Katara squeaks. She’d been counting on at least one night without the dizzying green lantern.

Four other heads snap around to stare at her. The first shakes his, braid swaying. “Not yet. Tomorrow, we will transport you to Lake Laogai for a vacation.”

She lets out an internal sigh of relief before remembering the role she is playing: hapless, confused young Earth girl who knows nothing of Ba Sing Se’s terrible re-education methods. “Why are we going to Lake Laogai?”

The Dai Li agent peers more closely at her. For the first time, Katara catches a glance under the brim of his hat at his face, and she almost wishes she hadn’t. There is nothing there except clinical scrutiny. No emotion, just a sterile blank mask.

“What is your name?”

“Nozomi.”

“Where did you first hear lies about an invasion of our great impenetrable city?”

“How is it—” she catches herself just in time. Still, it seems too ridiculous even by Long Feng’s agents’ standards to deny an attack and an ongoing occupation that had turned the entire city on its head. Azula’s influence is impossible to ignore. They can’t keep pretending there is no war; they are the war.

But she can’t say any of that. She has to play along.

“I overheard it,” she mutters.

“From who?”

“A man in the Yang District.”

“It is false.” There is a chilly finality in the agent’s voice that leaves no room for argument. Katara is nearly convinced he believes it himself. “There will be no invasion. Ba Sing Se is at peace.”

She hangs her head and attempts to look defeated.

The agent pauses, allows a tiny quirk of his thin lips at her subservience, and then continues. “Tonight, you will stay in our accommodations until you are ready for your vacation. I’m afraid you will have to share the room. We have been busy.”

It’s not a room, it’s a cell, but that’s not what Katara focuses on when she’s shoved through the doorway. What she does pay attention to is the other figure, because when she sees it, her heart stops beating in her chest.

Ice blue tunic. Dark hair, pulled back with bone beads. Tan skin.

He’s far too burly to be Sokka, but for a moment, she can’t think of anything else. He glances up at her when she stumbles in, his eyes—his blue, blue eyes—glowing as the door clangs shut behind her and when he speaks, she could swear it’s her father’s voice coming from a different mouth.

“You don’t look Earth Kingdom.”

-

It’s past midnight by the time Zuko admits to himself that Katara isn’t coming home.

Dinner is long cooled on the table, completely untouched, and a pot of her favorite tea is sitting next to it half-empty. He drank half of it to try and calm his nerves. It had worked for a little, but with every minute that passed, the dread lying deep in his gut grew heavier. He should get up, go out, search for her, but leaving the table would be making what he already knows true: he couldn’t even pretend to be waiting for her anymore. She’s out there alone, and he’d spent the night making dumplings. She could be hurt. She could be dead.

Katara could be lying in an alley at this moment in a pool of her own dark blood, staring up at the moon and wondering where he is and why he isn’t there backing her up, because that was their deal. Back each other up, no matter what. She is his responsibility and he is hers and she’d kept up her end of the bargain and Zuko can’t.

No sooner has he realized all of this, though, than he feels all of it slipping away. He’d spent the last few hours of consciousness on borrowed time, and now this—the horrible conclusion, the final strike—is too much.

A teacup falls from the edge of the table and shatters onto the floor as his head drops down to meet the cradle of his folded arms. No one is there to catch it.

-

“Who—what—how—”

“Quiet down,” the Water Tribe man hisses. “They’re always listening. You have to be careful.”

He crooks one finger in her direction, and Katara walks forward slowly, unable to turn her gaze from the three blue beads strung onto the strand of hair pulled out to frame his face. It’s such a small detail—so insignificant—but she hasn’t seen anyone wear them for three weeks now, and the sight hits her somewhere low in her chest like a punch, the way feeling her father’s arms around her after so many years had felt. He can probably tell she’s staring. He’s probably wondering what’s wrong with her.

When she stops a few feet away from him, he sweeps a searching gaze from the crown of her head to her feet. “What’s your name?” he asks. “Your real name, not your silly made up Earth name.”

Her throat is dry. She stutters twice getting it out, but then—“Katara.” It feels so good falling from her lips. Her own name, her water name, for once not a lie. It feels so good she says it again.

“Katara,” he repeats. “That’s Southern, right?”

When she nods, the corner of his lips quirk up in a charming smirk. “Well, Katara of the Southern Water Tribe, it’s nice to meet you. I’m Kesuk of the Northern Water Tribe.”

“What are you doing in—” she gestures helplessly at the walls, trying to encompass everything she means—in the holding cell, in Ba Sing Se, in the Earth Kingdom—into her abbreviated question.

His shoulders ripple under his thin blue tunic. “Same thing as you, I’d suppose.”

You definitely suppose wrong, thinks Katara. What she says, though, is “are you a bender?”

“That’s a pretty forward question.”

“Please,” she says simply. “I need to know.”

Kesuk searches her face for a moment, his ocean eyes so painfully similar to Sokka’s in the color, the shape, the concentrated furrow of the brow over them, before he seems to recognize something there he was looking for.

With exaggerated slowness, he lifts one hand. A trickle of water that had spilled on the ground of the cell rises, shining, to flow midair in front of his face.

Katara reaches out and grabs the other end of it and pulls it horizontal between their chests. “Me too.”

“Good.” His teeth gleam in the dark—or maybe that’s the white of the shark-bone earring dangling from his earlobe. “I need to get out of this place, Katara. I assume you do too.”

She nods. “You know what will happen, right?”

“Big field trip to the Lake Laogai Brainwashing Facility and Day Spa, yeah. I’ve seen it happen. Rather not end up there.”

“Me neither.”

Kesuk chuckles. The deep tenor vibrates through the air. “So what’s the plan, Katara?”

“The plan?” she squeaks.

“Yep. I never was the ideas person.”

“Neither was I,” she confesses. “That was always my brother.”

There’s a scrape and a slide and next time Kesuk speaks, his voice is suddenly coming from somewhere much closer to her. “We’ll, I’m sure if we put our heads together we can figure something out. We’re Water Tribe, after all.”

“We’re Water Tribe.”

Saying the words sparks something inside her—something she hasn’t felt in weeks, not since she woke up alone in the dark. But she’s Water Tribe, and the Water Tribe doesn’t let hope die.

Chapter Text

It finally sinks in when he wakes up to an empty house that Katara is missing.

Zuko had been clinging to some small shred of hope that she was just lost or caught up in something or distracted and that he’d find her safe asleep in the bedroom come morning, but when he rises from the table, muscles and joints protesting the horrible sleeping position he’d spent the night in, both beds are empty and neatly made the way Katara had left them the morning before. There’s no sign she’d even stopped in.

About that point is when Zuko begins to panic.

He tries to think logically, but it’s hard when the only thing running through his head is an infinite list of horrible things that could have happened to her. Like a rogue moose lion escaping from the zoo and chasing her down, or her becoming collateral in some vicious and bloody gang scuffle, or her being kidnapped and sold as a servant for Upper Ring households or drafted into the Fire Army or being held hostage for offending a thug, or her being recognized by someone and taken into the Dai Li.

Out of all of them, it’s this last idea that stops his reeling thoughts in their tracks. The Dai Li might have Katara. They might be taking her to that cold, damp vault under the lake and strapping her into a chair and circling a sickly green lantern around her head.

They might be sending her back to the Fire Nation right now, and he’s just standing here.

His sword is at his side in moments. He doesn’t bother to lock the shop door behind him.

-

The situation is so eerily similar Katara could laugh if she wasn’t so deadly focused. It’s almost becoming routine to her by now. She’d think that someone would have caught onto the fact that given time, water can cut through any kind of bars, but she isn’t going to complain.

This time, it goes quicker than the Capital prison because she has Kesuk and they’re only working with heavy wooden slats instead of metal. She’s not sure what she would have done if it hadn’t been. Time is of the essence now; all it would take is one quick decision by the agents’ leader or one too-long look at her face and there would be no escape for them ever again.

But it’s not, and she and Kesuk work diligently as soon as she explains the technique from the wooden cell she’d been trapped in with Toph to him. Once they break through, she’ll be at a loss, because an elite group of powerful earthbenders is very different from a couple lazy guards—but Kesuk assures her he has that part under control. “I’ve got people,” he tells her, and winks. She has no idea what he means, but he knows what he’s doing. The scars littering his upper arms are enough to tell her that.

They work side by side, slashing at the wood with a mixture of sweat, condensation, and the one glass of water they’d each received a few hours after she was thrown in, until she tires and Kesuk tells her to take a break and she’s so exhausted from a lack of food and sleep that she can’t even argue. Then they take turns, switching off every so often to let one rest as the other hacks away at the bars as quietly as they can.

It’s impossible not to think of Zuko as Katara watches the strange man work. She tries to push him from her mind, because thinking of him alone and worried fills her head with an odd fog of anxiety. He’s prone to be rash, Katara knows from experience, and he’s impatient—he might have thought the worst when she didn’t come home last night. He might be doing something stupid and hotheaded, getting into fights right now.

She hopes that he’s okay.

-

He doesn’t realize exactly how bad his idea is until he pushes through the door of the Dai Li station and comes face to face with a picture of himself.

It’s pretty accurate. His scar is on the right side and everything. In it, his hair is still short and pulled away from his face, but other than that, it’s an undeniable likeness. The words ‘WANTED – PRINCE ZUKO, REWARD OFFERED’ underneath certainly help to solidify it.

He almost turns back—almost—but the thought of Katara potentially sitting only feet away behind a heavy door is enough to stop him. That, and the fact that the eyes of all the agents in the place turned on him the second he stuck his head in and there’s no point going back now.

“Uh, hi.” He raises a hand. “I’m Li. I’m looking for my friend.”

One of the agents raises an eyebrow. “We are not here to find missing people.”

“No, I know. I was just wondering if any of you…had…heard about her,” he stutters. “She’s about fifteen, short brown hair, blue eyes? Her name’s Nozomi and she’s from Omashu?”

“Why would the Dai Li know anything about this girl?” a different agent speaks up. “Is there a reason we should know about her?”

“No! Not at all. I’m just not sure where she is. That’s all. I thought maybe one of you might have come across her but obviously not, so thank you.”

He doesn’t miss the way the agents narrow their already-sharp eyes at him as he turns his back. The door can’t slam shut behind him quickly enough.

And he’s still got no clue about Katara.

They could have been lying, he guesses, but he doubts it. If they had Katara in custody, they would have to inform inquirers of the charges against her, according to Fire Nation laws and honor codes that Azula had doubtlessly imposed on the city the moment she took power. His country prides itself on its fair and honorable system of law, and there’s no way the Earth Kingdom, of everyone, would break it.

She might not be at that station, but there are plenty around the Lower Ring. She could easily be in one of those. And if all else fails, well—Zuko’s got a pretty good memory of the place under Lake Laogai.

-

“So you never did answer my question.”

Kesuk regards her coolly as she hacks away with the thin scythe of water. “Which one was that?”

“What are you doing in a Dai Li holding cell?”

“I don’t like the Dai Li.”

“And?”

He shrugs. “And I made it very, very clear to them. Do you want me to take over now?”

Katara drops her arms, and the blade disintegrates with a quiet splash. “Thank you. What did you do?”

“Aren’t we nosy.” He reforms the water blade in his own hands and starts passing it back and forth again over the already-deep scars marking the bars. “How about a deal. You tell me exactly why you’re here, then I’ll tell you why I am.”

“It’s kind of a long story.”

“Well, I’m not going anywhere and neither are you.”

“Good point.” She sighs and sinks to the floor, pressing her back to the wall. “Okay. I’m originally from the Southern Water Tribe, but I’ve been doing some traveling recently. My friend and I are in Ba Sing Se to warn as many people as we can about a threat that’s coming to the city.”

“A threat?”

“The Fire Lord. He’s personally going to attack on the day of Sozin’s Comet, in three weeks, and unless someone stops him, you’re all toast.” Katara lets her head tilt back and her eyes slide shut. “That’s why the Dai Li got me. They caught me telling someone about it.”

“And how do you know about this top-secret Fire Nation attack, exactly?” Even without looking at him, Katara can tell Kesuk is suspicious.

“My friend, uh, heard it from someone with connections pretty high up in the military. He’s not really supposed to know it. We’ve been running from the Fire Nation for a while now.”

“How are you warning people about it, then?”

“We tried telling a rebel group from the Yang District about it, but they didn’t seem to care. We just ran into this really hostile guy and he drove us away before we could find the leader.” She opens her eyes again. Kesuk has been working hard; there are three new gouges and the whole structure looks like it’s ready to collapse. “So we’re just wandering around telling people on the streets about it. It’s working pretty well, actually.”

“Huh. A rebel group in the Yang District. Interesting.”

There’s a brief silence where Kesuk seems to be deep in thought and Katara waits for him to expand on the comment, but he never does. Instead, he only says “I moved to the Lower Ring from the Northern Water Tribe when I was four.”

“Why?”

“My dad didn’t agree with the non-aggression pact the Chief made with the Fire forces. He lost his dad and his two brothers in a raid, and when the Chief announced we were going to withdraw from the war entirely, he wasn’t happy. Then he found out that we were actually supplying the Fire troops with food and ships and weapons to keep them from attacking us, and he couldn’t deal with it anymore. We all moved to Ba Sing Se—me, my mom and my dad. And I loved it. I still do love it.”

His hands still briefly, and the implied but rings silent and clear across the room.

“Then what?” whispers Katara.

“Then the Fire Nation got them.”

Kesuk resumes his work with twice the vigor of before, each swipe rough and aborted. And Katara’s horrified, she is, her heart is breaking for him, but the most horrifying thing about it is that she’s heard the story again and again from different people in different nations and the same goal and she’s not even surprised anymore. She expects it.

“They got my mom, too,” she murmurs.

Kesuk has turned his back to her so she can’t see his expression anymore, but she can see the way the muscles in his shoulders bunch together under his tunic when he speaks. “I’m sorry,” he mumbles.

“Me too.”

With one last, vicious swing, Kesuk lets his arm fall. The water arcs across the wood like a boomerang and severs five different bars at once. “When we get out of here,” he says, “we are gonna get revenge, Katara. You and me. For the Water Tribe.”

“For the Water Tribe.” But not only for the Water Tribe, she thinks, and remember the faces of the starving street urchins, Zuko’s angry blistered scar, the bones of a culture littering the ground of a sacred place, of the Avatar’s—of her friend’s—home. Not only for the Water Tribe. For everyone.

-

With each Dai Li station Zuko enters, the bolder he gets. At the first, he could barely keep his nerves under control, terrified they would recognize him immediately and throw him in rock shackles before he could even open his mouth, but maybe the agents aren’t as astute as he’d always thought or maybe he’s just lucky. He only ever gets brief glances and hurried dismissals. On one hand, that’s a relief, but on the other, it means he has to hunt halfway across the Lower Ring and stick his head into seven different buildings before he gets word of Katara.

By this time, he is exhausted and losing hope rapidly. He’s used to the constant movement by now, but not to the way the fear seizes his heart and makes every step more difficult to take. There is iron filling the bottoms of his boots and making it hard to lift his feet, stones in his stomach and wind in his ears, but he pushes forward with her name ringing in every lonely moment. She’s in trouble. He can feel it, he knows it, and he’s going to help her because they made a deal. And, more than that, because Katara is his friend and despite everything he has begun to care for her in the way he cared for Iroh: as a companion, a supporter, a single spot of light.

He finally catches a glimpse of the light at midday in a building near the outskirts of the city, almost pressed up against the wall, the decorations hanging from the roof corners a little nicer than those of the other six stations Zuko had visited. It’s bigger inside, too, with an actual desk with a lady smiling blankly sitting behind it.

“Welcome. How may I help you?”

“I’m looking for my friend Nozomi,” Zuko spits out. “I think she’s lost. She never came home last night. I’ve spent all morning searching but none of you have been any help.”

“I am sorry to hear that, sir. One moment.” She turns to a huge sheaf of paper stamped with the current date in still-drying ink and flips through it with precise ease. “A young female named Nozomi was detained yesterday and is being held at the security station in the Qin district.”

“You are a miracle,” Zuko gasps as he turns to run out the door.

-

Katara’s hacking through the last few bars at the bottom of the door when the commotion outside starts.

Immediately, she drops the water she’d been working with, because not even an hour earlier one of the agents had come by to deliver the first food they’d received all day and she nearly hadn’t stopped bending in time because she assumed the footsteps would head right past like all the others before had. This sudden noise, though, is more voices than footsteps and is drifting back to them from the front of the station. Kesuk perks up from his drowsy stupor and glances at her. Katara shrugs. There had been people in and out of the building all day—they’d heard the door closing each time—but none of them had ever stayed this long or talked this loud or this much.

“Maybe it’s just a messenger,” Kesuk says.

Katara nods, but she’s straining to make out what the people are saying. There’s one voice in particular that’s too familiar to her. It sounds like someone it’s definitely not—someone she desperately hopes it’s not. Loud, nearly shouting, and impassioned; she can catch a few words like “friend” and “last night” and “lost.”

Then they both stop talking and footsteps echo against the corridor. Katara and Kesuk shrink back. She reaches for the dagger still hidden under her skirt, readying herself to leap at any sign of hostility or a chance for escape.

But it’s neither. It’s a figure that sends a thousand emotions shooting through her blood at once, fear and disappointment and a strange, visceral kind of joy warring for dominance.

Joy wins out when Zuko presses his face to the bars and says “Nozomi.”

“Zu—Li!” She scrambles to her feet and flings herself forward, catching herself just before she stumbles and splinters the bars and their whole plan is given away. “What are you doing here? Did they get you too?”

“I’m here to get you out. I’ve been looking for you all day.” Zuko stares at her, urgently trying to communicate something without speaking, and a part of Katara understands this is an act for the two guards watching them as they speak but another part knows the way his throat bobs and his eyes blink back moisture before he continues aren’t for show. “I was worried about you.”

“I’m okay. Really. Don’t worry.”

Katara fakes a smile, trying her best to reassure him. He watches her for a moment longer before turning to the guards.

“Can I have some time alone with her? We need to talk.”

“That’s not allowed,” one of the agents snaps.

Katara folds her hands through the bars and sticks out her lip. “Please? I missed him a lot. I’ve been stuck in here all night and I’m scared—”

Fine.” He rolls his eyes and steps forward to fit his key into the lock. “Five minutes in the cell with you. The other detainee stays too.”

“Thank you,” she exclaims fervently.

The door shifts under her fingers, and for a second, she’s terrified the agent is going to see the slash marks scoring the inside but then she’s suddenly enveloped in warmth and she reflexively closes her eyes and leans in.

“Are you really okay?” Zuko whispers into her hair. She nods against his shoulder, and his hands tighten momentarily on her back. His heartbeat is lined up against her ear. It’s jumping like an arctic hare.

She takes one moment to forget where they are and breathe in the smell of him before she lets him go.

“What are you doing here?”

“I looked for you,” he says. He pulls back a little but leaves one hand barely touching the small of her back. Her skin sparks to life there through the thick silk from the unusual heat. “I searched half the Ring. What happened?”

“I got caught.” Katara shrugs.

“How—” Zuko stops and shakes his head. “Well, I came to get you out. I might be able to pay off the guards with all the money Uncle has saved at the tea shop, and we can go—”

“No, it’s okay. We have a plan.”

We?”

Kesuk takes his cue at this, pushing off the wall and uncrossing his arms to extend a hand towards Zuko. “Nice to meet you. I’m Kesuk.” To Katara, he asks “this your boyfriend?”

What?”

“He’s cute.” The waterbender grins.

Katara fights back the blush and shakes her head. “No, he’s not. We’re not. Together, I mean. Anyway. We’ve got this under control.” She waves a hand at the door. Zuko’s eyes alight on the slash marks.

“Then what should I do? The Dai Li’s going to come get me soon.”

“Just hang around as long as you can. Kesuk says he has backup coming. Once they’re here, you can help us get out of this place.”

Zuko turns to Kesuk. “What kind of backup?”

The older boy shrugs. He’s staring at Zuko a little too closely for Katara’s comfort, his blue eyes scrutinizing every inch of Zuko’s face. From his angle, Zuko’s hair should be hiding his scar completely, but Katara has no way of telling, and it scares her.

“I dunno. We’ll have to find out.”

“How is that supposed to help?” Zuko bursts out. “How do you even know—”

“Quiet, Li!” One of the guards outside has turned his head toward them, his interest piqued by the loud voices. Katara lays her hand on Zuko’s arm. “I trust him,” she murmurs, too quiet for Kesuk to hear her.

Zuko glances down at her before nodding and relaxing. “Okay,” he says, more quietly than before. “I’ll be waiting right outside. I’m not letting you out of my sight. If it takes too long, you and I are getting out of here alone.”

“Deal.”

“Thanks,” says Kesuk dryly.

The agent and Zuko argue for five whole minutes before Zuko slips him a handful of coins and leans against the wall outside the cell, his eyes trained hawkishly on the front of the station. “Delightful boy you’ve got there,” Kesuk mutters to Katara.

She rolls her eyes. “He’s an acquired taste.”

“What’s his story?”

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”

Kesuk nods. “When my friends get here, we’re going to have to work fast. We need to be in and out before they can call for backup.”

“How do you know someone’s coming?”

“The same way you probably knew he was coming.” He jerks a thumb at Zuko. “I trust them.”

-

After the first hour and another few coins secreted out of Iroh’s stash and into the agent’s hand, Zuko is beginning to question Katara’s judgment in trusting the Water Tribe man. The ‘backup’ he’d promised is nowhere in sight, and the Dai Li isn’t going to let him—or them—stay here indefinitely. There are two options for Katara: out with Zuko or down to Lake Laogai. And there’s only one option he’s willing to let her take.

When he tries to express all of this to her, though, she just brushes it off, whispering ‘wait a little longer’ through the bars away from both the agents’ and Kesuk’s ears. Waiting isn’t in Zuko’s blood. The station is too enclosed. He feels caged in, trapped, even though he’s not the one in the jail cell right now.

The next time the agent circles around and holds his hand out, Zuko gives him only one coin, because at this rate he’s going to have to drag his money out as long as he can. The Dai Li agent gives him a sour look before gliding off. The meaning is obvious: Zuko doesn’t have much longer.

“Next time he comes back, I’m getting you out,” he hisses to Katara. “I don’t care what you or your friend says. We need to get out of here before this situation gets any worse.”

“We have to take Kesuk with us.” She glances back at the other waterbender. He’s leaning against a wall near the back corner, a picture of nonchalance, but his sharp eyes dart up to meet Zuko’s every few moments and Zuko knows he can hear every word they’re saying.

“I don’t care about Kesuk, I care about you.”

“I’m not going to leave him, Zuko,” she protests. “He could help us. He knows people. And besides, I already told him too much. If they take him down to Lake Laogai, he could tell the Dai Li my name or what we know about the Fire Lord.”

“Well, that’s a chance we might have to take!”

“Just wait—”

“Is there a problem?” Kesuk pushes off the wall and strides toward them, and Zuko knows he knows exactly what they’re talking about.

He grits his teeth. “There’s no problem.”

“Are you sure your friends are getting here soon?” Katara says under her breath. “We can’t stay here much—”

There’s a sudden crash from the front of the building, a high-pitched shriek, the sound of splintering wood and the bright clash of metal on metal.

Kesuk grins. “Does that answer your question?”

-

By the time they punch through the weakened wood and stumble out into the entry hall of the station, the fight is already halfway over. Katara had counted seven green-clad men milling about the building. Three of them are laying on the floor now, and three more are engaged in what looks like a very intense earthbending battle with three of the most mismatched opponents she’d ever seen. One of them glances up when Kesuk’s boots hit the floor, and a strange flash of recognition sparks through Katara’s mind.

“A little quicker next time, please,” Kesuk calls. The man who had glanced up throws something to him with one hand while he twirls a knife over a Dai Li agent’s forehead seamlessly as if the two motions are connected and not independent. Kesuk catches it and threads out a ribbon of water, and then there’s ice locked around the wrists of the agent who’d nearly been stabbed a moment earlier.

“Okay,” Zuko mumbles. “I guess this’ll work too.”

Katara whips the dagger out of its strap and moves in, but the agents and Kesuk’s friends are both too fast for her and she’s still not very good with any weapon that can’t be liquefied, so for the most part she just brandishes the blade at anyone who comes near her and takes a couple wild swings that don’t land. She can feel Zuko at her back, and she knows he’s got his sword out, but he has nowhere to swing it in such an enclosed space and once Kesuk was added to the fight, the winners became obvious, even though it seems only one of their three rescuers is a bender.

The four work together like the wheels of a cart. The thin one with the knives pushes forward and into corners, the girl with the whirling blades like a hundred tiny versions of Sokka’s boomerang rains destruction from the rafters, the hulking earthbender traps and locks and slows, and Kesuk defends, using a spinning jet to punch through any chunks of rock or dirt that the agents rip up through the floor. It’s barely even a battle. The agents don’t stand a chance.

If Katara was concentrating, she would have realized that the braided men attacking and lying on the floor only totaled six, but all of her attention is tied up in the action in front of her. There’s too much adrenaline pounding in her veins for any thoughts to come through clearly. At first, when she feels the hand on her throat, she thinks it might be Zuko, because it’s the only logical conclusion.

But the grip is too cold, too rough, and as it lifts her up off the floor, too strong. Katara screams.

Zuko shouts ‘Katara’ like he is the one in agony. It feels like she is drowning but water would never abuse her like this, never tear air from her lungs and make her chest so painfully tight and her head swell. She reaches up to scrabble at the grip around her neck but her fingers are useless against the necklace of rock she finds there.

Her dagger clatters from her grip. She kicks, but there’s nothing to hit, the agent controlling the stone fist standing too far away and grinning as he clenches.

The pressure in her head builds. She wants to slip away from everything.

She nearly does, but she hears her name again and it pulls her back and she wrenches open her eyes in time to see Zuko blast a column of fire into the agent’s sternum before the weight is suddenly gone from her neck and there’s nothing solid anymore and she still can’t breathe because the air’s rushing past too fast for her to catch it, and then the last bit of breath is forced out as she collapses onto—no, into—something that doesn’t feel like the ground.

She breathes. She blinks.

Zuko’s staring down at her, gasping like she is, covered in sweat and a terror beyond any kind of fear she’d seen before. The cradle under her back is trembling—it must be his arms. He caught her.

“Can you stand?” he coughs. Katara nods.

Slowly, too gently, he lowers her to the ground. She needs to stop and think, to comprehend it all, but before she can even wrap her head around the slumped body with the raw red hole ripped through the rib cage lying feet away from her Zuko has taken her wrist and is pulling her out the door and onto the street after four other receding backs.

It always ends this way: hand in hand and heartbeat screaming, running endlessly until they can’t anymore. This whole time, they’ve been running—running to, running from, running after something they can’t catch. For now, the best they can do is not get caught.

Their legs give out before Kesuk’s and his friends’ do. When they stumble to a stop, Kesuk slows to a languid pace in front of them before turning back. He’s barely even breathing hard. Reluctantly, the rest of his friends come to a stop as well.

“Good job,” says the waterbender. “Thanks for the help, kids.”

All Katara can do is nod. She’s too winded for anything else.

“Do you have time to explain now, Kesuk?” the tall man with the belt of knives asks. Again, Katara feels as if she should know that voice from somewhere.

“Jeez, give me a minute to relax, Tai.” Kesuk chuckles. “This is Katara. She got locked up with me for spreading some very interesting information around the city, and it turns out we share some blood. This is her boyfriend—Li, right?”

“Not her boyfriend,” Zuko pants, though it’s a halfhearted denial.

“Yeah, yeah. Anyway, they’re looking for a rebel group in the Yang district they heard about.” He raises an eyebrow.

Tai takes two measured steps forward and tilts his chin to stare Katara full in the face. There’s no doubt about it: his angular, hawkish features are too unique to be confused, and a memory is tearing at the back of her mind. She just doesn’t know what it’s of.

“I recognize you,” he says finally. “You were looking for the Dai Li Killer.”

“Wait. You’re—”

Zuko’s eyes have lit up too, and in an instant, his sword is up and pointed at Tai’s chest. “You tried to kill her,” he growls.

“Guys,” Kesuk exclaims, stepping between the two men, but Tai just nods.

“He’s right. I did. And I should kill you now, firebender.”

“Just try it.”

Li!”

Zuko doesn’t even glance at her. He’s coiled to strike.

“Tai Yong, cut it out,” Kesuk murmurs. He edges closer to the sharp, wary man and places his hands on the other’s shoulders, forcing him to look into Kesuk’s eyes. “They aren’t the enemy.”

“That boy is Fire Nation!”

“I think we all have some explaining to do.”

“Tai,” the girl mumbles. Katara recognizes her now, too: the one who had disarmed Zuko before with terrifying speed and agility. “Let’s hear what they have to say.”

Kesuk’s grip flexes on Tai Yong’s shoulder. Tai Yong shoots one more glare at Zuko before backing down.

“Fine. I’m listening.”

-

He doesn’t want to explain anything to this man who had pointed his knife at Katara’s neck and threatened to kill her. This man doesn’t need an explanation. He doesn’t deserve one. Katara deserves an apology.

But she’s the one stepping up instead, palms held up in a gesture of compliance. “It’s going to be hard to believe,” she warns the assembled fighters.

“You wouldn’t believe some of the stuff we’ve heard before,” Kesuk says.

“My name is Katara of the Southern Water Tribe, daughter of Chief Hakoda and Kya, and until three weeks ago, I was the Avatar’s travel companion and waterbending teacher.”

Into the shocked silence, Kesuk mutters “okay, none of it was that bad.”

Zuko’s heart sinks. It’s obvious none of them believe her—the huge silent earthbender is shaking his head and the girl who’d caught him before has narrowed eyes and a pouting mouth and their jerk of a hotheaded leader—

He’s actually considering Zuko almost curiously.

“Then who are you, firebender?”

He could lie. He could deny everything, make up a story about a missing father and a silent earth mother and mixed nationalities, and he nearly does except he sees Katara shake her head at him out of the corner of his eye.

“Zuko of the Fire Nation,” he says.

Prince Zuko,” Tai Yong says.

“If we’re being formal, then yes.”

There’s a chorus of gasps, but Tai Yong’s nodding to himself. “Pull back your hair.”

Zuko does.

“He’s telling the truth,” the man says. “I recognize that scar. He’s a fugitive from the Capital City prison complex.”

The earthbender and the girl break into frantic chatter. Kesuk’s jaw has dropped comically. “Why didn’t you tell me?” he asks Katara.

She shrugs. “We were trying to keep a low profile, but I guess that isn’t going to work now.”

“But if you know the Avatar—if he knows the Fire Lord—Tai, we have to take them back to him. This is important.”

“I know,” says Tai Yong.

“He has to know about this. They’ve got information that he needs to know about. This could change everything.”

“Who’s he?” Katara asks. Everyone ignores her.

“We have to do it now,” Kesuk urges. “We don’t have time to waste.”

“I know,” says Tai Yong.

“If they’re lying—” the earthbender cuts in, speaking for the first time.

“They’re not lying.”

“Who is he?” Katara repeats, in a louder, exasperated tone that’s much harder to ignore. Four heads whip around to stare at her.

Tai Yong says, “He’s the Dai Li killer.”

-

It’s only a short walk to the warehouse in the Yang district Katara had first seen not even a week ago, but her nerves make the minutes stretch into unbearable hours. The four older rebels walk ahead of her and Zuko, their heads bent together in some deep conversation that the newcomers are obviously not included in. Every so often, she can catch Kesuk’s voice rising above the rest, exclaiming “it changes things” or “we’ve got to mobilize” or “listen to me” impatiently.

Zuko’s silent, walking next to her so close that their fingers keep brushing. He’s got a grim set to his lips that’s been there ever since he appeared at the station, but Katara’s got too much on her mind to get to the bottom of it. Once they make it through this, they’ll talk—they’ve got a lot they need to talk about. Everything from the past twenty-four hours is running together and blurring in her head and she can’t separate any of it out.

She does have the presence of mind, however, to recognize the dead-end alley Tai Yong leads them into as the one she and Zuko had been ambushed in not even a week earlier. Instead of turning back, he ducks through one of the many cloth-covered doorways into a hidden passage that’s long and dark and cramped that makes her mind flash to the cloying shadows of the cave under the mountain and Aang’s small hand in hers. Then they burst back out into the broad sunlight of a dried up courtyard in front of a huge building that looks completely deserted.

“Welcome to our home,” chirps Kesuk.

Katara doesn’t know where to look first. There’s too much to take in, from the path pitted with crevices and shattered boulders to the tiny but neatly-tended garden adjacent to it to the variety of animals roaming the yard to the bright string of laundry swaying in the breeze. Everything about the place is a paradox—a home and a wreck at the same time—but they don’t have time to take any of it in properly before Tai Yong is ushering them indoors.

“Whatever he asks you, don’t argue, don’t lie, don’t bother. Just tell him what you know. He hates wasting time.”

“Can you at least tell us his name?” Zuko doesn’t even try to hide his exasperation.

Tai Yong purses his lips. “That’s for him to decide.”

He leads them through a warren of hallways with Kesuk at his side. The earthbender and the short girl—Katara learned on the walk that their names are Chin and Mali—walk behind them in a way that could seem casual but is obviously meant to cage them in from running. It was a huge threat taking strangers into their home, Katara guesses, especially firebending strangers claiming they’re royalty. Tai Yong must be very convinced or very desperate.

It was a stroke of luck for them, too, managing to find their way back to here almost entirely by accident. Maybe her arrest had truly been a blessing in disguise.

The hallways empty out into a cavernous room at the heart of the building, crates stacked high against the walls and mismatched furniture scattered about the interior. The far end is dimly lit and Katara strains her eyes to make out the other wall and the single figure that emerges from the shadow: tall, broad, spiky hair.

She feels something tighten in her chest. The silhouette is impossibly familiar. It looks like—

“Tai? How’d it go?”

The voice is raspy, but low and beguiling and she knows it. Katara knows that voice. Her head begins to pound as her mouth dries up. Zuko flinches beside her, but she barely notices in her haze of shock.

Jet?”

The figure separates from the darkness into tan skin, a shade paler than she remembered, glittering dark eyes and a mouth curled into a scowl, an all-too-familiar cape tied around his shoulders. He stops short when she meets Katara’s gaze. When his gaze slides past her to Zuko, he visibly coils to strike.

“What is going on?” he growls.

Katara opens her mouth to speak, but Zuko is pulling away, his fists curled. “You know this guy too?”

You know him?”

“Katara, what are you doing with him? He’s—”

Dangerous, we have to get—”

“I thought you died!”

“Whoa.” Kesuk steps forward, both his hands thrown out, one aimed at each boy, as they glower at each other, the air crackling with tension. “Slow down. What is going on? You all know each other?”

“Apparently,” Zuko seethes.

“Jet, how did you get out? I thought you were gone.” Katara’s voice cracks.

He turns, pulling the cloak closer around him. “Nearly. They left me for dead, and then they didn’t watch their backs. I’ve been hiding here, building up a resistance team ever since.” His voice lowers, a note of genuine sympathy in it. “I heard what happened on the Day of Black Sun with Aang and the rest. But if he’s dragged you here as a hostage, we’re going to have to—”

“I’m not a hostage. Zuko is on our side.”

“Fire Nation doesn’t change.” Jet spits in Zuko’s direction, and Katara moves, readying herself to freeze them both in their tracks if she has to. Zuko, though, takes a single step forward, his expression level.

“We got off on the wrong foot, Jet. But you have to listen to us now. The city is in danger because of my father, and you have to be ready when the time comes.”

“How do I know you’re telling the truth?” Jet sneers.

“Because I risked everything to be here. Do you think there’s any other reason I’d be standing here with Katara right now if I hadn’t?”

“He fought the Dai Li back there,” Kesuk adds quietly. The other three nod along.

Jet sighs, the tension finally seeping from his body. He relaxes back against a stack of crates. “All right. Start from the beginning.”

He’s looking at Katara, but Zuko is the one who launches into his well-rehearsed spiel, including every detail about the comet, the weapons, the forces, and his father’s plans that he can. It’s a fleshed-out version of his speech to the kids on the street, sparing no fragment of information. It somehow manages to sound even more ominous than usual. Jet’s face betrays little emotion as he listens. There’s a flash of shock here and there, a burst of alarm, but for the most part he only seems weary.

“We knew something was coming,” he mutters when Zuko finally finishes, “but we had no idea it would be something like that.”

“We’ve been trying to get the word out on the street, but it’s tough. Jet, I know we’ve all been through a lot, but if there’s anything you can do—”

“No, Katara. You know me. You know I’ll do whatever I can.”

He rakes a hand through his hair, making it stand on end. The four rebels have moved to circle loosely around him, and Katara nearly smiles, a wistful memory of Smellerbee and Longshot and the rest around the campfire filling her mind.

“Do you really trust him?” Jet jerks his chin toward Zuko.

Katara doesn’t hesitate. “Yes. Absolutely.”

“Will you stay and fight alongside us? We could use your power. Both of you,” Kesuk says.

Katara shakes her head. “We can’t. We have to find the Avatar and the rest of my friends before the day of the comet. He’s still our best hope for defeating the Fire Lord, and we have to help him train.”

“Do you know where he is?” asks Tai Yong.

“No. That’s the problem. We came here hoping we’d hear something along the way, but there’s been nothing.” She shrugs, striving for nonchalance, but the truth is it bothers her more than she’d expected. They’d come all this way and they’re halfway through with the little time they had and they’re still no closer to finding her friends and it’s beginning to seriously look like they never will.

The weight of it hits her all at once. She might have broken down to tears right there, except for Kesuk’s interjection. “I heard something,” he offers. “I’ve got friends in the Northern Water Tribe. They said there’s unrest there again. Fire Nation activity in the city increased, and they haven’t bothered with the North since Princess Yue died. I have no idea if that had anything to do with your friends, but it’s what I was told.”

“The Northern Water Tribe,” Zuko muses.

Katara’s throat fills with thick warmth. She feels light on her feet. The Northern Water Tribe. Of course. Of course they’d go there to regroup and arm themselves and secure the Water Tribe’s support for the worst case scenario. And maybe visit Master Pakku, maybe ask him if he’d heard anything of the location of his old waterbending student. Maybe they’re looking for her.

They have to go.

She turns to Zuko, nearly forgetting all the others surrounding them. “You promised me if we heard anything—one single hint about them—we’d go right away. And the Northern Water Tribe’s on our list anyway. And it’s not so far from here.”

At the last point, Kesuk snorts, but Zuko is nodding along to her frantic babble. “It’s the best lead we’ve had in—we’ve ever had. Thank you,” he exclaims, turning his adulation on Kesuk.

The brawny waterbender grins back. “You saved us. I owe you.”

“We have to leave straight away,” Katara mumbles, already working over the distance they’ll have to travel: through the mountains, over a channel and into the upper Earth islands before dinging a boat to cross the Northern Sea, not to mention the tundra… “Tonight. Right now. We have to start.”

A vein in Zuko’s forehead jumps, but Kesuk is the one to say “Tonight? No way! It’s the night of the Autumn Festival. You can’t leave Ba Sing Se without seeing the Autumn Festival. It’s the biggest celebration of the year!”

“Is that what all the lanterns and decorations are for?” asks Zuko.

He nods. “Believe me, you don’t want to miss it.”

Zuko glances down at her. “We can spare one night, right, Katara? You spent last night in a jail cell. I don’t know if you’re in any condition to travel.”

Two voices are warring for attention in her head. The first, the loud one that’s so insistent she nearly can’t concentrate on anything else, screams Sokka Aang Toph at her over and over and it’s an extremely compelling argument. But the other says you’re tired of running. It says you need to relax. It says it’s only one night.

Katara sighs. “Okay. One night.”

-

Kesuk and Tai Yong guide them out of the old building. Jet lingers in the cavernous room, but before they leave, he pulls Katara into a short, awkward embrace. Then, to Zuko’s shock, he extends his hand. His grip is lighter than Zuko had expected; he seems frail in a way that makes Zuko’s head hurt. But he is here, and now, in some strange way, they fight for the same goal once again.

This time, as they walk through the old warehouse, Zuko’s heart isn’t in his throat and he can concentrate on the walls passing them enough to tell they’re made of old patched wood, riddled with wormholes and darkened with age. It must be abandoned. He almost wants to ask about it, but Tai Yong still doesn’t seem particularly friendly or amenable to questions, though he relaxes a bit in the presence of Kesuk. Before they pass through the courtyard and back into the street, Kesuk kneels down to scoop Katara up into his arms and say “be careful now. Gotta keep the waterbender legacy alive.”

When he sets her down, he presses two fingertips to her forehead and then places them at his own temple before bowing. “Tui and La be with you.”

“Thank you,” she murmurs, her voice a little thicker than normal.

He waves them out the gate with one hand, the other wrapped around Tai Yong’s shoulders. Katara waves back until they pass through the false doorway and the two figures pass out of sight.

“Well,” Zuko says, “that was unexpected.”

“That was nothing short of a miracle.”

She doesn’t say much else as they make their way back through the alleys, but her footsteps are slow and she seems more pensive than anything. Zuko understands. He needs some time to take everything in, too.

The teapot is sitting abandoned on the table when he opens the door. Katara glances at it as she collapses into a chair. “Didn’t have enough time to clean up this morning?”

“That was for last night, actually. I, uh, tried to make dinner for you.”

“Oh.” Her lips part in a half-smile. “I’m sorry I wasn’t home to eat it.”

Zuko ducks his head. “It wasn’t very good, anyway.”

“Come on, you’re not that bad at cooking.” Katara pulls the teapot towards her and lifts the lid, inhaling the scent of the now-cold liquid. “Oh, this is my favorite! Why’d I have to get arrested last night?”

“You know I can just heat it up again.” Secretly, sparks fizz through his blood at her tired grin.

She holds the teapot up to him. The china’s cool, but Zuko only has to wrap his hands around it for an instant before steam is pouring out the spout once again. He fills the cups that have been waiting almost a whole day before taking the seat opposite Katara.

“So. Next stop, Northern Water Tribe.”

Katara nods vigorously. “It’s so beautiful up there. I can’t wait for you to see it—well, see it again. When you’re not breaking in to try and kidnap Aang, that is.”

“I’m excited, too.”

She blows curls of steam off the surface of the liquid before lifting it to her lips and then setting it down again. “Thanks for saving my life again.”

She holds his gaze until it becomes uncomfortable. Zuko doesn’t want to be the one to break it, but he has to, turning away before she sees the heat rising in his cheeks. “How about we both stop thanking each other for that,” he protests. “You’ve saved mine plenty of times already. We’re partners. It’s what we do.”

“Partners?”

The word in her mouth is a million things at once: playful, curious, surprised, amenable. Zuko hadn’t really thought about all the connotations before he said it but now it’s out in the open and he can’t take it back. “That’s what we are, right?”

Katara thinks it over before she speaks. Her eyes dart around the room, lighting on different things: the teapot, the window, the cloak by the door, his hands. “Partners. I like that.”

A pleasant, effervescent feeling bubbles up his spine, and he’s torn between staring into her ocean eyes or avoiding her gaze for fear of blurting out something else embarrassing. He settles halfway in between. In the glimpses he catches of her, she is still smiling.

“How’d you find me today, anyway? I thought I was pretty thoroughly lost.”

“I looked for you,” he answers.

“Looked for me?”

“I, um, kind of searched through a bunch of Dai Li stations. It took a while to find the one you were in.”

“That sounds like a lot of effort.” Katara sips at her tea delicately, watching him over the rim.

He drums his fingers on the tabletop. The rhythm soothes him, but she’s a spark and he is dry kindling and around her he can’t control the blaze. “I was scared,” he confesses. “I thought I’d lost you, that you were getting shipped back to the Fire Nation or brainwashed or you left me to find your friends on your own. That you finally remembered who I am.”

It’s everything he’d never wanted to admit to her.

Katara pushes the teacup aside. “You’re right,” she says. “I did realize who you are, and it’s not who you think you are. It’s not who you used to be.”

She pauses, and all feeling has left Zuko’s tongue, he’s forgotten how to form words in his mind, but she saves him by continuing. “I’m not going to leave you. Partners, right? I’m not. I need someone around to keep saving my life, and you seem to be getting pretty good at that.”

“I guess I am.” A rusty chuckle escapes his throat. It makes the corners of Katara’s eyes crinkle.

“Let’s go check out this festival, partner.”

-

The city they step out of their door into is not the city they left an hour ago. It’s transformed into a glowing, thriving, exuberant haven. From their side street, they can hear shouts and music emanating from the main avenue, and people of all ages are streaming towards it in their best attire carrying lanterns that hang like fishing hooks from wooden poles. Carried on the air is a heady mix of scents: cherry blossoms, spices, cooking meat, and smoke mingling to fill Katara’s throat. The lanterns above have all been lit and now she can properly see the characters etched into each one: prosperity, fertility, luck, and happiness.

The energy is pervasive. It fills Katara up with warmth the moment she’s enveloped in the noise. They’d had festivals at her home, but nothing like this, nothing so huge and unrestrained.

Before they make their way into the thick of the crowd, she slips her fingers between Zuko’s. His grip closes around hers easily. The pads of his fingers are a familiar roughness against her knuckles. She clutches tight and pulls him forward.

Almost immediately, they’re surrounded. Katara’s buffeted on all sides by bodies, but they’re all surging in the same direction and she’s carried forward on the tide until she breaks through and catches a glimpse of what they’re all pushing for. The avenue has been transformed. A million lights are suspended from rooftops, and crude banisters bent out of the stone of the street separate the crowd from a pathway cut straight up the middle. The music swells, and then a giant colorful head, easily twice her height, passes into view. Pairs of legs stick out below it, and they keep coming: five, six, seven people supporting the massive costume, which she can now tell is meant to be a caterpillar. As she watches, astounded, the legs rear up, and the costume fans out, extending huge swaths of fabric like curtains. A moth’s wings. She gasps along with the rest of the audience.

The prop dances off to the beat of the music played by the men following it, but behind it to take its place is a throng of dancing girls waving fans not dissimilar to the Kyoshi Warriors’ ones. They’re in front of a group of old men and women dressed in green robes throwing handfuls of something into the crowd—candy, she discovers, when they reach her and Zuko’s hand flashes out to catch the item. He hands it to her. It’s a small, delicate thing, burnt orange and shaped like a gingko leaf, and it’s both sweet and tangy at once when she pops it in her mouth.

The parade goes on forever. Waves of revelers pass by, old and young, dancing and singing and cheering and bowed under the weight of so many ornate costumes that Katara loses track of all the serpents and tigers and badger moles that have weaved by. Each one is more entrancing than the last.

Sometimes, the puppetmasters straighten and the costume rears up, opening a hinged mouth to the crash of a gong. Zuko laughs each time it happens. When she looks up, his eyes are sparkling, fixated on the stream of people.

It ends too quickly for her liking, but Katara could have watched the costumes all night. When the last one—a stunning fifteen-foot lion turtle, the golden shell supported by no less than thirty teenagers—is swallowed up in the next block, the crowd breaks into cheers of approval. A few bend down the barriers, and everyone flows into the street, some bobbing after the receding parade but most content to stay where they are and sway to the beat of the music still clearly audible over the festive noise. Zuko and Katara are pulled into the thick of it without meaning to. There’s no reason to fight the crowd. It’s like a tidal wave sweeping them into a sea of happiness and excitement. Katara clings to Zuko’s hand, but they wash up in the middle of the throng still connected and laughing.

“This is incredible,” Zuko shouts.

Katara nods. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”

He tries to say something else, but whatever it is gets lost on the sea of voices. The throng around them is beginning to sing along to the music. They all know the words, but Katara’s content to simply listen, glancing up and around in amazement, to the way the impromptu harmonies meld perfectly.

When the tune ends, the singing gives way to the loudest cheer yet and then as quickly as a summer storm the pressure of the crowd is gone and Katara can move on her own again. Everyone is dispersing off in separate directions in large jubilant knots towards the people she hadn’t had time to notice yet: more brightly dressed dancers twirling along alleys, masked magicians entertaining hordes of children, vendors at street corners hawking tokens and trinkets and fortune-telling tools. A thousand different things shout for her attention. She can barely decide where to look first.

It seems that Zuko does, though, because he’s leading her by the hand to one of the streets running parallel to the main avenue. It’s less congested, but not any less festive. The carts and dancers and revelers are still here, it’s just a manageably-sized crowd instead of an overwhelming one.

“That parade was amazing,” she says.

Zuko nods. “Uncle told me a little about it, but I’ve never seen it before. It passes all the way from the Southern gate to the palace. It takes all night, but it’s supposed to spread luck and prosperity all over the city.”

“Do you know how they made those costumes?”

“I wish. That Komodo rhino one was so realistic. I was scared it would charge us when it passed.”

“I liked the elephant koi.”

“Do you have festivals like that back where you live?”

Katara thinks of the small celebration they have every year for the Winter Solstice, when Gran-Gran and some of the other women cook for the whole village and they gather in the main hut around a fire and her father tells the legend of Tui and La and Ina the Seaweed Princess and the Great Wolf Arrluk who protects their tribe from evil spirits, and tries to find any resemblance between it and the giant citywide holiday. “Sort of,” she hedges. “There’s more chanting. And a lot less lanterns.”

“We have the Dragon Festival at home. It looks sort of like this, but I could never go.” For the first time since they’d left the tea shop, Zuko’s expression falls.

Katara tightens her grip. “Well, you’re here now. How about you make the best of it?”

That’s all it takes to make the excited grin return to his face. It imbues him with a youthful energy, making him look years younger than he actually is, like an optimistic boy who doesn’t have to think about war or exile or death or loss. Zuko looks simply, purely happy.

“I like that idea,” he tells her. “Let’s do it.”

-

They’d forgotten to eat before they left their apartment, too caught up in adrenaline and disbelief from the day’s events, but Zuko’s got some of the money his uncle left behind and there’s no shortage of food. In fact, there’s so much of it that he and Katara have a hard time deciding between all of the stalls lining the street. After ten minutes of debate, Katara decides she wants to try one thing at each stall in order to be fair, and so they end up with a mismatched assortment of sticky rice cakes and hog-monkey skewers and banana leaf dumplings and something strange and salty and crunchy on a stick that Zuko is very, very suspicious of but Katara consumes happily. It’s blander than he’s used to, but delicious anyway.

They’re traipsing along the street finishing off the last of the crunchy stick things when an old man comes up to them. His grin is toothless, but sincere. “What a beautiful couple,” he says, and before either of them can stutter out a denial, “are you enjoying the festival?”

“Very much,” Katara assures him, clasping her hands together.

His eyes crinkle as his grin grows even wider. “Ah, good.” He reaches into the basket dangling from his arm and extricates a single pink flower, which he hands to Zuko. “Hou-chi and Hou-tu are watching over you. May your harvest be fruitful and joyful. For the young lady,” he directs to Zuko, nodding at the blossom.

“Thank you, sir.” He presses his palms together like Iroh had taught him and bows low. The man only chuckles.

“Such good manners. This is a good one.” Before bustling off, he winks at Katara, and Zuko can’t help but watch as a slight pink tinge rises into her cheeks in response.

She waves after him. A few yards down the street, he stops next to another couple, and Katara turns back to Zuko.

“How sweet was that?”

“I, uh…” Zuko holds up the flower towards her, suddenly trying to control his own blush. It’s a huge bloom, nearly the size of his fist, with the stem cut short. Katara looks up at him curiously. It takes him embarrassingly long to figure out what he’s supposed to do. Once he does, though, it becomes ten times as hard to get his hand to obey his brain and come up to the side of her face.

He’d seen Ty Lee braid flowers into Azula’s hair plenty of times, but it had never looked even a fraction of how intimate this feels. His knuckles brush her cheek, and it’s so soft that it’s jarring. The flower’s shaking ever so slightly. With only a little difficulty, though, he manages to thread it into her thicket of hair until it’s resting above her ear, shining against the dark locks, and his palm is pressed flush against her temple.

Is it just him, or did she turn her head into his touch?

Zuko’s kissed girls. Zuko’s touched girls’ faces before, but his hand has never caught fire this way before, has never lit up with so many nerve endings that for a moment his entire world narrows to the side of Katara’s face. His ears fill up with dull rushing like wind, drowning out the music around them. Maybe this is how she felt, pressing her palm to his scar miles below where they stand right now. Maybe—by some miracle—this isn’t just him. Maybe it isn’t, because her eyes are wide and her lips are parted and it seems like she’s just as incapable of movement as he is.

But then again, maybe not, because she shatters the eternal moment by pulling away from his hand and jabbing her finger at a spot in the distance. “Look! Lotus cakes! I’ve always wanted to try one of those. Aang says they’re really good.”

“Aren’t you already stuffed?” Zuko asks, but she’s already hurrying off, her back to him.

For that instant, though, he saw it. It was in her eyes, clear as rain.

-

Katara’s glad for the bustle of the festival. It means she doesn’t have to stop and think about how unnervingly gentle Zuko’s touch was or the way it felt like a forest exploding into wildfire after weeks without rain. She can push it away behind the lotus cakes and shadow puppets and tsungi horn players and little boys and girls dressed up as spirits that toddle through the streets around their legs. The celebration is so overwhelming, in fact, that she can’t even focus on the prospect of the Northern Water Tribe and finally seeing her friends again. It’s hard to concentrate on anything that isn’t immediately in front of her.

That’s why she doesn’t notice the music getting gradually louder as she and Zuko dawdle along the street and why she doesn’t realize what it means until they find themselves at the mouth of a square filled with dancers. They’re different from the ones in the parade—less coordinated, but not lacking in any of the passion. It’s not a trained group. There are too many of them moving in sync. It’s just normal people dancing now, twirling around each other with wide sweeping movements and quick spins and raised arms.

They’re mesmerizing.

When her tribe dances, it’s all about flowing movements. The momentum doesn’t cease. They all move as one, joined in one long wave of motion. Aang’s method in the Fire Nation cave had been different—flashy and full of jabs and evasions. The people of Ba Sing Se, though, are grounded. They spin and slide and step but they are always touching the street with some part of their body. They are assured in their steps, confident there will be no collisions, because the people around them are all moving the same way.

She doesn’t realize she’s staring until the music ends and the figures break apart into couples. Each person bows to their partner—not a deep respectful bow for an elder or a teacher, but a nod of the head, an acknowledgement of an equal—before taking up a new position. The music strikes up again, slower this time, and they begin to circle each other, palms pressed to the person across from them.

“Did your uncle teach you about this?” whispers Katara.

Zuko nods. He, too, is distracted by the sea of dancers; his gaze is not on her but on them. “A little. I learned the Fire Nation dances at home, but Uncle used to dance like this at the taverns and the tea shop sometimes. These people look much better doing it, though.”

“Have you ever tried?”

Zuko ducks his head so his hair falls between them and mutters “a little.”

The music grows quicker again. A strong drumbeat begins to pound, and the dancers stop circling to join hands and twirl together instead. On every face is an expression of exhilaration.

“Can you show me?” Katara asks.

She’s sure Zuko is going to say no. He’s different from how she’d assumed, before she really knew him, but he’s still reserved, still nothing like Aang who had pulled her out to the dance floor without a second thought. It’s not even a serious request, really; she’d make a fool of herself.

So when she feels the fingers on her wrist pulling her forward, she remains confused until Zuko leads her out in the midst of the throng and he moves their linked hands up to hang between their bodies.

“Just follow my lead,” he says. “It’s not too hard.”

Then they’re moving.

He starts slow, spinning her in a loose circle at half the pace of the people surrounding them, but gradually the music picks up and they do too until they reach the pace of everyone else. When the melody shifts, he does too, leading her in a sideways step that she mirrors gracelessly.

They pull apart, and he sends her twirling and Katara forgets about the other people watching and forgets that there are supposed to be steps because the melody becomes frantic and she is spinning and raising her hands above her head and laughing. Zuko pulls her back into the circle of his arms before sending her back out. He mirrors every one of her movements perfectly in a synchronous give and take that leaves her breathless.

Around them, couples are switching between partners, but Zuko never lets go of her hand. He spins her and then tugs her into a back-and-forth step pattern like a receding wave. His other hand comes up to touch her waist, spinning her gently, and Katara flies.

He pushes her away on the next downbeat and then pulls her back in and they flow, push and pull, push and pull. Like the moon and the tides. Tui and La. Not opposites, but two halves of a whole, complimentary and matched and made to fit together.

The next time Zuko pulls her in, he doesn’t let her go. His arm secures itself around her waist. Katara drops hers at his neck, where it feels most natural, and they move in a tight square, turning as they step and never pausing. Zuko’s out of breath, too, his eyes glittering under the lantern light and his lips curved up into a bright grin. She can feel the frantic pulse in his neck on her forearm. She can see the thin blue veins running up his throat. She can see that right now, right here with her, Zuko is happy, and it fills her with an incredible warmth better than the best tea she’s ever had.

The tune comes to a dizzying, deafening crescendo before dying away into a quieter and slower melody. Zuko adjusts his footwork accordingly, and Katara follows, mimicking his light sideways motions. At some point in the madness of the previous dance, they’d gotten closer, and Katara is nearly pressed flush against his chest.

Her hair is coming out of its bun. The flower is still in place, though, and that’s what matters.

“Having fun?” Zuko murmurs as he tips her backwards.

Katara grins. “More than you can imagine.”

“You’re a much better dance partner than Iroh.”

“I should hope so.”

“At least when you step on my feet, I can still walk after.” She had trod on a few toes tonight, she’s sure, but Zuko had never complained.

“You’re not a bad dancer,” she tells him.

He switches the hand on her waist and spins the both of them so that they’re back to back, palms pressed together at their sides. “Really? You think so?”

“You’re nearly as good as Aang, actually.”

“He’s had a hundred and twelve years to practice.”

“He was asleep for a hundred of them.”

“Well, I bet he couldn’t do this.” Suddenly, her stomach plummets and she loses the sensation of something solid under her feet. She makes a sound halfway between a shriek and a laugh. The crowd around them flies by before settling back to his face.

“No,” she giggles breathlessly. “No, he couldn’t.”

-

When she asked him to dance, Zuko hadn’t thought about how it would feel to have his arms around her. He didn’t stop and think about how the electric current running over his skin whenever he’s around Katara would go haywire with her this close, with her arms wrapped around his neck and her forehead level with his mouth, or how the only thing even remotely close to the sensation of dancing with her is feeling lightning arc through his chest. He hadn’t considered it properly, and now it’s all he can think about because this close there’s nothing to look at except her and nothing to touch except her and nothing to think about except her, even though it seems like these days Zuko spends all his time thinking about her anyway.

She is laughing and he is aching for something he can’t even name and there is nowhere else he would rather be right now or maybe ever. Right now, there is no war, no pain. It’s just them. Just Katara. Zuko had been lying to himself that it had ever been anyone but Katara. Even before the eclipse—even here, the first time, where it all started, when he felt that unbearable electricity the first time—even then, deep down, he knew it was her.

And it just makes everything that much harder, especially when she catches the light like that and for a moment she looks beyond human and Zuko’s heart stutters to a stop. Maybe if she hadn’t treated him with such unbearable compassion it would have been different. If he still thought of her as the rude and uncooperative girl he’d saved from the pirates and not as someone—as the only person, really—who’d managed to look past his scars and mistakes and old allegiances—maybe then he’d be able to fight off the quickening of his pulse. But of course he can’t. That’s who Katara is, and that’s why this whole journey has just gotten a hundred times more complex.

And she…she is blissfully unaware. She is dancing with her eyes closed and her face turned to the night sky and her hair half undone and her forehead glimmering with exhaustion and he wishes she wasn’t so damn beautiful.

He wishes she didn’t have to be Katara, and he knows he could never feel like this if she wasn’t, and he wishes there was an easy answer to all of this, but nothing comes easy to him. Of course not.

-

Dancing is as easy as breathing, but even she runs out of breath eventually. She and Zuko had lasted a good five songs, ranging from slow to frenetic, but she finally has to stagger to a pause and lean against his shoulders to catch her breath.

“That,” she pants, “was the most fun I’ve had in months.”

Zuko nods, but his gaze is somewhere over her head in the distance. He’s not gasping for air like her. Even so, he seems tired as well, but on a different level. Not a physical exhaustion, but one that reflects in the soft set of his lips.

It had been a long day. It had been a long three weeks, Katara thinks.

The festival is still raging as they pace through the streets back to the shop. Many of the children seem to have left the crowd, but the rest of the city is still celebrating, singing out of tune as they wave bottles back and forth. It reminds Katara of Sokka and his brief mistake with the cactus juice, and she shares the story with Zuko, hoping to bring his thoughts back from wherever they’ve scattered off to. He ends up laughing. Katara considers it a success.

She unlocks the doors and he fumbles for the lights and it’s almost midnight by the time they finally stumble into their beds in the tiny stuffy bedroom, too tired to even undress, and Katara yanks the ribbon out of her hair. Despite her exhaustion, sleep doesn’t come easy. The room is too hot and there are a thousand thoughts racing around the perimeter of her skull. Katara kicks off the blanket, sighs, and flips onto her stomach, resting her chin on the pillow.

“Zuko?”

He groans. “Huh?”

“Are you still awake?”

“Yeah.”

She pauses. It’s a strange question, the one she’s fixated on now, one that begs more questions than it provides answers. She can see him staring at her now. The gold is sunny in the dark.

“Do you think it’d be different if…if you came with us the first time? Here? What would have happened?”

“I don’t know.” A mattress creaks, weight drops with a thump, and the suns turn away. “That’s a big question. I guess…the invasion would have gone different. Better. But we wouldn’t know about my father’s plans, and we probably wouldn’t be here. I don’t know, lots of stuff.”

“What about us?”

“What do you mean, us?”

“You and me.” She presses the heels of her palms to her eyes and is glad it’s so dark. “I thought, back then, the thing with the water and—and the scar—I thought we were going to be friends.”

“Are we friends now?”

To her, it’s the easiest question of the night. “Yes,” she says firmly. “Yes, we are.”

There’s a loud exhalation, another creak, and the eyes come back into focus. “It would have been strange,” says Zuko. “It would have been—it’s going to be strange when we find the rest of your group. It’s going to be strange trying to fit into your lives.”

“Yeah, I guess.”

Katara tries to picture it. Zuko at the campfire during dinner, telling old legends from his childhood, and Zuko brushing Appa and feeding Momo. Zuko and Sokka sparring, not as enemies but as allies to improve their skills. Zuko coaxing Toph out of her rock tents. Zuko and Aang chatting like friends. Zuko, there every morning when she wakes up and every night when she goes to sleep.

“What about your friends at home? Would you have missed them?”

“Maybe. Probably, yeah. But even when I was home—it wasn’t right, really. It was like…ugh.” Zuko’s shadowy outline rises slightly, lifting up to slide his hands behind his head. “The last time I saw my sister and my dad and Mai and Ty Lee, I was thirteen. And then it was three years later and we all thought we could go back to the way it was. But we’d all changed. I changed and Azula changed and Mai and even Ty Lee—we’d all been going in these different directions, and then suddenly we were back together but it just wasn’t the same. It can’t be. We can’t go back. And me and Mai—when we were younger, it made sense, and I really liked her. Loved her. And then I came back and it was like there was this completely different girl. Mai is my past. They’re all my past. This—here, with you and your friends, Katara, this is my future.”

A month ago, Katara would have scoffed at the idea of a future with Zuko. Even now, it’s difficult to imagine. It’s strange to think of him growing old, of whatever time they have left being spent with this boy that for so long had been the ultimate unequivocal enemy. She tries to imagine it, and it’s hard to write him into her dreams of the future.

But then she tries to think about a life without Zuko there. One where she doesn’t wake up every morning to a pot of hot tea and a friendly but reserved “good morning, how’d you sleep?” and where she doesn’t make a game of matching her footsteps to his longer strides as they walk side by side and where he doesn’t offer awkward and heavy-handed and somehow perfect reassurance to her every doubt and where she doesn’t fall asleep to a solemn “goodnight” and steady breaths only a few feet away and she can’t. She just can’t. She can barely remember the time before he’d been there. It had been three short weeks, and already he’s written himself into her life and he’s not going to leave.

And, Katara realizes, she doesn’t want him to.

“Goodnight,” he yawns into her silence, and Katara struggles for a response but she’s falling again and all the breath is torn out of her lungs and she has none left to speak with even if she could put this into words. She’s been pushing it off for too long, wishing and lying and rationalizing and hiding behind her own lies but every touch has been a crack in the winter ice and this revelation has been the killing blow and now the water is rushing like the first day of spring and for the first time she can remember Katara can’t control it. It’s too powerful. Unavoidable.

“Goodnight, Zuko,” she whispers. He doesn’t say anything, but the fingers of the hand hanging off the edge of the bed splay towards hers.

The gap is far too large to bridge, but Katara presses her fingers out anyway and reaches for Zuko and thinks: Maybe.

Chapter Text

They’re up before the sun. Zuko’s still exhausted from the previous night, a residual ache in the muscles in his back and leg from the vigorous dancing, but they’d gotten what they came to the Walled City for and they’d spent half the time from the eclipse to the solstice doing it and they couldn’t afford to waste any more. Katara trudges around the apartment in a half-woken haze gathering anything they could carry into their well-worn bag and Zuko tries not to think about how he’s leaving the last link he has left to his uncle behind.

There hasn’t been a day that’s gone by since he left the Capital that he hasn’t thought about Iroh. Zuko knows he’s wise, knows he’s powerful and dangerous and so much more than meets the eye, but it’s impossible not to worry.

Even in his absence, though, Iroh’s still taking care of him. Katara finds an old jade-enameled box underneath her bed, filled with more Earth Kingdom money than Zuko would ever know what to do with. He’d know the tea shop was successful, but not this successful. It’s so heavy that he almost considers leaving some of it behind, but he doesn’t know what’s coming next and having money for food and places to stay and maybe even transportation is one thing less for them to worry about—they’ve got enough of those already.

He locks the door behind him. Katara waits in the empty street while he presses his palm to the door and sends a silent message to Iroh, wherever he might be: I’m sorry, Uncle. You were right. I miss you. For a moment, he swears he can hear a deep belly chuckle echo from the window.

He sighs and turns away. “Let’s go.”

“You okay?” Katara murmurs as they begin to walk. Her fingers brush across the back of his hand.

Zuko shrugs. “I’m worried about him.”

“He’s a smart man, Zuko.”

“And my father’s a dangerous man.”

Katara bites her lip.

The city is silent. It’s unnerving. The streets are littered with the remnants of the festival, crushed paper lanterns like wilted flowers crunching underfoot and the sickly sweet scent of spilled wine filling the air. The stillness is so complete that it makes the hairs on the back of Zuko’s neck stand up. It almost looks like the aftermath of some huge battle—the paper decorations wasted bodies, the spilled drinks blood—and the thought comes unbidden that this is how Iroh must have felt stepping through the carnage after he besieged the city.

Zuko shivers. Katara must feel the sensation, because she shoots him a questioning look out of the corner of her eye. “It’s chilly,” he offers weakly.

“Since when do you get cold?”

“I…forget it.”

“Zu—I mean—”

“Look.” He wrenches his hand away from her to jab at a point along the side of the street. “A traveling shop. We need supplies. Let’s go.”

The waterbender makes a dissatisfied sound, but he’s already off across the street, aimed at the slightly ajar door.

-

Just when she’d been beginning to think they were getting somewhere, he pulls back. Katara doesn’t get it. Last night had been so comfortable, so natural, so easy. So fun.

It could just be the hour, she rationalizes as she follows him into the dark interior of the store, though he’d always seemed like a morning person to her. And it’s probably hard for him, now, leaving his uncle’s shop and not knowing where he is. Katara tries to imagine how she would feel if her father was captured and she didn’t know where he was.

Which he very well could be.

Suddenly, Katara doesn’t feel much like talking either.

It’s nearly as empty as the street inside the shop, save the single teenage boy who sits slowly blinking at them from the corner. Zuko moves among the shelves like a ghost. There seems to be some sort of rationale for the items he gathers up, but Katara can’t tell what it is. He works quickly, though; within minutes, they’re standing in front of the shophand.

“One more thing,” adds Zuko when the boy glances up and holds out a hand for payment. “Do you have any eel hounds for sale?”

“Eel hounds?” The boy makes the word sound foreign when he repeats it. “No. Sorry. We’ve got a couple ostrich horses, though. They’re kind of old…”

“Whatever. We’ll take them.”

The boy shrugs. “Twenty yuans and they’re yours. They’re in the stable round the back.”

He wasn’t lying, Katara discovers when she turns the corner. They are old. She’s only seen a few of the animals in her life, but none of them had feathers falling out in patches or knees that wobbled or eyes glazed over with a milky film like these. Zuko snorts, coming to stand behind her. “What a rip off. They aren’t even worth half that price.”

“Like the price matters.” Katara runs a hand down the neck of the one nearer to her. It shudders a little and turns its head to look at her with those cloudy eyes. “They’re faster than we could ever walk. Good call.”

“They’ll do better in the mountains, too.”

“The mountains?”

“How did you think we were going to get to the Northern Water Tribe, swim? The whole upper half of this continent is one big mountain range. There’s no way around it that won’t take us weeks.”

“We’re going through those mountains?” Blood rushes to her head, and Katara steadies herself on the ostrich horse’s hump. She remembers the way they’d looked from Appa’s back—imperious, treacherous, shrouded in mist. Beautiful and utterly deadly.

“Unless you know of another way to get to the north, yes.”

Katara gulps. “I’ve, uh, I’ve never ridden one of these before.”

The ostrich horse bucks slightly under her hand, as if it understands that she’s talking about it. Its legs look too spindly to support anything heavier than a sack of rice.

“It takes some practice,” says Zuko as he flings a leg over his steed and settles into the curve of its back, “but you’ll get used to it.”

-

Honestly, it’s a miracle Katara hasn’t tumbled off into the dusty road by now. It’s not really her fault; the ostrich horses are so old that they probably shouldn’t be carrying more than children, and the track is rutted from use. Even so, Zuko’s heart skips when he glances over to see her clinging to the bird’s neck for dear life. He’s worried she’ll get hurt. That she’ll slow them down if she falls. He’s not fixated on the distractingly elegant curve of her back, even stooped over as she is, or the way her slender shoulders shift with the ostrich’s movement. He hasn’t been surreptitiously watching her for the past two hours as the walled city behind them slowly recedes into dust.

He’s also not kidding anyone, including himself.

True, admitting it is going to make the second half of their journey a lot more difficult. But Zuko’s spent the past three years lying to himself about his own emotions and he’s sick of it. Katara’s pretty—he’s known that for a long time. More than that, though, Katara’s good. Better than he’ll ever be. And that’s why no matter how cute she looks clutching for balance on an ostrich horse’s back or how safe it felt to wrap his arms around her as they danced, Zuko can’t ever tell her.

He’s not stupid. Maybe they’re friends now, and maybe she tolerates him—even cares about him somehow—because they’re traveling together, circumstantial partners against a vicious world, but that doesn’t overrule all the horrible things he’d done to her and her friends and her family. The Avatar loves her. No one would choose a scarred, dethroned, broken prince over the savior of the world.

Zuko rips his eyes away from Katara, fixing them instead to the well-worn path stretching up and away from them. It’s starting to slope upwards, and the grass on either side is growing sparser, punctuated more frequently by patches where the rock shows through. Soon, it’ll probably all be gone.

This is one part of the world where they’ll both be blind. Last time Zuko had traveled to the Northern Water Tribe, he’d done it by boat, and Katara certainly doesn’t know any more about the mountains. It’s a pretty secluded corner of the world. All he remembers from his lessons at the palace about the area are a smattering of ancient ruins left over from the bender societies before the war and a few villages. It’s better than the desert, but not by much.

They hit the first real incline around the time the sun reaches the highest point in the sky. The ostrich horses, which hadn’t been the fastest animals in the world to start with, slow to a crawl and begin to squawk halfhearted protests with every few steps. Katara starts murmuring reassurances to hers, patting the feathers on its neck soothingly, but it doesn’t do much besides make the bird flap its wings.

“Can we do anything to help them?” she asks him, frowning.

Zuko shrugs. “They’re old. They’re tired. It’s a big hill. We might need to let them rest for a while.”

The words are barely out of his mouth when she jumps off her steed’s back and lands on the rocky track, stumbling to regain her footing. She winces visibly, but reaches out to coax the ostrich horse forward, walking sideways with one eye on the treacherous ground.

“Katara, stop. We can’t walk it. You’re going to exhaust yourself.”

“If they can do it,” she calls back, “so can we. We can’t waste any more time.”

“This isn’t going to help—”

“I’m getting to the North Pole by the end of the week,” she snaps. “You’re welcome to join me or not.”

Zuko groans, but slides off the ostrich horse’s back.

-

She probably should have listened to Zuko. They’re not going any faster—if anything, their pace has slowed a bit—but Katara feels so horrible for her poor bird that she can’t make herself get back on. It was shaking under her weight like it would collapse any minute. Killing them from stress won’t do her and Zuko any good.

Walking on the uneven ground is so tiring that it’s difficult to concentrate on anything besides putting one foot in front of the other, so it takes longer than normal for Katara to notice the roiling cloud of smoke rising off the mountainside. Once she does, though, she can’t believe it took so long to see. It’s massive, consuming the entire horizon in one direction and staining the already-drab countryside an ugly gray. Despite the size, she can’t find the source of the fire.

“Do you see that thing?” she gasps, flapping her hand at it.

Zuko whips his head to the side. “It’s a Fire Nation army base. They’re all over the Earth Kingdom.”

“An army base up here?”

“If I’m remembering correctly, this one is a weapons factory too. Probably staffed by a bunch of prisoners of war and captured Earth soldiers. It supplies most of the weapons and technology for the Fire Nation’s presence in the Upper Kingdom.”

Katara’s distaste for the black cloud grows. A sour taste fills her mouth. “So that’s where the huge horrible metal caterpillar in Ba Sing Se came from?”

“I think so.”

“And they used captured soldiers to make it? Zuko, that’s horrible! You’re taking away those poor people’s autonomy! How can—”

I’m not doing anything,” Zuko snaps.

Regret tugs at her mind, but not enough to cover up the rage at his nation that’s swelling through her. “You know what I mean,” she mutters.

He groans and rakes a hand through his hair. “I do feel horrible. It is. It’s disgusting and wrong and even when I was at home with my father and my sister spewing propaganda in my ears I knew it was a horrible thing. But I couldn’t tell them that. I couldn’t do anything. I was useless there and it was the most helpless I’ve ever felt in my life.”

His head is hanging now, shaggy black hair hanging down in curtains to cover his face, and again Katara fixates on the mundane: he needs a haircut, he needs rest, he looks old beyond his years. “There has to be something we can do,” she says.

“It’s basically a fortress. They’ve got so much secret military information and so many high-ranking officials in there that it’ll probably have more security than the Capital City prison.”

“Military information?”

Zuko shoots her a sidelong glance. “Yeah. Why?”

“Military information…like the most recent sightings of oh, I don’t know, the Avatar maybe?”

“Katara, even if they did have something, there are two of us and two thousand of them.”

“And you thought we couldn’t break out of that prison,” she retorts. “They’re not going to be expecting it. We have to at least try, Zuko. If they know anything—anything at all—about Aang, or my dad, or your uncle—”

“Okay, I get it.” She’d estimated right: at the mention of Iroh, Zuko starts, a slight tremor running down his spine. “It’s a really stupid idea. I can’t promise anything.”

“I’m not looking for promises, I’m looking for hope.”

“That,” says Zuko, “we might be able to do something with.”

-

Of course Katara’s ready to charge headlong at the cloud of smoke the moment the words are out of his mouth, but he manages to argue her back to tomorrow, partly for her sake and partly for his. It won’t do them any good to crash blindly into a death trap, especially not when they’re this exhausted. More than that, though, Zuko’s hesitant.

Everything up to this point had been evasionary, self-protection. They’d been working against the Fire Nation in their own roundabout way. What Katara wants—what Zuko had agreed to—is impossible to misconstrue, though: the Fire Prince finally turning completely against his family and country and striking back. It’s the final step in his betrayal and, as much as Zuko has cut ties with his homeland already, he’s not sure he’s ready for this.

To Katara, the soldiers in that complex are monsters, but to him, they’re citizens, people with families that were raised the same way he was, with the same sights and experiences. They’re his subjects and he’s supposed to protect them and now he’s planning to go in and slaughter them.

The thoughts won’t leave his mind for the rest of the arduous walk to the town nestled partway up the mountain that Zuko had picked as their destination that morning. Katara makes a halfhearted effort to make conversation, but walking over the rocky terrain is strenuous enough as it is and Zuko can’t bring himself to answer any of her comments with more than a ‘huh’ or an ‘oh.’ Either she takes the hint or she, too, grows tired, because after a handful of minutes her voice trails off into silence.

When the town appears as a faintly glowing dot above them, the skies are just beginning to darken. To call it a ‘town’ would be generous, really, Zuko thinks. Still, it’s the only stop between the outlying villages of Ba Sing Se and the other side of the mountain range. Smaller isn’t necessarily a bad thing; there are less people to recognize them here. The birds look as if they could collapse any second, and so does Katara. At least she gave up on the walking idea. They trudge into the town exhausted and downtrodden.

“Same alibi as Ba Sing Se?” suggests Zuko. Katara’s head bobs, though he can’t really tell if it’s supposed to be a nod or her falling asleep in the saddle. It doesn’t matter; it looks like he’ll be doing most of the talking tonight anyway.

When he dismounts his ostrich horse outside the tiny village inn, it immediately sinks to the ground, folding into a pile of spindly legs and feathers. They’re never going to last through the mountains. Zuko wonders if they can trade the birds out for something a bit hardier here, or if they’ll have to stumble their way through the peaks half on foot. There’s a thump next to him, and Katara falls against his side. He reaches out automatically to steady her.

“We have to get you inside,” he murmurs. She nods dazedly.

“Inside would be good.”

He keeps his arm around her while he shoves through the door with his other shoulder and stumbles over to the only man standing in the room, who is gaping at them in surprise. “Do you have a free room?” he asks, his words coming out harsher than he intended.

The innkeeper shakes his head a couple of times before coming to life. “Yes, we have plenty—I’m sorry, sir, we just don’t see many people around these parts nowadays—”

“I have ostrich horses outside. They’ll need food and tethers,” Zuko interrupts him. “Just show us to the room now.”

Katara’s practically dead weight by the time they get there, her exhaustion getting the best of her, but she still ekes out thanks to the man before collapsing onto the bed. There’s only one—again—and Zuko wonders if he’s cursed to never sleep on anything more comfortable than a rug for the rest of his life. “Don’t fall asleep yet,” he says. “We need to plan.”

“Try not to sound so imperious, Your Highness,” Katara yawns.

“I’m not!”

She rolls over to face him, propping her head up on one hand. “Yes you are. You sound like—well, a prince.”

“Well, I’m not trying to.”

Katara mutters something under her breath, but she pulls herself up to sit cross-legged on the bed, though her eyelids are drooping. “What’s the plan, then?”

A sigh escapes his mouth. “I don’t have one. That’s the point of planning. It was your idea, anyway,” he continues pointedly.

“Yeah, but I know nothing about what the inside of that complex looks like. It’s got to be similar to something you’ve seen before. You know how your country’s stuff works, right?”

“Maybe. Vaguely. I don’t know. I have no idea how we’re going to get in—I swear, Katara, it’s a fortress, nobody goes in or comes out without the soldiers knowing about it. Every entrance is manned.”

Katara ponders this information. Her eyes are far away. “Every entrance,” she says finally, “but what about all the exits?”

“Anywhere where people go in or out.”

“Then we don’t go where people go.” She says it like it’s the most obvious thing in the world. “There has to be some kind of drainage system, right? A place that huge must be using up a ton of water. If we can figure out where it leaves, then we can get in the same way.”

Zuko nods. “There should be a drainage pipe in the wall, probably going into a stream or a lake or something. It usually opened up on the lowest level.”

“Perfect. I can bend us through it—that shouldn’t be too hard.”

“What about once we’re inside?”

Katara ponders it for a moment. “Disguises. We’ll need uniforms.”

“Well, there won’t be a shortage of those. You’re a little small for an imperial guard, though,” Zuko muses, considering the waterbender’s slight frame.

She rolls her eyes. “Oh, shut up. We’ll make it quick. Get in, get the information, get out.”

Except, Zuko thinks as he ventures out of the inn to find food while Katara rests, it’s not going to be that easy. Not with Katara involved. Once she gets in there, she’s not going to be able to leave when she sees all of the Earth Kingdom prisoners. Zuko knows her by now, and he knows all too well that she could never turn her back on people who need her.

-

There’s something wrong with Zuko when he comes back. He’s too quiet, quieter than even the exhaustion of traveling can make up for; Katara knows that he gets silent like this sometimes, but she also knows it’s because he’s got something on his mind. Normally, she wouldn’t push him about it, but there was a shift somewhere back inside the walls of Ba Sing Se and now he’s her friend and Katara doesn’t like seeing her friends worried. So after too many long minutes of silence, she asks “Zuko, what’s wrong?”

“Nothing.” He answers so rapidly and so brusquely that it’s like a knee-jerk reaction. “What makes you think there’s anything wrong?”

Gently, Katara sets aside the remains of her dinner and turns so she’s fully facing him. “You’re a horrible actor, you know.”

The prince’s shoulders slump. “You don’t have to pretend to care about me, Katara.”

“I’m not pretending.”

Something flashes in his eyes, but Katara can’t get a good look at his face—he’s turned his head away and his shaggy bangs are obscuring his expression. She reaches out as hesitantly as if Zuko were a wounded polar leopard. Her fingers brush his chin, and he turns back.

He’s scared.

Katara searches those golden eyes and finds a thousand unsaid words, some she can’t even put names to, but above it all, written into Zuko’s proud forehead and his pale cheeks and the tight line of his jaw is fear. “I do care,” she murmurs.

“I don’t know if I can do this,” confesses Zuko.

He’s breathing heavily, almost raggedly, as if he’d been running for a long time or is on the verge of tears despite his clear eyes. His hands are clenching the blanket atop the bed. In this moment, Katara thinks, he’s not the proud, arrogant prince she’d once known. She wonders if that was ever who he really was or if it was just an act to fit in. No, the person sitting in front of her is a lost and terrified boy and he has never seemed more human.

“Because of your family?”

“Because it’s my country.” Zuko shoves his hair away from his face with one fist. “I’m their prince, I’m supposed to serve my people. To protect them. They put their faith in me and I gave them my word—I promised to serve the Fire Nation, on my honor—and now—now…”

His shoulders are trembling but he isn’t crying. Katara almost wishes he would, because there’s something about this sadness that’s so jagged and hot that she doesn’t know how to deal with it. Tears, screams, breakdowns, she’s used to those, but Zuko is just so contained, like he’s used to holding everything inside.

“Honor isn’t just about promises,” she says carefully. “It’s about being true to yourself. Doing what your heart tells you is right. Zuko, if you can’t do this, then we won’t. But it won’t make you any less honorable.”

“I can’t hurt them, Katara.”

“You don’t have to.” Katara slides her hand across the bedspread until it hovers next to Zuko’s; she’s not sure if trying to touch the prince right now will help or just startle him, but it’s how she reassures people.

Zuko still doesn’t look at her. His gaze is pointed somewhere across the room. But after a prolonged moment in which Katara holds her breath for reasons unknown to even her, his fingers creep over hers and close around her hand.

“Serving the Fire Nation is all I’ve ever known.” His voice is hollow.

“But it’s not all there is to life. There are so many places you can go, Zuko. So many things you can be.”

“Did you mean it? What you said in Ba Sing Se about being honorable?”

“You’re more than honorable,” whispers Katara. “You’re brave, too.”

-

She won’t let him sleep on the floor. She insists the bed is plenty big enough for two people, and there’s no point wasting all that perfectly good room on the mattress. Zuko could argue, but the truth is he’s too tired and emotionally drained and the bed is too tempting. By the time he snuffs out the light, Katara is nearly asleep already. She has enough energy to yawn “Don’t worry, Zuko, everything will be fine” before she collapses back into the pillow and her breath evens out.

It’s not as easy for him, despite his exhaustion. His head is still filled with anxiety and conflict, not entirely assuaged by Katara’s encouragement, and the room is too stuffy even for someone who grew up in endless heat. Zuko rolls over, yanking at the blanket, but Katara makes a soft sound and he stills immediately so as not to wake her.

He’s facing her now. Her eyes are closed and her lips are parted and one hand is curled into a loose fist on the pillow and when she breathes out, a loose strand of hair flutters. Zuko wonders if she is dreaming.

He falls asleep minutes later, watching her face.

Chapter Text

There’s a sense of anticipation hanging over both of them the next day as they quickly pack their meager possessions and retrieve their ostrich horses from the innkeeper. Zuko’s expression is inscrutable, but he seems determined, rushing about from place to place as if he can’t wait to be in and out of the fortress. Katara understands; she’s not really looking forward to this, either.

She is, however, looking forward to the information she knows they’ll have by the time the sun goes down if all goes according to plan. By the next time she sleeps, they could finally have an answer on Sokka and Aang and Toph’s whereabouts. This time tomorrow, they could be making preparations to head off and meet them. This time in a week, she could be in her brother’s arms.

But first, they have to get through today.

The complex, if possible, seems even more ominous than it did the day before. In the harsh mid-morning light, the clouds of smoke roiling from the building seem almost sentient, out to get any intruders who dare intervene. The walls are that much taller, the cannons atop them that much bigger.

They dismount about a mile away from the wall. Zuko ties their mounts to a tree and leaves a bag of feed on the ground; there’s no one out here to take them, anyway. He checks the knots twice for security, and then they head off across the barren plain separating them from the Fire Nation structure on foot.

They’re too exposed. There’s no cover, and Katara knows that if they get too close, the guards manning the walls will spot them in a heartbeat and they’ll be scorch marks on the bare earth.

Zuko doesn’t seem worried about this. His gaze is resolutely set on the fortress in the distance.

In her head, Katara goes over the plan for the thousandth time, trying to reassure herself that it will work. It does sound crazy—two kids infiltrating a whole military complex on their own—but with Zuko’s knowledge of the building combined with the extensive system of steam pipes running through the structure that Katara can control at will, they might just stand a chance. With everything she’s been through in the war, it’s not the craziest thing she’s done by far.

“If we get closer, won’t somebody see us?” Katara asks.

Zuko doesn’t look over at her, keeping his eyes fixed on the fortress. “See how it’s set on a hill? We’ll use that for cover. They won’t be expecting an attack here.”

“And finding a way in?”

“We follow the water,” says Zuko. “You’re good at that.”

He’s right, and the water isn’t hard to find: a sludgy, lethargic stream cutting a path down the hill that grows steeper the farther up they climb, until Katara has to crane her neck to see the metal dome of the stronghold. The source of the stream is a large metal grate cut into the hillside, rusty with age. Gritting her teeth, Katara pulls a wave of dirty water out of the stream and slams it against the grate, which crumbles easily.

She peers into the dark tunnel and immediately recoils at the smell. Zuko, seemingly unfazed, snaps a flickering light into his palm and walks forward until he’s ankle deep in the sludge.

“Come on,” he says.

-

Zuko concentrates on keeping the flame in his hand as steady and uniform as possible. He measures his success by the flickering on the tunnel walls, by how much Katara’s shadow distorts each second.

What he tries his hardest not to concentrate on is what will happen when they reach the end of the sewer. He knows exactly what they’ll face: he remembers similar factories that he’d toured as a child with his father and grandfather, flanked by decorated members of the military, bored out of his mind.

He had considered—hoped for—the possibility that maybe this remote center would be an empty shell, and he and Katara could duck in, find the information they need, and vanish like ghosts without running into any imprisoned Earth citizens. Maybe, with Ba Sing Se already conquered, his father and sister would have no need of the prison labor.

Deep down, though, he knows it’s not true, and no matter how hard he tries, he can’t keep back the thought that there really is no going back after this.

Around his ankles, the water begins to flow faster, and Zuko looks up. The tunnel slopes up into a pipe from which the refuse is spilling steadily. Without notice, the dirty stream parts, revealing a set of slick rungs.

“This looks like it,” says Katara from behind him.

They both have to climb one-handed, Zuko in order to keep the tunnel lit and Katara to hold the water away from the ladder-like rungs. The spray fills Zuko’s mouth with a sour, metallic taste. He keeps climbing until his head meets another metal grate, which crumbles easily under a quiet burst of flame.

Cautiously, Zuko pokes his head out, scanning the room for people.

A large, open sewer cuts through the middle of the room, draining into the pipe they’d come through. Surrounding it is a system of hissing metal tanks and tubes that obscure the room’s true size—a boiler room of some kind, he guesses.

A pair of boots suddenly passes into his view in the gap below one of the tanks, and Zuko shrinks back, his foot connecting with something soft.

“Oof! Watch it, Zuko, that’s my hand—”

Shh,” Zuko hisses. Katara falls silent.

He has to strain to hear the voices, just audible over the rush of water. “I was thinking about going to one of the Southern Islands,” someone says. “Somewhere warm. Tropical. I’m so sick of rocks. I wish I was an earthbender so I could crush them all and not have to look at them.”

There’s a cough, and a much deeper voice responds “When’s your next vacation time?”

“Not for another eight months.” The footsteps and voices grow quieter. “I wish this job had better benefits.”

“Jeez, the war could be over by then…”

Zuko glances back to catch Katara’s gaze, her brow furrowed. She nods, and he scrambles out of the mouth of the pipe, immediately rolling to the side under a tank. Katara joins him a moment later. He holds up two fingers and then gestures to the boots, now halfway across the room.

A trickle of water separates itself from the sewer and inches across the floor towards them, coming to wrap around Katara’s wrist.

“Ready?” she mouths. Zuko nods.

Katara flicks the water out to catch the boots, then jerks her hand back. There’s a set of twin thuds, metal scraping against the floor as Katara drags them back to where she and Zuko are hidden. She makes to get up, but Zuko grabs her wrist, eyeing the bodies.

Only once he’s sure that both soldiers are well and truly out does he crawl out from beneath the tank. He pulls the helmet off of one of them and puts a finger to his neck, ashamed at the relief he feels when he finds a pulse.

“They’ll wake up soon,” Katara says.

Zuko pulls the uniform off his soldier quickly and holds it up. It’s way too big for either of them, but it’ll have to do.

-

“Try to look like you belong,” Zuko whispers.

“I’m trying,” Katara hisses back. She pushes ineffectually at her sleeves.

The guard who the uniform belonged to, now sitting in the sewer with his hands encased in a block of ice, is about twice her height and a good deal heavier. Katara tried to stuff the extra fabric into the waistband, but she knows she still wouldn’t fool anyone if they looked at her for too long. Thankfully, the halls have been empty so far, the whole building quiet except for the gentle hissing of steam in pipes.

Zuko rounds the corner ahead of her. ‘The central control rooms should be up here.”

“How do we get in?”

Before he can respond, they turn another corner and Katara’s breath catches in her throat.

They’ve emerged into a massive room filled with pipes and furnaces, the sharp clang of metal biting through the air. Workers of all ages, men and women, labor over the forges and conveyor belts, churning out strange metal parts that Katara doesn’t want to know the purpose of. Uniformed soldiers patrol the room. As she watches, one of them shoots a tongue of fire at the feet of a woman who’s stopped to wipe the sweat off her brow. She yelps in pain.

“Let’s go, Katara,” Zuko says, his voice strained.

“Are they prisoners?”

Zuko doesn’t answer. Fury roils in Katara’s stomach, hot and thick.

“Zuko, they’re miserable. They’re being worked to death.”

“Please just walk, Katara. We can talk about it later. Please.” She can’t see Zuko’s face through the metal grill of the helmet, but he sounds choked up, as if underneath the disguise he might be crying.

Katara forces her gaze away from the workers and towards her feet in their overlarge boots as she shuffles forward.

Zuko leads her along the edge of the room and into a wide hallway, both of them silent. His shoulders are coiled with tension. Some of the workers shoot them furtive glances, but they seem afraid to look straight at Katara. She’s relieved when they pass into the hallway, then angry at herself for feeling relief.

The hallway is so long that she can barely make out the other end, but she can see two figures slouched before the end. There don’t seem to be any other doors or exits along the hallway. As they near the end, a pair of huge red doors come into focus, studded with brass bolts.

“Zuko?” she murmurs, worried.

“Just let me do the talking.”

Zuko draws himself upright as they near the door. “Hello,” he calls out, his voice artificially gruff.

One of the guards looks up. “You need something?”

“We’ve got a message we need to deliver. To General, uh…General Hizuki.”

There’s a strong note of uncertainty in his voice, but the guard doesn’t seem to notice it. His partner looks up from picking at his fingernails. “He’s not in right now.”

“We can just leave it on his desk.”

“I’ll leave it for him.” The second guard sticks out a hand.

Zuko recoils. “No! We have to drop it off ourselves. Very top secret.” Katara nods, biting her cheek to stay silent.

The first guard scoffs. “C’mon, it’s a piece of paper. What do you think we’ll do, burn it by accident?”

“Hey, the Fire Lord makes the rules, not me.”

They both look up at that. “The Fire Lord, huh?” one says.

“Yes, from the plume of the Phoenix.”

At that, the guards bow in unison. “Sorry about that,” the second mumbles as he opens the door.

Only once they’re safely into the dim antechamber beyond, with the doors closed safely behind them, does Katara relax. “What was that phoenix thing about?”

“It’s a password the high-ranking soldiers use for communications from the Fire Lord.” Zuko pulls his helmet off and steps forward to push open the next door in front of them. “We’re lucky they’re so removed out here. My father has probably changed it by now and they just haven’t heard.”

The door gives way under Zuko’s hand, and they find themselves in a red chamber, windowless and stuffy. The walls are lined with shelves containing row after row of books and scrolls, and in the center sits a massive black desk, covered in stacks of paper.

“How in the world are we supposed to find anything in here?” Katara asks.

“If there’s anything about the Avatar, it’ll be a recent communication. And it’ll be hidden in his desk. Probably a secret drawer.”

“What will it look like?”

“Probably something you need to firebend into to open. A cone, a tube, something like that.”

Zuko starts opening all the drawers, shuffling the contents around. Katara leans on the arm of the ornate chair to watch him, but recoils when she feels something sharp bite into her elbow.

Ouch—hey, something like this?”

The thing that had stabbed her is an intricate metal dragon, arching up out of the end of the chair’s arm. Its mouth is open in a silent roar.

Zuko looks up from where he had been poking at the underside of the desk. “Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, just like that.”

He places his palm against the dragon’s mouth, and Katara catches a quick glint of fire. A heartbeat later, the entire dragon drops away to clink against the chair leg, revealing a hollow compartment in the arm.

Hesitantly, Zuko reaches in and withdraws a tight roll of papers. “This has to be it,” he says.

He offers them to Katara, but she finds her hand trembling when she tries to take them. “You read them first,” she says, a knot of nerves suddenly tightening in her stomach.

Zuko spreads the papers across the desk, his eyes moving rapidly down the columns of characters. “This one is confirmation of the plans for the day of Sozin’s Comet. They’re going to simultaneously hit all of the still-resisting cities in the Earth Kingdom with air attacks. And the Northern Water Tribe.”

Katara sucks in a breath. Gran-Gran. Pakku.

“What about the Southern Tribe?” she asks.

Zuko shakes his head. “Nothing. Probably too small to worry about, now that your family is gone.”

“Check the next paper.”

He does, scanning it with the same speed while Katara anxiously watches before throwing it to the side. The next two scrolls meet the same unceremonious fate before Zuko stills.

“Is it about Aang?”

“No,” he says slowly. “It’s about us.”

-

Shock courses through his body. The whole trajectory of their journey is laid out right there: the forest, Sho Chun, the cliffside town, the oasis. Ba Sing Se.

“They think we’re still in Ba Sing Se. They haven’t realized that we left yet.”

“That close?” Katara groans. “If they figure out we’re here, then we’re done.”

“We have to get out of here quickly.” Zuko’s about to throw the scroll with their information to the side as well when he notices a note at the bottom that makes him still.

The traitor Zuko’s escape may be connected to the recent disappearance of Governor Ukano’s daughter, Mai.

“Zuko, are you okay?” Katara murmurs. “You look like you’re going to pass out.”

“Mai’s disappeared,” he says, dazed.

“Mai? Your ex-girlfriend?”

He nods, stepping back from the desk. “I thought she would be okay. I wanted to make her hate me—so she wouldn’t try to follow me, so she would forget about me. If anything happened to her because of me…”

He’s aware of Katara’s gentle hands on his shoulders, pushing him down into the chair. “I’ll finish reading.”

Zuko’s too stunned to protest. He’d steeled himself for vicious war plans, orders about him, but nothing about Mai. The thought had never crossed his mind that she’d actually try to look for him, much less run away. If anything had happened to her, it would be his fault entirely. That stupid letter that explained nothing, left her with all those loose questions—and now she’s somewhere out there alone, and he’s here. And he’s with Katara.

“The rest of these are just army movements and attack plans.” The disappointment in Katara’s voice is thick. “There’s nothing about Aang, or Sokka, or Toph or my dad. Not even a note.”

“Are you sure?” Zuko mumbles.

Katara rolls the scrolls up with shaking hands, her lips pressed together in a thin line. “Nothing. Not even a mention. Not even if they think they’re still alive—”

She snaps her mouth shut abruptly, and a moment later, Zuko can hear why. There are voices outside of the door, low but getting steadily louder.

Katara stars at Zuko with panic, and it’s enough to shock him into action. He grabs the scrolls and stuffs them back into the chair arm, slamming the dragon head back down, before catching Katara’s arm and pulling her to a corner of the office. The room is small, but the ceilings are tall, stretching way above their heads, and he can make out a gap between the top of the bookcase and the ceiling.

“Up there,” he whispers, bending down to make a cradle with his hands for Katara to step into. It’s a good thing she’s light; Zuko can boost her up to the top lip of the shelf, and she hauls him up next to her just as the voices reach the door.

It’s a tight space made tighter by their bulky uniforms. Too late, he realizes their helmets lie on the floor behind the desk where they’d dropped them, but there’s nothing they can do now; they’re pressed tight together against the wall. Katara’s huge blue are staring into his, and beneath them, the door is creaking open.

“That’s not the priority for us,” a gravelly voice says. “You know what needs to be done. The ships need to be ready in two weeks so that they can be at the Capital in time. I don’t have the manpower for a wild goose chase.”

“General, with all due respect, I don’t think it’s a wild goose chase. The traitor prince was in Ba Sing Se as little as three days ago. They can’t have gone far. Imagine if we were the ones to bring them back.”

“We have our duties, Zhu.” There’s a soft hiss of fire and a familiar clink; Zuko can’t turn around to see, pressed against Katara as he is, but he’s sure somebody just opened the secret armchair compartment. “If the Avatar were with them—that would be a different story. But the little brat’s gone and disappeared once again.”

“If the Avatar finds out we’ve captured the waterbender—”

If. Too many ifs. I’m not wasting my time looking for something that might work when we have our orders from Fire Lord Ozai. It’s not even worth worrying about the Avatar.”

“But if he shows up on day of the comet—”

The general laughs. “Really, Zhu. What do you think one little boy is going to be able to do against our entire nation?”

-

Katara can barely hear the rest of the conversation through the thoughts whirling around her head. Aang is alive—they would have said if he wasn’t. Sokka and Toph most likely are, too. They’re hidden away in some quiet, abandoned corner of the world, safe for now, biding their time. She can see it clearly—a tiny island, a clearing in a forest, a ruined temple, the spirit oasis.

She is brought back to earth when she feels Zuko tense next to her, his amber eyes going wide. “Once his sister is crowned Fire Lord,” the general’s voice says below them, “the traitor will be of no consequence anyway. Worth less than even his uncle. He’s certainly not powerful enough to pose a real threat. We know Iroh has last been seen in the north and the Avatar hasn’t set foot in Ba Sing Se.”

“Princess Azula hasn’t been crowned yet. Just let me search for them. Imagine the honor if we captured them.”

Even through her haze of relief and terror, the irony isn’t lost on Katara.

“I don’t care. Just don’t interrupt the factory’s operations. We have important work to do.”

There’s the riffling sound of papers, everything else silent, and Katara is suddenly hyper-aware of the way her muscles are cramping from her stillness, the precise weight of Zuko’s arm across her, his warm breath on her forehead.

Then, an agonizing eternity later, the footsteps sound again and the door slams. Zuko cautiously rolls over to peek over the edge of the bookcase. “Okay, we’re clear,” he says.

He jumps down, Katara following him. “Aang’s safe,” she says, still dazed.

Zuko nods. “For better or for worse, nobody can find them.”

“And your uncle—”

“The Northern Water Tribe. That’s what they must have meant. He told me once about how he studied there and adapted some waterbending moves for firebending. I’d bet anything he’s gone there now to warn them.”

“You still don’t look happy,” Katara says, studying the deep lines etched into his forehead. “We’re going to the Northern Water Tribe now. We can find him.”

“It’s not him,” Zuko sighs. “It’s my sister.”

-

The concept of Azula as Fire Lord is one he should be used to by now. The thought has definitely crossed his mind before. But having the general lay the image out as a reality in front of him—on top of the news about Mai earlier—all of it, at this moment, is too much for him to process.

He focuses instead on the one thing he can do in the moment. “We have to get out of here. That one soldier will be looking for us. We have to get out without anyone seeing us.”

Katara bites her lip. “Isn’t there anything we can do about the factory? You heard them, Zuko. This is where they’re making the ships they’re going to torch the Earth Kingdom with. Not to mention all those workers.”

“What are we supposed to do? We can’t just start a rebellion in here. We have to get out without making a scene.”

Katara shakes her head and grins. “We can make a scene. We just can’t get caught.”

“How do we do that?”

“Those steampipes—they go through the whole factory, right?” Zuko nods. “And control the locks on the doors?”

“Probably, yeah.”

“So if we superheat all that steam at a few points—build up the pressure throughout the pipes—until it bursts, what happens?”

Zuko’s eyes light up. “Alarms would go off,” he says. “All the doors would open. Systems would fail. It would be pandemonium.”

“And with all that chaos, with the doors open, the workers would all be able to escape.”

“They’d be able to get outside, at least.”

“So we heat up the pipes. We burst open the doors, we tell them to get out, and then while everyone is confused, we run.”

“And with a firebender and a waterbender working together—”

“It wouldn’t take long at all.”

Zuko smiles a real, genuine smile, one that finally erases the worry lines from his forehead. “Katara,” he says, wrapping an arm around her shoulders for a quick hug, “this just might work.”

-

It takes them a moment to find an isolated pipe out of the watch of the Fire Nation guards. When they find one in a deserted hallway close to the main doors, Katara crouches down, peeling off her uniform gloves to press her palms to the pipe.

“Come help me,” she says. “I’m going to pull as much water to me as I can. Boil it, and then I’ll shoot it down the pipe to the door.”

Zuko kneels, placing his hands next to Katara’s. “Be careful. It’s gonna get hot.”

“I think I can handle it.” Katara smirks.

The pipe hisses, and Katara furrows her brow in concentration before pulling her hands back and flicking them to the right in the direction of the door. “Let’s do it in some of the other pipes, too. We have to build up pressure by the controls.”

They repeat the process on the other pipes in the hallway, then move farther down into the control room where they’d started, blasting heat into all of the tanks there. Just when Zuko is starting to think it won’t work, that the pipes are all too far from the main doorway, a siren splits the air.

“Let’s go,” Katara says.

As they run, she continues to move her hands in familiar waterbending patterns, and soon the first siren is joined by a second and then a third. Distantly, Zuko can hear voices begin to ring out, followed by a stampede of footsteps.

“This way,” he gasps, grabbing her elbow to tug her towards where he knows the main door will be. “Quick. We have to get out first.”

They round another corner, the air around them getting hotter. The clamor behind them is getting louder as well. “Right here,” he yells to Katara, praying to every spirit he knows that the structure of this factory is the same as the others he’s seen.

The door looms up in front of them, great and dark and very, very closed. “More,” Katara pants out. “Hit that pipe. Ready? One, two, three—”

They twist at the same moment, Zuko shooting a tongue of fire to envelop the pipe as Katara contorts her body to bend the hidden steam. With a groan, the metal rents open, spilling boiling water to the ground. The huge gear locking the doors closed begins to spin.

“Go! Go!” Without a pause, Katara scoops the boiling water into a whip and blasts it into the door. It begins to creak open. “They’re coming!”

She drops the water just as the voices behind them become clear. Zuko risks a glance behind them. The hallway is filled with a stampede of people, Earth prisoners and Fire guards alike, all aimed at the exit.

He wraps his hand around Katara’s and runs.

The cold air outside is sweet relief from the steaming tomb of the factory, but it’s also a shock to his lungs, making it hard for him to catch his breath. But Katara doesn’t slow down, so he doesn’t either, forging ahead over the rocky ground towards the faraway outcrop of trees. The heavy uniform is weighing him down, but he doesn’t want to let go of Katara to rip it off.

He expects fire to come shooting at them from behind at any moment, but in the pandemonium, the guards must not have noticed them. He nearly can’t believe it when they tumble to a stop next to the tree where their ostrich horses hide; when the ringing in his ears clears, he realizes it’s quiet.

He looks at Katara. Her eyes are wide and inscrutable.

Then, slowly, her panting breath transforms into laughter. She throws her arms around Zuko’s neck. “We did it, Zuko. We actually did it.”

Zuko can’t help the sudden, illogical laughter that bubbles up inside his throat as well. He buries the sound in her hair, breathing Katara in.

-

They ride the wave of elation to the base of the mountains, their ostrich horses reinvigorated by the rest. Outside of the thrill of the moment, Katara can finally begin to digest everything they’d learned: Aang, Azula, Sokka, Toph, and Mai all swirling together in her head. It’s not the information she’d hoped for, but it’s good nonetheless; her friends are hidden, and hopefully it will take days before the Fire Nation realizes Katara and Zuko had left Ba Sing Se, though the explosion of the factory might have nixed that. The next stop is the Northern Water Tribe, and with any luck, that’s where her Gran-Gran and Pakku will be.

She’s so caught up in her own thoughts that Zuko’s silence doesn’t register with her until they reach the first steep mountain slope and her ostrich horse balks. She glances over at Zuko; his forehead is set in an indecipherable frown.

“Should we stop here?” she asks. “It’ll probably be dark soon.”

Zuko’s head jerks up like she’d startled him. “Let’s keep going. There should be a valley between the mountains a little bit west of here, and there’s still a lot of ground to cover.”

“Are you sure?”

Zuko only nods, already jerking his reins to the right.

They keep going for a little longer in the silence, uncomfortable now that Katara’s realized it. “Zuko, is everything okay?” she asks softly.

“Yes, of course. I—” Zuko closes his eyes and tips his chin up, taking a deep breath of air. “No,” he says. “No, it’s not.”

Katara pulls her ostrich horse to a halt and slides off. “Come on. This is a good spot to break.”

The sun is sinking into the peaks in the west, spreading long red rays across the little plateau. Wordlessly, Zuko begins to set up camp, shaking out bed rolls. Katara stops him with a hand on his shoulder.

“Is it what they said about your sister?” she asks.

She feels his muscles tense under her hand.

“You can talk to me, Zuko. I’m here for you. We’ll figure it out together.”

“It’s my sister,” he says, his voice ragged. “It’s Azula, and my father, and Mai, and Iroh, and—”

He turns, and Katara just catches the glitter of tears in the corners of his eyes before he engulfs her in a desperate hug. His body wracks with sobs. Katara presses one hand to the back of his head, tangling her fingers in his shaggy hair, and holds on.

She breathes deep, her lungs filling with smoke and salt. He is sagging into her, nearly limp, clinging to the back of her shirt like if he doesn’t, he could fall, and for the first time the impact of how much he has given up hits her: it is everything. His entire family, all of his friends, the girl he loved. Everything to do what’s right. Everything to be here with her.

Katara smooths her other hand down his back, feeling the tension coiled in the muscles there begin to seep away. Zuko’s sobs grow quieter and less violent bit by bit. Finally, he lifts his head, leaving Katara’s shoulder soaked in tears.

Katara presses her forehead to Zuko’s and closes her eyes. “You can tell me,” she whispers. “You have me.”

-

How can he put into words everything he’s feeling?

Even now, devastated as he is, Katara’s touch still sends sparks flying across his skin, and that is so much of the problem. Mai has put herself in danger because of him, but here he is, falling—

“Sit down,” Katara murmurs, her cool hands wiping tears from his flushed cheeks. “Rest. I’ll make tea.”

She guides him down to one of the bed rolls before turning her back. It’s much easier to organize his thoughts without her looking at him, and he finally begins to speak.

“I’m sorry. Hearing about Mai was a shock. I never wanted her to do anything like that.”

“You don’t have to apologize for having feelings, Zuko.”

“It was an overreaction. I just—” Zuko swallows. “If she gets hurt, it’s my fault. Just because we don’t make sense romantically doesn’t mean I don’t still care about her. It was stupid of me to assume she’d just accept that note without questions.”

“Can you light this?” Katara gestures to a small pile of kindling she’s built from dry grass scattered around the plateau. Once Zuko sparks it alight, she comes to sit next to him.

“You’re putting too much blame on yourself,” she says. “This was Mai’s decision in the end. Maybe you weren’t the only one who felt trapped there. Plus, she can take care of herself, Zuko. I’ve seen her do it.”

“I feel guilty,” he blurts out.

“Why?”

“Because I—I don’t have feelings for her anymore.”

“Feelings change,” she says, and puts her hand over his. It’s comforting, but it wrenches at Zuko’s heart, and he almost wishes she hadn’t. “We grow up.”

“But if she’s run away to find me…”

“Then that’s her decision,” Katara says firmly. “And you don’t know what she did. Maybe she just realized that your sister is a monster.”

It’s a natural segue into the other problem plaguing him after today—the issue of his family—but he can’t begin to verbalize the betrayal and loss he feels from the news of the new heir to the Fire throne. Tomorrow, maybe. Later. They’ll talk about it together, and they’ll come up with a plan, like they always do.

For now, he just nestles his head into the crook between Katara’s neck and shoulder, still damp from his previous tears. “Thank you, Katara. I couldn’t do this without you.”

“Then it’s a good thing you don’t have to,” she says.

Chapter Text

They rise the next morning with the sun’s first rays scattering gold across the mountaintops. Despite the rocky ground, Katara feels surprisingly well rested, maybe due to the previous day’s exhaustion or the fresh, cool air. Maybe it’s because she’s beginning to feel the pull of the ocean just beyond the mountains.

Zuko, too, seems to have perked up from the day before, running through firebending exercises and sun salutations with vigor. He offers Katara a small but genuine smile when he finishes.

“Big day today,” he says. “Are you ready to scale the mountains?”

“Isn’t that what we’re already doing?”

Zuko shakes his head. “These are just foothills. It looks like the real peaks start just over that ridge.” He points to the north, where in the misty distance, Katara can make out the vague form of taller mountains.

“They look a little intimidating,” she says doubtfully.

“I don’t know about you, but I’d take mountains over the desert any day. And we’ve got ostrich horses now.”

“Do you think there will be snow?” She perks up at the thought.

“Maybe. I hope not. We’re not really dressed for that.” A visible shiver runs down Zuko’s arms.

So close. Just over those mountains. It might not be her father or her brother or her friends, but it’s closer to hope than anything Katara’s had in weeks. It’s people she knows—maybe, if she’s lucky, somebody she loves.

-

There isn’t any snow, but Zuko’s still shivering. The farther they climb up the ridge, the thinner and colder the air gets. The ostrich horses are doing surprisingly well for now, but he doubts they’ll be able to keep up the pace as they keep ascending. He’d studied the map from the oasis thoroughly, but the details in this corner of the world were lacking, the outlines of peaks sketched out in lieu of actual paths.

He’s starting to see why: there isn’t much to map. The mountains roll on into the distance for as far as he can see; he knows that somewhere beyond them, there’s a brief strip of shore before the sea, but he can’t see it.

The ostrich horses at least make it easier for Katara and him to talk as they travel, now that they aren’t struggling up the rocky terrain themselves. Katara has been regaling him with one of the many adventures he’d missed out on while he was chasing them around the world: they’d found themselves in a town full of gullible citizens, living their lives by the word of a stubborn old fortuneteller.

“…And then she told me I was going to marry a very powerful bender,” Katara is saying. “And then, of course, she was wrong and the volcano did blow up, but Aang used his Avatar powers to save the town, not that we got any thanks for it—hey, what do you think that is?”

They’ve just crested the first real peak, and the mountains spread themselves out before Zuko and Katara like a painting, sprawling down into mist and up towards the clouds. Katara is pointing slightly to the west at a glimmer atop one of the peaks, too bright to be water or snow.

Zuko squints. He can’t make out any details, but he can tell by the brilliant reflection of the thin mountain light that it must be metallic. “Whatever it is, it’s not natural.”

“We should go check it out.”

“What? Why?”

“It’s on our way, isn’t it?”

“I guess,” Zuko says doubtfully. “I mean, it’s in the right direction. But that’s a tall mountain. Who knows what it is? It could be nothing. It could be dangerous.”

“And it could be a secret city full of benders, for all we know.”

“Don’t you want to get to the North already?”

“Oh, come on, Zuko. This is barely even a detour. It could be useful.”

There’s an undercurrent of strange desperation in Katara’s voice, and it takes Zuko a moment to locate a source for it. Katara, ever hopeful, might think it’s a clue to the location of her hidden friends. He does have to admit it’s a good spot to hide; there is nobody here for miles, no reason to come up to this forgotten corner.

“Okay,” he says. “Let’s check it out.”

-

The ostrich horses are quickly tiring of the mountainous terrain by the time they reach the foot of the glinting mountain. Katara admires them for making it as far as they had, old and malnourished as they are; the first crest had been the hardest one by far, and they hadn’t had much time to recover after.

To her surprise, there’s a narrow path cleared of rocks winding its way up the mountain; rubble and scrubby plants have filled it in over time, but it’s still devoid of the large rocks and irregularities characterizing the rest of the terrain. Her eyes follow it up until it disappears into the low-hanging fog.

“Should we walk it?” she calls out to Zuko, whose ostrich horse lags behind hers.

Zuko shades his eyes with one hand as he surveys it. “Sure,” he answers. “It definitely looks like a footpath.”

Katara slides off her mount, her muscles cramping up from disuse. The poor ostrich horse shudders with relief, and she loops the reins around her wrist as she waits for Zuko to catch up.

“If it’s something dangerous, at least we can bend at it,” she says brightly. “There are definitely no Fire Nation soldiers this far north.”

“What are you supposed to bend? We’re miles and miles from the ocean.”

Katara quirks an eyebrow. “Who says I need the ocean?”

She reaches a hand up towards the sky and feels her chi coalesce in her sternum, pooling raw energy before twisting her wrist. The cloud vapor swirls down like a vortex, coming to twine around her wrist in a bracelet. It feels so good to bend out in the open again, and Katara grins, pulling more water from the clouds until it coats her whole arm.

Experimentally, she lunges out, slashing the water across a boulder to the side of the path. It cleaves in half almost immediately, and Katara’s grin grows even wider. Yep, still got it.

The air grows thicker around them as they climb. It’s almost unnatural; the fog hadn’t been nearly this thick before, and even though the steepness of the path reminds her how high they’re climbing, she doesn’t think they could actually walk into the clouds.

Then, all of a sudden, the fog dissipates from the path in front of them. Katara stops dead, her breath catching in her throat and not just because of the effort of the climb.

“What is that?” Zuko gasps, coming to stop beside her.

“It’s a temple,” Katara murmurs reverently.

-

The only word Zuko can think of is magnificent. Spires tower over their heads, made out of a pale golden rock that gleams against the dull mountainside. The glints they’d seen earlier must have been from the mirrored panels inlaid in some of the spires; here above the layer of mist, the sun pierces the gloom to illuminate the structure, making it seem like it’s glowing.

“One of the temples?” he asks. “The four Air Nomad temples?”

Katara shakes her head. “It’s much too small. Aang said the Northern temple was around here somewhere. This must be an outpost of some kind, like a shrine.”

“It’s…surreal.”

Zuko cranes his neck, following the towers up to their points. Despite the damage of age, the architecture is still intact, soaring beyond anything he’d ever seen in the Fire Nation—or anywhere else in the world. The technology the Air Nomads must have had, the vision and imagination and creativity, is leagues beyond the rest of the nations.

And now they’re all gone.

“Should we?” Katara asks, gesturing towards the open doorway.

A thick wave of anxiety suddenly washes over Zuko, paralyzing him. He’d passed over Air Nomad sites during his search for the Avatar, but he’d never gone inside one. He’d never confronted the destruction his nation had committed against the race.

“You go ahead,” he says weakly.

Katara slides off her mount and starts towards the door, but then turns back. “No, let’s go together. It’s okay.”

“I just need a minute.”

“I’ll wait.” Katara smiles at him, gently taking his ostrich horse’s reins.

He watches her tie them to a post at the end of the path and tries to calm his breath. There’s no reason for him to be reacting this way. He’s seen the skeletons enough times over the course of his travels. He knows what’s probably waiting in the shrine. When he was younger, he thought it was justified. Necessary.

He tears his eyes away from the dark entrance at the sensation of a slight pressure on his arm. Katara is resting her hand there, looking up at him.

“Are you ready?” she asks.

Zuko swallows, gently slides his hand into hers, and nods.

-

Even the air inside the shrine feels ancient. It’s cool and dim in the passage, dust motes swirling in the filtered light, and deathly quiet. It would have felt almost eerie if she was alone. She clutches Zuko’s hand a little harder, taking comfort in his warmth.

The entryway ends in an intricately carved wooden door. There’s a thick layer of dust on the handle, but the door gives way easily when she pushes the handle, lighter than it looks, and suddenly her vision is flooded with light again. Katara has to take a moment to let her eyes adjust, the scene before her fading in from the edges.

The walls are painted with bright images punctuated by alcoves where serene statuettes rest. The ceiling vaunts high over their heads, windows stretching open to let fresh air and light flow through the room so that it feels as if it isn’t abandoned and ancient, but still alive.

And then, finally, the center of the room fades in: worn furniture, prayer mats, scattered books. It looks like it could have been lived in yesterday were it not for the dust coating the whole scene.

“Hello?” Katara calls out, her voice ringing upwards.

To her disappointment, but not her surprise, there’s no answer.

She feels Zuko relax beside her, his hand loosening around hers. When she looks over at him, he’s staring around the hall, his eyes wide with wonder.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” he says.

He lets go of her hand and steps forward tentatively. He looks almost afraid to disrupt the peaceful scene. Katara follows a few steps behind him, watching carefully.

The first thing he investigates is the painting on the walls, a sprawling cosmic mural done in ethereal purples and blues. There are seven statues interspersed in the alcoves throughout it, identical except for the placement of their hands on different parts of their bodies, and Katara remembers what Aang had told her about Guru Pathik’s lecture on the seven chakras.

“Do you know what they mean?” Zuko asks her.

Katara nods. “I think it has to do with achieving spiritual enlightenment. The Air Nomads believed there were seven different locations in the body that corresponded to different emotions or kinds of energy. Aang used them to try and get control over the Avatar State.”

“We didn’t learn anything about other cultures when I was young,” Zuko says pensively. He runs his fingers over the star-studded mural, his fingertips coming away purple with flecks of pigment. “I snuck into the royal archives with Uncle a couple of times, though. There was a history of the Avatars before Roku. It said that the Avatars coming from the Air Nomads were always the most powerful, because they innately understood the power and the purpose of the Avatar more than all the other nations.”

“Aang never had a chance to learn most of that. He was so young when they told him. Too young.”

“And now there’s no one left to teach him,” Zuko mutters.

He turns away from the statues abruptly, striding to the center of the room and beginning to leaf through one of the books. “What do you think this place was? I thought the army wrecked the temples when they killed all of the Air Nomads, but it still looks so peaceful here.”

“I think it’s a shrine for the Northern Air Temple. An outpost for meditation, sort of. Aang told me a little about the ones where he was from; they would come out here for days to commune with the spirits without being disturbed.”

“I never heard anything about these when we studied the history of the Hundred Year War.” Zuko furrows his brow, still squinting at the book. “Katara, come look at this.”

She kneels next to him, peering over his shoulder. The pages are filled with a large picture of two figures: a woman with dark hair tied in a knot at the top of her head, draped in elegant red and gold, and a bald-headed man with distinctively familiar arrow tattoos. They’re shaking hands, both wearing serene expressions on their faded faces.

“It says this is from five hundred years ago,” Zuko says. “Avatar Yangchen was just born. The two nations are peacefully solidifying the transfer of the Avatar power.”

He turns the page with a careful hand. Katara can’t parse the characters—it’s written in a traditional script, one that’s not common anymore—but Zuko reads it aloud without hesitation.

“The Fire Nation and the Air Nomads were great allies. Together, they developed new bending techniques, the firebenders teaching the airbenders how to channel their boundless energy and the airbenders teaching the firebenders how to unlock their full potential. The powerful combination of the nomads’ love of exploration and the Fire Nation’s innovation allowed them to reach corners of the world never before seen…”

Zuko’s voice trails off, but his eyes continue to hungrily scan the columns of text.

Katara doesn’t interrupt him as he reads. Zuko is utterly absorbed, and she takes the time to watch him, observe the wrinkles in his forehead and the ridges of his scar, the way he silently mouths the words to himself as he reads. Warmth radiates off his back towards her, and Katara is hit with the irrational urge to drape her arms around his shoulders and fold herself into that heat, to breathe him in.

Finally, he closes the book and sets it on his lap. “I can’t believe I never knew about this,” he says, his voice barely above a whisper. “They trusted us. It was a shock. We completely betrayed them. Their whole culture.”

“It’s not your fault,” Katara says.

“It’s my family’s fault, though. I have to be the one to fix this. The world can’t lose their culture, their history.”

He turns his head to look Katara in the eyes, his face entirely too close, and Katara’s breath sticks in her throat. “When this is all over, when there’s peace again, will you help me do it, Katara?”

“Of course I will,” she whispers. “We all will, Zuko.”

She imagines Zuko swathed in red robes and ornamental armor, his hair tied back, standing on a balcony before citizens from every nation. She imagines him declaring peace, embracing Aang, describing his plans for restoring balance.

And then, unbidden, her mind adds another detail to the picture: Katara by his side, dressed in blue, smiling up at him. By his side as he rebuilds the world from ashes. Beyond that, always by his side.

She hasn’t allowed herself to consider what the world after the day of the comet will look like, too focused on surviving it first, knowing how many ways it could go wrong. But for just that moment, she can’t help herself—a lifetime lays itself out in front of her.

Zuko, amber eyes holding hers as they do right now, dressed in blue, standing next to Hakoda, holding a necklace between his hands.

Oh, Katara thinks, and then, of course.

-

They spend the afternoon searching the rest of the shrine, but there isn’t much to search. A few bare bedchambers and sunny terraces turn up more books, statues, and what seem to be religious relics, but no sign of other people, alive or dead. Katara, to Zuko’s relief, doesn’t seem too disappointed that her friends weren’t hidden away here after all. She must have known how farfetched it was all along as well.

Still, it’s far from a waste: Zuko keeps the book detailing the history of the Air Nomads and Fire Nation’s alliance, determined to study it more closely when he has a chance. He takes another one as well, outlining the idea of the seven chakras that Katara had explained. He hopes that when he finally meets Aang that the last airbender can teach him more about the spiritual beliefs of his nation, that together, they can find a way to continue those traditions.

He understands now why he hadn’t been taught about the history or traditions of any of the other three nations when he was young; it’s hard to wrap his head around the genocide of the whole people now that he knows their way of life is so diametrically opposed to violence, that once upon a time, they had been allies. He thinks of all the vitriol and prejudice the population of his country has towards the rest of the world and how much that could change if they just understood the other cultures.

He’s incredibly thankful for the shrine’s emptiness—not just of any other living beings, but of the remnants of them, as well. He’s not sure what he would have done if he had come face-to-face with the devastation his nation’s army had wreaked on the monks. As it is, the shrine is disorganized, but peaceful; it simply looks like its inhabitants have left in a hurry and could be back at any moment.

When they’ve thoroughly searched the building for any sign of life and determined it well and truly empty, they return to the main hall, where Katara sits down on a mat with a sigh. “Oh well,” she says. “I wasn’t really expecting them to be here, but…still.”

“I’m glad we came.” Zuko finds himself drawn back to the statues depicting the chakras, pacing back and forth in front of them. The serene faces stare out at him—not judging, just observing.

At the corner of his eye, a flash of orange catches his attention, tucked into the alcove behind the seventh chakra statue. Zuko reaches behind the statue, curious, and feels something cool and smooth that fits perfectly into his palm.

When he pulls it out, he sees that it’s a pendant. It’s engraved with a triangle of careful spirals, dangling from a string of orange beads. A strange feeling of peace washes over Zuko as he stares at it.

“Katara?” he calls out.

She looks up from the scroll in her lap. “What’s up?”

“Do you know what this is?”

He walks over to her, dangling the pendant in the air. She rises and rubs her thumb over the carving.

“Yeah, I’ve seen these before. The monks in the paintings at the Southern Air Temple were wearing them. And their—” She breaks off and lets the pendant fall. “They’re for the monks,” she finishes lamely.

Zuko watches the stone sway on its string between them, catching glints of light. The same feeling as before fills him again—peaceful, relaxed, meditative.

He thinks, watching the gentle, even sway of the pendant, that he understands a bit better what the Air philosophy is. Constant motion, but always perfectly in balance; each sway a perfect mirror. The forces don’t oppose each other, but reflect each other.

“You should keep it,” Katara says.

Zuko looks up. Her ocean eyes are glassy, staring up at him. “They would want you to have it,” she continues. “Aang would want you to.”

“Are you sure?”

Katara reaches up and loops the beads around him, her hands brushing the sensitive skin at the back of his neck and sending shivers cascading down his spine.

“Think of it as a promise. Next time you come back here, you’ll be with him, and you can start to fix what’s been broken.”

Zuko tucks the stone carefully into his tunic, letting it settle against his skin.

When he sees the airbender, he’ll give it to him. It’ll be the first step in the long, long process of rectifying his nation’s atrocities. But it’s a step, and it makes him anxious to reunite with Katara’s friends—a new reason to push through the rest of their journey, to make it past the end of the world, to make sure he’s there to rebuild it.

Chapter Text

They spend the night in the shrine’s hall, reluctant to leave their shelter, and Katara wakes to pink rays of sunrise filtering down from the high windows.

She rolls over to look at Zuko. To her surprise, he’s still asleep; he’s usually an early riser, up well before her and running through his sun salutation forms when she wakes up. Maybe being this far north has altered his attenuation to the sun cycle.

Now, he looks peaceful, the wrinkles smoothed from his face by sleep. The early-morning sunlight tinges his face red and highlights the ridges of his scar, framing his eye in shadow; Katara’s gaze traces the edge of the raised skin where it fades into his forehead, the hair that usually obscures it fallen to the side.

As she watches, Zuko’s amber eyes blink open slowly. A sleepy smile spreads almost instantaneously across his face, and the genuine expression makes sparks fly across Katara’s skin.

“Good morning,” he yawns.

“Morning,” Katara laughs. “You’re up late.”

“You tired me out yesterday.” Zuko’s matching laugh lets Katara know he’s joking, and she sits up, stretching.

“It’s going to be hard going back to sleeping on the ground. We’ve been spoiled with beds and sleeping mats.”

“Hopefully we won’t have to be on the ground for too long. Unless you think your friends in the North are going to make me sleep in the snow.”

Katara giggles at the image of Zuko curled up in a snowdrift outside Pakku’s house, shooting glares at everyone that passes by.

“How much longer do you think it’s going to be?”

“The map isn’t very detailed, but we must be close to the Northern Air Temple. It shouldn’t take more than a day to get out of the mountains, and from there, it’s just the ocean.”

Just the ocean.” Katara rolls her eyes, but smiles.

“Yeah, that’s your job.” Zuko kicks away his bedroll. He flexes his fingers as he stands, sparking small flames in each palm. “But really, we should be able to get a boat somewhere along the shore. We’ll build a raft if we have to. We’ve come this far.”

Katara continues to watch him as he runs through his firebending positions, his steps and vocalizations echoing around the arching walls. She’s familiar with most of his routines by now, but it’s unusual to see it from the very beginning, since she usually wakes halfway through. Zuko’s intensity increases gradually as he moves, his movements growing grander and more punctuated, just like a real fire—only controlled. Firebending often scares Katara, but Zuko’s precision is comforting.

Watching him always ignites a strange small jealousy in her. She wishes desperately she had someone to teach her how to control her water when she was young, that she even knew of bending routines like Zuko’s. Her lessons had been piecemeal, and so many of her moves had been completely made up. She knows Zuko’s training had come at a steep price, but still—it makes her wistful.

“Hey,” says Zuko, and Katara startles out of her thoughts. “Do you want to train a bit before we get going?”

“What?” Katara blinks.

“Train together, I mean. Maybe spar or something. There’s nobody around here for miles to see us.”

As soon as he says it, Katara realizes how desperately she’s been itching to waterbend—really waterbend, huge waves and whips and balls of ice. Zuko must feel the same; his morning poses aren’t anywhere close to what she’s seen him do.

“Only if you promise not to go easy on me,” she says, grinning.

Zuko returns her smirk. “Oh, I don’t think you have to worry about that.”

-

Katara doesn’t seem worried about the mid-morning sun beating down on the shrine’s terrace or the lack of natural water sources surrounding them. Zuko is a little worried about it, because the conditions are clearly in his favor and he wants her to be able to protect herself from any stray tongues of fire, but he knows if he says that to her she’ll just roll her eyes and tease him.

Currently, Katara is stretching a glittering stream between her palms, her head tilted as she shifts her hands to make the water reverse its flow. He almost doesn’t want to disturb her peace, but then she looks up at him and smirks.

“Ready?” she calls.

“Only if you are,” he yells back.

She shifts her weight into a lithe, bent-kneed pose, and nods. “One, two, three.”

In the blink of an eye, she siphons a column of water out of a grate he hadn’t noticed, and Zuko barely has time to react when it’s bearing down on him in a wave as high as his chest. He lunges out to vaporize it, but Katara freezes it just as his fire reaches the wall of ice, the two forces meeting in a hiss of steam.

She pulls the water back and forms one of her whips, dashing it across the terrace at his feet, and Zuko jumps to avoid being knocked off-balance. He lands in a crouch and summons up a matching tongue of flame that he sends chasing across the tile after Katara’s water, but she’s quick, circling around to Zuko’s side and lashing him on the back of his neck with the whip, just hard enough to sting.

“Gotta be quicker,” she laughs, and despite his concentration, Zuko smiles.

The way they fight now is different from all their other battles across the world—the standoff at the oasis, the painful duel in the crystal cavern. The desire to harm is missing, but Katara’s determination isn’t, and even with the sun against her she dashes around him, lunging out with her watery tentacles one moment and sending chips of ice skittering across the ground in the next. She actually manages to keep Zuko on the defensive, and it’s all he can do to pull walls of fire from the air to block her relentless waves.

Finally, though, he spots an opening as Katara pauses to re-gather her water and shoots a small jet at her feet, knocking her boots out from under her. She pops back up almost immediately, but her circlet of liquid had fallen to the ground when she did. They circle each other warily, the same self-assured smirk still secure on Katara’s face.

“You look tired,” Zuko says.

“Oh, please.” Katara rolls her eyes. “Why, do you need a break—”

Zuko suddenly lunges, skidding forward. He sees momentary panic flash in Katara’s eyes, and she raises her hands to block him, but he just catches her wrists and holds them above her shoulders.

“Got you,” he says softly.

-

This close to him, nearly pressed to his chest, she can feel his shallow breaths, the heat of exertion rolling off him and the tiny drops of sweat dotting his skin. He’s wearing a lopsided grin, but as she stares at him, it falls into a slightly stunned, open-mouthed expression.

His hands around her wrists are surprisingly gentle, his palms surprisingly soft. Katara aches to sink into the heat.

Instead, she pulls away, letting her hair fall over her face and hide it. “Is that how you’re planning to defeat Azula, too?”

Zuko reels back, frowning, and Katara immediately regrets the comment, but she had to say something. She feels like she’d stepped too close to the bonfire and a spark has popped in her face.

“Of course not,” he says. “I’m not going to fight you like I’ll fight her. I don’t want to hurt you.”

He sounds genuinely hurt. Katara swallows, an apology on the tip of her tongue, but she’s worried if she starts then too much is going to spill out. Instead, she says brusquely “come on, we should get going if we want to get to the North Pole before the comet.”

She gathers their scant belongings in silence, taking note of how quickly their stock of food from Ba Sing Se has dwindled, and loads it onto their ostrich horses. Zuko steps in to help, taking the bags from her with that same frustrating gentleness that he held her wrists with and all it does is increase the intensity of the hurricane in her head.

In fifteen days, they could both be dead. She could watch the Fire Lord kill him before her eyes. There is no time or purpose for these insistent, distracting feelings.

-

They guide their mounts back down the rocky path, Katara riding in front of Zuko instead of beside him like usual. When they reach the bottom, she glances up at the sun to get a bearing on their direction before jerking her reins to the left, pointing her ostrich horse northwest.

Her sudden change in mood confuses Zuko more than anything. This seems to always happen to them! Just when he thinks he’s making progress, that she’s finally comfortable around him, she pulls back so quick that it leaves him reeling.

Was he wrong, suggesting that they spar? Had it reminded her of their past fights, the days when they really were out for each other’s blood? Would it always be like this, even after?

He thinks maybe he should apologize, but he’s not even sure what for.

They’re both silent for the whole morning as they ride through the craggy passes, Katara always in front of him so Zuko can’t even see her face to try and parse her emotions. All he’s left with is the swirl of confusion, regret, and anger in his mind, sharpened by the underlying current that never leaves his thoughts: the need to protect Katara, the constant desire to be closer to him.

Just when he’s made up his mind that he has to say something to her about it, if only to break the horribly tense silence, she pulls her ostrich horse to a stop uphill from him.

“Zuko, look,” she says, and points.

Ahead of them, the mountains begin to plunge away into lower hills, sloping steeply down into a dense greenery that looks almost jungle-like. Beyond it, in the distance, the sea glitters and roils.

“Another day till we get there?” she asks.

“Yeah, looks like it. I didn’t expect that valley, though. I didn’t know there were forests like that this far north.”

“Should we go around it?”

“I don’t see a need to.”

“It looks…” Katara frowns, squinting at the patch of green nestled beneath the mist. “Unnatural.”

“You think it’s connected to the spirits somehow?”

“I just don’t know how there’s something that lush this far north.”

“We can go around it,” Zuko says. “It shouldn’t take that much longer. There’s a path around the edge.”

Katara bites her lip, her eyes fixed on the jungle. “I think that would be better,” she says finally. “I just have a bad feeling about it.”

Zuko’s not sure he totally agrees—the forest looks out of place to him, but not necessarily foreboding—but he’s worried about pushing Katara back into her previous melancholy, and besides, she’s more closely attuned to the will of the spirits than he ever will be. Circumnavigating the valley will add time to their journey, but it’s better than getting lost in some strange mystical jungle.

“Okay, let’s do it,” he says.

-

The descent into the valley is steep. Katara’s apprehension at the jungle grows as the temperature drops, and by the time they reach the bottom of the rocky slope, the sun is low over their heads and she is very glad for Zuko’s acquiescence for the abrupt change in their path. The thick trees loom up in front of them, vines crisscrossing through the branches; she can barely see anything past the first row of tree trunks, the interior of the forest cloaked in darkness.

Zuko guides his ostrich horse to the right, where the greenery fades out into the scraggly moss and jagged boulders that have grown familiar by now, and Katara gratefully follows him. The chill in the air continues to grow as they continue onwards and the sun dips closer to the horizon.

Katara shivers, drawing her cloak closer around her and wishing she could trade the Earth Kingdom fabric for the thick furs of her childhood. Soon, she tells herself. A couple more days.

“We should take a break soon,” Zuko calls. “We’re slowing down. The ostrich horses probably need to rest. Are you hungry?”

She is, but she doesn’t want to stop moving, either. She desperately wants to get out of the mountains; the magic of the Air Nomads’ shrine has rapidly faded, and she misses being close to the water, craves the security it gives her.

“If we rest for a bit, we could keep going through the night,” he continues, hearing her silence. “I don’t like it either, but we have to take a break sometime, and then we can—”

There’s an odd rushing sound. Something slashes through the twilight at Zuko, and he ducks, crying out. An arrow.

She’s moving before she can even think, pulling the water out of her waist pouch. Her mount bucks under her, too tired to run even when she snaps the reins with her free hand, and when another arrow whizzes by her she has to leap to the ground to avoid it. A moment later, she hears Zuko’s feet hit the rocks, too.

“Do we run?” she yells. Before Zuko can answer, a barrage of arrows appears out of the dusk, aimed straight at his head, and Katara flicks her water up into a thin shield.

Zuko grabs her wrist and begins to sprint, but the arrows keep flying, and Katara can’t run and block at the same time, especially because now they’re coming from two different directions, at their backs and to the right from the edge of the valley. She tries to hold her ice shield, but the hail of arrows cracks away at it as she runs until it shatters around them and she has to pause to gather the water back to her.

“Katara, come on!” Zuko shouts, and she stumbles, rushing to catch up, running blindly as the sky goes darker around them.

Then Zuko curses and a flame rents the dusk, eliciting an unfamiliar, husky growl. Katara glances up to see two burly men blocking Zuko’s path, one with an angry red burn flaring up on his arm.

She lashes out with her water whip, aiming for the uninjured man, but he easily dodges, unexpectedly agile for his size. Zuko continues to push his advantage with short bursts of fire, but a chunk of rock flies towards him from the right, forcing him to fall back.

“Katara, behind you!” he yells, and Katara ducks just as more rocks shoot towards her. When she turns back, a woman has appeared from the mountain slope, a circle of rocks orbiting her.

“Where do we go?” she calls.

“I don’t know!”

Zuko lashes out with a tongue of fire, but a wall of rock rises up to block him, pushing him back until his back hits hers. She crouches, her water at the ready, but the sun had set as they ran and she doesn’t even know where to aim, can only make out the vague shapes of bodies surrounding them—too many, five or six of them, forming a circle cutting off every route of escape.

With a growl, Zuko shoots flames across the ground towards their feet, but they must have multiple earthbenders—Katara tries to catch the earthbending woman with an ice dagger, but she easily blocks them with a stone shield, flinging the ice in every direction. Katara reaches out desperately, trying to gather it back to her, but the rocky plain is utterly devoid of moisture.

She grabs her dagger, leaning forward to rush the woman, but something seizes her foot, something hard and cold and immobile. It crawls up her legs, around her waist and arms, and Katara screams.

“Katara!”

She tries to twist to see Zuko, but the stone coffin prevents all movement below her neck. His cursing a moment later gives her all of the information she needs.

They’re trapped.

-

Zuko doesn’t get a good look at their captors until one of them lights a torch nearly under his chin, holding it close to his face. The flickering light illuminates a pair of weathered, tattooed faces, their shoulders swathed in leather.

“Firebender, huh?” one of them says. “You’re a little far from home. What are you doing up here?”

“This one’s a waterbender,” a voice behind him says.

The man holding a torch in front of Zuko studies his face for a moment, squinting, and then reaches out. Zuko twists his neck, but his movements are too limited; the hand pushes his hair back from his face, chill air hitting the scar tissue.

He watches the man’s eyes go wide.

“Guys,” he says. “Guys, you’re not going to believe this. It’s that Fire prince.”

What?”

Zuko wants to spit at them, curse them out, something, anything, as they circle him like he’s an animal at a zoo. He settles for a sullen sneer.

“So that means the girl…”

“Don’t touch me,” he hears Katara snap.

Someone chuckles. “Feisty. You’re the Avatar’s waterbender, huh?”

Alarm bells sound in Zuko’s ears, and he struggles harder, but the rock entombing most of his body is solid and he only succeeds in scratching his arms up. There’s an uncomfortable glint in the eye of the man who had grabbed him.

“They’ve got a huge bounty on their heads, don’t they?” he says, his gaze still locked on Zuko’s scar.

Huge,” one of the women says. “Massive.”

The first mountain raider rubs his hands together. The flickering firelight distorts his grin into something even more sinister than it naturally is, recessing his eyes into shadow.

“I think we know what to do here, then.”

-

The relief she feels at the touch of the night air when the earthbending raider releases her from the rock is almost immediately superseded by the unpleasantness of being manhandled by two of them as they bind her hands with coarse rope. She at least gets a small reassurance when they lead her next to Zuko, whose barely contained fury is written all over his face.

While the raiders busy themselves gathering up the belongings they dropped when they had attacked, Katara leans over to Zuko.

“What do we do?”

Zuko works his jaw. “We have to make our move while we’re traveling. If we stop for the night, they’ll just put us in those horrible rock coffins again and we’ll be out of luck.”

“What if we just wait until they turn us in?”

He shakes his head immediately. “The Fire Nation lost us once already. They won’t be so careless a second time.”

Katara wiggles her fingers experimentally, testing how tight the knots are. They’re definitely secure, but they only bind her wrists together, giving her a limited range to move her hands and possibly just enough to bend—not that she’s sure it would help.

“What if—”

“What are you two blabbing about?” the raider who seems to be the leader shouts. “Save your energy. We’ve got a long walk to the Fire Nation base.”

To Katara’s horror, when the group surrounds them and begins to walk, they’re moving in the opposite direction from the shore.

Back towards the factory she and Zuko had evacuated? That walk on foot could take weeks. Weeks they don’t have. They can’t afford to lose any of their progress or any of the precious few days they have left.

They have to get away tonight.

She glances at Zuko out of the corner of her eye to see if he’s thinking the same thing, but the night has fully fallen and she can barely make out his face. If they’re going to make a move, he’s going to have to be the one leading it—there’s still no water in the surrounding mountains and the small reserve she kept in her waist pouch is scattered behind them.

At least the raiders don’t try to talk with them as they walk, instead trading coarse barbs over Zuko and Katara’s heads. There doesn’t seem to be much they can agree on—the leader wants to travel through the night, probably because he’s riding ahead on Zuko’s captured ostrich horse; the men behind them are complaining of the cold and exhaustion.

An idea sparks in Katara’s mind.

She waits a bit longer as the darkness wears on around them, the steady footfalls of the ostrich horse in front contrasting with the heavy, irregular footsteps of the rest of the group. The loud complaints have faded into a background rumble of dissatisfaction, but the atmosphere is tense, uneasy. She can tell it’s a group that’s been traveling together too long caught in a moment of exhaustion that not even the capture of two valuable prisoners can overcome, and it’s the perfect environment in which to stir up some discontent.

She waits for the right moment, for some kind of sign, wishing she could tell Zuko what to do, but she knows she’ll just have to trust him and he’ll have to trust her in turn.

And then she feels it, right at the edge of her consciousness, comforting and familiar, thrumming with power, just close enough.

She clears her throat and yawns dramatically. “Ugh, I’m so tired.”

“Shut up back there,” the leader calls.

“But we’ve walked so far. My feet hurt.” Katara stops walking, and the raiders surrounding her halt in their tracks, seeming simultaneously confused but glad for the break.

“Katara, what are you doing?” hisses Zuko. She mouths the words ‘get ready’ at him, hoping he can see.

“Keep moving, girl.”

Katara yawns again, longer this time. “Can we just take a nap for a bit? Just a little one. Sleep sounds so good, and my feet are so achy, and it’s so late, and my eyes are so heavy…”

“I’m tired too,” one of the men behind her calls.

“We’re not stopping tonight, you big lug. Come on.”

“Easy for you to say!” the earthbending woman says to Katara’s right. “You’re not even walking. Give one of us a turn.”

“I’m the leader, so I get the ostrich horse!”

“I saw them first! We would never even have an ostrich horse or a prisoner without me!”

The shouts grow louder, and Katara leans over to Zuko ever so slightly, keeping her voice just above a whisper.

“Burn my ropes off.”

“What if I hurt you?” Zuko mutters, horrified.

“It’s better than the alternative. Come on.”

He hesitates, looking unsure, but then brings his bound hands to Katara’s, twisting his neck at an awkward angle to try and see what he’s doing. “Quick,” Katara hisses. “While they’re distracted.”

She feels a brief, bright heat on the back of her wrist, and she bites down on her tongue to keep from crying out, but then the pressure binding her hands is relieved and she flexes her fingers. In a fluid motion, she snaps her dagger out of her thigh sheath and slashes Zuko’s rope, too.

“Ready?”

He nods, and Katara raises her arms.

-

It’s instant chaos. Water suddenly thunders down on the raiders—Zuko doesn’t even know where it came from—and knocks them down, then freezes them to the ground. “Run!” Katara yells, and he does.

They dash forward, narrowly avoiding a rock wall that leaps out of the mountainside at them, and turn to the left, sprinting blindly into the dark. Shouts ring out behind them, and the sound of cracking ice fills the air; Zuko is incredibly tired, his feet hurt, his eyes can barely stay open, but he forces himself to keep running. Projectiles hurtle through the air after them—rocks, arrows, knives—but he blocks them with blasts of flame.

“Where do we go?” he gasps. The mountainside stretches empty before them, dimly lit by moonlight, and there’s no cover or place for them to hide. Nothing except for the dense darkness to the west.

He and Katara seem to come to the same conclusion at the same time.

Zuko takes Katara’s hand in his own—by now, a familiar sensation—and they plunge into the forest.

Chapter Text

The silence is bizarre, immediate, and nearly complete. The shouts and crashes that had rung out so clearly in the rocky basin are muffled by the thick vines, and the moss underfoot dampens all noise, a sweet relief to Katara’s aching feet.

She allows herself to coast to a stop, bending over to catch her breath with her hands on her knees. The raiders didn’t follow them into here. She knows it strangely, instinctually; the complete silence, save Zuko’s breath next to her, tells her so.

That is, until there’s a loud crash behind them. Louder than anything the raiders could make, louder than it should be.

“What—” Katara starts, but Zuko’s already running again, his hand around her wrist.

By now, her lungs are raw with cold air passing too quickly in and out but she doesn’t dare to stop. She is slowly becoming aware that the forest is thrumming—low, dense, and solid, a wall of sound emanating out at them from every direction as if the whole place is alive and angry.

The loud crashes from behind them continue. Katara can’t glance back, but she manages to gasp out “What is that?”

“If I had to guess?” Zuko pants. “A spirit. An angry one.”

Some sort of sacred ground. This must be what it is. Katara had heard stories, from Aang and her Gran-Gran, about the spots where the veil between their world and the Spirit world were weaker—reclusive, forbidden areas, where no human dared to tread.

She sees why now. The crashes behind them are punctuated by a bellow, ear-shattering, pained. Whatever made that sound has to be dangerous. She fights her aching body with every reserve of willpower she has left, forcing herself forward.

“What if we have to fight it?” she gasps.

Zuko doesn’t answer. Whether he’s just too tired or he doesn’t have a response, Katara’s not sure, but he’s paler than usual, even with the scant moonlight on his face.

They run just like they did in the forests of the Fire Nation, with the most reckless of abandon, their only target away. Katara spares a glance behind them when she can, but all she can see are snatches of silver rising high into the trees above them.

She’s so distracted that she barely notices the wall of vines before them until they nearly crash into it; Zuko blasts it away with a burst of fire just in time, and the thing behind them bellows again, shaking the very ground beneath their feet. Katara is suddenly reminded of the Foggy Swamp.

Everything is connected.

They plunge forward recklessly, wildly, their hands locked together in an unbreakable bond. The forest around them teems with barely-restrained energy.

And then suddenly, they break through into stark starlight, rocks underfoot once more.

The bellowing does not stop. A quick glance behind Katara confirms her worst fears: that whatever it is, it is close and advancing, silver among the dark trunks.

But when she glances forward, the ground drops away dizzyingly before her feet. The mountainside plunges steeply away, too rocky to scramble down, the ground glinting faintly far below them.

“What do we do?” she shouts, her words nearly lost among the shrieks of the angry creature.

Zuko opens his mouth to respond, but instead, he grabs her arm to steady himself. The ground underneath them is shaking.

Behind them, the thundering footsteps grow louder; ahead of them, the rocks at their toes begin to crumble away, tumbling down the sharply pitched mountainside. Katara’s mind goes blank.

She raises her eyes to the moon to beg for an answer, but all that she finds is the water in her waist pouch. The ground beneath them lurches sickeningly. Zuko stumbles as the surface beneath his left foot falls away.

She grabs his face between her hands. “Do you trust me?”

He barely even hesitates before he nods.

She doesn’t nearly have enough water, but as Zuko stumbles again, the ground beneath him beginning to break up, she sees that they have no choice. She hardens her water beneath them and jumps.

-

The wind rushing past his ears drowns out the spirit’s cries and every other sound. Zuko clings to the edge of Katara’s thin sheet of ice, his knuckles ripping against the rough rock beneath them. All around them, boulders tumble down the mountainside. An avalanche.

He can’t hear Katara’s voice, can barely catch glimpses of her next to him through the moisture gathering in his eyes, but he feels her, hand in his as she clings to him and the stones fall away all around them. They plunge recklessly down, and for the first time, Zuko wonders what will happen when they reach the bottom. Wherever the bottom is.

He trusts Katara fully, but the rockslide is relentless, and he’s beginning to feel lightheaded, the air moving by too fast for him to catch his breath, and the bottom of the thin ice layer has nearly worn through—he can feel the jagged mountainside on his legs, too rough, the air too cold.

The next thing he feels is a solid force like a punch on the back of his neck, and the last thing he hears before he fades into the refreshing stillness of his mind is Katara’s cry.

-

She wraps her whole body around his, but it isn’t enough—the rock has already smashed into the sensitive spot at the nape of Zuko’s neck, tearing open the pale skin. Katara can feel panic begin to crash over her in waves, but then she finally, finally sees ground looming up to meet them, too quickly, and she has enough sense left in her terrified mind to cling to Zuko’s still body with her own.

They tumble off the remnants of the ice sled and roll to a stop, Katara trying her best to shield Zuko’s neck with her hands, to hold his head steady even as they fall over the debris at the bottom of the rockslide. She shuts her eyes and braces herself.

She comes to a rest, finally, still clutching Zuko with all her strength. To her immense relief, she feels the steady rise and fall of his chest beneath her cheek, but when she raises her head, his eyes are closed.

“Zuko?” she murmurs, her voice ragged.

He doesn’t answer, or for that matter, move. Katara times her breaths to his, forcing herself to relax, reminding herself that he’s still alive.

As gently as she can, she lifts his head, peering at the back of his neck. She never did learn that much about formal healing, but she knows enough that she can tell it’s a dangerous spot to be injured, right at the top of his spine. He could be crippled. Slowly dying from bleeding inside.

The thought of bloodbending flashes like lightning across her mind, but she dismisses it as soon as it forms. Water. She needs water—she can at least halt the sluggish leak of blood from his hairline, make him comfortable so that he can rest.

She reaches out across the barren plain, searching for the tug of a stream, but all she feels is the ebb and flow of the ocean, closer than it had been in weeks but still altogether too far away. Desperately, she scrambles over to the spot of impact where her ice sled had shattered, but whatever chips there might have been have dissolved int the cracks.

Sudden, fierce desperation washes over her as the whole situation forms around her: she is alone, miles from civilization. She doesn’t even know where they are, much less where to find help. There is no one, not even an angry spirit, and they are lost and the blood won’t stop leaking from Zuko’s neck, his face will not stop growing paler, his skin going cold to the touch beneath her hands. Zuko could be dying and there is nothing she can do.

“Please!” she screams, tilting her face to the fading night sky. “Please!”

And then, a miracle: first one, then two, then a storm of water droplets on her face. A torrent.

Katara’s tears mingle with the rain, but she smiles.

-

Wherever he is, it’s warm. Comfortable. All he can see, everywhere around him, is ocean blue, and it feels more like home than fiery red and gold ever did. He lets himself sink into it.

-

She doesn’t even have to pull the water to Zuko’s body. Instead, she swirls her hands over the spot at the nape of his neck where the skin is angry and raw, feeling energy course through her veins. The moon above, the rain around her—she feels more in tune with her healing abilities than she ever has before.

The water at Zuko’s neck glows a brilliant blue, and Katara closes her eyes, focusing every last bit of her energy on making it glow brighter. She can nearly feel a tiny spark of life pass between her and Zuko.

When she opens her eyes again, she’s greeted with molten amber.

“Oh, thank—” Katara buries her head in Zuko’s chest. He groans, the vocalization reverberating against Katara’s skin, and she immediately pulls back again.

“Oh, I’m so sorry—what hurts? Is your head okay?”

Zuko grains again, but at least he pushes himself up onto his elbows. “What happened?” he mumbles.

“You got hit by a rock in the landslide.”

He lifts a hand to the back of his neck, rubbing at it idly. “Ugh, yeah. That hurts.”

“Is your head alright?” Katara asks anxiously.

Zuko takes a moment to ponder the situation while water drips from his bangs into his eyes. “Just a little dizzy,” he mumbles.

He clambers to his feet, but almost immediately stumbles, pitching to the left. Katara catches him just before he falls. He’s heavy against her, and she staggers, but he’s also warm against the pouring rain.

“We should get you to shelter,” she says, wrapping an arm around his waist and pulling his over her shoulder.

Zuko coughs and shakes wet hair out of his eyes. “I would like that.”

-

It takes considerable effort for him to keep putting one foot in front of the other. The landscape before him is swirling, and not just from the sheets of rain pouring down from the sky; his vision is blurred, and there are dark stars bursting at the edges of his consciousness. The deep ache at his neck is matched only by the cold seeping into his bones.

And yet, somehow, he feels peaceful as Katara half-drags him across the craggy plain, ever closer to the far-off glint of the sea. She could have left him for dead—it’s always still a constant worry in the back of his mind, no matter how much they had gone through together. She hadn’t.

Maybe he’s just imagining it, but he could have sworn there was something in those ocean eyes when he fought his way back to the waking world, and it sparks an ember deep inside of him that he can already tell it will be hard to contain.

It’s strange, he thinks. They’ve lost nearly everything—their homes, their friends, all of their food and possessions—and yet he still feels the flutter of an emotion he hasn’t felt in months. Hope.

-

The rain doesn’t relent as they slowly make their way towards the far edge of the plain. They’d lost their map to the raiders, but Katara can tell by the way the water glints only at the bottom of the horizon that they haven’t made it all the way down to sea level yet. She hopes their final descent will be less haphazard than the last one.

It must be daytime by now, but the rain makes it hard to tell. There’s no sunshine to speak of; instead, the sky is a uniform gray. The rain is soothing, but the scene is not. Everything blends together into an iron-colored mass that hurts her eyes.

When Zuko begins to shiver against her, though, Katara focuses all her attention on getting them to the edge of that gray, anywhere with a cover to get him out of the rain.

To her relief, the edge of the plain begins a gentle downward slope as they near it. Peering down, she can see a hillside rolling away from them into a string of lights. A town. Too far away for them to reach now, exhausted and beaten up as they are, but it’s like a promise. Soon, so soon, they’ll be to the water’s edge.

There are a few rocky outcroppings jutting out of the hillside as well, and they’re a better choice than anything else around. One overhang looks large enough to shelter them from the rain, and Katara points it out to Zuko, hoping it’s not too far for him to walk.

By now, the exhaustion of not sleeping and constant movement has sunk so deep into her body that every motion she makes is stiff. She’s reached the point of being so tired that she almost feels it would take more effort to stop walking than to continue; there’s water filling her shoes, coating her skin, and she doesn’t have the energy to wick it away.

Just a bit further and you’ll be safe and Zuko will be safe, she tells herself, and before she knows it the mantra becomes stuck in her head and she’s too tired to think of anything else.

Zuko’s breath is growing ragged by the time they reach the outcrop. Katara has to practically drag him the last dozen feet. When she sees what’s beneath the overhang, she nearly collapses in relief.

A shallow cave, set back from the hillside, dry and empty save some shriveled foliage in the corners. The overhang of rock blocks rain from gusting into the entrance. A tiny corner of paradise.

-

Zuko’s vision is so blurry he can barely see the cave in front of him. He can still feel, though, and what he feels the most is relief as he sinks to the blessedly dry ground.

“You here, Katara?” he manages to slur.

Footsteps, and then a cool hand on his forehead, brushing back his hair. “I’m here,” she says. “Rest, Zuko.”

It’s all the reassurance he needs to slip back into silence.

-

Katara isn’t even aware of falling asleep. She only realizes that she has when she wakes. Rain is still pattering outside the cave entrance, and she can’t tell how long she’s slept because the sky is still the same dull gray, but she’s dry. Despite the ache of sleeping on bare rock, she still feels a thousand times better than she had when she fell asleep.

Zuko sits slumped against the wall across from her, his legs stretched nearly across the width of the cave. The steady rhythm of his breathing is the only sound besides the rain.

Slowly, she crawls over to sit next to him and lays a hand on his forehead. His skin is dry and warm, but she knows his skin by now and knows that what’s warm for anyone else is unnaturally cold for him. She can see now, this close to him, that he’s slightly shivering.

She casts about the cave for something to make a fire. There’s scrubby lichen in the corners, some dried-up foliage that had probably drifted in during a colder season, and she thinks it’s just enough to start a small fire, even if there isn’t enough wood to keep it going for long. Hopefully they’ll be out of here soon, anyway. As soon as the rain is gone. As soon as she can tell how bad Zuko is.

Halfway through gathering the dry leaves into a loose pile, though, she remembers they have no flint or matches, no food or tea to cook, nothing to start a flame with at all. She sits back on her knees.

What in the world are they going to do?

They’ll need a ship to get across the ocean to the Northern Water Tribe; it’s too far for her to bend. They’ll need money for a ship—and for food, and probably for new clothes. The beautiful qipao Zuko had given her is covered in mud and dust, her leggings torn; even her shoes are worn through the soles. She knows that when they get to the north, they’ll take care of her—but it’s the matter of actually getting there.

“Katara?”

She’s on her feet in a second, rushing to Zuko’s side.

“Hey,” she says quietly. Zuko blinks up at her, seemingly disoriented from sleep, but relaxes after a moment.

“You’re here,” he rasps.

He tries to push himself up, but Katara stills him, pushing him back down gently but firmly. “Of course I’m here,” she says. “Where else would I be?”

For a moment, he looks like he might protest, but it dissolves into a sleepy smile. “We’re okay,” he says in a questioning tone.

She can’t help but giggle at his groggy innocence. “Yeah, we are, but you didn’t make it easy. How’s your neck?”

Zuko lifts a tentative hand to feel at the spot and then winces. “Still hurts.”

“Yeah, I’d imagine. Can I take a look?”

He leans forward, and Katara brushes the hair from the nape of his neck. There’s no blood anymore, but the skin is still red and enflamed.

She pulls a stream of rainwater from outside and cups it in her palm before pressing it to the wound. Zuko hisses, but as she moves her hand and the water glows, his protests become sighs of approval.

“That’s much better.” He smiles up at her through his bangs almost boyishly.

“Heal up quickly. We’re so close I can practically feel the snow.”

“I’m glad to know you care so much about my comfortable recovery.”

Katara rolls her eyes but still laughs. “Oh, come on. It was a teensy-tiny rock. I don’t know what all this melodramatic fainting business is about.”

“Good point.” Zuko pushes himself to his knees, even as Katara protests, and then staggers to his feet. He sways a bit, and Katara reaches out to steady him, but he manages to right himself and walk over to the mouth of the cave.

“Either way, I’d rather wait till the rain is done.”

“I think that’s fair. Can you do me a favor?”

“Yeah?”

“Light that up.” She gestures at her haphazard pile of foliage. When Zuko gives her a questioning look, she says “you were shivering in your sleep. I forgot I couldn’t light it myself.”

“What did I do to deserve you?”

She has to turn her face back to the rain so he can’t see her blush.

-

The fire helps. He won’t tell Katara, of course, but Zuko’s body still aches all over, and there’s a sharp pain in his head like a knife stabbing over and over again. The fire at least warms his back, and the smoke curls around them as they sit at the mouth of the cave, watching the rain fall slowly and steadily.

There’s something oddly soothing about the rain, too, even though it’s cold and depressing. The reliable rhythm of the pattering slows his heartbeat, and it makes him appreciate the small things about their situation: their dry clothes, the warmth of the fire, the shelter from the wind. The girl next to him.

He should probably stop being surprised every time Katara does something to help him. He knows her well enough by now to know that compassion is in her nature, that of course she wouldn’t leave him for dead on the mountainside, but for her to stagger all this way with him as dead weight goes beyond normal compassion. He can’t help being amazed by her willingness to see past all his past transgressions.

And at the same time, being around her, with all her optimism and caring and light, makes him want to be better himself, to be worthy of her attention.

“Zuko,” Katara says quietly, and lays a hand on his arm. “Look.”

Outside the cave, high up in the sky, the clouds have parted suddenly like curtains. Through the mist of rain, the setting sun is radiating ruby-red rays, washing the hillside with fire. Now Zuko can see clearly how the ground beneath their cave rolls down elegantly to a stretch of sand, the bottom of the slope dotted with houses like a string of pearls.

As he watches, the houses begin to light up one by one as the sun sinks lower and the clouds fade away. The patter of the rain slows to a quiet drip; the glowing sun beams dim on the shore; Katara’s hand shifts on his arm.

He wraps her body in the crook of his arm, pulling her into his side. Katara leans into him and rests her head on his shoulder.

In that moment, the uncertainty and tumult of their future doesn’t exist to him. He feels unshakably, blissfully safe. If he could live inside this moment, Katara’s reassuring presence beside him, warm and dry and safe, he doesn’t think he’d need anything else ever again.

Chapter Text

The sun dawns early and bright the next day, slanting rays into the mouth of the cave and pulling Katara slowly out of her sleep. She yawns and stretches; the rocky floor hasn’t done her body any favors, but she feels well-rested in spite of it. Not to say she doesn’t miss the soft bed of the tea shop apartment, or her bedroll, or even Appa’s saddle, but it could definitely be worse.

Then her stomach growls, and Katara remembers that she hasn’t eaten in a day and a half and all their food is abandoned somewhere in the mountains. She sighs, resigned, and goes to wake Zuko.

He’s sleeping soundly, but wakes when she crouches next to him, an easy smile spreading across his face. “Morning,” he says. “Rain still gone?”

Katara nods. “Are you hungry?”

“Well, now that you mention it…”

“We’re going to have to figure that out.” Katara rocks back on her heels to sit. “All our things are gone. Food, spare clothes, everything. And I don’t want to steal. What do we do?”

Zuko ponders the question, glancing around the cave as if hoping something will materialize, until his gaze settles on Katara’s neck.

“You still have your mother’s necklace, right?”

Of course she does; she can feel it tucked safely in her wrappings, pressed against her ribs. “You’re crazy if you think I’m selling that,” she exclaims.

“No, of course not. But you’ve got this.” He reaches up and runs a finger over the web of chains at her neck—the choker he’d bought her in Shun Cho so long ago. She’d become so used to wearing it that she forgot it was there.

“You won’t need a disguise in the Northern Water Tribe. I know how much you didn’t like this one, anyway.”

She hadn’t, initially, when she put it on. She hadn’t liked anything about her disguise, and she still misses the comfort of her long hair and arctic blues. But still, the choker has been through a lot with her, and in a strange way she’ll miss it.

“I wish I’d picked out a fancier one now,” she laughs. She reaches up to toy with the small pearl at the hollow of her throat.

“It’s a shame. It looks good on you,” Zuko says in a low voice. “But your necklace looks better.”

-

The last bit of mountainside leading down to the shoreline isn’t even a mountain at all. The slope is flat enough that they can amble down it at a leisurely pace, with the sun overhead making the air unseasonably warm.

Without their map, Zuko can’t really tell where along the shore they had ended up; the forest had disoriented him, and he has no idea how far they had traveled while he was half conscious and delirious. They actually got lucky finding the town. The shore hadn’t looked very populated, from what he remembers of the map; this close to the North Pole, the water is probably too cold for year-round fishing, and it’s removed from the rest of the Earth Kingdom by the mountains.

Still, as he and Katara draw near and the village begins to come into clearer view, he’s struck by the quiet beauty of it. It seems as if it’s one of the last places in the world left unravaged by the war: no burned buildings, no military tanks, no guards. Instead, the small buildings are weathered by the salty air but cheery-looking, with large windows and pale wood walls and roofs lined with seashells. The streets are narrow, the greenery filling the small gardens scraggly and tough. And it’s quiet, but not in an eerie way; it’s simply peaceful.

They pass through the outlying house-lined streets without meeting anyone else, but then the heart of the town unfolds before them: not quite bustling, but lined with street carts and small shops, a saltwater fountain trickling in the center of a square. People move from stall to stall in a leisurely manner, lingering to strike up conversations with fellow shoppers, a handful of children winding their way between the legs of the crowd.

Zuko feels a slight smile slide across his face unbidden. It fills him with relief to know that somewhere, there’s a corner of the world not touched by the war.

“Where should we start?” asks Katara.

Zuko scans the shopfronts, looking for anything like a jewelry store. There aren’t many signs on the buildings; he guesses not a lot of travelers or outsiders come through the town, and by now, all of the townsfolk know each other’s businesses.

“Just explore, I guess,” he says. “We have time.”

-

It’s amazing how perfectly self-sufficient the town is. There’s a single food store, one tea house, one furniture store, one tailor; none are particularly busy, but none are empty, either. There is no jewelry shop—Katara thought it might be a long shot; the citizens of the town don’t look heavily ornamented—but they do find an antiques shop, surprisingly large, at the corner of the square. Upon first entering it, she couldn’t tell how large it was because of the cramped aisles and shelves filling the whole space, but she and Zuko have to wind their way back through line after line of vases, statuettes, teapots, and driftwood before coming across anyone else.

The old man behind the counter startles when he sees them, pushing his small glasses up his nose. “Well, well,” he says in a gravelly voice. “I don’t recognize the two of you.”

Katara steps up to the counter, clearing her throat. “We’re just passing through,” she says, “but we’ve gone a bit off course and lost our traveling supplies. Can I ask if you buy antiques as well as sell them?”

“Depends on what you have,” the old man says. He quirks an eyebrow, deepening the wrinkles in his face.

Katara reaches up to unclasp her necklace. “They’re real pearls,” she murmurs, spreading the chains across the wooden counter.

“Is that all you have?”

“I—” Katara stutters. “Well, yes, we lost all of our supplies and money, and I promise it’s a real antique—”

“Oh no, I believe you,” the man says, his face softening. “I can tell it’s valuable. But I couldn’t take your engagement necklace.”

“Oh! It’s not—”

“I have Water Tribe blood myself, you know,” he continues, leaning forward and smiling at her almost conspiratorially. “In fact, I gave my wife one when I asked her to marry me. She still wears it. Ling?”

“Yes, dear?” a voice calls out from somewhere else in the store.

“We have some visitors. They want to see your necklace.”

There’s the clink of moving china, and then an old woman shuffles out of the maze of shelves, stooped and swathed in a deep green robe. She beams up at Zuko and Katara.

“Oh, visitors! How sweet! What are your names?”

“Nozomi,” Katara says, feeling the vague irritation and embarrassment she had felt at the old man’s assumption fade rapidly. “And this is Li.”

“A beautiful name for a beautiful girl.” Ling pats her hand. “Now what’s this I’m hearing about you two trying to sell us your engagement necklace?”

“It’s not—” Katara says at the same time Zuko protests “we’re not—”

Ling cuts them both off. “An engagement necklace is a symbol of promise and of your bond. Why, I’m not even of Water Tribe heritage, but I still wear the one that Tyro carved for me years ago.”

She tugs at the neckline of her robe, revealing a strip of green and blue twined together around her neck. From it dangles a small, oddly shaped object. When Katara looks closer, she can see it’s a seashell, pale peach and scalloped at the edges. The carvings on it are shallow, but intricate, small enough to not shatter the delicate shell.

“You must be desperate if you’ve resorted to selling your necklace, you poor things,” Tyro says sympathetically.

“I promise it’s not an engagement necklace,” Katara bursts out. “It’s just—just a necklace. That Li bought me. We’re just…”

She trails off, because there’s no easy explanation for what they just are. Nobody who looks at them twice would believe they’re related; she thinks it’s just as unlikely that the couple would believe they’re just friends, traveling alone together and so obviously out of their depth. She understands how they had jumped so easily to their conclusion.

“It’s easy to see when two people are in love,” Ling says, smiling at Katara. “I’ve always thought of it as one of my talents. You two don’t have to worry. No matter what you had to do to get here, it’s worth it for love.”

“Look, if I promise I’ll make her another one, will you buy this one off us?” Zuko blurts, exasperated. “It’s not even a real engagement necklace! It’s just some piece of Fire Nation junk.”

“I think it’s sweet,” Ling beams, clasping her hands. “A representation of the union of your two cultures! A Fire Nation heirloom, a Water Tribe tradition.”

“I will go make her one right now if you just take this off our hands. We can’t get married if we starve to death, okay?”

Tyro ponders that point. “Ah, the sacrifices young ones will make for forbidden love,” he sighs.

“Let me go get you some food you can take with you,” Ling adds. “Just promise you’ll invite us to the wedding.”

-

They finally convince Tyro to buy the necklace after Zuko swears on the spirits that he will take Katara to the shore tonight to pick out a seashell for a new necklace. The old couple’s dogged concern in the fate of their imagined engagement is frustrating, but also oddly sweet; Ling loads them with a bag of home-dried fruits and meat, most of which are unfamiliar to Zuko but make Katara’s eyes light up with hunger. Tyro overpays them heavily for the necklace, and Zuko wonders how they even stay in business in a town like this, which doesn’t seem to have much need for antique decorations and jewelry.

Still, he doesn’t question it, only thanks Ling and Tyro profusely for their kindness. They brush his gratitude off with more platitudes about the power of young love, and he and Katara are both blushing heavily by the time they stumble out of the store.

“They were sweet,” Katara says, sounding dazed. “A little…overbearing, but sweet.”

Zuko chuckles. “Very sweet. I think they were just excited to meet new people.”

“And generous.”

He nods, sticking a hand in his pocket to sift through the new weight of the coins there. It’s not a ton by any means—nowhere near what they’d lost to the raiders—but with the issue of food solved, it’s enough to get them to the Northern Water Tribe, if they’re lucky. They won’t need a huge boat, only a small and sturdy one. They’re already close.

The recollection that they haven’t eaten in days hits him almost as soon as they step onto the street in the form of intense hunger, and they make a beeline for a secluded corner of the square before tearing into Ling’s packages.

“Seal jerky!” Katara exclaims, holding up one parcel filled with rough gray strips of meat. It looks completely inedible to Zuko, but Katara tears into a strip with relish, closing her eyes.

“This stuff is Sokka’s favorite,” she mumbles through her mouthful. “He brought a year’s supply with him when we left home with Aang.”

“Is it…good?” Zuko has been making himself content with some of the more familiar fruits, and he’s wary after his last experience with Water Tribe cuisine, but he’s curious.

“I don’t know if I’d call it good, but it’s definitely filling. We ate a lot of seal meat at home because it’s so blubbery.”

“Can I?”

Katara holds the bag towards him, and Zuko picks out a small piece, observing it carefully before he starts chewing. He’s not sure what he was expecting, but it wasn’t the surprisingly tender flavor following the burst of salt on his tongue. He’s almost used to the excessive salt and heartiness of Water Tribe food by now, he realizes, or at least it isn’t shocking to him anymore. He’s even beginning to appreciate it.

“Good?” Katara asks after he swallows.

Zuko nods. “Way better than the sea prunes.”

She laughs and shakes her head. “You’ve got a lot to learn.”

“Will you teach me?”

“About Water Tribe cuisine?”

“Yeah,” Zuko says, almost shyly.

Katara looks as if she’s about to make a snarky comment, but she bites it back at the last moment. “If you really want to know,” she says. “I’m sure you’ll see a lot of it at the Northern Water Tribe. I can show you around a bit, maybe. Now that you’re not trying to destroy the place.”

Zuko blushes a bit, but doesn’t retort the way he might once have. “I would like that,” he says instead.

Katara’s face softens in turn, and she smiles at Zuko, tentatively but genuinely. “I’m glad,” she says. “We’ll be there sooner than you know.”

-

Their first order of business is to find a boat. Even with Ling and Tyro’s overpayment, her necklace isn’t quite equivalent to the value of a whole seaworthy boat; besides, there aren’t many people in the town willing to part with one, and Katara guesses there isn’t a thriving trade in a town so small for new ships. They visit a few more of the stores in the square, seeking out any information they can, but they mostly come up short. There’s one small shop for traveling supplies where the owner tells them about a reclusive ship builder down the shore to the west who might be able to help. It’s not a lot to go on, but it’s enough for Katara.

It’s frustrating to her, being so close to their goal but for it to still be so inaccessible. And by the ocean, no less. She has half a mind to bend them a ship out of ice herself, but she knows she wouldn’t be able to hold it together for more than a few minutes, and she’s not eager to test their luck against the waves a second time.

So, in lieu of any other options, the decision is clear: they reluctantly set out of the town to the west. They buy a couple of bedrolls and cloaks at the traveling store to replace the ones they’d lost, but otherwise, they travel light. Katara longs for the days of Appa’s saddle, or even for her ostrich horse, but at least it’s infinitely better than the night before.

They head to the shore first before turning west. It’s not hard to find; the little town is situated right at the edge, verging on the small strip of pebbly sand separating the sea from the land. Again, Katara is struck by how picturesque it is, how tranquil; it almost reminds her of her home in the rare moments of peace.

Not long after they set out, the sun begins to sink into the horizon, spreading hazy purple twilight over the shoreline. Zuko curses, glancing up. “We must have spent longer in the town than I thought.”

“The sun is setting earlier,” Katara offers. “It’s not midsummer anymore. Shorter days, longer nights.”

“You must like that.” Zuko shoots her a sideways glance, his eyes crinkling as he smiles. “Your time is coming.”

“I’d say yours is coming,” she retorts. “Two weeks till the comet. Do you know what it’s going to be like?”

“No idea. I’d never heard of anything like it before until my father told me about it.”

He falls quiet, looking contemplative, and then lights a small flame in the palm of his hand, almost as if to make sure he still can. “I’m scared,” he admits.

“Of what your family will do?”

“Yeah. But also of what I might do.” He frowns and quashes the fire in his hand. “My father says it’s power like we’ve never known. What if I don’t know my limits and hurt y—someone?”

Katara stops walking, slowing Zuko with a hand on his arm. “Because it’ll still be you in there. No matter how much power you have, it’ll still be you wielding it, and I know you. I know that you’ll be able to control it.”

“But in the past—”

“What’s more important, the past or the future? Zuko, I hated you. For so long, you weren’t just an enemy to me—you were the enemy. But that isn’t who you are, and I know that now. Because I know you. Because I’ve seen you help people. I’ve seen you care and regret what your nation has done. I’ve forgiven you.” She lowers her voice to almost a whisper. “Now it’s time for you to forgive yourself.”

-

Forgive yourself.

It’s not even something he’d considered. He doesn’t know where to begin, because he feels guilty for a million different things—betraying his family, his country, Mai, Katara in Ba Sing Se, the Avatar, his uncle—and it seems like everything he’s done, right up until the moment he leaped out the window hand-in-hand with Katara, had been wronging someone.

But he realizes now, as he considers it, that he hasn’t regretted anything past that moment. Not really. Even consumed with worry for his uncle and Mai, he doesn’t think there’s anything he would have done differently along the way.

He’s not sure if he’s ready to forgive himself for anything before, but this, at least, is a fresh start for him, and he chooses to focus on that.  The person he was before—that lost, scared boy—isn’t him anymore.

Katara is still staring up at him, her face bathed in the night’s first wash of moonlight, painting her worried expression silver. He doesn’t know what else to say, so he settles on “thank you, Katara.”

The worry dissolves to a smile. “In that case,” she says, “I think you owe me a seashell.”

She meanders towards the water, which ebbs gently a few yards away from them. Upon looking closer, Zuko sees shells dotting the white sand between him and the ocean. Katara doesn’t pause for any of them; she just kicks off her shoes and ventures ankle-deep into the surf.

“Isn’t it cold?” Zuko calls.

“It’s never too cold,” she answers joyously, tipping her face up toward the moon so her short hair spills down her back. Not so short now, Zuko notices. She nearly looks like her old self.

He’s wary, but she turns her head over her shoulder to glance at him after a moment, and it’s all the convincing he needs. He tugs off his boots, rolls up his trousers, and plunges into the rolling tide to join her.

It is cold, but not as cold as he thought it would be. In fact, aside from the chill, it reminds him of Ember Island, of the summer twilights he would spend with Azula and Lu Ten, hunting for treasures in the shallow water.

“You know how we used to find shells when I was a kid?” he asks.

“How?”

He bends down and cups his hands below the surface of the water and waits for the tide to roll in. When it does, he grasps around until he catches hold of something smooth.

“You wait for the ocean to give it to you,” he says, and presents Katara with a conch as big as her thumb.

Her eyes widen, and she laughs, turning it over in her hand. “Amazing,” she giggles. “Let me try.”

She hands the shell back to Zuko and sticks her hand in the water, closing her eyes. She waits three waves before she stands back up, her forearm dripping.

“Here.” She holds her find up to the moonlight.

It’s a small scallop shell, the size of a coin, pearly pink and ridged. The edges are perfect, but the ridges are marred by scratches, an ugly dark blotch staining the left side.

“Throw that one back,” he says. “We’ll find you a better one.”

“What’s wrong with this one?”

“You don’t want it, Katara. It’s all scarred.”

She falls silent for a moment, running her thumb over the surface of the shell.

“Who says that it’s not beautiful just because it’s scarred?” she says finally. “It’s been through so much, but it’s still come out whole.”

-

Zuko freezes, his face stuck in an expression of shock. The moonlight plays over the raised edge of his scar tissue, his eyes the only thing moving, roaming over her face. He looks…vulnerable. So young. Katara wants to fold him into her arms, tuck his cheek to her shoulder and promise him she won’t let anyone hurt him again.

In the silver light, his scar is beautiful. It’s a part of him.

“I wanted you to heal it. So badly,” he whispers, his voice choked.

“The spirit water is gone,” she says. “But I don’t think it needs healing.”

Slowly, so that he knows what she’s doing, she lifts her empty hand, fingers outstretched, and traces them as lightly as she can along the ridges of his scar. He doesn’t pull away.

-

He wants to kiss her so badly it’s like a physical ache. He wants to melt into her touch. He could drown in her.

-

He doesn’t close his eyes this time. He holds her gaze, a thousand emotions flashing through the amber. Katara passes the pad of her thumb over his cheek, hooks her fingers behind his ear, feeling his soft hair fall over her hand, his hot breath on her wrist.

He begins to lean forward.

There’s a crash, and suddenly Katara is freezing. She looks down to find herself drenched from the waist down, a huge wave rolling in towards the shore.

They hold perfectly still for one more moment before they collapse into laughter, Katara sinking into Zuko’s chest as he wraps an arm tight around her shoulders. The wave isn’t the only thing that has broken: she feels another wall between them crumble, faster and easier than the ones before, and now she can hold Zuko a little bit tighter in the knee-high water and breathe in his familiar smoky heat and it just feels right.

Chapter Text

It’s the crash of the waves that wakes him the next morning, not the sunlight. Zuko lays in his bedroll for a moment before he opens his eyes, listening to the rhythmic rushing. It reminds him of the lapping of the ocean against the side of his ship, and he’s brought back, suddenly, to a time he’d been trying not to remember.

He cracks one eye open to early morning sunlight spreading orange across the sea. He sits up and stretches, glad for the sand and the soft layer that had separated him from the elements as he slept; this, he knows, may be his last true bit of warmth for a while, depending on how long they spend at the North Pole.

It occurs to him, not for the first time, that they hadn’t planned anything past the North Pole. All the signs had pointed there, but if those signs were all wrong? They have no contingency plan and less than two weeks till the end of the world.

Zuko turns to the side, wondering if he should ask Katara about his sudden worry, but to his surprise her bedroll is empty. Before he has enough time to become anxious, he hears gentle splashes from somewhere nearby, out of rhythm with the waves.

“Good morning,” Katara calls.

She’s standing thigh deep in the water in her sarashi, with two thin streams of water orbiting her. One hand is raised, trailing a lazy whip through the air, the sunlight refracting off the water making it look almost fiery.

Zuko stretches his arms above his head, feeling the vertebrae pop one by one, before he kicks his way out of his bedroll. “You’re up early,” he remarks.

Katara shrugs and turns away from him slightly, concentrating on the water once again. “I just wanted to get a little practice in,” she answers. “It’d be embarrassing if we got up there and I forgot everything I’ve learned in front of Master Pakku. I haven’t bent in so long—really bent, I mean…I just wanted to make sure I still could.”

“Well, there’s no better place to do it.” Zuko spreads his arms to encompass the entirety of the empty shoreline, stretching out nearly unbroken in either direction. “Go for it, Katara. Really go for it. I’ve seen what you can do.”

She looks unsure for a moment, but then furrows her brow and widens her water belts into a sphere encircling her body. The water shifts around her, blurring her outline, and then suddenly it becomes a column rising feet into the air like a geyser. It falls around Katara, flinging droplets toward the shore, but she steps immediately into the next motion, swirling her arms to push a wave against the current.

She moves constantly, fluidly, like her element, and as Zuko watches, entranced, her motions grow bigger. Soon the waves are torrents, the geysers impossible towers. There’s a sharp cutting motion, an abrupt halt, and then the water surrounding her freezes into chips of ice like diamonds suspended in the air.

It’s a joy to see her bend like this. Zuko had never truly been able to appreciate her abilities before, because her water had nearly always been directed at him. But from his safe spot on the shore, he can take all of it in with nothing more than the occasional splash. She embodies water with her ebbs and flows. She’s come so far from the girl he remembers.

Katara laughs as she spins her hands above her head, creating a whirling typhoon that hovers over her before releasing it out into the sea. It’s an oddly familiar move to him, different from her former poses.

“Did you like that?” she calls. “I borrowed it from one of yours.”

“Really?” He feels more flattered than he probably should.

Katara nods, repeating the move again with more water. “It looked powerful when you did it.”

Zuko steps forward into the surf, feeling cool water wash over his feet. “You know, my uncle told me that even if our elements are different, our power all comes from the same place. We all have the same chi, we just channel it differently. That’s how he learned to redirect lightning. It was a waterbending technique, originally.”

“Really?” Katara lets her geyser fall around her. “How?”

“Well, I don’t have any lightning to work with, but I can show you the poses.” He breathes deeply, allowing his body to fall into a more relaxed state, before sinking into the pose.

Katara cocks her head. “I recognize that! But you’re too stiff. Let yourself bend your elbows more.”

She cuts through the water until she’s standing behind him and places a hand at the crook of each of his arms. “More like this,” she murmurs, applying light pressure until Zuko bends them. “Good. Now relax your legs. Shift your weight back and forth. You want to be able to move without even thinking about it.”

Thankfully, she doesn’t ease his legs the way she does with his elbows; she just steps back and crosses her arms. “Much better.”

Zuko shifts back and forth, moving his weight from one leg to the other, adjusting to the unfamiliar movements. Strangely, he feels more grounded than he ever did when he was firebending. Well, maybe grounded isn’t the right word—more like connected.

“Hopefully I’ll never see you have to put that into action,” Katara says, “but at least if you do, you’ll be prepared.”

-

They set off down the shoreline after a quick breakfast of dried fruit, a slight breeze rolling in off the sea and ruffling Katara’s hair. It’s a cold wind—another reminder of the encroaching seasonal change, of the comet creeping ever closer.

She shivers, realizing that they’re going to be terribly underprepared for the cold of the Northern Water Tribe. The only clothes she has are the qipao and leggings from Ba Sing Se, everything else lost to the mountains. She’s never minded the cold, but Zuko is going to freeze.

“How far is this shipbuilder supposed to be again?”

Zuko shrugs. “The guy just said ‘along the coast to the west.’ We’re going to run out of coast if it’s much further.”

“Are you sure he said west?”

“Of course I am. You don’t really think I led us in the wrong direction for a whole day, right?”

“I don’t know. I just feel like we should have seen something by now.” Katara frowns out at the empty shoreline. “How would someone even stay in business this far out of the way?”

“He did say reclusive. Maybe they’re just really good ships.”

“I hope that doesn’t mean they’re expensive ships, too,” she grumbles. “What are we going to do if we can’t afford one? We’re really in the middle of nowhere now.”

Zuko gestures toward the horizon, where a dark blot has just formed along the shore. “I guess we’re about to find out.”

-

At first, when they’re still a ways out, Zuko thinks they must be in the wrong place, because the shapes are just too big to actually be ships. They look more like houses, and mansions at that. But as he and Katara draw closer, the outlines grow clear: they are ships, just massive, intricate ones.

Zuko’s heart sinks. There’s no way that the money from the sale of a simple necklace will be enough. He’s reluctant to voice his worry to Katara and admit he might have been wrong, but even though he’s sure she’s thinking the same thing as him, she doesn’t try to argue with him about it.

“Maybe he’ll have a lifeboat or a dinghy he can give us,” she reassures him. “It’s worth a shot.”

They weave through the first few rows of boats, gawking up at the towering forms. They don’t have much in common at all with the iron Fire Nation ships Zuko is used to: they’re not built for war, with elegantly polished wood making up the sides, but they don’t seem to be built for speed or dexterity either the way the Water Tribe sloop had been. Endurance, he guesses, and reliability. The Earth Kingdom way.

“Do you see anyone?” Katara asks, glancing about.

Zuko shakes his head. “No. This place is…weirdly empty.”

“But there are so many of these ships.” She rests her hand against the side of the closest one.

“Don’t touch that.”

Katara snaps back, falling into a defensive stance. Zuko rushes to her side, casting about for the person who spoke.

“Hello?” Katara calls.

There’s a thump from somewhere behind them, and both of them jump. “I said, don’t touch it unless you’re paying for it,” says the same voice.

Zuko turns and nearly misses the figure behind them, his eyes flying right over the person’s head before he notices. He does a double take. The person, dressed in loose green-blue clothes and heavy gloves, is shorter than Ty Lee—and, behind her thick glasses, Zuko can tell she’s a woman.

“Can I help you?” she says, not too kindly.

Zuko stutters, thrown off guard, but Katara steps up next to him. “Hi,” she says, and offers a wave. “We’re here to buy a boat.”

“Who sent you?” The woman raises an eyebrow.

“Someone at a store back in the shore town to the east. He said you’re the only shipbuilder around for miles.”

“Well, he’s right.”

The woman pulls off her gloves and drops them to the ground at her feet, seeming more relaxed. “I don’t see many faces around here anymore. All this recent unrest and nonsense with the Fire Nation has really slowed down trade. What do you kids need a world-class sailing vessel for?”

“Well, we don’t, really,” Katara confesses. “We were hoping for something kind of…cheap.”

“Cheap,” the shipbuilder says, looking doubtful.

“Like maybe a lifeboat or something?”

The woman looks like she’s going to ask something else, but sighs in exasperation. “How much do you have?”

“Uh…” Zuko rummages through his pocket for the coin purse, dumping the contents into the palm of his hand and holding it out. “It’s everything we have,” he says.

“And you need to get yourselves where? Somewhere across the ocean?”

They nod in unison.

“There’s no way a lifeboat would survive that journey. The ice floes are too dangerous.” She turns her back, and Zuko’s heart sinks, but then she beckons them with a finger crooked over her shoulder. “It’s a good thing it’s your lucky day.”

-

The shipyard stretches even farther back than Katara had initially realized. They only catch pieces of it as they head for the shore, but if she had to guess, she’d estimate at least forty boats sprawling across the sand, every one bigger than the biggest Water Tribe ship she’d ever seen at home. The shipbuilder is silent, never even offering her name, and Katara is too intimidated to ask.

She must have a goal in mind, though, because she walks quickly and with purpose, leaving Katara and Zuko to race to keep up. Zuko catches Katara’s eye and shoots her a confused glance. She replies with a shrug, just as mystified as he is.

Finally, when they’re at the far edge of the line of boats and standing practically in the water, the woman stops next to the last boat. It stands out from all the others Katara had passed: instead of the elegant, polished wood and boxy shapes she had seen, the ship is smaller and seems thrown together out of a mix of metal and wood, the style an odd mishmash of Water Tribe slimness for speed and Earth Kingdom durability, with big metal-rimmed portholes she had only ever seen on Zuko’s army boat. The sails, a veritable quilt of colors, flap gaily in the wind.

“I was going to scuttle this for parts,” the shipbuilder says. “If you want it, it’s yours for all your gold.”

“What is it?” Zuko is already circling the ship, rubbing the back of his neck the way he always does when he’s confused or nervous.

“A wreck that washed up a few weeks ago.”

“Doesn’t look very wrecked to me.”

“No, she’ll sail fine,” the woman amends. “Just a ghost ship. It happens sometimes around here. People get lost, don’t know how to handle the big ice fields farther north, get stranded and hitch a ride with someone else. Far from the first of these that I’ve seen.”

Katara thinks of the canoes she’s seen shattered between the fast-moving floes at home and shudders, nodding.

“It’s really generous of you to offer it to us,” she says gratefully, bowing her head. “We’ll definitely—”

“Katara, can we chat?” Zuko says abruptly. “Quickly?”

“Why?”

But he’s caught her arm and pulled her out of earshot of the shipbuilder before he answers. “I have a bad feeling about this,” he says. “This ship. It’s not…right. It’s unlike any other ship I’ve ever seen.”

“What’s wrong with it? The story makes sense. I’ve seen ships get destroyed in that ice too many times.”

“But this one isn’t damaged. That’s the point. It’s a perfectly good ship.”

“A perfectly good ship and the only option we have to get to the Northern Water Tribe,” Katara argues. “What else can we do, Zuko? It’s a good ship. We can check for leaks, but it looks sound. It’s not that long of a voyage, and besides, it’s our only option. We have to take it.”

Zuko shoots the boat one more doubtful glance, as if it personally has offended him, before sighing. “Alright. Let’s do it.”

-

The deck, once they clamber onto it from a rope ladder looped over the side, is narrow and still cluttered with sails and crates. Zuko looks around warily, wishing he could check each one of them before they set off but knowing he doesn’t have the time. There’s something about the ship that still makes him uneasy, even after they’d paid for it. The woman had been too eager to get rid of it. Maybe she just didn’t care because she didn’t build it.

Either way, it’s enough to set Zuko on edge, and he makes it through at least a few of the crates’ mundane contents before Katara pops her head back above deck.

“Everything looks good down here,” she calls brightly. “No leaks, even though I ran water through the whole space.”

“I guess it’s time, then.” Zuko makes his way over to the wheel—covered in scratches and rust—before checking all around them for any sign of the shipbuilder. “And your coast is clear.”

Furtively, Katara lifts her arms and moves them through an intricate pattern. A few moments later, he feels the rush of water beneath the boat.

“Finally,” Katara breathes, her eyes glimmering.

She clutches the rail, staring straight ahead at the waves in front of them. So far, there’s only blue as far as he can see, but Zuko knows that’s not what she’s looking for.

“One day,” he says. “Maybe even less, if there are no problems. We’re nearly there.”

“Nearly there,” she repeats to herself.

Then she starts bending the water beneath them: the same familiar motions Zuko remembers from their first time together on a ship, only larger, more energized. Joyous. She’s back in her element, and it shows.

Zuko’s heart swells with excitement for her. There’s a bitter undercurrent to his feelings as well—he’s nervous, and not just about the boat, but about the North Pole itself and what they’ll find there and what they’ll think of him. But they’ll cross that bridge when they come to it. And even if that moment is soon, for now he can sit back and enjoy the sun on his face, the rush of the waves, the tang of salt in the air, Katara’s joyous movements.

-

For the first couple of hours, Katara loses herself entirely to the waves. She pays no mind to the time, the weather, not even Zuko behind her; it is only her and the water, her home and Katara. The rhythm is the only thing that’s real, the ebb and flow pushing them forward at a steady pace, her arms and her spirit only an extension of the tides, an amplifier for their will.

She’s only broken out of her trance by Zuko’s hand on her shoulder. Katara looks up, surprised, to find the sun has already begun to fall in the sky.

“Don’t tire yourself out too much,” he says, smiling at her gently. “You’ve been through a lot.”

“I’m not tired.” She isn’t, really; at least, not tired of bending. But she is physically tired, she realizes as she drops her arms. All of the traveling has been getting to her.

She props her elbows on the railing, resting her chin in her hand as she watches the orange sunlight dance across the waves.

“It feels like we’ve been here before,” she says absentmindedly.

Zuko appears next to her, dangling his hands over the water. “We kind of have,” he answers. “The boat, the two of us, a new continent.”

“And yet so much has changed.”

“Yeah, hopefully this time we make it without sinking our boat.”

She giggles, caught off guard. “Well, yes. But other things, too. I never would have dreamed back then that we’d be friends. About everything we’d go through together.”

“Neither could I. Some of it was pretty unbelievable.” Zuko sighs and turns his head, catching Katara’s gaze with his own. “It wasn’t easy, but I wouldn’t change it, Katara. It brought me here with you.”

She can feel the color rising in her cheeks, her vision suddenly punctuated by little white dots. He looks so eager, leaning toward her, his face so open and trusting, his eyes shining. She wonders what would happen if she leaned in, too.

But the voice in the back of her head says twelve days and suddenly all she can see is the fire on the water, consuming everything around them.

No time for this, she thinks. Not with her friends still missing, not with the war looming. Not enough time to sort through all these tangled feelings inside her head, much less bring someone else’s into the equation. She’ll make it through the comet first. She’ll find her friends. Then she’ll deal with all of this—if it even still matters.

-

He watches a spectrum of emotions flit across Katara’s face in a matter of seconds before she turns away. Zuko swallows, pathetically disappointed. This isn’t even something he should be thinking about right now, and yet all he wants is to be close to her.

“We still have a long way to go,” she says quietly. “There’s so much that’s uncertain. I can’t believe we haven’t found Aang yet, Zuko, or even heard anything about him. It’s scary.”

“It’s the best thing we could hope for. It means he’s hidden. That’s what he should be doing.”

“And what if he still doesn’t have a firebending teacher? Twelve days.” Katara shakes her head.

“Katara, you have to trust him. You know him and your brother and your friends. You have to trust them to know what to do.”

“I just can’t believe we don’t have any answers by now.”

She sinks down onto one of the crates littering the deck. Zuko reaches out a hand to comfort her, but remembers the way she had pulled away from him moments before and reconsiders.

“There will be something at the North Pole,” he says. “I know it. Everything has been pointing us there.”

“And if there isn’t anything?”

“Then we go straight to the source,” Zuko says, straightening up. “We go to the Fire Nation capital. One way or another, that’s where we’ll all end up.”

Chapter Text

Even though she’s tired, Katara lets Zuko take the first shift sleeping, content to have the night to herself. It’s well after midnight, judging by the position of the moon, when she stops bending and sits down on the deck, alone with her thoughts.

She detests moments like this. Before, surrounded by the constant havoc of traveling with three messy, impulsive teenagers had made her value every precious moment of alone time she got. But she’s come to appreciate the constant action in recent weeks, because when she’s busy, she has less time to worry about the uncertainty consuming her life.

It crashes over her all at once now, the big and the small: where are her friends, are they safe, are they alive, where is her father, what is happening to their home, what can she do about Aang’s feelings for her, about the persistent pull she feels to Zuko, about the anger she feels at herself for even thinking of romance at a time like this when no one is safe and nothing is certain?

Look what happened with Jet, she reminds herself. She had let her guard down and nearly doomed an entire village of people. She can’t let herself be distracted, can’t even waste time thinking of Zuko like that when she can’t tell how he feels, when there’s so much she still doesn’t know about him, when she doesn’t even know if he’ll be alive in two weeks, let alone where he will be. Who he will be.

“The Crown Prince of the Fire Nation,” she whispers to herself. “Katara, you’re so stupid.”

She shivers, pulling her cloak tighter around her. It’s partly from the air that grows ever colder as the night stretches on, and partly exhaustion, mental and physical, coming together and shaking her. They’ll have to find answers soon. She’s not sure how much more of this she can take.

-

“Katara?”

Zuko startles awake just before dawn, calling out to her, but it’s dark and silent below deck. He isn’t sure what exactly he had been dreaming about, but it was unsettling enough to make him worry—something about long empty hallways and faceless figures and sudden, engulfing flames and her screams.

He kicks away the cloak he had been using as a blanket, but draws it around him a moment later when he realizes how cold it had gotten while he slept. They must be making good time, thanks no doubt to Katara’s bending. His hammock is swaying slowly along with the waves, and he guesses she’s taken some rest, though the lingering unsettled feeling from his dream drives him to make sure she’s okay.

The cabin beneath the deck is dark, and he gropes his way over to the door, cursing. He hadn’t gotten a good look at the ship before he went to sleep because of the darkness, only made out bits and pieces by the light of his flame, but even though nothing seemed out of the ordinary, he still can’t shake his original feeling that something is off about it.

“Katara?” he calls again when he reaches the door. The cool, salty air hits him like a slap in the face.

At first, his worry intensifies when he can’t spot her right away and she doesn’t answer his calls. An irrational anxiety that she was somehow kidnapped or hurt seizes him, but he relaxes when he sees a small, dark form huddled against the railing.

“Katara,” he says more softly when he nears her. She’s draped in her cloak, curled up on the deck in an uncomfortable position with her knees tucked into her chin. She looks small and vulnerable. “Are you okay, Katara?”

She stirs, but doesn’t speak. Zuko frowns. It’s too cold out here on the deck for her, but she must have been exhausted to fall asleep like this.

He considers her for one more moment, watching her shoulders shake against the chill, before making up his mind and bending down to scoop her into his arms as carefully as he can. She mumbles something unintelligible, but her eyes stay closed.

“You’ll work yourself to death like this,” he murmurs.

Her eyelashes flutter against her cheeks. Zuko’s heart beats faster every second that he holds her, and he’s torn between racing for the cabin and staying out on the deck, cradling her forever.

Instead, he measures his steps to the cabin door, making sure they’re even and regular so as not to jostle her awake. He wishes he had checked on her earlier. When he’d gone to rest, too tired to protest, Katara had promised she would wake him when she needed to sleep, but she still doesn’t know her own limits, still insists on pushing herself until she collapses. Zuko’s heart nearly breaks then, watching her so vulnerable in the moonlight. She’s still so young. He forgets, most of the time, how young they both are.

He pushes the door to the cabin open. “We’ll talk in the morning,” he says quietly, knowing she can’t hear him but needing to say something. “You can’t keep going like this. I need you strong.”

With neither hand free to light the way, he has to stumble over to the hammock blindly, but he finds it by the faint luminescence of the porthole and sets Katara down gently. She curls up like a bug as soon as she hits the thick ropes.

“Sleep well,” he says, brushing his hand over her hair. She still doesn’t wake, but he swears a tiny smile appears on her lips.

It’s not until he’s alone again in the rapidly cooling air that he realizes how tired he still is, any peace he might have been feeling ripped away by the disturbing dream. Still, he would rather fight off a Fire Nation fleet alone than wake Katara up right now, and they’re getting too close to the field of ice floes he remembers being market on his map to leave the ship unmanned.

He settles down at the wheel and crosses his legs before checking the sky for guidance. Uncle Iroh’s long-winded lessons on star patterns and movements had never been so useful. When he used to go on for hours about them, Zuko would try to tune him out, finding a situation where he’d be alone without a navigation device or a trained helmsman unthinkable. But now, he’s infinitely grateful—one more thing he’ll have to remember to thank Iroh for when he sees him again.

If Zuko sees him again.

Zuko pulls himself back from the mental brink the way he always does when Iroh flashes through his mind. Compared to everyone else, he’s the last person they need to worry about. He’s the Dragon of the West, Zuko reminds himself.

But it doesn’t stop him from longing for his uncle’s comforting presence beside him.

The stars seem somehow brighter and closer than he’s ever seen them, and Zuko lets himself carefully lean into his uncle’s voice: the Mother Bear, Ursa, will point your way to the north. Follow her lead. A Water Tribe legend says…

“That Ursa leads her cubs home from the Great Hunt each harvest,” Zuko finishes out loud.

He picks out the brightest point in the sky and traces the bear’s back, connecting the glowing dots like a puzzle, before turning the wheel to the left. The mother bear’s outline shimmers like it’s laughing.

Another of his uncle’s phrases pops into his head, unbidden: “Remember that the stars themselves are fire. Fire destroys, but it also gives life. Watch how peacefully they coexist with the moon.”

He keeps himself awake for hours with all the stories of the stars that he can remember. When he runs out of those and the sky turns orange, he starts on Fire Nation myths and history, running through long lists of spirits. He’s more than halfway through and thoroughly distracted by the time he’s finally interrupted by someone calling his name.

He turns around at Katara’s voice, ready to greet her, but the anxious expression on her face stops him in his tracks.

“Zuko,” she says, “it’s a pirate ship.”

-

When she wakes, she’s disoriented, but not for long. At first, she’s certain she’s back on the Water Tribe ship at the cliffs, but the light spilling into the cabin and the supplies littering the floor are all wrong.

The memory of the new ship comes back to her, but she still can’t remember seeing this part of it; she must have been so tired by the time she stumbled to sleep that it was lost to her. The porthole next to where she lays casts bright, long rays over a wedge of the floor, illuminating everything in its path.

Katara rises in a haze and slips out of the hammock. The clutter of boxes blocks the path to the door, and half out of curiosity, half out of annoyance, she tips one over to spill its contents across the jumble of spare ropes and sails.

She stops short.

It’s not whatever sailing tools or supplies she had imagined—not even personal belongings. It’s a heap of small statues that clink together like bells, glittering in the porthole’s light.

“What in the world…” Katara whispers, running her fingers over one. The metal is cool, and when she flips it over, she sees tiny but brilliant gems inlaid in its face.

Who would have left these on a ship?

With growing anxiety, she turns to another box and rips off the lid to a cloud of dust that makes her choke. Inside are nestled robes with intricate embroidery, dusty but perfectly preserved and doubtlessly expensive. The next few she opens are filled with all manner of scrolls, vases, and antiques, everything carefully arranged for a long journey. She’s never seen so much wealth in one place except for a few instances: the Earth King’s palace, the innermost Fire Nation capital, and…

The pirate ship from so long ago, she realizes with trepidation sinking deep in her belly.

The ship’s other strange characteristics begin to fall into place: the odd mix of architectural styles making up the boat, the many hasty repairs, the woman’s eagerness to be rid of it for so little money. Of course. It may have been a wreck, but she still would have known exactly what it was and what its previous owners would do to her if they found her with it.

Katara turns to the only other door in the cabin, one she had written off as a supply closet when she first noticed it, in hopes of finding anything that might disprove her theory. But when she pulls it open, there’s a clatter of metal, and a pile of daggers spills out at her feet.

It’s absolutely stuffed with weapons, some of them so elaborate and dangerous-looking she couldn’t name them if she tried.

She has to warn Zuko. If anyone else who might be on the ocean recognizes this as a pirate ship, they’re in trouble.

He turns to face her as soon as she bursts onto the deck. The sun is bright in her eyes; she’d slept for a lot longer than she thought. Before he can say anything, she exclaims “Zuko, it’s a pirate ship.”

He blinks. “What?”

“This ship. It belonged to pirates. I’m sure of it. We need to change the sails or something—”

“Whoa, Katara, slow down.” He rushes over to her and puts his hands on her shoulders, steadying her. “When did you wake up? Did you get enough sleep? You passed out—”

“Yes, I’m fine.” She waves his worries away with a dismissive hand. “But when I woke up, I was looking through all of the things in the cabin and I’m sure it’s all pirated goods. There’s no other reason all that expensive stuff would be there. And the weapons…”

“Let me go look.” Zuko frowns, but doesn’t move. She’s grateful for his grip on her shoulders, keeping her grounded; the revelation has unsettled her more than she thought it would. Her mind is still filled with images of the last pirate encounter she’d had.

They’re so close, and she’s so tired. She doesn’t know if she can face anything else right now.

Katara follows Zuko back into the dim cabin, where he kneels in front of the pile of statues she’d tipped out. “These are all solid gold,” he mumbles to himself. “This is crazy.”

“They’re all like that,” Katara exclaims.

He nods, tossing his shaggy bangs out of his eyes. “Okay. So you’re probably right, and the boat got stolen or attacked and then washed up on the shore and the shipbuilder found it and wanted to get rid of it, and that’s why it was so cheap. Which means that—”

There’s a sudden boom from above them, louder than thunder. Zuko blanches.

“Let’s just hope that’s not what I think it is.”

-

By the time they’re back on the deck, there’s a six-foot-wide hole punched in it.

Zuko suppresses a groan. It had been tempting fate to buy this ship.

“Katara, where—”

“They’re to the left!” she shouts, already lifting her arms. A wave of water rises in response, and through the blurry curtain, Zuko can see a blast of flame stop its path through the air and dissolve into the ocean.

“Two ships,” Katara says. “Both way bigger. Do we fight or try to outrun them?”

He gives it a split-second consideration, during which two more jets crash into Katara’s water barrier and she staggers.

“Run,” he says. “Definitely run.”

He dives for the steering wheel. Behind him, he can hear loud splashes, and suddenly the boat picks up speed: Katara must have dropped the barrier in order to bend the waves around them. They’ll be quick, but unprotected.

Thankfully, Zuko’s got years of naval experience and one of the world’s most powerful waterbenders as a partner. He grits his teeth and hauls the wheel to the right.

“Just keep us moving!” he calls out to her. “We can lead them into the ice fields. They’ll be too big to maneuver.”

“Will that work?”

“It’ll have to.” He jerks the wheel in the other direction, zigzagging the boat’s path to make them a harder target. “Can you make out any details? Nation? Type of ship? Pirates? Army?”

“I’m a little busy here, Zuko!”

“I just want to know what we’re dealing with!”

She groans. “Okay.”

The splashes grow more intense, droplets hitting Zuko in the face as she cuts the boat across the waves, fish-tailing wildly. He feels them pick up speed.

“Okay,” Katara shouts again. “Two ships, the size of your Fire Nation one, metal, only firebenders so far, Fire Nation flag so I’m guessing they’re navy—”

The splashing cuts out suddenly, leaving the echoing booms of the ships behind them as the only sound but the wind.

“Katara?” Zuko whirls around, already fearing the worst.

But she hasn’t been hit—she’s just clutching the rail, staring out at the hulking gray shapes.

He rushes over to her. “Katara, what’s going on?”

“That symbol.” She doesn’t raise either hand from the railing, where they’re clutched so hard that her knuckles have gone white, but Zuko follows the line of her vision to what she’s so fixated on: the pennant flying next to the Fire Nation flag on one of the ships, a stylized black raven on a bloody red background.

“The Southern Raiders,” he says. “I don’t know what they’re doing so far north. Katara, how do you know them?”

Katara swallows. “They killed my mother,” she says hoarsely.

-

Ash litters the surface of the ocean, falling from the sky like some twisted kind of rain. Screams ring in her ears. She can feel the cold, the panic, the boom of cannons reverberating through her bones—

“Katara. Katara.” Zuko is repeating her name over and over, his hands on her shoulders, pulling her to look at him. She can barely hear him through the rushing in her head.

He moves one hand from her shoulder to her cheek, and it snaps her gaze away from the symbol—the one she’ll never be able to forget as long as she lives, that she’ll never be able to disentangle from the fear, the guilt.

The rage inside her is growing. Years upon years of it, compounding, filling her up.

She dives for the ship’s wheel.

“Katara, what are you doing?” Zuko screams. “Why are you leading us back toward them?”

“I have it under control!”

“They’re going to hit us! We’ll sink!”

“Block them!”

He grapples for the wheel, but Katara pulls the water from the deck to freeze his feet in place. He roars. “Katara! Talk to me!

“Just block them, Zuko!”

Only a little closer and she’ll be in range. She can feel them now, the pulsing energy of all those bodies, all that blood filling the ships. The monster is in there somewhere.

Katara—”

She can see the figure at the bridge of the first ship. She can feel him.

She reaches out, narrows her eyes, and grasps.

It’s a struggle between wills that lasts mere seconds. He becomes pliant, even across the distance, and it’s enough to jerk his arm hard to the right—

The tension snaps, and she feels the energy drain from her arm.

But it was enough. She slumps over, but she can still see the captain fall, scrabble for the wheel, but miss.

The bow of one ship crashes hard into the side of the other with a deafening metallic screech. The balls of fire stop flying through the air at her. Distantly, she can hear screams.

There’s the hiss of steam and Zuko brushes Katara to the side, grabbing the wheel once again and spinning the ship around. “I’m getting us out of here,” he says tersely.

She’s so drained of energy that she can’t respond, never mind help him. She falls into a sitting position atop one of the crates, her chin in her hands, watching the chaos aboard the navy boats’ decks dissolve out of sight.

“They won’t sink,” Zuko says finally after long minutes of silence. “They’re too strong to sink with one hit. It’ll just slow them down.”

“Will they follow?”

“I don’t know. If I was the captain, I would.”

Zuko throws a glance behind him, making sure the ships are at a safe distance and not pursuing, before turning to her. “Katara, what was that? What did you do?”

She shakes her head, trying to figure out where to start.

Zuko groans and locks the steering wheel in place before sinking down to kneel in front of her. “Please talk to me,” he begs. “Tell me what’s going on, Katara—”

“That symbol,” she interrupts. “The last time I saw it, I was eight years old. Those ships landed at my tribe. They were looking for the last waterbender at the South Pole. My mother—she told them it was her.”

“And you’re sure they…”

She hangs her head. “The Fire Nation usually doesn’t take prisoners. You know that.”

Zuko sucks in a breath. “Katara, I’m so sorry.”

“I couldn’t let them get away. Not again.”

“But what was that thing you did to make the ships crash? Did you bend the waves? I didn’t know you could bend that much water at once.”

“No.”

She looks up, past his anxious face. Like she thought, the Fire Nation ships—the Southern Raiders—are turning and retreating. No doubt she had spooked the captain. She has no misapprehensions that they won’t come back searching, and she prays that she hasn’t just brought a whole ocean full of problems crashing down on the Northern Water Tribe.

She only wishes she could have done more.

“Why are they retreating?” Zuko presses. “Katara, please just tell me what you did.”

He wraps his hands around her wrists. Katara looks up, seeing the pleading in his eyes, surprised he isn’t angrier—but relieved.

“A couple months ago, while we were traveling through the Fire Nation, I met a woman,” she begins. “She was a waterbender from the south, just like me. She knew my Gran-Gran.”

“Did she teach you something?”

Katara nods. “A technique she used against Fire Nation guards while she was held captive. Bloodbending.”

He tries to control it, but Katara can feel Zuko recoil. His fingers flinch around her wrists, tightening ever so slightly.

“It works better at night, when the moon is out. I’ve only done it during a full moon before.” She glances to the sky, which has only just begun to darken. “That’s why I couldn’t hold him for long. But it was enough.”

Zuko’s mouth hangs slightly open, his eyes flitting across her face. Oddly, she feels satisfied for scaring him. Just a bit. Just enough for all those times the sheer destructive power of fire had terrified her.

“I’m sorry you had to see those ships,” he says finally, his voice even raspier than usual. “I’m sorry you had to confront them that way. I wish there was more we could do now, Katara, but they outnumber us a hundred to one. But I promise you—” he shifts his hands from her wrists to her cheeks, cupping her face and holding her gaze—“that when this is all over, we will find the man who killed your mother, and I will personally make sure that he sees justice. She deserves that. You deserve that.”

-

He clings to her hard enough that it disguises the tremor running down his arms. The revelation of bloodbending—that at any point, Katara could have taken away his will entirely—is still coursing through him, instilling him with a fear he can’t shake even though he unequivocally trusts her.

But seeing that man jerk the way he did, like one of Azula’s dolls—

There’s a quiet sound that at first he can’t place. When he sees a tear leak out of Katara’s eye, he realizes it’s a sob.

The fear is pushed aside by a wave of regret for ever doubting her. He pulls her into his arms, holding her as tight as he can.

“It’s okay,” Katara says a moment later, her voice muffled. “It’s okay. It was just overwhelming. I don’t usually get emotional when I think about what happened.”

“It’s okay to.” He pulls back so he can look her in the face again.

She sighs and wipes her few tears away. “Usually, it makes me angry. I want to find whoever did it, and I want to make sure they know pain like the pain they caused me. Pain that will never go away. Even now, a big part of me wants to follow them and find him. I probably would have if you hadn’t stopped me.”

“But we have bigger problems to deal with right now.”

She nods. “The justice my mother deserves—I’ll make sure she gets it. But this is what she would want me to do. Find Sokka.”

“It is. And Katara, I swear on my honor that we’ll find him. I know nothing can ever make up for what happened to your family and your people.”

“Thank you, Zuko,” she murmurs.

“They’re cowards. That’s all they are. You proved that by scaring them off. They’ll be back, but not for a while. They’re a small fleet. Hopefully, by the time they get over their cowardice, it will be well after the comet. And then, if all goes well, they’ll be…”

“Under your power,” Katara finishes. “And I know you’ll do the right thing. I trust you.”

-

They agree quickly that even if the Raiders are too cowardly to follow them, there’s no point in driving their ship right into the heart of the Northern capital, where the Raiders might see it and think it had been the Water Tribe’s attack. Zuko is already worried that the reason the group was so far north in the first place was to monitor the Northern Tribe, with the Southern threat all but wiped out.

Katara is eager to do anything that will protect the North, even if it means a trek through the tundra at night; Zuko is far less enthusiastic, but he still alters their course for a destination far down the shore, out of the way of any Northern civilization.

The mess of emotions she felt on seeing that symbol still lingers in her veins, but Katara is able to hold it at bay from exploding like it had earlier. Zuko’s promises, his quiet confidence, help. He didn’t mention it after the attack, but she knows he’s thinking of his own mother, and that he understands.

When he asks her to tell him about her mother, it doesn’t come as a surprise.

“She was brave,” Katara starts. “Not necessarily in the warrior way, like my dad was, but quietly brave. She would face every wave of attacks from the Fire Nation with optimism and when the dust settled, she was always the first one out of our igloo to see if anyone needed help. When she found out I was a waterbender, she wasn’t scared like Dad or Gran-Gran. They were worried for me. She told me it was a gift, that I would use it to change the world one day. She thought it was magical.”

“Could she bend?” asks Zuko.

Katara shakes her head. “Nobody in my family could, besides me. Not for the past few generations. That’s why everyone was so shocked the day we found out. I was just playing on the ice while Sokka fished, and then it just…happened. We didn’t tell many people; my dad was worried that if anyone found out, they might give me up to the Fire Nation. My mom wanted me to train in secret.”

She remembers the long, dark winter nights, the pungent scent of burning walrus fat filling the main room of their igloo. Her father and Sokka are fast asleep; she sits on the ground with her mother, a bowl of water between them. Katara watches her tiny self reach out, entranced, and pull the water from the bowl while her mother smiles.

“All her life, she believed in me. No matter how dangerous it was.”

“It sounds like she would be proud of you now, Katara. Look at you. One of the most powerful waterbenders in the world.”

Katara feels her lips perk up into a small smile, and she brushes away the one stray tear that clings to her lashes at the memories. “She would have been so excited to see me heal. She always thought it was the most amazing thing any bender can do.”

“It is,” Zuko agrees. “The power to save people. It’s a rare talent to have.”

The splash of the waves against the boat’s hull is soothing. It reassures Katara, preventing the rage that so often surfaces at the memories of how the Fire Nation had corrupted her childhood from emerging. She’s about to flip Zuko’s question back on him and ask about his mysterious mother when she realizes the waves’ rhythm has changed, becoming more frequent and higher pitched.

Shallow waters, which means—

She looks up. In the distance, stark against the night sky, is an achingly familiar mass of white.

Not quite, but just close enough to home.

Chapter Text

There’s only one thing separating them from the snow-topped plateau in front of them—or rather, a hundred little things: the ice floes. They litter the ocean, arising like spirits on the dark water. The first few that they pass are small and inconsequential, but as they speed toward the shore, the floes grow to the size of elephant koi.

“It could be worse,” Katara says cheerily as she bends them away. “The water is pretty stagnant right now. Sometimes, after a big melt in the South, they would go so fast we would have to race between them so we wouldn’t get crushed.”

“This is nerve-wracking enough,” Zuko grumbles. He veers around a jagged shear of ice sticking up menacingly and shoots it a jet of fire for good measure. “Can’t you slow us down a bit? We’re going to hit something.”

“Live a little. We’ll be fine.” Still, she lessens her movements just enough, and the ship slows to a tranquil pace.

They progress through the ice field in silence, dodging the ship through the ice as deftly as they can, until Katara says “it doesn’t look too much farther.”

“It didn’t look too far when we first saw it, either, and now look at us. Plus we have to find a spot to hide the boat along the shore.”

“There should be plenty of inlets and crags. The ice this time of year makes for uneven shorelines.”

She steps closer to peer over the bow, and Zuko realizes Katara is humming under her breath, a joyous tune comprised of only a few repeating notes. He’s shivering all over his body; she, in contrast, seems completely oblivious to the temperature.

He searches for the memories of his homecoming, side by side with Azula: how it felt to see the city again, feel the heat of the volcanic air, his own culture’s music and food and clothing. Everything for him is tied up in a pervasive sense of confliction. There’s nothing about his return that wasn’t bittersweet.

For a moment, jealousy at Katara’s happiness flashes through his mind, but he would never ruin this for her. Not after how long she’d waited and how much she’d been through.

They find a cove, just as Katara had said, not far from the arbitrary point Zuko had picked as their destination. They moor the ship to the soft ice, the waves lapping gently at the hull. It’s concealed entirely from the rest of the pole and mostly from the view of any stray passing sailors, as well. Katara looks eager to leap off and start walking right away, but Zuko stops her.

“We should take what we can from the ship. I don’t know the next time we’ll be back here. And I—” his teeth chatter for emphasis— “would like some extra protection against the cold.”

“Fine, I’m sure there’s plenty of stuff below. Grab one of those musty old tapestries.”

“And I’d kind of like to get some rest before we go.”

Katara frowns. “What? Like sleep?”

“Well, yeah. I haven’t slept in twenty four hours, I think. I can’t tell, the night cycles are all messed up this far north, it seems like it’s always daytime.”

“Zuko, come on—”

“And I don’t know how to deal with this cold.” His teeth chatter again, a shiver rolling down his spine as if to make a point. “I know you’re anxious, Katara, but we’re still a long way out. I don’t want to get stuck out there in the snow. Again.”

Katara bites down on her retort at his last word, her eyes softening. Zuko isn’t quite sure why, because he’s sure all the memories she has of him from that time are filled with clashing walls of ice and flame, but regardless, it’s enough to pause her flitting about the front of the boat. Instead, she paces to the back, craning her neck to peek out at the sky from the edge of the ice-covered cove.

“It’s dawn,” she says, a note of wonder in her voice. “I hadn’t realized. I was just so focused on making it here.”

“You should rest, too.”

Gently, he puts a hand on her shoulder and peers out at the sky as well. The sliver he can see beyond the entrance is a bright, pastel pink unlike anything he’s ever seen before, making the drifting chunks of ice look more like clouds than danger in their pale reflection.

“That bending earlier must have taken a lot out of you.”

She nods absently. A small yawn stretches her face; the dawn-pink light filters through the cove’s entrance and washes over her features, highlighting the exhaustion he’d known would be there, but also the beauty that still manages to catch him off guard.

He tightens his hold, slipping her under his arm into a sideways embrace. She nestles into him.

“Soon,” he says.

“Soon.”

-

The darkness of the ship’s cabin seems more crowded than it should with both of them there. Zuko falls asleep as soon as he hits the hammock, the low sound of his steady breath mingling with the lap of the waves. Katara finds it harder to sleep, thrumming with energy and excitement to be back somewhere that she knows, in an environment that’s familiar, surrounded by her element and, if she’s lucky, with family as well. Still, the intense bending—especially the bloodbending without the full moon—had tired her out, and her body is glad to relax into her own hammock’s embrace, even if her thoughts won’t quiet down.

The anxiety of many aspects of their situation hasn’t left her. She’s still very aware of how far they are from finding Aang, from knowing what to do on the day of the comet, from accomplishing any of the other objectives they’d laid out so long ago on the cliff, but the prospect of being less alone is comforting enough to sweep the worries to the back of her mind for once. It’s not that Zuko isn’t good company, but she is desperate for another familiar face like a taste of home. Zuko is someone she is still discovering. She could be discovering him forever, if she’s honest with herself. And there are other feelings there, laced with the comfort she feels around him, that she’s still not willing to confront.

She rolls over, away from the porthole, to face his sleeping form. All she can see in the dimness of the cabin is the rise and fall of his outline—one that’s become so familiar to her in such a short time.

She finds a fitful sleep that way, using his rhythm to calm herself. When she wakes a few hours later, it’s to a deeper sense of refreshment than she’d expected, despite the short duration.

When she makes her way over to check on him, Zuko is still sound asleep, and Katara is hesitant to wake him, unsure of how much rest he’d gotten in the days prior. He’s right—the last thing they want is to be stranded in the midst of all the ice and snow separating them from their destination with Zuko passed out or incoherent. The cold, as comforting as it is to her, is even more dangerous in extremes than the heat of the Fire Nation forest.

While he rests, she sets about digging out the rest of the ship’s contents to see if there’s anything useful. It’s much smaller than all the other pirate ships she’d encountered, which, admittedly, isn’t a lot. Still, the crew couldn’t have been more than five or six people, and the pirates’ stash, while intimidating, is actually not too large.

The first thing she checks are the scrolls. The memory of her waterbending scroll drives her to riffle through them, even though she’s not expecting much; instead, she finds what looks like some illustrated legends and a few dense texts in a script she doesn’t recognize. She sets aside only one: a richly-colored depiction of what she recognizes as the tale of Oma and Shu, which makes her heart ache with longing for simpler times.

Then she turns to the crates of clothing. The jeweled statues and antiques she ignores entirely; the thought of how much they’re worth, how many supplies for her village she could trade them for, flashes across her mind, but she dismisses it. Katara still doesn’t know where the rest of their journey might lead them, and the absolute last thing she needs is to be weighed down with some chunks of gold. Maybe some of the nearby warriors will be able to recover it.

Rifling through the pile of fabric spread unceremoniously across the floor produces a puff of dust that makes Katara burst into coughs. There’s an ensuing rustle, and she glances back guiltily, sure she’s awoken Zuko. But he’d only turned over to face her, the light of the cabin’s single lantern playing across his pale cheeks and nose. As she watches, he yawns and curls back up, catlike. Katara smiles to herself.

She turns back to the clothes with more delicacy. Immediately, she can tell they won’t be much use against the North Pole’s chill. Most of the items seem to favor style over function: there are a number of kimonos she’s sure are of Fire Nation origin judging by the thin silks and short sleeves and hemlines. There’s definitely nothing Water Tribe—at least in the South, she knows they’d never had any real use for fancy dresses, though she thought some of the parkas the women made for celebrations and such were quite elegant—but there are a few jewel-toned robes that seem promising. The fabric is thicker, and though she feels a bit bad that they’ll be dragging such beautiful clothing through miles of snow, it’s not enough to outdo their need to not freeze to death.

She throws a perfunctory glance through the rest of the cabin to make sure there isn’t anything useful she might have missed. What she’s hoping for is food, but there’s precious little of that, only some dried meat and fruit that she adds to their dwindling stockpile from Ling and Tyro. The only other thing she pays attention to is the weapons closet. It had intimidated her beyond reason when she first opened it, but after the events of the day before, she isn’t feeling so easily scared anymore.

Hopefully, they won’t run into any threats out on the ice, and even if they do, they should be able to bend, but Katara still takes the time to look over the weapons. Most of them will be useless by virtue of their unfamiliarity, and Katara herself still miraculously has the dagger Zuko had given her. However, she sees a set of swords leaning against the back wall that strikes a memory. They look similar to the ones Zuko had, one of the many things they’d lost to the mountain raiders.

Carefully, she tries to extract them from the heap of maces and chains, but she dislodges a long, spiked metal pole with her shoulder and sends it all clattering to the ground. This time, Zuko stirs and raises a hand to rub his eyes.

“Katara?” he slurs. “You alright?”

“Yep, all good. Sorry for waking you up.”

“What time is it?” He flips over, craning his neck to try and get a glimpse of the sky through the porthole.

“Probably a little past midday by now. The perfect time to get moving; it’ll be warm.” Katara makes her way over to him. “Here, I found you something.”

She holds the swords out to him. Zuko’s sleepiness dissolves into an eager grin as he realizes what she has. “Dao swords!”

“Hopefully we won’t have to hide our bending anymore, but I figured just in case. And I know how much you like them.”

Zuko looks eager to start swinging his new toys around in the cramped cabin, but instead he rises from his hammock and takes them from her reverently. “A man can never have too much defense. Did you find anything else useful?”

“A few things. Enough to get us to the tribe’s capital, for sure.”

“In that case,” Zuko says, his eyes glittering, “Northern Water Tribe, here we come.”

-

It’s supposed to be summer.

Zuko had known it would be cold, but this is like a personal insult to him. Almost as soon as he had left the shelter of the ice cove, the wind sweeping across the tundra had hit him full force, slapping him with freezing air. He thought he’d be ready to take on the journey, but this is miserable.

The layers of fabric wrapped around him do a bit to cut the chill, but the ornamental robes he’d layered between his normal clothes and his cloak are awkward and bulky, restricting movement. There’s snow smushed into the soles of his boots, squelching every time he takes a step, and he can’t feel his face. Worst of all, everything around them in every direction is the same shade of monotonous white.

“Isn’t this gorgeous?” Katara calls out from ahead of him.

Zuko stifles a groan. He honestly can’t fell if she’s serious or just teasing him, but either way, she has no problems with the temperature.

“Slow down, I’m going to lose you in these stupid snowflakes,” he grumbles.

Swiftly, Katara turns toward him with a twisting gesture of her arms, and suddenly the sheets of snow gusting between them settle and begin to fall gently to the ground. Zuko looks up, stunned. He hadn’t seen snow for the first thirteen years of his life, and he’s still not quite used to the concept of it, but the lazy drift of it now is magical.

“Can you do that with the rest of the tundra?” he jokes. Katara just tips her head back and sticks her tongue out.

“What are you doing?”

“Catching snowflakes.” She looks back at him and grins. “It’s a game we would play in my village when I was little. I would always cheat.”

An image of child Katara, cheeks round and glowing as she toddles through the snow, flashes through Zuko’s mind, and he smiles. It’s so easy to forget how young she still is, but in moments like this, it shows, and he’s glad for it.

“Do you want to hear some more Water Tribe legends while we walk?” she asks. “On the longest nights of winter at home, when most of the day was darkness, we would all sit around a campfire and tell them to each other.”

“I would love to,” Zuko answers.

Katara immediately launches into her first as they resume traveling: an origin story about the first waterbenders, and how they had learned to bend from the moon. “That’s why Yue, and the Spirit Oasis, were so important to us. La, the ocean spirit, is our medium of power, but Tui is the source and the control of it. One can’t exist without the other.”

“So they keep each other in check?”

She nods. “You saw what happened when La was left on its own, last time we were here. Unchecked power. Tui balances La. It’s sort of like a push and pull—they both have qualities the other needs, but lacks.”

“It’s all about balancing the other out,” he muses.

“Exactly. It’s at the core of waterbending philosophy—our power waxes and wanes with the moon and the tides. It can hurt, and it can heal. Equally matched.”

He rolls the concept over in his mind. Push and pull. Tui and La. Equally matched.

Water and fire.

It makes no sense in the context of her legends, but it strikes a chord: the ebb and flow of healing and destruction, of dark and light impulses. Day and night, even.

The way Katara can pull him back from an edge, temper him, balance him.

Suddenly, he feels as if he understands waterbending and the Water Tribe’s philosophy a lot more than he did before.

-

There’s no shortage of stories to keep Zuko entertained with, which is good, because the walk is turning out to be a lot longer than Katara thought it would be. Of course, they’d been basing their journey off the memory of a map that might not even be accurate for this part of the world, but she hadn’t thought the northern ice cap was this large. At least they have a compass, the closest thing the seaside town had to directions, to guide them, and it’s hard to get lost when all they have to do is follow the steady needle.

The snow clears away in the mid-afternoon to Zuko’s vocal relief. Despite his many layers—Katara had given him most of the useful robes from the ship, ignoring his protests that he can regulate his own body temperature—she can see that he’s still shivering, huddled into himself for warmth that he won’t find out here.

For Katara, the cold is something different entirely: it feels like home. Any moment, she expects Sokka to come tripping across the ice with a fish he’d caught in one hand and his boomerang in the other. It’s bittersweet; the memories it calls to mind are all cozy, happy ones, but they reignite that ache in her chest she feels when she sees anything that reminds her of her brother.

He probably wouldn’t want to come back here yet, anyway, she muses. As much as she admires and adores Suki, she also knows Sokka well enough to know that he’s not over his first girlfriend’s sacrifice.

She hasn’t let herself consider yet what it will be like to bring Zuko, even dethroned and fugitive, to meet Chief Arnook and the rest of the Northern council. They’d spoken broadly about how Zuko will fit into the city, but they’d both danced around Yue’s name. Even if he’d never wanted to hurt her or the spirits, she has a feeling it’s going to be difficult convincing everyone else of that.

“Did you run out?”

Katara startles out of her musing at his voice. “Run out of what?”

“Stories,” he says. “You went quiet all of a sudden.”

“Oh. No, we’ve got tons more. I can keep going if you’d like.”

“Do you have something else on your mind?”

She sighs. On one hand, she knows Zuko is already tense and she doesn’t want to worry him any more than he is, but on the other, she doesn’t want him to be even more hurt by a hostile reception.

“It’s just been so long since the last time I was here,” she hedges. “I don’t know how they’re going to react to…us.”

Disappointment dawns on Zuko’s face, and she immediately regrets vocalizing her worry. But then she watches it solidify into something else entirely: determination, clear and pure.

“I’m just going to have to prove to them that I’ve changed.”

There’s something else there too, she thinks as she watches him. Zuko looks regal. He looks like the prince that he is—or even more. It’s in the quiet confidence that he exudes in his posture, his even expression, the set of his shoulders. She’s seen it gleam in him occasionally, but never shine through like this.

“I won’t pretend that I can undo the damage my nation caused to their city, or their princess, or your culture. But I can promise that I will make amends, and I will do everything I can to make sure my nation follows suit.”

And there’s another topic that they’ve only ever danced around: the world after the war, and specifically what part Zuko will play in it. Katara knows what she hopes he’ll do, but she won’t be the one to vocalize it. Not when she’s seen the part of him that’s still a boy alongside the part that’s a battle-hardened man.

“And besides,” he adds, his forehead crinkling as he smiles, “I’ll have you to protect me.”

Katara laughs. “Yes, you will.”

She’s about to ask something else, shift the topic of conversation back into the more neutral waters of Northern customs and culture, when something glints at the edge of her vision. With all of their talking, she hadn’t noticed that the prolonged summer twilight is beginning to fall over the ice, but it’s still not dark enough for the moon to show her face. She squints, wondering if maybe it’s a glacial formation. But as they draw closer, her vision clears, and she makes out the first glittering spire.

“Zuko,” she gasps. “Look. There it is.”

-

It rises out of the ice over the course of an hour like some ancient city they’d unearthed. First the tops of the tallest spires, then the arches of the bridges and walkways, and finally the wall, smooth and shining like an expanse of diamond. The long rays of dusk color the whole city with pinks and purples, setting it aglow.

It looks magical.

Zuko hadn’t gotten the full effect the first time he saw the city, only the murky underside of the canals and brief snatches of beauty in between battles. Now, it’s enough to take his breath away. The intricacy of the buildings, combined with the fact that everything is made out of ice, is by far the greatest work of architecture that he’s ever seen. Far beyond his own capital.

He can only wonder what they would have achieved had the Fire Nation not been tormenting them for a hundred years.

The walls grow taller as they get closer, looming up to meet them, but Katara doesn’t seem fazed by it. “We won’t have to sneak around for the first time in forever,” she promises him. “They’ll let us in.”

“Are you sure? Even if you’re with me?”

“I’ll vouch for you. They’ll have to believe me.” Katara straightens her shoulders, imbuing her movements with a sudden gravity. “You’re not the only one who’s royalty, after all.”

Zuko’s ashamed to admit that he does forget, sometimes, that on the world stage Katara is an equal as well. It’s not that there’s anything un-regal about her—she’s just not ostentatious about it the way everyone in his family had been. It’s not something she has to prove, like he does; he gets the impression that she’s secure enough in her power, in the role she has to play, that she’s unshakable in a way he never will be.

It becomes obvious the moment the city’s guards spot them. Lanterns flare to life along the icy length of the wall, and shouts echo distantly, joined moments later by the deep blare of some kind of horn. Zuko recoils, but Katara puts her hand on his arm, squeezing gently. “It’s okay,” she says. “It just means newcomers.”

He resumes walking, but stays tense in case he needs to evaporate an ice dagger at a second’s notice.

There’s a bridge leading to the gates over a deep river, whose icy chill Zuko remembers all too well. He shivers at the memory and tries not to glance down. He feels so out of his element here—no matter how beautiful it is.

“Zuko,” Katara says. “It’s right there. They’ll open the gates for us as soon as they see my face.”

He tries to answer, but his tongue is frozen to the roof of his mouth.

She must catch the fear in his eyes, because her eagerness softens. He feels her hand slip into his.

“We’ll do this,” she murmurs. “Together.”

-

The gates don’t open all the way. The ice lowers in a narrow strip down the center when Katara and Zuko are at the middle of the bridge, and when the powder from the snow clears, she can see the space is filled with faces.

Zuko’s hand clenches around hers enough to ache, but she doesn’t let go or slow her pace. Instead, as they draw closer, she searches the faces for anyone she might know. The first line is made up of warriors, with expressions ranging from mistrust to outright hostility.

There’s one, at least, she can put a name to. Even though she wishes it were anyone else, he’s the best they’ve got, so when they finally reach the other side of the bridge, Katara calls out “Hahn!”

A tremor rolls down the line of warriors as they all turn to look at one near the right side of the gates. He steps forward.

“Katara,” he responds, his voice showing no hint of kindness. “You’ve certainly changed. Who is that with you?”

She swallows, nervous, but knowing she has to be the strong one for both of them right now. At her side, Zuko is silent, but his heavy breathing betrays his anxiousness.

“We want to talk to—”

But before she can finish, the crowd parts suddenly, a flurry of whispers rising off them like steam. Katara blinks.

Two figures are making their way toward them through the throng. Two silhouettes she would recognize anywhere.

Katara pulls Zuko forward as her Gran-Gran finally reaches them, and in the next moment, Katara is enveloped in a warmth that feels so much like home that she can’t help the tears that gather in her eyes.

“My Katara,” Gran-Gran breathes. “You finally came.”

-

They’re ushered through the gates with shockingly little resistance. Katara’s grandmother keeps her hand on Katara’s elbow; neither she nor her companion have introduced themselves to Zuko yet, though he can safely assume the older man is Pakku, the waterbending master Katara had told him about.

He’s not sure exactly what response he expected to receive from the crowd, but soldiers and civilians alike are regarding him with a range spanning from curiosity to mistrust to simmering anger. The warrior Katara had called out to—Hahn—narrows his eyes at Zuko and moves toward him, as if to say something.

Zuko goes still, searching for Katara in the crowd, but he’s lost sight of her. Hahn is advancing, his anger becoming clear under his wolf-head hood, and Zuko racks his mind for what he’s supposed to do.

A hand lands on his back, and he jumps. “Come on,” says a gravelly voice as the hand guides him forward. “Let’s get you out of this crowd.”

He twists his head to see Pakku walking behind him, his expression inscrutable. “Where are we going?” he asks. “Are you taking me to the chief? I have a lot to explain—”

“Tomorrow,” Pakku interrupts. “Tonight, you rest. I’m sure you and Katara are exhausted.”

Now that Pakku mentions it, he is tired, all the way down to his bones. Tired, cold, and more frightened than he would ever admit. But Pakku guides him steadily through the crowd, which parts to let them through, trailing murmurs in their wake.

He finally spots Katara and her grandmother as the crowd thins out. They’re standing close together, Katara’s head bowed toward the older woman’s in conversation, but when she catches sight of Zuko, she straightens up.

“Gran-Gran, this is Prince Zuko,” she says, smiling softly.

Zuko blushes and rubs the back of his neck. “Just Zuko.”

“Welcome to the Northern Water Tribe, Prince Zuko,” Katara’s grandmother says. She smiles at him with the warmth of trust he hasn’t earned yet; he sees hints of Katara in her dimples, the corners of her mouth. “I’m so glad you’re here.”

“You are?” Zuko blurts out. He didn’t mean to, but his only memory of the woman is from his angry confrontation at the South Pole. He has no idea why she would ever want to see him.

“I am. We have much to discuss. But tonight, you and Katara should rest.”

“Kanna and I have plenty of room for you both,” Pakku adds. “There will be many people who need to speak with you tomorrow, so you’ll need to rest up.”

Zuko opens his mouth and then shuts it again, not even sure what he’d say. Everything about their reception has confused him, and he’s too tired to even process it.

So, in lieu of struggling to figure out what to do, he looks to Katara. She looks up at him evenly, the same soft smile from before playing at her lips.

“We’ll be fine, Zuko. Trust them,” she promises quietly. “Let’s rest for one night.”

-

There are so many things she missed about her Gran-Gran that she didn’t realize until she has them again: her cooking, her smile, her voice, her hugs. She shares a house with Pakku five times larger than their tent at home, just below the slope up to the palace. It’s filled with the scent of whale stew when they push through the curtain, as though Pakku and Gran-Gran had been waiting for them.

She knows Zuko has questions, and she has plenty of her own, too, but the only one she asks that night is “how did you get here, Gran-Gran?”

Kanna’s eyes crinkle as she glances at Pakku over the steaming pot of soup. “After your first trip here, Pakku came to the South to find me. We were called back to the North a few weeks ago. It was because of you, Katara.”

The words called back bring even more questions to Katara’s tongue, but Pakku is eyeing her in a way that makes it clear they won’t be getting any more answers that night. She’s content to sip her stew and revel in the comfort of familiarity.

After dinner, Gran-Gran and Pakku show them to a small, cozy room that’s filled with soft furs and blankets, a small fire crackling in the center where it won’t melt the ice. Katara collapses eagerly onto one of the piles, but Zuko remains standing, hesitant.

He looks to Pakku. “I still have so many questions,” he says, timid.

“Tomorrow,” Pakku answers. “I promise.”

Zuko holds his gaze a moment longer, then finally nods. “Thank you for your generosity,” he says, turning the nod into a deep bow.

Gran-Gran chuckles. “None of that, young man. We’re glad to have you here.”

After they leave, Zuko finally sinks down to the other pile of furs, looking stunned. “I’m not the only one who’s completely clueless right now, right?” he asks her.

Katara shakes her head. “I think there’s something they can’t tell us yet. But we can figure it out tomorrow. They’ll take care of us.”

“Your grandmother is so…welcoming. Even after everything I’ve done to your family.”

“She trusts you because I trust you,” Katara says simply.

They leave the fire burning as they fall asleep, huddled towards it for warmth. Katara is ready to fall asleep the moment she strips off her layers of robes and shoes, but before she does, she glances at Zuko one more time. He still looks stiff, uncertain about the whole situation.

“You can sleep,” she tells him. “Nothing will happen to you here. I won’t let it. We’re safe now.”

He finally relaxes into the furs, his breathing evening into a steady rhythm. Katara follows him a moment later, a smile on her face.

Chapter Text

Katara’s grandmother comes to wake them the next morning with steaming mugs of milky tea and new clothes for each of them. Zuko’s disoriented when he first becomes conscious, groggy in the way he is when he sleeps for too long past sunrise, but he comes awake slowly as he sips the drink. The furs had been surprisingly effective at keeping him warm.

Once they’re both awake, Katara’s grandmother folds herself into a chair. “Chief Arnook wants you both at his palace as soon as you’re ready,” she tells them “He and his council want to talk to each of you individually.”

“Why?” asks Katara.

Her grandmother shrugs. “I’d guess they want to ask you each some questions to make sure they can trust you. I know they can, of course, but I’m afraid the rest of the tribe isn’t so quick to forgive.”

“Once we do, will they tell us what’s going on?”

“I hope so, my child.”

Zuko bows his head. “Thank you…” he awkwardly trails off, unsure how to address her.

“Kanna,” Katara’s grandmother says, “but you can call me Gran-Gran.”

After she leaves, Katara rises out of her nest of blankets, yawning. “I haven’t slept that well in weeks. It’s something about the cold air.”

“Sure,” Zuko says, teasing.

Katara pokes her tongue out at him. “Come on, Mr. Flamey. You survived yesterday, I’m sure you can get up now.”

“But it’s so warm,” he mumbles, clutching the blankets closer.

“You know what won’t be warm? The tundra when Chief Arnook throws us out if we don’t cooperate.”

Zuko groans and finally makes himself kick back the covers. Katara has already pulled on a thick winter jacket, the hems and neck lined with downy fur, and is now lacing up a sturdy pair of gray boots. She looks good finally back in blue. He’d forgotten how well it sets off her warm skin tone, the depths of her eyes.

“What are you waiting for? We can’t keep the council waiting, Zuko.”

He blinks and snaps his gaze away from Katara. “Sorry.”

The outfit Kanna has laid out for him is similar to Katara’s, with a shorter parka and pants that Zuko discovers are completely lined on the inside with some kind of thin, but warm, hide. He turns away from Katara as he strips off his shirt. Behind him, he hears her cough.

“I’ll just…wait till you’re ready,” she says, her voice cracking.

As he pulls on the parka, Zuko realizes it’s the first time he’s worn blue since his time as the Blue Spirit. It’s not such a bad color on him either, he thinks.

-

Gran-Gran accompanies them to the palace. Pakku holds his waterbending classes from early morning until mid-afternoon, so he isn’t able to join them, but Gran-Gran promises should any problems arise he’ll come to mediate. Katara’s not sure she has much faith in his mediation abilities, but it’s comforting to know they’ve got someone so well-respected in the tribe on their side.

It seems like the damage done by Aang’s fierce battle against the Fire Nation troops has been completely repaired. The palace looms over the city, impeccable and somehow even more intimidating than before; from the long flight of steps leading up to the entrance, Katara can see the entire city spread out below them, small dots of blue and white moving about the glistening ice like snowflakes.

There are four warriors posted in front of the grandiose doors. Katara is relieved that she recognizes none among them, especially Hahn. She’s sure he wasn’t happy to see her yesterday after what had happened between Sokka and Yue, and even less pleased to have Zuko in his city. These warriors, though, wear neutral expressions and bend open the doors for them wordlessly.

She hears Zuko emit a small gasp. The inside of the palace is chilly and elegant as ever, tall columns of ice sweeping from their feet to the ceiling arching high above them. Even the fires in the metal braziers seem cold somehow, their orange glow set off by the abundance of pale blues surrounding them.

“Master Katara.” She turns at the sound of her name to see a tall, thin man striding toward them, his hands spread in greeting. She vaguely remembers him as one of Chief Arnook’s kinder advisers. “Welcome back to the North.”

He stops in front of them, raising a hand to Katara in a casual sign of respect. Katara returns the gesture.

“And Prince Zuko.” He turns to Zuko, his voice hardening slightly. “I hope that your return to our city will be less…eventful.”

Zuko frowns, and Katara has to pinch his arm to remind him not to blow up.

“I assure you that it will,” Zuko answers, a growl in his voice that isn’t normally there.

“Chief Arnook requests your presence in front of his council.”

Katara steps forward to follow Zuko, but the adviser holds a hand up. “Alone.”

“Why? I can vouch for him!” Katara splutters. Zuko looks back at her, his indignation now infused with anxiety. “There’s nothing he can tell you that I don’t already know.”

“It’s the Chief’s orders. You’ll have your turn to tell your story, Master Katara. In the meantime, you’re welcome to wait here with your grandmother. I’m sure you remember your way around.”

Wait—”

But the adviser has taken hold of Zuko’s arm and is pulling him along the hallway. A moment later, they disappear behind another set of icy doors that close behind them with a scrape that echoes through the hall.

Katara moves toward the door, ready to bend it down herself if she has to, but Gran-Gran catches her wrist before she can sprint. In a haze of anger, Katara rounds on her.

“What is going on?” she cries. “Why won’t anyone tell me?”

Gran-Gran sighs, her face etched with sympathy. “I’m sorry, Katara. Everyone here has become more cautious in recent weeks with all of the unrest, especially after the manner in which Ba Sing Se was infiltrated. They’ll want to make absolutely sure they can trust the prince before any talks can take place.”

“What about me? They know they can trust me. I deserve answers, at least.” Katara’s voice cracks. “They do trust me, right?”

“It’s a delicate situation, my child. Of course we know that your intentions are good, but there have been so many rumors flying around the world since your attack on the Fire Nation, and many of them don’t know what to believe.”

To her own surprise, Katara feels the anger filling her begin to transform into something even worse: sadness. Tears prick at the corners of her eyes. She sniffles, trying to pass it off as an effect of the chill.

But her Gran-Gran knows her too well, and she sees right through it. “Oh, Katara,” she sighs, and wraps her in a hug.

“I was so relieved to get here,” Katara says, her voice muffled in Gran-Gran’s shoulder. “We’ve been traveling for so long, and I just wanted to be somewhere familiar. All we’ve done is run. And I thought once we got here we could finally relax—that maybe we wouldn’t have to fight anymore, that we could finally be safe for a little while—b-but…”

“You are safe,” Gran-Gran murmurs. “I promise, you will be safe. I’m so sorry, but it has to happen this way. Even Pakku agreed. But no matter what, you’ll be safe.”

“What about Zuko?” she sniffles.

Gran-Gran holds her tighter. “That’s a bit harder to tell. But if he tells the truth, all will be fine in the end.”

-

When he enters the main room of the palace, he’s struck by the similarities to his own home, despite the wildly different locations. Even through his haze of anger and fear, it shines through: the raised dais, the lines of columns on either side.

The group of men gathered at a table along the dais, staring down at him with cold eyes.

The man behind him pats his shoulder—the first kind gesture he’s given Zuko—before leaving his side to join the panel of men. The one in the middle clears his throat. His seat is taller, his wolf head more ornate; this must be the chief.

Suddenly reminded of his manners, Zuko scrapes into a low bow, nearly folding in half. “Chief Arnook,” he says.

“Prince Zuko,” the chief replies without standing. “Thank you for meeting us.”

It’s not like I had a choice, Zuko wants to say. Instead, he bites down on the anger still swelling inside him at everything about the situation. “Thank you for honoring me with your presence.”

One of the councilors snorts, and Zuko grits his teeth.

“We understand that you have traveled a long way to meet with us and have information you want to discuss regarding the war and the Avatar,” Arnook says, ignoring both the councilor and Zuko’s discomfort. “As a council, we need to verify your story against your companion’s. Recent years have made us slow to trust, and slower to forgive.”

“I understand,” Zuko answers. He relaxes slightly. This he can do.

“Why don’t you start from the beginning?”

So he does. He starts from the very beginning, before even the Day of Black Sun: his struggle with his Fire Nation identity and his turbulent return, glossing over the details of his father’s military plans. He doesn’t miss the way every man on the council’s head snaps to attention when he mentions his presence in those meetings, though. If they want to be cryptic, two can play at that game.

He presses on through the eclipse and the events of his escape with Katara, then their travels through the Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom. It’s a delicate balance, trying to figure out what’s important and what is extraneous detail. As he runs through it, he realizes how much of their time has been simply spent surviving. The long, dusty days of the desert are hard to recount.

When he tells them about Ba Sing Se’s rebels and the ‘accident’ at the factory, he hears small gasps. It gives him the confidence to power through the last few days of the tale, across the mountains and the sea.

When he finally finishes, Chief Arnook nods. “What an adventure for one still so young.”

Zuko’s not young anymore, and he wants to say it. He doesn’t feel young, not after everything he’s been through.

“You’ve left out something important. Why have you come here?”

“Many reasons. In Ba Sing Se, we heard news that there has been increased Fire Nation activity in the area, and we hoped it might be linked to the Avatar’s presence. Then we received intelligence that my uncle Iroh may have passed through. And we wanted to secure your support in the war against my—against the Fire Nation.”

That draws the largest reaction from the council that Zuko has seen all morning. One pair breaks into a flurry of whispers.

“We’ll discuss that when the time comes,” Arnook says. “I believe my councilors have some more questions.”

-

Katara manages to quash her anxiety throughout the morning, but by the afternoon, she’s ready to storm into the chamber and drag Zuko out herself. Her Gran-Gran, who had sat by her side patiently through the whole agonizing wait, nearly has to physically restrain her.

The palace servants had been good hosts; they came around to offer to relocate Katara and Gran-Gran to a more comfortable location, and when Katara snappily denied that, to bring them pillows to make the hard ice bench easier to sit on. They come around again hours later with trays of food that Katara has half a mind to flip in their faces. Instead, she pokes at it moodily, only able to take one or two bites before her frustration fills her up again.

She’s planning another way to infiltrate the throne room and rescue Zuko from whatever nonsense the council is making him endure—this method revolves around an innocent trip to the restroom turned espionage as she bends her way through the icy walls—when the palace’s front doors swing open and Pakku rushes through.

“How is it going?” he calls out as he nears them. “Katara, has the Chief spoken with you yet?”

She shakes her head tersely. “They’ve been in there with Zuko for hours. Nobody has told me anything.”

“That’s not good,” Pakku says.

 “No, it’s not. You know what else isn’t good? All this worrying I’m doing. I feel like I’m about to explode.”

“It’ll be okay, Katara,” Gran-Gran says, placing a hand on her shoulder. “We would have heard by now if something had gone wrong. Maybe it’s just going better than expected.”

Better? How? He’s alone in there with a whole bunch of strangers—”

“And you don’t need to protect him,” Gran-Gran interrupts. “He’s not your brother. Or the Avatar, for that matter. I know I don’t know him too well yet, but from all I’ve seen and heard, he’s more than capable of taking care of himself.”

Katara slumps back against the wall. She’s not doubting Zuko’s ability to make nice with the Northern Water Tribe politicians, or handle himself in a fight against a few waterbenders if it comes to it, but this is the longest she’s been separated from Zuko since that one miserable night in a Ba Sing Se jail. She hadn’t realized how much she had come to rely on him.

It’s only natural for her to worry, she rationalizes; she has been his only protection, and he hers.

Just then, the hushed scrape of ice on ice catches her attention. She looks up, but the great doors at the front of the palace are still closed. Instead, the set opposite has been bent open to reveal a figure far too pale to be Water Tribe.

“Zuko!” Katara leaps from her seat and rushes over to him. He pulls her in for the briefest of hugs. When she pulls away, she looks over his face; he’s not calm, per se, and there’s tension in the slant of his brows and the set of his lips, but he’s definitely not angry or afraid. And he’s back out here instead of being locked up, so whatever happened can’t have gone too badly.

“What happened in there?”

He smiles a tired smile and rakes a hand through his hair. “Just a lot of questions. I’m sure you’ll get them too. Is there any food out here? I’m starving.”

“How were they?” She bites her lip.

“Kinder than they needed to be, given the circumstances. I’m not sure the Fire Nation would ever be so generous with a former hostile.”

Pakku sweeps up behind Katara. “Did they give you any information?”

“No. Nothing.” Zuko wrinkles his nose. “They said they’d have to take time to question Katara and talk it over.”

“You know something, Pakku,” Katara accuses.

Her former waterbending teacher sighs. “Now isn’t the time. There are many factors that need to be considered, others who must be consulted.”

“Sounds like a whole bunch of bureaucratic nonsense,” Katara grumbles.

“Bureaucratic nonsense that maintains the safety and longevity of things you can’t even begin to imagine,” Pakku retorts sharply. “You should go, Katara. I’m sure they’re waiting for you.”

-

Katara’s grandparents are settled down waiting in the great chilly front hall of the palace, so, unsure of where else to go, Zuko sits down with them. A girl is quick to come up and offer him a cup of tea and a plate covered in dried meats and unfamiliar leafy greens; when he thanks her profusely, she blushes and scrambles away. As embarrassing as it is, there’s something almost comforting in the exchange with how much it reminds him of his own home.

Pakku is silent, sitting upright with his arms crossed and his lips pinched, but Kanna is eyeing him. When she sees him looking back, she gives him a knowing smile. He’s just not sure what it is he’s supposed to know.

“They weren’t too harsh on you in there, were they?”

Zuko takes a moment to swallow a mouthful of food before he answers. He’d let his manners slip, being out of society’s gaze for so long, but he’s not going to let Katara’s grandmother see that.

“Not at all,” he says. “They were…intimidating, but I understand the need for caution.”

“And how are you liking the Northern Water Tribe?”

“It’s beautiful,” he answers honestly.

“You should see the Southern tribe sometime as well. It’s much less ostentatious. More my speed.”

“I hope that I can soon.”

“Has Katara promised to take you back and meet the rest of the family already?” Her smile, which up until now has only been that of a kind host, has now gained a slightly devious edge.

Zuko feels heat rush to his face. “I, uh—we haven’t talked about it—”

“I’m just kidding,” Kanna says brightly. “I know you two have plenty of other things to be busy with besides visiting some little old village in the corner of the world.”

“Kanna, stop teasing the boy,” Pakku says without looking up.

“I do want to visit, though,” Zuko says earnestly. “Once the war is over, I hope that I can work with both tribes to restore the damage my country did. Katara told me a lot about her home and her culture, and I hope that I can see it.”

“I’m sure you’ll be on your way there sooner than you know.” Kanna winks at him. Zuko thinks he has definitely missed something in this conversation and he has no idea what.

He’s trying to stammer out a reply when Katara comes sweeping out of the throne room barely twenty minutes after she’d entered it. “That felt like a waste of time,” she proclaims, making the councilor at her shoulder scowl. “What’s up next?”

“You are both free to go. The chief will call you back tomorrow after the council has discussed your news.”

“Don’t take too long,” Katara says. Zuko suppresses a groan. But he guesses she knows Water Tribe culture much better than he does and is on far less precarious footing, so she can get away with things that would never pass in the Fire Nation.

Sure enough, the councilor turns away with nothing more than a ‘hmph’ and Katara walks over to him, still bubbling with the same nervous energy that’s filled her all day.

“What’s the next step?”

“You two just have to wait,” Kanna says. “There’s nothing else to do for now. You’re free to go wherever you want to. Though after so many months apart, I was hoping you might want to spend some time with your dear Gran-Gran.”

Katara grins. “We would like nothing better. Right, Zuko?”

“Uh—” He wants to get to know Katara’s grandmother, he really does, but they’ve both got that mischievous glint in their eyes that Kanna did earlier. Zuko glances to Pakku for support, but the waterbending master only shrugs as if to say “it’s best to go along with it.”

“Uh, yeah, I guess.”

“Great!” Katara takes his hand, and Zuko knows it means nothing and she’s just a touchy person, but from the look in Kanna’s eyes she doesn’t seem to think so.

This could be a very long evening.

-

The entire glittering sprawl of the Northern Water Tribe is laid out before her, but Katara’s not about to waste precious time with her waterbending teacher, so before the evening falls she and Pakku take to the ring below the palace to practice. A small crowd gathers on the steps around Zuko and Gran-Gran; the citizens are particularly interested in the newcomer, and in between spurts of bending, Katara sees him gruffly fielding questions from a knot of younger kids. The image fills her with warmth as she watches one girl reach up and brush Zuko’s hair curiously. His face crinkles in a laugh.

The next thing she knows, she’s freezing and covered in a pile of snow.

“You’ll have to pay better attention than that if you hope to defeat anyone,” Pakku taunts.

Katara hauls herself up and brushes the snow from her parka. “Oh, I’ll show you defeat.”

Pakku still outclasses her by quite a bit, the years of experience too large a gap for Katara to bridge, but she manages to get in a few good hits here and there. She takes him down with a volley of small jets and icicles, a move she had adopted from one of Zuko’s morning firebending routines; when he gets up, Pakku compliments her on her ingenuity, and Katara internally beams.

After she’s fought to her heart’s content, the four of them head back to the house. Zuko has mellowed significantly from his previous infectious anxiety; now, he just glances around at his surroundings with his mouth hanging ever so slightly open. Katara stifles a giggle at his awe, but not enough for him to not catch it.

“It’s just amazing,” he murmurs to her. “A whole city built out of the element. The amount of bending it must have taken to build this, to maintain it—firebending could never be used to create something like this.”

“Fire is a totally different element. It has its own strengths.”

“Destructive ones.”

“Not necessarily.” Katara feigns a shiver. “How else are we supposed to keep ourselves warm with all this ice around us?”

At Kanna and Pakku’s house, she changes into a dry outfit (Gran-Gran has brought a knapsack full of Katara’s clothes with her from the South Pole, as if she somehow knew Katara would be coming here all along) and tames her tangled hair. Gran-Gran is determined to give Katara and Zuko a night out on the town. Neither of them have the heart to tell her that after the exhaustion of the past few weeks, they might prefer another quiet night in; Gran-Gran’s enthusiasm is just too catchy, and so the four of them head out again toward the dense, bustling region of the city Katara hasn’t yet gotten to explore.

“How is it still so light out?” Zuko marvels. “It must be at least twilight, right?”

“The summer days are much longer up here. Twilights can last for hours,” explains Pakku.

“I’m jealous. The way it makes the city light up is…” Zuko trails off, lost for words, and Katara feels herself go soft the way she sometimes can’t stop herself from doing around him.

The restaurant that Gran-Gran picks for dinner is small and serves very authentic Water Tribe food. Katara watches Zuko out of the corner of her eye as they sip their seaweed soup, half curious and half worried for his reaction, but he must have spent enough time with her: he downs it with gusto, and even Pakku looks impressed. The sea prunes still manage to trip him up, though, much to her delight.

While they’d been too tired the night before for any real conversation, Gran-Gran is eager now to prod them with questions about their journey: how did they come together? How did they get out of the Fire Nation? Did they have any help along the way? What was Ba Sing Se like?

Zuko and Katara answer her barrage as best they can, tripping over each other to tell the full story. What comes out is a more-or-less complete recount of the journey—albeit more jumbled than what she had told the Chief’s council, but also more in depth. Gran-Gran is the perfect audience for it, oohing and aahing in all the right places. Pakku is a little harder to shock, but even he lets some small noises of surprise slip at their more outlandish adventures.

Telling the tale of all of their ups and downs is cathartic. Katara has kept it all inside for so long, with only Zuko to discuss it with, and now she’s recounted the whole story twice in a single day. This time around, she remembers more small details, infusing her recollection with the anecdotes the council never would have cared about but that make her Gran-Gran spark with curiosity. The Air Nomad shrine, in particular, catches both her and Pakku off guard. There’s so much left to learn about the Nomads that it nearly overwhelms her to think about, and from the way Zuko falls into pensive silence, pulling at the orange beads around his neck, she knows he is considering it, too.

It's somehow still twilight when they exit the building, full to the brim with hearty Water Tribe cuisine. It’s significantly darker than before, with the stars standing out against the dusky purple, but light enough that they can easily find their way home through the still-crowded streets without lanterns.

Katara doesn’t realize just how exhausted she is until they’re safely in Kanna and Pakku’s main room with the curtains drawn safely shut over the igloo’s entrance. The stress of the day has taken a lot out of her, and she wants nothing more than to fall into a pile of furs for as long as she can. Gran-Gran looks like she might want to continue their dinnertime conversation, but upon catching sight of Katara’s sleepy expression, her face softens.

“It might be another long day tomorrow,” she says gently. “You young ones should go rest.”

“Thank you for dinner, Gran-Gran.” Katara hugs her hard.

“We’re just glad to have you here.”

“I truly can’t thank you enough for your hospitality,” Zuko says as Katara pulls away. “To welcome me into your home—”

He cuts off as Gran-Gran pulls him in for an embrace as well. Zuko is stiff, but he relaxes into it after a moment.

“Let’s hope tomorrow brings the answers that you have been waiting for,” she says, and winks at Katara over Zuko’s shoulder. “I have a feeling it will be an important day.”

-

They get ready to sleep in near-silence, only a few brief sentences about the earlier questioning passing between them. Zuko has actually managed to stop worrying about the Chief and his council’s opinions for the moment, buoyed by the evening’s warmth. There are so many other thoughts racing around his mind now.

“Katara? Can I ask you something?”

“What’s up?” She turns, pulling her hair into a wolf tail as she does so.

“Your grandmother. She’s accepted me so easily, even after everything I’ve done to your people. How?”

“She’s a welcoming person. It’s just who she is.”

“But even you hated me not that long ago. And for good reason,” he presses.

“You and I had a lot of history, Zuko. I’m not saying she’s not affected by what your nation did to us too, but maybe she sees something in you.” Katara takes a few steps so that she’s standing before him, looking up into his eyes. “The same thing I see in you. The power to repent and do what’s right.”

“How could she possibly know that? I haven’t even had the chance to fix what I’ve done yet.”

“People want to see the best in each other, when they’re not tearing each other’s throats out. And it turns out, once you’re away from the Fire Nation, there’s a lot of good to see in you.”

Zuko opens his mouth, unsure of what to say, but Katara just smiles softly and trails a hand down his arm. “Goodnight, Zuko.”

She’s asleep by the time he crawls between the blankets. Zuko tries his best to follow her lead, but despite the day’s excitement, his brain can’t seem to quiet down. The comparative silence around him is nearly oppressive.

The only thing he can make out in the quiet is a pair of voices coming from just beyond the curtain. If he strains his ears, he can just barely understand them.

“…can’t tell them until they’ve been thoroughly vetted by the Order.”

“But what if they don’t tell them tomorrow? Are you going to leave that poor boy without any answers? He deserves to know.”

“Maybe he does, but this is bigger than all of us. It could tip the balance. If I tell him something and he turns out to be a traitor—”

“Do you really think our Katara would ally with a traitor?”

“I don’t know,” Pakku says, sounding tired. “I don’t know anything at this point. I’m just going to follow the instructions that the Order gave me. The highest priority is keeping the Avatar safe. Everything is riding on this plan…”

The voices turn into a murmur, then fade entirely as Kanna and Pakku move away from the doorway.

Well, there goes any chance of Zuko getting a comfortable night of sleep.

Chapter Text

Zuko is silent and tense the next morning as they suit up and ready themselves for another day at the palace. Katara has spent enough time around him that she’s come to know his moods pretty well, and this one is decidedly on edge, evident in the furrow of his brow and the way he turns away from her whenever she tries to make conversation. Maybe he’s just worried, but he had seemed fine the night before.

She tries to ask him if he’s okay, but he brushes it off with a noncommittal “m-hm.” Katara wants to push him on it, but she trusts by now that if he wants to talk about it, he knows he can come to her.

Besides, she has her own apprehensions about today’s events. Her meeting with the council had been brief and matter-of-fact, but she was probably more confrontational than she had to be. She didn’t miss the disapproving looks from some of the white-haired men when she snapped out answers to questions they’d asked her three times already.

And now the entire fate of something she doesn’t even understand, but could completely affect her life, rests in their hands.

She dresses in her darkest parka from home, the one she’d tailored herself to look like Sokka’s warrior outfit. It got her strange looks from the women in the south, and it will doubtlessly garner even more here, but she can’t bring herself to care. It makes her feel confident. She pulls the top part of her hair into a mock wolf tail, leaving the waves free to flow around her shoulders. It’s grown back—not quite to the length it was before, but enough that she can enjoy the feeling of it heavy on her neck again, sweeping her shoulder blades. Enough that she feels herself again.

When she turns back to Zuko, he does a double take. “You look…” he trails off.

“Good?”

“Like you’re going to battle.”

“Who knows?” Katara says. “Maybe we are.”

Pakku and Gran-Gran don’t comment on her choice of fashion, though they have similarly surprised expressions when they see her. Katara hopes the council reacts the same way. If this is what they need to take her seriously and treat her like the fighter she is, instead of some poor child, then so be it.

The walk to the palace is as tense as the previous day’s, the energy now infused with an air of anticipation. One way or another, Katara will get answers today.

Before they pass through the doors, though, Pakku stops in front of Zuko and Katara and turns to face them. “Whatever happens in there, whatever the Chief says, make sure you stay calm. If you present a rational, unified front, they’ll take you more seriously.”

“It’s hard to do that when everyone is treating us like clueless kids,” Katara grumbles.

“Katara,” he snaps. “This is serious. You are still children. Just stay calm and tell the truth.”

“After everything we’ve been through? We might be teenagers, but we’re leaders, too. We’ve got a world to save.” Katara bends open the doors herself. “Now, let’s go.”

-

If it wasn’t for Zuko begging her to hang back, Katara probably would have stormed into the throne room. Instead, she manages to compose herself into a bundle of quietly simmering energy while they wait for someone to let them in.

Zuko, for his part, is still overwhelmed from what he’d heard the night before. He wished he had told Katara so they could have discussed it, but he didn’t want to fracture Katara’s trust in her grandparents, especially when he knows the talks with the council have thrown her for such a loop already. If today goes badly, then they’ll have to discuss next steps, and he’s really not looking forward to that, but he won’t add to her stress unless he absolutely has to.

When the same council member as the day before comes to open the door, Zuko is surprised to see him usher Kanna and Pakku into the hallway alongside him and Katara. Even more surprising is the small smile he offers Zuko as he passes.

Zuko takes a deep breath, draws himself up to his full height, and catches Katara’s gaze. She’s biting her lip, but when she looks back at him, the last of her nervous energy hardens into resolve.

They march into the throne room side by side.

It’s been rearranged from the previous day. The long table along the dais is gone; now, the council occupies three sides of a square table, with Chief Arnook directly facing the door. There are four empty seats lining the nearest side.

“Thank you for returning,” the Chief says, and nods to them. A sign of respect, if only a small one. Zuko’s determination coalesces further.

“Thank you for meeting with us again, Chief Arnook.” He and Katara take the seats across from the Chief, Pakku and Kanna flanking them. Once they’re all settled, the Chief fixes Zuko with a level stare.

“I want to commend you for your thorough discussion with us yesterday. I know the two of you must be tired. The council has consulted with elders and—” Zuko watches his eyes flick to Pakku for a second— “other forces at play. We find your story credible and hope to share what we know about the Avatar and the war’s progress with you.”

Next to him, Katara breathes a sigh of relief.

“Thank you,” Zuko says fervently. “Thank you for trusting us.”

“Thank your uncle Iroh.”

A strange buzzing fills Zuko’s ears, his vision going white at the edges. He suddenly feels very lightheaded. The room is too cold, the air too harsh in his lungs.

Iroh?

“How—what do you mean?”

“Your uncle paid a visit to our tribe ten days ago. He shared with us all the information he could about the Avatar.”

“Why was he here?” Katara bursts out.

“He has been training the Avatar in firebending on an island off the coast of the Fire Nation.”

What?” Katara says at the same time Zuko exclaims “Uncle?”

“The Avatar and the rest of your friends have been hidden safely there,” Pakku cuts in. “As I understand it, he’s made great strides in his training. They’ve since moved to another undisclosed location for their own protection, but Iroh was able to share their plans for the day of Sozin’s Comet with the council, and what role the two of you must play in it.”

Zuko is still fixated on the fact that his uncle was here, that Iroh is safe and alive and free in the first place. The relief of the news clears his head of worry at the same time that it fills with questions and theories. He had always known Iroh is stronger than he looks and could doubtlessly take care of himself, but to somehow locate and train the Avatar and make it to the North in time for an important war meeting in less than the time it had taken him and Katara to reach the mountains? If only they had left Ba Sing Se earlier, maybe they would have caught him, but there’s no point to regrets and the conversation is forging ahead without him.

“Do you know where Aang is?” Katara asks, pinning the Chief with an urgent stare.

He shakes his head. “The Avatar and Iroh decided that for his safety, the Avatar’s location would be kept secret from everyone—even Iroh himself. He and his three companions are well hidden and preparing for the comet.”

“Wait, three? Aang, Sokka, Toph, and who else?”

“Iroh only said another companion familiar with firebending had joined them.”

Who in the world could it be? Some soldier who had become disillusioned with the war? Certainly nobody Zuko knows, he thinks. Odd, but good news. He had been worried about Aang’s firebending prowess—or rather, the lack of it.

“The other major thing that Iroh discussed with us was a plan for the day of Sozin’s Comet, developed by him and the Avatar’s allies.” Chief Arnook glances to the councilor on his left, who dutifully spreads a large scroll over the middle of the table, revealing a map of the Four Nations. “There will be three prongs to the attack and a reserve of soldiers for defense. The first will be the army Iroh is amassing, which will target the Upper Earth Kingdom and retake Ba Sing Se and the military structures in the area. The second will be the Avatar and his companions, who will hold off his support while the Avatar does battle with Phoenix King Ozai.” Chief Arnook points to a spot south of Ba Sing Se that Zuko and Katara had skirted around. “And the third will be you, Prince Zuko, going to challenge Princess Azula for her title as Fire Lord.”

“Hold on.” He must have misheard. “Her title? She’s the crown princess. It’s not her title until my father is dead or deposed. And what is this Phoenix King thing?”

Chief Arnook exchanges a look with Pakku, whose lips are pressed into a thin line.

“She can’t be the Fire Lord. She’s too young. She’s only fourteen.”

“Iroh brought us other news from sources within the Capital. Ozai has named himself the emperor of all four nations and has given himself the title of Phoenix King to support his claim. His plan on the day of the comet is to officially conquer the Earth Kingdom in his name.”

-

For a moment, Katara thinks Zuko might actually faint. He pales and lurches to the left, and she reaches out beneath the table to hold him up, but he rights himself quickly enough.

Everyone at the table, even Gran-Gran, is watching them carefully for their reaction. Zuko is still silent and pale.

Katara draws on her inner chi, on the power she feels swirling around her in the walls of ice before she speaks.

“So his plans are grander and more deluded now,” she says. “This doesn’t change much. We always knew we would have to take him down somehow, we just have to now include Azula in that, too.”

Zuko flinches beside her, but she forges on. “It sounds like the plan that Iroh has is well thought-out. Zuko and I mobilized some of the citizens of Ba Sing Se as well, and they’ll be ready to fight from within.”

“It does raise one more question,” Pakku cuts in quietly. “The matter of who will lead the Fire Nation if both the Fire Lord and his daughter are dedicated to this path of aggression.”

The silence returns even thicker than before.

Among her whirl of emotions, Katara is surprised to find anger at Pakku for putting it so bluntly. She knows they’re all thinking it, but to unload everything on Zuko all at once and then place this all-important question on him, one he hadn’t even addressed with her alone—

“I’ve been dethroned,” Zuko says. He sounds almost timid. Young. “I can’t. I’m not in the line of succession anymore.”

“Iroh says there is a way for you to challenge your sister. You still have royal blood.”

“Agni Kai,” he breathes.

To everyone else, he might look inscrutable, but Katara knows Zuko well enough to catch the range of emotions that flit across his face: fear, sorrow, doubt, and finally a steely resolve that settles into his proud brow. He sits up straighter and squares his shoulders. His full lips press into a hard line, and beneath the layers of scar tissue, his golden eyes shine.

“Chief Arnook,” he says, leveling his gaze at the chief across the table. “The world has been out of balance for too long. It’s time to restore that. I want to ask for your support as I challenge Azula to be the Fire Lord.”

“What is it exactly that you ask of me, Prince Zuko?”

“If I succeed in the Agni Kai, the Fire Nation will be thrown into turmoil. Many of the citizens, and possibly the military, will not support my claim because of my exile and the nation’s history of violence and domination. I’ll need strong allies who are willing to support my claim in the rest of the world and help me rebuild what has been destroyed if my own people won’t help me do it.”

Chief Arnook holds Zuko’s gaze for so long that it becomes uncomfortable to watch. Zuko doesn’t crumble, but holds his stiff posture. Katara bites her lip so hard that it stings.

Finally, the chief breaks the silence.

“The Northern Water Tribe will offer their support in the legitimacy of your claim to the Fire Nation throne.”

The tension is broken like cutting a taut string. Gran-Gran takes Katara’s hand and clutches it tightly; on her other side, Zuko’s tight, regal expression breaks into a smile.

“Thank you, chief,” he exclaims.

“What happens after the war will be discussed once we achieve peace,” Arnook says over his council’s chatter. “But I look forward to a future of diplomacy with your nation. Peace is within our grasp.”

-

As they leave the palace, Zuko feels dazed. The sunlight is so bright that it stuns him, and he has to catch himself before he falls down the steps. A hand darts out to steady him, and he looks down into Katara’s blue eyes.

“Are you okay?” she asks quietly.

He nods. “I’ll need some time to think. It was a lot. But this is a good thing.”

“We have some time before the Chief wants us back here for dinner.”

Right. The formal dinner the Chief had insisted on hosting to solidify their position as allies. Zuko as anyone’s, much less the Chief of the Northern Water Tribe’s, political ally is a concept strange enough to nearly make him laugh.

How can he lead a whole country when he barely even understands it himself?

“Zuko,” Katara says, her expression falling. She must have caught something in his eyes. “If you need—”

“Prince Zuko. Master Katara.”

Pakku appears behind them, trailed closely by Kanna. Both are smiling, but it doesn’t quite reach Pakku’s eyes.

“Before the celebration tonight,” he says under his breath, “I have some things I’d like to discuss further with you two. Alone.”

“What?” Katara looks at her grandmother, but she only spreads her hands and shrugs as if to say don’t blame me.

“Let’s head back to our house where we have some privacy.” Pakku turns and heads down the grand steps, leaving Katara chasing after him. Zuko has to take a moment to steel himself against another potential bombshell.

Something soft brushes his hand, and he looks down to see Kanna’s glove covering it. She smiles gently up at him.

“You’ve had a long day, young prince,” she says, the skin around her eyes crinkling, “and it’s not even afternoon yet.”

“You could say that again.”

Zuko offers Kanna his arm, the way his mother had taught him to do as a sign of respect, and she chuckles as she takes it. “My, what manners. We don’t see many like you in the Southern Water Tribe.”

“It’s just etiquette.” He blushes despite the cold.

“Etiquette that will serve you well once you return to your own palace, I’m sure.”

A comfortable silence falls between them for a moment before Kanna asks, “Is this what you want?”

“To walk with you? Yes, of course, I’d like to get to know you—”

“No, no.” She laughs again. “This matter of taking the Fire Nation throne.”

“It’s something that I have to do.”

“That’s not what I asked.”

Zuko breathes out through gritted teeth, making the air whistle. It’s a massive, loaded question that he’d had to set aside in the meeting. He knows he doesn’t feel prepared for it, and the idea of all of the responsibilities and work that will have to go into repairing the world in the wake of his father’s blaze is staggering, but…

“I think so. I want this world to see peace and justice. For Katara and your people, for the Air Nomads, for everyone my nation has harmed. I’ve seen the destruction that my family has caused, and I want to fix it.”

“A noble ideal for one so young. How old are you, Prince Zuko?”

“Sixteen,” he mumbles, feeling embarrassed.

He doesn’t look at her, but he can feel her studying his face. Kanna has ended up on the side with the scar, and he wishes he had offered her his right arm instead.

“I was your age when I fled this place for the first time,” she says, gesturing out at the canal before them.

Zuko gawks at her. “What do you mean?”

“I was engaged to be married, but I didn’t agree with the customs and traditions of my home regarding women’s place in society, and he did. When I realized I couldn’t live under such laws, I escaped for the Southern Tribe. I never would have thought I’d end up back here. I thought that this place could never change, but Katara taught me that it can, as long as we are willing to work for it. And now look. She’s a master bender, trained by the best the North has to offer.”

“And what happened to your betrothed?”

At first, he thinks Kanna is gazing out at the streets and reminiscing, but then he realizes she is watching Katara and Pakku at the bottom of the stairs. Katara is trailing a hand above the canal, showing Pakku her ice daggers.

“I thought we would never meet again, but the universe had other plans.” She squeezes his hand. “Some things, no matter how many obstacles may seem to block the path, are simply meant to be.”

-

As soon as Kanna and Zuko trail into the igloo behind her, Pakku bends a thin sheet of ice over the doorway. Katara frowns. She’s never seen him—or anyone, really—put anything across an igloo’s entrance besides the usual furs or curtain, so she’s already on edge.

Gran-Gran seems to sense this and bustles into the kitchen, where Katara can hear her pouring water for tea. Zuko motions as if he’s going to help her, but Pakku holds out a hand and says “Just sit down.”

Nervous, Katara slides into the seat next to Zuko’s and across from Pakku.

“Kanna?” he calls, and Gran-Gran sticks her head out of the kitchen.

“Should I be here for this conversation?”

“You already know everything. I don’t see why not.”

She sits down next to Pakku, her face falling into the most serious expression Katara’s seen her wear since they got to the city.

Pakku takes a long breath and closes his eyes before he begins.

“The Avatar is at the Western Air Temple.”

The bottom drops out of Katara’s stomach.

She can’t have heard him right. Pakku knows? He’s known all along?

How?” she splutters. “When? Who told you? Why didn’t you tell us?”

“Let me tell the whole story. There are still many things in this world hidden from you for your own safety and that of those involved, but the two of you are practically a part of it already.”

“What are you talking about, Pakku?”

“Have you ever heard the name The White Lotus?”

Katara is about to snap at him to cut the nonsense and tell them how to get to Aang, but then she sees Zuko nodding.

“My uncle was a fan of Pai Sho. He always said it was the most important piece on the board,” Zuko says slowly.

Pakku sticks a hand into the opposite sleeve of his parka and then withdraws it. In his palm is a smooth clay tile inlaid with white and orange in the shape of an intricate flower. The symbol is vaguely familiar to Katara, in the way she’s sure she’s seen it in a few different places, but she couldn’t name any one of them.

“In Pai Sho, the white lotus is often strategically overlooked, because its power is circumstantial on the pieces surrounding it. But in times of upheaval, it can be utilized to change the tides of the game.” Pakku sets the tile down on the table, where it clinks against the ice. “This is the nature of the Order of the White Lotus as well. At its roots, it is a peaceful gathering of minds, but even intellectualism and philosophy are in danger when the balance is threatened. And in those times of turmoil, the White Lotus members can be mobilized.”

“So it’s some kind of secret order that you’re part of,” Katara muses.

“And my uncle.”

Pakku nods.

“And you’ve been working against the Fire Nation to end the war this whole time?” asks Zuko.

“Not exactly. Individually, the vast majority of our members have always been opposed to the war, but it was only when Iroh escaped prison that he initiated the alert regarding Ozai’s plans for world domination. We’ve been mobilizing for a few weeks. Iroh, I believe, is still gathering members personally.”

“Who else is in the order?” Katara asks.

“It is an anonymous organization to anyone not inducted. But I’m sure you’ve both met members across your travels.”

“And how did Aang get involved in this?”

Pakku steeples his fingers beneath his chin. “As the Chief said, Iroh trained the Avatar at a Lotus member’s secure house in the Fire Nation islands. When Iroh left to mobilize the rest of the Order, he recommended that the Avatar, Sokka, and your other friends find a hidden place to continue training until the day of the comet, but not before they made the plan you were told about. That hasn’t changed.”

“But our motives have,” Zuko mumbles, looking pensive.

Katara turns to him. “They have?”

“We know the Avatar is safe and learning firebending. We know what we need to do on the day of the comet. Do we still need to find them?”

“Of course!” she bursts out indignantly. “You promised me that if we heard anything about where they are that we’d drop everything and go find them, and now we finally have some credible information and you want to ignore it?”

“He’s right, Katara,” Gran-Gran says.

She wilts, the anger dying into a mixture of confusion and betrayal.

“Your number one priority now is protecting the Prince until he can take the throne. He’s nearly as important as Aang. Without him, his sister will just ascend the throne and continue the cycle of cruelty.”

Silence cloaks the room, heavy like fresh snow. Katara can’t think of a single thing to say.

But Zuko rescues her. “I’ve made it this far because I’ve had Katara with me,” he says quietly, avoiding everyone’s gaze. “If we can see the Avatar before the comet, I think it would improve our planning and strategy significantly. A couple weeks wouldn’t have been enough for my uncle to completely train him. It might be dangerous, but as long as Katara and I stick together I know I’ll be fine.”

“If the Fire Nation finds you—either of you—before the comet, we still have a failsafe in the other. If his location is compromised and you fall into his trap, then we’ve lost both of you,” says Pakku.

“We’ve survived so much, Pakku. We’ve done so much on our own.” Under the table, Katara feels Zuko’s fingertips search for hers, and she grabs his hand and clutches it as she continues. “I know that many of you still think of us as children, but we aren’t. We’ve experienced too much. Zuko is about to be the leader of an entire nation. This is our decision.”

“And it’s one we both agree on. Wholeheartedly.”

Pakku sighs. “Well, it was worth a try. I should’ve known that I can never convince you when your mind is made up.”

“We’ll be careful,” Katara promises. “You’ll see.”

“You’ll have to. If you’re not, it could destroy any hope of peace we have left.”

-

“I thought Chief Arnook said this would be a small dinner,” Zuko mutters out of the side of his mouth.

Pakku’s moustache twitches as he suppresses a chuckle. “They might seem intimidating, but really the Chief and his council will jump at any opportunity to hold a feast. An alliance with the rising Fire Lord is certainly reason enough.”

“Is it safe for this many people to know that we’re here?”

“The north is isolated. It’s how they’ve kept out of this war so far, and what makes this partnership you have with Arnook so impressive. Even if word were to get out, it would take a good few days, and it’ll practically be the day of the comet by then.”

“I’m going to feel so awkward,” Zuko grumbles, tugging at the furry cuff of his robe. He’d had to borrow it from someone in the palace, and it’s a little too big, drowning him in white wolf fur and yards of navy fabric. At least it’s warm.

He’s about to ask Pakku where Katara and Kanna are. Like him, they were hustled off to some corner of the palace to change into something sufficiently formal when they’d arrived, but the pair have been gone for much longer than it took Zuko to pull on the blue robes and tie back his hair. As he turns to ask, though, he catches sight of movement at the top of the stairs leading into the residential area of the palace.

She’s paused at the top, glancing about the crowd with wide eyes. Her robes are a shade between purple and blue that he’s never seen on her before, with sleeves that dip down to brush the steps and a fur-lined hem parted in the middle to reveal a flash of lavender skirts. Her hair has been intricately braided with blue beads and clasps; atop her head sits a crystalline crescent moon that glints in such a way that it could only be made out of ice.

Zuko’s mouth goes dry. Despite the steady flow of people around him, he can’t tear his gaze away from her as she picks up her skirts and slowly descends the steps.

“You look…” He trails off as she finally comes to stand in front of him. “Uh…wow.”

Katara giggles. “It’s all Yue’s. There aren’t many other teenage girls in the palace. Weren’t.” Her face falls slightly.

“It’s beautiful,” he finally blurts out. “You’re beautiful.”

She looks momentarily stunned, color rising into her cheeks, before she offers him a small smile. “You don’t look so bad yourself.”

“You could nearly pass as Water Tribe!” Kanna says brightly, coming up behind Katara and placing a hand on her arm.

“I don’t know about that,” Katara laughs.

Zuko tries to conjure up a witty response, but before he can, Pakku is cutting in with a swift “shall we?”

He reaches for Kanna, and Zuko, nearly as a reflex, offers Katara his arm. Katara loops hers through his, her trailing sleeve dangling down to brush his feet. He sneaks as many glimpses of her as he can out of the corner of his eye when he thinks she’s not looking.

Katara is radiant. The pale purples of her robe alongside the familiar blue sets off her skin in a way he’s never seen before; the drape of her hair frames her face perfectly, and the glittering moon matches the sparkle of her eyes. Beautiful certainly applies to her—it always does—but it doesn’t describe her. Ethereal, maybe.

Regal, his mind offers. Certainly more than he is. More than anyone in his family has ever looked.

“Zuko?” she says softly, and Zuko blinks before he realizes that someone else is talking to them.

Chief Arnook is striding toward them, looking surprisingly somber. “Prince Zuko,” he says, and bows. Zuko lets go of Katara to bow back. “Thank you for honoring us.”

“The honor is mine,” Zuko replies with a small, but genuine grin.

“And Katara—” he turns toward her, spreading his hands. Zuko can see now where the sorrow in his eyes originates.

“You look so much like her.”

His voice cracks. It’s all too human.

“She’s still with us,” Katara murmurs. She places a hand on the Chief’s forearm. “I know it. I’ve felt her. She’s happy.”

The Chief lifts his arm as if he’s going to embrace her, but he turns away suddenly. “There are plenty of people waiting for you in there. Go and enjoy it.”

They both bow to him, Zuko in the low, sweeping Fire Nation style and Katara in a simple, graceful fold. Then she takes his arm again and steps through into the great room.

Except it’s not a room—it’s a balcony that sweeps over the mouth of the canal, the icy city sprawling out beneath them like so many diamonds in the twilight. The tiers below them contain row after row of blue-clad people, and right along the top where they stand a long, low table is laid out with all manner of food. Zuko is pleasantly surprised to recognize quite a bit of it, even the steaming vat of sea prunes.

“I think that’s us in the middle,” Katara murmurs, gesturing to a trio of empty spots. “Are you ready?”

Zuko turns to look at her, fixes the image of her in her sparkling glory in his mind forever, and then nods.

-

It goes on for far too long, but Katara can’t complain, even when the last rays of the sun are gone and the few short hours of night fill in and her bones ache with tiredness and the weight of Yue’s finery. Even then, surrounded on one side by her grandmother and on the other by a nervous, but proud Zuko, it’s enough to last her for many more sleepless nights.

The Chief offers a speech to Zuko that ends in an awkward but heartfelt declaration of brotherhood from the prospective Fire Lord, and when they grasp each other’s arms in that hilariously masculine way Katara has always seen Sokka do with the men of her tribe, she can’t help but glow with pride. He fits in here in a way she never could have predicted. She had worried he’d freeze, but his inner fire sustains him just enough.

And the rows of water Tribe citizens seem to agree. The wolf warriors, so hostile to them only a few days ago, now clap and cheer at the Chief’s speech. She even sees Hahn in the crowd, tucked away among his fellow warriors.

Many people approach her over the course of the night, vaguely familiar faces that pop into place from her last visit when they reintroduce themselves, but none delight her so much as the young girl who comes up and shyly presents her with a lump of ice in the shape of a crude star that she’s bent herself.

“Girls can be powerful, too,” she says, the question evident in her tone.

Katara laughs and pulls her into a hug. “Yes, we can,” she whispers. “Don’t ever forget that.”

Finally, as the evening dies down and many of the citizens have already filed away from the terrace, Zuko stands again.

“I’d like to make a toast.”

Everyone falls silent with breathtaking quickness. He’s magnetic; Katara has never seen him so confident.

“We celebrate tonight, but we should also take a moment to remember those who have sacrificed for this war already. Those that my country has taken. Princess Yue and countless other warriors like her sought balance, and while I can’t bring them back, I can promise that I will do whatever it takes to restore peace to this world.”

Her heart swells in unison with the cheers. She stares up at him, moisture pricking at the corners of her eyes, but Zuko reaches down and gently takes hold of her hand.

“Come on,” he murmurs beneath the cheers. “This is yours as much as it is mine. This could never have happened without you.”

Zuko pulls her to his side, and she clutches his waist, knowing that if she doesn’t she might just fall off the top of the world. She sees, finally, a glimpse: what the world could look like soon, that elusive thing she’s worked so hard to not imagine.

She sees it, and the fire it lights in her belly won’t go out any time soon.

Chapter Text

Zuko is riding on a cloud. It’s surprisingly warm and very soft; he can’t see anything below but miles of crystal blue ocean, and he feels so tranquil that he could melt.

So it comes as a bit of a surprise when the cloud starts vibrating and saying his name.

“What?” he mumbles, turning his face into the cloud. It smells oddly like animals, come to think of it.

“Zuko,” the cloud says again, sounding exasperated and amused and familiar.

Zuko groans and peeks out of one eye. “What?”

“Time to get up, sleepy,” Katara says in a voice that is way too perky for whatever ungodly hour of the morning it is. “Long day. Lots to do.”

“When’s the last time we haven’t had a long day?”

“Well, they’re going to be long for a while longer. Come on, up and at ‘em. It’s midmorning.”

“I was sleeping on a cloud, Katara,” he moans, finally acquiescing and flopping over to lie spread-eagled across the furs.

She giggles. “Sounds great. But we’ve got to get back to the ship today, and there’s somewhere I want to take you before we leave.”

“Just give me five more minutes…”

“Hey, it’s not my fault you stayed up all night partying with the chief’s council.”

“Diplomatic relations,” he corrects her. “Securing the future of world peace.”

“I’m not totally sure what scarfing down mooncakes has to do with world peace, but I’ll take your word for it,” she laughs.

After he’s risen, dressed, said his bashful late good mornings to Kanna and Pakku, and eaten, Katara slides into the seat next to him at the table and lays out her plans.

“We have to leave today,” she tells her grandmother, looking crestfallen. “I’m sorry, and I wish we could spend more time here with you, but we have to find Aang before the comet if we’re truly going to do this.”

“Of course we understand,” Kanna says.

“Please just be careful,” Pakku adds gruffly.

“I’ll keep him safe.” Katara glances at Zuko, a wry smile playing at the edge of her lips.

He chuckles. “We’ll keep each other safe.”

Katara turns slightly pink.

“Anyway,” she says, brushing past the moment, “before we go, I’d like to take Zuko to the Spirit Oasis. I want to talk with Yue.”

Zuko swallows, his nerves suddenly flaring. He hadn’t realized that’s what she meant by somewhere. Memories of his last visit there flood his mind, filling him with revulsion at his own selfish, destructive motives.

The three others are still speaking around him, but Zuko doesn’t concentrate on them, only on slowing his breathing and calming himself. The Spirit Oasis. The tribe’s most sacred spot. Why would Katara want to take him there?

He realizes she’s saying his name, and he startles. Katara gives him a look that makes it clear his odd behavior hasn’t evaded her notice. “Are you ready to go now?”

“I, uh—” Pakku and Kanna are both watching him expectantly. There’s nothing Zuko wants less than to explode in front of them right now. He nods numbly.

Once they’re outside in the cold, he rounds on her. “Why?”

“Like I said, I want to talk to Yue,” she answers matter-of-factly.

“Why take me, though? I nearly destroyed that place. What if I make the spirits all mad? I shouldn’t go, it wouldn’t be right—”

“Walk with me, Zuko,” she says, sounding somewhere between pensive and solemn. It throws him off guard enough to actually follow her instruction.

They make their way to the canal in silence before she speaks. “How much do you know about Tui and La?”

“Only what you’ve told me. They’re the moon and ocean spirits and they work together to keep the tides in balance.”

She nods. “There’s another factor to waterbending that most people don’t consider. Water is constant. As long as everything is in balance, the tides will wear away jagged edges and wounds. They’re forgiving that way.”

“Some scars run deep,” he says.

“And sometimes, if you work for it, those scars will heal faster.”

The metaphor is getting a little too abstract for him, but he thinks he understands what Katara’s getting at. He’s just not sure he believes it.

“You don’t have to come if you don’t want to,” Katara says quietly. “But I want you to see it firsthand. You learned so much about Air philosophy at the shrine, but the Water Tribes have some spiritual rebuilding to do as well. If we all want to coexist in pace, we have to understand each other.”

“I want to learn, Katara. I’m just—”

His voice breaks. “Scared,” he finishes softly.

Katara’s eyes soften, fading out of her philosophical state. “Our tribe isn’t the only thing that still needs to heal,” she says, stopping partway up the steps. “I know you’ve changed. The spirits will see it too.”

-

As soon as she passes through the archway, tranquility washes over her in a great wave. The bustle and noise of the city cuts out.

It looks just as she remembered, the grass unnaturally green for the frigid surroundings, the air pleasantly warm. She strips off her heavy parka so that she only wears her tunic and leggings.

Behind her, she hears Zuko’s tentative footsteps. She turns to him. He’s frozen, his eyes darting around the small space without landing on any particular feature. The tendons in his neck strain against his skin.

She knows what must be running through his mind, because it’s in hers, too, juxtaposed against the peaceful scene: clashes of ice and fire, steam billowing through the air. Two figures with nothing else on their minds but their goal to defeat the other.

“It grew back,” he says hoarsely. “The grass I scorched.”

As if in a daze, he stumbles toward the pool. Katara catches him before he goes too far.

“I wanted to destroy this place.”

“You did,” she says. There’s no denying the resentment that still simmers under her skin at the thought.

“I can never apologize for that. I can never make it up. I didn’t understand—I didn’t want to understand your world. If I did, it would mean understanding I was on the wrong side.”

He turns to her, almost pleading. “It was all I knew, Katara. I was so lost.”

Katara takes a deep breath, tamping down the memories of smoke and flames across the grass. “You’ve apologized enough,” she says as kindly as she can. “It’s the understanding that’s important. We grew back because when we’re balanced, we are strong.”

He’s steadier now as she guides him to the pond with a hand on his back. The slightest breeze whishes past them; Katara knows Yue is here.

In the daylight, the water is crystal clear. It ripples only slightly with the movements of the koi. Their circle is perfect, their movements steady, and relief floods Katara over something she hadn’t even realized she was worried about.

She kneels down and presses her palms to the soft grass. “Hello, Yue.”

There’s no response—she hadn’t expected one—but the breeze lifts the end of her hair. She smiles.

“I’ve missed you. I had to come visit you before we left.” She concentrates on the white fish’s elegant movements, the rhythmic flick of her tail. “So much has happened. You saved our nation. I’m not going to let it be in vain. We’re going to restore the balance, Yue, and I wanted to ask for your blessing. Help me use my power to bring peace.”

This time, when the wind blows, she can swear she hears a hollow echo in it. It doesn’t carry words in any language she knows, but she understands it anyway. The pull of the water before her sharpens as if she’s blinking it into focus.

When she opens her eyes again, Zuko is kneeling next to her, bent in a formal bow with his palms pressed together. He’s mouthing words too quietly for her to hear, but she can take a guess.

He looks up at her after a few minutes. His eyes are glazed.

“She heard you,” Katara tells him. He only nods, looking stunned.

The water in front of them glows so faintly that she would miss it if she didn’t stare. “Look,” she says to Zuko, reaching for his hand. His palm finds hers, warm and rough and familiar.

“I see it now,” he murmurs. “What you said before about push and pull. Equal and opposite.”

“Balanced.”

He turns his head, holding her gaze.

“Two parts of a whole.”

-

Their goodbyes with Kanna and Pakku are short, but emotional. Katara says she doesn’t want to drag it out, because she’ll see them soon enough—as soon as they’ve secured peace, she says. Zuko’s not sure he can mimic her optimism, but he certainly appreciates it.

They’re loaded down with food and supplies and spare parkas and gloves; probably way more than they’ll ever need, but Kanna frets over both of them as they pack, patting his shoulder and muttering about his ‘delicate tropical constitution.’ Pakku only stands by and watches, his face inscrutable as ever.

Once all their supplies are secured in huge sealskin packs, Kanna leans in to embrace Katara. “We’ll walk you out to the gates.”

Zuko takes the walk as a chance to fix one last image of the Northern Water Tribe in all its glittering glory in his mind. Twilight catches the ice a different way every time he sees it; right now, it looks almost translucent in the pale gold, like a million stars stitched together. He’ll miss it more than he thought he would.

With any luck, it won’t be too long before he returns.

Pakku bends the gates open for them, ignoring the wolf soldiers to either side of them. The tundra sprawls before them, pure and endless.

Wordlessly, Katara embraces her grandmother. Zuko looks away, feeling voyeuristic, until Pakku puts a hand on his shoulder.

“Be careful,” he says. “Don’t take any unnecessary risks. Make it to the end. We’ll support you every step of the way.” His face softens in a rare moment of vulnerability. “I know that you can do it.”

“I won’t let you down,” Zuko promises. He bows to the waterbending master.

Kanna hugs him as well, surprisingly strong for her frail frame. “Take care of her for me. Both of you come back to me safely,” she whispers in his ear.

“We’ll be back soon. Both of us. Together.”

“I’ll hold you to that, Prince Zuko,” she says, pulling back to wink at him. “I have a feeling we’ll be seeing quite a bit more of you once this is all over.”

With one more round of well-wishes, they set out across the tundra, Kanna and Pakku standing at the gate watching them until they fade into the whiteness. Katara sniffles, rubbing her nose with the back of her glove.

“Hey,” Zuko says, wrapping an arm around her shoulders. “Don’t worry. We’ll see them again soon.”

“Will we?” she says quietly.

“We will. I promise you.”

-

The twilight is impossibly long here. It starts earlier than Katara realized; the past two days cooped up in the palace hadn’t given her a good sense of the day’s cycles, and even though she’d grown up with the long winter nights and endless days of dusky summer, albeit reversed, the year she’d spent away from the Poles had accustomed her to a more even divide.

But the mysterious in-between spread over the tundra is actually comforting. The soft light makes the snow’s bright white glow easier on her eyes, and the moon and the stars hang back faintly behind a veil of purple.

There’s no snow gusting this time, either; the air is still and peaceful, and snug in her parka, Katara feels perfectly comfortable. It’s the kind of scene she could lose herself in, if she wanted to. Snow stretches away from her in every direction, swelling into soft peaks in the distance. Everything is delicate and soft.

She realizes, belatedly, that Zuko has slowed so much he’s barely walking. He’s staring out across the scenery at the snowy peaks with his mouth slightly agape. Puffs of translucent breath escape his mouth periodically and billow like smoke. He, too, looks peaceful. In his blue, he looks like he belongs.

Could he belong here?

“Hey, what are you staring at?” Zuko calls, jerking Katara back from the precipice of a very dangerous chain of thoughts.

She blinks at him. He’s got his arms spread wide, an easy grin on his face and his head cocked to one side. There’s both a challenge and a question in his grin.

Katara returns the smile as she bends down.

“I was thinking,” she says as she gathers the snow in her mittens, “what an easy target you are.”

The snowball hits the center of his chest with a wet thwack. Zuko’s grin falls open into shock, and he looks from her to the darkening wet patch and back again.

“Careful,” he growls playfully.

“Oh, I think I can take y—”

She’s caught off guard by the ball that explodes on her shoulder, coating her face with snow dust. She coughs. When it clears, Zuko’s got another in each hand and a devilish quirk to his eyebrows.

She could bend at him, of course, and take him down in a second. But there’s something about the pose that reminds her so much of her childhood, before bending and journeys and even war, when it was just her and Sokka and a continent of ammunition for their snowy battles. She wants to play fair.

So she takes off as fast as she can, scooping snow up with one hand as she accelerates. Behind her, Zuko yells in delight as he gives chase. A projectile whizzes by her arm, and she lobs one back over her shoulder, not stopping to see if it made contact, though she doubts it did.

The next one comes closer, and she turns to block it. It crashes harmlessly into her raised arm, giving her an opening to send one back that catches Zuko just above his knee, causing him to stumble. While he’s distracted, she reloads and turns to keep running.

The mountains are looming up closer, the dusk is falling harder, and something twinkles silver before the horizon. Katara’s caught up in exhilaration, surrounded by her element and adrenaline filling her veins. Zuko’s peals of laughter behind her buoy her on, and they keep exchanging hits until Zuko gets close enough to aim one carefully at her feet and trip her up.

She tumbles backwards into the snow’s soft embrace, giggling as she does, but she’s not about to let Zuko have the last blow when there’s so much potential surrounding her.

She hears him gasp as the snow around his boots forms an icy hand, and he yelps “not fair!”

“What can I say? I’m a sore loser.”

Katara sits up and lets go of the snow pulling him, but he’s closer than she realized. The sudden loss of momentum pitches him forward. She throws her arms up, but he catches himself with a hand on either side of her head, his body weight falling only slightly onto her.

All of a sudden he’s way too close. She can hear his breath, smell the spice and smoke that emanates off him like perfume, feel the sparks dancing across her neck and down her spine. Her own breath catches in response.

Zuko’s still on top of her, staring into her eyes and panting. He’s too close. She can see everything—the whorls of his scar like a thumbprint, the color rising high in his other cheek. The proud outline of his upper lip.

Way too close.

She rolls out from under him, collapsing back into the snow beside him.

Night had finally fallen while they were caught up in their fight. Even so, it’s just as bright as before, if not brighter.

“Look,” Katara whispers to Zuko.

The blue velvet of midnight is woven through with shimmering green ribbons. They undulate as she watches, almost serpentine in their flow.

“What are those?” Zuko gasps.

“The Northern Lights.”

As she says it, the glow sharpens even more. Two dual streams arc above them and reflect off the snow.

She sits up and peeks over her shoulder; the mountains behind them are awash in the ethereal light, and she can see now that the silvery glint from before is a slow-moving stream that ripples emerald behind her.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Zuko breathes. “They’re like…magic.”

“Our tribe called them many things. But you know what my favorite explanation was?”

“What?”

“That they’re dragons.”

He cocks his head, leaving a Zuko-shaped imprint in the snow. “I can see it,” he says slowly. “I can definitely see it.”

“Though the legends never really explained what dragons are doing all the way out here.”

There’s a beat, and then he answers “I can see how a dragon would like it here.”

She’s sure he didn’t mean it like that. But watching him covered in snow, staring up at the northern lights as if enchanted, Katara can see how a dragon would live here, too.

-

The ship is right where they left it, the cove pristine and the waves lapping gently at the hull. It’s the middle of the night by the time they find it again, too caught up in the beauty of the stars and the scenery to make as good time as they had on the way to the city.

Zuko breathes a sigh of relief at the sight of the ship. He hadn’t expected to be back here so soon, if ever, but at least this is familiar and easy in a way that most of their long journey hadn’t been. Even the rope ladder hanging from the side is still in place. When he scales it and jumps onto the deck, aside from a thin sheen of frost, not a single thing is changed.

“Here we are again,” says Katara, coming to stand next to him at the wheel.

He nods. Beyond the mouth of the cave, the ocean glints like a promise. It’s amazing how comforting the water is to him by now. Even within the past month, the anxiety and anger he associates with his war ship has been replaced with the familiar safety of seeing Katara at the bow.

“Do you want to rest before we get going?”

She shakes her head and grabs the wheel. “I don’t feel tired. I want to get there as soon as we can.”

“Are you sure?”

“I’ll be okay. Just point me in the right direction and go get some rest.”

With careful movements, she manipulates the waves to buoy them out of the cove’s entrance, the sea unfolding before them vast and eternal. Zuko turns to the stars once again.

“See that one to your left? It’s big, a little pink. Just above the horizon.”

“Got it.”

“That’s your lodestar. During the summers when I was young, it’d be right above my palace. It’s far west.”

Katara adjusts the wheel, nosing the ship to the left. “I’d be lost without you, oh great navigator. Go take a nap.”

“It’s okay,” he yawns, sliding down to sprawl across the deck. “I think I’ll stay up here.”

She looks down at him. “Really? You can go sleep, you know. I won’t nearly drown us this time. Or get in any naval fights. Promise.”

“It’s peaceful up here. I want to watch the stars.”

Her feet fade out of view for a few moments. There’s a rustling sound, and then she returns and bends down, draping a spare parka over his chest.

“Last time on a ship for a long time,” she murmurs. “Next move we make, we’re on Appa’s back.”

He burrows into the parka’s fur, feeling warm despite the chilly arctic air. The stars keep him company until they blur together and out of focus and finally into darkness.

Chapter Text

They trade shifts throughout the day, Katara too full of nervous energy to sleep for more than a few hours at a time. Zuko, who had slept soundly on the deck despite the cold, keeps her company when it’s her turn to steer. He seems to sense she’s not in the mood for conversation, but he takes care of her in different ways, bringing her food and tea and even rubbing the tense knots out of her shoulders. It takes the edge off her anxiety. It feels good to be cared for, to have someone who knows her well enough to read her moods.

When she does sleep—below the deck to avoid the harsh midday sun—it’s fitful, full of dreams plagued with shadowy figures and indistinguishable voices. Whenever she gets close enough to see one, it vanishes into smoke between her fingertips.

Her thoughts race around in the same tired circles they have since the moment she woke up burning in the forest an age ago: will her friends have been okay without her? Will they be stronger, harder, more grown up? What will they think of Zuko? Will they resent her for taking so long to find them?

Will they even be there?

She’s not as naïve as she was atop the cliffs. Iroh’s intelligence is sound, and she trusts everything that Pakku had told them. But she knows well how much can change in a couple of weeks. If it’s enough to get from Ba Sing Se to the northern tip of the world by piecemeal methods of travel, who knows how far Appa could have taken them?

At least this time they’ve got their contingency plan already laid out, although it does nothing to reassure her.

The third time Katara tries to sleep, the thoughts in her mind are too loud to even let her close her eyes for fear of those shadows returning. She rolls over a few times, but she finds no comfort. The ropes are too rough as they dig into her skin.

With a groan, she slides out of the hammock and pads over to the cabin entrance. The bright light makes her eyes hurt, but it drives the last traces of the shadows away.

“Katara?” Zuko calls, looking back over his shoulder. “Are you okay?”

“Can’t sleep,” she mumbles, plopping down on a crate next to him.

His mouth twists into a frown. “I hope when this is all over, the first thing you do is take a three-day-long nap.”

“Believe me, I do too.” She chuckles hoarsely.

“I’ll steer the rest of the way. You need to save your energy. I have no idea what this place is going to be like it could be dangerous.”

“It’s a temple, Zuko. It’s just a big building.”

“So is the Fire Nation palace.”

“An abandoned temple.”

“We should still be ready for anything.”

She doesn’t have the energy to argue with him, so she falls back against the railing. The sun overhead is relentless; it’s warmer again, the last traces of ice floes around the boat completely vanished, and she’s glad she stripped her parka off before she went to sleep.

“Do we have much further to go?”

“I can’t really tell. The Air Temple locations were all so off on that map that the council gave us. I’m sure we’ll get there today. I’m just not sure if—“

“What’s that?”

Katara peers over the railing at the dark spot in the distance, the only thing she can see on the horizon, nearly obscured by the sun’s glow from the west. It’s impossibly silhouetted by the twilight.

“Uh…” Zuko squints. “I guess the map was really, really off.”

-

It’s clear, the closer they get, that they’re in the right place. The landmass isn’t so much an island as a tower of rock rising out of the sea in a sheer cliff face; it stretches so far above them that even when Zuko cranes his neck, he can’t make out the top.

“How are we going to get up there?” Katara asks doubtfully.

“I guess you can’t just make a really big wave or something?”

She shakes her head. “Not that big.”

“How would Aang have gotten up?”

Katara stares at him like he grew another head. “He’s an airbender, Zuko. He’s riding a flying bison.”

“Oh. Right.”

They both stare at the cliff face in silence as their boat bobs closer, as if hoping it will magically sink down before them. It only grows bigger the closer they get.

“Guess it’s the hard way, then,” Zuko sighs.

There’s no shortage of ropes on deck, and the longest ones, probably spares for rigging the sails, he estimates are just long enough to get them halfway up to the distant top. They’ll have to find a spot with a nice ledge in the center to reset. Securing the ropes will be tougher, but Katara is glad to finally find a use for the terrifying contents of the weapons closet. She returns from the cabin with her arms full of spears, maces, and otherwise spiked instruments, all sturdy enough to hopefully hold some weight.

Zuko had slept well in the fresh air, but he’s worried about Katara. Those dark circles are starting to form underneath her eyes again, and he’s not sure she’ll have enough energy to pull herself up the whole cliff. She’d already said she’d climb below him so that in case either of them fall, she could hopefully soften the impact of the ocean far below; Zuko had hoped to go after her, though he’s not sure there’s anything he could do if she did fall.

She’s strong, he keeps reminding himself. She’s been running around the world for months, and she’s powerful, in great shape, and relentless. Still, he can never quash that overwhelming need to protect her, even when she’s not in direct danger.

“Do we take supplies?” Katara asks, frowning at their pile of belongings on the deck. “The island doesn’t look that big, so it should be fairly easy to find them, right?”

“I don’t know. I’m guessing they really, really don’t want to be found.” Neither of them bring up the other possibility—that no matter how hard they try, they won’t find the airbender or his friends on the island at all.

“Okay, so just basics. I don’t want to strain these ropes too much. Some food, the map…?”

“Sounds good to me,” says Zuko, idly pulling at the knots that connect the rope to the spear.

“Zuko.”

He looks up from the rope. Katara is hunched over the packs, but her hands are on her knees, and her brow is furrowed in anxiety. She doesn’t have to say what she’s feeling, and he doubts she would want to.

“Hey.” He rushes over to kneel in front of her, placing his hands on her shoulders. “It’ll be okay. You can do this. No matter what is—or isn’t—up there, you’ll have me. I’ll be with you the whole time.”

She leans into his touch and closes her eyes for a long moment. When she opens them again, they’re shining with new resolve.

“Okay. Let’s do this.”

-

The hardest part, it turns out, is actually getting the anchoring spears up the ledge they find high above a sweeping bay on the island’s south side. Thank the spirits that Zuko had trained with javelins at the palace; Katara’s got perfect aim and a decent amount of strength from years of hunting, but she’d never tried to throw a spear straight up before.

When it finally clinks into the rock far above and doesn’t yield when Zuko pulls on it, he steps aside, gesturing to her. Katara rolls her eyes. “You first. Get the other one in place and I’ll follow.”

“I’d rather—“

“I’ll be fine,” she says evenly. Zuko looks hesitant, but doesn’t question her.

He does climb slower than she knows he can, though. It’s frustrating how easy he makes it look. Even with the heavier pack and the challenge of finding footholds for them in the sheer cliff, he still pauses partway up to dangle effortlessly from the rope with one foot balanced in a chink in the rock, watching her struggle to make it past the zone where the ocean’s spray is still slick.

It’s really annoying. And quite distracting in a way that makes her want to fall into the ocean and not have to look at him for the next hundred years.

She gets into a steady climbing rhythm, though, and once Zuko sees it he resumes his climb too. They’re lucky the shore’s slight concave keeps them protected from the wind. It’s hard enough as it is; Katara considers herself pretty in shape, especially after all of the running, but this is forcing her to use muscles she’d nearly forgotten she had. Her arms, more accustomed to water than a spear or heavy crossbow these days, tire quickly.

But she focuses on the top of the ledge jutting out high above her and blocks out everything else but the sounds of the waves rushing far below. Her mind, maybe due to exhaustion, has granted her a quiet moment of reprieve, and she intends to take advantage of it.

As she nears the ledge, the rest of the cliff starts to come into focus. There are strangely uniform stalactites dripping off the cliff above them, recessed far back from where the ropes are secured; there’s a huge empty space between the ledge and the beginning of the cliff above, possibly multiple stories high, and Katara doesn’t even want to think about how they’re going to scale that.

One step at a time, she tells herself. Small goals. Easy goals.

“How are you doing?” Zuko’s voice echoes against the cliff.

“Fine. Keep going.”

“We’re nearly there.”

“I know,” she answers, then grits her teeth as she nearly misses her next foothold. Zuko lets go of the cliff with one hand like he could actually help her from so far away.

“I can take care of myself.”

“I know,” he calls back, sounding slightly hurt. Good. This overprotectiveness he’s had with her since Ba Sing Se is starting to feel weird. And besides, she’s supposed to be the one taking care of him.

She reminds him of that when she catches up with him, but Zuko only chuckles. “Neither of us are falling. View’s nice from up here.”

“Not like we can see much.”

The boat below, and indeed the end of the rope she’s climbing on, have all vanished into a thick, soupy fog that appeared seemingly out of nowhere. She hadn’t noticed climbing through it, but up here, it’s undeniable.

“Airbenders are weird,” she mutters, making Zuko chuckle again.

They scale the last few yards with relative ease. Zuko immediately turns to offer Katara his hand when he reaches the ledge; she rolls her eyes but takes it anyway, allowing him to pull her up and over the jagged edge, saving her energy for the next climb.

But there won’t be a next climb.

Zuko curses under his breath, shaking his head in disbelief. Katara’s sure her own mouth has fallen open in shock. It’s not a ledge—it’s a long courtyard stretching back from the cliff, aged but well maintained, with low stone walls and fountains and fire pits and tile paths. And the stalactites aren’t stalactites at all, but spires hanging upside-down in some kind of topsy-turvy, gravity-defying, purely airbender way. Fog curls at the edges, but the plaza itself is miraculously clear. An ancient oasis hidden in the middle of the cliff.

“I guess we’re here,” she says hoarsely.

-

The search is going to take way longer than he’d thought. That’s Zuko’s first impression of the place, before he’s even able to process the sheer scale of it. He’d been so young and so determined the last time he was here that he hadn’t wrapped his head around the place. It’s not one big building like he’d remembered, but too many hanging pagodas to count. There’s no way to navigate between them, as far as he can tell, besides the path that leads into a dim tunnel at the other end of the courtyard. He can’t even begin to guess how much more is hidden in the cliff’s recesses.

“Hello?” Katara calls out. Her voice bounces off the walls, fractures, and is absorbed into the mist.

Zuko takes a couple tentative steps forward. “We should look around,” he says. “They could be anywhere in here.”

“Yeah, there must be lots of good hiding spots.” She adds a small ‘wow’ under her breath as she continues into the plaza, swiveling her head around to try and take everything in. Her eyes are as big as coins and glittering with amazement. Zuko’s breath hitches, and not just because of the temple’s magnificence.

“Do we just head in?”

She’s gesturing at the hallway in front of them, seemingly the only other way off the platform.

He calls up a small flame in his palm and holds it in front of them. It doesn’t do much against the dimness, but at least they’ll be able to see where they’re going.

“Let’s go.”

The air is thick with dust that billows off the floor with each step. At first, the hall is empty, but then doors begin to dot first one side, then the other; some are ajar, shining long, thin cracks of light onto the worn stone. Every other minute, Katara calls out her friends’ names, but all she gets in return is a faint echo.

“What do you think these are?” Zuko asks, stopping to peer at one of the doors.

Katara shrugs. “Bedrooms? Closets? Classrooms? This is so different from everything else I’ve seen.”

He presses on the door gently. It opens without resistance, swinging into a humbly-decorated room; the floor is covered in tatami mats, a bed with moth-eaten covers sitting beneath a window. When he walks in to investigate further, he realizes from the wall of mist outside the window that they must be in one of the hanging buildings. Only the outside is upside-down. From the inside, everything looks perfectly normal. Somehow, he’d expected it to be more…off-kilter.

Which is silly. It’s not like the airbenders are wolfbats that hang upside down while they sleep. And he’s glad for it, because having to rappel through the whole temple would have been even worse.

“Are you coming?” Katara calls. Her voice sounds far away, and when Zuko returns to the hallway, she’s already at the other end with her arms crossed.

“Sorry. This place is just…mindblowing.”

“We can explore later.”

“Wait, Katara. Wait up.”

She’s started walking again, and he has to do an awkward half-jog to catch up with her as she rounds the corner. Her face is set in determination. There’s more there, too: an anxiety that seems to unfold as he watches her, evident in the frown of her lips and the way her hands clutch at her sides.

“Katara.”

“What?” she says tersely.

“It’s going to be okay—”

“I know it is. Don’t treat me like a kid.”

She stalks off again, even faster this time. Zuko doesn’t bother to try and keep up. Not yet, at least. She’ll need some time alone.

The temple might be huge and labyrinthine, but he knows they’re both thinking the same thing. Katara’s friends are smart; they would have heard her shouting by now. Toph would have felt them with her odd earth-sight. There would have been some sign of them—displaced belongings, the giant air bison, lingering smoke.

Either they’re hiding themselves very well until they’re sure Katara and Zuko are alone, or they’re not here at all.

The chances of the former shrink more and more with every passageway and empty plaza. Katara continues to call their names like a mantra with no response. Zuko doesn’t get too close, wary of angering her by hovering. She hasn’t broken out into full-on anger yet or, even worse, that jagged despair he remembers from the Black Cliffs. But he knows she’s close to that edge, and he’s ready to catch her if she falls over it.

It’s an agonizing half an hour before they find anything. He’s lost track of all the rooms and halls and empty squares they’ve ducked in and out of. Katara’s shoulders are coiled with tension. They find themselves standing on a stony platform, sheltered on two sides by the natural cliffs, a far corner across from where they’d started. Katara takes a dismissive glance around and turns to leave again, but something catches Zuko’s eye.

“Hold on.”

She doesn’t bother to answer, just stops before she exits.

At first, it had just been a snatch of white against the far wall, but as Zuko draws closer the texture comes into focus: downy, like the fur that had made up their hoods at the Northern Water Tribe, but scattered in huge fibers.

“Katara,” he calls softly. “Do you think this is Appa’s?”

She’s got her back turned, but at the mention of the bison, her shoulders hunch up around her neck. She turns slowly and walks over to him, her face a mask.

Katara stops to pick up a hair and rolls it between two fingers. Then, abruptly, he sees her shatter.

It’s not tears. It’s worse, in a way; she crumples in on herself, hunching over the pile of bison fur with her hands pressed to the stone. Her breathing is irregular and sounds like her throat is full of shards of glass.

Immediately, he drops down next to her and gets his arms around her. She’s trembling slightly, but all over her body, like a leaf caught in a swirl of wind. Neither of them try to say anything. He just holds her as tightly as he thinks she can bear and waits for her to ride it out.

He lets her break the silence.

“It hurts more,” she says raggedly. She hasn’t cried, and he’s both proud of her and glad for that. “I thought maybe your uncle was wrong or something. Maybe he had the wrong temple. But we just…missed them. Again. All this running and we’re never fast enough. I’m tired of running, Zuko.”

“Maybe they just went on a trip for a few days and they’ll be back,” he offers weakly.

She shakes her head against his chest. “No. Don’t get my hopes up. We have five more days. There wouldn’t be time for that.”

Five days hits him like lightning to the chest, temporarily stunning him. He’d felt the days go by, of course, but he’d been avoiding counting them. He thought they had more time.

“We missed them again. That’s it. We won’t see them again until after the c—” Her voice breaks, and Zuko rubs her shoulderblades—“comet. We just have to trust them and your uncle’s plan.”

Just as quickly as she had broken, he can see her scrambling to recompose herself. Her face falls back into a mask, but he can still feel her shoulders shaking against his chest. She’s still talking, too: “We’ll have to train, we can’t let them down—”

“Katara.”

She falls silent.

“It’s okay to need a minute. You’ve been through a lot. You don’t have to pretend.”

“I don’t have time for a minute.”

“Yes, you do. I promise you do.”

His fingertips trace aimless patterns across her back; with his other hand, he sweeps her hair out of her face before pressing her cheek to his shoulder. “We have time to train later. It’s okay to be overwhelmed.”

The uneven breathing returns, but the shaking is gone. That’s the part he was most worried about. But by agonizing bit, he feels her melt into him, the tension seeping out of her.

“You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to. But if you do, I’ll listen.”

She doesn’t at first. He feels her breathing slowly even out again, at a more natural pace this time. Then she sits up, but doesn’t pull away from him, curling into his side and folding her hands in her lap.

“Thank you,” she finally murmurs. “I’ve had to be the strong one for so long. I just—I knew this was our last chance, and it scares me, that I won’t see them before…everything happens. I feel like all of this running has been for nothing.”

He takes a moment to absorb her words. He can’t pretend to know how she’s feeling, but there’s a tiny sting that still lingers from the knowledge Uncle Iroh had left the Northern Water Tribe so soon before they’d gotten there, and he’s sure it’s similar.

“I don’t think it’s been for nothing. We helped the people of Ba Sing Se. We liberated those prisoners at the factory. We got the Water Tribe on our side.” We found each other, he thinks, though he’ll never say it. “And for the record, I don’t think you’re weak for being vulnerable sometimes. I think you’re strong no matter what you do. You can be strong and sad, too.”

He holds her for a good while longer than he probably has to, long enough that the brightness fades from the mist hanging thick before them. It’ll be night soon, and he’s sure she’s even more tired than he is; there’s no shortage of places to sleep, but she doesn’t seem to want to move. Still, he’d rather get her to a bed and at least a mattress, since they finally have the option available and she’s going to need a good night of rest.

They both will. Five days chimes in Zuko’s head like a warning bell, and with this last unknown solved, no matter how unsatisfactorily, there’s nothing left to do but face it. He’d let his morning training routines fall behind at the Northern Water Tribe, too anxious about scaring the tribespeople or melting someone’s house to do it, and even though it was only a few days he can’t help the thick, sour anxiety that bubbles up in his throat.

“How are you doing?” he asks, nudging her, and like she knows what he’s thinking, she nods, yawns and stands up.

“Are you coming to bed, too?”

He flushes at the unintended innuendo, even though it should be the furthest thing from his mind right now. “Not yet. But let me come back with you. I’ll grab our things, and I don’t want to lose you in this place.”

They choose rooms near where they’d first clambered up into the temple. The windows face out into the misty void, though there’s not much to see in the darkness Zuko had wanted to train tonight, but by the time he’s hauled their belongings back to the rooms it’s pitch-black outside and he’s too exhausted to even consider a sun salutation.

He lingers in Katara’s room for a while anyway, watching her unpack, before he reluctantly says “well, I’ll go turn in.”

Katara glances up and bites her lip.

“Can you wake me up right at sunrise tomorrow?”

He gives a curt nod and turns to leave, the word “goodnight” forming on his lips.

“Wait. Zuko. This will be our first time not sleeping in the same place since the forest. Did you know that? Except for that night in the jail, and I don’t even want to think about that, but isn’t it funny?”

Zuko considers her, the spectrum of emotions flitting through her eyes, and settles on “I’ll grab my mattress.”

It’s not quite comfortable. But after they say goodnight, the steady, familiar rhythm of her breath in the dark room does more to calm his racing thoughts than anything he could come up with on his own does. Maybe it’s the size and foreignness of the temple; maybe it’s the familiarity of this situation in a world with so many unknown factors; maybe it was today’s reminder that they are well and truly alone for a little while longer. Maybe it’s just her and the way she’s the stable point in the volatile mess swirling around him faster every day. But whatever it means, he’s glad she needs it, too.

Chapter Text

It turns out she doesn’t need Zuko to wake her up at the crack of dawn. The sun does that itself, streaming through the fog in broad rays to land in a golden puddle on the floor of her room. She had fallen asleep nearly the moment her head hit the dusty pillow. There were no nightmares; maybe even the worst answer to her questions is better than the uncertainty.

Even though there’s still a lingering ache in her chest the size of her brother and her friends, everything looks a little better in the morning’s steady glow. Her false determination from the night before has coalesced into something more genuine. Not so much ice, but a current rushing through her veins that drives her to get up and make the most of the little time they have left before it doesn’t matter anymore.

She dresses quickly in a sleeveless summer tunic and leggings. When she goes to pull her hair back into a wolf’s tail, she’s delighted to find there’s enough to braid, so she does so, pulling out to strands to loop above her ears and plaiting the rest out of her way.

As she’s pulling on her boots, Zuko rolls over and blinks up at her blearily. “Hey,” he mumbles through the remnants of sleep.

Katara smiles over her shoulder at him. “Hey. Good morning.”

“You’re awake early.” He sits up, his blanket pooling around his waist, and Katara realizes he’s shirtless. It’s warm in the temple, and she doesn’t blame him for trying to keep cool, but it’s a little distracting.

She tears her eyes back to the laces of her boot, blushing. “You’re awake late.”

“You’re turning into quite the morning person.” There’s a rustle that she assumes is him getting out of bed, and she laughs.

“Nope, definitely still a night owl. Just eager to get going.”

“How are you doing?” His voice drops lower.

She turns back and is both relieved and disappointed to see he’s pulled a shirt on. He’s shaking his shaggy hair out of his eyes, silhouetted by a halo of golden sunlight.

“Better,” she says. “Really, I promise. I feel…focused.”

Zuko catches her gaze and holds it, as if to check that she’s telling the truth, before nodding. “Go get started. You could use that one platform with the waterfall, it’s perfect for you. What do you want for breakfast?”

“Are you making it?”

“Yeah, of course.”

“I don’t know if I trust you with that.” She quirks an eyebrow.

“Your Gran-Gran gave me a few tips,” he retorts, grinning.

“Okay, mister know-it-all. Impress me.”

She laughs as she walks out into the hallway, his call of “oh, I will” ringing after her.

It takes a few dead ends to find the area she’s looking for, but the glow of light at the end of the hallway alerts her to it, and the sound of rushing water soon alerts her that she’s right. She’d stormed through it the night before, too focused on her fruitless search, and she’s only got a vague recollection of it. So when the fresh air hits her and the little stone pavilion unfolds, it stops her in her tracks.

Water trickles from some steady source from an arched bronze dome in a pool, teal blue and tranquil despite the constant movement. It flows over the side and between two pillars to finally drop away into the mist.

Hesitantly, she reaches out, filled with irrational worry that if she moves too fast it’ll destroy whatever is keeping the water’s flow so steady. The water calls to her the way that all water does, but this time it feels a little different—it excites her chi, almost like the blood in her veins is fizzing.

She gently grasps the column of water and pulls it toward her before letting go, as if she’s plucking the strings of an erhu. It vibrates and shimmers in response.

Her self-control snaps, and in the next moment she’s got a whirling belt of water around her. The trickle stops altogether for a moment before resuming, steady as before, and she laughs in pure joy, rotating her hands to drive the water around her faster. She darts forward and brings her hands up; it rushes forward at her command to crash into a pillar. She gathers it back to her and drives it in the other direction.

Katara tries to run through the poses she’d taught herself from the scrolls, but she keeps getting distracted with her own variations, pulling the water this way and that, braiding it together and freezing it in walls. In one moment, there’s a roaring wave; in the next, it’s a frozen slope that she can slide along. She’d been so worried that she would somehow forget everything after having to hide her abilities for such long stretches of time, but she quickly realizes the push and pull of the water isn’t something she could ever lose. It’s second nature. The forms might take work to readjust to, but the way her chi sings in tandem with her element will never leave her.

When she catches a flash of dark hair, she comes to a stop, slightly out of breath. Zuko is sitting by the edge of the pavilion with a tray of bowls and cups. He’s relaxed, one foot dangling over the edge, and smiling lazily.

“How long have you been there?” she pants.

“A while. I didn’t want to interrupt you. What was that thing you were just doing? It didn’t look like traditional waterbending.”

“It isn’t.” She lets the water fall around her, splashing gently at her feet. “It was kind of inspired by Aang’s airbending. He told me about how his element is everywhere, so it’s easier to sort of shape it instead of trying to force it against its nature. It doesn’t work that well with water unless it’s already flowing.”

“I thought it looked great. I’ve never seen it look so…light.”

“I’m not sure it’ll be useful for fighting, really.” She frowns. Here she is, days from the biggest fight of her life, and she’s playing with silly tricks.

But Zuko shakes his head. “I don’t know, it makes sense to me. Water’s got a lot of natural energy. Probably more than fire, actually. Maybe using that energy would make it even more powerful.”

Katara considers the idea. It’s definitely one she’s thought of before, but usually in the context of ocean waves and river currents.

The unnaturally even plunging column of water calls out to her again. She reaches out, nudges her fingers, and combines her push with gravity’s pull.

It slams into the ground hard enough to crack the tile. She grins.

-

Even though he knows she’s probably just hungry, Zuko takes some pride in the way Katara scarfs down the breakfast he made, an attempt at a thick seaweed stew that Kanna had shown him as they packed. He eats quickly too, itching to exercise his own bending after what he had seen Katara do. The bright midmorning sun ignites his veins.

He’s got the training, but he knows he has to focus on the precision, especially if it really is Azula he’ll be fighting. If the comet is as powerful as everyone says, it could have unprecedented effects on his bending—he doesn’t know what to expect. And she’s still his sister, after all. She’s still family.

The only way he’ll be able to fight her is if he knows he won’t kill her. That will take control and precision that he’d been refining for years and still doesn’t have the hang of. So when he sets aside his teacup and rises, the first thing he does is find a sunny spot and breathe in deep, the way Uncle had taught him to do in order to meditate.

Iroh’s voice rings in his head: find your inner spark. Your anger, happiness, wonder, fear. Kindle it carefully.

For him, it had always been anger. Always. Even when he returned home, it was anger—at Azula, at himself, at the entire situation. But even though he’s still got that anger, it’s faded somewhere over the course of the long journey, and he barely even realized it. There’s something else there now: the same fierceness he sees in Katara’s eyes, the heat of the sun, the understanding of the many ways that energy manifests itself across people and worlds.

He reaches for the sun and grasps on.

The morning routine he chooses is one of Iroh’s favorites. Zuko has never appreciated it much until his uncle was gone. It’s slower than most, focused more on maintaining steady, prolonged flames than the usual quick bursts and choppy movements of traditional firebending. He finds himself deviating every few poses, adapting them to be lower to the ground or more fluid. More like Katara’s.

When he comes to a pause in the middle of the routine, he breaks concentration to glance up. On the other side of the fountain, Katara is moving through her own poses, practicing rapid fluctuations between liquid and ice. When she sees him looking, she flutters her fingers at him and then leaps into a familiar move of his: a streaming wall that spans from her hands to the tile below. Instead of flickering and roaring like he’d expected, it wavers and then splashes to the ground.

“Nice,” he calls out, and she grins.

They go on like this, sneaking glances at each other and subtly trading moves, for the better part of an hour, until they both round the fountain and meet each other face-to-face under the sun’s gaze. The flame of one of Zuko’s final poses hisses and sputters out as it meets Katara’s ice.

“Are you all warmed up?” she asks.

“Yeah, I’d say so. What about you?”

Instead of answering, she lashes water at his feet. He has to jump to avoid it and nearly topples into the fountain.

“You sure?” Katara laughs.

Zuko rolls his eyes and smirks before calling up a flame in his right hand. “Oh, I’m sure.”

It’s a dangerous dance. There’s no railing on the platform, and they have to dart around the fountain while they take shots at each other, the mist of fire and water clashing combining with the omnipresent fog to turn everything a little blurry. Still, Katara and her signature blue are unmistakable. Her face shining through the elements is occasionally distracting, but it’s also good practice. If he wants to be controlled enough to fight Azula without mortally wounding her, Katara is the perfect opponent: he couldn’t imagine harming a single hair on Katara’s head.

Normally, under such direct sunlight, he’d have a clear advantage, but the fountain is huge and full of the purest water he’s ever seen. Katara isn’t holding anything back the way he is. Her movements are grandiose, and her water reacts in kind; it sweeps over the stone and leaves everything in its path soaked. She isn’t focusing as much on the ice as she was before, which Zuko is thankful for. Those glittering daggers scare him more than he’d like to admit.

It’s not quite like any other time he’d fought her. Of course, neither is out for blood this time like they had been so many times before, but there’s more to it than that. He finds himself on the defensive more, using walls and whirling shields that feel unwieldy in his hands, and Katara in turn is being far more aggressive with her whips and geysers. She even punches out balls of liquid in a way he’s never seen her do before. That, too, is useful; he’ll need a solid defense if he’s going to hold up against his sister.

There’s a gap when Katara is drawing more water from the well, and Zuko pushes his advantage, dissipating the stream she was bending with a fiery blast. She narrows her eyes, and then the tides have turned and she’s the one blocking, a more familiar if less comfortable role for Zuko to be in. Katara must have picked up more than some philosophy from Aang, though, because she’s light on her feet and very hard to catch off guard. One second, she throws up a vertical wave; the next, she’s vanished behind a wall and springs back out with her signature whips intact.

They don’t spar to defeat so much as to a standstill. Even though they’re both short on stamina after months without real training, it takes a long time; when Katara finally drops her ice shield and holds up her hand, his legs go numb as soon as he stops moving. He slumps against the side of the fountain, already missing the cool relief he got from the residual splash of Katara’s bending.

“Good fight,” she pants, coming to sit on the edge beside him. “Wow, that felt good.”

“You were great.”

“You were too. I don’t know how I’m going to keep up with you when the comet comes.” She bends water over her head, letting it trickle down her shoulders and splash Zuko’s back.

The thought pushes into his mind—maybe it’d be safer if you didn’t try to—but he pushes it away, knowing how angry it would make her.

Katara plows on, unaware. “How are we going to get into the palace? Last time, it took Sokka weeks of planning to come up with those underwater ships. Are they just going to let you back in?”

“Doubtful.” Zuko groans and pushes his sweaty hair out of his eyes. “Especially not if Azula’s calling the shots. She likes being in charge of everything too much. There’s no reason she would accept me back in, not when I’m useless to her now and she’s finally got everything lined up the way she wants it.”

“Did you have other friends in the palace?”

“Not anyone who would defy Azula for me. Only Mai, and she’s—well, I have no idea. Maybe she went back, for all I know.”

He falls silent, focusing on the way the sun hits the stone beyond his feet. He’d more or less managed to hold the worries about Mai at bay since the army stronghold in the Earth Kingdom, but it eats away at him, turning his stomach whenever he’s reminded of her. It’s not that he doesn’t think she can take care of herself—it’s the callousness with which he’d treated her, and the thought that if she’d gotten involved in the whole mess that is the war, it would be his fault.

The agonizing part is the not knowing. The Avatar, Uncle Iroh, Katara’s brother, Toph—even if they’re not here, they’re safe and protected within the spokes of this giant plan they’d set in motion. But Mai, if she truly has defected from Azula and the Capital, could so easily be crushed in the mechanisms of that plan without a place to fit.

“Hey,” Katara says, and he startles out of his thoughts. “We’ll find her. Once this is all over, I’ll help you find her. I know she’ll be okay. She’s dangerous and smart.”

She sounds confident, but the way she won’t meet his gaze and toys with the end of her braid gives her away. She’s nervous about something about the after, too; Zuko just can’t tell what.

“I hate not knowing.”

“That’s the hardest part about all of this.” She smiles wryly. “I feel like time keeps going by and we’re just racing to keep up.”

“But it won’t stop for us.”

“No, it won’t.”

She stands, pulling the water around her feet back into a sphere that shimmers in her hands. “We’ll just have to keep up with it. Ready for round two?”

-

They linger on the fountain platform for another hour, circling each other around it, until Katara thinks she can’t stand the sight of the crumbling pillars anymore. “Time out,” she calls when the sun has gone so high overhead that it’s passed out of sight above the rocky overhand. “Change of scene. Somewhere bigger. And with a less obvious water source; I want to be ready for anything.”

“We’re not going to be attacking from the inside of a volcano. There are ponds,” he yells back from the far edge.

“I wouldn’t put it past your sister to drag us into the heart of a volcano.”

Katara glances around at the other platforms. The ones on their level or below are all roughly the same size, but peeking out above the columns is another that looks promisingly large, if only they could get to it.

Zuko follows her gaze. “Lunch first, then we keep going?”

“Eat quick.”

He doesn’t argue. She’s sure the five-day reminder scared him just as much as her.

Katara doesn’t even bother to stop to eat, just grabs a handful of seal jerky and goes to find a way up. Even if airbenders can fly, there must have been some non-benders that lived here, too, and that means stairs.

Not that they’re very easy to find. She does find them, though, at the back of a long drafty hall full of wooden furniture and mysterious carvings. They spiral upwards dizzyingly, and when she reaches the top, she emerges into sunlight.

It’s not quite the top of the cliff, but she guesses it’s close from the way the wind blows faster and the rock above casts only a short shadow. There are only a few dripping spires; the rest must be below her feet by now.

She spreads her fingers, probing at the edges of the space. There’s no immediate water source, which is good; there’s some kind of reservoir tucked away out of sight at the shady end of the platform, which is better. It’s the kind of infrastructure she’d expect to have available at the Fire Nation palace.

Footsteps echo, but she doesn’t turn, already knowing who it is. “This is good,” she says. She reaches for the water, threading a snake of it out from the reservoir. It’s stagnant and discolored with disuse. Gross, but beggars can’t be choosers, especially if she’s fighting for her life.

“It’s hot up here,” Zuko comments. When he comes around to face her, she blinks, the water wavering. He’s got his shirt off again. The sweat still on his chest from their last match glitters in the sunlight. That is going to be somewhat distracting, she thinks dazedly.

“It’s good up here,” she retorts, only missing a couple beats. “We should get used to fighting in all kinds of environments.”

“If you say so.”

Instead of answering, she just strikes. The stagnant water is a little tough to bend. It does the job, though, and she catches one of his feet in an icy lock. He starts off balance, but Zuko’s a nimble fighter by necessity, and it’s not long before they’re locked in their dance together under the embrace of the sun.

-

Zuko doesn’t think he’s ever fought for so continuously long before. By the time Katara calls it off, the majority of his muscles are in open fiery rebellion. It wouldn’t take much to fall asleep right there on the sun-baked stone. But it’s a good ache, the ache of hard work, and he can feel the embers in his stomach flare a little hotter.

He is also completely drenched. Some of it is sweat; most of it is Katara’s onslaught, clever and relentless. He’s growing to love fighting her in a way he never would have expected. She’s not only a perfectly matched opponent, if not a bit stronger than him in raw power only matched by his years of formal training. More than that, though, it’s really refreshing to get doused every few minutes.

“Wow,” Katara sighs, dragging a wrist across her forehead. “How do you feel?”

“Really, really tired.”

“I could go again.”

“Really?” When he looks up, she’s grinning through her exhaustion, and he rolls his eyes and chuckles. “No way. I need a bath or something. We’re no good if we hurt ourselves practicing and we’re out of the battle before it even begins.”

“Good point. And a bath does sound nice. Or a shower.”

Katara’s voice returns to a more normal timbre after her panting, and her determined grin fades slowly too. “Okay, you go first. I might take a while.”

Once he’s under the cool, steady stream of the vertical fountain, he can feel the ache in his muscles begin to fade. The fresh mountain air swirls around him, the fog curling in tiny fingers at the edge of the pavilion; to his right, the sun just peeks out from the top of the cliff, but the eastern sky is already deep violet.

He takes a deep breath. Clean, smoke-free air fills his lungs. The water on his back is gentle, but persistent. It’s a peace like he hasn’t felt in a long time. Maybe this is what the after will be like, he wonders. He wouldn’t mind that at all. A year hidden away in an ancient temple, surrounded by the elements. And Katara, of course.

It’s unrealistic, but he lets himself indulge in the fantasy for long minutes. Up here, everything seems slower, less persistent than when they’re in the thick of it and running for their lives. Up here, it’s like nothing can harm them.

He spends so long under the water’s cool caress that he’s surprised Katara hasn’t come looking for him. The first stars begin to fade in as he watches. Only then does he reluctantly step out, dry off, and go tell her she can have her turn.

While she takes his place, he gathers up things to make dinner: the food Kanna had packed them, a bronze pot from a drafty kitchen hall, an armful of kindling littered about the hallways. By the time Katara returns, squeezing water from her hair, he’s got a fire merrily crackling under the night sky and a pot of stew bubbling atop it.

She inhales deeply “That smells…actually, pretty amazing.”

“I try,” Zuko mumbles.

“If you grew up where I came from, everyone would probably be telling you what a good wife you’d make.”

He hands her a bowl of stew, feeling his face heat. “I think I’m fine right where I am. Tea?”

They sit in silence for a few minutes, facing the void that the temple drops into beyond their feet. The fog has parted, and he feels closer to the stars than ever before, as if he could reach up and grab one if he wanted.

“Zuko?”

Her voice doesn’t break the silence so much as slide through it gently.

“Yeah?”

“If we win, what do you want to do? After?”

“We both know what I have to do.”

“But what do you want to do?”

Zuko had never heard her talk about the after, much less bring it up of her own accord. Out of respect for her, he’d never tried to push the subject; after their meeting with Chief Arnook, it was obvious what his role would be, and there’s no point considering alternatives that won’t ever happen.

“Just pretend anything could happen. You could do anything. It doesn’t have to be realistic. In fact, don’t make it realistic.”

“I guess…if I wasn’t Fire Lord, I guess the first thing I’d want is to spend some time back home,” he says slowly. “No war, no politics. And I’d still want to help rebuild Air Nomad society. It’s too precious to be lost to time. I’d want to have a hand in helping the four nations coexist and bringing them together somehow. And…I’d want to find out the truth about my mother,”

Katara sucks in a breath. “I thought she was…”

“Yeah, I did too. But during the eclipse, my father said something. He asked me if I wanted to know what happened to her. And I know he was probably just trying to throw me off, but the way he said it—it sounded like he actually knows something. There had always been rumors. I just didn’t think he’d lie to his own son.”

Katara’s hand covers his and stops it from shaking against his knee. “I’m sorry, Zuko,” she murmurs.

“I know how bad this sounds, Katara, especially to you, but it’s almost worse if it’s true.” He feels her flinch. “If she really was out there all this time and she never even tried to find me, not even all those years when I was in exile…I have to know. I have to come to terms with it.”

“I understand,” says Katara. “When my dad left Sokka and I to go fight, it hurt so much that I thought I could never forgive him. I couldn’t believe he’d leave us for so long during the scariest time of our lives. But I understood eventually that he was doing it to protect us. It doesn’t mean it didn’t hurt, but I understood it.”

“I don’t know what she could say to make me understand.”

“You’ll just have to ask her. And I know you will.”

“What about you?” he asks, suddenly eager to get away from the thought of his mother.

“What about me?”

“After. What will you do? You’re a master waterbender, the world will be your oyster.”

Katara takes a long time to ponder the question. Her hand is still on his, her body angled toward him, but her gaze is fixed on the stars.

“I want to travel,” she says finally.

“Anywhere specific?”

“Everywhere. I want to go everywhere.” She takes a deep breath. “For most of my life, I thought my village was all there would be to life. And then suddenly, the entire world was there in front of me. There was more than I could have ever imagined. I got to taste so much of it, but I want to see it when it’s not ravaged by war, too. I want to experience everything that this world has to offer. So I’d travel until I got tired of it, and then I’d want to do something that would make a difference. I’d make sure I could see my family regularly and I’d go wherever I was needed the most.”

“That’s a really noble goal.”

She shrugs. “As long as there are people who need me, I’ll always be there to help them.”

“What about your own dreams?”

“I don’t see why I can’t do both. There will be plenty of places that need help after the war. I’m sure all of us will be busy.”

“It’ll definitely be different.”

“Everything will change,” she agrees softly.

Zuko catches her eyes.

“I hope not everything.”

Chapter Text

The day dawns much the same as the one before it, with one small change: Zuko is awake and stretching when she opens her eyes. She watches him for a few heartbeats as he moves through poses, pulling his arms this way and that. It’s easier to have a partner that takes this so seriously, as opposed to Aang, who would drag his feet at any kind of formal training, or Toph, who would treat every practice session as a game. Training with Zuko is different. Having someone who matches not only her power, but her intensity, too, is a nice change.

When the last of the sleep clears from her eyes and Zuko’s exercises are making her itch to move, too, she rolls out of her bed. He looks up, surprised but not startled.

“I was just about to wake you.”

“Thanks for letting me rest. I needed that.” She yawns, stretching her arms experimentally; they’re definitely still sore from the previous day’s use, but not so much that it’ll slow her down today. If anything, it’s a chance to practice her healing on herself.

Neither of them bring up the previous night’s conversation as they get ready and eat. It was a rare slip for Katara. She’d been trying to avoid the topic, but now she can’t bring herself to regret broaching it. She had been worried that dreams of life in peace would distract her, but instead, they give her something else to fight for.

Not that she needs much more motivation. Even when she begins to run dry midway through the morning, Zuko’s encouragement is enough to revitalize her, and the short break she utilizes to heal both of their minor scrapes and cuts and aches does wonders for the parts of her chi that she’d been neglecting. It’s easy to heal Zuko; doing it on herself is harder, and it always has been, because she has to tear her attention away from the odd sensation of the blood rearranging itself around the pathways she knits back together in herself. Not for the first time, she wonders how closely healing and bloodbending are linked. It’s a thought she won’t let linger for too long; bloodbending is still a terrifying and alluring notion, and with the end of the war and maybe of the world looming, the balance is beginning to tip from the former to the latter.

So instead, she goes a little harder on Zuko than she normally would, imbuing her water with force an letting it slap and sting on the occasion she manages to make contact, though she makes sure never to draw blood.

He needs to be prepared. Azula certainly won’t go easy on him.

Zuko takes it all without complaint and gives as good as he gets. Nearly. Katara still has the sense that he’s holding back just slightly, because nothing ever quite lands on her and she knows it’s not for lack of aim. She doesn’t press him on it, no matter how much she’d like to. He’s always treated her as an equal, but it’s just this one area where he can’t seem to bring himself to fight her like he used to. Maybe he’s scared of reminding her of how they used to be.

They go in circles of clashing and healing, over and over, until she knows both the feeling of his flames washing past her face and his blood pulsing under her careful hands. Zuko is almost entirely silent. Katara doesn’t make much of an effort to start conversation, either. This will be better if they’re not distracted.

The location changes with every cycle of healing as well. The temple offers no shortage of halls and platforms and balconies to practice on, each more breathtaking and precarious than the last; they move between them at random, picking solely based on convenience. Some of them have very little accessible water and Katara has to fight to draw it from pipes and pools and even the air, feeling guilty each time she rips through the ancient rock but not enough to stop. There will be time to rebuild after. Once they’ve won.

They go for hours with barely any food, and by the time they make it to the long, wide, sun-drenched hall at the back of the temple, Katara’s sure they’ve explored at least most of it. It must be at least twice the size of the Southern temple that Aang had showed her. It could house her village twenty times over.

The communality of it all is what strikes her the most. They’d shared great tents and cooking fires in her village both for convenience and company, but nothing like the close proximity of this place. She can envision it as it once was, vibrant with orange and yellow, with just enough pockets of peace to facilitate meditation. A delicate ecosystem fostered on harmony. It’s not one that will be easy to rebuild, but as the temple unfolds itself before her, Katara knows it will be worth it.

-

The hall is lined with windows along one side, empty of most furniture, and adjacent to a large washroom full of rusty but functioning pipes filled with usable water. In other words, it’s perfect for them to stage a mock battle, and as the sun drags lower outside the window and the ache in Zuko’s shoulders intensifies, he finds himself wishing it’ll be one of their last.

Katara doesn’t seem to share the sentiment. She leaps into battle with renewed vengeance when she feels the pull of the mass of her element; they’d been fighting mostly in interior rooms during the afternoon, and sources of power for her had been few and far between. Now, though, she’s got both her arms coated in it and a good deal more skittering around the stone at his feet. Zuko lashes it away and calls up his responding flame.

Their conflicting whips tussle for awhile in midair before he manages to jab at her arm and make her drop one. Unprotected, it’s easier for him to dart in, his steps aided by bursts of flame. It’s easier for him to maintain control in close combat, and he absolutely does not want to harm her.

Katara responds by freezing him before he gets too close. He pitches forward and fires back at her; she skips away, a whirling bubble blocking any harm. When she moves back in, he melts the ice and dives backwards. They never quite touch each other.

He’s more agile, but she can freeze him in his tracks. She’s got more power behind her attacks, but water isn’t as direct as fire and it takes more to do any actual harm. They dart and flash around each other. Zuko loses track of how many times the upper hand flips.

The hall is long, stretching far back into the cliff face, but they fight themselves into a corner, Katara’s back to the only empty wall in the place. It stretches high above them, covered in intricate etchings; it must be the very back of the entire temple complex, because even the sunlight doesn’t reach this far corner. In the dimness, it’s hard to see her movements. He aims based on the snatches of blue.

There is the hiss of fie meeting ice and the diamond flash of the frozen element. His jet of flame crashes harmlessly into the ceiling, and he looks away, readying his next attack.

Except there’s an ominous rumble that halts his hand. It’s the murmur of shifting stone, except it amplifies until the first loud crack splits the air. Zuko feels something hit his head, and he looks up. Dust showers from the ceiling.

“Oh no,” he mutters.

Katara hasn’t seemed to notice what’s coming. She’s caught up in her bending, already melting down her ice shield and reforming it—and she’s directly underneath the rapidly crumbling ceiling.

In a flash, he sees exactly what’s about to happen.

He calls her name, and she looks up, startled, but there’s not enough time; the first huge chunk of rock has already dislodged itself and is about to hurtle to the ground.

He dives, aiming for her midsection, and gets an arm around her to cradle her head to his chest before they hit the ground. In the same moment, there’s a deafening crash. Fragments of stone fly up to rip at his arms and obscure his sight. He clutches Katara tightly, burying his chin in her hair. Her fingers tangling in the front of his tunic is the only sign she’s alive.

It goes on forever, every impact dislodging another one. He pulls them against a wall for protection, but that’s crumbling too, fist-sized rocks raining down on them. Katara is shaking. He covers as much of her body with his own as he can.

When it subsists after an eternity, his ears are ringing and his lungs are filled with dust. He coughs, spitting rock fragments. Beneath him, Katara shifts her grip, clutching his biceps.

“Are you okay?”

He nods. “You?”

“Yes. Thank you for keeping those rocks from crushing me.”

“Anytime.”

He rocks back on his knees and surveys the damage. The hall is in shambles. There’s chunks of stone everywhere, embedded over the floor, and sunlight streams across the mess from a huge hole in the back wall.

Wait.

“What the—” Zuko pushes himself to his feet. Where the back wall had been—at what he assumed was a dead end into the solid cliff face—is a short passage, lit up with daylight at the other end. It makes no sense, though. They’re so far back in the temple that there couldn’t be daylight unless there’s somehow a magical courtyard in the center of the cliff or—

“It goes straight through,” Katara murmurs, coming to join him. She squints against the sudden bright light. “There must be more of the temple hidden on the other side of the island. How did they even build that?”

“The temple must be the whole island. I can’t believe they hid it so well.”

Katara picks her way over the debris to step into the newly opened hole. “This is definitely an intentional passageway. I just have no idea how it links to the rest of the buildings.”

“Be careful,” he calls as she forges ahead. “It could still be unstable.”

A head bob is her only response. Zuko sighs and follows her.

-

Wind gusts about her as soon as she reaches the end of the passage, tangling her hair and nearly making her lose her balance. When she glances up, she sees why: unlike the southern side that Katara and Zuko had entered on, this cliff face is completely unprotected as the island curves back on either side of her. The overhang is similarly shallow. There’s a lack of ornamentation; the only human touches are a series of pillars laid out in an irregular pattern along the long, narrow edge and what looks like a cave recessed into a rock face at one end.

“What was this for?” Zuko murmurs, appearing at her elbow.

Katara shrugs. “I have no idea. I’ve never seen anything like it at the other temples.”

“Neither have I. These columns are placed so oddly. And what’s that?”

Her gaze follows his gesture to find what he’s pointing at. It’s hard to make out anything at first, but then she sees the snatch of crimson against the gray monotony of rock. If it wasn’t a long-abandoned and untouched Air Temple, she’d say it was Fire Nation red.

As they draw closer, it takes on a lumpy shape. The red pools over the ground like spilled blood between the pillars. She realizes, after squinting, that it must be fabric, but it’s raised in the middle. Something is hidden beneath it.

Then Zuko sucks in a sharp breath, and Katara whirls, already preparing to attack. “What?”

But he’s just staring at the patch of red. “It’s a Fire Nation war balloon,” he says hoarsely. “It must be.”

“A what?”

“We use our bending to make them fly. They carry soldiers.”

“Is it a trap? Are there soldiers here?”

“I don’t know.” He frowns, hands raised and ready to bend as well, but she can’t see any movement whatsoever and the ledge is silent aside from their voices. “I don’t see anywhere they could hide, and this would be a really strange place for an ambush. But be careful.”

There isn’t any natural water here, and she hadn’t brought any with her from the inside of the temple. All she’s got is the little pouch her Gran-Gran had given her in the north, and it’s half-empty. Still, it doesn’t seem like a trap to Katara, not in a hidden spot like this. It’s too calm.

When they reach the pool of crimson fabric without fiery destruction raining down on their heads, Zuko releases a huge sigh, but Katara is too curious to waste time on relief. How could a single Fire Nation war balloon have gotten here? It makes no sense.

She kneels down, spreading her hands over the fabric to move it out of the way and see what’s beneath, but she’s surprised to hear something crunch beneath the folds. Frowning, she digs through them until her fingers brush a different kind of smoothness. She draws it out to see that it’s a scroll.

It isn’t tied, unfurling in her hands already as she pulls it out. The paper is still creamy and supple; it can’t be too old, because it doesn’t wrinkle at the edges the way her waterbending scrolls had.

“What did you find?” Zuko asks, peering over her shoulder.

But she doesn’t answer. She’s unrolled it, and her breath stops the moment she sees the first words on the page.

Dear Katara.

-

The handwriting is too small to make out anything over Katara’s shoulder. But from the way she’s gone completely still, Zuko knows it must be either really good, or really, really bad.

“Katara,” he says, but she doesn’t answer, her eyes roving rapidly as she mouths the words. He’s about to ask her again—to at least give him an idea of if someone is dead—but then she begins to speak.

“‘Dear Katara,’” she reads, her voice shaky. “‘I’m going to have to make this brief, so sorry for the bad handwriting. Azula found us and we’ve only got a few minutes.’”

Azula?” He reels back.

But she doesn’t pause. “‘We’ve heard rumors from Piandao and some other people in the White Lotus that you and Zuko are traveling together. If you trust him—and if you trust him, we all do—then you need to get him to the Fire Nation Capital on the day of the comet. That’s the day they’re going to crown Azula the Fire Lord. We’re training Aang to go stop Ozai, wherever he is, but Zuko needs to be in place. He’s got some firebending training from Iroh but he’s still got a while to go.’”

Her voice is trembling now. Zuko holds her shoulders, trying to ground her; he’d offer to read the letter himself, but it’s hers and he wouldn’t take that from her and besides, her hands are clutching it so hard he’s not sure she’d be able to let go of it.

“‘I’m worried, Katara. We all are. But we’ve all got parts to play in this, and we’re going to do our best. If you trust Zuko to take over the Fire Nation, get him to the Capital. The White Lotus is taking care of everything else.’

“‘I’m writing this two weeks before the comet. We’re taking Appa and going to some island in the Fire Nation now. Mai said Zuko would know the place.’”

“Wait.”

Katara has finally paused, which is good, because he thinks he might pass out.

“Can you read that again?” he asks faintly, stumbling over his words.

Gentle hands are pulling him down to kneel beside her. “‘Mai said Zuko would know the place,’” she reads again. She lays the scroll down in her lap. “Zuko, Mai’s with them. She’s okay. They’re all okay.”

How?” As hard as he tries—and he’s trying pretty hard through the swirling fog of shock—he can’t figure out how Mai would have ever crossed paths with the Avatar, much less ended up dictating their travel path. Mai said he would know the place. An island in the Fire Nation—

“Ember Island. That’s the only place he could mean.” Zuko clutches her shoulder, the dizziness not quite gone. Nothing has fully sunk in; he still feels like this must be a dream, or else a cruel joke. Mai, alive and with the Avatar? “Does it say anything else? How was she? What are they doing?”

Katara shakes her head. “All that’s left is—‘I love you, sis. I’ll see you soon. S—Sokka.’” Her voice cracks.

“Two weeks before. And it’s four—Agni, only four—days now. So ten days ago they were here. Katara, they were right here. With Mai.”

She’s still staring blankly at the sheet of paper. Zuko has to turn her cheek towards him to break her trance. “They’re all okay,” he breathes, and he sees the same smile he feels on his face blossoming across hers’.

Abruptly, she throws her arms around his neck. Zuko wraps around her and can’t stop shaking. Mai’s okay.

“Ember Island,” she says, her voice muffled by his tunic. “How close is it?”

“Across the ocean. A few days by boat, but we’ve got this.” He fists a hand in the fabric of the balloon, the silk cool and sturdy against his skin.

“First thing tomorrow?”

“First thing tomorrow.”

She pulls back to look him in the face. He’s unsurprised to see her eyes are shining with unshed tears.

“It’s all going to fall into place.”

-

If she could, she would leave that night. The minute she finished reading the letter. But darkness is already falling by the tie they get back inside to gather up their belongings, and the thing Zuko had called a war balloon is intimidating, especially once he explains how it works. Katara hasn’t come all this way to die by hurtling into the sea from thousands of feet up.

So she and Zuko use the last hour of daylight to make one last trip to their faithful pirate ship, hauling anything they can carry that might be useful up the cliffside with them, before collapsing out of exhaustion in the courtyard. The moon is rising, and her very bones are aching. Intensive practice and the jarring cave-in combined with the emotional upheaval of the letter is enough to make her want to sleep for a week.

She doesn’t, of course. Katara will have plenty of time to sleep when this is all over. She folds and unfolds the letter as they make dinner, keeping it pressed to her ribs where her mother’s necklace used to rest when she’s not rereading it. It’s short enough that she’s practically memorized it by the fourth time, but she still pulls it out, the familiar shape of Sokka’s scrawl enough to light a warmth in her stomach like a bonfire on a long winter night.

Zuko is nearly buoyant. A weight is gone from his shoulders that Katara hadn’t even noticed was there; it’s one thing for to finally get word of her friends after hearing about their state from the Chief and Pakku, but it must be an entirely different one for him when he hadn’t even known if Mai was alive. It’s the push they both needed at exactly the time they needed it.

They elect to eat outside again, beneath the cool clear light of the stars. Even though she’s eager to leave for the Fire island, Katara realizes she will miss this place. In two short days, it’s already begun to feel homelike, tranquil in its beauty and full of a lifetime of secrets. She’s ready to see her friends again, but she’s not sure she’s ready to rejoin the real world. Up here in the clouds, if felt like nothing could hurt them. No Fire Lord, no comet, no war.

There’s also a niggling voice in her head that says ten days is a long time. You know this. After so many false hopes, she’s wary of getting her spirits up, no matter how good of a lead this is. Ten days is a long time, especially with only four to go before the day they’ve been waiting for. Sokka and Pakku both spoke of some plan that would be set in motion, and though she knows where she and Zuko fit into it, she has only the vaguest idea about everyone else. Her stomach is too nervous to eat much, even though it’s familiar food from her childhood. Zuko had pulled out all the stops with the recipes her Gran-Gran had given him, it seems, and she appreciates his effort, but she’s too full of thrumming energy to fit anything else in her body.

“Is it not good?” Zuko asks, glancing at her full bowl. Katara shakes her head and explains.

“Yeah, me too.” He sets his own dinner aside. “It’s a lot. All at once.”

“It’s so hard to know that all of this is going on around me and I can’t help them. That’s the big thing. Imagining them doing all of this on their own.” There’s more, too, a worry that she’s tried to push down but can’t: the idea that, after all this time apart, they might not need her anymore.

“They sound like they know what they’re doing.” She winces, and Zuko backtracks. “I mean, I know it must be hard. But it’s like your brother said in the letter—we’ve all got our place in this, and all we can do is the best we can with that part. I know you didn’t ask for this, Katara, and neither did I. But they’re depending on us and we’re depending on them and all of us are depending on the White Lotus and we just have to go and—we have to do our part.”

She sighs. “I’ve never been good at staying in my place.”

“I can tell.” Zuko’s face crinkles in a familiar smile. “But after this, you’ll be free. You can do anything you want to do.”

Talking through it has assuaged her fears a bit. She picks up her bowl again.

“I do trust you. Just so you know.”

“What?”

“What Sokka wrote in the letter, about taking you to the Fire Nation if I trust you to be a good Fire Lord. I do trust you. I think you and Aang are the best shot at peace this world has.”

Zuko bows his head. She’s going to have to cut his hair before he goes into battle so that it doesn’t fall into his eyes while he fights, no matter how cute it is.

“You don’t know how much that means to me, Katara,” he says. His voice is thicker than she’d expected.

He takes a deep breath and looks up through the dark fringe. “I’ve just tried to do what I thought was right. I never understood why it wasn’t working. When I returned to the Fire Nation and I saw how wrong everything I’d been taught was, I didn’t think it could ever change. I didn’t know what to replace it with. But if someone like you, who I’ve wronged so much, can forgive me, then I think I can see. It’s understanding and teamwork.”

Her throat is tight, but not in the same way as it is when she cries. Now is not the time at all. Now is the furthest from the right time it could be.

But the world might be about to end. Is there ever a right time, when they’re at war?

The potential in Zuko lays itself out in front of her. His strength and gentleness, vulnerability and courage, maturity and empathy. His respect for others, his willingness to trust, his strange form of patience—a quiet one that radiates in her own moments of insecurity. The marks of a great leader, and of a great partner. The kind of person she wants by her side through the end of the world and to help her up while the dust settles.

His job is to secure the future. Hers is to get them both there and to the other side. Katara knows what she wants of Zuko, as dangerous as it is to admit it to herself when there’s still so much that could go wrong. But she hasn’t let herself want in so long that she’s forgotten how it feels to put herself first.

Four days until the end. She’ll get him to the other side. And she knows, like she knows water and spirits and love, that his golden eyes will be there in front of her after it’s all settled, one way or another. They’ve been through too much together.

Katara sets the feelings aside for now, just as she does each time, but she knows they’ll come bubbling up stronger. It’s harder to lock it all up with so many other emotions swirling inside her. But there isn’t much time left, and it’s easier to set her mind to the goal of protecting Zuko when she knows exactly how important he is to both the world, and to her.

He's watching her still, rubbing his neck in the way he always does, and Katara absentmindedly takes hold of his arm to still his hand. “We’re the future,” she says quietly.

He nods. “I know. Isn’t it scary?”

“It is. But it’s kind of exciting, too. We’ve got a chance to do this right.”

“I’m going to count on you to help me.”

“And you know that I will.” She squeezes the crook of his arm.

“I do know.” Zuko’s eyes are soft. Molten like sunlight on ice. “Katara…”

“Yes?”

“Nothing,” he says, turning away.

“You can talk to me.”

She feels, rather than hears, the staggering breath he takes reverberate through his body. “You’ll stay with me in the after?”

“Of course. We’ll all stick together.”

“Soon, then.”

He doesn’t turn back fully, but the way he moves his head flips the bangs out of his face, and suddenly in the starlight she can identify the expression: longing, tempered with just a tinge of hope.

If the situation were different—if the world were different—maybe she’d tell him, right then. But he’s right—soon. The world comes first. She freezes the moment, his face, in her mind and vows to thaw it when the time is right.

Chapter Text

They’re up and moving with the first rays of the sun, both too restless to sleep well. All of their possessions had been packed the night before, and it’s a simple matter of throwing his Water Tribe summer tunic on, splashing water over his flushed face, and shouldering his swords and pack before Zuko is ready. Katara takes a moment to braid back her hair, when seems to have gotten long enough to be a nuisance again; she probably knows even better than he does how vicious the winds can be at high altitudes and speeds.

The temple around them is silent as they pace through halls patterned with early-morning sunlight. The century of dust they had kicked up with their fighting and exploring has settled into new patterns. The rubble of the previous day’s cave-in is still strewn across the hall, but it’s less imposing in its stillness; something in the way the rays of filtered sun fall across the jagged silhouettes reminds Zuko of the Earth Kingdom canyons they’d left behind, so beautiful and yet so full of secrets.

Next time he returns to this place, Zuko hopes he can shatter the silence. It hangs heavy now, like the whole place is holding its breath, waiting to come alive with the vibrancy of life and learning again. As it is now, it’s beautiful but solemn. A relic encased in a mountainside. But the same feeling of peace fills Zuko that he had felt at the mountain shrine, and the same strange reluctance to leave lingers as well, despite his eagerness to follow the clues Mai and Sokka had left them.

It’s such a short time until the conclusion of all this, he reminds himself. He’ll be back before he knows it. As long as he can make it through everything else first.

There’s an agonizing moment, once they reach the ledge on the temple’s north side, where Zuko thinks he won’t be able to start the balloon. Katara hunts through the silk and canvas for the wicker basket and then dutifully holds the fabric away from Zuko’s open flame, but try as he might, the combustion furnace buried in the basket’s heart won’t spark.

He groans, shooting bigger and bigger flames at it out of frustration, until Katara grabs his arm and he stills.

“You’re going to destroy it,” she says, but there’s no malice in her words, only patience. “Don’t make it bigger, make it more concentrated.”

Zuko closes his eyes and takes a deep breath. He reaches for the ember warming his chest. Maybe he should have done at least some of a morning meditation, but it’s too late for that now—he takes the spark, molds it into what he needs, and pushes it out through his palm.

The red dome swells quickly once the heat accumulates. It’s already hovering off the ground by the time they get it to the edge, and Zuko has to boost Katara up by grabbing her waist. She scrambles over the edge before reaching out for him.

He takes another steeling breath, grabs her wrists, and kicks off from the cliff.

The balloon lifts off as he topples into the basket. It clears the island’s rocky top with ease, lifting straight up toward the sun as if yearning for the source of its power. Beside him, Katara is exclaiming her excitement, peering over the basket’s edge.

“How does it work? How do you steer it? Is it going any higher?”

Her enthusiasm is almost childlike, and Zuko laughs, a surge of warmth toward her filling his belly. “Our imperial technicians developed them. The heat of the air in the balloon is so much lighter than that outside it that it makes the whole thing rise. It can’t go too high or the difference in temperature between the balloon and the air damages it, plus the clouds mess with the science of it or something. We’ll stay at this height. I’ve got a rudder to make sure we don’t go off course.”

“Wow.” Katara sighs as they rise over the top of the island. The great glittering expanse of the sea stretches out like a diamond-studded blanket. From here, Zuko would never be able to guess at the secrets the cliffs hold from the eyes of explorers; he guesses that’s why it’s survived so intact. The airbenders were ingenious in that way—and many others.

“Sokka would love this,” Katara says reverently. “He’s so interested in the way the world works. I bet he’d try to figure out how to make them on a bigger scale for whole groups.”

“We’ve got those already. They’re warships.”

Her expression turns gloomy. “Oh.”

“But after,” he rushes on, desperate to salvage her previous excitement, “I’m sure he can come to the palace to work with our scientists on using them for mass air travel or something similar. It’s been so long since scientists and technicians from different nations have worked together. Who knows what could happen when all that intelligence is combined?”

“Communication,” Katara sighs, her sudden sadness forgotten. “Huge cities. Instant travel. No more hunger…”

“All of the energy we’ve been using to further this stupid war going towards things that will help everyone.”

Her happiness dawns across her like a sunrise. Zuko watches her eyes glitter; he imagines he can see the possibilities reflected in them.

“When I was little,” she says, turning back to the basket’s railing to look out at the rolling waves, “before my mother died and before I really understood the war, I thought the worst thing about my home was that it was so small. I loved everything else about it—but even there, when I didn’t know anything really about the rest of the world, I didn’t see how that could be it. I wanted to know what else there was. Now that I’ve seen it, and it’s even bigger and more wonderful and dangerous than I imagined—there’s so much potential. There’s so much for everyone to learn.”

Zuko nods. “I knew about the outside world, but I didn’t understand it, either. Everything I was taught in childhood was about how the Fire Nation was superior and we had to help everyone else up to our level. It’s going to take a lot to break that mindset in some people.”

“It’s easier to understand other cultures once you know people from them.”

“I’m not sure how willing some of them are going to be to mingle with other cultures. We’ve been so isolated…”

“We’ll just have to lead by example, then,” Katara says firmly. “I know there are good people in the Fire Nation. You’re one of them. You, me, Aang, Toph—if we stand together, benders from all four nations, what could be stronger than that?”

Zuko looks out at the world below them—the shining, endless sea, the punctuating islands, the faraway promise of green that is his home, the clouds hanging low and full around them. So much beauty that it’s almost unimaginable it could coexist alongside so much violence and pain.

It had taken so long, but the more he looks, the more good he sees around him. Maybe Katara’s right. Maybe the rest of the world just needs to see that good, too.

-

Being among the clouds without Appa is disorienting. The wind moves differently around them; the balloon shakes and tilts more than Appa ever did, far more vulnerable to the air’s whims without the training or biology to move with it. For the first hour, Katara’s not entirely convinced they’ll make it to the faraway island.

But Zuko tends the flame carefully, making sure they never rise too high or dip too low, and before she knows it, the mist-stranded isle that conceals the Western Air Temple is lost to the ocean’s blue. It’s hard to tell how quickly they’re moving, so far above the world and with so few landmarks to gauge it by, but she estimates it’s a bit slower than a fully-rested Appa.

“How long before we get to this island?”

“At this rate?” Zuko pumps another tongue of fire into the furnace. “Before nightfall, definitely. I don’t think the temple is too far from the Fire Nation—not the northern bit of the main island, at least.”

“And where’s Ember Island?”

“It’s in the middle of the outer island chain. We won’t have to go over any heavily guarded territory, so it should be easy.”

“We thought the same thing about the trip to the North Pole,” Katara grumbles. “And crossing the canyon to Ba Sing Se, and the ocean to the Earth Kingdom, and—”

“Okay, okay, I get it. It’s been a long journey.” Zuko holds his hands up in surrender, a wry smile on his face.

Really long.”

The wind whips at Katara’s hair; she’s glad, this high up, of her Water Tribe parka keeping her warm. Soon it’ll be back to that oppressive, muggy heat she’d left behind so long ago.

“How do you feel about going back?”

Zuko sighs. “Well, I was hoping I wouldn’t have to return until I know my father didn’t have power over the country anymore. But Ember Island is quiet. It’s a resort island for nobles. Nobody would be looking for fugitives there, especially not now. It was smart of Mai to take them there—it’s like they’re hiding in plain sight.”

“Do you know where on the island they’ll be?”

“We’ve got a house.” Zuko winces.

“What?”

“My family. The royal family. We’ve got a vacation house there.”

Katara stares at him, dumbfounded. “I thought your house was in the Capital. And that it’s a palace.”

“It is. We’ve got more than one. It’s for when the Fire Lord has to visit different areas of the nation.”

“But that’s what inns are for.”

“The royal family of the whole nation can’t just stay in an inn,” Zuko splutters.

“Why not? Everyone else does.”

“It’s not—it’s not safe! I don’t know, we have a bunch of them. All the nobles do. It’s just how it is.”

“And yet there’s a whole horde of kids living on the streets of Ba Sing Se,” she says darkly.

Zuko drags a hand down his face. “Look, Katara, I never said I liked it. That’s just how it is.”

“What about after the war?” Katara purses her lips. “There’ll be a lot of people who need places to live, if the Earth Kingdom kicks the Fire Nation out. Which they probably will.”

“Sure. Yes. I won’t need five houses. I’m sure we can do something useful with them.”

-

He’s desperate to get her off the topic, because to be honest, it’s something that’s always bothered him a bit too. He knows there are rooms in their own palace that aren’t even regularly used. The casual waste of space that will only be in use for a few weeks a year has always struck him off guard, but Ember Island is different from the rest of the grand, impersonal mansions littering the nation’s islands that he remembers from his youth. Ember Island has better memories. Even imagining Katara’s friends in it now, poking around at all the places he’d poked as a child, is turning his stomach in an irrational way. Picturing Katara there is a little easier, but still off somehow.

There’s no denying it’s an ideal hiding place, though, and the perfect base of operations from which to launch an invasion on the capital in total privacy. The island’s sure to be emptying out so close to the end of the summer. And besides, nobody has time for a vacation with a war raging around then.

The air around them warms in increments the farther south they move. The water below shifts from cerulean to the sparkling aqua of his childhood; in the distance, if he squints, Zuko thinks he can see the white curve of sandy beaches farther west in the island chain.

He’s officially home.

He jerks the rudder to avoid them, not wanting to tempt fate with flying over his nation’s territory if they don’t have to. The balloon isn’t very agile and doesn’t have much in the way of evasive maneuvers. It’d be just his luck for them to come all this way only to get shot down by a lousy fireball a handful of days before the most important fight of their lives.

Zuko sighs, turning back to Katara. He doesn’t particularly want to think about that, either.

She’s wearing a worried expression that he’s sure is similar to his own, but her eyes are searching the waters below them. “What’s on your mind?” Zuko asks.

Katara’s shoulders slump. “I don’t think they’ll be there.”

“At Ember Island?” He doesn’t have to ask who she means.

She nods. “If Ozai is planning on attacking the Earth Kingdom during the comet, and Aang is going to fight him, and there’s so little time left, I don’t see why they wouldn’t be there already. Especially if the White Lotus is gathering, too. I’m just so tired of being disappointed.” Katara’s voice falters.

“I kind of thought the same thing,” Zuko admits.

“We’re not going to see them before the battle, then.”

“We might not.”

“We’re going to have to do this on our own.”

She sounds small. Not just because of how quiet her voice is, but because of the way she hunches in on herself, her usual confidence and optimism trailing off into empty space. It’s totally at odds with the Katara that Zuko knows.

“Not alone,” he says. “We’re going to have each other.”

-

She’s right.

They touch down on soft white sand just before twilight begins in earnest. The air is hot, but drier than she’d expected for the seaside. They face no problems flying in or landing. In fact, they don’t see a single other soul.

Zuko’s aim is true, and the spot they land is only a handful of yards from the house he points out as his family’s. It’s tall and open, the dark wood and red eaves contrasting against the vibrance of the island foliage, but it’s not intimidating. They drag the balloon up the sand to the path leading to stairs cut into the hill. Beneath the house, supported by slim stilts, is a dark crawl space into which they shove the telltale fabric.

“Well, this is it,” Zuko announces quietly.

The door swings open without resistance when she pushes on it. It’s too dark inside the entrance to see much, but Zuko seems to know his way around instinctively, finding a lantern ensconced in the wall and lighting it.

It’s pristine in the flickering light. Not a single thing is out of place, from the bamboo mats on the floor to the gold trinkets gracing the tops of the cabinets. It doesn’t look lived in at all.

“Hello?” Katara calls, but she already knows she won’t get an answer.

It hurt the most at the temple. She’d gotten her hopes up so high that she didn’t think she could raise them any more; now, all she can feel is numb. Of course it was another near miss. It would just be too easy for them if something went right for once.

“They were here,” Zuko says.

“How do you know?”

He gestures to the wall behind her head, right next to the doorway. Not everything is in place. There’s a sharp bit of silver embedded in the wallpaper, its silhouette a familiar shape. A shuriken.

“Mai definitely didn’t leave that last time we were here.”

“Do you think it’s a sign?”

“It must be. She’s too careful to leave something like that by accident, and it doesn’t look like there was a fight in here.” Zuko frowns and ponders the shuriken. “I just don’t know what it means, though.”

“Do you think it’s not safe here?”

He shakes his head. “It’d be more obvious if that was it. I think she just wanted us to know they were here.”

“Maybe they left another letter,” Katara says. “But they hid it in case anyone else were to come. Is there somewhere she’d hide something and know that only you would find it?”

“In the palace? Yeah. But here, I don’t…” Zuko casts about the scantily-lit hallway. “I don’t know. I’d have to think.”

“Maybe you should eat.”

Katara lays a gentle hand on Zuko’s shoulder. His eyes cease their roaming to land on her.

“I bet you’re tired. I am,” she continues. “Will they still have food here?”

He nods jerkily. There’s a tenseness in his shoulders that she can feel under the fabric; he’s nervous about something. But he’d said he didn’t think they’re in danger, and Katara trusts him.

“Okay. Let’s go do that, and then we figure it out.”

It’s not like they’re here anyway. We’re not in a rush.

Of course she doesn’t say that, though. She lets Zuko lead her through the dim, sleek halls. As they go, he lights lanterns along the way; the house shapes itself out of the puddles of light into a richly-decorated space. It’s not exactly cozy, but it’s still more homelike than Katara would have expected. She’d assumed it would only be a smaller version of the metal-clad palace she remembers from the Day of Black Sun. But instead, wood creaks underfoot and carpets and tapestries muffle the sound of their movements. The interior seems to wrap around a courtyard, illuminated through rows of windows by the dying rays.

The dining room is intimidating, with high-backed chairs and a table set with heavy golden cutlery as if waiting for an imminent flood of guests. Zuko leads Katara right past it, though, and through a side door obscured behind a silk curtain. She finds herself in a cavernous kitchen.

“Okay.” Zuko flicks his wrist, and a cluster of tiny flames shoot off in different directions to land in braziers. The light burns lower and steadier than in the hallways. The effect, despite the echoing stone and metal surrounding them, is one of comfort.

“So they’re definitely not here. They would have heard us.”

Katara’s stomach lurches, but she nods, knowing she shouldn’t have expected anything else. She turns to the floor-to-ceiling cabinets and starts rifling through them. “So what’s the next move?”

“We have two more days.”

Her stomach turns again, harder and quicker this time.

“Unless we find something that contradicts it, we go along with the plan. Nothing changes. We train, we make sure we’re ready. We head inland the day before the comet, because I don’t want to risk anything during that day. Who knows what kind of security Azula will have installed on her coronation.” Zuko rakes a hand through his hair. His other arm is braced on the countertop; he looks worn down in a way Katara hasn’t seen him before, but the same quiet fire still burns within him too.

She pulls out an armful of ingredients from the cabinet—dried noodles, taro roots, some kind of red flakes that she has a vague memory of Zuko liking from their last journey through the Fire Nation islands—and sets them down in front of him.

“So nothing changes,” she says. “That’s a good thing. This is what we’ve been training for.”

“I just—I don’t know.” Zuko slams his other hand on the counter. His shoulders bunch up around his ears.

“Talk to me,” Katara says quietly.

“Azula.”

“What about her?”

He lets out a shuddering breath. “She’s still my sister. No matter what, she’s always my sister.”

“We don’t have to kill her, Zuko.” He flinches at the word kill, but Katara goes on. “We just have to…subdue her. Well, I don’t know, actually. We don’t have to kill her, right?”

“No. But we have to defeat her, and she won’t surrender. It’s not in her blood.”

Zuko’s jaw clenches. Katara brushes aside his bangs, but he still won’t meet her eyes.

“There’s something you’re not telling me.”

He just shakes his head. His hair falls back into his eyes.

“Zuko—”

“It’s complicated,” he grits out. “There are rules to this. Ancient laws. We could anger the spirits. Or worse, the people.”

“You’re still the heir. No matter what your father says. You’re still the crown prince.”

Zuko sighs. “I just hope that’s how everyone else sees it, too.”

-

Of course, he doesn’t tell her all of the rules. Not the ones that dictate what a Crown Agni Kai entails—the official witness, the one-on-one duel. The intricacy of alternates and boundaries and defeat versus death.

He doubts Azula will wait to hash out the parameters of the battle with him on the day he shows up to take her crown. He also doubts that if Katara heard them, she’d go along with them. The care she has for him is one of the only things keeping hope alive in his chest right now, but it has its downside in times like these. She’s not someone who will sit back and watch her friends fight for their lives. It’s one of the many things he admires about her, and also what’s going to make the day of the comet so much more difficult.

Zuko watches her make dinner, mashing the taro root with practiced ease. Somehow, despite the disappointment that he’s sure is familiar to her by now, Katara seems lighter than before. The furrow of her brow, nearly omnipresent in the last couple of weeks, is smoothed away; her limbs are loose, her mouth relaxed. Standing there, caught up in such a domestic act, gives Zuko a glimpse of the future. Not the whole future, of course, because Katara is a storm that can’t be contained in a bottle or a house or a single nation. But the peaceful moments. The possibilities.

He makes tea, and he knows what his mission is when the comet comes, the one he won’t tell anyone. This world is for her. It needs her bravery and kindness, her compassion and her hope, more than it needs any boy who’s only a part of the conversation because of a crown put on his head the day he was born. She’s been tasked with protecting him until he can fight his sister. But she’s the one the world will need after, no matter how the battle ends.

She’s the one he’ll need after.

-

He’s silent as he makes tea and then joins her at the stovetop. Zuko’s movements are all self-assured; he reaches for ingredients from instinct and knows his way around some of the stranger Fire Nation spices better than she could ever guess. When they’re done, she perches on the counter to eat. He leans next to her.

He still hasn’t said much. There’s obviously something on his mind, but Katara’s pushed him enough. If he wants to talk about it, she thinks he will. She’s told him so enough times.

So instead, she changes the topic.

“Did you come here a lot when you were growing up?”

Zuko bobs his head and swallows a mouthful of noodles. “Every year. Sometimes multiple times a year.”

“Just your family?”

“Extended family. My uncle and my cousin when I was really young. And friends sometimes—I came out here with Azula and Mai and Ty Lee just before I left.”

“It seems really peaceful,” Katara says. “Like an escape.”

Zuko nods again, but it’s absentminded, and his attention has fallen back to his noodle bowl.

Katara leaves him to his thought and looks around the kitchen. She can envision a tiny version of Zuko toddling around the red tile floors and crashing into cabinets, his kind-eyed uncle and a faceless woman watching him.

Of course. It must be difficult for him to talk about his childhood when half of his family is gone and the other half hates him.

She sets aside her bowl gently. “Memories are weird.”

He doesn’t look up at her, but she goes on anyway. “My childhood memories are bittersweet like that, too. I want to remember my mom, and honor her legacy and her love, but it hurts so much sometimes. I feel like I’ll never be able to be happy like that again.”

“It’s just so—” his chin falls to his chest. “Complicated.”

“Everything is complicated,” Katara agrees, swallowing past the lump in her throat.

They stay like that for a moment, heat from Zuko’s arm radiating against Katara’s side before he jerks away.

“I know where her letter is. Come on.”

-

The attic is dark, but the waning moon gives off enough light to see outlines and shapes. Boxes upon boxes of memories litter the floor. Zuko groans. He’d forgotten how much stuff there is up here.

“What is this?” Katara asks. She sounds even more doubtful than he feels.

“Paintings, scrolls, old furniture, things we don’t need. Memories.”

“Why would Mai hide a letter here?”

“She knows I’d come up here sometimes, when I need to be alone.”

“I see,” she says softly.

“And I’m pretty much the only person that comes up here. Azula certainly doesn’t bother.”

Zuko begins picking his way across the minefield of broken toys lying near the entrance. “It’s probably up with all of the family pictures.”

It’s a bit of a wild guess, but there had been a night when Mai had stumbled up here when she’d heard him wake up. She’d found him crouched over a trunk of his mother’s old keepsakes, tears leaking from his eyes, and had the decency not to say anything about it later. She hadn’t said much about it then either, to be fair. Mai was never much good with confronting difficult feelings.

Still, he can only assume that if she was thinking of places he’d value here, this would be her first instinct. Zuko finds the trunk right where it’s always been, sitting in a puddle of moonlight, the golden clasps neatly closed.

He’s only vaguely aware of Katara settling down to kneel beside him. A part of him wishes she hadn’t—the things inside the chest are closely-held memories, and he’s not sure either of them are ready for her to see them—but a larger part is glad for her reassuring presence.

The chest belches dust into their faces when he opens it. Katara coughs, but Zuko only waves it away. On top of the yellowed pyramids of scrolls sits a much whiter addition, messily folded in quarters. Maybe it isn’t Mai’s letter after all.

When he unfolds it, he sees he’s half-right. The top part of the page is filled with rows of Mai’s neat, angular script, but beneath that is a chunk of scrawl similar to the other letter from the temple. Both of them together, then. Zuko can barely imagine it—from what he knows of Sokka, it’s like trying to meld oil and water.

“What—” Katara murmurs, craning her neck to see. Zuko tilts the paper towards her before lowering his eyes to Mai’s passage.

Dear Zuko and Katara,

I can only hope you’ll find this before the comet. We would have stayed and waited for you, but the Avatar’s disappeared, and without him, this whole thing will fall apart. Sokka, Toph, and I are going to find him.

No matter what, proceed as if the plan hasn’t changed. We’ll do our best to find Aang. Knowing him, he’s off on a spiritual journey somewhere—Toph said he hasn’t been right since Katara has been gone, but once we heard through the White Lotus that the two of you are safe, he’s gotten more determined. He’s young, but we have faith in him.

Zuko, be careful. Azula wasn’t right when I left and my departure will have infuriated her even more. But even if you are a jerk for leaving me the way that you did, I understand now why you did it. Being around Aang, Sokka, and Toph has shown me that. This can’t all be for nothing and you are the only one who can make it right.

I’ll see you after.

His concentration is broken by Katara’s low groan. She balls her fists in her lap.

“They left yesterday!”

“What?”

Zuko scans the other half of the letter as quickly as he can for Sokka’s untidy scrawl. Sure enough, it’s there at the bottom: why Aang would leave us four days before the comet, I don’t know.

Katara is actually cursing at the letter, but Zuko’s still too astounded to react. The casual way that Mai had written their names, imbued with an air of familiarity—knowing Aang? How does she know Aang? How had she even ended up with him?

There are far too many questions racing around his head for the late hour, but thankfully, it had answered the vital one: the plan hasn’t changed. Worse yet, Azula is possibly descending into the depths of darkness he’d only ever glimpsed in his sister before.

While Katara is busy reading the letter, he closes the trunk, thankful for her distraction. He definitely doesn’t have time for any other emotional turmoil after that.

Slowly he rises and reaches for Katara’s arm.

“Come on. We should rest. This just means we need to train as hard as we were before.”

“How do we keep missing them?” Katara says despondently.

Zuko purses his lips. “I don’t know. There are a lot of things I don’t know right now. We have to focus on what we do know.”

“Do you think we can actually do it?”

The question, blurted out, hangs between them like an arrow frozen in time. Zuko stills.

“I’m sorry,” Katara says. “You’re right. Focus on what we know. This is no time to be losing hope.”

But later on, as they lay in silence in the dual beds of Mai and Ty Lee’s guest room, the question won’t leave his head. It runs around in circles.

The truth is, he doesn’t know.

Chapter Text

When she wakes, for the briefest of moments, Katara thinks she’s back in the Fire Nation prison. It’s the hot mugginess of the air, something she hasn’t felt in so long. It pushes down on her, pinning her on the mattress, and she feels paralyzed. She nearly cries out.

Then the sound of the rushing waves fills in and she relaxes in degrees. Her eyes open. The scene floods in: sunlight streaming across a pale wood floor, sheets tangled around her legs, an empty and mussed bed across from her.

She rises slowly, still shaken. A dream bites at the edges of her memory: something to do with golden eyes and golden flames. But the beach house is as silent and empty as the night before. With sunlight pouring in through every window and skylight, too, it looks a good deal less intimidating.

Katara pads through the hallways barefoot, not quite sure what she’s looking for. Zuko could be anywhere in the house. She swings by the kitchen to grab a piece of fruit before renewing her absentminded search for him.

The dining room is still and echoing, but once she passes into the hall in the house’s center, it becomes clear. Zuko lunges across the row of windows, his movements broken up by the wooden bars, but she can see him well enough to see him practicing his morning routine, fire hissing toward the sky.

It’s a familiar sequence, and as she watches, she realizes how much better he’s gotten in the few weeks alone since they left the Fire Nation. His flames aren’t bigger, but they reach further, burn brighter. Their edges are more precise. He’s in control.

Katara smiles and perches in a windowsill, not wanting to disturb his concentration.

She watches him work, his chest glistening with perspiration under the hot sun and doubtlessly from the heat of his bending. He doesn’t so much as glance at her. All of his concentration is tied up in the trajectory of his flames.

Katara tries to imagine them amplified two, three, tenfold. The thought overwhelms her. If Azula has even half of Zuko’s power—and Katara knows the amount is actually far more than that—then getting in the middle of the clash of two such powerful benders aided even more by the cosmos seems like a surefire way to get hurt. She sees herself, a dot of blue, darting in between two contrasting columns of flame. She can practically feel the heat on her cheek.

But of course she’ll be there in the fight no matter what. She’s not leaving Zuko alone to his sister’s mercy, not after they’d been through so much. Not now.

“Katara?”

Her thoughts had drifted so much that she hadn’t realized the hiss of fire from the courtyard had stopped. Zuko is walking towards her, a dripping towel slung over one shoulder, shaking sweaty hair out of his eyes. He’s flushed, but he’s got a small smirk on his face, and it’s enough to conjure up a similar one on her own.

“How long have you been out here?”

“Not long,” she answers, and shifts over on the sill. Zuko sits down gratefully.

“It’s so much nicer in the shade. I didn’t miss this heat.” He tilts his face up toward the sky. “How are you feeling?”

It’s a strange question, she thinks, but maybe he saw something in her face earlier. The idea of lying is tempting, but they’re past the point where that’s of any use now.

“How scary it’s going to be when all of the firebenders gain all this power and I’ll still just be me.”

Zuko turns back to her. “Yeah, you will still just be you. A master waterbender.”

“How can I defend myself against all of…” She looks out at the courtyard, searching for a way to encompass everything she’s feeling. She finally just flops her hand in the direction of the sun. “That?”

“Because no matter how strong I am, or Azula is, that doesn’t take away how smart and determined you are. You don’t have to go toe-to-toe with her. That’s not your element, it’s mine.”

But then you’ll be in danger, and that’s even worse. At least if it’s her, Katara knows she can control her own actions, but she can’t imagine standing by helpless as Zuko is hurt, or—

“You’ll come out of this safe, Katara.” Zuko pulls his knees up to his chest. His face is strangely tranquil for his recent exertion and the gravity of the subject matter. His voice is confident, unwavering.

Katara’s struck, then, by the weight of how much she’s grown to care about him. Among the rush of the peak and the raiders and the ice and the politics and the revelations and the world, she hadn’t been able to see it grow, but it settles in her chest now, heavy as a stone. She can’t trace it to any particular moment; when she tries to, a hundred little memories flash through her head instead, spanning continents in seconds.

She can come out of it safe, but that’s not all she’s worried for. Zuko means more to her than a solution to the Fire Nation’s aggression or a partner in facing the dangers of the world. And that just makes it all worse.

-

Sparring under the Fire Nation’s hot, direct sun sparks a new blaze in Zuko’s blood. The Western Air Temple might have had ideal places to fight, so high up near the clouds, but the way the rays fall here seem to shoot directly to his chi. Maybe it’s the encroaching power of the comet, or maybe it’s the determination driving him after the realization of the previous night. Regardless, it fills his veins, keeping him sharp long after he would have normally flagged. Katara calls all of their breaks as they fight; he makes sure to watch her carefully to make sure she doesn’t overexert herself in the heat, like he’d seen Ty Lee and other non-benders do. Her control over ice certainly mitigates that, but she still has to rest a few times throughout their long training, always seeming preoccupied as she does.

For his part, Zuko never tires. Not when there’s so much at stake.

It is slightly disorienting, for it all to happen in this courtyard that he associates so strongly with childhood and peace and happiness. He’d trained here, but only by moving through sun salutations with his uncle or sister. They hadn’t brought their firebending trainers with them on vacations; it had been one of the few blessed reprieves he’d gotten from it in his youth, and it almost feels disrespectful to his calm memories to tear up the courtyard in a blaze.

It’d be a bit worse to lose his life to Azula, though.

They fight well into the afternoon, the same way they had at the temple, until the sun that sustains him begins to tip over into evening and the exhaustion begins to seep into Zuko’s body. They’d drank, to make sure they wouldn’t pass out, but had eaten very little, wrapped up in their fighting as they were. The silence that fills the courtyard when the hiss and crackle of their bending fades out is immediate. Quieter noises fill in slowly: chirping crickets, the gentle rush of the nearby sea. No voices or footsteps, though. Probably not so late in the season, and definitely not near the secluded Fire Royal residence. It gives Zuko an idea, though, and he brings it up to Katara after she returns from a while in the huge bath.

“I’ll take you down to the beach for dinner.”

“The beach?” Her forehead wrinkles. “Won’t someone see us?”

“It’s secluded out here. You’ll like it. The water’s so clear.”

Katara wrings a fistful of water from her thick hair, which lands on the floor with a splat and leaves a dark stain on the wood. “That sounds lovely, Zuko. As long as you’re sure it’s safe. I’m too tired to fight anymore.”

“I’m sure,” he promises. He waves her off to get ready while he scrounges up food and a change of clothes. All the clothes here are still a little too small for him; nobody had gotten around to replacing them when he’d returned amid all the other drama of the war, and he settles for the one outfit he’d left behind after struggling to fit into his thirteen-year-old finery. The tunic and pants are simple, but familiar and edged in gold, similar enough to the outfit he’d first left home in to be sure it’ll be flexible enough to fight in as well once the time comes.

Zuko’s putting the finishing touches on the basket of food when he hears light footsteps. A flash of silver is the first thing that catches his eye. When he fully turns, he sees why.

Katara is dressed in a simple decorative robe that he’s sure he’s never seen before. It’s white fabric that looks billowy and soft, shot through with silver thread at the hems and cuffs and tied at her waist with a silver sash. A pale red underskirt peeks out beneath the layers.

“It took me forever to find something that wasn’t red,” she sighs.

Zuko doesn’t respond right away. In the shaft of dusky light pouring in through the window, she looks illuminated. The shimmering fabric accentuates her skin, which in the reflection looks like it glows.

Like the moon, he thinks. Or maybe a star.

“Zuko?” she asks, frowning at his silence. “I hope it’s okay. I went through the closets in a couple rooms. I’m drying my regular clothes and I just…didn’t want to surround myself in something red.”

“Where did you find it?”

“The big room at the end of the hallway.”

“My mother’s old room,” he says absentmindedly.

She sucks in a breath. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know. I can go change—”

“She’d want you to wear it. It looks beautiful on you.” Zuko’s aware, suddenly, that he’s talking as if his mother is dead, and his stomach churns. But no, no matter where she is her old clothes don’t matter to her anymore and he knows instinctively that she would take pleasure in a waterbending girl wearing them.

“Should we…” Katara gestures toward the door, and Zuko comes back to earth. He snaps the basket shut and comes around to meet Katara at the kitchen’s entrance.

On impulse, he offers her his arm. She laughs, but takes it.

“Aren’t we formal tonight.”

“Tonight,” he answers, “just for a few hours, let’s pretend the war doesn’t exist.”

The words hang unspoken between them: it’s probably the last chance we’ll ever have to pretend.

-

The rush of the waves greets her as soon as Katara and Zuko step out the front door. The beach lays itself out in front of them, empty and unbroken in both directions as far as she can see. During the tired scramble of the night before, she hadn’t been able to appreciate the quiet beauty of the Ember Island shoreline, but now it’s unmistakable, the sand silvery under the stars.

It’s soft, too, when it gets into her sandals and between her toes. Almost unbelievably soft. Katara stoops to pick up a handful and she realizes, as it trickles through her fingers, that it’s not just the moon: the sand here is so fine and pale that it’s practically snowflakes.

“Obsidian sand. From the volcanic rock,” Zuko explains.

She sighs. “Is there anything in this nation that isn’t built on a volcano?”

“Honestly, not really. It’s a big chain of volcanoes, mostly.”

“Has one ever, you know…” Katara spreads her hands in an approximation of what she thinks it might look like. “Blown up?”

Zuko laughs gently. “Yeah, occasionally. I thought you’d dealt with that before?”

“Yeah, but not the whole island.” She thinks of the old fortuneteller. Those words swell up, unbidden, in her mind again: I can see that he’s a very powerful bender.

She shakes the whisper from her head. “But seriously. Isn’t it scary?”

“To be honest, I had worse things to worry about growing up in the palace.”

Zuko tugs open the basket he’d brought. “Eat. I took a long time putting this together.”

“You did not.” Katara laughs. “You threw this together in fifteen minutes.”

“Doesn’t mean it’ll taste worse because of it.”

Katara remembers the food she’d eaten the last time she was in the Fire Nation, the simple grains and fruits, but Zuko’s picnic bears very little resemblance. It’s filled with fluffy buns, stuffed with a variety of meats and, to her surprise as she bites into it, a sweet but not unpleasant red paste; bright jewel-colored fruits; cold noodles speckled with sesame seeds; a dish of something pale and pliant that’s smooth and sweet on her tongue, which Zuko tells her is called custard. She can’t imagine eating like this every day. It’s all so rich and yet so light—the exact opposite of the hearty, salty Water Tribe food she’d grown up with. But then, food wouldn’t have been scarce here the way she’d always known it to be.

The allure goes beyond the food. The silk of Zuko’s mother’s robe is cool against her legs, despite the night’s heat. The sand at her toes and the sheet beneath her hands are both unbearably soft. Even the way the moonlight glitters on the waves seems too brilliant to be natural, flashing like the diamonds she’d only ever glimpsed a few times in her life. Now she’s got an ocean of them.

And yet it’s all so simple, too. None of the overwhelming luxury of the Earth King’s palace in Ba Sing Se, the same thing she’s sure she’ll find in the halls of the Fire Royal Family’s home in the Capital. This, here, the sea at their feet and the fire at their backs, is more than enough.

She tells Zuko this in not so many words, and he grins. “I always felt so much freer here.”

“I feel free, too.” Katara digs her toes into the sand.

She hears him breathe out deeply. “Do you like it here?”

“Much better than the rest of the Fire Nation. I can’t complain with all this water around,” she quips, glancing at Zuko. His face is serious, though, turned towards the sea, the starlight silhouetting the face she’d come to know so well: deep eyes, strong nose, full lips, swirls of red scar like a map of grief across his cheek.

Her heart stills in a way that by now, too, is familiar.

Zuko’s lips part around another deep breath, and he rakes a hand through his hair. “I know this nation has hurt you so much, and we can never fully repair the damage done. But it’s not all violence. The vast majority is like this.”

“I’m excited to see it when it’s peaceful. There’s so much natural beauty here.”

“Do you…want to?” His voice is stilted and Katara’s not sure why.

“Want to what?”

“Spend time here. See the rest of the country. Maybe stay for a—a while. For a while.”

“There are a lot of things in this world I still want to see. A lot of it’s in the Fire Nation, but…” She blows out a gust of air, making strands of hair fly off of her forehead. “I don’t know yet. I want to see all of it. I think I’ll go wherever people most need me.”

“But you can’t just travel the world forever. You’ll have to settle down eventually.”

“Eventually,” Katara agrees. “Once I know what I want. But first, I need to find out who I am without all of this madness.”

“I wish I could come with you,” Zuko says quietly.

She turns back to face him. He’s leaned towards her, enough that the breeze carries his smoky, spicy scent to her.

Katara sighs and slides her thumb over his. “I wish you could, too.”

-

Stay.

That’s what he really wants to say to her. Stay here, with him, if they make it through the next few days intact. Stay here on this beach forever, if that’s what Katara wants. As long as she’s close by.

But Zuko knows how unfair it would be to ask that of her. Katara’s never had her own future before, and it would be cruel of him to deprive her of this chance.

Even so, the soft touch of her thumb isn’t helping the ache settling into his chest at the idea of her leaving for spirits knows where. Maybe she’ll follow the Avatar—amid everything, and the lightning he feels between them that he can only hope isn’t just his, he’d forgotten about Aang’s obvious feelings for Katara. There’s Mai, too, and the endless apologies he owes her, and Katara’s family, and what the palace and his country would think of it if by some miracle she did—

“Hey.” Katara interrupts his thoughts. “You look worried. What’s up?”

“Everything in this world is so complicated,” he groans.

“Okay. So forget it.”

“What?”

“We’re already pretending the war doesn’t exist. So just try to forget everything else, too. Just for tonight. All there is,” she says, moving one hand between their chests, “is you and me and this beach.”

Zuko flips his palm over and slides it fully into Katara’s other hand.

“Okay. Just you and me.”

She smiles up at him, open and trusting, her whole face radiant. Zuko can’t look away. A simple expression captures him so completely, but it’s because it’s her smile, and she looks happy, after all they’d been through.

He doesn’t want to lose that smile, ever.

Katara’s lips part, showing a glitter of teeth, and his eyes drift down to them, thinking, for the thousandth time, of what he really wants to do. Just you and me, she’d said. Here, under the moon she loves so much. Zuko imagines her warmth in his arms, the softness of her hair against his cheek.

He also imagines her pulling back in revulsion, or, worse yet, disappointment.

It might be the last chance he has to tell her. Zuko weighs the idea: if it goes wrong on the day of the comet and they’re separated, or he’s hurt or—killed, he makes himself think the word—Katara will never know the way he feels free when she looks at him. Like his past doesn’t matter; like she sees him for the person he is and approves.

But isn’t that kinder to her? Wouldn’t it be worse for her to be saddled with these probably-unrequited, probably-pointless feelings of his for the rest of her life, if he’s not around? Maybe it’s just the magic of being alone together for so long, and once Katara’s back with her real friends she’ll remember what an insufferable, backstabbing jerk he had been.

“You’re doing it again,” Katara chides gently.

No, of course it’s better not to tell her. But that last thought has seized Zuko’s mind and taken root.

“What if you just forget about me after all of this? What if you remember—what if I become—” He breaks off, not even sure how to vocalize the storm swirling in his head.

Katara drags her thumb over the back of his hand, tracing small patterns on the skin. “Because I couldn’t,” she says simply. “Not after everything we’ve been through. I don’t know how you could ever think I’d forget about you.”

“If I get into the palace and the power goes to my head and I end up just like my father—”

“You won’t.”

“You don’t know that.”

“I do, Zuko, because I know you.”

His breath catches on the hitch in his throat, but Katara’s thumb never stops its reassuring pattern, and her blue gaze never wavers.

“I know you,” she repeats, quieter this time.

-

She wants to do something else to reassure him—pull his head down to her shoulder, maybe, or wrap him up in her arms—but Katara doesn’t trust herself to do anything more than clutch his hand for fear she’ll do something stupid.

Because she does know him, and part of knowing him is knowing her feelings for him. Or maybe they’re indistinguishable. Maybe she couldn’t know Zuko without wanting him by her side forever.

So Katara just holds his hand in hers and keeps the careful, taut thread of electricity between them safe for fear of snapping. She watches the storm clouds pass over Zuko’s face, and when she sunrise finally breaks across his handsome features, it’s glorious.

“It’s late,” she says, regretting it as she says it. “We should get back in. We have to travel tomorrow.”

Zuko nods, his smile fading but the sun not dimming. “I—” he clears his throat and shakes his head. “Thank you.”

“You’re the one who had the idea for the picnic,” she answers, even though she knows that’s not what he’s thanking her for.

Zuko doesn’t let go of her hand as they walk back up to the house and through the darkened halls, and Katara’s glad for it, no matter how confused or giddy it makes her. She rubs her thumb across the back of his hand and savors its weight, its familiar callouses and knobs.

She knows him.

Chapter Text

Leaving the house is harder than Zuko thought it would be. He and Katara had been there for such a brief time, but it had been a peaceful time, and the island had always felt like such a relief to him.

Now they have to jump straight into the fire.

They set off from the beach at dawn, relying on the red sunrise to hide the bloody silk of the balloon. Katara is yawning profusely, and as soon as they’re airborne, she curls up with her knees to her chest in one corner of the basket.

“Do you know where we’re going?”

“There’s a mountain range behind the city. If we skirt around the islands by going south, we can land there without anyone seeing us.”

“Is it more dormant volcanoes?”

He nods. “Calderas, higher up than the Capital City one.”

“That sounds kind of terrifying.” Katara peeks over the side of the basket at the white sands of Ember Island racing by below them. “Well, they haven’t exploded yet.”

“Wouldn’t it be just our luck if they did?”

Her tone is light, but there’s still an uneasiness beneath it, and Zuko can’t help but wonder where her effervescent hope has gone.

Ember Island disappears beneath them soon enough. The next island in the Fire Nation’s necklace rises quickly on the horizon, but with the sun fully risen, Zuko takes them further south and higher, using the wispy clouds for as much cover as he can. It might take longer this way, and they might not reach the main island until nightfall, but if he hasn’t trained enough to defeat Azula by now, then he’s lost either way.

Katara is quiet and pensive for the first couple of hours. Zuko thinks she might be drifting in and out of sleep. When he glances at her, she’s still, but her face is lined with frowning wrinkles all the same. She wakes fully, stretching and yawning, when they’re parallel with the third island they pass.

“Sleep well?”

“I slept,” she says wryly. “That’s good enough for now.”

She reaches for his bag and pulls out two plums, then lobs one to him. Zuko catches it just before it hits him in the face. It’s sweet and tart at the same time and tastes a lot like childhood.

“This is it,” he says softly.

He didn’t really intend for Katara to hear it, but she does anyway, setting her own fruit in her lap and focusing on him.

“This is it,” she repeats. “Are you scared?”

Zuko groans. “I don’t know. Yes. There are so many moving parts and we can’t even see them. What if Aang fails, and we take down Azula and it doesn’t even matter because my father just comes back and kills us anyway?”

“That could happen,” Katara agrees, her eyes falling to the basket floor.

There it is again. He needed her hope and he doesn’t know where it’s gone. But then she continues: “That’s why we have to trust them like they’re trusting us right now. I know you don’t really know Aang, Zuko, at least not yet. But he’s got so much power inside himself, too. All that matters is if he can control it. Toph and Sokka, they’re both strategists. Sokka figured out how to infiltrate the Fire Nation capital all on his own, and Toph—she literally made up a whole new kind of earthbending. She can bend metal. And they’ve got Mai with them,” she finishes a bit lamely.

And she’s found it—that hope he needed so badly, like a reinvigorating burst of sunlight. The Avatar is on their side. Mai, in with the crew of names that roll off Katara’s tongue easily, sounds out of place. But Zuko knows what she contributes: razor-sharp senses, cunning, an unmatched kind of deadliness like a shadow.

He tries not to think about what his father is capable of.

“And as much as I worry about them—” Katara’s shoulders slump— “We can’t think about that right now. We’ve got a job to complete. What do you think will happen when we get there tomorrow?”

You’re right. You’re always right, he wants to say, but he doesn’t.

“We need to get there early in the day. They’ll crown her at noon, when the sun is highest in the sky. That’s why we have to travel inland today. If I—if we can face her before she’s crowned Fire Lord, all bets are off. We’re both of the royal bloodline. Our claim to the throne is the same.”

“And if we get there after?”

“Then it gets complicated,” he says grimly.

“In what way? I want to be prepared for this.”

“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”

“Zuko—”

“And,” he continues more loudly, “We won’t have to cross it, because we’ll get there in plenty of time. Because we left early so that exact thing wouldn’t happen.”

Katara opens her mouth, her brow scrunching in the way that he knows means she’s about to argue with him, but before any words leave her mouth, he hears the sizzle of heat.

He barely has time to yell “get down” before a ball of fire careens past the side of the balloon. Zuko knocks it away with his own wall of flame, but once it clears, there are two more that take its place.

Of course, Katara doesn’t listen to him. She rushes to his side. “Zuko, what was that? What’s going on?”

“Someone saw us. Guards. They have to be.”

“How did they know we’re not Fire Nation soldiers too?” She has to yell to make herself heard over the wind.

“I don’t know!” he roars back. “Just cover me!”

He throws his arms wide to block more blasts, but in the next moment strong hands on his shoulders are pulling him back, and he realizes the balloon is listing dangerously to one side.

“Keep it steady! I don’t know how to work this thing!”

She moves her hands through intricate patterns, and Zuko realizes with a shock that she’s weaving vapor from the clouds into a water whip. He’s so distracted gawking at her that he doesn’t even turn to the steering column until she’s slapped down two of the hurtling blazes with her whip.

“Zuko!” she shouts, and he starts. “Get us out of here! I can’t keep this up forever!”

He dives for the center of the basket, jerking the rudder hard to the right. The balloon responds in kind. They overbalance in the other direction for a long, agonizing minute, and Zuko thinks the whole thing might tip over and they’ll tumble out into the clouds like lotus petals. But he stills his shaking hands long enough to maneuver the rudder just a little, straightening them back to vertical just in time for the first fireball to dodge Katara’s whips and nearly set the whole thing alight.

“I’m taking us higher!” he yells. There’s no confirmation that Katara has heard him—she’s busy weaving her water into an icy shield—but she’ll just have to manage. With a grunt, he pours fire into the furnace, making the balloon’s fabric snap above them as it rapidly fills with steam.

They ascend so quickly it nearly takes Zuko’s breath away. Katara glances back over her shoulder, caught off guard, and in the split second she does a burst of flame clips the front corner edge of the basket, right next to her head.

“Katara!” he screams. She looks down and shrieks.

It’s chaos. He doesn’t know where to look. There are still projectiles flying by them; all Zuko wants to do is grab Katara and pull her away from the burning edge, but he has to block everything else and pray that she’s okay. The hot air takes them ever higher, jerking them up into the cloud cover, and he nearly slumps with relief when he hears the telltale hiss of water on flames.

“Zuko?” Katara still has to yell. They’re rising too quickly, and the wind rattles the little basket like a winter shiver.

He coughs and lets his wall of fire die out. “I’m—” he was going to say ‘okay,’ but then he realizes there’s a dull pain along one arm that’s growing more insistent by the second. The basket hits his back, or maybe he hits it.

He hears Katara call his name again, but all he can do is groan. He forces himself to look down.

A long, angry burn sears its way up his forearm. It’s not deep, but it is broad, and—he discovers more and more each moment—extremely painful, enough that white stars dance in front of his eyes.

Footsteps, the smell of charred straw, and then Katara’s quiet gasp. She lays cool, delicate fingers next to the ruined skin.

“Zuko, just focus on me,” she begs. “I’m going to fix this. Just look at me.”

Through the haze of pain and blurry vision, her familiar shape congeals. Her hair is wild and tangled about her face.

“You’re beautiful,” Zuko mumbles.

“You’re crazy,” Katara says, but her voice wavers.

-

If she doesn’t take care of this now, it is going to scar. That’s what Katara repeats in her head to force herself to focus on pulling more clean water from the air around them and applying it to Zuko’s arm.

He’s watching her through lidded eyes, wincing often, his teeth gritted. Even so, he manages to concentrate on her the way she’d asked. When he speaks, she can feel her pulse in the pit of her stomach, even though she knows he’s just pain-addled and doesn’t know what he’s saying.

“Katara…”

“Shh.” She swirls the water around his arm like a cuff, and Zuko lets out a long, low groan.

“That feels so strange.”

“It’ll be quick,” she promises, though judging by the size of the burn, she’s not so sure it’s true. “I don’t want it to scar.”

He falls silent. His arm goes tense under her hands.

“It won’t, though.” Instinctively, she reaches up to brush one thumb over his cheek, under the first red ridge. “I won’t let it.”

“You’re too good to me. I don’t deserve you.”

“Don’t be stupid,” she says, trying to hold her voice steady.

“I don’t.”

“Well, you have me, so just shut up and let me heal you.”

She’s vaguely aware of the balloon continuing to rise as she knits Zuko’s pale skin back together. The air has taken on an uncharacteristic chill. The sun’s a lot brighter, too.

Carefully, she pulls the water back from Zuko’s arm in inches. The area is still red and looks raw, but it’s definitely usable. She breathes a sigh of relief.

“Make sure that’s the last time I have to heal you for a while.”

Katara stands and goes over to the edge of the basket, peering down. Immediately, she realizes it was a mistake. The ground is so far below them that she can’t see anything but glimpses of green and blue between the wispy white clouds, dizzyingly far away.

“How in the world are we supposed to get down?”

“It deflates slowly if you give it time.”

“But how slowly? We’re going to shoot right past the whole country if we’re not careful.”

“I can try to calm it.” Zuko winces as he stands, holding his damaged arm protectively against his body. That’s really not good. He’s going to need to be in top shape tomorrow. The echo of Katara’s promise to keep him safe fills her head, and she swallows, abruptly feeling guilty.

“Besides, we’ve still got a long way to go. All that matters is that we’re still up here.”

“That was a pretty close call,” she agrees, glancing at the corner of the basket that was seared straight off.

“We’ve had a lot of close calls,” Zuko says. He closes his fist, quenching the flames in the furnace a bit; when he turns back to her, though, she can see that he’s smiling. “And yet somehow we ended up here all the same.”

“Somehow.” Katara returns his grin, letting it soften the tension she didn’t realize she’d been carrying in her face.

“I’m beginning to think you’re a good luck charm or something.”

She feels heat rising into her cheeks, and she shakes her hair into her face, trying to obscure the blush. “Just a healer. That part comes in handy a lot.”

“I think it’s more than that,” Zuko says softly. When she looks up at him through her bangs, he’s watching her levelly, refusing to break his gaze.

-

They sink lower, bit by bit, the farther into the nation they go. Islands drift by to the right like lazy swimmers, always far enough away that they’re out of the reach of any other army patrols. Zuko can only hope they were too high up for the last ones to see Katara’s waterbending and realize who they were.

It probably doesn’t matter, though. Azula will know soon enough.

When they reach the main island, it’s late afternoon and they have to face the reality that they’ll need to move over land from now on. It’s the same dense forest he’d found her in so long ago, wracked with fever. The same forest they’d ran into hand in hand after escaping the prison. It’s amazing how fear and exhaustion can make five weeks feel like a lifetime.

Zuko points out the mist-topped mountains in the west to Katara. “See those? That’s where we’re headed.”

“Those don’t look very much like volcanoes.”

“You can’t see the tops yet. Once we get closer, you’ll get it.”

“Are we going over the city?” she asks with wide eyes.

Zuko snorts. “Not unless you want to dodge a whole bunch more fireballs.”

He skirts the balloon to the south, following the natural curve of the island in a wide sweep paralleling the bay. They’re descending every minute, but he doesn’t want to stoke the furnace and risk shooting off into the sea on the other side of the nation, which is still such a mystery to so many of his people. They don’t have time for dangerous detours.

Off the side of the balloon, out of the corner of his eye, Zuko glimpses the capital. It glimmers like a fire opal nestled in the caldera, lit up in shades of orange against the dying sun. From up here, it’s magnificent. Golden spires defy gravity and pierce the sky, refracting firelight off across the bay and the forest.

His heart aches in an unfamiliar way. He wants to be home, yes, but there’s so much complicating that desire. Uncle Iroh, Mai, his mother—that’s what he really wants, not an empty, echoing palace.

What he wants is comfort and love.

So the ache, as it settles into his chest, isn’t so much longing as it is the realization that he doesn’t want the thing he’s sought for so long. Zuko doesn’t want the homecoming anymore. There’s nothing there for him—not the way it stands right now. He would much rather stay right where he is and hunker down with Katara while the world blazes around them and his destiny shoots right over their heads.

It isn’t about what he wants, though, or what Katara wants, or Aang or Mai or Azula or Iroh. It’s about what the world needs.

They drift into the mountains so quickly that it feels too easy. The fog is much less severe once they’re in it, more like a gauzy veil clinging to the tops of the highest peaks. Zuko’s never ventured up here himself, but he’s seen paintings, and he’s heard his uncle talk about them sometimes—the history of their use for meditation and pilgrimages at the mouths of slumbering dragons, shallow pools filled with bright, sulfurous water.

It’s one of these that he aims at now. The volcano is low and broad, the crater filled with glassy water that reflects the sunlit clouds above them, rocky overhands and scraggly palms surrounding it. He points it out to Katara, and she nods, readying her water.

When they get just low enough at the edge of the lake, Katara throws a wave over the furnace, which sizzles out instantly. Above them, the taut red silk of the balloon begins to fold in on itself, and then they plunge.

They clip the glassy surface and bounce once, twice, like a skipping stone, before the final splash. Warm water cascades up to cover Zuko’s arms.

“That could have gone much worse,” Katara says, and bends them to the shore.

-

Living inside a volcano temporarily, it turns out, isn’t too different from any of their other makeshift camps.

They pull the balloon into a cleft at the side of the caldera before settling on the rocky ground next to the lake, staring west at the city. It gleams in the twilight, sinuous and menacing. Katara watches the lights flicker on for a long minute before she turns away, but Zuko continues looking, his arms crossed and shoulders hunched.

This is where they end up. After all of the agonizing journeys and near-death experience, they’re just about right back where they started—a mere few miles from the prison where they’d first made their break, and nothing to show for it.

Well, that’s not true, Katara justifies to herself. They might not have found her friends, but they’d mobilized an entire city to protect its nation, made a groundbreaking political alliance, and solidified their place in the chaos of the comet.

And they’d found each other.

Watching Zuko stare out at his kingdom, Katara realizes with a start that those are the parts she remembers the most. Not necessarily the daring fights or the rush of success—though they stand out bright in her mind as well. No, her favorite parts have been the small moments: his shimmering form beneath the northern lights, late dinners with him in the tiny teashop apartment, the unconscious register she’d made the first time she heard him laugh.

She had kept Pakku’s deal. She had gotten Zuko to death’s door, right where he needs to be. But at that moment, she’s struck with the irrational urge to rip her dagger through the balloon’s silk, ice him to the side of the rock face, anything to keep him here where she can make sure he stays safe.

Katara has no idea what awaits them tomorrow. Zuko has been reticent on certain details, and it scares her. She doesn’t want to go. She can’t stand to see him in danger.

But it’s not up to her.

So she fights the destructive impulses and just sinks down next to him instead. Zuko doesn’t glance up when she sits, but a moment later, the heavy warm weight of his arm settles around her shoulders.

“Zuko,” she says hesitantly. “Tomorrow, if we don’t both—come back…”

He doesn’t say anything, but the arm around her tightens.

“I just want you to know that—that I care about you.”

It isn’t what she’s trying to say at all, but what can she say? Thank you for saving my life so many times, for trusting me constantly, for showing me people can change? There aren’t words for it.

“It wasn’t easy, but I’m glad it happened this way.”

Zuko’s voice is rough, wavering slightly. He’s just as scared as her, and that revelation breaks the last dam in Katara’s chest, the one she’d been holding up for so long. It washes over her—Zuko washes over her, in all his hard edges and soft movements and bravery and support and goodness.

“I am too,” she whispers, and leans into him.

Maybe she can’t keep him safe up here forever. But they’ve gotten this far on hope, and even after everything they’ve been through, it’s something she can still rely on now. The universe won’t take him from her tomorrow when they’re so close. It wouldn’t be that cruel.

She won’t let this go.