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Hopeless

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Ba Sing Se 

In the year and a half Yu Ling had employed Lee, the young man never missed a day. He’d even been violently sick before, barely managing to stand on his own two feet, but still he’d trudged in and Yu Ling had sent him home to the care of his wife. 

But today, nothing. No Lee, no urgent message from his wife Tara, no extra help with the customers, and the sun was setting. Very odd indeed.

He was equal parts worry and rage. As soon as the sign turned from open to closed on the door of his little tea shop, Yu Ling marched across the lower ring of Ba Sing Se to Lee’s tiny apartment. Lee and his wife lived on the second floor of the residential tenements. 

The first thing Yu Ling noticed was that there wasn’t any light seeping from underneath the door. The second was he couldn’t hear any movement. He knocked hurriedly.

“Lee? Tara?”

Nothing.

He knocked again, four times in quick succession, each louder than the first. Someone screeched across the hall for him to keep it down. When there was still no reply, Yu Ling threw the door open. It hadn’t taken much force at all. Whenever they left last, they hadn’t bothered to lock the door.

The room unsettled him. He couldn’t pinpoint what particularly unnerved him aside from the emptiness, but that didn’t stop the hairs on the back of his neck from standing up. 

“Tara? Lee?” He called again, knowing the call would be fruitless. The couple was gone, and they had left in a hurry. Drawers frantically opened had not been shut. Ink spilled from a desk by their bed. The cradle for their infant son had been turned over in a harrowing display. 

A neighbor passed through the hallway then, pausing in the entryway. “They’re gone if you’re looking for them.”

That much was obvious. “Where did they go?”

The stranger shrugged. “Couldn’t tell you. What do you need them for?”

“The man worked for me. I guess he doesn’t anymore.” Sighing, Yu Ling ran frustrated fingers through his hair. “I’ll have to hire somebody else. Train someone new on the finer art of tea.” It had been difficult enough with Lee. 

The stranger laughed, a throaty, jarring sound. “You’ve got bigger problems than that. Ba Sing Se just fell.” 

What?” 

“Yep. We’re not sure if King Kuei made it out. He’s either dead or exiled. We know the Avatar’s dead.”

“No!”

“Killed right beneath the palace.”

“We just got the Avatar back,” lamented Yu Ling. He really thought there was a chance for the world, not just the impenetrable Ba Sing Se. Now Ba Sing Se didn’t even matter. “The Earth Kingdom’s last holdout crumbled overnight.”

“Hail the Fire Nation,” the stranger said bitterly. Yu Ling would not repeat it, even if he meant it disrespectfully. He would never let those same words pass through his lips. 

Yu Ling spared another glance at the empty apartment. “I guess they had the right idea.“

“Leaving won’t do them any good. Nowhere’s safe now. Everything belongs to the Fire Nation, including us.” 

Yu Ling stood up to leave. His shoulders hunched with the heavy news. He made it to the stairwell before the man called him back. “Some rice wine will dull the news. I have plenty if you’d like to join me.”

“I don’t want to dull the news.” 

“Suit yourself.”  

Already he could see the changes unraveling before his eyes as he left the tenement. Already he could hear the chaos brimming in the streets. Nowhere to flee, no one to save them, no one to help. Did his tea shop even matter anymore? The Fire Nation would rule the world now. Life as they knew it was gone.

Chapter Text

She needed to change her name again when they arrived in the next village, wherever the next village was. It seemed like the desert was the only way to get where she needed to go, but she was regretting it now, under the beating sun, without any food, with barely any drinking water. Certainly, she was doing better on this trip than she had the first time she’d trudged through these sands. 

At least her baby could eat. The little boy in her arms suckled hungrily, filling his belly, but it wouldn’t take much more exhaustion before her body stopped making his milk in an effort to preserve itself. She knew enough about how these things went, had learned enough from the other young mothers in the lower ring of Ba Sing Se. 

“Are you done, my love?” she asked her boy tenderly, stroking the dark strands of his hair, thankful that they provided his head with some protection from the sun. 

The baby cooed, and she smiled, securing him back to her chest with strips of fabric from the bed sheets of his cradle. He would sleep soon, now that his belly was full, lulled by the constant rhythm of his mother’s footsteps. 

His weight seemed to increase as she walked. 

“Just a little further,” she kept telling herself. “Just a little further.” 

Against her shoulder, another weight settled heavily. Her bag dug painfully into the skin of her shoulder, but it was the letter tucked away inside that hurt the most. She was compelled to stop, take the letter out, and read it to herself again, but it wouldn’t do her any good. It wouldn’t change the characters on the page. It wouldn’t change how confused she was by everything. 

“Just a little further to Chameleon Bay. That’s where we’re headed, little one. You’ll meet your grandfather there. He’s a chief. I never got to tell you that when we were back in Ba Sing Se, but now that we’re all alone, it can’t do any harm.”

What would her father think when he saw her again? Nothing good, she mused. What would she say? How would she explain her time in the Earth Kingdom? 

Her baby didn’t sleep well that night. He’d wake suddenly in her arms, wailing angrily into the sands. She understood. She was angry too. Angry with herself, angry with the world, angry with him . She wondered where he was right now, if he’d even made it out alive. That was a harrowing thought. Her son could be fatherless, and she wouldn’t even know. 

The next day, she reached the abandoned town of Tu Zin, only it was not as abandoned as she’d originally heard. Some had moved back as more of the Earth Kingdom fell, eager for a miracle. A miracle wasn’t meant for this small town, she realized, when she learned the mines were still dry. 

“How far from here to Chameleon Bay?” she asked a girl about her age, hard at work helping her family stabilize a rotting building. 

“Chameleon Bay’s closed off,” she said. “There’s a Fire Nation patrol there now. What do you want over there anyway?”

An idea occurred to her then. “Oh, his father’s in the navy,” she decided, patting her son’s cheek lovingly. “He said I could stay there. Sometimes they let families of the patrolmen stay with them.”

The girl narrowed her eyes. Just act confident. There’s no reason for them to know you’re lying .

“You don’t look Fire Nation.”

“I’m not.”

“But your boy is? Most girls I know who have Fire Nation bastards aren’t eager to see the fathers again...unless you sympathize with the Fire Nation.”

“No!” she exclaimed. “I don’t. I hate his father, but I’m desperate. He gives me money to take care of the baby. Please, just tell me how far to Chameleon Bay.”

She’d learned how to lie over the last two years. 

The girl’s left eyebrow quirked. “A noble Fire Nation soldier,” she said mockingly, “ nobly giving you money to raise his spawn.” Then she spit at the dirt beside her feet. “What’s your name?”

Katara . “Kai.” She thought that sounded like a good Earth Kingdom name.

“Is his father one of the ones who’s gonna occupy Ba Sing Se?”

“I’ll ask someone else!” she shouted hotly. She didn't want to deal with the girl's taunting anymore much to the girl's amusement. 

“Follow the mountains north. If you camp at night, you’ll reach the bay by tomorrow. Then you and your soldier can dance on the Avatar’s grave.”

Katara was two seconds away from water whipping this girl all the way to Ba Sing Se before she froze. “What about the Avatar?”

The girl laughed darkly. “What, you haven’t heard the news? Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation killed him in the crystal catacombs of Ba Sing Se. That’s the kind of prince your soldier serves.”

“No,” she whispered helplessly.

“Yes. Now follow the mountains north.”

Katara’s throat constricted. Aang . She really thought she had the chance to see him again. She was so close. And if what the girl said was true, if Aang had really met his end at the hands of Zuko...she hugged her baby tighter. She didn’t know what to think. 

“What, no thank you?”

“Thanks,” she grunted out. 

“Don’t worry about it. Enjoy your noble soldier.” 

Katara could have cried from the ridicule if she dwelled on it. She could have cried from everything. Sometimes she wanted to scream to the heavens and wear her life story painted on her forehead so she wouldn’t have to endure the mockery of anyone again. No one knew what she’d suffered.  

Instead she swallowed down her anger and focused on the mission that she allowed herself to stray from for two whole years. Just the thought of it made her cheeks burn in shame. For two years, she had allowed herself to lose hope, but with the clothes on her back, the baby in her arms, and the longing in her heart, the sense of purpose she’d lost had been renewed. 

She was going to find her father. She was going to find her brother. She was going to find out what happened to the Avatar. She was going to help whoever was left to defeat the Fire Nation, and then maybe after everything, she could find him again, but she pushed that thought from her mind as quickly as it came. 

“So my name is Kai now, until we get to Chameleon Bay,” she whispered to her son around the fire. It occurred to her then that her son had never heard the real names of his parents spoken. “My real name is Katara,” she said to him. It felt significant for her to say, but her baby’s expression didn’t change. She sighed. The name Katara meant nothing to him. 

She set the boy on his belly on the sand. He kicked his feet in it and laughed, excited by it all while she worked to find food. She fished some crabs out of the marshes nearby and scrounged the inside of the shells for meat. She wished she had the tools to start a fire; she hated to eat it raw. Water she’d procured from the little town, far away from the hateful girl she’d met. 

“Your name doesn’t have to change. You can still be my little Rei.”

He babbled when she said his name, drool dribbling down his chin from the new teeth cutting through the gums. They didn’t seem to bother him too much. 

She worried about the information the girl had given her, that Chameleon Bay was a Fire Nation patrol now. What if she was heading right into a trap? What if her father was long gone? In her dark moments when she wondered if fighting was really worth it anymore, she wondered about what her life might be like in a Fire Nation prison. Maybe she wouldn't be treated cruelly. Maybe her boy would be taken care of, especially given his father. Maybe it wouldn't be so bad. Then she shook her head and ran her fingers fretfully through her knotted hair. Of course it would

Morning came, and she wrapped Rei back to her chest. Just when she thought her feet wouldn’t be able to take another step, she saw the line of Fire Nation ships docked near the coast. She could barely make out the figures dressed in red from her vantage point on the cliffs, but she saw them walking along the decks. 

Go to Chameleon Bay , he’d advised her in the letter. Your father will be there . Her father may have been at one point, but Katara didn’t think he was there anymore. She saw nothing to convince her that Water Tribe warriors had ever been camped here. 

No ,” she cried. This had been her last hope. She had nowhere else to go, no other leads to follow, no means to return home, nothing.  

Then her eyes drifted to one of the soldiers on the deck closest to the cliffs. She saw him toss a boomerang into the sea, watching for the telling curve of the weapon. When it returned, it struck the soldier right in the helmet, and he stumbled backwards. 

“Sokka!” 

She took off running immediately as quickly and as carefully as she could. She reached the shore and ran straight into the cool water of the bay. As soon as she stepped in, she gave herself away as a waterbender, twisting her wrists to form waves that would propel her to the ship. Hopefully she hadn’t misjudged everything. 

The soldier was still rubbing a sore spot on his head when she reached the bow, but his build was unmistakable. The voice was unmistakable. He removed the helmet from his head, and she gasped. It really was her brother. 

“Katara?” he asked. “How hard did I hit my head?”

Boarding the ship, she threw herself into her brother’s arms, conscious of the baby between them. 

“Sokka, it’s really you.” Tears sprang to her eyes. 

“It’s really me ? Katara, I’ve been looking everywhere for you. I thought you were gone.”

“I’m right here.”

His arms tightened around her. Rei fussed, and the two siblings pulled away from each other. 

“Who’s this?” Sokka asked.

So it begins , thought Katara. She had a million questions to ask her brother, about Aang, about Dad, about why Sokka was in a Fire Nation uniform aboard a Fire Nation ship, about what had happened in their long two years apart, but first she had to think about what to say. Perhaps she should start with a truth instead of the deceptions she knew would have to come later. 

“This is Rei, my son.”

“Your what?”

“He’s my son, Sokka. Your nephew. It’s been a long time.”

“Where’s the father?”

“Gone,” Katara said in a manner she hoped was off putting. 

Sokka got the gist. “Come on, let’s go see Dad. Maybe you can take a look at Aang too if you still have any healing ability.”

Her heart raced. “Aang’s here? Someone told me Prince Zuko killed him.”

“That’s what everyone’s saying, and it’s good for us because now no one’s expecting an attack from the Avatar. Zuko’s crazy sister shot him with lightning. He’s alive, but he’s been in a coma ever since. He needs to wake up.”

Katara was elated, despite it all. She really thought that her friend had been killed. “Can I see him first?”

“Don’t you want to see Dad first?”

She didn’t want to face her father. She wanted to see someone who wouldn’t bombard her with questions. She wanted Aang, her best friend, even if it would crush her to see him so weak. She tried to prepare herself, but it didn’t work. Her heart still broke when she saw him crumpled in Fire Nation silks. 

“He needs to wake up,” Sokka reiterated.

“He needs his bandages changed. The ones on his back are filthy. He’ll never heal like this.”

“I’ll make sure new ones are brought to you.” He was about to leave the room before he took in her appearance. “Do you need anything? How about some food? Does he need anything?” he asked, gesturing to Rei. 

“We’re fine.”

“You look thin, Katara. Too thin. And tired. Maybe you should sleep before you exert yourself.”

“I know my limits!” she snapped at him, instantly regretting it. “Sorry. It’s been a—''

“A long day, I know. I’m so happy you’re back. I never thought I'd see you again. What happened back in the Foggy Swamp? How did we get separated? Aang and I looked for you nonstop for days.”

She shrugged. “I still don’t understand it.”

“And where did you go?”

“Mostly Ba Sing Se.”

“No way! We were in Ba Sing Se too!”

“No way!”

“Yeah, we were!”

“Oh, wow. Small world.”

Of course she knew they had been in Ba Sing Se. Some days she thought about sneaking into the upper levels of the city to reunite with them, but she had never acted on it. In Ba Sing Se, she was Tara. She loved being Tara in Ba Sing Se. There was no war in Ba Sing Se. 

Chapter Text

“Why did you tell Father I was the one to kill the Avatar?” 

“You don’t sound very grateful.” 

Grateful? Could Azula really be giving him a gift? “I didn’t kill the Avatar. You’re the one who struck him with lightning.” 

“Struck him with lightning, incapacitated the earth bender, took Ba Sing Se, captured our traitorous uncle...so on and so on. You should be grateful I did all the work and gave you some of the credit.”

“I just want to know why.” Why had she been the one to bring him home? Why had she dropped to her knees in the throne room before their father’s wall of fire and allot him victories that had been hers? A couple years ago she had tried to imprison him. What was her plan now?

“I’m hurt. Didn’t you want to come home?”

“Of course I did.”

“I made it so you could.”

He supposed that was true, but Azula was calculating. After the bounty she put on his head, he doubted she wanted him home at all. She always had a plan for her actions. It was why he struggled so much against her. 

“You know I can’t help but notice that one person was missing from the excitement,” she said to him nonchalantly. His eyebrows raised as they continued walking through the long corridor, far away from their father, but he said nothing. “The avatar, Uncle, the boomerang boy, and the blind earthbender were all spotted. The waterbender was not.”

Show nothing , he told himself. “What does Uncle say about her?”

“He says nothing to anyone, traitorous bastard.” 

The side of his mouth quirked up just slightly. “Are you worried about her?” he asked his sister. “A peasant from the Southern Water Tribe?”

“Of course not!” shrieked his sister. 

“Then why the interest?”

“I just think it’s odd. She was the only one missing.”

“Be glad she wasn’t there. The fight wouldn’t have been so easy.”  

“Water evaporates when it meets fire. She wouldn’t have lasted long.”

Show nothing .

“Do you think she died?” Azula asked, seeming out of nowhere.

“What?”

“The waterbender, do you think she died? She was so dedicated to the avatar’s cause. I can’t think of any other reason she wouldn’t be there.”

“I don’t know.”

“Come, Zuzu. Isn’t it fun to guess? Make me a story the way you did when we were children.” 

“I don’t play that way anymore. We’re not children.” 

Azula shrugged. “Fine. Be grumpy after all I’ve done for you.”

He huffed. Azula never really changed. She never left him alone when they were children. He never had a moment's peace until she got what she wanted from him, so he indulged her. “Ugh, you’re right. She never would have left the Avatar unless she died.”

“Who do you think killed her?”

“I don’t know.”

“But you do think she’s dead?”

“Yes.” 

No. She can’t be dead. I made sure she wasn’t dead.

Zuko had succeeded in keeping thoughts of his life in Ba Sing Se away, but one mention of Katara by his sister opened the floodgates, and the images flashed through his head as vengeful as the element in his veins. Burning touches, tearful whispers, eyes of the most beautiful shade of blue...the crown of his station rested uncomfortably upon his head. His stomach burned in shame. It had been the hardest decision of his life, but it was the one he made. He had his reasons, and now he walked his path alone. 

“You don’t look good, Zuzu. What’s wrong?” 

He startled. He hated doing that in front of Azula. “Nothing,” he insisted hotly. 

His sister’s golden eyes narrowed skeptically. “If you say so. Now come on, Mai and Ty Lee are waiting.”

“They’re your friends. Why do you want me to come?”

“You don’t want to be all alone, do you?”

He thought about it. He didn’t want to be alone truthfully. Besides, maybe some outside company would shake the absurd thoughts from his head. 

Maybe Azula and Mai and Ty Lee would help him forget that Katara was on the run with Rei, that the beloved uncle he had missed for so long was locked away, that as much as he wanted to please his father, nothing could change the truth he knew in his heart. 

Maybe sitting by the turtle duck pond would help. Maybe the nostalgic familiarity of Azula, the never ending smiles of Ty Lee, the fleeting glances from Mai, the comfort of sitting in the spot he once sat with his mother would help. 

 

It didn’t. 

 

That night he dreamed in memories. 


He noticed her before she noticed him. She was the last person he expected to see while traveling alone through the arid plains of the Earth Kingdom, but blinking didn’t change the truth. It was the clothes that gave her away immediately. Once they were blue. Now they were caked in mud, with enough of the original color to barely stand out against Earth Kingdom greens and browns. Her hair was tied back in its usual braid, which was how he noticed the fading array of bruises splayed down her neck. She sat on the corner of the street with a canteen beside her, but he quickly realized she did not have any water in it as she held it out while a small crowd walked by.

No one gave her anything. 

He didn’t have any coins either, but still he approached her, even if she hated him, even if he hated her, just because she was something familiar in this new dark world of refugee life. He could see the exact moment she recognized him because her face twisted in disgust. 

“Of course you’re here,” she sighed. 

“Where’s the Avatar? And the other boy who goes with you everywhere?” She didn’t reply to him. “What are you doing here?” She glared defiantly into his eyes. She looked pathetic. “Fine.” He gave up on speaking to her altogether and began to turn away, grumbling, when the sound of  her voice called him back. 

“Where are you heading?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know. You?”

Her eyes didn’t look up from the ground. “I don’t know. Where’s your uncle?” 

“We split up.”

“By choice?”

“It’s probably better for us to be separated.” He wondered if she had seen any of his Wanted posters. There had been a bunch of them hanging up in the last town he passed through. He half expected her to turn him in herself. She'd get a reward then, enough to keep her from begging on the streets.

“I’m not alone by choice,” she confessed heavily, hugging her knees closer to her chest and settling the weight of her head above them. The new angle allowed a clear view of a nasty welt beneath her eye. A look at her hands peeking out from her sleeves confirmed more wounds, the imprints of angry fingers around her wrists and open cuts on her knuckles.

“What happened to you?”

Silence. 

A woman passed then and Katara held her canteen out in case the woman felt compelled to donate a coin or two. The woman ignored her. “Please,” she begged, “if you have anything .” The woman kept walking, and Katara nodded sadly.

“Are you hungry?” he asked her, though he admitted to himself it was a stupid question. She wouldn’t be out on the street if she wasn’t. The Earth Kingdom was a dry, unforgiving land, and they were far from any sea or stream where her bending could aid her. 

“Why? Do you have any food?” she returned. 

“No, but I’m about to sell my ostrich horse. Then I can buy food.”

“But how will you travel?”

“My feet work fine.”

 He never invited her, and she never asked to come, but she pulled herself from the dirt road and dusted off her leggings, not that it helped any. He walked, and she followed all the way until the market. He had so many questions, but he valued the quiet while it lasted, as he reconciled the fighter he’d known at the North Pole with the skittish girl walking a couple steps behind him.  

She liked the ostrich horse, it seemed. She patted the creature every once in a while, especially when they were caught in foot traffic, and the animal would start squawking. 

“Does she have a name?”

“No.” 

“You should name her.”

The idea was utterly ridiculous to him. “I’m about to sell her.” 

“So?”

He huffed, thinking to himself that he almost preferred it when she was giving him the silent treatment. She ruffled the feathers of the animal again. “Mean ol’ Zuko never gave you a name,” she said to the animal. 

He froze, too quickly for her to stop walking, and barely moved when she bumped right into him. “My name is Lee,” he growled at her. How could she be so stupid? Did she think a prince in good standing would bother to travel this way, in this undignified manner?

“Oh, I’m sorry, it’s just--”

He interrupted her before she could finish. “Just don’t get it wrong again.”

“I won’t. I promise.” 

“I don’t need your promises.”

She scowled at him, but the expression quickly morphed into a wince. She raised her fingers to touch the welt on her face. 

“You need to get some cool water on that,” he told her. 

“I know. I haven’t had any for it. Any water I got I drank.”

He couldn’t argue with that. He knew what it was like to be thirsty in the arid Earth Kingdom. It made him even more homesick for the tropical weather of the Fire Nation. He would make sure the two of them had fresh water with whatever food the ostrich horse would buy. He couldn’t promise it would be cool, but the waterbender had been a master at transforming water to ice up at the North Pole. It shouldn’t be any different now.

She didn’t walk with him the whole way to the market, only behind him, with her arms at her sides. If his hearing hadn’t been so good, he would have wondered if she was still behind him. Her steps were heavier from a slight limp. Again, he wondered what had happened to her. Even the Siege of the North hadn't left her with bruises quite like those. 

When they reached the section for trading animals, he looked back over his shoulder. Sure enough she was still behind him. “Did you think of a name for her?”

“No, you’re right. There’s no point.” 

“Do you have a name?”

“Yeah. Do you think I should change it?”

He looked around to see if anyone was paying attention to them. In the chaos of the market around them, the only way they could hear each other was to lean in close or yell. He whispered to her, “That depends, are you wanted by the Fire Nation?” She smirked, which answered his question enough. “Then change it.” 

“What should I change it to?”

“How should I know?”

“I don’t know. I thought maybe you knew some good Earth Kingdom names.” 

“I met a girl named Song a while ago.”

She scrunched her nose. “I’m not a Song.”

“I’m not a Lee. Just pick one and go with it.”

She huffed at him. “I don’t think the Fire Nation knows what my name is. Maybe I can just keep mine.” 

“What is it anyways?”

“Katara,” she answered.

“Too Water Tribe. Everything about you is too Water Tribe actually. You need new clothes.”

“I need food,” she stressed. “And water.”

That was obvious, but she needed new clothes and a new name while they were at it. “Tara’s good. It sounds more Earth Kingdom.”

“Hmm. Tara.”

“Just go with it.”

“Tara,” she repeated unnecessarily. 

“Ugh, keep saying it to yourself. I’m going to go get some money for this ostrich horse.” As he stormed off to the booth, he noticed the girl behind him again. 

“You walk fast,” she said. It reminded him of how his uncle was always telling him to slow down. He never slowed down for Uncle. He only walked slower for Katara when he noticed her limp again. 

When Zuko approached the woman behind the stall, he asked without greeting, “How much for an ostrich horse?”

The woman hardly looked up from the coins she was counting. “Two silvers.”

He balked. “You just gave someone five for practically the same sized ostrich horse!” he exclaimed.

She smirked up from beneath her lashes. “I pay five for males. Every breeder pays more for males. Two for yours.”

He didn’t want to accept it. He wanted to try another breeder; maybe the woman was bluffing, but he looked over his shoulder to spare a glance at Katara and in the process he spotted someone else with an identical horse and an identical desperation for money. Spirits, why couldn’t he start his own market stall? Why did he have to be subjected to this?

He almost didn’t notice Katara hold out the palm of her hand towards the woman. “Two silvers,” she agreed without consulting him. 

He glared at her. “Three,” he insisted stubbornly. 

The stall owner shook her head and tried to balance the two coins on the tip of her nose, taunting them. They were real too. He could see the way the light reflected off the silver. “Two,” the woman repeated, catching the coins as they fell. She tossed them in the air. Zuko almost wanted to steal them from when she threw them, but somehow that would have been even more humiliating. “Take it or leave it.” 

The horse squawked like she knew they were discussing her. He said nothing but handed over the reins and plucked the coins from the woman’s hand. “Come on,” he said to Katara, grabbing her arm, “let’s get some food.”

As quickly as he grabbed her, she wrenched away from him. “Don’t touch me!”

“You were moving too slow.”

“Don’t touch me,” she said, softer this time but no less hostile. 

“Fine. Just walk.” 

She didn’t blow up at him again as they found a stall that sold cheap food. They agreed on a meal of rice, vegetables, and water. It would have been nice to have some meat, but it was a luxury he couldn’t afford. Had he not bought food and water for Katara, he might have been able to treat himself to some. Somehow that hadn’t seemed like an option after she followed him through the town. 

“How long are you going to follow me?” he wondered once their food had been eaten. The sun was setting. They’d have to make a plan for the night if they continued together. At first, he thought that she only stuck around for a chance to eat, but she ended up walking with him a good two miles after they filled their bellies. 

“Until you tell me to stop.” She rubbed at the spot under her eye where the welt had been. Once she'd had some water available to her, she soothed the skin back to normal. She had only had enough for a few of her wounds, so she healed the ones that bothered her the most. “Are you telling me to stop?”

It’s better alone.  

It was the conclusion he had come to once the Fire Nation put the bounty on his head at the command of his sister. It was the reason he had separated from his uncle.  It was the mantra he repeated to himself when he craved nothing more than the interaction of someone else. It was better to be alone. It was always better to be alone. 

“No.”

Chapter Text

The plan was the same as it had always been:  defeat the Fire Lord. It had seemed so simple when she left her home in the South Pole nearly three years ago with all the hope in the world. Now, though, they had a plan for the plan

“There’s going to be an eclipse,” Sokka told her. “For eight minutes, all firebenders lose bending. That’s our shot.”

“How far away is the eclipse?”

“A month,” answered the--to put it kindly, interesting -- girl in green sitting beside her brother. “Looks like you came back just in time, Sugar Queen.”

“I’m sorry, and you are?”

“I’m Toph. Aang’s earthbending teacher. Came into the picture shortly after you left.”

“Well, my name is Katara. Not Sugar Queen .”

“I know. I’ve heard all about you. Couldn’t ever get those two to shut up about you. I heard you spent these past two years in the lower ring of Ba Sing Se. Was it as suffocating as the upper ring?”

Toph was looking straight at her. It made Katara uneasy. The girl’s milky eyes could not see her the way Katara’s could see Toph, but she knew Toph could still see. It was unsettling to be stared at by her. Katara squirmed. “From what I understand, the lower ring was monitored a little less,” she said. “And it wasn’t the whole two years. It took some time to get there.”

“After you mysteriously turned invisible?” Toph asked snarkily. 

“Yes, after that.” 

“We should spar sometime,” the girl suggested, stretching her arms out behind her and then cracking her knuckles loudly. “I’ve heard you’re out of practice.”

“I’m not!”

“Relax. You are. Accept it and practice. You have a month until the invasion. Time’s ticking.” 

All around the ship, Katara felt the insistent pull of the water. At night, the moon’s pull on the tides called to her. She’d been forced to ignore the call for so long. Of course she’d bend a little in secret when she was all alone and there was no threat. Zuko told her not to. He was so worried about blowing their cover.

Don’t think about him. Don’t think about him. 

Instead she thought about the water. How much of her ability had she really lost? With all of her might, she began to send waves against the ship, rocking it back and forth, each wave more powerful than the last. 

“Uh, Katara, maybe lay off a little bit,” suggested Sokka, who swayed with the movements of the ship. 

Katara smiled at him and lowered her arms back to her sides. Pride as powerful as one of her surging waves swelled over her. She hadn’t lost everything

The feeling of empowerment was short-lived, however, as one of her father’s men bounded up the steps, calling for her and the others.

“The Avatar is awake,” he said. 

The three of them raced immediately down the steps, and the man— Katara hadn't learned all their names yet —followed after them.

“He is a little confused, waking up after all this time on a Fire Nation ship. We think when he sees you, he’ll calm down.”

Katara reached his room first. The sight of her must have made the young avatar even more confused, but immediately he stopped yelling at his guards. 

“I’m dreaming,” he said. 

Toph beat her to a reply. “You’re not, Twinkletoes. The wind blew her in while you were sleeping.”

His shoulders slumped. This wasn’t how their reunion was supposed to be. It was supposed to be as joyful as the reunion with Sokka and her father. It wasn’t supposed to be solemn. “Katara, I failed.”

Just when she thought it wasn’t possible, her heart broke again. “No, you didn’t. Sokka told me about the plan. He said there’s going to be an eclipse and-”

“There can’t be an invasion without the Earth King’s army, and there isn’t an Earth King anymore! The plan isn’t going to work! Over a hundred years later, and I’m still letting everybody down.”

“You didn’t let me down,” she tried to tell him, taking in how much he’d grown in the last two years. He was still a boy, just a boy of fourteen instead of a boy of twelve. He was as tall as she was now, and he would only grow taller. He looked so different. She wondered how different she must look to him. 

“Yes, I did.” He didn’t sound angry, just defeated. Maybe another day Katara would have known what to say, but not now in the face of his awareness. The truth was he had let her down, so she let the silence hang between them until Sokka spoke.

“Aang, if you come upstairs, Dad and I can go over our plan with you. We’ve been working on it nonstop. This invasion is still going to work. We can’t let an eclipse go by and do nothing. Firebenders will be totally powerless.”

“I know that!” Aang shouted. “But now they know it too! Azula knows everything. They’ll be expecting us.” 

“We can still win.”

“I’m not going to risk it.” 

“Avatar Roku said you needed to defeat the Fire Lord by Sozin’s comet, and Sozin’s comet is just a few months away. This could be our last chance.”

“I’m not going to risk it,” he repeated stubbornly. 

“Fine,” Sokka huffed. “Then we’ll go without you.” Before he stomped away, he looked to Katara and Toph for support. “Try to make him see sense,” he begged.   

Conversely, Aang’s eyes pleaded with her the way they had always done. Aang wanted Katara to side with him and make Sokka agree. She couldn’t do that. She was too anxious for everything to end. 

“I’m glad you’re awake, Aang,” she said neutrally. She turned to leave. She had to check on Rei, who had been left in the care of her father while she spoke with Sokka. 

“Wait, Katara, don’t you think we have some catching up to do?”

“We can catch up later after you’ve rested some more. And we can talk about the invasion again. I think Sokka and my dad came up with a really good plan. You should at least hear it.” 

“I don’t want to hear it! And I’ve rested enough! The guards said I was out for weeks.” 

“You were, so take it easy. Here, let me see.”

They sat on the bed together, and she started the healing process on his back. It was different now that he was awake. She could tell he was feeling restless, but his body was still too tired to take anything on. His body was still fighting a strike that should have killed him. 

“It’s really good to see you,” Aang said, wringing his hands in his lap as she worked. “I’m sorry I was yelling when you came in.”

“It’s okay. We’ve all been stressed out lately.” 

“Yeah. So, um, how are you?”

She laughed. “I’m fine, Aang. There, let me put a fresh bandage on and bring you some food. Then when you feel like you’re up to it, come upstairs. There’s someone I want you to meet.”

Her heart hammered in her chest. Sokka and Hakoda had accepted her son after the initial shock and ensuing awkwardness. Hakoda was a veteran to making babies happy, so he and Rei had gotten along just fine. Sokka still didn’t hold him exactly right, but he made an effort. 

“Is the father alive?” Her dad had asked when the shock wore off. 

“Yes.”

“Earth Kingdom?”

"Yes.” 

You’re good at lying now

“He looks like you. But your hair wasn’t that dark when you were born. That must be his father in him.”

“Yeah,” she admitted, stroking the raven strands herself. She could see what her father couldn’t.  He didn’t have anyone to compare Rei to but Katara, so he saw only Katara. 

But Katara saw Zuko’s hair, Zuko’s nose, Zuko’s cheekbones, Zuko’s smile. 

“We don’t need to talk about his father,” Katara said. “Ever.” 

Hakoda nodded sadly, rocking his infant grandson in his arms. “Then we won’t.”

“Are you disappointed?” she asked, feeling her throat swell. She hadn’t imagined this for herself. Until recently, she never thought the two lives she lived would ever have to converge. 

Hakoda kissed the top of her head. “How could I be disappointed when I never thought I would see you again? I’m overjoyed, Katara.” 

Sokka and Hakoda loved Rei now. So did Bato and the other warriors in her dad’s command. Even Toph said he sounded adorable. Still, Katara knew Aang would react differently. He would treat her differently. He wouldn’t take any interest in Rei, the living, breathing symbol that she had chosen somebody else. 

Her heart broke again that night when she discovered she was right.

“What do you mean you have a son? How could you have a son?” he demanded that night in front of everyone as they were trying to eat their evening meals. She’d been so caught off guard by how poorly he was taking the news that she couldn’t even reply. 

“Twinkletoes, maybe sit down and eat something with the rest of us,” Toph suggested. 

“I don’t get it, Katara!” he shouted. “How could you change so much?”

“We’ve all changed,” she insisted, holding Rei closer to her. She didn’t know if she was protecting him or comforting herself, but he smiled at her. 

“Not like you! You left us and went off and had a whole kid with someone! Now you’re back, and you’re all set on risking everyone’s life in a hopeless invasion. I feel like I’m looking at a stranger.” 

“So do I,” she said with tears in her eyes. “The Aang I knew wasn’t such a coward.”

What else was his stubborn refusal but cowardice? A hundred years of genocide and destruction by one nation, and they had the chance to end it. The Day of the Black Sun was exactly what they needed to defeat the Fire Nation before Sozin’s Comet, as Avatar Roku had instructed. Aang wanted to throw their last hope away.  

“You want an invasion? You want to get yourself imprisoned or killed? Fine. Consider this my blessing. Be sure to let us know who’s going to take care of him when you go!”

Then the Avatar, the supposed master of all four elements, bridge between humans and spirits, keeper of peace, stomped away like an angry teenager. Katara gritted her teeth together to keep the frustrated screams from escaping her mouth. 

Everyone else in the dining hall did a terrible job of trying to pretend like they hadn’t heard everything. She shifted Rei on her lap as they returned to insincere attempts at conversation. Leave it to Toph to bring up the awkward, however. 

“I’ve never heard him so mad at anyone before.” 

“Yep. Lucky me.” 

“Aang’s just extra sensitive. I would be too if someone struck me with lightning when I was all Avatar state,” Sokka pointed out. When Katara said nothing, he added, “He still shouldn’t have blown up at you like that. Getting all upset about this little guy . Come here. Come to Uncle Sokka .” 

Toph cringed when Sokka’s voice raised three pitches as he spoke to Rei. While Katara didn’t care too much for Sokka’s baby voice either, she smiled when her son smiled at his uncle. There was a time when her son knew nothing of uncles and grandpas and friends, when the only two people in the world were Mommy and Daddy. 

As Sokka bounced Rei on his leg, Toph realized, “Aang did just kinda agree to the invasion. We can’t let him forget that.”

“I don’t think it’s a good time to tell him,” she said, suddenly sick of the food in front of her. 

“Why’s he so upset about the kid anyways? What is he, in love with you or something?”

Sokka gagged. “Ugh, no. That’s ridiculous. Why would you even say that?”

It wasn’t that ridiculous, but she wasn’t going to say that. 

“I’m just curious. Where is his dad, Sugar Queen? Since he’s not with you, we got three possibilities. Dead, in prison, or bailed on you. Which one is it? Don’t be afraid to give details.”

“Toph, I told you not to ask her!”

“I don’t get why we have to be so secretive now. It’s a simple question. How bad could it be?”

Oh, it could be bad. It could be really bad. She toyed with saying each of the possibilities aloud. A dead lover would garner sympathy and put in end to all discussion of Rei’s father. An imprisoned one would put the conversation on hold until the invasion, when freeing all the war prisoners was on the agenda immediately after the fall of the Fire Nation. She wanted to say he bailed on her. After all, didn’t he? Didn’t he abandon them? 

“Did I mention I can tell if you’re lying?” 

No, she hadn’t mentioned that.

Beside her, Rei laughed as Sokka played peek-a-boo with him. Your hair, your nose, your cheekbones, your smile...did you leave us?  

“I actually don’t know. Honest.”  

It was going to have to do. It was the only answer she had.

Chapter Text

If Katara thought the plains were dry and unforgiving, they were nothing compared to the actual desert. Every step through the sand left her panting like an animal, and her head felt like it was throbbing in time with the sun. It didn’t help that she’d barely eaten anything substantial, or that Zuko was always walking so fast. Why did she agree to go through the desert with him again? 

Oh, yeah, it was the fastest way to get to Ba Sing Se, and they needed to get to Ba Sing Se. She still didn’t know how she felt about Zuko going to Ba Sing Se. Logically, she knew the banished prince needed to get away from Fire Nation patrols, and Ba Sing Se was the last remaining city unoccupied by the Fire Nation. It was a problem they shared. 

Still, she knew Aang was going to be in Ba Sing Se eventually. It was discussed among the group that Aang needed to meet with the Earth King, which was why Katara was hesitant. She needed to reunite with Aang and Sokka, but she didn’t want Zuko anywhere near them, and she couldn’t travel alone. 

She never wanted that to happen to her again. 

On some level, Zuko knew something happened to her. She knew the state she was in when he found her. She was so angry when she saw him. One of the most humiliating moments of her life, and he was watching front and center. She was prepared for ridicule and hostility and even more of what that gang of men had done to her.

But then he used his money to feed her. 

As much as she hated him, she was grateful for that small mercy after the weeks of hell she’d been subjected to. It didn’t absolve him of his sins, and she acted carefully around him, but in her short time traveling with him, it was almost like Katara was experiencing a completely different person. 

In a way, she was. A character named Lee. She was different too; she wondered how Sokka and Aang would react to Tara, an orphan Lee met while traveling. Tara wore a green ankle-length dress and a matching head covering in an effort to protect her hair and face from the desert sun. Tara was quiet and growing numb to the suffering around her as others had been numb to her own. Tara couldn’t waterbend.

She could salt meats, though, and that was something Zuko didn’t know how to do. Zuko could fight without bending, something Katara couldn’t do. He carried two broadswords on his back wherever they went, so they’d be safer from gangs. Apparently they were a big problem in the Earth Kingdom. Katara wished she’d known that before she was left on her own. Katara was also good at convincing people to let them work for lodging. She was always eager to offer Lee, whose sheer strength was in high demand since so many men went off to war.  

“You look strong,” one elderly woman assessed. “Strong and sturdy. I need someone strong and sturdy to build a fence between my home and my neighbor’s. You may stay and eat while you work. If I like your work when you finish, I will pay you. Does that sound like a deal to you, young man?”

Zuko nodded.

“Good.” Then the woman pointed a wrinkled finger in his face. “But do not steal from me!”

“I won’t steal from you,” Zuko told her.

“Then we won’t have a problem. I have an extra room for you and your wife.”

Katara blushed. “Oh, we’re not married.”

“Not married! Very well, then, young man, you will have to sleep in the stables.” 

Zuko glared at her, but the glare did not intimidate her. In fact, Katara had to stifle a giggle, especially at the sight of Zuko taking orders from an old woman. When the woman was out of earshot, Zuko muttered, “I can smell the animals all the way from here. Next time, say we’re married.” Then he sulked off to work. 

For the first time in weeks, Katara laughed. 

The woman’s name was Sishi, and apparently, she was the village’s matchmaker. Katara liked the woman enough, but she was the one to put this awful desert in Zuko’s mind. During dinner, she told them terribly foreboding stories of the Si Wong desert as a way to pass the time. Katara would have much preferred her matchmaking stories.  

“But still, people go there and die there trying to get to Ba Sing Se.” 

“That’s where we’re headed,” Katara had mentioned. 

“Well, be sure to take paths on the outer boundaries. They’re crowded, and they take longer, but they’re safe.”

“Of course. As soon as Lee finishes the fence.”

But stupid Lee had other plans once he’d finished and received payment. 

“I’ve looked at all the maps. It’s a four-day trip tops through the desert. If we took the paths, it’d be a week. Maybe two. And all that traffic means more chances for us to be recognized and turned in for cash rewards.”

“Did you hear Sishi?” Katara demanded of him. “She said no one survives going through the Si Wong, especially not foreigners.”

“We’ll take every precaution. Water, protection from the sun…”

“And what if there’s a sandstorm? How are we going to survive that one?”

“Do you know how much money we have?” Now he was shouting at her. “We don’t have enough to sustain us through a two-week long trip. We do have enough for four days.”

“There will be more resources available to us in the more hospitable regions. We won’t have to use our money.” Then she remembered, Sokka was the one who always got them food. He did the hunting and foraging. She only got food if they had money and needed something from the market. “Do you know how to hunt?” she asked hesitantly. 

“No. I never have.” 

“I don’t know either.”

“Well then. Desert it is.” 

She was going to die in this desert. Zuko was keeping them on strict rations of water in order to preserve everything they brought, and the deprivation burned. Her whole body thrummed with the need to drink and rest. Three miles ago, she felt lightheaded, but she kept trudging on, following Zuko’s footprints. 

“Don’t you get tired?” she shouted at the young man ahead of her, carrying his pack and his broadswords and himself as if they were nothing. It bothered her. Then he turned to face her, and she could see he was covered in sweat and panting for breath, the same as her. He didn’t need to answer. In sympathy, she froze the sweat to his face in an attempt to cool him, as she had done for herself. This remedy was always too short-lived. “Just remember this was your idea.”

“Save your breath.”

She huffed at him. 

Nights provided some relief. The temperature dropped dramatically once the sun set. At night, they ate their platypus bear jerky and rested on their packs, facing opposite directions. Staring up at the stars from below at night made Katara feel obsolete. It felt like nothing existed outside of the desert. Only Zuko’s breathing kept her from going insane.      

Zuko fainted on the third day. 

Katara’s heart stopped, and with the little strength she had left, she ran to him and examined his head. “Zuko!” she called, not caring that she had said the wrong name. Who would hear them all the way out here? She used her own body to shade him and pushed an extra ration of water through his lips, praying that he would wake up. “Please! Don’t leave me alone out here!” A minute later, he started to open his eyes again. “Zuko?”

“Mom?”

“No, Zuko, it’s Katara. You passed out.”

“Mom, what happened? Why did you leave?” 

“Zuko!”

“If I had known that was going to be the last time I ever saw you, I would have...” the banished prince’s voice cracked. He didn’t sound tired in the slightest, not at all like someone who had just fainted. He sounded hurt and angry. “I would have done everything I could to make you stay. Tell me you’re okay. Mom, tell me you’re okay!”

“Zuko, listen to me. You’re hallucinating. You need to snap out of it.”

But then Katara couldn’t help him anymore. She wasn’t with Zuko. She wasn’t cradling his head. She wasn’t even in the desert anymore. When did she leave? She looked around. She was in that little village right on the mainland, the first place she went when she finally gave up on Aang and Sokka coming back for her. Were they still looking for her? Why did they leave without her? She was on a street. She recognized that street. It was where---her head darted in every direction, and then she saw them. She saw the five of them coming towards her. Some distant part of her tried to tell herself it wasn’t real. But it had been. Everything they were about to do to her they had done before. And then Katara started screaming.

When she woke, her throat hurt. Her head pounded as she lifted it off her pack. Looking over, Zuko was on his pack. This time he was laying beside her and facing her instead of facing the opposite way. The cool nighttime air hung around them. 

“Welcome back,” he said. 

Katara groaned. “I hate this place.”

“Me too. Only two more days left since we lost a lot of travel time today.”

“We won’t make it.”

“You can’t think like that.”

“We’re already having hallucinations. Both of us are. It doesn’t matter how much water we have, we have heat exhaustion. There’s nothing we can do to stop that. Everything I’ve tried to keep us cool isn’t working.”

“Yes, it is,” he said softly. “We’re almost all the way through. From now on, we travel at night. We rest during the day. Get some more sleep and then we’ll get moving.”

Katara rubbed at her raw throat and closed her eyes again. “When did you snap out of yours?”

“I don’t know. When I did, you were screaming.”

“Oh,” she said, cheeks flaming. “Did I say anything?”

“Yeah.”

“What did I say?”

“We don’t need to talk about it. Just sleep.” The softness of his voice reminded her of how he sounded earlier, the sadness she had never heard from him before. 

“I’m sorry about your mom,” she whispered, half expecting him to lash out for bringing up an obviously sensitive subject. 

Instead he sighed. “I’m sorry about what happened to you.”

She was going to cry again. She bit her lip to stop it from quivering. “I’m a master waterbender.” 

“I know you are. We’ve fought.” Zuko must have felt the isolation of the desert, too. He never brought up his life outside his alias, and he got so mad at her if she slipped up, too. But not tonight.

“And I couldn’t stop it. Once one of them grabbed my hands and another gagged me, I couldn’t do anything.”

“There are a lot of terrible people in the world. I’m sorry you encountered some.”

She used to think Zuko was evil. But then she thought of the gang members that attacked her. She thought of the man who had killed her mother in cold blood. She thought of all the awful people she’d met since she left the South Pole. Zuko wasn’t as abhorrent as them. It was all so terribly confusing. 

“Did your mom answer your questions?”

“It wasn’t my mom. It was my mind playing tricks on me.”

“Just hold onto it. Maybe it meant something.”

“It meant nothing,” he argued back. 

“You don’t know that! You have to have hope-”

Hope ?” he scoffed. “Do you still have hope after everything you’ve been through? Look at where you are. You’re stuck here in the middle of the desert with me. Not exactly what you had in mind, is it?”

“No, it isn’t.”

The exiled prince sighed and brushed a hand through his growing hair. His fingers lingered upon his scar. Katara wondered if he even realized they did. “This isn’t the kind of world for hope,” he said. 

“And whose fault is that?” she spat out, suddenly angry. “Because the way I see it, the Fire Nation killed all the airbenders, invaded the Earth Kingdom, and stole all the waterbenders from my home. Or am I mistaken?” He said nothing, and that made her angrier. “Do I have it all wrong, Prince Zuko?”

“No, you don’t. But I’m not a prince anymore. There’s nothing I can do about this war. I can’t go back in time and make it better. There’s nothing you can do either. You’ve lost the Avatar.”

He lost me , she wanted to say. He left me in the Foggy Swamp like I meant nothing to him. 

She got quiet after that, thinking about how the swamp had guided her away from Sokka and Aang and hidden her unknowingly until it was time for them to leave. She could still hear them calling for her, searching everywhere for her. She could still feel the pressure on her throat, the influence of forces she didn’t understand who rendered her incapable of calling back. 

They tried , screamed a tiny voice in the back of her head. Still, it stung terribly to be left behind. 

She’d been left behind when her mother was taken from her, when her father left for war. She knew Aang and Sokka were on a tight schedule. Aang still had two more elements to master, and they wouldn’t come as easily to him as hers did. And he only had a couple years before the comet.   

They didn’t need me , said another voice. Sokka was the planner. Sokka was the hunter. Aang was the Avatar. She was a waterbending teacher who had taught him everything she could. Her destiny was fulfilled already. Maybe that was why the swamp had kept her. Now all she could do was stay alive and hope to see them again. Staying alive was the only hope her counterpart had. It was what made him so desperate to get through this desert.

“You lost the Avatar, too,” she whispered, realizing it was something they had in common. 

“Even if I hadn’t, I’m not welcome home anymore.” 

He had held her mother’s necklace in his hand once, and told her how he wanted to go home. She hadn’t cared then but the memory resurfaced in that moment. He only ever wanted to go home.

“Ba Sing Se can be home for a little bit,” she told him.

“It won’t be home.”

“You’re the one who said not to think like that.” It was funny how the dynamic fluctuated between them. One second he would be keeping her afloat, reminding her why they needed to choose life.Then his conviction would waver. He would descend into hopelessness, and she would catch him just before he hit the ground.

“We’re almost out of the desert,” she reminded him. “Just don’t faint on me again.”

He burrowed his head against his back, struggling to get comfortable. “The same goes for you.”

“Deal. And when we get to Ba Sing Se, we’ll make it our home.”

She saw him smile. She was sure she did. It wasn’t just a trick of the moonlight.

Chapter Text

He brought tea with him the night he decided to visit his uncle. Somehow he should have known it wouldn’t help anything. 

His uncle didn’t take a sip. 

“It’s your favorite,” Zuko insisted. 

Iroh said nothing.

“I know what they’ve given you here hasn’t been up to your standards. This one is good. I brewed it myself, Uncle. I can brew tea now. Actually, I learned in Ba Sing Se. I worked in this tea shop, owned by this guy named Yu Ling. Nice, as crazy about tea as you are, and he gave me a job--”

“Before you helped your sister take the city,” Iroh interrupted flatly.

“Uncle, please know I didn’t want it to be like this.”

“Neither did I, Prince Zuko .”

Whenever Uncle used his title during their travels, it was spoken much more lovingly than it was now. Now he uttered his name like a curse. Zuko looked upon his uncle in his prison cell and was reminded of the first time he saw Katara, sitting on that street so long ago. Both could not be looked upon without pity. Katara had accepted his food; his uncle would not.

“Azula told me I could go home. She said you could go home. I didn’t know she meant like this.” 

Zuko immediately felt ashamed for even trying to defend himself. Even to his own ears, the pleas sounded pathetic. He imagined how they must have sounded to his captured uncle, who had been publicly pronounced a traitor to his home land and then left to rot in his cell. 

“Azula says you’re not speaking to anyone.”

“Would you like me to?” asked his uncle menacingly, and Zuko felt afraid of the man for the first time in his life. He knew all about his uncle’s career as a general and the reputation he’d earned for himself as the firstborn son of Fire Lord Azulon. He’d seen evidence of his uncle’s talent for war on more than one occasion, but never had it been directed at him until now. 

“No, I appreciate that you haven’t said anything.”

“My silence is not done with you in mind, Prince Zuko.”

It was enough to push Zuko to leave. If his uncle didn’t want the tea, fine by him. He could die of thirst. He had Azula again. He had his father again. The young prince picked himself up and dusted the dirt off his cloak.

“Goodbye, uncle.”

“Wait. I have one question for you, nephew.” Zuko waited. “Come closer. I must whisper in case the walls have ears.”

Zuko indulged the man even though he was still annoyed. “What is it?”

“When you held your baby in your arms for the first time, how did it feel?” 

Unreal. Impossibly wonderful. I never wanted anything to happen to him. I never wanted to give him up. I never knew it was possible to love so fast. He took my breath away, and I don’t think I ever got it back .

Zuko said nothing, but his eyes must have betrayed him. 

Iroh tearily confessed, “That was the love I had for my Lu Ten and later the love I had for you.”

Zuko left quickly and snuck back into his palace bedroom, but leaving his uncle’s presence did little to relax his mind. He couldn’t dream of memories that night. He couldn’t sleep at all. 

It made his father’s war council meeting the following morning even more troubling to get through as they discussed preparations for the approaching eclipse. Somehow he had earned himself the seat at his father’s right.

See, I don’t need Uncle. This is my real father. He must love me as much I love Rei; it is just harder for him to show .

“Now that the Avatar is dead, are we even sure there’s going to be an invasion?” one of the generals asked.

“Oh, yes. In fact, we believe we have spotted Chief Hakoda and his forces. One of the air force’s war balloons spotted a fleet of Fire Nation ships headed east when orders were given to head west to send reinforcements to the Earth Kingdom.”

“What was done when these suspicions arose?” asked the first general.

“Well, nothing. We did not have the orders to engage.”

“Oh, you didn’t have the orders to engage? You’re telling me you had Chief Hakoda’s location, and you just let him slip away. We’ve been hunting the Southern wolf since he and his tribesmen stole our ships!”

“My men acted perfectly in line with their jobs. The Fire Lord makes the decisions, not us. To act without orders is to disrespect our lord. Are you saying that is what you would have done?”

“I grow tired of your petty arguments, General Xu, Admiral Wong,” his sister said pointedly, analyzing her fingernails. 

Both men straightened. “Apologies, Princess Azula.”

“Accepted... for now .”

Beside him, his father smiled. Zuko didn’t dare say anything. He had learned his lesson the first time and knew now not to speak unless spoken to. 

“We will prepare for the invasion as planned,” his father ordered. “The city will be evacuated along with the Royal Family. No one will know my location aside from my two children who will  be in separate underground compartments. This invasion will amount to nothing, but we must be prepared. Our bending will be impaired.”

“For a short time, my lord,” General Xu reminded them all. 

“Eight minutes has been enough to change history before,” replied Zuko’s father intensely. Zuko wondered if he was referring to one event in particular or speaking generally. Briefly, he thought that his uncle would be wise enough to know. 

“We will be prepared,” swore Admiral Wong. “My navy will ensure the rebels do not land in the capital city.”

“Excellent. And the army?”

General Xu quickly answered, “the army will be prepared in case they achieve landfall.”

“Which they won’t,” said Azula disinterestedly. Was she so bored of having their father rely on her? Was she present so often at these meetings that they had become something she routinely dreaded? Zuko envied her all over again. 

“No, Princess, they won’t.”

Then his father surprised him by looking directly into his eyes. “Prince Zuko has honored his nation in killing the Avatar,” he said. “Now we are safe.” 

Suddenly all of his father’s war ministers bowed their heads in deference to him. Even Azula followed their example, though she had a smirk on her face that was enough to turn his stomach. 

Once their father had dismissed his council, and they had all bowed to their lord, he cornered his sister. She was on the way to the gardens that had once belonged to their mother, the gardens they had played in as children. She had taken her first steps ever in those gardens. A distant part of Zuko remembered them. Her first steps had been to him

“Okay, what do you want?” he demanded. 

She laughed at him. “Speak plainly if you want an answer. I have no idea what you’re talking about.” 

“I know you didn’t want me to come home, so why did you tell everyone I killed the Avatar?” 

“I don’t know why you don’t believe me, dear brother. You belong at home with us.” 

As sincere as she sounded, instinctively he knew his sister was lying. While he had been banished, Azula had been their father’s heir, the second closest to complete power. Every time she bent blue fire, he remembered there was nothing she loved more than power . Now that Zuko was back in their father’s good graces and reinstated into the succession, he was next in line for the throne. Azula never would have accepted that unless she had a plan. He just wished he knew what it was. 

Then his sister pulled at his hand. “But if you feel indebted to me, you could do me a favor,” she said. 

“What is it?” he asked, fearing the answer. 

“Why don’t you take Mai out on a date? I’m sure you’d both enjoy yourselves. You’ve been after each other since we were children. It’s kind of ridiculous.”

That’s what you want me to do? Take your friend out?”

Azula shrugged. “It’s the least you could do.”

“I don’t want to. She’s a friend, not even really my friend anymore. She’s your friend.” 

“You asked what I wanted. That’s what I want. Take Mai out on a date. What’s the problem?”

The problem was that he didn’t like Mai in that way. Maybe if things had been different when they were growing up, maybe if he had never been burned and banished, then he could find himself involved with Mai. But now that he still saw Katara when he closed his eyes at night and reached for her when he woke every morning, it was completely out of the question to entertain romantic thoughts for another. He could still feel the pressure of her kisses on his lips and could hear her voice soothing their son. 

“There isn’t one,” he said.

He was no honorable man. War ministers bowed to him, his father accepted him, the Fire Nation welcomed him, but even after all this time, he had not brought honor back with him. He was a disgraceful man who shamed himself more every day. He agreed to Azula’s request and instantly regretted it, but he couldn’t say a word about it. Azula knew too much. No wonder his sister was so satisfied with the new arrangement. Zuko may have been next in line for the throne, but Azula still had all the power.

He managed to dream that night. In his sleeping state, some conscious part of him waited for Katara. Sometimes he slept just to see her clearly. Sometimes he stayed awake to keep her away. Tonight, he wanted her. He waited, but she never came.

He dreamed that he was back in the arena of his first agni kai. The crowd gathered around him, hungry for violence, eager to see the skill of the Fire Lord’s only son. While on the surface, the dream seemed like the memory of the day his life changed forever, Zuko realized immediately what was different. 

The boy with his forehead pressed to the ground looked up long enough for Zuko to see his blue eyes. For the first time in this dream, he wasn’t the boy. He was the Fire Lord now, and the baby he had left behind, his little Rei, was the thirteen-year-old boy. His son cowered before him, begging for forgiveness, crying out for mercy from the man who had brought him into this merciless world. 

I never wanted anything to happen to him. I never wanted to give him up. 

The words his father had said echoed through his consciousness, though this time they were spoken in his own voice.

You will learn respect, and suffering will be your teacher.

He awoke that night, panting and angry, too hot for the red silk sheets of his bed. With the back of his hand, he wiped the sweat from his brow and felt the branded skin of his face. What if he hadn’t awoken and his dream continued? Would he have shown mercy or burned his own son the same? As he sat in the windowsill and looked out at the Royal Plaza underneath the light of a full moon, he asked himself the same question over and over again. 

What kind of man had he become?

Chapter Text

When Zuko had made the difficult decision to separate from his uncle, the elder man was not as hurt as Zuko thought he was going to be. In fact his uncle even mentioned that he thought it was wise for Zuko to spend some time alone and find out who he was as a man instead of a prince. It was all very surprising. Zuko had spent hours mulling over the right words to let his uncle know he wanted to find his own destiny only for his uncle to cut him off and tell him he agreed wholeheartedly. 

“What will you do?” he asked his uncle. 

The old man shrugged, though a soft smile planted itself firmly on his face. “Do not worry about me, nephew. I will be all right.” 

Right as they prepared to diverge in different directions, Iroh pulled him into a tight hug and placed a small object firmly in the palm of Zuko’s hand. 

“What is it?” Zuko asked, but when he looked down at it again, he realized that he already knew. It was a white lotus tile, his uncle’s favorite pai sho tile, a game Zuko had never quite gotten the hang of. 

“If you ever find yourself in need of help, play this tile. Not many still cling to the ancient ways, but those who do can always find a friend.” 

Zuko didn’t understand a word that just left his uncle’s mouth, but he still nodded. Iroh hugged him one final time, and then he took his first step in the opposite direction. He didn’t look back once. He wouldn’t let himself. His uncle had been his only familiar face during his banishment, his teacher, his adviser. 

It’s better to be alone

The tile stayed with him, as important to him as the dao swords strapped to his back, as he traveled his way through the plains on his own. It stayed with him even as he looked over his shoulder when Katara joined him. Later, he stopped looking over his shoulder. Somewhere in that desert, she started traveling with him at his side instead of at his back. Now he only needed to turn his head slightly and there she was. Sweaty, tired, and hungry, but there the waterbender was keeping pace with him. 

Sometimes he felt like he was betraying his uncle by traveling with Katara. They had separated so he could find his own path, but then he reminded himself that his uncle would not object to her company. After all, she was as eager to forget that he was once a prince as he was. Besides, his uncle was kind at his core. He would not want him to be alone forever. 

“This might not be the best time to bring this up, but how are we even going to get into Ba Sing Se?” asked the sweaty, tired, hungry waterbender at his side. 

“What do you mean? We’re almost there. Only another few hours of desert left.”

“Yeah, but the city’s walled up.”

“I know that,” he huffed. It wasn’t the last Earth Kingdom holdout by accident.

“My point is that you can’t get in without papers. We don’t have any identification at all.”

This was a problem. “I’m sure a lot of people don’t have papers. Whole cities burn down, identifications with them.”

“And those people aren’t allowed entry into Ba Sing Se.”

“Why didn’t you tell me this earlier?”

“I thought you had a plan!”

As angry as he was, as violently as his inner fire channeled through his body, Zuko took a deep breath and willed himself to remain calm. After all, the two of them were still in the desert, and then it would take a ferry ride across Full Moon Bay before they’d come under scrutiny. There was still time to think of something, or time to worry about it later, depending on how he looked at it. 

“I guess we could pretend that our papers were destroyed in a Fire Nation raid. Maybe they’ll give us new ones,” Katara suggested.

“Maybe.” He doubted it. Nothing was ever that simple. 

When the pair finally made it out of the desert, Katara fell to her knees with the biggest smile on her face. “We did it!” she exclaimed happily.

His returning smile was much more reserved. “See, Sishi didn’t know what she was talking about.”

His companion laughed. “I think she did, but we’re just crazy.” 

He reached his hand out, making sure she could see it fully. She accepted his hand, and he helped her back to her feet. Maybe they were crazy.

One ferry took passengers over every four hours, but the vast influx of refugees meant passages were booked up for the next eight trips. They camped again with their meagre belongings, feeling so much less safe with all these people around them. It would be just his luck to be recognized after his hellish endeavor through the desert. 

“Sleep,” he told Katara. “I’ll keep watch.”

“It’s okay. I’m not tired.”

“Liar,” he accused without malice. He held his swords firmly in his hands and kept them in full view of everyone. There might only be two of them, but he would not allow them to be messed with. 

“I think you can put your weapons away. Look around. Everyone’s as tired as we are.”

It was true to a certain extent. All around them were weary survivors waiting hours and hours for a ferry. Mothers nursed skinny infants in the open. The elderly limped. Some men were missing limbs; others were terribly burned like him. Orphaned siblings huddled together. Still, he knew there was always darkness lurking nearby. He loosened his grip on his swords but did not stand down from his defensive position completely. 

“There,” he said. “Now go to sleep.”

“Don’t let me sleep too long. You need a turn.” 

Zuko nodded, but promised nothing. His stomach rumbled uncomfortably. Every last coin would have to go to that ferry waystation, and now it would likely be another day before they could eat. They’d finished all of their platypus bear jerky that morning. 

With nothing to do but watch Katara sleep, Zuko found himself fiddling with the white lotus tile his uncle had given him. It was a tiny thing, so tiny Zuko always feared he would lose it on his journey. He found himself checking his pocket often to make sure it was still there. He gently secured one sword behind his back to free up a hand for the tile. Once he found it, he held it out in front of him, suddenly transfixed by the intricacies of the flower.

“What’s that?” Katara asked him. 

“You’re supposed to be sleeping.”

“I can’t.” She reached out for the tile in his hand. He let her hold it. He let her have this piece of him. 

“It’s a pai sho tile. My uncle’s favorite game.”

“You keep it to remember him?”

“He gave it to me as a parting gift.”

She handed the white lotus tile back to him. “Do you miss him?”

“What kind of question is that?”

“I just want to know why you’d leave someone you love so much.”

He didn’t want to explain it to her. She’d probably think it was dumb. “It was just time for me to be on my own.”

“But I’m with you.”

“Yeah, but you’re going to leave.” 

She didn’t dispute him, nor did she placate him, and he didn’t know what else to say, so they fell into heavy silence as she tried to make herself comfortable and he tried to distract himself from the hunger. 

When the tickets were finally available for purchase, the pair stood in line for hours before someone finally saw them. A young woman with deep green eyes and long, black hair called them to her window. Her name tag read Kaph. She held her ink quill to the registrar in front of her. 

“How many boarding?” 

“Two,” Katara answered. “But we only need one bed. We’re married.”

Kaph looked up from her registrar then, eyeing them suspiciously. The two of them had talked previously about how they would pretend to be married for a cheaper passage into Ba Sing Se. Unmarried pairs were forced to pay for two beds; married couples had the luxury of buying one. 

“Can you provide proof of marriage?” she asked. 

“Um, we don’t exactly have any documents. We had to flee so quickly when the Fire Nation came. We couldn’t get anything out of our home.” 

Kaph’s expression remained as indifferent as it had the entirety of the meeting. She had likely heard the story a thousand times before. Zuko could feel the meeting rapidly coming to a close, and on a desperate whim, he plucked the white lotus tile from his pocket and planted it on the counter separating the two of them from Kaph and her registrar. 

The young woman’s eyes narrowed in confusion before she picked the tile up and gasped. “Oh, wow. I’ve never actually seen this happen before. I’m supposed to send you directly to my boss.”

“What?” asked Katara, clearly confused. 

The woman shuffled some papers and jumped up from her chair, keeping the tile with her. “I have to let him know to expect you. Just wait right here. I’ll be back.”

Zuko laughed. Crazy uncle and his crazy gifts. He couldn’t believe that actually worked. 

“Can you explain to me what’s going on?” Katara whispered to him. 

“My uncle told me to use that tile if I ever needed help. I guess it’s like some golden ticket or something.” 

Kaph returned and lifted the barrier between the refugees and the workers. Zuko and Katara  both walked toward her, but Kaph shook her head.

“Not you, miss. My boss made it clear he only wanted to see the one who had the tile.” 

“Why can’t she go with me?” asked Zuko, reaching for her. He realized then that they hadn’t really been apart since they started traveling together. Through the bad, the worse, and the ugly, they’d been together. 

Katara offered him a small smile. “I’ll be okay out here, Lee.”

So he left her. He left her out with all the other refugees and followed Kaph up two flights of stairs to a wooden door, where she knocked promptly. Once her boss opened the door, Kaph bowed her head. “This is him.”

“Thank you, Kaph. I’ll take it from here.”

Zuko gulped. The man was likely the same age as his father, and he was dressed much nicer than anyone Zuko had seen in days. 

“So this -” he held the tile in front of him, “belongs to you?”

“Yes, it was given to me by someone very close. He told me to use it if I needed help.”

“What’s your name, boy?”

“Lee. Can I have it back now?”

The older man obliged. “Not many still cling to the ancient ways,” he said naturally, as if making a simple observation, but Zuko smiled, remembering his uncle’s parting words which had confused him all those weeks ago.

“But those who do can always find a friend.” 

The older man held his hand out for Zuko to shake. “You may call me Shu Min. I understand you are trying to acquire passage to Ba Sing Se for you and your wife.”

“Yes.”

“You also don’t have any papers.”

“Yes, we had to flee too quickly to retrieve them.”

The man’s mouth curled in a rather alarming display. “Is that so?”

“Yes.” Inside, he tried to remind himself to stay calm. 

Shu Min retreated to his mahogany desk. It was one of the most exquisitely carved mahogany desks Zuko had ever seen. When he looked closely, he realized white lotuses had been carved into the woodwork. After opening one of the compartments, Shu Min retrieved a pile of official documents. Zuko recognized the blank identification papers, marriage certificates, ferry boarding passes, and he couldn’t believe his luck. He heated a pot of wax over a small flame and procured his official seal from another compartment in the desk. 

“I suppose that means we’ll have to draw up some new ones,” he said conspiratorially.

When he returned to Katara, he handed her a paper that confirmed her identity as Tara Mingyun. His own paper matched hers. He was now Lee Mingyun, and according to their shiny new marriage certificate, they had been married six months. Her face lit up in pleasant surprise once again when he handed her one of the rice cakes he’d been able to buy with the money they no longer had to spend on passage. Shu Min had taken care of everything for them, and in eight more hours, they would be on a ferry into Ba Sing Se. 

Katara smiled happily as she sank her teeth into the rice cake. “Mmm, it’s so good.” 

“I know. I already had one.” 

When she finished hers, she wiped a crumb from the side of her mouth and licked it from her finger. If he was still an arrogant prince, he would have been disgusted. Now he was amused. She looked up at him, holding the documents in her hands. “How did you do this?” 

He shrugged. “Can’t tell you. Ancient secret.”

She punched him playfully on his shoulder. “Come on, Lee.”

“No, really, who knows what will happen if I tell an outsider ?” 

She huffed. Her bottom lip pouted out, and her arms crossed in front of her body, but Zuko kept quiet to annoy her just a little longer. He still didn’t understand it that well himself, and he never knew who was listening. Also, he was enjoying this way too much. 

Chapter Text

She used to play pretend with Sokka and the other children of their tribe. She was always competitive with it. She never wanted to break the character assigned to her. The stories became real to her somewhere along the way. 

For this story, it was when the two of them stepped off the ferry and walked through the impenetrable walls of Ba Sing Se with hundreds of others, guards at their flanks. She noticed how Zuko kept looking for her even though she was right beside him. 

“I’m not going to disappear, you know,” she said. 

“I just don’t want to get separated.”

So she’d smiled and reached for his hand, threading their fingers together. “There. Now you won’t lose me.” 

In that moment, she became Tara Mingyun. This was her chance to start over and pretend she’d never known anything but freedom. Lee made sure she didn’t suffer. He moved them immediately into a comfortable apartment on the second floor of a nearby tenement. With what money, Tara didn’t know. It didn’t matter to her as soon as she sat down on an actual bed, not a sleeping bag, not a lice-ridden cot, not the street--a bed

Lee Mingyun found work immediately on a rice farm. The influx of residents meant more mouths to feed, which meant more farming, which meant more jobs, and Lee was ideal. Tara knew why. Her husband was strong and hardworking. He worked under the sun from dawn to dusk and returned home to eat and sleep for the night. 

He slept on the floor. 

She hated when he did that. Every time she looked down at his sleeping form, she remembered that none of the story was real. She’d put so much time into Tara and Tara’s narrative. Tara’s mother was still alive. Her father couldn’t be at war because there was no war in Ba Sing Se. Her brother wasn’t in danger because of her. Tara wasn’t anyone special. Tara had never been raped. She never knew brutality. Somewhere outside these walls Tara lived, airbenders roamed the air temples and the Fire Nation stayed to itself. Inside these walls, Tara Mingyun lived a free life with her husband.

But then he slept on the floor every night and shattered her pretend world. Every time she looked down on him from her bed, she saw Zuko, and remembered she was Katara.   

“When you think, who speaks?” she whispered one night when she couldn’t sleep, but of course he didn’t answer. He was sleeping soundly on the floor, unaffected by the pouring rain outside, free from the conflict of her mind. Eventually, she quieted the noise enough to sleep, only to wake fitfully. She groaned as she tried to get comfortable. It was impossible. She rolled towards the edge of the bed and rearranged her pillow once again, wondering how it could still be raining, before she looked down and realized in the haze of the moonlight, that Zuko was gone. 

She shot up and blinked again and again, hoping he would reappear. The sheets he slept on were still there. It looked like his pillow still had the imprint of his head. She carefully padded her feet across the bedroom floor and checked for him in the kitchen. He wasn’t there. He wasn’t in the sitting area. By the time she checked the bathroom, she was panicking. Where could he have gone? Ba Sing Se maintained a strict curfew in an effort to curb criminal activity. He had absolutely no business outside of the apartment. He had no business being away from her. 

When he returned hours later, after the rain had stopped,while the moon still reigned in the sky, he was bleeding. Good , Katara thought. She was ashamed to admit she’d shed tears over him in his absence. She waited for him in the sitting room because it was the closest to the door. She’d wrinkled her sleeping dress, wringing the skirt of it through her hands as she waited for him. In the end, he didn’t walk in through the door. He snuck in through their bedroom window, wearing tight, black clothes she’d never seen, soaked head to toe, and holding pressure to a wound on his shoulder. 

“Where were you?” she demanded as she flung herself in front of him, even though she had promised herself she wouldn’t let him know she was worried. Hopefully, he couldn’t see her red, tear stained cheeks. Hopefully, he only detected anger. 

“You should be asleep.”

“I was. Imagine my surprise when I woke up, and you were gone. Where were you?” 

Apparently, he would rather take off his shirt than answer. He held the cloth to the back of his shoulder and used it as a compress. His body slumped to the floor beside the bed.

“What happened to you?”

“I ran into a little trouble.”

“What were you doing out in the first place?”

He sighed. “I go out sometimes at night while you’re sleeping. It helps me cope with everything .” 

“You could have been arrested!” 

“I’m trained in stealth.”

“I don’t care,” she growled at him. “What happened to you?”

“It’s nothing serious.”

“Then let me see.”

“No, it’s nothing serious.”

“Will you just let me see?” The tears came again. Angry or sad, she couldn’t tell. She didn’t know anything anymore. She had no control. 

“Hey, everything’s okay. I’m okay. You’re okay.” 

The tears kept flowing. She almost felt like she was experiencing another hallucination. Finally, she found her voice through them. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I didn’t want you to stop me.” He reached for her hand and tugged her down to the floor beside him. She quickly wiped the tears away. He let the shirt fall away from his body and revealed the angry, puncture wound deep through the pale skin of his shoulder. Her breath hitched. 

“Who did it?”

“Someone as stealthy as me. He just didn’t have great aim.” 

“Was it an arrow?”

“Yeah. I pulled it out.” 

“You shouldn’t have done that.” 

He smirked. “You try running with an arrow sticking out of your body.” 

“I’ll pass.” She raised her hand to his skin, trying to assess the damage, but even the slightest touch left him wincing. Then her gaze lowered to other marks on his body. “These are old,” she noticed. 

“Yeah.”

“But you got them here?” 

He nodded. “Three lashes. They’re almost all the way healed.” 

“Who gave you these? The same man who gave you this ?” She didn’t mean to touch his shoulder as deeply as she did. He pulled away from her in pain. 

“No, those were for slacking off at work. Really, I fainted.” 

“What?” she said softly, wondering if she misheard him. 

“I sneak into the upper rings some nights. That’s where I go. I did it the first day we got here and stole some candlesticks from a family who wouldn’t miss them. They were solid gold, and they gave us enough money-”

“-for the apartment,” she finished quietly. The answer to the question Tara never asked Lee. 

“And I went again another night and got us some necessities, soaps and clothes,” his fingers grazed the ivory fabric of her sleeping gown, “and once we were set up and I got that job on the rice farm, I promised myself I wouldn’t steal from them again. But then I realized the overseers on those farms use means like whippings to make us work faster, and they pay us next to nothing. They live so much better than us, and so I sneak around and take some things and spread them around the lower ring.”

She inhaled sharply and rested her forehead against his uninjured shoulder, somehow hurt and relieved. He had hidden from her, but he had not left her. “And the arrow?” she asked against his skin.

“Tonight, I broke into a home with an armed guard. He shot me with an arrow.”

“I can take care of it. And the lashes. You don’t ever have to go back to that farm. I’ll get a job somewhere, a steady one. You won’t have to work yourself to death, or steal. I’ll take care of everything.” 

Some upper ring families were hiring serving girls from the lower rings. Shops were hiring seamstresses. She could cook. She could deliver babies. He would never be whipped or shot at again. 

“It’s okay,” he said. 

“No, it isn’t.” She gestured to his back. “You’re hurt. Come to the bathroom. I’ll run the water.” 

He complied and sat against the rail of the metal tub. She turned the faucet and ran a rag underneath the cool spray. She pressed the rag to his shoulder and blanched when the cloth came away bloody. She knew what to do, even if he protested. There was no pretending they were Tara and Lee as Katara’s hands turned blue with her healing ability. Zuko exhaled softly as her hands soothed his marred skin. 

“Thank you,” he breathed out while she worked on him. 

“Can I ask you a question?” 

“You’ve never asked for permission before.” 

“When you think, who speaks?” she repeated from before. She expected him to call her crazy, or at least look at her like she was, but he didn’t. 

“Everyone does. My mother, my father, my uncle, Azula, Zhao.”

“Does Lee?”

“Yeah, he does too.” 

“I’m trying to make it so only Tara speaks in mine. I don’t want to be Katara anymore.”

“What’s wrong with Katara?”

“She spent too much time trying to save a world that couldn’t be saved. She’s tired.” Her hands worked harder to mend the tissue of his shoulder. The arrow had struck much deeper than the whip. 

Zuko nodded. “Then let her rest, but don’t let her disappear. Never forget who you are. As badly as I want to, I can’t forget. I can’t let go of it all. I do what it takes to survive and convince others that I’m harmless, but I can’t let myself forget.”

The wounds closed beneath her hands. “But don’t you wish all this was real? Don’t you want to forget everything we’ve suffered?” She stood on the other side of him and let her hands roam to his face. One lingered on his jaw; the other caressed his scar. He didn’t shrink back from her the way she expected him to. No, he leaned into her touch. 

“You can’t heal that one,” he whispered. 

“How did it happen?”

“Same as any of them. To teach a lesson.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be. I know you’ve suffered too.” 

“Yeah,” she agreed shakily. “I guess it’s something we have in common.” 

He nodded, looking at her with some emotion she couldn’t quite identify. It certainly wasn’t longing. “Thank you for healing me.”

“Thank you .” Thank you for feeding me in the plains, for laying me down gently on my sleeping bag in the desert, for taking me with you to Ba Sing Se, for a chance to live in the last free city in the world, for this apartment, for my bed … 

She gripped the newly smoothed skin of Zuko’s shoulder and insisted, “You shouldn’t sleep on the floor tonight. You deserve a good night’s sleep. And you’re not going back to that farm in the morning.” 

“I’m not the only one who has to deal with the overseer. I’ll be okay.” 

“I don’t care about anyone else. Right now it’s just you and me. It’s been you and me since the plains. We take care of each other, right? We don’t leave each other behind.”

Don’t leave me behind. Do you know how many times I’ve been left behind ?

“We take care of each other.” He pulled himself off the edge of the tub and tested out his shoulder. “It’s barely sore,” he realized. 

Katara smiled. “Come on, let’s go to bed. We still have a couple more hours before sunrise.”

He followed her to the bedroom, but when he knelt down to the sheets on the floor, she huffed. “I told you to sleep in the bed.” 

“I don’t mind. You don’t have to sleep on the floor just because I got shot with an arrow.” 

“I never said I was going to sleep on the floor,” she clarified. His eyes widened. “I mean, if you’re uncomfortable with it, we don’t have to. I just thought that it’s a big bed. Big enough for both of us without it being...nevermind.”

“No, as long as it doesn’t bother you, it doesn’t bother me.”

She blushed. “Oh, well, it doesn’t bother me, so.” She sat on the bed first. Then she tucked herself under the blanket and rested her head on her pillow, turning away from Zuko. She clenched her eyes shut when she felt his weight on the other side of the bed. It was awkward now, but she kept telling herself they could make this normal. She spared a glance back at him. He was resting with his head in his hands, staring straight up at the ceiling. She laughed at him. 

“What?”

“You look so serious.”

This prompted him to try to relax a little bit. Still, she could feel the tension radiating from him. 

“Next time you want to sneak out in the middle of the night, give me some warning,” she advised him.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t realize you’d panic.”

“I wasn’t panicking.” He said nothing. “I wasn’t.”

“Okay, you weren’t.” 

He was patronizing her. “Goodnight, then,” she huffed playfully. She wasn’t really upset with him, though she should have been for how badly her cheeks were burning. 

“Goodnight,” he returned, and he sounded so smug that Katara just had to turn to him and see if he had some stupid smirk on his face. He did, she noticed when she turned towards him. But then their eyes locked on each other, and nothing registered but how lovely his eyes looked in the moonlight.

Chapter Text

He had missed Ember Island. It was an unadulterated memory, of his mother, of his cousin, of his family before everything had turned so cruelly. 

It had surprised him that Azula had been the one to suggest they go back, even for the briefest of trips. It surprised him more that his father had agreed to it. Was there a man under those ceremonial robes that still longed for lazy evenings on a beach with his wife and children? Had he ever enjoyed those memories? He thought it wasn’t the most impossible theory, as he gave his two children leave to go amidst the most imposing threat the Fire Nation had faced in years.  

Ty Lee went with them, and so did Mai. Everywhere Azula went, those two followed, and everywhere he went, Azula turned up with sharp nails and insincere smiles. 

“Don’t forget our deal,” she said teasingly as they waded into the water. On land, Ty Lee was surrounded by a swarm of teenage boys, and Mai was fanning herself from the heat. 

“I won’t.” 

“So what are you and Mai going to do?”

He shrugged. “I don’t know. I guess I’ll see if she wants to go for a walk.”

“Go for a walk?” balked his sister. “She’s a girl, not a komodo rhino. You’re so ridiculous, Zuzu. Not knowing what to do with a girl.”

He hated how easily Azula could anger him. He was always so close to revealing too much around her, and he deserved to die before any harm ever came to them

“Leave me alone, Azula. We’ll do something.”

“Mai’s really looking forward to it.”

He looked back to the bored girl on the beach. “Yeah, she looks thrilled .” 

His sister laughed, throwing her head back in a move that would be considered spontaneous if Zuko didn’t know her well enough. “Oh, don’t you know by now that looks can be deceiving?” 

He knew. Azula looked harmless. Mai looked indifferent. Ty Lee looked brain dead. How did he look to them, he wondered. 

“Why did you want to come to Ember Island?” 

“Didn’t you want to come?” 

“Not a week before the invasion.” 

“Nothing’s going to happen. You worry too much for the man who killed the Avatar.” 

“What if-“

“What if what ?” she snarled. “What if he didn’t die? No one could survive lightning. We’ve been over this.”

“He’s the Avatar. He could have some kind of trick for redirecting.” 

“You saw it.”

“I don’t know what I saw. It all happened so fast,” he said honestly. 

“You were trying to keep up with Uncle,” she reminded him scathingly, and the immediate shame returned. 

Was there a world that he could have his family harmoniously? To come home, to have Azula and his father and his birthright, to be Prince Zuko, he had to betray Uncle. To be Prince Zuko, he had to shoot flames at the very man who had entered banishment alongside him. Before he could be Prince Zuko, he made sure he could get Katara and Rei out, but to be Prince Zuko he would never be able to have them again. Could he ever have them all? Could he ever have his home, the family he was born into, and the family he had made? 

As Azula tossed a blue spark from one hand to the other, he knew the answer. He could never have it, not like this. So which did he want more? 

“I think I’m going to ask Mai to walk with me,” he said. 

“Good idea. Bye, Zuzu.”

He waded out of the water slowly, relishing the cool relief of the element for as long as he could before he nervously approached Mai. 

“Hey, did Azula talk to you?”

“Yeah, she said you were going to take me out or something,” Mai replied, barely looking up at him. 

“Oh, good.” 

“Is that it?”

“Well, is there somewhere you want to go?”

“You mean you didn’t pick anywhere?” 

Zuko shrugged. “I thought we could walk.”

“Fine,” she muttered. “I guess we can walk down the beach.”

“Yeah. That’s romantic, right?”

Mai said nothing. She did stand up from the sand and hold her hand above her eyes to block the sun. “Aren’t you going to move?” she asked him. 

“Oh, are you ready?”

She sighed and walked with him as he strutted along the surf aimlessly. Mai looked over her shoulder once but didn’t try to talk to him until they were well into their walk. 

“In Ba Sing Se, Azula had me do reconnaissance.”

“Did she?”

“She had me looking all over the lower ring for you. She had a tip that you were hiding in Ba Sing Se, and I found you... long before your uncle ever came to warm you.”

His head turned sharply to her, and his heart picked up. “What do you know?” 

“Everything. Didn’t strike you as the kind of guy to knock up a girl and not marry her, but then again it’s been a while since I saw you last.”

“What have you told Azula?” 

“Nothing.”

“Are you lying to me?” he demanded. Azula always lied; maybe her friends did too. 

“No, Zuko. I’m the only one aside from your uncle who knows about your little waterbender. I do have to admit, your son was cute.” 

Zuko smiled. “I sent them away when Uncle warned me. I wanted to keep them safe.” 

“You should have gone with them,” Mai admitted. 

Zuko scoffed. “I do everything wrong. I always have.”

“Come on, that’s not true.”

“Yes it is!” he shouted. “Every decision I’ve ever made has been the wrong one. Try to think of one good decision I’ve ever made.”

Mai sighed. “If you’re going to be Fire Lord, you need to work on the broodiness. You have to feel like you deserve to rule the world.”

“My father doesn’t deserve to rule the world!”

Mai pushed him. “Don’t say that. Not ever again.”

“I’ve seen him. I’ve seen what my ancestors have done to the other nations. None of them deserved to rule.”

“Zuko, that’s anti-Fire Nation. Stop saying it.”

“If you’re not anti-Fire Nation, why didn’t you tell Azula about Katara and Rei?” he challenged. “Katara is a threat to the Fire Nation. She’s still wanted. You had her, and you said nothing. Why? Was it blackmail?” 

Mai rolled her eyes. “You are so dumb.”

“I already have one of you blackmailing me. Azula’s going along with the story that I killed the Avatar. Now you know about my family. What information does Ty Lee have?” 

“I’m not going to tell anyone about them, or make you do anything. I just wanted you to know what I knew. I also want you to know not to trust Azula.”

“I already knew that. What’s she planning?” 

Mai paused before finally revealing, “The Avatar’s alive. She’s trying to humiliate you. She wanted you back home, but she wants your father to pick her as his heir, even though you’re first born.”

“She wants to rule,” he said plainly. 

Though Mai’s face didn’t change, her voice grew softer. “Yeah, she does. And she thinks she deserves it. You need to think more like she does.” 

“I don’t think anything like her.”

“She thinks like a leader.”

“She thinks like a warlord. She thinks like my father, and my grandfather, and my great-grandfather. Do you want me to think like them?” 

“I want you to stay alive,” Mai said, as passionately as he’d ever heard her speak. “I want you to stay alive, and I want Azula to stay alive, and I want my home to stay standing, and I want my brother to grow up happy and strong.”

He couldn’t fault her for those things. Who would want to change a status quo when she was born on the right side of it? He had been too before his cousin died. Then his mother disappeared, and his father burned half his face. Now he knew what it was like to live on the wrong side of the status quo. He’d seen too many orphans, lived through too many hungry nights, and heard too many helpless prayers. 

“You saw the lower ring of Ba Sing Se,” he reminded her. “You saw the tenement we lived in.”

“Yes.”

“I walked two miles to work every day, worked on my feet, and then walked the two miles back. Katara would massage my feet at night. Rei slept in a cradle beside our bed, and I used to stay up at night wondering where we were going to put him when he got older. I grew up in a palace, and my son slept in a cradle given to us by a woman whose baby died of fever.”

“Not everyone lives like that. You were on the run.”

“Too many people live like that because of us! The war has to end, Mai. You know it does. Deep down, that’s why you saved Katara and Rei from Azula.” 

“I saved them for you. You’re my friend. I didn’t stop caring about you because you got banished. I just had to hide it. Now I don’t have to hide it anymore. You’re back, and you have your honor again, and you scare me when you talk about changing everything.” 

“Change is overdue.” 

“Then why did you come back? Why aren’t you with the Avatar, getting ready to invade your home? Is that another one of your wrong choices?” she demanded of him. 

He thought he was going to lose Katara for sure when they’d heard rumors of the Avatar arriving in Ba Sing Se. She had been a couple months away from giving birth, and he thought she was going to leave him immediately. She’d changed the subject away from the town gossip and smoothed a hand over her belly fondly. “If I left,” she asked him later, “would you come with me? Aang could still need a firebending teacher.” Zuko hadn’t answered her. He’d feigned sleep, and Katara never asked him again. She never left him either, until he told her to. 

Aang could still need a firebending teacher. 

“If I could guarantee your protection, your family’s protection, would you support the end of this war?” 

“Do you really think you can guarantee anything in a war?” she asked him seriously. “Everyone else wants us dead, Zuko.”

“They want peace,” he clarified.

“Our deaths signify their peace. It’s all the same to them. True peace between the nations can never happen again, not after all the damage that’s been done.”

“All the damage we’ve done, you mean?”

“We didn’t do anything! We inherited the mess our ancestors made.” 

“We do something everyday when we don’t stop it.” 

Mai crossed her arms. “I never should have told you about Katara and Rei. Now you’re talking crazy.” 

He tried to put a gentle hand on her shoulder, but she shrugged it away. “Thank you for protecting them,” he said sincerely. 

“I didn’t do it to bring down the Fire Nation. I did it for you.” 

“Thank you.” 

“You haven’t been home long. Are you really so sick of it already?” 

“I’m sick of myself. I can’t stay here like this. I thought if I came home, I could somehow get through to my father or discover that he’s not as bad as the other nations paint him. With Katara and Rei gone, I thought this was where I belonged.” 

“I think Azula knows you’re slipping away. I think she wanted us to come to Ember Island so you could remember being happy here.” 

Zuko sighed and stared out at the sea. “I still love it here. I still love the Fire Nation. That doesn’t mean it isn’t time for change.”

“Just be careful, Zuko.” 

“I will be. You have to be careful too.” 

“When will you leave?” she asked him.

He looked back behind him, to the footsteps the two of them had left in the sand. They’d been walking so long. What was really waiting for him when they walked back? What was in the Ember Island house that he couldn’t live without?  

“Now,” he answered. 

Her eyes widened. “Now?” she repeated. 

“Now.” 

They walked together to the end of the island, where there was a little dock for tourists to rent boats. Most of them hired guides along with the boats and toured around the island. Zuko had no need for a guide. For a few gold coins, he would travel alone. 

“I’ll give you a headstart,” Mai promised. 

“I appreciate it.” 

She smiled. “Sorry things didn’t work out between us the way Azula wanted.” 

He felt lighter the second he stepped on the boat. It was funny how things changed. In his banishment, every second on his ship augmented his self-loathing. “I like this better,” he told her truthfully. He was thankful to have a friend. 

“I’m still upset about this. I wish you would stay.” 

“I can’t.” 

“I know you can’t.” She stepped back from him. “Do you even know where you’re going?”

He had a general idea. He knew where Chief Hakoda’s forces were last suspected. He at least knew where they were going to be in a week. “Yeah.” 

“Well, then, I’ll see you on the Day of the Black Sun.” 

“See you, Mai.” 

Despite it all, she smiled at him. He was thankful for that as he started to sail away. He didn’t want to remember her angry in case it was the last time he ever saw his childhood friend. If he found them on the opposite side of the war during the invasion, he didn’t want to remember them that way. He wanted to remember Azula swaying in the water, and Ty Lee basking in affections, and laughing at Mai as she muttered, “worst date ever.”

Still, despite his trepidation, he knew he made the right decision. He imagined his uncle out of prison and his father out of power. He imagined a healthy son held in the arms of his lovely mother with beautiful blue eyes and the kindest touch he’d ever felt. The sea was calm as it carried him away. Take me to Katara , he thought as the waves carried him away. He was in her element now.

Chapter Text

The children were loud. They were loud, and they grabbed things, and they didn’t listen to a word he said, and somehow Katara was the only one who could tame them. Katara only had sweet smiles and kind words for the children. Only sometimes, when he could tell she felt light enough to forget the weight of the world, did she look fondly at him out of the corner of her eye and reserve him the same smile - the one that made him smile too. 

Then the children would start fighting each other, or crying uncontrollably, and Zuko remembered why he was frustrated in the first place. 

Katara didn’t want him to work on the rice farm. Katara didn’t want him to steal. That hadn’t left much for them in the way of income. Then in the middle of the night, the Dai Li had come and taken their neighbor’s husband. 

They should have been more worried about that, shouldn’t they? He should have put on his mask and gotten to the bottom of it all. He should have freed the man if he was innocent, but it was all so much work, and when it came to matters unrelated to his little life with Katara, Zuko was so so tired. 

“Bora, Sul, cut that out,” scolded Katara as she tried to get the children to sit in the circle so she could at least pretend like they were learning the words on the scroll. The twin girls were more interested in pulling the ribbons out of the other’s hair. She set the baby girl out of her arms to deal with them, but the baby cried when she let go. 

“Lee! Lee, can you hold Kiri for a second?” 

The crying infant sat pitifully on the floor. On second thought, he should have freed the neighbor’s husband. Now that the neighbor had to work to make money for their children, she paid Katara to watch them. A couple single mothers had gone to Katara for the same reason, and now there were seven - seven - children in their apartment. 

The baby stopped crying as soon as he picked her up. He didn’t understand it. He thought the baby should have cried louder. He was sure he was holding her wrong. He was sure he would scare her, but the tears stopped immediately and her lips curled into a grateful smile as she reached her hand out to his face. Her fingers brushed carelessly against the warped skin of his scar, but she didn’t mind it. She kept her eyes on his, her fingers on his cheek, and the smile on her face. 

“Look at you two!” drawled Katara fondly. “I never thought I’d see the day.”

She was laughing at him, and he stood proudly, trying not to smile back. He passed the baby back to her as quickly as he could, and watched the baby twist towards Katara with some kind of ache in his chest. “Keep it up, and you won’t see it again.” 

She reached out and pinched his cheek lightly. “Come on, don’t be like that. The kids would love to play with you.” 

He shook his head. “All they do is climb on me and not listen when I tell them to stop.” 

“You’ve never been around children, have you?”

Prince Zuko certainly never had, and neither had Fugitive Zuko, and neither had Refugee Lee. But Katara of the Southern Water Tribe had cared for her fair share of children, and delivered children, and it was only natural that this love bled into the life she’d built as Refugee Tara. It pleased him to see more pieces of Katara in Tara every day. They hadn’t given up completely; they were just taking care of themselves for the first time in their lives. They were keeping themselves safe, and they were keeping each other safe - and spirits, help him, if one of those kids jumped on their bed one more time...  

“Chi, Tai, come out of the bedroom please. You know how we feel about you guys jumping on the bed,” Katara lectured before he could. If he had said it, the children would be jumping even higher, hitting their heads on the ceiling, but Katara said it, so they dashed out and grabbed some of the reading scrolls Katara was teaching. 

One thing was clear to him:  Zuko had to find a job. 

“Please don’t go back to the rice farm,” she begged that night in their bed. Over time, they stopped turning away from each other. Over time, they faced one another and whispered across the sheets. Some nights, he even felt the ghost of her touch. He longed for those nights, though he wasn’t ready to admit why. 

“I have to do something. I’ve been looking in other places, but there’s no shortage of workers here. That’s why they can do whatever they want to us.”

“There’s no rush. I’ll keep watching the kids, and I’ll take care of us for a little while.”

“We’re barely making enough for rent and food. You’ve taken care of us on your own for too long. It’s time for you to rest.”

Already her eyes were heavy. He could see them fighting the strain of sleep. He could see the exhaustion written plainly on her face. He smiled at her and pulled the blanket higher to her chin. She relaxed into the warmth. 

“Thanks,” she muttered sleepily. 

“Hey,” he whispered as she teetered closer and closer to sleep. Her eyes didn’t peek open, but he could tell she was still listening. “Why haven’t you left yet? We’re in Ba Sing Se now. The Fire Nation can’t imprison you here. You don’t have to be on the run.” 

She didn’t say anything. She didn’t open her eyes. Instead, she pulled the blanket even tighter and shifted closer to him until her head was resting on the same pillow as his. They both sighed deeply and fell into a peaceful sleep.

He left her asleep in bed the next morning, as was his routine. Quietly, he washed and dressed himself, eating only a small bowl of rice Katara had made the night before. 

Then it was off to the streets. 

Vendors. Beggars. Thieves. For the first time in his life, he wished for a common skill. He wished he could fish, or butcher, or mine. It was so frustrating that he couldn’t. He was a master fire bender and a master swordsman. There wasn’t any place for someone like him in the lower ring of Ba Sing Se. 

He wandered through the streets for hours looking for work, but he already knew all the men who didn’t run the market stalls were on the farms. It was all the legal work there was. Katara would have to deal with it. They needed the income, even if it took an occasional lash to the back. 

On the way back, though, mixed in with all the chaotic smells of the streets was an unmistakable smell. It overpowered the other scents, the scents of the filthy and the sick, the food from the market stalls, the laundry hanging above him, the animals pulling carts. He inhaled deeply once again to be sure. It hadn't been wishful thinking. It was the smell of ginseng tea.

His heart twinged against his will, and led his feet towards the source before he could oppose them. He had only a few coins in his pocket, meant for a cut of fish at the market, but maybe there was enough for a cup of tea. 

“A cup of ginseng please.”

“Coming right up.” 

Of course it would be, Zuko mused to himself. He was one of the only ones in the teahouse. The cup was placed directly in front of him by a man slightly older than him. “Cup of ginseng.” 

Zuko sneered when he looked down into the cup. “What did you do to it?” he asked. 

“What are you talking about?”

“This isn’t tea. There’s stuff in it.”

“Yeah, the leaves. That’s how you make tea.”

“You’re not supposed to keep the leaves in!” 

“Then how are you supposed to make tea, wise guy?”

Zuko groaned, pushing the cup away from him. “Show me how you make this.” 

The man huffed. “So you can steal my family’s recipes? Absolutely not.”

“Believe me, I don’t want anything to do with these recipes, if this is how your family makes tea.” He glanced back down at the murky water, with the ground leaves sitting in the tea. He wished his uncle could see this. 

The man, who Zuko learned was named Yu Ling, showed him how the tea was prepared. Apparently, it was traditional in the Earth Kingdom to grind the tea leaves down and then whisk them into hot water. No wonder Earth Kingdom tea didn’t sell in the Fire Nation.

“Uh, can I make a suggestion?” 

“Be my guest.” 

“Don’t grind the tea leaves. Leave them whole. Like this.” 

Zuko began preparing his own pot of tea. He would probably make it bitter, like his uncle always warned him against, but anything would be better than the concoction sitting out on the counter. He left the tea leaves at the bottom of the tea cup as the pot of water boiled. Once it finished, he carefully poured the water over the leaves. Immediately, the water began to change color as it soaked the leaves. 

“Now let the leaves steep for a few minutes before you take them out,” he instructed. “It’s better that way.”  

Yu Ling sipped at the drink thoughtfully. Zuko had to suppress a smirk. He knew it tasted better.

“What’s your name?” 

“Lee.”

Yu Ling took another sip. “This was my father’s teahouse. He died recently. A fever took him.” 

“My condolences.” 

“Thank you. Anyway, he used to make all the tea. I was never as good at it as him. I haven’t had good tea since he died, but this is good tea.” 

“It’s smoother that way.” 

“Yes, it is. How long have you been in Ba Sing Se?”

“A few months.” 

“Do you have work yet?” 

“I worked on the farms before…” he trailed off, unsure if he should go into the whole story and explain that his wife didn’t want him working somewhere he got whipped. 

“Would you want to work here? You could make the tea. It would make my life easier, so I could focus on the other aspects of running the shop.”

Work here? In a teahouse? Oh, he really wished his uncle was here. 

Zuko bowed respectfully to Yu Ling. “Yes, thank you.”  

Yu Ling bowed to him and finished the cup of tea Zuko had prepared. “Thank you .” 

When he returned home, Katara was stirring a pot of water over the stove. "Well, there you are. Finally. Did you get the fish?"

He held the cloth-wrapped cut out in front of him. "Yeah. I got a job too." 

Katara's whole face changed. She took the fish from his hands and embraced him. "That's wonderful." 

She had her arms tangled tenderly around his neck. It was only natural for him to bring his hands to her waist. "We'll be able to afford fish every night now," he told her, releasing his hands. She gingerly pulled back from him and smiled. 

"Every girl's dream. Go rest. I'll call you when it's ready." 

"I can help you," he protested, though his feet were aching. 

"Rest," she said again. He stopped in the doorway of their bedroom to watch her cook. She hummed merrily to herself as she worked. He caught her bending once, to wash her hands after she touched the fish. He wanted to mention it, but he didn't want to ruin her happiness. He was happy, too, that he had seen her bending, even for just a second. She didn't have to hide the way he did. Her bending wasn't illegal. She chose to hide because it made her feel safer, but maybe if she was bending when it was just the two of them, it meant that she felt safe with him. He surely hoped she did.    

Chapter Text

When Katara had been pregnant with Rei, living in the free city of Ba Sing Se, she had foolishly thought that her baby would be blessed with a life untouched by war. It had only been a year ago, but still, how young she’d been. How naive to think she could hide away from it all. Here she was now, right in the middle of the war where she belonged, with her baby crawling on the deck of a warship. He laughed as the benders trained, smiled as the plans for the invasion were discussed, watched with rapt attention while Aang and Sokka argued back and forth. Despite all of her efforts, her baby was a child of war. 

“The eclipse is tomorrow, little one,” she explained to him. She wanted to tell him how afraid she was. She wanted to ask if he would think she was a terrible mother for bringing him with her. Would he have been happier in Ba Sing Se? Would she have been able to find a better mother for him?    

A light knock at the door kept the painful thoughts away. 

“Come in,” she said softly. 

The door opened tentatively, and in walked Aang. He looked more like the boy she knew now than ever. His head was freshly shaved, fully displaying the tattoos she had always found so intriguing. 

“Aang.”

“Hey, Katara.” 

She gently brought her finger to her lips and gestured to the baby falling asleep in her arms. They could talk--she wanted to talk--but they would have to be quiet. 

“Oh, sorry.” 

“It’s okay. I’m glad you’re here.”

“Where will he be tomorrow?”

“Where he’s always been, with me,” she said and hoped she wouldn’t regret it. Their plan was foolproof. They would all be safe. There was no better place for Rei than the sling on her back. 

“I guess there isn’t anywhere else for him to be, huh?” He scratched his head nervously, and it was so much like when he had been twelve years old that Katara had to chuckle fondly. 

“No, I guess not.”

“Anyways, I came here to say thanks...for you, and Sokka, and Toph. You guys never gave up on our plan, even when I did. You guys didn’t give up on me, either, which means a lot.” 

“Of course, Aang. We all believe in you.” 

“I just didn’t believe in myself after Ba Sing Se. I failed everyone.”

“You didn’t fail anyone,” she protested. 

“Yes, I did! Ba Sing Se fell, all because of me.” 

“It wasn’t your fault. Azula struck you with lightning in the Avatar state. When I was traveling, I thought you were dead. That kind of injury should have killed you. I’m just so happy you’re alive.” 

“I’m happy you’re alive too. I’m sorry about how our reunion went. I never imagined us fighting like that.” 

She smiled at him. “It’s okay. It’s been tense. I know how it feels to give up. I gave up for two years.” 

“You came back just in time. I’m going to defeat the Fire Lord tomorrow. It's all because of you, you know. You're the one who found me.”

"And changed my life forever."

"All of our lives," he said. "I ran from my destiny once, but I know what it is now."  

She hugged Rei tighter to her and felt her throat close a little from the raw determination in his voice. He had grown so much from the scared boy who fled the Southern Air Temple a hundred years ago, or even the scared boy she’d been reunited with on the ships a month ago. She was so proud of him, and she was proud of herself too for coming back to her family and contributing the part she was meant to play at the end of this war. 

Her baby would be a child of peace very soon. 

“Hey, Aang, could you walk me through what happened in the catacombs of Ba Sing Se really quick? I’d like to know what happened.” 

Aang paused heavily. She knew it wasn’t his favorite memory, but she wanted to know. The curiosity kept her awake sometimes. She didn’t even know what she wanted to hear.

“Uh, well, without us even knowing it, Azula infiltrated Ba Sing Se. She got control of the Dai Li, the Dai Li captured Toph, so Sokka and I confronted her, and then out of nowhere, Zuko showed up.”

Her heart stuttered, though she knew his name would be spoken eventually. “What was he doing there?”

Aang shrugged. “I don’t know, but he came in with their uncle. I guess he had been living in Ba Sing Se, and he said he wanted to turn himself in before she went to capture him. I don't know all of it. I guess he expected to be arrested for treason, but Azula told him she’d make sure their father pardoned him if he helped her defeat me...so he helped.”

“Everyone’s saying he’s the one who shot you with lightning.” 

“It was Azula.”

“I know that.” 

“That must be how Fire Lord Ozai accepted him back. He thinks Zuko killed me.” Aang’s face fell suddenly. “I always felt like one day Zuko and I could become friends.” 

“You’ve always wanted to be friends with everyone,” Katara reminded him. “Just forget about Zuko. He’s our enemy. Azula’s our enemy. Ozai’s our enemy.” 

“I know that,” he assured her. “I’m going to defeat Ozai tomorrow, no hesitation. I’m ready.” 

“Just, if you run into Zuko tomorrow, or anyone else who’s keeping you from Ozai, don’t hesitate either.” 

Aang said nothing. He would always be a monk at heart. She loved his gentleness, but she couldn’t bear to lose her friend. 

“Please, Aang. It’s war tomorrow. You can’t hesitate.” 

“Okay. You too. You have to look out for yourself and Rei.” 

“I will,” she promised him. 

“Then I’ll see you in the morning, Katara. Good night.” 

“Good night, Aang.” 

She leaned back against the bed, and settled Rei comfortably against her chest. In the corner of her room sat the pack she’d come on board with. She’d emptied its contents, except for the letter folded carefully at the bottom. She thought about taking it out, and reading it again, because now she knew that Zuko hadn’t always intended to join Azula. 

I guess he expected to get arrested for treason , but Azula told him she’d make sure their father pardoned him if he helped her defeat me. 

He wanted to be arrested. He was gone that day to turn himself in to his sister, and she knew why. He never would have gone without a fight, not Zuko, but he wanted to give them a chance to get out. 

That stupid, stupid boy , she wanted to scream. 

He didn’t have to sacrifice himself. He didn’t have to decide to join his sister, for a life preferable to prison. He could have gone with them!  

She hoped she wouldn’t have to see him tomorrow, but he was the Fire Lord’s son. Where else would a prince be but on the battlefield? Would he hesitate if he encountered them? Would he lay down his swords? Would she spare him? Maybe, this time - she couldn’t entertain the thought. She had just told Aang that Zuko was the enemy. He was. He had made his choice. He had to live with it, and so did she. 

Stupid, stupid boy .

Chapter Text

“Let me get this straight. You rounded up all the children, and then made them walk two miles, just to see me at work?”

Katara laughed in response.

“You’re crazy,” he said across the counter. 

“Anything to see you in an apron,” she told him. “Besides, the kids missed you. Didn’t you miss Lee, kids?”

Those that could shouted joyfully, “Yes!” 

“Not so loud,” Katara told them. “Anyways, I’ll take a black tea, very strong . And three frosted rice cakes for the children.”

“But there are seven of us,” Chi protested. 

“We can share just fine,” Katara told him. “Go find somewhere to sit. And remember your buddies.” 

The buddy system worked well for the mixed ages she had. It reminded her of how she and Sokka used to look after the younger children in the tribe. Chi looked out for his younger sister Faya, who was three years old. Sul looked out for two-year-old Duri. Bora looked after Tai, even though Tai was only a year younger. That way Katara could focus on baby Kiri, who sat comfortably in her podaegi . Of course, Katara cared for them all, but it was nice that they helped her.    

“Are you surprised?” she asked Zuko. 

“I am.” 

“This place looks a little more crowded than you told me.” 

“Yeah, we’ve been getting some new customers.” 

“That’s great! I can’t wait to try this tea.”

“Don’t get your hopes up.”

“Oh, come on. I bet it’s great.” 

“I guess I better go make it,” he said sheepishly. He left the dining area to go back into the kitchen, so she went back to the children. The older ones were kicking each other underneath the table playfully. 

“You’re not playing too rough, are you?” 

“No, Tara.” 

“Good. There will be plenty of time to play rough later, after your lessons.” 

“Are we doing more scrolls today?” asked Tai. 

“One,” she told them. “And some numbers.”

Another customer arrived and walked up to the counter. Katara didn’t know where Yu Ling was.  It seemed to her like Zuko was the only one running the shop. He hurried from the kitchen back to the dining area. 

“Hi, Lee!” 

One of the kids asked her something, but Katara’s attention was focused on this customer at the counter who addressed him so familiarly, especially because this customer was a pretty girl their age.  

“Good afternoon, Jin,” she heard Zuko say. 

“Can I have my usual?” 

“Yes, I’ll have it right out for you.” 

The girl, Jin, beamed at him. “Thanks, Lee.” 

Jin appeared to be by herself, and she didn’t seem to be waiting for anyone...except her husband, of course. Katara chuckled to herself. 

When Zuko brought out her tea and the rice cakes, she noticed he snuck in an extra couple. “Three would have been plenty,” she told him. 

He shrugged. “It’s on the house. The kids might as well have their own.” 

“I don’t have to pay for it?” 

“Of course not. I work here.”

“I know, but still-”

“Tara, do you know how much money I’ve made Yu Ling since I started? Look at all customers here.” 

Katara glanced back at Jin. “Yeah, I’ve seen them.” In a lower voice, she said, “That girl back there likes you.”

He followed her line of sight back to Jin. Katara smiled when she noticed Zuko's reaction. It was all too fun to see him squirm. His cheeks reddened, and his lips formed so many different shapes before they must have agreed to settle on, “No, she doesn’t.” 

“Yes, she does,” she teased. “Does she have to pay?”

“Of course she does.” 

“So I’m special?” 

Zuko was completely flustered now. “You’re acting like a child,” he told her.

“Does she know you’re married?”

“She doesn’t like me!” 

“If you say so. You better get back to the kitchen, and bring her the usual .” 

Zuko shook his head at her, and she just smiled. He started to turn away from her and head back. “Wait, Lee.” She didn’t know what came over her. She didn’t know when she had stopped playing, or if she still was, but she pulled him back to the table and pressed her lips softly to his. “Thanks for the tea.” 

The children giggled. She thought Chi even covered his eyes. 

“You’re, um, you’re welcome.”

“I’ll see you later.” 

“Yeah.”  

She didn't get a chance to talk to him again as she drank her bracing cup of black tea. He was too busy with the rest of the shop. A horrible thought occurred to her that he was pretending to be busy until she left. That thought resulted in leaving the shop as soon as everyone was finished. She originally planned on relaxing for a bit, but that wouldn't work anymore.

Katara blushed all the way home as she tried to push the kiss from her mind. She took the kids to see the pretty things for sale at the market, hoping it would do the trick. It didn’t work. As she taught the kids their numbers and had them taking turns on a reading scroll, she thought of the kiss. Why did she think that would be a good idea?  

Jia and Nari always came to get the kids first. Suni usually worked well into the night, so Katara rarely saw her, but they all lived together with their kids on the fifth floor of the tenement. Jia and Nari would take Suni’s twins to her. Then she would be left with Ina’s three kids. 

Katara liked Jia and Nari because they were close in age with her. Jia was eighteen, and Nari sixteen. She wished she knew more about them before Ba Sing Se, but it wasn’t something they were supposed to talk about. There is no war in Ba Sing Se . All she knew was that Jia’s husband was dead, and Nari didn’t know who Kiri’s father was. 

“Did you have a good day?” Jia asked the children, taking Duri into her arms. 

Bora nodded. “We went to Lee’s tea shop.”

“Oh, that sounds fun.”

Her twin giggled. “We saw Tara and Lee kissing.” 

Nari rolled her eyes at the children. “Well, they’re married, Sul. Married couples kiss. It’s hardly exciting.” 

Jia agreed. “Honestly. When are you and Lee going to have a little one of your own, Tara?” she asked innocently. 

“More importantly, how haven’t you?” Nari asked. She whispered so the children couldn’t hear, “What method are you using?” 

Both Jia and Katara blushed. “Don’t ask her that.” 

“Whatever it is, it’s better than what I used.” She kissed Kiri’s cheek. “Obviously.”

“Um, Lee and I haven’t really talked about kids.” 

“You’d have such cute kids.”

“You would,” Jia agreed. 

Katara smiled, but she didn’t want to entertain the thought when her mind was already running wild. “I’ll see you guys tomorrow.” 

“Bye, Tara.”

“Kids, say bye to Tara. Tell her you’ll see her tomorrow.”

“Bye, Tara,” they chorused. 

“Bye, guys.”

She was left with Ina’s children, who usually played with their blocks while she made dinner. Most days, Ina picked the kids up before Zuko came home. Sometimes, her mind wandered, and she forgot. She was still grappling with her husband’s arrest by the Dai Li. Katara didn’t ask her about it. It wasn’t much of her business. For all she knew, Ina’s husband was a murderer or a thief. 

But she came on time today, with the same dazed look in her eyes, and paid Katara for the day as she rounded up Chi, Tai, and Faya. 

“They had a good day,” Katara told Ina. “I took them to Lee’s work.”

“You took them out of the tenement?”

“Yes.”

“Please don’t do that again. Children are going missing.”

“Oh, Ina, I’m sorry I didn’t realize-”

“I know you didn’t. I just don’t like the children leaving. That’s why I bring them to you. You’re just down the hall.” 

“I won’t take them out again. I promise.” 

“Thank you. I can’t have anything happen to them after what happened to their father.” 

“I understand. How come children are going missing?” 

“Same as always. Sold to Rang Xi. After that, it’s anybody’s guess. Come on, kids.” 

She led them down the hall to their apartment without another word. If the children ever tried to speak on the way, she shushed them. She was a curious woman indeed, but she paid Katara by the day. The others paid her by the week. 

It was always in this gap, the time between Ina’s children leaving and Zuko returning, that Katara focused on herself. She kept the food warm above the small flame and bathed herself, taking special care to detangle all the knots from her hair. She was usually dressed for bed by the time Zuko came home, sweaty and exhausted. 

“The food smells good,” he said that night when he came home, kicking his shoes off. 

She smiled at him shyly. “Thanks. It’s just some fish and vegetables. I made noodles today, instead of rice.” 

He passed by her to get to the kitchen and inhaled. Then he leaned closer to her and did the same thing. “You smell different.”

“I smell different? ” she repeated, wrinkling her nose. 

“Not bad different!” he exclaimed. “You smell really good actually. It’s just that you did something different. What is it?”

Her offense dissipated. “I got some jasmine oil at the market today. I promise it wasn’t expensive, and we’ve had a little more money recently, so…”

“You don’t have to explain,” he told her. As he spooned some of the food into a bowl, he added, “It’s a good smell. I like it.” 

“Thanks.” 

“You might have been right about Jin. She wouldn’t even look me in the eye when I brought out her tea, after you…” 

Her mind was running wild again. If she let it continue, she would start convincing herself the kiss was a good idea. Which it wasn’t. Not at all. Good kiss, bad idea.“Maybe it’ll be easier to get you a new name tag. ‘Hi, my name’s Lee. I’m married.’”

He snorted. “Right. You surprised me today. I wasn’t expecting-” 

“How’s the food?” she asked nervously, interrupting him. 

He took a bite. “It’s good. It’s always good. Look, I guess I just want to know why you kissed me today.” 

Katara’s heart sped up. “We’re married.”

His expression changed completely, and she read it. “Yeah,” he whispered, “but not really.”

“Yes, we are,” she protested. 

“Tara and Lee Mingyun aren’t real people.”

She pulled away from him. She didn’t want him to whisper anything else into her ear, not after all the trouble they’d gone through to establish this new life for themselves under their cover story. 

“Don’t you want them to be?” 

“To everyone else, sure. But I know who I am inside. This is just so I can stay alive and stay safe. That’s what this is for you, too. You don't have to pretend it's something it's not.” 

“You can just say you didn’t like it, you know. I won’t do it again,” she huffed as quietly as she could. She’d heard more than once that the walls had ears. 

“That’s not what I’m saying,” he said, letting his head fall against the table. She almost laughed at his frustration. 

“Then what are you saying?”

He said nothing. She said nothing. It appeared that they would drop the subject entirely. In truth, Katara had wanted to kiss Zuko. That was why her mind was running wild, but he'd just helped clear a few things up. It was obvious Zuko hadn’t wanted to kiss her. She thought she could play it off as Tara kissing Lee, but he didn’t even want to kiss her in a cover story. Her stomach turned.   

“I’m going to bed.” 

“Don’t you want dinner?” 

“I’m not hungry,” she said. 

“Good night.” 

She didn’t reply.  

And if the bedroom door slammed shut, it was pure coincidence. 

Chapter Text

It wasn’t easy anymore. Katara hardly spoke to him. In fact, she seemed like she hated sharing space with him. He was so close to blowing up at her. He wanted to tell her to just leave already. Go find your brother and the Avatar . But he was afraid she might. From what he was learning, they were both quick to anger, and despite all they had built together, it was fragile. They were probably one good argument away from losing it all. He wasn’t going to be the one to start it. 

So he tiptoed around her. He still left before she woke up and arrived only after she had gone to bed. She never left dinner for him anymore. She never took the kids to the tea shop. He was just about to start sleeping on the floor again, but they weren’t technically fighting. They just weren’t speaking, for some reason, and he didn’t exactly know why. He hadn’t expected his kiss with Katara to end quite like that, but he’d never been very good with girls. He didn’t have any experience with them at all, which was starting to weigh on him as he got older.

He was seventeen now, and his only real kiss had amounted to this. 

He expected Katara to be asleep when he came home once again. He expected an empty kitchen and a pillow on the bed far away from hers. 

When he opened the door, however, he saw Katara was waiting for him. Red-rimmed eyes peered up at him, and she almost looked relieved to see him. 

“What happened?” 

“Sul’s gone missing!” Katara exclaimed. “Suni said she was outside playing with her sister, and they don’t know what happened next.” 

Katara burst into tears then, and he rushed to hold her. He rubbed her back in circles as she cried against his chest. 

“Suni thinks she’s been sold to the upper rings. A six-year-old girl!”

Zuko had heard about children going missing every once in a while. Grief-stricken parents posted signs around the city, begging anyone for information about their missing children. Boys were sold to the farms. Girls were sold to households. Even worse, some were sold into prostitution. He knew that was Katara’s greatest fear. 

“Hey, it’s going to be okay.” 

“No it’s not.”

“Yes, it will. Do you know why?” 

She lifted her head from his chest curiously. 

“Because we're going to get her back.”

The next night they dressed all in black. He had never gotten rid of the clothes he’d used in the first days of their life in Ba Sing Se. This time Katara had some of her own. She wrapped her hair in a second-hand scarf and painted her face with white powder and red balms on her lips and cheeks. In the end, she was unrecognizable. 

Maybe one day he would tell her he had been the Blue Spirit. He had been the one to free the Avatar from Zhao. Not tonight, though he wished he had his mask. That mask had covered his scar, his most unique feature. The mark of the banished prince. It was still visible in his current getup, even though black cloth covered the rest of his face. 

“Ina told me that all the children who go missing are sold to someone named Rang Xi.”

“I’ve heard that name a couple times. I don’t know if that’s his real name or if it’s just what the locals call him. It could be one person, or it could be a group.”

“Well, who is it?”

“He’s the one the Upper Ring citizens pay for the kids. He places all of them.” 

“Shouldn’t he be arrested by now?” 

Zuko shrugged. “He might be too well connected.”

Katara shuddered and stared out the window to the full moon shining above. Fresh rainwater trickled from the gutters to the streets below. It would make the journey trickier for him, but all the better for Katara.  

“Last chance to stay behind.”

“No.”

“Then time to go. We’re wasting moonlight.” 

He leaped out the window onto the terrace below. He looked over his shoulder every once in a while to make sure she was still behind him. She was as quiet as he was in the night, but she was always right behind him. He wondered if she was using her bending to aid her, though he couldn’t see how. 

As he scaled the building of the first barrier, he gestured for her to go in front of him. That way, if she lost her balance, he could still catch her. As she climbed, he realized she was using her bending. She froze her fingers to the wall, and then unfroze them, over and over, until she reached the top of the guard tower. Beneath the cloth of his face, he smiled. 

One Ring Down

Together they flew from roof to roof, as fast and stealthily as they could until they reached the barrier between the Middle Ring and the Upper Ring. As they climbed the second guard tower, Zuko’s grip slipped just an inch, and he held back a grunt as his feet slid down the solid stone. Katara caught him, calling the rainwater from the stone to his feet and hands, freezing him to the wall. 

Still, the noise was enough to catch the attention of the man in the watchtower, who lit a flame and looked out into the night. The two of them were concealed by a pillar, but Zuko knew if they began to climb again, they would catch the attention of the guard. 

For the first time in so long, he felt fire leave his fingertips. He used just enough heat to melt the ice Katara had used to protect him, and then he began his climb to the watchtower. He knew enough about their shifts now to know they were only manned one guard at a time at night. No one ever really came out after curfew. This whole city was scared to death of the Dai Li. 

Zuko snuck onto the balcony of the watchtower. Now he just needed to make sure he had a clear view of the guard before he attacked. Katara was one step ahead of him. She summoned a puddle of water, froze it into a block of ice, and let it fall to the edge of the balcony with a crash. 

“Who’s there?” called the guard, walking out. 

With one kick to the head, Zuko had the guard unconscious, and he and Katara had their ticket into the Upper Ring of Ba Sing Se. 

“I’m guessing the place with all the lanterns lit is the brothel.”

Zuko nodded. He told her, “Now remember. We don’t know for sure that Rang Xi will be there.” 

“No, but we'll be able to find someone he had contact with, at least.” 

That much was true. Too many young girls were sold to brothels. As they entered the establishment, Zuko prepared himself for the pure debauchery he was about to witness. Everywhere he looked he saw naked women, or women so barely clothed they may as well have been naked.  

“Looking for a girl?” drawled one of the attendants seductively. “You don’t have to cover your face. There’s no need to be ashamed.” 

He placed a hand on Katara’s shoulder. “I brought my own. I was told to bring her here. I was told Rang Xi would pay me well for my trouble.”

“I don’t know who told you that, but it’s faulty information.”

“So Rang Xi isn’t here?” 

“I don’t know anyone by that name,” said the girl. “Besides, he’s looking for girls younger than her. You’ll have to try again next time.” 

“Is he here?” he asked again. 

“Yes, but he won’t take her.” 

“Lead me to him. I’m persuasive. So is she.” 

Zuko slipped into his pocket and pulled out a single gold coin. It was their wages for an entire month. It was all they had agreed to spare if necessary. The attendant took it, bit it between her teeth, and led them to the back of the brothel, through rooms of more and more depravity. Everywhere he looked, he saw men finding pleasure and women faking it. There was a reason he never went into port with any of his crew members.

“Someone to see you, sir.” 

A short man smoking a pipe smiled. “Someone to see me? How kind of you to visit?”

“Are you the one who sells the children?” 

The man laughed. 

“Are you the one they call Rang Xi?”   

The man stood up from his chair and approached them, eyeing Katara. “You want to sell her?”

The plan was for Zuko to knock the man unconscious. They would take him to a secure location and question him there, but Katara had other ideas. As Rang Xi approached her, she brought her hands in front of her and took a deep breath. Rang Xi fell to the floor in pain. As Zuko realized he would need to muzzle the man, he ripped some fabric from the curtain and stuffed it into his mouth as he squirmed in agony. 

Zuko looked back to Katara, who continued to reach into him without even touching him. He’d never seen anything like it. His uncle had never told him it was something waterbenders could do, but if that was the case, he finally understood why the Fire Nation had captured the waterbenders first. 

“Two days ago, you bought a little girl. She was six years old with straight black hair and amber eyes. She was missing one of her front teeth. Do you remember her?” 

Zuko said to him, “I’m going to take the gag out of your mouth. If you make any noise aside from answering her question, she will torture you again for twice as long. Do you understand?”

Rang Xi nodded. Zuko pulled the gag from his mouth. “Yes, I remember her. I sold her to the Yom household. They wanted a girl for their kitchens that they didn’t have to pay.”

Rang Xi howled in pain again, and Zuko returned the gag to its place. Katara’s fingers twisted like a puppet master directing a marionette, and they didn’t look like they were going to let up any time soon. 

“How many girls have you sold to this brothel?” she asked. “How many?”

Once again, Zuko removed the gag. “Too many to count.”   

Katara’s hands reached into him and squeezed until his eyes closed. Then her hands dropped, and her breath grew shaky. Blood flowed from her nose. “Oh, my, did I-is he…?”

Zuko brought his fingers to the man’s neck. “No, he’s alive. He has a pulse. You just knocked him out.” 

“Okay, good. Now we know to go to the Yom house for Sul. Do you think we have time before the sun comes up?” 

“I think so. We finish this tonight.” 

“We should tie him up and leave him somewhere in case he was lying.”

“You’re right.” 

They left him tied to his desk with the door locked and cloth stuffed in his mouth. Katara was still shaking when she asked, “Do you know where the Yoms live?” 

“No.”

“There’s got to be a directory or something.” 

“If we knew their crest, it would be easier.” 

Katara immediately began rummaging through the drawers of Rang Xi’s desk. 

“What are you doing?”

“I bet he keeps accounts. He wouldn’t be as rich as he is if he didn’t.” 

Zuko joined her in her search. When she opened the bottom drawer, she found a scroll lined with golden edges, unlike any of the other scrolls. When she unraveled it, her hands shook. “This is the one,” she said. “Descriptions of every child, and the buyer he sold them to.” 

She laid the scroll across the desk and looked at the very bottom for the most recent one. He tried not to think of how long the scroll was. 

Skinny girl, six years. Bought for two gold. Sold for ten gold to Bai Yom of Palace District.

“The Palace District.”

“That place will be crawling with Dai Li,” he told her. 

“Then we’ll have to be sneaky.”

“If we’re going to the Palace District, we might as well drop him off on the Palace steps, with this ,” he said, tapping the scroll. 

She smiled, and the two of them took his body and hurled it out the window. After all, they weren’t too high up, and the noise was somewhat muffled by the sounds of pleasure coming from the other rooms. They both leaped out the window. Katara took the arms, and he took the legs. They snuck through the streets together, carrying his body, hiding behind structure after structure as they darted closer to the palace. He woke once. Zuko knocked him out again.  

When they reached the first gate, they left him there, against the wall, with his damning scoll tucked in the crook of his arm. He reached for Katara’s hand, and the two sprinted back to safety, while looking for any sign of the Yom household. They found it near the district’s edge, in the form of a gate with the family name carved in stone. They only had a few hours left under night’s cover. 

“Do you think there will be armed guards?”

“Either with weapons or bending.”

“We don’t even know where they’re keeping her,” she realized, wringing her hands. Her painted face glowed beneath the moon. 

“They’ll most likely have a wing for servants. She’ll be there.” 

“If they have earthbending guards, we’re done. They can sense the tiniest vibrations.” 

Though she was listing reasons not to engage, he knew how badly she wanted to recover Sul. “The Dai Li haven’t caught up with us yet. I think it’ll be okay. Even better if I go in alone.” 

“What are you talking about?” 

“I want you to climb as high as you can. You can be a lookout. That way we’re not both in the same place, and you can take out any guards that might be patrolling.” 

“But we’re supposed to be a team tonight.” 

“We still are. Do it for me please.” 

She began to climb one of the garden’s statues, and Zuko knew he had convinced her. Quickly, he darted across the courtyard towards the back of the estate. This part of the house would be the least guarded and the most likely to hold the servants. He wished he was an earthbender right now. It would come in handy to know where people were based on vibration. He had to rely on pure instinct, and his instincts told him houses in the Earth Kingdom would have rooms below ground. 

One window in the back of the home had been left open for a breeze. Stealthily, he crouched through the opening and let his eyes adjust to the pure darkness. It appeared to be a sitting room. The sitting room led to another parlor, and finally he found a hallway, where a staircase led down. He took the stairs to the bottom and heard the faint sound of people snoring. As lightly as he could, he opened the first door on his left. A man slept on a bed of straw. This was definitely where they kept the servants. 

Now he had to find Sul. 

He opened another door. Two women. Another door. Three boys. Another door. An elderly woman. Another door. Three girls

They slept soundly, each on their own straw mattress. Two girls had brown hair. One had black. On his tiptoes, he entered the room and walked towards the girl with black hair. Her hair covered her face as she slept. Gently, he reached his hand out and smoothed the hair away. 

It was Sul. 

She woke when he touched her. 

He brought his hand to her mouth and covered whatever noise she was about to make. He didn’t speak to her, though he wished to calm her, in case she recognized his voice. When he could tell she was looking directly into his eyes, he brought a single finger of his free hand to his lips. The direction was clear:  be quiet. 

She nodded, and he released the hand on her mouth. He took her into his arms and began to walk delicately down the hallway and back up the stairs. Sul shook with fear when one of the stairs creaked below them. His heart sped up. He used the adrenaline to get them back to the window he’d come through even faster.    

Katara was still sitting atop the statue, waiting for them. He could see a tear in her eyes as she climbed down. She stared at him, and she stared at Sul, whose arms clung to his neck. Without speaking, he knew what she was thinking. 

Let’s get this girl home

Climbing the walls was a little more challenging with a six-year-old in his arms, especially one who was falling back asleep. Still, he managed with Katara looking out for him. They never once slipped, never once alerted the guards in the watchtower. 

Every movement he made with Sul pushed him even farther. He was all too relieved with the outcome of the night to focus on anything else but making it back to their tenement. Suni and her girls lived in an apartment on the fifth floor. The dawn would break any minute now, and they were only a few blocks away.

When they finally arrived, Sul was fast asleep again. Wordlessly, Zuko handed the child to Katara. He didn’t want to risk anyone recognizing his scar. As they went inside, he walked around to the side of the building, and climbed the wall until he reached the window they’d left open. He left the bedroom to open the front door just in time to let Katara back in. 

She slumped against the door when he closed it. 

“We did it,” he told her. 

She hugged him, shaking. “I left her right outside the door. I didn’t knock or anything. Do you think she’ll be okay?” 

He held her tighter and pulled the scarf from the pins in her hair, letting the brown locks fall. “She’ll be just fine. Suni will be up in an hour or two, if Sul doesn’t wake up first and realize where she is.”

Her nails dug into the skin underneath his shirt. The powder from her face dusted against his shoulder.   

“Come on. Let’s get cleaned up.”

They walked to the bathroom together. Zuko removed the black cloth from his face and washed where the sweat had collected. He watched transfixed as Katara washed the makeup off her face. She pulled the pins from her hair and brushed it out. When she finished cleaning her teeth, she went back to their bedroom and changed into her nightdress. 

Once he changed into some clean clothes, he met her in the bedroom. She sat on the bed, hugging a pillow to her chest. 

“You can still get some sleep. It’ll be a couple hours before the kids start showing up.”  

She surprised him by reaching for him. He was all too willing to sit beside her. “That thing I did tonight,” she whispered, “I didn’t know I could do that.” 

Reaching inside someone and bending his blood, he didn’t know she could do that either. 

“I’m not surprised. You’re a strong bender, even stronger during the full moon.”

“I almost killed him.”

“I saw.” 

“Do you think I should have?”

“I think we have Sul reunited with her mother and sister.” 

“What if it was our child?” she asked shakily. 

“We don’t have a child.”

“I know that. Just imagine. If it was our child, would you have killed him?” 

He’d never imagined having a child with her until then. “I don’t know. We can’t answer questions like that.”

“What about the other children?” she demanded. “Sure, Rang Xi’s arrested, but those children are still out there. That list was so long.”

He didn’t say anything. He was too busy thinking about the kidnapped children, only to be grounded by Katara throwing her pillow across the room. 

“How can things be like this? How can there be a place untouched by war, but the people are still so, so awful?” 

“This place isn’t untouched by war. It just pretends to be. The Dai Li make the war disappear on the surface, but it still bleeds through. Everyone’s so desperate for their own little chance to be safe that they’re taken advantage of.”

“I thought we were finally safe. I guess it’s a lot for it to finally sink in that we aren’t.” She leaned against him, resting her head on his shoulder, exhaling warm, tiny breaths against his neck. 

“Yes, we are,” he told her. 

“Nowhere is safe.”

“But that doesn’t mean no one is. I keep you safe. You keep me safe. Just like tonight. We look out for each other.”

“I haven’t been good to you lately,” she admitted. 

“It’s okay.” 

“I’m sorry,” she told him sincerely.

“Don’t worry about it.”

He knew she was feeling vulnerable, and after everything they’d been though that night, he owed her some honesty. He felt like he needed to clear up something behind the reason they stopped speaking before. 

“I liked it when you kissed me.” 

She leaned deeper into him, so that the tip of her nose caressed his skin. “I liked it too.” 

“I was just worried that you did it to play a part, and not because you wanted to.” 

She lifted her head from his delicately. Her lips were a hair’s breadth from his.  

“I wanted to.” 

Wouldn’t this complicate things? Wouldn’t it make it harder to say goodbye? But her eyes were so tender, and her lips so inviting. They begged him to give her a reason to smile again. The Avatar wasn’t here yet; Zuko realized he might never be. The Avatar could have decided not to come. After all, plans changed. They grew treacherous and complicated.

When Katara reached him, he was struck by how easy it was for his lips to follow her command.

Chapter Text

Katara

Ba Sing Se 

She had to be quiet. She wanted to be loud. She wanted to scream, but the walls were thin and she couldn’t bear the thought of anyone hearing her, or anyone wondering why they hadn’t heard her before. 

She’d been desperate to expel the memory of her awful experience in the Plains. She knew there existed pleasurable touches. She wanted to experience them. She wanted to feel something so wonderful she couldn’t think of anything else. She wanted to know what men paid for in those brothels. She wanted to know what felt so good, it had women risking their reputations. 

She could tell Zuko was curious too. He told her he’d never done this before. So how was he so good at it? How did he deliver night after magical night?

There were no longer sides to the bed. Sometimes she fell asleep on his left, exhaling sated breaths against his scar. Sometimes it was his right, moaning quietly into his ear. Sometimes she fell asleep on top of him. Sometimes they collapsed on top of each other and rolled off so many times that she woke up on a different side than the one she fell asleep on. 

“You’ve done this before,” she accused lightheartedly one night, catching her breath. 

“No, I haven’t.”

“You’re too good at it.” 

“No, I’m good at you ,” he clarified simply with a delicate kiss to her neck. “I know you.”

He knew how to make her feel safe in his hands. He knew how to cherish her with his lips. He chuckled when she got too loud, and she’d huff in frustration because she was so close and did he really stop touching her to chuckle

But she knew how to unravel him in her hands. She knew which kisses left him senseless, which touches left the glazed look she loved in his golden eyes. She knew how to move her hips in just the right way to elicit the low, uncontrolled moans of his that left her toes curling. 

“I know you too.”

He smiled. “Yeah, you do.”


Zuko

The Ember Sea

He wasn’t making good pace, not in his little boat meant for tourists. He needed winds to outrun Azula’s rage and land him right in the heart of the rebellion. Not these pathetic little wisps of air. The Avatar breathed faster winds than these. 

He wished he had a steamship, or a war balloon, or something that would get him where he needed to be on time. He’d been so busy worrying about the journey he hadn’t had time yet to worry about what would happen when he showed up. 

He had his first line all planned out. He would come in peace and say, “Hello, Zuko here. I’ve changed, and I wanted to let you know that I’m good now, and I would love to help you out with the invasion.” 

It was a foolproof declaration. 

Unfortunately, he realized that without meeting up with Chief Hakoda’s forces, Zuko would have no way to pass the Great Gates of Azulon on his own. He didn’t have any reinforcements. He didn’t have a single piece of a plan.

He angrily swatted his bangs away from his face. By now, Katara usually cut it. It was easier to manage short, but now in the Fire Nation, long hair was the standard. Now the ends of his hair fell in his eyes. It was just another thing to annoy him.  

Sighing, he checked his map again. He couldn’t take the chance of missing them. He’d have to go around the island and enter the capital from the other side. 

He groaned, annoyed with his map, and his boat, and the stagnant air encompassing him. 

Things never could be simple, could they?

 

Chapter Text

The most important garment Katara ever made was the blue podaegi that would secure her son during the invasion. While Sokka and her father donned their wolf helmets, while Aang examined his new glider, and Toph sparred with the other earthbenders, Katara strapped Rei to her back and checked him a thousand times. 

“Listen up, everyone,” she heard her father say. “Today is the Day of Black Sun.”

Everything else her father said was for the benefit of the other warriors. She already knew her part in this invasion. She'd gone over that a thousand times too. As he spoke, she looked on proudly at her father and their troops. 

“When this is finished, the Avatar will have defeated the Fire Lord. We will have control of the Fire Nation capital, and this war will be over!” 

She cheered along with the others.

Right before they launched their ships, she hugged her friends tight, even Toph, this strange girl she never thought she’d be friends with in a million years. 

“Knock ‘em dead, Sugar Queen. You too, Baby Rei.”

Rei cooed. 

“Stay safe, Toph.” 

When Aang boarded Appa, she called up to him, “I’m so proud of you.” 

He smiled. “Save it for when I defeat the Fire Lord.”

Katara’s time to shine was during the naval stage of the invasion. She cemented herself into her stance and helped the swampbenders provide a fog cover for the ships as they propelled towards the first step to the Fire Nation palace, the Great Gates of Azulon. 

She knew the ships wouldn’t make it past. That was part of the plan, and it was her brother’s plan, so it had to work. But the pure heat of the fire off the gates was the most surreal sensation of her life. She was surprised when Rei didn’t cry out because she wanted to. Instead, he watched transfixed as the alarm sounded and the fire rose higher and higher.

“Come on, Rei, let’s go.” 

The submarines were waiting for them just below deck.

“Cool design, Sokka, but couldn’t you have picked something where you did, I don’t know, some of the work?” she teased as she sent the metal submarine through the sea. 

“Just wait until we get to land. Then I’ll show you.” 

Hakoda shook his head at the two of them, while the Mechanist admitted, “There is just one flaw. The subs have a limited air supply, so we’ll have to resurface before we get to the beaches.” 

It was a setback, but not a major one. Their invasion force was too far ahead. The eclipse was closer every second. When they came up for air, it was decided that Aang would go ahead. “It won’t be like Ba Sing Se this time,” he promised her. 

“I know it won’t.” 

“Will you lead Appa for me? There’s no one else I’d trust with him.”

“You’re not taking him with you?”

Aang patted his glider. “Nope, just me and Glidey.”

“Of course I’ll take care of Appa. Be careful up there, Aang.” 

“I will. I want you to be careful too. And when I come back, maybe we can talk about some things.” 

“Like what?”

He kissed her. 

And then he left. 

“Katara, what are you doing? It’s time to submerge.” 

“What?” she barely registered her brother speaking to her. Then it all clicked. Invasion. Rei on her back. Defeating the Fire Lord today. “Right. I’m on it.” 

She jumped into Appa’s saddle. The sky bison looked the fiercest of all, in gold and crimson armor. “You’ve never ridden Appa before, little one. It’s fun,” she realized as she bent the trapped air into a water bubble and guided Appa below the surface. Rei laughed. She’d have to tell him when he got older that he laughed through the Day of Black Sun.

When she saw the harpoons in the water, trying to snag just one of the submarines, a fierce anger rose within her, and she guided Appa back into the air, shooting a wave of ice strong enough to cut the chain. They weren’t losing anyone on her watch. 

She could feel Appa startle when the submarine’s torpedoes broke through the final barricade to the beaches. Fire nation soldiers met them on the shore, but her brother’s designs accounted for all. The submarines converted to earth-powered tanks, which were impervious to fire. 

Water tribe warriors unloaded and fought the soldiers hand-to-hand.  

“Katara!” she recognized her father’s voice through the chaos. “We need to take out those battlements.” 

Sure enough, when she looked up on the hill, she saw the brunt of the fiery attacks were coming from above. 

“Hop on!” she shouted to her father and brother. “Appa, take us up to that hill, boy.”

Sokka reached into his pack for one of his handheld bombs and lit it. “Get us closer, Katara. As close as you can get!”

One battlement destroyed. And then another. And another. Katara looked down. Their soldiers advanced. But then flames came towards them from another two battlements, coming from opposite directions. 

“You kids, take that one,” their dad told them. “I’ve got the other. Watch each other’s backs!”

It was nothing to Sokka and Katara, who combined her destructive waterbending with Sokka’s handheld bombs, but Hakoda was alone, and though he ended up unmanning the battlement, he limped back to them before collapsing entirely. 

“Dad!” the kids shouted in unison, as Rei began to cry for the first time since the invasion started. Katara fell to his side immediately and pulled the water from her pouch to heal the injury to his side. 

“I need to get back down there. I need to lead the troops.”

“Dad, you can’t even stand yet.” 

“It’s important.” 

“I’ll do it,” Sokka said. “I’ll lead the invasion.” 

“What?” Katara shouted.

“We need to get up the volcano before the eclipse starts.”

“Bato can do it.” 

“Bato doesn’t know what happened.”  

But Hakoda said, “I’m proud of you, son.”  

“I think you’re crazy, but I’m proud of you, too,” Katara admitted. 

She knelt beside her dad again and worked on his wound. She tried not to think about her brother flying away on Appa. 

“He’ll be okay,” Hakoda said, raising his hand to her cheek. 

She smiled. “I know he will.” 

But she grew more concerned about them when she heard the footfalls of Fire Nation soldiers marching towards them. She'd barely stopped the bleeding of her father's wound, and there were still a few minutes before the eclipse started. The soldiers still had their bending. Katara rose to defend them, bringing the water she'd been using to heal into her defensive stance. She just had to hold them off for a few minutes. She counted five soldiers, each trying to circle her, each shooting flames. She had to keep her position in order to protect her father, and the soldiers knew it. They began aiming for him, lying injured on the ground. She grunted as the flames evaporated against her water. She froze the soldiers again and again, only to have them melt the ice. 

And then, flames erupted behind her, towards the soldiers. 

“Get back down the hill! I’ll hold them off!” shouted a familiar raspy voice from behind her.

Hakoda reached for his spear, which reminded Katara of their present situation. She glanced over her shoulder and found Rei staring behind them. She shook her head and helped her father stand. “Lean on me, Dad,” she said as the trio retreated behind Zuko.  

“Set me down, Katara. You can help him fight.” 

“I’m not going to leave you defenseless.” 

“I have my spear. Don’t worry about me. He’s outnumbered five to one.” 

Katara snorted. “Believe me, he doesn’t need the help.” 

But she saw his bending stance start to waver. Below, the troops advanced, and above the sky darkened. The eclipse finally began. What would have been a flow of fire dissolved into a mere puff of smoke. The soldiers stood still, in shock. Then Zuko reached for the swords at his back. The soldiers ran, and Katara smiled to herself. 

The smile fell from her face when Zuko turned back to them. 

“Come on. Time to get back to the troops.” 

“Excuse me?” she demanded. “What are you even doing here?”

He shrugged. “I’m here for the invasion.” 

“Yeah, right. You’re here for your father.” 

“I’m not.” 

“Forgive me if I don’t believe you. Come on, Dad.” She bent down to help him up. 

“Wait, let me help him. You already have Rei.” 

“No.” 

“Katara,” her father reprimanded. “Listen to him.”

“Do you know who he is, Dad? That’s Prince Zuko, son of Fire Lord Ozai.”

“And he just saved us from five soldiers. Let him help us.” 

Katara relented, though angrily. She stomped down the hill, never taking her eyes off of Zuko supporting her father’s weight. His hair was longer now, falling into his eyes. He looked like he’d built some of his muscle back too. He looked healthier.   

“So what? You’re on our side now?”

“If you’ll have me.” 

“After you fought Aang in Ba Sing Se, I don’t think so.”

He had nothing to say to that. He could only hang his head, but closer to the troops, he noticed, “I see you found your father.” 

She wanted to scream at him. It was bad enough he’d already referred to her son by name. She didn’t want him offering any other indication that he’d known her outside of his hunt for Aang. She didn’t want anyone knowing that he’d been the one to reveal her father’s location at Chameleon Bay.  

“Just keep moving,” she screeched at him.

Soon enough, they reached Sokka leading the rest of the invasion force. “Dad!” he called happily. Then his eyes narrowed. “Zuko,” he said sharply, drawing his spear. 

To Zuko’s credit, he didn’t reach for his swords. Instead, he kept supporting their father. He tipped his head towards her brother. "Sokka." 

“Wait! Zuko, as in Prince Zuko from the Crystal Catacombs?” asked Toph. 

“Yep, that’s the one,” Sokka affirmed. 

“Cool. We’ve got the Prince of the Fire Nation on our side.”

Katara didn’t even want to address that statement from Toph when a figure above caught her eye. "Wait. Is that Aang?"

The Avatar landed in the center of the group, dejected. 

“Please tell me you’re here because the Fire Lord turned out to be a big wimp, and you didn’t even need the eclipse to take him down,” begged Sokka. 

Aang shook his head. “There’s no one there.” Then he noticed the extra member of their party. “Oh, hey, Zuko.” 

“They evacuated the city,” Zuko told them. “But my father, my sister, they’ll be below, in a secret bunker. It was all a part of the plan.” 

“A secret bunker, eh?” mused Toph as she pushed her fists into the rock of the volcano. “Oh, I can feel it, beneath all the natural tunnels. It's big, dense, and made of metal, right at the heart of the volcano.” 

“That’s it.”

“And I suppose you’re all too eager to help them find it,” mocked Katara. 

“No. That’s not my fight. I need to find my uncle.” 

“Then we need to move fast. Toph, you, me, and Aang need to find the Fire Lord. Can you get us down to the bunker?"

“I don’t know, can I?” She pulled her fists apart and created a long, narrow tunnel, to what Katara supposed led straight to the bunker. The three immediately dove right in and disappeared into its depths.

“Do you really want to keep going, Dad? I can try to heal you again.” 

“No, we have to keep going. We can’t be isolated when the eclipse is over.” 

“Your father’s right,” said Zuko. “I can help you to the top of the hill. I’ll get you to your invasion force, and then with the remaining time, I’ll break my uncle out of prison.”

“Why not just go now? Dad and I can manage.” 

Zuko pretended like he hadn’t heard her, guiding her father up the hill. Katara huffed. “So you’re going to help us secure your palace,” she said skeptically. “You just changed sides, that easy?”

“It wasn’t easy.” 

“So you want to switch back?”

“That’s not what I said.” 

“So why weren’t you in the secret bunker?”

“I wasn’t in the city. I traveled by boat from Ember Island. It’s easy to get in the city when you’re coming from the Fire Nation. I planned to meet you at sea, but the boat wasn’t moving fast enough.”

“The winds were slow these past few days,” attested Hakoda. Katara rolled her eyes. 

“Not many moms bring their babies to an invasion.” 

Leave my son out of this , she wanted to say. “No other options.”

“You could have stayed back.”

“Like I said, that wasn’t an option.” 

Zuko smiled at Rei. He even raised his free hand and offered a small wave. “He seems to be enjoying the excitement.”

Katara didn’t want to discuss Rei with him at all. “You could turn on us.”

“Wouldn’t I have done that already?”

“Didn’t you? Below Ba Sing Se?” 

Zuko froze, and she cursed herself for the vitriol in her tone. She said it too personally. She’d done what she had meant to avoid. 

“We’re at the top of the hill,” he said. “This is where I leave you. If there’s any time, I’ll bring my uncle back to the palace. He’ll want to help.” 

They had fallen just behind the tanks. Katara would be able to keep the same pace and meet the rest of the force in no time. 

“Thank you for your help,” Hakoda said. 

Katara said nothing. Don’t watch him leave . Then Rei began to cry. Against her better judgment, she looked down on Zuko’s descent. He had his swords drawn as he ran down the hill, faster than she ever knew a man could run. She wondered if Rei remembered him. It had only been a little over a month since Rei had seen him last. She wondered if her son was crying for his father. 

“It’s okay, Rei,” she said, but it did nothing to soothe him. 

“I had no idea you knew the Fire Nation’s crown prince so well.” 

“He used to hunt Aang a long time ago, while he was banished.” 

“Yeah, I remember Bato mentioning that.” 

“Uh-huh. Come on, Dad. We’re almost to them.” 

“The eclipse is almost over. The others aren’t back yet.” 

“I know.” 

“If they’re not back by the time the eclipse is over, I want you to leave me. I’m slowing you down.”

“What? Dad, no! I’m not going to leave you.” 

“I can’t put you and Rei in danger.” 

“We’re not talking about this anymore.” 

Already, the outermost rays of the sun were beginning to emerge. Only then did Rei stop crying. The three of them met up with the forces down below at the Fire Nation palace.

“What do we do?” Bato called. “Shouldn’t something have happened by now?”

“I don’t know, but now that the eclipse is over, I bet we’re going to see some firebenders any minute.”

As soon as her father said so, dozens of war balloons rose from behind the palace. Katara’s breath caught in her throat. They had to get out of here. They were as good as dead if they stayed at the abandoned palace.

“Guys!" shouted a voice above them. It was Aang, with Sokka and Toph hanging on to his glider. "They were prepared for us. They had every move planned out." 

Sokka leaned disconsolately against Appa. “Our only hope is to get back to the submarines.” 

“Then lead us back to the subs, son.”

Aang jumped on his glider. “I’ll do what I can to slow them down.” 

They had some more time with the help Aang provided them, along with the earth ceiling Toph used to cover them from the bombs, but all too soon, it was discovered that the balloons were not interested in them at all, at least not yet. 

“They’re headed for the beaches. They’re going to destroy the submarines. We’ll be trapped.” 

“Not all of us.”

“What do you mean, Dad?”

He looked to the other members of the group. All of them shared the same look. Katara understood it. Though she was young, she was a parent too. “You kids have to escape on Appa. Live to fight another day.” 

“I don’t want to leave you,” she admitted tearfully, holding him close. 

“Go,” he told her. “We’ll be reunited.” 

By then, Aang had rejoined them. He looked on gravely as the youngest of them boarded Appa. Dozens would be left behind for an invasion they were so sure would end in victory. Now their only chance was Sozin’s comet, and they wouldn’t have the loss of the Fire Lord’s bending on their side then. If they couldn't even win when nature was on their side...she didn't want to think about what that meant for the future. 

“Thank you all for being so brave and so strong,” Aang said to them, tears streaming from his eyes. Katara’s heart wrenched for him. She knew he thought this was all his fault. “I’m gonna make this up to you. Yip yip.” 

Katara's eyes closed as they flew away. She couldn’t bear to see their father’s form become smaller and smaller below her. When she reopened them, all she saw was the sea. 

“Where will we go?”

“I know just the place. The Western Air Temple.” 

“We left Zuko behind,” Toph realized as they flew further away. 

“We left a lot of people behind.”

Katara pulled Rei from his podaegi to nurse him. He hadn’t eaten since before the invasion began. Oddly enough, Zuko was the only one she wasn’t worried about. He always found his own way. Even if it meant following a sky bison to the Western Air Temple by war balloon, he always found a way. 

Chapter Text

The heat of the tea nearly burned her fingers as she held the cup. 

“So this will make sure I don’t have a baby?”

“Only if you aren’t already expecting. It only prevents a child. If you’re expecting one, it’s useless.”

“Oh.”

“Are you expecting one?” 

Katara’s stomach turned nervously. “I don’t know. But I should have bled by now.” 

Suni’s mouth was a hard line as she said, “There are ways for women to get rid of babies, if you and Lee don’t want one.”

“I’d have to talk that over with Lee first.” 

“Have you told him you think you could be?” 

Katara smiled shakily. “No, I haven’t. I didn’t want to worry him in case there was nothing to worry over.”

“Drink the tea just in case. There could be a number of reasons why you haven’t bled. And if you don’t bleed, and you talk to Lee, remember what I told you.”

She thanked Suni for the tea and the company, and watched Bora and Sul chase each other around the apartment. Suni didn’t pay Katara to watch them anymore. She took her girls with her everywhere she went, never keeping them far from her sight.

She didn’t know why pregnancy hadn’t occurred to her in this new step of her relationship with Zuko. She knew how babies were made. She knew what she was doing with Zuko. In hindsight, something should have clicked. 

When she had been raped, it was her first fear. With her last bit of strength, she’d furiously expelled the evidence of their crime. Still, she was scared. She limped over to the closest brothel she could find, and a woman with a painted face brewed her a bitter tea she swore would put all her fears to rest. 

Perhaps, in the height of her pleasure with Zuko, she lost herself in the idea that nothing could go wrong. When tender kisses between two lovers soothed the tremors of the past, who had the time to think of anything else?

Another week went, and she didn’t bleed. The anxiety kept her awake at night, even as Zuko slept beside her. Another week, and the nausea started. She woke in the middle of the night with a stomach turned upside down. She left the bed to go to the bathroom, but she never vomited. It certainly felt like she would, but she didn’t. 

“Are you sick?” Zuko asked. When she left the bed, she’d woken him. 

She shook her head, sighing. “I’m pregnant.”

He sat up in bed, staring at her silently. 

“Say something,” she begged.   

“Are you sure?”

She was angry he even asked. She wouldn’t have told him if she wasn’t sure. She’d dealt with her suspicions privately for weeks with no change. She was sure. 

“I talked to Suni already. She said there were options, if you don’t want it.” Tears formed in her eyes. 

“Do you want it?” 

If she was being honest with herself, she did want to have a child with him. She thought they could make a good family, but there was too much to be afraid of. She was supposed to leave him when Aang came back to the city. What happened if she didn’t want to go? What happened if she wanted to stay with him in Ba Sing Se? A tiny voice in her head told her she’d want to stay with him, child or no child. 

But staying in Ba Sing Se presented its own problems. There was always the chance their child could bend. A waterbender might not be too terrible to explain, but a firebender...

They were also poor. Their apartment only had one bedroom. If they stayed in Ba Sing Se, there would be nowhere to put the baby when it got older. 

“I don’t know.” 

“I don’t know either,” he admitted. “We should have been more careful.” 

He didn’t mean it callously, but it made her cry all the same. 

“Come back to bed,” he told her. “Get some sleep.”

“I can’t sleep.”

“Then I’ll stay up with you.” 

She huffed at him, wiping the tears from her eyes. “No, don’t do that. You have to work in the morning.” 

It was too late. He was already out of the bed, sitting beside her on the bathroom floor. He wrapped an arm around her, and she leaned into his touch. 

“This wasn’t supposed to happen,” she said. 

“Was any of it?” 

“I guess not.”

Left alone in the Foggy Swamp, saved by the enemy, building a life with the enemy - that hadn’t been in the cards. Then there was Zuko, banished from the Fire Nation, wanted by the Fire Nation, building a life with the enemy. 

“My mom died when I was little.” 

He already knew that about her, like she knew about his, but she felt the need to say it again. She felt the need to remember. She was ashamed that she hadn’t thought of her mom in a while, not until she became pregnant. 

He kissed the top of her head. “Mine too.” 

“I don’t think anyone’s ever loved me as much as my mom. She gave up her life for me.” 

“I know what you mean.” 

“Really?”

“I always felt safe with my mom. Safe and loved.” 

“I want that,” she admitted. “I want to love someone that much.” 

“You’ll be a good mom if that’s what you want. As good as yours and as good as mine.” 

“Will you love it?” she wondered. 

She didn’t want to ask if he loved her, or if he could ever see himself loving her. She was better off not knowing. Her feelings for him were already so complex in their intensity that she felt like he was still firebending. He was still consuming her the way his flames consumed everything he touched. Her feelings for him were volatile. At least feelings for their child would be stable. 

“I can try. I’ve never been a father before.”

“I’ve never been a mother.”

“Yeah, but you’re good. I’m not.” 

She kissed him. “Yes, you are.”    

He had found her in the Plains and kept her safe. He had given up his hunt for Aang. He rescued Sul from a life of slavery. Even if it wasn’t a side he had shown the rest of the world, she could see the goodness in him. It wasn’t just a character to keep them safe. Zuko was good. 

“I think you’ll be a good father.”

He looked ahead of him with a hard expression on his face. She could tell he didn’t believe her. 

“You sound like you want it.” 

“I do,” she realized. She also realized she didn’t just want a baby; she wanted his baby. But she wasn’t ready to say that out loud. They had enough on their plates. 

He nodded, the smallest smile on his face. “I don’t have to pay you to watch it right? It doesn’t seem fair if I have to pay you to watch our kid.” 

She laughed. “No, I’m going to charge you the same rate.”

“I won’t pay it.” 

“I’ll take you to the king.” 

“I’m taking you to bed. Come on, I’m tired.”

He stood up, and held his hand out for her. She reached up and intertwined her fingers with his. She felt lighter, more sure of herself.       

Later, when Katara met up with the other mothers, she saw the question in Suni’s eyes. 

“We’re keeping it,” she said. 

Suni smiled. “Children are a blessing.” 

“Yes.”

“They say the spirits pick our children for us. I think it’s true. My girls remind me of their father, now that he’s gone.”

“You never told me what happened to him. You don’t have to say if you don’t want to.”

“I don’t mind telling you. He was a bender. Taken prisoner.” 

“Oh,” Katara said, “It’s just the girls told me he was dead.” 

“He could be. I tell the girls he is. Even if he ever got out, he’d never be able to find us.”

“You don’t know that, Suni.”

She sighed. “Yes, I do.” 

Katara didn’t argue with her. She recognized the resignation in Suni’s voice. 

“I’ve gone so long without him I wouldn’t even know what to do if I got him back,” she admitted. 

“I’m sorry, Suni.”

The older woman smiled at her and offered her a piece of fruit. “Don’t be. Let me know if you need anything. If you have any concerns or questions about the baby, don’t hesitate to ask me. I’m only a few floors away.” 

“I will.” 

All the moms checked on her constantly. Jia brought her a special coconut oil for her expanding belly. It helped to soothe the uncomfortable stretching of her skin. 

Nari brewed her tea for nausea. There were some days it was the only thing Katara could keep down. 

Ina was mostly concerned with Katara’s plan to keep working through the pregnancy. Though she was unimaginably uncomfortable, she did agree to continue caring for the children. She grew to love them all, and the extra income was too good to pass up. 

Suni checked on her every couple weeks. She checked the position of the baby. She asked Katara how she was feeling. She made suggestions. She assured her that everything was normal. 

Normal . Somehow that wasn’t a word she assigned to having a baby with Zuko, especially when word finally came that the Avatar had arrived. 

“It’s all anybody talks about these days. The Avatar’s going to save us all,” Zuko muttered bitterly.

“From what?” she joked. “There is no war in Ba Sing Se.”

“Right. So I guess this means goodbye is coming soon?” 

Her heart wrenched. Their baby kicked. Don’t worry , she wanted to say to their little baby (a girl - she just knew it was a girl), we’re not going anywhere

But she stayed up, thinking of her best friend and her brother. They had no idea what had happened to her. She tortured them every day she stayed with Zuko in Ba Sing Se. 

He was laying in the bed beside her, resting with one arm carelessly strung across her belly. He never wanted to miss the baby moving. 

She didn’t want to leave.

“If I left, would you go with me? Aang could still need a firebending teacher.” 

He said nothing. She sighed. He must have fallen asleep. 

It was Suni who delivered their baby. When Katara’s sharp pains came one night and stayed through the morning, Suni came and coaxed her through the labor. 

“Do you want me to send for Lee?”

“No,” she said, though she wanted him there. He’d be home soon enough, she decided. She could do this. She could have their baby. As the labor continued, she was sure this baby was going to kill her. She was breaking from the inside out. She would die with a false name in the lower ring of Ba Sing Se, and no one would ever know what became of Katara of the Southern Water Tribe. 

She cried tears of pain, and fear, and frustration. 

“A boy,” Suni called reverently. 

Then came tears of joy and relief. Suni wrapped the baby in a blanket and placed his screaming body in her arms. He was born when the sun was the highest in the sky. She shushed him, and sang to him, and nursed him, all while her body tried to recover from the life it had just given. 

“I can look after him until Lee gets back. You should rest.” 

She didn’t want to close her eyes. She wanted to look at her baby boy forever. She couldn’t stop smiling as she scanned his raven hair, his blue eyes, his little fingers and toes. She loved him as much as she hoped she would and more. 

“I don’t want to sleep,” she said. 

“You need to.” 

She knew she did. Her body was exhausted, and her eyes grew heavy. The last image in her mind before she fell asleep was of her beautiful baby boy. 

When she woke, Suni was gone. In her place was Zuko, holding their sleeping baby to his chest. He must not have realized she was awake yet. He was whispering something so softly she couldn’t hear, but the gentleness of his voice made her smile. 

“You like him,” she teased. 

He jumped slightly when she spoke, which amused her, but he was quick to recover. He smiled at her from their spot on the edge of the bed. 

“I love him,” he replied, all joking forgotten.  

Katara nearly cried again. 

“We never talked about names.” 

“No, we didn’t.”

She thought of her brother and father for a fleeting moment, and entertained the thought of giving him one of their names, but it didn’t feel right. When she thought of those names, she only imagined them. Their names didn’t fit the baby in Zuko’s arms. 

“Um, well, I can start listing some,” she offered. “There’s Bumi, Kuei, Rollin, Chu, Sori, Iman…” 

He snorted. 

“What, you don’t like any of those?”

“Do you?”

“Not really,” she admitted. 

He looked comfortable holding him in his arms, more comfortable than she expected. “He held my finger when I gave it to him. He’s still holding it. Suni said all babies do it, but…” he trailed off, cheeks flushing. 

Katara’s heart swelled. “He’s still holding your finger?”

Zuko nodded, and as gently as he could, laid back against the bed beside her. Sure enough, as their baby lay nestled against Zuko, his little fingers were still wrapped around Zuko’s. 

“You could have sent for me,” he whispered.

“I didn’t want you to worry. Besides, how good was the surprise?” 

He kissed the top of her head. “It was a good surprise.” 

“I can take him if your arm’s tired,” she offered. 

“No, I’m okay. He’s sleeping. I don’t want to move him.” 

“Did you think we were having a boy?” 

“I thought we might. You thought we were having a girl.” 

She did. She had been so sure. It was why she hadn’t given much thought to any boy names. 

He took her by surprise when he asked after a moment of silence, “What do you think of Rei?” 

“Rei?”

“Yeah.”

She tested the name on her tongue a few times, unsure. Then she looked down on the little bundle in Zuko’s arms and tried it again. Rei . The baby stirred for just a minute, like he knew she was calling him. She smiled. Rei . Blue eyes blinked up at doting parents. 

“Hi, Rei,” she whispered.  

Chapter Text

“Should we put it to a vote?” Aang asked diplomatically while Zuko awaited his fate nearby, overhearing every word.

“Fine,” huffed Katara. “No.”

“Come on, Sugar Queen.”

“You don’t know him, Toph. You don’t know what he’s capable of.” 

“I think you should give him a little bit of a break, Katara. He did help us out during the invasion.”

Katara scoffed. “He barely moved a muscle.”

“He saved you, Dad, and Rei. Honestly I’m surprised you’re not more on board with this.”

“Oh, so you’re jumping on the Zuko train?”

“Aang needs a firebending teacher.”

“I vote yes,” Toph said. “He should be a part of the group.”

“I vote yes,” Aang followed. 

Zuko kept his head down as the vote came to Sokka and Katara. 

“Yes,” Sokka declared. 

Katara didn’t say anything. 

“Okay, come on over, Princey.” Zuko cringed at Toph’s nickname for him, but he was relieved to be part of the group. Aang showed him to a spare room, and Sokka explained the training schedule he had in place. He was introduced to Teo, Haru, and the Duke. He liked them. 

Katara avoided him. His first night as a part of the group, she only asked, “What happened to your uncle?” 

“I was too late. He’d already broken himself out.” 

She sipped her broth. “Tough luck.”

“Yeah.”

He couldn’t help but stare at her as the days went on. That was his son in Katara’s lap as their little group of rebels sat in a circle for dinner, and no one knew. Katara’s hateful glare followed him wherever he turned. As he trained with Aang, as he sparred with Sokka, as he bonded with Toph, her sneer deepened, and her hold on Rei tightened, as if she was afraid he would steal Rei from her in the middle of the night. 

Toph found Katara’s distaste for him absolutely hilarious. “What did you do to her?”

“I was pretty cruel to them when I was hunting Aang.”

“Well, Aang and Sokka don’t seem to mind. They said it happened a couple years ago, and they’re over it. So what happened with you and Sugar Queen?” 

He shrugged, not that Toph could see. “You’d have to ask her.”

Toph did. Katara ignored her. 

“She’ll come around,” Aang told him when the two went off on their own adventure to discover the source of firebending. “Katara’s just protective.”  

When they returned, he had time to reflect on how remarkable The Western Air Temple was. He had some memories from when he was first banished and he’d come here with his uncle. He’d had a fading hope that the Avatar was somewhere in hiding. He hadn’t appreciated much about life then. One thing he hadn’t appreciated was how transfixing it was that the rivers all flowed upstream. He excused himself from the group to find some respite in the summer heat. A dip in the river was just what he needed. 

Katara followed him. He only knew because a water whip promptly hit him in the face. 

He rubbed the water from his eyes. “Where’s Rei?” he asked calmly. 

She didn’t answer. Instead, she said, “I think we need to get a few things straight.” 

“Okay.” 

“I’m not happy you’re here.”

“Oh, gee, I had no idea.”

She rolled her eyes. “The only reason I can accept this is because Aang has a limited time to master firebending before the comet, and you were the only teacher we could find. Just so we’re on the same page, Rei is off limits .”

He bristled. “So what did you tell them about his father? It can’t be the truth. That’s too shameful for you, isn’t it?”

“I told them I didn’t know what happened to his father. Isn’t that the truth?” 

“I left you a letter.” 

She laughed bitterly. “There weren’t exactly details. There were also some conflicting outside reports. I’m sure you can understand my confusion.” 

“So what? I sit around here and pretend I have no connection to him at all?” 

“That’s exactly what you do.” 

“I love him.”

“You left him.” 

He had to take deep breaths to keep his inner fire calm. “Anything else?” 

“If you hurt Aang-”

“I’m helping him!” he exclaimed. 

“For now, but if you ever hurt him, you’re done. Am I clear?” 

“Crystal.” 

“Good,” she said. “And hurry up with your break. Sokka needs someone to spar with.”

“I’ll get there when I get there,” he told her. As she turned away from him angrily, he added, “Maybe you and I should spar sometime. It’s been years since we’ve had a good fight.”

It was at the North Pole the last time her water had met his flames. He’d been battered and angry, and she’d just claimed mastery of her element. 

“You don’t want that,” she warned. “I won’t be able to hold back.” 

“I don’t want you to hold back.”

Maybe that’s what she needed. Maybe she needed to make him her punching bag until she grew bored of his pain. He needed to suffer until she deemed it was sufficient. He must have hurt her worse than he thought.

“Ask me again when you’re done teaching Aang. It’s less critical if something happens to you then.” 

He smiled at her sardonically, sure that his casual demeanor only made her angrier, but he couldn’t help the smile. It was refreshing to see she had found herself again. He was still trying to find himself, but he realized some of his most important pieces were here with Katara and Rei. Even if she hated him, he felt a million times better than when he arrived back home in the Fire Nation. 

“Your sister said you were looking for someone to spar with.” 

“Oh, yeah, I was.”

Zuko dug his swords out of his sleeping bag. He beat Sokka most times, but Sokka did present a challenge. He was an intuitive fighter, always thinking. From the corner of his eye, he saw Katara standing Rei up on the temple steps. It distracted him enough for Sokka to win the match. 

“Ha! That’s what you get for looking at my sister.”

Zuko groaned to himself. 

“Why are you so desperate for her to like you anyways?”

“I just want her to trust me.”

“Don’t take it personally. She’s been through a lot these past couple years.”

Zuko nodded absently and sheathed his swords. 

“What happened to you , by the way?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, you were following us nonstop until the Siege of the North Pole. Then nothing.”

“I was just traveling through the Earth Kingdom, laying low.” 

“Anywhere in particular?” 

Katara must have been eavesdropping. “Sokka, I cut up some fruit if you want any. Lychee and papaya.”

Sokka darted inside, leaving the two of them alone outside the temple. 

“You didn’t give me my cover story when you were listing your terms.” 

“Tell him what you want...within reason.”

“Am I allowed to say I was in Ba Sing Se?”

“They know you were there. You fought them in the Catacombs.” 

“Is that why you’re so angry with me?” 

Her jaw tightened. Underneath her breath, she muttered, “I can’t believe you.” 

Inside, they could hear the Duke and Sokka arguing over who got the last piece of papaya. 

“I missed you every day,” he revealed. 

It did nothing to melt the steel in her eyes. “Oh, how kind of the Fire Nation’s crown prince to find the time to think of us.” 

Rei squirmed on her hip, reaching for him. Katara angled herself away. He didn’t have enough time to convey his true feelings. The wounds he’d left her with were still fresh. It wasn’t the time. 

So he said petulantly, “He looks just like me. You always said so yourself.” 

Sokka called from inside the house, “Katara, was that the last papaya?”

She took it as the perfect opportunity to leave the conversation. Rei peered back at him over Katara’s shoulder. 

A minute later, Sokka came back out, with a bite of food in his mouth. “Hey, I’ve got a question for you.”

“What is it?”

“Where would the Fire Nation take high-profile prisoners?”

“Why do you ask?”

“Just curious.”

“Your dad,” Zuko realized. 

Sokka nodded. “And an old girlfriend of mine.”

Zuko should have known that as soon as he said something, Sokka would run with it. He was a great strategist, Zuko was learning, but he was also impulsive. It was a trait he shared with his sister. 

Somehow, it didn’t occur to him until Sokka woke him up that night, fumbling with the war balloon. Unknowingly, Zuko had led him straight to the Boiling Rock. Consequently, Zuko was along for the ride. 

“So what’s your plan?” Zuko asked. 

Sokka shrugged lightheartedly. “Kinda playing this one by ear.”

“By ear? It’s a high-security Fire Nation prison!”

“Zuko, I know you’re new here, but I’m the plan guy. This is all a part of the process.” 

“Your process is going to kill us.”

“No, it’s going to get my dad back. And Suki.” 

Suki - Sokka’s girlfriend had a name. 

“Do you have a girlfriend back in the Fire Nation?” 

“No.”

“Have you ever had a girlfriend?”

“Of course I’ve had a girlfriend before!” exclaimed Zuko. “I had one in Ba Sing Se.”

“Ba Sing Se girl, nice .” 

Zuko chuckled to himself. If only Sokka knew who the Ba Sing Se girl really was.

“My first girlfriend turned into the moon,” Sokka revealed.

Zuko was at a loss for how they were even discussing girls as they were hurtling towards the Boiling Rock with absolutely no plan. “Um, that’s rough, buddy.”  

“Yeah, it was.”

“So who’s Suki?”

“She’s the leader of the Kyoshi warriors.” 

“Seriously?”

“Yeah, is that so hard to believe?”

It was. So far, Sokka’s girlfriends included the moon and the leader of the Kyoshi warriors. It was quite the repertoire.

“I really liked my girlfriend in Ba Sing Se. I hurt her a lot when I left. I don’t think she’ll ever take me back.” 

“Did she know she was dating the Fire Lord’s son?”

She had. She’d known so much about him, and still she used to smile every time she saw him. 

“Yeah.” 

“So, scale of 1-10, how mad was she when you left?”

“Definitely a 10.” 

“Then there’s hope,” Sokka insisted. 

“What are you talking about?”

“If she was that mad, that means she liked you a whole lot. If you tell her you’re sorry, and show her you’re sorry, you’ll be right as rain. Take it from me.” 

Sure, the advice was from Sokka, but it still gave him something to think about before the war balloon crash landed. Now, not only was there no plan for getting Chief Hakoda and Suki out, but they no longer had a way off the island.

Katara, your brother’s crazy. 

“I was supposed to go by myself.” 

“That sounds like a great way to get yourself killed.” 

It was starting to look like a great way to get them both killed until the two of them walked right into the facility dressed as guards. No one needed any proof that they belonged aside from the uniform, and the helmets were all too perfect for hiding their faces. 

Too bad about getting arrested, though. He really could have done without that, especially when the Warden recognized just who the Boiling Rock’s imposter guard was. 

“Prince Zuko, chains suit you.”

“I’m sorry I don’t recognize you.”

“Men missing half their faces are a bit easier to identify,” the Warden said. “I can assure you I come from a very well connected family. My brother is the governor of New Ozai. My niece is a lifelong friend of your sister.”

“You’re Mai’s uncle,” he realized. 

“Yes. My family has been rewarded well for their loyalty to your father. It’s a shame you committed treason on the Day of Black Sun. There were talks of betrothing you to my niece.” 

Zuko gulped. This did not bode well for him. 

“Your niece is a lovely girl,” he said. 

That got him smacked across the face. 

“She’s on her way here,” the Warden said maliciously, “with your sister.” 

Sokka, I could use a little help over here . Sokka was a little busy having a friendly reunion with his girlfriend, though, and subsequently preventing Zuko from living to have one with Katara. 

He also could have gone without Chit Sang and his eavesdropping. Chit Sang had a knack for drawing attention to himself. To someone like Zuko, trained in stealth, he had a pretty strong feeling Chit Sang was going to be the wrinkle in their plan. 

His instincts proved true when the floating cooler was fished out of the lake. 

Now he was resigned to his status chained to a chair. Mai met him in his cell, shaking her head. 

“This is exactly what I didn’t want to happen.” 

“How was I supposed to know your uncle was the Warden?”

“I don’t know, maybe listen to anything I said. I told you my uncle was the Warden of the Boiling Rock.”

“Oh,” he said, deflated. He was probably wrestling with his internal conscience when she mentioned that. 

“Do you know what’s going to happen to you?” she demanded. “Azula’s here. She’s going to deliver you to your father. You won’t even get a trial. Your execution warrant has already been signed, if Azula doesn’t kill you on sight!” 

“It’ll be okay,” he told her.

“Was it all worth it? For a cause that was dead from the start?”

“The world can’t go on like this.”

She cursed beneath her breath. The skin of his wrists chafed from his bindings. He knew it was only a matter of time before his sister made an appearance. She would probably laugh to see him tied up like this. 

Then an alarm rang out, disturbing them both. 

“There’s a riot!” shouted a passing guard. 

Mai smiled, producing a stiletto from her sleeve. She deftly cut through the ties. 

“I didn’t do that,” she told him. “It sounds like you’re needed upstairs.”

He didn’t even have time to thank her as he bolted up the stairs to the courtyard, cutting down any guard who tried to block his path. He found Sokka, Suki, and Hakoda, to his relief. Chit Sang was a less welcome sight, but he probably needed to get used to it.

“Come on. We need to get the warden,” said Sokka, who was still dressed like a guard. 

“You mean you don’t have him already?” Zuko didn’t know why he was surprised. He wondered how bad the others had to be at planning if they’d appointed Sokka in charge.

But it all worked out. A quick look above, and they realized Suki was already taking care of it. They all shuffled into the gondola. No one dared stop them with the Warden as their hostage. 

Though they made it on board, there were two problems. The first was that the guards below had orders to cut the line from the Warden himself. The second was that Azula and Ty Lee were waiting for them on the wire. Zuko climbed above to the roof and armed his hands with flames. 

“I didn’t get to see you during the invasion, Brother. I was disappointed.”

“Sorry for the inconvenience.”

“We hardly knew you were there at all. Only the guards of Uncle’s prison could confirm it. Did you ever find out where he went?”

No, he didn’t. War wasn’t kind to separated families. It was too bad he kept reuniting with his sister.

“Azula!” called Ty Lee frantically. “Azula, they’re going to cut the line!” 

They looked down below, to the guards hacking furiously at the ropes dangling them above the boiling lake. 

“Then it’s time for us to go,” said Azula calmly. She always had impeccable timing. 

Zuko returned to the inside compartment of the gondola, where the others were biding their time until the line fell. 

“I’m sorry I didn’t think of a better plan.”

“Don’t give up yet, son.”

“Well, what are we gonna do?”

The Chief sighed. “I don’t know, but we can’t lose hope.” 

Something didn’t sit right with Zuko. The gondola should have fallen by now. Then he looked down below and saw Mai fighting with the guards. She was defending them, threatening any guard who continued to cut the line. 

“Guys, we’re gonna make it,” he said, pointing to his childhood friend. 

They did make it. They left the Warden on the gondola and fled the island in his sister’s airship. They made it, thanks to Mai. He’d never forget that. 

When they had the time to relax in the airship, the relieved laughter began. It was the laughter that could only be shared among souls who had just narrowly escaped death. 

“So everyone else is at the Western Air Temple?”

“Yep, they are,” said Sokka. Then suddenly, he exclaimed, “Wait, Suki, I forgot to tell you! We found Katara!”

“Really?”

“Well, it was more like she found us,” amended Hakoda. “Greatest day of my life. The way Sokka told it, you’d have thought the Foggy Swamp swallowed her whole.” 

“Who’s Katara?” wondered Chit Sang, trying to incorporate himself in the group. 

“My sister.”

“My daughter.”

“That’s what it was like, Dad. One minute she was there, and the next totally gone . We didn’t know what happened to her.” 

“She said she could still hear and see you searching, but you couldn’t see her. She thought she died and became a spirit,” Zuko mentioned, without thinking.  

“She told you that?”

“Only because we were talking about the swamp. I had some questions because of, uh, my uncle.” He coughed to cover up the nervous stammer. 

“I’m just thankful she’s back,” Hakoda said. 

“She has a baby now,” Sokka informed Suki.

What ?” 

“His name’s Rei.”

“Wow.”

“My grandson,” Hakoda said proudly. “A cute little boy with blue eyes and black hair. It’s about the same color as Zuko’s.”

Everyone’s eyes turned to him when Hakoda mentioned his name. The others dismissed it as a harmless comparison, but as Hakoda’s eyes lingered on him, Zuko remembered how he had called the boy by name during the invasion, how he had been so intent on protecting them. 

“I can’t wait to see everybody,” Suki said. 

“They’re going to be so shocked. They don’t even know where we went.”

They landed on the cliffs near the temple, where Katara was gathering berries. She was angry at first, going off about them disappearing like that, but then she saw her father. Immediately, she stopped in her tracks. 

“Dad,” she said, unsurely, with tears in her eyes. “Dad!” 

She jumped into his arms, pulling Sokka with her. Then she hugged Suki. 

“How?” she asked them. 

“Thank your brother and Prince Zuko,” Hakoda said. 

Katara glanced at him over her father’s shoulder. “You had something to do with this?” 

“It was mostly your brother.”

“No, Zuko played a big part. I couldn’t have pulled it off without him.” 

Katara, still clutching her father, Sokka, and Suki, beckoned him forward. “Come on, you’re part of this hug. Thank you,” she said. 

He came to them humbly, resting an arm around her shoulders. He hadn’t seen her so relaxed since Ba Sing Se. 

“It’s nothing, really.” 

Then Chit Sang joined the hug. “Hi, I’m Chit Sang. I’m new here.”

Katara laughed. She took her father’s hand. “Come on, everyone. I just finished making lunch. That’s where the others are.”

She led them to the rest of the group, seated on the temple steps. Aang was holding Rei on his lap, feeding him bits of a mango. 

“Tinier pieces than that, Aang,” Katara scolded. “He could choke.” 

“Oh, sorry.” 

She reached down to take him from Aang. “Look who’s here, Rei. Look, it’s Grandpa and Uncle Sokka.”

Sokka patted his head. Hakoda held him. Zuko watched out of the corner of his eye. Then Rei reached for him. 

“Oh, Zuko, he wants you,” Hakoda said. 

“That’s weird. He doesn’t even know Zuko,” grumbled Aang. 

“Katara, is it okay if I hold him?” 

He could see her watching the exchange critically. He hadn’t been able to hold Rei this entire time. He was happy to see Rei with Katara, but his heart wrenched every time she passed him to someone else. He wanted to hold his son. 

“Sure,” she said kindly. “He wants you.” 

He held his arms out to his baby in Hakoda’s arms. Rei entered them happily. Zuko smiled, unable to control the expression on his face. He looked back at Katara, who was no longer watching suspiciously. There was something softer in her eyes now, something that gave him hope. 

Chapter Text

A few things changed when Rei was born. Zuko and Katara, who had successfully become Tara and Lee, now referred to each other as Mommy and Daddy. Somehow, they slept even less now that they had an infant who woke up hungry in the middle of the night. At first Rei slept in bed with them, but Zuko was able to find a cradle to keep beside their bed. 

“How much was it?” Katara asked.

“Free.”

“Free?”

“It’s from Ari and Endi down the hall. Their baby girl died last week - caught a fever.”

Katara paled. He knew she missed healing people. He knew she wished she’d been able to help. “I want to make sure it’s clean before we put Rei in it. I don’t want him getting sick.”

She washed it two nights in a row and sewed new sheets before she let Rei sleep in the cradle. Even as he got older and started sleeping through the night, they still woke frequently to check on him. Katara would lean over, listen to his breathing, and whisper, “He’s okay.” Zuko would nod against his pillow and drift back to sleep, reaching out for Katara to do the same. 

They sat on the floor a lot too, playing with him. They gave him little toy soldiers that Duri didn’t use anymore. Rei loved to chew on them. Katara tried to use them to encourage him to roll over. 

“Come on, Rei. You can do it. One little roll just for Mommy. You want to do it so bad, I can tell,” she trilled pleasantly. 

“Don’t listen to her, Rei. You roll over when you want to roll over.” Zuko tickled the underside of his chin. 

Katara handed Rei the toy she had propped away from him in hopes it would entice him to roll over. “Fine. Don’t roll over for Mommy. Daddy has an ulterior motive, you know. He just wants to hold you for the rest of your life. He doesn’t want you to get big at all,” she muttered playfully. 

Rei smiled at the exchange, watching both of his parents.

 “Maybe I do,” Zuko said. 

His father once told him he had wanted to throw him over the palace walls when he’d been born. He wasn’t pleased with him from the beginning, but he wondered how those cruel words could be true. He couldn’t imagine feeling that way about Rei. He’d felt nothing but love and pride for the baby since he was born. Surely, his father had those feelings for him too, even if Zuko wasn’t much to be proud of. 

“Look,” Katara said suddenly, snapping him out of his thoughts. He looked back down at his son, who was now on his belly. “He rolled over!”

Zuko smiled at him. “You sure did,” he cooed. “I’m proud of you.” 

The days passed quickly, and it was only a matter of time before Rei’s laughs got louder and his rolling developed into crawling. He and Katara spent hours on the floor, letting Rei crawl from one parent to the other. 

“He’ll be walking before we know it,” Katara said, looking around the apartment, at everything he could get into. “We’ll be in trouble then.”

They stayed up with him as he began cutting teeth. Katara froze water to her fingers and let Rei suck on them to soothe his swollen gums. Zuko rubbed soothing circles on his back. As Rei fell asleep in Katara’s lap, he told her, “The Avatar will be leaving Ba Sing Se soon. He’s meeting with the king tomorrow.” 

“Who says?”

“Yu Ling. Some customers too.” 

Katara nodded. She whispered, “We all have a destiny. I don’t know if that’s mine anymore.” 

He leaned across the bed and kissed her. He didn’t often initiate indulgent kisses; that was more of Katara’s territory. He was still unsure of himself, unsure of how she would receive him, but once she touched him, kissed him, made her affection known, he always reciprocated eagerly. 

But knowing now that she wasn’t going to leave, he couldn’t help but kiss her. He hadn’t wanted her to leave, especially now that Rei was in the picture. When he broke the kiss, Rei was sound asleep, and she placed him gently in his cradle. He held her that night as they went to sleep, a heavy weight off of his chest. He was a new man with a new destiny when he went to sleep that night. 

The next morning began as any other morning. He ate a small breakfast and went to work. Sometimes, he hated working two miles away. When the weather was awful, or the streets were crowded, or he was just tired, he hated it. Today, he didn’t mind it so much. The weather remained nice all morning and continued into the evening when his shift was over. On the way back, he passed by a flower stand to buy a bouquet of moon flowers for Katara. Today marked six months since Rei’s birth. He wanted to get Katara something special. Maybe he would get something for Rei too. Perhaps a new toy or some new clothes. 

“Moon flowers, a lovely choice. Just remember to keep them out of the sun. They bloom best in the shade,” a familiarly sage voice instructed him. 

Zuko whipped around, nearly dropping the bouquet in the street. 

“Uncle?”

“Nephew, it is so good to see you.”

The years had weathered the skin around his uncle’s eyes just a little bit, but they were as wise as ever, and his smile was just as bright. He hugged Zuko tightly. 

“Who would have thought we would just run into each other here?”

His uncle’s smile faltered.

“What is it?”

“It is not exactly a coincidence that we meet again. I was told by a trusted friend that you were here in Ba Sing Se.” 

“How? No one knows we’re here.” 

His uncle patted his shoulder affectionately. “Not many still cling to the ancient ways, my nephew.” 

The reply echoed in his head:  Those who do can always find a friend

“Have you been keeping tabs on me?”

“Every once in a while I call on a friend. Friends always have the best information. Now I am your friend, and I bring not so good information. I'm here now to tell you your sister is in the city. She’s looking for you.”

“How does she know I’m here?”

“She’s spent the last two years scouring the rest of the Earth Kingdom. She hasn’t found you, so she’s sure you’re here.” 

Zuko sighed. “This is terrible.” 

“She doesn’t know exactly where you are yet,” his uncle assured him. “She’s only recently gotten into the city.” 

“She’ll find out. If she can sneak her way into Ba Sing Se, who knows what else she’s capable of?” 

“Where are you staying?”

“A tenement. It’s about a mile from here.” 

Zuko looked down at the moon flowers in his hand. He had to get Katara and Rei out of the apartment before Azula found them. 

“I have to go, Uncle. Right now.” 

“Wait, my nephew. Who are the flowers for?” 

“How much do you know?” 

“I know you came into the city with the Avatar’s waterbending teacher. Katara is her name, if I recall correctly?” 

“She’s still with me,” Zuko admitted. He could never hide anything from his uncle. “We have a son.” 

Uncle smiled. “Congratulations.”

“I have to get them out of here. There’s no telling what Azula will do to them. The Avatar’s in the city. Maybe she can find him.” 

“No, you need to get out of the city. Katara’s father is the Chief of the Southern Water Tribe. He has a force at Chameleon Bay.”

“You’re sure?”

“I would never hope to lead you in the wrong direction. Go, and be safe.”    

The bouquet was left forgotten beneath his feet as he walked briskly through the crowds. He couldn’t run. That would attract too much attention to himself, and he didn’t know if Azula was watching him. Everyone around him was a potential suspect. He expected to be captured at every turn. It was the longest mile of his life. 

Only when he got inside the tenement did he start running. He bolted up the steps to the apartment, ran down the hall, and turned his key in their door so forcefully, he thought he might break it. 

“Tara?”

He could have cried when he realized she wasn’t there. Sometimes, when all the children went home, she took Rei on a quick walk before curfew. She wasn’t as afraid of anything happening to him now that Rang Xi was off the streets. 

“Of all the days,” he muttered. 

Curfew wasn’t for another hour, and he didn’t know how much time he had. He thought they might be able to escape together, but he realized that would put a big, red target on her back. As long as she was with him, she was in danger. He was the one Azula wanted. If he was out of the situation…

She would be safe. Rei would be safe. 

Maybe it was a good thing she wasn’t in the apartment. Destiny was a funny thing. 

He knew what he had to do. He found one of the blank scrolls she used for writing practice with the children and quickly dipped a brush in the ink.

K-

Go to Chameleon Bay. Your father will be there. Take Rei and get out as fast as you can. You two are in danger if you stay, and I can’t let anything happen to you. I have to go. I don’t know if we’ll ever see each other again. When Rei gets older, please tell him I loved him more than words can say. Know that I loved you too. 

-Z    

He left the letter on the top of the desk, in plain sight. He placed the brush back in the inkwell. Then he looked around the apartment one last time, the home they’d weathered for two years. There was nothing for him to take. He didn’t need his clothes with him. He had shed his swords long ago. They were too nice to be a part of this Lower Ring world. He had no lock of his son’s hair kept safely in a necklace. No golden ring on his finger to tie him to a wife as wealthier Earth Kingdom couples wore. 

Maybe it was a good thing he couldn’t take a piece of them where he was going. 

He grasped the handle of the door, opened it, and closed it behind him. Part of him still wished he would see Katara and Rei in the hall, but he already knew he had to leave them. It was the only way to keep them safe. 

His sister was waiting for him. He’d ignored her for too long. 

When he reached the barrier of the Lower Ring, he walked right up to the border agent and said, “I don’t have any documents to go in.”

“Then go away.”

Zuko released the fire he’d kept in for so long and didn’t fight when the earthbender’s cuffs locked around his hand. 

Agents passed him to others, higher and higher up the ranks, until he was brought to the palace, where his sister stood on the throne. 

“I knew you were in Ba Sing Se,” she said, flanked by Mai and Ty Lee just as she had been as a child. Some things never changed.

“Took you long enough to find me.” 

She threw him beneath the palace, into the Crystal Catacombs. His uncle came for him. Toph had been thrown into the prison too. That was how Aang and Sokka showed up. 

“It’s not too late for you, Zuko. You can still redeem yourself.”

“The kind of redemption she offers is not for you,” Uncle said, but his voice was getting quieter in his head as Azula spoke.

“I need you, Zuko,” she told him. “At the end of the day, you will have your honor back. You will have Father’s love. You will have everything you want.” 

“Zuko, I am begging you. Look into your heart and see what it is that you truly want.” 

Last night he had been so sure. He would have stayed in that apartment forever under a false name, and he would have loved it. That was when he was wanted by the Fire Nation. That was when he thought he could only ever return as their prisoner. Now the Fire Nation was right in front of him. Now his sister was telling him he could come home. He could redeem himself to his father, and when he’d proved himself enough, he could start implementing his own policies. He could end the war from the inside. 

Look into your heart and see what it is you truly want .

He wanted his birthright. He wanted to learn how to be the Fire Lord. He wanted his father to be proud of him. He wanted to get along with his sister, the way his mother always wanted. He wanted Katara. He wanted to pass the title of Crown Prince to Rei. He wanted everything , the way his sister promised. 

Katara never came. She’d listened to him. A small part of him half expected her to track him down and fight Azula. Maybe she would have if she didn’t have Rei. Still, he was glad she wasn’t there. She didn’t watch Azula strike the Avatar down. She didn’t watch him defend himself against her friends. She didn’t watch him enter a prisoner and leave a prince. She’d find out soon enough. She was going to Chameleon Bay. She was going to be reunited with her father. It was time for him to be reunited with his.

 

His hair was barely long enough for a topknot. Now that he was in the Fire Nation, he’d grow it out again. His armor was a weight he’d have to get used to once again. The crown too. It had been years since he was deemed honorable enough to wear this crown. He waited behind the red tapestry, standing beside his sister. She would be announced to the crowd first, and then he would be presented to his people. He would be redeemed. 

Now the heroes have returned home! Your princess, Azula

She left him. They cheered for her. 

And after five long years, your prince has returned, Zuko!

They cheered for him. Thousands and thousands cheered for him. It was deafening. 

Chapter Text

Aang was training with Toph, allowing Zuko a moment to help Katara with some of the chores. 

“Could you watch Rei while I take some laundry to the river?” 

He looked back at her, toting a large pile of dirty clothes. “We can take him with us,” he suggested unsurely. “That way you have an extra hand.”

“Okay.”

He carried the clothes while she carried Rei to the river in his sling. He dropped the pile by the bank of the river and pulled out some of the soap Katara had brought with them. 

“It would probably be a good time for Rei to get a bath too,” she said, glancing at Rei’s dirty feet. To him, she cooed, “you never keep your little shoes on, do you?”

“He still kicks them off?” Zuko asked, testing the waters even more. 

She tickled the balls of his feet. “Every time I put them on.”

“Rei,” he scolded playfully, “Mommy worked very hard on those shoes.”

“I did! I even made different colors.”

“The green and the tan,” he recalled.

“And one black.”

“Yes. And one black.” 

She sighed and bent down to retrieve the first soiled article, a pair of Sokka’s pants. “Do you want to bathe him while I wash these?” she asked. 

“Sure.”

“Do you remember to-’’

“Only use water behind the ears, no soap, because the skin gets dry? Yeah, I remember.”

She nodded silently and tugged Rei out of his little sling. “I guess it has only been a month. It feels longer.” 

“Yeah.”

He sat Rei down on the ground for a second, watching him closely, as he shrugged off his shirt. He threw it back behind him and brought Rei to the water’s edge, dipping his feet in. “It’s time for a bath, little one.”

“Do you need me to wash your shirt?” Katara asked from behind them. 

“I can wash it later.”

“I don’t mind. I’m already doing the laundry.” 

“If you don’t mind, then, thank you. I’d appreciate it.” 

She set to work on it as Zuko washed a tiny lather of soap through Rei’s hair. Their baby splashed happily while Zuko took every care to avoid getting soap in Rei’s eyes. 

That was how Hakoda found them, while Katara was washing his shirt and he was splashing Rei back during bathtime.

“Dad! I didn’t even hear you come up,” she said breathlessly, with a hand to her chest. 

Hakoda chuckled to himself. “Hunter’s feet, quiet as a rabbitmouse. I was just wondering if Zuko would be able to accompany me on a quick fishing trip upriver. We wouldn’t be gone past nightfall.” 

“Don’t you want Sokka to go with you?” Katara asked. 

“I don’t want to take him away from Suki.” 

“Haru then?” his daughter suggested. “Zuko’s very busy training Aang.”  

“Clearly.”

Zuko cleared his throat. “It’s Toph’s day with Aang. I can go with you.” 

“Good. Whenever you finish up here, join me back at the temple.” 

Zuko nodded, gently washing the rest of Rei’s body. When he finished, Katara handed him freshly washed clothes to dress him while huffing, “I don’t know why he wants you to go with him.” 

Zuko shrugged. “I don’t know either.” 

“You hardly even fish.” 

Zuko kissed the top of Rei’s head and handed him back to Katara. “Do you want me to take any of this stuff back?”

“No, it’s okay. You probably shouldn’t keep my dad waiting.”

He could tell Katara was nervous about her dad choosing him to go. He was nervous too. He hardly knew the man at all. Like Katara said, he also didn’t know much about fishing. He walked back to the air temple and found Hakoda inside, tying off some nets. He barely looked up at him. 

“Oh, good, you’re back. Help me carry these.” 

Zuko grabbed some of the nets and one spear, following Hakoda away from the camp. “Don’t we need a boat or something?”

Hakoda smiled. “No. I hope you can swim.”        

Zuko sighed. They walked in silence for about a half a mile before the Chief attempted any conversation. “We’ll place these nets in the shallow of the river, weighed down with rocks against the current. When the tide goes out, the fish will burrow in the mud, and get caught in the nets.”

When the tide goes out . He really would be here for hours. Feeding the group was no small task here, isolated from the rest of the world. 

“Neat tactic,” Zuko remarked. 

“It does well.” 

“The fish won’t be able to get out?”

“Not with the mud.”

It was another mile before they arrived at the spot Hakoda wanted. It was clear they were closer to the deeper part of the river, where the width grew wider and the color in the center was darker. 

“Here,” Hakoda said, handing him a weighted net. “Make sure the water isn’t deeper than your knees when you bury it.”

“Yes, sir.”

“You don’t have to call me that.” 

“You’re my elder and a Chief,” Zuko explained. “You’re someone I respect.” 

“And you’re someone I respect. You don’t have to call me sir.” 

Zuko’s eyes widened. He never thought he would be someone Hakoda respected, but the declaration humbled and delighted him. 

“I respect my daughter too. I respect her decisions and what she chooses to keep from me, but I have to know if my instincts are right. Are you Rei’s father?” 

The water washed coolly over Zuko’s legs. “You should ask your daughter about that,” he said after a minute. 

“I don’t think I need to.” 

Zuko didn’t have anything to say to that. He wasn’t going to stand there and lie to Hakoda, but he wasn’t going to give any more information. 

“I’m sure it’s complicated, given who the two of you are.”

“I made it complicated. I left,” Zuko confessed against his better judgment. 

“I left too," Hakoda admitted. "I left my wife to fight invaders, only to learn that the greatest threat was in our home. I left my children to fight, telling them I’d be back soon, when in reality I didn’t see them for years.”

“How did you manage?” 

“Probably the same way you did. You tell yourself over and over that you’re doing the right thing, that you’re doing it for them, even if they hate you in the end.” 

“I didn’t do the right thing.”

“Who’s to say I did? I’m a renowned warrior, a Chief of my people, and look at me. Years later, and I’m still fighting the same war, only now besides the children I never got to raise. Years later, and I still think about what I would do to have my wife back.” 

His words hung over Zuko heavily, especially the way he still mourned his wife. 

“Katara was deeply hurt when her mother was killed, and again when I left. She only had Sokka and her grandmother. I don’t know the details and I don’t need to know them, but I want to thank you for looking after her when she didn’t have them anymore.”

Don’t thank me , he wanted to say. We looked after each other .  

The tide went out sooner than he thought it would, leaving behind two nets, with enough trapped catflounders to feed their little group. They carried them back to the temple, to prepare them where there were more supplies and more hands. He could feel Katara’s eyes on him throughout the group’s dinner, surely wondering how his fishing trip with her father went. 

“Hey, Sifu Hotman, can I learn the breath of fire tomorrow?”

“I told you to stop calling me that,” he grumbled to the group’s amusement. 

“Well, can I? Katara, have you ever seen the breath of fire? It’s so cool.” 

“I’m pretty sure I’ve seen it before. Are you sure you’re ready for that move?” 

“Here comes Mom,” chirped Toph. 

Katara rolled her eyes. “I’m not his firebending teacher. If Zuko says he’s ready for it, then he’s ready.”

Aang’s discipline wavered during their training, though he was improving in his bending. The breath of fire required a lot of discipline. If Zuko was a true firebending master working without a tight schedule, he would say no, but the comet was coming soon, and he couldn’t get the image of the Earth Kingdom burning out of his mind. “Sure. We can try it tomorrow.”

They all went to bed peacefully, and woke to chaos. 

Azula had found them. He didn’t have to see her to know she was responsible. She was the only reason the ground would be shaking beneath them, and the centuries’ old structure would be collapsing.

Rocks continued to fall as they all roused. Aang was able to shut the doors of the temple to the assault, but the ceiling wouldn’t last much longer, and already the doors were beginning to break. They’d be crushed if they stayed inside. They’d be burned if they walked out. 

Toph and Haru were able to create a tunnel. Everyone shuffled inside as Sokka and Aang tried to pull Appa in. 

“Appa won’t go!” Aang shouted over the bombs blasting outside.  

“You can’t fly out of here!” Katara returned, handing Rei to Hakoda to help pull the beast inside. 

Azula was out there. His sister was disturbing the peace, putting his friends in danger. As they struggled with Appa, he walked towards the shattered door.  

“Where are you going?” Katara shouted at him. 

“You go on ahead. I’ll hold them off. I think this is a family visit.” 

He hadn’t counted on her to run after him. She followed him through the broken door and stood beside him on the cliff’s edge, with a hand on her water pouch, as Azula’s airship rose before them. He didn’t have time to question it. His focus was only on his sister and the madness he saw in her eyes. 

Without warning, she sent a wave of fire to the cliff, blowing the ground from beneath them. He didn’t have a chance to see where Katara ended up, but he knew she was okay when the humid air became dry and a powerful wave of water knocked one of the assaulting airships out of the sky. It would be a miles-long fall off the mountain.  

A pillar fell nearby, which created the perfect bridge between the collapsing temple and Azula’s airship. Not perfect exactly, he’d have to jump the final bit of distance before the pillar fell off the mountain too. He took off running, blasting fire at his sister’s ship, running, running, until he ran out of pillar and leaped towards her. She watched him without even raising a finger. That was how little of a threat she perceived him.  

But then he heard the airship Katara had sent downwards collide with another on the way up, and Zuko realized there was a whole world he couldn’t see beneath the smoke. It meant Azula couldn’t see either. 

He let himself fall beneath the line of visibility, watching as her face softened even more, watching how she would feel to see her brother die. She would feel nothing apparently. Any love she’d had for him in the Crystal Catacombs, if it was ever true, was long gone since his recent change of sides. It was like he had always known in his heart. He couldn’t have them all, the family he’d been born into and the family he’d made. Some things couldn’t be changed. 

As his back hit the metal of the airship, it knocked the air from his lungs, but he jumped to his feet and waited for his next chance at her. He focused on his breath, the way his uncle taught him, the way he taught Aang. 

The airship rose higher and higher, until he was in perfect sight of Azula again, only this time he could see Appa in the distance. Right before he jumped aboard Azula’s ship, he looked closely and made out two figures in blue aboard the sky bison; Katara was safe. 

Azula’s blast of blue flame did nothing at close-range. He diverted it with a simple kick and advanced closer, realizing for the first time that he was now an equal opponent to his sister. Even if his flames weren’t blue, the power behind them was enough to knock them both back when his fire met hers. They both were sent sliding off the sides of the ship, into the air. The smoke hadn’t cleared enough to see the distance below, and he didn’t know if he could count on any more airships coming.

But Appa came. Katara reached for his arm and pulled him with all of her might into the saddle as they watched Azula save herself. She always makes it , he thought, as he caught his breath.

As they flew away, towards the lush forests nearby, Zuko realized there were only six of them on board. 

“Where are the others?” he asked.

“Dad led them through the tunnel to the airship you stole,” Katara explained. “Where are we meeting them, Sokka?” 

“What do you mean?”

“Where’s the rendezvous point?” 

“There isn’t one, Katara.” 

What ?” she shouted furiously.  

“Dad and I didn’t have time to make one.”

She began breathing rapidly, panicking. “Rei,” she cried frantically. “My baby.”

“I thought you knew when you handed him to Dad.”

“I thought we were meeting up again! We always make rendezvous points when we split up. Always .” 

The rest of the group fell silent as Katara cried. They all seemed to agree that there were no words to comfort a mother separated from her child. 

Only actions. 

“When we make camp, you and I can take Appa and scout the area,” Zuko said. “They’ll have gone the same way we did.” 

“What if we don’t find them?” 

“We won’t stop until we do.”

“Katara, I know you’re upset, but do you really think that’s wise? Zuko still needs to show me the breath of fire, and Azula’s fleet is out there,” Aang advised. 

“Damn the breath of fire! Damn Azula! I don’t know where my son is!”   

Aang didn’t try to intervene again, but he still looked at Katara uneasily. He’d likely never seen her like this. She always treated him so gently. No one could calm her from the rage she felt now. He wouldn’t dream of it either. He wanted his son back too.

They dropped Aang, Sokka, Suki, and Toph off on a nearby cliff with enough cover to keep them safe until they moved somewhere else. He had just the place in mind too, once they got Rei and the others back.

She took Appa’s reins first.   

“Do you know where you’re going?” he asked. 

“My dad will want to camp on the water,” she told him. 

“There’s a whole lot of water around here.” 

“Then we search all of it,” she spit at him. 

“Just keep an eye out for Azula.”

“I know that. I’m not stupid.” 

“I’m not your enemy here,” he reminded her. 

“Aren’t you? It’s the Fire Nation that’s good at splitting up families.”

“You don’t have to tell me that. I know first-hand. I also know, as well as you do, that you and I fight for the same side. If you want to make an enemy out of me, you’re picking the wrong person. There’s no one else in the group who wants to find Rei as much as you and me.”

His words softened her anger. The fear and heartache remained. He remembered now that Rei and Katara had never been separated, not even during the invasion. 

When daylight came, he was able to coax her into letting Appa rest at the Stone Fingers. She was less receptive to the idea of sleep. As Appa snored, the two of them sat on the ground side by side, snacking on nothing more than some seeds the group had sent them with.   

“I’m not blaming you, so don’t take this the wrong way. I just want to know why you went after me in the first place. Why didn’t you go with them?”

She was silent for a moment. He thought she was ignoring him. Then she looked him in the eye and laughed shakily, humorlessly. “Did you really think I’d let you get away again ?” 

“I wasn’t trying to get away.” 

“Really, because you’re so good at jumping at every opportunity! Breaking into the Boiling Rock-”

“For your family!”

“Fighting Azula’s fleet by yourself! What did you think you were going to accomplish? This time or the last time? She always has reinforcements. She’s always one step ahead. How can you expect to fight someone like that on your own? You can’t. It’s suicide.”

“It’s time ,” he clarified. 

“What?”

“It’s time. If I die, I die, but the time Azula takes to kill me means extra time for you and Rei.”

She had nothing to say to that, not yet, but then her face turned redder, and her eyes gleamed darker, and he knew the words were about to spew from her mouth like fire. “ How dare you ,” she screamed at him. 

“How dare I what? Sacrifice myself for you, for our child?”

“Leave us behind! We were a team, you always said so. Teams make decisions together. They work together. You shut me out and started making executive decisions for my ‘well-being’. You don’t get to control that. You don’t get to be the only vote. You don’t get to die. You don’t get to go back and be the Crown Prince and just leave us !”

He tried to reach for her, but she pushed him away, tears in her eyes. She looked absolutely feral, desperate in their search for their son, overcome with emotions likely surfacing for the first time since this started. He didn’t try to touch her again. 

“A paragraph, that was all I got from you. And I kept it with me everywhere I went, treated it like a lifeline - a fucking paragraph .”

He wished he had a handkerchief to dry her tears. He wished he had their son. He wished it wasn’t so close to the comet. He wished for the ability to turn back time and erase every drop of Katara’s suffering. 

“I mean ‘ I don’t know if we’ll ever see each other again .’” She scoffed, adopting a deeper voice as she mocked the letter he’d left. “What did you think was going to happen? You’d merrily go on as the Crown Prince and then inherit the throne while I raised our kid?” she demanded of him. 

“I wasn’t thinking,” he told her. “I was in a bit of a hurry.”

She laid back against the ground and sighed. There weren’t any fresh tears in her eyes, but they were swollen. “Do you know how scared I was? How awful it was to get to Chameleon Bay by myself?”

“No,” he said shamefully. 

“No, you don’t.” Her voice turned softer.  “I guess I don’t know what it was like in the Fire Nation for you either, with your father and your sister. What was it like?”

He said nothing. 

“Well?” she prompted. “What was it like?”

“You know that feeling you have now, needing to get back to Rei, regretting how you left him even though you know if you took him with you it could have been so much worse - that’s what it was like, only I had to keep it to myself. And on top of that, I realized my father had to be defeated, and my sister with him because they’re never going to change. It wasn’t a happy homecoming, that’s for sure,” he explained solemnly, raking his hands through his hair in frustration.  

She nodded.  “What kind of homecoming were you expecting at the Western Air Temple?”

He didn’t answer directly. Instead he said cryptically, “Reality is often different from expectation.” 

Katara’s eyes closed, and she exhaled a deep breath. “Do you think we need Rei more than he needs us? Do you think he’s better off with my father? Safer?”

“Katara, I don’t think there’s anyone in the world who can keep Rei safer than you. I mean it. He needs to be with his mother.” 

He spoke from experience. Children needed their mother. One day he would find out what happened to his. When this was all over, if he survived, he would search every record, ask every servant, what became of Princess Ursa. 

“We’re going to find the others. We’re going to find our baby, and he’s going to be with us. The Fire Nation has split this family up too many times,” he said, and it was enough to soothe her to sleep for a couple hours. 

He stayed up while Katara and Appa slept, thinking about how he had stayed awake outside Ba Sing Se. It made him think about his white lotus tile, and then he thought of Uncle. Those thoughts were enough to bring him shame again. 

Katara slept only a couple hours before they departed on Appa. He would rest while she led them. She was certain her father would have taken them to the Mo Ce Sea. He didn’t remind her that her father didn’t have any ships anymore, or any warriors. They’d all been imprisoned during the invasion. He let them fly across the shore. He watched her summon a fog cover when Fire Nation ships came into view. 

She let him hold her while she cried that night after a fruitless journey. 

“How much longer before we have to go back?” 

“A day might be all we can afford,” he told her. Sozin’s comet was only a couple weeks away, and they were two of the Avatar’s teachers. 

Her arms tightened around him, and their breaths lulled each other to sleep. He woke before her, and he knew she would want him to wake her up, but she needed the rest. As she slept, his mind reeled, thinking about the war minister’s scrolls he had studied when he returned to the Fire Nation. 

He shook Katara awake gently. “I think I have an idea where they might have gone,” he whispered to her. 

She shot up excitedly. “Where?”

“This whole time we’ve been thinking they went the same direction as us, but there’s no stronghold over here. There’s too great of a risk of running into the Fire Nation now that the Earth Kingdom’s fallen. What if they went North?”

“North?” Katara asked. 

“After the path to the Northern Air Temple was destroyed, the Fire Nation debated taking the temple by air, but the temple was determined not to be worth the risk. The refugee camp there is still safe.”

“And Teo knows just how to get there,” Katara realized. 

“I’m not saying they’re there, but if we have one day left, I think it’s the best chance we have.”

She agreed with him. They departed on Appa that morning with a concrete path for the first time since they left. He took the reins, giving her a break. They’d be crossing Fire Nation territory, and she’d need her strength to give them cover.

It was hours before the peaks of the mountain range hiding the Northern Air Temple came to view. Katara smiled in the saddle, and he said a silent prayer to anyone who may be listening to please let them find their baby at the temple. He wouldn’t know what to do if he wasn’t there. Later, they caught sight of someone in the sky, with a glider similar to Aang’s.

“The air walkers,” Katara said fondly as more came into view. “It means we’re close.” 

“Just remember-”

“I know,” she told him before he could finish. They couldn’t get their hopes up. 

They landed right in front of the temple, led by air walkers who recognized Appa. Zuko noted immediately that this temple looked much different from the Western Air Temple. For one, it was larger, and the surrounding areas were much more accessible to those who weren’t airbenders. He watched Katara take it all in hungrily, looking for any sign that the others had fled here. 

She found it immediately, just as he did, in the Fire Nation airship tucked away in the corner of the courtyard. 

They both jumped off Appa and ran straight into the temple, just as Teo was coming out. 

“I knew it was you!” he said. “I know Appa anywhere.” 

Katara squealed happily, bending down to hug Teo. “You don’t know how happy I am to see you.” 

Teo laughed. “I’m happy to see you too. Where’s Aang and the others?”

“It’s just us,” Zuko told them. “We’re here to bring you back with us.”

Teo’s smile wavered a little. “Come on, let me take you to your dad.” 

Hakoda was on one of the top floors, trying to soothe a wailing Rei. It was such a relief to hear his son cry, though he wished he had been there for him sooner. He still hadn’t believed he would reunite with him until then, when Rei was directly in his vision, crying in his grandfather’s arms.

Hakoda looked up when he heard the footsteps and sighed in relief. “Thank the spirits.” 

“Rei,” Katara called, happy tears in her eyes. “Rei, it’s Mommy. Mommy’s here.” 

She took the baby from Hakoda’s arms, kissing every inch that she could, rocking him. Maybe she was overwhelmed with joyful emotion because she looked back at him and smiled dazedly. She brought Rei to him. He glanced over his son, ensuring he was unharmed. 

“Mommy and Daddy are here,” she said, relaxing into Zuko's side. 

He wrapped an arm around them, anchoring them, kissing the top of Rei’s head twice, trying to soothe his baby’s tears. 

Hakoda didn’t comment. Of course not. He had already known. “I couldn’t get him to drink the goat’s milk.”

“Has he eaten anything ?”

“Some ground grains, water, nothing substantial.” 

“You must be starving,” she said to their baby. “I’m so sorry. So, so sorry, my love.” 

Zuko and Hakoda gave them the room so she could nurse him uninterrupted. Zuko thought it would be a good idea to round up the others anyway. They would have to get going immediately.

“Appa shouldn’t have any problems carrying us so long as we feed him before we leave,” Zuko said as they walked. 

Hakoda stopped. “I don’t think we’re going with you.”

“What do you mean?” 

“You and Katara are essential to the Avatar. You have to be with him. He’s the only one who can stop Ozai, and that’s all that can be done. We have no invasion forces, nothing. Aang is our only chance. There’s nothing we can offer him. With the Mechanist in prison for the time being, us returning has given this camp hope. We need to keep that going.” 

“Katara will be devastated if you stay.”

“Katara will have Rei. She’ll have her brother. She’ll have you. Do you know what one of the most important parts of being a parent is, from one father to another?”

Zuko could have cried. He almost did, but he forced the tears back, as he listened to Hakoda. So few knew he was a father. It was surreal to be regarded as one.“What’s that?”

“It’s making sure your kids will be okay without you. Rei’s not ready to be without you and Katara. Katara is ready to be without me, even if she doesn’t want to be.” 

Hakoda had to explain it all to Katara again when she begged him to come with them. He told her how there had been a gap left by the Mechanist, and he was prepared to fill those shoes for a little while. He also told her that she would see him soon. He hugged her tight and told her they’d be reunited after Sozin’s Comet. 

Although he could tell Katara was sad to leave him behind, it was nothing compared to how devastated she’d been by her separation from Rei. Even now, she held him tightly as he led them back to the camp they’d left the others. They were all probably worried sick by now.

As she was in a better mood now, he said teasingly, “I can’t believe you told your dad.” 

“He’s not going to tell anyone,” she said defensively.              

“Do you think you’ll tell the others?”

She sighed. “Give me time, Zuko.”

He handed her the reins, no longer in a teasing mood at the prospect of returning to the status of a stranger when they returned to camp. “Then give me time. While it’s just us, let me be with my son.”

She took the reins wordlessly, clearly agreeing that he deserved that at least. She shifted to lead Appa back to camp. He took Rei in his arms and held him to his chest, whispering stories of dragons and sun gods he never got to tell him in Ba Sing Se, stories his mother used to tell him.

Chapter Text

The Ember Island house was beautiful, though Katara felt like she was disturbing a memory every corner she turned. The house was kept as if it was still expecting the royal family. Dust clung to red curtains. Clothes hung in closets. Books sat on shelves. Wine lined the cabinets.

“Won’t your sister find us here?” she asked as Zuko walked them down the hall, showing them the rooms available to them. 

“She’ll never step foot in this house. She won’t even think to look. Neither will my father,” he promised. “So, um, everyone can have their own rooms.”

Toph smiled. “Finally. I call an oceanview.”

“Hey, no fair. You don’t need one.”

“Yeah, but it sounds nice.” 

“Ooh, it does sound nice. Me too.” 

“Oceanview please.”

“Not everyone can have one,” Zuko told them. “There’s only three on that side. Well, I guess there’s the master too, but I was going to stay there since I figured none of you would want to.” 

“I wouldn’t mind trashing the Fire Lord’s room,” Sokka said, “especially if it has the best view.” 

“No, Sokka. This is Zuko’s house. He gets the best room,” Katara lectured her brother.

“I thought it was good manners to give honored guests the best accommodations.”

“Look, I don’t need a room with an ocean view.”

“Neither do I,” echoed Aang. 

“There you go,” Katara said. “You, Suki, and Toph can all have rooms on that side.”

They settled into those rooms. Aang picked a room on the opposite side, closest to the stairs, furthest from the master. 

“Rei can have his own room too,” Zuko told her. “I’m sure there’s a cradle in the attic. We can put you right next to each other, so you can still hear him when he cries.”

“I might miss him too much.” 

Zuko smiled. “Then you can move the cradle into your room.”

Katara mulled it over. She knew Rei was getting to the age where most parents moved their babies to separate rooms. He no longer woke to eat in the middle of the night. He would still be close, just one room away, and she could keep their doors cracked. 

“What do you think, Rei? You can have your own room for the very first time.” 

She looked back at Zuko, leaning against the hall. There were two free rooms left, the one closest to Aang’s and the one closest to Zuko’s. “Is there a room you’d suggest for him?”

Zuko shrugged. “They’re kinda the same. This was my old one,” he told her. 

She followed him through the doorway, into the room closest to Aang’s. There wasn’t much in the room besides a desk, a bed the perfect size for a young boy, and some scrolls. But it had all been Zuko’s, and it felt right to let Rei stay in his father’s childhood room. 

“This is good for him,” she said. 

It also meant the room closest to Zuko’s was good for her.   

It was safe to say everyone in the group loved the luxury of staying in the beach house. Everything was private. They had their own strip of beach. They had their own bedrooms. The outside of the house was spacious enough for Aang’s training, not that he wanted to train as much with a beach so close by. 

“Please focus,” she heard Zuko huff from outside while she rifled through kitchen cabinets for a pitcher. 

“How much longer are we going to train?”

“Until you get it right.” 

“I did get it right!” Aang protested. 

“It was sloppy.”

“Katara said it looked good.”

“Katara’s not your firebending teacher!”

“Hey, guys! How about some lemonade?” she called just when she thought it was getting too tense between Aang and Zuko. 

Aang smiled and dashed inside at the opportunity. “Thanks, Katara!”

Katara laughed when she noticed the expression on Zuko’s face. She walked over to him in the yard and bent the sweat from his face. “Come on, cheer up.”

“He’s not taking me seriously.” 

“He is. He just has trouble focusing on one thing for too long. Let him have some lemonade and get back to it. You should have some too.”

“I don’t know if lemonade is going to solve my problems.”

“You could try it,” she suggested lightheartedly, smiling at him. She noticed his cheeks pinken and his eyes wander just a little before he brought them back to hers. She was wearing typical Fire Nation styles now. They made the heat much more bearable. They also showed ample amounts of skin, which she had caught Zuko noticing. 

“I could, but I think I’ll let Aang take a break from me.”

Katara nodded. 

“Did you and Rei sleep okay?”

“Yeah, we did. He did alright in a room by himself. What about you?”

He hadn’t told her why it was so important to him to sleep in the Fire Lord’s old room, but she knew there was a reason. She wondered if he got any sleep at all in there. 

“It took me a while to get to sleep. Before I did, I found some writing supplies in one of the desk drawers.”

“Did you write anything?”

He nodded. “I was thinking a lot about what we said to each other when we were looking for Rei, and I thought about the letter I left you, the non-descript one. I wrote a new one. It’s a little more descriptive.”

“Could I read it?”

“It’s for you.”

She followed him into the house and up the stairs, calling out a distant you’re welcome when Aang thanked her for the lemonade. Rei was napping in his bedroom. They checked him quickly before he opened the door to his bedroom and returned to the hallway with the folded parchment in his hands. 

He handed it to her delicately. 

“Thank you,” she said, stopping in her room and setting it on the dresser beside her bed. She would read it tonight, she told herself, though she wanted to rip the seal and read it immediately. 

“I hope it helps clear things up a little.”

Katara nodded. Things became clearer every day.

They were alone up here. She felt safe telling him, “You know how I asked you to give me time? I’m almost there.”

She hadn’t known how much she’d missed his smile until the two of them were standing in the hallway, smiling at each other. 

“Katara, do you want to see the new move Zuko showed me?” Aang shouted through the house. 

She groaned when it woke Rei up. She hated when the others forgot about Rei’s nap. 

“I’ll put him back to sleep,” Zuko told her before she even moved. 

Yes, things became clearer every day. 

That night, when Rei was sound asleep, and she’d bid goodnight to the others, she got ready for bed slowly, staring at the letter at her bedside. She changed into the lovely blush-colored night dress hanging in her closet. She suspected this must have been Zuko’s mother’s. There was some jewelry stored away in a few of the drawers, beautiful pieces. She would have to ask Zuko if she could wear them. 

She brushed her teeth and combed her hair, and when enough time had passed for the others to fall asleep and she had determined she would not be interrupted, she reached for the letter. 

She held it with shaky hands. 

K-

I haven’t known peace since Ba Sing Se. As soon as I sided with my sister, I knew I made the wrong decision. We’ve never really talked about what happened, so I wanted to take the time to explain what I wanted and let you know where I went wrong. 

The day that I sent you and Rei away, my uncle came to me.and told me about Azula’s presence in Ba Sing Se. She didn’t know where we lived yet, but I knew it was a matter of time before she found out. I could not let that happen. 

The only reason I went to the palace in the first place was to turn myself over to Azula. I didn’t know your friends were there, and I didn’t know that my sister had taken control of the Dai Li to overthrow King Kuei. All I knew was that it was the fastest way to keep her away from you and Rei. Even if you could take her, I never wanted that to be an option. By now you know how important you and Rei are to me. The consequences would have been dire if she’d gotten ahold of you. 

Then she’d offered me a chance to return home in my original position.

I wish I had gone as a prisoner. I wish I had sided with our friends. The things I did for her - betraying my uncle, taking Ba Sing Se, fighting the group - haunt me to this day.  If I could take it all back, I would. If I could throw Azula out of the capital, and turn around to find you and our baby, I would do it in a heartbeat. 

There were so many things I wished I had said to you in Ba Sing Se, and I want to take the opportunity to tell you now. You made me a father, and I’m thankful for every second of it. You trusted me to be a good father, even when I had my doubts.You taught me how to be a part of a family. You had more faith in me than I had in myself. You are, without question, the greatest person I have ever met, and I am lucky to have had you in my life for the time I did. I love you. I’ve loved you since Ba Sing Se. 

And if you’d left me behind with more questions than answers, I would be angry too. I’m furious with myself for being the one to hurt you when all I wanted to do was keep you safe. I thought you could be safe without me. I thought it was my destiny to return to the Fire Nation, but it wasn’t. 

I’m happy to teach Aang firebending, and I’m happy to contribute to the end of this war, but the only time I’ve ever felt complete was as a part of the family we created. I want to be Rei’s. I want to be yours. I want to be a part of our family again, if you’ll have me. 

-Z

Katara’s breath shuddered as she read Zuko’s letter in the candlelight of her bedroom in the Ember Island house. 

She read it again with tears in her eyes and again as they fell down her face. 

He was just across the hall, but he was probably asleep. Rei was sleeping too. She needed the rest herself; losing her dad again and settling into Ember Island had left her weary. She would see him in the morning, she decided. He always got up early to meditate. She could get up early too and throw her arms around him and ask if he really meant every word. 

Deep down, she already knew he did. She fell asleep with a faint smile, despite everything else. 

Then she woke to incessant pounding. 

“Hey, Katara. It’s Aang. Shouldn’t we work on some waterbending?” 

“Ugh, what time is it?” 

“Close to noon.”

She shot up immediately. “What?” 

“I’m sorry. Zuko told me not to wake you. Sokka and Suki took Rei into town. They didn’t think you’d mind.”

She rubbed her head. Her eyes were still a little sore from crying the night before. Zuko’s letter sat on the bedside table. 

“I’ll be out in a minute, Aang,” she said. 

“Okay. You’re not sick, are you? I was starting to get worried.”

“No, I’m not sick. Maybe you can get some more practice in while I get ready.”

She’d overslept. She could kick herself. She settled for smacking her palm into her face. 

By the time she’d gotten dressed and eaten some breakfast (lunch really), Sokka and Suki had returned without groceries, holding a poster for a play about them

Zuko groaned. “Ugh, not the Ember Island Players. My mother used to take us to see them. They butchered Love Amongst the Dragons every year.”

“Sokka, do you really think it’s a good idea to see a play about ourselves?”

“Only those who wake up before noon have input.” He handed her Rei. “By the way, I think someone has a stinky diaper.”

Katara rolled her eyes at him. “You could have changed him.”

“I don’t think that’s an Uncle Sokka job. Sounds more like a Mommy job to me.”

“I can do it,” offered Aang enthusiastically. 

“It’s okay, Aang. I’ve got him. Did you have a good morning with Uncle Sokka?” she asked Rei cheerfully. 

Rei smiled. She ruffled his hair, and he laughed. 

“And lucky Mommy, you saved a stinky diaper just for me.” 

By the time she changed him, and returned with a clean baby, the group had already decided they were going to see the play. 

The play was a mess. It was laughably inaccurate, complete with one-sided characters and a total misunderstanding of events. 

She hated her on-screen character, with thigh-high dress slits (which no ice-dwelling woman would ever don) and incessant speeches about hope. Zuko was portrayed as an honor-crazed maniac. Not too far off , she thought teasingly. Her inner voice wasn’t too critical of him these days. Aang was an immature kid, played on-screen by a woman. Sokka never said anything aside from terrible jokes and laments that there wasn’t enough meat. 

All in all, the only one satisfied with the character representation was Toph, but Katara suspected that was only because her on-screen character hadn’t been introduced yet. 

“These writers did their research!” she proclaimed, laughing so hard she had tears in her eyes. 

Katara scoffed and whispered to Rei, “Mommy isn’t really like this.”

Zuko had somehow ended up sitting beside her. “Yes, Mommy is.” 

She wanted to tease him back. Well, they have Daddy’s scar on the wrong side. Daddy can’t go two minutes without mentioning honor. Isn’t Daddy silly?

It was getting easier to slip up. 

The on-screen Siege of the North ended. Aang turned into a fish and drowned everybody. In the aftermath, Zuko and Katara were sent swimming to the Earth Kingdom, while an enraged Sokka and Aang looked for her for a grand total of thirty seconds.

“Do you see her anywhere?” Aang’s actor asked. 

“Nope.”

“Well, I’ve gotta find an earthbending teacher. Time to go.” 

Then the play devolved from bad to worse, starting at the next scene change, which depicted Zuko and Katara growing closer and closer as they wandered through the Earth Kingdom, still soaked from swimming all the way from the North Pole. She wasn’t just imagining it either. Zuko stiffened beside her. 

She would never understand how a play that thought Toph was a man, “Yip Yip” signaled the Avatar State, and she stole a water bending scroll because “it just gave her so much hope” got the identity of Rei’s father right

Katara felt like she was going to die of embarrassment. Zuko leaned closer to her, and whispered in her ear, “they’re just guessing.”

It made everything so much worse. As soon as he leaned closer, she heard Aang furiously depart, while the eyes of the rest of the party turned towards them. 

Toph laughed. “Wow. Your hearts are beating so fast right now.”

“Leave them alone, Toph. They’re embarrassed,” cautioned Suki. “I would be too if I had to see my on-screen character involved with someone I never had a thing for.” 

Katara sighed to herself and looked back at Aang’s empty seat. She knew he was somewhere sulking. 

“Zuko, can you hold him for a minute?” she asked, gesturing to Rei. 

Zuko helped settle the baby on his lap.

Katara found Aang outside on the balcony, moping as openly as she suspected. 

“Aang, it’s just a play,” she reminded him. 

“How come you never said anything about our kiss at the invasion?” 

The memory flickered in her mind. Life and death. Lips pressed hastily against hers.  

“Aang, it’s all so confusing.”

“Because of him ?” 

“Because we’re in the middle of a war,” she clarified.

“The war’s about to be over. Shouldn’t we start planning for the future now?”

“Aang, you’re only fourteen. You’re too young to plan a future around me, especially when I have a son to think about.” 

“But I want to!” he shouted at her. “Don’t you want to be together?” 

No . There had to be a nice way to say it. There had to be a way that wouldn’t break his heart days before the comet. She couldn’t say yes. He was her best friend.  She loved him dearly, but not in the way he wanted her to. 

So instead of focusing on her feelings for him, she decided to disclose a truth that would irrevocably change his feelings for her. 

“The play guessed it right. Zuko is Rei’s father.” 

He froze. Aang wore every emotion on his face. She could see his giddiness when they spent time together. She could see his frustration with his training, his apprehension for the eclipse. Now she could see the love he so ardently proclaimed for her, shattered . She knew his feelings were superficial then. Real love didn’t shatter that easily. 

“He saved me in the Plains. I’d been hurt by an Earth Kingdom gang, and he found me. We made it to Ba Sing Se together. The plan was to separate in Ba Sing Se, but-”

“I don’t need to hear anymore,” Aang said, and then he left the theater, citing that he needed to be alone. Katara didn’t stop him. 

When she returned to her seat, Zuko was bouncing Rei gently on his knee. 

“You’re just in time for the Crystal Catacombs,” he told her. 

She groaned. “Can we go?” 

“Please.” Zuko turned towards the other three and handed Rei to Suki. “We’re going to get snacks.”

“Ooh get some of those fire flakes.”

“Sure thing, Sokka.”

She took a deep breath as soon as she felt the night’s cool air on her face. 

“So where did Aang go?” Zuko asked as the two of them sat on the vacated outdoor balcony.

“I’m not sure.”

“Do you want to go look for him?” 

“No, he doesn’t want to see me,” she replied. “I, uh, I told him the truth about you, me, and Rei. And since I told him, I have to tell the others before he says anything.”

“Four people now, besides us.”

“What?”

“My uncle, your dad, Aang, and Mai know the truth.”

“Wait, Mai knows the truth?” Katara asked. “And your uncle?”

“Mai and my uncle have known since we were in Ba Sing Se. I’m sure there are some people who will see this play and believe it too,” he informed her. 

“I can’t believe this play. Did the others say anything?”

“Suki dismissed it outright, Sokka’s looking at me weird, and Toph finds it all entertaining.”

Katara groaned into her knees. “Aang’s really upset. He thinks he loves me.”

“He’s fourteen.”

She smiled sadly. It was a night for truths. “I was fourteen.”

He scoffed. “You didn’t love me that soon.”

“Yes, I did.”

“Really?”

She met his gaze. Golden eyes sparkled in the moonlight. “ Really .”

“We’re different.”

“How?”

“We didn’t act fourteen when we were. We never got to be kids.”

“No, we didn’t.” And they never would be kids. Now they had one of their own. 

“I wouldn’t change it, if we’re being honest.”

“You wouldn’t change anything?”

He looked down at his hands. They made fists in his lap. “I wouldn’t go with Azula. What I did to you, Rei, and my uncle...you have no idea how much I regret it. I’m really sorry, Katara.” 

She knew he was. He proved it every day. He wasn’t leaving, not this time. “We’re always going to be connected, everyone in this group.” They had formed a little family, but some bonds ran differently than others. She thought about Sokka and Suki. She thought about the way she always looked after Aang and bickered with her brother. She thought about the way Toph never responded to her mothering. She thought about the way she and Zuko fit so well together. She rested her head on his shoulder and sighed comfortably. “But you and me, we’re special.” 

Slowly, he wrapped an arm around her shoulders. She sighed deeply, leaned closer, and inhaled everything about him. She had missed him so much. 

“Aang will move past this. He’s mature enough to know that training for Sozin’s comet takes priority.”

“I’m scared he won’t want to train with you anymore. His firebending still needs work.” 

“He has to train with me. There’s no one else. Leave his firebending training to me. You have enough to worry about.” 

Leave his firebending training to me. You have enough to worry about .

I’ll put him back to sleep.

When we make camp, you and I can take Appa and scout the area.

We can take him with us. That way you have an extra hand. 

 Zuko was always taking care of her. She had spent years taking care of everyone else; it was nice to know there was someone looking out for her. And it went beyond being cared for. She loved Zuko...in a way that she couldn’t see herself ever loving Aang.

She groaned. “I never thought it would come to this. Aang had a crush on me when he was twelve. It was so obvious, and I always thought he would outgrow it, but I guess he didn’t. I think losing me for so long made those feelings stronger, once he got over the initial shock of Rei. He hates me now, though.” 

“Because Rei’s mine?”

She nodded.  

“That’s ridiculous. It doesn’t change anything about you.” 

“Aang isn’t the most rational. He’s still young. Besides, telling everyone will change the way they see us. Sokka’s going to be weird. Maybe even Suki and Toph.”

“I’ll prove myself to them all over again,” he promised. 

“You proved yourself to me.” 

He hugged her tighter. “Thank you for giving me another chance.” 

Her throat tightened. “Your letter was really enlightening.”

“You read it?” he asked happily. 

“Over and over again,” she said. “I want our family back too.” 

The moon hung above them, and the oceans pulled below. Her blood was singing, and she could feel the beat of his heart beneath her ear on his chest. She lifted her head, eyes flickering over his face, lingering on his lips. 

“I want you back.” 

He didn’t move at first. He waited for her. He always waited for her. Then she kissed him, and it was like he came to life. His lips melded perfectly against hers, and she immediately remembered everything she loved about kissing him. She loved his hair, his scent, his passion. She loved the way he traced her cheek and pulled her closer. She loved the softness of his lips and the shaky breath he exhaled whenever she broke the kiss. She kissed him again and again until she couldn’t breathe, until they had to pull away from each other. 

“They’re probably wondering what’s taking us so long,” he said. 

“Probably,” she exhaled against his lips. 

“And we left our son with your brother. That may not have been the best call.”

Katara chuckled lightly. She felt like she was walking on air despite the difficult conversations that awaited her. She felt like she had the strength to have those conversations now. She felt sure. She snuck in another peck to his lips.

 “We are young,” she teased. “We’re entitled to a few mistakes.”

The truth was she didn’t want to leave this comforting embrace to catch an undoubtedly awful end to the play they’d already wasted their night on. She wanted to stay in Zuko’s arms as long as she could. Couldn’t the rest of the world wait just a minute?

Apparently not. Zuko reached for her hand and tugged her away from the balcony. They walked over to a snack vendor for Sokka’s fire flakes. 

They were fortunate enough to miss the end of the play. 

“You are so lucky you didn’t see how it ended,” said Sokka. “All I have to say about it is it involved a lot of fire.”

“Yeah, it was a little discouraging,” said Suki, who was holding Rei now that Sokka was eating. Rei reached out for her. 

“Oh, come to Mommy, little one.” She hugged him close to her. “The play didn’t scare him, did it?” 

“No, he was fine.” 

“Oh, good.” She kissed his cheek. 

“Twinkletoes wasn’t with you guys?”

“Um, no. He left early. He said he wasn’t feeling well.” 

“It’s probably a good thing he didn’t stick around,” said Sokka through a mouth full of fire flakes. She couldn’t believe he even liked those things. 

Zuko was standing right next to them. Everyone else was close by. Now was as good a time as any. She took a deep breath and said to her baby, loudly, “Do you want to go to Daddy?” 

She smoothly transitioned him into Zuko’s arms. “There we go, buddy,” Zuko said lovingly, holding Rei’s blanket loosely around him. 

The other three looked on in shock. 

Katara ,” Sokka began heavily.

“I told you those writers did their research!” 

Katara smiled. She felt like she could breathe easily for the first time since she left Ba Sing Se. She hadn’t known how much of a burden she’d been carrying by keeping Rei’s father a secret until she revealed the truth.

“Katara, can I talk to you for a second?” Sokka asked. 

“About what?” 

You know what . When were you going to tell us? Either one of you? Oh, spirits!” he exclaimed. “She’s your Ba Sing Se girl!”

“Your Ba Sing Se girl?” she asked Zuko lightheartedly.

“It’s not a joke, Katara,” Sokka said to her. “You had a baby with the Fire Nation’s crown prince.” 

“Lower your voice, Sokka,” Suki cautioned. 

“You told Dad his father was Earth Kingdom.”

“I told people a lot of things because I wasn’t ready to admit the truth. I’m ready now.”

Sokka stared at Zuko and Rei. “What do you have to say for yourself?” he asked. 

Katara flushed angrily. “Don’t interrogate him.” 

“No, I want to hear what he has to say.” 

“This is my family,” Zuko said. “I wanted to respect Katara’s wishes as long as she wanted to keep it a secret, and I’m overjoyed that it doesn’t have to be one anymore. I just hope it doesn’t change things with the group.” 

“Does that mean Rei’s a prince?” 

“Does it?” Katara asked Zuko. 

“No,” said Sokka scathingly, “he’s not legitimate.” 

“Stop it, Sokka! He’s your nephew, and I’m your sister. You and Zuko are friends. Please don’t let this come between us, especially right before the comet.”

“Come on, Sokka. Look how cute they are,” added Suki. She was always the best at calming Sokka down. 

“I’m just shocked you kept this a secret for so long.”

“I’m shocked you never suspected,” said Suki.

“Oh, like you did.”

“I wasn’t planning on saying anything, but Rei looks just like Zuko.”

“No, he doesn’t,” protested Sokka.

“Yes, he does,” clarified Katara with a smile. 

Sokka approached the pair of them, exaggeratedly inspecting Rei and then Zuko. “Huh. I guess I can see it.”  

“Let’s just go back to the house,” Toph told them. 

There were no complaints from the rest of them. Zuko carried Rei the whole way back. Katara walked beside him.

“I told Aang tonight. That’s why he left early, so just be a little sensitive around him, okay?” 

Toph snickered. “Your timing is terrible, Sugar Queen.” 

Katara’s stomach turned shamefully, but she had faith Aang would move past it. Zuko smiled reassuringly at her. 

“Am I the only one who wants to know how this happened?” Toph asked. 

“No, you’re not.” 

Katara rolled her eyes at her brother. She turned to Zuko. “You can tell the story if you want.”

Zuko sighed. “We met in a small plains village in the Earth Kingdom. We were both in a rough spot, and we figured it would be safer to travel together. We got forged documents to get into Ba Sing Se.”

“We were married,” Katara added. 

You were married! ” Toph exclaimed. 

“Why didn’t you say anything?” Sokka asked. “This means Rei is a prince.”

“We had false names,” Zuko clarified. “And we never had any kind of marriage ceremony. She was Tara. I was Lee. This little guy was still Rei.” 

“When it came time for me to come back to the group, I knew you wouldn’t understand. That’s why I never told you.”  

“And I thought I was doing the right thing when I went back to the Fire Nation, but it wasn’t. It wasn’t right at all.” 

Sokka looked back at the two of them when they finally made it to the Ember Island house. “Look, I guess what really matters is that you’re here now, and Rei gets his mom and dad. It just came as a shock.”

“I know,” Katara told her brother. “I’m sorry.” 

Sokka hugged her. He must have known she needed a hug. “It’s okay. I understand.”

“I just hope Aang will too.” 

“He will,” Sokka told her. 

Then they looked around the house and one thing became clear:  Aang wasn’t there. 

Chapter Text

Katara had been the hardest to convince to leave. She clung to Aang’s abandoned glider as a hope that he would come back to the house. He didn’t. They waited as long as they could. 

“Twinkletoes sure picked a fine time to throw a tantrum,” Toph mused as she and Zuko checked the beach one last time. 

“Two days before the comet, and he just disappears!” Zuko exclaimed. 

“You’ve had your fair share of disappearing,” Toph reminded him. “You came back. Aang will too. He just needs to blow off some steam.”

“He needs to get over himself and come back so he can defeat my father.”

“I’m not arguing with you. I’m just letting you know that Aang is really sensitive, and Katara’s his favorite person for some reason. You should have heard the way he talked about her when she was gone. I didn’t even know the girl, and she was throwing off my training. Aang was all, ‘That’s not how Katara taught me...Katara let me have breaks...Katara understood me.’ The kid threw him off, but he moved past that. He’ll move past this.”

“We’re running out of time. We need a new plan.” 

“Well, what are we supposed to do? There isn’t anyone else who can defeat the Fire Lord.” 

“Yes, there is.”

When the group left to track down his uncle, the only other firebender who could even attempt to engage his father in battle, Katara took Aang’s glider with them.

“He’ll want us to keep it safe for him,” she said.

And though Zuko was absolutely furious with the Avatar, he nodded. “Then we will.”    

He took Appa’s reins, leading them to Jun in the Earth Kingdom. Zuko’s stomach dropped when Nyla the shirshu couldn’t even find Aang’s scent. His uncle was their only chance if Aang didn’t come back. And the shirshu could lead them right to him. 

His uncle. He could see his uncle tonight. 

Katara slept beside him on one of Appa’s legs as they camped outside Ba Sing Se. Rei slept between them, breathing quietly. 

“The comet’s tomorrow,” he whispered while they slept. Tomorrow their destinies would be fulfilled. 

“What happens after?” she asked. 

“What do you want to happen?” He knew his heart. It belonged to Katara and Rei. It belonged to peace. 

“I don’t want to get separated again,” she admitted carefully, as her hand slid across Appa’s fur, searching for him. 

“Someone’s coming!” Toph yelled. 

Zuko immediately jumped to defend them as a wall of fire surrounded the group. Katara held Rei close to her, covering his other side. But then her stance softened, and she smiled. The wall lowered. A group of men circled them. Zuko noticed the insignia on all of their clothes. 

“The Order of the White Lotus.”

“It doesn’t seem right to have you kids sleep out here when we have a whole camp up there,” King Bumi told them.

“Is my uncle with you?”

“Yes, Prince Zuko,” Master Piandao answered. 

Zuko gulped. He’d been excited to see his uncle again, but he was scared. Katara squeezed his hand. “Come on. Let’s go make camp.”  

There was a bedroll waiting for him in Katara’s tent. She turned in with Rei for the night, with a kiss to his lips and an offer to join them. But he didn’t think he deserved that kind of solace until he made amends with his uncle. 

Katara understood. “Say goodnight to Daddy,” she said to Rei, who was resting his head sleepily against Katara’s chest. 

Zuko kissed his head. He could feel the eyes of the other masters on them, especially Master Pakku’s. The three of them must have made quite the picture. 

“Um, where is he?” 

“Your uncle’s in there, Prince Zuko.” Master Piandao bowed. 

It had been a while since anyone bowed to him. He didn’t feel like he deserved it. He inhaled deeply and walked towards his uncle’s tent, preparing himself. What could he possibly say to truly express how sorry he was?

His uncle was the grandmaster of the White Lotus. He let the gravity of that information sink in as he approached the tent. His uncle had all the power to send him away. As he opened the flap of his uncle’s tent, though, he realized it would be a while before he could ask for forgiveness. He smiled fondly as he heard his uncle’s loud snores. 

He sat comfortably beside his uncle’s bedroll. He didn’t mind waiting until morning.

When the sun started to rise in the sky, his uncle stirred. The movement spurred Zuko from the light sleep he’d fallen into. His uncle knew he was not alone in the tent. He could see the second he froze in his stretches. 

“Uncle, I know you must have mixed feelings about seeing me. I want you to know, I am so, so sorry, Uncle. I am so sorry and ashamed of what I did. I don’t know how I can ever make it up to you. But I’ll-” he couldn’t get another word out. The air left him as his uncle wrapped his arms around him. Tears flowed down Zuko’s cheeks. “How can you forgive me so easily? I thought you would be furious with me.” 

“I was never angry with you. I was sad because I was afraid you lost your way.” 

Zuko hugged his uncle tightly. “I did lose my way,” he admitted shamefully. 

“But you found it again. And I am so happy you found your way here.” 

When his uncle released him, Zuko saw that he had tears in his eyes as well. “I didn’t come by myself. Would you...would you like to meet my son?”

Iroh smiled. “There is nothing I’d like more.”

“Let me see if he’s awake.”

“I’ll make us some tea.” 

Zuko couldn’t stop smiling as he walked to Katara’s tent, even with the threat of the future hanging over his head. Katara was awake, nursing Rei. She smiled at him. 

“How did it go?” 

“Good,” he said. “He wants us to have tea.” 

“Tea?” she asked. “Shouldn’t we be discussing the plan for later?”

“We will when the others wake up,” he promised. “Please, will you join us for tea?”  

Rei had been too distracted by his father’s presence to continue eating. Katara set him on the tent floor and watched him crawl to his father. Zuko kissed his head. 

“Sure. Just let me finish getting dressed.” 

“Of course. We’ll give you some privacy.” 

“You can stay,” she told him, changing from her nightdress to her blue day clothes. “I’m almost ready. No point waiting outside.” 

“Okay,” he said, blushing slightly. She kissed him softly when she was finished dressing. Then they walked together, across the camp, to Iroh’s tent. 

Zuko could smell the tea brewing from outside. It was Jasmine, one of his uncle’s favorites. 

“Uncle?” Zuko walked into the tent with Rei in his arms and Katara at his side. 

When his uncle’s eyes landed on his baby boy, they filled with tears again. “Oh, nephew, isn’t he precious?” 

“Rei, this is your uncle Iroh,” Zuko said, passing the boy to his uncle’s loving arms. 

Iroh kissed the boy’s cheeks again and again, and tickled his underarms. Rei’s laughter brought smiles to all their faces. “And you must be Master Katara.” 

“It’s an honor to meet you properly. I’ve heard so much about you.” 

“Likewise, my dear. I have to say, a more beautiful family could never be found.” 

Both he and Katara smiled shyly. “Thank you, Uncle.”

“Sit, both of you. Have some tea.” 

Zuko poured some tea for Katara first. “Uncle makes the best tea,” he told her. 

She accepted the cup gratefully. “I can’t wait to try it.” Then she apologized when Rei tugged on Uncle’s beard. “I’m so sorry. He pulls my hair all the time. I’m trying to get him to stop.” 

“It is nothing to worry about. There is no harm in a curious soul.” 

“My uncle’s going to spoil our son.” 

Iroh laughed. “Oh, I fully intend to.”

Zuko felt warm the whole time they sat together. Every time Katara and his uncle spoke to each other, every time Rei smiled, every time Katara looked at him and he saw the tenderness in her eyes, he thought he would burst from joy. 

But it was a matter of time before they had to to think about the plan for the day. The comet was fast approaching. 

“Uncle, you’re the only one other than Aang who can defeat my father.” 

“No, Zuko. That is not my destiny. Only the Avatar can defeat my brother and restore peace. I will remain here with the Order and take back Ba Sing Se.” 

“But, Uncle, you’ll be needed in the Fire Nation immediately after.” 

“Not me,” he said. “ You . I cannot be the Fire Lord, my nephew. It has to be someone new. An idealist with unquestionable honor. It has to be you, Prince Zuko.”

“That’s not me,” he protested. 

“Yes, it is. You have erred, but you have found your way. You have to claim your throne. That is your destiny. And your sister will not make it easy for you.” 

“I can handle Azula,” he said.

“Not alone,” Katara interrupted. “I’m coming with you.”

Her words from the night before echoed in his head. I don’t want to get separated again.  

He didn’t argue with her. Instead, he said, “What about Rei? I don’t want him anywhere near Azula.” 

“Neither do I.” She smiled. “I’m sure the Order of the White Lotus wouldn’t mind pinching his cheeks for a little bit.” 

“Uncle, will you keep him safe for us?” 

“Of course. When your father and sister are defeated, and Ba Sing Se is reclaimed, I will bring him back to the Fire Nation.” 

“Thank you, Uncle,” said Katara. Zuko’s heart skipped when she called him her uncle.  

“Then we’ll do everything we can to stop the airship fleet,” Sokka decided. 

“That means when Aang does face Fire Lord Ozai, we’ll be right there if he needs us,” said Toph delightedly. 

Their group had their missions now. Katara kissed Rei’s head and handed him to Uncle. “I, uh, I just fed him. My dad said he didn’t like goat’s milk, but if you can, maybe try another type of milk? If he doesn’t take any, there are some vegetables he likes, and he loves fruit, and you’ll be back in the Fire Nation in no time right?”

Uncle took Katara’s hand. “Yes, my dear. We will be reunited soon.” 

Katara smiled gratefully and hugged her brother goodbye while Zuko said goodbye to Rei and his uncle. 

“Do you remember how to redirect lightning?”

“Yes, Uncle.” 

“And remember to keep your head. Azula is always looking for weaknesses.” 

“I know.” 

His uncle squeezed his forearm. “Be careful,” he stressed. 

Zuko hugged the both of them one last time. “You too. And you, little one, be good for Uncle. Mommy and Daddy will see you soon.”

He hugged Toph and Suki. Sokka grasped his forearm the way men in the Water Tribes were accustomed to. “Take care of my sister,” he bid. 

“Show that air fleet what you’re made of.”

The three of them departed on an eel hound, courtesy of Master Piandao. Katara and Zuko would take Appa. It was the fastest way to the Fire Nation. 

Katara sat beside him in the saddle, clasping their hands together. “Everything changes after today,” she said to him. 

He didn’t want to think about being the Fire Lord yet. He didn’t want to think about ministers, and politics, and endless council meetings. All he could focus on was facing Azula.  

As the comet approached, and the world turned to red, the liquid power shot through his veins. He smiled. He was ready to see Azula again. He was ready to end a war. Katara didn’t look as sure as he did as they traveled to the capital. She was still worried for her brother, and Aang, and Rei. She was worried for him. He had trouble facing Azula before, but she didn’t know how it felt as he led Appa further. Katara didn’t have a comet’s fire surging through her blood. 

When Appa landed, right in the plaza courtyard, seconds before Azula’s coronation, he could see Katara shiver. 

“Hey,” he said just as Azula screamed for the Fire Sage to crown her. He tore Katara’s attention from the scene in front of them to focus solely on him. Soon it would all be over. He had one final obstacle, but before he faced it, he needed to say aloud the words he’d thought a thousand times. “I love you.” 

Katara’s eyes widened. He jumped from the saddle before she could say anything back. “Sorry, Azula, but you’re not going to be Fire Lord today. I am.” 

“You’re hilarious.” 

“And your reign ends now, before it begins,” Katara told her, joining him on the ground. 

“Oh, how precious. The two of you have come together. You know I’ve heard some interesting rumors about you two. But ultimately, if you want to be Fire Lord, Zuzu, your bastard’s mother can’t help you. We have to settle, brother. Just you and me. The showdown that was always meant to be. Agni Kai!” 

“You’re on.”

“Zuko,” Katara hissed at him. “What are you doing? You can’t let her separate us. She’s playing you.” 

“We’re not going to be separated,” he promised. “I can take her this time. Look at her. She isn’t all there.”

Her hair hung in her face haphazardly, and no servants attended her aside from the Fire Sage. Her lips curled, not in their usual sadistic upturn, but in the smile of someone going mad. Like last night, when Katara slept as he waited in his uncle’s tent, she understood. They had to fight an Agni Kai. It was the only way to claim his throne. As she stepped out of the arena, Zuko dropped to his knees and kneeled. Azula did the same.

“I’m sorry it has to end this way, brother.”

“No, you’re not.”

Her flames were still blue. She still found her bending from the raw ambition inside of her. She shot a wall of blue flames at him, expecting it to be an easy duel, but he was stronger now. His will was stronger. He was no longer blinded by rage. And his wall of red flames did not let hers pass.

The two of them destroyed the area around them in their duel. He’d never seen two firebenders cause so much damage, but like his uncle said, a firebender only experienced this kind of power once every hundred years. He was exhausting her, he could tell, as he sliced through blast after blast of blue flame. Sweat trickled down their faces. Smoke coated their lungs. When the latest wave of flames subsided, his sister was left panting on the ground. 

“No lightning today?” he yelled at her, taunting his sister across the courtyard. Her jaw jutted out as she gritted her teeth, and he realized the two of them had switched positions. Before, she had been controlled, while he had been frustrated. Now he was calm and formidable. He wasn’t going anywhere. “What’s the matter? Afraid I’ll redirect it?” 

“Oh, I’ll show you lightning!” she howled as more hair fell into her face. She drew her fingers forward and generated the beginning sparks of lightning, hobbling to her feet. He steadied his stance and inhaled a deep breath. He would make his uncle proud.      

But his sister wasn’t looking at him as she prepared the strike. Her gaze was focused to his left, where Katara had emerged from behind a nearby pillar. She aimed the blue stream of lightning right for her heart. He could have stayed still. His uncle always said every action was a choice. It was a choice to stay still or dart in front of her.

“No!” he yelled, lunging forward. 

 

It was the easiest choice of his life. 

Chapter Text

She never moved from the foot of his bed. She needed to be close to him. She needed to make sure he was breathing. Even in his sleep, he looked in pain. Sweat trickled down his brow, seeping into his hair while he tossed and turned in a delirious fever. She kept him cool and treated the angry burn in his side, unwound the crippling energy within him. 

A couple days passed, and his fever finally broke. Still, he wouldn’t wake. 

“Zuko,” she called, squeezing his hand just to feel his pulse. “Zuko.” 

“You should rest,” said Uncle, said Sokka, said her father. 

She did rest, at the foot of his bed. They brought Rei to her sometimes, and she’d play with him quietly at Zuko’s side. 

“Daddy’s going to be okay,” she said to him, repeating the statement like a prayer, wondering if she was saying it for the baby in her lap or because it was the only thought that could keep her from losing her mind. 

She held his hand while he slept. She checked his pulse. She smoothed his hair, sticky with sweat. 

He was the Fire Lord now, if  he would just wake up. Servants entered the room endlessly, and each of them eyed her warily, wondering what this woman of the Water Tribes was doing at the foot of their Lord’s bed with an infant in her arms.

Aang came as she watched Zuko. She heard his light footsteps creep into the room unsurely. 

“You’re here,” she whispered, smiling back at him. She already knew, of course. Sokka told her when the group reunited at the palace, and though she was relieved that the war had ended and Aang had fulfilled his destiny, all of her focus had been on Zuko. 

“How is he?” Aang asked, approaching the bed.

“He hasn’t woken up.” 

“Well, he has the best healer in the world looking out for him.”

Katara nodded, but the sentiment didn’t assure her the way Aang likely intended. She reached forward and grazed her fingertips across his forehead once more. 

“I’m really sorry, Katara. I’m sorry for everything.” 

“It’s okay,” she told him.

“The way I acted was-”

She hugged him, sniffling into his shoulder. “I’m just happy you’re okay. If I’ve learned anything in all this, it’s that life’s too short to dwell on the past.” She wished now as Zuko lay motionlessly in bed that she had realized it sooner. 

“Thank you, Katara. I’ll apologize to Zuko too, when he wakes up.” 

Katara smiled, though she knew Zuko would rather forget Aang’s behavior in light of the outcome. He would be bombarded with so many things whenever he woke up. A century’s war ended overnight, and he landed at the center of it all. 

“Sokka told me he took lightning for you.”

“Yeah, he did.” 

Aang sighed, wringing his hands in his lap. “I, uh, I’ve been working hard on making peace with everything, and it wasn’t until now I realized how good he is for you. I always run away from things. You don’t.”

“I did,” she reminded him. She had spent two years hiding in Ba Sing Se.

“But that’s not who you are. That’s why you came back. You don’t give up. Neither does Zuko. He doesn’t run.” 

There were so many other things she loved about Zuko, including the determination Aang described. He was tender and protective. He was disciplined and strong. He understood her. He loved her. He loved their son. But Aang wasn’t to hear that yet.

“I’m proud of you for facing Ozai,” she said, changing the subject since she could see a hint of lingering pain in Aang’s eyes.

“The war’s over now. I can’t believe it.”

“I know.” 

“Sokka told me that you defeated Azula.”

“Zuko wore her out. I just finished her off. It was easy as soon as she tried to block my path to Zuko. Then I claimed the throne in his name.”

“Azula’s mistake was getting between you and someone you love.” 

Katara agreed. “And she’ll spend the rest of her life in prison for it.”

“So will Ozai,” Aang said, and it felt so good to repeat to herself that the war was over. “When Zuko wakes up, there will be an official celebration of the war’s end at his coronation.” 

She squeezed Zuko’s hand. “Let’s get him awake first. Then we can talk about all that.” 

“Okay. Let us know if you need anything, Katara. I’m going to see what everyone else is up to.” He smiled warmly at her before he left. 

When Zuko opened his eyes, a day later, she was there, holding his hand. When he smiled at her, she leaned over his injured body and kissed him. She felt his lips beneath hers. She felt them draw the same breath, and felt her throat tighten in sheer relief that he was breathing

When she broke the kiss, she rested her head in the crook of his neck. “I thought we talked about you sacrificing yourself.”

“Last time, I promise,” he said hoarsely, then coughed. 

She bent some water from the pitcher into a glass for him and brought it to his lips. When he exhaled in relief, she smiled ruefully. “I’m supposed to let everyone know when you’re awake. I can’t keep you to myself anymore, Fire Lord.”

She wanted him to say ‘to hell with the ministers’ and hold her just a little longer, but if he did that, then he wouldn’t be the dutiful man she loved. 

“Send them in.”

She kissed him one last time before their lives changed again. 

“I love you,” she told him. 

His smile made her forget every tear she had shed waiting for him to wake up. “I love you too.”

His ministers crowded into his room immediately, and though it pained Katara to leave, this was Zuko’s time to assert himself as their leader. Now that she knew he was okay, she realized it was time to focus on herself and Rei, as well as reunite with the rest of the group. 

She would see Zuko later. It was another one of the grounding mantras she repeated to herself as she bathed and dressed. She would see him before their separation even sank in. 

We’re not separated , a faint voice of reason argued. He’s just down the hall

She found Iroh dining with her friends and family in the main dining hall. Rei reached for her from Sokka’s lap. She hugged him tightly. “Daddy’s awake.”

“Oh, good. Now we can finally get somewhere,” drawled a gloomy voice. Katara’s eyes darted to the end of the table, where she noticed Mai and Ty Lee for the first time.

“I didn’t realize you two would be in the palace,” she said carefully. Though she was thankful for their help, she still didn’t know them well. She didn’t trust them yet. 

“And I didn’t think anyone could ever stop Azula,” Mai returned. “Especially not a waterbender.”

“Is Zuko going to be okay?” asked Ty Lee, bubbly as ever, dressed in a Kyoshi uniform. 

“He’s going to be fine. Just fine.”

Iroh invited her to an empty seat. “Come, Katara. You must replenish your strength and eat.”

“Thank you, Uncle.”

“We were just discussing plans for my nephew’s coronation,” Iroh told her. “We can’t seem to come to an agreement on how lavish the after-party will be.”

Katara smiled. Zuko would want no part in a lavish party, but she didn’t think it would do any good to mention it. Everyone liked the idea of a party. What they didn’t agree on was how long the festivities would last. 

“I think two weeks is fair,” said Toph. 

“Two weeks of fireworks?” Sokka asked. “The whole nation would burn down.” 

“They’ve got to use all their leftover gunpowder for something ,” the earthbender reasoned. 

“Toph has a point,” chimed Aang.

Katara smiled as she took another bite of whatever meat was on the plate in front of her. She finally felt relaxed. She felt every ounce of suffering melt away into pure reward. She stood Rei up in her lap and listened to him laugh when she kissed his neck. He was finally the child of peace she always wanted him to be. 

When they finished eating, Iroh took her on a thorough tour of the palace. He showed her the grand royal apartments, the throne room, the ballrooms, the nursery, the orchards, and just when she thought she was too overwhelmed to take in another sight, he finished the tour in the gardens belonging to Zuko’s mother. 

“Your grandmother,” Iroh said to Rei. “Grandmother Ursa. She used to sit with Zuko at the turtleduck pond.” 

“It’s all so beautiful out here.” She stood Rei up in the grass and helped him get his balance before she let go. She smiled to see him standing by himself for just a few seconds before he fell smiling on his bottom. His hands explored the ground. He would be walking soon. 

“Zuko took his first steps in this garden. Maybe Rei will too.” 

Katara watched her son proudly. “Maybe.” 

Zuko found the two of them there in the royal gardens well into the afternoon, after Uncle had excused himself to welcome some new guests. As Zuko sat beside her at the pond’s edge, she noticed it was still uncomfortable for him to shift too quickly. 

“You shouldn’t be out of bed,” she said to him.

He shrugged. “Are you going to make me get back in?”

“I can’t make you do anything.”

“I disagree,” he replied with a smile. 

Rei crawled over to Zuko's feet and pulled himself up on the surrounding stone. Zuko picked him up immediately. 

There you are! I missed you.” 

“He missed you too.” 

“Da-da,” babbled their son, pressing his hands to Zuko’s face. 

“Did he just say-” began Katara.

“Do it again, Rei. Come on, Da-da.”

“Da-da. Da-da.”

“Is that his first word?” Zuko asked. 

Katara beamed at him. “I think it is. What about me, baby? Huh? Ma-ma. Ma-ma.” It was no use, it seemed. Maybe she would have better luck with the next one, she thought to herself airily. She didn’t dare say that out loud yet. 

“Oh, come on. Do it for Mommy,” Zuko tried for her sake unsuccessfully. 

“So how did it go with the ministers?”  

“Well enough. We drafted decrees for bringing soldiers home and releasing prisoners. I think I need to replace some of them. They served my father.”

“Go with your instincts,” she said to him. She wasn’t going to lose him to snakes in his council. 

“We also discussed the succession,” he added, as Rei pointed to the turtleducks swimming upon the other side of the pond. “Of course, I want to discuss it with you too. I’d like to name Rei my heir.”

Katara’s body stilled, though the request was only logical. He was Zuko’s first-born. But that would mean sharing her son with the Fire Nation, and she already had to share Zuko. 

“What did the council say? They can’t be too happy I’m his mother.” 

“Like I said, I need to replace some of them.” 

That worried her. Katara especially didn’t want to share Rei with people who wouldn't appreciate him. 

“Their biggest gripe is his illegitimacy. They won’t honor the marriage of Tara and Lee Mingyun.” 

She hadn’t expected them to. She watched Zuko hold out his hand for one of the baby turtleducks Rei was watching so intently. He took Rei’s little hand and let him pet the baby duckling’s soft yellow down. As she watched Rei and Zuko together, she realized that as much as she wanted to protect their baby, she couldn’t deny him his heritage. 

“Does he have to be legitimate to succeed you?” 

“No,” Zuko said. He looked forward pensively, as if he wanted to say more. “It just means that my council would like me to have a legitimate heir as soon as possible.” 

“They want you to marry?”

“They may have suggested it.”

“Marry someone else ?”

He nodded. “I won’t do it. I told them that.” 

She released a breath she didn’t know she was holding. “Thank you.” 

“I love you, Katara. I won’t give you up.”

“I love you too.” 

“There are two ways to legitimize him.”

“Oh?”

“I can petition the sages to legitimize his birth, or…”

“Or?” she prompted hopefully. 

“Or we can marry.” 

She smiled. “I like that one.” 

“You do?” 

“Don’t you?” 

He laughed heartily. It was such a sweet, rare sound. “Yes, of course.” 

“Good. Then that’s settled then.” She kissed him on the mouth and then Rei on the cheek. “Your council will be furious.” 

“My council will survive.” 

As happy as she was, there was something else she wanted to discuss with him. “Would you be able to spare us for a little while, so I can take Rei to the South Pole?” 

His face fell before he could catch it. “Oh.” 

“It’s just that Rei’s never been there. He’s never even met my grandmother.”

“I understand.” 

“It would just be for a little while, and then we’ll come back. Permanently.” 

Before she gave her son to the Fire Nation, she wanted him to walk through the snow of the land she hailed from. She wanted him to know his mother’s history, even if it wasn’t information from a royal archive. 

“Zuko, I promise we’ll come back.” 

“I know you will.” 

“And we’ll have each other for the rest of our lives. Right?” 

He wrapped an arm around her shoulders. He tried to hide his sharp inhalation of breath from the movement, but she still heard it. Her heart ached for him. She rested her head against his chest. “Yes. For the rest of our lives.” 


The weight of Zuko’s crown felt heavy in her hands. She traced the two prongs with her thumb as attendants fitted his armor to his body. This crown marked him as the heir to the throne. Soon it would be replaced by the five-pronged headpiece Aang stripped from his father. She wanted to be the one to put the crown prince’s headpiece in his hair for the last time.

When the attendants finished dressing him, Zuko sent them away with words of thanks. His eyes met hers, and he sat down on the edge of his bed to make it easier for her to secure the crown around his topknot. 

She did so delicately, and when she finished, she reached for his hands and pulled him from the bed. He stood taller with the crown in his hair. She realized suddenly that their son would wear the same crown one day. 

Zuko smiled at her nervously, tensing his shoulders beneath the armor. 

“Relax,” she chided gently. 

He took a deep breath. “I wish you could stand up there with me.” 

“Find me in the crowd,” she said, squeezing his hand. “Rei and I will be right there, cheering for you.” 

His fingers played with hers as they waited for Uncle to knock on the door and tell them it was time to leave for the Royal Plaza. Then he would be crowned, she would stay for the festival, and then the two of them would be apart for a couple months as she visited her home with Rei. Until that departure, which would no doubt hurt her as much as it would excite her to go home, they would take advantage of every second to themselves. 

“What can I give you?” he whispered, tracing the fourth finger of her left hand. “You have a necklace. Maybe a ring? A golden ring, like the couples in the Earth Kingdom wear? I always wished I could give you one.”

“You don’t have to do that, Zuko.” 

“I want to give you anything you want.”

“You have,” she said, staring into his eyes. 

“Then can I ask you something?” 

“Of course.” 

He brought their joined hands to his chest. “Will you marry me? Tonight?”

“Tonight?”

“In the height of the party, let’s sneak away together. We’ll have one of the sages marry us before anyone can say anything about it. Before you go back home, marry me,” he pleaded. 

She could feel how fast his heart was beating beneath their hands. In his eyes, she saw their lives ahead of them, as well as the years they’d already lived. She could never want anyone else more. “Let’s do it.” 

She would have thrown herself into his arms if it weren’t for the injury he was still healing from. She settled for melding her lips to his. She wrapped her arms around his neck, careful not to disturb a single part of his customary clothing. 

This isn’t the kind of world for hope.

He had said that to her once, as the two of them grappled with hallucinations on the brink of death. The two of them had been beaten down. They’d lost everything, separated from their families, reduced to begging and stealing, with only each other to help them through. And later their son, their little glimpse into perfection. How wrong they had been to lose hope.

With heavy pants and swollen lips, she pulled away from him reluctantly. She was getting carried away, and Zuko had to look perfect for his coronation. “I wish those two kids on the run to Ba Sing Se knew what was in store for them.” 

He chuckled. “They wouldn’t believe it even if they did,” he replied. 

It was hard to picture how hardened the two had become to the world, and how soft they grew in each other’s arms. “Did you ever imagine then that we could be this happy?”

“No,” he told her just as the indicative knocks sounded at the door, “but we are.”

Chapter Text

Ba Sing Se

Yu Ling had expanded his father’s tea shop. Briefly, when he had been left a parcel of gold coins just after the war ended, he entertained the thought of leaving the Lower Ring and moving to a better part of Ba Sing Se. In the end, he decided to stay, for his father. The customers came no matter what part of town he lived in. 

While he poured over the accounts in his office, one of his servers knocked on the door. 

“Yu Ling, there’s some guy here to see you.”

Immediately, he thought that was strange. Running the tea shop didn’t leave him much time to make friends, especially ones that would feel inclined to visit him at work. He rinsed the ink from his fingers in the kitchen’s sink and walked into the cafe. He smiled when he saw the young man seated at the counter, wearing a green cloak. 

“Lee!”

Lee stood smiling to shake his hand. Then he bowed respectfully. Tara hugged him next. Their little boy waved from his seat between them. He had grown considerably. 

“Look at you,” he said to the boy. “You were just a baby the last time I saw you. How old are you now?”

“Four.”

“Four!” he said incredulously. The little boy nodded, smiling.

Lee looked around at some of the improvements to the shop. He took them all in approvingly, marveling at the pure white of the marble counter. With his arm around his wife’s waist, Yu Ling could see clearly that Tara was expecting another child. The four-year-old would be a brother soon.

“I see you got the donation,” Lee commented. 

“That was you?” Yu Ling asked, remembering the gold coins left in his office just after the war ended, with nothing more than a note that said ‘use them wisely’.

“I haven’t been completely honest with you,” Lee admitted sheepishly. “You didn’t exactly hire an average refugee. You hired the Fire Nation’s banished prince.”

The Fire Nation’s banished prince. The story had circulated to every corner of the world. The prince who taught the Avatar firebending, the prince who defeated his sister, the very one who had taken Ba Sing Se. The prince who now sat on the throne. 

“Fire Lord Zuko,” he realized.

“It’s good to meet you properly,” the Fire Lord said. There was no crown in his hair, no splendor to his clothing. He was traveling discreetly. 

Further realization dawned on him when he turned to Tara. Yu Ling remembered the rest of the story now, how the city talked and talked when the Fire Lord eloped with the Avatar’s waterbending teacher, the mother of his child. 

“Fire Lady Katara,” he greeted. She waved shyly. His attention turned to the youngest member of the party. “And I guess that makes you Prince Rei.”

The Fire Lady smiled. “We wanted to see you in person, to thank you for helping us all those years ago.”

“We’re visiting all of their Ba Sing Se friends,” the young prince said excitedly. 

“Is that so?”

“My uncle has given me leave from my duties. We’re renting a house for the next month in the Palace District. We want to have the baby here.”

“You’d think your ministers would prefer the child be born in the Fire Nation.”

“Oh, they would,” commented the Fire Lady bemusedly, “but we still have some liberties.”

“It’s hard to argue with her,” her husband said. 

“Rei was delivered by a friend of mine here in Ba Sing Se. Zuko and I agreed -“ she turned to him pointedly, “to have our new baby here too.”

“Yes, we agreed," he said and shared a private smile with his wife. "We’d love to have you over for dinner while we stay, if you can get away.”

“It would be rude to refuse the Fire Lord’s offer.”

“Good. How does tomorrow sound?”

The Fire Lady winced. “Oh, I forgot to tell you we’re having Suni and her husband over tomorrow.”

“What about the girls?”

“Suni’s leaving them with Jia. Then we’re having all the kids over next week.”

“Are the girls my age?” Rei asked.

“No,” said his father. The little prince pouted.

“How about the day after tomorrow then?”

“Works for me,” Yu Ling agreed. Before the family left, he offered little Prince Rei an iced tea cake. 

“What do you say?” Lady Katara asked, nudging the boy’s shoulder. 

“Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. Did your parents tell you how they know me, Prince Rei?”

The boy shook his head, licking the icing from the cake as many children often did. 

“Your father worked for me. He used to serve tea here, and your mother would visit him all the time. Sometimes she’d bring you.”

“Really?”

“Yes.”

The boy looked up to his father, smiling. “You don’t even like tea.”

“I never said that.”

“Uncle Iroh says you don’t appreciate it. His words.”

“Uncle Iroh exaggerates,” his father told him. He tapped the boy’s nose teasingly. Then he dug into the pocket of his cloak and pulled out a gold coin. “For the tea cake.”

“It’s on the house.”

“For an old friend then.”

Yu Ling accepted the coin gratefully. “I’ll see you the day after tomorrow, my friends. I’m sure there’s a lot to catch up on.”

When they left, his server, Shang, approached him. “Who was that guy?”

“Someone who worked for me before the war ended,” he explained. 

“Oh. You know his scar looks exactly like Fire Lord Zuko’s.”

“Hmm.”

“Except it’s on the wrong side,” Shang commented. “Wouldn’t that be something, to have the Fire Lord come here of all places?”

“You have quite the imagination.”

“I know. Why would the Fire Lord ever come here for tea? He probably has a palace full of servants to make him a special blend.”

Yu Ling chuckled to himself. “Probably.”