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In the Shadow of the Phoenix

Chapter Text

The sky turned red as the comet blazed across the planet. 

Monk Gyatso, oldest and kindest of the monks, looked up and then over to where the marching soldiers approached, their technology allowing them to scale the mountainside.

“Go,” he urged the man -- barely a man, Gyatso fretted, too young for this burden -- to his left, whose tattoos turned an eerie shade of purple in the changing light. “Go, now.”

“Gyatso,” Aang murmured, bowing in respect, tears on his cheeks which had not yet lost the last ounce of fat from childhood. “My friend.”

“Protect the Avatar,” Gyatso whispered, holding Aang’s arms in a tight embrace before releasing him. “Go, now! Protect him-”

“I will,” Aang swore, his grey eyes flashing. “I promise you, I will.” 

His broad shoulders seemed to sag for a moment under the sudden responsibility, before his spine straightened once more. “Goodbye.”

“Good luck,” Gyatso said with a smile. 

Aang pulled air currents around him and sprung into the saddle where the slumped, small figure still slept. 

“Appa. Yip Yip,” Aang commanded, and the sky bison roared as it lifted off the cracking stone of the temple floor and soared north.

Three other bison took off at the same time, going east, west, south.

“Protect our future,” Gyatso whispered, tears in his limpid eyes before another booming thud rattled the temple, shaking dust loose from the ancient ceilings.

“Today, the Nomads stand their ground,” he said to a monk who had paused to check on him, the other men and women rushing to meet the oncoming army. 

A plume of monstrous fire erupted like a tsunami of flame up the mountainside, and Gyatso looked over his shoulder one last time at the bison growing steadily distant in the sky. His breath caught when two fireballs erupted from unseen peaks in the mountain chain, but Aang deflected one with his staff as Appa dodged the other, and then they were gone.

Safe in the clouds.

“May we meet again,” he thought before racing to what he already understood and accepted was his death.

Thirty-two years after the Air Temples fell, the Earth Kingdom was at its breaking point.

A momentous period for the Fire Nation; which was why the Lady Ursa was surprised to receive General Iroh, Dragon of the West himself, to her place of confinement.

“General.” She held a hand to her round belly as she greeted him, standing shakily from her couch.

“There is no need for titles, my lady.” His once blazing gold eyes had dimmed since she had seen him last. “My sister.”

His son’s body was in Caldera City, awaiting proper burial. Ursa’s heart broke for Iroh the day his son fell, but not as much as the father’s had.

“Please,” she gestured to the seat across from her. 

Iroh settled and then cleared his throat as Ursa sat, draping her skirts over her legs.

“Your servants and healers look different from the last time I saw you,” Iroh commented. 

“Yes, they were changed out not four weeks ago,” Ursa said, grasping the teapot between them. 

Iroh held his hand out in offering, and she handed it to him instead. He began to prepare the tea, taking his time. 

He did not speak for several minutes.

“Perhaps,” he said calmly, steam rising from the surface of the two porcelain cups, “it is a good thing to have new attendants. I think I recognize several of them.”

It was a loaded exchange that Ursa could only grasp the edges of: she was not intended for a nest of vipers, after all. It was something of which both she and Iroh were well aware.

“New attendants,” Iroh mused. “For a new baby.”

“Yes, we’re very excited that soon--” Ursa began, but Iroh cleared his throat and handed her the jasmine tea. 

“I am excited to inform my brother, who works so hard at the front lines now that I have left, that his child was born early.”

Ursa frowned. “Iroh, what do you speak of? The child is not yet-”

“Of course,” Iroh continued, some of the fire returning to his eyes, “You were both so ill from the stress of early labor that I could not personally sit with you for long. Your health, I regret to report, will not allow visitors for several months.”

“Iroh?” Ursa set her cup down and watched her brother-in-law sip at his tea, a secret message coating his words. 

Iroh lowered his own cup and held it in his hands. “I could not bear it,” he said, voice cracking, “if the kindest of my family knew my pain.”

Lu Ten had been dead less than a month.

“What are you saying--?”

“I have heard my father and brother’s plans for a glorious future,” Iroh continued, voice rough with anger, “And it has caused me -- many sleepless nights. I cannot stop their plans.” He looked around the empty room and leaned towards Ursa. “But, I can save you.”

“Save me?” Ursa protested, color rising to her cheeks as she held her stomach tight. “Iroh, please, tell me what you’re talking about!”

“The Avatar is sixteen years old,” Iroh said sadly. “And she has been, at last, identified. They expect to capture her soon, in exchange for the safety of all inside the walls of Ba Sing Se.”

“What a fortunate turn of events for our nation,” Ursa said carefully. She startled when Iroh set his cup down with a rattle.

“Fortunate,” Iroh hissed. “Spirits! Fortune does not favor us -- they are not lucky stars, the constellations that bear witness to what we are about to do. My brother and father do not wish to see the cycle of the Avatar continue, to the point that they are willing to sacrifice terrible things for their plan.”

Ursa paled in sudden understanding. “They wouldn’t,” she whispered. “They couldn’t-”

“They will.” Iroh shook his head. “I came here under the pretense that I would … take care of the unfortunate business, should the execution of the Avatar coincide with the hour of the birth of Ozai’s heir.”

His sister-in-law paled further and gripped the table, procuring a blade from her sleeve. “You won’t touch my child,” she hissed, half-rising.

Iroh’s heart, what was left of it, broke at her fierceness. It was well understood that he was the greatest bender of the age -- and yet she would defy him for the love of her child.

“I won’t,” he promised, and Ursa’s gaze shifted, confused. “I won’t have to, because your child will be born early. I will report to my brother that I will stay with you to guarantee the health of your child as he continues the war for our father. Only deeply trusted attendants will be allowed near the two of you. You will not be seen in public for years, which is only advisable. After all, the grief of the Fire Nation on the day of its greatest sacrifice will be too powerful and might inspire retaliation.”

Tears trembled in Ursa’s kind brown eyes and then fell. Iroh watched each one fall, like leaves from a vine. “I don’t understand,” she wept. “How could they do such a thing-”

“I do not understand either,” Iroh whispered, his throat tight with tears. “But I do understand that your willingness to protect your son will keep him safe from my father. We will work together, my lady sister.” 

He held his hands out to her, and Ursa took them, still sniffing, her shoulders sagging. “And most likely, we will be able to keep the farce up with great ease. The likelihood of your child being …” He trailed off and cleared his throat. “The cycle of the Avatar might truly end, which is its own pain. But, if I can spare you this pain …”

“Thank you.” Ursa bowed her head to their clasped hands, and Iroh felt stirred to a great and powerful grief once more, flowing like water under the still scarring wound of Lu Ten’s loss. “Thank you, Iroh.”

“Do not thank me yet, sweet Ursa.” Iroh sighed. “Do not thank me yet.”

Three weeks later, the Avatar, born of the Earth Kingdom, sixteen years old, but standing before her executioners with all the grace and power of someone three times her age, faced death to save her people.

A bright light flowed from her as she tilted her face up to see the sky one last time, and as the spirit of Raava left her body and sought out her new vessel, the girl collapsed to the ground, lifeless. The Fire Nation cheered.

Thousands of miles away, Raava streamed through a window on Ember Island and as General Iroh, Dragon of the West, pulled his nephew into the world, Raava slipped into his soul and twined around it, inextricably.

Zuko, prince of the Fire Nation, opened his mouth and cried out for the first time as his mother wept in pain and fear.

Iroh held the child to his chest, blocking his mouth in a desperate attempt to quell the noise.

On Prince Zuko’s tenth birthday, he practices his forms in front of his clapping uncle and laughing mother. He is on Ember Island for the season, his younger sister still in the capitol, learning warfare at their father’s knee. 

She is healthy, born under lucky stars; given the nature of his birth (the story told to him many times by his uncle, how he had been dragged into the world early and had nearly died, nearly killed his mother), Zuko is nothing but lucky to be alive. He wonders, sometimes, now that he’s older and understands the world more, when his grandfather will tire of him and request he be removed from the line of succession.

Zuko does not mind. He does not wish to be Fire Lord. He has begun to learn the cost of their legacy, and he does not think his head can bear the weight of the crown.

As Zuko twists into the final form of Dancing Phoenix, his fire admittedly gentler than might be expected of a prince of the Fire Nation, he leaps onto a bridge in the courtyard, right up onto the railing as he points his left foot towards the sun.

His root is not strong enough; the prince falls.

Ursa screams, standing up quickly, as Iroh jumps forward, still spry despite the grey in his beard, ready to catch his nephew before he slams into the stones underneath.

His panic is unnecessary: Zuko cartwheels through the air, spinning his body out of instinct. He extends his right hand, and for a wild moment, Iroh thinks lightning will leap forth from the fingertips of the prince.

It does not. 

But air does.

With a burst of wind shot out of the prince’s hand, Zuko takes flight, flipping forward, catching unseen currents, and he lands lightly on his feet.

There is a long moment of confusion on the prince and Lady’s part. Iroh’s face is already grim as he scans the courtyard for any unwanted eyes. The attendants present wear a strange symbol in the clasp of their robes -- a beautiful lotus, not a terrible flame, decorates their ornaments.

They nod solemnly to the Dragon of the West, and he bows his head for a moment, exhaling breath that is more grief than fire.

“What happened?” Zuko’s voice breaks his concerned examination of the courtyard. “Mother? Uncle?”

“Oh, Zuko.” Ursa’s grief cuts her to her knees, and she collapses, hands outstretched. “Oh, my sweet Zuko-”

“Mama.” Zuko’s face is bright red, his golden eyes swimming with tears as he runs to his mother. She holds him tightly and looks up at Iroh, who walks heavily towards them, listening to the panicked sobs of his nephew.

Ursa stares at him, her sleeves effectively hiding Zuko from sight -- but isn’t that what they’ve always done? Iroh muses. Protected this boy for this precise reason, this slightest chance.

“Help us,” Ursa whispers to her only real ally, clutching her son impossibly tighter. “Protect him.”

“I will,” Iroh swears, kneeling next to them, his broad hand going to the back of Zuko’s head. “I promise. I will.”

Chapter Text

Airbending, it turns out, comes more naturally to the prince than fire. 

But this is not a good thing: when a ball of flame should erupt from his fingers, a jet of air bursts out. When he kicks high in the air, he’s too light on his toes, and wind twists out of the all of his foot. If he isn’t focused on the power of his inner flame, entirely focused, Zuko creates air.

When air and fire are too close together, sometimes he accidentally causes explosions. Things aren’t great, the year he turns ten.

It gets to the point where he cannot practice bending in front of anyone except his mother, his uncle, and a select group of guards who his uncle carefully introduces him to.

“Memorize their faces, Prince Zuko.” Iroh’s hand is heavy on his shoulder; a different kind of heavy than his father’s hand. “Memorize their voices. Do not show your bending to any but these men and women.”

Zuko peers up at the last woman in the line and frowns. She has blue eyes, he notices immediately. She has blue eyes, and dark skin.

“Are you a Waterbender?” Zuko asks, his eyes widening. The woman glances at Iroh who stands next to Zuko.

“I am here for you, Av- Prince Zuko.” The woman bows, but it doesn’t look like the bows Zuko’s been forced to practice in etiquette lessons for nearly a decade. “That is all that matters.”

Zuko looks up at Iroh; the noon sun shines behind him, casting a halo around his uncle’s graying hair. Iroh’s smile is encouraging, and his golden eyes twinkle a little as he nods at Zuko.

“Alright.” Zuko nods and bows back to the guard, trying to mimic the way she had moved, hands pressed together in front of him, half at his waist. She looks strangely surprised at his attempt, but she smiles at him.

Zuko does like it when people smile at him.

They travel to Caldera City at the solstice for Azula’s eighth birthday: Zuko doesn’t question why his father hadn’t requested an audience with him on his birthday. Azula is a firebending prodigy, after all; there are rumors she struck a teacher with lightning last year. His father loves Azula.

And Zuko … well, his mother loves him. His uncle does too. He tells himself every night, stubbornly, that this is enough.

As the boat churns across the sea towards the capitol, Zuko stands on his toes, staring out across the water, gripping the railing. It’s strange: when the moon rises in the sky as they near the harbor, the sun setting slowly against the horizon, Zuko feels a … a pull. Something in the water, or the water itself, rushes up against his spirit.

He doesn’t hate the feeling.

“Zuko, come here.”

Zuko walks to his mother immediately and takes her outstretched hands. He offers her a timid smile, something uncomfortable in her eyes making his stomach clench.

“Zuko.” She clears her throat and glances down the deck; Zuko follows her line of sight and sees his uncle, sitting as though quietly meditating.

His eyes are open though, and scanning the deck constantly. Zuko realizes no one is in earshot of them, and his uncle seems to be watching people move.

He turns back to his mother, who’s smiling at him, but with tears in her eyes. “My sweet boy. Do you know how much I love you?”

“More than all the sun and all the world,” Zuko says solemnly. She squeezes his hands.

“Exactly. And …. Do you know that I am proud of you?”

He considers this. He hadn’t actually thought about his mother’s pride in him. The thought brings him immediate shame: his whole life, he’s wanted to make his father proud. He likes it when his mother smiles, but he can’t say he’s necessarily thought about the respect she might have for him.

Has he dishonored her in this way?

“I-” Zuko bows his head. “I want to make you proud, Mom. And-” He looks up and sees her sad expression, “I want to make Father proud, too.”

“I am proud of you,” Ursa whispers fiercely, “I am. Never doubt that, turtleduck.” She strokes his left cheek before moving on to his hair, where she fiddles with his top knot for a moment.

“When we are in the capitol,” Ursa continues gently, fingers still moving through his hair, “You must promise me something.”

Zuko waits patiently for her to name the promise.

“Promise me that you will not try to please your father with your bending.”

“What?” He half-shouts, immediately angry. His father only cares about -- “If I don’t bend, how can I prove myself?”

“I’m not saying to not bend.” Ursa’s tone is hushed, which reminds him that they are being listened to. They are always being listened to -- a lesson his uncle is diligent in teaching him. “I’m asking you not to compete with your sister, or to invite attention to your bending. I am asking…” She bows her head, and he sees a tear slip from her eye.

Concern replaces his anger immediately, and Zuko reaches out to catch the tear; strangely, it feels as though he can feel everything inside the droplet of water. He feels it tremble on his fingertip before he flicks it away, frowning, and he looks up in time to see his mother smiling at him, sadder than ever.

“You are too kind for our world,” Ursa says, regret heavy in her countenance and voice. “Which is why I am asking you to hide how good you are. In both spirit, and bending.”

“I’m not good at firebending,” Zuko says, frowning. 

“What could have given you that impression?”

“Zuli’s fire is blue, and mine is orange.” These are facts that haunt him each night, so Zuko has no issue calling them to mind now. “She’s a prodigy, and I’m lucky if the right element comes out of my foot. There isn’t enough fire in me.” He sighs and forces himself to look into his mother’s eyes steadily, which is what a respectable prince would do. “It doesn’t come out of me half the time. That’s why air comes out, right?”

Ursa looks stunned, so Zuko explains again.

“I figured it out,” He assures her, “And I bend empty air sometimes because my fire isn’t strong enough. Right?”

“Zuko.” Ursa turns pale. “I -- “ She ducks her head. “We will speak more of this when we leave the city. But, I -- do not tell your father about your bending, or the empty air, or any of it. It will … displease him.”

Zuko nods, his throat tight. He’s a disappointment. I knew it.

“I understand, Mom.” He bows to her. “I would not want to displease him. Or you.”

“You never displease me, my love.” Her arms are around him a second later, and Zuko hides his face in her robes, fighting back tears. “You could never displease me.”

She holds him until the boat pulls into harbor, and then they await the arrival of Ozai and Azula. Uncle Iroh seems to be bored, but Ursa is anxious, so Zuko can’t stop the storm beneath his skin. 

Breathing slowly, he looks up when the procession arrives at the dock. The gangplank lowers. His father stands tall at the end of it; Zuko walks forward and nearly falls off the edge of the ramp:

Walking slowly, he comes before a line of Fire Nation soldiers; there are crowds of screaming thousands, some calling for his death, most calling for his freedom. He blinks, and then he feels heat on his face -- the last thing he sees before the light turns brilliant white is his reflection in the polished armor of the soldiers:

Zuko is not Zuko: he is an older girl, wearing green robes -- chin lifted defiantly in the face of death.

“Prince Zuko!” Iroh catches him around the middle and then laughs, waving to Ozai. “Still has his sea legs, I’m afraid!”

Ozai’s lip curls in displeasure, but Azula giggles a little. Zuko manages a weak smile at his sister, who waves at him happily enough as he reaches the dock. His knees want to give out under the weight of what he just saw (a vision? A daydream that got out of hand? A spirit possessing him briefly?).

“Zuzu!” Azula springs forward and wraps thin arms around his neck. “It’s my birthday!”

“I know, Zuli.” He laughs, and pats her on the back. “Happy birthday.”

“Did you bring me a gift?”

“We brought you eight .” Zuko is proud to report this to his little sister.

Satisfied, Azula steps back and bounces on the balls of her feet, hands folded behind her back.

Zuko looks up at his father and swallows nervously, sinking into a low bow, a sign of full deference. He holds the position for five full seconds before his father allows him to stand.

“Prince Zuko. Lady Ursa.” Zuko straightens up and sees his mother doing the same next to him.

He doesn’t think it’s his imagination that makes his father speak so much softer to his mother.

“You have been missed,” Ozai murmurs to Ursa, who bows her head with a smile that doesn’t reach her eyes. “Let us return to the palace.”

Azula and Zuko share a palanquin, riding behind their parents. Azula chatters aimlessly about how many forms she’s learned -- fourteen! -- and Zuko answers her questions about his own bending abruptly. She sighs when he doesn’t talk much and settles for resting her feet in his lap.

It’s only affection that keeps him from shoving them off of him.

As they near the palace, her incessant chatter slips past his vague enjoyment of being near his sister, and he catches, “but of course you shouldn’t upset Father, or he’ll really show you what real firebending is-”

“What?” Zuko sits up straight, an alarm ringing in his head. “What does that mean?”

“Oh, Zuzu.” Azula pats his head disdainfully. “I knew you wouldn’t understand; you don’t have that killer instinct real Firebenders need.”

His eyes smart with tears - she’s noticed then, that he isn’t a good Firebender. She’s only seen him firebend twice and she already knows.

“Explain then.” He scowls at her, and Azula sighs and rolls back her sleeve:

What he sees makes him want to vomit.

“I spoke out of turn to Father in front of Grandfather,” Azula says casually, flipping her scarred forearm back and forth. It’s a thin line, wrapped around her almost like a bracelet would. Small, well-healed. But a scar. “Father said he would remind me of the importance of respect for power, and -- hey!”

Zuko had grabbed Azula’s arm as she was speaking.

“What is this?” He seethes. “Azula, this is wrong.

“No it isn’t.” She tries to snatch her hand away, but Zuko holds on tighter, tears in his eyes. “I had to learn a lesson, and I’m sure you will too, every one agrees that you lack the discipline needed to--”

“I don’t care,” Zuko says harshly. “I don’t care about that - are you okay?”

“Just as weak as mother, then,” Azula sniffs.

Zuko sniffs too, and a tear falls onto Azula’s surely sore arm. 

She finally snatches her arm away from him when he goes to wipe his eyes, muttering about snivelling and princeliness, but Zuko glances over one last time before she yanks her sleeve down.

He knows the sight of his sister, burned and branded by their father, will haunt him the rest of his life.

Zuko does not return to Ember Island.

His mother has been missed too much by Prince Ozai, but it’s Azula whispering to him that they want another baby just in case, well, you know, Zuzu, they just want another good Firebender that makes him realize that this is his fault.

Zuko keeps his head bowed and only speaks when spoken to. He rarely bends in public, only when it is absolutely necessary to prove himself a bender. His only friend is his sister, and she grows less friendly by the day.

He retreats often to the garden with his mother where he sits with his legs folded the way a kind guard back on Ember Island, a guard with grey eyes and strange tattoos that he kept hidden, had shown him. There, he feeds turtleducks, and bends warm fires in pretty patterns for his mother to admire and clap for.

Once, Azula catches him, and she cartwheels over to him in interest: it’s been a year since his return. She is nine now, and whispers have begun that she is, perhaps, more naturally powerful than even the Dragon of the West.

Zuko is eleven, and he understands the whispers about him are much different.

That day, she stands on her hands and frowns at him before flipping forward. “I didn’t know you could do that,” she says, half-petulant, half-curious.

Ursa stiffens on the bench and watches them warily; Azula doesn’t take her eyes off of Zuko’s hands which had just been wreathed in flame.

“I’ve been working on it,” Zuko says carefully. “To … maybe show Father.”

“It’s certainly pretty.” Azula tilts her head, her speech pattern already more mature than his own. It probably has something to do with her being invited to war councils at their father’s side.

Zuko can’t help but notice that she still wears long sleeves.

“But, you need to do something with more …. Power. ” Azula sighs in exasperation when Zuko doesn’t respond, his frown saying enough about his blank confusion. “Like this.”

She twists her hands and creates a series of rings more or less like the flowers of flame Zuko had conjured for their mother minutes ago -- but then she ejects them, harshly, towards the pond, scattering the turtle ducks and causing them to scream in alarm.

“Stop it!” Zuko shouts, lunging forward. “Azula, stop!

“They’re just birds.” Azula’s frown is audible as he crouches over the pond, trying to lift a turtleduckling with a singed wing. A few feet away, the mother of the babies honks in terror. “Honestly, Zuzu, you’re so soft-”

“That’s enough, Azula.” Ursa speaks harshly, and when Zuko turns around, still cradling the injured baby to his chest, he sees Azula’s head bowed, shame warring with fury in her face. “They’re innocent, and Zuko’s correct to protect them. Power does not give anyone the right to hurt other things simply because they can! To do so lacks honor.”

“Careful, mother.” Azula stares at her mother eerily. “That sounds like treason.”

Ursa turns paler than snow, a thing Zuko has seen precisely zero times in real life, and clears her throat delicately. “We’re talking about turtleducks, sweetie,” Ursa says stiffly, “Not people.”

“I see.” Azula pivots and flips backwards. “And I’m bored.”

She disappears from the courtyard, and Ursa comes to kneel next to Zuko at the water’s edge. Her hand is soft on his back, and Zuko notices she knees down slower than normal, her other hand at her stomach.

“What’s wrong, Mom?” Zuko asks, worry flaring in his tummy.

“I’m just … worried about your sister,” Ursa admits, her eyes flitting to the small, injured bird in Zuko’s hands.

“No. Your st--” Zuko looks and then his eyes widen in realization. “Oh, wow.”

“You’ve noticed then?” Ursa laughs, but it’s a pained one. “Yes, I look forward to blessing the Fire Lord, long may he reign, with another grandchild.”

Zuko nods, but he still feels strangely sick. Part of it is jealousy: if his mom has another baby, she won’t be able to spend time with him. Uncle Iroh’s been away for six months, and his father barely looks at him. It will be Zuko, alone.

Part of it is something else. Azula’s whispers hinted to him that they were only asked to stay here so his father could have another child. Somehow, it makes him sick to think that his mother might only exist here, here where they feel strangely unsafe, so that she can do that for his father.

He steels himself and looks up at his mom with what he hopes is a brave smile. “I’ll help you,” he declares, “with the baby. However I can.”

Ursa looks oddly touched, almost like she might cry. She kisses his forehead and holds him tightly for a moment. 

“I believe you,” she murmurs to Zuko. “Of course you’ll help me.”

The duckling flaps against his hands, and Zuko’s still smiling proudly for having said the right thing when he lowers the injured bird to the water.

He holds onto it for an extra beat of time, focusing on the injury, what feels like a wound of its own growing in his heart. The water feels strange over his hands, suddenly, and an not-intense, but-still-bright flare of light rises --

And the duckling scoots towards its mother, its wing entirely intact.

“What?” Zuko whispers, frowning in shock. 

His mother cries freely now, but he can’t see, still confused. She kisses his head again, his black hair soaking in saltwater.

“You’ll help everyone,” Ursa whispers, and they stay by the pond for silent, unbroken moments.

When his mother is seven months pregnant, Zuko makes a terrible, terrible error.

He thinks he’s alone. He thinks he’s alone, and he’s laughing as he runs along a wall in an enclosed courtyard, kicking fire into the air and giggling when he swoops and dodges the smoke that rises up from the water. 

Perhaps it’s his laughter that draws the unwanted eyes.

He couldn’t have known that the courtyard he snuck into was the one favored by the Fire Lord. He couldn’t have: he’s only seen Azulon twice in his life, after all.

But Zuko kicks fire into the air, and then, glancing around far too briefly, he scoots through the steam on a small cloud of air, and laughing, twirls back down safely to earth before springing up again, towards the sky. 

His mother receives a summons to tea with Azulon that afternoon.

Before she leaves, she asks him to burn the paper the summons came on, and she holds his face in her hands for a long moment.

“You are,” she whispers fiercely to him, the smell of jasmine surrounding him, “the best thing I have ever done. I love you more than the sun and all the world. Do you know this?”

“I know it,” Zuko responds, wanting to cry too. He puts his hands on her round stomach and smiles up at her. “And I love you too. Both of you!”

He’s become more optimistic about the idea of another sibling. 

Ursa weeps quietly as she holds her son, and then she sends him off with a team of attendants and guards on an errand of ‘utmost importance’ that turns out to be picking out new tea leaves for Uncle.

When Zuko returns, the palace is in chaos, and he’s immediately swept off his feet to a secured room.

The Fire Lord is dead. And Lady Ursa is gone.

Uncle Iroh visits the second he returns. He comes to sit on Zuko’s bed, Zuko who’s wrapped around a stuffed turtleduck that’s seen more tears than air recently, and puts a warm hand on Zuko’s back as he sobs.

“Where is she?” Zuko demands, sitting up. It feels like he can’t pull enough air into his lungs. “What happened?” Ducking his head, he wipes at his eyes as his uncle lets him cry, and he eventually admits his weakest fear: “What’s going to happen to me ?”

“Nothing is going to happen to you, Prince Zuko,” Iroh says solemnly. 

A thought occurs to Zuko, and, hiccuping, he tries to bow while sitting in bed. “Fire Lord,” he chokes out, “I’m so sorry, Uncle, I didn’t think-”

“No.” Iroh’s hands catch his shoulders and push him upright. “I will not take the throne.”

“Wh-what?” Zuko sniffs and wipes his face. “I don’t understand-”

“It seems my father told the Sages my brother should be Fire Lord,” Iroh says calmly without a hint of anger. “And, given my … behavior of late, they agreed that the more honorable choice would be Ozai. It was a decision I agreed with.”

“But.” Zuko shakes his head, too surprised to keep crying. “You’re the most honorable man I know, Uncle.”

He blanches when he realizes he had spoken treason: Uncle Iroh’s gaze is assessing, heavy, but not judgemental.

When Iroh speaks, his voice is as cracked as his favorite tea cup.

“I hope to one day earn such praise,” Iroh says, and shocks Zuko further by bowing to him. “Especially from one as kind-hearted and good as you, Prince Zuko.”

“But,” he continues, guiding Zuko to lay back down and handing him his turtleduck, “for now, we will work on getting through each day. Together.”

“Together,” Zuko whispers, eyes drifting shut as he falls asleep, soothed by his uncle’s appearance.

Iroh does not move from his nephew’s side. He will not, for many years to come.

The next two or so years are marked by sickness.

Every time Zuko thinks he has beaten his strange disease - headaches, bouts of exhaustion, vague nausea - the world tilts on its axis again. Healers come in, even from the colonies, but Zuko remains ill, and his father’s lip curls further.

Zuko hates it. Not only does he feel weak (he can’t even bend, for Agni’s Sake!), his illness also means that it’s Azula who’s pushed more and more to the front of national attention.

It’s wonderful for her pride, which means it is terrible for everything else.

When Zuko is hobbling around the palace at age thirteen, he catches sight of Azula sobbing her heart out in front of a statue of Fire Lord Sozin, their great-grandfather.  

“Azula?” He asks, his voice hoarse and ravaged from his many sore throats the last two years. His cane shakes a little in his hand. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing!” She shouts, standing quickly, dashing tears out of her eyes. “Leave me alone!” 

The votive candles flare warningly behind her. 

“Do you want to …. Talk about it?” He’d been so exhausted the moment before he found his sister, but Zuko feels more alert now, his old spirit stirring beneath his skin. 

“Why would I want to talk to a  - a - a- pathetic little invalid like you?” Azula sneers, blue flames licking around her fingers.

Zuko swallows and nods, shamed thoroughly by his weakness. Which was her intent, of course.

But, she sinks to her knees and weeps bitterly more, and Zuko’s heart can’t take the sight.

“Stand up,” he urges her, “Stand up, before F-father sees, or-”

“Or what?” Azula snaps. “A Sage? A servant? So they can see me and know that I-I’m weak too?”

“You aren’t weak.” Zuko’s exhausted again, and he sinks to the stone bench in the alcove. “But you’re right. I am.”

Azula cries and then claps her hands to her ears, shaking her head. “No you aren’t,” she sobs, “You aren’t, y-you’re my brother-”

“‘I’m that too,” Zuko says, laughing at the cobblestones. “I guess you have a little bad luck after all.”

Her tears slow and she hiccups a laugh, looking up at him. “Luck.” She shakes her head. “...Luck.”

Zuko offers her a crooked smile, but Azula groans and gets to her feet, offering him a small, delicate hand. He takes it and stands shakily. 

“I don’t think our family has any luck left,” Azula whispers to him, some kind of gear whirring in her mind as she stares over his shoulder. 

He doesn’t believe that she’s younger than him sometimes.

“I think it does,” Zuko disagrees. “And you’re going to get all of it.”

“Maybe.” Azula lifts a shoulder in disinterest. “Hey, wanna boss around those jerk guards out front?”

Her eyes are sparkling, and even if it's from malice, it’s such a welcome change from her bawling that Zuko agrees with a smile.

To his intense surprise, when he’s watching her unload fruit pies onto the heads of unsuspecting dignitaries, Zuko laughs at her slightly evil glee and feels his fingertips glowing with a heat that he’d almost forgotten.

Maybe he can still bend, after all.

Everything falls apart, once and for all, when Zuko is fourteen.

His father invites him to a war council. 

Azula whispers to him not to talk, only to agree when spoken to, but he can’t help it.

“Those men are our people !” He shouts, standing and facing a general he barely knows the name of. “You’re sending them to die! That’s wrong .”

“Shut your mouth, boy .”

In that moment, Azula risks everything by tugging at the edge of his tunic. He glances down at her and sees terror in her eyes, even if her face is oddly still, impassive, cold.

“I will not.” Zuko stands tall, holding his chin high. This would make his uncle proud. This would make his mother proud. This would make Azula see that things could be different.

“Our soldiers trust us,” Zuko says evenly, pulling from a strange well of strength inside him, one that’s become easier to tap into now that his sicknesses are fewer and farther between. “And if we do this, they’ll no longer trust us. What good is an army that can’t trust its leaders? Leaders with no honor?”

A subdued gasp goes around the room, and the general smirks, and glances through the flames that surround the Fire Lord.

“Are you commenting on honor, Prince Zuko?” the general sneers.

“I am.” Zuko balls his hands into fists. At his feet, Azula stays seated and starts to punch his ankle rapidly, trying to get his attention. He ignores her. 

“I challenge you to an Agni Kai,” Zuko says proudly.

At sunset, he realizes his error when his father steps out before the crowd, taking his ceremonial cloak off.

“No,” Zuko whispers, eyes wide in panic. He can’t fight his father, he can’t, he can’t he can’t do this he can’t -

He looks out into the spectators and sees Azula sitting with mild interest in her expression, even if her eyes are glazed over.

He sees his uncle, shoulders slumped. Zuko stares at him, not knowing what to do, and he puts his hands up in a defensive position as the Sages read out the traditional rites to begin an Agni Kai.

Zuko does not want to be here. 

Iroh catches his eye, and with great, profound sorrow, shakes his head once. Barely. But he does.

Hide your bending, his mother had whispered to him, even before the sicknesses, before she disappeared. Don’t let them see -

“I won’t fight you!” Zuko declares, lowering his hands when the Sages call on him to greet his opponent.

Zuko kneels, respectfully. “I beg your forgiveness, Father.” Zuko presses his forehead to the stones. “I never meant to insult you, Lord Ozai.”

“Stand and fight me, you pathetic, snivelling brat!”

His father’s voice is almost as unfamiliar as a stranger’s, but the coldness of it bleeds through Zuko’s skin and aches worse than a burn could.

Zuko sits up, crying already and shakes his head. “I can’t fight you!” He shouts. “I won’t! You’re my father, and I love you!”

Ozai snarls and lifts a hand of fire to Zuko’s face, gripping his shoulder tightly so he can’t flinch away. 

He’s told, later, that Azula didn’t look away. 

He’s told, later, that Iroh did.

All Zuko can think about before his mind is entirely lost to the pain is how he was wrong: something could hurt worse than his father’s disapproval.

The next few days are a blur. He spends most of the time unconscious.

His father never comes to visit. His uncle never leaves his side.

Zuko experiences strange, terrifying dreams: a warlord falling to the ocean, a sea cut in half, a volcano hardened by love and hatred in equal measure, broken bodies in yellow robes.

The skin around his eye becomes severely infected, so much so that he nearly dies.

Iroh is alone with Zuko at the height of his fever, wiping his nephew’s brow with ice water, humming and sobbing in turns; his uncle gives him sips of broth and tea when Zuko is awake enough to do anything with his mouth, but the pain is so terrible that he sobs and begs for death more than once.

He is quiet when death nearly fulfills that request.

Iroh closes his eyes and begs the spirits not to take the prince, to spare him, to let him become who he was meant to be --

Zuko is gripped further by dreams, now visions of him running through smoke, listening to a girl he doesn’t know cry for him, listening to a boy he doesn’t know shout his name, listening to Azula begging and sobbing for his father to stop yelling at her, to stop hurting her, and fury settles deep into his bones, fury and an intense drive to defend, to help, to protect.

And then the worst, the best, happens.

Zuko’s eyes, ruined and unruined, glow with an unnatural white light. His lungs, traumatized by the injury and the following shock, fill with air; the water from the basin behind Iroh lifts and twists around the boy, glowing over his horrible wound and sealing the worst of it, cleansing it of infection.

Zuko is no longer Zuko as he lifts from the bed, hovering an inch or two above it; fire glows from his fingertips and burning away the cruel smell in the air. Iroh kneels fully, head pressed to the ground, as his nephew is nearly consumed by the Avatar State.

It is over as soon as it begins, and Zuko collapses to the mattress, Iroh diving to catch him just in time.

His fever is broken, and Iroh sobs in gratitude and terror.

Hundreds, thousands of miles away in every conceivable direction, sages and priests and soldiers and acolytes all shout in alarm (or joy or fear or rage or confusion or shock) as the temples for the Avatar are lit by the glow that promise one, undeniable truth:

Despite the best efforts of the Fire Nation, the Avatar has returned.

Twelve year old children, especially girls, should not take out an umiak by themselves. It is a traditional rite of passage for boys to sail in them as part of their rites of passage into adulthood; at most, girls might help build the umiaks, but they are not meant to sail in them, alone, under the stars.

But Katara, last Waterbender in the South, has never been any good at tradition.

“South,” she whispers to herself, jaw set stubbornly. “South, south, south-” 

Eventually, she hits a strange crop of land, and judging by the map she had created based on the legends, she’s pretty sure this is it.

She’s been sailing for three days straight now: Sokka’s probably looking for her. She’s definitely going to be in trouble when she gets back.

Katara stows the guilt away and pulls the umiak on land, grunting in exertion before she settles it safely out of the water.

Then, she turns and gasps in shock, taking in the sight before her.

The lights dance in the sky, the stars brighter than ever now that she can see straight out ahead of her. A tangle of frozen trees loom before her, and she can hear the distant swirl of wind and ice and snow.

The South Pole.

Katara shivers and shakes out her hands before walking forward, ready at any moment for what might appear from the forest. All that surrounds her is mist, and Katara releases her breath in controlled puffs, the air from her lungs turning to crystal.

Birdcalls, foreign and terrifying, erupt around her, but Katara keeps walking. She’s been having visions of this place for three years now: the spiritual center of the South, a week’s journey from her people. She’s come so far, and she will not back down to any spirit, bird, or creature that tries to tear her away from this.

“Why did you call me here, Spirits?” Katara asks after she’s walked through the forest for an hour. Sighing, she puts her hands on her hips and frowns into the mist, not unlike the way she frowns at her brother. “Why am I here?”


She gasps, spinning, her heart pounding. “Mom?” She shouts back, wondering if this is a cruel trick. 

Kya is nowhere to be seen, and Katara’s breath catches painfully in her chest as she weeps. “Mom?” She shouts again, choked with still-powerful sadness. The last five years have not been easy on her, or her brother, with their father so far away. And now, the voice of her mother, clearer than any of her faded memories:

It’s too much.

Perhaps this is what Gran-Gran warned her about, the spirits making painful offers that were hard to ignore.

“Mom? Mommy!” Katara’s nerves are frayed, and she swallows her panic. She isn’t a little girl anymore. She’s twelve. She can do this.

There’s movement in the corner of her eye, and Katara spins to face it. She gasps and half-screams, slapping a gloved hand to her mouth to muffle the sound.

Someone larger than her, wearing Fire Nation robes.

“Why are you here?” She snarls, marching forward, hands in fists. “This place is ours, get out of here!”

The man -- no, boy -- doesn't seem to hear her.

Katara frowns. “Are you lost? Huh?” She demands, hands on her hips again. “Who are you?”

The mist clears slightly, and she sees that he wears a crown of flame in his long, dark hair. He half-turns towards her when she calls out one more time, and she gasps, this time in shock and not fear.

She can only see the left-side of his face, as he’s only half-turned towards her. His face is horrifically scarred, darker around the eye, a flame of gnarled tissue that stretches to his ear.

“What happened to you?” Katara asks, stomach roiling with nausea. He doesn’t seem violent, but she’s still on edge. Still, her healer instincts kick in and cause her to ask, “You … your face -- are you okay?”

His scarred lip lifts in an approximation of a smile, his ruined cheek barely moving. To her intense shock, he raises his hand and offers it to her.

“Katara,” the ghost whispers in a raspy voice. 

“Who are you?” Katara demands, the wind kicking up snow and flecks of ice once more, wrapping around her and this specter. The figure doesn’t move, his hand still extended between them. “What do you want from me?”

“I need you,” the wind whispers; the boy’s face doesn’t move. “Find me.”

“Where are you?” She frowns and stretches out a hand against her better judgement, thinking back to Gran-Gran’s stories about girls and evil spirits. Half-expecting to be pulled into the Spirit World the second she touches him, Katara still can’t beat her overriding instinct to offer help to anyone who needs it. 

This might be her test, and Gran-Gran urged her to listen to her heart when confronted with any test by the spirits: failure, to Katara, would be to ignore him or anyone who needed her.

When her glove rests in his hand, he makes no sudden movement. It’s strange to touch him - he doesn’t feel like anything, except maybe the heat of the sun at midsummer. He is all flame, but not form.

As she wonders at the heat of him, his face slowly turns until she sees the full shape of it.

Spirits . He’s handsome - in his unmaimed eye, she can see that the color is golden. His hair is dark, but his skin is oddly pale, paler than any she’s seen, nearly as pale as the snow that whips around them.

“Katara,” he says one last time, a fondness in his face that makes her chest ache.

And then he fades into ice and snow, and Katara is left alone in the spirit wilds with nothing but a thousand questions and the distant memory of warmth in her palm.

Chapter Text

Five weeks after the Agni Kai, Zuko leaves Caldera City. 

There are no attendants. There are sparse witnesses. 

Two dozen soldiers, six guards, and his uncle: that is all the company Zuko is to have as his father sends him on a bizarre quest. 

Find the Avatar.

His uncle bows his head as he explains to Zuko the terms of his banishment: he can either fight his father again and try to win -- by burning Ozai before he can burn Zuko -- or, he can leave Caldera City and discover the Avatar, wherever he or she is hiding.

“I thought.” Zuko’s throat is too dry to speak; he shakes his head, pain throbbing behind his left eye. 

Iroh dabs a sponge of water on Zuko’s lips until he can talk again. Every healer who has been allowed to examine him has said the same thing: Zuko’s vocal cords, already damaged by his mystery illnesses, were irreparably traumatized in the Agni Kai.

(Iroh does not tell Zuko this, but it was Zuko’s screams that had destroyed his voice, not the fire itself)

“I thought,” Zuko tries again, now that he has moisture in him, “That the Avatar was destroyed. Years ago.”

“No, Prince Zuko.” It will take months, but Zuko will eventually learn that only his uncle will call him by his title after his banishment. “It was believed that your grandfather had succeeded in wiping out the Avatar after the Great Sacrifice.”

Zuko stares listlessly at the blank obsidian walls of his recovery room. He does not think of the weight of sacrifice. He does not think of fire.

Iroh wipes a cool cloth on the non-bandaged half of Zuko’s face and continues. “But, while you were … unconscious, it appears that there was interesting activity at the temples dedicated to the Avatar. It would seem that he or she still exists, and can access the Avatar State.”

“Avatar State?” Zuko frowns and shakes his head, his attention slipping as he tries not to focus on the still nauseating pain. “I don’t know what that is.”

“I will explain that to you Zuko,” Iroh says gently, pulling the covers up to Zuko’s chest. His nephew is already falling asleep. Iroh’s whispers go unheard. “I will explain everything to you, when we are gone.”

Before Zuko is even fully healed, they board a ship that operates under the false pretense of Zuko’s command -- he is in charge of the maps, of connecting barely present dots. At age fourteen, he is in charge of this mad chase around the world. But, he knows Iroh is there for a reason, and he assumes it’s to set them on track, should he fail his father again.

They set course for the Colonies immediately because Zuko thinks that if the Great Sacrifice had not worked, they should start there. It was easier, after all, for the Throne to be more thorough in the capitol. The Colonies might have been tempted to hide their children.

He sets his hands on the railing and tries not to focus on the constant throb of pain in what’s left of his eye. 

“Uncle,” Zuko asks, staring out at the water with his undamaged eye. “The Avatar, if he is of the Fire Nation … he -- or she -- they would be my age, correct?”

Iroh is quiet for a long moment, and guards and soldiers shift to their next stations at the changing of the hour.

“Yes, Prince Zuko.” Iroh speaks softly.

“I hope they are Fire Nation,” Zuko says grimly. He can feel his uncle stiffen beside him.

“You would accept bringing a boy -- or girl -- of your own nation before your father for trial? Imprisonment?” Iroh is getting more and more worked up. “Even execution?”

“The Avatar is not of any nation, really,” Zuko muses. He thinks of stories his mother told him of her distant relative, an uncle twice or removed or something, who was Avatar Roku, a kind and just man by her account, if not by the history of the Fire Nation. 

Iroh falls silent at his side before Zuko adds, “But no. I would rather bring that upon someone my age than … a child.”

“What do you mean, Prince Zuko?”

Zuko watches improbable shapes form in the water; if he looks at the currents long enough, he can imagine the way the water moves against itself, with itself, back and forth under the ship, entirely uninterested in how they sail across it. He feels small next to the ocean, small under the light of the moon. 

It’s to the reflection of the moon on the surface of the sea that Zuko explains himself. 

“If the Great Sacrifice worked, then the Avatar appeared in the Air Nation. If there aren’t Air Nomads left -- and there shouldn’t be because of Fire Lord Sozin -- then the Avatar would have gone to Water, then Earth.” He grips the railing tighter. “If that took a long time, then … then an Avatar from the Earth Kingdom might be a child, and anything the Sages saw at the temple would be because of the birth of the new Avatar.”

Zuko shakes his head. “I'm not as strong as my father. I couldn’t kill a child.”

Iroh appears to weigh what to say next, but Zuko discovers he doesn’t want to hear it.

“I’m tired,” Zuko rasps, releasing the railing. “Goodnight, Uncle.”

Iroh watches his nephew stumble, half-blind across the deck. His shoulder knocks into the side of the door when he reaches the stairwell belowdecks. It would be funny, to watch the once-Crown Prince fumble around like a newborn catdeer.

Except it isn’t funny. Not at all.

The Dragon of the West returns to staring at the water, and he wonders, not for the first time, if his nephew will ever forgive him when he learns the truth.

Zuko is called to Iroh’s rooms after their search of the Fire Colonies proves fruitless. They had changed out the guards and soldiers at Ember Island, at least, and Zuko now recognizes some faces from his childhood.

They, however, cannot recognize his face anymore, and he’s met with more than one stricken expression when they see the mark of his shame. Zuko gives up on his brief hope that someone from those happier days might be near him, his hope that a little piece of his mother -- who had known all those who worked for them on Ember Island -- might be with him again.

It hurts to talk to people who can’t look him in the face. So, he stops talking to anyone but his uncle and dedicates himself to his studies. After weeks of reading and studying, Zuko goes to Iroh’s rooms, expecting a lecture.

He does get one, but not on furthering his journey of disappointment: no, instead, he gets scrolls in foreign languages, maps he can barely read.

“What is this?” He asks, poking at sharp letters which appear to be carved into hide.

“The script of the Water Tribe,” Iroh answers, pouring them both some tea. “You need to learn it, as the future Fire Lord.”

“Why would I need to learn how peasants write?” Zuko snaps. His eye hurts particularly worse than normal tonight, probably because the bandages had come off, and the exposure to light had strained the muscles of his ruined eye.

He doesn’t correct his uncle’s incorrect suggestion that Zuko might be Fire Lord one day. Zuko understands, six months into his journey, that he is not meant to return from this quest.

“The Water Tribe are not peasants,” Iroh corrects gently. “Their culture is different to ours, but important to study. They can be valuable allies, with significant exports and contributions to-”

Zuko stares at the scroll blankly until Iroh gives up and sighs, beginning instead an oral history of the Water Tribe with creation stories and belief systems. This captures his attention more than straining his eye, and he listens with enough interest to encourage his uncle to talk for a long time.

“I thought they were backwards,” Zuko admits after the candles have gone down three marks on their holders. “The Water Tribe.”


“That’s why I called them … peasants.” He coughs, slightly embarrassed. “I know there is no shame in being a peasant. The land must be worked, crops must grow. Someone needs to do the work. It’s good that the Water Tribe people are dedicated to their land.”

“That is true, Prince Zuko. But the Water Tribe has their own systems of government and leadership, as we’ve just discussed. A set economy, established property laws, tax laws, commerce systems. Why, the cultures between the North and the South are as different as night and day. Their society simply looks different than ours. To paint them all with the same brush would be a gross disservice to their way of life.”

“Why wasn’t their military powerful?” Zuko asks, frowning, recalling a lecture he’d received two years ago in the capitol. “They hid during the invasion thirty-two years ago.”

“They were not hiding.” Iroh shakes his head, a sorrow in his eyes. “They… the warriors chose to protect what was important, but the Fire Nation had … resources they did not. When they realized it would be fruitless to continue fighting, half their forces retreated to the villages to try and … protect their most important resource.”

“Were you there?” Zuko asks, suddenly much more interested. “What was their important resource?” 

He’s always loved stories of his uncle’s time as a war hero. His mind goes to gold, to oil, to ancient secrets of the spirit world -- Zuko waits anxiously for his uncle to answer, but he takes his time to speak again.

“No, I was not.” Iroh clears his throat and finishes his tea. He stares at the bottom of the cup and will not meet Zuko’s gaze. “And that is all a story for another time, Prince Zuko.”

After exile, and after years of weathering his father’s hatred of him, Zuko knows a dismissal when he sees one. 

“Goodnight, Uncle.” He bows and stands.

As the door closes behind him, Zuko hears, “....Goodnight, nephew.”

Two months into their winding journey through various island chains off the coast of the Earth Kingdom, Zuko asks his uncle, not for the first time, if they should go to the South Pole. 

They’ve exhausted their leads everywhere else, and they’ve been at sea for over a year. Zuko is fifteen now, closer to sixteen. He is tired. He wants to go home.

“No, nephew.” Iroh hums and prepares tea while Zuko anxiously runs his fingers along the bald section of his scalp. “I do not think it wise.”

“Why not?” Zuko snaps. “You just don’t want me to find the Avatar! Is that it?”

Anxiety has also made him impatient: impatient to return home, to see his father, to see Azula, who was banned from seeing him after his failure.

He never said goodbye to her. Selfishly, he sometimes lets himself imagine that she might miss him.

As though anyone could.

“Calm yourself, Prince Zuko,” Iroh says sternly. Zuko exhales, irate. 

“You might find that the people at the South Pole would be even less happy than those in the colonies to see a Fire Nation ship.”

Zuko considers this: the citizens of the colonies hadn’t precisely cheered for them, but most of the vendors they spoke to as they traveled through towns had at least seemed happy about the business. He could tell people had stared at them, but he had figured it had to do with the horror of his face more than anything else.

“What have you learned, in our studies of Water, Earth, and Air?”

“I’ve learned a lot,” Zuko grits out. “I learned that they did not want to be part of my great-grandfather’s vision for--”

“No, Prince Zuko. What of the truth have you learned?”

His stomach twists at the implication in his uncle’s voice; but, he’s had a year of Iroh’s strange lessons, a year of squinting at the square shapes of the Earth Kingdom -- very similar to the Fire Nation’s script -- the twists and whirls of the Air Nomads, the limited carvings of the Water Tribe, who were primarily reliant on oral storytelling for much of their cultural history.

He thinks about the lessons he learned from the tutors hired by his father; he thinks about the dark days of the war, helped along by Azulon and Ozai’s conquests. He thinks about it, even though he does not like to think about it. His eye begins to ache.

“I learned that,” Zuko swallows, “there is more than one way to look at history. That … the Fire Nation teaches us about the good things, but not … the bad ones?”

“The Fire Nation has a gift for turning bad things into good ones, when it suits them,” Iroh corrects, and Zuko stiffens.

“Uncle,” He hisses, “That’s treason.”

“Is it?” Iroh hands him a cup of tea, unbothered, and Zuko feels a twitch building in his cheek. 

“As I was saying, it would not be wise to go to the South Pole. The last several times the FIre Nation appeared on their shores, it was to raid …” Iroh seems to be steeling himself for something, and Zuko frowns, his flare of panic forgotten. “And to destroy.”

“Destroy?” Zuko repeats. “Well, they wouldn’t surrender.”

“Zuko.” Iroh so rarely drops Zuko’s title from his address, that it immediately causes anxiety to rise in his stomach. “They did surrender.”

“What?” Zuko feels hot around his ears. “If they surrendered -- what, at the last invasion?”

“The first one,” Iroh admits sadly. 

“But -” Zuko stands, shakily and begins to pace. “If that’s true, then the invasion of 16 AC--”

“Unlawful,” Iroh confirms.

“And the second major invasion, 21 AC?”

“Also unlawful.”

Zuko spins on his heel and drags his hands along his bare scalp. “25 AC? 30, 35?”

“All unlawful.”

“The last one.” Zuko licks his lip and frowns, turning to look at his uncle, trying not to be ill. “The last one, Uncle, in 41 -- not even seven years ago - that was the last one…. Right?” He’s in doubt of everything now. 

To fight an enemy that has surrendered seems to be beyond dishonorable.

“Correct.” Iroh watches him warily. “They had … succeeded in your grandfather’s quest.”

“Which was -- to find the Avatar? To take something?” Zuko demands, and for a moment Iroh says nothing. “Answer me!” He shouts, and for a moment he swears he sees the candles flicker.

But -- no. That’s his imagination, or it’s his uncle growing upset with his insolence. 

Zuko has not been able to bend fire since the Agni Kai.

“The quest to … destroy the last Waterbender of the south,” Iroh admits, and Zuko feels a horrific tug, somewhere in his spine, behind his stomach.

He tilts to the side, feeling cold all at once. “What?” He asks.

The world seems to dim around him, and he sees his uncle stand and cross the room to him.

“Prince Zuko, calm down,” his uncle pleads, “You need to calm down.”

His eye is screaming in pain again -- but not his eye. His entire body is on fire, and Zuko gasps for breath, fury beating in every inch of his body.

“Breathe.” Iroh rubs his shoulder, and Zuko focuses on that physical point. His breathing slows. “Breathe in, Prince Zuko, in, then out. Calm yourself.”

After he’s settled and the world looks clearer again, Iroh gets Zuko back on a cushion and hands him a teacup. “Drink,” is the only order he’s given, and Zuko does so.

Zuko figures that he’d nearly fainted, like he had when he was a sick child. He doesn’t want to dwell on it.

But, his mind can’t escape the questions, and as soon as he can, he returns to them.

“How did they insure w-wiping out the Waterbenders?” 

“I do not know if now is the best time to-”

“There won’t be a best time,” Zuko says dully. “How did they do it.”

“They removed any who showed the promise of bending, or who had strong parents,” Iroh says carefully. “And … executed them.”

“Execution.” Zuko scoffs, if only so he won’t spit. “Execution implies they did something wrong. But they didn’t … did they? The stories about the attempts on Azulon’s life. The stories about the raids on the colonies. They’re fake, aren’t they?”

Iroh says nothing.

“And the Air Nomads. Agni!” He curses suddenly, tugging at his phoenix tail. “It’s in their name . They were peaceful, weren’t they? And how many times did they surrender?”

Another thought occurs to him. “How many children?”


“How. Many. Children.”

The Great Sacrifice. It had been taught to him and Azula as just that: a voluntary sacrifice. The men and women of the Fire Nation, giving up their children to insure peace and prosperity for their people. 

But that was wrong.

It was all so - wrong.

Iroh doesn’t answer, which speaks volumes of the truth.

“Why didn’t I die?” Zuko asks, something painful slipping into place. “The Great Sacrifice was nearly sixteen years ago. Around the time that I was born -- why didn’t I die?”

“There were records of your birth,” Iroh says carefully, “Your father and grandfather did not believe you were in danger of being--”

“Stop lying to me!” Zuko seethes, the world glowing strangely again. “Tell me the truth -- why didn’t I die? Any child under three months, that was the decision--”

“I stopped them,” Iroh admits at last, looking, for once, every one of his years. His shoulders sag. “After I lost my beloved Lu Ten, I could not bear the thought of your mother--”

“Didn’t you care before then?’

Iroh looks up, stricken, “Of course I did, but then, I was the Dragon-”

“Of the West.” Zuko presses his palms to the table and shakes his head, glaring out of the only eye he can see from. “Why didn’t you care before? Why was it only me that you cared about? What about all the other children that died?” He’s shouting now. “Where is the honor in murdering children?”

The sea roils underneath them, and Zuko swears he can feel every wave that crashes into their ship. “Where is their justice?” Zuko asks faintly.

Iroh sets his jaw. “Prince Zuko, I-” 

“Yeah, yeah. This conversation is better for another time.” Zuko leaps to his feet and stalks to the door. “Goodnight, General Iroh.”

He hears the sharp intake of breath from his uncle as he slams the door, and he feels a sick surge of satisfaction that he was able to hurt Iroh -- someone who had apparently had a hand in hurting so many, innocent lives at that -- with something as simple as a different name.

The feeling does not last.

Zuko reaches his chambers and sits in the dark, seething in what he knows to be righteous fury.

Seething, until his breath catches and he buries his face in his hands and cries angrily for children he never met, children who had died even though someone as worthless as him got to live. Crying doesn’t last either: Zuko switches to ferocious firebending forms, screaming to the empty room when no fire emerges from his feet or hands or mouth.

All he can see are nameless children in front of him whenever he moves to a new form, children’s faces, brown and pale and small and round and long and young, so young, too young, and he feels the heat, smells it, sees it all over again, and it’s like the fire won’t come.

After fifteen minutes of raging and despairing in equal measure, Zuko stands and grabs the knife from his desk, the Earth Kingdom knife that his uncle had given him so proudly, so hopefully, all those years before.

The door opens as Zuko raises the blade.

“Prince Zuko, no !” Iroh shouts in obvious panic, rushing forward.

But he moves too slowly, Zuko slides the blade across his target viciously.

The phoenix tail flutters to the floor.

As Iroh stares at him in shock that looks painfully relieved but also horrified, Zuko hurls the blade at his uncle’s feet. 

“I don’t need either of those anymore,” he snaps, pushing past his uncle without another glance at him. “Or you, for that matter.”

Now that he avoids his uncle, Zuko has no one on the ship he can talk to. He buries himself further in the scrolls he was meant to be studying all along, and tries to piece together history from the language of those they’d conquered or defeated.

A month after his fight with Iroh, Zuko reads a story about an advisor to Azulon who had counseled him by saying “there are hard decisions in war, my Lord, and honor is not always possible,” only to be publicly burned for thinking that any decision made by the Fire Lord could not be honorable.

His fingers trace his scar for hours after he reads that story, and he grows so weary of the split in his head -- was he honorable? Or dishonorable? Had he shamed his father, or defended their people? -- that he climbs into bed hours early, worn down to his core by the thought that maybe the honor he so desperately wanted to be returned was out of his grasp for reasons that were entirely not his fault. 

He doesn’t get out of bed the next morning.

Or the next. Or the one after.

Iroh comes and pleads with him once for half an hour to sit up, to go outside, to eat or drink or do anything besides barely maintain enough nutrients to stay alive, but Zuko closes his eyes and sinks further into his stupor.

He does not emerge from this strange sickness of the spirit for nearly two months; only when the ship docks and the call goes out that they are at land does he shake himself slightly and dress slowly.

If his appearance draws attention from the guards, they say nothing. He’s abandoned his robes, the pins that mark him as royalty, banished or not. He wears simple leggings and a dark red tunic with a belt that holds his dao. His hair has grown in around his scalp, three months worth of it, and Zuko entertains the thought sometimes that it might eventually be long enough to hide his scar.

A foolish thought: nothing could hide how horrific it is. How it marks him as weak, pathetic. 


“Prince Zuko.” 

Iroh greets him calmly at the gangplank as though he hasn’t been in his room for nearly three months. He isn’t even sure why they’re at this island.

“You might be wondering why we are here,” Iroh says. Zuko doesn’t even tilt his head to acknowledge the statement, even if it’s true.

Part of him is ashamed to ignore an elder, one who has always been kind and respectful to him. Then he thinks of the visions that come to him at times, the images of children’s bodies in snow, and he tucks that shame away to fester under all the other layers of shame that compose the core of who he is.

“I will tell you, of course, after we spend an afternoon in meditative relaxation.” Iroh seems unbothered by his lack of response. “Follow me, nephew.”

Zuko walks behind Iroh, hands tucked behind his back as they walk off the gangplank and onto a dock that seems to be made of earth and stone. Perhaps an old Earth Kingdom outpost, Zuko thinks distantly as they walk towards a path set in the hills. Maybe they’re --

He tilts his head back and studies the mountainous terrain, a series of beautiful, odd structures catching his eye.

“What are those buildings?” He asks, his voice rustier than normal from disuse.

“That is the Eastern Air Temple,” Iroh says casually, walking up the path. “I thank you for your time,” he adds to their guards who line the entrance to the path, bowing respectfully to all. “But this is a conversation my nephew and I should have alone.”

“Of course, Master Iroh.”

Zuko frowns at the man who’d spoken: none of their attendants ever address Iroh as General, which has always struck him as odd. He doesn’t expect Iroh to comment on the oddity as they climb the path up through the mountainside -- he doesn’t expect his uncle to say much of anything, though, given the last few months.

But, once they’ve settled in a clearing and Iroh has set up for tea, the pot boiling merrily away, Iroh asks him, “Have you noticed anything about the men and women on the ship, Prince Zuko?”

He almost doesn’t respond, still debating in his head whether or not it’s worth it. “Most used to work for us on Ember Island…” Zuko studies the tea cup Iroh passes him before adding, “They … aren’t Fire Nation. At least. I don’t think most of them are.”

“Some are,” Iroh says calmly, pouring Zuko’s tea. He can’t help the instinctive bow of thanks - it’s too ingrained in him to be overcome by his petulant anger at his uncle. “But most are not.”

“What if I told you that the people working on our ship answered to a call higher than that of the Fire Lord?”

Zuko splutters the small sip of tea he’d managed while his uncle spoke. “Wh-what -- that’s treason, uncle!”

“Is it?” Iroh hums and blows some steam from his tea. “I suppose so.” His expression grows serious as he watches Zuko’s hands clench and unclench. “Nephew, there are parts to my story I have not yet told you that I should now. It is why I have brought you here -- what I am about to tell you might cause further harm to your spirit, and you may need guidance when you learn the whole truth.”

“What can mountains offer as guidance?” Zuko grumbles. He wishes he was still in his bed. He wishes he was back at home. He wishes his mother was here. Or even Azula.

“Not the mountains. The temples. The Eastern Air Temple was thought to be the most spiritual to the Air Nomads who once inhabited it and others like it.”

“Before they were killed,” Zuko says dully. 

His eye hurts. It always hurts, now.

“Before they were killed.” 

Iroh is silent for a moment, and Zuko listens to the way wind plays through the trees. There are birds to the south, and sunlight catches on leaves here and there, a generally golden tone warming the clearing. It’s pretty. And his eye still hurts.

“Whose authority is higher than the Fire Lord?” Zuko asks, his curiosity winding back to that point. 

“They are part of an organization called … the White Lotus.” Iroh stops and looks at him meaningfully, to the point where Zuko wracks his memory for any recollection of the name. He doesn’t find one. The blank must show on his face because Iroh simply continues.

“I have been aware of the White Lotus since … oh, ten years after the destruction of the Air Nomads, ten years after Sozin’s Comet.” Iroh casts his gaze down at the ground. “While I did not participate in their destruction directly as I was a young man -- only slightly older than yourself at the time -- I regret to say that I did not stand in the way of their destruction. 

“My complicity caused me great spiritual anguish. Similar to what you have been feeling these past few years, although my despair was greatly earned.”

“Mine was too,” Zuko mutters, his fingers tracing the edge of his scar.

“Do not think that.” Iroh shakes his head. “One of my greatest failures in the last fifteen years has been allowing you to think such a thing. And, my failures before your birth -- they … haunt me to this day.” 

Iroh bows his head again and falls silent once more. Zuko decides on patience this time -- his curiosity burns at him, but it’s so peaceful here, and in all honesty, despite his lingering anger at his uncle, he has missed talking to Uncle Iroh. Zuko’s been terribly lonely the last few months, even more so than normal.

He wonders if he’ll ever find anyone else he can talk to. A silly thought: no one would want to talk to him, especially not his own age. His friends at the palace had been few and far between, and generally they were more attached to Azula than Zuko: Mai had been funny enough, and Ty Lee had been … weird to the point of interesting, but they were Azula’s friends. 

Zuko had his sister, his mother, his uncle … and that was it. And now, the only one he has is Uncle.

Swallowing his regret, Zuko sees that Uncle is out of tea, and he grabs the pot and clumsily pours him some more, awkwardly handing him the cup. 

“Thank you, nephew.” Iroh’s eyes are still lost, but at least he’s smiling. “You have always been so kind.”

“Kindness isn’t a virtue,” Zuko mutters, setting the pot back down.

“Another regret of mine.” Iroh stares at Zuko until he makes eye contact, which causes him to wince slightly. “Kindness is your greatest strength, Zuko. Your true power.”

You need more power, Azula’s taunting, girlish voice comes through his memory, and Zuko tries to ignore it here in the present.

“Lu Ten was born a year before the Avatar was killed.” Iroh rubs his beard. “A group of soldiers got lucky on the road -- the boy was without his protector, a truly random moment. Avatar Tenzin was killed in the fight, and the cycle continued to the Water Tribe. Tenzin was … fifteen years old. A kind boy, if the stories are true. Funny -- he enjoyed pranks and --”

Zuko’s throat feels oddly tight. A strange taste fills his mouth and he frowns, muttering, “Lychee nuts?” at the sensory memory that comes out of nowhere.

“As a vegetarian, he probably did love them.” Iroh’s gaze is assessing now, and Zuko drinks tea to avoid eye contact, and to clear out the bizarre, random taste from his mouth.

“The White Lotus … was concerned with the death of the young Avatar. But, it was nearly impossible to protect the new Avatar -- they died in the raids on the Southern Water Tribe. They were … ten years old. None present at the massacre even knew which child was the Avatar. The success of the raid was only known when the White Lotus witnessed the signal that the Avatar spirit had passed on to its next vessel.”

“You talk about the White Lotus as though you know them,” Zuko points out, frowning. “And how would they know so much about the Avatar?”

“The White Lotus exists to serve the Avatar, and all four nations.” Iroh weighs his next words heavily. “And after I learned of the massacre of the Water Tribe, I … returned to the army and led my father’s forces -- but, as a secret member of the White Lotus.”

Zuko spills the rest of his tea in his lap in his shock. “You served the Avatar?”

“I still serve the Avatar.” 

He splutters, jumping to his feet and tearing at his short hair. “What? How could you betray me like this--”

“Sit down, Prince Zuko. Please. Allow me to finish my story before you turn me in for treason.”

Judging by the magnificent eye roll Iroh lays out, he doesn’t think Zuko actually would.

Honestly, Zuko doesn’t even think that he would, or could.

They’re both traitors to the Fire Nation, he decides, hated by the Fire Lord. One who is unwanted, and one who did not want.

“As I was saying,” Uncle speaks primly, shooting Zuko a look. Zuko fights the urge to roll his eyes, even as latent distrust and anger burns under the surface of his skin. “I led my father’s troops, and we worked to attack the stronghold of Ba Sing Se. It took years to get there … perhaps because I was … getting in the way here or there.”

Zuko bites his tongue; Iroh appears to overlook the emotions warring on Zuko’s scarred face.

“The Avatar of the Earth Kingdom was known at last, around her fourteenth birthday, but only to those in the White Lotus. I met her a handful of times as we worked to limit casualties on the front lines on both sides of the war. Six hundred days we ‘tried’ to enter the city -- and for six hundred days we failed --

“Until, a Fire Nation patrol spotted the Avatar helping refugees escape the city. She was captured and brought before a war council.” Iroh closes his eyes, and his words weigh heavily around Zuko’s neck. “My Lu Ten … died a week before her capture, from an infection of a wound. He died slowly, and my spirit crumbled in his suffering. I left the front. And then, they captured her.”

Zuko can’t hear the wind anymore; it’s as though the whole world has gone silent while listening to Iroh speak.

“Her name was Jin.” A tear slips down Iroh’s bearded cheek. “She was very stubborn, very strong, and very kind. She loved chocolate, and had a sharp tongue. You would have liked her.”

“How old was she?” Zuko asks. The stories of the last Avatar before the Great Sacrifice had said she’d required three dozen chains around her arms to contain her -- the stories spoke of her terrifying strength and brute willingness to prevent her people from moving forward under the protection of the Fire Nation.

Stories lie. Zuko knows that now.

“Jin was sixteen years old when she offered her life for the safety of her people.” Iroh shakes his head, still grieving. “And as they planned her execution, I returned to Ember Island to protect you and your mother from the cruel plot I had learned of, the plot headed by my brother, Ozai.”

“But this was sixteen years ago,” Zuko’s mind is tripping over itself now as he struggles to put the pieces together.

“Exactly sixteen years ago, tomorrow.” Iroh folds his hand and watches Zuko’s expression.

Tomorrow is Zuko’s sixteenth birthday.

Something stirs under the chaos in his mind, but he pushes it away.

“But all this time, I’ve been - I’ve been running around the world, trying to find the Avatar, trying to please my father -- and you’ve been working for them all along?”

“There is one more piece I must explain--”

“No!” Zuko shouts, startling birds from the nearby trees. “The only thing you need to explain is how you could have lied to me -- have you been hiding them? This wild chase for my honor — all for nothing! What else have you been keeping from me?”

Iroh looks sadder than he’s ever seen him. “You mistake me, Prince Zuko.”

Zuko grits his teeth, balling his hands into fist once more.  “I’ve done that before, Uncle. I won’t do it again. So -- tell me where the Avatar is.”

“Here,” Iroh says simply.

Zuko glances around the clearing wildly, staring at the temples in the distance. “There?” he asks, pointing at them vehemently. “At the Air Temple — are they hiding there?”

“The Avatar is not hiding at all.” Iroh glances over Zuko’s shoulder, and his expression lifts momentarily. “Ah. Hello, old friend.”

“Fancy a game of pai sho?” An unfamiliar voice answers.

Zuko leaps to stand between Iroh and the stranger, who wears an orange robe, hood obscuring his face. The man is taller than him, but not solid; his feet are bare, and Zuko can just make out a strange tattoo on each foot under a coating of dirt. 

“I take it your uncle hasn’t told you about me,” the man says genially, but Zuko doesn’t relax his stance. “Or about yourself?”

“What is he talking about?” Zuko asks wildly. “Uncle?”

“Prince Zuko.” Iroh sighs as he stands, and he bows to the newcomer. “May I introduce you to my dear friend, who I’ve been working with for many years now.”

“To protect the Avatar,” Zuko sneers. “To keep me from my home.”

“Uh-oh.” The man laughs and lowers his good at last — Zuko gawks at the very apparent, blue tattoo that stretches down his shaved head. “It seems we have a lot to talk about.”

“You’re — you’re an Air Nomad.” Zuko’s good eye widens, and then he finds himself fully bowing, his ears burning in embarrassment. “I did not know.”

A master Airbender, given his tattoos: a fierce warrior, if he’s survived this long. Zuko might not have been raised to think highly of the Air Nomads, but he’s learned well these past two years. And this man, even if he is an adversary, deserves respect.

“Stand, friend.” The man walks forward and offers Zuko a hand; he eyes it warily before he realizes the older man — almost as old as Iroh — is offering him help to his feet.

He takes it, but the man pulls too hard, his feet taking off from the ground.

Stranger still, he takes Zuko with him.

“What?” Zuko yelps as the man lets go of him, and he spins, kicking his feet to catch something, anything: he catches on a current of air, and stays aloft for far longer than he should.

“What?” Zuko repeats, mouth hanging open as he stares fifteen feet over to Iroh: 

Because that’s how far he flew. Fifteen. Feet. Away. “How? What?"

“Master Aang,” Iroh scolds. “We should tell him before you frighten him more.”

The man — Aang — grins unapologetically. “I think the truth comes easier when it follows a natural question.”

“Huh?” Zuko looks around. “What just—“

“You were airbending,” Aang says calmly. “And not for the first time.”

“But...but…” Zuko splitters. “I’m a - I’m a firebender.”

“Yes you are,” Iroh confirms.

“And,” Aang adds, tilting his head. “You’re also an Airbender.”

His grey eyes twinkle, an effect Zuko has never seen in a person before. 

“No, that’s impossible.” Zuko shakes his head. “If that were true — I -I would be—“

The truth clicks into place and the world whirs around him, painful bright and too too loud. The wind starts to howl around him, and Zuko feels like choking on his fear --

And make it stop why won’t it stop what is happening to him —

“We should have told you a long time ago.” Iroh walks towards him, clearly uncaring or the hurricane of dirt and air whipping around Zuko. “But it was unsafe to remove you from the Capitol without suspicion.”

“You are the Avatar,” the Air Nomad says, standing shoulder to shoulder with Iroh. “And we are going to help you.”

Zuko claps his hands over his ears, the way Azula always did when she was too upset to think or breathe, and he falls to his knees, breathing ragged.

“No,” he moans, “no, no—“

“Your quest is over.” A hand goes to his shoulder — tattooed, strong. The contact shocks him, and the tornado that’s kicked up around him settles and returns to the earth. Zuko gasps for breath, his entire body trembling in fear and realization and doubt and anger. 

But, Aang's face is kind, open. No hint of deception. 

“You have found the one destined to be the Avatar, master of all four elements. And now, it is time to become him.”

Two Years Later

“Why are we out here, anyway?” Katara groans and leans her face against the side of the umiak. Her brother tries to spear another fish and nearly falls over the side. “It’s not like you even let me help.”

“Katara.” Sokka sighs and puts his hands on his hips, rubbing his very pathetic excuse for facial hair. “I’ve told you before, Gran-Gran--”

“Doesn’t trust you to remember to tie up the boat?” Katara smirks at her brother, who grumbles under his breath at her.

“No. She doesn’t trust you to not run off if you’re left alone--”

“I’m sixteen years old, Sokka! That was one time, four years ago!”

“One time where you were gone for almost a whole month!” The boat rocks as Sokka gets more agitated. “Katara, you disappearing nearly killed her.”

She crosses her arms and glares over the side of the boat, out towards the towering icebergs. “She’s fine.” She pretends her stomach doesn’t roil at the thought of hurting Gran-Gran, intentionally or not. “She’s fine now, at least. And I won’t run off again!”

“Look. Katara.” Sokka puts a hand over hers. “The village is finally rebuilding itself; soon, they’re probably going to ask one of us to be chief, if Dad doesn’t come home. We have to be… more -”

“Responsible?” Katara groans and covers her eyes. “Spirits. When did you become the mature one?”

“I’ve been much more mature than you for many, many years now.” Sokka sighs dramatically and trails his hands in the water; Katara rolls her eyes and stares back towards the ice.

Which is how she doesn’t see the looming threat.

Sokka reaches farther into the icy sea and then slaps a handful of freezing cold water into her face. Katara shrieks and splutters, wiping her face desperately, the water already freezing on the fur that lines her hood.

“Jackass!” She shouts, half-laughing already. “Oh, you are gonna get it!”

Twisting her hands quickly, Katara manages to tug a small amount of water from the sea and pulls her arms through the air, making the makeshift whip fly towards her brother -- it drenches him from head to toe.

“Hey!” Sokka swats at the water seeping into his wolf-tail. “Not fair! No magic water!”

“You mean … this magic water?” Katara contorts her hand and lifts them, cackling as Sokka splutters and pretends to surrender by waving a pelt of an arctic fox. “You will be destroyed !”


“No mercy!” She shouts, pulling up sheets of water around the boat, straining slightly at the effort. “No-”

“No, Katara , look !”

The water fidgets in her grasp and it falls out of her control as she spins and gasps, staring up at the sky where Sokka’s pointing.

Someone is flying through the clouds.

“Oh!” She claps her hands to her mouth when she realizes that they aren’t flying.

They’re falling .

“Oh, oh no! Sokka - we need to go--”

They each grab a paddle and move desperately through the ice sheets that float on the water. As they paddle, the figure nears the water; right before they hit the waves, a strange white light consumes them, and Sokka shouts “ what the-- ?” in confusion as the light seems to spread through the dark water before vanishing.

“We have to help them!” Katara shouts to her brother.

“Yeah, I’m getting that!”

A few times, they ram into obstacles, both grunting at the force that ricochets up their forearms. But, five minutes later, they manage to get to the vicinity of the crash; Sokka nearly tips the umiak over as he stands, shielding his eyes against the sun.

“Where did he go?”

“No clue.” Katara scans the water desperately: he’d been wearing bright red. He shouldn’t be hard to find --

She does not think about where he might be from, if he was wearing red. Anyone who needs her help, will get her help. This is who she is.

“Besides, how do you know that wasn't a girl?”

“Because whatever he was doing up there, it was stupid.” Sokka snorts and then looks the other direction, still shielding his eyes. “A girl wouldn’t be that stupid.”

“Gee, how flattering.” Katara scowls at Sokka. “Girls can be stupid too!”

“This is not the time for a conversation about how I’m a sexist idiot, okay? Someone’s probably drowning, or already drowned--”

“Ugh!” Katara raises her hand and pushes into the water, searching out for it in her bending, carving through the currents, seeking the tide, trying to find what doesn’t belong --

And there he is. 

“Katara, what are you--” 

She doesn’t pause in pulling her outer layer, a fur-lined parka, off, and she certainly doesn’t hesitate despite Sokka screaming at her to slow down.

Katara dives into the water, praying to La that she doesn’t freeze to death before she reaches the fallen man. Spinning an orb of water around her head, Katara scans the water desperately, seeking out the stranger. 

When she spots him, dozens of yard ahead, she half-swims, half-bends her way to his side. He’s taller than she is, much taller, but she wraps arms of water around him, and then shoves her hand out, pushing furiously to propel them towards the nearest ice shelf. Katara twists her legs when she sees her destination, creating enough momentum to eject them forcefully out of the freezing water and onto the ice shelf.

“P-p-p-parka!” She wheezes loudly enough for Sokka to hear, stammering through her freezing lips when she sees that her brother has managed to follow them to the ice shelf.

“You’re crazy -”

“P-parka!” She repeats stubbornly, shoving the man into the recovery position, his right side up towards the sun. “And you,” she snaps to the unconscious man, “B-b-breathe!”

“How was he flying?” Sokka asks warily, coming forward with the parka and a few blankets from the umiak. “That wasn’t natural.”

“Maybe he’s a bender?” Katara asks, shrugging, even though that’s impossible: the airbenders were slaughtered years ago before the first raids on the South.

Thank the spirits, the man still has a pulse, even if it’s sluggish. She uses her teeth to rip a glove off and sets her own, admittedly frozen, fingers to his forehead, testing his body temperature.

He’s burning hot.

“He already has a fever.” Katara’s throat tightens. “We have to get him back to the vill-”

She’s interrupted by a ferocious bout of coughing; the man is definitely alive, and he’s expelling saltwater onto the ice shelf.

Sokka crouches in front of the guy and starts to speak calmly. “You’re near the South Pole,” he tells the man, who seems to be around Sokka’s own age. “You fell out of the sky. You’ll have to share with us how that happened, but you’re safe. We’re from the Water Tribe, and my sister pulled you out of the ocean after you crashed.”

“W-water T---?” The man asks hoarsely, his voice thick with water and probably shock.

“We have to find a way to warm you up,” Katara says, looking around for some kind of sign.

However, the man starts to chuckle. 

“What’s so funny, buddy?” Sokka half-grins at him, and the man twists to face him -- Katara’s bracing his back, has been since she pushed him into the recovery position, so she can’t see his face.

Sokka can; and, she sees her brother pale in sudden horror when the man looks up.

“Your face -” Sokka hisses.

The man groans, and Katara’s stomach tightens, immediately assuming he’s been maimed by his fall, cut by the water as he fell into its treacherous grasp. 

“I can fix that,” she says quickly, rolling the man to face her and bracing his head in her lap, turning to pull water into her hand from sea. “I can--”

She looks down. Her eyes widen in recognition.

The left side of his handsome face is scarred by what must have been a horrific burn; but, every detail is what she remembers from her journey through the Spirit Wilds four years ago.

“It’s you,” Katara whispers, the water falling from her hand. The young man’s eyes open, but she doesn’t see recognition there -- only that strange, beautiful golden color she’s never been able to forget. “It’s really you-”

“Y-y-you’re s-so … pretty,” the stranger gasps out. 

Sokka groans in feigned irritation, and Katara’s cheeks feel suddenly warm.

And then, the boy who fell from the sky retches, and Katara and Sokka barely get him on his side in time before what looks like half of the ocean leaves his body. 

Chapter Text

When she was a little girl, Katara’s mother would take her outside when the lights of the spirits were brightest.

“Not everyone can see them,” Kya whispered to her. “You’re special for seeing them.”

Katara would tilt her head back on those nights and gasp as tails of the spirits curved against the sky -- it was there that she spun through the snow and ice, her hands curled and arms waving and curving as though she herself were made of light and could fly among the stars.

And, when she was six years old, she pulled the water from the surface of the ice with her while dancing.

“Did I do something wrong?” Katara asked her mother, who cried when she saw what Katara had done. “I’m sorry, Mommy-”

“Don’t be sorry.” Kya held her daughter close and kissed her hair. “Never, ever be sorry for who you are, Katara.”

But she was a child, and she didn’t know why her mother cried; she only knew that she cried, and the water that moved with Katara had caused Kya to cry.

Hakoda was pleased with her when he learned how the water would dance with her, and that did make Katara feel better -- once, he tried to tell her a story about ships that had come once, and might come again. It was a story that he had already told Sokka, so Katara was excited to hear it.

Excited, until Kya walked past them as Hakoda talked of metal shoes on icy ground, of heat like the midday sun and the brightest fire. Kya stopped them immediately.

“She’s a child, ” her mother hissed, scooping Katara up and covering her ear with a mittened hand.

“She needs to hear it sometime,” Hakoda argued back, his voice stern but not loud. He was never loud with their mother, or with Sokka or Katara. He was chief of the entire Southern Water Tribe, and he never had to raise his voice.

Kya always said a true leader never had to yell.

“I wanna listen, Mommy,” Katara argued too but Kya shushed her and told her a different story of someone called the Avatar, who, not so long ago but also very long ago, had come from a village a lot like theirs.

His name was Kuruk, and he had lived hundreds of years ago, but only three Avatars ago, whatever that meant. He was kind, and handsome, and everyone loved him. Except one spirit, named Koh.

“Who’s Koh?” Katara asked, eyes wide. She’d already forgotten the story her father had tried to tell her; even Sokka was interested in this new story.

“A bad spirit,” Kya answered simply, laying Katara down for her afternoon nap. “Now sleep.”

Katara’s dreams that day were lined with silver, and etched in a fear that didn’t feel like hers.

The next part of her life was made slightly more interesting because of the spirit lights and the water dancing, but she still never heard the story about the ships made of metal and fire. Every time her father tried, her mother would scoop her up and carry her away, as though protecting her from the words.

Katara was a child; she didn’t know why someone might need protecting from words.

In those years, Sokka became a warrior, strong and fast and stubborn. Katara became something else, but, as Gran-Gran said, just as strong as a warrior, even if she didn’t hold a weapon. Their parents taught them the needs of the village, and the needs of all the villages that sprawled out, the villages that had survived the black snow, which Katara thought sounded frightening, if very interesting. 

She’d never seen black snow. The last time it had fallen, she’d been a tiny baby, and not even Sokka was able to remember it.

And then, one day, she did see the black snow. It fell quickly, and without warning. It was the first day Katara ever saw her father look afraid.

She was told to hide, and Hakoda even told Sokka to hide because they were both children and shouldn’t see what was about to happen. But, as everyone was running around, shouting, as the ships of metal and fire drew closer to their village -- the biggest one in the South Pole, Gran-Gran would say proudly, the center of the wheel -- Katara didn’t want to move. Her eyes took in the ships, and watched them draw nearer, the story of her childhood she was never quite able to finish.

There were flames painted on the tall chimneys of the ships, which looked almost like the tops of their houses, open and tall to let out the smoke from their family fires, only these were black and made of metal. The painted flames were blood-red, and Katara wondered if the black snow made people sick. 

If that was why everyone had run.

Then, she heard screaming from a group of warriors to the west; she looked over and saw flames dancing on the ice. Flames, consuming men. Flames, everywhere, flame --

Katara curled her fingers and scowled, envisioning the ocean beneath her hands; she thought of the lights of the spirits above her and even though it was too bright to see them, she knew they were still there. She knew they would help her. Katara pushed and pushed and pushed -- and a wave of water built up under her ice shelf and rushed towards the boat in the front.

Her feet slid on the ice, and her concentration broke. For years, she would think about how tired it had made her, to push with the water, and not simply dance with it. She was tired, and then she turned around and saw a group of the men with metal shoes and metal heads walk through her village, the sound of screams and sobbing reaching her ears.

“Mom,” Katara whispered, eyes wide. Kya would be looking for her because she wasn’t where she was supposed to be; she needed to get home, quickly, so her mom wouldn’t go outside looking for her.

Katara raced to the village, a mitten clapped to her mouth because fire had a new smell now, and there were bodies in the snow. She raced to the village, through the black snow. She raced to the village and tumbled through the door of their house --

And then she wasn’t a child anymore.

The boy who had fallen from the sky is handsome.

Katara has thought of his face here and there since she, as a girl, saw him at the southernmost point of the world; she doesn’t have many memories of the weeks she’d spent in the spirit wilds, but she’s always been able to envision his face.

Part of the reason for that is the scar. 

Sokka takes over rowing as they head back to their village, and the scarred boy -- who knows how to fly, she thinks excitedly -- slumps unconscious at the bottom of their boat on piled-up furs. 

Katara pretends that she’s tending to him -- and she really is, except there isn’t anything wrong with him, minus the unconscious part -- but she uses the time to study his face carefully. The scar looks painful, badly healed. She can’t even decide how old it is; burns do that to tissue sometimes, she knows. She’s tended to a few of their warriors since she learned how to heal, and when they come back from their patrols near the Fire Nation, exhausted and broken, she always tries her best to help them.

(Even though, she understands that death would be more merciful for some)

Maybe, when the boy wakes up, she can help him with his scar. After all, he’d asked her years ago in the Spirit Wilds to help him. Maybe this is what he needed.

“Do you think he’s going to be okay?” Sokka asks as they round an ice floe.

“Yes.” Katara nods and pulls another fur over the young man’s shivering body. “He’ll be fine.”

Sokka hums, noncommittal and disbelieving, but doesn’t argue with her. Leaning close so her brother can’t hear her and potentially make fun of her, Katara puts her mouth near the boy’s left ear, which is twisted and ruined by scar tissue. There, she whispers, “I’m not going to let you die.”

Katara pulls away and she swears something in the boy’s face twitches and relaxes. She does another check of his body, looking for a hidden injury or internal bleeding, but again finds nothing, so she joins Sokka at the oars and helps row them home.

He’s going to be okay, she tells herself as they pull through the water. He’ll be okay. She’s going to help him.

Zuko wakes to the rocking of a boat, and he sits up, yelping in shock. His sudden movement startles the two other people in the boat, one of whom nearly drops his oar in the water, the other of whom leans forward and shushes him gently, pushing him back into place with hands that look small even through her mittens.

Zuko looks at the boy in the front of the boat, and then to the girl. He notices that the boy is watching the girl, or rather the area around the girl, his oar now raised like a weapon. Brother and sister, judging by their face shape, and the protective energy radiating off of the other young man.

And the girl.

Well, the girl …

She’s beautiful. Painfully so. He can’t tell if it's the burst of arctic sun behind her, or her own countenance, but he’s … pretty much dazzled the second she smiles encouragingly at him.

Zuko blinks and clears his throat, trying to thank them for ostensibly saving him from an icy, watery grave, but he coughs weakly, throat aching from nearly drowning.

“Careful.” The girl hands him a waterskin, which he takes gratefully; she doesn’t let go and helps him drink. 

He feels like a baby. He very much does not want this girl to see him act like a baby. But, he is weak right now, and he can feel his uncle’s voice telling him to remain calm, and to project graciousness.

Introductions are in order; the siblings are staring at him, worried for different reasons, and Zuko sits up as much as he can with the girl trying to keep him reclining.

“W-who are you?” He asks, his voice as raspy as ever.

“Sokka,” the boy says, leaning over to offer a hand to Zuko.

Zuko stares at it; realizing what he’s supposed to do, he takes the boy’s hand and shakes it, wondering how many times is polite. His eye feels wide in confusion, and the girl tsks and swats her brother’s arm.

“And I’m Katara. My brother and I found you in the water, and I’m not entirely convinced you don’t have a concussion, so Sokka shouldn’t be his normal loud self.”

Sokka sticks his tongue out at his sister, earning him an affectionate eye roll.

Suddenly, Zuko misses Azula so much that he forgets that he’d fallen a thousand feet in the wake of the pain in his chest.

Katara doesn’t seem to notice the flash of grief across his face because she prods her brother in the side in retaliation, telling Zuko, “We’re taking you to our village now.”

“Village?” Zuko shakes his head, already tired from thinking this much.

Agni, he should have listened to Aang and not flown so far from Appa. 

He wonders how long it’s been since he’s seen his uncle and master; Aang will probably be feeling pretty fine about his disappearance. But Iroh tends to worry more wherever Zuko is concerned.

Thinking about his uncle makes him wince in anxiety, and Katara must mistake the movement for one of pain.

“What’s your name?” She asks softly.

“We’re almost back,” Sokka reports. “Were you alone?”

“No,” Zuko says honestly to Sokka, “I was with two friends.” 

He answers Katara carefully, worried that, as his uncle warned him years ago, he might be unwelcome to the Water Tribe due to his nation’s vicious massacres. “My name is … Zuko.”

And then he waits for them to push him overboard.

Nothing happens. Sokka tilts his head and nods, humming. “Zuko. Cool name. Kinda sharp.”

Zuko frowns, having never considered the shape of his name.

“I’ve never met anyone named Zuko.” Katara’s hands are fiddling with the hem of her parka, and she glances over the side of the boat. He nearly misses her excited shout of, “there it is!” because … yeah, like he noticed earlier -- she’s pretty.

She looks like a princess from one of the stories his mother used to tell him: long, thick, brown hair that waves over her shoulders, and eyes bluer than the sky or the crystal clear water that their boat -- an umiak, he remembers from his studies -- cuts through. Her skin is dark brown, and her smile is bright as she gazes down at him.

Zuko wracks his memory and tries to remember if a girl has ever smiled at him like that. His memory comes back with a very clear answer: no girl has ever smiled at him. And … he hasn’t exactly talked to a girl in a few years.

This is going to go great. Yeah. Totally. 

What would Master Aang tell me? He wonders. Maybe: Girls love dancing! And lychee nuts. Mention that you have a flying bison! Oh, and try not to mention the whole ‘savior of the world’ thing because that can be off-putting. Also dangerous. But, actually, I think girls like danger? That sounds right. Tell her you’re the savior of the world! Or … don’t, actually.

What would Uncle tell me? He wonders. Probably: Women are as mysterious as the white dragon bush, nephew. One mistake, and you will be poisoned by a white jade flower masquerading as this rarest and most beautiful of blossoms. Always be careful with your heart. Also, I very much want grand-nephews and nieces, so sit up straight and make sure you are well-groomed!

Zuko runs a hand through his hair nervously, and pulls sea kelp from his scalp.

“Do you want us to tell them who you are?” Katara asks suddenly, twisting her hands in her lap.

Zuko swallows, all thoughts of trying to scrap together a flirty joke or a nice smile gone. How did she know? “What do you mean?” He hedges, glancing at Sokka.

Katara’s brother doesn’t seem to know what she’s talking about; Sokka frowns at Katara over his shoulder as he pulls the umiak towards an ice shelf.

“You know, that you’re…” Katara lowers her voice more, “An … airbender.”

He blinks at her, shocked. 

“Are you?” Sokka turns around, frowning. “An airbender?”

“Yes,” Zuko says, at the same time Katara rolls her eyes and sighs, “Obviously, Sokka! He was flying when we saw him!”

“Your secret is safe with us,” Katara assures him, patting the side of his knee. Zuko tries very hard not to think about the fact that he’s never been touched by a girl before.

Oh, this is going so badly.

“Secret,” Zuko echoes, trying not to make it sound like a question in case there’s an obvious reason that it should be a secret.

And, of course, there is.

“The Fire Nation,” Katara’s beautiful face twists when she says that, and Zuko’s stomach plummets, “doesn’t patrol down here very often these days, but we know what those monsters did to your people. We’d understand if you’d want us to be discreet.”

He doesn’t know what to say to that; so, he tucks the rest of the truth away and hopes no one in their village knows the name of the disgraced crown prince of the Fire Nation.

Sokka gets them in range of icy land, and he pulls it to a stop near a post, hauling the boat in remarkably close with must be considerable upper body strength; Katara stands to help her brother, and Zuko fidgets as though he could jump up and help them too, but Katara holds a hand out and smiles at him.

“Let us help you,” she half-scolds, and Zuko’s sure his panic shows on his face because she adds soothingly, “You’re safe here.”

Sokka reaches over and rests a hand on Zuko’s shoulder for a moment before the siblings move to get the materials and fish in the umiak onshore, and the former prince spends a long time working through the lump in his throat.

He watches the two bicker playfully as they shove each other around, and then they work together to help him stand, pulling him up as a joint effort onto the ice.

His legs nearly give out immediately on the near frictionless ground, and Zuko grunts, collapsing into Sokka’s side.

“Like a toddler,” Sokka grins, offering an arm to Zuko. “C’mon, hold on.”

“I don’t want to -” He swallows the word disrespect, dishonor, humiliate. He remembers everything Aang has taught him about compassion and the spirit the last few years, and remembers what Iroh has taught him about humility and other people.

“Are you sure?” Zuko asks.

“Yeah, this’ll make Katara have to carry in the fish for once,” Sokka jokes, and Katara makes a retching sound that shouldn’t be half as charming as it is.

“You’re gonna find fish guts in your bed roll again, jackass.”

“Looking forward to it, darling sister,” Sokka counters, waiting for Zuko to hold on; Zuko’s face burns as he grabs the shorter, but much more sturdy, boy for support, and then they’re shuffling across the ice towards the village a quarter mile away: Sokka propping up Zuko, and Katara pulling a sled loaded with fish behind her.

The village has walls of ice around it, but Zuko can see scoring along the walls, healed over scorch marks and the like. He wonders how many of his countrymen had been here, had hurt these people; he wonders if Sokka and Katara will regret helping him when they learn the truth.

He opens his mouth to tell them the truth, but Katara cuts him off.

“Everyone’s going to love you,” she assures him, reaching over to squeeze his hand while still pulling the sled.

Her eyes hold more hope than he’s ever seen in a living person: he doesn’t even think the guards of the White Lotus look at him with that much hope. 

Zuko swallows the truth and offers her half a smile. “Maybe,” he answers, and for some reason that makes Sokka laugh. 

Then, they’re at the gates, and Zuko realizes he’s probably the first person of the Fire Nation to be welcomed inside this village in over fifty years.

This is going to go so poorly.

Zuko is brought to Katara and Sokka’s home after he meets the elders of the village. It worries him that there are only three: Kanna, the grandmother of Katara and Sokka; Kora, a matronly, fierce woman in her sixties; and Surok, a man older than Uncle Iroh who seems just as good-natured.

After they’ve given him a thick jacket and a fur-lined hood, as well as a cap to warm his head, he learns that they’re the children of the chief, something they’d omitted from their introductions.

“Wasn’t relevant,” Sokka says uncomfortably when Zuko responds suitably to this information. “Dude, stop bowing, it’s weirding me out.”

He offers an apology to Katara as well, bowing again and calling her Princess, something that makes her blush and laugh awkwardly. 

“We don’t really do that?” She pats his head like he’s a fire ferret that she’s particularly fond of. “But thank you, you’re so sweet.”

Others from the village come by, under the pretense of thanking Katara and Sokka for taking the difficult, multiple day journey to fish (maybe pretense isn’t the right word, Zuko thinks: they seem earnest in their gratitude - the siblings are well-liked, natural leaders), but they also stare at him, a little confused, but mostly excited to see a new face.

The children are the most excited, and within four hours, Zuko has a small fan club, the leader of which is a small girl named Ummi.

“Ummi,” he repeats faintly when she tells him, the number of teeth missing from her smile endearingly high. 

There’s a flash of something in his mind, and Zuko’s feet stumble over each other as he tilts sideways.

“Whoa.” Sokka catches him and pushes him upright again. “Careful, buddy.”

“Sorry.” Zuko shakes his head, trying to clear it. “Just remembered…”

Something. Some one.  

Beautiful, gentle, dark hair, brown skin, gorgeous smile -

Lost. Faceless. Dead.

“Zuko?” Katara puts a hand on his back and guides him to a seated position. “Did you lose your memory when you fell?”

“No.” Zuko offers her a mirthless smile. “These are … old memories. They come to me now and then. It’s … not new.”

She shrugs, not questioning how weird that was to say, but Ummi frowns at him, clearly thinking past his weak explanation. 

“Why does your face look like that?” Ummi asks out of nowhere, and Katara immediately shushes her. Sokka slaps himself in the forehead.

“I -- was burned.” Zuko’s words are as carefully chosen as his last answer, and Ummi’s face falls.

“Oh. Like my brother,” she says sadly, “Only … he isn’t ‘round anymore.”

And with that, Zuko’s heart breaks for what must have been done to these people.

“I think Zuko is tired,” Katara says forcefully, “And we have work to do, Ummi.” She pushes the girl between the shoulder blades, guiding her out of the shelter; before she leaves, she tosses an apologetic smile at Zuko.

Sokka remains, and he looks at Zuko for a long time.

“Our dad’s off fighting the war,” he says softly. “For our people.” And then, horribly enough, he claps Zuko’s back and adds, “And yours.”

They leave Zuko alone in the shelter, and even though Zuko still can’t firebend, he wonders if his shame is burning hot enough in his stomach that they’ll come back to find that he’s burned a hole in the ice all the way to the ocean below.

The sun sets late here near the Pole, and Zuko feels a strange, discomforting energy beneath his skin. “When will the moon rise?” He asks Katara when the sun is somehow still in the sky, despite the fact that he’s definitely been awake for nearly ten hours after the crash.

“Not ‘til morning,” Katara answers with a wistful sigh. “And then a few days later, the moon and the sky will be up at the same time. That’s always … strange.”

“Oh?” Zuko tilts his head at her, not understanding. He casts his voice down low because it actually is nighttime and their grandmother is asleep in the corner, and Sokka’s also nodded off despite swearing that he can stay up way longer than his ‘baby sister.’

“The power. It feels like … like Agni and Tui are pushing and pulling against each other, like what La and Tui normally do.” 

Katara shakes her head when he still doesn’t understand; in demonstration, curls her hand slightly, and whisks some water from the bucket near the fire.

She moves her arm slowly, a shy smile on her face, and the tendril of liquid wraps around Zuko, flowing around him with crystalline beauty. He watches, transfixed, at the way she moves her arms, all the way until she spins them slowly, allowing the water to flow back to its original container.

“You’re a waterbender,” Zuko whispers, in awe. “But I thought -- I thought they had -”

They killed the last waterbender, his uncle’s voice warns him, but Zuko’s seized with a sudden, fierce joy that his nation had failed. They hadn’t killed her: she’s right here.

“And I thought,” Katara counters, still shy but looking happy at his response to her skill, “that they had done that to your people, too. And yet …” She waves a hand, and a small cloud of snow spins around him, forming out of middair. 

His bending has always come from him in two ways: the bursts of lightness that he associates with his airbending, still jarring two years after its discovery, and the painful reluctance and lack of control he associates with firebending.

“You’re so natural,” Zuko comments, his one eye wide. Katara’s smile widens, and she raises small shapes from the packed snow that forms the floor. “I’ve -- I don’t see that a lot.”

Only in his uncle and Aang, he muses. Katara’s destined to be a master, like they are.

“I kinda have to be.” Katara relaxes her hands with a sigh. “There’s no one here to teach me.”

Because my people killed yours, Zuko’s thoughts remind him, and he swallows his guilt. 

“What else can you do?” He asks, genuinely curious.

“I’m a healer.” Katara lets out a tense puff of breath. “ That much, some of the older women knew. Our sister tribe trains female waterbenders to heal, mainly, so those are the skills they brought with them.”

She doesn’t sound too happy about any of those facts, and Zuko hums noncommittally. 

“It’s all impressive to me.” He gestures at his face stiffly. “Clearly, healing isn’t something … I grew up around.”

“Is it rude to ask how old your scar is?” 

Her question feels medical in its curiosity, and Zuko lets out a tense breath, slightly grumpy at the thought that the first girl he’s ever really met (and why does she have to be so pretty ) is mostly interested at looking at him because of the thing he hates most about himself.

“Four years, give or take,” he answers, trying not to dig his fingernails into his palms.

“Oh.” Katara wilts a little. “I don’t think I can fix that.”

“That’s okay.” At least, he tells himself it is. He closes his eyes and tries to settle his stomach. “It hurts sometimes, but it’s okay now.”

“Hurts how?” He hears Katara shuffling closer, and then he can feel her, a presence that lingers at the edge of his awareness; he doesn’t crack his good eye, afraid that if he does, she’ll vanish into smoke.

“Headaches, mostly.” He shrugs. “They start in my eye.”

“Can you see out of it?” He hears her pull water towards him, and distantly he’s aware that she could make a blade out of ice and slit his throat, but somehow...that doesn’t feel like something she’d do.

Zuko shakes his head and then changes his mind and shrugs again. “A little. Enough that I can tell where things are with my other eye.”

“Hmm.” Katara’s near his face now, and Zuko fights back the urge to flinch away from her proximity. “Can I ...try something?”

“Sure.” He knows he sounds hesitant. “But really, it’s such an old scar-”

“It won’t hurt anything. I mean, you might get a headache from the blood moving around, but … it might work.”

Zuko tenses and then releases his breath. He nods. “Go for it.”

Her hand touches his right, whole cheek first, and he realizes she’s cradling his face in her palm. His heart starts to pound wildly, something she must feel because she laughs lightly.

“Don’t be nervous.”

Her laughter sounds like the wind chimes his mother kept on Ember Island. He doesn’t know what to say to her, so he just stays still.

There’s a glow near the left side of his face, and Zuko tenses again; but, all he feels is a solid warmth as the light grows nearer, turning the inside of his eyelids a soft orange. He can hear a strange hum, and the sound of Katara’s breathing. 

“Does that hurt?” She asks in a murmur, and Zuko doesn’t shake his head, worried that he’d pull away from her gentle touch.

“No.” He pauses and considers the strange feeling of her rooting around under his skin with her healing. “Feels … weird.”

“Bad weird?”

“Weird weird.”

She hums and falls silent again; he doesn’t know how long she works, but he sits as still as possible the whole time. Sometimes, it feels as though she’s drilling under his eye socket, and others like she’s smoothing cream over a fresh burn: it’s agonizing and relieving all at once, and he continues to breathe in and out, as patiently as his uncle had taught him.

Katara releases the water, gathers more water, and releases the water at least a dozen times, and then she falls back onto her heels from where she’d been kneeling to hover over him. 

“I can’t do much more.” She yawns, a sharp, pretty noise; and Zuko opens his eyes to confirm that her yawn looks as pretty as it sounds.

It does.

Then, he blinks and his eyes widen in shock because he can really see how pretty she is, in the dim lighting afforded by their small fire.

“What.” Zuko touches his face and hisses between his teeth. “What did--”

“Bad?” Katara asks, looking horribly nervous.

“Good,” Zuko breathes, “I can feel it-” And sure enough, expanses of his skin that haven’t felt at all like his in years are tingling to awareness beneath his fingertips.

It doesn’t feel entirely positive; it’s a little like when his foot falls asleep when he isn’t focusing enough during meditation with Aang. But, still, his cheek feels like something, and he swears his vision is clearer in his other eye.

“A lot of blood was built up underneath the tissue,” Katara explains. “A lot of tension.”

She yawns again, and sits back further on her heels. “I can do more later, I just--”

“Thank you.” Zuko bows again, a force of habit, and Katara laughs and pretends to swat at the air. “I mean it, Katara. Thank you. You didn’t have to help me, but you did.”

“What kind of person would I be if I didn’t help someone when I could?” She asks softly.

Their eyes meet, and neither look away for a long time.

“I’m going to bed.” Katara stands, barely having to bow her head not to bump it on the low ceiling of their home. “Goodnight, Zuko.”

“Goodnight, Katara.” 

She settles near her grandmother, and Zuko stays awake for another hour, tracing his cheek slowly, his ear, the whorls over his eyelid, marveling at how alive the skin suddenly feels.

Maybe falling out of the sky wasn’t the dumbest thing he’s ever done.

The next three days pass in a strange haze, buoyed by the lingering presence of the sun in the sky; it only sets for four or five hours at a time, but the moon starts to grow stronger on the horizon, staying longer, and he watches Katara bend when she isn’t helping anyone around the village.

She helps people often , more than even her brother -- Sokka’s version of helping, Zuko realizes, is by sharing his physical strength; Katara helps differently, but more frequently, almost constantly. She helps people fix their homes, helps single mothers prepare meals, helps with the communal laundry, helps with mending pants, helps from the time he rises and helps Sokka with strengthening fortification and sharpening weapons, all the way through dinner and then sometimes even after most of the village has gone to sleep.

But, when Katara isn’t called away, she goes somewhere private and practices her bending. Zuko finds her by accident, when he’s supposed to be tracking Ummi’s polar dog that’s wandered away again. 

He finds her bending a bubble of water above the sea, a fish held carefully in the middle of the transparent prison, and her arms shake slightly before she loses concentration. The water splashes back to the sea, and Katara spins to glower at him.

“You scared me! I’d finally gotten it!” 

“Sorry.” Zuko does feel truly admonished. “I didn’t mean --”

“I know.” Katara sighs. “Do you need help with something?”

“No, thank you.” Zuko fidgets with the wool cap they’d given him, his hair curling slightly around the edges of it. “I haven’t been able to practice much either, lately.”

“You can join me.” Katara smiles at him, and Zuko feels his ears heat up.

“I -- I’m not always good … at it,” he mumbles, and Katara shrugs. 

“That’s fine. Me either,” she goes back to pushing and pulling the water. “I go back to basics when I get in my head about it.”

“I had a teacher who told me to do the same thing.” Zuko joins Katara at the water line and watches the movement of her arms. 

She looks nervous at first to have him studying her, and he’s about to apologize when she shrugs and closes her eyes, returning to the push and pull movements that are mesmerizing to witness.

Zuko copies them a little, wondering why he feels weird before he looks at her feet; her stance is different than Aang or Iroh or Azula or any of the excellent, master-level benders he’s seen. Which makes sense, because she’s the first waterbender he’s met.

He adjusts his stance, and then grins as the movements of his hands feel more natural.

Katara opens an eye to see him copying her and then she laughs.

“Trying some new airbending moves?” She asks, arching a brow. “Maybe we can bend some clouds together.”

“That’s an idea.” Zuko stares up at the cloudless sky. “Or we can make some.”

That seems to delight her, and then she’s asking him questions about flying, mainly how (how can you, how does it feel, how did you learn, how do you stay up there), and he answers as vaguely as he can while still answering.

It’s generally the most pleasant bending session he’s ever done, and at the end, worried that she’ll be upset that he learned from her the whole time, Zuko holds a hand out to her to wait, and then takes a deep breath, feeling the wind against his skin.

Aang had made him shave his head when he learned airbending -- it’s why his hair is still so short -- and he can’t say he necessarily misses the weird feeling of air against his scalp, but it had been helpful when he was just learning how to control it.

Now, the limited exposure of his face to the elements is grounding, and he feels himself smile up to the sun and to Agni before he twists backwards, flipping himself. 

Katara gasps, and that makes him want to show off a little more; when his left foot hits the ground, he pushes off, hard, and then catches some currents to stay aloft. With another pivot, he glances off of a cliff of ice, and then weaves a ball of air to cushion his landing in front of her.

“That was airbending,” he announces, painfully awkward, but Katara doesn’t seem to care that he has zero idea how to talk to other people.

Instead, she beams at him, eyes wide with that same, tremulous hope that had been so entrancing the day they met.

“You honor me,” she says softly with a smile. “Not many people have seen airbending for …gosh -- fifty years!”

And like that, the guilt is back, a hot stone in his stomach, and Zuko bows his head to avoid her beautiful eyes.

He doesn’t bother telling her that someone like him can’t honor anyone.

The days pass until it’s been a week, and at least an hour a day, Zuko watches Katara bend, and shows her some airbending. He’s glad, for once, that fire won’t come to him. He doesn’t want to know what she’d think of him if she saw him use that particular element.

It allows him to hide his shame, the shame of his people. It worries him that he’s a coward, until it doesn’t: his father had taught him, had shown him the depth of his cowardice four years ago. He’s well aware of it by now.

Zuko wonders if Aang and Iroh will ever fly overhead and see them -- now that it’s been six days, he worries that they might have given up looking for him. Chiyu is who he’s most worried about: his ‘ugly duckling,’ as Aang calls her, hasn’t been without him since the day he found her at the bottom of the mountainside.

Sometimes he worries that a burned, ugly little bird is what the spirits had sent him as his animal guide; most of the time, Zuko has to admit to himself that she makes total sense, given what kind of person he’s shaping up to be.

As much as he can’t quell his anxiety to see his older mentors, Zuko thinks that he’s found an easy sort of peace in the village. Sure, he’s an outsider, and he offends someone at least six times a day (Katara usually three of those times, much to Sokka’s delight), but the bustle of everyday life here is a welcome change of life as he’s basically lived the last two years as a hermit.

Of course, the peace can’t last.

It never seems to be able to, where Zuko is concerned.

And, it happens quickly, like it always does.

He’s helping Katara near the edge of the village, both of them sorting through medical supplies they traded for, from Earth Kingdom merchants that sailed south enough and didn’t care enough about the potential run-in with Fire Nation patrols. 

They’re talking quietly, drawing some knowing side-eyes from Sokka, who’s training a group of children who can’t be a day older ten how to hold a weapon.

“No mercy!” screams a small child around Ummi’s age.

Katara bursts out laughing, barely hiding it in her hand, when ten of them pile on Sokka, managing to drag the boy to the ground. Zuko grins and laughs too, a rusted sound that sometimes sounds less rusty when he’s near Katara, and leans over the collection of supplies to grab a bunch of herbs used for inflammation.

A small scalpel, packed the wrong way, drags across his palm, drawing blood.

“Ah!” Zuko hisses, snagging his hand back. “Agni, that hurts.” Shaking his hand out, he laughs at himself. “Flaming hells-”

Katara stares at him, frowning, and Zuko swallows nervously at her frown. “What?”

“What gods do the Air Nomads pray to?” She asks softly, her hands folding in her lap; he sees that she’s actually twisting her fingers like she does when she’s waterbending.

She’s on the defense.

“No one formally,” Zuko says carefully.

Katara hesitates, and then she closes her eyes. “The spirit wilds,” she whispers to herself. Zuko frowns. “Of course -- you were wearing --”

“Katara?” He sets the parcel of herbs down in front of him carefully, eyeing her tense hands warily. “What--”

“Are you an Air Nomad?” Katara asks, her voice already inlaid with tears.

She’s asked him if he was an airbender, and he hadn’t lied.

He also hasn’t told the whole truth. Zuko releases a breath and then shakes his head. “No. I’m not.”

“What are you?” Katara hisses through her teeth, drawing back when he leans forward -- and for what, he’s not sure. He’s never initiated contact with her before --  he hasn’t been the one to touch anyone since his mother died and he stopped holding his arms out for comfort.

“I’m Zuko,” he repeats dully, a juxtaposition to the stabbing pain in his gut. “I’m just Zuko--”

“No you aren’t.” Katara shakes her head, and he sees, mortified, that she’s about to cry. “La, oh -- oh, you’re - you’re from--”

“I was born in the Fire Nation,” Zuko confirms, speaking quickly before she pounces on him in her clearly justifiable anger, “But I haven’t lied to you, Katara, I promise--”

“You said you were an airbender!” She half-shouts, leaping to her feet. Ice blades appear at her fingertips in seconds, and Zuko stands too, unfolding himself from the ground. “You’ve been lying since we found you--”

“Katara.” He shakes his head, and holds his hands up to show that he isn’t about to try anything. “Please, let me exp-”

“What’s going on here?” 

Sokka’s voice sounds different.

He’s usually jovial, his voice tinged with the anticipation of his next, awful joke -- his voice is usually warm, commanding, friendly.

Now, Sokka’s voice sounds as sharp as the ice that Katara wields.

“Sokka.” Zuko eyes the battle club in Sokka’s hand. He’s only ever seen it hanging from its strap off Sokka’s belt.

And now it’s pointed at him. 

“I can expl-”

“Explain what?” Sokka turns to Katara, somehow sliding his body in front of hers. Like he’s protecting her from Zuko.

He thinks he might be sick. 

“What did he do to you?” Sokka’s voice is gentle again, but Katara shakes her head.

“He’s Fire Nation,” she spits out, and the change in Sokka’s demeanor is immediate.

“Did he touch you?” He demands, a hand going to gently hold her arm, his eyes scanning her, darting to Zuko every three seconds.

Zuko thinks his feet might be frozen. He wonders if Katara froze him in place; then, he realizes he’s losing his spiritual balance, disappearing into the numbness he’d known so well in those years he’d spent chasing the Avatar, the years he spent chasing the shadow of his own legacy.

“I left you alone with her,” Sokka snaps when Katara’s head shake doesn’t prove enough for him. He points the club at Zuko more directly. “If you touched a hair on her head without permission -- no, even with permission, I am going to bury you-”

“What?” Zuko whispers. “What do you mean-”

Everyone in the village is watching them now; Zuko wonders if he’ll be shamed in every corner of the world before his death.

At the Agni Kai, in front of his father and the entire court.

At the South Pole, in front of people he’d wanted to be his friends.

“Don’t be stupid,” Sokka growls. “You know exactly what men like you do to girls like her-”

“Sokka, stop.” Katara touches his arm, and Sokka lowers the club slightly. “He … he hasn’t hurt me.” She looks at Zuko for a long moment, and he can feel his eyes pleading with her. She turns away from him, disgust written in her expression.

He feels his shoulders droop. 

“He’s a liar, but he hasn’t hurt me.” She lifts her chin proudly. “As if someone like him could.”

“I’m sorry that I lied,” Zuko says as earnestly as he can. “I’m so sorry, Katara, I’m sorry, Sokka, I -”

“You need to leave.” Sokka shakes his head and then points at the village gates. “We need to get ready, in case you were the scout-”

“Of course not,” Zuko says, wanting them to believe him so desperately. “No, definitely - I haven’t been home in four years, Katara, I wasn’t lying about that-”

“Leave.” Sokka stands in front of his sister, but she’s the one who pulls up snow and turns it into daggers.

“I’m - I’m leaving.” Zuko’s hands go to the clasp of his parka, intending to give it back, and Sokka’s expression twitches somewhat.

“I don’t want you dying out there,” he admits begrudgingly. “It’ll be hard enough to make it on your own. Keep it.” He grabs something at his belt and throws a knife into the snow at Zuko’s feet. “That too.”

Zuko wonders how this prince who isn’t a prince, the son of the last chief of the South, could have more honor than everyone in the court of Fire, combined.

He bows and takes the knife. “Thank y-”


Zuko nods and walks away on trembling legs, waiting the entire time for a blade to bury itself between his shoulder blades.

But the Water Tribe doesn’t operate like that, he remembers from his lessons. They have their code of honor. They abide by it.

They weren’t the ones to ignore a peaceful people’s surrender and raze them to the ground anyway.

The gates slam shut behind him, and Zuko doesn’t let himself turn around for a last look as he walks into the freezing cold wind. 

The memory of Katara’s face transforming from calm to fear to disgust feels burned behind his eyelids; Sokka’s echoing distrust hurts almost as much. Not for the first time, Zuko wonders what kind of Avatar he is.

Rejected and banished by the Fire Nation; and now, rejected and banished by the Water Tribe. For someone who’s meant to unify all four elements, none of them seem to particularly care for him.

Shoving the despair aside for the moment, he strikes north, or what he thinks is north, and it’s only the still-present sun that hangs low in the sky that helps him push on through the heaviness in his heart.

Chapter Text

The wind howls through caverns and valleys of ice while Zuko walks; he’s never heard anything like it. The world looks so different down here, carved from water and the sun a nearly perpetual presence on the horizon.

The village is well behind him now, and still he walks north. Briefly, he wonders if he’ll ever find Aang and Iroh, or if he’ll be on his own.

Zuko tells himself he doesn’t care: he’s used to being alone.

One Year Ago

His feet were hurting -- Zuko tried to remember the last time he slept anywhere that wasn’t out in the open, but he couldn’t come up with anything definite. Probably that small farm where the owners were kind enough to let him sleep in a bed and eat at their table in exchange for some work around the place. With their son conscripted into the Fire Nation army -- as nothing more than fodder for the front lines -- they hadn’t been able to do much on their own.

Zuko had helped as much as he could; he tried not to get trapped in the belief that he could do nothing. If he had learned anything from six months on his own, it was that he could always do something. 

Six months after he had fled the Eastern Air Temple and the responsibility Iroh and Aang had handed to him, Zuko wondered if his uncle would ever want to see him again. His father had been right after all: he was a coward.

As he headed east along the bottom of a mountain in the most southwestern part of the Earth Kingdom, a small and pretty river to his right, Zuko heard a sharp screeching noise, almost like metal being torn. He stopped, frowning, his hand twitching to his dao. Eyes flicking to the mountainside above, and then the skies, Zuko waited for someone to come swooping down to land a blow, for an enemy to appear and attack.

Nothing came.

His shoulders relaxed somewhat, and he was about to keep walking when he heard it again.


“Who’s there?” Zuko demanded loudly, a fire building in his veins. “Show yourself.”


“What?” He whispered, walking towards the base of the mountain.

There were shrubs and grass growing thickly, and he pushed aside the branches of one particularly prickly plant when he heard the noise again, coming from the ground under the brush.


Zuko hissed when he saw the creature making the noise.

“Agni,” he muttered, bending down to look more closely at the animal. “What happened to you?”

The bird looked up at him pitifully, its neck barely strong enough to allow the movement. What was left of its plumage was red, but the skin was scarred and twisted in most places, and he swore he could smell remnants of ash and smoke rising from the scabs that littered its body.

Someone had set the bird on fire, assuming it would die.

“Scree,” the bird whimpered, and Zuko glanced around wildly, expecting to see a Fire Nation patrol, one that held the sadist who could do such a thing to an innocent animal -- but there was no one approaching.

“Hey.” Zuko reached down to pick the bird up, a hand going to his dao. “Hey, don’t worry. This’ll be over quickly--”

He held the bird gently as he pulled it from the thicket, and his thumb stroked absently over a wing -- shockingly, the wing was fully intact, albeit slightly skeletal. Both wings looked functional, as did the legs and beak.

Zuko frowned. “How much pain are you in, little bird?” He asked softly. “You’re quite the ugly turtleduck.”

The bird looked up at him, huddling into his arm for warmth, and peeped up again. “Scree.”

“Yeah. I guess I am too.” Zuko held one dao up, ready to end the thing’s misery, and the bird looked into his eyes for a long moment, its eyes strangely clear and deep for a tiny, sick bird.

His arm faltered, and then dropped.

“Who are you?” Zuko asked, throat tight with an unnamed emotion. “Where did you come from?”

The bird nestled its head into the crook of his arm, and Zuko sheathed his dao. 

“Turtleduck,” he said again, even though the thing he was holding clearly wasn’t.

His mind went to a long-buried memory of the capital, a memory of his mother and sister, of a turtleduck with burnt wings. Zuko looked down at the bird, and then over at the river.

“Here goes nothing,” he muttered, standing carefully and carrying the bird to the water.

It screeched pathetically as he lowered it to the stream, and he held it the way he had held the strange possum chickens back on the farm, wings tucked into the side as the bird faced upward to stop it from drowning.

Zuko closed his eyes once the water met his hands and focused. He wasn’t sure what to focus on - the sound of water, or the smell of algae, or the feel of the bird’s scarred skin in his hands.

That must be it.

He thought about the animal’s pain, about whatever cruelty had brought it to this state, and he exhaled slowly. “Let me take the pain away,” he whispered. “Let me take it, so that it won’t suffer anymore.” 

He wasn’t sure who he was speaking to - the spirits maybe, or something inside himself - but he thought of the horrible pain of his own burn, which had dulled over the last three years, and he thought of things that always made him feel better. He thought of the little turtleduck swimming away after Azula had burned it --

He thought of how, when he went back to the courtyard hours later, he saw his sister throwing grain to the turtleducks. How he heard her apologize and cry while she spoke to the ducks about not knowing where the meanness inside her came from.

And that was the legacy of his family, Zuko thought, feeling strangely at peace while he held the duck in the water and traced every whorl of scar tissue. The capacity for great cruelty -- but also kindness, if they’d let it grow.

His hands grew warm in the cool water, and then the warmth faded: Zuko looked down and saw that the bird looked healthier now, its wings fuller, the scabs and open burns soothed to create new skin.

“Hello,” Zuko said, pulling the bird from the water. “Feeling better?”

The bird cheeped a few times and then “scree!” 

Zuko grinned, the expression tugging on his stiff scar. “Welcome back.” He went to his pack and pulled out his blanket, looping it around himself awkwardly like he was wearing a sling.

“I’ll call you Chiyu,” he murmured, tucking the bird into the sling safely. 

It looked up at him, and he felt … good. Because he had helped it. He hadn’t had anything to gain from helping a broken bird, but he’d done it, and he’d been able to do it. He’d been able to take away something’s pain. 

That made him feel better.

And then he felt worse.

“I’ve been away too long,” he said to Chiyu a few miles later. “It’s been six months since I’ve seen my uncle. Do you think he’d want to see me?”


“Yeah. Me too.” Zuko scratched the bird’s ugly head subconsciously while he hummed a lullaby Iroh had always cared for. “I think we’ll keep heading east.”


As Zuko walks, he hears a strange, distant sound that isn’t the wind moving through ice.

His steps slow so the sound of crunching snow is removed, and then he focuses.

“Zuko!” Something shouts. “Zuuuuuu-ko!”

“I’m not in the mood to get kidnapped by spirits,” Zuko mutters. “Not even cl-”

He turns and then fights the urge to groan. 

Little Ummi from the village is running towards him as fast as her legs can carry her.

“Ummi!” He shouts. “What are you doing?”

“Don’t leave!” Ummi screams, wildly out of breath. “Come back!”

“Agni save me,” Zuko grumbles, already walking towards her. “Ummi, you need to go home-”

As she runs, her feet catch on the ice, and she goes down hard, skidding along the ground until she falls into a pool of water that’s build up in a break in the ice, her head vanishing beneath the surface. Zuko sprints forward the second she falls, and he shouts when she disappears.

“Ummi?” He asks, falling to his knees, not even wincing at the crack of bone on ice. “Ummi, where are you-”

He can see the flash of white fur as she sinks into the hole in the ice, and Zuko looks up at the sun, lets out a breath, and then plunges his arm into the water.

His bones scream in pain at the sudden contact with freezing water, but he grits his teeth and half-lowers his body into the water until he feels something -- he can’t tell if it’s fur because that would imply he could feel anything with his deadened fingers, but he curls his hand into it and pulls, heaving his body back towards solid ground.

Ummi, thankfully, surfaces with the movement.

“You stupid little kid,” he groans when he sees her eyes are closed and her lips are blue. “What were you doing, huh?” 

Zuko tugs her sodden parka -- already freezing to ice in the air -- off and changes it out for his own outer layer, wrapping her up tightly. 

“Hypothermia, hypothermia,” he mutters through his own chattering teeth. “What would Uncle do - ugh!”

The answer is obvious: Iroh would make a fire.

Spirits, his life is a joke.

Then, Zuko remembers Katara feeling his forehead after he’d been awake for six hours. “You’re so warm,” she’d said, frowning, “ Like you have a fever … but not.

“If you have any favor left for me,” Zuko mutters, looking up to the sun and then bowing. “Help me, Agni.”

He thinks about heat, about the flush warmth of Ember Island, the sticky humidity of Caldera City, and then Zuko picks Ummi up and wraps his arms around her tiny frame. “Come on,” he mutters, putting a hand to her chilled cheek. “Come on, come on, please - I don’t need to make blue fire, or lightning, or anything special -- just help me, please-”

He hears her take a ragged breath and then cough, and Zuko could faint from relief. 

“Ummi?” He says again, standing up and lurching towards the village already. “Don’t worry, I’ll get you home-”


“Shh.” He tucks her under his chin and runs, even though his feet ache. “It’s okay. I got you.”

As he runs, Zuko’s mind locks onto something undeniable:

Today, firebending helped save a life, not end it.

Maybe fire isn’t as evil as he’d thought.

Zuko had been gone for seven months and eight days when he returned to the Eastern Air Temple.

Chiyu was strong enough to sit on his shoulder, and she bobbed with his steps, her beak pecking at his hair, long enough now to fall over his ears.

At first, he didn’t see anyone at the base of the mountain where they used to sleep; Zuko tilted his head back and looked to the temple above. He had never set foot at the temple, refusing to use his airbending to get there.

He hadn’t airbended in months, not since he had helped to dispel smoke coming from a house that rogue Fire Nation soldiers set aflame. Even then, it had been an instinct, and he’d felt strangely sick after he’d done it; probably because his body was rebelling against the different style of bending.

“Hold on tight, Chiyu.” He placed his bird in his hood and then let out a breath. “Okay. Airbending. Should be … easy.”

He ran towards the mountain and then hopped, skipped into the air. His feet tangled together, and his heart plummeted.

A moment later, his face was planted in the dirt.

Chiyu warbled something that had to be a laugh, and Zuko grumbled as he wiped mud from his nose.

“Yeah yeah.”

He tried again from further back, this time focusing on a rocky outcrop as his first goal. He ran as fast as he could, and then he felt it: a pocket of air under his right foot. Zuko pushed down hard into that pocket, planting his feet, and then twisting his heel the way he saw Aang twist once. 

He launched into the air, his left foot landing on the outcrop; the next moment pushed him further up the mountainside.

The wind grew stronger the more he ascended, and eventually, he let it push him the last three hundred feet to the cliffside; and later, he wouldn’t be able to admit that he screamed in shock as he actually flew.

But he did; and he did.

Zuko managed to pull himself upright on the edge of the cliff, and then he looked up to the temple. From the nearest building, he could hear a man singing slightly off-key. Zuko smiled despite his growing anxiety -- he knew that voice.

He drew closer, and then, catching onto his nerves, Chiyu squeaked in her normal, loud, screechy way.

The man stopped singing, and Zuko stopped walking.

Two people appeared in the doorway, one tall and one short.

“Prince Zuko?” Iroh’s face was impossible to read, but Aang looked strangely at peace.

“Uncle.” Zuko felt a wave of shame -- even if he was still angry at his uncle for lying to him for sixteen years, even if he still had questions on how the events of his birth came to be, Iroh was his elder, and he had run away from him and his duty as Avatar, as crown prince of the Fire Nation.

Zuko knelt. “Can you forgive me for running away from the truth?” He looked over Iroh’s shoulder to Aang. “Can either of you forgi-”

Iroh rushed towards him and nearly fell to the ground in his attempt to embrace him; Zuko nearly fell over too when his still portly uncle crashed into him.

“I think that answers that,” Aang chuckled, walking up behind Iroh to put a hand on his back. Zuko hugged his uncle in return, feeling slightly off-balance from the easy show of affection.

Iroh cried, and Zuko cried too, and Aang had to calm them both down before they stood.

“I’m ready to become the Avatar,” Zuko said, his face burning with lingering shame. “And I’m sorry to have ever rejected that part of me --” He turned and bowed low to Aang, “Would you teach me?”

Aang smiled and tapped his shoulder; Zuko rose from the bow as Aang said, “You’ve already learned the first lesson of airbending: letting go of anger.”

“I’m not that good at that,” Zuko muttered. If anything, he was angrier than ever, having seen firsthand what his father and grandfather had done to the Earth Kingdom to break it.

Aang shook his head. “No, Zuko. You’ve taken the first step in forgiving yourself. You can’t be weighed down by that anger if you want to stay aloft.”

Zuko nodded, not sure what else to say. Aang’s smile grew slightly evil.

“Now. Let’s talk about that hair.”

Katara stabs a little more mercilessly than normal at a fish, deboning it with a ferocity that has Kanna raising her eyebrows.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

She tosses the fish in the bucket, her blood still boiling. “Not at all.”

Kanna hums and keeps working, and Katara glances up and down the station where most of the women in the village have gathered to work that afternoon. She frowns when she realizes that Kira is missing. 

She finds out why a moment later.

“Ummi!” Kira stumbles across the threshold of the shelter, gasping for air. “I c-can’t find her anywhere!”

Everyone’s on alert at last.

“-Have you seen that polar bear recently, sniffing around-”

“-She could just be hiding somewhere, my Lusa did that last week-”

“-wandered off probably-”

Kira shakes her head, burying her face in her mittens as she cries. “I don’t know where she might have gone.”

A mean thought nags at the back of Katara’s mind. “You don’t think … he took her-” she whispers to Kanna.

She gets a pinch from Gran-Gran. “He wouldn’t,” the older woman says firmly, “And please don’t even suggest such a thing to that girl’s mother. I saw Ummi myself after he’d already left, and there’s no way he snuck back in here.”

Katara nods, feeling slightly guilty for assuming the worst. And then, the horns sound, and they all stare at each other, shocked.

Gathering at the gates, Katara and the other women jostle each other, whispering about what it might be. Sokka stands at the front, the boys who are all younger than sixteen (most younger than ten), grouped around him, weapons at the ready. 

And then:

“Dad!” Sokka shouts and sprints through the gate, the other boys laughing and relaxing as well. 

Katara shoves through the crowd, her heart pounding at the thought of seeing her father.

Hakoda leads a line of men up and around the walls of the village, obviously having hidden their umiaks up and away from the water. He looks exactly how she remembers: tall, powerful, with his wolftail long to signify his battle prowess.


Then, they see that the men are half-running, most of them glancing around back at the water.

“Back inside!” Hakoda shouts, “Get back inside -- Fire Nation!”

There’s some screaming and shoving as everyone rushes back within the walls, and after the twenty-five warriors squeeze through the main gate, they work quickly to shut it, Katara helping the men by pushing on the ice with her bending.

Hakoda embraces her and Sokka quickly before turning to the gathered villagers.

“We were successful in diverting the supply ships to the northeast,” Hakoda announces, “and we made quite a mess for the Fire Nation. But, we were spotted by a patrol on our way back in, and we can’t be sure they didn’t follow us.”

“Zuko’s ship,” Katara whispers to Sokka, who frowns thoughtfully.

“I don’t think so,” he says quietly while their father continues to debrief the villagers on what they’ll need to do in case the patrol comes inland enough to find them. 

Katara and Sokka are well aware of emergency procedures. Their father had run drills with them almost daily after Kya’s murder: where to go, how to run, what to bring. Day or night, always random, always terrifying. 

At least they’re prepared, Katara thinks. 

“Why not?” She whispers back to her brother, scowling.

“Think about it,” Sokka mutters, keeping his eyes on their dad. “We watched him fall a thousand feet. There would have been no way for him to fake that, or to fake being unconscious. He had no gear on him, and he’s been here for a week. Dad just got back. There’s no connection between that ship and Zuko.”

Katara keeps scowling, even if a small voice in her head warns her that Sokka’s probably right.


“I know he lied to you,” Sokka whispers, squeezing her hand gently. “And he’s a jerk for that. But, he didn’t come here to hurt us. You need to stop thinking about him and get ready in case a real Fire Nation soldier shows up. Okay?”

Katara nods, and as their father turns to them, looking more chief than parent, they move quickly to help the village prepare for the absolute worst.

Five months ago

Zuko cut through the air, his glider becoming an extension of himself. The wind whistled against his bald scalp, and to his left, Chiyu swooped through the air, screeching in delight. Zuko grinned at her and then wheeled through the clouds towards the temple.

A laugh tore out of his throat, surprising even him: it was a rusted noise, stiff with disuse, probably because he hadn’t laughed in almost a year. Chiyu soared over his head, screaming to match his laugh, which only made him chuckle more. His stomach felt less tight than normal, and he sucked in a huge breath, letting it back out, imagining all his anger leaving his body with the exhale.

When he neared the ground, Zuko flipped the glider shut and cut it through the air, relying on his forward momentum to keep him going in the right direction. He spun an orb of air from the end of the glider, and directed his feet to land on it.

From there, he floated to the ground, Chiyu doing laps around him, victoriously cawing.

“Excellent work, Zuko.” Aang watched with an amused smile, and Zuko lifted his concentration and allowed the orb to dissipate. 

“Thank you, Master.” Zuko bowed politely and came to stand next to Aang at the edge of the cliff that overlooked most of the temple.

They stood quietly for almost half a minute, Zuko’s eyes tracking the movement of the winged lemurs as they tumbled about and played below them.

“Not many could master Airbending in six months.” Aang sounded approving, but Zuko felt slightly embarrassed. 

“It would have been sooner if I hadn’t fought against learning last year-”

“You learned exactly when you were supposed to.” 

Aang put a still strong hand on Zuko’s shoulder, his skin cool against Zuko’s. They were both wearing the tunics traditional to the Air Nomads, and Zuko found that he almost preferred it to the heavy, formal clothing he was used to as Fire royalty.

He felt freer dressed like a Nomad. Not tied down, not restricted. He guessed that was the point. Still, the guilt lingered, and it darkened his spirits on what should have been a happy day.

“While I was hiding in my fear, my father continued to commit crimes against the people of this world,” Zuko said, his voice harsh with righteous anger. “Against my people, too.”

“Your father’s crimes are not your own,” Aang said softly. 

It was an argument they’d had often.

“No.” Zuko shook his head, rubbing a hand over his smooth scalp. “But they are mine to fix.  I benefited almost my entire life from everyone else’s pain, even if I wasn’t the favorite like Azula.” The last statement tasted like ash in his mouth; it felt petty to still think about it, but it was the truth. 

Zuko needed to be better at confronting the truth.

“I’m afraid-” Zuko began, but stopped himself. He wondered if that was a complete enough statement on his own.

He was afraid.

“What are you afraid of?” Aang prodded, his voice still gentle. 

“That I - That there’s too much to fix,” Zuko explained slowly, trying to piece it together. “That … no one will want me as the Avatar...because of my father.”

“And,” he added, knowing Aang would poke him until he told the entire truth, “And .. I’m afraid no one will want me as the Fire Lord .... because I’m a coward.”

“I don’t think you’re a coward.” Aang stared out across the valley, and Zuko scowled at his teacher before shrugging grumpily.

“I don’t think we always have to agree … Master.”

To his surprise, Aang didn’t admonish him for talking back -- but then again, he wouldn’t. Aang wasn’t like that; even Iroh would at least give him a stern look for being rude. But Aang seemed to find insubordination … delightful. It went against everything Zuko had learned about respect, and he was still being surprised by Aang’s gentle ways half a year into his training.

“You remind me of someone very beloved to me.” Aang looked almost sad now, and Zuko frowned, wondering who he was talking about. 

It struck him that he knew next to nothing about his airbending master, only that he’d briefly protected the last Avatar to come from the Nomads. He also knew that the boy, Tenzin, had died in Aang’s care, and Iroh had been strict in telling Zuko to never ask about that wound.

His mind shifted to think about the people behind Tenzin’s death -- Tenzin, his own past life. Tears burned in his eyes briefly as he thought about Jin, the girl from the Earth Kingdom, and the child who’d been murdered at the South Pole. All dead at his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather’s hands. All crimes mounted at Zuko’s feet, adding onto the countless people who’d been wiped from the earth in the Fire Nation’s quest for imperial power.

“Where has your mind gone, young Avatar?”

“No matter what I do.” Zuko’s hands briefly spasmed where he gripped his glider. “I can’t undo Sozin’s cruelty. I can’t … bring back your people. There are no more Air Nomads, and it’s my family’s fault.”

“At least one airbender survived,” Aang said gently, turning to face Zuko.

Unable to bear it anymore, Zuko sunk to his knees, setting his glider flat on the ground as he bowed as low as possible. “I would trade my life if I could bring back your people,” Zuko spoke to the ground, knowing that the words would rise to Aang. “I would trade my life for the world.”

There was a gentle touch on his shoulder, and Zuko looked up to see Aang smiling - but not quite smiling - down at him.

“You will never have to do that, Zuko.” Aang grabbed his arm and pulled him to his feet, shockingly strong for a man in his sixties. “I’m going to make sure of it.”

For once, Zuko accepted the hug Aang offered, if only so that his teacher couldn’t see the tears that still fell from his eyes.


The village gates are closed as Zuko sprints towards them, relying on the energy he got from the quick, controlled breaths Aang had taught him. Airbenders have a natural ability to maintain their energy, and can move quickly; he uses that technique now, with Ummi still listless in his arms.

“Open up!” He shouts as he nears the gates. “Please!”

A spear thuds into the snow five feet to his left. Zuko shouts in alarm and turns his body to protect Ummi’s.

“I have a little girl here!” Zuko shouts, louder this time. “She needs medical attention, please, please help h-”

“Zuko?” Sokka shouts down to him, his face covered in ceremonial paint -- what had happened in the last two hours? Why has everything changed so much, so quickly? “What the hell are you doing?”

Zuko holds his arms out, panting wildly, and Sokka’s face pales as he turns and shouts something down behind the wall. 

“Open the gate!” Someone yells out of sight, and Zuko grits his teeth.

“I’m going to get killed for this, you little pest,” he mutters to Ummi, still desperately afraid for her. “And the cycle is going to have to start all over again.”

The gates open just barely enough for him to walk through, and Zuko walks slowly, hoping that it’s obvious that he’s unarmed. The first time he’d come here, the village had shouted with joy and laughed at his feet slipping on the ice. 

This time, he’s met with a half-circle of men who are clearly warriors, their weapons pointed right at him.

“Fire Nation spy!” Someone yells in the crowd, and a tall, imposing man in the front stares at him.

“We can do all that in a minute,” Zuko snaps, his heart pounding from adrenaline. “She needs medical attention-”

“You kidnapped her.” 

Zuko knows that voice. “Katara,” he protests weakly, “Please, she followed me-”

“A likely story.” The girl who’d been so kind to him the last week looks at him like he’s scum beneath her boot now. He probably deserves that.

Still, she marches forward and lifts Ummi from his arms, the other villagers clearly not willing to take the risk.

“Thank you,” he whispers to her. She actually sticks her nose in the air (he's always thought that was only something girls did in books ) and marches away, running to hand Ummi to a weeping woman, who’s obviously Ummi’s mother.

Katara and a handful of women vanish into the hut Zuko had recuperated in, and then everyone’s attention is back on him. 

The man at the front of the warriors had never taken his eyes off of Zuko, though.

“Name yourself,” he says coldly.

“My name is Zuko.” He wets his lip nervously, and when the man’s brow lifts in clear recognition, he sighs and curls his hands into fists. “...Former Prince ... of the Fire Nation.”

There are gasps and whispers -- a few more shouts of murderer, and that's great, really great -- but then a woman comes back out of the shelter and whispers something to the man, who doesn’t take his eyes off of Zuko while listening.

“She says you saved Ummi’s life,” he says, still cold and unreadable. “The girl is awake, and says you kept her warm, carried her back to us after she fell into the water.”

Katara emerges from the hut as well, wary but looking at Zuko again. He takes that as a victory, that she’ll even look at him. He stares at her for a second before looking back to the man addressing him. 

“I’m no longer a prince,” Zuko says honestly. He swallows and holds back the last piece of the truth. “I’m … a nomad now. I don’t have a home, and yet your people took me into their homes without a second thought. You have honored me, and all I did was lie.” He bows to the village, aware that they could easily execute him. “I regret it, and I am sorry.”

He looks up when nothing happens, and sees that Sokka is standing next to the man, talking in a low, quick voice.

The man nudges Sokka with his brows raised, and Sokka clears his throat and addresses the village. 

“I just told my father,” -- great, Zuko thinks distantly, he looks like an idiot in front of Katara’s dad, that’s great, and why in Agni’s name should he care about that -- “that the ship that approaches, searching for our warriors, is a much larger concern than one person who’s lived among us peacefully for days. The prince has knowledge of the Fire Nation, and perhaps he can tell us how to best survive an attack.”

Zuko stares at Sokka, who offers him a small, encouraging nod of the chin. Zuko wants to slap his forehead, but then he lets out a breath, thinking as quickly as possible.

“You don’t,” Zuko says slowly. A few warriors mutter, but he rises to his feet and keeps talking, “Because you won’t even be attacked. Not if it isn’t worth it for them to come inland.”

“What are you talking about?” The chief studies his face, and Zuko speaks as openly and calmly as possible, wanting them to believe him.

“A warship, even one on patrol, is too expensive to scuttle,” Zuko explains, “and if they’re just looking for a handful of warriors,” more mutters, and Zuko’s ears heat up when he realizes he definitely just insulted the Southern Water Tribe by accident, “the Fire Nation would never approve a situation where they could possibly lose a ship. So, if it isn’t safe, they won’t approach.”

Sokka looks around doubtfully, and then up to the sun, rubbing his chin. “But … it’s a perfect day,” Sokka points out, “clear as anything, and the ice is thinner than normal. It wouldn’t be hard for them to come inland if they were able to pinpoint where the boats had landed.”

“It is clear,” Zuko agrees. “For now.”

He turns to Katara, who’s watching the proceedings with a suspicion that’s almost laughably easy to read.

“We can make it less clear.” He speaks directly to her. “With our bending combined, we can make clouds of fog, and send them towards the ship. If it looks unsafe, they won’t enter the fog.”

Katara merely scowls at him. “How would a firebender be able to do that?”

“Steam!” Sokka says excitedly. “Heat and water - it makes steam!”

A flicker of understanding crosses Katara’s face, and Zuko bites back the argument that he actually can’t firebend at the moment; it would be airbending he’s using.

But, that would involve him opening his mouth, and snapping that he never lied about being an airbender, and that wouldn’t go very well, and then Katara would shout at him, and then he’d shout at Katara, and then he’d definitely be executed for screaming at the daughter of the chief in the middle of a potential invasion.

So Zuko lets out a tense breath and nods.

Katara looks out at the villagers, crowded together, the eyes of the children round with fright. Zuko’s pretty sure that he knows her answer before she does.

“Alright.” Katara nods and marches forward; she comes right up to him, and he’s half expecting her to smack him in the face. Instead, she points a finger at his nose, and he goes cross-eyed looking at it. “But don’t think for a second this means I trust you.”

“Got it,” Zuko says, wincing. She storms off towards the gate, and he glances back to the chief and Sokka.

They’re both smirking at each other. When they catch Zuko looking at them, they elbow each other and snort.

Zuko growls under his breath and turns, following Katara towards the water.

Katara pulls up water, her movements slow and steady, and Zuko wonders if it looks like he’s firebending at all as he wills air into the rising water, scattering the particles and turning them into a mist that slowly grows darker as the amount increases.

They’re up on a cliff of ice, the warriors including Sokka and Hakoda standing behind them, watching the water where the ship grows nearer. They aren’t visible from this angle, but they are working as quickly as possible to make sure they don’t suddenly become visible or exposed to attack.

“Okay.” Zuko pushes the steam forward in a gust of air; to his right, Katara lets out a shaky breath, sweat dripping from her temple. “I’ve got a hold of it - how are you?”

“Yes,” she grits out. “How are you doing that with firebending -”

“I told you, I’m a--” Zuko sighs and shakes his head, deciding once and for all that any warmth between him and Katara is officially a lost cause. Entirely his fault, of course, but still aggravating. “Never mind. Just focus.”

“I am focusing. You focus.”

Zuko rolls his eyes and pushes harder, generating more whirls of fog. The cloud hovers above the water and then slips out between the cliffs which mark the entrance to the village’s harbor. It drags out across the water, a massive, limping thing, and Katara’s breath sounds labored. Zuko’s lungs don’t feel much better, as he’s pouring most of his chi into this.

A sharp whistle cuts through the air, and Hakoda translates it for them: “It looks like the ship is veering off course,” he reports. “They must see the fog.”

“Good,” Katara mutters. “How much longer will we have to keep this going?” 

“At least fifteen minutes,” Zuko answers, watching the speed of the ship. “They’re going slow because they’re considering their next move.”


They don’t talk for a few more minutes, Katara pulling more moisture into the cloud, gasping for air at times. Zuko’s more than worried for her, but his own vision is turning dark at the corners, and he viscerally feels the intent of his nation’s attempt to kill the waterbenders. This would be a thousand, million times easier with more numbers.

Instead, it’s just Katara, last of the waterbenders, saving her people. 

His throat feels oddly tight, so he forces himself to re-focus.

Another whistle, a few sharp bursts.

“They think they’re going to come through the fog anyway! Men, get ready!” Hakoda barks, and Zuko glances behind him to see them heft their weapons, clearly thinking about jumping down onto the ship when it passes between the ice cliffs.

“No.” Zuko shakes his head. “There has to be another way.”

“Unless you magically know how to make lightning to make this look like a storm,” Katara snaps, and Zuko groans in irritated anxiety. Her feet slide a little on the ice, but then she resets her heel, locking her stance and lowering her center of gravity.

And then, a thought occurs to him. A memory, really. 

Katara, moving through her forms back when she trusted him enough to let him watch her practice. The way she cut her arms through the air to break sheets of ice. He’d thought the move was beautiful at the time.

And now he sees how useful it is.

“Katara, get back!” Hakoda orders. “If they begin to fire --”

“I’m not moving!” Katara snaps. “I can do this-”

The ship can’t be more than a thousand feet away. Zuko scans the cliff across from them to make sure no one’s standing on it, and then sets his jaw stubbornly.

“Katara, get down there.”

“What?” She loses concentration, and the cloud evaporates somewhat. “Ex cuse me? You are not my dad, you’re a-”

 “Gross, awful, evil firebender. Yep.” Zuko glances down at the warrior, and shouts. “Get back!”

There are shouts of alarm as he grabs Katara’s arm, and she smacks him, yelping, but he releases her quickly, causing her to slide down the incline. “You can yell at me later,” he tells her as she stumbles backward. “If I survive this.”

“What are you--”

Zuko leaps forward and envisions the movement as one, long knife. He cuts his body through the air, moving his arms sharply the way Katara had a few days ago, and he releases his breath only when his foot hits the icy cliff; he thinks he can feel the shapes in the ice, the pockets of air, the ancient scarring of its formation and re-freezing.

For a second, he thinks nothing happened.

And then: with an almighty crack, the cliff crumbles beneath him, and the shouts behind him turned into shocked gasps as the ice tumbles into the water.

Zuko springs through the cloud he and Katara had made, hoping it provides him enough cover, and pushes himself through the air until he lands on the other cliff. His feet slide and for a long, desperate moment, he thinks he’ll fall into the water. But, he sets his heels and moves with the loss of control, pushing into the lack of friction, and he comes to a halt a dozen feet later.

He repeats the motion from the other side, having to push twice this time to loosen enough ice. Alarms go off on the ship as it veers back towards the open water, rumbles of ice and sheets of rocky snow tumbling into the water, a clear and apparent threat to the ship that retreats away from the danger.

The water below is still stirred by the sudden displacement of ice when Zuko leaps across the much larger gap now, and what’s left of his energy goes into pushing him through the air before he stumbles to a stop on the snow in front of Katara and the warriors.

”I think that worked,” he mumbles, thoroughly depleted by waterbending to that extent.

And to think: his only experience with it so far had been healing. Huh. 

Katara’s a good teacher, he thinks sleepily, before glancing over to the bender herself.

She looks torn between shock and fury.

“What was that?” She demands.

“What was what?” Zuko mumbles, his tiredness making him more obtuse than normal.

His feet slip a little as a wave of exhaustion hits him.

“I thought you were a firebender,” Sokka says warily, glancing at his dad, who looks equally confused.

“I am a firebender.” He bows his head, still swaying on his feet. “And I didn’t lie to you. I’m an airbender too.”

“But! But, but, but - you were waterbending!” Katara half-shouts. “What was that about?”

“I guess I'm a waterbender.” Zuko shrugs and the world gets noticeably darker. “First time for everything, I guess.”


Hakoda’s children look at their father wildly as he bows to Zuko. It would be kinda nice, being bowed to, if the world stopped being so cloudy.

“Prince Zuko … is the Avatar,” Hakoda says softly, and Sokka’s jaw drops as Katara claps a hand to her mouth in sudden understanding.

Zuko nods. “Guilty, I’m afraid.” 

Then, right before his vision totally gives out, he offers them a weak smile. “Any chance you won’t tell anyone?”

He faints before he can get an answer.

Chapter Text

Katara and Sokka stare at the collapsed figure of Zuko in the snow for a few seconds before turning to their dad.

“Now what?” Sokka asks uncertainly. “We can’t just -- leave him out here.”

Katara thinks privately that maybe they could. He probably wouldn’t die after all: other than the fainting, he seems pretty resistant to death.

“‘No, we can’t.” Hakoda sighs and shakes his head. “We’ll take him back.”

“Back to our village?” Katara asks incredulously. “Avatar or not, he’s still the prince of the Fire Nation.”

“...He was.” 

Hakoda doesn’t say anything else until he walks forward and scoops Zuko up gently from the snow; even Katara has to admit that Zuko looks almost fragile like this, still young, his scar a horrifying twist of color against his fair skin, and the snow. The chief throws him over his shoulder as though carrying game home, and gestures for them all to start walking.

As they cut through the frozen landscape, Hakoda shares what else is on his mind.

“I heard many rumors about the banished prince - he left the capital in great disgrace. I hadn’t imagined he would be so young; or, so … solitary.”

“If he’s the Avatar, then why…” Sokka trails off when he realizes he’s interrupted his father. “Sorry, Dad.”

“No, no, keep going.”

“It’s just.” Sokka sheaths his boomerang and rubs his jaw. “For the Fire Lord to willingly force the Avatar to leave, when he could have been controlling the most powerful person on the planet: It doesn’t make any sense.”

Katara walks behind her father and brother, which means she can watch Zuko’s head loll around, his face slack. He doesn’t look powerful right now: but, then again, he just saved all of their lives fifteen minutes ago.

“Perhaps, the Fire Lord did not know his son was the Avatar.” Hakoda sighs. “We will have to ask him when he wakes up.”

Sokka glances back at Katara. “Did you have any idea that he was the Avatar? You two spent a lot of time together.”

She flushes when her father glances back at her too, clearly curious. “No,” she snaps. “I obviously didn’t know anything real about him.”

“I don’t know.” Sokka shrugs and stops walking long enough to fall in next to her. He nudges her with his elbow. “The Zuko we knew over the last week -- he did seem like the kind of guy who would risk his own life to save a kid. And, he seemed … willing to help us in general. Which is what he did today. Maybe some parts of himself, he wasn’t able to lie about.”

“Ugh.” Katara shakes her head. “You wouldn’t understand.”

“A man’s true character isn’t shown in what he says,” Hakoda chimes in without turning around, and Katara grinds her teeth together as he adds, “It’s in what he does.”

Katara scowls fiercely now but looks out over the water, realizing that she might have to be alone in her beliefs, in her distrust of the slender young man thrown over her father’s shoulder. She does have to admit to herself that he did save them -- and clearly at the expense of his strength, and possibly health.

And he did save Ummi, like Sokka pointed out. He’s … complicated, Katara decides. She doesn’t like complicated though, so she holds on tight to her distrust and decides that wariness of the potential threat, as long as she wasn’t outright cruel to him, can’t be anything but a way to survive.

“Did the Avatar mention anything about his travelling companions?” Hakoda asks as they near the gates.

“Uhh … he said he was travelling with two friends, and that they were probably looking for him,” Sokka recalls.

“Any chance the two friends are … old men?” Now Hakoda sounds amused, and Katara frowns at her dad’s back. “And … maybe have a giant bison as a friend?”

“No clue.” Sokka gives Katara a weird look before looking back at their dad. “Why?”

“That’s really specific,” Katara says, lifting an eyebrow.

“It is.” Hakoda chuckles and then lifts his free arm. “And I think you’ll see why.”

They peer around their dad’s large frame, and then Katara’s eyes widen. Sure enough, there are two figures outside the open gates; the villagers are grouped around two newcomers, one with white, long hair pulled back in an elegant topknot, and one, completely bald, with cobalt blue tattoos that standout against the snow.

Behind them is a massive, white bison with markings similar to the bald man’s tattoos.

“Is that,” Sokka whispers, right as the bald man launches himself into the air, his raucous laughter audible from even this distance.

He flips through the air, before spinning up onto the bison’s head; the bison roars in a way that sounds strangely affectionate, and while some villagers shy away from the noise, most of them move forward, laughing as they pet at its fur.

“Now that’s an airbender,” Sokka whispers, eyes wide now. “I always thought it was weird that Zuko didn't have any tattoos.”

“Only the masters received them,” Hakoda says, rubbing his chin thoughtfully.

Katara swears Sokka copies that exact movement a moment later.

“Let us go and welcome our visitors.” Hakoda picks up the pace, raising his hand in greeting as they near the two old men. Katara walks at his left, and Sokka his right, with the warriors fanning out behind them.

“Hello, friends,” Hakoda says calmly, drawing to a stop a few feet away from the shorter, round man in red robes. “I am Chief Hakoda of the Southern Water Tribe. You are welcome to our village. Who might you be?”

“I am Iroh,” the old man says with a bow that reminds Katara of the strange attempts of Zuko to continually demonstrate his respect for everyone around him. “And this is Aang.”

The other man, slightly younger than Iroh, flips back off of the bison and lands in front of them, light on his feet -- Katara wonders if he’s hovering off the ground.

“And this is Appa!” Aang pats the bison on the nose, and the bison grumbles at him before its giant eyes flick to Katara’s. She sucks a breath in, truly shocked to see such a huge creature, but then she feels her face soften to a smile because while it is huge, it’s also ridiculously cute.

“Don’t get too close,” Aang warns Sokka, who’s walking forward with an awestruck expression. “Especially not to his --”

A tongue as tall as her brother snakes out and slurps him from head to toe.

“-Mouth,” Aang finishes with a voice that only barely conceals a giggle.

Everyone else bursts out laughing as Sokka dances back and forth on his feet shouting “Ew, ew, ew yuck - gross - ugh!”

Even Katara laughs through her anxiety at meeting the strangers, and the only one not laughing is Iroh, who extends an embroidered handkerchief to her brother who takes it with a dubious look before wiping his face.

“Our friend Appa is very affectionate,” Iroh says in a voice that sets Katara’s nerves at ease almost fully with its depth of projected calm. The old man pats Sokka on the arm. “And he can read a person’s heart with ease. You must be a good man, to have charmed him in such a way.”

“I am pretty nice,” Sokka sniffs, still wiping at his face. He gives Appa the side eye. “Nice … bison.”

Katara hides another giggle that Sokka definitely hears.

“Now.” Iroh’s eyes go to the form slumped over her father’s shoulders. “I see you are holding someone very important to me. I hope he is not a prisoner.”

“Of course not,” Hakoda says without pausing. “He was a guest of my village, and he assisted us in fending off a Fire Nation patrol boat; he overexerted himself in the effort.”

“We saw them from the air.” Aang looks up from the circle of children who have gathered around him, some tugging on his impressive beard, others hiding behind the cape that hangs from his orange, outer tunic. “I hope no one was hurt.”

“No one was hurt, Fire or Water,” Hakoda confirms. “Thanks to the Avatar.”

Panic flashes in Aang’s face, but Iroh still projects calm as he exhales slowly. “So, you know that my nephew is the Avatar.”

“Nephew?” Sokka stares at Iroh and then at Aang. “But that would make you--”

“Iroh, former General of the Fire Nation, former Crown Prince, the Dragon of the West,” Hakoda finishes, his posture shifting slightly. Katara reaches her hand down and grips a tendril of ice, curling it into a weapon in case her father needs them to attack.

But, Hakoda does not attack. “My friend, Fung, speaks highly of you.”

Iroh bows with a smile. “He has always been a kind friend. Great at Pai Sho.”

Katara frowns: why are they talking about some dumb tile game? Her grip on the ice relaxes, and it collapses to the snow. Iroh watches the movement, looking fully at her for the first time. His face breaks out into a truthfully infectious smile.

“Your daughter is a Waterbender!” Iroh beams at her, and Katara feels her face heat. “And a remarkably talented one, I am sure.”

Hakoda steps noticeably in front of her, and she knows why he does -- but it frustrates her, all the same, to be constantly protected. Clearly this man doesn’t mean any harm (even though he’s Fire Nation -- she can’t trust him fully, but he didn’t start out with a lie like his nephew).

“Your nephew is talented as well.” Hakoda shifts his grip on Zuko. “He’s currently unconscious because he used waterbending and airbending to help our village avoid detection.”

“Waterbending!” Iroh looks at Aang and they both laugh, clearly delighted. “That is a new one. I will be sure to congratulate him when he wakes up.”

“Is it normal, for him to faint every time he bends like that?” Katara asks, the healer in her wanting to know. “Is it an issue with blood pressure?”

Aang shakes his head and walks forward to help Hakoda lower Zuko. “No,” he answers Katara as they prop him more or less upright between them “This is definitely new. Probably caused by stress or by the unexpected use of a new bending technique.”

“How do we wake him up?” Sokka asks.

“There is an ancient secret used by the Air Nomads, used when one of our people went too high and was without proper oxygen for too long,” Aang says soberly, and all eyes are on him as he moves to hold Zuko’s other arm. “But, it’s incredibly tricky … and dangerous.”

Katara’s eyes widen in anticipation.

Then, Aang shakes Zuko like a rag doll, shouting, “Hey, bison-breath! Rise and shine!”

Zuko’s breath staggers, and his head snaps forward as his limbs spasm. “I’m awake!” He shouts, his arms flailing. “I’m awake! I’m awa -- Master Aang?” Zuko wipes drool from his chin and stares at the tall man incredulously. “You found me?”

“As if I could ever lose you,” Aang says, ruffling Zuko’s hair affectionately, which earns him a swat.

“Ugh, what hap-” Zuko looks around and turns bright pink when he sees the gathered crowd. “Uh-”

“It is good to see you as well, nephew.” Iroh smiles up at Zuko, who coughs and mumbles something about you too, Uncle. 

Katara feels a traitorous giggle in her chest: she can’t help it; Zuko looks like a helpless polar bear dog pup that’s lost its balance on ice.

“But where’s--” 

A screeching of metal rends the air, and Sokka raises his hand to block out the sun as he looks up.

A hideous bird swoops down from the sky, pink and scarred and mostly featherless; it lands on the arm that Zuko holds up, and he brings it into his torso, a soft, private smile on his face.

“Chiyu.” The bird leans its head on his arm adoringly, and Appa rumbles a greeting at it.

“Well.” Iroh claps his hand and looks around cheerfully, smiling at everyone. “Now that we have introductions out of the way, let us talk more about your adventures, and all that has transpired this last week!”

“We’ll have a feast,” Hakoda says, clasping Iroh on the arm and then smiling at the villagers. “To celebrate our warrior’s safe return, and the return of the Avatar.”

Cheers rise from the gathered crowd, and Sokka joins in too, no doubt at the idea of meat. 

Actually, only two people don’t join in on the applause:

Katara, who crosses her arms in front of her chest and wonders when these people will just leave so their village can go back to normal.

Zuko, who stares at the ground and doesn’t look up for any reason, his embarrassment palpable and radiating out from him. He doesn’t look like a prince, Katara thinks as she looks at him; he looks like a boy, tired and nervous --

And so strangely sad for someone who’s almost definitely the most important person alive.

After the feast is over and most of the villagers have returned to their homes to prepare for bed, Zuko and his teachers remain for a private conversation with Chief Hakoda, the three elders, and Hakoda’s children.

Zuko tries his hardest not to look at Katara; his scar is facing her thanks to their seating arrangement, and if he catches a look of disgust on her face again when she sees what he really is, he doesn’t think his pride will ever recover.

Sokka, however, has zero issues resuming conversation with him, and he and Zuko are debating the merits of a dao versus a boomerang when Hakoda clears his throat. Sokka immediately falls silent, folding his hands in his lap, and Zuko looks to Hakoda.

He’s surprised when he sees the chief -- a massive, fairly imposing man who seems to command the respect of everyone quite easily -- is smiling at his son with open love on his face. Zuko’s throat spasms at the sight, and he casts his eyes back down to the table.

“Avatar Zuko,” Hakoda says warmly, “I am glad to have you in our village, and I thank you for saving us today, as well as for saving the life of a beloved daughter.”

Zuko blinks in confusion and then shrugs. “It was nothing,” He says honestly. “Your children saved my life and your village showed me kindness. It would have been dishonorable to refuse to help.”

Iroh sighs from his seat across the table, and Zuko frowns, wondering what he said wrong.

“I wouldn’t say commanding more than one element at once is nothing .” Hakoda raises his eyebrows and then gestures to his daughter, sitting at his left. “My daughter is the last of us to command any element at all: we hold bending in great esteem here, and the Avatar, as the bridge between spirit and humanity, is also respected.”

Zuko’s face twitches because that respect isn’t earned - he can’t help being the Avatar, and it confuses him to think that the status afforded by that title might win him people’s attention, and affections, so easily. It feels wrong.

Not sure of what to say, he glances at Katara, who is, of course, ethereal in the low torchlight. Her hand has gone to the beautiful carving she wears on a ribbon around her neck, and her eyes don’t meet Zuko’s for a moment, even though he looks for a time that has to be noticeable to everyone else.

“Your daughter is an incredibly talented bender,” Zuko says after an agonizing pause in conversation. “My success today was only because I’ve watched Katara’s techniques in the last week; all I did was copy a movement she’s done many times.”

“All her movements look the same,” Sokka argues, leaning forward to look between them. “How can you tell which is different?” He waves his arms around demonstratively, and Katara scoffs.

“They’re different.” Zuko shakes his head but smiles at Sokka’s antics. “Trust me.”

Sokka shrugs and goes back to his last piece of meat, and Iroh speaks up again. 

“The Lady Katara is a waterbender,” his uncle says carefully; Katara blushes at the moniker, but with the lights reflecting off her dark hair, Zuko thinks that she really does look like a princess. “And, my nephew does need to learn waterbending. Perhaps, she could train-”

“No,” Katara cuts Iroh off quickly, and everyone looks at her in degrees of surprise. “Thank you,” she tacks on quickly, “But, I’m not that good of a waterbender. No one’s ever formally taught me, and I’d probably tell him the wrong things.”

She doesn’t have acid in her voice when she says him, even if she avoids Zuko’s name, but he counts that as a win.

“Are you sure?” Iroh studies her with a worried frown. “You might be underestimating yourself.”

“I’m not.” Katara sips from her cup and offers Iroh a tight smile. “But thank you.”

“When you master all four elements,” Hakoda breaks in, probably to cut the awkward tension rising, “What do you intend to do as Avatar, Zuko?”

“What will I-” Zuko blinks, totally caught off-guard. “Uhm, do you mean-”

“Like, are you gonna try to stop your dad from being a murderous, evil dictator?” Sokka asks, and out of the corner of his eye, Zuko can see Katara slap herself in the forehead. 

Zuko doesn’t mind though: he’s never been good with tact -- unlike Iroh -- and he’s too gruff to be gentle in his truth like Aang is. Blunt works for him.

“Oh.” Zuko taps his fingers against his leg. “Yes.”

He eyes Iroh, wondering what he’s allowed to say, but Iroh merely inclines his chin slightly, his eyes sparkling. Zuko swears he can hear his uncle’s voice in his head: You must listen to your own heart, Prince Zuko, and decide who can be trusted with the knowledge of your future.

“My father shouldn’t be Fire Lord,” Zuko says quietly, and Hakoda sets his cup down with a thoughtful frown. “And - my nation … it’s suffering.”

Katara scoffs, a quiet, angry noise, but Zuko needs to say what he’s thinking for him to be able to share the full story.

“It’s nothing, of course, compared to what my nation has done to others,” Zuko admits and Sokka nods vigorously at his side, “And … if I’m successful as Avatar, it will be because I’ve tried to make amends for my family’s crimes, and because I’ve helped to bring in a new era of peace.”

“And how do you intend to do that?” Kanna asks from her place of honor at the other head of the table, surrounded by Kora and Surok. 

“The Fire Lord is powerful,” Surok adds, folding his hands in front of him and examining Zuko with an intensity that feels physical. “And armies have been unable to defeat him in the past. If you are able to approach him as the Avatar, will you be able to ignore the fact that you are his son? The fact that you would be fighting your own family, potentially killing them?”

Zuko swallows painfully, feeling every pair of eyes in the room on him.

At last, he finds the strength to say, “I am Lady Ursa’s son.” Iroh bows his head across the table, and Aang does too. “And … my father took her from me. I don’t think it will be easy, but - he’s the man who hurt my mother.” He glances to Hakoda, whose face holds a barely concealed grief. 

Katara isn’t looking at Zuko anymore, and he has no idea what that means.

“All I want is to bring justice to everyone whose families were hurt by my own.” Zuko looks at Sokka, who’s also staring at him, but nodding again, this time slowly, a thoughtful expression on his face. “And, while I will need help -- I know it’s me who has to face my father. Even if it ends with one or both of us dying. That’s my destiny.”

It’s quiet enough to hear the wind howl outside when he finishes talking, and then Sokka lets out a tense breath.

“Are you always so…” Sokka twists his hand through the air.

“Serious?” Aang guesses.

“Intense!” Iroh suggests.

“I was going to say … impressive.” Sokka claps Zuko on the back; he isn’t expecting the contact, so he lurches forward. “I gotta say, I’d follow that into battle.”

Zuko laughs awkwardly, straightening up and tucking some hair behind his ears. 

But, at the head of the table, Hakoda is nodding thoughtfully. “I don’t think you’re the only one who would, Sokka.” He stands, and the elders do too. Zuko looks back and forth between them, confused and anxious and worried.

“The Southern Water Tribe would like to support the Avatar, as it has in the past, in his quest to bring peace to our world.” Hakoda smiles at him, and Sokka elbows him in the side, hard. Zuko hisses at how pointy Sokka’s elbows are before he realizes why he was nudging him.

He stumbles to his feet as Kora says, “We will be by your side for the destruction of the dynasty of Sozin, for the end of this fifty-year war.”

“The Avatar will have friends here, always,” Kanna says with a smile.

“And in the meantime, we will help you prepare for battle, whenever that is.”

“About that,” Aang chimes in, “we actually already … sorta picked a day!”

Everyone stares at the airbender, who continues drinking his tea before he realizes that he now has a small audience.

“Oh, right.” Aang sets his tea down with a smile. “I should explain that. Zuko was visited by a powerful spirit, who told him of a day in the coming year where the Fire Lord would be most vulnerable. We’re going to go then!”

“A powerful spirit?” Sokka repeats, standing too. “Uh, what?”

“It happens sometimes,” Zuko mutters to the other boy before raising his voice. “The spirit told me of a day that happens every one thousand years: the day Agni sleeps.”

“Agni sleeps?” Katara repeats, incredulously, as she rises to her feet and looks around the room. “That - that sounds pretty weird.”

“As far as we can tell, it’s an eclipse,” Zuko says, pleasantly surprised when she holds his gaze this time. 

“But an incredibly spiritual one,” Iroh adds. “Mystical in power -- the spirit of Angi truly … takes a break, the way you or I would at the end of a long day.”

“And Agni gives firebenders their power,” Sokka makes the connection excitedly, “So, if he’s on vacation, that means--”

“All firebenders, including the Fire Lord, are powerless,” Chief Hakoda concludes.

“But next year is also the return of Sozin’s Comet,” Iroh says, exchanging a meaningful look with Surok. “Which is an event that gives firebenders unusual power.”

“How much power?” Sokka asks, looking at his elder.

Surok bows his head, but to Aang, and Zuko’s heart squeezes painfully. 

“It’s the day my people were killed,” Aang answers softly. “Most of an entire race, wiped out in a quarter of an hour. It was …”

“The most horrific day in living memory,” Kanna finishes, grief etched in her creaky voice. 

Zuko looks to Aang to see how he’s handling the memory of his own grief, but only his grey eyes give away his pain.

“When will Agni sleep?” Sokka asks, his hands curling into fists. “Not that I wanna rush this along, but -”

“In nine months,” Iroh answers, and Zuko swallows past the lump in his throat. “Which means that Zuko has only nine months to master the elements. So, if he will not find his waterbending master here,” he bows respectfully to Katara, “We will journey to the North Pole to find one.”

“And then you need to learn Earth,” Katara says thoughtfully.

Zuko feels his mouth twitch. “I already have an earthbending teacher picked out,” he says, fondness making a smile appear on his face. He grins at nothing in particular. “But, she told me to come back when I was ready.”

“I’m going with you,” Sokka says suddenly. 

Katara and Hakoda look at him in surprise, Katara protesting immediately; Sokka shakes his head, and holds his arm out to Zuko.

“You need a friend on this quest,” Sokka says firmly, “And while our people will be waiting to help you in nine months, preparing for war -- I’ll be there in the meantime, making sure you get through this.” He hesitates. “If you guys … want me, of course. I’m not a bender, or anything, but-”

Zuko blinks through his initial shock, and hopes that tears aren’t audible in his voice as he clasps Sokka’s arm and says, “I would be honored if you’d come with me.”

They both look at Hakoda for confirmation, but the chief only bows his head with a smile. “The Southern Water Tribe would be honored if our finest warrior joined you on your quest, Avatar Zuko.”

Sokka flushes red at his dad’s praise, and Zuko’s chest tightens again to see their easy affection for one another.

But, if that wasn’t enough, the next thing that happens almost knocks Zuko off his feet.

“I’m coming too.” Katara looks to her elders, and not Zuko or her father. “I need to learn how to waterbend, and I want to see the North Pole, to learn more about our people. So, if I have permission to go, I’m in.”

Kanna smiles delightedly at her granddaughter’s boldness, and the three elders exchange a look before bowing.

“Your quest will bring both honor and joy to us,” Surok says warmly. “Our last waterbender, renewing the lost arts and practicing her gifts.”

Hakoda puts his hand on Katara’s back and smiles down at her proudly. Katara holds herself taller before smiling back at him, and then over at Iroh and Aang, who look less than calmly happy at Sokka and Katara’s offer to join.

“Friends his own age!” Iroh says, adjusting his belt over his large tummy. “Our little Zuko has not had such an opportunity in many years.”

“Although, I don’t know how Zuko is going to handle this,” Aang says with a mischievous grin. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen him talk to a gir-”

“Thank you for your support,” Zuko says quickly, cutting the giggling Air Nomad off. He bows to Hakoda, and then to Katara. “It means a lot to have allies among the Southern Water Tribe, and that Katara and Sokka are willing to come with us.”

Hakoda bows in response, and then they disperse to plan and prepare for their departure in the morning.

Sokka helps Zuko check the provisions, and brings sacks of seal jerky onto Appa’s saddle. “What’s it like to fly?” He asks curiously while they check the bedrolls. 

Chiyu stirs from her rest amidst a pile of furs, but she tucks her head back into the warm circle made by her body and goes back to sleep.

“It’s like … being free,” Zuko says honestly. “Like nothing on the ground can hurt you anymore.”

“I don’t know.” Sokka eyes the distance off Appa’s back warily. “I kinda like the ground.”

Zuko grins and checks the waterskins with his hair falling in his eyes. They work quietly for a few more minutes before Zuko clears his throat. “Thanks.” 

Sokka looks up at him, confused. “For what?”

“For - sticking up for me. For not leaving me out there to die. For…” saying you were my friend, he doesn’t add. “...For offering to come with me. It means … more than you could know.”

Sokka smiles at him and tightens the last strap. “Don’t worry about it. I’ve been wanting to get out of here for a while now.” He kicks at Zuko’s foot playfully as he stands. “You were just the fastest ticket out of here. I have zero interest in any of that fighting your Fire Dad stuff.”

He offers Zuko a hand to pull him to his feet, and Zuko stares at it, mind reeling, before he realizes Sokka was teasing (mostly). Sokka hauls him up, and they’re both still laughing as they jump down from the saddle.

Katara walks towards them in the strange half-light of early morning at the South Pole and hands Sokka a roll of packed herbs. 

“Thank you,” Zuko says, offering her a smile, and intending to offer the same sort of speech he gave her brother. “I really appreciate-”

But, Katara cuts him off with a terrifying scowl. “We aren’t friends, Prince Zuko.” She hands him another parcel, and he stumbles back from the forceful hand-off. “And I’m not doing this for you.”

She spins on her heel and marches towards the main part of the village; it’s all Zuko can do to watch her stalk off, his eyes wide with surprise at her vehemence.

Sokka shrugs and slaps him on the shoulder, turning to toss the first packet of herbs onto the saddle. “Girls, dude.”

“Yeah.” Zuko’s throat tightens as he hands Sokka the parcel in his arms.  “...Girls.”

They wave goodbye to the villages a few hours later, Katara and Sokka both hugging their dad and grandmother painfully tight before climbing into the saddle. 

Zuko bows low to the elders and to Hakoda -- and is nearly knocked over when Ummi flies into his leg for a hug goodbye. 

“Be safe,” she instructs, looking up at him from where she hangs around his knees, and Zuko smiles at her sadly, well aware that he might never see her again. 

It’s not like he particularly expects to survive the fight with his father. It’s like Ozai always said: Zuko wasn’t born under a lucky star - he’s just lucky to be alive.

“I’ll try my best,” he promises instead, patting her on the head awkwardly. “If you promise to be safe.”

She nods eagerly before running back to her mother, and then Zuko leaps into the saddle as Aang takes his place behind Appa’s head. They all wave as Aang commands, “yip yip!” and they lift upward.

Sokka turns green almost immediately. “I do not like this,” he moans, turning his face away as Katara continues to wave as the villagers grow into nothing but a collection of dots on the snow.

“This is great,” she argues, turning with an exhilarated grin in time to see her brother retch. “Oh, La, come on.” 

She hauls him to the edge of the saddle so he can vomit more safely, and rubs his back with a put upon grumble. Iroh hides a laugh behind his hand from where he sits at the front of the saddle, and even Chiyu warbles a little mockingly at the queasy groan Sokka makes as he settles back down.

“That’s enough outta you, Chewy,” Sokka says, pointing at the featherless bird.

Chiyu snaps at his finger playfully and then warbles another laugh. Sokka moans and buries his face in his hands, breathing in through his nose and out through his mouth as Katara instructs him.

When he seems calmer, Katara turns to Iroh and Zuko. “Where are we going first?”

“The Southern Air Temple,” Iroh answers. “From there, we’ll get on our ship and head north.”

“You didn't say anything about us being on a Fire Nation ship,” Katara snaps, glaring at Zuko.

But, he realizes that her stress comes from a very real source: fear. Her voice had tightened and panic had flashed in her eyes.

“There are Fire Nation blockades around the Earth Kingdom,” Zuko points out, hoping he sounds apologetic and not petulant. “And even though no one knows to look for an air bison … Appa stands out. A Fire Nation ship commanded by General Iroh won’t be stopped.”

Katara’s face is still tight but she nods, her jaw set in obvious discomfort.

“It’s better than sleeping outside,” Sokka says thoughtfully before Appa loses a little bit of altitude and he groans again. He puts his head between his knee and shakes his head. “Or on this damn bison.”

“I guess,” Katara says quietly, and Zuko tries to give her another apologetic smile, but she barely glances at him before returning to her brother, this time with sprigs of herbs held under his nose.

“We should all get some rest before we arrive at the Temple.” Iroh yawns and settles back against the saddle. “If, of course, our Sokka can relax at the moment.”

Sokka gives a shaky thumbs up without lifting his head. “Never better.”

Zuko hides a smile as he looks to Aang at the reins. 

He has to admit it feels nice to have people other than Aang and Iroh to talk to. Zuko likes both of them, of course he does, but their stories are always looping and philosophical, inlaid with hidden meanings to teach him valuable lessons about the world and himself.

It might be nice to have two people his own age around, even if one of them seems determined to hate his guts forever. Zuko lets out a tense exhale, feeling the heat rise and fall in his veins: he can get over Katara openly hating him while also being around him all the time. 

He’s used to it, after all.

Chapter Text

They make camp for the night on a small island and watch the sun dip below the horizon close to midnight. Appa rumbles sleepily to Aang, who curls up against the bison’s side and almost immediately falls asleep.

Iroh takes slightly longer to fall asleep, like he normally does, and he doesn’t unroll his bed until everyone has a cup of tea in their hands.

“Make sure to warm the tea slowly, nephew, should our new friends want more.” Iroh pulls a blanket over his round belly, a yawn distorting his next words. “It would be rude to serve them over boiled tea.”

With the older members of their group out of commission, that leaves Zuko, Sokka, and Katara grouped around the campfire, the smoke rising up to the deepening blue-velvet sky overhead. Zuko taps his fingers against his cup, wondering what he should talk to them about.

“So.” He clears his throat and tilts his chin towards Sokka. “You like … food?”

“Yeah, I guess.” Sokka takes a sip of tea, barely disguising his grimace of distaste. He still drinks it, though. “Food’s great.”

“Yeah.” Zuko nods and tries to smile. “I like it … Food. Too.”

Chiyu warbles, no doubt embarrassed, from her perch in the trees that line the beach.

“And you … like …” Zuko looks at Katara and feels himself turn red when he realizes he doesn’t know what to say to her. He knows how she spent her days at the South Pole, and knows what she’s good at, but he realizes he’s only ever seen her act to help others and not particularly in her own interest.

His eyes land on the beautiful necklace she always wears. “Jewelry!” He finishes triumphantly.

Katara’s eyes narrow. “Why would you think that?” She crosses her arms in front of her chest. “Is it because I’m a girl ?”

Sokka giggles, and both Zuko and Katara scowl at him.

“No!” Zuko turns back to Katara while shaking his head. “I only meant -- because the -” He gestures vaguely at his own throat, and Katara makes an angry noise, not unlike a riled-up fire ferret.

“This,” she touches the necklace briefly, “is all I have left of my mother. I don’t wear it because it’s pretty . It means something to me.” She stands and stomps her foot. “And not all girls like jewelry!”

“No, I know that!” Zuko stands too, hands extended in supplication. “My sister hates jewelry, and only wore her tiara when our father made-”

“Her tiara!” Katara laughs, a slightly mean noise -- Uncle Iroh’s snores pause as he almost wakes up -- and then restart again, loud and ragged from across the campsite. “Oh gosh, thank goodness your sister didn’t have to wear her tiara all the time.”

“That isn’t what I--” 

Katara stomps away, down the beach, and Zuko half-shouts, half-growls in his throat, kicking at some sand. It lands in the fire, dampening it slightly, before it pops back up again.

Zuko crouches back down on his seat, an overturned log, and glowers into the flames. He almost forgets Sokka is still sitting there.

“So.” Sokka sidles up closer. “First time talking to …”

“A girl?” Zuko asks glumly.

“I was going to say anyone.” Sokka shrugs when Zuko lifts his head to glare at him. “I mean, obviously you talk to Aang and Iroh, but they’re uh … already kinda weird, huh?”

Zuko jerks his head in what passes for a nod of agreement. 

“Look, I know Katara can be … tough.” Sokka speaks carefully, swirling the contents of his tea cup around. “But … she’s been through a lot. Give her time, and she’ll see that you aren’t the bad guy.”

Zuko returns his gaze to the fire. He watches it pop, watches the sparks it sends scuttling into the sand. Inside the flames, wood blackens and curls into charred lumps. Zuko’s chest feels heavy, tight, like he’s bruising but from the inside.

“That’s the problem,” he murmurs, barely audible over the fire, “sometimes I don’t think I’m meant to be anything but a bad guy.”

“You’re the Avatar,” Sokka argues without any heat, nudging Zuko’s arm. “You aren’t destined to be a bad guy.”

“I’m the Avatar,” Zuko concedes. “But I’m also my father’s son, and he’s my grandfather’s son, and my great-grandfather was … well, you know. My family has killed hundreds of thousands of people. No wonder Katara thinks I’m a monster.” 

He gestures to the scar on his face, even though his unruined side faces Sokka. Sokka knows it’s there, even if he can’t see it. It’s not exactly something people can forget.

“I even look the part.”

The fire cracks again, ominously, and sparks land ten feet away this time. Zuko curls his fingers into a fist, tightening his nails into his palm; he releases a breath shakily, and then breathes in again.

He stares at his knees while he breathes, which means only Sokka can see the surge and fall of the flames with each of Zuko’s breaths.

“I know your scar isn’t … pretty,” Sokka hedges carefully, and Zuko’s throat tightens preemptively. “But … scars can be a sign of bravery where I come from. My great-uncle’s entire arm was burned fighting the Fire Nation, and he was chief for nearly thirty years after he got that scar.” 

Sokka drains his cup, and Zuko tries to keep breathing.

“You don’t need to tell me how you got that,” Sokka continues when Zuko doesn’t say anything. “But I can tell it’s a burn. And I know … at some point, fire has hurt you too. Like it’s hurt my family. And Katara -- like I said, she’s the most stubborn person I ever met, and she can yell a lot, but she’d never … it’s not your scar that makes her distrust you, Zuko.” Sokka grips his arm tightly for a second and then drops his hand.

Zuko is still adjusting to how freely Sokka touches everyone -- it reminds him of Aang, but outside of hugs here and there, Aang usually only touches Zuko to move his arms and legs into correct positions for airbending. Sokka’s touch isn’t nearly as useful; it’s familiar, warm, friendly. Casual. It’s … overwhelming.

“And, I don’t even think it’s you that she distrusts. Just. Give her time. She’s worth it.” Sokka gives him a half-smile when Zuko at last looks over, and then he stands, cracking his back and sighing. “If you excuse me, I’m going to go pass out. Vomiting six times in ten minutes really takes it out of a guy.”

Zuko does smirk at that, and he nods at Sokka. 

“Goodnight,” he offers, and Sokka waves over his shoulder, yawning obnoxiously while he heads to Appa to claim his bedroll.

It’s hard to sleep, his head still reeling from a number of factors: waterbending so much, so quickly; the sudden doubling of his traveling group; Sokka’s kindness; and, Katara’s continued resentment. 

Zuko stretches out on his back with no bedroll and puts his hands under his head; he watches the stars wheel overhead, bright and untouched. His eyes aren’t heavy in the slightest when the lights appear.

He sits up and watches them skate over the horizon, blazing from the south and wheeling towards the various nations. Zuko stands and tilts his head back, letting the inexplicable connection he feels to them course through him. The lights looked different in the center of the Southern Water Tribe, and he’d barely had time to see them -- it was perpetually bright near the pole, blocking out most of the lights for the eight days he spent there.

But here, where they’re north enough for there to be a noticeable period of nighttime, the lights are more intense than he’s seen in a long time, and Zuko walks away from the group, a soft urge inside of him, moving his legs forward.

Once he’s rounded the bend in the beach, he looks up one more time and then raises his hands in a now familiar airbending pose; he begins to work through the basic steps Aang had taught him a year ago. Once he’s moved through them all, he switches to firebending poses, muscle memory letting him move from one to another quickly without thought.

He doesn’t let himself think about how nothing will come if he tries; instead, he bends backward in the twin-flame pose and holds it, watching the lights for a moment until his breathing evens out again and he straights up by flipping backwards, going back into the rudimentary motions.

When he’s moved through them all, he turns and faces the ocean, his hands raised in greeting, but he stops short: he doesn’t know what to do next.

The waves rush in and drag back out; Zuko drops his hands to his sides and walks forward until his toes reach the edge of the water. He matches his breathing to the tide, in as the ocean sucks in its breath, and out as the waves tumble forward. After multiple breaths matched to the ocean’s push and pull, Zuko lifts his hands and tries to mimic the movement, in, and out.

It feels the sort of ‘almost right’ that’s so terribly aggravating -- the idea that he’s this close but still not doing it right makes his teeth set on edge. 

“That’s not how you do that.”

Whatever grasp he had on the tide is gone, and Zuko drops his hands to his side and balls them into fists. “I know that,” he snaps.

Katara sniffs behind him. “ Fine. If you don’t want any help.”

“I do.” Zuko rubs his neck and turns around to look at her. “Sorry, just--”

He stops talking because if Katara’s pretty in daylight, she’s definitely ethereal in moonlight. Whatever crabbiness she’d expressed a second before is already gone from her face, and she walks forward, as though she’s forgotten he’s there. 

She walks right into the water, until it laps at the edge of her long skirt; then, she raises her hands and begins to move, her upper body twisting with the motions. Zuko watches for a moment before his skin flushes because he’s supposed to be watching, not watching, and then he mimics her.

It still feels difficult, like holding water in cupped hands if that water happened to be the billions and billions of gallons of water in the ocean; but, he locks into the movement quickly now, his breathing settling quickly. 

He doesn’t know how long it’s been when Katara turns to look at him, eyebrows raised. He lowers his arms again, slower this time, and bows.

“Thank you.”

She holds her right wrist in her left hand and shrugs. “Don’t mention it. Feels nice to practice under the moon -- we weren’t due for a night for a while.”

“How could you stand it?” Zuko asks genuinely. “The sun being up for so long?”

Katara pauses in splashing out of the low tide to think about it. “I guess I got used to it,” she says after a few moments. “Being tired all the time. Feeling weak. Made the times where I could bend at full strength feel even better.”

“But wouldn’t you want to bend all the time?” Zuko frowns. “It sounds like you were giving up a lot of power--”

“Not everything is about power.” Katara holds her hand to the water, and a spout lifts and twists around her hand as she moves it in a graceful arc around her body. “Some things are about give and take.” She passes the water to her other hand and continues in the mesmerizing arcs. “Nature asks that of us, giving and taking - and waterbending isn’t about power. It’s about listening to the water, following its patterns. Giving, and taking.”

Without warning, she throws the water at him, and Zuko raises his hands futilely; he catches the stream right in the face, and he’s dripping wet, staring in shock at her.

And then Katara giggles.

Not in a mean way -- he knows what mean laughter sounds like as it had chased him during his time as an anonymous nomad in the Earth Kingdom -- but in a real way, real and teasing but light and gentle. 

Zuko wipes his hand down his face, feeling it trickle off his hair and chin, and Katara claps a hand to her mouth to cover her amusement; he wishes she wouldn’t. Her laugh is nice.

He takes in a slow breath and lets his shoulders roll with it; he twists through his hips and holds his hands up. Then, Zuko rolls through the motion and lets a small wave of water surge out, against the tide. Katara half-shrieks as it barrels towards her, but then it collapses short of its target.

“Ugh! You jerkbender.” Katara slaps more water at him, but he dodges it this time. She doesn’t sound actually mad. 

“You went against the water,” she tells him primly, marching out of the water in earnest now. She tosses her hair over her shoulder as she moves past him. “That’s why you failed.”

“Sorry, Master Katara.” He can hear the sarcasm in his voice, and he waits for her to shove him backwards into the water -- that’d be his luck, he figures, taken out to sea by a rip current after a reluctant ally shoves him for being a dick. 

But, she seems to be holding back a smile.

“You’ll do better next time.”

Next time.

Zuko has to work to hide his own grin now as he walks up the beach behind her; Katara tilts her head back as they move towards camp, and he follows the direction of her gaze.

“You see them too?” He asks, excited by the idea. “The lights?’

“I thought they were … from the Pole,” Katara says softly. 

She’s shorter than him, noticeably so. Short enough that he can look down and fully see her face, as well as the reflection of the lights in her massive blue eyes as she gazes up at the sky. It’s a powerful effect.

“There are lights from the Pole,” Zuko says, dragging his eyes away to look skyward. Just in time, too, because she looks over at him while he talks. “But everyone can see those. These are spirit lights.”

“I know.” Katara sounds cross, but he overlooks it. He also hates being told things he already knows. “My mother told me about them. But, I really thought they were only near the Pole because that’s nearest to the Spirit World.”

“There are many places to enter the Spirit World,” Zuko counters. “It’s strongest at the Poles, but I’ve seen spirits in the heart of the Earth Kingdom, in the Fire Colonies … at all the air temples.”

“The air temples.” Katara sighs. “Are they beautiful? I’ve heard they’re beautiful.”

“If you like mountains, sure.” Zuko shrugs, but then he winces because he remembers Katara probably hasn’t ever seen mountains made of anything but ice.

“What spirits are up there?” Katara asks, her attention on the sky and not on his blundering mistakes in conversation, thankfully. “Are they … good?”

“There aren’t many bad spirits.” Zuko shrugs. “At least, not ones I’ve heard about. Some like chaos. Darkness. But other than a few malevolent spirits, they don’t want to hurt humans. Uncle says that they’re just like us. They can love, and lose, and they’re trying to make sense of everything.”

Zuko watches a green-blue streak twist overhead and wonders where it’s going. 

“Your uncle is a smart man.” Katara’s comment is quiet, and Zuko watches a few more lights unwind overhead, undulating in calm balance with their companions before he answers.

“He’s also a good man,” Zuko says softly. “And he had to make himself into one.”

“Are there spirit lights … everywhere?” Katara asks, and Zuko blinks and looks down at her. Her gaze is thoughtful, and trained on his own face.

He realizes that she’s standing to his left; she’s facing his scar, and he didn’t even notice it.

“I haven’t been everywhere,” he admits, “but I’ve seen them in a lot of places except…” He sighs and tucks his hands into his tunic. “Except the capital of the Fire Nation. There aren't any lights over the palace.”

“Why is that?”

“Uncle says it could be light pollution.” Zuko clears his throat. “But he’s afraid that it’s something worse. That the spirits have abandoned our family fully.” He looks down at the sand. “Sometimes, I think Uncle believes my birth was a punishment for my family’s crimes. The spirits got revenge on them by making me the Avatar.”

“I don’t think the spirits would do that to a baby,” Katara counters, and Zuko shrugs. It’s something that hurts too much to look at head on, and the more he does, the more angry he gets.

He doesn’t want anger to disrupt this quiet peace that’s bloomed in the darkness.

“You should get some rest,” he tells her instead, and Katara nods. “We have a long day of flying if we want to get to the Southern Air Temple.”

“The air temples.” Katara smiles and wraps her arms around herself. “...Goodnight, Zuko.”

“Goodnight, Katara.” 

He watches as she walks back towards the camp; she curls up next to Sokka, who slings an arm over her instinctively without really rousing from his sleep. Zuko smiles at the sight and then sits down on the sand, facing the opposite direction. 

Zuko doesn’t know why he’s keeping watch, but it feels right to watch over his friends. He can rest later.

The next afternoon, they circle low over the Southern Air Temple, Sokka groaning the entire time at the change in altitude. As they land, lemurs take off, chittering irately.

Zuko hops down quickly and helps his uncle; Katara manages to drag a still-green Sokka out of the saddle, and Aang floats down as peacefully as ever. Chiyu takes off and soars towards the peak of the temple, screeching happily as the lemurs take flight and surround her.

The air smells fresher here, and Zuko releases a breath he didn’t know he was holding when he looks out to the hidden harbor at the base of the mountain and sees his ship where they left it.

There’s some shouting up ahead, and Sokka and Katara startle before they see Iroh and Aang waving at the guards up ahead.

“Friends of yours?” Sokka asks, eyeing their red uniforms warily.

“Yeah. They work for … the Avatar. Not .. my father.” Zuko feels the awkwardness of his explanation.

Sokka squints at him. “Why not just say that they work for you , then?”

Zuko shrugs and continues to transfer items from the saddle to the ground. “We’re going to have to get some of this stuff up to the temple, and then bring down supplies to--”

There’s a distinctive swoosh of wings, and Zuko tenses, looking up to see Chiyu cawing magnificently as a bird drops out of the sky at an alarming rate behind her -- but it’s not a bird at all.

A figure on a glider grows clearer, and Sokka and Katara gasp in delight as he wheels through the air gracefully. “Now that’s how you fly!” Sokka shouts, pumping his fist in the air. 

The young man folds his glider and comes to a slow halt on the ground before starting to sprint towards them, not a second wasted in transition.

“Dad!” He shouts. “Dad!”

“Tenzin!” Aang holds his arms open wide, and the boy slams into the older man, knocking them both off their feet and into the air. They come back down together, both of them gripping the other’s shoulders, and laughing and talking over each other.

“Young Master Tenzin!” Iroh says in greeting, walking forward with his arms open.

Tenzin turns and hugs Iroh as well, and Zuko shuffles forward, scowling to the side when he sees Katara and Sokka approaching quickly, smiles already on their faces.

“Is this your son, Aang?” Katara asks eagerly, and Aang nods and gestures grandly to Tenzin.

“Our pride and joy.” He wraps an arm around Tenzin’s shoulders and lifts him, both of them laughing brightly. “Another airbender.”

Zuko remembers when he discovered that Aang was not the last airbender -- only three months ago, to be exact, and he and Tenzin had been so opposite to each other in personality, he’d gone through a very stressful three weeks where he doubted any kind word or compliment Aang had ever given him.

After all, why would Aang compliment Zuko on his flying when Tenzin moved as naturally as any bison or lemur? Why would Aang tell Zuko he was a good man when Tenzin smiled a thousand times more easily, and made everyone like him just by existing? Why would Aang tell Zuko he was proud of him, when Tenzin had never disobeyed or talked back to his father in his entire life?

Why would Aang give an entire donkeyrat’s ass about Zuko when he had a healthy, good son who was a living representation of healing from a genocide?

Zuko’s shaken out of his quick tumble into self-loathing when he sees Tenzin shake first Sokka’s hand, and then Katara’s.

“Pleased to meet you.” He bows for special effect, way too low: his shaved head brushes the ground, and his tunic flaps out behind him like wings. Katara giggles immediately, and Tenzin straightens up, grinning at Zuko over Katara’s shoulder. “Zuko taught me that one! Hey, Zuko!”

“Hi, Tenzin.” Zuko manages to grit out. 

He wonders if Aang had introduced them, bringing his son out of hiding, in the hopes that they’d be friends. And that’s probably because there’s only a year between them: Tenzin turned nineteen this year, and was probably a better fit for this quest than Aang was. But, he and Zuko had never quite gotten along as well as Aang had hoped, and their conversations tended to be Tenzin chattering away to him, and Zuko grunting back one word answers until Iroh threw a sandal at him for being rude.

“You guys must be from the South Pole.” Tenzin switches his glider to his other hand and shifts towards Katara, leaning forward on his toes. “That’s so cool!”

“It was actually pretty cold. Ice cold,” Sokka jokes, and Katara groans.

But, Tenzin tilts his head back and howls with laughter like it’s the best thing he’s ever heard. “That’s amazing!” He tells Sokka, grinning from ear to ear. “You guys have to tell me all about it -- I’ve never left the temple!”

“Never?” Katara asks, eyes wide.

“Ever.” Tenzin shrugs, and then sees the pile of luggage next to Appa, who’s rumbling away grumpily. “Appa!” He launches forward and wraps himself around the bison’s neck. “I’d never forget you, you magnificent, cloudy boy!”

Appa’s rumbles sound more pleased now. 

“Let me help you guys get inside, and then we can have dinner and you can tell me all about the South Pole!” Tenzin beams at Sokka and Katara, who look at each other for a moment before smiling. 

“That would be great, Tenzin, thank you,” Katara says earnestly, and they all move quickly, grabbing luggage and heading up the winding path to the main temple.

Zuko straggles in the back, and scowls at the sight of Katara and Sokka hanging onto every word Tenzin says; his movements are so animated, he often forgets he’s carrying something, and the luggage nearly tumbles to the ground multiple times. But, he catches it on air each time, which makes Sokka and Katara ooh and aah in appreciation. 

“I can do that,” Zuko mutters to himself, gripping the bedrolls tighter.

“You can do what, nephew?” Iroh asks, holding back his pace so Zuko can catch up with him

“Nothing.” Zuko glowers at the ground while they walk before he asks, “Uncle, is Tenzin … good-looking?”

Iroh laughs, a surprised, delighted noise. “Of course he is!” 

It feels like there’s some kind of monster in Zuko’s chest, one he’s never felt before. 

“He is a very handsome young man. He looks much like his father did as a young man, or so the acolytes tell me.” Iroh continues on, clearly unaware that Zuko’s about to be the first firebender in history with green eyes. 

Katara’s laughter wafts down the path, cruelly born on the wind as Tenzin talks a mile a minute; she looks up at him, her smile evident from this distance, and Tenzin looks down at her just as much.

“Is it just me, or did he get taller?” Zuko asks, because he can’t help it. 

The comparisons are already flying through his brain: what’s one more?

“I’d say Tenzin is just about an inch taller than you now,” Iroh agrees, unaware that Zuko’s teeth are grinding into dust. “Maybe two!”

“Great.” Zuko spits out. “That’s great.”

“Yes, it is good to see him so healthy and strong,” Iroh says with a fond sigh. “And I for one will be happy for a warm meal! Even if it is without meat. I think our friend, Sokka, might be a little disappointed when he learns of the Air Nomad diet.”

That, at least, makes Zuko smile, and Iroh is quiet until they reach the entrance to the temple. It’s not like Zuko has nothing to focus on: at some point, Tenzin leaps up to catch a summer blossom and hands it to Katara. At least he jumps up and grabs one for Sokka, too.

“We’re leaving in the morning,” Zuko snaps to his uncle. “At sunrise.”

“Alright, nephew.” If Iroh catches the source of his ire, he doesn’t let on. “Whatever you say.”

Zuko hands the bedrolls to an acolyte, remembering to thank them before he looks over to Katara, who has a small smile on her face as she tucks the blossom behind her ear.

It looks pretty against her hair.

Chapter Text

“Are you sure you can’t come with us?”

At least Sokka’s the one who asked the question: Zuko doesn’t know what he’d do if Katara had asked Tenzin after they finished loading their things onto the waiting ship. There’s enough irritation that rises from Sokka clapping hands with Tenzin as though they’ve known each other for longer than fifteen hours. 

Even if Zuko can rationally accept that a person can have more than one friend at a time, it still stings to see how quickly the siblings take to Tenzin, who’s endeared himself to them as easily as he endears himself to everyone else.

“No, no.” Tenzin laughs as he brushes the question off. “Now that I’ve finished my trials, it’s time for me to do my month of service before I become a full Airbending master - I’ll be in the Earth Kingdom, helping my mother’s people rebuild after a Fire Nation attack earlier this year.”

“That sounds serious,” Katara says softly, eyes wide. “How’s your mother?”

Tenzin bows his head, and whatever jealousy Zuko was feeling evaporates immediately. All he feels is empathy and grief for the buoyant Air Nomad. 

“My mother died when I was less than two years old,” Tenzin explains sadly, eyeing the ship deck, where they can see Aang bounding about, helping guards move heavier items. “My mother, and my older brother.”

“Oh.” Katara claps a hand to her mouth, and Sokka’s face crosses with pain. “I had no idea, Tenzin, I’m so-”

Tenzin shakes his head and smiles at her, albeit less brightly than usual. “Don’t be sorry for me, Katara. I had my father, and the Air Nomads have traditionally raised each other, regardless of how many living parents a child has. I had a happy childhood -- and, unless I’m mistaken, my pain is one that unites us.” 

He takes her hand, and then Sokka’s too, and then he turns and smiles at Zuko. “All four of us share this grief. And we haven’t let it destroy us or distract us with hatred for those responsible. That is its own joy, however hard-won.”

Tenzin drops their hands and takes a step back before looking up to the ship deck again. Zuko can feel Katara’s gaze boring into him, but he refuses to look over, the grief he felt from Tenzin’s small speech too fresh and too real to address just yet.

“Please don’t ask my father what happened,” Tenzin says suddenly. Zuko bows his head again, remembering with painful clarity the story that Aang had shared with him months ago. “He - I don’t remember my mother, so my pain feels … different than his. It weighs him down, even now.”

“He always seems so light-hearted,” Katara whispers, and Tenzin lifts his shoulders in a shrug -- a gesture he definitely learned from Zuko, if Aang’s grumblings were true. 

“Everyone wears their grief differently.”

“I guess so,” Sokka says, and they’re all quiet for a moment before Iroh walks down the dock towards them.

“Greetings, young ones!” He beams at them and then sees their expressions. “Oh, no! I, too, am sad to lose our good friend Tenzin after so short a time, but if he is to earn his tattoos, he must partake in a quest of his own before he can join ours.” He wraps his arms around Tenzin and somehow manages to lift him off the ground. “But we will miss you terribly.”

“I’ll miss you too, Iroh.” Tenzin laughs and then exchanges the favor by lifting Iroh as soon as his feet touch the ground. 

They’re laughing again when Aang rejoins them, and the father and son stand to the side to trade a private farewell while Iroh bounces on his toes and hums a song that Zuko distantly remembers from the weeks he spent nearly unconscious from the Agni Kai.

When Aang and Tenzin rejoin them, their grey eyes suspiciously rimmed in red, Sokka manages to get them into a group hug, which Zuko stands stubbornly on the outside of. That is, he doesn’t join it  until Katara grabs his tunic and hauls him in so that he has no choice but to wrap his arms around Tenzin and Iroh’s backs. 

“We’ll see you around, Tenzin,” Sokka says with a confident smile, and Tenzin bows to him and Katara.

“I hope to see you soon.” He drags a hand through his short, scruffy black hair with a self-conscious laugh. “Although, I’ll look a little different.”

“Good luck, Tenzin.” Katara hugs him individually, standing on tiptoe so she can wrap her arms around Tenzin’s broad shoulders, and Zuko looks away again, anger flaring like a volcano in his chest. 

He releases a breath and tells himself to get over it -- Katara isn’t a toy, and he isn’t Azula, who would always fly into a rage when her things were touched or when her friends played with Zuko instead of her. Besides, he isn’t sure why he’d be jealous to begin with when Katara hasn’t shown him an ounce of interest in anything past ‘you’re the Avatar and I’m sort of obligated to help you bring down your father’ way, since she found out the truth of his heritage.

No, he has no one to blame but himself, and perhaps his family legacy. 

Iroh catches his glower, and frowns questioningly at him, but Zuko sucks in another calming breath and just shakes his head before moving forward to clasp arms with Tenzin.

“Good luck,” he tells him, not having to force genuine feeling into the statement. 

“You too, Avatar Zuko.” Tenzin grins at him before releasing him, and they board the ship without the young Airbender. 

They wave at him as they pull away from shore, and at last they watch him open his glider and take off running down the beach; Tenzin soars over them, laughing, as they shout goodbyes at him, and then he wheels back towards land, where he and the temple grow steadily smaller until the world curves and they vanish from sight.

Aang’s shoulders slump when Tenzin is fully gone, and Zuko isn’t sure what to say to him; but it’s Iroh who goes to Aang’s side and distracts him with a conversation about lychee nuts and tea and the possible infusion of one with the other.

Zuko turns and walks to the starboard side, folding his hands behind his back as he watches the waves; he’s changed back into the more traditional tunic and leggings expected of Fire Nation royalty, and his hair has been brushed into submission by Uncle. He already misses the shagginess of the last months, but tells himself this will make it easier if a passing ship has a lookout that can see him.

He senses a presence behind him before they speak up, but they approached his left side, and he has next to no peripheral vision in that eye.

“I have a question.”

It’s Katara.

“You can ask it.” He lifts a shoulder and doesn’t look away from the water.

“This ship.” Katara joins him at the railing and stares out at the ocean. “Why do you have it?”

He turns to look at her now and almost wishes that he hadn’t; the wind blowing in off the water takes pieces of her hair and whips them around her face. The loops that secure the front part of her hair keeps it contained, and the dark waves look curlier than ever from the humid, heavy air. It’s her eyes that draw the most attention: vibrantly blue against the backdrop of the open sky and water.

He remembers she asked him a question. “My father gave it to me.”

Katara’s expression twists. “A gift?”

Zuko’s answering laugh is harsh, and draws her eyes to meet his. “Not exactly.”

“What does that mean?”

“My father gave me this ship so that I could catch the Avatar,” Zuko says dryly, watching the expressions flit across her face - confusion, anger, more confusion - before she settles on incredulity.


“The spirits have a really bad sense of humor,” Zuko mutters, looking back at the water.

“Can I ask another question?”

She’s a curious person, and it’s something he discovers he enjoys. People don’t usually ask him questions unless they’re condescending to him (his royal tutors, his sister, his father), or quizzing him (Aang and Iroh). Right now, Katara is genuinely asking him questions about his past without much animosity in her voice, so he takes them gratefully.

“Go ahead.”

“Where does your father think the Avatar is? And … how come he didn’t discover that it was you?”

“My mother worked hard to conceal me for the first decade of my life.” Zuko’s hands tighten into fists behind his back, and he releases a heated breath. “After she … after, I was ill for a few years, and my father didn’t think of me past thinking I was an unnecessary obstacle to his line of succession.”

If Katara has thoughts on that self-assessment, she doesn’t say.

“As for who the Fire Lord thinks the Avatar might be: I assume he either expects the Air Nomads survived -- which, obviously, some did -- or that there’s a shortened Avatar Cycle and the new Avatar appeared in the Water Tribe or,” he pauses, knowing that this will upset her, but unsure how else to say it, “or, was murdered in the … raids, and then reborn in the Earth Kingdom.”

“The last real raid was nine years ago,” Katara says softly. Her hand goes to the necklace around her throat.

“It wouldn’t … bother my father if the Avatar was nine years old,” Zuko admits with a pained wince. “He would … still want to eliminate the threat.”

“A child?” Katara rounds on him, scowling. “You would kill a -”

“Obviously not,” Zuko snaps, rounding right back this time. “When he banished me, I didn’t even know I was the Avatar - and even then, I had doubts on what I would do if I found him or her. I didn’t enjoy the thought of turning a child over to him-”

“But you would have.” Katara crosses her arms in front of his chest, and somehow this went so badly so fast, and Zuko can barely breathe past his anger. “You would have done it, to make your father happy -”

“No! All I wanted was to have my honor restored, I didn’t want-”

“Your honor, or a child’s life?”

“No! You aren’t listening to me!” Zuko throws his hands in the air as Katara spins and grips the railing, scowling again at the water. 

Underneath them, the waves churn a little more violently than before. 

“I can’t believe you would have considered-”

“You don’t even know me.” Zuko scowls at her. “You aren’t even trying to-”

“Trying?” Katara’s almost screaming now as she turns back to face him. “I left everything I know to come with you, I’m on a boat made by and built for the people who murdered my mother -- do you think this is easy for me?”

“It’s not easy for me either!” Zuko shouts back, and the boat tilts dangerously.

“Nephew. Lady Katara.” Iroh’s voice reaches them from across the deck, and they turn to look at him at the same time.

“What?” They shout together before glancing at each other and crossing their arms, glaring in opposite directions.

Iroh is gripping the railing on the other side of the deck, and Sokka is sprawled out against the deck. 

“Do you think perhaps you could postpone your argument for when the elements are not so inclined to listen to you both?”

“Fine,” Katara snaps, dropping her arms to her side.

“Sorry, Uncle.” Zuko feels himself slump, and his face is burning as he avoids looking at Katara. 

“Perhaps an apology to your friend, nephew-”

“Sorry,” Zuko grits out to Katara, who glares and then looks away, nose in the air again.


“Sorry for what, nephew?” Iroh prods.

“I’m sorry that I lost my temper.” Zuko wonders if he’s going to have teeth left after this because they’re grinding together that much. “And I’m sorry that I exist, apparently-”

“This wasn’t about that!” Katara shouts at him, stomping her foot.

“Then what was it about?” Zuko snaps back, and across the deck, Iroh sighs as Sokka gets to his feet.

“Katara, can you come help me get to our room?” Sokka sounds shaky enough to get Katara’s attention. 

“Sokka.” She rushes to his side, but not before glaring at Zuko over her shoulder. “Let’s go.”

As the siblings disappear belowdecks, Zuko raises his hands in the air and lets off a strangled scream of frustration.


“Who taught you how to talk to women?” Iroh asks, eyes as wide as saucers.

Zuko kicks at an overturned bucket as he stomps to the opposite end of the boat.

They sail through choppy water for two days.


Zuko glances up from his meditative pose, his neck aching and eyes burning.

He hadn’t exactly succeeded in detaching himself from his worldly problems.

“Yes?” He looks at the guard in the doorway and rises to his feet. “What is it, Lin?”

“We’re nearing the blockade.” She folds her hands behind her back. “And … the Water Tribe siblings are … on the deck.”

“Ugh.” Zuko pinches his nose.

“We tried to ask them to come below, but they … didn’t want to.”

“Of course they didn’t.” Zuko’s shoulders slump.

Katara hasn’t spoken to him except through Sokka, who remains friendly despite his sister’s animosity towards Zuko. But, Sokka has clearly picked her side, if only because they’re siblings, and that’s what siblings do.

Zuko wonders if Azula would ever pick his side; he misses her fiercely, almost more than he had at the start of his banishment.

He bows to Lin and climbs the stairs to reach the deck; when he reaches fresh air, he sees Katara waterbending serenely from a bucket of water, arcs of it around her body. Sokka is sharpening his knife, and both of them seem to be in a good enough mood.

That is, until Zuko clears his throat.

Katara turns to him, already scowling, the water still around her, but now clearly coiled and ready to attack. Sokka’s expression doesn’t change, but he does sheath his knife and stands, warily looking between him and his sister.

“What?” Katara snaps.

“We’re approaching the blockade,” Zuko explains tiredly. “You both need to go belowdecks until we pass them.”

“We already told the guards we wouldn’t move. Why does it matter?” Katara asks, crossing her arms in front of her chest.

“Why?” Zuko repeats incredulously. “How about, they’ll kill you, for a start.”

“They wouldn’t.” The water that’s coiled around her sharpens into knives, and Zuko groans.

“I’m not saying you can’t handle yourself. I’m saying, there’s hundreds of soldiers on each ship, and the blockade is made of dozens of ships. You could probably fight for a while, but you wouldn’t win. It’s easier to get below.”

“We understand,” Sokka says quickly, touching Katara’s arm when she opens her mouth to retort with something undoubtedly cutting. “It won’t be for long, right?”

“Right.” Zuko nods, but then a guard approaches him with a scroll bearing an Imperial Navy seal.

“This can’t be good,” he mutters, taking the scroll.

“A messenger hawk brought this for you, Avatar.”

“Great.” Zuko sighs and breaks the seal before he shakes the scroll out. He scans it quickly, his good eye widening, before he reads it again, the paper starting to crumple in his grip.

“Change of plans,” Zuko says sharply, looking up at Katara and Sokka. “Get below deck, and hide. Now!”

“We aren’t going to hide,” Katara argues, and Zuko could spit fire, he’s so angry.

“Chiyu!” He calls to his bird, who’s perched on the smoke stack above. For whatever reason, she loves sitting near the boiling hot metal -- it had terrified him the first time, but she seems more than happy to inhale the smoky air up there.

Cawing, the featherless bird swoops down and lands on his arm. He extends his arm to Sokka, who looks dubiously at Chiyu.

“Go with Sokka,” he instructs the bird. “Keep her safe, please,” he addresses Sokka, who nods and holds out his own leather wrapped forearm for the bird to shuffle over to.

“Can I ask why the change in plans?” Sokka asks, eyeing the growing shape of the blockade.

“Because, this message is from General Zhao, and he’s informed me, he’ll be boarding my vessel for an inspection and a meeting,” Zuko explains, and that gets Iroh’s attention from a dozen yards away.

“General Zhao?” Iroh stares out towards the ships. “What an unexpected surprise.”

“An unpleasant one,” Zuko corrects.

“Who is Zhao?” Katara asks, some of the anger gone from her voice, no doubt at the open anger and fear in Zuko’s face.

“There isn’t enough time in the world for that question.” Zuko takes a step back and lets out a tense breath. “And besides, you’re supposed to be hiding, now.”


“Now!” Zuko shouts, pointing at the doorway to go belowdecks. “Ask me questions, shout at me, throw things at me, but do it later. I don’t care how you hide, but go, now!”

He turns and stalks towards the front of the ship, leaving Katara and Sokka to stare at each other in shock.

“While my nephew could have relayed the message in a calmer fashion, he is right -- you should go belowdecks. I wish you had gone with Aang when he departed yesterday - it would make an old man feel better to know you were above the clouds.”

“Iroh,” Katara tries again, “who is Zhao?”

“He is a friend to the Fire Lord, and therefore, not a friend to any of us.” Iroh’s expression is uncharacteristically grim. “And I hope he finds no reason to linger here.”

Katara and Sokka wait for Iroh to keep speaking, but he nods at them and walks towards Zuko, who’s gripping his hands together so tightly the blood is cut off from his fingers.

“Let’s go.” Sokka tugs on Katara’s sleeve. “C’mon, Katara-”

“Fine.” She eyes them for another moment and then heads below the deck with her brother.

“What do you think is happening up there?” Katara whispers to Sokka.

“No clue.” Sokka trails a hand along the metal hull of the storage room they ducked into. Luckily, he’d thought to grab their packs from their room before coming in here, so Katara assumes they’re more or less safe from whoever this Zhao person is.

As much as she’s been angry with Zuko for the last few days -- and, the longer she gives him the silent treatment, the more strangely guilty she feels for flying off the handle at him -- she didn’t like to see the fear in his eyes when he ordered them to hide.

Whoever Zhao is, he isn’t a good man.

“Wait.” Sokka pauses and points up at a vent shaft where light trickles in. “I hear voices.”

He holds a finger to his lips and picks up a crate, carrying it over to the vent. Sokka sets it down quietly and then gestures for Katara to stand on it with him. It creaks slightly when she takes a step, and they both wince, but there’s no pause in the voices talking above them.

They lean towards the light, ears turned to listen.

“-and with the suspicious activity at the South Pole, we of course wanted to check in on your … efforts.” The man talking is unfamiliar, but Katara shivers at the oily quality of his voice. Sokka wraps an arm around her to keep her steady, and they both lean in closer.

“Suspicious activity?” That’s Zuko. “I don’t know what you mean, General. It looked perfectly normal during our scouting.”

“Yes, I read your reports. Very boring.” 

“Zhao?” Sokka mouths at Katara, and she nods, frowning at the topic of their conversation.

“It’s all ice and water and scattered villages. Of course it’s boring.” Zuko sounds surprisingly bored, his voice dripping with a loftiness Katara’s never heard before from the young man.

This must be Zuko, the prince, and not Zuko, the strange, nervous Avatar.

“If you were there, Prince Zuko - and excuse me for asking - but why didn’t the patrol boat see your ship?”

“I commandeered a more appropriate vessel to navigate the ice and get closer to the villages,” Zuko says, anger layering his tone in a dangerously apparent way. “I prefer a more subtle approach than crashing my ship into the shore.”

“I see. And what did you see in your … travels?”

“Like I told you. Ice, and snow.” He sniffs. “And fish.”

Katara grits her teeth when she hears a few people snicker at his comments. 

“Yes, they are quite primitive there, aren’t they?”

“Nothing but peasants,” Zuko agrees, and Katara curls her hands into fists. Sokka touches her shoulder warningly before she can reach through the vent and freeze all the liquid in the meeting room.

“Backwards peasants too, from my memories of the place.” Zhao sighs, and there’s a scuffle of feet, like he’s pacing. “Nothing good to take. The women exhausted, and the men … absent.”

“A nasty blockade run happened recently,” Zhao continues. “We think the Southern Water Tribe was behind it; if that’s the case, the Fire Nation will have no choice but to return to their villages and demand … repayment.”

Katara claps a hand to her mouth, and even Sokka looks like he’s ready to burst.

“No.” Zuko speaks again, but more forcefully this time. “Not if it was within the last month. The chief of the Southern Water Tribe was at home with his warriors, drinking all day.”

Katara hisses, and Sokka nudges her, even if he’s also scowling. Zuko’s clearly trying to sell the lie to distract from attention on their family, but it still hurts to hear him lie about their dad like that, and to hear the men in the room laughing at the lie.

“And chasing women no doubt.” That’s it -- Katara feels the ocean underneath them, and in that moment, she knows that with the anger she feels, she could reach into its depths and pull it over the boat, capsizing it and killing everyone onboard.

Chiyu warbles from her perch and hops down to Katara’s shoulders; her claws don’t feel great, but they are grounding, and Katara lets the ugly little bird nuzzle into her hair. It’s surprisingly comforting, and she scritches under the bird’s chin while they continue to eavesdrop.

“I don’t know about that,” Zuko says stiffy when the laughter has died down.

“It would make sense if he was,” Zhao sounds grossly self-satisfied. “After all the chief’s wife was a waterbender. The last at the South Pole.”

“...Is that so.”

Katara feels her eyes fill with tears, and Sokka wraps an arm around her to keep her still.

“The Southern Raiders took care of that.” Zhao and his men laugh some more, and Katara swallows back a scream of anger.

It feels like she’s a little girl again, seven years old and screaming as her mother burns. It feels like she never crawled out from underneath the bed her mother told her to hide under; it feels like she never grew up, never managed to clear her mind of her mother’s last living moments.

Zuko is noticeably quiet, and Zhao pounces again, even as the boat sways underneath them, in time with Katara’s erratic breathing.

“And you’re sure you didn’t bring back any … souvenirs from your time at the South Pole?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, one of my men swore they saw a figure in blue on this boat, moving water with their hands.” Katara feels the blood rush out of her face. “I would hate to discover that you had recovered a person from the Water Tribe and failed to report it to your father.”

“If you’re implying something, Zhao, just say it.”

A door opens, and Iroh’s comforting voice wafts through the vent. “You have my sincerest apologies, General Zhao, Prince Zuko. It appears that I was misinformed that a meeting was going to take place, or I would have followed you here instead of discussing our ship manifest with your fine lieutenant.”

“I appreciate your courtesy, General Iroh.” Zhao sounds shockingly more respectful now, but oilier than ever. “Undoubtedly, the lieutenant was merely awestruck to be in the presence of a legend such as yourself.”

“I am sure,” Iroh says agreeably. “Nephew, have you not offered our guests some tea?”

“No, Uncle.” Zuko sounds like he’s barely hanging onto his temper, and Katara secretly wishes that he’ll pull some sort of Avatar miracle and bodily throw the men from the room, and the boat. 

Let the ocean take care of them, she thinks fiercely. Let La bury them, and Tui forget their name.

“Zhao was just about to explain what he meant in saying that I had failed to report something to my father,” Zuko continues. “General Zhao, go ahead.”

“I only meant to say, if you did find the Avatar at the South Pole, you should report it immediately.” Zhao’s voice is slicker than blubber that’s been pulled fresh from a seal. “That way, they could be … safely contained, and not practicing water tricks on the deck.”

“Water tricks?” Iroh sounds surprised. “Zuko, what does Zhao speak of?”

“He claims that someone was waterbending on our ship.”

“How could that be?” Katara can practically imagine the way Iroh strokes his beard. “I think I would have seen such a thing, especially if it were in plain sight.”

“Perhaps my man was confused,” Zhao allows, and Katara lets out a relieved breath, guilt still coursing in her veins. But, then he says, “Or, perhaps not.”

“If you’re telling the truth, Prince Zuko,” and everyone can hear the false emphasis on Zuko’s title, “then you won’t mind committing to a trial of fire. To prove your honesty, of course.”

Iroh starts to protest, but Zuko’s voice shifts dangerously. “Of course.”

“Nephew, you do not have to submit-”

“I willingly accept your request,” Zuko says coldly.

Zhao speaks over Iroh’s protestations, and a few of the men mutter while Zhao asks, “Do you swear that you have not found the Avatar?”

“I swear it.” Zuko’s voice is strained.

Strangely, Katara feels sick to her stomach; she lurches to the side slightly and grips the wall -- Sokka adjusts his hold on her and looks down at her. There’s concern in his face, and only some of it is directed at her.

“Are you okay?”

“Something’s wrong,” Katara whispers, eyes widening when she realizes what’s happening. “Oh, La-”

“That is enough !” Iroh shouts, and there’s a rush of noise almost like wind. The air even in the storage room heats up noticeably, and Katara can’t quell the nausea in her stomach.

“It has been many years since there has been a demonstration of the power of the Dragon-” Zhao speaks, but is cut off by a ferocious Iroh.

“It has been many years since such a savagery as a trial of fire has been permitted in any court or military operation in the Fire Nation!” Iroh snaps, sounding more like a General than a kindly uncle. “You have forgotten your place, General Zhao, and you can rest assured that this brutality will be noted!”

“I wouldn’t be so sure, General,” Zhao says coldly. “Firelord Ozai is going to bring the Fire Nation back to its roots; he will make our nation great again.”

“Long may he reign,” Zuko rasps softly.

“At least I can tell the Fire Lord that his son is stronger than he was before,” Zhao continues. “And that he intends to inform the throne the moment his quest looks to be fruitful?”


“I think it is time you leave, General Zhao,” Iroh says. It is not a suggestion in the slightest; they can all hear it.

“Very well.” There’s the sound of feet retreating, and then Zhao throws in, “One day, you’ll learn to burn someone before they can burn you, Zuko.”

And then the door closes, and Iroh’s heavier footfall rushes to Zuko.

“What happened?” Sokka demands, but Katara can barely see through the anger that rises in her. “Katara, where are you--”

She sprints from their hiding spot and kicks the storage room door open; Chiyu swoops low behind her, barely hiding a screech.

Katara rushes up the steps, hearing the soldiers marching over her head, and when she reaches the top of the stairs, she crouches and looks out the window at the man as he retreats. 

She can’t tell if the man had ever shown his face at the South Pole; she can’t see anything but his back as he and his men board their ship, crossing the gangplank. She feels fury rise in her veins again, and she reaches into the sea and tugs viciously on a wave, yanking it up between the boats, and slamming into the general.

He nearly falls into the water, but he lurches forward to be caught by the soldiers waiting on the other side. They all look around in confusion, and Katara sinks to her knees, panting from exertion and rage.

Eventually, they must assume it was a wave and bad luck that did it, and she peeks over the window again to see them pull up the connective gangplank between the boats. She squints at them and considers freezing the water in their pipes, but there’s so much steel between her and the water that courses through the heart of the enemy ship -- not for the first time in her life, she feels powerless.

And it doesn’t get any better a moment later when Zuko stumbles up the stairs, Iroh and Sokka close behind him.

“Tell me that they’re gone,” he demands, and Katara can barely nod, her eyes locked on the way he cradles his arm to his chest; Zuko stalks past her and barks orders for everyone to set sail.

The boat shakes to life and cuts through the water towards the main part of the blockade - it’s not until they’re well past the other ships that Katara and Sokka are allowed forward by Iroh.

“Who was that?” She demands of Zuko, who’s staring out across the water as they steam quickly forward. “And what did he do to you?”

Zuko holds up his arm, and she hisses when she sees the bright red burn in the shape of a hand. 


“I’ve had worse,” he says mirthlessly. “Obviously.”

“Why did he do that?”

“Because he could,” Zuko says, sounding older than any eighteen-year-old should. “Because he knows who I am. He knows my shame.”

“He was the one who acted with shame,” Katara snaps, and she pulls clean water from a nearby barrel. “Hold still.”

She gathers the water as a glove around her hand and sets it over the burn on Zuko’s arm. 

“What’s a trial of fire?” She asks. Zuko winces.

“You heard?”


Zuko clears his throat. Surprisingly, he says: “I don’t think your people are peasants. And your father isn’t a drunk. I was ly-”

“I know.” She cuts him off quickly before adding, “But thank you.” She imagines his skin knitting back together, imagines his pale skin untouched, unbroken, and pushes cool relief into his skin.

It heals under her touch, and Zuko watches it vanish. When she pulls her hand away, it looks as though the skin was never broken.

He looks unspeakably grieved as he twists his arm back and forth, as though checking for any remnant of a scar.

Katara watches his face carefully, waiting for him to answer her previous question.

His voice is slightly ragged. “A trial of fire has been outlawed for nearly nine decades; I guess my father is bringing it back.”

Without thinking, she reaches up to touch his face. “Is that what happened to you?”

He lets her touch the edge of the scar that curves across his face, but he doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t even move.

“Thank you,” Zuko murmurs. 

And without another word, he turns and heads to the command deck, leaving her behind with a dozen more questions than she started with. 

Chapter Text

A day after their disastrous run-in with Zhao, Iroh walks across the deck to Zuko with a grim look on his face.


Zuko doesn’t stir from where he’s staring out over the open water. “Uncle.”

“We are being followed.”

“I know.”

They’re quiet for a long moment, and Zuko’s throat tightens with what he can predict his uncle is about to say.

“Perhaps it is for the best if we-”

“Please don’t suggest we separate.” Zuko doesn’t want his uncle trying to lead Zhao on a wild chase around the world while he hides away still. “I can confront Zhao.” His right hand tightens into a fist. “I will confront him.”

“You cannot reveal yourself as the Avatar.” Iroh touches his elbow, and Zuko turns his head towards his uncle, even if he doesn’t look at him. “Not yet, at least. You still have two elements to master.”

“And I can’t control fire.” Zuko breathes in through his nose, and out through his mouth, trying to calm himself. “I don’t think we should split up. Who’s to say Zhao won’t anticipate that?”

“We don’t know for sure. But I do know we have a hundred percent certainty of bringing him to the front step of the Northern Water Tribe if we all travel together - which I do not believe will endear us to those at the North Pole.”

“That’s true,” Zuko concedes, even if his stomach is forming a nasty pit of anxiety at the thought of leaving his uncle. “What should we do?”

Iroh smiles sadly at his nephew and explains his plan: the entire time his uncle speaks, Zuko considers all of the ways his failure as both Avatar and prince have led them to this moment.

It’s a fairly lengthy list.

That night, after the sun has set, Zuko, Sokka, Katara, and Aang sneak onto Appa. 

It’s a new moon, which means if they fly close to the water until they pull a safe distance away, no one should be able to see them.

The entire time they transfer their things to Appa, Zuko can see the distant lights of Zhao’s ship behind them in the water, like an eye watching them, waiting to strike.

“We will see each other again, nephew.” Iroh tells him as Zuko prepares to leap onto Appa’s saddle. “This is not goodbye.”

Zuko accepts the embrace Iroh offers him. “I know it isn’t,” he whispers. They look at each other for a moment longer than they can spare, and then Zuko leaps over the railing; Sokka catches him and keeps him balanced.

“I will see you at the North Pole in three weeks,” Iroh promises. “Keep yourselves hidden, and keep yourselves safe.”

They wave quietly at Iroh as Appa flies away, and Zuko watches his ship disappear as the inky blackness swallows them whole. He keeps watching long after he can no longer see the lights - he watches until Sokka nudges him.

“Your uncle is going to be fine.”

Zuko glances at him and nods, once. “Yeah. He will be.”

Even Katara is watching him with concern, so Zuko grips a bedroll and hands it to Sokka. “We should get some rest. I’ll take first watch.”

“Are you sure?” Katara asks uncertainly, eyeing her brother. “We don’t mind-”

“I’ll be fine.” Zuko returns to staring off the back of the saddle, and as they shuffle around behind him, he brings a hand to his eye to wipe away a stubborn tear that he can’t will back inside himself.

I will see you again, Uncle. If only he could become stronger, if only he could get over his fear - then none of this would be necessary.

As the sun rises the next day, Zuko’s exhaustion is shunted to the side by the intense rush of self-awareness that comes with sunlight. They’re slightly below cloud level now, the sea an infinite stretch of grey-blue beneath them, and Zuko forgets he’s been awake for nearly twenty-four hours as he watches the red disk creep over the eastern horizon.

Chiyu flies alongside them, cawing every now and then in her happiness to be actually flying.

Sokka stretches first, yawning, and then sits up quickly. “Why didn’t you wake us up?” He hisses at Zuko, who only shrugs.

“Sokka.” Katara throws an arm over her eyes and rolls over until she faces Zuko. “Less talking. More sleeping.”

“The sun is up, Katara-”

“That doesn’t mean I have to be,” she grumbles, flicking her fingers at her brother so that water condenses from the air and splatters on his face.

It makes Zuko smile for the first time really since Zhao had appeared, and he watches Katara’s face relax until she’s clearly asleep again. Still smiling, he looks up -

And sees that Sokka is watching him … watch his little sister.

Zuko’s face heats up, and he cracks his neck in his haste to pretend to look in a different direction. Sokka doesn’t say anything, and Zuko hopes that he doesn't feel the need to - he’s well-aware that he has no business staring at Katara. Even if she’s cuter than anyone has a right to be when she’s half asleep and cranky.  

“Aang?” Sokka addresses their elder instead, and the airbender looks around, sleep lining his eyes.

“Yes, young Master Sokka?”

“Where are we going?”

“Good question.” Aang yawns, and leans back slightly. “Where are any of us going in this life-”

“He means where are we going right now, Master Aang,” Zuko mutters, and Aang grins.

“Kyoshi Island.” He points in the distance at nothing at all, and Sokka rubs his eyes and shrugs. 

“If you say so.”

“I have a feeling that our welcome might be warmer there than in other places so close to the Fire Nation blockade,” Aang comments lightly. “Given Zuko’s connection to the island.”

“Your connection?” Sokka looks at Zuko quizzically.

“My past life, Avatar Kyoshi, established the settlement on the island,” Zuko mumbles.

“Is it nice there?” Katara asks, clearly not as asleep as Zuko thought she was.

“No idea. I’ve never been there.” He winces. “At least. Not in this life.”

“Can you remember anything about it?” Now one of her blue eyes is open, even if it’s still heavy with sleep. “Or about her?”

“Kyoshi was …” Zuko tries to wrack his memory, but most of what he knows comes from his studies that were Iroh-mandated. “She was from the Earth Kingdom, and she was … tough.” Tougher than me, he doesn’t add.

“Hm.” Katara closes her eyes again, and Sokka grabs his blanket and throws it over her.

“Any chance that Kyoshi Island has a nice, quiet beach?” Sokka jokes, leaning his head on the side of the saddle. “Another night spent sleeping on this beast, and I don’t think I’ll make it.”

Appa rumbles indignantly. 

“Sorry, sorry.”

Aang answers for Zuko. “It has beautiful beaches - AND elephant koi!” He turns around and grins, his face appearing thirty years younger with youthful glee. 

“Elephant koi. Those sound delicious.” Sokka pats his stomach forlornly. 

“You don’t eat them. You ride them!” Aang laughs wildly and then points to the northern horizon. “Look! There it is!”

Sokka shakes his head. “Koi you can ride. Sounds … fishy.”

He shakes Katara’s foot. “Huh? Huh? Did you hear that, Katara? I said it sounds-”

The entire contents of a packed canteen erupt and drench Sokka mid-sentence. He wipes his face again, spluttering, as Zuko chokes on a laugh that still escapes him as a snort.

He sees Katara crack her eye to check on her brother, and it’s with a very self-satisfied smirk that she rolls onto her stomach and buries her head under her pillow.

After they’ve landed and the trio hops out of the saddle, Aang sliding from his perch with much more grace than one would expect from an old man who’d been awake and sitting in one position for so long, Sokka stretches his back out, groaning.

“This beach is pretty,” Katara comments, eyes wide as she takes in the lush landscape. “And it’s so warm.”

She unbuttons her top layer slowly, and Zuko’s mouth goes dry; he looks to Sokka for a distraction, and sees him wading into the water, his own coat long abandoned.

“Oh, that’s the stuff, ” he groans, stalking through the shallows and dragging his fingers along the surface. “Katara, you gotta come in here.”

“I will after breakfast is ready,” Katara laughs, unpacking their provisions carefully.

“I’ll cook. You should go,” Zuko says softly, putting his hand on the other side of the bag. She pauses and looks up at him, frowning. “You - I only meant - it’s been a few days since … since you were able to - be in the water, and I - I know that-”

“No, I understand.” Katara looks strangely touched and from her perch on a nearby branch, Chiyu caws approvingly. “That’s - that’s really nice of you, Zuko. Thanks.”

“Yeah.” He nods, awkwardly, and then points out to Sokka. “And, I’m guessing you’re a better swimmer than me, in case your brother drowns.”

“With his luck,” Katara shakes her head and looks out to where Sokka is dunking his head in the waves, “he just mi- what is that?”

Zuko blinks and sees what Katara had just noticed - large, twisting shapes in the water. “Agni,” he curses. “Sokka!” He calls out. “Come back to shore. Slowly.”

“What?” Sokka whacks himself in the ear while treading. “Why would I do th-”

One of the shapes bumps him in the water, and Sokka screams.

“Sokka!” Katara rushes forward, but Zuko’s faster.

He dives into the water and splashes out quickly; he can hear Chiyu screeching in alarm, and he can hear Katara enter the water behind him, but as soon as he can, he lowers himself and switches to swimming. He comes up with a sharp inhale when he sees Sokka and prepares to fend off whatever’s in the water.

From the shore, he can hear Aang’s laughter, and Sokka is muttering to himself mutinously.

“It’s just the elephant koi!” Aang shouts. “They’re very friendly. You should ride one!”

“Koi?” Zuko snaps, splashing Sokka in the face. “I came in here like an idiot because a toothless fish touched you?”

“Hey!” Sokka splashes him back. “I didn’t ask you to rescue me-”

“Boys, come back to the shore!” Katara’s laughing at both of them, and Zuko thinks steam might be rising up from the surface of the bay from his body temperature reacting to his sheer embarrassment. “Play with the fishies later!”

“Ugh.” Zuko shoves Sokka a little rudely as they jostle towards the shore, and Katara starts to shout at them again.

“Come back!”

“We are!” Sokka shouts, catching a mouthful of salt water for his trouble. “Blech, yucky-yuck-”

“No! In the water!” Aang’s shouting now. “You need to move faster!”

“What?” Zuko looks over his shoulder, and his eyes widen at the sight of a massive dorsal fin rising behind the shapes of the elephant koi.

“Oh, sh-” Sokka swallows more saltwater as he flails in shock at the appearance of what could charitably be called a sea monster.

“That’s it.” Zuko snags Sokka around the waist, bringing them both under the surface for a second, and when they bob back up, the monster locks eyes with Zuko. “Goodbye,” he says, slapping the surface of the water and kicking out at the same time, pushing air as hard as he can through both his extremities. 

It’s enough to propel him and Sokka backwards faster than the monster can follow, and they hit the shallows in a few seconds, both of them tumbling against the rocky, sandy incline.

“Gross.” Sokka stands up first, water pouring off of his sodden clothing. “This is an awful island! Evil, evil island!”

Katara rushes to hug Sokka, and Zuko struggles to get to his feet, a wave catching him in the butt and shoving him forward into the beach. 

“Oh.” Katara runs to him next and helps him to his feet. “Oh, poor thing-”

“I’m fine,” Zuko mutters as Katara wipes sand from his arms and chest. “Really - ow, Katara, ow-”

Sokka’s snickering at him as he comes to watch Katara wipe at the sand on Zuko’s neck with a cloth from her pouch, and she points at her brother without looking. “You’re next, jerk.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Sokka shakes his head and looks out to the sea monster’s retreating form. “Hey, Aang, what was that thing?”

Katara frowns at the silence.


No longer distracted by Katara’s proximity and ruthless cleaning, Zuko looks away from the short waterbender and over to their campsite.

Aang is gone.

And so is Appa.


They all run towards the tree line, but a few seconds later, figures clothed in green jump out of nowhere and attack. Zuko shouts in alarm, springing to jump in front of Katara, but Sokka has the same idea.

They slam heads and both fall backwards, and the world goes dark as one of them shoves a bag over Zuko’s aching head.

Katara shouts something, and Chiyu is screeching, a full screech of metal rending -- there’s a tussle loud enough to hear over the blood pounding in Zuko’s ears, and then both Katara and Chiyu fall silent too.

They’re dragged forward an indefinite distance.

“Keep walking,” a voice snaps at him when he stumbles, and Zuko fights the urge to airbend out of this - he didn’t (couldn’t) see what weapons their captors have, and he doesn’t know what condition Katara and Sokka are in.

If he bends recklessly, he might injure one of them - if he bends and injures a captor, they might retaliate and hurt the siblings. 

So, he bides his time, gritting his teeth as they’re all pushed to what feels like a piece of wood, and someone starts to tie them up. Zuko can feel a soft trim of fur brush against his left arm, and he can feel that the person wearing the fur is shaking.

“Hey,” he whispers, twisting his arm painfully to reach out to touch Katara’s arm. “You’re going to be okay. I won’t let them hurt you.”

“Thanks.” It’s not Katara who answers him. It’s Sokka. “I appreciate it, dude.”

“No problem … buddy.” Zuko’s ears heat up when he hears Katara scoff on his right side.

Without warning, the fabric over his head is removed, and Zuko squints into the painful brightness. The green-robed figures from before are standing in front of him, their arms crossed. 

“Who are you?” The figure in the front asks: a girl, probably their age. 

“Travellers,” Zuko answers. “Why did you attack us?”

“What are you doing here?” She asks instead. “And you better have a good explanation because you’re obviously Fire Nation.”

“We aren’t,” Katara points out. And she shuffles a little against the restraints as she turns her head. “And he isn’t either.”

“The old man?”

“Aang?” Zuko’s heart skips a beat. “Aang, are you alright?”

He doesn’t get an answer.

“If you hurt him,” Zuko turns to scowl at the lead girl. “If he’s at all hurt, there will be hell to pay-”

“Yeah, yeah.” 

“Wait a second.” Sokka pipes up this time. “Where are the guys who attacked us?”

“What guys?” The girl crosses her arms to scowl at Sokka.

“The big, burly guys who knocked us out?”

“That would be us, dummy.”

Sokka thinks about this for a second “But you’re girls?”

Katara groans as the group of warriors giggle - the leader just rolls her eyes. “Oh, you’re one of those boys.” She points what’s clearly a weaponized fan at Zuko. “Let me guess, you also don’t think girls can be warriors.”

“What?” Zuko shakes his head quickly. “Me? No. No, my sister is the most dangerous fighter I’ve ever met, girls can definitely fight.”

“Good.” The girl seems satisfied by that answer. “At least you aren’t dumb and Fire Nation.”

“Zuko can’t help that he’s Fire Nation!” Katara protests, and Zuko winces.

“Zuko?” A girl in the back of the group repeats his name, and Zuko groans low in his throat, tilting his head back to the sky. “Like … the crown prince … Zuko?”

“Yep.” He sighs and rocks his head back to the column.  

“Prince Zuko?” The leader asks, eyes widening under her face paint. “Spirits. Warriors, we’ve captured the prince of the Fire Nation.”

“Banished prince,” Zuko corrects, exhausted already, still rocking his head on the wooden pole. “Hey, Katara, if I get executed, I want you to know that … I definitely blame you.”


“No one is getting executed,” a familiar voice says soothingly.

“Aang!” Sokka says. “You’re okay!”

“Yes. I took a small nap to recharge, but I’m fine.” Aang sounds way too cheerful, and Zuko smiles slightly because he has a feeling Aang is about to do something ridiculous. “And we’re all going to be okay, because these young women are going to let us go.”

“Why would we do that?”

“Because!” Aang is even more cheerful now - approaching lethal levels of cheer, really. “Zuko might be a prince, but he’s also the Avatar!”

“Aang!” Katara hisses.

Zuko blanches as the girl stares at him in shock.

“You’re lying, old man.”

“I’m not lying. Air Nomads don’t like to lie.”

“You aren’t an Air Nomad! They haven’t been seen in fifty years!” Another girl says angrily. 

“Oh, really?” 

The ropes around them all tense and then relax as Aang airbends the knot loose, and then leaps to the top of the pole. The ropes around all of them fall to the ground as Aang stands on one hand at the top of the pole, twenty feet in the air, far too spry for a normal person in their sixties.

“Believe me now?”

The group of young women stares up at Aang now, and then down to Zuko. “That doesn’t mean you’re telling the truth about-”

“Zuko, airbend or something,” Sokka hisses, and Zuko sighs and picks up some pebbles from the ground.

Shooting a spiral of air around them between his hands, Zuko holds up the rapidly spinning pebbles to demonstrate. It was one of the first tricks Aang had taught him -- at the time, his master had insisted it was sure to impress girls one day.

“Ta-da?” He says, already doubtful that it was enough to convince anyone.

“You really are the Avatar.” The leader walks forward, hand extended. Behind her, a warrior opens a burlap sack, and Chiyu erupts upward, grumpily screeching. “Sorry about that, it’s just -- the prince and the Avatar?”

Chiyu settles on Zuko’s shoulder and rubs her scarred face into his hair as Zuko takes the lead warrior’s hand and shakes it.

“Right. It’s - weird for me, too. Also, it’s a secret.” He scowls up at an unapologetic Aang as he says the last part. Aang just laughs and jumps down. 

“The Kyoshi Warriors will tell no one,” she promises solemnly, releasing his hand. “I’m Suki, and I’m the leader of our group. We’ll keep your secret safe.”

“Kyoshi Warriors.” Katara shakes Suki’s hand next. “Named for the Avatar?”

“It’s why we dress like her,” Suki explains, gesturing at her face paint. “We honor her memory as creator of our island, the one who established peace over a century ago.”

Sokka clears his throat and holds his hand out. “The name’s Sokka.” Suki shakes his hand, an eyebrow quirked. “And you’ll find it won’t be so easy to get the drop on me again.”

“Is that so?” 

“That’s so,” he nods calmly. “You see, I’ve trained for years to become the head warrior of our own tri-aaah!”

Suki kicks out quickly and brings Sokka down from his ankles as she sweeps them out from underneath him. She giggles as he glares up at her. 

“That doesn’t count! We weren’t even fighting!”

“I have bad news about war,” Suki says lightly as she offers Sokka a hand up. “But, if you play your cards right, maybe we’ll teach you a thing or two while you stay here.”

“Maybe.” Sokka takes her hand and stands wincing, hand going to rub his butt. “Ow.” 

“Sorry.” She doesn’t sound sorry. “You all must be exhausted. Come with us, and we’ll show you to your rooms. We have a special house set aside for the Avatar, built by Kyoshi herself. And, you can see your … big cow again.”

“Sky bison!” Aang says cheerfully, following Suki away from their previous site of imprisonment. “His name is Appa.”

Katara, Sokka, and Zuko all exchange a look.

“Should we trust them?” Katara asks, throwing her braid over her shoulder.

“Why not?” Sokka’s watching the warriors with a thoughtful look on his face. “This could be pretty great, I think.”

Zuko shrugs. “Let’s just assume the worst will happen, and then we’ll be ready for it whenever the worst does happen.”

“Something tells me that’s how you approach a lot of things in life,” Katara comments idly, and Zuko doesn’t disagree.

He flips the hood up on his cloak to hide his scar as they turn towards the main village, and while Katara and Sokka wave happily enough at the curious townsfolk, he stares at the cobblestones and tries to avoid detection. Between his scar and the distinctive bird on his shoulder, he already knows he stands out.

The walk through town is short enough, and their lodgings turn out to be fairly respectable -- definitely nicer than any place Zuko has stayed in the last four years.

“This is great,” Sokka sighs, diving for a large bed in the corner. “I love this.”

“We train after lunch,” Suki says to Sokka, who rolls over quickly and tries to appear presentable as he lounges. “If you’re up for it.”

“You’re on.” He grins at her, and she smirks back at him, and then the warriors bow and make their exit.

Katara pretends to gag, no doubt at the obvious flirtation between her brother and the undeniably pretty Suki, and they all laugh as Aang dives into a free bed with a contented sigh and immediately falls asleep.

“Wake me when there’s food,” he mumbles before going fully limp.

“How does he do that?” Sokka asks enviously.

Regardless of Aang’s clear napping superiority, they all get some rest, and Zuko and Sokka both clean up from their tussle with the monster that they later learn is called the Unagi, which is both protector and demon in this place.

After lunch, Sokka really does get dressed to go train with the warriors, and Katara only laughs a little when he reveals his full facepaint.

“What?” He says, hands on his hips, barely visible through the sleeves of his robes. “Our warriors wear facepaint, too!”

“No, no, I know.” Katara wipes at her eyes, still grinning. “It’s just nice to see you … working on your feminine side. Really.”


When he’s out of sight, Katara and Zuko grin at each other, before both looking away, strangely embarrassed. This is the first time they’ve been alone since Zuko’s lie was discovered, he realizes. Aang’s off talking to the mayor of the village, and it’s left the two of them alone in their quarters.

He’s about to suggest a game of cards to pass the time when Katara sits up with a smile. 

“Wanna go practice your waterbending?”

That shocks him - the idea that she’d even want to continue working with him, and the idea that she’d be the one to suggest it.

“Yes. Please.” He bows a little. “Master Katara.”

“Slow down, Zuko, or a girl might get used to that.” She primly tosses her braid back, and he laughs - still an unfamiliar sensation - as he follows her through the door and down the street to the river.

Katara and Zuko practice every day for three days - unaware that one person sees them, one time, in their secluded spot up the river. While Sokka trains with the warriors, the two work on forms and share ideas for how to control the water.

They laugh more than they have for the past weeks, and they feel safe.

The person who sees them, one time, has no intention to harm them; but, the person sees two people practicing waterbending, and realizes that the ancient house that has gone unfilled for over a century is full now. That person makes an assumption.

And shares it with one other person, a sailor, who goes to the next village over. He tells two people the first person’s assumption, and they tell others, who tell others.

Who tells the first mate to a particular general.

The person who sees Katara and Zuko laughing as they splash each other -- the scarred prince finally acting his age -- has no desire to hurt anyone. Neither do any of the people in between as the chain grows and grows.

The person at the end of that chain, as the first mate rushes aboard his ship and falls to a bow to relay the message, has every intent to hurt others.

They set sail within the hour.

On their fourth day on Kyoshi Island, Zuko and Katara walk to watch Suki and Sokka train, and Zuko is impressed with how much Sokka has devoted himself to learning a new fighting style. He doesn’t move as gracefully as any of the young women, and he falters a few times with his fan, but he gets up every time he’s knocked down, and he grins the whole time when he isn’t in the middle of a match.

It comes down to the final match with Suki pinning Sokka, straddling his lap as she holds one of his wrists, her fan pointed at his throat.


“Never!” Sokka’s laughing though, and Suki giggles too, twisting his wrist a little.


“No!” Sokka laughs and tussles with her a little, and they roll around the mat as a few of the watching warriors laugh and roll their eyes.

“Ugh.” Katara laughs too as Zuko squirms uncomfortably. “I do not want to watch my brother humping someone, especially someone I like.”

“What?” Zuko chokes on his own spit and coughs. Katara smacks him on the back a few times. “What do you, uh, mean?”

“Oh, come on.” Katara rolls her eyes and gestures at the scuffling teenagers. “This is weird foreplay, but it’s still-”

“Um.” Zuko’s voice cracks painfully. “I don’t know if they’re-”

“Oh, Zuko.” Katara laughs, a little teasingly now. “Are you embarrassed to talk about sex?”

“What? No!” His voice cracks again.

“Is it because of your royal manners?” She adopts a lofty tone that's annoyingly accurate to court. “Is that why you can’t talk to me about sex-”

“Argh!” Zuko leaps to his feet and flees the training center, and of course Katara follows him, still teasing.

“Zuko! Did you not get the talk about the birds and the seals?” Katara continues. “Or is it really because you can’t talk to me about-”

“You’re a lady!” Zuko half-shouts, spinning around to face her. She lifts her eyebrows in surprise. “That’s why, you’re a -”

She blinks and smiles. “I’m a lady? Is that why your uncle calls me … Lady Katara?”

“Stop it.”

“Oh, Prince Zuko.” Katara pretends to swoon, much more playful than normal as she sinks into his side, hand to forehead. His entire body is on fire, he’s sure, but he doesn’t mind what’s happening beyond the teasing. “However will we-”

She stops, mid-teasing, and Zuko rolls his eyes.

“What? However will we - what, tell the salad fork from the entree fork?”

“Zuko.” Katara stands up and grips his arm. “Look.”

Smoke rises on the horizon, smoke that pours from the stack on a Fire Nation ship.

Zuko curses and runs back to the training center. “Fire Nation!” He shouts, Katara close on his heels. Chiyu, who’d been circling overhead lazily, plunges, screaming in alarm. “Fire Nation ship-”

The Kyoshi Warriors move surprisingly fast; they’re clearly ready for the worst in the same way Zuko always is.

Aang runs towards them as they congregate in the middle of the village, Suki giving out orders rapidfire. 

“The warriors and I will confront them at the edge of the village, at the east and southern entrances,” she points and then turns to the mayor. “You need to lead the villagers to the foothills for safety.”

“I’ll help with that,” Aang promises. “Chiyu and I both will. And, I’ll get Appa ready to go - if they’re here for the reason I think they are,” he glances at Zuko meaningfully, “we might need to leave to draw them off.”

Katara nods grimly as Zuko’s stomach twists. Of course this is his --

“Zuko, Katara, will you be ready to fight as well?” Suki asks. “We have some weapons-”

“No need.” Zuko shakes his head. “I have my dao.”

“And I can waterbend. Sort of.” Katara winces and eyes the approaching smoke. “It will be helpful if fires are set.”

“Great. Thank you.” Suki smiles at them and then turns to Sokka. “We’d be honored if you fought at our side today, Sokka.”

“The honor is mine.” Sokka snaps his fan open, and clasps arms with Suki, who nods at them all. 

“Let’s go.”

Zuko runs to grab his swords and joins Katara out front. Groups of villages pour past them, running north, and Katara looks at him briefly.

“Will you be able to fight your own people, if it comes down to that?” Katara ask. “Even hurt them?”

The terror is palpable in every face that passes by; and Zuko knows enough of history, true history, to understand his people’s bloody legacy is what’s causing their fear.

“Without hesitation,” he answers, and whatever Katara sees in his face and hears in his voice seems to satisfy her.

The sounds of conflict echo through the street as the small group of firebenders, the first soldiers off the boat, come to the village. Zuko can tell most of the personnel hasn’t left the ship - only ten or so fighters are here.

Zhao doesn’t expect much of a fight from them, then.

Speaking of Zhao: 

“It’s unlikely that Zhao would allow anyone to capture me -- or the Avatar, if he thinks the Avatar is with me. Or if he knows it is me.” Zuko groans. It’s all a horrible mess. 

“Where do you think he would be?”

“Somewhere he could make an easy retreat. Somewhere --” Zuko turns to the river and points with his dao. “Over there, maybe.”

They creep along the streets, and Zuko winces as plumes of smoke start to grow towards the sky - Kyoshi Island is burning because of Zhao. Because he drew Zhao here.

As they pass a building with a burning roof, he sees Katara still. He sees the open fear in her face; it almost swallows the brightness of her eyes, and she looks a thousand miles away as she turns from the sight.

Zuko touches her arm gently. “Hey. We’re going to fix this.”

She nods and sets her jaw, blinking until her eyes clear.

They run swiftly, ducking low out of sight when they can, and then head to the bend in the river that’s nearest to the village.

Sure enough, a boat is drawing towards the shore, the figure of Zhao standing proudly in the stern. 

“Like we practiced?” He asks Katara, and she nods, determination clear in her face.

As the boat hits the sandy shore, Zuko sprints forward, pushing with his arms. Katara does too, her posture lower, more correct, and he can tell it’s more her than him that pushes a wave of water into the boat, knocking Zhao over.

“You!” General Zhao shouts, pointing at Zuko. “You coward!”

“You’re the coward today, Zhao!” Zuko answers, separating his dao and holding them, ready for combat. “Come here and fight me-”

Zhao laughs, a disturbingly evil sound, and then points at the village behind them. “This island will burn to the ground unless you bring the Avatar to me-”

Zuko grits his teeth and rushes towards the shore; he sees Zhao set his feet, establishing his root -- he’s about to firebend.

Desperate, Zuko flicks his foot out, sending a current of air to knock him unsteady -- at the same time Katara moves her arms a certain way, further shaking the boat behind Zhao.

But, from Zhao’s perspective, Katara didn’t waterbend. All he can see is that Katara moved her arms - and air knocked him over.

He starts to scream, pointing at Katara. “She’s the Avatar! Catch her!” 

Katara doesn’t pause, only shifts into her next form and pushes again, and Zuko groans and punches out -- Zhao’s eyes are fixed on Katara so he doesn’t see the air stream out of Zuko’s arm and slam into his chest, knocking him backwards. When he’s back in the water, Katara sweeps her arms, pushing a large enough swell of water to shove him downstream, and he and the other soldiers are lost to the current, which drags them back out to sea. 

They run to follow them, both of them pushing the water when needed, as Zhao howls something incoherent from the river - when they reach the place the river pours into the ocean, they see the waiting ship; on the other side of the thin strip of land they’re standing on, a cliff that overlooks the ocean and the bay of Kyoshi, a large shape grows in the water of the bay.

The Unagi raises its head; Zuko can see the fires growing in the village, and his throat spasms in grief. He did this.

“Please,” he addresses the Unagi, unsure if it can hear him at this distance, even as it rises so that it’s nearly on the level of the cliff he and Katara stand on. “Help them. Please.”

The Unagi sinks back into the water, and Zuko shouts in frustration after it; Katara tugs on his arm. “Come on, we need to go help them-”

And he’s about to follow her when the Unagi erupts out of the water, its serpentine form emerging in glorious splendor -- a spout of water a dozen feet wide pours out of its fanged mouth and sprays over the town, lasting until the last fire winks out.

It gives Zuko a look that almost says are you satisfied? And Zuko bows as deeply as he can.

“Thank you.”

A familiar rumble cuts through the air, and Zuko and Katara look up in time to see Appa dropping out of the sky, Aang, Suki, and Sokka on his back.

“We need to go,” Sokka shouts, waving them up. “We need to draw them off.”

“Right.” Zuko looks to the other side of the cliff and sees the black ship anchored; soldiers are readying themselves at the battlements. That can’t be good. “We need to go … now.”

He helps Katara scramble up to the saddle, and he looks one more time to the lurking shape of the Unagi. Smiling slightly, he pushes himself up through the air and settles in the saddle.

“Good luck to all of you,” Suki tells them earnestly before grabbing Zuko’s arm. “You have friends, Avatar. Don’t forget that.” She kisses Sokka’s cheek -- he blushes, clearly through his facepaint -- and jumps off the saddle.

“Yip yip!” Aang shouts, pulling up on the reins. Appa launches forward, as Aang shouts, “Incoming!”

Zuko jumps into the air, off of Appa’s saddle, and kicks out air from his right foot to block the fireball that’s hurtling towards them. He doesn’t know if Zhao saw - but when he lands back in the saddle, Sokka hauling him into safety, he sees that Zhao is still struggling to get out of the water. Of course he didn’t see that.

Spirits, he’s tired.

They fly for almost an hour, Katara, Aang, and Sokka exchanging stories of their fight -- Sokka tells the best story, of course, and even adds in that he managed to get a kiss from Suki.

“But, you only just met her.” Zuko frowns, trying to do the calculations in his head. “Why did-”

“I don’t know.” Sokka shrugs and grins. “Ladies love me. Ow!”

Katara settles back in her spot, having leaned in to pinch her brother. “I don’t think Suki would want you to talk like that.”

“That’s true.” Sokka sighs contentedly and puts a hand to his jaw. “Suki.”

Katara rolls her eyes, and Aang directs Appa to land on a small island that appears uninhabited so they can take stock and decide their next move.

“How did you guys get Zhao out of there so quickly?” Sokka asks, concerned suddenly. “Did you have to go all Avatar on him?”

Katara laughs brightly as Appa lands and Chiyu swoops to join them. 

“Not at all” She and Sokka work together to get out of the saddle, and Zuko feels his heart rate pick up from anxiety as he leaps out after them. 

“That’s the best part,” she continues, “Zhao thought I  was the one airbending. He thinks I’m the Avatar!”

Sokka laughs too, shaking his head, and Zuko erupts, his impotence and rage and anxiety boiling over horrifically. He grits his teeth and balls his hands into fists. “Don’t laugh!” He shouts. Even Chiyu stares at him, surprised. “This isn’t funny!”

“What?” Katara eyes Sokka, confused. “What are you talking about? We don’t want him to think-”

“We don’t want him to think anything!” Zuko snaps. “Do you have any - any idea what kind of person Zhao is? He’ll do anything - stop at nothing - to rise through the ranks. To please my father. He could hurt you, Katara. He could kill you, if he thinks it will help him.”

Katara’s silent, but she looks suddenly afraid, as well as angry and hurt. Sokka wraps his arm around her shoulders. “Hey, I think we’re all stressed, Zuko, we don’t need to add-”

“You two don’t get it.” Zuko shakes his head. “He’s a monster, and you just -- he thinks you-” He nearly chokes on his next words. “All because I was too cowardly to reveal myself.”

That, for some reason, stirs Katara to respond. “This isn’t your fault, Zu—

He cuts her off. “Haven’t you learned yet, Katara?” Zuko asks, tired beyond measure. “Everything is my fault.”

He walks away from the group, and no one follows him.


Chapter Text

Katara doesn’t know when Zuko’s going to start talking again. It’s not like he was much of a conversationalist before, but his current silence is becoming worrisome as they fly over the outer edge of the Earth Kingdom, heading for the North Pole.

It’s Aang who makes the most of the situation, or at least tries to: he tells them stories from before the war, shares tales of far-off places, and even tries to talk about embarrassing stories of Zuko, no doubt in an effort to get him to at least snap at the older Air Nomad. But nothing works.

Zuko nods when they ask him questions, and he still helps Katara cook and prepare the campsite; he walks with Sokka when they have to fish or hunt, and he agrees to check the maps for Aang. His responses to questions are one word though, if not just a shrug, and Katara’s entire chest aches with worry when she sees him staring silently into their campfire.

She doesn’t know when she started to actively care about the banished prince - probably somewhere in the water, with him bending and trying to make her smile in his awkward attempts at jokes. She’d rolled her eyes at the time -- after all, Katara had a lifetime of terrible boy-jokes from her brother -- but now she’d give anything to hear Zuko botch another punchline. He’s sort of an enigma to her: the boy who fell from the sky, who became an enemy, then a symbol of ancient, spiritual power, and finally something resembling an ally if not a friend.

Beyond that, there’s something that’s always flickered at the core of him, something that had caught her attention even when his lips were blue and eyelashes frozen shut when she’d pulled him out of the water. Zuko isn’t simply a lost relic or a lost princeling or an ally in this war. He’s … Zuko.

And he isn’t acting like Zuko anymore.

On the third day after Kyoshi Island, she sees him get up in the middle of the night and tuck his pillow against Aang’s back while the old man sleeps. Katara remembers that Aang had been complaining of sore muscles while flying Appa that day, and she smiles at the simple act of kindness. Zuko stands for a few more quiet moments, watching his mentor, his hands curling and uncurling. He stands and tilts his head back to stare at the moon -- and then he grabs his pack and walks off into the woods.

Katara frowns up at that same moon, wondering what he’s doing; she decides to follow him to find out for herself. Gran Gran had always said her curiosity was a dangerous thing; Katara tries not to think about that as she steals across the campsite to see where Zuko had gone.

She finds him bending in a nearby clearing, first air, and then some clumsy attempts at water. He grumbles to himself when he can barely lift dew off the grass, but privately, she thinks his footwork has gotten better. Maybe she’ll find a way to tell him that tomorrow without saying Hey, Zuko, I was sort of stalking you last night --

No. She probably won’t say that.

Still, she watches him go through all the motions she’s taught him, and then he switches to something more abrupt, more forceful. Zuko’s feet shift, and his body moves differently, all lean lines and sharp angles. 

Nothing happens.

Zuko bends without bending for nearly ten minutes before he stands in the middle of the clearing, shoulders slumped as he pants with exhaustion.

He says something, and Katara focuses as hard as she can over the sound of insects and distant water and wind to hear him.

“You can’t do anything,” Zuko’s whispering to himself. A hand goes to his scar. “He was right.”

Katara’s heart trembles with a pain that’s entirely borrowed -- she shouldn’t be watching this. She stands silently and walks back to camp, her hand at her necklace and her mind a painful whirl of thoughts.

She settles back into her bedroll and wonders if she should pretend to have just woken up when Zuko gets back to camp, or if she should pretend to have been asleep this whole time. Katara resolves within a few seconds to be awake so that she can offer to walk along the river with him, or maybe practice some bending forms, or even swap stories.

But Zuko doesn’t return; she falls asleep waiting for him to come back.

“There’s a market in the town up the river,” Aang points out over their humble breakfast the next morning. “Maybe we should go and see what we can trade for.”

“Or spend some of that money the Kyoshi Warriors gave us,” Sokka says, sighing fondly. “We could even get some jerky.”

“You and your jerky.” Katara flicks some water at her brother, who wipes it away with a stuck-out tongue in her direction. “What do you think, Zuko? Do you need to buy anything?”

Zuko looks up from his boiled oats, his right eye wide. He points at himself and Katara nods, so then opens his mouth.

He closes it again and nods. 

“Well then, that’s settled.” Sokka reaches around the fire to clap Zuko on the shoulder; the other boy startles at the contact, but Sokka doesn’t move his hand. “We’re going to the market!”

Aang whistles cheerfully as he leads them down a winding forest path - Appa stays behind, obviously, with strict instructions to guard the campsite. Chiyu’s staying with him for now, and Katara doesn’t think she imagined the way the bald bird nuzzled into Zuko’s neck with a concerned warble before he left. The bird doesn’t act like a bird, that’s for sure.

Now, he’s walking a few steps behind Aang, the hood of his robe pulled up. Sokka starts to ask Aang a series of questions about Air Nomad architecture, so she decides to try and see if she can lift Zuko’s mood.

“Hi.” She walks next to Zuko, and he glances down at her and gives her a half-smile. That’s a good sign. “How are you … today?”

Zuko stares at his feet for a second. “...Fine. Thank you.” 

It’s not much, but it is three words in a row, so she counts it as a victory. And, no matter what he’s going through in his head, clearly his manners are more deeply ingrained because he asks, stiffly:

“And how are you?”

“I’m great.” Katara smiles encouragingly, wondering at what wound he’s carrying that she can’t see. It interests the healer in her, but if she’s being honest, Zuko’s strange quietness also reminds her painfully of the months her father didn’t speak after Kya was killed.

“I’m excited to see the village,” she continues, wondering if she can prod him into talking more. “Maybe meet new people. That’s always nice.”

His lips quirk up as though he’s thinking something funny, but he doesn’t share what that humor might be. So, she goes for a direct question.

“What are you thinking of buying?” 

“I…” Zuko pauses for a second. “I’m not sure. I haven’t really had … money … before.”

“Oh.” Katara considers this, frowning. “I guess as a prince, people bought things for you?”

“I guess.” His words sound heavy, and Katara regrets mentioning his time as royalty. But, he keeps going. “My mother sometimes … made things.”

“Mine did too.” Katara remembers Tenzin’s sad comment about all of them having lost their mothers, and she wonders if Zuko misses his mother as much as she misses hers. “My mom was a great seamstress.”

Zuko’s quiet again, before he says, “Mine too.”

He sounds sad and much older than eighteen, but the edges around the place in her life where her mother used to be also make Katara feel old.

She doesn’t push him for more before they get to the village, but when they’re at the market, Zuko does strike up a conversation with a floral vendor; his face shows that flicker that’s uniquely his as he talks, and Katara watches from a few stalls down, where she’s busy trying to get a lower price on some blue beads that remind her of home.

“Blue is our lucky color this week,” the vendor remarks to Katara, who smiles as she hands over some coins. 

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, the Blue Spirit is among us,” the vendor whispers. Katara’s eyebrows raise.

“Who’s the Blue Spirit?” She assumes the woman means La, but perhaps has a different name for the ocean spirit. 

“A powerful, kind spirit,” the woman tells her eagerly, and Katara tucks the beads into her pouch. “He only appears in this part of the kingdom when he must, but he comes and offers assistance to those who would need it. Why, a few Fire Nation soldiers were here this week, and we were worried they would cause problems - but the Blue Spirit himself appeared last night and when we woke this morning, the men were gone, and had left money for the tavern rooms they had destroyed.”

“Wow.” Katara smiles at the story, wondering what kind of spirit would operate like that. “Do you know if that spirit has a name?”

“Some say he isn’t a spirit at all.” The vendor shrugs and tucks Katara’s coin into her money box. “Some think he is a man who merely dresses like our ancient figure. But, he’s a hero, no matter what.”

Katara thanks the woman for the information and the beads, and wanders back up the street towards Zuko and Aang.

Zuko’s face is a flaming red, and Aang is wearing a sly smile, elbowing Zuko in the ribs as Katara approaches. 

“What is it?” She asks, already worried. If Aang is that gleeful, whatever’s happening might not be awful, but it might be embarrassing.

Sure enough, Zuko clears his throat and extends his hand.

He’s holding a collection of beautiful flowers. 

Katara’s face heats up as she looks at them. “Oh!” She traces a petal with her finger, and it feels like silk. “What are these?”

“Fire lilies,” Zuko mumbles. “My … mother used to grow them.”

“They’re lovely.” Katara smiles up at him, and sees that he won’t meet her eyes. 

“I thought … you might …” Zuko coughs, and Katara feels her ears burning from her confusion at his gesture. “Know what to do with them?”

Oh. He wanted a connection to his mother. Suddenly, she feels less awkward.

Katara takes them, nodding. “I think we can take care of these back at camp. I’ll hold onto them for now.”

“Or,” Zuko coughs and then nods. “Yeah. Sounds. Great.”

Aang elbows him again, but then Sokka appears, arms loaded with meat.

“We’ll be eating well tonight, guys!” Sokka side-eyes Aang, guilty. “Uh. Well … not you Aang. Sorry.”

“Not to worry, Master Sokka.” Aang pats him on the head condescendingly. “Although you do eat enough meat for both of us.”

They jostle each other as the quartet heads back to camp, joking and poking at each other the whole time; but it’s the small smile Zuko wears when he sees how Katara’s conserved the flowers, wrapped carefully in a damp cloth and propped in a water jug repurposed as a vase, that makes Katara feel like everything is going to be okay.

They head to the next town over that night, and when they wake up the next morning, Aang stretches his back out with a sigh.

“I need to go find Iroh,” he explains to an already frowning Zuko. “If he’s being tailed by Zhao’s people, or even if he isn’t - he needs to know of the development regarding … well, everything.”

Zuko sneaks a glance at Katara, who looks down at her hands quickly. She isn’t a total fool - she knows Zuko’s malaise recently has a lot to do with Zhao believing that she’s the Avatar.

Considering that she knows firsthand what the Fire Nation is capable of when they want to achieve something -- maybe Katara understands Zuko’s enraged terror from earlier this week.

“We’ll stay put,” Sokka promises Aang. “Keep our heads low.”

“Maybe don’t do any bending to attract the notice of local authorities.” Aang sighs. “I used to visit this village years ago - the people are friendly, but the Fire Nation has both soldiers and spies everywhere. Please, do be careful.”

Aang says a private goodbye to Zuko, who nods at whatever his master is saying to him; Aang holds both Zuko’s shoulders in an embrace, and then he’s off on Appa, disappearing through the low cloud cover, and that leaves them alone with their packs, their sleeping bags, and a small purse of coin.

It’s Sokka who decides that they should head into town and maybe rent a room for the evening; Katara perks up noticeably at the mention of real lodgings, and that seems to convince Zuko. They walk around for an hour or so before they find an inn that looks clean and safe, if small and away from the main part of the village.

There’s only two beds when they open the door.

Sokka looks between Zuko and Katara, the latter of whom scowls at him, before he groans and throws two bedrolls onto the bed closest to the door.

Fine. I guess I’ll sleep with Zuko.”

“Gee, sorry,” Zuko grumbles, sounding more like himself than he has recently.

“Are you sure Sokka?” Katara teases. “I don’t know if Zuko wants to be that close to your smell all night.”

“Hey! I do not smell!”

Zuko’s smiling though, with his face turned away like he thinks she can’t see it -- but Katara does see it, and it makes her smile even as her brother continues to whine at her about his manly odor.

They split up within the village, Sokka heading off to check out the blacksmith, and Zuko muttering something about an apothecary. That leaves Katara to wander around near the river, watching boats drag on against the current.

As she turns a corner, the sound of crying catches her attention. Frowning, Katara walks towards the noise, her hand posed over her open waterskin.

It’s a woman crying outside of a two-story building. 

“Are you okay?” Katara asks quietly, and the woman shakes her head and starts to cry harder.

“M-my son, Lee.” She gestures at the building. “There was a - a mine collapse. We told the soldiers that it was unsafe, but they wanted more ore, and-” She buries her face in her hands. 

It’s a hospital; Katara’s throat tightens as she looks up at it with new eyes. 

“Is your son …” She lets the question hover in the air, and the mother shakes her head.

“He’s alive. Which is m-more than m-most mothers c-can…” She wipes at her eyes and looks up at Katara. “The doctors said the wound was infected, and… we aren’t due medicine shipments from the Fire Nation for weeks.”

“I see.” Katara thinks for a moment about their promise to Aang not to bend while they were here.

For a moment.

And then, she squares her shoulders and nods firmly. “Right.” She sweeps up the stairs, her jaw set, and walks in with purpose. Katara heads to the nearest doctor, who looks harried beyond exhaustion.

“Excuse me.” Katara taps him on the shoulder, and he nearly drops his scroll of parchment. “I was wondering where you kept the patients from the mine-”

“Upstairs.” The doctor wipes at his brow and sighs. “Do you have a brother up there? A sweetheart?”

“I-” Katara clears her throat. “A friend.”

“It isn’t pretty, young lady.” The doctor gestures for the stairs. “If you think you can handle it. Perhaps you can help us identify some of the patients.”

She nods and walks to the stairs, her stomach already roiling. Katara doesn’t know what she’ll do if she can’t help any of them, besides feel foolish.

But there are worse things in the world than feeling foolish.

When Katara enters the ward, the smell makes her want to run away immediately. Most of the injuries she’s seen in her life and helped with have been from hunting knives or fish hooks, some fevers, and some post-birth trauma. This is something else entirely.

“Lee?” Katara calls out his name quietly, her eyes burning with unshed tears. There’s too much suffering -- she’s in over her head. She tries again. “Lee?”

“Mama?” A young man lifts his head from a dampened pillow, and Katara walks towards him, already pulling the water to her. “Mama-”

“I’m not your mother,” Katara corrects gently, sitting on his bedside. His leg isn’t covered by blankets, but is lifted in the air by a sling that hangs from the ceiling. “I’m here to help.”

“Are you-” Lee’s eyes focus on her before clouding again. “Mother?”

“Yes.” Katara nods and figures this will be easier if he trusts her. “Don’t worry, Lee. I’m going to help you.”

She unwinds his bandages quickly, trying not to give up hope when she sees the injury on his leg. Katara takes a deep breath and then pushes her energy back out through the glove of water on her hand; it takes nearly a quarter of an hour to clean his blood, pulsing it through the water in her hand to purify it. 

She has to continually shake the water free to rid it of particles of whatever’s causing the infection, and call new water to her; Katara thanks Tui and La for the water pump that pulls clean water up from the ground, the pump she uses more than once to help remove the infection from Lee’s leg.

When she’s satisfied with the clean blood in his leg, Katara moves to heal the skin and muscle and tissue; sweat beads on her forehead, but she doesn’t stop until the flesh has begun to knit together, and Lee’s skin doesn’t feel nearly as hot and clammy.

“Who are you?” He asks her quietly when she offers him a ladle of clean water.

“A friend,” Katara answers just as quietly. 

But when she looks up, she sees the doctor with a colleague, both staring at her in shock. Katara stands quickly, wondering if she’s in trouble, but the doctor shakes his head, tears in his eyes.

“Are you -” He bows to her. “The Avatar?”

“I’m nobody,” Katara says quickly, but whispers have started up around the room. She feels a slight edge of panic - rumors won’t help anyone, but the female doctor who’s appeared holds up her hands imploringly.

“We don’t want any trouble for you,” she says, “we only want -- can you help us? Please?”

Katara looks around the room, at the injured workers, at the misery and pain and stench of it all hovering over them. She eyes the door, and remembers that she’d promised to keep a low profile.

Her mind is made quickly.

“Open the windows,” she tells the doctors, who rush to help. Katara rolls up her sleeves and pins her braid up into a bun. “I need clean bandages, and water. Lots of water.”

Six hours later, Katara stumbles out of the hospital, literally begging the doctors not to tell anyone; her feet freeze when she sees she has an audience.

Zuko, arms crossed in front of his chest, is watching from the treeline, his face a stoic mask. Chiyu is curled on his shoulder, and she stares at Katara with an intensity equal to her keeper’s.

“I’m sorry,” Katara mumbles, wiping at her gritty eyes as she approaches Zuko. “I’m sorry, they needed help, and I could help, and-”

“I’m not mad,” Zuko says softly. 

Katara blinks in surprise. “Really? But you were so angry the other day, when-”

“I was worried that Zhao would try and hurt you, and I took it out on you.” Zuko shakes his head. “I was never angry at you. And I wouldn’t be angry at you for helping other people. It’s who you are.”

“Yeah.” Katara nods, swaying on her feet a little.

“But, you shouldn’t have used up so much energy.” Zuko starts to scold her like a mother penguin-hen, and Katara smiles at him, even as her eyes droop. “You need rest, Katara.”

“Sounds good.”

Zuko manages to get her back to the inn, awkwardly helping her straighten up when she slumps into his side; he doesn’t stop fussing at her until she drinks two cups of water, and eats a handful of jerky. Then he hovers, clearly worried, until she waves her hand at him.

“I’m fine,” she mutters, her eyes already closed. “Where’s Sokka?”

She yawns as Zuko answers: “He spent the day at the blacksmith, and he’s probably coming back with some kind of weapon that he’ll use to hit himself in the head with.”

Katara falls asleep laughing. It’s a nice feeling.

“So,” Sokka stomps up to them at the market the next morning. “I heard stories about the Blue Spirit again just now -- and also there’s apparently a bea-u-tiful young woman with magic healing hands who saved a dozen lives at the hospital yesterday.”

Katara stares up at the sky and avoids Sokka’s glare. “Huh. That’s so weird.”

“What did you hear about the Blue Spirit?” she asks to change the topic when Sokka doesn’t stop glaring.

He sighs, clearly grumpy. “Not anything new -- same stories as the last town. They aren’t sure if it’s a man or a real spirit, but he showed up and brought a shipment of medicine.”

Katara frowns. “What? The doctors said they weren’t due for medicine for weeks.”

“That’s why they’re all talking about it. It’s definitely stolen, not that the guy selling me fruit would say that exactly, but yeah - he just showed up, blue-ness and all, and dropped off a crate of medicine that’s from the Fire Nation.”

“Wow.” Katara shakes her head admiringly. “These people really needed that - the Blue Spirit must be a protector of this region.”

“It has to be a real spirit.” Sokka tugs on his wolftail slightly as he thinks. “A real person would … I don’t know, want credit? Leave some kind of a trace?”

“Why do you think he’d want credit?” Katara asks, frowning. “Not everyone is like that.” Next to her, Zuko shifts the basket of goods on his hip, no doubt tired of carrying it. 

She starts to walk, forcing Sokka to move with her to argue this point; Zuko trails behind them a few paces, probably trying to get out of their squabbling.

“Wouldn’t anyone want people to know that they’re a hero?” Sokka starts to eat his acquired melon with relish, and she wrinkles her nose at the squelch of juice.

“I think it’s noble that he doesn’t want people to see his face, if he’s a person,” Katara says stubbornly. “He really cares -- he isn’t trying to help people to make himself look good.”

“Wow, Katara, you sound like you have a crush.”

“Do not.” Katara kicks at Sokka, who dodges it easily enough. “But there isn’t anything wrong with liking some mystery.” They pass a fountain, and Sokka looks into it; Katara smirks. “Not every girl likes a guy who’s always checking himself out at every possibility.”

This makes her brother splutter and look up, denying her implication rapidly, but Katara only grins and looks over her shoulder at Zuko to see if he agrees.

Zuko doesn’t even look like he’s paying attention; he's studying the contents of the basket as though it houses some deep, spiritual mystery.

“What do you think?” Sokka asks Zuko, who finally looks up. “You’re the spirit guy, after all.”

“Uh.” Zuko looks between the siblings, vaguely panicked. “I don’t … know. I haven’t seen a Blue Spirit … yet.” He shrugs and then goes back to staring at the basket. 

“Well, I think he’s a hero,” Katara says firmly. “And the villagers need a hero right now.” Her fingers go subconsciously to her necklace. “Everyone needs a hero.”

Sokka nods, and Zuko looks away.

Katara wakes up briefly when the moon rises fully over the horizon; she’s tired still, from working at the hospital all afternoon, but the crescent moon calls to her, and she sits up to stare out the window at it. The light is soothing, comfortable, like water on her skin, and she rests her head against the windowpane for a long moment before falling back to the soft mattress.

She looks over at Sokka, who’s facing her in his sleep, his mouth open and tongue lolling out. Katara giggles affectionately, and then lifts her head to see what Zuko’s doing.

Zuko isn’t there.

Katara frowns and sits up again, pulling the blanket with her. She looks around the room to see if he’s stretching on the floor -- she sees that his pack is still there, and Chiyu is asleep on her perch.

She shrugs, figuring he went to the bathroom, and when she wakes up in the morning, she barely remembers it at all.

Katara finds herself with a small fan club the next day; she doesn’t mind it, but part of her does worry that the more people know about her healing, the more likely it is someone’s going to assume she’s the Avatar again.

Which, of course, will only draw attention to their strange group, and then the real Avatar might be discovered, which will only cause massive global problems.

But, she smiles at the young children who pull on her skirt and ask her questions, and Katara answers their queries on snow and ice and penguin sledding.

“Do you know the Blue Spirit?” one grubby-cheeked little boy, Jian, whispers into her ear.

Katara shakes her head with a smile as she finishes braiding the boy’s sister’s hair. “No, I’ve never met him. But he sounds wonderful.”

“He freeded my uncle from the jail last night,” Jian whispers, before glancing around and putting a finger to his lips. “But that’s a secret. Mama says no one’s ‘sposed to know about it.”

“I won’t tell anyone,” Katara promises truthfully. Her own uncle died in a Fire Nation jail; she’s glad that the boy’s uncle is free.

Katara wanders down to the dock, where she sits with her feet in the water for a quarter of an hour; it feels lovely on her sore feet, and she sighs as she happily bends the water over her muscles, easing the ache.

She’s dragging a water-gloved hand over her sore neck when a man she’s never seen rushes up to her.

“Miss,” he pants, hands on his knees. “Miss, there’s been an accident. Come with me-”

“Who’s hurt?” Katara asks, eyes wide as she stands and shakes the water free. “Is it the mine?”

“No, the two men you’re travelling with, down the river -- please, hurry!”

Katara runs after him without a second thought.

“Again.” Sokka grunts as Zuko crosses blades him with, but just like last time, Zuko flips the sword quickly, counterbalancing against Sokka before overpowering his grip.

“You’re holding it too low,” he says, cross because Sokka didn’t listen the first time. “You have to pretend like it’s part of your arm-”

“I am pretending!” Sokka protests, diving to grab his sword again.

They clash once more, but stop as a young boy comes up to them, screaming something.

Zuko sheaths his blades immediately, and he kneels as the boy rushes up, babbling something.

“What is it?” He asks, peering in the boy’s face. “What’s wrong?”

“They - they - they-” The boy’s hyperventilating, so Zuko lets out a breath and wraps his fingers around the boy’s shoulders gently, and Sokka crouches too, tucking his blade out of sight and reach.

“Breathe,” he instructs, taking a demonstrative breath. “In. And out.” He blows out his breath, and the boy tries to copy him: after a few tries, he gets it, and Zuko lets him go. “Now. What’s wrong?”

“They taked her,” the little boy says miserably. “They… they...”

“Who? Your mom?” Sokka asks, exchanging a worried look with Zuko.

“No!” The boy wails. “The lady! They taked the lady away-”

“The lady,” Zuko repeats before it slams into him; he grips Sokka’s arm at the same time the boy stiffens. “Katara.”

The boy hiccups as he tries to explain: “She - was helping us, and, and, they --- were on a boat, and-”

“Who was on a boat?” Zuko swallows a scream of frustration, even as he stands and scans the surrounding area like that would give him a clue.

A slightly older girl with hair that’s braided like Katara’s comes running up to them. “Jian! I told you to wait for me!” She runs to grab her brother, and starts talking much faster. “A group of men - pirates, I think, they took your friend and dragged her onto a boat.”

“What?” Sokka’s paler than Zuko’s ever seen him. “Why would they-”

“Zhao,” Zuko says grimly. Sokka’s hand goes to his sword.

“She tried to fight them, but they hit her on the head, and -” The girl glances between Sokka and Zuko and clearly sees their sudden fury. “They were on the river, and I didn’t see which way they went at the fork - we ran to tell you.”

“Thank you,” Zuko remembers to say. “Sokka, we have to-”

“Let’s go,” Sokka says grimly.

“The river goes east and west,” the girl explains warily.

“We’ll figure it out. Do you have a town sheriff? A constable? Something?” Zuko asks, already aware of the answer.

“They all work for the-”

“Fire Nation. Yep.” Zuko groans. “Okay. We’ll find her, Sokka.”

Sokka’s face is a grim, terrifying mask. “Yeah.” He grips his sword hilt tightly. “We will. I'll go west.”

“I’ll take the east.” Zuko grabs Sokka’s arm. “Double back an hour after sunset. Aang will be back tomorrow, and we’ll be able to cover more ground together, from above.”

Sokka nods, and they shake hands, Sokka’s entire body a line of tension. He starts running before Zuko can even push his hair out of his face. 

That’s okay; he has to get something anyway and he’d rather not have an audience for it.

Zuko goes up to their room and opens his pack carefully. He switches out his training blade for his dao, and hooks them to a harness that he slips on. He pulls the next item out carefully and weighs it in his hands.

He makes the mistake of glancing at the table next to Katara’s bed; the fire lilies are still in their vase, their petals a strange softness against harsh reality. Zuko can hear his heartbeat in his ears, and he lets the terror of losing Katara wash over him.

Five. Four. Three. Two.

He releases the breath he was holding and stands, storing his fear and anger away where he won’t look at it until this is over. Until Katara is with them again.

Then, he runs for the open window and doesn’t stop.

Katara struggles against the ropes holding her to the tree, grumbling to herself when all it does is make her shoulders scream in pain. Her head is throbbing, making it hard to concentrate; the leader of these idiots must have given her a concussion when he knocked her out.

They’re all laughing now, and drinking as they eat their dinner and toast to each other; Katara can frustratingly sense water nearby, but she can’t call to it, not with her head aching and her arms pinned down.

There’s water in the grass, of course, and if she focuses --

A few pirates look over at her, and her breath picks up pace when they stand and leer at her. The guy who seems to be the leader is a few trees away, picking at his nails with his knife; he smirks when he sees her obvious fear.

“Don’t worry, little lady,” a bigger pirate says jovially enough. “The general guy said we wouldn’t get paid if you was hurt-”

“Very hurt,” the leader says with a creepy smirk. He looks at her wrong. Katara hates it, and she blushes and looks away from him to scowl at the ground. He walks up to her though, and she can practically see the smell of his breath. “She is awfully pretty.”

“C’mon, don’t be like that,” another pirate snaps. “She’s just a kid.”

“Hmm.” The leader smirks at her one last time when she looks up to glare at him, and he reaches out to touch her face. Katara bites at his hand with nothing else to do, and that makes him retract quickly, although he laughs to cover up his surprise.

“I think I’ll be glad to hand you over to the general,” the leader sneers. “Maybe I’ll say we lost you, though.”

“Dinner’s ready,” the bigger pirate from before says, sounding strangely worried. “Come on, line your stomach with somethin’ real.”

Katara watches the leader swagger away, and she breathes raggedly before squeezing her eyes shut and focusing through her fear and her awful headache. She lifts some water from the grass and draws it to the ropes where she makes herself saw it back and forth through the restraints.

It’s going to take a while, but she’s going to free herself. She will.

A half hour later, the bigger pirate who’d managed to get the leader to walk away comes up while everyone else is drinking and singing; he’s holding a bowl of broth.

“Don’t worry about ‘im,” he says softly, glancing over his shoulder. “We’s worried about getting paid, nothin’ else. We really don’t wanna hurt you none. And he’s all talk.”

“You should let me go,” Katara hisses. “That general guy is going to kill me-”

The big pirate frowns, considering this. “No, he says you were a valuable prisoner.” He holds the broth up to her mouth slowly, and Katara sips at it, knowing that she needs to keep her strength up. “I don’t think he would hurt you?”

“Ugh.” Katara feels exhausted after the simple act of drinking, but she does know the nutrients will help her in the long run, as well as the hydration. “I don’t believe you, but I hope you’re right.”

“I have a sister,” the big pirate says suddenly, and Katara frowns up at him. “About your age.”

“Would she be happy to know that you’re holding another girl prisoner?” Katara snaps, and he frowns again, but sadly.

“Haven’t seen her any for … five years.” He sighs. “I send money home when I can.”

Katara sags against her restraints, knowing that looking defeated might be her best option right now. “I’m sure you’re … a good brother. My own brother is probably looking for me right now.”

The big pirate nods, looking sad, and then a few of his friends call out to him, and he wanders off with a quiet goodbye.

Katara goes back to work, sweating furiously in the setting sun.

He will not take me, she tells herself furiously, Zhao will sink to the bottom of the ocean before he gets me. 

Katara’s nearly sawed through the rope, judging by the loosening tension, when she hears shouting from the camp through the trees.

She frowns, not pausing in her limited bending, but then there’s definitely another shout, this one of pain and shock.

Her breath shifts to panic again, but she can’t stop -- at one point, her water blade cuts her own arm, and she hisses through her teeth but keeps going.

Eventually, the ropes fall, and Katara rubs her wrists, checks the direction of the moon, and then runs south, where she’s pretty sure the village is.

A branch cracks behind her, and she looks over her shoulder: and slams into a solid frame.

“Oh!” Katara stumbles back, but the man grabs her arms. “Let go of me!”

The man says nothing, and Katara looks up into his face, and gasps again.

A blue face covered in intricate swirls of white stares down at her, expressionless.

“Are you the Blue Spirit?” Katara whispers, her heart in her throat.

No answer.

For some reason, that irritates her. “What, are you here to save me from the pirates?”

Still nothing.

She scowls. “Or are you here to hurt me?”

At that, he lets go of her arms gently, his fingers dragging along her arm wraps slowly as he does. The Blue Spirit shakes his head, once.

The heat of his grip lingers against her skin. 

“You’re a person,” she says softly, looking up into his mask. She can’t see any of his eyes through the construction of it. “Not a spirit -- who are you?”

He takes a step back, and half-turns towards the clearing where the pirates had made camp; the Blue Spirit holds his hand out to her, and Katara takes it, frowning as he moves forward and she follows.

The clearing is full of unconscious bodies. No one seems to be dead, but a few are bloodied, which has Katara warily eyeing the large blade on his back. 

She suddenly wishes she’d paid more attention to Sokka’s crash courses in how to use a sword -- it might be nice to know that she could steal that thing and use it to defend herself, but Katara doesn’t think she could reasonably wield anything right now.

The spirit doesn’t stop for a moment, not until her feet falter as they pass the head pirate, the one who’d hurt her when he caught her, and threatened to hurt her more. 

The pirate stirs, and Katara gasps, pulling water from another pirate’s waterskin. It catches the attention of the Blue Spirit, and he pauses and turns to face her, his mask coolly glancing between her, the raised water, and the still stirring pirate.

“Sorry.” She doesn’t lower the water. “He’s the one who-” Her face heats up in embarrassment and what horribly feels like shame even though she has nothing to be ashamed of. “He … said he would …” Her throat spasms. “That Zhao wouldn’t care if he …”

She glances away from the Blue Spirit, whose head has tilted to the side during her awkward explanation, and she lowers her hands - the pirate isn’t waking back up, she thinks, not until they’re long gone.

Katara gasps again when the Blue Spirit shifts forward, moving faster than most people could.

He kicks the pirate straight across the face, and the man slumps to the ground, unmoving, blood trickling from his mouth.

The Blue Spirit is staring down at him, his back rigid and shoulders stiff; his gloved hand twitches to his sheathed sword.

“Hey.” Katara grabs his hand, and the Blue Spirit wheels to face her; she doesn’t startle back this time, but she swears she can somehow tell he’s upset, and upset for her. “He didn’t touch me. You - you got here first.”

After a moment where Katara can count each of her heartbeats, the Blue Spirit nods, only once, and takes her hand again. He leads her through the camp, quicker this time, and Katara sees an ostrich-horse tied to a tree.

He pats the beast on the neck, and it warbles happily. Strangely, it makes Katara relax even more. Animals tend to be decent judges of character, after all.

The Blue Spirit kneels quickly, and gestures for her to step on his thigh; Katara does, swaying with her lack of balance, and he mostly lifts her up onto the animal. “Sorry,” she mumbles, rubbing her head. “I think I have a concussion.”

He tilts his head to the side and lifts a hand to her temple; his touch is strangely soothing, and Katara leans into it.

Then, there’s the sound of approaching footsteps: men are shouting, coming from the river.

“That must be Zhao,” Katara whispers, her heart pounding again. “Come on, we need to get out of here.”

The Avatar was here! ” A voice bellows. “Find her !”

She can’t have gotten far !” Another voice chimes in.

The Blue Spirit looks north to the noise and then up at Katara; he takes a step back, and Katara shakes her head, holding her hand out.

“No - you can’t take them all on - you have to come with me-”

He shakes his head, once. Katara seethes at him. “I don’t care if you are a real spirit, those are master firebenders, and-”

The Blue Spirit has the audacity to shrug at her as he pulls his swords from his back. A second later, he sprints east, scraping his blades against the tree trunks as he runs.

Did you hear that?” 

This way!

The Blue Spirit leads the soldiers away from the campsite, and Katara swallows her fear and shakes her head.

“Definitely a boy,” she grumbles before digging her heels into the ostrich-horse’s side. “Whoa!”

It takes off through the woods, clearly heading home; Katara looks up to the moon now and then, trying to guide the ostrich-horse more or less south, but she trusts its instincts to get them out of there.

By the time she clears the forest, she’s so exhausted that it’s all she can do to hold onto the animal’s neck so she doesn’t fall off.

A group of villagers spot her; they’re all out with lanterns, and Katara wonders why until there’s a happy shout at the sight of her.

“She’s here!” Someone calls out. “She’s safe!”

Katara spots Jian, the little boy from before, sitting on his father’s shoulders and waving at her. She waves back tiredly before slumping off of the ostrich-horse, exhausted.

A pair of arms catch her and set her on her feet, and the ostrich-horse is led away, no doubt for some seriously needed rest. 

“Where is she?” A familiar voice demands; the crowd parts around him, and then Sokka’s running at her. “Oh, oh fuck, Katara-”

He scoops her up in a bone-breaking hug, and her feet leave the ground. “Are you okay?” He demands into her neck, his face pressed against her hair. “Did they hurt you? Are you-”

“I have a concussion,” Katara says drowsily. “And I'm - really tired, but I’ll be- Sokka, you can put me down, I’m fine-”

He does, reluctantly, put her down, but he helps her walk up the village road, a dozen people surrounding them and offering assistance. Sokka eventually gets them to leave them in peace, and that leaves him and Katara to return to the inn so they can climb the stairs up to their room. Her knees buckle on the first step, so Sokka scoops her up like she’s a small child and carries her quickly, not stopping until he can set her down on the bed.

“What can I get you? Food? A pillow?”

“Water.” Katara points at the pitcher tiredly, and Sokka brings it to her.

She’s so tired that it’s hard to concentrate on the water while she bends it, so she gives up and dips her hand in it, bringing it to her temples in an attempt to cool down.

Sokka looks away from her only when the door opens and Zuko walks through.

“Where were you?” Sokka demands, his anxiety clearly at disastrous levels. “We said an hour after sunset-”

“Sorry,” Zuko murmurs, his voice much quieter than Sokka’s, which Katara appreciates. “I must have gotten lost.”

“How could you get lost, the river was-”

Zuko ignores Sokka and kneels at Katara’s feet. “Are you okay?” He whispers to her, his eyes searching her face for something. 

Katara looks down at him, frowning, before she nods, slowly.

“She has a concussion,” Sokka explains. Zuko’s fingers glance over the soreness at her temple, and they both hiss at the same time.

Then, Zuko pulls the water from the pitcher to his hand and brings it to her temple, gently.

There’s a soft, blurry glow, and the dull throb of wrongness recedes. 

“Wow.” Katara smiles at him. “You’re good at that.”

“Must be concussed,” he jokes, “because that sounded like a compliment.”

“I give you compliments,” Katara mumbles before she yawns.

“You need some rest,” Sokka breaks in, “But we need to figure out a way to get out of here before Zhao’s men come looking for us.”

“We’ll head to where Aang left us,” Zuko says decisively. “At least we won’t be in the village.”

Sokka nods and starts to pack up; Katara watches him and tries to get up to help, but Zuko grabs her hands and guides her to sit back down.

“Easy,” he murmurs, “we’ll take care of it.”

Katara nods, too tired to argue, and Zuko smiles at her, squeezing her hands before going to help Sokka.

That’s funny, Katara thinks as her vision grows fuzzy with sleepiness, Zuko’s hands almost felt like -

And then she’s asleep, and the thought never quite returns to her. 

Chapter Text

Zuko watches anxiously from the front of the saddle as Katara dozes, leaning against her brother’s side.

“Our young friend will awaken soon,” Iroh promises, and Zuko nods stiffly at his uncle. 

Normally, the presence of Iroh would be a soothing balm to most of Zuko’s anxieties; but nothing seems to be able to calm the storm in his blood right now, his heart slamming inside his chest while he waits for Katara to open her eyes.

“Maybe if I tried healing her again,” he suggests, but Sokka shakes his head.

“You’ve checked her head a dozen times, Zuko.” He smiles, even if it’s a worried smile. “At this point, I think she just has to … sleep it off.”

Zuko nods and twists his fingers together. He returns to staring at the weave of the saddle, trying to imagine that he can see every filament and counting each one in his head in a useless effort to stop himself from screaming into the sky.

Aang flies steadily north, no doubt aware of the turmoil in Zuko: when he’d landed Appa that morning, his eyes had widened almost comically at their bedraggled state (especially given that Katara was unconscious in Zuko’s arms). They barely had time to explain what happened before Aang and Iroh hauled them onboard and took off.

“When we land, you will have to continue the next part of your journey on foot,” Iroh says calmly, his eyes trained on the clouds they leave trailing behind them. “If we are to successfully distract Zhao, it is best if you are far away from us and our large, furry friend.”

Chiyu chitters anxiously from her perch next to Zuko; it’s rare for the bird to not take flight alongside them, but given Zuko’s current emotional state, he’s unsurprised that his ugly turtleduck has kept him in her sights. He has no doubts that when they land, she’ll peck him into eating something or sleeping.

“I understand, Uncle.” Zuko doesn’t look up, not even when Iroh’s hand grasps his shoulder.

But, a ragged inhale does catch Zuko’s attention: Katara sits up, coughing and holding her head. Sokka’s arm immediately wraps around her to offer support, and Zuko half-lurches forward, his hand extended, even if he doesn’t know for what.

“I’m fine.” Katara coughs again before putting a hand to her head. “Ow.”

“You’ve been out for fifteen hours.” Sokka looks into her face with a frown. “Zuko healed your head as best as he could, but we all weren’t really sure what to do with … y’know, a brain.”

“That’s fine.” Katara smiles over at Zuko, who still hasn’t managed to unclench any of his muscles. He’s radiating tension as a result. “Thanks, Zuko.”

“How are you feeling?” He asks, his voice hoarse even to his own ears.

“I’m feeling fine.” She pulls some water from a canteen and brings it to her fingertips; she massages it gently into her temples, the soft blue glow offset against her clothing. “Oh, that’s nice.”

“I wasn’t sure-” Zuko clears his throat. “But - how are you feeling about … everything else?”

“Everything else?” Katara frowns. “You mean, getting kidnapped?”

“And being tied up by pirates,” Zuko pushes, but he realizes his mistake a second later.

Katara frowns. “How did you know-”

“Your wrists,” Zuko answers hurriedly. “There were rope marks on your arms and wrists. I already healed them.”

Not a lie. Not the full truth either: something deep in his gut squirms at the thought of lying to Katara again, even if it was by omission (again). She hadn’t exactly responded well the last time, but Zuko isn’t sure if she’d be thrilled to know that the Blue Spirit was just him, trying to put bandages on the bleeding wounds left behind by his family’s imperial machine.

“Did anything else … happen?” Sokka speaks carefully, one hand on his hunting knife. Zuko doubts he’s even aware that he’s holding it. As though he could reach back in time and defend his sister.

Katara flushes but shakes her head, avoiding their eyes. Zuko also avoids looking at anyone in case they’d be able to notice the barely hidden fury in his face: he has no doubts that if Katara had been hurt in that way by the time he got there, or if Katara hadn’t been there to stop him, the pirate’s leader would have been dead, or worse, at his hand.

“No. Nothing else happened. The … Blue Spirit saved me.”

“The Blue Spirit?” Sokka repeats incredulously. Zuko arranges his face into what he hopes is a confused expression.

Next to him, Iroh stirs. “A Blue Spirit? La, perhaps?”

“No. He was … human. I think.” Katara rolls her eyes. “Definitely a he.”

“Because he was strong enough to fight off a bunch of pirates by himself?” Sokka guesses.

“No. Because he was stupid enough to try and fight off a bunch of pirates by himself.” Katara sticks her tongue out at her brother, who only very half-heartedly knocks his elbow into her side. It lacks any heat though, and he goes back to holding her carefully a second later.

Zuko doesn’t think he’ll ever forget the terror on Sokka’s face when Jian and his sister had told them Katara had been taken -- while he’s sure his own fear had been palpable, he doesn’t think he could compare his terror to that of a brother who loved her dearly.

He thinks about how he worries for Azula still - how her instability as a girl could have changed or worsened now that she’s a young woman, how people might have taken advantage of that, how their father’s abuse could have gotten worse. No matter what has happened in the last four years, Azula is his sister, and he still loves her desperately enough to raze entire armies if he thought she were in danger. 

(Of course, Azula could easily be in danger from herself, and from the depravity that runs, dark and obvious, through their bloodline - Zuko still isn’t sure how, or if, he’d be able to save her from that)

“It’s good to see you Iroh,” Katara says sleepily, and Iroh beams at her.

“And it is very good to see you again, Lady Katara. But, I regret that I will be leaving very soon.”


“Iroh and Aang are going to take Appa and try to lead Zhao in the wrong direction,” Sokka explains. “We’ll keep heading north for now, just so we aren’t staying in the same place. We’ll meet at a village called…”

“Senlin,” Iroh supplies, and Sokka nods.

“Yeah. Senlin. It’s north of … Gaipan?” He sneaks a look at Iroh to confirm, and Uncle nods, his eyes twinkling.

“Where exactly are …. Those villages?”

“Western Earth Kingdom,” Zuko explains. “Mostly mining towns. They’re used to Fire Nation presence, but weren’t controlled by them the last time I visited.”

“You visited Earth Kingdom towns as a prince?” Katara asks, confused.

“No.” Zuko doesn’t elaborate, and Katara doesn’t push. 

“Speaking of being a prince, it’s probably best if we don’t … call you Zuko when we’re out and about. The Kyoshi Warriors knew your name, so the Earth Kingdom in general probably does too.”

“That’s fair,” Zuko admits. “Then what?”

“Lee!” Iroh says, clapping his hands victoriously. “I had a very good friend named Lee who worked as a spy in Ba Sing Se. He made the most delicious rice dish, I believe with scallions and-”

“Great. So I’m Lee now.” Zuko rubs at his face tiredly. “There’s not much we can do about my face, though.”

“I don’t know if your scar is public knowledge,” Katara points out. “Unless you were traveling around introducing yourself as a prince-”

“Definitely not.” Zuko winces. “But, my father might have declared me a traitor, if Zhao’s told him I’m working with the Avatar.”

“I was able to send a message to my brother that you had been eluded by the Avatar,” Iroh says serenely. “He would only suspect you of being incompetent at this point.”

“Great,” Zuko pinches his nose. “That’s. Great.”

“Better incompetent than dead!” Sokka says far too cheerfully, drawing a finger across his neck like he’s decapitating himself; Zuko resists the urge to throw Sokka off the saddle.

He tells himself that he’d fly down and catch him. 


“Walking is awful!” Sokka declares, slashing his machete through some thick vines. “Actually terrible.”

“Sokka, we walked all the time at home,” Katara points out. There’s a large log in her path, and without thinking, Zuko offers her his arm for balance. She looks at him askance before accepting the leverage and hopping over, clearly moving quickly to limit contact.

Zuko steps over the log easily with his longer legs, and tells himself he doesn’t feel the ghost of her touch lingering against his skin.

“Walking at home was fine before I knew the luxury of flying on a sky bison!”

“Sokka, you threw up ten times a day for the first week we flew-”

“Yes, but then I got used to it!” Sokka throws his arms up and briefly spins to face his sister; Zuko watches the machete warily.

He doesn’t think Sokka would purposefully injure one of them, but he can be a tad accident-prone when caught up in his broad gestures (and Zuko is convinced that Sokka would probably hurt himself by accident before Katara or Zuko).

“We’ll be back on Appa soon enough,” Zuko points out. “When Uncle and Master Aang return.”

“If they return,” Sokka grumbles, turning back to the undergrowth and slashing through it with more gusto than before. “Or, we’ll be stranded out here, alone, forever.”

“We aren’t alone. We have each other!” Katara argues with a determined sort of cheer. “And, we have the Avatar! That has to count for something.”

“The Avatar who also happens to be long-lost royalty,” Sokka argues back, “who most people in this kingdom want dead -- and the people who don’t want a Fire-prince dead, want the Avatar dead, so it’s actually not that great of a deal!” He glances over his shoulder. “...No offense.”

“None taken,” Zuko mutters.

“Ignore my brother.” Katara pats his arm, and Zuko ignores the swoop in his stomach, even if it feels like snapping his glider shut and free falling from the clouds. “He’s just trying to deflect because he’s totally gotten us lost.”

“I have not gotten lost!” Sokka cuts through another section of vines. “I know exactly where we are.”

Zuko sees the danger before Sokka does, but Sokka’s emphatic argument drowns out his shout of warning.

“I am the son of the Chief! I am great at directions. I am completely in control of the situati- aaaaah !!” Sokka’s last swipe of the machete had actually cut a dyed-green rope, which is, of course, attached to a net that quickly ensnares all three of them, dragging them up towards the canopy.

“Oh yes,” Katara says acidly. “You’re in complete control, Chief Sokka.”

Zuko and Katara take turns drawing moisture from the heavy vines and creating blades to cut through the ropes of the net, but it’s been created carefully, and they have their work cut out for them.

They had banned Sokka from saying a word about five minutes into their captivity.

Now he’s glowering at the bottom of the net while Zuko and Katara work on getting them out; now and then, he stretches an arm forlornly through the netting towards the forest floor where his machete rests on the thicket from where he dropped it in their sudden movement upwards.

After an hour in the net, they hear approaching footsteps.

“What is that?” Katara hisses, dropping the water-blade and shifting her hands to a defensive pose.

“No idea,” Zuko whispers back.

“Am I allowed to talk yet?” 

“Shh!” Zuko and Katara shush Sokka at the same time, right as three figures walk into their line of sight.

One is a massive boy, the other is a smaller kid, and the third is a young man Zuko’s age, handsome and tall and tan. He’s got a blade of grass between his teeth, and he chews on it thoughtfully as he stares up at his quarry.

“What do we have here, freedom fighters?” The boy asks his two friends. “Fire Nation spies?”

“Do you see our clothes?” Sokka asks incredulously. “Do we look like Fire Nation?”

“No,” the larger boy admits.

“Also, you fell...right into a Fire Nation trap,” the youngest kid says, and the tall boy in front smirks.

“So you’re bad spies.”

“We aren’t spies,” Katara snaps, frowning down at them.

The boy sees Katara, and his stance shifts: Zuko immediately does not like where this is going.

“Oh.” He blinks in what looks like perfectly unfeigned surprise, which makes Zuko realize that it’s definitely feigned. “There’s a lady that needs our help, fellas. Let’s help her down.”

He whistles, and an arrow flies out of nowhere; it catches on the main rope holding them up, and they crash towards the thicket below.

Thanks to his positioning, Zuko’s only able to grab Sokka and discreetly airbend a small cushion to slow their fall - he isn’t able to catch Katara. But, the tall boy had darted forward when he had signaled to the hidden archer, and he’s able to stand directly underneath her so she falls neatly into his outstretched arms.

“I’m Jet,” he informs Katara, who looks up at him, wide-eyed.


He smiles at her and sets her down carefully. Zuko and Sokka disentangle their limbs and scramble to their feet, Sokka managing to grab his machete on the way up.

“I’m Sokka, and this is Lee.” Sokka points at Zuko with his machete, and Zuko jumps out of the way to avoid getting nicked by the blade. “Katara’s my sister.”

“And Lee is…?” Jet glances down at Katara.

“My brother’s friend.” She smiles at him, and Jet smiles back, and Zuko feels like he swallowed a bag of sour-ume candy whole.

“These are my fellow freedom fighters, Pipsqueak,” the largest boy raises his hand in a quiet greeting, “And The Duke.” The little boy bows without changing his expression. “And our archer is Longshot.”

The archer pops out from behind a tree and waves at them before disappearing again.

“Your clothing tells me you aren’t from around here,” Jet continues. “Where are you travelling from?”

“The South Pole,” Sokka answers.

“You don’t need to be sarcastic, I don’t think we’re enemies here.”

“No, Jet, my brother’s telling the truth.” Katara easily gets Jet’s full attention again, and Zuko feels his teeth grinding together. “We’re from the South Pole; I’m a waterbender.” 

“I’ve never met a waterbender,” The Duke says with wide eyes. “Can you show us?”

Katara obliges with a smile, pulling some water from her pouch at her hip and moving it through the air in a graceful arc.

The Duke and Pipsqueak ooo and aaah -- even Longshot pops around the tree to watch with an approving solemnity in his eyes as he watches the water spiral through the air.

Jet’s eyes never leave Katara’s hands.

“I think the other freedom fighters would love to meet you, Katara. We thought all of the Southern waterbenders had been killed by the Fire Nation.”

“Not all of them,” Zuko snaps. 

“I can see that.” Jet studies him for a moment. “Scar like that -- I guess you’re no stranger to the Fire Nation either, Lee.”

“I’m not.” He scowls at the ground.

“None of us are,” the Duke says softly. “We’re all orphans, thanks to the Fire Nation.”

“We’re fighting against their presence in our valley,” Jet says proudly. “We’ll get the scum out, no matter the cost.” 

He rouses some cheers from his compatriots, and then he tilts his head at Katara. “What do you say -- wanna visit the rest of my crew, and spread some hope around?”

Katara glances at Sokka, who shrugs, and then at Zuko, who continues to glare at the ground.


As they walk, Katara hangs off of every word Jet says; half of what he says is a direct compliment to her, and the other half is a flattering compliment for himself. Zuko watches it all as they walk through the woods, and Sokka doesn’t seem pleased with it either.

When they reach a large clearing, Pipsqueak gestures at a rope between Sokka and Zuko. “Pull on that.”

“Pull on what? This?” Sokka obliges and then screams as he hurtles towards the canopy of the forest.

“Sokka!” Katara exclaims, clearly worried about his sudden disappearance, and Jet laughs and wraps an arm around her waist.

“He’s fine. Here - come with me?” He smirks down at Katara, and she nods, watching his face with rapt attention. 

“Um-” Zuko tries to interrupt, but then Jet grabs a rope and he and Katara shoot up towards the canopy as well, Katara’s arms wrapped around the other boy. “I guess I’ll just … stay down here then,” he grumbles.

“Don’t worry, Lee, we got you.” The Duke climbs on Zuko’s back, and he winces as the kid pulls on his hair and the harness for his dao. “Oh, shiny swords, cool.”

“Yeah.” Zuko watches Pipsqueak warily, hoping he doesn’t also try to climb aboard.

“Let’s go!” The Duke points at a rope, and Zuko groans, hopes this isn’t a mistake, and tugs on the rope; it’s an odd feeling to not control his own flight, but Zuko fights the urge to airbend to help the ascent. 

He lands shakily in a massive treehouse, where a dozen or so young men and women are staring at the newcomers.

“This is Lee, Sokka, and Katara - Katara is a waterbender,” Jet explains, his arm still around Katara. “She survived the Fire Nation raids on her home at the South Pole.”

“Wow!” Someone whispers.

“How did you get away?” someone else asks, and Katara blushes and looks down, looking sad.

“You lost someone too?” Jet murmurs to her, loud enough that Zuko can hear, if not the entire assembly, and Katara nods, once. Jet sighs and then holds up his hand, causing all background chatter to cease. “Katara and Sokka and Lee have also suffered at the hands of the Fire Nation -- and we know that any enemy of our enemy is-”

“Our friend!” the group choruses, and Jet grins. 

Sokka and Zuko exchange a look; it’s comforting to know that he’s not the only person weirded out by the situation. Katara, however, takes a spot at Jet’s side as they prepare for dinner, and Zuko tries to decide if he could fight every person in here if they suddenly realized that the former Crown Prince of the Fire Nation was eating bread at their table.

Dinner passes by without incident though, and then Jet leads them to another treehouse so they can get some rest. 

“It’s nothing fancy,” he says, addressing mostly Katara. “Sorry.”

“We’re used to much less fancy,” Katara promises him with a shy smile. Jet smiles at her, and then has the audacity to touch one of her hair loopies. 

Zuko waits for Katara to fling him off the treehouse -- he kind of hopes she will.

Instead, Katara giggles.


“Goodnight, Katara,” he says, and then he smirks over at Sokka and Zuko. “Goodnight, guys. See you in the morning!”

With that he’s gone, and Sokka watches the way Katara slightly sighs as Jet uses his curved swords to leap from tree to tree.

“That’s it.” Sokka pushes Katara out of the doorframe and sets his bedroll down right in front of the entryway. “I’m sleeping right here.”


“And I!” He unrolls his mat with a dramatic flourish. “Am a light sleeper, Katara! A very light sleeper!”

Zuko smiles at Sokka’s antics, but quickly hides his smile when Katara whirls around, scowling.

They settle down to go to sleep after that, but Zuko stays awake to watch the moon rise; when he rolls over at long last, he sees that Katara is awake, also watching the moon. He lets himself study her profile for a moment, admiring the way the moonlight plays off of her dark hair. 

By the time she glances over at him, Zuko has closed his eyes and misses the way Katara’s expression softens. He dreams of curved swords and blades of grass, of moonlight drowning in fire.

“How did Lee get that scar?”

Zuko’s spine stiffens as he passes through the trees; he isn’t trying to snoop. Honestly, he was only trying to find somewhere private to relieve himself. He didn’t expect to stumble across a private meeting between Katara and Jet.

They’ve been here for a day and a half now, not including their first night with the freedom fighters. Sokka has tried to learn more weapons training from some of the kids, but he has more experience than most of them combined -- Zuko is trying to avoid detection. It’s Katara who has the most reason to be here, as she’s spending her time helping to heal some old injuries and help the symptoms of chronic diseases.

It chafes at Zuko’s spirit to hide his own healing abilities because he knows how much it tires Katara -- so much of one’s energy goes into healing. It’s draining, and difficult, and is its own version of fighting - he knows, firsthand. But, he can’t expose himself as the Avatar. If the freedom fighters put two and two together and figure out that he’s the Avatar and the prince, there won’t be a way to stop them from telling anyone, and Iroh and Aang’s mission will have been wasted.

So, he’s been skulking around instead, answering questions in clipped, one-syllable responses, and Katara’s been blossoming as a healer, beloved by all the freedom fighters, and in particular, Mr. Tall-Dark-and-Obsessive himself.

“I don’t know how Lee got his scar,” Katara says carefully.

Zuko knows it’s best if he just walks away. He doesn’t need to hear this; he trusts Katara to be clever enough to dodge the truth, and he doesn’t want to hear anything that he’ll regret, like Jet and Katara kissing.

Ugh. He wrinkles his nose and shakes his head to clear the image from his brain. Katara just met Jet, he reasons. They aren’t going to kiss.

“It’s obviously a burn,” Jet points out.

“Well, yeah. I don’t know who burned him, though.”

“I’m surprised someone can walk around like that, with their face so badly destroyed.” Jet doesn’t sound sympathetic -- not that Zuko notices over his building nausea. “He must be ... Brave.”

“I’m sure it bothers Lee,” Katara sounds just as careful as before. “But he doesn’t talk about it.”

“Of course not. It’s horrifying.”

Zuko’s heart stops when Katara says, “It really is.”

He blinks rapidly, mortified and turns away, almost running away from Jet and Katara.

That’s why he misses what Katara says next: “It’s absolutely horrifying to think that someone could do that to someone else. Lee’s let me heal it once or twice, and I can tell that the scar is old. He got it as a child.”

“Firebenders don’t have a problem burning children,” Jet says grimly. “I’ve seen it.”

They’re silent, but the damage is already unknowingly done; Zuko walks through the forest as quietly as he can, dashing tears out of his eyes with the back of his hand. Sniffling, he fights back the bubbling sob in his throat, the one that’s burning at him. 

Horrifying. She thinks he’s horrifying.

Words that others have said boil in his mind. Freak show. Hideous. Disgusting. 

Zuko walks as quickly as he can, and when he’s sure that he’s alone, he tilts his head back to the sky and howls, angrily, kicking his foot out and then his fist, air bursting out of him and accelerating to the sky.

A flicker of flame appears at his fingertips, and Zuko swallows back the bile that rises from his fear; it winks out quickly. 

He’d lost control of his anger. He’s no better than his family.

Zuko droops, his chin going to his chest as he pants, shoulders heaving. He wipes his eyes one more time, takes a deep breath and releases it. So what if one person thinks he’s horrifying. Anyone who passes him on the street can see that - Katara’s opinion shouldn’t matter any more than any of their whispers or judgement.

It shouldn’t hurt any worse. And yet, it does.

Zuko doesn’t spare more than one glance at Katara at their afternoon meal; she seems confused by the cold shoulder, and a small amount of guilt twinges inside him. Zuko ignores it - he’s getting better at ignoring those flare-ups of guilt.

He sits with Sokka at the back of the treehouse, and Sokka’s eyes dart around a few times suspiciously.

“What is it?” Zuko whispers.

“I get a weird feeling from these people,” Sokka mutters back. “Like they’re planning something, and it isn’t...great.”

“Tell me about it,” Zuko mumbles, poking at his meal. He scowls up at the head table, where Jet’s telling a story to everyone’s laughter, including Katara. Zuko stabs a little more forcefully on his next bite of food. “Katara seems happy, though.”

“Yeah. About that.” Sokka shakes his head. “They’re … weirdly obsessed with her waterbending. Have you noticed that?”

Zuko thinks about it and then nods. “She is the first they’ve seen in years-”

“Still. I don’t like it.” Sokka frowns and then falls silent as Longshot passes their table. 

Jet stands suddenly, raising a glass, and the freedom fighters erupt in cheers, raising their own glasses in response. “Friends, you have fought by my side since the beginning!”

More cheers, and Katara smiles at the excited whistling of The Duke.

“You have helped our numbers grow; you have kept the evil out of our valley, and you have helped us kill over three dozen Fire Nation soldiers.”

“Wait, what?” Sokka whispers underneath the renewed shouts and applause, and Zuko frowns; at the head table, Katara frowns too.

“It was us or them, of course,” Jet adds, glancing down at Katara. “The mere presence of the Fire Nation is violence, and we will meet them with violence, no matter the cost!” More cheers, and Sokka frowns. 

“And tomorrow, we strike back at their evil plans. For three months, the village of Gaipain has been under Fire Nation occupation.” Zuko’s chest tightens - the people there had been unusually kind to him. He doesn’t like to think about the potential havoc wreaked by Fire Nation presence in the village.

“They have cut off their water supply and built up a dam for their purposes. But, tomorrow, we will fill the reservoir of Gapain once more, and bring hope to those who need it!” Jet grins down at Katara and offers her a hand. “If, of course, our new friend, the waterbender, will help us!”

“Help us, help us, help us!” The crowd chants, and Katara’s redder than ever as she takes Jet hand and stands, nodding quickly.

“I’ll help you.”

“We leave at dawn!” Jet shouts, and the gathered freedom fighters scream in excitement; Jet wraps a possessive arm around Katara and smirks down at her, and she glances around the room before her gaze lands on Sokka and Zuko.

Whatever she sees in their faces quiets her own excitement. 

It’s a massive argument when she returns to their treehouse, an hour after dinner ends.

“Where were you?” Sokka hisses, tucking the last spoon into his rucksack. “We need to go, now.”

“I need to help these people,” Katara argues stubbornly, crossing her arms in a posture that Zuko now officially knows as you have better luck at moving a mountain, so go try that. “And, I was talking to Jet.”

“Of course you were,” Zuko mutters, rolling his mat up tightly.

“And what does that mean?” Katara snaps. “We were going over plans for tomorrow, thank you very much, Your Highness.”

Zuko’s throat spasms, and he knees back on his heels and refuses to look over at her. 

“It means, we don’t think Jet is telling you the truth,” Sokka whisper-shouts. “He’s manipulating you.”

“Gaipan is occupied,” Katara argues right back. “Sneers’s last living family lives there.”

“Katara, Jet’s … unhinged.” Sokka waves his hands demonstratively. “You heard him at dinner, talking about how great it was to kill soldiers-”

“Soldiers who are evil!” Katara snaps right back. “Soldiers on the other side of the war -- Dad’s killed people too, Sokka-”

“But he isn’t happy about it!” Sokka shouts, and they all wince at the explosion of his voice. Much quieter, he continues, “Dad always taught us that the loss of life, no matter who it was, wasn’t something to be celebrated. It angers the spirits to view life so callously.”

“And let me guess.” Katara rounds on Zuko, who still doesn’t look over at her. “You also think Jet’s bad because he’s killed some of your friends.”

Zuko stands and clenches his hands and unclenches them. Katara’s waiting for a response from him, and he finally turns and looks at her. Whatever she sees in his face makes her recoil

Because you’re horrifying, an unhelpful voice notes.

“Jet’s single-minded,” Zuko says tiredly. “He’s too focused on revenge.”

“You would be too, if the Fire Nation murdered your mother right in front of you!”

Zuko stares at her, and again, Katara’s anger subdues, revealing doubt and fear.

“Jet’s views on the war - all or nothing, delighting in taking a life - they remind me of someone.” Zuko weighs his next words carefully. “He reminds me of my father.”

She draws away, but then fires back with, “you’re only uncomfortable because Jet’s right -- firebenders are evil.”

Zuko doesn’t even blink at the coldness in her voice; he glances past her at Sokka, who’s tilting his head at the window.

“If you help Jet tomorrow, I won’t be there,” Zuko promises quietly. “Not unless I’m sure he isn’t going to hurt anyone.”

“Why do you assume he’s going to-”

Zuko crosses to the window and sees what Sokka had been indicating: dark forms steal across the forest floor, barrels strapped to their backs. He frowns at Sokka, who nods at him meaningfully. They have a quiet conversation back and forth, and then Sokka nods again.

“I’ll be back.” Sokka walks out without another word despite Katara’s angry protests.

“Where does he think he’s going?” Katara seethes.

“No idea.” Zuko pulls out one of his swords and starts to sharpen it. He feels Katara staring at him, so he looks up. “What?”

She blinks, looking caught off-guard; he sees that she’s staring at his sword. “Nothing. It’s just-” Katara shakes her head again. “Nothing.”

He shrugs and goes back to sharpening the blade, and Katara sits down, scowling. She falls asleep waiting for Sokka, and when he doesn’t come back, Zuko sheaths his sword and waits at the edge of the treehouse balcony, eyeing the forest warily.

A little before dawn, Zuko’s dozing off when movement startles him awake; the dark figures are back, sneaking across the campsite, and he wakes up immediately. They go to a small hut in the corner before dispersing once more with barrels, and he looks over his shoulder to check on the still-sleeping Katara before jumping down.

He glances through the window of the hut, peering in, and squints to read the scrawl of Fire-script on the side of the barrels.

Blasting Jelly.

His throat constricts, and he glances around, hoping that Sokka will stumble out of the trees at any point, grumbling about being hungry. There’s no sign of him, but he still can see the last figure disappearing with more blasting jelly in tow. 

Zuko takes off immediately, running hard as he can but still quietly. 

He trails the figures through the forest for over three miles before they come out on a dam that blocks off a small river. The reservoir.

Frowning, Zuko crouches and surveys the scene down below. Several figures are lining up the barrels at the base of the dam, and he can see the barrels staged along the sides as well. His gaze drags eastward, down the natural course of the river if it weren’t blocked by a dam, and his eye widens when he realizes that the river would head right to the small village of Gaipan if successful.

He can see the flag of the Fire Nation hoisted above the town, but his brain does hazy calculations as he’s crouching there. The river seems to be swelling under his feet, which makes almost no sense. 

She’s a waterbender, Jet’s voice echoes in his mind, and Zuko stands quickly, his movements stiff with fear.

“Katara, no.” He shakes his head and starts to run upriver - he scans the horizon and sees Katara and Jet on a nearby cliff. “Katara-”

He has no idea what Sokka is; he doesn’t know if it’s too late to stop the blasting jelly. But, he can see Katara building up the river, her movements graceful and fluid. Zuko runs for the cliff, hoping he isn’t too late.

“Katara!” He shouts, wishing he hadn’t busted his glider so badly down at the South Pole. Aang’s still repairing it, or he could be using it right now. “Katara, stop!”

If she hears him, he doesn’t know. But, he does see her turn and face Jet, and can see them arguing. With his heartbeat in his ears, Zuko sees Katara throw water towards Jet, who counters by slashing out with a hook sword. 

“F-” Zuko saves his breath and launches himself forward -- but then a shrill tone pierces the air, and the sound of a series of explosions reaches them from down the river.

The dam is breaking. He turns and sees it, horrified, sees the river, growing and swelling, sees it rushing towards Gaipain.

So many people are going to die. So many innocent people, mothers and fathers and children -

An anger so bright that it eclipses the sun itself burns through him, and Zuko’s next breath in is trapped in his chest.

The world is a wave of sound and fury after that.

Katara finishes bending, and brushes sweat from her brow. “That was hard,” she laughs, “but do you think it was enough?”

“I think it was.” Jet studies her handiwork admiringly, and she smiles, pleased, when he nods. “That will definitely work. And it’s all thanks to you, Katara.”

She turns and watches the now swollen river rush eastward. 

Then, she frowns at the direction of the river. “Jet, what happens if the river overflows the dam? From here, it looks like it heads right towards …” She trails off, a hand going to her necklace. “Oh, spirits.”


She turns to face him, anger rendering her near speechless. 

“Katara, listen to me-”

“They’re all going to die, aren’t they?” She feels awful, cold, hollow. 

It’s all thanks to you.

“We have to help them!” She shakes herself out of it and raises her hands, turning to the river.

“You’re strong, Katara, but not even you can hold back a river.” 

She tries to push it anyway, remembering being seven and small and terrified and trying to hold back the metal monstrosities that brought death and black snow. Jet grabs her arm though, and Katara wheels on him, furious.

“Let me go! You’re going to -- Jet, those are innocent people!”

“Who are in a town run by a hundred soldiers!” He roars at her, shaking her by the grip on her arm. “Katara, you said it yourself: firebenders are evil.”

“Those people aren’t!” She tugs her arm free and lifts her hands. “I can’t let you do this, Jet.”

She bends a whip of water at him, but he blocks it with his sword, and she thinks he’s lunging at her.

Instead, he darts past her and whistles twice, long and loud.

“It’s already done,” he says coldly.

A series of explosions rock the dam, and Katara’s eyes widen in horror.

“No,” she whispers.

“Katara!” Someone’s shouting her name, and she looks down to see Zuko running towards them.

“Zuko,” she whispers, nausea rising in her throat -- oh, La, this is all her fault --

The river tumbles forward, down the valley, and Katara gasps in horror.

But then her attention is redirected; something’s happening to Zuko.

“What?” Jet takes a step back. “What is he-”

Zuko’s eyes glow an eerie white-blue, the edges of his scar glowing as well. 

As the river surges forward, Zuko steps out to the riverbank, and Katara screams for him -- until Zuko steps right out into the water, which wraps around him like a warm embrace. He surges against the current, building the water up around him, and the river shifts violently, moving with him back west. 

At one point, the wave he rides grows so powerful, it swallows him whole, but the kinetic energy of whatever bending he’s doing forces the river backwards, back to where Katara had kept it; Zuko erupts upwards a second later, a thick wall of ice forming, cracking outwards, forming a new, nearly impenetrable dam.

“Zuko?” Katara shouts; the wind starts to whip around her, and she stares in shock at the banished prince. “Zuko, what’s-”

Jet stumbles back at her side, shouting something that she can’t hear. It’s loud enough to draw Zuko’s attention, even through this strange trance he’s in, and he turns towards them.

Katara’s breath rips out of her body in shock.

There isn’t a hint of Zuko left in his face. Something beyond him, beyond person and humanity and time and space, has taken over.

The water releases him, and he moves forward, buoyed by an invisible maelstrom that kicks up dirt and debris around Katara and Jet; she feels fear like she’s never felt before, different than the fear of the day her mother died, but powerful in a new way.

Zuko doesn’t pay her any attention as his feet touch the cliff. He stalks towards Jet, who stumbles back, begging and sobbing. Zuko doesn’t care.

His hand wraps around Jet’s tunic, and he hauls him upwards, holding the other boy aloft even though they’re nearly the same size.

“You would kill the innocent?” Zuko asks coldly. 

It’s his voice and it’s not; a thousand terrible voices overlay his familiar voice, deepening it and expanding it. Katara’s shivering, and she can’t stop.

“I’m sorry,” Jet says, his fingers scrabbling uselessly at Zuko’s grip on him. “I’m sorry, I didn’t -- I needed to stop them.”

“You need to be stopped,” Zuko continues, the glowing not leaving his face.

“I didn’t know you were the Avatar, Lee, please, I’m sorry-”

He’s going to kill him.

Katara’s fear is overridden by a very basic thought:

Zuko will never forgive himself if he kills someone.

It’s that thought that has her feet moving forward; it’s the thought of Zuko, trapped in his mind and punishing himself for his guilt, that has her crossing the cliff, pushing through the storm that’s built around him. She bites back her fear and touches Zuko’s elbow, ignoring the sobbing, pathetic Jet that squirms in his grip.

“Zuko!” She has to shout to be heard, but she’ll shout as much as she has to. “Zuko, please! This isn’t you.”

He doesn’t even look at her.

“Zuko, come back.” Katara hears her voice crack, either from fear or another powerful emotion. “Please, come back Zuko -- this isn’t you--” Jet gasps for air above her, “--you don’t hurt people. You aren’t like them , Zuko, please-”

By them she means Jet and the fighters who’d helped him today; she means the soldiers stationed in Gaipan; she means Zuko’s father, who lurks like a nightmare in his past.

The light in his eyes flickers and then goes out, returning to the reddened gold she’s become familiar with. Zuko’s hand is still on Jet’s throat; she watches it spasm as he drops the other boy.

“He isn’t worth it,” Katara whispers, tugging at his hand. “Come on. We need to go.”

“I-” Zuko’s face twitches, and then Sokka comes running into view, waving his arms and shouting something.

Zuko looks at Jet, who’s collapsed in a pathetic heap on the ground, and then over at Katara. 

He looks horribly, helplessly lost.

“Katara.” Her name is a plea in his wrecked voice. “What happened?”

“Let’s go!” She can hear Sokka screaming now, down below. “Get a move on, soldiers coming!”

“I’ll tell you later.” Without sparing Jet another glance, Katara takes Zuko’s hand and squeezes once, firmly. “We need to go, Zuko.”

They meet with Sokka at the base of the cliff, and they don’t stop running for an hour.

Chapter Text

He’s standing in a dark corridor; the walls are black and sheer, glistening in the torchlight.

There’s an echo of a giggle, high and girlish, from around the corner; his face breaks into an effortless smile, and he laughs too. The sound is wrong but not-wrong, deep and from his chest.

She laughs again, calling for him to follow me, follow me, and his feet begin to move. He’s run countless miles in his life, but this last stretch of distance is more important than all the others.

As he nears the end of the tunnel, he sees silver moonlight illuminating his beloved. He comes to a stop, taking her in.

She wears the same ceremonial robes he does, her betrothal necklace resting at the base of her elegant throat. Waves of dark hair tumble over her slender shoulders. Her eyes are right but not-right: bright blue and dazzling. 

Don’t tell me you have cold feet after all that -

“Never,” he whispers, his hand outstretched to her.

Follow me -

She takes a step backwards, laughing, further into the courtyard. He follows. He’ll follow her anywhere. She holds her own hand out to him, giggling still as she crosses the bridge over the pool of water that seems to glow in the moonlight.

Twining spirits dance in the water of the oasis up ahead; he hopes they will bless this union. Even if they don’t -- nothing could keep him from his bride.

The most beautiful woman in the Southern Water Tribe: no, the world. The kindest, too. And she chose him. 

He’s never felt so humbled.

What are you waiting for?

She laughs again, and he takes a step forward. 

There’s a horrible moment where the moon grows dark and the world glows red; his bride glances down at the water, her lovely brow creased with a frown. His feet can no longer move.

“Don’t look,” he pleads with her, but his mouth doesn’t move. She can’t hear him. “Take my hand-”

It’s Katara who looks down at the water, but then the moon flickers again and her face changes as she looks back at him - her face becomes longer, thinner, a different chin, different eyes. The moon flickers once more, and she’s Katara again, staring at the water.


Darkness reaches out from the water and steals over her, and his feet are freed from their temporary paralysis. He runs to her as she collapses, and he catches her before she hits the ground.

She has fire lilies in her hair.

He thinks, wild in his hope, that she’s still breathing.

“Please,” he whispers, delicately turning her in his arms so he can kiss her and marry her at last.

Her face is gone. 

It’s all he can see before she turns to dust in his arms.

Zuko wakes up with someone else’s name on his lips.

“Ummi!” He screams, sitting bolt upright.

The rest of their group jolts awake as he screams, his throat raw from muffled cries in his sleep; Zuko’s sweating horribly and he can’t focus on any of their panicked questions.

He scrambles out of his bedroll and trips over the embers of their evening campfire to make it across their clearing. Even Chiyu is chirping in concern as he kneels at Katara’s bedroll and grabs her arm.

She’d been looking over at Sokka in concern, so he catches her off-guard.

“Hey! Zuko, what are you--” She turns to face him, and he half-sobs when he sees her concerned, anxious blue eyes. “Zuko?”

He strokes strands of messy hair out of her face, his thoughts incoherent, words not even forming in his tight throat.

“Dude, what is it?” Sokka climbs out of his own bedroll and stands clumsily. “You’re even weirding me out.”

“Nephew?” Iroh’s voice reaches Zuko through his panic, and he realizes he’s framing Katara’s face in his hands, his breathing ragged.

He shakes his head and stumbles back, coughing through, “Sorry, I’m sorry-”

“Zuko?” Sokka takes a step towards him, but Zuko shakes his head and holds his hands up before stumbling back another step. His heel glances down on a still hot ember and he hisses, jerking his foot away from it.

“Zuko, calm down, please-” Katara’s staring at him now, and a different memory comes to him, the memory of her voice admitting horrifying.

He shakes his head again, drags his hands through his hair, and walks away from camp.

Sokka and Katara both call after him, but Chiyu swoops through the branches to actually follow him, and the calm tone of Iroh, his words unintelligible at this distance, soothes the siblings until they stop calling his name.

He walks for a while, panic tight in his chest; he tries to keep to a straight line as much as he can, but his terror makes him stumble at times, and he’s getting steadily trapped in his own head.

“Why didn’t I save her?” He whispers, rubbing at the stiff tissue around his scar. “I could have -- used bending, or fought it. Or gone into the Avatar State. Why didn’t I do anything?”


He stops, panting, and half-turns to the familiar voice. “Master.”

“What dreams have followed you into waking?” Aang stands behind him, his tread too soft to be heard, even over the fallen leaves on the path.

“It’s not important.”

“I don’t think that’s true.”

Zuko turns fully to meet his airbending master’s concerned gaze; Aang smiles at him kindly and lifts a hand to a fallen tree, as though inviting him to sit down.

They both remain standing.

“I dreamed I was … somewhere dark. And cold.” Zuko shivers from the memory of it. “There was a woman.”

Katara , he almost says. But it wasn’t her. Not really. It was, and it wasn’t.

“Oh?” Aang’s eyes twinkle a little, and Zuko shakes his head.

“Not like -- I loved her.” Zuko rubs his unscarred temple, frowning. “I loved her, so much, and she-”

“What happened?”

“I followed her to a bridge in a courtyard, and … something happened. We were supposed to get married, I - I think. And she looked away from me for a second, down at the water and then …” Zuko feels his hands shaking, and he curls them into fists before finishing, “Her face was gone.”

Aang is quiet for a long moment.

“What do you think it means?” Zuko asks miserably when his teacher doesn’t say anything.

“There are legends that say your past life, Avatar Kuruk’s bride was … killed by a vengeful spirit. One with many faces.”

“Koh.” Zuko shudders even saying the name, and Aang nods, his eyes thoughtful.

“He was a cocky Avatar; powerful, and beyond that, remarkably handsome. He shied away from some of his spiritual duties, and angered spirits like Koh.”

Zuko feels oddly sick from a feeling he knows well. Shame.

“To teach Kuruk a lesson, Koh crept into the North Pole’s spiritual center and lured the Avatar’s love to the Spirit World where he stole her face. When Kuruk confronted him, he was unable to kill Koh because the memory of his true love would have been destroyed with the spirit.”

They’re both quiet now. Zuko’s heart pounds in his chest, but his eyes are still heavy with sleep; he tilts his head back and stares at the canopy above them. 

“Master. Why did…”

“Why did you dream that memory? I don’t know. Was there anything else in the dream? Anything else the spirits could be trying to tell you?”

“For a few seconds…” Zuko clears his throat. “For a few seconds, she … Ummi, was that her name?” Aang nods, and Zuko continues, “Ummi...she was … she looked like Katara.”

“Ah.” Aang considers this, and Zuko feels a blush creeping down his neck. “I wondered why you were so insistent on making sure she was okay when you woke up. Maybe … maybe you’re making decisions in your life because of your feelings for Katara, and the spirits--”

“I am not!” Zuko snaps, and Aang lifts his eyebrows bemusedly. “I mean -- My feelings? I feel … a normal way about Katara. Completely normal. She isn’t going to marry me. We’re still … we’re too young.”

“You’re both of the appropriate age to be betrothed, if not to marry, in your cultures,” Aang points out, still bemused, and Zuko bristles.

“She wouldn’t marry me.” He kicks at a tangled root sticking out of the ground. “She’s -- she’s the princess of her tribe. She’s the last waterbender in the South. And I’m just a banished son of a dictator.” Before Aang can argue against that, he adds, “And, it’s not like I want to marry anyone. It’s -- I don’t think that’s why I had the dream.”

“Alright.” Aang lets it go for now, which Zuko feels nothing but relief over. “Then, how did you feel in the dream, when you discovered Ka -- when she lost her face?”

“I was terrified.” Zuko shivers again. “I felt … powerless to stop it. To help her.”

“It’s been three days since you entered the Avatar State,” Aang points out. “And Katara and Sokka told us you were disoriented for hours after; maybe it’s a lingering fear from losing control of your power?”

“That’s just it.” Zuko shakes his head. “I can’t be powerful like that unless I’m in the Avatar State, and I still have no idea how I got into it in the first place. I remember being so angry, and …” Nausea rises in his throat again. “I remember I almost killed him. Jet.”

“Mastering the Avatar State will be easier when you’ve mastered all four elements. Now that you’re on your way to mastering Water, you only need Earth.”

“And Fire.” Zuko folds his fingers into a fist and stares at his useless hand. “I can’t even light a match, Aang. How am I supposed to fight my father or go into the Avatar State -- how can I help anyone if I can’t even use the element I was born into?”

“I get it.” Aang nods and stares out into the trees. “You’re afraid of letting them down. You’re afraid that your own element, which should be the main element that you use, will keep you from saving others.”

Zuko nods, and Aang sighs heavily.

“I understand. Probably better than you realize.” Aang grips his arm, and Zuko stares down at Aang’s feet. “You will learn how to connect with fire again, Zuko. I know you will.”

“And if I can’t?” 

Aang shrugs and smiles. “Then it’s a good thing you’re so good at collecting friends.”

Zuko snorts, sure that it’s a joke, but Aang’s smile doesn’t waver.

“Let’s head back to camp. We’ve got an early day tomorrow.”

“Yes, Master.” Zuko bows to Aang, who returns the gesture, and they walk back quietly through the trees.

When the glow of the campfire becomes obvious, Zuko addresses his master once more. “Aang?”

“Yes, Zuko?”

“Don’t tell Katara-”

Aang’s answering laugh is buoyant. “That you’ve officially thought about your dream wedding? I’ll keep that to myself.” He winks at an indignant Zuko. “For now.”

Aang and Iroh have a quiet, serious discussion while Sokka checks the map at breakfast. Katara smiles at Zuko when she hands him his bowl of mashed oats, and he only nods at her in thanks before sitting down at the edge of camp, his back to the siblings.

“Zuko, what do you think?” Sokka calls out. “There’s a few possible routes we could take to avoid a Fire Nation encampment at the edge of the mountain chain. Are you okay postponing your North Pole spiritual journey for a few more days?”

“Sure, Sokka.” Zuko turns around and nods at the other boy. “I trust your judgement.”

Sokka nods and makes a few more notes on his map, while Katara’s eyes remain on Zuko. It makes him uncomfortable to have her staring at him so openly.

“Do you need more breakfast?” Katara asks suddenly. “Because we have more-”

It’s horrifying.

He’s horrifying.

“No.” Zuko looks away, dragging his eyes back to the dirt. “Thank you.”

“More for me!” If Sokka’s forcing the tone of cheer into his voice, Zuko can’t tell, and Sokka polishes off the rest of the porridge by the time Aang and Iroh rejoin them. 

“Where to next, Master Sokka?” Aang asks cheerfully, munching on some lychee nuts he’d procured from a pocket of his tunic.

“There’s a village here that I thought we could visit to get one last round of stuff before we head for the Pole.” Sokka taps the map, and Iroh and Aang study it, nodding.

“If it is alright with you all, I think Prince Zuko and I might need to take a separate journey while you travel to this village,” Iroh says calmly.

Katara looks over at Zuko, frowning, but he can only shrug as it’s the first he’s heard of this.

“I have an old friend who would love to meet you,” Iroh says to Zuko directly, and he bows in response.

“Whatever you say, Uncle.” 

They all fly together towards the village, and Chiyu barrel rolls over Appa a few times, showing off. Zuko grins when she lands in front of him, neck out and beak open for a treat; he feeds her pieces of jerky by hand as she snaps it up happily, croaking through her damaged vocal cords.

“What … happened to Chiyu?” Sokka asks, eyeing the whorls of scar tissue that cover her body, and Zuko stiffens, already feeling defensive of his ugly little bird.

“Someone tried to burn her,” he says coldly, scratching his finger delicately along the cusp of her worst scars on her chest. Chiyu coos and nuzzles into his forearm. “So I healed her.”

“Who would do that to a bird?” Katara whispers, eyes wide.

“We burn chickens and other birds all the time,” Sokka points out, before wilting under Zuko’s glare. “I mean -”

“You kill them first, and that’s for food,” Zuko snaps. “That’s the difference. Someone tortured her, tried to burn her alive when she was only a baby.”

“Firebenders,” Katara says softly. 

Zuko glares over the side of Appa’s saddle. “Firebenders.”

He grabs his glider, which Aang had finally repaired in the last two days; he stands quickly, and he can feel Iroh sighing at his dramatics.

“I’ll be back.” 


He jumps off Appa’s back without any further warning and snaps the glider open; the air currents tug viciously at the glider until he smooths them out around him, and Chiyu soars at his side, screeching joyfully to be in flight once more.

Aang laughs and waves at them as they follow along Appa’s course, and Zuko spins in the air in greeting. It feels better out here, with no one staring at him or his scar, out here with no one asking him any questions.

Zuko spends most of the trip wondering if he should ever come back down.

When they do land at the fork in a path, Appa rumbles a farewell to Zuko and Iroh as they grab their things.

“We’ll meet back here in two days,” Aang says, bowing playfully to Iroh, and then Zuko. Sokka starts to bow too, and then Aang giggles, and they get into a bowing match that ends with them slamming foreheads together.

“Ow.” Sokka moans and rubs his head. “How is your head so hard?”

Aang winks at Zuko, who manages a smile in response. 

“Do you need anything from the village, Zuko?” Katara asks softly, coming up to his left elbow. 

She’d crept up on him, so he answers more sharply than normal. “No. Thank you.” As he speaks, he turns his body so his scar isn’t facing her, and he walks towards a confused Iroh. 

“Zuko, that is no way to say farewell to a friend,” Iroh hisses at him, tugging on his tunic; Zuko glances over his right shoulder to see Katara standing, looking confused and more than a little hurt, her right hand gripping her left elbow as she tries not to look in his direction.

Sokka wanders over and slaps Zuko’s back before he can think about apologizing or at least explaining to Uncle why he doesn’t want to apologize.

“Be safe, hot stuff.” Sokka grins at Zuko’s eye roll. “What? Get it, hot ...stuff?”

“I got it.” Zuko snorts and claps Sokka’s shoulder, which makes the other boy’s smile broaden. “You be safe … too. Out there.” He swallows and glances over Sokka’s shoulder. “You too.”

Katara nods and walks off to check their packs without another word. Zuko’s stomach feels like a net of acid-vipers, and he wonders if one’s crawling up his throat, and if that’s why he feels like choking.

Aang waves merrily before leading the siblings down the dirt path, Appa trundling behind them. Chiyu soars over their heads for a moment, cawing in goodbye before swooping back to land on Zuko’s outstretched arm.

“Ouch.” He frowns down at his arm, where her claws have managed to cut through his arm wrapping. “...Are you getting bigger, Chiyu?”


Shrugging, he turns and follows Iroh down the opposite path. Iroh talks aimlessly of his journeys before the siege of Ba Sing Se, and Zuko can feel, as always, the space where Lu Ten used to be in his uncle’s stories. 

He remembers Lu Ten -- he was kind, and funny, and soft-spoken. He looked like Ozai, but acted nothing like him. Zuko wonders if he would have been a good Fire Lord, and then decides immediately that he would have been. Better than Ozai. 

Better than himself.

“Where did you meet your friend, Uncle?” Zuko asks after listening to a strange, rambling tale about pranking a superior officer when Iroh was a twenty-year-old spitfire (and, of course, that superior officer turned out to be his wife’s father, which made seeking her hand slightly more difficult).

“My friend? Oh. We met in the army,” Iroh says casually, and Zuko frowns as they enter a thick forest.

“Is he … loyal to my father?”

Iroh snorts, a barely audible noise over the crush of sound in the forest. “No. He is actually … a deserter.”

“What?” Zuko balks for a second before remembering that he and his uncle are also deserters, technically.

Hard to be a loyal Fire subject when your actual existence as Avatar is illegal and means you’d be killed on sight.

“When did he desert the army?”

“Soon after your birth.” Iroh is quiet for a moment, and Zuko steps on a twig, startling himself. “He … like myself … he was ashamed of what the Fire Nation did in those days.” 

Iroh bows his head and is silent again, and Zuko remembers the horrible fury he’d possessed upon learning his true royal heritage. He remembers how angry he’d been at Iroh for being complicit -- he remembers how sometimes, he still isn’t sure he’s forgiven him.

“He was a very talented Firebender. A true genius -- the most gifted in all the Fire Nation, in our generation.”

“I thought that was you, Uncle.” 

That barely brings a smile to Iroh’s face, but Zuko is glad to see even the tiny sign of cheer. 

“You flatter me, Prince Zuko. And it is working.”

The title sparks a question in his mind: “Uncle. If I’m … me. Won’t he hate me on sight? Won’t he hate you ?”

“I do not think he would hate either of us, but he has almost no reason to hate you, Prince Zuko.”

“If he turned against the decisions my family made--”

“You are not your father or grandfather. Anyone with common sense could see that, my nephew.”

Zuko nods, not able to shake the bitter taste in his mouth. “What’s his name?”

“His name?” Iroh smiles at him, his eyes twinkling. “Is Jeong Jeong.”

“Jeong Jeong?” 

“The whole point,” an unfamiliar voice speaks from the trees, “of leaving the Fire Nation was so that no one would bring me princelings to train anymore.”

Zuko pulls a sword from its sheath and points it in the direction of the voice; he stares wildly in the darkness, a hand thrown out to protect his uncle.

A laugh comes from the opposite direction. “The Crown Prince doesn’t turn to fire when he is threatened.”

“Show yourself!” Zuko shouts into the trees, still scanning the forest.

 Iroh does not seem perturbed by this development. “I think you will find my nephew has enough flair for the dramatic for all of us, if you could please spare us any theatrics.”

“Hey.” Zuko frowns at Iroh, and then startles again, his blade pointed at a man who emerges from the trees.

He wears a simple tunic, and his hair is shaggy and grey, almost to his shoulders. 

Iroh bows the second the man walks into view, and he leans over to viciously poke Zuko until he bows too. “Master Jeong Jeong. I know you are retired, but I was hoping you would speak to one more pupil. It is a matter of urgency.”

Jeong Jeong does not return the bow; nor does he seem alarmed at the blades in Zuko’s hands.

“I told you. I have no interest in rearing another genocidal monster.” 

Something in Zuko’s chest twinges; he often thinks the same of his legacy, but it’s always painful to have the reminder from someone else.

“I understand your grief and reluctance, Master Jeong Jeong.” Iroh speaks as evenly as ever, his hands folded behind his back and he stares at the other man. “But I think you will make an exception for my nephew.”

“Prince Zuko.” Jeong Jeong sneers the name. “Cast out by his father -- do you wish for me to train him so he can reclaim the throne? So he can move to overthrow his father and begin his own tyrannical rule?”

Zuko’s eye twitches; he does want to overthrow his father, after all. Something tells him that Jeong Jeong would be able to tell if he lied and said otherwise.

“Not quite.” Iroh chuckles softly. “You see, Zuko does not seek training as a prince.”

“Because he is exiled. Shamed. Dishonored,” Jeong Jeong barks, and each word lands like a physical blow onto Zuko.

“No.” Iroh is maddeningly calm, but it doesn’t seem to aggravate Jeong Jeong the way it does Zuko. “I ask you to train him, not because he is the prince, but because he is the Avatar.”

For the first time, Jeong Jeong doesn’t seem to have anything to fire back.

“Welcome to Makapu Village,” a man greets them as they enter the marketplace. 

Katara trails a hand along a windchime and smiles at the sound; behind her, Aang has already started to barter for a delicious smelling vegetable dish. 

“Everyone here seems cheerful.” Sokka puts his hands on his hips and frowns, scanning the crowded thoroughfare. “What’s that about?”

“It’s hard to be anything but cheerful when Aunt Wu is here.” A woman sighs happily and turns to her neighbor. “Did you hear that I’m to meet my true love this week?” She eyes Sokka, in particular his biceps, with a smirk, and Katara has to hide a laugh at the shade of red her brother turns.

The woman is perhaps ten years older than them, after all.

“She seems nice,” Katara laughs, and Sokka grumbles. “And, who is Aunt Wu?” She asks the merchant who’s helping Aang.

“You’ve never heard of Aunt Wu?” The man’s mouth hangs open for a moment. “She tells fortunes, and she’s never wrong.”

“That seems unlikely,” Sokka comments dryly. “She’s probably really good at guessing.”

The merchant gasps and puts a hand to his heart. “No! Aunt Wu is always right - she told me to stop selling pork because one day, I would need my best pig. And sure enough, the dowry for the woman I loved was a pig! If I had killed my pig, I might not have won her hand!”

Sokka stares at the man in disbelief. “And when was this?”

“Two years ago. It still seems rude to go back to eating meat.”

“I think that’s great!” Aang says cheerfully, and the merchant smiles at him, equally cheerful.

“People trade women for pigs up here?” Sokka hisses at Katara, who shrugs, also disturbed by this information.

“How do people win someone else’s hand down at the South Pole?” Aang asks as they continue down the road.

“Usually through a show of strength.” Sokka shrugs and holds up his boomerang in demonstration. “Which means hunting, or sailing. You have to show your wife’s family that you can provide for her, and for your children in the future. And, you generally have to spend a week with the women of her family, to show that you have a good heart. They’re the ones that decide.”

“That’s so interesting!” Aang beams at them.

“And what about the Air Nomads?” Katara asks. She notices that Aang’s expression falls -- but just barely. She’s about to apologize when he answers.

“Most of our families are … were .... looser connected than the families of the other nations. It wasn’t a big deal if a husband and a wife decided to go separate ways and start new connections. And, women asked men to marry as much as the other way around.” Aang shrugs. “And men would marry men, and women would marry women. It wasn’t anything we thought a lot about.”

Sokka thinks about this and frowns; Katara waits for him to say something truly offensive, but instead, he comes out with, “Who asks whose family when it’s two guys, or two girls?”

Katara rolls her eyes at her brother’s need to have a clear answer based on “boy rules” and “girl rules,” but she’s glad that he’s asking respectfully. She doesn’t think Sokka at 15 would handle all this information this well.

Aang laughs and pats Sokka on the shoulder. “Whoever’s faster on the draw, I guess! Our proposals were always fun, and involved a lot of people. The more creative, the better!” 

“Proposals.” Sokka tries the word out, still frowning thoughtfully.

“Like, an agreement to become betrothed, but you only have to ask the other person, really, and then you’re engaged right away.”

“Huh.” Sokka shrugs. “That sounds … different, but cool.”

“It was cool,” Aang agrees.

“How did you…” Sokka stops immediately when Katara pokes his side, and he turns bright red. “Tui, I’m sorry.”

“How did I propose to my wife?” Aang tilts his head and smiles at Sokka, even as the younger man tries to fumble an apology. Katara watches as Aang’s expression softens into something bigger than sadness. “It was a little different. She was from the Earth Kingdom, so I did have to ask her parents for their blessing for a betrothal. Even though I didn’t own anything of value as an Air Nomad, they gave the union their blessing. Then I was able to propose to her, and even managed to surprise her. It involved a lot of mangoes, and her favorite flowers.”

“That sounds lovely, Aang.” Katara smiles at him over Sokka’s shoulder, and Aang nods, his smile noticeably smaller than normal.

Katara’s about to ask another question about Earth Kingdom traditions when she bumps shoulders with a young man and sends him crashing to the ground.

“I’m so sorry!” She rushes to help him, and he waves her off, smiling.

“Don’t worry about me!” He jumps to his feet. “Aunt Wu told me that all the negative things I encounter in the next month will directly lead to my success in my new business! So, thank you!” He runs off without another word or explanation.

“This Aunt Wu sounds fake, right?”

“Only one way to find out.” Aang grins mischievously and points at a sign up the road, one pointing west. “Looks like Aunt Wu’s Fortune Parlor is two blocks away!”

“Great!” Katara bounces in her next few steps from excitement. “I’ve always wanted to get my fortune read!”

“I bet Zuko isn’t doing anything this stupid,” Sokka grumbles as he follows Katara and Aang down the street. “I should have gone with Zuko.”

“You want me to … stop a leaf from burning … while it’s on fire?” Zuko repeats, incredulously, staring at Jeong Jeong.

In the shade of a nearby tree, Iroh sips tea with ice in it, humming to himself as he fans his face with a wide fan. At his feet, Chiyu dozes, chirping softly as she snores.

Zuko, conversely, has stripped down to his pants only, his feet bare on the hot ground as he stares at the burning leaf in Jeong Jeong’s hands.


“...How.” Zuko stares at him in disbelief. “I thought you were going to teach me how to summon fire again.”

“You’re too afraid to control fire. That much is obvious.”

“I’m not afraid!” Zuko snaps, but then the lantern nearest to him flares, and he flinches away from it.

“You are afraid.” Jeong Jeong’s expression doesn’t soften, but his next words are kinder. “I know why, and I understand why. Fire is an evil thing.”

Zuko sees Iroh look up at that, frowning. “I guess we can agree on that,” Zuko mutters.

“When we fought together in the army, Master Jeong Jeong, you often spoke of fire’s capabilities for warmth and kindness,” Iroh chimes in with his typical calm, lecturing voice. “Have you abandoned this philosophy?”

“Yes.” Jeong Jeong stares at Iroh coldly. “I have seen what fire does -- it burns and it destroys. There is nothing left in the element that is good. I can teach your nephew to control fire, but if I show him how to wield it, who is to say that he will not use it to hurt others?”

Before Iroh can argue back -- and Zuko can tell his uncle is ready to argue -- Zuko shakes his head. 

“I’d rather lose firebending altogether than hurt someone with it,” Zuko admits softly, and Jeong Jeong turns to him, frowning at him.

He stares at Zuko for a long time, a minute or more, and Zuko looks back as much as he can; eventually he flinches and looks away, blinking away the grittiness in his eyes from the smoke of the nearby fires.

“You mean it.” 

Zuko nods. “I do. Fire has done nothing but hurt others, in this world, in my family. The only person I’ve ever met who has used firebending for reasons other than to hurt another is my uncle.” He glances at Iroh, regretfully adding, “and he’s also used it to hurt others.”

“Which elements have you mastered?” Jeong Jeong asks.

“Air.” Zuko sighs heavily. “I’m training with water now, but I haven’t been able to master it yet. We’re going to the North Pole to fix that. If it can be fixed.”

“When your uncle told me, and the members of our order, that he had found the Avatar, I never imagined he would have the face of the Fire Lord.”

Zuko winces, his hand going subconsciously to his scar.

“You were able to master Air, though, which has limited abilities for combat. Water is more formidable in a fight - what moves have you learned?”

“Only a few,” Zuko admits. 

Iroh walks towards them now. “My nephew is being modest. He has natural healing abilities.”

This catches Jeong Jeong’s attention more than anything else. “Show me.”

“How?” Zuko asks warily. 

Jeong Jeong holds up his arm, which bears a cut from what looks like a jagged blade. Zuko unscrews the cap on his waterskin and pulls water out; he lets out his breath slowly, imagining the skin closing, pushing his desire to have the skin close, through the water, until it glows.

He rests it on Jeong Jeong’s arm, and they all watch as the wound disappears; Zuko sends the water back to its skin, and Jeong Jeong’s eyes remain locked on the now unbroken skin on his arm.

“Fascinating.” Jeong Jeong turns away for a moment, and Zuko glances at Iroh, trying to communicate if this guy isn’t going to help us, we should just leave and see what the others are doing. 

After a minute, Jeong Jeong turns around and hands Zuko a leaf; it shrivels slightly and then starts to burn in his hands. When Zuko tries to startle and drop the leaf, Jeong Jeong wraps his hand around Zuko’s, forcing him to maintain his grip.

“Focus on the edges of the fire. Keep it from consuming the leaf. Hold it back. Protect the leaf. Control the fire.”

Zuko takes a shaking breath and imagines the edge of the fire as a wisp of water, a tendril of fluid; he grabs it on the barest glimpse of control and lets out a breath, keeping the fire still as though freezing it.

“Good.” It’s the first compliment Jeong Jeong has paid him, and Zuko smiles, but keeps his attention on the burning leaf in his fingers.

Sokka and Katara wait outside the door as Aang gets his palm read first; Wu’s assistant had grabbed him excitedly, very pleased with his tattoos. 

“Do you think it’s going well?” Katara whispers.

“Well, if she were a Fire Nation spy who wanted to murder one of the last Airbenders, I think we would have heard something by now,” Sokka whispers back, hissing “Ouch!” when Katara pinches him.

Just then, the door slides open, and Aang stumbles out, tears in his eyes. They both jump to their feet. 

“Aang?” Katara asks anxiously. “What’s wrong?”

Aang waves a hand, wiping at his cheeks, and flaps a hand. “O-one of you guys g-go. I’ll going to wait … wait outside.” He rushes for the door, and Sokka’s already walking after him.

“I’ll check on him. I don’t want to deal with some fraud anyway.”

Katara looks at the assistant, who seems unbothered by Aang’s grieved exit. “Aunt Wu will see you now,” she says peacefully, gesturing at the open door. Gulping, Katara stands and walks through.

The air in Aunt Wu’s parlor is heavy with incense, and she’s guided to a cushion in front of a low fire. It’s drowsy and quiet in here, and Katara glances around at the various pictures of beautiful scenery on the walls.

“You’ve come a long way, my dear.”

Katara jumps a little and then smiles at the round, older woman who emerges from the back of the parlor. “I have.”

“So young, so beautiful.” Wu sits down across from her with a soft sigh and a smile. “So lonely.”

“What?” Katara blinks at her. “I’m not lonely.”

“One of the last of your kind? Much like my last visitor, your friend. It is lonely business, to be the last of something.”

Katara squirms on her cushion. “What did you say to Aang to make him so upset? Did you … see something awful, in his future?” She almost doesn’t want to know -- she’s grown quite attached to Aang over the last weeks.

“Not his future.” Wu sets a kettle to boil and smiles, but sadly this time. “His past.”


“Oh.” Wu holds her hands out. “Would you like me to read your future, or your past, Katara?”

She’d never told Wu her name; Katara tells herself (with a voice that sounds a lot like Sokka’s) that Aang had probably told Wu, and that’s how she knew it. Still, she’s feeling like she’s trembling as she holds her hands out. “Future. Please.”

“Hmm.” Wu studies her palms for a moment, her short fingers swooping and poking along the lines in Katara’s hands. “You have interesting lines, both for life and love. A long life, filled with adventure.” That makes Katara smile; she’d spent too long in one place, after all. “And, a deep, encompassing love. True love, in fact.”

“A soulmate?” Katara says, half-joking, but Aunt Wu’s face is serious when she looks up.

“Yes. Your soulmate. You’ll meet them … when you’re young. And…” she traces a line Katara can’t see along her own palm. “...And, you’ll go through much together, and apart. But you will marry.”

“What can you tell me about him?” Katara asks, feeling excited at the prospect of a true love. She’d never let herself imagine such a thing when she was stuck at the South Pole (her pickings were limited down there, after all), but she did sometimes think about the stories about princes and kings her mother told her, and would get excited at the idea.

“Hmm.” Wu squints at Katara’s palm again, and Katara waits for her to say if he’s handsome, or tall, or funny, or serious. “He is … a very powerful bender. Terribly powerful -- almost dangerous.”

“What?” Katara whispers, her throat tight. “What do you mean-”

“Luckily, you are also powerful.” Wu folds her fingers into her palms and releases her with a smile. “That’s the most obvious part of your fortune -- you will be a powerful bender.”

“Oh.” That cheers her up a little, even though she’s still a little shivery from the fact that her husband is going to be … dangerous? “Is there anything else you can tell me about my future? Any danger in it?”

“I can read the bones of your future.” Wu opens a chest and pulls out small bones. “The cracks from the heat of the fire will tell me all I need to see. The destiny given to you at birth, and the danger in your journey.”

“Great!” Katara nods excitedly, and Wu hums a little as she walks to the fire and gestures for Katara to join her. She hands Katara the bones when she reaches Wu’s side.

“Throw them in, my dear.” 

Katara tosses them into the heart of the flames, and they both watch as they start to crack. Then, a plume of blue flame erupts from the middle.

“Wow,” Katara whispers, watching with wide eyes as the fire jumps higher. “That’s--”

“What is happening?” Wu cries, gripping Katara’s arm and pulling her back. “Move, my dear, move!”

Purple, orange, and green flame lick out from the bright blue center, hazy and heavy smoke of the same color growing above the fire. It dances, surges, and then the bones crack one last time before the fire goes out completely.

“Um. Is that … normal?” Katara asks, already guessing the answer.

“No.” Wu is shaking as she pulls the bones from the ashes. “The spirits have a great destiny in store for you, Katara of the Southern Water Tribe.” She scans the bones and turns pale. “And great pain, as well. You will gain much on your journey -- and you will also lose. In what order, and to what extent, I cannot say. But the spirits … they have spoken today.”

Katara and Wu stare at each other before Aunt Wu shakes herself and hustles Katara to the door.

On the second day, Jeong Jeong has Zuko tend to a fire naturally without bending, stop a fire from spreading in a patch of dry grass, run ten miles through the forest, and cook the morning meal for the entire encampment.

“I don’t see what this has to do with firebending,” Zuko grumbles as he sinks to the ground, mopping his brow.

“I believe it is a lesson in patience,” Iroh says, still sipping his icy tea. 

“Hrmph.” Zuko collapses against the tree behind him, sitting bolt upright when Jeong Jeong walks up to him.

“Come with me, Avatar.”

Zuko stands and follows, his body aching from the last day of work; they walk until they reach the river near the encampment. 

“Bend the water.” Jeong Jeong gestures to the river, and Zuko sighs through his teeth, sets his feet correctly, and begins to bend.

He taps into the water when not much happens, and feels the pulse of the current as though it were flooding his veins. In his concentration, he causes surges of the water to match his heartbeat, and it rises over the bank of the river and recedes, over and over again as he focuses.

“How is this different from bending fire?” Jeong Jeong asks him.

“If I mess up, I won’t hurt anyone,” Zuko snaps, releasing the water.

“Water has never killed anyone?” Jeong Jeong asks dryly. “I think many who have lost loved ones to flood and drowning would disagree.”

“Water isn’t just dangerous, though. Water is … healing. Soft. Soothing.”

Jeong Jeong nods. “And even the calmest fire in the hearth can blaze out of control.” Without pausing, he says, “Now, bend air.”

Zuko shifts his stance again and moves through his basic exercises, inhaling and exhaling calmly, feeling better than before; he spins and ducks and weaves, focusing only on the rhythm of the world around him.

“Very good.” Jeong Jeong stops him after five minutes of demonstrations, and Zuko wipes more sweat off of his forehead. “And air, why do you feel so comfortable with it?”

“I don’t know.” Zuko shrugs. “I - it’s the first element I could use, by accident, after fire. It’s … easy. Like breathing.”

“Some, like your uncle, would say fire is like breathing.”

“No. Fire can just look like breath,” Zuko argues. “And we all group up hearing that all firebenders have a flame in their chest. It’s a story for little kids.”

“Why do you think you can manipulate air, the element of those your family slaughtered, and not fire, the element your family used to slaughter?”

The question catches Zuko off-guard in its bluntness. “I don’t know.”

“I think you do know, Avatar. Why are you so afraid of fire?”

“Because it hurts people.”

“Because it hurt you, perhaps?”

“I-” Zuko grits his teeth. “No.”

“There is no shame in that, Avatar. What happened to you was an injustice, and the mark you now bear, forever, is --”


“Stop it!” Zuko shouts, and Jeong Jeong falls silent. “I don’t know why I can’t firebend! I’m not afraid -- I’m furious! I’m so angry, all the time, and if fire relies on anger, on hatred, then why can't I use it?”

Jeong Jeong remains silent.

“I’m so angry.” Zuko wipes a tear from his good eye. “I - if anger fuels fire in my family, am I … am I angry for the wrong reason? Am I too weak to control it?”

“You can control fire,” Jeong Jeong says angrily. “You controlled it this morning when you kept the flames going but wouldn’t let them burn beyond the boundary I set. You can control it. Why can you not produce it, Zuko?”

“I don’t know! I’m weak! I’ve always been weak-”

“Do not give me the excuse of tyrants!” Jeong Jeong roars, and Zuko blinks, shocked. “The refusal to burn others is not weakness, no matter what Sozin and his brood have decided! Fire once meant life, and now it means death -- and you are not any weaker for refusing to join in that!”

Zuko doesn’t know what to say, but Jeong Jeong doesn’t relent.

“If you think it is about hate or anger  - then burn this!” He points to a dried branch on the ground. “Or better yet, burn me! Burn me, the way your father would, without hesitation, if he ever saw me again.”

“I don’t want to,” Zuko says, disgusted at the idea. “I wouldn’t. I couldn’t!”

“You will not create fire to hurt others, so you will not create it at all. You barely understand fire -- but the sins of your family have caused you to go the complete opposite way, and you have blocked yourself from firebending.” Jeong Jeong scoffs. “I would rejoice, if you were only the prince. I would rejoice, if you were not also our Avatar.”

“You think I’ve done this to myself?” Zuko asks, outraged now. “You think I’ve blocked myself from-”

“If it wasn’t you, then who was it? Hm? Did a chi blocker sneak into the palace and do this to you? Did you come into contact with poison, or suffer some malady I do not know of?” When Zuko doesn’t answer, Jeong Jeong scoffs again. “That is what I thought. You have blocked yourself, and your anger is not the anger of your family. It is not destructive to any but yourself -- you cannot firebend because you do not want to.”

“I want to,” Zuko whispers. I don’t want to. “I - I-”

“You do not wish to firebend, because to do so, you would have to risk harming another.” Jeong Jeong bows his head. “This is a cowardice I understand.”

“I’m not a coward,” Zuko seethes. I’m a coward. “I’m -- I don’t need to firebend! I have two other elements, and it’ll be three when I learn earthbending-”

“An Avatar must master all four elements.” Jeong Jeong’s anger has subsided now; he only sounds tired. “To bring balance to the world. You must learn control, and acceptance of the consequences of fire.”

“That’s why I’m here!” Zuko shouts. “Teach me!”

“You must forgive yourself first!” Jeong Jeong shouts back, and Zuko scoffs, tears in his eyes -- forgive himself? From what? How? How can he start to forgive himself when -

“Leave this place.” Jeong Jeong stiffens and looks down the river.

Zuko falls to his knees and shakes his head. “Please. Master Jeong Jeong, I can do better -- I -- I’ll try-”

“No, you fool!” Jeong Jeong wheels to him and points down the river wildly. “Leave this place! Find your uncle, and flee!”

Zuko looks to where Jeong Jeong points and then startles to his feet, shock and recognition coursing through his system.

A familiar insignia sails up the river on a smaller Fire Nation vessel. And, at the helm, is a familiar silhouette. 

“Zhao,” Zuko hisses, his hand twitching to his dao.

“Go,” Jeong Jeong orders him.

“I’m not leaving you--”

“Go!” A wall of flame, fifteen feet high, erupts between them, and Zuko startles back from it with a shout of terror.

He turns and runs, cursing himself, cursing Jeong Jeong, but mostly cursing Zhao.

The sound of fire and melee builds behind him, and Zuko grabs Iroh by the shoulder and summons Chiyu from a nearby tree; one quick explanation later, and they’re sprinting through the forest, back the way they came.

Chapter Text

Zuko thinks he’s the only one awake as they approach the North Pole.

Well, Aang is too, but his attention is on the air currents; Iroh has been snoring for three hours, and Sokka’s curled up next to Iroh, his head lolling back with his tongue hanging out. Even Chiyu has fallen asleep, peacefully snuggled in Sokka’s lap.

Katara is curled up in the corner of the saddle, but she hasn’t moved in a while; Zuko assumes she’s either asleep or avoiding him. Which is fine, of course. He’s fine with that. He was ignoring her first though, so now he finds it strangely bothersome that she’d ignore him right back.

The sun has drawn low on the horizon. The days feel stretched thin here, like they did at the south, and it’s getting colder by the hour. Sokka and Katara both put their parkas back on, Sokka groaning about it feels like home as he nuzzled into the fur trim. Iroh’s adopted an extra layer of robes, but Aang seems to be ignoring the cold for now. 

Zuko doesn’t care for the cold, but he works on his breathing, pulling fire from his belly and pushing it through his body. It’s easier to do since meeting with Jeong Jeong. After all, it’s not like he can hurt anyone by breathing.

(Although if that were possible, Zuko is sure he’d be the person to do it by accident)

As the sun’s light fades from the sky, Zuko feels a wave of exhaustion -- one he’s been putting off all day -- crash over him, and he sags against the side of the saddle. He tilts his head back as the spirit lights spread south, brighter and more vibrant than he’s ever seen.

Katara shifts. He glances her way and sees her face lifted to watch the lights, too. She must feel his eyes on her because she looks his way and offers him a half-smile.

“I’ve never seen them this bright.” Katara speaks softly, and he pitches his voice to match hers. 

“Me either.” Zuko shakes his head and goes back to watching the way they twine through the atmosphere. “It’s ....”


He feels his lips quirk up in a smile. “I was going to say humbling.”

“How so?” Katara asks.

“It’s … there are so many of them. The spirits.” Zuko lifts his hand and briefly traces the outline of one particularly vibrant light, which trails streaks of color below it, like the robes of a grand king. “And these are their imprints. There are thousands and thousands of them that never even left the Spirit World, and there are still these spirits, trying to come to the physical plane. It’s like watching their souls up there, leaving their mark on our world.”

He shrugs briefly. “Makes me remember that … even though we don’t really see it all the time, every one of us has a light like this inside. We just don’t see the imprint, but I guess we feel it sometimes. For better.” His hand twitches to his scar. “Or worse.”

Katara’s quiet, so Zuko looks over at her to see if she’s stopped listening to him; he wouldn’t blame her. The lights give a spectacular distraction.

But, she’s staring right at him. Her blue eyes look almost purple in the light of the spirits, giving her normal prettiness an ethereal beauty. Zuko’s throat tightens when she doesn’t look away. 

“What?” He asks, slightly cross. His instinct is to be defensive when people stare -- something he knows he needs to get over, but something that’s hard to get over when the memory of Katara mocking his appearance is so fresh. “Did that sound stupid? I know I didn’t say it right-”

“You did,” Katara whispers. She blinks at last and looks back up at the lights, turning to watch them streak into oblivion in the south, where the stars have yet to appear. “You said it right.”

Zuko nods and folds his hands in his lap; he isn’t sure what else to say, but the silence that builds between them doesn’t feel uncomfortable anymore.

When they at last land, Aang yawns wide enough to swallow an entire chicken-pig. Zuko snorts as the old man bends almost in half, and Sokka picks up the yawn a second later. 

They move off of Appa slowly, Zuko rubbing his neck as his feet hit the snowy ground. He can stare up at the intimidating gates that surround the center of the Northern Water Tribe. 

“Do these guys have some kind of door we can knock at?” Sokka asks, eyeing the wall and frowning.

“They’re waterbenders, Sokka, they don’t need a--” Katara’s explanation is cut short by the sudden appearance of two dozen armored men who pop up on the battlements. They’re carrying weapons -- and they’re all pointed at them.

Sokka curses and jumps in front of Katara, who audibly rolls her eyes as she summons water from the ground. Zuko grabs a sword and holds it firmly, eyeing them warily.

Iroh and Aang stand calmer than a turtleduck on water.

“Identify yourselves!” A man in the middle of the soldiers shouts.

“Greetings!” Iroh waves up at them merrily. “I am Iroh, of the Fire Nation, and this is Aang, of the Air Nomads!”

“General Iroh? The Dragon of the West?” Someone whisper-shouts in disbelief, and Zuko pinches the bridge of his nose. 

“Yes! And I have with me my nephew, Zuko--”

Prince Zuko?” 

Walls of ice appear around their small group and begin to close in on them; Appa rumbles in fear and totters away from the advancing ice, and Chiyu pecks at it, screeching angrily.

“What brings the son of Ozai to our gates?”

Iroh turns and smiles at Zuko, who’s still eyeing the walls and almost forgets to respond -- to be fair, he thinks getting away from being squished to death might be more important than a formal royal greeting.

“Don’t be rude, Prince Zuko,” Iroh whispers, gesturing for him to speak, even as Sokka and Katara start to pat the walls down, looking for a way out.

“Fine. Fine!” Zuko sheaths his sword and bows low. “It is I -- um, Prince Zuko? Son of Ozai and Ursa, blah blah -”

“Don’t sell yourself short, nephew!”

“Ugh!” Zuko straightens up and glares up at the battlements. “I come seeking a waterbending master.”

“We will not be tricked into showing you our greatest warriors-”

“I am done with this!” Katara shouts. She swoops low, pushing through her feet, and shoves her hands upwards in a move much more aggressive than she normally relies on. Zuko watches, his eyebrows lifted in approval, as she shears the front wall of ice in half and sends it flying towards the wall. 

“Zuko isn’t a prince anymore, and we need to meet your waterbending master, right now !” She shouts, jabbing her finger up at the battlement. “Unless you want to explain to your chief why you turned away your only chance at stopping the Fire Lord from wiping the rest of us out!”

“Is that the Avatar?” Someone whispers again, loud enough for them to hear.

Zuko groans in his throat. 

“How many people are going to think you’re the Avatar on our world tour, Katara?” Sokka hisses, and Katara ignores him and keeps shouting.

“I am not the Avatar -- I am Katara of the Southern Water Tribe, daughter of our head Chief, Hakoda, and this is my brother Sokka, future Chief of the Southern Water Tribe.”

At once, the weapons lower, and a huge rumbling shakes the ground they’re standing on. What’s left of the ice walls sink out of sight, and a gate appears in the wall in front of them.

A tall man with the stance of a soldier and robes dyed a similar color to Katara and Sokka’s stands in the opening. He bows as they approach.

“Princess Katara, Prince Sokka. We are sorry for the rudeness you suffered at our gates.” 

Sokka and Katara nudge each other rapidly, Sokka barely hiding a grin of excitement. 

“If you follow us and bring your …” The man eyes Appa and the rest of them incredulously. “...Friends. I will bring you to our court, where you may explain the reason for your … unscheduled, but highly appreciated visit.” 

Katara bows back and says in lofty tones, “We thank you for your kind welcome.”

As they walk through streets carved from ice, Sokka pokes Katara and Zuko in equal measure. “This guy thinks I’m a prince!” He whispers excitedly.

“Sokka, you are a prince,” Zuko points out, smiling at his friend’s happiness. 

“I guess I am.” Sokka smooths his hair and winks, pointing at him. “What’s up, my fellow prince?”

“The power has gone to your head already, Master Sokka,” Aang says with feigned gravity from behind them, and they all laugh a little before their guide turns around to give them a weird look.

They enter the main court after a twenty minute walk -- at one point, they’re directed onto a floating piece of ice that’s been carved to look like an ornate boat, and move quickly through the canals that interconnect most of the city. Zuko listens with intense interest to the stories of their capital’s architecture, but he swears Aang nods off once or twice, and Katara can’t take her eyes off of the carvings that decorate the city here and there.

“There’s so much history here,” she says faintly as they pass a carving of a woman who looks vaguely familiar to Zuko.

He blinks, once, and realizes it’s a past life; maybe Aang will have more information on her when he asks later.

“Our city has never fallen to outside attack,” their guide says, offering Katara a sympathetic smile. “We’ve had hundreds of years to develop our streets and our systems as a result.”

Katara nods quietly and casts her eyes down to the water that moves swiftly below them; Zuko feels her silence like a physical wound. Everything she doesn’t say weighs heavily on him all the same -- he remembers her village, stubborn and small and rebuilding down at the other edge of the world. He remembers the unimpressive houses and the limited number of people who filled them, remembers Kanna’s stories about the slowly disintegrating wheel of the Southern Water Tribe.

His people did this. His people took Katara’s history away from her.

Zuko is quiet too, and only Iroh and Sokka’s questions keep the conversation going until they reach the main palace of their chief.

“I wonder how it compares to the palace you grew up in, Prince Sokka,” the guide says cheerfully.

“Uh. I guess mine was … smaller.” Sokka blinks and shrugs awkwardly. “Maybe not … a palace.”

“Of course.”

There isn’t time to rectify the awkwardness because the guide sweeps into the main chamber and announces them to the gathered court while they wait in the corridor.

“Who should walk in first?” Zuko hisses to Iroh. “If Katara and Sokka are more important -- they’d go in last, at home-”

“That is a very good question,” Iroh strokes his beard.

“You Fire people overthink everything,” Sokka says with a snort. “We’re just going to walk in.”

“We can fly in!” Aang boosts himself off the ground on an invisible air scooter, and Katara hides a giggle behind her hand.

“Right. Or we can surf in.” She eyes the pool near the doors to the court with interest.

“Come in!” An attendant hisses to them, and they all laugh and walk in as a roughly grouped ensemble.

The hall of the Chief doesn’t look similar to the hall of the Fire Lord -- no elemental display of power separates the leader from those coming to speak with him, and there are advisors at his left and right.

As they approach, Zuko sinks into a bow as soon as he seems to be an appropriate distance away; Iroh does too. Sokka, Katara, and Aang, turn to frown at them in confusion.

“There is no need for that, although I do appreciate it.” Zuko looks up to see the chief barely hiding a smile. “I am Chief Arnook, and you are welcome guests.”

Iroh rises, and Zuko waits for him to be fully standing before he does as well. Katara and Sokka turn back to Arnook, who stands and gestures at them broadly.

“We are wondering what brings such an interesting collection of travelers to our gates, especially in a time of danger and concern. I do apologize for the threatening initial welcome you received, but I hope you understand the need for it.’

Iroh bows his head with a smile. “We most certainly do, esteemed Chief Arnook, of the Water Tribe. And your warriors are clearly very fierce, and bring great pride to your people.”

“Thank you for your kind words, General Iroh.” Arnook pauses and considers. “Although I suppose you shed that title years ago.”

“That I did, Chief Arnook. I am simply Iroh now.” 

“And am I to believe that a living Air Nomad stands before me?” Arnook turns to Aang, true interest in his face. 

“That’s me!” Aang bows with a certain level of silliness and then stands and jumps, only showing off a little (which means he only jumps six feet straight up, and not twenty).

There are many gasps from around the court, and Zuko sees a young woman lean forward, her eyes shining.

She is, quite simply, beautiful: her hair is so white that it glows in the lights of the room, and it provides a striking contrast to her tan skin. She’s around his age, and at her throat is a necklace that looks oddly like Katara’s.

But there’s something beyond her youth and features that make her beautiful -- Zuko finds himself staring at her, trying to place why she’s so lovely.

“We understand that our presence here might be a surprise,” Iroh begins tentatively.

“It is no surprise to receive the children of a Chief of the Southern Water Tribe.” Arnook smiles down at Katara and Sokka, a real smile this time. “And I greet them into my court with all of the respect and honor they are due.”

Katara and Sokka bow in response, Sokka’s face distinctively pink. Zuko watches his friend as he stands up, and realizes his eyes are on the girl at Arnook’s side as well.

Judging by how his blush intensifies when she smiles back at him, Zuko thinks that Sokka shares his opinion on the girls’ beauty.

“This is my daughter, Princess Yue.” Arnook indicates the girl at his right. “She is an advisor to the court, and in fact advocated for you to be brought before us so quickly: there typically would be time to wait, but when she heard you had a waterbender among you -- a female waterbender of remarkable strength, no less, and bearing a concerning message -- she was adamant that the meeting should take place as a matter of urgency.”

“Thank you,” Katara says genuinely.

“Welcome to the North Pole, Katara.” Yue smiles at her, and then at Sokka. “And to you as well, Prince Sokka.”

“Th-th-thaa-” Sokka clears his throat and bows again, his entire face bright red now.

“And that leaves one last member of your group.” Arnook’s smile falters as he looks at Zuko.

He swallows nervously in response -- Arnook doesn’t seem thrilled to see him, which could be his lineage, his scar, or both. Zuko coughs lightly as Arnook stares at him for almost five seconds.

“Why does the son of the Destroyer come to us?” Arnook asks softly.

Zuko feels his face heat, and itchiness crawls out from under his scar, which only happens when his anxiety spikes uncontrollably.

“My nephew--” Iroh begins.

“Let the boy speak,” Arnook urges, not cruelly, but gently. “I would like to hear what he has to say.”

“I-” Zuko feels himself shaking, and he glances over at Katara and Sokka. Katara’s got her lip between her teeth, her eyes wide with anxiety.

Sokka smiles at him and nods once, firmly. “ You can do this, ” Sokka mouths at him, and Zuko takes in a deep breath, nods, and steps forward. 

“I was once Prince Zuko.” He curls his hands into fists and then relaxes them forcibly. “But my father banished me years ago. As a child I knew, firsthand, of his cruelty and malice. His disregard for life. But it wasn’t until I travelled the world for the last four years that I realized the extent of the evil caused by my people. You have no reason to trust me.”

He looks around the room, and his eyes glance over Yue, whose face doesn’t seem to lose that otherworldly empathy, even as she considers his words. His gaze lands on Katara and Sokka for another few seconds, and then finally, it rests on Aang, who’s half-turned to face him, his shoulders slumped slightly, and his face cast downward -- his grief weighs palpably on him, even now.

“None of you have any reason to trust me.” Zuko shakes his head mournfully. “The Fire Nation has done evil things to this world. But - I want to fix it.” His voice breaks noticeably, so he takes another staggering breath. “ I want to -- I want to stop my father. I want this war to end.”

“Many of us want this war to end, Zuko,” Arnook says, not unkindly. “And if you have not seen your father in years -- the information you could give us would be … outdated. Why would you come here with a small group, no soldiers, and no backing amongst your own people in your bid for the throne? What can you offer to us?”

“I...” Zuko sighs and looks briefly at Iroh; his uncle tilts his head just enough to be barely perceptible. “I might not be the Crown Prince anymore -- but I am the Avatar.”

Immediately, shouts and whispers break out among the court. Even Arnook looks shocked by that information.

Everyone seems shocked -- with the exception of Yue, who only smiles kindly down at him, still glowing peacefully in her serene beauty.

“Prove it!” Someone shouts from the bench of advisors; Arnook holds a hand up to silence the person who’d demanded it, but Zuko squares his shoulders and nods.

There’s a small trickle of water that starts at the western wall of the room, and it builds into a pool behind the court itself. Zuko sets his feet the way Katara had shown him and pulls the water slowly, inch by inch, out of the pool; he twists his arms and waist until it spirals around him, and he lets his breath out patiently.

He envisions it before he unleashes it; Zuko turns at the waist one more time and sends the water in a ribbon of ice to shatter harmlessly against the eastern wall.

Absolute silence follows his demonstration.

Zuko clears his throat awkwardly and digs in the pocket of his jacket, borrowed from Sokka, to grab a handful of rocks. He holds them up in a pocket of air and spins them.

“Ta-da,” he mumbles, his ears burning under his hat and hair.

“He is the Avatar!” Someone says, shocked, and the court rumbles back to life, discussions flying left and right as Zuko stands awkwardly in the middle of it all.

Arnook gets them to settle down, and after a few awkward moments where he mutters to some advisors, including his daughter, he nods and stands once more.

“We invite the Avatar and his friends to join us tonight for a feast; and, in the morning, your training with our finest waterbending master will begin.”

Zuko bows, shocked, and Sokka holds his hand out for a high-five. 

Even though it’s undignified, Zuko does tap his hand in Sokka’s palm.

Zuko and Katara arrive at dawn the next morning to the training facility; Zuko doesn’t think Katara had slept a wink with the full moon and the growing excitement of meeting a waterbending master. 

Truthfully, he’s excited for her, even though he’s nervous that the master will refuse to train him, given that he’s the exiled son of Ozai.

“What kind of person do you think Pakku is?” Zuko asks, no longer sleepy as the sun creeps over the horizon. He takes a deep, calming breath in response to its light even as Katara hides a yawn in her sleeve.

“P-p-pakku? Probably some old, nice man.” Katara shrugs and smiles. “Like a grandfather-type figure.”

Zuko makes a face. It’s not like his own grandfather was anything to write home about.

They walk through the training grounds, Katara still blinking sleep out of her eyes, and they spot an old man, hands folded behind his back as he watches young boys go through simple movements.

“Master Pakku?” Zuko speaks first, and the man turns and regards him coldly. Not a great start. “I have come to begin my training, if you’ll have me.” He bows as low as he can, not even looking up to see his reaction.

“You can’t waterbend from down there, boy. Straighten up.”

Zuko complies immediately and stands up tall. Pakku regards him for a long time. “What do you know of waterbending.”

“Most of what I know, I learned from Katara.” He gestures to Katara, who waves eagerly at his side. “She-”

“Pffbt.” Pakku snorts and looks back at his pupils. “So you have learned of healing.”

“Well. yes.” Zuko exchanges a confused look with Katara. “But -- I learned healing before I met Katara.”

Pakku stiffens at that and scowls at him.

“Any … fighting I can do, is because of-”

“A girl cannot use waterbending to fight.” Pakku sniffs dismissively. “I will not train a woman to fight.”


“Excuse me?” Katara’s voice sounds sharper than the blade her brother carries. “What do you mean a girl can’t use waterbending to fight -- I can, and I have!”

“That was a mistake of your elders.” Pakku sighs heavily. “I suppose they grew desperate with their numbers decimated.”

“Exc-” Katara splutters. “You mean when we were being slaughtered by the Fire Nation and none of your warriors showed up to help us?”

Zuko thinks he might lose all of his teeth by the end of this conversation because he’s grinding his jaw so tightly. 

“Hm.” Pakku barely glances at her. “See? It’s already cost you your temper, this delusion that you can be a warrior. I will not train a woman. It is against our culture. I don’t know why you’re even here.”

“She’s here so she can train with me,” Zuko snaps, unable to keep silent anymore. “And - and if you won’t train Katara, you won’t train me!”

“Zuko,” Katara whispers, shocked.

“Oh?” Pakku lifts his white eyebrows in mock surprise. “Who will you learn from, then? Another waterbending master? Where will you find them? None from our tribe will teach fighting to a --”

“Woman,” Katara finishes coldly. She turns to Zuko and tugs on the edge of his jacket. “Zuko. Your hands…”

He looks down and sees that the snow directly beneath his hands is melting rapidly; shaking his hands out, Zuko takes a steadying breath and shrugs at Pakku. 

“I’ll figure something out.”

“Zuko. Don’t throw this away -- I appreciate it, but - you’re the Avatar-”

“Sadly,” Pakku sneers, and Zuko stiffens again. Katara’s grip on his jacket tightens. 

“Ignore him. Learn as much as you can, okay? It’s -- it’s fine.”

“Katara, you traveled across the entire world for this,” Zuko whispers, searching her face for a genuine acceptance of this awful treatment.

She looks sad, and furious, but she gives him a resolute nod. “Learn as much as you can, okay? Gotta make this worth it.”

“Listen to the girl, Avatar.” 

Zuko feels his jaw clench again, but Katara shakes her head. “Don’t worry, Zuko. Sad old men can’t change their minds.”

She turns and stalks away; Zuko watches her leave through the gates, his heart growing heavier with each step.

“Don’t tell me you’re going to let your penis do your thinking for you,” Pakku says dryly.

The world turns to ice around Zuko. “I beg your pardon?”

“I said--”

“I heard what you said,” Zuko snaps. “So, you’re man enough to insult her entire gender in front of her, but you think you’re dignified and respectful enough to spare Katara talk of body parts until she walks away, like -- like that makes you some kind of gentleman?”

Pakku smirks at him, even as his pupils falter, their eyes wide with shock as they watch Zuko shout at their master.

“Perhaps this is a useless effort.” Pakku remains maddeningly calm, and Zuko feels a fire building in his stomach. “Perhaps it’s impossible to teach the son of someone like Ozai.”

“I am not my father,” Zuko answers coldly. “Unlike some people, I am ashamed of the mistakes of my people’s past.”


“Denying women the chance to fight because they’re women is a mistake!” Zuko argues. 

“Women are not denied anything -- healing is a prestigious and respected art among our people. Healing is for women.”

“Katara is twice the warrior I am,” Zuko counters. “And the only proficiency I’ve shown in waterbending is with healing.”

“Will you heal your father after you fight him?” Pakku’s white eyebrow lifts again.

Zuko can only bow his head as he admits through gritted teeth, “No.”

Pakku scoffs now in disbelief. 

“But,” Zuko says softly, “I’ll need to heal the world, after.”

The master doesn’t know what to say to that, so Zuko swallows and pushes a little more. 

“Please, consider taking on Katara as your pupil.” He unclenches his hand then re-clenches. “She is a warrior, even if it isn’t traditional for your people.”

“I’m sorry, Avatar Zuko.” It’s the first time Pakku has addressed him with anything approaching a respectful title. “But my answer is final. Will you remain as my pupil, or will you follow your friend and leave this place?”

Zuko forces himself to bow. He’s used to bowing in front of injustice, even if his insides roil with resistance. “I will train under you, Master Pakku. I … thank you for this opportunity.”

“Come. We will have the youngest students teach you the basics, and correct any … mistakes your friend showed you.” Pakku walks towards the main building on the training ground without another word.

Zuko follows him, still grinding his teeth together. Ice melts in his footsteps, but he’s too angry to notice.

The size of the North Pole is overwhelming.

Sokka gets lost more than once, which is rare for him. He doesn't usually get lost.

Okay, so sometimes he reads a map and the map is wrong or poorly written, and then he gets lost, but in a village? Or a city? Or someplace that looks vaguely familiar? No. He doesn’t get lost.

Earlier that day, Katara and Zuko had left for training, and now they’re off learning how to be the top waterbenders of the generation, or whatever -- Iroh and Aang had been invited to some kind of fancy war meeting with Arnook. And that left Sokka, on his own.

He can entertain himself. He can. He drew a portrait of Chiyu, which she promptly ate. He fed Appa, who licked him so hard that Sokka had to take a second bath immediately.

And now, he’s walking around the North Pole, gawking at the sights.

His stomach rumbles at mid-day, and Sokka moans, patting his stomach forlornly; he isn’t sure when Iroh and Aang will be back, so he heads off into what he hopes is the direction of the marketplace, humming an old song that he vaguely remembers his mother singing to him as a child.

As he walks down a narrow alleyway, he accidentally bumps into a cloaked figure.

“Sorry!” Sokka holds his hands up and scoots out of the way. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to - I’m lost, a little, I guess, and-”

The cloaked figure turns to him and he catches a glimpse of distinctive white hair.

“Princess Yue?” He hisses.

“Shh!” She covers his mouth with her dainty hand and looks around quickly. “I’m … in disguise!”

“I can see that,” Sokka mumbles through the palm pressed to his mouth. He stares at her meaningfully until she lowers her hand. “Can I ask … why?”

“I had to dodge my bodyguards.” Yue sighs and lowers her hood slightly after glancing down the alleyway twice more. “They don’t exactly approve of my daily activities.”

“What are your activities?” Sokka asks, confused. “Like, meetings with dignitaries?”

“No.” Yue giggles, a bright and pretty sound that makes his entire body sag slightly at how pretty it is.

She’s pretty.

So, so pretty.

Focus, Sokka. 

“I work with children,” Yue explains eagerly, a real smile on her face. “But, some of them live in … less than ideal locations. My guards are worried for my safety.”

“Who would try to hurt you?” Sokka asks, dumbfounded. “I mean. You’re - you.”

“Thank you.” Yue gives him a kind smile and raises her hood again. “You’re far less paranoid than my bodyguards; although, to be fair, being paranoid about my safety is precisely their job.” She sighs briefly and looks distant for a moment. “What are you doing?” She asks, coming back to herself. “Are you touring our city?”

“Sort of.” Sokka shrugs. “Like I said, I got … lost.” He feels embarrassed to admit that in front of her, but he’s technically already said it, back before he knew it was the princess. 

“It’s a good thing you found me, then,” Yue says decisively. “I know the city really well - I can guide you anywhere.”

“Yeah?” Sokka sighs more than he means to, a moony, lovestruck noise. He clears his throat and stands up as tall as he can. “I mean -- y-yeah. Yes please. Lead the way; I’ll follow.”

She giggles again and leads him down the alleyway; they pause at the corner and glance around sneakily. As they do so, Sokka’s stomach rumbles again, painfully loud, painfully close to Yue’s ear.

Stomach, why must you betray me? 

“Are you hungry, Prince Sokka?” Yue regards him with wide, lovely eyes.

“It’s just Sokka,” he mumbles, rubbing his neck. “And - yeah, I guess so.”

“We should get some food from the marketplace.” Yue looks around excitedly and then gestures for him to follow her. “There’s a stall with the best spiced meat.”

“Meat.” Sokka moans and pats his stomach. “You are speaking my language, Princess.”

Yue laughs again, louder than ever; she grabs his hand in her gloved one and leads him across the busy square.

Sokka trips over his own feet twice because he can’t take his eyes off of her, or his mind off of her laugh.

They eat their bounty at the top of a bridge; down the canal that stretches beneath them, the palace gleams in the afternoon sun.

After he eats his last bite, Sokka hides a burp in his glove, and of course Yue notices it.

He strongly considers the case for throwing himself into the river.

She giggles though, even as he feels his face heat up so badly, he may as well have tripped into a campfire.

“So, why are you walking around my city all alone, Sokka?” Yue asks, her leftover food completely abandoned on the wide, icy railing of the bridge.

“Everyone else is busy.” Sokka shrugs and stares out over the water. “Doing their … important stuff.”


“Yeah. I mean, Iroh and Aang are … geniuses.” Sokka sighs and taps his fingers against the railing as he leans against it. “And Katara, my sister, she’s the strongest person I know. She’s going to be the best waterbender of all time, I know it.”

“You really love your sister, don’t you?” Yue smiles at him, and it feels warm, but not-warm -- soothing. That’s the word for it.

Either way, it’s easy to smile back at her.

“I really do.” Sokka looks down at his boots a second later. “She’s kind, and smart, and brave. And … she’s really gifted. She’s always been gifted. It’s tough to get outpaced by your baby sister, but I like to think I’m handling that well.”

“I’m sure you have many gifts of your own, Sokka,” Yue says gently.

“Thanks.” His smile feels fake, even to him. “It’s - I don’t know, whatever I’m good at, it’s … hard to remember when I’m with an Air Nomad who survived the Darkest Day, the most famous general of the last two centuries, my sister and her magic water, and, I mean, Zuko is…” Sokka trails off, not able to find the words. “Zuko...he’s - well…”

“The Avatar,” Yue finishes for him.

He nods. “Right. And a prince of the biggest, most powerful nation in the world. And he’s really powerful - The things the guy can do.”

Sokka shivers as he remembers the wall of water that had surged around Zuko as he stopped Gaipan from flooding.

“What has Zuko done?” 

He hears the concern in her voice, and he shakes his head quickly, looking up at her at last. “Not like that -- Zuko wouldn’t hurt a fly. He’s … really gentle. Really!” Yue doesn’t look disbelieving, but he still feels intensely protective of Zuko.

He hasn’t missed how much the guy beats himself up.

“But, the Avatar.” Sokka turns and leans his back against the railing, facing the other end of the canal. “I mean, he goes into this thing called the Avatar State, and he can do … crazy stuff in it. I mean, scary, intense things. He stopped a town from being destroyed after this stupid jerk tried to blow up a dam and destroy it.”

“Wow. That does sound intense. I’ve heard about the Avatar State - is it true his eyes glow?”

Sokka offers Yue an apologetic smile. “Sorry. I didn’t see him, really, I only saw what he was doing to the water -- I was running back from the town to warn them that soldiers were coming.”

Yue’s gaze turns thoughtful. “What were you doing in a town that was about to be destroyed?”

“When I realized what that jerk-face -- Jet -- was doing, I fought off some of his ‘freedom fighters,’ or whatever, and ran to warn the town. I managed to get them all to evacuate, but.” Sokka shrugs awkwardly. “It was kinda pointless because Zuko saved them all.”

“Sokka!” Yue touches his arm gently, and Sokka feels his face heat up painfully. “That was so brave of you.”

“There wasn’t any real danger,” he mumbles, but she shakes her head.

“No! There was -- what if Zuko hadn’t gone into the Avatar State? What if it hadn’t worked? Those people would all be dead if you hadn’t warned them.”

“I did what anyone would have done,” Sokka points out softly. “I didn’t do … anything special. Not like Katara or Zuko would -- could have done. I’m not .. .a bender. I’m not special.”

“I’m sorry, Sokka, but that is ridiculous.” Yue tilts her chin at him. “I’m not a bender, either.”

“You’re not?” Sokka lifts his eyebrows, surprised, and then catches himself. “I mean … I’m sure that’s fine, you’re still a princess-”

“And as a princess, who’s locked behind these walls, who has to wear this-” she grabs the hood of her cloak and shakes it, “-just to sneak away for a few hours - I wouldn’t have been able to save those people. You were there, and you acted to help them. I’d say that is special.”

“I hadn’t … thought about it like that.” Sokka thinks he’s admitting it more to himself than to her. He gives her a real smile, a soft one that creeps up one side of his face and settles warmly in his cheeks. He can’t remember ever smiling like this. “Thank you, Princess.”

“It’s just Yue,” she whispers, smiling at him.

He smiles back, and the world feels like it clicks into place; for a glorious moment, they’re just a boy and a girl, sitting in the sun and talking to each other, and he’s smiling like nothing bad has ever touched him.

Then, Yue turns and stares at the palace, looking sad and distant again. “I need to return to my father,” she says regretfully. “We have a council meeting three hours after noon each day.”

Sokka doesn’t want to see her go so quickly, but he realizes not much would keep this girl from her duties.

“I’ll walk you back,” he offers, holding his arm out to her.

It’s easy to smile again when she slips her arm through his without a moment of hesitation.