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The Ocean and The Sun

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“Stuck with illusion now, I drown in your sea. I hope that you first save yourself, and then come for me.” Hearts/Wires, Deftones



The storm rages, lightning flashing through the night in streaks of brilliant light, briefly highlighting the dusky grey clouds covering the sky. The ocean throws massive waves across it’s surface, battering the sides of the steel ship, threatening to topple it into the depths. A handful of men run around and across the deck, scurrying like ants, trying to tie things down and round up spilled supplies.

“Get inside! Forget about the supplies!” Prince Zuko stands on the deck, desperately trying to get his men back into the shelter of the ship’s hold. This is his journey, and he’ll be damned if he loses any of his men to a spirit’s forsaken storm in the South Pole, of all places. It seems that the men running around can’t hear him over the storm, so the prince steels himself to run out onto the deck and get them himself.

“Prince Zuko!” His uncle grabs his arm, a look of concern and alarm on his face. “Where are you going?”

“I have to get those men inside, uncle!” The water is dripping into his eyes, making it almost impossible to see out of the damaged one on the left. “I won’t let them get hurt.”

“Please nephew, be careful!” Zuko nods to his uncle before he turns and runs further out onto the deck. 

He has successfully grabbed four men and sent them inside the ship, but there is one man left that he has to get to. Unbeknownst to him, a massive wave is building, and just as he is running back to the hold with the last man, it breaks over the ship. In the split second he has before it sweeps them away, Zuko throws all his weight forward, and pushes the crewman closer to the door where his uncle and the other men he has gathered wait. But in doing this, Zuko has sealed his fate, and he doesn’t even hear his uncle scream as he is swept overboard into the freezing, dark water.

 

Xx

 

He is thirteen years old.

His left eye is damaged beyond repair, his vision less than a third of what it should be. His left ear is mangled, but he has luckily only lost some of his hearing. But what took the most damage is his heart. Betrayed by the people who were supposed to love him, he has been sent out on an impossible mission that he would rather die than fail to complete.

 

He is sixteen years old. 

He has been searching the world for the Avatar for three years, and no sign of the last airbender has shown itself. He is angry and dejected, but he must not give up— that’s what his father wants him to do. He will show his father, his country, that he is strong. That he deserves his father’s love. That he is fit to rule.

 

He is nineteen years old.

He sits in a bar in a small earth kingdom town on the sea. His crew is drinking and making merry, but he drinks to drown his thoughts. He still has not found the avatar, and at this point, he fears that he never will. He’s jaded and depressed, and when a handsome man around his age comes to him with a flirtatious smile and a drink in his hand, Zuko does what he can to forget who he is and where he comes from.

 

He is twenty years old.

He has grown to love his crew more than he could imagine. They have stayed with him for seven years, despite him telling them multiple times that they didn’t have to. He will continue his search, but only because he doesn’t know what other purpose he has. If he stops, he fears that his demons will drown him. So his search continues, and as it ends up, his demons are not the ones that get the best of him. The ocean swallows him like that’s what it was created to do, and as blackness covers his vision, Zuko thinks that maybe he was born just to be lost in it.



Xx



“No, that’s it! I’m done helping you! From now on, you’re on your own!” 

A massive cracking sound splits the air, and when Katara turns around, the huge iceberg behind her has completely split open, crumbling into the sea. In the space that is left behind, a smaller burg with strange shapes in the center floats to the surface.

“Geez, sorry Katara.” Sokka brushes himself off, looking offended. “You don’t have to go around breaking shit every time you get mad.”

“Uhg, fuck off, Sokka!” She throws her hands into the air, exasperated and sick of her brother. “Maybe if there were any other waterbenders here, I could actually learn how to control my element, but in case you forgot, they’re all fucking dead!” By the time she finishes speaking, she has tears in her eyes, and Sokka is looking very apologetic.

“Katara, you know I didn’t—”

“Whatever Sokka. It’s fine.” She turns around, and at seeing the strange shapes inside the iceberg, steps towards it. “What is this?”

The snow falls in big flakes, a heavy shroud around them; the weather is picking up as darker storm clouds gather off in the distance.

“Katara, maybe we should get back.” Sokka comes up behind her, also inspecting the strange iceberg. “What‘s in there?”

“I don’t know...” She thinks for a moment, and then grabs Sokka’s club right out of his hand.

“Hey!” he objects, but Katara is already moving towards the iceberg, and when she gets close enough she starts hitting it with the club. “Be careful with that!”

“What’s a club for if not for hitting?” 

Right after she says it, she breaks through the iceberg, and a powerful stream of air pushes her back into her brother, knocking them both over. The shape in the iceberg starts to glow; more accurately, what looks like a pair of eyes start to glow. Deep fissures in the ice  spread out from the point where Katara broke through, and after a moment, the whole thing shatters in a small burst. Katara screeches as Sokka maneuvers her so that she is under his body, and a bright column of light shoots into the air. After a few seconds, the light disappears, and Katara crawls out from under Sokka.

“Katara, be careful! We don’t know what’s in there!” By the time he finishes his sentence, Katara is already climbing over the lip of the crater that was created by the explosion.

When she crests the crater’s edge, she sees a young boy slumped over with his eyes closed. She slides down the inside of the crater, stopping herself when she gets to the boy, and Sokka quickly joins her. Up close, the boy seems to be about fifteen, maybe sixteen years old. Katara takes his head in her hand and goes to feel for a pulse, but as soon as she gets her ungloved fingers to the boy’s neck, his eyes pop open. She yelps, and accidentally drops his head as she scoots backwards. She covers her mouth with her hands as the boy sits up, and her eyes are wide as he speaks.

“Will you go penguin sledding with me?”

Her and Sokka are frozen to the spot, the snow falling around them and their eyes blinking in disbelief the only things that move.

“Who… what…” Sokka tries to speak, but he seems at a loss for words.

“Where’s Appa?” The boy looks around him as he speaks, gracefully getting to his feet in an unnatural movement that almost seems like floating.

“What’s an ‘Appa’?” Sokka speaks again, and no sooner than he asks, a loud groan reverberates through the air, and he leans over to grab Katara. A huge, fluffy creature lumbers over the opposite side of the crater and growls.

“Appa!” The boy literally floats up to the top of the creature’s head, and spreads out over it as if giving it a hug. The beast groans again, and somehow it sounds… affectionate?

“What is that thing?!” Sokka is on his feet with his club in front of him, his stance protecting Katara from the giant animal.

“He’s my sky bison!” The boy floats back down to the ground and smiles at them.

“Woah...” Katara stands up behind Sokka and moves slowly towards the sky bison. When she gets closer, the creature sniffs at the air, and then darts its massive tongue out to lick Katara. She laughs at the absurdity of the situation, and the boy starts to laugh too.

“Who are you? How did you get here?” Katara asks as she attempts to rid herself of bison slobber.

“I’m Aang! And I got here on Appa.”

“What do you mean you got here on Appa? Does it swim?” Sokka gets closer to the bison, and it licks him as well. Katara can’t help but chuckle as he tries desperately to wipe off the slimy residue.

“I mean, yeah, he does swim, but that’s not how I got here.” Aang flies up onto the bison, and there’s no possible way, but he really does fly. “He flies!”

“Yeah, right,” Sokka scoffs, clearly not believing the boy.

“Wait, how did you get up there?” Katara questions, the crease between her bows deepening with each passing second.

”What, up here?” Aang jumps back down from the bison’s head, and again, literally floats down to the ground.

“You’re an airbender!” Katara says it without fully believing it; there’s no way this kid is an airbender.

“Yup!” She stands corrected.

“Okay, this is getting ridiculous!” Sokka steps in, literally between Aang and Katara, and turns towards his sister. “We need to get back to the village before that storm gets closer!” He points out towards the open ocean; the dark clouds have gotten even closer, lightning flashing periodically within them.

“Do you guys need a lift? We can take Appa!” Aang jumps back up onto Appa, and Katara figures this surprisingly friendly, fluffy monster is their best bet to get home safe.

“Sure,” she says as she climbs up Appa’s side and onto the saddle on his back.

“Oh, come on!” Sokka looks like he’d rather jump in the ocean than get on the bison, but Katara waves him over, and he groans and hauls himself up onto the saddle. 

“Appa, yip yip!” Appa leaps up into the air, floating suspended for a moment, before splashing back down into the water on his belly. “He must be tired from the trip. Once he gets some rest, he’ll be flying through the air in no time!”

“Sure thing, Aang.” Katara smiles at the boy, and he smiles back. Sokka groans again, tilting his head back, and they settle in for the ride back to the village.

 

Xx

 

After about an hour, they’re getting closer to the village, and the storm is drawing nearer by the moment. Katara is looking out into the ocean when something catches her eye. She leans over the side of the saddle, trying to get a better look. A dark shape is spread over an ice floe a little ways away, but it doesn’t look like any animal Katara has ever seen.

“What are you looking at?” Aang comes over next to her, and Sokka soon follows, the three of them staring out at the object.

“That,” Katara points out at the ice floe. “I think…” She squints, and as the floe is moved by a wave, it turns just a bit, and she can see what looks like pale skin. “I think it’s a person!”

“What?” Sokka leans forward to try to get a better look. “There’s no way someone could survive out there.”

“No, really, Sokka, I think it’s a person! We need to help them!” Her voice takes on a panicked tone; if that person gets trapped in the storm, any chance of them surviving is gone— if they’re not dead already.

“I’ll get them!” Aang leaps off of Appa, snaps open a glider, and flies over to the ice floe. When he lands on it, he airbends a cyclone in the opposite direction to Appa. The ice floe glides over to the bison, and as it gets closer, Katara sees that she was right. Aang gets right up next to Appa, and she hops down to help him lift the person up to Sokka so he can pull them up into the saddle. With the help of Aang’s airbending, it's much easier than it should be. Once the person is in the saddle, Katara climbs back up and crawls over to the body.

She flips them over, and a gasp escapes her throat. It’s a man who looks close to Sokka’s age, with shaggy black hair and pale skin. An angry red scar covers the left half of his face, and, surprisingly, when Katara checks his pulse, he’s still alive.

“We have to get him to the village fast. He won’t survive much longer in this cold, he’s soaking wet!” She does her best to pull the water from his clothes, and is satisfied when she gets most of it.

“On it!” Aang jumps back up onto Appa’s head, and as if the bison knows what needs to be done, he starts swimming much faster than before.

Katara keeps her fingers on the man's pulse point. He’s extra pale right now, but she can tell that his complexion is lighter than anyone she’s ever seen before. His hair looks silky and is pure black, making it clear that he is not from the South Pole. How did he even get here? Despite being out in the freezing cold and soaking wet until just a moment ago, Katara finds that he is surprisingly warm. Not as warm as he should be, but not nearly as cold as he should be either. He’s really attractive, even with the scar. Katara mentally shakes herself; now is definitely not the time to be thinking things like that. Maybe I should make sure he lives before thinking about how cute he is. They quickly make it to the village, and Sokka jumps off of Appa to go tell Gran Gran to get a bed ready.

Aang and Katara get the man off of Appa, and Sokka comes back to help them get him into the bed Gran Gran has cleared off. They gently lay him on the bed, and Katara strips off his damp outer layers; his heaviest outer shirt, the lighter one underneath, his shoes, and his socks all come off. They leave his pants on, and Katara manages to pull all of the water out of them with some effort. Then, they cover him with all the furs they can find that aren’t under him already, and Gran Gran goes to get some water warm for when he wakes up.

“That’s all we can do right now.” Katara sits down next to the bed after picking up the man’s clothes and laying them out to dry. “I’m going to stay here to monitor his breathing. You guys don’t have to stay, it might be a while before he wakes up.” 

Sokka and Aang exchange worried looks before Sokka speaks. “Okay, but be careful when he wakes up. He could be dangerous.”

“Sokka, the poor guy is half frozen, what’s he gonna do to me?” 

Sokka shrugs his shoulders and begins to lead Aang away, who turns back and looks at Katara once before leaving. She smiles in hopes of reassuring him, and he smiles back before continuing outside with Sokka. As soon as they’re gone, Katara realises how tired she is. She props her head up on her hand as she yawns, soon finding that her eyelids are drooping closed. She moves the man’s short hair off of his face (it’s just as soft as it looks) and puts the back of her hand on his forehead, realizing that he’s warming up quicker than she expected. She does her best to stay awake, but soon she dozes off, resting her head on her arms at the edge of the bed.

Chapter Text

 

 

“In many ways I'm the burden that divides us from the light.

I n many ways you're the halo that keeps my spirit alive.” The Chosen Pessimist, In Flames



Xx

 

 

Everything hurts. Zuko would be sure he’s dead if everything didn’t hurt. Things don’t hurt when you’re dead (he doesn’t think they do, anyway). He groans, and movement to his right startles him enough for him to try to pry his eyes open. He hears a gasp, and when he manages to peel his eyelids apart, the first thing he sees is a beautiful woman with the bluest eyes he has ever seen. 

“Gran gran!” She yells, and Zuko winces at the noise. “He’s awake!” She turns back towards him, putting a hand on his chest. “Don’t move, okay? We found you half frozen out there! Your body’s been through a lot, so just relax.” At this point, he would do whatever she asked. As far as he is concerned, a gorgeous woman with features he has never seen before saved him from certain death, and he owes her his life.

“Where am I?” He manages to croak out a few words, but his throat is incredibly dry, and his voice is scratchier than usual. He closes his eyes against the light, and he doesn’t see the woman blush.

“You’re in the South Pole. My brother, my friend, and I found you out on an ice floe in the ocean with a storm coming in. You’re lucky to be alive.” Her voice is full of concern, and try as he might, he can’t remember the last time someone sounded like they actually gave a shit about him that wasn’t his uncle. 

“You saved my life.” He opens his eyes again and looks at the woman.

“Well, it wasn’t just me. I wouldn’t have even been able to get you back here without the help of my brother and my friend Aang.”

“What’s your name?” He sees her blush this time, and if he wasn’t half dead he would probably be blushing too, as much as he hates to admit it.

“Katara,” she says softly, like her name is fragile and could break at any moment. He decides that he loves the sound of her voice.

“Katara.” More blood rushes to her cheeks, darkening the color from pink to red, and damn if she isn’t adorable. “I owe you my life. You and your brother and friend.”

She shifts awkwardly for a moment before asking, “what’s your name?”

“Zuko.” He gives her the truth before he can even think about the consequences, but she doesn’t seem to recognise his name.

“Zuko.” The sound of his name coming out of her mouth makes him feel tingly and strange, like he’s a gangly, awkward teenager all over again. 

At that moment, an old, wrinkly woman walks into the space they occupy holding a cup of steaming liquid. Katara takes the liberty of introducing them. “Gran gran, this is Zuko.”

Something indistinguishable flashes in the old woman’s eyes, but it’s gone before Zuko can make sense of it. “You gave us quite a scare, young man.”

“I apologize.” Zuko manages to prop himself up on his elbows so that he can dip his head in an attempt to bow. “Your hospitality is greatly appreciated. I am in your debt.”

“Such proper language!” He swallows, hoping he hasn’t given himself away, but the old woman continues. “Drink this. I can’t promise it tastes very good; we haven’t been able to get any proper tea in years.”

At the mention of tea, Zuko’s heart clenches. “Thank you, ma’am.” He takes the cup, but doesn’t drink. “You haven’t seen a ship anywhere out there, have you? I was traveling with my uncle and our crew when a storm knocked me overboard.”

The old woman waves her hand in a motion for Zuko to drink; the tea is strong and much too bitter, nothing like his uncle’s various flavors. “No ship has come close enough for us to see as of yet. And call me Kanna.” She moves away to put her hand on Katara’s shoulder. She whispers something that Zuko can’t hear, but with the way Katara looks at the woman with confusion on her face, Zuko knows that it can’t be good for him. “Rest up young man. I’m sure your uncle and your crew are searching for you as we speak.” With that, she ambles out of the space, pushing aside a thick flap of hide that must connect to another room, and disappears.

“How are you feeling?” Katara asks. 

Zuko continues to drink the tea, bitter as it is, and he feels his inner fire greedily soaking up the heat as he starts to warm up. “Better.” He sees Katara’s eyes dart downwards, and the realization that he is without a shirt makes his face flush. “Um, where’s my shirt?”

“Oh!” Her hand comes up to cover her mouth in embarrassment. “I’m sorry, we had to take it off because it was wet and we needed to warm you up.” She gets up and makes her way over to a table where he sees his clothes and shoes laid out. “I tried to get all the water out, but I figured I should focus more on your pants.” His eyes blow wide at the thought of her taking off his pants while he was unconscious, and her face turns a pretty pink color as she blushes. “Oh my gosh, not like that!” She stretches her hands out in front of her in a placating gesture as Zuko takes a deep breath. “I’m a water bender. I’m not very good— there are no other benders down here so I don’t have any actual training. I focused on your pants so that we didn’t have to take them off.”

“Oh.” Zuko feels his heart slow down as she explains. “Uh, thank you. For that.”

“Yeah.” She brings over his shirt and holds it out to him. “It feels dry now, so… here.”

He trades her his empty cup for the shirt, but when he tries to sit up fully, he realizes how weak he still is. Katara must see it on his face, because she rushes to help him sit up. If he didn’t feel so awful he would probably be distracted by her hand on his back, but as it is, he has to focus all his attention on moving, having to use her other hand in his to pull himself upright.

“Thank you.” He manages to pull his shirt on without her help, to his relief, but as he looks up he sees her staring. He realizes that his shirt is a deep red, and he knows he has given himself away.

“You’re Fire Nation,” she says with a dull inflection. It is not a question, but a statement.

“Yeah...” He pulls on the threads at the hem of his shirt. He knows by now the thoughts the rest of the world has of the Fire Nation, and he is not surprised that the only waterbender in the whole Southern Water Tribe harbors some ill will towards his people.

“You were warm when we found you.” Looking into Katara’s eyes, he sees that she already knows the answer to her next question. “Are you a firebender?”

He takes a deep breath; this, he’s noticed in his time spent among the common people of the other nations, is what usually drives people away. But he can’t deny it now. 

“Yes.” 

The silence that follows is tense. The look that crosses Katara’s face is dark and haunted, and Zuko lowers his head. He has enough sense to feel shame about the things his nation has done to the Earth Kingdom and Water Tribes, but he didn’t think he would care this much about the opinion of one girl.

“I guess that explains why you survived.” He looks up at that, surprised that she hasn’t started screaming or stormed out of the room. She must see his disbelief on his face as she continues. “Your scar, it’s a burn mark.” He flinches as he angles his head away from her. His scar is still something that he is sensitive about; he doubts he will ever truly accept it. “The Fire Nation killed my mother in a raid when I was eight years old. She was protecting me from them. But,” she gestures to his face, “you’ve been hurt by them too.” He looks back at her, knowing the pain on her face all too well.

“I’m sorry about your mother. I’m sure she was an incredible woman if she sacrificed herself to protect you.” He doesn’t bring up his own mother. It doesn’t seem right to try to empathize with her in that way, at least not now. It’s a painful memory that’s close to his heart, one he chooses not to share with anyone.

“She was.” 

Another awkward silence fills the small room, suffocating him in its weight. Just then, a younger bald boy pokes his head through the flap acting as the door.

“Hey! Gran gran told me he was awake, so I thought I’d come say hi!” The boy steps into the room, and Zuko’s heart almost stops in his chest.

“Oh, right. Zuko, this is Aang. He’s the real reason you’re here. I mean, I saw you, but we would have never been able to get you back if it weren’t for him. Aang, this is Zuko.” 

His heart stutters to life and rapidly picks up speed, so much so that he has to fight to not start hyperventilating. There’s no way this can be who he thinks it is.

“You…” It's all he can choke out as he takes in the boy’s orange and yellow robes, and the blue arrow tattoos on his head and hands. His throat feels like sandpaper, and suddenly he’s feeling as if he might faint. “You’re… an airbender?”

“Yup! “ Aang answers him cheerfully, as if his admission doesn’t throw Zuko’s entire life into a pan and scramble it around like an ostrich-horse egg.

“So you’re the Avatar,” he says quietly, and Katara’s head whips around to look at Aang, whose face has paled and taken on a guilty look.

“Wait, what?” Katara’s voice is high pitched due to her confusion, a crease between her brows as she stands up to look at Aang. “What does he mean “you’re the avatar”? Is that true?”

Aang looks sheepish, so much so that Zuko would feel bad for outing him if his entire world wasn’t crashing and burning inside his head. 

“It’s true,” Aang admits sheepishly. Katara lets out a long exhale, and sits back down. “I’m sorry I didn’t tell you, I was going to, but—”

“Guys!” Zuko is glad for the interruption as a young man who looks like Katara (it must be her brother) bursts in through the flap acting as a door. “There’s a Fire Nation ship coming towards us!” He looks down at Zuko as if just remembering that he exists. “Oh, you’re up.”

Zuko really does think he might faint now. “Uncle!” 

He throws the hides back off of his legs and almost falls on his face as he gets his socks, shoes, and overshirt back on as fast as possible. Before anyone can protest, he is running out into the cold polar air to see the ship for himself. Lo and behold, a Fire Nation ship— his Fire Nation ship— is moving towards the little village. His chest is heaving, his breaths a staccato beat shoving steam out of his mouth with each exhale. He can feel his anxiety clawing up his throat like bile, his over stimulated brain trying desperately to comprehend everything that's happened in the last five minutes. No, not here! Not now! He’s had anxiety attacks before, but this is not the state in which he wants his uncle to see him. His vision swims in front of him, and he feels himself start to sway on his feet, still gasping for breath.

“Hey, hey!” Katara catches up to him as he begins to fall, and she puts her body in front of his to keep him upright. “I can’t believe you just ran out here like that, you’re still healing!” 

Her words sound like they’re traveling through water before they reach his ears. Somehow they work together to sling his arm around her shoulder and get him back inside onto the bed without him collapsing. She places him down on the edge and shoos the others back out of the room as he continues to hyperventilate. 

He’s still trying to wrangle his breathing when Katara crouches down in front of him so that she is almost at eye level. “Hey, Zuko, it’s okay, it’s just me.” He somehow finds her eyes through the fog of panic and does his best to focus on them. “You’re safe, okay? It’s just me.” She must be familiar with what’s happening to him, because she knows exactly what to say. She takes his hands in hers; they’re cool and soft, and Zuko holds them tight to try and ground himself. His breaths eventually slow as the anxiety gripping him starts to fade. He had moved so his head was pressed into Katara’s shoulder, and he lifts it up to look at her.

“Sorry.” His voice is quiet and scratchy, and the look in Katara’s eyes is one of concern. “I’m sorry.” 

“It’s alright.” She rubs her thumb across the back of his hand, soothing him as his breathing returns to normal, and they sit in silence for a moment as she calms him down. He hasn’t been touched by anyone like this in a long, long time; he feels vulnerable, but also strangely comfortable. He refuses to follow that train of thought, knowing it won’t lead anywhere productive.

“My uncle is on that ship.” He moves to stand up, Katara following him in case he falls. “I need to see him.” She nods and leads him back out into the cold. The ship is just lowering it’s ramp onto the snow a ways out from the village. He can see the young man from before, Katara’s brother, is standing with Aang (the fucking Avatar) and the old woman, Kanna. He and Katara slowly make their way forward, making sure that he doesn’t over exert himself and almost pass out again. A few people walk down the ramp off of the ship, the one in front undeniably his uncle.

“Uncle!” he calls out, and his uncle runs towards him. Zuko lets go of Katara and manages to take a few steps before his uncle envelopes him in a strong hug.

“Zuko!” His uncle is crying, and Zuko is finding it hard to hold back tears himself. “I thought I had lost you, my son.”

“It’s alright uncle, I’m here.” As they hold each other, Zuko hears one of the other men who had been walking with his uncle call to the others on the ship.

“The prince is alive!” Damn it.

“Wait, prince?” Katara’s brother sounds surprised. “He doesn’t look like a prince.” Zuko assumes he wasn’t supposed to hear that part, and takes some joy in hearing the man yelp as if someone stomped on his toes. 

“You didn’t tell them who you are,” his uncle mumbles, still holding Zuko as he sighs.

“No. I told them my name, but that’s it.”

Iroh hums. “Looks like you have some explaining to do.”

Zuko groans as he lets go of his uncle, who is smiling at him with wet eyes. He smiles back, and they both turn to the small group of people watching them.

“I can’t thank you enough for helping my nephew. We are forever in your debt.” They both bow, and Zuko hopes that they won’t ask any questions.

“You’re a prince?” But of course, things are never that easy for him. The Avatar looks innocent enough when he asks, and if it’s true that he has been missing for the last 100 years (and hasn’t aged a day, apparently), Zuko can’t blame him for not knowing what he is truly asking.

“Yes.” He looks at Katara when he answers, wincing when he sees her face; it’s contorted into an uncomfortable mix of confusion and anger.

“You’re the prince of the Fire Nation.” Katara’s voice is emotionless, and Zuko wishes nothing more than to go back in time to when she was blushing at the side of his bed and not looking at him like he kicked her polar dog puppy. He understands, though, that he probably deserves it.

“Yes.” He takes a deep breath. “But I pose no threat to you. I am not here on behalf of my family. We separated from them years ago.” At that, Katara’s face shifts more towards confusion, anger still simmering beneath the surface.

“I didn’t even know the Fire Lord had a son.” Katara’s brother speaks up, a hard edge to his voice.

“That’s not surprising.” Zuko tries not to sound like a moody teenager when he says it, but he can’t keep all of the disdain out of his voice.

“My brother cast us out of the fire nation many years ago,” Iroh explains, and Zuko is glad that he is taking over; the less he talks, the better. “We want nothing from you, and we are in your debt. We wish to leave your village peacefully and head back north to repair our ship.” There is silence for a long moment. Zuko notices Kanna making strong eye contact with his uncle, although it doesn’t hold any hostility. Old people are weird.

“You’d best be on your way,” the old woman says and waves her hand as if shooing them. “Don’t want another storm bringing you back to us.”

“Thank you, my lady.” Iroh bows deeply, Zuko doing the same after a beat. 

Kanna, the Avatar, and Katara’s brother turn around and begin to walk back towards the village. Iroh touches Zuko’s arm and turns around as well, heading back to the ship. But Zuko is rooted to the spot, staring at Katara, who is staring right back. He feels like he should say something, but he doesn’t know what. Tension sparks between them, so strong that he can almost hear it crackle in the cold air. She bites her lip, and he opens his mouth to speak, when his uncle calls from behind him.

“Zuko!” 

He closes his mouth, takes a few steps backwards while keeping eye contact with Katara, and then turns around to head back to the ship. He doesn’t look back to see her watching him the whole way.

Xx

 

“Uncle, that boy is that Avatar!” They are back on his ship, getting farther from the South Pole every minute.

“Yes, he is.” Iroh sips his tea as if the words Zuko just said didn’t mean a thing to him. “And we are now sailing away from him.”

Zuko groans and puts his head in his hands. “He saved my life! I literally owe him a life debt. How can I bring him back to my father? He’ll lock him up forever!”

Iroh puts his hand on Zuko’s shoulder, and he looks down into his uncle’s kind eyes. “Destiny works in funny ways, my nephew. I suggest that for now, you rest, and we tackle this issue tomorrow.”

Zuko goes back to his chambers, changes into his sleep clothes, and gets into his plush bed. As weary as he is, his mind is running around in circles; the last seven years of his life have been dominated by the desire to capture the Avatar, and Zuko just left him on that hunk of ice. Katara’s eyes swim around his head, and he doesn’t find sleep for a very long time.

Chapter Text



“Breathe in, run fingers over scarred skin. Let the guilt rain down all over me,

try to justify my hypocrisy, and breathe out.” Colorblind, Movements



Xx



“Ahg!” 

Zuko wakes up with a shout, bolting upright in his bed, chest heaving and sheets saturated with sweat. He has been plagued by nightmares for years now, but in the days since leaving the South Pole, they’ve been getting worse. Visions of Ozai burning him alive for failing to capture the avatar, flashbacks of his mother enduring abuse at the hands of his father, and endless oceans that seem to drop off the edge of the world into the black emptiness of space hover in his mind, residual fear coursing through him in the minutes after he awakens. He runs his hand through his damp hair, pushing it up and off of his face, brushing his scar. His hand comes back down to properly touch it; he has memorized each ridge and fold of his scar as if it was a map and he could somehow find his destination by running his hands along it enough times. That memory is by far the most frequent in his nightmares— the shame, terror, and heat bleeding through his sleep and following him like a shadow into his waking life.

With a grunt, he tosses the damp sheets back and gets up. There’s no use in wallowing in self pity— if he’s up, he might as well be productive. He throws on an open vest, not bothering with shoes, before he heads down to the deck of his ship. He emerges into the salty air, the smell a small comfort to him, and breathes it in, imagining the scent and the calm of the morning seeping into his bones. He will always be a firebender, but the ocean has become a friend to him over the years, the tangy smell and deep blue comfort something that Zuko has grown to love. The sun has not yet risen, but its light washes over the horizon line in shades of brilliant pink and orange. He steps out onto the empty deck, folds into a lotus position, and tries his best to clear his mind.

By the time he opens his eyes, the residual fear of his nightmare has faded away with the darkness of night, replaced by the warm glow of the sun, it’s tendrils of light reaching to caress his face. Pulling off his vest and tossing it to the side as he stands, he positions himself in a wide stance, and goes through his firebending katas. With seven years and an inordinate amount of free time, Zuko has been lucky to be able to find some solace in his firebending. The routine of his katas and the feel of his muscles warming with the grace of Agni grounds him like nothing else (he tries desperately not to think of Katara’s cool hands in his and be mindful of his bending). 

It’s much later in the day when his uncle emerges onto the deck, bringing with him a hot breakfast for himself and Zuko. Iroh knows Zuko’s routine by now, and anticipates him being out and practicing his forms well before the old man’s body even considers waking up. Zuko sees his uncle and finishes him form, bringing his hands down, palms flat, in front of him as he lets out a deep breath. Iroh meets him halfway holding out his breakfast, and not for the first time Zuko is struck with how lucky he is that his uncle decided to come with him all those years ago. He had thrown away any chance of a normal life, all to accompany an angry and traumatized thirteen year old on an impossible quest, and Zuko will never quite know how to thank him. They eat in silence as someone brings out Iroh’s tea set, only turning to sit once their breakfast bowls are empty. Iroh begins to meticulously brew the tea; Zuko’s mind bounces back to the unrefined tea that Kanna had made for him. 

“Nephew...” 

Zuko dreads the moment each morning when the silence of the early hours is broken. Not that he doesn’t love his uncle— it doesn’t matter who breaks the silence, even if it is him. But he finds a small comfort in the quiet; he can hide in the soundless morning, the calm of the day wrapping around him, making him feel safe. Zuko has found that once people start talking, things usually end up going sideways for him. 

“We must stop to make repairs to the ship. The storm damaged the hull significantly, and we will not be able to continue without having it worked on.”

“Fine.” Zuko sips at the hot tea Iroh hands him, savoring the warmth as it slides down his throat. “We’ll dock at the next available port and have them start the repairs. Is there lavender in this?”

His uncle smiles. “Yes! It is a lovely blend of chamomile and lavender. You are beginning to get good at this, nephew!” 

Zuko allows a small amount of pride to show through the smile on his face. Iroh is the closest thing he’s ever known to a father, and every time he receives his uncle’s praise, it makes Zuko’s heart just a little lighter. Plus, he brews enough tea that after seven years, Zuko is relieved he is finally beginning to remember some of the blends that he likes.

“Took me long enough.” His uncle lets out a deep laugh that emanates from his large belly, causing Zuko to chuckle as well. Maybe today won’t be so terrible.

 

Xx

 

Scratch that; today will absolutely be terrible.

Zuko knows this for sure when they pull into port a handful of hours later, and the large ship that dwarfs his is uncomfortably familiar.

“Fuck,” he swears under his breath when he sees it; the red flag bearing the Fire Nation’s ensignia blowing proudly in the gente breeze, a smaller flag below it signifying the ship as one in Captain Zhao’s fleet.

“Normally I would admonish you for your language.” Iroh has stepped up beside him and is peering up at the giant ship as well. “But in this circumstance, I believe it is warranted.”

The two men step off the ship onto the dock, walking tall and proud as if Zuko had never been banished from the fire nation and branded an unhonorable disgrace to his family. He’s learned well how to hide his disdain towards his unique circumstances when in the face of higher ups; it wouldn’t do to have military personnel reporting that he was sulking around the globe in a pathetic search for the Avatar to his father. Even if it felt like that was exactly what he was doing.

“I wonder when he’ll show up.” No sooner than the words leave Zuko’s lips do they see Captain Zhao strutting down the dock towards them. He lets out a small groan. “Speak of the devil.”

“And he shall appear.” Iroh finishes the idiom, sounding just as excited to see Zhao as Zuko feels. (He is about as excited to see Zhao as he was when he once had to carry his uncle home, half naked, from a bar after he had imbibed too many drinks. So, in short, not excited in the least).

“Captain Zhao!” His uncle has morphed his voice into something almost chipper, making Zuko envy his ability to conceal his emotions even more than he usually does.

“It’s Commander now.” Zhao’s haughty voice grates on Zuko’s ears as he does his best not to grimace. “What a surprise, seeing Prince —” the word has a rude inflection to it, and Zuko narrows his eyes— “Zuko and General Iroh here at my port. What brings you here?”

“Our ship needs repairs.” Zuko gestures back toward the ship looking worse for wear floating in the dock. “We got caught in a storm and took some damage.”

“Well, why don’t you come have something to eat while you wait for the repairs to be finished?” A predatory smirk crosses Zhao’s face, making Zuko think he’d rather jump back into the freezing polar sea than share a meal with the man. “I’m sure you have an incredible story to tell based on the damage to your ship.”

Zuko shoots a sideways glare at his uncle ( please don’t make me do this, I swear to Agni—)

“That sounds wonderful! Do you have any jasmine tea?” 

Iroh and Zhao begin to walk away from the dock as smoke plumes out of Zuko’s nose in frustration. He finds a dock worker on his way to catch up and pulls them close to him. 

“I want the repairs done on that ship as fast as possible.” The dock worker nods, skittering off to relay the message to the repairmen. The faster they get this meal over with, the better.

 

Xx

 

“Forgive me for asking, Prince Zuko...” Zhao’s tone suggests that he doesn’t care about Zuko’s forgiveness any more than he cares about the ants under his boot. “But why were you all the way in the South Pole?”

Zuko has his arms crossed defensively in front of him. “Why do you think?” He keeps his voice level, trying to keep his inner angry teenager quiet. The way Zhao smirks makes it incredibly difficult, and he has to take a discrete deep breath.

“Still searching for the Avatar? I don’t suppose you’ve found anything interesting recently, have you?” 

Zuko is grateful for all the late night card games his uncle has dragged him into over the years (apparently Iroh had been right when he had told Zuko that he’d thank him some day). The capability to keep a perfectly straight face is exactly what he needs right now to throw Zhao off of the Avatar’s trail ( his trail, he reminds himself).

“No.” The shortness of his answer should convey to Zhao that the conversation is over, but he is an arrogant man, and continues on anyway.

“Hm. Did you know that only a few days ago, statues of past Avatars all over the world had their eyes light up at the same time?” Zuko’s heart speeds up a fraction, but his face portrays nothing, as still as stone.

“I did not. I tend not to keep statues of the one person that could topple the Fire Nation’s empire at my bedside.” His words have the desired effect, and a tiny smirk slides onto his face when Zhao’s brows furrow in frustration. 

“Commander.” A soldier enters the tent that they are seated in, seeming to have no problem interrupting his commanding officer and his conversation with royalty. “We interrogated the crew. They have no new intel on the Avatar.” A sense of accomplishment comes over Zuko; he had told no one but his uncle about the Avatar, and it seems that his decision has paid off.

“Fine.” The only word Zuko can think of to describe Zhao’s face is grumpy; he has to use all of his resolve to keep from outright smiling at the commander’s upset.

“You don’t trust us, commander?” Zuko stands up, deciding that this meeting is over. “That hurts.” His voice is soaked in sarcasm, Zhao positively seething at his attitude.

“I’m on to you, Prince Zuko ,” he snarls the last two words as Zuko passes him. He makes sure to bump Zhao’s shoulder when he walks by, and says nothing.

“Thanks for the tea!” His uncle calls out behind them as they make their way back down to the ship to check on the status of the repairs.

 

Xx

 

Two days later is when he first sees it. He wasn’t expecting to run into the Avatar and his friends so quickly, but as a large, fluffy animal flies towards Kyoshi Island in the distance, Zuko knows it’s them.

“Who else would have a giant flying monster with them?” He has coaxed the crew into high gear in order to get to Kyoshi Island as quickly as possible. It will still take a while, and they will be lucky to get there before nightfall, but he won’t pass up this opportunity.

“Prince Zuko...” His uncle stands behind him on the prow, hands folded into his sleeves. “If it is indeed the Avatar, what do you plan on doing when you get to him?”

This is where Zuko has hit his mental roadblock. He has to capture the Avatar; it’s the only way he can return home and regain his honor. But if he captures the Avatar and brings him to his father, it is most likely that Ozai will lock him (and his friends) away in a cell until he shrivels up with age like a prune that’s been forgotten in the pantry. He owes the three of them a left debt, and the fate that awaits them in the hands of Ozai will not be a good one. The Fire Lord might even execute Katara and her brother (his stomach churns at the thought, and he takes a deep breath to keep his lunch down). He can feel his heart start to beat faster as anxiety threatens to overtake him. Recognising the signs, Iroh rests a heavy hand on Zuko’s shoulder, bringing him back to the moment.

“I don’t know, uncle.” Zuko is honest in his answer. “I at least have to warm them about Zhao. That will repay my life debt, and then I will have a free conscience to capture the Avatar.”

He knows it is a lie as the words slip past his lips, but he can’t think about it right now. That’s as solid a plan as any, and seeing as it’s the only one he has, he has to stick to it. Iroh says nothing, but the unease rolling off of him in waves speaks volumes as to what his uncle is thinking. Zuko heads back inside, unable and unwilling to bear his uncle’s disappointment any longer.

Chapter Text



“There's no time to tell a story. Afraid to reach for something new when you've torched the curtains before their call. T

here's no time to tell a story; can you see this right in front of you when you've torched the curtains before their call?

Get well acquainted with your ache; don't look away.” Here’s to Entropy, Closure in Moscow



Xx



The view of the open ocean below should soothe Katara, but her thoughts are twisted up like Sokka’s fishing lines back home. She feels haunted by golden eyes and the emotions swirling behind them, and try as she might to distract herself by mending Sokka’s well loved pants, she can’t seem to keep from pricking her finger with the bone needle every five minutes. The disbelief she felt when Zuko was revealed to be the prince of the Fire Nation was like nothing she had experienced before. He had seemed so… kind, and genuine, even though he was clearly troubled. Very troubled. She was no stranger to anxiety attacks; she had experienced many after her mother died, and the signs had been glaringly obvious when she had caught up to Zuko. Shortness of breath, wide unfocused eyes (well, one of them was wide), dizziness and weakness (no doubt exacerbated by the fast that he had nearly died less than 12 hours before). She wonders what demons he’s hiding that would cause him such distress. What had brought it on? He had seemed fine when it was just the two of them, but when Aang came in, and then Sokka brought news of the ship… Her mind was too frazzled to continue trying to unravel the reasons behind his anxieties. And it seemed that she would never get the chance to ask him, as she doubted she would ever see him again. 

“Katara, watch this!” Aang tries to get her attention to no avail.

“That’s nice, Aang.”

“You’re not even looking.” 

Katara would have felt guilty if her mind had any more capacity for new feelings. She looks up briefly and smiles. “That’s nice, Aang.”

“But I’m not even doing it anymore.”

A sigh escapes her. “I’m sorry Aang, I'm just distracted.” Guilt bleeds through into her voice. “Where are we going anyway?”

“There!” He points down towards a newly visible island below them, full of excitement. “Kyoshi Island. There’s giant koi fish in the lake, you gotta watch me ride one!”

“At this rate, it’ll take us a year to get to the North Pole!” Katara hates to admit that Sokka is right, but since they decided to journey to the Northern Water Tribe to find Aang (and Katara) a waterbending master, they have made more than a few pit stops, which has no doubt made their trip much longer than it needs to be. 

“This’ll be quick, I promise!” Aang angles the reins to guide Appa down towards the island, and Katara swallows the unsure feeling that is growing in her stomach.

 

Xx

 

Next time, Katara is trusting her gut.

They spent some time on the beach, Katara and Sokka relaxing while Aang rode one of the giant koi fish in the bay, forgetting about their mission and taking some time to just have a little fun. But apparently, Aang had failed to realize that the bay was also home to a huge koi eating serpent , and Katara had to partially swim out into the bay to rescue him from being eaten, which effectively killed the “relaxed” mood. Not long after that, they had been ambushed and captured by an elite group of warriors (Katara had really enjoyed seeing Sokka made a fool of by underestimating the group made up of all women). The leader of the town of Kyoshi, Oyaji, had been skeptical of their presence, but once they explained that Aang is the Avatar, everyone calmed down and they were welcomed into the village of Kyoshi with open arms. The island had been named after Avatar Kyoshi, an incredibly powerful Avatar that created the island by splitting it off of a peninsula across the ocean. The Avatar had trained the women of the island to defend themselves, and the Kyoshi warriors were born, the tradition passed down with honor through the ages.

 The people of Kyoshi were incredibly happy to see the Avatar, and Aang’s head had grown seven sizes bigger with all the attention he was getting, especially from some girls a little younger than him. Frankly, Katara was pretty sick of his attitude at this point, and they had gotten in a little tiff about it. He seemed to think that they should stay on Kyoshi for a few more days, but Katara knew that it was imperative for them to leave as soon as they could; the North Pole was still pretty far away, and she was anxious to find a waterbending master. It didn’t help that Sokka was getting all buddy-buddy with the leader of the Kyoshi Warriors, Suki (Katara was grateful, however, that she seemed to be kicking the misogyny out of him by beating him up a hundred times), and that made him want to stay longer as well. He had insisted on taking lessons from the warriors, and Katara was at least glad that he was forming an appreciation for women past their willingness to do his laundry.

 On top of everything, somehow in the scuffle with the warriors on the beach, her mother’s necklace had fallen off. She had gone back later in the day and searched through the sand for hours with no luck, her heart falling down to her feet like a stone into the ocean when she had to give up. By mid afternoon, Katara is done with Kyoshi Island. Like, scream into a pillow and throw it at the wall done.

But it seems that fate has more in store for them before the day’s end. Just after dinner, there is a commotion out near the edge of the village. The three of them run out to see what’s going on, and Katara’s shock leaves her speechless.

There, at the edge of town, is Zuko, being held back by two Kyoshi Warriors.



Xx



His plan was simple. He had his ship stay far enough away from the island that if Zhao passed by he wouldn’t have any evidence that Zuko had been here (he knew Zhao would be suspicious of his presence simply on principle). Next, he would take a one man dinghy to get himself onto the island. Then, he would go into town, warn the Avatar and his friends (he tried to ignore the weird feeling in his chest when he thought of Katara) to fulfill his debt, and then leave before Zhao could get there. Once the Avatar left, he would follow the flying creature and capture him the next time he landed.

When Zuko gets close to the town, he is not expecting a group of green-clad warriors to ambush him, throw a bag over his head, and guide him none too gently through the forest. When they rip off the bag, he is at the edge of the village, being held by each arm to restrain him.

“Who are you and what are you doing here?” The Kyoshi warrior (the group was famous around the world as being the most elite all female group of warriors in existence, and were immediately recognisable due to their outfits and unique makeup) has a hard look in her eye as she questions him.

“I need to talk to the Avatar.” He ignores the first part of the question; revealing that he is the prince of the Fire Nation would do him more harm than good.

“The Avatar hasn’t been seen for a hundred years,” the warrior growls. He has to admit that the woman’s poker face is convincing. He wouldn’t have been able to spot the lie if he hadn’t already known for sure that the Avatar was here.

“I know he’s here, I just need to talk to him!” He’s beginning to get frustrated; he has to be in and out of this village before Zhao gets here, and who knows how close he is. If Zuko had easily spotted the flying creature, Zhao probably had too. He doesn’t have time for this! “He’s in danger!”

“Yeah, from the Fire Nation! Which you are a part of!” She opens up a sharp metal fan and presses the blade to his throat. “Why would I let you talk to him even if he was here?”

Zuko swallows, the fan nicking his throat as his adam's apple moves with the action. His eyes are drawn to movement at the far end of the village, and his heart swoops in his chest when he sees who has stepped out of the large building back there.

“Katara!” He shouts her name, hoping that she will vouch for him. What was the Avatar’s name? “Aang!” To his relief, Aang, Katara, and her brother come rushing over to where he is.

“Zuko!” The sound of his name coming out of Katara’s mouth is like a cool swim after a scorching day. “What are you doing here?”

“You’re in danger!” He looks at Aang when he says it, the cut on his neck growing deeper as he turns his head. “The Fire Nation knows you’re here, and they’re sending someone to capture you.” A murmur reverberates through the crowd that has gathered around the scene. “You guys have to leave, they’ll be here soon.”

“How do we know that you didn’t lead them here yourself? Or that you’re even telling the truth?” The warrior presses the blade down a little harder, causing a drop of blood to drip down his neck. He makes eye contact with Katara, begging her to say something.

“It’s alright Suki.” To Zuko’s surprise, Katara’s brother is the one who speaks up. He has a hard look in his eye, but as he puts a hand on the warriors shoulder, she draws back her fan, and the other two warriors release his arms. “He owes each of us a life debt. He doesn’t seem dumb enough to lead us into danger and dishonor himself like that.”

Dishonor. The word cuts Zuko to his core, the undeniable feeling that what he is doing is wrong making him want to turn around and run back to his ship. But he can’t give up now.

“Thank you…” he trails off awkwardly, remembering that he doesn’t actually know the other man’s name.

“Sokka.” He says his name in the same hard tone he had used before, and turns to Suki. “We have to prepare. We can fight them off while Katara and Aang load up Appa. With any luck, we’ll be gone before they get here.” At the sound of his words, the town bursts into a flurry of movement. Holy shit, I actually did it. Now I just have to get back to my ship and—

“Zuko...” He turns to Katara, her eyes brighter and bluer than he remembered. “How did you find us?” It’s just the two of them; Aang had run to get their supplies, and the rest of the town was in a frenzy prepping for battle. 

“Whatever you guys are riding on is pretty easy to see in the sky. I’m just glad I got here before Zhao did.”

“Me too.” They stand for a second just looking into each other’s eyes. “Do you have time to help us pack our stuff onto Appa?” 

He should say no; he really needs to get out of here before Zhao shows up. 

“Sure.” 

Clearly his brain and his mouth are not on the same page. Before they can even get to the large building where it seems like they were staying, the sounds of crashing can be heard coming from the edge of the village, and Zuko has just enough time to grab Katara’s hand and duck into a space between two houses before Zhao and his men charge through the trees on komodo rhinos.

“Fuck!” he curses and turns to Katara, still holding her hand. “I can’t let them see me here. They’ll know I helped you, and...” The rest of the sentence goes unfinished. He is sure that it’s easy for Katara to guess what the Fire Nation would do to a traitor, especially one of the royal family. She nods, glancing over her shoulder towards the town.

“If you leave now, you can get around them. I’ll distract them so you can get away.” Her cool hand is still in his, and even though this is a bad idea (he would owe her for saving his ass again ), he can’t see any other option where he gets out of the village without giving himself away. His eyes dart back and forth between Katara’s, the blue reminding him of the ocean and grounding him. 

“Okay.” He nods, but still doesn’t let go of her hand.

“Will I see you again?” She sounds like she actually wants to see him again, and that alone pushes all thoughts of capturing the Avatar out of his mind for the moment.

“It looks like I owe you another debt,” he squeezes her hand, “so probably, yes.” 

Her eyes shine as he says it, and a loud crash sounds from much too close. She squeezes his hand back. 

“Go,” she whispers to him, and he holds onto her hand until the very last moment before turning around and ducks into the forest surrounding the village.

So much for a simple plan.

 

Xx

 

Back on the ship, Iroh approaches him, looking unsurprised that he has returned to the ship alone. “How did it go, nephew?”

“About as well as it looks,” he grumbles and leans against the side of the ship, his arms and legs burning from running through the forest and rowing the stupid dinghy back as fast as he could. “Zhao got there right after I did. Katara had to create a distraction so that I could get away.” 

A small smirk makes its way across his uncle’s face. “So, you are in her debt once again.”

Zuko groans and puts his head in his hands. What the fuck am I doing? “I need to rest. Don’t wake me until tomorrow.” 

The sun had set just moments before he got on the ship, only a thin sliver of light still sitting on the horizon line. Zuko gets to his chambers, takes off his shoes, and doesn't even bother with his shirt before he falls face down onto the bed. My life is falling apart. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out the necklace he found on the beach— it had unearthed itself while he was running to the dinghy, and he had recognized it immediately. It was the necklace Katara always wore (“always,” as if he’s even seen her on more than two separate occasions), and he knows he could use it to find her if the group heeds his warning about the visibility of their flying… whatever it is (he tries to pretend that he doesn’t have any other reason to keep it). Turning it over in his hand, he inspects the shapes carved into the pendant, deciding to tie the necklace around his wrist for safe keeping, and he tries in vain to clear his mind so that he can rest. He doesn’t have any nightmares that night; by the time he is able to sleep, he is too exhausted to even think.

 

Chapter Text

 

 

“You play that role for years; there's nothing else. But you don't need your ears to listen to yourself.

Don't talk back, keep your lips closed tight; sleep underground tonight. If you were meant to save me…

if you were meant to save me, I didn’t realize ‘till now.” Sleep Underground, Circa Survive



Xx



The mood on Appa is sullen. With the new knowledge of the comet clouding their minds, Aang is feeling the pressure, and isn’t his normal chipper self. Katara is still upset about the loss of her necklace, and is a little shaken up by seeing Zuko, if she’s being honest. Sokka seems to be the only one who woke up on the right side of the bedroll this morning, and takes on the role of optimist to make up for the lack of cheer in the group.

“How about we land in the next town and you two can practice some waterbending while I stock up on supplies? I know a little retail therapy always cheers me up!” Sokka’s attempt to lighten the mood is met with little enthusiasm from the others, but Aang agrees to bring Appa down when they come up on a market town lining a wide river. They touch down next to a wider area in the river just outside of the town, and before they head to the market, Katara convinces Aang to practice with her so she can try to teach him some waterbending moves. He picks up the moves annoyingly fast; she had struggled for years to learn the miniscule amount of bending she knows (and isn’t even particularly good at), and Aang has them all down pat in a matter of minutes. Her vexation grows, a little flare in her chest lying dangerously close to a match. Aang generates a large wave, and it goes flying towards a swimming Sokka.

“Hey!”

“Sorry Sokka!” It seems that Aang’s spirits have lifted, but Katara can’t say the same about her own.

“You just washed all our supplies down the river! We were supposed to stock up, not have to buy everything all over again!” 

Aang winces as Sokka moves to dry himself off. He gets dressed, the other two following suit, and soon they are heading to the port market to restock.

“Now,” Sokka is counting out their coins in his hand. “We don’t have a lot of money left, so we have to spend it wisely. So much for retail therapy,” he mumbles the last part, his grumpiness making Katara smile for what feels like the first time in days. 

The market is jam packed with people, stalls lining the street while all sizes of ships sit on the river. Katara’s eyes go round as she takes in the scene before her; she hasn’t seen this much stuff in… well, ever. A strange looking man on the dock is yelling something about “curios,” and Aang strikes up a conversation with him. Before she knows it, they are inside of a dimly lit ship full of said “curios,” and as she looks around, a flash of blue catches Katara’s eye. She passes by one of the pirates trying to coax Aang into selling Momo as she makes her way to a darker corner of the ship, shelves lined with scrolls covering the far wall.

“Aang, look!” She bends down and picks up a scroll, unfurling it for her and Aang to see. “It’s a waterbending scroll!”

“Wow!” Aang hovers over her shoulder before turning to one of the men on the ship. “Where did you guys get the waterbending scroll?”

The pirate captain snatches the scroll out of Katara’s hands, rolling it up and putting it back where she found it. “How about we just say I got it up north, and for a most reasonable price: free.”

“Wait a minute...” Sokka looks around the ship, taking in the myriad of things strewn about, some of which are very expensive-looking. “You guys are pirates, aren’t you?”

“We prefer the term “high-risk traders.” The man who had been yelling outside puts his gangly arm around Sokka’s shoulders, whose face morphs with disgust.

“How much for the traded scroll?” Katara needs that scroll; they stole it from her people, and she and Aang need to learn waterbending as fast as they can.

“Not for sale. I already have a buyer in the Earth Kingdom,” the pirate captain says as he sits back down behind a large table. “Unless, of course, you have upwards of 200 gold pieces on you?”

Aang elbows past Katara and attempts to haggle (poorly) with the captain. While he’s doing so, Katara discreetly slides the scroll off of it’s shelf and sticks it up her sleeve.

“Come one Aang, let’s just get out of here.” 

The three of them leave the ship, Katara’s pace a little faster than usual as they get back into the market. 

“We were just getting to the good stuff, Katara! Why’d we have to leave?” Sokka gives her a pouty look and she rolls her eyes.

“Those guys were creepy. I’ll just feel a lot better after we put some space between us and them.”

Unfortunately, it seems that the pirates have caught on to her trick, and they quickly come running after the group. The trio lead them on a chase through the streets of the market, and manage to lose them before heading back to camp.

“That was weird.” Sokka is catching his breath back at the camp, bent over with his hands braced on his knees. “Why did they start chasing us?”

“It might have something to do with this...” Katara smirks as she pulls the scroll out of her sleeve. “Those guys were scumbags, and you know they stole this from a waterbender. So, I figured I'd take it back.”

“You risked all of our lives just for a waterbending scroll!” Sokka points his finger in her face, and she bats it away with her hand.

“Sokka, you know how important it is that Aang learns waterbending! These are real forms!” she brandishes the scroll in the air for emphasis. “This is really going to help us!”

“Whatever.” Sokka stomps off in the other direction. Katara sighs; part of her does feel a little guilty, but they need this scroll. She needs this scroll.



Xx



If the bags under Zuko’s eyes were any heavier, he’s sure that his head would slam onto the ground. His sleep has been even worse than usual, and that’s saying something. His nightmares have taken on an intensity he hasn’t known in years, and they’ve been waking him up every few hours like clockwork. He can’t stop thinking about Kyoshi Island. He just left the Avatar there! I didn’t even try to capture him! He is determined to figure out what his problem is, but it seems that for right now, his problem comes in the form of his uncle.

“Nephew! We must stop at the next market!” Iroh speaks seriously, concerning Zuko with his tone.

“Why? We can only stop for emergencies.” He has been trying to keep up with the Avatar and his friends by following that monstrous thing they ride on, and he can’t afford to lose them. To his disain, he had already managed to lose them yesterday, which made it even more imperative that they didn’t stop. “We have to catch back up to the Avatar.”

“It is an emergency, Prince Zuko. I’ve lost my white lotus tile!” Zuko would have thought his uncle was joking if not for his inflection.

“Seriously? A pai sho tile? Can’t that wait?”

“Nephew,” he puts a hand on Zuko’s shoulder, and he knows he has already lost. “I know I have told you in the past that pai sho is not just a game. It is important that I have the full set.”

Zuko groans, tilting his head back towards the sky. Why is this my life? “Fine. Whenever we next come upon a market, we’ll search for your tile.” He’s too tired to argue, and Iroh seems pleased that they’ll be making such an unnecessary pit stop. 

 

Xx

 

“Not a single lotus tile in the whole market. Can you believe that?” 

Zuko can believe it; not only have they lost precious time, but his uncle didn’t even find his stupid game tile.

“Can we go back to the ship now? This whole stop was a waste of time.” 

They begin walking back towards their ship when Zuko overhears a conversation being had by a few pirates.

“We lost them. They ran off somewhere in the woods,” the first one says in a gruff voice.

“Well, find them! That scroll is worth a fortune!” another one shoots back.

“We’ll check along the river. If they stole a waterbending scroll, they have to be near the water.” Zuko slows his steps to listen to the rest of the conversation.

“We’ll find that water bitch and get the scroll. Maybe we can take the lemur from the bald kid too!” The pirates laugh raucously and head towards the dock. 

Zuko has stopped in his tracks; it’s too much of a coincidence for the pirate to be talking about anyone but Katara. If the pirates get to them, who knows what they’ll do to her. And once they find out that Aang is the Avatar… Zuko has to get to them first.

“Uncle—” he turns towards his uncle, who, it seems, was listening to the pirate’s conversation as well. He nods at Zuko, and they head off towards the forest.

 

“Shit.” By the time they find Katara, the pirates are already there. A handful of them have her cornered, and she clearly isn’t skilled enough in waterbending to fend them off. “Uncle, go find the other two. I’ll help Katara.” 

He doesn’t wait for an answer before he rushes out of the trees, twin swords at the ready. He sweeps the first pirate off of his feet with his leg, and the burly man smashes onto the ground, hitting his head and knocking himself out in the process. The other four have turned towards him, and three charge at him while one grabs Katara from behind and covers her mouth with his hand. He makes quick work of the pirates; they seem strong, but unorganized and clumsy, and Zuko uses that to his advantage to knock them all out without too much effort. He turns around to see Katara motion with her hands towards the pirate behind her, and a spray of water comes out of the river and blasts the man in the face. He lets go of Katara, coughing and sputtering, and she stomps on his foot. The man bends over in pain, and she grabs the back of his head and knees him in the face with a grunt, effectively knocking him out, and probably breaking his nose as well.

They stare at each other for a moment, both breathing heavily, before they hear the sounds of a struggle coming from deeper within the forest. Zuko sheaths his swords as he and Katara run towards the commotion. They soon come upon a chaotic scene: at least fifteen pirates fighting against his uncle, the Avatar, and Sokka. Zuko and Katara charge in, and they make short work of the pirates. An awkward silence descends upon them in the wake of the fight, neither party sure of what to do next.

“Thanks for the help!” Aang speaks up first, his voice somehow cheerful even after being attacked by pirates.

“There’s more of them at the dock. You should get going before they come find you,” his uncle says. Zuko would be angry that he’s telling them to leave if he had any idea of what he would even do if he captured the avatar right now. It would be impossible to drag him through the forest, into the market, and onto his ship without running into the rest of the pirates, and then he would be right back where he started. And that’s if he could even manage to get the kid past Katara and her brother.

“Yeah, I guess you’re right. Thanks for helping out Zuko!” The Avatar saying his name snaps him out of his stupor, and he is about to lunge for the boy when Katara bumps him with her shoulder as she walks past him.

“Looks like you’re doing a good job of repaying that debt, huh?” 

Heat rises to his cheeks as she smirks at him. Is she… flirting with me? She continues to walk towards Aang, who is blowing on a silent whistle. Suddenly, a giant beast lands between the two parties; Zuko and his uncle jump backwards, stunned by the creature’s appearance. The Avatar and his friends climb onto its back before he is able to convince his feet to move.

“See you later Zuko!” Aang waves at him, and when Katara does as well, he raises his hand in a lame attempt at a wave. “Appa, yip yip!” The beast groans and flies up into the air, disappearing from view.

“What… the fuck just happened?” Zuko cannot believe he let the Avatar go again . And was he imagining things, or had Katara actually attempted to flirt with him? Agni above, I think I’m going insane.

“That was quite an interesting trip, don’t you agree prince Zuko?” His uncle has a strange smile on his face, and all Zuko can do is stare blankly at him. “We should head back to the ship before those pirates come looking for us. I do not think it would be wise to let them capture us.”

Half way back to the ship, his uncle pulls a white lotus pai sho tile out of his sleeve. “Prince Zuko, look! The tile was in my sleeve the whole time!” His uncle laughs like it’s the funniest thing in the world, and Zuko prays that some god somewhere will do him a favor and smite him on the spot. But, the gods are not on his side today (or any day for that matter), and when they get back to the ship, he immediately shuts himself in his quarters, and proceeds to scream into his pillow until his voice is hoarse. 



Chapter Text



“You find your words and make them work for you, and trust me, people will drink them in. T

he absence of a witness, no one to see this. Hid your affection for self-obsession and your greed.

But now it's back to your, back to your needs.” Butcher’s Mouth, Emery. 



Xx



“Uhg, walking sucks!” 

Katara’s feet are killing her as the three of them walk through the forest. Sokka had the bright idea to continue travelling on foot  instead of just riding Appa like they usually do, but after hours of doing just that Katara is ready to knock her brother out just so that they can get back to flying. Sokka leads them through the trees, the direction based on his “instinct,” and Katara knows something bad is going to happen; it’s just a matter of time.

 “Listen, I know it sucks, but at least we’re safe from the Fire...” They come to a clearing which just so happens to be full of Fire Nation soldiers as Sokka finishes his sentence. “...Nation.” 

Katara curses under her breath as the soldiers move towards them, effectively blocking their path through the forest, and she finds herself wondering if Zuko is going to magically appear to save their asses again. Instead, the soldier directly in front of them suddenly drops like a sack of potatoes. In the trees beyond him is a good looking guy holding two hooked swords; he proceeds to jump down from the tree and take out two more soldiers before making his way towards Katara.

“They’re in the trees!” a Fire Nation soldier yells as a handful of people drop from various trees, and in minutes, the entire camp of soldiers is unconscious at their feet. The attractive boy ends up about a foot away from Katara, his deep brown eyes staring right into hers. 

“Hey.” The piece of straw he holds in his mouth bounces when he speaks.

“Hi.” Katara is a little breathless, feeling a blush creeping onto her cheeks, and the young man smirks.

“Wow, that was incredible!” Aang is full of energy, practically bouncing on his feet as he talks to the guy chewing the straw. “You took out that whole army camp almost single handedly!”

“It was only, like, 20 guys,” Sokka grumbles to himself.

“My name’s Jet, and these are my freedom fighters.” He looks right at Katara as he introduces himself, and turns to gesture to each individual as he introduces them in turn. “Sneers, Longshot, Smellerbee, The Duke, and Pipsqueak.”

“Thanks for taking those guys out for us, Jet!” Katara smiles, taking note that Jet has a very nice smile when he returns it.

“We should be thanking you guys. We had been waiting for the right moment to ambush those guys all day, and then you stumbled in.”

“We were relying on instinct.” She looks back at Sokka as she says it. He had ensured them that trusting his instinct to walk instead of fly was the best course of action earlier in the day. Note to self; screw Sokka’s instincts.

“You’ll get yourself killed doing that.” 

Sokka scoffs at Jet’s retort, obviously not appreciating the slight as his expense.

“Hey Jet!” The Duke is standing in front of half a dozen large barrels. “These barrels are full of blasting jelly!”

“And these ones are full of jelly candy!” Pipsqueak motions to a different set of barrels on the other side of the camp.

“Good score, let’s not get those mixed up when we bring them back to the hideout.”

“You guys have a hideout?” Aang sounds like a little kid who’s just been told that he can stay up an extra hour before going to bed.

“Yeah, you guys should come check it out.” He again looks at Katara, something about his stare making her flush and sending tingles through her body.

“Sure.” Her answer elicits a smile from Jet, and she thinks her insides might be turning into jelly.

A while later, they emerge into a small clearing. 

“Alright, we’re here,” Jet announces.

“There’s nothing here.” Sokka sounds like he’d rather keep walking for three days straight than indulge in whatever it is that Jet has planned for him.

“Hold this,. Jet hands him a rope, and when Sokka gets a firm grip on it, the rope shoots upwards, carrying a screaming Sokka with it. Jet holds a rope out to Aang, but Aang shakes his head.

“I’ll get up on my own!” He jumps up using his airbending and disappears into the trees. 

Jet turns to Katara, holding his hand out for her to take. “Take my hand.” A shy smile crosses her face as she reaches out for Jet, and when their hands meet, he pulls her into his chest. “Hold on tight,” he whispers in her ear, and she shivers as she wraps her arms around his strong torso. 

He grabs hold of her waist, and the rope begins to ascend. The journey up through the trees is beautiful; the sun filters in through the leaves like stained glass, throwing fractals of light in every direction. Her head is nestled in Jet’s shoulder; he smells like pine and sweet smelling sap. She’s never been this close to a boy her age in this context; the only other person in the South Pole close to her age was Sokka. She feels her blood rushing in her veins, pent up hormones making her start to sweat. Luckily it seems that Jet either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care, and they make it up to the hideout without Katara passing out or sliding out of her skin.

The setting of the freedom fighters’ hideout is impressive. It consists of a series of treehouses connected by thin walkways, with plenty of hanging ropes to swing from to get to the other homes. The main treehouse is the biggest and most put together— most of the others are not much more than tarps draped over tree branches or simple lean-tos, but it feels lived in, like a home should. Katara notices that as she’s been looking around, Jet has been solely looking at her with an interesting look in his eyes, one that makes her blush for what could very well be the 800th time today. Get a grip, Katara. He’s just a cute boy. A tall, strong, good smelling cute boy who keeps looking at me like… that.  

Aang zooms by on a rope swing, calling out as he passes, “this is pretty cool, Jet!”

“It works for what we do.” He breaks away from Katara and looks around the hideout. “This way the Fire Nation can’t find us and we can keep disrupting their supply lines. They took over a nearby Earth Kingdom town a couple of years ago, and we’ve been giving them hell ever since.”

“That’s really brave of you, Jet.” She tries not to sound too desperate, beaming when Jet smiles at her.

“Yeah, nothing braver than a guy in a tree house,” Sokka says gruffly. Katara shoots him a glare; it’s clear that he doesn’t like Jet, but Katara can’t see any reason why he wouldn’t.

“So, you all live here?” She probes as the two of them begin walking across one of the narrow bridges as they talk, leaving Sokka behind. Jet takes Katara’s hand to help her keep her balance; she finds herself very distracted by his ips and almost loses her footing. Focus, Katara!

“Yup. We’re the only family we’ve got.” Katara looks around at the rest of the freedom fighters, some swinging around with Aang, some doing their own thing. “The Fire nation took all of our families from us, so we made our own family. They killed my parents when I was eight.”

“Sokka and I lost our mother to the Fire Nation too.”

“I’m so sorry Katara.” He pulls her close to him once they cross the bridge, so close that she can feel his breath on her face.

“Me too.” The words come out as a whisper, and her eyes start to close as she feels Jet moving closer—

“Wooo!” 

Katara jumps as Aang swings by, followed by The Duke and Smellerbee. She looks back at Jet, whose face has darkened, and feels the disappointment flow through her. Jet looks at her and takes her hand again.

“I’ll come for you later tonight so we can get a little privacy.” He raises an eyebrow as he smirks at her, and she giggles a little and nods her head. She feels giddy and light as they walk back towards the main tree house, a bounce in her step that she would be embarrassed by if she had the sense to care at all.

 

Xx

 

At dinner, Jet makes a rousing speech about their victory over the Fire Nation. Everyone at the table cheers (except for Sokka), and they sit down to eat, raucous laughter and loud conversation filling the small tree house.

“I was really impressed with you and Aang earlier today.” Jet’s compliment has Katara’s eyes bright like glowflies, her stomach doing a funny little flip inside of her. “I think I have a way that you can help end our struggle against the soldiers occupying the nearby town.”

“Unfortunately,” Sokka’s mouth is full, but that has never stopped him from speaking before, and apparently it won’t succeed now. “We have to leave tonight.”

“You’re kidding me!” Jet’s face falls; Katara tries not to let hers fall too much as she thinks about his promise of their late night meeting. “I need you for an important mission tomorrow.”

Sokka’s attention turns away from his dinner. “What mission?”

Jet smirks, turning back to his own food. “I’ll tell you all about it tomorrow morning. Meet me here a few hours after the sun comes up.”

Dinner passes slower than Katara wants it to. She eats what she can, but the sparrowkeets in her stomach make it difficult to get much down. The thought of meeting up with Jet later, alone, maybe somewhere romantic… her mind is meandering like a swift river all throughout dinner. Despite her preoccupation, she finds her thoughts drawn back to Zuko. The look in his eyes after he helped them escape the pirates evokes a warmth in her stomach not unlike the one she feels around Jet. She knows she was a little flirty with him, her words having the desired effect evidenced by his rosy cheeks and wide eyes. It doesn’t mean anything. He is a strong, attractive man around her age, she reasons. She can’t expect herself not to be drawn to him after spending her whole life isolated in the South Pole. But that’s all it is, just a simple physical attraction. Nothing more. I barely know him, for Tui and La’s sake! She tries to ignore the fact that she hardly knows Jet, either.

An eternity later, Katara rises from her bed roll and soundlessly makes her way out of the treehouse. Unsurprisingly, Jet is waiting for her, leaning casually against the side of the railing separating the walkway from the open forest. He offers his hand and leads her across a few walkways before getting to a more secluded area with a few ropes dangling from the tree tops. She holds tight to his chest, his body heat seeping into her belly and settling low in her abdomen, as they descend. The rope stops short of the ground— the walkway they land on leads out to a space that overlooks the valley beyond. Jet leads her to the edge, and their feet hang off the edge when they sit.

“It’s beautiful here.” Katara looks out at the scenery, the moon’s light washing the valley in a soft glow, the forest life humming around them, always awake, even as the world sleeps.

“Yeah.” 

She turns to Jet, finding his face already close to her, his eyes half lidded and aimed down at her lips. I thought there would be a little more conversation first, but…

Katara closes her eyes, leaning forward and meeting his lips for her first kiss. It doesn't feel as magical as she always imagined it would, but as Jet moves his lips against hers, coaxing her mouth open by darting his tongue out against her lower lip, she can’t find it in her to complain. He moves so that he can pull her hips until she is practically in his lap, deepening the kiss. His hands explore her upper body, setting her skin on fire and leaving a trail of embers in their wake. The pleasant burning sensation makes her think of Zuko; his gold eyes, his calloused hands holding hers. Stop, just enjoy the moment. She fists her hands in Jet’s hair, grounding herself and pushing the thoughts of Zuko out of her head. A maddening heat is building at her core as Jet kisses her with increasing intensity, her breaths coming heavy and hot. He cards his fingers through the hair at the base of her neck, pulling down to expose her throat so he can nip and suck and— oh, that feels divine.

He moves his other hand up over her clothes, palming her breast through her tunic, giving rise to a soft keening noise from Katara. He pulls her even closer against him, bringing a fresh wave of heat shuddering through her body as they both let out a soft groan at the increased contact. He moves to pull her tunic down over her shoulder, exposing more goose pimpled flesh to the night air.

“Wait...” She’s breathless, and it all feels so good. “Jet, wait.” 

He pulls away from her, hungry eyes raking over her body. “What is it?”

“I just… this is my first time with all of this,” she says quietly, watching his eyebrows tilt downward in confusion.

“Like, all of it?” There is disbelief in his voice— her cheeks turn pinker with embarrassment. She nods, and Jet letts out a breath through his nose. Is he… disappointed? “That’s all right.” He moves his hand from her shoulder down to her waist again, running it up and down her side, stoking the dying embers he had left there before. “We can take it slow. Just tell me when you want to stop.”

She wants to think she is imagining the edge in his voice; there is definitely a look of disappointment in his eyes that Katara desperately wants to make disappear. She nods again, leaning back in to kiss him. It’s slower this time, bravery coursing through Katara’s veins as she lets her hands roam around his chest. He breaks the kiss to pull his shirt over his head, leaning right back into Katara once he’s gotten it off. Okay, don’t panic. You’ve seen a man’s chest before. Visions of a paler chest float unbidden into her mind’s eye, various faded scars dappling the muscles. Tui and La, get a grip, woman! Jet’s hands slither up under her tunic, bringing her crashing back down to reality, his rough hands grazing the skin of her hips making her shiver. She feels more confident than she did before, enjoying the feel of Jet’s toned chest beneath her hands. He grinds into her, pulling a gasping breath from her throat, sliding his hands further up her body, dipping his fingers below her breast bindings…

“Wait—” she pulls back from his kiss sharply, and he sighs in a frustrated manner. “Sorry. I just think we’re moving a little too fast.”

“Fine.” He pulls his hands out from under her shirt, disentangling her legs from his and pushing back away from her. The warm air is steeped in tension, and not the good kind. “Maybe we should just head back.”

“Oh...” She doesn’t understand. Just because she doesn’t want to go too far with Jet, he doesn’t want to even spend time with her? “Okay.” The ride back up through the trees is made in silence. Jet walks off as soon as they get back up to the main area, leaving Katara to walk back to where she is sleeping alone.

 

Xx

 

The next day, Jet acts as if nothing at all had happened between them the night before. Hurt mixed with anger pulses through Katara; this is not how she wanted her first intimate experience to go, and she is frustrated that Jet had the audacity to act like she owed him something just because she wanted to kiss him. She stews in her annoyance through breakfast, and later in the morning Jet leads her and Aang to an area that is full of clogged geysers. Early in the morning Sokka had gone out on a mission with Jet and a few of the freedom fighters, and they had apprehended an old man in possession of a knife laced with a vial of poison. Jet took this as a sign that the Fire Nation was beginning to take drastic measures against them, and was intent on stopping them.

“The idea is to use your waterbending to fill the reservoir, that way we can fight the Fire Nation and stop them from burning down the forest,” Jet explains to her and Aang as he points to the reservoir off in the near distance. He leaves them to it without a second glance.

“Let’s meet Jet back up at the reservoir.” The river is filled with water, and Katara is anxious to talk to Jet about what happened last night.

“Didn’t he tell us to meet him back at the hideout?” Aang sounds unsure; Katara can tell that he knows something has changed between her and Jet, but she does her best to act normal.

“Yeah, but we finished early; maybe we can help out some more up there.” They head up to the top of the reservoir to meet Jet, and spot some of the freedom fighters unloading large barrels next to the dam. “What are they doing with all that blasting jelly?”

Aang’s eyes widen. “They’re going to blow up the dam.”

“What?” Jet may be a dick, but he’s not homicidal. “Jet wouldn’t do that, that would kill everyone in town!” Aang jumps onto his glider to head to the dam, but Jet appears and grabs it before he can take off.

“Yes, I would.” He comes closer, a predatory look in his eyes. “Think about it Katara. The Fire Nation killed your mother, killed my family. They deserve this.”

“There’s innocent people in that town!” Tears spring to eyes, her mind frantically trying to understand what’s happening.

“I want you to understand me Katara.” He lays a heavy hand on her shoulder. “I wanted your brother to understand me too, but—”

A tidal wave of rage drenches her, anger dripping from every word as she smacks Jet’s hand off of her shoulder. “Where’s Sokka? What did you do to him?!” She knew it was strange that she hadn’t seen him all morning; Jet had assured her that Sokka had come around to his side after their mission, but his words were snake oil, and Katara had drunk them up.

“Katara—” Jet reaches for her face, but she slams him with the water from her waterskin with a shout. Aang goes to grab his glider, but Jet pulls it back to him with his swords.

“I’m not going to fight you, Jet!” Aang's voice is shrapnel, but Jet is armed to the teeth with vitriol and righteousness.

“You’re going to have to if you want to get your glider back!” 

He jumps up into the trees, fleeing into the forest, and Aang bounces up behind him to give chase. Katara sprints below them on the ground, adrenaline and fury fueling her. Jet falls to the forest floor as Aang slides down the trunk of a tree and lands with a heavy “thump” at the base. Before Jet can move towards Aang, Katara reaches out to the steam flowing next to them, pulling the water to her and pummeling Jet with wave after wave. Her confusion, hurt, betrayal, and anger flow through her into the water and pound into Jet again and again before she decides he’s had enough. She lets out a controlled exhale as she bends the water up his body, freezing him to a tree.

“I can’t believe I trusted you, you bastard!” She hates the emotions that colors her voice, but doesn’t bother trying to control the tremor in her words.

Jet looks up at her, his gaze dark and dangerous. “It’s too late.” 

They hear a bird call, and Aang tries to jump up onto his glider to get to the dam, but it's taken too much damage in its journey through the trees and fails to lift Aang off the ground.

“Sokka’s still out there!” Aang is breathing heavily, battered from his fight with Jet.

“Come on Sokka...” Katara pleads to every spirit she knows of, but the dam still explodes— water races into the town with enough force to bring all the buildings into crumbling heaps. Memories, lives, and possessions wash away with the massive amount of water, and Katara cries at the loss, guilt clawing at her throat as she tries unsuccessfully to hold it down.

“Jet, you fucking monster!” She turns back towards him, ready to make him pay for all the lives he’s taken.

“This is a win Katara! the Fire Nation is gone and this valley will finally be safe!”

“They will be safe.” Sokka steps out from the trees, staring Jet down, his face shrouded in contempt. “Without you. I warned the town in time for them to all escape before you flooded it.”

“Sokka!” Katara jumps up into her brother’s waiting arms, sagging into him with the relief that he is safe, and that the town is safe as well.

“You traitor!” Jet screeches, eyes wild, and Katara is very glad that he is iced to a tree.

“No, Jet. You’re the traitor. You were willing to sacrifice hundreds of innocent lives to quench your bloodlust. We’re leaving.” Sokka turns away from Jet, and Aang follows after shooting a dejected look Jet’s way.

“Katara, please—” Jet tries to appeal to Katara’s sympathy, not realizing that it has dried up like the now empty reservoir.

“Fuck you, Jet.” 

 

Chapter Text

“You're suffocating me, so very hard to breathe.

My mask is growing heavy, but I've forgotten who's beneath.” Reclusion, Anberlin.  



Xx



“We haven’t been able to catch up to the Avatar since the storm, Prince Zuko, but if we continue heading north east…” 

Zuko listens to his captain as they hover over a large map. The massive storm a few days ago had blown them off course, causing them to lose the Avatar’s trail… again. Zuko knows that Zhao is still adamant on finding the Avatar before him, and there’s no way he’s going to let that happen. As they discuss their course, a large ship pulls up beside theirs

“Uhg, what do they want?” Zuko is sick and tired of running into Commander Zhao and his soldiers. The inconveniences are numerous, but  one that is surprisingly annoying is feigning appearances. He hates having to put his hair up just to “look presentable” in front of his troops; none of Zuko’s crew cares when he wears his hair down, and the topknot always ends up giving him a headache when he leaves it in too long.

“Perhaps they’d like to play a nice game of pai sho!” His uncle sits at the game board, the crewman opposite him staring intently at the tiles as if he could win just by willing the victory into existence. Zuko rolls his eyes, doubting that they’re actually here to play pai shao.

One of Zhao’s soldiers walks in holding a scroll. “Admiral Zhao’s hunt for the Avatar has been given prime importance. All information in regards to it must be reported to him immediately.”

“Oh, the admiral has been promoted!” To his uncle’s credit, he sounds genuinely happy for the new admiral. He places a tile on the board and his opponent groans.

“We have no new information on the Avatar.” Zuko lets his frustration seep into his voice. “Now let us pass.”

“The Admiral is not allowing any ships in or out of the area,” the soldier states matter-of-factly.

“Get off of my ship!” 

The soldier leaves, the gears in Zuko’s mind already turning as he walks away. If Zhao is putting so much importance on finding the Avatar, and he isn’t letting anyone into this area… he peers down at the map; Pohuai Stronghold is maybe an hour's run inland. Zhao must have knowledge of the Avatar’s whereabouts and be preparing to capture and hold him there, using the famous Yuyan Archers to help him.

“Uhg!” The soldier playing against Iroh slaps himself on the forehead, clearly having lost. The fool should know better than to challenge my uncle to a game of Pai Sho.

“Excellent!” Iroh scoops up the winnings in his arms, pulling them to his side of the table. “I take the pot. Would you like to play another round? You’re getting much better!”

 

Xx

 

Zuko anxiously waits until the sun has fully set, the waning crescent moon rising high in the blackness of the night. He’s glad it isn’t full; he doesn’t want too much light tonight, just enough to see where he’s going. He gets to the mainland and sets off in a silent run towards the stronghold. The pendant of Katara’s necklace is cool against his skin; he hadn’t had a chance to give it to her when they ran into each other while fighting the pirates (her parting words still tint his cheeks red at the thought). But, if he sees Aang tonight, there’s a good chance he will see Katara as well, and he can return it to her. He imagines the look on her face when he gives it to her; her blue eyes would light up like the ocean reflecting the sun on a clear day, her smile would spread across her face, her full lips stretching with the emotion…

He shakes his head to rid himself of the thought. Just because a pretty girl is kind to him and treats him like a real person doesn’t mean he has to get all emotional and think about her all the time (he really does think about her all the time, so much so that he has trouble concentrating on the menial tasks in his daily life). It’s not good for him to form an attachment to her; he does eventually have to capture the Avatar (he keeps having to remind himself of this), and when he does, she will want nothing to do with him. The thought hurts more than he likes to admit, the idea of her wanting nothing to do with him a spear of ice through his stomach, but it’s necessary. It’s the only way he can return home and restore his honor. Do I really even want to go home? Recently he’s been having more traitorous thoughts regarding his destiny to capture the Avatar. Why do I want to go back to a home where all I got from my father was hatred and abuse? The scar on his face is not the only one his father has given him, but he has told himself for so long that he will eventually return home, and that when he does things will be different. He isn’t sure what he would do if he decided he didn’t want to return— he’d be a fugitive of the Fire Nation, on the run for the rest of his life. But would it be better than going back to the person who tossed him aside without a second thought?

He clears his mind as he sees Pohuai Stronghold emerge in the distance. The large tower in the center pierces the sky, the walls around it a halo against any offensive attack that would attempt to breach it. Zuko takes a deep breath; he has trained meticulously over the past seven years to perfect his stealth skills, and this is his moment to shine. He pulls the theatre mask over his face, fastening it tightly around his head. The Blue Spirit mask had been Zuko’s alter ego for years after picking it up at a stall in a small Earth Kingdom town. It was a mask that Zuko felt drawn to; his mother was always particularly fond of the theatre, and the mask called to him when he had first seen it. It offered him a new life— something Zuko desperately wanted, something he wished for in the deepest hours of the night when the nightmares got the best of him and his anxiety closed around his chest like a vice. He puts the mask on, and the life of Prince Zuko fades away into the inky darkness to be swallowed by the forest.

His steps are silent as he approaches the stronghold, scoping out the guards’ patterns and timing his entrance to avoid them. He gets over the walls, his dark clothes absorbing the small amount of light reaching him from the moon and the few lanterns scattered around the grounds, and dashes to the main building. Once inside, it’s easy enough to find his way to where Zhao is keeping Aang, especially once he gets closer; one or two half frozen frogs clamber past him towards the exit, and Zuko knows that the Avatar is the only one in this place that would be in possession of something so ridiculous. Breathing deeply, he approaches the door leading to the room where Aang is being kept from around a corner. He tosses a guard’s helmet that he had snagged earlier into the corridor, quickly tucking himself up flat against the wall to wait for the first guard to come investigate. He comes around the corner, walking past Zuko who is hidden in the shadows, and Zuko bounds out to cover the man’s mouth with a gloved hand, using his other arm to put him in a chokehold. The guard struggles silently against Zuko’s grip, eventually passing out, and Zuko pulls him off to the side before gently lowering his body to the floor, making sure to be as soundless as he can. 

He heads back to the corner before Aang’s chamber, and takes off a glove. He shoots a small burst of fire out towards where the other guards will see, and makes a little noise to create sounds that would be perceived as a struggle. Pulling his glove back on and jumping up to the ceiling to place himself above the guards, he counts two sets of footsteps approaching him. The next two men round the corner, walking straight past him just as the other one had moments before. Zuko drops silently to the floor, positioning himself behind the two men, and in an instant he is swinging his leg in an arc to sweep both men off of their feet simultaneously. As they hit the ground, he grabs each of their helmets, pulls them off, and whacks them on the sides of their heads. They drop to the floor unconscious, slumped on top of each other. They really ought to train these guys better. He quickly rounds the corner, throwing a sharp dagger at the last guards hand as he reaches for the alarm horn, and the guard lets out a gasp as the blade slices his palm. The man punches his fist, sending a plume of fire towards Zuko, who spots a bucket of water and uses it to extinguish the flame. He swings the empty bucket around and whacks the guards legs causing him to topple over, and then hits him over the head with it before he can make too much noise. He bends down and grabs the keys off of the man’s belt, using them to open the huge doors to the chamber holding the Avatar.

Aang is chained between two pillars, his arms and legs both splayed open in a vulnerable position. Zuko pulls out his dual swords and runs up to slash at the chains, freeing Aang from the constraints.

“Who are you? What’s going on?” He considers answering, but decides it’s safer to leave his identity unknown for the moment. “Are you here to rescue me?” Zuko moves back towards the door, motioning towards it with a tilt of his head. “I’ll take that as a ‘yes’.”

Aang’s eyes linger on the unconscious guard on the floor and the small spot of blood forming around his hand as they head out of the chamber. 

“My frogs!” As he says it, Zuko almost steps on a half-frozen frog dragging itself across the floor. He turns to see Aang stopping to pick them up. “Come back! And stop unfreezing!” Zuko doubles back and grabs Aang by the arm, pulling him away from the frogs. “Wait! My friends need to suck on those!”

Zuko looks back at Aang, a look of disgust hidden underneath the Blue Spirit mask. What the hell is this kid going on about? He continues to drag Aang along until he follows of his own volition, thankfully forgetting about the stupid frogs. They make it out of the main tower easily, and begin to pull themselves up using a rope that leads to the top of the first wall. Aang gets about halfway up the wall, with Zuko right behind him, when the alarm horn belts, and a soldier’s face pops over the lip of the wall. 

“Here he is!” the soldier yells and cuts the rope, and Aang and Zuko fall down to the ground beneath. Aang airbends them a soft landing, a small cloud of dust rising as a result. Once the dust clears, more soldiers have begun to surround them, and Zuko unsheathes his swords as he and Aang take off towards the exit.

“Stay close to me!” Aang calls behind him to Zuko as he aims a powerful blast of air towards a line of guards, sending them flying every which way and clearing a path to the closing gates. Aang pulls ahead, and Zuko is trapped in a scuffle with a group of guards. He uses his swords masterfully to slice at the spears they have pointed in his direction, but he is surrounded by no less than 10 men and is getting overwhelmed. A sudden gust of air blasts some of the guards away, and Zuko has to leap into the air to avoid the second gust that disperses the rest. Over all the commotion, he hears the gates to all three walls slam shut. Fuck. 

Aang uses his airbending to send Zuko flying up and onto the top of the innermost wall. He is immediately surrounded upon landing, but Aang grabs him underneath his armpits with his legs, using a spear as a propeller to fly them through the air. It doesn’t last long; they drop down messily onto the top of the middle wall, Aang’s legs having given out under Zuko’s weight. They both bolt upright, working back to back to take care of the guards that have surrounded them. A noise draws them to the lip of the wall, and they see soldiers using stiff bamboo ladders to climb up towards them. Zuko stands at the top of one, batting away soldiers with his swords as they appear, and Aang shoots columns of air down the other two to clear them. Aang rushes over to him holding the two ladders, handing one of them to Zuko as he hops onto the one that Zuko had just cleared.

“Jump onto my back!” 

Zuko takes a running leap and manages to land on Aang’s back. This kid is strong for someone so scrawny. Aang uses the ladder he is holding as a giant set of stilts, grabbing the last one from Zuko. He’s crafty, too. While they are balanced on the last ladder, a guard sends a burst of flame upwards, and it swallows the ladder beneath them. They make a jump for the last wall, just getting their hands onto it, but neither’s grip is strong enough and they plummet to the ground just inside the outermost wall. The wind is knocked out of Zuko’s lungs, but he forces himself to stand anyway, swords drawn and ready to fight. His whole body is sore; they’re so close to the exit— he can’t give up yet. Four guards approach them quickly and throw flames towards them, and Aang jumps in front of Zuko to airbend a protective bubble around them.

“Hold your fire!” The guards comply, and Admiral Zhao steps forward through the horde of soldiers. “The Avatar must be captured alive.”

Zuko moves before he thinks, grabbing Aang and pressing the blades of his swords to his throat. He feels the boy’s sharp intake of breath, and vows to apologize later. He hears Zhao growl in frustration.

“Open the gate.” There is hesitation while a man whispers questions to the admiral. “Let them out, now!”

The gate slides open behind them, and Zuko slowly guides Aang back towards the forest, keeping his eyes on Zhao the entire way. This is too easy, there’s no way he would just let us go. He watches the admiral closely, and sees him shift his eyes upward. Zuko follows his gaze, seeing one of the famous Yuyan archers nock an arrow, and before he can react, the projectile is flying towards him, and everything goes black.

 

Xx

 

Zuko’s head is pounding when he wakes. The sky is too bright, even filtered through the treetops as it is. 

“Hey Zuko!” he sits up, startled by the voice of the Avatar. “Thanks for saving me back there.” It was for selfish reasons. He wants to justify his actions to himself, but with a headache throbbing between his ears and his sore muscles screaming, he doesn’t bother. “You know, you remind me of my old friend Kuzon. He was one of my best friends back before the war, and he was from the Fire Nation.” He looks at Zuko, his true age showing through his shining eyes. “Maybe someday the world can become a place where people have friends from every nation, all over the world.” Zuko stays silent, not knowing how to respond. The kid has so much hope, so much optimism despite everything that’s happened. It would be extremely annoying if it didn’t spark a tiny feeling of hope inside him too. “I have to get back to Katara and Sokka. They’re sick, and I need to treat them before they get worse.” Aang floats to the ground from where he was perched on a log. “Do you want to help me collect some frozen wood frogs? They have to suck on them.”

“Uh...” Zuko considers the strange request. “I have to get back to my ship. I’ve already been gone too long.” Suck on frozen frogs?

“Oh.” Aang looks downcast, and Zuko can’t figure out why he feels so guilty . “Okay. Well, I guess I’ll see you later, then.”

“Wait.” Zuko pulls up his sleeve and unties Katara’s necklace from around his arm. Removing the weight feels wrong; he’s had it there since he found it, and when he takes it off, his wrist feels too cold without it. “I found this on the beach on Kyoshi Island. Give it to Katara for me.”

“Oh, it’s her necklace!” Aang lights up again, pulling a reluctant, small smile onto Zuko’s face. “She’s going to be so happy to have it back, I’ll make sure she knows you got it back for her!”

“Thanks.” 

Zuko watches the Avatar bound away through the trees, once again feeling both like a failure and like he accomplished something at the same time. At least Katara will get her necklace back; that has to count for something. It has to.

Chapter Text



I'm standing on a beach in the distance , a nd even though you're far away, can you see my red light?

It's waiting to turn green . 'Cause I feel so isolated without you;

I can't play a happy tune on my own, so stay by my side, high or low tide.” Aries, Gorillaz



Xx



“Stop taunting me!” Sokka fights with the fish he’s trying to catch, splashing around and making a total fool of himself, but Katara’s mind is too far away to join in with Aang’s laughter.

She plays with the pendant of her necklace, hanging in its rightful palace at the hollow of her throat. Aang had told her and Sokka about Zuko breaking him out of Pohuai Stronghold once they were lucid (coming back to reality while sucking on a frozen wood frog had not been ideal, to say the least). The story itself had been shocking enough, but when Aang pulled her mother’s necklace out of his pocket, she had to pinch herself to make sure she wasn’t dreaming. Zuko had somehow found it on the beach at Kyoshi Island, the same beach that she had spent hours searching, feeling like she had turned over every grain of sand before giving up. Now it was back in her possession, but still she ruminated on the fact that Zuko had kept it safe with him for weeks. He had only ever seen her twice at that point— how had he even remembered that it was hers? More and more he occupies her thoughts, and with each passing day she wishes that she could actually spend more than five minutes with him so she could really get to know him. Even so, she feels like she already does know him in a way; his face is the sunrise, familiar and warm, bringing new wonders with it every day, reliable and consistent. But in reality, she hardly knows anything about him.

“Someone’s being attacked by a platypus bear!” Aang's sharp words shock her out of her thoughts, and the three of them run over to a man who is entirely too calm in the face of an angry platypus bear.

“Well, hello there!” The man side steps the attacking animal, stepping gracefully around it with a smile. The three of them shout directions at the man (“make noise!” “play dead!” “punch him in the bill!”) but it seems that he cares much too little for someone who is literally dancing with a ferocious wild animal. Luckily for him, Appa appears behind the platypus bear, letting out a loud, low groan that scares the thing off.

“You’re lucky we were here!” Sokka admonishes the man, pointing an accusing finger at him. “You would have been that thing’s lunch!”

“Thanks, but everything was already under control. Aunt Wu predicted that I would have a safe journey,” the man says with an easy smile.

“But you didn’t!” Sokka's indignation is ignored by the strange man.

“Aunt who?” Aang asks, tilting his head in curiosity.

“No, Aunt Wu . She’s a fortune teller from my village.” The man brushes himself off, and begins to walk away. “Oh, Aunt Wu told me to give this to any travelers I saw!” He turns back to hand a long, thin package to Aang, then continues on his way.

“Oh, a fortune teller!” Katara has always been interested in divination, and the idea of a fortune teller is one she can’t pass up. “We should go see her!”

Aang unwraps the package excitedly. “An umbrella!”

 

Xx

 

They get to the village a little while later; Sokka is soaking wet from the rain and in a very bad mood. He had declared on the walk that “fortune telling is bullshit!” only to get rained on for almost the whole trip. When he had declared his own fortune (“it’s going to keep drizzling!”), the rain had abruptly stopped, gentle light escaping through the thinning clouds, causing his frustration to increase. Clearly he was hangry, and when they approach the village, food is probably the only thing on his mind. The village sits at the base of a volcano (dormant according to the villagers), and the people walk around cheerily in the market square. 

“Aunt Wu has been expecting you.” A man dressed in black bows to them, and opens up the round door behind him.

“Really?” Katara walks into the building excitedly, an aggravated Sokka reluctantly following her, and the group comes into a small waiting room. They sit down on three plush cushions as a girl around Aang’s age sporting crazy pigtails walks in.

“Hello, I’m Meng,” she says cheerily, and Katara sees her eyes light up as she looks at Aang. Aww, how cute. She has a crush on Aang! “I’m Aunt Wu’s assistant.” 

She makes small talk with Aang, but Katara is too focused on her prospective fortune to listen to any of it, idly fingering her necklace. Meng leaves, returning a few minutes later with a tray of snacks. She trips on her way in, and Aang reaches out to catch the tray for her, accidentally covering her hands with his. They look up at each other, both blushing, before the girl pulls away leaving Aang holding the snacks.

“Enjoy your snack! Aunt Wu will be right with you,” she says nervously, leaving a bored Sokka, a daydreaming Katara, and a blushing Aang in her wake.

“Welcome, young travelers.” An older woman in heavy makeup enters the room a few minutes later. “Who wants to go first?”

Katara and Aang look at each other, Sokka seeming totally disinterested. “I guess I'll go first.” Katara stands up, hiding her shaking hands behind her back.

Aunt Wu brings her into a room a little ways down the hall. A lit fire pit sits in the middle, comfortable cushions surrounding it on the floor. Aunt Wu sits down next to a large jug full of bones, motioning for Katara to sit directly across from her.

“The most reliable way to tell your fortune is to use the bones.” She has Katara pick a bone from the jug and toss it into the fire. “The cracks in the bone will tell us your destiny.”

The bone sizzles for a moment before a long, thin, jagged crack appears in its center. “Oh, my!” Katara looks up at the woman, unable to tell if that’s a good or bad reaction. “The long but thin crack, jagged and sharp, signifies the presence of a twin flame relationship.”

Katara feels her heart start to beat a little faster in excitement. “A twin flame relationship? What’s that?”

“The twin flame is a divine bond orchestrated by the spirits themselves. A single soul inhabiting two people; the bodies are physically separate, but spiritually they are one. The masculine splits from the feminine, and the soul, wanting to be complete and balanced, pulls the two energies together. Once the union is made, it will usher in a new era; one of peace and love. The twin flame energy binds two people to each other, their destiny as undeniable as the stars in the sky.” Katara’s eyes are wide, hungry for more information. “The journey of the twin flame is one of hardship and sacrifice. The goal of these hardships is to teach each person to embrace love without fear, to heal your deepest wounds, and to bring the flames together again. Your flame can bring out the worst in you, forcing you to work through difficult personal issues and heal from them, and the best in you, clearing the path for you to achieve your higher purpose. The two souls will meet and repel continuously until each of them is ready to begin their divine intention, which can only happen when they have resolved their own deep seated issues. Each flame grows emotionally before they meet, and grow ever more to their highest potential once they are able to be together.”

“Wow.” Katara can feel her body shaking ever so slightly. A feeling of familiarity makes a home in her chest, nestled between her ribs. “How do I know when I've met my twin flame?”

Aunt Wu offers a kind smile. “It will feel like coming home. Like you’ve known them your whole life, even if you have just met. There is an overwhelming sense of belonging and openness with a twin flame, like you could bare your soul to them, all the good and bad, and they will love you all the same. A friendship or emotional bond develops quickly, as each person feels like they’ve known the other for their whole lives. There will most likely be shared experiences, most often painful ones, that have occurred around the same time in their lives that allow the two to form a deep understanding of one another. Twin flames, for the most part, meet in their physical form in a strange or unusual way. Most people think it is by chance, but in your case, I can see that the spirits have had a direct hand in delivering your twin flame to you.” Katara looks up at her sharply, and Aunt Wu laughs. “Yes, my dear, you have already met them. But it is very important that you do not push the bond of your twin flame.” She raises a finger in warning, her tone turning serious. “Each soul is required to grow to a certain point before any relationship could work between the two. Each person must battle their own demons, and find peace and balance in themselves before they can merge with their twin flame. I sense you still have some growing to do, and it is likely that your partner does as well.” Katara sits in stunned silence, unsure of what to do or say. She unconsciously touches her mother’s necklace, and it almost feels warmer than usual, as if Zuko had just been holding it.

“What do I do?” The question is vague, and Katara isn’t even sure herself of what she is referring to.

“Continue on your journey, young one.” Aunt Wu takes Katara’s hands in her own; they are warm and soft, and she can feel the calmness emanating from the older woman. “You cannot force a twin flame. As you continue down your own path, your twin flame will find you at the right moment. Do not stray from your journey; it is essential to your destiny.” Katara takes a deep breath in, bringing the old woman’s calm into her lungs and dispersing it throughout her body before she exhales.

“Thank you, Aunt Wu.” Her voice is soft, the weight of her destiny fresh and heavy upon her shoulders.

“You are welcome, my dear. Now, do you use moisturizer? Your hands are so soft!”

 

Xx

 

After Katara’s fortune has been read, Aang goes in to learn of his future while she and Sokka sit out in the waiting room. Her brother is occupied with stuffing his face with bean curd puffs as Katara contemplates her fortune, and what it means for her life. Her head is practically spinning on her shoulders thinking of all the possibilities. All of the fleeting emotions and lingering feelings she’s had about Zuko float through her mind, clouding her thoughts and making it hard for her to concentrate on anything else. Coming together and repelling, unusual first meeting, feeling like you’ve known them your whole life… those can’t just be strange coincidences. Aang comes out of the fortune teller's room a while later, looking somber and contemplative.

“How’d it go, Aang?” Sokka asks, bean curd puff crumbs tumbling out his mouth.

“Just more Avatar stuff.” He brushes off the question,and Katara thinks he is purposely being vague in his answer. Aunt Wu trails behind him into the waiting room, a tired look on her face.

“Okay, let’s get this over with.” Sokka stands, his finally empty mouth allowing him to enunciate clearly.

“Your future is full of struggle and anguish— most of it self-inflicted.” Aunt Wu doesn’t even wait for Sokka to take a step forward before she tells them his bleak fortune.

“But you didn’t even read my palms or anything!” For someone who wanted nothing to do with the fortune teller, Sokka sounds disproportionally upset.

“I don’t need to. It’s written all over your face.” 

Katara works very hard to stifle her laughter, turning her giggle into a cough to try to cover it up. Sokka throws his hands up in the air in exasperation, not waiting for the others to follow as he storms out of the building.

“I told you fortune telling is bullshit! That lady doesn’t know what she’s talking about.” Not twenty paces out of the building, Sokka steps into a large, muddy puddle. “Aw, I just cleaned these shoes yesterday!”

Aang laughs outright as Sokka continues to sulk. “You know Sokka,” sarcasm oozes from Katara’s words as a large smirk forms on her face. “It doesn’t hurt to wash your shoes more than once a month.” Aang laughs even louder at that, and a grumbling Sokka shoots a glare at his sister in annoyance.

Later in the day, they come upon a large crowd gathered in the village square, everyone’s faces turned up towards the sky. 

“What’s going on?” Katara asks as the three of them look up at a completely normal looking sky.

“We are waiting for Aunt Wu to come and read the clouds to predict the fate of the whole village.” The unreasonably calm man from the platypus bear incident earlier speaks up from their left. “The clouds will reveal to Aunt Wu whether or not Mt. Makapu will remain dormant for another year, or erupt and destroy the village.”

“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me!” Sokka is starting to get a lump on his forehead from smacking it so much throught the day. “Why don’t you just go up the mountain and check for yourselves instead of just trusting that crazy old lady?”

“Well, we used to have a tradition of going up the mountain once a year to see if it would erupt,” the calm man continues, “but ever since Aunt Wu moved to the village, we have a new tradition of not doing that.”

Aunt Wu stands upon a pagoda and announces the safety of the village proclaimed by the clouds, causing cheers to ripple through the crowd. 

“I think we should just go up there and check it ourselves.” Sokka’s arms are crossed over his chest in a defensive position. “There’s no way in hell that I'm just taking that lady’s word for it.”

Katara rolls her eyes as she begins to walk away. “You go ahead and do that Sokka.”

It turns out, surprisingly, that Sokka was right to question Aunt Wu. He and Aang had journeyed to the top of the mountain to check the status of the volcano themselves, and had found a massive pool of flowing lava growing in the caldera. With the help of some manipulated clouds, they are able to evacuate the village before the volcano erupts. In a display of awe-inspiring airbending, Aang is able to protect the town from the lava flow. 

“Great job, Aang!” Katara hugs the monk after he returns from saving the village.

“Hey, what about me!” Katara laughs as she hugs her brother as well. They leave the village that night, but Aunt Wu’s prediction stays with Katara for days to come.

Chapter Text

 

 

“Time takes its toll on us (This changes everything). I'd be a liar if I denied you at all.

Oh, now that I know, this changes everything.” The Great Golden Baby, Circa Survive

 

 

Xx

 

 

The North Pole is more beautiful than she could have ever imagined. Towering buildings constructed entirely of ice make a mockery of her humble home back in the south, but it’s sparkling magnificence banishes the negative thoughts from her mind. After convincing Master Pakku to take her on as a student (she found a special delight in kicking his ass in front of everyone), her bending has improved immensely, and she’s feeling like she’s on top of the world, literally and figuratively. She spends her time wandering around the city, marvelling at the architecture and learning all she can from the locals. The differences between the lives of the people who live here and the lives of her people back at home are staggering, and she wonders more than once why the two tribes don’t communicate anymore. She studies the art and literature of her sister tribe, and feels a little more connected to this place with each new piece of information.

Sokka has taken a liking to the Princess of the Northern Tribe, Yue, but his hopes of courting her are dashed when they learn that she is already engaged. The betrothal necklace carved by her future husband sitting in the hollow of her throat just like Katara’s (she has to clarify multiple times that it is an heirloom, her cheeks growing hot each time) is a stark reminder of her duty to her people, and the sacrifices she must make to serve them. Yue’s betrothed is… well, he’s kind of a dick, if she’s being honest with herself. Hahn has the air about him of someone who believes they can do no wrong, but manages to do a fair amount of it regardless. She sees Sokka’s sadness after he spends time with the princess, and she thinks of her own destiny, fated as it is, but still unknown. She wishes Yue wasn’t engaged to Hahn; she likes Yue, and feels like they could be good friends given time. The only thing that could make the friendship better is if she were to ever become her sister in-law, but she knows that dream will never come true. She makes sure to be extra nice to Sokka for their whole visit; he’s already sad enough as it is, and the last thing she wants to do is make his mood even worse.

She is enjoying a walk through the town when she sees it; black snowflakes falling slowly from the cloudy sky. Her heart starts to beat wildly in her chest as she desperately tries to contain the flashbacks that attempt to creep over her eyes. She runs at full speed to the impressive citadel, meeting up with a depressed looking Sokka. Chief Arnook stands up on a dias, and begins to speak to his people.

The day we have feared for so long has arrived; the Fire Nation is on our doorstep. It is with great sadness that I call my family here before me— knowing full well that some of these faces are about to vanish from our tribe— but they will never vanish from our hearts. Now, as we approach the battle for our existence, I call upon the great spirits. Spirit of the Ocean! Spirit of the Moon! Be with us! I am going to need a number of volunteers for a dangerous mission. Beware that if you volunteer, there is a good chance that you will not return.”

“I’ll go.” Sokka stands from his seat faster than Katara has ever seen him move before. The look of grim determination on his face is set in stone; her eyes well up with tears as he moves forward to get the mark of the special task force. She sees her brother and Yue share a brief, pained look, and the princess walks away with tears falling onto her delicate cheeks. After Arnook’s speech, Katara joins him and Aang on the overlook of the palace, watching the massive force of fire navy ships sail ever closer. 

“I wasn’t there when the Fire Nation attacked my people.” Aang sounds older, the weight of all his years pressing down on him as the Fire Nation fleet creeps closer. “I’m going to make a difference this time.”

They move to meet up with the Water Tribe warriors, Sokka, and Appa. The fighting starts suddenly, even though they are all expecting it. A huge fireball screams through the air, splitting it down the middle like a knife. It careens into the sturdy ice wall that they are standing on, sending several of them back in the blast. Aang hops up onto Appa’s back and takes off into the flaming sky, and Katara prays to Tui and La that he’ll make it back unharmed. After what feels like hours of fighting, the assault stops. The moon rises slowly over the horizon, invigorating the waterbenders, and Aang returns on Appa’s back. He slides off into a waiting Katara’s arms, looking extremely dejected and utterly exhausted.

“I can’t do it...” He scrubs his face with his hands when Katara releases him, Yue coming closer to offer her support. “There’s so many of them. It’ll be impossible for me to fight them all.”

“But, you’re the Avatar!” The fear in Yues voice is tangible, gripping them all with icy fingers.

“I’m just one guy.” He slumps to the ground, cradling his head in his hands.

Katara and Yue kneel down next to him on the hard ice, rubbing circles on his back. They share a look over his head that says ‘ what else are we supposed to do?’ They both look up into the clear night sky, the waxing gibbous moon casting a bright light over the damaged city, smoke still rising from various places throughout.

“Legends say that the moon was the first waterbender.” Katara turns and looks at Yue who is still gazing at the moon. “Our ancestors watched it push and pull the tides, and learned how to do it themselves.”

“I always thought that my waterbending felt stronger at night.” Katara again looks up at the moon, a new appreciation in her gaze. Aang lifts his head and stares thoughtfully up at the moon as well.

“Our strength comes from the spirit of the moon, our life from the spirit of the ocean. They constantly work together to keep the world in balance.” Yue’s voice is soft and contemplative, a hint of resignation buried beneath her stoic demeanor.

“That’s it!” Aang jumps up onto his feet, the hope Katara is used to seeing back on his face. “The spirits! Maybe they can help me find a way to defeat the Fire Nation!”

“What do you mean?” Yue asks as her and Katara stand as well, turning towards Aang.

“The Avatar is the bridge between the human world and the Spirit World!” Katara can feel her excitement building; if they can find a way, this just might work. “He can talk to spirits!” She pauses, thinking for a moment before asking Aang, “but how will you get there? Last time you went into the Spirit World, it was an accident.”

“I have an idea.” Yue’s voice is full of determination. “Follow me.”

She leads them around the royal palace to a small, round, wooden door, previously hidden by the opulent palace. She pushes open the door and Katara and Aang crouch to follow her through. The scene that unfolds as Katara rises is amazing, and takes the breath right out of her lungs.

“It’s so warm in here,” Katara states as both girls remove their coats. Aang bounds forward towards a small pool. A gorgeous waterfall feeds into the pool that is surrounded by lush green grass, which shouldn’t be possible given the fact that they’re in the North Pole.

“I never thought I’d miss grass this much!” Aang flops down onto the ground and rolls around, making the two girls giggle.

“This is the center of all the spiritual energy in the North Pole; the Spirit Oasis.” Yue and Katara move towards Aang, who is now standing next to the tranquil oasis where two koi fish circle each other.

“You’re right...” Aang sits down in the lotus position, still watching the koi fish. “I can feel… something. It’s peaceful, but powerful.” He closes his eyes, bringing his two fists together in front of him as he sits down next to the Oasis.

“Why is he sitting like that?” Yue leans closer to Katara to whisper in her ear.

“He’s meditating, it’s how he contacts the Spirit World. It takes a lot of concentration.”

“Is there anything we can do to help?”

“Maybe a little quiet, please?!” The two women’s faces turn chagrined as Aang scolds them, sounding rightfully annoyed. “Thank you.”

The three of them wait in silence, Katara and Yue eventually sitting down a handful of feet away from Aang. For a while, it seems like nothing is happening, but just as Katara is about to let out a yawn, Aang’s eyes snap open; they’re emitting a bright, white light, glowing steadily along with his tattoos.

“Is he okay?” Yue sounds concerned and goes to reach for him.

“He’s crossing over into the Spirit World!” She grabs Yue’s arm before she can touch Aang. “It’s really important that we don’t move him, otherwise he won’t be able to find his way back.”

“Should we get some help?” Yue’s voice still holds a measure of worry. Katara moves her hand to hold Yue’s firmly, giving it a brief squeeze.

“I can handle it. He’s my friend, I know I’ll be able to protect him.”

They sit for a short amount of time as Aang does… whatever it is that he does in the Spirit World. Katara’s hope soars in her chest; the Spirits will help them, she tells herself. They have to.

“Katara!” 

A familiar voice calls her name, and she quickly jumps to her feet, disbelief mixing with confusion— and dare she say joy— as she turns around.

“Zuko!” She runs towards him, throwing her arms around his neck in a tight hug. He circles his strong arms around her waist, burying his face into her shoulder. “What happened to you?” They pull back from each other and Katara takes in his appearance; his face is speckled with cuts of varying size, and he has a black eye and a few bruises visible on his chin and neck. His hair looks like it’s slightly frozen, the tip of his nose and his cheeks red from the cold. “How did you get here?”

“I swam,” he says with an air of nonchalance, like it’s not a big deal that he swam in freezing waters in the North Pole.

“You what?!”

“Katara, listen to me.” He takes her hands in his; they are still warm despite his submarine trip. “You have to get out of here. Zhao is leading the attack and he’s coming for Aang.”

“We can’t leave!” Fear bubbles in her chest, stinging like acid at the back of her throat. “Aang’s in the Spirit World. If we move his body, it will prevent him from coming back to the physical world!” 

Zuko lets out an exhale through his nose, small puffs of smoke disappearing into the air. He’s still holding her hands; she has so much that she wants to say to him, so many questions she is dying to ask. His eyes are roaming the expanse of the Oasis over her head, and she notices them narrow in the direction of the entrance. He lets go of her hands and begins to walk over as the round door closes behind someone.

“Well well, look who we have here.” A man who she assumes is Admiral Zhao strolls into the Oasis like he’s coming home, smugness radiating off of him in such strong waves that Katara can feel it from halfway across the Oasis. “Prince Zuko. I always knew you were a traitor.” 

Zuko falls into a bending stance, Katara doing the same as she scans the Oasis. She can’t see any other soldiers, but that doesn’t mean they’re not here. Zuko got in from the back, after all, although she doubts anyone else would be so reckless as to swim in the frigid waters of the North Pole. She glances at Yue, who has hidden herself near the waterfall, and Katara starts inching towards Aang while Zhao’s attention is still on Zuko.

”I wonder what your father will say when I inform him that you’ve been protecting the Avatar instead of capturing him?” Katara’s feet freeze to the spot, ice slithering through her veins. What does he mean, ‘“capturing the Avatar”? “He’d probably put a hefty bounty on your head. You know, we were all very surprised that he spared your pathetic life in that Agni Kai.” 

Katara is growing more confused with each word spit from Zhao’s mouth. I knew the Fire Lord was bad, but killing his own son?  

Zuko lets out a growl, edging closer to Zhao. “I won’t let you take him.” 

Katara can’t see his face, but his voice is venom, the sharpness in it harder than Katara has ever heard from him before.

“Oh, but I think you will.” Zhao is walking calmly towards the Oasis, his steps light, his face free of worry and full of malice. Katara starts moving towards Aang again, and Zhao’s amber eyes snap to hers. “I think, Prince Zuko, that you will fight with me to capture the Avatar. And because of that, your father will restore your honor and welcome you home to your rightful place as his successor.” 

“Why would I ever choose to fight for you?” Zuko has moved even closer to Zhao, who has stopped in his tracks to face Zuko with a sly smile slashed across his face.

“It’s simple, really,” Zhao takes a step closer to Aang and Katara, “I may have failed to kill you on that ship, but I will not be as careless with your uncle.” The tension in the room turns to ice, cold and solid, Katara’s heart sinking in her chest. Based on the display Katara had seen when his uncle had found him in the South Pole, he must be extremely important to Zuko. Based on what she has just heard from Zhao, he may be the only family Zuko has left.

“What have you done?” She hears the tremble in Zuko’s voice, sees his hands start to shake ever so slightly. 

“Nothing yet. And nothing at all if you help me. But…” Zhao walks around Zuko, stalking him like prey. As Zuko turns to continue facing Zhao, Katara can see his wide eyes and his chest heaving below his shirt. Oh, no. The realization is a bucket of ice water thrown straight at her face. Zhao is sending him into an anxiety attack . Her heart plummets deep into the soft ground; she has seen Zuko have an anxiety attack before, but his uncle’s life hadn’t been in danger. Zhao knows exactly what he is doing as he continues manipulating Zuko. “If you choose the wrong side, his fate is sealed in blood. Think about it Zuko: you can help me and regain your birthright, or you can let your uncle die. The choice is yours.” But the choice is not his, and it never has been. Zhao has taken away the chance of Zuko making any choice at all by effectively paralyzing him, and he knows it.

“You’re fucking sick!” Katara is furious— her blood is deafening as it rushes through her veins, echoing in her ears. “You know what you’re doing to him!” Her rage is a bonfire, and Zhao’s words are strong proof alcohol.

“Yes.” Zhao turns to Katara, hate proudly displayed on his face as he raises his fists. “I do. A great tactician always knows how to exploit his enemy’s weaknesses. And poor, little Zuko is so very weak.”

Chapter Text

 

 

“You know, in all of the time that we've shared, I've never been so scared. 

Doll me up in my bad luck; I'll meet you there.” Doll, Foo Fighters



Xx



The walls are closing in on him. The blood in his veins slows to a crawl, his heart icing over in his chest. He’s so cold; colder than he was when he had followed the seals here, colder than he had been when he was swept off of his ship into the icy waters of the South Pole. His vision is a vignette, blackness creeping in through the corners, the picture before him threatening to fade away. Move, damn it! Try as he might, his legs will not budge from underneath him. 

Think about it Zuko: you can help me and regain your birthright, or you can let your uncle die.”

Once those vicious words slid out of Zhao’s mouth, Zuko’s body had begun to betray him. The anxiety rushed upon him, blanketing him in fear. His breathing is so heavy it’s beginning to make his chest hurt, and before where he had been shaking, he’s now paralyzed. All of the noise in the Oasis sounds muffled as it enters his ears, like his head is stuck under a pillow and Zhao is holding him trapped underneath it. His anxiety attacks usually aren’t this bad; there are only a few things that can make his body shut down like this, and a threat to his uncle’s safety is one of them. That, coupled with the fact that his only options are to choose between Katara’s safety and his Iroh’s, is more than enough to send him over the edge. He fights with everything he has to stay on his feet as he watches Zhao battle with Katara. Her form has improved a great deal; she must have found a master here in the north. But Zhao has years of experience, and he watches as Katara gets knocked down. No, no, no, move Zuko, fucking move! No matter how much he tries to move, he is trapped inside his own body. There has to be a way out of this; there has to be a way that he can save them both. He has to.

Katara is knocked down again, and Zuko fights even harder to snap out of it. He starts to gain feeling back in his hands, clenching and unclenching them to get his blood flowing again. He waits for Katara to get up, but she doesn’t. His breathing somehow speeds up even more; he’s about to pass out, the air not staying in his lungs long enough for his body to absorb the oxygen. His fights harder than he ever has to stay here, to stay in the moment. His hearing starts to come back as he wrestles to stop hyperventilating. If I can just get to her—

“You’re pathetic.” Zhao is in front of him, Aang slung over his back without care. “Take him to the ship. Once you get there, the crew will know not to hurt your uncle.” 

He shoves Aang’s limp body into Zuko, and begins to walk towards the exit. Zuko adjusts Aang so that he is draped across his shoulders like a fine scarf. I’ll come back for her, he tells himself, desperately trying to justify what he’s doing. He feels so trapped, his mind a bird with clipped wings, cloistered in a gilded cage. He can’t keep the Avatar away from Zhao at this point, but if he brings him back to the ship, he might be able to help him break out again before Zhao knows any better and ensure his uncle's safety at the same time. He can’t bear to look at Katara as he turns towards the small round door, following Zhao into the cold night air.

“I’ll meet you there,” Zhao says as he turns away from Zuko. “There’s something I need to take care of.” 

Zuko’s throat has closed, and he silently moves forward to take Aang to the ship. With every step he takes, his mind is fighting him. Wrong, wrong, wrong. The mantra is his heartbeat, loud and insistent. His upper body is dead weight, his legs shuffling towards Zhao’s ship simply because he doesn’t know what else to do. He has to get to his uncle. He has to get back to Katara. He has to make sure Aang is safe—

“Nephew!” Zuko almost drops the Avatar onto the hard ice when he hears his uncle’s voice. He’s running up to Zuko, a worried look on his face. “Zuko, what are you doing? What happened?”

He realizes tears are streaming down his face only when they start to freeze. “Uncle, you’re okay! Zhao told me he would kill you if I didn't bring the Avatar to his ship for him! I couldn’t move, he— Katara—” His uncle’s face softens with sympathy.

“Nephew, I am fine, but Zhao has plans to kill the moon spirit. We must get to the Oasis quickly!” Zuko feels a rush of energy and takes off, his uncle on his heels. That lying bastard

Right before they step into the Oasis, the sky turns an eerie, unnatural crimson. Zuko and his uncle look up into the sky; the moon is completely red, casting a bloody glow onto the structures and people of the North Pole as the battle rages on. They duck through the small door, the scene they emerge into one of nightmares. Zhao holds a writhing, wet bag in his hand; the pond beneath him disturbed by the single koi fish in it swimming erratically.

“Zhao!” Iroh calls out to the admiral, his voice that of his old life, the Dragon of the West slipping into the body of his warm, friendly uncle. Zuko lets out a heavy breath as he sees Katara awake, holding onto another girl who looks very similar to her except for her light hair, now tinted red. “Whatever you do to that moon spirit, I will unleash on you ten-fold! Let it go, now!”

 Zhao growls under his breath, clearly not happy to see Iroh and Zuko, who has Aang still slumped over his shoulders. He lowers the bag to the pond, allowing the white koi fish inside to slide back into the water. Everyone releases a collective breath, and in the brief moment of calm, Zhao strikes. He punches his fist out, a ball of flame makes contact with the water, and then, the sky goes dark. Zuko doesn’t have time to comprehend what has happened; his uncle attacks Zhao while Zuko runs back to the pond, depositing Aang back where he had been sitting just minutes ago.

“Katara!” Zuko turns to her, her eyes wide and wet, the girl in her arms out cold. “Katara, I’m so sorry, I couldn’t move, and then you were on the ground and Zhao—”

“Zuko.” She stops his rambling as he realizes tears are falling from his good eye. “It’s okay Zuko. I know what he did. What’s important is that you brought Aang back safe.” He looks deep into her eyes; he did bring the Avatar back safe. All because of her.

He hears his uncle grunt, and looks up to see Zhao running for the exit. Zuko growls, the fury of what Zhao made him do, what the Admiral has wrought upon the world, pumping through his veins. He gets up and sprints after him, determined to catch him and make him pay. He chases Zhao through the city as the battle continues around him. Fire balls color small spots of the sky red, but the world is in shades of black and grey. It’s wrong, so very wrong, and Zuko wonders how many different kinds of fucked up someone has to be to kill the moon spirit . He finally catches up to Zhao and shoots a plume of fire at him to stop him in his tracks. 

“You lied to me!” His anger fuels his bending, his fire lighting up the areas around them. Zhao fights back, still trying to flee.

“Oh, poor baby doesn’t like getting lied to!” Zuko’s fireball barely misses his face. “You’re the Blue Spirit! You helped the Avatar escape! You’re a traitor and a disgrace to the Fire Nation!” The two men are so engrossed in their fight that they don’t notice the water within the city has started to glow, nor the large, fish-like creature making its way towards them. “You should have taken my offer— at least then you could have lived!” They continue their fight, the ground beneath them trembling as some areas begin to crack and fall away. Zuko looks up as a massive shape appears behind Zhao. The thing looks to be made of pure energy, using the water flowing through the city as its vessel. It reaches for Zhao, grabbing him with a shape that resembles a hand. Just then, the moon lights back up in the sky, flooding the city with its light.

“No!” Zhao yells and struggles in the creature's grasp. “It can’t be!” Zuko watches the creature bring Zhao up high into the sky, and throw him off into the distance towards the ocean. Good riddance.

Zuko runs as fast as he can back to the oasis, the strange glowing water receding along his sidel. When he gets there, Katara’s brother Sokka is holding the body of the girl with white hair. Zuko jogs closer to them; there are tears on all of their faces, and the white-haired girl’s face looks pale, limp, and ashen. She’s dead. He kneels down with the group and Katara lunges over into his arms, crying into his chest. He strokes her hair as he stares at the girl, who slowly fades away into nothing right before his eyes. 

Iroh is the first to stand, wiping tears off of his face. Sokka stands as well, a dead look in his eyes, and Zuko pulls Katara up to her feet, keeping her hand in his. “Prince Zuko, we must leave immediately. It’s not safe for us here.” There’s hurt in his uncle’s eyes as he says it, and Katara squeezes his hand.

“Why can’t you just come with us?” She looks up at Zuko, and he feels his heart splinter in his chest.

“It’s too dangerous. We’re fugitives now.” He turns and looks at his uncle, who nods his head. “We’ll have a bounty on our heads, and we can’t increase the risk of Aang getting captured again.” Katara’s face crumples and she moves to hug him again, her arms tight around his waist. He holds her just as tight; in just a matter of months, this woman has become more important to him than almost anyone else in his life. She had faith in him when nobody else did, and that was more than he could say for anyone other than his uncle.

“We’ll see each other again,” she whispers it against his chest; she says it with such conviction that he immediately believes her. They slowly pull apart, knowing time is of the essence. Zuko looks at her brother, who tilts his chin downwards in a nod, and he does the same. Something has changed between all of them tonight; Zuko feels in his bones that he is a different man, something unkillable having been born inside of him. He moves towards Iroh as Katara moves to hold her brother’s hand. The four of them look between each other for a moment, and then Zuko and Iroh run out the small, wooden door towards the port.

Or, what used to be the port.

The giant glowing creature and the invasion had wreaked havoc throughout the city, but the port was by far the most damaged. There are giant cracks in the ice everywhere, and pieces that have already broken off from the whole float out to sea. Iroh had shed as much of his red Fire Nation clothing as he could before they got to the dock; it’s still obvious that they’re foreigners, but any little bit of camouflage helps. Zuko is glad that he had chosen white clothes for his outfit earlier. All of the Fire Navy’s boats are gone, and there are no water tribe vessels either.

“What do we do, uncle?” A crack sounds from under their feet as the hunk of ice they are standing on splits apart from the main dock. They run to try to get to safety, but it’s already too late; the chunk of ice has broken off, and the force from many smaller chunks separating from the main piece quickly pushes the ice floe farther out to sea. “Fuck. Now what?” 

They stand in silence, eventually sitting down on the floe to help keep their balance as it moves swiftly through the ocean. As they get further away from the city, they see that huge chunks of ice are falling from the wall straight into the deep polar water, which would explain the force pushing them further and further from the North Pole. Time passes, and the two firebenders can do nothing but float along with the current. Zuko falls asleep, his body sore and exhausted after his battle with Zhao, all the running he did, and the massive anxiety attack that he had back at the Oasis. He dreams of blue eyes, a warm embrace, and a huge wall of roaring fire. Katara tries to speak to him in the dream, there in the throne room in front of the wall of fire, but he can’t hear anything she says, and after a while she turns around with a sad expression and walks through the fire, disappearing behind it.

“Nephew.” He is roused from his nightmare by the voice of his uncle, who is standing up next to him on the ice floe.

“What is it, uncle?” He groans, rubbing his head as he rises to his feet.

“There’s a boat over there! We may be able to signal it to come rescue us.” 

Zuko follows his uncle’s line of sight, and true to his word, there is a sizable ship in the distance. It definitely isn’t a fire nation ship; it has multiple large sails, and has no smoke coming from anywhere on it. A Water Tribe boat. He starts waving his arms above his head with his uncle, and soon they see a small dinghy coming towards them.

“We need a cover story,” Zuko mutters quickly to his uncle, still keeping his arms raised. “We can say we were stowaways on one of the ships before the attack, and that we escaped before it got destroyed.”

“Good thinking, nephew. We shouldn’t use our real names either.” He is cut off as the small boat comes within hearing distance. It holds two burly men who are clearly Water Tribe, their faces stoic as they approach. “Thank goodness, we were beginning to think that we would die out here!” His uncle says it with enthusiasm, which Zuko truly believes is genuine. The two men look them up and down, and share a guarded look between themselves. 

“You look Fire Nation,” one of them points out in a deep voice.

“We’re from the Earth Kingdom,” Zuko says, filling in the gaps in their story as he goes along. “We had stowed away on one of the boats and escaped before it was destroyed.” The man narrows his eyes at the two of them. Zuko scratches at the edge of his scar, hoping that the ugly mark helps to sell their story.

“What are your names?” The other man speaks up, his voice a little higher than the first, his face showing a little less suspicion.

“I’m Lee, and this is my uncle…” Think, Zuko! “Mushi.” Wow, good job.

“Lee and Mushi, huh?” The second man rubs the thick beard on his chin, contemplating the two firebenders. “Alright, get in.”

Zuko and his uncle clamber into the small boat, now cramped with four grown men, and the Water Tribe men start rowing back towards their ship. Here’s to a new life.

Chapter Text

 

 

“I know you don't want change, but nothing is ever what it used to be. G rab the rope, hoist yourself up.

Grab the rope...” St. Broderick, His Mistress, and The Blacksmith, The Sound of Animals Fighting

 

 

Xx

 

 

The weeks after the battle at the North Pole are exhausting, to say the least. Sleep is hard to come by for all of them; Sokka is still mourning Yue, Aang is coming to terms with the destruction his merging with the Ocean Spirit had caused in the North Pole, and Katara… Katara is all over the place. She still can’t forget the words Zhao spoke to push Zuko to the edge, playing over and over in her head every night like the mocking call of a screeching bird. Zuko had been supposed to capture Aang? The Fire Lord was willing to kill his own son? Apparently he removed him from the line of succession, but why? And the only way to restore his birthright was to capture the Avatar? But Aang had only woken up a few months ago, how could Ozai have known that Zuko would find him? And what the fuck is an “Agni Kai”?

The Avatar state, and Aang’s inability to control it, has been weighing heavily on the boy's mind, but none of them know enough about it to even begin to try to understand how Aang could control it. They worry that, unchecked, the Avatar state could cause equal, if not more, destruction than what happened in the North Pole. They had tried enlisting the help of a general to assist Aang in mastering the Avatar state, but it had ended very poorly, and had resulted only in upsetting him even more. So, they push forward into the Earth Kingdom; now that Aang has mastered waterbending, he must tackle the next element in the cycle: earth. They agree that going back to Omashu is probably their best bet; King Bumi is a personal friend of Aang’s, and the familiarity that comes with their friendship appeals to the young Avatar. Bumi already knows him, which he thinks will make learning a new element easier.

They’ve stopped for the day to let Appa rest near a sizable pond, and the warm weather steadily lifts their spirits. Katara and Aang practice the octopus form as Sokka sunbathes in the water, the hours passing lazily by under the sun’s balmy glow.

“Okay, enough relaxation,” Sokka says without moving an inch. “We have to get going if we want to get to Omashu. It’s a long way between here and there, and no doubt crawling with Fire Nation troops.”

“Hey, do you hear that?” Aang pipes up, and the trio goes silent. Sure enough, faint music is playing somewhere in the surrounding trees, and it’s steadily getting louder.

“Don’t fall in love with a traveling girl...” The music and singing continues to get louder. “She’ll break your heart and leave you broke and broken hearted!” A group of strangely dressed strangers wander into the gang’s space, most of them holding instruments. “Hey, rivier people!”

Sokka is standing in the pond with his arms crossed over his chest. “We’re not river people.”

“You’re not?” The singer replies. “Then, what kind of people are you?”

“We’re just...” Aang shrugs his shoulders. “People.”

“Aren’t we all, man, aren’t we all.” The singer turns slightly to fist bump one of his friends. “Right on.”

“Who are you people?” Sokka steps out of the pond closer to Aang and Katara.

“I’m Chong, and this is my beautiful wife Lily,” he gestures to a pretty woman in a long red and black striped dress. “We’re nomads! We follow the flow of life through the Earth Kingdom to wherever the wind takes us!” He strums erratically on his lute, and his wife taps her tambourine a few times above her head.

“You’re nomads? I’m a nomad too!” Aang sounds excited, his spirits temporarily lifted as his mind strays from the events in the North Pole.

“Wow! We’re nomads too!” Chong replies with just as much enthusiasm as Aang, who now looks a little confused.

“I know.” He scratches the back of his bald head. “You just said that.”

“Oh.” Chong looks around and sets his gaze on Sokka. “Nice underwear!”

Sokka lets out a very un-manly squeak, realising he is only in his swim wear, and rushes to get the rest of his clothes. “Well, it was nice meeting you folks!” Katara isn’t sure if he’s even attempting to sound genuine at this point. “But we have to get going to Omashu— we can’t waste any more time.”

“You’re focused too much on the destination, friend!” Chong scratches his belly under his shirt. “You gotta enjoy the journey!”

“No, Sokka’s right,” Katara speaks up, gathering their things and putting their packs together. “We really do have to get there soon. Aang needs to start learning earthbending from King Bumi.”

“King Bumi?” Chong shares a look with his wife. “Sounds like you’re headed to Omashu!” The trio stare at Chong with raised eyebrows. “There’s an old story about a secret pass to Omashu through the mountains.”

“Is this a real story, or just a legend?” Katara is skeptical of everything that comes out of this guy’s mouth; it sounds to her like he’s been smoking too much, and she doesn’t think he smokes tobacco.

“Oh, it’s a real legend, old as earthbending itself!” He starts strumming on his lute, the other members of his group joining in with their instruments as well. “Two lovers, forbidden from one another, the war divides their people, and the mountain divides them apart! Built a path to be together!” They stop playing for a moment, looking a little lost. “Well, I forget the next few lines, but then it goes—” the band continues playing, louder and more excited this time— “secret tunnel! Secret tunnel! Through the mountains! Secret, secret, secret, secret tunnel!” The band makes a dramatic ending, striking poses once the last note is played. “Yeah!” 

“You’ve got to be kidding,” Sokka grumbles under his breath and moves to help Katara pack up their things. “No offense, but I think we’ll just stick with flying.”

“Yeah,” Aang chimes in, sounding a little sheepish. “Appa doesn’t really like being underground, and we gotta do what makes him comfortable.” Appa lets out a soft groan to punctuate Aang’s point.

“The Fire Nation has camps all over the mountain,” Lily cuts in with a soft voice.

“We’ll be fine.” They all pile onto Appa as Sokka relays their excuse. “We’ve dealt with the Fire Nation plenty of times before, and we’ll do it again.”

After attempting to fly over the mountain and subsequently getting blasted at with far too many fireballs, they end up back at the pond with the nomads.

“Secret tunnel it is, then,” Sokka grumbles, and Katara can sympathise. She isn’t very fond of the idea of traipsing through a long underground tunnel with the obnoxious nomads either. As it turns out, it’s just about as fun as she thought it would be, and her head is pounding before they even get to the tunnel.

“How much farther to the tunnel?” Sokka sounds like he has a headache that might be even worse than Katara’s.

“Oh, it’s not just one tunnel.” Chong doesn’t turn around as he speaks, continuing to head towards the tunnel. “The lovers didn’t want anyone knowing about their love, so they built a whole labyrinth so people couldn’t follow them!” Sokka stops in his tracks, his mouth falling open in shock.

“A labyrinth?!”

“Don’t worry, with our combined brain power, I’m sure we’ll figure it out!” Chong is totally unbothered, the fact that they will soon be wandering around a labyrinth under a mountain somehow not phasing him one bit. Katara is doubtful that he has much “brain power” at all.

“All you need to do is trust in love,” Lily pipes up, twirling around and walking backwards as she speaks to Sokka. “At least, according to the curse.” Katara looks over at Aang, his face a mirror of her anxiety and confusion.

“A curse ?! Are you shitting me?!” Sokka trails behind for a while after that, moping in the back of the group, grumbling to himself quietly. Katara can understand why; she kind of feels like moping right now too.

“We’re here!” Chong announces as they come upon the entrance to a dark cave, and Katara walks up to read an inscription on the side of it.

“What’s this ‘curse’ stuff actually about?” Katara asks, having trouble reading the faded characters on the stone.

“It says that only those who trust in love can make it through the caves. Otherwise, you’ll be trapped in there forever.”

“And die,” Lily interjects unhelpfully.

“Okay!” Sokka throws up his hands in annoyance. “That’s it! There’s no way in hell that we’re going through that cave.” He turns around to walk away, but stops short. “Oh, no.”

The group turns around and sees a large plume of smoke trailing into the air, emanating from somewhere behind them. “That’s a big bonfire someone’s having!” Chong pipes up, unaware of what the smoke really means. 

Katara swears under her breath. “That’s not a bonfire. It’s the fire nation tracking us.” She shares a look with her brother and Aang, realizing they only have one option.

“So...” Aang turns to the group of nomads. “All we have to do is trust in love and we’ll be fine?” His voice is skeptical.

“You got it, master arrowhead!”

“What the hell does that even mean?” Katara says quietly in Aang’s ear, and she sees him stifle a laugh. “Well, let’s get this over with.” The group heads into the cave; the Fire Nation soldiers catch up to them and close them in by causing a cave in at the entrance. Katara does not like the fact that she hears one of the soldiers say “Don’t you know about the curse?” before they seal up the tunnel, but it’s too late to turn back now. Katara really hopes that nothing goes wrong.

 

Xx

 

Something always ends up going wrong— she doesn’t even know why she bothers to wish they wouldn’t anymore. Not two hours into their misadventure, they realize that the caves are actively changing as they go through them, making the map Sokka had been drawing completely useless. After that, they were attacked by a swarm of wolfbats, and in the ensuing panic, Appa had gotten started by the torch Sokka had been waving around. In his frenzy, he caused a cave-in that separated Aang, Katara, and Appa from the rest of the group. Luckily they had a torch when they were separated, and it’s now burning brightly between the two benders as they come upon a stone door.

“It’s the exit!” Aang shouts excitedly as they run forward to push the door open. It doesn’t budge, and after a minute Appa growls behind them, forcing them to jump out of the way as he crashes into the door, causing the stone to break apart.

“It’s not the exit...” Katara stands in awe of the scene before her. “It’s a tomb.”

The door had led into a massive room with high ceilings, the far wall taken up by a large statue of a man and woman kneeling across from one another, kissing over some vertical characters etched into the wall. The surrounding walls are covered in small pictures.

“It must be the two lovers from the legend.” A strange feeling makes its home in Katara’s chest. The cave almost feels… familiar? “The pictures tell their story.” She walks over to the first of the pictures and begins reading.

“They met on top of the mountain that divided their two villages.” The first picture depicts a man in blue and a woman in red, holding hands atop a mountain. “The villages were enemies, so they could not be together, but their love was strong, and they found a way.” The next picture shows the man kneeling on a mountain close to the viewer, and the woman kneeling on a mountain farther away, clearly longing for each other. “The two lovers learned earthbending from the badgermoles; they became the first earthbenders. They built elaborate tunnels, so they could meet secretly.” Accompanying the text is a picture of the two lovers earthbending next to two badgermoles. “Anyone who tried to follow them would be lost forever in the labyrinth.” She traces the edges of a picture of the two lovers kissing. “But, one day, the man didn't come— he'd died in the war between the two villages.” There is a picture of the woman crying next to a grave. “Devastated, the woman unleashed a terrible display of her earthbending power— she could have destroyed them all. But, instead, she declared the war over.” The picture shows the woman standing on a hill between the two villages, a crowd of people from each looking up at her. “Both villages helped her build a new city where they would live together in peace...” A picture of current-day Omashu stands out on the stone wall. “The woman's name was Oma and the man's name was Shu. The great city was named Omashu as a monument to their love.” She moves to read the large characters etched into the relief between the statues. “Love is brightest in the dark.” Aang and Katara stand silently after she finishes, absorbing the story of Oma and Shu.

“Woah.” Aang’s voice sounds far away as Katara’s mind reels with the new information. Red and blue, a man and woman on two different sides of a war… the similarities are startling. The words of the fortune teller travel back into the front of her mind. The twin flame energy binds two people to each other, their destiny as undeniable as the stars in the sky… It will feel like coming home. Like you’ve known them your whole life, even if you have just met.“  Her and Zuko’s strange meeting, coming together and splitting apart so many times, feeling like she already knows him even though they hardly know each other at all. She feels a tugging on her heart, as if she’s looped one of Sokka’s fish hooks into it, and someone is reeling it in. Zuko. The desire for him to be here with her right now is a staggering, almost physical ache in her chest. The power of this sudden desire is chilling, and she feels goosebumps cover her skin. It’s not a sensual desire; it feels like her soul is longing for him, and if she could somehow touch him, even just hold his hand, it would ease the pressure building in her chest.

“Katara?” As soon as Aang speaks, the sensation is gone as quickly as it came. She’s confused, and for a brief moment she feels lost, as if she’s just woken up from a deep sleep. But her awareness comes back to her swiftly as she shakes her head.

“Sorry, I spaced out for a minute.” Aang is looking at her strangely, eliciting an embarrassed feeling and a blush on her cheeks. “Let’s just keep going.”

They continue on through the cave, their torchlight burning lower and lower as time passes. Eventually the thing is barely a nub, and they are no closer to finding an exit. Panic is slowly creeping up on her like the rising tide, and she is starting to feel genuinely scared.

“The torch is going to go out any minute, isn’t it?” Aang’s voice is dejected, his face conveying the same nervousness as Katara is feeling. “What are we supposed to do?”

She pulls him into a hug as the light snuffs out, and closes her eyes. She thinks of golden eyes and silky black hair; she feels the tug on her heart and holds onto it, wondering if Zuko can feel it too.

“Katara, look!” She pulls away from Aang and opens her eyes, which are immediately drawn upwards to a path of glowing green crystals on the ceiling.

“We did it!” He pulls her into another hug as she lets out an incredulous laugh. “I don’t know what we did, but we did it!” He starts down the path illuminated by the crystals, and Katara follows, the story of Oma and Shu dancing in her mind as her own story twirls and unfolds beside it.

Chapter Text

 

 

“But I think it’s better not to grieve for a fiction of how things used to be,

‘cause I got a feeling it won’t ever come around.” Come To Pass, Mutual Benefit

 

 

Xx

 

 

Their disappointment with the happenings in Omashu spur them on to their next destination. Bumi had told Aang that he needed an earthbending teacher that “listens and waits,” but that does absolutely nothing to actually point them in the right direction. They decide that Ba Sing Se is their best bet to find someone who is willing to help them; the city is huge, with a ginormous wall surrounding it to keep it safe, so at least they know that the Fire Nation hasn’t made its way there yet. They soar through a bright blue sky on Appa’s back, currently passing above a large forest. Katara is lying on her back with her hands under her head, staring up at the clouds and trying not to overthink, when she feels Appa tilt downwards.

“Aang, where are we going?” When Aang doesn’t respond to Sokka’s question, Katara sits up, concern painted on her face. “Aang? Aang!”

“Huh? What?” Aang visibly shakes himself. “Sorry guys, I just kind of... spaced out, I guess.”

“That’s fine and all, but why are you taking us down?” 

Aang looks out over Appa, seemingly noticing for the first time that they are indeed heading downwards. “Oh, I didn't really notice.” He says this, but doesn’t move to correct their course.

“Okay, well, you’re noticing now, right?” Sokka continues to question Aang, the boy’s strange responses prompting Katara to become increasingly worried for her friend.

“Aang? Are you okay?”

“You guys are gonna think I’m crazy for saying this...” he looks back at them, a serious look on his face. “But I think the swamp is calling to me.”

“The swamp.” The disbelief in Sokka’s voice matches the disbelief Katara feels. “Is calling you,. It’s not a question.

“I think it wants us to land down there.” The three of them peer over the side of Appa, not seeing anywhere to land in the thick growth beneath them. “Bumi said that I needed to wait and listen to learn earthbending, and now I'm literally hearing the earth. Do you think I should just ignore it?”

“Yes.” 

“Well—” Katara shoots her brother a look over her shoulder. “I don’t know Aang. That place is giving me really weird vibes.”

“Yeah, I guess you’re right.” Aang pulls up on Appa’s reigns, heading in the right direction once again. “Sorry, swamp. Maybe next time. Yip yip, Appa!” As soon as Appa is steady and continuing the right way, Katara hears a loud noise, and looks behind her.

“Oh, shit!” A massive tornado is spinning ferociously, moving straight towards them. “Aang, we gotta go, like, yesterday!” 

Aang does his best to help steer Appa out of the tornado’s course, but it almost seems to be following them, and ultimately they get swept up into the vortex. Aang tries to hold an air bubble around them, but he can’t hold it for long, and they are thrown from Appa’s saddle and heaved into the forest.

Katara lands with a bone shaking “thud,” and the wind is knocked out of her due to the impact. She catches her breath, sitting up to find that the forest is actually more of a swamp. Lush vegetation surrounds them, housing a multitude of animal sounds and whirring bugs, the sticky mud Katara landed in encompassing all of the ground that she can currently see. Sokka groans as he sits up a few feet away from her, and Aang is already on his feet.

“Where are Appa and Momo?” He looks around frantically. “Appa! Momo!” He bounds up higher into the trees to get a better vantage point.

“Sokka, you’ve got an elbow leech on you.” Sokka makes a strange noise as he hops up, spinning around himself a few times.

“Damn it, where!?”

Katara raises an eyebrow. “I’ll give you three guesses.” Her brother gives her an unappreciative look as he pulls the leech off of his arm and tosses it somewhere into the trees. Aang proceeds to leap down from the trees looking crestfallen. “Did you see them?”

“No.” His voice is low with disappointment. “And the tornado totally disappeared. It’s like it was never even there.”

“My sore back is enough evidence to prove its existence.” Sokka bends over, an audible crack coming from his spine. “I’m too old for this shit.”

“Sokka, you’re only twenty.” Katara is on her feet attempting to get the swamp gunk out of her hair, and not having much luck.

“Yeah, like I said: too old.” He looks around, surveying the area they’ve landed in. “Alright, we better start looking for Appa.” He takes out his machete and starts unceremoniously hacking away at the vines and brush in front of them, having picked a direction seemingly at random.

“Um...” Aang puts his finger up in the air. “Maybe you should be a little nicer to the swamp.”

“Aang, it’s just a bunch of mud and trees.” He continues slashing, grunting as he has to put more force into breaking a particularly thick branch.

“Sokka, maybe you should listen to Aang and be a little less violent.” A curious feeling is rippling through Katara, and it’s most definitely not a good one. “This place is making me feel really weird, almost like it’s alive.”

“Uhg, you too, Katara?” Sokka continues whacking the various flora in front of him. “Look, we need to find Appa before we get eaten by something that really is alive, so if you guys have any better ideas, you go ahead and let me know.” 

They traipse through the swamp for hours, getting sweaty and bitten by all different kinds of bugs. When the sun begins to set, the air gets no less hot and humid, to all of their dismay, and a thickening fog slides in all around them. Katara’s voice is hoarse from calling to Appa and Momo all day, a weariness burrowing into her bones fueled by the encroaching darkness.

“Alright, this isn’t working!” Sokka puts his machete away, his arms slightly shaking with the effort after exerting his muscles for most of the day. “We won’t be able to find them in the dark. Let’s camp for the night and start fresh again tomorrow.” He proceeds to build a fire, and it soon becomes their only source of light. The sounds of animals and bugs around them appear to grow louder in the darkness. It’s incredibly uncomfortable; Katara feels a shiver slither down her spine as her bad feeling from before returns with a vengeance.

“Does anyone else feel like we’re being watched?” She is huddled close to Aang and Sokka, thankfully positioned in between them.

“Nope.” Sokka swats at a fly buzzing around his head. “We’re completely alone out here Katara, trust me.” As he says this, the bug he is swiping at lights up, and a dozen sets of eyes glow from various points in the surrounding swamp. The trio huddle even closer together, Sokka and Aang surrounding Katara with their arms. “Yeah, totally alone. Except for all those unidentified creatures staring at us.”

Despite the terrifying conditions, the three of them manage to fall asleep, staying closely huddled together more out of fear than anything else. They sleep for a measly few hours before they are rudely and suddenly awakened by vines tangled around all of their bodies, violently yanking them all away from each other in three different directions. The vines encircle Katara entirely, and they are not gentle when they drag her through the swamp. She is bumped and scratched every moment, desperately hoping that none of the greenery that she touches is poisonous. Finally she is able to free her arm, and slashes through the vines with a well placed water whip. The vines keep coming at her, and she cuts down a few more before sprinting deeper into the swamp as a thick mist crawls in to surround her on all sides.

 She runs until her chest is heaving, the humid air making it difficult to breath as she pushes herself until she physically cannot continue. Her legs shake as she braces her hands on them, bent over and trying to catch her breath. She looks up and takes stock of her surroundings; it offers no comfort when she realizes that it all looks exactly the same as the rest of the swamp. She begins walking— she doesn’t really have any other options, at this point. Listening intently to the swamp around her to try and anticipate another attack, she comes upon an area that is a little less dense, the ground covered in snaking tree roots that protrude from the ground in waves and whorls, so thick in some places that it almost looks like netting. As she walks, little white flowers poking up from between the roots grow more frequent, as do tiny little mushrooms hiding on the parts of the roots adjacent to the damp ground. Her steps slow to a stop; for what reason, she isn’t sure. That strange, unidentifiable feeling in her chest that she had earlier has returned. She looks around slowly, scanning for movement or signs of another attack, when she sees a woman dressed in blue with her back turned towards her.

“Hello?” She speaks quietly, afraid that whatever was following her would sneak up on her again if she spoke too loud. “Can you help me find my way out of here?” The woman doesn’t move and inch, so Katara starts moving very slowly towards her. A small amount of light from the moon is shining down through the clearing, and as Katara gets closer to the woman in blue, she recognizes her hair as a very familiar brown, the style and length reminding her…

“Mom?” Her voice breaks; there’s no way in hell that this can be happening right now. “Mom, is that you?” As much as the logical part of her brain knows that this woman can’t possibly be her mother, her heart is beating like a snow rat’s, erratic and fast. I saw my mother die. There’s no way that this is her. The woman still doesn’t move. Katara’s steps get faster and bring her even closer to the woman, who looks exactly like her mother, at least from the back. “Mom!” Katara is all out running now, tears already trailing down her cheeks. She approaches the woman, lays a hand on her shoulder to turn her around—

It’s a log.

The woman has turned into a log right before her eyes. Where her mother (she was so sure it had been her) once stood is now the dead husk of a tree, bugs crawling in and out of the rotten bark in a mockery of veins. More tears spring to Katara’s eyes; she takes a few staggering steps backwards and collapses to her knees, unable to hold back her sobs any longer. Her mother died ten years ago, but the pain will never truly fade. What was once an open, festering wound of grief is now a dull, constant ache, like a bone that didn’t heal quite right and twinges when the rain comes. It’s a wound that will never fully heal; she learned that years ago. Death was a wound you just had to heal around, to learn to live with. But the hyperrealistic vision of her mother has dredged up all those feelings as if she had just seen her death moments ago. The only time she had seen her mother in ten years was in her dreams, and seeing her right in front of her, even if it was just a hallucination, felt like a punch in the gut. She sobbed until her eyes wouldn’t produce anymore tears and her stomach aches from the force of her sobs. She stays on the ground for some time and gulps down harsh breaths in an attempt to regain her composure. 

Finally, after what feels like hours— and may very well have been for all she knows— she is able to get to her feet. She looks around the clearing again, and a flash of red catches her eye. Cautiously she moves around the space, eyes and ears open. Concentrating on the spot where she had seen the streak of misplaced color, she moves as silently as she can towards it. 

When she gets closer from a different angle, the red reappears, and reveals itself to be a piece of fine cloth. The fabric is wrapped around a beautiful woman in a regal looking dress. The woman has the top half of her sleek, shiny hair tied up in a prim topknot, while the rest spills over her shoulders. It is a deep brown, so dark that it almost looks black, an incredible contrast to her porcelain skin. She is clearly from the fire nation; red robes, pale skin, almost black hair, and Katara recognises it as another apparition. But this is someone she doesn’t know, although she does seem familiar. Something about the structure of her face niggles at Katara’s mind, but the woman soon turns towards her and starts walking slowly in her direction, breaking her concentration . Katara’s mind screams at her to move, but something makes her stand her ground, her feet not shifting an inch as the woman comes closer. She looks straight at Katara, her eyes a warm amber, and reaches out her hand as if to touch her face.

“Promise me...” her voice is soft, her hand hovering only a hair’s breadth away from Katara’s left cheek. “Promise me that you’ll never forget who you are.”

“I promise.” Katara doesn’t know why she says it, but she feels deep down like she is saying it in tandem with someone else, even though it is only her voice that passes through her lips. The woman’s eyes fill with tears, Katara’s own spilling over onto her cheek, before she turns and walks away, fading away into nothingness just at the edge of the tree line.

Katara stands stock still, confused and scared, realizing that she is also feeling incredibly lonely and hopeless, wishing with everything inside of her that the woman in red would return. The feeling slowly fades, leaving her with a heavy confusion and residual pain from seeing her mother again. She racks her mind, trying to remember if she has ever seen the woman in red, but she comes up with nothing. When would she have ever even seen a noble looking woman from the Fire Nation? The number of Fire Nation people she has seen up close can be counted on one hand, and the woman was not included in that number. She sighs, figuring that her only real option to try to reunite with her brother and Aang is to keep walking.

“Damn swamp.” Mud squelches beneath her feet as she trudges through the dark, having picked a direction at random, praying to any spirit that will hear her that it would lead her to her brother and friend.

 

Xx

 

Hours pass, the sun having risen at some point as Katara walks, until eventually she decides to stop for a moment at the top of a small hill. She tilts her head back, lifting her face to the light dappling through the treetops, and takes a long, deep breath. She has just managed to clear her mind when she is slammed into from the side, and tumbles down the small hill tangled with someone else’s limbs. They stop only when they have hit something— or more accurately, someone. The “oof” that comes out of the person sounds like Sokka, and she realizes that the person who slammed into her in the first place is Aang. They lay in a heap on the muddy ground, breathing heavily.

“Where have you guys been?” Sokka gets to his feet first, sticking out his hands to help the other two up. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you!”

“I’ve been looking for you guys too!” Katara’s voice is embarrassingly close to a sob, and Aang pulls them both in for a sweaty, dirty hug. 

“I was actually chasing a girl.” He at least has the sense to look sheepish when Katara and Sokka look at him with their brows raised.

“Really, Aang? A girl?” Sokka sounds unimpressed, as if he wouldn’t ever be the one to chase after a girl, and Katara rolls her eyes. “What girl?”

“I don’t know her.” Aang scratches the back of his head. “I heard her laughing, and just… felt like I should follow her.” He looks around, noticing the large tree next to them. “I think we’re at the center of the swamp. I knew it was calling me here...” He lays his hand against the tree, but the moment he touches it, a large monster that looks to be made out of seaweed and vines emerges from the swamp floor and reaches forward to attack them. They all scream, running in separate directions, and the swamp monster attacks, shooting vines out of its arms towards them. As the trio try to fight it off, Aang manages to slice off an arm with his airbending, but it quickly grows back, looking good as new. It manages to grab Sokka, and seems to be trying to absorb him into its body before Aang and Katara can get him free. When they do manage to extricate him, Katara retaliates by using her waterbending to send paper thin discs towards the monster in rapid succession, slicing at it’s body too quick for it to regenerate.

“There’s someone in there!” Sokka yells, and Katara sees human legs inside of the monster when the seaweed breaks apart due to her waterbending. “He’s bending the water in the vines!” Katara continues to attack, but the vines keep growing back to fill the holes she makes with her water discs.

“Stop!” Aang calls, still attacking the monster with his airbending. “Why did you call me here if you’re just going to kill me?”

“Wait!” An unfamiliar voice comes from inside the swamp monster, and they all stop moving. The seaweed and vines slither away, leaving a short, portly man clad in only a loincloth standing before them. “I didn’t call you here.”

“Well, if you didn’t,” Aang addresses the man inside the monster, and they relax from their fighting stances. “Then who did?” They all look at the man skeptically. “We were flying over the swamp when I heard someone calling to me, telling me to land.”

“He’s the Avatar.” Sokka joins the conversation, motioning to Aang with his machete. “Stuff like that happens sometimes.”

“The Avatar, you say?” The man rubs his grungy looking beard. “Come with me.” He begins to lead them up to the giant tree, bending vines out of the way as needed.

“So, who are you?” Katara’s curiosity breaks the awkward silence.

“Oh, me? I’m Huu!” The man turns around and smiles. “I protect the swamp from those who want to hurt it. Like this fella with his big knife,” he points at Sokka, who rolls his eyes.

“So, there’s nothing mystical about this swamp after all?” Aang sounds almost disappointed as he says it, but Huu shakes his head.

“Oh, the swamp is definitely mystical. It’s sacred; I reached enlightenment right here under the banyan-grove tree.” He sits down at the base of the enormous tree they had seen earlier. “I heard it calling to me, just like you did.” He smiles at Aang.

“Okay buddy...” Katara thinks that if Sokka keeps rolling his eyes, they’re going to get stuck in the back of his head. “I’m sure the giant mystical tree is very talkative.” Huu ignores Sokka’s skepticism and continues talking.

“You see, this whole swamp is actually one big tree. This tree.” He affectionately pats a large root of the banyan-grove tree that sits above the surface next to him. “Everything in this swamp is connected, just like the whole world.”

“Wait,” Aang holds his hand up, stopping Huu’s explanation. “I get how the swamp is all one tree, but how is the world all connected?”

“You really think you’re so different from me? Or your friends? Or even this big tree? If you listen, you can hear everything growing and living and breathing together. We’re all a part of the same tree, even if most folks don’t realize it.” He looks out over the swamp, his eyes shimmering with love. “Even folks who are gone from this world are still connected to us. The swamp shows us visions of people we love,  and those we’ve lost.”

“I saw mom.” The words spill from her mouth before she can stop them, heavy like molasses. She doesn’t mention the Fire Nation woman.

“I thought I saw Yue.” She turns to her brother, his voice dark and his face sullen.

“But I don’t know the girl I saw.” Aang’s tone is full of confusion, and Huu sends another comforting smile his way.

“Time is an illusion; the past, the present, the future, they all blend together in the swamp.”

“So...” Aang thinks for a moment. “It’s someone I’ll meet in the future?” Huu nods encouragingly, Aang’s face breaking out into a smile.

“We still need to find Appa and Momo,” Sokka interjects, and he makes a good point. 

“I think I know how to find them.” Aang stands up and touches his ear to the trunk of the banyan-grove tree. His eyes close, and Katara can see them moving behind his eyelids. “Come on!” He straightens suddenly, a look of alarm on his face. “We’ve gotta hurry!”

They found Appa and Momo in the hands of some people that they’ve affectionately started calling “swamp-benders.” When Katara had realized that they were waterbenders (one had exclaimed “that makes us kin!” which had disgusted her), they had given up Appa and Momo and taken them back to their tribe for a meal, which ended up being giant bugs (Katara had stuck to vegetables). They traded stories, the swamp benders having never known that there were other waterbenders in the North and South Pole. Katara thinks about the Fire Nation woman; she had almost looked like Zuko, but she isn’t sure if she’s just thinking that because Zuko is the only young person she’s ever seen from the fire nation. She thinks about when they parted at the North Pole, how injured he had been, and wonders where he and his uncle are now. She prays to Yue that they are safe.

Chapter Text

 

 

“Anyone who walks through my door is already done, is already done for. And if you walk a mile

in my shoes, you'd never choose… you'd never come back here.” East Coast Winters, Anthony Green



Xx



Gaoling is a beautiful city, full of bustling shops and lively citizens. Katara isn’t entirely convinced that they’ll find Aang an earthbending teacher here, but since it’s a quick stop on the way to Ba Sing Se, they figure it can’t hurt to try. The city is nice, but if she’s being honest, it’s a little boring. Sokka enjoys the shops and buys himself a nice new bag, and Aang tries a free earthbending lesson hosted by one Master Yu at the local earthbending academy (it doesn’t go well), but nothing here is really exciting

Until they overhear two boys talking about an earthbending tournament.

Katara uses her “feminine charm” to get the information out of them— her idea of “feminine charm” changes quickly when they try to flirt with her, resulting in the two of them iced to a wall with their heads pressed together. In that position, they’re much more willing to give her the information she needs, and Katara has no qualms about leaving them there. The sun will melt the ice eventually. 

She goes back to her brother and Aang with news of the underground earthbending tournament, “Earth Rumble VI,” and they ventured out later that night to see what it’s all about. They walk into the show and sit down in the front row; there’s a large arena in the middle, with stadium seating all around it.

“I wonder why nobody’s sitting in the front row.” Aang’s question is soon answered as a good sized boulder flings out into the crowd and crashes into the space right next to them.

“Um,” Katara gets up quickly. “Maybe we should move up.”

They settle higher up in the stands where the rest of the audience is gathered just in time to hear the announcer, a man named Xin Fu, explain the rules and introduce the first fighters. Katara quickly realizes that this is just going to be hours of watching burly men hucking rocks at each other, and mentally checks out for most of the match. Sokka is clearly very invested in the tournament, and latches on to a contestant who calls himself “The Boulder” who speaks only in third person.

“What about him as your earthbending teacher, Aang?” Katara gets the distinct feeling that Sokka just wants The Boulder to teach Aang so that he can fangirl all over him.

“I don’t think so.” Aang shakes his head. “Bumi said I need an earthbending teacher who listens to the earth, and it doesn’t look like he’s doing much listening to anything but his muscles.”

The Boulder advances through the ranks, Sokka booing anyone that goes up against him. She has to admit, his sportsmanship is admirable, if a little over the top. Soon, The Boulder is set to face up against the champion.

“I present to you...” Xin Fu swings his arm out, gesturing to a dark alcove. “The Blind Bandit!” To all of their surprise, a short young girl, probably around Aang’s age, walks out into the arena. The crowd goes absolutely wild as she enters, walking with the champion belt raised high above her head and a bored look on her face.

“She can’t really be blind, right?” Katara leans forward in her seat, trying to get a better look. “It must just be part of her act.” She can’t imagine a blind girl competing in an earthbending tournament, let alone this girl, who is petite and looks about as non threatening as Momo.

“I think she is.” Aang is staring at The Blind Bandit with undiluted awe written all over his face. The girl passes off the champion belt to an attendant and takes her place in the arena.

“I think she’s going down!” Sokka is much too enthusiastic about a little girl getting her ass whooped by a grown man for Katara’s liking.

“The Boulder feels conflicted about fighting a young girl.” He truly does look conflicted, and Katara wonders what the girl’s response will be.

“Sounds to me like you’re scared, Boulder!” The Bandit’s tone is sharp and mocking, and not at all what Katara would have expected to come out of her mouth.

“The Boulder is over his conflicted feelings, and now he’s ready to bury you in a rock-a-lanche!”

“Whenever you’re ready, The Pebble!” She throws her head back and laughs, and when Katara looks over at Aang, his eyes are wide and his mouth is slightly open.

“That’s her,” he whispers, incredulous and open mouthed. “That’s the girl I saw in the swamp!”

The match is over, literally, in a matter of seconds. The girl may be blind, but her earthbending skills are phenomenal, and she seems to know right where The Boulder is going to be to knock him clear out of the ring. Xin Fu announces her as the champion, her fist raised into the air and a smug look on her face.

“How did she do that?” Katara is beyond shocked; how could a blind girl be so good at earthbending?

“She waited, and listened.” 

Aang’s face unabashedly displays his admiration and wonder towards the girl. Katara raises an eyebrow at him, but he doesn’t notice. Instead, he decides that when Xin Fu extends the offer to anyone in the crowd willing to fight The Bandit, he’s going to jump in the arena and give it a go. Katara groans as Sokka shouts his encouragement at Aang. It looks like he’s trying to talk to the girl, but she isn’t having any of it. He manages to knock her out of the ring with a blast of air, and she stalks off the stage looking down-right pissed off. Aang tries to chase after her, but has no luck. Sokka oh-so-graciously accepts the champion's belt and the large bag of gold on his behalf, and Aang returns to them looking downcast and defeated.

The next day they come across the two boys that Katara had previously iced over, and they tell Aang about the Beifong’s and their family symbol of the flying boar.

“The girl in the swamp had a flying boar with her!” Aang is practically bouncing on his feet as the boys scurry away from Katara’s glare. “It’s got to be her!”

They use Aang’s status as the Avatar to have dinner with the Beifong family and Master Yu, who is apparently The Bandit’s earthbending teacher. Katara is surprised at the act The Blind Bandit (they learn that her name is actually Toph) is playing; her parents seem to think that she is just a small, helpless, blind girl, believing that her earthbending skill is nothing more than novice at best, and have hidden her from the world “for her safety.” Katara is sure that Toph can handle herself, but it doesn't surprise her that she keeps her escapades as The Blind Bandit a secret from her parents. 

Later that night, Toph comes to Aang to talk privately— their dinner had been stressful with Aang and Toph seeming to be as close to at-each-other's-throats as they could be without actually touching, the tension in the room thick like the stew they had been served. But when they don’t come back, Katara, Sokka, and Toph’s parents Lao and Poppy find the courtyard empty, and a hastily written note attached to a dagger poking out of the ground.

“‘If you want to see your daughter again’,” Sokka reads off the note, Lao holding Poppy close to his chest, her eyes filled with tears, “‘bring 500 gold pieces to the arena.’ It's signed Xin Fu and The Boulder.” They all stand in silence, letting the words on the paper truly sink in. “I can’t believe it...” Sokka stares incredulously at the ransom note. “I have The Boulder’s autograph!” Katara has half a mind to smack him upside the head, but she refrains.

Master Yu, Lao, Sokka, and Katara head to the arena with the 500 gold pieces, proceeding to throw it towards Xin Fu in exchange for Aang and Toph once they get there. They release Toph from a metal cage that had been suspended in the air, and she heads over to Lao, who ushers her towards the exit. Aang is still confined in the matching cage, his eyes just peeking out through the grates to look down at them.

“What about Aang?” Katara doesn’t understand; they brought the money, so Aang should have been lowered down with Toph.

“Oh, the Avatar has a sizable bounty on his head.” Xin Fu holds up a wanted poster featuring a drawing of Aang on it, a greasy smile sliding across his face. “I’m sure the Fire Nation will be happy to have him, and we will be happy to receive the reward money. Now, get out.” The other contenders from Earth Rumble VI materialize from the ceiling and the ground, intimidating them into doing what Xin Fu says.

“It’s okay guys, don’t worry about me!” Aang, ever the optimist, calls down from the slightly swaying cage. “I’ll be fine!” The cage is lowered onto the shoulders of a contender named The Hippo, who begins to walk away.

“Toph, we can’t fight them all!” Katara prepares her water, pulling it out of her waterskin in a thick stream, but she knows that just her and Sokka could never beat all of the burly men standing in their way. “Help us!”

“She’s just a blind little girl!” Lao turns Toph away from them, trying to guide her out of the arena. “She can’t help you!”

“Yes,” Toph breaks free of her father’s grip and walks confidently forward towards the siblings, “I can.” Lao’s face is an unflattering shade of purple as Toph steps into the ring. “Let him go. I’ve kicked all of your asses before, and I’ll do it again!” Katara is surprised that Toph’s father doesn’t pass out on the spot as Toph spits the profanity out of her mouth, using sharp motions of her hands to raise a boundary to cut off The Hippo’s escape.

The Boulder growls and begins to charge; Sokka and Katara sink into their fighting stances, but Toph throws her arm out to the side. “Wait,” she cracks all of her knuckles. “I’ll handle this.”

And she does; all of the men go flying out of the ring in under a minute, Toph’s precision and odd sort of grace captivating her small audience. Katara and Sokka manage to break open the mechanism locking Aang’s cage, his smiling face grateful as he crawls out. Lao and Master Yu are speechless; if their jaws could drop any lower, Katara is sure that they would be on the floor. 

“Your daughter!” Master Yu shouts excitedly as Toph walks back towards them, brushing her hands together in front of her. “She’s amazing! She’s the best earthbender I’ve ever seen!” Lao looks the farthest thing from impressed as he takes Toph’s shoulders and leads her out of the arena.

 

Xx

 

Back at the Beifong estate that night, Toph approaches her father with a soft look on her face. 

“Dad, I know it’s probably scary to see me like this. I’m not that helpless blind girl you and mom think I am; I’m strong, and I love to fight! I love earthbending, and I know that I'm damn good at it!” The color swiftly drains from Lao and Poppy’s faces. “I’ve kept my life a secret from you, but you kept my entire existence a secret to the whole world! I’m sixteen, I’m not a little kid anymore! I just hope this doesn’t change how you see me.” Her speech is emotional, and Katara notices that Toph is blinking back tears.

“Toph...” her father starts slow, unsure where to begin. “This doesn’t change how I see you at all. I’ve come to realize,” he pauses, Toph’s face hopeful as she stares up in his direction. “I’ve come to realize that we have given you far too much freedom.” Her face crumples, all the hope she had dashed away in a moment. “From now on, you will be watched twenty four hours a day.” Toph’s mother looks disappointed, but it’s nothing compared to the emotion on Toph’s face.

“But dad—” 

Lao cuts her off before she can form a sentence. “We’re doing this for your own good.” Poppy nods silently beside him as Lao turns toward some of their guards. “Please escort the Avatar and his friends out.”

“I’m sorry Toph.” Aang’s voice is broken, disappointment oozing from each word.

“I’m sorry too.” Toph’s face is turned to the ground, her expression hidden from their view.

They head back to Appa, discouragement a dark cloud over the group.

“I was so sure,” Aang says as they finish packing their things onto Appa’s saddle. “I was so sure that she was supposed to be my earthbending teacher.”

“It’s alright Aang.” They climb into the saddle, Aang perching on top of Appa’s head in his usual spot as Katara tries to comfort him. “We’ll find someone else to teach you.”

“Nobody will be like Toph.” Aang sounds absolutely crushed, and although Katara can’t see his face, she knows that the usually bright and lively sparkle in his eyes is dim.

“Wait!” They all turn around to see Toph running towards them, one arm stretched above her head to wave, the other holding a bag close to her shoulder. “My dad changed his mind!”

Aang’s face is radiant as he hops off of Appa’s head to land on the ground near Toph. “So you’ll come with us?” There is a brightness in his voice that makes Katara smile.

“Yes,” Toph pants, bracing her hand on her knee as she catches her breath. “But let’s get going, like, right now.” Aang lets out a short laugh as he takes a step forward, and Toph moves her foot the slightest amount, producing a rock from the ground that shoots Aang up into a tree.

“Now we’re even. I’ll be needing that belt back, too.”  Aang laughs as Sokka groans, walking up to Toph once again and scooping her up bridal style to jump into Appa’s saddle. She shrieks, panting as Aang gently lowers her onto Appa next to Sokka and Katara. “Don’t fucking do that without warning me first, Twinkle Toes!” She sounds flustered and angry, but Katara sees the blush that dusts her fair cheeks as they take off into the night.

Chapter Text



“Do I divide and fall apart? Cause my bright is too slight 

to hold back all my dark.” Jesus Christ, Brand New



Xx



Zuko had never been on a ship like this. All the Fire Nation’s vessels were big, hulking things made entirely of metal, powered by coal, fire, and muscle. This was something else entirely; the boat was made of polished wood that was bent and shaped to fit perfectly together. Large canvas sails caught the wind and pushed the ship along, with no need for any coal or fire. Smaller sails could be raised and lowered depending on the strength of the wind, requiring men to climb up the tall spire that held the sails to manually reel them in. The water tribe people used the stars for navigation, positioning their ship during the night and marking their location on a map, putting their faith in the heavens to guide them. It was beautiful in its simplicity, elegant in a way that Fire Nation ships would never be. Building something like this clearly took the touch of a master craftsman, and the evidence of the hands that made it were left imprinted in the wood and design of the ship.

At first, all the Water Tribe men had let Zuko and Iroh do was clean, and understandably so. They wanted to keep the two outsiders where they could see them, and he could respect that. Zuko was no stranger to physical labor; although he was technically still a prince, he did have a ship to run at one point, and understood that things had to be kept clean in order to keep them working properly. On a ship like this, however, there was no need to oil any gears or replace small metal screws or take care of rust. Surprisingly, the most important thing they had to do was make sure the boat was dry. It seemed strange to Zuko at first, but the friendlier man who had helped fetch him and his uncle off of the ice floe, Kuruk, explained that rotting wood on a boat was one of the worst possibilities on a ship like this, and keeping the wood dry prevented rot. Keeping the ship clean prevented rot as well; dirt would attract moisture, which would cause rot. Zuko and Iroh were ordered many times to find a dark corner and clean out the dirt with a small bristle brush, and Zuko did his best not to complain. There were plenty of other things for them to be ordered to clean too, so they were always busy. Occasionally the sails needed to be cleaned, the deck and anchor lines were cleaned each day to prevent build up from the salt water, and in the case of the anchor lines, they needed to scrape off any barnacles that appeared (Zuko hated this the most). 

They also had to frequently touch up areas on the boat with a water sealant made from animal fat; sometimes this meant dangling over the edge of the boat to touch up spots on the outer hull, which Zuko actually found exciting. Maybe he was an adrenaline junkie— some of the Water Tribe men had certainly joked about it when Zuko had started volunteering for the more dangerous jobs like climbing up the mast to make quick repairs on the sails, or jumping off the ship to break up any ice that the boat could not smash through. Really, he didn’t think he was interested in adrenaline, but he was worried that he had a little bit of a death wish. He and his uncle were fugitives of the Fire Nation, his whole life having been turned upside down at the North Pole, and he hadn’t the faintest idea of what he was supposed to do with himself now. He couldn’t stay on this boat forever, as much as he kind of enjoyed the manual labor and drinking casually with the Water Tribe warriors.

Once the people on the ship warmed up to Zuko and his uncle, he had learned a lot about Water Tribe craftsmanship. Their weapons were made out of the bone taken from their hunts, and they were stunning and deadly. They used all of the animal; the bone for weapons and things like sewing needles and jewelry, the meat was smoked and stored for the darker months if it wasn’t eaten immediately, the fat was used for lamps and also made into varnish for the boats, and a bunch of other things Zuko couldn’t remember. He had never thought of the people of the Water Tribes as resourceful, but now he was quite embarrassed by his biases. Of course they have to be resourceful, they live on the literal ends of the Earth. 

When they had boarded the boat, the first thing Zuko noticed was that there were women and children aboard. People of all ages, it seemed, had crammed together on the large vessel. Zuko was later told that they were refugees; their homes had been destroyed by the giant fish spirit and the fiery battle, and since the Fire Nation had attacked the North Pole once, they thought it might be safer somewhere in the Earth Kingdom. Zuko knew some places in the Earth Kingdom were relatively safe and had little to no involvement with the war, but he didn’t think anywhere was truly safe anymore, although he never said that to the people of the Water Tribe. It had taken a few weeks, but he and Iroh had won the trust of the people on board, and he had to admit that it felt good to sit with these people and not feel judged. They appreciated his hard work and his uncle’s bright humor, and they had melded with the group surprisingly well despite their physical differences. Uncle even convinced them to hold music night some nights; they didn’t have any instruments except for a bone flute that one of the women had taken with her, but that didn’t stop them from dancing and singing while banging out beats on barrels and crates. Zuko found it endearing how these people could live in this violent world and still be so jovial; they had survived a massive Fire Nation invasion only weeks before, but they laughed and sang and smiled and loved, and it stirred up a strange feeling of contentment in him.

He often found himself sitting on deck with the other men at the end of the day listening to their stories and drinking. Sometimes they told ghost stories; his uncle had gotten in on the fun one night and scared half the crew into staying up all night. They asked Zuko on more than one occasion if he had a lady back home, to which he always said no, but it seemed that they never believed him.

 “I see the way you stare off into the sea when nobody’s looking,” Kuruk had said with a wink. “That’s the look of someone in love.” Zuko refused to believe that he was in love, and denied it every time, just for the other men (and sometimes his uncle) to burst into laughter.

 Many of them talked about their families, some of which were on board, some who were not. He learned that Kuruk had been betrothed, but the woman he was to marry had been killed in the invasion. There was silence after the man’s confession, but somehow Kuruk was still hopeful. It was obvious that he was hurting; many times Zuko would wander out onto the deck at night after a nightmare to see Kuruk standing silently at the prow, but he never said anything. A pain like that could never be understood by someone who hadn’t experienced it themselves, and seeing someone he considered an ally mourn because of the Fire Nation stoked a violent guilt in his gut. 

More and more he thought about where he belonged in this world, and more and more he felt like it wasn’t in the Fire Nation. He had known what his father was doing was wrong; he had learned first hand when he was thirteen that the Fire Nation was ruled by a group of cold, cruel men. For so long he had been in denial, but Katara had imbued him with a small, fragile hope. Now, spending time on the ship with the Water Tribe men and women, he understood even greater what the Fire Nation had wrought upon this world. Many of them had stories about relatives or in-laws or friends who had their villages burned, their loved ones killed, or their sons and daughters sent off to fight in a war that they would never return from. Even Iroh had opened up about Lu Ten at one point, albeit in an abridged sort of way, and too many of the people on board were able to commiserate with him. It made Zuko sick to his stomach to think that his family had tainted the world in such a way, and an undeniable feeling started to grow in his chest; he had to do something. There had to be some way that he could right the wrongs his family had brought upon the world in the name of false glory.

Halfway through the journey, when they had just crossed out of the polar waters, Zuko had awoken in the night to a peculiar tugging sensation in his chest. He left his hammock and padded out onto the deck. It was still cold, but not frigid enough for Zuko to bother with stopping to grab a heavier shirt. The tugging sensation continued as he found himself staring up at the moon and thinking about Katara. She had changed his life in a matter of months, taken everything he had thought he knew and flipped it on its head with such grace and beauty that it startled him. He thought of her blue eyes, her soft dark hair, her embrace that was sturdy and gentle at the same time, and he felt the tug again in his chest, stronger this time. Katara. A feeling of longing so intense washed over him like a tidal wave, and the desire to have her in his arms again was overwhelming. His good eye welled with tears for a reason he couldn’t begin to understand, but as soon as it started, it was over. He hadn’t slept at all that night.

Iroh had taken it upon himself to be the friendliest old man aboard the ship, and wooed a handful of older women with his cooking and willingness to do chores for them. One night he had convinced everyone to take part in a pai sho tournament, and Zuko had to admit that it had been kind of fun. He hadn’t participated, but watching all the different people on the boat mingle as the few children aboard ran around deck had him thinking about everything the Fire Nation taught the children about the Water Tribes in their schools. They were taught that they were barbarians, violent and stupid. But Zuko had realized during his time on the ship that none of that was true at all. The Water Tribe people treated each other like they were all one big family, like nothing Zuko had ever seen before. In the Fire Nations, at least among the nobles, having distinct families was extremely important, and most of them had some animosity towards at least two other families. There always seemed to be a feud or plot among the noble Fire Nation families, but there was none of that here. Maybe things were different in the colonies, but he would never know. And they definitely weren’t stupid; on the contrary, Zuko found the Water Tribe peoples to be incredibly clever, able to adapt to any obstacle, just like their element. They ran into storms a few times, which were extremely different on a boat with sails than they were on a boat like Zuko’s, but the men always kept their cool and had a solution for every problem that came up. It was impressive, and Zuko had to admit that he could learn a thing or twelve about flexibility from these men and women.

He found himself enjoying his time, and that worried him. Good things never lasted for Zuko, and the closer he got to Kuruk and the other men, the more nervous he became. It was just a matter of time before they found out his secret, and then what? He did his best to balance being friendly and keeping his secrets close to his chest, trying to be open and closed off at the same time. Iroh, on the other hand, went all out on the friendliness— but that was his uncle’s comfort zone. A fair amount of the men had jokingly asked Zuko how he and his uncle could possibly be related, and he never really had an answer. He tried to be like his uncle, to be kind and fair and good, but he wasn’t the best at it. Despite all he had done to remedy it, he still held anger inside of him; anger at his father for abusing him his whole life, for using him as a punching bag and encouraging Azula to use him as a verbal punching bag, for molding his little sister into someone he couldn’t recognize, someone warped by her trauma and abuse. He thought of Azula a surprising amount on the Water Tribe ship. Seeing all of the sibling-like relationships on board made him yearn for the days when Azula was carefree and happy, when she chased him around the palace garden and he’d let her catch him and tackle him to the ground. He thought of his cousin Lu Ten and the relationship he wishes he could have had with him. This war had robbed him of so much, and he hadn’t even let himself think about it until he got on this ship and saw just what he had been missing.

After a month on the ship with nothing bad happening, Zuko should have known that bullshit was due at his doorstep any minute. The bullshit in this instance took the form of a band of pirates wishing to capture the beautiful Water Tribe ship. They had all fought valiantly, but in the end, Zuko had been in a do or die situation, and instinct had kicked in, flames bursting from his fist. Needless to say, the Water Tribe peoples were enraged; they had wanted to leave him on the pirate ship, but his uncle had convinced them to lock the two of them up in the brig instead. It was a long two weeks out of the sun, and more than once Zuko wondered if he should have just let himself die. But each time he had those thoughts, he looked over at this uncle, and was glad that he was still around, even if just for Iroh’s sake.

Six weeks after they had been picked up on the ship, they were tossed out at the first Earth Kingdom port the boat had come to, and left to their own devices. Kuruk had given Zuko a look that combined hurt and anger as he tossed his swords and a small bag of food towards them, the guilt like rocks in his stomach as he watched the boat sail away. Without a map and without a clue of where to go, his uncle decided that Ba Sing Se was their best bet to start a new life, and they set out on foot.

Chapter Text

 

 

“Follow me into the desert, as thirsty as you are; crack a smile and cut your mouth and drown in alcohol. '

Cause down below the truth is lying beneath the riverbed, so quench yourself and drink the water that flows below her head.

Oh no, there she goes out in the sunshine. The sun is mine, the sun is mine.” Burden in My Hand, Soundgarden

 

 

Xx

 

 

Their trek through the Earth Kingdom was long and exhausting, hallmarked by hunger and headaches. Zuko and his Uncle rationed their food as best they could, Zuko oftentimes sneaking part of his rations back into their bag; his uncle was old, and he needed the energy more than Zuko. They wandered from village to village, trying to find work however they could. Unfortunately, most of the villages they stopped in were full of people who were also poor and starving, and more often than not the two men ended up leaving each village with no more than they showed up with. Even though Zuko had been banished, he was still a prince; he had never been without food for more than a day, never had to build his own shelter, never had to cook his own meals. Sure, as the years wore on his father sent him less and less in terms of supplies, but the ports he and his crew stopped in were always full of things they could purchase, or at the very least barter for. The situation they found themselves in now was entirely different than anything he had ever experienced, and Zuko was beginning to fear that this is the life he had resigned them too when he took the Avatar’s side up in the North Pole. But it had been worth it.

Seeing first hand some of the destruction that the Fire Nation had brought upon the world had Zuko thinking more frequently that maybe the Avatar really was their last hope to ever return to a time of peace. Far too many people sympathized with him about his scar; people from each village they found had burn scars acting as physical reminders of the Fire Nation’s brutality and cruelty. They had stopped in one village after his uncle had mistaken a white jade bush for a white dragon bush; he ended up with a nasty rash, and a kind family had taken them in to help treat him. The daughter of the family, Song, had shown Zuko a burn scar on her right shin; he had to swallow past the acid in his throat at the thought of his father’s soldiers harming an innocent girl. She had tried to touch his scar in a show of sympathy, but he stopped her; he had never let anyone touch his scar aside from the healers who had tended to it right after he got it. Partially because of the fact that he had extremely limited vision out of that eye, and movements close to that side of his face startled him. But more than that, his scar was an act of deeply personal cruelty against him, and letting anyone touch it just felt… wrong. Even when he had been intimate with people in the past, he never let anyone touch it. 

He shoved those thoughts aside as they continued to travel; according to the map they had obtained, they were close to the Si Wong Desert, which meant they were slowly getting closer to Ba Sing Se. After the desert, the journey to the great walled city would be relatively short, something Zuko was incredibly thankful for. He had no idea what they would actually do once they got there, but not having to sleep on the dirt would be a welcome change from the routine of the past few weeks. 

Currently it was raining, the drops landing heavy on the dirt as Zuko and his uncle trudged on towards the desert. If they could move fast enough, it should only be a few days' journey to the edge of the Si Wong Desert, and Iroh seemed to be very sure that if they could get to Misty Palms Oasis within the desert, they would be in Ba Sing Se in no time after that. Zuko decided to trust his uncle’s judgement; he had lots of friends in convenient places, and Zuko knew that he could pull strings all over the world if he needed too. The rain picked up, causing Zuko to push his wet hair back and out of his eyes. He looked forward at the dark path ahead, wondering if maybe they should stop for the night.

“I think it’s about time to stop for the night, nephew,” Iroh said over a roll of thunder as a brief flash of lightning arced through the dark clouds above. “Best to get out of this rain while we still can.”

They find a dense area of trees and set up their tarp in a lean-to fashion for the night. The rain beats its percussion on the canvas, filling the gaps in conversation, lighting occasionally streaking across the sky in ribbons, splintering into the thick charcoal clouds. Zuko watches the sky as his uncle builds the fire; he is aware that only the best firebenders can generate lightning, his uncle being one of them. He had seen Iroh, on more than one occasion, redirect a bolt of lightning bound for the ship while they were in the middle of terrible storms out at sea, and he wonders what kind of skill it takes to harness such an incredible power.

“Uncle?” Iroh is brewing a pot of tea on the small fire at the edge of the canvas when Zuko interrupts him.

“Yes, Prince Zuko?”

“How do you bend lightning?” 

His uncle peers up at him, an indecipherable look in his amber eyes. Zuko is acutely aware of the folded skin and crows feet around his uncle’s eyes, the last seven years having taken a toll on both of them, his uncle more so than him.

“Lightning is created when a firebender is able to separate the positive and negative energies in the air.” He stands, Zuko standing with him, and starts making a circular motion with his arms. “The energies pull apart, and in their haste to become one, they crash back together. That meeting of opposite energies creates the lightning.” He gives Zuko a pointed look, and he feels a ghost of that strange tugging sensation he had felt on the water tribe ship. He has felt it many times since then; sometimes randomly, but mostly when he thought of Katara. Something about his uncle’s words strikes a chord in him; he feels it resonating in his chest, the vibrations odd, yet comforting. 

“That’s incredible...” He’s breathless, and chooses to believe that it’s from the exhilaration of learning about lightning generation. “Will you teach me?”

“No,” his uncle answers plainly. Zuko’s face falls as he listens to his uncle’s reasoning. “Generating lightning is extremely dangerous; you have to be completely devoid of emotion, completely in control of your thoughts.”

“I can do that!” Both Zuko and his uncle know it’s a lie as soon as he says it. He’s always been too emotional, too soft, too much. But if he wants to get his emotions under control, he can damn well try.

Iroh gives him a careful look, calculating something Zuko can’t see. “Fine, but you must be very careful.”

Zuko smiles like he’s seven years old and Iroh has brought him a new toy from a foreign land. They walk out from under the canvas shelter to a clearing not far away; the rain and thunder continue, but no lightning flashes accompany it.

“To generate lightning, you must separate the yin and yang energies in the air.” This time when he moves his arms, sparks trail after his fingers. “Your mind must be clear; lightning is not fueled by rage or emotion, and requires precision and an empty mind.” The trails of sparkling energy get longer. “When you force the yin and yang energies back together—” he brings his fingers together and shoots one hand out, lightning conjuring from his fingertips and striking off into the distance. “You create lightning.”

Zuko copies the movements his uncle had made with his hands, trying to focus his energy and clear his mind. It’s more difficult than he thought it would be; there are so many thoughts racing through his head all the time that even when he’s trying to quiet them, he can still hear the whispers.

“You must clear your mind, Prince Zuko.” 

He takes a deep breath, but the last of his thoughts won’t vacate his head. It isn’t like meditating; he feels like he’s under pressure, and the anxiety starts to creep its way up his legs and make them wobbly. He takes another deep breath, brings his hands together and out, and an explosion from his fingertips pushes him back, sending him crashing to the ground fifteen feet away from where he had stood.

“What happened? I thought I did it right, and it just… exploded.” He raises from the ground, trying unsuccessfully to brush the mud off of his clothes.

“It is as I thought.” His uncle comes over and puts his hand on Zuko’s shoulder. “Your emotions are too strong, and there is still turmoil inside of you.” Zuko looks at him skeptically, his one eyebrow raised towards his hairline. “Until you work through your conflicted feelings, your guilt and confusion, you will not be able to create lightning.” 

Zuko groans, hanging his head. “What guilt? I don’t feel guilty.” He leaves out the confusion part; he is most definitely confused.

Iroh shakes his head. “How about I teach you a technique that not even Azula knows?” Now he feels pathetic, like a child who can’t sit through his sister’s birthday without getting a toy himself. “I can teach you how to redirect lightning.” He has to admit, it does sound intriguing. He nods his head, and his uncle smiles.

“The most important part of redirecting lightning is to not let it touch your heart.” Iroh pokes Zuko’s chest where his heart resides beneath his ribs. “The idea behind the technique is to guide the lightning through your body, leading it around your heart, and out through your fingers.” He widens his stance and goes through a smooth motion, bringing the fingers of his left hand up to his outstretched right hand, down through his stomach, and out again, extending it into the air on the other side. “I invented this technique by watching waterbenders.” He winks at Zuko, who absolutely does not blush. “Waterbending is all about taking hold of your opponent's energy and using it against them. You are not forcing the lightning, you are simply guiding it.” They continue through the motion, Zuko getting a feel for the flowing movements of his arms the longer they practice. “The detour through the stomach is critical; if you do not lead the lightning around your heart, it will kill you.” 

“Okay, I'm ready to try it.” Zuko is determined, his jaw set and eyes serious.

“What?” His uncle’s tone is not encouraging. “Are you crazy? I’m not going to shoot lightning at you, nephew!”

“But I need to practice!” Zuko pleads with his uncle. “What if someone shoots lightning at me and I can’t redirect it?”

“If you are lucky, Prince Zuko,” he lays a level glare onto Zuko, and he feels his anger writhe in his stomach, rising to his throat like bile. “You will never have to use this technique at all.”

“Urhg!” Zuko throws his hands up into the air; how is he supposed to have faith in himself if nobody will have faith in him? “I’m taking a walk.” 

He stalks off into the trees, heading for the rocky hill in the distance. His thoughts are dark and scathing; he’s always harbored a certain amount of self hatred and doubt, and it pains him that his uncle doesn’t believe that he can do this. Maybe I can’t do it. His thoughts betray him as he shakes his head. Maybe my father is right; I’ve always been useless. Maybe uncle is finally seeing it now. He knows that isn’t true; his uncle loves him. But I know I don’t deserve it.

He battles his mind all the way to the top of the hill, pulling at his hair in a desperate attempt to push back his negative thoughts and control his breathing. The sky pours rain down in buckets, plastering his hair to his forehead, and thunder rumbles loud and long. He looks up into the sky as best he can in the downpour, doing his damnedest to keep from crying; he is overwhelmed by the negativity in his head, the harsh words sounding more and more like his father and Azula.

Failure. Disgrace. Pathetic. Weak. 

He screams into the night air with a particularly loud clap of thunder as his cover. He can’t tell the tears on his face from the downpour coming from the sky, but at this point, he doesn’t care if he cries. His breaths come fast and heavy as he tries to avoid an anxiety attack, but the effort is wasted. He falls to his knees, wondering what the hell he is doing with his life, and why he always ends up like this; exhausted, upset, and alone.

 

 

Xx

 

 

Katara is glad to have Toph as a part of the group. She really is.

But it seems that travelling with someone who’s never had to do a day of work in her life leaves much to be desired, and Katara is at the end of her rope dealing with Toph’s attitude, Appa’s incessant shedding, and now with the three violent young women they had dealt with in Omashu chasing them like a polar dog chasing a bone on a stick. After a full night of no sleep, they are getting desperate to find a way to get the girls off their trail, and Toph has stormed off into the distance in a fit of anger.

After thoroughly washing Appa to rid him of the shedding fur, Aang has an idea. 

“Okay, I'm going to take a bunch of Appa’s fur,” Aang picks up clumps of Appa’s fur from the river, drying it and stuffing it into his shoulder bag, “and try to lead them in a different direction. You guys just keep going and try to find Toph.” 

Aang’s plan is solid, but unfortunately it doesn’t stop the chi-blocking girl and the knife-throwing girl from catching up to them. Katara and Sokka almost lose the fight, but at the last minute, Appa sends a powerful gust of air towards the two fighters with his tail, propelling them into the large river that pulls them swiftly downstream.

“Thanks Appa.” Katara pats the bison affectionately, and they hop back in the saddle as he groans. 

They search for Toph with no luck, but they do see flashes of blue fire below them in an abandoned town as they fly. They bring Appa down, knowing the only person who has the ability to bend blue fire is after Aang, and had been suspiciously missing when they were caught by the two women at the river. The two siblings rush in to help, and the girl with the blue fire has Aang on the ropes. She’s an incredible fighter, precise and powerful, and Katara has to concentrate more than she ever has to beat her back. She evades their attacks, and Katara notices that there is red fire mixed in with the blue, looking like it’s targeting the dangerous woman as well. They continue to fight as Toph shows up, cocky as ever, and it’s when Katara notices Zuko has a fist pointed towards the woman as well that she knows they’ve beaten her. They back her into a corner, and she puts her hands up in the air.

“Well, look at this.” Her voice sends a shiver down Katara’s spine, the malice bleeding through her words. “Enemies and traitors working together. I’m done— I know when I've been beaten.” She looks like she really has given up, until the moment a bright burst of fire erupts from her fingertips and shoots out, hitting Zuko’s uncle in the shoulder, sending him sprawling to the ground.

“Argh!” Zuko shouts and shoots fire at the woman, the other three benders attacking with their elements and Sokka throwing his boomerang simultaneously, but a sphere of blue fire shields her from their attack, and the resulting explosion sends them all flying backwards, creating a huge cloud of dust. When the dust settles, the woman is gone, multiple buildings are on fire, and Zuko is kneeling next to his uncle. Katara rushes over, skidding painfully on her knees in her haste to get close to him.

“Katara!” Zuko’s voice is wrecked as he says her name, and her heart breaks for him. She sheaths her hands in water, pressing them gently to Iroh’s wound. He hisses in pain, and she sees Zuko flinch out of the corner of her eye. “Is he going to be okay?” He sounds like a small child, quiet and scared.

“He’ll be alright.” The wound is deep and ugly, the flesh burned and bloody, but she’s able to heal it so there’s minimal scarring. She lets out a heavy breath once she is done, flinging the dirty water over to the side of the road. She turns to look at Zuko, who is staring at his uncle with tears in his eyes.

“Thank you.” He looks up at Katara, and their hearts must be magnets, because the force pulls them together in a fierce embrace. She can feel Zuko’s tears soaking through the shoulder of her tunic as she strokes his hair. It feels so good to be in his arms; despite everything that just happened, she feels safe.

“Who was that?” Sokka asks from over Katara’s shoulder, and Zuko pulls away from her, her hands sliding down his arms to hold his hands in hers. She is cold where his body just was, and she doesn’t let go of his hands as he answers her brother.

“That was Azula...” he pauses to take a deep breath. “My sister.”

“Your sister? I’m confused.” Toph is kneeling at Iroh’s other side, something Katara finds curious.

“Yeah, she’s—” Zuko looks up at Toph, his face screwing up in confusion. “Wait, who are you?”

“I could ask you the same thing, Sparky.” Zuko looks at Katara as he mouths the word ”sparky?” and she laughs quietly. “I’m Toph, Aang’s earthbending teacher. I ran into your uncle out in the woods before we came here.”

“Oh.” Zuko looks over at Aang. “I’m glad you found an earthbending teacher.”

“Me too.” Aang smiles at Zuko, the smile turning softer as it lands on Toph. Zuko raises his eyebrow at Katara, who shrugs, unable to hide the small smile on her own face.

Iroh groans, and Zuko lets go of Katara’s hands as they help the old man sit up. “Oh, hello Lady Katara.” He sounds tired, but not like he’s in pain. “And hello again, Lady Toph.”

“I told you, grandpa.” Zuko’s eye bulges at the nickname. “It’s just Toph.” Iroh chuckles, and Katara wonders what’s going through Zuko’s mind as he tries to comprehend Toph’s familiarity with his uncle.

“We’re glad you’re okay Iroh.” Sokka moves forwards to help Zuko assist Iroh in standing up. “But we have to get going if we want to get to Ba Sing Se.” He looks at Zuko and they nod at each other.

“Oh, Ba Sing Se is our destination as well! What a coincidence,” Iroh chimes in, looking back and forth between Zuko and Katara suspiciously.

“Why don’t you guys come with us?” Aang asks, sounding hopeful, but he already knows their answer.

“It’s too dangerous.” Zuko looks from Sokka to Aang. “We can’t risk it. We’re still fugitives, and we’ll have to live there as refugees. You won’t be able to get anything done if you’re stuck in the lower tier with us.” He looks down at Katara, his gold eyes shining, something in them drawing Katara in. What would it be like if I just… “We have to split up,” he interrupts Katara’s thoughts, heat rising to her cheeks as she realizes where her thoughts had been headed. She ducks her head to try to hide her blush, and doesn’t see Iroh turn towards Toph, who’s wearing her smirk like a crown.

They say their goodbyes, Katara making sure she is the last to speak to Zuko. They stare into each other’s eyes for a moment before embracing; his body is warm and solid, the smell of wood smoke wafting into her nose as he holds her to his chest. They part slowly, his hands trailing down her arms and hers down his sides to make the contact last as long as it can.

“We’’ll see each other again.” She’s getting lost in his eyes as they dart back and forth between hers.

“How do you know?” His voice is quiet, just for her, and she wants to lift up onto her toes and kiss the words right off of his lips.

“I can feel it.” She knows he won’t think she’s crazy; she knows that he feels it too. He nods at her as she pulls away, and when she looks back at him once she’s seated in Appa’s saddle, he is still looking at her. She lifts up her hand in a wave, his rising in response before they part.

“Appa, yip yip!” Aang’s voice breaks the spell, bringing her tumbling back to reality as they rise into the air.

“So...” Toph turns to her with an shit eating grin spread across her small face. “Who’s your boyfriend?” Katara sputters, sure her face is redder than it’s ever been.

“That’s Zuko.” Sokka answers without missing a beat. “We've run into him a few times since we saved him from drowning in the South Pole.”

“He’s not my boyfriend!” She finally gets the words out of her mouth, only to be met with three very skeptical looks pointed in her direction.

“Sure thing, Sugar Queen.”

Chapter Text



“Tell me if you're straying off, same as you were, they're calling you out.

Is this the sign of the end, are we losing air?” Skullflower, The Sound Of Animals Fighting



Xx



Zuko’s chest had been sore every day since he last saw Katara in the abandoned desert town. Well, not physically sore, but if he didn’t know better he would have thought it was an illness of some kind. As it was, he knew that it was an emotional response. “We’ll see each other again.” She had been so sure, so confident when she said those words to him before they parted. “I can feel it.” As strange as it was, he believed her with no hesitation, mostly due to the fact that he could feel it too. He didn’t know what “it” was, but he definitely felt something. If he were younger, he probably would have written it off as indigestion. His uncle had been looking at him funny ever since they split from Katara and the others; Zuko would catch Iroh peering at him out of the corner of his eye every now and then, but every time Zuko turned, his uncle turned away. He tried asking him about it (“What? Do I have something on my face?”) but his uncle would never give him a real answer— he was learning that Iroh was a master of the “non-answer”. 

But, despite how annoying his uncle was sometimes, he did find them a way to the dock at Full Moon Bay, and had somehow acquired passports for them as well. Zuko felt that it was best not to question things like this, as his uncle would give him yet another non-answer and then rapidly change the subject. They had suffered through a long ride stuffed into large fake flower pots to get to the bay; Zuko didn’t think he would ever get all the dirt out of his shaggy hair, and was still shaking it out as they got their tickets. Iroh was chatting up the unfriendly woman at the counter while Zuko looked around. He had hoped to see Katara, but she wasn’t here. What would he have done if she was here, anyway? Run up to her, spin her around in his arms, and kiss her in front of all these people? That sounds really nice, actually. He shook himself out of his thoughts as his uncle led them over to a small bench where they waited for the ferry.

 

Xx

 

He wasn’t sure what he had been expecting when he heard the word “ferry,” but it definitely wasn’t this. It was packed with refugees; they had to go outside to find an empty place to stand, and even then they were surrounded. He had been looking forward at least to eating real food— the weeks on the road hardly ever eating an actual meal had resulted in him losing quite a bit of weight, and he was sick of his ass being sore every time he sat down. But Zuko never got nice things, so when he tries the food, he almost immediately spits it out.

“This stuff tastes like garbage!” He holds the bowl away from him with a disgusted face. “I just want some real fucking food!”

“If you aren’t going to eat that nephew,” Iroh says from his place next to Zuko. “I’ll gladly take it off your hands!” 

He hands the bowl over to his uncle. “Be my guest.” He heaves a sigh and leans against the railing. “I’m so sick of living like this.”

“Aren’t we all?” 

Zuko spins around at the sound of a voice, coming face to face with a handsome man who looks to be around his age with a piece of straw poking out of his mouth.

“Uh...” Zuko struggles for words; he had never been good at talking to pretty people, and the man in front of him is definitely pretty.

“My name’s Jet.” He has a look in his eyes that makes Zuko blush. Jet's mouth tipps up in a smirk when he notices. “These are my Freedom Fighters, Longshot and Smellerbee,” he gestures behind him to a lanky young man and his androgenous friend standing next to him.

“Hey.” Smellerbee nods, as does Longshot.

“Hello.” He nods back, regaining some of his composure.

“So...” Jet leans on the railing next to him, propping himself on his arm so that he can look in Zuko’s eyes, and his composure slips away once again. “We heard that the captain is eating real food, and lots of it. We don’t think it’s very fair that he gets all the good stuff and we’re stuck with the scraps.” The Freedom Fighters nod behind him. “We were thinking that later tonight we could “liberate” some food from the kitchens. What do you say?” He leans into Zuko’s space a little more, causing a distracting fluttering sensation to arise in Zuko’s stomach.

“I’m in,” he agrees, and Jet smirks and winks and Zuko; he feels the heat crawl back onto his cheeks.

 

Xx

 

As soon as night falls, Jet finds Zuko and they sneak up to the kitchen area. They break into the kitchen, and begin to pack bowls and bags of food into the large sacks that Jet had brought with him. They don’t speak while they work, and soon they are hopping out of the window and sliding down a rope that Longshot had strategically placed for them with an arrow. They bring the bounty back to Iroh and Smellerbee, distributing the food and digging in. It’s the heartiest food Zuko has had in too many months, and he savors every bite. Jet eyes him as he lets out a soft sound of appreciation.

“I hear they eat like this every night in Ba Sing Se.” Jet is leaned up against the railing almost shoulder to shoulder with Zuko as they eat. “I can’t wait to see that glorious wall.”

“It’s truly a magnificent sight,” Iroh cuts in. Zuko is grateful that his uncle doesn’t judge him for who he chooses to spend his time with; Jet’s proximity and lingering look is making his intentions crystal clear.

“Oh, you’ve been there before?” Jet looks interested in Iroh’s story, but Iroh isn’t going to indulge him by recounting it.

“Once, when I was a different man.” A solemn look shrouds Iroh’s face, and Jet looks down at his bowl of food.

“I’ve made some mistakes in my past that I'm not proud of.” He looks at Zuko, their eyes level with each other. “That’s why we’re headed to Ba Sing Se; for a fresh start.”

“Us too.” Zuko looks back down at his bowl, a dusting of red on his cheeks, and he notices that Jet is still looking at him. He’s glad Jet is on his right side, allowing Zuko to peek at him discreetly out of the corner of his eye.

“That’s very noble of you,” his uncle gets Jet’s attention again. “I believe everyone has the ability to start over. Everyone should be given a second chance.” Jet nods, and they finish their food in silence. 

By the time they’re done, the hour is late. Iroh lays down to sleep, and Longshot and Smellerbee head off to bed as well. Zuko is left just with Jet, the privacy prompting his heart to begin to pick up pace in his chest.

“Want to take a walk?” 

Jet leads Zuko to a less populated area, and when they round a corner, he suddenly pushes Zuko up against the wall, one arm braced on his chest to keep him there.

“I know what you are.” Zuko’s heart is beating frantically in his chest as he tries to think of an escape plan. His swords are trapped between his back and the wall, and there’s no way he can firebend. “You’re like me.” Zuko makes eye contact with Jet, who surges forward to kiss him.

Oh. His nerves fade as he relaxes into the kiss, Jet’s hands snaking up into his hair as Zuko’s roam his broad back. It’s been so long since he’s kissed anyone, and he drinks it up as Jet’s skilled lips part his own. Jet moves one of his hands down (he doesn’t touch the scar, and Zuko tries not to think about it) and pushes it up under Zuko’s shirt, making him shiver, and Zuko takes hold of Jet’s hips and pulls him closer so their bodies are flush against each other. Jet pulls away from Zuko’s lips to kiss and suck on his neck, and Zuko’s head rolls to the side to allow him more access. His eyes open briefly, and they fall upon the full moon shining bright overhead. Bright blue eyes, soft brown hair, the smell of fresh rain... Zuko closes his eyes against the thought of Katara; it’s not like they’re… anything, really. He shouldn’t be thinking about her now, and when Jet pushes his leg in between Zuko’s, it becomes much easier to stay in the moment. He pulls Jet back up to his face and kisses him fiercely, making up for all the months he’s gone without any physical intimacy. Jet pushes his thigh up against Zuko, and he lets out a small groan, letting himself get lost in the moment. He doesn’t think about Katara, he doesn’t think about the Fire Nation or the Avatar— he doesn’t think about anything.

 

Xx

 

They part ways when the ferry docks in Ba Sing Se. There’s no heartfelt goodbye, no soft parting words. Zuko and Jet nod at each other, then head off to their new lives. Zuko isn’t a fool; he knows there were no feelings attached to what they did, and he’s fine with that. He’s never actually had a real relationship, and he’s not about to start one with some random guy he met on a ferry, no matter how attractive he is. Besides, I love—

Oh, no.

He had tried so hard not to think those words, knowing that once he did, it would be all the more real. I can’t love someone I barely know. He struggles mentally, lagging behind Iroh as he leads them to where they will be staying. There’s no way he loves her, it’s just not possible. He doesn’t even think all the time they’ve spent together adds up to more than a few hours, his unconscious time in the South Pole notwithstanding. How can he love someone who he knows nothing about?

But still, there’s that bone deep ache in his chest, the one that flares up whenever he sees the color blue or looks up at the moon hanging gracefully in the night sky. Whenever she’s in his dreams, she feels so real, so solid in his arms. He had to actively fight not to think of her when he was with Jet, to stop wishing that those were her lips under his, her hands in his hair. He thinks he would be the happiest man alive if he could just hold her hand. Agni, how corny does that sound? He’s turning into a hopeless romantic, and he can’t get Katara out of his head until he and Iroh arrive at their destination.

“Here it is!” Iroh gestures happily to a slightly run down building. “It’s just a little flat on the second floor, and we’ll have to share a room, but I think this will make a lovely home.”

Home. Zuko hasn’t had a real home for the past seven years, and maybe he’s a pessimist, but he doubts this place will ever be a home to him. He doesn’t want to build a life here. What do I want? It’s a question he isn’t sure he has an answer too. He wants the war to be over. He wants to take his rightful place on the throne of his nation. He wants to help the world repair itself, to help the other nations see that the Fire Nation can be kind and just if they’re given the chance. He wants to feel like he truly belongs somewhere. He doesn’t want to be a burden on his uncle; he’d deny it if Zuko asked, but he knows that his uncle just wants to settle down, and that he's getting in the way of that dream. He wants to feel loved. That’s one desire that he keeps deep inside, where no one can ever find it. He may want to be loved, but does he deserve it? He isn’t so sure. What has he ever done in his life that makes him worthy of love?

As he lays down to sleep that night, his uncle’s snores a cacophony in the bed across the small room, his mind is plagued with these questions. He runs through them over and over again trying to figure out what it is that he really wants out of life. When the moon is high in the sky, he settles on a phrase that he thinks might cover everything, that wraps up his desires in a neat little package and ties it with a nice bow.

He wants to feel safe; in the world, in his home, and in his heart. 

Chapter Text



“You're sick, sick as all the secrets that you deny. 

Sins like skeletons are so very hard to hide.” Reclusion, Anberlin

 

 

Xx

 

“Hello! I’m Joo Dee!” A friendly woman with a too-big smile greets them as they enter the great walled city. “I’ve been given the great honor of guiding the Avatar and his friends around our beautiful city. Shall we begin?”

“Yes.“ Sokka steps forward with a stern look on his face. “We have to talk to the Earth King immediately; we have information about the war that we need to relay to him.”

“Great!” Katara is eighty percent sure that Joo Dee didn’t hear anything her brother had just said. “Let’s begin the tour, and then I’ll show you to where you will be staying while you are in our glorious city!”

“Lady, maybe you didn’t catch what I just said.” Sokka steps in front of the woman; he’s a head taller than her, and his broad shoulders and no-bullshit tone paint an intimidating picture. “We need to talk to the King, we have valuable information about the war that he needs to know!”

“Everyone is safe here in Ba Sing Se!” She smiles that too-big smile, steps around Sokka, and begins to lead them down to a carriage. Katara shares a look with Aang and her brother, none of them understanding what just happened.

“This place is full of shit,” Toph mutters behind them as they head to the carriage.

Joo Dee carts them around the city, talking about the lower ring as they pass through.

“Why do you have all the poor people stuffed into the lower ring?” Katara questions as she watches a knife fight break out in an alleyway as the carriage passes by. Joo Dee doesn’t answer, continuing to smile and talk about all the artisans and refugees that live in the section of the city closest to the outer wall, ignoring the gaunt faces and poor living conditions all around them as they travel along the busy streets.

“This is why I never wanted to come here,” Aang laments and rests his chin in his hand, sitting opposite Katara in the carriage. “They live so much differently than the monks always taught us to.” The carriage ambles on through the lower ring, the four of them staying silent as Joo Dee babbles on.

“And this is the middle ring!” As soon as they pass through the second wall, the city immediately looks cleaner and more put together. The difference between the two areas is shocking, the class division growing more stark before their eyes. “This is where the shops and restaurants are, as well as the financial district and Ba Sing Se University!”

“Yeah, we met a professor from the university...” Sokka is leaned back against the wall of the carriage, a downward tilt to his brows. “He came into an ancient underground spirit library with us, where we found crucial information about the war that the Earth King needs to hear !” His voice gets louder as he speaks and slowly tilts forward in his seat to look at Joo Dee.

“Yes, the University is a wonderful part of our city! The history of Ba Sing Se is so interesting; look, those are some of the oldest buildings in the city!” Joo Dee totally ignores Sokka, and his mouth drops open in surprise.

“What’s wrong with her? She’s not listening to me at all!”

“It’s called ‘being handled,’” Toph snarks from her seat beside Aang, “and you better get used to it.” 

They continue on through the middle ring, eventually getting through the wall leading to the upper ring. The opulence and gaudy atmosphere of the upper ring is tainted by the images of poor, thin faces that Katara had seen in the lower ring.

“This is the upper ring, where all our most important citizens live!” sJoo Dee says “most important,” but Katara hears “richest.” “This is where you all will be staying!”

“What’s that?” Sokka leans out and points to a large gilded gate, guarded by three men in long, dark green robes and wearing weird looking hats. Their eyes follow the carriage, and Katara feels a chill go up her spine. “And who are the creepy dudes in green?”

“Those are the gates to the royal palace, and those gentlemen are agents of the Dai Li, the cultural authority of Ba Sing Se. They protect our city’s wonderful heritage!”

“Can’t we just see the Earth King now?” Aang looks about ready to jump out of the carriage before he even gets an answer.

“Oh, no!” Joo Dee sounds downright offended. “One does not just “pop in” on the Earth King! Imagine all the guests he would have if we let that happen!” She laughs, a strage, tinkling sound that is stiff and artificial. Aang slumps back in his seat, a discouraged look befalling his face.

“Here it is, your new home!” The carriage drops them off at a large, fancy-looking house. The gang exits the carriage as a man approaches Joo Dee and hands her a scroll. “Good news! Your request to see the Earth King is being processed!” Everyone sighs in relief as she rolls up the scroll. “You will hear from his staff about a meeting in about a month, which is much faster than usual! He must be excited to see you.” 

“A month?!” The four of them shout at the same time, frustrations mounting and bursting like a clogged sewer pipe.

Joo Dee beams at them. “Six to eight weeks, to be exact!” They are silent as Joo Dee continues to smile, beginning to walk towards the house. With no other ideas of what to do, they follow her inside. “Isn’t it lovely in here!” Katara has to admit, it is a beautiful house. “I think you all will really enjoy your time here.”

“Yeah, it’s great and all, but can’t we see the Earth King any sooner?” Sokka sounds desperate, and she understands why; spending almost two months in the city is unacceptable. They simply don’t have the time.

“The Earth King will see you as soon as he has the time.” Joo Dee’s manufactured smile splits her face in two, showing far too many teeth for Katara’s liking. “He is quite busy running our fantastic city!” A collective groan ripples through the group as they realise their pleas are going unheard.

“Well...” Aang's face is set in determination. “If we’re going to be here a while, we should use our time to look for Appa.” The group mobilizes, preparing to leave.

“I’ll be happy to escort you anywhere you’d like to go!” Joo Dee pipes up, because of course she does.

“We don’t need a babysitter,” Toph says what the rest of the group is thinking in a frustrated tone.

“Oh, but if I left you alone, I’d be a poor host!” She moves towards the door, entirely blocking their path. “I can assure you that I won’t get in the way!” Another groan emanates from the four of them, and they realise that they won’t be shaking Joo Dee any time soon.

 

 

Xx

 

 

Zuko never thought he could hate tea as much as he does now. His uncle had found them jobs in a little tea shop in the city, and since apparently Zuko couldn’t brew a good pot of tea to save his life, he was charged with taking orders and serving customers. Interacting with people was not his strong suit, and he found it difficult to keep his cool. After every few customers he would get frustrated, smoke threatening to blow from his nose, but he held back; it was imperative that he and his uncle keep their firebending a secret, which meant they couldn’t use it at all. The fact that Zuko couldn’t even blow off steam by practicing his katas or his bending was making it that much more difficult for him to stay in control, especially in the face of rude customers.

“Young man!” He lets out a measured breath as a middle aged woman calls to him. “I had ordered the citrus green tea, and I don't taste any citrus in this at all.” Zuko walks over to the table the woman is at and reaches to pick up the pot of tea that had just placed down a minute ago.

“Ma’am, I can assure you that this is the citrus green tea that you ordered, but I will take it back and have my uncle remake it for you.”

“I don’t appreciate your tone, sir. I’d like to speak to your manager!” He would have flown off the handle if it wasn’t for the woman’s son who shot Zuko a painfully apologetic look.

“Of course, I'll send him right out.” Zuko walks calmly back to the kitchen, groaning once he gets through the swinging door that separates it from the front of house. “Some lady at table four wants to talk to you about her tea not being citrusy enough.”

“Oh, no!” Zuko admires his uncle for genuinely giving a shit about some random lady’s opinion of his tea. “I’ll go speak to her.” 

Iroh hurries out the swinging door, and Zuko has no doubt that the grumpy woman will be laughing and enjoying a free pot of the same exact tea , and probably some free pastries as well, in no time. He knows his uncle isn’t actually the manager, but the owner of the shop, Pao, is out getting some things at the market, and his uncle is the closest thing he’s going to get to an actual manager. 

“Zuko, bring some of the lemon pastries out to table four,” his uncle instructs as he hurries back into the kitchen, immediately going to brew a new pot of the citrus green tea.

“Uncle, you know they do this just because they want free stuff, right?” 

“Zuko, what is most important is that the customer is happy!” Zuko rolls his eyes so hard that he fears they’ll stick in the back of his head. He thinks about bolting right out the back door and never returning to the little tea shop, but thinks better of it. At least I wouldn’t have to serve tea anymore. “Now go bring those pastries out to the nice woman and her son.”

 

Xx

 

A few days pass, and the teashop is becoming more popular due to Iroh’s superior tea making skills. Zuko is stacking up some pastries for the display, trying to get creative and take as much time as possible so that he can avoid dealing with customers, when he hears the door bang open.

“I’m not waiting anymore!” Zuko was definitely not expecting Jet to burst through the door, and he wonders what could possibly be important enough for him to make such a scene over; literally everyone in the shop is staring at him. “These two men are firebenders!” He points his hooked sword at Zuko and his uncle, their mouths open in surprise. Nobody in the shop moves as Zuko and Iroh look at each other, both of them at a loss for words. “It’s true! I saw the old man heating his tea!”

“Dude, he works in a tea shop.” A younger customer who frequently comes into the shop answers Jet with a raised brow, and the other patrons of the shop share looks of confusion and worry. Jet growls and takes out his other sword.

“They’re firebenders, I’m telling you!” It’s clear that nobody believes him, and a few burly men stand slowly and begin to walk around their table.

“Put down the swords, son,” one of them says to Jet in a calm voice, but it only seems to upset him further. Jet looks back towards Zuko, hatred clouding his eyes.

“I’ll show them. You’ll have to defend yourself by firebending, and then they’ll see!” Jet runs at Zuko, swords raised, as customers start to shout. I can’t believe I hooked up with this guy. 

Zuko jumps over the counter with a grunt, snagging two swords off the back of one of the customers in line, and takes a strong stance in front of Jet. Customers flee the shop as they begin to fight, swords slashing through tables, smashing teapots, and tipping over chais. The two continue to fight, eventually moving outside to the front of the tea shop.

“Bet you must be getting tired of using those swords!” Jet swipes at Zuko’s feet, forcing him to leap into the air to avoid the attack. “Why don’t you use a little firebending to help yourself out?” The only answer Zuko gives him is a grunt as they continue to move into the street, the sound of swords clashing together as the fight grows more intense drawing people in to form a crowd.

“Please, son!” Iroh shouts from the doorway. “You need help! Don’t do this!” 

Jet growls as he runs towards Zuko again, who maneuvers so that they are back to back. They try to slash at each other in a stilted, violent dance, and Zuko eventually shoves himself backwards into Jet, effectively pushing him away so that he can turn around. Their swords fly through the air; one of Zuko’s swipes at Jet, who has to bend backwards to avoid it, the thin piece of straw he always carries in his mouth getting caught in the sword’s path and snapping in half.

“You see that!” Jet is shouting to the crowd, desperately trying to get someone to listen to him. “The Fire Nation is trying to silence me! Well, you’ll never get away with it!” He charges at Zuko full tilt, Zuko countering as he gets pushed back towards the shop.

“Lower your weapons!” Zuko looks up to see two men dressed in long green robes walking up to them. He places his swords on the ground, as does Jet. “What’s going on here?”

“Arrest them!” Jet shouts, pointing at Zuko and Iroh with wild eyes. “They’re firebenders!”

“Please, the poor young man is just confused!” Iroh pleads, and Zuko silently commends his uncle for never failing to treat everyone with kindness. Even if they’ve attacked his nephew and almost ruined their new lives.

“This man barged into my tea shop, damaged my property, attacked my employees, and harassed my customers!” Pao must have gotten back to the shop just in time to see Jet storm in and cause a scene.

“It’s true!” One of the customers corroborates his story. “We saw the whole thing. He attacked the best tea maker in the whole city!”

“Oh, how sweet!” Iroh smiles and blushes at the compliment.

“Come with us, son.” The men (who Zuko assumes are a part of the authority force of the city) grab Jet’s arms, forcing his hands behind his back.

“No!” Jet struggles against their hold to no avail. “They’re firebenders, you have to believe me!” He gets carried off, and the crowd disperses as the drama of the situation fades. Zuko calms his breathing around the heart still beating frantically in his chest. That was too close.

 

Chapter Text



“From the day you arrived I've remained on your side, in chains, entombed. 

Placed inside, safe and sound.” Entombed, Deftones.

 

 

Xx



The last week in Ba Sing Se was the most eventful week Katara had ever experienced. Meeting with the Earth King had definitely been a bust at first; they had managed to sneak into a party of his by disguising themselves as guests and servers, only to find out that Long Feng, the leader of the Dai Li, was the one truly in charge of the city, and that King Kuei was just a figurehead. Long Feng had threatened them to ensure their silence, and their plan to get the Earth King’s forces behind them for the invasion was dead in the water. While trying to come up with a plan, they all took a much needed day off, and her and Toph had a spa day, which actually ended up being kind of fun. They had run into Jet, of all people, who had been brainwashed by the Dai Li, and once Katara had broken him out of his mind control, he had led them to the Dai Li’s secret underground hideout beneath Lake Laogai where said brainwashing took place. He helped them finally find Appa, at the expense of his own life (Katara isn’t stupid; she knows that his injuries were fatal), and in the process they had made themselves a primary enemy of the Dai Li and Long Feng. 

Immediately following that, they had stormed the Earth King’s palace, battling their way in to tell him the truth about the Dai Li, and about the war raging on outside the walls. Long Feng had protested the story they told about the Dai Li, and when they had gone to Lake Laogai to show Kuei the chambers underneath, the entrance was gone. Long Feng had tried to use that to prove that they were lying, but a large bite mark from Appa on his leg proved his guilt. They had to bring the Earth King to the outer wall to show him the enormous drill that Azula had breached it with for him to believe them fully about the Dai Li and the war, but eventually he realised the truth. The Earth King had ordered the arrest of Long Feng right there on the wall, and had assigned his Council of Five to discuss how best to help Aang and the others on the day of black sun. 

Back at the palace, they learned that Long Feng had been collecting information on everyone in the city, and had also been intercepting mail addressed to the four of them. Katara and Sokka found out where their father was thanks to an intelligence report that placed him at the mouth of Chameleon Bay, and her heart had swelled in her chest at the news. Among the other hidden papers were a letter from Toph’s parents requesting her visit to where they were staying in the city, and a letter to Aang from a guru at the Eastern Air Temple who could supposedly help him learn to control the Avatar state. And, before they had left their audience with the Earth King, a messenger had come with news that the Kyoshi Warriors were there to speak to Kuei as well. At this point things seemed to be going well, and the group was happy that something was finally going right in this damned city. 

The next day, they decide that it’s best if they split up for the time being. Aang will go to the Eastern Air Temple to meet the guru, Toph will go to see her parents, and Sokka will meet up with their father. Katara offered to stay behind to help King Kuei with the preparations for the invasion; she knows how much her brother misses their dad, and as much as she misses him too, she knows Sokka misses him even more. The two of them have always had a special bond, and Katara won’t take the opportunity to see their dad away from Sokka. They have a group hug before they all part ways, and promise each other that they will meet back up soon. Aang and Sokka fly off on Appa, and Toph heads out into the city to find her parents. Katara decides it will be nice to pay a visit to Suki at the palace; it’s been a while since she last saw the Kyoshi warrior, and they have a lot to catch up on. She walks into the palace, for the first time in a while feeling like her troubles are far away, and heads to the throne room where she assumes Suki will be. She enters the room and sees three Kyoshi warriors, and a wide smile breaks out on her face.

“Suki!” She starts running towards who she thinks is Suki, only to stop short when she notices that the girl’s eyes are amber, not Suki’s normal grey. Katara takes a step back, confusion a dark shroud over her face.

“Not quite, I'm afraid.” The voice that comes out of the woman impersonating Suki sends a chill up Katara’s spine. She knows that voice…

“Azula.” She gets her water ready, but before she can attack, Ty Lee has jumped behind her and blocked her chi, rendering her arms useless.

“This should be fun.” Azula stalks towards her, and a handful of Dai Li agents sweep silently into the room, apparently at her command now that Long Feng is in jail. “Throw her in the cave.”

The Dai Li trap her hands and feet in rock, and take her down a few hallways before they open up a wall to reveal a secret passage. They throw Katara in, calling back their rock gloves as she slides down a chute, flinging off the end to land hard on the stone floor.

“Hey!” She runs back to the slide, but the passage she just came from is completely dark. “Let me out!” 

Okay Katara, don’t panic. She looks around the cavern she was thrown into; it’s a large open space, lit only by the hundreds of glowing green crystals speckling the ceiling and the huge glowing stalagmites and stalactites that protrude from the ground and ceiling. She feels around the walls, trying to see if any of it feels softer or looser or something, there has to be a way out!

She’s gone around the entire perimeter twice, and she can’t find anything that resembles an exit, or any loose rock that could be blasted through with her water. Even if she had, she doesn’t know if it would even lead her anywhere. Most likely, the cavern is encased by thick rock on all sides, leaving no way to escape. Her breaths come quicker, tears springing to her eyes as she sits down on the floor to try to catch her breath. Terror grips her, the walls feel like they are closing in around her as her tears fall down her face. She hugs her legs to her chest, lowering her face to brace her head on her knees, and closes her eyes. What am I going to do?

 

 

Xx

 

 

Zuko and his uncle walk proudly to the Earth King’s palace. Soon after the incident with Jet, a man had come to Iroh offering him his own tea shop up in the middle ring. To Pao’s dismay, his uncle had accepted, and The Jasmine Dragon had very quickly made a name for itself among the better-off citizens of the middle ring. Business had boomed, and Zuko had actually found himself enjoying the work and spending time with his uncle. The thought that maybe he could eventually build a life in this city had crossed his mind more than once, and since they were finally out of the poor lower ring, he had a greater chance of running into Katara if she was still in the city. He had gone looking for her a few different times with no luck, and he couldn’t pretend that he wasn’t disappointed. But yesterday afternoon, a messenger had come for Iroh holding a scroll from the Earth King himself inviting them to perform a tea ceremony for him. His uncle had been ecstatic, and Zuko had let his uncle’s happiness wash over him like the warm rays of the sun at midday. 

“I have imagined myself at these gates many times in my life...” He and his uncle stand at the large opulent gates to the palace. “But always as a conqueror, never as a guest. Destiny is a funny thing, my nephew.”

“Yes.” Zuko smiles at Iroh as the gates open. “It really is.”

They walk up the grand staircase leading into the palace, a million thoughts running through Zuko’s mind. I can’t believe we’re serving tea to the Earth King. Never in his wildest dreams did he imagine he would be here, now, doing this, but like his uncle said; destiny is a funny thing. If a teenage Zuko had been told that this is where he would end up, whoever delivered the massage would have likely been thrown into the sea. They are led into the empty throne room and they prepare the tea, Zuko anxious, and Iroh calm as usual. The tea is set, and after a few minutes, the Earth King has yet to show up.

“Where is he?” Zuko whispers to Iroh, a funny feeling growing in his chest.

“Maybe the Earth King overslept?” It’s a weak excuse, and as the feeling of unease in Zuko gets stronger, Dai Li agents appear from nowhere and start to form a circle around them.

“This isn’t right. Something’s going on here.” Zuko’s eyes narrow, as do Iroh’s, as they try to assess the situation.

“Hello, Zuzu, uncle.” Azula walks into the throne room, her stride confident and pompous, as if she herself should be sitting on the throne.

“Azula!” Zuko and his uncle jump up as men dressed like the two that had taken Jet away appear around them and press in closer.

“Have you met the Dai Li?” She wears a predatory smile, looking at them as if they’re her prey and she’s going in for the kill. “They’re really very skilled earthbenders, although their killer instinct is so firebender.”

“Have I ever told you about how I got the name “The Dragon of The West?” Zuko looks at his uncle out of the corner of his eye, noticing he is holding a cup of tea, his face passive and relaxed.

“Uhg, I really don’t have time for one of your lengthy anecdotes, uncle.” Azula looks bored, not realizing the mistake she’s made by underestimating their uncle.

“It’s more of a demonstration, really.” Iroh shoots Zuko a look and takes a sip of tea, before spewing huge flames out of his mouth, turning in a circle to get the Dai Li out of the way. Zuko punches a massive ball of fire into the closest wall, creating a hole that him and his uncle jump through quickly. They run down the palace hallways, and Iroh stops to shoot some lightning at a wall marking the end of the corridor, blasting a hole in it that leads to the outside of the palace.

“Come on, Zuko!” his uncle yells as Zuko fights off the stone gloves the Dai Li are throwing at him to try to catch his ankles. Iroh jumps out of the hole and lands in some bushes, motioning at Zuko to jump as well. “You’ll be fine!”

“No!” Zuko backs away from the opening, and turns around to face Azula. “I’m tired of running.” He drops into a firebending stance, the warmth blooming in his chest a welcome heat after going so long without bending.

“You’re so dramatic,” his sister scoffs, not looking worried in the slightest. “What are you going to do? Challenge me to an Agni Kai?”

“Yes! I challenge you!” Determination flows through Zuko as he prepares to fight Azula.

“Hmm...” she puts her finger to her chin in mock indecision. “No thanks.” 

The Dai Li attack, throwing their rock gloves and large slabs of the floor at Zuko. He manages to hold them off until a pair of gloves knocks him off his feet, another one quickly trapping his hand as he braces it on the floor. The Dai Li manipulate his body with the help of their stupid rock gloves from hell and get his hands bound behind him and his feet trapped to the floor. They earthbend the floor beneath him to slide him along past a smirking Azula.

“Throw him in the cave.” 

She walks off as he is swiftly led down multiple different hallways by the Dai Li, struggling against his bonds even though he knows it’s hopeless. I’m so stupid. Why didn’t I just leave with uncle? Suddenly, the Dai Li open up a wall to reveal a dark hole, and Zuko has no time to act before they literally throw him into it, calling back the restraints and slamming the wall shut behind him as he slides down towards an ominous green glow.

 

 

Chapter Text



“Find a reason: Is it the change of season? Maybe it's just a color I can't see, or maybe it's not meant for me. I

s it all of the above? See, that's the funny thing about love; it's never been a friend to me, just an artificial enemy.

I've known it's face, but only watched it leave.” Colorblind, Movements



Xx



“Oof!”

Katara raises to her feet and spins around as the noise of someone hitting the ground echoes through the vast cavern. She reaches for her water in case she needs to defend herself as she looks at the man who is sprawled awkwardly on the floor. She gasps as she recognizes him and bends the water back into her waterskin.

“Zuko!” 

He whips around at hearing her voice, his right eye wide as he recognises her. “Katara!”

They run towards each other, and she practically bowls him over with the force of her body as they crash into one another. Her arms wrap around his neck, and he lifts her up for just a moment when he gets his arms around her waist. He’s always so warm.  

“Katara...” 

Her name falls like feathers from his lips, and part of her heart melts at the sound. She feels a humming in her chest, a slight vibration in her soul, and it feels so right to be close to him. He sets her down on the ground, but they don’t let go of each other; she’s so happy to see him, she thinks she might cry. His arms are wrapped entirely around her waist, so far that his fingers are creeping back around to her front, and she revels in the feel of his warmth, basking in it like a cat in the sun. Her head is pressed into his neck, that smell of wood smoke and something uniquely Zuko flooding her senses. She can feel his face tucked into her shoulder, his warm breath ghosting through her tunic, and their close proximity is driving her crazy. 

They stand together and breathe, Katara’s panic dissipating the longer they hold each other. She could stay like this forever— she wants to stay like this forever— but they’re kind of stuck in an underground cave with no exit, and it’s pretty important that they get out.

“Zuko, your sister—”

“Azula—” 

They start speaking at the same time, and Zuko slowly starts to let her go. “She’s here, I know.” 

“It’s worse than that; she’s in control of the Dai Li.” She grabs his hands, needing the comfort of his skin against hers. “They’ve been brainwashing people. We came across our friend Jet in the city, and—”

“Wait—” A strange expression crosses his face, accompanied by a slight blush. “You know Jet?” She blushes at that as well, looking away from Zuko’s eyes.

“I mean...” she shuffles her feet. “I met him back before everything happened at the North Pole… wait, how do you know him?” His blush deepens, causing Katara to raise her eyebrows.

“I met him on the ferry ride here from Full Moon Bay.” Now it’s his turn to look away, his hand coming up to rub the back of his neck in embarrassment. “We— he— uhg.” He turns his face towards the ceiling. He’s so cute when he’s flustered. “He’s very… charming?” He looks back at her with a wince, and she’s able to read between the lines.

“Yes, he definitely is.” Zuko lets out a breath and his face relaxes as she moves on. “But anyway, he was brainwashed by the Dai Li. He totally forgot his entire past; when we found him he didn’t even think Smellerbee and Longshot had been in the city with him.”

“Shit.” Zuko’s brow creases as he looks around the cavern. “If Azula has control over the Dai Li, she has control over the entirety of Ba Sing Se. This is bad, Katara.”

“What are we going to do?” She looks up into his eyes. Her heart tugs in her chest, trying to pull her to him.

“I don’t know.” His voice is quiet, defeated. “My uncle escaped, maybe he’ll be able to help somehow.”

“Aang and Sokka aren’t in the city right now, but Toph still is.” Hope flickers in her heart. “Maybe they’ll find each other, and…” she trails off. What could Toph and Iroh even do if they found each other? They were just two people, and even though they’re both incredibly talented benders, they can’t go up against a whole army of Dai Li agents.

They stand in silence, the gravity of their situation weighing heavily on their shoulders. Zuko pulls Katara to him, and she slides her hands around his waist as he wraps her shoulders in his arms. She presses her face to his chest and tries not to cry; crying wouldn’t do them any good. She has to stay calm and think of a solution.

“Zuko?” She meets his eyes, a question bubbling up her throat. “Back at the North Pole, what did Zhao mean when he said he would tell your father that you were protecting Aang instead of catching him?” A darkness pulls over Zuko like a veil, his expression stony and intense as he focuses his eyes somewhere over her head.

“My father banished me when I was thirteen.” His voice is quiet and low. “I had disrespected him, and my punishment was banishment. He told me I could only come home if I captured the Avatar and brought him back to the Fire Nation with me.” 

“Wait, how old are you?” She’s not the best at math, but Zuko is definitely not thirteen.

“I’m twenty, so that was seven years ago.” Katara’s face contorts with confusion.

“But, Sokka and I just found Aang, it hasn’t even been a year. How did your father expect you to find him when he hadn’t been seen or heard from in almost a hundred years?”

“He didn’t.” Katara can hear the anger bubbling inside of Zuko tinting his voice. “He never expected me to find Aang. He expected me to search the world for years and never find him, so that I could never return home.” Now she feels her own anger, simmering in her veins.

“Zuko…” She pulls him close to her, trying to calm herself so she can calm him too. “That’s so messed up. I’m so sorry he did that to you.”

“Hm.” Zuko rests his chin on the top of her head, not saying anything else as he rubs her upper arms with his hands. She pulls back just enough to look into his eyes, the golden color sparkling in the green glow of the crystals. Crystals… She remembers the green crystals in the cave of two lovers, the story that she felt such a connection to, and the hook in her heart seems to be pulling her towards him stronger than ever. Kiss me. She glances at his lips, looking back up to see him doing the same to her. Kiss me. They lock eyes, their faces getting closer and closer, and Katara’s eyes start to slide closed—

A deafening boom shatters the moment as the wall beside them smashes to bits, forcing them to turn towards the noise. So close. As the dust settles, Aang and Iroh walk into the cavern.

“Aang!”

“Uncle!”

They all run towards each other, Aang hugging Katara and Zuko embracing his uncle in relief. Katara turns to give Iroh a hug as well, and she sees Zuko looking totally lost as Aang leans in to hug him, and he pats the younger boy’s back awkwardly.

“I’m so glad we found you guys!” Aang is smiling bright like always, as is Iroh.

“But we must leave immediately,” Iroh interjects. “Azula and the Dai Li will be here any minute.”

“Right!” Aang nods at Iroh, and the four of them take off down the tunnel.



Xx



They run down the tunnel at full speed, hoping that Azula and the Dai Li won’t catch up. But of course, Azula is always one step ahead, and a handful of Dai Li agents come running down the passage after them.

“I’ll hold them off!” Iroh turns and stops, dropping into a bending stance. “You three keep going, and I’ll catch up with you!”

“Uncle!” Zuko doesn’t want to leave Iroh here. He knows he can take care of himself, but he has a bad feeling about all of this.

“Go, Zuko!” He yells to Zuko as he bends a wall of flame and sends it towards the Dai Li, and the other three benders continue down the passage, Zuko’s flame the only light they have until they come into a massive room full of glowing green crystals. They slow down just a bit, Zuko and Katara each taking in the scene with wide eyes, when a flash of bright light catches Zuko’s eye behind them.

Lightning crashes into where he had just been standing, sending the three of them flying through the air. They crash down in a heap twenty feet away as Azula and two dozen Dai Li agents swarm at them from the shadows.

“Oh, Zuzu, always making the worst choices.” She walks calmly towards them, the three benders standing back to back to cover each other, Zuko making sure that he’s the one in Azula’s line of sight. “You know, if you helped me capture the Avatar, I'd let you come back home with me. Father would restore you honor and your birthright, and everything could go back to normal.”

Azula always lies. “No, Azula.” Her eye twitches as he says it. “Nothing I do will make father love me, not even bringing him the Avatar. I won’t let him hurt this world even more than he already has.”

“Pity.” Azula examines her nails, and in the blink of an eye, she attacks, and the fight begins. 

Zuko holds Azula off while Aang and Katara battle against the Dai Li. Zuko notices how seamlessly the three of them work together; water, earth, or air coming in to protect his back when he leaves it open, his fire doing the same for the others when they need it. For a while he thinks that they might actually stand a chance, that they might actually beat Azula, but more Dai Li continue to pour into the crystal-lit cavern, seemingly materializing from the walls themselves. They converge around Zuko and Katara; he doesn’t know where Aang is, and he’s preparing himself to fight until the very end when he sees Aang start to glow and rise slowly into the air from across the cavern.

Everyone in the room gazes up at the Avatar in disbelief, watching as his eyes and arrows glow an ethereal white. And just as Zuko is gaining hope, just as he starts thinking they may still have a chance to get out of here alive, a bright flash splits the cavern in two as Azula aims a powerful bolt of lightning straight at Aang, shooting him out of the air and onto the ground. He doesn’t move when he lands.

“No!” Katara shouts and rushes over to Aang, creating a huge wave that blasts the Dai Li out of her way as she goes. Zuko runs after her, trying to get to Aang so he can help; he doesn’t know what, but he has to do something. He gets to Aang, and Katara is crouched down on the floor, holding his limp body in her lap. Zuko’s heart stutters dangerously in his chest at the sight. Dai Li agents close in around them, and Zuko turns around, ready to do whatever it takes to protect Aang and Katara, when his uncle jumps down from the wall above, spraying fire towards the Dai Li, cutting the agents off from the four of them.

“Go!” he shouts at them as Zuko starts adding to his firewall, surrounding Katara and Aang on all sides. “Get the Avatar out of here!” Zuko turns back to look at Katara, her blue eyes blown wide, tears streaming down her face, and nods to her.

“We’ll see each other again!” he shouts to her, and she shakes her head as more tears fall onto her cheeks. “Go, Katara!” 

He hears her sob before she backs up into a pool of water, and bends herself and Aang up a waterfall and out of the cavern. Zuko lets out a deep, shaky breath, and he and his uncle stop bending, both falling to kneel on the floor. Azula approaches them, her face betraying her anger.

“Take my uncle back to the Fire Nation.” Dai Li agents come forward to incapacitate the both of them by encasing them in crystals. “He can rot in prison for all I care. But you...” She stalks towards Zuko, a manic glint in her eye as she gets right up in his face. “I have better plans for you, Zuzu.”



Xx



Katara sits on Appa’s head, cradling Aang in her lap with Sokka, Toph, King Kuei, and Bosco in the saddle behind her. She takes out the small, delicate vial of water she got from the Spirit Oasis, and opens it up. She bends the water into her hand, pressing it to the starburst wound on Aang’s back, watching it glow briefly before fading away, absorbing into his wound. Katara sobs, tears still streaming down her face, until Aang’s tattoos glow white, and he coughs. There is a collective sigh of relief from the saddle, and Katara cradles Aang to her chest as she continues to cry.

“How did you guys get out?” Sokka asks once Katara has stopped crying with Aang now sleeping in the saddle on a makeshift bed. A sob crawls up her throat, and she swallows it to answer her brother.

“Zuko and Iroh—” She has to take a few deep breaths before she can continue. “They stayed behind so I could get Aang out.” Sokka moves to put his arm around her shoulders while Toph sits beside Aang with her hand on his chest, a morose look etched onto her face. “What’s she going to do to them?” 

It’s a rhetorical question; none of them know what Azula is capable of, and none of them want to think of their two friends enduring whatever she deems a suitable punishment. Katara’s sobs start anew as they fly off into the night.



Xx



Azula had knocked Zuko out after commanding the Dai Li to encase him in green crystals, and he comes to with a massive headache. He is sitting in a dark room, his hands, legs, and head strapped into a chair so tight that he can’t move at all. His breathing starts to quicken, panic flooding his veins as he tries to make sense of his surroundings. A single Dai Li agent comes into the room and lights a lamp that sits on a track that surrounds the chair. The light starts to move along the track, slow at first, then picking up speed. Zuko feels his breathing slow as his brain starts to fog over. He tries to fight against whatever is happening to him, but the world fades away until only the light passing by his face remains. The Dai Li agent speaks:

“I must capture the Avatar to regain my honor.”

Chapter Text

 

 

“It's a deadly dull, like a sword stuck in its sheath. A mind once sharp and full, now clouded and diseased.

What's it like to be erased every time you fall asleep?

Waking up as a clean slate without a sense of reality?” Deadly Dull, Movements



Xx



Aang doesn’t wake up for three weeks.

In those three weeks, Katara, Sokka, and Toph met up with Hakoda and his warriors, and some of Jet’s freedom fighters (breaking the news to them about Jet was harder than Katara ever imagined it could be). The rag tag group had captured a Fire Navy ship that would allow them to travel unrestricted throughout the Earth Kingdom and Fire Nation, and had begun to put in place a plan for the day of black sun invasion.

But Katara’s heart was miles away, stuck in a cave lit by glowing green lights. In those three weeks, she thought about Zuko more than anything else, except for Aang. He sacrificed himself for us, so that we could get away. She held in her tears through each day, only letting herself cry up on the deck under the glow of the moon. She tried to imagine Yue there to comfort her, rubbing circles on her back and telling her that everything would be okay. She prayed incessantly to her, begging and pleading with her to protect Zuko, to keep him safe. Soon after leaving Ba Sing Se, that strange tugging sensation Katara had almost gotten used to had dulled considerably, and she couldn’t help but fear the worst. When anyone else asked why she was upset, she told them she was worried about Aang, which of course was true. She checked on him multiple times a day, but there was nothing else she could do to help him recover. Her brother and Toph, however, knew there was another layer to her sorrow and constant anxiety. But, she managed to pull herself together enough each day to help with the invasion plans; if they were lucky, they could find Zuko during the invasion, and then… what then?

When Aang finally woke up, her mood increased significantly, but there was still an undercurrent of sadness flowing around her all the time. Aang had been so upset when he had realized what happened in the crystal catacombs; he felt like he had truly failed the world, once again, and had run off one night in his anger. They had almost lost him again that day; he told them he got caught in a massive storm, and the only reason why he had lived was because Avatar Roku had saved him. He hated the fact that the world believed him dead, and Katara could understand his frustration and guilt. He also apologized to her privately about what had become of Zuko and Iroh, causing her to break down once again.

“We’ll find them Katara.” He had held her as she cried, determination clear in his voice as he spoke to her. “We’ll do whatever it takes.”

She, Aang, Sokka, and Toph had split up from the main group, planning to reunite with the rest of them on the day of the eclipse. They were officially fugitives, meaning that they had to travel under artificial cloud cover to get to their current location. They had decided as a group that dressing in Fire Nation styled clothing would be the best and most practical way to stay under the radar. They had stolen some clothes from an unsuspecting citizen’s clothesline, and Katara had to admit that she liked the style of her new outfit, even if seeing red everywhere kept reminding her of Zuko, who could be dead at the hands of Azula for all they knew. Don’t think like that. Just stay positive.

The town they find themselves in is cute and quiet, and they’re blending in well when Aang isn’t spewing 100 year old Fire Nation “slang” at everyone who passes by. Katara is fairly certain that “hotman” probably hasn’t been in style for at least fifty years. They had decided to get some food, and Aang had wandered off in search of some vegetarian fare, but he never ended up meeting up with them. Katara and Sokka paced nervously around the cave they were sleeping in all day, practically wearing a track in the ground where they kept walking back and forth. Toph was under the impression that Aang was fine (“he probably just ran off to play with some animals or something”), and when he strolled lazily back into the cave around dinner time, Katara and Sokka were ready to burst with frustration.

“Where have you been?!” Katara’s voice is embarrassingly close to a screech, and Aang shrinks back.

“We’ve looked everywhere for you! You could have gotten captured!” She feels better when Sokka backs her up, his voice dangerously close to a screech as well.

“Sorry guys!” Aang smiles, rubbing the back of his neck, “I got invited to hang out with some kids after school—”

“School?!” She and her brother yell at the same time, creating a funny mom-and-dad effect with their scolding.

“Yeah!” Aang looks to Toph for reassurance, but she just silently puts her hands up in the air in a mock surrender. “It’s the best place for me to learn about the Fire Nation! And I’m going back tomorrow.”

“Uhg!” Sokka slaps his forehead in frustration. “Aang, no offense, but that’s a terrible idea. We’re supposed to be flying under the radar! You know, because everyone thinks you're dead!” Aang’s face turns sour before he gets a mischievous twinkle in his eye.

“Well, I guess we’ll never learn about the secret river, then.” Sokka raises a brow, clearly interested. “Apparently there’s a secret river that goes right into the Fire Lord’s Palace, and they’re supposed to be teaching us about it in school tomorrow. But, if you don’t want me going back…” he trails off as he shrugs, his face open and innocent.

“Well...” Sokka rubs his chin in contemplation. “A secret river does sound useful. Alright, I guess we can stay another few days.”

 

Xx

 

The second day they’re in the town, Aang comes back from school with a guilty look on his face.

“So,” he starts, as Katara and Sokka look over at him in the entryway of the cave. “I kind of got in trouble at school and need to bring my parents in for a meeting later.” Katara and Sokka’s mouth hang open in shock as Toph starts laughing.

“Oh, that’s rich Twinkletoes!” She walks over and slaps Aang hard on the back, causing him to lose his balance, and he smiles at her as he rights himself. “What did you do? Start dancing in class? Cause a fight?” 

Aang gives her a lopsided smile. “Both, actually. Well, I didn’t start the fight, but—”

“No way!” Toph genuinely looks ecstatic at the idea of Aang getting into a fight, and Katara can’t understand it for the life of her. “I hope you kicked his ass!”

“Well—” Aang starts to answer Toph before Katara cuts him off.

“Um, hello!?” She waves her hand in front of Aang’s face. “We’re talking about how you need to bring your nonexistent parents in for a meeting, not about why you got in trouble! And you,” she points at Toph, her milky green eyes rolling as she crosses her arms. “You shouldn’t be encouraging him!”

“Gee, sorry mom.” Toph blows a piece of hair out of her face. “Maybe you should go to the meeting, you sound enough like his mom to pull it off.” 

“That’s it!” Sokka butts in, his finger up in the air and an excited look on his face, and Katara knows that she’s going to hate what comes out of his mouth next.

 

Xx

 

“Wang. Wang Fire.” Sokka has lowered his voice and made a beard and mustache out of Appa’s fur to play the role of Wang Fire, Aang’s (or Kuzon’s) dad. “And this is my wife, Sapphire Fire.”

“A pleasure to meet you.” Katara does her best to not break out into laughter and get into her role. Her shirt is stuffed to make her look pregnant, and she tries her hardest to exude “mom vibes,” as Toph had called them.

“Thank you for meeting me, Mr. and Mrs… Fire.” The headmaster doesn’t look very fooled, but it’s not like he can say anything. “Kuzon has only been in class for two days, and already he is being disruptive and getting in fights.”

Katara gasps dramatically, bringing her hand up to cover her mouth. “That doesn’t sound like our Kuzon!”

“I believe that is what any mother would say, Mrs. Fire. Rest assured that if Kuzon acts up again, I'll have him sent straight to reform school.” He stands up behind his oak desk, marking the end of the conversation. “And by reform school, I mean the coal mines. Do we have an understanding?”

“Oh, yes.” Sokka shoots an angry look at Aang. “Once we get home I’m going to teach this young man a lesson he won’t forget!” The headmaster smiles before exiting the room, and the trio breathe a sigh of relief.

When they get back to the cave, Katara immediately rips the stuffing out of her dress. The Fire Nation is so hot, she doesn’t know how actual pregnant women can handle it.

“That’s it young man!” Sokka strokes his fake beard as he leans toward Aang, his voice still extra deep. “No more school for you!”

“Come on, Sokka!” Aang looks so upset, a twinge of sadness flowing through Katara at the sight. “My classmates are so sheltered, they don’t know anything about their culture!”

“What can we even do about that, Aang?” Katara feels for him, she really does, but there’s no way they can help these kids.

“We can always do something!” He looks at her with a glint in his eyes that screams trouble. “We’re going to throw them a dance party!” He throws his arms in the air, clearly expecting some excitement, only to be met with silence.

“A dance party?” Toph asks, her brows raised and invisible under her bangs.

“Yeah! I’ll get us some instruments and we can teach them to dance! I know some really cool Fire Nation moves from back when I was friends with Kuzon!” His tongue sticks out of the corner of his mouth and he does a strange swinging motion with his arms.

“Listen, Aang—” 

“Guys,” he interrupts Katara, all the silliness gone from his voice. “Please. After this we can leave. I just… I need to do something for these people.” His eyes are wide and wet, pulling on Katara’s heart strings.

“Fine.” Sokka gives in. “But after that, we really are leaving.” 

 

Xx

 

The next night, they have the cave set up for the dance party. As Aang’s classmates start filling the space, Katara notices that they’re all just standing around, looking sheepish and awkward. Even as some of the others start playing their instruments, nobody moves.

“Why isn’t anyone dancing?” Aang asks the group.

“Well…” one of the girls near the front of the crowd speaks up, “we don’t know how to dance.”

“Oh, it’s easy!” Aang motions to his classmates playing their instruments to strike up a lively tune. “Here, I’ll show you!”

Aang takes the hand of a pretty girl and starts dancing, slowly coaxing her to join in with him. Soon, other people start dancing too, and in no time at all the cave is full of music and laughter. Katara is glad that Aang is having a good time; he deserves a break after everything that he’s been through the past few weeks. As happy as she is for him, however, her heart is heavy in her chest, a weight dragging her down any time she stops to think. Her thoughts always wander to Zuko; what could Azula have done to him? She misses the odd tugging in her chest, her way of knowing that her connection to Zuko is still real. It’s still there, but it’s pitifully weak, and if she tries to concentrate on it, it almost stutters. The sensation is all wrong and sends a shiver up her spine. Their connection had never shuddered like this, had never felt like it could fade away at any moment, like it was on the verge of snapping in a stiff breeze. She had to force herself to come back to the present so that she wouldn’t cry.

“He’s the one I want!” The headmaster’s voice rings loud in the cave. “The boy with the headband!” 

The music has stopped, and none of the school kids are dancing anymore. Katara shoots a look at Sokka, who nods silently. The group of Aang’s classmates push in close around the headmaster and the soldiers he had brought along, clearly frustrating and confusing them as a diversion. Aang comes stumbling out of the crowd, and the gang heads to the back of the cave to escape. Toph and Aang earthbend the wall down, and they all climb onto a waiting Appa. The wall slides back up behind them, but not before Katara catches a glimpse of one of Aang’s classmates staring at them with his mouth hanging open, and a small smile spreads across her face.



Xx



He sits in a chair in a dark room. It’s completely silent; no noise or light filter through the solid stone walls. It’s cold. The freezing air penetrates his skin down to his bones, ice in his veins crawling into his heart. An ethereal voice whispers in his ear, “I must capture the Avatar...”

“No!” He struggles against the bonds that hold his arms and legs down. “I won’t! You can’t make me!” 

His chest heaves under his labored breaths and a sharp pain grows behind his eyes as he feels the room getting smaller. The voice comes back. 

“...to restore my honor...” 

He lets out a feral scream, his head tilting back and hitting something solid with a strong enough force to make his ears start ringing. He gasps for air as a leathery snake winds itself around his head, holding it tight to the solid mass behind him. Tears begin to fall from his right eye, his breaths getting shorter and sharper each moment. The darkness is so deep, his eyes are having trouble focusing; the only light comes from a spotlight above him that lights up nothing but him and the chair he sits in. The pain behind his eyes flares, a short scream ripping from his throat as his pounding heart beats ferociously beneath his ribs. He can taste blood in his mouth, the metallic tang coating his tongue as he grinds his teeth. With each breath in, the restraint around his chest gets tighter, but he can’t stop hyperventilating, terror flooding his senses. It constricts around him; he can feel it breaking one of the ribs close to his heart, his vision fading as he pants, too weak to fight anymore. The voice comes back, whispering in his ear as a dim light swings around him. 

“I must capture the Avatar…”



Xx



“The Avatar and his friends haven’t been seen since the ambush at Cameleon Bay.” Mai’s monotone voice comes from behind him as he stares at the map on the table.

“How is it that they can always get away?” Zuko throws his hands up in frustration and turns around to meet Mai’s stoic face. “I mean, they travel on a giant flying bison, for fuck’s sake! Somebody has got to have seen them somewhere!” Her expression doesn’t change as he stomps past her out into the night air.

He walks out onto the deck of his ship, the cool salty air blowing his hair around his face, and looks up at the moon. A giant wave, freezing cold water, blue eyes. He grabs his head forcefully in his hands, shaking it vigorously. There’s something wrong with him, of that he is absolutely certain. At random points during the day he will get strange, vivid flashbacks, but not of the Agni Kai. No, those flashbacks stopped years ago. These flashbacks never make any sense to him, the subjects always different, nothing connecting them to each other. And if he tries to remember the subjects after a few minutes, he can’t. It’s like it never happened, the memory a blank space in his mind. On top of that, his nightmares have stopped. To anybody else it would be a blessing, but for Zuko, it’s extremely concerning, to say the least. He’s had nightmares for the majority of his life; living with a tyrannical, abusive father with an anger management problem had successfully dashed any hope Zuko had dared to feel about ever getting a good night’s sleep long ago. But now, he doesn’t dream at all. Rather, he knows he dreams, but as soon as he opens his eyes in the morning, he can’t remember anything about them. It frustrates him to no end; he feels like he’s missing something, and there’s a dull ache in his chest that won’t go away no matter what he tries. According to his crew and Mai, he sleeps through the night like a rock, which isn’t right either. Zuko has been an incredibly light sleeper since he was ten years old, since his mother left him in the middle of the night never to return. The flashbacks, the not-dreams, the deep sleep— something is definitely wrong with him.

Chapter Text

 

 

“Suppression makes a weight that strips the life of everything. T

oo scared to walk away; down in your heart, the image of a life…

you're dying just to be there, crying on your knees.” Premonition of the Hex, Circa Survive 



Xx




“Zuko, this is so stupid.” 

Mai has been increasingly obstinate during their search for the Avatar. Zuko is pouring through military correspondences from the last month to try to find any sign of the Avatar and his friends’ whereabouts. One would think that they would be easy to track down because of that giant lumbering beast that they ride, but it seems that they must be getting smart about staying under the radar.

“Mai,” he sighs, scrubbing his face with his hand in exasperation. “What is your problem?”

“You know as well as I do that if anyone had spotted them, we would know about it.” She stands behind him with her arms crossed over her chest, her words dull and emotionless like always.

“Well I don’t know what else to do!” Zuko straightens up to look Mai in the face. “I have to capture the Avatar—”

“To restore your honor.” She rolls her eyes. “Yeah, I know.”

“Why did Azula even send you with me, anyway?” He slumps back down into his chair, tired and dejected.

“She seems to think that we’re still thirteen and have feelings for each other.” They both scoff at that. When they were younger, Zuko and Mai had one of those cute little kid relationships that consisted only of holding hands and bright blushes.

“It’s been seven years. We’re two totally different people now.” Zuko gives up on the reports and walks out onto the deck, relishing in the fresh air after being inside for hours looking through meaningless reports.

A blue necklace wrapped around his wrist, a soft hand holding his, the smell of rain in the spring.

He shakes himself, banishing the strange thoughts (memories?) from his mind. He and Mai lean against a railing overlooking the ocean as he tries to clear his mind

“You don’t have to tell me twice,” Mai mutters her delayed response as he gazes out over the open ocean.

She looks at him strangely out of the corner of her eye, and he hopes that his weird flashback-memory-thought moment wasn’t outwardly apparent. Mai seems more interested in Ty Lee these days than she does in Zuko, and that’s perfectly fine with him. He couldn’t be farther from the person he was when he left the Fire Nation seven years ago than he is now. I was still a child back then. As he’s gotten older he’s realized how messed up everything that happened to him was. His father was all too willing to disfigure his thirteen year old son, simply because he spoke up against sacrificing inexperienced troops to win a battle. He’s a monster. Sometimes Zuko wonders why he even cares what his father thinks—

“Ahg!” He grabs his head, doubling over as a burst of intense pain blooms behind his eyes.

“All you alright?” Mai actually sounds concerned for him, and he would probably be surprised if he could focus on anything other than the white hot pain in his skull.

“I think I need to go lay down.” 

He leaves her on the deck and heads back to his quarters, slamming the door behind him as he almost blacks out from the pain. He groans, tears gathering in the corner of his good eye as the pain builds; he stumbles towards his bed, but the pain overtakes him before he can get there. The world tips before his eyes, and he is unconscious by the time he hits the floor.

 

Xx

 

He’s back in the dark room. This time he feels incredibly small, and he’s trapped inside a golden cage, the inside of which is illuminated by a sickly green glow. He grabs at the bars, eyes wide and breath short as he tries to yank at them. He growls, a wounded dog kicked into its kennel for misbehaving. He swallows his sobs as the darkness surrounding him somehow deepens, a ghostly voice floating into his ears. 

“I must capture the Avatar…”

“Stop!” He screams through the taste of blood in his throat. He’s been screaming for so long— why is nobody helping him? “Please, just leave me alone!”

He can’t hold back his tears, fear jagged as it cuts through his skin; he realizes that he’s bleeding from multiple places, and his ribs feel like they’ve collapsed inside of his chest. He groans in pain as his frantic breathing sends sharp, stabbing pain through him with every inhale. He huddles in the corner of the cage, curls in on himself to shield his body from whatever is coming for him. He can feel a presence on the edge of the darkness, just far enough that he can’t see whatever it belongs to. Malice and hatred slam into him like waves, over and over and over. A needle-like pain flares in his head, and he lets out a hoarse scream as he buries his head in his knees, knuckles white where they grip his hair.

“Someone...” he chokes out, his voice small and ragged, his throat feeling like it’s full of broken glass. “Please help me... please…” 

He begs to no one, the darkness swallowing his words before they can even leave the gilded cage. His vision is fading even as he fights to stay lucid— if the dark takes him, he’ll forget, and they’ll—

“...to restore my honor…” 

The eerie voice comes back, whispering in his ear like a lover, the words warm and soft. He lets out a strangled sob as his head rises of its own accord to see a dim light circling around him in a wide arc.

“I must capture the Avatar…”

 

Xx



“Zuko?” He feels his eyelids flutter. “Zuko!” 

He groans and tries to pry his eyes open. His face is pressed up against a solid metal surface, and as his eyes open he sees Mai in front of him, wearing an expression that holds the most emotion he’s ever seen from her. He must be on the ground, because she’s tilted unnaturally in front of him.

“Mai?” His voice is scratchy, and his body is sore from the strange position he’s laying in. “Why am I on the floor?”

“I could ask you the same question.” Her face relaxes, but there is still concern in her eyes. “You’ve been in here for hours. When you didn’t answer a knock at the door we came in and found you like this.”

He slowly sits up, feeling slightly dizzy as he brings his hand up to brush his hair out of his face. “Oh.” He has nothing else to say. He doesn’t remember anything after walking off the deck after he spoke with Mai.

“How's your headache?” 

He notices for the first time that there are several people around him; mostly soldiers or guards, but there are two medics among them.

“What headache?” He’s starting to feel panicked; what happened to him? Why is everyone looking at him like that? “I just passed out, it’s not a big deal.” Mai motions for the others to leave, and she helps Zuko to his feet.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” There’s a surprising amount of emotion in her voice, and he doesn’t understand why.

“I told you, I'm fine.” He brushes her arm off of his. “Can we go look through those reports now? We have to catch up to the Avatar, I don't want him getting too far ahead of us.”



Xx



The village of Jang Hui is… well, it’s a sad sight. It had probably been a beautiful town at one point, but now the stench of illness and death moves swiftly through the air, carried by a light breeze as they travel along the stilted walkways. The town is located on a river, the houses and market held up out of the water by stilts. The concept is extremely intriguing to Katara; she’s never thought about people living literally on the water. The hurt she feels for these people and their village is palpable. They approach an outdoor market, and the same man that had given them a ride to the village is standing behind the stall. 

“Hey Dock!” Sokka walks up to the stall, smiling at the friendly, if strange, man who they had met earlier.

“Oh, I'm not Dock!” Confusion ripples through the group. “I’m Xu! Dock is my brother. He works on the dock, and I work here at the market!”

“But,” Sokka motions back towards the dock, “we just saw you at the dock!”

“You’re even wearing the same clothes,” Aang interjects. “The only difference is your hat.”

“Nope!” The man continues to smile, and Katara is starting to think there’s something going on in his head that isn’t… normal. “That was my brother. He works at the dock, which is why his name is “Dock.” I work at the market, which is why my name is “Xu”!”

Aang scratches his head as he answers, “I don't get it.”

“Me neither!” Dock— or Xu— exclaims. “What can I get for you? I’m having a special right now: buy three fish, get one clam free!” Katara looks down at the box of slimy clams that are displayed on the stall, and has to back up before the smell makes her vomit.

“We’ll just take the fish.” Even Sokka grimaces at the funky-smelling claims. Xu wraps the fish up for them as Sokka counts out their money. “Do you mind telling Dock that we need a ride back to shore?”

“Sure thing!” Xu ducks down behind the stall, and quickly returns wearing Dock’s hat. “My brother tells me you need a ride back to shore!”

On their way back to the boat, a young boy comes up to Katara and gently pulls on her skirt.

“Excuse me...” She looks down into his big eyes, accentuated by his thin face and thinner body. “Can you spare some food?” Her heart breaks for the boy, and she hands him one of the fish they had bought from Xu, regretful that she doesn’t have more to give. 

When they get back to the shore, they wave goodbye to Dock and set about cooking the fish they got.

“Alright, no more pit stops!” Sokka is poring over their map, his brows scrunched up in concentration. “We have to leave first thing tomorrow morning, and we have to get up forty-three minutes earlier to make up for the time we lost today.” 

Aang and Toph groan, but Katara just looks out over the river back to the village. I have to do something for these people. She waits until everyone is asleep and sneaks into town, dropping off packages of food at every doorway, hurrying to get back to camp before the sun rises. When she gets back, she puts a large pile of purple berries in front of Appa before curling up in her bed roll.

The next morning, Appa’s tongue is purple, and they are delayed another day, to Sokka’s disquiet. They head back into the village to get more food and to see if they can find any medicine for Appa, Sokka sulking in the back of the boat muttering something that sounds like “schedule.” They disembark at the dock, and immediately there’s a difference in the mood. Children are running around, their parents watching and laughing with each other at various locations throughout the village.

“Hey Xu, what’s up with everyone today?” Sokka asks when they get to the market.

“Oh, the Painted Lady came to our village last night and dropped off a bunch of food for everyone!”

“The Painted Lady?” Katara is curious about who the villagers think is responsible for helping them.

 “Oh, yes!” Xu brings out a small statue of a woman with strange markings on her face. “The Painted Lady is the river spirit that is said to watch over our town. She’s said to come to our aid in times of need, but we all just thought she was a legend until last night.” 

“See, we don’t need to help these people,” Sokka addresses Katara, commenting on her desire to do something for the people of the village that she had expressed yesterday. “Now,” he turns back towards Xu. “We just need some medicine for Appa so we can get out of here.”

“Oh, medicine?” Xu shakes his head. “We don’t have any medicine, that's why everyone in the village is so sick. All the medicine goes up to the factory.” He points his thumb over his shoulder to a distant factory spewing sludge into the river.

“Looks like we’ll have to stay another night so that Appa can rest!” Katara tries to sound annoyed, but she doesn’t think she’s fooling anyone. 

Sokka buys a nasty looking two headed fish for dinner (“What? You get double the value!”), and again, once everyone falls asleep Katara sneaks into town. This time, though, she dresses up and paints her face to resemble the Painted Lady. She’s not totally sure why she does it, but it feels right. She moves through the houses healing everyone she can as fast as she can. When she gets back to their camp, she’s so exhausted after she feeds Appa more purple berries and removes her costume and makeup that she doesn’t even get into her bedroll, and falls asleep right on top of it.

Xx

 

The next day, the people in the village are in even better spirits, and Katara walks to the market with a barely contained smile resting on her face.

“It’s crazy how much one lady— I mean, spirit— can help in just one night!” She’s feeling really good about what she’s done for the village, and it’s made it easier to push her anxieties about Zuko closer to the back of her mind. She feels guilty about it, but she has to be able to live her life; they’ll find Zuko, but for now, there’s nothing she can do. Helping this village makes her feel useful, like she’s not just wandering through the Fire Nation with her heart in pieces rattling around in her chest.

“Well, she better keep coming back every night.” Sokka’s words pull her out of her daze.

“What do you mean? Why do you say that?”

“Well, that Fire Nation factory is still there, and that’s the real cause of all their problems. As long as that thing is there, nothing’s really going to change.” 

She looks up at the statue of the painted lady, being repainted by loving villagers who’ve just recently found their zest for life again. A plan forms in her mind, and she decides that Appa is going to have to be sick for one more day.

That night, Aang catches her on her way out of the camp in her Painted Lady get up. She convinces him to help her get rid of the factory for good, and they have a surprisingly easy time blowing it up using a combination of air, earth, and waterbending. Their mission is a success, and Katara is feeling giddy as they return to camp, only for her mood to be ruined by the sight of Sokka and Toph sitting up in their bedrolls. When she breaks the news to her brother, he gets angry, and she hates to admit that it’s rightfully so.

“The soldiers are already blaming the town for what you did! They’re headed there right now! You should have left it alone, Katara!” He’s shouting at her now, driving her anger to its boiling point.

“No!” She gets up in Sokka’s face as she yells right back at him. “I will never turn my back on people who need me! I couldn’t just sit here and do nothing while those villagers were dying!” She takes a few deep breaths to try to calm herself. “I’m going to that village to help them in any way I can. You can stay here for all I care.”

“Wait,” Sokka stops her with a hand on her shoulder. “I’m coming too.” He sees her confused expression and continues. “You need me, and I’ll never turn my back on you.” 

She throws her arms around his neck, and they come up with a plan to help the village. Soon they are on their way to the village, Katara in her Painted Lady costume, to scare the pants off of some Fire Nation soldiers. Their clever combination of airbending, waterbending, music, and Appa’s growling make a convincing show, and the soldiers turn tail and run under the wrathful gaze of the Painted Lady.

“Leave this village, and never come back!” She feels powerful, like she’s finally doing something worthwhile and making a difference in people’s lives. 

The villagers end up discovering that she isn’t actually the Painted Lady, but in the end it doesn’t matter. The gang helps the villagers clean up the river, and by the time the sun sets, it’s looking clean as ever. They head back to their campsite for the night, and after dinner Katara wanders back over to sit by the river. I really made a difference for these people. She glows with pride, knowing that she’s done the right thing, and is just about to get up to head back to camp when a strange fog descends quickly around her. She stands up, perplexed, when the ghostly form of the real Painted Lady appears before her.

“Thank you...” Her voice is distorted, but Katara knows the spirit is genuine. She fades away, and Katara is left standing at the river, a wide smile painted on her face.  

Chapter Text



“But it ends me when I can tell that I've become the person I can't take, that I hate; A person so much like you.

I 've got a way! Your jealous eyes, with reckless pride, feasting on the wealth.

I've got a way! This little click, brick by brick, has turned upon itself.

You're a broken record repeating these vanities over and over again.” Butcher’s Mouth, Emery.



Xx




Zuko looks out across the river at the village of Jang Hui; he had finally gotten word of activity that could point to the Avatar’s location. Apparently, not even a week earlier, this village had been visited by a spirit, who had blown up a Fire Nation factory that was responsible for polluting the river. Zuko isn’t particularly mad about the factory; the people in the tiny village on the water probably would have died if it had stayed functioning, and that’s not why he’s here. He’s here because a fire nation factory blowing up and a dying village making a miraculous recovery in three days screamed of the Avatar; he is the bridge between worlds, and if anyone could get a spirit to destroy a factory and save a village, it would be him. 

Zuko and Mai are dressed in plain clothes as they scout out the village. It will be much easier for them to get information about the Avatar if people think they’re nobodies rather than the prince of the Fire Nation and a royal escort.

“Are we going into the village, or what?” Mai asks, her voice dull as always.

“No.” He knows that the villagers will just tell him that it was the Painted Lady who helped them, and he needs more than that to go off of. “We’re going to look at what’s left of the factory.”

They reach the site of the explosion; there isn’t much left of the factory, but he doesn’t need much to confirm that it was the Avatar’s doing. He and Mai walk around in the rubble, keeping an eye out for any telltale signs of bending. Most of the factory is gone; only the skeleton remains, the insides primarily destroyed and the majority of the roof blown off. He follows what is left of the piping system, the one that had carried the waste out into the river, looking for clues, signs, anything that could indicate that the damage was done by bending. He looks in every corner, in every crevice, even under some of the debris, but finds nothing. This is hopeless. His mind starts to wander again, questioning why he’s even doing any of this, when Mai calls to him.

“Hey.” He follows her voice outside and around the back of what used to be the factory, and sees her standing upon some large rocks far enough away to not have been damaged by the explosion. “Come here.” He climbs up to where she is standing, looking down at the corpse of the factory.

“What is it?” He can’t see anything unusual from up here, and he wonders what even made Mai think that coming up here was a good idea.

“Look.” 

She points at an area of the ground about five feet away from them that seems to have been trampled down. He moves closer, looking closely at the dirt to see— there. A piece of gauzy fabric is peeking out from under the dirt, and he bends over to pick it up. He shakes it off, holding it in the air in front of his face, watching the thin material flutter in the breeze.

“This is it.” His voice is hard as Mai looks at the fabric in his hand. “The tales of the Painted Lady say she wears a veil. A spirit doesn’t just lose part of her costume. It was him.”

“Really?” A pinch of disbelief is audible in Mai’s voice. “That’s all the evidence you need?”

“Yes!” He doesn’t elaborate; he isn’t quite sure how to explain the feeling in his chest that this is right. It’s a sign, he knows it is, and his gut is telling him that this is it. It was her. “They came through here. Let’s go back to the village and ask around about any visitors they’ve had recently, see if they know which direction they went when they left.” 

He willfully ignores that he had to correct his gut; the Avatar is a boy. He chalks it up to the headache growing behind his eyes, and they head down to the town.



Xx



“I don’t know, Sokka. I think I like the one about the guy with a sword for a hand better.” 

The four of them sit around a campfire, telling scary stories under the gibbous moon. Sokka’s last story hadn’t been very impressive, Aang being the only one to react to it at all.

“Water Tribe slumber parties must suck if this is all you guys have for scary stories.” Toph rubs her finger in her ear as she speaks, inspecting whatever she’s dug out and flinging it off into the forest.

“Wait, I have one!” Katara sits up a little straighter. “And this one’s true.”

“Is this one of those “my husband’s-brother’s-aunt’s-best friend’s-girlfriend-twice removed” kind of stories? Because those don’t count as true.” Sokka’s brows are raised, his skeptical tone a cause for Katara to roll her eyes.

“No, Sokka.” She lowers her voice dramatically. “This one happened to mom.” She effectively gains everyone’s attention, and the three others lean in to hear her tell the story.

“One winter when mom was a young girl, there was a snowstorm that buried the entire village for weeks. A month later, mom noticed that one of her friends, Nini, hadn’t been seen since before the storm.” She pauses for effect, relishing in the wise eyes of her brother and Aang. Toph is a tough nut to crack, but she can see that the girl has scooted closer to Aang. “So, mom and some other villagers went to Nini’s home to check on her family. But when they got there, no one was home.” Sokka is biting his nails, and Aang has his arm wrapped around Toph, who is officially looking spooked. Katara smirks as she continues, “there was just a fire burning in the fireplace. The others left to go search for Nini and her family while mom stayed in the house—” a cat owl hoots, making them all jump and Sokka emit an embarrassing squeaking noise. Katara takes a deep breath and continues the story. “While she was alone, mom heard a voice.” She changes her voice to mimic that of a creepy child, “‘it’s so cold, and I can’t warm up!’” Sokka and Aang have Toph smooshed in between them now, hugging each other around her small body while giving Katara their rapt attention. “Mom turned around, and saw Nini in front of the fire. Her whole body was blue, like she had been frozen. Mom ran outside to get the others, but when they went back inside the house, Nini was gone.” Momo is sitting atop Sokka’s head, one of the lemur’s big ears flopped over to cover her brother’s eyes, and Toph has her head buried in Aang’s shoulder.

“Where did Nini go?” One of Sokka’s eyes pokes out from behind Momo’s ear.

“Nobody knows. Nini’s house stands empty to this day. But sometimes...” She leans closer to the fire, and the other three do as well. “People say they can see smoke coming from the chimney, like little Nini is still trying to get warm.” Katara thoroughly enjoys the reaction her story pulls from the others, their faces still set in shock.

“Wait!” Toph kneels down from the log she had been sitting on, sandwiched between Sokka and Aang, and puts her hand on the ground. “Did you guys hear that?”

“Hear what?” Katara asks, having heard nothing except for the crackling of the fire.

“There are people under the mountain...” her face changes to one full of anxiety. “And they’re screaming!”

“Ha!” Sokka’s laugh sounds forced and artificial. “Nice try Toph.”

“No, I’m serious!” She sounds genuinely upset, and Katara is starting to get worried.

“You’re just jumpy from the ghost stories, that’s all,” Katara says, in hopes of convincing herself that it’s actually true. Toph’s brows furrow, a crease forming on her forehead.

“It just… stopped,” she whispers, voice steeped in confusion, and a chill works its way up Katara’s spine.

“Okay, now I’m really getting scared,” Aang pipes up from behind where Toph is now standing, his voice shaky.

“Hello, children.” 

They all scream as the voice of an old woman comes from the forest behind Katara, the four of them jumping up to hold on to each other on the other side of the campfire. 

“Oh, I didn't mean to scare you! My name is Hama; I have an inn back in the village. Why don’t you come stay there for the night? You younguns shouldn’t be staying out in the forest. I have hot tea and warm beds all ready!”

“Yes, please.” Sokka looks sheepish and relieved, and Hama smiles as they gather up their things.

A short while later they are seated at a table in Hama’s inn, sipping cups of warm tea and snacking on crackers.

“Thank you for letting us stay here.” Katara smiles at Hama around her teacup. “Your inn is lovely.”

“Oh, aren’t you a sweet thing.” Hama returns the smile, her crows feet more pronounced with the gesture. “You kids should be careful, people have been disappearing from those woods that you were camping in.” 

“What do you mean, ‘disappearing’?” Sokka questions around a mouth full of crackers, and Katara elbows him, trying to convey to him that his manners are abysmal and he should be trying harder around their host. From the look he gives her, he doesn’t seem to understand.

“When the moon is full, people walk in,” she puts her teacup down, “and they don’t come out. Who wants more tea?” Nobody responds, the ghost stories they had been telling out in the forest still fresh in their minds. “Oh, don’t you worry, you’re all safe here!” She smiles again, and something about it niggles at the back of Katara’s mind. “How about I show you all to your rooms for the night?”

Katara has a hard time sleeping that night; the almost full moon and her nightly thoughts of Zuko keep her awake well past midnight. I wonder if he’s okay. She doesn’t know much about Azula, but what she does know is enough to make her worry extensively. She probably has him rotting in a jail cell somewhere in the Fire Nation . She groans, rolling over onto her stomach and shoving her head under the pillow. She lets a few silent tears fall, and prays to Yue to keep him safe. I know I ask you every night, but please Yue, please just make sure he’s safe until we can get to him.

Hama wakes her up early the next morning to go shopping, and comments on the prominent bags under her eyes. 

“It’s nothing,” Katara assures her, not wanting to go into detail. “Tonight is the full moon, and I always have trouble sleeping around this time.” Hama smiles knowingly at her, and they wake up the rest of the gang to go on their shopping trip.

They follow Hama through the market, noticing that most of the villagers are subdued, many with anxious looks on their faces. Katara hears many of them whispering about the full moon and the people who have been disappearing— her concern grows with each overheard rumor. Hama barters with an old man at a vegetable stall, and as they walk away with a full basket, the old man smiles and waves.

“Maybe you can convince Mr. Yao to give you some free komodo sausages; he seems to have a little bit of a thing for you!” Katara winks at Hama as they walk away from the stall.

“You’d have me use my feminine charms to take advantage of that poor man?” Katara is already working on an apology when Hama continues, “I think you and I are going to get along very well.” 

The two women meet back up with Aang, Toph, and Sokka with the rest of the groceries, and Hama instructs them to take everything back to the inn while she finishes her errands. They walk back to the inn and start unloading things once they get inside

“I don’t like Hama,” Sokka declares to no one in particular. “There’s something about her that’s just… off. I think she’s hiding something.”

“Sokka, don’t be ridiculous.” Katara continues putting the groceries away. “She’s just a friendly old woman who took us in and gave us a place to stay.”

“Hm...” Sokka doesn’t seem to be listening to her as he makes for the stairs. “I’m going to look around.”

“Sokka!” Katara turns around as he makes his way up the stairs. “You can’t just go snooping through her stuff!” She follows him up to the second floor, Aang and Toph trailing after her.

“Why not?” he asks, like he truly doesn’t understand the issue Katara has with looking through other people’s private things.

“She could be home any minute!” Aang squeaks from behind her, and Katara is glad that at least someone is on her side.

Sokka wrestles open a closet, and half a dozen hand-made puppets fall from a shelf, their strings all tangled up.

Aang takes a deliberate step back from the pile of puppets littering the floor. “Okay, that’s definitely a little creepy.” Katara wonders if he’s actually on her side or not. It is kind of creepy though.

They continue on to the attic, Katara attempting to dissuade Sokka from continuing every step of the way. The end of the corridor brings them to a locked door, and Sokka peeps through the keyhole suspiciously.

“Sokka, she’s going to be back any minute, we shouldn’t be doing this!” Sneaking through Hama’s house goes against everything that Katara stands for, and she’s getting tired of her brother being so nonchalant about it all.

“Why does she only have one locked door? And it’s all the way in the attic? The only thing in there is a chest!” Sokka uses the narrow end of his boomerang to pick the lock, and they all move into the room, her and Aang hanging out near the door anxiously.

“Damn, it’s locked!” Sokka shakes the small chest trying to figure out what’s inside.

“Oh, let me have it.” Sokka hands the box to Toph, and she morphs a bracelet that she had been wearing into a key. She inserts it into the chest, and the lock springs open.

“I’ll tell you what’s in that box.” 

The four of them jump as Hama appears at the door. She takes the box from Toph, opens it, and carefully pulls out a blue whale tooth comb.

“Seriously?” Sokka looks supremely disappointed at the contents of the chest. “A comb?”

“It’s my greatest treasure,” she coos, and looks at the comb lovingly. “It’s all I have left from growing up in the Southern Water Tribe.” Katara and Sokka share a wide-eyed look.

“You’re from the Southern Tribe? We are too!” Katara is ecstatic; she’s never seen anyone from her tribe outside of the South Pole.

“Yes, I heard you talking out at the campfire.”

“Why didn’t you tell us?” Sokka sounds much less suspicious, and Katara hopes that this will put an end to his paranoia.

“I wanted it to be a surprise! I got all of the ingredients at the market today to make a special Water Tribe meal. Ocean kumquats taste almost just like sea prunes if you stew them right!”

“Oh, joy.” Aang’s distaste for sea prunes does nothing to dampen Katara’s mood. She hasn’t had any Water Tribe cuisine since they were in the North Pole, and at the mention of sea prunes, she realizes how much she’s missed it.

“I knew I felt a bond with you!” Katra can’t contain her smile, and Hama smiles back at her with a wink.

“Come on now.” Hama motions with her hand as she turns around. “Let's get cooking!”

The meal takes a while to prepare and cook, but once everything is ready and they sit down, Katara can say that this has been the best day she’s had in a long while. She sees Aang whisper something to Toph, who chuckles in response as she leans in towards the table and takes a deep inhale through her nose.

“Alright, who wants five flavor soup?” They all raise their hands, and to everyone's surprise, Hama bends the soup out of the large pot and into everyone’s bowls.

“You’re a waterbender!” Katara feels like she could cry, she’s so happy. “I’ve never met another Southern bender before.”

“That’s because I’m the last one.” Hama takes a sip of her soup, her face pulling down with sadness.

“So, how did you end up all the way out here?” Sokka’s mouth is actually mostly empty when he speaks— a testament to how good the day has been.

“I was stolen from my home.” Her eyes take on a far away look. “The raids started over sixty years ago. They came again and again, each time capturing more of our waterbenders. We did our best to hold them off, but our numbers dwindled, and in the end they took me too. They led us away in chains, and locked us all in terrible Fire Nation prisons. I was the only one that escaped.” 

“How did you escape? And why did you decide to stay in the Fire Nation?” Sokka’s mouth is totally empty now, having been too enraptured by Hama’s story to continue eating.

“It’s too painful to talk about.” Hama sniffles, her eyes shining with unshed tears.

“We understand.” Katara consoles Hama as she and Sokka share a pained look. “We lost our mother in a raid.”

“Oh, you poor things!” Hama leans over and covers one of Katara’s hands with her own.

“I can’t tell you how much it means to me to meet you. You’re a hero!” Now Katara’s eyes are wet as well, and Hama’s smile is warm when she answers.

“I never thought I’d meet another Southern waterbender. I’d like to teach you all that I know, so that you can continue my legacy once I’m gone.”

“Yes!” Katara jumps at the chance; she had thought the Southern bending style had been lost before she was even born. “Yes, I’d love to learn about my heritage! Thank you, Hama.”

 

Xx

 

The next day, Hama takes Katara on a walk around the town’s perimeter. The sun shines high in the sky, and a gentle breeze ruffles her hair as they walk through a field of tall grass.

“Growing up in the South Pole,” Hama stops and faces Katara, “you were accustomed to being surrounded by water and ice all the time. I’m sure you’ve noticed in your travels, but water will not always be so readily available.”

“Oh my gosh, I know!” She lets out a heavy sigh. “When we were travelling through the desert, I felt so useless.” 

“That’s why you have to learn how to find and control water wherever you can.” Hama gives her a sly look.

“I’ve used my own sweat to waterbend before!” The memory of her escape from jail with Toph plays in her mind, and she feels a spark of pride.

“That’s very resourceful Katara! You’re thinking like a true master. But I bet you didn’t realize that you can pull water out of the air itself.” She twists her arm and water condensates on the tips of her fingers, covering them down to the first knuckle. “You’ve got to keep an open mind. There’s water in places you’d never even think to look.”

“Wow!” Katara’s eyes sparkle in awe, fixated on the water Hama had pulled from the air as it freezes on her fingertips. She gasps as Hama sends the ice daggers flying into the trunk of a tree with a large grin plastered on the old woman’s face. They continue walking through the field, and come upon a beautiful little patch of red flowers.

“These flowers are so beautiful.”

“They’re called fire lilies. They only bloom for a few weeks out of the year, but they’re one of my favorite parts of living here. And like all flora and fauna, they’re filled with water.”

“I met a waterbender in a swamp that would bend the water inside of the vines to control them.” The image of her mother flashes before her eyes, followed by the image of the woman in red.

“You can take it even farther!” She moves fast, faster than Katara would have expected someone her age to be able to, and pulls the water out of the lilies, aiming it at a rock that she slices in half.

“That’s incredible!” Katara looks down, seeing what was once the patch of bright red flowers, now full of brown, withered fire lilies. “It’s a shame about the flowers, though.”

“They’re just plants, Katara. When you’re travelling through unknown lands, you must do whatever it takes to survive. Tonight, I'll teach you the ultimate waterbending technique. It can only be done under a full moon, when our bending is at its peak.”

“I thought people were going missing on the nights of the full moon?” Katara is a little apprehensive about their lesson taking place outside at night when people are being taken.

“Well, we are two master waterbenders, and under a full moon, we’ll be virtually unstoppable.” Hama winks at her, a gleam in the old woman’s eyes that Katara hasn’t seen before. “I’m sure that we’ll be fine.”

 

Xx

 

Hama comes for her later that night and guides her into the forest. Katara is a strange mix of anxious and excited— her stomach flails around inside of her as a response to her emotions. They come to a small clearing, and Hama tilts her face up towards the moon.

“Can you feel it?” She closes her eyes. “The moon has blessed waterbenders for generations, allowing us to do incredible things.” She inhales deeply, and the veins in her arms bulge as she flexes them. A chill travels up Katara’s spine as an invisible darkness surrounds Hama that hadn’t been there before. “I’ve never felt more alive.” Katara turns her face towards the moon, feeling its energy flow through her. “The technique I am about to show you is one that I learned in that wretched Fire Nation prison.” Katara looks at Hama, who still has her eyes closed. “The guards were extremely careful to keep us away from any water. They had us suspended in cages above the ground, and piped in dry air so we couldn’t harness any moisture from it. They would bind our feet and hands before giving us any water to drink; any sign of trouble was met with brutal retribution. But still, I felt the full moon bless me every month, lending me it’s energy and strength. I knew that there had to be something I could do to escape.” Her eyes open to stare at the moon with a dull gaze. “Then I realized that where there is life, there is water. The rats that scurried across the floor were nothing more than skins filled with water, and I took years developing the skill that would allow my escape.” A malicious grin grows on her face as Katara’s stomach sinks. “Bloodbending.” Katara’s heart is beating a wild tattoo against her ribs, her shock written clearly all over her expression. “Controlling the water in another's body, forcing your will upon theirs. Once I had mastered the rats, I was ready for the men. And during the next full moon, I walked free for the first time in decades, my cell unlocked by the very guards assigned to keep me in.” Hama turns to look at Katara, the old woman’s smile raising the hairs on the back of her neck. “Once you master this technique, you will be able to control anything, or anyone.”

“Hama, I don’t know... To reach inside someone and control them like that?” Her hands come up to play with the ends of her hair. “I’m not sure if I want that kind of power.” Hama’s face turns downward, anger in the lines around her eyes and mouth.

“The choice is not yours; the power exists, and it is your duty to use your gifts to win this war. Katara, they tried to wipe out our entire culture, all the waterbenders, even your mother!”

“I know...” She can’t force her voice any louder; she’s scared of Hama, and it hurts more than she thinks it should.

“Then you understand!” She turns her whole body towards Katara. “We’re the last two benders of the Southern Water Tribe, we have to fight these people whenever we can, however we can, by any means necessary!” Realization dawns on Katara, her blood running cold as she voices her fears.

“It’s you.” She wishes the tremble in her voice would disappear. “You’re the one kidnapping people during the full moon!”

“They deserve it!” Hama’s eyes are filled with hate. Little drops of spittle fly out of her mouth as she speaks. “They locked me away and left me to rot! Along with all of the other waterbenders! They must suffer, and you will carry on my work!”

“I won’t!” Katara hardens her voice, somehow finding strength beneath her horror. “I won’t use bloodbending, and I won’t allow you to keep terrorizing this town!” She reaches her hands out in front of her into a bending stance, but before she can move to attack, her left wrist twists unnaturally. “Ahg!” It pops painfully, but luckily is not broken. She tries to fight against it, tries in vain to control her own body as it rebels against her. The experience is terrifying; having someone else control her like a puppet. Hama plays her body like a poorly tuned lute, the sensation wrong and invasive in every way.

“You should have learned the technique before defying me!” Hama continues to twist Katara’s body, and her muscles strain against the awkward positions. “It’s impossible to fight against it; I control every part of you!” She throws Katara’s body from side to side, a terrifying grin on her face, before bringing her closer. Katara struggles to no avail, her body no longer her own. 

“Please, Hama!” Tears leak from her eyes as Hama bends her blood, forcing her down to the ground. “Don’t do this!” 

The old woman laughs, a brittle, demented cackle that sends Katara’s brain into panic mode. But the adrenaline brings awareness to her limbs, and fuels the determination that overpowers her terror. She takes a deep breath, filling her lungs with the crisp night air, feeling Yue’s light seep through her skin and invigorate her chi, and slowly manages to stand upright. She meets Hama’s shocked stare with an icy one of her own.

“You’re not the only one that draws power from the moon.” She moves into a bending stance. “Your bloodbending is useless on me. I’m stronger than you, Hama!” 

She throws herself into the fight, the moon’s energy lending her confidence and strength. Her movements are more graceful and fluid than Hama’s, and her bending benefits from it, the water flowing seamlessly around her. She is her element: flexible, adaptive, beautiful, and dangerous. She meets Hama blow for blow, her face relaxed and controlled while Hama’s slips into panic. She gets the best of the old woman and brings her down with a swift twisting motion, the water sweeping into Hama’s legs and sending her spinning painfully to the ground. She struggles to her knees as Aang and Sokka run into the clearing.

“We know what you’ve been doing Hama!” Sokka’s face is marble, anger drawing his mouth down into a hard line.

“Give up!” Aang demands, pointing his staff in her direction. “You’re outnumbered!”

“No...” Hama rises to her feet, her voice a scratchy drawl. “You’ve outnumbered yourselves!”

She uses her bloodbending to make Sokka and Aang attack Katara, who fights them off while simultaneously trying to attack the old woman. She manages to freeze both her brother and Aang to separate trees so that she can focus her energy on taking Hama down.

“Don’t let your friends hurt each other, Katara!” Hama cackles, raising her arms and forcing Sokka and Aang towards each other, Sokka’s club raised high above his head in preparation for a killing blow. 

“No!” 

She feels like she only has one choice, and reaches out to Hama’s blood. She can feel it coursing through the old woman’s thin veins, pumping from her heart with each beat. She grabs at it, forcing Hama to lose control over Aang and Sokka. She pulls and tugs, twisting and manipulating Hama’s blood to force her to the ground with tears streaming down her face. The sensation is chilling; controlling the woman’s body feels unnatural and wrong. Fissures crack through her heart with each passing moment.

Toph runs into the clearing then, followed by a small crowd of people in ratty clothes, and a handful of Fire Nation soldiers. They restrain Hama as Katara lets go of her blood, her head pounding and body trembling. She drops down to her knees, shaken to her core. 

“My work is done.” Hama’s voice is subdued, but her smile is satisfied, a slit on her face that’s far too wide. “You’re a bloodbender, Katara.” 

As the soldiers drag Hama away, Katara tries to hold her despair in— but she breaks into sobs as soon as Hama is out of sight. Aang, Sokka, and Toph come to her side and hold her silently under the light of the full moon. She feels tainted and dirty as she lets her tears fall steadily from her eyes and trail down her face. I’m a monster… just like her.

Chapter Text

 

 

“Static in my mind, like sanity on borrowed time, like right and wrong can't be defined.

There's a grenade in my heart, and the pin is in their palm.” Pull The Pin, RTJ feat. Mavis Staples

 

 

Xx

 

 

“They’re here.” 

Mai comes to Zuko as he is training on the deck of his ship. Since leaving Ba Sing Se, his firebending has been… off. His flames are a little weaker, his focus a little skewed, his breathing not quite right. The frequent headaches and anxiety attacks are definitely making things worse, but he has no solutions to those problems. Maybe if he practices more, if he tries harder, if he pushes himself to the edge, his bending will get back to normal. He finds himself wishing that his uncle were here, but then remembers Azula telling him that his uncle was a traitor and helped the Avatar escape them in Ba Sing Se. 

“The group was spotted flying inland two nights ago, and some of the townsfolk that we questioned spoke of a young man with blue eyes and dark skin walking towards Piandao’s place yesterday.” Zuko turns towards Mai, confusion etched into his features.

“What would they want with Piandao?” 

Maybe the Avatar is trying to master the art of the sword, and they sent one of his friends to talk to him? He has to admit, they’ve found the best teacher for the job. Zuko’s former tutor, Master Piandao, has taught him everything he knows about the blade, specifically his dual dao swords. If the Avatar has some need to use a weapon and Piandao is his teacher, he will emerge from that castle even more dangerous. His head begins to hurt at the thought of why Sokka is heading there instead of the Avatar, and he tries to stay focused as Mai sighs.

“How should I know?” She sounds as disinterested as ever, and Zuko rolls his eyes as he walks back towards his chambers.

“Prepare to leave. We’re capturing the Avatar today, no matter what.”

 

 

Xx

 

 

The meteor shower the night before had been incredible to watch, but Katara has noticed that her brother is sullen and withdrawn the morning after. They wander into town, determined to raise Sokaa’s spirits with some retail therapy, and find themselves in a well-stocked weapons shop. They wander around, Sokka taking particular interest in a nice looking sword as Katara tries to help pry some of the ugliest armor she’s ever seen off of Aang. She overhears the shopkeeper talking to Sokka, and her, Aang, and Toph approach the two of them.

“...From Piandao, the greatest swords master and maker in all of the Fire Nation. He lives up in the big castle on the top of the hill down the road from here.” Sokka’s eyes are alight with interest as he gazes lovingly at the sword.

“That’s it!” Aang grabs Sokka’s shoulder, turning him to look in his eyes. “This is what you’ve needed all along; a master!”

“Yeah!” Katara chimes in. “We’ve all had masters to help us hone our bending skills. I would never be where I am today without Master Pakku.”

“I learned from the badgermoles. They don’t talk, but they’re good teachers. You should see if you can meet with this Piandao guy and study with him.”

“It would be cool to be a master sword fighter...” Sokka turns the sword over in his hands, pondering it with a thoughtful look on his face. “All right, it’s settled. I’ll go talk to him right now. You guys head back to camp, I’ll meet you there later.”

 

Xx

 

“This has been the most boring two days I’ve had since I left Gaoling.” 

The trio sit around their dying campfire, the mid morning sun beating down on them as the hours drag by.

“It’s not my fault I’m not funny.” Katara had been trying to crack jokes all day yesterday to make up for Sokka’s absence. “You guys just don’t have a good sense of humor.” Aang and Toph groan, and Katara crosses her arms defensively.

“I miss Sokka,” Aang whines, and Katara has to admit that she misses her brother as well. They can’t even read a map on their own.

“Aww, you missed me?” Sokka emerges from the forest, a wide grin splitting his face.

“Sokka!” Aang and Katara shout at the same time and jump up to hug him, Toph staying right where she is on the ground. 

“Say something funny!” Aang clasps his hands in a pleading position in front of Sokka.

“What do you mean?” Aang and Katara burst into laughter, and a confused look comes over his face. “What’s up with them?”

“Katara is bad at jokes and they missed you,” is Toph’s only explanation, still lounging on the ground without a care.

“How did it go? You were gone all day yesterday, so he must have taken you on as his pupil, right?” Aang’s voice is brimming with excitement, and Katara is anxious to hear about Sokka’s sword fighting lesson.

“Yup!” His chest puffs out with pride. “And I even get to make my own sword!”

“That’s great Sokka!” Katara hugs him again, glad that her brother has found something that he feels good about.

“I know! Speaking of, I need your guy’s help.”

 

Xx

 

A little while later they are pushing the massive meteorite that had almost destroyed the town last night up to Piandao’s castle. Piandao seems pleased with Sokka’s choice of material for his sword, and he sets about helping Sokka forge it right away. The three benders wait in Piandao’s castle with cold drinks and snacks provided by the sword master’s assistant, Fat. After a considerable amount of time, Sokka emerges from the forge with a beautiful sword; it’s black in color, unlike anything Katara has ever seen in a weapon before, and it’s shine is rivalled only by that of Sokka's smile. Piandao proudly presents the sword to Sokka with a confidence-inspiring speech, but Sokka’s voice is downcast when he speaks.

“Piandao, I'm not worthy of this sword.” The three benders seated behind him in Piadao’s office stare incedulously at the back of his head. “I lied to you about who I was; I'm not Fire Nation. I’m from the Southern Water Tribe. I lied to you about my identity so that I could learn swordsmanship from you. I’m so sorry.” His head is bent down to look at the ground, and a stern expression forms on Piandao’s face.

“As am I.” 

Piandao attacks Sokka, and their ensuing battle takes them all over the castle grounds. Katara is surprised to hear Piandao praising Sokka on his technique throughout the battle, and when Piandao gets her brother on the ground and points his sword at him, she readies herself to jump into action alongside Aang and Toph. Piandao swings his sword to the side to cut off the three benders, and has Fat toss him the scabbard, which lands directly on the blade.

“I think I'm a little too old to be fighting the Avatar.” He sounds amused, and a smirk appears on his face as all of their mouths drop in surprise.

“How did you know?” Aang asks.

“Oh, I’ve been around a while. Also...” he wipes dirt off of his face and turns back to Sokka. “You should use a fake name. ‘Sokka’ is very water tribe. Try ‘Lee’.” He offers Sokka a hand and helps him to his feet. “There are a million ‘Lees’.” Seeing Sokka’s shocked expression, he continues. “The way of the sword does not belong to one nation; knowledge of the arts belongs to us all. Sokka, you must continue your training on your own. If you stay on this path, I know that one day you will become a greater master than even myself.” 

Master and pupil bow to each other, and the group leaves the castle. Just as they pass outside of the gate, Piandao’s assistant runs to catch up to them.

“My master wanted you to have this, as something to remember him by.” He hands them a small brown bag, and heads back in towards the castle. 

Sokka upends the bag, and the contents spill into his hand. “It’s a pai sho tile.”

“The white lotus?” Katara questions as she examines the game piece from around her brother’s shoulder. “What does that mean?”

“I have no idea.” Sokka pockets the tile, and his brows raise as he turns towards Toph. “Oh, Toph! I thought you might like this.” He pulls a lump of meteorite out of his pocket and hands it to Toph. “You know, since you’ve never had a chance to bend space-earth before.” 

She bends the metal into a few different shapes in her hand with a smile as they walk back to their campsite. But when they return, they have two unexpected visitors.

“Zuko!” Katara’s heart soars in her chest, but stops short when she sees the expression on Zuko’s face. It’s angry, with a hardness in his strangely dull eyes that she’s never seen directed at her before. The girl with the knives stands beside him, looking somewhat bored as Zuko lowers into a bending stance. “Zuko?”

“Finally.” His voice is hard edged and angry. “I’ve found you. Now I can fulfill my destiny and—” 

He stops short as kife-girl jabs him in the temple with the butt of one of her daggers, and his eyes roll to the back of his head as he slumps to the ground, unconscious. The four of them stare dumbfounded at the girl as an awkward silence hangs over the group.

“Okay,” Sokka is the first to get his voice back. “What just happened?” Knife girl still looks bored, her stance relaxed as she puts her dagger away.

“Azula had him brainwashed by the Dai Li.” Their jaws fall even further towards the ground as she speaks. “She was using him to capture the Avatar for her, and to bring you back to the Fire Nation.” Katara looks down at Zuko’s face as he lies on the ground. His features are relaxed, but she can see dark bags under his eyes— his cheeks are too gaunt and his skin is strangely dull. “It screwed him up pretty bad.” She looks back up at the girl. “He’s been having migraines and passing out almost every day. He hardly eats, and even though he sleeps like a log, he’s always tired.” There’s sadness in her eyes, and it’s the most emotion Katara has ever seen the girl show. “He’d pass out and forget what he was doing right before. I think he’s in a lot of pain.” She meets Katara’s eyes. “I know you have healing powers; can you help him?” Katara’s mind flashes back to Jet under Lake Laogai, how she used her bending to break him free of the Dai Li’s spell.

“I can try.” Her voice shakes, the rest of the group deathly silent. “It sounds like they went really hard on him.”

“They did.” Mai looks down at Zuko. “They had him down there for more than a week. He was really resistant to the brainwashing; The Dai Li were surprised at how fast he could break free from their control.” She looks back up at Katara, and the slight fear in Mai’s eyes makes her blood run cold. “When they finally let him go he was pretty beat up. Azula sent me with him to make sure he didn’t revert back, but I can't see him like this. You have to help him.”

Katara lets out a shaky breath and nods her head. She bends down and with kife-girls help, they reposition Zuko so that he is lying flat on his back.

“What’s your name?” Now that she’s actively helping them, Katara can’t justify thinking of her as “knife-girl” all the time.

“Mai. I've been Azula’s friend since we were little, but I was Zuko’s friend too. I know he really wants to be here with you guys.” They turn to look at each other. “What can I do to help?”

“We want to help too!” Aang interjects from behind her, and Sokka and Toph nod as well.

“Get something soft for his head, and I'll need a good amount of water. Maybe something for me to sit on too.” She gently brushes Zuko’s hair off of his forehead. “I have no idea how long this will take. Since it’s so extensive, I’d guess that it could take a few hours.” Her friends rush off, but Mai sits awkwardly across from her on Zuko’s other side. “Do you want to stay until he’s better?”

“Yes.”

Katara thinks that the solemn woman looks grateful as she speaks, but it’s hard to tell. The two girls nod at each other as Katara prepares herself to heal Zuko. Her hands shake as she thinks about how much damage the Dai Li could have done to his mind. What if I can’t get it all? What if there’s permanent damage? She takes a deep breath and shakes those thoughts out of her mind. She has to succeed.

The others return with the things she had asked for. Mai holds Zuko’s head as Aang slides a folded blanket underneath it, Katara puts another one above his head for her to kneel on, and Sokka and Toph bring over three buckets of water. She settles in her spot and gloves her hands in water, bringing them to either side of Zuko’s head.

“What should we do?” Sokka asks.

“I’m not sure,” Katara answers as her hands hover beside Zuko’s head. “Stay close, I guess. If the damage is extensive I might need you to hold him down.” 

Their faces are solemn at the idea of their friend in so much pain, and Katara brings her hands to Zuko’s head before she can think too hard about it. The water begins to glow and Katara closes her eyes. As it travels along his chi, she visualizes his mind; it’s full of darkness, all twisted up and tangled around his third eye and crown chakras, and there’s a lot of it.

“This is going to take a while,” she sighs, and she gets to work meticulously untangling the dark tendrils from Zuko’s mind.

 

 

Xx

 

 

The golden cage materializes around him in the darkness as he slowly becomes aware of his body. For once, there is sound around him; it’s very faint, and he has to strain to hear it, but it almost sounds like water. The pain in his head flares, white hot and needle sharp between his eyes. He grips his head as the panic starts to set in; he knows what is coming, and he dreads it more than anything. 

“I must capture the Avatar…” the disembodied voice floats through the air, a siren song that he must resist.

“Shut up!” His shout intensifies the pain in his head as his breaths come faster and faster. The sound of water— yes, it’s definitely water— gets closer, but he can’t see any water around him. He sits on the floor, legs curled into his chest as he tries to control his breathing. He feels a soreness in his ribs, and a groan spills out from his throat as the pain spreads across his chest.

Suddenly, he is slammed by a powerful wave; he hadn’t seen the water coming, and it hits him from behind, pushing him forcefully into the floor of the cage where his head smacks painfully against it.

 

 

Xx

 

 

“Guys!” Katara shouts to get the other’s attention. She’s been healing Zuko for about an hour, but now he has started to shake violently, the movement of his arms and legs making it hard for her to keep a grip on his head. “I need you to hold him down!” 

Sokka and Toph each grab a leg, and Mai and Aang grab each of his arms. He continues to shake and writhe, the only part of him not moving is his head. 

“Do you want me to make restraints?” Toph speaks up from the other side of Zuko’s body.

“No. If he moves too much he could break a bone. Just…” She tries to control her breathing; seeing him like this is terrifying, and her heart feels like it might explode inside of her. “Just keep holding him.” They all nod, and Katara closes her eyes again, blinking back tears as she continues to untwist his mind.

 

 

Xx

 

 

He struggles to catch his breath, coughing up water and blood as he braces himself on his hands and knees. His head is pounding even more now, and he can feel blood dripping from somewhere above his eyes. Just as he manages to take a handful of deep breaths, another wave slams into him from the side, sending him tumbling across the floor of the massive cage, only stopping when his body makes painful contact with the bars. He feels a rib crack, and his right arm is twisted painfully between him and the bars of the cage. The wave passes and he falls to the floor in a heap, again coughing up water, his whole body shaking as he tries to breathe. The floor of the cage is now covered in an inch of water that extends out past the cage into the darkness. He pushes himself up with shaking arms as the water starts to rise. His right arm almost gives out beneath him from the effort, and pain shoots up his to his shoulder. He tries to grip the bars, and is able to pull himself into a standing position when another strong wave smashes into him.

 

 

Xx

 

 

Three hours in, Zuko starts to scream. It starts out as a groan, long and pained, and when his breathing picks up pace, he surges up against everyone holding him down, a ragged shout ripping from his throat. He grits his teeth so hard Katara can hear them grinding against each other as he moans.

“Someone get him something to bite on!” 

Sokka runs to their supplies, Toph taking both of Zuko’s legs and holding them down with all her strength in his absence. He rushes back beside Katara, and when Zuko opens his mouth to let out a gasping breath, Sokka sticks a sturdy looking stick between his teeth before running back to secure his leg. Tears are streaming down Katara’s face, and in her brief glance up, she notices everyone else’s faces. Mai’s eyes are wide and shining, staring at Zuko’s face; Sokka’s face is set in determination, a hard look in his eyes; Toph’s forehead is scrunched up, and she lowers her head with the effort to hold down Zuko’s shaking limb; Aang is crying right along with Katara, his eyes squeezed closed as he turns his head away so he doesn’t have to look at their friend. Zuko’s chest heaves as he hyperventilates, and she takes a deep breath for the both of them. 

“Hang on, Zuko.”

 

 

Xx

 

 

The water is up to his hips, and the cage is shrinking around him. Where before it was big enough for him to walk around, it’s now tight against him on every side, forcing him to stay upright. The black water is rushing around him, quickly rising as the waves continue to pummell him into the bars of his cage. He can barely get air into his lungs, and he would have collapsed from pain a while ago if he could move at all. He gasps for breath; a steady stream of tears flows from his good eye as the pain in his head increases even more. This is it . He sobs, resting his forehead on one of the bars. The water has risen to his chest, and another wave comes for him, pressing him bodily to one side of the cage. He coughs up more water and blood with the left side of his face pressed up against the bars. The water is freezing— his whole body shakes violently as it rises higher, coming over his collar. He tilts his head backwards as much as he can, trying to keep his mouth and nose over the water as it rises steadily up his neck. He squeezes his eyes shut, gasping sobs escaping him as he accepts the truth. I’m going to die. The water is touching his ears, and his face is pinned to the solid top of the cage as he cries. He regrets so much, there were so many things he wanted to do, so many places he wanted to see, so many people—

“Hang on, Zuko.”

He opens his eyes one last time as he takes a deep breath, the water almost covering his entire face. That voice, he recognises that voice— where has he heard that voice before?  

Katara,” he says her name, his mouth already submerged as the water rises to cover him completely. 

As soon as his head is submerged, the water warms; he stops shaking, all of his pain seeming to ebb away into the inky darkness. He relaxes into the strange warmth, letting out his last breath as he closes his eyes. As soon as he does, he feels his body flip; the world spins around him, and a falling sensation overtakes him until he somehow miraculously ends up surfacing and floating on his back. 

He opens his eyes and takes a deep breath. A beautiful blue sky spans as far as the eye can see above him, bright like it’s the middle of the day. His breathing slows and evens, and the warm water carries him on a gentle current. He doesn’t know where it will take him, but he doesn’t care; he’s alive, and the blue sky above him feels like home.

 

 

Xx

 

 

Five and a half hours in, Zuko stops moving. His breathing evens out as his limbs finally relax, and all the agony leaves his face. Katara has untangled every single black tendril in his mind; she took extra time to make sure she got every one, pulling them free from his chi and purifying them with her water. She looks up to see everyone staring at her; there are tears still evident on Mai’s and Aang’s faces, and Sokka and Toph look bone-weary.

“Is he…” Toph speaks, asking the question burning in everyone but Katara’s mind.

“Yes.” The force of the sigh the group lets out could move mountains. “I got it all. He needs to rest, probably for a while, but he’ll be okay.” 

“That was…” Aang trails off, at a loss for words.

“Horrifying,” Mai finishes for him, and he nods.

“I don’t even want to think about what they did to him back there,” Toph mumbles, her voice tired and heavy.

“All of that, just to help us.” Sokka is the one who says it, but Aang and Katara look at each other, remembering the crystal catacombs, acknowledging that Aang would probably still be dead if Zuko and his uncle hadn’t sacrificed themselves to let them escape.

“He really cares about you guys.” Mai’s voice is shaking just the smallest bit. “I don’t know what you did—” she looks right at Katara when she says it, and if she wasn’t so exhausted she would have blushed— “but you gave him hope. He hasn’t had that in a long time, even before he was banished.”

“What happened to him?” Aang asks, voice tired and soft.

“That’s his story to tell,” Mai says as she rises. “But even with all of this brainwashing stuff, he’s been better off out on his own than he would have been at home.” The statement strikes them all in the heart, and Katara pushes Zuko’s hair off of his forehead before lying her cool hand against it. “I have to leave.” everyone but Katara rises to say their goodbyes.

“What are you going to do? What will you tell Azula?” Sokka doesn’t sound suspicious, and Katara knows why; after all they just went through, it’s clear that Mai really cares for Zuko, no matter how scary Azula is.

“I’ll figure it out.” Mai doesn’t seem very concerned as she folds her hands into her sleeves. “I have to go back to her now, but I have plenty of time to think of something.”

“Thank you, Mai.” Katara’s voice is hoarse as she looks up at the girl. “For bringing him to us.”

“Thank you for saving him. I’m not sure how much longer he would have lasted like that.” She nods to Katara and then to the rest of the group before turning around and walking back into the forest.

The silence in the group is heavy after Mai’s departure; all Katara wants to do is sleep and eat, in that order. She lies down right where she is, curling her body protectively around Zuko’s head and resting hers near his chest, laying her hand on him so she can feel his heart beating steadily underneath it.

“Wake me up in a few hours...” 

The words trail off as she falls asleep, uncaring that she is on the ground or that dirt is getting into her hair. Zuko is safe, and this way she’ll know right when he wakes up.

Chapter Text

“I've been seeing all, I've been seeing your soul. Give me things that I wanted to know,

tell me things that you've done. I've been feeling old, I've been feeling cold;

you're the heat that I know, listen, you are my sun.” Drop The Game, Flume & Chet Faker

 

 

Xx

 

 

Sokka wakes Katara up a little later so that she can eat. She’s too tired to even be impressed that someone else cooked for once, and she refuses to leave Zuko’s side— not that anybody asks her to. Toph is already asleep, having eaten before Katara could even wake up, and Sokka and Aang sit a ways away from her, talking quietly to each other. Zuko is still sleeping, but his face is calm and his breathing is still even. His skin looks better, the color having come back after she healed him. She doesn’t think that she’ll ever get that experience out of her head; it was so hard to see him in so much pain, physical and mental, and have to just… let him ride it out while she worked. She couldn’t go too fast, she didn’t want to risk damaging any part of him, but there had been so much darkness twisted up in his mind. Someone had covered Zuko, and herself, with a blanket while she slept, and she was glad to know that her friends cared about him so much.

“How is he?” Aang asks quietly as he and Sokka come up beside her.

“He’s stable. How long was I out for?”

“Four hours.” Sokka’s voice is gentle as he and Aang squat down on either side of her.

“He’ll probably need to rest for a few more hours, at the very least.” She puts her empty bowl down, having been so hungry that she pretty much inhaled her food. “That experience was bad for us, but I can’t begin to imagine what it was like for him.” Her eyes start to water, and she feels Sokka’s heavy hand on her back.

“He’s safe now.” She looks at her brother, always there to comfort her when she needs it most. “That’s what matters. You should get some more rest.” 

He and Aang stand up, the latter holding a small pillow out to her. She smiles as she takes the pillow, and lays back down in the same position she had been in before, sore back and dead arm be damned. She presses her face into Zuko’s arm, the warmth comforting her as she falls back asleep.

 

Xx

 

She doesn’t wake up again until the next day, and about halfway through the morning, Zuko begins to stir next to her. She’s sitting next to him brushing through her hair when his face twitches and he inhales deeply. She almost throws her comb onto the ground in her haste to get closer to him (even though she is already right next to him), and he groans as he opens his eyes. The gold is bright and multifaceted in the sunlight shining down on them, and tears well in Katara’s own eyes when she finally sees his focus on her.

“Katara?” His voice is scratchier than usual, but the sound is no less comforting. After weeks and weeks of fearing that he was dead, and then having to disentangle all of the darkness in his mind, his voice is more beautiful than the rarest bird song. “What happened?”

“Zuko!” She can’t form any more words, her throat closing up around the swell of emotions in her chest. Her tears start to fall, and she can do nothing but lay her head on his chest and cry. His arm comes around to hold her tight, the other awkwardly trapped on the ground between Katara’s body and his, but she doesn’t care. She holds him to her, one arm holding his waist and the other fisted in his shirt, all her weight supported by his chest. 

“Katara...” She feels him tilt his head and press his nose into her hair as she tries to control her sobs. “Katara, it’s okay. I’m okay.” 

She pulls away from him, wiping her nose on her sleeve and taking note of the patch of tears she’s left on his shirt, and helps him sit up as the others come to check on him. 

“Hey.” She looks into his eyes to respond, and they’re full of worry, full of concern for her even though he’s the one who was hurt and gone and brainwashed, and she surges into his arms again as her sobs return anew. She locks her arms around his neck, wishing that she’d never have to let go, and his snake around her waist, his warmth grounding her. I love him. Spirits, I love him so much. She cries herself dry, and only after her breathing is steady and her hiccups have subsided does she pull herself from his embrace.

“Katara,” Sokka kneels down beside her. “Let the man eat before you cry all over him, at least.” Katara’s laugh is choked and wet, and as she dries her eyes she sees Sokka hand a bowl of food to Zuko. “Glad you’re back among the living, buddy.” Sokka gives Zuko’s shoulder a firm squeeze, and the look of shock on Zuko’s face almost makes Katara laugh.

“Thanks...” He sounds lost, but he starts eating immediately, no doubt famished after everything his body has been through. “What happened? Why are you all looking at me like that?” To his credit, he waits to speak until his mouth isn’t full. Toph and Aang approach them, and they all sit around Zuko.

“You were brainwashed by the Dai Li.” Zuko stops with his spoon half way to his mouth when Aang speaks. “You helped us escape in Ba Sing Se, and Azula had you brainwashed to come and find us.”

“Oh.” Zuko puts his spoon back into the bowl. “How did I get here?”

“Well...” Toph begins, and Katara nudges Zuko’s elbow to encourage him to keep eating. “You showed up with your friend Mai, and you were all like “I finally found you!” but Mai knocked you out before you did anything stupid. She told us Azula sent her with you to keep you in line, but she couldn’t stand to see you all fucked up ‘cause of the brainwashing.” Toph’s words are inelegant, but they get the point across well enough.

“Do you remember anything between Ba Sing Se and today?” Sokka asks.

“Not really.” Zuko wipes his mouth with the back of his sleeve. “I know that I was looking for Aang and that Mai was with me, but I don’t remember any details.”

“Do you think you’re well enough to travel?” Katara doesn't want to risk his recovery, but they have to get going. “We can’t stay in one place for too long.”

“Yeah, I think I'm good.” He moves to stand up, and groans when he straightens out. “How long was I on the ground for? My back is killing me.” He stretches his arms up over his head, his shirt pulling up just enough to show a sliver of his stomach, and Katara has to pretend to pick at a hangnail to hide her blush. He twists from side to side, his back cracking audibly.

“Ohh, did that feel as satisfying as it sounded?” Toph seems to have enjoyed the sound that Katara had cringed at.

“Absolutely.” Zuko turns and smiles down at Katara, and she realizes that travelling with Zuko is going to make things very hard for her. Yue, help me.

 

 

Xx

 

 

Zuko’s first time flying on Appa is as terrifying as it is exhilarating. He feels like a little kid as he peers over the side of the saddle, a smile stretched over his face as his hair whips around in the wind.

“This is amazing,” he says to himself, not expecting anyone to respond.

“Speak for yourself, Sparky.” Toph sounds like she’s going to hurl at any moment, and it reminds Zuko of his first few months on his ship after he was banished. He thinks about how his uncle would make him peppermint tea to calm his stomach and his heart clenches in his chest.

“Are you okay?” His thoughts must show on his face, and since he’s woken up Katara has been very… he would say overbearing, but he can’t deny that he is greatly enjoying all the attention she’s giving him. Even if it makes it extra hard not to kiss her.

“Yeah.” He’s glad she’s sitting next to him, because the look on her face screams “I know you’re full of shit,” and he doesn’t want everyone knowing how weak he is. “I’m just thinking about my uncle,” he murmurs, voice low so that it doesn’t carry. 

Katara’s brows crease in sympathy and she takes one of his hands in hers. Agni, if she keeps doing stuff like this, I’m going to end up telling her I love her by the end of the night.

I’m sure he’s okay Zuko,” she says with confidence, and he believes her. She could tell him that the sky is green with orange polka dots and he’d believe her. Her hair flutters around her face, the brunt of the wind blocked by Appa’s huge head, and the urge to run his hands through it is almost overwhelming. Relax Zuko. You’re not fifteen anymore. Pining isn’t cool. 

“That’s it!” 

His attention is pulled away from Katara (something he is grateful for and frustrated by at the same time) by her brother, who is pointing at a small island not too far in the distance. 

“That’s the rendezvous point!” 

They had told Zuko about their plan for the invasion on the day of black sun, and he had to admit that it was a pretty solid plan. He had no idea if it would work, but it was worth a shot. The bison tilts downward, and Zuko’s stomach flips as they lose altitude. Katara must see it in his face, because she laughs at him and gives his hand (which she is still holding) a squeeze. I’m so screwed.

Appa touches down in a vast field, and they all hop off to start setting up their camp. It hits Zuko that he’s actually a part of the group now. They all work together to set things up, and he stands to the side awkwardly, not sure what to do with himself. He’s never been part of a group like this; hell, he hasn’t even had a real friend since he was 13, and even then, Mai and Ty Lee had been Azula’s friends first. Are these people his friends? He thinks maybe Katara is his friend (he tells himself that it’s better than nothing), but he’s not so sure about the others. None of them really know him, not even Katara.

“How did you pick this place?” Toph asks Sokka, and Zuko moves towards the group, feeling like he should at least try to socialize.

“Before we split up, my dad and I found this island on a map. It’s uninhabited, and the harbors surrounded by the cliffs seemed like the perfect secluded place. And we have some time to relax; we’re four days ahead of schedule!”

“Four days?!” Aang’s eyes are wide, and the anxiety is visible on his face. “There’s only four days until the invasion?!” 

“Yeah, but that’s like, four days from now.” Sokka unfurls his bedroll and climbs into it. Zuko realizes that he doesn’t even have a bedroll. “For now let’s just relax and…” he yawns and trails off, and is snoring in minutes.

“Sokka’s right, Aang.” Katara is laying out her own bedroll as she speaks. “We’re here, we’re ready. The best thing we can do now is rest.”

“I guess so...” Aang looks unsure, and as he sits down on his own bedroll, Zuko realizes how tired he is, but has no idea what to do with himself.

“Oh, Zuko, you don’t have a bedroll, do you?” Katara climbs up onto Appa and returns with another bedroll. “We had gotten this for Toph, but she likes sleeping on the dirt.” Her nose scrunches up, making Zuko smile. “Here.” 

She gives it to him as if he has any idea where to even put the damn thing. His anxiety kicks up as he weighs the options in his head; if I put it next to Katara, does that come off as weird? But I don't really know anyone else. Should I put it off to the side? No, that’ll seem weird too. What if—

“Come sleep next to me.” 

His cart crash of a thought process is interrupted by Katara, who smiles at him like she isn’t flipping his insides around like pancakes. He lays out his bedroll next to hers, judging the amount of space between everyone else’s beds before determining a safe distance to put between him and Katara. If it’s too close, he could make her uncomfortable, but if it’s too far, he could offend her. Can my anxiety relax for like, twelve seconds? That’s all I need. He lays down and forces himself not to look at her, instead gazing up at the night sky to appreciate the gorgeous stars until his eyelids slide shut.

He is awakened before the sun has risen by a steady pounding sound. The sky is soft and light, the sun just below the horizon casting a warm orange glow that bleeds into a calm lavender. He takes a deep breath to center himself before he sits up to see Aang… punching a tree? Katara groans next to him, clearly frustrated with being woken up before the sun has risen, and sits up as well, her hair frizzy around her head. She looks at Aang briefly, and turns to look at Zuko, who shrugs his shoulders before stretching his arms above his head and bending over to touch his toes, cracking his back all the way up his spine. 

“Is it supposed to do that?” He looks at Katara’s slightly horrified face and chuckles, knowing that she is referring to his back crackling like popcorn popping over a fire.

“Probably not, honestly.” 

He gets up as Toph and Sokka start to stir, both of them groaning as well. The sun is creeping closer to the horizon, orange and pink splashing higher up into the sky as he goes to approach Aang with Katara close behind him.

“How long have you been up?” Aang has deep purple bags under his eyes, and looks to be in a daze as Zuko talks to him.

“A few hours.”  His voice is monotone, which worries Zuko more than he’d like to admit. “I’ve got a lot to work on before I fight Ozai.”

“Aang, you know there’s such a thing as ‘over training,’ right?” Katara moves beside Zuko, concern coloring her voice.

“You don’t get it!” Aang snaps, turning on them with wild eyes. “My form is bad, I'm sloppy, and I still don’t know any firebending. Not even the basics!”

“Why doesn’t Zuko teach you some firebending?” Sokka speaks up with a yawn as he walks over towards the three of them.

“I don’t think it’s a good idea right now. Aang already has a lot to focus on, and adding firebending to that will just make it more stressful.” He doesn’t say that his firebending hasn’t been at its greatest lately, and that he’s worried that he won’t be able to teach Aang anything at all.

“Plus,” Katara interjects, “the eclipse will render firebending useless anyway. You don’t need to know it right now.”

“Well I still need to work on everything else. I better spend the whole day training.” He bows to the three of them rapidly, the motions almost comical if it weren’t for the situation surrounding them, and speeds off on an air scooter towards a large gathering of koala sheep.

“I was gonna ask him if he wanted to meditate with me, but…” Zuko trails off, unable to even see Aang anymore, knowing that the boy is too anxious to sit still right now. 

Sokka and Katara both sigh and head back to the camp, and Zuko walks around to find a good spot to meditate. He settles on the edge of a cliff overlooking the sea, facing the sun as it begins to crest the horizon. He breathes deep, closing his eyes and revelling in the grace of Agni as he rises and bathes Zuko in light and warmth.

 

Xx

 

The next three days pass in a haze. Aang is high strung and anxious, his nervousness so intense that Zuko starts to feel anxious as well. He starts thinking about the invasion, about seeing his father, about revealing to his family that he’s on the Avatar’s side now. He meditates and goes through his katas every morning as the sun rises, and despite his nerves and his difficulties with firebending, he feels content. It’s nice to finally be a part of a group, to be with people his own age who accept him and value him. He and Sokka get along better than he thought they would, and he often trains with him in swordfighting. They relate through both having Piandao as a mentor; at first he was surprised that Piandao had taken Sokka on as a student, but as they fight he understands. He’s creative and quick to react, and he keeps Zuko on his toes by using a wide arsenal of attacks and dodges. He still has yet to beat Zuko, but they talk and laugh and Sokka swings his broad arm around Zuko’s shoulder, and he feels a camaraderie with the other man that he has never felt before. It reminds him of his relationship with Lu Ten, and he imagines that this is how they would have interacted if he was still alive.

Toph is snarky and rough around the edges, but he finds her sarcasm and wit refreshing. She punches him to show her affection, makes fun of him endlessly, and refuses to call him by his actual name, making up a new nickname for him at every opportunity. So far, he’s been called Sparky, fire flake, jerk bender, and his favorite, asshole. At first her teasing confused him, until Katara had explained that she is actually showing her love by being a little terror in a five foot two human costume.

And Katara. Being around her makes his heart sing, a weak, warbling song that grows slowly more confident by the day. She casually touches his shoulder while laughing at his awful jokes, her bright blue eyes sparkling with mirth as his heart swells in his chest. She is obviously the mother of the group, and he makes a habit of helping her with the laundry, cooking, dishes, and anything else she’ll let him do. He sees the appreciation on her face and understands quickly that she isn’t used to being helped very much. They talk when they do chores; mostly she tells him about her childhood growing up in the South Pole, but occasionally he’ll share a story about his uncle or some of the pranks his crew had played on each other (and him) when he had been on his ship. Talking to her is easier than he ever thought it could be, and the two of them usually fall asleep after the others (except for Aang, who hardly sleeps at all) after they’ve stayed up talking under the stars. He’s hopelessly in love with her; he loves how she plays with her hair and how her beautiful smile lights up her face like the sun breaking over the horizon. His knees feel weak when she casually pulls grass from his hair after he’s sparred with Sokka, his stomach a cage of sparrowkeets when she falls asleep facing him in her bedroll. He constantly feels a pull towards her, a desire to be in the same space as her; even just being next to her fills him with a warmth that his inner fire never has. It’s intoxicating, and he’ll never get enough, and it terrifies him to think that he’s so helpless when it comes to how he feels about her. There’s nothing he can do but bite back his true feelings and enjoy and cherish the friendship they have; he would rather die than ruin it by telling her how he really feels. He is resigned to swallowing his love, and he tells himself that this is enough.

Chapter Text

“I raise my flags, dye my clothes, it's a revolution, I suppose . We're painted red to fit right in, woah.

I'm breaking in, shaping up, then checking out on the prison bus . This is it, the apocalypse, woah.

I’m waking up, I feel it in my bones, enough to make my systems blow! Welcome to the new age...” Radioactive, Imagine Dragons 



Xx



The night before the invasion, they finally get Aang to sleep. They put together a bed made from some koala sheep’s wool (wrangling the koala sheep hadn’t been easy, and Katara couldn’t help but laugh at the sight of Zuko and Sokka attempting to tackle the surprisingly large animals so that she could shear them) and assured him that he was ready to face the Fire Lord. The rest of them had gone to bed a little while later, Sokka and Toph falling asleep immediately while Katara and Zuko stayed up as usual. Normally they would talk during this time, but tonight they were silent as they stared up at the stars.

“Are you nervous about tomorrow?” She knows that she’s nervous; she couldn’t let Aang see it, but she was worried that things wouldn’t go according to plan, and that one of them would get hurt, or worse.

“A little.” Zuko shifts so that one hand is below his head and the other is resting on his stomach.

“Me too.” The silence stretches on a little longer, but Katara’s mind is racing, and she needs to distract herself. “What if you see your father?” She sees him stiffen for a moment, the hand resting on his stomach clenching.

“I plan on it.” He stares straight up at the night sky, the stars reflecting in his golden eyes.

“Zuko?” She turns on her side, and he swivels his head to look at her. “We’re gonna be okay tomorrow, right?” She can’t hide the tears in her eyes— Zuko’s brow creases as he sees her distress, and he turns onto his side.

“Hey,” he reaches out and takes her hand into his; their bedrolls are only a few feet apart, but the distance between them feels bigger than usual tonight. “We’re gonna be fine.” He rubs the back of her hand with his thumb, the warmth soothing her even as her tears roll down the side of her face into her hair. “Katara...” He moves so that he’s closer to her, briefly letting go of her hand to pull his bedroll up beside hers before reaching back to hold it again. “We’ll be okay. It’s a solid plan, and we’re all ready. We even got Aang to sleep tonight, and if that doesn’t mean we’re ready, I don’t know what does.” Her laugh is choked and wet, but it’s there. 

“I just—” she sniffles, more tears falling as she begins to cry silently. “I can’t lose any of you. I can’t.” 

Zuko detaches his hand from hers and gently pulls her into his chest, laying his arm over her waist to rub her back. She fists her hands in his shirt, burying her face into him and trying to ground herself in his warmth and his familiar smell. 

“You won’t lose any of us, Katara,” he whispers into her hair, his voice scratchy and quiet.

He holds her as she cries, staying as quiet as she can so that she doesn’t wake any of the others. She doesn’t know what she would do without Zuko; he’s only been with their group for a little over a week, but already he has cemented his place in her heart. There’s something inside her that glows when he’s around, a vibration in her chest that purrs like a cat when she’s in his arms no matter what she’s feeling. Eventually she calms down, matching her breathing with Zuko’s even rhythm, but he doesn’t move away. He rubs her back until his warmth lulls her to sleep, and right before she drifts off, she thinks she feels the soft press of his lips on the top of her head.



Xx



Luckily for Zuko, he is always the first one awake; he doesn’t want to imagine what Sokka’s reaction would be if he woke up to find Zuko sleeping with his little sister tucked in his arms. The problem now is that he’s addicted, and every morning that he’ll have to wake up without her there next to him will be a painful one. He had comforted her until she fell asleep in his arms, and when he was sure that she was asleep, he had laid a gentle kiss on her head (gentle kisses on the head can totally be platonic… right?). He knows it was probably (defintely) stupid, but she had felt so fragile in his arms, and he would have done anything to take away her pain. It feels so right any time she’s close to him. It was like as soon as she started crying, his body moved before he had time to think, and then she was in his arms. That magnet in his chest is always pulling him to her, always keeping him within her arm’s reach.

The group is in surprisingly good spirits this morning. Sokka has been going over the invasion plans meticulously, and he’s asked for Zuko’s opinion on a multitude of things before the invasion force got to them, which makes Zuko glow with pride. Aang has finally gotten a good night’s sleep, and seems refreshed and confident. Toph is her usual nonchalant self, although she is love-punching (that’s the only way he can think to describe her strange show of affection) Aang more frequently. And, despite her anxiety the night before, Katara is downright chipper, her smile radiant and her laugh bubbly and bright. Zuko squashes down the hope that she’s in a good mood because of his quality comforting skills, and is just glad to see her happy. 

“Oh, no.” Zuko and Sokka look up at Katara from their maps. “There’s a lot of fog out there. Do you think it’ll delay the invasion?” Both Zuko and Sokka stand, and a wide smile stretches over Sokka’s face.

“Katara, that is the invasion!” 

Five Water Tribe ships emerge from the fog, and the group quickly head down to the shoreline. Aang and Toph use their earthbending to make a dock, and as the five ships pull in, Katara and Sokka bounce on their toes with excitement. They run towards the dock once men start coming off the ships, embracing one of them tightly. Aang, Toph, and Zuko follow them, walking up to the man who is being held in a loving hug from Sokka and Katara. He’s tall and burly with dark skin, has the top portion of his short hair pulled back in a style similar to Sokka’s, and has bright blue eyes. This must be their father. Zuko swallows his nerves as he walks up with the other two benders.

“Dad, this is Zuko.” Katara pulls him forward towards their father, who definitely recognises him from his name and face. “You remember I told you about him after Ba Sing Se?” The man looks at Zuko with an unreadable expression before a kind smile forms on his face.

“Zuko.” He holds out his arm, and Zuko clasps it in the Water Tribe style. The man seems a little impressed that Zuko knows the traditional greeting, and he decides he’ll have to tell him someday about his journey from the North Pole. “Thank you for helping Katara and Aang. I’m glad that you’re safe.” They let go of each other’s arms. “Katara was extremely worried about your health the last time I saw her.” Zuko tries unsuccessfully to fight against the heat rising into his cheeks.

“We were all worried, dad.” Katara’s cheeks are a pretty pink color as she corrects her father, who chuckles at her embarrassment. Zuko bows low to Katara’s father, again in the Water Tribe style that he learned from his time with the warriors on the Water Tribe ship.

“I’m honored to meet you, sir.” He stands upright and flinches when the man lays a warm, heavy hand on his shoulder.

“Call me Hakoda.” He smiles at Zuko, who does his best to smile back through his confusion and anxiety. Hakoda moves on to talk to the other Water Tribe men, and Katara waves at Zuko as she turns to follow him. Agni, help me.

A motley crew of people exit off of the Water Tribe vessels; many wear the colors of the Earth Kingdom, a few wear hardly anything at all (Zuko wonders where on earth they found men who wear leaves for hats and travel in loincloths), and some wear the blue of the Water Tribes. Seeing so many different people working together for the same cause inflates a bubble of hope in Zuko; this is evidence that they can build a new world where all the Nations work together in peace and harmony. He hopes that by the end of the day, that dream will have become a reality.

Soon, everyone is gathered in front of a podium where Sokka is going to brief them all on the mission. Katara and Aang are up next to the podium with Sokka and Hakoda, and Zuko has to try his hardest to focus on Sokka when he starts talking and not just stare at Katara the whole time like a creep.

“Alright everyone!” Sokka’s voice starts out a little shaky, but when he makes eye contact with Zuko, who gives him a discreet thumbs up, he gains a little bit of confidence. “Today is the day we invade the Fire Nation; the day of black sun. The invasion takes part in two stages, a naval phase, and a land phase.” Hakoda puts up a map behind Sokka as he continues. “Our first obstacle is the Great Gates of Azulon,” he motions behind him to point at the gates on the map. “The mechanist has built a vessel that will allow us to go underwater for a brief period of time so that we can sneak past, hopefully going undetected. Once we hit land,” he moves to point at a different spot on the map, “we have to fight through their battlements to secure the plaza tower. Once we do that, we head up to the Palace, and the eclipse begins.”

“The Boulder is confused.” A large, muscular man raises his hand. “I thought the point was to invade during the eclipse when the firebenders are at their weakest?”

“The eclipse only lasts eight minutes. We need to get up to the palace and past all the guards before it starts so that Aang has all eight minutes to fight the Fire Lord. When this is over, Aang will have defeated the Fire Lord, and the war will finally be over!”

Cheers ring out from the crowd, and Zuko gives Sokka a big thumbs up this time as Hakoda comes to clap his son affectionately on the shoulder. The crowd moves into action, prepping supplies and transporting things onto the ships as Zuko approaches Sokka.

“You did good up there.” He’s gotten a little more comfortable with casual touch, and he puts his hand on Sokka’s shoulder in solidarity.

“Thanks Zuko. I couldn’t have done it without your thumbs up.” Zuko rolls his eyes at Sokka’s barb, failing to hold back a smile at the sight on the one on Sokka’s face.

“You’re the worst.” 

Teasing his friends to show his affection is much easier than outwardly showing any actual affection, and he knows Sokka understands as he starts to laugh. They head over to the ships together to head out, bumping each other’s shoulders and laughing the whole way down, trying to cover their nerves with lighthearted jokes.



Xx



It feels like only minutes have passed between then and now as they sail towards the Great Gates of Azulon. Katara and the swampbenders whip up a thick fog to surround them as they approach, hoping to pass through the gates undetected. Unfortunately, luck doesn’t seem to be on their side today as a loud alarm bell rings, and a massive net is raised between the two dragon statues that mark the gate, a statue of Azulon himself holding the net up in the middle as it catches on fire.

“Everyone below deck!” Hakoda directs them all into the strange machines that Sokka designed for the man they call the Mechanist. They seal the doors, and the machines part from the ships. Katara and some other waterbenders guide them along underneath the surface using their bending. Zuko can’t help but be in awe of Sokka’s design, and he understands even more what Piandao saw in him as a student. They surface once between the gates and the beach, all them going up onto deck to get some fresh air.

“This is it, huh?” Aang stands before them, head shaved and new glider ready. 

“Are you ready for the Fire Nation to know that the Avatar is alive?” Sokka asks.

“I’m ready.” Aang is determined, his voice steady and strong, and Zuko feels a strange sort of pride for the boy standing before him. The group hugs, Zuko standing awkwardly to the side until Toph grabs his arm and roughly pulls him in.

“Alright, time’s up!” Hakoda’s shout breaks up their hug. “Everyone back inside.” Aang nods at them all with a serious face, shakes open his glider, and flies off.

They get to the beach, and Zuko runs up on land with Toph and the massive caterpillar tanks they’re using to lead the assault. Zuko had convinced Sokka that he would be most useful if he fought with his swords instead of firebending, under the guise of keeping his identity a secret for as long as they can. He couldn’t tell the group that his firebending isn’t right, not now, so he runs up along the beach, cutting down soldiers as he needs to, trying to forget that they’re his own men. Zuko sees Appa fly off towards the battlements, and they explode shortly after. The ground assault moves forward, and it seems that they’re actually managing to push the Fire Nation’s army back. Appa comes flying back down, Sokka on his back clad in his fierce warriors armor, looking every bit the commander of their assault.

“Listen up!” His voice raises over the sounds of battle around them. “I want the tanks in wedge formation, warriors and benders in the middle. We’re taking that tower, and heading for the royal palace!” They take up their formation, Sokka sitting on Appa at the front with his sword brandished out in front of him. “Charge!” 

They fight their way up towards the volcano, pushing Fire Nation soldiers back at every turn. Sokka’s strategy is truly one of genius, and it allows them to travel up the side of the volcano without taking any damage from the fireballs flying their way. They’re making good progress, and Sokka eventually dismounts from Appa and fights on the ground with him and Toph in the shelter of the large metal tanks. After what feels like hours, but is likely only minutes, Katara approaches them with Hakoda supported on her shoulder. 

“Dad! You’re on your feet again!” Sokka sounds delighted to see his father, and Zuko doesn't blame him; it looks like he had been hurt pretty badly.

“Thanks to your sister.” He sits down, clearly still weak. “I’m in no shape to fight, but maybe there’s a way I can help.”

“Everythings going great, and the eclipse hasn’t even started yet!” Sokka’s plan has worked so far, and things seem to be looking up. Speaking of looking up—

“Katara, are you okay?” He sees her face pointed towards the sky, curious as to what she’s looking at.

“Is that Aang?” The three men turn their heads up to see Aang flying towards them on his glider. He touches down in front of them looking sullen and dejected, and Zuko’s stomach sinks.

“He wasn’t there, was he?” Zuko was afraid of this; he had told Sokka that there was a chance that his father would be anticipating an attack, but Sokka had pointed out that this was their only hope to catch him, and they had to take the risk.

“Nobody was.” Aang snaps his glider closed. “The entire palace city was empty.”

“Shit,” Sokka curses under his breath.

“He has a bunker.” Everyone turns to Zuko as he speaks. “There’s a handful of bunkers below the palace that he could have retreated to.”

“I can get us in if we get close enough.” Toph’s ability to bend metal will never cease to amaze him.

“Wait!” Katara is looking between them all with wide eyes. “It could be a trap. Maybe we should use the time we have left to make sure everyone gets out safely.”

“Everyone who came here today came prepared to risk everything,” Hakoda interjects from where he sits. “They know the stakes.”

“What do you think, Aang?” Sokka asks, and they all turn to look at the Avatar. “You’re the one that has to face him.” 

“I’ve gotta try.” Zuko has to commend the kid; at sixteen, he’s already braver than most of the full grown men and women Zuko knows.

“Alright.” Sokka nods and looks at his sister. “Katara, you stay here with dad. The rest of us will go to find the bunker.” The four of them make their way towards Appa, but Zuko turns as someone grabs his arm.

“Zuko!” He looks down at Katara, her knuckles white where she grips his arm and her eyes shining with unshed tears. “Promise me you’ll come back.”

“Of course, Katara.” The worry in her eyes makes his chest hurt. “I promise.” She nods, and he’s about to turn away when she gets up on her tiptoes and kisses him softly on the cheek.

“Go.” She gently pushes him towards Appa, but his feet are cement blocks, and his eyes are wide as blood rushes to his face.

“Come on, lover boy!” Toph grabs his arm from behind and practically drags him onto Appa. He looks back at Katara once more before Appa jumps into the air and they head towards the palace.

“You’re not going to be too distracted to fight, right?” Zuko has to physically shake his head to focus on Sokka’s words.

“What?” His head is back on the ground with Katara, wishing he could have said or done something before he had to leave.

“Great.” Sokka rolls his eyes. “I’m gonna have to have a talk with Katara about her timing.”

Chapter Text

 

 

“Seven years you assured me that I'd be fine if I complied . Only push the way off to fight you—

n ow I'm sorry, I'm sorry, I'm not sure. Getting off my chest; the story ends.” Seven Years, Saosin



Xx



By the time they reach their destination, Zuko is back in the moment, determined to get all of this over and done with so he can go back to Katara and figure out what the hell just happened. Appa lands on the side of the volcano at Zuko’s instruction; he knows that the most direct route to the bunkers will be through the tunnels under the volcano. They jump down from Appa and Toph puts her hands on the ground.

“Yup, there are a ton of natural tunnels running underneath the volcano, and a few big hunks of metal spaced out under the palace.” She blasts a hole in the slanted ground beneath them, opening up a tunnel. “Let’s go.”

They charge through the tunnels, silent and determined as the air around them grows thick and hot. Zuko’s heart is beating like a violent drum, and not just because he’s running. The thought of encountering his father, of Aang having to fight him without mastering the Avatar state, of Toph and Sokka possibly running to their deaths alongside them; he realizes that these people really actually care about him. And he cares about them, too. He’d do whatever it took to get them all out of here alive, and that thought alone is enough to send him reeling. 

“Alright.” They slow down as Toph speaks. “There’s an intersection up ahead that leads to three bunkers, all equidistant from that point. Two of the bunkers have only one person in them, and the other has a whole bunch of people in it. What should we do?” Zuko, Sokka, and Aang look between each other, trying to think of the best plan as they continue to jog towards the three way split.

“I think my father is arrogant enough that he won’t believe he needs help.” Zuko’s breath comes heavy and hot in the stifling tunnel. “Plus, if we’re lucky, he doesn’t think we’ll find him at all.”

“Who would be in the other bunkers?” Contrary to Zuko, Aang’s breathing is even and measured.

“Probably Azula by herself, and the other one I’m not sure. It’s probably just a diversion, but still,” he shrugs. Zuko knows what this means for them, and he hates that it’s come to this.

“We have to split up.” Sokka’s voice is steady and commanding, every bit the leader his father is. “Toph and I will take the full bunker; if it’s just a diversion, we need one of you two to find Ozai.” They come upon the split, Toph motioning to Sokka with a tilt of her head towards the corridor to their left. “Good luck. We’ve got five minutes until the full eclipse; if your bunker doesn't hold Oazi, come back and choose a different one. He’s our top priority.” The three men nod to each other, and Toph and Sokka head towards their destination.

“I’ll take the one on the right.” Aang’s eyes are stones, unbreakable and unmovable, a stark contrast to the usual brightness and mirth swimming in them. Zuko nods, and before he can turn around Aang embraces him quickly, and he returns the hug without thinking.

“If it’s Azula, come to my bunker immediately. Don’t even engage with her. You got this Aang.” 

They each take a deep breath, break apart, turn around, and sprint away from each other.

Zuko runs at full speed towards the bunker; whoever’s in there doesn’t matter so much to him, but time is running out for Aang. He secretly hopes it’s Azula; he knows that she isn’t nearly as skilled as him in close combat, and with the eclipse rendering their bending useless, there’s a chance he could take her down. And then what? He ignores the question as he keeps running. He’ll just incapacitate her and then… something. I’ll figure it out.

After a few minutes he comes upon a set of huge metal doors, and takes a deep breath before pushing one of them with all his might, the hulking thing moving slowly forward before he can step in to face…

His father. Shit. He can’t run away; he has to keep Ozai here until Aang shows up. Every nerve in his body wants him to flee, and as the metal door closes loudly behind him, he tries not to think that this might be the end for him.

“Zuko.” Ozai drawls, his voice both ice and fire all at once, sending a shiver down Zuko’s spine as a thin layer of cold sweat starts to form on his body. “What could a pathetic traitor like you be doing here?” 

Despite his nervousness, his voice is steady. “I’m here now fighting alongside the Avatar to take you down.” Ozai’s eyes narrow dangerously as he stands from his seat.

“You weak little—”

“Sit down and shut up!” he growls at Ozai, whose face is painted with shock at Zuko’s command. “For too long I’ve let you control my life.” He pulls his twin swords out of the sheath on his back, brandishing them menacingly in front of him. “But I won’t any more. You burned half my face off and banished me, a child, for standing up for our soldiers, for people who risk their lives to protect this nation! You’re not fit to be Fire Lord; you’re cruel and a sadist, and the people of this world despise you!” Ozai’s face is contorted with rage, and Zuko fights through his fear to continue. “I’ve been all over the world in the past seven years, and there isn’t one person out there who hasn’t been burned by this nation, literally and figuratively. If you stay on the throne, the world will destroy itself. You’ve managed to turn the people of this world against each other, when they should be turning against you.”

Ozai has the audacity to chuckle, the strange broken noise making Zuko shudder. “You have some nerve coming here after so long, and on the wrong side, at that. You will die here, and your little friends and the Avatar will die with the blessing of Sozin's comet as the world burns around them. I should never have spared your pathetic life; death would be kinder to you than the dishonor you’d face as a result of this treason. But I am a merciful father, and I am willing to spare you the dishonor, and give you a swift death in its place.” The eclipse must still be a minute away, and Ozai uses this last moment to windmill his arms and conjure lightning. Zuko sheaths his swords and breaths deep, remembering what his uncle taught him. I can do this. A powerful bolt is released from Ozai’s fingertips straight at Zuko, but his father is not expecting Zuko to catch it. The electricity feels fuzzy and foreign travelling along his chi, and his mind screams at him to get it out, get it out! But he stays focused, guiding the energy down into his stomach, and out of his opposite hand. The bolt strikes the ground right in front of Ozai, sending him flying backwards and slamming against the far wall with a loud thump. Zuko’s breaths are ripping from his throat, the strange fuzzy feeling lingering in his body in the wake of the electricity. Ozai looks unconscious, and Zuko decides that his best bet is to go find Aang; the eclipse must be moments away from starting, and the Avatar needs to fight his father now. 

The huge metal doors don’t seem as heavy as adrenaline floods his veins, pushing him down the corridor faster than he ever thought he could run. He gets almost back to the intersection of the three hallways before he sees Aang barrelling towards him.

“Aang!” Zuko doesn’t even bother to say anything else; he rapidly changes his direction, his shoes sliding on the floor for just a second before he gets his grip and sprints back towards the bunker. Aang whooshes towards him on an air scooter, yanking Zuko’s arm to pull him up onto his back. He feels the joint pop— the adrenaline still coursing through his body dulls the pain, his now limp arm letting him know that it’s dislocated, but it’s the furthest thing from his mind as they swiftly approach the metal door to his father’s bunker. The air scooter disappears underneath them, and Zuko stumbles as he rights himself and moves towards the door that Aang is pushing open. They enter the bunker, ready and willing to fight, but Ozai is gone.

“What!” Zuko’s voice is shrill, his heart beating wildly in his chest. “He was just here!”

“Damn it!” He’s never heard Aang swear, and he thinks that he probably never will again. “Where did he go?!” Think, Zuko, think…

Who was in the other bunker?” A sinking feeling makes a home in the pit of his stomach as he realizes his mistake.

“Azula. Why does that matter?” Aang growls, fury etched into every line of his face.

“Fuck.” Zuko pushes his hair off of his face with his still working arm, the other starting to ache even as he speaks. “She probably brought the Dai Li with her. After you left her bunker she must have sent them here. Fuck!” His breathing turns harsh and sharp, “I shouldn’t have left him, I should have stayed and—”

“Zuko.” Aang is in front of him and lays a hand on his shoulder. “It’s okay. Azula would have sent the Dai Li regardless, and then you would have been captured.” He’s right, as much as Zuko hates to admit it; he can’t put all of the blame on himself. “We should have thought of this beforehand.”

“You’re right, but there's nothing we can do now. What do you want to do?” This is Aang’s destiny, and Zuko leaves it up to him to decide where to go from here. 

The boy lets out a labored breath. “Let’s go find Sokka and Toph. The eclipse is almost over, and the Dai Li could have taken Ozai anywhere; he’s probably long gone.” They turn and head out the monolith doors, leaving the empty metal cavern and their hopes of winning the day behind them as they run towards the last bunker.

As they approach, the sounds of battle reach their ears, and no words are needed as they speed up in tandem, racing towards the sounds of shouting and clanking metal. The scene they come upon in the last bunker is chaotic, to say the least. Toph is single-handedly fighting at least fifty men, incredibly holding her own even though blood has soaked through her tunic from a point on her right side. Aang springs into action to assist her as Zuko looks around trying to find Sokka; there’s no way he would have left Toph to fight alone unless there was a good reason, or he was too injured, or— don’t even go there, Zuko. He runs through the sea of soldiers, some already unconscious or dead on the ground, some still fighting as he cuts them down with his sword, only to come upon a strange space in the middle of the fight. 

Inside of the mostly empty circle stands Sokka, his wolf helmet nowhere to be seen. He sports a gash deep enough on his arm to bleed through the thick hide draped over his shoulder, and a few other sizable red spots staining his tunic as he faces off against none other than a mangled Admiral Zhao. His jaw looks wonky, and he’s favoring his left side as he and Sokka fight. Sokka charges at him again and again, fluidly evading the weak fire that Zhao throws at him; he has Zhao on the ropes, much more blood stained and dripping from him than Sokka, his movements stunted and uncoordinated. He leaves himself open for a brief moment, but it’s long enough for Sokka to bury his black sword into Zhao’s chest. The Admiral coughs a small spurt of blood, and Sokka uses his foot to shove Zhao off of his sword and onto the floor, his wide amber eyes unblinking as blood pools from his mouth. 

Zuko rushes forward, not caring about the men he slices at with his sword, doing his best to shield his useless arm as he approaches a paralyzed Sokka. 

“Sokka!” 

The other man looks at him with dead eyes, his hair undone from it’s normal pulled back style, looking disheveled and slick with sweat. Zuko sheaths his sword as he takes Sokka’s hand. He understands the daze he’s in; he had felt it when he killed for the first time as well. 

“Let’s go.” He tugs Sokka gently at first to get his feet going beneath him, and then they start running towards Aang and Toph, who are doing a fair job holding their own against the soldiers. They both sense Zuko and Sokka approaching them and running straight past them for the large doors, and follow closely behind, blocking the door off with a massive slab of stone behind them.

“I’m gonna assume that you didn’t get the Fire Lord?” Toph is starting to lag behind, the red stain on her tunic growing darker and larger, and Aang helps her up onto his back. She winces at the pain, clutching Aang as tightly as she can without choking him. 

“No.” Aang doesn’t elaborate. 

They race back out the way they came, running into bright, blinding sunlight when they exit. They help each other onto Appa’s back; the only one without blood on them is Aang, but Zuko can’t tell which spots are their own blood and what belongs to other people. They fly back to the others in silence, Sokka sitting next to Zuko in a daze, empty eyes staring straight ahead as they soar through the air. Zuko makes a silent promise to Sokka that they’ll talk later as he squeezes his uninjured shoulder. They land back down with the rest of the invasion force; Aang lifts Toph as gently as he can onto the ground as Sokka and Zuko disembark,  and sharp pain flares in his injured shoulder upon landing.

“Oh, Spirits!” 

Katara hurdles forward, immediately coating her hands in water to heal Toph, who is definitely the worst off between them all. The other three stand in silence, and Aang shakes his head slowly at Hakoda who stands behind Katara. He looks at Sokka, and understanding falls upon his face; Hakoda is a warrior, and Zuko has no doubt that he’s had his fair share of difficult kills. Not difficult in terms of the fight, but difficult in terms of staring into a person’s eyes as you take their life, whether out of revenge or necessity, neither being easier than the other. He walks over to Sokka and puts a comforting hand on his shoulder, no words passing between the two to convey the emotions Zuko knows are flooding Sokka’s mind.

It’s clear that they did not succeed— nobody needs to voice the disappointment clouding the group. Another Water Tribe warrior runs up to them, alarm on his face.

“They’re going to destroy the submarines!” Hokoda’s face falls for just a moment before he schools his features.

“How are we all going to get out?” Katara asks, having moved to her brother to heal his injuries with her glowing water.

“We aren’t.’ Hakoda’s voice is hard and has taken on the tone of a man leading an army. “You all have to leave.” Katara’s head whips up, and even Sokka turns to look at his father with downturned brows.

“No!” Katara’s eyes fill with tears as she loses her concentration on healing Sokka, the water she had been using splashing onto the ground. “We won’t leave you all! We can’t!”

“You have to.” Hakoda braces both his hands on Katara’s shoulders. “You kids are our only hope to win this war. We’ll surrender; we’ll go to jail, but we’ll survive.” He looks at Zuko, Toph, and Aang. “Get yourselves somewhere safe. It wasn’t our day today, but that day is coming. We tasted victory, and that counts for something.” Hakoda pulls his children in for a hug, and Zuko turns away from the intimate moment, putting his hand on Aang’s shoulder.

“We’ll get him, Aang.” The boy looks up at him, unshed tears in his wide gray eyes. 

“We have to.” The weight of all his years is evident in the Avatar’s voice, and Zuko gives his shoulder an affectionate squeeze. 

They all pile onto Appa with Zuko’s arm still hanging limp by his side, the pain getting more intense by the second. They all have a last look at the invasion force as Appa takes off, and Zuko thinks that he’s never seen a group of people more honorable and brave then the invasion force, except for the four others sitting in Appa’s saddle.

“Zuko?” He turns towards Katara, wincing as pain lances through his shoulder. “Are you okay?”

“Oh, my shoulder is dislocated.” Her mouth drops open in shock.

“Why didn’t you say anything!” She rushes over and sits across from him in the lotus position, close enough that their knees are touching. “You must be in so much pain, you should have told me sooner!”

“I mean,” he shrugs with his other shoulder, “you were kind of busy.” She shoots him a look that he reads as “you’re a dumbass but you’re also right,” and lifts the hand of his dislocated arm onto her shoulder. He clenches his teeth against the pain, and her face turns apologetic.

“I’m sorry, I know it hurts.” She coats her hands with water and starts massaging his bicep. “I’m gonna massage your muscles so that your shoulder can pop itself back into place. It won’t hurt, but it’ll definitely feel weird when it pops back in.” He tries to listen to what she’s saying, but her proximity and the feeling of her massaging his arm makes it very, very difficult.

“Where are we going?” Toph asks the group in general, but Aang is the one who answers.

“The Western Air Temple. We should be safe there and have a chance to lay low and form a new plan.”

They travel in silence for a while, Katara continuing to massage Zuko’s bicep and shoulder to relax the muscles. He’s glad that she hadn’t asked him to take his shirt off; her hands are distracting enough, and if they were on his bare skin he’s worried that he would unintentionally embarrass himself. As it is he keeps having to remind himself that this is strictly to heal him, there’s no reason for him to get flustered. Even if her hair smells good and she keeps licking her lips and she’s so damn close—

“Are you feeling any pain?” Katara’s voice is soft, her blue eyes full of concern. Don’t kiss her, don’t kiss her, don’t kiss her—

“No, actually.” He is surprised by that; whenever he had dislocated his shoulder in the past, whoever had been treating him had just shoved it back into place, and that definitely hurt.

“Good. I’ve never actually done this before, so I’m glad it’s working.”

“What, so I’m your guinea pig?” he teases, and she looks up at him with a smirk, his insides fluttering at the shrewd look in her eye. 

“Yes, actually.” There’s something in her voice, something definitely flirty and warm and— Agni, I think I’m going to die if she keeps looking at me like that.

They fly for some time, the sun lowering towards the horizon as they go, the day of black sun coming to a close. He wonders what they’ll do now, where they’ll go from here, and about what lies ahead for their little group. Agni kisses the horizon as the Western Air Temple comes into view in the distance, its beautiful and strange architecture bathed in a warm orange glow, their temporary home growing closer with every moment.

Chapter Text

 

 

“Dream me, oh dreamer, down to the floor. Open my hands and let them weave onto yours.

Feel me, completer, down to my core. Open my heart and let it bleed onto yours.” Wolf Like Me, TV On The Radio.

 

 

Xx

 

 

The Western Air Temple is stunning, inverted pagodas dripping from the underside of the cliff like stalactites, tangled and wild vegetation growing over the eroding stone structures. The temple couldn’t be seen from most angles; from the top, it just looked like a grassy field that dropped off into a canyon. But flying in on Appa as the sunset throws golden light over the world makes it look surreal and magical, easing the pain of the invasion just a little bit. Appa touches down on one of the pagodas, and the gang jumps to the floor, marvelling at the structures before them.

“This place is amazing!” Toph’s cloudy eyes are wide, and Katara can’t imagine all of the things her feet are sensing. “And it’s huge!”

“It’s beautiful,” Katara agrees as she looks all around, taking it all in, and her gaze falls on her brother, his eyes unfocused and distant. “Sokka, are you okay?” His head snaps to hers, and the look on it breeds worry in her stomach.

“I’m fine,” he mumbles, voice dull and dry, and before she can ask him anything else, he walks away. “I’m going to check out the inside.”

“I’ll come with you.” Zuko follows him inside, the two of them disappearing into the pagoda, lit only by a small flame in Zuko’s hand. She stares after them, confused and concerned. 

“Did something happen in the bunker?” She turns to Aang and Toph.

“I have no idea.” Aang shrugs his shoulders, but Toph has a strange look on her face.

“Toph?” Katara is really concerned now; Sokka never acts like this, and it’s starting to scare her.

“You should ask him, but maybe wait until tomorrow. Sparky’s talking to him now.” 

Katara feels better that Zuko is talking to him, but she worries about what exactly they’re talking about. She’ll have to go see Zuko later to ask him if Sokka’s okay. And nothing else. There’s no other reason why I’d go see him later. At night. Where it’ll probably just be the two of us... Shit. 

 

 

Xx

 

 

He follows after Sokka into the interior of the pagoda, the weak flame in his hand their only light as they travel through halls. Zuko is sure that Sokka doesn’t know where he’s going, but he doesn’t say anything. Dust has gathered in all of the corners and crevices of the temple, but somehow it isn’t as creepy as he thinks it should be. Eventually the two men come out onto the other side of the pagoda, and Sokka sits down on a stone bench. Zuko sits down next to him, but it doesn’t seem like Sokka even notices that he’s there. They sit in silence for a while, the sky growing darker as the night overtakes the day, and as the moon rises, Sokka speaks.

“He’s the reason Yue died.” Zuko knows he’s speaking of Zhao. “I loved her. She was the first girl I ever really loved.” Zuko doesn’t know quite what to say. He’s no expert in love, and even if he was, he doesn’t think that it would be appropriate for him to talk about that right now. He searches for words to comfort his friend, unsure where to even begin.

“Was Zhao your first?” He doesn’t say the word that they’re both thinking; they both know what Zuko means.

“Yeah.” Sokka’s reply is short and despondent as he stares up at the moon.

“Mine was when I was seventeen.” He thinks that maybe if he can relate to Sokka, he’ll feel better. “My uncle and I had stumbled into a really bad part of the Earth Kingdom where a gang was robbing families blind every night. I went out on my own one night in disguise to hopefully knock some sense into them, but when I went looking for them, I came across something so much worse. I was running on the rooftops when I looked down into an alleyway, and I saw three Fire Nation soldiers. They had a girl cornered.” Sokka looks at him with hard eyes. “And I mean a little girl, like, she was probably eleven years old. They weren’t doing anything, but I could just…” Zuko remembers how disgusted he was, listening to what those men were saying to that poor girl. “I knew what they wanted to do. And I don’t know what happened; I just got so angry. I was going through a lot back then, and I was hurting really badly, and I guess I just flew off the handle. I had the girl run away before I killed them.” Sokka is still looking at him, but Zuko hangs his head in shame. “It was only three guys, but I still remember their faces. I got really sick after it happened; like, nightmares and cold sweats and throwing up, all of it. My fever lasted for days. My uncle told me something about my soul going on a journey or some shit, but after that is when I really started to change and realize what this world had come to, and what part my family had played in it. That town was dirt poor and occupied by Fire Nation soldiers who didn’t give a shit about those people. And it changed me...” He finally looks up at Sokka, whose face has softened from it’s stoic expression of before. “I regret it every day, but then I think about what would have happened if I had let them live.”

“They probably would’ve just found someone else.” Sokka’s voice is low, and Zuko nods at his words.

“Sometimes that’s what it takes, especially now. We’re in a war, Sokka. And honestly, I can’t tell you if what you did was right or wrong, but I can tell you that I understand, and that Zhao deserved it.” 

They look at each other for a long moment before Sokka closes his eyes, leaning his elbows on his knees and burying his face in his hands. Zuko rubs his back while he cries, knowing that he needs to let it out without fear of being judged. He waits patiently until Sokka’s breathing evens out, and he raises his head to sit up straight.

“Thanks man.” He sniffles and wipes his nose on his sleeve.

“Any time.” Zuko shuffles awkwardly. “Do you want a hug?” Sokka chuckles at that, and it’s good to hear his friend break out of his melancholy, even if just for a moment.

“Sure.” 

Zuko wasn’t expecting him to say yes, but their hug is nice. It reminds Zuko of his cousin, and how he always wished he had a brother to look up to and to grow up with. Sokka is the closest thing he’s ever had to that, and the closest thing he’s ever had to a friend at all, except for maybe Katara. They pull apart, and Zuko sits awkwardly for a minute staring up at the moon with Sokka.

“You good?” Sokka nods his head and claps Zuko’s shoulder with his hand. “Do you want me to leave?” Sokka chuckles, but nods again, and Zuko stands up to head back to the others. “If you need me, you know where to find me.” 

He walks away from his friend, and it feels good to know that he’s done something nice for someone. He hopes that he’s actually helped Sokka feel better, but he knows that if he hasn’t, he’ll do whatever he can in order to make it happen.

 

 

Xx

 

 

Darkness falls upon the Western Air Temple, the silence of the night broken only by the buzz of fireflies and the breeze rustling distantly through the trees outside. Katara walks through the halls of the pagoda, her bare feet cold on the stone floor. The moon sits in the sky, regal in her rightful place among the stars, as she searches for the room she’s looking for. She hopes that Zuko is still awake; she knows that before the invasion (it seems so long ago) they had stayed up well past this hour every night, and she’s banking on him not being too exhausted from the day’s events to have gone to bed early. She comes upon a room that has soft yellow light seeping out from under the door, the room she thinks is Zuko’s. She takes a deep breath, wiping her sweaty palms on her tunic and willing her hands to still. Why am I so nervous? It’s just Zuko. Zuko, who I kissed on the cheek before he went to the palace. Zuko, whose shoulder I massaged on the ride back while sitting very close to him. Zuko, who I am definitely madly in love with. She takes another deep breath before steeling herself and knocking on his door. It opens quickly, revealing a confused, but luckily wide awake, Zuko.

“Oh, hey.” His voice is soft with the late hour, and she can already feel a blush growing on her cheeks.

“Hey, can I talk to you?” He steps aside for her to enter the room, and her heart speeds up a fraction.

“Of course.” He closes the door behind her. “What’s up?”

“I saw you follow Sokka earlier after we landed...” His face doesn’t change, but she hadn’t expected it to. “Is he okay?” He runs his hand through his hair, pushing off of his face and making her blush deeper. Spirits Katara, just relax.

“He’s…” he rubs the back of his neck, something Katara’s noticed is a nervous habit of his. “I mean, he’s not hurt or anything.”

“Something happened in the bunker.” It isn’t a question; she knows that something must have happened to cause Sokka to act like this, but she doesn’t know what.

“Yes, but it’s not my place to say what.” At least Zuko is honest with her. She sighs, her hands coming up to play with the ends of her hair.

“I know.” He takes a few steps closer to her. “I wasn’t really expecting you to tell me what happened, I just…” She takes a measured breath to try to calm herself. “I’m worried about him.”

“I know.” Zuko rubs her upper arms, and she rests her head against his chest with a sigh, fisting her hands in his shirt, his warmth dispersing her anxiety like the rising sun’s rays chasing away the deep indigo night. All of her emotions, all of the fear and nervousness and worry of the day build inside of her, escaping as tears and soaking into Zuko’s shirt as she tries not to cry. “Hey...” He gently moves her just far enough away so that she can see his face, lined with concern. “It’s alright. I know you’re worried about Sokka, but he’s a strong guy. He’ll be okay.” He wipes away her tears with a calloused thumb, the gentle touch belying his strength, as his other hand continues to rub her arm in a soothing gesture. 

She realizes how close they are as she looks into his eyes, the warm light from the lone torch in the room casting a flickering yellow glow, enhancing their stunning gold color. Their faces are mere inches apart, and she catches his eyes darting to her lips as she licks them. Her eyelids grow heavy, and in a moment of bravery she tilts her head up as he moves his down, and lets her eyes close.

The kiss is almost painfully soft, just the slightest brush of lips, and it’s too much and not nearly enough. She isn’t sure who pulls who, but their lips meet again, more pressure and passion behind this kiss than the first. She grips his shirt tighter, pulling his body closer to hers, craving his warmth as she loses herself in the kiss. His lips are maddeningly soft, his hand sliding down from her arm to rest gently on her hip, stirring a heat inside of her that makes her dizzy. She snakes her hands up his chest, thoroughly enjoying how he shivers under her touch, and latches her arms around his neck, pulling herself even closer to him. Both of his hands move to her back as she deepens the kiss, his grip firm and warm, holding her to him like if he lets go she’ll slip away into the night. 

As much as she wants to kiss Zuko forever, they eventually break apart, breathing heavy and resting their foreheads together while they come back to reality. That’s what a kiss should feel like. She had wanted her first kiss to be magical, like something from one of the stories Gran Gran had told her growing up, and it… hadn’t been. Zuko had been nothing like Jet when they kissed; where Jet had been pushy, Zuko was soft. Where Jet had been in control, Zuko hadn’t moved at all until after Katara did, and had moved much slower than Jet. She looks into his eyes, shimmering gold in the candlelight, staring straight back into hers.

“Katara...” he whispers her name like it’s his favorite song, like it's the only one he cares to know. She reaches her hand to his face to brush the edge of his scar, her fingers so light that she isn’t even sure that he feels it until he gasps softly. She moves to pull away, afraid that she’s stepped over an invisible line, when he brings his hand up to cover hers, moving it so that her hand is cradling his cheek and leaning into her touch. His eyes close, an expression akin to sadness coming over his face.

“Does it hurt?” He almost looks pained, tension in his forehead pulling his brown down, but the rest of his face is relaxed.

“No, I can't feel anything but pressure.” The tension in his features fades as he lets out a sigh, his breath ghosting over Katara’s face. “Nobody ever touches it.” 

If she wasn’t so close to him, she wouldn’t have heard his quiet confession. She rubs her thumb gently along his cheekbone below his eye in a comforting gesture, and he turns his head the slightest bit to press a soft kiss to the heel of her palm. She pulls herself to him, bringing her other arm down to wrap around his waist before she rests her head in the crook of his neck, pressing her nose to his throat and breathing in the ever present smell of wood smoke and Zuko. They stay like that for a long time, finding comfort in each other’s touch as the stars revolve around them.

Chapter Text

 

 

“You don’t have to repent tonight. Stargaze in the moonlight, we’ll burn.

Y ou don’t have to defend the light at all.” Lustration, Circa Survive

 

 

Xx

 

 

Zuko wakes early the next morning, the feeling of Katara’s lips on his a ghost that disappears with the night. He has to pinch himself to remember that it wasn’t a dream, that she had actually wanted to kiss him, that she had touched his scar and hadn’t recoiled in disgust. He smiles wider than he has in years as he rises and dresses for the day, excited to see Katara even through his anxiety about teaching Aang firebending. They had decided yesterday that it was imperative for Aang to start learning firebending right away, and Zuko still hadn’t told anyone that his bending wasn’t exactly up to snuff. He hopes that the new positive emotions will help fuel his bending, but he isn’t convinced. He still has nightmares about the Dai Li; they’re not as intense as his strange visions from back when he was brainwashed, which he had remembered after Katara freed his mind, but they’re still unpleasant to say the least. He knows it’s holding back his bending, even though he believes Katara when she told him that she had gotten all of that darkness out of his head. He’s been meaning to ask her to look in there again; the only reason he can think of that his bending is still stifled would be if the Dai Li’s brainwashing had left some kind of scar in his head (another one to add to the list) that was blocking his chi… or something like that. He doesn’t understand fully how it all works, and he doesn’t want to think about it right now.

He walks out onto the terrace, a humid chill hanging in the air, waiting to be replaced by the warmth of Agni breaking into the sky. He’s gotten up extra early today, the sky still stained indigo, a swath of azure hanging on to the horizon line. He pulls his shirt over his head and drops into the lotus position to wait for Aang. Thankfully he doesn’t have to wait long; he hadn’t been looking forward to the possibility of having to drag the kid out of bed. The boy approaches him, yawning and rubbing his eyes before ditching his shirt and sitting next to Zuko.

“Good morning.” His breath is even and deep, having delved into his meditation before Aang had arrived.

“Morning...” Aang yawns, stretching his arms over his head before settling into a lotus position to match Zuko.

“Have you ever meditated before?” His eyes are closed as he speaks, keeping his breaths measured.

“A little. The monks meditated all the time, but I was a little too…” he trails off, another yawn escaping him.

“Hyperactive?” Almost every time Zuko has seen Aang, he’s been full of energy and pep, practically bouncing off the walls. The boy hums an affirmation, and Zuko’s mouth turns up the tiniest bit at the corner. “Well, maybe since you’re tired, you’ll be able to relax a little easier.”

The two of them sit in silence as Agni ascends above the horizon, darker hues of the night crawling across to the west as he sets the world alight with vivid pinks and yellows. Zuko breathes in the energy, instructing Aang to feel Agni’s power seep into his chi, to accept it with open arms and an open heart. They meditate until the sun is fully above the horizon, and as he moves with Aang through his katas, Zuko feels a little bit more confident that his bending will be back to normal.

Until he actually starts bending, that is. Or, better said, trying to bend. Aang’s attempt at making any flame at all is pitiful, consisting entirely of a small puff of smoke and Aang’s sheepish grin. Zuko goes to show him how it’s done, only for a measly flame no bigger than his fist to plume out from his outstretched hand. Aang claps, and Zuko groans.

“It’s supposed to be bigger than that!” His frustration is mounting as he tries again with the same result.

“That one felt a little hot!” 

He knows Aang is trying to help, but it feels more like he’s patronizing Zuko rather than encouraging him.

“Augh!” Zuko throws his hands into the air in exasperation. “This is useless, my bending has been all fucked up since Ba Sing Se.”

“I thought Katara took care of everything up there?” Aang taps on his temple with a finger.

“She did. I mean, I thought she did.” He pushes his damp hair back off of his face. “I guess I should go talk to her.”

Zuko and Aang go back to the common area where Sokka, Toph, and Katara are sitting and fishing up their breakfast. Aang immediately makes for a bowl and serves himself, while Zuko plops down next to Katara.

“I thought you two were off jerkbending?” Sokka’s mouth is full, and Zuko is glad to see that their talk yesterday helped him feel a little more normal.

“Zuko’s firebending is broken,” Aang declares between spoonfuls of jook.

“It’s not broken!” Zuko pushes his hair off of his face again. “It’s just… not working right.”

“So, it’s broken.” He groans at Toph’s deadpan words.

“I haven’t been able to bend right since I left Ba Sing Se.” He turns to Katara, who has her spoon hanging halfway to her mouth and her eyes on his bare chest. “Can you, like—” she looks up at him with rosy cheeks— “I don’t know, look around in there and see if something’s wrong?” Her brows crease in concern as she puts her food down. “I’m worried that there’s some residual damage from the whole brainwashing thing.”

“Sure.” She motions for him to turn towards her, and he tilts his head down a little so that she can reach his temples. He closes his eyes as her water coated fingers hover around his head, trying not to get distracted by her proximity. He didn’t realize how hard it would be for him to not go back for more once he got a proper taste of her lips. “Hm...” she pulls back, sympathy painted on her face as he opens his eyes to look at her. “There is a little bit of… I guess you could call it scarring on your chi. That’s the only way I can explain it.” His face falls and Katara lays her hand on his knee in solidarity.

“Can you heal it?” He knows she can’t, but he has to ask.

“No, I don't think I can. It was one thing disentangling the darkness from your chi, but I can’t heal the damage left behind.” He sighs at her response. “I think because you’re a firebender you’ll need something… more firebender-y to heal it.” She takes his hand in hers. “I’m sorry, Zuko.”

“You two finally made out, didn’t you?” Zuko starts coughing, as does Sokka, at Toph’s interjection.

“Toph!” Katara’s voice is shrill, her embarrassment as clear as the deep red tinting her cheeks.

“That’s a yes.” Aang nudges Toph in the ribs with a smirk, Zuko’s face no doubt redder than his shirt at Toph’s resounding laugh.

“Can we get back to the issue at hand?” Sokka brandishes his spoon around, flinging specks of jook off into the bushes. “Zuko needs to fix his firebending, like, yesterday.”

“I think,” Katara and Zuko look at each other helplessly as Toph continues, “that he needs to go to the source of firebending.”

“The what now?” Sokka’s mouth is, again, full of food as he speaks.

“The source. I think it makes sense that if his chi is damaged or whatever, that whatever the source of firebending is could heal it.”

“I can’t. The dragons were the original source of firebending, and my family killed them all.” An awkward silence follows his words as Zuko reflects on yet another thing that his family has destroyed. “But…” A crazy idea forms in his mind, and it’s the only one he’s got right now. “The first people who learned from the dragons were the Sun Warriors. They’re gone now, but their civilization isn’t too far from here. We could go there and see if it helps, and it might help Aang learn firebending too.”

“Field trip!” Aang jumps up onto his feet, throwing his hands in the air in excitement.

“That actually might work.” Katara’s blush lingers on her cheeks as her and Zuko turn to each other. “But have some breakfast first.” She shoves a bowl of food into his hands.

“Alright.” He feels like his smile is dopey and lopsided, but judging by how Katara smiles back, it’s good enough for her. “We’ll leave in an hour.”

 

Xx

 

The Sun Warrior’s civilization must have been amazing in its day, because the ruins are impressive even in their dilapidated state. Zuko and Aang walk through the crumbling architecture, dodging a few booby traps as they make their way in. Eventually they come up to a set of large gates, a column adorned with a sun stone standing sentinel in front of it. Aang goes right to the gate, trying unsuccessfully to open it, while Zuko inspects the column and surrounding area, noticing a matching sun stone above the grand gates.

“It’s a celestial calendar,” he says as he points out the carvings on the ground, one of them lit up by the sun passing through the stone in the column. “It must open only on a certain day. Probably the solstice.”

“We can’t wait here that long!” Aang throws his hands up in frustration as Zuko looks closely at the sun stone above the gates.

“No, but we don’t have to.” He uses one of his swords to reflect the light from the sun stone on the column to shine up at the stone above the gate. After a tense minute, the ground starts to shake as the gates open.

“You did it! You know, Zuko, I don't care what everyone else says about you. You’re pretty smart!” Aang walks off through the gates, leaving a smiling Zuko behind him. Wait, what?

“Who says stuff about me?!” He jogs up to Aang, who either doesn’t hear his question or chooses to ignore it, and Zuko decides with a sigh to drop it. 

They walk into a dark room, a circle of statues seeming to be the only things in the large space. The statues depict two people in varying positions, possibly performing some sort of ritual. The forms almost look like some of his firebending katas.

“Zuko!” Aang appears at his arm, taking it in his and tugging on it. “I want you to dance with me!”

“Uhh...” Zuko’s eyes are wide as he looks down at Aang, wrenching his arm from the boy’s grip.

“The inscription says this is called the dancing dragon,” he gestures at the statues around them. “The statues are depicting different forms in the dance. I think we should do the dance.” Zuko sighs and shrugs. Well, this might as well happen.  

The first position they stand in causes the stones below their feet to sink a few inches into the floor, and the rest of the forms follow suit, until finally at the end Zuko and Aang stand next to each other, arms outstretched as they lean over to touch their fists together. A gentle rumbling starts, and a column in the middle of the circle raises up from the ground, a golden egg-shaped jewel of some sort sitting on top of it.

“Woo!” Aang does a little spin in the air in excitement before the two of them approach the dias. “Wait, what is that thing?” 

“It looks like a gem? Or a jewel?” Zuko reaches forward to touch it, but Aang bats his arm away.

“Don’t touch it! This whole place is booby trapped, you think that thing isn’t?” Aang makes an odd squeaking noise as Zuko ignores him and picks up the gem. It’s strangely warm, and almost feels like a heartbeat.

“It almost feels alive...” He goes to put it back on the pedestal, but before he can a geyser of black slime shoots out of it, pushing him bodily up towards the ceiling and sticking him to a grate at the top of the room. “Eugh!”

“I told you!” Aang admonishes him as he tries to use his airbending to get the slime to stop or to get Zuko down from the grate, but he has no luck, and is soon stuck next to Zuko, their faces pressed up against the metal bars with the room completely filled with slime below them.

“Good going, Zuko,” Aang snarks at him. He can’t see the boy, but from his tone it sounds like he’s rolling his eyes.

“Listen, I’m a little dumb sometimes, okay? Apparently the others already know that,” he mutters the last sentence, still not forgetting Aang’s comment from earlier.

The day slowly changes to night, and the two benders are still stuck to the grate. 

“Hello?” Aang calls out into the empty ruins. “Someone help us!”

“Nobody’s lived here for centuries, who’s going to hear you?” Zuko is tired, sore, and hungry, and he really doesn’t want to listen to Aang yelling in his ear right now.

“Well what do you think we should do?” Aang sounds about as frustrated as Zuko feels.

“Think about our place in the universe?” Zuko would shrug if he could, but the disgusting slime beneath them doesn’t allow for him to move at all. Suddenly Zuko hears footsteps, and a tall burly man wearing Sun Warrior regalia and an incredible headdress is towering above him and Aang.

“Who are you two?” The man’s voice is deep and commanding as it reverberates through the ruins.

“I’m the Avatar!” 

Aang’s introduction spurs the Sun Warrior man, and a bunch of others dressed like him who Zuko can only assume are other Sun Warriors, to help them out of the gross slime. They bring in two aardvark-sloths to slurp the rest of the slime off of them, and Zuko would be grossed out by it if the slime weren’t even grosser.  The Sun Warriors want to punish them for trying to steal the strange egg until they explain why they’re actually there.

“If you wish to learn the ways of the Sun, you must learn from the masters, Ran and Shaw. When you present themselves to them, they will examine you. They’ll read your hearts, your souls, your ancestry.” The chief of the Sun Warriors explains the process to them, and Zuko gulps. “If they deem you worthy, they’ll teach you. If they don’t, you’ll be destroyed on the spot.” Aang and Zuko look at each other out of the corners of their wide eyes; he thinks they’re in agreement that being destroyed on the spot doesn’t sound too great. 

They allow Aang and Zuko to sleep for the night, and the next day the chief leads them into a room that holds a large chalice filled with fire.

“If you’re going to see the masters, you must bring them a piece of the Eternal Flame. This fire is the very first one; it was given to man by the dragons. We have kept it going for thousands of years.” Zuko stares at the fire in astonishment as the chief speaks. “You will each take a piece of it to the masters, to show your commitment to the sacred art of firebending.” A different Sun Warrior scoops two handfuls of fire out of the Eternal Flame, handing one to Zuko, and one to a nervous looking Aang.

“Uh...” Aang holds the fire like it’s about to flare up and burn his face off. “Can my friend here carry my flame?”

“No.” The chief doesn’t elaborate, and guides them to a mountain. “You will take your flames up there,” he points to the very top of the mountain. “And the masters will judge you.”

The two begin their journey, and Aang is able to keep his fire alive the whole trek through the forest and up the mountain despite his nerves. The Sun Warriors meet them at the top of the mountain and begin the ritual for Aang and Zuko to present their fires to the masters. They climb a huge staircase to the beat of the Sun Warrior’s drums as the sun sets behind them. At the top of the staircase, they turn away from each other to face two caves, offering their fire with a bow when prompted by the Sun Warrior chief. He sounds a horn, and the mountain starts shaking beneath them.

“Zuko, my flame went out!” Aang’s voice is panicked behind him. “Give me some of yours!”

“No!” Zuko moves his fire out of the reach of Aang’s grabbing hands. “Just make your own!” Aang continues to reach for Zuko’s flame, and as they struggle, the Eternal Flame goes out in Zuko’s palm. “Fuck.” 

At that very moment, two huge dragons, one red and one blue, emerge from the caves. They must be Ran and Shaw.  

“Zuko,” Aang whispers over his shoulder. “I think they want us to do the dragon dance.”

“Really? That’s what you’re getting from this situation?” Zuko takes a deep breath. “Okay, fine.” 

The two benders move into the first form, and the dragons follow. They go through the dance, the dragons following their movements through the whole thing, and when they end, the dragons hover before each of them. The blue dragon hovers in front of Zuko, it’s giant head and wild eyes intimidating. After a moment, the dragons breathe their fire, the flames swirling around them in every shade. Not just blue like Azula’s fire, but green and purple and pink and white as well as yellow, orange, and red. Zuko stares up into the flames; somehow his eyes don’t burn or sting, and the heat is comfortable, not unbearable. He feels something shift inside of him; something comes to life in his chest as a warmth he’s never known floods through his entire body. 

I understand. 

Xx

 

Zuko and Aang get back to the Air Temple and demonstrate the dancing dragon for the group, and Aang shows them his new firebending skills.

“That’s a cool dance guys!” Toph laughs at her own joke as Zuko and Aang share an exasperated look between them.

“I’m just glad that you got your bending sorted out.” Katara walks over to Zuko and pulls him down to kiss his forehead. 

“Aww!” 

Aang is smiling at them despite Toph’s feigned retching noises beside him, but Zuko doesn’t care. His smile is wide as he cups Katara’s cheeks and brings her in for a gentle kiss, still feeling giddy that he can actually do this now. The others go inside, but Katara and Zuko sit in the night air for hours, relishing in the comfort and bliss that they bring each other. And if he kisses her a few more times (or a dozen more times), nobody is there to see.

 

Chapter Text



“Honey, it's in the stars, and you're my everything from here to Mars.

And every word I say I truly mean; dear darling, I hope I'm being clear, ‘

cause there's no one like you on earth that can be my universe.” Here to Mars, Coheed and Cambria



Xx



“So, I don't remember the beginning of the joke, but the punchline goes ‘leaf me alone, I'm bushed!’” 

Aang and Sokka laugh at his terrible joke, Toph rolls her eyes, and Katara gives him an amused look that he reads as ‘you’re a huge dummy but I like your lame jokes anyway’ (and if that’s not what she’s actually saying, then he doesn’t want to know). Zuko approaches Sokka to hand him his tea, and the other man moves his head in a gesture to lead him away from the group. They walk a little ways away, and Zuko makes sure to turn towards Katara and give her a reassuring nod. He and Sokka had been spending more time together after their little heart to heart, and it seemed that Sokka was a little less under the weather. Of course, something like what happened with Zhao would never truly leave him, but it was important that he was able to function at least semi-normally.

“Where do you think they took my dad?” They stop at the edge of the terrace, the canyon yawning before them in the dewy morning.

“Like, after they captured him?” Sokka nods as they sip their tea. “Well, he was leading the invasion with you, right? They usually take political prisoners to the Boiling Rock. It’s located in the middle of a boiling lake. It’s inescapable.”

“That sounds promising.” The sarcasm in Sokka’s voice is a comfort to Zuko. Seeing Sokka act a little closer to his normal self always makes Zuko feel better; he worries about his friend. “Where is it?” Now Zuko is skeptical, his eyebrow raising towards his hairline.

“Why do you want to know?” Sokka looks out into the canyon without answering. “Sokka, it’s the most high security prison in the Fire Nation. If you’re thinking of trying to break your father out—”

“No, no,” he waves Zuko off, which does absolutely nothing to make him feel better. “I just want to know. I think it’ll make me feel better.” That’s a bald-faced lie.

“It’s on a volcano between here and the Fire Nation. We actually flew right past it on our way here.” He watches Sokka’s face carefully over his cup of tea, practically watching the gears turn inside of his friend’s head.

“See, I feel better already!” He claps Zuko on the shoulder as he starts to walk away. “Thanks, bud!” Zuko sighs as he watches Sokka retreat to where the others are still sitting. There’s no way in hell that this is going to turn out good.

 

Xx

 

He sits with Katara as the sun sets, something that’s become a nightly ritual of theirs when they have the time. He’s tired; he had trained with Aang almost all day, trying to get the kid to focus more on firebending forms and less on manipulating the flames to look like rabaroos. He’s resting his head in her lap as she runs her fingers through his hair, the motions soothing, and he feels his body relax as the sun slips below the horizon, his inner fire lessening to a more gentle flame. This is his favorite part of the day, tied only with the rising sun as it bathes him in the warmth and light of Agni.

“What did my brother want to talk to you about earlier?” Katara asks about her brother often, but Zuko’s answers are always vague.

“Oh, you know.” He breathes in deep through his nose and out through his mouth, feeling his body sink into the ground, his head cushioned by the softness of Katara’s thighs.

“No, I don't.” He can hear the smirk in her voice, but the seriousness bleeds through into her words. “That’s why I asked you, dummy.” He sighs and opens his eyes to meet hers, the brilliant blue bright and sparkling with the dying light of the setting sun.

“He asked me where I think they took your dad.” Sadness creeps into her features, and he sits up to face her.

“What did you tell him?”

“The truth.” He shrugs, unable to stop himself from bringing his hand up to rub her upper arm, her closeness stirring a different kind of heat within him.

“Hm.” She must not care all that much about the details, or maybe she just doesn’t want to know, and she leans in to kiss him, her full lips soft and warm against his own. 

He loves when Katara kisses him. They had talked about her inexperience and decided that it was best if, for now, she took the lead in the physical aspect of their relationship. Zuko has never been very social, but he likes to think that he’s good at reading body language in these circumstances, and he does his best to honor her wishes. Sometimes their kisses are sweet and soft, and sometimes they leave him burning and itching for more when they part.

This is one of the latter. 

She’s a fast learner, that’s for sure; Zuko has noticed that she copies most of the techniques that he uses when they kiss (gently biting her plush bottom lip, teasing her with just the tip of his tongue briefly touching hers) and takes note of what he likes. She’s also brave and assertive now that she’s gotten comfortable, and on more than a few occasions she’s pushed him bodily up against a wall and kissed him senseless, leaving him gasping for breath and hungry for more.

She moves to straddle him, situating herself on his lap in such a way that sends a pleasant shiver up his spine. One of her hands reaches under the collar of his shirt down to his upper back, and he takes his cue, just barely lifting her tunic up so he can trail his thumbs along her bare hips. He knows that’s a sensitive spot for her, and it draws out a quiet moan that he muffles with his mouth on hers. She moves to kiss the spot at the corner of his jaw right below his ear, and he can’t help the soft groan that escapes his lips as she slides her other hand up the front of his shirt, her fingers ghosting over his ribs and making him shudder.

“Katara...” She hums as she continues kissing down his neck. “We should go inside.” No matter how much farther she wants to go tonight, it would be better for them to be somewhere private, even if the sky is now a saturated navy blue and the light from the crescent moon is weak above them.

“Yeah.” The word is a whine as it passes through her lips, one that he so badly wants to kiss away. “You’re right.” 

She swings her leg around so she can get off of his lap and get up, and he follows eagerly. She takes his hand and leads him inside, to a place far enough away from their sleeping area that they don’t have to worry about anyone barging in on them. As they round a corner into a more private room, Katara pushes him roughly up against the wall, surging up to kiss him again as she slips both of her hands underneath his shirt. He groans when she presses herself against him, his hands tightening on her hips as he feels his blood rushing in his veins. She breaks away from the kiss to push his shirt up, and he obliges to her wish and pulls it off over his head. She moves back in to nip and lick at his neck where it meets his shoulder, and he slides his hands further up her waist above her tunic, desperate to feel more of her but unwilling to push her boundaries.

“Fuck, Katara,” he pants under her ministrations, a strangled moan pulling from his throat as she drags her tongue up his neck, placing a wet kiss on his jaw.

She pulls back and unties the sash holding her tunic in place, pulling it off of her shoulders in one swift motion. Zuko gazes upon her chest; he’s never seen her like this before, her dark skin glistening under a thin sheen of sweat, bare except for the binding over her breasts. He places his hands lightly on her hips again, being careful to make it clear that he doesn’t want to pressure her, and she lays her body against his, both of them letting out a shaky exhale at the feeling of their bare skin touching from shoulder to hip. 

He tilts his head down to capture her lips in a kiss, languid and slow as Zuko lets her adjust to the new sensations. They have a sort of code for Katara to let him know what she’s comfortable with when they try something new; where she moves her hands on him, Zuko mimics on her body, this way they can communicate what she’s comfortable with without her having to tell him with words. She moves her hands lightly up from his hips to his ribs, his following her trail and eliciting a gasp from her. He moves his lips to kiss and lap at her neck with the flat of his tongue, something he knows she enjoys, her moan causing even more blood to rush downwards, sparks shooting through him as he pushes up against her. She moves her hands slowly upwards on his chest, his heart hammering beneath his ribs when she stops with her hands braced on his pectorals. He moves his hands slowly, giving her plenty of time to change her mind before bringing them up to her heavy breasts, moving his thumbs just the tiniest bit over her nipples.

“Ah!” It sounds like a good noise, but he pulls back from where he had been kissing behind her ear and stills his hands.

“Good?” He always takes care to make sure that she’s comfortable; the last thing he ever wants to do is put her in a situation where she feels trapped or obligated.

“Yeah, fuck, Zuko,” she whisperss, her words stoking the fire within him as her breaths puff out against his shoulder. “Do that again.”

He moves his thumbs across her breasts, feeling the peak of her hardening nipples under her bindings as she groans against him. She grabs the hair at the back of his neck, pulling his mouth to hers, and she slides her tongue in his mouth as she moans again, louder this time as Zuko concentrates his affections, rubbing his thumbs back and forth across her peaked breasts. He squeezes them gently, basking in the feeling of her body moving against his, of her pressing her chest up into his hands. Feeling bold, he slowly passes over her nipple with the nail of his thumb, her resulting gasp definitely being loud enough that, if she wasn’t kissing him with everything she has, it would have echoed through the empty halls of the temple. She breaks away from his lips, panting and resting her forehead against his as she catches her breath.

“You like that?” His voice is low and rumbling; he knows the answer, but he asks anyway. He wants to hear her say it, wants to relish in her voice, wrecked and rasping against his collar.

“Yes...” He repeats the motion on her other breast, wishing he could have her like this all the time. “Fuck, yes Zuko!” 

She muffles her next moan in his chest, her breaths coming harder and faster as he teases her, and he can feel himself growing stiffer between their bodies. She pushes forcefully up against him, the pressure agonizingly good, making him want to pull her against him again and again. She slides her hand between them and palms him through his pants, and he shudders bodily against her as he groans.

“Katara...” Her name is a prayer on his lips, and he wants to worship her every night for the rest of his life. She moves her hand along his length, a whimper crawling from his throat through his lips as he bucks into her. She moves her hand to the waistband of his pants, going for the knot holding them on his hips before he pulls away from her.

“Katara,” he looks into her eyes, sees her curiosity and desire, but something else hidden behind it as well. “Are you sure?” He moves his hands back down to her hips, holding her gently as he watches her think. He wants her, so bad that he’s almost dizzy with the force of it, but he needs her to be sure that she wants him too. She hesitates, a little crease forming between her brows as she looks away from him. “Hey...” he moves his hand up to the side of her head, stroking her hair gently to calm her. “We don’t have to do anything now. We have plenty of time.” Her hands move back up to circle his waist, and he wraps her in a warm embrace.

“I’m sorry.” Her voice is small, the guilt he hears in it making the corners of his mouth turn down.

“You don’t have to apologize.” He runs his hand through the length of her hair, the soft curls sifting through his fingers. “I don’t ever want to push you and make you feel uncomfortable.” She nuzzles into his chest, the affection in the gesture swelling his heart.

“Maybe we can just stay like this for a while.” 

He presses a kiss to the crown of her head, happy to just hold her in his arms. They stay there for some time before they part, basking in the warmth of each other. Zuko bites back the three words that threaten to spill from his lips as they say goodnight.

 

Xx

 

Zuko leans back in Appa’s saddle, closing his eyes against the darkness of the night. He knows what was going through Sokka’s mind earlier that day, and he’s smart enough to realize what the other man’s plan is. So, he waits in the saddle, trying (and failing) not to think about Katara. Not just their earlier trist in the bowels of the temple; as much as he wants to think about that, it’s definitely not a good idea right now. But he can’t help but think of her soft hair, her bright smile, her blue eyes staring into his with warmth and passion and what he wants to be love. He really does want to spend his life with her, and maybe he’s being rash or unrealistic, but he’d do almost anything to be with her. All of that being said, he has no idea if that’s what she wants, or if she’s even thought about it yet. Most people don’t think about that stuff after only having been together for less than two months, so no, she probably hasn’t thought about it. He runs his hand through his hair, brushing it off of his face, and a warm breeze caresses his skin, carrying the sound of footsteps towards Zuko’s place in the saddle.

“Out for a midnight ride?” He announces his presence to Sokka just as the man’s head pokes over the lip of the saddle.

Sokka squeaks and falls right off of Appa, having not even made it into the saddle completely before Zuko caught him.

“Uhg, fine.” He climbs back up, swinging his pack from over his shoulder into the saddle. “You caught me. I’m going to rescue my dad, and you can’t stop me.”

“Okay.”

“Listen Zuko, I know you think—” Sokka whips his head around from where he’s messing with his pack. “Wait, what?”

“I said okay.” Zuko shrugs. “I get why you want to rescue him. So let’s go.”

“Woah, there’s no ‘let’s,’ here.” He gives Zuko a weighted look. “I’m going alone.”

“Definitely not,” Zuko counters. “You seriously think I’m going to let you do something this stupid alone?” Sokka sighs, resigned to Zuko’s tagging along on his mission. 

“Wait.” Sokka rummages through his bag and pulls out a scroll. “We need to leave the others a message so they don’t freak out.” He finds some ink and a brush and narrates the note as he writes it. “Need meat. Gone fishing. Back in a few days.” 

“Seriously? ‘Need meat’? That’s the best you’ve got?” Zuko’s eyebrow is raised, and Sokka shoots him a disapproving look.

“Do you have a better idea?” Zuko stays silent as a response. “That’s what I thought. Let’s go.”

“Wait.” Zuko grabs the brush out of Sokka’s hand before scrawling a note of his own underneath Sokka’s. “Alright, now we can go.”



Xx



“‘Need meat. Gone fishing. Back in a few days. Sokka and Zuko.’” Katara reads the note, her suspicion mounting with every word. 

“Finally!” Aang yawns and stretches his arms over his head. “I get to take a break from firebending!”

“Not so fast, Aang.” Katara’s mouth twitches up at the corner as she reads the post script at the bottom of the page. “‘Aang, practice your firebending while I'm gone. Do twenty sets of fire fists and ten hot squats every time you hear a badgerfrog croak. Zuko.’” Aang groans, a badgerfrog croaking from somewhere in the distance. 

“Nobody else has homework,” he grumbles as he starts doing his hot squats.



Xx



They finally get to the prison after an incredibly awkward trip (Sokka had told Zuko that his first girlfriend had turned into the moon, to which Zuko replied “that’s rough, buddy,” something he knew he’d never live down once the story got back to Katara), and proceed to steal some extra uniforms as a disguise. The bad part about using guard disguises as costumes, however, is that moments after they change into them, they are called into the prison yard to break up a fight. But when they get there, the only fight is between a disgruntled prisoner and an angry guard, who seems to be trying to goad the man into an actual fight. After the guard firebends at the prisoner, who is forced to bend it back towards his attacker, Sokka is roped into helping said guard bring the prisoner to something called “the cooler.” 

“Meet me back here in an hour,” Sokka whispers to Zuko before he leaves.

In the meantime, Zuko goes to the mess hall to get some food, not knowing how he’s going to manage to eat without taking his helmet off, but is called over to a table by some other guards before he can figure it out.

“Can a new guy ask you veterans some questions?” He figures this is as good a chance as any to get some intel. “I know this prison is for the Fire Nation’s most dangerous prisoners, but what about prisoners of war?”

 

Xx

 

He’s standing on an overlook above the prison yard when another guard approaches him.

“Uh—” Play it cool, Zuko. “Hello, fellow guard. How goes it?” Wow, real cool. 

“Zuko?” Sokka lifts up the faceplate of his helmet and Zuko breathes a sigh of relief.

“Listen, I asked around earlier, and there are no Water Tribe prisoners here.” He watches Sokka’s face fall with the news.

“Are you sure? Did you double check?”

“Yeah.” He puts his hand on Sokka’s slumped shoulder. “I’m sorry.”

“Fuck!” Sokka pulls away, bringing his hands to his head in exasperation. “We came all the way here for nothing. I failed.”

“Ah...” Zuko scrambles for a way to cheer up his friend. “What would uncle say? Sometimes, clouds have two sides.” Okay, good start. “A dark and a light, and a silver lining in between. It’s like a silver sandwich!” Sokka looks at him with a raised brow. “So, when life gets hard, take a bite out of the silver sandwich!” Maybe when we get back I'll ask Katara to sew my mouth shut. Sokka looks out over the railing, his face lighting up at something he can’t see.

“Maybe we didn’t fail after all!”

“Wow, that worked?” Zuko’s astonishment is clear in his voice. “I didn’t even know what I was saying.”

“No, what you were saying made no sense at all.” Zuko’s shoulders slump. “But look,” he points out towards the prison yard. “It’s Suki!”

Before Zuko knows it, he’s stationed outside Suki’s cell (he vaguely remembers her as the leader of the Kyoshi Warriors, although he doesn’t recognise her without her face paint) so that Sokka can talk to her (and probably make out, but that’s not his business). Sokka had told him that Suki could help them make a plan to escape, and judging on the reputation of the Kyoshi Warriors, he has faith that she can.

“Excuse me.” Zuko spins around to face a female guard steadily moving towards him. “I need to get in that cell.” Shit.

“Uh, you can’t!” She tilts her head in a questioning gesture. “The lights are out. The prisoner could sneak up on you!” She scoffs at Zuko and moves forwards towards the cell.

“Get out of my way!” She reaches her arm out to open the door, and Zuko grabs it before she can and hooks his leg around hers to spin her into the door, pinning her against it with her arm sandwiched between them.

“What the hell are you doing?!” The woman fights back against him, getting him up against the cell door with his face plastered to the looking hole. I hope Sokka and Suki are enjoying the show. He manages to twist the woman in such a way that the door is out of her sight, and he hopes Sokka has taken the opportunity to slip out unnoticed. The guard gets him back in a position where she’s in control as she looks down the hall.

“Guard!” She shouts at a guard that he hopes is Sokka. “I think he’s an imposter! Get him off of me and arrest him!” The guard that thankfully does end up being Sokka runs over and slams Zuko to the ground, his ears ringing as his head hits the inside of the too-big helmet.

“You’re under arrest!” Sokka picks him up and leads him away from the female guard. “Don’t worry, I’ll figure something out,” Sokka whispers, and he has no choice but to trust him.

 

Xx

 

Zuko’s identity is exposed when he goes to speak to the warden, who is apparently Mai’s uncle (he doesn’t know what Mai told his sister when she arrived without him after Ba Sing Se, but her uncle seems to believe that Zuko had broken her heart). And that’s how he ends up mopping floors with Suki when Sokka approaches to tell them about the plan. Apparently the idea is to get Zuko thrown in the cooler (easy enough) so he can remove all the bolts from inside. Then, they’ll roll it down to the water and use it as a boat to sail across the boiling lake to their meet up spot with Appa.

“That’s a great plan!” The three of them jump as the prisoner who Sokka had escorted to the cooler before, Chit Sang, appears behind them.

“What plan? We don’t have a plan!” Sokka’s voice breaks, and Zuko and Suki throw each other resigned looks.

“I heard it all.” Chit Sang looks seriously between them all. “And I can help.” 

 

Xx

 

It turns out that letting Chit Sang help had been a good thing; they had heard while Sokka was getting Zuko out of the cooler that there were a load of prisoners coming in, some of them being prisoners of war. When they had gotten the cooler out to the lake, Sokka, Suki, and Zuko had decided to stay behind in hopes that one of the war prisoners would be Hakoda, which worked to their advantage. Not only because Chit Sang and his friend and girlfriend that he had brought along got caught, but because Hakoda had indeed ended up being in the group of prisoners brought in. They devised another plan, one that involved starting a riot in the prison yard and commandeering the gondola to get them out of the prison. It all went according to plan, Suki taking care of pretty much everything for them to get on the gondola, including taking the warden hostage, and Chit Sang had even joined back up with them before making their escape. They even get the gondola moving and are on their way out before things go to shit.

“Who’s that?” Hakoda points to none other than Azula and Ty Lee standing on the platform that they had just come from.

“That’s a problem,” Zuko sighs. “It’s my sister and her friend.” 

Ty Lee jumps up onto the cable and starts to run towards them as Azula grabs a pair of handcuffs and attaches it to the other cable. She blasts her way along the cable, propelling herself by channeling her blue fire out of her feet. When they reach the gondola, Suki takes on Ty Lee, and Zuko and Sokka team up to fight Azula. Zuko blocks her blue flames while Sokka advances on her with his sword, and they have her on the edge of the gondola before they hear the warden.

“Cut the line!” he shouts, and the gondola stops short, swinging with the momentum and almost tossing Sokka off of the edge. 

“They’re going to cut the line!” Ty Lee shouts at Azula as another gondola approaches from the opposite side.

“Then it’s time to leave.” Azula and Ty Lee escape to the other gondola, riding it back to the platform as the gondola they are standing in starts to shake.

“They’re almost through!” Suki’s voice is alarmed, tension riding high within the group.

“Let’s hope this thing floats!” Hakoda’s voice is steady, but Zuko can see the concern flashing in his eyes.

Suddenly, the gondola begins to move again with a jerk, and they all move to the edge to see what’s happening on the platform.

“Wait, is that…” Sokka is squinting next to Zuko, who confirms his suspicions.

“It’s Mai!” They can see her fighting off a handful of guards as the gondola moves away, the mist shrouding the platform as they land on the other side.

“Sorry, warden.” Hakoda throws the warden back into the gondola, he and Chit Sang glaring at the man as he struggles against his bonds. “Your ‘no escapes’ record is officially broken.” The five of them run down to where Appa is cleverly hidden, and the Boiling Rock fades into the distance as they make their escape.

Chapter Text

 

 

“So leave a light on, I'm coming home. It's getting darker, but I'll carry on.

The sun don't shine, but it never did, and when it rains, it fuckin' pours, but I think I like it.

A nd you know that I'm in love with the mess, I think I like it.” Doomed, Bring Me The Horizon



Xx



They are rudely awakened the next morning by bombs being shot at their camp. The temple crumbles around them as Aang and Toph work on earthbending them an escape route. Katara and Sokka attempt to pull Appa into the tunnel, but he won’t budge.

“You guys go, I'll hold them off! I think this is a family visit.” Zuko runs off, uncaring for their calls to get him to come back. They continue trying to pull Appa into the tunnel, but it’s no use.

“We’ll have to fly out of here!” Aang’s voice rings out over all the noise.

“We won’t be fast enough with all the weight!” Sokka shouts over the sound of bombs and crumbling rocks.

“We have to split up.” Katara turns to her father as he speaks up, him and Chit Sang standing with set faces.

“No! We’re not splitting up again!” Katara’s eyes fill with tears. “How will you get off the island?”

“We’ll be fine. You kids take Appa, we’ll find our own way off.” He and Chit Sang nod to each other. Katara is fairly confident that her father will find some way of getting off of the island, but that’s not what she’s worried about. “We’ll see each other again, Katara.” Her and Sokka hug their father, tears streaming down her face as she thinks of them all being separated again. They pull apart, and her dad and Chit Sang run off.

“I can blast that wall,” Toph points to a wall that’s in the direction of the sounds of fighting, “and we can escape that way.”

“There’s a lot of fire in that direction!” Sokka sounds rightfully apprehensive.

“We can do it.” Aang’s voice is steady, his confidence bleeding through into the group as they mount Appa and sail through the hole Toph made in the wall, the rock that had been blasted away brought up and held in front of Appa as a shield by the both of them. They sail past Azula and her airship, Katara using her waterbending to bat away any fireballs that aren’t absorbed by the rock shield. 

“Zuko!” She sees him fall from the top of an airship after a particularly large blast of orange and blue fire, and Appa swings around and under him so that Katara can reach her hands out and pull Zuko down into the saddle before they take off.

 

Xx

 

They land for the night on a small Fire Nation island, one that isn’t inhabited and is as good a spot as any to camp out. They sit down for dinner, but Katara’s mind is occupied by her father. She can’t believe they had to split up again, after only having seen him for one night. She tries to eat, but her stomach has other ideas, and she leaves the group with tears in her eyes. She goes to the edge of a cliff overlooking the water, the waxing gibbous moon hanging in the sky among the stars. She hears someone sit down next to her, and judging by the warmth, she knows it’s Zuko.

“Are you okay?” 

She sighs, rubbing her face with her hands. “Not really, no.” Zuko puts his arm around her, and she leans into his shoulder. “I’m just upset about having to split up from my dad again.” Tears fall from her eyes as she continues, “it makes me think of my mom. I just— I can’t have either of them because of this fucking war, and it hurts!” Zuko rubs her arm as she cries. “My mother was killed in a raid when I was eight. They were looking for a waterbender, and she told them it was her. They killed her right in our home...” She can’t hold back her sobs as she collapses into Zuko. “She died protecting me. And my dad left so soon after to fight in the war, and—” 

She can’t continue, her sobs violent and exhausting. Zuko doesn’t say anything, and for that she’s grateful; there’s nothing he can say that will make her feel better, anyway. He holds her while she cries, until her breathing is even and her eyelids droop with their own weight. She feels herself drifting off when he picks her up, one arm under her knees and the other cradling her torso, and brings her to her tent. He lays her down gently on her bedroll, covering her with a blanket and kissing her forehead before he leaves, and sleep takes her almost immediately.

 

Xx

 

She wakes the next morning with crusty eyes and a dry mouth, and a pounding headache to match. She groans as she pulls some of her water out of its skin to hold to her aching head, willing the pain to ebb away as she heals herself. She grabs her comb and walks out of her tent, squinting at the light and she pulls it through her hair, stopping when she sees Zuko slumped over sitting on a rock.

“Zuko?” He lifts his head, dark circles under his eyes a stark contrast to his pale skin. “You look terrible.”

“I waited out here all night.” She furrows her brows as he stands. “I talked to Sokka last night. I know who killed your mother, and I’m going to help you find him.” The comb falls onto the ground, her hands and feet going numb as his words sink in.

“Who was it?” Her words are shards of ice, sharp and deadly.

“A group called the Southern Raiders.” He steps towards her, but she doesn’t move.

“How can we find them?” Her heart is beating fast in her chest, anger pushing through her veins with every pulse.

“There’s a Fire Navy communication tower not far from here according to the map. All the navy’s movements are coordinated by messenger hawk, and every tower has to be up to date on where everyone is deployed. If we can get in—”

“We can find out where they are.” She picks her comb up off the ground. “Pack your things. We’re leaving now.”

 

Xx

 

“I need to borrow Appa.” 

She and Zuko approach Aang as he flings large bales of hay into Appa’s mouth.

“Oh, is it your turn to take a field trip with Zuko?” His voice is bright as always, and it grates on her nerves.

“Yes.” The edge in her tone causes him to turn towards her with a concerned look on his face.

“Where are you going?” Sokka looks up at them from his perch on a log nearby as he hears the exchange.

“We’re going to find the man who killed our mother.” 

Sokka stands up sharply and walks over at Katara’s words.

“I know how to find the man who did it.” Zuko makes eye contact with Sokka, something unspoken passing between the two of them.

“What exactly do you think this will accomplish?” Aang sounds skeptical, and it boils Katara’s blood.

“I knew you wouldn’t understand.” She turns around, ready to walk away before Aang stops her.

“Wait! I do understand! You’re feeling unbelievable pain and rage. How do you think I felt about the sandbenders when they stole Appa? How do you think I felt about the Fire Nation when I found out what happened to my people?” 

“She needs this, Aang.” Zuko’s voice is gentle, yet firm. “This is about getting closure and justice.”

“I don’t think so. I think it’s about revenge.” Aang has the audacity to sound upset, and she snaps in response, whipping around so fast that her neck pops.

“Fine! So what if it is? Maybe that’s what I need! Maybe that’s what he deserves!” The words feel sharp and jagged as they pass her lips, but she doesn’t care.

“Katara, you sound like Jet.” She gets up in his face, her finger pointing dangerously close to his nose.

“How dare you compare me to him,” she growls at him like a caged animal, her vision tinting red. “Jet attacked innocent people! This man murdered my mother!”

“Sokka, tell me you’re on my side!” Aang turns to her brother with a pleading face, but his expression is stoic.

“Katara, I can’t tell you that what you’re doing is right,” he glances at Zuko, “but I can’t tell you what to do. I trust you to do the right thing.” Some of her anger bleeds away hearing Sokka’s comforting words, but not much.

“Seriously, Sokka?” Aang’s voice is steeped in frustration now. “The monks always taught us to forgive. Revenge is easy. Forgiveness is what will truly bring you peace.”

“Aang, she’s not a monk.” Zuko steps in, maybe sensing that Katara is this close to biting Aang’s head off. “She has to do what she feels will help her process this, not what you think will help.”

“We’re going.” Katara turns around again and starts to walk away. “And you can’t stop us.”

 

Xx

 

She sits on Appa’s head, her braid whipping behind her in the wind, the chill barely touching her skin through her black clothes and the numbness that’s overtaken her. Zuko sits next to her, poring over a map silently as they head towards the navy communication tower. They had waited until nightfall to leave the temple, the almost full moon sitting perched in the night sky among the twinkling stars, and Katara can feel it’s grace running through her veins like electricity. Ignoring it is impossible at this point; Yue’s power is a spark, and her resentment is dry kindling. The fire roars in her ears, drowning out almost everything else.

“There it is.” Zuko disrupts her thoughts and points down towards a small island with a tall tower located on the shoreline. “We’ll have to sneak in and get the information we need so that they don’t alert the Southern Raiders before we can get to them.”

She pulls Appa’s reins and guides him down to a secluded area hidden from the tower by large rocks. Katara creates an ice raft in the ocean, and pushes it towards the tower after Zuko hops on. She uses a large wave to hoist them up high enough so that they can jump into the tower through an open window. They make their way silently through the corridors, taking advantage of the air circulation system by climbing up into the vents that run above the halls when they find the room they’re looking for. A woman sits inside the room at a desk writing something, a full bottle of ink perched beside her; Katara uses her waterbending to topple the bottle and spill ink across the scroll and the woman’s hands. She curses under her breath before walking out of the room, and Katara and Zuko drop down lightly into the office after the door closes heavily behind her. They sift through what feels like endless files and scrolls before Zuko finds what they need.

“Here.” He whips a scroll out of a cabinet and spreads it hastily on the writing desk. “Southern Raiders, stationed near Whale Tail Island.” He rolls the scroll up and puts it away on his way to point out their destination on a large map hanging on a wall. “We should be able to get there by tomorrow night.” They head back out of the tower, climb onto Appa, and speed off into the night.



Xx



The sun rises over the horizon, orange and yellow light softening the clouds in the sky, their color a little less dark in the morning glow. Katara sits on Appa’s head, her body drowsy but her mind wide awake. She feels awful, and probably looks worse; her head is pounding, she’s hungry, and she knows that she should sleep. She hears Zuko shuffling behind her, waking up with the sun and coming to sit next to her.

“You should get some sleep,” he suggests as he rests a hand on her shoulder. He hasn’t made an effort to be very physical with her since he told her about her mother’s killer, and she appreciates it. She thinks he understands that she’s too preoccupied for things like that right now. “We’ll be there soon, and you’ll need all your strength.”

“I’m fine.” Her voice is flat as the memories creep up on her. “I have plenty of strength. I’m not the helpless little girl I was when they came.” A vision of her mother’s face flashes in front of her eyes, the determined set of her brow and the steeliness of her blue eyes as she stared at the man who would soon take her life. Zuko’s hand tightens on her shoulder, and she’s pulled out of her reverie.

“Please rest Katara.” 

She acquiesces to the softness of his voice, to the warmth in his golden eyes, his worried gaze tailing her to Appa’s saddle and weighing on her like a blanket as she drifts off into a dreamless sleep.

 

Xx

 

When she wakes, the sky is dark again, a sparkling sapphire stretching between horizons. The moon is truly full, the power and restlessness she felt last night amplified in Yue’s glow.

“There it is.” She climbs up next to Zuko, still perched on Appa’s head, to see the ship off in the distance. “See those sea raven flags? That’s the flag of the Southern Raiders.” Her insides freeze over, her chi singing to the tune of the full moon above them.

“Let’s do this.” She cracks her knuckles. “Guide Appa into the water. I’ll bend a bubble around us so we can sneak up on them.” 

Zuko does as she instructs, sending Appa into a nosedive towards the sea. When they break the surface, Katara’s water bubble forms around them and keeps them dry, allowing them to breathe. They pull up to the side of the ship silently, and as Appa rises to the surface, Katara uses her water whips to pull one of the men off the deck of the ship and fling him into the ocean. The rest of the crew come to the side to see what pulled him over, and she conjures a massive wave, sweeping them all overboard. Zuko guides Appa to land on the deck as one last soldier comes at them. Katara blasts him with a jet of water, and he slams into the bridge with a sturdy thunk , slumping over unconscious as they run past into the interior of the ship. She coats her arms with sea water and sprints through the hallways, Zuko shutting and trapping a soldier into a sideroom as they make for their destination. They finally come to a closed door at the end of the corridor; Katara’s malice rages through her body, a tidal wave in her veins.

“Are you ready?” Zuko looks back at her, his golden eyes peeking out over the top of the black sash he’s using to cover most of his face.

“I’ve been ready.” 

She pulls her mask down, using the moon’s power to crash her water into the heavy metal door and send it swinging open and off of it’s hinges entirely. The man inside yelps in surprise, his attempt at attacking them failing miserably as Zuko swats his fireball away.

“Who are you?” the man warbles, amber eyes wide as they dart back and forth between Zuko and Katara.

“You don’t remember her?” Zuko questions. “You will soon— trust me.” 

Katara is seeing red, her fury boiling over like an abandoned tea kettle, Zuko’s words fading as her rage clouds her mind. The man moves to attack, and Katara reaches out for his blood, feeling it pulsate through every artery, every vien, every tiny capillary in his pathetic body. She sees his mouth move, but she hears nothing, malice a typhoon whirling in her ears blocking out any sound. She registers Zuko’s voice, but it sounds hazy and muffled as she brings the man up to face her.

It’s not him.  

“It’s not him.” The red in her eyes subsides, the world coming back to her in a violent crash as she realizes the mistake she’s made. “He’s not the man.”

“What? He’s the commander of the Southern Raiders, he has to be the guy!” Zuko grabs the commander’s collar and shoves him against the wall. “If you’re not the man we’re looking for, then who is?”

“You must be looking for Yon Rha!” the commander squeaks. “He retired four years ago!” 

Zuko drops him on the floor and he crumples into a heap on the cold steel. Katara’s eyes swim in tears as she turns around and stalks back to Appa, barely even waiting for Zuko to get himself into the saddle before she snaps the reins and they take off. 

 

Xx

 

They sneak along the path leading out of a small village, following an older man carrying a basket of vegetables about to walk right into their trap. He firebends at a nearby bush uselessly, and turns around, proceeding to trip over the wire they had placed in his way. They jump out onto the dirt path, and Zuko sends a blast of fire at the man, who rolls to avoid it. 

“I wouldn’t try firebending again.” Zuko’s voice is hard and sharp, and Katara takes note of the fact that it’s starting to rain, fat droplets falling onto the dry dirt beneath their feet.

“Whoever you are, take my money, take whatever you want!” Yon Rha cowers behind his arms on the ground, fear shaking his body like a leaf.

“Do you know who I am?” She approaches the pathetic man, pulling her mask down and pinning him to the ground with her eyes.

“No...” he shakes his head as the rain falls steadier around them. Katara’s anger increases with each descending drop. “I don’t think so.”

“Oh, you better remember,” she seethes, and walks closer to him slowly, watching as terror dilates his pupils. “Your life depends on it. Why don’t you take a closer look?”

“Yes, yes, I remember you now!” She sees his arms shaking under his weight as he leans away from her. “You’re that little Water Tribe girl.”

“She lied to you.” Her voice is fury turned solid, hatred shaped into words and vibrations, her eyes boring a hole into Yon Rha’s ugly face. “She was protecting the last waterbender!”

“What? Who?” His voice trembles as it spills weakly from his throat.

“Me!” 

Her rage reaches its boiling point, and she reaches out to stop the rain in mid air. Her breaths come fast, laden with hatred. She morphs the rain into a dome-like shield above them with a twist of her arms, and launches all of it at Yon Rha at once, freezing the water into daggers of the sharpest ice she can imagine halfway to her target. He shuts his eyes, petrified with fear, bracing for the attack. I can’t do it. She stops the daggers half an inch from his body, letting them hover in the air so that he sees them when he opens his eyes. Her anger drains out of her, leaving nothing but an empty exhaustion in its wake.

“I did a bad thing! I know I did, and you deserve revenge! So why don’t you take my mother, that would be fair!”

“I always wondered what kind of fucked up person could do such a thing.” Her voice sounds as empty as she feels as she lets her ice daggers melt and falls down to the ground along with the rain. “But now that I see you, I think I understand. There’s nothing inside you— nothing at all. You’re just a pathetic husk of a man.”

“Please, spare me!” She thinks he might piss his pants from fear at this point, his tears mingling with the rain on his wrinkled face.

“But as much as I hate you, I just can’t do it.” She takes a deep breath and hangs her head, turning around and walking away before she can regret her choice.

She and Zuko walk back to Appa in silence, tears threatening to fall from her eyes with every step. The rain continues to fall around them, and Katara finally feels the chill in the air, her anger having bled out back on the dirt path with Yon Rha. As they approach Appa she shivers, and she brings her arms up to hug herself, too tired to bother bending the water out of her clothes and hair. Zuko rests his warm hand on her back, and she crumbles, turning into his chest as her sobs rip through her. He holds her without saying a word, encircling her with his strong arms, thawing her out with his warmth and affection. Despite everything that’s just happened, she feels safe in his arms, like nothing could ever hurt her again if she could only stay here forever. She doesn’t know how long they stand there, the rain continuing its descent around them, but she knows how tired she’s grown when her eyes finally dry. She sags against Zuko, her weight held up only by his warm body against hers. He easily scoops her up into his arms to carry her onto Appa’s back, and sets her down gently in the saddle where she falls asleep almost immediately.



Xx



They return to the small island where their camp is, and Katara immediately goes to sit by the water as Zuko is approached by Aang.

“So, how’d it go?” He can tell that the boy is apprehensive, his voice failing to cover up the unease he feels.

“She let him go.” Aang’s face lights up.

“That’s great! I’m going to go talk to her!” He bounds down after Katara with Suki following closely behind him.

“So she didn’t kill him?” He turns around to face Sokka, his expression unreadable.

“No, she didn’t.” Sokka lets out a heavy breath, and his face relaxes.

“Did you know?”

“What, that she would let him go?” Sokka nods. “Honestly, no. I didn't. I hoped that she wouldn’t kill him because I don’t think she’d forgive herself.” Sokka nods again in understanding. “I don't want her to have to live with that weight on her shoulders. But if she had...” he shrugs. ''I just want to be here for her.”

“You’re a good guy, Zuko.” Sokka claps his hand on Zuko’s shoulder as they both look out towards where Katara is now sitting on the dock with Suki. “I’d give you the whole ‘if you hurt my sister you’re dead’ speech, but I know you won’t hurt her.”

“Never.” 

He watches as Katara puts her head on Suki’s shoulder, and the other girl wraps her arm around Katara in response. He realizes that this is the first time he’s truly felt like he’s a part of something, like he matters and that people care about him other than his uncle. It feels like what he thinks a proper family should feel like, and if these people are his family, then he thinks he might be alright no matter what happens in the end.

Chapter Text



“The ocean takes me in to watch you shake it, watch you wave your powers, tempt with hours of pleasure.

Take me one more time, take me one more wave, take me for one last ride. I'm out of my head tonight.” Sextape, Deftones



Xx



They had decided that the royal family’s vacation home on Ember Island would be a good place to hide out until the comet, and Zuko is incredibly happy about sleeping in a real bed for the first time in what might as well be forever. He’s been training with Aang every day, and the boy has improved significantly. It makes sense that he would be a fast learner; he is the Avatar, after all. Currently he’s going through his routine with Aang, the fire spouting from their hands and feet adding to the humidity and oppressive heat lingering in the air. Zuko is sweaty and gross, and the only thing on his mind is taking a nice swim after he and Aang are done. They finish their set, ending the sequence by centering themselves and their breaths. He opens his eyes and bows to Aang, who bows back before hopping on an air scooter and zipping around the courtyard. I wish I could do that. Zuko would appreciate a nice breeze right now as he stretches his arms above his head, and walks toward the dry fountain where his sweat rag is. He notices that Toph and Katara had been sitting on the steps of the courtyard, Toph looking bored and Katara’s face pink from the heat. Or maybe it isn’t the heat; he smiles at her, and the pink turns to red as she chokes on her watermelon juice. Toph bursts into rambunctious laughter behind her. 

“You’re not going to believe this!” Sokka and Suki walk into the courtyard as Zuko grabs his rag and wipes his face. “There’s a play about us!” Katara and Zuko walk towards Sokka to take a look at the poster he unfurls. “We found this poster in town!”

“What?” Katara looks closely at the poster, which, in Zuko’s opinion, is pretty ugly. “How is that possible?”

“Listen to this:” Sokka clears his throat and changes his voice to sound like an announcer. “‘The Boy in the Iceberg is a new production from acclaimed playwright Pu-on Tim, who scoured the globe gathering information on the Avatar, from the icy South Pole to the heart of Ba Sing Se. His sources include singing nomads, pirates, prisoners of war, and a surprisingly knowledgeable merchant of cabbage.’ We should go see it!”

“‘Brought to you by the critically acclaimed Ember Island Players’.” Upon hearing the fine print words Suki reads, Zuko groans and slumps his shoulders.

“The Ember Island Players suck. They butcher ‘ Love Amongst the Dragons’ every year. My mom used to make us go see them any time they came into town.” He continues wiping the sweat off his chest, spying Katara watching him out of the corner of his eye.

“Sokka,” she turns towards her brother. “Do you really think it’s a good idea for us to go see a play about ourselves?”

“Come on, Katara!” Sokka pleads with her. “This is exactly the kind of wacky time-wasting nonsense I’ve been missing!”

“Fine.” Sokka whoops when Katara agrees, lifting a laughing Suki into the air and spinning her around. “But we have to be careful, we don’t want people to recognise us.”

Xx

 

A while later as the sun sets, the group makes their way to the theatre. Zuko has donned a long cape and pulled the hood up to hide his scar; his hair is long enough that it covers a fair amount of it, but he still wants to be sure. Aang has a funky hat on to cover his tattoo, and Zuko hopes that it’s enough. Katara holds his hand on the walk over, and the giddy fluttering in his stomach is something that he’ll never get used to. They sit down in the theatre, choosing box seats high up in the back to hide themselves. Katara sits close enough to him that their thighs are touching from knee to hip, and Zuko feels a blush creep up his neck. It’s not that they haven’t been close like this; they’ve been much closer on more than a few occasions now, but something about having her like this with so many people around is thrilling, and the coy smile she gives him just makes the effect stronger. He shifts in his seat, putting his arm around her shoulders and trying to calm his heartbeat. 

“Why are we sitting in the nosebleed section?” Toph pipes up from her seat beside Katara.

“Don’t worry,” Aang nudges her from her other side, “I’ll tell your feet what’s happening.” 

Zuko sees a soft pink color Toph’s cheeks as she smiles, and he can’t help the grin that emerges on his face at the sight. That’s adorable. 

The play starts, and Zuko can tell right away that it’s going to be terrible. The actors are awful and bear no likeness to any of them— Aang is played by a woman, and actor Zuko’s scar is on the wrong side of his face. It starts off in the South Pole with the actors playing him and Katara immediately giving each other heart eyes. It wasn’t like that… was it? The play goes on, showing actor Zuko with actor Iroh (his heart clenches even though the man is a terrible actor and nothing like his uncle) on his ship, as actor Zuko admonishes his uncle for eating some cake.

“They make me look totally stiff and humorless.” Zuko thinks he’s more lighthearted than that, at least now.

“I don’t know,” Katara nudges him with her shoulder. “I think it’s pretty spot on.”

“How could you say that?” He pulls away from her just a bit to see her smug smile as the play continues.

“Let’s forget about the Avatar and get massages!” Actor Iroh exclaims.

“How could you say that?!” Actor Zuko shouts his retort, which just so happens to be exactly what he had just said to Katara. He slides down in his seat, crossing his arms at the joke as his expense.

“Aw, come on,” Katara whispers to him, something in her voice perking him up instantly, causing him to sit up straight. “You’re not really like that.” She puts her hand on his leg in what is masquerading as a comforting gesture, but she places it just high enough for him to know that it’s a tease. He turns his head to look at her, and she winks as she cuddles back into his side, lifting his arm so that he returns it to it’s previous place around her shoulders. His inner fire flickers in his chest, warmth flooding his body and pooling somewhere low in his gut. Agni help me, I think my insides are melting.  

The play continues in a similar fashion, making a mockery of each of them and their journey. After the North Pole scene containing a dramatic exclamation of love from Zuko to Katara (both of their faces turn beet red), they announce the intermission. They all head outside to sit on some steps, the fresh air helping Zuko to clear his head. That is, until Katara decides that she’s going to sit on the step below him, leaning back into him between his legs. It’s an innocent enough position, but with the way she’s been acting all day, he feels like there’s a different kind of motivation behind it.

“So far, this intermission is the best part of the play.” All of them groan except for Toph at his assessment.

“Listen friends.” She picks something out of her ear and flicks it off into the bushes. “You guys may not like it, but everything on that stage is the truth.” Nobody has a response, and soon they are back in their box seats watching the second act of the play.

Toph’s actor is a huge, muscly man, and instead of being upset about her actor like the rest of them are, she’s overjoyed. His intro using the sonic blast births a huge smile on her face, the biggest he thinks he’s ever seen from the girl. At least someone’s happy. Then, of course, the play depicts the scene of Zuko and Katara in the crystal catacombs under Ba Sing Se.

“I have to admit Prince Zuko,” Katara’s actress bats her eyelashes, “I really find you attractive!”

“You don’t have to make fun of me.” The actor playing Zuko sulks in the corner, and he feels his face heat up. He knows his scar is ugly, but he tries not to think about his appearance lest he get sucked into a hole of self-deprecation.

“But I mean it!” The actress sits down next to actor Zuko. “I’ve had eyes for you ever since I pulled you out of the water!” His heart speeds up; he doesn’t think Katara has liked him for that long, but the actress is still making him feel uncomfortable about it all.

“Wait!” Actor Zuko stands suddenly to face actress Katara. “I thought you were the Avatar’s girl?” Zuko looks over at Aang, who has one of his eyebrows raised as he turns to look at Zuko; they shrug in tandem, equally confused. It’s clear to Zuko that Aang had a thing for Toph, so he wasn’t sure what the play was getting at.

“The Avatar?” Katara’s actress laughs obnoxiously loud. “Why, he’s like a little brother to me! I certainly don’t think of him in a romantic way.” The actress walks over to his actor. “Besides, you’re the one I really want!” The actor and actress embrace, parting and holding hands as the actress pops her leg up in the air.

“Uhg.” Zuko rubs his face with the hand that isn’t around Katara’s shoulders, and she groans quietly as well, hiding her face in Zuko’s shoulder in embarrassment.

The play continues to depict the fight in the crystal catacombs, but conveniently leaves out the part where Zuko is brainwashed; instead, he is captured alongside his uncle and taken off stage by who he assumes to be Dai Li agents. Mai and Ty Lee join Azula on the stage, and assist her in killing Aang, to which the crowd cheers, and the six of them in the booth feel the temperature drop ten degrees. At the second intermission, Aang heads off on his own, probably upset because people had literally been cheering for his death, and Toph eventually decides to follow him. Sokka and Suki go to try and sneak backstage so that Sokka can give his actor some pointers, and Katara and Zuko are left sitting alone in the hallway. She scoots up next to him, pressing her whole side into his, and takes his hand in hers.

“You know, I really do find you very attractive,” she teases, and the corner of his mouth pulls up in a smirk as he turns to look at her.

“Oh, yeah?” She nods her head and smirks back at him. “You must not have very good taste.” Damn it, Zuko, why do you always do this? Her smirk changes to a pout, mostly exaggerated, but he can there’s some truth behind it.

“First of all, we have the same taste.” Zuko thinks back to Jet’s death scene in the play, and how it may as well have been his fault that he died in the first place. “Second of all,” she slides the tip of her finger along his jawline to his chin. “You are very attractive.” His breath comes out in a huff, his skin tingling where she had touched it.

“You are such a tease.” Her smile is bright as she laughs, the sound a bird song in his ears, something beautiful and light, coaxing a grin out of him that stretches across his whole face.

“That’s what I like to see.” She gives him a lingering kiss on his left cheek, his stomach flipping in response. “I love it when you smile.” The sweetness of her words warms him like the rising sun, and all he wants to do is take her back to the house and hold her for as long as she’ll let him.

The third act passes in about the same manner as the first two, until the scene of the invasion. The gang on stage heads into the palace, only to find it empty. Strangely enough, this is where they bring Zuko back into the play, joining the gang as they run off stage.

“Well, that’s it!” Sokka stands, stretching his arms over his head. “It’s all caught up to the present, so the play’s over.”

“Wait,” Suki tugs on his arm to bring him back down. “It’s not over!”

“What? What do you mean? They’re going to act out the future?” Sokka’s just as confused as Zuko is as the play continues on stage. They show Ozai’s actor on stage, a make-shift comet streaking across the stage above him.

“With the energy harnessed from the comet, no one will be able to stop the Fire Nation!” 

The crowd cheers as the mood in the box goes sour. Azula comes on stage then, announcing Aang and Zuko’s presence to defeat Ozai. Azula goes up against Zuko, and the crowd cheers as he dies on stage. Aang goes up against Ozai, and the crowd cheers again as he dies on stage as well. The six of them leave the theatre in silence, all of them splitting up once they get back to the house to contemplate the future alone.



Xx



It’s too hot for her to sleep. Katara kicks off the silk sheet that’s covering her, rolling over onto her stomach to try to get comfortable. Her mind keeps flashing back to that stupid play— the cheers that rang through the crowd at the deaths of Zuko and Aang. She knew that the people of the Fire Nation weren’t exactly rooting for them, but having it displayed like that right in front of them had been unsettling at the least. 

Fuck it. Sleep is not coming to her any time soon, and lying awake in bed doesn’t hold any appeal to her, so she decides to get up and wander around the house. She had looked around a little bit when they had first gotten there, and she is drawn to a painting that had caught her eye on her first look around. It’s a painting of Zuko’s family; he and Azula are young in the depiction, Zuko being maybe seven or eight, bright smiles displayed proudly on their faces. It’s strange to see Ozai with a smile, even if it is tight and small. But her real interest in the picture is the woman, who she has to assume is Zuko’s mother. She’s beautiful, with a kind face and soft amber eyes, and she looks exactly like the woman Katara had seen in the Foggy Swamp. She hasn’t had the chance to talk to Zuko about it yet, but she’s hoping she will find him tonight so that she can ask him about her. 

But that isn’t the only reason she’s wandered out of bed. Since facing Yon Rha, something inside of her has changed. It’s like a flower in her chest has finally bloomed, like a gargantuan weight has lifted from her shoulders like a graceful bird, and she finds herself being drawn to Zuko more than usual, the pull in her chest almost undeniable at points. That, coupled with the fact that he’s been training shirtless with Aang for weeks now has her all kinds of riled up, and the desire to be closer to him is getting overwhelming. They’ve been progressing in the physical aspects of their relationship slowly, which she’s grateful for, but she feels now like she’s ready to give that part of herself over to him, not just physically, but spiritually as well. Something deep inside of her soul wants to be as close as she can to him, to meld with him in every way. She’s been thinking about it frequently since their little field trip, and she is sure now that she’s ready. 

She finds herself wandering out to the front of the house, where Zuko’s silhouette is highlighted by the gentle light of the moon, reflecting like jewels spilled across the ocean’s surface. He turns his head slightly to the side upon hearing her, and smiles as she sits down on his right.

“Couldn’t sleep?” His voice is raspier than usual, probably due to the late hour, and it washes over Katara, making her shiver.

“Nope.” He hums in response as they look out over the ocean, the scene beautiful and serene. “Can I ask you something?”

“Anything.” The way his voice softens when he speaks to her makes her heart swell in her chest, makes her want to confess everything to him. I love you so much.

“That picture inside of your family...” She sees his face darken, but continues. “Is that your mother?”

“Yes.” His features soften just a bit, the corner of his mouth neutral instead of tilted downward like it was a moment ago.

“Is she… still around?” Katara isn’t sure why she would have seen the woman in the swamp if she was still alive, but she needs to check.

“No.” He looks down at his lap as he braces his weight on his hands behind him. “At least, I don’t think so. She left when I was ten, and I haven’t heard anything from her or about her since.”

“Zuko, I’m so sorry.” 

Aunt Wu’s words come floating back into her mind. There will most likely be shared experiences, most often painful ones, that have occurred around the same time in their lives that allow the two to form a deep understanding of one another. If Zuko had been ten when his mother left, that would have been around the same time her mother had died.

“It is what it is.” He shrugs, but she knows that he’s hiding a deeper hurt underneath his calm demeanor. “My father had wanted to be named the air to the throne after my cousin Lu Ten died; my uncle had gone into a deep depression, and my father didn’t think he would be fit to rule. Apparently my father approached my grandfather about it, and my grandfather got angry, saying that my father would know the pain of losing a son to make him feel some empathy towards my uncle.” Katara covers her mouth with her hand, shocked that Azulon would do such a thing. She knew he was a terrible man, but that seems like a whole other kind of fucked up. “That night my mother came to me and woke me up in bed. She told me to promise her to never forget who I was.” A chill runs down Katara’s spine, the face of Zuko’s mother’s apparition flashing in front of her eyes. “I never saw her again after that. Azula had told me that she had killed my grandfather so that Ozai could take the throne. Coincidentally, my grandfather got very sick the day after her leaving, and apparently had named my father the heir to the throne.” Her heart is beating faster than what is comfortable in her chest, her vision in the Foggy Swamp making more sense with each of Zuko’s words. “Honestly...” he looks up at the stars, and she can see wetness in his good eye as he tries to blink it back. “I think she’s dead. I don’t know why, but something inside me just knows that she’s gone.” She leans over and grips him in a fierce hug, feeling wetness on her shoulder as a few of his tears fall. 

“Did I ever tell you about the Foggy Swamp?” After she releases him, she knows that she has to tell him about her vision. He shakes his head at her question. “We passed through it on our way to Ba Sing Se, before we saw you in the desert. The swamp is… very spiritual, I guess you could say. I saw a vision of my mother...” she looks into his eyes, sympathy mingling with soft gold. 'And I saw a vision of your mother too.” His eyes widen as she continues. “I walked up to her and she smiled at me, and she asked me to promise her that I'd never forget who I was.” His face is shocked and confused, tears spilling from his eye again as he takes a moment to process what she’s told him.

“Why would you have seen my mother?” She takes his hand in hers, rubbing her thumb along the back side in a show of comfort. 

“Have you ever heard of a twin flame?” She feels that tugging in her chest, and she moves closer to him so that their legs are touching from knee to hip.

“I don’t think so.” Katara lets out a sigh, knowing that it’s all too complicated for her to explain right now. “It sounds kind of familiar. It sounds like something my uncle would talk about.” She smiles at that, a small smile growing on his face to match. “But what does that have to do with my mother?”

“It’s hard to explain.” It’s impossible for her to find the words, and she decides that she should leave it to someone more knowledgeable so that she doesn’t mess it up. “You should ask Iroh about it the next time you see him.” Zuko drops his head again, and she lays her hand across his scar, causing him to look back up into her eyes. “You’ll see him again soon. I know it.” 

He nods as he leans his forehead against hers, their eyes closed as they breathe each other in. She leans forward and takes his lips in hers, the kiss soft and slow as she pours all of her love into him, before picking up pace and filling with passion. He raises his hand to press against her back, and she moves to straddle his lap as the familiar heat runs through her and settles low in her core. She bites at his lower lip, dragging it through her teeth, his sharp intake of breath spurring her on as she deepens the kiss. His hands slide up her thighs from her knees to her hips, and she presses herself down against the hardness below her, revelling in his heavy breathing due to the increased pressure between them.

“Do you want to, like, go sit on a piece of furniture?” She laughs at his awkward words, the smile that she loves gracing his features at her reaction.

“You’re so eloquent, Zuko.” Her tease makes his smile even bigger, bright like the moonlight reflecting off of the ocean behind her. “Yes, I would like to sit on a piece of furniture.” 

He takes her hand as they rise, guiding her back into the house. He looks around, trying to find somewhere appropriate for them to continue, but she has her own idea of where she wants to go. She pulls on his hand so that he’s facing her, and sees the spark in his eyes when she gets up on her toes to speak softly in his ear.

“Take me to your room.” The look he gives her when she settles back on her heels sends a fluttering feeling down to her core, watching his throat move as he swallows, tempting her to kiss him right there in the entryway.

“Okay,” he breathes, making her heart hammer in her chest with excitement and anticipation as he leads her up the stairs and past the rooms that the others are staying in.

 His room is no bigger than hers, the bed the same ridiculous size with the same deep red sheets placed neatly upon it. The moonlight filters in through the thin gold curtains, bathing the space in an ethereal blondish glow. Zuko closes the door almost silently behind him as she pulls her hand from his and walks to sit down on his bed, the plush mattress dipping with her weight and making everything so much more real. He sits on the edge of the bed next to her, waiting for her to pull him down into a kiss by the collar of his shirt before he makes any moves. They make their way onto the middle of the bed, limbs tangling and heartbeats racing, desire and love coursing through Katara like waves in the ocean, carrying her blissfully along with the tide.

He’s gentle and soft as he guides her through it all, the new sensations overwhelming in the best possible way. He lays himself bare for her, and her for him, and in her most vulnerable moment, she’s never felt safer. She’s heard that there’s supposed to be pain and blood for her first time, but Zuko takes his time preparing her, touching and kissing her so much that she's practically begging him to take her. And finally he does, slowly and carefully, and his crawling pace has her quickly moaning into his mouth, the fire he ignites in her threatening to burn her up until she pulls him forcefully to her, needing his heat, starving for pleasure. They move together, electricity jumping between their skin wherever it touches, that fire burning through Katara’s veins as the tension inside of her builds. A coil in her core twists tighter and tighter before finally snapping, an intense wave of bliss crashing over her and leaving her shaking and gasping for breath. Her heart is bursting with light, sunshine spilling over and filling her up, something beautiful and indescribable passing between them under the soft moonlight. It all feels so amazing and addicting, but underneath all of the physical sensations, something inside her is awakening. Like her soul has finally opened its eyes, like she’s come home after a lifetime away, like the sun has wrapped her up in its light and warmth and carried her into the morning. She kisses him over and over, the mantra in her head pulsing with every beat of her heart: I love you, I love you, I love you. 

When it’s all over, they lay together, sweaty skin sticking in the humid night air, but she’s never felt more at peace. Zuko curls into her, holding her like she’s a treasure and a blessing, whispering how good and beautiful she is until he drifts off to sleep. She runs her fingers through his soft hair, damp with sweat, and kisses his forehead, whispering her love to him so softly that she’s sure it will drift away into the night before he can ever hear it.

Chapter Text

 

 

“Is it bright where you are? Have the people changed?

Does it make you happy you're so strange? And in your darkest hour, I hold secrets flame.

We can watch the world devoured in it's pain.” The Beginning is The End is The Beginning, Smashing Pumpkins

 

 

Xx

 

 

The pressure is on as Aang prepares for the battle with Ozai. After Zuko’s confrontation with his father, they had come to believe that he had something up his sleeve for the day of the comet, and their best bet for saving the world from the Fire Lord’s wrath was to stop him before he could release it upon the world. Zuko has been training with him relentlessly, and both of their bending has been getting stronger as a result. He can’t be sure, but ever since that night he spent with Katara, he thinks that he’s been seeing other colors in his fire. At first he thought it was a trick of the light, but it happens no matter what time of day it is and no matter what lighting he’s under. Traces of pink and white, sometimes flickers of purple and green; he even thinks he’s seen a tiny amount of blue in there at one point. As it is, he’s been seeing quick flashes of color in Aang’s fire as the days wear on, and as they train today, his and the Avatar’s fire is bright and hot, and as the finish the last move in their set, both of their flames are speckled with noticeable color.

“Holy shit...” Zuko looks over at Aang, the boy’s wide eyes matching Zuko’s.

“You saw that, right?” Aang’s brows crease, and Zuko nods his affirmation. “Wow. Ran and Shaw must have really liked us, huh?” Zuko laughs, and Aang joins in as they walk to the beach to cool off.

 

Xx

 

The boy has been progressing steadily, and Zuko decides to teach him how to redirect lightning, knowing that Ozai would use the deadly attack without a second thought.

“It’s critical that you lead it away from your heart, otherwise it’ll kill you.”

“I mean, there’s always Katara with a little spirit water, right?” He looks over at Katara sitting on the steps of the courtyard.

“Actually, I used it all up after the fight with Azula.”

“Oh.” He looks distressed, anxiety etched into the lines on his face. 

“As long as you can redirect it, you can send it right back at him. I don’t think he knows how to, and if you can get a direct hit, you can take him out.” Aang whips around to look at Zuko with wide eyes.

“I can’t just kill him!” Zuko knows that Aang’s been struggling with this for days, but they only have three days until the comet comes.

“Aang, you have to!” Their shouting has drawn the others from their places in the beach house. “There’s no other way!”

“There has to be another way!” He feels bad for Aang, who is seriously conflicted about compromising his beliefs as a monk to fulfill his duty as the Avatar. “None of you understand the position I'm in!”

“Aang, we’re just trying to help.” Katara stands to walk over to him, but Aang steps away from her.

“Well, when you find a way to beat the Fire Lord without killing him, I'd love to hear it!” He storms off, Momo flying circles above him as he walks away.

“Aang, you can’t run away from this!” Katara steps forward to follow him, but Zuko places his hand on her shoulder to hold her back.

“Let him go.” She looks up at him over her shoulder with wide eyes. “He needs to work this out for himself.”

 

Xx

 

The next morning, Aang hasn’t returned. They split up to look for him, but he is nowhere to be found, gone without a trace aside from some disconcerting footprints that lead from the beach house into the ocean. After they have a perfectly valid freak-out, the five of them regroup to explore their options.

“So, the comet is in two days.” Sokka briefs them all as they sit on the steps. “We have no idea where Aang is, and we don’t know where the Fire Lord is going to be on the day of the comet. Any suggestions?”

“Shit.” Zuko tilts his head backwards towards the sky. “Wait a minute!” He snaps his head forward again to see the group looking at him anxiously. “I know how we can find Aang.”

 

Xx

 

They touch down in the Earth Kingdom hours later and make their way into a grungy tavern where Zuko knows his uncle’s contact will be.

“So, why are we in a dirty tavern in the Earth Kingdom? How will this help us find your uncle?” Suki is rightly perplexed, but Zuko knows they’ve succeeded when he sees a woman arm wrestling with a man twice her size, and winning easily.

“She’s going to help us,” he points towards the woman, who's now fighting off the large man without spilling a drop of her tea. “June.”

“I don’t know who this June lady is...” Toph is clearly amused as June proceeds to slam the burly man into the table, his limp body slumping to the ground as she sits back down in her seat and takes a sip of her tea. “But I like her!”

They get June outside, and she introduces them to her shirshu, Nyla. Zuko has met the woman on a few occasions over the years, and knows that the animal can track scents anywhere in the world. Katara grabs Aang’s staff off of Appa’s saddle and hands it over to June, who holds it out for Nyla to sniff at. The creature sniffs around in a circle a few times, then returns to June and lays down, covering its nose with its paws.

“That can’t be good,” Sokka says, dismay coloring his voice.

“Well, your friend doesn’t exist.” June’s deadpan drops all of their jaws to the floor.

“Wait, what do you mean? Is he dead?” Katara’s voice is shrill, Zuko’s anxiety bubbling up in his stomach.

“Nope.” June hands Katara the staff. “We could find him if he were dead. It’s a real head scratcher. Well, see ya!” She waves over her shoulder and begins to walk away when Zuko has another idea.

“Wait!”  He goes to his things and pulls out a beat up white lotus pai sho tile. “My uncle gave me this while we were in Ba Sing Se. Can you use it to find him?” June takes the tile from him and lets Nyla sniff at it.

“Zuko...” Toph sets her milky eyes in Zuko’s general direction. “Isn’t your uncle in jail?”

“I don’t think so. When we were flying over Caldera City on Appa I saw that the prison tower closest to the palace had been damaged. I don’t know for sure if he was in there, but it would make sense if he used the invasion as a distraction to escape.”

“That’s strange, Master Piandao gave me one of those tiles too.” Zuko shrugs at Sokka, not knowing the significance of the tile, but knowing that there has to be one.

“My uncle always said that pai sho wasn’t just a game.”

“Nyla’s got a scent.” June hops up onto the beast and takes out her whip. “Let’s go.”

Nyla leads them through the country to the destroyed outer wall of Ba Sing Se, and is pawing at the rubble as Appa touches down beside him.

“My uncle’s in Ba Sing Se?” Zuko is a little surprised; he knew his uncle had enjoyed living here, but he didn’t think he would return so quickly.

“He’s somewhere beyond the wall,” she gestures with her head towards the city. “Nyla’s getting twitchy, so he can’t be far. Good luck.” Nyla takes off into the distance with a crack of June’s whip, and the group is left standing next to the rubble of what used to be Ba Sing Se’s outer wall. 

“It’s been a long day.” He scrubs his face with his hand, his exhaustion matching that of everyone else. “Let’s camp here for the night and start fresh tomorrow.”

They fall asleep on Appa’s legs and tail; Sokka had claimed Appa’s tail for him and Suki, so Zuko and Katara squish together on one of his legs while Toph elects to sleep in an earth tent. Sleep comes fast to them all, but they are soon awakened by a wall of roaring fire surrounding them. When the fire dissipates, four old men are standing behind them.

“Well, look who we have here!” The oldest looking man says in a strange, squeaking voice. Zuko looks to Katara to see if she’s as confused as he is, but her face is alight with excitement.

“What’s going on? Who are these old guys?” Zuko is glad that Toph speaks up so that he doesn’t have to.

“These are great earthbending masters and friends of ours!” Katara introduces them one by one, Zuko’s embarrassment at not having recognized Piandao coloring his face pink.

“So wait.” Suki’s face is as confused as Zuko’s, and he’s glad he’s not the only one who has no clue what’s going on. “How do you all know each other?”

“All old people know each other!” Bumi laughs, a hearty amount of snorting going along with it.

“We’re all part of the same ancient secret society. A group that transcends the divisions of the four nations.” Something niggles in the back of Zuko’s mind.

“The Order of the White Lotus.” The words spring from his lips before he has the chance to analyze them; he’s heard his uncle mention them very briefly before, and it explains the lotus tile perfectly.

Jeong Jeong nods solemnly, “ The White Lotus has always been about philosophy and beauty and truth. But about a month ago, a call went out that we were needed for something important.”

“It came from a Grand Lotus.” Pakku looks at Zuko, his eyes holding something nameless in his flashing gaze. “Your uncle; Iroh of the Fire Nation.” His heart takes flight in his chest, it’s beat the steady pulse of a sparrowkeet’s wings, and a bright smile emerges on his face.

“Well, good.” Toph doesn’t bother schooling her snarky tone. “‘Cause that’s who we’re looking for.”

“Then we’ll take you to him.” Piandao tilts his chin down in a nod to Zuko.

“Wait! Someone very important is missing from your group...” Bumi rubs his chin, squinting one of his eyes and raising his brows. “Where's Momo?” Seriously? Momo is who he’s worried about?

“Gone,” Sokka replies, “and Aang along with him.”

“Oh, well.” Bumi looks considerably more relaxed, and Zuko wonders about the old man’s state of mind. “If they’re together then I’m sure they’re fine!”

The White Lotus members lead them back to their campsite as Bumi regales them with the tale of his reconquering of Omashu on the day of black sun. Zuko would have a hard time believing it if the old man wasn’t so strange; he’s not sure what to expect from him, but earthbending with his face alone seems like something a crazy old man would be able to do with enough effort. They approach the camp, and Bumi lowers a slab of rock to allow them entrance into the neat space. There are nice tents set up around the perimeter of the camp, following the shape of the cleverly hidden base— the rocks are arranged in a circle with a narrow opening to shield it from view from the outside.

“So...” Zuko shuffles anxiously. “Where’s my uncle?” Piandao points to the far end of camp, where a large tent stands bearing the seal of the White Lotus.

“Your uncle’s in there, Prince Zuko.” Piandao’s use of the honorific startles Zuko; he hasn’t heard anyone call him a prince since the last time he’d seen his uncle. His knees wobble as he makes his way to his uncle's tent, nerves forcing his feet to a halt right outside the entrance.

“Are you okay?” Katara approaches behind him, his ever present anchor pulling him back from the precipice of his anxiety. Her hand laying gently on his lower back makes it possible for him to ground himself, and he takes a deep breath.

“I feel guilty.” He shakes his head. “My uncle went to prison, was trapped for weeks on end, and I was free, running around trying to catch you guys again like nothing even happened.”

“Zuko.” Her voice is grave, her soft hands coming up to frame his face and pull him to look down into her eyes. “What the Dai Li did to you was so extreme that it impacted your bending. You can’t discount your experience just because you feel guilty. When I was healing you…” Tears well in her eyes, and he pulls her in for a much needed hug on both sides. “Your uncle will understand. He’s a good man.” 

Zuko nods, knowing that, as usual, she’s right. She lays a gentle kiss in the hollow of his throat where her head is notched under his chin before she pulls away, and he heads into his uncle’s tent. Iroh is sleeping peacefully, so Zuko sits down and waits until the sun rises, trying not to fidget in his restlessness in fear of waking him. After a few hours, he can feel the sun blessing the world with its warmth, and his uncle stirs, rising slowly from his sleep before looking over at Zuko, who is on his feet faster than he can blink.

“Uncle—” 

Before he can even begin voicing his thoughts, Iroh is pulling him into a tight hug, his tears gathering and wetting Zuko’s shirt. He had never realized how short his uncle was until now, the man’s head only brushing Zuk’s chin, and a fierce protectiveness washes over him as he grips his uncle tighter than he has since he was thirteen. His own tears fall freely, gathering in Iroh’s grey hair as they cry together.

“My son...” His uncle’s voice shakes and breaks, the man not bothering to try to hold back the gentle sobs rocking his body. “I was so scared for you, Prince Zuko. I had heard that you were again searching to capture the Avatar, and I feared the worst.” Zuko has no words, so he simply rests his cheek on his uncle’s head and thanks Agni and every other god that there is that his uncle is safe. “And then I heard that Azula had given you over to the Dai Li—’

“Uncle,” he pulls his uncle away to hold him by his shoulders. “It’s okay. I’m okay, Katara healed me.” His uncle’s red rimmed eyes soften, a familiar gentle smile warming his face.

“I knew she was good for you.” Zuko feels a flush come over his face. “And how is Lady Katara?”

“She’s good.” Iroh pins him with a knowing smile and a wink, to which Zuko can’t help but groan, causing his uncle to chuckle. He thinks back to his conversation with Katara about his mother and what she had told him to ask his uncle about.

“Uncle...” Iroh looks at him with interest in his eyes. “What’s a twin flame?” The interest quickly morphs into a knowing smirk, something warm sparkling in his uncle’s amber eyes.

“A twin flame is a single soul split into two different bodies.” Something stirs in Zuko’s chest, reminiscent of that strange tugging sensation he feels when he thinks about Katara. “It is a sacred bond, one that defies space and time to ensure balance in the world. Why do you ask, nephew?”

“No reason.” His cheeks flood with color, knowing that his uncle can see right through him. “Just curious.”

“Of course, Prince Zuko.” Iroh winks at him before they head outside. Coincidentally (or maybe not so coincidentally), Katara is right there to meet them.

“Iroh!” She leaps forward to hug the old man, Zuko’s heart softening with the show of affection. “We’re so glad you’re okay.” 

He knows that his uncle will take notice of Katara’s use of “we,” and when he turns around with a sly smile, Zuko suppresses another groan. His blush is firmly in place on his cheeks, and not about to leave any time soon if his uncle has anything to say about it.

“Have you two finally gotten together?” Katara’s blush is bright, now matching Zuko’s in intensity. “Oh good!” Iroh doesn’t bother waiting for an answer and lays a hand on each Katara and Zuko’s shoulder. “I believe I owe Miss Beifong a few gold pieces. Where is the young lady?” He walks away leaving a gobsmacked Zuko and Katara with dropped jaws staring after him.

Zuko shakes his head. “He is so nosy.” 

Katara lets out a short laugh as he places his hand on her lower back, and they begin to walk to the gathering of people in the center of camp. They catch Iroh and the rest of the White Lotus up on their situation regarding Aang, the faces around them turning dire as the hour of the comet approaches. Sozin’s comet is due to streak through the sky tomorrow, and they need a plan.

“Uncle, you’re the only one other than Aang who has a chance of defeating the Father Lord.”

“You mean the Fire Lord?” Why is Toph correcting me?

“That’s what I said!” Katara raises a brow at him, and he feels his cheeks turning pink.

“Hmm...” Iroh strokes his beard in contemplation.

“We need you to come with us!” Zuko knows that this is their best option to defeat his father, and that Iroh would be a good and just Fire Lord.

“No, Zuko.” The faces around the group fall. “It wouldn’t turn out well.”

“But you can beat him! And we can help!” The gang all nod their heads in agreement.

“Even if I did defeat Ozai,” the look he gives Zuko is solemn, “and I don’t know if I could, it would be the wrong way to end the war. History would see it as just more senseless violence, a brother killing a brother to grab power. The only way for this war to end peacefully is for the Avatar to defeat the Fire Lord.”

“And then—” Zuko swallows his nerves, hoping against all hope that his uncle doesn’t answer how he thinks he will. “Then you would come and take your rightful place on the throne?”

“No. Someone new must take the throne. An idealist with a pure heart,” he looks pointedly at Zuko, “and unquestionable honor. It has to be you, Prince Zuko.” He thinks his heart stops for a moment until Katara lays her hand on his shoulder, pushing a shuddering breath out of his lungs.

“But I’ve made so many mistakes.” His worst moments flash before his eyes, the fire shooting from his father’s fist the brightest of them all.

“Yes, you have.” Iroh lays his hand on Zuko’s shoulder, and he’s never felt safer than he does now, grounded between the two people he loves most in the world. “You've struggled, you've suffered, but you have always followed your own path. You restored your own honor, and only you can restore the honor of the Fire Nation.” He believes in me.

“I’ll try, uncle.” He does his best to keep the tremors out of his voice, and Katara slides her hand down his arm to take his hand in her soft grip.

Iroh fills them in on what they know of Ozai’s plan; he is prepared to lead a massive airship fleet over the Earth Kingdom, and literally burn it all to the ground. Zuko swallows bile as they formulate a solid plan to take on the Fire Nation, whether Aang turns up or not. Zuko and Katara will go to face Azula, making sure she won’t ascend to the throne after his father is taken care of (his uncle is confident that Aang will fulfill his destiny, but Zuko isn’t so sure), Sokka, Suki, and Toph will do whatever they can to stop the Fire Lord’s airship fleet, and Iroh and the Order of the White Lotus will take back Ba Sing Se. 

Sokka, Toph, and Suki are to depart immediately on an eel hound, but not until after they’ve said their goodbyes. Zuko gets a solid punch in the arm from Toph, a hug from Suki, and a proper Water Tribe goodbye from Sokka. They clasp each other’s forearms, and pull each other in for a distinctly un-manly hug.

“Take care of my sister.” Sokka’s voice is wet and strained, and Zuko does his best to keep his own steady to reassure his friend.

“Always.” They part, and Zuko takes Sokka by the shoulders. “Take care of them,” he nods to Suki and Toph, “and take care of yourself.” 

Sokka and Katara share an emotional goodbye, and before they know it, their three companions are sprinting into the distance on the eel hound.

Next are the goodbyes with his Uncle, which are no less emotional. They hold each other tightly in silence— mere words are incapable of expressing their love and gratitude for one another. He sniffles and wipes his nose on his sleeve as Katara hugs his uncle, and then they climb up onto Appa and head out into the night.

Chapter Text

 

 

“Do you have to save the world all by yourself?

Why don’t you trust someone to do it with you?” The Ocean and The Sun, The Sound of Animals Fighting

 

 

Xx

 

 

They are silent for most of the ride, holding each other close as Appa soars through the progressively reddening sky. Words wouldn’t do the situation any justice; what do you say to the person you love as you fly towards what could be your death? Tell her you love her. Katara buries her head in his shoulder, and his arms automatically come up to encircle her in his warmth. He feels her tears on his shirt, and he grimaces as he tries to hold back his own. He guides her face gently with his hand on her cheek so he can kiss her, their tears swirling together on their faces as they both pour all of themselves into the kiss. Tell her.

“Katara...” 

Their foreheads rest against each other, Katara having moved practically in his lap in an effort to get as close as they can before they’re consumed by the danger that awaits them. Tell her. She reaches up to cup his face with both of her hands, bringing him down for another long kiss, filled to the brim with emotion, his love spilling out from his lips onto hers. She gives him another quick kiss as Caldera City comes into view with the Royal Palace looming on the farthest side of the city. 

“You’re not allowed to die on me.” Her voice wavers with the demand, betraying her deepest fears.

“I won’t.” He pulls her hands off of his face as they speed towards the palace, kissing her knuckles before he continues. “And you’re not allowed to die on me either.” A small, tired smile graces her face as she nods, and he burns the image into his mind, just in case.

As Appa lands in the coronation plaza, Zuko breathes in deep, feeling Agni bless him and the roar of the comet approaching set fire to his blood. Azula is on her knee in front of the  Fire Sages, the Fire Lord’s headpiece hovering inches about her disheveled topknot. At the noise, the Sages turn and look at them in surprise. 

“What are you waiting for? Do it!” Azula’s voice is far from its normal controlled manner, and Zuko and Katara hop off of Appa and land gracefully in the courtyard.

“Sorry Azula, but you’re not going to become Fire Lord today.” He stands tall, something inside of him filling him with an unknown confidence. “I am.” Azula laughs, but there’s something off about it, something strange and out of tune.

The Fire Sage continues to lower the crown before Azula stops him. “Wait. You want to be Fire Lord, Zuzu? Fine. Let’s settle this, just you and me, brother. The showdown that was always meant to be: Agni Kai!” Her eyes are wild, the amber of her iris’ shrinking with the dilation of her pupils. Something’s wrong with her.  

“You’re on.” He hears Katara gasp beside him as a broken smile slides onto Azula’s face. 

“What are you doing?” Katara comes to his side as Azula walks away to prepare. “She’s playing you, Zuko! She knows she can’t take us both, she’s trying to separate us!” Tears swim in her eyes, and he lays a gentle hand on her arm to comfort her.

“I can take her.”

“But you even agreed with your uncle when he said you’d need help!” she begs him to concede, but he can’t back down. He won’t.

“She’s unhinged, Katara. Something is wrong with her; I know I can beat her. And this way nobody else has to get hurt.” He wants to kiss her, but he can’t risk Azula recognising her as a weakness. If he were to lose, who knows what she’d do to Katara. Tell her. “I love you.”

“I love you too.” She must understand his hesitation, because she doesn’t reach for him. Her love shines through the blue in her tearful eyes as he steps away to face his sister. 

Something inside of him ignites, his inner fire sparkling all colors of the rainbow in his chest as he breathes deep to prepare for the fight. He kneels in the sacred position, bowing his head and praying to Agni for his blessing. He rises and spins around, and brings hands up in a defensive position as he locks eyes with Azula.

“I’m sorry it has to end this way, brother.” She spits the last word out like venom, her smile demented and born of malice.

“No, you’re not.” Her stance is weak, her knees bent at an awkward angle, and he knows that today he’ll come out on top.

She spins and shoots a large plume of blue fire his way, and he retaliates with a jump and a sweeping motion, spouting brilliant multicolored flames out of both of his hands and sending them in a wave towards his sister. The fires clash together, creating a massive wall of flame in the middle of the plaza. As the flames die, Azula pushes herself into the air with her fire and kicks waves of blue at Zuko as she lands, catching the surrounding structures and setting them alight. The flames are gargantuan as Zuko shoots a powerful blast of fire to dissipate hers— the heat from Azula’s fire makes him sweat as it streaks past his face in a steady stream. He readjusts his feet to steady his stance and feels the power of the comet fuel his inner fire as his bursts of color mix with Azula’s pure blue flame.

The flames dissipate, both Zuko and Azula’s eyes drawn to the building burning across the plaza. Azula turns to him with a feral look in her eye as she blasts fire from her foot, launching her high into the air, and she uses the force to flip herself around so that she can come down in a kick, her heel generating a stream of fire that heads towards Zuko. He spins around, takes a low stance, and shoves with all his might in both directions— his fire splits hers down the middle in a huge burst of energy. Azula is kneeling on the ground on the far side of the plaza, her body heaving with the force of her breaths. Her confusion is evident, and no doubt caused by Zuko’s fire holding a spectrum of colors that haven’t been seen from a firebender in hundreds of years.

He takes advantage of her vulnerable position, and stretches out his left arm and punches down along it with his right, creating two streams of fire that twist around themselves and rush towards Azula. She just barely leaps out of the way in time, gaining her composure and using jets of fire from her feet to propel herself towards Zuko. She conjures two huge blasts of fire from her firsts as she approaches, and Zuko uses the power from the comet to launch himself high in the air on a plume of multicolored fire so that he can send a powerful kick down, channeling his fire through his heel to counter Azula’s attack. He brings his hands together and arcs them towards the ground as he lands, blasting her latest attack with a fire whip and splitting it, forcing the blue flames to streak past him on either side. Azula swings wide on her jets, sending her fire at his way as he creates a sphere of flames around him to act as a shield. He tries to get her with streams of brilliant color, but she’s too fast, jettisoning around him in a circle on her blue flames. He narrows his eyes and takes a different approach; he drops to the ground and spins his legs around above his head, conjuring fire from his heels and sending it out in a circle, using his momentum to swing back up onto his feet. This attack catches her off guard, and when his fire collides with the plumes propelling her around the plaza, she is thrown forward to land heavy and hard on the ground, and she rolls back with a series of pained grunts. She raises slowly, panting and growling, and his confidence swells in his chest, making him bold and fearless.

“What, no lightning today?” he taunts her, watching as her eyes flash and her lip curls in anger. “What’s the matter? Afraid I’ll redirect it?” He gets into the proper stance as he goads her, centering himself and breathing deep.

“Oh, I’ll show you lightning!” 

Her voice is feral, her stance wonky as she swings her arms in messy arcs to generate the lightning. She focuses her eyes on Zuko, but they glance to his right, and he spins around to see Katara standing behind him straight where Azula’s rabid gaze had landed. No. 

He sees her alter her stance. His legs move in slow motion as he uses all the energy in his body to propel himself to intercept the lightning.

“No!” Please let this be enough, please let me get there—

He catches the it; the raw power of lightning sizzles along his chi, burning up his veins as he attempts to redirect it while mid-jump. It’s too close to my chest, too close, too close—

He forces the lightning away from his heart, but not low enough into his stomach, and he feels it ripping through him as he wills it out of his other arm as soon as he slams to the ground. 

 

 

Xx

 

 

No.

The lightning is bright and sharp as it flashes in her eyes. Time slows to a crawl as Zuko hurls himself in front of the streak, before speeding up again as he falls. Lightning leaves his body through his outstretched hand as he skids along the hard ground. She sees him twitching, sees the sparks hanging onto his tense body as he rolls onto his back, and goes limp.

“Zuko!” She rushes towards him, her heart pumping wildly in her chest, her outstretched hand already covered in water, when a blast of blue flame cuts her off.

Azula laughs manically, her flame dissipating to reveal Zuko stretching out his hand towards Katara. Her eyes fill with tears as she looks at his prone form lying on the ground, twitching and stretching to reach for her. Azula blasts at Katara again, forcing her to jump and roll out of the way to avoid being burned. The princess powers herself onto the roof of one of the buildings lining the plaza using her fire as jets underneath her feet.

“I’d really rather our family physician look after little Zuzu, if you don’t mind!” Azula’s voice is light and taunting, and Katara reaches for her water as the princess swivels her arms to generate more lightning and strike at her. She blasts burst after burst of fire at Katara, forcing her to run and take cover behind a large pillar.

“Zuzu, you don’t look so good!” 

Katara sees red as Azula continues to blast at her with lightning. She jumps out from behind the pillar just as Azula destroys it, exploding it into hundreds of tiny shards and splinters. She takes hold of the water in the nearby basin and pulls it to her, and uses a massive amount to drench the spot where Azula had been just moments before. Somehow Azula comes up from behind her, forcing her to run; she uses the water available to slide around Azula in an arc as she continues to shoot fists of fire her way, freezing the water as she surfs along it. She swivels around the plaza on the ice, evading the deranged princess as best she can. She slides along her ice trail, using it to propel herself behind some more pillars. In her haste to keep ahead of Azula, she trips on a grate as she runs over it and falls to her knees with a grunt. Water. There’s water running steadily under the grate, and as she looks up she sees a thick chain hanging on the building next to her. Katara gets an idea that she thinks just might work, and she runs to grab the chains.

“There you are, filthy peasant!” 

Azula emerges from behind a pillar, and Katara hides the chains behind her back and positions herself on top of the grate. The deafening beat of her heart pounds mercilessly in her ears. She flings a handful of well placed water whips at Azula to force the other girl on top of the grates as Katara gets into the right position. Azula moves to conjure her lightning, and Katara swings her arms wide above her head, pulls all of the water under them through the grate, and freezes it around them. Azula’s fingers are an inch from her face as Katara breathes out through her nose to melt the ice around her with her breath. Azula’s eyes follow her as she continues to melt the water around her body, which allows her to manipulate the chains around the princess’ hands and feet and pull her down to weave the chain through the grate. She unfreezes the water and slams it back down to the ground; Azula and Katara both fall to their knees on the grate, gasping for breath and soaking wet. Azula coughs, and Katara checks the chains one more time— she tightens them even more to be sure that Azula can’t disentangle herself.

Once she’s sure that the princess is subdued, she sprints towards Zuko, who is still lying on the ground, muscles twitching as he groans with what must be an immense amount of pain. She reaches him and drops to her knees to flip him over onto his back. He groans through gritted teeth, and she gasps when she sees the wound. The burnt and bleeding starburst on his solar plexus is raw and no doubt paining him more with each passing moment. Tears flood her vision as she cloaks her hands in water and brings them to his chest. He winces with the pain, but as the water begins to glow, his features relax and he opens his eyes.

“Thank you Katara.” His voice is a quiet rasp, and her tears flow freely to combine with the healing water she uses on his chest.

“I think I’m the one who should be thanking you.” He smiles, and she gives him a watery, wobbly smile in return. 

The wound fades from a burnt black and red to a softer mauve and pink, and when she’s satisfied with her work, she cradles the back of his neck in hers and kisses him. He cups her cheek in his hand as her tears fall onto his face, all of her terror and shock at seeing him risk his life for her leaking out through her eyes.

“I told you that you weren’t allowed to die,” she says as she helps him to his feet.

“I didn’t.” He smirks at her.

“You’re so dumb, and I love you so much.” His smile lights up the sky ten times brighter than the comet had, and he leans over to kiss her on the crown of her head.

They turn towards Azula, who is writhing and screaming, her blue fire spouting from her mouth like some sort of deranged animal, rabid and chained for its own safety. She lays her hand on Zuko’s back— the look of concern and pain on his face is one only capable of someone who’s seen the worst of their sibling and wants nothing more than to save them from themself. Azula eventually stops writhing and slumps over into a ball, her uncontrollable sobs ringing out uncomfortably loud in the large space. Zuko’s lip trembles as he hears his only sister come unhinged, chained to the floor, a wounded animal in a gilded cage. They turn away and begin walking towards the palace.

 

Xx

 

Zuko is crowned the next day. The crowd is formed by people of every nation; stripes of red, blue, and green fill the plaza to hear Zuko make his speech and officially end the war. The crowd cheers as he emerges dressed in formal Fire Lord regalia, looking every bit the leader that Katara knows he was always meant to be.

“Please.” He holds up a hand to silence the crowd. The awkward young man Katara has grown to love stands with confidence and gentle authority above the crowd, his visage reminding her of how far he’s come since the last time he was here. “The real hero is the Avatar!” He motions behind him, and Aang comes out to stand beside him. The crowd roars with a resounding cheer at the sight of the Avatar and the Fire Lord standing together as allies for the first time in over one hundred years.

“Today this war is finally over!” His voice rings out clear as the crowd quiets, only for them to cheer again at his declaration of peace. “I promised my uncle that I would restore the honor of the Fire Nation, and I will. The road ahead of us is challenging; one hundred years of fighting has left the world scarred and divided. But with the Avatar's help, we can get it back on the right path and begin a new era of peace and love.” The crowd goes wild with cheers, only to quiet again as Zuko kneels and the Fire Sage holds the royal crown above his head. The Sage lowers it slowly, and gently puts it in its rightful place in Zuko’s topknot. Zuko stands, and Katara’s eyes fill with tears at the journey the man she loves has taken to get here today.

“All hail Fire Lord Zuko!” 

The crowd erupts into another cheer as Zuko stands. He motions to Aang to follow him down the stairs towards the crowd, and towards where she and the rest of their friends stand in solidarity. Katara runs towards him and throws her arms around his neck, uncaring about the huge crowd behind them.

“I’m so proud of you Zuko,” she whispers into his collar, and she feels him take what may be the deepest breath he’s taken in years.

He wipes her tears away with his thumbs before guiding her face up to his and pressing their lips together. They haven’t talked about what they’ll do from this moment on; what a relationship between the Fire Lord and the (technical) Princess of the Southern Water Tribe would entail, or how the people of either nation would feel about it, but Zuko’s very public display of affection makes his intentions clear. They will be together, come hell or high water, no matter what the Sages or the council or anyone else says. Katara thinks back to all those months ago when Aunt Wu had read her fortune and told her of her destiny. Once the union is made, it will usher in a new era; one of peace and love. The twin flame energy binds two people to each other, their destiny as undeniable as the stars in the sky. Everything in her life has changed in the last year, but based on where things are now, she wouldn’t have it any other way.