book one: reunion
“There’s only one,” she says, half-turning to Toph but not taking her eyes off of the floating hunk of metal.
“Doesn’t Crazy usually travel with a posse?” Toph asks. Her head swivels like the more she moves the easier it will be to see. Which, given that the ship is an airship, is pointless. But Katara doesn’t comment. “Are you sure there aren’t more?”
“Maybe it isn’t her,” Katara says.
Aang returns from the first room of the Temple, glider in hand, expression solemn. “I’ll go check,” he says.
“Aang…” she starts, glancing at him with a worried pull to her lips, “I’m not so sure that’s a good idea.”
“I’ll be fine, Katara,” he promises. “Haru and the others are asleep, so they won’t come down.”
She steeples her hands at her mouth.
“I’ll be fine,” he repeats. He turns and glides away.
“Unless there are more,” Toph mutters.
“It isn’t Azula,” Katara says, glaring because Toph can’t see it and because she needs to work off her anger and anxiety and because, really, is it so hard to be an optimist?
Aang will be fine.
(Toph’s face is tight.)
Aang is more than fine.
The same cannot be said about the companion he returns with.
“Sokka!” she cries, initially so exuberant that it’s him and not Azula in the hulking metal warship that she misses his expression. His lips are pursed, his cheeks are pale, his forehead crinkled.
(In fear? Of what? In anxiety? Over what?)
He doesn’t respond, doesn’t meet her or Toph or Aang’s eyes.
She slows in her approach for a hug. Wary caution enters her voice. “Sokka? What’s wro—”
“Who’s on that ship?” Toph demands, looking at the ground but pointing toward where Sokka had emerged. “I feel like four more people!”
Katara pauses a foot away. Voice soft and taut with fear she asks, “What happened?”
“Not four,” he mutters. “Three.”
Scratching the back of his head, he walks directly into the back rooms.
Aang calls after him; he doesn’t hesitate.
Silence reigns for an eternal moment.
Then, Toph—who hates any heavy silence at any time for any reason—laughs. It’s awkward, uncertain, bouncing off the walls as if trying to return to her mouth. When she speaks her words have the false bravado of a moon that’s risen in full daylight. “What’s with him?”
Aang clears his throat to—answer? Surely not; surely Sokka would have told his own sister if he had told the Avatar—speak when movement from inside the ship catches their eyes.
From the darkness, Suki materializes.
Katara’s mouth drops open.
Despite her confusion over Sokka’s behavior, she rushes toward her.
“Suki? You’re here? How did you—”
This time she slams to a halt. As Suki moves further into the light, Katara can see the pallor in her face. Eyes squeezed shut, lips twisted to one side. She isn't limping but she’s relying greatly on someone’s assisting arm. The someone—Zuko, probably—still lingers in the shadows and Katara squints to get a better view even as—
(It isn’t Zuko.)
Now her jaw drops fully to the floor.
What kind of fishing trip was this?
(Not a fishing trip at all, evidently.)
Selfishly, all thoughts of Suki’s incapacitated state fly from her mind. She sprints forward. He’s hardly retracted his arm from around Suki’s back when she crashes into him.
“Careful there,” he whispers, wisps of humor in his voice.
(Something else, too, though. More than humor. Darker. It’s the same thing that was in Sokka’s face.)
(Her stomach churns.)
(But she releases her fears, if just for a moment. She’s in her father’s arms.)
(Two minutes ago she hadn’t known if she’d ever be able to say that again.)
“I missed you,” she whispers. Tears drip down her cheeks but she wipes them because Zuko will emerge momentarily, and she doesn’t ever want him to see her cry. Not again. “How are you here?”
Her father tightens his arms around her. “I’ll let Sokka handle the storytelling.”
She laughs a watery laugh. Toph and Aang have hugged Suki and when she pulls back, another figure is exiting the darkness.
Her expression pinches and she tries to force the redness out of her eyes. “Zuko,” she says. And, yes, her voice—though not entirely sans imperious hatred—is slightly less accusatory, slightly less intense than usual, because she’s in her father’s arms. Can she really be blamed?
Only it isn’t Zuko who greets her back. It’s a new, unfamiliar voice. One whose elated, carefree tone is such a stark contrast to the other’s countenances—Sokka’s storm, Suki’s pain, the darkness in her father’s voice—that Katara immediately distrusts him.
That’s a hard feat, making her suspicious of someone before they’ve exchanged a word or held a conversation. But her dad looks down, eyes shut, and the person in the ship accomplishes it nonetheless.
“I’m new. What’s up everybody?”
A tall, dominating form steps into the light, waving. Aang waves brightly back at him, but Katara can’t find it in her heart to summon a smile.
“Where’s—” Toph starts, but then she freezes as she does the math.
Katara does the math, too.
Not four. Three.
Suki, her dad, the newcomer.
“—Zuko,” Aang finishes. Confusion laces his features and he frowns at the others, but Katara knows he’s being willfully obtuse. He doesn’t want to acknowledge the facts that are slowly, icily prickling against Katara’s heart. Because what would that mean for him? For them? For Zuko? For the world? For the future?
No. It’s not possible.
(The ice creeps further up her chest. Wrapping, stabbing, squeezing.)
“My name’s Chit Sang,” the person that isn’t Zuko says.
Not four. Three.
Toph storms from the outhanging. Straight for Sokka’s room.
Katara doesn’t stop her.
Furious shouts echo through the wall she shares with her brother.
She never should have agreed to room beside him. For one thing, he snores like a choking coyote-cat. Hefty, deep, powerful rumbles that sound eerily similar to waves crashing on the shore, only much less soothing and much more unsettling. He mutters to himself—“Honestly, Katara, it's a sign of intelligence.”—whether he’s awake or asleep. He paces when he can’t sleep and it vibrates the floors, waking or keeping her up.
(She does that, too, but at least she has the courtesy to do it in the courtyard.)
This line of thought lasts approximately eighteen seconds.
(She can’t pay mind to what she doesn’t care about. She loves rooming beside him—she’d never have it any other way, even had she the choice.)
How can it last longer when her actual thoughts are echoed in Toph’s words?
“—couldn’t have waited? You couldn’t have tried a little harder? They destroyed Suki’s shoulder. What do you think they’ll do to him? I’ll tell you, they’re going to torture him! And then they’re going to kill him. They’re—”
Her voice is only rising. It’s pitched exponentially higher than it had been twenty minutes ago. An inhuman screech that reverberates throughout the entire temple. She can practically hear Haru’s wince. He doesn’t like when people yell.
Sokka hasn’t said a word.
A strange numbness has replaced the ice in her chest and made her realize that she doesn’t pity him. She’s fine with Toph yelling at him. She wants to yell at him.
That confuses her.
She hates Zuko.
Instead of answering, she hoists herself up and off the bed to prove to herself that, if nothing else, she is and always will be a loyal sister.
Her measured steps are easily anticipated by Toph, who flicks her hand behind her back and jams earth into the doorway, completely barring entrance.
“Hey—” Katara starts but, undeterred, Toph rants on.
Pounding on the stone is futile. It takes fetching a silent Aang to lower the wall to finally allow Katara access to her brother’s room. As quickly as he’d come, Aang disappears, and Katara is immediately met with Toph’s screeching in full force.
But then she realizes—it’s not screeching. Toph is sobbing.
Her milky eyes are a bloodshot scarlet, full to the brim with tears that drip down her cheeks, down her neck, down her tunic. Every five seconds she wipes at them but that seems to only fuel her anger. Sometimes she swipes at them so hard that random pebbles jump, bounce, crawl toward Sokka, pool at a pile by his feet.
She wonders how she hadn’t heard the sobs in Toph’s voice before. They’re so clear now—the breaking and fluctuating and hiccuping.
She’s almost unsure what to do. Sure, she’s seen Toph upset before, but not like this. She’s seen Toph angry, but not like this. She’s seen Toph’s tears, but not like this.
Nothing like this.
For help, she instinctively glances at Sokka.
Then, suddenly, all her attention is on him. Toph’s words fade to white noise in the back of her mind—like waves crashing, like someone’s snores—because his head is bowed and his eyes are lidded and his posture is stiff but submissive. Because he is listening to Toph’s rant but, more than that, her words ring true in his mind.
(Just like they do in Katara’s.)
And she gets it now. That expression he’d had before. That enigmatic element to their father’s words.
It’s neither fear nor anxiety.
She can't fall asleep.
Outside her window, the moon peeks past the center of the night sky and scrapes toward the edges of the horizon yet still she lies awake. Unblinking, unresting, unnerved.
She sighs and rolls over on her bed.
What is wrong with her? Everyone else is fast asleep. She’d checked not two hours ago, when she had too much energy to even lie down. Pacing, pacing, she’d slipped into Sokka’s room, Toph’s room, Aang’s, Suki’s, her father’s. Haru, Teo, The Duke, and Chit Sang were on the next floor up, but they’d been asleep long before the airship landed and they’d slept right through the night’s events. Even Momo’s light snores could be heard down the hall, perched just inside Aang’s door.
Each one of them are sleeping.
Why can’t she?
She counts 100 sheep. She counts 200 walrus-mice. She counts 50 puma-goats—they’re her least favorite. She counts 87 cracks on the ceiling.
(When she looks out the window, the moon hasn’t moved.)
The question jumps through her mind.
Why do I care that he’s gone?
And she knows, logically, why she should.
Because Aang needs a Firebending Master. Because Aang needs to learn to firebend before Sozin’s Comet. Because he’s helping Aang defeat his father. Because he’s helping Aang save the world.
(None of that satisfies her mind.)
Some ingrained anger in her heart gives way to a deeper-rooted feeling. She can’t name it—it’s not quite sorrow, not quite pity, not quite sympathy; regret, maybe? She shudders. No. She will never regret how she’s treated him. Not after he betrayed her—but either way it’s more than he merits.
In fact, she hates that it exists. He doesn’t deserve anything but coldness from her.
But it does, and as soon as she’s felt it, as soon as she’s focused on it, she feels it grow.
Spreading slowly. Twisting and splintering her heart.
It isn’t shame because she has felt shame before. When she trusted Jet, when she trusted Hama, when people she could have helped were hurt. She knows shame well. She would recognize it.
Wetness gnaws at her eyelids and she hates that, too, and suddenly the anger is too much to handle, too much to control. She stands and paces the stone corridors.
To keep herself from lashing out, she counts sheep in her mind. As she checks on Aang, whose breaths are even.
As she checks on Sokka, who lies facing the wall, completely still.
(If she hadn’t had the distraction of sheep she might have noticed how he’s too still—he couldn’t possibly be asleep; indeed, his eyes clench tight in the effort to not move, his breathing stops in an effort to deceive her—of course he knows it’s her, she’d been pacing all night—but sheep are easier to count than an ashamed brother’s uneven breaths, so she clicks the door shut softly behind her.)
She moves toward Toph’s room—Toph, who shares a wall with Zuko, which is certainly worse than sharing with Sokka—but pauses, eyes narrowing, outside Zuko’s open door. It hadn’t been open before.
She creeps inside and finds Toph, looking younger than she’s ever seen, curled up on top of Zuko’s cot, head resting on the sheets he had folded before he and Sokka had left.
Her hair is as wild as before they’d gone to the spa together back in Ba Sing Se. Her eyes are so puffy that the silver irises are hidden. Her clothes are wrinkled and wet. Her arms wrap around a cloak that Katara had seen her wear, with or without Zuko’s permission, multiple times.
Is that mine?
You’re warm, Sparky. Heat stays on your clothes.
Did you just come and steal it from my room?
When I was asleep?
I mean, if you’d rather me wake you up every five minutes to ask for a flame, then I will consider—
Aang’s a firebender, too!
Have it your way. I’ll see you about eighty times tonight. First at—
Fine, you can have it.
I don’t want to have it, I just want to wear it.
Fine, wear it! Same thing.
Katara bends the water from Toph’s clothes, curls up on the floor, and doesn’t sleep.
Dawn trickles through the window and she pads back to her room.
Questions still pound through her mind.
Why couldn’t they have waited for him?
Why did they leave him there?
Why does everyone trust him so much?
Why is he such a terrible person?
And, the strongest, the one that hurts the most, the one that she pushes away like Aang’s flames by Jeong Jeong’s river—she’s helpless against it, it burns her to think about:
Why wasn’t I enough?
She remembers the way he’d looked at her then, down in the catacombs, the crystal’s light bright and reflective. Such a contrast to the shadows on their faces, the shadows on their words, the shadows on their hearts.
Such a contrast to the shadows of betrayal. The shadows that took more than sunny waves and glowing words in an Air Temple’s courtyard to erase from her memory.
How when she’d offered the Spirit Water, his eyes had lit with a fire from a source stronger than any she’d seen before. At a chance to escape what he thought would stay with him forever. At a chance to reshape his life, his present, his future.
She scowls at the word, even as she thinks back on those flames. The ones that made his golden eyes brighter. The ones that had seemed to read her so easily, understand her so easily. That look in his eyes that was bright and human and hopeful.
What he had then, in that moment...that’s what she’s lacking now.
Maybe it’s because she misses taking her anger out on an easy, deserving victim. Maybe it’s because Aang won’t be able to master firebending. Maybe it’s because without him to teach Aang, Ozai will conquer the world.
She doesn’t know. But the twisting at her heart—that’s because the feeling left the Air Temple with Zuko and now lies imprisoned at the Boiling Rock.
To her surprise, breakfast isn't silent.
Toph is murderous. Sokka is grim. Her father is wary. Suki is hesitant. Aang is absent altogether.
But the others chat and, while they sometimes spare concerned glances to the awkward party, they generally disregard the tension. Maybe someone briefed them while she was in the kitchen.
She doesn’t speak. Not out of anger or guilt, but because she simply has nothing to say.
Her attention focuses and unfocuses, wades and dives, drifts and steadies. Sometimes on the conversations at hand, sometimes on his sure silence, however many miles away.
When she blinks into the moment after a long period of contemplation—not worry—she finds Haru, Teo, The Duke, and Chit Sang all gone.
Toph’s moon peach and pile of lychee nuts sit untouched in front of her. Her back is ramrod straight and her gaze is locked on Sokka’s shoulder, though she sits as far from him as their tight breakfast circle allows.
The silence is unbearable without the flickers of a cooking flame. Without the two firebenders who provide it. She clears her throat.
She doesn’t know what she’s going to say until Suki, and only Suki, meets her eye. “I heard about your shoulder,” Katara says. “We can do a session later, if you’d like.”
Suki doesn’t smile. “That’d be great,” she answers, nodding her thanks, glancing at Sokka on her right. “Thanks, Katara.”
“Of course,” she mumbles.
A beat. Then another.
“How’d it happen, anyway?” Toph asks, and her voice drips with honey venom. “The injury?”
Sokka raises his eyes just enough that Katara can see them narrowed.
She bites her lip. “Toph—” she starts warningly.
“Was it in the escape attempt?” Toph continues, unconcerned. “I sure hope it was. That means the guards couldn’t have been that cruel.”
Sokka glances at Suki. She’s lowered her head.
“Awfully nice of them not to leave you behind, still. Must have taken extra effort to get you out. You know, since you’re hurt and all.”
Sokka jumps to his feet, anger throbbing on his face, but it’s not him who speaks. It’s not Katara, either, though she’s opened her mouth, nor Suki to defend herself.
“Enough!” their father growls. He glares at Toph, who had stopped glaring at Sokka when she’d started speaking, and is instead picking up a lychee nut and tossing it casually into her mouth. “It wasn’t Sokka’s fault.”
Toph swallows her nut and leans back on her hands. “I know you and I don’t know each other that well, so let me tell you something about myself. I can tell when people lie. And right now? You’re lying.”
“Don’t be rude, Toph,” Katara snaps. Not to my father. No matter if he’s lying or not.
“Oh, you’re right, Katara,” she replies easily. “We’ll rescue Zuko by being polite.”
The sun beats hot on Katara’s neck. How did it break past the overhead beams? It’s not that low in the sky. Hadn't it been shady a moment ago? Sweat trickles down her neck. She wants to move, to turn her head at the curious heat—really, where did it come from?—but—
“Tell her, Sokka,” their dad starts, “it wasn’t your—”
“Yes it was,” Sokka interrupts. He’s retreated back into himself again, glaring at the ground.
His expression yanks at Katara’s heart, so she says, carefully, “I’m sure you did all you could, Sokka.”
“No,” he bites as his head jerks up, glare now aimed at her. “No, you’re not sure. You don’t know what happened.”
“Then tell us!” Toph shouts. She has dropped the apathetic facade and risen, visibly trembling. “Tell us, if you’re so set on feeling sorry for yourself!”
“He’s not feeling sorry for himself,” Suki glares. “He’s feeling guilty.”
“What’s the difference?” Toph demands. She lifts an arm to point at Sokka. “They’re both what he’s feeling. Well guess what? None of this is about him! It’s not even about Zuko! If Aang can’t learn firebending, it’s about the entire world.”
Katara’s fists clench at her sides because she loves her brother and she doesn’t want him to hurt.
But Toph is right, so she doesn’t open her mouth.
Suki flounders like she wants to say something. Her father glares at Toph. Sokka stands, crosses his arms against a pillar, and grants the floor a lengthy examination.
When silence reigns for minutes straight, Toph roars in frustration, jumps to her feet, throws her food down, and rages from the room.
Momo scrambles to eat the discarded nuts.
Later, she finds Suki in Sokka's room, and she's not entirely surprised.
They sit side by side on his mattress, eyes averted, hands folded in their laps.
“Hey, Suki,” she says from the doorway, not wanting to intrude on what’s either a silent vigil or an awkward lull in conversation. Suki’s head jerks up and out of whatever thoughts it had occupied. “We can do the session now, if you’re ready.”
Suki blinks at her for a second, still re-entering reality, then bites her lip and glances at Sokka. He hasn’t moved.
Katara hesitates. “Er, we can do it later, too, if now isn’t a—”
“Now is fine,” Suki decides quickly, standing and moving toward her. She doesn’t say anything to Sokka, just closes the door behind her.
Worry creases her face and Katara wants to say something. But then, before she can blink, they’ve arrived at the fountain. The pause of silence has lasted too long; it’d be awkward to bring something up now. She filters the words away from her mind.
Suki takes off her shoes, rolls up her pant legs, and perches on the fountain’s edge with her feet in the water. Katara slides in front of her and lets the water splash into her hair, drip down her back. It glistens off their skin in the sunshine and feels so cool against the heat of the day that, despite herself, she smiles.
“I’m so glad you’re back,” she says as she begins unwinding the wrappings that her father had hurriedly applied to Suki’s shoulder on their journey back. As she gets closer to the wound, pus starts coloring the cloth. She swallows her smile, voice gaining a somber note “We missed you a lot.”
“I missed you guys, too. It’s been way too—” Katara pulls the final strip off and Suki flinches before finishing through clenched teeth, “—long.”
Katara tries really, really hard not to let her horror slip onto her face.
A giant, gaping gash glares back at her and it’s so many different colors that she doesn’t even know where to start—can’t even tell how long ago it was given. The wound stretches all across Suki’s shoulder, reaching for her neck with wispy bruising tendrils, drooping toward her elbow with drops of scarlet blood. It’s very clearly infected, and it’s very clearly received no treatment.
No North Pole training had prepared her for this. Without the Spirit Water...
Gritting her teeth, she tears her eyes up. Suki is raising an amused eyebrow, but Katara isn’t fooled. She can see the strain on her face.
“Alright,” Katara starts, forcing her face into its natural, calmer mask, as she drops her eyes back to the nightmare. “It’ll be alright. Aang’s was worse.”
Suki snorts but happily takes the distraction of conversation. “Based on the stories I’ve heard, that’s not super comforting.”
Katara pulls water from the fountain and carefully sets her hands on the wound. She closes her eyes against the pulsing blue light and focuses on the gentle sway, the soft tugging and relaxing of the healing. It swirls around her fingertips and palms.
Suki hisses in pain, so Katara delves into her mind for another diverting subject. “Did Sokka tell you about everything that’s happened, then? I can’t believe the last time we were together was before Ba Sing Se.”
“Me neither,” Suki says, and Katara opens her eyes at the smile in her voice. But as soon as it’s come, it’s disappeared, and Suki's face is hard. “No, it wasn’t Sokka. Zuko told me everything. We had a bit of free-time in the common area before Sokka met back with us.”
A bitter taste rises in Katara’s throat. She can only imagine Zuko’s tained retelling of Ba Sing Se.
She turns away so Suki won’t see it on her face. “Oh,” she says, all eloquence. She streams the used water onto the cement and takes fresh water from the fountain.
This process repeats a few times in silence before Suki clears her throat. “It wasn’t from our escape,” she says quietly, nodding toward her shoulder which, despite Katara’s stronger fears, is cooperating rather impressively. “Some of the guards are really awful.”
Her stomach drops. She tries not to think about it—about Suki: fearless, even as she’s hurt; sitting proud and strong under La knows how many blows, burns, beatings—but how can she not, when the image is so clear? When the product is directly before her?
Then she thinks on it more.
Are really cruel. Not were.
Suki isn’t talking about herself.
Guilt must rack her, too. Because what Toph said last night was right. If the guards treated Suki—rebel, warrior, ally to the Avatar—like that, how much worse would they treat Zuko? Traitor, Crown Prince, teacher to the Avatar?
These images, too, shoot into her mind, and she clenches her eyes shut against the onslaught of thoughts. She doesn’t realize she’s all but shoving her hands into Suki’s injury until the latter hisses, “Katara.”
She drops them to her sides, releasing all pressure. “Sorry,” she says, flushing. She half-turns away and lets her eyes unfocus as they trace the dark splashes on the cement. “I think we should take a break,” she says. “Let’s do another session later.”
She doesn’t hear Suki’s response.
She pulls her head out of her hands and stands from the edge of her mattress. “Haru. Is everything okay?”
“Yeah, I’m fine,” he grins. “I was just wondering if you’d seen Aang anywhere? I looked in his room but he wasn’t in there. Teo wanted to ask him something about a statue we found a couple floors up.”
“It has wings!” The Duke shouts as he runs past.
“Oh,” Katara mumbles, stepping out of her room, out of her thoughts, and into the hallway, into the present. Aang.
She hadn’t seen him since last night. It’s almost midday now. If things were normal he would be deep into his firebending forms, complaining loudly to any spectators about how he was being starved and how child labor was despicable and Zuko would snap that unless he wanted every child to labor for Ozai, he’d get this move right. Then he’d drill Aang until it was perfect, or until—and this was more common—he lost patience.
(Things aren’t normal.)
She shakes her head to clear it and finds Haru walking next to her with a slight frown. Before he can ask after her, though, she assures, “You can head to the statue. I’ll let him know once I find him.”
His frown deepens but his voice is considerably brighter. “Are you sure?”
Once she nods, he moves after The Duke. Echoes of their shouted laughter reach her empty corridor and fight the sun sparkling on the cracked stone for her attention. In the end, though, neither hold it. Her mind skips back to a prison on an island miles away until her feet guide her to a closed door.
She takes a deep breath, pushes hair behind her shoulders, and shoves inside. “Have you seen Aang?”
From her spot lounging on the ground, Toph raises her eyebrows. “Hello to you too, Sweetness.”
Katara frowns. “Sorry. Hi, Toph. Have you seen Aang?”
“That wasn’t very sincere.”
“Fine.” She throws her hands up and turns to leave. “Don’t be helpful.”
Just like she had last night, Toph bends a piece of earth to block the doorway. Katara scrambles backwards to avoid slamming into it.
She spins around. “What is with you?”
Toph jumps to her feet. “What is with me? How about the fact that no one besides me seems to care that we’re all stuck between a rock and a tigerdillo? Twinkletoes is the only one doing anything remotely useful, and I’m not going to let you go and yell at him about it!”
“We’re all in the same situation, Toph,” she says. “What happened, happened. And it’s—it’s awful. But you need to stop being so angry because we can’t do anything about—”
Toph laughs, high and shrieking and bitter. “That’s something else coming from you, Miss Optimist! What have you done today? What has Snoozles done? Or your dad?” She stomps her foot and a rock shoots into her hand. She points it at Katara as she speaks. “You’ve sulked. You even lost Aang. So don’t stand there and tell me that I can’t be angry!”
Katara puts her hands on her hips. “All of us are angry. Just not at Sokka.”
“Well, that’s your first problem,” Toph says, cracking the rock she holds in half, “because he left Sparky behind.”
“You don’t know—”
“He told me!” she snaps.
He told me.
The words bounce off of the walls and into Katara’s mind, around and around, relentlessly obstructing her perceived reality.
There was no way that Sokka—he wouldn’t have...
Toph’s voice quiets with her next words. “I do know. The guards burned Suki really bad in prison awhile back. It’s—that’s what happened to her shoulder. She thought it was healed when they went to escape, but then she did all this fancy, twirly stuff while she was trying to get the Warden, and it started bleeding again.” Eyebrows furrowing, Toph looks at the floor. “She was about to black out so Sokka had to carry her. Zuko stayed back a few paces to fight off a group of guards. But then Sokka saw that Azula and her friends were coming, so he started the gondola.”
Toph, for once, isn’t as blunt as usual. But it only makes the unsaid words more painful. More obvious.
Sokka left without him.
For Suki. And she loves Suki so much—so much. She’s thrilled that she’s here—but…
(Does the reason matter?)
He left without Zuko.
(Would Zuko have left without him?)
She opens her mouth only to snap it shut. Shaking her head, she says, softly because anything more would hurt her ears, “Either way, blaming someone won’t do anyone good now.”
Toph shrugs. “This will, though,” she says lightly, nodding to the doorway.
Confused, Katara turns around. For a long moment that makes her question Toph’s sanity nothing happens, but then the earth barrier collapses. A ragged and sleepless looking Aang drops from his bending stance and steps into the room.
“Aang,” Katara starts, words a sigh that relieve her shoulders from a boulder she hadn’t known she was carrying, “are you alright?”
“Toph and I are going to the Boiling Rock,” he says.
The boulder slams back down.
This declaration, at least, yanks Sokka from whatever moping haze he'd been locked in.
"What? ” he demands. “That’s the worst idea I’ve ever heard.”
Aang’s set expression doesn’t change.
“I told him that already,” Katara snaps. And she had, multiple times, before finally forcing both he and Toph both to Sokka’s room. Suki had come asking after the racket and now the whole jury was gathered to, hopefully, vote against Aang’s absurd plan. “You’re probably playing right into Azula’s hands.”
Sokka paces in methodical rectangles around the room and doesn’t seem to register everyone’s eyes tracing him. “Worse than that,” he scowls. “She’ll use Zuko against you until you surrender. Actually, she’ll probably kill him as soon as she sees you.”
“She’s going to kill him anyway,” Toph spits.
“I don’t think she’ll kill him,” Suki argues. “I think she’ll want to take him back to Ozai.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Sokka says, voice muffled by hands that have jumped to cover his face. “Either way, she’s definitely expecting you, and there’s zero chance she’ll let you get away again. You can’t go. It will never work.”
The room explodes in protests (Toph, Aang) and agreement (Suki) but Katara can’t think. The voices are loud and drown each other out and she decipher anything sensible. Something sharp and relentless prods at her mind. A hammer beating a nail down, an ice pick pounding at a glacier, an arrow jabbing through tender flesh.
“—can’t just leave him with Crazy, that’s—”
“—the Avatar, Aang! The world can’t lose—”
“—rescued me as the Blue Spirit and rescued Appa and we need—”
“—get hurt with Sozin’s Comet so soon—”
“—can’t learn firebending unless we—”
The rhythm grows. Their words feed it. It stabs and pokes and it hurts and, really, what is it? She presses her palms to her forehead to no avail, to the crown of her head, to the base of her neck, before she realizes. It’s one word.
Splitting and pounding her skull in half is one word and the source comes sprinting through her mind—a murky, humid evening and face paint applied in the reflection of a poisoned river and a hundred people gazing up at her in admiration and—I will never, ever turn my back on the people who need me!
The drumming is strong.
“I’ll go,” she shouts.
Talking stops. Her pain subsides.
Four pairs of incredulous eyes land on her.
“I’ll go with Toph. Instead of Aang.” She glares at each of them in turn before they can start shouting again. “Final decision,” she says.
She turns and leaves the room.
Aang tries to dissuade her at dinner.
He’s the only one against the plan. Sokka had originally opposed it on principle even though it’s by far the most pragmatic solution—“I’m your brother. I can’t let you walk into the most secure prison in the world,” etc.—but after she’d glared enough and asked if, after all they’d been through, he still thought her too weak for a challenge, he had acquiesced. Suki went with whatever Sokka thought best, so his acceptance was hers, and Toph didn’t care as long as something happened, as long as someone went.
They hadn’t shared it with anyone else, though. The unspoken thought was to inform the others after dinner.
Inform them. Not ask their permission or opinion. Their group had been making their own decisions for far too long to change now.
But Aang had other ideas. As soon as dinner was announced he’d rushed in and plopped himself next to her dad, asking him and Sokka and Suki and even Chit Sang about the dangers of the Boiling Rock. Loudly and incessantly. Making sure to repeat their answers in a horrified voice—“No one should ever go back there. Especially not anyone our age. That place sounds terrible.”—and ignoring everyone’s irritated glares.
When the comments get too unbearable, Toph slams her stew down. It sloshes over the edges of the bowl. “It’s so funny, Twinkletoes,” she sneers, voice decidedly unamused, “how fast you change your mind.”
The ignorant group members still, eyebrows raising.
“Yeah,” Sokka taunts. “And how fast you change sides in an argument.”
“I’m still angry at you,” Toph mutters, punching the ground so it rumbles up and over to where Sokka’s stew sits on the ground. He hurries to grab it before it can topple over. “But at least you’re on the right side.”
“Right side of what?” Teo wonders, looking around with a frown. He’s met with Haru’s confused shrug but is otherwise ignored.
“At least I care about Katara. You’re her brother, Sokka! How can you just let her go get hurt?”
Sokka’s face darkens.
“What is going on?” their dad asks.
Aang is either tremendously oblivious or tremendously stupid, because he continues, “Didn’t you hear what Suki said? They hurt their prisoners. How can you let her just stroll inside? Azula is there, too! She’ll get killed!”
“Don’t talk about me like I’m not right here,” Katara snaps, crossing her arms. “Despite what you all apparently think, I’m not helpless. I can defend myself.”
“What are you talking about?” their dad demands.
Toph kicks a rock into Sokka’s side. He spins to face her—or fight her, Katara doesn’t know—and the fury in his expression silences everyone else. “Calm down there, Snoozles,” she says, and her words are light but anger vibrates underneath. “So he said something stupid. Don’t rip his head off. We still need him to rip off Ozai’s.”
“He—he—but—did you hear what he said?” Sokka sputters.
“Everyone did,” Katara says, and she glares at Aang, too. “But it doesn’t change anything.”
Aang opens his mouth but Katara turns away to face her father. “I’m going to the Boiling Rock with Toph,” she tells him. “We leave at sunrise.”
She can see every thought on his face as he recoils, considers, worries, decides. Before speaking, he clears his throat. “What’s your plan?” he asks. “I hope Sokka helped you form it.”
She and Sokka release their breath at the same time, shoulders slumping. Aang gets to his feet and storms from the room, glides up and away from the Temple.
She hardly registers it. No matter what, he cannot go. They can’t risk his life again. Not with the comet so close.
Sokka’s eyes linger after Aang until, sighing, he sits back down. He turns to their father, eyes hard, face drawn. “I did,” he answers. “And since Toph’s going, it’ll be much simpler than ours.”
"And you're positive?"
Sokka groans. “For all that’s good and beautiful on La’s pure sea, Katara. Would you just trust me?”
“I don’t know, Snoozles. I think I’m with Sweetness. This is kinda freaking me out.”
“Your confidence in me is inspiring, Toph,” Katara says. The setting sun makes the metal glint aggressively; she shields her eyes with a hand. Sighing, she again looks over the mess of levers and switches and buttons. “I can steer fine, I think. That part can’t be that difficult. I’m just not sure I can remember everything else.”
“Or anything else,” Toph mutters.
Katara glares at her. “Really, you couldn’t try a little harder to believe in me?”
“I believed in you a lot more before I found out we weren’t taking Appa.”
Yeah. Katara mostly agrees.
“It doesn’t matter, guys,” Sokka insists. “It makes way more sense to go in this.”
This. A Fire Nation warship.
A warship. From the Fire Nation.
Also known as a lump of floating metal. How does it even float?
What part of that makes any sense?
Granted, when they get there, they won’t be able to get food for or hide Appa. Sokka had mentioned that he and Zuko had hit the same snag, and that’s why they’d taken the war balloon—don’t even get her started on floating Fire Nation balloons. If Azula’s fleet is still there—which it must be, otherwise she and Zuko are long gone, probably halfway to Caldera City—“it’ll be easy to land the ship and blend it in with the others.”
That’s Sokka’s reasoning. Only one part of it is deficient.
Katara hasn’t the first clue about flying...anything, really. Unless it's a two ton, extinct, fluffy, snow-white, airbending beast.
Nothing about landing this or flying it or...or using it at all screams easy.
“Alright. Can you show it to me again?”
In his eyes, instinctive annoyance fights newly adopted patience. The latter wins out—barely, she thinks, smirking, but wins out nonetheless—and, with forced composure, he goes through the instructions again. “Toph will bend the coal into the furnaces. This lever,” pointing, “adjusts their temperatures. This lever,” pointing, “adjusts the rudders. This series of buttons,” pointing, “controls the engines. This button,” pointing, pointing, so much pointing.
He keeps talking. Toph laughs because she knows Katara is lost.
When he has finished, Katara nods blankly.
Katara bites her lip. “One more time?”
Sokka narrows his eyes.
It's a tough call but, in the end, she decides that they're all going to die.
“There’s no way I can fly that thing,” she tells Suki when they’re in the fountain again. Only shards of daylight remain. What had seemed such a simple task not hours earlier—pack supplies, say goodbye to everyone, fly to the Boiling Rock on Appa—had become excessively complicated, and the stress was catching up with her. Suki is the unfortunate victim of the undiscriminating rant.
For one thing, Sokka and their dad had decided that the airship needed to look unmarred, which meant buffing scratches and cleaning paint and rebending things into their normal shape. This employed everyone—save Aang, who still hadn’t returned —and was impossible for two reasons.
First, at present there was hardly any light in the sky, and it was only getting darker. How one identified, fixed, and polished scratches and poor paint jobs without the sun or a firebender’s flames, Katara didn’t know. When she’d suggested delaying their trip (a suggestion that Toph could never know about because Katara valued all life, hers included), Sokka assured her that everything was fine. But based on the pounding and the hammering and the occasional shouts of pain—and the much more regular, snarky comments from a certain arrogant metalbender—she wasn’t so sure.
The second was the aforementioned metalbender.
As much as Katara loves her, she can be impressively lazy. On the eve of such a journey, too. Toph Beifong: world’s best earthbender, world’s best complainer. World’s worst traveler, world’s worst commentator.
Said commentary had streamed from her mouth ever since Sokka had kicked Katara out of the ship with a “Why don’t you ever pay attention?” and a “No, I already explained it to you twelve times.”
“Bet even I could fly that thing,” Toph had laughed. “I hadn’t taken you as dull, Sweetness.”
The comments weren’t always snide and they were, on occasion, funny, but they were so incessant that Katara wanted to crash the warship at the mere thought of spending an extended period of time in her company.
Even now, if Katara strains her ears, she can hear the haughty voice: “Now you all know how I feel, living in perpetual darkness.”
“You don’t even know what perpetual means,” The Duke laughs.
“Hey, neither do I,” Chit Sang offers.
“I thought you were the grammar king, Chatterbox,” Toph says. “You’re always saying stupid stuff like whom and thy and ‘tis. Those aren’t even real words.”
“They’re real,” Haru says patiently. “People used them a long time ago.”
“I am the grammar king,” Chit Sang says, disregarding the slight. “That doesn’t mean I’m the vocabulary king.”
“Is there a difference?” Toph asks, snorting.
The Duke laughs. “Even I know that.”
“Shut up, duke.”
“It’s The Duke!”
“If you don’t know that, Toph,” Teo starts, laughing, “how could you possibly know what perpetual means?”
“Guess I’m just smart.”
“No one believes you,” The Duke informs her.
There’s a beat of silence before Toph admits, “I heard Sunshine use it.”
Suki, who’s evidently also eavesdropping, snorts.
Katara pulls her focus back and, smiling, asks, “You’re Sunshine, then?”
“I think so. Does she give nicknames to everyone?”
“Oh, yes.” She scrunches her nose. “It’s obnoxious.”
Suki rolls her eyes. “It’s endearing. Besides, she’d only give you a nickname if she likes you.”
Katara raises a flat eyebrow, coiling the water off of Suki’s shoulder and replacing it for the third time. “Azula, Mai, Ty Lee, and Ozai all have nicknames.”
Suki purses her lips together. “Well,” she says, trying and failing to keep laughter from her face and voice, “nevermind, then.”
They both laugh.
“About the other thing, though. Your flying? I think you’ll be alright.”
Katara’s expression sombers. “I’m not so sure,” she responds. “There are a freakish amount of things to remember.”
Suki considers this as Katara presses her hands into the center of the wound. The coloration hasn’t disappeared, but it isn't as violently appalling as it was. At least she can look at it without wanting to throw up.
Eyes shooting open, Suki gasps. Katara yanks her hands away. The water splashes into the fountain.
“What happened?” Katara demands, eyes wide, peering at the injury to see if she’d worsened it. “Are you okay? Did I hurt—”
Suki’s uninjured hand moves to rest on her upper arm. Laughing softly, she says, “No, I’m okay, Katara. Sorry, I didn’t mean to frighten you.” She waits for Katara to relax before continuing. “I just had an idea. Why doesn’t he write the steps down for you? So that you have them while you fly?”
Katara’s mouth drops open. “I can’t believe I didn’t think of that.”
He spends twenty-five minutes writing it, so she feels a bit guilty.
But also, she doesn't. This is life or death, after all.
“Sokka. I can’t read a single word.”
He gapes at her. His jaw drops so near to the floor that it’s comical.
“I—Katara, I don’t have time for this! We still have to—we haven’t even finished the—Katara! ”
She hands the paper back to him with an apologetic grimace. “I tried. For a long time. But none of it is legible.”
Toph strides up behind him, grabs the paper from his hand, considers it, and says, pointing at a random blurb on the page, “I can read all of it except this one little part about the rudder extensions.”
Sokka recovers himself enough to squint at the highlighted phrases. “That doesn’t say rudder extensions,” he enlightens, "that says secondary mooring.” He frowns up at Katara, blinks, and says, “Wow, I didn’t think my script was that bad.”
Toph shoves the paper back into his chest. “I’m glad you admit it,” she says. She walks away.
Katara rolls her eyes and starts after Toph. “She’s blind, you idiot. Let me know when you’ve finished a legible one.”
When the moon has reached its apex, she's allowed to enter the ship.
Preparations were almost complete. Sokka’s (admittedly much neater) instructions had been attached to what she is 98% certain is The Most Important Lever That You Must Remember, but what may instead be The Useless Lever That You Will Never Touch. Every other detail of the control room eluded her as soon as she stepped outside of it.
After her and Toph drop their packs off in their quarters, Sokka shows them around the rest of the ship. He reminds them for what must be the eleventieth time that “One of you needs to handle the coals and the other needs to be on the wheel. That means that you can’t both sleep at the same time, eat at the same time, drink at the—”
“We get it, Sokka,” Katara says. “We’ll watch where we’re going. We won’t crash.”
“Yeah,” Toph adds. “When Katara is busy, I’ll take the wheel.”
Sokka nods, apparently forgetting for the eleventieth time that Toph is blind.
Outside, moonlight bathes the metal and it almost seems to sparkle.
“It’d be beautiful,” Katara says to Suki, whose newly bandaged shoulder hadn’t yet started leaking fluids, “if it wasn’t so terrible.”
Suki snorts. “It’s definitely impressive,” she replies. From where they stand at the head of the ship, she stands on her tip toes and leans right, then left, in examination. “And I think they did a decent job on the cleanup. It looks brand new.”
Indeed, Katara wonders how they had worked so fast. No scratches or paint chips are visible at all. And that may be because of the angle of the light or her mind willing them out of reality, but if Suki doesn’t see anything, either, then it must be real.
A gopher-cricket chirps and Katara thinks about the people who have flown in this ship. Her family, her friends, royal servants—not Azula, surely; it isn’t nearly ostentatious enough—but likely an assortment of high-ranking government officials. Floating metal is, after all, one of Ozai’s greatest accomplishments, no matter that it isn’t of his own design.
(Zuko hadn’t flown in it.)
She’s sure he’s flown in an airship before. Probably during the time he spent in Caldera City before he joined them, after Ba Sing Se. But the chances of him flying in this one, specifically, are very slim.
And, under the glimmer of the stars as she moves slowly back to her room, all distraction gone, she’s faced with the thing she’s been desperately avoiding thinking of. The thing she wants to think on the least. The crux of her problems, the source of her anxiety.
She wonders why she cares and her mind supplies: He’s Aang’s firebending teacher, Aang needs to defeat the Fire Lord before Sozin’s Comet, the Fire Lord is his father, but her mind is unsatisfied. The reasons aren’t enough, and she wonders why.
She wonders if he’s still alive and her mind supplies: No, not if Azula had anything to say about it, and good riddance! Haven’t you wanted him gone since the day you met him? but her heart is unhappy. The reasons aren’t enough, and she wonders why.
(Above all, she wonders again: Why did you betray me? and What could be different if you hadn’t?)
Her hand is poised to push her door open when a pair of voices stop her. She turns her head and finds Sokka’s door swaying slightly—it must have just been opened; she must have just missed whoever is visiting.
A voice greets her brother and, once she realizes it belongs to Toph, she braces herself to barge the room and leap to her brother’s defense. After enduring an evening of barbs, Katara will readily ally with anyone against her.
But Toph doesn’t seem angry.
In fact, she sounds hesitant.
“What’s up?” Sokka asks.
“I was…” she starts. Someone’s foot brushes back and forth along the floor. A couple of knuckles pop. “I was wondering if I could employ your awful handwriting skills.”
Sokka snorts. A chair screeches, and someone plops down. “I’m not that bad. Seriously. Despite anything Katara has said.”
Katara raises her eyebrows.
“You’re a guy, Sokka. All guys have bad handwriting.”
“I—” Sokka’s voice wavers and Katara can almost see his eyes narrow at the trap. His tone, though, holds a light note that she’s only ever heard him use with her. Or with Toph on that cliff so long ago, after scamming had divided the two of them. She knows how much Toph means to him. How awful he must have felt to disappoint her, how much her anger must have hurt him—no matter how deserved her reactions were. “I’m not falling for that again,” he says sagely.
“Hey, I wasn’t making a blind joke!” Toph exclaims. “It’s a thing. Guys can’t write well. I’ve heard people talk about it.”
Her statement isn’t false, but it isn’t true, either. Because Katara vividly remembers waking up, spotting Momo’s sleeping form, and learning that her brother and her enemy were going on a fishing trip from a slip of parchment that was wrinkled and yellowing, from script that was practiced and polished and perfect.
(Zuko can write.)
Sokka sounds suspicious. “If you say so,” he says. Toph must roll her eyes or raise her eyebrows because then he laughs. “Another note, then?”
Toph’s voice loses it’s amusement. “Yeah.”
“Your fiftieth, if my counting is right.”
“It is not.”
“Is too,” he says.
“Well, the other ones weren’t good enough,” Toph says.
“Is that another slight to my script?”
“What do you think?”
Sokka laughs. A chair screeches. A brush scratches gently against a piece of parchment. “Since when are you all sentimental, anyway? I mean, writing notes? It seems so out of character.”
There’s a thud.
Sokka grunts in pain, mutters, “That was much more predictable,” and a rock—Katara assumes; it’s definitely some sort of projectile—bounces to the floor. “You made me smear the first line,” he groans.
Toph ignores him. “You know, I haven’t been feeling especially sentimental toward you."
Just like that, Sokka’s voice is solemn. “Touché.”
There’s a long stretch of silence where Katara’s thoughts resume their frantic flow and allow her adequate time to grow guilty for listening to a private conversation. Mostly, though, she feels stressed about how she’ll enter her room quietly enough that Toph won’t notice her presence.
But then Sokka speaks again and she’s back to curious procrastination. After all, what’s in her room that won’t be there in a minute?
“I—er, well,” Sokka stutters, voice so quiet that Katara has to lean toward the door to hear, “I know this probably doesn't mean much. Not at this point, anyway. But I’m really sorry I didn’t bring him back.”
“I know,” Toph says reflexively.
“Good,” he says. “Good, I’m glad you do. I just...I know how important he is to you. That’s all.”
A couple beats pass in silence. Then, soft, Toph says, “He’ll be fine. Besides, it’s not like you’re just a lump of seal jerky.” A punch, a whimper, and words said through an audible smile, “You’re important, too.”
“I might as well write that down,” Sokka marvels, and he’s grinning as well, “otherwise, when I tell my grandchildren that the great Toph Beifong complimented me, they’ll think I was dreaming.”
Toph’s voice is disgusted. “Who would ever want to have kids with you?”
Katara pushes her door open with a sappy smile on her face, deciding that, even though she shouldn’t have heard any of that, she’s glad she did.
Until Toph says, loudly, “And quit eavesdropping, Sugar Queen. It’s a bad look.”
Then she wants to fall through the floor.
She sleeps, she thinks, because when she blinks her eyes open the moon has dipped.
She doesn’t pace because she’ll wake Sokka. Instead she rolls to face the wall and frowns.
Restlessness isn’t in her nature, but it's seemed more and more common of late. Ever since the Eclipse, when they’d been separated from their father; ever since Zuko came and she was always watching over her shoulder.
But he’d proved himself, hadn’t he? When he’d traveled alone with Aang for so long? He could have easily trapped Aang or led him astray, but he hadn’t. They’d both returned in the same condition as they’d left—better, maybe, because of the firebending they’d learned.
(She still doesn’t trust him.)
Even now, as she prepares to leave to rescue him, wild schemes float through her mind. What if he had purposely stayed behind? What if it was all a ploy? All a trick for Aang to visit the Boiling Rock, only to be captured?
(Aang, who still hasn’t returned.)
She sighs and rolls onto her back, running her hands down her face. Positive thoughts. That’s what she’ll focus on.
Suki’s shoulder is almost healed. Sokka and Toph are talking again. Her dad and Chit Sang are becoming friends. The Duke found a passion for repainting Fire Nation warships. Haru and Teo are developing a race course in the upper halls.
They won’t be gone long. They’ll come back with Zuko. Aang will return like he always does. Everything will go back to normal.
The positivity doesn't last twenty minutes.
She has shifted to kneeling on her bed, arms resting on the window sill, peering out into the quiet night. Her breaths are deep and even but she cannot fall asleep.
Zuko’s gone and isn’t that what she wanted? For him to never come near them again? She didn’t want him here. Why does she now? Or does she not?
Her thoughts jumble in this same, annoying pattern. She pulls on the ends of her hair in frustration and unbidden tears well in her eyes.
They are tears of anger, she thinks, because she is angry. At him and at Aang and at Sokka and at the Fire Lord and at the Fire Nation and at the Spirits and at fate.
She’s confused and angry and scared, and she can’t admit to any of them. Because she’s the kind one. The optimist. The compassionate one, the cheerleader. The rest of the group can’t afford her to be off keel.
No wind beats against her window to drown out her thoughts. They are loud and persistent and she cannot escape them.
(No one can see her.)
(She lets the tears fall.)
Toph’s goodbyes are quick and impersonal; she’s in the ship before Katara has finished her first one.
Katara laughs about it as she hugs Suki and Haru, as she waves to Teo and The Duke and Chit Sang.
She laughs instead of wondering where Aang is, and if he’s alright. If or when she’ll see him again.
When she kisses her father's cheek, though, she sobers. His arms are as warm as they were when he first stepped off the ship. As comforting, as peaceful as she remembers them being at home.
“I don’t want to leave you,” she whispers.
“I’ll be alright, Katara.”
“I know you will, I just…” She tightens her arms. “The Fire Nation is separating us again.”
“It’ll be okay,” he says. “It’s not forever.”
She swallows tears and, nodding, pulls back. He kisses her forehead. “You’re so brave, Katara,” he murmurs. “Just like your mother.”
Clenching her eyes shut, she hugs him again, hand finding the pendant at her neck. “We'll be apart shorter than last time,” she says. “Okay?"
He smiles. "Okay," he says.
A moment passes. He squeezes her harder.
(He doesn’t answer because he doesn’t know; he doesn’t promise because he can’t.)
(The tears in her eyes burn.)
When she finally lets him go, she sniffs the water away and finds Sokka waiting for her by the entrance to the ship. “Don’t forget that the ninth lever from the left of the engine’s fourth button controls—”
“Sokka,” she grins, rolling her eyes and yanking him into a hug. “There’s no way I’ll remember that.”
“You’ll read the instructions as you fly it? Really carefully?”
“Sokka. We’ll be alright.”
He exhales deeply and squeezes tight. “Promise?”
(Her father didn’t promise because he couldn’t. Her father didn’t answer because he didn’t know.)
(She shouldn’t, either. She doesn’t know. She can’t guarantee.)
“Promise,” she says.
“I can’t lose you, too,” he whispers.
She presses her face against his shoulder. “You won’t.”