Katara can tell that what she’s asked of Toph is nearly impossible.
After all, Toph hadn’t ever bent metal away from its source. She also hadn’t ever had to bend it for such a long period, or for so many times a day. And with water completely useless, Katara feels a little guilty;
The platform wavers multiple times as it nears the top of the prison. Toph’s focus must be incredible, though, because she steels herself and the last few stories pass faster than the first.
When Katara has reached the top, she takes a breath. The wooden bottle of medicine twirls between her fingers.
She quietly taps the wall.
Toph catches the signal. The platform attaches itself to the outer wall, the one that connects to the outside, so that she doesn’t fall. Then the wall peels up slowly, carefully, silently, from the bottom right corner.
Bright, heavy yellow light immediately streams into her sight.
She blinks. Multiple times.
Last time, it had been so dark they’d needed to form a make-shift window.
Why is it bright?
At first she wonders if someone else is inside, but as the panel retracts further she’s only met with one person.
One entirely conscious person.
He sits, back hunched, facing opposite her. An empty, flipped over tray sits at his side.
She furrows her eyebrows and crosses into the room.
He hears her, of course he does—try as she might, she isn’t the stealthiest, and his ears have been honed by years of self-preservation—and he whirls around.
The movement is so fast that she almost trips. There’s no way that he should be moving that fast—he’d been on death’s row not twelve hours ago. No way that his eyes should be that lucid. No way that his face should be that bright.
Where is the vertigo? Where is the haze? Where is the pallor?
And...she doesn’t know why, but some part of her had been wishing that he was still sick. Not because she wants him to be sick—of course not, she wouldn’t want that for anyone—but just because she could...take care of him. He couldn’t bother her if he was unconscious.
But now, staring at his wide eyes and his parted mouth, old anger comes easily back. Anger that she’s had to repress for so many days to make way for less appealing feelings like sympathy and pity and sadness and longing and hopelessness.
She’s fine with sympathy. She gives that often. Freely.
The rest are disturbing, so the anger flows. Freely.
“You look better,” she snarls.
He blinks his amber eyes and looks like a tawny cat-owl. “I feel terrible.”
She glares, hands on her hips, and moves until she nearly towers over him. He sits up straighter. “That’s the worst thank you I’ve ever heard.”
He holds her gaze for a moment before dropping his eyes. Light pink rises in his neck and climbs up to his ears. “I didn’t think it was a compliment.”
She blushes, too, and it makes her angrier. “I wasn’t talking about what I said,” she growls.
Again he raises his eyes, but now his features are further confused. He stares and stares and stares as if he thinks he’ll find the answer written on her face, so she finally raises her eyebrows. “I healed you? I saved your life? Ring any bells?”
“Oh,” he says, hand jumping to the back of his neck. He doesn’t avert his eyes this time. “Thank you. I...er,” he trails off, flushing again.
“Yes?” she prompts impatiently.
“Nevermind,” he mumbles, shaking his head. But then his face changes—eyes hardening, lips frowning, skin blotching angrily.
Why is he angry? He has no reason to be angry. She does. He doesn’t.
“Why are you here?” he demands, and his voice matches the difference. “You shouldn’t have come.”
She rolls her eyes and shoves the medicine towards him. “Take this.”
“Tell me why you’re here,” he hisses.
When he doesn’t take it, she pulls the medicine back to her side. “Why do you think?” she retorts.
He glances over his shoulder and, after seeing nothing, leans towards her, whispering harshly. “This is the stupidest thing you’ve ever done.”
“Stupidest thing I’ve ever done?” she repeats incredulously. Laughter bubbles from her lips. “That’s rich.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
She tilts toward him, too, glaring. “You’re the one who stayed behind.”
His jaw drops. “You think I stayed here on purpose?” He gestures around the room randomly. “Here?”
She leans back haughtily. “I wouldn’t be surprised.”
“You’re blind,” he says flatly.
“Blind and stupid?” she echoes. “You sure know how to flatter a girl.”
“I’m serious, Katara,” he snaps. “I didn’t stay here on purpose. You’re insane to even suggest it.”
It is, a little, so she crosses her arms as defense. Especially since she can now add insane to her growing list of first-rate qualities. “Well, if you hadn’t been so stupid then you would’ve gotten out.”
“I was fighting off the guards so that your family could leave!”
Hearing him say it makes her heart speed up. She shouldn’t be angry at him, not for this, at least; she has plenty of other ammunition. But she’s never been good at dropping an argument with someone she hates losing to, even when she’s in the wrong—even when her argument is entirely irrational—so she continues, “You knew that we wouldn’t leave you here after that.”
“Sokka left you because he loves Suki and Dad, but he was shattered when he got home. He wasn’t even functioning.” She clenches her teeth. “You think you were so selfless, but you weren’t. It was selfish. You ran away from your duty. You cost Aang his firebending teacher. You cost the world a fully trained Avatar. Of course we had to come back.”
Her breaths are shallow and quick and uneven and he stares at her flushed face for a long moment. He looks rather humbled, she thinks—posture straight but looser, eyes tight but guilty as they watch her—and it almost makes her regret her words.
(Guilt loops through her stomach.)
(Irrationality isn’t a good look, is it?)
He swallows and glances at the ground. When he looks back up, his expression is neutral. He holds out his hand. “What is it?” he asks.
It takes her a moment to realize that he’s talking about the medicine. She shoves it into his grip before moving her hands to her hips. “I’m not poisoning you,” she says.
“How gracious.” He inspects it closer. “It looks familiar.”
She rolls her eyes and kneels down next to him. “It’s medicine for the common sickness,” she says.
“From the Fire Nation?”
“From the infirmary,” she says.
His eyes widen. “You broke into the infirmary?”
“Yes,” she says, voice stubborn.
He looks at her for a long moment. Then, “Good Agni,” he mutters, voice muffled by his hands, dragging his hands down his face. “Why?”
“Because you’re sick!” she exclaims, throwing her hands up in exasperation. “Now lie down and let me give it to you!”
“Katara,” he says flatly, even as they both redden slightly at the innuendo, “I’m not sick.”
She stares at him. “You were burning up earlier.”
“I’m not sick,” he insists.
“That’s impossible. You were literally unconscious. I had to—”
“Look,” he cuts in, grabbing her hand. A protest forms on her tongue, but he only pulls it to his forehead.
His forehead, which is completely fine.
A bit cooler than her hand, actually.
He drops her hand. She blinks, leaning back to sit on her calves. “You’re kidding,” she says. A million questions battle in her head. She asks the first she can grasp. “Who gave it to you?”
“I haven't had any medicine,” he says.
Her laugh is whispered and incredulous. “That’s not possible. You were totally out of it when we left you before. There’s no way you got better on your own that quickly.”
“I’m not lying, Katara,” he promises.
Even though Toph isn’t there to confirm it—Katara hadn’t realized how much she relied on that ability—his eyes are clear and insistent and she doesn’t know why, but for the first time in her life she doesn’t doubt him.
He wouldn’t lie, anyway. Because despite whatever twisted image he has of his honor, its existence prevents him from ever breaking his word. He’s probably incapable of lying.
She pulls her hair out of her face and frowns at him.
She goes through what she knows. Someone must have given him medicine. Yes, she’d healed him, but not enough to spur a recovery like this. The principal hang-up of their entire time here was that she couldn’t heal a fever. If she could have, they would’ve left way earlier, like Mai had said.
Someone must have given him medicine.
Surely it was Azula, right? Everything that happens to him is under her order. She wouldn’t allow anything to touch him that she hadn’t first approved of, that she wasn’t in control of. Besides, no one else could access him.
Why, then? Why would she want him better? Was she planning on taking him somewhere? By ship, maybe? Where the travel required a basic standard of health?
He crosses his legs underneath him. The movement isn’t quite as fluid as his movements usually are—he winces a little, hands flinching towards his back; he catches himself before he lets more pain show—but the improvement is obvious.
“I’ve been awake all day,” he tells her.
“I don’t understand,” she mutters. “I don’t…” Her eyes latch onto the steel tray at his side, and she trails off, heart fluttering with an idea. “Were you eating before?” she whispers.
“Before I healed you.”
He follows her gaze to the tray, eyebrows pinched. “Yes.”
He narrows his eyes. “How is this relevant?”
“Answer the question, Zuko.”
He glares at her and she glares back until he forces his eyes away and glares at the wall. It reminds her of Mai, and that only strengthens her glare, but, finally, he mutters, “Once in a while.”
“What does that mean?” she snaps.
He shuts his eyes in what seems like a brief plea for patience. She crosses her arms. “Every few days.”
She ignores the anger churning in her gut—anger at Azula, at the guards, at the people who treated him like that—and forces herself to think. Like Sokka thinks. Smart and analytical and with attention to every detail. Attention to every necessary question. “And what have you eaten today?”
He’s still looking at the wall but, slowly, his eyes climb back to hers, widening as they do. “Two meals,” he says.
As she solidifies what’s happened, she thinks Sokka would be proud of her.
Her lips purse. Her hands clench into fists. “She put it in your food.”
His head snaps up. “She? As in my sister?”
“No,” he disputes immediately, chuckling a little. It’s a bitter, almost longing sound. “You’re wrong. She would never.”
It is kind of an impossible idea. That Azula, who’s tried to kill him so many times over the past...well, Katara doesn’t even know how many years, would give him medicine? Would try to heal him? It doesn’t make any sense.
Unless it serves her purposes.
Which it must. There must be another reason. A selfish reason.
She runs her hands down her face and squeezes her eyes shut to think.
Why does Azula want him healthier?
Maybe she’d given up on Aang’s coming and plans to take him back to Caldera City. But wouldn’t she have taken him already? Wouldn’t she have put him on a ship as soon as she’d decided? As soon as he’d been given medicine?
He’s plenty healthy for that now. They could have already left. But he’d said that he’d been awake all day, which means that she is waiting for something.
Waiting for what? Waiting for the medicine to kick in? Waiting for him to rest more? Waiting for evening? Waiting for sunset? Waiting for…
No. There’s no way she could know.
There’s no way she could know they’re on the island. They’d been silent. They’d been secret. They’d taken every precaution…
...except for the conspicuous warship that they’d left, sitting only an hour’s walk from the rest of the fleet. Except for the fact that they’d healed Zuko. Except for the fact that, inexplicably, one less invalid lay in the infirmary’s cots. Except for the fact that a guard had randomly disappeared from his shift in the infirmary.
Except for the fact that, when they returned to the alcove for the first time, that same guard had seemed so different from when they’d left. He’d acted so sick and hurt and terrified, even though Katara knew that they hadn’t hurt him. Even though she knew there was no way that anything they’d done to him warranted that level of suffering.
But then he’d relaxed—
—when he’d heard them talking.
Because he had something to tell Azula.
Azula, who’s wispy blue flames had been just outside the infirmary while Katara was searching for the bottle of Gl. The same blue flames that Katara had forgotten. The same blue flames that caused the first explosion—the one that Toph hadn’t caused; the one that had preceded Toph’s.
Azula was outside the infirmary.
Azula set off the first distraction.
Azula planted Ice Pop there.
Katara peels her hands from her face, eyes oceans in their width. “Azula knows we’re here,” she whispers.
“What?” Zuko demands, and she jumps because she was so deep in her thoughts that she’d forgotten he was there.
His expression is accusing—eyes hard, lips drawn, eyebrows tilted—as if it’s all her fault instead of the stupid universe’s, so she responds in kind. “Oh, save the dramatics,” she snaps.
“I'm not being dramatic!” he hisses. “This is terrible.”
Yes, it is.
She can’t think of a single thing worse.
It was what they’d wanted to—needed to—avoid.
But as she processes the idea she knows it is the truth. Azula must know everything. That it’s her here, her and Toph, and not the Avatar, because the Avatar can’t bend metal, can’t heal someone’s cuts. That they plan to leave with Mai and Ty Lee and Zuko because Ice Pop had told her—even though she doesn’t know how Azula could possibly have gotten underground without an earthbender.
She wanted Zuko to escape with them. Or, at the very least, she wanted him to try.
Katara wants to throw up. How were they so naive as to believe they wouldn’t be caught? As to believe they wouldn’t be discovered? They left clues for her all along the way. Like a game. Like a scavenger hunt—hey, guess who’s trying to break three of your prisoners out?
Now they have no other way off of the island.
They still have to take the warship. They have to try. If they stay here any longer, who knows what Azula will do to them.
“It’s fine,” she lies, standing abruptly. “It’ll be fine. We’re leaving now, anyway.” She turns to face the metal wall. “Let’s go.”
She taps the wall but Zuko whispers harshly, “Katara, I know her. If she knows you’re here and she wanted to kill you, she would have already. She doesn’t. She’s going to keep you as a prisoner so that Aang will come and get you.”
She sucks in a sharp breath, because she hadn’t even thought of that.
Hadn’t even thought of him.
Terror dances in her stomach.
She spins around, glaring, catching him struggling to stand. Fear makes her malicious. “And what makes you think I’ll get caught? If it’s any of us, it will be you.”
He opens his mouth to snap a response as he turns to face her, but then his eyes settle behind her on the wall that is creeping open. Horror paints his expression—eyes widening as far as they’re each capable, mouth dropping, face paling. “Toph’s here too,” he realizes in a whisper.
She rolls her eyes even though the panic is rampant. “How do you think we got into your room?”
He whips his gaze back to her and his eyes are burning, flaming, terrified. “It’s just you and Toph.”
“Yes,” she snaps. “What’s the problem?”
He strides toward her with only the slightest limp. “The problem?” he demands. “I don’t know, Katara. Maybe it’s that my sister knows you’re here. Maybe it’s that you’re here in the first place. Maybe it’s that of all people, you and...and…” Groaning, he drags his hands down his face. “Why did you let her come?”
She narrows her eyes up at him. “I didn’t let her do anything. No one lets her do anything. If I hadn’t come with her, she would have come on her own. That wouldn’t have worked out too well, would it? A blind girl flying an airship?”
His hands pop off his face and reveal incredulous eyes. “You came here on an airship?”
“We had no other choice,” she glares. “Sokka said bringing Appa was stupid.”
“Coming here at all was stupid!”
She yanks her hands through her matted hair because she is annoyed and frustrated and scared and she hates nothing more than feeling scared, hates nothing more than having her plans obstructed, hates nothing more than him. “Okay!” she snarls. “I get it! We shouldn’t have come! I didn’t want to come in the first place! But letting Aang come with Toph was out of the question. We’re here to rescue your ungrateful self and they’re waiting for us on the bottom floor, so we might as well try to make the best of a horrible situation!”
He opens his mouth but then exhales abruptly, expression tightening. “Who’s they?”
She turns away from him, stepping through the wall onto the platform. It quivers slightly as it detaches from the wall under her weight. “Come on,” she tells him.
He steps inside and the space is much tighter with his presence—he’s much taller than Toph—so her arm brushes his tunic as she reaches across him to tap on the wall. It pulls closed.
Darkness only lasts a second, though, because a small flame lights up his palm.
She scowls. That would have been useful this entire time.
He looks around at the platform, jumping slightly as it starts to drop, before turning back to her. He puts the flame in the small space in between them, and his face glows. “Who’s they?” he repeats.
She doesn’t want to tell him because she’s unsure how he’ll react, but it’d be much worse if he found out on his own. She has a suspicion he already knows, anyway. “Ty Lee and Mai,” she says.
It may be the lighting, but she thinks his face pales. It certainly grows guarded. “Why are you with them?”
“It doesn’t matter,” she says shortly, and she wishes the space was larger so she could turn away from his imploring gaze. But it’s not—if she turned away her back would meet his chest, and that’s the last thing she wants. “We are, and that’s the only relevant fact. They’re coming back with us.”
He watches her, eyes going from narrowed to normal. After a moment, she raises an eyebrow. He looks away, swallowing, and lowers his hand to let the light die out.
They don’t speak again.
Fear swirls with anxiety and anticipation and a million thoughts slip through her mind—not wanting to be caught, only existing to strengthen her nerves.
(All she can latch onto is wondering if he’s anxious to see Mai.)
The area flickers with sudden light.
She glances at him to convey her thanks—though narrowed eyes aren’t the nicest show of gratitude—and Toph grunts from underneath them, “Almost there, Sweetness.”
In her periphery she sees a hint of a smile on his mouth. His face is angry and solemn and pale, but at Toph’s voice, he smiles.
Had she really missed them getting so close?
She blinks the thoughts away as the platform lurches to a stop.
“Wow!” Ty Lee’s enthused voice praises, muffled by the wall. “That was impressive, Toph.”
Beside her, Zuko stiffens.
Toph screeches the wall away and collapses onto her back. “That was exhausting,” she hisses through labored breath. “You owe me fifty, Sugar Queen.”
“Fifty what?” she asks.
Katara steps off the platform and down into the earth under Mai’s cell. Mai, who stands in the shadows, arms crossed, next to a grinning Ty Lee. Zuko steps down behind her.
Before Katara can respond, Toph shoots off the ground. “Sparky!” she cries, and rushes at him.
“He’s—” she starts, holding a hand up, but then Toph barrels into him so she winces and drops it. “—hurt.”
If he is, though, he doesn’t show any sign of it. He grunts at the force, chuckles a little awkwardly in surprise, and slowly, stiffly, melts into her embrace. The flame in his hand snaps out.
“Finally,” Toph says, voice muffled. There’s a telling smack.
“Ow, Toph!” Zuko hisses. “What was that for?”
She can’t see anything, though, and she knows whatever they say to each other isn’t meant to be heard—Toph starts speaking too rapidly to be understood, anyway—so, in the darkness, she turns to the other girls and asks, “How are you feeling, Ty Lee?”
“Much better,” comes the girl’s animated voice from somewhere on her left. “Your healing is amazing! I wish I could do something like that.”
“You’re not dizzy or limping or anything?”
“A little. Nothing incapacitating.”
“Good. Toph told you about the plan?”
“Yes! We go through the tunnels and onto the airship.”
“It’s never going to work,” Mai contributes helpfully. “It’s a terrible idea.”
Katara crosses her arms and sets aside her pride because they have to know eventually, so they may as well know now. “You’re probably right,” she says. “And things have gotten worse. Azula knows we’re here.”
Ty Lee sucks in a sharp breath. “What?”
“It’s not surprising,” Mai says to Katara’s irritation. “You’ve both been—”
“She healed your boyfriend,” she interrupts. In her anger she doesn’t notice the sudden, suffocating silence in the room. “Nothing else matters. She knows we’re here and she healed him.”
There are a couple beats of deadly quiet before she realizes her mistake.
So maybe she’d been a little careless in assigning a label to their relationship. But that’s basically what they are, so what’s the big deal? Besides, making them both a little uncomfortable isn’t the worst thing in the world.
(More guilt gnaws at her conscience. She bites her lip and twists her fingers together at her stomach.)
Footsteps shuffle toward them. Toph’s harsh voice snaps through the obscurity. “Did you just say Azula knows we’re here?”
Thankful for the distraction, Katara turns to her. Another light sparks in Zuko’s palm and everything returns to the soft orange glow of the flame. Her eyes linger on his face for a moment—it’s bright red—and only the circumstances stop her from smirking. Indeed, the circumstances leave her sober.
“Yes,” she affirms.
“What?” Toph demands, stiffening from her place leaning against Zuko’s shoulder. His flameless arm is wrapped around her back, but she steps from his grip towards Katara. “How do you know?”
“She’s right,” Zuko says.
He glares at her—it’s the first time they’ve acknowledged each other—and Katara glances at her with furrowed eyebrows, even though she, too, is confused why Zuko would so easily take her side. Shaking off the interruption, he continues, “Azula put medicine in my food. She wouldn’t have done that for no reason.”
Toph turns to face him. “So she’s taking you back to the Palace! Or she’s fattening you up for slaughter! But it—”
“That’s comforting,” he mutters.
“—doesn’t prove anything.”
“Toph,” Katara says, “there was another explosion in the infirmary.”
Toph frowns, confused. “Yeah. I blew up two pipes.”
“There was a third. Right before you blew the second, another one exploded. I brushed it off because we were in a rush, but there were blue flames at the door. Ice Pop came in anyway.”
Toph opens her mouth but then closes it, thinking, processing. Slowly, her eyes widen in understanding. “Azula blew it up,” she says. “She sent Ice Pop in with us.”
Katara nods and, at the spoken confirmation, ribbons of anxiety twirl through her stomach. “She knew we wouldn’t kill him or leave him there.”
They continue each other’s sentences. “She wanted a source in our tunnels.”
“She knows everything we said to each other because—”
“—when we were gone she went to see him.”
“And that’s why he was acting so weird before he knew.”
“She must have beat him up, too.”
“Which would explain the pain.”
Toph puffs up her cheeks and blows the air out slowly. “She has an earthbender.”
The pieces click into place. The last strand of the mystery unravels.
“It’s a war prison,” Toph goes on. “She used an earthbending prisoner to do it.”
It makes perfect sense.
Azula must have known as soon as they healed Zuko—or earlier, even, if she’d found the airship. She figured they were underground, set up the distraction, sent the guard in, recruited an earthbending prisoner—exploited them, more likely—and tracked their every movement.
Katara tucks her chin into her chest, arms crossing, toe scuffing over the earth.
“What’s Ice Pop?” Ty Lee asks, breaking the silence.
“The name of the guard,” Toph mutters offhandedly. Then, slapping her forehead and addressing Katara, “I’m telling Sokka. He’ll never forgive you.”
Heat rises in her cheeks, but she doesn’t dispute it.
“Alright,” Toph continues at length, resigned. “Azula knows we’re here. Can’t we still leave?”
“She’ll know you're leaving,” Mai mutters. “She’ll know everything.”
“But there’s a chance she doesn’t know when,” Katara says. “We didn't mention that in front of Ice Pop, did we?”
Toph twists her lips and doesn’t answer.
Zuko sighs and Katara nearly jumps because, though he’s been holding the light, she’d forgotten he was there. Again. “She knows I’m with you,” he says.
Katara frowns. “So she wants you to leave with us.”
He shakes his head. “No. She wants to use me.”
She raises her eyebrows.
“What?” Ty Lee asks. “How?”
“I don’t know. But she doesn’t want me gone.” He turns a glare to the ground. “The first day I was here she told me she wouldn’t be finished with me until we went back to my father.” He scratches the back of his neck. “I think she was waiting for Aang to come, and when he didn’t…”
“She adapted,” Toph finishes.
“She always has,” he mutters.
More silence. Sharp and heavy and cutting. Toph pops her knuckles and Ty Lee jumps at the noise. Mai is still as a statue. Zuko keeps glaring.
Katara breathes in slow and deep, trying to calm her racing heart.
Getting Toph out is the main necessity. Getting the rest of them out is extremely desirable.
Either way, though, they have to move.
“We’ve wasted enough time,” she says after they’ve all brooded for more minutes than they have. The sudden noise is harsh, piercing, scraping—too loud in the quiet. It bounces off the stone.
Nonetheless, she shoves hair behind her ears and nods, determined. “Let’s go. We’ll fight if we have to.”
Zuko looks hesitant, but at his side, Toph smirks. “I’ve been waiting for those words,” she says as she pushes stone away. They take collective breaths in and start moving. Toph keeps speaking because she hates any lasting silence. “You know how long it’s been since I fought someone? The eclipse.”
“Wow. That’s terrible,” Zuko mutters, rolling his eyes, but indulging her anyway. Then he frowns. “Wait, what about when—”
“I mean a real fight.”
“Sunji was a real fighter—”
“His name is Combustion Man,” Toph says. “And he’s dead. Talking about dead people is disrespectful, Sparky.”
“Yeah,” Zuko says dryly, “because you’re a paragon of respect.”
Katara lets the conversation fade from her ears as she focuses on the poundings of their footsteps. They’re slower than her heartbeat but just as constant, just as sure, and it grounds her. Steadies her.
She focuses on the water at her side, toying with the skin with her fingers, and praying to La that they'll get out alright.
The trip is longer than she remembers.
“Are you sure you know where you’re taking us?” Ty Lee asks for the fiftieth time. Toph’s been annoyed for the last fifteen minutes, Katara’s been annoyed for the last five, and even Mai seems to be on her last nerve. Zuko remains silent.
Conversation—much to Toph’s dismay—hadn’t lasted very long. Instead, Ty Lee had taken up asking variations of “Are we there yet?”
Such variations included “How much longer?” and “How much longer now?” and “How about now?”
The evolution had rapidly become a backhanded question. Katara doesn’t think Ty Lee intends to insult Toph, but prefacing a question addressed to Toph with I’m pretty sure you’re wrong is the surest way to insult her.
(The same goes for Katara, but that’s irrelevant.)
At least they’re entertained by Toph’s affront.
“Yes, Ditzy. I’m positive.”
“Okay, because I know it’s pretty dark down here, and—”
“It’s always dark, actually.”
Toph punches him.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to be insensitive,” Ty Lee says.
“Can you see him now?”
A few minutes later, Zuko becomes impossible to ignore.
He starts to lag behind. His breaths grow heavier, louder. His limp becomes more obvious.
Toph doesn’t leave his side the entire time, and, as she’s their only earthbender, all of their travels slow.
Finally, it’s too much to not mention.
“Zuko,” she says. “Do you need me to heal you?”
“No,” he snaps.
“Are you sure?” Mai mutters.
He glares at her.
That’s been the length of their interaction for the entirety of their time together. Mai says something under her breath that is apparently meant to be heard, because he always hears, and he answers with a glare.
It’s getting rather old.
“Oh, you should really let her, Zuko,” Ty Lee breaks in, oblivious to the tension. “She works wonders!”
“How would you know?” he asks. The flame in his palm flickers as he’s hit with an especially strong wave of pain.
“Because she healed me!”
He glances at Katara, confused. “I don’t remember that.”
“That’s because you weren’t there,” Toph tells him. “It was earlier today.”
He turns to Ty Lee, eyes wide. “What happened?”
She shrugs. “A few guards paid me a visit.”
“That’s why I had to send Sweetness up alone,” Toph says.
“I was wondering about that,” he says. Then, louder, to Ty Lee, he asks, “You’re okay, though?”
“Now I am,” she says, turning to beam at Katara. “Only thanks to you!”
Katara flushes a little. “It wasn’t a big deal,” she says. “Of course I wouldn’t have left you like that.”
“Yeah, but we were on opposite sides for so long,” Ty Lee says earnestly. “I took away your bending! For a bender, that’s like taking away their heartbeat. Or messing up their chi!”
“I hate chi,” Toph mutters.
“So for you to heal me without thinking twice about it…” she trails off, seeming to grow emotional. “Well, it means a lot.”
Despite herself, Katara is touched.
Ty Lee is more than she thought. There’s a depth to her character that hides behind a mask of emotion. No one asks her what she’s thinking—what she’s really thinking—because it seems to all sit on the surface. But, just like Mai’s mask is her apathy, Ty Lee’s mask is her emotion. And, looking at her now, Katara wonders if she’s lonely.
She wonders if she’s heartbroken about Azula. She wonders who her family is, and if she misses them.
She wonders if they would have been friends. In a different lifetime, with different backgrounds, with different circumstances, different intentions.
If they could have been close, like she and Toph. Like Ty Lee and Mai.
She and Toph are near opposites. So are Ty Lee and Mai. But she and Ty Lee...well, their personalities complement each other, she thinks. Even if she’d easily tire of the drama.
The thought makes her smile at the ground.
“I’m glad to have helped,” she says sincerely.
Whatever has been bubbling under the surface boils over. She, Toph, and Ty Lee are left completely lost.
Well...Ty Lee doesn’t look entirely lost. She looks a little sad, actually—glancing back and forth between the two of them like a lugubrious goat puppy.
And, now that Katara scrutinizes Toph further, she just looks irritated.
So maybe Katara’s the only lost one.
They had just been walking along—well, limping along, in Zuko’s case—he still adamantly refused to be healed for whatever ridiculous, probably honor bound reason—when Ty Lee, who seemed to hate silences more than Toph—though, unlike Toph, was perfectly content filling it with only a monologue—commented, “Being underground is weird. I don’t really like it.”
“What? I love it.”
“Well you are an earthbender.”
Toph hummed her allowance.
“What about you Zuko?” Ty Lee asked. Katara had the faint impression she was trying to distract him from his pain. “Do you like being underground?”
“No,” he grunted.
“See? Maybe it’s a Fire Nation thing.”
“Being away from the sun,” he managed, breathing heavily.
Ty Lee looked confused for a moment before she realized, “ Oh ! You mean it’s hard to be away from the sun?”
Katara rolled her eyes.
“Yes,” he breathed.
“That would be hard for your bending,” she said sympathetically. “Have you ever been underground before?”
Out of nowhere, Mai sneered, “Funny you should ask.”
Zuko stopped walking. “Quit it!” he snapped.
Mai, who was paces ahead of him—Mai, who had apparently been listening to the conversation, though she hadn’t given any sign of attentiveness—spun around and stabbed her finger into his chest. “Oh, I’m so sorry. Am I being insensitive? I didn’t mean to shovel up bad memories.”
He leaned closer towards her, fury shadowing his features. In his palm, lowered away from anyone’s reach, the flame jumped and swelled. “I thought we got past this,” he hissed.
She laughed and the sound grit on Katara’s nerves. “Did you? What gave you that impression?”
“Maybe that you saved my life.”
Her voice became a high, obviously imitating lilt. “That’s just what I do. I’m a selfless person, Zuko.”
“Stop,” he growled.
The flame leapt in his hand.
“Look, Sparky,” Toph said hurriedly, grabbing his other arm. “Now’s really not the time.”
Zuko glared at Mai for a moment longer before he ripped his arm from Toph’s grip and muttered, “I’m fine.”
“Are you?” Mai asked in the same falsetto. “I’m just concerned, is all.”
He scowled, ignored her, softened the flame, and started moving again.
“Idiots,” Toph grumbled.
Ty Lee frowned at his back.
They followed him.
Now, minutes later, the silence is suffocating.
Zuko looks furious. Mai looks indifferent—shocker. Ty Lee looks depressed. Toph looks irritated.
Katara bets she looks confused. She wipes it from her face and focuses on her footsteps. She recognizes where they are now. Just minutes away.
She almost sighs in relief.
“Ice Pop is still in there,” Toph whispers to her.
“Has he moved?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Can’t you tell if the earth has shifted?”
“No. I don’t remember how it was before. I wasn’t watching it close enough.”
She sighs. “Understandable. Is he awake?”
“I...can’t tell. His heartbeat’s pretty slow, so I would bet against it.”
“Maybe he’s just really confident.”
They keep walking. Toph falls back to a still struggling Zuko, and Ty Lee comes to Katara’s side. “Why is his name Ice Pop?” she whispers. “All of her other nicknames seem to make sense.”
Katara frowns. “I don’t know. Sugar Queen is a stretch.”
Ty Lee considers, then shrugs. “You’re right, I guess. Gloomy’s a bit of a stretch, too.”
She can’t help but laugh. “I don’t think your judgement is completely reliable.”
“Maybe not,” Ty Lee allows, smiling. “But you’ve only seen one side of her.”
She mirrors the smile. “Toph should call you the optimist, not me.”
“Positivity is good for the chi!” she exclaims. “But, seriously,” she says, and her voice has dropped so many octaves in those two words that Katara tenses, “why Ice Pop?”
Katara slumps her shoulders, rolling her eyes. “No one will ever know.”
Ty Lee’s face sets in determination. “I’ll find out!” she vows.
Ty Lee doesn’t get a chance to find out. Not right away, at least, because Toph soon announces, “Alright, ladies, gentleman, and Katara. We’re here.”
Katara scowls. “What does that make me?”
“Where is here, exactly?” Ty Lee asks.
“Here is where you get to meet one of my least favorite people in the world,” Toph says. “I like him even less than you, Gloomy! Congrats. You’re rising in the ranks.”
Mai doesn’t even blink.
Undaunted, Toph goes on. She gestures at the confined guard with a dramatic flourish. “Everyone, Ice Pop. Ice Pop, everyone.”
Indeed, he looks to be asleep—head drooping to his chest, chin resting on the earth that binds him there.
They approach the circle of earth, but Ty Lee hangs back to ask Katara and Toph, “What are you going to do with him?”
She glances at Toph. “We were kind of thinking we’d just let him out, to be honest. He’s not much danger to us after we’re already gone.”
“He’s not much danger to us either way,” Zuko says quietly. So quietly that the words only reach the girls’ ears after bouncing off of the stalagmites.
She raises her head and sees that Zuko has already reached the base of the guard’s rock prison. His face is wiped of emotion. It’s even wiped of the pain that had been so dominant not moments earlier.
Katara and Ty Lee step closer to him but Toph stays frozen in place. She’s about to turn back and ask what’s wrong when she sees a trail of blood trickling down the guard’s chin.
Her breath catches. Her face goes white. Sweat dampens her hands.
Ty Lee doesn’t notice at first—she climbs up, wondering aloud at their sudden somber countenances, until she reaches Zuko’s side—but Katara knows when she does, because she gasps.
Mai is—well, Katara doesn’t know. And, frankly, at the moment, she could care less.
“He’s dead,” Ty Lee cries. Tears choke her words.
Dead, because of them.
Because of her.
But then, “No,” Toph mutters. “Not yet.”
Katara whips toward her. “What?”
She’s crouched down, palms splayed on the earth, eyes squeezed tight, face solemn.
Random memories of Jet’s death—of Lake Laogai—streak through Katara’s mind. The despondency, devastation, disillusion to the world. All evident on Toph’s face.
It was Toph, after all, who knew that Jet had died, who had announced it to the rest of them.
Maybe it’s a burden to hold a life in your hands when you can’t do anything for it.
Maybe, like Katara, Toph’s gift is a curse, too.
“He’s still alive.”
Katara steps closer. “I can heal him.”
The voice isn’t Toph’s and Katara whirls around again to find Mai standing at Ty Lee’s side, facing the guard.
“Why not?” Katara snarls, marching up to her.
“He’s too far gone,” Mai tells her, voice flat.
“And how, exactly, would you know?” she demands. Desperation makes her voice rise with every word because please, La, don’t let this man die. Not at our hands. Please, La.
Mai ignores the question. “If you heal him, he’ll stay alive longer.”
Katara raises her eyebrows incredulously. “Yeah, that’s sort of the point!” she snaps. “Bend him out, Toph.”
Mai glances at her and away again. “I mean that you’ll just draw it out. He’ll suffer more.”
Behind her, Toph stands. “She’s right, Katara,” she mutters. “Don’t heal him.”
Toph still bends the rock back, leaving the guard supported by a disformed earthen chair. She sits back down. Mai grabs a sobbing Ty Lee’s arm and drags her over to the pool of water.
Katara’s feet feel frozen, but she approaches him anyway. His eyes are white slits, his skin pruney like it’s been soaked in water for a decade. His chest stutters with slow, painful movements.
Her feet carry her without her attention, without her permission. Her world is narrowed into this man. His family, his home, his friends, his dreams. The things he didn’t—couldn’t—have anymore.
She kneels at his side.
Her throat tightens. Her breaths shorten. Oxygen gives way to despair—choking her, blurring her vision.
What has she done?
Her hands stretch forwards instinctively—someone is hurt, she needs to heal him, she can fix it, she must fix it—but a hand on her shoulder makes her stop.
She recognizes that hand. It’s different, maybe, in circumstance, in its owner, but it’s the same—her mind flies up and away to a cutting wind and a snowball fight and tiny, chubby, mittened hands and rosy cheeks and snow that is ash and sprinting, sprinting, but no, she is too late, and she screams and cries and sobs but his hand on her shoulder stops her from sprinting, from swimming, after the monster in the giant metal death ship.
“Leave him, Katara.”
Where is he, Katara?
Neither she nor his hand moves. “I don’t know,” she says, and she can’t tell what’s present or past, what’s here or there, what’s now or then—a thousand miles south, a thousand degrees colder, a thousand nightmares ago.
Tears form at the base of her throat, crawl toward her eyes, beg for release. The two worlds—past and present—swirl together as her vision blurs and the man is glaring and her mother is speaking and he’s turning back to face her and then she’s speaking and leaving and she doesn’t want to leave, she wants to stop him, wants to hurt him, but she can’t breathe, can’t see, can’t help. “I can help,” she argues, and it’s a plea to the Spirits. “I have to help.”
“Katara. Hey! Look at me.” A hand catches her chin, forces it upwards, even as her eyes struggle down.“This isn’t your fault,” he says.
This isn’t your fault.
How? How, Dad? I should have done something. I was in there—I saw him, I saw the man that did it, he was standing right there when I left, I could have...I should have—
Her chest is heaving and the sobs are seconds away and the pendant on her neck is heavy in its burden—reminding her every day of her failure, of her inaction, of her cowardness.
“Where did you go, Katara?” he whispers, moving his other hand up to cup her cheeks. “You’re far away. Come back to me.”
Where did he go, Katara? Hands shaking her shoulders frantically, jerking them back and forth, someone screaming, shouting in her face, chaos outside, but her mind is blank and her eyes creep down, down, toward the body on the floor, toward the pool of blood, toward her—Where did he go?
Out. Out. He was just here. I promise. He was just here when I came to get you. He must have left. He left. He just left.
“He just left,” she manages, even as tears and saliva slur her words together. “He killed her and he left.”
The hands leave her face and that’s not familiar, that’s not what happened, so she blinks until her vision clears.
Zuko is kneeling in front of her, terror and anxiety and desperation lacing his features; hands poised like they’ve just been retracted from her face, which they have.
She jerks backwards, scrambles backwards, glare a piercing dagger. Those eyes are lighter than the monster’s but only by a couple shades, only by a stroke of luck, only by the lighting’s chance—and, really, if tears haze your vision just the slightest bit, there isn’t a difference at all. Those eyes are the same.
He did this.
And, even if he didn’t, he stands for it. He fights for the same nation, prays to the same gods, supports the same causes.
“Get away from me,” she snarls.
She should have said that back then—should have said get away from her—but, no, she’s too afraid; she doesn’t say anything. The monster is turning to face her and she’s the last waterbender, not her mother, but she doesn’t speak, she doesn’t move, she doesn’t speak, and she should have.
You heard your mother. Get out of here!
Mom, I’m scared.
Go find your dad, Sweetie. I’ll handle this.
Then she’s turning to sprint and she’s running as fast as she ever has, as fast as she ever will, head down and muscles screaming but it’s not enough, it would never be enough—her mother already decided, she already knew what was going to happen.
I’ll handle this.
Toph slams into her, jolting her back into the present—the panic attack is receding, the blurring of past and present abating. Toph throws her arms around her and pushes her face into her chest.
This is familiar—better—so she bends into the contact, though, in the past, the roles were reversed: she and Sokka clinging to their Gran-Gran, begging to see their father, but He’s gone, child. I don’t know if he’ll ever come back.
But I just saw him, Gran-Gran! He went on a walk with Uncle Bato.
A long, appraising look, full of pity and regret and sadness, all the things she didn’t recognize, all the things she now wishes she didn’t. You’re right. He is here. And he’ll stay here for a little while longer, I’d say. But the father you knew is gone. I doubt he will ever come back.
Anger rushes through her at those words, so harsh, so cruel, so true—why couldn’t she have lied? Why couldn’t she have spared them the confusion? The hurt? The longing?
But she gets it now, as she holds Toph, as her tears stop, as she forgets that anyone else is in the room, as, slowly, the present becomes her reality, as again the past relegates itself to a nightmare, to a demon.
If Gran-Gran had lied, she and Sokka would only have suffered more.
So she doesn’t heal the guard.
She sits and steadies her breathing.
When he is dead, she washes his body and places it in the water. Toph bends the rock to receive him, and he sinks until he is enfolded.
Toph murmurs a memorized ritual—it’s unfamiliar and strange, but touches Katara all the same. She murmurs a prayer to La.
Zuko, Mai, and Ty Lee sit together on the furthest side of the alcove—Toph had widened it a little to provide for the extra people—and are silent, save Ty Lee’s occasional whimper.
They don’t question the girls’ need to bury a stranger. A Fire Nation citizen. An enemy. A guard.
Neither do Toph and Katara. But it is a need—it’s a necessity. The death isn’t on their hands, as they each register after their initial shock—it’s on Azula’s—but that just compounds their desire to treat him rightly.
Katara returns to herself, returns to the moment, but a shadow stirs in her stomach, lapping at the darkness in her mind. That the ghosts of her past can so easily overtake her, can so easily control her reality is terrifying.
But, most of all, the reminder of that day—in more obscure clarity than ever before—leaves her haunted.
Haunted and angry and bitter and grieving.
All of the feelings, shoveled up to deal with anew.
She can’t look at Mai or Ty Lee because the red of their clothing is the same red of the blood on the floor of the cave, on the floor of the igloo; she can’t look at Zuko because the hatred is so overwhelming she isn’t sure she can control it.
When Toph bends them from the cave, no one says a single word.
Something heavy rises from everyone’s shoulders—maybe it’s the silence, maybe it’s the guilt, maybe it’s the regret, maybe it’s the sadness—when Toph clears her throat and announces, “This is the beach.”
Ty Lee asks, “Where?”
“Just behind this wall.”
Katara clears her throat, too, and says, “Can you feel the ship?”
“Yes,” Toph answers. “Ours is untouched.”
“Is anyone on it?”
She looks a little uncertain as she crouches to the ground to check. “I don’t feel anyone,” she says after a beat. “But I was wrong about the heartbeat, so I’ll double check when I have a hand on the metal. Right now there’s sand in between. That’s never reliable.”
She wasn't wrong about the heartbeat. It was slow. It was just much, much, much slower than the word “slow” denoted.
No one comments on it.
“Alright,” Katara says.
Toph shoves the wall away.
“I can’t believe we actually made it!” Ty Lee says. “And so soon, too! I never thought I’d get away from this prison.”
Indeed, Katara exhales a heavy sigh of relief. The sand is cool under her toes. The ocean water is hundreds of degrees from boiling. The moon silvers her skin, silvers the scene, and, if one didn’t know that up and over the giant cliffs lay the most secure prison in the Fire Nation, it would almost be tranquil.
“Look!” Ty Lee squeals, springing after a flock of cute, fluffy, colorful birds. “Toucan puffins!”
She chases them. They flap frantically away.
“Hey!” she shouts. “Come back!”
“Could she be any louder?” Toph groans.
“Yes,” Mai says shortly.
Toph turns toward her and, if she’s surprised to hear Mai speak, as Katara is—she hadn’t spoken since the cave—she hides it well. “She’s your friend. Do something about her.”
Mai rolls her eyes.
“Or don’t,” Toph says. She turns and walks toward the ship to feel for people inside.
Katara tilts her chin up to the sky and lets the moonlight beat down on her. She closes her eyes and breathes in through her nose; then, with a whoosh, pushes it out through her mouth.
A content feeling settles in her heart as it pounds along to the beat of the night. There were hiccups along the way, but they’d done it. They’d gotten Z—him—out. They’d even gotten Mai and Ty Lee.
Sokka and her dad and Aang and Suki were all waiting for them at the Western Air Temple. He would teach Aang to firebend and they’d all get ready for the Comet and Toph and Aang and Sokka wouldn’t fight anymore, wouldn’t have any hostility between them, because they’d gotten him back. They’d gotten him back. Sokka didn’t have to feel guilty.
And, standing in the night, feeling the breeze rustle her hair, rustle her clothing, she smiles.
Pools of emotion still rock in her gut—remnants of the torrential nightmares she’d lived through not half an hour ago—but the night, the moon, the stars...they had always helped her calm. Helped her be rational. Helped her be patient.
At length, Ty Lee returns. “Got one!” she exclaims. “I think I’m going to ask Toph to name him.”
Katara slides her eyes open and sees a friendly bird perched on Ty Lee’s shoulder. She eyes it warily. “How did you get that?” she asks. “It was running away from you.”
“I ran after it,” Ty Lee shrugs, walking up to Mai.
Mai, whose head is bent in conversation with a staring Zuko.
He averts his eyes as soon as she catches them. A deep blush creeps up his neck. He mutters something to Mai out of the corner of his mouth.
Katara frowns, even as anger boils in her throat. It seems like tragedy’s brought the two lovers back together.
“Look, guys!” Ty Lee exclaims.
Mai’s head snaps up as if she’s been punched, but there’s no surprise on her trained expression. She steps toward Ty Lee—away from Zuko—and raises a bored eyebrow at the animal.
“Isn’t it cute?” Ty Lee beams.
“Not for much longer,” Mai drawls. “How, exactly, do you plan to keep it alive on the ship?”
“Oh, Mai,” Ty Lee laughs. “Birds live in the sky!”
Mai stares at her.
Ty Lee is saved from whatever barb Mai had planned by a rapidly approaching Toph. She’s riding the earth, which is a good sign. She hadn’t ridden it on the way over, only walked, in case there were people aboard who could hear her. There must not be.
Indeed, Toph grounds and says through labored breathing, “It’s empty. We’re good to go.”
The distance is less than a klick, but that’s plenty of time for Ty Lee to scramble up to Toph, who’s trying to egg a consternated, limping Zuko into conversation, and ask, “Can you do me a favor?”
Toph turns to her with narrowed eyes. “I’m not finding your bird a mate.”
Katara nearly laughs, but Zuko snorts, which drains her amusement. She trains her eyes on the ever approaching ship.
Mai asks, “Has someone asked you to do that before?” at the same time Ty Lee’s eyes widen.
“Wow! How did you know I had a bird?”
“Lucky guess,” Toph says sarcastically. “I’m blind, not deaf. What do you want?”
“You’re so good at naming people,” Ty Lee says, stroking her bird lovingly. “Do you think you could name him?”
“That’s not a person,” Mai points out.
“Nope. It’s a bird!”
Ty Lee laughs. “You’re way too funny, Mai.”
Katara raises an eyebrow.
But when, after a moment, Ty Lee is only met with silence, she prompts, “What do you think, Toph?”
Only the scraping of footsteps in sand answers her.
Katara glances at Toph—usually she’d jump at a chance to name something, to mock something—but her head is down, her eyes are glued to her feet, and her eyebrows are furrowed.
Ty Lee must see this, because she says in a rush, “No pressure, of course! I’ll think of something myself. It will mean more to him, anyway. You know. Coming from me. Since I’m his owner now.”
Toph mumbles, “Great.”
And then, Oh, Katara thinks, lips pinching to the side.
Toph’s despondency only lasts a few minutes.
Zuko had been the one to nudge her into conversation this time—he, too, had easily guessed the reason for her sadness—and now he asks, “So you flew here on your own?”
“Basically. I did most of the work. There—”
Katara scoffs. “You bent coal into the furnace. That’s nothing.”
“Please. You would have died without me.”
“You would have died without me, too!” Katara retorts. “I was the one steering.”
“Yeah, terribly. You’re the worst pilot ever.”
“I am not.”
Toph turns to her left to grin at where she guesses Zuko is. “You’ll see,” she insists. “She’ll kill us before we can even get off the ground.”
In her rush to defend herself, she trips, kicks up sand, and nearly falls over. But she doesn’t, thank La—Zuko stares at her like she’s insane (she glares at him and raises her chin)—and she opens her mouth to speak, but he beats her to it. “It doesn’t matter either way,” he tells Toph, “because I can fly it.”
Toph grins. “Actually? Where’d you pick that up?”
He scowls. “I didn’t pick it up anywhere. These two women taught me.”
“Lo and Li?” Ty Lee asks.
“They’re so old! How do they know how to fly?”
Zuko snorts and runs a hand through his hair. “They probably don’t. Azula told them to teach me, so they had to. They probably just made a bunch of stuff up.”
“I’m sure they didn’t,” Ty Lee comforts.
Creasing her eyebrows, Katara says, “I think I’ll stick to piloting. I got us here easily enough.”
Toph scoffs. “Easily.”
Zuko squints at the ship in front of him but doesn’t speak. His shoulders are rigid and his face is clenched tightly, and Katara has forgotten that he must still be in pain. She searches for a limp and finds it quickly—favoring his left leg, holding his stomach over his right—and she wonders what she missed when she was healing.
But then she decides that she doesn’t care. She’d offered to help him, and he’d declined. Rather rudely, too. Besides, she doesn't care if he is hurting. He deserves it.
(She keeps an eye on him.)
“Well, either way,” Ty Lee starts, “at least you’ll have more hands to help this time!”
No one speaks for a moment, so Katara gives her a little smile. “That’s true.”
But Ty Lee frowns. “Where are we going, anyways?”
“The Fire Nation Palace,” Toph answers.
Ty Lee blanches.
Katara rolls her eyes. “The Western Air Temple,” she corrects.
“Oh.” Her features crease, but color returns. “Why?”
“Because we’re the only ones there.”
Ty Lee nods. “Who is we?”
“That’s for Sweetness, Sparky, and me to know, and you and Gloomy to find out.”
“Ooh!” Ty Lee exclaims, much to Katara’s amusement. “I love surprises!”
“There won’t be a surprise,” Mai retorts. “It’ll be the Water Tribe boy and—”
“His name is Sokka!” Ty Lee protests boldly.
Rolling her eyes, Mai finishes, “—the Avatar.”
Toph leans toward Ty Lee conspiratorially. “There are more,” she whispers. “Just wait.”
Ty Lee rubs her hands together. “I can’t wait! What kind of—”
“Toph,” Katara interrupts, pointing just in front of her. “Can you check again?”
The ship looms before them in all its sharp, metallic glory. It is much larger than she remembered.
She feels rather insignificant standing there by the nose cone (ha, Sokka. That’s right. My memory is amazing), small and young and helpless—like standing on a flat wooden raft in the middle of the ocean, surrounded by nothing but still cerulean water and a soft, tugging breeze; like standing in the sand dunes of the desert and staring up at the untainted night sky, only the moon as guide, only the stars as company, wondering if somewhere else, right now, someone was gazing upwards and asking all the existential questions running through her mind—but Toph nods, and the feeling disappears.
This time as she approaches the ship, they all follow behind. She closes her eyes, places her hand on the side, and sucks a deep breath in through her nose.
Then she pulls her hand away. “Looks all clear.”
They start moving towards the...the...La, what’s it called? She cringes in anticipation of mental-Sokka’s retribution.
It doesn’t come, though. Maybe because she is sane.
But she was sane before, too, and mental-Sokka talked to her then. Maybe he’s just happy that they’ve gotten out and doesn’t care to lecture her forgetting the name of the airship’s door.
(Or, you know. Maybe it’s that he’s not real.)
Ty Lee flips—or cartwheels or somersaults or one of those fancy, elastic movements (Katara admits ignorance to anything flexibility related; though she can touch her toes when her knees are bent)—up between her and Toph at the front of the group. Katara is amazed that the bird remains on her shoulder. He must be elastically inclined, too. But then she scrutinizes him closer and the poor, nameless thing looks terrified. Its beak is clamped shut. Has it even squawked at all? She doesn’t think so.
Either way, Sokka would be jealous. She knows he misses Hawky.
She smiles a little, thinking of him, thinking of seeing him soon.
Mai and Zuko trail behind them. She wonders if they’re speaking, but doesn’t glance back to check. She doesn’t hear anything, though, so she readily assumes they aren’t.
“When did you find out that you could see?” Ty Lee asks.
“Yesterday afternoon,” Toph says.
Ty Lee gasps, “That’s so convenient!” and Toph answers, “Isn’t it?” but then Ty Lee furrows her eyebrows and says, “Wait. But when we’ve…” she flushes a little, looking down, “fought before, you always seemed to be just fine.”
“She learned when she was younger,” Katara tells her.
Toph frowns. “You always ruin the fun, Sugar Queen.”
She reaches across Ty Lee to punch Katara’s shoulder, and Katara smiles. “She’s right,” Toph sulks. “Learned when I was a kid.”
Ty Lee says something in response but they reach the...entrance hatch? She can’t remember.
Either way, Toph ignores the useful lever that opens the gate for them and bends the metal down. As Ty Lee continues monologuing—she really isn’t that difficult to tune out. Maybe Katara should listen, though. She feels bad—they move inside.
“Sparky?” Toph calls. “A little help here?”
Zuko understands before Katara does, and flicks a flame into his palm. She’d been so accustomed to darkness that she hadn’t even noticed the lack of light. The space illuminates with the soft yellow glow.
They trek further into the ship, only stopping once they’ve reached what seems like a gathering room wanting for human inhabitation. Metal benches line the walls and three matching tables stretch the length of the room. Dust and cobwebs adorn the surfaces.
Katara scrunches her nose. “Toph,” she says, dragging her eyes away from the filth. “We should split the hands.”
Toph pauses, turns, and, predicting a conversation, plops herself down onto one of the tabletops.
As if hit, Ty Lee flinches. Her hands jump protectively to the bird on her shoulder. “Can’t you see anything besides metal? You just sat on a—” her face greens and she shakes her head violently, “—a maggot slug!”
“Ooh! I thought I felt something sitting on the table!”
Ty Lee looks slightly appeased by the reaction, but Katara knows better. A second later, as Ty Lee registers that Toph isn’t searching for the slug in fear but in excitement, she drops her mouth open.
Katara moves to lean against a wall, crossing her arms. Toph grins when she finds the white, slimy thing, and she pinches it between two fingers, dangling it over her extended legs. “Found it! Want it for Speechless?”
“What’s speechless?” Ty Lee asks.
“Your stupid bird.”
Ty Lee claps her hands together and exclaims, “You named it!” But, as she stares at the maggot, her face contorts in disgust, and her smile fades. “That’s very generous of you, Toph, but I think Speechless isn’t very hungry.”
“Alright,” Katara interrupts before they get any further off track. Mai perches on a table and Zuko stands—all weight on his left leg—arms crossed, face pale, at a table’s edge. It seems like he’s fighting against sitting down. Katara rolls her eyes. “Zuko’s clearly not healthy enough to help,” she says. “So Toph, you—”
“What?” he snaps. “I can help.”
She raises a bland eyebrow. “You can’t even stand up.”
“She’s right, Sparky,” Toph shrugs, tossing the maggot slug at him. He tries to avoid it but moves too slow—it lands on his shoe. Scowling, he shakes it off.
“Exhibit A,” Katara deadpans. “Listen, if you won’t let me heal you, you’re useless. You’ll go to the quarters to rest.” She ignores all of his protests. “Toph, take Mai with you. I’ll take Ty Lee and—”
“Why do I get stuck with Gloomy?” Toph demands.
“I’m so glad I’m so wanted,” Mai says.
“Because remember the drill in Ba Sing Se? Only Ty Lee was in all that mulch.”
Toph folds her arms over her chest. “My job gets dirty.”
“I know, but it’s just dust and sweat. You can bend that off. In the control room there’s grease and oil.”
“Well, you can bend that off.”
“I feel so loved!” Ty Lee says.
“It’s not about wanting you,” Mai tells her lethargically. “It’s about not wanting me.”
“The only one we don’t want here,” Katara says, turning to a still-protesting Zuko, “is you.”
“Shut up,” Toph hisses.
“Seriously, Toph, I can—”
“Zuko,” she snaps.
A chill runs down Katara’s spine.
Not Sparky. Zuko.
Slowly, slowly, she turns back to Toph.
Toph has hopped down from the table and stands completely still, completely frozen. Her face is pale, her eyes open wide.
Katara glances around her. Zuko has stiffened into an almost defensive posture—he can’t bend his right knee, so it looks completely ridiculous—Mai has risen from her place at the table, face alert, and Ty Lee has brought her bird down to her hands, hugging it to her chest.
After a long moment where only the random drip of oil or water from somewhere above their heads cuts the silence, where Toph hasn’t moved, Ty Lee asks, “What’s—”
Katara’s heart pounds in her ears.
She doesn’t like that tone.
No one breaks the silence this time. Not until Toph begins tip-toeing toward the door they had just walked through.
“Toph,” Katara whispers, nearly inaudibly. “What is it?”
“Something hit the outside of the ship,” she returns. “I think it was an arrow.”
Katara’s arms tingle. Her hands are numb. She shakes them out. “Where?”
Toph turns her head back briefly, and her face is set. “The lever outside of the cabins.”
Where they had just entered. The lever that Toph had forgone to instead bend the hatch open.
And all Katara can think, for some reason, is That’s what they’re called. The cabins.
“It wasn’t an accident,” Zuko says. His voice is strained with the effort of staying upright.
“No,” Toph whispers. “It wasn’t. It locked us in.”
Locked us in.
Katara is angry and scared, so she whirls to face Zuko and hisses, “You need to go lie down. You won’t be any help in a fight.”
“You can’t even—”
He glances above her head toward Toph. Katara turns in time to see Toph slide the door open without a sound.
“Toph! What are you—”
“Stop talking.” She peeks her head out. “I’m just trying to listen.”
Katara takes a step closer and brings her hands to her chest to wait.
She hates feeling helpless. Hates it, more than anything in the world.
But she can’t do anything. She steadies her breathing, but as soon as she switches focus to try and help Toph listen, it shallows.
Her muscles twitch in anticipation.
She lowers her hands and brings them to the water skin on her hip.
Ty Lee steps up next to her and glances at her—no, just behind her—at Zuko, who is a step behind her to her right.
She doesn’t even try to force him away. Just glares at him and tries to ignore how loud their breaths are.
Toph’s head is fully outside of the door now, her body fully leaning out. That’s a terrible defensive position, Katara wants to tell her, because Toph has told her that every day for the last three months while transitioning between earthbending and waterbending lessons. You’re useless so off balance.
Toph jumps back inside, slams the door shut, and turns to them with wide, wild eyes.
“We’re surrounded,” she says. “There are hundreds of people in this ship.”
Katara stares at her, mouth dry.
Mai is the first to recover. “What?” she demands, stalking up to Toph. “What happened to no one being inside?”
Toph ignores her and turns to Katara. “The medicine, Katara,” she says, voice loose and desperate. “It’s just like the medicine bottles in the cupboard. Just like prison after the scheme.”
Katara’s heart drops through her legs, out her toes, splotches onto the floor.
“Wood,” she whispers.
Toph nods, eyebrows creasing in fear and apology and helplessness.
“She knows you’re a metalbender,” Zuko guesses.
“She must,” Toph says. “I thought they were just crates, or something. I felt their pressure on the ground when I was checking before, but I didn’t think that there were people on top of them. I didn’t think they were wooden chairs, I—”
“It doesn’t matter,” Mai hisses. “You were wrong.”
“You’re not helping,” Katara spits, striding up and pushing her away from Toph. She turns and frantically asks, “How many are there?”
Toph shakes her head over and over in denial, eyes ever wider, ever whiter. “I—I can’t—I don’t—”
“Focus, Toph,” Katara implores, placing her hands on her shoulders. “Come on. You can do it.”
Her face wobbles for a moment before she forces her eyes shut. “There are so many, Katara,” she whispers. “I’m sorry. I didn’t know. I would have told you, I would have—”
“Hey,” Zuko says, ignoring Katara’s glare. “It’s going to be alright. Just—”
“You’re lying ,” Toph whispers. She looks so young. Katara’s never seen her this scared. She’s sure she reflects the feelings exactly. “You don’t know that.”
He winces, but continues, “Just try to give us an estimate.”
Toph wavers, then nods.
Ty Lee, who has seemingly gathered herself, rushes up next to Katara. She opens her mouth to speak, but Katara gives her a sharp look, and she stills.
“None of them are moving,” Toph says after a second, stepping out of Katara’s grip and wringing her hands together. “None of them are moving, but I think there are at least two hundred.”
Zuko squeezes his eyes shut.
“Where?” Katara manages on a choked exhale.
“She herded us. We played straight into her hand,” Toph says, seeming to return to herself, too—face hardening, color returning, eyes narrowing in cold, angry focus—even as she delivers the crippling news. “She guessed we’d come through here. There are people in every room around us.”
“Around this room?”
“Around all of the rooms down this path,” she says, pointing toward where they’d come from, and then toward deeper into the ship, where they would’ve walked had they continued. “Straight shot into the control room.”
Katara tangles her hands in her hair. “And you’re sure she’s locked us in?”
“She’s clearly not sure about anything,” Mai sneers.
Katara starts to spin towards her but Zuko snaps, “Ignore her,” and, surprising herself, Katara acquiesces.
Instead of retreating at the gibe, though, this time Toph bristles. “I am sure,” she says stoutly. “The lever is stuck. I can bend us out, but I bet there are a million more arrows where those came from. And if I’m bending, I can’t shield us from them.”
Ty Lee bites her lip. “Well, Katara has the ocean. She can bend an ice shield! And Zuko can burn the arrows!”
“If Toph can feel them, they’re made of metal,” Zuko says dryly. “Metal won’t burn.”
“Oh, yeah,” Ty Lee says, shoulders slumping. “I forgot.”
“There’s no way we’ll be able to get out,” Katara says. Sweat pools on her forehead and it’s heavy like an anchor, teasing her fingers to bend, to fight, but she doesn’t want to have to fight. She doesn’t want to have to bend. “Zuko can’t even walk.”
“I can —”
Toph jerks her head back to face the door. Without warning, she scrambles forward and shoves it shut.
“What?” someone whispers. Maybe Katara. Maybe multiple people. She can’t tell. Her heart is beating too fast, her vision too detached from her mind, from her body to comprehend something so trivial.
Blanching, Toph spins to push her back against the wall. “Footsteps,” she whispers. “There are more over there. Block it off, Katara.”
She points to the opposite wall. Ty Lee rushes to lock the hatch.
No one moves.
“Zuko,” Ty Lee whispers, because he’s nearly doubled over in pain, “you really shouldn’t—”
He glares at her. She purses her lips shut.
“There’s only one coming behind mine,” Toph whispers. “I think there are a dozen or so over there.”
Mai moves to the other door. Ty Lee scrambles after her. Katara stays alert next to Toph. Zuko, after glancing at the opposite door, keeps with Toph, too.
There are a couple long beats of silence where the big nothing that happens has Katara wondering if Toph has misread the situation again. For the third time in less than an hour. The third time in all of the time that Katara has known her. This time, at least, it’d be to their benefit. Maybe there isn’t anyone behind the doors. Maybe it’s just them and their jumpy anxieties. Maybe they are safe, after all. Maybe she misheard the footsteps. Maybe she messed up. It isn’t unheard of anymore. Maybe—
Speechless screeches and launches away from Ty Lee, flapping frantically upwards until he finds a vent. All of them jump at the noise, then turn to watch as the bird pushes through the vent and disappears.
Ty Lee starts to call after him. Mai slaps a hand over her mouth.
A reprimand grows on Mai’s tongue—Katara can see it, even at this distance—but she never gets it out.
A million flames turn her and Ty Lee’s door a glowing orange.
Heat slams into the room fast and hard and powerful, like sun into a bedroom after a late night, like ice pick drummers into a mind after too much cactus juice.
Ty Lee shouts. She can’t bend, after all—she scrambles back from the doorway, Mai follows suit—but Katara and Toph and Zuko have already turned toward the commotion. Zuko rushes forward as fast as his healthy leg can take him, but he doesn’t get halfway across the room before Toph bends a wall in front of him and tells him to “Come back! There are too many over there!”
Katara evades the walls that pop up in front of her as she sprints to the door. She clenches her eyes shut and draws the water from the air, from the remnants of the steam, and freezes it all over the hatch’s lock. Again and again and again. It melts every few seconds.
“A little help, here?” Toph cries.
Shouts start coming from the outside of the door. Keep it up, soldiers! and Maintain the heat! and, after a moment, she realizes what’s happening.
Zuko has reached her side now, and she guesses he’s trying to siphon the heat back out of the room, but she ignores him. She spins around and sees Ty Lee and Mai shouting frantically in the middle of the room. Mai is holding Ty Lee back from running to help Katara and Zuko or Toph because “You can’t do anything! You can’t bend! Just wait until they—”
But Katara ignores them, too.
Zuko snaps, “Katara, freeze the lock shut.” She doesn’t listen.
Her eyes find the door that Toph has pressed herself against to keep shut. Her hands are at the handle, shoving it back into the wall, shoving it against a force outside the door that is trying to pry it open.
“Toph!” she shouts.
She runs across the room to help but then she curses her carelessness because the girl looks back to her in worry—she’s a selfless person, Toph, though she fights against the reputation—and the door slams open.
Before Toph can regain her balance—her position was off, leaning against the door, putting all her weight into the effort of keeping it closed; she bends the door closed but too late, they’ve already slipped inside—a wild, smirking Azula has Toph’s legs trapped between her own, her hands pinned behind her back, and lightning at her neck.
In the middle of the room, Katara slides to an immediate halt.
Unbeknownst to her, Zuko had followed, and he stops just behind her.
“If you move,” Azula snarls in Toph’s ear, and it’s only audible because the only thing Katara can hear is her heart, is the blood rushing in her ears—she can’t hear the jangling of keys or the slamming open of the door or the stomping of dozens of guards surrounding them; can’t hear Ty Lee’s shout as she and Mai are shoved down next to her and Zuko, “the Water girl dies.”
Toph’s face sets. Azula yanks her up by her hair. She only resists a moment before submitting to the grip.
The lightning crackles in Azula’s hands and she’s different than Katara remembers. Looser, angrier, violent. Like a wounded animal. Katara can’t tear her wide eyes away from the blue sparks at Azula’s fingers, pushed up against Toph’s neck, until she realizes that her hands are bound and that her back is pressed against a hard metal chest.
She’s slammed to her knees but she doesn’t dare move—not with Azula like this. She only glances to her sides to see Zuko and Mai and Ty Lee. Someone is yelling—Zuko, she thinks—but she can’t hear them. Oceans roar in her ears.
Mai’s face is paler and Ty Lee’s is paler, but Katara glances back at Azula and she hasn’t glanced at them once. Her eyes only flit between Katara and Zuko, not registering the others’ presence.
Katara’s eyes drop back down to the blue at Toph’s neck.
“It’s an honor to finally meet you,” Azula quips smoothly, a feral grin sliding over her face. It’s on her lips, yes, but it’s in her eyes, too—hungry and furious and mad.
Katara narrows her eyes, but doesn’t move fast. She doesn’t know this Azula. Hasn’t fought her.
Azula hadn’t killed anyone before, to her knowledge. Not so harshly and directly as Ice Pop. Her friends’ betrayal has obviously changed her, obviously broken her, and Katara knows this. Knows that she must be careful.
“We’ve met,” she snarls.
“Not properly,” Azula says. “The circumstances are unfortunate, of course,” she nods down towards Toph, “but some sacrifices are necessary. I hadn’t known it was possible to metalbend. I’m quite impressed. Did you invent it yourself?”
“Put me down and I’ll impress you,” Toph snaps, but her voice is a garbled choke because Azula’s fingers are stabbing straight into her throat.
“What do you want, Azula?” Zuko demands.
Azula frowns at him, eyes shining. “I just want you to feel better. You don’t look like you’re feeling too well. Didn’t you want your peasant to heal you?”
Katara tries to turn her head but she can’t, now—the guard behind her shoves her cheek back forward. She twists her wrists in his hands but they chafe against the metal. She winces.
“Let her go,” he growls.
“You know, Zuzu” Azula says easily, only looking at her brother, only addressing him. “I’ve been feeling rather philosophical lately.” She laughs loud and piercing and rabid. “Almost like Uncle.”
“Let her go.”
“Do you want to know what I’ve learned?”
The guard must pull on Zuko’s neck, because all that comes from his mouth is a strained groan.
Her polished eyebrows draw down toward her eyes, her chin tilts toward her chest. She’s looking down at them, looking down on them. Her voice is hard and condescending in its cold certainty. “Love only gets things killed.”
The lightning creeps closer to Toph’s neck. It’s jumping with Azula’s random shifts, so, terrified, Katara shouts, “Don’t hurt her!”
Azula’s focus turns to her. “You always have been rather outspoken, haven’t you?”
Stall stall stall stall.
For what purpose? She doesn’t know.
Maybe Azula’s anger will fade after a bout of conversation.
(Yeah, okay, Katara. And monkey-dolphins shed.)
“No,” she says. “Not always.”
Raising an eyebrow, Azula asks, “Really? What changed?”
“My mother died.”
“Ah,” Azula says, narrowing her eyes in scrutiny. She twists her lips to the side, glances at Zuko, and back to Katara. She clicks her tongue against her teeth. “Mothers.”
She watches Katara for a long moment more. Something brews in her calculating eyes.
Then, slowly, she smiles.
It looks uncomfortable on her face. Like it doesn’t fit. Like it doesn’t belong. But it blooms nonetheless. “My intention was to kill all of you, you know.” She pauses, furrowing her eyebrows and glancing at the ceiling, and corrects herself. “Except my brother. He still needs to see my father.”
No one breathes.
She continues, talking to Katara. “But I’ve always liked fighting against you. So has Zuko.” Her smile becomes a grin, and the grin is malicious.
Something is wrong.
“And I am feeling rather sentimental.”
Something is very wrong.
“Nothing is in the way, now,” she says, glancing past Katara again. This time Katara thinks she glances past Zuko, too—to Ty Lee? Mai? That’s the first time they’ve been acknowledged.
“Why don’t we compromise?” Azula asks. She summons more lightning against Toph’s neck, drawing Katara’s eyes, reminding her of the situation. As if she had forgotten. Azula turns her smirk to Zuko. “You’ll owe me forever, brother. These are colossal favors.”
“What?” Katara demands.
“Your situation is dire. This is really quite charitable of me, considering the circumstances. You’re all supposed to die.”
Katara fights her captor and loses badly. “Spit it out.”
“Alright, alright. Patience is a virtue, you know.”
“I don’t care about your stupid—”
“You come with my brother and I to Caldera City, and I’ll let your friend live.”
Immediately, Toph shouts, “No!” and she squirms in Azula’s hold.
She manages to get one leg free, kicking it out and slamming it down so hard that metal pulls from the ground and wraps around Azula’s foot.
Azula doesn’t even flinch.
With one of her legs confined, Toph’s other is free, so she keeps fighting but Katara stops paying attention. She leans forward and kicks her leg back, sweeping the guard’s feet out from underneath him. He falls in a heap but then there are one, three, eight guards surrounding Katara—she’s slammed in between two of them and she groans when she’s punched in the gut, blinking her eyes to keep them from fading to black.
Heat rises against the side of her face. It draws sweat from her forehead, from her cheek, and he pushes it closer and closer until it licks at her skin. Her breaths shallow but she forces her eyes to remain open.
Zuko is shouting but she can’t hear what he says because the flames are a barrier to everything except what’s right in front of her.
Toph, frozen, staring in her general direction with wide, fearful eyes.
Jagged metal wraps both of Azula’s legs, her torso, one of her arms, and one side of her neck. She looks entirely unsurprised. With her free arm, she pinches lint from her shoulder, examines it, and flicks it away. She raises her eyebrows at Toph. “What did I tell you before?” she asks, and her tone is too calm, too close to concern. Katara wonders how someone gets that good at lying, but the thought disappears as soon as it’s come, because the flames are beginning to scorch her skin. “With your... condition, can you see fire?”
Toph doesn’t answer.
“Because she’s about a hair away from being burned.”
“I’m fine, Toph.”
Toph shakes her head a little: You’re lying.
A wisp of flame makes contact, and she bites the inside of her cheek.
Gritting her teeth, Toph fists her hands and wrenches the metal back.
All of it drops from around Azula and she steps forward, waving a careless hand at the guard. The fire extinguishes. Katara drops her chin to her chest, sucking in fresh air. Behind her, the guards wrap her wrists in twine that bites at her raw skin.
Azula sighs. “That’s enough, Zuko.”
“You’re insane,” he’s saying, and Katara had forgotten that he’s been shouting this entire time. “You can’t even—”
Azula draws the lightning up again. Zuko silences. Smirking, she ignores him completely.This time she doesn't put it against Toph’s neck, just points it in her direction. “That was the first pragmatic decision you’ve ever made,” she says. With a lilt in her voice, she continues, “You’re a Bei Fong, aren’t you? If your parents cared at all, you should know what pragmatic means.”
“She’s goading you, Toph,” Katara says, coughing. She’s a little surprised at how poorly Azula is concealing her taunts. “Just let it go.”
“Kill us now or take us back to the prison,” Toph snaps. “Stop playing stupid games.”
“Oh, I don’t know how to play games,” Azula says with mock sincerity. “It’s simple, really. If the peasant comes with me, I’ll let you go. You’ll fly out on this very ship. And, since you’re incapable of flying, I’ll even let you keep your escort. ”
Mai and Ty Lee.
Katara’s eyes widen.
She means to let them go with Toph.
Why does she want me so badly?
“If not, each one of you will be killed.” She glances at Zuko. “Except you, brother.”
“How compassionate,” he mutters.
A rustling sound and his groan. Katara flinches.
“Refusing would be foolish,” Azula says. She shrugs. “But who am I to stand in the way of love?”
Her twisted version of love that means they’ll all be killed.
There’s no choice, really.
“I’m staying with Katara,” Toph says flatly.
“No,” Katara says, straightening where she kneels. “No, Toph. Leave.”
Toph’s snort is unamused. “You’re an idiot.”
“No, Toph,” she insists, desperation entering her voice. “You’re an idiot if you stay.”
“Yeah, you are,” Mai says.
Azula blinks in surprise—it’s the first time Mai has spoken. Apathy quickly replaces the surprise, though, and she watches on blankly.
Mai continues, “They’ll be fine.”
Toph looks furious. “They won’t be fine,” she shouts. Then, pointing at Azula, “She’s insane! She’ll kill them both!”
“She’s not an idiot, either. Why would she kill them when she could torture them?”
Toph scoffs. “Is that supposed to convince me to agree? Because if so, you suck at—”
“Not physically torture,” Mai says, rolling her eyes. “You’re blind, but you’re not that blind.”
Katara furrows her eyebrows, but comprehension slowly dawns on Toph’s face. Anger drops from her shoulders as she thinks.
Azula is smirking. “You know me so well,” she says to Mai. “If only my brother understood.”
“I understand plenty,” he spits. As soon as the words are out, he dissolves into coughs.
I don’t understand, Katara thinks.
“Oh, Zuzu,” Azula laughs. “You’re so naive.”
What is she playing at?
Azula claps her hands together. “I’m so glad we’ve come to a decision,” she says.
“We haven’t,” Toph says.
“But we have,” Azula says. She flicks her hand and the guards yank Katara to her feet. Beside her, Zuko gets lifted, too.
“I don’t know,” Ty Lee says pointlessly, joining the conversation, biting her lip.
“You never did,” Azula says. She folds her hands behind her back and turns to Toph. “Just so you know, I would never sink to fratricide.”
“I’ve seen you try to kill him before,” Toph says flatly.
“I promise,” Azula says, “I just want to take on some charity work.”
Toph leans in towards her. “And what is your word worth?” she spits.
“Apparently, it’s worth all of your lives.”
“What about Katara?”
“I told you. Charity work.”
“Are you going to kill her?”
Sighing, Azula runs a hand down her face. “I don’t know why I’m negotiating with a child.”
“Are you?” Toph demands. “Going to kill her?”
“Unless you agree, yes, I will, and my charitable inclinations will have all been for naught.”
“Just leave, Toph,” Katara says, sensing the end of Azula’s patience. “We’ll be alright.”
Toph looks at her with wide eyes for a long moment.
Then her face hardens. “Fine,” she mutters. She stalks toward Mai and Ty Lee and turns back to Azula. “Get off the ship.”
“Best of luck,” she says, voice honey sweet. Every syllable grinds at Katara’s nerves. “I’m sure I’ll see you soon.”
She wiggles her fingers. Katara and Zuko are shoved forwards.
Katara rips out of the guards grip to look back. Ty Lee’s face is pale with worry. Mai’s face is apathetic, but her hand is clamped around Toph’s wrist in a furious bid to keep her from darting forward.
Toph’s posture is rigid but her eyes are tight, her lips are wobbling, her nostrils are flaring.
“We’ll be fine,” Katara calls back, dodging the gag that the guard tries to shove into her mouth. In the rush to get the words out, they all slur together. “Remember to watch the valve that kept exploding. And don’t forget to check the wind before you adjust the rudder.” Tears bubble in her eyes as she gets dragged to the doorway. She tries to look back over and over, but the guard shoves her shoulders or her neck or her face and keeps her looking forwards. “And remember the rice this time!”
“I’m sorry,” Toph returns, voice choked.
“It’s not your fault,” Zuko calls back, voice weak from the guard’s abuse. “Get back safe and take care of my stuff, okay?”
Katara scowls. “This isn’t the time to worry about your stuff,” she hisses.
She doesn’t know if she’s heard, but Zuko ignores her anyway. “We’ll be back soon,” he promises. Then he repeats, pointedly, “Watch my stuff.”
Katara opens her mouth to say something, too, but the guard takes the opportunity to shove the gag into her mouth. She coughs at the sudden pressure against her throat.
“She can’t breathe, idiot,” Zuko snaps from behind her. Her guard stumbles so she assumes Zuko has kicked him. “Take it out. She’s just saying goodbye.”
It’s not goodbye.
She scowls around her gag and tries to say, “I can defend myself,” or “It isn’t goodbye,” but he’s right—she can’t even breathe—so the words come out garbled and unintelligible.
“Take it out,” Zuko demands.
Katara glares at the back of the guard in front of her and pretends it’s him.
“Don’t kill him yourself, Sugar Queen,” Toph says, voice subdued. They pass into the next room and, right before the door slams shut, Katara makes out a murmured, “Keep him safe.”
And then they’re gone.