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book one: reunion

 

Katara frowns. 

“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!”

Sokka flinches.

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. 

Suki.

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.)

Dad!”

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. 

(Right?)

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.

It’s shame. 

 

%%%

 

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.) 

 

%%%

 

Why, though? 

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?

Yes.

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.

Thanks, Sparky. 

Ow. 

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. 

His destiny

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.

Hope.

 

%%%

 

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.”

Silence. 

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!”

Everyone stills. 

“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. 

 

%%%

 

"Hey, Katara?"

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. 

Without him

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.

Hypocrite. 

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!

Hypocrite.

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.

(It’s not.)

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. 

“Got it?” 

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. 

Zuko.

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. 

Right.

 

%%%

 

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.

"Promise?”

A moment passes. He squeezes her harder.

She understands.

(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.”

Chapter Text

With drawn eyebrows, Katara reads over Sokka’s words again.

Lift the lever next to the intake pipe. This will release pressure from the valves. IF YOU DON’T DO THIS, THE VALVES WILL EXPLODE. YOU WILL CRASH. So make sure to do it. Then press the orange, glowy sphere at the center of the control panel. This activates the pistons. WITHOUT THE PISTONS, YOU CANNOT FLY. YOU WILL CRASH. So you have to do it right.

Are they even instructions?

No. They’re warnings. 

Bleak, cynical, hopeless warnings. 

“Keep moving, Sugar Queen,” Toph calls. “You’re standing still again. I can feel it.”

“Will you cut it out?” Katara snaps, swiping her forearm over her face in a desperate bid to remove the sweat.

“Am I wrong?”

“You’re possibly the least helpful person I know.”

Toph scoffs loudly. “All I’ve been doing is helping!”

“Your attitude sure isn’t helpful.”

“Says the princess who’s afraid to get her hands greasy.”

“My hands are covered in oil!” Katara cries, turning to glare at the door. Toph isn’t there, of course—she’s two rooms, two tons of coal, and two million levers and buttons away—but it assuages some of her irritation nonetheless.

“Then bend it off!” Toph shouts. It’s quickly followed by an echoing crash of coal into the furnace. 

Neither of them even flinch. 

She turns back to the stupid piece of parchment.

Sokka’s anxiety is obvious through his written words and, if she wasn’t nearly choking on her own, she might have laughed. 

But, as it is, she’s in no laughing mood. She taps a random pipe with her blackened fingernails and wonders if she should have asked him for a detailed diagram instead.

“My parents probably think I’m alive,” Toph yells. 

Katara scowls. “You are alive.”

“Not for much longer.”

“I got us off of the ground, didn’t I? We’ve been in here for almost an hour. That in itself is a success.”

“Oh, sure,” Toph calls. “We’re about to die, but hey! We get to ride in a hulking metal death-trap! Success!”

Something pops and steams under a glittering panel and, with renewed worry, Katara ignores Toph. Focus. “Intake pipe,” she mumbles under her breath, reading and re-reading the hanging script. She turns back to the panel. “Intake pipe, intake pipe.”

Unfortunately, inanimate as it is, the intake pipe doesn’t respond to her summons. 

Her weary legs sway underneath her but she flips the panel open nonetheless. Steam rises so fast from the uncovered buttons that she is blinded. She flicks her fingers to bend it away and immediately wishes she hadn’t. 

A burnt, utterly destroyed pipe greets her. Ashes scatter freely through the air. 

She glances at Sokka’s words. 

THE VALVES WILL EXPLODE. YOU WILL CRASH.

“Alright over there, Sweetness?” Toph yells, and her voice is smug. “Your heartbeat sounds a little stressed.”

I warned you, Sokka’s voice tells her. It’s smug, too. 

She clenches her fists and shouts back through gritted teeth, “Perfectly fine, thanks so much!” 

“Mmhm. You sound just great.”

Katara slams her hand against the wall. “Shut up!” 

 

%%%

 

They fall into a rhythm, once the stress wears off a bit, once they’ve spent no small amount of time in silence, and once the view out the window is water instead of land. 

Toph fills the furnace. She tracks the coal levels to make sure they don’t get too high. Then she bends the rudders according to Katara’s navigational directions—which are, admittedly, lacking, but that’s beside the point—and fills the furnace again to make sure the coal levels don’t drop. 

La showed Katara great mercy because she soon finds that the panel she’d exploded wasn’t the valves, and her error was of no consequence. She reads the instructions under the category of While Flying—as opposed to While Taking Off, While Landing, While in a Life or Death Situation, While Considering Throwing Away These Directions—the latter had only one, bolded word in it: Don’t.—and repeats the steps. Over and over and over again. 

Skilled pilots must complete the tasks really quickly so that they have time to rest in between rotations. By the time Katara has completed one round, buttons and levers that have been neglected for fifteen minutes are again blinking in warning. Unless she wants to crash—or, worse, prove Sokka right—she can’t rest.

They work in focused silence. The rising sun sets the ocean aflame.

 

%%%

 

"Toph?"

“Yeah?” she grunts.

Katara frowns, popping her head upright, and whatever she was going to ask floats away to make room for, “Are you alright?”

“Fine.”

Her frown deepens. “Are you sure?”

“Positive,” Toph says tightly.

Katara closes the panel she’s been fiddling with for the past half minute, flicks a final lever, and risks abandoning her post. 

She hurries from the room and finds Toph—it must be Toph, surely, beneath that thick coating of dust—attempting to bend an enormous chunk of coal out of the furnace. 

Her posture is stiff but arches toward the flames as if fighting an invisible pull. Sweat beads down her face and cleanses a trail through the black ashes. As she notices Katara’s arrival, she tries to steady her limbs, but Katara can still see the way they tremble. 

“You need a break,” Katara decides.

“I told you,” Toph snaps, even as the coal doesn’t budge, “I’m fine.”

“No, you’re not. You’re exhausted.” She moves to place a hand on her shoulder. An annoyed, garbled protest comes from Toph’s throat, but she doesn’t try to shake it off. “You’ve been bending all morning. Let’s go eat some lunch.”

She crosses her arms in apparent anger, but Katara smiles because she knows she’s only done it to drop the coal. “Didn’t Sokka tell us we’d die if we took a break at the same time?”

“We haven’t died yet, have we?”

“Yeah, because we’ve been listening to what he said.”

“Ooh, this is new,” Katara smirks. “You, listening? Taking orders from someone else? Since when?”

“I know what you’re doing,” Toph announces, raising her chin haughtily. 

“I’m not doing anything,” she lies.

“You’re trying to taunt me into agreeing with you,” Toph says. She fists her hand and the dust jumps from her skin and clothing, leaving only grease and oil to separate her from her departing appearance. 

“No, I’m not,” she lies again.

“Yes, you are.”

Katara smirks. “Is it working?”

Toph narrows her eyes and purses her lips. There’s a long beat of silence.

Then she spins on her heel and struts past Katara toward the kitchens. “I’m hungry," she says. "That’s the only reason I’m agreeing.”

Katara’s smirk slips into a grin. 

 

%%%

 

They end up eating stew. Neither of them had wanted to return to the furnace just to heat it, so they just sit and slurp the chilly broth in silence. 

Toph looks exhausted, and for the first time Katara realizes the heavy bags that line her eyes. Her eyebrows are drawn and her expression is distant, as if recalling something unpleasant.

The quiet isn’t awkward, exactly, because Toph doesn’t even seem to register it at all. But as Katara notices more peculiarities about her disheveled appearance, she feels a pressure to speak. 

She clears her throat. Toph’s gaze doesn’t slip. “Did you sleep okay last night?” 

Now it slips. She shakes her head once, sharply, to snap herself to the present. Then, flicking her eyes to Katara’s neck, she raises her eyebrows. “The only one who slept okay last night was Appa.”

“That’s not true. Sokka was snoring all night.”

“That was Chatterbox.” Chatterbox. Katara racks her brain. Chatterbox. Chatter—oh. Chit Sang. “Snoozles didn’t sleep.”

“His room is right next to mine,” she frowns. “I heard him.”

“The vibrations came through the roof, not the wall. It was annoying.”

Katara shrugs off the pointless argument. “So you didn’t sleep, then?”

“I did.”

“Well?” she prods. 

“Well, what?”

She rolls her eyes. “No, I mean did you sleep well?”

“Why do you care?”

“I don’t know,” she jeers, throwing her hands into the air, patience exhausted. "Maybe because you look like you’ve been run over by a tiger seal?”

A pause, then, “Tiger seals can’t run.”

“Just answer the question!” 

Toph looks at her blankly. 

Katara groans, rests her elbows on the table, and drops her head into her hands. 

There’s a long moment’s silence.

Then Toph sighs. “I’m fine, Katara,” she says. A little surprised, Katara peers at her through splayed fingers. Her eyes have plunged to her empty bowl and a hint of pink plays at her cheeks. Her next words are soft. “But, no. I didn’t sleep at all last night.”

Katara straightens and her arms fall to her sides. She’s never been exactly adept at communicating with Toph, so she hesitates a moment before carefully pressing on. “Nerves?”

Toph scowls and snaps, “Of course not.” 

Well. 

Much good her efforts are.

Now Toph will hide behind arrogant superiority, like usual, and it will annoy her and they’ll fight and then she’ll never open up and—

But, to Katara’s great astonishment, Toph’s shoulders relax. “Actually, I guess a little,” she admits. She keeps her head lowered. “But not about fighting or losing or...or anything like that. Just about your flying abilities.”

She’s just embarrassed, Katara thinks, consoling her pride, so she’s targeting you. Let it pass. 

Besides, her brother’s voice whispers again, smug and smirking as ever, that fear isn’t at all unfounded

(And, unfortunately, the truth cares nothing for one wounded ego.)

“Well,” she starts, almost keeping the short, prim note from her tone, fighting the desire to let said ego win out, “no one in their right mind would blame you for that.”

Toph’s head shoots up in surprise. Then, after a moment, she laughs. Her posture droops and she folds her arms onto the table. 

As quickly as the grin came, though, all traces of it disappear. “I’m…I don’t know,” she says, and now her laugh is bitter. She shakes her head in self-reproach. “It’s stupid.”

“So is Sokka,” Katara says, smiling a little, “and we both listen to him talk all the time.”

Toph snorts. “Too much.”

Warm silence lasts for a couple of seconds before Katara prompts, “Go on.”

“I just miss him, I guess,” Toph mutters, and she seems relieved to have the words out. She twists her fingers together. Knuckles pop at random. “I’d gotten used to having him around. And I don’t want—it would really suck if they hurt him.”

Katara bites her lip and speaks quietly. “I...well, everyone knew you guys were close, but I didn’t know that…”

“Someone could be important to me?” she quips.

Only after realizing that Toph can’t see her pointed look does Katara say, pointedly, “You know that’s not what I meant.”

Toph pulls her lips to the side and gives a stiff nod.

Toph,” she implores, straightening on the bench. “That wasn’t what I meant. I think I’m just a little confused because I haven’t seen the same sides of him that you have. I just...don’t know him very well.”

“You mean you don’t get why someone would want to be around him.”

She looks down, wringing her hands in her lap, wondering if everyone can read her that easily.

Toph’s expression hardens at the unspoken acknowledgment. “Guess whose fault that is, Sweetness? Yours. It’s not like we throw bonding parties without you.”

“Well, obviously, but—”

“You’ve been around to see all the same sides of him that the rest of us have! You just purposely ignore the good ones. You already made up your mind about how much you hate him, so you won’t give him another chance. That’s not on him. That’s on you.”

“I did give him a chance,” she snaps, surprising herself: she hadn’t told anyone this before. “In Ba Sing Se. He threw it back in my face. Aang almost died because of him. How am I supposed to let that go?”

“Aang almost died because of Azula.”

“But if Aang and I had fought her together, we would have beaten her! Zuko came and split us up!”

“He’s different now, Katara.”

“How?” she demands. “How can someone change so much in so little time?”

“He has changed,” Toph says, crossing her arms, “and if you’d open your eyes for one split second, you’d be able to see.”

Katara leans back and speaks softer, harsher. “That day in Ba Sing Se he said he’d changed, too. Look what good came from that.”

“Yes, Katara, look! Aang is learning firebending. You got your dad back. Sokka got Sunshine. Not because we’re genius firebending teachers or prison saviors. Because of Zuko.” Toph slams her fist into the table and the metal dents to her will. “Why are you so set on hating him?” 

Katara glares at her.

On the count of her willful dismissal of Zuko’s positive actions, Toph is probably right. But all she knows is that some deep part of her heart was shredded that day in the catacombs, he was the cause, and she isn’t sure she can ever mend it back.

She trusted him. She offered up—so thoughtlessly—one of her most valued possessions. For him to play her so easily...to fool her so effortlessly…

Maybe it was trust in herself that was broken. A pattern does show, doesn’t it? Confide in Jet, betrayed; confide in Zuko, betrayed; confide in Hama, betrayed. 

(Innocence; that’s what it was. An innocence that can never be retrieved.)

So maybe Zuko has changed and maybe he is different: better, good. But he had stolen something from her that should have lasted much longer. La forgive her if she doesn’t jump at the chance to trust him.

“Because he changed everything,” she says. Then she stands up and walks away.

Behind her, Toph punches the table into the wall. It bangs, clatters, and echoes loudly, but Toph’s yell is louder. “And I’m the blind one?” 

 

%%%

 

“Could you please quit pacing?” Toph shouts. “It’s giving me a headache.”

"You’re giving me a headache.” 

“At least I’m being productive! I haven’t felt a single switch or lever move in like ten minutes!”

Katara’s hands ball into fists at her side and, like a child, she stomps her feet harder against the metal. “I must be doing fine because we haven’t crashed yet, have we? Why don’t you try gratitude for a change?”

Something in the furnace singes loud enough to reach her ears. “Why don’t you try silence?”

Glaring at the door, she opens her mouth, closes it, opens it again, and then roars in frustration. “Your complaining is getting so old.”

“Then don’t talk to me! Or don’t listen. See if I care.”

“Fine,” Katara calls. 

“Fine,” Toph responds.

They work in silence until night falls. 

(Neither of them accomplish much.)

 

%%%

 

The time for dinner comes and goes unmentioned by them both.

She knows they should eat. Build up their strength for if something happens. They need to be at their best. 

But the thought of food makes her queasy, and she’s sure if either one of them had been hungry, they would’ve already raided the kitchens.

Layers of guilt build slowly in her chest. She tries to push them away, force them down, but when she’s lost in thought, her eyes stray to the doorway and wonder if Toph is alright.

 

%%%

 

It isn't long before she loses patience.

“Hey,” she says. 

Toph doesn’t turn, only shifts a metal beam back and forth. It sways like a wave. 

“Listen, um,” she continues when she is unacknowledged, “I...we should probably split shifts overnight.”

“You choose now to follow Sokka’s stupid paper? When we both really need to sleep?”

Her voice is wary and sharp but some part of her posture indicates to Katara that she’s willing to move on. That they can make things better. 

So she snorts. “Yeah, well. Lunch is one thing. We were only away from our jobs for a few minutes.”

“It was almost an hour.”

“Okay, but, given how tired we both are right now, who knows how long we’d sleep for? It could be ten hours. And then the ship would crash and we’d never wake up.”

“A little morbid there, Sugar Queen.”

Katara smiles faintly. A couple long, silent moments pass before she clears her throat and straightens from against the wall. “Anyway, I think you should take first rest. I’ll wake you up halfway to dawn.”

“Sooo...midnight?”

“Oh.” She flushes a little. “Yes.”

“Or if you can’t stay awake.”

“What?” 

“Wake me up at midnight, or earlier if you’re about to fall asleep and kill us both.”

“Oh, right. Okay. That’s probably a good idea.” 

Another pause. 

“You don’t have to do much for my part, by the way,” Katara informs. “Just track the pressure exerted on the metal sheets. If they it gets too high, flick the nearest lever or press the nearest button.”

“It seems like Snoozles way overcomplicated that.”

She grins. “He did.” 

“Well, all you have to do for my part is shovel coal in there,” Toph says, pointing at the furnace. Her arms shakes wearily as she does it. “Don’t try to mess with the flappy things.” Rudders. “They’re all lined up right now.”

“Perfect, thanks,” she answers. A pause, then she moves a step out of the room. “Goodnight, then.”

A brief, flitting frown crosses Toph’s face before she shrugs and saunters to their quarters. 

 

%%%

 

Working both jobs is exhausting

She has to run from room to room to complete a set and then refill the coal and check to make sure that no random sparks fly and set a piece of cloth on fire and then run back to the control room and—

(She misses Toph.)

(Maybe they shouldn’t have listened to Sokka.)

—in the face of said exhaustion, she finds her anger faded. 

 

%%%

 

Only three hours pass before company marches into the control room.

“Toph? Why are you up?” 

“I couldn’t sleep,” she says. “Too many footsteps.”

Katara narrows her sleepless eyes. “Well, I’m sorry that I had to—”

“I’m not blaming you, Princess. Seriously.” Toph shrugs as Katara takes a breath. “I know you had a lot going on. I just couldn’t sleep.”

“Did you sleep at all?”

“Yeah, a little.”

She does look a bit more rested. Some of the tired bruises under her eyes have faded to a dull yellow, rather than a sharp purple. 

“Now it’s your turn,” she continues, pointing toward the doorway. “Out you go.”

Katara doesn’t even put up a fight. 

 

%%%

 

She pushes a smile onto her face. "It's not...terrible?"

“Lying.”

Forces the smile wider. “It’s decent?”

“Lying, Sweetness.”

She sighs. The spoon drops back into the bowl of jook. “It’s disgusting.”

“Aaaand there’s the truth.”

“Where did you even get this recipe? It’s so...strange.”

Toph laughs. “Gramps gave it to me.”

“Gramps?”

“Sparky’s crazy uncle.”

Iroh.

She hadn’t thought about him since…

Well.

A long while.

“Oh,” she says. “Of course.”

“Apparently it’s an Earth Kingdom specialty, but I’d never heard of it before him.”

“That’s because if anyone served it to your family, your parents would demand their heads.”

Toph shrugs. “Very possible.”

Katara swirls the spoon through the gooey slush. Both of them had rested—after she had woken up, Toph had been able to sleep a little longer. It's midday now. If everything went to plan, they’d arrive near sunset. 

Sometime during the night, an unspoken truce had formed between them. She isn’t eager to break it. They’ll be stuck together for a while, after all. 

And, besides. Toph is good company. Sometimes.

Katara raises the spoon to her lips and cringes. To get her mind off the awful texture, she asks, “He’s really close with his uncle, huh?”

Toph smiles at the table. “Yeah. Talks about him all the time. Especially when he’s making tea. He’ll start quoting these random proverbs and jokes.” Suddenly, she laughs. “The jokes are so bad.”

“I know. I’ve heard some of them.”

“But you haven’t heard the really awful ones. One night—”

“Don’t scar me, Toph, please. Spare me the—”

Toph’s grin is feral. “One night after dinner, he told us about how once when they were in a port city, Gramps really wanted tea. Like, so bad that it was all he could talk about. But then he saw this old woman and Sparky said his eyes went wide and he said, ‘Prince Zuko, that woman is brew-tea-full!’ And then their departure was delayed because Gramps was laughing so hard that he couldn’t walk.”

“La save us all,” Katara mumbles. 

“I know,” Toph says, starting to laugh. “But that isn’t even the best part. The next morning, me and Sparky were leaving to spar, and we walked past Sokka’s room and—”

Katara covers her face with her hands. “Oh, no, Toph. Please don’t say it. I really don’t want to—”

“—he was sitting next to Suki and she was just waking up and he said, ‘Do you want some tea? Because you look really brew-tea-full this morning.’”

Katara groans. 

“Me and Sparky couldn’t even make it out of the hallway. Snoozles was so angry.” 

“That’s so…” She shudders. “Ugh.”

“The first thing Sparky said,” Toph continues, sombering a little but still smiling, “was, ‘I can’t wait to tell Uncle.’” She looks down and the smile drops completely. “And I can’t remember what I said, but he was all mopey and said, ‘Sokka would be a better nephew than me. Uncle would love him.’ Then he was all distracted when we sparred. He didn’t even notice when I let him win four times.”

Katara looks down, too. “What did you tell him? After he said that?”

“To shut up, obviously. He was being stupid. I punched him.”

“Well,” she says in an effort to lighten the mood, in an effort to distract herself from her mounting confusion, “maybe that’s why he sparred so poorly.”

Toph’s distant look is back and, frowning, she doesn’t take the bait. “I don’t think so.”

 

%%%

 

"Oh!" Toph shouts suddenly, jolting up straight.

Katara jumps and nearly drops the needles in her hands. 

She scowls. “Are you trying to give me a heart attack?”

“You’re fourteen,” Toph says, flicking a final piece of coal into the furnace, spinning to face her fully. “You’re not gonna die of a heart attack."

“Don’t be insensitive,” she scolds, pulse still straining to relax. She sets the needles down. “Some people probably have. And, besides, you shouldn’t make claims unless you have statistics to back them—”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Toph cuts in. “Whatever. I’m not in the mood to be preached to.”

She scoffs. “I don’t preach.”

Toph smirks. 

She scrambles to her feet. “I don’t!”

Toph opens her mouth to respond but then freezes, paling considerably. “What is that?” 

Katara furrows her eyebrows at the dropped argument. “What is what?”

Toph’s eyes widen. She takes a step back. “Wait. There are multiple?”

“What are you talking about?”

Instead of answering, she shoves her fist toward the needles at Katara’s feet. But before Katara can even glance at them, they’re flipping through the air and landing in the depths of the furnace.

“What are you doing?” Katara demands. “I was using those!” She bends down to grab the half-mended, half-ripped backpack from the floor. “How are we supposed to use this unless we—”

“I don’t know what this is, genius,” Toph says, waving a hand in front of her eyes. 

“It’s a backpack. We need it to carry our food!”

“This ship is huge. There are probably a hundred backpacks in here.”

Katara sputters, glancing back to the furnace. “But—why—I wasn’t—”

Anyways,” Toph says, clearing her throat. She grins, all traces of the inexplicable outburst disappearing. “I know why that was so gross!”

For a long moment, Katara stares at her, lips parted.

Had she—

She hadn’t imagined it, had she? 

But Toph never drops things that quickly. She likes to hold grudges and use incidents as ammo and—

What was that?

“Earth to Sweetness,” Toph says flatly, now waving a hand toward where she imagines Katara’s face to be, but actually toward her collarbone. “Life changing ephiphany here. Where’s the excitement?”

Katara opens her mouth, closes it again, shakes her head in confusion, and manages, “What?”

She means what as in What just happened? or What was that? or What could you possibly have against me sewing?—maybe she was feeling extra egalitarian?—but Toph takes it as What did you mean before you freaked out, Toph? I’d love nothing more than to hear everything about what you almost gave me a heart attack over.

Communication isn’t their strong suit, is it? 

Yeah, no. Not exactly.

“I know why it was so gross!” 

“What?”

“Breakfast,” Toph says. 

Katara looks at her blankly, trying and failing to reconcile Toph’s enthusiasm with her either her freak out or the subject—breakfast? Is Toph usually passionate about it? Katara doesn’t think so, but maybe she just hasn’t been paying attention? 

“You’re killing me here, Sweetness. Honestly. I’m just trying to—”

She shakes her head and releases the confusion, because any efforts at comprehension are futile. “You mean the jook?” 

“Yes, genius. Breakfast.”

“What about it?”

“Finally,” Toph says, snorting. “Daydreaming, were we? Welcome back to reality.”

“Okay, what is going on in your brain? I’m going to get whiplash from how quickly you change—”

“Yada, yada,” Toph dismisses. “Anyways, I know why breakfast was so gross!” 

Katara narrows her eyes. “Because you can’t cook?”

“No. Well...kind of.” Toph grins. “I forgot the rice!”

 

%%%

 

Indeed, as Katara finds out ten minutes later, jook's only ingredient is rice.

What Toph had used, she doesn’t want to know.

(Why Toph had freaked out, she does want to know.)

(What she finds out is nothing.)

 

%%%

 

Over the next few hours it seems Toph doesn’t want to be alone. Wherever Katara goes, she follows. That same drawn expression always sits on her face, lasting until she opens her mouth. Then her lips quirk up and the crinkles on her forehead fade and she tells story after story about Zuko. 

Katara keeps asking. She tells herself that it’s because she hates seeing Toph sad—if talking about Zuko will brighten her up, then Katara will ask about Zuko—but the curiosity and interest stirring in her heart beg to differ. 

(She learns almost more than the hate in there can stand.)

For one, it turns out Zuko is the mystery dishwasher she’s been trying to identify for the past three weeks. It bothers Toph to no end. She’ll want to do something after dinner, after Katara is asleep, and Zuko will want to do the dishes. 

(What?)

He also told Toph stories about his mother. 

“He loves to talk about her,” she says, perched on a tabletop while Katara goes through Sokka’s routine, “but the stories cut off when he’s like ten. They’re only from when he’s younger, and I think he thinks I haven’t noticed. He’s oblivious.”

Toph relates stories of his mother teaching him to feed turtleducks, his mother with bandages after he’d tripped, his mother with the prettiest singing voice he’d ever heard. 

More stories, too. About other things. Of when he was sick and Iroh cared for him. Of when he first discovered he could firebend. Of his summers at Ember Island. 

Happy stories. Funny stories. Light and normal and real

And she doesn’t...she can’t…

(What?)

Then, when Toph has run out of stories she can remember, she starts recounting advice he’d given her. To contact her parents because they were probably worried about her, but not to expect much in a response. To give Aang space that one time she said something extra cutting during earthbending practice, but to treat him like normal once he got over it. To punch people lighter. 

If that wasn’t enough to confuse her, Toph continues. “And he’s always worrying about what you think of him. He never stops talking about it. Whenever you say something mean, he sulks and wonders if it’s true—which, of course, it isn’t, because you’re just being cold and heartless—“

“Hey!”

“—so that’s usually where my advice comes in. Which, of course, is amazing and incredible and always cheers him up.”

“Oh, I’m sure,” Katara glares. “You probably just insult me behind my back.”

Toph snorts, two eyebrows raised. “Are you kidding? He would die before letting anyone say a single bad thing about you.”

Katara opens her mouth to give a sharp retort but then pauses, processes, flounders, frowns. “What?”

“What?”

“You—does he—what?”

“You heard what I said.”

“Yeah, but...I mean—what? That can't be true.”

“Why would I lie?" Toph snaps.

Katara doesn’t know. That’s the problem. 

“Because you—” 

She’s glad that Toph cuts her off—she isn’t sure what she was going to say. “No. There's no reason. I’m not lying. Stop thinking so little of him.”

“I’m not!” she exclaims. “That just doesn’t add up. I mean, he says bad things to me all the time. It’s not like I'm the only one at fault in our arguments.” 

“Maybe you deserve to hear the things he says.”

“Maybe I do,” she says, even though she doesn’t. She’s convinced herself of this many a time. “But maybe he deserves what I say, too.”

“Well, what's he supposed to do?” Toph demands. “Sit there and take it? He’s not a...a pansy. He has to defend himself.”

Her mind skips through their different arguments. The stupid, pointless ones. The furious, aggressive ones. The harsher things said. The colder things said. The things that...can’t be unsaid.

She’s never told him why she hates him, of course. For one, there are too many reasons to count; she can’t even remember them all. But mostly, about the...the main event that forever cements the (nonexistent) status of their friendship…well. She doesn’t want to relive it. And, besides. He already knows.

(Right?)

But is she too hard on him? Does she hold him to an unreasonable standard? It isn’t like he can change what he has done. It isn’t like he can change the past, even if he regrets it. 

But it isn’t like he can change who he is, either. 

(Right?)

(How can someone change that quickly?)

(And why, in La’s good name, was he not slandering her?)

Guilt and...something else that she doesn’t want to focus on, something she hadn’t felt since Ba Sing Se—because he would die before letting anyone say a single bad thing about you —slip unwanted into her heart. 

All she did after one of their arguments was stomp and storm around and shout about how much she hated him to anyone who would listen. She’d imagined he did the same.

He didn’t. 

Toph has no reason to lie to her. It’s not like they’re on the best of terms at the moment. She isn’t sparing her feelings or stroking her ego. She’s telling the truth. 

And it confuses Katara so much that all of a sudden it’s too difficult to think about. She shoves the thoughts away and, thrusting a smile onto her lips—then remembering that Toph is blind and hoping it bleeds into her voice—says, “A pansy?”

“I heard Sunshine say it,” Toph grumbles. 

“I think half of your vocabulary is what Suki says.” 

Glaring, she crosses her arms. “Shut up.”

 

%%%

 

Her mind should have a chance to rest when, a couple hours from the prison, it’s her turn to sleep.

But nothing she’d heard makes sense, so she lies awake thinking until Toph pounds into her room with a bright, “Hey Sweetness, we made it! Now you’ve just gotta keep us alive until we land.”

Katara groans and rolls her face into her pillow.

 

%%%

 

"Did you sleep at all?" Toph asks. 

“Stop it.”

“I’m making small talk.”

“You’re distracting me and I need to focus.”

Toph sits on some random counter near the door and swings her legs underneath her. “But two minutes ago you said you wanted to talk.”

“I said I didn’t want to talk.”

Toph stretches her feet to the floor, waits a breath, retracts her legs, then sings, “Lie.”

Rolling her eyes, Katara throws down the cover to the panel she holds. “Fine. I wanted you to talk because I needed a distraction. But in these two minutes you’ve become too big of a distraction. So, just...shhh, for a minute. Okay?”

Toph smirks but doesn’t speak.

Katara refocuses. She reads the instructions on landing over and over until she’s certain she could rewrite them with her weaker hand while asleep and blindfolded. 

It’s easy. While bending and maintaining a cloud covering, she’ll steer the airship toward Azula’s fleet—which must be there, or neither of the siblings were still at the prison—and land “close to but not directly with” them. That way nothing will be suspicious. 

(Except for the fact that Azula is certainly aware of how many ships are in her fleet, and the fact that Azula would certainly be suspicious upon finding a new, polished one a couple klicks away from the rest, and the fact that Azula is likely expecting people to come break Zuko out, and the fact that Azula—)

Nah. No one will suspect a thing. That’s how unsuspicious everything will be. 

And, anyway, what are they supposed to do? They couldn’t have brought Appa because they wouldn’t have been able to take care of him. They can’t destroy the ship because they need a way off of the island.

(Someone, please give her a better idea. Spirits? Fate? Gods? Universe? Literally anyone. She isn’t picky and she isn’t prideful, but she is paranoid and pretty positive that it won’t take long for Azula to discover them. She’s gladly taking suggestions.)

The tangible logistics of the landing are easy, too. Toph will bend the rudders so that wind doesn’t alter their intended course. Katara will toggle with The Most Important Lever That You Must Remember—indeed, the instructions had been attached to The Useless Lever That You Will Never Touch, as she had discovered after flipping it to no effect—to do...something to the engine. She isn’t quite sure what. Then, once she’s pressed like forty other buttons at Sokka’s direction, she and Toph will bring ocean water and volcanic rock up to receive the ship. That way, hopefully, any blaring crashes will be muffled. 

Easy. 

Heh.

(No Spirits or Gods share their divine knowledge. Fate and the Universe ignore her calls.)

(She isn’t exactly surprised.)

 

%%%

 

The prison is huge.

Gigantic Fire Nation warship vs. Momo huge. 

She doesn’t even try to explain it to Toph. To all of the curious questions, she simply states, “It’s really big.”

Toph crosses her arms. “I guess I’ll just have to see it for myself.”

She’s so enraptured that she misses the petulance in the response. “Yeah,” she says.

“I hate being blind,” Toph mumbles. 

Katara peels her hands from the glass outlook, glancing at Toph with a wide-eyed apology that goes unseen. She hopes it seeps into her voice instead. “You will be able to see it, though. As soon as we get there.”

If we get there.”

“You’re addicted to pessimism,” Katara sighs, even though her pessimism grows with each passing second. The prison is huge. The lake surrounding the prison is huge. The rocks, the ocean, the warship: everything is huge. “We need to stage an intervention.”

“I’m serious,” Toph deadpans. “We won’t get there if you don’t flip your stupid switches.”

Katara’s hands jump to her mouth. “Dear La!” she shrieks, sprinting away from the window and toward the labyrinth of panels. “How did I forget to—you know what? Never mind. You already bent the—”

Yes, Sugar Queen.”

Closing her eyes, she takes a breath, pulls all the condensation from the humid air around the ship, and forms it into a thick cloud. “Alright. Good,” she gulps. “This takes just a little more concentration than Sokka expected, I think—”

“Just a little? Your hands are shaking.”

“No, they aren’t.”

“I can see them.”

“I’m not Sokka,” she says as sweat drips into her eyes. “I’m not falling for that.”

“With earthbending, genius. Not with my eyes.”

Katara glances down at her hands. They tremble from the strain of holding their cover. 

She clears her throat. “Well, that’s not what that’s from, so—”

“Really? What’s it from, then?”

“That’s irrelevant,” she says. “And unrelated.” 

Toph grins. “I don’t think so, Sweetness. I think—”

Anyway,” Katara says, breaking up the stupid, pointless argument that she was winning, “I’m going to put my free hand on different levers.” She does so, and glances back toward Toph. “Can you feel it?”

“Yeah.”

“Can you switch it?”

Toph nods and the lever flips. 

Katara almost drops her stupid cloud. “No! Switch it back! Switch it back!”

“What do you—why did you tell me to do it in the first place?” Toph demands. 

“I just wanted to know if you could do it. I didn’t actually want you to switch it! I have no idea what it does!”

“Why did you completely ignore everything Snoozles—”

“I listened to every single word he—”

A loud smack resounds around the metal room. 

They both jump, then still. 

“What was that?” Katara whispers, pulling the cloud tighter around the ship. 

“I’ll tell you in one second. Just let me look a little closer.”

She whips her head to glare at Toph, who, as she is blind, cannot see. 

Irked, she turns back to the window. “Not the time for your stupid sarcasm.”

“It’s always the time for sarcasm.”

“This is serious, Toph! Something probably exploded!”

“It wasn’t a boom, it was a—” Toph slaps the metal, recreating the smack sound, “—that.” 

A that.

Real helpful, Toph. Thanks.

Katara runs one hand through her hair—the other stays tense and raised, holding the cloud—and twists her neck in frantic circles to identify the crash’s cause. “It was probably because you flicked that lever.”

“Don’t put this on me!”

“We’re going to die. We’re going to crash and burn and—”

“Oh, hello, Katara's Pessimism. I’ve been waiting to meet you.” 

“—why didn’t Sokka mention this? He should’ve written something about—you know, in case we flicked that lever—”

“You don’t know it was the lever that caused it!”

“—unless, did he? No, I don’t think he...he didn’t write anything about a…a...” she trails off, gesturing randomly with her hands, unable to find a word for the sound. 

“A that?” Toph asks, smirking, hitting the metal again.

Yes, actually.

Katara scowls. “You’re such great help,” she says sourly. “What would I do without you?”

“Die of sadness.”

She ignores this. 

“It must have been the lever,” she mutters. “We haven’t had any other crashes like it.” Then, louder, “Do you think it was the lever?” 

“You’ll think whatever you want no matter what I think.”

“That’s not true.”

Toph snorts. “Lie.”

Her arm shakes from the cloud that she still holds. It’s suffering from her lack of attention, so she shuts her eyes to retake focus. “I wonder if—”

“Wait,” Toph cuts in sharply. She looks at the floor with furrowed eyebrows.

Katara stills.

“I feel something,” she says a moment later. Katara holds her breath. 

But then Toph’s posture relaxes. She starts to laugh. 

“What?” Katara demands, even as her wary stance eases slightly. 

“It’s your fault; that’s what. You’re a giant stress case who accidentally dented the ship when I reminded you about the switches. Nothing I can’t fix, obviously, and it isn’t a giant dent. But still.”

What?”

“You froze a part of your stupid cloud into an icicle. It came and hit us,” Toph says, pointing to some random part of the ship behind her, “there.” She jumps back onto the counter, her makeshift couch. “But we’re fine. The lever didn’t do anything, like I thought—I was right—and we’re still alive. Let’s keep it that way and land this thing.”

Katara stares at her blankly. 

Then, rolling her eyes, ignoring the ever-dwindling flame of her pride, and turning back to face the freakishly intimidating rows of panels, she says, “Yeah. Let’s.”

 

%%%

 

There are twelve ships on the base of the volcano.

Sokka had prepared them to face four, maximum. Azula had obviously demanded back up. 

But, the point is: the ships mean that Azula is still here.

(Why? Is she waiting for Aang?)

Azula's presence indicates that Zuko is still here, too.

Katara doesn’t know if she’s relieved or disappointed. 

She cramps the cloud closer. 

 

%%%

 

"That doesn't look suspicious at all."

“You can’t see.”

“Wow, thanks for reminding me! I would have forgotten.”

Katara sighs. “Can you just fix it?”

Toph raises an eyebrow. 

Please?

Now she smirks, falls into a bending form, and yanks the earth surrounding the ship down and away. Every rock and pebble drop back to their natural places and the ground looks exactly like it did before the ship had destroyed it. Except that, you know, there’s now a ship on top of it. 

It hadn’t been the worst landing ever, but it certainly could have been better. Meaning that if anyone else in any one of the four nations had done it, they would have done better, as Toph had been all too glad to point out.

They had all—including Sokka—underestimated the damage it would cause on impact. It had completely smashed every piece of the earth under it and, indeed, made the surrounding area look very suspicious. 

But Toph fixed that without trouble. Now, as she jerks into a different form, the metal on the bottom of the ship unbends. All the dents and scratches that had marred the ship disappear. 

Katara’s mouth drops open. “You can fix scratches?”

“It’s metal, isn’t it?

“But—so they spent all those hours buffing them out when you could have just...bent them away?”

“Pretty much.”

“What? Why didn’t you?”

Toph shrugs and the smirk falls from her face. She turns so half of her body faces the shore. “Bonding,” she says, and then she paces toward the sea. 

Bonding.

Katara frowns and follows her.

“What in the—do you feel this, Sugar Queen?” Toph calls. “I can’t even breathe.”

She pushes the confusion from her mind, face brightening as she focuses on their surroundings. “It’s not so bad,” she answers, running the remaining short distance to the ocean water and wading in with a relieved sigh. She folds it around her body and it’s as calming as eating Gran-Gran’s sea prune stew on a freezing day. Except that the thought of eating something warm in this heat is nauseating, so she supposes it’s more like drinking chilled water in the heart of the Serpent’s Pass. 

“That’s because it’s your element,” Toph grumbles, wetting only her feet. 

“Well, we’re standing on yours and I’m not complaining. Besides, it’s just humidity. Water vapor in the air. You’ll get used to it.”

“I miss the desert.”

Katara snorts, rolls her eyes, and flicks her hand upward. All of the water in the air around Toph’s head is siphoned away, leaving what looks like some kind of strange bubble helmet. Though Toph can’t see it, her eyes widen happily and she starts sucking in breaths. “Clean air!”

Laughing, Katara ducks her head under the surface. 

She emerges a few minutes later—finally, finally clean—and releases the bubble. “Sorry,” she tells her. “I can’t hold it forever.”

“It’s fine,” Toph says. 

They turn back to the ship. It doesn’t blend in, of course, but it doesn’t look as unnatural as it should, sitting there on the rocks. It’s ginormous and intimidating and maroon and hideous, but so are the other ships that lie only an hour’s walk around the perimeter of the volcano. 

It really is a miracle that they hadn’t been heard or spotted. They’d been careful not to get within range of the fleet, but that probably wouldn’t have been enough. There must be some Spirits or Gods looking out for them, after all. 

“What now?” Toph asks. 

Katara glances up at the sun. It’s just dipping into the water, just paling the evening with beams of light bouncing off the waves. “We can’t do much before the moon, right?” She turns to look at Toph. “At night it’ll be easier to hide, and I’ll be stronger.”

“Stop trying to convince me and just tell me what you’re thinking.”

An almost giddy feeling rises in Katara’s chest. “Sleep.”

 

%%%

 

She’s seven years old and her exasperated mother leans over her. “Katara. Please, honey. Just tell me what’s wrong.”

She crosses her arms tighter and turns to glare at the side of the igloo. “No.”

Her mother sighs, puts her hands on her hips, and turns to consider the jar on the rug in front of her. “Would you at least like some pickled kale?”

Her mask of anger flickers momentarily. Unpursing her lips, she glances over her shoulder. “Okay,” she relents.

She sits. Her mother carefully slices a leaf away from the bundle, then hands it to her. They chew in silence. 

“I’m never talking to Sokka again,” she says abruptly, mouth full of oily goodness.

A hint of a smile graces her mother’s lips. “Why not, sweetie?”

“Because he’s stupid!”

“That’s true,” her mother says, surprising her so much that she looks up. “All eight-year-old boys are stupid.”

“Yeah. Yeah, they are. He didn’t need to accuse me in front of everyone,” she grumbles. “I didn’t even touch his stupid seal jerky. He just likes meat more than me.”

“He’s too like your father,” she says fondly. She covers Katara’s hand with her own. “Give him a bit of time,” she advises, “and then talk to him about it.”

“I don’t want to talk to him,” Katara sulks. 

“That’s okay,” her mother says. “You don’t have to talk to him today.”

Even more surprised, she glances up. “Really?”

Her mother smiles softly. “Yes, really. I’ll talk to him instead, okay? And then, once he’s apologized to you, you can talk to him again.”

“He’ll never apologize. He doesn’t like saying sorry.”

“Neither do you,” her mother says, eyes sparkling.

“You don’t have to apologize when you’re always right!”

“Oh, I see,” her mother says, forcing down a smile. "You're one of a kind."

Katara nods firmly.

Her mother hands over another piece of pickled kale. “I think you should talk to him if he says sorry.”

“But—”

“No, Katara,” her mother says, meeting her gaze with raised eyebrows. “Listen.”

Katara swallows.

“I think you should talk to him if he says sorry and means it. Only if he actually seems sorry, and only if it seems like he’s actually changed. Not if he’s just saying it because I asked him to.”

Katara watches her for a moment, trying to process her words, trying to decide how to respond.

But then the scene shifts. Now she’s taller than her mother, leaning toward her, begging, imploring—she knows exactly how to respond; it's the question that's been sitting on her tongue for weeks, eagerly awaiting its escape.

“How do I know if he’s sorry?” she whispers frantically. “How do I know that he’s changed?”

Her mother’s answer disregards her desperation. “You have a good head on your shoulders, sweetheart. I trust you to be a good judge.”

Katara’s laugh is strangled. “No. No, I’m not a good judge. You shouldn’t trust me. Please, tell me. Please.”

Her mother opens her mouth to respond but, to Katara’s horror, a hole appears underneath her feet and, screaming, she falls through the ice.

Katara’s reaction is immediate this time. Immediate, like it hadn’t been that day, when she’d hesitated and floundered and forgotten to move, forgotten to breathe, forgotten to think, forgotten to act.

She dives in after her. 

Before she’s covered more than fifteen feet, though, the water freezes. She tries to bend it away but her wrists catch in chains. She writhes against the restraints. The ice bites at her skin, but she keeps fighting until she again catches sight of her mother. She’s floating not a three second swim away, but Katara can’t move, can’t breathe, can’t think, can’t act, again— 

Shrieking laughter ripples through the water, and bright blue flames wrap around her mother’s form. Darkness laps at the edges of Katara’s vision. She opens her mouth to call to her mother but water flows in instead. It burns her throat. She coughs and chokes on her own element even though it feels like fire, and she can’t see her mother but she can’t lose her, not again, not again, and then suddenly ash is raining from the sky and she’s sprinting, sprinting, but, still, she doesn’t move, doesn’t breathe, doesn’t think, doesn’t act again; not again, not again—  

She jerks awake in her cot. Her breaths are labored. Sweat drenches her forehead. Her hands grip the front of her neck, clawing at her throat, coughing in an attempt to clear away nonexistent water. 

She rapidly blinks to adjust to the darkness, and slowly, slowly, lucidity sets back in. 

She’s been here before. She’s done this before. This is okay. This is familiar. 

(It’s not okay.)

(No matter how familiar it grows, it will never, ever, ever be okay.)

She lowers her arms, steadies her breaths, closes her eyes. With a heavy, huffed exhalation, she bends the sweat away from her body and lets it flop onto the floor. Then she sits with her back against the wall and her head between her knees. 

Her thoughts haven’t calmed when Toph whispers, so quietly that she almost misses it, “Are you okay?”

She shuffles until she’s lying on her side. In the shadows, it’s all too easy to be weak so, even though she’s supposed to be strong, she whispers back, “No.”

(She knows the shadows much, much better than she should.)

A clank of metal has her blinking her eyes open in confusion. They don’t adjust to the darkness in time to catch the small form slipping in to lie next to her, but, once she’s close enough, they do catch the puffiness around her eyes, the tear stains on her face. 

“Me neither,” Toph whispers, burrowing against her chest. 

Katara wraps her arms around Toph’s back and goes back to being strong. For both of them. 

Toph curls closer, and a rush of love soars through Katara’s chest. 

They’re just kids. She forgets, sometimes, when the weight of their decisions, of their pasts, of their futures looms daunting before her, but they are. They’re just a bunch of kids who have to pretend that they aren’t scared, aren’t scarred, aren’t exhausted.

They’re too young to have the world on their shoulders. It isn’t okay. It isn’t fair. It isn’t right

But this, this moment—and every other moment like it—makes everything okay. These are the moments worth bearing any burden for. 

Because, yes, she can look at what this war has taken from her. What it’s cost her; what she’s lost because of it. 

But these moments remind her of what she’s gained

(And that’s the only way to survive, isn’t it? By deceiving her mind into forgetting her struggles, forgetting her pain.)

(Thinking about her future is suffocating, and she’ll drown in the memories of her past.)

(To stay afloat, she must focus on her now.)

She tightens her arms.

 

%%%

 

“Wake up, Toph,” she says, leaning over the cot. She’d risen early to gather their supplies, but she’d let Toph stay asleep. “Time to go.”

“Is it midnight?” Toph grumbles, rolling away from Katara’s prodding fingers. 

“Yeah.”

Toph’s eyes widen. She shoots up in bed and sets her feet on the floor, shoulders slumping when her sight returns. “Did you get all the food?”

“Yes.” She drops the packs to the ground so Toph can see them.

“Everything’s in there,” Toph confirms. 

“Good.” She picks them back up. 

(All traces of fear or weakness have wiped from both of their faces, purged from both their minds.)

After a beat of silence, Katara asks, “Are you ready?”

Toph nods, stands, and cracks her knuckles. “Let’s do this.”

 

%%%

 

Sokka had warned them security would be much stronger, given that the prison’s record of impenetrability had been so recently broken, but none of them had expected this

Guard ships sail the boiling water. Tall lookout towers that Sokka hadn’t ever mentioned shoot occasional flames at any perceived disturbance. Fire Nation soldiers pace the earth around the prison in forceful, deliberate patterns. 

Thankfully, there hadn’t been any on the outskirts of the island, where’d they’d landed the ship. But now that Toph had bent the earth to take them to the peak of the rocks, they can see just what they’d gotten themselves into. 

And what a lovely, encouraging sight it is.

Obviously they want to stay unnoticed, so Hakoda’s idea of rafting the boiling water in a metal boat—Katara would bend the water to speed them up—or Sokka’s idea of building a bridge from the apex of the rocks to the top of the prison won’t work. Those plans now seemed absurdly naive. They’d be immediately noticed and subsequently crisped.

“How many did you say there are?” Toph whispers, as fire from a lookout tower lights up the night sky. “I can’t feel the ones in the water.”

There are hundreds.

“There’s a lot,” she murmurs back. “We can’t go over water. Or on a bridge.”

Toph pauses, crouches to all fours, closes her eyes, and takes a deep breath. Then another. Then another. 

Three minutes have passed before she pops back up. “We’ll go straight down,” she says. 

And, before Katara can remind her that this island is volcanic and that they aren’t firebenders or lava benders or anything of the sort—granted, Toph could probably manipulate the rocks in some sections of the lava, but she couldn’t possibly control all of it without any previous experience—Toph has dropped them into a hole.

Straight down.

Suddenly Katara is falling through air and complete darkness. Some suppressed rational part of her mind knows that Toph is with her, that she’s probably enjoying this, that they’re both safe—Toph won’t let them die—but a shriek still forms in her throat. 

Her arm brushes rock before she can release it, and a second later her mouth is covered with earth.

She falls for a moment longer before rock rises to catch her softly, and she skids down an earth slide to an abrupt stop. She pushes herself to her feet, breathing heavily, and turns to glare at Toph. 

Then she remembers that one, Toph can’t see it, two, everything is pitch black, and three, she has no idea where Toph is.

Moments pass before the rumbling of earth stops. Toph lands at her side and bends the rock off of her mouth. “Sorry, Sweetness. Knew you were gonna scream.”

“I wasn’t going to—”

“Don’t lie.”

Katara glares. “Maybe I was. But—I don’t know—maybe it’s because you threw us into a volcano without any warning!”

“Maybe,” Toph says, and Katara can hear the careless shrug in her voice. Then bright white glints in the darkness and Toph is grinning. “But I like it down here. I can see everything.”

“Well, I hate it,” she grumbles. “I can’t see a thing.”

“Wow, imagine that,” Toph snorts. "What a hard life you must have." She grabs Katara's hand. “Come on. It’s not that much further.”

For a few minutes they walk in silence. Toph bends the earth open before them and closes it behind them. Slowly, Katara’s eyes adjust enough to see the outline of her form. 

“So, what, we dig until we see lava, and then run for our lives?”

“No,” Toph says, grunting as she clears their path. “The lava is way deeper than we are. It’s sitting, halfway full, in a little bowl thing down there.”

“Then why is the water so hot?” 

“Because there’s some sort of pipe thing at the center of the lake. The heat from the lava must rise through there to heat the water.”

“Like a conduit?”

“Sure. I’ll tell Sunshine you can be my new vocabulary teacher.”

Katara rolls her eyes. “How far away are we from the bowl thing?”

Toph opens the earth again. “Our feet might start getting hot soon, but—”

Your feet. I wear shoes.”

“Whatever. We won’t touch it or see it, though. I don’t think it’s exploded in a really long time. It must be...what’s that word?”

“Dormant,” she supplies.

“Yeah. Thanks, V. Master Katara.”

“V. Master? Vocabulary Master?”

“Kinda catchy, right?”

Katara scrunches her nose. “Not at all,” she says. “I hate it.”

Toph laughs. 

More rocks make way for them. They walk a little longer before Katara asks, “So...what, we just dig straight under the lake and under the prison?”

“Yep. We’re already under the lake.”

Katara raises an eyebrow. “And you’re sure you’ll be able to tell when we’re under the prison?”

“I saw it all before I opened the earth chute. We’re getting pretty close. When we get inside, I should be able to find him pretty easily."

"And how do we get inside?"

"I'm working on it." 

“Alright, Toph,” she says skeptically. “Whatever you say.”

“That’s the perfect life motto."

 

%%%

 

"This is it."

Katara bends over, hands on her knees, chest heaving up and down, up and down. “Give me a second.”

Toph punches her back and Katara splutters an indignant cough. “Suck it up, Sweetness. Stand up. We gotta talk.”

Katara scowls and gathers the sweat and water vapor around them. She whips it into Toph’s back. 

“Oh, it’s on,” Toph says.

She kicks a stone into Katara’s stomach. It’s still completely dark so Katara doesn’t see it coming and, grunting, she stumbles backwards. She retakes the water and wraps it around Toph’s ankle, but Toph pulls the earth out from the wall behind Katara and pins her arms at her sides. 

“Wasn’t ever a contest,” Toph goads, teeth glinting again. 

“Of course it wasn’t,” Katara snaps. She gulps oxygen in through her mouth. “We’re literally engulfed in rock. There’s barely any water down here. And, besides, you started it by punching the air out of me. Right away I had a disadvantage. That’s not fair.”

“Well, you didn’t need to whip me with your nasty sweat.”

“Um, you punched me!”

In the darkness, Katara can see Toph’s arms cross. She’s not actually angry, though—she’s still grinning. “I guess I’ll just leave you there, then,” she says. 

Katara rolls her eyes. “Let me out.”

“No. This is Karma.” She bends a bench for herself to sit on. Katara’s legs ache at the sight, but she remains hanging off the wall. “Now, shut up and listen. Here’s our plan.”

Chapter Text

"And you're sure this isn't a super huge, angry guy?"

“The footsteps are light. Super huge, angry guys don’t walk like that.”

“So...what? We just barge into their room?”

Toph is silent and Katara knows that, were she able to see in the darkness, she would find Toph glaring at her. 

So Katara is a little skeptical. So she had questioned every single step of this plan multiple times. So she already knows that, yes, they are going to barge into someone’s room. So she’s asking anyway. 

Who could blame her? 

The plan is insane. And Toph had allowed her zero input. 

At the same time...bending a bridge onto the top of the prison or crossing the ocean and then pretending to be guards probably wouldn’t work. Those plans were probably more insane. 

But Toph wanted them to get inside the prison by picking a person who seemed less threatening—based solely on their footsteps. Then they’d knock them out, and further scout things from there. She could tell where Zuko was by the sound or feeling of his footsteps, since she was so familiar with them, but, up to this point, it seemed he wasn’t in the prison at all. 

Which he almost certainly was, since Azula—assumably—hadn’t left.

They would get into the hallway, scout things out, and then search for Zuko’s cell. 

If the guards were on constant patrol of the corridors, they wouldn’t go out. They would go back underground and wait—maybe pop into some other prisoner’s cells—until everyone was let into the courtyard. And then they would hear his footsteps and track him back into his cell. 

It’s a stretch. 

An enormous stretch.

The entire plan is contingent on a sound that, to Katara’s ears, is heard every passing second. A footstep. It is contingent on Zuko’s still being here, and on Azula’s letting him out into the courtyard. 

It is awful. 

But what other option do they have? They could break into every cell in the prison and not see him. Until Toph was on the prison’s ground and could feel his footsteps or sense his voice, they had nothing to work with. 

“Alright,” she acqueises, holding her hands up in defense. “I got it. We just barge into their room.”

Toph hmphs. “I’ll be able to feel them right away,” she says, “so in the slight case that I don’t immediately knock them out, make sure you do that.”

“With what water?”

“With your fist, Princess. I told you you were afraid to get your hands dirty.”

“I am not,” she snaps. “I can knock somebody out.”

“Mmhmm.” Toph shifts into a bending stance. “Make sure to stay quiet. Ready?”

And, without waiting for an answer, their rock is propelled up and into the metal floor above them. For a terrifying second Katara thinks that Toph has misjudged the distance—that they’ll smash into the metal—but she refrains from voicing her concern because, just as abruptly, Toph has swiped the metal away and they’ve landed inside the room.

After being in the darkness for so long, the sudden strip of lantern light blinds her. She blinks frantically but can’t see anything.

There’s a muted cry of surprise and Toph’s stomp against the ground, but before Toph can do any significant damage, three quick, sharp jabs against the side of Katara’s body leave her lying limp on the floor. 

Metal groans. Someone inhales, surprised. Words are muffled by what is presumably Toph’s makeshift gag. 

From her spot face down on the floor, Katara can’t see anything. But the muscles in her upper right side of her body tell her exactly who Toph has pinned against the wall.

Perky?”

More muffling. 

“Oh, sorry,” Toph mutters. “You have to promise to be quiet. Or else I’ll have to hurt you.”

Katara assumes that Toph is answered with a nod, because a moment later a bubbly, forcibly toned down voice speaks. “Wow! I have a nickname? Is that what you call me? Perky? I love it!” 

“Perky or Bendy,” Toph divulges. “Depends on the day.”

“That is so cute! I’m honored!”

Katara groans. 

Soft footsteps approach her before she feels hands under her armpits, lifting her upright. Toph bends some sort of bench in the middle of the prison floor and plops her down on it. She slumps to one side, though, so Toph shoves her right hand straight out against the side of her face to keep her upright. It smushes her cheek.

She glares at the figure against the wall. “Lovely to see you, Ty Lee.”

Grinning, the girl’s eyes light up. “Thanks! It’s good to see you, too. It’s been awhile.”

Katara rolls her eyes. “You took away my bending. I was being facetious.”

“Facetious?” Toph echoes, and Katara doesn’t have to glance at her face to know that she’s smirking.

“It means that she wasn’t being serious,” Ty Lee explains, helpfully. Toph’s boiling laughter is palpable

But then Ty Lee’s face falls. “Anyways, I am really sorry about that,” she says. “The last guard left a few minutes ago and said that when he came back I wouldn’t be smiling. I asked him why and he told me it was because he’d be bringing some friends to…” She looks down and, to Katara’s dismay, tears bubble in her eyes. “Well, you know. And I didn’t want...that. Obviously,” she says, laughing awkwardly, “So I’ve been expecting people. It was just a natural reaction. That doesn’t mean I’m not sorry, though! I’m still sorry.”

Katara is sure that the horror is clear on her face. Heavy silence trickles in. 

After a few seconds, she glances sideways at Toph. Her eyes are narrowed in concentration. 

She turns back and forces her voice to work. “When are they coming back?” 

“Oh, he didn’t say. Stuff like this has happened before—they make empty threats all the time—so it’s probably nothing to worry about. The ones to worry about are…” Ty Lee’s voice drops with her eyes. “Well, that doesn’t matter.”

She’s sure it does, but she’s not sure she wants to know.

A beat passes before Toph mutters, “She’s telling the truth.” 

Ty Lee beams, shadows vanishing as quickly as they’d appeared. “Yep! I’m not a very good liar, if you can believe it—”

“We can,” Toph says.

“—but I don’t like lying, anyway. It just makes me feel so terrible! Especially when—”

“Stop,” Katara snaps, patience exasperated with inexplicable fear for two of her—former?—enemies. Her finger twitches as the chi slowly resumes it’s motion. She almost sighs in relief. “We don’t have all night. Why are you here?”

Next to her, Toph leans down, yanks metal up from the floor, and positions it against her left side. She slumps helplessly against it. Toph shakes a cramp from the arm that had held up her head.

When she returns her glare to Ty Lee’s face, all traces of brightness are gone. Her lips are pale from being pursed so tightly.

“Well?” Toph demands. 

For a moment Ty Lee squeezes them tighter, and Katara doesn’t think she’ll answer. But then her mouth opens in a rush. Her words are loose and quick, like she’s been holding a secret that she’s all too relieved to share. “Azula put us in here.”

“Yeah, Bendy, that much is obvious. Tell us something we don’t—”

“Wait,” Katara cuts in. “Put us?”

Ty Lee nods. “Mai and I.”

“How long ago?”

“Not long after we landed, I don’t think.” She blinks fresh tears away and Katara’s eyes widen slightly because Good La, this girl cries easily. “I’m not very good with days and times.”

“When my brother escaped,” Katara guesses.

Looking at the ground, Ty Lee nods again. “Yeah, it was just after that.”

All humor is gone from Toph’s face, too. “Sokka told me that you came with Azula to stop them from escaping.” Frowning, she shuffles her toes over the ground. “But you aren’t lying. That doesn’t make sense.”

“We did go with Azula to stop them from escaping. But…” Now the tears stream fully down her face, and her voice is slightly choked. “That one ugly prison girl who’s not nearly pretty enough for the Water Tribe boy—” 

Her voice breaks and Katara doesn’t know if it’s because she is disappointed about Sokka’s love life or if she’s heartbroken about the next part of the story. 

She really, really hopes it’s the latter, but she can’t refrain from opening her mouth. “Suki?” she scoffs. “Do you really think you’re in a position to be insulting—”

“Shut up, Katara,” Toph says sharply. “Keep talking.”

“Well, she got hurt and the Water Tribe boy—”

“His name is Sokka,” she growls.

“Shut up, Katara!”

Ty Lee sighs a little dreamily. Katara fists her hands—hey, she fists her hands! Feeling is returning!—and her eyes are slits. 

But then Ty Lee’s expression shifts back to grief and tears. “Sokka, then. He had to start carrying the prison girl. All of them had almost made it to the gondola. Zuko was hanging back a little to fight off some guards.” Toph’s posture stiffens at his name. “Azula made us sprint over there because she didn’t want Zuko to leave. Zuko had beaten the last guard. I saw him turn around to get on the gondola, but it had already left. He was trying to hear something Sokka was saying or trying to talk to him or something...I’m not really sure.” 

The tears spill and spill and her voice becomes so unintelligible that they have to wait for her to relax before she can finish her story. They tell her to start from where they’d last understood, and she does. 

“Azula didn’t want to kill him, I know she didn’t.” She sniffs, blinking rapidly. “I know Azula. She would never want to kill her own brother.”

Toph’s voice is dangerous. “What did she do?” 

“She…” A sob.

Toph sweeps her hand upwards. Metal shoves tighter against Ty Lee’s chest. “Stop,” she commands. “Tell us. Now.”

“She started to shoot lightning at him.”

A cold silence fills the room. “With his back turned?” Katara whispers. 

“Yes. She started to. I know she was only going to do it at his legs, not at his heart. She would never do something so terrible. I know her—”

“What do you mean she started?” Toph hisses.

Ty Lee takes a deep, shaking breath. “Well, Mai saw it. And...you know Mai.”

She doesn’t elaborate, so Katara snorts. “Oh, yes. We know her so well. She’s chased us all over the world and tried to kill us multiple times.”

Incredulity paints Ty Lee’s features. “That’s not Mai at all! She can be bit of a downer, I suppose, but—”

“What did Mai do?” Toph presses. 

“Oh.” And, the tears are back. Really, that is impressive. “She threw her knives at Azula’s sleeves before she could release it. They pinned her against the wall.”

Silence. 

“Why would she do that?” Katara asks, because she doesn’t know what else there is to ask. 

“Because she loves Zuko, of course.”

Katara’s eyebrows furrow. “He’s never mentioned her before.”

“He was probably just really sad. I mean, she was pretty angry at him. He dumped her through a letter! He didn’t even have the decency to do it in person. And then to find out that he left her to join the Avatar?” Her wide eyes are disapproving. “That’s why I was a little—well, a lot surprised when she turned on Azula like that.”

Toph ignores all of this. “So, Azula is on the ground—”

“No, she was against a wall.”

“Fine. Azula’s against a wall. Then what? She peeled the knives out and tried to keep fighting?”

Ty Lee looks upwards for a moment, considering. “Actually, that’s almost exactly right! What’s your name again?” She frowns at Katara. “Now that I’m thinking about it, I think I forgot yours as well, even though your friend just said it. Sorry! My memory is awful. But I think we would be great friends, if we had a little bonding time. You’re both so pretty!”

“I’m glad that our hypothetical friendship would have such a secure foundation,” Katara says dryly.

Toph ignores all of this, too, and this time with a glare. “Then what?”

“Azula was really mad. She started taking the knives out while Mai went to stand next to Zuko. I was seriously worried because now Mai was yelling at Zuko and Azula was doing that scary thing where she moves super slowly—it means she’s crazy angry—and then she started glaring at Mai’s back. Zuko hadn’t turned around because he was still trying to see if Sokka and the others made it out, and Mai was facing away from Azula, too, and I just knew that she was going to shoot more lightning. Her friend had just betrayed her, though, so don’t be too hard on her—”

“Are you joking?” Toph yells. 

“Quiet,” Katara snaps. 

“Oh,” Ty Lee whispers, apparently unbothered by the interruption to her story, “it’s alright. The guards are all asleep by now, anyway. I never hear footsteps this late at night.”

“I don’t care,” Toph growls. “Finish talking so I can hurt—”

“She doesn’t mean it,” Katara interrupts, even though she doesn’t know what Toph doesn’t mean. “Just keep going.”

Ty Lee glances curiously between the both of them before taking a breath, summoning her tears, and continuing. “I just couldn’t let her shoot at Mai. Mai is my best friend.” Her chin tilts towards her chest. “So I...I blocked Azula’s chi.” 

Now her chin drops completely, as if in shame. 

As if she hadn’t just saved two lives.

Katara’s mouth drops open. 

What?

Things are moving too quickly. Nothing makes any sense. She feels like she needs twenty minutes to just sit. To sit and think and process.

Because they are freely standing in a Fire Nation prison cell that is holding Ty Lee. Ty Lee, who they haven’t seen since Ba Sing Se. Ty Lee, someone she had only ever associated with the Fire Nation princess

The Fire Nation princess, who had been betrayed by her two closest—her two most trusted friends. Ty Lee and Mai. 

Mai, who had surely sacrificed her life for Zuko

Zuko, whose sister had tried to kill him. Zuko, who apparently has—had?—a girlfriend he is—was?—in love with.

That bothers her.

No. No; that’s misphrased. 

The last part doesn’t bother her. Everything else bothers her. Or maybe just...all of it bothers her. She doesn’t know. Actually, she does. All of it is awful. 

She’s confused. Nothing makes sense. 

She wants to pace the room. She wants to waterbend. She wants to do something, but she is still stuck. Flow of her chi has returned to her shoulders and fingers and wrists and face, but her elbows and her torso and her legs won’t listen to her mind’s demands.

Her chi. Ty Lee, the chi blocker. Who blocked Azula’s chi. 

She turns to glance at Toph, who looks just as dazed as she feels. “Well?” 

Toph doesn’t answer for a few moments. Then, so quietly that she may as well not have spoken, “None of it was a lie.”

What?

“So,” Katara starts, jumping at the first thought she can grasp, “Azula’s still here?”

Ty Lee tries to shrug, fails, frowns at her encased shoulders, and then says, “I assume. I know that a lot of the guards are working on her orders. And everyone seems way more terrified than usual, which is a pretty good indicator.”

“Mai is here, too?”

“Yeah! I saw her the other day in the courtyard! They’re releasing us outside by floors. I think it’s because they don’t want another riot like what happened when your—when Sokka escaped. But, anyway, there’s only a few of us outside at once.”

“And they let you out at the same time as her?” 

“Yep! So, even though I don’t know exactly where she is, I at least know she’s here, on my floor.” Ty Lee twists her lips to one side. “Though, they didn’t let us talk, which was kind of a bummer. In fact, I don’t even think she saw me. I tried to shout at her but they threatened to put me in the cooler.” She shivers. “I’m not a firebender, so that’s a really awful threat. I didn’t even know they were allowed to do that, because—”

It seems like she’s willing to talk forever. Like if she was all alone, she could hold a substantial, lasting conversation with herself. 

It’s exhausting

But she has quality information. She is here. Mai is here. Azula is here. 

Biting her lip, Katara flicks her eyes to Toph. She watches her as she asks her next question, rudely interrupting whatever monologue Ty Lee had running, but not caring in the slightest. 

“Is Zuko here?”

Toph’s expression doesn’t change, but Katara sees, at her sides, her hands balled so tightly that they’re white. 

Ty Lee takes the new subject easily, apparently missing the relative gravity of the question. “I think so, but he’s not on our floor. I—”

“Where is he?” 

“Um…” She furrows her eyebrows in thought. “I think you’ll have to ask Mai that. I don’t have any idea!”

As Toph crouches to place her hands searchingly on the floor, Katara asks, “Why would Mai know?” 

“Her uncle is the warden here. He was really upset when he found out that his own niece would be his prisoner!” She frowns. “Of course, he won’t be the warden much longer, what with his record being broken, but—”

“I found her,” Toph declares. She stands, pointing at Katara. “Can you move yet?”

She flexes her toes, her calves, her fingers; bends her elbows, her knees, her neck. But then she tries to pull from the wall, and she slumps back down. She scowls. “Almost.”

“Sorry again about that. It should only be a few more minutes,” Ty Lee chirps.

“We don’t have a few more minutes,” Toph growls. “We have to get him out tonight.

Ty Lee’s eyes shoot wide open. “You’re breaking Zuko out?”

“Why else would we be here?” 

“I—well, I don’t know. I guess that makes sense. Do you have a plan?”

“Like we would tell you,” Toph grumbles. 

“Yes,” Katara lies, “of course we have a plan.”

“You should run it past Mai before you start it,” Ty Lee says. “She knows everything about this prison. It’s her family’s pride and joy. It’s one of the reasons they have so much money!”

“That’s great,” Katara deadpans. “I’m so happy he exploits innocent soldiers to get richer.”

Ty Lee puckers her eyebrows. “Not all of them are innocent. A lot of them have done really awful things to the Fire Nation—”

“Oh, I’m sure.” 

“—some are even traitors!”

“Like Zuko?” Toph spits, daring Ty Lee to concur.

This makes Ty Lee pause. Katara, like Toph, expects some bubbly affirmation—Yes! I’m so glad you caught on so quickly!—but, instead, Ty Lee hangs her head again. “Like me,” she whimpers.

A long silence filters in. Dragging minutes pass. It seems like they have finally worn Ty Lee out because she doesn’t move. Katara and Toph let her sulk.

But, at length, Toph grows impatient. “That’s enough,” she mutters. “Stand up, Katara. We’re leaving.”

This time Katara can stand, though on wobbly limbs. 

Ty Lee’s head snaps up and out of her reverie. “Can you tell Mai I say hi?”

“Sure,” Katara says absently. Toph pulls the metal from around Ty Lee’s body. It falls to the ground and she stomps it back in place. 

“I think it’s so cool that you can bend metal!”

“That means so much,” Toph says flatly. 

She grabs Katara’s hand, slams her foot into the ground, salutes Ty Lee, and shoots them into the earth.

 

%%%

 

Only the patter of their footsteps interrupts the silence.

She can’t see in the darkness, but she knows Toph well enough to assume her face is set and determined.

Fragments of their discussion work their way through her brain, but there is too much to dissect. Too much to analyze. All she can think about is how much she hopes Mai will know where Zuko is. How much she hopes that they’ll get out of here safely.

And...one other, nagging thought tugs at the back of her mind. 

Ty Lee had told them the entire truth without reservation. No games, no tricks, no plots or ploys. They asked her for the truth; she gave it to them. 

Granted, she didn’t really have a choice—she was a prisoner of the Boiling Rock and a prisoner of Toph’s metal cage—Katara would jump off of Appa before placing herself at an angry Toph’s mercy—but she still gave them everything they asked for. Easily.

She was...well, she seemed normal, if a little tear-happy. 

Maybe it’s because she’s been away from Azula’s influence. Maybe this is part of a larger, grander scheme to capture them all. Maybe she’d sent them to Mai’s cell because Azula was waiting for them inside. 

But something inside Katara tells her that this isn’t true. Toph had said, after all, that nothing Ty Lee had told them was a lie. 

They can’t leave her here. 

They can’t leave either of them here. 

Katara isn’t naive. If Zuko escapes under Azula’s nose, Mai and Ty Lee will probably be killed. 

She can’t...she doesn’t want that on her conscience. 

They need to at least try with Ty Lee. She is sweet and funny and altogether decent company—save the constant crying—if a bit misguided.

And Mai is Ty Lee’s best friend. Mai is—was?—Zuko’s girlfriend. If they escape without her, Ty Lee and Zuko would be miserable. In fact, Katara isn’t sure how Zuko had lasted so long at the Western Air Temple without so much as mentioning her. 

Not that it bothers her. 

There is no reason why it should. 

She is here to clear Sokka’s conscience and to help Toph get Zuko back and that is it

She doesn’t like Zuko’s company. Or Zuko as a person, in general. 

Were she to say that out loud, Toph would confirm that it is true.

(She doesn’t say it out loud.)

 

%%%

 

When they enter the cell, Mai doesn't even flinch.

She lies on the metal floor, eyes shut, as Toph rips it open. Rock propels them inside. 

Toph shifts into a bending stance to wrap metal around Mai—who should be surprised, who should be afraid—but she holds up a hand. “Don’t bother,” she says, sounding bored, sounding like someone breaks into her room through the floor every few seconds. “There’s no need.”

Confused, Toph drops her hand. “You’re playing us,” she accuses. 

“That’s Azula’s job. Not mine.”

Katara thinks this meeting will be much more direct. 

“Well, then, we should be safe,” she says haughtily. “Because, according to our source, you and Azula aren’t exactly on speaking terms at the moment.”

At this, Mai snorts and pops an eye open. “‘Aren’t exactly on speaking terms’? She’s planning my execution.”

There is a few seconds’ pause. 

“That was a morbid joke,” Katara mumbles. 

Mai closes both eyes again. “It wasn’t a joke.”

Katara glances at Toph, who nods. Truth

“She’s told you this?”

“No.” A faint, bitter smirk greets Mai’s lips. “I just know her better than she thinks I do.”

Katara frowns. “When is it planned for?”

“Oh, not any time soon. It has to be public. It’ll be her first major play as Fire Lord.”

“As Fire Lord?” she echoes. 

“That’s years off,” Toph argues. 

Mai readjusts her hands behind her head. “As I said. Not any time soon.”

“What about the others?” Katara asks. 

“Others?”

“You know…” she falters, “the...others.”

“Articulate.”

“The other traitors,” Toph snaps. 

In the doortop’s strip of light, she sees Mai stiffen. Slowly, her eyes open. They focus on Toph—not narrowed, not widened; perfectly neutral. “You’re the blind one, aren’t you?”

Toph lifts her chin. “So? What’s it to you?”

“Nothing. You’re just pretty perceptive for someone who can’t see.” In one, sweeping movement that has both girls dropping into bending stances, Mai sits up, cross-legged. “Agni, relax. I’m not going to bite your head off.”

“You’ve given us no reason to trust you,” Katara snarls. 

Mai raises an eyebrow in something akin to amusement. “You don’t trust me? I’m the only unarmed one here.”

Neither Katara nor Toph moves for a long moment. 

But then Toph straightens. Her hands drop to her sides. “Are they killing every traitor to the Fire Nation?”

“I doubt it,” she says, raising her hand to examine her dirt-caked nails. “Azula and I were friends once, so she’ll want to make mine public. She’ll probably make it a national holiday. It’ll take longer to plan.”

“What about Ditzy?” Toph asks. 

“Who?”

“Ditzy? You know, the perky brunette with the bendy legs?”

“Ty Lee,” Katara clarifies. 

A blank mask rises to conceal Mai’s previous, bored expression. “What about her?”

“Will they kill her, too?”

“You’ve seen her already,” Mai surmises.

“She says ‘hi,’ actually,” Katara says. 

And, suddenly, Mai’s eyes flicker wide. “She’s here?”

“Same floor.”

“This is the most emotion I’ve ever seen from you, Gloomy. I’m impressed.”

Mai ignores her. “First floor?”

“Yes.”

She leans back like she’s been burned. 

“What?” 

A distant look has filled Mai’s eyes. Toph has to stomp on the ground to regain her attention. “I said, what?

Blinking, Mai refocuses on them. “I want to see her.”

“That’s nice,” Toph dismisses. “What’s wrong with the first floor?”

Mai crosses her arms. Boredom flits back into her expression. “I’m not talking until I’ve seen her.”

“What makes you think we can get her here?”

“You clearly just spoke with her. And I saw you bend that metal. You can get anywhere you want in the prison.”

“You’re right,” Katara says, “and we’ve gotten off track. We’re not here for you or your friend. We need to find Zuko.”

For a fleeting second, Mai’s eyes narrow. Then the apathy is back. “I figured,” she deadpans. 

“Where is he?”

She gives a dainty shrug. “Couldn’t tell you.”

Toph’s fingers twitch. “Lie.”

“You’re his girlfriend!” Katara exclaims. “Shouldn’t you want to get him out of prison?”

“I don’t owe him anything anymore,” Mai says blandly. 

Toph puckers her lips. “Was that what saving his life was to you? Repaying a debt?”

“I don’t see how it concerns you.”

Toph slams her foot into the ground. “Tell us where he is.”

“Bring Ty Lee here.”

Toph glares at Mai’s shoulder for a few drawn out seconds. Then, before Katara can blink, she’s spun in place and drilled into the ground. The hole closes behind her, and she’s gone. 

Katara can't wipe the surprise from her face before Mai says, “That was easier than I expected.”

Frowning, she turns back to face her. “Azula’s going to kill him, isn’t she?” she asks.

Mai leans her rigid back against the wall. “You’re the Water Tribe girl,” she says instead of answering. 

Katara furrows her eyebrows. “Yes.”

Something like disgust crosses Mai’s features. “You’re an idiot.”

Katara recoils. “What?”

Mai ignores her again. “He’s patient now. You’re lucky. If you’d known him a few years ago, he would’ve started hating you a long, long time ago.” She crosses her arms across her chest. “I hate you and I’ve only known you for five minutes. And from three hundred rants.”

“What are you talking about?” Katara demands. But then she thinks about the words. Her features soften with the answer even though she’s not sure why the words were given in such a roundabout way. “Are you talking about Ozai?”

Inexplicably, Mai scowls. “Sure,” she mutters.

“If he knows anything about us, he already hates us. I’m certain.”

“The Fire Lord knows way too much about you. He probably wants to kill you before even the Avatar.”

Katara narrows her eyes. “Seriously, what are you talking about?”

Mai glares at the side of the prison. “Of course she's going to kill him,” she says, as if they hadn’t spoken of anything else. As if Katara isn’t completely lost. “But only with Ozai’s permission. She’ll take him back to the capital first.” Shadows fall over her face. Her glare strengthens. “Then she’ll kill him and they’ll celebrate.”

Katara stares at her. 

Silence descends and does not release its hold. 

 

%%%

 

Toph emerges with a panting Ty Lee. 

“—and I’ve been doing all my stretching exercises, so I’m not really sure why I’m so out of shape. Maybe it’s because—”

“Bendy. If you haven’t noticed, we’re here.”

She shoves Ty Lee into the occupied corner of the cell. 

Mai and Katara, who hadn’t spoken a single word in as long as Toph had been gone—indeed, halfway through their allotted time, Mai had taken to glaring at Katara, though the latter had no idea why—relax with the presence of company. Ty Lee beams and sprints at Mai, knocking her into a hug. 

Light pink dusts Mai’s cheeks, even as she stiffens in her friend’s tight grip and rolls her eyes. 

Mai!”  

“Quieter,” Mai snaps, but there is no heart in the chastisement. Smiling, she slowly returns the embrace.

Ty Lee starts blabbering on about how much she’s missed her, how bored she’s been, how hungry she is, how, didn’t Azula tell them they were supposed to rot? Why are they allowed into the courtyard? so Katara moves toward Toph.

“That didn’t go like we’d expected at all,” Katara whispers. 

“And Sokka says plans always work.”

She snorts and glances at the others on the opposite side of the cell. It’s not large enough to hide conversation, of course, but if both are engaged then neither should be able to hear the other. 

“We can’t leave them here,” she murmurs, sobering.

Toph breathes a sigh, shifting her hands behind her back and leaning back against a wall. “I knew you were going to say that.”

“We can’t,” she implores. “They won’t survive.”

“They’ve lasted this long,” Toph grumbles. 

“Yeah, because they’ve been in here like a week. If Zuko gets out, you know Azula won’t let them live.”

Toph’s voice is hardly louder than her breath. “What about him, though? Bringing them will make things so much harder.”

Katara closes her eyes, wringing her hands together. “Mai will tell us where he is and we’ll have him out by morning. Same plan as before, just...we’ll bring them with us.”

Head bent, Toph considers. Ty Lee says something particularly enthusiastic that makes Katara glance up, but then Toph says, lowly, “Alright, Sugar Queen. You get this one.” She looks back to find Toph’s face tense. “But if...and I’m not trying to be mean, but if it’s down to keeping them with us or getting him out of here, I won’t even hesitate.”

“Fair enough.”

“It’s the reason we came here, Katara. We can’t risk it. Especially since we don’t know if we can trust them.”

“They betrayed Azula,” she argues. 

“We can’t risk it,” Toph insists. “You can’t risk him.”

She watches Mai and Ty Lee talking. Remembers the times they’d chased her, the times they’d caught up, the times they’d all fought. 

But then she sees Ty Lee’s beam and Mai’s attentive listening beneath an indifferent expression. Sees, in her mind’s eye, Mai stepping in front of Zuko. Ty Lee saving Mai. 

They’re just teenagers, aren’t they? Just like her? If fate had rolled the dice differently, she could be in their shoes. 

They don’t deserve to die for doing something right. They don’t deserve to die for being good. For being loyal—maybe not to a friendship, but to a set of morals. 

Standing, reputation, honor, respect, friendship...their lives: they had sacrificed everything. 

So had Zuko. 

And, at this point in the war, with the Comet so soon approaching and Aang without a firebending teacher—the world needed him more than two random girls. 

But those two random girls had people who needed them. Families who would be crushed without their return. 

She thinks of the South Pole. Of her Gran-Gran and how heartbroken she would be if she and Sokka never came back. How hard it was for her to let them go, knowing that they might never return. 

They are a part of Gran-Gran’s life. She needs them.

People out there need Mai and Ty Lee, too. 

And who is Katara to determine who gets to see their family again? 

A knot ties in her stomach. 

“You’re right,” she tells Toph, because she is. 

Katara can’t risk it. 

She shouldn’t

But, as Ty Lee grabs Mai in another spur of the moment hug, she knows that must.

 

%%%

 

"Alright," Toph says, voice quiet. "Now that bonding time is over, where is he?"

“And what was that thing about the first floor?” Katara adds. 

Ty Lee, perched on the cell’s bench, furrows her eyebrows. “Um, well, we’re kind of on the first floor now, if you didn’t know. That’s okay if you didn't. You probably haven’t been—”

“Not from you,” Toph says, pointing at Mai. “You.”

Mai stands, arms crossed, in the same dark corner of the room that she and Ty Lee had conversed in, and Katara’s relieved when she responds bluntly. The moon is falling and she can sense it. They’ve been here too long—they don’t have much time left. “First floor is where they keep the long term prisoners.”

“How long term?”

“Usually ten years minimum.”

Mouth drying, Katara balks. Beside her, Toph seems just as shocked. 

“Really?” Ty Lee asks, turning her frown to the ground. “I didn’t know that.”

“That's how it’s always been.”

“Why?” Katara asks. 

Mai shrugs blandly. “Probably so we’re easier to access. They always treat the long term prisoners better.”

“They do?”

“Yeah.”

She rolls her eyes because is it really that difficult to give a little more explanation? “Why?” 

“Just explain it in full,” Toph commands.

Mai raises an eyebrow. “Fine. When you’re here for a long time, they’ve got time to drag out the punishment. But being here is, in itself, part of the punishment. They don’t want you to die early on them. So they’ll feed you more and beat you less. They tend to starve out the shorter term prisoners or put them in coolers because then, when they’re moved wherever they’re going, they’ll be weaker than usual. Easier to control.”

Katara’s forehead creases. “Then why have the guards been threatening Ty Lee?”

“Because they’re on Azula’s orders,” Mai says, glaring at her like it’s obvious. 

“The threats don’t come from Azula herself,” Ty Lee adds, voice small, “but sometimes some of her generals will come in. Those are the ones to be worried about.”

“She won’t kill you yet,” Mai comforts. 

Even though those were the least comforting words that Katara has ever heard, Ty Lee seems to brighten a bit. Katara manages to stifle a snort, but only because what they’re talking about isn’t funny at all. 

“So everything the guards do is checked with Azula?” she asks.

“Of course not,” Mai snaps, growing impatient with their apparent incompetence. “Not all of the guards are mechanical. Some take matters into their own hands, like the ones menacing her,” pointing to Ty Lee. “But, she’s right. The ones who come in full uniform, during hours that they can be expected... those are the ones under Azula. The ones with real power, that won’t only land a couple of hits, but pull the strings that tie your noose.”

Katara’s heart beats to the frantic echo of Mai’s words. It’s so loud in her ears that surely, surely, the others must hear it, especially in this suffocating silence.

She glances at Toph who, indeed, is frowning in her direction—she must sense her heart rate; or maybe she’s just processing Mai’s words—and then at Ty Lee, who looks on the verge of tears—impressive that they hadn’t spilled out yet, given her recent history in Katara’s sight—and finally at Mai, whose expression is impassive. 

Nausea rises in her stomach and she clears her throat to rid of the acidic taste. Three pairs of eyes jerk to her. When she speaks, her voice is brusque. “Zuko isn’t here, then. On the first floor.”

“No.”

“Where?”

Mai glares at the wall. “The prisoner’s duration shortens as you ascend floors,” she says, and it seems that she’s reciting something that’s been beaten into her brain without permission. 

“He’s on the top floor,” Toph whispers. 

Mai nods. 

 

%%%

 

The moon is much lower in the sky than she'd expected.

Toph hadn’t wanted to spare the time to check, but Katara wouldn’t budge. “You made the last plan,” she had reminded her. “We’ll go see him right after. I just need to see where it is.”

Good thing she had. Sunlight’s streaks haven’t quite greeted the world, but they aren’t far off. The moon is low and it’s glare is angled. 

Working during the day is risky. The guards on patrol in the cells will be stricter and more constantly attending their charges. Security will be heightened because people will be more alert. The sun makes firebending stronger.

Basically, they have to move fast.

 

%%%

 

“This is it,” Toph announces. Katara can make out the general outline of her arm pointing...upwards? Maybe? But the darkness obscures everything else. 

The lighting in the cells hadn’t been much, but it had been lightyears better than this—virtually nothing. Virtually blindness. 

Unfortunately, as she is traveling with a companion who constantly reminds her of her actual blindness, she can’t, in good conscience, complain. 

She raises her hand above her head to hopefully make out some detail. Cold metal greets her fingertips. “And you’re sure there’s an opening?”

Yes, Sweetness. I’m positive.”

“Alright,” Katara agrees, albeit reluctantly. “At your discretion.”

Toph snorts. “At my what?”

She rolls her eyes. “It means, whenever you’re ready.”

“Why didn’t you just say, ‘whenever you’re ready?’”

“Because I’m a mindful vocabulary teacher.” She gropes around in the darkness before she finds Toph. Ear is the first thing she’s met with, so she flicks it before Toph pulls her hand down to hold. 

“Mindful, maybe,” Toph says, shifting into her bending stance. She punches through the roof—the roof of their underground tunnel, though it’s really the flooring of the prison—and they begin to ascend. “Not very useful. I miss Sunshine.”

Katara can’t retort because they’re rising in the hollow little slot between the outside of the prison and the inside of its cells, and any sound she makes will be easily heard by the cell’s occupants. The metal makes noise, of course, but there’s nothing Toph can do about that except go slower than they’d like and try to shave the edges of their elevating platform so that they don’t screech against the walls any louder than necessary. 

Mai had told them that the apex of the prison only held one prisoner, max. Someone short-term or highly valuable. Zuko, according to his (ex?) girlfriend, is both. There will be no one else with him. Besides, she’d said, Azula would want him isolated.

Though Toph had searched, she couldn’t feel any footsteps or heartbeats or anything suggesting life in the highest cell. But Mai had insisted that, if he were here, that’s where they’d find him. 

So they climb. 

And climb and climb and climb. 

“How big is this prison?” Toph asks her after a few minutes, voice no more than a breath. 

Katara shrugs, remembers it’s pitch black and that Toph is blind, and murmurs back, “Huge. Can’t you tell how much further we have to go?”

Toph holds the platform in place for as long as it takes her to place her hand on the wall, mutter, “Like three minutes,” and raise it again.

Echoes of one prisoner repeatedly slamming something against the wall give them each brief heart attacks, but they continue when they’re almost certain they aren’t the cause. 

Nerves run rampant in her stomach. She and Toph hadn’t quite confirmed their plan—they’d discuss it with Zuko when they got there; he’d already tried to escape twice, after all, so his input would be invaluable—but she has a general idea. 

Get Zuko, talk to Zuko, pick up Mai and Ty Lee, leave the island on a warship. 

She almost cringes just thinking about it. 

But, then, that isn’t not the only reason for her nerves. 

She hates talking to Zuko. She always has. He’s a terrible conversationalist, for one thing—but that’s beside the point. He says stupid things that make her remember painful events, and every time she looks at him all she can think about is Ba Sing Se. And not because of the scar on his face, but because of the regret in his eyes. 

She hates it. 

Because when she sees his apology written so clearly on his features, day after day—spelled out so clearly in his gaze—she sometimes finds herself wondering why she doesn’t just forgive him. 

Which, of course, leads her to hurriedly call the betrayal back to memory—the sugary words, the unspoken feelings, the misread intentions—because he doesn’t deserve her pardon. And, though it hurts to relive, it beats forgiveness by a long shot. 

She isn’t ready to forgive someone she doesn’t know if she can trust. 

And call it petty, or call it childish, but it is true. She doesn’t want to say she forgives him and then still hold hard feelings. That isn’t fair to either of them. That isn’t fair to anyone. 

So for the rest of the journey upwards, she thinks of ways to antagonize him. 

You’re just Azula’s little puppet, aren’t you? Isn’t she younger than you?

Did you know my brother’s guilt is the only reason that we’re here?

Mai’s sure pretty. Why haven’t you mentioned her before?

What? No

She blinks, surprised by the thought that has nothing to do with anything. 

Why did she—what? 

She shakes her head violently, trying to alleviate her confusion. 

“Alright there, Sugar Queen?” Toph murmurs, nerves evident in the extra confidence infused into her words. Katara doesn’t acknowledge it. “Your heart is going a little insane.”

“I’m fine,” she replies curtly. 

A moment passes before Toph whispers, “Good, because we’re here.”

Katara stills and, indeed, can feel her heart in her chest, in her ears. “Is he moving? Can you see him?”

“No, but we’re at the highest cell.”

Katara takes her hand from Toph’s and wipes her palms on the fabric at her torso. “Is there really only one cell?”

“Yeah,” Toph says, and she must place her hand against the wall to get a better view, because she waits for a moment before resuming. “But it’s not big. There’s a huge, empty space over there,” she points leftwards to a space indiscernible to Katara, “that takes up most of the floor. This,” she points ahead of her, toward, to Katara’s eye, a metal wall, “must be the cell.”

“Okay,” Katara says, frowning, “then why can’t you see him?”

Toph shrugs. “Maybe chairs in the Fire Nation are made of wood.” A couple of harsh pops come from her cracking knuckles. They both inhale sharply at the noise, wait a second, and then Toph continues, softer, “Sorry. Forgot. Anyway, what Mai told us is the truth. If he’s at the prison, he’ll be up here.”

“Unless Azula changed things around.”

“She—well, I guess,” Toph concedes, posture slumping slightly in the darkness.

She hates that, so she says, “We just have to assume she hasn’t.”

White teeth flicker in the darkness. “There’s the optimism.”

A hint of a smile tugs at her lips, but it’s quickly shoved aside. “Can you tell if anyone else is up here?”

“Only him in the room. Two guards are in the other space, but I’m pretty sure they’re asleep. Five on each attached stairwell.”

Nodding, Katara takes a deep breath and turns to face what she thinks is the entrance.

But Toph mutters, “Are you planning to fall to your death?” and spins her around. 

“No. I’m planning what I’m going to say to him.”

Toph punches her shoulder. She bites her tongue so as not to cry out. “Don’t be a jerk.”

Katara’s eyes widen. “I thought you liked dark and cold and apathetic people. Who are you and what have you done with my—”

“Don’t be a jerk because I’m the mean one in this friendship. You’ll ruin my reputation.”

She smirks. “Fine.”

She feels Toph take a breath, too, before putting her hands on the wall, and for the first time she wonders how Zuko will react. Will he hug Toph? Will he tell her that he hates her nicknames for him? That he loves them? Or that he knew she wouldn’t leave him alone? 

(Will he hug Katara? Or will he glare at her or smile at her or apologize to her? Will he want to talk? Want to listen? Will he—)

Suddenly too many thoughts rush through her mind at once, and she can’t think of anything at all. Toph peels the door open slower than she had for any of the others, but it keeps the metal from groaning. Ages seem to pass before an adequately sized hole has been silently carved away.  

Toph steps in first; she follows. She expects the same situation as before—a slice of lantern light pervading through the hallway—but instead it’s like they hadn’t left the walls or the tunnels. Everything is pitch black. There are no windows, no torches, no strips of light from doorways. 

She moves around, arms stretched in front of her to alert her to walls or tall, broad-shouldered Fire Nation Princes. 

“I don’t think he’s in here,” she murmurs. 

Toph doesn’t bother with a response. She’s about to ask what Toph can see—if anything—when a harsh whisper reaches her ears. “Katara. Come here.”

She does, as quickly as she can while keeping her blind footsteps silent. “What is it?” 

When she gets close enough, Toph snatches her wrist and yanks her to the floor. “Do you have your water?” she demands, though her voice is nearly inaudible. 

“Of course I do,” Katara whispers. She blinks over and over, trying to combat the complete lack of visibility. “Why?”

As answer, Toph releases her hand and stands to bend a tiny slit of metal open from the edge of the wall. Moonlight filters in, and now Katara blinks in sudden sight. The lighting isn’t perfect, but it reveals a cell that’s much smaller than she imagined, with silver light glaring off of tight metal walls and a rough floor that’s spattered with—

Blood.

Her eyes are huge. Toph is moving toward her, past her—she doesn’t want to turn around. 

But she must. She follows the trail of blood from the doorway to a limp form lying in the darkest corner, facing the wall, sucking in shaky breaths and shivering against the floor. 

Zuko.

Any hatred she harbors is shoved to the back of her mind. All she can process, in the forefront of her thoughts—rushing toward him with silent, pattering footsteps, crouching next to Toph, rolling him onto his back to help him breathe—is his prostrate form, deathly pale and unmoving, ringed with bile and blood. 

“Do something,” Toph hisses. “He’s unconscious.”

Katara’s heart pounds in her dry mouth. She tries to look at Toph but can’t drag her eyes away from him. His face is bruised and sallow in the soft light—purple and yellow swelling swirls with the angry scarlet of his scar, the bright scarlet of dripping blood. 

They can’t go now. Not with him like this. He likely won’t wake for hours, and won’t be able to walk for hours after that. Let alone run or escape or evade. 

“I can’t heal him,” she whispers. “Azula will know.”

"I don't care," Toph snaps, but then she falters, fisting her hands, because Katara is right. A sudden, complete recovery would never go unnoticed. It would be obvious; their presence would be exposed; their goal would be obstructed. Azula would likely transfer Zuko back to Caldera City—or, worse, just decide he’s not worth it altogether.

But she can’t leave him like this. 

“I’ll heal what’s hidden,” she decides, not even blushing as she starts to remove his prison garb. Her hands shake; they fumble with the hem of his shirt.

Once it is finally off, she swallows. Gashes line his chest—slashed diagonally, from a whip—and harsh crimson burns stripe across his shoulders, file neatly down his back. She forces her nausea to recede.

“How bad does he look?” Toph asks into the silence, voice hardly louder than a breath.

Horrible. Nightmarish.

“Not bad,” she whispers. 

“You’re lying,” Toph murmurs, falling back against the wall and dropping her head between her bent knees. 

Hands trembling, Katara pulls the water from the pouch on her hip and lies her hands on the worst cut she can find. She closes her eyes, focusing on the dwindling moon, on the swirling water at her fingertips, willing it to be enough.

“I couldn’t see his footsteps because he wasn’t moving,” Toph tells her, tears or fury or guilt choking her words, after a few moments of quiet. “And I couldn’t hear his heartbeat because it wasn’t strong enough.” 

“Is it still that weak?”

“Yeah.”

She inhales deeply, begging every part of her mind to give its full attention, its full cooperation. 

Tears drip from the bridge of her nose onto his clammy skin. 

 

%%%

 

"Let's go."

“No. He’s burning up,” Katara mumbles, words slurred with exhaustion, pulling the back of her hand from his forehead, holding it up as brief proof—though, she realizes blearily a moment later, Toph can’t see it—and replacing it on his heart. After healing all of the deepest cuts whose absence wouldn’t draw suspicion, she had taken to soothing motions on his heart. To, hopefully, restore its strong rhythm. Toph had admitted it had strengthened, but—other than a light, rasping cough which had heartened both of them for the next few minutes—he hadn’t shown any signs of consciousness. “I have to keep going.”

“The moon is gone, Katara,” Toph says, reluctant firmness in her words, and when had she become the authority? The responsible, mature one? “Unless you can somehow heal a fever, we have no choice. I can already see a bunch of new guards taking their posts. We have to leave.”

Even though her hands are shaking and her eyes are sliding closed—she forces them open, blinking hard—and her brain and muscles ache with the demand of constant focus, she doesn’t move. “We can’t just leave him here.”

“It’s not like I want to,” Toph snaps. Then her rigid posture slumps. “You need sleep, anyway. You can’t help him like this.”

“What do you mean, ‘like this?’” Katara demands, glaring at his chest, pressing her hands harder against him to help her case—she can help him like this...whatever this is. “I’m helping him right now.”

“You’re just splashing water on him. That’s not helpful.”

“It keeps him cool,” Katara argues.

“Keeping him cool isn’t going to be enough for us to get him off this island. We need to get something to help him. And, guess what? We can’t get that in here.”

She hangs her head a little because she’s all out of arguments and...well, to be perfectly honest, she has started to fall asleep. When her forehead falls all the way to graze his chest, she jerks it up, blinking anxiously at Toph, who has one eyebrow raised as if to repeat, Yeah, no. You can’t help him like this.

Closing her eyes, Katara sighs and pours all of her remaining energy into one final burst of healing. The sparkling water glows brighter, lighting the entire room—even as vertigo makes her head spin—and suddenly the room is the same aquamarine as the catacombs and she’s crouched and crying, thinking of her mother, and then he’s showing sympathy and, to her surprise, empathy, and she’s telling him of her healing abilities, of her capsule of healing water, and the golden in his eyes fades because they’ve closed, and she’s touching his face, his scar, and the skin is rough beneath her fingers, and—

She exhales sharply, catching her breath from the healing’s exertion, and pushes the water back against her hip. She pulls his shirt over his head and then leans back, scrutinizing him for a moment. 

His face is still nearly unrecognizable—colored and scraped and burned and battered—and blood spatters his arms and legs. But her heart doesn’t drop at the sight anymore, because she knows that underneath his shirt is healed, pale skin; that his chest rises and falls in an even, strong rhythm; that his shivering is from cold, from fever, not from pain. 

From the corner of her eye, Toph stiffens. “Katara,” she mutters, moving subtly to her side and yanking on her arm, forcing her to stand. “Someone’s coming.”

Her eyes widen. “What?” she hisses. 

Face tight with concern, Toph lowers her hand to the ground to see. “They’re on the stairs.” 

“Fine,” she whispers, swaying slightly on her feet after rising so abruptly. “Let’s go.”

They pad over toward the wall where they had first entered. Toph begins the tedious task of peeling the wall back without making a noise. 

After a couple silent moments, new voices, husky from sleep, reach her ears. She can hear footsteps pounding up the stairs. They beat to the rhythm of her heart. 

“Hurry up,” she hisses, turning to Toph. 

“Don’t yell at me,” Toph returns. “I wanted to leave earlier!”

“Oh, don’t make yourself sound so high and mighty,” she snarls, crossing her arms. 

Her thoughts, though, aren’t in the argument. They’re five paces away, helpless on the floor; twenty paces away, sprinting up a staircase. 

“I’m just saying,” Toph starts, words strained with the effort of bending the wall closed, “I’m never the smart one. That’s you or Sokka. But you really screwed this one up.”

Exhaustion and fear and worry steal Katara’s more clever responses. “Stop it,” she snaps.

There’s a pause and the opening of a door and footsteps that echo in the empty space beyond the cell. Conversation carries through the walls, but Katara doesn’t register it. She hardly dares to breathe. 

Toph steps through her hole and, legs trembling, teeth chattering, heart jumping, Katara slides in after her.

But before Toph can close it—before she has bent the patch of light shut—hazy amber eyes blink open from the floor and meet her gaze, confused. 

Then they widen to saucers. 

They flicker over her face and her body, blinking constantly, frantically, struggling to comprehend her presence. 

Katara?” Zuko breathes.

A key clicks in the door’s lock. Laughter emanates through the walls. 

Her eyes are wide and imploring, begging him to understand.

The guards are right outside.

He’s frowning, but then his expression contorts in realization. He glances over his shoulder toward the door. 

Before he can glance back, Toph bends the light source shut, bends their wall shut.

Everything goes dark. 

Toph drops them, fast, curling the edges of their platform up so it doesn’t screech against the walls. 

If she heard or felt Zuko awake, she doesn’t acknowledge it. 

Katara can’t seem to acknowledge anything else. Two golden orbs are pasted in front of her retinas, absorbing her thoughts, warping her focus, draining her energy. They blink and frown at her and beat against her thoughts and tell her things she can’t comprehend. Not now, not yet, not before he’s even healthy, not before he's even safe. 

He’s not even safe

“Don’t pass out on me,” Toph mumbles.

She does.

 

end of book one: reunion

 

Chapter Text

book two: counterpart

 

The rumbling, feral growl that wakes her is decidedly not human. 

Unsettling, then, that it’s come from a twelve-year-old girl.

“—seriously, it’s been like a—” grunt, “—century. I can’t just—” grunt, “—lug you—” grunt, “around—” grunt, “forever.”

She wants to plug her ears at the piercing, pitchy voice. But the voice wasn’t lying, and she’s only carried a moment longer before she is weightless. 

Terrified, she shoots her eyes open. It’s pitch black and she can’t see a thing, so she just makes the most reasonable assumption and guesses that Toph has thrown her across the room like a ragdoll. She’ll slam against the wall and lose consciousness again.

But before she can shout, her feet, and then her entire body, submerge into water. 

All her limbs go stiff—they’re at the Boiling Rock, she’s just remembered; the only water here is that of the Boiling Lake—but after a moment she realizes there’s no need. The water doesn’t scorch her skin. It’s calm and gentle, like what she remembers surrounding her and her dad’s canoe on fishing trips. Not a rushing, roaring river but a quiet, tranquil peace. It’s soothing. She closes her eyes.

Which is why she isn’t aware that the water is glowing until she opens them again. It glows all around her—her hands, her head, her heart. She hadn’t realized she was healing herself. She hadn’t even realized she’d needed healing in the first place. 

Even as it works, though, she feels tension leave her body. Each second that passes loosens another inch of her skin, another strip of her muscles; the pounding in her skull vanishes, the tightness in her arms relaxes.

Once the soft pulsing of the healing fades away, she bobs her head back up. Everything is still completely dark—vision had disappeared with the glow of the water. She frowns thoughtfully down at her pool. She’d never thought about using it as a light source. 

Before she can experiment, though, Toph asks, “Feeling better, Princess?” 

She spins to her left to try to make a figure out. “Much, thanks.” Then, grumbling, “I hate being underground.”

“Really? Why’s that? Can you not see?” 

Katara rolls her eyes. “What an original joke,” she says dryly, foot finally finding a sprout of rock that isn’t slippery with water. She scrambles up until she’s seated. 

“Hang on a sec,” Toph says. Something flies from the earth into her hands—Katara can hear the fizzing of the rock’s flight and the smack of it being caught—and then there’s a scratching sound. 

A scratching sound that lasts for minutes. 

“What are you doing?” Katara asks when she can’t wait anymore. 

“Apparently, I’m not doing anything,” Toph says angrily. 

The scratching sound intensifies. 

Katara raises her eyebrows. Toph doesn’t say anything else. 

“Toph—”

“Give me a second!” she shouts. 

It takes much more than a second—indeed, it takes snapping, muttering, and rocks being thrown as projectiles—but, finally, Toph produces the smallest of flames. 

Then, suddenly, their small cave is revealed. The light is faint and quickly dying, but it’s enough to show the hundreds of low hanging stalagmites, the pool of shadowy water, the tunnel from where Toph had dragged her. Also revealed is Toph’s grin—apparently she’s all too willing to disregard the minutes of frustration she’d just endured. 

“Flint,” Toph tells her proudly. “Learned about it from my governess.”

“You had a governess?”

“Of course. I’m a Bei Fong.” The grin is readily replaced with a scowl. “Never thought that stupid woman would teach me a single useful thing.”

“Pleasant surprises,” Katara says warily. She glances at the wilting flame. “You do realize it’s about four seconds from dying.”

Sighing, Toph flicks her hand to bend the tunnel open. The shadows block Katara’s sight, so she can’t see what Toph brings in until a moment later, when there’s an adorable, furry, dead rabbit-hen next to the flame. 

She scrambles over. “Toph!” she cries. “Why did you kill it? It’s so cute!”

“I didn’t kill it. It was already dead. And, also? Dead things aren’t cute. That’s just weird.”

She glares. Toph parcels off scraps of the fur and sets them into the flame. The single, weak, dying flame which, with the additional encouragement, unfortunately becomes a myriad of flames, and then, after a moment more, a full, raging fire.

Toph’s smile is smug.

“Where are we?” Katara asks instead of commenting—she’s older, she’s a woman, Toph’s only a girl, don’t let her get to you, don’t let her get to you. She stands to explore their space.

But there’s quite literally nothing to see, other than what she’d previously noticed—it’s a tiny area—so she returns to the fire.

“We’re underground,” Toph says.

“Are we really?” Katara asks, rolling her eyes. “I hadn’t noticed.”

“You’re hilarious.”

“Are we under the prison?” she asks. “How is the water so cool?”

“No, we’re not.” Toph shuffles to get more comfortable, folding her arms behind her head and leaning back against a wall. “I dug the tunnel near the ocean and bent it to let a bit of water in.”

“Why?"

“Because you were out for like twenty minutes. I figured if you could heal yourself, you’d wake up.”

Katara frowns. “So you chucked me into a pool.”

Toph barks a laugh. “That was great! I thought you wouldn’t ever know since you were unconscious and all, but it’s even better that you do.”

You’re the hilarious one,” she mutters. “What even happened? We didn’t get caught, did we?”

Apparently, Toph thinks she’s on a comedy streak, because she smirks and says, “You heard Zuko’s manly voice and bam! Lights out.”

Katara recoils. “Excuse me?” she demands. “He—he doesn’t have a manly voice!”

Toph grins. “You’re not denying that's what happened.”

“Of course I’m denying it!” she screeches. Toph’s smirk shifts into a full blown laugh. Katara ignores it because her honor needs defending, but she lowers her voice into a harsh whisper to maintain some semblance of dignity. “Besides, I know that’s not what happened!”

“That’s exactly what happened.” Toph shrugs, a what-can-you-do? look on her face that makes Katara want to punch the stupid fire. “You’re a girl, he’s a guy, Sweetness. A manly guy. I get it.”

“He is not manly. What does manly even mean?”

Toph’s grin grows evil. “It means that he—”

“Nevermind! I don’t want to know!” Katara bellows, forcing her hands over her ears, squeezing her eyes shut, shaking her head. 

Toph can hardly speak over her laughter. “You’ll have to know eventually, Princess. It means—"

“I already know, you idiot. I just don’t want to hear your definition of it.”

Toph’s expression turns innocent so quickly that Katara knows it’s a practiced motion. “I’m just reciting everything my teacher Sunshine has taught me.”

Horror paints Katara’s features. “Please tell me she doesn’t talk about my brother.”

“Of course she does. I’m nearly a grown woman. I deserve to hear about these—”

“Actually,” Katara shrieks, covering her face with her hands, “I don’t want to know! 

When all that emanates from Toph is laughter, Katara peeks through her fingers, slumps, and tries to change the subject. “Besides, you’re twelve. You’re not a grown woman.”

It works, thank La. “You’re only fourteen.”

“I’m fifteen.

Toph snorts. “Lying.”

“Fine,” Katara sulks, “I’m nearly fifteen.”

“That’s still fourteen.”

“It’s almost fifteen. You’re not almost thirteen. You’re just twelve.”

“You don’t even know when my birthday is.”

“You don’t know when mine is! It could be tomorrow!”

“Mine is tomorrow.”

Katara blinks. “Is it actually?”

“No, of course not,” Toph laughs. “I would’ve told you if it was. Besides, I know yours is just after the comet. Aang never stops talking about what he’s going to get you.”

At Aang’s mention, she glances down, sobering. 

Had he returned yet? Does Sokka know where he is? Is he fighting to come after them?

She hopes not. 

She really, really hopes not. 

In fact, flecks of annoyance jump into her mind at even the idea. It’s selfish of her, she knows. He’s ridiculously stressed. He carries the weight of the world—a world he hardly knows; a world he’s only lived in for months—on his shoulders. 

But coming after them would be selfish of him, too, wouldn’t it? They made this plan on purpose. They made this plan with the sole intention of keeping him away from Azula. Away from the Fire Nation. 

So, if he comes after them…

She just hopes that Sokka keeps him rational.

She really, really hopes.

She runs her hands down her face. “This is the stupidest conversation ever,” she says. “Just tell me what happened.”

Laughter slowly drains from Toph’s face. She purses her lips and tilts her face down to her lap. Katara feels the change in the air—tenser, heavier, louder—and finally lets the thoughts that have been pounding at her mind’s door, demanding entrance, inside.

He woke up

They found Zuko battered and unconscious. She healed him. Guards were coming; they had to leave.

He woke up.

Her healing must have worked. That final burst of effort that stole her consciousness must have sparked it inside of him. He’d seemed with it, too, which is the most mind-blowing part. La only knows how long he’d been out. 

She is light with relief.

(Just because he woke up. All that healing would have been a waste if he woke up as sick as he was before.)

Lucidity likely didn’t last, though. His fever was awful—a product of maltreatment and malnourishment—and, though she had healed a few harsher cuts, she couldn’t touch that. Wouldn’t dare to, even if she knew the theory behind it. Stitching skin back together is one thing; manipulating or messing with fever is another. That sits far beyond her healing capacities. 

Guards had just arrived, too, when they left, which meant that the situation could only have gotten worse. No one on Azula’s orders would do anything to help him. And, surely, the guards assigned to him were some of the best: loyal and stringent and indifferent to his pain. 

She and Toph need to talk to him. To get him a proper meal—though, after being hungry for so long, he’d have to start slow—and a full healing session. Where she healed everything, not just what was hidden from the guards’ view. 

Most of all, though, they need to get off of this island. They are leaving too many clues—the airship, the healings, the sound of the metal bending. Surely Azula, cunning as she is, will catch on soon. 

But first, he must be able to stand. Chances of either of them carrying him are impossible, and chances of either of them bending him beside them while they try to get out are slim. Especially if they take Mai and Ty Lee with them. Unless he carries his own weight, they will never get him out. 

They have to get him medicine.

Toph’s voice pulls her from her musings. “I think you stood up too quickly,” she says. “You just blacked out.”

“That’s so weird,” Katara murmurs. 

Toph shrugs. “Not really. You were healing him for hours."

“Well, it’s still embarrassing,” she grumbles.

A faint smile crosses Toph’s lips. “Only because it’s Sparky.”

Katara punches her shoulder.

“Hey!” Toph exclaims, narrowing her eyes and punching her back. “You’re stealing my persona!”

“You lost your ‘persona’ when you started taking language lessons from Suki. Big words really aren’t your thing.”

“I guess my influence is just too strong to resist,” Toph preens, ignoring her comment. “Spend enough time with me and you’ll want it for yourself.”

Katara sighs, staring into the sparkling fire. She puts her hands over the flames and feels the piercing heat. Remembers the shivering form on the floor. 

“He’s not exactly fit to walk,” she says. 

Toph crosses her arms, grin vanishing again. “No, he’s not.”

“I can’t heal his fever,” she says. 

“No, you can’t.”

“We don’t have much choice,” she says. 

“No, we don’t. We have to get him out.”

“I know, I know, I just…” She sets her face in her hands. “Don’t you get it? He needs to be healthy. We need to get him healthy.”

“But you can’t heal him,” she argues slowly, eyebrows puckering. 

No, she can’t.

She waits. 

All of four seconds pass before Toph understands. 

Grinning, she shoots up straight. “Oh, heck yeah,” she says. She cracks her knuckles. “Time for some daylight robbery.”

Katara stares at her. “That’s not what that phrase means,” she says. 

“Not what what means? Aren’t we gonna go steal medicine for him?”

Katara blanches, dropping her gaze, shoving her conscience aside. “ No , we most certainly are not going to steal."

“What are we gonna do, then?” A grin creeps up Toph’s face. “Give it to him and wait for him to give it back?”

She scowls. “What are you, five? No. We’re going to—well, we’re just going to see if we can borrow some of...you know, just if they have any to spare. Sometimes—you know. There’s this thing called sharing? You’ve never heard of it; you’re an only child—”

Toph snorts. “Oh, I’m sure the guards will jump at the chance to share with us.”

“—but it’s a really important societal concept. One that even the Fire Nation has probably heard of, at some point or another, and—”

“Alright, alright, Sweetness,” Toph says, rolling her eyes. “Just shut up. We’ll borrow the medicine. That way it’s not daylight robbery.”

Katara glares at her. Then, with a sharp exhale, she blows a hair out of her face. “You’ve still got it wrong,” she says. 

Toph perks up hopefully. “So it is stealing?”

“What? No! I wasn’t talking about—I meant the phrase. You’ve clearly never heard it before, because you keep using it wrong, and so I—” 

Toph slumps back against her rock. “Quit while you’re ahead, Princess,” she grumbles.

Well. At least she used that phrase right. Mostly.

Katara drags a weary hand down her face.

 

%%%

 

“Didn’t you ever get sick before I joined you?”

“Yeah,” she says. Darkness engulfs them as they move back towards the prison. This time she doesn’t even try to see, just hopes Toph will stop her before she runs into a wall. Which, now that she thinks about it, is probably the worst hope ever. “Sokka and I got really sick one time.” At the memory, she scrunches her nose. “Aang made us suck on frozen frogs.”

Toph barks a laugh. “Twinkletoes pulling a prank while you guys were sick ? That’s hilarious. I can’t believe he had it in him.”

“It wasn’t a prank. They made us feel way better.”

“Oh, so we’ll just go find some frozen frogs.”

“There’s nothing below boiling around here,” she laments. Then, “That’s not the point, anyway. Every area treats healing differently. Back at home we used arctic seal fat and this tea called—” she shudders, “ —Labrador .”

“Sounds like a favorite.”

“I think I’d rather suffer,” she says. 

Toph’s footsteps pause as she clears away more of their tunnel. “All the rage in my city was about that thing Perky is obsessed with.”

“Chi?”

“Yeah. My mom was always trying to make my governess explain it to me. Everyone said mine was ‘wayward,’ because of my sight. They were obsessed with it.”

Katara frowns. “How did people treat illnesses?”

“With three thousand needles,” Toph answers darkly. “They stabbed them all into your back.”

She opens her mouth to retort, but then blinks. Her mouth snaps shut. 

Needles

That morning they’d eaten jook...she’d been holding needles, hadn’t she? Using them to mend the backpacks? And when she’d set them down on the floor of the airship, Toph had paled and sent them hurtling into the fire. 

That’s what her freak out was about. She hadn’t felt the needles until Katara had set them down—until they’d come in contact with the metal floor. Then Toph saw them and flipped her lid.

Because, apparently, Toph is capable of fear. 

But, as she thinks on it, Katara doesn’t blame her.

If they used three thousand needles to treat a peasant’s simple illness...what lengths would they have gone to to cure a young heiress' blindness? 

Swallowing, she forces the thoughts from her mind. Only after she’s sure her voice is steady does she say, “That sounds terrible.”

“Yep. Probably worse than your tea.”

“I don’t know,” she mutters, readily running with the topic change. “It’s really disgusting. And it makes you feel more sick than you started. Imagine the effects of cactus juice plus the effects of food poisoning.”

“Okay, but five thousand needles. Stabbing your skin.”

She winces, but her tone is light. “I thought it was three thousand?”

Eight. Thousand.

Despite herself, she snorts. “A lot, then.”

“Yeah. Too many.” Toph shoves more rock away. “I win.”

Katara is hesitant to agree.

 

%%%

 

“Found it,” Toph announces.

“Where?”

“Three floors up, down two hallways, left, right, and through an unlocked door.”

“Unlocked?” 

“Yep. No bolt."

“That’s convenient.” She pauses, furrowing her eyebrows. “Though it might not be unlocked when they’re on break.”

“Who even knows if they have lunch breaks in the Fire Nation?”

“Of course they do,” Katara wavers. “They must.”

Toph shifts away from the flooring. “They’d be stupid to have all the guards on break at once.”

“That’s true,” she allows. “They wouldn’t do that.” There’s a beat of silence as a plan forms in Katara’s mind. “You’re sure that it’s the infirmary?”

“There are multiple bodies on tables, restrained. A bunch of footsteps are running around them.”

She frowns. “That’s pretty vague.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, Princess. Would you like me to—”

“That’s not what I meant,” she huffs. “I’m just saying, it’s a lot to risk on something we don’t even know is accurate.”

“Every other room in the entire prison is either a one person cell or a gathering area for the guards. Plus, nobody’s lying down in those. This is the only possibility.”

“What about the cupboards? Do you feel any medicine?”

Toph scoffs at her doubt, but moves her hands back to the metal to check anyway. 

After a few seconds, she mutters, “Weird.”

“What?” 

She pulls away from the metal. “I can see the cupboards. And I can see that something is inside of them, because there’s pressure against the bottom. I just can’t see what .” 

“Whatever’s inside isn’t metal,” Katara guesses.

“I don’t think so.”

She thinks a moment before sighing. “We need to talk to Mai.”

“What?” Toph yelps. “Why?”

“Because there are too many things we don’t know. Say we did get inside, and it does turn out to be the infirmary—”

“It is.

She holds her hands up placatingly. “Fine, it’s the infirmary. But how will we know which medicine to use? If I turned up to the Earth Kingdom and found a cabinet of supplies, I would never even consider that the needles were for healing. We have no clue what we’ll find in there.”

“Don’t you have magical healing instincts or something? Just use those!”

“You sound like Aang.”

“Ouch.”

“We can’t guess on this, Toph.”

“He needs medicine, Katara. I thought we just decided that. It was literally your idea!”

“I know, I know,” she groans, squishing her face against her hands. “I know he does. I just...a little guidance would be nice.”

“If you hadn’t noticed, we’re in a bit of a time crunch. Guidance is great and all, but we can’t exactly stop and smell the ocean.”

Roses,” she corrects, scowling behind her fingers. “And I didn’t say anything of the sort.” She drops her hands. “What’s one five minute stop?”

“Life or death, potentially.”

Her scowl returns. “Not helpful.”

“Wasn’t intended to be.”

“I can’t walk in there blind,” she says. “We’ll just talk to her for a few minutes. Or…” Her eyes light up. “Maybe we could even have one of them pretend to be sick!”

“I wish you were your brother,” Toph says flatly. “The strategy doesn’t run in the family.”

She deflates but doesn’t argue that particular point since it was, admittedly, not her finest idea.

She otherwise ignores the barb, though, as she is the bigger, older, more mature person, who also happens to be rather intellectually competent and confident. One twelve-year-old’s poor opinion won’t bring her down. “We have to at least ask her. It’s too obvious to just take every bottle, if it even is the infirmary in the first place.”

“But I hate Gloomy,” Toph groans.

“I don’t like her either!”

“Can’t we at least talk to Bendy? She’s so much more…”

“Receptive?”

“I was going to say human.”

Katara grins, because she’s won. “That’s a regression in vocabulary.”

“Shut up, Princess.”

 

%%%

 

They can’t come to a decision—despite how much more productive visiting Mai would be, neither of them particularly wants to talk to her; Toph argues that getting in a fight with their main source of information would be unfortunate; Katara agrees—but Katara realizes as she’s walking that she doesn’t really have a choice. Toph is the one making all of the tunnels. She’ll, inevitably, get the final say. 

But, in the end, it doesn’t matter. The universe decides for them. 

“Bendy’s not in there,” Toph whispers.

“What?”

“She’s not in her cell. She must be in the courtyard. They release them during the mornings, right?”

Katara rubs her elbow. “I guess.”

 

%%%

 

When they make it under Mai’s cell, it’s much of the same. 

Stupid universe. 

“She’s not alone,” Toph mutters. 

Now Katara lets the panic rise. “What? ” 

Toph adjusts her hands on the flooring. “There are five extra people.”

“Who?”

“One second,” Toph snaps. “Let me check my address book.”

“Obviously you don’t know their names,” Katara returns. “But are they guards?”

Toph pauses a moment, feeling. “Mai is standing in the corner. One guy is talking to her and the other four are standing behind him. They’re...stiff. Not relaxed.”

She processes this, then she remembers something. “It must be the Warden. He’s her uncle, remember? Who else would visit her?”

“Her boyfriend?” 

Katara’s face hardens. “Maybe if he could stand.”

“It makes sense,” Toph concedes, seemingly ignoring her own interruption to their conversation. “And the other ones are guarding him.”

Annoyance retreats in the face of alarm. “What do we do now?” she asks. 

She can hear the smirk in Toph’s voice. “We use your magical healing instincts.”

“This is serious, Toph! We have to heal him!”

“What makes you think I’m joking?”

 

%%%

 

“I can’t believe this,” she murmurs. 

Toph’s grin is devilish. “Oh, Sweetness. I’m excited.” 

“This is so stupid.”

Toph stretches her legs out underneath her, leaning back against the metal wall. “You do realize you’re only insulting yourself.”

Katara drags her eyes away from the small slit of light Toph had let into the tunnel. “What?”

“It’s basically your original plan.”

“This wasn’t my plan,” she hisses. “My plan was to talk to Mai or—”

“Yeah, yeah,” Toph dismisses. “Before that. You wanted to break in at lunch. It’s lunch.”

“Hey, don’t blame me. I thought the guards would be on break!”

Toph clicks her tongue against her teeth. “First law of strategy. Always think ahead.”

“Sokka never thinks ahead!”

“Second rule of strategy. Expect the unexpected.”

“Sokka never expects the—”

“Third rule of strategy. Sokka isn’t the benchmark strategist.”

“You are not better than him.”

“Of course you don’t think so,” Toph says. “You’re his sister.” She stands, bends the light source shut, and stretches her hands out to crack her knuckles. “Watch and learn.”

She slams her hand into the ground. A vibrating wave of earth tracks its way across their little alcove, hits a wall, and, shuddering, disappears into the rock.

Still blinking in the darkness, she slowly turns to Toph. “Life-changing,” she says flatly.

There’s a pop, a loud crashing noise, and the sound of frantic, muffled shouting.

Toph crosses her arms and smirks, “I’d guess you have four minutes.”

“What did you do?”

“Something life-changing.”

Toph,” Katara growls. 

“Relax, relax. A metal pipe exploded two doors down.” Katara squints and can make out Toph’s arm pointing somewhere diagonally overhead. “How convenient that all the guards in the infirmary have gone to fix it.”

Katara’s eyes widen. She scrambles toward the wall that Toph’s begun to claw open, but then, glaring, turns back. “If you weren’t so annoying, I might be impressed.”

As Katara climbs through, Toph responds, “If you weren’t such a prig...actually, it wouldn’t change much.”

She slips into the harshly-lit room. It’s much larger than any of the cells they have seen. Metal cabinets stretch along the far wall. A line of beds lay nearest to her. Only four of them are filled, holding lumpy outlines stuffed under off-white sheets.

She turns back to Toph and whispers, “Shouldn’t you bend earth over their eyes?”

“It’s fine. You look enough like a guard.”

“You’re blind.”

“Then just take it as a compliment.”

“Being called a guard isn’t a compliment. Besides, I probably look like a straggler. I haven’t slept or changed or bathed in way too long.”

Toph throws her hands up. “Then act like a guard! I don’t know!”

“I thought you were the Master Strategist.”

“Just get the stupid medicine,” Toph hisses.

With a quiet hmph, Katara swivels back to face the room. She pushes her hair behind her shoulders, stiffens her spine, raises her chin, and feels absolutely ridiculous. No one would ever mistake her for a guard. They wear uniforms

Nonetheless, she moves toward the cupboards. Her footsteps are soft and careful—she doesn’t want to wake any of the sick prisoners. 

As she gets closer, though, she realizes it’s all but impossible. An empty bed separates each occupied one, so she can’t see the bed at the end of the row, but the prisoners in the three nearest to her are deathly pale. None move a single muscle. 

Not even their lungs.

Her stomach drops. 

Still, she forces her back to turn; she can’t risk drawing attention.

(Even if they have no attention to give.)

When she reaches up to open a cupboard, it swings open on its own. The only reason she doesn’t turn to glare at Toph—she is quite able to open a cupboard by herself, thanks—is because of what’s inside. 

There are hundreds of bottles. 

Crude writing distinguishes each one from the next—mondo grass, bamboo shavings, angelica root, peach kernel, snakeroot, rice seed, shiso, wild mint, winter melon…

Hundreds of bottles. 

She feels the blood leaving her face.

Hundreds.

Naivety led her here. How had she been so stupid? She can’t just choose some at random and hope for the best. This isn’t a story. With her and Toph’s great luck, and the universe’s obvious bias toward them, favor for them...whatever ones she chooses will likely poison him.

Magical healing abilities are suddenly her greatest desire.

They’d been right about one thing, at least. Every bottle is made of wood, which is why Toph couldn’t see any of them. At this point, though, a blind choice would probably be more successful. 

Hands trembling, she digs around for anything recognizable. She knows what a peony is, of course, and a rhubarb and a mushroom. But what is tree peony bark? Or turkey rhubarb rhizome? Or polyporus tuckahoe mushroom? 

And how in La’s name did any of these things heal a fever? 

Most of them are herbs ground into powder, but there are a few wingless cockroaches or wilted flowers that remain intact. The intact ones gross her out, though, so she stays away from those, despite her twisted desire to feed an unconscious Zuko something as disgusting as a dried rhinoceros beetle. 

She may even forgive him after that. 

But she shakes her head because the thought is stupid and not the point and false, to boot. She refocuses her eyes on the present. 

“And?” Toph whispers. 

“I’m looking,” she mutters. 

There must be a pattern to how they’re organized. 

By illness, hopefully. That’d be awfully convenient. 

She grasps onto this wish, searches for a pattern, and finds one in seconds. 

Alphabetically organized from the leftmost cupboard to the right. She nearly curses in frustration. 

She doesn’t, though, and reluctantly hisses to Toph, “I have no idea which ones we need.”

“How many are there?”

She bites her lip and squeezes her eyes shut. “Hundreds.”

Toph groans. “Any luck with that magic?”

She ignores the stupid question and leans away from the cupboards, turning to face Toph. “We need to talk to Mai or Ty Lee. We should have just waited until we could.”

“We can’t wait! We need him better by tonight, and who knows how long the medicine will take to heal him?”

“But we can’t use any of these herbs,” she argues flatly. “I haven’t seen a single one of these before.”

“So grab a bunch of them!”

“What, we’ll just feed him them all? That’s a terrible idea.”

“Well, if you haven’t noticed, Sugar Queen, it’s the only idea we’ve got.”

“I’m thinking of a plan,” she lies. “I just need a minute.”

“The guards won’t give you a minute,” Toph spits. 

“Well, they have plenty to spare, so that’s really selfish of—”

“Princess Azula?”

Both girls freeze. 

Neither of them breathe. 

“Princess Azula!” the voice repeats. 

Katara, posture rigid, turns slowly toward the door. 

But she doesn’t see a guard. To her relief, she sees only a delirious prisoner, neck cocked off the bed to twist and face her. It’s the bed at the end of the room. The one she hadn’t been able to make out before. 

The one that holds, apparently, someone still living. Unlike the other three.

In the immediate panic that wracked Katara’s brain, she’d missed a crucial fact: the voice was only a weak rasp. Her heart thunders in her ears.

She hasn’t been mistaken for a guard. She’s been mistaken for the Fire Nation Princess. 

She thanks La under her breath and promises to be less careless next time. 

“It has always been my dream to meet a member of the Royal Family,” the prisoner gushes, voice weaker than the dead dried beetle’s. She sounds seconds away from taking her last breath. Seconds away from never speaking again. “I am so honored you have visited me. I knew you would come. I owe you my life.”

Katara takes a step toward the bed and makes out a shivering woman whose short dark hair is her only blanket. Her sheet hangs off the side of her cot. Her skin is cadaverous. 

“What are you doing?” Toph hisses. “Just grab some bottles and let’s go! We don’t have time for charity work!”

No, they don’t, but the woman’s wide eyes are glazed over and imploring and Katara knows that this is stupid, knows that she should just turn around, but she can’t find it in her feet, can’t find it in her heart to turn away. 

Besides, she’s just come up with a plan. 

She dawns her most regal voice and ignores Toph’s groan of frustration. “What is your name?”

“Ayami, Your Royal Highness.”

As Katara moves closer to the bed, the woman struggles to sit upright. “Please,” Katara says, breaking character and rushing over to ease her back down. “It’s alright.”

The effort seems to have stolen every shred of Ayami’s energy. Her eyes droop half-shut against her pillow. Her bones peek from her wilting, rotting skin. Skin that Katara can hardly tell apart from the sheet that’s now fallen to the floor. Skin that hardly rises, hardly falls—Katara can’t tell if she’s breathing.

She must be, though, because she looks up at Katara with wonder in her sunken eyes. “You are more beautiful than my mother ever described,” she whispers. “If this dream leads into death, I will not be disappointed.”

Katara wouldn’t be surprised if it did. 

She can’t imagine how long she’s been here. How long it must have taken for her to get this bad, this sick. 

This near to death. 

She’s hardly moving. She’s hardly breathing. She is hours, maybe, from ultimate rest.

Katara’s stomach churns.

Indulgence is pity’s deputy—forever beating out caution—so she asks, gently, “Have I met your mother?”

Toph growls something and is completely ignored. 

Ayami’s smile is as brittle like her body, but isn’t hollow like her face. It’s gratified, somehow, even in near death. “Yes,” she says. “Long ago. When you were very young.” She pauses, remembering, and her eyes glaze over further. Her neck begins to twitch. In pain or discomfort or exhaustion, Katara doesn’t know. “You and your brother did my mother a great kindness.”

“My brother?” Katara echoes, straightening, now; the plan is pushed to the back of her mind. 

“Yes, His Royal Highness, Crown Prince Zuko.” Her eyelids flutter in an effort to stay open. “I know they taught—taught us in school not to refer to His Highness as that. But when we were younger, my mother made us promise not to ever disrespect either of Your Highnesses.”

“Is that what brought you here?” Katara whispers. 

“Yes,” she says, with a shiver and a violent cough, “But I wouldn’t dare degrade Your Highness’ presence with the musings of a criminal.”

Katara’s mouth is dry. 

Speaking respectfully of someone does not—should not qualify as criminality. 

Isn’t the Boiling Rock meant for hardened war prisoners?

She swallows the nausea that rises in her throat, and, even though she knows she shouldn’t, whispers, “What was the kindness my brother and I performed?”

Ayami sucks in a long, painful breath in preparation of her next words. When she speaks, her voice is lower, scratchier—so easily exhausted from lack of use. “Your brother ran to get a midwife when my mother went into labor with my sister. Afterwards, you brought my mother a flower.” Something akin to tears rise in Ayami’s eyes, only there isn’t any water. “Such selfless condescension.”

Her mother must have been a palace servant. 

Katara’s heart clenches.

Toph growls something else, and is still ignored. 

She takes Ayami’s hand because her eyes are rolling in their sockets and she knows she won’t be identified. “She sounds like an incredible woman.”

Ayami coughs. Blood trickles down her chin. Katara doesn’t flinch. 

She hardly even notices, actually. Ayami smiles again. “How can I ever repay such a kindness?” she croaks. “You and your brother allowed my best friend into this world. Could any action ever be enough?”

The guilt surfaces. 

Violently

Droves of it. Piles and oceans and mountains of it. Scratching at her heart, gnawing at her conscience.

She’s lying to a kind, innocent, undeserving woman; she’s impersonating a...well, she’s not impersonating a kind or innocent or undeserving woman, but she’s still impersonating someone; she’s…

Responsible for Zuko’s health. 

And that trumps it all, doesn’t it? She must get him what he needs. 

She shoves the guilt away. Not far—never far—but far enough to act. Far enough to focus.

“Actually,” she starts ruggedly, a new, frantic pounding to her heart, “yes. Were you born in the Fire Nation?”

“Yes, Your Royal Highness.”

She holds her breath. “Do you know, by chance, what is used to cure a common illness?” 

Ayami’s body relaxes its twitching for a moment. Her milky, bloodshot eyes stretch as wide as they can manage. “Are you unwell, Your R—”

“No,” Katara says sharply. Too sharply. She flinches. “Sor—” She purses her lips, shakes her head. Azula would never apologize. “Please, tell me what herbs are used.”

“Of course, Your Royal Highness. There—”

A hand grabs her arm, and she nearly jumps out of her clothing. Eyes wide, she jerks away from the bed and turns. “I said, footsteps,” Toph hisses. “We have company. Someone’s coming back from the explosion.”

Her stomach drops. 

To keep the panic at bay, she completely disregards the news. It’s not the most tenable idea, but she must get the medicine. It’ll be alright. She’ll go on with her plan—she’s so close that she can taste the healing herbs—like nothing happened. 

So, spinning back to Ayami, she snaps, “Stall them.” She ignores Toph’s immediate, vehement protests and forcibly blocks two possibilities from her mind: them leaving without medicine for Zuko and them getting caught. 

She swallows her heartbeat.

To Ayami, who had paused with the interruption, she encourages, “Go on.”

“Yes, Your Royal Highness,” she says, and Katara grits her teeth. Every use of that stupid, unnessecarily lenghty title grinds on her nerves. The syllables pound in rhythm with the approaching footsteps. “For the common sickness, the mixture is simple. Ephedra herb, cinnamon bark, glycyrrhiza root, and apricot kernel.”

Katara blinks. 

Simple. Right.

She misses Labrador Tea.

She gazes blankly at Ayami, who has a lingering smile on her face, but does not reopen her eyes. 

She’s about to ask her to repeat it, when a conversation pervades the open metal door. She spins away from the bed. 

She doesn’t risk thanking Ayami—to be perfectly honest, she doesn’t even know if she’s still awake. She just rushes to the cupboards and thanks La, now, that they are alphabetically arranged. 

Apricot kernel and cinnamon bark are easily found. She slips the wooden bottles into her shirt without looking at more than the labels. 

“—hadn’t known,” a guard says from the hall. “Can you believe that?”

Sweat drips down her neck. 

She finds ephedra after a few moment’s search. 

“Not at all,” the other replies. “I’d thought he’d be dead by now.”

Their footsteps move closer. 

“I’m surprised, too, to be honest. Rumor has it she’s taking him back to the Fire Lord.”

She doesn’t know how close—she doesn’t know where Toph is, either, now that she thinks about it; she hadn’t seen her when she’d moved towards the medicinal supplies—but most of all she doesn’t know what that stupid herb was called. 

“It isn’t our place to discuss rumors.”

It starts with a G and she’s never heard of it before. That’s all she remembers. She recognizes a gastropod and a goose-puffin egg and a geranium, so it isn’t those, nor garlic nor golden asters nor giraffe-fly hairs, and how many Gs are there? 

You were the one who brought it up. Besides, who am I going to—” 

Another crash, just like the previous, cuts his words off completely. 

“Toph?” she hisses almost inaudibly, craning her neck toward the door in search of the source.

"What?"

"Was that it?"

"Was that what? Just find the medicine. I'm working on a distraction. Hang on."

Her eyebrows drop. If that wasn't Toph, then what—

She freezes.

Wisps of blue streak past the door. 

They last only a split-second. When she blinks, they’re gone. 

It doesn’t matter. Ice crawls up her chest.

That blue is familiar. That blue is fire.  

She swallows. Her throat feels like cement. 

She can’t dwell on it, though, because a second explosion somewhere down the hall has the entire room trembling. 

She braces on the cupboard door, eyes clenched tightly shut. Only when Toph’s whispered warning reaches her ears does she remember her job. 

Katara. I blew another pipe. You have, like, thirty seconds.”

She shakes off her anxiety and kneels on the counter. Then she’s shoving her head almost fully inside of the cupboard, digging so frantically through the bottles that when one nears the edge she doesn’t notice. 

“What was that?” protocol guard whispers.

“Another pipe, maybe?”

She stops reading all of the labels. There are too many. She throws bottles aside. Her fingers tremble.

“Come on, they’ll need our help.”

“Not mine. I’m hungry. You go, I’ll finish our shifts here, and I’ll catch up with you for lunch.”

It didn’t work.

Toph sneaks back into the room from where she’d left through the wall and whispers, quieter than Katara has ever heard her, “Now.”

“Alright. See you later.”

One pair of footsteps retreat. 

Katara’s hands shake and she blinks sweat or tears from her eyes. 

What is it called?

She passes the Ga and the Ge and the Gi and finally, there it is, under Gl, and she doesn’t even try to pronounce or process the word, just throws it in with the others, and hops silently down from the counter, and—

The herb on the edge of the shelf clatters to the floor. 

Katara stills, eyes shooting toward the wide open door. 

That’s not the problem, though.

The sound jerks Ayami from her reverie. She shoots upright in bed, entire body quivering, and hoarsely shrieks, “Princess Azula! Don’t leave me, please! Take me with you! I owe you my life!”

Katara turns and runs toward the far wall. 

The stupid, precious wooden bottles clink together loudly under her clothes and footsteps that aren’t hers rush to the room, enter the room, and she wants to look back at Ayami and apologize because now the guilt swallows her, but she’s five steps from the tunnels, and her hand is on the wall, and—

“You!”

Toph already has the metal bent open. She stands, cloaked by shadows, in a bending stance. Katara turns reflexively, heart screaming in her chest, and meets a guard’s wide eyes.

“Who are you?” he demands, and he doesn’t seem or sound much older than her father, much older than Ayami—who she had lied to, who she had used—but, no, she can’t think on that now, not when Ayami is hours from death, not when Zuko is hours from death, not when she and Toph apparently are, too. “What are you doing here?”

“We’re—”

Before Katara can finish, Toph says, “That was really unfortunate timing,” and bends the door to the infirmary slam shut.

The guard looks absolutely terrified now, swiveling his head between them and the door and Ayami, and Toph says to Katara under her breath, “We either kill him or take him with us.”

Katara grinds her teeth. “The latter.”

“Monster!” the guard accuses, pointing at Toph. “Witchcraft! Playing tricks on the eyes, trying to bend a door...I know that’s impossible!”

Toph doesn’t even step from the darkness. She just bends hand bindings and a gag from the tunnel’s earth; they shoot out to silence the guard’s rantings. He tries to scramble forward, toward them—why isn’t he running away?—so she cuffs his feet as well. 

Ayami, however, is not silenced. She wails on drunkenly from the bed. Katara’s guilt is overwhelming. She can’t think of anything else, won’t be able to sleep with those pleadings haunting her nightmares. A woman put here for honoring her nation’s Prince doesn’t deserve to die here, alone, in this nightmare prison—And maybe, another part of Katara’s conscience murmurs, you can make it up to her. Maybe you can wipe your ledger clean. Maybe you can pull her from the edge of death—so she whispers, “We have to take her, too.”

Toph smacks her forehead. “How are we possibly going to drag two people?”

“We will not drag them.”

“How are we possibly going to carry two people?” Toph asks. “That makes even less sense!”

“Just bend a platform,” she says, and Ayami’s relax is proportional to her approach. 

“While I’m also carving out the tunnel? Do you want a foot massage, while I’m at it?”

“I would love one,” she snaps unhelpfully. Ayami’s restraints click off without fight, and Katara braces herself before sliding her hands under the woman’s limp body, bridal style, and lifting her up. 

Ayami’s feather-light weight from the prison’s likely starvation is offset by Katara’s weary, sleep deprived...not exactly buff...muscles, but Katara raises her chin and raises her higher. Letting her fall isn’t an option. Until Toph comes around—stubborn child that she is—Katara will carry Ayami herself. 

On the ground, the guard struggles against his binds. Toph fists her hand and, face blanching, his struggles stop. 

“Don’t hurt him,” Katara grunts.

Toph narrows her eyes but she sees the guard’s face relax, anyway, and she knows that Toph hadn’t hurt him on purpose. She’d fisted her hand because of her anger at Katara, not because of irritation with him. 

“I have never met anyone dumber than you,” Toph tells her, even as she peels the metal back wider to allow Katara and her—now sleeping—charge through.

Her voice is strained. “That’s lovely.”

She enters the darkness. A moment later, Toph enters behind her.

Neither of them move. Katara’s muscles scream their protest.

Toph sighs and kicks a platform up from the ground for Ayami. 

Katara almost collapses in her rush to relieve the weight. But then she steps away, chin lifted, eyebrows raised, frowning in haughty disapproval.

Two chairs—both with restraints: one so a guard doesn’t escape, the other so a sick woman doesn’t fall off—trail their sluggish progress. 

Only after they’ve walked—much, much slower than usual—for many minutes, and Katara’s posture has relaxed, and her thoughts have reluctantly dragged from just self-deprecation, does she bow her head and mumble, “Thanks.”

One thousand and three footsteps later, Toph responds, “I’m just glad you got the medicine.” Eighteen more footsteps, then, curtly, “And that we’re okay.”

And, in the darkness, no one can see Katara’s smile. 

 

%%%

 

“—so your honor depends on how silent you keep during our little adventure, okay? I know honor means a lot to you, Ice Pop, since it means so much to Sparky—”

Katara blinks. “Ice Pop?”

Toph raises her eyebrows. “Have you never had an ice pop? You live in the South Pole. That’s just wrong—

“Of course I’ve had an ice pop,” she scoffs, “but...what? Why did you just say it?”

“Oh, it’s his nickname,” Toph says, pointing at the guard. 

“Why?” 

“Don’t question genius, Sugar Queen. Anyway, Ice Pop—”

That nickname is many, many things. Katara isn’t sure genius is one of them.

 

%%%

 

They travel to the alcove they’d stayed in before, figuring they need to talk and rest and eat before they decide what to do next. 

Toph remakes the fire. Katara settles Ayami beside it. Shivers wrack her body relentlessly. Her skin is ghastly in the yellow light. Her breaths are shallow; her eyes rimmed with blood.

True to Katara’s unspoken fears, no amount of healing helps. She bends over her unconscious form, searching and searching for something to fix, something to right, but she finds nothing. She can’t heal malnourishment. She can’t heal fever.

(They wouldn’t be here if she could.)

It was stupid to bring her here. Katara’s presence is pointless. She can’t do anything for her. 

But she was always going to go, anyway, and she might as well have someone she thinks she loves. 

(Someone who’s lying to her.)

Ice Pop—she’d unfortunately taken to calling him that, too; it sounds less hostile than guard—sits against the wall, determinedly glaring at them both. Toph had removed his gag, if only because Katara had demanded it, and made him promise not to speak. 

Surprisingly, he had acquiesced. 

Unsurprisingly, he had broken his promise. 

Well, it was a little surprising, considering all the Fire Nation prided on honor. But it was otherwise completely unsurprising. 

“I’m alive, so I’m in a decent mood,” Toph tells him. “But if you talk one more time I’m going to make sure you can’t ever talk again.”

“That’s a bit harsh, Toph,” Katara says. 

Toph cracks her knuckles. “They’re called intimidation tactics. You wouldn’t know anything about them.”

“I can be intimidating,” she argues. 

Toph snorts. “Only with a hundred gallons of water and a full moon.”

Katara narrows her eyes. “After we get out of here, we’re sparring.”

“Your funeral,” Toph shrugs.

 

%%%

 

Over her portion of fire-cooked oats, her eyebrows furrow. 

The thought of a young, scarless Zuko and a younger...normal—she never thought she’d use any adjective with a remotely positive connotation where the princess was concerned—Azula, helping a servant is still too strange to comprehend. 

Azula must not have been evil her entire life.

That thought is even stranger. She’d just assumed that Azula came out of her mother’s womb angry and insulting and cold. Much the same went for Zuko, though imagining him without a scar was always weird. 

How did he get that scar? 

What had happened in their childhoods to mess them up so badly? Physically, mentally, emotionally, socially...

“Ozai must be a horrible father,” she mutters. 

Ice Pop is unable to contain himself. “How dare you degrade the Honorable—”

Toph whips the gag back on. “I thought we agreed that you don’t talk?”

Katara frowns. “Don’t be cruel.”

“We have a hostage, Sweetness. That is the definition of cruel.”

Well. 

Ice Pop isn’t really a hostage, but…

Still.

She’s not wrong.

Katara glances back down to her oats.

Toph secures the gag before saying, “That was random.”

Katara blinks her thoughts away. “What was?”

“What you said.”

“Oh.” She swirls her spoon around before shrugging. “I just don’t know how he could have been anything else.”

“His kids are basically insane.”

Katara glances up. “Does Zuko talk about him?”

The guard makes a muffled sound of protest. 

Toph furrows her eyebrows. “Not really. Only when he has to. Like when we talk about what Aang’s doing, or something. Mostly he talks about how much better Ozai is than Aang.”

“Aang is doing great,” she argues. “He’s learning fast.”

Toph raises her hands placatingly. “Hey, don’t shoot the messenger hawk. I’m just giving you your answer.”

“It’s a stupid answer,” Katara grumbles. 

They settle into silence for a few minutes before Toph says, quietly, “I don’t think he’s a very good dad.”

Katara shuts her eyes to block out unwanted images. “Yeah. Me neither.”

 

%%%

 

Ayami wakes coughing. 

Hard, powerful, lung-wrenching coughs that torment her entire body. Her skin is pruney, wrinkled, flaking; her shivering is uncontrollable. Her eyes roll around in their sockets. Her fingers grasp at an invisible hand. She mumbles incoherently.

Katara tries a healing session, if just to calm her down, but it’s no use. Toph ends up bending an earth blanket around her to keep her from flailing and hurting herself. 

“She’s delirious,” Katara whispers, tugging at her scalp. “Maybe we should have left her in there.”

“Did you see the bodies on the beds?” Toph mutters. “They weren’t breathing. That’s no normal infirmary. Leaving her would have been worse.”

The words are no comfort to Katara. Ayami’s forehead burns her fingers to touch.

“Should we give her some of the medicine?” Katara frets. “We’ll have enough left for Zuko.”

When Toph doesn’t respond, Katara glances anxiously over. Her head is bowed. Her eyes are closed, her lips are pursed white. Softly, she says, “She’s going to die, isn’t she?”

Katara doesn’t answer. 

 

%%%

 

She leans over Ayami, healing her, because sitting around and doing nothing was never an option. Toph sits entirely still right behind her. Katara is grateful for her silent presence. Even Ice Pop seems to respect the circumstances.

Katara is seconds away from grabbing new water from the pool, when Ayami’s coughing stops. Her eyes blink open. 

Then they narrow. 

“Who are you?” she demands, voice harsher, sharper than it’s been since Katara’s heard her. She looks down and sees water swirling, glowing at her chest, and throws her head back. “Help! Help!”

Katara recoils immediately, stepping back next to Toph, who has jumped to her feet. “What’s happening?” Toph whispers. 

Katara blanches. “She’s lucid.”

“What?”

“She...she knows who we are. I think it...it happens, sometimes. Right before death.” 

Ayami can’t glare at them over the earth that crawls up to her neck, so she settles on shouting from the ground. “Help me! I’ve been kidnapped!”

Katara flinches. 

“You monster! Kidnapping a loyal citizen of the Fire Nation!”

“What do we do?” Toph whispers. 

“—terrible, despicable, inhuman act. Violating every—”

Katara swallows dust. “I think we wait it out.”

“—a monster, and I hope—”

 

%%%

 

She collapses like someone’s cut her strings. 

Limp, sudden, unfighting. 

She slumps into her dress of earth. Her chin bounces once off the rock.

Everyone is still for a long, long time. 

But she’s the one to break the silence. She mumbles something about Princesses and mothers and kindness, and her voice is strained, her breathing shallow.

Katara can’t listen. Tears stream down her cheeks. Ayami’s skin slowly turns a wrinkly blue and she and Toph can hear death’s knocks. They watch it waiting to be received.

Minutes pass in heavy silence. 

When her eyes blink open for the last time, she wheezes out, “Thank you, Princess, for the tiger lily.”

And then her breathing stops. 

Monster.

 

%%%

 

“I should have left her in there,” Katara whispers.

“No, you shouldn’t have. They would have killed her when she started struggling.” 

“I couldn’t save her.”

“No one could have. You knew that when you brought her with us. She was half-dead when we found her.”

It doesn’t matter. 

Katara falls asleep. 

 

%%%

 

When she wakes, Ayami’s body is gone. 

“What did you do?” she demands harshly of Toph. 

Redness dots her cheeks. She kicks at the earth with her toes. Little pebbles fly up on the opposite side of the room. “Sorry, I knew you probably wanted to...but, well, we don’t have much time, and you were asleep, and...”

Katara’s voice is softer in the face of Toph’s uncharacteristic timidity. “What?”

A full blown blush covers Toph’s face. She looks at the ground. “I did some random Earth Kingdom tradition,” she mumbles, like she’s scared Katara will lower her opinion of her because she’s done it. 

It wasn’t random. It meant a lot to her. Katara can tell that much. 

She hugs Toph. 

“Shut up,” Toph mumbles.

She doesn’t let go for a long time.

 

%%%

 

“Perky’s back in her cell,” Toph tells her, crouching down to her right. 

She clears her throat. “Alright,” she says, bending a frozen block of water down on a scrap of cinnamon bark to crush it into tiny, powdered pieces. She tips them from her hand into the bowl of ephedra herb at her side. “And the people are gone from Mai’s?”

“Yeah. They left a while back.”

Katara nods.

She chops in silence until Toph gropes around the floor, secures a wooden bottle in her hand, and frowns down at it. “What’s this one?”

Katara glances up. “Those are the apricot kernels,” she says. 

“What do they look like?”

“Like a solid, brown lychee nut, or a large almond.”

Toph hums and sets the bottle back down. “You’re adding them next?”

“Yes.”

“And then we’ll leave?”

“I have to add the…” She furrows her eyebrows at the label reading Glycyrrhiza and says, “other thing.”

Toph snorts. “Good luck with that,” she says. 

 

%%%

 

She pushes thoughts from her mind. She’ll focus on them later. Tonight, hopefully. When they are all safely on the way back to the Air Temple. 

Enough had gone wrong in their plans already. Surely the universe would cut them a break and let them get back to the Temple in peace and in one piece.

She slices her hand open while she’s trying not to think. 

“With your own element,” Toph laughs.

Katara watches the blood drip down her palm. She doesn’t heal it. 

Monster. 

 

%%%

 

Toph wraps Ice Pop in a dozen layers of earth. By the time she’s finished, he’s so far away from them that they have to raise their voices to be heard. 

“Don’t even think about leaving,” Toph growls. “I’ll know.”

Scheming an escape is quite probably the last thing on his mind. There is no possible way he will get out of Toph’s earth.

Katara gives him a regretful look. “We’re really sorry—”

“No, we aren’t.”

She corrects, “I’m really sorry. Don’t worry. We won’t leave you here. We’ll be back soon.”

Katara gives him water and food and forces Toph to remove his gag. Then they pack up their stuff and walk towards the edge of the alcove. 

Toph asks, “Are you positive you want to just leave him there?”

“He’s not a firebender,” Katara mumbles, thoughts far away. “It’ll be fine.”

She remembers her promise to La about being more cautious, bites her lip, and glances back at Ice Pop.  

But Toph closes the tunnel. Everything goes dark. 

 

%%%

 

When Toph grows tired of having her conversation starters answered monosyllabically, she says flatly, “Katara. Give it a rest.”

“What?” 

“We knew she wasn’t going to last more than a couple hours. It wasn’t your fault. And you know I would tell you if it was.”

Katara wrings her hands around the wooden bottle in her grasp. They had poured water in it before they had left so it would be easier for him to swallow. If he was strong enough, he could heat it, too, so that it didn’t taste so gross. It looked terrible—herby and muddy and murky and brown.

“I don’t feel guilty,” she says. “I just...wish things were different.”

“Mmhm.”

She sighs. “You don’t believe me.”

“I don’t have to believe you,” Toph reminds her. “I know you wish things were different but I know you feel guilty, too. And guess what? Guilt isn’t going to get us off this island.”

“Guilt got us on this island.”

Toph starts to say something but cuts herself off with a hmph

“That’s what I thought,” Katara mutters.

“Either way, you gave her something better than what she had. Or what she would have had. And she really is saving Zuko’s life. I think if she had known that while she was lucid she would have been thrilled.”

Her shoulders slump with relief. That’s a good thought—one she can hold on to. “That’s true,” she says, and she isn’t lying this time. “You’re right.”

“So you’ll let it go?”

She takes a deep breath in. Thinks of the guilt and the sadness and the anger. Wonders if the real reason behind all of the feelings is her mother—Katara’s: she was helpless then, she was helpless now. If another situation comes up will she be helpless? If Toph is endangered, would she be able to save her? 

But that’s a pointless worry because Toph is the strongest person she knows. She doesn’t need protecting. 

So she unclinks the mental chains that bind the two deaths together in her mind—Ayami’s and her mother’s—and, with a deep exhale that leaves her momentarily dizzy, lets the former go. 

They are not the same, she tells herself. You did different this time. Better. You did the best you could

Not like when she was younger. 

Standing there, crying, watching, horrified, running, sprinting —doing nothing.

She lets the guilt from Ayami’s death go. And, though sadness still remains, it’s not all-consuming. She can function normally. She starts conversing and smiling and even laughing, once, when Toph somehow trips—“On your own element,” she mocks—and she regrets the circumstances and she’s sad and sorry that it happened, but she can think of other things. 

Given the situation, she did her best. There was nothing more she could have done.

She lets the guilt from Ayami’s death go. 

(She doesn’t let her mother’s go.)

 

%%%

 

“What happened to you?” Ty Lee screeches. 

Quiet!" Katara whisper-snaps, flinching and glancing over her shoulder at the door. Sound bounces off of metal far too easily. 

“You may be the dumbest person I’ve ever met,” Toph deadpans. 

Katara flicks Toph with the sweat from her own forehead. 

Ty Lee ignores the reprimand, the insult, and the assault. She kartwheels over to Katara, grabs her hand, and pulls her towards the cot. 

“What are you doing?” Katara hisses. “We just want to talk.”

“But even from over there I could tell your chi was super wayward.”

Katara snorts, glancing at Toph, who groans and slumps against the metal. “Wayward isn’t even a popular word.”

“I heard Mai use it once,” Ty Lee argues. She forces Katara down beside her on the cot.

Toph grumbles, “Of course Gloomy would have a good vocabulary.”

Katara smirks. “New teacher?” 

“Ooh!” Ty Lee exclaims. “I love teaching things! Can I be—”

Hands dig into her shoulders and she barely catches herself before yelping in surprise. Instead, she whips around and glares at Ty Lee, whose face is innocently confused. “What are you doing?” she demands. 

“I’m giving you a chi massage.”

“I don’t need a chi massage.”

“Of course you do! You’re obviously super stressed out.”

“Don’t remind her,” Toph mopes. “I just got her feeling better.”

“I’m feeling fine,” she snaps, swiveling to face Toph and then quickly back to Ty Lee. 

“No, you’re not,” Ty Lee tells her. 

“I think I would know. They’re my feelings.”

“That’s why I’m surprised you haven’t noticed! Your chi and your feelings are one. Don’t worry, though. I can fix it. I promise! You’ll feel a lot better.”

Katara narrows her eyes. “If you take away my bending—”

“She’s telling the truth,” Toph says, rather lazily, from her spot against the wall. “She won’t block it.”

“I promise,” Ty Lee repeats, nodding valiantly. 

Katara sighs, knowing a lost cause when she is one, and, turning back to the center of the room, relaxes onto the cot. Ty Lee kneels behind her and again digs her fingers into her shoulders. She refrains from flinching by fists her hands. The girl is way stronger than she looks. 

“We tried to come talk to you earlier,” Toph starts, “but you weren’t here.”

“Did I forget to tell you that the prisoners go in the cour—”

“No,” Toph cuts in. “We assumed.”

“Oh.” Her hands still. She leans forward to peek at Katara’s face. Her voice perks to match her moniker. “So,” she sings, dragging the word out, grinning. “Did you see Zuko?”

Katara narrows her eyes. “Yes. He was unconscious.”

Ty Lee’s hands jump to her mouth. She recoils in apparent horror. “What? What happened?”

“Azula happened,” Katara says flatly.

“Azula beat him up?”

“The guards did, but they acted on her orders.”

“Sugar Queen healed him,” Toph says, and Katara glances at her in surprise because is that...pride in her voice? But she continues, “Only took her fourteen hours.”

Ty Lee looks at her, features painted in incredulity. “Wow! You can heal someone for fourteen hours straight? You have impressive stamina!”

Katara rolls her eyes. “She’s exaggerating.”

Ty Lee looks notably disappointed. 

“Anyway,” Katara goes on, “he was really sick, so we got some medicine from the infirmary.” She takes the bottle from her pocket and holds it up for Ty Lee to examine. 

She’d expected an “Ew!” or a “Get that away from me!” but Ty Lee takes the murky mixture in the wooden bottle and peers down at it. “This looks familiar,” she says, “if a bit unappetizing.”

Katara laughs in surprise.

Ty Lee looks at her strangely, hands the bottle back, and returns to her masseuse duties. 

“Way to kill the conversation, Sugar Queen,” Toph says. 

Katara glares at her. 

 

%%%

 

While they explain everything that’s happened, Katara receives the second best massage of her life, though even under torture she’d never admit it. 

They sketch a rough outline of a plan—Toph thinks Ty Lee is a useless strategist, but then, Toph thinks Katara is a useless strategist, so Katara listens attentively to every idea Ty Lee has—but they’ve only gotten a few steps in when Toph whispers harshly, “Footsteps.”

Ty Lee jumps. 

“What?” Katara asks. 

Toph jumps silently to her feet. “We’ve gotta get out of here. There’s like five of them.”

“Same ones from Mai’s cell?” Katara asks. 

“No. They’re walking too casually. A couple are laughing, I think. And they’re all in a row. So I don’t think it’s the Warden.”

Katara breathes a sigh of relief. 

Ty Lee, on the other hand, looks concerned. Eyebrows furrowed, she asks, “And they’re coming in here? How can you tell?”

“That’s for me to know and for me to never tell you,” Toph says. She pulls the metal back. 

Katara hops from the cot and rushes after her, only glancing back to promise, “We’ll be back at sunset!’

Ty Lee cheers considerably, even as the guards’ conversation enters earshot. “Great!” she whispers. “Can’t wait! See you then!”

 

%%%

 

“Oh, lovely,” Mai says, crossing her arms, glaring at Katara, and raising an eyebrow. She’s standing in nearly the same place that they left her. “It’s not like I expected you hours ago.” 

Katara narrows her eyes but Toph punches her before she can snap back. Toph flicks the wall shut and moves to sit on the cot. “We got a little held up,” she explains. “And we have a couple problems.”

“Zuko’s sick,” Katara spits, because she’s feeling spiteful and wants Mai to feel something .

Mai doesn’t even blink. 

“He was unconscious when we got there,” she adds.

Mai’s lowered eyebrow joins its companion. “What did you expect?” she asks flatly. “He’s the traitor prince and the Avatar’s teacher.”

“And Azula’s brother,” Toph says.

Katara glares at Mai. No trace of concern flickers over her features and Katara doesn’t know why it bothers her because, really, she has no investment either way, but it does. Maybe it’s that Mai’s been so unnecessarily antagonizing to her, and she’s feeling vindictive. 

Really, though. What’s to like about someone who cares nothing for you?

But she catches herself. She hates him, and she supposes that’s worse apathy.

Not that it matters.

Still, she demands, “So you seriously don’t care?” 

Mai rolls her eyes. “It doesn’t matter if I care,” she says. “You have to go to the infirmary.”

“Way ahead of you, Gloomy,” Toph says, eager to change the subject.

Now real surprise makes Mai’s eyes widen. Of course, that’s the thing that breaks the mask. Katara scowls. “Are you?” Mai asks.

“Yep.” Toph waves a hand into Katara’s general direction. “Sweetness has the proof.”

She rolls her eyes and pulls the bottle from her shirt. Mai flinches toward her like she wants to come scrutinize it, but then decides against it. Sighing, Katara moves and hands it to her. “Ty Lee checked it already,” she says. “Said it looked familiar.”

Mai looks at it for a moment, and then plops it back into her hand. “You have to give it to him now.”

“Why?” Toph asks. “How long does it take to start working?”

Mai shrugs. “Better safe than sorry.”

“That was our plan, anyway,” Katara says. “We’re heading there after this. We’ll give it to him and then come back for you guys at sunset. Toph will bend us up to his cell and we can get him out and go from there.”

“‘Go from there’?” Mai snorts. “Real detail oriented, aren’t you?”

Narrowing her eyes, Katara says, “I don’t see you trying to offer any helpful input.”

“That’s because I couldn’t care less.”

“That’s the crux of the issue!” 

“Is it? Or is it that you couldn’t heal his illness on your own?”

Katara steps towards her. “If you and your stupid friend hadn’t—”

“Hadn’t what? I saved his life. And what have you done? Yelled at him and hurt him and fought him and ignored him and tortured him.”

Tortured him?” she laughs incredulously. “If you’ll recall, it was me who got tied to a tree.”

Inexplicably, Mai blanches and whips her glare to the wall.

Katara’s shallow breaths echo around the silent room and she supposes she’s...won the argument? 

No thoughts run through her mind. Just blinding anger. At Mai or Zuko, she’s unsure.

After a long, still moment, Toph starts clapping. 

Slow, drawn out, sarcastic claps. 

Katara turns her glare to her. But then she realizes that fury has tilted her entire body forward, so she leans back and drops her hands from her hips to her sides. 

“That was hilarious,” Toph says, and that much isn’t sarcastic, Katara knows, because Toph is grinning like a maniac. But her features sober in the blink of an eye, and she chides, “Great way to spend our time. How much time do we have, by the way, Sugar Queen? An hour? Or is it limitless when you’re arguing?”

“You could be more helpful, yourself,” Katara snaps.

But Toph only shrugs. “Don’t feel betrayed. I’d take your side if you were right. But Gloomy isn’t wrong. We might as well have no plan.”

“So you agree with everything she said?” she demands.

“Of course not. She’s not right, either. Just not wrong.”

Katara stares at her, blinks, and then, sighing, drags her hands down her face. “C’mon,” she says to Toph, “let’s rescue her stupid boyfriend.”

They leave the cell. Mai doesn’t move.

 

%%% 

 

“—honestly, I just don’t understand how someone could be so…” she groans, throwing her hands down to her side, “infuriating!”

“I think you’ve—”

“She doesn’t even care about him! What kind of girlfriend does that?”

“Listen, Sugar Queen, you need to—”

“And to act so nonchalant—I mean, he’s been getting beaten almost daily, and for her to not even—”

Katara,” Toph snaps. 

She clamps her mouth shut. Her short, huffing breaths echo in the dark cave.

“This isn’t your prerogative,” Toph says, and Katara doesn’t comment on the vocabulary because she’s incensed. “You have no right to judge her.”

“But she—”

“Her heart almost stopped when you said he was sick. Which, by the way, was ridiculously petty. There are better ways to deliver bad news. For example: any other way.

She purses her lips and walks in silence.

Mai hadn’t shown any emotion at all, but, then, she never has. It’s humanly impossible to feel nothing , as Katara suspects she so often does, but maybe...

Maybe she misjudged her. 

Maybe Mai just has a really impressive mask. 

Her stomach loops guiltily. It had been petty, and she has no claim over Zuko. Other than her claim to hatred for the remainder of their existences. 

The echoes of their footsteps are loud.

 

%%%

 

Toph whispers, “Someone is with him.”

She only barely contains her groan. The bottle of medicine whirls in her fingers. “Why does this keep happening?” 

“I can still get us up there. Maybe we’ll be able to hear who it is.”

“It’s definitely Azula,” she says. “She wouldn’t let anyone else visit him.”

“Only one way to find out.”

She shrugs as Toph pushes the earth upwards. “Quietly,” she says. “Azula notices everything.”

“Alright, Sugar Queen. You handle your waterbending and leave me to my earth.”

She rolls her eyes. “You’re right, though. If we would have waited to talk to Mai we would have been way better off.” She blocks Ayami from her thoughts. “So let’s just wait until she leaves.”

“If it’s even Azula who’s in there,” Toph says. 

Katara hums and hopes, for his sake, that it isn’t.

 

%%%

 

She starts to question if what they’re doing is wrong. 

It must be. It’s the only sensible answer to the question: Why does everything have to be so difficult?

The Spirits must be warning them— top. Leave them all there. Get off the island—because why else would Ty Lee be gone, Mai have visitors, and Zuko have visitors? Why else wouldn’t they be able to hear anything that was happening inside? Of course the stupid metal walls were soundproof. 

And now, just as they prepared to enter the cell—Azula had left, descended the staircase—Toph mutters, “Guards are coming.”

In the darkness, Katara whips her head around. “What?”

“Seriously, do you have a hearing problem?” Toph snaps, and Katara can tell she, too, is frustrated. She manages to lower her voice when she continues, “Guards. Are. Coming. Azula must have sent them.”

She blanches. Her mouth goes dry. “How close are they?” she whispers.

“About three steps from the door.”

Katara turns to face the cold metal wall. “What are we supposed to do? We can’t heal him with them in there.”

“Really?” Toph asks, scoffing. “Your observations just get more and more amazing.”

“This isn’t the time,” she says, whirling back around, “for stupid jokes. What are we going to do?”

“We take out the guards and bring them back with us.”

She thinks Toph is suggesting this unironically, so her eyes shoot open. “That is the worst idea ever! We can’t do that!”

Toph pops her knuckles. Katara cringes at the sound. “Why not?” she asks, all arrogant hauteur. “We can take ‘em.”

Because,” she implores, “Azula would know. It’s the most obvious thing ever.”

Indeed, the suggestion had been unironic, because silence lasts for a long moment before Toph grunts, “Oh. Right.”

“We could wait them out,” she starts, thinking aloud—ignoring Toph’s blunder because she’s the bigger person—“but, knowing Azula, they’ll probably be there all night. We’ll just have to deal with them right before we leave.”

“What about healing him?” Toph asks. “That’s the only reason we aren’t leaving right now.”

Katara blinks, then frowns. “You’re right, I guess,” she says slowly. “Maybe we should just leave now.”

“As good a time as any.”

They want to leave subtly, of course, because there is no way Zuko is strong enough to fight. Plus, though Azula had incentive to keep the Avatar alive, she’d have no issue in instantly killing any of them save her brother, maybe. On a good day.

So they’d wait for night because of its coverage.

...but if they were tunneling through the ground, anyway, then what was the point in waiting?

She supposes there isn’t one. 

“Alright,” she nods. “We get the others, come back for him, and then leave right away.”

“And if Zuko can’t walk?”

“The medicine will work.”

Toph’s voice is tight. “And if it doesn’t?”

She swallows her first answer. “It will. We’ll help him. He’ll be fine.” 

 

%%%

 

It turns out that Zuko isn’t the one they need to be concerned about. 

They go to Ty Lee first, since she’s been more cooperative and, they assume, will be more receptive to the change in plans. 

But, as Toph bends the metal back, they find she won’t—can’t—be receptive at all. 

Both girls freeze in the entryway. 

But then Katara is rushing forward, ignoring Toph’s frantically whispered inquiries, and pulling water from the skin on her hip. She’s shoving it onto Ty Lee’s skin, searching for the largest of the wounds, and finding it in a gaping welt on her back. 

For Ty Lee lies, face in her hands, in a crumpled heap on the floor. Dark red blots surround her figure. Crimson streams down her legs, down her arms. Her skin is milky gray and it makes her look years younger than she is. 

The war has forced them to grow up, has forced them to mature and age quicker than they should, quicker than others before them. But in moments like this—where they’re powerless against circumstance, against the evils that they are forced up against—they look like children. Like the children they are.

They’re too young to face this. 

But the world is callous, and they must survive. 

Katara heals her with lambent, trembling hands and bites her lip to stem her tears. 

“How bad is it?” Toph repeats—or, at least, Katara guesses she repeats it because her tone is snappish and impatient; Katara hadn’t been nearly attentive enough to hear any previous, unanswered attempts. Toph must have felt Ty Lee’s ebbing heartbeat, or sensed her prostrate form.  

She swallows. “Not bad,” she lies. 

Toph doesn’t chastise her. 

 

%%%

 

Ty Lee blinks her eyes open. 

“You’re awake,” Katara sighs, slumping against the foot of the cot. “Thank the Spirits.”

“Took you long enough,” Toph says, but there’s no irritation in her tone. 

Ty Lee raises her head fully off the ground, and then, slowly, sits up. “What…” Realization dawns on her face, and she slides her hands around her back. Upon feeling the wound healed, she looks at Katara with incredulous eyes. “I knew you were a Master Waterbender,” she says. “And Zuko said that you could heal things. But…” She shakes her head back and forth. “I can’t believe you actually can. I never imagined a...a waterbender could do that.”

Katara frowns, but Toph beats her to a response. “Did you think Zuko was lying?” she asks. 

Hints of amusement creep onto Ty Lee’s face, even as she winces from a twinge of pain. “I mean, he has a tendency to boast.”

Katara raises her eyebrows. “No, he doesn’t,” she says flatly. 

Ty Lee smirks at her. “Yes, he does. But only about certain subjects.” 

Toph laughs. “Why, Bendy, I think we might have a friendship on the horizon.”

Ty Lee turns to her with a smile but the movement is too abrupt—she shuts her eyes and squeals in pain. 

Katara shakes off the weird conversation in the face of new concern. “You’re doing too much,” she says. “I don’t know what he said, but I can’t fix everything all the way. You’ll still be a bit tender, even if the wound is closed.”

“Thank you,” Ty Lee says, popping one eye open to look at her. “Seriously.”

She nods and wonders why, if Ty Lee was so prone to tears before, she doesn’t cry now. Now, after being hurt, after being beaten; now , as she’s hurt, as she’s impaired. Instead she’s grateful and smiley, if a little more somber and serious than before. 

She wonders if she’s misjudged Ty Lee, too. 

Maybe her thinking all of those things about them shows something about her. Maybe she should stop trying to determine who deserves her friendship, her kindness, and instead start trying to determine when she started needing reasons to be a friend, reasons to be kind in the first place.

She clasps her hands to stop their trembles.

“It was the guards, wasn’t it?” Toph asks quietly, and Katara had already come to this conclusion while she was healing. The arriving guards who prompted her and Toph’s departure; they must have done this. There was no other explanation. She and Toph weren’t gone that long. “The guard bringing his friends, that you mentioned before.”

“Yes,” Ty Lee says, holding their gazes. “There were eight.”

Eight?” Katara echoes, eyes widening. “Toph, you said there were five!”

Toph scrunches her nose. “I’m blind.”

Ty Lee snorts a laugh, but Katara balks. “You—you’re—no,” she stammers, shaking her head. “Don’t be stupid.”

“Oh, I’m blind and stupid. Forgot to mention.”

“Toph!”

Toph throws her hands up. “So I made a mistake!” she whisper-exclaims. “Big deal. Everyone makes them.”

“Not you,” Katara says, appalled. “Not with this.”

Toph’s lip curls up. “Well thanks, Sweetness, but—”

“It’s alright,” Ty Lee says quickly, glancing between the two and sensing a storm. “There were only five at first. Three more came later. You probably had your focus on bending, then. And who knew that they were going to...well, you know.” Extra cheer infuses into her voice and Katara is even more confused. “Who knew they were going to do that!”

It’s not even a question, it’s an exclamation. It doesn’t sound forced, either, which is the most baffling part. There’s a beat of silence. 

Then Toph realizes, softly, “You did.”

Ty Lee looks down. 

Katara’s jaw drops. “You knew?”

She nods. 

What? Why didn’t you try to...I don’t know, keep us here, or something? Or warn us?”

She raises her head. “What could you have done about it?” she asks. “Besides, I knew it was coming. You guys have a strict schedule to follow. I didn’t want to mess with that.”

Katara looks at her blankly. 

“You kinda did mess with it, though,” Toph says carefully. “I mean...we came back to tell you we were gonna leave right away. Obviously that’s no longer an option.”

“I’m sorry,” Ty Lee says, and heaves in a breath. “But...it was good for me, I think. In a weird way.”

“In a masochistic way?” Katara deadpans.

Ty Lee laughs a little. “No,” she says, and her face goes serious again. “It reminded me whose side I’m on.” She looks up and meets Katara’s eyes. “I was worried about leaving the Fire Nation. I...it’s been kind of hard to adjust, since the thing with Azula. It’s just...I spent so much time believing what she said. And I want to help you guys. Seriously, I do! None of what I was saying before was a lie, like Toph could tell. But...it’s kinda hard to…” She trails off, twirling her fingers together.

“To move on?” Katara prompts. 

Ty Lee’s eyes light up. “Yeah. That’s exactly it. I’ve been so...indoctrinated, I guess, into Fire Nation beliefs. It’s all I’ve known my entire life. So to find out that there’s a whole different side of the coin...I just feel really naive. And stupid. I wasted so much of my time and hurt so many people.” She frowns. “And for what?”

“Nothing,” Toph says frankly. 

Ty Lee’s face hardens. “Exactly.” She nods in determination. “I’m fine now, though,” she promises. “Completely committed.”

Katara watches her a moment longer, then glances towards Toph and scrapes her foot along the floor. Toph flicks her eyes in her general direction. “Truth,” she says, nodding.

A smile greets Ty Lee’s features. “Great,” she says, shaking her head. 

Katara tries not to focus on how much Ty Lee has surprised her, how surprised she is by the depths of her character. She’s not just a flighty, happy-go-lucky swimsuit model after all. 

Ty Lee continues, “Enough of the heavy stuff! Tell me your plan.”

Toph snorts. “What makes you think that’s any lighter?”

 

%%%

 

As they tunnel towards Mai’s cell—they have to update her—Katara says, “One of us needs to stay with her.”

“With Perky?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“Because she can’t fight yet.”

“I thought you healed her.”

Katara frowns. “Did you see her? She could barely move.”

Toph pauses the tunnel digging and Katara almost runs into the earthen wall. “Do you need to go back and heal her better?” 

“I healed her fine,” she snaps. “I can’t do anymore.”

“Then I don’t see the problem.”

“She’s really sore,” she says. “I can only close the wound and help the swelling. I can’t fix all of the pain.”

“Doesn’t the pain come from the wound and the swelling?”

Katara grits her teeth. “Really, Toph, I think I would know. You didn’t see her flinching every time she tried to move.”

“Low blow, Sugar Queen,” Toph says, eye roll audible. “She can defend herself.”

“No, she can’t,” she insists. “Usually she can do way more than just that, but now I really think you should stay with her.”

“So how do you expect to get Sparky his medicine?”

“You can bend me up.”

“From outside Perky’s cell?” Toph scoffs. “Do you know how hard that is?”

“When has that stopped you before?” she demands. 

There’s a pause before Toph, relenting, snaps, “Fine. All I’m saying is that it’s much smarter for you to stay with her and for me to go give it to him.”

“It is,” she says, “except that you aren’t a healer.”

“You think you’ll have to heal him, too?”

She doesn’t know what to expect, to be perfectly honest. She doesn’t know why she has to go up to his cell—just feels it, strong, deep in her gut, that it must be her. Whether that’s a desire to heal him or to see him...she doesn’t know; surely it isn’t the latter—but it doesn’t matter because, without waiting for a response, Toph puts her hand on metal and says, “We’re here.”

 

%%%

 

“I said, Ty Lee was beaten.”

Mai’s eyes shoot wide open. “What?” she demands. She steps forward, pointing a sharp nail at Katara. “Say that again, and I—”

“She’s serious, Gloomy,” Toph says shortly. She rises from where she perches on the cot and, arms crossed, comes to stand at Katara’s side. “It was the guards.”

Mai ignores her and speaks only to Katara, eyes narrowed to a glare. “Like I would believe anything from a Water Tribe brat,” she spits. 

“Excuse me?” Katara scoffs. “A Water Tribe brat? Do you know what we’re doing for you? We’re—"

“You probably did it.”

“Hurt her? Are you kidding me? That—”

“I don’t believe it was the guards for a second. You probably—”

Enough.” 

Katara staggers backwards in surprise as Toph yanks the metal from the ground and encloses it around Mai’s legs. Mai’s mask returns, and, raising her eyes from the ground, she laughs blandly. “Not a fan of a little conflict?”

“Trust me, I love conflict,” Toph tells her, stepping forward and lifting her chin to look somewhere near Mai’s. “But this isn’t conflict. This is a stupid waste of our time.”

Mai raises a delicate eyebrow. “You know, Zuko never mentioned you.”

Toph’s fists clench. “Listen here, Gloomy. You’re powerless. So let me tell you how it’s going to work. Sweetness,” she points at Katara, “is gonna talk. You’re gonna listen. And then we’re gonna leave and I’m gonna go protect your stupid friend Bendy because she,” she shakes the arm that’s pointing, “wants me to. Because she cares about people who have done nothing for her. She even cares about people who have hurt her and her friends.” Katara flushes with the praise, but her expression hardens. Toph slams a finger into Mai’s chest. “So get over yourself and shut up!”

Mai blinks. 

Then, slowly, her eyes narrow. Her lips purse so tightly that they’re white. 

She turns her gaze to Katara. 

“Talk,” she spits. 

Katara does. 

 

%%%

 

“There’s no way we’re taking her with us. She’s too much work.” Toph punches through another tunnel. “And she’s just so annoying!" 

Katara smirks. “I feel like we’ve had this conversation before.”

Toph narrows her eyes. 

“Our roles were reversed, of course,” she goes on. “Now I’m the mature parent.”

Toph looks horrified. “I never acted like a parent,” she spits. 

She shrugs. “I was mad. You put me in my place. Now you’re mad. It’s my turn.”

“I’m not listening to a single word you—”

“I don’t like her at all,” Katara says. 

Toph silences. 

“I don’t like her, but that doesn’t mean we can leave her here. We told her everything she needs to know. We don’t have to see her again until sunset. And, at that point, we’ll have Ty Lee with us, too. So really, how annoying can she be?”

“They’re even worse when they’re together,” Toph grumbles. 

“It’ll be fine. Everything’s already gone so wrong. What could get worse?”

 

%%%

 

“Ice Pop,” Toph greets, inclining her head like the princess she is not

Katara snorts. 

“Hope you like the light,” Toph continues as they approach the guard. They’d removed his helmet before they’d left so that he could breathe easier, and his head now droops to his chest. 

“We should let him sleep,” she whispers. 

They reach the base of the near tower of earth that Toph had bent to keep him enclosed. “Nah,” Toph says. She kicks her heel into the ground and brings her fists down in two sharp movements. His confinement collapses. 

Eyes shooting open, the guard shouts in surprise. He falls to his knees and Katara cringes as they scrape against the ground. He groans in pain and rolls onto his stomach. 

Toph,” she whispers harshly. “That was unnecessary.”

“He could have caught himself,” Toph shrugs. “It’s not my fault the Fire Nation doesn’t teach their guards to be agile.”

Rolling her eyes, Katara grabs water from the pool and moves toward him. When she reaches his side, she bends over a bit to meet his gaze. “If you lie on your back I can heal—”

“Get away from me,” he snarls, jerking his head off of the ground.

She frowns. “You’re going to be here for a little while longer, I think it’d be good if you would—”

“I said, get away!” 

“Fine,” she glares, bending the water back into the pool with a snap. “Make yourself suffer.” 

“Bad decision,” Toph says as Katara stalks towards her side.

Toph bends a piece of rock around his stomach to flip him over, and then a piece behind his back to sit him up. When he faces them, his expression is strained in pain. Pale, eyes squeezed shut, lips slammed tight, nose scrunched.

Even though she’s irritated by him—stupid male pride, stupid Fire Nation pride, stupid pride, stupid honor —she furrows her eyebrows. The cut on his knees couldn’t have warranted this reaction.

“What are you doing to him?” she asks quietly. 

“I’m giving him a backrest.”

“You’re sure it’s not hurting him?”

“Why would I hurt him? He’s not going anywhere.”

“Well, you did already hurt his—”

Geez. Get over it, Sugar Queen. It was an accident.”

“Okay,” she says, as more confusion settles in her mind. She rubs her cheek absently. “It’s just...he looks like he’s dying.”

“He has been standing for a while.” 

“Yeah, but…” she trails off. That couldn’t have had this effect, could it? His head was bowed, his fists were clenched, his breathing heavy. Sweat on his forehead caused his hair to stick. 

“He’s probably just sore,” Toph whispers. 

Katara doesn’t know. She raises her voice to be heard. “Are you okay?” she asks him. 

He lifts his head to glare at her. “This is your fault,” he spits.

She blinks.

What? How had she done any of this? She hadn’t hurt him, had she? Her eyes widen under his scrutiny. The last thing she had wanted was to hurt him, or anyone, or—

“Well...yeah, it kinda is,” Toph says, crossing her arms. 

Defensive, Katara whirls on her. “How? Because I got caught in the infirmary?”

Toph shrugs. “You were talking to Ayami.” She holds up a hand when Katara tries to protest. “But it’s also my fault. I mean, we did break into the prison, and we did both get caught, and we did have to keep him with us, so—”

“No,” the guard hisses. Wincing, he raises a hand to point at Katara. “It’s only the waterbender’s.”

“Did anyone ask for your opinion?” Toph snaps. 

Katara meets his glare blankly. 

Surely they hadn’t done this to him. And surely, from an outsider’s perspective, the blame would lie with them both equally. So why…?

She opens her mouth to ask, but Toph continues before she can speak. “Alright, enough with the dramatics. You hate us, we get it. Well, you’re in luck. We aren’t here to stay.” She nods to Katara. “Sweetness here just thought we should let you stretch out before we leave. We won’t be back until tonight.”

He goes completely white. His eyes stretch open wide. He flounders for words for a minute before deciding on fury and responding harshly, “What are you planning?”

Why is he so flustered? Why is he so angry? 

Why is he in so much pain? 

When she’d been trapped in the jemanite or on Kyoshi, the first time they’d been there, she’d been a little stiff when she finally got out, but nothing like this. Nothing close to the pain he’s showing. And, granted, they had left him for a little longer than those times, but didn’t his job require standing all day? 

Why is he in so much pain?

“Wouldn’t you like to know,” Toph laughs.

Can’t Toph see it? Is she just being paranoid? He pales further at Toph’s words, and Katara scrunches her forehead. “What—”

“Where are you going?” he asks. There’s a hint of desperation in his eyes, a hint of it in his tone. 

“Somewhere secret,” Toph answers. “Maybe the Water Tribe.”

His teeth begin to clatter together. 

“Okay, something is really wrong with him,” Katara mutters, unable to quiet her concern any longer. “We need to—”

“We need to focus,” Toph says, not bothering to lower her voice.. “We’ve had too many distractions. Let’s stick to our plan for the first time in our life. Everything always gets so off course.”

She turns back to face him. “I know it does, but just look at—”

Toph raises her eyebrows and waves her hands wildly around her eyes. 

“Well, take my word for it, then,” she whispers, cringing a little at her own insensitivity, but not letting it slip into her voice. “He’s not healthy.”

You’re the one who wants me to stay with Bendy,” Toph reminds her, and she turns to face her. “You’re the one that wants to take her and Gloomy with us. You’re the one who decided to wait until Sparky was better—”

She frowns and speaks louder, trying to be heard over Toph’s carrying voice. “That was the only option—”

“Whatever. All I’m saying is that those are all things that we’re doing on your call—”

“You’re the one who can bend! You’ve been choosing every—”

Listen, Katara. I’m not saying they’re wrong. I’m just saying that those are the things that you really want to do, so let’s go do them, and not sit here and choose Ice Pop over people who will be in our futures forever.”

Her eyes linger on Toph as she hesitates. She’s right—even if Katara is a bit surprised to hear Mai and Ty Lee referred to as being in their “futures forever”—and they both know it. But Katara doesn’t want to leave him here, either. It seems so cruel, especially when he’s obviously in so much pain, and—

She glances at him and stops short. 

His expression has relaxed a little. Color has returned, his shoulders are slumped, his eyes are less wild—though they still glare at her hatefully. Tight lines around his eyes reveal some lasting pain, but he seems altogether better. 

Confusion is replaced with anxiety, and it churns around her stomach. 

She isn’t really sure why—after all, she should be glad, right? He seems to be in significantly less pain—but it’s swirlings grow and eat her up.

A hint of a smirk plays at his lips. 

Something is wrong.

They had been talking loud and the cave is small and only the quietest whispers would be concealed—

But, surely, it doesn’t matter? 

Because even if they had been overheard, what could he do about it? He is stuck in a cave. None of the guards are earthbenders. Neither is Azula. 

Besides—and she thanks La—Toph had used their nicknames. Even though they betrayed Azula, no one would expect Mai and Ty Lee to be associated with the Avatar’s friends. He wouldn’t connect the dots. He’d probably forget them, anyway. Even if he didn’t, he had no idea who they were. 

Azula...well, she couldn’t find out, so it doesn’t matter. He is trapped here. 

So it’s alright. 

Suitably convinced that nothing is off—even as the demons flutter in her stomach—she responds, a little late, “Alright. Let’s go.”

 

%%%

 

They greet Ty Lee through a tiny hole in the wall, just to let her know that they are there, and then they close it and sit outside.

“Until sunset?” Toph asks a few minutes after they settle down. “You’re positive you’ll be able to tell?”

“Yeah. I’ll feel when the sun’s gone. The moon is way stronger without it.”

“Really?” 

“You’re hilarious.”

There’s a beat of silence before Toph adds, “You’re lucky you can feel it. I wish earthbenders had something like that.”

She shrugs. “I don’t think mine is as accurate as Zu—as a firebenders’.” She tucks a strand of hair behind her ear. “I just feel a little stronger. They can almost track the time.”

“Still cool,” Toph says.

“You can bend the land. That’s cool.”

“You can bend the ocean.”

“You can feel heartbeats and tell if people are lying.”

“You can sense water everywhere.”

“Well, you can bend metal!”

Toph scoffs. “You can bend blood.”

She freezes.

Don’t remind me

A shudder runs through her body. 

Not by choice, she wants to say. 

It terrifies me, she wants to say.

It’s a curse, she wants to say.

She doesn’t say anything.

 

%%%

 

“It’s time,” Katara murmurs, and she nudges Toph awake.

When she doesn’t stir, Katara slaps her with her own sweat.

Toph’s head shoots up so violently that it slams into the wall. 

Ow,” she moans, rubbing her temple. Katara poorly stifles a laugh. Toph flicks a rock at her forehead and, in the darkness, Katara is caught unaware. 

“Hey!” she exclaims. “It isn’t my fault you’re impossible to wake up!”

Toph ignores that true statement. “I’m so glad you find pleasure in my pain. Sadist.”

“Oh, come on,” Katara says as she rises to her feet. “You would’ve died laughing if I’d hit my head.”

She can hear the smirk in Toph’s voice. “Fair enough.”

Toph stands, too. Their eyes have adjusted well in the hours that they’ve sat there—not, apparently, well enough to catch a pebble streaking toward her eyes, but she digresses—and she can make out Toph’s features easily enough. 

“Alright, one more time through,” she says. 

“That’s what you said eight times ago.”

“It’s important!” she insists. “You’ll bend me up, and—”

“—you’ll heal Sparky, and I’ll sit here doing absolutely nothing—”

“—making sure Ty Lee doesn’t get hurt again—”

“—so that you can have your special one on one time with the prince—”

Toph.

“—and, if you’d relax your heart rate and let me finish—” Toph smirks, “—I’d tell you that you’ll knock on the wall when you want me to open it. Then you’ll come join me and Bendy and Gloomy. Gloomy, who I’ll leave to get as soon as you knock. Then we’ll leave through the tunnels and free Ice Pop because—” her voice pitches to the highest, worst imitation of Katara to ever curse the world, “—it would be cruel to leave him there. And then we get the heck out.”

Satisfied, Katara wipes the exasperation from her features, from her mind, and nods. She’s faintly impressed. She hadn’t expected that level of attentiveness. Or, maybe, Toph just remembers because they’d gone over this every five minutes for the last few hours. 

Katara prefers the first.

“And we’ll meet at Mai’s cell?”

Yes, Sugar Queen.”

“Good.”

Neither of them talk or move for a long moment. 

It feels like the pinnacle of...something. 

This is the longest they’ve survived each other’s company. The longest they’ve gone without wanting to murder each other. 

And...it’s cheesy and preachy and stupid, but Katara smiles a little, because she feels like they’ve grown. Like things have changed between them. Like they’re better friends.

Good friends.

Maybe losing Zuko was good for Toph. She seems more pragmatic. More reasonable. Like a better listener. 

Maybe losing him was good for Katara, too. If only because she’s grown closer to Toph. 

When they get back to the Western Air Temple with the others, they’ll have this to build upon. This experience, this understanding. They’ve worked well together.

She wants it to stay that way. 

“Ready?” she asks softly. 

After a moment’s pause, Toph punches her shoulder. Hard. “You’re too weepy.”

Weepy?”

Chapter Text

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. 

Another breath. 

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. 

Light? 

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.

How inconvenient. 

“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. 

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.”

“I didn’t!”

“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. 

Almost

Not quite.

(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.

She frowns.

“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 what?”

“Before I healed you.”

He follows her gaze to the tray, eyebrows pinched. “Yes.”

“How often?”

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?”

“Yes.”

“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…

...sunset

She freezes. 

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.

Why?

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. 

Aang

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.

“Fifty favors.”

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?”

Katara smirks. 

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?”

“Nope.”

“Sore?”

“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. 

Boyfriend

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. 

Mai snorts. 

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.”

Zuko snorts. 

Toph punches him. 

Zuko winces. 

Katara snorts. 

Toph smirks. 

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to be insensitive,” Ty Lee says. 

Twenty footsteps. 

“Can you see him now?”

Toph groans. 

 

%%%

 

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.”

Katara blinked. 

Concerned?

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.”

“Asleep, probably. 

“Maybe he’s just really confident.”

She snorts. 

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.

Katara laughs.

 

%%%

 

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?”

She’s ignored.

“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

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.”

“No.”

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!”

Really?”

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.

Ice Pop.

 

%%%

 

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.

“Yeah.”

“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.”

“Thanks, Toph.”

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.” 

Katara laughs. 

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.”

“I can—”

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—”

Quiet.”

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.”

“I’m fine.”

“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. 

Another distraction.

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?

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?” 

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.”

Me neither.

“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.”

Azula smirks. 

“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.”

Goodbye

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. 

Chapter Text

As soon as they’ve stepped off the airship, Azula says, “Restrain her,” which apparently translates to, “Throw her in a huge burlap sack.”

Zuko makes a noise of protest over his gag, but then Katar can’t see him anymore. The world goes black. 

She doesn’t protest. 

She can’t tell what happens to him, but she assumes they’re kept together because every so often she hears Azula speak, and Azula wouldn’t speak to anyone underneath her, would she? 

No, it must be Zuko.

Katara shuts her eyes. 

I’m sorry, Toph.

 

%%%

 

At length the whirs of an airship engine reach her ears and, after they fade back to silence, she knows they’ve gotten away safely. 

(She hopes they’ve gotten away safely.)

 

%%%

 

Sweat builds everywhere

It’s disgusting, but at least it’s helpful: she knows that they must be nearing the boiling water. 

She can’t bend it away because her wrists are bound, so she sucks in air around her gag and tries to not pass out. 

 

%%%

 

When the world starts to sway more violently—they must be on the gondola—she thinks she understands Azula’s intentions. 

Aang

Maybe he could be convinced against coming to save Zuko, but surely, surely Azula knows he would want to come for her. 

(How could she not? Everyone seems to know that Aang likes her.)

(A crush is not justification to risk the world’s only hope.)

(Does Aang know that?)

That must be it, right? Why Azula kept her here?

After all, why else?

 

%%%

 

“Here,” Azula commands. 

They throw Katara on the ground. 

Her body slams against cement, and she groans through her gag. Sweat drenches her body. Her hair sticks to her forehead and her neck. 

Her throat is dry and parched and she wonders how terrible boiling water is to drink. Surely it’s at least clean? 

She also wonders about carbon dioxide poisoning. It’s impossible to run out of oxygen in a burlap sack, isn’t it? Because the fabric is thin enough to breathe in? 

She’s turning her face up, raising her eyes to the top, to the opening—it’s feeling very possible to run out of oxygen—when the top of it is set on fire. 

Her eyes jump open, fully alert. She ducks down, compacting her body, and rolls back and forth to no avail. Flames creep closer and closer to her body. A sceam grows on her tongue but she can’t, won’t give Azula the satisfaction, and—

The sack is stripped away. 

The guard yanks her to her feet as she blinks in new sunlight. They’re in some kind of courtyard, but she can’t take anything else in before the guard removes her gag. She coughs and spits, hoarsely, “Was that really necessary?”

Azula raises her eyebrows. 

She doesn’t speak. It seems like she’s waiting for something but Katara doesn’t know what. Doesn’t know what she could possibly give Azula here, in a guard’s grip, in an enormous prison, but—

She glances around again. 

“Where’s Zuko?” she asks, trying to fight the bubbling urge to entirely forget his existence. Panic wins out, though. As much as she hates him, she doesn’t want to be alone. Not here. Not with Azula. 

(And, well. He’s hurt. She doesn’t want him to...be hurt.)

(Well, she does. Obviously. But also...she doesn’t.)

(You know?)

“Ding, ding, ding,” Azula says dryly. “Such a selfless, selfless girl. Always thinking of others.”

“Where is he?” she demands.

Azula steps closer. “Don’t put yourself out. You’ll see him soon enough. I just wanted to solidify this little arrangement between us.”

“We don’t have an arrangement,” she hisses. 

“Not yet,” Azula says. She stops a pace away from Katara, smirking and folding her arms. “We’re about to.”

“If you haven’t noticed,” Katara spits, circling her neck in poor getsure at her restrained self, “I don’t have much to offer.”

“You’re right. You don’t. I have something to offer you.”

For a brief moment, as Azula’s mocking eyes glint in joy, Katara wonders at the impossibility of reconciling the sweet girl from Ayami’s memory to the person in front of her. 

(She doesn’t understand.)

“What? What could you possibly do for me?” she snaps. 

“I already spared your life,” Azula snarls, suddenly furious, “so your ingratitude is misplaced. You’d do well to learn respect, peasant.”

She scoffs. Ingratitude? She’d much rather be dead than stuck in a Fire Nation prison for the rest of her life, thanks. 

Angry heat rises in her face. “I respect freedom and those that do everything in their power to retain it.”

Azula storms straight up to her. “I am free,” she hisses. She waves a hand at their general vicinity. “This is my freedom.”

Katara laughs ironically. “Really? A prison camp?”

Face contorting into malice, Azula mutters something under her breath and a sharp, abrupt whip slices Katara’s upper arm. She yelps at the surprise, which has doubled the pain, but then she curses herself because that’s what Azula wanted. A reaction.

Indeed, when she opens her squeezed shut eyes, Azula is smirking. 

Heavy despair slips into her mind, combining with the pain to blur her vision, because, for half a second, Katara thinks she has lost.

After all, what can she do? Zuko’s gone. She can’t bend—she’s restrained. Her arm stings. Warm blood crawls toward her elbow. She can feel the depth of the cut when she tries to twitch her arm—nearing the muscle. 

But then she looks again into Azula’s eyes—wild and manic and reckless—and an idea is reinforced in her mind. 

Reckless

This isn’t the same Azula she had known. The flawless, brilliant Azula who knew everything and anticipated everything and couldn’t ever be shaken. This isn’t the Azula she had heard about from the Eclipse—clever and manipulative and three hundred fourteen steps ahead—or the Azula that had chased them for days without tiring. 

This Azula is broken

Her flaw is obvious. It hangs off the surface of her smile. 

She is desperate

But it isn’t the same desperation that led Zuko to chase Aang or that led Aang to chase Appa or even that forced Aang into the Avatar State.

Because the roots of this desperation aren’t another person. Zuko chased Aang to return home to the people he loved. Aang chased Appa because Aang loved Appa more than anyone. When Aang entered the Avatar State, it was because someone he loved was in danger. 

No, this desperation is more raw, because this desperation isn’t rooted in love. 

It’s rooted in loneliness

As Katara watches her, she realizes that Azula is terrified. She is terrified of being alone and hurt from Mai and Ty Lee’s betrayal and lonely. She doesn’t even have the capacity to mask it anymore—every feeling drips from her face; obvious to see, easy to interpret.

So the blood slips from Katara’s elbow to the ground, pooling by her knees, wetting the cloth there, but she thinks that she might not be in this prison forever. She thinks that she and Zuko might get out yet. Because they have the advantage of Azula’s weakness. 

Desperation makes people careless, and Azula is desperate to inflict the pain she feels herself onto others.

But they will have to move slowly, so as to prevent her lashing out. That’s where Katara had failed just now, she thinks—she moved too quickly, she was punished. They will have to tread warily. 

The thoughts are ripped away when Azula speaks. “Zuzu used to hate the dark, you know,” she says, all traces of the eruption gone. 

Katara blinks. 

“Yes,” Azula sighs. Her eyes glaze a little. “He was terrified something would pop out and eat him. He always made me sleep with him.” Her eyes refocus on Katara. “I could bend, of course. Long before he could.”

Katara has no idea what is going on.

“He hated not being able to bend.” Her features twist into a sneer. “Still does.”

What?

As the words catch up to Katara, a civil war explodes inside of her mind. She doesn’t want to lie and say he’s not a good bender, but she doesn’t want to compliment him, either. 

(Azula is really, really confusing her.)

In the end she decides that disagreeing with Azula is always the right thing to do. 

“He’s an incredible bender,” she retorts. 

Azula seems to snap back to the present. She narrows her eyes. “You should know, peasant, that I don’t negotiate lightly. Here’s my offer.”

Katara’s arm throbs. Her eyebrows furrow in wariness. She holds her breath. 

“If you heal Zuko, you can stay in the same cell as him. It’s rather dark in there, after all. I know he’ll want company.”

The breath releases. She blinks. Waits. 

Azula raises her eyebrows in question. 

What?

Together their chances of escape skyrocket. She would rather be with anyone else, of course—the person isn’t ideal—but considering the circumstances, refusal would be stupid. 

But...surely…

“Alright,” she says. “Yes, I accept.”

...that can’t be all?

“See? Was that really so difficult?”

She bites her tongue and forces her head to shake once because she hates Azula’s patronizing tone, but it really wasn’t

That’s what confuses her. 

“I didn’t think so,” Azula smirks. “Good. There will be gallons of water in your cell.” She doesn’t take her eyes off of Katara. “Put her with my brother.”

The guard takes her by her upper arms—of course he does—and for a moment her world blurs with dark pain. His fingers tear into the wound and, trying not to cry out, her head drops to her chest. 

He shoves her. She stumbles forward. 

She’s walked all of three paces before Azula gasps, “Oh!”

There it is. 

Not even a fragment of surprise enters Katara’s mind. 

“I almost forgot,” Azula says. 

No, you didn’t.

The guard spins Katara around. 

Azula’s face is greatly amused. “There’s just one more condition.”

Of course there is.

“You can’t heal yourself. And, if you do, you won’t ever see him again.”

Katara’s mouth drops open. 

“I’ll be in to check on you later,” Azula quips. “Your first session is then.”

She turns on her heel and strides away. 

Katara stares at her retreating form. 

What?

The guard wrenches her into movement. Shoves her spine, rips her hair. 

She blinks the entire trip back.

It’s not that she wants to heal herself—she honestly could care less. The strike on her arm is painful, but before she had even known of her healing abilities she’d been through much worse.

She’s just confused

Why? 

There must be something Azula is preserving Zuko for. Maybe she wants him to be pristine for their father. It makes sense that she should heal him—Azula could hurt him as much as she wanted and no lasting consequences would haunt her. 

But what does she get of keeping Katara from healing herself? 

Would Azula hurt her, too, and want to keep her weak? Then why not just deprive her of water altogether? Without it, she can’t heal herself. 

But Azula just said that there’d be gallons

Only the guard’s strong grip keeps her from laughing. Instead, she shakes her head incredulously. 

The deal is entirely in her favor.

Right?

(Maybe Azula is playing a bigger game than she had thought.)

 

%%%

 

They throw her into the prison. 

Literally throw

How light is she? She’d thought that only Toph, with all her haughty, excessive strength, was capable of handling her like that. 

Apparently not. 

Something slams into her before she collides with the ground—the cold. The cell is freezing. After so long away from home, the bite of the chill is unfamiliar. It swirls up her arms and under the maroon prison garb they’d forced her into. It wraps itself around her skin like shackles, squeezes until it penetrates the thin barrier, reverberates into her blood. Goosebumps rise and her teeth clatter and her clothes are too thin, too useless, and Azula just had to keep this one important detail from her, didn’t she? 

She lands in a heap on the ground. The world spins for a couple blinks. 

The door slides, and she hears it click shut before a shocked voice whispers, “Katara?” 

Pale light streams in through a slit of glass on top of their cell. All that is visible outside of it, though, as she raises her head to meet the owner of the voice, is rock.

These are the coolers.

Grunting, she starts to strain into a seated position. There’s only enough room for them both to sit, or them both to stand. There’s no way that either of them will be able to lie out. 

She narrows her eyes up at him to distract him from her efforts. “Well. Isn’t this just lovely irony.”

He seems to have recovered somewhat from his surprise, because he hisses, “Why are you in here?” 

“You’ve imprisoned me before,” she continues, ignoring or evading his question, she’s not sure—maybe there isn’t a difference, “and now we’re in prison together.”

Breathing heavily, she finally slumps into the cross legged position she’d been aiming for, mirroring his. The space is so tight that their knees nearly touch. She doesn’t complain, though, because he is warm and sometimes slivers of the heat transfer to her. 

When he doesn’t speak, she looks up in time to catch his downcast gaze. The realization of what she’d said hangs over her, over them both, like a tortoise-bat hanging from the ceiling of the cooler. 

It only annoys her further, though, so she adds, “Again,” and thinks of glowing crystals.

He cringes away from her words. “Why are you here?” he repeats, more resigned, less accusing. 

“Because I don’t understand anything about your sister,” she says flatly, “except that she always gets what she wants.”

“What did she do?” he asks, stiffening at Azula’s mention.

She stalls because she knows the guards are coming soon enough, and she wants to put the inevitable off for as long as possible. “You mean besides keep us here?”

He takes the bait. “ You’re the one who agreed to it. Toph and I would never have—”

She recoils, thoughts of guards and beatings and Azula and healings quickly forgotten. “Oh, right. Letting us die was such a better alternative.”

He narrows his eyes. “We could have at least tried to fight.”

“No!” she exclaims. “We couldn’t have! You couldn’t even stand! You still can’t.”

That’s the crux of the issue. 

She doesn’t want to think about it yet. 

Because another thought comes over her and makes her face heat. Last time she’d healed him, he was unconscious. Now she’ll have to do it with him awake, in front of Azula, in front of La knows how many guards. 

She hadn’t considered that. 

“I’ve been through worse,” he mutters. “I would have been fine.”

“Yeah, maybe,” she spits, embarrassment making her voice harsher. “But Toph would have worried and Mai would have kept an eye out and we all would have been distracted.”

He runs an agitated hand through his hair. “You didn’t have to just...give in to what she wanted. You wouldn’t be here, you—” 

She throws her hands up, rolling her eyes. “But we did have to give in! Don’t you get it, Zuko? We had no other choice. She played us.”

He glares at her, and, after a moment, her shoulders slump and she adds, “Again.”

 

%%%

 

They don’t speak until the door slams open. 

Zuko jumps to his feet, but, upon seeing who’s arrived, goes rigid with surprise. A hint of guilt knocks at her conscience—she really should have warned him, it would have been the decent thing to do—but she disregards it. He’ll be duly paid by the favor she’s about to do him. 

(Favor.)

(It’s not really fair of her to call it that when she’s being forced to do it.)

She probably should have just told him as soon as she was shoved in. But after minutes of conversation and minutes of not telling him...it was too large a subject to breach.

(Thus she assuages her conscience.)

“Well,” Azula says, wiping her hands together like opening the door has marred their polish. Actually, she hadn’t even opened it—the legion of guards surrounding her had. Her presence in the doorway is a dark storm cloud on the horizon, an approaching tsunami, an impending avalanche. “You’re very welcome, Zuzu.”

“For what?” he snarls.

“For bringing you your peasant.”

“Don’t call her that,” he snaps. 

Scowling, Katara rises slowly to her feet. “You conveniently forgot to mention the cooler.”

“It doesn’t change anything, does it?” Azula asks, smirking. “I’m sure he would be so disappointed if you left.”

Katara glares for a long moment until she glances away, muttering, “No.”

Zuko whips his head toward her. “Change what?” he demands.

“As everyone from here to Ba Sing Se has heard by now, Zuko, you aren’t doing very well,” Azula says, shrugging and puckering her eyebrows innocently. “Don’t be angry with me. Or with the Water girl. All I used was a little persuasion.”

Katara snorts. The cut on her arm smarts. “Right.”

“What is she talking about?” 

Azula turns to Katara with glinting eyes. “I’m a little disappointed that you didn’t mention anything.” She sighs and flicks a strand of hair behind her shoulder. “Oh, well. There’s no time like the present to atone for your mistakes. You have five minutes.” 

She spins to leave, ignoring Zuko’s angry demands, but pauses in the doorway. She half-turns her head over her shoulder. “My guards are extremely reliable information sources,” she says. “I assure you they will recall and report every step you take.” 

Katara narrows her eyes. 

Azula continues, smirking, “Actually, one already has.”

Ice Pop.

The door clicks behind her and her million guards.

Freezing air has no effect on the angry heat that rises in Katara’s face. 

Zuko slides back next to her. “You have five seconds to explain,” he hisses.

“Or what ?” she spits, thinking of underground alcoves and cherry liquid dripping from too-pale skin.

He clearly hadn’t thought the threat through. “Five. Four. Three—”

“I’m not a child. I won’t comply to your stupid counting nonsense—

“I know you hate me,” he says, “but we’re on the same side right now. We have a common enemy—”

“Yeah. You.

“—so just tell me what she was talking—”

“Alright, alright!” Katara shouts. She drags her hands over her face, but they don’t banish the nightmarish thoughts—the nightmarish thoughts that are real, that shouldn’t be real—both Ice Pop’s death and her mother’s. “Just—for La’s sake. Give me a second.” 

She takes a deep breath. 

“It’s been a second,” he says flatly. 

Fine, Zuko. If you’re so eager to know, look.”

She forces the sleeves of her prison garb up her shoulder. In her irritation, she forgets to be cautious, and she winces as the fabric brushes the raw cut. 

His face pales. 

“I don’t want your pity,” she growls. “The only reason I’m showing you this is because—”

“When did she do this?” 

“I said, I don’t want your pity.

Some invisible source glues his eyes to the cut. “When did she do it, Katara?”

“When do you think?” she snaps. “She and I were alone for all of five minutes.”

“Why did she do—”

“It doesn’t matter.” Regret floods her—she shouldn’t have showed him, she shouldn’t have made him feel guilty; in her blinding anger she hadn’t realized that she could have feigned to be perfectly healthy to lessen his guilt—but she can’t do anything about it now, so she just drops her sleeve and waits until he looks up. “Listen. I made a deal with her.”

The cloudy concern on his expression evaporates. “You what?”

“I’m not repeating what I know you heard.”

“It’s a trap, Katara. Whatever she told you, she’s lying. Azula always lies.”

Yeah. She understands that, now. 

After it’s too late.

Maybe he sees it in her face, because he mutters under his breath, “You fell for it.”

“I did no such thing,” she lies, bristling. 

“I thought you were smarter than that—”

“Oh, because she’s never deceived you.”

“Fine, but you’re supposed to be smarter than me. You’re supposed to—”

“Nothing dire even came of it, Zuko! It’s not a problem.”

“That’s what you think. But she’ll...she’ll—Katara,” he groans, interrupting himself, dragging his hands down his face. His next words are muffled. “Just tell me what it is.”

Annoyance makes her blunt. “If I heal you, we can stay in the same cell.”

His hands pop away from his face. “That’s what she told you?”

The space is so tight that when she goes to cross her arms she accidentally bumps his knee. She glares at it as she answers, “Yes.”

“That’s what you believed?”

She purses her lips. 

He shuts his eyes. “What’s the catch?”

“Maybe there isn’t one.”

He gives her a Look.

She scowls. 

“Katara,” he says, voice vibrating with poorly suppressed agitation. “What’s the catch?”

“I can’t heal myself,” she mumbles. 

“What?”

She looks up at him, glaring. 

“No, really,” he says, and his eyes are admittedly sincere, “I couldn’t hear you. You were mumbling.”

“I was not.”

“Fine. Either way, I couldn’t hear you.”

“We are literally inches away from each other. How could you—”

“Because you were mumbling!”

“I was not mumbling!” 

“Just tell me already!”

“Fine!” she shouts. “I can’t heal myself!”

He blinks. He leans away from her, back pressing into the cooler’s wall.

She pushes her hands through her hair and tries to check her heavy breaths.

“What?” he asks after a moment, voice much softer. “What did you say?”

She repeats, “I’m not repeating what I know you heard,” to maintain her high standards and to prevent herself from thinking the thoughts surely running through his head. 

The thoughts clear on his face—pale and tight and wide-eyed. The thoughts clearly about to leave his mouth if she doesn’t—

“I know,” she says before he can speak. 

I know that she’s going to hurt me. 

She’d come to the conclusion easily. Why else would Azula swear her from her healing? 

“I’m not scared,” she says, and it isn’t a complete lie. “I just don’t get why.”

He grabs his head in his hands. It shakes slowly, disbelievingly back and forth. He almost looks to be on the verge of a mental breakdown. Surely, if they were back at the Air Temple with the rest of their friends, he would have stomped off in a pitiful, sulking fury by now. He would have left.

Unfortunately, the cooler isn’t large enough for that.

No. Instead, he whispers, “This is all my fault.”

And, even though nine times out of ten that statement, when and where applied to Zuko, is true, and even though she can’t count on both hands the number of times she’s said it—she doesn’t get that, either.

 

%%%

 

Exactly five minutes pass before Azula returns with her entourage and water. 

Gallons of it. 

It isn’t even boiling. 

Katara nearly drools. 

“Get started,” Azula says.

She blinks. “In here?”

Azula looks at her blankly. 

“There’s not enough room,” Katara says. 

“Make room.”

“This is ridiculous,” Zuko hisses. “It’s low for even you.”

Azula doesn’t look at him. Just prompts Katara with her steady, wild eyes. 

“Don’t, Katara,” Zuko commands. 

As if she hadn’t already made up her mind. As if his protests for the last three minutes had influenced her in the least

Him, influencing her decisions? 

Him? 

Just because they’re stuck together doesn’t mean she’s forgotten anything. 

(She almost listens to him.)

“We have a deal,” Azula says at her hesitation.

Yes. This is true. They have a deal that is helpful to Katara—to her and Zuko both: they’ll be together—if she can just get past the initial awfulness of it all. 

Their chances of escape would be infinitely increased. And she won’t die of the cold with a firebender in the cooler with her. 

“I don’t have all day,” Azula says.

It’ll be fine.

Fine.

Katara bites her lip. “Take off your shirt,” she says through the corner of her mouth.

Azula smirks. 

“What?” Zuko demands, flushing. “No way.”

“Take it off.”

“Absolutely not.”

She whirls on him and slams her elbow on one tight wall. The cold bites into her skin. She winces and rubs it as she hisses, “I can’t very well heal you through your clothing, can I?”

“Then don’t heal me.”

“Zuko,” she says flatly, staring at him with the do it now or you’ll regret it look that always worked on Aang and Sokka. 

His glare rotates between her and his sister, but he takes off his shirt. 

She doesn’t focus on Azula or on her guards or on the fact that he is conscious and will be watching her heal him and feeling her hands on his skin and his face is already the color of their stupid prison garbs and hers is probably eight thousand and forty eight million times worse and—

“On your stomach,” she mutters.

“I’m sitting,” he hisses.

“Zuko, just lie on—”

“No.”

Fine. Face the wall.”

With an unnecessarily dramatic jerk that makes Azula laugh, he turns his back to them all. 

“I can’t believe this,” he mumbles. 

“Well, believe it,” she responds under her breath. She forces her eyes down. 

There aren’t many cuts remaining—her last session had been pretty comprehensive. The burns and smaller cuts had all been healed shut. Only a couple of the deeper gashes, stretching from shoulder to hip, are left. Those must be the ones giving him so much trouble.

She picks the cut with veiny fingers of restless, glittering scarlet begging for escape just underneath the skin. The blood tugs at her fingertips. A sick feeling rises in her throat. She will never bloodbend again. She hates that the inclination is there. 

Taking a deep breath, she pulls water from one of the containers. She closes her eyes and pushes her hands against the top of the wound. 

He flinches immediately—stiffening and hissing in pain. 

“Sorry,” she mutters. 

“That you’re stupid enough to make this deal? Me too.”

She almost shoves her hands into the cut. But she doesn’t, because she’s not a terrible person, and she has a fierce feeling that that’s exactly what Azula wants her to do.

She likes Azula less than Zuko. That solidifies her decision.

Instead, she whispers, “You are possibly the least grateful person I know.”

I’m sorry. I forgot that you’re doing this out of the kindness of your heart and not out of obligation.”

Sweat drips into her narrowed eyes. How is she sweating? The temperature is below freezing. 

Maybe because his skin is on fire. It’s such a contrast to the water’s chill, to her frigid hands. She’s surprised that the water hasn’t started boiling.

But she yanks her thoughts off of that path because nothing good could come from thinking about his skin. The skin that she’s touching. The skin that she’s touching, which is also on his back . The skin that she’s touching on his back which also isn’t exactly horrible to look at, let alone to touch, and—

Ow.”

Her face is scarlet.

Azula laughs. 

She doesn’t apologize this time, because what good would it do apologizing to the bane of her existence, who also happens to be selfish and ungrateful and nice to look at and—

She does loosen the pressure, though, as she shakes her head to cleanse her thoughts. 

Clean thoughts only. 

She hates him, she reminds herself.

They have an audience, she reminds herself. 

Clean, she reminds herself. 

Clean.

“Are you alright, peasant? You look a little flushed.”

She scowls.

 

%%%

 

She hits her head against the wall and pretends it’s an accident. 

“Are you okay?” Zuko grumbles as her hands lower to the final cut. 

“Why wouldn’t I be?” she demands.

Clean.

 

%%%

 

She sits as far from him as physically possible. 

Which means, in the crowded cell, that his knee is jutting into her back. Her cheek is pressed against the frozen metal wall, and her right eye is swollen shut because of the cold. Her cramping legs are squished beneath her. 

He had told her, repeatedly, that if she would face him and cross her legs they could both sit just fine, like they’d been doing earlier. 

But she can’t look at him. Not yet. 

She presses her face further against the wall. 

(Maybe it will cool it down.)

 

%%%

 

“Katara,” he says flatly. “You’re freezing.”

“I’m fine.”

“I can hear your teeth clattering.”

She peels her face from the ice and ignores the way it stings her raw skin. Her jaw vibrates up and down. She slams it shut before she manages, “They’re chattering. Not clattering.”

“You’re freezing,” he repeats, ignoring her accurate correction like the coward he is. “Just turn around.”

No.”

“Why are you being so stubborn?” he snaps.

Because I hate you.

Because I regret everything. Ever. Forever.

Because I’m embarrassed. 

He continues, “All I’m doing is trying to help.”

Yeah. 

That’s the worst part.

“I don’t need your help,” she grits out. Her teeth bang together louder than the footsteps of the guards passing their cell. 

Cooler. Whatever.

“I’m the only one whose help you can—”

“I don’t want it.”

There’s a moments pause before he sighs. “I’m a firebender, Katara—”

“Oh, I’m aware.”

“No, that’s not…” He groans and when he speaks next, his voice is muffled. “You’re infuriating, did you know that?”

“That’s a—” She shivers so violently that her words quiver into incoherency. She shuts her eyes and forces her them out. “—terrible way to get me—” A breath, a shiver, a smugness from behind her that she wants to slap twelve hundred times. “—on your side.”

“Katara. I’m warm.”

She tries to wave a discouraging hand but her arms are numb. She can’t feel or move them. “So am I.”

“You’re a terrible liar.”

“I am—” It isn’t so much a shiver this time as a full on shake—her limbs and her muscles all spasming to some unseen drumbeat. “—not . At...least better—” Shake. “—than—” Spasm. “—you.”

Her vision darkens. Fuzzy black monsters creep into the edges and she rather likes the way they look—warm. Really warm. Super warm. Nice monsters with fluffy clouds of shadowy warm cotton and giant, innocent, smiling, warm eyes. She wants to touch them. She wants to hold onto them. Her eyes slip shut and her fingers twitch, trying to reach out. 

Over the blood rushing in her ears, soft shuffling can just be made out. She tries to force her eyes open to defend herself or protect someone she’s with—she can’t quite remember who at the moment, but she knows she’s not alone—but then warmth spreads up her back and shoulders and neck and down her arms, and she lets the fuzzy static have its way. 

 

%%%

 

Someone’s arms are wrapped around her. 

At first she hopes it's her father. But...no. That isn’t possible. Maybe it’s Sokka? Or Aang? Suki? 

But...no. 

These arms are too awkward to be any one of those. 

Actually, Aang is a pretty awkward hugger unless the circumstances are dire. He’s always too enthused, too into the contact. Which is fine, and usually funny. 

Still, he’s nowhere near this bad.

Stiff and inexperienced and obviously uncomfortable. 

His chest doesn’t even touch her—she can feel his heat inches behind her but only his arms make contact.

They’re warm

And she likes feeling warm. Likes feeling safe. Because it doesn’t happen much anymore, what with them constantly looking out for intruders to their safe, peaceful camp at the Air Temple, and—

The Air Temple isn’t this cold. 

She blinks. 

Then she sees the metal and remembers where she is. 

Who she’s with.

“Get off of me!” she shouts. 

They both cringe because the acoustics of the stupid cooler are much better than they should be, and her words pound down against both of their brains. 

“You passed out!” Zuko says, even as he scrambles away. She whirls to glare at him. He looks faintly relieved and very flustered and even more very red. “What was I supposed to do? Let you freeze to death? You weren’t listening!”

But what effect does rational, reasonable, right logic have against an embarrassed Katara? 

A negative effect. 

Embarrassment overrules justice. Especially when said embarrassment occurs in front of one’s sworn enemy. 

(Occurred with one’s sworn enemy.)

“You can’t just touch me whenever you want!” she screeches. 

They both cringe again. 

Really, who knew? The acoustics in a cooler.

She presses her face back up against the side of the wall because she really doesn’t like the word touch anymore. She won’t be using it now or ever or any time in between and her cheek is already freezing and can she blame her blush on the chill? Surely, the two aren’t so distinguishable—

“I think you’re the one with the ingratitude problem,” he snaps. 

“I have nothing to thank you for,” she says, even though some distant part of her registers that it’s extremely possible that he just saved her life. “You’re the reason I’m here in the first place.”

A single syllable leaves his mouth before he closes it and doesn’t speak. 

Another, less distant part of her wonders what he was going to say. 

Yet another wonders if she is being unfair. 

But who can blame her? 

Embarrassment is a fearsome thing. 

 

%%%

 

“Will you quit moving?”

“I can’t get comfortable!”

“I don’t think Azula’s priority was our comfort.”

He doesn’t answer, just shuffles in place. 

“La, you’re worse than Toph,” she grumbles.

“At least I’m trying to fall asleep. You’re never going to fall asleep sitting up like that.”

She scoffs. “What am I supposed to do? Lay back on you?”

She blushes. 

Clean

No,” he mutters vehemently. “That’s the last thing you should do.”

And, because she doesn’t know what’s happening to her, she scowls and says, “I’m sorry that the idea is so offensive to you.”

It’s the cold. 

She needs to get out of here. 

“That’s…” He trails off. 

There’s a long beat of silence. 

Uncomfortable silence. 

Extremely uncomfortable—

He sighs. “Whatever,” he mumbles.

The moon is high in the sky. They can both feel it—one strong, the other weak.

At least she’s warmer now. He must be doing something with his breath to warm the space. It must be exhausting. 

She doesn’t care. She’s exhausted, too.

(Neither of them fall asleep.)

 

%%%

 

“Katara,” he whispers hoarsely, some hours later. Dawn is peeking through the slit of glass at the top of the cooler; its rays slip into the icey space. “She’s going to hurt you.”

I know

Her arm pulses in pain. A reminder, of sorts—a preview to what’s next.

She wonders when Azula got this predictable. 

But she can’t say any of that. So she feigns a groan, shuffles until her face is turned completely from him, and says, “I was almost asleep.”

She knows he sees right through her. 

It doesn’t matter. He doesn’t have the right to care, anyway. It’s not like he hasn’t ever hurt her. Hurt all of them. 

She focuses on this. Not on Azula. 

(And she thinks, maybe, that she is the coward.)

 

%%%

 

The door whips open. 

“Get up,” a metallic voice says. 

Katara blinks her left eye only, because she fell asleep with her right against the wall. 

She raises her gaze slowly, wondering if this is how Zuko always feels—what with only one eye to see out of. 

Then reality catches up to the present, catches up to her mind, and her stomach drops. 

Zuko stands before she can tear her eyes from the dozens of guards come to collect her. 

“Not you,” the same guard says. He nods toward Katara. “Get up.”

Zuko steps in front of her and she gets a sudden faceful of fabric. She scowls, whacks at it with her hand, and pushes to the back of the cooler. Her frozen limbs scream protests as she extends them, forcing herself to stand.

“Where are you taking her?” he demands. 

“None of your concern,” the hollow voice says. 

Zuko’s voice raises. “Where are you taking her?”

The guard shoves him backwards and he stumbles, but then he stiffens and only seems angrier.

Katara brushes past him before he can do any real damage—to himself or to their situation. “It’s fine,” she says shortly, ignoring the anxiety churning in her stomach. “Let’s go.”

“Katara, she’s going to—”

She whirls around and tilts her chin up to fully face him. “I know, Zuko.” She takes a deep breath and steps back, ignoring his pallor, ignoring the frantic, wild look in his eyes that nearly matches his sister’s. She mutters, “It’s fine,” and she’s only convincing herself.

It is, though. Fine. It’s fine. Pain isn’t permanent, after all. Them staying together is more important. If they get separated...who knows if they’ll see each other again.
And she can’t just escape without him. First of all, it’s probably not even possible—Toph was right, she isn’t the best strategist. 

But also, everyone would be angry with her for leaving him. 

And maybe...maybe some part of her would be angry with herself.

Because she doesn’t want to be a hypocrite anymore. 

I will never, ever turn my back on people who need me

She turns her back on him and follows the guards to Azula. 

 

%%%

 

The room she’s taken to is grander than she expected. Dangling golden banners and abstract chromatic paintings and plush maroon cushions. 

But, then, Azula is a princess, so she supposes she should have expected something other than a wooden chair and a whip. 

No, Azula will be subtler than that. 

Still, she holds her breath. 

The guard shoves her forward and releases the vice on her hair. She turns to look after him—why has he left?—but is only met with a door slammed in her face.

She spins back around. 

There aren’t other guards in the room.

“Afraid?” 

Her eyes jerk to the figure hidden in the corner’s shadow. She stands next to a massive mahogany bookshelf. Her head is bent down. Ink black hair drips onto the pages of the book. 

Katara clenches her fists to stop them shaking. They’re still blue from the cold. “No,” she says.

“Why not?”

“I’m not afraid of you.”

“You should be,” Azula says. 

The book snaps closed and Katara jumps. Azula turns, smirking, and gestures toward the cushions on the ground. “Sit.”

She frowns and forces herself not to glance over her shoulder. “I’ll stand.”

“Don’t be difficult,” Azula says, sighing. “We don’t have all day.”

Katara glances down to find a low wooden table sitting in between them. On top of it is a steaming silver teapot and two dainty cups. 

A teapot. Filled with steaming tea.

Something she can bend. 

She sits. 

Hopeful guesses of what Azula’s intentions are disappear with the words: “Surely you know why you’re here.”

Katara raises her chin and hardens her eyes. “I’ve made a few assumptions.”

Shrugging, Azula sits across from her. She picks up the teapot, heats it with her a hand on either side, and carefully pours two cups. 

Her eyes never leave Katara’s.

There must be some kind of challenge here, right? Some kind of significance to the humor in her dark eyes?

Katara isn’t sure. She doesn’t blink. 

The teapot clatters back onto the table. Azula pushes a marble cup towards her. 

Katara breaks the gaze deadlock to look down. A light, airy green liquid steams and swirls from the cup. 

There’s a beat of silence. She can hear her heartbeat in her ears; she can feel it in the cut on her arm. 

“I haven’t poisoned it,” Azula says. 

Katara snorts and mutters, “I wouldn’t put it past you.“

“Do you really think so low of me?” Azula asks, pointedly picking up and sipping from her cup.

Behind Katara, the book topples off of the shelf Azula had left it on. Surprised, she flinches. 

Azula smirks. 

She scowls as her attention drifts back to the table. She tries to steady her breathing. “You’ve given me no reason to think otherwise.”

“Does Zuko never mention me? We have so many memories together.”

“What do you want, Azula?” she snaps, unable to wait longer.

“I just want to have tea.”

“I know you’re lying. What do you want?”

Sighing, Azula sets her teacup down and knocks on the table once, hard. “And I was under the impression that you were patient.” 

Azula folds her hands on top of the table.

Three dozen guards stream into the room.

Katara’s arm pulses fiercer. 

“Isn’t this a little much?” she asks, trying to seem braver than she feels. She tucks her hands into her lap and reaches out with her fingertips, feeling the comforting pull of the tea.

“No.” 

Then, like she’s read Katara’s mind, Azula wraps her fingers around the cups and heats the liquid until it’s steam. “Such a waste of good tea,” she says, frowning down into them. “Uncle would be disappointed.”

Katara swallows. Guards filter into her vision slowly, circling the table; a waveless sea of scarlet. 

“It’s a shame,” Azula says. “I think we could have been good friends.”

Blood rushes in her head. She tries to respond but her mouth is dry. The boiling water is too far out of her grip—this room must be high in the prison, like Mai had been explaining; maybe she should have paid closer attention—and the sweat building on her neck, forehead, eyes, everywhere, surely isn’t enough to fight with. 

She pulls at it anyway, with fingers hidden beneath her shirt. It forms a ball at the back of her neck. 

Azula stands so she stands, too, and is immediately grabbed by the guards. She whips one of them with the small pile of sweat but it bounces off of his helmet without further effect. 

They overcome her easily. They force her to her knees. 

She’s becoming much too used to this position. 

“Innovative,” Azula comments dryly, hands laced behind her back, sauntering up to look down on Katara. “I never expected it.”

Breathing heavily, Katara forces her gaze to stay on Azula’s. On her empty chestnut eyes and her polished, practiced expression. 

It crosses her mind that Azula can’t be much older than herself. It’s a hopeful thought, an encouraging thought—that maybe, since Katara is so disinclined to violence, all girls her age are as well. 

But she isn’t naive. She remembers Ba Sing Se. She remembers Toph’s opinion of Ozai, Zuko’s opinion of Ozai, her own opinion of Ozai. How he must have been a terrible parent, a terrible influence. How, surely, obviously, his daughter takes after him. 

It’s in the eyes. Zuko must have gotten his from his mother. Golden and sparkling and sunlight, not tight and flaming and merciless. Because she’s seen portraits of Ozai on Fire Nation propaganda posters, and she isn’t deceived. The similarities are plain. Azula’s eyes are the same as his; Azula’s eyes are his.

And there’s no hesitation in those eyes. 

Ever.

Katara struggles and flails against the guards until one holds each of her limbs. 

“My father will wish to see you broken,” Azula says. “He’s never liked waterbenders.”

Fear evaporates. 

She thinks of Sokka. Her father. Her people. 

Her breaths still come shallow, but she relaxes. Her posture straightens. She raises her chin, narrows her eyes. “What do you want from me?” 

Azula steps closer. “I’m afraid you already know.”

She sprouts a blue flame in her hand. 

“You’re a coward,” Katara hisses, glancing only briefly at the fire; its glare consumes her sight, her thoughts, her words. “Hiding behind your father.”

Azula’s eyes harden. “Your judgement is clouded with bias for my brother.”

She laughs incredulously. “Me? Favoring Zuko?”

This, apparently, strikes a nerve. The flames grow into a column. 

“Everyone always does,” Azula says, tone light like she doesn’t care. But she doesn’t wipe it from her face and despite the fire, Katara isn’t blind, she can read it clearly—the flaring nostrils and the angry red rising and...well, and the column of flames in her palm. A rather telling sign. “But it doesn’t matter. The Fire Lord will want to see you controlled.”

The guard’s fingers dig into the cut on her arm. She fights against wincing. Her back stiffens further and, glaring, she leans forward toward Azula. “I’m not an animal,” she spits. “You won’t break me.”

Azula brings the flame closer. 

Every muscle in Katara’s body begs her to recoil. 

She doesn’t budge an inch. 

“Tell that to my father,” Azula says.

 

%%%

 

Azula shoves her back into the cell. 

“Get ready,” she drawls, as Zuko jumps to his feet and rushes three inches across the cooler to meet Katara in the threshold. Cold air stings her skin. “We’re going home, Zuzu.”

The door slides shut. 

Zuko, disregarding Azula completely, appraises Katara with fearful eyes. “What happened?” he asks. He reaches out to touch her face but, apparently, remembers the nonexistent status of their friendship, and drops his hands back to his sides. It only strengthens the worry on his face, speeds the flood of words from his mouth. “Did she hurt you? You don’t look that bad. I mean you never look bad , obviously...yeah. Obviously. But I mean, you don’t look that pale or anything. And I don’t see any cuts on you and I don’t think you’re limping and—”

Katara ignores the rest of his words. Why does he care, anyway? It’s not like she’d care if he got hurt. 

She brushes past him and slides onto the ground, letting her eyes drop closed. Frozen metal bites at her clothing.

She had shown him the last cut so carelessly. Tripping him with guilt for no reason, making him pity her for no reason. She doesn’t want him to feel guilty. 

Well, she wants him to feel guilty for the stupid choices he has made, but he shouldn’t feel guilty for her decisions. For what happens to her; for things out of his control. 

And the last thing she wants is his pity.

She should have hidden the last cut from him. She will hide this one. 

It isn’t even as bad as she’d expected. Just a raw burn on her upper arm. It seems that Azula is really just trying to show Ozai that she has Katara under control—especially if they’re about to return to Caldera City, as Azula had just informed them. 

Azula hadn’t done it, either, which Katara thinks is strange. She had held the flames and shot them to the roof, but then extinguished them and told a guard what to do. She’d escorted Katara back to their cell, reminding her about the consequences of healing herself.

It was...weird. 

All of it.

The burn is painful, obviously. Her entire arm feels like it’s on fire—an unquenchable fire that seeps through the skin, through the muscle, through the bone, and leaks out the other side. Every twitch of her skin makes her want to collapse. Scorching pain shoots up into her shoulder, across into her chest, down into her wrist.

Coupled with the cut on her other arm, she’s been rendered basically useless. She can’t really do anything. At all. With her hands or her arms or her fingers

At last Azula left them alone. Hopefully she’s had enough fun with them. Hopefully she won’t make her heal Zuko again.

It was worth it, honestly. It is worth it. They’re together, and the burn isn’t nearly as bad as she’d expected. 

She won’t complain about it. 

“She didn’t hurt me,” Katara says. 

Technically, it is true. 

Zuko sits down across from her and looks unconvinced. “She must have,” he says. “What did she do?”

“Offered me tea,” she says. 

Now he looks horrified. “She poisoned it,” he says immediately. “She must have poisoned it. You’re going to feel it soon and—”

“I didn’t drink it,” she snaps. She leans her shoulder close to the wall because the chill of the metal soothes the burn. “I’m not stupid.”

He visibly relaxes. There’s a beat of silence before he asks, “So...what? You just watched her drink tea?”

She folds her hands neatly in her lap and stares at them. Every part of her is so hot from the burn that the cold feels like a reprieve, a relief, instead of the numbing misery it felt like earlier. “Basically. And then she dragged me back here.”

Anxiety is replaced with confusion, in his features and in his voice. His good eyebrow furrows. “You...so what did she want from you?”

Katara shrugs. It’s a mistake. 

She sucks in a sharp breath. Pain shoots everywhere —explodes in her vision, blinding and vicious and everywhere, everywhere—but his eyes flick up to her face, awaiting an answer to his question, and she forces it out of her expression. 

Exhaling, she slowly, warily lowers her shoulders back down.

“I don’t know,” she says, and she’s proud that her voice is completely unstrained. “But we’re apparently going back to the Palace.”

With confirmation that she’s alright, he takes the change of subject easily. She nearly sighs in relief. “Why would she take us so soon?”

She’s surprised when she realizes that she was thinking the same exact question. She’s further surprised when she realizes that this is the first time she hasn’t wanted to defenestrate him during a conversation. 

Because the point is valid. Azula had held Zuko for a couple of weeks. Why not take him then? And, now that Katara is here, too, why not wait for the probable arrival of the Avatar? 

It doesn’t make sense. 

“I don’t know,” she mutters. “She’s been acting off.”

“I noticed, too,” he says. “It must have been Ty Lee and Mai.”

“That’s what I was thinking.”

“She seems more violent,” he says. 

She thinks of Ice Pop and agrees, though the violence isn’t Azula’s. Only under her directive. She doesn’t get her hands dirty. 

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

“More and more like her father every day,” she says. 

His face hardens, but he drops his gaze. She doesn’t feel bad. 

(She doesn’t.)

“I guess,” he says. “But she seems less prepared. Less confident.”

She frowns in thought. She’d never thought of it as a lack of confidence. Indeed, she’d never thought Azula was capable of lacking such a thing. 

“Well,” she says, “that isn’t like Ozai at all.”

 

%%%

 

Noon creeps into dusk and dusk creeps into evening. 

Their earlier discussion doesn’t leave her in a particularly gregarious mood. Mostly because she starts contemplating the likelihood of Aang’s death were he to come after them, and the unlikelihood of Toph, Ty Lee, and Mai’s successful escape, and the—well, all the other “and the”s, too. It’s easy to worry when there’s nothing to do. 

There is literally nothing to do. 

Except for switching from sitting to standing—but she can’t do that because her arm hurts and it’s a lot of work and it’s pointless, to boot; her limbs are tired, she wants to sit—and looking at or talking to Zuko—but she can’t do that, either, because it’s Zuko . He’s nothing to look at (Clean) and he certainly isn’t anyone to talk to. 

So she sleeps most of the time away. Zuko doesn’t seem to mind. He does seem to worry about the temperature of the cell, though. Every time she wakes up it’s to him quickly retracting a flame he’s holding near her legs. 

“Stop it,” she growls after the third time. “I don’t need your stupid heat.”

He rolls his eyes. “I’m sorry,” he says acerbically, “Next time I’ll just let you black out again.”

“Please do,” she says through chattering teeth. They’re confusing—her teeth—because their jolting is a symptom of a chill she doesn’t feel. Her body should be cold—all the signs are there. Shallow breaths and intense shivers and clicking teeth and rampant goosebumps. But she doesn’t feel cold. She feels burning hot. Like Azula’s guard’s flame has seeped into her blood, spread all over her body. “If I die, at least I’ll be in better company.”

He glares at her. 

There isn’t any sign of Azula, which, although they don’t speak about it, leaves them both consternated. 

At one point, silver meal trays are shoved inside. But the guards—idiots that they are—garner amusement from accidentally tipping it over onto the “savage. We’ve never seen one of your kind before!” Cue laughter, humor, etc.  

As she picks chunks of the disgusting Fire Nation jook from her hair with her unburned arm, daggers of flame erupt in Zuko’s palms. He stands and yells and shoves them out. 

Katara sighs, rights the bowl in front of her, and doesn’t try to stop him. 

She’s past caring. She’s too exhausted to even glare. All of her muscles are weak from what should be the cold, but what is instead the heat. 

She does wonders vaguely at the reason for coolers if firebenders can still bend in them. It seems rather ineffectual, but she digresses.

“Don’t you think the princess will want to hear about this behavior, Eito?” one guard asks pointedly. “It doesn’t seem very becoming of a prince.”

Zuko finally manages to force the door shut. He stays staring at the door, turned away from her. From the corner of her eye, she watches his shoulders shift up and down, up and down, in angry, heavy, grounding breaths.

Outside the cooler, Eito responds in a weak voice, “You know...I’d rather you do it. Tell the princess, I mean. She’s kinda scary. But she should definitely hear about it! Since, well, since that’s her brother, and all.”

“Everyone knows that, Eito. I was trying to make a point.”

“Oh,” he says, perking up. “Good job then! It worked.”

The voices fade away. Zuko mutters something under his breath. 

Food is possibly the least appealing thing in the world at the moment, but Katara knows she has to eat. Knows she has to keep her strength up. 

Besides, at the very least it gives her something to do. For a few minutes.

She splits the untipped bowl of jook into two different servings and slides one across the ground. She braces herself, ignores the way the roof of her mouth tightens, shoves back the acid in her throat, and starts eating the other. 

Jook still trails down her back, but she doesn’t bend it away. The rice makes it heavier than normal water, and if she isn’t even strong enough to bend the latter, how could she possible manage extra weight? She considers reaching back to pick the pieces from her skin, but she won’t be able to reach all of them without her other arm. 

Besides, the motion has already made her light headed. She blinks over and over to dispel the blackness from her vision. 

After a few minutes of Zuko standing frozen as the cooler, she says, “Your meal’s getting cold.”

“I’m not hungry,” he snaps. 

Me neither.

“I don’t care. You need to eat.”

“I’m not—”

Eat, Zuko,” she says. “I didn’t heal you only for you to weaken yourself.”

“You healed me because you had to,” he says. But, scowling, he turns and snatches the bowl from the ground. 

They eat in silence. They stack the bowls in silence. She sits in silence. He sits down in silence.
They both sit in silence.

The moon rises. 

Still, Azula doesn’t come. 

 

%%%

 

A consistent pounding forms at the base of her skull. And, even though she’s shivering, daggers of pain course through her mind—expelling normal thought, twisting movement into gasoline and sound into flame, lighting her head, skin, body on fire.

When Zuko’s eyes are closed in something like meditation—it’s not sleep, she knows that much; his breaths are deep and purposeful—she raises a weak hand to her forehead. 

She squeezes her eyes shut. The motion is taxing and she’s already tired enough. 

Something is wrong, but she doesn’t know how to fix it. She’s never really dealt with burns outside of healing them with waterbending. She knows the symptoms, knows how to identify them, but she’s never had one that she couldn’t heal. Not even at home. Sokka was always the one who got burned—touching the cooking fire with his best friend Yinto, sticking their hands in the boiling laundry water, seeing if they couldn’t cross a path of red-hot coals. 

She doesn’t have water. 

The world is sluggish, hazy. The flames are omnipotent; they’ve conquered her skull.

So she ignores how the skin burns her palm and tries to sleep again. 

 

%%%

 

She jerks from the wall with a shout of pain. 

The ice rips at her burn. She’d been leaning into it—the chill felt amazing—but she must have leaned too far. It made contact. 

Zuko’s eyes snap open. “What’s wrong?” he demands. 

She doesn’t answer him, doesn't look at him. She trains her eyes on her shoulder and they widen as she realizes that yellow pus is leaking through the cloth. 

She can’t possibly hide it now. 

Indeed, a moment later, when his gaze has followed hers and his mind has registered the meaning, he goes completely still. 

“You lied,” he whispers. 

“I didn’t lie,” she lies through her shaking jaw. Shivers rack her entire body. She tries to turn her shoulder into the wall, away from his piercing eyes, but she can’t move. A drummer pounds at her temple from inside her skull. She peels the cloth away with her other hand. “Help me get this off.”

It’s what she does to Sokka and, even in this state of lessened mental capacity, she employs it. Distract him with a job, make him think he’s helping, and he’ll always be less upset. 

She’s not quite sure how well it will work on Zuko. Especially if the fury on his face is any indication.

He does help, though. He shifts onto his knees and takes her sleeve gently in his hands. He pulls it up until the pus begins to glue it to her skin. “This is going to hurt,” he says, almost apologetically, almost hesitating. “Should I—”

“Just tear it off,” she says, gritting her teeth. “Quickly.”

“Okay,” he says. She thinks she can feel his hands shaking, too, but maybe that’s only her. “Okay. I’m going to count to three, alright?”

“Just do it,” she snaps.

“One,” he says, readying his hands. She shuts her eyes. 

He rips it off. 

He puts a hand over her mouth to catch her scream. 

She glares at him until, cringing, he removes it. “I—”

“That wasn’t three!” she hisses. “You said you were going to—”

“You told me to just do it!”

“Not without telling me!” 

“At least it’s over now.” He folds the material up over her shoulder and tucks it under her collar so it holds. He leans over her shoulder completely. 

She feels small, suddenly, under his looming form.

She hates it. 

“You can’t do anything for it,” she whisper-snaps. “Just leave it be.”

His face is rapidly paling. “Azula did this?”

“No, she didn’t.”

“Quit lying, Katara!”

“I wasn’t lying in the first place!”

He gives her an incredulous look. “If you expect me to believe that when I am staring at proof of your lie, then you’re more—”

She tilts her nose into the air. Bang, bang, bang goes the drummer in her skull. At least her shivers have stopped now, what with a firebender practically on her lap. 

(Heat rises into her face.)

(Clean.) 

“I wasn’t lying,” she manages, trying to wipe her mind. “Only withholding the truth.”

He stares at her.

“Besides,” she says, trying and failing to disregard the shame in her stomach at the hurt on his face. She doesn’t care, anyway. And he shouldn’t either. They aren’t friends. They don’t care about each other. Why is that so hard for him to grasp? “It wasn’t Azula.”

“Then who was it?”

“Not Azula. So I wasn’t lying.”

Katara,” he growls, leaning his face closer to hers. His breath is too hot on her face—she presses her spine into the wall, presses the back of her head into the wall. “Who was it?”

She narrows her eyes. “A guard.”

He squeezes his eyes shut and swallows. Her eyes flick to the bobbing at his throat before she can stop them. It’s his fault, he’s too close—she regains herself and her eyes jump just as quickly over his shoulder. Away from him. His stupid face and his stupid throat and everything stupid about him—just him, in general: stupid. Her face burns hotter than her shoulder. “Get off me,” she snarls, pushing uselessly at his chest with her less hurt arm. 

“Making that deal was the stupidest thing you’ve ever done in your life,” he mutters, jerking his head back and forth, thankfully oblivious to the ranted dilemmas of her mind. 

“Get off, Zuko,” she repeats. 

His eyes blink open hurriedly, and, as if he’s forgotten, he scrambles away from her. 

She releases a breath she didn’t know she’d been holding. 

“Sorry,” he mumbles, and now his face reddens, too. 

She brings her better arm up to her temple and tries to rub away the pain.

It doesn’t work. 

When she opens her eyes next, he’s looking at her strangely. 

“What?” she snaps.

“Are you cold?” 

“How many times do I have to tell you that I don’t need your stupid—”

“Just answer the question.”

“No,” she glares. “I’m fine.”

His lips purse. “You got back this morning,” he says. 

Okay…? 

“Yeah,” she deadpans. “Great observation.”

“You slept all day.”

She scowls. “Because you wouldn’t stop moving last night. I couldn’t sleep at all.”

He ignores her, eyes clouded with thought. Under his breath he mumbles, “Yellow. What did yellow mean?”

She glances down to her shoulder. The skin is broken and blistering and glistening with restless scarlet blood and a shean of silver sweat; next to the yellow pus that drips in scrapes, it looks like a child’s spilled paints. Red and yellow swirls, purple and green rings of bruises.

When she looks back up, he’s moved closer to her again. Not as close this time, but just enough to put his hand on her forehead. 

His hand is freezing and she shakes it off quickly. “Do you know what personal space is?” she demands. 

He sits back on his knees, eyes hard and face taut with...something. 

“You have a fever,” he accuses. 

She bristles. “And?”

He glares at her. “You’ve never healed a burn, have you?”

“I’ve healed multiple,” she retorts. “I healed Suki’s before we left.”

“Not with waterbending,” he says. “You’ve never healed one with waterbending.”

She opens her mouth to dispute, realizes she hasn’t, and snaps it shut. 

His expression tightens further, and it seems like he’s trying to keep himself from yelling at her. 

As if this is her fault! As if she could have prevented any of this! 

“We need to get you water,” he says. He turns toward the door and starts pounding against it. 

Her better arm immediately jumps to her forehead. “Stop,” she groans, as the beat spikes stronger. “Stop it.”

He turns around, eyes widening when he sees her position. “A headache, too?”

Based on the fact that she’s cradling her head, she doesn’t think that warrants an answer. 

“Are you dizzy?”

“Stop asking questions,” she snaps. “I know it’s bad, alright? I didn’t think it was of concern, but now that there’s pus—”

“It’s infected,” he says shortly. Angrily. “If you don’t heal it, it’s going to get into your bloodstream.”

Her stomach twists. She can’t heal that. 

“I know it’s infected,” she says defensively, because, in her defense, she had suspected it. One doesn’t develop a fever or headache for an insignificant burn. 

“How long have you known?” he demands, voice raising. She cringes at the volume. “Were you seriously not going to tell me?”

“I don’t know which of those to answer first,” she says, because she doesn't want to answer either. 

“You’re so…” He roars in frustration. “You’re impossible! You should’ve told me, Katara! I’m Fire Nation. I have this.” This, she finds, upon glancing up through her fingers, is his scar. “I know everything about burns.”

“Congratulations, Zuko!” she says sardonically, mirroring his tone but in a lower voice, hoping he gets the unspoken plea—sound hurts. “Your life history is going to keep the infection out of my blood.”

“It probably will!”

She pulls her head out of her hands and blinks the fuzziness away from the edges of her vision. 

He notices. He beats her to a glare.

Then, before she can speak, he turns and hits the door again.

 

%%%

 

“This isn’t helping! It’s making it worse. I just want to sleep.”

He spins his head around. “Don’t go to sleep,” he implores, and the vehement reaction is too random, too out of nowhere—Katara can’t connect the dots. “Don’t.”

“Stop hitting the wall,” she retorts. 

He doesn’t. 

She tries to fall asleep to spite him, but the pounding is too loud, too constant. 

He wins.

She glares at his back, eyelids drooping.

 

%%%

 

Guards come and go and ignore Zuko.

“You’re an idiot,” she says, slumping her better arm against the wall. Ice pinches her skin. “You’re making us look desperate.”

If he’s right, you are desperate.

She ignores that perfectly rational and accurate but completely unwanted and unhelpful thought.

“I—” Punch. “—don’t—” Punch. “—get—” Punch. “—why—” Punch. “—they aren’t coming.”

Punch.

“Who’s they?” she asks blandly, revelling in the relief of closed eyes. “And doesn’t your hand hurt?”

No.” 

She opens her eyes, rolls them, and shuts them again.

 

%%%

 

“I feel fine,” she repeats as dawn peeks into their cell. 

When Zuko had asked her a question and found her on the edge of sleep, he’d quickly given up getting someone’s attention—a pointless endeavor, as she’d told him from the beginning—and instead taken to keeping her awake.

Methods of doing so included talking loudly. Hitting lightly but incessantly. Lighting fires. Generally being a nuisance. 

“You look more pale than you did before,” he says. 

“Then before what?”

“Well, you were flushed first. During most of the night. Now you’re losing color.”

“Losing color,” she says, words slurring together, eyes blinking blearily closed. “That’s so kind of you to say.”

He tugs lightly on her hair. “Come on, Katara,” he whispers, and there’s an undercurrent in his tone that she can’t quite place. “Stay awake.”

Through a lovely haze, she meets his amber eyes. He’s too close to her again but she doesn’t have the mental strength nor the mental capacity to mind. “I’m tired,” she says pathetically. “Let me sleep.”

“I can’t do that,” he says. She looks up to glare and realizes his face is pale, too. Really pale. Probably paler than hers. Maybe he also has an infection? “As soon as you heal yourself, you can sleep. Okay?”

She shuts her eyes. 

He tugs her hair. 

Stop,” she begs.

The door slams open.

The heat that had surrounded her for so long disappears. The sudden chill makes her shudder. 

“Time to go,” a hollow voice says. 

“She can’t move until she gets water,” Zuko says, and, blinking her eyes open, Katara sees him standing in front of the guard. His arms are holding either side of the cooler’s door, preventing the guards easy entrance. “She needs it. Now.”

“No can do. Princess’ orders.”

Zuko takes a deep breath before he says, calmly, deadly, “She needs water.”

Katara’s head falls to her shoulder, but she stays awake. After all, Zuko is reckless. He’ll need her to help him in a fight. And, if the scene before her is any indication—it is—prospects of him fighting are all but inevitable. 

“I said, no. She’s a waterbender. I’m not stupid.”

Zuko doesn’t budge from the doorway. 

There’s a slight haze to the world but she can still generally see what happens next. The guard trying to shove him backwards, flames lighting Zuko’s palms, flames lighting the guard’s palms. The light makes the drummer louder, though—it pierces her skull—so she closes her eyes.

There’s a shout and a thump and more things, probably, but she can’t hear them. Or, more likely, she doesn’t want to hear them. They’re too loud. Too like Zuko’s stupid pounding against the wall. Too like the drummer’s stupid pounding against her brain.

Hours or seconds pass before a frantic voice whispers in her ear, “Katara. Are you awake?” 

Someone shakes her shoulders back and forth. 

She slits her eyes open. “I’m fine,” she says, but her mouth is too dry, her headache too strong. The words sound garbled and incoherent.

“Wake up,” the voice says, hitting her face gently. Over and over and over. 

“I’m awake,” she tries. 

To no avail. Arms wrap around her legs and shoulders and lift her from the ground and she cries out because who is touching her shoulder? Don’t they know that she got cut there a few days ago? At least they aren’t touching her burn—indeed, their hands aren’t anywhere near it. Relieved, she shrinks into the warm, strong arms. 

“We just need water,” the voice says. It sounds vaguely familiar. She pushes her eyes open to try and see who it belongs to—an anxious, deep rasp—but she needs clothespins for them to stay open. They droop back down without her permission.

“Just water. We just need water,” it repeats. Over and over and over.

Shuffles of footsteps approach from behind. Her transport lurches forward to evade them. 

“Water,” it says, growing tighter. “Just water.” 

Then callused fingers sweep gently up and down her forehead. They’re wet with sweat and they push her hair away from her eyes. She tries a final time to open them but all she sees is a storm of scarlet and white and golden. 

“You’ll be fine, Katara,” he says, because she knows him now. It’s her cellmate. Zuko. “We’ll get you water and then explain it to Azula. She’ll understand.” 

Some part of her screams that he’s an enemy. That she can’t trust him. That she doesn’t like him. 

But...well, he’s not so bad right now, is he? His arms aren’t the most uncomfortable thing in the world. 

She pushes her face into his chest. His fingers move carefully up and down her forehead again—light like her skin is precious glass; smooth like he’s done it all his life, like there’s nothing else he’d rather do.

His grip tightens. “I’ll make her understand,” he says.

 

%%%

 

A harsh sense of deja vu nearly makes her collapse.

This time is a little different, though. He’d been muttering about water for the past few minutes, so she’d known to expect it eventually. It’s not like she hadn’t a clue. She isn’t bodily thrown, either, which is really generous. Toph could have afforded that. 

But Toph likes bragging about how strong she is, and Toph isn’t capable of humbling herself to gently place her in a pool of water. Unlike, apparently, the person carrying her. 

Still, the deja vu is strong. 

She sinks into the water. Her eyes, previously closed, are open now—they see the lambent water around her, see the glow concentrate on her upper arms, around her head. 

The feeling is incredible. Like a gigantic sigh at the end of a strenuous day. The pain intensifies first—the inhale of the sigh; gathering everything together—before it subsides—the exhale. A full exhale, emptying her lungs completely. Draining every bit of tension, soothing every stiff muscle. Her shoulders slump. Her face relaxes. The pain in her arms and head is gone. Vanished, null, like it never existed.

She doesn’t know how long she’s in the water for. It can’t be that long, though, because when she resurfaces, she doesn’t have to gasp for air. She silently thanks La for the clarity in her gaze and mind. The haze has completely disappeared. 

She’s in some kind of a washroom. Looking down, she realizes she’s standing in a bathtub. Footsteps make her head swivel sharply, but it’s only Zuko, pacing back and forth along the small strip of tile before the door. His head is down, face in his hands, and his shoulders are hunched. It’s impressive, she thinks, that he hasn’t bumped into anything yet. Maybe he had, and she’d missed it.

Fragments of the events of the past few minutes parcel back to her mind. She doesn’t remember everything—just that there was a haze and then there were arms and fingers and hair—but what she does is enough to raise heat in her neck.

She steps up and out and bends the water from her clothes. It plops back into the basin loudly. At the sound, he snaps toward her.

His eyes are wide. He starts to step forward but then pauses, retreats, and carefully asks, “Are—are you alright? Is it healed?

She pulls up the sleeve of her shirt and reveals the newly woven pale pink skin. He looks at it in disbelief. “Yeah,” she says. Then, because obligation is a stupid, selfish thing and she remembers enough to feel it rather potently, she mumbles, “Thank you.”

He blinks his gaze up to hers, but doesn’t speak.

After a long moment, a blush rises in his cheeks, too, and he averts his eyes. “Whatever,” he mutters. The flush spreads to his ears. The rest of his face almost blends in with his scar. His face as just one, giant scar. She stares.

Shouts echo outside the room. 

They both jump at the sound. With renewed fervor, he turns to her. “She’ll be here any second,” he says. “I heard guards saying that the ships were all prepared.”

“She knows we’re here?” 

“I—well, I didn’t have many options,” he says, cringing. 

She narrows her eyes. “Where are we?”

“We’re where she stays, I think.”

Her mouth drops open. It makes sense, though, as she looks around. The designs are too huge, too ostentatious for a warden. It must be a room reserved for royal visitors. 

“Are you kidding?” she hisses, moving to his side because the footsteps are growing ever-closer. Her eyes flick from door to door to door to...another door. Great. Not only are they surrounded by guards, they are surrounded by ways that the guards can access them. How many doors does the room need, anyway? “What were you thinking?”

“I wasn’t thinking,” he says, and flushes again. She can’t focus on that, though. Her eyes continue darting around. “I was just trying to find water. You were about to fall asleep and I…” His voice drops to an angry, irritated mumble. “I couldn’t risk you not waking up.”

Well.

She can’t really blame him for that, can she? For saving her life? 

Twice now, he’s saved her life.

But she really, really doesn’t want to tell him that. Really, really doesn’t like owing him.

She much prefers blaming him for things. 

(Maybe he was right. Maybe she’s the ungrateful one.)

Thoughts war in her mind, so clears her throat harshly before saying, “Well, you still made the worst possible choice.”

He seems rather relieved that she didn’t dwell on his words. Glaring, he starts, “I didn’t—” but the door swings open. 

“I found them!” the guard shouts. Out in the hall, a hundred footsteps pause, turn around, and sprint toward the room.

Katara locates the water in the room—bathwater in the tub and splattered on the floor, sweat, condensation on the windows—and slides into a defensive position. Beside her, Zuko does the same. They’re backed into the corner of the room.

“Are we fighting?” Zuko whispers. 

Guards trickle into the room one after another. Some are bent over from the effort of running. Others’ hands are raised in anticipation. All are breathing heavily. 

“There are too many,” she whispers back, but neither of them ease their stances. “If we comply, I don’t think she’ll hurt us.”

“You already tried that strategy,” he says bitterly. 

True. 

She complied, and she was burned. 

Literally burned. 

Azula had a reason for that, though. Katara knows she did. She wanted to prove to her father that she could handle things. It was a prerequisite, of sorts—if she could deal with notorious war prisoners, she could deal with anything. She wanted to prove that she was capable of controlling things just as well as he was. 

That must be it.

After all, if she was as cruel as her father, she would have burned Katara herself. 

She hadn’t.

She’d held the flame, but she’d stowed it away. She’d had the guard do it instead; burn Katara instead. 

Even if she’d wanted to, even if she’d had no qualms with the idea, she hadn’t. 

Katara hopes that’s because some deep, rudimentary part of her opposed such mindless violence. Katara hopes that she had someone else do it because she couldn’t do it herself, because she couldn’t bring herself to do it. That that’s the reason she delegated the task to a guard. 

And Katara wonders—as a sea of blood red soldiers press she and Zuko more completely into the wall—if all it boils down to is acceptance. 

Recognition. Approval. 

It seems so pedantic to label it as so. But everything, everything Azula does is her to obey her father’s will. Katara sees it so clearly now because she’s seen the same thing with Zuko. Seeking, always, for something impossible to gain. The Fire Lord would never be content with Zuko’s efforts. Once he realized that, he was able to set it down. 

Azula hasn’t realized it. 

The explanation makes her so much more human. After all, aren’t all of them always working to seek acceptance? Isn’t everyone? Isn’t that the reason behind almost every premeditated action that anyone takes? To gain or grow someone else’s approval? Katara wants her father’s and her brother’s and Aang’s and Toph’s. Pakku’s and her Gran-Gran’s and her tribe’s. Her people’s. 

But she’s always gotten the feeling, eventually. It hasn’t ever been denied her. She had to work for Pakku’s, but it came. 

She’s never been denied acceptance.

That’s the principal difference. 

If she had been denied it, would she have turned out like Azula? If she felt listless and lonely and like she didn’t fit, couldn’t fit, not even with her family, would she be so heartless? So cruel?

Wouldn’t she do anything it took, search anywhere she needed—like chasing the Avatar demanded—to earn the feeling? 

Standing there, with Zuko’s heat next to her, she suddenly respects him. So much. Despite her overwhelming anger at him and her inherent inability to trust him and her lingering hurt at his betrayal, she respects him. She believes, finally, that he can change. She doesn’t know that he has—she’ll have to see, she’ll have to evaluate—but she believes that he can.

Because she doesn’t know that she would give up the chase. She doesn’t know if she would be strong enough to stop seeking approval from the people who she thought were her world. From the people that she loved; from the people that she never thought she’d leave.

But he did. He was strong enough to realize that he was wrong. To admit it. To choose, after having so many of his choices made for him, after having so many of his choices made with the weight of someone else’s desires heavy on his brain.

Those decisions were terrible. She would know better than most. Those decisions had seemingly solidified his path. 

But they didn't, because he chose. For himself, not for others.

And that’s the irony, isn’t it? That in making a decision on his own, for the good of his own conscience, he finally, finally helped others. 

That in making what his family and the Fire Nation would see as a selfish decision—choosing for himself—he finally, finally was selfless. 

(Maybe he's been selfless this whole time. Maybe she just hasn't wanted to see it.)

He gave up everything.

She doesn’t know if he’s changed, but she does know that. He gave up everything

She could never give that up. 

She grabs his hand because she won’t need both hands to fight since there’s no chance they could beat all these guards. She grabs his hand because she doesn’t want to be separated from him. She grabs his hand because she is grateful that he cared enough about someone who hates him to save their life. She grabs his hand because she’s still angry, but she’s beginning to understand.

(She really, really wants to understand.)

His palm is slick with sweat. 

“We’ll be fine,” she whispers. 

He squeezes her hand. 

 

%%%

 

The courtyard is boiling. 

She snorts. Boiling

Get it? It’s funny. Since it’s called the Boiling Rock. Since the temperature is boiling

Now she grins and snorts. 

(And wonders if she’s going insane.)

And gets hit in the back of the head. 

Silence,” the guard hisses. 

Her grin fades to a smile, but it stays on her face. 

Until the heat melts it away. It is really hot. 

At the moment, she can’t see Zuko. He’s next to her, though. Somewhere. She can hear his guard’s reprimands.

A heavy hand yanks her up by the collar and drags her to the edge of the courtyard. Another heavy hand shoves Zuko down beside her. 

“Here they are, Princess.”

Azula stands, hands clasped behind her back, facing away from them. 

Silence descends slowly. Footstops stop first, then heavy breathing lightens, then her and Zuko’s pointless struggles ease. 

“Looks familiar, doesn’t it, Zuzu?”

Katara glances to her right and catches his blanch before her head is knocked forward. 

He doesn’t respond. 

Azula spins, eyes wild. “ Doesn’t it?”

Silence. 

“Need I remind you what happened here?”

Finally, he mutters, “No.”

Katara’s eyes flick to the gondola just beyond the courtyard’s stone floor.

This is where Mai and Ty Lee betrayed her, then. To save his life.

“No,” she agrees, nodding, moving towards them. “No, I haven’t forgotten either.” She steps until she stands level with Katara. Her glare is piercing. “Such silly sacrifice for a boy who doesn’t even love you.”

“Get away from her,” Zuko growls. “You’ve already done enough.”

Azula smirks but doesn’t move from before Katara. The guard yanks Katara’s hair until she stands straighter. “Yes,” she says, still addressing Zuko, still boring into Katara’s eyes. “I heard you were quite vocal about requiring assistance last night.”

“You burned her arm,” he seethes.

“Burns aren’t the end of the world,” she says lightly. 

Katara scowls at the implication, eyes darting to Zuko’s face.

But if he notices—which she’s sure he does—he doesn’t acknowledge it. “It was infected. She needed water.”

Azula raises an eyebrow. She still hasn’t looked at her brother, she still only stands in front of Katara, only stares at her. “So you weren’t foolish enough to try and escape?”

“No,” Katara says before Zuko can speak. “He just took me to get water.”

“Er,” starts the metallic voice of a guard behind her. Surprised, she jumps a little. Even Azula looks bemused at his audacity. “Pardon me, Princess. But I thought you should know that she isn’t wet. She hasn’t been in water anytime recently.”

“Well, yes,” Azula says, still staring at Katara but now looking bored. “She’s a waterbender.”

She snaps her fingers. For a brief moment the guard releases her hair. Another one takes his spot just as quickly. Katara turns her head to see the interrupting guard being escorted away. 

She rolls her eyes. “Wasn’t that a bit dramatic?” she asks. “He was just trying to help.”

Azula only watches her through narrowed eyes. 

And Katara doesn’t really know what to do—what’s expected of her. So she just raises her chin and glares back and hopes that she hasn’t condemned them both. 

But Azula only mutters, “I’ve been looking, Zuko. I just don’t see it.” 

Before Zuko can respond, she spins around, paces back to the spot where they had found her—facing the gondola—and says, “Alright. I believe you. Take them to the ships. We leave just after.”

 

%%%

 

The guards must be feeling generous or something, because the entire trip over they allow Zuko and Katara to walk on their own. Even on the gondola. Even on the trip down the side of the rock. (Indeed, Azula had recruited an earthbending prisoner. He wears a matching prison garb and bends them down the earth and doesn’t look at them once. Katara wonders if he feels guilty.) Even on the beach, when they’re surrounded by cool, bendable water. 

They are allowed to walk next to each other. Without restraints. Seemingly without a catch, either. The guards surround them, of course—every part of the circle is at least four guards deep—but they don’t hold them. 

“I noticed, too. Something is off,” Zuko mutters as they’re sliding down the earth elevator on the side of the volcano. 

Maybe, she thinks. But maybe some guards are just nice. 

Yeah, no.

Definitely what Zuko said. Something is off.

They don’t speak otherwise. They don’t hold hands, either, and Katara definitely isn’t disappointed but she isn’t not disappointed, either. She likes feeling comforted. It’s a feeling she usually gives. It’s not often that she’s given it. 

But she draws enough comfort in that she’s not alone. He walks next to her in silence and both of them are healthy, and that’s enough. She keeps her head raised high. 

The sun directly overhead beats down on them in random, aggressive waves. Katara feels her chest contract with the effort to keep raising. Remnants of the sickness must still be somewhere in her system—she tires easily; her breaths are desperate and shallow. 

As soon as they step foot on the beach, though, she feels better. The sand is scorching in between her toes, but she feels strengthened by the close presence of the sea. 

She’s too short to make anything out over the guards’ helmets, so she’s glad when Zuko—who only has her by a couple inches; really, it isn’t that great an achievement—ducks down and whispers into her ear, “We’re going by sea.”

She raises her eyebrows and turns her face up to his. She hadn’t even considered travelling any other way than by air. When Azula had said ships, Katara had been so certain she’d meant the airships that she hadn’t given it another thought. “Do you see a boat?”

He scrunches his nose. “It’s not really a boat. It’s called a royal sloop.”

She rolls her eyes. “It’s a boat,” she says. “What does it look like?”

“It’s huge. And gold. And...well, it’s exactly what you imagine when you think of Azula traveling anywhere by sea.”

Gilded, ostentatious, and loaded with weapons.

“Well, good,” Katara says, whispering so quietly that Zuko has to come lower to hear her, “I’d rather be on water.”

He nods. “Me too.”

 

%%%

 

Crossing the sand takes longer than she anticipated, but they get to the boat—royal ship; whatever—eventually. She climbs up the giant gangway (Thanks, Sokka. I’m so glad I remember the most random pieces of your useless knowledge.) with Zuko at her side. 

The complete freedom didn’t last long, but only her hands are bound. Zuko snaps that they aren’t stupid, they won’t try anything with tens of dozens of guards around, but the guards don’t listen. They tie her hands in thick twine. It slices into her skin.

Once they’ve reached the deck—and once they’ve combined with what Katara assumes to be the crew, all gathered on deck to greet the Princess—the legion of guards stops moving. Likely to wait for Azula. 

“La,” she mutters, turning in a slow circle in place. “This is huge.”

She feels quite insignificant. The deck alone is twice the size of the entire airship. A nation could fit on it. 

To her right, there’s what seems like a house stemming right out of the middle of it all. Surely that’s where the captain’s rooms are. Or the cabins. The deck is hollow underneath her feet, too. There must be a world down there. 

Though the memory is growing vaguer with each day it’s neglected, she remembers the prison ship she was on when she went after Haru. She remembers thinking it was large. Wondering how she could possibly escape with all of those prisoners.

It’s size was nothing compared to this. It was nowhere near as polished, nor as technologically advanced. 

If she was worried about escaping that prison ship, when all of the prisoners were her allies, how could they possibly get off of this? With all of these guards as her enemies?

“A little different than Water Tribe ships?” Zuko whispers. 

She turns to him, prepared to be annoyed, but he doesn’t look like he’s trying to flaunt his nation’s successes, so she lets it drop. “Yeah,” she says petulantly; honestly. “We don’t have anything like this in the South.”

“When this is all over,” he says, “we can design ones for your people.”

Remembering the guards’ words from before she discovered the infection—savages—she narrows her eyes. “We don’t need help from the Fire Nation.”

He turns to her, eyebrows furrowed. “I didn’t mean that you did. I just—”

“Ito,” Azula calls sharply, unknowingly interrupting her brother as she leads another procession onto the deck. There must be at least one hundred people, but it doesn’t even feel crowded. That’s how large it is. The gangway screeches shut behind the last of the guards. Azula approaches them, dusting her hands off on her stomach. “Good. You’re here.”

Zuko edges closer towards Katara. She can feel the heat emanate from his skin. “Together, right?” he asks under his breath. 

It’s his attempt at an apology. She purses her lips because she probably shouldn’t have even gotten offended in the first place, but she doesn’t want to apologize. “Yeah. Together.”

Azula steps through the circle of guards—Ito; he must be the captain—steps from the ranks and bows to her. “Princess Azula,” he greets. “We are so glad to have you back on board.”

“Yes, you are,” Azula drawls. She turns her attention to Katara and Zuko. Ito follows her gaze. “You’ve noticed our guests, I’m sure.”

“Yes, Your Highness.”

Azula saunters toward them and flicks her fingers for Ito to follow. Katara and Zuko are still standing next to each other. Azula pauses in front of them. Ito stops a lowly step behind her.

“This is the light of my life,” she introduces, glaring at Katara, “and this is my brother, Zuko.”

 Zuko snorts.  

“Have you ever met Lieutenant Ito, Zuzu?”

“I don’t think I’ve had the pleasure,” he says dryly.

Katara wants to laugh. It doesn’t look like a pleasure at all—Ito is tall and bulky and altogether unpleasant to look at. His face is hard and tight and mean. He glares at Katara just because his princess does, and that alone is enough to drop him in Katara’s books. 

“Well, here he is. And he’s going to help me with something.” Azula cocks her head backwards to Ito. “Aren’t you?”

“Yes, Your Highness.”

Azula smirks at Katara. “Go on, then,” she says. 

Katara slides closer to Zuko. 

“Don’t worry,” Azula says, looking at Katara and, assumably, addressing her. “He won’t hurt you.”

Ito whistles once, long and hard. The type of noise that Katara and Sokka expected to come from Aang’s whistle before they discovered it was inaudible to human ears. Footsteps start pounding towards them on the deck. 

Zuko grabs her twine-bound hands. Pressure on the raw skin hurts, but she leans into the contact. “We’re complying, Azula,” he growls, using her words from earlier. “You don’t need to hurt her.”

Zuko’s fingers start unwinding the twine around her wrists.

“Of course you’re complying,” Azula laughs. “You don’t have a choice.”

The footsteps grow closer. Ito’s face lights up. Zuko’s progress is too slow, too slow—he only manages to get two of her fingers out.

“Besides,” Azula says, still looking at Katara. “You misunderstand me.”

The guards arrive behind them. Katara braces for the yanking in her hair, for the grabbing at her arms, but it doesn’t come. 

Zuko’s hand is ripped away from her. 

The guards have taken him. 

She turns, but he hasn’t gone far. They’ve only removed him from her immediate grip. She tries to take a step but—there it is. They’re too predictable. The guards grab her from behind; pull her back. She twists her wrists, trying to squeeze another finger out, but it’s pointless. Zuko managed three. She can’t budge the wrapping on her own.

She looks at him with wide, fearful eyes and she doesn’t even like him but she trusts him, now, and she doesn’t want to separate from him. She can’t escape without him. She needs him. They need each other. 

The ship is large. The space between them feels larger. 

And then she understands. Azula isn’t going to hurt either of them. 

She’s going to separate them.

Zuko’s eyes are angry. “I thought you were better than to go back on your word,” he shoots.

Finally, Azula turns her gaze to him. With a shrug, she says, “It was simple, Zuko. We had a deal. She broke her end.”

“She could have died, Azula! Infection leads to blood poisoning!”

Katara watches from the corner of her eye as Azula steps toward him and lowers her face until it’s only inches from his. “Then you should have let her die,” she snarls. “You’re a fool, Zuko. You care too little for yourself. It makes you weak. Love makes you weak.”

“Love makes me strong,” he retorts, fighting against the guards to glare closer at his sister. “It’s the one thing I’ve always been better at than you.”

“Love is useless,” she hisses. 

“You’re wrong. It’s the reason they betrayed you, Azula. They didn’t love you. They were only afraid.”

Behind her back, blue flames form at Azula’s fingertips.

Katara jerks against her guard. He’s too engaged in the drama—he isn't prepared. She slips from his grip, focusing hard to manipulate water with just one free hand, with just three free fingers. But some higher power makes her desperate, makes her movements sharp, powerful. She bends the sweat from Azula’s neck—the seawater is too far away; the sparks at Azula’s fingertips are growing—and wraps it, freezes it around her wrists. “Don’t,” Katara growls.

While Azula whips to face her, the guards easily regain control. Their grips are tighter—they promise to do more, be more, for their Princess; they rewrap the twine around her hands, even as the ocean pulls at Katara’s fingertips—but it doesn’t matter. They have already failed her. They know what comes next. What must come next.

Azula fists her hands and the ice explodes into a thousand steamy shards. “Take them away!” she shouts, eyes flames themselves—there’s no trace of the brownness Katara had seen before. They are angry red fires that want to burn everything in their path. 

Katara is yanked by her hair to her feet. The grip is so tight that she bites her tongue to keep from crying out. It draws blood. 

She feels blood elsewhere, too—rushing in her ears, pounding in her throat. She glances at Zuko. He’s fighting against his guard to look her way.
They’re pulled underneath the deck. Down a long hallway. She struggles against each step, and the guards end up dragging her the length. 

They come to a corridor branching off from the main one. Zuko’s guards turn down it. 

Katara’s continue straight. 

She looks back and meets anxious golden eyes fighting against their captives to keep looking at her.

But she blinks. A metal wall rushes into view. 

And, just like that, he’s gone.

 

end of book two: counterpart

Chapter Text

book three: fuse

 

Blue flames wrap around her hands. 

She bends water from under the metal grates next to her—Metal grates? In the South Pole?—and shoves it between her skin and the fire. Heat taunts her with its nearness, but as soon as it has come, it vanishes. Steam rises instead. Up and around her, clouding the sunset courtyard, stealing her sight.

She isn’t relieved. Her muscles stay taut and alert, anticipating some unknown, unpredictable enemy. She glances over her shoulder, behind her back, over her other shoulder. Flames are wild, after all. Watching for them is the only way to control them, and even then control isn’t certain. 

The steam settles. She’s standing on a white hill. Everything glows with the freshness of the snow and she can relax here, at least, in her home. Her feet are bare but her toes aren’t cold; she stands on her tiptoes. If she raises her chin high enough, she can make out a loop of igloos. They stand out like beacons in the empty terrain and she loves beacons because they guide her home, but she doesn’t need them now. Not here. She knows this place too well. She swivels her head and the sight is beautiful. Icy peaks and inky penguins and icicles reflecting the sunrise. 

Her parka keeps her warm enough, confident enough, that she steps toward the yellow rays. 

“Katara.”

She turns and finds her mother smiling down at her, holding out her hand. Her mother is more beautiful than the sun could ever dream to be. The warmth in her smile is warmer, the brightness in her eyes is brighter, her arms more welcoming, more appealing than a thousand sunrises. 

“Mom,” she says, grinning. She steps toward her, reaching out her mittened hands, hearing the crunch of the snow underfoot.

The ghost of her mother’s hand brushes her chin—not touching, never touching; touch is too permanent, too real —tilting it up. She smiles. “Straight ahead, Katara,” she says. “Just like this. In case you ever have to fight again.”

Katara doesn’t try to understand. She leans into the touch that isn’t a touch because it can’t be, because it will never be again, into the mother that isn’t her mother—because she can’t be, though she is, because she will never be here again—and closes her eyes. “Mom,” she whispers. 

The hand falls. 

She doesn’t know how she knows, given that the hand, the touch was never there in the first place, but she opens her eyes. 

Her mother’s expression has twisted into confusion. She furrows her eyebrows and looks down at the ground. “What did you do, Katara?” she asks.

She follows her mother’s gaze to the ground. Cracks are splintering the snow at their feet. The snaps echo violently in the tranquil scene—disturbing their peace, stealing their quiet. A flock of irritated walrus-hawks flap into the sunrise. 

“What did you do?” her mother repeats.

Blue streaks of light peek from the cracks. Her mother looks up, face anxious. Katara tries to step toward her but a crack forms at her mother’s feet and, screaming, her mother twists into the ground.

“Mom!” Katara shouts. 

She tries to run but she can’t move her feet, can’t take a single step. The cracks rise and swallow her legs. Blue light streams from the sunrise, too, and then the whole world is blue. 

Mom!” 

“Katara!” comes the distant, echoed reply. “Where are you?”

She turns her head to the voice and she’s back in the courtyard. Laughter shrieks behind her and she ignores it, reaching out to the water in the grates, but then she’s frozen in a block of ice and she can’t move. Someone punches flames into her upper arm and she’s burned, branded, drowning, dying. 

She can’t breathe, can’t move—she tries to call out for her mother but she doesn’t make a sound. 

And then she’s running and she can’t run fast enough. She’s screaming but it isn’t loud enough. She’s wishing and begging and crying and praying and sobbing and regretting but nothing, nothing, is ever enough. Nothing will ever get her back.

When she wakes up, she is alone. 

 

%%%

 

She doesn’t know how long passes. It isn’t more than warrants three meals, though, so it’s likely only three days. 

She rather prefers her new cell—or brig, as Sokka would surely insist she call it—to the prison’s cooler. The only thing she dislikes is how it’s pitch black.

But that’s nothing new, is it? Everything is dark, but that’s alright, because it has been since they’d arrived. The tunnels and the cooler and now the brig, too.

Her instinct is to hate the darkness, and at first she does. But as soon as torchlight approaches her room, she misses the comfort of the black. 

She scrambles to her feet, sliding back into a defensive position. Her head spins with lack of food and sleep and drink.

The light slips through the open strip under her door. She blinks her eyes frantically to adjust to it in time; when the door is pushed open the light blinds her only briefly. 

“The princess requests your presence,” one of the guards say. There are only two this time. She must have made a good impression on Azula. 

Warily, she backs into a normal standing position. “Why?”

He steps into her cell, grabs her arm, and says, “It doesn’t matter.”

She shakes free of his grip. The light bounces off of the metal room and their metal uniforms too harshly. It makes her squint. “I’m perfectly free of handling myself,” she says. “You don’t need to touch me.”

The other guard grabs her other arm because, apparently, the Fire Nation treats their prisoners with zero dignity. 

She rips her arm free again. “That wasn’t a suggestion,” she snaps, backing up enough to face both of them at once. She crosses her arms over her chest so that they can’t hold them. “Don’t touch me.”

The guards share a glance, she thinks—she can’t quite tell—but it can’t be any effective considering their entire expressions are coated in metal. 

She can sense their resolve wavering so she continues, leaning forward, “I’m not going to leave Zuko here. Everyone and their sister knows that. You take me to Azula and I’ll just walk beside you. I won’t try to escape. Okay?” 

One guard is still. The other shifts. 

She turns to the latter. “Please?”

“Er…”

“You’re a waterbending Master,” the still guard says. “We’re in the middle of the ocean.”

“You’re right,” she says, “but I’m one person. You have five hundred firebenders.”

“Nine hundred,” the guard mutters, correcting. She’s about to roll her eyes when he says, “Alright. You can walk.”

They turn and leave before they take her, though. They come back with eight more guards. 

Now she does roll her eyes. Ten guards surround her as she walks to Azula’s cell. 

Don’t they get that she won’t leave without Zuko? They’re so obsessed with honor—surely, surely they understand this. Isn’t it honorable to not abandon someone? 

Whatever. 

She doesn’t really care. 

(She does wonder where he is.) 

 

%%%

 

Azula immediately raises an eyebrow. “You decided to let her walk here? In the middle of the ocean?”

A guard on her left goes to grab her arm, but she ducks away from him and moves towards Azula. 

I decided, actually,” she says, glancing around the room briefly. It’s smaller than the grandiose royal room in the prison, but similar in decor and color scheme—metal walls with scarlet banners and golden-red rugs and ubiquitous maroon and altogether horrible taste. It is—for lack of a better adjective—ugly, she thinks, but, despite herself, her eyes catch on a giant window to her right. 

Glass makes up the entire wall. Ceiling to floor. She’s never seen anything like it before. 

Swelling cerulean waves shine through the glass. Sunlight bounces off the water and shoots into the room and the luminesce is so much more natural than that of the torches—so much more inviting, so much more peaceful. 

Scattered clouds look like snowflakes in the sky. In the far distance, she thinks she can make out the shadowed outline of another ship. 

She wonders who’s on it. Where they’re going. Where they’ve been.

And she loves the sea because it’s so expansive. There’s always more to see, more to explore. Every spot on the water feels the same, but every spot feels different.

Azula’s voice draws her from her existential musings. “You decided?”

“Yes,” she says, blinking her gaze back. 

Azula looks past her. “You all let her decide?”

Guilt crawls up her spine. She doesn’t want them to get in trouble, even if they are useless Fire Nation guards. She plants her hands on her hips. “They didn’t let me do anything. I wasn’t about to get dragged down here again when I could have easily walked. It saved everyone time and energy. I don’t see a problem.”

For a moment, Azula considers her. Then she shrugs. “Fine.” She gestures toward the low table and cushions. The only difference from the ones in the prison is that these are gold embroidered. “Sit,” she says. She flicks her hands towards the door. “Dismissed.”

Katara chooses the seat that faces the ocean and watches the sway of the ship in the distance. Azula picks a teapot up off the ground. 

“It’s Jasmine,” she tells her, again pouring two cups, again pushing one toward Katara. Does Azula have short term memory loss? Or had Katara imagined their last situation—just like this? “Family recipe.”

Ah, yes. Because the Royal Family makes their own tea. 

She can just picture Ozai in a kitchen—apron wrapped around his torso, silver platter balanced between his hands, serving Jasmine tea for the family. 

Does Azula think she’s stupid? 

Unless it is Iroh’s recipe—and for whatever strange reason, she can’t imagine Azula having enough patience to learn from her only benevolent relative—it is poisoned. 

“I’m not thirsty,” she mutters. She folds her arms over her chest. “Why am I here?”

Azula smiles around her teacup. Ice shrouds Katara’s heart. “I just want to get to know you,” Azula says lightly, setting it back onto the table. “You know, now that no loyalties lie in the way.”

“Loyalties?”

“Well, yes.” At her blank look, Azula prods with raised eyebrows, “Loyalties? Friendships? Are you unfamiliar with them? I was under the impression that they abounded in your life.”

Oh. 

She gets it.

“You’re delusional if you think I’ll tell you anything about Aang,” she snarls. “Or any of the rest of them.”

“I care little for the Avatar.”

She scoffs. “We both know that’s false.” 

Even though—a small voice pipes up from the back of her mind—Azula could have kept them at the prison. Katara would have been the perfect bait to attract him. 

But Azula hadn’t. She’d taken them away.

It must suit a different one of her agendas, right? There must be a reason that she’s taking them back to Caldera City.

Is it? False? That she cares for little for Aang?

It must be. Ozai’s supporters make up half of the Fire Nation, and that entire group cares for nothing other than the Avatar. 

That entire group includes Ozai’s daughter.

(Right?)

Azula watches her for a moment before sighing and throwing her gaze to the sky. “You’re right, I suppose. If he landed his beast on the ship tomorrow, I wouldn’t complain. it would be convenient.”

Something like relief dips into Katara’s mind. “He won’t,” she says, leaning back a little, nodding in her certainty. “He won’t come. You won’t find him.”

“I promise,” Azula vows, and the silver glint in her eyes negates every word she says, “I’m not even looking.”

 

%%%

 

It really doesn’t seem like Azula wants to get to know her. 

And for some unbelievable reason, Katara isn’t surprised. In the slightest.

Azula does want to know things about her, though. Random, tangible details. Like her history with diseases. Her hereditary likelihood to develop the Teal Fever. Has she ever had the Pragha Plague? Or Jackle’s flu? What about heart palpitations? Does she have brittle bones? 

“Azula,” she growls, when the cushion that was once so comfortable starts feeling like sitting on a thousand needles. “I don’t even know how I would be able to tell if I had those!”

Azula rolls her eyes. “You have a healer check for it, of course. At home we—”

“I don’t live in a Palace with healers,” she snaps. “am my Tribe’s healer.”

“You’re awfully ignorant to be a healer. Your people must suffer.”

Katara slams her hand down. It accidentally unbalances the table, which topples the tea into her lap. Squeezing her eyes shut, she bends the likely poisoned tea back into the cup. She leaves the cup on the ground. 

“Listen,” she says once the mess has disappeared. Azula watches her with patronizing amusement. “I don’t know what you want from me. I have no idea if my parents had those diseases or not. We have different illnesses than your people do.”

“I’m sure,” Azula says, eyebrows tilting in feigned sympathy. “What with your lack of sufficient technology.”

She isn’t stupid. She knows this for what it is—she’s seen it before. She’s fallen for it before. So has Sokka, according to their account of the Eclipse.
Azula wants to get a rise out of her. 

She takes a deep breath, ignores the barb, and asks, calmly, “What do you want?”

“You’re more oblivious than I anticipated.”

She grits out, calmly, “What do you want?

Calmly.

Quite, quite calmly.

Azula smiles twistedly, stands, and shrugs. “I wanted you to see the ship,” she says, pointing out the window with three polished nails. “Lovely, isn’t it?”

Katara glances outside of the glass. The ship is the same distance away from them as it was before.

And, well...yes, it is rather lovely. But she won’t say that. 

“I already saw it,” she mutters. She scratches her cheek, trying to understand where their topic of conversation escaped to. “What do you really want? Why did you bring me up here?”

Azula glances down at her wrist, purses her lips into a smirk, and steps towards her. “Because,” she says, and her voice gains a wild edge that claws at Katara’s skin, “in the end, I think we’re more similar than you think.”

“Oh, really?” she asks flatly. “How so?”

Flicking her hair and narrowing her eyes, Azula responds in a strange, lofty voice that isn’t her own, “We both want our brothers to be happy.” 

Katara blinks.

Azula turns and strides from the room. “Time’s up.” 

Katara doesn’t know what to do besides follow.

 

%%%

 

“You have five minutes,” Azula says, crossing her arms and widening her stance. Like she’s preparing for a fight. 

Katara doesn’t want to fight, though. She thinks she knows where she’s about to enter—after all, why else would she be led through a maze of metal corridors? If not to meet with Azula, surely it was to meet with her brother?—and that disinclines her from any distraction. Especially any violent distraction.

A guard shoves her from behind, and she stumbles against the metal. Scowling, she whips around to face him, pushing off of the door for leverage. “If you hadn’t noticed, the door is closed. You didn’t have to throw me into it—”

The door opens. 

Yelping in surprise, she falls backwards. 

She isn’t caught like in every story she’d ever heard, ever. That’s what’s supposed to happen. The girl falls, the girl is caught. 

But nothing that is supposed to happen ever happens to Katara—see: meeting the Avatar, traveling the world on a flying bison with a few other teenagers, being able to waterbend, being able to bloodbend—so she puts her hands down to catch herself. 

They aren’t fast enough. Her back and head slam into the floor. 

Groaning, she squeezes her eyes shut and rubs at the back of her skull. She sits up slowly. She squints her eyes open to locate, glare at, and lecture Zuko. The words thanks for nothing form in the back of her throat.

But she quickly forgets her own pain. 

His brig is tiny. A quarter the size of hers. Much smaller than their cooler. It shouldn’t be a room at all. It looks like a closet. 

And crumpled on the floor, holding his stomach, is the previous object of her annoyance. 

She whirls on Azula because she needs water and she doesn’t have it and if she doesn’t start moving her hands now then she will start fighting and she doesn’t want that and that’s why Azula was guarding her stance. She did this on purpose. She expects a fight. The small, flitting smirk on her face—Katara’s face is scarlet red. 

“You know why we could never be friends?” she asks, stalking up to Azula, stabbing a finger into her neck. “Because this,” she says, flailing her arm wildly behind her, “this is not my idea of happiness.”

Azula shrugs. She glances at her wrist. “Four minutes.”

“I need water,” Katara growls. 

“Three fifty-eight. Three fifty-seven. Three fifty—”

Her hands are shaking. She clenches them but they don’t stop—they keep shaking and she can’t control them and she must . She can’t give into whatever idiotic games Azula is playing at because Zuko needs her and—

Zuko. 

She takes a deep breath, and turns to face him. Walks toward him. Crouches beside him. 

Azula continues counting and Katara thinks of a ferret-fly that bothers you until the buzzing becomes background noise. A ship’s engine that roars as you try to fall asleep at night but is nonexistent during the day. She needs that day now, that background noise. That focus. 

“Alright,” she whispers, fumbling to her knees. “You’ll be alright.”

Right away she notices the lack of blood. She blows out a deep, relieved breath. She takes his shoulders in her hands and rolls him gently onto his back. Still, no blood. Not even on the floor underneath him. 

She presses her hands onto his chest. They come back clean, if layered with sweat. A shean covers his body, but that’s normal enough—the room isn’t exactly a comfortable temperature. 

Now she frowns. Looks up and down his body. There’s no blood anywhere. His breathing seems normal, too.
She double checks, just in case—she leans down and rests her ear on his chest. Her hands go to follow but, blushing, she jerks them back to her side. No need for any more touching than strictly necessary. 

She rolls her eyes closed and listens to his heart. The beat is steady and even and, unprompted, her mind throws her back to a freezing night two thousand feet above the ground, when water streamed down her cheeks and she laid her head on Aang’s heart, just like this, because of him—because of Zuko. Because of Azula. 

Her gaze narrows. Fury builds in her chest and she knows she needs to force it down, knows it’s useless here, now, but she doesn’t understand Azula’s intentions and she hates feeling so completely blindsided all the time. She hates that Azula hurts her brother so thoughtlessly and, more than anything, she hates Azula’s brother. She—

“Katara?” a groggy voice says. 

Only after she jerks away from his chest does she realize that she had stopped listening to his heart. She’d just been lying there. 

“Three twenty-two. Three twenty-one. Three—”

Owlish amber eyes blink up at her and, at his confusion, her anger grows. “What is wrong with you?” she demands. “Why didn’t you wake up? Are you even hurt? Why did she bring me here if you aren’t even hurt?”

His eyes widen, but he is otherwise frozen in place. “Have they been hurting you?” 

“What? No. I’m asking if you’re hurt.”

His shoulders slump. “I’m fine,” he says, furrowing his eyebrows. 

She scowls and leans back onto her knees. Pain from her fall pounds at the back of her head, so she presses her hand against it. “Then why am I here?” 

She turns the inquiry to Azula and finds her grinning at them, rocking back and forth on her heels. “Three fourteen. Three thirteen. Three twelve. Three—”

Zuko rubs his hands up and down his face to try and wipe the sleep away. 

“Are you hurt?” Katara asks flatly. “Because if you aren’t, I swear to La, I’m going to…”

She can’t think of a suitable threat. She doesn’t have water at her disposal—that really should have clued her into his health, she realizes dryly; Azula would have given her water had she needed it—so she can’t do anything super intimidating. 

She could always slap him. 

She’s always wanted to. 

But her heart is finally slowing, and he doesn’t look anymore in the know than she does. That’s a comfort, at least—his ignorance.

She sighs, thinking of how proud (or disappointed) Toph would be of her, and doesn’t hit him.  

“What is she doing?” he asks. 

“Counting,” she mutters. “She said we had five minutes.” They watch her for a few seconds before it registers that they only have until she finishes to speak. She glances back to Zuko. “She had me in for tea again today.”

“Me too,” he says, pushing himself to a sitting position. He rubs his forehead with a grimace, and doesn’t meet her eyes when he mumbles, “I drank the tea.”

Katara raises her eyebrows. “Oh, no,” she deadpans, throwing his words back in his face. “She must have poisoned it.”

He glares at her. “I’m not poisoned,” he says. Then, “I think it knocked me out.”

Well, yes, she thinks so, too. That explains why he didn’t wake up.

“Why did you even drink it? I knew you were stupid but I didn’t know that you were that —”

His expression is cold and angry, but a flush crawls up his neck. “I haven’t had water since we got here,” he snaps. “You can’t blame me.”

She snorts. “I can absolutely blame you. I can blame you for whatever I want. That’s what blaming is.”

Azula laughs—high and pitchy and abrupt—and Katara nearly jumps out of her skin. 

Well, actually, she jumps onto Zuko’s skin. But just as quickly she snatches her arm back from where it had fallen against his. 

He isn’t even paying attention. The flush on his face has flared, but he doesn’t seem to notice, nor care. He’s staring at Azula. “Something is seriously wrong,” he whispers. “She was acting insane when I was with her.”

“How?”

Zuko glances at her, eyebrows furrowed. 

“Like what was she doing?” she clarifies, though she hardly thinks the question warrants clarification. Maybe he’s still waking up. “How was she acting insane?” 

“Oh.” His face darkens as he turns back to face Azula. He lowers his voice when he says, “Talking about…things we don’t talk about.”

“You don’t talk at all,” she says dryly. “Any subject makes unusual conversation.”

“About our mother,” he snaps. 

Oh.

She twists her hands in her lap. 

“She’s been mentioning her a lot lately. Especially since...well, it doesn’t matter. She’s just been talking about her a lot.”

Katara swallows and watches Azula’s mouth form syllables. She isn’t even looking at them—her neck is tilted up so that she’s staring at the roof of the cell. Katara lowers her voice, too, and it’s nearly inaudible to her own ears. “Maybe she misses her?”

“No,” he says immediately. 

“But—”

“That’s not it,” he insists, and, by his tone, she knows it’s his final verdict.

After a beat of silence where Azula drops her count under two minutes, Katara mumbles, “She asked me about my medical history.”

Zuko whips his head toward her. “What?” 

She blinks. “Relax,” she mutters, furrowing her eyebrows. “I’m not sick.”

He ignores that completely, leaning forward in a vehemence both inexplicable and unanticipated. “What did she ask?”

If she’d known such a random statement would garner such a reaction, she would have used it as soon as she’d entered. He would have woken right up. Maybe she should just start carrying around medical documents. Throw them at him when he least expects it. When he’s bothering her.

In other words, he would always have papercuts. Everywhere. 

“She just listed a bunch of diseases,” she starts. “And she asked me if I—”

“Yeah, okay,” he cuts in, waving his hands around impatiently. “We don’t have all day. What diseases?”

Her glare forms slowly—first as her lips purse, then as her nose scrunches, then as the skin around her eyes tightens. “What is with you?” she asks. “It’s not like it matters.”

In an apparent plea to the heavens for patience, Zuko rolls his eyes to the ceiling. His voice is high and strained. “I wouldn’t ask unless it mattered!”

She crosses her arms. “I don’t remember them,” she says, tilting her nose up. 

And she really doesn’t. 

Well, she remembers the brittle bones. But that isn’t a disease. He asked about diseases, specifically. Not...whatever brittle bones were.

“Think, Katara,” he implores. He shuffles nearer until his face hangs over hers, casting it in shadow. “Think.”

She glares into his frantic eyes. “I don’t remember.

“Well think harder!”

“Tell me why it’s important!”

He exhales sharply and it’s hot on her face. Scowling, she leans away, brushing ruffled hair from her eyes. 

Across from her, he drags his hands down his face. They muffle his flood of mumbled words. “This is terrible. I didn’t think she would do this. She shouldn’t be able to; he can’t let her. But they’ll hate you—”

“Me? Who?” 

“—of course they will. And she isn’t even going—”

“What are you on about?”

“—ask him, she’s just going to—”

Katara leans forward and rips his hands from his face, pinning them by the sides of his head. “Zuko, tell me!” 

His eyes widen like he’s forgotten that she’s there. Like he’s seeing her for the first time in ages, like he’s trying to remember who she is. “No,” he whispers. “You can’t know.”

She looks at him blankly. 

His eyes shoot fully open; he’s realized what he’s said. An apology forms on his lips but she doesn’t want his apologies—never has, never will—so she snaps, “What do you mean ‘I can’t know’?”

“That’s not what I meant,” he rushes to say. “It came out wrong. It’s not you. I mean it is you, but it’s not. I mean—that’s not what I meant—”

“No?” she growls. “Then what did you mean? 

In their scramble to get out, his words slur together. “It’s not because of you. You didn’t do anything. It’s just too...I can’t be the one to...we haven’t—” 

None of it makes any sense. 

“Just tell me,” she hisses.

He stills.

Slowly, never breaking her gaze, he shifts his head back and forth. Color rises in his neck, on his cheeks, over his ears, but his resolve doesn’t waver. He swallows and manages, hoarsely, “I’m sorry.”

She drops his wrists, furrows her eyebrows, and draws away. Her heart beats in her throat. 

“Zero,” Azula chirps from the doorway. She snaps her fingers and footsteps pound toward the tiny cell. “Time’s up.”

It doesn’t matter. Katara doesn’t need guards to drag her away. 

She stands and walks through the threshold. 

“Katara,” Zuko calls, but it’s weak and helpless and not nearly good enough. 

She doesn’t look back.

 

%%%

 

One word runs on repeat in her head. Over and over and over and over and—

She can’t get it out. 

It’s too prominent, too glaring, too true

Foolish

She knows exactly who he is. Knows first hand—has experienced first hand—the choices he’s made. Has been hurt first hand because of the choices he’s made. 

And she let herself forget. 

She let herself think—hope—that he was selfless. That he was different.

She doesn’t know if it was the circumstances—the closest thing to her ally in a sea of enemies—or if it was Toph’s good opinion—hard to gain, harder to keep—or if it was her own desire for him to be good. 

Because she hates that she’s the one who got burned, back in Ba Sing Se. She’s supposed to be the responsible one. She’s supposed to care for the rest of them. They trust her with their lives

How can she do any of that when she can’t trust herself? 

She gives people the benefit of the doubt, and they betray her. They hurt her. They use her. For their own selfish agendas. 

She’s tired of it. 

So, so tired of selfish people. 

Foolish

Tired in general. 

(She cannot fall asleep.)

 

%%%

 

They’ll hate you

Who is they?

Who’s going to hate her? 

It doesn’t even make sense. They’d been talking about one person: Azula. Not a group of people.

 

%%%

 

A guard slides food under her door. 

Her stomach growls, but she feels nauseous. 

She ignores it. 

 

%%%

 

She scowls. 

She’d been so concerned about him, too. 

She thought he was hurt. She would have healed him. 

Foolish.  

 

%%%

 

Wide eyes and lambent sea green crystals and her fingers are burning and twitching because of the angry skin they had just touched and she doesn’t understand how they’d wound up together, how he always wound up with her, with them, with their group, but it’s okay because the chill of the long unused water is refreshing and her breaths are shallow but she’d just gotten everyone back and they can take Azula, she thinks—she and Aang. Under these crystals, under this city, under this nation of lies. She and Aang can take Azula. They’re strong enough. 

Blue fire chases them both.

Orange fire follows soon after.

Fingers aren’t the only thing that burn. 

 

%%%

 

No. You can’t know.

It’s different. She knows it is. It’s so different than it was that night.

It doesn’t matter. It still hurts. 

It hurts because the reminder of her naivety stings. 

She so wants to trust him. Everyone else does. She hates being the odd one out. She wants to believe him. Believe in him. 

But he couldn’t—didn’t—trust her with whatever he hid.

And it’s stupid and childish and petty and a ridiculous thing to fight over, a ridiculous thing to get angry over—some rational part of her brain still registers this, still comprehends her idiocy—but it doesn’t matter. She’s been hurt too many times. She’s been sucked in and vomited out, she’s been lured and deceived and destroyed, and she wants to trust him but it burns.

It burns.

She wants to be trusted before she offers her trust. 

She wants to trust before she offers her trust. 

She’s never been fickle. If there is one thing consistent in her life, it is that: when she makes her mind up, it is made. It is difficult to change. 

But that’s justified, isn’t it? Since time and time again, the universe has punished her for changing. For trying. For trusting. 

It’s not worth it anymore. 

It hurts.

 

%%%

 

She slams her head against the wall. 

Over and over and over and over and—

She feels like Sokka. 

She’s seen him do this before. When he’d done it, it hadn’t surprised her in the least. 

That’s sad, right? 

“Cut it out in there!” a guard shouts. 

She sinks onto the floor and doesn’t allow thoughts into her brain. 

Only memories. Sokka’s stupid jokes and Aang’s giddy laugh and Toph’s painful punch and Suki’s hideous shoulder—is it healed now? Has the wound completely closed?

Are they still at the Air Temple? Are they waiting? Or did Toph make it back safely? They’d only left a few days ago, but the journey only required a few days. Plenty of time had passed for them to complete the trip. 

If Ty Lee and Mai took Toph there in the first place. Would they? She’s blind. She can’t see. She wouldn’t know. They could so easily take advantage of her. 

Would they, too, be selfish? Fly toward their own agenda? 

She shakes her head and shoves the thoughts away before they drag her to her grave. 

Before they drag her to what she will not think about.

After all, he doesn’t deserve her thoughts. 

 

%%%

 

Later, a guard comes to collect her. 

“I’m not getting up,” she tells him flatly. She raises her eyebrows, daring him to contradict her. 

He does. Apparently, she was not daring enough. “Yes, you are,” he says.

“No, I’m not.” She tries again, this time with increased daring. “I dare you to move me.”

“Alright,” he says. 

They drag her out of the brig.

She supposes it’s her fault. She’d never turn down a dare, either. She’s just that daring. 

 

%%%

 

She’s never liked the word reckless. 

First of all, it’s hard to say. The end of the first syllable blurs with the beginning of the second. Reck-less. Reckless. Reckless. It’s too easy to skip over the correct pronunciation. It turns into reck-luss or recklis, and she’s never liked when people take shortcuts. Shortcuts are selfish. They rob people of real experiences, real results.

But that’s beside the point. Basically, it’s just always tasted weird off her tongue. 

Second of all, no one uses the word reck, and that bothers her. When she hears the word reck, her brain immediately jumps to its homophone, wreck. Maybe recko. Not reck. Never reck. What does reck even mean? 

Thus, when someone says the word reckless, her brain immediately jumps to wreck-less

But that’s fundamentally wrong. Being reckless doesn’t mean to wreck things less. If anything, being reckless leads to more things being wrecked. Wreck-more, not reckless. Wreckmore. It sounds better. It’s easier to pronounce. It makes more sense.

It irritates her to no end. Like when a pet collapses onto the place you were just about to rest your head, and looks too cute to move. Like when a brother “forgets” to put his dishes in the sink after dinner, and he’s too busy with his girlfriend to answer your complaints. 

Like when a sworn eternal enemy shows a side of himself that you hadn’t expected and hadn’t seen even though your best friends had all tried to convince you to love him because they all love him, so you try to give him a chance because you don’t want to hold grudges and be a hypocrite, but then he does something that makes you want to hurt him for a second time and—

That’s beside the point, too. 

Anyway, she’s Katara. Recklessness isn’t in her arsenal. She isn’t capable of being reckless. 

But she saunters to Azula’s cell. She doesn’t dread the meeting. She smirks and shrugs off the guards’ strange looks. 

She is furious, but she doesn’t let it show. 

The guards watch her closer than usual: confused, wary.

And, by the end of the trip, she rather likes the word reckless. 

 

%%%

 

Out of the huge glass window, she can see the ship from before. They seem to be following it. Maybe they’re going to the same place. It’s closer now than it was earlier—it’s not a faint outline on the tip of the horizon but a solid metal form whose edges she can decipher rather distinctly. They’re gaining ground.

“Yes, Princess,” a guard says. They all leave the room. 

She’s forgotten to listen to the conversation. 

She finds she doesn’t care.

Reckless.

“Sit,” Azula says. 

“No,” she returns, power dripping from her veins. She likes this feeling. Likes it a lot. “I’m standing.”

Azula’s eyes harden. “Wouldn’t you like some tea?”

“You knocked your brother out.” And I don’t blame you. “La knows what you’d do to me.”

“Your vocabulary needs work,” Azula says offhandedly, almost to herself. “It won’t do to have you worshipping your pretend gods.” 

Katara falters momentarily at the random insult to her culture. She sends a silent apology up to La. 

But she reigns in her anger and shrugs because she is reckless, and acting reckless makes her feel strong

“I’m not drinking your tea,” she says flatly. 

Azula takes a deep breath in through her nose before muttering, “Alright.” She sits and grabs a cup.

She pours slowly and steadily. Drip. Drip. Drip. It’s a rainfall, not a waterfall. Drips, not sloshes. The sound stretches out the quiet. 

And, even though she is reckless, Katara doesn’t like the silence. Thoughts creep toward her mind, scratching at the door, begging for entrance. She doesn’t want them there. Doesn’t want to think right now. Doesn’t want to feel vulnerable when she could feel reckless.

So she snaps, “What do you want from me today?” 

She isn’t in the mood to be played. 

(She’s in a mood. That much registers, deep in her subconscious. Just not in the mood to be played.)

“One answer,” Azula says. 

Katara waits. 

But she doesn’t continue. Katara raises her eyebrows and dips her head forward. Hair falls into her eyes. “Yes?”

Azula scrutinizes her through narrowed chestnut slits. They’re especially strange today—layered and glazed but lucid and hungry. 

She doesn’t speak. 

And, slowly, Katara’s heart rate spikes. 

Zuko’s hurt, is the first thought. Aang’s here or Toph’s back or I’m going to get beaten, trail quickly after.

Her bravado slips away.

“What happened?” she whispers. 

“I’m asking the questions,” Azula snaps. 

“Then ask!” she shouts. 

Azula doesn’t speak. 

Now she wishes for the dripping. Instead she has a rushing in her mind—a sloshing; all of her fears pouring into her brain, drowning out her rationale, drowning out her recklessness. She doesn’t care. She doesn’t like the word, anyway—and it demands Azula’s information.

“What is it?” she snarls. “Don’t just sit there and look at—”

“Is your favorite color blue?”

Katara stares. 

Not recklessly, nor haughtily, nor carelessly.

Incredulously. 

Her mouth drops to the floor.

“That’s a yes, isn’t it?” Azula sighs. She stands up. “Well. That won’t do at all. Don’t worry, though. He’ll understand.”

Azula shoves her out of the room. She stumbles into a sea of waiting guards. 

She doesn’t even notice.

 

%%%

 

She can’t count the dots on the ceiling or the panels on the floor because the ceiling isn’t made of stone and the floor isn’t made of wood. She can’t count sunrises or sounds or sheep, either, because she can’t see the sun and she sits only in silence and sheep are quickly becoming her least favorite animal in the world. 

The arrival of food slows, too, so she can’t track the days by meals. If her goal from the outset was to make Azula so angry that she starved her to death, she seems to have succeeded. 

All because her favorite color is blue. 

—twirling blue flames that engulfed everything in their path and sparkling crystals that shone blue in the water’s reflection and violent blue lightning cracking through the caves, striking the world’s last hope and

She doesn’t understand.  

 

%%%

 

Lack of food opens her mind’s door for dreams. 

She doesn’t know what a dream is, actually. Everyone tells her that she knows everything about hope and everything about optimism—she doesn’t think they would believe her if she told them that she knew nothing of dreams. 

If they did understand, they’d know that she hadn’t had a dream since she was eight years old, lying peacefully beside a fire, unknowingly anticipating the following morning, when her world would stop, when her dreams would collapse.

No, she’s wrong—lack of food doesn’t open her mind’s door for dreams. They aren’t nightmares, but they aren’t dreams. 

They once were. 

They never are, now. Not anymore.

 

%%%

 

Hey! If it isn’t my favorite baby sister in the entire world! 

I’m your only sister. 

Semantics. You’re still my favorite! Right now, at least. 

Why are you following me? 

Did I forget to mention that you’re a waterbending goddess divine? Angel, hero, master, icon—

What do you want, Sokka?

I want to sing your praises, obviously. Idol, legend, teacher to the Av—

Sokka.

I...fine.

What?

I said, “fine.”

I’m not deaf, Sokka. I know you said—ugh. Nevermind. Just, what do you want?

Sokka? What do you want?

Sokka, quit sulking and tell me what happened. I can take it. Whatever it is, just tell me.

Sokka, I don’t have all—

I have a question. 

Alright. Finally. What is it?

It’s...about Mom. 

 

%%%

 

Azula doesn’t demand her visit again. 

She waits and waits and wonders why. He was right, tea does sound amazing right now—poisoned or not. Her throat is so dry that it hurts to swallow. The cell is too hot, too large. She rolls over onto her stomach and rests her head in the crook of her arm and thanks La that, at least, she isn’t getting beaten. 

She wonders if he is getting—

No. She doesn’t care. 

 

%%%

 

Oh, okay. I...well, I guess it’s as good a time as any. 

Yeah. 

Let me just finish washing these. And then we can talk. 

I’ll help you! 

With…the wash? You want to help me wash? 

Yes! We can talk while...you know. While we talk we can scrub and clean and make everything look pretty again. 

Your socks have never looked pretty. 

Maybe it’s because you were washing them, and not me

I try to get you to help with the washing all the time! You never want to! You’re too busy or tired or stressed or hungry or busy with Suki or—

Alright, alright. I get it. I’m a guy with a lot of responsibilities on his shoulders.

 

%%%

 

Hunger makes her stomach hurt. 

It growls and claws at the insides of her skin. The pain radiates to the still sore spot on the back of her head. It pounds and pounds and pounds. 

She doesn’t know how long it’s been since she left the brig. Doesn’t know how long it’s been since she felt something other than metal and more metal all around her. Saw something other than blackness. 

Sleep is impossible to come by. It’s too dark all the time—her brain fails to distinguish when to stay awake or take a break. Restlessness starts sparking in her muscles. She turns and rolls and stands up and stretches, but lack of sustenance makes her dizzy, so she sits back down and stretches. 

Day after day after day. Or night. Or afternoon. Or minutes or seconds or years. She can’t tell anything anymore. 

 

%%%

 

Not even. You aren’t the one who has to cook and clean and wash and—

You’re a girl

Yeah, and? Have you forgotten what happened last time we sparred? 

Well...that doesn’t...I wasn’t...I was hungry and I—

Whatever, idiot. 

Hey! I thought we agreed on no waterbending at brothers! What was that for? This shirt is new!

Well, now that shirt is wet.

Katara, no. 

Katara, seriously. Stop laughing. That wasn’t even funny. 

Katara, that was probably the least funny thing you’ve ever said. 

Katara! Get a grip! Literally, it was the stupidest joke anyone in the world has ever made. It wasn’t even a joke! It—oh. 

Oh, no. Katara. Oh, no. Don’t cry, don’toh, come here. 

 

%%%

 

Her mouth is too dry. She hates it. More than anything. Saliva is always supposed to be there. An option, for water, in case there’s nothing else. 

There’s nothing else. There’s nothing at all. 

She tries to force herself to cry, just so that she can feel the tug of water at her fingertips. She tries to sweat. She tries to throw up. 

Nothing. 

As she tries, hatred swirls in her heart. The sources she’s striving for aren’t natural. She hates that Hama introduced them to her. Hates that she uses them. Why can’t she be a normal waterbender? That bends water? Normal, drinking water? Or sea water or river water? 

She hates that the only pull of water she feels is that of the blood under her skin. 

She hates that she thinks about practicing with it.

 

%%%

 

I didn’t mean to make you cry. 

You—didn’t. It’s—it’s not—your fault.

I made fun of your joke. I didn’t know it was that important to—now why are you laughing? 

It wasn’t—the—joke that made me cry, you idiot.

Then what was it? Oh, no. Is it a girl thing? Because I seriously can’t...I won’t be any use with...er, with that kind of therapy, you know…

Did you just—therapy?

Um, now you look really angry, so...I need you to...SUKI! SUKI, HELP!

Relax, Sokka. I—ugh, I’m not mad. I promise. And that isn’t it, either. I’ve just been thinking about Mom a lot lately, too. It was fresh on my mind and...well. Tears.

Oh. Got it.

Yeah.

...

I just...Katara, I need to know. I’ve never really asked, you know? And now that the Eclipse is over and Dad is gone again...and, I don’t know, we’re getting so close to the Comet; it just seems like everything is coming to a head. And in case something happens to...well, to any of us, on that day, I just need to—

I get it, Sokka. Seriously. Keeping it to myself has been selfish.

No, Katara, that’s not it at all, I—

It’s alright, Sokka. It’s true.

You and Yinto had beaten me in a penguin race the day before, and I wanted revenge. But Yinto was sick, so it was just the two of us. We were having a snowball fight. Do you remember? 

Yes. 

It started raining ash.

 

%%%

 

“Alright,” she mutters to herself, forcing her eyes to blink open, though the darkness makes it nearly impossible to tell if they’re open or closed anyway. She lifts her head from the ground, clenches her fists against the vertigo, and waits for it to pass. If the edges around her vision blacken, she can’t tell. “That’s enough.”

When it is gone, she slowly moves to a seated position. To her knees. To her feet—back to her knees. Not ready for her feet yet. 

She stretches out her arms until she contacts a metal surface. Her elbow hits it first. She pulls herself toward it.

She hits it. 

Over and over and over and over and—

Just like he had. 

Red welts form on her hands. She can feel them, not see them, but she assumes they’re red. She supposes they could be violet or green or orange. That would be pretty cool. Still, she assumes they’re red. 

“Hey!” she shouts hoarsely. She clears her throat and tries again. “Hey!”

Pounds and pounds and pounds. To the rhythm of her headache. To the rhythm of her stomach’s growls. 

Eventually, her eyes slide shut. Her forehead slumps against the cold metal.

Just like his attempts—pointless.

She sighs.

 

%%%

 

This time she feels the heat before she sees it. 

It’s the metal, she thinks. She rises to her tiptoes so that only they’re on fire. She jumps up and down in place. The metal starts to glow. Bright orange, first. Brighter and brighter. Like a sunrise—slowly, slowly peeking over the edge of the universe. Gaining luminance slowly, slowly, until it overwhelms her toes, overwhelms her eyes. 

But before she can force them closed, the metal around her feet, around her body, above her head, explodes into flame. 

Orange is nothing compared to silver blue. It streaks around her, streams from her, grows within her.

Fire is too hot, too strong. She can’t feel her limbs anymore, they’re all scorched to pieces. But she can see. And slowly rising in the center of the flames is a pair of chocolate eyes. 

Slowly sinking is a pair of ocean ones. 

Mom!” she shouts, because she knows those eyes. Both pairs. They’ve been seared into her mind. 

I’ll handle this

The ocean sets aflame.

No! Mom!”  

You heard your mother. Get out of here!

His body comes up out of the blue flames and his eyes are the same and his helmet and his uniform and she hates him, he’s a monster, and if she looks close enough she thinks she can see a hint of angry red around his left eye and she isn’t surprised at all—

She’ll do something this time. She’ll help. She steps toward the fire because she will help but the scene twists and a pale guard is lying on the floor, blood dripping from his chin, furious eyes glinting with the blue flame’s reflection. Crystals highlight his limbs all twisted at different angles and her hand is poised and she’s controlling him, he’s a puppet in her grip, and she doesn’t want that, she never did, and he’s opening his mouth but the voice isn’t his. It’s higher and sweeter. It’s what she hears every night when she sleeps, and what she misses every day when she’s awake more than anything in the world. 

The voice is her mother’s

Monster,” it says.

Blue flames engulf her world. 

 

%%%

 

She’s sweating when she wakes up. 

She’s wanted water for so many days. Wanted sweat, wanted saliva, wanted the tears that pour from her eyes. She’s wanted to bend

She could, now. She has water. 

She doesn’t use it. 

She curls into a ball and shoves her head between her knees. 

 

%%%

 

Her door creaks open. 

There is no warning. No streak of light or sound of footsteps. Nothing to prepare her. Only the sliding open of the door. 

She hasn’t heard from anyone in days, so she furrows her eyebrows and turns around warily, expecting Azula, or, at the very least, to be brought to see Azula. 

And, when a tiny flame is lit on a finger, she sees it is a guard. 

But the face covering on his helmet has been lifted slightly up. It edges just over his eyebrows. His amber Fire Nation eyes are shrouded by pale Fire Nation skin and she hasn’t seen a guard without his helmet on since Ice Pop—maybe this guard knows what they did to him? Maybe this guard is Ice Pop’s brother, here to exact revenge? Why doesn’t he hide his face like the rest of them? It’s so much easier to hate someone you cannot see. So much easier to blame someone you don’t have a chance to understand. 

She wobbles to her feet because she wants to—needs to—defend herself, even though this metal hell is drier than a desert and has no more water than a grain of sand. Her head spins as she rises and the exertion speeds her breath, but his breaths are quicker. She makes it to her feet and her posture is tense, but his is tenser.

“You’re the Water Tribe girl, aren’t you?” he asks, and she doesn’t want to hurt him because his eyes are anxious and his voice is kind—he glances over his shoulder and speaks in a rush—but she knows it is inevitable. Maybe she should close her eyes. Maybe if she didn’t have to look at him, she could defend herself easier. 

But she can’t defend herself at all, actually. He must know that. She has nothing. No water, no sweat, no—

He wipes his forehead and glances over his shoulder. 

She reaches out her fingers by her side. Feels the sweat that pools on his neck, on his back, on his arms, on his hairline. Releases a sharp breath. 

Relaxes a tiny bit. 

Water.

She whispers because he whispered. “Yes.”

He slides the door completely shut. 

She clenches her fists in anticipation. She wonders why he is here in secret. Wonders again if he is related to Ice Pop—if he has extra incentive to make her suffer. She tries to draw parallels between their countenances, between their structure, but all of them look the same to her untrained eyes—all except Zuko, but she isn’t thinking about him, anyway; isn’t thinking about the mark that forever distinguishes him from his people because she had tried to heal that mark and he had—

Stop. Focus. 

“This is for you,” the guard says. 

Her bending stance falters. 

With his flameless hand, he pulls a twine bag from inside of his uniform. From inside of the twine bag, he pulls out two round buns. 

Her eyes widen. 

Water returns to her mouth—drool, now; she’s leaning forward without realizing it. How long has it been since she’s eaten? Her head pounds and her stomach roars and—

She pauses. 

Scrutinizes him as he moves warily toward her.

“Are they poisoned?” she asks stupidly. He wouldn’t tell her if they were, would he? 

But why would Azula want to kill her now? After all this time? And wouldn’t she use something more astute than two poisoned buns delivered by a kind-eyed, anxious-voiced guard? 

Yes. Yes, she would. She knows Katara’s medical history, after all. She would find a way to twist that against her. Put her in the company of some hopelessly ill people, with diseases that she was particularly susceptible to. 

“No,” the guard says, exhaling a little. Almost like a laugh. She frowns. He glances over his shoulder again. “No. I promise they aren’t.”

Her more rational side tells her that she shouldn’t accept a promise from an enemy. Azula had broken her word, hadn’t she? So had Zuko, back in Ba Sing Se—I have changed

But her stomach is already starting to spin. Like it’s seen the food and started to digest it even though she hasn’t taken a single bite. 

And that’s not good at all. 

She can’t just ignore her stomach. It will probably devour all of her intestines. And then where would she be? 

Besides...promises in the Fire Nation aren’t made lightly. Outside of the Royal Family, that is. 

No. They mean everything. 

(Thus she justifies her stupid decision to trust. Again. Too easily.) 

She holds out her hand. He places them down and immediately scrambles back toward the door. 

“Thank you,” she says. Around a bite of bun, obviously. Propriety has nothing on a starving stomach. 

(Is this how Sokka always feels? How does he live like this?)

“Don’t thank me,” he says. He puts a hand on the door handle. “Thank the princ—prisoner.” He coughs. “The other prisoner.”

She stops chewing. 

Her eyes shoot open. 

He starts to slide the door open, but she hisses, “Zuko?”

He hesitates.

He spins around. His eyes are wilder, now, and no, he isn’t related to Ice Pop, who was loyal to Azula until death. This guard is human—she can see his conscience’s dying struggle in his eyes, hear its fight in his frantic voice. He must be new. His indoctrination must not be complete. His ignorance not yet solidified. “He wasn’t eating,” he says, words slurring in their desperate rush to be free. “I gave him so many different options because I thought maybe he was just picky, but he didn’t eat any of them. He just sat there and glared at me.”

What? 

Is he sick? 

No. He’s glaring. And likely scowling. In other words, he’s acting normal. 

Not acting sick. 

So why isn’t he eating? 

(Not that she cares.)

(But she can’t leave without him. It is nearly inconceivable. She won’t possibly keep up her strength. She isn’t the best hunter. She can’t wield a sword, let alone two.)

(As loath as she is to admit it...as much as she despises the truth...she needs his help.)

So why isn’t he eating? 

The guard continues, whispering frantically, “I couldn’t just let the Prince starve. The Princess would kill me. And...besides. He’s the Prince!”

“Then why are you here, feeding me?” she demands, gathering the pieces of buns in her hands, shoving them back toward him. “Go make him eat!”

The guard’s eyebrows drop. His voice gains an angry note. “It’s not a problem any longer,” he says inexplicably. “He’ll be fine eating now.”

It’s not a problem any…

Isn’t the point of his visit that it is a problem? Isn’t that the point of his words? That there is a problem? 

“What?” she sputters, scoffing a little. “What changed? Didn’t you just say that he wasn’t eating?”

“Yeah,” the guard says, sliding the door open. “But he finally will now. Once I tell him that you have.”

He flicks his helmet back down and closes the door without a sound. 

She swallows the questions she can no longer ask.

 

%%%

 

So he is trying to regain her trust. 

It must be that, right? 

Then he could use her again. 

He probably threatened the guard to go and do that. To say exactly what he said. To act exactly as nervous as he did. All so that she would trust him. 

Because they are on the sea. If she needed him to escape, he needed her infinitely more. If he left alone he would drown. No one could swim all the way to land. Which direction would he even go? 

(Maybe it isn’t a trick. Maybe he just wants her to have food.)

She stares at the buns next to her—all rationing requires is a bit of self-discipline. She knows that if she eats too much right away it will make her sick—and wishes she was with someone else. 

Anyone else. 

She hates him. 

And, when stuck in a dark cell with only memories—memories of the recently vanished torchlight stamped on the ceiling, on her eyelids, and memories of a crystal prison and kind, hopeful words and an unanticipated—but anticipated, always anticipated—betrayal, and orange fire and blue lightning and falling, falling, crashing to the ground, and healing with the water that she had almost given away, that she had almost wasted—hate tends to flourish.

 

%%%

 

But why isn’t he eating? 

He’s probably hungrier than she was. 

It’s stupid not to eat. He must know that they will try to escape eventually. All they have to do is wait for Azula to slip. Which, considering her wild state of mind, is inevitable. 

He’ll need his full strength. 

He must know that. 

If he’s being offered food, why isn’t he eating? 

It’s...it’s selfish

She hates selfish people.

(She’s quite aware of the irony. That he likely knew he was a valuable prisoner, and that by sacrificing his meals he knew he could manipulate the guard to bring her food. If anything, it is selfless.)

(She knows this.)

(She doesn’t analyze it, though—doesn’t let it take stock in her heart. It means nothing.)

(After all, it doesn’t fit with how she wants to see him.)

 

%%%

 

The rations last for a much shorter time than she anticipated. 

Self-discipline is overrated, anyway. 

(Her stomach hurts for hours straight.)

 

%%%

 

...he is eating now, though, isn’t he? The guard had held up his part of the unspoken deal. So he’s eating now? Right? He—

She shakes her head. 

She doesn’t care. 

 

%%%

 

Time passes. A lot of it. 

That’s what it feels like, at least. It must be a couple of days. 

She rolls onto her back. Onto her stomach. Onto her side. 

Thoughts crawl up her spine, slide in through the back of her head, and wait for an opportunity. 

Then they slam against her mind.

But what damage can they do? 

She doesn’t care.

(She can’t ignore them forever.)

 

%%%

 

Finally, finally, torchlight streams under her door. 

This time it’s so bright that blinking isn’t enough. It’s not a fingertip of flame, but a full on, teeming wooden torch. She has to shut her eyes entirely to shove away her migraine, even as her heart pounds in excitement. Echoes of the light shine on the insides of her eyelids—little pink and yellow orbs—and she squeezes her eyes tighter to get rid of them. 

Footsteps that aren’t silent approach. Her mind clears. The door slides open. 

“Get up,” the now-familiar voice intones. They all sound the same with their masks over their mouths. They all look the same when she can’t see them, can’t wonder who they are, can’t see their anxious eyes, can’t read the loyalty to their Prince on their—

She doesn’t care

“You’re being relocated,” he says.

She perks up. She cares about that. 

 

%%%

 

Her new cell isn’t a brig. 

It doesn’t seem like it, at least. She’s a prisoner, but she isn’t in a brig. She’s a prisoner, but that fact doesn’t make sense anymore. 

Prisoners shouldn’t have views like this

A wall—just like the one in the room where she met Azula—made entirely of glass. 

Is Azula trying to taunt her? Is that why she placed her with a perfect sight of the water? The swelling waves and the streaming sunlight and the swirling ship in the distance? 

The guard mistakes her awe at the sight. “You won’t be able to break it,” he warns her. “The glass is the strongest type in the Fire Nation.”

She hardly cares. She presses her palms to the surface and traces her fingertips down it. They smudge the world’s clarity. She prefers it that way. 

The guard leaves and she doesn’t move. Just watches the water. 

She can almost breathe it in. She can almost feel its pull. She can almost taste its salt. 

She sits cross-legged on the hot metal. Sunlight glints off of it but it doesn’t look orange, doesn’t feel blue, so it’s alright. Not like her nightmare. 

She doesn’t move her hands from the glass. 

 

%%%

 

He is right, she discovers. The guard. 

No matter how hard she tries, the water outside of the glass is too far from her grip. The wall between her and the sea obstructs her efforts. She can’t access the water. 

It’s just glass, though—she tries to break it. How hard can it be?

(Impossible.)

When her breaths are too heavy—lack of movement and malnourishment make for low energy—and her mouth is too dry, she slumps back down, exhausted.

 

%%%

 

The ship bobs up and down, over and under, back and forth, upon the waves. 

It’s smaller than the one she’s on now, but that isn’t a surprise. What had Zuko called this? A Royal Hop? Hoop? 

She can’t remember but it doesn’t matter, anyway. Streaks of sun glint off its surface so she knows it, too, is made of metal. She wonders who is on it. 

Naming one thing she likes about the Fire Nation is a challenge. She dislikes its leader, its leader’s children, many of its citizens, its fooddon’t even get her started on its spices—its animals—only horrid people in horrid places breed puma goats—its goals, purposes, violent tendencies, propensity for genocide, etc. 

If she met whoever is on that ship, she probably wouldn’t like them, either. But she pretends that she would. She looks at that ship and she sees opportunity, not reality. She sees freedom, not bondage. Mystery makes the ship’s occupants human. 

It is made of metal and she doesn’t like metal because it keeps things in, keeps people in, but metal can be beautiful, too. Sunlight makes the ship’s metal beautiful. 

And when the moon rises and the sun finally allows the stars to shine, the metal gleams in the darkness. It's a beacon on top of the invisible sea.

She watches it bob up and down, over and under, back and forth, upon the waves. 

 

%%%

 

Sloop.

She grins. 

It’s called a Royal Sloop

 

%%%

 

Bending metal is so cool

She doesn't care what Toph says about bloodbending being cooler. Bending metal is sick

(Bloodbending is a different kind of sick.)

And she smiles because Toph invented it. An entire subdivision of bending. 

Who else on La’s green planet had done that? 

(Hama.)

It’s incredible

(It’s despicable.)

She’ll have to tell her, next time she sees her. That she’s incredible. An incredible bender. An incredible friend. An incredible person. 

But Toph would get all arrogant and smirk-y and superior, and she would never let it go. 

So, actually, Katara thinks, as she traces the flaming flag of the ever-nearing ship with her eyes, she will never tell her. She’ll tell her instead that bending metal is stupid. Pointless. Useless. 

It’ll mean more to Toph, anyway.

 

%%%

 

Really, why did Azula put her in this cell? 

Surely there is some explanation. 

It doesn’t make any sense. It’s paradise. A luxury prison. 

Well...yes, it’s irritating that she can’t bend the water literally right in front of her. But at least she knows it’s there. At least she can count the days that pass. She can watch the ship in the distance—that, with each passing moment, grows closer and closer. She can nearly make out the black blob on the scarlet flag—and follow its movements. If she presses her face against the glass, she can feel the heat of the sun, feel the comfort of the moon. 

Two sunrises. Then three, then six. 

She wonders if Zuko gets a view like this. 

She hopes not. 

(She also wonders if he’s eating. She hopes so.)

 

%%%

 

“Get up,” is becoming an extremely familiar phrase. 

“Where are you dragging me off to now?” she asks, even as she walks completely unbridled. “What does Azula want?”

“You aren’t going to see the princess.”

Her forehead creases. “Who else is there to—”

Oh La. Please, no. Not yet. Please, please, please

 

%%%

 

It isn’t Zuko. 

It’s a graying man without a helmet and without a uniform. He’s in frilly, ostentatious robes that are completely unreasonable for someone on a hunk of metal in the middle of the ocean. Who’s going to see him here? No one. Save, maybe, she supposes, his princess. But his robes are stained with every color, scent, and spillage possible, and she doesn’t think Azula would ever condescend to look at him. Let alone visit him. 

Four guards hold her as she glances around the tight space, tight like they want to ensure the gaudy man that she isn’t a threat. 

The room is a disaster. Overflowing with hastily discarded bottles and thrown open cabinets and suddenly she understands the scents, understands the stains. She’s in an infirmary. 

The man must be the healer. The medic. She glances back to him—he’s turned to face them at one of the guard’s hailings—and furrows her eyebrows. 

Then she notices the tightness to his jaw, the desperation in his eyes, and realizes.

He needs her help. Something must be really wrong. 

Savage, the guards had called her. 

Forget Azula condescending to him. She should feel honored. He’s condescending to her—a lowly water peasant. 

(She narrows her eyes.)

Just incredible. This must be so difficult for him. 

(Strangely, she doesn’t feel a single strand of sympathy.)

“You’re the Water Tribe girl, aren’t you?” he asks, and it’s almost an accusation. Reluctance dances on every aspect of his features. 

Wow. She’s amazed. He’s so brave. Pushing through such a difficult situation. Talking to such an uncivilised human being—no, not even a human being. An animal. A peasant. She almost admires him for it.

She scowls, bristling in anger.

But then the words, not just the expression, register in her mind, and she frowns. She’s heard that exact phrase before. Recently. 

And that isn’t so strange—she is, after all, a Water Tribe girl—but something is strikingly familiar. Is it the tone? She tries to place it. 

Her voice comes out strangled with the conflicting emotions. “I am,” she says. 

“At the Boiling Rock, you healed the princess’ brother.”

She tries to fold her arms over her chest but had forgotten the guards’ presence and their grips, which tighten at her movement. “You mean the prince?” 

Shadows spill over his face and he throttles towards her, hand spiking to the sky. Her features droop in confusion—what had she done wrong?—but before she even braces herself for the hit, one of the guards steps in front of her. 

“We had a deal,” he says hollowly, mechanically. “The prisoner isn’t to be hurt.”

The healer’s sleeves pool around his elbows as he grabs the guard by the collar. “Are you deaf?” he growls, voice hitching and tripping over a moist bubble. She cringes on his behalf. “She has disrespected not only me, but the Honored Fire Lord himself!”

Really? 

Has she? 

She feels, if anything, that she is the one who has been disrespected.

She scoffs. 

The healer’s glare whips back to her. He shoves the guard away and stalks toward her again, but the guard recovers in time to say, “I would not touch her, if I were you. The princess is not aware of tonight’s happenings. It would be a shame if she were alerted, wouldn’t it?”

The grip on her arms cuts off her circulation, but she smirks because, apparently, she cannot be touched. 

With furious, reluctant resignation, the healer returns to his place right in front of her. When he sees her superior expression, his fury only grows. “Did you or did you not heal him?” he hisses.

“Thank you for asking so kindly,” she says. “Yes, I did.”

His nostrils flare and his eyes are colder than any glacier she’s ever seen, but he forces his breaths to slow before he turns, flicks his hand, and moves into another room. 

The guards drag her after him. 

The walk is short. She can’t see anything because a guard walks in her line of sight.

When they enter the room, though, the guards disperse. Pale cots line the walls. It doesn’t look so dissimilar from the infirmary at the prison. The only difference is that these are all empty.

—a confused woman and a mistaken identity and I will never, ever turn my back on people who need me! and a planted guard and agonizing hesitation and a frantic escape and a death, the first of two, in a dark, moonlit alcove—

She shoves the thoughts away.

She was wrong. The cots are all empty except for the one the healer stands beside. “Come here,” he snaps. 

As she moves over, her eyes focus on the outline of the body. It’s concealed under a swaddle of cloth blankets. She thinks of her tribe and how much more effective it is to have one fur blanket rather than forty cloth ones. 

She gets close enough to see the body’s face. 

She swallows. 

“Heal him.”

It’s almost impossible to make out any feature. Blood has been hastily wiped away—smears of it taint the white sheets at his chin—but it doesn’t matter. A rainbow of bruises drowns out his eyes. Violent slashes shroud his cheeks. 

Heal him!” the man sneers. “What are you waiting for?”

“Water,” she replies, crouching next to the body, whose labored breaths are barely audible. 

He seems momentarily taken aback by her literal response. A moment later, though, a bucket of water is sloshed toward her.

She wets her cracked lips and tries to ignore how good the water feels on her hands, in her control, because she needs to focus on the healing, not on the reunion with her element. 

Shutting her eyes, she places her hands gently on his face. The water responds easily to her energy—glowing and working at the cuts. She feels the skin being stitched back together. Mended anew.

(On an especially deep cut, she ignores the call of the blood to her fingertips.)

“Is it working?” 

Under the hatred in his voice is hope. Care. She can recognize it because she’s felt it a million times. So has Aang, so has Sokka, so has Toph, so has Suki. None of them want to see another’s life end. None of them enjoy seeing suffering. It’s a strange, twisted feeling—disliking everything about a person and wanting the worst for their efforts but never, never wishing them hurt or suffering. 

She thinks it’s known as basic humanity

She wonders why so many people lack it. 

This is a little different, of course—he dislikes her, not the person on the bed—but the principle remains. 

“Yes,” she says, because she can feel his breaths grow steady. “I’ve almost finished.”

Indeed, a moment later, the boy underneath her hands coughs. She strips the water quickly from his face to let him breath. 

But then her breathing catches. 

He’s stolen it. 

His skin is polished and clear and unblemished and familiar

His eyes are lucid and amber and turning to the medic. 

“Grandfather?” he asks, spluttering out another cough. “How did you find me?”

Her stomach twists. 

The healer’s face is awestricken. He puts a wrinkled hand on the boy’s face. 

How hadn’t she seen it before?

The tender gesture disappears. His hand snaps back to his side. His features clench back into anger. “You’re a fool,” he snarls, and at first Katara thinks he’s speaking to her, but the guards grab her arms and start to pull her away. No, he’s speaking to the boy. 

“What were you thinking?” the man continues in a hiss. “You deserved every lash of your beating.”

Katara’s eyes widen. She stumbles. The guards push her forward. One puts a hand on the door. 

The boy coughs and the guard opens the door and the boy clears his throat and says, hoarsely, as the guard pushes her out, “He’s the prince. I couldn’t let him starve.”

She stills. 

In his haste to accommodate her sudden stoppage, the guard tailing her trips into her back. He swears to Agni under his breath and then shoves her forward, harder.

“You betrayed every—”

The door shuts.

 

%%%

 

Again

It’s her fault again. 

Pain, suffering, blood. On her hands.

He was whipped because he was caught bringing her food. 

He did something good, and he was punished for it. 

She swallows bile, but then throws it up anyway.

 

%%%

 

Some part of her tired mind whispers that it’s Zuko’s fault, too. 

But what good is blaming someone else when you’re the only one who hears it? What good is lying to yourself? What good is deceiving your own mind? Blame is only effective when other people feel its effects.

She’s tired of making excuses for herself. She lets the guilt rise until it consumes her. 

 

%%%

 

What was he supposed to do, though? Let Zuko starve? 

From the Fire Nation’s perspective—from the healer’s, the grandfather’s perspective—the action was betrayal. He fed a prisoner they were likely trying to starve. He went behind the princess’ back. 

But to her it seems like common sense. Saving a life is fundamentally good. Taking a life—or sitting idly by while a life is taken—is fundamentally bad. An insult to the gods. To their creations.

The life he saved was the prince’s, too. Surely that garnered redemption!

(Maybe that cemented his punishment.)

She wonders who discovered him. She wonders who beat him. She wonders who brought him to his grandfather. 

The ground catches her tears. They sparkle in the moonlight. 

She glances out the glass wall and finds the ship ever closer.

 

%%%

 

She squints against the sunlight. 

Today, it is too bright. 

 

%%%

 

Days and nights pass. Two only, she thinks, but she might be off by one or eight. She loses count after the first sunset. 

She doesn’t sleep because she doesn’t want to see her mother. She doesn’t eat because she’ll only throw it up. 

She bends, though. Whatever sweat she can eek out, whatever tears escape her eyes. 

When whipping it against the glass expends too much energy—pointlessly wasted—she bends a circle of water, just above her palm, and it’s almost like the marbles Aang always used to bend. Back on Kyoshi, back at the Earth King’s celebration. She smiles at the memories. 

She misses them.

 

%%%

 

“Food,” the guard says. He drops a silver tray in front of her. “And then you’re headed upstairs.”

“I’m not hungry,” she says, standing and brushing her hands on her garb to conceal the drops of water. “Let’s just go now.”

“Eat,” he snaps. He stomps on the edge of the tray with his foot. “We’ll both be punished if you don’t.”

She swallows air, sits, and eats. 

 

%%%

 

There are so many stairs

Heavy breaths start on the third—which, when thought about, is truly pathetic. Tired limbs start on the eighth. 

There are hundreds. At least. Maybe more. 

She really, really needs to be able to walk more than five yards if she’s planning to escape. 

“Give me a second,” she snaps. 

The guard tightens his grip on her hair. “The princess doesn’t appreciate tardiness,” he says. “Besides, I’m just trying to help you out. Trust me. You do not want to get on her bad side.”

Katara snorts. “Oh, it sounds awful,” she says ironically. “Are you on her bad side now?”

Before the guard can answer, she continues, “Has she chased you for multiple days straight, too? Has she pretended to be your friends, the Kyoshi Warriors, so that she could discover your invasion plans and conquer the Earth Kingdom? Has she shot one of your best friends—the only hope of the entire world, no less—with lightning? Has she permanently scarred your eternal enemy for life? Not physically, I don’t think—well, maybe, actually—but psychologically? Has she—”

“Silence,” the guard grumbles. He yanks her hair harder. “Disrespecting the princess will not be tolerated.”

“Oh, I would never,” she says, nodding fervently. “I hope you won’t, either. I’ve heard some crazy stories, and trust me. You do not want to get on her bad side.”

 

%%%

 

Shoving her that aggressively into the room was really unnecessary. 

She was just trying to help him out. He didn’t have to be so affronted by her efforts.

She stumbles and whips around to glare at him, but the door has already slid shut.

She turns back, slowly, because the silence in the room is loud. 

“It’s so good to see you again,” Azula says, gesturing to a cushion beside her. 

A third cushion. 

Her gaze darts to the person occupying her usual spot—well, it would be her usual spot, if this were the usual room they met in, but it looks similar enough, so she—

—needs to stop stalling, is what she needs to do. 

He isn’t looking at her. 

His head is ducked in some sort of preemptive apology. 

He doesn’t look hurt. He doesn’t look starved, either, which is good. He doesn’t even look pale. 

In fact, there’s too much color in his features. 

She doesn’t dwell on that. 

She doesn’t dwell further on him at all, actually. She switches back to Azula and walks carefully toward her seat. 

“I hope you don’t think that I didn’t want you here,” Azula continues, pouring her a cup of tea. From where she stands looking down at the cups, she can see the colors swirling. They’re different than they were before. Not Jasmine. Darker. Redder. “It wasn’t personal. I just needed some alone time with Zuzu.”

Zuko isn’t drinking. 

She lowers herself down slowly and leaves her cup untouched. 

He’s on her right and he’s too close and she’s careless in her haste to settle down—her knee bumps his and there’s cloth over their skin but it’s too hot in this room, isn’t it? The steam rises from the tea and heats her face and yes, that’s the only reason it heats—she glares at nothing as Azula chatters on and and on and she snatches her knees back into a one-armed hug on top of the pillow and—

No. You can’t know. 

—anger makes her veins boil. 

“—too, you know. I can figure things out. Does that make sense?”

It’s a deep, coursing hatred. One that’s spawned from betrayal and mistrust and too many nightmares about an event that neither of them can control, that he wasn’t at fault for, but that doesn’t matter, does it? Because those are his people. Killing and hurting and stealing love away is his culture.

His eyes are still on his lap. It infuriates her. She’s staring at him, of course, he couldn’t expect to avoid it long, and he’s a coward who won’t meet her gaze. 

“Peasant!” Azula snaps. “I asked you a question.”

With a low growl, Katara swings her gaze to his sister. “Yes. It makes perfect sense.”

She hopes she didn’t just agree to something. She has no idea what is supposed to make sense. No idea if it does or doesn’t.

Azula looks at her with a raised eyebrow because she isn’t an idiot and she knows when she’s been ignored. She doesn’t comment on it, though, only picks up her teacup and raises it to her lips. 

“Why are we here, Azula?” Zuko mutters. 

His voice is too raspy. Too submissive. Too selfish.

Even though the question is the same one running through her head, she turns her glare back on him. He’s looking up now, across the table at his sister, but for a split moment he sees her in his peripheral. His eyes flit to her face—wide and anxious and guilty; more color rises in his cheeks—but then Azula speaks and they narrow back on her. 

“We have an appointment.”

Katara snorts. 

Azula looks at her mildly. “You don’t believe me?”

“I didn’t say that,” she says, rolling her eyes, “but who could we possibly have an appointment with?” She gestures around the room. “We’re prisoners. In the middle of the ocean.”

“You’re right,” Azula says. She pauses to sip her tea. Then, lips quirking up, “But you may still enjoy it. I hope you do. I know I will. It’s been a long time coming.”

It’s habit, she tells herself, that compels her to glance at Zuko. His eyebrows are furrowed, same as hers. She tries to find answers in his golden eyes—answers that he hides from her, answers that You can’t know—but they mirror her confusion, reflect it back to her. 

And that’s plain useless. He’s plain useless. 

She can feel Azula’s pleasure at scrutinizing their every move, so she scowls and looks away. 

It’s been a long time coming

Her scowl fades. Silence reigns, and she frowns in thought. 

 

%%%

 

No one speaks for too long. 

Not even Azula. 

Not that Azula usually speaks incessantly, which she certainly doesn’t. She says things which she deems necessary to say. In other words, which she deems relevant or helpful to her agendas.

Nothing more, nothing less.

Katara isn’t used to her saying nothing

Minutes stretch on and on and she tries not to look Azula’s way, because then she’ll be creeped out by the lingering smile on her lips and the hungry grin in her eyes and she doesn’t much like being creeped out, thanks. 

She tries not to look at Zuko, either, because Azula’s smile widens when they interact. 

So she sits in silence and wonders who their company will be. 

Certainly no one good. No one with any positive intentions. 

She sighs. 

Two gazes snap to her. Heat rises in her face and she almost mumbles sorry, but that’s stupid, there’s nothing she should be sorry for. She clamps her mouth shut and glares at the table.

Are they really supposed to sit here in silence? 

 

%%%

 

“You need to start moving more,” he hisses from beside her, “or we won’t ever get out.”

She scoffs. She hopes the hatred in her mind has made itself clear on her face. And, even though she’d thought the same thing not five minutes prior to them meeting—she must be in better physical shape for when they try to escape—she snaps, “Oh? Will you not take me with you anymore? Can you not stand to look at me?”

“N—no,” he says, scrambling up another step. His face is scarlet. “That’s not—you—”

“I’m sure all those Fire Nation court ladies can sprint up a million stairs after being half-starved by their princess for La knows how long—”

Katara—”

“They must be so pretty. So athletic, too, which is perfect for a man like the Blue Spirit—”

“Katara,” he growls. “You know that’s not what I meant.”

Were she to try and even her breaths, she thinks she would suffocate. So she lets them come out shallow and ragged, lets them interrupt the flow of her words. And she doesn’t care, because she doesn’t care what he thinks of her. 

Because she doesn’t like him

(It’s not a reminder. She doesn’t ever forget it—why would she need to remind herself? It’s just a fact.)

“Do I?”

“Yes. You—”

Hey,” a guard snaps, yanking Katara backwards. 

She turns to glare at him because she just walked up those three steps and now she’s been pulled down them. Which means she has to walk up them. Again

“Stay behind him,” the guard says. “Don’t try to talk to him.”

She’s out of breath, so she doesn’t respond. 

Only climbs and climbs and climbs. 

It’s like a mouth of metal. The stairs are the teeth. The tongue is the light that streams in through the opening out to the deck. 

She’s close. She can see the deck when she squints.

Only when she squints. Hard.

She’s not actually that close. 

(Aren’t ships supposed to have ladders? What is it with stairs? Why is this ship so big?)

 

%%%

 

Sunlight immediately overwhelms her. Her skin flames and her eyes pinch and her vision is completely white. 

She keeps walking. She tries to rub her eyes, but the guards begin wrapping her wrists with twine. Then her ankles. And then she’s not walking, but being forcefully dragged. 

Watch it,” Zuko snaps from ahead of her. She forces her eyes to slit open, but she can’t see beyond the backs of the uniforms immediately before her. 

The light disappears. She’s pulled into a large shadow where her eyes can open without squinting. 

She shifts her head to the right, searching for the mountain that has blocked the sun, and her eyes shoot wide. 

The source of shadow is a ship. An intimidating ship that looms so much larger when it’s right next to her and not seen from the distance of a window.

A ship that doesn’t look so much like freedom when its height nearly touches the clouds. When a plank is dropped for their boarding convenience. 

It’s nothing in size to Azula’s Sloop. Not even by half. But Azula’s ship is the biggest ship in the history of ships—it has a five minute staircase—so that doesn’t mean this cruiser is small. 

She lifts her eyes to the blood red flag whipping weakly in the breeze, but before she can finally determine the image depicted—she’s spent many a curious night—the guard realizes the object of her gaze and shoves her head back straight. 

They reach the edges of the shadow in the middle of the deck. She’s forced to her knees. 

Behind her back, twine chafes at her wrists and ankles. 

Behind her back...is a giant ship

The giant ship. 

Whoever is on that ship is who they’re about to see. About to meet. Their appointment. That has, apparently, been so long coming. That will bring them enjoyment. 

That will bring Azula enjoyment.

Katara’s mouth is dry. She swallows. 

Tens or dozens or hundreds of guards line up behind her. When she tries to turn her head again, she’s shoved away, but she could only make out maroon uniforms, anyway, so it’s pointless. She trains her gaze straight ahead. On the empty, simmering metal deck. Why guards don’t line up there, too, she isn’t sure. 

Zuko is shoved down directly beside her. Hair on his arm prickles her skin.

He falls forward, cheek slamming into the metal. He scowls at the guard behind him as he rises back up. “I was going to—”

Silence.”

His glare hardens. 

But then his head shifts. His gaze lands on her. The anger drains away. 

She narrows her eyes.

“Katara, I—”

“Is this what you would have done?” she hisses, because sweat is sparkling on his forehead and his eyes are sincere and sorry and she isn’t ready to release her anger. She doesn’t want to. For so long it’s been a constant. It’s kept her grounded. Kept things normal. When she’s fighting with Toph or when she’s annoyed with Sokka or when she’s tired so her emotions are a mess, she can rely on her anger. It has always been there. It must always be there. Anchoring her and steadying her and she can’t let it go. “Had you captured Aang? Would you have held him on a ship just like this?”

He averts his gaze, flushing and pursing his lips. 

“What is it with holding people against their will, huh? It must be a Fire Nation thing, because down in the Water Tribe we value things like justice and humanity and—”

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you,” he blurts out. 

And, apparently, she’s completely transparent. 

She runs her tongue over her teeth and turns her scowl to the sea. “I’m sure,” she says. “Now that you’ve realized you need my help.”

He sighs. “I was just really worried,” he says. “But that isn’t an excuse. You deserved to know. Still do. Azula is—”

“I don’t care,” she snaps. 

Please tell me anyway—please, my pride is stupid—please tell me, I want to know

“Alright,” he mutters. “Be stubborn. See if I care.”

A beat. Another. Footsteps on the metal. Guards chatting in muffled voices. Waves sloshing around the anchored ships. Sunlight dripping onto the—

Fine,” she grumbles. “Tell me.”

The faint smirk on his face is smug. It makes her want to slap him. Makes her regret saying anything at all. He bites back whatever retort jumps into his eyes first, though, and, sobering, says, “She’s just taking us back to the Fire Nation, is all.”

She doesn’t need Toph’s presence to see that for what it is. 

She looks at him incredulously. “Really? It’s not like we’re on a ship, or anything. It’s not like we’re literally sailing to Caldera—”

“No,” he interrupts, shaking his head. “I mean that she intends to keep us there. In the Palace.” 

Well... obviously.

“Did you expect her to keep us on the ship?” she asks, tone biting, eyes rolling.

He ignores her and glances out to the sea before muttering, “Together.” 

And nothing about that would be at all strange. They’ve been prisoners together, after all. In the Boiling Rock and on the ship. If they’ve been kept together this long, it wouldn’t be entirely surprising for them to remain together. 

But he bites his lip and he doesn’t meet her gaze and his face is flushed and together

There’s an undercurrent to the word that she doesn’t like at all. 

Together

Azula means to keep them in the Palace. She means to restore Zuko to some of his glory. 

She means to keep Katara in the Palace, too. For him. 

Whether that was marriage or servitude or as a mistress, she doesn’t know. 

Together

She swallows. She scowls.

“Please tell me how I was supposed to get that out of ‘she’s taking us back to the Fire Nation’?” 

He ignores her and addresses the crux of the issue. She’s grateful. “I didn’t mean to keep it from you,” he mumbles. “I just...I didn’t want you to know because I thought you’d...well, you know.”

No. She doesn’t know. 

But he is tripping over words and she is tripping over thoughts and her heart beat is tripping over itself and, when she turns her gaze back forward, someone is decidedly not tripping toward them. 

No. Azlua moves fluidly, an excited smirk on her face. 

Zuko stiffens. 

“Oh, I so wanted this to be a surprise,” Azula laments.

Katara stiffens, too, because she thinks Azula’s talking about what they’d just discussed. But Azula pauses in front of them, sighs, and continues, “This will have to do,” and Katara’s fears are somewhat alleviated. 

Azula flicks her hand. Behind them, a hundred guards take a step back. Then, slowly, Azula circles them.

“He’ll be impressed, I think,” she says from the back of Katara’s head. 

Azula snaps her fingers. Her footsteps retreat. 

So, they’re trophies. 

This man will be impressed with Azula’s catches. A master waterbender, the last of the Southern Water Tribe, the Avatar’s companion, the Avatar’s teacher, and her brother, the banished Prince of the Fire Nation, the disgraced child of the Honorable Fire Lord, the traitor to his people, the traitor to his country. 

That’s why she’s dragged them up here. To impress some random acquaintance.

Katara can feel Zuko’s confusion, can feel his questioning eyes on the side of her head, but she knows his mind has already filtered through what answers she has determined. 

Then why is he looking at her? What answers does he expect her to have? What answers does he expect her to give? She doesn’t know who it is. She doesn’t know why Azlua, heir to the Dragon Throne, feels the need to brag to a Fire Nation cruiser. 

What could Katara possibly do for him?

(Everything, according to Azula.)

(Together.)

Heat rises in her face. 

 

%%%

 

Her kneecaps bend to the pattern of the metal floorboards. She feels like when she stands—if she ever stands again—a sunken dent will forever mark the time she spends here.

The eternal time she spends here. 

The sun has risen in the sky, now, and with it the shadows have receded. Sunlight beats on their scalps. Scorches their hair and skin. Where their knees touch the metal burns like no flames she’s ever felt. 

She shifts back and forth in a fruitless attempt to get comfortable. The guards behind her are stiff and silent. They haven’t moved or spoken since Azula had last given them a command. 

Zuko hasn’t fidgeted, either. She is glad. She doesn’t want a distraction. Doesn’t want a conversation. 

Imagining a life of forced—well, whatever Azula intends to force on her, on him, on them—with him….it makes her stomach churn. 

They must escape. 

“Soon,” she says out of the corner of her mouth, not looking at him because she doesn’t want a conversation, just a confirmation. “We have to get out soon.”

“Soon,” he echoes. 

They wait in stiff silence. 

 

%%%

 

Finally, clanking footsteps emerge. 

Zuko huffs out an annoyed breath. “About time,” he grumbles. 

“Ungrateful and impatient,” she snaps, solidifying her hypocritical inclinations as she exhales in relief. Sweat streams from her forehead into her eyes and she can’t blink it away fast enough. It gives the world a shean. It makes it seem like she’s crawling in the water, swimming in the ocean. The ocean, which, considering its ubiquity, shouldn’t feel so far away.

“You aren’t one to—”

A rough, male voice floats towards them, cutting Zuko’s hiss short. “Accompanying your return to Caldera City would be a pleasure, Your Highness,” it says. “What of the prisoners themselves?”

“Wouldn’t you like to see them?” Azula asks, a smug note to her voice that grinds at Katara’s nerves. Each syllable brings them a footstep closer, brings their voices a footstep louder. “They’re quite the remarkable pair.”

“It would honor me greatly, Your Highness.” The man clears his throat. “If I may, Your Highness—are they war prisoners?”

Katara doesn’t know where they are—she can only see the melting metal and the still sea in front of her—but she guesses that they’re approaching from behind the wall of guards. Azula’s voice is loud when she answers, so Katara also guesses that she’s taunting them on purpose. “Of a sort.”

Zuko snorts.

“These two in particular are renowned for their elusiveness.”

“Their capture must have been an impressive victory,” the man says. “I’m sure Your Highness fought impeccably.”

They must be close—their voices grow clear and sharp. “Yes,” she says, “for compromise is a fight in and of itself.”

Now Katara snorts. 

Compromise

As if Azula getting exactly what she intended—Together—was a compromise. 

(How did she ever think Azula was off? If anything, she is more conniving. More merciless.)

(Any remaining shreds of sympathy fade.)

Anger bristles in Katara’s chest. As the footsteps draw nearer, around the line of guards, she tilts her chin up, narrows her eyes. 

The pair enters her peripheral—on her right, beyond Zuko—but her gaze doesn’t falter. 

Straight ahead, Katara. 

Just like this. 

In case you ever have to fight again. 

Maybe she’s a prize. Maybe she’s a trophy. Maybe she’s a catch. 

It doesn’t matter. She glares straight ahead. She doesn’t blink. 

The man sucks in a sharp gulp of air. 

“Princess Azula,” he breathes. The edge of his armor enters the edge of Katara’s vision. “You bring the Fire Nation much honor.”

Honor

It’s instinct, after all this time despising the word—Katara nearly scowls.

She restrains, if only in tribute to her mother’s warnings. 

“The glory is all Zuko’s to claim,” Azula says dryly. She strides past Zuko, past the man, and stops in front of Katara. She clasps her hands behind her back and smiles down on her like a demon, like a nightmare. “Except for this,” she says. “This is my glory.”

“Me?” Katara echoes, unable to keep the mocking laughter from her voice. “I’m your glory? I’m sorry, but that’s pathetic.”

“You misunderstand,” she says, smirking. “I wasn’t talking about you.”

Too much attention is being given to Katara—the man turns away from his fascination at a likely scowling Zuko, and with heavy, dragging footsteps, stomps next to Azula. 

Katara blinks her glare to the man’s eyes. 

They’re glinting.

Narrowed. Tighter. Older. 

Glinting

Familiar. 

She’s assaulted with a rush of memories so severe, so violent, that she physically recoils from his presence. She feels the color draining from her face. Feels her shoulders’ stiff pride release. Feels her jaw drop to the boiling metal deck. Feels her heartbeat speed, spike, stop. 

She feels a million things at once, but she doesn’t do anything about it. Can’t. Her mind has disengaged from her body. It’s traveled back six years on a thousand daydreamt wishes, a hundred sleepless nights, a dozen longing prayers, a single pair of eyes. 

The sun becomes a drum. Its rays beat and pound on her head to the frantic beat of her thoughts. She can’t grasp onto a single one. Only chaotic fragments.

It wasn’t supposed to happen. Not now. Not like this. 

She was supposed to be prepared. She was supposed to be strong. Equipped. Ready. Powerful. 

She is not. 

Somehow, she registers a voice. She’s on a ship, she remembers vaguely. Floating on top of the ocean.

Her mind is far, far below the water. Swimming in the darkest, deepest depths; drowning. 

Drowning. 

She’s going to drown. 

The voice is underwater, too. Hazy and muffled and not concerned enough to break through the fuzz. “Is something wrong?”

She’s surrounded by water but her mouth is dry. Too dry—she swallows over and over and over, trying to get air, trying to get water—she can’t move.

She just stares. 

She stares, and his face isn’t blurry or hazy or muffled. It’s as clear as it was. As clear as it has been—every night for the past six years—if a little more pruned. 

Another voice. Nearer, more frantic, more concerned—real concern. “Katara?”

His distress jolts her slightly. She is on a ship. She knows him—knows his voice. She knows his sister, too, who asks, “Are you alright?”

She can hear the enjoyment in her voice. She planned this. They’d been following the ship for far too long for it to be anything else. 

This was her glory. Not Katara. This...this reunion between them. 

It makes Katara sick. 

An obscure part of her brain whispers, You’re making it worse, and it’s true. Every passing second that she gives Azula a reaction makes Azula more pleased. 

That’s the last thing she wants. 

So she hauls her tongue over her lips—it weighs a million tons—and slowly, carefully, stiffens her shaking shoulders, tears her gaze away, rotates her ghost-white face. 

As soon as her gaze has left him, though, it jumps back and sticks. He cannot be trusted away from her watch.

“Yes,” she says, and even the syllable comes out cracked and dry. She clears her throat and it scratches with the lack of liquid, but she tries again. “Yes. I’m fine.”

“Are you quite certain?” Azula taunts. “I wouldn’t want you to—”

“I’m fine,” she says. 

The man’s face hardens into some twisted version of courage. That’s familiar, too, and she wants to laugh. Courage. Murdering an innocent woman is the mark of a coward

As abruptly as the shock had come, it vanishes. Blood red fury replaces it—surging violently through her veins. It boils inside of her. It’s too dominant to control. Boiling and filling and exploding its pathways. Overflowing into her chest. Chilling her heart.

“How dare you address the princess so?” he snarls. 

She freezes. 

He doesn’t remember. 

He doesn’t recognize her. 

He’s lived in her nightmares for as long as she has known. She hears his voice every night, sees his face every time she closes her eyes. He’s haunted her, tortured her, twisted himself into her mind. 

But he doesn’t remember. 

It’s the greatest insult.  

The fury spills. The boiling blood congeals into ice.

He continues, “Disrespect will not be tolerated. You will be hurriedly put in your place, and—”

“There’s no need for that,” Azula smirks, flicking a careless hand. The man—the monster—stills, nods, steps away. “She’s well on her way to discipline.”

She ignores Azula completely. She glares into his eyes. The ice spills into her mouth, pours into her voice. “Do you know who I am?” she demands. 

He blinks. Then, gathering himself, looks affronted. “Now you disrespect not only the princ—”

Do you know who I am?”

“—but the royal traditions of the military, too—”

“Answer the question, Commander,” Azula says. “Do you recognize the peasant?”

He furrows his eyebrows at the command. He looks back, meets her eyes again. 

His are as empty as she remembers. 

She’s always wondered what kind of person—what kind of monster—could do something so despicable. 

She thinks she understands, looking into his eyes. 

Empty and proud and merciless and dead

“No…” he says, glancing back to Azula, “I’m not sure.”

She wrenches forward against the restraints. The coward takes a step away, eyes widening in fear or shock or confusion. Blood pools at her wrists but she fights the twine, against the guards wildly, throwing her weight from side to side, growling in frustration, trying to fight. Trying to hurt

It’s the most powerful emotion she’s ever felt. It rages within her, begging for release, overwhelming in its potency. It’s all she wants. It’s all she’s ever wanted. To kill him.

Kill him. 

He killed her mother

She wants to curl her fingers into his blood and bend him to her will. Twist him and hurt him until he begins to understand. Until he feels a sliver of the pain that she’s felt every day, every night, every moment for the past six years.

The desire consumes her. 

Water fills her eyes because she’s as helpless as she was back then—watching and bound back and cursed with inaction, cursed with the inability to do anything at all. 

Zuko is shouting beside her, but the guards are grabbing her, restraining her—four clench each of her limbs, another clamps her head between his hands, a last shoves a gloved hand over her mouth. 

The man is paces behind Azula now. Like she’s the monster to be afraid of.

But a pallor has slowly climbed into his face. 

Recognition—how deceitful a creature, determining when to arrive based on the worth of the subject; slow for some and quick for others, reliant on the impact one makes in a first meeting. 

Does he know that she would recognize him anywhere? In any circumstance? In any lifetime? 

No. He does not. How could he? 

How could he comprehend the significance, the enormity, of what was, to him, a mundane decision? A banal invasion. A prosaic murder. Worthy of nothing—no ceremony, no memory, no recognition.

It comes now, though. After all this time.

She can see it in his face.

His eyes widen. His jaw slackens. 

“This,” Azula says, turning to face him, “is the last waterbender of the Southern Water Tribe.”

The man gulps. 

Chapter Text

He is so tall. 

She’d heard Sokka and Yinto whispering about it after they’d run off without her yesterday—how people in the Fire Nation were shorter and weaker than the warriors in the Water Tribe. How they wore hefty armor to make themselves look taller, bigger, scarier. 

Well, she understands why, now: it works

Horns spike off of his helmet like a devil’s flames. He towers over the room, looming like a slanting shadow in a deep evening. 

He towers over Mom. 

She looks small kneeling on the ground, but she doesn’t look scared. She doesn’t look like Katara feels.

No, her face looks sad.  

Just let her go and I’ll give you the information you want.

Katara twists her fingers at her chest, eyebrows tilted toward her mother. Tears grow in her eyes because she doesn’t know what to do. She wishes Sokka had come here instead of her—he’s stronger than her, faster than her. He would know what to do. Or Dad. Dad would know what to do. Dad always knows what to do.

The man sounds like a monster, too. It’s not a normal voice—not kind like Mom’s or full of laughter like Dad’s—and the unfamiliar strains make her ears bleed. It’s full of hatred and rage and anger. It’s a growl, but growls are supposed to come from tiger seals, not humans. 

You heard your mother. Get out of here.

If only she knew how familiar that voice would become—hearing it every night for the rest of her life. 

 

%%%

 

Her footsteps brand themselves into the metal. Back and forth. Over and over. 

It’s a different brig, now. Two walls are made of glass. The cruiser sits just outside. It’s so close, so obvious from where she paces, that nothing else—not even the glimmering waves—can be seen. 

It doesn’t matter. Her eyes don’t register anything, anyway. 

All she sees are two empty orbs. 

All she hears is a haughty growl.

All she feels is hatred

No tears trace her path. 

 

%%%

 

And then what, Katara? 

I...left. 

You left? 

I went to find you and Dad. I was...I was the last one to see her alive. Besides—besides that monster

What did he look like?

He—he was exactly like you’d imagine. Pale and tall and wrinkled and covered in metal. Just—just like all the Fire Nation soldiers but—but worse. So much worse. And she was on the ground and she looked so sad and—

Was she scared? 

Not for herself, I don’t think. Just for us. But he was so—so evil and I—she told me to leave and I did, Sokka. I did. I just left.

No, no, no, Katara. Don’t cry. Please don’t cry again. It isn’t your fault. You couldn’t have done anything even if you’d stayed. It isn’t your—

But it is, Sokka. I left. I thought it would help if I—if I left. I—I thought—I thought that she—I never thought that—

No, no, Katara. Just—just calm down. It’s alright, you don’t have to—okay, just...come here.

He was awful, Sokka. He was awful, and I left her with him. I left her with him.

...

It was not your fault, Katara.

You don’t understand.

 

%%%  

 

Later, when the sun has set and the moon has risen and fallen, the door slides open. 

“—and good riddance. Traitors don’t deserve Her Highness’ kindness.”

Something—someone—crashes onto the floor. 

A snap, and the door has shut again. 

Labored breaths stream out behind her back. 

She doesn't stop pacing. 

 

%%%

 

She wonders why he’s here. Why Azula let him come. 

He doesn’t say or do anything, which makes her fists clench at her side, makes her footsteps speed.

Because he isn’t stupid. He knows. And she isn’t stupid either. She knows he knows.

So why is he silent? 

Does he have no condolences to offer? Has his empathy been exhausted? 

Angry water boils in her eyes, but she smacks it away before it can slip out. 

He could say something

But then she understands—he’s afraid. He doesn’t want her to risk their escape.

She hadn’t even considered it. 

 

%%%

 

The day after her mother’s death, it rains ash again. 

These ashes are different, though. They pour out of a clay pot, travel on the wind, and scatter over the sea. They fall into its depths, never to be seen again. 

She sits next to Sokka, frozen to the bone, crying into his shoulder.

Gran-Gran and her father and the elders of the Tribe chant and sing until night falls. Usually, come darkness, they use torches for visibility. 

That night, they break the sacred ceremony. For the first time ever, they do not use flame.

She doesn’t pray to La for forgiveness. She doesn’t know if she’ll pray to La ever again. 

 

%%%

 

Despite the raging turmoil in her mind, in her heart, she forces herself to be deductive. Her footsteps are linear; she forces her thoughts to be linear, too. 

The world needs the Avatar. 

The Avatar needs to master the four elements: air, water, earth, fire.

The Avatar is Aang. 

Aang has nearly mastered three elements: air, water, earth.

Aang must master firebending. 

To do so, Aang needs a teacher. 

Zuko is a teacher. 

Zuko is apart from Aang. 

Zuko needs to return to Aang so that Aang can master firebending before the comet arrives. 

They must escape so Zuko can return to teach Aang. 

They must escape.

Azula is no fool. She has been relatively lenient with them to this point, but they will not get more than one chance at escape. 

They have one chance to escape, and they must escape. 

If she wastes their chance on hope at revenge, it could interfere with the world. The consequences of her decision would fan beyond her scope, beyond her horizon.

Thus, they must escape. 

(None of it matters. She doesn’t care.)

 

%%%

 

Her head is down and her steps are sharp and measured—five across, five back—and she decides. 

Right in front of him. 

She decides for them both. 

She knows how he’ll react. Call her foolish. Say it’s a stupid risk. Try to convince her otherwise.

And then he’ll leave her behind. He’ll escape without her. That’s the logical choice. He is, sometimes—usually when it’s least convenient—a rational person.

It doesn’t matter. Aang only needs him, anyway. She’s done her teaching—Aang doesn’t need her anymore. 

So Zuko can leave. He can go find Aang. It’s alright; she can do this on her own. 

She will be alone, but she doesn’t care. 

The decision will hurt the world, but she doesn’t care. 

She decides anyway. 

She must do this. 

 

%%%

 

When her legs are screaming for her to stop and sit, she realizes. 

I will never, ever turn my back on people who need me!

Aang needs her. He needs her to make the prudent choice. He needs her to help Zuko get back to the Air Temple.

He needs her to be selfless. 

She almost laughs. 

(Tears are dripping onto her cheeks.)

In her quest to stop being a hypocrite, the label’s accuracy has been further cemented. 

It’s ironic, isn’t it? She hates Zuko because he’s selfish

This is the most selfish thing she’s ever done. 

(She doesn’t care.)

 

%%% 

 

Food is delivered on a silver platter. Neither of them touch it. 

She wonders what Aang would say, were he here. 

Stop, Katara! What exactly do you think this will accomplish?

I knew you wouldn’t understand.

I do understand. You’re feeling unbelievable pain and rage. How do you think I felt about the Fire Nation when I found out what happened to my people? 

This is different. I need this closure, Aang. 

But it isn’t closure at all! It’s revenge!

Fine, maybe it is! Maybe that’s what I need! Maybe that’s what he deserves!

Katara, you sound like Jet.

It’s not the same! Jet attacked the innocent. This man...he’s a monster. I have no choice. 

You do have a choice. Forgiveness.

Scowling, she shoves the images away.

Forgiveness is impossible

 

%%%

 

Blood is pooling in her hands and her legs are sore and voices—one haunting voice is—ringing in her head and now that she thinks about it, it’s selfish of Zuko to want her to stay.

It’s selfish of him to take this from her. 

If it had been his mother, he would have done anything, sacrificed anything, to avenge her. 

He’s a hypocrite, too. 

She’ll tell him that she’s not leaving. He’ll yell that they need to get free, that they need to return to teach Aang, that they don’t have time for any more delay. That they need to put a plan in action now. He’ll yell that the world is more important than her personal vendettas. 

And that’s why she hates him.

 

%%%

 

When moonlight spills into her cell, she cannot put it off any longer. 

She pauses in her pacing. Turns toward him. 

He averts his eyes. As if she hasn’t felt him watching her this entire time. 

“I don’t care if we escape,” she says, voice burdened with the weight of the previous silence, the weight of the decision, the weight of the freedom slipping from their grips, the weight of the future she is throwing away. His gaze jumps back to her face. “I have to face him.”

His back straightens. His eyes harden. His jaw locks. His face sets. 

She tenses, anticipating the inevitable reaction. 

Anger. Incredulity. Fury. 

Selfish.

Hypocrite. 

“I know,” he says. 

He stands. She blinks. 

“I have a plan,” he says.

 

%%%

 

“But you just said that it’s military grade. I tried breaking it earlier!”

“With your fists,” he says dryly, pausing in his pacing to spin and face her. “It was built to withstand dragons. You really think you could punch through it?”

Heat rises in her face. “That’s exactly what you’re planning to do!”

“With fire, Katara,” he says. He runs a hand through his hair and returns to walking the same path she had previously carved into the ground. “I’m telling you, Azula slipped . All of my cells were only made of metal. But now...she was too caught up in her own stupid game. This isn’t metal. This is glass. She forgot.”

She forgot

Katara’s heart pounds like a drum. 

“So, what? It’ll crack? Just like that? Even though it’s military grade?”

“Any glass will crack under enough heat,” he says. He stills again, and there’s something hopeful in his eyes that burrows itself inside her heart. “Even military grade.”

 

%%%

 

He convinces her to sit. 

She does, because the burning ache in her legs isn’t going to disappear otherwise, and because she will not have to move again until the sun has fallen. She wipes her palms on her pants. Drips of blood—derived from grinding her nails into her flesh—disappear in the matching maroon cloth.

She curls up onto her side. Moonlight dances off the glass. It makes the metal sparkle. 

She faces the windows. He had tried to convince her to sleep, too, and she had acquiesced with reluctance suitable enough to turn him off of the obvious lie. 

She knows she cannot sleep. She knows he will not, either; she can feel his gaze burn into the back of her skull. 

She misjudged him

It doesn’t make her angry. All of her anger is reserved for what she has promised him not to think about. 

(She will think later, she knows. He knows, too. An appeasing promise made is an easy promise broken.)

No, it doesn’t make her feel angry. It makes her feel guilty. 

For the entire time he’d been silent, she had thought he’d been scrutinizing her. Preparing his arguments for their inevitable, blow-up disagreement. 

But he’d been planning

They have one chance to escape. She doesn’t care—she’s willing to risk it. 

So it he. 

He doesn’t care, either. 

He understands. 

She's beginning to remember that she’s an incredibly poor judge of character. 

 

%%%

 

Then make me understand, Katara. 

I—I don’t know how to—I can’t just—

I’m telling you. It was not your fault.

How, Sokka? I was there. I was there and I ran away. Like a coward.

Running doesn’t make you a coward. Sometimes running is the best thing you can do. 

Yeah, when a saber tooth moose lion is chasing you. Not when your Mom is...not when—not—not then. 

What would Mom have wanted, Katara? Say you’d stayed in there and told him you were the last waterbender. He would have—it would have been you instead. Mom...she would have been crushed. She would have been as good as dead.

But what if I hadn’t told him it was me? What if I had fought? What if—

No, Katara. Don’t. What ifs are pointless. You know he would have killed you both. 

I don’t sleep, Sokka. Ever. I can’t. The nightmares are constant. 

What? Why didn’t you tell me? 

I guess I just...didn’t want to worry you.

That’s the stupidest reason to keep something like that from your brother. All I do is worry about you. That’s—

Good morning, Sweetness! Good morning, Snooz—wait. Snoozles. Are you...doing the dishes ?

Hey, Katara! Hey, Sokka! Isn’t that your new shirt? The one we bought yesterday? I like it!

Thanks, Aang. And yes, Toph. I’m doing the dishes. I like to dabble. 

...in dishes? 

In many different things. Now, if you’d please get out of the room, we—

So that you can keep dabbling with the dishes? 

No, Toph. So that Katara and I can finish—

It’s fine, Sokka. That’s the entirety of it. 

Katara...

Justdon’t worry. We can talk later if you want, but I’m really fine. I promise.

What’s wrong?

Nothing, Aang. 

Good! I’m glad.

Are you sure, Katara?

Yes, Sokka. I’m positive. Don’t worry. Seriously. See you guys later. 

 

%%%

 

Sleep is a pointless endeavor. 

She sits up, crossing her legs underneath her, and firmly turns her back on the nightmare outside her window. 

Their positions are mirrored, and he’s already staring at her. He has the decency to look a little sheepish. 

She doesn’t care. 

(Is apathy a coping mechanism?)

“Why are you here?” she asks, but there isn’t venom in her tone. The question is a valid one—Azula must have a reason, an intention, a purpose. She always does. 

Not that she expects him to understand his sister. She doesn’t think he ever has. She doesn’t know how anyone ever could. 

They need to try to understand her, though. Before they put their plan in action.

“I don’t know,” he mutters. “When the guards took you away, she had me... escort them back to their ship.”

Temptation to analyze the pronoun—to dwell on the them—is powerful. But she swallows the thoughts away from her brain. “And then what? You were gone for way longer than just that would have taken.”

He drops his gaze and mumbles, “Azula and I had a bit of a...heart-to-heart.” 

She furrows her eyebrows. “Over what?”

He raises his hand to scratch the back of his neck. “Nothing important.”

“The reason it’s called a heart-to-heart is because it’s important,” she says dryly. “It’s the fundamental aspect.”

“We...ah, we...well, it was more of a disagreement. Of sorts.”

The hem of his shirt lifts—his arm is still inclined above his head—and she doesn’t want her eyes to drift to the pale skin there but they do because she isn’t as Clean as she should be and, besides, it’s the lighting’s fault for making it shine so starkly in the otherwise shadowy brig, and—

She sees a scarlet mark.

Zuko,” she hisses. 

His eyes snap to hers. When he sees the object of her gaze, he drops his arm and hurriedly pulls his knees to his chest, wrapping his hands around them. 

It’s too late, though—she’s already risen to her knees and crawled into the space next to him. 

“It’s nothing,” he says. “Seriously. It’s not what you think.”

“What I think is that it’s a lash from a whip,” she snaps. “Since, you know, that’s exactly what it looks like. Let me see it.” 

“No, Katara, seriously. It’s—”

“Let me see it, Zuko.”

No,” he says with surprising vehemence. He meets her glare with his own. “It doesn’t need healing.”

Affronted, she sits back on her heels. “Fine,” she grumbles. 

She retreats back to her spot by the window and doesn’t fall asleep. 

 

%%%

 

She is stiff with surprise and fear and anger, but her reaction is nothing compared to Sokka’s. The fury in his voice, the panic on his features, the slump to his posture, the hurt in his eyes.

What? Dad! You can’t just—you can’t leave! What about Katara and me? You can’t decide to just leave!

But he can, and he has to.

Katara understands—she has understood since the first day of raining ash. Since the day her mother left them. 

Dad is different

He’s still her father. He always will be—that will never change. That’s the same as it was before.

That’s also where the similarities end.

Her father is not the same.

It’s in the way he walks. Slow. Lazily. Always gazing out into the distance. Something stirs inside of his gait when he approaches the edge of the land—anxious and desirous and different than the listless way he sulks around their home. 

It’s in the way he whispers. Quietly. Cautiously. Speaking around topics that used to be unbounded. With Bato, usually. While they hunt. While they fish. While they build. Never in the house. Never around her or Sokka.

It’s in the way his eyes don’t shine. No laughter sparkles in their depths. They are devoid of humor, devoid of light, devoid of life. They are a different type of empty than the monster who caused this—bleak where his are black, devastated where his are dehumanized—but they are empty all the same. He musters a smile when he talks to them, his children, but it isn’t real. It’s just for show. 

(He thinks they haven’t noticed. They have.) 

Her father watched his Tribe send his wife’s ashes over the sea, and every time he looks at their home, looks at his family, looks at his people, looks at the water—it’s all he sees. The image is pasted onto his retinas. He cannot see anything else. 

He will go, and he will fight, and he will not bring their mother back, but he will ensure that she did not die for nothing.

She knew this day was coming, even if Sokka didn’t. She just didn’t know that it would come so soon. 

She knew that he would leave. She just hadn’t realized that his departure meant her promotion. That, suddenly, she wasn’t only sister and daughter. She was mother. She was provider. She was housekeeper and cook and cleaner and healer; she was everything that she shouldn’t be and nothing that she should. 

She should have been a child. She should have had a childhood. She should have had a mother; she should have had a father. 

She did not. 

She knew that he would leave, even if Sokka did not. 

She just didn’t know—nor would she see, for many years—that the final day that he was with them was the final day of her childhood.

 

%%%

 

When she has counted four hundred and eighty three puma goats—sheep are reserved for good moods only; occasions like this warranted animals so disgusting that they are physically painful to imagine jumping through her mind one after another after another—Zuko sighs. 

She braces herself.

“It’s from a long time ago,” he says quietly. “Not from tonight.”

She blinks. 

She doesn’t know what she’d been expecting, but it certainly wasn’t for him to tell her. 

And...it seems significant. That he would share something he’d seemed so passionately set against sharing.

She sits up slowly, spinning around to face him. “It’s so red, though. It looked like it just happened. I thought...I thought Azula had done it.”

He swallows. “No.”

“It must have scarred pretty badly.”

Here she goes. Talking to him about his scars, again. Trusting him with her sympathy, again

Why does she give it? 

She doesn’t know, but not a single part of her mind protests. It acknowledges the risk that she’s taking—the risk that she’s repeating—but it does not protest.

She sees a faint, bitter smirk rise to his lips and realizes too late what she’s said. He shrugs, voice light, and says, “Sensitive skin,” but she knows better. She sees the shadows on his face for what they are. 

“That’s not what I…” She sighs, eyes flicking to the skin around his. “I don’t even notice it, Zuko. Ever. Not anymore.”

He refocuses his gaze on her, incredulous. 

“I’m serious. It’s just a part of you. I can’t imagine you without it.”

“You don’t have to try and be nice, Katara. I’ve lived with it for—”

“I’m not trying to be nice,” she snaps. “Do you really think I would go out of my way to do that for you?” She doesn’t wait for him to answer, continuing, “I’m being honest.” 

His face is set in shock. “But—I mean—if anything, this one looks like it just happened! This is the red one! Not—” He pauses as he fumbles with the hem of his shirt, pulling it up just enough for her to see. With her eyes able to focus, she can see pretty quickly that the cut isn’t a recent cut. Azula hadn’t hurt him. It’s a finger-sized, scarlet scar. “—not this one!”

So maybe she had overreacted a little. But Azula had been hurting them both. And the cold moonlight bouncing off of the other ship and trickling through the glass makes everything look harsher. She had reason to be paranoid. 

She leans her back against the glass and lets the subject drop. She doesn’t feel like arguing over something pointless. “How’d you get it?” she asks, nodding to his left side. 

He is visibly relieved that she hadn’t asked about his other scar. She swallows down her curiosity—he would never trust her with that. She doesn’t know if she wants to be trusted with it, anyway. Knowledge is a special kind of burden.

“Training accident,” he says.

She raises her eyebrows. “That looks like that?” 

Like a whip’s lash? 

A flush builds on his cheeks. “Yeah.”

He’s a terrible liar. 

If he was planning on just lying, he could have told her earlier. 

He must have gotten scared that she’d ask about his scar. He must have wanted to set a precedent of lies so that she wouldn’t push for any truth. 

Fine. She can filter through the lies. 

She uncrosses her arms. “Was it...did you do something wrong? In training?”

His eyes flick to her face. She thinks he knows that she doesn’t believe him. That she’s asking about a training accident but she knows it’s something more. 

“Yes,” he says. “I deserved it.”

She highly doubts that. 

“What did you do to deserve it?”

“I made Azula cry.”

She stares. Snorts. 

He furrows his eyebrow. 

“Sorry,” she says. “I just always imagined it was the other way around.”

“It was,” he grumbles. “After she learned to bend.”

She blinks. 

He’s always said that Azula, the prodigy, could bend at an unnaturally young age. 

If this...training accident happened to him before she could bend, how old was he? 

How could someone hurt a child so young?

And then she can’t conceal it anymore. They both know—or, at least, strongly assume—what actually happened. Talking around it does no one any good. 

“It was Ozai,” she whispers. 

He drops his eyes. He nods. 

She drops her gaze, too, and swallows. 

She can’t remember how many times Sokka made her cry when they were younger. How many times he got told to do extra knots or Katara’s chores or Mom’s cooking or, if Dad was feeling especially harsh, everyone’s laundry. How many times she got told to “Toughen up, little waterbender. He wasn’t trying to hurt your feelings.”

Zuko got whipped

By his own father.

She never knew. 

Would it have changed how she treated him, though? Had she known? 

Every single day she meets someone who harbors hidden demons in their closet, because everyone does. Even the guards have histories. Even Azula...even Ozai has a history. 

Even the man who killed her mother. 

Even monsters were children once. 

If she knew what those demons were...if people wore them on their faces, would she treat them differently? 

(Zuko wears his on his face.)

(She’s never allowed herself to think that he could be wrestling with his past. Never allowed herself to think that the past was really past—that he could have a better future.)

(She’s never cared to understand the demons in his closet.)

Will she treat him differently? 

Pity is no basis for a relationship. Nor sympathy, nor mercy, nor sorrow. They are building blocks of sand—they last until they’re blown away. When winds come and the pity is lost or the sympathy is worn out or the mercy is faded or the sorrow is drained, the relationship is null. Not a single block is left. 

But it isn’t pity that compels her now. Nor sympathy, nor mercy, nor sorrow. She has used those on him already, and she has been burned. What blocks she has built have collapsed. She will not use them again. 

No, it’s none of those. 

It’s desire. 

Desire to understand. To know him and help him. Help him fight the demons in his closet. 

Because while she thought he was compiling a lengthy, tenable list of the reasons they simply could not stay, the reasons they simply must return to Aang, he had been planning

He was risking everything for the demons in her closet. 

(Selfless.)

The least she can do is desire to understand his. Try to understand his. 

“How could you face him?” she asks. “After he treated you like that?”

He keeps his eyes on the floor. “I didn’t. For a long time. I just...ran away from him.”

“Running doesn’t make you a coward,” she whispers, and maybe she’s attempting to convince herself. “Sometimes running is the best thing you can do.”

He lifts his gaze. Starlight makes amber shine like sunlight. “I don’t know,” he says. “The moment I stopped running, I felt braver.”

The moment I stopped running, I felt braver

Maybe...maybe it had been okay for her to run. Maybe it had been good . Maybe it was important that she did. Because it kept her alive. It allowed her to prepare for now. For this. 

For the moment she stops. 

For the moment she yanks the closet door open. For the moment all her darkest demons come pouring out.

She watches his steady breaths. Watches his eyes flick around her face. Watches the way the moon glints off his skin.

Watches the way his scar looks lighter in the night. 

He is already fighting them off. 

She can, too. 

She will

He leans forward like he’s read her mind. 

“How can you face him, Katara?” he whispers, and his voice echoes in the silent room. “After what he’s done? What are you going to do?”

I don’t know, she thinks, but that is a lie. 

She’s known for a long, long time.

She can feel the flames in her eyes, bluer than those from her dreams. 

The same dreams that aren't dreams—that are nightmares. That have drained every bit of happiness from her life. That had stolen her innocence much too young. 

That had forced her to grow up.

“I’m going to kill him,” she says, because it’s easier than admitting that his death is no recompense. That his death could never be enough.

Nothing could ever be enough. 

Zuko doesn’t even blink.

 

%%%

 

“At least try.”

“I’m not tired.”

“Katara,” he says flatly. “You’re exhausted.”

She lifts her nose into the air. “You don’t know that.”

“Yes, I do. Your words are slurring together.”

“That’s not tangible proof,” she says, carefully annunciating each word. 

“Your eyes are red.”

“No, they aren’t,” she says, snapping her eyes shut.

“How would you know? You can’t see them.”

She wouldn’t know. What she does know is that he’s right. She can feel the exhaustion deep in her bones. It isn’t only physical soreness. Her mind begs for a reprieve—a few hours without thought, without struggle. 

But she’s no fool. Such sleep doesn’t exist. It hasn’t for many, many years. Who is she to think that it will come tonight? Naivety died on an ashy wind; sleep is not blank black bliss. She will not tempt the universe by giving it an unconscious canvas to rip to blood red pieces.

He mistakes her silence for hesitation and says, with encouraged persistence, “Come on. At least try.”

“I’m not tired,” she says. 

“You’ll need all your strength for tomorrow,” he tries.

“Oh, don’t you worry about my strength,” she mutters. “I have plenty.”

I’m not the helpless little girl I was when they came

The pendant on her neck beats to the rhythm of her heart. It’s too heavy. Too solid. She thinks that if she were to take it off, it wouldn’t matter. It would still be there. A circle, engraved into her skin. Just above her collarbone. 

She moves her fingers to touch it. 

Inhales, exhales. Closes her eyes. 

“She did it for me,” she whispers. “She told him she was the last waterbender.”

He doesn’t speak and all of a sudden she doesn’t care about their past. Doesn’t care about their history. This story is bigger than her. This story is of the most courageous woman to ever walk the face of the planet, and this story needs to be heard by someone. This story needs to be told

She needs to tell it. 

“Sokka and I were having a snowball fight,” she begins. “It started raining ash.”

 

%%%

 

“Your mother was a brave woman,” he says, and his voice is full of everything that is too difficult to put into words.

The pendant is now cool against her fingers. Its frantic pounding has been relieved. Its insistent heat relaxed. 

She bows her head. She closes her eyes. 

I know.

Her mind gives into sleep.

 

%%%

 

She stands, glowing from the sunrise’s light, on a sparkling white hill. 

She knows what comes next.

She braces herself. The voice comes from behind her. 

“Katara.”

She knows, so she’s more careful this time. More cautious. She has prepared for this. She will not be deceived again. 

It isn’t real. 

It’s a nightmare. 

She doesn’t want to see it tonight. The flames, the shrieks, the eyes and the ash and the blood. She shuts her eyes tightly.

But she feels a hand on her shoulder, and she stiffens in surprise. 

Touch. Real touch.

“My darling Katara,” her mother whispers. “I’ve missed you so.”

Katara’s eyes snap open. Endless hills of snow stretch out before her. She notices none of them. 

“You aren’t real,” she whispers back. “This isn’t real.”

“It isn’t your reality,” her mother says, “but it isn’t your imagination, either.”

Her heart rises to her throat and she swallows it back down. She doesn’t dare turn around. Doesn’t dare move a muscle. This is the most lucid she’s ever felt—the most lucid a dream has ever felt. She can feel her mother’s hand

That’s never happened before. Ever. She doesn’t want to ruin it. 

Tears crawl into her eyes and throat, choking her words. “I miss you,” she manages. “Every second.” 

Her mother squeezes her shoulder. “I’m always with you, sweetheart. Right by your side.”

Her hands begin to tremble at her sides. She has so much to say— too much to say—and at once it all comes out. 

“I—I don’t know what to do, Mom. Everything is so hard. The world...the world is falling apart. So much has changed since you left. Like, we found the Avatar! And he’s almost mastered all the elements. But he has to fight the Fire Lord and he’s so young and inexperienced and he literally only woke up a year ago and so we don’t know...what if he loses? What if I lose him? Or Sokka? Or Dad? Or Toph or Suki or...or even Zuko? How will I go on?”

“You’re braver than you think, Katara. And you’re stronger than you know.”

Her posture slumps forwards. “But I’m tired of being strong,” she whispers. “I’ve had to be strong for so long. I just...why does everyone always want to fight? Why is the world at war? Why can’t we just have normal lives? Why can't we be at peace?"

Her mother’s other hand rests on her free shoulder. She squeezes them both. “Peace isn’t granted, my Katara. It is only earned.”

The tears drip onto her cheeks. “So what if he fails? What if we don’t earn it?”

“It isn’t something that anyone else can earn for you,” she says softly. She moves one hand to the back of Katara’s head, stroking her hair in familiar, soft, soothing movements that she hadn’t felt in years. “It is an individual effort.”

“Are you at peace?” Katara asks, voice softer than the falling snow.

“Yes,” her mother whispers. She pulls her hands from Katara’s shoulders. “And you will be, too. I promise.”

I promise. 

Suddenly the stillness of the morning is suffocating. Promises are too certain, too concrete, too final, and she doesn’t want this moment to end. She would live here, if she could. She wants it to last forever. 

So she whirls to face her mother—to look at her before she disappears, to argue against the farewell in her tone—but she is too late, and no sign of her mother remains. Not even footsteps. There isn’t a single trace of her ever being present.

Katara is too late. 

Again

She does not even see the sunrise. All of the snow has vanished.

Instead, she stands in a metal room lit by moonlight streaming in through a window. It isn’t a cell—she can grasp at least that much—but it is completely unfamiliar. 

Stacks of inky maps sketched on yellow parchment scatter across a desk and spill all over the floor. A spyglass and a compass roll around next to an upended chair. Near the far side of the room sits a control panel that seems much more manageable than the one in the airship.

She doesn’t care. 

She sinks into the puddle of tears by her feet. Her mother’s voice dances in her ears, and she should have turned back quicker, spun around faster, so that she had an image to pair with the sound. 

I promise

She cannot stay on the ground long. 

Light flickers behind her eyelids. She wipes her hands over her face, casting away the largest droplets, and the room blinks back into view. 

“Get on your knees!” a deep, furious voice shouts. “Now.  

She jumps because she hadn’t heard footsteps or voices or any indication of human presence other than the gentle waving of the torch. The rumbling words come from behind her—she spins around to face their speaker. Her vision is still blurred by the remnants of the tears, so she flicks her hand to bend them all away. 

A boy is shoved to the ground by feet. 

Her heart drops into her stomach.

Please, sir,” he cries, raising a protective hand above his head, cowering before a faceless scarlet soldier. “Please, I only gave her a rice bun—”

Her tears return in full force.

“You disrespected direct orders,” the soldier growls. He steps toward the boy—who, it seems, was stolen from his bed; he wears only night clothing—and towers over him, snatching a whip from his waist coat. “You were to feed the Prince, not the Water peasant. The Princess trusted you. You betrayed her.”

“Please,” the boy chokes, and in the torchlight eerie shadows shade his face. “Please, have mercy.”

“This is mercy. Disobeying Her Highness is punishable by death.”

The boy whimpers. 

She tries to move her feet but they’ve been glued to the ground. She tries to speak but her mouth has been glued shut. She tries to jerk out of the invisible forces’ hold—straining, begging, against the force; leaning her entire body toward the boy that looks so different in the orange torchlight, the boy that looks so different without a thousand slashes on his face—but she has been glued still.

She cannot move. 

“Please,” he begs. “Please, I’ll do anything, I’ll—”

“You’ll be silent,” the soldier sneers. 

Katara flinches as the whip comes down, but the boy vanishes, and it only cracks against the ground.

The soldier growls in irritation but it doesn’t register in her mind because there’s a body at her feet. 

No. Two bodies. 

One is encased in rock. Blood drips down his chin. His eyes are glassy and pale and lifeless. 

The other has been whipped until his face is unrecognizable. 

She crouches between them, swiveling her attention back and forth between their faces, searching for breath, searching for life. 

She lifts her fingers and bends all of the water from her cheeks onto their faces. She wipes it over his face, over Ice Pop’s face, back over his face again, trying to clean them, trying to—

“I’m so sorry,” she whispers. Saliva blurs her words. She cannot see, she cannot feel, she cannot understand. “I’m so sorry. I never wanted this. I never wanted you to be hurt. I never wanted—”

“You’re a monster.”

She jerks in surprise and jumps to her feet, stiffening into some faint semblance of a defensive position. 

There is no one, though. Only the shadow of a million flames on the wall. 

She can almost feel their heat. 

They’re darker than Azula’s blue flames. Harsher. They loom and flicker. The room is cast in torchlight even though she doesn’t see a torch. The voice is too dark, too corrupted to be human.

Her hands tremble at her sides. 

“I didn’t mean for him to die,” she says, forcing her voice to stay steady. She will not show weakness before a flame. Never again. Even if the flames are only shadows. “I didn’t mean for them to suffer.”

“Monster, ” the hiss repeats. 

Chills spill down her spine and fury spills into her voice. “I didn’t want this. I didn’t—”

Monster.

She clenches her fists to stop them from shaking. “I didn’t do this!” she shouts. “I didn’t hurt them!”

One huge shadowed finger rises to point at the bodies she stands next to. She follows its direction. 

The bodies are gone. 

A man is shoved to the ground by her feet.

She scrambles backwards in surprise, but another figure comes into view, and she freezes.

Her heart drops out of her stomach.

Please,” the man cries, raising a protective hand above his head, cowering before a faceless cerulean soldier. “Please! I did a bad thing! I know I did, and—”

“You are a murderer,” the soldier hisses, and the voice creeps up her spine. Sweat pools on her forehead, on her neck, on her palms. Her eyes are wider than the sea. The soldier steps toward the man—who, it seems, was stolen from his bed; he wears only night clothing—and towers over him, snatching a whip out of her—her—waist coat. “You killed an innocent woman.”

“Please,” the man chokes, and in the torchlight eerie shadows shade his face. “Please, have mercy.”

“This is mercy,” the soldiers spits. “Death is more mercy than you could dream to deserve.”

“Please,” the man whispers again. His voice cracks with each word. “I don’t deserve your mercy, but please, please, grant it to me.”

Every muscle in her body is frozen where she stands. 

“You’re a monster,” the cerulean soldier snarls. She raises the whip.

The man brings his other arm up to protect his face. 

Katara is rooted; she cannot move, she cannot close her eyes in time. 

The whip comes down. 

It is made of ice.

 

%%%

 

She shoots straight up. 

She takes a deep breath, letting the air filter in through her nose, trace up into her forehead, spread deep into her chest. 

It does not calm her heart rate. 

Her breaths are short and shallow. She glances behind her—Zuko’s back is turned toward her, but his breaths are even and steady; he’s asleep. She drops her head into her hands. 

Thoughts pound at her brain and this is all too familiar, isn’t it? She’d promised Zuko that she would try to keep them from her mind— 

And what is your word worth?

Apparently less than Azula’s. At least she had kept her promise to Toph for longer than an hour.

She sighs, dragging her shaky hands down her face, and slams the door on the creatures scratching outside, demanding entrance into her mind. 

Her gaze lifts to the ship outside her window. Huge and dark and shining. 

She shifts closer to the glass. Leans down, peeks up. Glimpses the scarlet flag that had previously been so indecipherable. 

Black sea ravens swirl in the starlight. If they weren’t sewn into the cloth she thinks that they would swirl into the darkness. 

Her gaze refocuses on the glass and, when she shifts to the closest perspective, she sees the faint outline of her eyes. The faint outline of her face and hair. 

Her empty stomach churns. 

A voice that sounds just like hers says Monster in her head.

She looks away from her reflection.

 

%%%

 

She rolls onto her other side. 

He looks peaceful when he sleeps, she thinks. Without his constant scowl, he almost looks content. 

She prefers it. 

He had rolled to face her, too, after he’d been asleep. They aren’t that far apart. If she reached her hand across the gap, she could easily touch his hair, his face, his scar.

His scar

She remembers how it felt under her fingertips, back beneath the crystal’s light. Warm and ridged and rough. Like running her hand back and forth along a million pieces of sand. 

Her fingers twitch forward but, scowling, she catches them in a fist before they can do any significant damage. 

That is the last thing she needs right now. 

She rolls onto her stomach.

 

%%%

 

She opens the door. The thoughts pour in. 

(I’m sorry, Zuko. You won’t know anyway, though, so it’s alright.)

(Besides, both of us knew my restraint wouldn’t last.)

 

%%%

 

She wonders how Ozai could ever face himself after whipping a child.

She had wondered, before, at his terrible parenting. But she never...she never suspected it would be something like this. This is worse than terrible. This is disgusting. 

How could he live with it? 

How could he look himself in the mirror? 

How could he look at his reflection in the glass?

She squeezes her eyes shut. 

How will she face herself? How will she look at herself in the mirror? If after a simple dream she cannot even look at her reflection, how will she live with it? Seeing it every day?

Being reminded, every day? 

But she needs this. This is different. This is justified. This is about justice. This is about closure. 

Death is more mercy than you could dream to deserve

This is about revenge. 

 

%%%

 

They both got whipped. 

She shoots her eyes open to slap away the images, but they just paint themselves onto the ceiling. 

She sees the boy—a guard, a grandson—trembling in fear. For bringing her a rice bun. For keeping his Prince alive

His Prince—who she sees crouching next to the boy, recoiling from his father—his own father—when he was only a child. For making his sister cry. 

She doesn’t understand. 

She tries

She tries to understand how the boy’s intentions could be so muddled with different perceptions. How Ozai could do something so despicable over something so small

But she cannot. Only one thing runs through her mind. 

The boy did something helpful and was punished. Zuko did something hurtful and was punished. 

What’s the basis? 

If both good and bad, both helpful and hurtful actions garnered a whipping, what really warrants a whipping? What really warrants violence? 

What really warrants a war? 

The world is made up of millions of imperfect people choosing good, choosing bad—choosing to help, choosing to hurt—every day. 

They all suffer the same war. 

Why is good punished? Why is bad praised? 

How did the world get to this place? 

What’s the basis? 

 

%%%

 

Maybe, she thinks, as her eyes skirt over the metal walls, if both good and bad actions garner violence, the responsibility of ending it doesn’t lie with action at all. 

People will choose good and bad. They will choose to help or hurt. They do already. They have for as long as the world has existed. They will continue to until the world ends. That is the universe’s truth—its inevitable reality. 

Maybe, then, the responsibility of ending violence lies with people’s reactions. 

That is her responsibility, at least. 

She cannot control how others act. She cannot control what others decide. 

She can control her reaction. 

She must control her reaction. 

She does not want to perpetuate violence. She wants to perpetuate peace .

She wants to earn peace. 

Because how can she desire the world’s peace when she cannot practice it in her own life? When she cannot practice compassion or mercy—however undeserved? 

She does not want to be a hypocrite any longer. She does not want to be a monster

Tears trickle down her cheeks. She rolls back and forth, trying to get comfortable. 

She cannot.

 

%%%

 

A million fingernails tap at the glass. 

Or a million flutter bats. Or a million Space Swords. 

She’s curious which of those it is. She hopes it’s a million Space Swords—Sokka would be thrilled. 

She doesn’t want to move to see, though. She just wants to stay here. Her eyelids and limbs are heavy and sore, but her head rests on something soft and it’s the most comfortable she’s been since she and Toph were back on the airship, sleeping on cots, not just on rocks. 

But that...isn’t right, she remembers. She’s in a ship’s prison. There are no cots or futons here.

So she blinks her eyes open, face drawn in confusion, and lifts her head to identify what it has laid on. 

A cotton shirt. 

A maroon cotton shirt. 

A maroon cotton prison shirt. 

She jerks into a seated position and turns an accusatory glare on Zuko, but he’s asleep. 

With his bare back to her. 

Dawn sparkles off his skin.

She swallows. 

Clean

She averts her eyes, furrows her eyebrows, and glares at the shirt.
She should give it back to him. 

She should yell at him. She doesn’t need his...whatever this is supposed to be. 

(What she needs is to stop questioning his every move. Maybe...maybe he was just trying to be nice. Thoughtful.)

(And maybe she likes when he’s thoughtful. Maybe she does need...whatever this is supposed to be.)

She rolls to face the windows and puts the shirt back underneath her head.

Rain patters evenly on the glass.

 

%%%

 

Shuffling behind her makes her sit up. 

He is sitting, too—his hands drag down his face to wipe remnants of sleep away—and she doesn’t look at his chest because she is Clean and because she has much more important things going on right now. 

He drops his hands, eyes widening when he realizes she’s awake. 

Awake and watching him. But he doesn’t know that. And she wasn’t doing that, anyway. 

Right.

“Oh. You’re—oh. Hi. I mean, you’re—you’re up.”

She raises an eyebrow. “Yeah, hi. I’ve been awake for a while.”

Huge eyes look at her for a long moment. 

A long moment. 

Hairs on the back of her neck start to tingle. She raises her other eyebrow. 

He blinks and flushes, shaking his head hard. His eyes slide past her to the glass. “It’s raining,” he says. “Look.”

She furrows her eyebrows and turns to follow his gaze. 

It’s raining hard. 

And loud. 

And altogether quite obviously.

The eternal hammerings had woken her up.

“Thanks Zuko,” she says dryly. “I hadn’t noticed.”

She doesn’t turn back right away, though. There’s something mesmerizing about the way the raindrops plop and sizzle and streak and drip against the glass. There’s something comforting about how the sheets of water tint the world a grayer color. The day is hazed and the night is lightened. Everything is more neutral. Everything is less polar.

She tears her eyes away because he hasn’t spoken, and she turns back to—

—to find his shirt half-pulled over his head. 

“Smooth,” she says, and she is not talking about the gliding planes of his stomach but about how he thought he could distract her long enough to act like nothing had happened. To act like he hadn’t given her his shirt for a pillow in the middle of the night. 

(Selfless.)

“This stupid thing,” he mutters. “I can’t—for the love of Agni, I can’t—”

She leans back so the glass chills her skin beneath her shirt. “Your arm is in the hole for your head, you idiot.”

“I know that,” he says, “but it’s stuck. I can’t—”

He pauses for a breath. 

Then he whirls his arms in frantic frustration—yanking the fabric up and down, left and right, everywhere—and it’s such a Sokka motion that she can’t hold back a smile. 

He doesn’t see it, though. She’s never smiled at him before. That isn’t about to change anytime soon. 

A shrieking rip announces the tearing of the cloth. 

The frenzied waving stops. He stills. 

There’s a beat of silence. 

She smirks.

Under his breath, words muffled by the twisted fabric covering his surely scarlet face, he says, “For the love of Agni, stop watching.

“I’m not even looking at you,” she lies, because she is trying really hard not to, and intentions count for something in a court of justice.

(Even if they are futile.)

(Right?)

(Clean.)

“Oh...are you—I mean, are you still watching the rain?” he asks. Slowly, he starts to wiggle his arms in and out of the fabric. Slowly, the twists start to untwirl. “That’s good. That’s good! It’s nice. That’s nice, I mean. That’s nice.”

Her smirk builds. “Am I making you nervous?” she asks. 

“What?” he yelps, movements quickening again. “What? No, of course not. You aren’t even watching. Why would I be nervous? Why would I feel pressured? There’s nothing to worry a—”

“Have you ever bought something from a market?”

He scoffs at the subject change even though he should be thanking her. “What? Of course I have. You know I have. I spent months in Ba Sing Se.”

“I didn’t know if you made your Uncle do it all for you.”

No,” he says, and he’s making leeway—one arm is through the correct hole. The other arm hole is twisted up and behind his opposite ear and really, how did that happen? “I did our shopping all the time.” 

“You know when you’re at the stand to buy something? And there’s a million angry customers behind you?”

“Yes, I do know, since I’ve done it. You don’t need to explain it to—”

“And the vendor says, ‘That’ll be two gold and five silvers, sir,’ and—”

“What are you buying that’s so expensive?”

“—you open your purse to start—”

“Men don’t have purses.”

“—looking for coins, but oh, no!” she says, gasping through her grin, watching as he finally unhooks the arm hole from his ear, “You dropped everything. All of your coins. And it’s your wife’s birthday—”

“My what?”

“Will you stop interrupting?”

Wife?”

“Fine, it can be girlfriend. Anyway, it’s your girlfriend’s birthday and of course you can’t just leave the stand, you have to stay and start picking them up. But then they fumble and your hands are shaking and sweating and a thousand people are screaming at you that their children are going to die of starvation if they can’t buy their sea prunes—”

“There are no sea prunes in the Fire Nation—”

She crosses her arms smugly across her chest. “—and you realize, belatedly, that you perform terribly under pressure.”

“I don’t see the correlation,” he lies.

She wipes the grin from her face just as his head finally peeks out of the correct hole, just as her smirk is met with a scarlet-faced scowl. 

“That was embarrassing,” she taunts, and the color in his face darkens. “I’m mortified for you.”

Muttering nonsense under his breath, he jerks his gaze away from hers. 

...and she remembers that he had given her the shirt in the first place. That the reason it had gotten tangled was because he was hurrying to remove the evidence of his kindness so that she wouldn’t have to thank him. Or, more likely, so that she wouldn’t yell at him. But, still. It’s the principle of the matter.

Besides...she doesn’t feel like yelling. She feels like laughing. And that’s incredible, considering the events of the last few hours. Considering the events of the last six years. 

She drops her arms to her sides and drops her gaze to the ground. 

“But...well.” She physically winces away from the words, but he deserves them, so she forces them through. “Thank you,” she mumbles. “It...helped me. Sleep, I mean. It was really comfortable.”

His eyes flick to her face. 

“Oh, don't look so surprised,” she snaps. Pink rises in her cheeks, too, but it’s lighter than his, so she wins. Ha. “It’s called gratitude, and I give it when and where it’s deserved. I’m not surprised you’re unfamiliar with it.”

He blinks. “I—er, I’ve heard of it.” His eyes widen. “No! Not that I’ve never—of course I’ve used it, too. I know what it is. Obviously.” He scrapes a hand through his hair. Her blush deepens in anger. Obviously. (Clean.) “I just…”

“‘You’re welcome’?” she suggests dryly. 

“Yes!” he exclaims, head bobbing up and down. “Yes. Yep. You’re welcome. That’s what I was trying to say.”

“Well,” she says, crossing her arms again, but she quickly realizes that she doesn’t have anything else to say. Why did she say “well”? That implies that she has more and she really doesn’t have anything else to say, and—

He clears his throat. 

oh, she knows what she can add. “Well, you didn’t say it very articulately.”

Flames burn under her cheeks. 

He scowls. “You can’t inherit eloquence.”

“Azula did,” she says.

He narrows his eyes. “You’re just guessing. You’ve never heard my father speak.”

“Yes, I am, and no, I haven’t. But he is articulate, isn’t he? I mean, he does lead an entire nation.”

“Yeah,” he admits, folding his arms over his chest sulkily. “He’s a really good speaker.”

She isn’t surprised, considering that for years his words have inspired fear into the entire world. It seems that a prerequisite of being Fire Lord is being a skilled orator. 

Good thing Zuko is the heir. 

Well...he isn’t really the heir any longer. Which is probably good news when considering that aspect of the role. Azula would fit it perfectly.

Imagining Zuko stuttering in front of an entire country makes her want to laugh. 

“No, actually,” she says into the prolonged silence, staring down at her twisting fingers. “I...wasn’t talking about your father.”

Zuko stills. 

Hair falls in curtains around her face. She tucks it behind her ear before continuing, softly, “Toph and I…” She smiles at the ground. “Toph talks about you a lot, you know. And she mentioned that your mother was a beautiful storyteller.”

Just like mine

Pearly dolphins and lacey gowns and silver sand and lilac sunsets. Crowns made of lilies, scarlet clay houses, inky rocks that spewed fire, verdant forests so lush the sun couldn’t be seen. 

She wonders if Zuko’s mother told him of these things. Told him her own fantasies. She wonders if those fantasies became his. If he dreamed every night, just as she did, to reach the fields of blushing tulips or touch the pale clouds that hid the stars.

She wonders about his mother. 

“She was,” he says, and his eyebrows are drawn in a memory to match hers. She wonders what the memory holds. “She was incredible.”

Just like mine, she thinks. 

 

%%%

 

She stares at the ship until her eyes are dry. 

Zuko told her to sit, told her to sleep. She needs him to tell her to blink. 

She wishes she could bend the water through the glass. Bring it to her eyes. Force them to close. 

Because the raindrops are rather useless where they are—only concealing parts of the window, leaving others clear. Skipping and dancing down, sliding off the edge of the glass. She can still see the ship easily—their blur is not good enough.

Why can’t they make up their mind? Shade the entire window so it’s impossible to see out of, or don’t shade it at all. Why do they twirl in indecision?

Why does she?

She knows what she wants to do. She knows what she should do. 

Why does she twirl?

But, then, she does know.

Rage boils deep in her gut. She shoves it down. Again and again and again. 

Now is not the time. Not yet. 

(Not ever, maybe.)

(What, then? How can she possibly avenge her mother? How is anything less than death enough?)

She shoves the thoughts away before Zuko can lecture her on broken promises. 

 

%%%

 

She realizes something that she probably should have realized many, many hours ago.

“Azula knew,” she says, jerking upright, snapping her head toward a meditating Zuko. “How did Azula know?”

He opens one eye and, seeing the stiffness in her posture, opens the other. He drops his hands to his lap. “About the Southern Raiders?”

She furrows her eyebrows. “Who are the Southern Raiders?”

His face hardens. He flicks his fingers toward the glass. “A special forces unit,” he says lowly. “Sea ravens are their symbol.”

The image of the inky blob runs through her mind. Her heart pounds in her head. She stands. “Tell me more.”

Tell me his name

Zuko understands. 

His voice is grave. “They are led by Commander Yon Rha,” he says.

Yon Rha

Now he has a name. 

Now the man who killed her mother has a name.

He took her away. 

Some deep part of her brain acknowledges that he has a mother, too. She doesn’t care. 

Monster

Her teeth grit.

Eyes are the window to the soul, and his are empty. His soul is a black void. There is nothing there. Nothing to save. Nothing worth—

“Most people in the Fire Nation know of their existence from school,” Zuko says hurriedly, trying to save her from falling off the edge, trying to keep her mind from imploding. Her fists are trembling. “But we learned about them from our governess.”

—keeping alive

Monster

“That’s my guess, at least. But, anyway, the rain is really pretty right now, and you should look out—”

“So, what?” she hisses, as forces inside of her brain fight for attention, fight for domination, demand violence. “Azula felt like stirring a pot? Was she bored? Did she need some drama?”

Zuko watches her with a drawn eyebrow, lips pursed white, restless hands, and desperate eyes. “I don’t know,” he says. “I haven’t figured it out.”

“There’s nothing to figure out. She loves making people suffer.”

Zuko squeezes his eyes shut. He pinches the bridge of his nose. “Not people,” he mutters. “Just me.”

She doesn’t know what that means, but she doesn't much care. 

She paces until the boiling calms.

Rage still simmers in her veins.

 

%%%

 

Rain drags down the windows and drags out the day. Without the sun, she can’t track the time, and she quickly tires of having to repeatedly ask Zuko. 

They run through the plan over and over and over, until it has been cemented into her mind with something stronger and more permanent than whatever asteroid made Sokka’s Space Sword.

Usually, she would complain. I get it, Zuko. I’m not an idiot. We’ve covered this thirteen hundred times.

But today she asks the questions. She stimulates the discussion. She introduces every possible alternative, every possible mishap. 

Zuko doesn’t mind. In fact, he’s...rather patient. She repeats things and reinforces things and he doesn’t complain. He doesn’t snap that he has told her that already. He just says it over again.

She is grateful. 

After the guards have brought them a late meal—late, Zuko calls it, because he wakes with the dawn; she doesn’t know if the sun has even peaked in the sky—Zuko asks her if she wants to meditate. 

“What?” she asks, blinking her gaze and thoughts away from the contents of the ship beside them. “Meditate?”

He nods, looking slightly sheepish. “I’ve done it for as long as I can remember,” he says. “It really helps me focus. And it’s helped Aang a lot with his firebending. You don’t have to if—”

“It’s fine,” she says, lowering to the ground, mirroring his cross-legged position. “I’ll do it.”

Surprise flits across his expression, but it’s quickly replaced with wariness. “Okay, but if you do, you have to promise that you’ll try to focus your thoughts.”

“On what?”

“On nothing.”

She scrunches her nose. “How do I think about nothing?”

“No,” he says, rolling his eyes, “I’m talking about...you know.”

She looks at him blankly.

Maybe he needs to start taking vocabulary lessons from Suki. 

“Tonight,” he snaps. “Don’t think about tonight. Promise?”

She pushes her hair behind her shoulders. “You could have just said that,” she says, not meeting his eyes. “I’m not thinking about tonight.”

He snorts. 

She snaps a glare up at him. “What?”

“You’re a terrible liar.”

“I’m better than you,” she retorts, scowling. “Mr. Lee.”

“How do you know about that?” he demands.

“Lee is the most obvious alias ever,” she says, ignoring his question. A volcano would freeze over before she gave away her source. 

“Says Mrs. Sapphire Fire.”

She jerks upright. 

He’s smirking, the little vindictive moron, and has he ever smirked at her before? He has when they’ve fought. But outside...is he—is he teasing her? Since when—how did—what? 

“How do you know about that?” she demands.

Toph, she knows. Traitor. 

(Toph told her about Lee, too, but that’s irrelevant.)

“That is the stupidest alias I’ve ever heard,” he says, ignoring her question, and laughter sparkles in his eyes even if it doesn’t pour out of his mouth. “Literally. The stupidest. No contest.”

Scoffing, she crosses her arms and tries, hard, to think of anything to justify the workings of Sokka’s mind. 

She fails. 

“It wasn’t my idea,” she mutters. “I would’ve come up with something better.”

“It wouldn’t be hard,” he says. 

She scowls. “Lee is still obvious.”

“No one caught me, and—”

“No one caught Sokka and me either!”

“Fine, no one caught us. But you're still a terrible liar, and I know that you’ve been thinking about tonight.”

She narrows her eyes. She can hear the accusation in his tone, see it in the lift of his eyebrow—you broke your promise—but he doesn’t say it aloud. 

She’s not sure how he expected her to keep it.

“Meditation isn’t about external things,” he says, shuffling into a more comfortable position. He stacks his hands by his chest and lights a flame in the higher palm. “It’s about what’s inside of you. It’s the merging of mind and body.”

“Okay, Aang,” she gibes. “Thanks for the history lesson. Now can you tell me how to actually do it?”

“I was getting there,” he grumbles. He closes his eyes. “Just...clear your mind. Focus entirely on your breathing.”

He inhales. Wispy tendrils of his flame reach toward the ceiling. He exhales. They relax. 

She cannot use fire and she does not have water, but she brings her hands to her chest anyway. Her blood is her flame. With each inhale, she feels it moving to her heart. With each exhale, it retreats.

Inhale

Exhale

She feels her pulse slow.

Inhale. 

Exhale

She feels her mind relax. 

Inhale. 

Exhale. 

Everything else fades away. 

 

%%%

 

“What? Another thing?”

“Katara, it will help. I promise.”

“We just finished meditating!”

“Did it help you?”

“...Yes.”

Yes

“This will help, too.”

“But—”

“It loosens your muscles. It will help you relax.”

“I’ve stretched before, thank you,” she snaps. 

She reaches out to touch her toes.

“Well, good. You know how much it will help.”

“What are you?” she mutters. “Some type of health guru?”

“Uncle taught me a lot,” he says. 

They stretch in silence.

 

%%%

 

She thinks his insistence was unnecessary—of course the exercises helped; of course she will never admit that—but if there was one good thing about any of it, it was that it passed the time. 

(She thinks that was his goal from the start.)

Because, before she knows it, he says, “The sun is setting.”

She turns to find the gray mist darkening. Rain still slabs against the windows, but the ceaseless sound is now familiar. Its now a comfort

She stands and presses her nose to the glass. Her breath fogs the world away. 

Only hours now, Katara. 

Only hours now. 

 

%%%

 

All lightheartedness evaporates. 

She’d been trying to ignore everything before, per his request. Per her promise. 

(Why does she keep making promises?)

She cannot ignore it now. 

Her shoulders hunch. She paces untraceable spirals around the room. 

Numbness, loneliness, pain, nightmares—they all heap on top of her, urging her toward the ground. Reminders of her cowardice. Reminders of her failure. Reminders of her inaction.

She is weighed down, but she is not afraid. 

Anticipation tingles in her blood. She feels it. Like a muse. Like a vocation. She must do this. She needs this. She finally has it. It is finally here.

She is not afraid. 

Because, at last, she has stopped running—

The moment I stopped running, I felt braver

—and she feels strong

The rain beats steadily against the glass. 

A heartbeat. 

A warning. 

A war cry.

Chapter Text

“Alright,” Zuko says, nodding. “It’s time.”

She tries to wet her lips; she can’t. Her tongue is far too dry.

He stands and offers her his hand. 

She doesn’t take it. She pushes herself to her feet. His hand retreats to scratch the back of his neck. 

Her heartbeat pounds in her ears. 

He moves to stand next to the glass. She follows—he cannot possibly expect her to want to sit out of this—but he shakes his head. “The room is going to feel like a furnace,” he says. “You’ll want to be as far away as possible.”

She narrows her eyes. “I can take a little heat,” she says. 

His jaw clenches. “Katara, I’m not challenging you. I’m serious. You’ll get burned. You might get burned anyway.”

She crosses her arms over her chest and glares.

His expression doesn’t change. His eyes are set; his face is hard.

Scowling, she retreats until her back hits the metal wall furthest from the glass. 

His shoulders slump in something like relief. “Alright,” he says, turning toward where the two panes meet. He chooses the window on the right—moves in front of it, clenches his fists at his sides, nods to himself. “Alright. Good. This shouldn’t take too long.”

White and blinding anger rushes through her veins, but she forces it down. 

Not yet

Soon. 

Zuko isn’t the target, she reminds herself.

Not this time. 

Her hands begin to tremble. 

The rage is alive. It moves for her. Thinks for her. Speaks for her. 

Acts for her. 

Some distant part of her mind registers that the right—the gift—of choice is the most important one given to mankind. That always, no matter what, she must put herself in situations and circumstances that allow her to retain it—the right, the gift, to choose.

It doesn’t matter. She is far past reason. She is far past practicality. 

Rage swells her heart so large that it explodes into millions of apathetic shreds. She does not care about the consequences. Let her get burned. Let her drown. Let her suffer. 

As long as she can face him. 

That same rage chooses for her. She does not try to stop it. 

He sets his fists on fire, and she wishes that her element came from within. She wishes that she could carry it with her no matter where she went. Flames have devastated everything she has ever had. Everything she has ever loved. Everything she has ever known. 

They have taken her life, burnt it to pieces, and left the ashes to scatter on the wind. 

Flames are power

Flames are death

She wishes she could wield them. 

He presses his palms flat against the glass. Fire rises up and around his knuckles, cupping his fingertips, reaching down to his wrists. 

Around his hands, the pane turns orange. He ducks his chin to his chest and steps his foot back in a near lunge so that he can put every ounce of effort into the struggle.

He hadn’t been lying, at least: the effect on the room is nearly immediate. The metal behind her back begins to warm. Both of their breaths quicken—his from exertion, yes, but also because the room’s oxygen is heavy with humidity. Droplets of sweat form on her forehead. 

A faint hiss starts to peel from his hands. She isn’t sure if it’s his skin burning—she doubts it, but it’s possible—or the glass bending, or the flames fighting.

For an entire minute, his pressure on the window does not fail. 

Her breaths get heavier. The heat at her back begins to sting, so she wrenches herself away. 

Why is it taking so long? 

Sweat pools on her eyebrows. In her ears. On her cheeks, on her hands, on her arms, on her legs—everywhere.

He grunts and pushes harder against the glass. 

The room gets more suffocating. A slick sheen of sweat covers every part of her skin, and it’s sticky and sickening and slick and—she wants to leave the room. 

Why is it taking so long?

“Is it working?” she snaps. 

Panting, he lifts his hands up from the glass so they can examine his progress. 

It has tinted orange, but it has not bent. In the slightest.

“Yes,” he says obstinately, returning his hands, returning to his stance. “It’s bending.”

“No, it isn’t,” she retorts. Sweat drips into her eyes and it’s irritating, but her palms are drenched and shaking, so they won’t be of use. She lifts her upper arm and wipes it across her face. It’s sweaty, too, though, so the entire effort is pointless. She clenches her fists in frustration. “It hasn’t moved at all.”

“It just needs—“ he grunts, stepping harder into his stance, “—a little more time under the heat’s pressure.”

The metal at her feet starts to burn her skin through her shoes. She can feel the heat from the walls around her, too—jumping toward her like she’s its only reprieve. They start to cave in. Move closer. Get larger. 

Sweat cascades down her neck. Dripping, consistently, on her lower back and her neck and everywhere else on her body. Like the shrieking of a migraine. Like the complaints of a brother. Like the pounding of the rain. 

Her heart beats to its rhythm. 

“Just admit it isn’t working,” she spits, and each second takes her an inch closer to his body. The walls are closing in—he is her last hope. 

Drip. Drip. Drip

She continues, “It was a stupid idea in the first place.”

“No, it wasn’t,” he says, voice straining with exertion, flames growing, expanding. “It has to work. There isn’t anything special about this glass—“

“How about the fact that it’s military grade?” she hisses. 

She takes a breath, but she cannot catch it. It escapes her grasp, escapes her lungs—just out of reach, always out of reach, because she was sprinting when she should have stayed and she was screaming when she should have fought—but she cannot imagine sprinting now, she cannot imagine screaming now, because her lungs are full of fire and the air is full of ash.

And then the room isn’t a furnace. The room is a boiling lake atop a mountain of lava, and she is a pebble that has failed to skip on the water, and she is drowning

The air, the sweat, the water—water, everywhere—it’s too suffocating, too—

She stills. 

Water. 

As in water

As in her element.

Everywhere

“I already told you,” he is saying as she marches up beside him. He doesn’t notice right away, going on: “even military grade isn’t resista—Katara? I told you to stay back! You’re going to get burned! You’re—“

She shoves him away from the window. He stumbles backwards, eyes wide with trepidation and irritation and she doesn’t know, nor care, what else, because in one sweeping motion she has bent all of the sweat from both of their bodies and all of the water vapor from the air into a whirling dart of ice.

It strikes the center of the window with a smack, and it shatters into a million pieces. 

She shields her eyes and jerks away from the projectiles, but then a flaming body is against her back, blocking even the smallest pieces from touching her. 

When the noise of falling shards trickling onto the ground ceases, they both, slowly, simultaneously, turn around, and find, to their astonishment, a tiny hair of a crack piercing the glass. Right at the center. 

She doesn’t have the mental capacity, nor the emotional will, to feel smug. 

Instead, stepping toward the flaming glass, she says, “Temperature change.” Heat pours too strongly off of the glass, so she doesn’t approach it any nearer. “Where the ice touched it, it broke. We’ll do it again. You heat it and I’ll cover it in ice.”

He moves his hands immediately to the glass, but she can feel his gaze on the side of her head. “And it’ll break?”

Her face hardens. “Yes.”

It has to. 

“Where does the water come from?” 

“Sweat,” she says, leaning ever closer to the glass, hoping the heat will wrench more water from her system.

“Okay,” he says, tongue darting out to lick his lips, “but seriously, Katara, you’ll feel plenty of heat from back against that wall—”

She snaps her head to him, glaring, and, with a resigned sigh, he turns back to the glass. 

He closes his eyes in focus and steps into his stance. With each exhale the color of the glass lightens, and, slowly, it bends in on itself. Heat builds in the room, in the air, on her body. 

Her breaths come quicker. He keeps his steady—his heat strengthens with each breath out. Sweat floods her skin. She can see it shining off his, too. 

Another crack joins the first, splitting off from it like a T. She gathers all of the water in front of her with a flick of her fingers, and waits for his next exhale. 

“Now,” she says. 

As he jerks away from the pane, she pushes the water flush against it. She doesn’t have enough to cover the whole window, so she concentrates it at the center. Then, bfore it has a chance to steam, she freezes it all. 

The glass shatters like an explosion—piercing and shrieking and flying violently. Shards prickle at her face so she shields her eyes and spins away, bending the water into an ice barrier behind her. The force of the glass breaks it easily, and tiny shards scratch at her back.

But then he jumps behind her again, wrapping his entire body around her and ducking his head on one side of her neck. Cuts of glass cease against her body. 

She scowls in his hold—she doesn’t need him, she can protect herself—but he winces and pushes harder, tighter against her and she knows the flying glass has cut him. 

And she’s embarrassed that he’s taken it for her, angry that he’d thought her weak enough to need protection—a few scratches never killed anybody—so she snarls, “What are you doing?”

“Keeping glass from cutting you,” he hisses. The crashing peters out.

“Okay,” she says, heat rising in her cheeks at every moment that passes—his hold is too tight, his head too close, his breath too hot —“I’m not cut. You can get off me now!”

He retracts his arms but it doesn’t matter; she yanks out of his grip before he can move. He wants to say something, she knows—she can see it in his scowl—but he clamps it back. 

Shattered glass coats the floor and bites her feet with every step. Blood drips onto the ground but that doesn’t matter, either. She’s numb to the pain. She can’t feel a single thing. 

She steps up to the edge of the room. Without the window keeping out the sound, she can hear the swelling of the waves; she can hear distant voices conversing. Sea breeze whips her hair around her face. Ocean water calls to her fingers. 

Zuko moves to her side. “That wasn’t exactly subtle,” he mutters, leaning over the edge to look at the endless water on either side, the giant ship that looms before them. “Guards will be here any second.”

She knows—approaching footsteps and shouts already echo through the hallways and creep under their door. 

He looks at her in question but her thoughts are years away. It’s raining ash and clouding smoke and her people are screaming, just like they had been when the pale skinned, amber eyed, scarlet clad monsters came the first time—just like when they stole half of the Tribe and all but one of the benders—and surely, surely their presence can mean nothing good this time, either. 

Surely, surely, it can mean nothing but death. 

She pictures the man’s empty, glinting eyes, glaring at her mother. Planning her murder. 

Her jaw clenches. Her face sets. 

Those eyes are the last thing her mother saw in this world. 

Nothing but death

She grabs Zuko’s hand as the guards’ shouting grows nearer. 

“Let’s do this,” she says. 

She bends the water to receive them. 

They jump.

 

%%%

 

But Mom! I don’t want to go in the water with her!

Oh, Sokka. Be nice. It won’t be so bad. Your sister is a good swimmer. You won’t have to keep track of her the whole time.

Yeah, Sokka. You can still play with Yinto. I’ll take care of myself. 

But—

I’m a bender, you know.

Katara, sweetheart, don’t—

What does that have to do with anything?

I’m just saying. I can protect myself and you.

Fine! Let her come! See if I care when she drowns. I’m going find Yinto.

Sokka, darling—

Fine! Leave! You’re the worst brother ever!

Come here, Katara. 

Why is he always so—so mean? I just want to swim wi—with him and Yinto. 

I know, my love. Come here. Don’t cry.

I—why does he—he’s so mean!

Katara, can I ask you something?

Mm—mmhm.

If Sokka was a waterbender and you weren’t, how would you feel?

I...but…but he’s not a waterbender. I am.

I know. That’s what I’m asking. What if it was the other way around? 

I…I would feel sad. I love bending. 

Why do you love bending?

Because…it makes me feel strong.

Alright, it makes you feel strong. Do you think all benders are strong?

Yes, and Gran-Gran tells me that she knows a really strong bender.

She does. What about Gran-Gran? Is she strong, too? Or is she weak because she can’t bend?

What? No. Of course she’s not. 

Is anyone who can’t bend any weaker than you?

Well...I can bend water, Mom.

Listen closely, darling. Yours is a gift you must wield carefully, humbly, and wisely. The Spirits did not give you this gift to destroy, but to uplift. Thinking yourself far better than others leads only to destruction.

I can’t destroy anything, though! I barely know anything about bending. I can’t even make a wave!

I’m not talking about physically destroying things, Katara. When you have the power to destroy, it becomes your responsibility to uplift. Only then will your courage shine throughout the world. Do you understand? 

 

%%%

 

The water is cold against her skin. 

Where the brig’s flames brought death, the sea’s chill brings life—reanimating, reviving, resurrecting. It curls and tucks around her curves, stretching up until it reaches her neck—their necks—and cutting off there, leaving room for them to breathe. 

She bends them up and over the ship. They hover above the starboard side of the deck—as Aang had all those months ago, in a different time, a different place; when they were different people. When Zuko had only been known as enemy.

Guards shout and point and run toward them. Some hurl balls of flame that she easily deflects. Zuko holds her waist so tightly that she can use both of her arms. With one she holds them in the vortex, with the other she deflects. Then, when there’s a lull, she twists her wrist and sends a roaring wave crashing over the ship’s side. 

So much for keeping a low profile. 

But that isn’t the goal, anyway. Not anymore. There is only one goal now—the means whereby she accomplishes it are immaterial. 

Both ships continue sailing. Other than the tiny hole in the brig at the bottom of Azula’s ship, there seems to be no change. She isn’t sure if Azula herself had noticed their absence yet—it doesn’t seem like it; it just seems like the frenzied guards are scrambling to tell her—but it won’t be long before she does.

All of the guards wash overboard. She doesn’t think of their survival—surely one could survive in the sea? For mere minutes?—just lowers herself and Zuko onto the now empty deck. They both roll to their feet—the landing hadn’t been that smooth—and drop into bending stances immediately. 

The deck is much smaller than Azula’s—plainer, too, with less niches to hide in—and, other than puddles of rain and seawater, it is completely empty. Not a single guard in sight.

She turns to a pale Zuko. Rain sloshes down his face and makes his hair stick to his forehead. His breaths are labored but his posture is stiff, ready—he holds her gaze before they move. Asking, maybe, the questions he is hesitant to voice. Asking the questions she is hesitant to ask herself. 

Carefully. Humbly. Wisely

Peace isn’t granted. It is earned. 

He nods toward the metal cabin door behind her. Toward the deeper parts of the ship.

Toward where the monster Yon Rha is. 

And all she can think as they sprint through the onslaught—the rain feels like daggers, feels like arrows, shooting into her skin and demanding she grow tougher—is of a towering man and a kneeling woman. Brave, even in submission. Courageous, even in defeat. 

Strong, even in weakness.

Death is more mercy than you could dream to deserve.

He is a monster. 

He does not deserve to live. Not when he took her mother away. 

But it is alright—the whipping of the rain is a promise. The whispers of the wind an oath.

Vengeance is hers. 

Only moments now, Katara. 

Only moments now.

 

%%%

 

There are guards fighting in the corridors and there are tears pooling in her eyes. 

She swishes her arms to the rhythm of the rain. It’s a dance, almost—her partner is her rage. She pushes, it pulls; she retreats, it chases. Up and down the yellow, torchlit hallways. 

Everyone looks identical. Everyone looks different. 

Not a single one is registered. 

All that is registered is Zuko in front of her, leading her down twists and turns and through doors and narrowed passageways and she’s so, so grateful that he’s here to lead her. She wouldn’t have found her way on her own. 

She can hardly find it now—she almost loses him a couple of times. Her legs burn as they sprint and the rain cannot touch them, not here, but three guards popping out of a doorway behind them strike. Zuko jumps in front of her to catch the fire but before he has even begun to return fire—literally—she has called the water in from the sea, from the rain outside, and frozen them each to the walls. 

Zuko fights two off with a sword he steals from a different frozen guard. She fights behind him with arms covered in water—their backs touch—and this is almost a dance, too. Her partner is her sworn enemy. She attacks, he falls back; she spins left, he spins right. They are dancing to the hisses of focus from his lips, to the screaming of blood in her ears, to the pounding of rain upon the metal, to the groaning of the swords. It is a haunting song. A bone-chilling song. 

A song she doesn’t know if she wants to remember. 

A song she is certain she will never forget. 

And then there are guards frozen or bleeding or knocked out—not dead, never dead—that line every corridor—

What’s the basis?

—and she follows Zuko to a daunting metal doorway. 

She doesn’t know what lies within—a control room, likely; where the captain resides—but she doesn’t care. All she cares about is who

Blood rushes through her veins. Through her arteries. To and from her heart; to and from each limb, each finger, each toe. Everywhere

All at her touch. All at her call. All at her command. 

Rage boils over, floods over, tsunamis over. 

She is left with nothing but fury. Her eyes are blind and white—sight no better than someone she knows, someone she loves, someone far from her mind—but she won’t need to see, anyway. It is better that she doesn’t. 

As long as he sees her. 

“This is it, Katara,” Zuko says, voice tight, breathing heavy, expression hard as he turns toward her. “Are you ready to face him?”

Yes. 

Yes, she thinks. 

For years she has lived with the guilt of inaction. 

Now, now—finally—she will atone for her failure. 

She will act. 

Her eyes harden until they are molten ice. Raising her sea coated arms, she roars in fury or frustration or anticipation or something—the tears sweep from her cheeks and soak into the effort—and the door blasts open, hinges creaking with the sudden force. 

One man stands at the front of the room, facing the glass, facing the sea.

She freezes in the doorway. 

He spins with fire in his fists to match the fire on his uniform—scarlet and gorey and he has blood on his hands

Her mother’s blood. 

Zuko jumps in front of her and catches one, two, three shots of flame. He steps forward, firing at the man’s—the monster’s—feet, then blocking again, then returning again. 

Tears drip from her eyes and feel like blood. 

Her mother’s blood

On his hands. 

Something too strong, too violent to be residing inside of her—dormant all these years—charges to the surface. 

Blood pounds in her head. Louder than her heart, louder than the rain. Drowning out everything else. Every voice, every memory, every shred of her conscience. 

Death is more mercy than you could dream to deserve

They aren’t her words. 

They may as well be, now. 

He’s lucky she’s feeling merciful. 

“Who are you?” his scaly voice demands, and it sounds so different than it did up on deck, up in the sunlight. When he held the power. When he held the status. When he held the advantage. 

He holds nothing now. 

He won’t hold anything ever again. 

Her mouth is dry. The water on her arms splashes to the ground. 

She inhales deeply and can feel it. With each breath, with each second, the connection grows stronger.

Blood rushes through his veins. Through his arteries. To and from his heart; to and from each limb, each finger, each toe. 

He steps into a bending stance. 

Blood. Everywhere

She brings her hand up to her chest. 

His arm falters. A puff of smoke leaves his fist. His eyes widen as his arm shifts to his side, as his other arm joins it, as they lock behind his back. 

Monster. 

Monster

Life barrels through every part of his body. His heart beats in her grip—she hasn’t touched it, hasn’t squeezed, not yet, but its beats taunt her, beg her, call to her—and it would be so easy to end it now. To end it all. To clench his heart until it erupts. 

“What’s…” he grunts, struggling in her hold, but his efforts are futile. Her will is indomitable. Her motivation is superior.

I’m not the helpless little girl I was.

“... happening to me?”

She steps past Zuko’s frozen form, ignoring it completely, and, with a tilt of her wrist, pushes the man to his knees. 

He collapses with a grunt, held up only by the strings at his shoulders; the strings that she holds. A puppet. A master. 

A monster

“Who—who are you?” he says, voice trembling in fear. “Pl—please! Please! I’ve done nothing wrong!”

The blood beats harsher at her fingertips. Pulsing. Drumming. Beseeching. 

Her grip crawls toward his heart. His words egg her on. 

I’ve done nothing wrong

She squeezes. 

Lightly. Not completely. She needs him to see her first. Needs him to look her in the eye rather than scrambling his gaze around the room. Only then will she finish it.

Her grip is still enough for his face to pale significantly. He wheezes out a choked cough, mouth drooping open. His hands fight her grip to his chest, but she holds them still. She flicks a finger and tilts his head back so that he can see her. 

His face is white. His lips are blue. His eyes are swollen with terror and—

Her eyes widen. 

She drops her hands to her sides. 

Released from her hold, he falls forward to the floor, hands clawing at the left side of his chest. His breaths are gulps and pants. Color returns to his face in slow, horrified bursts. 

“It’s not him,” she whispers hoarsely. Tears build behind her eyes because if she had pushed a little harder, pushed a little earlier; if she had been impatient enough to squeeze fully before checking who he was—

She swallows back a sob. Her eyes do not leave the struggling body. “He’s not the mons—”

Monster

He’s not the monster

She’s the monster. 

“—man. He’s not the man.”

Zuko’s stupor clears, and he steps up beside her. “What?” 

Her eyes are dry but she cannot blink. She cannot rip her gaze from the wheezing puffs of oxygen he struggles to pull in, from his hunched form, his sputtered coughs, the terror in his eyes.

That is her doing. All of it.

That is the product of her choices.

She held his heart a moment from death. A flick, a twist, a squeeze from death. 

Panic roars in her heart and this isn’t peace, is it? This raging inside of her soul? She almost killed him and for what? For peace? To earn it? 

The tears slip onto her face. They come from her eyes but still, they are too dry. 

She wonders if her eyes are empty. 

Just like his

How is this better? This isn’t what her mother would have wanted. For her only daughter to sink to murder. Even in vengeance. Even in her vengeance

Especially in her vengeance. 

And she’s a hypocrite still, isn’t she? Hating him for having no soul, for sinking so low, and now her eyes are dry. 

Now her eyes are empty. 

How can she call him a monster? When she is capable, desirous, willing to do the same thing?  

How can she call anyone a monster? When she has used someone’s blood as a weapon against them? 

Hasn’t she become exactly what Hama wanted?

How, then, can she say she is any better than her? Where is her moral high-ground now? 

She has none. 

This isn’t bravery. 

This is cowardice.

Carefully. Humbly. Wisely

Peace is not earned in cowardice. 

“What do you mean he’s not?” Zuko demands.

She cannot watch anymore. She turns on her heel and strides toward the door. 

 

%%%

 

Her mind is flooded. She cannot think. She cannot act. She can only re act, and even her reactions, apparently, are controlled by some higher evil. 

She fights with the tears that stream down her cheeks. Dozens of guards lie behind every corner, every door, but after Zuko had left the control room, he had whispered that he knew where to find Yon Rha. She had blindly followed him since. 

Followed him up, this time. Up beyond the deck. Clambering up and up iron stairs, shielded from the rain by a hard, thin sheet of metal above their heads.

Guards pour down the staircase. Three barrel at them now. From in front of her, Zuko ducks a pillar of flame and sweeps one’s legs out from under him. She jumps out of his trajectory and hears him crash into more guards behind them. 

Zuko shoots fire at the second of the three but he gets too close; he pulls out his sword. She doesn’t allow them any dueling time, though—she twists water—not blood, never blood; not again, never again—around the arm holding the guard’s sword, and yanks him down the staircase. He loses balance quickly, falling back into the now pile of guards behind them. 

She freezes the third guard to the wall before Zuko can even step toward him. They edge past and continue up the staircase. 

Her breaths are one thought away from sobs, so she forces her mind to quiet. The pattern is the same—they fight, they climb, they fight, they climb. The rain pounds on the metal and their steps pound on the staircase and her heart pounds in her chest, faster and faster with each moment that passes.

They’ve amassed a pile of nearly twenty guards behind them—some her doing, some Zuko’s; burns and cuts mar each of their skins—by the time Zuko slams to a stop. Her attention was elsewhere—she slams into him. 

“Sorry,” he says lowly, reaching his hand out to steady her shoulder. “Alright?”

She’s almost certain he’s talking about the near fall he’d just caused—and subsequently proceeded to save her from—but it doesn’t matter. Answering affirmatively would be a lie. 

She doesn’t nod. 

“Is this it?” she asks hoarsely.

More guards scramble down—she can hear their frantic shoutings —but Zuko doesn’t rush with his reply. He looks at her with pursed white lips and bright amber eyes, chalk full of all the feelings he will not admit to.

“Yes,” he says. “It actually is, this time.”

She does not hesitate. She bends tears from her eyes and uses them to whip the door open. 

They’re both immediately drenched. Rain paints the sky, grays the sharp silver metal of the ship, and they’re standing on some sort of balcony overlooking the sea. 

It is all at her command. 

Blood is at her command, too—on the far side of the balcony, a man crouches in front of them, basket in one arm, picking up an assortment of spilled tomato-carrots from the floor—but she will not use it. 

Not again. Never again. 

Behind her, Zuko shuts the door. He pushes his sword across the handles so that they will not be interrupted. 

A wind chime tinkles on her left. Its sound is distinct in the drowning rain. 

Water plasters her hair to her skin. She doesn’t care—doesn’t bend it away. She revels in the feeling of her element all around her. 

Her hands tremble at her sides. 

The thundering of the rain must have muffled the clanging of the door opening, for the man does not look up. 

She doesn’t care. She’s already memorized his eyes. 

Her trunk and limbs are numb and Zuko’s heat at her side—a constant, sure presence—is worthless. The roots of this chill dig deeper than the surface. 

No, Zuko cannot help her. The cold that weeds around her heart was planted six years ago. 

She takes a step forward.

Another. Another.

Beside her, Zuko steps, too. They move until they are steps away. Until she can hear him muttering under his breath. 

Until he sees their feet in his vision, looks up, and scrambles backwards. The basket swoops to the ground. Fruit and vegetables roll around their feet.

His eyes are wide, black voids of fear. 

Rain palpitates around them. 

A million thoughts in her mind scream to kill him now. Death is more mercy than he could ever dream to deserve. She has the power. She has all the power—the moon is high in the sky and she can feel his blood jumping in his veins and her fingers are twitching in anticipation. 

He knows why she is here. She knows he does.

Moonlight highlights his growing pallor. His eyes are stretched farther than his sockets should anatomically allow. His hands, his lips, his chin—every part of him trembles in terror. 

He is more of a coward than she remembered. 

Please,” he cries, shouting to be heard over the storm. He raises a protective hand above his head, cowering before her. Her, the cerulean soldier clad in scarlet. The faceless murderer from her dreams. 

That was—is—her. 

“I don’t know what you think you could possibly get out of begging,” she snarls, stepping until she towers over him. 

Her mother knelt before him—just like he kneels before her now—but her mother never faltered. Never pled. She sat straight-backed and kept her chin up in the air because that is bravery. Staying tall when the opposition is taller. 

She continues, voice clear even above the smacking of rain against metal, “You brought this on yourself.”

His breaths hitch into sobs and her mother didn’t cry. Her mother didn’t flinch. Her mother didn’t waver. 

Her mother is gone.

“Please! I did a bad thing! I know I did, and—”

“You are a murderer,” she hisses. Rain drips down her face and blurs with her tears and everything is blurry except the memories of that day. The memories of those moments. 

Those moments that were the last. 

Her lungs, her throat, her body burns. Her fingers urge her to hurt him. 

“You killed an innocent woman,” she says, and tears choke her words. “You killed her.”

“Please,” he cries. He backs up until he hits the metal wall and cannot move anymore. He glances over his shoulder like he is contemplating jumping off, but she knows that he will not. A coward does not have the pride. 

When he looks back at her, his eyes shake in greater fear. “Please,” he whispers. “Please, have mercy.”

Have mercy.

Water drills into her skull. 

“This is mercy,” she says. “Death is more mercy than you could dream to deserve.”

She sweeps her arms down toward the ground, bending her knees to get as close as she can, and then bounces back upright. Her arms snap straight out. Her fingers curl towards the sky.

The sky, whose raindrops have paused in their descent. 

It takes all her focus, all her attention, but this has always had her focus, hasn’t it? Always lived in the back of her mind? 

I love bending. 

It makes me feel strong. 

This is more than strength. Strength is so abstract a feeling, so abstract a quality. 

This is power. 

Concentrated power that throttles through her veins, leaks into the air, and overcomes even the Spirit’s rain. 

The droplets slowly pool in midair, forming a bubbling shield. 

He trembles in fear. 

Her heart hammers in her throat. 

With a sharp inhale, she draws her hands back into her chest. The water stacks itself behind her, obeying her every motion, bowing to her every command. She looks into his empty eyes and jerkily spins her hands. 

A thousand daggers of ice form behind her. 

And then, with a snap of her arms, they hammer toward him. 

I need this closure. I need this justice. 

I need this revenge. 

I have no choice. 

Death is more mercy than you could dream to deserve. 

He hides his face in his shoulder like a coward. The icicles spin towards him—sharp and eager and biting—and they are only inches away, her vengeance is only moments away, and finally, finally her closet will be cleared—

He brings his other arm up to protect his face. 

It hides his eyes—which are squeezed tightly shut, anyway—and now she is not looking at him, but at a young boy, cowering before a soldier for keeping his Prince alive. She is not thinking of him, but of a younger boy, cowering before his father for making his sister cry.

What’s the basis? 

Punished for good. Praised for bad. 

Whipped for good, whipped for bad. 

Violence is violence. There is no excuse. There is no exception. 

There is no justification. 

How will killing him atone for her sufferings? 

It will only make her suffer more. She will have blood on her hands. 

More blood than she already does. 

She thinks of the fleshy heart—skittering vigorously in her grip—that she so nearly decimated. How power less she felt, when she could not control her power.

She has all the power now. 

The power to stop the rain. The power to stop his heart. The power to stop his life.

But she has the power to stop the cycle, too. 

The power to choose

Maybe the responsibility of ending violence lies with people’s reactions. 

She does not want to perpetuate violence. She wants to uplift, not destroy. She wants to perpetuate peace.

She wants to earn her peace. 

She does not want to be a hypocrite any longer. 

She does not want to be a monster. 

The daggers of ice tremble a hairsbreadth from his face. 

They do not move closer. 

She stays in her stance—hands extended toward him, eyes hard and narrowed—but she does not move. 

She does not strike. 

Her heart beats in her throat, but she does not strike. 

Carefully. Humbly. Wisely.

She chooses peace. 

Slowly, warily, the man lowers his hands. His eyes are wide in some twisted wonder. 

She brings her hands back to her sides, and, closing her eyes so as not to see him, she steps back into a standing position. 

The ice plops down to the metal. The rain relaxes and resumes its steady fall.

“I did a bad thing!” the man says—eager, almost, in his rush to get his words out before she changes her mind. If there’s something she’s never been, though, it’s fickle. Not in decisions that she has already made. She half-turns away. The sound of his voice, the sight of his eyes—all of it sickens her. “I know I did and you deserve revenge! But we—we can make a detour to my home! I’m sure the Princess would understand. And you could take my mother! That would be fair!”

Bile rises in her throat. It’s spiny and flaky and bitter against her tongue. 

The tears on her cheeks blur with the rainwater. They wet her eyes—they aren’t dry, anymore—and taste salty against her lips. 

Rage, fury—they blind her. They wipe her mind. 

“I always wondered what kind of person could do such a thing,” she says, turning to face him fully, looking into his eyes, “but now that I see you, I think I understand.” Her tone grows harsher, colder with each word. “There’s just nothing inside you,” she spits, taking another step closer, towering over him again. “Nothing at all. You’re pathetic and sad and empty .”

“Please,” he whimpers, cowering with renewed vigor, selfish even to his perceived end. She hates selfish people. “Spare me.”

Her nostrils flare in resentment—he disgusts her.

“But as much as I hate you,” she says, resignation forcing her head away from him, reluctance forcing her eyes shut, “I just can’t do it.”

He slumps in relief. A hint of a smile graces his lips. 

Her hands clench at her sides but, exhaling, she drops her head to her chest and closes her eyes. 

The rain beats steadily against her head. 

A heartbeat. 

A lament.

A concession. 

 

%%%

 

But where has he gone, Gran-Gran? 

Far, far away, child. 

But where exactly?  

I do not know.

When will he be back? 

I do not know that, either.

What—what about me and Sokka? Where will we go? Now Mom and Dad are gone.

You’ll stay with me, of course. 

Until they get back? 

Until your father gets back.

That’s...that’s what I meant.

I know, child.

...

Will he be okay? 

Someday, yes. 

When?

When he finds peace. 

Where will he find it?

Inside of himself. 

And then he’ll come back?

Yes, my child. Then it will be like he never left. 

 

%%%

 

She does not know how long she stands in the rain with Zuko guard at her side, but it cannot be long, for when shouts begin to echo through the barred door, the man is still on his knees. 

Water blurs her vision and the traffic in her brain blurs her common sense. She cannot move for the whirl of thoughts—too many jam in one place; she cannot pin any down, cannot think any through, cannot discard any. She is stuck with a million scrambled, incoherent, half-thoughts that make her world spin—and she cannot breathe. 

She is drowning in the rain. Drowning in her own element, and, for reasons unbeknownst to her, the irony—the deja vu—fails to amuse her.

“Katara,” Zuko says, leaning to whisper into her ear, placing the ghost of his hand on her shoulder and squeezing lightly. “We need to go.”

She nods and moves to turn toward the door, but vertigo makes her stumble and she falls into his chest. 

He steadies her with two frozen hands on her upper arms. “Come on,” he whispers, as she blinks the dizziness away. “Just a little longer.”

She swallows her tears, forces her eyes to his, and nods. His gaze is gentle but imploring—they must get out before they are caught.

“Okay,” she says. 

He trails his hand down her arm and links their hands. “Stay right behind me,” he says, eyes flicking over her face. “Promise?”

“Promise,” she says. 

He watches her for a second longer before squeezing her hand and turning to move toward the door. With one, sweeping motion he pulls the sword from the door’s handles and swings it open. 

Her legs feel like they will give out any moment, but his grip is tight and grounding. She focuses on the patterns of his skin—callused and smooth; rough and soft—and lets him guide her up the spiraling stairs. 

She doesn’t know where he’s going—she doesn’t know if he knows, either—but as they climb and twist and turn down hallways, the shouts of the guards grow fainter, so she supposes he’s doing a decent enough job. 

But, as they turn into a long, polished corridor with soft carpets and scarlet banners hiding the harsh metal from sight, he halts abruptly.

She slams into his back again, but this time he doesn’t steady her, just holds up a hand in a gesture of silence. When she’s regained her balance, she presses close to his body and lets her forehead fall to rest against his back—she is too tired to stay upright, too tired to keep her eyes open. 

“Stay here,” he mutters, swiveling his unscarred eye back to look at her, then spinning back and turning the corner. 

He manages a few steps deeper into the hallway before she yanks herself out of her stupor and silently follows. 

Thoughts still pound in her brain, impairing her reality from the inside out, and the world still spins chaotically with every movement, but she drags her feet after him nonetheless. She will not let him fight alone. Not now, after what he’s done for her. After all they’ve done together. Not again. 

Never again. 

She turns the corner, too, and finds him sliding against the right wall, tilting his head to peek into a doorway.

Before she’s processed anything more, he’s spun into the room. Yelps of surprise and clashes of swords announce the presence—and anger—of at least five guards. 

Pain paints her every step, twirling up her ankles and dancing into her calves, jumping up her spine and pouring into her arms, her neck, her head—everywhere—but, gritting her teeth and forcing her gaze to focus, she follows him inside. 

Shock has allowed him to have already knocked two soldiers to the ground. The other three have regained their wits in the time it took him. Two of them rush at him now, swords drawn, and the other shoots fire at his chest. 

He catches the fire easily, bending it toward one of the oncoming soldiers. He shoots flame after flame at them, but they keep approaching—he is not fast enough, a soldier brings his sword down at his shoulder. 

Her head pounds but her eyes widen. Bracing herself against the wall, she whips her hand into a fist, and twists it into the air. All of the water that drenches his clothing, hair, and skin, lifts from his body and freezes above his shoulder, meeting the metal sword with a resounding clang. Shards of ice fly around the room. 

The stun of the hit sends the guard stumbling back a few feet. Zuko doesn’t lecture her for following him—that will come later, she is sure—but ducks a blow and knocks the sword from the other guard’s hands. It clatters to the floor. 

She wets her lips and, clenching an eye shut to relieve the pain in her head, gathers the water around the room. She wraps it around the guard that is bending. He struggles against her hold and her strength is fading into nonexistence, she cannot hold him long, but Zuko shoves him against the wall hard enough to knock him unconscious. 

Eyes shutting, she slumps against the metal behind her. Her breaths are heavy and the weight of the night is collapsing on her anew—her legs cannot bear the pressure. Tears are building and sobs are imminent and how will they escape? They will be prisoners again, and they will be separated again, and she didn’t kill him even though he killed her mother, and why didn’t she kill him? 

Her limbs tremble. Her breaths begin to hitch, anticipating the sobs, and she can’t breathe, she can only hiccup gulps of air, and she will fall any second, and then she’ll be just as unconscious as—

“Katara,” Zuko whispers, and pressure is suddenly against her cheeks. Callused thumbs wipe under both of her eyes and she realizes they are closed—she forces them open, if only to make sure that he’s real. “Stay with me.”

He is—he stands right in front of her, holding her upright against the wall. His face is bloodied and his breaths are short, but not as short as hers. She can’t breathe, she can’t see, she can’t think, she—

She didn’t do anything. Again. She ran away. Again. 

She releases a wild, choked cry, and squeezes her eyes shut. 

“Come on, Katara,” he says frantically. “Please. Stay with me. Don’t leave me again. You’re almost there, I promise.” He traces his hand down both of her arms this time—grabs both of her hands. “We just have to get into a lifeboat, okay? They’re right down this corridor.”

He tugs her hands gently, but she can’t feel his touch. She can’t feel anything except for her own weight—sinking down into the floor, drowning down into the sea.

“Come on,” he implores, and his voice, his face, his presence—all of it is distant. “You’re the strongest person I know. You’ve made it through so much. Make it through this, Katara.”

“I—I can’t move,” she says, ripping her hands away and pushing them against her forehead. Pounding and pounding and pounding and the moonlight, the torchlight, the starlight makes it worse, makes it harder, makes it harsher. “I can’t—can’t make it.”

He grabs her face between his hands again. “Yes you can,” he whispers, hot breath fanning over her face, and it’s thawing life against her freezing soul. “For you mother, Katara. Come on.”

She opens her eyes and meets his gaze—desperate, pleading, fierce. 

He tugs her hands again and this time she lets him lead her. He wraps an arm around her shoulder and pushes the door open. She stumbles and he rights her; she falters and he steadies her. The effort to keep her sobs contained is suffocating, but she knows she must not make a noise. The guards will not stay unconscious forever. 

She doesn’t see where they go, nor where they are going. All she feels, all that’s real, is the pressure of his arm over her shoulder. Is the heat of his side against her arm. Is the words he whispers to encourage her on. 

When he pulls her into a corridor, she nearly cries her relief aloud. 

“We’re here,” he says, so quietly that it hurts her head to strain to hear. Moving his hands to her shoulders, he pushes her gently against a wall. “One second, alright? I’m going to get the lifeboat.”

She nods faintly, closing her eyes and shoving her palms against her forehead to block out the pain. Rain still shatters at the windows, and they must be high in the ship because it’s even more prominent here. Even less muffled. 

Moments or minutes or centuries pass before he returns to her side. 

“Katara?” he asks. “Are you with me?”

She pries her eyes open. 

Reluctance and anxiety dance over his features. He grabs her hand and leads her across the room to a window that’s been blasted open. 

She must have missed that. She doesn’t really care. 

“We’re almost there,” he whispers. “I just need you to do one thing.”

Every muscle in her body screams their immediate protests. 

She flicks her gaze to his face. “Just bend the ocean up here,” he says, leaning over to lug a lifeboat into his arms. “I’ll put this on the water. We’ll jump in, and then you can let the water back—”

He freezes. She watches blankly as his eyes dart to the door, as his expression clouds with fear. He steps closer and pulls her to the edge of the room, on top of the broken glass. It bites her bare feet, reopening the cuts from earlier that night. 

Earlier that night. It feels like decades ago. 

“Katara,” he says frantically into her ear. “You can do it. Stay with me.”

She shakes herself free of the vices fighting for her mind. She can hear the pounding footsteps in the hallway now, too—the ones he must have just heard. 

They act now or never. 

She doesn’t even peer over the edge to see the distance. She closes her eyes, feels the swelling swirls of the sea, and lets it dance at her fingertips. She ignores the drummer in her skull and grits her teeth against the pain. Her heart hammers like an evil spirit, but she commands the water upwards, anyway. 

It funnels up and up, growing larger as the raindrops add to it, until it is right before them. 

Zuko leans forward recklessly—she hates that word—and drops the boat into the sea. 

Behind them, the door swings open.

Flames engulf the room immediately. Zuko steps into the boat and shouts something at her, but she’s too focused on holding the water upright, on the shouted demands of the guards that are too constant, too loud—she can’t hear. 

It feels like she’s left her body. Floating up, up, away. She focuses everything she has on keeping the water steady, because that’s what keeps her steady. That’s what keeps her grounded. 

Fire licks and burns her back, the bare skin on her arms, but all she can think about is how they’re running away. How she’s running away.

Again.

The moment I stopped running, I felt braver

From inside the boat, Zuko holds a hand out to her. 

Running doesn’t make you a coward. Sometimes running is the best thing you can do. 

She understands now, she thinks, as the sobs build in her chest. 

Running isn’t always right. Sometimes running is inaction—cowardice. 

But sometimes running is taking action. She ran before she killed him. 

Killing him would have been easy. Turning away—forgoing revenge—that was difficult. 

No, running does not make her a coward. 

It makes her strong

She takes Zuko’s hand, jumps into the boat, and releases her hold on the water. 

He holds her immediately—wrapping her arms around her, shielding her from the chasing flames, from the lurching of the lifeboat as it bounces back into the water, as it bounces back to the rhythm of the rain.

She does not pull away. 

 

%%%

 

She isn’t stupid. 

He says that she can rest. That they are safe, now, floating in the lifeboat. 

But both ships loom before them—tall and daunting in the rain-obscured moonlight—and she knows that they are not. Search flares and searching flames pour into each side of the water. It will be only minutes before they are found. 

She isn’t stupid. 

So she pushes the images in her mind aside and sits upright, letting the rain drench her completely. 

She grips the water and propels them away. 

“Katara,” Zuko says, shouting over the rain with the muted hope of someone who is speaking a lie for its surface value. “You need to rest. You should stop.”

He doesn’t want her to stop. 

She doesn’t want to, either. Despite the way it makes her body ache, sitting still would be worse. At least now, rising from her seat, facing the welcome darkness of the night, as wind and rain whip her hair around her face, she cannot see the ships behind her. 

She bends. And bends, and bends, until the flames and towering ships have all faded into the black. 

And if there are boats sent after them, the speed of her bending is impossible to match. 

 

%%%

 

Zuko turns to look behind them. 

“We’re being followed,” he says, ducking his head to speak into her ear. “I think it’s Azula.”

Her bending falters. 

Pictures dance around her mind—cobalt fire and a streaming sunrise and a pair of empty amber orbs chasing a pair of azure ones into the flames. 

Her mind, her heart, her body—all of her is numb. 

She is tired of being strong. Of having responsibility placed solely on her shoulders. 

She doesn’t want to do this alone. 

“Don’t leave me,” she says irrationally, lips sticking with saliva, turning her head over her shoulder to look him in the eyes. She’s already been so weak around him, what’s a moment’s weakness more? 

He doesn’t mock her. He doesn’t take advantage of her vulnerability. 

His eyes soften. “Never,” he whispers, tilting his head forward until their foreheads meet. He closes his eyes at the contact. “I promise.”

She believes him. 

Her mind skips weeks back. To the last time they were this close. To a quiet crystal chamber and words softened by glowing aquamarine and tears understood on an empathetic level and hatred buried under hope because maybe, maybe they could set their pride, their pasts, aside. 

And this is the same, isn’t it? The differences aren’t so stark. The silent wet night and words choked out under silver moonlight and tears shouldered by his sympathy, his selflessness, and hatred vanished—null, void—because she has finally set her pride, their past, aside. 

She thought he failed her, back in Ba Sing Se. By choosing to help Azula. 

But she failed him, too, didn’t she? By not giving him a second chance? By blaming him for the sins of his people? By hating him by association? By hating him at all? 

Her words are gasps beneath her reemerging sobs, but she must say them. The guilt, the sorrow, adds to the weight on her shoulders, and she must relieve it. He must know. 

“I—I’m sorry,” she says, and lunges flush against him. She tucks her chin into the crook of his neck and it fits and feels perfect and safe, and why has she waited so long to forgive him? 

She hasn’t wanted to. 

She’s been selfish—holding her anger, holding her grudge. And for what? For moral superiority? So that she could manipulate him? 

She thinks, though, that it’s more than that. It’s more that she’s wanted to forgive him for a long time. 

She just couldn’t do it until she’d forgiven herself. 

He is stiff in her grip—surprised, maybe? Uncomfortable? She doesn’t know—and her lungs are still heaving with her sobs. She only holds him tighter. He is warm and safe and everything she’s needed. 

She believes his promise. 

“I’m so—I’m so s—sorry,” she repeats, clenching her eyes shut, pushing her pulsing forehead into his shoulder. “I’m so sorry, Zuko.”

Slowly, hesitantly, his arms raise to wrap around her. His body is firm and warm and she sinks further against him, burying her head in his shirt. He leans his cheek onto the top of her head. 

“What for?” he asks quietly, breath hot against her hair. “You haven’t done anything wrong.”

“For every—for all of it.” Sniffing, she shakes her head. “I’ve been so unfair,” she whispers. “I’ve been terrible to you. I—you helped me without—without me even asking. You’ve changed and I—Toph was right. I didn’t want to see it, so I—I didn’t. But you have, and I’m sorry.”

She isn’t even making sense, but he seems to understand. His grip tightens. He pulls her closer—if that’s even possible—bringing a hand to the back of her head to push it closer, leaving the other wrapped around her back. 

I’m sorry, Katara,” he says. “You have no idea how sorry. Ba Sing Se...it’s my greatest regret.”

Her breaths come with difficulty. She hitches them in over and over, trying to get their pace to slow, to steady.

Her words, though, come with complete ease.

“It’s nothing now,” she says, and her heart rings the truth of her words. 

His grip goes slack. “What do you mean?” he asks. 

She pulls back to look him in the eyes. Under the moonlight, his amber eyes look like two suns, anxiously flicking over her face. “I’ll forgive you,” she whispers, blinking up at him, tears trickling down her face, “if you forgive me. Deal?”

“You make the worst deals,” he says reflexively, flushing even as he goes on. “You always cheat yourself.”

Slowly, a smile blossoms on her face. 

It’s wet and drowned out in the rain but he’s selfless, isn’t he? 

She doesn’t think he understands how much she wants to forgive him. How much she’s wanted to—how much better things will be. How much good it will do for her. She’s selfish, even in this. 

He isn’t. 

“Deal?” she repeats. 

As he realizes she’s serious, a grin spreads over his face, too, and he rests his forehead against hers again. 

“Deal,” he whispers, eyes darting around her face, rain pasting their hair to their faces. “Friends?”

She smiles. She nods. 

 

%%%

 

The rain gives way to a cloudy dawn, and, finally, he convinces her to rest.

From the back of the lifeboat, he propels them forward with two pillars of flame. The flickering sound is softer than the rain, and it softens the beating in her head. She sits on the side of the boat and bends water around her hands. She presses them to her head. 

Slowly, slowly, the pounding abates. She heals the cuts on her feet and the burns and slashes on her arms and then her head, again, until the pain vanishes. 

Two huge burdens follow the disappearance of the pain into nonexistence. 

First, any and all malevolent feelings towards Zuko. 

She didn’t think that they were dragging her down, but now that they’re gone she feels lighter. Freer. She looks up and smiles at him—his eyes closed in concentration, his fists shooting flames into the wind—and it is liberating. 

The other is the guilt she felt over her mother. 

She still misses her, and it still hurts. She doesn’t think that the longing or the hurt will ever go away. 

But her thoughts are growing fonder. Less furious, less destructive. The memories are warmer now. A comfort, not a condemnation. She can think on the events without recoiling in guilt. 

I’m always with you, sweetheart. Right by your side. 

She smiles at that, too, and there’s a quiet, gentle blanket around her heart that is more than hope, more than love. 

It’s almost peace

She wonders if she’s earning it. 

 

%%%

 

“We’re definitely being followed,” Zuko says. 

She wobbles to her feet and turns to follow his gaze. She doesn’t see anything on the horizon, but Azula knows how not to be found. She believes Zuko. 

She turns to face him. Sunlight glitters off his skin. His scar looks gentler in the daylight. 

Shielding her eyes with a hand, she asks, “What do you want to do?”

He breathes in deep and glances at her, then back to the endless sea. It, too, glitters in the sunlight. “We can’t lead her back to the Air Temple. So…we’ll have to face her, I guess.”

Better to get it over with. She nods. “Now?”

“No,” he says, spinning to face her fully. “You need to sleep first.”

She frowns. “I’m fine.”

“Katara. Sleep.”

“I slept for hours before...last night.”

He raises his eyebrow and his pointer finger. “An hour. One.”

She narrows her eyes. “Lie.”

“You’re not Toph.”

“No, but you’re a terrible, obvious liar.”

“I thought we determined you were worse.”

She crosses her arms over her chest and doesn’t validate the statement with a response. “I’m not sleeping.”

He rolls his eyes. “I don’t know why you think it’s a challenge. The only thing you’re proving by staying awake is that you’re stubborn.”

I’m stubborn? Says the guy who chased the Avatar for literal years!”

“That wasn’t stubbornness. That was dedication,” he mumbles, flushing and averting his eyes. 

“Mmhm,” she says, smiling, and smiles come so readily now, even though they’re being chased by the third strongest firebender on the planet. 

They come more readily than they ever have. 

Sleep,” he snaps. 

She grins. 

When she doesn’t respond, he drags his gaze onto her face. His eyes narrow. “Why are you smiling?”

“It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?” she asks, spreading her arms out to her sides and tilting her face up to the sky. “And I’m okay. I’m alive.” Her grin grows. “I’m awake. Lots of things to be grateful for.”

“You’re infuriating,” he grumbles, but when she glances down at him, hints of a smile pull at his mouth, and the frustrated creases on his face have smoothed away. 

She drops her arms but leaves her face reaching up, bathing in the sunlight. “Perks of friendship,” she quips. “You haven’t even seen the half of it.”

 

%%%

 

When dusk brushes the edge of the sea and the water blushes with golden light, she finally gives in. 

He isn’t tired, he promises—she begins to question the validity of a Fire Nation promise—but as soon as he is, he’ll wake her up so that they can switch roles. She will propel while he sleeps. Then, once they’ve both suitably rested, they will turn back to face Azula. 

The boat is small—she thinks that, even if all the passengers stood, it would only fit two more people. But the lip of the scarlet red curls in towards the middle, so when she lies down on the floor, her face is shaded and cool. Zuko’s legs are right by hers, but it isn’t crowded enough that he will trip. 

Their differences are fading, she thinks. 

And she smiles, because she is free

Free of hatred and anger and guilt and grudge and fear. He is with her, and that is enough. He will not leave her alone. 

The rock of the boat on the water’s swells lulls her eyes closed. 

She dreams of white pinpricks descending before a lavender sunrise. Of crunching leisurely through the snow. Of holding her mother’s mittened hand and seeing her content smile. 

Of peace. 

I’m always with you. Right by your side. 

Her breathing is steady. Her heart is sure. 

I know


end of book three: fuse