A chance encounter in a Ba Sing Se tea shop brings two adversaries into a rather haphazard alliance.
For clarity's sake, I'd like to reiterate that this chapter begins during the scene in 02x19 ("The Guru") wherein Katara spots Zuko and Iroh at the tea shop on her way to drop off the invasion plans with the Earth King. In canon, she runs to warn the EK and ends up inadvertently revealing Zuko's presence to Azula, who's at the palace in disguise, and is captured. Here, she confronts Zuko instead of running off and thus never reveals his whereabouts to the Earth King (or Azula) and is not captured. That's where this diverges and we'll see how that ripple effect changes the course of Book 2's events from here on out!
Time is of the essence.
Katara doesn’t want to let herself forget that: every wasted second opens the door that’s already straining to hold back catastrophe a crack wider. The sooner Earth King Kuei stamps his seal of approval on the plans for the invasion of the Fire Nation, the sooner Katara will be able to breathe with the knowledge that matters are in hands more capable than her own. Whether Kuei knows what he’s signing off on or not, he’s the only one who even can, and she has to make sure that he does before…
Well, she isn’t sure what, but she’s learned lately that there’s always some ominous after waiting for those who fail to act in time.
But, urgent errand or none, her feet drag. She finds her eyes drifting lazily across the bustling plaza, as if they’re sticking on every figure and building they see. Look around, something tells her, when what it should be telling her is get moving. The scrolls grow heavier in her hand with each passing, precious second. Move, says reason. But something louder and harder to define says look, and she heeds its call. She knows so little of cities, even after all these months of travel, that it isn’t hard to talk herself into stalling.
There’s much to fascinate, even in this tiny corner of the city: Ba Sing Se is a hub of activity that never seems to let up. Katara has no particular love for it, and she doubts that would change much if it weren’t policed by eerie smiles and soothing lies and glowering men in green, but it has a way of making her feel like she’s waking up after a lifetime spent sleeping. That makes it easy to stop and stare, and when her eyes drift to the open door of a tea shop – homey in a city of unnerving perfection, a lived-in building with warmth radiating from its cramped dining room – she doesn’t have the will to tell her feet not to move. They carry her to the tea shop almost of their own accord, and she decides, when Momo chitters excitedly, that her judgment of the place must’ve been sound. She can hear the shouts of the staff over the din of chatter as she approaches, calling for refills, and no one so much as looks at her as she enters – a rarity, in a place where Water Tribe blues are so uncommonly-worn. Katara doesn’t mind, for she’s not rushing like she knows she should be; this gives her time to observe, and that, apparently, is all she’s capable of doing right now. She hasn’t registered her tiredness much lately, but she feels the sleepless nights pressing down on her eyelids as her heavy eyes try to take in as much as they can.
She knows this is a terrible position to have put herself in: exhausted, vulnerable, unfamiliar with her surroundings, far from help. But she doesn’t feel that urgency any more than she feels the weight of the scrolls in her hand; maybe, she realizes, she is not transfixed, but so utterly exhausted that she can’t bring herself to resist the urge to stall, stop, rest. Her eyes flutter closed for a second, though she’s standing, and she’s jarred back awake by a waiter’s call for more lychee tea.
Katara hasn’t been able to sleep in days and she knows that that was always going to catch up to her eventually, but she finds it ridiculous that this, of all moments, is the one that her sleep deprivation has chosen to strike. She’s carrying top-secret information, and she needs to be as alert and awake as she ever has been, but as she slumps into a chair at a table that she’s decently certain is unoccupied, she can barely keep her eyes open. Her head is heavy and she’s nearly let it slump to the table when a half-familiar voice wakes her.
“Miss? Are you all right?”
“Wha’?” Katara yawns, raising her eyes and blinking to clear them. “Um…yes?”
“If you’re tired, I’d recommend the black tea. It’s…” the boy trails off the moment Katara’s eyes, still too bleary to tell her brain what it’s seeing with any kind of clarity, meet his.
“…energizing,” he says faintly. “I…I’ll be right back.”
With that, he’s all but sprinting into the back of the shop, and only then does Katara’s mind wake enough to put the pieces together. She can’t remember seeing his face, but she knows that voice. And she knows why he ran.
“ Zuko,” she hisses under her breath, and without a moment’s regard for propriety or the scene she’s causing or even the sheer stupidity of attempting this when she has so little energy to spare, Katara makes for the counter. Cursing her luck, she approaches the owner – Zuko’s uncle, she now realizes – and plants her hands on the counter so forcefully that Iroh flinches at the sound. “Sir, I need to talk to your waiter,” she says, hoping her voice is flinty and determined and not six seconds from a cavernous yawn. (It comes, of course, but at least she gets the words out first.)
“I’m afraid he won’t allow that,” he tells her, and she knows from the arch of his brows that he’s recognized her and puzzled things out. “But if you’re not going to threaten him, be my guest. He could use some-“
Katara pushes through the swinging doors to the kitchen without a second’s hesitation.
“-friends his own age,” Iroh mutters, shaking his head as he watches Katara retreat with sudden vigor in her step.
She waits until she’s out of earshot of the patrons – this isn’t their quarrel, after all, and they shouldn’t have to listen to it – to call after him. “I know you went back here, Zuko!” she shouts, confident that the parcels of tea lining the walls will be soundproof enough to keep this between the two of them.
“My name is Lee!” he calls back, and under different circumstances, Katara might’ve laughed at that. Here he is, cornered, and he isn’t even trying to hide; better an alias, apparently, than an evasion. But she’s frayed at every edge, exhausted and suddenly alert to the urgency of her mission, and she’s in no mood to laugh when she could be setting the record straight.
“Oh, really? Then why do you look and sound exactly like Zuko?”
“I have no idea who Zuko is!” he calls from some undisclosed location, which she can tell from the way his voice carries is at least halfway across the storeroom.
“Then why did you run when you saw me? Quit playing dumb, Zuko. You aren’t going to convince me that it isn’t you.”
“I…I was going to get some black tea! Because you looked tired and I was worried about you!” he protests. She’s almost impressed that he’s kept up the game for this long, but she’s not feeling patient, so she decides to put an end to it.
“Look, Zuko, you’re not going to fool me, so I’ll give you thirty seconds to tell me why you and your uncle are in Ba Sing Se before I waterbend you into next week.”
This is a ridiculous claim, as the only available water is in the tearoom and she can’t very well bend it through the door, but it seems to have its desired effect – Zuko, as Katara is learning, doesn’t think things through thoroughly enough to be able to spot an obvious bluff like that. (As evidenced by his pathetically flimsy cover, she supposes.) He steps into an open aisle, standing opposite Katara with all the confidence of a fawn separated from its mother. It’s an apt analogy – he’s all shyness now, long lashes and wide eyes, holding his head at a half-curious, half-frightened tilt – and it’s utterly disarming.
She’d been expecting the formidable adversary who’d hunted Aang – hunted her – for months on end. But there’s nothing of that Zuko in this scared, cornered boy. Even his stupid ponytail is gone – his hair is growing out, shaggy and just long enough to fall in his eyes. He’s awkward in Earth Kingdom greens that are just a little too long for him. Swallowed by his robes and hidden behind his shaggy hair, Zuko couldn’t be further from the person who’s plagued Katara’s worst-case-scenarios (she refuses him the honor of showing up in her dreams, even nightmares) since the North Pole.
But, where it should be reassuring, all of that only serves to stoke her anger, because if this is the person she’s been running from so frantically all this time, she’s a lesser adversary than she’d thought.
“I said you had thirty seconds,” she hisses, angrier still for the conflict she feels. “And it’s been at least fifty-two.”
(Truthfully, she has no idea how long it’s been, but it sounds good this way. Intimidating. Like she is in control.)
“Running,” he says, his voice steelier than his expression. Thank the spirits, Katara thinks, because at least he’s not gone completely soft on her. “Just like you.”
“Who says I’m running?” Katara crosses her arms. It’s ridiculous to deny it, of course, but she won’t give him the dignity of being unquestionably right.
“My sister’s trying to kill us both.” Zuko shrugs.
“Give me one good reason not to run to the Earth King and make sure he does it before she gets the chance,” Katara shoots back, trying not to let her voice shake. Seconds ago, it had been a gargantuan effort just to keep her eyes open; now, every muscle in her body is tensed and she stands as alert as she should’ve been all along.
So she stares.
And stares, and opens her mouth and prepares to give Zuko another tongue-lashing when he gapes like a fish instead of presenting her with an adequately compelling reason not to rat him out when she drops off the scrolls (and she really should be doing that right now, but instead she’s locked in snail’s-pace verbal combat with a boy she hates and there’s no going anywhere).
But he beats her to the punch.
“We need each other,” he tells her, so serious that she has to blink a few times to clear her vision, make sure she’s not seeing things. (Never mind that it’s the hearing and not the seeing that matters now.)
“I’m sorry, what?”
“We need each other!” he repeats, more emphatically, before his eyes widen at the realization of his gaffe and he elaborates, “to beat Azula.”
“Oh.” Katara doesn’t want to admit to being as relieved as she is that he didn’t mean something else. The relief wears off quickly, though, and her eyes narrow. “Wait, what?”
“We…are both running from Azula,” he says, panic creeping in at the edges of his words and bleeding onto his face. She doesn’t know Zuko all that well, but she knows that he’s a fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pantser – if she didn’t already, she’d know from the way he’s so obviously pulling this ridiculous argument about their duality or whatever out of thin air as he goes. “You and me. And…all of your friends. We want the same thing, see?”
Katara crosses her arms. “I’m not exactly following, but it sounds like you’re trying to cut a deal with me, and I want to know why you think I would ever agree to that.”
“Hear me out!” he throws up his hands, voice cracking. “Katara, please. Uncle and I don’t want any trouble-“
“Trouble seems to be all you want, mister I-must-find-the-Avatar-to-restore-my-honor,” Katara snaps, desperately hoping that he’ll miss the flush in her cheeks and she’ll forget about the way her heart stuttered like an off-beat metronome at the sound of her name in his familiar rasp.
“Look, I really don’t want to die right now, and I know you have no reason to trust me, but I know things about Azula that you wouldn’t think of,” Zuko pleads, urgency supplanting panic in his tone. “And it makes sense. We want the same thing – she wants the Avatar, you want to protect him. She wants me and Uncle on a boat back to the Fire Nation in chains, and I want…not that. We can help each other.”
“You said it makes sense,” Katara replies, bypassing the, frankly, surprisingly sound logic of his argument in favor of the one detail he’s forgotten to clarify. “What’s it?”
“Forming an alliance.”
“Oh, that’s rich.” Katara begins to pace, arms still folded across her middle, with a smirk that doesn’t want to exist but does anyway on her face. “You think that a common enemy makes us friends? After everything you put Aang through – after everything you put me through?”
“I never said we were friends, Katara!”
“Well, at least you’re not completely delusional, then.”
“I just said that it would be…” he searches for words. “…mutually beneficial. If we teamed up.”
“Or I’ve got you cornered and you’re terrified of me, so you’re making an offer you think I won’t be able to refuse?” Katara tries to arch an eyebrow like she’s seen Sokka do when he wants to seem like he has a situation under control, but she’s pretty sure that all she does is wiggle her brows unfetchingly. At least it’s a distraction, though – maybe if he’s staring at the caterpillar march of her failed eyebrow raise, Zuko won’t notice the near-audible thump of her frantic heartbeat against her ribcage, or the way she’s as frightened as he is.
“How do I know you’re not going to turn around and use me to bait Aang into giving himself up so you can take him home to your father?” Katara challenges, pacing again. It’s intimidating, but it’s also effective at concealing her face from his view – easier than schooling her expression when there’s so much that it wants to say. “And how do I know you’re not working with Azula, anyways?”
“Because I’m a terrible liar and a worse actor,” Zuko says plainly.
“If I were lying, you wouldn’t believe me.”
“What makes you so sure that I do?”
“Well, you haven’t disemboweled me with waterbending yet, so I’m pretty sure that you think I have information you could use.” Zuko shrugs as if the threat of disembowelment is nothing particularly unusual. Katara is almost fascinated by the ease with which he vacillates between abject terror and utter nonchalance, but she doesn’t have enough spare brainpower to dwell on it.
“You’ve gone from pretending not to be you to acting like a scared deer to trying to form an alliance in the space of ten minutes, and you expect me to believe that all of this is true?”
“Um. Have you met yourself?”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“You could and would kill me without hesitation if you didn’t think I was telling the truth.”
“I do not go around murdering people!” Katara protests, though it’s really not relevant, this reputation is serving her well in at least this one instance, and every second she wastes here, arguing the finer points of her moral code with Zuko, of all people.
“I’m pretty sure you’d make an exception for me.” Zuko sounds like he’s thought about this a lot, which is equal parts flattering and worrisome.
“No, I’d just report you,” she says drily. “I’m not one to take the law into my own hands.”
“Wow. That is so incredibly reassuring.”
“Isn’t it?” her eyes are steely and her tone has none of its sarcastic lightness anymore.
“Anyway. Alliance.” He looks back at her, clearly eager to forget about her threats. “I really do think that we’d have a better chance of not getting caught if we…shared information.”
“That makes a surprising amount of sense for something you came up with on the fly to save your own skin, but I’m not convinced that you aren’t using this as a way to get to Aang.” Katara frowns. “In any other case, I’d agree, but…”
“I’m done hunting the Avatar, Katara.”
“He has a name!”
“Fine. I’m done hunting Aang.” Zuko recoils like it hurts to give the faceless entity he’s hunted for so long a name. “I promise. I know you don’t trust me, but at least trust the facts. Why would Uncle and I be running a tea shop in Ba Sing Se if we were still looking for him?”
“Hm.” Katara doesn’t want to admit that, now that he’s no longer in a blind panic, his logic is completely sound. “So that’s Azula’s job now?”
“Her and her friends, yeah.” Zuko sighs heavily. “And they’re hunting me and Uncle, too.”
“As you said. And you want to…team up and fight her?”
“No, avoid her.”
“What, you’re just going to hide out in the Upper Ring serving tea forever?”
Something that could be hurt or doubt flashes across Zuko’s face, but it’s gone as quickly as it appeared. “No, just until she gives up-“
“I don’t know your sister as well as you do, but even I know that she doesn’t just give up.”
Zuko doesn’t say anything to that, and she almost feels sorry – clearly, she’s hit a nerve. But he doesn’t let it affect him for long, if at all, and it’s not defeat in his eyes when he looks up at her.
“It’s not complicated, Katara. I tell you what I know about Azula, and you tell me the rest. We help each other out, you don’t kill me-“
“I don’t kill people-“
“And, as soon as we figure out what to do about Azula, we never have to see each other again.”
“And what exactly is ‘the rest’?”
“Where you’ve been, and where she’s come the closest to finding you, and all of that. Stuff that would help us predict what she was going to do next.”
“I think the whole point of Azula is that you can’t do that, Zuko.”
“But…we could try?”
Katara shrugs. “Either way, I get the better end of the deal, so I’m not complaining. But how would we even do that?”
“Meet up, I guess? At…at the shop?”
“Not very inconspicuous.”
“Yeah, but I’m still not sure that you won’t try to kill me, so I need witnesses.”
“Hm. You’re smarter than I thought you were.” It’s harsh, but Katara can’t help but smirk. “So we exchange information and go on our merry way?”
“Well, I was kind of assuming that we’d keep each other updated-“
“No way am I telling you where I live.”
He shrugs. “Then, I guess…you come find me? You know where I’ll be.”
“Yeah.” Katara inclines her chin, thinking it over. “I mean, it does make sense, but…”
“You don’t trust me.”
“I have no reason to.”
“Well, I did save you from the pirates.”
“I liked you better when you had no sense of humor.”
“Didn’t know you liked me at all.”
“I don’t. I just disliked you less.”
“Whether you like or dislike me hardly matters. All I need to know is whether you’re taking the offer.”
“Fine,” she huffs. “I’ll meet you here at dusk. No earlier. Make sure we aren’t followed.”
She doesn’t wait around to hear anything more.
Zuko and Katara - joined by an unexpected guest - swap intelligence.
TIMELINE NOTE: since we never actually saw Zuko or Iroh acknowledge Azula's presence in Ba Sing Se during the events of "The Drill," I am working with the assumption that they knew nothing of the attempt to breach the walls. Given that the Dai Li managed to cover up a century-long war, I don't think it's entirely implausible that they would've kept that under wraps, too - plus, the story works better if the Gaang knows more than Zuko does. Thus, FWtE!Zuko and Iroh are unaware of the attempted conquest of BSS or Azula's presence in the city; the FWtE!Gaang obviously fought Azula in 03x13, but they don't yet know that Azula is in the city again. [Zuko also doesn't yet know that Toph is blind, which exists because a) there’s nothing in canon at this point to refute it and b) the idea of Zuko just straight up missing something that huge amuses me.]
STYLISTIC NOTE: the tone of this is decidedly lighter than I'd expected it to be when I began writing. From Zuko's endearingly bumbling-idiot thought monologue to the (hopefully) comedic descriptions of gestures/body language and Toph's nicknames (Snake Fangs...pls kill me and bury me in the ground before anyone reads that), I'm kind of embracing my recent realization that I love to laugh, and to make people laugh, and I don't have to take my writing so seriously when all I want to write is comedy. Obviously, there will be more frequent serious beats as their emotional rapport grows, but one of the things I love most about ATLA is the joy and laughter it brings me, and I want to recapture that joyousness here. Is it good? Probably not. But that fits with my three "this is how I'll grow as a writer" goals for this story:
1. Attempt comedy
2. Spawn chaos
3. Embrace The Badness
And, by goulash, I'm going to stick to them. That might not be everybody's thing, and I promise this will also have its serious/emotional moments, but I want to write something as zany and offbeat and fun as the source material can be, so...here goes.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
This, in hindsight, was probably not Zuko’s wisest decision.
Oh, sure, it seemed perfectly sound in the moment of blind panic which had birthed it: it buys him at least a few hours’ worth of assurance that Katara won’t take what she’s learned to the Dai Li (he thinks it will, at least – one can never be too sure), and it’s at least somewhat possible that Katara will have useful information. Even the logic of his argument was solid – after all, it is true that they have a common enemy, and pooling their knowledge on said common enemy makes strategic sense. But the rest of it? The hastily-formed alliance, the very real possibility that Katara’s only agreeing to talk him into a trap or planning to take what he says and turn on him?
In that light, this agreement is slapdash, irrational, and completely insane.
In other words, it’s classic Zuko. And he really shouldn’t be surprised when Katara arrives at the Jasmine Dragon dusk and she isn’t alone.
“Did we agree that you could bring backup?” Zuko narrows his eyes. “I’m pretty sure you were supposed to come here by yourself.”
Katara shrugs. “You never specified,” she says, gesturing to the diminutive Earth Kingdom girl by her side. Zuko’s pretty sure that he’s seen her before, though he can’t quite place her name or the circumstances of their meeting. “This is Toph Beifong. Think of her as a safety measure.”
Oh, Agni, the Beifong kid. He remembers, now, precisely where he first encountered her, and precisely why that should concern him.
“I’m just here to make sure you don’t try anything stupid,” the girl says, shrugging as if she really can’t care less whether he does or doesn’t. “And I’ll be able to tell if you’re lying.”
“Um. This was not part of the deal.”
“What, worried that you won’t be able to feed me false information?” Katara folds her arms across her chest. “Let this be your reminder that I still don’t trust you. Just because I agreed to meet with you-“
“Trust me, the feeling is mutual.” He levels a glare at Katara, which only widens her smirk, and then at Toph, on whom it has no effect at all. “Can we just get this over with?”
“Right.” When Katara agrees, he extends his hand towards the shop’s back entrance, too worried that he’ll blurt out something not entirely to his advantage if he tries to speak. She and Toph follow, though he catches Katara throwing glances over her shoulder every couple of feet. Do you have to make it so obvious that you don’t trust me?, he thinks, but he can’t really blame her when he’s just as certain that she’ll have the Avatar waiting to ambush him around the next corner he turns. She doesn’t, though: they make it through the storage area and dining room of the tea shop without incident on their way through to the apartment. It’s more secure there – better not to risk being overheard.
Katara, once they reach the apartment, stands in the doorway as if she isn’t quite sure where to go from there. Toph enters as if it is her apartment and not his, plops into a chair, and promptly crosses her arms as if she’s been greatly inconvenienced.
Zuko isn’t sure what to make of this.
“So.” It’s Toph who starts, glaring across the table at…something slightly to the right of Zuko’s head once he sits down. “You and your uncle are on the lam.”
“If by ‘on the lam’ you mean being chased by my unhinged sister, then yes, we are.” Zuko returns her glare, even though the positioning of her eyes (they’re unusually milky, he notes) is such that he isn’t sure if she’s looking at him or at the blank patch of wall over his right shoulder. “And I agreed to talk to Katara, not you.”
If Toph is offended, she doesn’t show it. “Well, Katara’s standing in the doorway, gaping like a fish, so wouldn’t you rather talk to the person whose head’s on straight?” she challenges.
If Katara is offended, she doesn’t show it, either. Then again, she doesn’t show much of anything, frozen as she seems to be in the doorway.
Zuko, though, is offended, and doesn’t care if he shows it. “Look, I don’t know what game you’re playing, but I agreed to this because I thought it would help us both and if it’s not going to do that, you might as well just go.”
“You’re bluffing,” Katara finally interjects. “You need a guarantee of our silence too badly to throw away your only option.”
“Oh, so now she speaks?” Toph turns her head, though her eyes still don’t look like they’re actually on Katara, and sticks out her tongue. “Way to make the backup do the heavy lifting.”
“I…needed a minute,” Katara says with as much dignity as she can muster.
“You sound like my sister,” Zuko adds unhelpfully. Katara rewards this lapse in judgment with the stoniest glare of which she is capable. “Uh, speaking of. We should…probably talk about her.”
“That is why we’re here, yes,” Katara says drily. “So. Do you know anything useful?”
“Define ‘useful,’” Zuko says, despite possessing the knowledge that he absolutely does not.
“Uh…her current whereabouts?” Katara crosses her arms in a way that Zuko is beginning to realize is very, very Katara.
“No clue. I haven’t exactly been keeping tabs on her location.” Zuko shrugs, because there doesn’t seem to be anything else to do with his body that would be appropriate right now and all of this pent-up adrenaline has to go somewhere. “It’s mostly just been Uncle and I randomly wandering through the Earth Kingdom and trying not to die lately.”
Katara scans the apartment’s opulent common room with a quizzical tilt of her chin. “Uh…this really doesn’t look like ‘trying not to die.’”
“Well, no, not recently-recently, but, uh.” He clears his throat. “Yeah. We haven’t, um…had eyes on her.”
“And do you have any idea where she and her creepy sidekicks went after that whole drill fiasco?” Toph asks, raising her eyebrows in mirror-image of Katara’s. “’Cause that’s the last we saw of them.”
“Quit playing dumb, Zuko. You know exactly what she’s talking about.” Katara crosses her arms again, This Time With Feeling.
“Um, no, I…I’m not,” Zuko says, though he knows it’s a weak defense. “I really don’t have any idea what you’re talking about. Why? Is that the last time you saw her?”
“She was here, Flamebrain,” Toph says as if each and every single bone in her body is unimpressed with this tomfoolery. (It probably is.)
“What?” Zuko’s eyes dart around the room as if he expects Azula to emerge from the walls at any moment (which, really, wouldn’t surprise him as much as one might think it would). “Here-here? In Ba Sing Se?”
“Yes, here-here.” Katara doesn’t really seem to believe that Zuko’s confusion is genuine, though it couldn’t be more so. “She and these two other girls our age were trying to breach the city walls with a drill. You’re seriously telling me that you didn’t know that was happening?”
“Um…no.” Zuko isn’t sure whether to be embarrassed that he’d managed to miss something so obvious, relieved that he’d managed to miss Azula, or frightened by the knowledge that she was here – and with help – without his knowledge. “How…how did we miss that?”
“Censorship in this place is tight?” Toph shrugs. “I mean, they managed to hide an entire war from the whole population of Ba Sing Se, so I guess a drill trying to breach the walls wouldn’t be that hard to cover up in comparison.”
“Wait, so Azula was actually in Ba Sing Se? When was this?” Zuko has about six more questions to add, and he leans forward, palms flat on the table to balance his weight, but Toph raises a hand to cut him off.
“Try to keep up, Flamebrain,” she says coolly. (He resents this nickname. However, he resents the idea of a broken nose quite a bit more, so he doesn’t choose to raise the issue.) “That had to have been a couple weeks ago now.”
“A couple of weeks? You’re telling me she’s been in the city for a couple of weeks and I never heard about it?”
“No, that’s what we’re asking you,” Katara says. Her voice is surprisingly level now as she slips into her now-familiar role as voice of reason.
“Where Azula went after that,” Katara elaborates. “Two-ish weeks ago, she and her two…friends, or whatever, showed up outside the city with a drill that they were trying to use to breach the outer walls and take Ba Sing Se. We managed to stop them, but only just, and we’re pretty sure they aren’t still in the city, but we have no idea where she ran off to after that.” Katara pauses to breathe. “I was hoping that you’d have information that I didn’t about where she went, but you obviously don’t.”
“Wait, give me a minute.” Zuko holds up a hand the way Toph had earlier (when in doubt, he’s learned, mimic others’ body language), and the girls take the hint, to his relief. Neither say anything as he sits in silence, processing what he’s learned. “Okay. So…Azula was here with two girls our age, trying to breach the walls with a drill – what kind of a drill could break through city walls, anyway?”
“A really, really, really huge one,” Toph adds. This detail hardly needs clarifying, but it nevertheless appears to be enlightening to its recipient, who nods in recognition.
“And you have no idea where she might be now?”
“You’re the one who said I had useful information, not me,” Katara points out.
“You do. I didn’t know she was traveling with her entourage.”
Katara narrows her eyes. She’s still standing in the doorway, too wary to come inside (Zuko notices that her hand almost never leaves the waterskin hanging by her hip), but she’s begun to lean against the doorframe. “Entourage?” Great. So this is normal, too. “Is that, like…an actual thing?”
“Not exactly, but if you saw her with two girls our age, I’m pretty sure I know who they were,” Zuko explains. “She had these two friends growing up, Mai and Ty Lee. The three of them did everything together. Wouldn’t surprise me all that much if she’d recruited them to help find me or…whatever.”
“One was a tall girl with two buns in her hair and the other was some kind of acrobat or something,” Katara specifies.
“Mmhm. Definitely Mai and Ty Lee, then.” Zuko lets out the kind of longsuffering sigh he’s been waiting for an excuse to release since he talked himself into this corner. “That’s not great for us.”
“Nope. The acrobat girl-“
“So the tall one is Mai?”
“Okay, anyways. Ty Lee knows how to temporarily disable bending, which, like you said, obviously isn’t great for us.” Katara and Toph wince in near-unison, even though they aren’t facing each other and couldn’t possibly have been intentionally coordinating their reactions. The synchronicity is a little creepy. “Mai doesn’t seem to be as bad, but even so, the last thing we need is more people who want us thrown in a Fire Nation prison.”
“Why just a Fire Nation prison? I’m pretty sure Snake Fangs wants us locked up as bad as Azula,” Toph interjects.
“Snake Fangs?” Zuko’s eyes narrow. “Who’s Snake Fangs? And how have you people managed to make so many enemies?”
“Toph likes making up nicknames,” Katara sighs, as if this is a regular occurrence which, by now, is too familiar to be annoying but too annoying not to acknowledge. “Snake Fangs is Long Feng, the leader of the Dai Li.”
“Those creepy earthbender guys?”
“You’re aware that they’re the ones with all the power around here, right?” Katara asks.
“Well, yeah, but that doesn’t explain why he wants you in prison. Why does he want you in prison?” Now it’s Zuko’s turn to cross his arms. He thinks this is a rather good move, turning the tables and whatnot. (If Katara agrees, it’s impossible to tell.)
“We, uh…kinda told the Earth King that there’s a war on,” Toph says candidly. “And, y’know…got him arrested for treason. I’m pretty sure that hasn’t actually done much to stop him, but still.”
“The Earth King just…didn’t know that his country was at war?” Zuko’s pretty sure the girls are messing with him, but everything else they’ve said makes sense, so he decides to take the risk of maybe believing them. “You’re joking, right?”
“Sadly, no.” Katara’s shoulders slump wearily. “I don’t know how, but the Dai Li managed to keep him completely in the dark until we showed up. He really did have no idea that a war was going on.”
“Well, the fact that he has the common sense of a paper bag doesn’t really hurt,” Toph tells him. “He’s completely dependent on his Dai Li agents. We only managed to convince him by showing him the remains of the drill, and even that barely worked.”
“Okay, and then what?” Zuko decides to put off his disbelief for long enough to get the information he needs in a rare display of pragmatism of which he’s a little too proud.
Katara visibly holds back, chewing her lip (uncertainty – that’s new) as she considers the best response. Zuko has never been fluent in body language, but he doesn’t need to be told that she’s trying to figure out how to tell him what he needs to know and hide the rest. “We…were able to give the Earth King information about the war that he needed to know.”
“Because you needed his armies to fight the Fire Nation?” Zuko guesses.
“No,” Katara says flatly. He can’t tell if she’s lying.
“Katara, the Fire Nation is trying to kill me. I’m not going to be mad if you tell me that you’re trying to attack it.”
“I highly doubt that,” Toph cuts in. “You seem to take your loyalties pretty seriously, whether you want to or not.” Zuko shoots her the kind of dirty look that lets her know that she was right.
“All we agreed to talk about was Azula, so I’m not going to get into the details of the Earth King situation,” Katara replies after a beat. “All you need to know is that he needed to know about the war. Theorize all you want, but I don’t think it should be hard to figure out why.”
“No,” Zuko admits, though he wants to probe. “Anyway. He knows now?”
“Seems like it, although you can never really tell with a guy who throws parties for his pet bear.”
“He does that?” Zuko wonders, not for the first time, if he hasn’t quiet shaken off the fever he’d come down with a week or so ago. This would certainly all make a lot more sense if it were some sort of fever-induced hallucination.
Never mind that. Hallucination or not, this is useful, and he needs to stay alert.
“Don’t ask,” Toph huffs.
Zuko has about a thousand follow-up questions, but before he asks, he pauses to sift through the information he’s received and shuffle a list of pressing questions around in his mind until they’re in order of urgency (and, truth be told, likelihood to be answered) until he finds one that ticks both boxes. “If your goal is not to get captured, why would you come to the one place you knew she’d find you?”
“Did you miss the part where she was trying to conquer Ba Sing Se?”
“And you were trying to stop her?”
“We did stop her.”
“So why stay?”
“You know I’m not going to answer that.”
“Actually, I don’t. I have no idea why you stayed here after you gave up your location. Seems like a great way to get caught.”
“There are some things more urgent than avoiding your sister.” Katara looks down at the floor again – keeping secrets, even from her mortal enemy, is clearly not her favorite.
“Like what, training the Avatar? You could’ve done that anywhere.”
“Dude, just quit it. She’s not going to give anything up.” Toph fixes the wall behind Zuko with her most pointed glare. Why does she always fix her gaze a few inches away from whatever she’s looking at?, he wonders, but doesn’t ask. “What matters is that we’re still here now, and we need to get as much information on your sister as we can so that when Aang gets back-“
“The Avatar’s not in Ba Sing Se?” Zuko’s eyes nearly bug out of his head. “But…but I just-“
“-but you just said that you all fought Azula together!”
“Yeah, two weeks ago,” Toph goes on. “But then-“
“Toph Beifong, I swear…”
“Katara, we can trust him,” Toph says firmly. “Seriously. He isn’t lying. He’s not going to turn on us.”
“How could you possibly know that?” Zuko asks before he realizes that the last thing he wants to do is cast doubt on his sincerity.
“I have my ways,” Toph says, and he can tell that he isn’t meant to press. “Anyway. After Snake Fangs got arrested, we all got letters that the Dai Li had intercepted-“
“Toph, what are you doing?” Katara hisses through her teeth. Zuko probably isn’t supposed to hear her, but he does anyway.
“-trying to get us to split up. I was pretty sure mine was a trap, and Katara needed to sort out some stuff with…” Toph finally thinks better of offering up so much information. “…people, so we stayed behind.”
“So you’re the only two members of your group left in the city,” Zuko realizes. “Huh.”
“I think we should go now,” Katara replies, forcing a chipper tone over the knife-point sharpness of her words. She finally passes the threshold and yanks Toph’s arm with more force than either is used to. “Before you can tell Flamebrain here any more-“
“I didn’t even say anything bad!”
“Wait, don’t!” Zuko calls after them, his chair teetering precariously on its back legs as he stands a little too quickly. He sees stars, but he’s not particularly worried about it. “I can still help you!”
“I’m sure you can,” Katara says in a tone that seems to lower the ambient temperature by several degrees.
“No, I’m serious!” he protests, surprised at how frantic he is to have his burning questions answered. “I know Azula better than you do. I could…I could help you figure out her next moves?”
“Great. We’ll be back tomorrow, same time,” Toph says with a self-satisfied smirk that can’t mean anything good.
“No, we will not!” Katara protests.
“Who’s acting like a child now?”
“I never said you were acting like a child!”
“Yeah, but you thought it-“
Zuko watches the two go, bickering loudly enough that he hears a few neighboring businesses open their shutters to see what’s happening. So much for subtle.
He sinks back into his chair as soon as they’re out of sight and buries his head in his hands. So much for helpful.
“She’s pretty, Zuko.”
Zuko glances up at the sound of Uncle’s voice and lets out another of his longsuffering sighs. “I think she wants to kill me.”
Iroh smiles knowingly. “Doesn’t that make her even prettier?”
“No.” He pushes his udon noodles around in their bowl, because he certainly has no intention of eating them. “Just a lot more annoying.”
“Either way, it’s good to see you making friends.”
“I wouldn’t call it that.” He lifts his spoon, then lets it fall to the surface of his soup with a watery thwick.
“Well, give it time.”
“I’m serious, Zuko.”
“So am I.” He glances up again. “The Avatar isn’t here anymore.”
“Oh.” Iroh’s face falls, slowly, methodically, like the descending notes of a scale. “I see.”
He doesn’t have to explain that, with that knowledge, his years of Avatar-hunting are well and truly over.
He doesn’t have to explain why that matters, either.
This is a day late because I took a very long depressed nap yesterday instead of writing it.
Literally. That is my excuse.
Azula becomes aware of a relevant development; Zuko has a minor existential crisis; Katara isn't convinced that she can trust her new ally, and Iroh observes.
The tonal shift from last chapter to this one is WHOA and I'm sorry but I feel like, starting with an intense Azula scene, I was never ever going to end up bringing this around to comedy. And I am grateful for that. Balance is necessary, methinks.
Also, in several vignettes, the central character is only referred to as "he" or "she" until the last line. This was done for Effect. Context clues are necessary to figure out who's speaking but should be fairly clear - I hope that this isn't confusing, because I tried not to let it be, but it's also kind of experimental so idk how well it'll work out. Happy reading!
“So sorry for the hold-up! I’m just out of a meeting. I’ve been in so many meetings lately.” King Kuei shakes his head as if tutting at a minor annoyance.
To him, it probably is, she reminds herself.
“Oh?” her eyes narrow, though she does her best to keep their movement too small for the King to detect from his throne a few yards away. “May I be so forward as to ask what’s been taking up so much of your time lately?”
Kuei nods enthusiastically, as is his custom. “It’s this whole dreadful war business,” he sighs. “I really don’t know how to make heads or tails of it.”
“In that, you have my sympathy,” she says coolly – it’s an easy lie, and one she nearly chokes on. War is the easiest thing in the world for her to understand. War raised her, made her, tested her and trained her, and she is its child. Dimly, she thinks that people and their soft, fickle hearts – their unpredictability, their foibles and falling-outs – are the true mystery. “Now that you’ve been made aware of the war, what are your advisors pressing you to do about it?”
“Well, you see, that’s the tricky part,” he says, adjusting the ridiculous glasses that perch at the end of his nose. “They want me to sign off on all of these invasion plans they’re drawing up, and I don’t know the first thing about planning an invasion.”
“Oh, really?” she arches a painted eyebrow. “War or no war, I would think that a noble monarch such as yourself would at least have been given an education in military tactics. Strategy, that sort of thing? No?” she longs to take one of the fans at her sides and flick it open and closed, open and closed, but such a gesture would be unbefitting of a Kyoshi Warrior – she knows how they treasure those fans. Kuei probably knows too little of their culture to see such a gaffe for what it is, but she isn’t taking any risks. “That’s a shame. Perhaps we could be of assistance in that area?”
Kuei leans forwards, as if to get a better look at the three Kyoshi Warriors kneeling before him. “You could?” he asks, a little too eager. Pathetic, she wants to scoff. No Fire Nation heir would ever be allowed to maintain such blatant ignorance of the basic facts of rulership, of warcraft – they’re one and the same, after all. “Did you and your Warriors fight in the war?”
“No,” she says, drawing out the syllable as if she has to think about this. Of course not. We’re neutral, hiding from the war like the cream-faced cowards we are, she’d say if she felt like being honest, but she rather prefers to win, and winning means staying in character; she bites her tongue. “Kyoshi Island is neutral, so our Warriors are not involved directly in the fighting. But we live with the threat of war just like everyone else does. We’re as concerned as I’m sure you are, and I can assure you that we are nothing but committed to the task of bringing the Fire Nation down.”
It’s another well-packaged lie, even harder to swallow than the last. Azula has no trouble going against principles, usually, but something about this casual denunciation of her birthright and her quest is difficult to stomach. Lying is second-nature, though; the Earth King can’t see the way her stomach twists.
“Then I can’t tell you how grateful I am to have you here,” King Kuei replies. “You know, I’ve been having the worst time with my advisors lately. They all talk in the most ridiculous military jargon, and I just can’t keep a single word of it straight. And I want to help! I’m…I’m the King, after all.” His shoulders droop. “I just don’t know how to do it without help.”
“Without the help of the Dai Li?” she prompts.
Kuei raises an eyebrow. “I guess word gets around fast.”
“I heard about what happened to their leader yesterday,” she says, voice dripping with mock-sympathy. “I’m so sorry. It must be so hard to have to do something so difficult without the help of the person you used to trust most in the world.”
“Oh, it’s horrible,” King Kuei freely admits. “Right when I sign off on a plan to invade the Fire Nation, too…”
She has to rein in every muscle in her body so as not to tense and give up her lie. “Oh, really?” she says, casually as she can muster.
Kuei nods. “They’re planning to invade this summer, on the day of the solar eclipse. That’s just about all I understood, and I hate signing off on a plan that I can’t even explain, so…”
“We can’t have that,” she agrees. “Why don’t you show us these plans? We’re all trained in both combat and strategy. We might be able to help you piece together some of what your advisors are planning.”
She doesn’t care if he declines – she’ll move any mountain to get her hands on a copy of that invasion plan.
“Really?” King Kuei’s eyes light up, and she sees that she’s been worried in vain. “I really would appreciate that so much!”
“Of course, Your Majesty,” Azula says evenly. “This benefits us as much as it benefits you, after all. And we’re not exactly in the practice of turning down help.”
He’s taken to lying awake well into the night, trying to clear his mind, kicking the sheets into an tangled lump at the end of his bed, thinking too much in spite of his best efforts not to. Sometimes lying still isn’t enough; on those nights, he paces, or sometimes merely sits up and tries to meditate if he thinks the risk of waking Uncle is too great. None of it ever helps, and he doesn’t know why he bothers, but he does anyway.
He has to do something, after all, else the realization that all he is and all he will ever be is an Upper Ring tea server with a name not his own and a story with one too many blanks will eat him alive.
He’s tried to rationalize this to himself since his first meeting with Katara. He’s been done hunting the Avatar for weeks now – that’s not his life anymore, and it would be impossible for him not to know that. He’s not a Fire Nation prince or even really a runaway anymore; he’s a lucky fugitive making a life on this patch of sanctuary ground, even if he feels it retreating daily beneath his feet for no reason at all. He’s tried to explain why he feels the way he does: he knows the Avatar is near and it kills him to be passing up this chance, maybe. Perhaps he can’t trust a good thing, and he’s held onto that idea as stubbornly as he does everything else in the hopes that, when this too-good-to-be-true life falls apart as everything around him does, he’ll have something to do, someplace to go back to. But none of those explanations satisfy him, and he hates the nights, because that is when it becomes hardest to deny that he’s known the real reason for his fitfulness all along.
The Avatar has always been more of a promise than a quest to him: find the Avatar, restore the order that he never should’ve broken to begin with. Knowing that the Avatar – Aang, he knows now, nothing more than a child out of time in more ways than one – is out there, somewhere, that he could be found, has kept him going when the road was too steep and the temptation to stop climbing almost too great to ignore. And he should feel even better, knowing that he’s found himself in the same city as the Avatar and his companions by sheer luck. But it doesn’t, because he’s doing nothing with it. All that luck, and he’s wasting it serving tea to the dithering upper-class of a city his family wishes it controlled and plotting with a girl he should hate and another girl he should hate even more.
This is why luck never seems to land on you, Azula would tell him. When it does, you just waste it. Just like you waste everything else. She’d crack her knuckles, roll her neck as if presenting a challenge. My time, the gift of your bloodline.
But he gave that up, and so he didn’t even know that he was sharing the bone-dry air of this revolting town with the child whose capture could give him the life he longs for. And now that he does – now that he does by mistake, by the accidental admission of a girl he’d only ever agreed to speak to because he thought he’d be sliced in half with an icicle or whatever it is that waterbenders use in combat (note to self: learn what waterbenders use in combat so you can taunt her with anticipated threats without looking stupid) – it’s too late.
His fist slams the mattress.
It’s too late. He had the kid in the palm of his hand and he let him fly away. His one chance to prove that he’s more than a waste of royal blood, to see pride in his father’s eyes instead of revulsion is gone with the thwish of an opening glider.
Zuko doesn’t know why he bothers anymore – not with these meetings, not with this place, not with the illusion that he’ll ever be whole without his honor.
“I can’t believe you’re making me do this.”
“Katara, we have to,” Toph pleads with all the earnestness she’d ardently deny possessing if she were ever asked. “I know you don’t like Zuko-“
“That’s the understatement of the century.”
“You guys got along fine once you started talking, but…regardless. You may not like it, or him,but if you want to figure out how to take out Azula, you’re going to have to work with him. He knows her better than almost anyone, doesn’t he?”
“Well, yeah, but how do we know he’s not loyal to her?”
“Get off your high horse for five seconds and look at the facts, Katara! Why would Flamebrain and his uncle be running from her if they were on her side?”
“We know how smart this girl is, Toph. We can’t afford not to assume that everything she or anyone who is or has ever been allied with her does is a setup,” Katara argues. “For all we know, she could’ve sent Zuko and Iroh here as a smokescreen to get information out of us. I mean, would you put it past her?”
“No,” Toph says cautiously, “but I would put it past Zuko to be able to hide something so huge if that was what she was doing.”
“Katara, I can tell when people are lying.” Toph throws up her hands helplessly. “I don’t know what else to tell you. He was telling us the truth, and you wouldn’t even need my seismic sense to tell if he wasn’t – he’s, like, terrible at it.”
“And you know this…how?”
“I just do,” she insists. “The guy was scared out of his mind. Heartbeat through the roof, sweating, fidgeting, the whole nine yards. His seismic reading was so all over the place that I was surprised he didn’t fall over dead, and you’re trying to tell me that you think that his whole life here is a lie?”
“How do you know that that nervousness wasn’t because he was making it all up, then?” Katara doesn’t know why she’s resisting so firmly, but she’s certain that she can’t afford not to. “Wouldn’t that be a pretty good reason to be all jittery or whatever?”
“There are different kinds of nervousness. Being terrified of death by waterbender is a lot different than being nervous about getting caught in a lie. The tells are totally different, and…they just don’t feel the same. Seriously. Haven’t you learned to trust me on this stuff by now?”
“Well, yeah, but I have to be sure that you’re not letting your…personal feelings cloud your judgement.”
“Personal feelings?” Toph smirks. “You’re the one with ‘personal feelings,’ Sugar Queen, not me.”
“I am not!”
“Hatred is a ‘personal feeling,’ you know.”
Katara’s shoulders slump. “Right.” She pauses, then adds, “and I don’t hate him.”
“Yeah, but trust me, I’m not,” Toph assures her. “And we’re already late. So can you please just make up your mind before he starts thinking we got run over by a cart on the way there?”
This is a most interesting development.
Zuko has never been what one might call a sociable child; he never was to begin with, always too shy to join in anyone else’s fun, and he’s certainly not had many chances to improve since his banishment. So to see him willingly spending time with a girl his age – two girls his age, later on – without anyone’s coercion, when no amount of begging could convince Zuko to see that nice girl who’d asked him on a date again, despite his own admission that they’d had a nice time…
It’s unorthodox, to be certain. And even more so that the pair is making a return visit.
“Hello, girls!” he calls from the low futon where he’s been sprawled out since the shop’s closing, perusing one of those salacious romance scrolls he’s heard so much about (if anyone asks, he has not been harboring a collection of them for years) when he hears them come in.
The Water Tribe girl – Katara, his nephew had said, with the kind of disdainful edge to his voice that let him know exactly what he really thought of her – freezes in the doorway, blinking rapidly as if she can’t quite trust her vision. It’s the earthbender who speaks up first.
“You’re the Tea Uncle,” she says. “Hey. Fancy seeing you here.”
“He lives here,” Katara hisses, elbowing her friend’s ribs.
“I could say the same of you, Miss Beifong,” he says lightly. “Zuko is…well, who knows where Zuko is.” He makes a cursory scan of the apartment, then frowns. “Would you like me to go get him for you? I’m sure he’d hate to be late for your meeting.”
Katara looks like she has some very particular words to be said to that, but she chooses not to share them.
“Nah, I’m sure he’ll show up eventually,” Toph says. “It’s okay. Just let him take his time.” She takes a seat at the nearby table, just as she had upon her first visit, and crosses her legs at the knee, hunching over. “So. You two are on the run from the law, huh?”
“Well, if my niece qualifies as ‘the law.’” Toph, it seems, hasn’t changed much. “But we’re not running anymore. This is our life now.”
“Really,” Katara says skeptically. “Because Zuko specifically told me that he wanted to trade information for the express purpose of using it to outrun Azula.”
“He said that?” he raises his eyebrows. “Well, that’s not a sentiment that I share, though I do see how it could be useful to…pool information if she’s chasing us all.”
Katara’s eyes narrow. “How did you know that she was chasing us?”
“You think I didn’t know that you were the Avatar’s companions?”
“Well, I knew you knew that, but I didn’t know if-“
“I didn’t. Not with any certainty,” he tells them. “But now that Zuko isn’t going after the Avatar anymore, it stands to reason that Azula would be sent out in his place.”
“So you’re done hunting Aang?” Katara challenges. “Zuko failed to mention that to us.”
“Zuko is terrified of you, Katara. His brain probably deserted him,” he chuckles. “I think there are probably a lot of things that he ‘failed to mention.’”
“Oh?” that gets Katara’s attention. “Such as?”
“Who’s to say?” he can’t let himself forget that this deal is between Zuko and Katara; it isn’t his place to give away any more than Zuko is willing to divulge. “Hopefully, now that he knows that you aren’t going to kill him” – it’s gently delivered, but a warning all the same – “Zuko will be better able to give you the information you need.”
“So you’re not going to give me anything.”
“Not until my nephew does,” he says. “Sorry. This deal was between the two of you. I’m only associated by proximity.”
“Fair enough,” Toph cuts in. “So what are we going to-“
Three pairs of eyes swivel to the doorway when Zuko appears, holding a towel and blinking nervously. “Uh. Sorry. It’s just-“
“Don’t worry about it, Zuko,” Iroh says warmly. “I was just having a nice chat with your lady-friends here.”
He drops the towel, though whether from shock or embarrassment he’s not sure. He notices in its absence that Zuko’s hair is wet. Must’ve been bathing, he realizes.
“They’re not my lady-friends,” he scoffs. “Who even says that?”
Katara cuts in before Iroh can answer. “Why didn’t you tell us that you weren’t hunting Aang anymore?”
“I…what?” Zuko narrows his eyes, then turns to his uncle. “What did you tell them?”
“I only told them of my theory that Azula is probably taking over the search for the Avatar because you are no longer involved in it,” Iroh tells him. “I, of course, assumed that you had already told them this, but…apparently I was mistaken.”
“Please don’t do that,” he huffs, striding to the table with a little too much sulk in his step and slumping into a chair. “So why are you two here again?”
“Because you didn’t finish telling us what we need to know last time,” Katara says coolly.
“You weren’t the one who wanted to come back,” Zuko points out, glaring daggers at her. “I wasn’t asking you.”
“Zuko! That’s no way to speak to a lady!”
Zuko soundly ignores his uncle, and Katara crosses her arms. “Yeah, well, Toph talked me into coming, and this deal is still between you and I and no one else, so please, just tell me what you know about Azula so we can get out of here and be done with this whole stupid alliance.”
Iroh observes the two as they stare at each other, stalemated, across the table. Tension hangs thick in the air, and he nods knowingly.
Perhaps, he thinks, this was a little bit inevitable.
Azula's plans for Ba Sing Se run afoul of our reluctant allies and one surprisingly perceptive laundress.
This is so so so bad (except for the Azula section! I was proud of that) because I wrote it in class, but whatever. This is taking on a distinctively more political bent than I intended, and it's got more Azula than I thought it would, and an OC (surprise...), but...I hope you still enjoy it?
I *promise* there will be more...yk, actual Zutara...in the next chapter, btw.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“Mai, come take a look at this.”
It’s rather unnecessary to ask when Mai can’t be more than two feet behind Azula, but she likes the way it sounds – casually authoritative, the way she so often doesn’t. Anyone can make demands; not everyone can secure compliance with a simple request, and she never wants to let herself forget that she belongs in the latter category. Mai’s put-out huff as she approaches, though there’s not much of an approach to be had, is as satisfying as the jolt of lightning leaping from her hands. Azula waits until she’s sure that Mai is curious as to why she’s been summoned – peering over her shoulder at the scroll in her hands, posture inquisitive – to speak again.
“This invasion plan isn’t half-bad,” she says offhandedly, as if discussing the weather or something equally mundane. “Two-pronged – they’re planning for a naval assault, followed by a land one. Then the Avatar is going to confront my father when that the comet leaves us vulnerable, apparently – not a bad use of that time.”
“But we know about it now,” Mai replies, deadpan despite her obvious curiosity. “So how’s any of that going to help them?”
“Well, even if we’re prepared for them, the invasion force is going to make a dent.” Azula’s father may believe that his forces are invincible, but she’s not even halfway stupid enough to agree. He hasn’t seen how much damage a clever, outnumbered enemy force can do if they leverage their advantages well the way she has. Superiority in battle is a tactical matter and it’s clear that their adversaries are more competent in that respect than she’d like. “Ideally, it would be best to keep any fighting as far away from the Capital as we can, partly because it’s good sense and” – she rolls her eyes – “partly because the delusional old officers who’ve let themselves be lulled into a false sense of security are going to throw a hissy-fit when they’re forced to realize that our control is slipping.” She pauses, then adds, “of course, they’re right to be concerned, but stupid not to have realized-“
“Your point?” Mai interrupts, arms crossed. Azula’s fists clench, but she says nothing – Mai knowswho’s pulling the strings, and it’s hardly worth the provocation to chastise her for her choice not to move as directed.
“What we have to do,” she says, drumming her fingers across her forearm as she inspects the scroll laid flat in front of her, “is ensure, beyond a doubt, that the Avatar will fail.”
“Can’t the Army take care of that?” Ty Lee cuts in from the other side of the room. “It seems like they’d be able to do that better than the three of us could.”
“It would seem that way, wouldn’t it?” Azula manages an even tone though she wants to spit at the mere idea of putting something so vital as this in any hands but her own. “But the Army isn’t going to be able to prevent the invasion, only defeat it. They could repel the invasion from the city, true, but that doesn’t do much good when our goal is to stop the invasion force from reaching the city in the first place.”
“And you’re suggesting…what, exactly?” Mai asks.
“Well, we need to keep the Avatar and his allies as far away from the Capital as we can, so the tidiest solution is to scatter those allies.” Azula pauses for a beat, thinking, then nods. “Yes, that should work. We already know who’s aided the Avatar in the past, so it won’t be difficult to figure out who might be involved. Once we do, we cut them off.”
Ty Lee’s eyes narrow suspiciously. “You mean we-“
“No, Ty Lee, we don’t have to kill them.” Azula scoffs – these people are far too predictable. “That would be neater, but we need the Avatar and his companions distracted, not vengeful. Giving them even more cause to strike than they already have wouldn’t be smart.”
“So what would be?” Ty Lee asks, visibly relieved. She’s loyal, but altogether too softhearted; Azula’s growing tired of this need for coddling.
“Well, without the advantage of the comet, this plan wouldn’t have a chance of succeeding,” Azula replies. This is what she’s been driving at this whole time. “We need to do two things: one, keep their allies out of the picture; and two, send them on a wild goose chase so that they miss the only opportunity they have to do any real damage.”
“Prison?” Mai guesses. “That’d get them out of our hair.”
Azula smiles, offering her friend the smallest of nods. “That was my plan,” she says evenly, trying not to let Mai see how pleased she is that she’s guessed – maybe I didn’t choose entirely useless allies. “We’ve already got the Kyoshi Warriors in lockup at the Boiling Rock, and I don’t see why we can’t do the same to – oh, the Southern Water Tribe forces, the Earth Kingdom bureaucrats who signed off on this plan…you know. Anyone with ties to the Avatar or to the invasion. They can hardly mount an invasion from a maximum-security prison, and I’d bet half my kingdom” – she likes saying that, throwing around her status even though it isn’t really hers yet – “that they’ll drop what they’re doing and try to spring them before the invasion. They’ll fail, of course, and there goes their chance.”
“And then what?” Mai asks.
“Oh, I forgot to mention the best part of this whole thing.” Azula’s eyes glint – she’s built up to this too well to lose momentum by answering Mai’s question. “This is the easiest chance we’ve gotten yet to corner the Avatar. Capture his allies, and he’ll be nothing but a child running from an army.”
Mai nods, though her expression is too blank to betray what she really thinks of that. “So we capture him once he comes for their friends at the Boiling Rock?”
“Whenever we get the chance, but yes, that is ideal,” Azula confirms. “And there’s more.”
This oughta be good, she thinks she hears Mai mutter under her breath, but she chooses to ignore her.
“The first thing we need to take care of is this alliance they’re forming with the Earth Kingdom,” she continues. “And to get the Earth Kingdom’s forces out of the way, we have to take Ba Sing Se.”
“I’m proud of you, Zuko.”
It’s the last thing Zuko expects to hear after the spat his uncle has just witnessed, so he stiffens, unsure how to respond. “For what?” he asks, trying not to let his voice rise.
“You’ve taken a big step.” He pats his shoulder, and again, Zuko stiffens. “There’s a long ways between stopping your search for the Avatar and agreeing to ally with him. I’m impressed that you’ve chosen to. That’s all.”
“I have nothing to do with the Avatar,” he spits. “I’m meeting with his allies because I thought his girlfriend was going to kill me and you know that.”
“I highly doubt that she’s his girlfriend,” Iroh says lightly.
“What does that mean?”
“Just an observation,” Iroh replies. “Anyways. I know that this is an alliance of necessity more than anything, but it’s still an important step.”
He bites his tongue – there doesn’t seem to be much to be said to that.
Jae sets down her basket of linens and hefts it onto her shoulder again, hoping that it will stay balanced this time. She doesn’t yet have the easy grace that seems to come so naturally to the other laundresses, and she hasn’t yet been able to find an angle at which the baskets of linens she spends half her days carting around would stay situated on her shoulder or hip yet. These kinds of stops to readjust are more frequent than she let on. Besides, they serve their purpose.
The halls are nearly always eerily deserted, and no one ever sees her stop or suspects much if they happen to pass her by. She’s new, and no one expects much of her yet; that is an advantage she intended to use. It isn’t a coincidence that the sound of voices often prompts her stops – if she can, she’ll wait to shift a slipping load until there’s a reason to, something to overhear, the far-off sound of a voice she recognizes. Most people whose whispers closed doors can’t conceal fall into the category of those whose voices prompt her stops; Jae rarely needs to have heard a voice more than twice or thrice to have it filed away in her memory, and its sound brings a face to mind within seconds.
This voice – so memorable because its owner sounds like she is snarling even when she isn’t – belongs to one of the Kyoshi Warriors who’d been meeting with the King when she’d last been sent to deliver a load of freshly-ironed linens to an unmade bed mere yards away from Kuei’s war room. Surely she’ll have something interesting to say; gossip is invaluable currency in the laundry rooms, so she pauses, pretending to struggle with her load, and keeps her ears open. Jae knows that she is a terrible laundress, but she’s an excellent spy, and as far as her fellow laundresses are concerned, a coworker with a gift for the acquisition of tantalizingly forbidden gossip fodder is a thousand times more valuable than one who can starch napkins to perfection. This job is the only thing keeping her from the streets of the Lower Ring, and, so long as she has information, they’ll vouch for her no matter how poorly she performs. Chances like this are all too important not to take.
“Are you sure?” that second voice – bright, high, nasal – Jae can’t place, but she’d seen the Kyoshi Warrior whose voice she recognizes with two companions; perhaps this girl is one of them.
“Am I ever unsure, Ty Lee?” the leader challenges. “You saw what they did to that drill. How did they do it? From within.” She pauses, and Jae wracks her brain – drill…? Where have I heard that before? But nothing comes up, and she has to divert her attention back to the girl’s voice when she continues speaking. “But we’ve got to do it soon. Strike while the iron is hot and the Dai Li’s leader is in prison,” she says lightly.
“What are we doing, though?” a third voice, this one more toneless than should be possible, interjects. “For all this talk of ‘bringing them down from within,’ you haven’t actually said much about how you’re gonna do that.”
“I know what I’m doing, Mai.” Now there’s a sharp edge to her voice that wasn’t there before. “Leave the logistics to me.”
“But won’t you need backup?” the second girl asks. “You can’t take on the whole Dai Li alone!”
Pieces begin to slot into place as Jae works through what she knows: three nameless Kyoshi Warriors, appearing out of nowhere in Ba Sing Se mere days after the news of a war (serving up that bit of gossip had been the greatest accomplishment of Jae’s life) rocked the palace on its foundations; talk of bringing something down from within; the repeated references to the Dai Li and the absence of its leader – Jae’s picked up enough political savvy in four months of constant eavesdropping to complete the picture.
The Kyoshi Warriors are planning a coup.
Her survival instincts tell her to drop her linens and bolt before the palace falls, or at least try to find someone she can warn because an attack like this, when the court is already in chaos, has every chance of succeeding. But curiosity – and the realization that her reward (hopefully monetary, though she’d accept a promotion) will probably be greater if she has more information to fork over – keep her from moving. She tips her basket of linens so that it’ll look like…well, she’s not sure what, but a little less suspicious (maybe someone tripped and had to be carried off, their linens forgotten?) than a basket of pristinely-folded napkins abandoned in a hallway halfway to their destination, and presses herself flat against the wall behind an oversized silk wall-hanging. She’s missed a sentence or two in her haste to hide, but she picks up the threads of the conversation quickly.
“He’s not in the city right now. We know that.”
“But he’ll be back, and your father sent us to capture the Avatar, not Ba Sing Se,” Mai protests.
“Perhaps, but we have to focus on what we can do now. The Avatar can wait.”
Jae feels like she’s swallowed a stone, the way the words sit in the pit of her stomach. She hardly wants the only home she’s ever known to fall, but she can’t let the Avatar be taken. After all, it had been she who, sensing a piece of information the laundry ladies would kill for, had overheard a group of teenagers trying to break into the palace, left a back door unlocked and cracked open when she’d gone to fetch water for the laundry.
Normally, she’d never risk her job that way, but all she could think of when she’d realized who was trying to infiltrate the palace was the picture of Avatar Kyoshi her mother had kept on their mantle, and the stories she’d told of the Avatars and their exploits, and she’d known that her mother would’ve been sorely disappointed in her if she’d failed to aid him. “Someday, we’ll have an Avatar again,” she’d always said, stroking Jae’s hair, offering reassurances that would’ve seemed emptier than air to anyone else, and she believed them with all she was. She’d have marched into the room to give these women a tongue-lashing (and a swift push out the window, failing that) if she’d heard what Jae is hearing now.
And she may not be anyone’s idea of an altruist, but she’s not willing to let this happen.
She bolts, flinging her basket of linens into a nearby room without staying to watch them scatter. She doesn’t know where to go or how to find any of the people she needs to warn of this plot, but she doesn’t think about it – what matters now is that she tries.
So she crosses her fingers, and she runs.
Katara narrows her eyes, unsure what to make sure of the scruffy, panting, panicked girl who’s come banging on their door in the middle of the night. “Come again?” she asks, a little suspicious, and she’s grateful when Toph pads down the hallway to join her. “Do I know you?”
“No.” The girl pushes her bangs out of her face. “Sorry. Bad introduction. I’m Jae.”
“Um…okay,” Katara says uneasily. “And what are you doing here?”
“Oh, man, it took me, like, an hour to figure out where you lived,” she pants, dodging the question. “You wouldn’t believe how hard it is to get-“
“Someone told you where we lived?” Toph cuts in, her hackles raised.
“Who?” Katara follows up. “And why did you need to know? Who are you?”
The girl’s eyes widen until they show more white than pupil and her breath, even though she’d caught it, starts to go again. “I swear, I’m a friend!” she cries, insistent, with nothing of the casual tone she’d maintained only moments ago. “You have to believe me. There’s someone at the palace after the Avatar and I have to warn him before-”
“The Avatar?” now it’s Katara’s eyes that widen. “Wait, back up. Who, what, and why?”
“I don’t know,” Jae says, shaking her head frantically. “These Kyoshi Warriors who showed up a few days ago. I don’t know their names but they’re planning a coup and one of them kept talking about how her father sent her to capture the Avatar and…” she trails off.
“Oh, Spirits,” Katara mutters. “How do you know that?”
“I’m a laundress,” she explains hurriedly. “At the palace. I overhear a lot of things and I…I thought I should warn you.”
If she’s telling the truth, this girl is nothing short of Spirits-sent, and Katara knows not to take this lead lightly. “How do I know you’re not trying to throw us off?” she challenges, testing the waters.
“She isn’t lying,” Toph cuts in. “If this is part of the plan, she doesn’t know anything.”
Jae crosses her arms. “I’m risking my job to warn you. Why would I lie about this?”
“Okay.” Katara takes a grounding breath. “Do you remember anything about these people? Anything at all?”
Jae nods. “There were three of them, all Kyoshi Warriors.”
Toph elbows Katara’s side.
Azula. Her fists clench. “Okay. And do they know that you heard them?”
“They shouldn’t,” Jae says. “They didn’t hear me pass by.”
“And will anyone know that you left the palace?”
Jae shakes her head. “No one cares that much, but I don’t want to risk it. I’ll probably just camp out somewhere for the night.”
“No, you won’t.” Katara cracks the door open wider. “You have information. You’re staying with us.”
“Katara, it’s three.”
Zuko can’t say he’s surprised, but he’s still a little disgruntled to find her at the tea shop at an hour like this.
“Azula’s in the city,” she says by way of a greeting, gesturing to a scrawny girl he doesn’t recognize. “This girl’s a servant at the palace-“
“Laundress,” Jae corrects.
“Sorry, laundress.” Katara looks like she’s trying not to roll her eyes. “She’s a laundress at the palace and she overheard three girls dressed as Kyoshi Warriors talking about a coup. It’s gotta be her.”
“Um, no, it doesn’t.” Zuko’s five seconds from slamming the door and going back to bed when Katara grabs his sleeve.
“Jae here says that their leader was talking about how her father send her to capture the Avatar,” she hisses. “Who else is that going to be?”
That has his attention.
“What is she doing here?” Zuko asks. “Does she know that I’m-that’ we’re in Ba Sing Se?”
“I don’t know,” Jae says. “Just that she’s trying to do a coup and something about the Avatar.”
Zuko gives Katara a hard look. “You really think we can trust this girl?”
Katara shrugs. “Toph says she’s not lying, and I’m not taking any chances.”
“And what are we supposed to do about this?”
“Um, leave?” Katara posits. “If the Fire Nation takes Ba Sing Se, we’re going to be trapped. Forget trying to stop her – we have to get out of here.”
“And what am I gonna do?”
“…come with us, you idiot.”
“You must be joking.”
“Do you want to be sent back home in chains?”
“No, but what are the rest of your friends gonna do to me if I do that?”
“Have you met Aang?”
“Fine, then. Your brother?”
“He’ll deal with it.”
“This seems like a terrible idea.”
“Yeah, but so does sitting around, waiting for her to take the city,” Katara counters. Jae scratches the back of her neck, obviously listening and obviously a little uncomfortable. “Aang and Sokka just got back and I told them I had to pick someone up before we left, so we’re just waiting on you-“
"You mean they don't actually know you're trying to bring me with you? Katara, this is a terrible idea."
She never answers, though.
“When are you leaving?” Zuko jumps at his uncle’s voice in the doorway behind him.
“As soon as possible,” Katara tells him, straightening visibly at the first sign of compliance she’s had this entire conversation. “Appa’s waiting, and we didn’t want to leave you stranded after all the help you’ve given us.”
This, Zuko knows, is a bold-faced lie. Katara would leave him without a second thought if she didn’t have a good reason not to. (Why is she offering, then? He thinks, but he quickly shoves the question down.) But Iroh seems to buy it.
“Zuko, you’re going with her,” Iroh says flatly.
“No, I’m not.” He pauses, realizing that Iroh hadn’t said anything about joining them. “And what are you going to be doing?”
Iroh doesn’t answer, and it doesn’t take long for Zuko to realize what he’s getting at.
“Someone has to try to stop her, and it’s not going to be you.”
“You need to get as far away from your sister as you can.”
“So do you!”
He shoves Zuko out the door and doesn’t say another word, and before he can get out a single word of protest, Katara is taking his hand, and they are running.
Tbh I was planning this as I went so...guess I’m gonna have fun breaking Iroh out of Boiling Rock when he inevitably gets captured trying to stop Azula?
Also I swear Jae’s ??? Decision making will make more sense later as we learn more about her! Agh! I am brain-fried!
Sokka has some words for his sister on one new addition to their group, and gets to know the other. Katara and Zuko adjust to their new position as allies.
Timeline Note: as in canon, Sokka was in Chameleon Bay finding his father up to this point. However, because of the news of the coup, they did not escape by ship as they did in CoD. This takes place a few hours before what would have been the events of CoD.
Non-timeline note: this is probably the closest thing to a Sokka-centric chapter we'll get, which was entirely accidental. Also, I feel like people will either ship or hardcore anti-ship Jae with every single member of the Gaang (*clears throat* Hina), which is always fun.
Sokka looks from Zuko to Katara and back to Zuko, then to Jae, and the space between his brows diminishes with every look at his sister and her uninvited plus-ones. Like a caterpillar-centipede, Jae notes with interest.
The gap finally closes when his eyes drop to their grasped hands.
“What,” he says, backed up against Appa as if he’s afraid that either of Katara’s guests is going to bite, “happened while I was gone?”
“I formed an alliance,” Katara says coolly – far too coolly for the circumstances, in Jae’s opinion, considering that she has to convince her brother and the Avatar (that, she still can’t quite believe) to flee a coup with their nemesis.
“I’ll say,” Sokka scoffs, crossing his arms in disgust.
“He has information we need,” Katara explains. She tries to keep her tone even, but it’s hard not to notice the way it wobbles, strained by her efforts not to let her volume rise. “We happened to meet up and he proposed an alliance-“
“Because she threatened to kill me!” Zuko cuts in, vainly hoping that this will prove to be the right thing to say.
It is not the right thing to say.
“Oh, she did, did she?” Sokka’s eyes narrow and he begins to pace in front of them. “And what exactly was this proposal of yours?”
“Will ya shut up already?”
“No, I will most certainly not!” Sokka calls up to the saddle, where Toph is sprawled out with her feet up against its lip so she can sleep.
“I explained this, Snoozles,” Toph crosses her arms but she doesn’t sit up – apparently it isn’t worth the effort. “Your sister and Flamebrain here agreed to exchange information about Azula! That’s it! I was there! He’s not lying and believe me, I woulda known if this was an excuse to make out!”
“Then why are they holding hands?”
“We are not holding hands!” Katara protests.
Then she looks down at her hand.
She drops Zuko’s like it’s on fire, which, given the way his cheeks are aflame with embarrassment, really isn’t too far from reality.
“Riiight.” Sokka shakes his head. “I don’t like this, Katara.”
“Nooo, I’m shocked.”
Sokka glares up at Toph again – this time with feeling, to be sure she can feel his wrath even with her feet up so she can’t sense such things. “Can you not?”
“Look, Snoozles, we can trust the guy. I told you that, like, a thousand times. He’s not trying to get with your sister, he’s been helpful, and he’s gonna die if we don’t get him out of here. It’s, like…not that hard to understand.” Toph pokes her head over the side of the saddle. “Aren’t you supposed to be smart or something?”
“If it eases your mind, he didn’t even want to come with me,” Katara adds.
“Great! Then send him back!”
Zuko, whose hand’s been lingering near Katara’s since he dropped it, raises it in a weak shrug. “Fine by me.”
Katara grabs his wrist and gives it an insistent tug. “Don’t even think about it,” she hisses, then turns her glare on her brother. “Either of you.” Without another word, she pulls Zuko to Appa by the arm, and Jae, who still hasn’t dropped his hand, stumbles along behind them.
“Hey, guys, wha’s with the yelling?”
“Go back to sleep,” Toph says crossly. “The adults are fighting again.”
“Fighting?” Aang tries to sit up but doesn’t get far before Toph pushes his shoulders back down. “Why?”
“Really?” Sokka shakes his head in disgust. “Is anyone here gonna back me up?”
“Doesn’t look like it.” Jae glances back over her shoulder as Katara reaches down to pull her up into the saddle, trying her very hardest to remain unfazed by the absurdity of the situation she’s found herself in. “I’m Jae, by the way. Not like anyone asked.”
“We’ve kind of had more pressing concerns,” Sokka says. She’s almost offended that this boy who’s so offended by this Zuko’s presence barely registers hers, but she shakes it off – invisibility is her default, and it shouldn’t bother her like this.
She still can’t resist a rebuttal, though. “Well, I exist, too. Just thought you should know.”
“I’m aware.” She, too, Toph had briefed him on before they made their escape – he probably knows she was the reason they’d known to flee in the first place, which makes it all the more insulting that he doesn’t seem to care that she’s there. “But you aren’t the one I’m worried about.”
Jae reaches down to help Zuko up the way Katara had for her, and Sokka gives them both another of his glares. “How do you know I shouldn’t be?”
“I don’t, but I’m pretty sure a kid the size of a toothpick isn’t gonna kill us in our sleep.” Sokka tries to sound nonchalant, but his expression is a little more pensive now, and a shade more fearful. Jae is rather proud of that.
“I resent that idea,” says Toph.
“You…might be an exception.”
“Jae, quit stirring the pot,” Katara chides. “Sokka, she’s perfectly trustworthy. She-“
“Warned us about the coup, I know. Toph told me. Thanks for that.” With no one left to back him up, he reluctantly climbs into the saddle. “Don’t make us regret this.”
Glaring has always been one of Jae’s strengths. “As long as you don’t make me regret warning you.”
Aang, who’d been nodding off in the saddle until hearing Jae’s voice, stirs again. “You the girl from the palace?” he asks, rubbing at his eyes. He doesn’t sit, but he pushes himself up on his elbows to get a better look at their new recruit. “Thanks for the war-“
Aang freezes mid-sentence, and Jae’s brows furrow. “You okay?”
Oh, Spirits, I’m talking to the Avatar, she realizes. I’m talking to the Avatar. I’m-
“…ning. Sorry,” Aang says after a moment, shaking himself.
“Wow, your heart rate’s going crazy,” Toph comments. Jae really doesn’t like the implication of the smirk that spreads across her face. “You good, Twinkletoes?”
“Toph does nicknames,” Katara explains.
Jae scrunches her nose. “You call the Avatar ‘Twinkletoes’?” She glances back at him, surprised to find that his grey eyes are saucer-wide. He’s smiling, though, so she imagines it isn’t because of fear. “Are…is he actually okay with this?”
He blinks a couple times, than shakes himself. “Sorry, what?”
“Dude, get a grip. You just met her.”
“What?” she shrugs. “I just report what I see!”
Katara glances from Aang, to Toph, to Jae, then back to Aang, and sighs. “Shouldn’t we be in the air by now?”
That, at least, gets Aang’s attention. He tears his eyes from Jae and nods resolutely, taking Appa’s reins.
Toph rests her feet against the lip of the saddle again, and Sokka, after one last suspicious look at Zuko, lies down, too. Her eyes drift to Aang, straight-backed at the head of the saddle as he flies, and then to Jae, who’s staring at the back of Aang’s head with the same fascination he’d shown upon meeting her; with no one else left to check on, she finally lets herself turn to Zuko. He’s gripping the saddle, white-knuckled, as they ascend above the city, and she lays her hand on his arm – he’s probably terrified, she realizes, and the thought makes her heart twinge. It’s a gesture of trust or something else she doesn’t quite want to acknowledge, but she doesn’t want to let him think he isn’t safe with them.
She doesn’t know why she cares, but she’s grateful when his hand slips into hers and his tense shoulders relax.
“So you know this Zuko guy pretty well, I take it.” Jae looks to Sokka for the first time in a few hours once the rest of their team drifts off.
“Yeah.” Sokka slumps against the side of the saddle, folding his arms across his middle with Appa’s reins still in his hands. “He’s…uh. We have a history.”
“What kind?” Jae asks, instinctively searching for useful gossip even as she realizes with a pang that, in all likelihood, her days as a purveyor of palace gossip are over. She never thought she’d miss them, so she’s surprised to find that she almost does.
Sokka eyes her warily, as if sizing her up, before he responds. “He’s a Fire Nation prince.”
“Oh.” Jae’s eyes drift to her lap. That should carry more weight than it does, but she’s only known that the Fire Nation is waging war on her country for a week, and it’s hard to feel the revulsion that her traveling companions do when they think of it. “I guess that’s bad, isn’t it.”
“Right.” Sokka’s voice softens. “I forgot that you guys only just found out there’s a war going on. That probably doesn’t mean much to you, does it?”
She looks up, surprised that he’s figured that out so quickly. “Not as much as it apparently should.”
“Well, it’s not just that,” Sokka continues. “He’s also kinda…been trying to capture Aang for as long as we’ve known him.”
Jae’s eyes widen and she risks a wary glance over her shoulder at Zuko, sleeping behind her. He and Katara are pressed together, perhaps unintentionally or perhaps not, and their heads rest against each other. Sokka shakes his head. “Well, your sister certainly seems to have made up with him.”
“I didn’t tell you she was my sister.”
“Two Water Tribe kids in the Earth Kingdom? It’s obvious,” Jae points out. “And you have the same eyes.”
Sokka shrugs. “Fair enough.”
“Anyways, your sister and Zuko?”
“You know as much as I do,” he says. “Apparently she confronted him in his uncle’s tea shop and he offered to give her information so she wouldn’t kill him. Then they got all buddy-buddy, and now they’re sleeping on each other.” He says the word sleeping as if it’s venomous. “I mean, look at them. Cuddling. He’s been chasing us around the world for a year, but she’s all, ‘nooo, Sokka, he’s changed! Oh, yeah, he’s just great!’” he spits contemptuously over the side of the saddle for emphasis. “I can’t believe she agreed to this. Or that Toph allowed it.”
“She never actually said any of that,” Jae points out. “I actually don’t think she even likes him. Like, even platonically. Or…at all. In any way.”
“Then why were they holding hands earlier?”
“I was also holding Zuko’s hand,” Jae points out. “And I don’t even know the guy.”
“But that was different.”
“Why, because she’s your sister?” Jae arches her eyebrows. “It sure looked the same on my end.”
“Sokka, seriously. There’s nothing going on there, and even if it were…butt out, will ya?” Jae rolls her eyes. “Not like it’s your business who she likes.”
“Uh, it is if he’s our sworn enemy!”
“Sworn enemies don’t usually volunteer valuable information,” she says evenly. “I should know.”
“Oh? And how’s that?”
Jae shrugs. “Back at the palace, I was a laundress, but my real job was collecting gossip.”
“That’s a job?”
“Well, not officially.” Regret gnaws at Jae’s stomach for the loss of that life, even though it hadn’t been much to begin with. “I was a laundress, like I said, but I wasn’t very good at…well, laundry. So I mostly got sent out to deliver it to different parts of the palace, and that meant I overheard a lot. And then I realized that, since I sucked at my actual job, I’d be in a much more secure position if I had something the other laundresses wanted, and you know what those old biddies wanted more than anything?”
“Information,” Sokka answers without missing a beat. Something like admiration crosses his face. “So you started keeping your ears open, huh?”
Jae’s eyes light up for no reason other than the unexpected joy of being understood. “You wouldn’t believe the stuff an invisible little girl in the Earth King’s palace can overhear if she tries. Stuff a bunch of bored laundresses with five kids apiece and a serious lack of excitement would kill to learn.”
“And you fed them the juicy gossip you overheard so they wouldn’t fire you?” Sokka guesses.
“I was probably the first person in Ba Sing Se outside of the King and the council that you guys met with to find out about the war,” she tells him proudly. “But…I didn’t tell the laundresses that one.”
She shrugs. “All the gossip I traded was pretty harmless to them. Affairs, betrothals, courtships, what performers were going to be visiting the King’s court – the kind of stuff you’d find in the gossip scrolls. Never…I don’t know, anything of substance. It felt wrong.”
“But that was the biggest news in years.”
“Yeah, but…these women have so little already.” Jae tucks her legs to her chest. “I wasn’t about to make them panic.”
“Ah, so you do have an altruistic streak.”
“No, I just didn’t want them going home to their oversized broods and kissing them goodnight like it was the last time they ever would.”
Like they did.
“Yeah.” Sokka nods thoughtfully. “Yeah, you do have an altruistic streak. Same thing that made you run and warn us that someone wanted the Avatar.”
“No, that was my mom.”
“Your mother made you-“
“No, my mother is dead.” It’s always best to get that one out of the way before it builds up to some sort of tearjerking grand reveal.
“Anyways.” Jae’s never been one to talk about her feelings, and she doesn’t plan to start now. “It’s just…when she was alive, she’d always tell me these stories about the Avatar, and how she was so sure we’d have one again.” She ducks her head, self-consciously pushing a stringy lock of hair, oily from too many days without a palace-mandated washing, out of her face. “It was actually me who left that door open so you guys could get into the palace.”
“No kidding,” Sokka says under his breath. “Really?”
“I had to do what I could.” Jae casts a glance over at the sleeping Avatar. “If she were alive, my mother would never have forgiven me if I didn’t.”
This time, when Sokka looks back at her, he smiles. She’s never seen him do that before.
“Thank you,” he says. “Really.”
“It was nothing.” Jae shrugs, pleasant warmth seeping into her cheeks at the first praise she’s received in months.
“But it changed everything.”
“I’m glad.” Her eyes dart up to follow Sokka’s shifting expressions again, then drift back down to her hands folded in her lap. “So…what’s it like?”
“What’s what like?”
“Traveling with the Avatar.”
“He’ll probably tell you to call him Aang, for one,” Sokka starts. “And…it’s, well. Stressful, dangerous, far too disorganized, and probably not going to accomplish anything in the end. Questionably worth it, but also the only choice we have.”
“And what’s he like?”
“Single.” Sokka throws her a wink she wishes she could unsee.
“What, did you see the way he looked at you when you first met?” Sokka seems to be enjoying this a little too much. “The guy was gaping like a fish. That’s exactly how he used to look at my sister, and he had the biggest crush on her for a while.”
“He was probably just surprised that the girl who saved his life looked so ratty.”
“You’re not ratty.”
She’s a little surprised to find him coming to her defense, but she doesn’t let it show. “No, but I look like it.”
“Nah, you could be pretty if you got cleaned up a little.” He looks away. “But, like, not my type. I like someone else. I mean, from Aang’s perspective, ya know?”
“Right.” Jae rolls her eyes. “Good to know.”
“In all seriousness, though.” Sokka heaves a sigh. “He’s a good kid, and he’s been through way too much. That’s…basically the gist of him.”
“Aren’t we all?”
Sokka shakes his head, then glances around the saddle at his friends – Toph, sprawled out through the middle of the saddle with her feet up on its lip; Aang, asleep with his head on her shoulder; Katara and Zuko, who’ve shifted even closer in their sleep (they’ll be mortified when they wake up, Jae is sure) so that Katara’s face is pressed to Zuko’s shoulder – then back to Jae, all matted hair and dirty skin and threadbare green tunic.
Zuko wakes, but he doesn’t stir.
It isn’t that he particularly enjoys the weight of Katara’s head on his shoulder, though her warmth is comforting on a frigid night. Rather, he’s a bit petrified of her reaction if he wakes her in an attempt to move, and figures it’s best not to risk it. It’s a useless precaution, though, and she wakes only a few moments later.
“Sorry,” she stammers, as soon as she’s alert enough to realize where she is. “I didn’t mean to.”
“’s okay.” He misses the warmth of her body pressed against his side almost as soon as it’s gone. “It was an accident.”
Katara crosses her legs and hugs her arms around her torso to fight the high-altitude chill. “Are you okay?”
“You mean with flying?” he asks. “I mean, it’s weird, and I’m still not sure it’s safe, but it’s better than being captured.”
“No, I mean with leaving.” Katara angles her body towards his. “Your uncle?”
“Oh.” Zuko presses his hands to the cool leather of the saddle, careworn and cracked with use. “I thought I made it clear how I felt about that.”
“I know you did.” He’s surprised, when he looks up, to find that Katara’s eyes are full of regret. “And I really am sorry. I wanted him to come. I hope you know that.”
“He’s all I have left.”
“And I’m sorry that he made us leave him behind.” Katara looks up. “But I’ll never apologize for getting you out of there.”
“But why?” Zuko’s hands fist. “Why do you even care?”
“You’re an ally,” she says. “You helped us. We wouldn’t-“
“Don’t even try, Katara. You didn’t get any useful information out of me and you know it.”
“But you tried, Zuko.”
“When has trying ever been enough?”
“Zuko, I don’t leave my allies to die.” She shakes her head as if she cannot comprehend why he isn’t following. “Even if they aren’t ‘useful.’ Who even says that? People don’t matter because they’re useful!”
He doesn’t even want to begin to get into the reasons he knows that that statement isn’t true.
“I still don’t get why you care so much.”
“I don’t care about you personally. I care about you because you’re a person.”
Zuko shakes his head. “Then why go to all this trouble?”
“I couldn’t just leave you to die!”
“Yeah, you already said that, and we’re going in circles here-“
“Because that’s it! That’s the explanation. The whole explanation!” Katara pinches the bridge of her nose. “I don’t know what you thought I was going to tell you, or what you wanted me to tell you, but that’s it. And I’m asking how you’re doing because I know what it feels like to leave things behind, okay? Quit reading into it so much. We’re allies, and you’re a human being, and that’s it.”
He wonders why that stings the same way he wondered a few moments ago why he missed her comfortable weight against him, but he doesn’t dare voice those questions even to himself. “Right,” he says flatly. “Of course.”
She’s folded in on herself when she drifts off this time, far from him. And he doesn’t dare get as close as he did before, but he inches closer before he settles in even so.
The group discusses their next steps; Azula begins to put her plan into motion.
I might not get a chapter of Once in a Lifetime done this week because my work schedule decided to go nuts at the same time as my school schedule, but I don't work on Wednesdays, so I wanted to make sure this got done so I could at least have *something* published this week. It's a bit of a mess, but at least it's on time.
“This place is a dump.”
Azula doesn’t raise her eyes from the map she’s examining. “I’m well aware of that, but we’re not exactly here to sightsee.” Her finger lands on a point of the map indicating a rocky outcrop. “My best guess is that they’re hiding out right about here. There aren’t many of them, so this really shouldn’t take too much time, and” – Azula glances up at Mai – “we won’t be here for long.”
Mai doesn’t look convinced, and she paces around the table to look over Azula’s shoulder at the map of Chameleon Bay she’s been studying for what seems like hours. “And our actual goal here is…what again?”
“We’ve been over this, Mai.”
“Well, yeah, but ‘scatter their allies’ is an extremely vague instruction.” She shakes her head as if this is all a terrible waste of time. “What are we actually doing?”
“Well, there are several things we could do, but which we go with is probably going to depend on the exact placement of the Southern Water Tribe navy within the bay, so you have to be ready to do any of them.”
“Great,” Mai huffs. “More stuff to remember.”
“You know, you can always stay behind,” Azula points out, nonchalant. “If you aren’t feeling up to the challenge.”
Mai tacitly ignores her. “So what exactly are these multiple plans I’m supposed to have memorized?”
“Well, we could annihilate the fleet, but it isn’t ideal, so that would be a last resort.”
“Why isn’t that the default option if we’re trying to make sure they can’t join the invasion?”
“Well, ideally, we want to prevent an invasion from ever occurring, and the Avatar’s allies are a better distraction alive than dead.” Azula taps out an impatient rhythm against the map with a metal-tipped quill. “So we arguably either want to overpower the fleet and ship the navy off to Boiling Rock, or send it limping home for repairs it won’t be able to get done in time for the eclipse.”
“And which are we going to do?”
“Depends on whether they have more manpower or vessels.” Azula shrugs as if she’s weighing in on dinner options and not planning an attack. “If they have more soldiers, it’ll be easier to do damage to their fleet. If they have more ships, it’ll be easier to take prisoners. Simple.”
“…right,” Mai replies, clearly not convinced. Azula turns in her chair (it spins, which Mai finds highly unnecessary, though not everyone does – she’s walked in on Ty Lee spinning the chair at breakneck speed several times when she thought no one was looking) and fixes her companion with a warning glare.
“I don’t think I should have to remind you how vital it is that this operation succeeds.”
“So. Do we have any idea where we’re going?”
They’ve barely touched down in Senlin Village the next night when Sokka’s the first one to breach the question, but it doesn’t seem like he’s the first to ask it if the sheepish looks his teammates exchange are any indication.
“Don’t know, and as long as I don’t end up in prison, I don’t particularly care,” Toph says, leaning carelessly against Appa’s saddle.
Katara elbows her ribs and then suggests, “maybe we should go back to Chameleon Bay and meet up with Dad.”
Sokka shakes his head. “No, that was our original plan, but I’m not so sure it’s a good idea anymore.”
“But why? We’ll probably be safer with them than we would be on our own,” Katara points out.
“No, that would just put an even more obvious target on our backs.” Sokka looks off into the distance as if this matter requires great deliberation, even though it’s clear to everyone present that he already knows what he means to say. “I mean, we aren’t exactly subtle as it is, and neither are they, you know?”
“Right.” Katara looks a little disappointed, but she nods in agreement. “But we can’t go back to the Earth Kingdom, and I don’t think going home would be a good idea, either-“
“We could always go to the Fire Nation,” Jae cuts in, to everyone’s surprise. She hasn’t said much to anyone but Sokka (even Aang, who’s asked her what felt like a thousand questions in the past day alone, only gets monosyllables most of the time). “I mean, I don’t really know what I’m talking about, but if that’s where you’re in the most danger, that’s where no one is going to think to look for you, right?”
For a moment, half of the group stares at Jae in shock, and the other half stares at their own shoes, embarrassed not to have reached that conclusion on their own.
“What?” she asks, her cheeks hot with their sudden attention. “It’s basic misdirection.”
“That would be a great idea if we were traveling alone,” Katara finally replies, “but now that we have Zuko with us, I don’t know-“
“I can speak for myself, you know.”
“Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t know you had an opinion what with all your silence!”
“I was thinking, genius.”
“Oh? And what did you come up with?” Katara crosses her arms challengingly.
(Interesting, Jae notes. She’d assumed there was some kind of connection between the two, given the way Katara had dropped everything in a panic to get him out of the city, but upon closer inspection, they don’t even seem to get along.)
“I’m with Jae on this one,” Aang cuts in. “Hide in plain sight, you know?”
Katara looks a little bit displeased with the conclusion but doesn’t say anything.
“Katara has a point,” Zuko reluctantly admits. “I’m recognizable. I don’t know how we’re going to stay in the Fire Nation for six months without anyone figuring out who I am.”
Sokka crosses his arms. “Remind me again why we can’t just leave him behind?”
“But why?” Sokka whines. “This would be so much easier without him!”
“I’m right here, you know.”
“We’re not leaving Zuko behind, and we can’t keep him from being recognized in the Fire Nation, so we really have no choice but to meet Dad at Chameleon Bay,” Katara decides. “But we can’t make that flight back right away, so we’ll camp here for a day or two to recuperate and figure out where we’re going next-“
“I thought I was the plans guy!”
“Yeah, but your plan was to ditch one of our most valuable allies, so I don’t think you really get an opinion here.”
“Oh, so he’s a valuable ally now?” Sokka looks like he’d like to fall into a bottomless pit that, given the smirk on her face, Toph would be happy to provide. “When did that happen?”
“Sokka, I’m not going to argue with you. We’re camping out for a night or two, and then we’re heading to Chameleon Bay, meeting with Dad, and going from there. End of story, buck stops here, done-“
“Enough synonyms,” Jae interrupts. “We get it.”
“I don’t know where you found this one, but I like her,” Sokka comments, but Jae doesn’t seem flattered.
“I don’t really like this plan, but I just got here, so I’m pretty sure my opinion doesn’t count,” she continues. “But isn’t your, uh…oversized pack animal going to die of exhaustion before you make it back?”
“He’s a Sky Bison,” Aang corrects – apparently, in this area, even Jae isn’t above reproach.
“Sounds fake, but okay,” Jae replies.
Aang looks like he wants to say something more but Katara stills him. “That’s why we’re stopping to rest,” she explains. “Appa needs a day or two, and so do we.”
Jae raises a skeptical eyebrow. “And that’s supposed to be enough?”
Katara pats Appa’s saddle and gets a grunt that could mean just about anything in reply. “He’s pretty tough that way.”
This is hardly the strangest thing Jae has heard in the past twenty-four hours, but she shakes her head as if it just might be. She notices Aang glancing over at her a little too frequently as they set up camp and wonders if he knows just how skeptical she feels, grateful that he’d backed her and nervous just the same that, in failing to convince the group to take her advice, she’s put him in harm’s way. Every so often, she risks a glance back when he’s looking down, and she wonders how many people are resting their hopes on a child’s scrawny shoulders the way her mother had – how many people she’d be letting down if she let anything happen to him. He’d been in favor of flight to the Fire Nation, but he doesn’t seem too bothered by the change of plans. He’s humming to himself as they make camp, either too desensitized to imminent danger to care anymore or totally insensible to its presence. And more Jae watches and thinks, the more uneasy she grows, and the more she becomes convinced that she can’t let the group go to Chameleon Bay.
No one’s exactly entrusting her with the Avatar’s guardianship, but she’s found herself in his company and his confidence, and, unlike his other companions, she hasn’t yet been dulled to the importance of the task. There is only one Avatar, after all, and a handful of chances for him to take on the Fire Lord; neither, none, can be waster. So, even though no one is asking a thing of her except that she stay out of the way, she’s not going to let him down.
She owes her mother, and every other mother who’d wanted a safe world for her children, that much.
“Are you absolutely certain?”
Bato raises his shoulders halfheartedly. “There’s a Fire Navy ship in the mouth of the harbor. I doubt that could mean anything else.”
Hakoda nods resolutely. “In that case, we need to get a hawk to the Avatar as soon as possible.”
Bato’s eyes narrow skeptically. “We don’t even know where he is right now.”
“No, but it’s vital that he and my children know not to come looking for us. And I know someone who might be able to find them.” He doesn’t elaborate, and Bato doesn’t ask him to. “Last I recall, there’s bison fur all over the beach.”
“Uh…well, yes. There is.”
“Go down and collect some. Tie a few strands to the letter,” Hakoda instructs. “Tell the Avatar we’re under attack, and send it with a hawk to Zhangbo.”
“If there’s anyone who can find them, she’s in Zhangbo.”
“This is a terrible idea.”
“Tell me about it,” Sokka sighs. He leans back into a felled log and stretches. “We’re running into a burning building.”
“Why didn’t you overrule them?” Jae presses. “I mean…we’re sending the Avatar into danger for no reason.”
Sokka shrugs. “Honestly, the Fire Nation plan wasn’t that much safer,” he tells her. “No offense.”
“I never said it was. None taken.” Jae shifts, angling herself towards him. “But it’s better than running off to the first place they’d think to look for us.”
“I know you don’t like it, Jae.” Katara takes a seat beside Jae and she flinches, surprised – she hadn’t heard her approach. “Really, I don’t either, but I also know that we can’t do this without backup.”
“What if trying to get it just gets us and our backup killed?” Jae counters.
“She’s right.” Zuko returns from the campfire with a second helping of cranefish stew, even though it’s been sitting out for an hour and it’s probably all but congealed now, and slots in between Katara and a sleeping Toph. Neither Jae nor Sokka misses the way Katara preens (she’s really not as subtle as she thinks she is) at his obvious enjoyment of her cooking. “Chameleon Bay’s gonna be the first place my sister thinks to look if she decides the Avatar-hunt is on again. I’m not saying I want to go to the Fire Nation, but the alternative is a thousand times worse.”
“Zuko, be realistic. We’re six kids on the run against the entire Fire Nation army, and we need all the help we can get.”
“No, what we need is to stay alive and keep all of your allies-“
“Our allies alive until the invasion. We can’t throw away our shot like that,” Zuko argues. “You have no idea how hard it’s going to be to stage another attack if that one fails.”
“Oh, and you do?” Katara challenges.
Zuko doesn’t even know what to say to that, but a good thirty seconds of outraged, incomprehensible sputtering get the point across just fine.
“Okay, so you do.” Katara slumps against the log with the same slump in her shoulders that she’s seen Zuko display when he’s feeling peevish several times now. “But the fact is that if we can’t go to the Fire Nation, Chameleon Bay is the only viable alternative.”
“We could figure out where my uncle is,” Zuko suggests, eyes questioningly hopeful even though he already knows what Katara is going to say. “He’d be more helpful than anyone.”
Katara looks, for a moment, like she’s going to shoot back with a scathing analysis of just how terrible that idea is, but she stills before she speaks and her face falls in the span of seconds. She doesn’t say anything; instead, she lays her hand on his forearm. He stiffens at her touch, and she flinches back as if to move her hand away before the tense muscles of his wrist relax and she leaves it where it is. “I know you miss him,” she says, her voice soft enough to curl up in. “And I don’t disagree that he’d be helpful, but we don’t know where he is, and trying to find him would be way more dangerous than meeting up with my dad or hiding out in the Fire Nation.”
“That’s why you hated this idea, wasn’t it?” Katara realizes. “Because you’re worried about your uncle?”
“I’m not worried,” he snaps.
“Hey. Look at me.” Tentatively, her fingers wrap around his wrist, and he can barely help but comply. “We’re going to find some way to get him out. I promise. Okay?”
Zuko’s eyes aren’t hard with anger or stubbornness anymore, but their softness isn’t sweet. It’s the softness of an open wound, too raw for Katara to look at without feeling like an intruder, and she looks down at his wrist in her hand so she won’t have to. “Then why aren’t we looking for him now?”
“You said it yourself, Zuko,” Katara points out. “We can’t afford to waste time or risk our lives with the invasion coming up.”
“Finding uncle is not a waste of time!”
“Of course not, but do you really think he’d want us to go after him when he stayed behind so we could escape?”
“Hey, uh, this is all very touching, but you two aren’t getting anything done,” Sokka cuts in, and Katara releases Zuko’s arm like it’s caught fire. Her eyes are wide as a scared deer’s when she skitters away, as if to deny the undeniable tenderness with which she’d looked at Zuko only seconds earlier. “If no one has a realistic way to keep Zuko from being recognized or a better idea, we’re going to Chameleon Bay, and that’s the end of the story.”
Neither has anything to say to that, and though the sun’s only been down for an hour, both slouch back against the log, exhausted after the endless day they’ve had. Zuko’s second helping of soup lies forgotten by his side, and his hand reaches for Katara’s – it seems inappropriate to ask for comfort, but she’s never denied him, so he hasn’t stopped, and he doesn’t plan to.
Katara turns to him, keeping her movements subtle so as not to draw her brother’s suspicious eye. I promise, she mouths.
In the absence of anything to mouth back, he squeezes her hand.
(This time, when he wakes early to find Katara’s head against his shoulder, he smiles. It’s strange and not entirely welcome, this sort of intimacy with the enemy, but it is warm and all of the things he is not.
He lets his arm wrap around her waist almost of its own will. Perhaps she’ll wake up once he’s fallen asleep again and think it an accident; he almost hopes she’ll realize it was not.)
“Bison fur?” June mutters to herself, then glances over at the hawk still waiting expectantly for her signal to leave. “Is this the Avatar again?”
She unrolls the parchment out of which the tuft of bison fur had fallen. “’June – urgent. Find the Avatar and his companions. Tell them that the Southern Water Tribe fleet at Chameleon Bay is under attack by the Fire Nation, and not to come looking for us. What matters is that they stay out of her way until the invasion. Payment attached.’ Hmm.” She rolls up the scroll again, deposits the pouch of coin it had been attached to on the tabletop, and taps out an unstructured beat against its mahogany (what exactly would possess a client to pay for bounties in fine furniture, she didn’t know, but it was a nice table). Deliberating, she empties the pouch and counts up the payment – it’s not half-bad, and she knows it must’ve made a dent in the Water Tribe fleet’s emergency fund. “Well, he paid well. Nyla?”
The shirshu, slumbering across the room, cracks open an eye, evidently displeased at having been roused.
“Come check this out,” June calls, holding out a palmful of bison fur. Nyla sighs, but she stands (June winces when her snout bumps one of the exposed planks of wood holding up the ceiling) and pads over, close enough to take a few whiffs of the fur. “Think we should go for it?”
There’s no question that Nyla is awake now, eyes wide and alert at the strange but familiar smell.
“That looks like a yes,” June observes. “Is that a yes?”
It was, indeed.
The Next Morning
No response – Jae pokes the Avatar’s shoulders, but he still doesn’t wake. How is this kid still alive if he sleeps like this?
“Mmrgh?” he mutters, turning over to face Jae. “Wha’s happening?”
Jae sits up, clutching her blanket close to her chest, and points. “That.”
That, at least, gets his attention, and he bolts upright. “Is that a shirshu?”
“So you do remember me,” an unfamiliar voice replies. “I’d be flattered if I weren’t so unimpressed.”
“Wha’?” Aang rubs at his eyes. “I don’t even know who you are.”
“Hm.” A woman in black and red circles in front of the shirshu and leans against its enormous front leg. “Unimportant, really. What I’m more interested in hearing is why you, of all people, make yourself so easy to find.”
News from June changes the Gaang's plans and they find themselves in a struggling fishing village.
My dear, dear friend @FIRELORDKATARA has been begging me to write Painted Spirit fic since we met. (In NOVEMBER.) This is as close as I will likely ever come to doing so, so please enjoy this token of my undying love. :p
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Katara shifts, turning in her sleep with a dissatisfied noise at having been disturbed. It’s hardly more than a whimper, but Zuko still turns back to her in the second that he can spare. It’s pointless, because she’s going to wake up sooner or later and it might as well be now, but some twinging urge that he can neither afford nor suppress forces him to check, to make sure she’s sleeping peacefully even if just for one more moment.
Then he turns back to the gathering commotion on the other side of the camp.
“Who are you and what do you want?” Jae’s voice, always louder than her tiny frame should allow, cuts through what’s left of the stillness.
“I don’t want anything, ‘cept to do the job I was paid for and get moving.” Someone – she’s only visible as a silhouette in the low predawn light, but Zuko would recognize the shape of the animal looming behind her anywhere – shrugs casually, as if she’s stopping by to borrow a cup of rice and not invading the Avatar’s campsite before the sun is up. “It’s in everyone’s best interest to get this over with quickly, so if you could just take this-“
“You never answered her questions,” Toph interrupts. Zuko jerks – he hadn’t heard her wake – but he takes that as his cue to stand.
He has no earthly idea what June is doing here, but he doubts it’s good, and he isn’t taking any chances. There are countless people who might be looking for any of their companions, but it just as easily could’ve been Azula who’d hired her to root him out and drag him back to the Fire Nation in chains, and he’s not taking any chances. “I know her,” he cuts in, his voice raspier than usual with sleep as he stands and makes his way over to the place where Aang, Toph, and Jae are sleeping around the dying embers of last night’s campfire.
He can just barely make out the look of surprise on June’s face at his presence and it takes everything Zuko has not to let his shoulders sag in relief. If she didn’t know he would be here, she must not have been sent to find him – that’s one of the many awful possibilities off the table. “Zuko?” she asks. “Last I heard, you weren’t exactly on the best of terms with the Avatar.” Her eyes scan the camp and she smirks when they drift to Katara. “But it is nice to see that you’ve managed to get your girlfriend back.”
“Then why were you sleeping next to her?”
“You didn’t even know I was here until I got up,” he mutters under his breath. “And didn’t you say you wanted to make this quick?”
“Well, yes, but I thought I ought to congratulate you. She’s about five leagues out of yours.” June smirks. “And once you got up, it wasn’t that hard to figure out that the lump she was cuddling with was you.”
“I was not cuddling with her!”
“Mmhm.” June’s smirk stays plastered-on, almost eerily unwavering, then falls after only a few seconds. “Anyways. Her father sent me to find the Avatar and deliver a message.”
“Wait, wha’?” Sokka asks, rubbing at his eyes as he sits up. “Dad sent us a message?”
June nods tightly. “I’ll let you read it,” she says, and tosses him the scroll. Too groggy to move quickly, he barely catches the scroll before it lands in the embers of the fire. But even in his exhaustion, Sokka’s eyes widen in evident distress when he scans the letter.
He looks back up, first at Aang (with worry), then at a still-sleeping Katara (with more worry), then at Zuko (with suspicion). “Someone wake my sister,” he says.
“Is it bad?” Aang asks.
Sokka nods. “We’re not going to Chameleon Bay.”
“And with that, I take my leave,” June says, already walking away as she throws a backwards glance over her shoulder. “And make yourselves harder to find. It’s only a matter of time before your sister tries to hire me to find you all, you know.”
“What do you think is going to happen to them?” Katara’s voice is small and she seems to fold in on herself, curled up tightly in the back right corner of Appa’s saddle. No one thinks it wise to get too close, so they give her a wide berth: Aang at Appa’s reins, Sokka a few feet off on the left side next to Toph, Jae and Zuko on the right.
“Nothing good,” Zuko says dimly. “They don’t pose enough of a threat to be targeted for any other reason than their connection to you, and it’s possible that they’re trying to use this as bait.”
“To get us to Chameleon Bay?” Jae asks.
“It’s possible. I could see Azula doing that.”
“We should’ve gone while we still could,” Katara says, visibly holding back tears.
Sokka looks like he’s aged ten years overnight, and his expression melts into mournful resignation at her words. “He didn’t want that, Katara,” he says, though his heart is clearly not in it. “He wouldn’t have risked sending out a hawk or paying June to find us if he’d wanted us there.”
“But we should have done something!” she protests. “That was our tribe – our fleet. Our family, and where were we when it was attacked?” Katara throws up her hands. “Sleeping peacefully in the Earth Kingdom!”
“We’re a lot more use to them alive than we would be dead,” Toph points out. There’s an uncharacteristic note of melancholy in her voice, though no one would ever tell her that. “Aang kinda has to be alive, y’know? We don’t have the option of charging in and getting ourselves killed.”
“Maybe not him. Maybe not any of you.” Katara raises her eyes above her knees, which she’s tucked to her chest. “But I could’ve done something. I should’ve.”
Her eyes steel themselves, and absently, Zuko can’t help but remember that blue’s always been the color of the ones who stop at nothing.
“This is where we’re hiding out?”
“This is where no one is going to bother to look for us,” Katara says flatly. Even she has to admit that this is a last resort – they’ve passed over at least a dozen towns now, and this polluted neck of the river isn’t what any of them would’ve chosen – but she’s hardly in the mood to debate about what they could’ve, should’ve, and would’ve done. “And we need food, so please just go with it.”
“I don’t think anyone would’ve bothered to look for us back in that nice, normal town with the school,” Toph huffs, but she’s silenced by one of Katara’s ‘don’t-try-me’ looks.
“I mean, she’s not wrong,” Zuko cuts in. He throws a glance at the murky water flowing sluggishly past the base of the cliff they stand on and grimaces. “This isn’t exactly the kind of place people come if they have any other options.”
Katara jabs an elbow into his side. Zuko pulls a face, but he knows better than to say anything.
“Well, if it keeps us on schedule, I really couldn’t care less.” Sokka shrugs. “I mean, it’s advantageous, right? We’re not going to waste time in a place we all hate.”
“Oh, I promise it’s nicer than it looks!” calls an unfamiliar voice from below. The group looks down to find an old man, barely clothed from the waist up and waving enthusiastically, standing on what looks like the ricketiest dock any of them have ever seen. It’s so paltry that none of them had even noticed it and Sokka doesn’t look too enthused when he realizes that it’s probably their only way into the village. “You need a lift?”
“Oh, um…that would be great!” Katara says with all the false chipperness she can muster. Sokka glares at her, and Zuko’s eyes dart nervously in several directions before he tugs the hood of the cloak they’d found for him in Senlin Village closer to his face so his scar won’t be visible, but
none of them has any better ideas, so they follow her down and board a boat just as rickety as the dock where it’s parked.
“So, what brings you here?” the ferry driver asks. “We don’t exactly get many visitors.”
“We’re just here to get some provisions and move on,” Sokka says.
“Oh, you’re traveling?”
Sokka crosses his arms. “What else did you think we’d be doing out here?”
“Yeah, good point!” the driver says, his cheeriness unabated. “Well, it’s not much, but I hope you find what you’re looking for out here.”
“Yeah, so do we,” Toph pipes up. She elbows Sokka’s arm. “We’re on a tight schedule.”
“Oh, really?” the man cocks his head. “Rushing home in time for the Fire Spirits Festival?”
“Something like that,” Zuko says dourly.
“Yeah, we’re…from the Earth Kingdom colonies!” Katara says, shooting a help-me-out-here look at Aang and Jae. They’ve both been silent, and she isn’t about to let them off the hook for it. “We’re trying to get home to our family in time.”
The ferryman sizes them up. “You’re all related?”
Katara winces – she doesn’t know if she’d be able to pull off the lie that a group with a representative from every single nation is somehow related even on a good day, and she hasn’t slept since she got word of the attack on the Water Tribe fleet. “Well, you see-“
Sokka puts his hand on her shoulder. “This here’s my sister…Mei,” he says cautiously. Then he claps a hand against Zuko’s shoulder. “And her fiancé…”
“Lee.” Zuko’s face reddens beneath his cloak, but he understands the importance of the ruse too well to risk anything.
“And my fiancé, Jae,” he says, gesturing at Jae, “and her sister…Linh, and their brother…uh, Peng.”
Aang looks displeased, but he, too, knows to keep quiet.
“Jae, huh?” The ferryman sizes up the only member of their group who’d been allowed to keep her own name – it’s Earth Kingdom and she’s hardly famous, so it’s not as if anyone would suspect anything upon hearing it. “You seem a little young to be gettin’ married.”
“My parents needed one less mouth to feed,” she replies, not missing a beat. She meets Sokka’s eyes and both have to bite back a laugh because there is nothing funny about this predicament they’ve found themselves in but this moment, they both have to admit, is rather amusing. “Couldn’t talk them out of it.”
“Well, that’s too bad.” The man shakes his head. “You could always run off and stay here, you know. We need all the help we can get around here.”
Katara glances down into the water, then back up at the ferryman. “I noticed that the river’s really polluted,” she says, brow creased with concern. “What’s happening to it?”
“That there factory,” he says, pointing upriver. “That’s where the army makes its metal. It’s been making a mess of our river for years.”
“Hm.” Katara tenses, and, squeezed against Zuko as she is, she can feel his muscles tighten, too. “That must be why we couldn’t catch any fish on the way in.”
At that, the driver cocks his head again. The effect is a little unnerving. “We used to be a fishing village, you know,” he says. “Before the factory came along and started mucking up the river.”
Katara’s mouth presses into a line, and she doesn’t say anything else. Sokka’s expression grows wary – she’s already on the edge after the couple of days they’ve had, and unnervingly liable to do something rash. It feels as if the air grows colder around them as she sits, fists clenched and back ramrod-straight, staring out at the village with a look in her eyes that leaves nothing to the imagination. Even Zuko, who’s not yet familiar enough with the workings of their group to know when to run for cover before Katara snaps, shifts uncomfortably, careful not to let his thigh brush hers (it does anyway). And they stay like that, in fraught silence, until they reach the town.
And the silence only seems to thicken then, because whatever they’d imagined might await them across the river, the reality is worse.
The town is built on stilts, wooden walkways half-crumbling with rot connecting thatch-roofed houses. The sick and elderly lie about on the footpaths, their groaning and the sluggish flow of the river and the buzz of flies the only sounds to be heard in the eerie silence. Katara’s brow creases more tightly with each passing moment, and Sokka’s hand hovers protectively an inch from her back, though it’s unclear to anyone whether he intends to shelter her from some unknown danger or hold her back if she plans on becoming one. It’s no better when they stop for food – all that’s for sale is a barrel of fish that look likelier to kill them than a few days without eating could ever be.
No one misses the gathering storm, and it’s hardly surprising when Zuko stirs at a sound in the middle of the night and realizes that the bedroll beside his is empty.
It’s the smell of bison breath that first alerts Zuko to the fact that something is off. He coughs at the pungent odor and pulls himself up to a seated position with arms too tired to hold up the rest of his body, bleary eyes scanning the camp. It’s force of habit – truthfully, there’s nothing suspicious about being hit with a blast of Appa’s morning breath long before the sun comes up – but he’s awfully glad it’s so second-nature when he sees movement.
He glances over at Katara’s bedroll – that, too, is instinctive now – and the moment his sluggish, sleep-clouded mind registers the fact that it is empty, he is crawling out of his own. Either Katara is up and about at an ungodly hour of the morning or she’s being abducted, and he intends to find out which it is.
It doesn’t take long, though. Part of him wants to be relieved when he sees her circle Appa again, dressed in a dark cloak he’s never seen her wear before (he wonders where she got it, but that’s the least of his worries), but part of him is also more than a little suspicious when he sees her coax the bison’s mouth open and feed him a handful of something he can’t quite identify in the dark. “Katara?” he whispers hoarsely.
She freezes at the sound of her name, then glances back at him.
“You didn’t see anything,” she whispers back, and resumes feeding Appa.
“Where’d you get the cape?”
“That’s what you’re worried about?”
“Well, yeah, I-“ he stops once she turns again and he gets a better look at her. “Wait. Is that mine?”
She shrugs. “I was always going to return it.”
“After you did what?”
“Keep your voice down!”
Zuko flushes – he hadn’t realized that he’d been raising it. “You never answered my question.”
“Nothing,” she insists.
“Why are you feeding Appa?” he asks, figuring he won’t be able to wrangle a better answer out of her.
“He hasn’t eaten in days,” she points out.
“Okay, but couldn’t you have fed him at a reasonable hour?” He pauses. “And not in a cape and weird hat?”
“Just go back to sleep, Zuko.”
“Not until you tell me what you’re actually doing up.”
Katara’s shoulders slump, and she looks as if she’s considering the idea for a moment before she sighs in defeat. “I need to do something to help those people,” she says, keeping her explanation as vague as she can. “Please don’t tell anyone.”
His eyes narrow. “So you’re a vigilante now?”
Her eyes narrow in response. “Hardly.”
“I happen to have vigilante experience,” Zuko says before he’s even fully aware that he’s forming the words.
Zuko is almost too shocked that Katara agreed to this to be annoyed that he’s essentially her glorified bodyguard for the night. Really, few other emotions register, except faint irritation with his past self for throwing out a mask that he really could’ve used right now, and something traitorous that he doesn’t want to name at the otherworldly beauty of Katara in borrowed clothes (some of them his), diaphanous white veil drifting around her face on a wind that seems to kiss it with a lover’s gentle flattery. But shock alone is more than enough to keep him still while Katara slips in and out of homes and buildings that might be infirmaries. He considers asking what exactly she’s doing in there, but he doesn’t think it would be wise.
He takes her triumphant grin as an answer in and of itself, but he still asks when they arrive back at the camp, slipping back into their bedrolls as if they’d never left. Katara drapes Zuko’s borrowed cloak over his blanket and he feels curiously hot.
“Healing people,” she says simply, and when his eyebrows rise, she adds, “what, didn’t I tell you I could do that?”
She had not.
He swears she sleeps a little closer to him that night.
There’s a story going around the next morning about a river spirit’s visit. Zuko tries to keep his features blank. But as soon as he manages to catch Katara alone, he smirks.
“The Painted Lady, huh?”
She smiles – full, bright, genuine – for the fist time since her father’s letter arrived.
Zuko makes a surprisingly good partner in vigilantism, but there are lines he won’t cross.
“Your brother was kidding, Katara.”
“But he was right,” she argues. “The townspeople are going to be back to square one as soon as we leave if we don’t go after the source of the problem, and the only way to do that is to destroy the factory.”
“Do you really think it’s smart for me to be traipsing around committing acts of treason in a Fire Nation factory?”
Katara gnaws her lip. “Well, that is a good point.” Her fingers tap out a rhythm against her forearm. “But you’re not going to stop me from going.”
“Do whatever you want,” he sighs tiredly. “Just be safe.”
He follows her to the factory anyways.
(People who can set things on fire, she learns, make excellent partners in ecoterrorism.)
“I knew you were trouble!” Sokka points an accusing finger, using his free hand to shake the jumble of foliage Katara had stuffed her bedroll with from the blankets. “I knew it!”
“He’s done more damage to the Fire Nation in the past few weeks than you have!” Katara shoots back, grabbing Zuko’s wrist without thinking about it.
Oh, he thinks. I guess I did.
He hadn’t exactly been thinking of it like that – Katara makes it so easy to see what she sees, people in need of help and not the corrupt government causing their suffering. But he has, and some part of himself with which he’s grown increasingly uneasy of late chastises him. Your own nation, it tells him. What kind of an heir are you?
Sokka sighs. “I’ve got my eye on you.”
Katara’s still holding his wrist; too conflicted to bear her single-minded conviction, Zuko wrenches free.
“You realize what they’re going to do to you if you go down there, right?”
Katara shakes her head, scanning the surface of the river below. Fire Nation cruisers cut across the water like oversized gnat-flies, and no one has any illusions about where they’re headed. “What choice do I have?”
“You did what you could for those people.” Zuko almost hates himself for saying it, and Katara’s sharp intake of breath is like a dagger to the heart, but he forces out the rest of the words he’d meant to say. “You don’t have to put yourself in danger for them anymore.”
Katara’s eyes widen in horror. “Are you listening to yourself? You know better than anyone what the Fire Nation will do to people who fight back!”
“And that’s exactly why you need to stay here.” He tries to keep his tone measured, but it doesn’t work. He’s truly not sure anymore what he’s saying – whether he wants to protect her, whether it’s the conflict in him speaking over his voice of reason. He takes her wrist, so small in his hands that he’s almost afraid it’ll snap, as if to hold her back. “Katara, they will kill you. If not worse.”
They could take you like they probably already took your father. He doesn’t even have to say the words for her to know that he means them.
“And what if they do?” she turns on him, wrenching her wrist from his grasp. “Aren’t there worse ways to go than that?”
“They’re never going to win without you, Katara.” Apparently the other side of the conflict is winning now, though neither wants to let Katara leave. “I know you feel guilty about your father, and believe me, I know what’s going through your head right now, but you can’t put yourself in danger. Not now.”
“How would you know what I’m feeling?” her eyes are hard and cold as a storm-lashed sea. “How could you possibly?”
“How do you think I felt when you dragged me out my own front door and left my uncle to die in Ba Sing Se?”
“Then why are you still here, Zuko?” Katara snaps. “Why haven’t you left and gone off to join your sister if you’re so reluctant?” Her eyes lock on his. “I’m not stupid, Zuko. I know that’s why you went cold.”
“Fine.” Zuko grits his teeth. “Fine. If that’s how you’re going to be.”
She grabs his wrist this time, harsher than he’d dared to when their roles were reversed. “I don’t know what your deal is, Zuko,” she snaps. “But I will never, ever turn my back on people who need me.”
He watches her go, wishing he knew how not to turn his back on anything at all.
Katara is not captured.
She returns to the camp, still stonily silent, and Zuko’s relief at seeing her alive and well is so immense that it almost cracks his heart in half. He barely remembers to care that she won’t speak to him. He makes the best of it; for two days, they work day and night to clean the river, and he does what he’s told without a word to Katara. He even manages to glower at Jae when she splashes him with river muck, and to crack a faint smile when she and Aang dissolve into uncontrollable laughter at the look on his face. He works alongside them, pretending that a part of him doesn’t still stir with unease at the sight of the Avatar’s open, smiling face. He plays the part. He gives no one cause to doubt that he is not one of them. Still, though, she no longer sleeps beside him in Appa’s saddle when they depart, and for days, no one says much.
He is alone with his thoughts, and he feels almost ill at the realization that nearly all of those thoughts now are about her.
Someone needs me to stop me from shipping Jaekka.
Jae adjusts to life with the Gaang; Sokka feels useless and concocts a plan to combat this which Zuko is not particularly fond of.
Okay, so if we're following the loose timeline of Book 3, this would be "Sokka's Master." I chose to keep episodes which a) fit in some way with this canon divergence and b) I believed were important for character development, and since "Sokka's Master" is a pivotal Sokka episode, I decided to use a version of its plot, especially because I think Jae would relate a lot to his struggles in that episode and it gave me a chance to develop her and their friendship as well. However, it doesn't exactly play out the way it does in canon, and Sokka's arc isn't quite as neatly tied up in this chapter as it is in 03x04 - he still has some learning to do, which is set up at the end (as you'll see).
Also, some key notes:
-I keep changing Jae's age. From this point out, she is 14 (same as Katara/Azula/Ty Lee).
- Zuko was canonically trained by Piandao as a child, so he's obviously tied to the royal family in some way. Because of this and the fact that Zuko is unfamiliar with his White Lotus ties, I am assuming for the purposes of this chapter that Zuko doesn't realize that Piandao is not in cahoots with his father and still sees him as a potential threat.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Observation is power and power is security, so really, Jae can’t afford not to pay attention.
It’s been a couple of weeks now since she began traveling with the Avatar’s companions and she’s picked up on quite a bit in that time. It’s no different than eavesdropping on palace gossip, except that she no longer has to sniff it out herself when everything she could possibly want to know is playing out under her nose. (The group either trusts her more than they should or underestimates her ability to use information against them, if their loose tongues tell her anything.) She knows where each member fits into the group, pieces of a puzzle that was complete without her. Aang is the reason they keep going; Toph is, from what she can surmise, is somewhere between the team’s muscle and its resident pot-stirrer; Sokka plans and Katara executes; Zuko sulks, lights fires, makes longing eyes at Katara, and occasionally jumps in to suggest that the team divert its course to go find his uncle, of whom he seems quite terribly fond. Jae has a decent grasp on their opinions of her now, too: Katara finds her useful, Toph finds her amusing, Zuko couldn’t care less about her, Sokka likes the way she thinks, Aang likes…everything. (He stares a lot. It’s getting a little bit weird.) None of them but Sokka gives her any real attention, but none of them seems convinced that she’s going to betray them, either, so that’s reassuring. The way she’s quickly fallen into the group, a sort of fringe member who’s trusted and relied-upon if not necessarily included, is equally so.
It’s just like the palace, really.
Just like the palace, save for the Avatar’s sudden infatuation with her (still struggling to separate heroic myth from ordinary boy in her mind, Jae isn’t really sure how to deal with that), and the chance to observe gossip in the making instead of just hearing about it later, and the friendship of a Water Tribe boy who seems to understand her like no one ever has.
She tells herself that this is no different than the life she’s always known when she wryly offers to wash the group’s clothes, even though she was a terrible laundress and only remained employed as one because she is an excellent spy. She tells herself that this isn’t insanity when they take her up on an offer made in jest, wearing their old clothes again while she does what she can to launder the Fire Nation disguises they’ve stolen from a clothesline without soap. Zuko boils water because she can’t imagine washing without hot water, and Sokka’s determined to make a science of it and before they even begin, they try several bending techniques to dry their clothes. Airbending leaves them too stiff and firebending takes too long, so waterbending wins; Jae washes, Katara dries and notes the dirtiness of her own Fire Nation clothes, swapping them for her old palace uniform so she can wash them, too.
It’s ridiculous, really, stopping to do laundry while they’re running for their lives. Perhaps they needed it; Jae isn’t really sure. She’s glad to be of use, if anything. And it’s odd, seeing everyone in their own colors again; she decides that they look better that way, more like themselves. Toph, as usual, presents the sole exception: she’d ordered Zuko to burn her Earth Kingdom clothes when they’d arrived, and wears one of the extra tunics in the bag Iroh had insisted that Zuko take for the journey, which hangs to her ankles. (Katara, who still won’t even look at Zuko, nevertheless looks a little jealous.) Jae, for one, feels more like herself in the white-and-forest-green hanbok she hasn’t worn since she left Ba Sing Se, and she turns a swatch of the cotton of the skirt in her hands as if to memorize the feeling.
“You look good in green,” Aang tells her a few hours later; she blinks a few times before thanking him perfunctorily and moving a few inches further from him.
(It’s not that she dislikes him – she doesn’t know how anyone could, legend aside, dislike someone so earnestly well-meaning. But that hardly means that she likes the way he stares, or follows her like a lost puppy.)
Even so, it’s with a twinge of regret that Jae changes out of her old uniform at the end of the day. The loose red trousers and wraparound skirt she wears instead don’t feel quite right, and she’s never liked the way she looked in red. In these clothes, she’s just another Fire Nation teenager, just another member of this group – and perhaps the uniform had been the same, marking her as just another servant, just another Lower Ring girl trying to stay off the Upper Ring streets, but at least that was somewhere she belonged. She isn’t sure if that applies here. And if those ruminations leave her a little more melancholy than usual, she doubts anyone will notice.
But someone does. Someone always notices.
“You seem kinda…off,” Sokka says, much later that night when they should be sleeping but aren’t. They’re always the last two up, though Katara had joined their daily late-night conversation a few nights a few days ago (probably, Jae thinks, to avoid pesky thoughts of the firebender she’d rather ignore). And they always talk.
It’s nice, just talking. She’s never had anyone her own age to just talk to, let alone late at night – let alone about the meaning of life and the futility of attempts to fix its problems, and so on and so forth. (Sokka is very cynical. She finds that she likes that about him.)
“Aren’t we all?” she answers with a halfhearted shrug.
Sokka looks her over, then nods as if he knows exactly what she means. “It’s the clothes, isn’t it,” he surmises. “All that red. It’s bad for morale.”
“’Bad for morale,” she snorts. “Yes. That is exactly why I’m acting weird.”
(She can’t ever seem to keep from smiling when he gets like this. It’s infuriating.)
“It comes with the territory,” Sokka says, then throws a suspicious glance around the campsite. “Enemy territory.”
“You are so stupid for a smart guy.”
Sokka shakes his head. “Would you quit trying to get me to forget that you just admitted that you’re acting weird?”
“You sure about that?”
I obviously don’t give anything of value to this group and I’m not sure why I’m even here, she thinks, but all that comes out is “of course.”
“Okay, now I know you’re lying.”
He decides to switch up his tactics, since the ones he’s been using clearly aren’t working. “Is this about Aang?”
Jae narrows her eyes. “Why would this be about Aang?”
“Because he likes you…?”
“No.” Jae tucks her knees to her chest. “Definitely no.”
“Ohhh. He’s bothering you, isn’t he?” Sokka asks, as if he’s got this all figured out. “He did the same thing to my sister-“
“Well, yes, but it doesn’t…actually bother me.” She hears fabric rustling, and a beat later he settles in beside her. “I mean, it’s weird, but I don’t really care that much.”
“Hmm…is Zuko giving you the creeps, then?” he side-eyes her. “Have you finally gotten it through your head that we’re in the Fire Nation?”
“Zuko doesn’t even talk to me.” Jae pulls a face at him. “And I’m pretty sure you people would be in mortal danger in anynation, so no, it hasn’t.”
“My sister hasn’t been on your back, has she?”
“Nope, too busy trying to convince herself that she’s not-“
“Please do me a favor and don’t finish that sentence.”
Jae’s elbow digs into Sokka’s ribs. “You can’t pretend you don’t see it.”
“Uh, yes I can,” he says, shooting her a wounded look, “and I will.”
“Fine. No one is bothering me, okay?” Jae snaps, suddenly overwhelmed by the urge to end this conversation before it gets out of hand. “I’m fine. Everything is fine and it isn’t anybody’s fault that I’m dead weight!”
“Hey, uh, everyone’s trying to sleep-“
“Right. Sorry.” Jae shakes herself. “I don’t know what came over me.”
“No, you’re good.” Sokka sighs as if he’s seen this all before. “And believe me, I get it.”
“All these bending prodigies and I’m just the girl who does the laundry,” Jae huffs.
“It’s a necessary service!”
“We wasted two hours on it just because I needed to feel useful,” she mutters. “Why’d you even let them do that? Don’t you have a schedule?”
“Poor hygiene is a serious health hazard.” Sokka shrugs. “And trust me, it wasn’t just because of you. I mean…we had to do it eventually. You actually made it more efficient.”
“Hmph.” Jae’s shoulders rise and fall as she huffs out a sigh. “I don’t really believe that, but thanks.”
“Well, if it’s any consolation, I feel you.” Sokka claps Jae’s shoulder, which she isn’t convinced is entirely necessary but appreciates nonetheless. “Why do you think I have a schedule? Everyone’s gotta earn their keep somehow.”
“No, but that’s different. You’re, like…a founding member,” Jae argues. “And you’re Katara’s only family. People actually care that you’re here.”
Sokka looks almost offended. “Do you really think we’d be feeding you if we didn’t care about you?”
Jae shoots him a glare that could raze a mid-sized grove of trees.
“I’m probably here because Katara thinks I have useful information,” she huffs. “And because Aang thinks I’m cute or whatever.”
Jae raises one eyebrow, a technique she’s perfected over the years.
“You probably saved all of our lives, Jae,” Sokka points out. “That’s, like…a big deal.”
“You should believe me when I tell you that you are, contrary to popular belief, a contributing member of this team.”
“Contrary to popular belief?” Jae’s voice rises and she winces when Zuko, who’s been sleeping (further than Katara than he had been last week, but not by much), stirs at the sound.
“Well, you’re not wrong,” she says glumly, after a moment without response from Sokka. Zuko, who’s never been a heavy sleeper, props himself up on his elbows to listen in. “I don’t really have any useful skills besides laundry, and I’m not even good at that.”
“Well, neither do I, so I guess that makes us even.” Sokka glances over at Zuko, and his eyes drop to the dao swords he keeps by his bedroll when he sleeps. “But, I mean, bending’s not the only useful skill there is, right?”
Zuko, now openly eavesdropping, reaches for his dao swords and clutches them protectively. Already, both he and Jae can hear the wheels in his head turning.
“No,” Zuko says without any prompting.
“No…it’s not the only useful skill?” Sokka glances over.
“No, it’s not going to happen.”
“Oh, we’ll see about that.”
Jae can already see this argument ending with multiple stab wounds, most of them probably self-inflicted by an overly-determined Sokka, and interposes herself between them even though they’re far enough apart that it’s unnecessary. “You don’t need a sword, Sokka,” she says in what she hopes is a decent impression of Katara’s diplomat voice. “And you don’t need to give him one, Zuko. Okay?”
Neither says anything, and it crosses her mind once again just how gifted her teammates are at finding unnecessary diversions with which to concern themselves when they need them least.
“You found a what?” Katara’s eyes widen. “Why?”
“Blame Jae,” Sokka says evenly.
Jae almost chokes on her soup. “Blame me? For the thing I explicitly told you not to do?”
“Hey, you got me thinking about it.”
“No, she actually did tell you not to,” Zuko cuts in.
“Thank you, Zuko.”
Zuko doesn’t respond to Sokka, narrowing his eyes and studying Sokka intently instead. “Wait,” he says slowly. “Who…where did you find a sword master?”
Sokka shrugs. “Stroke of luck, I guess? There happened to be one in the area.”
“Huh.” Zuko tries to sound nonchalant, but it’s clear when he almost chokes that he isn’t. “Weird coincidence.”
Katara gives him one of her we’ll-talk-later looks for that; as this is the most attention Zuko’s gotten from Katara in two weeks, his cheeks color and he looks a little more pleased than he should.
“You can’t let him go train with that guy!”
Katara sighs heavily and turns from the map she’s studying to face Zuko. He doesn’t usually barge into her tent at all hours of the night, but all things considered, she’s not shocked that he has – what surprises her more is that he’s soaked to the bone.
Oh. Right. She stares for a moment, taking in his soaked tunic and dripping hair. It looked like it was going to rain earlier. It shouldn’t be shocking when that is the entire reason they bothered to put up tents tonight in the first place, but she’d hardly expected him to show up sopping-wet. As a courtesy, she bends the water out of his clothes, though his breath still comes out in visible puffs. “What are you doing here?” she asks.
“That sword master that Sokka found?” Zuko clarifies, hands on his knees as he catches his breath. His hair, which she’d forgotten to dry, still drips to the floor “He knows me.”
“Oh?” Katara narrows her eyes. “And this is a problem…why?”
“He’s been in good standing with the royal family my entire life,” Zuko explains once he has his bearings. “I don’t know what his deal is now, but if my father still trusts him, even the smallest connection that he makes between us and Sokka is going to be a disaster.” The urgency in his tone is enough to get Katara’s attention, but it’s the wild look in his eyes that she can’t look away from. “Do I really need to spell out what would happen if Master Piandao was still working for my family and he figured out Sokka’s actual identity? He’d be leaving a trail right back to us.” He meets her eyes. “And the Avatar.”
“For the Spirits’ sake, Zuko, use his name!”
He doesn’t feel the need to respond to that - this is one of the most commonly-recurring of their many pointless arguments. Instead, he runs a hand through his hair, sending a shower of droplets to the floor. He stands there for a moment, sulking, to make sure he’s made his point in suitably dramatic fashion. And when he’s content with that, he continues.
“Look, I know you’re upset with me, but if you don’t want to get us all captured, you have to talk your brother out of this,” he says instead. “I’m…I’m trying to help you, Katara. I may not know where I stand right now, but I care about you, and I don’t want to let you put yourselves in danger.”
“I…oh.” Katara resists the urge to let her hand drift to her throat and clasp the pendant of her mother’s necklace. Yourselves, he’d said. The confession still leaves her heart racing. “I…okay. Thank you.”
“Please talk to him,” he pleads. “I’m…I wouldn’t be telling you this if it weren’t important. Please warn him.”
Katara nods weakly. “Of course.”
“Um…well, I guess that’s all, then,” Zuko mutters, obviously stalling. “I…sleep well.”
“Zuko,” Katara asks, coming to a sudden realization, “whose tent are you staying in tonight?”
The tents are far too small for three, and she knows that Aang and Sokka usually share. Since Toph always sleeps in an earthbent shelter, they only carry one other tent, which is usually Katara’s and would be Jae’s if she hadn’t elected to share Toph’s ‘to see what it’s like to sleep in the dirt’ (how that girl ever made a living doing laundry, Katara has no idea).
She has a feeling she knows the answer.
“I’m not,” he says, confirming her suspicions.
“You’re going to delay us if you get sick,” she says.
“You’re sleeping in here, Zuko.”
He meets her eyes. They look a little bit like armistice.
“I may not know how much I can trust you yet, but I’m not going to leave you hanging, either.” Her gaze doesn’t waver. “Not if I can help it.”
Tent-sharing is a fantastically good start, but Zuko knows that he has far to go if he wants Katara to believe him when he says that he means well. So he corners Sokka, who’s sulking over his ruined plans of sword-mastery, after breakfast.
He doesn’t know if he’s quite ready to call himself an ally of the Avatar or an enemy of the Fire Nation. He doesn’t know if he’s quite ready to call himself the ally of anyone but Uncle or the enemy of anyone but Azula. But he can’t look at Katara without feeling as if, were he to be unable to add her to the list of people whom he can trust and by whom he is trusted, he would be failing himself. He knows that, if he were able to go back to Ba Sing Se and choose to stay, he might well have done so; he knows that he would have regretted it for the rest of his life, however long that was. He knows that she doesn’t trust him and rightfully shouldn’t; he knows that he wishes she understood that she is the reason this process of figuring out where he fits is so full of contradictions. There’s nothing he can do to straighten out his own mind, but he can take action to show them that he doesn’t want to hurt them.
So he approaches Sokka and sits beside him without saying a word.
“Thanks a lot,” Sokka scoffs.
“I can teach you how to use dao swords,” he offers, again, without prompting.
“Thought you told me you were never gonna do that.”
“Yeah, but that was before I ruined your other plans,” he said. “So do you want to learn or not?”
“What kind of a question is that?” Sokka’s face breaks into a grin. “Of course I do.”
He glances across the campfire to see Katara watching them, seemingly pleased, but he’s surprised to find that Sokka’s palpable excitement is as much of a relief.
Maybe, he realizes much later, it was belonging, and not Katara’s attention (which he also realizes much later that he’s had all along), that he’d truly wanted.
I SWEAR, the Jaekka gets WORSE EVERY CHAPTER. Mátame ahora <3
Azula isn't thrilled with the prospect of a weekend on Ember Island; some familiar faces cross paths at the Boiling Rock; Zuko is conflicted (again).
This is "The Beach" but with so much other stuff going on that it's barely recognizable. I'm *really* trying not to sidestep any important canon character development, but without Zuko there to pick fights with everyone which inevitably lead to soul-searching around a bonfire and whatnot, "The Beach" loses a lot of its substance - I've tried to keep what I can while working in the other characters I've got on my plate here.
Also, this is getting daily updates now, because I am an absolute buffoon who loves to overextend herself.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“Remind me why we’re here again?”
Azula shoots Mai a look that has far less to do with the unnecessary dig than it has to do with the way this place seems to be doing its very best to infuriate her on every possible front. Sand manages to infiltrate the her shoes even on the paved path, and though she’s used to heat, the humidity here – combined with the crowds, which are at peak size during the summer holidays – is almost unbearable.
“We’re being exiled,” she reminds her with far more patience than she thinks the question deserves.
“From?” Mai picks at her nails, freshly shellacked with a coat of red so dark that it’s almost black.
“Business we’re apparently not qualified to sit in on, despite having neutralized nearly all of the Avatar’s allies singlehandedly,” she says. Azula’s hair, loosened from its topknot today, smacks Ty Lee across the forehead as a disgusted shake of her head sends the ponytail whipping in her direction. “You know. The usual.”
“Probably boring anyway,” Mai huffs.
“Hey, don’t be like that!” Ty Lee protests. “I mean, isn’t this going to be fun? I’ve always wanted to take a girls’ trip.”
“Well, I haven’t,” Mai interjects, though her voice loses a hint of its acerbic edge when she’s addressing Ty Lee. The change, however subtle, makes Azula’s stomach turn.
“This is not a reward,” Azula snaps, even more irritated now. “If my father wanted to reward all of the progress we’ve made, he would let me in on whatever it is he’s discussing with his war council right now. Instead he sends us on, as you put it, a girls’ trip.” She stops abruptly, clutching the strap of her beach bag possessively as she whirls on her friends. “Oh, no. This is not a reward. This is a slight. And I’m warning you now not to forget it.”
The porters carting their luggage up to the beach house give Azula an even wider berth than usual as she storms up to the front door and jams the key into the lock so forcefully that it almost breaks off. Mai and Ty Lee exchange a skeptical look – she’s usually so much more composed than she is right now and neither is really sure why this setback was the one to set her off when they’ve faced so many.
Nevertheless, they follow her through the door.
The Boiling Rock
Survival is an art in a place like this, and, separated from anyone anywhere near her own age and surrounded by hardened criminals, Suki knows that all too well. There’s no point in putting up a fight and even less in making herself seen, not when so many people here would see a teenage girl by herself as the easiest of targets. Eyes down, she reminds herself every time she’s led out into the yard for “recreation,” whatever that’s supposed to mean – it’s best not to be noticed at all. Especially now that the prison’s vacant cells have been filling so quickly.
Of course, there’s no official way that Suki would know that. People don’t exactly share such pertinent information with prisoners in solitary confinement. But guards are often loose-lipped, and word gets around quickly in the yard; soon after the first arrivals, the gossip was so pervasive that she couldn’t help but hear it no matter how hard she tried to make herself irrelevant. “The Southern Water Tribe fleet,” the whispers had said, and at first her heart had leapt into her throat.
Then it had plummeted. Sokka had never traveled with the fleet, as far as she knew, and it would be far better if he hadn’t.
Nevertheless, she’ll occasionally raise her eyes now during recreation time, looking for the telltale blue. She’s heard the way he and Katara talked about their father, and she can use all the allies she can get, so Suki’s made a routine of it: she shuffles out into the yard, eyes down, shoulders curving in on themselves, broken as anyone would expect. She makes for the corner she always sits in, arms wrapped around her knees to make her body small (appearing dejected usually deters attention, she’s learned), and only when enough people have passed her by to assure her that no one’s decided to pay attention to the girl who haunts the southwest corner today will she begin her search. It’s tricky to differentiate between nationalities when everyone wears the same ochre uniform, but with very rare exceptions, only Water Tribespeople have blue eyes, so she searches for them in every face which passes by.
It takes two weeks to find a pair, and the moment she does, she reaches out without a moment’s hesitation and tugs at the man’s pant leg. He freezes and turns, hackles raised, and his brows knit together when he sees who wants his attention. The prison population is incredibly diverse – people of every nation, age group, and profession seem to have managed to get on the Fire Nation’s worst side – but even so, it’s unusual to come across a prisoner so young here. The man obviously knows that, and he crouches so he’ll be closer to Suki’s eye level.
“You’re Water Tribe,” she says, praying she hasn’t managed to find a Northern Water Tribe prisoner who won’t be of any help at all. “Are you with the Fleet?”
“…yes,” the man says cautiously. “Why do you ask?”
“I have some friends in the Southern Water Tribe,” she offers, unsure why she’s asking at all. She doesn’t want anything from this man or any of his compatriots, and she doesn’t think she would have much to gain even if she did. But she keeps going anyways. “And it would be nice to know someone here.”
“You do?” the man asks, the effort of piecing together how on earth an Earth Kingdom teenager would’ve met Water Tribe friends written all over his face. “From where?”
Suki clears her throat to make sure she has his attention. “The ones traveling with the Avatar,” she says, enunciating every word without any more volume than she needs so she’ll get this man’s undivided attention but no one else’s. “Sokka and Katara? We’ve crossed paths a couple times.”
“Oh.” The man’s face lights with recognition. “Well, why didn’t you lead with that?”
Suki crosses her arms. “I did lead with that.”
The man considers for a moment, then shrugs. “Fair enough.”
“I guess I just thought it would be good to have some people here who I know won’t try to kill me,” Suki explains. “I figured that you were as good a bet as anyone, even if you took a while to find.”
The man offers his hand to help her up, and though she doesn’t need it, Suki is more shaken than she should be. It’s the first kindness she’s been shown since she arrived, and though it’s an enormous relief to know that she wasn’t wrong about the Water Tribe fleet, it’s also so unexpected that she can’t quite process it at first. “Sokka and Katara’s father is here, too,” he tells her as he leads her across the yard. He’s tall and imposing, and crowds of prisoners part to let him pass – that’s never happened for Suki before. “If you have any news about them, he’ll probably be glad to hear it.”
“I don’t, sorry,” Suki tells him, almost colliding with a prisoner who isn’t getting out of the man’s way as she trails after him. “I haven’t seen them since they got to Ba Sing Se.”
“Well, if you’re a friend of his kids’, I’m sure he’ll still be glad to see you,” the man says. He doesn’t seem to think anything is a big deal, a mindset that Suki isn’t sure if views with more admiration or skepticism. Then he glances back at her, seemingly sizing her up. “Earth Kingdom?”
“Kyoshi Island,” she clarifies.
“Huh. Isn’t Kyoshi Island supposed to be neutral or somethin’?”
“It is neutral.”
“Then how’d you run afoul of the Fire Nation?”
“Helping the Avatar’s sky bison,” Suki explains. She doesn’t want to get into the details with a near-stranger. “As did the rest of my warriors.”
“You a Kyoshi Warrior?”
“I…that was implied, yes,” Suki says. She isn’t sure if the man understands a word she’s saying, but she’s so relieved to be talking to someone who she’s reasonably sure she can trust that she’s not bothered.
They approach a group of men who look like they’re probably his compatriots, but he doesn’t seem to notice. “Huh. Neat. Where’re your fans?”
“Confiscated?” Suki raises an eyebrow. “Like all weapons are when you get thrown in prison?”
“Ohhh, right.” The man shakes his head as if to chide his own foolishness. “Of course. They took my spear, too.”
At that, one of the other Water Tribe men glances over at them. He’s young and just as tall as her companion; his lips pull into a smirk that looks more pained than suave, one that makes the prison gruel she’s been fed for every meal this week feel heavy in Suki’s stomach. “Looks like Panuk’s found himself a girlfriend!” he hollers, drawing the eyes of nearly everyone in the courtyard, until an older man who looks uncannily familiar grabs his wrist.
“Don’t, Nukilik,” the man warns. “Panuk, who is this?”
Suki steps forward. “I’m Suki,” she tells the man. “I-“
“She knows your kids!” Panuk interrupts with a little too much pride in his voice. “Right, Suki?”
Oh. That’s why he looked familiar. “You…you’re Sokka and Katara’s father?”
His eyes widen, taken-aback. “Well, yes, I am, but…how do you…how did you? Meet them, I mean?”
“They visited my island,” she explains, “and then I met up with them again on the way into Ba Sing Se.” Panuk looks offended that he hadn’t received these specifics beforehand. “We…we’re good friends.” She’s not exactly eager to explain any further details of her relationship with Sokka to his father, so she leaves it at that. “And…I guess I just wondered, when I heard that the Southern Water Tribe fleet had been taken captive, if…maybe I could find someone else who knew them?”
“Of course. I’m Hakoda,” he tells her with a curt nod of greeting. “I’m afraid I don’t have any recent news of them, but we got a hawk out when we were under attack, and we’re hoping that they received it in time to steer clear of Azula.” His brow creases. “They’re not here, so I’m going to take that as a good sign.”
“I’m glad.” Suki’s voice threatens to break without warning. “That…they’re not here.”
Hakoda regards her with some combination of curiosity and concern that she can’t quite read. “And how did you end up here? You can’t be more than-“
“Fifteen,” Hakoda repeats under his breath. “I can’t even imagine.”
“My warriors and I were trying to help the Avatar’s sky bison escape,” she explains again. “Azula made sure I was separated from them when we arrived, though. They’re somewhere else.” Somewhere better, she hopes. Somewhere that isn’t reserved for the people who aren’t ever supposed to see the light of day again.
Hakoda shakes his head and she can almost hear the thoughts he doesn’t verbalize: how young she seems here, alone and vulnerable in spite of her formidable skill; how unfair it is that she’s been brought here to wither away alongside murderers and traitors; how much of his own children he can see in her expression, so afraid and yet so determined not to break. And she’s sure that Hakoda can hear hers, too: wondering if she’s finally found someone to trust in this miserable place, trying to pick out the similarities between his face and his children’s. It’s a long, fraught moment before either of them is able to speak again.
“I’m glad you found us, Suki,” Hakoda finally says. She offers a weak smile in response.
“I don’t really know why I did,” she says with a shrug. “I guess I just wanted to see something familiar.”
“I can understand that.” His eyes drift around the cluster of Water Tribe warriors, so out-of-place in prison reds, then land on hers again. “But I do have to ask you something.”
“…yes?” Suki asks cautiously.
“Would you be interested in making another acquaintance?”
Central Fire Nation
Nights are always the hardest.
Nights mean hours of distraction-free stillness, desperately trying not to think about Uncle and finding himself unable to think about anything else. He knows very well what Azula wanted with Iroh, and if he’s still alive, it would almost be better if he weren’t. He relives the night he fled in his mind every single time he tries to fall asleep and he tries to force himself to imagine a version of events in which he stays with Uncle and they manage to stop Azula’s coup (a pipe dream and he knows it), or where he convinces him to come with the rest of the group; the second scenario is his favorite by far. On the train of thought that leads to that outcome, Uncle is here right now and Zuko is listening to his chainsaw snores instead of the soft whines that Katara lets out every few minutes in her sleep. It’s the one where Uncle helps the group to navigate and come up with Fire Nation codenames which all have ridiculous meanings of which the group is unaware and at which Zuko rolls his eyes. It’s the one where Uncle and Toph challenge each other to games of pai sho every night after dinner, because that’s what they’d done back at the teashop; it’s the one where Sokka and Jae rag on Uncle for trying to make tea out of things that are probably poisonous, and where he helps Katara make dinner (and tries to cajole Zuko into doing the same); it’s the one where he and Katara gang up on Zuko to ensure that he doesn’t get a moment’s peace, and he doesn’t even mind.
It’s the one that should have been reality, and every second that it isn’t tightens the band around Zuko’s lungs. But it’s all he has, so he lets his mind wander at night even though he knows it’ll just make him feel worse. Better this rosier version of reality in which Uncle is here and safe than any of the dozens of more plausible what-if scenarios that his mind would be churning up if he let himself think about them, or the conflict he feels on the rare occasions when Uncle isn’t the only thing on his mind.
That, too, keeps him tossing and turning late into the night – the honor he still thinks he’d give anything to reclaim, the approval he desperately desires, and the five companions sleeping around him (and the one who is not) who’ve thrown all of that into question. He no longer knows if he even can want the approval of a family like his (and if they’ve done anything to Uncle, he’ll be certain), or if approval and belonging and honor are gifts that only they can give him. Every sore muscle, exhausted from days of sparring with Sokka as he attempts to indoctrinate him into the way of the sword, makes him doubt that; every friendly arm-punch from Toph, every second serving of dinner, every night he spends curled up next to Katara and every morning that he wakes with his head on her shoulder or her hand resting on his chest (that one had nearly given him a heart attack) makes it harder to believe that he needs the family he was born into to be whole.
But the part of him that isn’t ready to let go doesn’t see it that way.
He opens his eyes, turns to his back, turns his face up and watches stars wheel across the sky above.
In the last twelve hours, Azula’s positively thrashed every adolescent on Ember Island at beach volleyball; stress-eaten three mangoes (covertly, of course – no one can know she’s had to turn to fruit for consolation); been invited to a party which she promptly declined to attend despite Ty Lee’s vehement protests; and stewed.
She keeps her cool, of course, but it gets harder to keep a lid on her simmering anger as the day goes on. It isn’t that anything much happens: for the most part, Mai lies on the beach with all the enthusiasm of a corpse, and Ty Lee flirts with everything that breathes. It’s more the potent combination of a slight that hasn’t been repaid and a general sense of malaise. She’s never felt quite so vindictive, nor quite so unresolved to do anything about it.
After all, it was she who took Ba Sing Se and captured the Southern Water Tribe fleet and the motley allies that a particularly talkative Water Tribe sailor had so willingly named. It was she who’d gotten wind of the invasion plans and figured out how to nip them in the bud, and none of it had been enough. She has nothing more to offer and if her best isn’t enough to get her a seat at the table when important matters are being discussed, there’s little that she can do to change that. She can’t remember the last time she felt so defeated, but it makes her want to snap at the slightest provocation; it’s Mai and Ty Lee who finally light the tinder.
They’re sitting around a bonfire as the sounds of a wild party rage on next door, as morose a group of teenagers as one could hope to find in a place like this. Mai and Ty Lee have been talking for what feels like hours but Azula hasn’t chimed in – she’s really not even listening, but she can’t help but glance over at one particular sentence.
“I’m just so tired,” Mai says. Her voice, usually so flat, is almost three-dimensional tonight. “I’m sick and tired of being a cardboard cutout and I don’t even know how to stop.”
Ty Lee’s eyes widen with sympathy. “I know exactly how you feel,” she says soothingly; she reaches for Mai’s arm, but she swats it away. Ty Lee looks a little bit hurt, but she forges on. “That’s what it feels like when people mistake me for my sisters, as if we’re all interchangeable and none of us really matters on our own.”
“Can’t you ever just listen?” Mai snaps. “I didn’t ask for sympathy or anecdotes and I don’t want them!”
Ty Lee’s face falls. “I’m…I’m sorry. I thought-“
“You always think something, but never once have I ever seen you think about what I might be thinking. And no one ever does!” Mai raises her hands. “Everyone’s so quick to say ‘oh, of course Mai doesn’t have an opinion! Haven’t you heard? She hates everything equally,’ as if they’re not the ones who sucked all of the life out of my life!”
Normally, Azula would be paying close attention to this conversation – Mai never raises her voice – but she’s too busy trying to contain her barely-lidded anger to bother. Instead she watches them, Ty Lee’s face growing more and more dejected as Mai lets out the resentment she’s been hiding behind a façade of utter apathy for so long.
She wishes she could be the girl spouting off for the world to hear, but she’s never exactly had that choice.
“Save it,” Mai snaps, turning away from Ty Lee. “You may be nice, Ty Lee, but it’s not that hard to tell that all you care about is yourself.”
Ty Lee’s breath catches, and somehow, it’s that tiny interruption of the conversation that gets Azula to snap.
“You two are hilarious, going on about matching sets and hating everything,” she seethes, fists clenching around handfuls of sand, “while I’m doing things my father could never have even dreamed of with a force of this size and he rewards me by sending me on vacation when I have a rightful place on his council!”
Ty Lee and Mai are both staring now, but they don’t say anything. Azula takes that as her cue to continue.
“I have done everything he’s ever asked of me.” Azula presses her eyes shut against an unfamiliar burning sensation. “And have I ever failed him? Once. Once, and that was enough to make sure that nothing I did was ever right with him again, apparently.” She slams her fist into the sand, grateful for the way it shifts around her knuckles so she doesn’t break them. “I’ve spent over a month chasing the Avatar’s pathetic allies all over the world and I’ve subdued all but one – and, might I add, one that we could be neutralizing right now if he hadn’t shipped me off like some common criminal being transferred to another prison – and this is what I get? A weekend on Ember Island disguised as a gift when I should be in the meeting that’s going to decide the future of the nation that I will one day rule?” Azula almost forgets to breathe, and her face is feverish. “I have been and done everything he wants, and that’s how he repays me. Unbelievable.”
“I’m sorry, Azula,” Ty Lee finally says after a fraught moment. “You really did deserve to be there.”
Mai says nothing, which is probably wise.
“I did,” Azula says under her breath. “And I’m going to see to it that, next time, he understands that as well as you do.”
Who do you think Hakoda wants to introduce Suki to? What's Azula going to do to avenge this slight against her honor? Where will the Gaang head next? Please let me know in the comments if you have predictions, because I would love to hear them! :)
Toph finds a way to make a quick buck that puts her at odds with Katara; Suki meets a new ally; Azula doesn't get the answers she wants.
This is probably the closest thing to an exact episode rewrite that we'll get here, especially because the divergence gets REALLY diverge-y from here. (Idc that that isn't a word. I make my own options.) Anyways. Behold, "The Runaway" but it's pre-Zutara and kinda truncated.
“Okay, here’s the deal.” Toph drops her voice conspiratorially. “You see those street gamblers?”
Jae nods. From the wall, she watches the gamblers move three halved coconut shells around at random. They’ve been here long enough now to see several patrons choose a shell only for the grinning vendors to lift the one next to it to reveal a pebble underneath. “I think I can see where this is going.”
“You have to pick the one that has the rock under it when the bowls stop moving,” Toph explains, even though Jae already knows that. (She doesn’t have any idea how Toph could possibly know that, but that seems beside the point.) “The other players mess up because they can see the shells moving, and they think that the rock is under the wrong one. But I…”
“Can sense them with your earthbending?” Aang, on Jae’s other side, suggests.
“Exactly.” Toph cracks her knuckles. “And we’re going to replenish our funds.”
The gamblers don’t even know what hit them.
“Those gamblers didn’t even know what hit them,” Toph tells the rest of the group, later that afternoon when they return to camp. She shakes the pouch of silver they won with a satisfied cackle.
Katara frowns. “How?”
Toph shrugs. “Playing their game?”
“So…you cheated,” Katara says. Her frown deepens, and she folds her arms across her middle. “Really, Toph?”
“I mean, he was cheating, too,” Toph counters. “So I was really just paying him back for all of those innocent people he scammed.”
“Oh, really?” Katara gestures to a garnet-studded hairpiece that Jae hadn’t been wearing the last time they saw each other. “Is that why you went shopping?”
Sokka pokes his head out of his tent, where he’s been hiding out to avoid being asked to help with the cooking. “You went shopping?” he gives Jae a betrayed look. “Without me?”
Jae shrugs, though she can’t deny that it feels surprisingly good to know that she’s gotten Sokka’s goat. Sorry, she mouths in his direction without a hint of contrition.
“Hey, gotta give some credit to the lady of the hour, right?” Toph snickers, elbowing Jae’s arm. “Jae’s a crazy-good actress. I don’t think those guys would’ve bought the whole innocent-blind-girl act without her.”
“Yeah!” Aang chimes in. “She did great!”
“Really, Jae?” Katara shakes her head.
“It was fun,” Jae says remorselessly. “What, do you have something against fun?”
Katara scoffs and turns back to the pot of soup she’s stirring. It is so appropriate and so irritating to know that she’s been working for hours while Jae, Aang, and Toph were cavorting around town breaking the law and spending their money on ridiculous trinkets. She’s been poring over maps and turning over possible invasion strategies with Zuko and Sokka; they’ve been running scams. They think she’s averse to fun; she knows that someone has to give it up so that the rest of them can have theirs. She hardly has the privilege of wasting her time the way they do.
Well, at least I have a front-row seat at all of Sokka’s sword lessons, she tells herself. And, to be fair, it is somewhat entertaining to watch Zuko train her brother to use a sword properly – Zuko is a stickler for technique while Sokka resists it with every bone in his body, and Katara is endlessly amused by the way Zuko’s face reddens when he corrects Sokka’s form for the sixth time in ten minutes. But that’s about all she can afford when someone has to hold down the fort and there’s no one but her willing to do it.
“I am not averse to fun,” Katara huffs after a long pause. She glances around for support, and her eyes land on Zuko as he emerges from his (really their) tent. “Right, Zuko?”
Zuko narrows his eyes. “What exactly am I agreeing to?”
“I’m fun, right?”
“Sure,” he says.
(Sometimes his desperation to get on her good side comes in handy.)
“Thank you, Zuko.”
“His opinion doesn’t count,” Toph says, approaching the cooking fire and sticking a finger in the pot to taste the fish stew (again) that Katara has been preparing. She tastes it, then grimaces. “Too salty.”
“How about a ‘thank you’?” Katara snaps. “Do you have any idea how long it takes to feed you people?”
“Why doesn’t my opinion count?” Zuko asks in quick succession, more baffled than genuinely hurt.
“You think I can’t feel your blood pressure go up whenever you talk to her? Please.” Toph smirks. “And geez, Sugar Queen, I didn’t say I wouldn’t eat it. It’s just-“
“I told her the last pot wasn’t salty enough,” Zuko cuts in, cheeks red. “It’s probably my fault.”
Katara gives him a look that turns to gratitude once she realizes what he’s doing.
“Well, there you have it. Zuko likes things salty.”
“Oh, this is worse than I thought,” Toph mutters. “Next thing you know she’s going to be putting fireflakes in everything.”
“Wait, would you actually do that?” Zuko’s eyes light up.
“Some of us would rather our taste buds not be on fire,” Katara says drily. “No.”
“He says that like he doesn’t already keep a little shaker of crushed-up fire flakes in his pocket and put it on everything,” Jae interjects. “What difference would it even make?”
Zuko gives her a dirty look. “It always makes a difference.”
“You two are disgusting.” Toph kicks up her feet and folds her arms behind her head. “But this does give me an idea…”
The Boiling Rock
Suki scans the courtyard for a strip of red fabric tied around a wrist. The symbol was as deliberate a choice as it was a practical one – it’s the easiest available option, but it’s also inconspicuous seeing as anyone could be wearing a band of fabric ripped from a uniform, and in a sea of red cotton, its wearer won’t stick out. And it’s what Hakoda had said the man he wanted Suki to meet would be wearing when they last saw each other, two days ago. They haven’t been sent out into the yard at the same time since then and she’s more desperate to locate this new ally than she wants to admit.
She finally spots a waving hand clasping a strip of red cloth that flutters in the wind and elbows her way through the crowd to find its owner. He’s no taller than Suki, plump and bearded and old enough to make her wonder how long he’s been locked up here. She doesn’t say anything for a moment, but he seems to recognize her, so she doesn’t duck for cover, either. “Suki?” he asks.
“That’s me,” she says, returning his greeting bow – he must be Fire Nation, she realizes, though the copper color of his eyes should’ve been given it away before the bow did. “Are you-“
“Iroh,” he says warmly. “Hakoda told me about you.”
“Likewise,” she says. “He thought I should get in touch with you, whatever that meant.”
“Ah, right.” His eyes glint. “It’s always good to have allies, is it not?”
“Well, it’s not like I’m trying to bust out of here or anything, but I guess,” she says, shrugging.
Then she realizes why he’s got that glint in his eyes.
“You’re trying to bust out of here, aren’t you?”
The wanted poster nearly pushes Katara over the edge, but the final straw is the sight of a bird on Sokka’s shoulder when he, Toph, Aang, and Jae return to camp hours after their departure.
“Are you kidding me?” Katara throws up her hands. “We’re only months away from the most important eight minutes of any of our lives, and you’re wasting enough time to buy a messenger hawk with your scam winnings?”
“Hey, Hawky is useful!” Sokka insists. “We need to keep open lines of communication, don’t we?”
“That is not the point, Sokka.” Katara points an accusing finger at her brother. “I just can’t believe how immature you people are!”
“Hey, who do you think’s been paying for our food lately?” Toph cuts in defensively. “You’re the one who’s always complaining about how you have to spend all this time cooking!”
“I’m fine with cooking and I certainly never asked you to do anything that” – she unrolls the slip of paper she’d found in Toph’s luggage – “would get you on a wanted poster!”
“Please, sugar queen, no one was buying your whole self-sacrifice act,” Toph says lightly. “It’s a classic mom thing.”
There is more to unpack in that single sentence than Katara cares to, and she doesn’t even try.
“Aaand you’re not even denying it. Typical,” Sokka sighs.
“You realize that you’re not actually our mom, right?” Toph cuts in. “You act like we put you through so much when, really, no one is even asking you to cook or keep things neat or make sure I go to bed on time-“
“When did I ever do that?”
“Okay, it’s a hypothetical example, but you get it!” Toph shrugs her shoulders. “You are so obsessed with controlling every little detail of our lives that you just…completely forget that you’re a kid like us who has no more say over what we do than any of our real parents.”
“I am not obsessed with controlling you.” Katara turns her back. “Honestly, when have I ever said any of that?”
When did you ever need to?” Toph shoots back.
“It’s not my fault that you’re finding people to project your own problems with your parents onto,” Katara says icily, “but it’s going to be if you get caught, and I’m not willing to sit by and let you guys get yourselves arrested.”
“Katara, don’t,” Sokka calls after her as she leaves, but she doesn’t listen.
Fire Nation Palace
“If I’m going to be Fire Lord, I should have experience with these things, shouldn’t I?”
Ozai eyes his daughter suspiciously. “You have to be lying to yourself if you really claim to believe that you’re ready to be sitting in on war councils.”
Azula’s fists clench where she’s clasped them behind her back. “Father, I’ve neutralized nearly all of the Avatar’s allies alone,” she points out, willing her voice not to shake. “I took Ba Sing Se almost singlehandedly. I was the one who planned and executed nearly all of the missions that are going to prevent an invasion of the capital, and if that doesn’t prove my readiness, I don’t know what’s going to!”
“Perhaps you should’ve thought about how badly you wanted that seat at the table when you let your brother and the Avatar slip out from under your nose when all three of you were in the same city,” Ozai says coolly. He waves his hand in her direction. “Dismissed.”
Azula knows better than to struggle as two guards arrive to lead her out of the throne room, but she is anything but composed.
He had taken this from her just as he’d taken her birthright and her mother’s love and nearly everything else she’d chased for so long, and he would be the one to pay.
Perhaps, in doing so, he would win her the esteem she knew she deserved.
“Hey, what happened back there?”
Katara yelps in surprise as Zuko’s voice carries across the grotto. “How did you even find me?” she asks, deflecting to give herself enough time to get her bearings. It’s not as if he couldn’t have stumbled upon the grotto below their camp where she’s bathing by accident, but she wasn’t expecting to be disturbed, either.
“You usually go where there’s water when you need to think,” he says, and her cheeks color to know that he’s noticed that.
“And you came to check on me.”
“You usually don’t blow up like that. Just making sure you’re not going to strangle anyone when you get back to camp.”
She doesn’t answer. “Thanks for defending my soup,” she says instead. “Even though I really didn’t care that much what anyone thought. And Toph knows when people are lying.”
“No, you definitely cared.” Zuko won’t meet her eyes, instead letting his eyes drift from point to point in the middle distance, and Katara realizes only after a moment spent watching him that he’s trying not to stare.
(It’s a truly inconvenient time to remember that she’s wearing only her underthings.)
“You shouldn’t sneak up on people,” she says.
“You shouldn’t keep changing the subject,” he fires back. “Now can you please answer the question so I don’t have to sit here all night?”
“Would you?” Katara asks. “Sit here all night to get your answer?”
Zuko shrugs. “I don’t really want anyone to get stabbed, so yeah, I guess.”
“And what if I told you I wasn’t going to stab anyone?”
“I wouldn’t believe you.”
“So you’d wait here all night for me?”
“I’d get pretty cold,” Katara reasons, “and I can’t get out while you’re still here because I don’t have clothes, so wouldn’t that be kind of rude?”
He looks at her for a moment, considering, then begins to undo the knot that keeps his tunic closed. Before Katara can even sputter a half-coherent sentence, he holds it out to her. “Here,” he says. “If you’re cold.”
“You only have one change of clothes!” she protests. “And…and now you’re not wearing a shirt!”
Spirits, I wish I could not care that he’s-
“I train Sokka without a shirt all the time,” he tells her. “And you’re gonna get all pruny if you stay in too long.”
“And why would you care if I got pruny?” Katara asks. “It’s not going to hurt me.”
“You’ll probably get sick.”
“No one gets sick from pruny fingers, Zuko.”
“Katara, please just take the shirt.”
“Okay,” she finally concedes. “Can you turn around?”
“Right.” He turns and she bends the water out of her hair and undergarments so she won’t get his shirt wet. Its material is silky against her skin, and it hangs off of her even though she and Zuko aren’t far apart in height. “Thank you.”
“Safe to turn?” he asks.
“Safe to turn,” she confirms, taking a seat beside him on the flat rock at the pond’s edge. “Thanks. Again.”
“Do you think she was right?” Zuko asks after a weighty pause. “About you acting like their mom?”
Katara sighs wearily. “I…I want to believe that she was wrong, but maybe I have been mothering them a little too much.”
“Well, to be fair, someone has to keep them from getting you arrested.”
“Yeah, but I might be a little bit more uptight than I need to be,” she admits. “I guess I never noticed because it’s how I’ve always been, but now that I think about it, I can kind of see how that would be hard to live with.”
“You’re not hard to live with,” Zuko says, sounding almost surprised at his own words. “I mean, take it from a guy whose sister wants to kill him. You’re really not.”
“Well, that’s nice of you to say.” Katara gives him a wan smile. “Thanks.”
“I mean…you do work too hard,” he adds. “But, like…that’s not her problem.”
“I work hard because no one else will,” Katara says, her voice small. “That’s just how it’s always gone. I mean, my mom died when I was eight, and there wasn’t really anyone else around to step up and make sure life went on, you know? All of the men were away, and the only people left who didn’t have their own families to take care of were old women and kids even younger than me. Someone had to work, or we’d all have starved.” She lets a wan smile slip past her defenses. “Or worn the same socks for seven years, like my brother did.”
“Well, that’s horrifying.”
“Right?” Katara shakes her head. “Honestly. I guess I know deep down that it isn’t fair, but I never really think about it anymore.”
“Have you actually talked to them about any of this?”
Katara shrugs. “Who’d even get it? Toph, who hates her parents and hasn’t had to work a day in her life? Aang and Jae, who don’t even have any? Sokka, who I just overheard saying that he barely even remembers our mom’s face because I’ve been his stand-in mom since he was ten?”
“Well, maybe not, but you could try.”
“It hurts, you know,” she says. “Knowing that they think I’m…I don’t know, this crabby old stick-in-the-mud. Because I never wanted to be that person, you know? I’m not allergic to fun. I just…can’t really have much of it if life is going to keep going.”
“Yeah, this really sounds like stuff you should be telling them,” Zuko says. “Even though I know you won’t. But…I guess I’m glad you’re telling me.”
“Well…thanks for listening, then.” Katara sighs again. “I know this isn’t really what you signed up for.”
“Well, what I signed up for was an alliance that I only made to stop you from killing me on the spot, so I’d say I’ve actually done pretty well.” Zuko sighs. “I know I’m only here because I keep trying to save my own skin, but I’m…I guess there are worse places I could be.”
Katara reaches over as if she’s going to take his hand, then changes her mind and pats it. It’s an awkward gesture, but he still feels like he’s going to combust at her touch and he has to remind himself not to think about the fact that she’s wearing his shirt so he won’t set something on fire. “I think so, too.”
She tries to meet his eyes, but they can’t help but be drawn to his bare chest, and she turns her burning face, inching away. “Sorry, I keep forgetting that…” she gestures to the fabric of the tunic pooling around her waist. “Sorry,” she stammers. “We should…”
“Yeah.” Zuko shakes himself. “Yeah, uh…we should.”
(She realizes only hours later that she has no idea what Toph’s idea was, and she isn’t sure if she wants to.)
“You know, Zuko told me that I should talk to you guys about how I feel overwhelmed, but I never thought that was going to happen in a prison cell.”
Running a scam – turn Toph in, collect the price on her head, escape, and move on – had seemed like a perfect way to make up with Toph without having to unload her trauma on a twelve-year-old. They hadn’t counted on a cell she couldn’t bend her way out of, though.
“I feel ya,” Toph says. The heat is oppressive and sweat begins to bead on both of their foreheads. “But it was a good con while it lasted.”
“You say that as if it didn’t end with us in a jail cell we can’t bend out of,” Katara huffs. She swipes at the sweat on her forehead with the back of her hand, then freezes. “Wait…”
“Please tell me that’s your ‘I have an idea to get us out of this stupid cell’ voice,” Toph asks, letting out a sigh when she hears Katara stand and begin to run in place. “…it wasn’t, was it?”
“Isn’t most of the human body water?” she asks, panting with effort, and it’s only a few seconds before Toph hears the sound of water slashing through the wooden bars of the cell. The door falls after a moment.
“Oh. That was your ‘I have an idea to get us out of this stupid cell’ voice,” Toph snickers. “Nice going, Sweetness.”
“My brother’s not the only guy with a head for plans around,” she says lightly. “Now we have to get back to-“
“Katara?” Toph asks cautiously. “Are we good?”
“You tell me, Miss Beifong,” a voice that Toph can’t quite place interjects. But she can feel a third heartbeat in the hallway, and Katara’s speeds to a frantic allegro.
“You again,” Katara spits.
“What, not so happy to see me?” the girl asks. “Pity. Am I to expect the same sort of welcome from my no-account brother, then?”
After a confrontation with Azula, the group flees to a village where a mysterious innkeeper offers them far more than a few nights' shelter.
I'm really excited about this take on "The Puppetmaster"! It might be a bit over-the-top, but idc idc. It is also EXTREMELY long for this fic (over double the length of a usual chapter at 6364 words), so I'm hoping this makes up for the lack of an update yesterday if anyone actually cares about that.
Also, kitchenware as a weapon = BEST trope.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Before Toph can even ask what’s happening, Katara is grabbing her wrist and running. Her pulse is pounding, and Toph feels the hand she’s holding grow slick with sweat; she can sense footsteps in pursuit.
“You know, I was tempted to let you two off the hook,” their pursuer – and now Toph realizes with a start why her voice sounds so familiar – calls out from behind. “Since it isn’t you two I care about. But since you’re practically asking to be taken in, I supposed I’ll have to give you want you want.”
Katara curses under her breath, which Toph would never let her hear the end of (she’s been a vocal critic of Toph’s colorful language in the past) if they weren’t on the run. “Zuko,” she whispers, enough panic in her tone to send chills racing up Toph’s spine.
“Aang, actually, but it is interesting that your mind immediately went to my brother,” she says. Azula, Toph finally realizes. “What is going on there?”
“If she has the energy to trash-talk, why hasn’t she caught us yet?” Toph pants.
“Too easy,” Azula says, her voice growing more distant as they run. Katara comes to a halt when she realizes that Azula isn’t even moving anymore, nearly sending Toph crashing into her; now it's her turn to curse under her breath, and, for perhaps the first time since they've met, she says nothing. “It’d be much more useful to let you go.”
“Why?” Toph asks. Katara’s hand grows clammier in hers. “Don’t you want to use us as bait?”
“Wait, no,” Katara realizes. “No. She wants us to lead her back to Aang.”
“Ah, so you are smarter than you look,” Azula says. “No wonder my brother likes you so much.”
Katara throws her arm across Toph’s chest to hold her back, then takes a defensive stance. “Don’t even think about it,” she snaps.
“Well, you don’t have to lead me back to them. It’d be ideal, but it’s not the only way to get what I want.” Toph feels as if she can see Azula’s expression as clearly as Katara can even though she’s never seen a smirk before. “It’s just the easiest.”
She gets the feeling that Azula knows something the two of them don’t and the sound of pounding footsteps – three from their side, one from Azula’s – soon follows.
“Case in point. They come for you, I get what I want,” Azula says, her nonchalance clearly forced. That's weird, Katara notes - she's never known Azula to sound so strained before. She shifts her feet into a defensive stance, but whatever she’s planning – whatever she means by the smirk she means for her brother and the Avatar – it doesn’t pan out, and Katara’s eyes widen when, seemingly causelessly, she crumples to the ground.
“Resourcefulness,” Jae says, grinning unabashedly as she holds Katara’s iron cooking pot aloft. Azula’s crumpled at her feet, its unfortunate victim. “Bet she never saw that coming.”
Sokka looks at Jae with the expression he usually reserves for meat and overpriced trinkets.
“Of all the things,” Zuko mutters, “how was it a cooking pot that finally took her down?”
Jae nudges Azula with her toe. “Oh, she’s not dead, just…conked out for a while,” she says, still a little too proud of herself. “And it wasn’t the cooking pot that did it. It was-“
“The element of surprise,” Sokka finishes. “Jae, I’m gonna be honest here. I think I might be a little bit in love with you.”
Jae looks like she might have an aneurysm, but she doesn't get a chance to respond before Aang cuts in.
“Uh…guys?” Aang says warily, eyeing Azula’s crumpled body. “Shouldn’t we be getting away from her before she wakes up?”
Katara nods resolutely. “Jae, do you know how long she’ll be out for?”
“Well, I’ve never exactly done this, but it’s probably not going to be that long.” Jae’s arms start to droop with the effort of holding up the cooking pot, which dwarfs her diminutive frame. “I say we head back to camp and get going.”
“We should be able to stop here for the night,” Katara says after a quick scan of their surroundings. The clearing is spacious enough to accommodate a fire and six sleeping bodies, and from the looks of it, it’s undisturbed – though a proper village would do more for Katara’s frayed nerves than a campsite would, it’ll be safe.
“I don’t know, Katara,” Sokka says after completing the same scan. “Isn’t this pretty exposed?”
“Yeah, I’m a little worried,” Toph agrees. She plants her foot to sense what’s around her and shakes her head. “There’s something off about this place.”
“Okay, then what else would you suggest?” Katara asks, planting her hands on her hips. “Because as far as I’m concerned, this is as good as this is going to get. It’s safe, convenient, and-“
“Completely exposed,” Sokka says again. “If Azula comes after us again and she manages to find us here, we’re toast.”
“Literally,” Jae adds unhelpfully.
“But we’re not going to be able to put up a fight if we’re all exhausted,” Katara reasons. “I know it isn’t perfect, but this spot’s pretty isolated, and it’ll give us a chance to rest before we keep going.” She looks around the group – Sokka and Toph’s faces are skeptical, Jae’s is impossible to read, Aang’s is just tired, Zuko’s is so dazed that whatever emotions he might be feeling aren’t discernable. “We’ve all had a long day, and we need to sleep, okay? So let’s just make camp here.”
“Whatever,” Toph says, crossing her arms.
“No fire, though,” Sokka decides. “It’ll make us too visible.”
“Fine,” Katara concedes. “Then in that case, we might as well settle in and try to get ourselves warm before the night gets really cold.”
“And sleep in pairs,” Sokka says. “Hypothermia kills.”
Aang looks to Jae, who looks to Sokka, who doesn’t look at anyone, while Zuko and Katara try their hardest not to look at each other.
“I’m…not sure that’s necessary,” Katara says after a pause, though she knows as well as Sokka does from years in the South Pole that his suggestion is good.
“You don’t have to sleep next to Flamebrain, you know,” Toph points out. “Ever considered that?”
“What does Zuko have to do with anything? I just don’t think we need to sleep in pairs,” Katara protests. “I mean, I’d get it if we were at the South Pole, but it’s not even cold here!”
“Some of us get cold easily,” Aang says, ever the diplomat. He shrugs. “If Sokka thinks it’ll help, I believe him. And besides, won’t we all sleep better knowing that someone has our back?”
“See? He gets it.” Sokka digs through Appa’s saddlebags to find their bedrolls. “And besides, we don’t have that many blankets. Sharing is efficient.”
“You say that as if we need them,” Katara says. “It’s still warm, and I can’t imagine it’ll get that much colder.”
“Well, we’re on an island. It always gets cold at night on the coast,” Sokka reasons. “Seriously, can you just go with it? No one is making you sleep next to-“
“Why is everyone making this about Zuko?”
“Hey, you said it, not me.” Sokka raises his hands, then rolls out a bedroll and promptly flops down on it (considering its thinness, that can’t be comfortable). Aang follows his lead, and Toph, after a brief squabble about whether or not she has to sleep on a bedroll at all when she prefers the ground, reluctantly joins him under the blanket. That leaves Zuko, whose sharing with Jae is a nonstarter and who seemingly has no interest in sleeping next to Sokka, to stare intently at Katara until she comprehends his meaning, and Jae, who can’t decide which of the possible setups she could end up as part of would be least humiliating, to join Sokka when he waves her over.
Katara won’t look at Zuko as she lifts the blanket to allow him in, but she certainly doesn’t shy away, either. He’s always been warm, and though the night isn’t cold, she certainly appreciates the warm weight of the arm that slings itself across her shoulders as he starts to drift off. It’s heavy, and she isn’t sure how she feels about this proximity, but Zuko radiates heat and it’s almost impossible not to let it lull her to sleep.
Toph puts an end to that when she sits up abruptly, provoking a yelp of protest from Aang at the loss of their shared blanket.
“You guys,” she says, her voice shaky. “I think I can hear people.”
“You’re hallucinating,” Sokka groans, yanking his blanket off of Jae when he turns to look at her. “Go to sleep.”
“No, I’m serious,” she insists. “There are people underneath the mountain. I can feel them, and…I can hear them.”
“You’re definitely losing it,” Sokka replies.
“No, I’m not!” Toph’s voice grows more agitated. “Why would I lie about that? There are people beneath the mountain, and they’re screaming!”
“That doesn’t even make sense,” Zuko says. “How would there be people underground?”
“I don’t know, but I can feel them there,” Toph says, hugging her knees to her chest. “It’s creeping me out. I feel like we shouldn’t be here.”
“I agree. You shouldn’t be.”
The whole group turns, several of them letting out undignified shrieks at the sound of an unfamiliar voice behind them. An old woman stands half-obscured by a cluster of trees, hunched over the lantern she’s carrying; it sends long, tonguelike shadows dancing across the clearing. There’s something unnerving in her smile that sends the group skittering towards each other, each a little closer to their partner than they need to be.
“These woods aren’t safe,” she says kindly. “I have an inn back in the village, and I’d feel much better knowing that you were safe and warm in my rooms. Can’t have you disappearing like the rest of the villagers who’ve wandered into the woods at night.”
“Disappearing?” Sokka’s eyes widen. “What do you mean disappearing?”
“People enter these woods and don’t find their way out,” she says with a shrug far too nonchalant for her words. “Why don’t you let me get you set up at the inn? Fix you some tea? I won’t charge you.”
“Um…that’s not exactly a great sales pitch.” Sokka crosses his arms. “’People are disappearing, come stay at my mysterious inn!’ Yeah…really not sounding too good right now.”
“I promise, I mean you no harm,” the woman says. “Now, why don’t you come with me?”
It’s a proposition that they should all know better than to accept, but they’re just frightened enough to be willing to take what they can get. So they follow the woman back through the woods, some still clutching each other’s hands, until they reach the village. Even though it’s barely an hour past nightfall (in their exhaustion, it feels much later), it’s still lively, and plenty of people sit out on their porches or wander the streets; still, though, there’s something slightly odd about it. Katara, too eager to get to safety and follow up on the woman’s comment about disappearances in the woods to care, brushes that off, though she grips Zuko’s hand for security, as he does hers.
She feels his shoulders slump in relief along with her own when they enter the building, if only because they’re under a roof. The woman, who’s since introduced herself as Hama, watches them as they go up to their rooms with a knowing smile. “You two make a lovely couple,” she tells them.
Zuko’s hand immediately unclasps from hers.
“We’re not,” Katara stammers. “A couple.”
“We’re not anything,” Zuko agrees.
“Oh, I see how it is,” Hama says. Her voice drops to a whisper. “Keeping it a secret, hm?”
“No, no, not at all! Katara’s cheeks flush. “There’s…nothing to be secretive about, really. We’re not…we aren’t like that.”
“Well, that’s a shame, seeing as I’ve only got five rooms prepared,” she says. “Looks like the two of you are going to have to double up.”
“Oh, uh…that’s okay.” Katara’s cheeks are still burning, but she can’t deny that she’s relieved not to be sleeping alone in a place like this. Hama is kind, and the village seems completely normal, but it’s unnerving in a way she can’t quite place and isn’t sure she wants to. Even so, they drift off quickly; wordlessly, they elect to sleep back-to-back, neither wanting to let up their defenses after they day they’ve had. Katara’s glad for their exhaustion when she wakes early the next morning to the sound of footsteps against the creaky boards of the next floor up, if only because it keeps her from thinking too much about where they’re sleeping.
Naturally, she seizes on the distraction of the mysterious footsteps and pads down the hall to check each of her friends’ rooms, wary of the possibilities in a town whose citizens apparently disappear regularly. Aang, Toph, and Jae are undisturbed, and she barely thinks to check Sokka’s room, entirely certain that he’d have made so much noise if he’d been taken that she couldn’t possibly have missed it. But instinct prompts her to check anyways, and her heart falls when she opens his door a crack to find nothing more than a lump in the bed where he’d once been. Heart pounding, she closes the door as quietly as she can and begins to slip back down the hall towards the stairs to go investigate, only to collide with someone at the base of the stairs.
“Katara?” Sokka hisses. “What are you doing?”
“What were you doing? I thought you’d been kidnapped!” Katara snaps so that her relief at his safety won’t show. “I heard footsteps and went to check on everyone and you-“
“Shhh,” he whispers, carefully making his way down the hall so he won’t step on any of the creakiest boards. Katara notices that he’s holding a chest and wonders how she missed it before. “I had to do some poking around.”
“Seriously?” Katara hisses. “You can’t just go traipsing around in people’s houses!”
“This place is creepy!” Sokka protests, opening his door again. Katara follows him in. “It’s not smart not to know what we’re getting into.”
“And it’s even less smart to go looking for trouble,” she points out, a little louder now that they’re alone. “And what’s in that chest?”
“I have no idea,” he admits. “But it was behind a locked door, and I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t be if it wasn’t important.”
Katara crosses her arms. “You broke into a locked room?”
“Well, what else was I supposed to do?”
“Oh, I don’t know, leave it alone?”
“But whatever this is has to be important!” Sokka insists. “Maybe this’ll tell us why this place is so weird.”
“I highly doubt that,” Katara snaps. He’s already unsheathing his sword, attempting to use it to unlatch the chest’s lock. “Not to mention how wrong it is to be snooping on a nice old lady who took us in for free.”
“She’s creepy,” Sokka reminds her. “You’re not really going to deny that, are you?”
“Well, this place is a little strange, but she’s perfectly fine,” Katara counters. “And even if she weren’t, what business do we have-“
The chest unlatches at the same time that his door does.
“No, no, it’s quite all right,” Hama says, leaning against the doorframe for support. “Of course you’d be curious. But you could’ve asked me, you know.”
Sokka freezes, the chest’s lid falling open. It nearly clatters to the floor until Katara remembers that whatever is inside is probably valuable and dives to catch it. The object inside still clatters to the floor, though, and Hama bends with some effort to pick it up, stroking the object’s contours lovingly.
“A…comb?” Sokka asks, disbelieving. It’s blue and white, obviously made of bone, and curves gracefully into a curlicue at each end.
“My most prized possession,” she tells them proudly. “It’s the only thing I managed to bring with me when they took me from the Southern Water Tribe.”
Sweat beads on Azula’s brow, still sore from the cooking pot with which it’s recently become acquainted, and she swipes at it irritably. Her hood hangs down over her eyes, and her loose hair occasionally blocks her vision. It’s not pragmatic, but it’s something that Princess Azula would never allow – in other words, a perfect disguise – so, in spite of the heat and the stares, she contents herself with pushing her hair back behind her ears, careful not to disrupt the hood that obscures her easily-identified features. She clenches her fists against the whispers that swirl around her and scans the crowds for any sign of a familiar face, or any snatch of conversation that might reveal the whereabouts of the strange children staying in the woods nearby.
She’s let them slip away one too many times, and she’s no longer sure if it’s parental approval or personal pride which drives her to pursue them with full knowledge that she will not let it happen again.
“Ah, so I see you’ve brought your boyfriend.” Hama smiles, though there’s something unnerving about it even in its kindliness. “How sweet.”
“I’m not,” Zuko sulks.
“He’s just here to observe,” Katara says with a conciliatory smile, even though it’s only half-true. Sokka, still wary, had all but insisted that someone accompany Katara when Hama had offered to show her apparently-lost Southern watebending styles, and since Aang was too valuable, Jae inadequately-equipped to defend Katara if need be, and himself and Toph both unwilling, Zuko had been stuck with guard duty.
Katara resents this. She doesn’t need a bodyguard – Hama’s harmless, and even if she weren’t, she’s perfectly capable of defending herself. But Sokka hasn’t quite let go of his suspicion yet and deemed two people less likely to disappear than one.
“Ah, I see.” Hama lifts an eyebrow. “Well, I’m sure he’ll find this as enlightening as you will.”
“Uh…me…too,” Zuko, who’s not quite sure how he feels about all of this, stammers.
Hama continues as they begin to walk, though neither knows where she’s leading them. “You’ve probably both wondered how I came to be here,” Hama starts. “As I’ve wondered about you, I must confess.”
“I have,” Katara admits. “It’s not every day that you run into a Southern Water Tribeswoman in the middle of the Fire Nation.”
“Of course.” Hama’s eyes darken. “It’s a miracle that I’m still here at all.”
“Oh?” Katara asks.
“I wasn’t much older than you when the Fire Nation raids on our tribe began,” Hama tells her. “Just about sixteen. Now, back then, the Southern Water Tribe had as many waterbenders as the North, and at first, we were able to hold them off, but one by one, they started picking us off.” She shakes her head. “We did our best, but there was only so much that a dwindling group of waterbenders could do against the entire Fire Nation fleet.”
Neither Zuko nor Katara misses the way Hama’s gaze flits to him and hardens when she mentions the Fire Nation, as if she knows exactly who she’s talking to. Zuko wonders if she does, and – if so – why she hasn’t said anything.
(But mostly he pictures a younger Hama, one who looks suspiciously like Katara, trying to hold off the Fire Navy alone, and his stomach turns.)
“Of course, the time eventually came when they took me, too,” Hama sighs, more resigned than anything. “I’ll never forget what it felt like to watch the only home I’d ever known disappear through the cracks as they closed the ramp of that ship.” She averts her face. “They kept me chained up in the dark, not knowing that I’d never see it again.”
“I can’t even imagine what that must’ve felt like.” Katara can no longer bring herself to meet Hama’s eyes. “I thought I had it hard because I lost my mother in one of those raids, but…to be taken away from your home like that? That’s so much worse.”
“Oh, you poor things,” Hama says, sotto voce, and presses Katara’s hand. “We’ve all lost much to the Fire Nation, haven’t we?”
Katara swallows hard, then nods. “We have.”
“I’m amazed that you’d maintain such a close relationship with one after all of that,” Hama clucks, looking over at Zuko. “Assuming that you are Fire National, of course?”
Zuko nods mutely. He doesn’t want to admit it, but he feels oddly compelled to.
Katara shrugs. “I thought the same thing when we first met, but I’m starting to realize that the Fire Nation hurt its own people as much as it hurt ours,” Katara tells her. “No point in holding innocent civilians who’d probably be horrified if they knew all of this responsible for what the Fire Lord and his armies are doing.”
I’m hardly an innocent civilian, Zuko can’t help but think.
“Oh, really.” Hama doesn’t sound like she agrees. “Well, that’s very generous of you.”
Katara makes a noncommittal noise in reply. “So, how did you end up in this village?” she asks. “Did you escape?”
“Eventually,” she says. “But not until I’d spent two years in prison, watched day and night in a cage too far from any source of water to bend.” Her eyes cloud over. “They wouldn’t even give us a drop to drink unless our hands were tied so they could be sure we wouldn’t use it to escape.”
(Hama was their age, Zuko realizes, and his stomach gives another twist. Fifteen or sixteen, probably, locked away without the aid of her element – and he knows from watching Katara that waterbenders don’t do well when they’re too far from a source of water for too long – and, if he knows anything of the Fire Nation, that was probably just the beginning of what she suffered.
He pictures the young Hama who looks so much like Katara in chains, and he’s never felt the weight of his nation’s sins more heavily.)
“And how did you escape?” Katara asks.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” Hama says curtly, and neither asks any more questions as they approach a field awash in orange and Hama comes to a stop. Fire lilies, Zuko realizes. “And besides, we’re here for you, not me.” Hama’s eyes, no longer cloudy, glint now. “You won’t always be surrounded by water, and I’d be failing in my duty as a Southern waterbender if I didn’t show you how to find it where it seemingly can’t be found.”
Katara lifts an eyebrow but doesn’t say anything, entranced as Hama sucks a swath of lilies dry. Water swirls in a graceful arc around her outstretched hands, and the lilies she’d desiccated wilt.
“Because if you look in the right places, water,” she says with a very pointed look that is unmistakably meant for Zuko, “can be found anywhere.”
Zuko doesn’t even hear Hama enter his deserted bedroom.
“Did you know that, for several years, your face was on every propaganda leaflet your father’s lackeys passed out around these parts?”
Zuko feels frozen in place, unable even to be startled by the sound of Hama’s voice in the doorway. His heart races, and he has a feeling she’d waited all day for an opportunity to get him alone.
“Your face was everywhere back when you were banished,” Hama continues. “They called you a traitor to the crown, and for a while, I almost pitied you. After all, I have some experience with convictions of treason.”
“What do you want, then?” Zuko wills his voice not to shake as his hands are.
“But then it occurred to me that you weren’t acting out of some sort of misguided sense of justice at all,” Hama continues, avoiding his question. “Admirable though that might’ve been, you were just like I once was.”
“Which means what, exactly?”
“A teenager, desperate to hold onto the only thing you knew.” Hama steps close enough to put her hand on his shoulder, but he’s still so shocked that he doesn’t even flinch. “But do you know what the difference between you and I is, Prince Zuko?”
“Why didn’t you just tell me you knew who I was from the beginning?” he asks, voice hoarse with fear. He knows almost nothing about this woman except that she’s a skilled bender with ample reason to want him dead, and that alone turns his stomach.
Again, she doesn’t answer.
“The difference,” she says instead, “is that one of us is on the wrong side of history, and the other on the right one.”
He says nothing.
“Ah, so you don’t deny it.” Hama lifts her hand from his shoulder, and he shudders at the cool evening air that occupies the space where it sat. “I suppose it’s good to know you people are capable of repentance.”
“What do you want from me, Hama?” he finally asks.
“Oh, trust me, you can’t give me anything I truly want.” She circles around him and sits down beside him, her weight displacing his on the saggy mattress. “What I want is to erase the past sixty years, forget about the Fire Nation, and live in peace with the family and friends I left behind and the rest of the waterbenders your people stole from their homes and chained up to die here. But you can’t give me any of that.” She shakes her head. “All you can give me is the satisfaction of knowing that one of yours suffered the way every single one of mine did.”
Zuko’s throat feels raw when he replies, “so you want to kill me.”
“Oh, no. That would be far too easy, and I doubt Katara would look too kindly on it. I really do admire her, you know – all that raw power, waiting to be refined…” Hama sighs rapturously. “I can’t afford to have her on my bad side. So no. I don’t plan to kill you.”
“Then what is it that you want?”
“I want you to know,” she says, lifting her hands so that they almost resemble Katara’s when she’s going to bend, “what it feels like to be utterly powerless.”
Without intending to, Zuko stands, backing himself into the wall behind him with steps that don’t feel like his own.
“What are you doing to me?” he gasps.
“The same thing they did to me and every other Southern waterbender,” she says. “Taking everything they could of us until all that was left was a shell, incapable of doing anything but their bidding.”
Zuko’s breath seizes in his throat. For a moment he can’t breathe, his throat refusing to let air through, and he tries to raise his hands to claw at it in panic but he can’t.
“I never intended to kill you, Zuko,” she says, her hands shifting to release his throat. He sags, gasping for breath. “I never intended to kill all of those people who disappeared into my woods, either, and I didn’t.”
“It was you?”
“As I’m sure your companions are figuring out right about now,” she says coolly. “That Sokka wasn’t too hard to convince to go investigate the clues I left in their path.”
“You revealed yourself just to get me alone?”
“No, I never intended to kill you,” she repeats. “I intend to break you.”
It’s not hard to track six teenagers who’ve wandered into a village of a little over a thousand – they, and a rash of mysterious disappearances on nights when the moon is full, are all the people in this town seem to talk about. She quickly learns that they’re staying at an inn – perfect, she thinks. All in one place.
She rubs at the goose-egg on her brow as she approaches, almost fascinated. She’s had her share of scrapes and bruises, but she’s so rarely bested that anything beyond that is a novelty. She should be ashamed, but she’s almost appreciative of the bump – it has been so long since she had an opponent who could best her without any unfair advantage using only cleverness and skill and strategy. Those who get the better of her so often resort to intimidation, to guilt – bile rises in her throat at the thought of her father, the way he knows she’s surpassed him and so belittles her to make himself feel the larger – but whoever took her out yesterday had done so using only a cooking pot and the element of surprise. The villagers told her it was a scrawny girl around her own age wielding a pot almost as big as she was (surely an exaggeration, but she gets the point), and Azula’s almost curious about her.
She’s almost desperate enough to wonder what would happen if she stopped giving chase, stopped trying to prove herself to a father who she knows deep down will never accept that proof, stopped hunting the child who’s caused her so much strife already. If she were allowed to – unthinkably – see the humor in the knot on her forehead instead of fighting off such thoughts with the bitter insistence that she must be ashamed to have been beaten so easily. But the part of her that’s just desperate enough not to let go of the things she’s always told herself will secure her position forces her to keep walking.
She hardly remembers to be suspicious when no one greets her at the entrance to the inn.
The inn is eerily quiet when Katara returns from the market, the provisions Hama had asked her to restock heavy in a basket on her arm. Normally, if nothing else, she can hear Sokka and Aang’s voices as they debate whatever strange happenings are causing the rash of disappearances from these woods, or Toph’s heavy footsteps, but now she hears nothing.
Nothing, until she catches a faint, pained grunt she can barely hear even in the silence, and she’s running up the stairs before she can stop to think. Her first thought when she can is that something might’ve happened to Hama – she’s old, after all, and almost completely alone here, and if she’s hurt, she might be in danger if Katara doesn’t get to her. But she begins to realize that she’s guessed incorrectly when the muffled sounds of struggle lead her back to her own room.
At first, she can’t see where the sounds are coming from – only Hama, sitting on her bed and holding her hands aloft. Relief floods Katara’s senses at seeing Hama safe, but a few more steps inside snatch it back.
The half-alive grunts and labored breaths she’d been hearing are coming from Zuko.
Hama has him pinned against the wall from a yard or so away, and he’s grasping at his throat as if he can’t breathe. “Hama!” Katara cries, pulse rapidly quickening. “What are you doing to him?”
“Water is everywhere, dear,” she says, smiling ever-so-slightly as she jerks Zuko’s arms away from his throat so they pin themselves to the wall behind him. Katara runs to him, tries to pry them free, but every muscle in his body seems to resist her and she can’t get them to budge. “In the air, in the ground…in the body.”
“His blood,” Katara realizes, her hands falling slack to her sides. Zuko’s eyes plead for aid she can’t give him and she muffles a sob, clapping a hand over her mouth. “You’re…”
“Bloodbending, yes,” Hama says. “I would’ve taught you, you know. Still would.”
“Hama, you’re hurting him,” Katara says, barely managing a whisper as her lungs gasp for purchase. “Why are you doing this?”
“Don’t worry, dear, I was never going to kill-“
“Let him go!”
“I will in time,” she says calmly. “But not yet.”
Undeterred, Katara turns back to Zuko, whose hands have drifted back to his throat, and tries to pry his hands free. “Why?” she asks, grunting as she finally manages to wear down his resistance and pull one hand free.
“You already know that answer, don’t you?” Hama releases Zuko and he slumps forward, sheet-white, into Katara’s arms.
“She knows who I am, Katara,” he says, his voice hoarse.
It clicks, then: how Hama had managed to escape from that prison and why she’d never wanted to talk about it; why this village and no other is experiencing those mysterious disappearances; the way Hama always watches Zuko when she thinks no one is looking; all her talk of finding water wherever possible.
All of her longing to make what’s left of the Fire Nation that took her captive pay.
“What do you want with him?” she asks, voice dropping dangerously low. She barely registers the sound of someone storming through the door of the inn and up the stairs.
“Oh, nothing sinister. Just to teach him what it is to be powerless,” she says, swirling a tendril of water around her fingers almost playfully to mask the stone-cold hatred in her eyes. “He’ll be fine, but he’ll never forget it. That, I can guarantee.”
“This isn’t what?” asks a voice that, on any other day, would’ve put Katara in fight-or-flight. Zuko, still too wobbly on his feet to stand, blanches at the sound of her voice. “Sorry, am I interrupting something?”
“Please,” Zuko rasps. “Leave me alone.”
Azula’s eyes widen.
Katara’s never seen her surprised before – her expression didn’t even waver when she’d registered the pain of Jae’s cooking pot to the head – but it’s unmistakable: Azula’s eyes widen. And it isn’t hard to see why when Zuko looks like death itself, slumped over an irate Katara’s shoulder while a seemingly-harmless old woman watches them with an unnerving combination of smugness and pity.
“What have they done to you?” she asks, forcing her voice to wrap around the words like a coat of sickly-sweet syrup. It takes more effort than it should, and she wants to recoil from the grotesqueness of her brother’s present state every time she speaks. “Scared of a couple of peasants?”
“Mm. ‘Peasants.’ Curious how little things change,” Hama sighs. “Your ancestors called me precisely the same thing when they took me captive.”
Understanding dawns on Azula’s face – she knows nothing of this woman, but revenge is a language in which she is fluent.
“You know, I was just telling your brother that his face was on every propaganda leaflet in the province a few years back,” she continues. “As was yours, Princess Azula.”
There’s no doubt about it this time, either: Azula is shocked. Hama, it seems, has a way of chiselling herself beneath her skin and sticking there that few others ever have.
“I almost pity you, you know. Who would ever have taught you that you bowed before a throne of lies?” Hama shrugs. “You’re no older than Katara here, I’m sure. But I really can’t manage much sympathy for you.”
Azula backs towards the wall, all thoughts of her brother and the Avatar and her mission evaporating as she raises her hands in preparation to fight. But before she can, she finds them forced behind her back by something not of her own mind, and her feet walk backwards without her intent until she’s pressing her back to the wall.
“Your brother, I spared,” she said. “But I’d find it so difficult to see you walk free when the wrong side of history has served you so well.”
In a matter of seconds, the future flashes before Katara’s eyes: Hama, taking control of Azula’s limbs as the princess grapples for purchase that she won’t find, forcing her hands to her throat and contracting their muscles, constricting her throat. Watching, unable to do anything but gape in horror, as the heir to the Fire Nation throne chokes herself. And though she’s never felt anything but contempt for Azula, the image is so grotesque – so inhuman – that the idea of letting it pass is unthinkable.
She doesn’t know where she finds the strength or the instinct to do it – perhaps it’s the full moon, or sheer desperation. But when she reaches for her element, she feels the orderly flow of water through Hama’s veins, and it calls to her hands as she twists them until Hama, too, is standing.
She expects to feel relief, having the upper hand, but all she feels is regret – that this woman who’d deserved so much better has forced her to take such an action, that her now-adversary could’ve been a mentor and friend. She closes her eyes and forces her to her knees, and Azula, who’s as horrified as Katara in perhaps the only concurrence they’ve ever come to, binds her hands with a strip of cloth torn from a bedsheet.
It’s a twist of fate so utterly bizarre that neither even questions it as they bolt the door behind them and flee, Katara supporting most of Zuko’s weight (Agni knows that Azula won’t do it, even now), into the light of the full moon.
“We need to find the others,” she pants to Zuko, who nods weakly, once they reach the village. “Can you walk?”
“Well enough.” His voice is as wan as his face. “What are we going to do with her?”
“I don’t know, but what matters now is getting the others and Appa and leaving.” Katara grasps Zuko’s arm a little harder than she needs to. “She’s not trying to kill us-“
“That’ll change, trust me.” Katara wilts like one of Hama’s fire lilies at the sound of Sokka’s voice, approaching from behind. “I told you that woman was up to something.”
“We have to go,” Katara tells him.
“I’ll get Appa,” Aang says, clearly as shaken as she is. She wonders what he’s seen, and why Toph trails after him so closely on the way to the stables where he’s being kept.
Azula is silent as they prepare to go, nearly forgotten until Katara and Zuko are alone again and she speaks.
“What did she do to me?” she asks, looking down at her hands – they’re shaking – with more fear in her voice than Katara’s ever heard. “Why does this keep happening?”
The look that passes between Katara and Zuko as she sinks to the ground, breath coming in short, leaves no doubt as to what they’re going to do about the problem of the broken, shaken girl before them.
Thanks, commenters who wanted an Azula redemption arc, for compelling me to have her show up, get bloodbent, and be adopted by the Gaang while having a mental breakdown about ten episodes early instead of k-wording Uncle like she was supposed to. This is gonna be fun.
Also, this is sort of a turning point for Zuko, too: everything he's done thus far has been out of either self-preservation or a desire to belong (specifically, a desire to earn Katara's trust and admiration) - e.g. relatively selfish motives which don't require him to renounce the FN. Meeting Hama is going to start to shift his perspective because realizing firsthand just what lengths the Fire Nation's brutality has driven people like Hama to is sort of the final straw for him. He's traumatized, yes, but he's also starting to reawaken that little boy who spoke out at a war meeting because something was unjust, and to grasp the fact that he's not the only person to whom the Fire Nation has been unimaginably cruel. Lots of soul-searching and hurt/comfort incoming.
Also-also. I've waffled a lot about how to do Azula's redemption arc, if at all, because it seems so unrealistic for her to change her mind about her father/nation at this time given what she does in canon. That's why I've been planting those seeds of discontent with Ozai, because a lot of redemption arcs start with a selfish motivation that leads to a pure one later on - she's angry that she can't satisfy her father, and therefore is already starting to grow amenable to the idea of rebelling against him. Add that to the breakdown she's starting to have post-Hama (because a loss of control like that would be unbelievably terrifying for a character like Azula, whose whole thing is about being in control), and you at least have the groundwork in place for...something. At very least, she's not going to be trying to kill the Gaang right now.
Yeah, this is gonna be fun.