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The Things We Hide

Chapter Text

A soft breeze curled in through the linen curtains of Zuko’s room, the feel of it on his face and wrists not enough to stifle the uncomfortable humidity of the Fire Nation summer. Out in the courtyard, the shade offered by the trees provided welcome relief from the sun, but he doubted he would get to enjoy the turtle-duck pond today. A bead of sweat rolled down his spine as attendants bustled around him in their quiet way, fitting the complicated layers of the ceremonial armour that marked his position as crown prince of the greatest nation in the world. Today of all days, it wouldn’t do to appear as anything less.

“Careful with that,” he snapped as one of the servants fumbled with the lacquered, gold-brushed collar that marked the end of his fitting. The servant – an apprentice, probably – bowed low with a mumbled apology as he handed the piece over to more skilled hands.

After several more minutes of fussing, Zuko’s valet pronounced himself happy with the arrangement of his armour and turned to the cherry-wood box kept on the prince’s dresser. The three-pronged, golden headpiece contained within added the final touch to his image.

“Aren’t you ready yet?” chimed a high voice from the doorway. “They’ll be starting any minute. Imagine the scandal if the crown prince turned up late.”

Zuko glanced in his mirror and scowled at his sister, but said nothing. She was already dressed in her armour, less complicated because she wasn’t officially first in line to the throne, and no doubt that was the reason she had chosen to take time out of her day to needle him.

Azula’s smirk widened. “There’s no need to look like that, Zu-Zu. I’m only looking out for my big brother. Not that I know why everyone’s making such a fuss. It’s just another barbarian come to swear loyalty to Father – whatever the word of a filthy pirate is worth.”

“Chief Hakoda isn’t just another small-time clan leader who’s finally realised what’s good for him,” Zuko growled. Clearly the silent treatment wouldn’t work to get rid of her today. “The Southern Water Navy stopped us from landing larger forces in the Earth Kingdom for over eighty years.”

“And now there’s nothing left of it.” She cocked her head, looking him up and down with a critical eye.

The attendants had finished their work and were tidying away the boxes that protected Zuko’s armour when it wasn’t being worn. Zuko ignored them. He squared his shoulders and walked up to his sister and past her, thankful for the growth spurt that had given him a few extra precious inches in height. She might delight in tormenting him, but over the past year he had grown out of being intimidated. He was the crown prince, even if rumour suggested otherwise, and if it came to Agni Kai, he was certain he wouldn’t make a fool of himself like he might once have done.

As they neared the throne room, the prickly silence between the siblings sloughed away. Whatever rivalries existed within palace walls, they could not be shown to outsiders, especially on a day like today, when the Fire Nation’s appearance of power must be absolute. Despite her contempt, Azula knew as well as anyone the reputation of the proud and violent Southern Water Tribe, who had endured a century of warfare and finally only succumbed thanks to the power of Sozin’s Comet. Even then, there had been heavy casualties; the South’s waterbenders had fought like demons to defend their home, and for that alone, more than one admiral had demanded the complete obliteration of the Southern people.

Zuko gave his mother a brief smile as he settled on the red silk cushion at the Fire Lord’s right hand, wondering how grateful the Southerners would be if they knew it was only through Ursa’s gentle persuasion that the whole lot of them had been spared genocide. His shoulders tensed as he caught movement out of the corner of his eye, the rustle of the Fire Lord’s silk robes arranged by attendants into perfect folds around him. With smooth bows, they backed away once their assigned task was completed. Around the room, courtiers who had already been standing for at least an hour bowed to their Fire Lord, and the royal family was ready to receive their prisoners.

The imperial gong struck once and the double doors at the end of the long throne room swung inwards. Although still distant and bent at the waist as tradition demanded, everything about the entering foreigners jarred. Where the furnishings of the room were red and gold, the Southerners garbed themselves in blue and white; where the robes of the guards were lacquered and elegant, they wore soft cloths and fur with armoured coats of bone plates shaped like fish scales; where the Fire Nation people were lithe and pale, they were stockier, with dark faces framed by wild, braided hair.

Zuko glanced sideways and noticed the sneer curling at the corners of Azula’s brown eyes. Let her dismiss them if she wanted, but he noticed the economy in the Southern guardsmen’s movements, their watchful gazes, how they had already taken note of every potential threat to their ruler – even the ones they were not supposed to see. Among the rest of the delegation, there were many older faces, their skin craggy from exposure to polar winds and their eyes narrowed from a lifetime squinting against the brightness of midsummer sun on the snow.

Their stooped, withered appearance gave contrast to the three leading the procession: a young woman, a thin man Zuko took to be Lord Bato, and the chief himself at the centre. Hakoda was tall, with broad shoulders and the manner of a man used to sudden explosions of action. Every inch of him was a warrior, from his calloused hands to his thickly muscled neck, but this savagery was tempered by the kind look of his eyes. Zuko, sitting beside a ruler whose every breath was cruelty, finally understood what might prompt the Southern Water Tribe to choose a nonbender for their leader.

As the delegation approached the final steps to the throne, the Fire Lord’s scribe stepped out of the shadows. His bamboo stylus tapped against the rim of the ink pot as he prepared to take notes on this historical occasion. The Water Tribe kneeled in a fan with the elders at the back flanked by their guards, pressing their heads to the floor to demonstrate their humility.

“Who comes before the throne of the Dragon in supplication?” the scribe demanded in a nasally, officious tone.

There was no herald among the Southern ranks to answer, so the chief, ignoring the nobles tittering behind their fans, answered for himself.

“Hakoda of the Southern Water Tribe, Former Scourge of the Zhongnan Sea, Former Lord of Summer Sun and Winter Darkness, Former Chief of the… Southern Barbarians, comes on behalf of his people.” The man’s voice rang strongly over the roar of Ozai’s fires, his speech clear even though his accent tripped over the sounds of the Fire Nation’s courtly phrasing.

“Why have you come, Former Chief Hakoda?” wheezed the scribe.

Hakoda didn’t speak immediately. Zuko noticed his fists tighten on the polished floor. “To yield my power to a greater majesty, and to humbly plea Fire Lord Ozai to forgive the… ignorance of my people,” he replied. At his back, several of the elders shifted in discomfort, though not enough for the movement to seem disrespectful. The woman at Hakoda’s side remained motionless, her face carefully neutral.

Ozai watched the party, letting the silence stretch because it was his silence, and his power to break it. He stroked his beard, idling it between his supple fingers as he let the heat of the dais fires climb, the better to make the Southerners sweat. When he finally spoke, it seemed out of boredom more than anything.

“What incentive does the Fire Nation have to do as this southern clan leader asks? To trust the word of those who have in the past defied Us, insulted Us, and rejected out of hand all attempts to extend the hand of friendship?”

One of the Water Tribe guards stood, prompting the nobles around the room to draw back with a collective gasp, but the young man only stepped forward and placed a lumpy hide bundle on the floor at the Fire Lord’s feet. Zuko watched as the guard resumed his place and the firebenders at the sides of the hall relaxed their stances.

Hakoda pulled on the leather ties binding the bundle closed, and unfolded the corners of animal skin to reveal a nestle of primitive-looking artefacts. The whole bundle was decorated with intricately woven, vibrantly dyed strips of hide, and Zuko imagined the musty, well-used odour of the leather.

“The Fire Lord has only my word of honour,” Hakoda said, raising the objects like an offering. The conditions of the South’s surrender had already been finalised. This display was mere formality. “My promise is made on the heirlooms of my lineage. Fire flints, pigment slate, bone seal, and steel blade.”

“The offer is a paltry one,” Ozai replied. “We have no need for such trinkets.” He brought his hands round in a lazy arc and a tongue of flame twisted out of the fire on the dais, hungry as it leapt to the bundle in the Southern Chief’s hands.

Hakoda jumped backwards with a yell. His guards sprang towards him, teeth bared in feral snarls, but he barked an order and they halted, still half-risen, and subsided into their previous positions. Their chief knelt and watched the symbols of his kingship burn.

Silent rage crackled among the elders like lightning, and the even the Fire Nation nobles had fallen silent with shock. Zuko allowed himself a brief look at his father, wondering if Ozai realised how close he had come to snapping the tentative thread of the Southern Tribe’s promise of surrender. The humiliation of the act was a punishment for the unrest the elders had shown before, completely unnecessary and designed to break the last of their spirit. Seeing the taut, blank look on Hakoda’s face, he wondered with a shiver if it hadn’t in fact inspired the opposite.

Ozai spoke again. “We have decided. In return for your oath of loyalty, you shall retain your land and titles. Your people will be spared the consequences of their folly. We accept your offer to begin trade negotiations between our peoples, and hope that it will bring nothing but future prosperity and peace. Master Jinjo.”

The scribe came forward once more, his fingers spattered with ink where he had hurried to record the events of the past few moments. He cleared his throat loudly.

“You will be returned to your homeland upon his Majesty’s own royal yacht, as will the elders of your tribe. An ambassador to the Fire Nation will remain within the city to oversee the instigation of our two people’s shared future. His most magnanimous excellency Fire Lord Ozai also extends a personal invitation to the honoured Lady Katara, and has graciously provided for her a house, stipend, and a contingent of his own personal guard to ensure her safety. It is Fire Lord Ozai’s hope that through such an exchange our two nations might grow into a more amicable relationship.”

For the first time, Zuko turned his gaze on the woman kneeling next to Hakoda. She had to be Katara, Hakoda’s heir, and he was surprised to realise she was about his age, maybe a year or two younger. The firelight lit her skin like dull bronze, playing in her downcast blue eyes. Throughout the meeting, even when his father had destroyed the clan totems, her expression had remained stoic, even serene, a still pond with no reflection. Was it a Water Tribe custom? Even now with the blatant announcement that she would be held hostage for her people’s good behaviour, the only difference he could see was a slight darkening of her cheeks.

“You are very generous, your Majesty,” she said. A ripple of interest washed around the throne room. Her words were stilted, but her pronunciation had been far more elegant than her father’s.

Master Jinjo tapped his stylus against the frame of his writing pad. “This hearing is adjourned. All preparations for Lord Hakoda’s return to the South Pole are in hand. There will be no other business today.”

Etiquette demanded the Southerners leave first. They rose, the elders’ joints creaking in protest, and shuffled backwards so that their backs never faced the Fire Lord. Hakoda’s possessions smouldered in place before the throne.

Zuko watched them through the doors, and then the courtiers. Strain pulled at his upper back from where he’d been holding in the tension of the past half an hour, but a prince was not allowed to slouch in front of his subjects. He willed them to walk faster, to stop pausing to talk behind their fans so that he could stand up, stretch his legs, and go outside for the firebending practice he had scheduled yesterday. He waited for his father to rise and for his mother to follow, then rolled his shoulders and stood, trying to avoid his sister’s eye. Of course it didn’t work.

“So that’s the reason,” Azula chimed, falling into step at his side.

He was going to regret this. “What are you talking about?”

“I wondered why you were taking such care over your appearance this morning, Zu-Zu.”

“Go away, Azula.”

She snickered. “You were staring, Zu-Zu. If the little fish had bothered to pay attention at all, I’m sure she would have been shocked. She might be pretty, I suppose, if she were to wear something civilised, but even you can do better than a scrawny Water Tribe harlot.”

She danced away before Zuko could snap a reply, and he was left standing in one of the many opulent corridors of the royal apartments, surrounded by the trappings of his position, at a loss to explain why his cheeks had suddenly become so warm.

Chapter Text

The opulence of the mansion given over to the Water Tribe was nothing to be scoffed at. A complex of large, red-roofed buildings linked by gardens and shaded walkways encircled by sheltering walls, it housed the princess and her personal servants, Water Tribe cooks and guards, and the detachment of Fire Nation soldiers and caretakers assigned to their protection. A separate wing was reserved for Bato, who had taken up the official position as ambassador for his people in the days following Chief Hakoda’s formal surrender. When the entourage arrived after seeing the elders leave for the journey south, they found nothing lacking in either comfort or attention to detail. For Katara, it made the perfect gilded cage.

She sat under the shade of a sprawling rhododendron in the innermost garden of her prison. The courtyard burbled with the comforting sound of the spring that fed the garden’s pond, and it was the only place where she could avoid the Fire Nation guards long enough to read Mimi’s letter. Not that many would be able to puzzle out her friend’s untidy scrawl. At first glance, the letter contained only complaints about the monotonous routine, and the boorish fishermen, and the cold, painting a dreary picture of Water Tribe life as it recovered from its losses.

It’s bad to complain too much about Nanak and the rest snoring. With all the silver trout on the move we hardly get a chance to rest! Not that we need bossy princesses thinking they can do a better job than highly trained professionals, so don’t get any ideas. We heard through Maniuq’s brother there were some schools spawning in the straits, so that’s probably where we’ll head next. Hauling them in stops things getting boring, at least, and the more we catch, the more sea prunes and box urchins there will be left for our dinner. I heard Otter-Penguin Guy doesn’t like sea prunes – can you believe it? Crazy. Who doesn’t like sea prunes?

Katara paused, wondering if that last sentence was part of the code or just outrage at a slur against Mimi’s favourite food. Knowing how Mimi got carried away sometimes, it was probably nothing important. More worrying for Katara was the mention of silver trout – their alias for the Fire Nation Navy. The words brushed off the threat as nothing important, but Katara could sense the strain the constant danger must be putting on the warriors of the Tribe’s guerrilla navy.

Nanak is worried about the tiger-seals. He says they were probably scared away by the fighting because they haven’t been seen at the summer breeding grounds. None of the hunters have seen any signs yet, but we know they’re out there. You know as well as I do that if they aren’t found a lot of people are going to go hungry come winter.

The frown deepened in Katara’s face, pulling the corners of her mouth down in a pout. The missing waterbenders.

“Mistress, you have visitors.”

She jumped at the intrusion, but it was only her nanny, dressed in the light blue and grey tunic of a servant. The lines of her teacher’s mouth were set at severe angles of disapproval, the only sign that she had felt Katara pull water from the pond.

“Who is it, Hama?”

“Fire Lady Ursa, Crown Prince Zuko, and Princess Azula, Mistress. They are waiting in the courtyard with the magnolias.”

Katara felt her heart skip in her chest. Her fingers tightened on the paper in her hands. Was it possible they had found out about their ruse, and had come to arrest her? Had they spent weeks playing good little prisoners only for all their plans to be ruined?

No. She forced her fingers to relax. Foreign as the ways of the Fire Nation were to her, she was sure that if they wanted to drag her away, they would have sent the army, not unguarded royalty. Because if they knew who she really was they wouldn’t take any chances leaving her alive.

“Did they say what they wanted?” she asked in what she hoped was a mild voice.

“Fire Lady Ursa sends her apologies that she was unable to give you a proper welcome to the capital before today, Mistress,” Hama replied. “I believe this is a social visit.”

“Oh.” It would be the first test, then. “Alright. Have Nila bring the tea things to the pavilion, will you?”

“Very well, Mistress.”

Hama bowed and ambled away, playing up the age of her bones to allow Katara a few extra moments to compose herself. Servants flitted through the garden, carrying away the scrolls of poetry and history she had been studying that morning so the pavilion’s spindly little table had room for the fussy Fire nation tea set.

Katara spent her minutes arranging the train of her gown on her seat cushion, passing reassuring glances and nods to her people. They nodded back. Occasionally they brushed hands against the weapons concealed in their tunics as they made ready for their royal guests, certain that if this ‘visit’ by the crown prince and his sister was some kind of ambush, they would be ready.

“Mistress – Mimi’s letter!”

“What? Oh, spirits take it.” She had forgotten it when she set it down on the table. “Get it out of here before they see.”

--

Zuko’s foot tapped against the cobbles of the magnolia courtyard. By the opposite wall, Azula looked equally sulky, though that could have been due to any number of reasons. He himself had protested coming, because he hated tea and he had much better things to do. What did he care for a Water Tribe girl, even if she was a princess, when he still had to finalise the security for the three troop transports due into the harbour at the end of the week?

The crone who had intercepted them on their way in had just returned with a smile that was all wrinkles and empty platitudes, and was busy exchanging banalities with his mother. Stalling for time, more like. Something was off about the old woman. Though she moved with care, her knuckles lacked the telltale swelling of the bone-wasting disease.

“My Mistress’ apologies again, Your Grace, for the delay,” the old lady repeated. “She bids you welcome, though she is embarrassed at her lack of preparation. We were not expecting to receive guests today.”

“We thought a surprise visit would be more fun,” Azula drawled before Ursa could reply. “Do you suppose we might see her today - or is the Water Tribe so unorganised that we’ll have to come back tomorrow?”

The Fire Lady cut across her daughter. “Please reassure Lady Katara that this isn’t a formal visit, Lady Hama. There’s no need to stand on ceremony. We only wish to see how she’s settling in.”

“My mistress will be delighted you have remembered her. Please, follow me.”

Hama led them through the sections of the house, passing galleries where mottled light fell onto lush green leaves and bright flowers. At this stage of the season, most of the plants in the Fire Nation capital were wilting, their leaves crisped by the strength of the equatorial sun. Seeing that Zuko paused, the old woman gave him a wide smile that flashed very white teeth.

“My mistress is entranced by the variety of flowers in the Fire Nation. At the South Pole it is too cold for specimens such as these to flourish, and so she has ordered her household to water the gardens that were so beautifully planted for our benefit.”

“A waste of resources,” said Azula. “They’re just flowers.”

“They bring my Mistress some measure of happiness, and so we indulge her wishes in this matter.” The old woman’s voice dropped as she said this, and for the second time Zuko saw the unusual bonds that existed between Water Tribe royalty and those who served them. He doubted any of his attendants would ever care if he were upset, or go out of their way to cheer him up again.

They came to the inner garden a few minutes later, just as Katara handed a piece of paper to a young man in dark blue clothing.

“Stop!”

Ursa frowned at her son. “Zuko?”

“Let me see that letter.”

The Water Tribe princess narrowed her eyes. He had no real authority to demand anything from her without causing an incident, and for a moment he thought she would ignore him and send the servant away. But then she gave a brief nod of her head and the servant, scowling, brought him the note.

His cheeks reddened as he read through the letter and found it more personal and less treasonous than he suspected. Parts of the letter had the feel of something that might be coded, but on the whole it read like any ordinary letter between friends. Any more complex cipher would be undiscoverable without more intense study, but Ursa’s disapproval and Azula’s smugness at his blunder made that impossible.

Maybe Katara knew it would look suspicious if she kept the letter from him, or maybe she planned the entire spectacle in order to humiliate him in return for what his father had done to hers. Either way, Zuko resented the tiny smirk that dimpled the corner of her mouth – and the way it brought heat creeping down the back of his neck.

“Who’s Mimi?” he asked.

“My friend. She’s an apprentice navigator on a fishing vessel.”

He huffed and shoved the piece of paper at the servant. “My apologies, Lady Katara,” he ground out. Attempting to replicate his sister’s cat-crow like indifference, he followed the rest of the party across the garden and sat himself down to tea.

“I am honoured to accept a visit from the Fire Lady and the Crown Prince and princess,” Katara told them once they were all settled. “I apologise again that we weren’t better prepared for your arrival.” She nodded her head and her servants appeared once again, bearing a delicate stone kettle, a porcelain caddy, and plates heaped with dainty sweets.

Azula refused the food offered her with a contemptuous wave of her hand, determined not to be impressed by the manners of this barbarian princess. “Don’t flatter yourself,” she sniffed. “Mother thought we should to come.”

“It came to my notice that there has been nobody to properly welcome you to the capital,” Ursa said kindly. “How are you finding it so far?”

“I honestly didn’t expect the Fire Nation to be so beautiful, even the little I’ve seen of it,” Katara replied, returning the Fire Lady’s smile with a polite one of her own. “It’s true I haven’t had many visitors, but that does at least mean I have more time for my studies.”

Pleasantries morphed into a discussion of favoured Earth Kingdom poets and their respective styles as Katara performed the full Fire Nation tea ceremony for the benefit of her guests. Considering how little time she had spent in the Fire Nation, her steady hand and unwavering movements were a testament to diligent study and a quick memory. Ursa and Iroh both had tried to teach Zuko the tea ceremony once, and were not very successful.

He paid little interest in the idle conversation, his eyes busy roaming the garden and what he could spy of the buildings and people beyond. Who knew what dangers could be lurking in the shadows for them? Despite the treaties Hakoda signed when he gave over his official powers, Zuko found it very hard to imagine he would let his only heir live in the moose-lion’s den without adequate protection. Waterbenders who escaped his father’s purge might be hidden among her servants, with the Fire Nation guards assigned to watch them none the wiser. Far too little was known about the Southern Water Tribe for his liking.

A shadow leaned into his vision and Zuko started from his reverie, only to chide himself because it was only Katara stretching over his side of the table to pour tea into his cup. Up close he noticed the fine weave of her dress, the copper highlights the sun made in her hair, the smoothness of her burnished skin and the lustre it gave to the intense blue of her eyes. He swallowed.

“The pattern on the porcelain truly is exquisite,” Ursa said as she plucked up a sweet rice ball with her chopsticks.

Across the table, Katara beamed at her. “Thank you. My father had it made for me. It is a traditional Fire Nation set, as you can see, but it was made using porcelain dyes and techniques from the South. He hopes it will catch on.”

“It seems your father isn’t the only one with a head for trade negotiations,” Ursa replied. “What would one of these fine tea sets cost?”

“For you, Your Grace, it would be a gift to be able to give it to you.” Katara set the kettle down on the portable stove at her side. “You have shown me two great kindnesses today, first by easing the monotony of my routine, and second by praising a relatively young industry – my people take great pride in their crafts.”

“You plan to expand Southern industries in the Fire Nation?” Zuko asked.

“I plan to make the most of my time here,” she corrected him. “My people have lost much. They will need trade and resources in order to rebuild, and I must do what I can for them here.”

“With the cooperation of the Fire Nation, of course?” Azula questioned in her sweetest voice.

“Of course. How’s the tea?”

Neither sibling had touched the steaming, fragrant liquid in their cups. Zuko picked up the delicate porcelain vessel in front of him, the firebending calluses on his fingers protecting them somewhat from the heat as he brought it to his lips – and hesitated. Unease flickered in his gut as he wondered if the Southerners would be bold enough to poison him.

“Urgh, it’s terrible!” Azula sneered from the other side of the table. “What is this blend?”

Katara lowered her cup, sharing a glance with Zuko. In the end, he had shrugged off his paranoia and drunk, and although he considered all tea to be nothing more than hot leaf juice, he had tasted much worse.

The Water Tribe princess bowed her head in apology. “I’m still quite new at this,” she explained. “We don’t really drink tea like this at the South Pole.”

“No doubt in the South Pole you drink melted seal fat instead.”

“Azula!”

Katara’s polite smile lost its softness. “Not at all, that would be a waste of energy. We eat it raw.”

Azula’s fine brows contracted at the sight of the wide, blue eyes and candid little smile. No hint of mockery showed on Katara’s face, but then that was the point. Zuko shifted his gaze between the two of them, almost afraid to see which of them would emerge victorious from the power struggle.

Azula broke the silence first, her smirk feral. “Well, with such… fine cuisine, no wonder your little tribe finally decided what was best for it and surrendered to a more civilising influence.”

The temperature in the garden dropped as if a cloud had passed over the sun. Unnoticed, the still surface of the pond ruffled and sent nymph-frogs croaking for cover, though none of the plants at the water’s edge were disturbed by the breeze.

Then Katara blinked and the spell was broken; the pond stilled, the shiver building at the base of Zuko’s spine ebbed away. Only Azula betrayed her tension, momentarily stunned at realising even she could push too far.

“Aren’t I here to learn how to be civilised, Your Highness?” Katara asked sweetly. “With such excellent teachers as you, I’m sure I’ll learn quickly.” She turned to Ursa. “Your Grace, you must forgive me. I have yet to fully adjust to the summer heat here and must admit to feeling a little faint.”

“Of course, Lady Katara,” the Fire Lady replied. “We’ll leave you to rest. The tea,” she added with a stern glance at her daughter, “was lovely.”

Awkward silence fell over the four as they made their way through the garden, Katara insistent on escorting her guests to the main gates as members of her personal guard fell into step behind them. They walked at a steady pace, but even so Zuko felt the desire of his hosts for them to be gone. It was hardly surprising.

Shame churned in his gut for his sister’s behaviour. The spark of pain in Katara’s eyes had flared and died in an instant, but he caught it. Until that moment, he had accepted the news of the surrender of the Southern Water Tribe with the same level of detachment as anyone else in the Fire Nation; victory was inevitable, an expression of the divine right of his father to enlighten the world. Now, he recalled the hundred years of opposition, the fruitless war of attrition that never gained ground, and the final power of Sozin’s Comet that brought a proud people to their knees.

He paused at the front gate. “Lady Katara, wait. I… uh…”

“Prince Zuko?” Katara’s voice was clipped and hard.

“I… I’m sorry, for what my sister said. She…” Looking into those blue eyes for a second time, he was gripped by a sudden need to reassure her. “Don’t let her see that she gets to you.”

She folded her arms across her dress, an almost playful tilt to her eyebrows. “That sounds like the voice of experience.”

“It is,” he admitted, turning to leave. A thought struck him. “Hey, I know you haven’t seen much of the capital yet. If you have time – that is, if you want a tour or… or something, you only need to ask.”

“I…” She bit her lip. “Thank you, Prince Zuko.”

With another awkward smile he bowed and left, stepping into the palanquin that would take him back to the palace. He did not look forward to speaking to his sister again, because of course she would have listened in on the entire conversation and had the entire journey to come up with the best angle of attack.

--

As she watched the palanquins depart, Katara contained her rage. She quelled it on the walk back to her quarters, where foreign eyes watched her from beneath Fire Nation helmets. She held it back under a veil of serenity while her guard checked for prying eyes.

And then she snapped. She whirled through her stances, dragging water from the ground, the pond, the very air itself, spinning it into a floating sphere of glimmering, roiling liquid. She constrained it tighter with her qi, forcing it into the form of ice, a ball which she crushed further and further. The ice groaned under the pressure, a blue-hearted glacier turning in its sleep. Sweat beaded on Katara’s forehead. Her teeth bared in a snarl.

The ball shattered with a swipe of her arms, exploding shards of ice with such force they ripped holes through flowers, shrubs, and the paper screens that hid her personal rooms from the rest of the house. Katara collapsed onto the grass, breathing hard, but when one of her guards moved to intervene, Hama halted him with a gesture and a curt shake of her head. They watched as their princess collected herself, eyes closed. Without moving her arms, she steadied her breath and melted the ice she created, drawing it into a circle around her and letting it sink into the earth. Her hands, resting on the loose folds of her skirts, fisted in the material as her shoulders began to shake.

“You did very well, my dear,” Hama told her gently when the tears finally dried away. The old woman rested a hand on her charge’s shoulder. “I doubt they even noticed when you lost your temper.”

“I didn’t lose my temper,” Katara growled. “If I had, I would’ve made that bitch choke on her tea. ‘I bet you drink seal fat.’ When the time comes, I’m wiping that smirk off her face myself.”

“We cannot enact our plan if we are found out before time,” Hama reminded her. “Your brother -”

“Don’t talk to me about Sokka,” Katara interrupted, clutching her necklace. “I’d give anything for him to be here.”

“You must not let them see your sorrow. The prince was right about that, at least.”

“He’s just as arrogant as the rest of them,” Katara spat. “As if he thought I needed help dealing with his brat of a sister.”

“Still, what happened today was a close call. You must remain disciplined. We will practice with the teacups again this evening. You must keep control, and be aware of your surroundings if we are going to remain beneath their notice. What did the letter say?”

Wiping her eyes dry on her sleeve, Katara climbed to her feet, all trace of weakness gone. “Mimi says we have work to do.”

Chapter Text

Night in the Fire Nation summer always came with a sigh of relief, the sky powdered with stars and the dusty streets of the capital sagging after the day’s strain of busy travel and hot sunlight. People opened the lattices on their windows to tempt in the breeze rolling in off the eastern sea, and pulled mosquito curtains around their beds to keep the biting insects out. In the better districts, lanterns illuminated the metalled highways and cobbled alleys, tempting evening patrons towards the eateries and teahouses, and reassuring the wealthy that even in pernicious darkness they could walk without fear of cutpurses or thugs.

The Blue Spirit never frequented these brightly lit streets. The guard concentrated their patrols in the central part of the city, and that, coupled with the stringent punishments meted out for criminals who attacked nobility, meant only the very stupid or truly desperate succumbed to the temptation to pick well-lined pockets.

Sometimes, people saw him as a shadow flitting over the rooftops, nothing more than a silhouette against the stars, but he was gone so swiftly and made so little noise that most of the sightings were put down to wild imaginations or, more probably, indigestion. The guards tasked with tracking down the elusive vigilante faced more problems than just the Blue Spirit’s skills, however. In the few months since whispers began to permeate through the entire capital, he had become a fashionable topic of conversation, and young ladies swooned over reports of the shadow’s trim physique while their escorts grumbled about how he made a mockery of Fire Nation justice.

Very few in the richer areas of the city paid any attention to the reason for the Blue Spirit’s continued presence.

Crouched on the roof of a warehouse in the merchant docks, Zuko kept watch. The tiles were still warm beneath the touch of his thin gloves, the smell of fish and tar almost overpowering through the holes in his Blue Spirit mask. No lights shone in this part of the capital, populated as it was by the poor and broken-down, those who spent the long hours of their days toiling in the factories or on the coal ships that brought raw materials for the industry that drove the war. After the sun set and the whistles blew for the end of shifts, fatigue ruled here as the workers trudged home and waited for the next inevitable day to begin.

What few businesses had survived the stranglehold of the war were being starved out by the gangs that roved through the night-time streets, paying off or intimidating the official guards ordered to the wards as a show of force. With so many conscripted into the war, only the vulnerable remained, and they continued to be exploited because it was easier to let the poor suffer than to root out those causing the city to crumble from within.

Footsteps approached. Zuko’s hands clenched into fists as he recognised the hulking, scarred figure he had hunted for two weeks, but he forced himself to stillness. If he made a mistake now, all his research, all the risks he had taken, would come to nothing. The brute, an enforcer named Lao Hu, the Tiger, turned down a gloomy side alley, lost to sight briefly as Zuko moved to follow him. Any noise his feet made as he pursued was lost in the gentle lap of waves against the stone-piled harbour wall.

Wherever Lao Hu was headed, he wanted nobody following. Twice he changed direction to avoid the sound of voices, and when he finally came to a stop, he flicked his eyes left and right to make sure he was alone. From his vantage point on the cargo crane above, Zuko watched as the man knocked on a rusted door set in the side of a dilapidated boat shed, grunted a password, and slipped inside.

Behind the mask, Zuko’s eyes glittered. He waited for Lao Hu to emerge, and when he didn’t, he stretched out the cramp in his leg, climbed down the neck of the crane, and leapt wraithlike onto the shed. The roofing timbers were rotten, so Zuko trod carefully, using the light of the newly risen full moon to pick his way along the shingles. A jagged hole yawned just below the spine of the roof, and grumbled voices rose with flickering light through the cracked wooden planks, too low for Zuko to hear their words.

He recognised the tones, though. The high whine of the man nicknamed Guard Dog, who acted as a scout and a runner for the others; the gravelly bass of Lao Hu, who had been an engineer aboard a battle cruiser until a Water Tribe attack left soot in his lungs and half his crew dead; others Zuko knew by face if not by name, all of them lieutenants for the man he had come to find, the man who called himself the Captain.

As he crept up to the opening and leaned over the lip, a flash of grey feathers exploded out of the darkness. The pigeon-rat veered and fluttered into the night, the confused slap of its wings against the air loud in the quiet.

Zuko flattened himself against the roof in case his shadow gave him away. Below, the voices died away.

“What was that, Captain?” came the timid voice of Guard Dog, when nothing else moved.

A deeper voice grunted. “Lao Hu, did anyone follow you?”

“N-no, boss.”

Did you see anyone?” demanded the Captain.

“No, I looked, I swear!” Lao Hu replied.

Another voice spoke up. “What if it was the -”

“Don’t say his name, Kazon,” Guard Dog hissed. “It summons him!”

“It would, if he wasn’t just some jumped up nobody in a mask,” Kazon retorted. “Stop being so paranoid. We stick him, he’ll bleed just like anyone else.”

“It cannot be the Blue Spirit,” declared the Captain, raising his voice to be heard above the squabbling of his lieutenants. “Nobody among you would be foolish enough to squeal after what happened to Yan Yu, would you?”

The men gathered around the Captain shuffled their feet, darting glances at their hands and those around them. Nobody wanted to remember their last sight of Yan Yu, a low-level grunt terrified of the Blue Spirit and the Captain both, as he pleaded forgiveness for spilling secrets to the city guard. It didn’t stop the Captain torching him from the feet up and then pushing him down the breakwater.

“No, boss,” they mumbled.

They startled when something tapped on the outer door.

“Heh, it’s probably just an alley scrounger,” Kazon joked, though he looked towards the open roof nervously.

“Guard Dog, whatever it is, deal with it,” said the Captain.

“But -”

“I’ve had enough of your paranoia. Do you really think the Blue Spirit would knock?”

“I… no, boss.” Guard Dog ducked his head and sidled out of sight of the others, down the narrow corridor that once connected the master’s yard with the foreman’s office.

Once his footsteps died away, the Captain turned to the rest of his lieutenants. “Does anyone else have something to say? No? Good.” He rocked to his feet, using the piled cord-rope he had been sitting in to steady himself. Although luckier than most of his battalion, he was still pained by the injury he sustained at the first siege of Ba Sing Se, when an earthbender swiped a boulder into his kneecap and brought him crashing down. He had been sprawled in the dirt when in a flash of brilliant light the avatar appeared and levelled the entire army, killing the general and most of his friends.

“Since the subject has been brought up, it is time to discuss our shadowy friend,” he said, pushing away the memories. “Too many times has this rogue got in the way of our work. He doesn’t seem to realise only the strong survive in this city. Worse, he creates hope for the peasants, which means there is less room in their tiny skulls for fear of us.”

“It’s cutting into our profits!” cried Kazon.

“If he worked with the guard it’d be easy to sort him out,” Lao Hu grunted.

“He knows the guard work for us. He handed Ty Mai to that sake merchant in the coiner’s quarter. He and the butcher messed him up real bad, I heard.”

The captain growled for silence. “It appears our solution is simple. To protect ourselves and our investments, we must -”

“Hey,” Kazon interrupted. “Where’s Guard Dog?”

Guard Dog hadn’t returned from the door. He wasn’t the only one missing. Outside the small ring of firelight cast by the makeshift hearth, only six of the ten lieutenants remained, their pale faces sweaty with nerves. They pressed together so they could face the darkness and the threat that surely lurked within it.

Then, caught in a dim patch of moonlight, a shape moved.

“H-h-he’s here,” someone whispered.

“Then he’s saved us an effort,” the Captain snarled at them.

“What do we do, boss?”

The mask floated towards them, no sound of footsteps or breath with which to tell that there was really a man underneath it. The eye-holes were pitch black and blank, boring straight through to the fear in their hearts.

“He’s brave taking us out one at a time,” said the Captain. “But he’s no match for us all at once, and in the light, he has no advantage.

The mask paused its advance, cocking its head as if the small fire was something it had not considered.

“See? What do you have to be afraid of? Get him!”

The mask veered backwards. Behind the thugs, the flames roared to the height of the ceiling.

And extinguished.

Unable to see, unsure of what made them blind, Lao Hu and the others panicked. When of the first of them grunted and yelled in pain they lashed out, swinging fists and fireballs into the darkness.

Zuko danced between his opponents. His swords sheathed, he used his fists to break their stances, tripped them with his legs. Most of these men had been his father’s soldiers once, spat out by the system when they lost their usefulness, and he didn’t want to kill them. But many were twice his size and in the brief flashes of the Captain’s firebending he saw the murderous intent in their eyes.

Someone grabbed him around the shoulders, pinning his arms at his sides. Lao Hu lumbered towards him with an iron chain whirling above his head. Zuko ducked, dragging his attacker to the floor with the unexpected dead weight of his body, then surged upwards. He caught the big man in the groin then struck an elbow at the back of his neck to bring him down.

Within minutes all six lay sprawled on the floor in a circle around the Blue Spirit, groaning over their injuries or else unconscious in untidy heaps. Only the Captain stood unscathed, his hands out to ward off the silent figure who every moment seemed more and more like a demon. He heard the dry rasp of steel as the Spirit reached up and drew his signature liangdao from the sheath on his back.

“You’ve got some nerve,” the Captain growled. His voice broke over the words. “What do you want?”

The Spirit remained implacable.

“Hey, now listen,” he stammered as the Spirit moved toward him. “I could use a guy like you. What are you after? Money? I got more than enough for you.”

Another step.

“Not money. Alright. You’re right, I know it’s not fair, what we do, but what else is there? Nobody cares about us, not the Fire Lord, not the guard, nobody. They use us up then cast us off like we’re nothing. What’s wrong with taking a little back?”

You don’t take back, Zuko wanted to yell. You do to others what those in power did to you. He forced his anger down. There would be time to deal with the ministers and the bureaucrats later. He could not allow himself to be distracted.

The Captain staggered as his weakened knee buckled beneath him, flames igniting in his palms. “What do you want?”

The Spirit halted. His mask tipped to the side and paused, then, very slowly, one of the swords raised until it pointed straight at the Captain’s chest. The message was clear.

Rubble shifted behind Zuko. He turned just as Lao Hu lunged out of the darkness, hoping to catch him off guard and slam him to the floor. The Captain took advantage of the momentary distraction and sent a stream of fire hurtling from his fist, but Zuko was already twisting away, and the flames caught on his adversary’s clothes instead. Lao Hu screamed as they licked higher, filling the dank meeting place with the stench of burning hair and cooking meat.

 

The Captain fled. Zuko hesitated, but saw in an instant Lao Hu couldn’t be saved. The man’s flailing tipped him into a half-rotten barrel of tar that collapsed under his weight. Black liquid spilled against the walls, the fire trailing after, hungry for the scraps of sailcloth and seasoned wood stockpiled for boat repairs. The men still lying unconscious wouldn’t stand a chance, and the Tiger was already dead.

Cursing, he sheathed his swords and grabbed at the bodies on the ground. The fire raced him. It slithered along the walls of the corridor as he dragged the survivors to the door and the clean air beyond. Heat scorched his throat though he tried to push the flames back with his bending, so slow its spread. Smoke stung his eyes. Just a few more steps…

He kicked the door off its rusted hinges. Air sucked in with a roar to feed the blaze behind him. Zuko bent it back and hauled the four he’d been able to save clear of the structure. So much time had cost him a lead on the Captain.

A groan wobbled up from near Zuko’s feet. Guard Dog slapped his hand over his face, rubbing fingers over eyes caked with ash to see the impassive face of the Blue Spirit staring down at him, framed by the burning building.

“You – you – we were in there?” he gibbered. “You saved us, why -?” But he blinked and the spirit vanished.

The Captain was already three streets away. He tripped over a flock of cat-gulls scrounging through a wharfside midden, startling them into affronted, squawking flight. Although he had known these streets most of his life, terror and the darkness turned him around, until he found himself limping across the main thoroughfare that led from the city proper to the military docks in the northern part of the bay. In the full moonlight the flagstones shone like pearls, he himself a dark and easily tracked blot upon their flawless surface.

He folded to his knees, the old injury flaring with a stab of white fire up his leg. Smoke clung to his clothes and his breath dragged in his lungs as his body recovered from the unaccustomed exercise. Let the Spirit catch up, damn him, and throw him to the guard. He had survived the avatar’s attack at Ba Sing Se, he would survive whatever this jumped-up vigilante had to throw at him.

But something strange was happening in the harbour. The water churned and bubbled with froth that shone in the moonlight, making the boats tied at the outer jetties bob like toys in a bathtub. Above the low splashes against the breakwater came a steady, metallic groan of protest as the three gigantic troop carriers anchored in the deeper water strained at their mooring lines. Astonished, the Captain watched as they pitched and heaved as if caught in a maelstrom on the open ocean rather than safe behind the breakwater on a clear, calm night. He heard one anchor chain snap, saw the ship buck one last time as it was carried across the bay, felt the rattle in his bones as it crashed and broke open against the stone pilings that held back the ocean.

From the roof of an armoury warehouse, Zuko saw it too. The impossibility of the sight brought him to a standstill, all thought of the Captain forgotten. The welding along the hull of the second ship popped and contorted, its spine broken against its mate, the whole side of the vessel splitting like an egg to reveal the internal structure and the few unlucky souls trapped within. Fires broke out where sparks met engine oil, and Zuko smelled the tang of hot metal on the wind.

He had to move. Such an act of sabotage… he had to stop it.

As he leapt between buildings he lost sight of the carnage, but the disturbing sounds coming from the dock spurred him onwards. In place of screeching metal something large glugged and sucked at the water. Zuko picked up his pace.

He skidded to a halt moments later as the last line of buildings fell away. Nothing stood between him and what was happening on the water, and nothing prepared him for what he was seeing.

“What the…”

Backlit by the burning wrecks of the two other troop carriers and the moon above, the third ship had been pulled to the mouth of the harbour by ropes of mud and seaweed that seemed born of the ocean itself. Waves lapped white at the dark hull as it was dragged under, crushed in an awful display of elemental power.

“Look over there!”

It took a moment of panicked scrambling for Zuko to realise he was already well hidden, and that the people spilling from the tavern weren’t looking at him. The grizzled old sailor who had spoken pointed at the pier where the largest of the troop carriers had been moored.

Someone stood there. From such a distance, details were impossible to make out, especially given the figure’s black clothing and the dim, wavering light of the flames. Without conscious thought, Zuko started running again, his eyes fixed on the stranger and the strange swinging movements of their arms. Several people shouted shocked curses behind him, but he ignored them like a moose-lion would flies. He had to get to the pier. He had to stop whatever madness this was, before the situation got worse.

Lights bobbed from behind the nearest row of buildings ahead as the city guard closed in. At their panicked calls the figure turned, hands raised in a defensive stance. Zuko tumbled to a halt from his headlong sprint less than fifty yards away, liangdao poised and every line in his body prepared for an attack.

Even so close he couldn’t be sure the stranger was human. Face paint in shades of black, grey, and white striped sharp angles across whatever defining features the saboteur possessed, blurring it at the edges and exacerbating certain features into something unearthly and grotesque. Looking down, Zuko found his face growing hot behind the Blue Spirit mask. Whoever this person was, she was female. The material that hid her intentions in the darkness did less to hide the lithe curves of her hips or the soft swell of her breasts. His gaze lingered despite his best intentions, watching as her shoulders lost their predatory tension. Her eyes, wide and pale in the moonlight, roved over him from mask to feet and back again, though he couldn’t tell if she was just surprised or observing him as keenly as he was her. An unexpected tingle shivered down his spine.

“Over here! The Blue Spirit!”

The sound of his name made him spin around, swords raised to face the threat of the guard. They halted at the edge of the dock, unwilling to approach the dangerous vigilante but conscious that short of diving into the water, he had nowhere to run.

“What are you waiting for, lads?” called out their captain. “Get him!”

Zuko shot a look over his shoulder as a pair of firebenders stormed towards him, but the strange woman was nowhere to be seen. He cursed inwardly and shook her from his mind as he fell into a fighting stance. The faster he dispatched the guard, the sooner her could sneak back to his rooms and catch some sleep before the inevitable chaos this act of terrorism would cause.

The night shattered with a deafening crack. The guards stuttered to a halt to watch and Zuko used the distraction to dart through their lines, not slowing his pace until he gained the roof of a fish-salting warehouse and gave in to his curiosity to look back. Bystanders gasped and raised prayers to Agni as they watched the final troop carrier sink beneath the sea, snapped in half by the forces pressing it from all sides. Already mutters of spirits and supernatural retribution rippled through the crowd. By tomorrow the tale be exaggerated, the wreckage scattered on the breakwater a damning corroboration of the story and an unsettling message to the Fire Nation’s enemies across the ocean.

Zuko was about to have a very long day.

Chapter Text

The capital city of the Southern Water Tribe glittered in the light of the noonday sun. At the bottom of the world, the light was little more than a sliver on the horizon, turning the sky a brief lilac before sinking behind the ocean once again. To the people who had endured the darkness of winter, however, that small flare of sunlight was a cause for celebration – it meant summer was coming.

Along every street within the city’s fortress wall, lanterns cleverly filled with glowing algae created firefly dots as the Water Tribe danced their hope for the bounty that would come with the changing seasons. For three days, the spiralling walkways and domed edifices that distinguished Southern architecture would ring with laughter and songs honouring spirits and ancestors.

With a heavy sigh, Chief Hakoda turned away from the revelry and made his way back to the vaulted council hall where the Tribe’s elders, his family, and the best of his generals sat waiting.

He glanced around them as he took his place at the head of the war table, their sombre expressions grim above the pale sheen of their ceremonial furs. All eyes turned to him as he settled himself cross-legged in front of the long-fire, hands pressed on his knees. The flames, refracted through three curved panels of ice, cut sharp angles into his cheeks and the line of his jaw.

“Runners from the First Fleet have confirmed it,” he intoned. “What we have feared for a hundred years – what we have known for certainty for half a decade – is finally coming to pass.”

Uncomfortable shuffling met his words, but none of those seated showed surprise. To Hakoda’s left, Kya knit her fingers together in her lap, a sad line puckered between her brows. She glanced at her husband, and a knowing look passed between them. With a slight nod, he continued.

“A string of ships has been sent to harry them, but it is a fact that the Fire Nation Navy is on its way. Their plan is to do to us what they did to the Air Nation, to end this war the way it began, with the fury of Sozin’s Comet at their backs and our destruction on the pages of their history.”

“Let them come,” growled Kallik, a surly-looking man whose scale armour was scratched and dented from hard use. One corner of his mouth pulled down with the scar of an old burn. “A century of bombardment, and our walls have only strengthened.”

“A flame cannot endure a blizzard,” another voice concurred. “An attack by the Fire Nation, any attack, must be doomed to failure so far out of their element.”

Hakoda let the council mutter among themselves, watching the tide wash back and forth between agreement and dispute until finally one old, croaky voice cut through the rest like wind through the spires of the spirit house.

“What comes for us is not some feeble campfire that must be held close and sheltered against any breath of winter,” Kanna said. “I remember the sight of the Air Temples’ destruction. Imagine the sky red as blood, and fire spread across it like a net that traps everything within it. In less than a day an entire people was wiped out.” She nodded her head solemnly. “It will happen to us.”

Sokka spoke up from his father’s right. “Gran-Gran is right. The force they’ve gathered is bigger than anything they’ve thrown at us before. And they put all that hot air of theirs into airships, so we may not even have a chance to stop them by sea. Sneaky bastards,” he added.

“We have to do something,” Katara said, turning her eyes on her father.

Hakoda raised his hand for quiet. “The Fire Nation invasion is something we can’t change. All we can do is decide how to act against it. Do we throw ourselves at our enemy with the ferocity of a polar bear-dog protecting her cubs, and hope they get destroyed along with us; do we scatter and hope some of our people survive; or do we surrender and hope the Fire Lord is feeling merciful?”

Several of the elders sucked air through their gums to indicate their displeasure. Either course of action was suicidal – Ozai’s reputation for cruelty outstripped even that of his father, Azulon. At stake was the loss of their people, their culture, and at best, their independence. Stories of Fire Nation techniques for imprisoning enemy benders travelled through every port in the western Earth Kingdom; they made nightmare monsters and cautionary tales for small children too apt to wander in the snow; they were the reason no Southern waterbender had ever been captured alive.

Eventually, one old woman raised her voice above the others. Her hair and skin both were bleached by age, her hands flecked with liver spots. Even so, her general’s uniform hung on proud, unstooped shoulders, and her eyes were bright as the sun on the sea.

“There is another option,” Hama told the gathering. “We could survive.”

Hakoda’s gaze fixed on the Southern Water Tribe’s waterbending master. “General?”

She nodded respectfully at him before shifting her posture to take in everyone around her. “At the first level,” she began, “I teach my students this: where there is water, there is life. Where there is life, there is hope.”

“So far the Fire Nation has been pretty good at taking both of those things away,” Kallik snorted. “Even at Ba Sing Se, the power of the avatar and the Earth King’s forces combined was barely enough to stop their army.”

Hama blinked mild eyes at him. “I don’t propose stopping them. They cannot be stopped.”

“How do we survive if we don’t stop them?” Sokka asked. He had been more than a little oogied by the old woman when he was small, and the cold smile that spread across her features now reminded him why.

“Katara,” Hama said. “What does water do when it encounters an object it cannot move?”

Startled by the unexpected use of her name, it took Katara a few moments to remember the exact words taught to her years ago when she first began training – the words she drilled into her own students. “It flows around it and creates a new path,” she answered. “It may take time, but a river always reaches the ocean.”

“And how do waterbenders use this wisdom?”

“A master waterbender always moves with both offense and defence in mind, ready to change direction if an opponent proves too formidable in any aspect,” she recited. “In this way, a master uses their enemies’ energy against them, redirecting it so as to assure victory. The shift between offensive and defensive patterns also makes a true master difficult to predict in combat.”

“Very good,” Hama replied with a slight deepening of the wrinkles around her eyes. “It’s good to see you still remember the basics.” She paused and straightened her shoulders. “Honoured Council, what I propose is a coming together of the three options Chief Hakoda has laid before us. If we fight the Fire Nation during Sozin’s Comet, they will destroy us. If we flee, their navy will pick us off one by one until we can have no hope of retaliation. If we surrender, Ozai will likely slaughter most and make slaves of the rest, to be ground down on his implacable engine of war. We can stop him. It will require sacrifice, and the blessing of the spirits, but I believe not only will my plan save the Southern Water Tribe, but also help turn the tide in the Hundred Years War.”

The boldness of the statement left an awed silence behind it, and the defiance in it shook loose the tight coil of worry in Katara’s gut. Gone was the air of despondency the elders had suffered since hearing news of the comet’s return, and in its place a stirring of old energies, like the churning sky of an approaching storm.

But all that could be undone. It was her father’s place as Chief to decide how to move forward.

“Let us hear and judge what you say,” Hakoda commanded.

They spent the next few hours discussing Hama’s plan to outmanoeuvre the Fire Nation and gain control in the war. In its bare bones, the plan was sound: most of the tribe’s forces would leave the city and travel to the southern Earth Kingdom, taking the elders, the younger waterbenders, and as many citizens as would fit on board their ships. Only a few would remain to put up a fight. Not only would It buy time for those escaping, it would fool the Fire Nation forces into thinking that they really were making one valiant last stand, so that when Hakoda surrendered, the act would seem genuine and desperate.

Katara worried, however. Too many things could go wrong. What if the Fire Nation caught the refugees before they reached safe harbour? What if they decided to kill her father as an example, instead of making him a puppet leader of a vassal state as they had already done with conquered Earth Kingdom fiefdoms? What if Ozai found out about the ruse and decided genocide was the best way to retaliate?

And then there was the fate of all those left behind to defend the city. Life at the South Pole was hard, even with sophisticated infrastructure and a tight-knit community to safeguard against the unforgiving climate, but death in a blizzard could not be compared to death in an inferno. Every member of the war council knew someone lost in Fire Nation raids.

At last, Hama paused, her brows furrowed and her hands clasped together in her lap. “Of course, Hakoda, in order for the plan to be a success, you must stay in the city.”

“No!”

The shout came from Sokka, whose fists were balled on his knees. Although this would be his seventeenth summer, in that moment, looking at his father, he might as well have been a four-year-old holding his first knife and worrying he’d never make as fine a spear as his father.

“Dad can’t stay in the city. It’s too dangerous. Besides, who will command the Third Fleet if he doesn’t?”

“You will,” Hakoda told him steadily.

“What?”

“You’re of age and more than capable. You will take Katara and lead the Third Fleet to Kyoshi Island, and onto the mainland from there.”

“What – but -” Sokka turned dumbfounded to his sister, as if willing her to tell him everyone had gone insane.

“Sokka’s right, Dad. If something happens to you the Tribe will be without a leader. We can’t -”

“My place is standing with my people,” Hakoda interrupted. “General Hama is right - if our strategy is going to work, they must think we have been beaten. For that, I must submit myself to their mercy, and the mercy of the spirits.”

Katara gazed around the room, noting the defeated slump of the elders, the grim expression on her waterbending master’s face, her brother’s hard frown. So much sacrifice, so much death about to rain down on them. Touching her hand to the sea-wolf teeth woven into her hair, she lifted her chin.

“If you’re staying, then so am I.”

“Katara -”

“No. When the Fire Nation comes, they won’t show restraint. My place is here, with you, Dad. The people will stand a better chance if I’m here to help defend them. You said yourself we need to make our defeat believable.”

Time stretched as Hakoda weighed his daughter’s words. Every nerve in him screamed against letting his youngest child remain to face the might of Sozin’s Comet, and yet he couldn’t deny the truth in her words. Despite her lack of years, Katara had already advanced to the highest level of waterbending offered by the Southern Academy. As Hama’s personal student she continued to excel, channelling her determination and guile into finding new ways to use what she had learned.

And then, there was the look on her face, framed by the sea wolf teeth braided at her temples. The stubborn set of her jaw was the same as when, at five years old, she had demanded to be allowed on the tiger-seal hunt with Sokka, and then, when denied, stowed away on the outrigger canoe by making room for herself in the stores – at the expense of three days’ worth of rations.

Dammed meltwater had the power to sweep away settlements without distinction if not correctly channelled. Hakoda’s instincts told him now that if Katara were ordered to leave, she would only find a way to return and wreak similar, undirected destruction upon them all. He sighed.

“Very well.”

With the skeleton of the plan in place, all that remained was for the council to weave in the details, to decide who would go, and, more importantly, who else would stay. Although only seasoned warriors would have any chance against the full might of the Fire Nation Navy, Hakoda and the other generals were not willing to compromise the rules of comradeship which had sustained them for generations: the Southern Water Tribe did not conscript its citizens for almost certain death.

The longer they talked, the less impact the words had, until the long-fire burned low and the elders were satisfied if sombre with decisions made.

“Does the Northern Water Tribe know what fate awaits them?” Kanna asked as silence descended once again. Ozai’s eye for conquest fell on them as well.

“We have sent messengers suggesting they join the avatar’s resistance in the Earth Kingdom, but they have been too isolated for too long,” Bato replied. “We can’t send troops and hope to protect our own borders as well.”

“Then we must hope that they at least see enough of the danger to protect the Spirit Oasis,” said Hama. “Without Tui and La we are all lost.”

Hakoda nodded. “Chief Arnook knows his duty. We will know the outcome soon enough. Is there any other business?” He watched the assembled council shake their heads and used the ensuing silence to call down the traditional blessing to close the meeting.

As the elders began to file out, back down into the city where the festivities whirled on oblivious to the future, Katara caught the arm of a passing servant and requested food be brought to the royal family’s private chambers. She glanced over her shoulder as the servant bowed and hustled away, watching as her mother wrapped comforting arms around Hakoda’s shoulders. Never before that moment, with the low-burning fire cutting the sharp angles of his face, had Katara thought of her father as anything but indomitable. Looking at him now, though, she saw the weight of his responsibilities and the worry that would mark them all in the coming months; she realised her father was no longer a young man.

Spirits preserve them all.

Chapter Text

Scrolls littered the long table in the royal library where Zuko had sat researching since even before the palace servants were awake. Every scrap of parchment on the Water Tribes the Fire Nation had archived lay in front of him in haphazard piles, from treatises on waterbending to collections of scholarly notes, but all they told him was how woefully ignorant his people were about those that lived at the ends of the world. Most of the accounts were second-hand or hearsay, and those that weren’t tended towards the sensational, and were so old that they offered nothing useful anyway.

Blearily, his rubbed his eyes and pulled yet another yellowed scroll towards him. This one was a military report written by a Lieutenant Sangon. It was about thirty years old, stained by saltwater, and told of the capture of a Southern Water Tribe ship.

Liuyue Twenty-sixth Day

In the night we came upon a bank of dense fog incongruent with the weather fifteen leagues off the shore of Whaletail Island, and knew our enemy lay within its depths, though not how many ships ranged against us. Captain Mei-Lin ordered a return to the commonly sailed patrol route, but by dawn the fog overtook us. General quarters were called, but as visibility lessened the captain decided to proceed with engines cut and fires doused so we would not give away our presence. It is well known the water vessels run on the wind and the currents they themselves manipulate, so I think her hope was we would run on the current before them.

The captain bid me consult our charts against compass and last known position in case they planned to sink us on shoals, but, reassured we were in deep waters still, she surmised their tactics would be more traditional icebergs and overwhelming waves. Our elite Cormorant Squadron stood ready to defend our sides and blast away ice attacks, while the ammunition for the prototype pivot trebuchets were readied with pitch and spark powder.

The Water Tribe attack came estimated an hour before sunrise. Our only warning was the crack of ‘lightning ice’ that froze the propellers solid, before two Southern Tribe ships breached the fog off our port stern.

Zuko found his fingers creasing the edges of the paper as he read on, only too able to imagine the fear those firebenders faced against enemies who could encase them in ice or send water whips out of the sea to pluck them to their doom. Only the unexpected power of the then-new deck mounted trebuchets had kept the ship from being totally lost, as the shot loaded into them had been designed to shatter and spread explosive flame on impact – more than a match for the flammable wooden hulls of the Water Tribe.

In the end, one of the enemy ships had sunk with a gaping hole in the starboard keel, and the other had suffered a lucky shot that brought down the mast and all but snapped the vessel in two. Lieutenant Sangon described the aftermath with unprofessionally graphic detail, but Zuko hardly noticed.

Under my orders the hands followed procedure in taking account of the casualties and clearing the deck of the debris from the forward trebuchet. The fog around us cleared enough to allow the sun to filter through, and it roused heartiness in us all. The light let us spot a figure among the flotsam of the destroyed ship, a young woman in the garb and war paint of a waterbender, though through my glass I saw her bleeding heavily from a wound on the scalp.

Thinking to create some return for the tragedy of Captain Mei-Lin’s death, I ordered the boat out, and the girl was brought back in chains, to many jeers from the men in the crew. Their display left a sour taste in my mouth, for all she had tried her best to kill us all not moments before.

I conclude my report with a note on the waterbender’s condition. It is lucky we picked her up in such an incoherent state, otherwise it is certain she would have followed the example of her captured brethren before we could begin to question her. Her wounds have been treated, but for her own safety and ours we are keeping her drugged with wortroot, which has the added bonus of supressing qi should she manage to shake off sleep.

We estimate Gaolong Harbour in three days, and will submit our guest to the port authorities at that time.

In my own hand

Acting Captain Sangon Zushin

Rubbing the back of his neck to ease the ache, Zuko sat back, tapping his fingers against the table. The report mentioned the Southern waterbender had her face painted, and that in the attack some of the crew were killed by strands of water rising from the ocean like the tentacles of a giant squid-topus. Although this was the best corroboration he had found so far, it was still a tenuous link to what he had observed two nights before at the docks.

Rumours had already begun to gust around the capital. Witnesses to the disaster swore it was the work of angry spirits; Officials scoffed and said it was an act of sabotage, committed by a group of rebel benders intent on destroying the lives of helpless Fire Nation citizens. Only time would tell which story the people would take as truth, but already the harbour swam with offerings of flowers and rice thrown down to try and appease whatever god was powerful enough to destroy three ten-deck troop carriers single-handed.

As for Zuko, he knew with certainty the woman the Blue Spirit confronted that night was human. This raised more questions than it answered, however. Was the saboteur alone or did she have a network of hidden waterbenders helping her? And if she did, why attack at night? Such power as she demonstrated would have made short work of any soldiers sent to stop her, so was it merely convenience that she had waited until the docks were quiet, or was it conscience? Considering the scale of the disaster, very few of the ships’ skeleton crews had been killed in the attack, and more than one report mentioned feeling the waves push them onto the breakwater, heavy armour and all.

Zuko groaned and buried his face in his hands.

“Prince Zuko?”

“Yes?”

The elderly librarian shuffled forward, a new stack of papers in his arms. “You wanted the tactical reports from the Southern Conquest.”

“Ah, thank you.” He pushed out of his chair so he could relieve the old man of his burden. “You know you could get one of your assistants to help me.”

“No, I could not,” the librarian replied, waving his prince’s concerns away. “It would dishonour you to have one of those bumbling children getting in the way of your research. Besides, it does these old bones some good to get about a bit.” He wheezed a laugh and cracked the stiffness out of his knuckles. “Might I ask what all of this is in aid of, Prince Zuko? I haven’t seen you this studious in years.”

“I’ve had other things to think about,” Zuko replied testily. “Do I need a reason?”

“Of course not, of course not.” The librarian held up his hands in good-natured surrender. “Just tell me if you require anything further.” He shuffled off again, leaving Zuko to his alcove and his privacy.

The biggest problem, the prince observed wryly to himself as he flitted through the newest stack of documents, was that nobody had any real clue about the capabilities of waterbenders. Every naval report spoke about them with a sort of reverent fear, and it had taken the power of Sozin’s Comet to finally bring their society to its knees, but there was no empirical value set on their abilities, either the range or the volume of water an individual could manipulate at any one time. He supposed that reflected the subtle nature of their element, but the Fire Nation’s lack of knowledge had more to do with lack of subjects – captured waterbenders never lived for very long.

Still, he found it difficult to believe one person could be powerful enough to cause so much destruction - apart from the avatar, of course. His uncle would have known. Once, before everything went wrong, Iroh had encouraged Zuko’s curiosity about the other nations. He had said understanding other cultures was the true key to bringing peace after conquest, but then Lu Ten had died at the siege of Ba Sing Se, and the once revered Dragon of the West had betrayed his own men, ordering a retreat when they could have pressed on and assured victory. When the soldiers rebelled, their general had been caught in the blast of the Avatar’s power, his body torn apart by the elements.

Official records left out the true circumstances of Crown Prince Iroh’s death, but afterwards Ozai made it clear to his son that an open-minded attitude towards the other cultures of the world would no longer be tolerated. Iroh’s weakness in the face of the cursed avatar became a lesson in the perils of mercy.

But the avatar was far away in the Earth Kingdom, the last of the Air Nomads alive and well, busy stirring up rebellion against Fire Nation colonisers. The bender he encountered at the harbour was definitely not an Air Nomad, and there was no mistaking her shape underneath her clothes. He felt his cheeks warm at the memory and fisted his hands on the table to try and regain control of his fire. Royal princes did not become flustered at the mere thought of beautiful women, especially ones who were such a threat to shipping.

Was she beautiful, though? Under the war paint, did she have dark skin like that of others of the Water Tribe? Was it smooth and soft, or chafed by sea winds? What shape were her lips?  He hadn’t been able to see the colour of her eyes in the darkness, but they were fierce.

He groaned again and pinched his fingers to the bridge of his nose.

--

The lattices of Katara’s private chambers were all open, but no breeze could be tempted in from the baking garden. If anything, the scorching heat of the sun had only increased since the day before, as if trying to squeeze the last moisture from the earth before the arrival of the winter rains. The still, dry air made Katara fidget under her sweat-drenched sheets, her fever slow to cool.

The influence of the full moon and the rush of her own daring had allowed her to destroy not one but all three of the ships moored in the harbour. Even in her delirium she remembered the savagery of her joy at being able to unleash her full power and strike at the heart of her enemy. She felt again and again the scream of tearing metal as she smashed the Ryujo against the breakwater, only now the tremors lanced through her body instead.

At the time she hadn’t realised how much energy she was using, too busy focussed on the flow of water in her hands. Afterwards, though, when she dragged herself back through the dimming streets, she had felt the tug of fatigue slowing every step as if stones pulled at her feet.

She woke sometime the next afternoon to the caress of healing water on her forehead. Linara sat over her, the healer’s smooth face scrunched in concern as she tried to map the splintered lines of qi through Katara’s body. Hama stood at the foot of the bed, her hands framed into rigid lines as she froze the air into powdery ice over her charge’s wrists and ankles. That was how she remembered the hours, in snatches of consciousness as shadows from the window trailed across the room, with her guardians working in seamless, unending tandem to bring her back from the dark.

Now, Katara sat in a pile of cushions with the vile taste of some reviving tonic lingering at the back of her throat. She focussed on separating the dank flavours to work out what they forced down her throat, because the alternative was having to look Hama in the eye.

She had never seen the old woman so angry.

“What were you thinking?” the old general demanded. “It’s a blessing you weren’t seen – or captured! What do you think would happen to our people, to all our well-laid plans, if they find out it was you who destroyed those ships in the harbour?”

“I couldn’t sit by and do nothing! Those ships were going to take soldiers to the Earth Kingdom, and now they can’t,” Katara retorted. She glanced down at where her hands lay in her lap. “And nobody caught me,” she added sullenly. “So they aren’t going to find out it was me.”

Ham sniffed. “And how will you explain your current state when the guard comes to interrogate us?” She threw up her hands. “You never think things through! Always impetuous, always taking on more than you can handle. They’ll be looking for waterbenders, girl.”

“General, please,” interrupted Linara. “This can be saved for another time. Katara needs rest.”

“She needs sense knocked into her. Where’s a glacier when you need one.”

“I’m sorry, Sifu,” Katara mumbled as Hama turned to stomp out.

The general hesitated in the doorway. “No you’re not,” she grunted. “You’re pleased with yourself. I hope you still are when all of our sacrifices come to nothing.”

Katara watched her teacher cross the garden and round a corner towards the kitchens, the blue-clad form shimmering under the intensity of the sun. She bit her lip. Everyone had risked so much for her, and Hama was right: the lives of too many people depended on her staying in the good graces of the Fire Lord as a political hostage, too demure to be a threat and too important to be thrown away. To be found out as a waterbender…

Tomorrow, she would make a proper apology, when exhaustion no longer clawed at her bones and made her head swim.

Linara tactfully chose that moment to replace her healing water, running her fingers along the rim of the turtleshell bowl she had received when she attained the rank of Master Healer. At twenty-five, she was one of the most gifted students in the school, hand-chosen to be part of Katara’s entourage, to protect the young princess in the polar bear-dog’s den, and to keep the skills and talents of the Southern Water Tribe safe, hidden in plain sight in case Hama’s plan failed. The bone beads threaded into the locks at her temples clicked as she kneeled once more at Katara’s bedside.

“All that bluster is just worry for you,” she said kindly. “The general’s actually quite impressed. We all are.”

She lay her hands against Katara’s fevered skin, one on her abdomen while the other smoothed a healing glow along her legs and down over her feet. Tension eased out of the Water Tribe princess, resignation settling in its place.

“Dad’s going to be so angry when he finds out.”

“He may be angry that you put yourself in danger,” the healer calmly replied. “But nobody can deny how far this will set back the Fire Nation war effort. Each of those ships was worth two thousand soldiers at least, and now it’s unlikely they’ll get to the Earth Kingdom in time to relieve the soldiers already there. Mark my words, it’s a gap that’ll be exploited. If there’s anyone who can make the most of this, it’s -”

“Don’t remind me,” Katara interrupted, burying her head in her hands. “That’s another person who’s going to be mad at me.”

The healer grinned. “Not looking forward to Mimi’s next letter?”

“No.”

“It might not be so bad. The Fire Navy will be short three of its biggest assets until they can replace them. That’s at least six months of unchecked piracy. The Third Fleet will be busy.”

Katara pushed herself out of her pile of cushions, gnawed by an unexpected concern. “And how many people will be worked to death to get new ships ready in six months?”

Linara’s hands paused against Katara’s skin, her smile hardened into a frown as she brought her fingers up to touch the carved pendant at her throat. The once-beautiful image carved in the mother-of-pearl was marred by a deep, deliberate scratch.

“That’s not our problem.”

“Isn’t it? It’ll be my fault.”

“There’s more suffering in this place than any one person could hope to change,” Linara snorted. “Don’t make yourself responsible for a society where the nobility break the backs of peasants to avoid stepping in the mud.”

“But -”

“If you want to help them, see this through. Care if you must, but remember you’re the only one who will.”

They lapsed into silence, Linara’s thoughts her own and Katara’s wandering back to the moonlit pier and the man with the twin swords who had confronted her there. At the time, she had been too surprised to notice much more than the glint of moonlight on steel and the gruesome mask leering through the darkness, but when the guards stole his attention and allowed her to get away, she had looked back. He moved through them with perfect control, chaos poised by discipline. Her father’s troops were well trained, but she had never seen anyone fight like that. His black clothes were loose, made of material that wouldn’t rustle as he moved, but Katara could imagine the lithe muscles beneath. He would not be bulky, like Water Tribe men used to hauling fishing lines, fed a steady diet of fish and meat. Was he a native of the capital, or somewhere else? What colour were his eyes? Most importantly, what had he been doing at the harbour that night?

“Katara?”

She blinked and found Linara watching her.

“Are you alright?”

“I was just wondering…” Katara paused, finding the right smokescreen for her interest. “I heard some of the Fire Nation soldiers talking. You’ve been to the market. What are people saying about a man in a blue mask?”

Chapter Text

Katara,

Forget Otter-Penguin Guy, you’re the crazy one. Of course I’m worried about you, but WHAT WERE YOU THINKING? I know you can hold your drink, but really, taking on that much Fire Nation rice wine would have killed most people. You must have woken up with the worst hangover, and serve you right.

Try to remember that you’re representing all of us. It’s all fun and games when you’re in that fancy house they’ve given you, but the Fire Nation will find any excuse to call us savages, and if they catch you letting loose, then we’ll all be hooked fish. Just be careful alright? Don’t make me come over there. You know how grouchy fishermen get when their catch gets interrupted, and I’m going to tell them it’s your fault.

Stay safe

Mimi

Katara looked up from the hastily scribbled letter and sighed. She reclined under the shade of the lantern tree by the pond, the writing table next to her laden with writs on Fire Nation folk stories and literature about the Spirit World. Hearing of her interest in the subject, the Fire Lady had sent many of the scrolls from her own personal collection, though few of them contained the subject she was really interested in. The Blue Spirit proved as elusive on paper as in the streets of the Caldera.

The letter from Mimi had arrived in the message satchel of a snow raven, which now sat in the upper branches of the lantern tree preening its pale feathers. She had torn into it immediately. Despite the chastising tone, the concern that shone through the messy characters tugged at the deep well of homesickness that had become a constant companion in the past few days. Grief for the lost members of her family piled on memories of her home, her mind flashing between the brilliance of the citadel in her childhood and the burnt out shell to which the Fire Lord had reduced it. Most of all, however, she ached for the feeling of water at her fingertips, sometimes so much it woke her clammy in the middle of the night, choked by her inability to feel the presence of her element. The only water in the Fire Nation pooled deep beneath the earth or had to be wrung from the air one droplet at a time.

Realising the cause of her distress, one of the friendlier guards had assured her that the increasing humidity over the past week was a sure sign the rains were due.

“And to be invited to the Fire Lord’s garden party, what an honour!” he had added. “There’ll be music, and a play, and all sorts of treats set out for you to eat. Not to mention any number of young noblemen who would love to get the chance to know you better. My Chiziro thinks highly of a certain Ruon-Jian, if I recall correctly.”

Katara smiled as she remembered the older man’s rambling. Though she knew the troop of Fire Nation guards had been placed around her residence in an attempt to keep her locked away, it became harder every day to remember they were the enemy, and not just men with stories and baby portraits and curious party tricks who were only doing their jobs.

The sooner their charade could end, the happier she would be.


 

In the ornate settings of the Fire Palace’s royal wing, Zuko was feeling similar trepidation, though not for the same reasons. He had received a summons.

Surreptitiously trying to adjust his collar and avoid tripping over his own feet, he followed his father’s secretary through the maze of bright, airy corridors that were the private domain of the Fire Lord. When not holding court or training with firebending instructors in the gymnasium, Ozai preferred to sit and contemplate the view of the ocean from his private terrace. From here, he could imagine the lands on foreign shores falling under Fire Nation conquest and the wealth his soldiers would bring on their return, and he could pretend his rule as boundless and bountiful as the azure waters.

“His Majesty’s mood is calm today, Prince Zuko,” the herald stated as they approached the last partition. “Try not to ruin it.”

Zuko nodded his thanks as the herald scurried away, squaring his shoulders as he faced up to the door, determined not to be lulled into a false sense of security. The Fire Lord being ‘calm’ never meant much. The man took delight in being unpredictable, the better to keep his ministers on their toes and in fear of him, and it had taken Zuko a long time to realise just how calculated his father’s outbursts were.

“I am told that the harbour master is already organising a workforce to reopen the port,” Ozai barked, before Zuko could even open his mouth to offer a greeting. “How soon do you estimate the wreckage will be moved?”

At least the discussion of official reports could be considered neutral ground. Zuko crossed the room to where his father knelt by the bonsai, pruning shears in hand, taking as much time as he dared to perform the proper obeisance. He let his eyes linger on the thin, shadowed line that cut across Ozai’s left cheek, a scar received during the Southern conquest. Some might have considered it a battle trophy, others an attractive addition to an otherwise flawless face, but Zuko knew the Fire Lord himself detested it as a sign of weakness, a reminder that even at the height of his powers with Sozin’s Comet fuelling his fire, he was still a creature of flesh and blood, capable of bleeding. It was a shame the waterbender who had struck the blow had lost their life for the honour.

“The two fetched up on the walls can be salvaged within a week, though the damage to the port wall will make this more difficult,” Zuko said, lifting his head from his koutou. “There is still some confusion about how to reach the Yakaze.”

The Fire Lord’s mouth twitched. “There are ships waiting to be resupplied.”

“The labour crews are working as fast as they can, and I have redirected the most urgent cases to other ports. Aside from the loss of the troop ships themselves, our plans for the Earth Kingdom have not been affected.”

His fingers curled as he waited for his father’s response, intimidated by the silence despite his attempts to remain calm. Details from reports flashed through his mind as he tried to anticipate what information he would need to counter whatever was said next, determined not to make a fool of himself as he so often seemed to do.

Of course, that attitude failed to take into account Ozai’s desire to make his son feel foolish.

“How was this act of sabotage permitted to happen?” the Fire Lord asked eventually, his gaze idly fixed on the bonsai in front of him. He found a leaf out of place and snipped it off with his scissors. “It was clearly the work of some barbarian malcontent, and if the culprit is not found, others will become bolder. Decisive action must be taken. An example must be made, Zuko, and quickly.”

Enough decisive actions had been announced in the war room for Zuko to understand the Fire Lord’s meaning. A nation that kept control of its citizens through fear could not afford the visage of absolute power to slip even for a second, and if it took a less than honest application of the law to reaffirm that power, then it must be done for the greater good of all. Anarchy led to riots in the streets. Anarchy had killed General Iroh.

“I understand, Father,” Zuko said, touching his head back to the floor, his face carefully blank.

Ozai clipped another stray leaf from his bonsai. “What precautions are being taken?”

The Crown Prince straightened. In this, at least, he could impress. “An embargo has been placed on all foreign ships at anchor in the capital,” he stated. “In addition, until further notice the city guard is checking everyone entering and leaving the city.”

“Perhaps you are not completely useless, then,” came the offhand reply. “I will be watching your progress closely, Zuko.”

“Yes, Father.”

“Azula believes you are not equal to this responsibility, but I have vouched for you. For your own sake, I hope you find the motivation to prove your sister wrong.”

Zuko swallowed. “Yes, Father.”

“You are dismissed.”

Back in his room, Zuko allowed himself to breathe. In some ways, it was worse when the Fire Lord was calm – anger he knew how to deal with, it was straightforward and could be deflected with submission and flattery, but soft words were intended to trip, and Zuko had always been poor at recognising when he was falling into a trap. He always worried that his activities as the Blue Spirit had been found out, and someone was only waiting for an accidental confession to clap him in irons and haul him out for public execution.

He turned his gaze to the antique liangdao hanging above his bed. It wasn’t the set he took out with him – they were far too brittle – but they were strong enough to hone his resolve whenever he faltered. One of the blades had obtained a scratch from some long forgotten war, and every time it caught the light it reminded him of the glare of the man who had spurred him to take up the mask in the first place. He could still recall the moment Jeong Jeong had appeared before Ozai, his back straight as he stood condemned to death. The Fire Lord had been sharp as lightning, but it was nothing against the disdain curling the old general’s lip.

What would he think now, if he could see what the Crown Prince had become? When he had broken into the prison to help Jeong Jeong’s escape, prickled into action by guilt and a perverse desire to make his father look the fool, he had expected gratitude. Instead, when the self-professed traitor had caught sight of Zuko’s face, what he received was censure.

“All this effort on one man, and what do you do for your people?” he had demanded. “What does it feel like to sit in summer gardens and eat chilled fruits while you sacrifice legions of loyal soldiers for a few small gains? I am not the one who needs your help – the ones whom you betrayed are out there, dying in your war and your factories, begging on your streets.”

The words had struck Zuko like nothing else. Before, he had kept his head down, avoiding his father’s ire like any other of his subjects, glad when his gaze fell on someone less fortunate. Kept from the ordinary citizens, he had also been kept from seeing the cracks in a system that used people like tools and then abandoned them when they wore down, or so he had told himself.

And then, under the thrill of the mask, he had seen the true suffering of the people, realised he had seen it all along and done nothing because it was easier, because, trapped under Ozai’s thumb, he was powerless to create change. Jeong Jeong had dared him to do better, so at night he became the Blue Spirit, a demon of chaos straight out of his bedtime stories, a creature of shadows who even in a few short months had become a symbol of hope and an object of fear.

Zuko ran a finger down the flat of the blade on his wall. Since the attack, the stakes of his game had risen impossibly high; the Fire Lord was out for a scapegoat, and the Blue Spirit was a nuisance – one who just happened to have been seen at the scene of the crime by an entire platoon of witnesses.

He would have to find the real saboteur before the city guard found him.

Chapter Text

“What did you find out about the Blue Spirit?”

Katara stood in cleared room in her private apartments, bending a globe of water back and forth between her hands while Nila practiced the same form next to her. The doors and windows were shuttered to avoid prying eyes, a necessary precaution after the Fire Nation guards’ orders to tighten security, but one that drove away all hope of a breeze from the gardens. The weather still hadn’t broken, and it was making all her people irritable.

Nila was considering her answer. As a truth sensor, one who used the subtle flow of blood to detect lies and hidden truths, she was better than most at sniffing out information from the people around her, but even her abilities could only do so much in the face of house arrest. The entire Southern entourage had been confined to the compound since the attack on the harbour – ‘to avoid harm to our most treasured ally through misguided retaliation’ – and now Nila’s only contact with the outside world was the woman who had been employed to bring groceries from the morning market.

“The common people seem to like him, and I hear there are countless tales of him helping fight injustice on the streets when the guard stand by and do nothing. Officially, the guard seem to be treating him as the main suspect in the harbour attack, which is to be expected, I suppose.”

“That’ll backfire. He’s showing the people they can fight back, if they want,” Attuk said from his corner, where he sat sharpening his knife over his knee. “And if a spirit is rebelling against those at the top, then the people are bound to follow suit sooner or later.”

“Can we use that?” Katara asked. “Could he be an ally?”

Nila shook her head. “Only fools and blind men walk in front of a strange polar bear-dog. We couldn’t afford to trust him, and that’s if you could even find him in the first place.”

“If he’s disgruntled Fire Nation he might be sympathetic,” Attuk pointed out. “He could go where we can’t, listen at doors we don’t have access to.”

“A street thug is not a spy, no matter how sneaky he seems,” Nila snapped. “And unless he’s someone very important, he definitely wouldn’t be able to help us find out where the Fire Lord put our waterbenders.”

“We need to look ourselves,” Katara decided, before the two of them could get into a real argument. They were cousins, brought up in the same household, and made an active sport of nettling each other.

She streamed her water into the pail in the corner of the room and came out of her bending stance, a frown creased between her eyes. The problem of the missing waterbenders had been at the forefront of her mind ever since she had received Mimi’s letter, and she had turned it over and over until she had looked at it from what seemed like every possible angle. They needed to be found, or the plan they had worked so hard for would likely come to nothing. The trouble was, they had no place to start looking.

“Oh no,” said Attuk. “I know that look. That’s the look that gets me in trouble with Hama for letting you go gadding about.”

Katara shot him a long-suffering look. “I have never gadded in my life. But you’re right. On my, err, excursion the other night, I passed a guardhouse I think I could find again. I bet they’d have maps of the city, and that would be a start, at least.”

“They might also have guard rosters,” Nila added. “We could get a better idea of how they organise themselves. If I could just -”

“No.” Katara’s voice was firm. “We’ve been over this. If I get caught, then it needs to just be me, so the rest of you don’t get compromised.”

Nila shook her head so the braids tucked behind her ears came loose, but she didn’t protest. “Very well. But it would help to have more avenues open to us. I’ll see what can be arranged.”

In the corner, Attuk heaved a weary sigh and dragged a hand down his face. “And I suppose I’ll be helping by distracting the guards, won’t I?”


When Katara sneaked out of the mansion that night, the moon had yet to rise. She had decided to forego her warpaint in favour of a fukumen that obscured most of her face. Her blue eyes might give her away as Water Tribe, but she wasn’t planning to let anyone get close enough to see the details of her face, and she had swiped her skin with black grease to hide its colour. Tonight was about planning and reconnaissance, but just in case, she had tied a weighted sash around her waist – a silent weapon, one that fit well with her bending style and one that, unlike a dagger, could not be turned against her by an unskilled opponent.

The guardhouse was easy to find. It stood higher than the other buildings of the district, topped with a lookout tower that could also serve as a defensive turret in times of trouble. Only one guard stood at the post, shoulders relaxed in a way that told Katara she could probably slip by unnoticed, if only she was quiet. She would have more trouble finding her way once inside, but from what she could see several of the top floor rooms contained shelves and cabinets full of scrolls, and looked promising.

She could feel the moon just below the horizon, but its waning glow would make little difference to the well-lit streets. Even so, she angled her approach in a wide arc, letting the shadows hide her as she leapt from roof to roof towards her goal. The shopfronts below appeared deserted, but she remained wary. All it took was for one person to look up, and she would be revealed plain as day in the lantern light. Finally, she made it to the roof of the guardhouse. She waited, but the sentry gave no sign of alarm, and after a few minutes she felt easy enough to lower herself into the shadows under the gable roof.

The window closest to her had no lock – no doubt the building’s architects had thought they were unnecessary two storeys off the ground. It slid open on oiled rails, just wide enough for Katara to slip through and drop to the floor, alert for any sound of detection.

Everything was silent, the dim lamplight shining through the rice-paper screen door opposite just enough to see by. Katara straightened, allowing herself the luxury of curiosity. The room she found herself in was large, with a large, ornate desk and a larger, more ornate chair behind it, and large, ornate cabinets lining the walls. Every free surface was taken up with displays of weapons and armour, though when she looked closer, none of them were battle worn – for show, then. Had she not been so intent on being quiet, she would have snorted at the obviousness of the commander’s inferiority complex. Because this was definitely his office.

Ears straining for the slightest movement in the corridor, she tiptoed up to the desk, which was scattered with papers difficult to read in the dark. She conjured a glove of healing light out of the humid air, and the weak shine allowed her to sort through to find what she needed. It seemed the guard captain had been organising an escort for a supply convoy along the coast. She tucked the notes into her shirt. The route would probably be changed once he realised they were missing, but it would be far more difficult for them to move all the munitions factories and defensive points marked on the map – and that was if the captain was brave enough to report the loss in the first place, which she doubted.

She was about to move away to one of the corner cabinets when she caught sight of an interesting shape half hidden under a paperweight. When she tugged the sheet of paper out to get a proper look, the Blue Spirit’s unsettling mask grinned back at her. The writing next to it listed his crimes and a general description, along with instructions to capture him at any cost, preferably alive.

Without quite knowing why, Katara folded the poster away with the other documents she had stolen.

At that moment, she heard voices outside. The water in her hand dropped to the floor with a splash and the room went dark. She barely had time to hide herself in a corner before the door slid open and two men stepped into the room. One was obviously the commander, and he scowled at the younger, taller man who followed him with a placatory tilt to his head.

“I thought you should be informed, sir – Yizuka has gone to the wards with some of the others, more of them this time.”

“And why should this be news to me, Lieutenant?” the commander grumbled.

“You have to know what they’re up to, sir. We’re the guard, we should be protecting people, not extorting from them, and Yizuka shouldn’t be allowed to –”

“Let me make something clear to you, Lieutenant. We are paid to guard the city, and we do. Just think how much worse off the people would be without our protection, if they had nothing standing between them and the barbarians wanting to take everything away from them.” The captain turned and stalked behind his desk. “Consider this a warning. Next time it’ll be court martial, now get – where did all this water come from?”

“Sir, look!”

Katara’s reaction was instant. The young lieutenant didn’t even have time to raise his hands in a bending stance before she was reaching out with puppetmaster’s fingers, plucking at the flow of her enemies’ blood to bend them to her will. For an instant, the soldiers went rigid, eyes popping in surprise, and then they slumped to the floor, unconscious. She relaxed her grip and paused, breathing hard. Bloodbending was difficult enough during the full moon, and the effects of the technique she had just used tended to be unpredictable, but the two seemed sound asleep, and would probably wake soon. It was time to leave.

The moon had risen while she was inside, brighter than she had expected, and if she wasn’t careful the sentry would definitely see her. Climbing out of the window, she scanned the nearby rooftops for a route that could take her homewards while also keeping her hidden. That was when she caught sight of a distant figure leaping across the rooftops of the merchants’ quarter, heading for the labyrinthine wards where the city’s commoners made their homes.

Was he coming, or going? Lila might have warned her to stay away from him, but nobody ever learned anything by being cautious, and Katara was flushed from her burglary, certain that she could match him – few could survive a battle with a master waterbender. Abandoning thoughts of a soft bed and an early night, she climbed to the edge of the guardhouse’s roof and set off after the Blue Spirit.

He didn’t travel in a straight line. Instead he zigzagged with purpose through the dark streets of the wards, as if looking for something. Katara followed. After about twenty minutes, she knew he had spotted her, because his movements became easier to track. He seemed content to let her follow him, and did not change his pace when she tried harder to catch up with him. It put her on her guard, remembering a hunting trip with her father when the snow lion they had been hunting had turned in a blizzard and started stalking them instead. She decided to hang back, to be patient like the water, to let his curiosity bring him to her.

He stopped on a roof, crouched in the shadows. After a few moments of absolute stillness, he struck out again, this time with purpose, using the steeply sloping roofs to hide his advance, and Katara knew he had spotted his prey. When he dropped down to street level she hurried to where she had seen him vanish, and paused, taking in the scene.

Four members of the city guard loomed in front of a shop doorway, their leader, a burly woman with burn scars on her bare arms, held a globe of fire aloft in her hand. It was a small thing, but the light it cast was enough to illuminate the terrified face of the merchant they had come to threaten.

“There’s been word, Chizo,” the burly woman said. She seemed to be in charge. “Streets are getting more dangerous. There’s talk of rebel benders on the loose.”

“N-no, please!” the man called Chizo squeaked. “I’ve already given you all I can afford! I’m just an ordinary merchant, I can’t –”

“Funny, that, I could have sworn I heard you entertained a pair of clinking Earth Kingdom nobles just the other day.”

Chizo sobbed. “They weren’t customers! They – they were from the colonies. They came to sell me samples of a new kind of tea. I have some left, if you want to try it!”

Katara wondered why nobody was helping this poor man. He was making enough noise that the whole street should have heard, but the nearby houses were silent, the windows blank and dark. What kind of society allowed those in power to bully those who could not defend themselves – how could the Fire Lord let such injustice stand? Every lesson she had been taught declared that the ruling should protect those they governed, and yet many of the people in the capital lived in squalor, in cramped houses on dirty streets, terrified of the guard that was meant to keep them safe. The sheer brazenness of it made her blood boil.

“What do you think, boys?” the guard captain was asking.

Her lackeys sniggered. “Sounds like a good cover story, boss – something a spy might say.”

“No! I swear, I’m not a spy! A week – if you come by in a week I’ll have the money for you, but I’m not a spy, I’m not.”

“Not buying it.”

The guard captain raised her hand – whether to smash the shop or strike Chizo – but before her fire could flicker more than an inch from her fingertips, a shadow detached itself from the darkest corner of the street and darted forward, closing her fist and extinguishing the fire. The Blue Spirit ducked then, barely avoiding a blow swung at him by another of the guards as he somehow swung to put the guard captain between him and the attack.

“No firebending, you fools!” the captain screeched. “You’ll hit me!”

“Wh-what do we do, then?”

After the first instinctive response, the guards had backed away, overawed by the Blue Spirit’s reputation and the sight of that implacable, grinning mask.

“What do you think, idiot?” another one of them snapped. “Do you know what the reward is for capturing this guy?”

“Get him!”

The guards rushed in, but it was obvious they had little experience fighting without their bending. The Blue Spirit deflected their punches easily, slipping through the gaps in their stances with an ease that almost suggested premonition. As Katara watched from a nearby rooftop, however, she realised he could only predict his enemies’ movements because they lacked originality – they had the rigidity of patterns learned by rote from an ungifted teacher. The Blue Spirit knew the patterns, and how to exploit them – he must have trained with firebenders.

She was so preoccupied watching him she almost missed the form of the guard captain, who had struggled free of the brawl while everyone else was distracted. Backing away to a safe distance, the brawny woman settled into a beginning stance and inhaled a deep lungful of air. Firebending comes from the breath.

Katara dropped from the roof before she even registered the decision to move. She had to stop the other woman from firebending. In these dark streets, the light and the fwoosh would be enough to call in a whole battalion of the city guard, and they would all be standing in the way of her route home. The Blue Spirit was still preoccupied.

She pulled the red sash from her waist as she ran, and flicked it out just as the first flames ignited from the captain’s fist. The weighted end of red silk doused the flames, wrapped the captain around the wrist, and when Katara whirled and tugged the slack tight, the momentum brought her opponent crashing down. She was up again in an instant, flashing out with fast, fiery punches, but Katara danced around the strikes. With both of them in the fray, the guards were confused, unsure who to target, and within minutes they lay crumpled and groaning on the cobbles. The shopkeeper, Chizo, had used the distraction to scramble into his shop and bolt the door shut behind him.

The two warriors regarded each other. Katara felt a stab of unease as the silence stretched. This was the second time she had faced the Blue Spirit, and he had sought her out in the harbour because of the destruction she had orchestrated there – to help her, or to catch her? His breath barely whistled between the leering teeth of the mask, and if not for the faint pressure of his blood against her fingertips, she might have made the same assumption as the guards and mistaken him for a creature made of smoke.

He took a step towards her, swords still drawn, but a sound behind him made him flinch just as an arrow came whistling out of the darkness.

Archers! Katara no longer had time to worry whether the Blue Spirit was friend or foe. She stepped past him, arms raised to call down a fog. The effort of it brought a painful throb behind her eyes – even the air was dry, here – but within seconds vapours condensed out of the air to obscure the approaching group of soldiers.

It didn’t stop their arrows. First one twang, then a second, and arrows burst through the mist, their aim off, but only just. And she couldn’t risk bending and giving herself away.

The Blue Spirit grabbed her arm. Even as he tugged and indicated with a nod of his head for her to follow, she couldn’t help marvelling at the warmth of his hand through both his clothing and her own. Another arrow sped out of the darkness, and he tugged again, towards a side alley that would give them a head start on their pursuers.

They almost didn’t make it. The captain’s show of firebending must have been seen from one of the outposts in the city, and as knowledge of their target’s identity spread, it seemed like every guard on duty emerged to hunt them down, and without the Blue Spirit, Katara knew she would have been caught. He knew the cramped streets of the wards, how to turn to avoid oncoming patrols, and when to take to the roofs to avoid being spotted. It might just be self-preservation that drove him, but he moved seamlessly with her, and eventually the sounds of pursuit grew distant enough for them to slow their headlong rush and breathe.

When they finally stopped, slipping into a dark, abandoned house somewhere near the factory district, Katara took a moment to quell the unease threatening to rise up her throat. She had completely lost track of where she was. Sometime before dawn, she would have to find her way out of these slums and back to the mansion, all without being seen, or revealing to the Blue Spirit exactly where she was going.

Thought of him made her turn. In the light of the moon through the window he watched her – or did he? His eyes were invisible behind the mask, his only movement the slight rise and fall of his chest as he breathed. It made the trim outline of his figure hard to trace against the shadows, except for a tiny stripe on his shoulder where the fabric was torn and pale skin showed through. A trickle of blood seeped from the wound the first arrow must have made as it cut past him.

Without thinking she took a step forward, but stopped when he dropped defensively and put his hands to the liangdao strapped across his shoulder.

“No, I wasn’t going to…” Katara lowered her voice, hoping that would be enough to disguise it. “I can heal your arm.”

The faintest twitch in the mask, a glance to the injury and back, but no relaxing of his defences.

“Please,” she said. “You probably just saved my life. It’s the least I can do.”

The Blue Spirit straightened and very carefully lowered his arms, still alert, but no longer hostile, and Katara nodded her thanks. The floorboards creaked as she crossed the room to his side and reached out for the cut on his shoulder. He ran as hot here as he did in his hands, and she was very conscious of the weight of his gaze as she pulled back the sheer fabric of his shirt to get a better look at the wound. Ideally, she would have liked a candle to make sure it was clean – where was a firebender when you needed one? – but even in the dark she could feel the channels of his blood already working to heal, and that would have to do.

“Hold still,” she instructed, and fisted her hands in his sleeve to back up the words. When she summoned healing water from the air to her fingertips he craned his neck for a better look at the glow, but otherwise remained patiently motionless as she examined him. The wound was deeper than it looked at first glance, and had the moon been full she would have realised how much blood he was losing. She tried to ignore the fact that the arm under her palm was solid, lithe muscle.

Before she could bring the water to the cut on the Blue Spirit’s arm, however, they heard a deliberate tread on the stairs below them. A light flickered below. Katara’s hand dropped to the sash at her waist, and in a flash of silver the liangdao were in her partner’s hands, curved edges trained on the new enemy.

“I know you’re there!” a quavering voice shouted up at them, full of the high swoops and low scratchings of a boy on the cusp of adulthood. “Whoever you are, you’d better clear out! We’ve got nothin’ worth stealin’ and you’ll be real sorry if I catch you.”

They exchanged a look, but did not move.

After a few moments, curiosity seemed to overcome whoever was downstairs, and they heard a creak as the would-be defender climbed towards them. The Blue Spirit started to back away as the light grew brighter, lifting his swords in a defensive stance, but when a scruffy head peeked over the floor, he relaxed. The boy was scrawny, about Katara’s own age, and under his simple sleeveless jacket looked like he had grown a lot in a very short time and with very little food. The lantern dangling from his hand wobbled though he made an obvious attempt to steady it.

He focussed on Katara first, his eyes narrowed. “I’m giving you one final warning, thief. Get out of here, or I’ll – I’ll call the guard!” A thought suddenly seemed to occur to the young man, and she didn’t fail to notice the new light of greed in his eyes. “I bet you’re the ones they’re hunting!” he gasped. “There’s probably a reward out, and –”

A shadow stepped in front of Katara, and for a tense moment she watched the Blue Spirit face-off against the stranger, whose jaw had gone slack. When he spoke again, however, his tone of voice had changed completely, taking on a note of awe that made him sound a lot younger.

“No way… I know you!” He shook himself and bowed. “Forgive my rudeness, Blue Spirit. If I had known it was you, I never would’ve said I’d get the soldiers, no matter the reward. Mom said if it weren’t for you, Sasura would have disappeared like Kiri last month. You probably don’t even remember her, but she was so grateful after what you did. She was badly shaken…” The young man scratched the back of his head. “You know, some people say you’re a spirit, but they’ll be so jealous when I say I met you. Although if I say that, the soldiers will probably come.”

As he chattered nervously, Katara and the Blue Spirit relaxed and put away their weapons. Katara glanced out of the window, trying to gaze how much of the night was left. Daylight came quickly so close to the equator, and if she wasn’t careful, one of the royal guard might spot her returning. She wondered if the Blue Spirit had similar concerns, but before she could think of a way to politely make an exit, a rasping voice called up from below.

“Haku, who are you talking to?”

The young man glanced fearfully at the Blue Spirit, who shook his head. “N-nobody, Mom!” he shouted.

“I thought I heard you talking.”

“I’ll be right down,” he answered, then turned back to them. “You guys should go. I swear I won’t tell – not the guards, not anybody.”

Katara nodded in thanks and stepped towards the window, but when the Blue Spirit made to follow a low groan slipped from the mask and he listed drunkenly on his legs. She had forgotten about his wound.

“Are you hurt?” Haku asked, his dark eyes round. “Here, let me help you. I can’t let you go out like this if you’re hurt, not when you probably got it helping out someone like me.”

The Blue Spirit tried to shrug him away, but Katara had joined in and he couldn’t fight off both of them. Together they guided him down the stairs into a room that seemed to serve as bedroom and kitchen in one. In one corner a haggard woman lay on a patched bedroll, and barely stirred as the three of them crossed to a low table by the window.

“Mom,” Haku explained sadly at Katara’s questioning glance. “She works in the factory, not much else work for a non-bender. Her lungs are bad. I do what I can, but there’s no medicine for soot in the lungs, not really.” He darted away as soon as the Blue Spirit was seated against the wall, crossing to the other side of the room to rummage in one of the few cupboards the family possessed. “You’ll need needle and thread for that. I watch the doctor sometimes, so I can help. There isn’t any proper salve, but I’ve got some white spirit somewhere which would at least stop any infection, and –”

He stopped when he noticed the blue glow emanating from Katara’s hands. With a yelp, he dropped his first aid kit on the floor and leapt between his mother and the two strangers crouched on the other side of the room.

“You’re a witch! Don’t come any closer!”

Katara paused in her healing, at a loss. The Blue Spirit looked at her, then shrugged off the floor and padded towards Haku before pulling at the cut edge of his sleeve to reveal the wound, now nothing more than a thin pink line along his pale flesh. The young man’s eyes went wide and he looked at Katara again.

“Wait, no, bring back that glowy stuff!” He paused, suddenly bashful. “Do you think – could you use it on my mom, lady?”

Frowning, Katara stood, wondering whether she could. Talented though she might be, she didn’t know enough about Fire Nation diseases to know how to heal them with water. And a worker in a factory made munitions that would inevitably be used against those of her people that were still fighting.

The woman on the pallet coughed, and Katara’s compassionate nature won out. Stepping past the Blue Spirit, she knelt next to the woman’s head and passed a hand over her torso, feeling for the energies that flowed beneath the skin.

“I’ll do what I can,” she said in the low rasp she had adopted to disguise her voice.

There was fluid in the woman’ lungs, and something heavy that had wound deep into her blood and disrupted the lines of her qi, which Katara didn’t fully understand. She could feel the Blue Spirit hovering behind her, watching with those inscrutable wooden eyes. The back of her neck prickled, but she ignored it and began to work. At first there was little change, but as she drew the illness out of the woman’s lungs she erupted in phlegmy coughs that wracked her whole frame.

“You’re choking her!” Haku made to push her out of the way, but the Blue Spirit stepped between them, and a few short seconds later, the rasping breath eased, and the woman slumped against the pallet. Katara’s forehead beaded with sweat from the effort as she flicked the mucus into the waste bucket in the corner of the room. Much of the infection was still there – she could feel the inflammation – but she was already so tired, and without the help of a full moon she could do no more, not if she wanted to make it back to the mansion in one piece.

“She’ll sleep easier now,” she told Haku, who came to kneel beside her. She cooled her patient’s brow with the barest touch of ice. “Try to keep this place free of dust, and if you can add ginger to her tea, that would help as well.”

“I will – thank you!” Haku bowed low and fiddled with the frayed hem of his tunic. “And I’m sorry for before, for calling you a witch.” He looked closely at her then, their faces barely a few inches apart, and it looked like he was about to say something else, but Katara was too aware of time pressing, and stood up before he had a chance. She had to hide her surprise when she realised the Blue Spirit had already slipped out of the room, completely unnoticed. If not for the fact she had seen him bleed, she might have been tempted to dismiss him as a figment of her imagination.

She paused by the door and bowed to Haku in the Fire Nation style so she wouldn’t give herself away as a foreigner, and then she was out and sprinting along the dark street. She didn’t allow herself space to think. In less than a block she had gained the roof of a shop selling noodles, which gave her a commanding view of the surrounding district and the fastest way to the noble quarter. Somewhere out there in the shadows, the Blue Spirit might be watching her, but there was already a lilac cast to the night sky, and she decided to hope as she set off that he had more important concerns than following her home.

By the time she crawled into bed, exhausted, the sun was peeking above the rim of the Caldera, and she could hear the morning drill of her guards beyond the walls of her room. Hama would be upon her soon with a lecture about foolishness and recklessness, but for the moment Katara had something more confusing to think about.

When her father had been defeated, she had come here armed with a plan to bring the Fire Nation to its knees; when she had imagined the people, she saw them all in blank face-guards and spiked armour, and their destruction had barely troubled her. But first with her night at the docks, and now with her flight into the wards, she was beginning to see the complexities of Fire Nation society. Haku, the guard lieutenant, the shopkeepers in the wards, they were just people.

It would have been so much easier if they were monsters.

Chapter Text

The papers scattered over Zuko’s desk were beginning to give him a headache. In addition to the war accounts, petitions, and updates on the repair of the harbour wall, a scribe had seen fit to dump the reports from the guard about their night-time encounter with the Blue Spirit onto his desk. They were complete nonsense, of course, made to excuse their failure to capture him, but the outlandish claims added to his smokescreen and to his reputation. His mysterious companion got a mention, too, only she had been multiplied half a dozen times into an army of assassins conjured from thin air.

Stifling a groan, he rose and went to the window that looked out over the turtleduck pond. When he moved, he felt the pull of the newly healed scar tissue on his shoulder – he had looked at it in the mirror that morning, had run his fingers over its length, and aside from a pinkish sheen, there was nothing to mark the vicious wound that had been there the night before. Thoughts of the woman who had healed him swirled around in his head. On the one hand, she had shown such compassion towards that poor boy’s mother, and had stepped in to help him defend the shopkeeper from the guard without spilling a single drop of blood. Her martial skills were impressive, her restraint honourable, her eyes by moments fierce then kind.

Of course, this estimation of her as a person warred with his growing conviction that she was the same warrior he had seen that night at the docks, the Water Tribe warpaint that disguised the contours of her face lit by the flames of the Akagi and the Ryujo. The more he thought about it, the more certain he became. She may not have fought with water, but then he never fought with fire as the Blue Spirit, either. How many of the reports in the library mentioned the uncanny mists used by waterbenders to stalk their prey – and how else could he explain the sudden fog that appeared just when they needed it most?

He should have followed her. That, he told himself, was the reason for his current headache. However dishonourable an act, if he had followed her home he could have learned her identity. He could have made an arrest and earned the Fire Lord’s approval instead of letting a probable saboteur roam free. And yet…

Zuko looked over the wilting plants in the garden. The grass was yellowed, the bushes covered in a fine layer of dust, the flowers shrivelled on their stalks. What the capital needed was rain, the cooling touch of water to wash away the dirt and bring new growth to the gardens and the rice fields of the Fire Nation. He frowned, ignoring the twinge in his shoulder. The monsoon always came with violent thunderstorms and flash floods that could wash away entire villages in a single night, and that was the sort of chaos this waterbender would bring. He needed to find her.

“My, but that’s a deep sigh for so early in the morning.”

Zuko straightened, hurriedly adjusting the fall of his robes. “Mother.”

“What were you thinking to put such a scowl on your face?” Ursa asked, stepping into the room. Her voice was always so melodic, it rarely failed to put him in a lighter mood.

“The rains are late,” he said. “There could be riots if they don’t come soon, especially considering all the shortages caused by our last campaign.”

“It’s not your responsibility to think of such things,” his mother replied mildly. “Focus your energies on the things you can change, and on planning for when you have the ability to do more.”

“And how bad will things get in the meantime?” Zuko snapped.

Ursa’s gaze softened, and she glided over in a soft rustle of heavy silks, her hands held out for him to clasp. She ran a hand through his hair. “It makes my heart glad to see that even after all this time, you still won’t give up without a fight.”

Zuko’s scowl only deepened.

“Perhaps what you need is a break.”

“I scheduled firebending practice this afternoon.”

“I was thinking something a little more out of the ordinary, maybe a change of scenery,” she said, folding her hands back into the trailing ends of her sleeves. It was a mild gesture designed to put someone at their ease, and it only increased Zuko’s certainty that this was not an idle visit.

“What’s that?” he asked, because the scroll tucked into the sash around her waist was an obvious invitation.

“Hmm? Oh, this.” His mother pulled the paper out, smoothing the creases with her fingers. “It’s a thank you from Lady Katara for lending her those books from my library last week. I must say, her education is coming on in leaps and bounds – or as far as it can while she remains trapped inside that house.”

Zuko tried to ignore the jolt in his stomach at the mention of Katara’s name. Truly, he had barely spared her a thought in the past few weeks, preoccupied instead with much more urgent matters. But Ursa was looking at him expectantly now, and with a sinking heart he knew where the conversation was going.

“Mother…”

“She is an ally, not a prisoner –” He pressed his lips shut so as not to call out the lie – “And it does her no good to be cooped up like a criminal.”

“It’s as much for her safety as anything else,” Zuko replied. “The people are restless – suspicious, even.”

“Well, all the more reason then for the people to see her out and about, so that they realise they have nothing to fear.” His mother smiled. “Wasn’t that the reason the Fire Lord wished her to stay, so that we could build cultural ties? A good start would be by showing her the commerce of the city – the Southern Water Tribe’s knowledge of seafaring would increase our ability to trade exponentially.”

“Well, yes, but –”

“And I distinctly remember hearing you offer to show the Caldera to our guest.”

He opened his mouth to respond, then snapped it shut when his reply failed to materialise, deciding instead to hide the slight pink flush of his cheeks by pinching the bridge of his nose. He sighed and thought about the grubby bundle waiting in the secret drawer of his desk. A visit would be the perfect excuse to give it to her.

“It was sweet of you to offer, Zuko,” his mother said. “Katara has few friends here, I’m sure she would welcome the excursion, especially with such a handsome escort.”

“Mother!”

She only hid her grin behind her sleeve, her eyes dancing with amusement at his discomposure. He bore it, because it was rare to see her so genuinely pleased, but he worried that if she didn’t look away soon the heat creeping up his neck would be enough to set his clothes on fire. There was no need for such embarrassment, of course, because he had no time to think about the preferences of some Water Tribe princess when he had a city to run and a saboteur to apprehend. She probably wouldn’t like him anyway, not like that. From what he had seen of the guardsmen who attended her, men from the South tended towards brawn, all built muscle and skin darkened by time in the sun, and that was even without considering the possibility that she had left someone back home – a young warrior, perhaps, who could wrestle down a polar bear-dog and made her pretty trinkets from the bones –

“If it will please you, Mother, I will send an invitation,” Zuko said. “But it’s too late to go today, and a guard will have to be organised.”

If nothing else, he could use the time to find out more about waterbending.


 

Katara sat patiently while Hama piled ever more pins into her hair. Zuko’s invitation from the day before sat on her writing table amid an assortment of maps, plans, and the patrol routes she had swiped from the guardhouse, but so far they had proven almost worthless. What good was knowing her way about the city when the information she needed on their missing waterbenders was likely kept up at the palace? Nila had her own methods, of course, and had mentioned over breakfast that morning that a group of spies were already making inroads through the archipelago. What she needed in the meantime was a way into one of the messenger towers that regulated the movements of Fire Nation troops.

“I still say I should be going with you,” Hama grumbled, interrupting Katara’s thoughts.

She grinned. “And blow your cover as a sweet, frail old lady? Ow!” She jerked away from the stab of the pin, deciding not to notice the mutinous grumbling of her nanny. “It’ll be alright, Hama,” she said instead. “Attuk and the others will be with me, and I’m too valuable a hostage for them to let anything to happen to me.”

Nila entered carrying a tea tray. “She’s right. Ozai knows that if anything happens – Spirits forbid – then the whole of the South would take it upon themselves to wreak vengeance. He’s a coward but not a fool.”

“I still say it’s too big a risk,” Hama retorted. “Anything could happen. You’re trained against assassins. You’ll react, and they’ll know you for what you are.”

“Attuk will make sure no harm come to me, and I know some non-bending tricks, too.” Katara laid her hand on the old general’s arm, but Hama was not comforted.

“The water flows with you, girl. It’ll only take one second of instinct for everything we’ve worked for to come crashing down.”

“I’m more worried about this prince,” interrupted Nila. “Why choose now to offer an invitation? Alone? He could have done it weeks ago. He suspects you.”

“If he does,” Katara said, “then it would look more suspicious if I declined, don’t you think? These clothes are ridiculous,” she added, when she tried to shift position and only managed to trip over her sleeve.

“Fire Nation nobility don’t seem to favour practicality.”

“Apparently not.”

Despite the cumbersome cut of the dress, however, Katara found herself admiring the elegance they gave to her movements. When she walked past the mirror, she seemed to float, and the pale lilac colour of the silk was striking against the warm brown of her skin. Oh yes, she decided, rolling back her sleeve, it was just the sort of garment that might make a prince forget to guard his tongue.

Hama tugged another braid into place. “I know what you’re thinking, child, and I’m warning you now not to underestimate this Prince Zuko. He’s not cunning like his sister, but he is clever. Don’t push him too far.”

“Will you stop worrying? I’ll be fine.”

“Hunters who don’t watch the tide will all too soon find themselves lost at sea,” came the staid reply.

Katara fought the urge to roll her eyes, knowing she’d only likely get stabbed with another hairpin. She was saved the need to reply, because Attuk rapped on the door to her private chambers and informed her the prince had arrived. Taking a deep breath, she let Nila arrange the many layers of her silk dress, and then stepped outside into the heat of the morning. Attuk nodded to her when she was composed, and together with the rest of the guards who would be accompanying her to the marketplace, they set a sedate pace towards the magnolia courtyard where Zuko waited.

Zuko obviously heard them coming. He was standing at attention in the shade of the trees, looking younger without the bulky black armour he had worn on his previous visit, but still stern. The frown melted away when he caught sight of her, however, and Katara felt a rush of satisfaction knowing her appearance was enough to make his mouth fall open like a frog’s.

“Prince Zuko,” she said with a smile. “It’s an honour to welcome you back to my home again.”

He recovered his composure rather well and bowed. “I only regret circumstances got in the way of me paying a visit sooner. Are you ready to go?”

“I am.”

She stretched out a hand, and now that his courtly manners were back in place he managed to take it with only the barest hint of a blush. His fingers were warm, but not clammy like she might have expected, and for an instant she was content to let him lead her out of the gate, until she remembered his warmth was the warmth of a firebender. His hands were like those that had destroyed her home.

“My servants have told me about the market here,” she said to distract herself. Politeness is a deep lake on a still day. “But it’s not the same as going yourself. I’m quite looking forward to it – oh, we’re going in that?”

The palanquin squatted in the street, the eight men employed to carry it crouched in the struts in an image of complete humility. They kept their eyes downcast as the prince approached, showing no discomfort though sweat beaded on their foreheads and their legs must have been cramped from kneeling. For someone used to walking amongst her own people, seeing servants so abject left a bad taste in Katara’s mouth.

“It’s best for where we want to go.” Zuko rubbed the back of his neck. “The streets are too narrow for komodo-rhinos and I’m afraid an ostrich-horse would probably spook at the crowds.”

“And the screens?” Katara asked pleasantly. “Are they to keep people from seeing us, or to keep me from seeing where we’re going?”

He stared at her, colouring. “Um, they’re to keep out the dust. We can open them if you want.” He watched her glance backwards to her guard captain, who reassured her with a nod that they would be right behind if anything went amiss. The harsh glance he threw in Zuko’s direction left no uncertainty that the prince was one of the things included in ‘amiss’.

“I’d like to see the city,” Katara decided, and allowed herself to be helped into the palanquin. She stumbled a bit on the soft cushions, but she settled herself well enough, her face once more a mask of cool indifference. He made sure to sit as far away from her as possible, partly to balance the weight for the bearers, and partly so that she wouldn’t feel crowded in the small space. A second palanquin might have been a better idea, but that would have turned an informal excursion into a parade, which would be less than helpful for putting the Water Tribe princess at her ease.

“Raise the blinds,” he ordered, and it was done.

After that, he couldn’t think of anything to say. The journey through the upper quarter of the city was leisurely, with little traffic on the streets, and it would have been perfectly unremarkable for Zuko, except for Katara’s presence. At first, she sat stiffly, her hands folded over her lap, her expression fixed into one of disinterest he didn’t know how to counter. But then, little by little, her curiosity overcame her formality, and she started to look around, craning to look down the alleys branching off from the main streets, remarking on the fountains that filled every square, and even once forgot her composure enough to smile when she caught a distant glimpse of the sea. Her eyes really were the most remarkable shade of blue.

“Staring’s rude where I come from, you know.” Just like that, she was back to playing the doll, and Zuko found he missed her interest.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to,” he said, because he hadn’t even realised he was staring.

Katara refolded the end of her sleeve, her gaze fixed on the branches of a mangingko tree hanging over someone’s wall. “What, err, were you looking at?”

“Nothing,” came the hurried reply, but then, because he needed to say something else or let their awkward silence take over again, “I was wondering, um, why do you wear your hair like that?”

“Like what?”

“With the… loopies, and all the beads,” he finished lamely, with a vague gesture in her direction. “Not that I don’t think it looks nice, of course – it does – and not that I think you did it because you thought I’d like it, I remember it was like that in the throne room. It’s just so… intricate. It must have taken a long time to do.” He looked up to find her frowning at him, and regretted saying anything at all. “Forget it. You don’t have to answer.”

“No,” Katara said. “It’s alright. It’s not a secret, I just never thought you would be interested in that kind of thing.”

“All your people have braided hair, and everyone’s is different.”

She smiled, and fiddled with a loose lock that had fallen over her shoulder. “It’s a way of showing people who we are,” she explained. “There are braids to show our lineage, our role in society, who we are as people. It’s not practical for everyday, because it does take a lot of time to do, but on formal occasions it’s a symbol for others to recognise.”

“Is this a formal occasion, then?” Zuko asked.

She shrugged. “My nanny is old-fashioned. And I think it gives her something to do – she’s afraid all our traditions will fade away now that the South has allied with the Fire Nation.”

He nodded, noticing the slight purse of her lips when she spoke. “I think… we might not be that different, in some ways. Here, the length of a person’s hair matches their status. It’s not as common now, but a few generations ago, some noblewomen had special servants who followed them just to carry their hair. If a person gets banished, there’s still a ritual where all their hair gets cut off, so that they become less than nothing.” He had only seen the ceremony only once, after Admiral Zhao had failed to subjugate the Northern Water Tribe, but the memory of the man’s frantic pleading and the silver flash of the knife stuck in his memory.

“It sounds harsh.”

It was his turn to shrug. “It’s the sentence for traitors.”

For a while, silence pressed on them again. Zuko cast around for something to say, knowing that his mother would chide him for being so ungallant, and that anyone else at court would leap at the chance to hold a conversation with a foreign princess. Then his eyes caught a flash of blue.

“Can ask about your necklace?”

Katara blinked at him in surprise. “My…?”

“It’s the same one you were wearing before,” he explained, watching her fingers reach for the intricately carved disk.

“I – it was my mother’s,” she said. “It’s all I have left of hers.”

“She’s dead?” he shouldn’t have asked, of course he said the wrong thing, now there was no way to –

“A lot of people I know are dead now,” she snapped. She turned away to look at a passing flock of sparrowkeets, but he didn’t miss the way she swiped at her cheeks.

“I’m sorry,” Zuko said again. “I didn’t mean it like that. I know if I ever lost my mother…” His hands clenched on his knees. The right question – he had to find the right question to make up for his blunder. “If – if you don’t mind me asking, what was she like?”

He didn’t think she would answer, and resigned himself to spending the rest of the trip in awkward silence, until he heard a sniff and the barely whispered reply.

“She was brave.”


 

They made it to the market without Zuko managing to embarrass himself further, and he was determined to keep it that way and prove himself a better host than he had been so far. What his mother – or Azula – would say if they ever found out he made Katara cry, he didn’t want to imagine. So instead, he threw himself into showing her the market.

At first, the stallholders seemed wary of him, but after a few embarrassed moments where a pottery seller bowed all the way to the floor in front of him, they seemed to get the message and he and Katara became just another pair lost in the crowd, albeit on with a contingent of guards following after them. He relaxed. It had been years since he walked among his citizens so openly.

He had been worried about the people’s reaction to Katara – after all, she was the daughter of the man who had waged war against them for over a century – but within minutes her easy manner had charmed everyone within earshot. The old women on the stalls fawned over her like a pet; they admired the quality of her gown and praised her taste in porcelain, and altogether did a much better job of cheering her up than Zuko himself could ever have managed. Occasionally Katara turned to him, finding the fast jabber of their dialect too difficult for her unpracticed ear. He was only too happy to translate for her. It made her smile.

All too soon, their guards became loaded down with reams of silk, packets of tea, and rather a lot of expensive jewellery, and looked rather disgruntled about it.

“What’s that smell?” Katara asked, interrupting a man in the middle of trying to sell her a jade figurine of a flying ostrich-horse. “It smells wonderful.”

Zuko’s stomach rumbled. “It’s the spices from the food market,” he said. “It’s in the lower part of the bazaar, so it’d be better if –”

“I want to see.”

“Katara – no, wait!” He reached out, but she had already slipped through the crowd. “Does she always have this much energy?” he asked the Water Tribe guard captain. The man only gave him a sullen roll of his eyes before lifting his armful of packages higher and following after his charge.

The streets became more packed the further they went through the market, and soon not even the threat of the royal guard could stop Zuko from being jostled, but he didn’t care. His eyes were fixed on the flash of lilac bobbing ahead of him through the crowd. He didn’t understand how Katara found it so easy to dodge her way through the mass of people, but eventually even she was brought to a halt.

The alleyway to which she had led them was bisected by a wider avenue, cordoned off with red silk ropes to hold the crowd back. Street-sellers took advantage of the crush to shout the benefits of their wares to those close enough to listen, but it was not enough to drown out the clamour of bells and drums coming nearer and nearer. It must be a festival.

Still trying to push the crowd out of his way, Zuko didn’t really care which one. He barely noticed when the lacquered paper statue of the Painted Lady rode past in its palanquin, adorned with garlands of foil flowers and sticks of sweet incense, because he was too busy watching as Katara stretched up on tiptoe to get a better look, just as caught up in the celebration as everyone around her. He also noticed the beggar sidling up to her, attracted by her fine clothes.

“Please, beauty, would you help a poor old man?” he asked, raising a wooden bowl to her with his head ducked low. “Spirits shine on your generosity, oh flower of the…” He glanced up and in an instant his face contorted into a snarl. He dropped the bowl with a screamed curse and raised a crippled fist to strike.

Before Katara could react, two of the Fire Nation royal guard burst through the crowd and sent the beggar to his knees. He struggled against their hold.

“Witch!” he shouted. “Barbarian! Go back where you came from and freeze! You dress proper, but we all see what you are! We don’t want –”

The beggar’s face went slack with fear, a rope of spit dribbling down his stubbled chin. Katara followed the line of his gaze and found Zuko at her side, a hand protectively on her arm as he glared down with a cold fury that made her heart skip faster in fear. Then he turned to her, and the burning gold of his eyes softened, and somehow that was worse.

“Are you alright?” he asked.

“Yes – yes, I’m fine.” She let out a slow breath, more shaken than she would have liked to admit, and eased her hold on the soup in a nearby noodle stand. A few more seconds, and she might have blown her cover, exactly as Hama feared. All their plans, ruined in an instant because she let her guard down.

“What should we do with him, Your Highness?” one of the guards asked.

The beggar whimpered. The spectators, intrigued by the unexpected entertainment, formed a loose ring around them. Zuko licked his lips and leaned close to Katara.

“The insult was to you. What do you want done?”

She blinked in surprise, trying to find an ulterior motive behind the words, but the prince’s expression was earnest, honest even. She looked around for inspiration. Justice worked differently here, and she would have to be careful. The statue of the spirit passed over the heads of the crowd, and gave her an idea.

“Tell me about this festival, and His Highness will be lenient,” she said.

The beggar looked to Zuko, who nodded once. “Tis the festival of the Painted Lady. The acolytes of the sages bring her from the shrine at the mountain spring through the temples of the city so that she may bless them and receive offerings that bring the rain. She… intercedes when humanity angers the spirit world, most forgiving lady, and brings health to the sick, vengeance to the wronged – mercy to those unjustly punished,” he added hopefully.

Katara nodded, her mind already working. “Thank you. You have enlightened me. Prince Zuko?” she felt him shift beside her, drawing up so his voice could carry across the street.

“The Southern Water Tribe are our allies,” he announced. “Any violence against Princess Katara or her entourage will be taken as violence against Ourselves, and with the same laws and sanctions for all citizens thereby.” A sob from the beggar. Zuko dropped his voice and turned to him. “In honour of this holiday, and because this lady called upon my mercy, you are spared punishment this once. You should use the opportunity to rethink your condemnation of the Water Tribes.”

Slowly, the crowd dispersed, leaving Zuko and Katara with space to breathe. One of the guards shoved the beggar’s bowl into his hands and pushed him away with a grunt, clearly unhappy to let him go.

“My lady, we should get you out of this heat,” Attuk said, looming next to Katara. “You’ve had an upset, and your ladies will want to know you’re safe.”

“You’re right, of course,” she replied, her eyes falling on a stand selling fireworks and souvenirs from the festival. “That was a lucky escape, we shouldn’t push our luck.” She glanced at Zuko, who was busy giving orders to have the palanquin brought to them, so she beckoned her guard captain closer. “There’s something I want you to do for me.”

“I’m not going to like this, am I?”

“Probably not.”

In what seemed like no time at all the guards bundled her and Zuko into the palanquin, then piled the day’s shopping into a handcart with an extortionate amount of gold for the driver, and gave orders for the goods to follow on. This time, they rode with the blinds shut, which made the box dark and stifling, and Katara was reminded of the dismal hold of the Fire Nation ship that had brought her to the capital.

“I’m sorry you had to see that,” Zuko said after a prolonged, terse silence.

She jumped. The heat tried her temper, and her need to be polite, to demure, only made her want to water-smack something harder. And what if any of the guard suspected what she had almost done?

“He was afraid of you,” she replied. “That man. Do all the people who have served in the military become beggars here?”

“What?”

“The man’s insignia. I recognised it. He was a Southern Raider once, and now he’s less than nothing.”

Zuko opened his mouth to reply, but frowned instead and turned away. “I didn’t think you would feel sympathy for someone like that.”

“Why?” she asked. “Because he was once ordered to attack my people? Because for all I know he killed those I cared about?”

“Well, yes.”

She shot him an icy look, her voice low like the approaching hum of a blizzard. “Who was it giving the orders, Prince Zuko?”

“He attacked you!” he cried. “Why aren’t you mad at him?”

“Because I know what fighting makes people do,” she snapped. “War is just a distant thing to you here, just a lot of maps and little bamboo counters like it’s a child’s game. But I grew up with it. I lived it.”

He looked like he’d been struck, and too late she tried to block the dam of her anger, chastising herself for her outburst. If he didn’t suspect her before, then he certainly would now that she had all but accused him of genocide. Deciding that discretion was the better part of valour, she made a point of fussing with the arrangement of her sleeves and skirts so she wouldn’t have to look at him, all the while aware that he had yet to stop staring at her.

When the palanquin was finally set down and Attuk drew up the blinds, she couldn’t stumble out fast enough. Even the baking sun was a relief since it meant she could feel a breeze on the back of her neck, and with her front gate so close she could almost feel the blessed creep of ice along her skin.

“Lady Katara, wait.”

Zuko stepped out of the palanquin, holding a box wrapped in gold paper.

“Thank you for the excursion, Prince Zuko,” she said formally. “It was most diverting.”

“I have something that belongs to you,” he blurted, then paused to rub the back of his neck. “Well, it belonged to your father, but he’s at the South Pole, so he can’t – and… here.” He thrust the box into her arms, colouring scarlet when she finally overcame her confusion enough to rip the paper off.

She gasped when her father’s hunting pouch fell into her hands. It was badly charred, the stitching popped and her mother’s intricate dyework almost destroyed, but she would recognise it anywhere. With shaking fingers, she undid the straps holding it closed, and the warped leather opened to reveal all the tools she had known since childhood: the awl, the spark rocks – even the antler scraper he had made from his first kill had survived. She knew the stories her father told through these objects, had felt the pain that throbbed through all her people in the throne room on the day the Fire Lord burnt it, and now here it was.

She choked back her tears. “Why are you giving me this?”

“It’s yours,” Zuko replied. “You should have it.”

“No, I mean, what do you want in return?” This couldn’t just be a gift, not here in the Fire Nation, so far from home where everything came at a price none but the wealthy could pay. But she watched as Zuko frowned, pursing his lips together to choose the best words, and a tiny flutter of hope sparked in her chest.

“I saw how much it meant when the Fire Lord burned this, although before today – when you told me about why your people wear braids in your hair – I didn’t know exactly why,” he said eventually. “What happened was… It was not honourable. I know this won’t fix things, but… well… Giving it back felt like the right thing to do. You owe me nothing for it.”

“I… thank you.” She licked her lips, trying to work out what to say, because the least she could do now was be polite. “And… thank you for earlier, as well. For protecting me. I don’t know what would have happened if you hadn’t stepped in.”

They stood for a moment in silence, bashful rather than awkward, until Zuko finally remembered he was meant to be leaving. He bowed crisply, a smile tugging at his mouth, and turned to go.

“Lady Katara?” he asked, spinning on his heel again.

“Yes?”

“You already have an invitation to my mother’s garden party, but I was wondering… perhaps you wouldn’t object if I… if I escorted you?”

Katara glanced down at the bundle clutched against her chest. “I wouldn’t object,” she answered slowly.

“I… good.”

He climbed into the palanquin. She turned and stepped past her guards into the cool sanctuary of the mansion. The palanquin bearers tramped away. She was underneath the magnolias before she realised that she, too, was fighting back a smile.

Chapter Text

Katara –

It’s official, we’re taking a break. The fishing fleet got caught in a storm and luckily we found shelter. The people here are fishermen too, so it’s almost like being at home, only with less snow. All their fishermen are women, though. You’d like their chief. When we first landed, I may have accidentally suggested to her that we were better at fishing because we have bigger boats – don’t laugh, Katara, I know you’re laughing – but she kicked my ass like five seconds later, so she’s now teaching me some of their methods for fishing while our ships finish repairs. You should meet her. You’d like her. Although I don’t know how that would end for me.

Did you know they have a sea serpent here? I’ve only seen the fin, but it’s huge.

Anyway, there’s another reason I’m writing. I know you’ll understand this, you always do. I miss my little sister. You remember her, right? Always helping people, always exploring where she wasn’t allowed. We never could keep her out of the caves on the side of that stupid mountain behind our house, because someone told her that if she looked hard enough she’d find the hidden people and they’d tell her where to find the best treasure. She’s all grown up now, and Dad always told her to be careful, but I wonder sometimes if she still does things like that. She’s doing a great job with the polar bear-dogs, by the way. I hear they’re nearly eating out of her hand.

And one last thing – please don’t send me any more of those Fire Nation recipes with all those weird spices and complicated fiddly buts. It’s giving Nanak ideas and we all have to suffer through them, and what happens after. There’s nothing wrong with sea prunes, you know.

Mimi


 

The letter was crumpled, the ink smudged from so many readings. Even after going through it multiple times, parts of the code were indecipherable. When they had decided on disguising their notes like this, back before Sozin’s Comet, they had decided the need for secrecy was too great to risk anyone being able to find patterns in the smokescreen of friendly correspondence. Katara and Mimi both mixed banal details about their lives with the more important facts, hiding them beneath the surface like the deep ocean currents that brought the bow whales in spring. They relied on their shared memories and in-jokes to communicate, and relied on Nila’s skill at getting information to fill in any gaps.

Not that there was usually much they could do to help, Katara groused, as she sat under the lantern tree in the garden and reread the letter again for the dozenth time. They had worked out that the mention of the ‘hidden people’ was really about Nila’s spies, who had missed their previous three report windows, but the rest of it was still gibberish. And instead of being able to go out and look for them, she and her entourage were stuck in the compound, still under house arrest, with nothing more strenuous to occupy them than garden parties and the ridiculous intricacies of court life. Sometimes she just wanted to forget the plan entirely and swamp the palace in a deluge, but this far into the dry season there wasn’t nearly enough water for that, if she even had the power to move it anyway.

No, for now she was stuck playing the role of subjugated princess, smiling from behind a paper fan in a pretty dress and dreaming of the day she would be free to cast off the layers of Fire Nation silk and daub her face with warrior’s paint as she had on the night when she crushed the three transports against the breakwater. Soon enough, she would teach them the oldest lesson of the Water Tribes: the sea is patient, and powerful, and cannot be conquered.

In the meantime, perhaps she could pry some information out of one of the more loose-lipped nobles, and if that failed, her alter ego might find something. She smirked to think about the growing rumours of spirits in the city, murmurs in the marketplace of a shadowy figure that cloaked itself in mist and slinked through the streets after dark. Ozai had reacted to these rumours with predictable force, but the extra patrols assigned to the wards were reluctant to risk the ire of the people – or the spirits – by going after another preternatural vigilante. It helped, of course, that Katara could pass her waterbending skills off as magic, and she took vindictive pleasure in knowing how easy it was to bring the dissatisfaction of the Fire Nation’s citizens to the surface.

Like drawing out an infection, she thought. All they needed was the right tonic.

She wondered about the Blue Spirit. Since the first night they spent running through the Caldera, she hadn’t seen him. If nothing else, his knowledge of the city would make her own reconnaissance go that much quicker, but despite Hama’s insistence to the contrary, Katara was not reckless enough jeopardise their plan in order to seek him out. Whoever he was, he clearly held no love for those who abused their power, but here in the capital, that didn’t narrow down the field. Maybe he was the son of a disenfranchised noble house, out to seek revenge by stirring up the common folk against their masters; or maybe he was an artisan with a stall in the market, no longer able to tolerate the injustices he saw every day. It was a mystery she would be unlikely to solve with the limited time she had.

“Lady Katara,” Attuk said, making her jump. “Prince Zuko is here.”

She ignored the excited little skip her heart made against her ribs. No matter how charming or earnest he seemed, he was still the enemy, and any attraction he might feel should be cultivated as an extra tool, or as a weakness if it could not be used to serve her purpose. That’s what Hama would, anyway, and if Katara’s thoughts wandered a bit too often too how he had warned her about Azula, or how he had returned her father’s hunting kit without thought of reward, she ignored that, too.

She checked her appearance in the mirror. Today she wore scarlet, following the tradition of the Fire Nation court, but her seamstress had been clever with the cut of the fabric. The layers of silk mimicked the light camel-wool cloth worn during polar summers, the traditional fur linings substituted for intricate golden embroidery. She knew few of the nobles were familiar enough with Water Tribe fashion to notice her quiet rebellion, but it was a comfort nonetheless.

“I’m ready,” she said.

Zuko looked happy to see her. At his side, a servant held an armful of scrolls she recognised as the Southern sagas she sent him a few days before, because it had seemed the best way to thank him for returning her father’s affects.

“You didn’t like them?” she asked, frowning, once the pleasantries were out of the way.

Zuko’s eyes widened. “No! I mean, I did like them,” he stumbled. “I couldn’t put them down, actually.”

“Really?” There was that flutter in her chest again.

“It’s so different to what the masters here think of as poetry. Uh, I didn’t mean that the way it sounded,” he added, inching one hand up to rub the back of his neck. “It’s just that, I’ve always thought poetry was kind of hopeless, you know? Blossom always fades, animals die, and we’re all caught up in the wheel of the universe, unable to change things. Your sagas are just so… so vibrant, like it’s celebrating change rather than just letting it happen, like you can do something and it will matter. If you see what I mean.” He ducked his head with a bashful smile. “There were probably a lot of references I missed, and the stories were a bit more complex than what I’m used to, but I did enjoy them.”

Seeing him so animated about her culture brought an unexpected flush of happiness that tingled along Katara’s limbs, and she answered his smile with one of her own. “If you want to keep them a little bit longer to copy them, I wouldn’t mind,” she offered, without really thinking.

“Are you sure?” Zuko checked.

She shrugged. “We’re allies, aren’t we?”

“We are,” he agreed, the smile spreading to light up his whole face. “If you’re sure you wouldn’t mind, then I’ll have a scribe make a duplicate. They can be a present for my mother,” he added, as the thought came to him. “I’m sure she’d appreciate them. Maybe you could clarify a few things for me, in case there are problems with translations?”

“I’ll answer what I can,” she replied. “What do you want to know?”

Zuko’s smile faltered at a subtle gesture from his valet, and Katara realised their shared excitement had carried them into their own little world. Together, they were chivvied across to the palanquin, with a hurried but half-hearted lecture from the servant about the impropriety of keeping one’s guests waiting, though Katara suspected the real reason for the sudden rush was a fear that they would arrive after the Fire Lord. From what she knew of Fire Nation protocol, the higher ranking nobles got to arrive at social events later, so that they could appear fresh and composed next to those of lower rank who had already spent hours enduring the heat and boredom that inevitably came with these sorts of parties.

As he handed her into the palanquin, Zuko smiled sheepishly at her, and she found herself returning it. Hama would disapprove. She set about arranging her skirts in a fan to avoid crushing the silk beneath her weight, pleased that Zuko had remembered to draw up the blinds without her even having to ask.

“There’s more of a breeze today, don’t you think?” she said, when the silence between them grew brittle.

Zuko nodded. “It’s coming off the sea. Li and Lo say the monsoon is finally here, and they’re never wrong – but I hope the rain stays away for the rest of the evening.”

Katara smiled and nodded. She didn’t tell him she could feel the sea in her bones, churning up a storm that would snap the dry crackle in the air like a strand of spider silk. She ignored the feeling, for the most part, but the weather-change left her fretful, distracted. She had come very close to making up some excuse to cancel the party and stay in the inner courtyard of the house, where she could bend away her agitation without fear of being seen.

“The thunderstorms at this time of year are amazing,” Zuko was telling her. “So much raw power, and after so long without water, the countryside just bursts into life. We have a special pavilion at the palace just for listening to the sound the rain makes on the roof tiles. The storms won’t be better until later in the season, but if you would like to see it…”

“I’d love to,” Katara said, thinking about how she might be able to sneak away and find the Fire Lord’s office. “It sounds wonderful.”

“I suppose you have storms in the South?” he asked.

“Not quite like here,” she admitted. “We have blizzards, and there’s thunder and lightning in those, but often the wind is so loud and the storm so thick you can’t tell. Sometimes it’s dangerous to go outside because the snow turns you around and you end up lost within a few steps of your doorway.” She shuddered. “I think I still prefer it to this heat, though – at least when it’s cold you can put another parka on.”

“I’ve never seen snow. I know what it looks like, from reading, and that it’s frozen water, but… what’s it like?”

Katara was thrown by the wistful tone of the question. She didn’t know how to answer – how could she, when the snow and ice of the South had been as constant and natural to her as the water? And in a land of such heat, what was there to compare it to?

“I never really thought about it,” she said. “I’ve never had to think snow was like anything, it just is.”

Zuko looked thoughtful, digesting her answer. “What’s a sea wolf?”

“What?”

“One of the sagas mentioned them.”

“Oh.” Katara relaxed slightly. For a second, she had thought he meant to trap her, but the expression on his face was open, the bright gold of his eyes slanted in expectation of her answer. Something uneasy stirred across the skin at the back of her neck, but what could it hurt to tell him about sea wolves? They came to the South in the spring, Tui’s demon aspect chasing tiger seals through the streams of melting ice, their black fins stretching taller than a man above the water. They were respected, Katara explained, because they hunted as a group like humans did, and were cunning, and generous, and vengeful in defence of their families.

“I think I know what you’re talking about. We call them Shachi.”

Katara tried the word; it tangled on her tongue and made her giggle. By this time, they were passing along a broad avenue lined with mangingko trees, their bright yellow leaves fluttering in the wind coming off the sea.

“In some of the stuff I read,” Zuko ventured after a moment of silence, “there was a character called ‘sea wolf’. It was used like a title.” He seemed to be choosing his words, glancing at her sidelong and picking at a stray thread in the silk cushions. “I… I hope this isn’t rude, it just caught my eye and, um… it’s alright if you don’t want to answer, but it seemed like a pretty big deal.”

Katara felt tension creep back into her limbs. The storm air was getting to her, but worse than that was the sudden, choking fear that she had been found out. How much did he know? Did the royal guard escorting them draw closer?

No, she decided. If Zuko had any idea who she really was, he would have brought more soldiers with him. And if this was a test, then surely it was better to control the information he got rather than to arouse his suspicions further.

Be calm. Be still. Adapt to the flow around you.

“There was an old tradition,” she said, trying not to sound like she was working out how to lie. “‘Sea Wolf’ was an honour given to the most powerful waterbender in the South, carried until they could no longer carry out their duty.”

“And what was their duty?” Zuko asked.

“They were the people’s champion. When they died or wished to retire, they would choose their successor.” She smiled. “It’s all in the past, especially now that the Fire Nation are our allies. What need do we have of such things?”

Zuko frowned, as if puzzling something out. “If it’s all in the past, what happened to the last Sea Wolf?”

Katara froze at the question. Fire and screaming flashed in her memory, the heat and the guilt of seeing her people destroyed and being able to do nothing to stop it. Her fingers reached for the familiar comfort of the necklace at her throat.

“She died.”


 

Katara was surprised by the number of guests in green and yellow as Zuko led her through the grand moon arch and into the Fire Lord’s public garden. The Earth Kingdom nobles flittered through the Fire Nation court like hummingbirds around flowers, keeping up a sycophantic bubble of conversation over their glasses of chilled fruit punch. The sight of which had Katara clenching her fists inside her sleeves. How many Earth Kingdom citizens had died trying to fight the Fire Nation, only for the self-interested aristocracy to pander to the enemy in order to protect their own interests? With great effort, she smoothed her face into a smile, and allowed Zuko to lead her through the crowd and offer introductions.

“Oh, so you’re the little thing Her Grace has taken such a shine to. The Fire Lord is quite generous to keep you as he does, you know.”

“Is it true the Water Tribes still wear animal skins and live in huts?”

“How brave of you to wear such colours, with your skin tone. And those beads – how quaint!”

Katara replied to all the backhanded sniping with good humour, but only because it was fun to guess whether they would be more shocked or scandalized when Zuko came to her defence. While he lacked the delicate wit to ever really be a proper politician, he made up for it with dry sarcasm and a disdainful stare, made all the more effective because, as the Crown Prince, nobody could afford to insult him. She watched as one particularly pushy matron, no doubt hinting at a match between Zuko and her rather mousy daughter, tripped over and over herself trying to clarify a remark about Katara’s hair.

“Lady Katara,” Zuko interrupted smoothly. “I hope you will forgive my rudeness. I got so absorbed in presenting you to so many lovely people that I forgot you haven’t even got a drink yet. Will you accompany me?”

Katara took his offered arm and all but purred at the way the matron’s jaw dropped open. “Of course, Your Highness. I admit, my throat is quite dry after all this delightful conversation. I don’t think I’ve ever tried fruit punch before.”

“Then I’m glad I have the pleasure of introducing it to you,” he replied, and led her to a quiet corner of the garden shaded by a thick stand of bamboo. “I’m sorry for all of this,” he murmured when he was sure nobody would overhear. “I know they can be rather… not nice.”

“I can handle them,” Katara told him with a shrug. “Is something else bothering you?”

“What?”

She frowned at him. “You’re scanning the crowd like you’re expecting something to happen. Am I keeping you from meeting someone special?” she teased, unsure why she wanted to catch him off-guard.

“What?” he cried, colouring. “No! I’m just…” He sighed. “It’s Azula. She’s late.”

“And that’s unusual for her?” Katara asked.

“She’s up to something,” he growled.

“Maybe you can find out if anyone else knows where she is,” she suggested.

Zuko’s eyes widened. “You believe me?”

She shrugged. “You do remember I met your sister, right? No offence.”

“None taken,” he replied, with a slowly spreading grin. “Wait, I almost forgot – drinks! Will you wait here for me?”

Katara hummed. “If I stay here all by myself it’ll look suspiciously like I’m not enjoying the company, but if I go out there,” she gestured vaguely, “then I’ll be roasted alive.”

“By the sun or by the company?” Zuko joked.

“Take a wild guess.” She shook her head. “I’ll mingle. I still have to find Bato, anyway. I haven’t seen much of him recently.”

Zuko bit his lip, the way he did whenever she brought up any reminder that she was still under house arrest, or that she and the rest of her entourage were watched, but he nodded and promised to come find her later with drinks.

Good, let him feel guilty, Katara thought as she ventured back into the sea of nobles. It means he won’t look so hard at what we’re doing.

She didn’t get far before she felt somebody slink up behind her. Instinctively, she took hold of the water in the nearby pond, but before she could do any more, a tall, pale young woman stepped out in front of her. Everything about her was made up of precise, straight angles, from the severe line of her fringe across her high forehead to the crease where her sleeves folded at the elbow, to the lazy slant of her kohl-rimmed eyes. She held herself with the kind of poise Katara knew from experience could drop into a fighting stance at the slightest provocation – something everyone else must have noticed, too, because the majority of the nobles who looked at her deflected their attention quickly away.

“You don’t have to pretend to like them, you know,” the strange woman said.

Katara gave her a quizzical smile. “I’m sorry?”

“Those Earth Kingdom ninnies,” came the drawled reply. “They probably wouldn’t notice if you were mean since they’re trained not to make a fuss. One of the only fun things to do around here is to see how far you can push them before they resort to having a tantrum.”

“We haven’t met before, have we?” Katara replied, hoping to at least get a name from her new acquaintance.

“Azula told me about you,” the stranger said. “The Water Tribe Princess. I thought you’d be taller.”

“My name’s Katara.” And yours is…?

“I know. Azula was impressed with you, you know, even if she’d refuse to admit it.” The thin face split into a smirk like a shark’s. “You should have heard her. It got so boring, listening to her go on and on about how rude you were to her.”

“I’m sorry I inconvenienced you,” Katara replied, not sure what else to say.

A shrug. “You should take that as a compliment, actually. Being ‘rude’ to Azula simply means not being scared stiff of her. Anyway, my parents would be horrified to find me not circulating. These parties are always so dull.” She turned with a dismissive wave of her hand. “If you ever need a friend, my name is Mai.”

Relieved to be out of dangerous waters, Katara offered a polite nod of her head and made her way over to where Bato was standing with his attendants. They all wore Fire Nation uniforms and stern expressions, telling her in no uncertain terms that every word she shared with her father’s ambassador would be reported to Ozai or his agents. In a way, she was grateful, because it meant he wouldn’t have the opportunity to chastise her for being reckless – because she could tell by the deep furrow of his brow that he knew exactly how she had been spending her evenings.

“Having fun?” she asked.

“I’m looking forward to the play they’re putting on for us, but it’s too hot,” he replied, smiling. “Not that there’s much to be done about that.”

“I’ve been told the rains will come soon.”

“Oh, and will they?”

She nodded. “Soon enough.”

“I see.” Bato sucked in his cheeks, glancing at their escort. “How are things with you, day-to-day?”

“I had a letter from Mimi yesterday,” she told him. “Something about –”

A fanfare interrupted her. The Fire Lord had arrived. Ozai appeared at the top of the steps to the private wing of the palace with Ursa’s hand placed delicately on top of his, fantastically arrayed in layered scarlet and burgundy that glittered with golden thread. On anyone less sure of their own power, such a display might seem ridiculous, but the thought did nothing to stop the cold shiver that ran down Katara’s spine. The last time she had seen the Fire Lord, he had been hidden behind a wall of flame.

He spotted them and came over. She was glad for the steadying hand Bato laid on her shoulder.

“Our most honoured guests,” Ozai said silkily. “We are so glad you could join in the festivities.”

“We are pleased to be here, your Majesty,” Katara replied, with a bow. “The entertainment promises to be enjoyable.”

“My son, no doubt, has told you about it,” replied the Fire Lord, with only the smallest hint of a sneer. “He would do better to spend his time bringing to justice the perpetrator of the recent destruction in the harbour.”

Bato’s grip tightened on Katara’s shoulder. “As I have told you before, Your Majesty,” he said, “the Southern Water Tribe will do all in its power to assist our allies with the capture of those responsible.”

“Can’t such serious talk be left until after the party is over?” Ursa interjected. “This celebration is supposed to be a happy occasion, after all.”

“My wife, the peacemaker,” Ozai chuckled. Katara noticed how his grip tightened on Ursa’s fingers. “Very well. We will take our seats and see what the Ember Island Players have for us this year.”

“Lady Katara, would you sit with me?” Ursa asked.

“Of course, Your Grace.”

As a group, the Water Tribe ambassadors and the royal entourage of the Fire Nation made their way to a small stone courtyard beyond the garden, where a small stage had been set up in front of rows of cushioned wooden benches. For a moment Katara paused, waiting to see whether Zuko would appear as he had promised. When her hesitation threatened to grow conspicuous, she sat down between Ursa and Bato, leaving enough space that she could shift up if she needed to.

On the stage, a man dressed in fiery orange tassels spread his arms.

“That’s Agni,” Ursa explained to Katara. “The god of fire. He narrates the story because his omniscience allows him to take events and show humanity the lessons embedded in them.”

“… a tale of how two threads of Destiny were ripped in twain…”

“I see neither of my children deigned to honour their father by showing up,” Ozai growled. “How disappointing.”

“Your Majesty, Zuko is here,” Katara protested. “Somewhere. He escorted me to the party.”

“… and, once known to each other, how they – what is the meaning of this?”

Ozai’s sneering retort faltered as he looked to the stage, where Azula stood with a blue fireball on each open palm, towering over the man dressed as Agni.

“I’m afraid tonight’s show has been postponed,” she trilled. “What a shame. I do so enjoy Love Amongst the Dragons. How fortunate that I’ve come prepared with an alternative form of entertainment.”

The audience watched, transfixed, as four royal guards armed with poleaxes marched onto the stage, dragging an unconscious figure between them.

“Noble guests, honoured Father, the time for fear is over,” she announced. “I have caught the saboteur. May I presents the Blue Spirit.”

Chapter Text

“I give you the Blue Spirit.”

Katara wasn’t aware of standing up, though she hoped she might be able to pass it off as mere surprise. The Blue Spirit. He looked to be in a bad way. He hung limp from the arms of the two foremost guards as they dragged him onto the stage, and he had clearly been beaten, though his shaggy mane of dark hair hid the worst of the damage to his face. He groaned as he was forced into a kneeling position, his wrists pinioned behind him with bonds tied cruelly tight, but he made no move to run or fight back, not even when the cold light of Azula’s flames cast a close, sickly sheen against his pale skin.

“Oh my…” Ursa whispered at Katara’s side. Her hand had gone to her mouth, though she did a better job of schooling her expression.

Ozai was on his feet, too. “What is going on here?” he demanded. “Azula, explain yourself.”

Azula bowed. “Honoured father, I present you with a gift on this fine day of celebration. I felt the search for the masked criminal known as the Blue Spirit was stumbling, so I took matters into my own hands.” Her face split into a feline smile. “Behold, the true face of the monster who’s been terrorizing our capital unchecked, stirring up sedition among those who should know to respect their betters.” In one fluid movement, she stepped behind the figure kneeling on the stage and shoved her hand into his hair, yanking his head back with a jerk that made him cry out. Katara’s eyes widened in shock.

“No…”

“What’s going on?” asked a husky voice behind her.

She startled and quickly smoothed her features. “Zuko!” She had forgotten all about him. “It’s…” She faltered, too distracted by the sudden, horrific turn in her day. The boy on the stage was the same one whose mother she had healed all those weeks ago – Haku. He had offered them shelter and a safe hiding spot from the city guard, and had been generous despite his few possessions. It was impossible that he could be kneeling in front of her now, a spectacle for all the gathered nobles and the preening princess, and yet, in the part of her mind that was still managing to function under the weight of her surprise, it made a ghastly sort of sense.

The Fire Lord was laughing.

“The Blue Spirit? That is a prize indeed.”

She noticed out of the corner of her eye Zuko’s head snapping to the sound of his father’s voice, and then to the stage, his fine features clouded over with something she guessed was disapproval.

“Father,” he tried, “I don’t think –”

“Be silent!” his father snapped. “Do not dishonour me by allowing the first words out of your mouth be anything other than an apology for your lack of punctuality.”

Zuko’s mouth clacked shut.

“Do I not recall entrusting you with the task of capturing our famous Blue Spirit?” Ozai asked.

“Yes, Father.”

“Hm. And yet your sister is the one standing before me with the prize.”

The Fire Lord swept out of his seat in a dry rustle of silk and strode through the ranks of nobility towards the stage, with Ursa dutifully following behind him. Zuko scrambled after his parents, his mouth a thin, downturned line, with Katara and Bato close on his heels. Katara’s mind whirled trying to think of some way to save Haku and get him safely away from the Fire Lord’s wrath. After everything the Blue Spirit had done, all the embarrassment he had caused the guard, it was unlikely anyone accused of his crime would get off lightly. Only once she climbed onto the stage, through the milling cluster of curious actors, did it occur to her that there was a risk the boy might recognise her, but it was too late to retreat.

Close up, he looked dazed as well as bruised, the skin on the left side of his face swollen and almost black, with a frame of crusted scarlet blood from a cut in his scalp. When he realised exactly who it was standing before him his eyes widened as far as his injuries would allow, and, forgetting where he was, he scrambled backwards until Azula’s grip tightened like a pincer on the back of his neck and made him whimper again. There were titters from the audience of nobles.

“Please!” he cried. “This is a mistake!” He stared up into Ozai’s expressionless face, eyes wild. “I’m loyal to the Fire Nation, and my family – so are they! My mother works in the munitions factory, ever since my father died in the southern campaigns, and my brother’s in the Earth Kingdom, fighting with the army near Omashu! I swear, I didn’t do anything wrong!”

“You could at least try to have a little originality,” Azula sneered at him. “That’s what all traitors say

“I’m not a traitor!”

“Are you then calling your princess a liar?” Ozai interjected in a tone that was almost a purr. His eyes danced as the prisoner before him flinched away and tried to bow his head to the floor. He forgot Azula was still holding his throat exposed.

“N-no, Your Majesty,” Haku stammered. “But there’s been a mistake – you must believe me!”

Ozai smiled, but to Katara, it was chilling, the gesture of a street puma toying with a half-dead sparrowkeet, letting it flutter away just to the edge of hope before pouncing again. “It seems you are asking me to accept your word over that of my own daughter,” he said.

“Y-your Majesty –”

 “Do you deny that which you have been accused of? That you are, in fact, the Blue Spirit and a traitor to your nation and your Fire Lord?

“No!”

“To which?”

The entire scene was abhorrent. Katara could feel Bato’s disgust through the iron grip he kept on her arm – wanting to make sure she wouldn’t do anything rash – and Zuko, standing next to her, radiated heat as if struggling to keep his firebending under control. But he made no move to intervene, and she couldn’t read either Ozai or Azula well enough to figure out how best to deflect their attention. Ursa stood to one side, her face impassive in the growing silence.

Haku, sensing he was in a trap, began to shake. “I – I’m not a traitor,” he insisted, more quietly this time. “I didn’t do anything. I swear you have the wrong person.”

The Fire Lord folded his hands into the ends of his sleeves, the eager light in his eyes replaced by a bored curl of his mouth.

“He does seem so very insistent, and a bit of a lackwit. I admit he’s not quite the man I expected behind the mask. Daughter, I assume you have reason for your suspicions?”

For the first time, Azula’s smirk faltered slightly. “I found witnesses who saw a figure matching the Blue Spirit’s description climb into the upper window of this traitor’s house. They said the Blue Spirit didn’t come out again, even though they watched for hours.”

Whatever was left of Haku’s courage fled. He twisted in Azula’s grip, trembling like a willow stalk as he looked everywhere for a line of escape and found none.

“A most interesting reaction,” Ozai commented, as if examining a curiously-shaped salad leaf. “Very well.” He motioned to the guards who had brought Haku onto the stage, but before they got a chance to hoist their arms under his shoulders, the boy propelled himself forward and fell grovelling at the Fire Lord’s feet.

“I – I can tell you what I know! Please, Your Majesty, my mother is sick. She’ll die if I’m not there to care for her. I’m not the Blue Spirit, but I… I can tell you about him. Him and the witch.”

Katara felt like she had been dropped into the winter sea. Her muscles locked. There was nowhere to run, and if she was exposed here, then there would be no escape. She might manage to get to Ozai, but under the scorching Fire Nation sun she was at a disadvantage, and once she and Bato were dealt with, the royal guard would descend on the house and likely raze it with her attendants still inside. Hama, Nila, Attuk – they would all be burned alive without even having a chance to fight back, and then there would be no hope for people, no chance the plan would succeed.

“What witch?” Azula snapped.

“I saw…” Haku shook himself. “There was a woman with the Blue Spirit when I saw him, one with unnatural powers. She healed a cut on his arm.”

“And her face?”

“It was dark. She wasn’t from the Fire Nation.”

“I see.” Ozai picked at a loose thread on his sleeve in an attitude of complete disdain. “So all you are able to tell me is that the Blue Spirit is indeed capable of bleeding. Pitiful.” He gestured to the guards once more. “Get this filth out of my sight.”

“No!” Haku flinched, but couldn’t escape the guards, who reached down to haul him to his feet. “I have to get back to my mother. She doesn’t know where I am – she’s sick – she needs me – please!”

His cries grew more and more frantic as the guards dragged him away, and he struggled, but the two men flanking him were larger, and well fed, and armoured, and they only tightened their grips on him as his panic turned to shrieks for mercy. Ozai remained unmoved. Zuko had turned his face away, hands in fists at his sides and face carefully empty as he let Haku’s pain wash over him. He did nothing. Nobody was doing anything.

“Wait!”

Katara’s bark held a tone of command, one that she had used on battlefield and in judgement, equal parts hauteur and the raw, uncompromising strength of a glacier, and it carried a compulsion that could not be ignored. The guards paused, Haku stopped struggling, Bato’s hand remained outstretched where he had tried to stop her planting herself in front of the Fire Lord, who now stared at her with an expression of blank astonishment.

“This boy is not the Blue Spirit,” she told him, fearless.

Ozai’s hands folded back into his sleeves as he shook off his surprise. She noticed the way his eyes glittered, and how Zuko, apparently caught between amazement and fear, tried to catch her eye to get her to back down, but the warnings meant nothing to her, not with the sting of Haku’s pleas in her ears.

It was Azula who found her tongue first. “What would you know? How dare you interfere with –”

“Peace, Azula,” the Fire Lord said calmly. “Let us hear our ally’s opinion on the matter. Tell me, my lady, what makes you so certain of your claim?”

Bato took an unconscious step forward, as did Zuko, but the frisson of energy connecting Katara to the Fire Lord allowed them no closer. She glared straight at him, hot blue into cold yellow, knowing he meant to trip her, to play with her like he had played with Haku, but she was a chief’s daughter and had spoken before the council of elders. She searched under the concealing layer of makeup for the scar that cut across his cheek, and when she found it, the last flutterings of nervousness died in her chest.

She raised her chin. “I cannot be certain, Your Majesty,” she said. “But the word of one absent witness should hardly be enough to sway the judgement of a wise ruler. Besides which, look at this boy.” She gestured towards Haku but didn’t dare turn to him, in case he recognised her. “My attendants have brought me the marketplace tales of your Blue Spirit, and while I am sure most of them must be exaggerated, there are many who say the Blue Spirit can fight a dozen men at once. The man who is able to do so would need to be fit and martially trained. This boy is neither. And there is another thing I have been wondering,” she added, turning to Azula. “Did you find the Blue Spirit’s attire at his house when you arrested him? I understand he wears a mask to hide his features.”

For an instant, silence reigned. Azula’s mouth twisted into a sour line and her eyes narrowed.

“You make an eloquent argument,” Ozai conceded, though the corner of his lips quirked in a way that sent goosebumps trailing along Katara’s arms. “Did you find any such evidence, Azula?”

“We haven’t searched the peasant’s house yet,” she bit out, still fixated on Katara’s neutral smile. “But I’m confident that when we do, we’ll find what we’re looking for.”

“Then I have heard all the evidence I need,” Ozai replied. “Traitors cannot be suffered. Take him to Keijo.”

“No!”

“That isn’t fair!”

“This display is no longer amusing to me, my lady,” Ozai snarled. “Curb your tongue.”

“Is this what passes for Fire Nation justice?” Katara demanded instead, stepping forward. “Your word against that of someone without the power to defend themselves, everything as you say because nobody dares to challenge you? It’s sick. How can you –”

The blow came faster than she could register it. Ozai backhanded her across the face with a ringing slap that sent her spinning to the lacquered boards of the stage. For an instant her senses whirled with the odour of varnish and the metal tang of blood in her mouth, her sight lost as her hair fell stinging into her eyes. She felt Bato kneel by her side, and felt the warmth of his calloused grip as he turned her over to see the damage. To everyone else, it was the action of a concerned guardian, but the pressure on her upper arm was restraint rather than encouragement. She laid her hand over his own to tell him she understood, to say she was alright, even if every nerve in her jangled body fired with the urge to have the entire court watch on as she tore the Fire Lord to shreds with her bending. Would the Earth Kingdom traitors and Fire Nation sycophants titter then?

The whine in her ears narrowed into focus. Ozai spoke in a voice like needles.

“Have I not been generous to you? Have I not given you wealth, a home, your own attendants?” he spat. “Without me, you would still be crawling across that frozen wasteland at the end of the world, a filthy barbarian scraping out seal hides to keep warm. And consternation is the thanks I get for raising you into the realms of civilised society? You should be thanking me, you little Water Tribe bitch.”

Bato squeezed her arm again, this time to keep himself from reacting to the insult. He shifted behind her, giving her a clear path should she wish to take it, and a body at her back to protect it as she took her vengeance. She knew he had already marked where their most dangerous opponents were standing. Strangely enough, his fury was enough to quiet her, to drain her anger away like rain off a mountainface and bring her back to herself. Graceful as the arc of tea from pot into cup, she raised herself onto her knees, and with the fate of the entire Southern Water Tribe in her reply, she bent her head towards Ozai in a gesture of contrition.

“Your Majesty shows great generosity to my people,” she murmured. “A generosity we do not deserve. Forgive my outburst. I will strive in the future to make my actions better match the courtesy you have bestowed upon me.”

She kept her head bent, waiting. Ozai took in the blood on her flushed face, the way her shoulders slumped and her hands lay limp on her knees. He didn’t know water, or the way of deep, swirling currents, and so took the calm he saw as defeat rather than the stillness of a blizzard on the horizon. When he spoke, his voice had lost the rasp of swarming insects and now dripped like honey.

“What is there to forgive, my dear?” he asked. “We cannot expect you to be civilised all at once. Come, enough of this. Let us be free of this distraction and return to enjoy what remains of the evening.”

He turned and left the stage, letting the actors in the wings scurry out of his way like wheat stalks before the wind. It was the signal for the rest of his entourage to follow, but most were still too stunned to move. Rarely did Ozai display his anger with such crude physical violence, and to those who knew him, it showed an unusual loss of control. Something in Katara had unsettled him. Ursa made the first move. She stepped after her husband, but hesitated and turned back to help the younger woman to her feet.

“I don’t know what your people use for bruises, but most of the plants won’t grow here. A liniment of gardenia and sweetgum should help,” she whispered, so only Katara could hear. “I’ll send a maid with my recipe for Dit Da Jao later, if you like.”

“Thank you,” Katara replied. She wobbled as she stood up, and not entirely for show.

“Mother, you should go along with Father,” Azula said from the other end of the stage, before turning to supervise the guards leading Haku away. The boy turned back just before he disappeared out of sight, though he was too far away for Katara to tell what he saw when he looked at her.

Only when the princess had gone did the stage master emerge. He bowed to Ursa, who followed after Ozai as outwardly serene as ever, and then came up to Katara and Bato, wringing a silk handkerchief between his hands.

“I’m sorry, my lady,” he said, subtly passing it to her, “but I must ask you to leave. The play, you know…”

“Thank you, master,” Bato replied. “We wouldn’t want to add to your trouble.”

“And you also, Prince Zuko,” the stage master said. “Your honoured father is waiting for our story to begin.”

“Huh? Oh, of course.” Zuko turned away from the shadow where his sister had disappeared, shaken from private thoughts. He hovered as Bato helped Katara into the recess beyond the wings, noting the ashen colour beneath her brown skin.

“Are you alright?”

“I’m fine,” she told him, without looking at him.

His brows drew together. “You shouldn’t have done that.”

“And what was I supposed to do,” she snapped, “stand by and do nothing, like you?” Her eyes darted to where he bit his bottom lip, obviously fighting back a retort.

He sighed. “Nothing you said would have helped. My father has wanted the Blue Spirit too badly for too long.”

“Of course nothing you do will help if you don’t try to do anything in the first place. How many times have you stood by and watched while innocent people are punished like that?”

Zuko’s eyes blazed. “You don’t know anything about me,” he growled. “You don’t understand how it is here. All you do is sit in your garden, drinking tea and – and reading poetry. This isn’t one of your sagas, where everyone ends up happy.”

“No, I’m sure it’s one of your renga, where all happiness is fleeting and any action is pointless because despair is the ultimate state of the universe!” she shot back. “It doesn’t matter to me. I will never turn my back on people who need my help.”

Whatever retort Zuko had prepared, it died on his tongue.

“What happens when your father realises that boy isn’t the Blue Spirit?” she asked, still with a bite in her voice.

“It doesn’t matter.” His voice dropped as he shrugged. “Either way, my father wins. If the boy is the Blue Spirit, he’ll be rid of a traitor. And even if he’s not… he still helped him, which makes him a traitor by association, and he’ll serve as a suitable example to maintain order. He’ll just be pardoned… after.”

“You mean after he’s been executed,” Bato said. He had remained silent during the argument, watching the Crown Prince with wary curiosity.

Zuko nodded and sighed. “Yes. This… wasn’t supposed to happen.” He seemed to be talking more to himself, but the weariness in his voice was enough to sooth Katara’s temper.

“They said you were the one meant to catch him,” she said.

To her surprise, he chuckled and rubbed at the back of his neck. “I am. And any of his accomplices, I suppose.” His voice trailed off and he looked thoughtful, distracted enough to miss the sudden tension in her shoulders.

“What’s Keijo?”

“It’s a prison built into the old lava tubes of the Caldera. It houses anyone who needs to be watched closely, or who presents a danger to the state.” He shrugged. “The real problem is my sister.”

“What do you mean?”

“She’s up to something,” Zuko explained. “I believe you when you say that kid isn’t the Blue Spirit, but when it comes out, my father won’t be happy, and she has to know that.”

Katara frowned, digesting the significance of this information, and the little flicker of gratification she felt when Zuko said he believed her. Either way, he was right. There was nothing more she could do to help Haku – at least not until after dark.

“The play’s starting,” she said. “We’ll be missed.”

Chapter Text

With every daub of paint, Katara watched her features disappear. The two pointer digits of her right hand were layered in the pigments of the warrior’s mask passed down to her by tradition, and which she now applied to herself, as tradition demanded. Black for the Sea-wolf’s back, for the merciless nature of the hunter; swirls of white for the eye spots and the underbelly stripe that hid the predator from prey below; grey zigzags for the striped shadows of the water, lines that turned her from mere warrior into an avenging spirit meant to feel neither pain nor anguish. She had learned the lines and patterns well. It was her duty to know them, to feel the battle mask beneath her own face like a second skin, ever since the mantle of the Sea-wolf had been passed to her over a year before.

She had thought herself unworthy of the honour – there were others with more experience and greater skill in battle who could better protect the people – but as she knelt in respect by old Martok’s bedside, the smoke of the traditional whale-fat lamps burning her eyes, he had reached out a gnarled claw to her and gasped his choice, his one remaining eye bright in the darkness of the hut, then brought her close and hissed that soon the people would need the care of a different kind of strength. When the grizzled general died, his words were minded and she learned to apply the warpaint and sing the songs, though all agreed that until she reached her majority, she could not be put in harm’s way. Her teachers trained her harder, the elders bombarded her with lessons, and together they honed her into a finely crafted weapon ready for the day she would become the last line of defence for her people.

She hadn’t thought the day would come so soon.

A fireball exploded nearby. The whole room trembled, the dim light flaring brilliant orange before retreating into the eerie purple shadow made as the red sky filtered through the ice palace’s domed roof. Closer than the last one – she had to hurry. Gritting her teeth, Katara dipped her pinkie finger into the pot of grey paint for the last time, and drew it out to mark her forehead with the crescent moon that would lend her Tui’s strength. The same mark had been painted on the foreheads of the Third Fleet when they set sail two weeks earlier, with Sokka standing brave at the tiller of the flagship.

Another fireball exploded against the palace’s outer walls.

The last item Katara needed to complete her attire was the circlet of Sea-wolf teeth meant to sit over the braids worked into her hair to keep it threaded back from her face. The heirloom clinked as she brushed it with her unpainted fingers, hesitating. Its delicate appearance belied its weight, with so much depending on her. So much could go wrong. If they lost this fight, then the whole Southern Water Tribe, with its centuries of tradition, would fade into nothingness like a snowflake alighting on the sea. If she, the Sea-wolf, failed, then there would be no more Sea-wolves to come after.

Shouts came from the hall outside her room, and she recognised the voice as belonging to her father. Her people needed her – who was she to worry about what-ifs when inaction was the only true road to failure? Her hands steady now, she pinned the circlet into her hair and rose from her vanity, feeling her spine straighten as her warpaint dried and the ancient Sea-wolf’s teeth settled into place. Outside, her phalanx of master waterbenders waited for her instruction. Many of them were scarred from previous battles, and all were older than her, but every one fell into line at her heel as she made her way to the palace steps, where her father waited with his honour guard, grim-faced and armed to the teeth.

“I told your mother to wait with the elders,” he said. When he looked at her, his eyes held no affection, only the respect of one warrior for another.

She would not disappoint his faith in her. “General Hama is waiting for us,” she replied.

The next hours passed in flashes. They fought in blue streets under a bloody sky with fireballs raining down around them. Katara sent up pillars of ice to spear the airships as they descended low enough to make their bombs accurate, and when she found out the gas inside was flammable, she made sure the next puncture struck sparks. Other waterbenders followed her cue, and the airships retreated to find safer targets.

More difficult to hold back were the ground troops the Fire Nation had landed outside the city. They came on sweeping everything before them in fire, not caring if they torched cloth or food stores or living flesh. Some even laughed as they burned away the Southern blockades, thinking that the blue-clad figures running from the flames did so out of fear.

They didn’t know that in the South Pole, the people learned quickly that fighting a blizzard is futile, and that for a waterbender, the first lesson was to use an opponent’s strength against them.

Katara waited for the komodo-riders to slither closer. Heavily armoured infantry followed behind them. A barrier loomed in front of them, a huge wall of opaque ice with the palace a tantalising target just visible over the edge, spurring them on. Already bolstered by their earlier successes, the riders halted their mounts and turned their heads out of the way so they could blast their way through, so eager for their prize they failed to notice the wall was hollow, packed with mines of explosive powder, jars of stockpiled seal fat, and bone-dry moss that would only spread the flames further. It had been Sokka’s idea.

The Fire Nation commander raised his hand to give the order. Above, Katara gestured patience at those who gathered behind her. There was a brief whoosh of heat and fire that danced in her eyes before the first of the mines caught and exploded outwards in a dazing flash of light and noise. Men ran away, their arms waving madly as fire consumed them, while others lay still, bent at unnatural angles among the detritus of the Water Tribe bombs. Katara hadn’t realised how loud the screaming would be.

She gave a silent order, and fog workers shrouded the remaining Fire Nation troops in dense, chilling mist. Several flashes lit the interior of the cloud, but when the commanders realised it couldn’t be safely dispersed with fire, they barked at their soldiers to stand down and ordered a retreat, which was exactly what Katara had been hoping for. She stood on the edge of the building she was using as a vantage point, a figure in black with flying wild hair briefly outlined against the Comet’s tail. The ice dagger in her hand glinted once, then she dropped over the edge, leading the way to the killing field as the Sea-wolf must. She heard the splatter of blood in her wake as she opened the commander’s throat, and with her grim satisfaction came the dull crunch of the snow as he collapsed, dead before he even realised what had happened to him. The other officers fell too, cut down by the rest of Katara’s waterbenders, like the hard kernel of a nut, cracked to reach the softer seed within.

With nobody to give them orders, the already spooked Fire Nation soldiers made easy prey. They didn’t even know they were being goaded. The waterbenders darted among them as shadows through the fog, sometimes darting in with a dagger, other times laughing or leering, before just as quickly pushing off the ground with a pillar of water, back to the relative safety of the rooftops where they couldn’t be seen.

Waterbenders know strength cannot always be met with strength. They could never have matched the Fire Nation, so they didn’t try. Every pass left the infantry more confused, more out of step, and as their confusion grew so did their panic, until at last one could take no more and let loose a gush of flame after a grinning battle mask, and sent up half a dozen of his comrades who stood unseen in the dense fog just a few yards away. It was like setting off another line of bombs, even more effective than the first, and Katara only paused long enough to see the last put out of their misery before she led her phalanx on.

We might win this, she thought as she prowled through her city. There may not be need for Hama’s plan after all. Everywhere she looked, the Fire Nation was being held at bay. Catapults on the city’s inner walls launched fragile mortars filled with pitch and fat so that the firebenders’ abilities became their own undoing; sections of the streets were sunk into the ice and flooded so fast the enemy couldn’t remove their weighty armour and sank, their spark surrendered to the ocean. It was a grisly business, but Katara couldn’t help the savage pride that flared in her chest. Who else had the courage and ingenuity to stand against the Fire Lord? There was a reason the Southern Water Tribe had stood defiant for a hundred years; all those left in the city to fight showed it was defiant still.

A shadow fell across the falling sun. a new fleet of airships, bigger than the last, coming in a broad arrowhead from the sea. The airship leading at the centre was larger than the rest, its prow scrolled with gilt phoenixes wreathed in flame. The Fire Lord. As Katara watched, firebenders walked out onto platforms at the base of the airships, and a wall of flame descended, obliterating everything in its path in a haze of steam. Hatred like Katara had never known surged within her – Ozai was burning his own men along with his enemy!

Bring them down!” someone shouted, and those not already fighting the enemy in the streets turned their attention upwards.

An airship came down. Another, hit by an explosive catapult shell, was engulfed with the one next to it. Still the Fire Lord came on, burning as he went.

No. This was not how it ended. Hundreds of years of history, a century of defiance, and for what? To be wiped away from the face of the earth like a footprint in a blizzard? Katara felt for ice and water and blood and they came to her, twining around her arms like serpents as she and the other waterbenders sent desperate projectiles of ice hurling into the air. She ordered the others back into the palace, their last stronghold now, loosing a snarl as she dove for the nearest canal.

She felt the currents swirling around her. the salt of the ocean stung her eyes, and shadows of creatures quite not quite of the mortal world danced at the edge of her vision as breath swelled in her lungs. The Fire Lord’s force was a distant hiss of orange light creeping closer.

Her water whip was already forming as she broke from beneath the ice in a funnel, rising too fast for the Fire Lord to follow. He spotted her, but moved too slow. She would get one shot before she had to retreat. Her water whip lashed out, a blade of sheer ice at its tip glinting as it whistled through the air. Her aim was true. She saw the maniacal grin falter with incomprehension, and only reflex saved him as the blade meant to pierce between his eyes missed its target and instead pared his cheek open to the bone.

Whatever passing triumph Katara allowed herself vanished as the Fire Lord’s blast of flame sliced through the funnel holding her in the sky and sent her tumbling to the ice below. She called it to her and slipped under the water again, using it to twist away from the bursts of fire now madly bludgeoning against the water in attempt to avenge Ozai’s ruptured pride. She smiled to herself as she swam easily out of reach, pausing to admire her handiwork only when she surfaced at last outside the palace steps. There was no plan in the Fire Lord’s forces now. Almost half of the ground troops had scattered to escape the wrath of their own leader, and of the airships remaining, many were limping with broken propellers and most had lost their formation.

A second look, however, told Katara the price of such disorder. The capital of the Southern Water Tribe burned. Tongues of gold and orange licked at the buildings despite their protective coating of ice. Where the main market square had sat just that morning there was a bilious mass of black smoke pluming with a stench of fish guts and burned tar, and nearby the flames took on a cerulean hue as the salting warehouses caught. And still the Fire Nation advanced, crippled, but nowhere near destroyed.

Katara hurried to regroup with the others at the barricades.

--

The walls weren’t holding. The Comet’s power was slowly fading, its red bleeding from the night sky to leave behind almost absolute darkness. Even so, its influence was still strong enough that no matter how many layers of ice Katara and her for remaining acolytes threw up, the glacial blue gave way to lilac, then red, then at last to filmy orange, as if she were watching a sunrise rather than the end of the world. So much destruction – the images were seared into her brain. There was no stopping them, they couldn’t be stopped, all that could be hoped for now was one glorious final stand so that someone might remember the bravery of her people.

A hand fell on her shoulder. She turned, puzzled, and floundered for a moment as she looked into a mirror image – another Sea-wolf – and when the apparition spoke with her mother’s voice, her confusion only mounted.

“We have a minute,” Kya said. “Then they will break through. Take Hama and go to the elders. I’ll hold them off here.”

“Mom, what are you –?” Katara shook her head, trying to clear away the fatigue of the battle and understand what was going on. “Why are you dressed like that? It’ll anger the spirits.”

Kya smiled, and the effect was gruesome under the battle mask as she reached out to stroke her daughter’s hair. “The spirits understand; they know what must be done. The Fire Lord wants the Sea-wolf now, more than anyone, and he will not stop or offer any kind of mercy until that hunger is satisfied. I saw you, Katara, we all did. You looked that madman in the eye without flinching, shining like the first glimmer of spring, and then you showed the whole world that he can bleed. You are our people’s hope, and I am so proud of you.”

Still confused, Katara could only stand numb as her mother reached up to kiss the crown of her head, startled when she pulled back and found the band of Sea-wolf teeth circling Kya’s forehead. The blue shell necklace, which Gran-Gran had given to Hakoda to present as a betrothal gift, was folded in her palm.

“Mom…”

On the other side of the barrier, the Fire Nation was breaking through.

“Go find your dad, Sweetie. I’ll handle this.”

“Mom, no…” Realisation caught up with Katara, but her limbs were slow to react as her mother turned away, like she was moving in waterlogged furs, and all too soon Kya was enfolded in the ranks of waterbenders and became just another silhouette against the growing yellow glare.

“No – no! I won’t let you do this!” She hardly felt Hama’s vice-like grip on her shoulder, or the old general’s entreaty to come away. “No!

Hands grabbed at her, pulled her back as she struggled, as the waterbenders and the royal guard rushed out into the square to face down their impossible odds. Later, she wondered why she didn’t just waterbend them away as they hauled her back, but in the moment her brain was fogged, her eyes blurred with tears, her throat raw from shouting and smoke. She heard the Sea-wolf’s cry ring through a moment of silence, and then it was cut off by a roar of orange light.

NO!

She found herself pulled against a broad chest, and calloused palms cradling her head, wrapping her in a scent that all her life had meant strength and safety.

“This has to work, little seal,” Hakoda rasped now, breath shallow. “Don’t make… don’t make it mean nothing.”

Her broken father broke her. She fell weightless into the arms of her attendants, who led her away and wiped the battle mask from her face, unpinned her braids, and bade her kneel with the elders in the throne room, as if she had never had any part of the fighting. There, they waited.

When the final sounds of fighting died away, a herald sauntered in with a banner of undyed silk to ask the surrender of the Southern Water Tribe. Hakoda, sat on his throne of furs and black ice, nodded silently, and moments later the doors parted to reveal the Fire Lord himself, resplendent in robes woven with golden thread, a fireball twisting in his upturned palm. His face held a casual sneer, but his eyes darted around the room and his shoulders bunched beneath his silks, as if not entirely convinced of his victory. He was right to fear. Rage thrummed through Katara’s being like blazing silver wire, holding her rigid in place as she fought the urge to freeze the Fire Lord’s blood in his veins, to shatter him and reveal the hollow centre of his heart. If the moon had been full, she might have been reckless enough to dare the consequences, but she caught her father’s eyes across the room and bowed her head instead, feeling the thin edge of her mother’s necklace cut into her palm.

Be like the ocean, a voice echoed in her ear. The Sea-wolf, hunting rage incarnate. Take its patience, and its depth, and drift. And when the time comes, take its cold, and its indifference, and weave the currents to your design. Choke the life from the monster, and leave his bones to bleach on the sand.

Yes, Katara answered, staring at the slow trickle of blood down the left side of his face. When the time comes, I will be ready.

Chapter Text

The caves on the side of that stupid mountain behind our house.

Caves. Lava tubes.

The prison where the Fire Nation kept prisoners of personal interest to the Fire Lord jutted out from the sheer side of the Caldera ahead, a black, jagged shape against the dark mass of the sky. Mimi’s letter, only that morning incomprehensible, now made perfect sense, and the request buried within its whimsy was one Katara could not ignore.

Someone told her that if she looked hard enough she’d find the hidden people and they’d tell her where to find the best treasure.

Had their spies found information about the missing waterbenders before their capture? It hardly mattered. The Fire Nation’s attitude towards its own citizens was brutal, and she didn’t dare imagine what hardships they would think up for those actively working against them. There was a reason Water Tribe warriors chose suicide over imprisonment.

Katara shrugged away her misgivings and focussed on placing her feet on the narrow beam beneath her. The steep roofs of the palatial quarter of the city would offer her no quarter if she slipped, and tonight of all nights, she couldn’t afford to risk injury. The polished mask Attuk had bought on her orders on her trip to the market was tied over her face, restricting her vision and making her breath echo as she ran, but though it sat uncomfortably over her bruised jaw, it was a much surer disguise that just using a fukumen to cover the lower half of her face. This way, nobody could see her dark skin or pale eyes, and in the darkness the ivory sheen of the mask seemed to bob along unsupported, an unnerving sight in a city abounding with so many rumours about spirits.

The wind picked up, tugging at her clothes. She could smell the coming storm in the breeze, but also felt the frisson of tension in the moisture-laden air, like the pull of elastic in the second before it snaps. Across on the far side of the sky, the almost full moon illuminated the billowing edge of the cloudbank, and within its mass she caught the occasional flash of lightning, though the thunder was too far away to hear. The streets had buzzed with anticipation on her way home from the palace as people set out anything that would contain liquid in order to bring luck with the first fall of rain, but that was nothing to the way Katara’s senses stretched out, willing the tempest closer. After Haku was led away, she had been forced to sit next to the man – monster – who had struck her, pretending to enjoy the play while she tried to staunch her bleeding lip. Ozai had seemed content with her submission, but it only allowed her the peace of mind to plan her revenge, the blow she would strike for herself, her people, and those in the Fire Nation who had been wronged by their ruler.

She stopped on the gable of the last roof and crouched down, lest her silhouette be spotted against the moonlight as she worked out the best way to scale the sides of Keijo. The rock was blood-black, smooth and exposed, and the only clear road cut through it was guarded on every switchback by sentries with searchlights, lanterns set in front of huge, curved mirrors to reflect the flames. The governor’s office sat right at the top on a promontory overlooking the road, so that the man himself, if the time came, would be the first to know of a royal visit – or a force intending to free those imprisoned within. She was reassured by this, because it meant the plans she had stolen from the guardhouse down in the city were accurate, which in turn meant that the cooling vents she planned to use to get in should be right where she expected them to be.

So far so good.

She moved off, determined not to become complacent. The narrow trail she picked along the ridgeline was thickly covered in plants and low-hanging trees, and though she managed to slip though without incident, all her awareness was required not to disturb the undergrowth and call down the attention of the guards. And the storm was getting closer. Thunder cracked distantly overhead. From below, she heard the shouts of the guards as they prepared to close their defences against the weather, but by that point she found the entrance to the vent she was seeking, and slipped inside as quietly as a gust of wind.

It was hot inside the tunnel. The slumbering heart of the Caldera still pooled magma deep below, channelled away from the city by a great feat of bending done by some long distant avatar nobody could remember, and the now empty lava tubes that used to run with molten rock served only to keep the prison bearable. She passed through three slowly revolving fans bolted unceremoniously into the natural rock, but the Fire Nation, meticulous about everything, had numbered them by floor, so as she jogged onwards into the heavy press of the mountain, she found she could follow them like breadcrumbs.

Soon enough the natural tunnel gave way to chiselled blocks. The ceiling lowered, and dim light could be seen shining up through the slatted grates in the floor. At one, Katara paused to listen for the stamp of feet, and when everything remained silent, she lifted the grate and leapt down into the corridor, poised for attack in case her senses had misled her. The angle of moonlight told her she was close to the right place. So far away from prisoners, she doubted there would be many guards nearby, so late at night, but all the same her ears strained for movement as she padded in the direction of the governor’s office, where all the prison records were kept.

When she reached it, the lock mechanism yielded to a swift blast of ice, and the door swung open on oiled hinges to reveal a tastefully appointed office with sliding screens and filing bureaus arranged in the orderly fashion that was Fire Nation’s greatest strength as well as its greatest weakness. She searched in the gloom for the logbook, which kept a record of all the prisoners brought to Keijo and the cells they were assigned, and for a moment she worried she would have to start rifling through cupboards until she spied it nested under a loose stack of papers on the governor’s desk, still open at the last entry.

She read Haku’s name, then traced her finger along to see where he had been taken. The logbook was laid out simply, with entries for visitors, prisoners, and other activity organised by date, but the governor’s handwriting was sloppy, and the Fire Nation script still gave her trouble, especially in the dark. Summoning a glow of water to her hand – so easy in the humid air – she flicked back through the pages to a date just following the last missed report from the Southern spies. If they were here, she was determined to find them.

A noise startled her – an absence of noise. She looked up, hand already on the weighted sash at her waist, only to find the Blue Spirit watching her, mute as ever. His posture gave no hint of surprise, but it was impossible to know how long he had been standing at the door. In the moment it took to calm her heartbeat, she decided his appearance shouldn’t be all that surprising either. While they were preparing dinner, Linara and Nila had mentioned the proclamation sent through the marketplace, announcing the capture of the Blue Spirit and his impending execution. With everything she had heard and seen, it should have been obvious the real one would decide to come to the rescue of one wrongly accused in his place.

She nodded to the door. He closed it behind him and stood attentive, listening for any wayward guards while she finished her search for Water Tribe prisoners. It was somewhat dishonest, using him as a shield while she ran her own mission, but if they managed to help Haku escape tonight, the guards would close ranks, security would be tightened, and her spies would likely end their days screaming for mercy in some torture chamber where nobody could hear.

Besides, she thought as she found the names and carefully replaced the logbook, someone like the Blue Spirit with such an infamous grudge against the city guard could have no love for the Fire Nation.

They made quick progress through Keijo’s deserted corridors, Katara leading the way, certain that every corner they turned would bring them face to face with guards who would blow their cover and bring the entire mission crashing down, but they met nobody. She decided to find Haku first, and then the spies, partly so that they could still move unseen as part of a small group, and partly because she didn’t know what state her people would be in after weeks of incarceration.

After what seemed like hours, they found Haku’s cell. Once again the Blue Spirit stood watch while Katara pulled back the bolt and stepped inside. Haku was curled against the far wall behind an extra set of iron bars, the straw laid over the floor at his feet stinking and dirty. He was chained to the wall with a heavy iron manacle – designed to keep firebenders from breaking loose. He jerked backwards when he caught sight of the painted mask hovering in the shadows in front of him, but his injuries were pressed into the wall with the movement, and he groaned. She waited for him to calm down, noting how the front of his threadbare tunic was spotted with blood.

“It’s – It’s you, isn’t it?” he stuttered eventually. “You came for me…” He struggled to his feet, wobbling as he shook his head. “You shouldn’t be here. They’ll catch you, and if they catch me with you, we’ll all be doomed.”

Katara shook her head and stepped towards him, reaching for his chains.

“No, you shouldn’t –” Haku sighed. “I sold you out, you know. Or I tried to, to help my mother, but they said the message they would send with me was more useful than my information.” He sniffed. “Why are you doing this?”

Katara, busy freezing the lock on the manacles, didn’t answer. There wasn’t enough time to heal all but his gravest injuries here and she hoped he would have strength enough to walk – she could feel the bruised lines of qi running up his legs, and she spared a curse for the guards who had beaten him so hard.

“I’m sorry for what I did,” Haku said. “For getting caught. There was this girl, I think she was one of your people, and she stood up for me. And the Fire Lord, he…”

The manacles were off. Katara slid one of her gloved hands around his wrist and gave a gentle tug to get him to move. He nearly cried out when he stepped out of the door and into the wicked grin of the Blue Spirit mask, but the Blue Spirit put a finger to his lips and began to lead the way out.

A little way on, Katara stopped at a junction, Haku’s arm swung over her shoulder. He called for the Blue Spirit to stop. The mask paused, turning that frightening visage upon them, tilting his head in confusion. Katara nodded in the direction of the side tunnel and took a step towards it. This way.

The Blue Spirit paused, looked down towards the exit and back to her, then shook his head. He pointed with one of the liangdao he had drawn in case of trouble. No, that way.

She shrugged Haku off her shoulders and helped him over to the wall, then set off down into the dark with only a cursory nod to her partner in crime. Now that the boy was safe, there was no need for them both to risk their lives. The Blue Spirit could get Haku away, and she could finish the mission she had come here to complete. As she turned a corner, however, her heart lifted; two sets of quiet footsteps came following behind her.

She heard the spies before she found the cell they were being kept in.

“There’s someone coming!” a man hissed in the Southern dialect of the Water Tribes.

She quickened her pace as another voice joined the first out of the gloom.

“Can’t they be decent enough even to let us sleep?”

“Kianak, wake up,” snapped the first voice.

“Huh, Toma? Wassat?”

“Someone’s coming. It’s… what the…”

Katara caught a flash of blue eyes before she sent ice darting across the metal door. The hinges shattered, as did the lock, and without the pins holding it in place, the thick metal sheet peeled away from the wall and clanged loudly against the stone floor, no matter that she tried to cushion the noise with another subtle show of waterbending. The three spies stared at the frost patterns on the door, and at her framed in the dim light from the doorway.

“This is either really good, or really bad,” said the middle of the three. He gasped when she lifted her arm above her head and summoned a glove of glowing water to her hand.

“Is it you?” their leader asked.

The Blue Spirit padded up behind her, with Haku leaning on him. Before he could get too close, she brought a finger to her lips then lowered the high neck of her clothes to reveal her mother’s necklace, before hurriedly stuffing it out of sight again. As one, the three spies nodded and filed out of the cell. All carried injuries, but the noise made by the door might already be bringing guards, and they couldn’t afford to linger. The Blue Spirit looked unhappy at the cause of their diversion, and kept glancing nervously over his shoulder for signs of pursuit, but as on the way in, the halls were eerily quiet.

Their luck ran out in the final sprint to the main door. A troop of fully armed guards, far too many to fight at once, were camped across the width of the hallway, bows nocked with flaming arrows, with a man in the centre decked in filigreed, blood red armour. The governor.

“What do we do?” Toma, the lead spy, muttered to Katara as they ducked behind a colonnade.

She frowned behind her mask. Across the other side of the corridor, Kianak had taken charge of Haku to give the Blue Spirit the freedom to fight, but not even he could stand against so many archers at once. And the others had no weapons.

“We won’t get through that lot,” she whispered back. “And I can’t remember if there’s another way out.”

Just then, the Blue Spirit sheathed his swords and dived across the corridor. Three flaming arrows struck the ground a hair’s breadth after he rolled, and skittered away into the dark. His hand landed on her arm and he jerked his head down the corridor, pointing with his finger for emphasis.

“You know another way out?” Toma guessed.

The Blue Spirit nodded.

“Well then,” he said, looking at Katara, “All we need now is a distraction.”

She glanced upward, following the constant pull of water to the plumbing pipes running above their heads, and smirked. She stood, concentrated for a second, then raised her arms. It was difficult to control water at such a distance to her body, even with the waxing moon aiding her bending, but she picked up the flow, following it to where the governor sat in the middle of his blockade. With a twitch of her fingers, a bubble of steam expanded in the pipe, sucking in the water around it until it burst out with a hiss and a screech of metal.

Arrows fired at all angles as the archers were doused in boiling water. The steam gushing from the pipe created a screen, blocking off the view of the corridor.

“Run!” Toma shouted.

The Blue Spirit led the way and Katara brought up the rear in case the archers managed to regroup. But sounds of pursuit were getting further away, the governor’s shouts becoming fainter as they ducked down through the levels into a maze of tunnels used for storage and equipment repair. The Blue Spirit led them to a door stiff with rust and dragged it open on complaining hinges, just wide enough for them to slip out one at a time.

They had walked into a trap.

The door emerged into a circle of torchlight, illuminating a ring of royal guards with fire held in ready fists, and at their centre, Azula, sheltered under an awning, dressed in armour at once magnificent and practical, meant to half-scare her enemies to death before she pounced. Katara had never seen a more gleeful look on her pointed face.

They were surrounded. The moon had gone dark.

“Well, well,” the Fire Princess crowed. “I expected the Blue Spirit, but not an accomplice. It seems I chose the right bait, after all – Father will be pleased.”

Next to Katara, the Blue Spirit stiffened.

“Did you really think we would leave this exit unguarded after your last little prison break with Jeong Jeong?” Azula waved an airy hand. “Arrest them all. I don’t mind if you kill the peasants or the brat, but make sure the Blue Spirit and the Painted Lady are taken alive.”

As one, the royal guard advanced. Katara counted at least two dozen, making the odds more than four to one, since Haku couldn’t fight. Kianak had already moved the boy behind him as he and his fellow spies prepared to fight. She felt a surge of pride for them as she stepped into a guard stance. If she was going to end like this, she would end like the rest of her people, fighting, taking as many of the hated enemy with her as possible.

She steadied herself, breathing in deep, then out again as she marked her enemy’s position and brought her arms up in the motion that would bring ice to her fingertips. The royal guard were better trained, and steadier than the ordinary soldiers billeted in the city, and would not be so easily alarmed by superstition. The Blue Spirit knew it too. His liangdao slid noiselessly from their sheath, and he shared a brief glance with her in their last free moments, as much of a warrior’s salute as he could manage with death closing in all around them.

But she could feel the rain. It poised above their heads, the weight of it almost dizzying after so long under the hot, dry sun. A roll of thunder made the air quake. Katara held up her hand to Toma and gestured the sign for retreat known to all Southern warriors, then gleefully watched confusion grow on the guards’ faces as she stepped forward, arms raised to the sky.

“What is she –”

The heavens opened.

In less than a second the torches were doused, the scene plunged into darkness.

“A spirit!”

“Witch!”

Idiots!” Azula shrieked. “Don’t just let her –”

But Katara was already among them, a whip of coiling shadow demanding their focus so that Toma and the others could escape. Before any of them moved, she seized one man in the grip of her sash and swung him into the path of another with such force she felt his arm snap. At her side, the Blue Spirit danced into their ranks, his blades gleaming as he dodged through three opponents at once. Fireballs leapt at them; the storm battered down and put them out so the fight happened in flashes of light. Katara never stood still long enough for them to target her – only lashed out, incapacitating where she could before she dived away.

Too late she realised her mistake. The royal guard had fallen before them deliberately, parted to close them off in the centre of a deadly circle. She gritted her teeth. She could have drowned them all – would have already, if that didn’t mean outing herself as a waterbender.

“Nowhere to run,” sneered the soldier closest to them as he closed in.

The Blue Spirit’s back bumped against hers, his warmth lost to the rain soaking into his clothes. It gave her an idea.

She straightened, raising her arms like a puppeteer towards the man who had spoken. She might not be able to pull his blood without the help of the full moon, but water had soaked into every fibre of his clothes, a map for her to play with like a marionette. She flexed her fingers, enjoying the spark of fear that showed when her opponent found he could no longer move.

“What is this?” he spluttered. “Hey – h-help me!”

She twisted him, made him turn, concentrated her qi and jerked him towards his comrades, who backed away from the wild, uncoordinated swing of his fists. She felt the Blue Spirit’s eyes on her, as stunned as the rest of them.

They’re scared I’ll do the same to them, she thought through the strain. If I can just –

She almost didn’t feel the air crackle. The only warning she got was a flutter of white light before the Blue Spirit grabbed her round the waist and knocked her down. He rolled on top of her, shielding her as the world above cracked with blinding light. Dazed, Katara squeezed her eyes shut and counted for thunder, but the only sound to reach her ears was a crash as chunks of the mountainside fell away from the blast of lightning. When she finally dared to raise her head, a chill shuddered along her spine. Azula stood with catlike poise, her face blank, her arms stretched out in a finishing stance with the first two fingers of her hand directed in an elegant point.

Can they all cast lightning?

Some of Azula’s own soldiers had been caught in the frizzle of energy, and they moaned where they lay in the mud. Others were already recovering from the shock of seeing their comrade lose control of his body, and were starting to advance again. Now she was certain her prey was trapped, the smirk toying with the princess’ lips twisted and grew. Katara stared at her through the eyes of the painted mask, remembering how the Fire Lord had smirked in the conquering of the South, wishing to take the storm by its heart and wipe the arrogance from those high, aristocratic cheeks.

But killing a member of the royal family would only earn her the enmity of the whole Fire Nation, and turn her and the Blue Spirit both from petty annoyances into the most hunted individuals in the capital. The wrath of the Fire Lord would be terrible, even more so once they realised they were looking for a waterbender. Hama and the others wouldn’t even get a warning – she couldn’t let it happen.

She leapt to her feet and raised her hands again. The guards paused, wary. She allowed herself a grin behind the mask and then swiped her fingers crosswise, instantaneously vaporising the rain into mist. Shouts of alarm followed, but she was already pulling the Blue Spirit away, following after Toma and the others with Azula’s scream of rage ringing in her ears.

She didn’t stop running until she caught sight of a hunting sign laid across the path halfway down the mountain, which led the way to a grove of snap-rhododendrons hidden from view by anyone looking in. Haku was sullen as he huddled against the trunk of one of the arching trees, trying to stay out of the weather, but he seemed reluctant to try to escape. When Katara and the Blue Spirit emerged from the dark, he glanced towards them, but didn’t move.

“He’s quiet,” Toma said in the Southern dialect, coming to greet them. “But he’ll come around. He can’t go home. We can arrange to help his mother and have the White Lotus get them passage to the Earth Kingdom, if you think it best.”

Very aware of the calculating gaze on the back of her neck, Katara only nodded.

“What about him?” Toma asked, sensing the direction of her thoughts.

She glanced at the Blue Spirit and made a sign with her hands, which was the hunting signal abandon the chase.

“As you wish. But you should know our mission is complete.” He stepped closer, lowering his voice so only she could hear. “When the signal comes, you’ll know it, and the Third Fleet will meet you, though I don’t know where.” He turned to the others. “They’ll be on us soon enough – we can’t stay here. Get the boy up.”

Haku rose willingly enough. He seemed to be in a daze, but when Kianak tried to coax him along the trail he stumbled back towards Katara, tears in his eyes.

“Lady!” he called. “Wait! They say they can help me and my mother if I go with them. Is it true?”

She nodded.

“Then… then I’m not going back? What will happen to us…” He shook his head. “I won’t see you again, will I? I – I want to thank you, and… if you see that lady, the one I said helped me, will you tell her I’m alright, and that I’m sorry?”

For a moment, Katara forgot she wasn’t meant to speak. Her mouth opened behind the mask, but in the darkness the movement went unnoticed. She had become the Painted Lady, after all, and spirits did not speak with human tongues. But when she nodded, it was enough, and Haku stood as straight as his injuries would allow and made a formal bow.

“I know you’re not truly a spirit, but you carry her with you, and that’s all that matters. Maybe some day I can help you in return.”

She watched him go. The rain hissed on the leaves all around her. It was only when she lifted her eyes to the sky and felt the moon slipping behind the horizon that she realised the Blue Spirit was, once again, nowhere to be seen, and dawn was coming fast.

Chapter Text

The light in the Fire Nation had changed. With the tempestuous beginning to the rainy season, the parched earth had burst forth new shoots in celebration, and in a matter of days what had been a yellowing, prickly landscape now soothed the eye with a wash of green, and sprays of bright, brilliant flowers. Every morning, mist roiled in the valleys the sun had yet to touch, and though the sky always started off clear and blue, by mid-afternoon the sun was always crowded out by the inevitable scowling stormheads, gold exchanged for silver light.

The change was reflected in the people, too. The streets of the capital flowed with laughter as its citizens went about their business with blooms woven into their hair, seeing the blossom of life around them as a good omen for new business ventures and marriage contracts. Even so, tension lurked just beneath the surface, palpable as the tingle the daily thunderstorms left in the air. News of the incident at Keijo had spread like wildfire, and rumour surged on the tide of unrest sweeping the city. Haku’s neighbours were quick to notice his mother had disappeared, and so, with no evidence to say where either she or her son had gone, it became common knowledge that the Painted Lady, moved by the boy’s loyalty to her ally, the Blue Spirit, had taken both of them to the spirit world to live a life free of care in her Palace of Clouds.

The truth was more complicated. Katara spent her days fretful, distracting herself with walks through her private garden in the morning and poring over maps and scrolls during the afternoon rains. Instinct told her that soon, far sooner than expected, their charade in the Caldera would be coming to an end. With a few more weeks, their plan would succeed. Nila’s spies had intercepted a message from the palace enquiring about the state of prisoners being held in a place that was labelled on the maps as a tiny village on a tiny island, hardly worth the mention. But Toma and the others had seen the size of the port, and knew differently.

Other things occupied Katara’s mind, as well. She could do nothing for the waterbenders until they got more intelligence, but closer to home there were diversions to set up, false trails to set down, and misdirections to orchestrate for when the time finally came to leave. The guise of the Painted Lady had turned out more useful than hoped, and the reputation already following in her wake meant there were few to trouble her in her nightly pursuits, but though she crossed the city and kept her eyes on the roofline, the one person she kept hoping to see never appeared.

Fighting alongside the Blue Spirit had been exhilarating, and remembering the way they had worked so seamlessly together still made her heart race. And then there was the crack of Azula’s lightning, and the way he had thrown himself on her to get her out of the way, his body warm and massive against her back, curling around her to shield her from the strikes of their enemies. Sometimes, after the early hours when she dragged herself to bed following a patrol, she woke to that same phantom feeling, and imagined where his touch might go next.

“Are you listening to me?” Hama demanded, glaring at Katara in the mirror. “You should not be going.”

Katara blinked out of her reverie. “Ozai won’t even be there,” she said. “He’ll be off counting tax money, or scaring small children, or whatever it is he does on normal days.”

“Don’t be flippant. Did you think you could hide the true cause of that injury from me?” The old general slid another hairpin in place, her hands deft despite their age.

“It’s a storm-viewing party, and I was invited by the Fire Lady,” Katara replied. “Bato will be going with me.”

“Hmph. And much good it did you last time.”

Katara’s hand fisted in her skirt to resist the temptation to reach up and touch the fading bruise on her cheek. “And what should he have done?” she snapped. “Broken our cover?”

Hama paused in her work on Katara’s hair, and fixed her flintiest gaze over Katara’s shoulders. “You are the Sea-wolf, our greatest treasure, and I swore to keep you safe. I don’t like sitting around waiting for something to happen, and I don’t trust these royals.”

“With any luck, we won’t have to put up with them much longer.”


 

The Pavilion of Eight Heavenly Winds couched on a rise in the imperial garden, its four open sides each looking out over a different view. The covered walkway leading to it passed around all four corners in a long spiral that showed off the wonders of the garden, and allowed the guests coming to the pavilion to listen to the musical notes the rain made on the roof. Zuko walked in silence beside his mother, content for the moment to simply take in the fresh scent of the grass and the breeze blowing against his face. It made a pleasant change from the tension that had swept up from the streets of the Caldera to infect even the most stolid of the Fire Lord’s retainers.

Rumour said the spirits were angry with the Fire Nation, and for people who lived most of their lives at the whim of nature, the will of the spirits was not something to be ignored. How the story got out was unimportant. The details, too, were unimportant, changing from telling to telling. All that mattered was that the Blue Spirit and the Painted Lady had called down a storm to defy the Fire Lord to save an innocent boy from an ignoble death.

“And what do I have to stand against this rise of anarchy?” Ozai had snarled as the prince and princess koutou’d before him on the throne room floor the morning after the escape. “One child who will do nothing, and another who cannot defeat two non-bending peasants, even with an entire army at her back. You are both a disappointment to me.”

Zuko remembered Azula, not used to being on the receiving end of the Fire Lord’s ire, remaining mute, her face paper white in the gloom.

“Father,” he had said, heart crashing against his ribs. “Please forgive my sister’s error in judgement. Her eagerness to stand against the enemies of the Fire Nation should be commended. I only regret that she did not come to me with her suspicions, otherwise she would have foreseen the setbacks this incident has caused for my investigation.”

“What investigation? You have shown me nothing.”

“The Fire Nation’s enemies are skilled in deception.” His voice had grown stronger, his eyes daring to meet his father’s across the wall of flame. “And they will be even more cautious now. However, one good thing has come from this.”

“Do enlighten us, dear brother,” Azula had sneered at him.

“Yes,” Ozai had agreed. “Tell me what you have managed to salvage from your sister’s failure.”

He had not mentioned the Blue Spirit, and skirted just clear of actually lying. When he revealed his suspicions that the destruction in the harbour was caused by just a single waterbender, Azula scoffed, but his father only raised his hand to his cheek, to the scar he had brought back with him from the final days of the war.

“There are no waterbenders left in the South,” Ozai declared. “Those that did not burn now serve us, and will do so until they die like the rats they are. But then again, you haven’t proven yourself quite as useless as I feared.” He stroked the long point of his beard. “Follow this thread if you choose, Zuko. Perhaps it will lead you somewhere.”

“Yes, Father.”

He was paying for his bravery now. Azula had cornered him after the meeting with a hissed curse, and in the days since he had half been expecting to keel over, poisoned by his morning tea. Still, he would not be intimidated. He knew the woman at the dock was the same one who had called down the storm, the Sea-wolf Katara had told him about, and one for whom such destruction might seem a fitting revenge. Despite the seeming randomness of her actions, however, instinct told him she was planning something bigger, and that she could not be working alone. He would not make a move until he had all the facts, until he was sure he had her surrounded. The royal guard had underestimated her even when she held back her bending abilities, and he would not make the same mistake as his sister.

Still, it was hard to reconcile the image of a ruthless, relentless barbarian with the woman whose eyes had shone with compassion as she healed Haku’s mother, and then helped him escape prison at great risk to herself and her mission, whatever it might be.

He tried not to think about the fire in her eyes.

The pavilion was deserted when they arrived. Unlike the disastrous formal event of a few days before, which was held every year according to the calendar, Ursa had organised the storm viewing party as a way to unwind with people she genuinely liked, who preferred company and culture to the backbiting of the royal court.

They slid back the shutters. The servants had already left packets of sweet rice balls, ginger honey-cakes, and warm saké on the low table, along with cut flowers so fresh the dew still beaded on their petals.

“Your Grace, Your Highness,” said a crisp voice from the doorway as they began setting up. “The princess of the Southern Water Tribe and the Southern Ambassador have arrived.”

The young guard bowed and stepped aside to reveal Katara, with Bato standing close at her shoulder. Both were dressed in fine, blue-dyed camel wool cut in Water Tribe fashion, trimmed with raw silk at the hems, and suddenly Zuko felt very overdressed for the occasion.

“Um. Hi,” he said. He had banged his knee against the low table as he stood to greet them, and the pain was making his eyes water.

“Are we early?” Katara asked, with a faint smile. “We wanted to arrive before the rain started.”

“Actually, we’re the ones running a little late, I’m afraid,” Ursa replied, dismissing the guard with a wave of her hand. “We’re still arranging things.”

“Is there anything we can do to help?”

The Fire Lady’s hand flew to her throat. “Good gracious, no! You are my guests, not servants.”

“Please,” Katara insisted, though she twisted the end of one sleeve between her fingers. “It would be so rude of us to just sit here while you do all the work.”

“We wouldn’t want to disrespect our most gracious hostess,” Bato added with a low bow, his hands clasped before him in the Fire Nation way. “In the South, we know that a chore accomplished with friends is no chore at all.”

Ursa laughed. Zuko glanced to her, shocked.

“So eloquently put,” she said. “But I expect no less from the Water Tribe’s chief diplomat. Very well.” She gestured to the table. “Please, sit. We can finish the preparations together.”

Bowing once more, Bato led Katara to the table and sat down, while Ursa brought a vase and a set of matching glass plates out of a cupboard in the corner, their pattern grey swirled with black and yellow to mirror the changing season outside. With measured grace, she passed the plates to Zuko along with a long par of serving chopsticks for the food, and set the vase in front of her.

“Flower arranging is a passion of mine,” she explained to Bato, as Katara shuffled closer to Zuko to help him arrange the sweet rice balls on one of the plates.

“The Chief has suggested we might have a hothouse in the capital now that the Fire Nation glassworks are open to trading with us,” Bato replied. “He asked me to recommend some plants to him, but just telling him ‘that purple one’ or ‘the frondy thing with the seed pods’ probably won’t get me very far.”

Zuko frowned as his mother chuckled again. Sometimes, at court, she would press her lips together in a smile, or giggle at something one of the nobility said, but there was always an undercurrent of tension woven beneath the gesture, a tightness noticeable only by its absence here, as she knelt at the low table in the garden, and taught a foreign ambassador the names of her flowers.

He blinked and realised Katara was watching him.

“Hi,” he said.

One corner of her mouth tilted up. “Hi.”

“Um, how are you?” He saw the paling bruise on her cheek and regretted opening his mouth.

“I’m… good,” she said, almost as if she surprised herself. “I didn’t realise how much I missed clouds until the rains started – just the shapes they make and the way the light hits them. It’s funny, don’t you think?”

“I’ve never really noticed,” Zuko admitted. “But when we were younger, we used to go to Ember Island and try to see pictures in the clouds. Grandmother used to say they could tell the future.”

“And could they?”

“Not really. It was before my father became the Fire Lord.”

They fell silent for a while, concentrating on their task. They established a rhythm before long. Zuko, more familiar with the ways of the palace servants, unwrapped the packets of sweets and lifted them onto the plates, where Katara, who had more of an artistic flare, rearranged them with graceful precision.

“I thought you’d want to know,” he blurted when the quiet stretched too far. “The boy – the one who got taken to Keijo – he escaped.”

“I know. I mean –” She bit her lip. “The story is all over the marketplace – my maids say everyone has a different version. But… thank you, for telling me. That boy didn’t deserve what was going to happen to him.”

“How do you know that?” Zuko asked, and for the second time wished he hadn’t spoken.

Katara’s gaze turned frosty. “All he wanted was to protect his mother. I can understand that.”

“Sorry,” he said, but his eyes dropped to track the movement of her hand as she reached up to touch the necklace at her throat.  The carved lines in the shell shimmered as they caught the light, and something disturbing clicked in his mind.

What happened to the last Sea-wolf?

She died.

“I still need something for the soe element,” Ursa said, snatching him away from his thoughts. “It should sit in the middle, here – between the shin and the hikae, heaven and earth. These fire lilies are too loud, don’t you think?”

Next to her, Bato frowned. “I think I see what you mean. The colour would unbalance the composition.”

“Exactly.” Ursa beamed at her newfound student.

“How about these?” He picked through the greenery left on the table and lifted out a bunch of peony buds, pale pink with a blush of crimson towards the stem, and offered it to her, but frowned she didn’t take them. “Did I choose wrong?”

“Oh – oh no, they’ll suit perfectly,” came the reply, though she still hesitated. She glanced to Zuko and met his eyes with an almost stern look before reaching for the stems, delicately so as not to bruise them.

“What was all that about?” Katara asked in an undertone once the final adjustments had been made and Ursa went to set the finished arrangement in an alcove in the northwest corner of the pavilion. “Prince Zuko?”

“It doesn’t matter,” he replied, his gaze now fixed suspiciously on Bato. “Nothing.”

Halfway back to the table, Ursa gave a cry of delight and pointed out the other guests coming up the winding path to the pavilion.

“And just in time, too,” she added. “The rain is coming.”


 

The hours passed quickly after that, and despite the cool breeze and the storm raging all around them, the pavilion started to seem quite cozy. Li and Lo, Zuko’s old nannies, fawned over Katara, admiring everything from the quality of the cloth that made up her garments to the translucence of the porcelain tea set that had been her gift to Ursa. At first, she found the attention unsettling, but soon they were cheerfully telling her the story of the time Zuko fell in the turtleduck pond while hunting for sprites among the waterlilies, and she had to bring her sleeve up to her mouth to hide her snigger.

“I thought they could hold my weight,” he grumbled, trying to ignore how the tips of his ears were burning.

“Luckily the young prince didn’t hit his head too hard,” Lo said.

“But he was so affronted he wouldn’t speak to anyone for the rest of the day,” added Li.

“Just like a panda-cat,” Lo agreed.

Across the floor, at the window that overlooked the lily pool, Ursa talked quietly with her painter friends about the pleasing aspects of the garden, glancing at the others every so often to give them a smile. They wrote poetry as it came to them, and read it out against the background noise of the rain on the roof tiles.

In a corner, Bato was embroiled in a pai sho tournament with Chen, a general who had retired before Zuko was even born. They had been on opposite sides of the war, but it proved the common ground between them, and while they wrestled with complex strategies on the board, they reminisced about the outcomes of battles long past. Zuko tried to listen in as best he could in between keeping the water in the tea kettle hot with his bending, and doing his best to curtail Li and Lo’s more embarrassing stories.

“It took a hundred years to defeat you,” Chen said in his gravelly voice as he moved his white jade piece into harmony with a rose. “Spring to autumn we would batter you, and when we left with the sun, we always knew when we returned you would have built the walls up even higher.”

“Water is patient, and it endures,” Bato replied, and took a swig of saké.

“Mmm,” the old man grumbled. “Except when it is a torrent. We always did fear the moment we saw your battle masks through the fog.”

“A wise thing to fear.”

“Battle masks?” Zuko asked.

Ursa looked up from her calligraphy, a small frown knotting between her brows.

“Of course, Prince Zuko,” Chen realised. “You have never seen a Water Tribe warrior across a battlefield.”

“You wear masks?” Zuko asked, turning to Bato.

For a moment, the ambassador looked uncomfortable.

“Warpaint,” he clarified eventually. “So the spirits of our enemies cannot recognise the ones who killed them and come back to haunt us.”

“Is that the reason?” Chen mused. “I have wondered.”

Zuko barely heard him. He was too busy thinking back to the woman on the pier, her features unrecognisable under lines of black and white pigment. The discussion piqued the interest of others in the room, as well, and they crowded closer.

“I heard from an Earth Kingdom merchant that they all resemble frightful animals,” said Kaori, one of the poets. “Is it true?”

“The spirits take on animal guises when they wish to embody that animal’s nature,” Bato replied, his hand itching once more towards the bowl of saké. “And we echo them.”

“Like the Sea-wolf.”

Everyone turned to Zuko, who realised too late his thought had slipped to his tongue.

“What do you know about the Sea-wolf?” Bato asked, politely enough, though his spine had gone rigid.

“His Highness asked about the character in the old sagas,” Katara interrupted easily. “So I told him.”

The ambassador’s stare lost its steely edge. “Yes,” he said. “The Sea-wolf had a battle mask, but it was never my place to learn it.”

“Do the rebels use warpaint?” Kaori asked. He had shuffled into the centre of the room, his painting things abandoned by the window.

“What rebels?”

Ursa’s gaze darted between her guests. “Perhaps this is a discussion best left for another time,” she suggested, but Kaori leaned even closer.

“The Southern rebels,” he pressed. “I heard from my friend Xiuling that His Imperial Majesty had ordered a blockade of the Southern ports to deal with them.”

Seeing Katara’s scowl, Zuko drew himself up, tilting his head so Kaori could see the crown of the Fire Prince more clearly. “My father has stationed Fire Nation ships at the South Pole to be of use to Chief Hakoda, in order to avoid unnecessary bloodshed.”

“So there is a threat still left in the South?”

“The Southern Water Tribe are allies of the Fire Nation,” he snapped. “The ships are there to protect vessels trading supplies to the Southern Water Tribe, in case rebel factions decide to seek revenge for Chief Hakoda’s capitulation.”

Beside him, Katara tensed. He’d made another mistake.

“The Southern Water Tribe does not attack its own,” she told him in a quiet voice, though it carried through the room. “It sounds like your goal is only to protect the Fire Nation ships in Southern waters.”

“Ex-Southern waters, surely?” Chen asked, as his mellow demeanour slipped for the first time.

Ursa rose to her feet, her anger palpable only in the complete coolness with which she regarded them all. “The Southern Water Tribe still retains its sovereignty,” she said. “They are our allies, not our vassals.”

“My mistake, Your Grace,” Chen replied, bending from the waist, first to Ursa, and then both to Bato and Katara. “My apologies, it was not my intent to cause offence.”

“More tea!” cried Lo, pushing her drained cup back towards the teapot. Beside her, Lo sucked her gums and everyone else slowly muttered their agreement, and when Ursa swept to the table, it was clear she was glad to have something to occupy her hands.

Zuko laid his hand across Katara’s before she could move – a forward gesture, and an unwanted one judging by the look she turned on him, but her censure was ringing in his ears.

“I’m sorry,” he blurted, low enough so only she could hear.

“For what?”

“What I said,” he answered. “It didn’t come out the way I meant it. I… There are civilians at the South Pole who have nothing to do with the rebels. They’re just ordinary people trying to rebuild their lives. They don’t deserve to get caught in whatever crossfire happens because of a few malcontents.”

She stilled. The rest of the people with them faded into the noise of the storm, and all Zuko could think about apart from the blue of Katara’s eyes was how glad he was Azula wasn’t there to hear him sympathise with people who until so recently had been his enemy.

“That’s…” She cleared her throat to try again. “That’s an honourable thing to say.”

“I wanted you to know.”

Bato called her over before she could reply, but he doubted he would have heard anything over the rush of blood in his ears. Her voice had quavered when she called him honourable; her hand felt small and cool beneath his palm. His mother asked him to heat up the water in the tea kettle again, and so he focussed on that, on keeping his breath steady and his energy rooted so it could flow past all the knots that had suddenly tied themselves into his stomach. The voices of the others, overly wary of causing more offence, washed over him and he answered like an automaton.

“The storm is a good one today.”

“Yes, there seems to be another front rolling in.”

“It may be a clear night.”

A flutter of blue caught on the edge of Zuko’s vision as Li and Lo announced their desire to play a game of snap-dragon in order to break the tension. When he looked up to follow the movement, Katara had already disappeared from sight. Worried, he wordlessly got up to follow and found her hidden from the others, tucked against one of the roof supports. She smiled as she held out her hand to let the water streaming from the roof flow through her fingers, as if the sensation comforted her.

“What’s it like?” she asked after a moment, without looking at him. Her voice barely registered above the sound of water.

“What’s what like?” He checked behind him – nobody had followed him out.

“Being a firebender,” she said.

Zuko froze. He couldn’t guess how many years it had been since his first firebending lesson when, nervous with his father’s imperious glare on the back of his neck, the iron-cold instructor had barked dialectics at him for hours to try and get him to control his flame. Discipline; breath; a strong root. Passion.

Now, producing fire was like asking his fingers to form a fist: he thought it, and it happened.

Katara nodded, pondering this. “I’ve read scrolls on waterbending, but it’s not the same as actually being able to control an element.” She turned to look at him, a shuddering breath pulling between her lips. “You’re not what I expected. I – none of this is how I expected it to be.”

She didn’t tell him to go away, so he stepped closer, a hot, uncomfortable itch on the back of his neck as he took in the slump of her shoulders, the crease between her eyes.

“Is there anything I can do?”

Sighing, she shook her head. “I miss my home,” she confessed. “I miss the cold and the snow and eating seal jerky listening to one of Gran-Gran’s stories. I know by being here I’m doing my duty to my people, but they’re so far away, and everything here is strange.” She snatched her hand back from the stream of water as if it stung and held it to her chest, biting her lip to fight off the urge to cry.

“I’m sorry,” Zuko murmured. He stepped closer again.

“Why?”

Because my father is the reason for all of this, he wanted to say. Because even though you’ve suffered so much and you hate it here, I can’t help but be glad you are here.

“Things should have been different,” he replied instead. Somehow he had stepped closer again, close enough for him to notice the tiny mole that dusted the skin by the bottom of her left ear. “I’m sorry they’re not.”

Her lips parted to reply, but he looked away to avoid the temptation, because she stirred such feelings of guilt in him, and she was little better than a prisoner, and he was sure the more he thought about it that her mother was the same saboteur he had been ordered to hunt down.

And then a cool hand, still wet with rain, slid along the edge of his jaw, and before he could draw another breath, Katara crossed the final space between their bodies and kissed him on the mouth.

Chapter Text

All was dark within the private quarters of the Water Tribe princess, the lamps snuffed out, the last amber gleam of sunlight faded. And Katara waited. She sat cross-legged on the polished floor of her room, in the corner furthest from the window with her back leaning against the wall. She was already dressed in the black velvet garb that served as her disguise, with the crimson sash tied around her waist – it wasn’t accurate to the depictions of the Painted Lady, but it was better suited to running across rooftops and sneaking into places it would be wiser not to go. All she needed to fully take on the essence of the spirit was the white mask that lay face-up on the floor next to her, but for that she had to wait for Linara’s signal that their Fire Nation guards were distracted.

While she waited, she contemplated the charred remnants of her father’s hunting pouch. She had yet to send them back to the South Pole, unable to find the words to explain how they had been returned, knowing he would ask, if only to make sure she hadn’t taken risks. The spark rocks were cracked from the heat of the Fire Lord’s mockery, the once-dark surface marbled with pale grey speckles like ash, and the antler scraper had blackened in the flames; but as symbols they retained their power, and the fact that it was Zuko who had returned them only added an extra layer of nuance to what they represented.

This was the problem. She had kissed Zuko. In the moment she had wanted nothing more, and when he had kissed her back, tentatively, softly, she had only stepped closer, into his warmth and his strong hands and the softness of his lips. When they finally parted there had been a dazed look in his eyes, as if not quite daring to believe what he had done, but his eyes had been like molten gold as he caressed the side of her face and breathed her name. Only the rumble of distant thunder had snapped them out of their staring, and brought them back to the realities of where they were – who they were.

I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have –

No, that was… nice. I liked it.

She shouldn’t be thinking about it, not now. He was the one who had written the letter Nila’s agents intercepted, which asked exactly where the missing waterbenders were being held, and what measures were being taken to keep them in line. An answer had arrived that morning, and now, for the good of her people, she would have to break into the office of the Crown Prince and steal it. In the dark, waiting for the moments to crawl by, she couldn’t help but wonder what he would do if he caught her.

A shadow passed over the window and Katara hurriedly folded her father’s tools out of sight. Linara slid the paper blinds back from the door and shuffled inside, carrying a pile of clean linens with her for cover.

“It’s now or never,” she whispered, then glanced to the Painted Lady’s mask resting on the floor. “I wish you didn’t have to wear that. Putting a foreign mask on instead of your own.”

“It won’t be for much longer,” Katara replied as she fastened the silk ties to the back of her head.

“Good luck.”

She slipped out onto the rear veranda, pausing for a moment to collect herself before she crouched and stole into the fragrant shadow of the flowering mangingko tree that hung over the outside wall. A half-moon hung clear in the sky, which would make concealment harder as she ran along the roofline, but the city guard would expect to find her in the wards, and none of them would be looking towards the palace.

The afternoon’s storm had left puddles of clear water in the street, and a freshness in the air that never failed to invigorate her. It was dangerous to think she would miss the thrill of Fire Nation storms, that the tropical hum of rain on her skin felt better than the sting of polar blizzards, so instead, she focussed on finding a path over the rooftops.

The Blue Spirit might have been waiting for her down in the city, ready to run with her through the narrow streets and fight by her side like he had when they freed Haku. She hadn’t seen him since that night, but she still heard rumours from Nila about his exploits and a small part of her always longed to meet him again. She still wanted to know who he was under the mask. Tonight, however, she couldn’t think of that, because no matter how he had proven himself to be an enemy of the Fire Nation, too many lives were at stake for her to trust him with her current mission. As she crept across the shadowed avenue that split the royal complex from the first tier of noble houses, she decided it was lucky that heading towards the palace it meant she would be unlikely to run into him.

This way, there would be nobody to slow her down.

She found a perch on the sloped roof of the curtain wall of the palace gardens and waited, concealed except for the dim glow of the mask in moonshadow. Guards patrolled the grounds by night, their routes snaking along paths she had committed to memory in daylight, just in case, and she frowned down at the maze of well-lit buildings and connecting gardens, trying to make sense of the pattern. Once she passed the public buildings couched lower on the hills, the easiest way to get to Zuko’s office would take her over the roof of the long palisades that connected the buildings of the inner palace, but the ceiling beams were hollow, and the sound of her footsteps would echo on the tiles no matter how softly she trod.

Light swelled against her vision. She snapped out of her contemplation and glanced towards its source, startled by the approaching pair of voices. They had yet to notice her, but the torches they carried would be bright enough to reveal her like an ink stain on new paper, and if one guard spotted her, she would be unlikely to get another chance to find out about her waterbenders – assuming she survived the night at all. As quietly as possible, she slipped over the ridge of the wall and rolled her landing into a clump of bamboo with a canopy of leaves so thick the only light came from the hole she had made with her descent.

“Hey, did you see that?” a sharp voice called from the other side.

The reply was muffled by the sigh of wind through the bamboo leaves, but it didn’t stop Katara holding her breath for fear of discovery.

“There was a shadow there, honest!”

“Bah, you’re always seeing shadows.”

“But what if it was –”

“If you say ‘Blue Spirit’ one more time, Lee, I swear to Agni I’m going to lamp you. What would that imposter even be doing here?”

The man called Lee grumbled something, his voice growing fainter as his footsteps carried him away from Katara’s hiding place.

“It was probably a stray panthercat or something. Now let’s go before we get docked for being late at the checkpoint.”

Hidden in pitch blackness, Katara waited until the last sounds of the two guards died away and the frenzied panic of her heart quieted to something that wouldn’t betray her. Until that moment, the danger of her situation had failed to fully register with her. Even more so than breaking into the royal prison, sneaking through the royal palace after a scrap of paper seemed like madness.

When she was little, she was told the story of the hero who had snuck into the den of the dragon who lived on the mountain at the turning point of the world so he could steal the power of fire for his people. Thinking about it now, surrounded by guards and high walls, the trials that took Khuya into the centre of the mountain seemed trivial compared to the very real threats that lurked in wait for her now. She recalled the crash of Azula’s lightning striking rock, and the scent of smoke rising from the waves of fire Ozai had conjured during the comet; neither would baulk at turning such powerful bending on her, and the only hope would be that they incinerated her before they bothered to find out her identity.

But they would have to catch her first. she steadied her breathing and called a mist to her, letting it creep up from the moisture-heavy ground slowly to make it look natural, and hoping nobody would realise it moved against the direction of the wind.


 

Zuko narrowed his mind until all he could see was the bright swipe of his liangdao blades as he slashed them through the air. His muscles flowed like water, taking him through familiar patterns that he had practiced until he didn’t have to think to wield them, every time striving for more strength, more balance, more ways to shift between stances and remain unpredictable. In the half-meditative state this training brought him, he could forget the chaos that had taken over the city, that he had helped create. These days, on the few occasions where he dared sneak out into the wards, he spent almost as much time defending the guard from angry mobs as he did defending the people against extortion.

His father’s decrees for public punishments weren’t working. Citizens left in the stocks were freed by night-time mobs in dark clothes and spirit masks, the guards caught unawares and blinded with smoke bombs to allow the culprits to get away. The Painted Lady was mentioned when he listened at windows; she had been seen roaming the factory district and through the healing houses in the wards where she left people cured of even the worst ailments. He wondered, as he went through the movements of Dragon Catches a Pearl, whether she had planned this anarchy as well, or whether the reaction of the people had been an unexpected side effect of her plans to undermine the Fire Lord’s power.

He leaned towards the latter option. At the docks, she hadn’t been the Painted Lady, but the Sea Wolf, all rage and destructive power, and after that, had only taken on the guise of the spirit to rescue Haku, perhaps as a way to copy his own alter-ego, but she could not have predicted the consequences of her actions, or their continuing effects.

The thought brought his mind swinging to Katara. He wanted to kiss her again, he wanted to make sure she didn’t regret the one they had already shared, but most of all he wanted to talk to her about all this, about how the tensions in the Caldera – in the whole empire – had been a simmering pot kept tightly lidded until the people had reached boiling point. She always looked at him with such steady eyes, astute, observant, clear-sighted as she watched the foreign nature of his home and revealed truths he had been blind to since birth.

But he couldn’t ask her advice, not with the new knowledge that settled like a stone in his gut. He knew now what his father had done with the waterbenders who had defied him in the Southern campaign. The warden of their prison had written personally to assure him in smug tones that the captives were kept in hot, dry caverns at the centre of a barren island, manacled once a day at wrist and ankle to prevent them bending as they were force-fed their daily rations. During the day they worked in the tunnels near the volcano, mining diamonds for export to the Earth Kingdom, and measures were taken by the overseers to prevent loss of workers via suicide. Examples were made of those who tried to escape.

Such detail made it hard to pretend that the Fire Nation conquered other nations to enlighten the world.

He banished the thought at leapt one final time, brought his blades down in two sweeping, sideways arcs designed to slice open the guts of any enemies still standing, and stepped out of the stance towards the table where a servant had left a jug of water. A breeze blew into his room, cooling the sweat that had beaded on his forehead and the small of his back.

Shivering, he padded to the open window and tugged on the curtain that separated his private rooms from the balcony that overlooked the city and the harbour beyond. The moon shone clear down on the view, glittering on the sea, and it was easy to pick out the glow of individual lanterns flaring as the teahouses and eateries opened to their first customers of the evening. Directly below, however, the palace gardens were obscured by dense mist. Such a sight was common enough during the rainy season, but less usual was the fact that the creeping billows lapped at the curtain wall and no further.

He cursed. The Painted lady could only be here for the letter, and he couldn’t let her take it. The escape from Keijo had incensed the Fire Lord, but how much worse would his reaction be when he found out his own halls had been breached by the same saboteur who had destroyed the transport ships? The events unfolded in Zuko’s mind as he hastily donned the black silk pants of the Blue Spirit, images so vivid they made his hands shake. His father would look for a scapegoat, and this time a few misbehaving peasants wouldn’t be enough to satisfy him. Katara was in danger; Ozai would bar the doors, burn down the whole compound with her inside and make sure the only thing left was ash. It didn’t matter if the Painted Lady was really Katara’s mother, as he suspected – he had to stop her.


 

Part of Katara was amazed that she managed to make it all the way to Zuko’s office without being seen. It thrummed in her chest with the part that kept her feet rooted to the polished floorboards of the veranda outside, a gnawing unease. She was about to step out of her cloak of mist and enter Zuko’s office, where the person she had glimpsed under the veneer of State merged with the Crown Prince, who had had a hand in the destruction of her people.

The place was a mess. Unlike in the rest of the palace, there was no invisible servant’s touch here to prune the chaos of Zuko’s work ethic, which had resulted in piles of scrolls ranged haphazardly in piles within reach of the desk. Clearly, his filing system followed an eldritch system of organisation, and if she hadn’t been worrying about how much longer it would take to find what she was looking for, Katara would have been impressed.

He must start work in the morning at the exact point he left off the day before, she thought as she tiptoed deeper into the shadow of the room. A cursory look through the papers at the desk revealed nothing, and she cursed in silent frustration as she looked around for something to help her. Only one corner of the office wasn’t overflowing with scrawled-on paper; a locked bureau stood at waist height against the wall, the lacquer and inlaid mother-of-pearl adding contrast to the golden tableau of dragons, phoenixes, and pomegranates painted on the doors. An antique clay tea set was presented on top, beneath a simple scroll painting of a cherry-plum tree in blossom. Even before she got close enough to read the seal stamped into the bottom corner, she knew she would read Ursa’s name.

It must be here. Secret documents couldn’t be left just lying around, after all, especially not with a sister looking for any opportunity to gain the upper hand in whatever constant squabble went on between them.

Checking for the sound of guards, she leaned close to the lock to work out how best to pick it without damaging the frame. The mechanism was delicate, the wood might easily splinter and attract attention from guards already unnerved by the sudden change in weather. She inhaled deeply, and breathed out through her nose. The moisture in the air froze as she commanded it, expanding in tiny crystal splinters that crushed the locking pins and cracked the brass housing. It broke with a small click, and all she had to do was pry the bureau doors open with the tips of her fingers to reach the documents inside.

The first few papers told her she had been right in her choice. Official war reports stamped with the seals of various Fire Nation naval divisions fell into her hands, some of them salt stained, and some of them so old the paper had torn at the edges. She ignored them. There were tallies, and more reports, and maps of the city with tiny red crosses dotted all over which meant nothing to her – but when she shifted those aside, her gaze fell on an ink-splotted sketch of a woman in repose under a tree by a pond. At first she thought it must be Ursa, but the clothes looked odd and there was a distinctive wave to the figure’s long hair that she had never seen in any Fire Nation styles. The whole picture was slashed through with a thick line of ink that obscured the woman’s face, as if the image held some meaning that frustrated him, but it was unnerving nonetheless.

Finally, she found what she was looking for. The letter bore a large, tasselled seal matching the copy Nila had shown her, and when she read the first few lines she found so much officious posturing it could only have come from a minor official hoping the notice of the prince meant he was soon to go up in the world. Katara allowed herself a cold smirk as she tucked the letter into her shirt; if the treatment of her people was half as bad as she imagined, the man’s disfavour with the court would be the least of his worries.

One last thing caught Katara’s eye as she made to close the bureau. At the back of the shelf, a glint of silver shone on deep blue stone. A scroll handle. The swirling design was one she remembered from her first years studying waterbending forms, and at the sight of it her breath stilled in hot rush of anger. Waterbending techniques were sacred, to be shared only between master and student, and definitely not traded away to those who wouldn’t understand. There was only one way this one could have found its way into Zuko’s possession. She hesitated only for an instant before she snatched it from among the crumpled ends of paper and tucked it away in safety.

Not stealing, she reasoned. Returning it to its rightful owners. She could study its contents later – for now, she had lingered too long.

The Blue Spirit stood, framed by the doorway, motionless. She had no way of knowing how long he had been watching her, but something in the set of his shoulders put her on edge. When she stepped forward, he reached up and drew his liangdao from their shared sheath with a quiet, grating hiss, and she froze in place. This man, whoever he was, had stood at her side just weeks before, had seen what she could do, had saved her from Azula’s lightning – what reason could he have for standing in her way now?

Slowly, she watched him bring one of the swords up to point directly at her chest, at the letter inside her clothes, and the message was clear. She shook her head. She couldn’t back out now, and told him as much in the measured way she unknotted the red sash from around her waist and wound it through her fingers.

If I have to go through you, I will.

Even so, she approached cautiously, knowing how fast he could move. His caution matched hers, and he backed up as she came forward to better keep her in his line of sight, swords held loosely ready at his sides. The swords were the problem; she needed to disarm him. She feinted to the left, as if to dodge past him, and flashed out to grab his wrist. He was ready for her.

They traded furious blows. Back and forth, evenly matched – he struck, she blocked and turned the force of his energy in an attempt to drive him back, only to have him counter and push her further away from the door. She gritted her teeth behind the mask as he pushed her back again, refusing to give more ground. She swept a half-hearted thrust aside with her sash, catching one of the swords out of his hand and sending it clattering across the floor with a grunt of effort.

A second later she realised her mistake. He stepped in, silent, his free arm crushing her against his chest where his superior strength had her trapped, unable to move. She froze. The last time he had been this close, he had saved her life. This time, however, his free arm reached up, whether for the mask or the letter she didn’t know, but wasn’t willing to find out.

Water is an unstoppable force; when it encounters something it cannot move, it changes direction, flows around it, adapts.

Katara dropped like a stone. The sudden dead weight of her limbs wrenched her away from her opponent, twisting to gain the upper hand once more. When she felt the floor beneath her hands she kicked out at his ankles, swiping his stance away in one last decisive blow that sent him crashing to the ground and gave her a chance to bolt.

Guards waited for her outside. Too many to fight, they surrounded the narrow door of the office. Shadows stepped across the eaves above her head, waiting to close off the trap, and should she consider retreat, she caught the sound of booted feet charging up the corridor that led deeper into the palace.

“Well? What are you incompetents waiting for?”

The Blue Spirit stiffened at the cold, cruel sound of the voice. For the first time, he betrayed real fear, and when he glanced in her direction, understanding passed between them. He snatched up his fallen sword and came to stand at Katara’s side, facing the soldiers that waited for them in the garden, the least risky of their escapes. He glanced at her again, rolling his shoulders to centre himself, and she turned away with a snarl behind her mask.

The enemy of my enemy is my friend, so said an Earth Kingdom proverb. Until my enemy is dead.

She couldn’t outfight both the royal guard and the Blue Spirit, not as the Painted Lady – couldn’t even try without endangering all the lives that depended on their plan. Breathing deep, she quested outwards for the flow of qi always pooled, latent, at her fingertips. The water answered her, drawn through channels of earth and air to do what she would ask of it, and she took a beat to centre herself and feel the potential that flowed through her as part of a chain unbroken in centuries of history. Really, she had known as soon as she climbed the mangingko tree that this night would be the turning point of her secret war, when the Sea Wolf would rise again out of the shadows to haunt the Fire Lord’s dreams. She heard his voice in the corridor again and let her mouth curl in a small, vicious smile. She was glad he had come in person to witness her resurrection.

Chapter Text

Katara didn’t stop until she reached the house. She leaped the wall, lungs burning from her run, and landed in a garden already lit with torches waiting for her. Nila came out of the shadows, her footsteps swift and silent through the grass.

“You’re back,” she whispered. “We were worried. The guards have been roused and are standing by the front gate, ready for a threat.”

“There are soldiers coming,” Katara replied. “They ambushed me in the Fire lord’s garden but I got away. You have to hide these.” She tore off the mask, took the letter and the waterbending scroll from their hiding place and shoved the whole bundle into her spymaster’s waiting arms.

“Those clothes will be suspicious as well if they find them,” Nila said, glancing nervously at the empty garden.

Katara cursed and began to strip, trying to decide if the steady tread of armoured feet getting closer was real or just the echo of her heart through her ears. The fear that had seized her at the sound of the Fire Lord’s voice still surged through her veins, images of the fight in the garden coming in flashes, out of order, like pai sho tiles left to scatter across the board. The Blue Spirit had dived in front of her, deflecting the first fireballs with his swords. Soldiers had broken down the door to Zuko’s office, but slipped on the coating of ice she lay over the floor. It bought them only a few seconds, but it was enough. The guards had staggered back when she threw her arms out, yelling as they saw the Fire Lord’s flowers wither before their eyes. The life she took from the plants vaporised at her command, spilling out in a cloud of fog so thick she could barely see her hands in front of her face.

Despite the satisfaction the memory brought her, as she slipped out of her velvet leggings she couldn’t help feel a pang of worry. Even though he had attacked her, she hoped the Blue Spirit had taken advantage of the cover to get away.

“Give it to me,” Nila hissed, and began chivvying Katara to the building where she slept. “Linara is waiting for you inside.”

There were definitely soldiers about now – they shouted to one another as they searched the streets. Katara almost made it to her rooms before she heard a ferocious banging on the front gate and a loud, angry voice demanding to be let in. She hoped the confusion of their house guards would buy Nila enough time to stash the mask and the letters away, but even so, she would have to play her part well if any of them wanted to see morning outside a prison cell.

“Quickly!” Linara ushered her inside, wasting no time as she pulled a thin sleeping shift over her head, then helped her into the quilted robe that served to deflect both the chill night air and the prying eyes of outsiders. Katara herself pulled her hair out of its simple knot, her ears straining as she worked it into a braid and mussed it to enhance the illusion of interrupted sleep.

Hama’s croaky voice boomed over the garden. “Lieutenant Ji, what is the meaning of this? My lady is sleeping. Where is Commander Attuk, and who are these men?”

“My apologies, Mistress Hama, I –”

A harsher voice cut across the lieutenant’s. “Your men are being searched, as you will be. I want everyone in this compound assembled on the in the garden at once. If your lady is sleeping, then wake her up.”

“If it comes to it, we’re behind you, Katara,” whispered Linara.

“We’re not done for yet,” she muttered back, and slid her door open on the scene before her.

Everyone paused. Even the captain who had come to search them looked taken aback at her sudden appearance, which was for the better – the woman, probably bored with her everyday posting, had clearly puffed herself up with the idea of being chosen to lead the search for the Painted Lady.

“I heard a commotion,” she said, squeezing her voice to make it sound raspy, as if she had just woken up.

“It’s nothing, my lady,” Hama growled. “A misunderstanding. These good people were just –”

“I have orders to search this property for evidence of dissention and incitement to violence,” the captain barked.

Katara lifted her chin. “I don’t take kindly to being disturbed in the middle of the night. Who are you?”

“So sorry to disturb your beauty sleep,” replied the captain, with a leering grin. “You’re lucky you’re not being arrested. Search the house, bring out anything you find.”

“Stay where you are!” Katara snapped. As she stepped off the veranda of her sleeping quarters, her gaze fixed on the captain’s face, which was sallow and slack in the light of the torches. “Before anyone touches anything in my house, you will tell me what is going on, who you are, and who sent you here. And don’t think this rudeness will go unreported to your superiors. As a sovereign’s daughter and an ally of the Fire Lord, I expected better courtesy from an officer in the royal guard, and I will see to mentioning you personally when I relay the disrespect with which I have been treated this evening.”

“The Fire Lord is the one who sent me,” came the somewhat mollified reply. “I am Captain Lo Sen. There was a disturbance at the palace earlier this evening but the culprits escaped, and as a matter of security, His Majesty ordered searches to be conducted in the noble district.”

“What evidence brings you to my door?”

“These are random searches, my lady.”

Katara tilted her head, knowing full well that the only other person in the noble district likely to receive a ‘random search’ was Bato. But Lo Sen had said ‘culprits’, which meant the Blue Spirit had taken his chance too and escaped.

“I see. Well, you should have mentioned the Fire Lord sooner,” she said. “We could have avoided misunderstanding each other. My people and I would be happy to do everything we can to assist you. And I trust nobody was hurt in this, uh, ‘disturbance’?”

Lo Sen blinked. “I – no, my lady. Thank you. This will not take long, and you will not be harmed. Are these all your servants?”

Katara looked over the stubborn line of people in Water Tribe blue waiting to see how the confrontation would play out, and nodded. “It seems your soldiers have done a very thorough job of waking everyone up.”

She didn’t miss the way Lo Sen turned to Lieutenant Ji for confirmation. The poor man, by now used to sharing tea breaks and baby pictures with his Water Tribe charges, shifted uncomfortably in his lacquered armour, but made no move to interfere as the captain ordered her soldiers in to search.

They were not careful. Katara stood apart from her women, the picture of stalwart composure as her private possessions were thrown into the open for all to see, her clothes flung from the wardrobes and her sleeping things slashed to check for hidden compartments. Nila hid a smirk at that, because she would never be so careless, and knowing they were outsmarting the enemy was the only remedy they had for watching their few belongings being treated with such violence.

“My father will hear about this,” Katara promised Lo Sen. “I wonder if the Fire Lord’s peace talks with the Earth Kingdom will go so smoothly when word gets out about how his allies are treated in his own capital.”

“My orders were given in the interests of protecting the Fire Nation, and its allies,” the captain replied.

For an instant she looked remorseful, but the expression quickly faded when there was a curse from inside Katara’s room and a soldier emerged carrying a whalebone box inlaid with ivory and mother-of-pearl – the one that had been a gift from her mother, that could only be opened with waterbending. With a suspicious glance at the Water Tribe princess, he passed it to his superior.

“Can’t you get it open?” Katara asked mildly. “There’s a trick to the mechanism, if you know how.”

“Show me,” Lo Sen ordered.

The box was thrust into Katara’s arms but she balled her hands into fists and didn’t take it. Inside were her father’s hunting bundle and the letters from Mimi, kept safe where even Hama wouldn’t dare to pry. More than that, however, she couldn’t open the box without revealing what she was, and that would be worse.

“You said you would help in any way you could – open it!”

Katara shook her head. “The items in there – they’re personal.”

“Sure they are,” the soldier grunted, but Lo Sen cut him off with a gesture.

“If you won’t,” she warned, “then I will. No? Fine then.”

She handed the box back to the soldier who found it and watched in silence as he set is on the floor, paused, and then stamped on it until the corner gave in with a crunch and the inlay splintered across the flagstones. Katara flinched at the noise, her jaw pressed tight shut as she willed away the prickling at the corner of her eyes, but tearbending was one aspect of her power that had always eluded her. Instead, she watched as the soldier sorted through the wreckage of her mother’s box, pawing at its contents with a callousness that made her both very glad and very disappointed the moon wasn’t full.

“If you want to take a bunch of letters between friends to the Fire Lord, be my guest,” she said coldly as he handed the letters to Lo Sen. “I’m sure he’d love to read all the latest gossip about how fishermen snore and can’t handle spice in their food, don’t you?”

Lo Sen glanced at her. “Who’s Mimi?”

“Mimi is a friend of mine. We grew up together, and when the war ended she took a position on a fishing vessel and we kept in touch. Is there something wrong with that?”

“And this?”

Here, she narrowed her eyes, her palms sweaty. The return of her father’s possessions had been her secret; she hadn’t told a soul. “That was a gift from Prince Zuko. I’ll be sure to mention that you took such an interest in it the next time I talk to him.”

Zuko’s name had the intended effect. The Fire Lord might have ordered the search, but judging by the slight pucker forming between Lo Sen’s brows he wasn’t the only person with an influence over the royal guard. Glancing once more to the battered remnants of the box, and then to the tears stubbornly held back in Katara’s eyes, she smoothed a hand over her chin and offered up the stack of letters and the hunting bundle. This time, Katara took them, letting out a breath to hide her triumph when the captain turned and barked at her people to withdraw.

Once the last set of booted feet marched out beyond the magnolia courtyard, Lo Sen turned to Katara and offered a low, formal bow.

“My apologies for any disturbance caused, my lady,” she said. “I will make sure your cooperation is noted in my report.”

Katara passed a critical gaze over her. “Attuk, show the captain out.”

They waited in tense silence for the sound of the royal guards’ footsteps to disappear, not quite daring to talk until sure that the danger had passed. The sun climbing over the eastern horizon cast a lilac glow across the sky as it illuminated the very thorough work done by Lo Sen’s subordinates. Aside from the mother-of-pearl box, bolts of cloth had been unravelled and left on the damp grass with their dye running into the dew, and furniture had been overturned looking for secret compartments and loose floorboards when the search had proven fruitless. They might have retreated with grace, and been mostly polite while they ransacked her temporary home, but Ozai had ordered them in order to intimidate, as a reminder that he held power in this place and could do as he wished. He could have done worse.

Not for long, Katara thought grimly.

“What do we do now?” Linara asked when Attuk returned and nodded the all-clear.

 “We thank the spirits Ozai didn’t have a mind to make an example out of us,” Hama spat. “They would have found what they were looking for, otherwise – or made more of an issue out of some of the things they did find,” she added pointedly, but her expression softened as her gaze settled on Katara. “You should get some sleep.”

“I’ll be fine,” came the reply. “We need to tidy up this mess.”

“We can manage that,” Linara interjected. “La knows you’ve already done enough tonight. Hama’s right.”

Nila stepped up. “And besides, we need you rested for the next phase of the plan.”

Seeing the resolute expressions on the faces of her people, Katara gave in with a nod. At that moment, she felt too wired to sleep, and with the moon still high in the sky perhaps she could scribble out a letter to Mimi before –

They heard boots again. And then the tell-tale, bugling roar of a komodo-rhino pulled to a sharp halt. Attuk and his guards formed a protective wall in front of the women, their faces set in grim determination to allow no more harm to come to those under their care, and they relaxed only briefly when they saw Lieutenant Ji hurrying up the path.

“I’m sorry,” he panted, casting a guilty glance over the beleaguered compound. “His Highness Prince Zuko is here, demanding to be let in.”

“Haven’t your lot troubled us enough for one night?” Hama snapped. “Tell the prince he can ask that captain for the details if he wants them so badly, or he can come back later.”

Lieutenant Ji gulped at the prospect.

“It’s alright, Hama.” Katara didn’t quite meet the old woman’s eye. “I’ll go and talk to him. Return to your post, Lieutenant.”

Her thoughts whirled as she approached the front gate. What could she say to Zuko when she saw him? Did she even want to see him? She would have to be careful with what she said, and how she acted, and if she was lucky he might blame any jitteriness on the surprise visit from the royal guard. But that was only a passing thought in her head, a brief acknowledgement that no matter what else he was, he could not be trusted.

The larger part of her mind skipped in time with her heartbeat, anticipating the moment she would turn the corner and see him standing there. Whether he would greet her formally, or awkwardly, or with the familiarity of a friend. She thought about their kiss, and the way he had lingered close afterwards, in every spare moment she had. Despite the plan, and the knowledge of what he represented, she found herself imagining worlds where they weren’t enemies, where there was peace between their countries and where he wouldn’t end up hating her for what she was going to do.

All her plans to be aloof and impersonal faded when she reached the gate and caught sight of him, twisting a tiny fireball between his fingers in nervous agitation, dressed in a simple tunic and loose trousers that looked nowhere near as polished as his usual layers of embroidered silk. He dropped his firebending when he heard her coming, as if embarrassed by the action, but the guilty expression melted into a smile almost immediately. Without any hesitation, he strode forward and met her halfway with a bone-squeezing hug, and her arms slid around his neck, instinctually seeking comfort in the embrace and the way she had to stand on tiptoes to reach it. She smiled when he whispered her name into her hair.

“Are you alright?” he asked, still with his arms wrapped around her shoulders. She could feel the strength in his muscles, hard from training, and had to stifle the desire to snuggle closer.

“I’ve been better,” she admitted instead as she pulled away. “But I’ve had worse, too.”

His arms still held her in a loose embrace. “I’m so sorry I didn’t come sooner. By the time I got away and heard what my father ordered, there wasn’t anything I could do to –”

“Zuko, it’s alright.” Her hand cupped his cheek in reassurance, but she was startled by the dark circles haunting the pale skin below his eyes – he looked almost as tired as she felt, which was no wonder, given what the Painted Lady and the Blue Spirit had done to his office. “I don’t blame you for what the soldiers did.”

“That doesn’t make my father’s orders right.”

“Maybe not, but your saying that does make me feel better.”

“Really?” he asked, brightening. “And you’re sure you’re alright? They didn’t hurt you?”

She thought of the splinters of her mother’s box scattered through the courtyard, but nodded. “And you? Captain Lo Sen said there was a ‘disturbance’ at the palace, but she didn’t tell us anything else.” She slid her gaze from his and chose to focus instead on running her thumb along the edge of his shirt, so he wouldn’t catch her uncertainty. “What happened?”

With a sigh, Zuko took her hand and led her over to one of the raised beds, the lip of which was broad enough to serve as a seat. She kept her expression neutral, politely worried, and told herself she had asked just to keep her cover and find out how much he knew.

“Someone broke into my office and took… something,” he told her.

“The Blue Spirit?”

“What makes you say that?”

She offered him half a shrug and a small smile. “I may be confined here, but my servants still hear things, and they talk. The Blue Spirit is wanted as an enemy collaborator, and I don’t know who else would be daring enough to break into the palace.”

Despite herself, Katara’s mind wandered back to the night before, and the way he had stood in her path, not quite ready to hurt her but determined to stop her all the same. The tug of disappointment brought by the memory was already familiar.

“Yes,” Zuko said, though his face was marred by a bitter frown she couldn’t place. “It was the Blue Spirit – at least, that’s what my father says. I wasn’t there – my room is in a different part of the palace and I… sleep deeply.”

“Was anyone hurt?” she asked.

He shook his head. “The guard cornered the Blue Spirit in the garden but they – he escaped.” He sighed and rubbed at the back of his neck, his gaze on the floor, and Katara’s nerves tensed, waiting for whatever he would say next.

“My father thinks these are just personal attacks, meant to embarrass him, but there’s something bigger going on,” he confessed. “I know it. And I think – I think it has something to do with the Sea Wolf.”

“There is no Sea Wolf,” Katara said uneasily. “Not anymore. I told you.”

He reached over and took her hand. “I know… but isn’t it possible someone is using the title as a rallying point for those who aren’t happy with the peace?”

She frowned. “The Sea Wolf is – was – a sacred title to my people. Nobody would dare take it if they didn’t earn it.” She let a note of anger creep into her voice, and withdrew her hand. “Is that why those soldiers came here in the middle of the night and destroyed so many of our things?”

“No!” He reached for her again, eyes wide with panic. “I swear I didn’t know they were going to do that. They came because… because the Blue Spirit wasn’t alone last night.” His shoulders drooped. “The woman pretending to be the Painted Lady was with him, and it’s pretty clear now that she’s a waterbender, but I swear nobody else knows about the Sea Wolf – nobody but you.”

He looked at her so earnestly, hoping for her belief, her understanding, and all she could feel was the slow churn of guilt for having to lie to him. The stakes were too high for anything else.

“I believe you,” she told him slowly. “And you know I’d help you with this if I could.”

“I know,” he said, and made her feel worse.

They fell silent, listening to the chorus of morning birdsong that climbed with the heat of a new day, sat under the shade of magnolia flowers that buzzed with hummingbees. Zuko’s thumb traced absent circles over her knuckles, and she leaned into his shoulder, overwhelmed enough by fatigue that the comfort was welcome.

“Uh, Katara?” he asked eventually.

“Mmm?”

“Are you asleep?”

She shook her head and mumbled, though even she didn’t catch the words. Against her forehead, she felt Zuko sigh and turn to look at her properly.

“You probably should be,” he said. “I shouldn’t have kept you out here so long.”

She glanced up at him with a bleary smile. “I don’t mind really. You look like you could do with some rest yourself.”

“I, uh…” He looked away, blushing as he cleared his throat, but didn’t let go of her hand. Shyly, he glanced back at her, and then around at the deserted courtyard, and tentatively brushed her chin with his fingertips. His breath puffed against her lips, making her shiver, and when she didn’t pull away, he leaned down and pressed his mouth against hers.

His kiss wasn’t as desperate as hers had been. It was slow and tentative, exploring in a way that was anxious not to overstep, and that made it sweet. With a sigh, she tilted her head and slanted her mouth more fully against his, feeling her pulse increase when warm, calloused fingers slid along her jaw and into her hair. She shouldn’t be doing this. She shouldn’t be feeling like she wanted this with the son of the man who had killed her mother, but when the very tip of his tongue brushed against her lips, she gasped.

“It’s New Year in a few weeks,” he reminded her as he pulled away. “You’re coming to the banquet, right?”

She licked her lips and found herself staring at his, wanting to kiss him again. “It’d be rude to turn down the invitation, don’t you think?” And it would take at least that long to get a message to Mimi, to start the final phase of the plan. She had to be above suspicion until then. She couldn’t get distracted.

Zuko smiled. “I think it would be very rude. My mother would be heartbroken.”

“Oh, well in that case…” She darted her lips against his for the briefest second before pulling away again. “I’ll see you there.”

He seemed frozen for a moment, until his face lit up with the brightness of the first spring sunshine, smiling so wide his golden eyes crinkled at the corners. Before he could say anything, however, they heard the tramp of footsteps along the path, and Hama’s voice calling Katara’s name.

“I should go,” Zuko muttered, throwing a wary glance in the old woman’s direction. “I’ve kept you up long enough already, and I have an office to tidy.”

He stood and turned to leave, though he seemed reluctant to let go of her hand.

“I am sorry about that,” Katara said, her mind drifting back once again to the fight between the Blue Spirit and the Painted Lady.

“It wasn’t your fault.”

“Even so.” She squeezed his hand and let it drop. “Try to get some rest as well, won’t you?”

“Of course.”

Hama appeared around the corner, and the move he made to stroke her face one final time turned into a bashful gesture as he rubbed the back of his neck. He straightened, and clasped his hands together in front of him.

“I’m glad to learn you’re alright, Lady Katara,” he said formally. “I will pass your compliments along to my mother on my return to the palace.”

“I’m pleased to hear it, Your Highness,” she replied, unable to quite hide her smirk. It made the faint pink on his cheeks deepen until it nearly matched the colour of his clothes, and she suspected his bow was extra low to hide the way the colour flamed on his face.

With the formalities over, he turned, and with a careful nod to Hama, he turned and strode through the gates towards the komodo-rhino he had left tethered to a ring in the wall. The animal gave another dull groan as it moved off, leaving Katara alone with her thoughts and with Hama’s disapproving stare.

“I hope you know what you’re doing, girl,” the old woman grumbled.

Katara scowled and squared her shoulders. “I do.” She stepped past Hama back towards the garden, hoping desperately that her mentor hadn’t caught her lie.

Chapter Text

The nobles glittered under the lights. They fluttered through the courtyard like jewelled humming-bees, arrayed in brightly coloured silks shot through with golden threads that caught the flare of the fireworks popping at the distant edges of the sky. Every corner of the Fire Lord’s palace blazed in celebration of the New Year, making up for the dark of the new moon with paper lanterns that shone with characters for luck and prosperity, and wafts of perfume floated on the air from fluted vases of dusk roses in every shade from pale pink to scarlet to blazing, violet-hearted orange. Even used to the pomp and circumstance of the Fire Nation court as she was, Katara couldn’t help but stare at the luxury of her surroundings as she stepped out of her palanquin next to Bato. As she was getting ready, Hama had scolded Nila for making the purple and gold of her outfit too ostentatious, but judging by the golden calligraphy on the scrolls flanking the main gate, she would fit right in.

“Stop fussing,” Bato told her as she patted the arrangement of braids woven into her hair. He was also wrapped in layers of purple, the cloth dyed with pigment taken from polar lichen, all tied together with bright bands of gold that brought out the colour of his skin.

“I’m not fussing,” Katara said. “I’m just…”

The Third Fleet was on its way. She had to make it through the night, through the next few days, and then they would all be free.

“They’ll make it,” Bato reassured her. “And we’ll be ready when they do.”

Arm in arm, they strolled through into the plaza with the growing tide of nobles, making conversation with those who dealt with Bato during his days as the Water Tribe ambassador, and as more people arrived, they ended up separated, comfortable enough to go their separate ways and meet up at the feast later. The twinned, hunched forms of Li and Lo passed Katara briefly in the crowd, as did half a dozen other well-wishers, and she smiled and complimented all of them, wielding her politeness like a blade. It was just another exercise, like Hama’s teacups, a puzzle meant to stretch her mind and keep her sharp, and without Bato hovering over her shoulder, she could afford to be more daring to the Earth Kingdom dowagers who smirked behind their fans at her. Being cooped up behind her walls for the past few weeks was clearly making her reckless.

“You’re doing well.”

She turned to see Mai step out of the crowd, her dark robes dour under the lanterns, though when she moved, the lights caught the shapes of birds and leaves woven into the cloth in subtle shades of crimson and pink. Noticing the appraisal, Mai sighed and twitched her fingers over the fabric.

“My mother picked it. She’s over there in the cream silk, talking to Kaori and Xiuling, probably telling them how she came back from Omashu just to attend the feast. It’s a lie, though.”

“What do you mean?” Katara asked, alarmed by the sly expression Mai tilted her way.

“There’s been an uprising,” came the reply. “The rumours are that the avatar and the Southern rebels were involved. She’s here because my father wants the Fire Lord to send an army to take back the city.”

Katara’s eyes narrowed. “Why are you telling me this?”

“So Azula can’t catch you out, of course. I’ll see you later.”

Mai glided back towards her mother’s side with the same graceful, predatory walk that marked her apart from the rest of the crowd as much as her silence, her disinterested stare cautioning the other nobles to part before her – though they never acknowledged that they moved, and passed hesitant looks along in her wake. Katara tried to shrug away the nervous feeling the other young woman gave her, but it lingered nonetheless as she took a drink from one of the servants wandering through the crowd.

A rebellion in Omashu, huh? She sipped at her drink, tasting hibiscus and orange lychee and something with a bitter touch, like quinine but not quite. I didn’t realise they’d be moving already.

A gong crashed at the top of the dais that led into the palace proper. The milling conversation fizzled into silence, replaced by anticipation as Ozai appeared before his subjects, in full imperial regalia with Ursa, Zuko, and Azula behind him.

“Honoured guests!” he called, his voice projected across the space by the large drum set behind him on the steps. “Tonight we gather to celebrate the New Year, to count our victories, and our successes. The Fire Nation remains the shining example of civilisation in the world, a beacon to all who would embrace the warm light of progress. We have won great victories and reminded our enemies what it is to fear us, we have reasserted our strength over those who would cause our ruin. Now is the time for us enjoy ourselves, to relax, and to welcome in a year of even greater fortune and strength!”

As the Fire Lord descended among the nobility, Katara closed her eyes and concentrated on the taste of her drink, using the rim of her glass to hide the sardonic curl of her lip as she thought of the fleet of Water Tribe ships, borne at this very moment towards the shores of the archipelago. First they would rescue the rest of the Southern waterbenders, then she would swap the face of the Painted Lady for the battle mask of her title, and then they would bring this whole, glittering, rotten place crashing to the ground, and she would deal Ozai a cut deeper and deadlier than the one she had been able to land on the day of Sozin’s Comet.

She decided not to think about Zuko, or what their plan would mean for him. He caught her eye across the heads of the nobles that parted to let the royal family lead the way to the banqueting hall, but in the presence of his family, with Azula and Ozai watching, he dared nothing more. She offered him a smile anyway, and stretched her hand up to where a carved jade hair comb nestled among her braids – a gift from him.

Bato appeared at her side again. “That was an enlightening little speech, don’t you think?” he checked.

“Very eloquent,” she agreed. “I’d expect nothing less.”

“Hmph. We’d best get moving.”

They followed the crowd from the plaza into a high-ceilinged room with broad, red-painted columns, where servants waited to usher each guest to their assigned seat on tables set around a broad, open space in the centre of the hall. The open walls, with slides drawn back to let in the evening fragrance of the gardens, made the space seem even bigger, though more comforting without the glare of the myriad lanterns outside. Katara seated herself on a plush scarlet cushion next to Bato. The others on their table were merchants and diplomats from the Earth Kingdom.

“This your first New Year?” asked an older man from the other side of the table. She recognised him as Wen Bao, a coal merchant who did good business with the Fire Nation colonies in the Earth Kingdom. “You’re in for a treat. The food is the best I ever had – and as you can see, I’ve had a good sampling!” He laughed and patted the round belly under his layers of green silk. “I might have to write a letter to Lord Ozai’s steward, mind. This wine has an odd aftertaste. Must be the late rains.”

Katara smiled and glanced over at the place settings, the gilded chopsticks and the plates and the empty space where the imperial dishes would be placed. “What’s the paper and ink for?” she asked.

“Oh, that’s simple,” Wen Bao chuckled, pulling a strip of paper and a wetted inkbrush towards him out of the pile. “There are so many friends here, and not all of them will have time to talk before the night is over, so a tradition arose to send good wishes on pieces of paper instead.” As Katara watched, he painted a set of characters onto the paper, then folded it up into the elegant shape of a black crane and beckoned a servant over to take it. “Of course,” he added, “a lot of youngsters have found other uses for these over the years. I’m a bit past that now.”

A throat cleared behind Katara.

“A message of good will for you, my lady,” the page said, offering a lacquered tray with two folded pieces of paper on it, before turning to Bato. “And one for you also, my lord.”

With a wry glance at each other, Katara and Bato opened the messages sent their way. She recognised Zuko’s handwriting immediately.

I’m glad the hair ornament suits you so well. It’s lucky I listen to my mother’s taste in matters of fashion.

She turned to Bato, a joke on her tongue, but it stalled there when she caught the look on his face. His gaze was turned wistfully towards the royal table, where Ozai sat with his family and their closest retainers. Ursa was turned away from them, a clear glass chalice raised to her lips, but in the warm glow of the lanterns, her faced looked more flushed than usual.

“Bato…?” How had she not realised before?

He turned at the sound of her voice, and coughed when he realised he’d been caught. “Not here – and don’t give me that look. There’s nothing any of us can do, not until this is over at least.”

“Does she know?” Katara demanded in a hiss, in their own language.

“Does your prince?”

She scowled down at her plate, hating the way she felt her cheeks heat.

“Listen, Katara,” he sighed. “The old general might warn you away from him, tell you to focus on the plan, but it’s been too long since she went outside our city walls. Take advice from a soldier who knows you should find happiness while you can. The world has a short enough supply of it.”

“Even if I know it won’t – can’t – lead to anything?”

To her surprise, Bato laughed. “Did you know, your dad used to have a real sweet tooth. When we were young, nothing could stop him getting at the red taro cakes – I think he saw Gran-gran’s traps as a challenge, and if she tried to double bluff him and leave them open, he’d take them anyway. The point is, he once ate so many he got stomach cramps, and smug runt that I was back then, I asked him if he regretted it.”

“Did he?” she asked.

“Of course he did – he was writhing in agony when I found him. But he said he would have regretted not doing it, too, and if he’d done that, he wouldn’t have got to eat the cakes.”

Katara pushed back the stab of homesickness the image brought, and took a sip of her drink. “That does sound like Dad.”

“What are you two whispering about over there?” Wen Bao enquired jovially from his seat. “I do love a good intrigue.”

“No intrigue, I’m afraid,” Bato replied. “Just giving some life advice.”

“And sorely needed, it seems,” the Earth Kingdom merchant replied, tugging pensively at his beard. “My advice would be to write to this sweetheart of yours, whoever he is. Tonight is the night for it.”

Katara flushed again. “What makes you think I have a sweetheart?”

“What else could make such a lovely young woman as yourself so melancholy?” he answered, tipping her a broad wink. “Or if I’m wrong, then perhaps you can put off your sorrows for just a few hours – the food is here!”

It took nearly ten minutes for all the dishes to arrive. Hundreds of platters were carried in from a door at the far end of the hall in the hands of a small army of servants, the savoury aromas of roasted meat and herbs carried with them. The ostentatious, spicy dishes native to the Fire Nation were to be expected, but Katara also recognised the fine slices of Earth Kingdom tudou si and niang dofu, and among everything else, a few dishes that were more intimately familiar to her.

There are sea prunes here – real sea prunes! she wrote to Zuko.

The chefs like trying new things, and we are allies – Azula’s eaten three already but I haven’t told her they come from the South Pole.

She was halfway through loading her plate when she got the reply, and smirked, dropping her chopsticks delicately against the small mountain of food to take up her pen again. You probably shouldn’t tell her at all. It might be better for your health.

I think you’re right. Make sure you eat some of the fish in red sauce. It’s lucky for New Year, and it goes well with the egg rice. He grinned at her from the royal table, just for an instant when his father couldn’t see before he turned away to talk to the woman in general’s armour on his left.

What happens to all the food that doesn’t get eaten? And what’s the big space for in the centre of the hall?

Wait and see. But I don’t know about the food, I’ve never asked.

She frowned at that, disappointed but not surprised. Whenever there had been a feast at home, the preparation of the food and its eating was shared by everyone, and leftovers were never truly wasted. Still, she had learned enough from her time in the Fire Nation to know the royal servants took pride in providing delicious food in greater quantities than their charges could handle, and that refusing to eat from a misplaced sense of equality would be a great insult, both to the servants themselves, and the master they represented. She had little choice but to pile her plate high, taking a bit of everything within her reach, including the fish dish Zuko recommended.

Finally, the last of the servers retreated through the kitchen doors, leaving the tables all but groaning under the weight of food. The hall filled with chatter and the distant pops of commoners’ fireworks as people ate their fill. Only pages flitted between the tables, passing luck notes between friends and enemies alike, and as the wine flowed more freely, the greetings were folded into ever more elaborate, sloppier shapes. Katara received enough to surprise her, and spent too much time trying to work out the identities of all the well-wishers to even think about writing back to most of them.

“Wen Bao, who’s Lord Beifong?”

“Over there, the nervous-looking fellow in the green and gold,” her new friend replied around a mouthful of dumpling. He was one of the few still eating. “It’s his first time being invited despite having tried to get His Majesty in his holdings for years, so no wonder. He’s the one who brought the entertainment tonight.”

“Entertainment?”

The lights dimmed. An anticipatory thrum rippled through the assembled guests as servants clad in black padded in to close the shutters in the walls.

“What –?” Bato started to ask, but before the word was even out of his mouth, a yell went up from somewhere in the darkness.

Two pillars of sparks shot up into the ceiling beams at the far end of the hall. Smoke billowed, and through it leaped a golden lion-bear, gaping its red-silk mouth wide to the crash of unseen cymbals and drums. Despite herself, Katara gasped. The acrobats inside the costume pranced and played through the open space in between the tables, shaking the tasselled mane on the paper head in time to the beat like a real animal might. The sparkler light bounced off the beads sewn into its back, the great eyes blinked, the music came faster as it roared, halted, reared onto its back legs. Katara wondered how heavy the head must be, but the performer in the back of the costume tossed their partner forward like they weighed nothing at all, and the lion leaped again.

“Impressive, isn’t it?” Wen Bao asked her over the music.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” she replied.

The drums beat faster now, the cymbals had lost their rhythm and shivered in time with the lion. With one last final roar, it lunged forward into a graceful bow before the Fire Lord’s seat and froze when the beat that sustained it ceased. In its place, a solitary flute quavered, and through the shadows at the end of the hall a parade of dancers stepped with streaming ribbons or juggling balls, followed by acrobats who danced with twisting shapes made out of their own firebending. The spectacle spilled out over the floor, the performers making sure to show off to everyone in the room, not just the Fire Lord, and in the distraction they provided, the servants returned to clear away the plates.

A young man with shaggy hair and a pair of hooked swords strapped across his back stepped out in front of the dancers once the servants had retreated, and bowed to the Fire Lord. The music once again tapered into silence.

“And now,” he announced to the room, “All the way from the Earth Kingdom, we are proud to present the Gaipan Fighters for your enjoyment.”

He bowed again and turned to face two more warriors dressed in the same green-dyed leather, one a towering giant and the other younger, slender, with a mass of brown hair and streaks of red paint across her face. A gong clanged and the three of them settled into starting stances, the girl drawing daggers from her belt, the youth who had announced them with his twin swords. The giant held no weapons at all.

“Well, what are you waiting for?” Ozai demanded when the silence stretched. “Begin!”

The leader was the first to move. He dashed across the space, swiping his swords for the girl with the daggers – there was a gasp from the nobles – but she dodged away, then turned and met her opponent in a flash of sparks. They darted back and forth to the awe of the crowd, a battle that went three ways, an exhibition of skill that wouldn’t have been out of place in the elite corps of the Southern Water Tribe Army. Their footwork was faultless, and Katara watched as each one used their own strengths against the other two.

Something nagged at her.

The three fighters held back. It might be expected if they were friends wary of hurting each other, but there was a distracted tension in their movements that couldn’t be accounted for, and as she realised this she noticed too that the fight was edging closer to the royal dais. Suspicious, she stretched her qi out for water, to have it at hand just in case – and felt nothing.

She gripped Bato’s wrist, unsurprised by the grim expression on his face, or the stiffness in his muscles. Warriors survived as long as he did only by having good instincts.

“What is it?” he asked in a low voice.

“My bending’s gone.”

“But they don’t –”

“The wine,” she whispered. “They must have put something in the wine. That’s why it tasted bitter. They’re not after me, it’s –”

The sound of a bird call rang through the hall. A signal, Katara realised, as the world slowed. The dagger girl ran at the giant and jumped. He caught her foot and flung her into the air, twisting, perfectly balanced, blades flashing. Katara’s gaze snapped to Ozai as the dagger left the girl’s hand and flew straight for his head.

Only lightning reflexes saved him. The screams of the nobles echoed as the girl landed and rolled into a crouch behind the youth with the swords, and for a moment the scene froze, and all Katara could see was the look of shock on the Fire Lord’s face, the same one she had seen when she gave him the scar on his cheek. Outrage, maybe a trace of fear. And she didn’t have her bending.

Ozai began to laugh. It grew from a low chuckle into a sound as cold as the crack of sea ice. “Did you think that would work, little assassins? Did you think you would succeed?” He stood, gigantic next to the low table. “I will burn you to a crisp myself.”

The three fighters stood defiant. Katara wondered where the guards were, but given the Fire Lord’s callousness, it was likely they were keeping out of the way of stray blasts of fire. She fisted her hand in her skirt, unable to turn her head away as Ozai drew his arm back, remembering the last, awful time, the stench of burning meat and hair…

Nothing.

Ozai punched again, his face a mask of disbelief, but only the thinnest wisp of flame spewed from his knuckles.

The boy with the swords laughed. “Having a bit of trouble there? We put a little something in your drinks to screw with your qi. You’ve got no bending. None of you,” he added, when Zuko and Azula started to rise.

“You’ll pay for this,” the princess spat. “Guards!”

“They won’t be bothering us,” came the casual reply. A smile twisted the boy’s mouth.

Ozai, raising a hand to forestall any retaliation from either of his children, regarded his opponent with detached amusement. “Such arrogance from an Earth Kingdom peasant. Who do you think you are?”

The boy straightened. “My name is Jet,” he declared. “And these are my Freedom Fighters, Smellerbee and Pipsqueak. We’re here to repay the Fire Nation for the atrocities committed against the Earth Kingdom, the Water Tribes, and everyone else you’ve decided to step on over the years. We watched our homes burn, our families get killed, and we won’t stand for your tyranny anymore!”

“How amusing,” Ozai purred. “And you thought this demonstration would could stop a century of progress? I will so enjoy watching your execution.”

“Oh I’m not finished yet,” Jet snarled. “Once I’m through with you, I’ll make sure this is a celebration the people of the Fire Nation won’t ever forget. It’s going to be an explosive New Year.”

Bato laid his hand over Katara’s, feeling her itch to move, to intervene. “Wait,” he muttered. “Let’s see how this plays out.”

“You want to set the world on fire?” Jet shouted, gesturing around the room full of elegant fittings and gold paid for in blood. “How about we start right here?”

An arrow hissed out of the darkness, between his outstretched arms. At first, Katara thought it missed its mark, but then flames began to spread from the arrow’s tip, along the path of the liquor spilled from the cup it knocked over. The silk strands of the carpet caught, licked at the varnished boards beneath it, but the Fire Lord didn’t move, so his guests checked their impulse to flee.

Jet laughed. “What’s wrong, Your Highness, can’t stand the heat?”

Still without moving, with the firelight dancing in the shadows of his eyes, Ozai gestured to Azula and Zuko, poised on either side of him like polar bear-dogs on the scent of prey.

“Bring me his head.”

They both lunged over the table at Jet, forcing him back, but the hooked swords flashed out, and they were driven back. The other two fighters closed in.

“We have to get everyone out!” Bato shouted, fighting to be heard over the noise of panicking nobles.

Katara tore her gaze away from Zuko. Absorbed as she was, she hadn’t seen Ozai disappear from the hall with Ursa, but with the Fire Lord’s departure, the spell of terror that held the banquet guests in their places had snapped, and there was panic on every side. More flaming arrows shot down from the rafters. People screamed. As the flames spread, a dull thought crept through Katara’s head, wondering why the Fire Nation of all places wasn’t more flame-resistant, but she saw the young inferno roar as it caught the lacquer on the nearest pillar and leapt towards the roof.

“The garden,” she said, turning to Bato. “The courtyard isn’t safe – that’ll just go up too. The garden might still be damp enough to keep the flames at bay.”

She tossed one last look over her shoulder, tugged by her worry for Zuko. He stood back to back with his sister, his face fixed in a snarl as he battled Jet and the giant called Pipsqueak. He was holding his ground better than Azula, whose strikes gave too much room to manoeuvre, unbalanced without her bending. Another figure stood close by, a spot of calm in the sea of hurrying people, and Katara felt a stab of annoyance.

“Mai!” she called.

The noblewoman turned at the sound of her name, still with the cool, detached expression she had worn earlier. Here, it was just creepy.

“I wanted to see how Azula would do without her bending. I’m impressed,” she admitted, though a thread of disappointment wove through the words.

Katara didn’t have time for it. “Or you could help, instead of standing there?” She gestured to the room, to Bato trying his best to guide the guests through the burning hall to the only narrow way left into the gardens. The fire had spread to all the pillars now, dim light and thick smoke. Hypnotic. The heat of it seared against the skin.

“Smellerbee!”

Jet’s voice broke Katara from her trance. She looked over in time to see Azula catch her opponent with a vicious kick to the midsection. The girl crumpled, the daggers falling from her hands, and before she could react, Azula beat her back again with a centreline jab that sent her sprawling to the floor. With the speed of a rat-viper, Azula swung down and snatched up one of the daggers, ready to land a killing blow.

An arrow whistled from above. It struck the Fire Princess’ shoulder as she brought her arm slashing down. The blow went wide as she screamed. She staggered away, with Smellerbee following.

“I see him,” Mai snarled before Katara could open her mouth. “Leave it to me.”

She disappeared into the smoke, leaving Katara dumbfounded until the sounds of fighting reached her ears again and she turned to see Zuko now even more outnumbered, without either weapon or bending to help him. He had managed this far by being light on his feet, acrobatic in a way that felt familiar though the smoke made his movements hard to see, but with Pipsqueak at his back and Jet advancing with his swords, he wouldn’t last much longer.

She snatched up a food tray, barely thinking before she called his name and threw it to him.

He caught it, raised it just in time to block Jet’s downward strike. The swords pierced the thin wood of the tray, but the hooks stuck. Zuko twisted with a grunt of effort, and the weapons spun away across the floor.

“Katara, get out of here!” he shouted.

“Not without you!”

“Katara?” Jet glanced between him, his confusion condensing into a snarl as recognition hit. He picked up his swords, kicking aside the remainder of the tray. “I remember now. You’re even worse than them.”

“Katara!”

She glanced in Zuko’s direction, but he was being beaten back by Pipsqueak and Smellerbee, and there was no mistaking the threat in Jet’s voice as he prowled towards her. Instinctively, her stance lowered; she felt for the water that still wasn’t there.

Jet charged. He swiped for her with both swords, but she’d seen that move already. She bent backwards as the blades flashed over her head, so close she felt the breath of air disturbed by their passing, and as they swung away she followed the momentum of the move and wheeled backwards to put more space between them.

“Nice move, traitor,” Jet snarled, coming on again.

She snatched a chair from where it had fallen in the middle of the floor. “Do you think you can goad me?” she spat back, parrying his attack. “What was your plan here? Did you think if you killed the Fire Lord they were just going to just let you go? That the war would end?”

“I’m doing to them what they did to us!” he roared over the surge of the fire. “I’m just trying to redress the balance!”

Katara choked on the heat. They were running out of time. “This isn’t balance, this is madness! You can’t repay one slaughter with another and expect everything to be alright!”

“These people aren’t innocent!” His voice cracked on the words. “Every one of them has had a hand in all the pain and suffering caused for a hundred years!” He charged again, bashing at her with his swords, all finesse lost. “They’re soldiers –” bash “– or they’re in factories –” bash “– or they’re collaborating with the ones giving the orders to tear down our homes.” He swiped again, smashing her improvised weapon out of her hands. “You know this – you have to! How can you defend them? How can you sit and share food with them? It makes me sick!”

“I do what I have to,” she coughed, eyes stinging. “For all my people, not just for myself.”

She backed up, aware of the fire and the toxic smoke from the lacquer burning her lungs, aware she was being herded deeper into the conflagration. Dim shadows moved behind Jet, the hulking shape of Pipsqueak and Zuko’s lighter, quicker form trying to get to her. A table stood next to her, as yet untouched, still with the decorative tablecloth set beneath the plates. Water still wouldn’t come to her, though even with a full moon she would be hard-pressed to find any moisture in such a blaze. She had promised Hama she wouldn’t use her bending.

Jet lunged. She dived over the table, ripping up the cloth so the settings scattered over the floor, and surged to her feet with it taut between her hands, a ribbon of fabric almost as good as her water. She parried a strike, then another, left an opening for her opponent to follow. He took it, pushing forward with both blades at once, and time stretched to show her the surprise on his face when she snared both hooks in the cloth and used his momentum to throw him across the floor. When she stood, she caught Zuko staring at her.

If you thought that was impressive, you should see what else I can do, she thought, as she turned her attention back to Jet.

The ceiling groaned above them.

Someone screamed.

The dagger girl, Smellerbee, lurched out of the haze, batting frantically at the flames licking along her sleeve. Behind her came Azula, smirking, her palms lit with tiny globes of yellow-white fire that licked blue around the edges. Jet scrambled to his feet and put himself between Smellerbee and her opponent.

“And that’s our cue to leave!” he called over his shoulder.

“You’re not going anywhere.” The fire danced in Azula’s eyes.

“That’s what you think.”

Behind Jet, Pipsqueak grabbed the end of a table, shaking the trappings from their places with a grunt of effort.

Katara!

The table swung for her head. Smoke was in her lungs, her brain. She had no waterbending, no room to dodge out of the way.

A rough arm grabbed her around the waist and barrelled her to the floor with such force her head smacked off the smouldering silk of the carpet. Through the pink lights sparking behind her yes, she watched in slow motion as the table collided with one of the screen walls and smashed clean through. Fire rushed in, greedy for the new air being sucked through the gap, and someone was shouting at her to get her head down, to close her eyes – Zuko, she realised, as the wave of heat washed over her.

When she looked again, the Freedom Fighters were running for the hole in the wall, but Jet turned and pointed a finger at Katara.

“You got lucky this time, traitor,” he spat. “You’d better not get in my way again.”

Zuko was tugging on her arm, and suddenly Bato was there as well, looming through the smoke to help her out into the garden and the fresh, clean night air. Coughing, she glanced back and watched dimly, outside herself as the remains of the hall coiled a fat, lazy column of smoke into the sky, lighting scurrying figures in silhouette as the servants did their best to fight against the blaze before it could consume more of the palace complex. The stench of smoke matted in her hair, dredging up other smells from her memory, a wash of lurid purple light and the sight of her mother walking out like a shadow self into a wall of fury.

“… I’ll get her home, don’t worry.” Bato’s voice, swimming in and out of focus as if her head were dipping under water.

“She should see a healer.” She was still leaning on Zuko, felt his voice rumble through her arm. “I’d rather not…”

“Please, Your Highness. She ought to be with people she trusts.”

Fingers tightened on her shoulder.

“I want Hama,” she managed to croak. “She’ll be missing me. She’ll be worried.”

Jet’s last words rang in her head, the accusation of traitor going round and round until it made her dizzier than the smoke. In the cool of the garden, she felt her water coming back to her, in the dew on the grass and the sweat on the skin of those standing next to her. With it, the tremble in her limbs fell away, and a whisper grew in her mind, like the shadow of a monster beneath the surface of the sea: Tui’s demon aspect, the spirit she took into herself with the mantle of the Sea-wolf, the face shad had been forced to hide to protect herself and her people. As the palace burned, she felt herself pulled down with it into the depths, where everything was silence and cold, unyielding purpose.

She had wavered. She had lost the plan, forgotten her vengeance, allowed herself to be beguiled from her purpose when nothing else should have mattered. She pushed herself away from Zuko towards Bato’s anxious embrace, and turned on the Fire Nation prince.

“I’ll be fine, I promise,” she told him with a small smile that wavered at the edges, just so.

There was something searching in his gaze, beneath the worry for her, but he nodded. “I can’t let you go alone – I’ll have the guard called.”

“Of course.” She bit her tongue to keep the argument at bay. For the sake of the plan, she had to stop Jet before he made a mess of everything, and a having a contingent of royal guard dogging her steps would only slow her down, but she couldn’t risk breaking her façade. She would have to play the delicate, sheltered princess for just a little longer.

But as Jet said, it was going to be an explosive New Year.

Chapter Text

Katara flew along the rooftops of the upper city. Flashes of sparks in a bloom of colours illuminated the tiles under her feet, gleamed off the white mask that disguised her identity, but the stench of smoke still clung to her hair. She was moving ahead of news from the palace, whether because the royal guard were still trying to put out the fire or because the citizens in the streets were too busy celebrating, she couldn’t tell, but she thanked all the spirits who cared to listen for keeping her way clear. Her head rang with Jet’s words, and the gleam in his eyes as he said them.

You want to set the world on fire? How about we start right here!

Months ago, that might have been her. Hadn’t she taken her rage and her grief and used it to smash the crown of the Fire Lord’s navy against the walls of his own harbour? The accusations Jet had hurled at her as they fought in the burning banquet hall had been short-sighted, reckless even, but they still stung her pride. She came to a stop from her headlong dash on the shadowed gable of an inn and crouched, forcing calm into the rhythm of her breath. With the last of the qi-blocker running through her veins, she couldn’t afford to let rage cloud her judgement if she was going to stop the so-called freedom fighter – if she could even find him in the first place.

If I wanted to tear the Fire Nation down, where would I start?

It wasn’t hard to imagine Jet’s train of thought. Every night in those first few weeks, imprisoned in a strange country with the scar of her people’s destruction on her memory and nothing else to occupy her mind, she had turned it towards vengeance, and had spent hours tearing down Ozai’s world with the same ruthlessness he had shown at the South Pole. Jet wanted to make a statement. He would choose somewhere grand, somewhere that represented the might and power of the Fire Nation’s war machine, somewhere he could destroy utterly, somewhere less well-guarded than the palace where he could cause maximum destruction. She looked northwards, where the grim shadows of the war factories sulked against the far rim of the Caldera, and felt certainty settle in her gut.

The Blue Spirit landed with catlike quiet on the rooftop behind her. She glanced back at him and caught only the pale edge of his mask in the gloom, illuminated by the crackle of a firework overhead. No doubt he had heard the commotion at the palace and come to find the person responsible. They had no time to lose. Katara felt her companion’s presence at her back but didn’t dare slow the pace as she set off towards the industrial district, all too aware of the head start their enemy already had. It had taken a good ten minutes to persuade Hama to let her come out at all.

“And why should you get involved?” the old general had demanded. “This boy is an idiot but let him burn along with the rest of them and be done with it. It’ll mean less suspicion will fall on us.”

“If I don’t do anything, I’ll be just as bad as the Fire Nation soldiers who let the Water Tribe burn,” Katara shot back.

“You could never be so heartless – but I suppose that’s your point.”

“I’ll be alright.”

The streets below got rowdier the further they went into the city. Without the strict etiquette that guided the nobles, the citizens of the Caldera were deep into their cups, throwing up songs and laughter with the fireworks, all thoroughly determined to enjoy the start of the week-long holiday that brought in the new year.

Of course, Katara realised with mounting horror. He doesn’t just want to blow something up – he wants to hurt people.

She saw a square up ahead, under the shadow of a munitions depot, a perfectly ordinary gathering of people around a fountain, with a laminated paper dragon chasing its golden tail. Children were cheering, lovers laughed – and were drowned out as the warehouse exploded.

Fire poured out of the broken roof, following a shockwave that shook tiles from the roof under Katara’s feet. She lost her balance but stumbled forward nonetheless, her eyes on the fountain, her arms already forming the pattern that would call the water to her. She leapt the final roof and rolled as she hit the ground, coming up just as a wall of flame barrelled along the street. People screamed. The water in her hands shot forward and froze, a barrier to protect those behind her. The effort of maintaining the shield shook her arms, made her grit her teeth, but even as she felt the ice hiss into steam she forced it back, kept it in place as the explosion battered it and rained down debris over her head.

The barrier broke just as the bellow of the explosion died away, and she sank to her knees. At her back, the Blue Spirit stood warily between her and the people, watching her with an intense fascination that bordered on fear. It took her fogged brain a moment to realise that she had never been so obvious with her bending, not since that first night when he caught her on the pier. It seemed such a long time ago now.

“You there!”

The harsh bark of the guard brought Katara’s attention back to the present. She could feel the water seeping into the ground around her, but was too exhausted to do little more than raise her arms. She raised them anyway.

The guard levelled his pike at her. “You’re the one His Imperial Majesty has been hunting – you’re under arrest!”

The Blue Spirit prowled forward, his hands reaching for the liangdao at his back, but before he made it half a step, a face emerged from under the wreckage of the paper dragon.

“Oi!” the young man called. “Didn’t you see her save us all just now? You should be thanking her!”

“How dare you show such disrespect to a spirit’s champion?” another shouted.

The guard swallowed as more voices joined in, all angry, all running off the adrenaline caused by the explosion a few moments before, and as they advanced, his grip on the pike tightened, shaking so that the rings threaded into the blade rattled.

“Don’t you see what she is?” he cried, puffing himself up. “She’s a traitor – a waterbender trying to trick you –”

“Yes she is.”

The crowd turned to look up at the new voice, smooth and sharp as the flat of a blade. Katara recognised it, and the shaggy mane of hair silhouetted against the smouldering roofline. Jet crouched down to bring his angular features into the light of the festival lanterns, and the sight of his smirk sent a wave of loathing through her limbs.

Jet plucked a chewed grass stalk from his mouth, as if this were a pleasant chat over morning tea. “What I want to know,” he drawled, “is why. Why is a waterbender defending the very people who destroyed her home? Are you all this weak?” He started pacing. “In my village, we grew up hearing about how brave the Water Tribe was, how they stood up against tyranny even when it cost them their lives. I took heart from that. I told myself when the Fire Nation burned my village down that I would be just the same, that I would do anything to see justice served, and now, seeing this? You sicken me. I thought that sneering princess of yours was bad enough, but you –”

Katara lunged for him with a water whip. He dodged backwards, laughing as the whip caught only empty air, but she had distracted him, and he had no leisure to connect the dots between the princess at the feast and the warrior who stood in front of him now. In the heartbeat it took for him to regain his balance, the Blue Spirit darted up to the roof, his intent clear.

“Wait just a –” the guard spluttered, but the last of his words were cut off as the Blue Spirit’s liangdao sliced down and met Jet’s twin hooked swords. They fought back and forth with dizzying swiftness, equally matched in both skill and determination, until Katara leaped up behind her partner and tipped the balance in their favour. There was no point hiding her skill now, but she had very little water left to bend and Jet was too quick to be cornered.

A flash out of the corner of her eye. She pulled a tile up from the roof with her bending just in time to meet the dagger aimed straight for her head. The ceramic shattered and the blade spun away into the darkness as the battle switched to two versus two.

“Smellerbee!” Jet growled. “What are you doing here?”

The scrawny girl who had been with him at the palace stood up on the roof next to him. “You were late,” she snapped. “I came to check on you and saw you were having a party without me.”

“Jealous, huh?”

Smellerbee rolled her eyes and jerked her thumb over her shoulder. “The soldiers are coming. I told you we shoulda stuck together.”

There was no need to look where she was pointing. Already over the murmuring of the crowd, the ominous beat of steady, armoured footsteps was growing louder.

Jet laughed. “I guess that’s our cue to leave, then.” He bowed to the two vigilantes as the first of Ozai’s soldiers poured into the square. “Enjoy the fireworks!”

Before Katara could react, he tossed a handful of what looked like large black marbles across the length of the roof and dropped away into the shadows. She started after him, but the Blue Spirit grabbed her by the waist and pushed her down, just in time as Jet’s parting gift exploded.

The world toppled in a spiral of orange and dazzling red as the force of the blast knocked them off the roof. Dazed, Katara clenched her fist against the rough cobblestones of the alleyway where they landed, shaking her head to clear her vision and see the splintered wreckage of the vegetable crates that had broken their fall. Everything was blurry, there were distant shouts and a ringing in her head – and when she twisted around to get her bearings, a sharp pain lanced through her side. A least two fractured ribs.

A weight slipped off her back as she winced to a sitting position and she turned to find the Blue Spirit unconscious, the right sleeve of his shirt smouldering under a cluster of sparks. Hastily, she brushed the embers away and checked for a pulse, noticing belatedly that air stung against a graze on her cheek where the bottom corner of the Painted Lady mask had been broken away.

His heart still beat, and in the dim light she caught the slight rise and fall of his chest, but the soldiers were getting closer and there was no time for a better diagnosis.

“Check over there!”

With a hissed curse, she hooked her arms under the Blue Spirit’s shoulders and dragged him into the shadow of a doorway. He groaned as she propped him up in a sitting position, just as two men clanked to the end of the alleyway, and she held her breath, water at the ready in case they decided to come closer. She prayed they would lose interest quickly, because she couldn’t afford to risk the glow of her healing until they left, and she had no way of telling the severity of her partner’s injuries.

“Did you see it?” one of the pair asked.

“A waterbender,” huffed the other. He hocked and spat. “No doubt working with those ‘freedom fighters’. Earth Kingdom scum.”

“Not just Earth Kingdom – there’s only one place in this city where a witch like that could hide.”

“Shame we won’t be there – I bet the captain’s calling for a squad to teach those fancy-muck foreigners a lesson they won’t soon forget, and after the Fire Lord was so generous, too.”

Katara’s blood ran cold. Hama. She had to get back. Ozai had barely needed a reason to put the entire compound under house arrest all those months ago – once he was presented with evidence that at least one of the spirits he had been chasing was a waterbender, he wouldn’t hesitate to tear the place apart. And yet… The Blue Spirit had saved her life; she couldn’t just leave him without knowing the extent of his injuries.

“D’you think they’re down there?”

“Nah.” The second guard sniffed. “They’ll have scarpered. Let’s get back and secure the square.”

“Aye, sir.”

Katara breathed a sigh of relief as the two soldiers marched away, relaxing from a fighting stance into a posture that meant she could get more easily at her injury. The Blue spirit was still unconscious – a bad sign – but without numbing her own pain, it would be harder for her to concentrate on finding the delicate pathways of qi needed to heal him.

As she soothed the healing water over her ribs, she debated about whether to remove his mask. It would help her to see any bruising, but the delicate bond of respect that had formed between them would be broken forever. She had itched to know his identity, even more so after their battle in Zuko’s office, when he turned out to be less of a rebel than in her fantasies. What if he was ordinary under the mask? What if she knew him – or what if she didn’t? She had all but outed herself earlier when she bent the water to hold back the munitions explosion, but that had been her choice, made on the spur of the moment but still entirely within her power. Now, her fingers curled under the bottom edge of the Blue Spirit’s mask, her heart pounding through her ears as her desire to keep his trust warred with the need to treat him as a patient.

He stirred, and her hand fell away from his face as if scolded. She brought her healing water up to feel for the blood vessels running through his skull, finding nothing but some bruising that would leave him with a throbbing headache in the morning, but without permanent damage. She healed what she could swiftly, all too conscious of the way her heartbeat ticked away the time she had left to warn Hama and the others, but she was determined not to leave him defenceless. When he groaned again and tried to sit up, she steadied her arms against the warmth of his chest and kept him down, so that her half-revealed face was out of his line of sight.

“You’re not ready to move yet,” she whispered, hoping it would disguise her voice. “Stay here. I… I have to go.”

The Blue Spirit groaned again, a noise like a protest, but she was already standing, dragging crates over to hide his limp form from anyone looking too closely down the mouth of the alley.

“You’ll be safe,” she promised, pausing as she turned to go. This might be the last time she saw him, and the Water Tribe always believed that farewells should be spoken aloud, for luck. “Thank you – we’ve not always been on the same side, but you should know it’s been an honour to fight with you.”

“Unhhh…”

“Goodbye.”

She didn’t look back as she started the long journey home.


 

Zuko’s path back to the palace was fraught. Once his head stopped spinning, the first pink tinge of dawn was already flooding the eastern sky and the earliest traders were setting up their businesses for the day. Without shadows to hide in, he had resorted to stealing peasant clothes to cover up the black silk of the Blue Spirit costume, and had left the mask and liangdao tucked into a hollow under the hanging gable of a teahouse where nobody was likely to find them. As he passed through the wards of the lower city, he kept his head down and his shoulders hunched, hoping to not be noticed. Royalty seldom came to this part of the Caldera, and few could recognise him on sight, but most important was the fact that nobody would expect to see the Crown Prince of the Fire Nation traipsing towards the marketplace in step with the crowd of country peasants arriving for a day of shopping. Uncle had always said that most of the time, people only saw what they expected to see.

Matters changed when he reached the wealthier districts. Here, members of the city and royal guard patrolled street corners, still edgy after Jet’s sabotage the previous evening, and after one too many close calls, he ducked past a nearby shop and snatched a broad-brimmed hat from one of the shelves.

“I’ll never get back at this rate,” he muttered as another pair of guards forced him in the wrong direction once more. For the entire journey, his mind had been fixed on making sure he reached Katara before anyone else. Beyond that, he had no solid plan, but if he had recognised her fighting style at the banquet, it would be asking for too much luck that the realisation had passed by Azula, especially given Jet’s attack on the factory. The entire Water Tribe entourage would need to be arrested, there was no avoiding that now, but if he could get Katara under his protection – if he could just get to her first – he held a vain hope that he could shelter her from the worst of his father’s wrath.

Never mind that she’s been lying to you from the beginning, he chastised himself as he finally made it to his room.

After stashing his clothes, borrowed and otherwise, he called for his body servants to dress him.

“Your Highness is looking overworn,” his chief valet told him not unkindly. “Given last night’s events, surely it would not be remiss to take your ease today.”

“I have no ease,” Zuko replied shortly. “Go and tell the captain of the royal guard to assemble a unit of his finest soldiers and meet me at the east gate – and has my sister woken yet?”

The servant blinked. “Your Highness, it is barely dawn. Her Highness is still abed.”

“Good. You’re not going to like this, but I’m going to need you to stall her as long as you can when she wakes up. It’s important.”

A spasm of panic crossed the servant’s face, before he smoothed out the creases between his eyes and offered Zuko a crisp bow. “It would be prudent to have the healers check Her Highness thoroughly for injuries once she is rested, to make sure she is well enough to go about her duties.”

“Thank you.”

He forced himself to be still as his servants dressed him. The attack on the palace offered a good excuse for the injuries he had sustained going after Jet, but he refused all offers of medicine, knowing the ponderous ways of the master healer would only slow him down. He caught sight of his mother in the large mirror as the last plates of his armour were being buckled in place, and something cold knifed through his gut. Though Ursa’s face was as serene and inscrutable as ever, the tilt of her jaw told Zuko she had heard his orders to the guard captain.

“It’s Katara,” he explained once the servants departed.

“Is she alright?”

“It’s not like that. She…” He sighed and ran a distracted hand through his hair. “She’s not what – who – we thought she was.”

The quiet calm on Ursa’s face dissolved into a frown of worry, an expression far less guarded than one she might have shown anyone else. Seeing the downturn of her mouth, Zuko searched for some way to reassure her.

“I won’t harm her,” he stammered out. “Don’t worry. I just need to try and sort this out, before…”

Understanding lit her features. “Go,” she told him. “Waste no more time here.”

The sun had risen barely two fingers above the horizon by the time the soldiers reached the house of the Southern Water Tribe. The door was barred. Nobody came to answer the captain’s hails at the lodge. When Zuko finally lost his patience and ordered the two leading riders to charge their komodo-rhinos at the gate and tear it down, the sight that awaited him sent a flare of panic shaking through his limbs. 

The Fire Nation guards stationed there were knocked out cold, with no visible injuries, and had been left in the garden, laid out like fish left to dry in the sun. Katara and her people were nowhere to be found.

Chapter Text

You have disgraced me.” 

The flames in the throne room burned hot, almost white in the gutter that separated the Fire Lord from the Crown Prince and the crowd of honoured generals gathered to witness his son’s punishment.  

“Your position, your country, all of it thrown away because a little Water Tribe whore fluttered her eyelashes at you.” 

Zuko's fists clenched against the floor, but he kept his head bowed, and offered no resistance to his father's censure. 

“I should proclaim your idiocy through the streets,” Ozai sneered, “so that all can share in your humiliation. Unless, perhaps, it wasn’t weakness that played a part in this plot, and it’s your complicity that should be discussed instead?” 

The words were a sting too far. “I had no idea what she was, or what she was doing,” Zuko snarled, finally looking up. “As soon as I realised what was happening, I took the guard to arrest her. I tried to fix it. They must have sensed the net closing around them and used the confusion caused by the attack to escape.” 

The Fire Lord's shadow reared back on his throne, considering the reply with a long stroke of his beard. The generals waited with bated breath. Restored to her own seat on the dais, Azula watched the proceedings with barely disguised glee, her smirk a vicious contrast to the stony calm that enveloped her mother like a shroud. Ursa stared straight ahead, a perfect picture of a dutiful Fire Lady, though like Zuko, she held her hands clenched tightly in her lap. Any intervention or show of emotion now would only serve to awaken Ozai's capricious nature, and whatever violence he was capable of through anger, it was only matched by the viciousness caused by his spite. 

“And you have no idea where they might have gone?” the Fire Lord asked now, the words cold with mockery. 

Zuko's mouth flattened into a thin line, his thoughts flying back to the break-in at his office, to the letter from the prisoner governor that she had stolen. “For some reason, she didn’t think it a good idea to tell me her plans.” 

“Your sarcasm is unnecessary,” Ozai snapped. “A result of the Water Tribe’s bad influence, no doubt.” He straightened. “It doesn’t matter. Admiral Zhao!” 

The general rose from his seat and gave a crisp bow towards the dais. “What do you wish of me, Excellency?” 

“Outfit the fleet for a voyage into Southern waters, with full battle capabilities – we will show these barbarians the cost of defying our mercy. You are to leave no one alive, man woman, or child.” 

Ursa’s eyes widened. “My lord –” 

Ozai snarled at her. “You will be silent. It is your meddling that led to this in the first place. Mercy is weakness, it has no place here.” 

“Yes, my lord,” she replied, dropping her gaze. “I merely wished to advise the admiral that winter will be coming to the South, and that he should take extra care to avoid unnecessary risks in an environment that is every bit as unforgiving as our own lava fields.” 

Ever the sycophant, Zhao offered her a nod. “I thank Your Grace for the advice.” 

With one last glance at his wife’s blithe expression, the Fire Lord curled his lip and turned away. The Water Tribe, it seemed, had had a rebellious influence on more than one of his household, but to apply the proper discipline in front of his generals would only waste time and open himself to ridicule.

“Leave as soon as you are able,” he told Zhao. “My son will be going with you, to make up for his indiscretion and to prove that he does indeed still have some honour after all.” 

“Yes, Your Majesty.”  

With another bow, the admiral resumed his seat, already preening at the thought of going down in history as the one to destroy the Southern Water Tribe. Zuko could almost see the gears turning in his head, already coining titles for himself: Zhao the Wolf SlayerZhao the Conqueror. And there was no doubt about what the man would do if the Prince revealed himself to be anything less than enthusiastic in carrying out the Fire Lord’s orders. He might as well sign his own execution warrant now and he done with it. 

Azula cleared her throat, and Zuko's mood dropped further. The hyena-cat smile she wore had never boded well for him. “Father,” she purred, “there is a chance The Water Tribe princess won’t be heading back to the South. She might be going to the Earth Kingdom to stir up your enemies.” 

“The thought has crossed my mind,” Ozai replied slowly. At the mention of Katara, his hand had reached up for the scar on his cheek, but now he fisted his fingers against the reflex and deliberately set his hand back on his knee. “It makes no difference to what must be done. That witch has made a mockery of the Fire Nation, she has defied us, vandalised our home and our capital city, and spat in the face of the generosity shown her.” His expression grew into a lazy smile as he turned towards his daughter.  “Azula, here is your chance to prove your competence. Track down Katara of the Water Tribe and bring her back to me.” 

“Yes, Father.” 

The smile faded as he glanced once more at the figure koutou’ing in abject humility on the throne room floor. “Zuko,” the Fire Lord sneered. “Get out of my sight.” 


 

Even hours later, Zuko felt the contempt in his father’s voice ringing in his ears, but no less so than the indecision. He had four days before Zhao would expect him on the flagship bound for Southern waters, and nothing to do in the meantime but pace in his confinement like a caged moose-lion. They expected his frustration, so he gave in to it, first with three hours of firebending training and then with a long douse under the cooling springwater that was channelled directly to his rooms, but now, his energy was spent. He had shut himself in his office, and sat at his desk with his head cradled in his hands. Even here, in his solitude, his sister's singsong, gloating false sympathy made him grind his teeth. 

“Aww, poor Zu-Zu,” she had simpered as they left the throne room. “It seems as if you really are unlucky aren’t you? All that time, and it was all a lie. But don’t worry, I’ll be sure to say hello for you once I have her in chains.” 

“She’ll rip you to pieces first,” he had snarled back. 

“You think so? When we fought outside Keijo, she only escaped because the Blue Spirit knocked her out of the way.” 

“The Blue Spirit?” It was fortunate she was so taken up with making him miserable, or she might have guessed the real reason for his sudden guardedness. 

“No doubt one of those hulking guards that was always tagging along after her. I wouldn’t be surprised if he was her lover into the bargain, he seemed so worried for her safety...” She sensed a weakness, but not the right one, and she grinned. “Have I hit a nerve?” 

“Just leave me alone.” 

At the time, the barb in Azula's words had buzzed at him like a whole swarm of mosquitoes, but now in the quiet of his office, they took on a new, more practical meaning: his identity as the Blue Spirit was still safe. 

With his heartbeat rising, he rose and crossed to the bureau in the corner, the one Katara had broken into on the night she raided his office. The royal locksmith had had to completely replace the mechanism in the door, but the damage done meant it stuck when it opened, and Zuko yanked it a little harder than he probably should have to get at the contents within. After a moment or two of rummaging, he found the small stack of letters he had stashed for safe keeping, all signed with her name in flowing, elegant script. Katara. 

A scrap of paper dropped out of the bureau as he picked up the letters. It was his sketch of her, an absent doodle painted as he imagined her in Fire Nation red, feeding turtleducks with the sun caught in the copper sheen of her hair. She had lied to him, betrayed him – but could it really be called a betrayal? He knew what it was to hide his true self for the sake of survival, to wrap his misgivings around in a blanket of cold aloofness so they could not be used against him. The only difference between them was that she had acted, she had envisioned change and reached out for it with her own hands, while he was left playing a hero to justify his own inaction. After everything she had seen, everything done to her people, she could have ignored the plight of the common folk in the wards and been forgiven for her indifference. Yet she had healed them, and stolen rice for them, even saved them from an inferno, and despite this generosity he still couldn’t reconcile his anger with the ache of never seeing her again, except across a battlefield. 

He smelled smoke; the sketch in his hands was burning. With a curse, he dropped her letters and smothered the eager flames with his sleeve. How many years had it been since he lost control of his bending like that?   

“Zuko.” 

He turned at the sound of his mother's voice to find her standing in the doorway, serene as ever, though her eyes were grave. He looked away. 

“What are you going to do?” she asked. 

His mind whirled with the question. What even could he do? He might sneak away, try to reach Katara before Azula found her, but what would be the point? Would he arrest her? Bring her back in irons to face his father's justice? He could imagine the fairness of a trial for someone accused of being an enemy of the state, who had dared made the Fire Lord into a fool. 

Zuko frowned down at the paper still smouldering between his fingers. “She stood up for Haku when they arrested him,” he ground out. “That boy Azula accused of being the Blue Spirit. And if even half the stories about her are true, she's done so much, helped so many people.” An image flashed in his mind of Katara, dwarfed by a towering wall of flame, not caring who saw as she threw up a barrier of ice to protect the very people who had made the munitions that destroyed her home. 

 “But she lied to you,” his mother surmised. “And you don’t know what you’ll do if you face her again.” There was no disapproval in the words, no accusation of cowardice, but Zuko felt the bite nonetheless.  

His shoulders slumped. “I know where she’s going. If I can trace her route... maybe I can get to her before Azula does.” She had saved him from the soldiers in the square, and before that when the royal guard surrounded them in his office; he would be truly without honour if such a debt went unrepaid.

Seeing the final dregs of his hesitation, Ursa glided forward in a rustle of silk and pulled him down into a hug so quickly that for a moment he stood there, cold, mind too numbed with shock to react. Then, like the first halting drops of a thunderstorm, the careful barriers of protocol built up over years gave way to the childish, tempestuous need to be held, and Zuko dropped his head against his mother’s shoulder and clung to the silk of her robes, so tightly it warped the fabric.

“I know you’ll do the right thing,” she murmured into his hair. “You’ve come so far, and I am so, so proud of you.”

“I haven’t done anything,” he protested. “I used to think –” A shudder wracked through his body. What had he thought? What was the Blue Spirit really, but some kind of petty rebellion turned into a symbol to spite his father? All the nights running around playing a hero never meant anything until she swept into his life like a new tide and opened his eyes to how things could change. He swallowed. “What would I do if I found her?”

With one last squeeze, Ursa stepped back and framed his face between her hands. “I think only you can answer that.” 


 

He planned for the rest of the day. Maps and charts of the Fire Nation archipelago scattered about his desk, beneath sheets of notes and calculations riddled with crossings-out and second guesses about how much the Water Tribe knew of the Navy’s movements. Katara, for her part, was a harder piece to predict. She had a day’s head start on him, but she was travelling weighed down with an entourage, and given the furore that had been raised at her disappearance she might not dare to travel during daylight hours. A servant came with a tray of food around mid-afternoon and he scoffed the portion of rice and meat with only the barest decorum before going back to his task, desperate now to speed the sun in its slow arc across the sky.

As soon as possible without rousing suspicion, he burned the papers he had spent the afternoon poring over and retreated to his rooms. The Blue Spirit mask and his liangdao were still stashed under the gable of the teahouse in the lower city, but he took the black silk from its hiding place at the bottom of his private trunk and put them on and stuffed a few extras into the hidden lining, before settling his daytime clothes back over the top. His father would be watching him too closely to safely get out of the palace by stealth, but there were other, more brazen methods to get where he wanted.

He rang the bell that called his valet to him.

“Tell the stable master to get an eel-hound ready for an excursion into the city,” he commanded, pretending to read through a report that had been left on his dresser.

The valet wrung his hands. “Your Highness, I’m afraid His Majesty ordered that you were not to –”

“Why doesn’t my father just put me on a leash and be done with it?” The outburst was delivered in an irritated snap, but he couldn’t bring himself to care about the servant’s flinch, not when what he was about to do might be interpreted as treason. “If you must, have the guards alerted to provide an escort, and if you won’t do that, then I will find someone who will.”

The valet stuttered an apology and hurried away with the overbearing humility that had been trained into him, and within half an hour Zuko was riding down into the wards, his hands sweaty on the reins, with two of the royal guard flanking him on their own mounts so that people hurried out of the way. Every moment took Katara further and further away, but he held himself back, played the aloof prince as his escort ordered some hapless passerby to give them directions to the site of the Painted Lady’s last appearance.

The square had been cleared of people, but the debris remained. The torn paper dragon glared at Zuko as he dismounted, but his glance slid past it to the rooftop where he and Katara had fought Jet only the night before.

Did she have any idea it was me under the mask? Would she have cared?

Next to him, the guards stood close together, darting nervous glances into the shadows that told him they hadn’t been this far down into the city in their lives. They had been sent out to watch him, but they were in unfamiliar terrain, at night, following rumours about spirits, and all would be advantagous in helping him enact his plan.

“Well?” he barked. They jumped. “Are you going to just stand there like a pair of hippo-cows or are you going to make yourselves useful?”

The pair glanced at each other. “Uh… how can we help, Your Highness?”

“Something doesn’t sit right with me about the reports from this incident. We’re here to look for evidence about what really happened.”

“Evidence, Highness?”

Zuko made an impatient noise and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Anything to prove the blast origin and nature of the explosion. I trust I don’t have to spell it out for you?”

Wary of his tone, the two guards nodded.

“Check over there.”

He watched them out of the corner of his eye. They were a diligent pair, and dutiful, and as time passed their nervousness faded, and they became so engrossed in their examination of scorch marks on a wall that they didn’t see him edging further away. With the steps of his plan firmly in his mind, Zuko slipped a pair of smoke bombs out from the lining of his coat.

“Did you see that?” he asked the guards.

“See what?”

“Up there.” He pointed. “It looked like a figure. It was just for a second, I saw it against the lantern lights.”

“On the roof?”

“Could be the Blue Spirit.”

The pair raised their weapons, the faint jingle of their spear-rings a counterpoint to the sudden stillness in the square as they advanced, intent.

Zuko backed further away, measured his distance to the end of the alley where he could climb up to the roof and escape. Just one more step…

He threw the first of the smoke bombs. Where it struck the wall, a cloud of noxious gas bloomed and engulfed the guards, making them cough. The spluttered, stumbling, but before they could get their bearings Zuko hurled a spark over to the crumpled dragon, which caught in an instant and ignited in a roar of air.

“What the –”

The second smoke bomb flew from his hands. It landed in the middle of the square and exploded.

“Prince Zuko!”

He let loose a blast of fire, in an arc, like he was defending against an enemy. “The Blue Spirit! Don’t just stand there, he’s –”

Prince Zuko!

He sprinted down the alley and up the wall at the end, taking to the roof just in time to glance back and see his escort clear the bank of smoke, coughing but determined to find him. Crouching down out of the glare from the flaming dragon, he eased off one of his boots and dropped it on the ground. The guards would come to their own conclusions about what had happened, but he doubted they would willingly consider the idea that he had abducted himself. They advanced down the alley, calling for him, but he didn’t linger. His gear was hidden three streets away, and from there it would take him a good hour to get down to the base of the crater and find a boat. There were small fishing vessels moored on the southern rim, perfect for coastal travel, and he could hide his clothes in one of the shacks nearby.

When he reached the shore, he stripped off his outer layer and tore it at the seams, before taking one of the liangdao to his bare arm and making a light cut so blood spattered over the fabric. Part of him wondered why he was going to such lengths when he meant to bring Katara back as a prisoner, but the other, wiser side of his mind that spoke with his uncle’s voice reminded him that preparedness is never truly wasted.

It took him hours more to find the Water Tribe. They had harboured in a sheltered bay almost at the southernmost tip of the main island, overlooked on three sides by steep mountains and by shallow, treacherous shoals on the fourth. It was a risky strategy, as the vessels’ deep keels meant they were trapped until high tide, but the reefs that kept them in had treacherous currents that kept smaller boats away – Zuko himself had had to come ashore at an inlet further north and trek around the headland to find them.

Certain of his hiding place, he lifted the Blue Spirit mask away from his face and waited. Moonlight glanced off sails and a small gathering of people on a white-sand beach. Some – the ones descending from the moored ships – were clad in the bone scale mail the Water Tribe guards had been wearing in the throne room all those months ago, and they came forward eagerly to greet Katara’s people where they waited just shy of the tree line. She stood at the front, her long hair blown about by the night wind, and Zuko heard her voice as she recognised someone from among the group that had come to greet her.

A young man stepped forward, gangly even at a distance, but at his first halting approach, Katara let out an impatient cry and leapt towards him, and suddenly the pair were laughing, spinning each other in an embrace that was looked on with fondness by the rest of their people.

So she does have a lover then. Zuko’s hand balled into a fist on his knee, so tightly the surrounding plants wilted away from the heat. And I was a fool.

Rage churned in his stomach as Katara and the stranger parted, arms still around each other, then bent their foreheads close enough to touch, in a gesture so full of casual affection it felt like a rock-punch to the gut. She had never been so open with him.

And yet he couldn’t turn his gaze away. With a few muttered words between them, the stranger pulled something out of a pouch on his hip and handed it to her. From her posture, Zuko could tell the gift was unexpected, and she was hesitant to take it, but after an instant her whole stance changed and she held the item – a necklace – up to the moonlight to better examine it. She said something and the man laughed, and the rest seemed to take that as the signal to depart. Within moments the soldiers gathered the baggage packed on the shore and hauled it up the gangplanks, with Katara’s retinue following close behind. The decks were a hive of activity, but with still hours left to go until high tide, they were stuck.

But Zuko knew where they were going. He could feel the first pull of the sun on the edge of the horizon as he slipped back along the shore to where his boat lay hidden, and it stoked the anger still lashing at his insides. As he climbed in and cranked the motor into life, his mind narrowed to a single focus: he would get to the waterbender prison first and warn the governor that the Southern Water Tribe was coming.


 

On the deck of the flagship, Katara heard the whir of a distant engine, but it sounded like a small craft and it was still too dark to see. Although worry gnawed at her for exposing the fleet in such an obvious manner, there had been little choice after the fire and then the explosion that had revealed her as a waterbender. She had to believe the sacrifices were worth it.

“What about Dad?” she had asked on the beach. “Our people?”

“We got word to them – they attacked the Southern Raiders before the hotheads even realised what was happening, just as we planned.”

They would vanish into the tundra now, scatter like wind-blown snow to evade the vengeful force Ozai would no doubt send, and they would survive the winter. The plan now had changed. With her cover blown, she was no longer in a place to strike at the heart of the Fire Nation’s empire, but they had allies in the Earth Kingdom and beyond, and hope still lay in that direction.

A pair of dawn gulls wheeled overhead. Katara’s thoughts turned to Zuko, and what he must think of her now. She had lied to him, and used him as a shield, and then left without a word of explanation. The sea-wolf teeth still cradled in her hands dug into her palms, the bite grounding her after so long so far away from home. They were new, a replacement for the ceremonial band that was lost in the fall of the South, and she clung to the new path it represented. She was tired of having to hide who she was.

“Hey, sis,” a voice called from the other side of the deck. “You alright?”

She turned away from her view of the shore and tucked the sea-wolf teeth into an inner fold of her cloak. “That depends, Sokka – do we have any sea prunes?”

 

Chapter Text

The dark room was stuffy, with no windows to let in light, only one shut door, and a close, oppressive heat that took its toll even on the fire nation soldiers guarding over the Southern water Tribe’s delegation. One of the elders had collapsed already, vomiting from heat sickness, and though a servant had been sent for to provide a reviving tonic, Katara couldn’t help wonder if the gesture was meant kindly, or if it was just to ensure that all of Ozai’s prizes made it into the throne room for him to crow properly about his victory. 

The hurt was still raw, a deep cut rubbed with salt, oozing with the start of infection. She sat by her father’s side in the centre of the room in silence, her ceremonial furs itchy and damp with sweat, trying to distract herself from the moment that had played over and over in her head ever since the last day her people had stood independent against a tyrant. 

Her mother’s last embrace, arms holding her back in an iron grip as she realised what was about to happen, a wall of orange fire and the stench of burning meat and the knowledge that it was all, all her fault. 

She heaved a breath and turned her attention to the guards. The one closest to her, a young man with only the first scratchings of a beard on his chin, shifted uncomfortably under her scrutiny. She spotted four points where the enamelled plates of his armour left gaps she could exploit – mortal vulnerabilities if she managed to catch him by surprise.  

“Don’t even think about it, Katara,” her father muttered beside her, as if she were about to do nothing worse than sneak an extra sugar-cake at dinner. He sat cross-legged with his palms flat on his knees, head bowed and eyes shut, a slight frown creasing the space between his brows. It was the posture of a battle meditation, asking the spirits for strength. 

“I wasn’t,” she answered, mirroring his use of the Southern Tribe’s dialect so as not to alarm their watchers. “At least not seriously.” 

Hakoda opened his eyes. ”You’ll have to be strong over the next few months, until we can use the winter again, but not the same kind of strength asked of your brother.” 

“Don’t worry, I know what’s at stake,” she said. It didn’t mean she couldn’t fantasize about abandoning the plan, about tearing through the guards like they were paper and enjoying the shock in the Fire Lord’s eyes as she assassinated him and his entire blasted family so the world would no longer have to endure them. Sometimes such thoughts felt like the only way to drive away the grief, acting as a focus that blotted out the destruction of her home. Had she been alone, she might have considered it, but even with Hama secreted among the delegation, and others of her elite corps of waterbenders hidden in her entourage of servants, such a move was too risky. Both her father and the elders were needed for their people to thrive, and vengeance was pointless if you destroyed your own future in the process. Any action she took had to protect them first, and for that she needed to make this a long hunt, a stalk like those of the winter lions who could track seals for miles beneath the ice. 

The door at the end of the room opened to admit one of the Fire Nation palace’s army of servants. The man tucked his arms into his draping sleeves and bowed. 

“His Imperial Majesty is ready to receive you now. We allow you to keep your weapons.” 

He turned and left without a backward glance. Katara stood with the rest of her people, helping some of the fenebler elders to their feet before she rearranged the ceremonial fur mantle across her shoulders. She knew what would happen now, they would be paraded before the court like some exotic circus act, barbarians tamed for the pleasure of people who would never know the horrors their indifference had unleashed. They were lucky the moon was dark and the sun high, or she would drown them all.

“Courage!” Hama whispered to her, drawing in close under the pretence of using her for support. “We are the patient cold of the sea that demands a respect they know nothing of.” 

“It will be their downfall,” she muttered in reply. 

Across the room, her father had called Attuk to him, and unfastened something from his belt to hand to the younger man. “When I call for it, bring it to me,” he said. 

“But Chief, your hunting medicine, it –” 

“There isn’t any other way.” 

“Let’s go!” one of the Fire Nation guards snapped. “Enough stalling.”

Katara glared at him but held her tongue. She had to keep her temper. From this point forward she must be the dutiful daughter, beyond reproach and beyond suspicion. She rolled her shoulders back, settling her hatred around herself like the first rime of winter ice. The Fire Lord and his lackeys would see what they needed to see, and by the time they realised their hubris led them wrong, it would be too late. 

She shuffled into the throne room with the rest of her people, her steps slow and deliberate to keep pace with the struggling movements of the elders. A wall of heat from the fire in front of the Fire Lord’s dais stole what little moisture was left to her, but she kept her expression neutral as she surveyed each of the royal family in turn. Their spies had managed only limited intelligence from the palace, but she knew their names and reputations. Azula, on the far left, watched Hakoda with a malevolent gleam in her eye, as if eager for him to slip and give her an excuse to lash out. Next to her, her mother was solemn, her gaze downcast in what might be either subservience or sympathy, but her calm was betrayed by almost preternatural stillness, and the sudden contrast between that and Kya’s vibrant nature was more alien than anything else so far.

The peals of the gong that had announced them died away as Hakoda knelt before the throne. Katara followed suit with the others, though not before a chill of caution shivered down her spine. On the Fire Lord’s right hand sat the Crown Prince, Zuko, his features fine and stern, eyes bright as liquid gold. Unlike his father and sister, he wasn’t staring down at them in triumph – no. Instead his gaze was calculating, measuring the threat in the Water Tribe guards arranged in a protective formation around the elders, unswayed by their show of humility. His gaze flickered to her, an instant of dispassion as he measured the threat she posed, but she gazed steadily forwards, drawing her mind down into memories of the tundra, the blank expanse of white and deadly cold that cared nothing for small, living things.

When he looked away, all she could do was swallow her relief.

Chapter Text

The deck swayed beneath Katara’s feet. Coarse fur brushed against her neck, the feel as familiar and long-missed as the smell of seal fat and the clean salt of the open sea. Even so, her forehead wrinkled in a frown as she looked back through her brother’s telescope to the small black object that had stalked the two Water Tribe ships since that morning. 

“It’s too far away to raise a fog,” she determined. “This heat will make it dissipate too quickly.” 

“Well that’s great,” Sokka griped next to her. “Knowing our luck, whoever this creepy stalker is they know where we’re going.” 

“That would explain how they found us,” Bato agreed. He turned to the two siblings, waiting for orders like the rest of the crew. 

Katara glanced at her brother and found him watching her intently. 

“Well, sis? You’re the one who got the information, and you know the Fire Nation better than any of us. What should we do?” 

Also part of the group, Hama cleared her throat. “We can’t leave our people in that prison. No matter what, we need them to end this war once and for all, and we might have been them in different circumstances.” 

Grimly, Katara nodded. She had promised, and besides, they had no choice now that Ozai was after them. The original plan had involved guerrilla tactics, breaking the Fire Nation apart from within, but Jet’s intervention had forced her hand before she was ready. It might already be too late, if the Fire Lord had decided to send a dragon-hawk ahead with instructions to kill the very waterbenders they were set to rescue. Of course, that would depend on whether Zuko had told his father about the letters she stole, but she didn’t want to think about that; her betrayal already sat too heavy on her shoulders. 

Sokka laid a gentle hand on her arm. “So, what’s the plan?” 


The fleet had maps of the island, and the wayfinders had scouted the headland under cover of darkness to see the terrain they would encounter. The upper levels of the mine, carved from old lava tubes, were sketched out with charcoal on a scrap of hide, with spots of red ochre to show where the surface crust was thinnest. 

“We know from the letter Katara recovered that the waterbenders are shackled at night so they can’t bend, and during the day they’re worked deep where there isn’t any moisture,” Bato briefed once everyone was assembled. “That means the best time to reach them will be either sunrise or sunset, when they’re being moved from the mines to the holding cells.” 

“Sunset.” Hama’s decision was weighted with the wisdom if long campaigns. ”They’ll be weaker, but the qi-blocker they’re forced to take should be wearing off by then, and if there is any pursuit we will have the advantage in the dark. Katara and I will lead the rescue party. We will channel water from the ocean and use it to break into the tunnels here.” She stabbed the map with one gnarled finger.  

“And the rest of us?” Sokka asked. 

“You’ll be the distraction,” Katara told him, ”so we can get the waterbenders out without sounding the alert. You’ve always been good at being loud and obnoxious, Sokka.” 

“Hey, what can I say? It’s an art form.” 

Bato stroked his chin, ignoring the banter as he frowned down at the map table. ”If we can destroy the place it will be a bonus – the Fire Nation relies on the diamond trade with the Earth Kingdom to fuel a lot of its mechanics.” 

A sigh passed around the surrounding crew as they absorbed the details of the plan. The sun had already begun its descent towards the horizon, and the island was still many leagues away, not even yet a smudge on the edge of the sea. The rescue would be a close-run thing, especially if the small boat following on their stern went for reinforcements. 

Once the last of the details were confirmed, Katara left the briefing on silent feet, headed towards the small cabin in the hold that had been given over to her and her women. There were women among the crew, of course, but they slept in hammocks with the rest, and formed part of the lifeblood of the ship, and weren’t considered as being in the way. One of them nodded to her as she passed, already in the black garb of the Sea Wolf but lacking the battle-mask that would complete the transformation. The last time she had worn it, she had been triumphant, had dragged three of Ozai’s finest troop carriers to the depths of his own harbour, and yet all she could think about was that last look of her mother’s face and the glare of orange flame turned purple through the palace walls. 

Footsteps followed her. “Katara?” 

“Sokka – is something wrong?” 

“I don’t like this,” he confessed. ”I know we don’t really have a choice, but it seems so risky, and there’s too much reliance on chance.” 

She closed with him, offering a smile for reassurance as she put her hand on his shoulder. “The plan is flexible. We don’t know what’s out there waiting for us, but it’ll work.” 

“I know it will, just –” His shoulders sagged. “Nila told me a bit of what went down in the capital, and… I wasn’t there when it happened.” 

She stayed quiet; they both knew what ‘it’ was, and the guilt must weigh heavily on him, too. 

“I guess I just got you back, and I don’t want to risk losing you again.” 

“Oh, Sokka…” Without another word she threw her arms around his neck. His recent growth spurt meant she has to stretch further than before to reach, but the strength of the hug was just the same. “We’re going to make it.” 

“We’ll do it for Mom,” he replied, and wrapped his arms around her. 


 

 

 

The ships’ wayfinders stayed on board, their bending turned to keeping the vessels steady and raising the fog that would conceal the attack, alert in case the plan backfired and Katara and the others needed to escape quickly. They watched as the rescue party sank in a bubble beneath the waves, and followed the slight ripple caused by the displacement as they powered to the far side of the island. 

It was dusk. The sky dulled to a low violet as the first stars winked into life and Katara pushed herself out of the sea on the crest of a wave. She twisted the water out of her clothing, watching her followers do the same. Hama stayed close by her side, her worn grey hair braided in the complicated pattern of a general and her aged face set beneath the mask of the Tiger Seal. 

“Don’t wait, I want a line of you - channelling water up to the hill on my signal,” she ordered in a low voice. Katara might be the Sea Wolf, but with so much at stake, it was the general’s lifetime of experience that led the way. 

Nila, Linara and the others quickly got into order, while Hama led the scramble up to where the map told them to strike, and settled to wait for the sign that the warriors had started their attack. 

It came as the last curve of sunlight sank below the sea. Something exploded, casting a flare of light and heat over Katara’s face. She shook off her concern for Sokka and stood. Already there was a faint glimmer from below as Linara bent a column of water out of the sea and passed it up the line, feeding it until it stretched into a long, sinuous rope. Katara felt for it, plucked it out of the air with her bending, then turned and brought the momentum of it crashing down against the ground as a giant spike of ice. It tore through the crust of the lava tube and into the hollow space below, smoothing into a chute. She went down first, her arms sleeved in water in case they met any resistance, but the tunnel was dark, deserted. 

“They’ve already passed through,” Hama grunted, examining the tracks left if the dusty floor of the cavern. 

“Then we follow them,” Katara replied. 

It grew warmer as they reached the end of the tunnel, the cold light of Katara’s healing water washed away by a rising orange glow. They had moved steadily downhill, away from the active chambers of the volcano, which meant that whatever was causing the heat was not a natural phenomenon. Eventually They came to a stop behind a narrow door set with bars that opened into a room full of black iron cages. There were about half a dozen to be seen through the small window, and each one contained a human, clad in blackened, sooty rags that hung off emaciated frames, chained at wrists and ankles with heavy iron links. The waterbenders. Bile rose in Katara’s throat. The smug report the governor had sent to Zuko had mentioned the conditions in which the prisoners were kept, but nothing could have prepared her for the suffering before her now. The smell from the room was reminiscent of a stable, and the waterbenders barely flinched when one of the guards rapped on the bars. She curled her anger around her power and sent it questing out, freezing the door hinges and the lock, crushing the pins until they cracked. 

She blasted it apart. The guards, used to their broken, docile charges, scrambled in surprise. They fell back with daggers of ice protruding from their throats. One ducked away and tried to run, but a water whip caught him around the ankles – he fell, and his skull bashed against the corner of one of the cages. 

“Is it –?” 

“It’s Lady Katara! And the general!” 

“They shouldn’t be here…” 

 The mutters rose like a swarm of disturbed viper-wasps, alarmed, angry, not elated as Katara expected. 

“We’re here to get you out,” she barked, and threw out another whip that smashed the padlocks holding the cages closed. “Come on. There isn’t much time.” 

“You must leave us here.” 

No.” 

“You don’t understand.” The man in the cage closest to her unfolded skeletal legs and staggered upright. She knew she ought to recognise his face, but hard work and starvation had left the skin hollow beneath his eyes. “It’s a trap. They knew you were coming. Please, Lady Katara, leave us – we’re no use to you – you should save yourself while you still can.” 

“But…”  

Disbelief killed the protest on Katara’s tongue. In every face she saw the same thing – blue eyes drained grey by hopelessness, lines cut deep with suffering, the marks of a people defeated. But she had not walked the razor’s edge of the Fire Lord’s wrath just to give up on the cusp of victory. 

“I came to rescue you, and I am not leaving without you!” she cried. “You are warriors of the Water Tribe – you helped hold back the forces of the Fire Nation for a century, and it took a comet for them to even match you. You can still fight! They have taken a lot from you, yes, but your courage runs deeper than any mine you’ve been forced to dig. It’s time to stand up and take back your freedom!” 

They turned away. Heads bent, they sat in their cages and slumped away from the escape offered to them, the space between them and Katara greater than just the short expanse of metal tiles beneath their feet. She could only stare at them, lost. 

At her side, Hama snorted. She marched forward, the beads woven into her hair clicking angrily in the silence. “Is this the respect you show the Sea Wolf?” she demanded. “Is this how you honour the sacrifices of your ancestors? You shame them all with your cowardice.” 

“Hama –” 

“Perhaps we should go, and leave you all to rot in your misery. Those who will not fight cannot fight, and we are better off without your failure.” With one last sneer, she huffed and turned to leave, and her hand fell on Katara’s shoulder to guide her back towards the tunnel. 

“Wait.” 

The atmosphere changed, charged. The same man who had spoken before watched them through narrowed eyes. 

“Tell us what we must do.” 


 

Sounds of fighting followed them up the tunnel as they made their way back to the break-in point, with those strong enough carrying the guards’ weapons, and the rest limping along as best they could. The qi-blocker they were forced to drink with their water ration had yet to wear off, but the goal now wasn’t confrontation. Water, when it meets something it cannot move, flows around, carries on, survives

Night had truly fallen by the time they made it up into the open air. Many of the captured waterbenders simply stared, blinking owlishly at the size of the sky, at the dim rime of moonlight edging the clouds on the southern horizon. 

“We have to go,” Katara hissed. “That way.” 

There was enough light left to spot the hulking iron warship in the bay, and the company of Fire Nation soldiers striding up the hill, cutting off their original escape route to where Nila’s group had joined Bato and the others. There was no time to think about who might be leading the attack, or how they would manage to get two dozen half-starved prisoners away if the soldiers caught up. Just in case, she brought up the rear, laying down black ice so their pursuers would at least have to pick their way over the ground. 

There was a murmur of uncertainty from up ahead.  The waterbenders had stumbled to a halt, their path blocked by a dark figure with drawn liangdao and an eerie, grinning blue mask. Katara slipped to the front of the group, putting herself between the Blue Spirit and her charges.

“You are one of them,” she spat. “I trusted you and you led them here.” There was no point in disguising her voice now, when he so obviously knew her identity, so she let her voice ring clear across the space between them. “Well, I’m not going back, and I won’t let you take them!” 

She launched herself forward. The Blue Spirit moved, but she wasn’t aiming directly for him. Her ice wall drove him to the opposite side of the hollow, away from the path he had been blocking, and as he rolled back into a guard, she stepped once more between him and those she had promised to protect. 

“Go,” she told them. “I can handle this.” 

“Katara –” 

“I said go – you’ll have to lead them, Hama. Go!” 

With a round of last, worried looks, the waterbenders did as she ordered. The Blue Spirit stood poised, but did not move to follow the waterbenders, and did not raise his blades as Katara stepped forward to face him properly.  

“Are you hoping for a pardon for turning me in?” she growled. “I’m not going to make it easy for you.” 

To her surprise, the Blue Spirit’s shoulders slumped, an emotion difficult decipher in the night, and for an instant she suspected a trap, wary of the growing sounds of pursuit. But then he sheathed his blades – they flashed in the moonlight – and he reached up to undo the ties that held the mask to his face. 

“So you didn’t know it was me after all,” Zuko said as all the water at Katara’s fingertips fell lifeless to the ground. 

“I…” She swallowed, forced the words up her throat. “You. How long have you known it was me?” 

“Only since the feast. I saw you fighting, and I recognised your style – don’t worry, you kept yourself well-hidden up until then.” A sneer entered his voice. “I actually thought your mother was the one running around in the mask, can you believe it?” 

“Your father killed my mother,” she snapped, lowering herself into her stance once again. 

“If you’re going to beat me, you’d better do it quickly, before Azula’s soldiers get here. She’s the one who brought them,” he explained, noticing the flash of surprise in her features. “And she doesn’t know I’m here. She must have worked it out at the same time I did, or she would have come for you a long time ago.” 

“Zuko –” 

“I just want to know one thing first. Was it all a lie?” He searched her face. “All the time we spent together – everything – was it just so I wouldn’t suspect you?” 

Shame welled behind her eyes, made her breath stutter. “It wasn’t like that. That’s not why I did it. I shouldn’t have let it go so far, but –” 

“Katara!” 

Sokka’s voice, distant, but the sound of him scrambling across the lava field towards her was unmistakable. Something in Zuko’s face closed, and only the briefest flash of light warned her before he struck out with his bending. 

“I don’t believe you,” he snarled. 

She raised a barrier to block, and brought it swinging around in a whip that he dissipated with a blast from his fists. Steam hissed. Their exchange became a furious back and forth, evenly matched – she had more experience against firebenders, but he had been watching her fight, learning how to counter the way she moved. For every strike she blocked, he had a block of his own, and the sword style he used as the Blue Spirit wove into his firebending stances so that he never stayed still long enough for her to catch him with a whip. When she finally managed to trip him, he landed hard on his side and rolled away.

He came at her again in a flurry of punches, and this time she stood her ground. One arm swept his footing out from under him with a sheet of ice, and the other took advantage, a controlled overhead arc that took the ice from the wall and bent it into a wave that slammed him ten feet into a rocky bluff and solidified, trapping him. Breathing heavily, she rose from her stance, cautious even though his head lolled against the rock. Had she killed him? She hadn’t thought about the force of the impact, or the way his head might have snapped back as he flew through the air. 

Haltingly, she took a step towards him, but paused when Sokka clattered to a stop next to her. 

“Katara,” he gasped, relieved. “We have to go – who’s that?” 

Zuko was stirring against his restraints.  

“Wait, don’t tell me. That’s the Prince of the Fire Nation, isn’t it?” Sokka checked. “Spirits, no wonder we were ambushed – wait, what are you doing now?” 

She had toed forward out of her brother’s reach, watching the enemy who might have been something else entirely, while he stared back, defiant of the hurt in her eyes. 

“Come with us,” she whispered. 

Sokka grabbed her elbow. “Are you nuts?” 

Zuko watched the movement, the protective stance and the suspicious glare, and remembered the joyful embrace on the beach. “Leave me alone,” he growled, turning his head away. 

“Please, Zuko,” she begged. “You can’t go back. The Fire Lord’s a tyrant! What do you think he’ll do to you if –” 

“I am the Crown Prince of the Fire Nation!” he roared. “I am loyal to my country, and to my father. What do you even care what happens to me? You’ve been lying since the beginning, and I was a fool not to see through it.” 

“Katara, we have to go!” 

An orange glow spread from Zuko’s chest, pinned beneath the ice, dripping water to the ground below. From nearby, Azula’s voice rang sharp through the air, calling for a search party to surround the crest of the hill. In another moment, it would be too late. 

“Remember the plan,” Sokka urged through clenched teeth. 

Katara stared back at Zuko. 

“He’s made his choice, he’s not on your side, now come on.” 

Slowly, she yielded to the pressure on her arm, the shouts in the air. “I’m sorry,” she murmured, and turned away. 

They fled down the hillside towards where the last of the boats were moored, the few guards they encountered left scattered by the path like flotsam after a storm tide. As they finally slipped onto the open sea, Katara still kept her eyes fixed ahead, but even so, the image swimming before her was that last glimpse of Zuko, flinching from her apology as the harsh flame-light of his sister’s soldiers fell upon his face. 

Chapter Text

The Northern Air Temple gleamed under a waning three-quarter moon. At such a latitude, high in the mountains, the air was so cold a halo of ice crystals was cast around the glowing disc, and the thin crust of snow not swept off the cliff by the wind glittered like the stars above. Glancing at the scene, an onlooker might assume the place deserted, despite the heavy industrial equipment growing like tumours out of the tower walls, and the warm glow of fire in the windows.  

The air of tranquillity was a lie. Here, at the top of the world, stood the headquarters of the rebellion against the Fire Nation. The was the home of the avatar, and the mysterious figure known only as the Grand Master, who oversaw all schemes to foil Ozai’s plans. Zuko had spent months trying to find it, following trails that went cold more often than not and blew in as many directions as the air that was the avatar's native element, and now he was so close, he gave himself over to caution. Guards in strange blue and white uniforms patrolled the temple’s many platforms and walkways, their routes predictable but their postures alert despite the late hour. 

His face itched under the mask, but he ignored the sensation. Despite everything that had happened, he clung to the persona of the Blue Spirit, to the softness of the black silk against his skin and the certain weight of the liangdao strapped to his back. During the day, he could pass for just another peasant, a casualty of war with his hat brim low over a weary face, never letting people close enough to see the colour of his eyes. By night, the anonymity of the mask leant him power. 

The gap in the guard rotation approached, his chance to move. The avatar had arrived earlier in the evening, the bulk of his sky bison impossibly huge against the sunset, giving him the opportunity he had been waiting to get for a week. But that was a thought he had to put away until later, when he was actually inside the temple walls; his timing had to be perfect, or else his mission and everything that depended on it would fail. 

He crept from his hiding place in the rocks, a count in his head as the guards rounded a corner. Once they left the outer wall, he would have forty seconds to scale it or be spotted. As he crouched again a little way away and waited for his moment, his hand slid to the pouch at his waist that held the blowdart and the shirshu venom he had bartered from a mercenary in a town on the coast. Not even an airbender could block such fast-acting poison. 

All I have to do is get him down the mountain and back to the ship, he reminded himself. Just think about that. 

The guards passed out of sight. A breath, and then he sprinted forward, darting up the wall with the same acrobatic skill that had been of such use in the capital. He cleared the final ledge and landed silently in the shadow of one of the industrial pipes, alert for any sound of alarm as he weighed his next move. If he followed the guards into the hall, he ran the risk of meeting more of them and raising the alarm, but it might take hours to find another way inside. Glancing up, he saw a faint glow of light coming from the hole in the wall where the vent wormed its way inside the building – evidently the modernisers here hadn’t been too concerned with preserving the structural integrity of the ancient buildings. It gave him an idea. 

The crawlspace was just wide enough to let him through. His shoulders had broadened in a recent growth spurt and he was still getting used to the idea that he couldn’t fit into the same tight spaces he did before, but he managed without tearing his clothes and found himself on a narrow maintenance catwalk high in the shadows of the temple corridor, with the pipes running beneath him. As long as he was careful not to make noise, he was unlikely to be noticed by anyone walking beneath him. 

Hopefully there’ll be another way out. 

He soon found himself lost as he wound deeper into the temple. The place was labyrinthine, a haphazard collection of halls and corridors tacked onto each other by generations of airbenders, seemingly with no logic at all, while industrial conduits broke through walls and interrupted whatever flow existed within the plan of the building. Zuko paused under a ruined mural that had once featured sky bison, trying to work out how he was going to even find the avatar in such a maze, when a voice echoing from a chamber further in stopped him cold. 

Katara. 

“It must be something important if Aang wants to see us so soon after getting back,” she was saying. “Maybe it has to do with the troop movements near Omashu.” Why was she here? He was so wrapped up in trying to answer the question that he almost didn’t notice the name she used. Aang, he had learned, was the avatar's name. 

“Or he’s just forgotten again that normal people sleep,” another voice grumbled. Zuko recognised that one too – Sokka, the one who had dragged Katara away on the island.  

He squashed his feelings down; nothing here held interest for him except the avatar, and the fact that that path now led through her made no difference to his mission. He followed their voices higher into the temple, until the catwalk ended and he had to drop to the ground and hug the shadows, alert every second for shouts and the sound of running boots. 

The corridor ended at an exposed doorway that led into a brightly-lit room with nowhere to hide. Other people were already inside, a crowd of unfamiliar voices that greeted the two warmly and would doubtless not care to glimpse any uninvited guests. Backing away, Zuko slipped into a darkened alcove and found a window that opened onto a ledge, slippery with ice but wide enough to support him. His own experience with war meetings left him confident that Katara – the avatar – would be stuck for a while, so he took his time easing out onto the ledge, ignoring the bite of cold as the wind gusted against his back. It was a long way down.

The wind carried the voices from inside.

“… it’s good to see you back, but why are we meeting so late?” Sokka asked.

“Has something happened?” That one was Katara, full of eager worry.

“Something’s always happening, Sugar Queen,” another voice replied, young and higher pitched than the others. “The problem is we’re never there when it does.”

“Don’t say that like it’s a bad thing, Toph.”

“You aren’t even just a little bit eager to get out there?”

Zuko chanced a look through the window, slowly so his motion wouldn’t catch anyone’s eyes, but the four figures gathered in the room were focussed on a central table where a tray of sand had been sculpted to resemble the topography of the surrounding mountains, and they didn’t look up. Katara stood closest, with her back to him, her hair tied back in a simple braid instead of the loose waves she had worn in the Fire Nation. Next to her stood her companion from the Water Tribe, Sokka, already growing well into the broad, brawny frame typical of Southern warriors, and he towered over the third member of the group, a younger girl dressed in the muted greens of the Earth Kingdom, with a sheet of coal-black hair that fell heavily into her eyes. And there, closest to the door, stood the young man who could only be the avatar. His bald head and blue arrow tattoo matched the reports, as did his orange-dyed garments and the airbender staff leaning against his right shoulder. He was lanky, stretched tall though not in a way that suggested he had any more growing to do. He looked like he would be quick in a fight. With a sigh, he leaned forward over the table. 

“There’s a new commander in the south,” he said. “He’s called Zhao. From what master Jeong Jeong said, he’s not great at tactics, but I’ve seen the damage he’s done and it isn’t pretty. He’s gained a lot of ground.” 

“Suki and Bato can handle him,” Sokka replied with confidence, crossing his arms over his chest. “Since the earthbenders from that floating prison joined them, they’ve been pretty much unstoppable.” 

“I remember Zhao,” Katara interrupted quietly. “I met him in the palace once. He’s the kind of person who likes to hit things until they do what he wants.” 

Sokka frowned. “We should try to push him back quickly in any case. With the ice melting at the South Pole, Hama’s waterbenders won’t be able to hold off the Fire Navy for much longer. I give it four months before they can land reinforcements.” 

Zuko leaned closer. Katara and her friends might not be military officials, but they clearly had access to intelligence. If he could only learn their plans, he might be able to take home more than just the prize he had been sent to find. He could end the war with information like that. 

“None of this will matter anyway if we can’t defeat the Fire Lord for good,” Katara muttered. “We can push the army back as many times as we like and as long as he keeps sending more it won’t matter. The people are losing hope that we can win this.” 

The avatar reached over to lay a hand on her arm. “I know it’s difficult, but the Grand Master wants us to have patience. He says the fight for the Fire Nation will happen in its own time.” 

“Yeah, and that’s after we find to way to get past the blockade Ozai set around the capital,” Sokka scoffed. “Bastard.” 

“I don’t know what you’re all complaining about,” the Earth Kingdom girl – the one Katara called Toph – interjected. “All this means is we get more opportunities to knock heads.” She punched her hands together with obvious relish. “And speaking of knocking heads, we should probably start with the guy eavesdropping outside the window.”  

“What?” 

She raised her head, but still without focussing on anything. 

She’s blind, Zuko realised, in the same instant she pointed a finger straight at him. He scrambled back from the light, but too late. Already footsteps beat against the stone and someone was calling for the guards. He tried to edge along the ledge again, find a safer way down, but his feet refused to move. Looking down, he saw crystals glitter as they surged up over his feet, twining upwards like a living thing. KataraHe pushed his bending into his feet and sprinted for the empty space ahead even before the ice had fully melted. 

“He’s a firebender!” 

“Watch out!” 

The shouts followed Zuko’s headlong rush to the temple’s base. The maze of towers had been built with the acrobatics of airbenders in mind – the sheer walls jutted with landing ledges and platforms – but none of Zuko’s escapades through the wards of his own city had prepared him for the nerve-biting leaps he had to take without sure footing at the end of them. Everything was slick with frost. He softened his landings as best he could with blasts of fire from his hands, rolled on impact, ran on. All the time from behind him came sounds of pursuit, yells from the soldiers and a soft whirring like a silk flag in a high wind, but they died away as his recklessness overtook their sense of self-preservation. 

He made it to the main gate with his breath a harsh rasp behind the mask and the left side of his face throbbing a protest against the exertion, but even as he ran for the rocky path that led down the mountain and into cover, a shadow passed over the moon and glided to the earth directly in his path. 

“Who are you?” the avatar asked. 

Zuko reached for the blowdart at his belt. There was still a chance he could use it, still a chance to salvage his mission from – 

Something whistled through the air. It smacked against the back of his head and sent him reeling into the dirt, the musty scent of it filling his nose while bright pink spots danced before his eyes. As the last of his vision faded, he caught sight of a flat, curved length of bone lying a small distance away. 

“Good old boomerang,” Sokka crowed from somewhere far off. “You never let me down.” 

At his side, Katara stood looking down at him, and her expression was lost with his consciousness. 

 

Chapter Text

Zuko woke somewhere dark. As his awareness grew, the first sensation to come back to him was pain, a sharp ache at the back of his skull and a dull throb down the left side of his face that he knew would only get worse. Whoever had knocked him out had left his mask on, and it did nothing to relieve the feverish itch of his skin. His hands were chained above his head; the metal clinked when he tried to move. He drifted off again, falling between wakefulness and unconsciousness so that even with his ability to sense the sun, he couldn’t tell how much time passed. 

Eventually, he heard footsteps. One set steadily approaching, echoed by another running to catch up. They stopped beyond the shadow he presumed to be the door of his cell. 

“Food for the prisoner.” 

He shifted, tense, the guard’s muttered response lost in the pop of joints that hadn’t moved for hours. 

“Katara, are you sure this is a good idea?” The Water Tribe boy. “You know –” 

“I know what I’m doing, Sokka.” 

Sokka sighed. “Just be careful.” 

She murmured something Zuko couldn’t hear, and then a key turned in the lock and the door swung open on the groan of old hinges. He turned away. Her footsteps carried her through until she halted, and the door slammed shut again, and the scrape of her boots over the packed dirt floor came with the smell of hot food and the glow of a candle. 

“Zuko?” she called, with a wary, muted quality to her voice that grated on his nerves. She sighed and crouched down next to him. “How’s your head?” 

“Spare me your false pity,” he snarled, unable to help the way his fists clenched. 

“It’s not false pity. I’m going to take your mask off now. Even if you won’t admit it you’ll be more comfortable with it off.” 

He watched her hand reach for the ties behind his head but didn’t move away, knowing that to do so would be useless, and token shows of resistance were beneath his dignity besides. Even so, he hissed when she pried the mask off him, flinching away as the bandage over the left side of his face stuck to the wood and broke the scab. He had hated her for months – a lifetime – but somehow, it was her gasp on seeing the ruin of his face that formed the hard lump at the back of his throat. 

“Don’t touch it,” he snapped as her hand stretched out again. 

Her fingers curled in on themselves. “What happened?” 

“Why do you care?” 

“I care,” she replied. “Zuko, this is infected, let me help you. I can heal –” 

“Get away from me!” He jerked upwards, calling fire to his fists so she had to flinch away. “I don’t need anything from you. You did this to me.” 

“No, I didn’t.” Her gaze held something inscrutable, like a riddle she was on the cusp of solving, but he was glad when she didn’t reach out to touch him again. “Why are you here?” she asked instead. 

He bared his teeth. “Why are you here?” 

The only answer was another sigh as she pulled a ring of keys from a loop on her belt and rose on her knees to unlock the shackles above his head. His wrists were still bound together, and the rush of blood back into his hands made them sting as they dropped into his lap, but he nevertheless had to bite back a sigh of relief. 

Katara was already standing. “You should eat something.”

He hadn’t noticed her place the bowl next to him. It was mostly rice with only a small amount of some thin, gristly broth soaking around the edges, but at least it smelled edible, and as his watering mouth and rumbling stomach reminded him, it had been at least a day since he had eaten.

“There aren’t any chopsticks, I’m afraid,” she told him. “It was decided you might try to escape – which I wouldn’t recommend, by the way. I managed to convince them to bring you down here without taking off the mask, but everyone knows who the Blue Spirit is now, and the Prince of the Fire Nation is a valuable prisoner to have.”

“I won’t help you,” he managed, because of all the retorts crowding on his tongue, that one was the safest.

“I wasn’t asking for your help,” she replied coldly. “That was a warning. There’s more than one person here who would love the chance to avenge family killed in the war. By your people.”

“Are you one of them?”

She turned away from him, and was nearly at the door before she threw her answer over her shoulder. “My quarrel isn’t with you.”

The door groaned open at her knock and as she stepped through a shadow detached from the wall and reached out for her. She paused, but ignored the touch and kept walking, leaving Sokka an instant to glare through the darkness at the prisoner in the cell, before the guard blocked the sight and slammed the cell closed once more.


 

When it opened again, dawn was not far off, but the air was more bitterly cold than before. Zuko had managed a few hours of fitful sleep after Katara’s visit, the food palatable but nowhere near enough to fill the hunger that gnawed deeper into his gut whenever he thought about it. He had never had to go hungry, not even on the ship. At some point, someone had left him another candle, with a bowl of salted water, clean bandages, and a pot of ointment to treat his burn. Though he tried to ignore the offer, without anything else to distract him the itching on his face became unbearable, and before he knew it he was reaching for the small stone pot and all but whimpering with relief as the thick, herby salve cooled his fevered skin. He had applied the new bandage as best he could without a mirror, but he left the mask lying where Katara had dropped it. He had no use for it now.

A guard stood before him, one of the ones in deep blue and white. Close to, he noticed a floral pattern embroidered into the hem of the quilted robes, and over the white mantle that draped the man’s shoulders, a heraldry that he’d never seen before.

“On your feet,” the guard snapped.

Prisoner he may be, but Zuko was still a prince. People did not talk to him with such disrespect. “Why?”

“Because I’m authorised to make you if you won’t cooperate.” The man grinned. “Don’t worry, you’re too valuable to haul off to the execution block.”

“Then where are you taking me?” Zuko asked, deciding to stand. His legs wobbled from being cramped for so long, but he didn’t stumble.

“The Grand Master wants to see you.”

Another two guards joined them beyond the door of the cell and together they led their prisoner through a maze of tunnels. He was blindfolded, and though he tried to keep track of all the turns as they took him through the maze of corridors, the construction of the temple was disorienting, and all he could tell was that they were climbing up into one of the towers, the steps worn and uneven beneath his feet. Draughts whistled down the spiral staircase, cutting through his thin clothes and dousing his inner fire until even shivering was too much effort, but perhaps that was the point, a way to make him less dangerous.

Eventually they reached a landing. One of the guards opened a door that creaked on old hinges, spilling warmth and the familiar scent of jasmine out into the corridor.

“The Grand Master will see you shortly,” someone said as he was pushed forward onto thick carpet. The door slammed behind him. For a moment he stood, cautious of his new surroundings, suspecting a trick of some sort because while he was still manacled, nobody had said he could take off the blindfold. When he was sure he was alone with only the howl of the wind for company, he reached up and peeled away the offensive layer of cloth.

The place was plush, well-appointed. Scrolls of artwork decorated the walls and artefacts from every nation filled blank spaces in the shelves that lined the room. The airbenders had little use for fire outside of cooking, so there was no hearth, but someone had installed a stove in one corner of the room, and it blazed with a lively fire while an iron kettle heated water on top of it. Zuko edged towards the only window only to find it locked, the sheer drop on the other side added discouragement to try and escape. As he looked around for another opportunity, his gaze was drawn to the centre of the room, where a low table was laid with a Fire Nation tea set on a lacquered tray.

He started when the door opened. And stared.

“Prince Zuko.” The man who surveyed him was squat, old, his jowls sagging and his brown eyes framed by deep wrinkles at the corners. He too wore one of the blue and white uniforms, but his beard was carefully trimmed in the fashionable Fire Nation style, and though he was balding, his wiry grey hair was pulled back into a topknot with a golden general’s clasp.

“I am afraid if you were looking to find a way out of here, you were wasting your time,” the Dragon of the West said as he ambled towards the stove. “Please, have a seat.” He gestured to one of the large cushions by the table.

Zuko, numbed by shock, forgot his defiance of a moment before and tottered to where he was directed.

“I suspect you have questions,” Iroh continued, turning away to busy himself with the kettle. “I do as well, but that can wait. First, we must be comfortable. How about we share some food and a pot of nice, warming tea?”

Chapter Text

The old man moved unhurriedly about the room, taking tea from a small tin on a shelf, and then a plate of sweet rice balls rolled in sesame seeds, which had been sitting by the window sill under a laminated paper cover to keep them fresh. Zuko watched him, examined the unhurried cant of his walk and the certain, delicate movements of his fingers, searching for trickery, or illusion. Perhaps the guards had hit him over the head on the way up, and this was a symptom of concussion. Whoever he really was, the Grand Master glanced at him often, measuring him with more thoughtfulness than caution as he bustled about the small room. Every time the aged brown eyes flickered to his scar, Zuko’s temper wound tighter and tighter until he could no longer stand the silence.

“Who are you?” he demanded.

The old man smiled at him. “It has been a long time, Nephew. I understand this must be a shock you.”

“A shock?” he repeated. “The Dragon of the West is supposed to be dead! Where have you been? What are you doing here? What happened to you?

“Be calm, please,” Iroh replied, holding up a fire-callused palm. “I will explain matters to you, but first, I would be neglecting my duties as a host if I did not offer you tea.”

He ambled over with the kettle of boiled water and knelt opposite Zuko, careful not to spill. This was the Iroh Zuko remembered, the general who liked everything in its proper order, in war and at home, and who could not be rushed or dissuaded once he put his mind to an action. How, then, had this meticulous man ended up here, perfectly calm and collected as he poured hot water over the porcelain to warm he cups, the leader of the rebellious faction working to disrupt everything the Fire Nation was working towards? He had breached the walls of Ba Sing Se, had been lauded as a hero and blessed with honours bestowed upon no other general in history, poised to take the throne of the greatest nation in the world, so why had he not come home? Zuko knew enough of the official line of events to understand he had somehow colluded with the avatar to gain his current position, but that was as far as reasoning could take him.

“Does this mean Cousin Lu Ten is alive as well?” he asked. The implications for the line of succession if so –

“No,” came the muted reply as his uncle scooped tea into the pot. “No, my son died six years ago, at the siege of Ba Sing Se.” The old man cleared his throat. “This blend of tea is particularly fragrant, mixed and dried with jasmine flowers from the slopes of Lu Long Shan. It pairs particularly well with Air Nomad sweet pastry.”

“All tea is just hot leaf juice.”

“A member of my own family, saying such a thing.” Iroh shook his head. “I see your cultural education has slipped in the years since I have been away.”

Zuko only frowned. A lot of things had happened in the time since they had received news of the Crown Prince’s death before the walls of the Earth Kingdom capital – a lot of things that, now with hindsight, had been allowed to happen. The left side of Zuko’s face itched. He ignored it, and dropped his eyes to watch the smooth, practiced motions of the tea ceremony that took years to fully master, first the initial pouring to wash the leaves of impurity, swirling the water around the teapot with precise rotations of the wrist before it was discarded, then the second pouring to steep the tea until it was ready for the drinkers to taste.

“This is one of Katara’s sets,” he realised as his uncle completed the last movement and filled two delicate cups with the finished tea. The porcelain was of finest translucent quality, with intricate patterns painted in blue beneath the glaze, and the more he looked, the more of the interweaving lines resolved themselves into the shapes of animals at play.

“She is a most agreeable young lady,” his uncle said. “Quite the scholar, and skilled in her element. She told me she spent time with you while she was staying in the capital.”

Zuko scowled, then scowled harder at the sympathetic look Iroh gave him, ignoring the ache of stretched, healing tissue in the left side of his face. “Did she tell you she tricked me, and then betrayed me?”

“No, she did not. How is your tea?”

The cup remained untouched on the mat in front of him. He recalled a sunny afternoon, back in another life, when another person had served him tea, and then mocked him with a wry smile for thinking the drink was poisoned. Had he been caught even then? Had she seen it, and spun her web of lies accordingly?

“It’s very… fragrant,” he allowed as he took as sip and put the memory from his mind. “Uncle, all this time, why didn’t you ever come back?”

“I could not.”

Rage boiled inside him. “Why not?”

A sigh. “Prince Zuko –”

“Don’t call me that,” he snapped.

“Please be calm,” his uncle repeated. “I know you are angry.”

“Angry?” Zuko scoffed. He slammed his teacup back on the table and shot to his feet. “What do you know? You’re a traitor! You’re working for the enemy – no, you’re leading them! You could be ruling the Fire Nation and yet you’re – you’re here, drinking tea, acting like everything’s okay! Do you even know what –”

The door burst open. Flames sprang to Zuko’s fists, to defend or attack he couldn’t say, but before he could move, Iroh darted between him and the intruders, palms out to ward off fire from both sides.

“Grand Master – we heard shouting –”

“All is well, Juro,” he assured. “Please, leave us.”

The two guards glanced at each other, expressions wavering between uncertainty and obedience, but finally they bowed and retreated back into the corridor.

“Please, Nephew,” Iroh continued once the door closed with a clang, “master yourself. I am aware of what my brother has done, what he continues to do to our people –”

“Our people?” Zuko sneered. “Your orders are killing Fire Nation soldiers.”

Iroh folded his hands across his stomach, hiding them in the ends of his sleeves, and sighed as he shuffled back to his seat, no longer the proud general but an old man who had seen too much, who felt the cold in his bones. For an instant, all tension dropped out of Zuko’s limbs to see such an abrupt transformation, such a difference from the larger-than-life figure of his childhood memories. That, however, only led to a confusion that once again stoked his anger. He wanted to fight, to demand an explanation or at the very least shout blame down upon the one person who could have stopped it all, from the destruction of the South Pole to his own disfigurement. And yet, his would-be opponent offered nothing for him to rail against; he only sat and watched the lazy curl of steam rise from the pot of fragrant tea, frowning at it like a diviner waiting for inspiration.

“When Lu Ten was killed,” Iroh began, “I began to reflect on what I had done, what we, as a people, had done. My eyes were opened. I retreated into myself, let my captains take over the campaign while I grieved, and for a time my madness allowed me to wander farther than most humans ever do. It was in the spirit world that I met the avatar, who was still a young boy at that time, pushed into war before his time. He is the link between worlds and between people. Reflected in him I saw all the evil the Fire Nation had ever done, but also hope that the world could see an end to it.” He looked up. “I am grateful that a similar tragedy was not needed for you to take action.”

He was talking about the Blue Spirit.

Zuko looked away, his skin itching under the steady gaze. “You should have come back,” he repeated, bitterly.

“No.” Iroh shook his head. “The moment I read the message that told of Fire Lord Azulon’s passing, I knew what my brother would do if I returned, and I knew that I could not stop it. So instead, I came here to fight alongside the avatar and help him restore the balance the world sorely needs.”

“It’s that simple, is it?”

“It might be,” the old man replied. “It would depend, however, on the reason why you are here.”


 

In one of the lower courtyards, the snow had been cleared away and turned into a training yard. While White Lotus guards patrolled the outer perimeter, they left the centre space clear for the avatar and his inner circle of friends and bending teachers, having learned the hard way that despite being young, Aang’s masters possessed formidable skills and the will to use them to devastating effect. Word had spread of Katara’s feat with the three Fire Nation troop carriers, her control of blood, but besides her there was Toph, a prodigy discovered scamming and pickpocketing her way through the southern Earth Kingdom. The full story there was unknown, but she had no issues with bending whole boulders at people nosy enough to intrude on the avatar’s training.

At that moment, a cacophony of explosions shook the surrounding walls, echoing with shouts of encouragement and grunts of effort by turns as the avatar battled air with water. He evaded well, stepping in circles, throwing gusts of air to redirect Katara’s attacks, but unlike the solidity of earth or the charge of fire, the water only twisted around it, folding to the shape of the wind and relentless as it drove him back. Toph had blindfolded him, trying to mimic her own way of sensing the world to train him out of limitations, but so far, thrown off-balance and struggling not to evade the barrage of attacks, the results were… mixed.  

“Spirits, Katara, let up a little, will you?” Haru cried. He was one of the few White Lotus who dared to show up to their training, mostly because he was of a similar age to them and felt more at ease in their company than among the older guards. He had wanted to join up when he heard his father had been broken out of prison and joined the Water tribe to fight through the western wilds, and had proven himself.

Toph punched him on the arm. “How’s he gonna learn then, huh?”

“Do you think the Fire Nation will let up?” Katara demanded breathlessly as she redirected a water whip towards Aang’s head. “Do you think the Fire Lord would just let up?”

“He won’t get the chance if there isn’t an avatar left,” the young guard answered, and winced. The water whip solidified into an ice dagger at the end and ripped through the trailing edge of the avatar’s robes. “You’re meant to be sparring, not doing Ozai’s work for him.”

Katara only growled.

“Keep your guard up, Twinkle Toes!” Toph yelled.

Aang groaned from the other end of the yard. “Do you really have to keep calling me that – whoa!”

“You’re the one who persuaded me to leave Daejeon, don’t complain,” she shot back, just as he rolled to avoid a wave coming to freeze him in place.

“Come on, Katara, what’s going on with you?” Haru pressed, ignoring the familiar argument.

She puffed loose strands of hair out of her eyes and didn’t look at her friend. “Nothing.”

“You’re a terrible liar, Sweetness.”

“It’s that guy in the mask,” Aang said, taking off his blindfold and ducking away. “The one who tried to sneak in here.”

Katara growled again. “We’re not finished yet.”

“Nah, I think it’s time to call a break.” Toph’s smirk cut a devious line behind the hang of her hair. “Get over here.”

Aang eased a sigh of relief and carefully stepped around the carnage wrought by the mock battle. A few years ago, he might have used an air scooter, but the time since the siege at Ba Sing Se had worn away the short, bright-eyed boy and left in his place a tall, lanky young man who had witnessed as much as any seasoned warrior. His pace was measured, his gaze on Katara sympathetic in a way that felt heavy on her shoulders. She thought about the gold of Zuko’s irises, how earnest they could be, and how last time she had seen him they had been narrowed in livid, violent hate. That scar…

“It’ll be alright,” the avatar said, laying a light hand on her shoulder. “Sifu Hotman is with him now. He’ll sort this out – he always does.”

“You do know who that is, right?” Haru asked. “Prince Zuko, heir to the Fire Nation throne? Son of the man who keeps sending people to try and kill you? He’s probably here to have a go himself or something.”

“Or maybe he’s here to join our side,” Aang reasoned with a frown.

“Keep dreaming, Twinkle Toes.”

“It doesn’t hurt to try.”

Katara shook her head and stepped away with a placating smile and a roll of her shoulders. “Toph, do you mind stepping in? It’s getting a bit too hot to train and I promised Sokka I’d go find him.”

The earthbender cocked her head, listening to her heartbeat, or maybe just considering whether it was worth her entertainment to be perverse. Finally, the younger girl shrugged and waved her away. “Do what you gotta do. He was getting too used to dodging iceballs anyway.” She grinned. “Time for the big leagues.”

Aang groaned again, but Katara barely heard what he called after her as she collected her things and wound through the maze of corridors that made up the Northern Air Temple. Truthfully, she had no intention of finding Sokka – he was probably holed up with the mechanist anyway, coming up with new war machines that grew ever more inventive by the week. The work kept him focussed, distracted from the march of the Southern winter and the slow countdown of what little time she had bought with her months of being a Fire Nation puppet. With just a few more ships, a few more weeks to let the rescued waterbenders recover, they might have taken the capital. With Ozai deposed, they might have been able to rebuild without fear of having it all torn down again. The war here too was one of attrition, a slow glide meant to slow down the enemy while they figured out a way to get the avatar within striking distance of the Fire Lord. As far as Katara could tell, nobody yet had a plan for what would happen afterwards.

And now Zuko.

She huffed, and started down a twisting path that led away from the temple complex towards a spring she had discovered while collecting herbs. The place was in a grotto screened from the nearest overlooks by thick trees and tall cliffs, and it was her secret, as far as she could tell. The only tracks besides hers belonged to fox-mice and the black, spiral-horned goats that made the mountain their home, and of everywhere she had been since coming to the Earth Kingdom, it was the one place she felt peaceful. The wind through the trees created a white noise like the sea, while the sweet clearness of the water pooled under its thin film of mountain ice like the pond in her garden. Another life.

“At least it’s not snowing today,” she grumbled as she stripped off her outer layers and settled into a beginning stance. The altitude made her a little lightheaded – gave her nosebleeds every now and then – but out here that mattered as little as everything else. She pressed through her forms, lost herself until the sway of her muscles occupied her whole mind. She definitely did not think about the meeting taking place in the Grand Master’s tower room, or about Zuko’s snarling accusations, or the feel of his ruined flesh under her fingers and the unavoidable, unnerving fear that it was entirely her fault.

 

Chapter Text

The arrival of the Kyoshi Warriors at the Northern Air Temple caused a stir long before they crested the path mounted on a flock of dusty, footsore ostrich-horses. Fresh from victory in the southern Earth Kingdom, they brought a sense of hope with them that the rebellion was finally gaining ground against Ozai, but it mingled with the same weariness that was starting to infect the rest of the troops, because only three of them made up the party - the rest were still mired in the countryside, fighting, and could not be spared. That even three came told the guards watching them ride into the courtyard that something was going on, some new plan that might see the end of the war. Just as well. There were rumours that the Water Tribe was readying itself to pull its forces, to better consolidate their defences and prepare for the Fire Nation’s inevitable spring offensive. 

 Sokka waited in front of the main doors to greet the three warriors as they arrived, arrayed in the ceremonial armour that marked his rank as the General of the Third Fleet, and betraying the air of solemnity he was trying for by bouncing impatiently on the balls of his feet. 

“Suki!” he cried when the Kyoshi leader dismounted and he could no longer contain himself. He rushed forward and gathered her into a hug. She returned it, squeezing so hard his lungs constricted, even under all the layers of padding. 

“Hello you,” she murmured into his shoulder. “It’s good to see you.” 

“Likewise.” He cleared his throat and pulled out of the embrace, squashing down all the feelings trying to spill from his mouth. ”Commander, on behalf of Grand Master Iroh, welcome to the Northern Air Temple. Once you’ve rested, he would like to see you as soon as possible.” 

Suki nodded. “Of course, General.” 

“This way.” 

He glanced at her sidelong as he led the way through the now-familiar corridors of the temple, with her two fellow warriors following at a polite distance. She limped, and favoured her left side, and beneath the perfect lines of her warpaint a slight pinch at the corner of her mouth betrayed her otherwise calm expression. He would have to ask Katara to check in on her later for some healing. 

“How are things?” he ventured when the silence stretched too far for his liking. 

“Terrible.” She grimaced. “The Fire Nation commander started using prisoners as battle fodder. She has their families working in factories under guard, with the threat that they’ll be killed if their loved ones don’t fight. The royal forces are almost as bad. The requisition gangs sent into the countryside are little more than bandits – they take everything from the peasants, and we spend half our time trying to stop them. If something isn’t done soon there won’t be anything left to fight over.” 

“I’m sure there’s a plan,” Sokka reassured. “The grand master knows none of us can hold out much longer.” 

“How are your people?” Suki asked. 

“They know how to survive on the ice, even without waterbenders, but many won’t make it, and when the spring comes they’ll have no defence against the Fire Navy. This is you,” he added, as they stopped outside an ornately painted archway. “You’ve got bedrooms and a living area, and you’re free to go anywhere in the compound. If you get lost there’s always someone to ask for directions.” 

Suki nodded to her warriors to send them ahead, but hung back, rubbing at a knot in her shoulder. “I should go straight to the grand master, get everything straightened out.” 

“No you don’t,” Sokka replied. He stretched his hand out for her arm. “We’ve waited this long for a plan, we can wait another hour for you to catch your breath.” 

For an instant, Suki looked like she would argue, but then her shoulders slumped and she huffed a sigh that ended in a tired chuckle. ”And when did you become so serious, General?” she asked. 

Startled by the sudden teasing lilt in her voice, Sokka rubbed his hand along the back of his neck. “Well, uh...” 

“And come to think of it, when is it the duty of a general to escort visitors to their rooms?” 

“Maybe I just wanted an excuse to talk to you,” he replied, smirking. “And I wanted to ask you... uh, do you want to do something later? I have something to talk to you about.” 

“Alright, mystery man,” came the reply. Stifling a giggle, she leaned up on tiptoe and pressed a brief kiss against his lips, then smiled wider at the impression of red paint left behind. “I’ll see you after the debrief. 

With a final wave, she retreated into the apartment, leaving Sokka standing in the corridor, face split in a broad, slightly dazed smile. He fumbled in a fold of his tunic and pulled out a small disc attached by tiny threads to a band of woven leather dyed black with maple acorns. The colour might not be traditional, but the images on the betrothal necklace, carved around the tooth of a vanquished unagi, illustrated stories as old as the ice – he had whittled what felt like half a forest trying to get them right – and when he presented it to Suki later he hoped she’d stick around long enough to let him tell her what they meant. He had duties to see to before then, things to distract him from over-worrying about the details of his plan, so he wound the leather cord around the tooth and tucked it away again, already turning his mind to the next problem of his day. 

Zuko stepped out into his path. 

“Gah!” 

The fire prince’s scowl, impressive as it already was, deepened. In the past few days, the healers taking care of his face had declared the wound healed enough to take off the bandage, and the exposed scar, wrinkled and puckered with livid pink flesh, gave him a foreboding, uneven appearance. He had been allowed free rein around the temple by the grand master – some complicated family relation Katara had only half managed to explain – but other than Aang and Haru, nobody had made any particular effort to be friendly. He hadn’t tried very hard to be friendly back, either. 

“Do you mind not sneaking up on people?” Sokka demanded now, as the prince’s arms folded across his chest. “Spirits, I know you’re Fire Nation, but there’s no way you’re being this creepy by accident.” 

Zuko’s lips thinned. “I didn’t know the Southern Water Tribe was polygamous.” 

“What are you talking about?” 

“Maybe it’s just you, then,” the prince pressed. “How many women are you stringing along?” 

“Keep your voice down,” Sokka snapped, with an uneasy glance towards the Kyoshi warriors’ quarters. “And I’ll repeat – what are you talking about? I’m not stringing Suki along.” 

“I’m not talking about her.” 

“Now I’m completely lost.” 

“Katara,” the prince ground out. “She cares about you.” 

Still confused, Sokka shook his head. “Well of course she does,” he tried. “I mean, I know I used to put seaweed in her hair but I’m sure she’s forgiven me for...” 

The pieces clicked. He burst out laughing. 

“I wouldn’t say this was funny,” Zuko growled, drawing himself up. “It’s dishonourable to toy with her feelings –” 

“I’m not –” Sokka wheezed. “I’m definitely not – ew.” He held up a placating hand, doubling over to catch his breath. “Dude, katara is my sister.” 

“Sister?” the prince repeated weakly. 

“I don’t know what it’s like where you’re from, with all those fancy nobles, but in the Water Tribe sibling relationships are not like that.” 

Zuko seemed to be barely listening. His gaze, so sharp before, softened as he turned his mind to this new puzzle. “She’s your sister...” 

The change in tone was not lost on Sokka. “Why do you care, anyway?” he asked, stepping closer. “From what I’ve seen you two pretty much hate each other.” 

“I don’t care,” came the snapped reply. “And if she’s your sister it’s a moot point anyway.” 

But Sokka noticed the uncomfortable shift of the prince’s shoulders, and the way his arms folded across his chest. He narrowed his eyes. “You know,” he ventured, “She’s never told me what happened while you were holding her hostage.” 

Zuko looked up sharply, as if to contradict the phrasing, but there was too much truth in it to be denied. 

“Sometimes she gets this look in her eye, like she misses it, but she never says anything.” 

“She was only there as a spy.” 

“Riiiiiight.” Sokka shrugged, and in a flash of compassion, pointed at the scar. “You know she can heal that, right? You should let her.” 

Zuko only glared at him as he turned and headed to find his lieutenant. 


 

“Master Katara, do you know who disfigured my nephew?” 

Iroh peered at the young waterbender over the rim of his teacup, his brown eyes sharp and clear despite the rheumy edge around his irises. It was not the first time the pair had spoken in confidence; they shared an appreciation of the arts, which was a rarity in such a remote part of the world, and though Katara might not admit it to anyone else, spending an hour or so with someone who did not hold the Fire Nation in complete contempt was an outlet she sorely needed. This, however, was the first time they had spoken since Zuko’s arrival.

“I can imagine who did it,” she growled. “But even I didn’t think he was capable of something that cruel.”

“Are you truly surprised?” Iroh asked. “After everything my brother has done, or has ordered done, what is one more victim?”

“But he’s his son!” She tucked a wisp of hair behind her ear and stared down into her cup. “I can understand him punishing Zuko for being the Blue Spirit, and spirits, even exiling him makes sense in a way, but that burn was deliberate, to the bone. I know he’s your brother but Ozai is a monster.”

Iroh hummed. “And this might be his final mistake.”

When Katara looked up, scowling at the idea that Zuko’s scar might be nothing more than a tactical advantage, he held up his hands to forestall the accusation. With a grunt, he rose from his seat and paced to the window, and looked out over the barren collection of pale spires and halls that had once housed an entire people. His joints creaked as he sighed.

“You must understand, the Fire Lord is a man who mistakes fear for respect. Where respect flourishes like a tree given care and allowed to grow, fear is like water boiling in a lidded pot that will eventually either spill over or be entirely consumed. People cannot live on fear, they get used to it, and so tyrants like my brother must escalate their actions again and again to maintain what they see as control.”

“But that only works so far,” she finished for him. “There’s a point where people won’t take anymore, and they’ll fight back.”

The old man nodded. “An equilibrium, where the consequences of not fighting are worse than the fear of punishment. By burning Zuko’s face, the Fire lord proved he is incapable of any mercy, and that will make them restless for a new voice.”

“You want Zuko to be that voice,” she guessed. “He won’t do it. He’s too hung up on regaining his honour – he thinks Ozai is right.”

“No, he doesn’t,” Iroh replied gently. “He has suffered greatly, and been thrown from everything he has ever known.”

Katara bit her lip, stifling the desire to argue; the old resentment was still there, the disgust drawn from the comparison between her own people, who had suffered so much, and the Fire Nation nobility laughing in a perfumed garden while they sent their soldiers to die for almost no reason at all. It no longer lanced so deeply, however. Her mind drifted back to those times Zuko had been kind, had shielded her from his sister, and had spared the war veteran punishment because she asked it of him. She had kissed him first during that thunderstorm because he had worried about her, and on that last terrible night he had unmasked himself because he refused to hide his true motives from her.

That part still left her confused, angry, wondering how differently the past few months might have gone if they had trusted just a little more and revealed themselves – would he have turned her over, or could they have found a way to work together and make things better for both their peoples? Not that it mattered now; Zuko hated her.

“If you’re hoping to turn him into some kind of rallying point to stand against his father, I don’t think he’ll be very cooperative,” she huffed. “You’ll have to come up with another plan.”

“No. You know as well as anyone, I think, that the best hope for lasting peace is to break the cycle of violence.” Shaking his head, he returned from the window. “If the Earth Kingdom or Water Tribe conquers the Fire Nation, then it will just be another invading army, another imbalance of power to be exploited. Even if I go, the world will see it as nothing more than a jealous struggle for the throne. Zuko, fighting alongside the avatar, is the only one who can overthrow Ozai without appearing self-interested.”

“Only if you can make him agree to do it.”

Iroh didn’t reply. He merely looked at her over the rim of his teacup, his gaze patient as an owl-fox, and her stomach sank into the floor as she realised just what he intended to do.

Chapter Text

The hall was dark, an interior room for the judgement of high office that had no external windows. Like in the throne room, there was a raised dais along one side, separated from the main floor by a gutter filled with constantly replenished fire. Here, however, the Fire Lord sat as a spectator rather than as the focus of attention. His wife and his daughter flanked the space behind him, both hidden in shadow, and like the rest of the gathered ranks of nobility, they were silent as two guards dragged a figure between them into the room and anchored his chains to a large iron ring set into the stone floor.

He was in a bad way. Zuko had been left in the same clothes in which Azula found him, locked in the hold of her ship to rot with just enough food and water to keep him from death, and only the respect due to his station had allowed him enough accommodation to bathe before the trial. The intended effect was mockery, to make certain the court was impressed with how far their prince had fallen, and for them to watch as they stripped him of any dignity he had left. Dizzy and dehydrated, he barely mustered the strength to kneel in his bonds, and didn’t quite dare glance towards his family as silence settled around the room.

For the entire journey back, his mind had roiled with every memory of Katara. His thoughts whirled treacherously with all the looks and words she had given him, their shared touches, and he examined them all, poisoned as they now were by the knowledge that it had all been a lie. That humiliation haunted him more than his current position as a prisoner, and part of him defied the Fire Lord’s imperious silence, daring him to do worse even as the metal cuffs bit into his wrists.

A pair of black, pointed boots entered his line of vision. They belonged to a wiry, bent old man with liver spots disappearing into his wispy white hair, who towered above him with the anticipatory smirk of a street panther toying with its prey. Doubtless there had been a brawl between every adjudicator in the capital for the opportunity to lead such a prestigious trial, and Minister Koku had a reputation for being ruthless. With a bow to the Fire Lord the old man turned, pulling something out from beneath his cloak that he threw down at Zuko’s knees.

The Blue Spirit mask grinned up at him, charred and cracked down the middle.

“Explain this,” the minister ordered.

The disrespect flared Zuko’s temper. “Which part?”

For a moment, Koku stared down at the prince, grinding his teeth as he judged the wisdom of retaliation against someone who still technically outranked him. “Why were you at Dao Zhuanshi?” he asked with a sneer.

“I went to capture the waterbenders.”

“Wouldn’t that have been easier with soldiers by your side?” Koku countered. “You knew the witch would try set them free, and yet you told nobody. You went to great lengths to cover your escape, tricking your loyal escort with an imagined sighting of the Blue Spirit to make it seem like you were abducted. And then you were found, with the weapons and the mask of that same Blue Spirit, colluding with the Water Tribe before they made their escape. Do those seem like the actions of someone working against enemies of the Fire Nation, or someone on friendly terms with them?”

“I was iced to a rock,” Zuko replied dryly. “Does that seem like friendly terms to you?”

The minister scoffed. “The Water Tribe has proven itself to be deceitful. Perhaps you had merely worn out your usefulness, Prince Zuko. I’m sure you did all you could to resist the witch’s charms.” His voice turned silky as he watched his opponent’s face contort into a snarl. “You are not the first to be taken in by the wiles of a beautiful woman, if you could call such savagery beautiful – but a traitor can only be trusted so far, don’t you agree?”

Zuko lunged against his chains. “I am not a traitor! I am the loyal prince of the Fire Nation! Everything I have done I did to help this country!”

“Is that so?” The smile turned truly dangerous as the minister turned and raised his arms towards the spectators. “You hear the confession from the prince’s own mouth! You have all heard the testimony of the witnesses, but for the sake of completion, let’s examine His Highness’s actions. First, the number of assaults against members of his own royal and city guards, counted in the dozens, who were good, honest citizens only doing their duty to their Fire Lord, and underserving of the beating given to them.”

“They were extorting and –”

“Second,” Koku interrupted. “He consorted with a known war criminal in acts of vandalism and terrorism at Keijo, throughout the city, and in the very grounds of the Fire Lord’s residence. He incited terror in the hearts of the people and spread dissent to all corners. Who knows what would have happened had his liaison with the Water Tribe witch not been discovered?”

Zuko growled. “I didn’t know –”

“This, of course, leads us to this unfortunate traitor’s most heinous crime. It is thanks to the diligent observation of Her Royal Highness that we have been able to piece events together. Prince Zuko, did you or did you not collude with the enemy and provide information vital to the Water Tribe rebellion, and then destroy evidence of that collusion?”

“I did not know who she was,” Zuko spat.

“There are seventeen separate reports that mention the Blue Spirit and the Painted Lady fighting together.” A pause for effect, while whispers ran their course through the room, and Koku’s wrinkled expression morphed into something that would have been sympathetic if it wasn’t so lizardlike. “But perhaps we are being too hard on you, Prince Zuko. The Water Tribe is, after all, known for its sorcery. Stories of the Painted Lady’s strange powers have permeated the reports of her appearances, and your preference for the Lady Katara did not go unnoticed. Perhaps you are not responsible for your actions, and merely fell under her thrall?”

The court tittered like children waiting to see if a baited hyena-dog would bite, and Zuko clamped down on his tongue until he imagined blood. It would not matter if he denounced Katara or defended her, because either would admit her power over him. The minister’s eyes danced, goading, but having grown up with Azula for a sister, he had learned better than to rise to such obvious provocation.

“Enough of this.”

The room stilled at the sound of the Fire Lord’s voice. Disguising his flinch, Koku turned and bowed to the dais. “Your Majesty, I am merely trying to –”

“You waste your breath.” Ozai leaned forward in his throne. “My son is under no spell. He shows no remorse, only disrespect, and there is no place for that here.”

Beside him, Ursa started from her composure, the only sign that events were taking an unexpected turn. Two guards stepped from their places at the bottom of the dais and flanked towards Zuko.

Hold him.”

They grabbed his arms, twisting with an iron grip that cut into his biceps as they turned him to face the Fire Lord, and only grew tighter when he struggled against the rough treatment, until Ozai’s shadow fell over him broken by a flash as he pulled a knife from the inside of his sleeve.

“Father...”

“Be silent.” Ozai tipped the point of the knife under Zuko’s throat and used it to force his gaze up from the floor. A small, satisfied smile curled at his mouth as he read the wide uncertainty in his son’s eyes. “You have disgraced me, and your country,” he said softly. A gesture, and the two guards seized Zuko’s jaw to bare his neck to the knife.

“Father, please, don’t do this!” Zuko cried, pulling in vain at his captors. Fear lent him strength, but not enough with his hands bound and unable to bend. “I am a loyal son, I am loyal!” 

“You are no son of mine.”

The blade flashed. Zuko closed his eyes, but the expected pain didn’t come. Instead, he felt a tug on his scalp, heard the dry rasp of the blade, and then an instant later something soft brushed against his cheek, against his still-bound hands. The guards let go, released now Ozai had no more use for them, and the sound of their booted feet echoed Zuko’s heartbeat in his ears. He couldn’t breathe.

“You flinch like a child. Disgraceful.”

My hair… It’s just my hair…

In his relief, he almost missed what was said next.

“Under pain of death, Prince Zuko is banished forthwith from the Fire Nation and its territories, stripped of his titles and his honour. He will have until nightfall to depart our presence.”

“No! Father, you can’t do this!”

Ozai turned, eyes alight with malice. “You dare presume to tell me what I cannot do?”

But the deathly silence surrounding them had broken into murmurs, courtiers whispering and pointing not at the two royals, but at something behind them. Ursa had stepped through the extinguished flames and stood meekly waiting to be noticed, with her hands folded in her sleeves and her head bowed in deferential civility. Though her appearance on the floor could be taken as an insult, it was not an act her husband could rage against without losing face.

“Have you something to say, my lady?” he asked instead, sweetly.

“This has not been a fair trial,” she stated. “The evidence presented by the witnesses is circumstantial, and His Highness has said nothing to implicate himself. There might have been a dozen Blue Spirits terrorising the streets, or it might be that the prince knew this disguise would trick the Lady Katara into trusting him. There has been no cross-examination.”

“And you are giving him ideas,” Ozai replied.

“Please, my lord. For once in your life, show mercy. He is your son, and has served you loyally. Give him a chance to redeem your faith in him.”

For a moment, the Fire Lord considered. Zuko knelt frozen on the floor, feeling the currents of the room and the shift of opinion between the Fire Lord and the quiet defiance of his Lady, who stood beyond reproach in the middle of the floor, her plea so abject yet so full of grace no one there would dare call it begging.

Ozai smiled. “Very well, my lady, I will indulge your argument. Know that everything following this is because of you.” He let his gaze slide from her to Zuko, and the expression in his face chilled worse than Katara’s ice ever could. “Your mother has vouched for you, Prince Zuko. She asks for a chance at redemption.”

“I am loyal to you,” Zuko answered, and suppressed a shiver as the smile grew wider.

“Then you will prove it. The avatar stands against us, and until he is removed our enemies continue to be restless. To restore your honour, and my trust, you must capture him. Bring him back alive, or do not come back at all. Do you understand?”

With his hands still chained behind his back, the prince bowed so low his nose touched the floor. “Yes, Father. I will do as you ask.”

“You have gone astray, lured by a water witch who used your weaknesses against you. You cannot afford to be led astray again.”

“I won’t,” he replied, daring to look up. “I promise.”

Again, Ozai sneered. “You are a traitor until you bring the avatar to me, and the promise of a traitor means nothing. I will give you a reminder.”

After that, Zuko only remembered pain.

Chapter Text

Appa was careful to stay in the sunlit part of the courtyard as the people around him argued about supplies. The sun was already sinking, and with the thin mountain air, the shadows fell heavily enough to shiver through even the thick fur of a sky bison. He watched with interest as Sokka matched crates and wrapped packages to a list written in his own unpolished handwriting, while Aang sifted through the pile and complained about unnecessary weight.

“Appa isn’t as young as he used to be,” he said. “And don’t forget he’s carrying all of us. Is everything here really necessary?”

“Of course it is,” came the reply. “We’re going into enemy territory without backup – with the avatar, in case you’ve forgotten that blue arrow on your forehead is a giant ‘here come get me’ to any soldiers we run into.”

“Sifu Hotman has a plan for when we get to the Fire Nation – and hey, all of this food is meat!” He pouted and stuck out his tongue. “And why do we need these canvas sheets?”

“I agree with Twinkle Toes on that one,” Toph called from where she was resting on one of Appa’s giant forefeet. “You know I can just earthbend shelters for us wherever we go. But don’t skimp on the blankets, it gets cold flying up wherever.”

Sokka preened. “Blankets were first thing on the list.”

Up above them, Zuko watched the exchange with arms folded, careful to stay a step back from the edge of the balcony so his face remained in shadow and out of sight. He counted seven sets of guards at unobtrusive places around the walls, and there would be more in the tower rooms and in the training fields below, every one within easy reach should the avatar find himself in danger. The observation was an idle one. Without the advantage of surprise, and with the avatar’s inner circle of companions surrounding him at almost all waking hours of the day, Zuko had little opportunity to follow through on his original plan. Instead, he had to stand by while they prepared for an assault on his home, a journey with the ironic twist that they would travel there voluntarily, and without him. His uncle had mentioned in a sly, sidelong kind of way that Zuko might join them, but that idea stank of desperation more than anything.

If I had said yes, I might have earned their trust, and then delivered them all to my father without having to restrain the avatar at all.

He huffed as the thought passed through his head, and watched the fog of his breath as it curled and dissipated into the late afternoon air. At the very least, such a ploy would get him away from the mountain cold, but it was a level he refused to sink to. In that respect at least, he could satisfy himself that he still had more integrity than Katara.

As if summoned by his thoughts, her step sounded behind him, along with a slower, heavier tread that made no effort to hide itself.

“Prince Zuko,” Iroh said. “Have you made your decision?”

Zuko glanced to him, and then to the young woman at his side, taking in the closed, wary expression in her eyes as he suppressed the tick in his jaw. “I’m not going to help you betray my people,” he growled.

Katara scoffed. “We’re trying to help your people, and everyone else on the face of the world. I’d have thought you of all people would understand that.” When he didn’t respond, she turned to Iroh with a shrug. “I wanted to believe you, but it looks like we’re on our own. I told you he wouldn’t help us.”

“It would appear so,” the old man replied with a stroke of his beard. “In that case, I will go to make sure you have everything for your journey.”

He bowed low enough for his joints to crack and retreated down the stairs towards the courtyard, leaving an awkward and painfully obvious silence in his wake. Zuko watched him out of sight, mostly to delay the moment he would have to look at Katara, who had sidled over to the balcony edge and was surveying the scene between Sokka and the avatar.

“I didn’t know he was your brother,” he said, wincing as he caught the note of accusation in his voice. “You told me your brother was dead.”

“I told you I lost him,” she answered. “I never said he was dead. I didn’t lie.”

“Lies by omission are still lies,” he snapped. “Do you really think I’d trust you enough to travel with you on the back of some flying beast? Even if I did agree with your plan, I’m not that much of a fool.”

Katara’s hand moved towards him, a reflexive motion she halted halfway to his arm, but he still refused to look at her.

“Zuko, please. I know you care. You helped people as the Blue Spirit, you risked your life to save Haku from Keijo – and you saved my life, more than once, when you didn’t know who I was.” She paused, frowned, and when she spoke again her voice was softer, lost in regret. “You have to know that kind of suffering can only end once the old cycle is broken.”

“I came here to capture the avatar, not to be your pawn,” he snarled.

There was sorrow in her gaze when she glanced to his scar, but it vanished in a blaze of indignation. “Well, the avatar is leaving,” she reminded him. “And unless you’re leaving with us, you’re stuck here. As a prisoner. Doing nothing to help anyone.”

He took her point with a scowl. His fingers drummed against his folded arms as he tried to frame a counter-argument that didn’t sound petulant or childish, and when that failed, he huffed a breath, unready and unwilling to answer. The Katara he had known before might have indulged his silence and waited, but this one, the real one, only clucked her tongue and turned to follow Iroh down to the courtyard. The space between them stretched like a fraying rope.

“How much of it was part of your plan?”

She turned on the top step. “What do you mean?”

“Getting close to me, getting me to lo– like you,” he clarified, without looking at her. “Did you mean to use me right from the beginning or did you make it up as you went along? What were you going to do when you got what you wanted?”

With a sigh, she leaned against the pillar at her back, pulling her arms around herself in a defensive gesture as she frowned at the flagstones between them. “It doesn’t matter now,” she muttered, oblivious to the way he clenched his fist to keep his bending under control. “But that means it doesn’t matter if I tell you everything.”

He waited. He watched her fidget as she worked out where to begin.

“We knew from the beginning that the Fire Lord would use Sozin’s Comet to destroy us.” Her gaze drifted over the courtyard. “And we knew we couldn’t stand against it, so instead, we decided to turn the situation to our advantage. But we didn’t foresee everything, and I – Ozai killed my mother, right in front of me, because she took my place as the Sea-wolf to trick him. It’s my fault she’s dead, no matter what Sokka and my father say.”

Zuko’s fingers tightened further, this time to suppress the urge to comfort the sadness in her voice, the slump of her shoulders. His scowl pulled at the edges of his scar, but it softened as she continued, revealing with each word how the Southern Tribe planned for her to be a war prisoner to distract from Sokka’s efforts to undermine Fire Nation naval control, and to place herself and a corps of the most elite waterbenders within easy distance of their enemy, hidden in plain sight and ready to strike him down.

“If that was your plan,” Zuko asked, “why didn’t you help Jet when he tried to assassinate my father?”

She shook her head. “What would that have accomplished? With Ozai dead, someone else would have stepped into the power vacuum with the same goals – or there would have been anarchy. Our plan was always to end the war. The reason we waited was so we could have the resources in place to take control, not just rampage through the streets like – well.” She swallowed, once more reliving memories. “When I first got to the Caldera, I wanted nothing more than to tear the whole place down.”

“I remember.”

“I forgot you were there that night,” she murmured, almost to herself. “I couldn’t let those ships leave, not when I knew they were going to attack my people. I would have destroyed it all… but then I met ordinary people like Haku and I realised the problem wasn’t what I thought it was. I got the idea for the Painted Lady from you, actually, from that festival that passed us in the market that day, but I just wanted to help – I had no idea what they would turn it into, and you were never meant to be part of it.”

His mouth curled at the corners. “You took advantage of me, so I wouldn’t suspect you.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Is that all you have to say?” he demanded. “You string me along for months, trick me into thinking you cared about me, steal from me, then waltz off and leave me to look like a traitor, and you’re sorry?”

“What, was I supposed to just wait quietly in that gilded cage to be arrested and then executed?” she shot back.

“I could have protected you!”

“From the Fire Lord? I remember last time you stood aside because you thought keeping your secret was more important than standing up to him, and that didn’t get you very far in the end, did it?” She had stepped towards him, unconsciously sunk into a bending stance with her hand hovering over the cap of the waterskin she always kept at her waist. The raw emotion that fractured the air between them bubbled up from a shared place they had spent too long ignoring, a mutual hurt that had always been inevitable while they were on opposing sides, but had proven too wrapped up in guilt to simply discard. They were both too similar, too stubborn, too wounded by the other’s betrayal for anything else. He had to fight not to shrink away from her glare.

Breathing hard, Katara forced her shoulders to relax, and her gaze slid once more to the scar that covered Zuko’s left eye. “Did you think I wouldn’t figure it out?” she asked him softly. “I know burns. That one goes to the bone, and it’s precise, which means whoever did that to you put effort into it. There’s only one person I know cruel enough who could lay hands on the Crown Prince of the Fire Nation without him fighting back.”

The pity choked him worse than her anger. The cool certainty in her eyes, the fact that she had guessed what had happened and kept quiet as he raged through shame and anger and pain right before her eyes, left him speechless. But she wasn’t done yet.

“I shouldn’t have left you on that island. I shouldn’t have gotten so close to you. On that day, in the thunderstorm, I shouldn’t have kissed you. I could say I was tired and homesick and – and cold, but it doesn’t change things. You were there and you were just so…”

“What?” he asked, sharply.

She shrugged. “Honourable.”

Anger closed across his features. He stalked forward to tower over her, leaning down so his ruined face hovered mere inches from hers. “You don’t know the meaning of that word,” he snarled.

“Zuko…”

He pushed past her, retreating into the shadowed recess of the corridor, and didn’t turn when she called his name again. The twists and turns of the temple passed him by, the maze as familiar to him now as his own home, with the White Lotus guards scrambling out of his way just as the palace soldiers used to do as he climbed the levels to the cramped space that had been given to him as a bedroom. There was barely enough spare floor to turn around, but with every passing moment his anger surged higher, threatening to swallow him, and his only outlet was to pace like a caged tiger-deer.

How dare she? How dare she cause his misery and then cast blame elsewhere, and then pour salt on the wound by acting sorry for it? He needed her to be arrogant, condescending, remorseless for the part she played, because how else could he hate her? Who else was there to hate?

There’s only one person who could do this to you.

He roared to get her voice out of his head. Pacing wasn’t enough. He turned and smashed his fist into the wall by the window, relishing the pain that shot up his arm, the instant of power as his muscles pulled taut, until that power bled out of him and he sagged, folding forward so that his forehead pressed against cool stone. Every time he closed his eyes, he relived the horror of his banishment, the iron grip on his chin, the firelight blinding bright as it closed upon his face, the stench of cooking flesh. He had believed so strongly that Katara was to blame, had forced himself to believe it, and yet now, his brushed a hand over his shoulder, where a thin white scar still marred his skin from the first night he had fought with the Painted Lady. But she had betrayed him, and he had betrayed his father, and his father had betrayed his people.

The thoughts went round and round in his head, while outside, the last light faded from the sky.


 

He came to them in the middle of dinner. While the rest of the compound tended to eat in the large refectory under a mural of dancing sky bison, the avatar and his company liked to dine under the stars, with Appa’s bulk blocking the wind and a large fire to keep them warm as they laughed and told each other stories. The avatar made friends easily, always playing peacemaker, and at that moment he was mediating a dispute between Toph and the Kyoshi warrior, Suki.

“The Boulder is a chump. He cried like a little kid when I beat him. And then there’s the way he always refers to himself in the third person. Weird.”

“He’s entertaining.”

“And his form is very good.”

“Cha, maybe if he really was a boulder. Hey, Sparky.”

Conversation around the fire died as they turned to follow the blind girl’s sightless gaze into the shadows. With heat crawling up the back of his neck, Zuko stepped into the ring of light, his carefully prepared speech of a moment before completely lost as five pairs of eyes pinned him in place. Four sets of eyes, he corrected himself – Katara had merely glanced to him and now was carefully staring into the fire, every fibre of her body tense with her hands curled into fists around her knees.

“Hi,” he said. “Um.”

The avatar smiled at him brightly. “Are you coming to join us?”

“I… If you’re going to try to take down the Fire Lord, you’ll need to have a plan for Azula as well,” he blurted. “She was named heir when I was – when I left – and she won’t be happy to see any of you.”

Had it been the wrong thing to say? The avatar and his companions passed glances to each other, suppressing looks of amusement, and the silence stretched. Katara did not look up from the fire.

“You know,” Sokka ventured, leaning back against one of Appa’s large toes, “Usually we start with introductions. You’re not used to talking to normal people, are you?”

A few months ago, such a statement, delivered so casually, might have made his temper flare, but now all the only feeling he could muster was fatigue. “I… never had much practice, no,” he admitted.

“Have you eaten?” Suki asked. “There’s plenty left.”

He barely had chance to stutter out a response before they were shuffling aside to make room, pulling out a bowl of rice topped with a dollop of tofu cubes in a rich, savoury sauce and handing it to him with rough bamboo chopsticks – nothing like the fine, painted implements he was used to at the palace.

“It’s not half bad,” Sokka offered as Zuko raised the first mouthful to his lips. “Not quite sea prunes, and there’s no meat, but it’s filling.”

“I’ve tried sea prunes,” came the careful reply. “They go well with spiced fish.”

“Doesn’t seem like the kind of thing that would appeal to Fire Nation royalty.”

“Well…”

“The Fire Lord served them at the New Year banquet,” Katara interrupted, before Zuko could work out a way to avoid offending his new allies. “He served a lot of things from a lot of different places. It’s not a big deal.”

But her cheeks darkened in the firelight. She pulled a lock of hair over her shoulder and fiddled with the ends, parting it into three strands for a braid so she wouldn’t have to look at the others, and when she glanced up and caught Zuko’s gaze, she turned away with a frown. He was glad. Sullenness he knew how to deal with; her shame and guilt gave him a vindictive pleasure, and if he had to squash the memories of that banquet, the lightness in his chest as they passed notes to each other, then all the better. He might ally himself with his father’s enemies for the good of his people, but he would not be fooled by her again.

Chapter Text

With the six of them, Appa’s saddle was crowded. True, the avatar sat on the beast’s head to guide him, but the rest had to be squashed among their supplies, which after the first day had been stacked up at the front of the saddle to offer them some protection from the wind. It was closer quarters than Zuko would have liked. He was all but buried between Sokka and Toph, whose nausea had yet to settle. Katara sat at the corner of his eye with her hair loose and blown back by the wind, with the chain of sea-wolf teeth braided into it like a coronet. She hugged her knees for most of the trip, and aside from the odd petty exchange with her brother, during the day with very little to do, she mostly kept her thoughts to herself. 

At first, he thought it a facade employed so she wouldn’t have to talk to him, but after a few days of watching her easy cheeriness in camp, he detected a forced note in her manners towards the others, as if she were humouring them – and none of them seemed to notice. Or perhaps, he decided as they swooped low over the countryside, they were so used to seeing this version of Katara that they didn’t realise it was an act. In the fire nation she had been clever, and cultured, and determined, and even though she had turned those talents against him – his blood still boiled to think about it – seeing her hide those parts of herself away left something unsettled in him, like seeing a delicate silk painting left out in the rain. 

Not that it mattered. She had avoided him ever since he had joined the group by the campfire. Her behaviour was fine with him, really, when there were so many other things to think about, such as his impending reunion with the Fire Lord, or how the combined weight of their group and their provisions meant the sky bison was flying slower than he should be on the winding, circuitous route they were taking towards the coast. 

The avatar, at least, seemed to agree with him.

“Guys, I don’t think Appa can take another day of flying like this,” he announced when they landed that night. “Not if we want to make it across the ocean.” 

“And we’re all so looking forward to that,” Toph grumbled as she carefully felt her way down the beast’s leg. “And eugh, we’re on sand. Of-sodding-course. Excuse me while I go and throw up.” 

The others climbed down from the saddle with varying degrees of stiffness after the long, cramped hours of flying. They had stopped on a crescent beach of greyish sand, surrounded on all sides by steep cliffs obscured at the top by vegetation. The dying light shone through the waves that curled onto the shore, and birds called to each other as they settled down to roost. 

Sokka rubbed feeling back into his legs. “If we dump most of the gear can we make up the time? We’re already three days behind schedule.” 

“Appa’s an animal, not a ship,” Aang replied. “You can’t just unload him and make him go faster. He gets tired.” 

“So do the rest of us, but if we don’t defeat the fire Lord –” 

“Better to get to the Fire Nation late than not at all,” Suki interrupted. “And we might as well leave the camping stuff here anyway. There aren’t many places in the middle of the ocean to pitch a tent.” 

Sokka flashed her a goofy grin. “Good point. You’re so smart.” 

“I know,” she replied, brushing her fingers over the carved necklace at her throat. 

“I might go and join Toph in throwing up,” Katara muttered. 

“I’ll remember you said that when you start fawning over some brawny jerkbender,” her brother teased. “And then I’d have to knock him out, since you’re my sister and everything.” 

“You couldn’t knock out your back,” she snapped, cheeks darkening. She did not look at Zuko. “I’m going to catch us some dinner. If someone else could unload Appa and get a fire started that would be lovely.” 

A stunned silence fell as she marched away. 

“Hey Sokka, I think you said something,” Aang joked, when still nobody spoke. 

Sokka huffed. “Waterbenders. It’s probably something to do with the moon – ow! What was that for?” 

“Being a sexist pig-chicken,” Suki retorted, as she batted him on the arm. “‘I’ll have to knock him out’ – honestly. And that was before you started bringing moon cycles into it.” 

“Hey, it’s a big brother’s duty to defend a little sister’s honour. Prince Hothead!” he called, looking for support. “You’ve got a sister, right? Tell the mean lady it’s our job to be protective.” 

Zuko, who had already climbed back into Appa’s saddle and started untying the guide ropes, kept his voice carefully neutral as he answered. “If I ever tried to ‘protect’ Azula like that, she’d probably set me on fire. You should count yourself lucky.” 

“Yeesh. Your family has problems, buddy.” 

With a frown, Zuko turned back to his task. The light was nearly gone now, and though he could probably use his bending to see, the knots would be awkward to undo with only one hand. He paused to try and work out if he could approach them from another angle, but when he glanced up to shake his hair out of his eyes, all thought of knots and ropes went out of his head at the sight of Katara.  

She stood almost hip-deep in the sea, poised in a starting stance while the waves broke around her. As he watched, she lifted her hands and raised a column of water, then in a graceful turn drew a stream out from the mass that contained a sinuous, glittering mass – a young elephant koi, he realised. The creature struggled, twisting on itself to get back to the safety of the sea floor, but her power held it absolutely, and as she turned and brought it back to shore, the water flowed away from her legs like the falling petals of a flower. 

Someone shifted beside him; he hadn’t even heard Suki approach. 

“You were staring,” she said, offering a bland smile. 

He swallowed, and hoped the failing light hid the burn in his cheeks. “The first time I saw her bend, she sank three of my father’s warships by herself.” He glanced at the warrior as she let out an appreciative whistle. “I’ve never seen someone with that much control over their element, not even Azula. I was taught that firebending is superior to other kinds of bending, which was why we deserved to win the war, why we were winning. But it’s not true.” 

Until the words were spoken, he hadn’t recognised them. His frown deepened, thinking back to the past weeks at the temple, and the training sessions with his uncle in the early morning where nobody could see. The old man had chided him for forgetting his root, his breath, and had sighed at the predictability of his form. 

It is good to take wisdom from many different places, he had said. If we take it from only one place, it becomes rigid and stale. It is not the use of the four elements that makes the avatar so powerful, but his understanding of them.  

“I’ve found people from the Water Tribe tend to have that effect,” Suki replied, with a fond look over her shoulder. “Help me with this.” She set her hands to the knots, and Zuko, catching the idea, ignited a small flame in his palm to help her see. For a moment they worked in silence, until the main ropes holding their supplies went slack. Beneath them, Appa had started snoring. 

“When Sokka’s fleet first arrived in my village, we were neutral in the war. Avatar Kyoshi separated us from the mainland so we wouldn’t have to suffer outside conflict, and we tried our best to follow her example.” She smiled. “And then this young, hotheaded warrior limped his ship into my harbour, and I realised that by isolating ourselves, we were only waiting for the war to come to us, and the longer we waited, the worse it would be. Kyoshi would have kept the peace, and we dishonoured her memory by not trying to help, so we decided to leave the island and join the avatar.” 

“Our people think of honour differently,” he replied, scowling.  

“How so?” 

For an instant, he considered telling her everything, about his banishment and his cut hair and the sting of betrayal, but it would be an admission too far, a tenuous lie while the idea still churned in his mind that by bringing the avatar to the Fire Nation, his father’s approval was in his grasp. 

“We should have Toph bury what we don’t need,” he said instead. “The Fire Nation sends patrols out in airships and they’d spot it otherwise.” 


 

He was quiet for most of the next morning as they set out across the ocean. They had left everything on the beach but their weapons and just enough bundles of dried food to sustain them for the two days it would take to cross to the tail-tip of the Fire Nation archipelago, and with Appa fed on alfalfa mixed with high energy seeds, they were making good time. By early afternoon they saw the first Fire Navy ships low on the horizon, outliers for the main blockade. 

“We should’ve called in some of ours for a diversion,” Sokka grumbled as they passed overhead. “Do you think they saw us?” 

“Better to assume they have and expect the worst,” Zuko answered. 

Toph sighed from her place clinging to the edge of the saddle. “Excellent advice from the ray of sunshine. Can someone tell me what’s going on?” 

“We’re at the blockade,” Katara supplied. “And we have a plan. Take us down.” 

Down?” 

But Aang only nodded. “Way ahead of you, Katara – Appa, yip-yip!” 

Groaning, the sky bison dipped towards the sea as the blockade appeared as a line of specks on the horizon. He gained momentum with broad sweeps of his tail until the wind streamed in their eyes. Behind them, a rocket screeched into the sky, exploding in a shower of sparks. The Fire Nation had seen them after all. 

“Uh, Katara...” 

“I’ve got this.” 

As Appa levelled out, pulling up just in time for his toes to skim the waves, Katara rose to her feet in a bending stance, twisting her feet so they rooted to the saddle, encased to the calf in ice. She reached out behind her, scooping mist from the surface of the water and fanning it so it billowed out before them, until only the lap of the water beneath Appa gave them any orientation at all. 

Zuko turned to Sokka, his expression grim. “The navy knows waterbenders use fog to hide their approach. They’ll know we’re coming.” 

As if on cue, a fireball exploded over their heads, lighting the fog with a flare of orange. Appa roared and swerved to dodge the missile, and scuffed up spray as his forequarter collided with a wave. 

“They would’ve seen us coming anyway,” Sokka replied, clinging to the saddle. Another fireball detonated, closer this time. “But this way, they won’t see where we’re going.” 

“Look out!” 

Suki’s shout came almost too late. The fog parted for a ball of flame headed straight for them. Katara twisted and threw an arm up with a spike of ice to catch it and the fireball smashed into it. The force of the impact broke her stance and sent her to her knees with a snarl.  

“Katara –” 

Shouts echoed through the fog, a whip-crack orders accompanied by the turning of gears and the soft whoosh of pitch igniting. Appa bellowed again and an instant later, he was drowned out by the telltale crunch of trebuchets being launched. 

“Katara, we have to dive!” Sokka yelled. 

“We can’t,” she shot back. “We won’t have enough air, and we can’t afford to surface too close in case they spot us.” 

“That won’t matter if we’re dead!” 

“Too late!”  

She braced herself as the fireballs tore through the air. Aang struggled to steer Appa with one hand, while his staff waited in the other like a bat ready to swing. Even with two of them, they could never hope to repel every one. Zuko saw this in slow motion, just like he saw the fog dissipating as Katara’s focus shifted to defence, sweat on her brow, and he saw the water swirling beneath them, and Toph’s blind eyes wide with fear knowing there was a threat and no way to react to it. He wasn’t aware of moving, of sliding into a stance, of summoning fire – not until it burst from his fists and shattered the oncoming projectiles like confetti. 

Katara stared at him. 

“Focus on keeping our cover,” he barked. “I’ll shoot any that come too close while the av– Aang steers us through the worst of it.” 

“I...” She blinked. “Right.” 

He turned away, scanning the air above them as she rooted herself once more, and then the mist drew in, enclosing them utterly. Aang wove a serpentine path just above the water, non-direct like his element, and without a clear target the Fire Nation ships floundered, spitting fireballs into the air at random more with the hope of hitting something than anything else. Only a few veered close enough to do damage, but Zuko shot them down. The foreign shouts grew louder. 

Something reared on their left side, a hulking shadow behind a wall of white, close enough that Appa had to roll sideways to avoid it. The movement was too steep, however, and he crashed into the water with an impact that rattled everyone aboard to their teeth. 

“Did we get something?” a nervous voice called from above. 

“I heard a splash!” 

Katara let go of the fog. “Now, Aang!” 

The avatar nodded and stood, matching her movements. Together, they swept arcs of water overhead, weaving it like a cocoon. Appa panicked as they sank, struggling at the unfamiliar suck on his limbs, and for an instant it seemed the bubble would burst. 

Keep him calm,” Katara ground out, holding the weight of the water on one arm. 

“Easy, buddy. Everything’s going to be alright.” 

They went under. The world around them dimmed to murky shadows pressing close, distorted and silent through the screen of water as they passed under the blockade. Above them, the churn of rotor blades throbbed like a heartbeat until Katara, with a grim, satisfied smile, reached up and froze them solid. 

“Congratulations, Sweetness,” Toph groaned. “You’ve managed to make flying worse.” 

They kept on for what seemed like ages. Both Katara and Aang used their bending to help Appa power through the water, though they struggled to keep his natural buoyancy in check. The light filtering through from above painted shafts of crystalline blue onto the void around them, and into the occasional flash of scales as shoals of fish darted past. To look down was to be filled with an ominous sense of vertigo, but not in the same way as flying through the air. Then, at least, the eye had reference points and perspective to make sense of what it saw, but here there was nothing but a void of ever increasing darkness that loomed up to swallow anyone who stared at it for too long. Zuko pulled his eyes away, lightheaded, itching under the weight of it. 

“Katara...” he breathed. 

“Not now.” 

He shook his head. “Your nose is bleeding.” 

“I can handle it,” she snapped. 

But the others were drawing in too, their concern far more welcome than his alarm. 

Sokka placed a hand on his sister’s shoulder. “We should be far enough away now. As long as we don’t take off, we shouldn’t be seen.” 

“Appa’s fur is pretty waterlogged by now, I’m not sure he could take off,” Aang offered. 

“Who cares if we can fly?” Toph interrupted. “Has anyone else noticed we’re running out of air?” 

Faced with agreement from all sides, Katara nodded and changed her movements. At first there was little change, but gradually the water around them brightened, with rippled shadows taking definition as light became sky and the ocean fell away. Then, about ten feet from the surface, Appa realised what was happening and threw off Aang’s steady hand on the reins. He bellowed and surged upward with a stroke of his tail. The sudden movement was too much for Katara’s shaking legs. She collapsed to her knees, losing her hold on the bubble of air, and the weight of the water met the smack of force as they surfaced – it swept them away like leaves before a storm – and then the ringing in their ears bled into the disorienting screech of seabirds and a rough breeze that stung their faces like sandpaper. 

“Is everyone alright?” Sokka asked. 

There were murmurs of assent from various corners of the saddle, and a groan from Appa, shaking his head to clear the water from his eyes. 

“No sign of the Fire Nation,” Suki supplied. “We did it.” 

“Not until we reach land, we haven’t,” Toph reminded her. “Is Katara alright?” 

Sokka turned to find his sister sprawled with her legs stretched out in front of her, pinching the bridge of her nose between her fingers, with the clotted blood from her nosebleed still lingering on her upper lip. 

“I’m fine,” she said.  

Aang settled next to her. “That was almost avatar-level bending. I’m sorry I couldn’t help more.” 

“You were busy with Appa,” she replied. “We all saw how well it went when he panicked.” 

“He’s sorry too. Hey – you know what you need? One of the cinnamon buns Sifu Hotman packed for us! They should be –” He trailed off to find Zuko already handing him the waxed packet containing the sweet treats, and with a grin he turned back to Katara. 

“Thanks, Aang, but I’m feeling a little dizzy right now.” 

“That’s why you need to eat.” He rocked back on his heels and contorted his face into a scholarly, old-man expression complete with a stroke of an imaginary beard. “A master knows to master themselves before they can master the mastery of their element,” he told her in a wheezy but recognisable impression of Iroh. “And the most masterful way to master the self is to master your hunger, master Katara!” 

“If I didn’t know you better I’d swear you practiced that,” she managed, relenting as he waved the basket under her nose. The buns did smell delicious. “Fine. But you have to tell Appa to keep swimming.” 

“Deal!” 

“Thank you.” She glanced aside as she said this, but Zuko was facing away from her, towards the horizon ahead, and didn’t appear to notice her regard. 

Chapter Text

The cove where Appa landed a day later glittered under the setting sun, sugar-fine grains of sand cast the colour of molten copper as the last of the light bled from the sky. Like it was a melon rind, the water ate at the sweeping curve of the beach, biting it back further and further towards a line of thick, luscious jungle. Foliage rippled in the evening breeze, while bright flashes of colour dipped between gaps in the canopy as birds flew home to their roosts. It was the building complex overlooking the beach that drew everyone’s attention, however, a sprawling wooden construction of grand pillars and verandas under steeply sloped gables of yellow-glazed tiles.

“How did you know about this place?” Zuko asked as Sokka slithered to the ground beside him.

“Grand Master Iroh gave us directions,” came the reply. “He said it would be the best place to hide out until we meet our contact. Looks like he was right – all that storm damage is at least a year old. Nobody’s been here in a while.”

“Not for years,” Zuko muttered, still staring, though the words went unheeded as the others groaned and stretched out their cramped muscles. “There should be enough space for Appa in the main courtyard.”

“How do you know?” Aang checked.

The fire prince scowled. “This is the royal family’s dry season retreat. The weather’s milder than in the Caldera.”

“We’re staying in the Fire Lord’s house?” Sokka let loose a whoop of laughter. “Imagine the look on his face if he found out!”

“We should hope he doesn’t,” Katara retorted. “And we should get Appa off the beach before he gets spotted by a patrol.”

Aang nodded. “Good point. Come on buddy, just one more short hop and you can have a nice rest – see you guys up there!”

The sky bison grumbled as his master leapt back into position by the reins, hauling himself to his feet. At the avatar’s bright command, he struck off from the ground and veered towards the mansion, though he barely went high enough for his toes to clear the trees. It left the rest of them with a short walk up the slope, while overhead, the first stars glittered in a violet sky. Zuko led the way, both because the path was at least a little familiar to his memory, and because his firebending proved the perfect tool to light the path and sear away the overgrown jungle. He was grateful for the tired silence behind him. When they reached the gate, and the pair of stone lion-turtles that guarded it, he felt eyes on the back of his head, but he pushed on into the compound with his shoulders squared.

Aang greeted them with his usual enthusiasm, waving them over to where he was already unpacking their bags. “And look at this cool flower I found,” he added to Katara as she approached. “I think they’re nightbells – the petals only open after the sun goes down.”

“Thanks, Aang,” she replied. “I remember these. They grew in my garden in the capital, under the mangingko.” She plucked the bloom from his open palm, answering his smile with a smaller one as she recalled the long, hot days by her pond, minding lessons and reading the poetry Ursa had gifted her.

“You shouldn’t pay so much attention to him,” said a voice at her side.  

She narrowed her eyes at Zuko. “What’s it to you?”

“He’s not serious about it, he’s just flirting for the fun of it.”

“I know.” She blinked. “But it’s still none of your business.”

“I just – fine. Have it your way,” he snapped, and stalked away to follow Toph into the house.

 


 

While they waited for Iroh’s contact to meet them, they trained. They had to be careful, in case a passing fire navy patrol caught sight of activity in the supposedly empty house, but the walls were high and the jungle thick enough to mask all but the showiest bending forms. Zuko refused to teach Aang, but grumpily accepted the avatar’s presence while he practiced his own forms after Katara pointed out it would take less energy than continually chasing him away. In between these practices, they prepared for their journey to the Caldera, poring over maps and plans and schedules for hours at a time, working out rest points where they could hide Appa during the day. If worst came to worst, they could submerge again to avoid the central patrols, but Appa’s dislike of being underwater, coupled with the toll it took on Katara, meant it would be a last resort.

“We’ll need more supplies if it’s going to take us that long,” she pointed out on the fourth day as they gathered in the courtyard. “Someone’s bound to notice us if we keep stopping of at every town market we run across.”

Her brother scoffed. “Who says we need to go into towns at all – master hunter here, remember?”

“We would have to if we wanted to avoid the city guards chasing after us for poaching,” Zuko replied. “You need a permit to hunt.”

“You aren’t serious?”

“These are islands, with delicately balanced ecosystems,” he explained, drawing himself up into full regal bearing. “If everyone took what they wanted, populations wouldn’t be sustainable and people would starve.”

“It would make more sense to get supplies now anyway,” Suki interrupted, to forestall Sokka’s response. “We don’t know what delays we’ll run into out there.”

Sokka shot her a soppy look. “Have I mentioned how smart you are today? Alright, new plan. Katara, you know what we need – take Toph and Zuko to the village and stock up. We should have enough money to cover it. Aang, you should probably stay here in case someone recognises you, so you, me, and Suki will –”

“Aw can’t I go?” The avatar’s eyes widened like a moose-lion cub’s. “I haven’t seen the Fire Nation in a hundred years, I want to see what’s changed!”

“There’s a bounty on your head, for one thing,” Toph grunted.

“What if I covered my arrow?”  He pressed a hand over his forehead and grinned. “No one would recognise me! Besides, since I’m the oldest I’m technically in charge. I wouldn’t want to leave you all unsupervised,” he added with a sage nod of his head.

“You’ll just sneak out if I say no, won’t you?”

“Probably.”

Sokka groaned. “Fine. You go with the others, and me and Suki will repack what we do have.”

Toph smirked. “Suuuure that’s what you’ll be doing.”  

Sokka ignored her. “It can’t be worse than having the prince of the whole nation prancing down the street.”

“I don’t prance,” Zuko grumbled. “And they probably wouldn’t recognise me either.” His fingers twitched in his lap, resisting the impulse to touch the left side of his face.

“Well yeah,” Katara supplied next to him. “Last time you went among the people you had half a battalion of royal guards with you.” Her smirk jolted him from the dark spiral of his thoughts, back into the memory of that outing to the market, where she had charmed all the stallholders and offered mercy to the veteran who had tried to strike her. He might have replied to her teasing, but he was too aware of all the curious eyes on them, the silence that had fallen around the circle.

“When do we leave?” he asked instead.

 


 

The market was held under brightly coloured awnings in a paved square at the centre of the village, and spilled out along the streets leading down to dozens of rickety piers where the fishermen tied their boats. At one end, fruit sellers vied with florists for the attention of the crowd, calling and offering samples to show the beautiful ripeness of their wares, while the butchers and fishmongers stood at the other, downwind, swishing ostrich-horse-tail flails to keep flies off their produce. In between were clothiers, bean sellers, leatherworkers, smiths, carpenters, sweet merchants, and cooks selling hot snacks, all with vibrant displays designed to catch the eye.

“This place is great!” Toph announced as the strolled up the main street. “My feet are can see so much stuff – and what’s that smell?”

“Sun cakes,” Katara and Zuko replied in unison, then quickly glanced away from each other.

“What was that about? Your guys’ heartbeats just shot waaaay up.”

Katara cleared her throat. “I was expecting something a bit more rural.”

“Ember Island caters to a lot of the Fire Nation nobility trying to get away from the formality of court.” Zuko shrugged. “They like playing at being commoners, so a lot of them do their own shopping.”

“And get totally ripped off, I bet,” Toph snorted.

“Probably. My mother used to bring us here when we were kids.”

“Are you sure you won’t be recognised?” Katara asked, peering around them. The knot of tension in her shoulders eased as she noticed how many foreigners dotted about the place. It would be easier for them to blend in, even if Zuko’s pale skin would mark him instantly as someone of high rank.

“It’s too early in the season for anyone important to be here,” he answered, but nevertheless drew the hood he was wearing lower over his face.

“We should split up,” Aang suggested brightly, most of his attention already on the sweet sellers. “That way we’ll be done twice as fast, right?”

“Well...”

Toph grabbed onto his arm with far more enthusiasm than she had shown for anything so far. “I’m with Twinkle Toes! No offence to you, Sugar Queen, but he’s way more fun.”

Katara rolled her eyes, aware that agreeing would mean she was left alone with Zuko. It was going to be so... stilted.

“Fine,” she sighed, and tore their shopping list in half to hand to them with a fistful of coins. “You’re in charge of the medical supplies. Just don’t draw attention to yourselves. You need to get everything on here, and I swear if you spend it all on sweets instead, when you get sick I’m going to stand there and say I told you so instead of healing you.”

“Ugh. Yes, Mom.”

There was a beat of silence as the pair raced away, looking thankfully like an ordinary boy and his kid sister in their borrowed Fire Nation clothing, and the bandana that covered Aang’s head. The rest of the shoppers barely spared them a glance, but Katara’s nerves were still too high to really appreciate it.

“What?” she snapped at Zuko.

He turned away quickly. “Nothing. We should get going.”

They started with the dried food, beans and rice and jerky that they could pack lightly and would last for weeks. For Aang, they also bought jars of marinated tofu, and dried honey-lotus roots to go along with the long-lasting vegetables that would form the bulk of their meals. It meant they were burdened down very quickly, but Katara found it worth the ache in her arms to watch Zuko trying to look like he knew how to handle money.

Even so, there was a tension to their interaction as they both skirted difficult topics, and she was glad to set it down with the shopping when they stepped into the shade of a noodle shop for lunch. She had missed the vibrancy of the Fire Nation, the spices in the air and the liveliness of the people, and even the way the midday heat was stripped of its wrath by the calming sea wind. She smiled at the server as she ordered from a board of illustrated dishes, then followed Zuko back to their table to wait off her feet. Without the shared distraction of their task, silence settled awkwardly around them again.

“We’ve got most of what we came for,” she tried. “We should go and find the others and get back to the house.”

“Right.”

“The food smells good.”

“It usually is.”

“You’ve eaten here before?” she asked.

He shrugged. “Not for years.”

“Right.”

She picked at a loose thread in her tunic, and his gaze slid past her to a poster fixed to the opposite wall. It was a relief when the elderly server called their order and brought over two steaming bowls of soup, with a smile and a wish for them to enjoy their meal. Before she could leave, however, Zuko caught her attention and pointed to the poster, where ‘Suntide Circus’ was proclaimed in gold above illustrations of lion dogs, dancing poodle-ponies, and at the forefront a pair of shadowed figures back to back against a crowd of unseen enemies.

“What happened to the Ember Island Players?” he asked.

The server glanced at the poster. “Oh, they’re still around, just taking a break before the season starts. Those guys pulled into town yesterday, but they’ll move on soon enough.” She peered at Zuko suspiciously. “You sound like you’re from the capital – you’re a bit early.”

“My family are merchants,” he replied, though his smooth tone was betrayed by a wash of crimson rising up his face. “We travel all over.”

“Shame about that burn, for a merchant,” the old woman continued with a nod, and turned to Katara. “I bet he was pretty as paint before, eh? Bet he could charm all the young ladies out of their coin.”

It was Katara’s turn to flush. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“Sure you don’t, girlie. You know, I heard that exiled prince had a pretty big scar on his face – you could do impressions if business goes south. Ha!”

“I heard Prince Zuko’s scar was on the other side,” Katara answered with a frown. “Thank you for the food – it looks delicious.”

Still chuckling to herself, the server winked at the dismissal and set two pairs of chopsticks on the rickety table before shuffling off to greet a new customer, a local man by the look of him, who had a small horde of children following him in through the door. She left a sharp silence in her wake, and Zuko didn’t look up as he reached for his chopsticks to mix the soup and noodles in with the condiments.

“Hey...” Katara ventured after a tense moment. “You shouldn’t pay too much attention to what she said – about your scar, and about...”

“We should just eat and find the others,” he interrupted. “It was a bad idea for me to come here.”

She bit her lip to keep from voicing aloud the words that rang in her head, knowing they wouldn’t be appreciated. She had enjoyed the time they spent together that morning, had appreciated his tacit offer to carry the supplies, and the way they worked together to find the best produce. It was the most normal she had felt since before the comet, and certainly the most relaxed. And yet, it was too close to that other day they had spent together, wandering the markets of the Caldera, their rapport overformal but growing fonder, until it had ended with him giving back her father’s hunting pouch. Was that the same person sitting before her? Sokka had told her to keep an eye on the exiled prince, to make sure he stayed away from any guards or ‘sneaky-looking jerkbenders’ in case he tried to sound the alarm and betray them, and she hated that part of her agreed with the precaution. She had kept parts of herself hidden through the whole of her incarceration in the Fire Nation, intending to betray him all along – it was too easy to imagine he might share similar motives now.  

She sighed, stirred her chopsticks around her bowl, and looked up again, words poised ready to try for conversation again – but a loud squeal echoed through the small room, and she looked around to see a small, lithe girl around her own age in the doorway. The stranger was wringing her hands, hopping between her toes with so much energy her long braid flickered behind her like a whip. And she was looking straight at them.

Katara started to rise. Her hand twitched, already calling for the water in the soup bowls, her thoughts racing ahead to the best way to get Zuko out of the room without revealing his identity – they would have to find Aang and Toph on the way, hope Sokka and Suki had done at least some packing while they were in the market, hope that they could escape on Appa before the mob had a chance to reach the house. It all flashed through her mind’s eye in an instant, but in the next, Zuko had risen with her, and instead of alarm, his voice registered shock and even a thread of happiness. It stopped her in mid-stance.

“Ty Lee?”

The girl squealed again and darted forward to wrap the astounded prince in a rib-bruising hug. “You remembered me!” she cried as she let him go. “And here I was going to come looking for you this afternoon. You saved me a trip out to that crusty old house, you know.”

Katara cleared her throat. “I don’t mean to be rude, but who exactly are you?”

“Katara, this is Ty Lee,” Zuko said hurriedly. “An old friend. But – what do you mean you were looking for me?”

“Didn’t you know?” Ty Lee beamed. “I’m the contact – well, Shuren is – he’s the ringmaster. Your uncle sent us to fetch you. For the circus?”

“The circus?” he repeated, rubbing the back of his neck. He passed a helpless glance to Katara, who still had yet to completely lose her mistrust of the newcomer and only frowned back.

“Of course the circus! We’re on tour, and we’re heading to the capital – it’s pretty convenient, right?” Ty Lee paused and blinked, as if noticing for the first time that the three of them were alone. “Where’s the rest of your group? Are they back at the house?” Her eyes shot wide and she cupped her hands over her mouth. “Have I interrupted a date?”

What?

“No!” Katara turned away from Zuko, hoping the heat in her cheeks didn’t match the mortification rising to the tips of his ears. She searched for the glacial calm Hama had taught her, but it remained elusive. “We are not on a date. We were buying supplies for – wait, you know what? Let’s go outside.”  

A crowd was beginning to form, attracted by the commotion, and the elderly server had paused taking the young family’s order to once again peer at them with more interest than was helpful. She left her bowl of mostly untouched noodles, ignoring the sullen grumble of her stomach as she tugged on Zuko’s sleeve and herded the newcomer ahead of her. Ty Lee glanced between them as they stepped out into the sunlight, but followed obediently as they padded back among the throng to search for Toph and Aang.